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As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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.

 

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.

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.

Launching a Podcast: You Are Haunted

•March 25, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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As it’s illegal for bearded white guys not to have one, I’ve finally launched my first podcast. They’ll be uploaded onto my Patreon a few weeks before general release, but with the lockdown, I figured I’d let the first one out a little early. Here’s what it’s about:

“In You Are Haunted, writer & Fortean curator, Stuart Millard, shares listener-submitted and definitely true ghost stories and paranormal experiences.”

I’ll get it up on Apple podcasts and the usual places soon, but for now, here’s the link: You Are Haunted, Episode 1.

The Accursed 90’s: James Whale on Television

•March 16, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad ContestsDon’t Forget Your ToothbrushTalk Show Goths]

Few things encapsulate the feel of 90’s Britain quite like the ‘tell it like it is’ tabloid columnist or DJ; beer garden philosophers ‘putting the world to rights’ who were inexplicably popular at the time; men like Garry Bushell, Richard Littlejohn, Ceaser the Geezer and James Whale. Though they’ll always exist, aggressively pointing a finger at the camera in promotional shots as if to say “you’re in my sights, snowflakes!” it was during their 90’s heyday TV channels sought to put those men on television, as with The James Whale Radio Show.

How to describe Whale to those only familiar with him from the 2018 incident where he was suspended after the studio webcam caught him laughing at a guest’s description of her own rape? Whale’s got the vibe of a teacher who was fired for drinking on the job and throwing chairs; of someone who spends all day posting “who?” in the comments under obituaries; of your mate’s divorced dad who’s got him for the weekend and takes you both to a working men’s club instead of letting you stay in and rent a film; of a cabbie who switches the radio over when Stevie Wonder comes on and who’s “not being funny, but…”; of someone stood outside a parents’ evening smoking a roll-up.

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The James Whale Radio Show‘s opening titles give a strong flavour of who he is, a dad-rock guitar riff with wild electricity sparking across a big jukebox. I can smell the cider from here. Now loosed from the confines of a radio setting, he’s roaming free in a big studio, and along with its viewer call-ins, competitions, and cuts to music videos and live bands, it feels like a Saturday morning kids show in a mid-life crisis. We’re just ten seconds in before he’s made a mother-in-law joke, and the first pre-tape is a skit with Whale searching phone boxes for sex worker business cards, laying them out on the pavement in front of bystanders who are nowhere near as shocked as he’s making out. The only genuinely offensive thing is the filthy pair of fingerless cycling gloves he’s wearing.

First guest is pornographer David Sullivan, then merely owner of the Sunday Sport, but in our present-day hellworld, a billionaire. He shows off tomorrow’s edition, featuring columnists Whale and Bernard Manning, with “the lady off Baywatch topless,” and the front page headline “FILTHY KRAUTS SHOW DI IN NUDE,” containing a censored picture of a ‘topless’ Princess Di. He’s promoting a Best of the Sunday Sport VHS, from which they air a dreadful comedy sketch starring Neil ‘Dr’ Fox, who at this early stage of his career, has an affected cockney accent straight from Oliver Twist — “bleedin’ ‘ell!

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I simply cannot stress firmly enough just how terrible Whale is at his job. His rambling delivery is packed with ers and ums, and it’s rare he makes it through a whole sentence without being distracted by a noise in the studio, or pushing a finger in his ear to yell at a producer because something’s gone wrong. The whole series isn’t a car crash, it’s an endless pile-up, with a humourless presenter who acts like he doesn’t want to be there, constantly being corrected on the names or locations of callers and guests, and asking for close-ups he doesn’t get, with every cue either wrong or late, or putting him in a huff because it’s changed from rehearsal.

Also joining him is Page 3 model, Debbie Ashby, dressed in a tiny swimsuit and boots, to co-host a ‘fashion show’ where models, male and female, parade about in their underwear. The gimmick here is a ‘Thrill Cam’, which pushes in on the bums and tits while the crew hoot like wanking monkeys, and unwittingly gives a clear (and unacknowledged) shot of a shaved vagina as it leers up a pair of shorts. Most grottily of all, the ladies are from the Dreamgirls dance troupe, and were due to perform, but got banged up in a car accident, and strut through the lingerie show while covered in body make-up to hide the bruises.

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In a jarring tonal shift, it’s straight to an interview with a urologist about vasectomies. It’s clear the doctor thought he was in for a serious show, attempting to discuss testicular cancer under duress of Whale’s insincere pratting about, and forced to draw some bollocks on a blackboard. The viewer mail section is more tedious smut, with a letter from a woman who enjoys sex, whom Whale calls “Sarah the Slut,” one bloke talking about wanking, and another asking where to buy mail-order dildos. Whale holds up an “Irish birth control device” — a plastic cock with a cork jammed in the piss-hole — with messages from a woman asking if you can try out vibrators in the shop to see if they fit, and a chap who asks “why do women take longer to cum?” These are definitely all real letters from real people, and not written by Whale and his team of snickering incel dunces.

But it’s worth sitting through the whole shit-fest for the solid gold of our final segment, where Ashby and Sullivan join Whale for callers. Sat around an old dog cage inexplicably used as a table, there’s a weird vibe from the off, with Ashby still in her swimsuit, barracked by Whale’s MRA questioning of “why should women get paid to take their clothes off?” waving an old topless shoot of hers at the camera as he suggests that it gets blokes so horny, it “encourages men to beat women up.” The whole scene descends to further bleakness with a quick flick through her wiki page, to learn she since regrets her modelling career, which was marked by bulimia and sexual exploitation, and was in a relationship with Tony Curtis when he was 58 and she was 17. But in 1991, the scowling Ashby informs Whale she’s moving on to an agony aunt column, where she’ll tell men what to do “if they had any lumps in their ballbags.”

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The feel of a fucked up Live and Kicking reaches its apex with the viewer calls. Caller one doesn’t answer. Caller two’s a prank — “I’ve got a collection of smelly, unwashed knickers…” Caller three; another prank. Caller four’s on a bad line with an accent they can’t understand. They say they’ll ring her back, but don’t. Caller five accuses Debbie of ridiculing intelligent women, further irritating her. But she gets a break as moral adjudicator James Whale introduces a caption contest for a picture of an anthropomorphic dildo with a knotted hanky on its head. Runner up prize is a year’s supply of gin seng to make their stiffies hard, while the winner gets a “cuddly vibrator” with eyes and a smiley face, holding a vodka miniature. Next week’s prize, genuinely, is the dancers’ dirty underwear and a VHS of either the Sunday Sport tape or the Wicked Willie cartoon (a crass series of comics about a talking nob). The worst part of this journey back into cheeky 90’s perversions, giggling at mucky drawings because actual porn was illegal, is the cut back to a wide shot, revealing the old ball-doctor is now sat there too, paying grim witness.

