Ways You Can Support My ‘Art’

•November 11, 2018 • Leave a Comment

As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish. For context, since the launching of the Patreon, I’ve posted over 100,000 words of free material on here each year. I hate getting into the grotty business of money, but I can’t do this if I starve to death, so here’s how you can slow my eventual descent into the skeletal realm.

SUPPORT ME ON PATREON. There are various tiers, starting at $1 a month, including access to tons of exclusive content which will never appear here on the free blog.

BUY MY BOOKS. I’ve got a number of titles available in both paperback and digital, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US, or your local Amazon of choice.

BUY ME A KO-FI, if you’d like to sling me the financial equivalent of a coffee. If it helps, feel free to pretend you’re throwing it in my face instead of letting me drink it.

Cheers.

 

Who Do You Do?

•May 26, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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Having looked at Freddie Starr during the arse-end of his television career, it’s time to examine his peak, when — legend states — he was a comedic force of nature, like Robin Williams, Johnny Rotten, and Norman Wisdom rolled into one. Freddie’s early rise occurred during his time on LWT sketch show, Who Do You Do?, an impressions-based series which would later be rebooted as Copy Cats, which I covered back in 2018. In a run that stretched between 1972-76, the show had an unbelievable cast of revolving guests, with some wildly on-brand faces that won’t be appearing in this piece, but can eventually be seen on the Celebrity Big Brother they’ll make you watch in Hell, with Les Dennis, Dustin Gee, Arthur ‘Living Mushroom’ Mullard, Max Beesley’s dad, and big Michael Barrymore.

I’ve picked a bunch of episodes at random from the handful that survived, in the form of VHS rips — in SP! — of late 90’s repeats on Granada Plus, which really was the home of nightmare British variety and horrible old telly. Their line-up predicts the eventual streaming service my Patreon will become, including You Bet, Dennis Waterman’s Stay Lucky!, Surprise Surprise, Terry and June, Brush Strokes, Fresh and French Fields, and the oft-mentioned here as the best example of something which ran for ages but nobody remembers, The Upper Hand.

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Who Do You Do? is so end-of-the-pier, within seconds, I’m windmilling my arms just to stop from falling in. The quality of sideboards is second to none, with the full Amos Brearly at every turn, and its cast of sweaty scarecrows is wonderfully unphotogenic, all busted teeth and squashed hooters that would never be allowed on TV now. People talk about the importance of representation, but not since the seventies have real man — men like me, who look like they wish they’d worn a seatbelt — been able to see themselves onscreen. In an outrageous display of cheapness, there’s literally no set. Every skit takes place in tight medium shot against a plain white background, giving viewers the sensation of being trapped in limbo, wandering the lands betwixt life and death, scouring their past for incidents of suffering they’ve caused others.

It’s incredibly fast-paced, with sketches often lasting seconds, like someone throwing Christmas cracker jokes at you. At that speed, impressions are reduced down to a catchphrase or noise. Often, that’s the whole sketch; in, catchphrase, out. Weirdly, the pace feels quite modern, in a post-Vine, TikTok world, and where jokesters like myself had to hone our written material down to 140 characters. But it’s clear the driving force wasn’t figuring out who did who, and writing around that; rather, coming up with jokes and celebrities first, before everyone had a go.

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With this formula, none of the cast’s impressionists ‘owns’ any celebrity, who get wheeled out in different incarnations, often one after the other — here’s three Max Bygraves and a pair of Tommy Coopers. At such a rate, there’s no time for finesse, so everyone takes a tic and keeps doing it. The Tommy Coopers all keep sniffing, the Eric Morecambes shake their glasses, and Dave Allen’s always scratching his face. Consequently, impressions are bad. Real bad. Sat here taking notes, I was worried I’d have no idea who anybody was, but it wasn’t a problem, as almost every sketch lets you know.

My name is James Mason…” “Hello dah-links, I’m Zsa Zsa Gabor…” “Good evening, Boris Karloff here…” “Hello, my name is Joyce Grenfell…” “This is your obedient servant, Orson Welles…” Sometimes, they’ll give additional clues, in case it’s still too hard – “Hello, I’m John Huston, I’m a movie director,” or “Hello, playmates, Arthur Askey, comedian.” Paul Melba does the classic variety intro for his – “Mr. Anthony Quinn… Mr. Rod Steiger,” while Margo Henderson outright asks the audience “do you know that gentleman from television up in Scotland, Mr. Chic Murray?” (note: they did not)

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We’re here for Freddie Starr, and even he’s at it. Imagine, it’s the 1970s, he’s wearing an open silver shirt, big quiff and sideburns, and his first line, in an American accent through a curled lip? “My name’s Elvis Presley, everybody.” Yeah, thanks. Was Freddie’s popularity partially down to that thing of laughing at your own jokes, barely able to get them out, in a psy-op to make the audience think “if he’s laughing, and he’s already heard it, then it must be hilarious?” Because he does it every time. It’s amazing how many of Freddie’s impressions require the same arse-out duck-walk waddle — Norman Wisdom, Mick Jagger, Max Wall, John Wayne, Hitler — was he working around a twisted testicle?

Also of note is how often he’s shirtless or half-naked, while the rest of the cast remain fully dressed. I guess amongst this roster of anthropomorphic tins of Ye Old Oak ham, anyone could be a sex symbol, so it’s up to him to play boxers or Tarzan, or, for no reason at all, to be wearing an ab-exposing belly-shirt while being Charlie Chaplin. There’s a real haphazard quality to his performances, which is rockstar-ish, in that he either seems drunk, or too cool to be fussed about doing it properly. But then, half-arsing it is Who Do You Do?‘s MO, half the time not bothering with basic props. In duelling Orson Welles impressions, neither man’s even got a beard. How long does it take to hook one over the ears? To don a pair of glasses as Eric Morecambe? There’s something unintentionally arthouse about it, with the theatrical minimalism of Lars von Trier’s Dogville, everyone doing impressions without adopting the target’s props, mannerisms, or voice.

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As it’s comedy from the seventies, it’s chock full of stuff the Brexit bois want back on the box, stat. We’re barely ten minutes in before the first Savile, with Freddie Starr in a blonde wig, holding a cigar and making Jim’ll’s donkey noises, for a rare double-Yewtree. The clichéd ‘gay voice’ is a sure-fire laugh-getter, as in one skit with Freddie describing a cowboy who got into ballet dancing and interior decorating. “He went thattaway,” he says, flopping his wrist. At one point, a Welsh character (no idea who) says to “never hit a woman when she’s down. Kick her, it’s easier.” ‘Arthur Askey’ does a routine about Germaine Greer — “I hope she took the bra off before she burned it!” — which is all about how massive she is; “6’4”, soaking wet!” Had they even seen her, or just heard the word feminist and assumed ‘cartoon of a female shot putter’? Regardless, the material storms it.

In case I’ve not been clear, every joke is truly awful. Regard an On the Waterfront parody, which builds to three Rod Steigers shooting each other. Freddie’s Brando counts the corpses with a “1, 2, 3… I’m a Steiger counter!” Extraordinary. How many people in 70’s Britain had even heard a Geiger counter? Perhaps the worst gag seen here, or indeed anywhere, ever, comes from one of the many Eric Morecambes; “overheard at a camel’s tea-pot… one lump or two?” Fucking — and I cannot stress this enough — hell. However, there’s stiff competition from actual use of that thing we all did in the playground in the 80s, of waving your hand around and claiming it’s a naked Sooty.

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Who Do You Do? is rife with that device we’ve seen on here before, of using impressions to deal out jokes which are worse than the real celebrity’s usual material. Being a more recognisable face is the spoonful of sugar on a shitty joke, like you can get away with it if it’s told by Max Bygraves. At one point, ‘David Frost’ literally opens with a “hello, good evening, and welcome; here is a joke…” But I did laugh a couple of times, at the quickie where “a word from the Minister of Transport” turned out simply to be “bollards!” This is repeated later as the Minister of Agriculture (“bullocks!”) and the Cox of the Cambridge rowing team (“rollocks!”). Lovely stuff. There’s a lot of vague political humour, which mostly goes over my head, barring a joke from Boris Karloff who’s got a ray that revives the dead — “I’ve already had a big offer from the Liberal party.” A timeless gag that plays just as well in 2020 as it did in 1974.

For a show set in the rockin’ seventies, much of the impressions are old Western actors from decades before, with the most contemporary a brief Marc Bolan, where he sings a few “da da das” before being dragged away by men in white coats; take that, youngsters! This raises an interesting point, that in a series pre-dating home cinema, and even VHS, the spread of cultural references must’ve been far smaller, so they’re having to rely on movies twenty-plus years old. It’s that or “Here’s a parody from a little film called The Exorcist!” “Not seen it, mate.” Speaking of unfamiliar, a lot of airtime goes to Dailey and Wayne, a double act I’ve never heard of. They’ve both got the haircuts of someone being executed in Robin Hood times, with one skinny, bird-like one, with the stare of Fred West, and one bigger lad who milks endless minutes of laughs out of dancing in a competent, energetic way that’s mildly surprising for his girth.

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It’s here we reach a momentous occasion on this blog, as The Lads finally make their debut, ceasing the endless messages, phonecalls, and 3am through-the-letterbox yells of “when are you going to cover Little and Large, you pathetic hack?!” Sadly, very little (no pun intended) of Syd and Eddie’s incredible comedy careers made it into the digital era, with mere scraps available online, of the odd sketch or short appearance at the Royal Variety, leaving 7 episodes from ITV, and 83 half-hours at the BBC, all tragically lost. Christ, almost two full days worth. Also, this thread on Cook’d and Bomb’d covers the pair in such depth, I felt there was little to add in picking over those clips myself. Though it did really help solidify the idea; which I think was already apparent from the atmosphere between the two, and the — shall we say — differing levels of talent, as they became the decade’s hottest act; that Eddie was almost certainly flushing Syd’s head down the bog backstage.

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Now, Eddie’s no George Carlin, but I will always maintain — even in the face of our screens being filled with Love Island and TOWIE types who’ve become celebrities because they can’t tell the time, or were filmed running out of a sexual encounter with cry of “oh no, I’ve got poo all over my willy!” — that Syd Little is the single least-talented person to have ever found fame. He stands there like a kid waiting for his mum to stop chatting with another grown-up outside the shops while Eddie does his thing; putting on a schoolboy voice, or almost making it to the end of a 30-second sketch without breaking into his Porky Pig. When he does speak, Syd’s got the stage presence and delivery of someone who’s having to give a soundbite after being handed a cheque from the Postcode Lottery.

Later in the show, Syd’s got his guitar out, and as Eddie’s being Cliff Richard, he introduces ‘Hank Marvin’, forcing Syd to do the Shadows strut; hopefully to a proficient enough standard that Eddie won’t be stapling his foreskin to the wall when they get offstage. In another skit, Eddie’s running through all his voices, while the obvious fear in Syd’s eyes of another backstage beatdown, should he fuck up his task of standing there and doing nothing, nicely recreates that lad who sat on Saddam Hussein’s knee. Though he is eventually given the chance to perform some blinking when Eddie steals his glasses, and later, gets to lip-sync to Eddie singing Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue, as Eddie crouches behind him out of sight, surely moments from wrapping the wire around Syd’s thin neck, or ramming the whole thing right up his anus.

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The pair’s highlight is a real comedy fan’s dream, when they come out in bowler hats to Laurel and Hardy’s famous music, with Syd doing his best to pull a face, and moving his fingers like he imagines Stan Laurel might’ve done. AND THAT’S IT! THAT’S THE WHOLE SKETCH! “He’s fat, he’s thin; find ’em hats and get ’em onstage!” Trust it to fall on Eddie Large to produce a reference I finally understand, addressing Syd — who has no lines, and is once again, merely a prop — as Walter, and asking if he’s been. “Have you been, Walter? Has he been?” was a catchphrase from 1960’s Hylda Baker sitcom, Nearest and Dearest, which found a repeat run in my gran’s house on Saturday afternoons in the early 90s. For the millennials, let’s Wiki that reference, to understand the sort of comedy they used to make before the SJWs took over, back when it was good.

…the Pledges’ second-cousin, Lily Tattersall, who was married to constantly-mute octogenarian Walter. Walter was unable to control his bladder, which led to one of the programme’s oft-used catchphrases, ‘Has he been?’”

‘Has the old man had a piss, or is his dick about to start spraying?’ — they don’t make ’em like that anymore! Not to get bogged down in this unrelated sitcom that pre-dates the moon landing, but this line made me roar more than anything from Who Do You Do —In another episode, Nellie has a suitor named Vernon Smallpiece, whom she addresses as ‘Vermin Bigpiece‘.” Vernon Smallpiece is the handle I post all my cock and hole-pics under on OnlyFans. As a bonus, Who Do You Do‘s uploader’s left the adverts in, giving an added garnish of accursed 90s to the 1970’s facial hair. Granada Plus tell us “the old jokes are the best!” over footage of Benny Hill dressed as a Chinaman, then as a milkman squeezing a woman’s breast with a literal honk sound, along with Chris Tarrant doing a voiceover for Practical Aquarium magazine, a £1 a minute virtual chat and date phone-line, and a trail for Kojack soundtracked by My Boy Lollypop, with Telly Savalas’ head superimposed on a row of lollies.