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By now, all the guests have given up hiding their desire to leave, with a horrible atmosphere as they take the final set of callers. One says the show’s brilliant, but accidentally gets cut off. Another tells Debbie she’s looking great. “Nice of your sister to call,” jokes James. “I haven’t got a sister?” she replies, confused. A man says it’s his birthday, and he was born on the day Kennedy was shot — “I wondered what your thoughts were on reincarnation?” The despairing James sighs, cutting him off, and describing his frustrations in never making it as a breakfast TV presenter, in a moment which feels hauntingly honest. “I’m stuck here talking to people about being the reincarnation of… Edward… mmm, what’s his name, Kennedy? Wasn’t Edward, was it?” Eventually Sullivan remembers it was John, as Debbie fiddles with her nails.

There’s another prank caller, and Whale’s not got the patience for it. One accuses him of wearing a g-string, another moans about opening the paper and seeing breasts when “me and the lads wanna see…” cutting him off before he can say “fannies.” Though it’s November, Whale randomly gives his guests an Easter egg, and the rest of the scene’s filled with the plasticy crunching noise of David Sullivan, so bored, he’s unable to stop himself taking it out of the box and eating it. For an idea of who this was aimed at, let’s take a glance at the Youtube comments for this episode.

imagine the libtard rage haha

In later series, the show was rebranded as Whale On, tackling a single topic each week, and switching to a late-night Kilroy-type audience show. In the writing equivalent of those monks who whip the flesh from their own backs, I dove straight into an episode from April 16th, 1993, where James fucking Whale tackled the subject of abortion. For once, Whale’s ahead of the curve, with that thing that’s now the basis for all current affairs television; giving airtime to marginal hate groups with dangerous fringe beliefs. Here, it’s a bunch of American weirdos who think Planned Parenthood is part of a eugenics conspiracy to “eliminate certain people” and build a master race.

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But regardless of topic, it’s Classic Whale through and through; introducing a guest by the wrong name and being angrily corrected, left tapping his pen against the desk while fuming. Later, he segues from a talk about anti-abortion protesters throwing acid, invoking Hitler’s name before handing straight across to music from “Barbara Dickson; Easy Times.” The second the final note’s out of her mouth, he corrects the song title as “Easy Terms.” The tone swings back and forth like a dangerous dog’s clangers, cutting from morons in frumpy dresses calling women murderers to comedy sketches where Cleo Rocos tips a pint jug filled with Jane Seymour’s piss over a bald drag queen. And all held together by our hapless ringmaster with a wacky snooker tie, pathologically unable to let anybody get more than two words out before cutting them off, leaving everybody — guests, audience, host, me — simmering with rage.

The highlight here is a Q&A section, beginning with a pan to the audience that reveals one of the pieces from Whale On‘s in-studio art students; an enormous canvas of a blood-smeared sanitary towel. Star of this bit is a very nervy but opinionated pro-lifer, whose introductory exchange with Whale plays like a vaudeville routine. The kind of prick who’d spend all his time posting bad reviews for Captain Marvel in 2020, he’s involving himself with the rights of women’s bodies because “men have a traditional role of protecting women,” but further loses the room when revealed to be a virgin. Failing to win them back by mumbling “aren’t half of all aborted babies have… have… parents that are men?” he retorts to pulling out photocopies of a fetus. “I love this baby!” he implores, before he’s murdered in his seat by a heckler’s “you should learn to love a woman!

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A real piece of work, who casts doubts on the claim of a guest who’s had an abortion, because she doesn’t fit their profile of a mad baby-murderer, a quick Google finds the chap on Quora giving Godly advice on abortions, women, and why it’s okay not to tip them, with an avatar in which — I swear on my life — he’s literally tipping a fedora. Anyway, the show goes off air with Whale mocking him for being a virgin and a studio full of frustrated guests all talking over one another. Needing a palate cleanser after the abortion stuff, I skipped forwards to an episode about the supernatural. Many’s a time in the 90s I sat up to watch the paranormal episodes of these terrible shows, and Whale On doesn’t disappoint with a wonderful selection of kooks.

First, we’ve a couple of ghost experts no-budget cosplaying Wayne and Garth, as Whale reads a true ghost story from one of their books, about a man who met a “stunning woman who looked like Princess Di” at the pub and went back to his, even though “she was quite flat chested.” Joke on jokes, the big reveal is that she had a dick, “so I punched her… she disappeared.” The other chap reveals a little sword, one of seven uncovered by his team of psychics “concealed in the foundations of a footbridge,” and somehow linked to the 1987 hurricane. But the most haunted creature on display is Whale himself, who even by his standards, has a fucking nightmare, with perfunctory descriptions of his actions reading like chapters from The Usbourne Book of The Cursed.

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He introduces celebrity lawyer Jerry Issacs. ‘Jerry’ immediately corrects him — “Gary Jacobs.” In a chat with live band Bagatelle, he tells them they’ve not had much success, then gets the name of their single wrong. During a ghost story from camp MP Jerry Hayes, he gets bored halfway through, startled by a musician accidentally leaning on a keyboard offscreen, and tells Hayes to come out of the closet. By the Cleo Rocos skit, where she’s bending a false pair of legs over her own head, he’s stopped listening altogether, off on a tangent about Esther Ranzten, though he’s unable to remember her name, rambling on about “the one with the teeth.”

At least half the show is Whale being distracted by various banging sounds off-camera, constantly losing his train of thought and snapping his head towards the studio floor, like a dog at the rustle of a crisp packet. Though it’s ghost-themed, much of the running time is miscellaneous nonsense, like a pair of men hawking their VHS tape of a car-bonnet POV trek down the M25. They bring him a gift-wrapped traffic cone, but it gets stuck at the bottom of the bag and he starts getting antsy. At one point, the lairy art students are making too much noise in the background, so he wanders over to ask what they’re painting, finding “it’s a woman with about 12 breasts…” and, as the camera zooms in on it, a gigantic dangling cock. Even when something’s actually brilliant, like Charlie Chuck being given free rein to do his thing, Whale tires of it within seconds, walking all over his act and butting in while sighing.