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But after Syd and Eddie, there’s nowhere to go but down, even with Russ Abbot’s Tommy Cooper. The contrast of my final episode is so washed out, faces are just eyes and mouths on a burned pink blob, with everything else dissolving into the white background. Anyone wearing white clothes loses their torso or limbs, like weathermen in green jumpers reduced to a floating head pointing at Scotland. It’s horrific. At the piano, a woman with big hair namechecks Walter’s weak bladder once more; Freddie Starr as Elvis picks his nose; he sits on a lap as a ventriloquist dummy; hides under Richard III’s hunchback; does the show’s nth James Cagney, all of which consist entirely of going “top of the world, ma!” No, all we can do is forget this ever happened, and pray for the return of those lost Little and Large shows; 90 episodes I will dissect with the finest tooth comb, in the great work I was put on this Earth to write. Rest in piece, Eddie, mate.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night

•May 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[more Brucie: Slinger’s Day]

In the late seventies, Bruce Forsyth was riding high at the BBC with The Generation Game, when he suddenly announced he was quitting television for a return to the stage, in a jukebox musical of Anthony Newley tunes, The Traveling Music Show. Following bad reviews, it closed after four months, and Bruce was quickly poached back to the screen by LWT, with a £15,000 per-episode fee to host his own Saturday night variety show, Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. At £87,000 in today’s money, multiplied by 12 episodes, I imagine Brucie toasted so much celebratory champagne, his agent must’ve been seeing double — chin, chin! The budget for each show was an incredible £250,000, which is the equivalent of almost £1.5m in 2020. Incidentally, I have to keep reminding myself it’s just Big Night, and not Big Night Out. That would be something else entirely — “who’s on the end of the noose, Bruce?!”

So, as a Saturday night show it’ll be, what, the regulation sixty minutes? Afraid not, it’s two hours. Noel’s House Party was only 50 minutes, so Brucie’s Big Night is more than a Double Noel (which is the standardised system for measuring units of televisual time). This is gonna need some real stamina, so I’ve stocked up on energy bars, pushed a catheter into my penis-hole, and updated my will in the event of fatal DVT — enjoy those Emmerdale Farm Funko Pops and DVDs of MILF porn, mum. Although it’s sold as a live television extravaganza, the raw footage of Big Night‘s studio time-clock — during which a producer hiccups — reveals the taping dates as September 25th and 26th, 1978; two weeks before it aired on ITV.

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The series landed right at the peak of disco, as reflected in its theme tune, which you could definitely do CPR to. What a story that would be — waking in a hospital bed to find out some kindly passer-by brought you back from the banks of the Styx by compressing your chest to the beat of Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. And I’ve never felt so alive, as we’re right into an opening dance number, with in-house troupe, Thirty Two Feet, hitting the flashing floor for an exuberant disco take on gospel hymn Oh Happy Day! You’re in no doubt this is the late seventies, with more than a hint of Jesus Christ Superstar about it all — “when Jesus washed, hey! — he really washed; you know that he really washed!” I hoped for Brucie roller skating out in holy robes, but he doesn’t appear until the climax, skewered by a spotlight, in a weird arms-up pose, as though holding back the tides, rather than the classic Brucie Thinker. Perhaps he means to make a clear separation from The Generation Game, though after dancing down the the stage, we’re back home with a “nice to see you, to see you…

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In the wake of his switching teams, the friendly war between the Beeb and ITV is played up with digs like “this is not a repeat… which makes it different for a start.” The gimmick here is that the show’s airing on all regions at the same time, thanks to “the ITV Mafia,” unifying and uniting the disparate television listings of the UK underneath a single Brucie banner. To mark the occasion, he’s written a song. “Would you like to hear it?” he asks the audience, who reply with a comically appalled “NO!” The house band kick off into glitzy 70’s television big band, the conductor waving madly as Brucie shimmies, crooning his self-penned lyrics about this hands-across-the-regions feast of light entertainment.

I don’t know where you are, you may be near or far,

so let’s get the network together.

It’s Saturday night, you may be on your own,

not even a telephone,

so let’s get the network together!

It’s eternal, it’s a party…

Remember on ITV, we’re the channel you get for free…

On this, Brucie pats the pocket of his arse like the ASDA adverts, and with one of those terrifically oldschool song-closers — “get the whole of the network together tonight!” — a final bombastic beat has him fold into an immaculate, classic, and timeless Brucie pose. There’s a jokey bit where he runs through alternative titles for the show, including “Saturday Night Fever Forsyth,” with a weird cadence that makes it clear he’s never heard of the movie, before proving himself a real company man by digressing into the topic of Ted Rogers’ 321. “Hasn’t that caught on?” he says, asking the audience “do you like it?

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Rather smarmily, he introduces his hostess — known for partnering with him on the Gen Game and in the marital home — the then-current Mrs Forsyth, Anthea Redfern, who’s told to be less “old hat” and a bit more showbiz, now they’re on “this side of the Thames,” so she parades up and down, showing off her dress, winking and wiggling her bum. With two decades between them, her a model, and him looking older than his years, there’s a strong father/daughter vibe, with banter that’s extremely ‘co-presenters at the Oscars doing jokes before the envelope.’ Needlessly, there are two more female hostesses — or Anthea’s “ladies in waiting” — called Michelle and Di, but christened by Bruce as “Ebb and Flo,” as he bends double in laughter, as part of his continual quips and asides, which are so relentless, it’s bordering on a medical condition, like Bru-CD — “If I don’t make a gag every five seconds, my parents will die in their sleep!”

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Eight minutes in, we get our first game, “a bit of fun” involving amateur joke-tellers from “the pubs, clubs and factories of Great Britain” all doing a gag. You’d assume these would be quick one-liners, but they’re shaggy dog stories, dragged out all the longer by Brucie’s interruptions, perhaps eager to please his new bosses and audience, and unable to let anyone get a word in without cramming in his own funnies. Contestant #2 is from Fife. “I love your bananas,” says Bruce, repeating it back to himself; “…I love your bananas!” The man’s got a dog called Shauna. “Do you ever bathe it?” “Er… sometimes?” he replies, confused, as Bruce turns to the audience with an “altogether now — he has a…” Literally nobody responds, as Brucie completes the joke by himself, “…a Shauna bath!” What?! I think he means sauna, but as the studio silence attests, it’s some reach.

When the bloke finally gets to his joke, rambling in a soft, nervous voice, it’s about oil field fires and Red Adair, which Bruce wrongly ‘corrects’ as “Fred.” While we’re here, people who moan about famous Youtubers would do well to remember there used to be a celebrity oil well fireman. But by the end of this segment, going up in an agonizing pillar of blazing oil is but a glorious dream, as contestant #3’s job as a postman has Brucie straining for every available punchline — “You work for Tommy Steele?! Did you deliver your own children?!” Finally, after the audience dole out scores from the balcony, with a couple of elderly scorers having trouble sliding the numbers into the slot, the winner’s presented with a gold comedy mask and combination record/cassette player.

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The saddest thing about these lone surviving episodes is the tease of coming treats likely never to appear for viewers in the far-flung future. Here, Brucie promises in the next few weeks, Rod Hull and Emu will be going on safari, which is like receiving a letter from a loved one about how they’re so looking forwards to your holiday together, which plops through the letterbox the day after they got flattened by a dustcart. Thankfully, the lads are in the studio for some episode one hijinx, where Rod’s hair is remarkable, hanging over his head like the silk valance around an antique chair. He always sounds like he needs to blow his nose — “decond class dicket to Dottingham” — and puts Emu into a trance. Of course, Emu’s faking, so bites Rod’s arse, hand, face, and eyeball, causing me to imagine a fucked up Emu with teeth, leaving Rod and all the guests and children in bleeding tatters.

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It builds to Emu holding a 500lb weight in his beak, causing Rod to take an insane somersault onto the studio floor, flipping over with his spine hitting right on the edge of a step, in the kind of fall you see in gifs titled “the bump that ended this wrestler’s career!” Like Freddie Starr and Norman Wisdom, he must’ve struggled to get out of bed every morning. Now sweaty and out of breath, he staggers over to Bruce, who’s hiding inside a cage, where Emu grabs a hold, first of Brucie’s infamous chin, and then his penis. But then, with that jarring variety switch, Bruce is suddenly in the middle of a dance-riot — “Yes, it’s disco mania! It started with John Travolta, and now it’s happening here on television!

The floor, laid out in flashing segments like Studio 54, fills with all 42 finalists of the UK Disco Dancing Championship. 42 dancers is a lot, and every inch of the stage is crammed with flares and silver catsuits, open shirts and Cuban heels, doing their own thing to the house band’s thumping generic track; “dance with me in the disco beat!” There’s blokes doing the Travolta point, a woman gyrating her stomach, some fella Russian dancing; one lad’s just waving a hanky about. As the mass of glittered humanity writhe and kick at 120bpm, like a moving Where’s Wally? powered by St. Vitus, the camera cuts get faster and faster, creating a dizzying spectacle of flesh and sweat, and trouser-legs flapping like the Hulk’s foreskin. Clearly, the only point of choreography was everyone ending on one climatic beat, but as it hits, many — now exhausted — jump too early or late. One guy’s stuck bent in a pose when it kicks, and stumbles over. Bruce, meanwhile, is very excited to discover which of them will be the UK’s “John Travolta or John Travoltess.” C’mon, Joan Travolta was right there!

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So from Disco dancing to… Pong? They call it TeleTennis, but it’s literally just Pong, in what must be one of the first examples of competitive video-gaming on television, pre-dating the “up… left… jump!” phone-ins of Saturday mornings by fifteen years. Incredibly, they’re using voice activated controls, demonstrated by Bruce and Anthea moving the paddles up-screen by shouting each other’s names. Anthea’s cry of “Bruce! Bruce!” as the little block shoots up inspires his joke about it being just like him in the mornings, and the way they both laugh, he’s clearly talking about his erect phallus. (“Nice to see you…”)

Facing off are representatives from a pair of coach trips, with Maudie from Sevenoaks vs. Cyril Bushman — whose very name reduces Brucie to hysterics — of the St. John’s Ambulance. Picking their prizes, Maudie wants a portable television for the works restroom, while Cyril’s playing for a stretcher bed for the ambulance. Christ, he’s playing televised Pong for medical supplies? What are they carrying the bodies out on now, an old wooden pallet? I hope Boris doesn’t get wind of this, offering PPE, but only if nurses can capture the payload on Overwatch. The stretcher sits there on the stage, presumably ready to be sent back to the suppliers if Cyril loses, like the kidney dialysis machine on Knowing Me, Knowing Yule when the world’s biggest Christmas cracker didn’t pull.

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This is 1978, and the controls are wildly oversensitive, especially for a pair of sixty-somethings who’d probably be wowed by a pocket calculator, making for extraordinary television. They’re given the respective noises “OOH” and “AAH” to yell at their onscreen paddles, but for the first few rounds, Cyril just watches, or perhaps too embarrassed to shout “AHH!” at a computer screen, while Maudie leans right in with her “OOH”s, like a key witness on the stand at a murder trial. Noobs with the reflexes of a corpse, consequently, every single point consists of the computer’s automatic serve shooting right past the opposing player, with neither intentionally touching the ball once. Cyril ‘wins’ 10-9, meaning heart attack victims will no longer have to be dragged up the steps of an ambulance by the ankles, while Maudie’s coach gets £40 for fish suppers on the way home.

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Bafflingly, Bruce congratulates them with total earnesty, on doing the best of anyone so far, as the crew’s been playing it all afternoon. Oh, and in the introductory banter, he makes a to-camera invitation for Cyril’s 95-year-old mother to “go out in the garden and wait for me” and if he shows up late, “start without me.” We go to the ad break with Brucie’s “don’t go away, there’s more games to play!” with another rather needy rhyming couplet later of “stay by the set, there’s more to come yet!” Perhaps a more appropriate line would’ve been “smash up your telly, cos this next bit’s real smelly!” as the following ten minutes are devoted to an actual fancy dress contest between six ladies in wacky, home-made outfits.

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Miss Fleet Street’s dress is made of newspapers; Miss Post Office Tower’s got a big cardboard tower on her head (and hopefully isn’t completing the look by having Noel Edmonds inside her); Miss Intercity’s wearing a train driver’s uniform, with a t-shirt that reads I’M FAST, 125mph, and so on. The quality’s like the Easter bonnet days we had in junior school, which I won once with a hat that was decorated like a birthday cake – Christ, I just realised I lived the actual childhood Americans imagine all British kids to have. They line up for Brucie bantz, with themed jokes about their tit size, and gags like finding out Miss Tea and Crumpets’ — “36, 26, and one for the pot!” — name is Jean and shrieking “Hi, Jean! HYGENE!” (Quick poll: better or worse than Barrymore’s “Hi, Jack!”?) Her challenge involves filling a cup with the teapot that’s strapped to her head, but the lid immediately flies off and it goes all over the floor. Weirdly, when asking their names, he always wants the surnames too — “Sheila what?!” — doxxing them on TV, though it’s worth it for the matronly Miss Spaghetti Junction bellowing “ANNE MOLESWORTH!

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Bruce gets a breather when they just randomly drop a quiz into proceedings, with £1000 Pyramid hosted by Steve Jones, who’s rocking a spectacular look that ticks all the 1970’s boxes — hair which looks like a wig, brown suit, and Gonch Gardner’s tinted glasses. Members of the public are teamed with Liza Goddard and Russell Harty, in the purest definition of filler, especially as Bruce isn’t even hosting it. Ironically, the Pyramid would be Big Night‘s most successful segment, beginning here as an adaptation of an American game show, and eventually spinning off into a series of its own.