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All this leaves precious little time for the paranormal, with just a short Q&A to close. But James has the attention span of someone who’s just cum and is faced with closing down a dozen Pornhub tabs. Refusing to let anybody speak, a woman who reads auras is interrupted as he starts mucking around with the boom mic; a teacher sharing her experience of a ghost gets cut off by questions about her earrings. Would you believe it, the one person who’s allowed to get two words in is a man?

It’s clear from watching Whale chair these faux-debates, that like Piers Morgan, he holds no actual views, merely going with whatever will stir the most shit at any given time; like a teenager swearing on a packed train, the gasps and tuts making them feel alive; noticed. Today, the media’s filled with James Whales, abysmal at their job, unprepared, and disinterested in anything but the sound of their own voice, only now, they’re not broadcasting from the leper purgatory of midnight on Channel 4, but from everywhere; seething men with no insight, no opinions, and nothing to say, but unable to stop themselves talking over anybody who does.

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.

1988 Children’s Royal Variety

•March 6, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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It speaks of how comparatively little media there was back in the eighties that the Royal Variety Shows were such a big deal. Was it a thing in anyone else’s house to watch along with a copy of the Radio Times and a pen, crossing off celebrities from the cast when they appeared? “Show’s almost over, with Rustie Lee still to come!” Now we’re all famous, and half the people reading this have probably been made into a Funko Pop, but in those days it was exciting to see your favourite celebrities mixed it up; a real-life Avengers: Endgame unconstrained by channels, where the stars of BBC mingled with those from ITV, all palling around with Americans from stage and screen. Where else would you see Paul Daniels’ magic, a live performance from A-Ha, Brian Conley’s impressions, and an in-person skit from the Golden Girls, all in the same show?

In hindsight, these events are unfathomably strange, with grovelling acknowledgements towards the Royal in the balcony, and everyone on their best behaviour. The Children’s Royal Variety takes that ‘Dear Leader’ feel and skews the acts even younger, at its hallucinogenic best/worst in the 1988 edition. We begin with commentator Anneka Rice outside the theatre, surrounded by circus acts, as Princess Margaret arrives, shaking hands, and receiving the guard of honor from a regiment of clowns. So far, so on-brand. I’ll be honest, I picked a Royal Variety at random, hoping it would have some of that sweet, sweet hauntology, and I’m vindicated by the first image to pop onscreen after the BBC globe.

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These shows are a brutal combination of two-hour run-times and a breathless pace, and we’re chucked right in after the national anthem, with all the fear and confusion of a naked groom being pitched off the pier on his stag night. Here’s the dad off Mary Poppins, wearing his RAF medals and telling jokes; guardsmen blowing their trumpets; child beefeaters screeching They’re Changing the Guards at Buckingham Palace, as the military drum cues Michael Barrymore from the wings with his John Cleese walk (“Can I cross him off, mam?”). “Awright?!” he says, “Awright?! Awright at the back?!” Actually, Michael, I’m feeling a bit low. I thought I’d be a lot closer to achieving my goals by now, but it seems like I’m going nowhe– “Awright?!” Anyway, now it’s the Mary Poppins musical with Lionel Blair in the Dick Van Dyke role. He loves that move where you roll a hat up your arm onto your head and keeps doing it, and his cockney accent is truly remarkable, with the plummy Blair dropping his aitches like a Tory minister caught on tape berating the poor — “me daddy gave me nose a tweak and told me I wuz bad…

I make an audible shriek as we suddenly cut to a close-up of Keith Harris and Orville, with Harris singing Ugly Duckling, a song which enables the worst of their cloying grabs for sympathy — “There once was an ugly duckling…” Orville: “there still is; me!” Orville is an incel. Orville posts on r/ForeverAlone. Orville only wishes he could fly so he can go to Switzerland for skull-widening surgery to become a Chad. Harris gets the audience to join in with quacks. “I think they’re all quackers!” says Orville. “All quackers?” repeats Harris, as is his entire act. He noticeably has to really clench his teeth to say ‘quack,’ and so spends half the song grimacing like a chimpanzee that’s about to fuck a turf rival to death. The last verse goes all Vegas big band, and on the final note, he blows a kiss to the audience, before kissing Orville right on the lips/beak.

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None of this feels real. Am I sweating under a crocheted blanket in 1988, clutching a bottle of Lucozade, having dreamed I was 40? Look, it’s Matthew Kelly as the White Rabbit; the Great Soprendo’s Mad Hatter piff-paff-poofing some milk into a hanky; Gordon the Gopher sticking his head out of a tea pot — tea they’re drinking, so surely he’s been terribly scalded; his cries of agony confused for adorable little squeaks. It feels like something thrown together for an Apprentice task by a team called Fusion or Thatcher’s Cock, with woeful singing, and choreography where everyone’s just running back and forth. They’ve barely scuttled offstage — no doubt Geoffrey ‘the Great Soprendo’ Durham is on the run for crimes of cultural appropriation — before Bonnie Langford’s out as Peter Pan. Flying across the stage in a pixie-cut and little shorts, she tells us to think “lovely thoughts,” presumably to balance out the dirty ones.

It’s a wonder we can think at all, when Roy Castle, in a big plastic nose, serenades Pinocchio with When You Wish Upon a Star. It’s one of those massive Disneyland Pinocchio heads, plonked on top of a normal body, and whichever dancer’s underneath must’ve looked like Gladstone Small when they took it off. Obviously blind, they’re gingerly led across the stage by Castle, as he segues into An Actor’s Life For Me. At this point, whoever’s striking out names in the Radio Times must have had a frenetic few minutes, with the random parade of characters that marches on — a cat, a fox, Charlie Chaplin, Caron Keating dressed as Marilyn, Yvette Fielding with fruit on her head, Floella Benjamin, Harpo Marx (carrying a ventriloquist dummy of dead brother Groucho?), Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, Christopher Biggins — it’s a Sgt. Pepper cover come to life.

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They’re joined by the other musical acts, Lionel Blair and co, with more of that ‘turn round and clap’ choreography, while Bonnie Langford does relentless, high-speed somersaults in the air above. She comes to such an abrupt stop, the wire violently jerks her backwards, pulling her shirt Girls Gone Wild high, which she has to yank back down to cover herself. I know it can’t be the case, but going frame-by-frame (for purely historical purposes) on the awful quality rip, it genuinely looks like her boobs are out, or at least, her bra, immediately cupping herself before pulling the top back into place.

Who better to calm the audience following an exhausting march through musicals than Jeremy Beadle; a man likely to yell ‘Fire! The theatre’s on fire!’ having locked all the doors for a funny joke? In things that haven’t aged well, he presents “a very silly little game” involving blindfolded children guessing the identity of celebrities by touching them. This was weird when They Think It’s All Over had Jonathan Ross and Rory McGrath groping female athletes for laffs, and it’s no better with kids, who all look like hostages. Beadle’s joke here is instructing celebrities to place the kids’ hands “on your most prominent feature” with a look on his face that says ‘like a dick or tits!!’ How many celebrities are so uniquely shaped that one could guess by feel alone? R2-D2? John Holmes? Certainly not, as presented here, Sharon off Eastenders.

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Barry McGuigan places a blindfolded child’s hands on his bare chest, Sharon rubs their hands all over her face, while Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards has them grasp his chin. They all give a miming clue, with Sharon ‘pulling a pint’ that, even to a pure-minded virgin nun, just looks like she’s gleefully wanking a massive stiffy right in front of this blind kid while Beadle leans over for a closer look. And here’s Rene from ‘Allo ‘AlloI bet Johnny Depp was thrilled — introducing Bananarama, in one of those weird lip-sync performances where the track fades out, so they stand there dancing, getting progressively quieter, like their souls have fallen into a void.

Because this is ‘variety’, there’s a juggler rolling hoops up his back, sandwiched between the randomness of Bros, Phillip Schofield, and Chas & Dave. Then Anneka tells us it’s time for some “brilliant puppets,” and you’re right to be afraid. Puppets, especially in stuff from decades ago, are never not horrifying, but I’m sure it can’t be as bad as the hellscape on the Krankies’ Christmas special, right? What’s that? They’re from the same puppeteers? Oh.

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Christ on a Brexit bike. Even the way they move somehow seems racist, jerking up and down like in 1920’s cartoons, to a jazzy When the Saints. During his solo, it becomes apparent one of the drummer’s googly eyes has fallen off. There are other puppets throughout the show, with Kermit, those old Muppets who sit in the balcony, and a bloke who’s got four Michael Jacksons strapped to him with broom-handles. Of course, there’s comedians too, and Jimmy Cricket blessing us with amazing gags like “a motorcar knocked me down. He said ‘look out,’ I said ‘why, you coming back?‘” Incidentally, like his Krankies Christmas performance, this show was uploaded by Jimmy to his own Youtube channel from VHS, which gives us a brilliant glimpse into the man, showing he deemed it important enough to wipe over a 1987 episode of This is Your Life, featuring orchestral conductor Georg Solti.

After Jimmy sings Thumbelina with some children, Ken Dodd’s out to make you appreciate, now watching as an adult, how much of his act was about cocks. Happiness/’a penis’ is a rite of passage revelation for every Brit, but man, he’s greeting the lady mayoress by poking a tickle stick between his legs like a boner; he’s bringing out little kids dressed as the Diddy Men to sing about “having a bash” and their “six inch shillelaghs.” Just like George Formby — ‘hold on, this song’s about wanking!’ — talk about hiding in plain sight.

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The night’s absolute nadir comes in the form of a pair of Belgian clowns, fresh from winning a big circus award in Paris. One’s done up in plasticy make-up pretending to be a mannequin, as his partner in an actual beret pushes one of his arms down while the other arm goes up; shit like that. It’s absolutely wretched, like a parody of how you’d imagine 80’s Euro-clowning; big, open-mouthed faces and slide-whistles on a Casio keyboard to accompany the coughing in the audience. They bring up a ‘volunteer’ that we’re assured isn’t part of the act, despite her being a recognisable face from TV, and clearly doing a choreographed routine (mostly involving the dummy groping her arse). Genuinely, this act may have been the spark behind Knowing Me, Knowing You‘s Cirque de Clunes.

I nearly fucking died when the curtain went up to reveal Fenella Fielding as the Evil Queen from Snow White — oh, my heart! Sadly, it’s the lead-in to another insipid musical sequence, with Snow White and the Dwarfs, who’ve all got those massive theme park heads. The most interesting thing is watching the struggling performers feel their way around the stage, kept in a line formation like a school outing, so none of them blindly plunge off the edge. Being separated from the context of the full show highlights hitherto unrealised weirdness, like how they’ve all got these big old-man heads, apart from Dopey, who’s got a small, scary baby-head. Similarly, during the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wizard of Oz medley — with Imelda Staunton as Dorothy — I realise the Cowardly Lion namechecks, and is thus aware of, Julius Caesar.

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The stars keep coming. Here’s Derek Griffiths as a jester, telling the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Lord, are we about to see Biggins’ cock and bollocks? Thankfully, Derek’s a master storyteller, so they let him go unaccompanied in sharing this lovely tale about a king who gets his nob out. And look, it’s Gloria Hunniford (“give us the biro, mam!”) with “the most famous boy’s choir in the world!” Now, I’m thinking “famous choir? Jog on, Gloria,” but I’d venture you have heard of the Vienna Boy’s Choir. From where? From being the reference whenever people in sitcoms or cartoons or wrestling matches get hit in the balls and talk in a high voice; the choir Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan says a 300lb man just joined when he crotches himself on the ropes. 500 years of musical history and what a legacy.

As Anneka introduces “the greatest storyteller in the world today,” I instinctively rise from my chair, clearing my throat and brushing the crumbs off my jogging bottoms. Bizarrely, she’s not talking about the author of multitude Noel Edmonds thinkpieces, but Roald Dahl, who emerges in a custard-coloured suit to “tell you a story, which is also a secret.” Is it what you think of the Jewish people, mate? Actually, it’s a deleted character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who got drowned in hot caramel for the crime of disobedience. I know he’s the author of many wonderful stories, but Dahl’s got the manner of a child murderer in the casual way he talks about horrible weans (“nasty little blisters”) and the cruel punishments they receive for, like, not sitting down when they’re told, with an abrupt “goodbye” when he’s finished.

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Talking of children’s entertainers, American magician Harry Blackstone must be the inspiration for every “looks like a magician” jibe, straight off the set of The Devil Rides Out. He does the disappearing bird cage trick from The Prestige, then invites kids from the audience to lay their hands on the cage for a re-run. The stage is flooded with children, most of whom are very young, that he warns not to fall in the orchestra pit, because it’s filled with alligators — and musicians. “And may I point out to young ladies onstage, if you should fall into the pit, it’s not the alligators you should worry about” Even in 1988, there’s very awkward audience laughter at the chuckling suggestion of ravaged 5-year-olds, as he adds “I’ve met them all,” in the most random paed-accusation since Elon Musk last logged into Twitter.