At this point, still only halfway through the runtime, they’re utterly out of ideas, with Brucie asking if we remember a skit from an radio show which ended in 1960. No, but carry on. Well, they’re bringing it back tonight, almost 20 years later! The Glums is just a fifteen-minute bit, but I feel like I sat through an entire box set. A picture of stuffy postwar grimness, all horrid wallpaper and waistcoats, its set-up is that blustering walrus Jimmy Edwards plays father to Ian Lavender’s shy incel, who’s accidentally switched hats at the cinema with a woman, who he must now speak to. The jokes are utter pap, like Edwards asking for his own hat with a “give me me bowler over,” to Pike’s “Yes dad. What’s your bowlerover, dad?” and I wept with relief when I found — with this backdoor pilot having inexplicably led to a revival — that the full series wasn’t available on Youtube, so I didn’t have to Shitcom it. Plus, it’s another pre-tape, allowing Brucie to put his feet up while that £87,000 rolls in.

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The final segment is taken up with some actual star power. “You’ve never seen a lady quite like this,” boasts Brucie, “you wanna bet? You gotta bet(te)!” Enter Bette Midler, dressed like an Old West cat-house marm, with a high-energy cover of Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. Sitting with Bruce for a chat, it’s a clash of sensibilities akin to Nic Cage somersaulting onto Wogan, immediately off to a weird start when Bruce outs himself as “a devoted fan” who’d only heard of her two weeks ago. His first question is of what impressions she’ll carry back with her (of England), but wires get crossed, and she thinks he means impersonations, which he doesn’t correct. So, after they locate a stool, she’s laying on top of it, pretending to swim as “Shelly Winters from The Poseidon Adventure,” which they appear to cut angles from because the front-on shot is far too booby.

Their conversation seems like it’s taking place though interpretors, with Bruce suddenly exclaiming “Well you’re Jewish! You mustn’t eat pork pies,” before Bette impersonates Joan of Arc at the stake, by pretending to blow out flames, which the audience and host are very confused by. Bette, mate, this is 1970’s Britain; ‘impressions’ means Eddie Large starting a car that sounds like Mick Jagger. Soon, Bette’s ‘jokingly’ wiping her brow, feigning the desire to leave, saying how she loves the Royal Family because “they’re so white!” and that she only came to London to meet Mary Whitehouse, promptly falling to the floor like she’s died. It’s from there the rest of the interview is conducted, with both propped up on pillows on their backs. Brucie brags that Parkinson’s never done this, but then “all he talks about is Barnsley and cricket and Gene Kelly.” “Is he a poof?” asks Bette.

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Bette closes with a couple more numbers, after goofily sandbagging Brucie when he goes to help her up, getting a faceful of boob as he heaves her off the floor and making her laugh with a “no hard feelings.” God, what a missed opportunity not to hook up Bette Midler with Emu for what would’ve been an all-time great TV moment. The show closes with Bruce alone in the spotlight wearing a deeply simpering gin, and singing another ode to the long night we spent together.

I hope we helped to make your Saturday a fun and time-just-doesn’t-matter day…

The closing line anticipates “another Saturday with yooouuu,” followed by a gentle, and oddly American-accented “Goodnight everybody.” Credits roll over really aggressive disco dancing, including a close-up of women grabbing their own shaking arses. There’s a strange credit for “TeleTennis created by Wolfgang Penk and Ernst Muller,” who aren’t the creators of Pong, but German TV producers who presumably used the format over there first. I guess because I’ve got screencaps of Big Night on here, I made the show? Actually, I don’t want credit. That said, there’s a surprising quality of names considering the material, with Barry Cryer, Colin Bostock-Smith (Not the Nine O-Clock News), Andrew Marshall (2point4 Children) and David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave) credited as writers, though a jokester for Noel, Cannon and Ball, Little and Large, and Russ Abbot‘s also listed, which makes entirely more sense.

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Bruce Forysth’s Big Night was about as well-received with critics and audiences as it was on here, and by the second episode, failed to crack the ratings top 20. In a pre-cursor to the Monday Night Wars, ironically, Brucie was head-to-head against former vehicle, The Generation Game, and found himself losing to replacement, Larry Grayson, on a weekly basis. The public debacle even saw Bruce dedicate a segment on a later episode to dissecting his own show’s failure — like when Roger Moore didn’t show up on Partridge — and Cannon and Ball were brought in to be his onscreen stooges. However, prior to each week’s airing, their sketches were cut, before the pair were dropped altogether.

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The single series ran for 14 episodes, including a best-of clip show on New Year’s Eve — which should’ve been a two hour loop of “ANNE MOLESWORTH!” — but was eventually cut to 90 minutes and moved to an earlier timeslot. In hindsight, with its off-kilter mix of big celebrities like Sammy Davis Jnr, Dolly Parton, and Elton John, and the sort of bargain basement mini-games dads get roped into running at a school fete, its failure seems inevitable. But Brucie took it on the chin, sticking with ITV for the massively successful Play Your Cards Right, and triumphantly returning to the BBC in 1990 for a revival of The Generation Game.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Miss Great Britain 1984

•May 6, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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There’s something inherently 1970s about the great British beauty contest, and though this is the 1984 edition of Miss Great Britain, both aesthetically and ideologically, it already feels a decade out of time. While the outside world was in thrall to Boy George, Madonna and Mr. T, and Ghostbusters was playing at the pictures, in the Waldorf Hotel’s Palm Court ballroom, the drab walls and potted plants are still vibrating under a disco beat. Even the opening music’s got a lecherous slide-whistle in it, over shots of our twenty-one lovely ladies, which as we will come to learn, even for the most tit-hungry playboys, swingers, and lusty hetero lads, is simply too many ladies.

The edges of the huge ballroom are filled with elegantly decorated tables and fairy lights, with a black tie dress-code for the assembled audience. Everyone’s done up in their finery, and I’ve even spotted some mayoral chains, making for a far classier do than the ‘Butlins knobbly knees contest but with arses’ that I’d envisaged. Our presenter is World in Action‘s Chris Kelly, bow-tied and bigging up “arguably the oldest beauty contest in the worldnot the contest you’ll find the oldest beauty, you understand.” This mix of solemnly sportifying the ogling of young women and horny dad-gags is the Miss Great Britain brand.

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We kick off with the evening wear section, where we’ll be introduced to each contestant in turn. Some hold regional titles, while others made it through from the weekly heats in Morecambe. Weekly?! In whittling down to the final twenty-one, the sheer number of knockout stages must’ve eaten up much of the national workload, in what would’ve been the equivalent of today’s relentless televised singing contests. Under a classy soundtrack of classical music, each girl takes a brief introductory stroll across the floor, ala a debutante ball, for a gathering of old men and the occasional wife, all sat in the kind of armchair your nan died in, politely clapping.

It’s the eighties, so they all have the make-up style of someone who’s just lost very badly at the works bi-monthly paintball outing, and wearing billowing gowns which resemble those novelty toilet roll holders of a knitted Spanish lady. The narrator’s not named until some ways in, and I’d wrongly assumed it was Stuart Hall, as both have the same combination of laid back, overly-eloquent delivery, and wildly inappropriate comments. As the ladies do their walk, he drops in bits of trivia. Maxine from Stoke on Trent wants to take her little brother to Disneyworld; Amanda from Northern Ireland makes her own clothes. Highlighting the prevalence of our modern gym culture, Debbie’s notable fact is a once-weekly visit to a keep fit class.

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Let’s pause a moment to imagine someone’s bet you that you can’t eat ten (full-size) Kit Kats. Doesn’t seem like that many, does it? Definitely doable. But by number six, they’re starting to repeat on you, and you’re fearing for the state of your toilet tomorrow. Similarly, twenty-one ladies initially seems like a fine number, but about a dozen in, there’s almost ten still to come. Ten more dead-eyed smiles. Ten more commentator’s jokes; “Debbie’s very fond of Chinese cooking, and all her friends and family keep giving her woks… she’s getting shocks with flocks of woks!” One’s a PR girl, who’s promoted all sorts, “even disposable nappies. I’d like to have seen her modelling those.” Filled or empty, mate? Jill from Sheffield is “trained in the art of self defence, which will probably come in very handy later on.” I bet it will, you dirty old bollocks. Half the names sound like characters from Look Around You; Wendy Phizacklea, Pauline J. Burnip, and Scottish #19, Isobel McPheators (pronounced McFetus). Every contestant is white.

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We’re introduced to the judges, of whom there’s also far too many. Judge number one’s an old toff who lent his stately home to the BBC for tonight’s proceedings, and has the facial expression of a boarding school headmaster that’s beaten a pupil to death and will not be apologising for it. There’s also Wayne Sleep’s ballet mistress, the Two Ronnies make-up designer, and the producer of The Good Old Days; who from the look of him, moonlights as the guy who comes out with a tape measure before an Old West shoot-out. When it gets to the final judge, honestly, I was expecting Savile, but it’s just some local big-shot, whose title as chairman of the Barclay’s Square Ball and managing director of Dutton Foreshore Motor Group requires a lengthy introduction, which Chris Kelly stumbles through, mispronouncing ‘motor’ as ‘moiter‘, like how a noir detective would say ‘murder’.

The slip seems to unsettle our host, and it all falls apart when cuing the next segment, where we’re off to Morecambe. The spiritual home of Miss Great Britain, their tourist board seemingly bunged the contest a nice wedge for repeated plugs. “Incidentally,” says Kelly, “it’s well worth a visit, particularly in this…” Now flustered, he stammers “Brit-igsh heritage year,” before leaning out of frame, with a “uh, I’m going to have to read from me notes… having a bit of difficulty.” He’s down there a few seconds, leaving an empty mic-stand, as the smiles on the girls behind him begin to buckle. The camera pans down to search for him, but cuts to a panicked wide shot of the ballroom. Finally ready, he repeats some lines he’s already said, composure now gone, and barely glancing up from the cards.

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It’s then over to Morecambe’s countryside hall, owned by the family of “a great furniture empire” for the parade round. If that sounds a bit horsey, the narrator introduces our “runners and riders,” with each coming down stone steps amid a blustery wind that sets the big 80’s hair rippling. Meandering flute music gives sickly flashbacks to being in a hospital lift after falling out of a tree at school, and the whole thing has the frumpy vibe of a Gratton catalogue — albeit without the mysteriously self-opening pages of bras, in which one could sometimes make out the darkened circular hue of a nipple, and had to be careful to aim away from, as you’d never be able to explain that.

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Anyway, there’s a surprising counter to the idea these shows are just a meat market by doing the opposite of a swimsuit contest, and burying a bunch of beautiful women under the sort of dreary clobber you’d wear to a funeral or while applying for a bank loan to pay off your child’s crippling medical bills. The commentary points out the “white tea-cosy” on one girl’s head, while another’s “hands on hips, quite ready for action.” Again, there are twenty-one women, so it takes fucking ages, and we pause every three ladies for a recap, with unsettling close-ups held far too long; teeth drying; aching to swallow a mouthful of stale saliva.

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Presumably because of the gale, proceedings move indoors, for hauntologically powerful zooms on candelabras and severed deer heads mounted on the wall. Equally unsettling is the girl moving cautiously in stilettos, upturned mouth betrayed by her eyes, which seem to yell “I’m going to die on this staircase!” Another wears skintone trousers, and on first glance, appears to be in nothing but a half-jacket and captain’s hat, fanny casually out for all to see. One’s dressed like Darkwing Duck.

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There’s just too many of them, and by number twelve, I’m exhausted; that weedy looping Muzak, the Smylex grins; it’s like launching into a lengthy anecdote, only for you and the listener to realise halfway through that you’ve told it before, but having to plough onto the end regardless — “24 years old, smile as broad as Yorkshire!” Please, help me. 19 year old Kim takes her hat off, “oh my goodness, she’s gonna get undressed!” McFetus looks like an Amish magician. #21 is “a pert little waitress.” Ten minutes after it began, the parade concludes with a shot of a Union Jack “flapping flaccidly in the summer breeze,” and the welcome news that nine contestants have been eliminated offscreen.

The remaining dozen earn their way into the beauty contest’s most infamous section; the swimsuit round; which Kelly tells us is “a very English mixture of wholesome and saucy” — like sending an unsolicited dickpic, but with the filename mywillylol.jpg. As he must, lest he be revoked of his status as a bloody bloke, the voiceover man relays dimensions of tit, waist and hip — “Debbie’s measurements are 36-24-35, and it’s all moving along nicely” — while the live musical accompaniment is what you’d play over a silent movie when two big oafs are trying to shove a piano up the stairs.

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While these are one-piece swimsuits and there’s no midriffs on show (though in that big, draughty ballroom, some of them are a bit nipply), parading past people in fancy dinner jackets really accentuates the skin on display. As the tables of businessmen and local dignitaries languidly applaud the half-naked ladies stood beside them; the outlines of whose muffs can occasionally be seen through the fabric; it’s got the air of those documentaries about brothels, when all the girls are brought out in their knickers for a trucker to make his selection from. At the end of the round, half the contestants get the boot, before a surprise dance break.

Pre-taped in the empty ballroom, we begin with some beefeaters — four men, four stockinged women — regally assuming the slow-dance position, before the women move the men’s hands onto their arses, throwing a look to camera that says “girl power, right, fellow birds?” Then they’re suddenly dressed in disco gear, and it’s all high tempo kicks, with really angry choreography, where women claw at the sky like feral cats. There’s a clear visual tension between the pairs; the look you see in that bad TV cliché, where a couple have an angry shouting match before suddenly fucking up against a bookcase. At the end, they’re back to being beefeaters, the ladies curtseying subserviently at the feet of the men, having merely imagining their wild emancipation from this weird subculture of Tower of London based S&M.