Blackstone instructs a little girl to put her hand on his, giving a little sigh of “that’s nice,” — Elon, where you at? — and about twenty kids are touching the cage when it suddenly disappears. In having the ability to frame-by-frame it, it’s clear that something in the cage’s vanish mechanism hurts or injures the nearest children, a couple of whom are immediately wincing and rubbing at their eyes. One boy’s holding his arm as he walks offstage, examining his skin as though he got pinched. The birdcage prop would eventually be sold for $2,600 by Harry’s wife, Gay Blackstone, on an episode of Pawn Stars.

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When Nikki from Neighbours comes out to introduce Cinderella, you’re left wishing it was Jim Davidson’s version, with a pissed up Charlie Drake waving his fuckin’ fingerin’ finger at Princess Margaret. That’d be preferable to Michael Barrymore, robbed of the option to go in the audience and tip the contents of old ladies handbags all over the floor, and having to act as Buttons, opposite Jessica Martin’s Cinders. It’s an odd choice of scene, picking the bit where Cinders tells the love-lorn Buttons she only likes him as a friend, giving us five minutes of Barrymore tantruming like Elliot Rodger. “IT’S NOT FAIR! YOU CAN’T DESTROY SOMEONE LIKE THAT!” he yells. Yeah, kids love watching some bloke rant and cry and punch the furniture cos he’s sick of being a Nice Guy. With no natural end, they resort to a fake ‘heckle’ — a child in the audience shouting “I’ve got a rabbit!” — which allows them to break character and abandon the script. Barrymore tells a rude limerick — “hey diddle diddle, the cat had a piddle” — before it descends into Fawlty Towers impressions and just ends.

The show’s undoubted highlight is the Norman Wisdom wallpapering routine I’ve referenced before, as one of the all-time great bits of slapstick. In place of Brucie from the 1961 version, here we’ve got Nicholas Parsons. By this point, Norman’s 73, but still bombing up ladders, carrying the 65-year-old Parsons on his shoulders, and slipping on his arse. After a lifetime of pratfalls, what state was his body in, I wonder? All smashed up like an old wrestler? It finishes with a paste-drenched Norman seguing into a song about “the poor painted fool,” repeatedly opining “the joker is me!” Goddamn, what a movie that would be. If they can deepfake James Dean out of the grave for a role, then we need a real gump-ass Joker falling down the stairs, with Mr. Grimsdale as the head of a crime syndicate.

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For the big closer, Doddy returns as Dr. Dolittle, and the stage fills with animals which are just onesies with Wicker Man masks, in disparate sizes where robins and butterflies are as big as a horse. Thanks to the internet, it’s impossible to see an animal costume and not be hit with a psychic stink of BO and old cum, which adds to an already cursed scene. Some chimps have shorts on, accentuating the nakedness of the others. Are the clothed chimps too well-hung to be flapping about in public? A few are sexified human showgirls in feathered headdresses; one’s a nightmare wolf whose fanged jaw jigs up and down as it moves (“quick, mam, cross off Black Shuck!”); all in that classic Royal Variety choreography, where everyone’s marching on the spot in a big line. I’ve a sharp intake of breath when the push-me–pull-you, made of two performers blindly stuck back to back, inches its hooves halfway off the edge, towards the certain death of the orchestra paedo-pit.

Once they’ve finished with Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, we’ve survived to the curtain call, where the entire population of planet Earth comes on to take a bow. Norman Wisdom gets a solo clap, with a trademark stumble on both his entrance and exit, and then the massive crowd of comedians, singers, impressionists, choirboys, and Michael Barrymore parts like the Red Sea. Who’s coming on now?! If your guess was ‘Ken Dodd riding on the back of an elephant,’ then a) you’re correct, and b) you’ve got problems, man. Princess Margaret joins them, getting a wolf whistle, and a cheque for £69,000 (nice!) for the NSPCC. Weirdly, they neither go with a big novelty cheque, nor a regular one, and settle on a half-arsed double-size.

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Ken Dodd asks the audience for three “plumptious” cheers for Margaret, which seems like a frankly disgusting level of Colonialism, but I do remember kids doing this in junior school assembly — “three cheers for sir, hip hip!” — and I went to a grotty, urine-soaked comp, not a boarding school. There’s still fun to be had in the credits, where we see the Princess shaking hands backstage, with the unbearable tension of wondering whether Norman Wisdom will trip and fall and spear her right through the wall.

Interestingly, while she shakes Jim Henson’s (left) hand, she completely blanks Kermit, which is reason enough to disband the monarchy. Finally, they bring the elephant out to do a bow at her feet. Most notable for me was spotting the incredibly naff name Jolly Wally in the credits; an act who was evidently famous enough to perform at the Royal Variety (and get cut for TV), yet leave zero historical record of who he was or what he did. With a name like that, I’m guessing it was so unconscionably wacky, the government had to have it redacted from the record for public safety.

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.

GamesMaster: Snapshots of a Decade

•February 27, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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I can’t be delving into the cultural lawlessness of the 1990s without looking at GamesMaster; a jumbled package of clunky ‘modern’ tech, confused celebrities, and a revered elderly astronomer and ‘Sir’ who’d been digitised into a giant, Zardoz-style head; all held together by a presenter who seemed like he was trying to get fired. Each of GamesMaster‘s 126 episodes are a treasure trove of 90’s weirdness; a tracking-lined time capsule of history’s dumbest era — until the one we’re in now.

I figure the best way is to just dive into a random selection, so let’s kick off with a series 2 episode from December 17th, 1992. GamesMaster was notable for changing up settings every year, and its second series opens with a wireframe helicopter rushing us to our destination; an oil rig — or as named in the Terminator-vision subtitles, a GAMESRIG, with a theme tune which evokes a half-faced phantom hammering away on a church organ. It’s an enormous set, not unlike that of Scavengers, with metal pipes and dials, gantries and grills, and row upon row of cheering children lined up on three levels of balconies. In reality, filming for series 2 took place at an abandoned pumping station — no, not your bed — which had also featured in an episode of Red Dwarf.

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Dominik Diamond, in his red suit and neckerchief, enormous white collar and white pocket rose, plus 90’s hair-curtains and little round glasses, looks like the manager who signs your band to a contract before later revealing himself to be the Devil. Handing out the challenges is the titular GamesMaster, aka the head of Sir Patrick Moore, wearing a pixelated helmet and surrounded by pistons. My God, if only the raw greenscreen footage would find its way online. First choice for the role was Nicholas Parsons, but Moore’s the perfect fit, falling into my repertoire of impressions when I was an annoying-as-shit teenager. Mostly, this involved sticking out my lips, closing one eye while holding the other open so it was massive, and spluttering out a cheat code for Lemmings. Eventually, half a ping-pong ball made its way into the routine. Like every celebrity who steps foot on this show, there’s a real joy in how plainly he doesn’t give a single shit about computer games.