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In some of that cultural trivia I love, the sequence was choreographed by Irving Davies, whose extensive CV also includes two episodes of The Jim Davidson Show, and the fantastically evocative credit “stager: The Mikado sequence” for an episode of Fresh Fields. For the final six, Midlands Today‘s Kaye Alexander is tasked with the interview round, where it’s back to elegance, with the ladies in enormous ballgowns in antique armchairs. They’re sat either side of Alexander, who’s forced to turn her back on the one she’s not talking to, like when Russell Harty got clouted by Grace Jones.

This is meant to show their personalities, but they tackle it with the energy of those job interviews at Tesco where you’re sat in a circle with twenty people and have to say something interesting about yourself when the tennis ball comes your way. Plus, Alexander has all the journalistic scrutiny of your nan asking if you had a nice day at school, and all we learn is one’s been down a coal mine and (in a separate event) was “taught the arts of the samurai warrior,” while another’s bikini bottoms fell down once at a fashion show, along with a thrilling tale of “having to model long johns, would you believe?” You know what? I would.

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As the judges retire to decide who is the best lady of all the ladies, there’s a musical interlude with Mexican-American flautist, Elena Duran, whose introduction is the single most Alan Partridge line ever spoken — “since this has essentially been a woman’s hour, live here at the Waldorf, she’s decided to play the theme from that enduring radio program, Woman’s Hour…” Let’s hear it for the wonderful women, everyone! Sadly, as all twenty-one contestants re-enter the ballroom, they don’t bring out Yo-Yo Ma to accompany with a rousing rendition of Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler? Though the six finalists are in their gowns, the rest conspicuously take their places in swimwear, before we’re introduced to the reining monarch, Miss Great Britain, 1983.

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So who then, will take the title of this 39th annual contest? Awarded her seat on the throne (one of the ugly chairs they’ve been sat in all night), and coroneted with a crown and sash reading MISS GREAT BRITAIN, MORCAMBE, is Debbie Greenwood. Greenwood would go onto a long career in television, including presenting QVC and marrying Pebble Mill‘s Paul Coia, in the greatest forging of royalty and showbiz since Harry and Meghan. She’s also awarded a cheque for £4,000, a holiday, some jewellery, “and the use of an Austin Maestro, during her year of office.”

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As always, I’m overjoyed there’s a good 30 minutes of bonus material on the end of the VHS, with the start of an Irish magazine program about the dangers of the beauty industry, hosted by a man made entirely of hair, followed by an ‘Allo ‘Allo special of Les Dawson-era Blankety Blank. Herr Flick’s wearing a lovely red jumper emblazoned with piano keys, and Gruber’s got pink hippos on his, while sat bottom left, in Blank‘s traditional crumpet seat, is Vicki Michelle, who to my mind, is the rightful Miss Great Britain of 1984, or indeed, any year.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

The Accursed 90s – Craig Charles’ Funky Bunker

•April 27, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad ContestsDon’t Forget Your ToothbrushTalk Show GothsJames Whale on Television]

This is going to be unpleasant. Take the nightmare of 90’s ITV’s post-pub programming — Get Stuffed, The Good Sex Guide, Carnal Knowledge, James Whale then throw in the era’s most irritating screen presence in Craig Charles, and cut him loose from the binds of the watershed. 1997 was his year; for six weeks, anyway, dominating the Friday night schedule with ITV’s Funky Bunker, BBC2’s Red Dwarf, and on Channel 4 with pirate sitcom, Captain Butler; a monopoly which landed him The Girlie Show‘s coveted Wanker of the Week. Incredibly, Bunker and Butler opposed each other in the 10:30pm slot, giving thirty minutes when 50% of all British television contained Craig Charles.

Funky Bunker ran for 13 episodes, each with a budget of £8,000, which seems a bit of an overestimate, if anything. It was directed and produced under the production company of the man who developed Channel 4’s Minipops, seemingly to fill his resume with something so bad, it would finally distract from his past. The opening titles show Craig running through empty backstreets at night, stalked by a magician, before raising a finger to his lips with a “shh!” and disappearing down a green-smoke-belching manhole into the Funky Bunker, as a clockwork rat runs across the screen.

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He emerges through one of those gold tinsel curtains newsagents used to have over the door to the back room, into a bar with steel-effect walls and no windows. There’s a drag queen hiding against a brick pillar; a man in a Fez and sunglasses; enormous plastic mushrooms on the tables. Everyone’s holding a drink, and half of them are smoking. The atmosphere’s like TFI Friday if they’d piped sleeping gas through the vents, with a quiet audience of 90’s clubbers just standing around, the women in strappy crop tops, the men with gelled hair in giant shirts or mod tees. The whole thing feels like Jabba’s Palace, with its cast of disparate characters, and with Craig Charles as Salacious Crumb, sweatily bouncing up and down, doing his fake Ernie from Sesame Street laugh — “chhh chhh chhh!” Viewers will hear that a lot, in its role as verbal tick, insincere response, or merely to fill the many horrible silences that permeate the Bunker.

Welcome,” bids Craig, “to the Funky Bunker, going out for all you spunky funsters!” The opening monologue treats us to some classic Craig Charles stand-up, about the sort of “jammy bastards” that get six numbers on the lottery — “the kind of little kid who opens his mouth for his first feed and goes ‘oh wow, Pamela Anderson’… he’s got a really big willy… he’s on TV with his hand up Anthea Turner’s skirt, getting a check for £14m!” But now, he says, it is us who is jammy, as it’s time for house dancers, the Funki Feathers. Each week, the troupe dress to a theme, and tonight, grinding along to Shake a Tail Feather, they’re… sexy chickens? In feathered bras and those 90’s bikini bottoms that go right up, the choreography and lusty camerawork is very much ‘did I just see an actual anus?’, for a full 2 ½ minute routine that doesn’t cut away once. That doesn’t sound like long, but set up a timer and see how it drags out, while trying not to think about how it’s probably the perfect amount of time for Craig to take a wank to completion.

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Stuff going on too long is the Bunker’s rule of thumb, with unsigned bands doing five-minute songs — “this is rock n roll, these are The Rhythm Conspiracy, AND THIS IS HEART AND FIRE!” — and competition clips from Withnail and I or Men Behaving Badly playing so fully, you wonder if you’ve sat on the remote. Their competition’s brought up between almost every segment, with Craig waving £500 at the lens to try and rake back some of that eight grand with a premium rate phone line.

In the first chat, Craig introduces “one of the finest comedians of his generation,” Rowland Rivron, in an awkward interview punctuated by lots of “chhh chhh chhh!” and ending with Craig bringing the dancers in and telling Rowland to “take your pick.” But all the interviews are awkward, with his technique of waiting for the guest to stop talking so he can ask the next question, or just butting in when he gets bored. Later, he talks to an author with bleached hair like Jambo off Hollyoaks, who’s featuring in a-then upcoming anthology called Disco Biscuits, an unbelievably 90’s sounding “collection of outrageous short stories about sex, DJs, drugs, dance floors and dealers.” They’ve not got a copy, but he holds up a folded photocopy of the cover, asking “what’s that about?!” and getting esoteric answers about rewiring consciousness with words like “framework,” leaving him unable to respond with naught but a “chhh chhh chhh!” and rubbing the copious forehead sweat into his hair.

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Incidentally, I remember when a friend from junior school likewise adopted the Ernie laugh, but eventually stopped because his mum said it would give him mouth cancer. If Mrs. Charles had doled out such a warning, half of Funky Bunker would be dead air. Furthering the Jabba’s Palace vibe, the Bunker’s got a live-in roster of comic characters, most regularly, Dr. Destiny. Played by Craig’s co-writer, Russell Bell — former member of the Gary Numan Band — Destiny’s a Mystic Meg parody, surrounded by tarot cards and a skull, and reciting ‘funny’ astrology, like telling people their plane’s going to crash and “everybody will decide to eat you first, because you’re fat and useless.” Most interesting is how he signs off.

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A year before Robot Wars, that’s Craig’s famous kiss-salute. Hope he asked permission, or he’s got no right to still be mad at Fash for stealing awooga. Always a welcome bonus, whoever uploaded this left the adverts in, which are a rather savage indictment of a decade. There’s phone dating lines, claymation Rice Crispy lads voiced by Chris Evans, a polo mint voiced by Danny John Jules, Nick Hancock narrating for a ska compilation — “the rudest sounds around!” — and a nagging wife who’s mad at a dad for buying a new football top, but soothed when he brings home some good value washing powder.

Back from the break, Craig says we’re gonna play a game to win £50, pulling a man and woman from the audience as volunteers. They’re blindfolded and sent behind the privacy of a blue tarpaulin, where they’re given two minutes to swap clothes. As soon as they get in, the tarp’s quietly dropped, revealing a transparent sheet, so we can all see them undressing. They’ve no idea they’re stripping down to their underwear on television, with Craig pushing his face into the camera and complaining “she’s cheatin’, she never took her pants off!” As is the Bunker’s way, two minutes is a really long time, and about halfway through, even the audience have stopped cheering, leaving just Craig Charles audibly enjoying himself as the woman pulls a sweatshirt down over her bra. When the clock runs out, he has them take their blindfolds off to reveal they were being watched, with a brusque “that was the end of the curtain game!” No interview, no prize; we’ve seen your bodies, now piss off.

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Little did I know, all that was like watching The Wire compared to what follows. Comics have died onscreen before, but never like this. Craig introduces “a fantastic stand-up” by the name of Just Adger, which is rather exotic for a balding Essex wideboy, who opens by telling the dancers their costumes are “very becoming on you. And if I were one of those costumes, I’d be cumming on you too!” This is seventies style stand-up, cuing gags with “one or two quick one-liners for you…” and with an opening zinger about a dyslexic devil worshipper who sold his soul to Santa. In response, someone shouts out “dyslexics rule, KO!” — an old and terrible joke in itself, but one that sets his sights on the ‘heckler’. “Save your breath for blowin’ up your girlfriend, mate! (“chhh chhh chhh!”) It’s a shame your prick ain’t as big as yer mouth, you’d be with one of the dancers, wouldn’t yer, mate?

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On and on it goes, with burns straight out of the Big Book of Heckler Put-Downs; assuring the crowd “I love when they have a go! When cousins marry and have kids, look at what we get!” With each new line, there’s growing bemusement that he’s still not letting it drop, wearing a big stupid grin, but obviously seething. “He’s confusing me with someone who gives a toss,” says the guy who won’t shut the fuck up about it. Finally, he gets back on track with this cracker — “What about the dyslexic gynaecologist? Stayed up all night looking at a woman’s vinegar!” Let’s examine this. Why did he stay up all night? That’s well outside a doctor’s working hours. Unless you’ve got confused with the more famous joke about the insomniac dyslexic agnostic who stayed up all night wondering about the existence of dog; the joke which you obviously used as a template for your fresh takes on dyslexia. Is that what happened, mate? Has the heckler thrown you?

I’m sorry to devote so many inches to this, but it’s a fascinating spectacle. Now he’s on a roll, switching to classic wife material — “we’re going through a divorce on religious grounds; I’m a Jew and she’s a pig” — and a water bed that froze when she got on it. His delivery is unconfident; half-bumbling, and he even does that one about going to the doctor with the world’s biggest haemorrhoid and they think he’s sitting on a beanbag. By now, the polite laughter has died out, and Adger turns on a silent crowd with “he thinks I’m gay, don’t you? I’m not even happy, mate!” At a loss, he asks “am I facing the right way?” Someone heckles with a cry of “sexist!” which he seizes on with the glee of Ricky Gervais sniffing out a snowflake who was triggered into not laughing at one of his attack helicopter jokes — “I’ll do a sexist one if you like, am I allowed to? What’s the difference between a clitoris and a golf ball? Craig Charles claps, and starts talking us into the next segment; “well, there you go…” and it’s finally over.

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Except, it’s not. Adger doesn’t realise, and keeps talking. Inexplicably, as though the Funky Bunker is powerless to stop him, or simply too embarrassed, the camera cuts back, and he just continues with his act, going into a minute-long joke about the Kama Sutra. By now, he’s drenched in sweat, returning to some crowd work, “I can see why you’re smiling, mate, she’s got small hands…” and leaving us with a final “rib-tickler,” which is a long story about having a wank on bull Viagra. We cut back to Craig Charles, this time with his finger in his earpiece like he’s being berated by a producer — “I tried to get him off a bit earlier, but he just kept going.”

He does the Johnny Carson deal and invites Adger over for a chat. Craig “she never took her pants off!” Charles says he tried to cut him off “because I thought he was a bit sexist,” as Adger complains that everyone’s too PC these days, acting like the gallant White Knight of free speech, while playing pubs, restaurants, and hotel bars. “End of the day, there’s too much sufferin’ in this world, so why not go out and have a laugh?” Incredibly, Craig asks if he has writers. More incredibly, he’s still working today, as Adger Brown, described on his own website as “one of the UK’s most sought after mainstream comedians.” And this paragraph, on a website for booking ‘elite’ entertainers, may be the most haunting collection of words since M.R. James went in the ground.

Despite Adgers’ many T.V. appearances, his most recent being on Granada T.V.s “The Comedians” & Channel 4s “The Big Breakfast” he remains very affordable and extremely good value for money.