The first guest is like those bits at the British Comedy Awards when Jonathan Ross brings out the sponsors, and a roomful of drunken comedians climb on the tables to start sarcastically whooping a nervous 50-year-old from a phone company. Diamond asks the assembled children for a big round of applause for… the managing director of Commodore UK, which with a first name of Kelly, is surprisingly a man in a suit who looks like George Costanza. Having confirmed that he never plays the games, Kelly seems confused even by the joystick, holding it in the palm of his hand from underneath, with the Amiga resting on his lap like a dinner tray.

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The whole time this middle-aged businessman runs through the first level of Humans, a choir of kids are cheering him on like they’re watching two big year-tens hit each other with their backpacks outside the staff room — “G’wan! G’wan!” As an onscreen character lowers a long rope, which Diamond intimates looks like piss, Commodore Kelly beats it right on the buzzer. After a post-game interview filled with more rope-based innuendo, joking about his problems with length etc, he’s awarded the GamesMaster Golden Joystick by — in fitting with the theme — a women in full scuba gear. Kelly would go onto front the development of the Guitar Hero franchise, probably while trying to blow into the controller like a flute.

Like everything else on this show, the review sections are riddled with filth, with Diamond bringing up “gleaming helmets” for Robocop 3, and regarding Universal Soldier on the Gameboy, a rude-but-honestly-nonsensical “Julian Clary and Claire Rayner fondle their weapons and blow each other away.” Bored-looking game journos drop lines like “it’s an awful lot of Robo, but not much cop,” while the £45 price tags remind you that the cost of games has gone unchanged for 25 years.

This week’s celebrity challenge finally brings someone from the telly, as Moore sets Baseball Stars 2 on the Neo Geo as the battleground between a child and Todd Carty off Eastenders. The pair clank rather gingerly down an enormous metal staircase, which is half-hidden in smoke and weird green lighting, with Carty in his trademark Mark Fowler leather jacket, and his opponent one of those exuberant 90’s kids, like on adverts for McCain Microchips. Even Diamond’s co-commentator’s at it, suggesting, with a Carry On twinkle in her eye, to hit with “the meaty part of your bat,” but despite Carty’s claims of being a gamer who likes a bit of Italia ’90, with pained looks of concentration throughout, he’s as badly crushed as his Eastenders character was when he got the results back from the clinic.

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The thing people most remember from GamesMaster is the Consultation Zone; i.e. the bit where some kid puts on a VR helmet to be transported into a digitized hellscape in front of the looming face of Patrick Moore, to beg advice on how to get extra lives in Sonic. This week, they want the secrets of how to kill Lord Chaos in Dungeon Master, and to get the key in Super Mario 4. For the latter, a knight of the realm’s now getting in on the constant smut, telling a small boy “what the hand can’t reach, the tongue can touch,” and suggesting he use Yoshi to “penetrate the seemingly impervious wall with his probing proboscis!

I’m never not amazed at the human mind when it’s aware that it’s acting. Take celebrity cameos in movies, say, Simon Cowell popping up with a scripted “that was brilliant” to a fictional character in a talent show. It’s the exact same thing he does on a Saturday night, but somehow the brain’s all “this is fake, say it weird.” Here, the kids are stood against a green screen, having to imagine a gigantic Patrick Moore bellowing across the sky, which renders them completely incapable of saying even the word “thanks” in a believable way.

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They all warp out of there as kid-shaped static like in Star Trek, and it’s onto the final challenge, which is the semi-final of GamesMaster‘s Street Fighter II tournament between games journos. Diamond’s co-commentator, with a hand nervously stuffed under his armpit, explains what Dragon Punches and Sonic Booms are, all shot at a lopsided Dutch angle, before a journalist in an American football top — who rather unfairly is the reigning SF2 world champion — destroys his opponent. “The force wasn’t with me,” says the loser, “I think I had too many pints last night!” Well, it is the nineties. And with a flashing GAME OVER at the end of the credits, we’re done.

Next, we’re sampling a series 6 episode, from November 21st, 1996. This year’s opener sees a tiny Dominik Diamond screaming as he falls flailing through the sky, landing in a shark-infested sea and being rescued by sexy mermaids, who swim their boobs right into the lens before kissing him back to life on the beach, as we crash-zoom on him giving us a wink and thumbs up. Wahey! In this incarnation, Patrick Moore is Poseidon, with his disembodied bonce rising out of the waves in a golden crown and long, blue-grey beard. Our setting is down in the undersea ruins of Atlantis, with crumbling, seaweed-covered statues and a viewing window through which sharks and fish can be seen. Like previous series, children can be heard cheering and clapping throughout, only this time, you don’t see them, and they’re clearly not there. Is there such a thing as canned children? Albert Fish, don’t answer that.

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Keeping with the theme, Diamond’s accompanied by the hot mermaids, and sits on a giant shell like the Birth of Venus. He seems to have aged twenty years in the last four, and gone is the baby face and blond curtains, since devoured by encroaching male pattern baldness. So too, his manner’s stripped back from chipper-yet-sarcastic to a gruffer misanthropy, which seems to hold the whole enterprise in utter contempt. It’s like in prison films, when the innocent soft-boy’s put away for a twelve stretch and comes out all hardened, with bedspring tattoos and grim stories about biting someone’s bollock off. Diamond’s innuendos come at an alarming rate — just like his dick — and everything’s twisted into a barely-hidden allusion to piss and wanking, or firing wads of spunk out of his nob-hole, finally giving me some understanding of what it must be like for my own family and friends. Within the opening seconds, he’s reading out fanmail, with the phrases “blow me,” and “tickle my pink.”