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After the five longest minutes of my life, surely things can only be on the up? “Cartoon time!” announces Craig, “this has got nothing to do with Pluto, it’s much closer to your anus!” In a corruption of the animated segments in Saturday morning kids shows, it’s random a clip of an anime where some bloke gets shot in the arse and blood gushes out of his cheeks. “There ya go, weird cartoons from manga, but this is a weird show!” He’s right there, as we come back from another unsigned song, featuring a literal 2 ½ minute guitar solo, to Deric Cantona, a lookalike in a Man United kit who walks on, says “a wise man said it is better to have loved and lost than to microwave your ‘ead” in an appalling French accent, then leaves. Then there’s Abdul Fez — sunglasses and a fez — who tries to get Craig to snort some camel dung, before singing a country song about the Northern Line.

Events close with a visit from resident gossip expert, David Wigg. “How ya doin’ Wiggy? Wiggy, what’s hot and what’s not?!” I’m sure they got on fine, but the effete, much-older Wigg’s presence alongside a now-very-sweaty and loud Craig has the air of a school bully sitting down at the soft lad’s lunch table. “It’s action time, Craig; Bond is back!” — with the incredible Wiggy exclusive that it’ll be shot in exotic locations. “I’d love to be a Bond villain,” says Craig, headbutting the desk, and asking why Timothy Dalton stopped doing it. According to Wiggy, it’s because “Tim” wanted to wear jeans. Craig makes a joke about a big dick before getting sidetracked — “who’s the smallest actor you’ve met?” Wiggy says it’s Hoffman; “his nose is bigger than his height.” Craig does an anecdote about working with Janet McTeer, who’s 6ft tall, and his mate telling her he wanted to “make love to her, standing on a bucket.” When she said he couldn’t, he told her “I wouldn’t stand on it, I’d put it on your head and swing off the handles!” which leaves him chhh chhh chhhing and banging his fists on the desk. With Wiggy’s final exclusive that Nicole Kidman is taller than Tom Cruise, it’s time to go, “and I want you to join us again next week when we say Awooga! Awooga!” Take that, Fashanu!

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My second episode opens with Craig reading out the most asked questions they get sent in, which are one-liners like “can an amateur footballer do a professional foul?” and “why do they make toasters with a settin’ that burns the toast?!” The drummer from that week’s unsigned band provides actual rimshots, but Craig deems him to have come in too early or too late — “Jesus, keep up, will yer?” — so strides across the floor, calling him a wazzock and snatching the sticks out of his hand. Craig’s doing his own hits now, getting louder and wetter with each line; “Why do world heavyweight champion boxers have bodyguards?! If crystals have healing powers, why are they so bleedin’ hard to swallow?!” Vibrating with excitement, he promises “this is a good one, this is a good one… where do female to male sex change patients get their dicks from?!” which he punctuates with a cymbal crash.

This week, the Funki Feathers are gyrating to Labour of Love by Hue and Cry, wearing safety helmets and jorts. Craig announces a competition winner called Jackie, weirdly referring to them as “he” and “kid” before it’s time for the first interview, with a pair of special effects artists who worked on Hellraiser III and Nightbreed. They’re surrounded by prosthetic monster heads and grotesque creatures, and Craig spends his time draped in the arms of a hairy troll, casually playing with its fingers, and at one point, gnawing on his own thumbnail. He interviews like a child granted a Jim’ll Fix It to present TV — “what’s the favourite thing you’ve made?” “what’s the most gruesome thing?” “what’s the silliest request?” He butts in over an answer to point at a rubber monster with a “what’s ‘e from?” A yet-to-be-released Samantha Janus film, they say. Craig’s eyes light up; “you mentioned Samantha Janus,” dropping to a hushed tone to ask “if you could do a nude cast of any actress, who would it be? Chhh chhh chhh!” “My girlfriend,” comes the reply, inciting Craig’s yell of “OH, LOOK AT HIM, AFTER BROWNIE POINTS OR WHAT?!

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Next, a bad stand-up does an agony uncle section, opening with another fucking joke about dyslexics, and reading out letters from “Miss P. Brain” and “Dan Druff.” Every few seconds, it cuts back to Craig stood in the front row laughing. Craig tells us they get a lot of letters about Bunker character Nanny Whip’s big tits, so they play a clip from Russ Myer’s Faster Pussycat, which also has big tits in it. It’s after this that Funky Bunker pulls off it’s most astonishing feat, producing a comedian so bad, he makes Just Adger look like Stewart Lee. It’s a bad sign from the off, with Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey vibes from Craig having met the guy at Edinburgh, and given him a slot after he pestered him for it.

Roger D’s first gag is the old “I’m mixed race. My dad’s Scottish, my mum’s African, which makes me a comedian.” You know the routine; leopardskin kilts, and taking up boxing because “I figured if I was half black, I’d be half good.” He meets the horrible silence with a knowing look, but ploughs on. “White people, what is it about the mountains you gotta climb them? See a black guy climbing a mountain? He’s on the run!” Even the “chhh chhh chhh” is muted, as he goes into an extended routine about collecting his dole money, and shouting “Yo!” at the workers who are all drinking tea (“like this…”). As he mimes answering a mobile phone (in 1997, so he’s actually rich!!) a woman’s voice breaks the silence with a “get off!” forcing him to cap the routine with a sad “you had to be there…

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He slinks over for an interview, where Craig consoles him by saying there were a lot of French people in the audience, and Roger D jumps in fright at a rubber severed head moving around on the bar. Despite the material, Craig suddenly notices “you’re a black comedian!” and ends the interview by stroking Roger’s goatee, “cos there’s no toilet paper,” and Roger totally blanks when Craig asks where people can see him perform. I Googled Roger D to see what he’s up to these days, and found a video from 2011, almost 15 years later. First gag; “my dad’s Scottish, my mum’s African…

There’s then an interview with The Man in Black from Enigma Magazine, a very short lived Fortean Times rip-off during that X-Files era when the paranormal went mainstream. The solemn MiB’s in a bowler hat, sunglasses, and pale face paint, and Craig’s completely unable to shut up and let him speak about crop circles, repeatedly butting in with witticisms about finding a one in his Weetabix — “but I’d just left me spoon on it for a while!” — or asking “why can’t the aliens get in touch by fax?!” MiB, who’s being pawed and stroked by Nanny Whip the whole way through, looks like he’d rather be getting his colon cored out by the greys, and Craig ends the interview by asking if he can have a kiss, and leaning in to give him a peck on the cheek.

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With the cry of “we’re gonna play Egg in Your Face!” it’s time for a game, requiring 6 volunteers. He shoves some lads on without much thought, but takes the women by the hand, all flirty — “ooh, lovely orange top, I love your navel!” The game involves breaking eggs on people’s foreheads, with one containing £50, and the other just yolk n’ shit. “GOD, I LOVE EGG ON YOUR FACE!” he yells, as shells shatter messily on foreheads, jumping up and down; “IT’S EGG IN YOUR FACE!” The winner’s a woman he tells “you’re far too cute to do this to,” but the £50’s not actually inside the egg, so he fumbles £40 out of his own pocket, promising to give her the rest later. Yeah, I bet he will — “Come to me dressing room and I’ll have a look for it, chhh chhh chhh!”

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Into the final 15 minutes, Craig is half-leprechaun, enveloped in an enormous, damp suit, gurning and twitching and stamping his little feet, poking his fingers towards the lens, and scratching at the side of his neck like a rodent. He pisses himself at Jo Enright’s bit as a comedy make-up lady, her jokes about perms and scrunchies causing his chhhs to go off like a factory whistle. So too, he’s loving Deric Cantona, and Dr. Destiny’s gags about flatulence. When Destiny does the kiss-salute, his ring gets snagged in the tablecloth. In a film review section, they go with weird-as-hell choice, The Boy From Mercury, described on Wikipedia as a “nostalgic Irish Film, which concerns the science-fiction daydreams of a young boy in 1960 Dublin.” Craig’s first comment after a clip is a confused “black and white, wan’ it?!

As Funky Bunker has the feeling of a nightmare house party, it ends in the only appropriate way, with Craig Charles staggering onto the studio floor repeating “we’re gonna do a song, we’re gonna do a song, we’re gonna do a song,” and pulling out an acoustic guitar. He’s joined by Dr. Destiny with a guitar of his own, as Craig’s gonna sing a song he wrote, called Everybody Knows. Despite all that I’d seen, I still thought this was the start of a comedy skit, but no, it’s Craig earnestly singing a self-penned number, while we have to listen. “Everybody knows, I love you so… everybody knows, I can’t stand still…” Yeah, I had noticed, mate. “Everybody knows, you know you’re my best friend… everyone knows, my soul’s on fire…” Remind me, did this win an Ivor Novello?

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Craig’s guitar playing is on a par with Dave Lister’s, as it reaches a sudden crescendo with a big, clanging chord and a mournful “oh, I get lonely cos I hide, don’t ask me to go public cos I’ve TRIED!” But like Just Adger, there’s no end, and he merely loops back to the start, playing the whole song in full twice, and then a third time, as the camera pans to faces of the audience; faces of rubber monsters with pointy fangs, until finally, a thousand years later, the credits roll. In one last bilious example of the grotty 90s, the uploader taped Funky Bunker over the top of an episode of Baywatch. But it’s over, and you can all move on. Not me. I’m still trying to shake that sound, etched on my brain like the dark scars across your vision when you’ve been staring at the sun; “chhh chhh chhh!

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Cool Britannia feat. Freddie Starr

•April 17, 2020 • 1 Comment

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The mid-90s were an incredibly exciting time for British comedy. Among others, ’94 gave us the television debuts of The Day Today, The Fast Show, and Knowing Me, Knowing You, while the following year had Fist of Fun, Father Ted, and The Mrs Merton Show. These were exciting new voices who’d dominate the comedy landscape for years to come, and inspire the next generations that followed. Yet, among these young upstarts, rather surprisingly, a big name from the comedy of decades past was still flying the flag.

The first series of The Freddie Starr Show went out at 8:30pm on a Friday night, on August of 1994. Friday night! And we’re given fair warning by announcer, calling him “the unpredictable Freddie Starr.” Though Barrymore would use that term in his own stage show, it was essentially Freddie’s nickname; like ‘The Immortal’ Hulk Hogan, or the Boston Strangler. Freddie was a wild comedy terrorist, unbound by rules, unafraid of convention, and when he appeared on Wogan or TV-am, you’d best hold onto your dang hats, because anything could happen! He might, say, stand on the sofa, or take a mouthful of water and dribble it a bit near Gyles Brandreth.

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We open with Starr emerging onto a brightly-lit stage in a pink 1950’s suit, wielding a guitar, for a straight version of End of the Line by the Traveling Wilburys. Whoa, slow down there, Mr. Anarchist! At this stage of his career, Freddie’s not really got the lungs for it, and even the pre-recorded vocals are out of breath. His acoustic guitar’s not plugged in, and you can’t hear it in the mix, but still he persists with the worst strum-miming I’ve ever seen; half the time forgetting, or strumming so far back, he’s stroking the wood. I’ve seen more realistic guitaring from a drunk aunt in a cardboard pirate hat waving an inflatable Stratocaster in a wedding reception photobooth. It may cross your mind this is an intentional gag, but — as we’ll learn — Freddie loves an earnest number, and unquestionably sees himself as a rock n’ roller, tragically rendering this the funniest moment of the entire show. See for yourself, keeping an eye on his hands, and regard with particular interest the sudden, random alignment of finger-shapes when he’s forgotten to make chord changes for a while — going a full minute at one point — and has to ‘catch up’, as well as the closing solo.

The first sketch turns out to be so long, it’s almost a sitcom, in a parody of The Godfather, 22 years after the film came out. By this point, every possible comedian and dad on a night out at Harvester had stuffed a load of bread into their mouth and said “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse,” and for someone so ‘unpredictable’, anyone betting the house that Freddie Starr would turn to camera with big fat Brando cheeks would now have two houses. Throughout the series, Freddie’s diction is awful, with speech that’s heavily slurred as the result of a two-decade-long addiction to Valium. Even in the regular sketches, I’m having to run it back two or three times to figure out what he’s saying, but with his comedy mafia-cheeks, he’s incomprehensible. Perhaps that’s for the best, given the quality of the jokes you can understand, like ordering a goon to “kiss my ring… my ring” with the goon giving a big “phew!” when he realises it’s the one on his finger and not his anus.

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Of note here is that the goon’s played by Derek Deadman, aka Ringo from Never the Twain, and for a seasoned pro, he’s really egregiously mouthing all of Freddie’s lines, in the classic Dustin Diamond. It’s mostly physical humour, with moustaches getting stuck to faces when they kiss, and Benny Hill speed-ramping when Freddie shoots someone, all with Bodger and Badger style sound effects. Nora Batty comes in as his mum, to call him “a bad-a boy,” “no-good, two-bit gangster,” and — twice — “a bummer,” before serving him a plate of string. They do a horse’s head gag with a cartoony rubber one, all to get to the punchline where Freddie calms the screaming victim with a “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and the horse sits up with a “did someone mention hay?!

After the break, he’s back in his suit with a mic, and it seems like it’s going to be a joke, because he’s laughing, but no, we’re right into another heartfelt number, this time Please Stay, by the Bay City Rollers. Like all the comedians who came through the variety circuit, his voice isn’t good enough to be a singer, and nor is this funny enough to be comedy, though in a tiny concession to laffs, halfway through, he segues into “they’re coming to take me away, ha ha!” and does a manic little foot tapping dance, which the audience loves. It has to be said, they lap it all up, and every leaden scene plays to massive laughter.

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There are barely a half-dozen sketches in the entire show, but we do get some quickies. There’s a golf one where he shouts “duck!” and a duck lands on the ground at his feet, and one where he’s dressed like a teddy boy, grabbing a female passer-by. “You goin’ my way, darlin?” he leers. “What if I am?” “Could I go with yer, cos I’m lost?” Shitting hell, there’s better stuff sat in the drafts of a million tweeters. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot that’d get the already-cancelled Starr exhumed for a double-cancellation today, barring a sketch where an elderly linesman slowly makes his way along a line of cheerleaders, pulling “cor!” faces at their bouncing boobs, which ends on this visual gag.