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Tonight’s first challenge, signalled by Moore’s face popping up through a porthole, sees a magazine writer attempting two simultaneous games of light-gun arcade shooter, Virtua Cop 2, without taking a single hit. Martin’s got one of those front-combed spider-leg fringes, soaked in gel, and because it was illegal in the 90s for a man to be seen onscreen without a girl on each arm, he’s flanked by a pair of mermaids. In something that’d be blown up in the press nowadays as a ‘feud’, Diamond takes a pop at “insincere and cheesy host,” Andi Peters, while Martin shares an anecdote about being dared at the pub to shave off all his body hair. Co-commentator is the ‘Games Animal’ Dave Perry, whom I’m sure I’ll be writing plenty about if this becomes a regular thing, while Diamond’s smuttiest line, regarding Virtual Cop’s ‘shoot offscreen to reload function’, is an innocent “so the idea is to try not to knock one off both wrists at the same time?” Martin loses when he accidentally blasts a hostage, joking that he shot him because he looked like Peter Andre. “A very unselfish act,” says Diamond.

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Bearing in mind this is a show aimed at kids in the tea-time slot, even in the news sections, Diamond’s making you think about his jizzy cock — “like me, Sega arcade machines just keep on cumming…” while a new Japanese TV’s “sporting the sort of price tag only I can afford.” In this week’s reviews, which, unlike the easy scores in magazines, “are tougher, like Sgt. Cryer in The Bill,” a guy with a dyed-orange Lloyd Christmas haircut slags Killer Instinct‘s overly complex button combos. The ad break links to the Channel 4 website, which apparently existed in 1996, with its stone-age interface giving me flashbacks to pictures of naked ladies that took so long to load, by the time the bottom half showed up, you were ready for another go.

But after the break, it’s time for the celebrity, and it’s someone who’s slap-bang in the middle of my wheelhouse. Diamond warns us “lock up mum’s and dad’s puppies and pussies,” as this man’s powers “could quite literally make them all bent.” It could only be the very real and definitely not fraudulent or deluded Uri Geller; Michael Jackson’s bff. Surely, surely, we won’t get to the end of the show without Dominik Diamond referring to Geller as a bender? I feel genuine concern for putting the ultra-sarcastic Diamond with such a character, like leaving a dog alone with a birthday cake. “I feel a presence entering inside my body,” he says, introducing Geller as “the man with the most powerful mind in the world,” entering while bathed in spooky green light, with a background bed of pseudo theremin music.

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Geller’s in a t-shirt bearing the logo of his new magazine, Uri Geller’s Encounters, “the most paranormal magazine in the world.” Reader, I can’t lie; not only do I remember this tome, but legitimately bought every issue until it went out of business. Access to paranormal materials were few and far between back then, particularly those whose first issue had a free crystal sellotaped to the front cover, which was guaranteed to have been touched by Uri Geller, and infused with his magic healing energies. As to whether the impressionable 17-year-old me ever went through a vague nu-age phase and took to wearing said crystal around his neck, who can say?

But then, it seems like Diamond’s going to pull a James Randi, and expose him on TV. He drew a picture before the show, which Geller had no way of seeing, and which he’ll now attempt to beam straight into Geller’s mind while he replicates it. It’s probably a big, ejaculating stiffy, isn’t it? At least three rivulets of cum and some pubes? Geller calls him “Doom-in-ick,” and plays up how risky this is, with the potential of failing in front of millions, but humours him regardless. “Begin!” Geller orders, “stare onto my face!” He gives it the big psychic sell “yes… yes… I’m getting something,” but is unsure what the finished sketch is meant to be as he holds it up. In an instant, Dominik Diamond’s sneering persona falls away, mouth agape, and taking on a look of boyish wonder.

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He removes his own picture from his inside pocket, unfolding and holding it up next to Geller’s, demonstrating both are identical — child-like sketches of a pair of scissors. The drawings are even the same size, and can be placed exactly atop each other. Now, a cynic might say that the paper’s the same size too, and that Geller handed Diamond the pad backstage, and after he tore off and pocketed his sketch, Geller simply traced the indents in the sheet of paper below. But not me, who’s thoroughly convinced and digging out that crystal as we speak. We’re definitely not getting the bender joke now though.

Geller’s challenge involves the MindDrive controller; a plastic thing the player slides over their finger, allowing them to move a controller with their brain waves, steering a skier between flags down a slow slalom. He blasts through, winning easily, and describes the experience as “thrilling, quite amazing, and entertaining,” and is able only to repeat the word “wow!” as the mermaids present him with a Golden Joystick, which he jokingly threatens to bend.

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The final feature begins with Steven Spielberg greenscreened against a hilariously basic graphic of a movie studio, to promote the CD Rom game, Steven Spielberg’s Director’s Chair, which in delving a little further, I simply cannot believe exists. The aim is to make a movie out of pre-shot footage, picking camera angles and different takes, either dramatic or comedic, while tackling various Hollywood type problems, from script editing, to budget, to Penn and Teller fucking with you for some reason. Along with Spielberg, the game landed two huge name actors for the player to ‘direct’. It’s the nineties, so… Winona? Keanu? The Cruiser? Almost. Quentin Tarantino plays a wrongly-convicted death row inmate awaiting his imminent execution (complete with Reservoir Dogs poster on the wall of his cell), while Jennifer Aniston hunts for the real killer.

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Incredibly, Spielberg himself shot over two hours of footage for this; two hours of Spielberg-directed Tarantino, overacting in prison stripes; some of which can be found on Youtube. Quentin should bring this back for the current gaming market, letting players choose between various angles of women’s bare feet. Judging by how many feet guys there are now, he’d probably hoover up most of the world’s cash. Anyway, Diamond sneers all over the footage, and ends the episode on a question — “if Uri Geller was a spoon, would he be bent?” Never doubt me again.

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.

Captain Butler

•February 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[This is Part 8 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart Seven]

Your early teens are that feet-finding period when you’re discovering things — movies, music, fashion — that didn’t come from your parents or siblings, but belong to you; a period when you like things so intensely, they become a defining part of your personality. For me, one of those things was Red Dwarf. Other than the time my whole class saw me tread in a massive pile of wet dogshit, and then when I went to wipe it off on the grass, standing on another big turd with my clean shoe, for a while, my Red Dwarf fandom is perhaps what I was best known for. Decades on, I vividly remember laughing in a GCSE German lesson; having the temerity to be visibly enjoying myself for a brief moment; as a more-popular kid from another table scythed me down to my place with a withering “fuckin’ hell, he’ll be singing the theme from Red Dwarf next.”

Honestly, I’ve since grown to detest it, but back then, I wore out my tapes, and devoured all the tie-in books, comics, and magazine articles, and of course, any other TV shows that featured the cast. This included the Craig Charles VR gameshow, Cyberzone, and 1997 Channel 4 sitcom, Captain Butler. Pirates were still massively out of vogue in the late ’90s, with no contemporary cultural imprint beyond the brilliant Monkey Island games, and little more than a narrow archetype of going “Arr!” and having an eyepatch. But for the writer/creators of Captain Butler — a duo who went onto write Mike Bassett: England Manager, Gnomeo and Juliet, and The Queen’s Corgies – these frugal pickings of “avast, me hearties!” and parrots were considered more than enough material for a truly appalling sitcom.