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Then the linesman kicks both his legs when he’s done, like he’s shaking all the cum out of his trousers. Freddie put himself on the map with a crowd-pleasing turn at the 1970 Royal Variety Performance, with high-energy impersonations of Mick Jagger, Norman Wisdom, and Hitler, which were so well-received, he was called out of the wings for an almost unheard-of second bow. 25 years on, we’ve got the same set-up, giving him a live mic and a stage, and just letting Freddie be Freddie, but even the most hardened anti-monarchist would be relieved the Queen wasn’t suffering through this one. “Remember Zorro?” he asks, as one very clear old lady voice in the audience calls out a loud “no!” But he wins them back with a line about Zorro “mounting his horse” — you know, a bit like sexual intercourse — before waffling on; “used to get on his horse, didn’t he? He used to get on his horse.. called Florrie.”

Freddie mimes getting on a horse, pretending to ride it around, while doing sound effects like the lad from Police Academy. He’s out of puff after one circuit of the stage, before more mimes; chewing noises as he feeds the horse (“sorry, wrong end!”) and sword swishes when accidentally cutting off his nob and pocketing it. A lengthy sword fight sequence, jumping about, huffing and puffing, has the embarrassing quality of being made to sit down by your 6-year-old niece to watch a puppet show with all her toys, except it’s a grown man on TV of a Friday night. He takes an actual bow when it’s over, but looks thoroughly ready for the grave.

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The pooeyness of the material’s spiced with the extra fart-stink of his constant looks to the audience like he’s going to laugh; like it’s so funny, he can’t carry on. It’s the facial equivalent of Frankie Howard’s “oooh no!” or Noel’s wheezing, with Freddie unable to get through a single line without pausing to gather himself. Half the runtime’s chewed up by these contrived snorts, or starting a line over because he ‘broke’.

Christ help me, his Brando returns for a Godfather II skit, where they’re dicking around with tommy guns in double-quick time. It’s all done like a silent movie, with old-timey rag-town piano and everyone doing that running where you’re you skidding everywhere with your arms flailing. I do a sharp intake of breath when they stop outside a Chinese laundry, and sure enough, Ringo comes out in a lampshade hat and Fu Manchu tash, eating rice with chopsticks. We also get some of noted impressionist Freddie’s take-offs, with a noir cop who says “schweet-heart” and James Cagney on a rooftop saying “I’m on top of the world, ma!” like if your team had to guess him in a party game where you couldn’t say his name. It’s no surprise this was co-written with long-time Benny Hill collaborator, Dennis Kirkland, though as Freddie rolls around on the floor like a toddler through the credits while the cops riddle him with bullets, it’s incredible to think this went out seven months after The Day Today.

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The Freddie Star Show continued into 1995, as witnessed via an episode which shares its writers with Davro’s Sketch Pad and Terry and June. This one’s much more quick-fire, and even the opening musical number’s over in seconds, as Freddie — dressed in an oversized parrot costume — takes a header off the stage onto his face. There’s something hugely uncomfortable about seeing the then-56-year-old, clearly in terrible shape, take these painful-looking pratfalls to elicit laughs, like the teacher sketch where he goes to cane a pupil, but hits the overhead light and is electrocuted (wooden canes being famously good conductors), hurling himself over the desk like Dolph Ziggler. This sketch keenly demonstrates the lack of desire to push further than the most obvious first-draft cliché; with a pupil called Carruthers caught smoking behind the bikesheds, and the line “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.”

There’s a meandering bit of stand-up where he’s falling over his lines, filled with those knowing pauses that suggest the waiting punchline is so potent, those with asthma or heart conditions won’t make it out the other side — “I was on this camel in the middle east… camels have got humps, d’ya know that?” He ambles towards the point like Rowley Birkin QC, which is that “this Arab” kissed his camel’s balls to make it run off, so now the Arab will have to kiss Freddie’s balls too. Weirdly, the word “balls” is bleeped, which we see again in a sketch where he’s trying to fake a video for You’ve Been Framed, and calls his neighbour a bastard, though this has added Batman-style BLEEP signs covering his mouth. Did the unpredictable wildman get moved to an earlier timeslot? Is this family-friendly Freddie? Then we return from an ad break to be greeted by this title card.

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With the goose-stepping, tash, swastika shorts and wellies that the real Hitler was also known for, this is Freddie’s trademark, and clearly still part of the act in 1995. In some real hand-me-down, Chinese Whisper comedy, one of Bobby Davro’s trademarks was an impression of Freddie Starr’s impression of Hitler, which one can only presume becomes funnier with each successive level. Imagine the hilarity if someone had the skill to pull off Bobby’s Freddie’s Hitler. Anyway, it was a golf bunker. Hitler hitting a ball out of a golf bunker. There’s other quickies, like a highwayman in the woods jumping a horse and carriage to start cleaning the windows with a bucket, and one where he comes out onstage in a suit that’s too small, before Boobs in the Wood‘s Kenny Baker comes on with a suit that’s too big, suggesting a wardrobe mix-up.

Perhaps because of the pace, or maybe just as he’s at the tail end of a thirty-year career which required him to be ‘on’ and wacky all the time, Freddie seems completely exhausted, like he’s huffing oxygen between takes. There’s a sketch where he’s trying to open his garage with a remote, which closes when he gets near, which is meant to showcase the great clown of our generation, but plays like Brexit Mr. Bean, with the bullish 50-something headbutting a metal door in frustration, cheeks reddening with each passing second. Another’s set at the offices of Guinness World Records, where he’s got both hands frantically waggling down his crotch, stammering and twitching like Jack Douglas, to claim the record for longest time keeping a ferret down his trousers. The punchline’s “I’ll just go home and get him,” meaning he was playing with his dick, I suppose?

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We get another musical number, where on Blue Moon’s “you saw me standing alone,” the house band lay down their instruments and fuck off, and a long sketch where he crawls out from under a female singer’s skirt with a variety of comedy props, including a stuffed cat which makes a “REEOW!” sound when he hoofs it out of frame. Weirdest of all, he’s back in the parrot outfit, pulling blokes from the audience onstage for a “mind-reading” bit where they’re sat on stools with straw hats on, which he mashes down with his palm to find the one with an egg under it, in something that belongs as the entertainment of a Spanish holiday kids club, and not on television.

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The big finale sees him in a mustard coloured suit, singing again, foot tapping and leg jiggling to Roy Orbison’s Heartbreak Radio. Quickly it sinks in that this isn’t the lead-in to a joke, but another sincere performance; and he’s doing the whole song. Remember, we’re in the Britpop heyday of ’95, where Blur were battling Oasis, and the summer festivals were headlined by Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day. And in the midst of it, here’s Freddie Starr, 56 years old and singing about being a “young fool,” like your old dad down the karaoke, snapping his fingers with a cry of “whoa yeah, shake it now, honey!” Suddenly, Paul Shane’s Pebble Millbaby bay-BEH!” feels rather trendy.

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There’s a trailer at the end for the infamous Audience With, where he chucked a load of maggots at Vanessa Feltz, airing the following week, which at the time, and even historically, was viewed as Freddie’s big comeback; a bravura performance showing the world that he’s still got it. Was his then-currently-airing show so forgettable that he needed a comeback while still on TV? Incredibly, The Freddie Starr show ran until 1998, a year after the original run of Brass Eye, where this once-energetic young pioneer, some decades older, squeezed back into the old swastika shorts for another wheezing turn of comedy goose-stepping. The great tragedy is that Princess Di would not live to see it.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

The Unpredictable Michael Barrymore

•April 7, 2020 • 4 Comments

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Lets go back to a time before Michael Barrymore was alleged to have done or covered up a murder, when he was arguably Britain’s most beloved entertainer. It’s 1994, at the peak of his popularity, when everything truly was awright. Well, almost, as he’s fresh off a highly-publicised drink problem, but we’ll get to that. Or at least, he will. 1994’s The Unpredictable Michael Barrymore was taped live at Blackpool Opera House, as the last night of a sell-out tour, and has the classic British variety opening of the crowd clapping along in time to the music (which, if you’ll recall, once led to me getting told off at the circus by a literal clown for refusing to join in with on principle). The curtains pull back to reveal the big man himself, stood in a jaunty pose, one leg crooked behind the other, arms out in a half-shrug, a “yep, it’s little ol’ me!”

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He’s accompanied by a full 6-piece band, and before the introductory cheers have died, a lady’s bombing down the aisle to the stage, receiving a handshake and a cheek-peck for her efforts. This is a hero’s welcome, feeling more like the close of a successful show than the start of one, and he basks in the adulation like a cat in a sunbeam. “Awright?!” he finally says. “Awright!” parrot the audience. “Awright at the back?!” asks Barrymore, unaware that in the decades to follow, this very question would function as perennial innuendo about anal sex, whenever his name came up in front of men who like football.

It’s mere moments before we’re thrown into the main heft of his act, which I previously described as ‘going in the audience to tip old lady’s handbags all over the floor’. Seeking out a supposed heckler, it’s straight to the Basil Fawlty voice ‘n walk, marching down the front to drag a laughing bloke out through the exit. Next, it’s a confused and tiny old man — “no geriatric punk rockers are allowed on these premises!” — before a woman hands him some flowers, and is immediately bundled to the floor in an embrace. “It’s alright,” he shouts, “I’ve been to a chemist!” inferring, I guess, that slid a precautionary condom over his william before the show, and we needn’t worry that he’ll cum right inside her. Another chap’s singled out, called “Rumpole” for wearing glasses and ejected, before the following happens. “My God, there’s a bloody Libyan down here! Come on, no terrorists allowed!

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This ‘Libyan’ is likewise yanked out of his seat as Barrymore escorts him out of the theatre while babbling faux-Middle Eastern gibberish — “bugahallalabuga!” Now, as the man exits, passing by the camera, it’s clear that he’s not even vaguely Arabic in appearance. You could say “what’s a Libyan look like then? Perhaps it is you, Millard, who is the racist,” but Barrymore’s not checking passports here, is he? The joke is he specifically looks Libyan. There’s a tale that comes to mind, possibly apocryphal, that I’ve seen from more than one punter at Bernard Manning’s old Embassy Club.

The story goes that Manning would interrupt his routine to point out a “Jap” in the audience, doing all his material about slanty eyes and Pearl Harbour, and returning to make various asides to and about said Asian gentlemen throughout the night, ending with his instructing another audience member to “go piss on that Jap.” Except, there was nobody Japanese sat there, or anywhere in the building. Maybe that works in a dark, smoky club, but Barrymore’s fella got a close-up here. As the show unfolds, this whole ‘Libyan’ angle will become more clear. But for now, we leave it with Barrymore yelling at him as he exits, “there’s a plane in the airport for you, Libyan. The pilot’s called Jack, just say hi-Jack!

He makes a meal of clambering back onstage, asking for help from a middle-aged man, sat front row. “My God, you’re keen,” he says, making a face that suggests the guy’s what Jim Davidson might describe as a ‘woolly woofter’. Barrymore wraps him in a headscissors, pulling his face towards his crotch. “What are you doing?!” he cries, “We’ve got children in!” After shaking the man’s hand, he stares in horror at his own palm. “You can’t catch it like that, can you?!” Presumably now riddled with AIDS, Michael Barrymore pretends to faint. One of the many aspects that make this show a psychotherapist’s dream is the amount of humour that’s milked out of Barrymore’s — and the audience’s — casual, shrieking homophobia, a year before he’d publicly come out as gay himself.

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There’s a bout of pretending to speak French, before the cast of previously ejected return to their seats. “No, Libyan, no, no, no!” He’s marched back out to more funny foreign-babble, given a middle finger, and threatened in pretend-French with “le nutty on le head.” Barrymore poses seductively against the wings, suggesting “le Libyan’s wife plinka my plonker,” “squeezy le plums,” and “mange my banana.” After some comedy dancing where he pretends to finger someone and that his hand is a big penis, there’s a jazz-scat segue into Leo Sayer’s Raining in my Heart. If you’re waiting for the punchline, there isn’t one, as this is the dreaded earnest song — “for all the ladies in the audience.

What’s shocking is the sheer amount of straight musical numbers. At one point, we suffer perhaps my least favourite trope of the era, as done by dads at weddings, Pontins talent shows, and the arse-end of lager-stinking family BBQs, with a tribute to the Blues Brothers. Barrymore and some husky bloke don sunglasses, but not hats (lazy), though in small mercies, it’s not Everybody Needs Somebody or the knees-up dance that goes with it. Unfortunately it is a medley that goes on for ten very sweaty minutes. Later, a stage school boy with a bad American accent bursts out of a theatrical case, for a duet of Broadway Baby, and its classic Hollywood choreography and cries of “gotta dance!” feels like MB’s audition for the West End. In grim trivia, the kid’s Haydon Eshun, who fronted 90’s boyband of actual-boys, Ultimate Kaos, when he was just nine. One of Simon Cowell’s early creations, Kaos supported Take That, and may be remembered for such singles as Some Girls, and Hoochie Booty. Nine.

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The Sayer bit goes into a Mariachi-flavoured original number with lyrics like “does your dad own a brewery? If I gave you a quid, would you show ’em to me?” and “we’d sit on a tip, you’d undo my zip, and give it a quick [Spanish-sounding noises], arriba, arriba!” Fucking endless, it’s then into Bobby Vee’s Rubber Ball, accompanied by three big rough-looking doormen types, aggressively snarling their backing lines and hoisting him in the air by the groin as he goes cross eyed. On closer inspection, for any number that’s more than a couple of lines or requires movement, Barrymore’s lip-synching to a pre-recorded tape. Eventually, dripping in sweat, he towels himself off with a knowing “welcome to the show,” and throwing in another reference to “the Libyan.”

As a man who’s career is filled with comebacks of varying success, Unpredictable is marked as the first, coming on the tails of a public battle with alcoholism, and performing again after a stint in rehab (and on the tabloid front pages), on the close of a tour rather pointedly titled Back in Business. Introducing his pianist, Barrymore raises a glass of orange juice, toasting the audience with “cheers, to your very good health.” There’s a huge round of applause, as he takes a bow with the glass raised, slowly tipping it around each side of the theatre for ages; like Hulk Hogan cupping his ear; before pointing to it like “observe, this is but humble fruit juice!” Then he pretends to gag while taking a sip, holding it to the sky while singing Memories. This moment is a perfectly-packed nutshell of his persona; a weird mix of fucking about all the time and jarring bouts of sentimental earnesty where he seems to be barely holding it together.

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But you can’t deny how utterly beloved he is here. The crowd response never dips below maximum level bananas, in 75 minutes plagued with shout-outs and chatty interjections, from an audience that feel such a kinship, they’ve no shame in just wandering up to the stage. Every applause is received with a real look of desperation, a needy “you really love me!” glugging down every cheer like a man dying of thirst. The feisty punters are demonstrative of Barrymore’s oddly specific fanbase; the 40+ housewives’ choice in menopausal boyband fervour. A bit about how people on the telly look different in person elicits pained cries of “no!” — you’re every bit as handsome up close, Michael! — like when you tell your mum you’re ugly. When he says he’s 6’3”, there are whistles and woos. The Virgin Ronnie Corbett vs The Chad Michael Barrymore.

He demands a woman in the front cross her legs — “we’re very near the sea, there’s a lot of ships go past!” — and tells everyone to ignore the ‘no photography’ signs, running through comedic poses with his legs up by his ears as they snap away, but making them stop, because with all the flashes “the Libyan thinks it’s a blitz!” He does an impression of Prince Charles (“urrrrr!”) and Brucie (“thththththu!”), and asks if there’s anyone in from Wales before telling a sheep shagging joke. It’s here we begin what will be known as the Country Boy section. As tempted as I am to briefly surmise this for space, I’m afraid for the cultural record, we must analyse it in the agonising depth it requires.

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This whole segment is backed by the live band’s Country and Western soundtrack, sticking through Barrymore’s constant asides and gear shifts, and his own repeated assertions that he’s “glad to be a country boy.” He begins by pretending to ride a horse around the stage, before doing the Freddie at Live Aid call and response; “say yo, yo, diddle-aye-doh!” including racist gibberish for the Libyan. “Goodnight grandma, goodnight grandpa, I love country music!” he sings, frenetically line-dancing, and pretending to fuck a haystack. But then my Manning suspicions are confirmed. “Okay, Libyan, this is just for you.” As he mimes a sitar, the guitarist plays stereotypically Eastern-sounding music, confirming this as a weird bit they do every night with a random person from the front row. The whole act lives on the appearance of spontaneity, but it’s just a series of contrived moments, with participants placed into pre-figured slots, and where merely wearing a nice shirt is enough for you to be cast as the night’s Libyan. “Look,” points Barrymore, “the Libyan’s crying now!

Country Boy Mike reuses his “hey diddle diddle, the cat had a piddle” limerick from the Children’s Royal Variety, doing rude Little Miss Muffets and Old King Coles, like a stretched Andrew Dice Clay. There’s some comedy business with a fiddle and a pair of oversized bows, one which crushes his balls causing him to talk in a squeaky voice, and the other he tries to fire at the Libyan like an arrow; “I’m fed up with that Libyan staring at me. Enough’s enough!” After a song about a pretty girl that works in Tesco — “she elbowed Tom and Harry, cos Dick’s all she ever thinks about” — it’s another full number, singing/miming “it’s spring time on the mountain, and I’m full of mountain dew!” Note: he undoubtedly means semen. The big climax; a country song in a quasi-American accent, where “I won’t go huntin’ with you, Jake, but I’ll go chasin’ women,” sees him joined by a multitude of barely-dressed showgirls in cowboy hats, where his dancing consists almost entirely of Python’s silly walk sketch.

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Country Boy finally over, he mops himself up as a cowboy runs across the stage to deposit a stool. Let me rephrase that; he brings on a seat. Barrymore pulls a “don’t he look a bit poofy?” face, mimicking the lad with his wrist cocked and camply skipping, hands on hips — “nice boy, very good to his mother.” In a very progressive move, considering he might’ve caught AIDS from it, Barrymore sits on the stool to read out fanmail sent backstage. One’s from a fan who was supposed to be having a candlelight dinner tonight, with “very dear friend, Dougie Irving,” whom they love very much, but Dougie decided to go to the show with his wife instead. There’s a massive laugh for the punchline and Barrymore’s double take, on revealing the writer as Richard. That’s a man’s name!

We’ve another of those moments where a psychotherapist would need to break out a new pack of notepads, in the audience banter section, where he tones down the mania for a bout of sincerity, pointing out nice ladies in the audience, asking names and how they are, all “nice to meet you.” There’s an incredibly odd question of “any grandmothers celebrating anything this evening?” and repartee with an old lady whom he compliments on her lovely smile — “what’s your name my love?” It’s a jokeless and awkward back-and-forth, culminating in him asking if she’s English. The audience erupt into laughter, which he hits back with a strangely scalding “It’s not a daft question. I’m half Scottish. You can’t change what you are… what you are is what you are, what you’re born, you have to live with it.

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The change in mood is cemented with a quiet “alright” — very different from “awright?!” — and the announcement “I’m gonna sing a song now, to all the ladies in the audience. Or to everyone.” As an example of the raucous atmosphere, we get Are You Lonesome Tonight twice; once with the entire audience taking over from the first line, as he accompanies with unfunny sign language, before a solo, breaking during the final chorus to return to the old lady with the lovely smile. “She’s so tall, that when she got a coil fitted, she got Radio 4,” and God put man on this Earth “because you can’t get a vibrator to mow the lawn.” Alright, Chubby Brown.

After picking up a massive potted plant from the side of the stage and plonking it on the lap of the Libyan as “a starter home… you roll that up and start smoking it, Libyan, you’re out of here!” it’s time for the bit that made his name and won all those BAFTAs; physically mauling and/or being ironically rude to members of the public. He requests a lady to sing to, and a little boy in the front calls out — “what’d you say, son?” As he’s brought onstage, the kid’s in a full Man United kit, socks and all, and when Barrymore squats down with the mic, I have to run it back three times to fully comprehend what comes out of this child’s mouth: “My mum’s a Libyan!

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Barrymore accuses him of being an adult midget, as the boy giggles, pointing with a scream of “THAT’S MY MUM! THAT LIBYAN!” What is happening? It’s the full My Kind of People now, asking if he’s got a dad (thankfully a yes), and what his dad does. “Goes to work at night?” says the boy, which almost brings the roof down, to an audience where the mere notion of going out after dark is suggestive of prostitution. He wrestles the boy onto his knee, pretending he’s a ventriloquist dummy, gnashing out a choked “HELLO EVERYBODY, MY MUM’S A GYBIAN!” As the lad gets a tour of the stage, he’s pulling at his shorts the whole time. Barrymore asks “has your dad got a bike?” (what?) and an arm reaches out from the wings to give him some toys they just happened to have sat around — “do you like Playmobile?” On the reveal of the boy’s name, Christian, Barrymore reels away in terror, using the mic stand as a makeshift crucifix. Are you… confusing Christians for vampires?

Eventually sending the kid back, Barrymore shifts his attention to the mum, who turns out to be the woman he dragged to the floor at the beginning of the show. She presents him with a red rose, card, and bar of chocolate, yelling “You’ve made my night, you really ‘ave!” Her son leans over and screams into the mic, “NOT A LIBYAN!” It’s clear that, yes, she’s not from Libya either, and “Libyan” has been been interpreted by the boy as a generic insult. Christian’s mum is the Barrymore fanbase incarnate, far more excited than nervous, feeling that it’s fine, just fine, to endlessly babble away to your mate Michael while thousands of people sit watching. Now onstage, she keeps stepping over his jokes and turning her back to the audience. Her hands are shaking. “You don’t wanna waste that,” says Barrymore, “put it my pocket, love,” pretending like she’s giving him a furious banjo-snapper of a wank.

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He sits on a chair, laying the lady across his lap like a baby. “Ooh, I can’t believe this,” she keeps repeating, as Barrymore grabs her arse, sliding his hand down her leg and up her skirt; feeling for her bra strap; “wait till I tell ’em all at work, they won’t believe it!” He serenades her with Patsy Cline’s Crazy, though she turns it into a duet, and as the spotlight goes out, he says “goodnight, John-boy” which was another legal requirement in those days. She’s sent away with flowers and a bottle of wine, and he demands a big round of applause for the orchestra, before more of that gushing Barrymore honesty with a lengthy emotional statement from the heart. He wants to thank “each and every one of you” for the letters and kindness and love he’s been shown over the last couple of months. “It’s been some time in my life,” he says, describing troubles which, ten years on, must’ve seemed utterly trifling.

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The response is absolutely rousing; the kind of applause which shatters every bone in your hand, over the top of which he bellows “I’m thrilled to be here in Blackpool and back in business! Awright!” Just in case anyone’s confused, Michael Barrymore has… had and are… bounced… bouncing back. It seems like the perfect end, but no, there’s more music, lip-synching Back in Business from the Dick Tracy movie, joined by the showgirls, and with apposite lyrics about being “back again like a boomerang.. back in business and ain’t it grand?” “Guess who’s back?” “Yes, I’m back!” and ending on a triumphant and, in hindsight, tragically hopefully, “let the good times roll!

After a truly needless pat-a-cake synchronised clapping/thigh slapping routine with the dancers, it’s finally over. Or is it? Barrymore, now alone, still isn’t done being sincere — “I hope that one day, all of us here this evening, I hope we all meet again…” And it’s on that number, We’ll Meet Again, that we actually come to the end, leading everyone in a sing song, like they used to in the Anderson shelters when Hitler was dropping doodlebugs on our nans; “put your hands in the air, let’s enjoy ourselves…” At least it’ll make a perfect first-act closer for my big-screen Barrymore biopic, Awright at the Back? (starring Vince Vaughn, once I get the Kickstarter rolling).

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As he takes a bow, from all sides of the theatre, women run up to the edge of the stage, pushing past their rows to form a moshpit of mums, aunties and nans. Many bear gifts; flowers, chocolates, a balloon; more fitting with a teen idol than a 40-something comedian. Barrymore’s slapping hands like Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart walking to the ring, doling out kisses, and lifting the little boy above his head. Footage of this revelry is almost as long as the show itself, and when the curtain finally drops, cries of “More! More!” can be heard over the credits. The whole thing is a remarkable spectacle, moreso for the fact it was sold as a video, intended to be re-watched multiple times.

There’s something of the Michael Jackson fanbase about Barrymore’s audience, with an astonishing level of devotion and familiarity, comfortable to interact with him like he’s part of the family, or to have him squeeze their buttocks for a laugh. Where did they stand, I wonder, after the pool party? Do they live on in tabloid comment sections and beneath Youtube clips of him looking up Susan Boyle’s skirt, as pleas to “let him back on the telly, he’s an innocent man!” What of wee Christian’s mum, superfan for whom the night at Blackpool on Barrymore’s lap must’ve been her most treasured anecdote? There’s a family friend who used to dine out on the fact Savile had used their toilet once. They went strangely quiet about it in recent years. And for Barrymore himself, the usual struggle of the falling star who misses the rush of performing and the adulation of the crowd must have carried an even greater sting. If this is indicative of his usual audience, practically weeping at his feet, he tumbled much further than most, and it goes some way to explaining the horrible sense of entitlement he’s shown in every interview for the last 19 years.

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The Unpredictable… was Barrymore’s celebration of coming through the bad times, where only sunshine lay ahead — “let the good times roll!” — but we know how that went. After more public troubles, but preceding the real bad stuff, there’d be another video release in 1998, titled Live And Uplifting — Back in Business! Okay, I know I said I was back in business before, but it turns out, I just thought I was back in business. This time, I really am back. In business. It’s weird he didn’t complete the trilogy with a post-2001 BiB. Maybe one day.

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That Yellow Bastard – The Occult Whimsy of Wizbit

•March 26, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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As I’ve addressed before, I detest the lazy way of looking back at kids TV and importing adult sleaze onto it — “The Magic Roundabout were all on drugs! Mr. Benn rented those costumes so he could sniff the shoes for a wank!” But undeniably, there are shows where there’s no need to go flailing beneath the surface for hidden horror, as it’s readily on display; series which seem like creepypastas about lost footage that turned its viewers mad. American television had the trippy worlds of Sid and Marty Krofft, with giant-headed foam monsters staggering through technicolour dreamscapes where everything could speak. For British children, chief of these eldritch fever visions was Wizbit.

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Launched on the BBC in January 1986, Wizbit was a co-creation between magician Paul Daniels and Barry Murray, formerly record producer for Mungo Jerry. This blend of magic and music, with Daniels controlling the rights for character and designs, while Murray controlled the songs, led to a deeply strange, off-kilter brew, best exemplified by its memorable theme tune. A swirling, hypnotic melody acting as the cursed incantation to summon the Great Yellow Beast, with Daniels rapping his own lyrics over a bastardised cover of Lead Belly’s Ha-Ha This A Way, it doubles as an early example of a mash-up.

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Very little of the show survived to the present day, and all that’s salvaged of episode one, Enter Wizbit, is a truly haunted piece of footage, captured by a camcorder pointed at a television screen, with its tinny audio echoing around the confines of an unseen living room. Initially I was afraid I might catch a reflection of our archivist in the screen, but quickly realise no TV-collecting ghoul could possibly be freakier than the actual show. As suggested by the title, this is an origin story, and begins with Paul Daniels greeting us with “hello, my little magic wands!” This sounds cute, but there’s simply no way a man who claimed to have slept with over 300 groupies in his touring days never once wooed a conquest with the suggestion to “come backstage and see my little magic wand.”

This is prime-era Daniels, full-wigged and in his magic clobber of a bow tie and tux, which, coupled with his height, gives the impression of a Victorian boy-lord. He will serve as our guide to the setting of Puzzleopolis, “the most magical town in the whole world!” A walled-off city, it’s visually somewhere between Byzantine-era Constantinople and Sesame Street, and home to Paul’s Playhouse, which is a magic theatre, but thanks to Hugh Hefner’s monopoly on the word ‘play’, is impossible not to imagine crammed with naked 22-year old girls, all dead behind the eyes.

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I’ll be honest, at the time of writing this, I’ve been up for two days, so am already filled with dread when he mutates a Queen of Spades into an ominously all-black card, heralding the arrival of some terrible being. Like Ray Stantz, I try to clear my head, but it’s too late, as the camera pushes in on the card like we’re falling, dragging us down into the black. The darkness explodes with a monochrome galaxy of swirls, twisting and forming into shapes, all white on black; a shifting cave painting kaleidoscope, like those 70’s public information films warning on the dangers of LSD. Stars become flowers which morph into a terrifying fetus, all under a the dirge of a folk-horror medieval jig. Then, a voice booms out, in what I assume is a close approximation of what it’s like to trek deep into the rainforest for a nightmare vision-quest.

In the beginning, there was magic in the world, there was the magic of day and night, of winds and plants, and the magic of birth, and of life, until the first beings who had crawled agonisingly out of the primeval mud to crouch in caves against the long nights of fear, everything was magic. There was white magic, and there was black magic, and there was darkness, thunder and lightning. That was in the beginning…

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This is for kids, yeah? The speech is actually a slightly altered quote from the beginning of John Northern Hilliard’s 1938 book, Greater Magic, though they might as well have been reading aloud from Aleister Crowley’s spellbook judging by what’s been invoked into our cast of characters. Wooly is a giant rabbit, whose costume has an oddly fleshy, skin-like quality to it, dummy thicc and jiggling when he jumps. But the head’s really cheap, like something from a fancy dress shop, with a static mouth and eyes. Weirdest of all, according to IMDB, the actor inside, at least in the first episode, is this guy.

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Yes, Frank Tate from Emmerdale. Who’s inside Wizbit, Phil Mitchell? Walking to market, Wooly bumps into the titular Wizbit, who informs him “I come from the planet Wow!” on visit for a year and a day to learn about humans. Wizbit’s a big yellow cone, reminiscent of a brim-less wizard’s hat, with gorgeous long eyelashes, and a disturbing pair of holes on the edges of his eyes, to stop the poor fucker inside from suffocating. Like Kamala, he’s got a moon and stars etched on his body, with scattered stars across his skin. Curiously, like tattoos of swallows on tough lads’ necks, there’s also a Seal of Solomon on the side of his head; an occult symbol which endowed the biblical King Solomon the power to command demons and djinn. Again, as you’ll repeatedly need to remind yourself, Wizbit is a show for small children.

Meanwhile, our bad guy, Professor Doom, lives in Castle Creep, floating above the city on a rock, with his pet cat, Jinx, who’s a bad-taxidermy puppet that keeps biting him. In his high top hat, Doom resembles a Vaudevillian Bruce Forsyth, making home of a classic medieval alchemist’s lab, with dusty old grimoires, phrenology heads, and Erlenmeyer flasks filled with coloured liquid. I half expect to see Hell’s mighty King Beleth heaving itself across the floorboards, as Doom apports a crystal ball to spy on Puzzleopolis and devise ways of messing with them.

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For a sub-half-hour show, Wizbit has an enormous cast, demonstrated with a lengthy sequence where residents aimlessly prance around the town square, inadvertently exposing the depraved Dr. Moreau shit Paul Daniels gets up to in his workshop. As you’d expect, we have circus-type human characters; clown, mime, stilt-walker, gypsy fortune teller; even the lovely Debbie McGee in a spangly leotard; but many are anthropomorphic magic props. There are giant magic wands, with no arms and a pair of lady-like eyes at the tip; foam balls with big sexy lips and a Mary Portas bob; playing cards and dice with no discernable features beyond a feminine pair of human ankles and feet.

What kind of existence is this; sans eyes, mouth and arms, unable to eat or scream for help? Do the ones with hands have to act as carers for the rest? Do they defecate on the floor like animals, or did Paul specially build a wide array of toilets for all the various body shapes? And what’s the sexual landscape in Puzzleopolis? Like all locked-off societies, eventually they’ll be tempted to experiment with each other. Who among us could blame the green-haired human grocer for becoming sexually obsessed with the luscious-lipped bouncy ball, who’s essentially just a sentient tit?

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There’s yet more dancing, as Professor Doom’s evil plan involves Pied Pipering everyone up to his castle through a magic door, by hypnotising them with Wizbit‘s theme. It’s no surprise, given his Satanic nature, that Wizbit undoes the curse by playing the song backwards, causing the footage to be reversed and the gang to return home. We end on Paul in his dressing room, magicking a big carrot out of the air and giving it to his young wife with a “there you go, Deb.” It’s best not to ask. This is still less disconcerting than the interactions between Wooly and Wizbit, both doing that theme park mascot acting, of emoting by leaning back and waving their arms, miming to dialogue that’ll be dubbed on later, with Wizbit’s mouth yammering up and down relentlessly like a Cenobite, in sync with nothing.

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Aside from its arcane weirdness, the trippiest aspect is the visual style, which is roundly ‘someone editing a wedding video in 1988,’ taking an already-lurid set of characters and careening them about the screen with endless neon spinning wipes and cheap effects. There’s heavy use of split screen and picture-in-picture, simultaneously giving multiple angles or close-ups, or at times, completely unconnected footage of weird puppets, too small and choppy to be made sense of, when glimpsed in bubbled frames on top of the scene, like portals to a dark dimension. Perhaps the ADHD editing means to remind at all times of Daniels, flitting between the story and his dressing room in shots which rarely exceed a few seconds. Sometimes, a little frame of him whizzes past as he comments on the action. In one scene, we suddenly cut back to Paul holding a pan. “Pandemonium!” he says, pretending to play it like a guitar, before it neon-wipes us back to Puzzleopolis.

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Episode 3, A Game of Hanki-Poo, opens on Wizbit working on his thesis about Earth. I’m not sure focussing on the residents of Puzzleopolis alone will paint an accurate picture. And what’s his plan? Is he assessing Earth’s resources before an invasion of cone-people, enslaving us to work in their mines and beating us until we perfect the pulling of a coin out of someone’s ear? Things quickly get strange as fuck, as Wooly falls asleep outside the city gates, leading to a dream sequence where he’s ogling a seductively-posed sexy carrot — a woman with a green face, stuffed into an orange tube — before an erotically charged dance where they’re coquettishly giving chase around a wishing well and tenderly stroking each other’s faces. With lyrics opining “I can’t survive without you,” and taking place in a hauntingly darkened set, this is an assuredly terrible fit for the child-demographic, but ploughs on regardless for a full two minutes.

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Wooly wakes with a wiggling nose, and probably a dick like a broom handle, before he’s accosted by Professor Doom’s goons, the What Brothers — solely named to pad out the script with loads of sub-par “Who’s on first base” gags. The bros bilk Wooly out of all his money with the old ‘Find the Lady’ game, named as the Hanki-Poo of the title, which had I feared would be the thing I once had to do on a long coach trip when the toilet was out of order. Wooly’s consoled in another long musical number by Puzzleopolis’s lady gatekeeper, swaying and twirling in each other’s arms with heartfelt lines like “since you don’t love me,” which definitely implies they’re fucking. Wizbit gets his money back, and Paul closes on a trick, with wording of “a piece of candy or a sweet” suggesting his eventual goal was selling the Wizbit franchise to an American network. In a later episode, Wizbit similarly introduces a prop that’s “a model of an elevator, or lift…” while several characters have American accents, all of which are dire.

For the next full surviving episode, it’s a big jump to series 3, episode 3, entitled Treasure. Two years on from the first series, Paul’s either ditched the wig, or swapped it for a hairpiece which replicates balding, like that sketch in I Think You Should Leave. By now, he’s taken over the voices of both Wizbit and Wooly, with the latter sounding exactly like Mickey from The League of Gentlemen, while the costumes are noticeably different. Wizbit’s cheaper and more ‘moulded’ looking, and Wooly’s got bright pink eyes, like he and Wizbit have been smoking up a storm since moving in together, as they’re now flatmates. Or lovers; it’s not clear. Thankfully for my anxiety, the constant video effects are gone too, and scenes are much longer, though there’s repetitive background music playing through the whole thing, like the menu screen of a ZX Spectrum game.

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Professor Doom’s plan this week, launched with a pounding 80’s synth rock number, involves planting a fake treasure map in Puzzleopolis, tricking the residents into digging up the disgusting bog monster, Squidgy, who’s purportedly sitting on the loot. Squidgy’s a jive-talking Audrey II rip-off, voiced by a white actor throwing around phrases like “soul brother.” Eventually, Wizbit points out the map’s got 1st of April 1998 (more than a decade in the future) written on the top in massive letters, so it must be a prank. Why did Doom; who we saw painting the map; put that on there if he wanted to fool them? Then Squidgy pulls some real ‘treasure’ out of his bog; an old shoe he was saving until Christmas to eat, which means Christianity exists in their world. Do all wand-people go to heaven? Also in this show for little kids, the mime does a riddle where we have to guess who said a famous quote, which turns out to be from Lord Olivier.

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Paul’s closing trick, pulling a piece of string through a drinking straw, is about as spectacular as Wizbit‘s magic gets, all small scale trickery like making napkins disappear, or tearing a newspaper into the shape of a ladder. When Paul’s sliding a pom pom down another piece of string, it reminds me of Dave Courtney getting shirty with a children’s party magician. The dad-audience is probably just as bored, with S3 taking Debbie McGee out of the spangly leotards and into a full three-piece suit. The chronic misunderstanding of what children like is at its best in final surviving episode, Badbit, where Wizbit (Paul doing a squeaky voice) gives a lengthy retelling of the Willow Pattern fable, with this thrilling exchange aimed at eight-year-olds:

Wizbit: “The story is about a beautiful Chinese girl, whose father was a mandarin.”

Wooly: “Her daddy was an orange?!

Wizbit: “A mandarin was a public official in the old Chinese empire! It is also the name of a small orange tree, but it’s the civil servant we’re concerned with in this story.

The kids will love that, mate, especially the bit about how “the girl’s angry father carried a whip to prevent her from leaving.” This is endemic of the whole series, which is incredibly babyish, yet written in the tone of a weekend dad trying to connect with his children by asking if they saw last night’s Question Time. Badbit, as suggested by the title, revolves around an evil Wizbit, sent to Puzzleopolis by Professor Doom. Identical but for bushy eyebrows, Badbit is bad to the dang bone, first asking “where can I get a beer around here?” and threatening everyone in 1920’s gangster speak, see? Badbit bemoans Puzzleopolis being a dry town, and smears Wizbit’s good reputation, calling the gatekeeper a “dumb broad,” yelling that he hates the French, and physically shoving people — “outta the way, jerk!

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After the real Wizbit gets the cold shoulder from his pals, he identifies Badbit as an imposter, and “an android.. a living robot, a synthetic being!” Wizbit hacks him, sending back to Castle Creep to threaten Professor Doom — “speak when you’re spoken to, big nose!” Of course, we break for a stupidly grown-up musical number, completely unrelated to the plot, where Squidgy sings about getting old and that he’s “got problems weighin’ down on me,” while giant magic wands and decks of playing cards blindly shuffle across the set, trying not to topple into the boghole as they meekly kick their human legs to the beat. Wizbit ended in February 1988, after 27 episodes of horrifying occult whimsy.

Just as you’d expect in this age of no new ideas, in 2007, a failed attempt to reboot Wizbit went into pre-production. Planned to be fully CG, a handful of animation tests made their way online, with what little charm was to be had in the franchise sucked out by the utterly rank visuals. The most complete sequence is a scrubbing of the only thing anyone remembered about the original, the theme tune, for a much more cheery, less cursed ditty, though the new lyrics do at least confirm his species. “Wizbit is back (he’s back!), and he’s a little yellow magical hat (a hat!)

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In 2009, off the back of a line of small-press Wizbit storybooks, focus shifted from a TV series into a feature-length animated movie, with an announced cast of — genuinely — Paul Daniels, Todd Carty, and Rustie Lee, but this too fell into development hell. As Paul died in 2016, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see Wizbit on our screens again. All we can hope is that Paul closed the portal before he went, and banished the Yellow King back to planet Wow, or as it’s known in its native tongue, Carcosa.

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