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The opening titles show a cartoon ship being blown over a map by sea monsters and a cherub’s farts, for a rambunctious cover of the Sex Pistols’ Friggin’ in the Riggin’, where the characters all argue over each other — “calm down, lads, chorus coming up!” — and which ends with Craig Charles exclaiming “oh, bollocks!” Start as you mean to go on, I guess, because at its heart, this is not a show about piracy, but about men who simply cannot refrain from making constant references to, or touching, or taking out their sex organs.

Captain Butler‘s the cheapest show I have ever seen. There’s bigger budgets on Twitch steams of girls playing Manic Miner while viewers beg them to show their toes, and the set, though sharing its production designer with Scavengers, is so small, anyone sitting down was likely to get the whole thing wedged on their arse. For the most part, we’re looking at a blue sheet of sky behind a tiny ship’s deck, which is completely still, not even bothering to wobble the camera for the appearance of motion. Nor are there ocean noises or bird squawks, or anything to create a seafaring atmosphere, with the only sound the unholy shrieks of audience laughter whenever Craig Charles talks about his genitals. Similarly, the costumes are straight off the wardrobe department’s ironing board, like something you’d send your kid to school in for World Book Day.

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For our cast of ineffective pirates, Craig Charles plays the titular Captain Butler, who accidentally led his crew on a mutiny from the navy when he was pissed. There’s a salty old boson; a ship’s cook, Adeel (Sanjeev Bhaskar); and Cliff, an African who they fished out of the water when a Spanish slave ship went down. In the opening minutes, they’re joined by the upbeat and effete Lord Roger of Crumsby, who’s a Lord Fauntleroy type, in a scene which reiterates the appalling cheapness; way out in a completely static and silent sea, and clambering up the side of the hull completely dry.

The deal is though they’re six months into it, they’ve yet to do any actual pirating, and though Butler talks a good game, he’s too lazy and cowardly to be a pirate. Roger tells him of a nearby Spanish galleon, laden with slaves, and more importantly, Inca gold, which the crew’s all for intercepting; Butler, not so much. “Oh, bollocks!” he says. Clearly this was intended to be up there with “Hello, Newman…” and “Tis I, LeClerc!” as one of the great sitcom catchphrases, dropping an “oh, bollocks!” a couple of times an episode, though as a viewer, the catchphrase that feels most apt is Blakey’s from On The Buses.

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Butler tries to think his way out of the heist in ‘captain’s log’ scenes, where it’s in voiceover, and he’s acting it out with mime and pulling faces, like the excruciating behaviour of Alan Davies on QI. There’s a long monologue about him missing his home comforts from Tranmere, involving a yo-yo and a favourite garden hoe, all leading to the line “a yo-yo, hoe, and a bottle of rum!” This is a show which, like ‘Orrible, never reaches beyond the cliché. Regard, this absolute wringing dry of the handbook, starting with a disguised Butler onboard the Spanish ship. Imagine you’re writing a joke about characters who don’t speak the same language, and whose conversations have to be translated or dubbed. Got a gag in your head? It’s one of these, isn’t it?

One: A Spanish soldier with his tongue cut out makes 10, long seconds of guttural gibberish noises. A posh English voiceover translates simply as; “a ship.”

Two: In an episode they get stuck on a desert island, Adeel chats away in foreign with an old Chinese man, laughing, joking, having a good old chat. “What’s he said?” asks Butler. Adeel: “I don’t know.

Three: Like yer old dad ordering drinks on Lanzarote, Butler transcends the language barrier, communicating with the old man via gestures and a raised voice. Cliff, who speaks a little Chinese, confirms that rather than understanding Butler, the old man; “he says ‘about half-past ten’, captain.”

Anyway, the Spanish galleon turns out to be a wine merchant, and the whole thing’s an exercise in letting the comedic talents of Craig Charles fly. Oh, bollocks. Never a great performer, he struggles outside of playing versions of himself, and runs through his repertoire of funny accents, from a Mexican bandito to, well, they all just go back to Scouse within half a sentence, so it doesn’t matter. Captain Butler was clearly intended as his star vehicle, with the other characters relegated to a handful of lines. Bhaskar, in particular, gets shit-all to do, outside of going on about curry and poppadoms. But it doesn’t matter, as the audience seem to enjoy seeing Dave Lister swear, laughing heartily at all his many references to dicks, piss, tits, and cum.

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The most creative part of the series is the closing credits, which are listed pirate-style. Music’s “sea shanties,” costume design “breeches and blouses,” lighting “oil lamps filled by,” though I’m not sure what the role of “ship’s cat” entails. Episode two sees the boat actually rocking, and begins with a magazine blowing over the side, whose problem page Roger reads aloud from — “I’m 14, and have an enormous set of bosoms.” “Doesn’t appear to be much of a problem!” says Butler. This is all just to introduce Lord Nelson, who’s the mag’s Hunk of the Month. Butler’s sneering “If he came on this boat, I’d show him who’s boss!” signals he’s definitely gonna turn up.

Nelson’s played by Red Dwarf castmate, Robert Llewellyn — the young me must’ve been apoplectic with excitement — recruiting sailors for a battle, so they hide in a wardrobe, giving it the old Mary Celeste. Nelson rowing over with Hardy is an admirably cheap effect, plonked against a seascape that should be pinned to a grandparent’s fridge. There’s incredible contempt for the audience in the joke where Hardy tells Butler he’s gonna open a shoe shop with his mates, Willis and Freeman. It gets a huge laugh, but is followed with a really unnecessary “Freeman, Hardy and Willis, we’re gonna call it!” Thanks, mate.

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Eventually, for the second time this episode (having already happening twice in episode one), Butler adopts another disguise and funny voice, when the crew dress as Frenchmen to scare off Nelson. It’s a 20th century sitcom, so of course it’s massively racist; all berets, an accordion, and strings of onions wrapped around their necks, and — in a show set in the late 1700s — around a bicycle. Butler asks what “Frenchies” say, cuing the kind of “Bleu! Bleu!” noises and exaggerated shrugging Nigel Farage would do behind an MEP’s back at the European Parliament to make Ann Widdecombe laugh. They scare off Nelson, giving him a Chinese burn and eye-poke, causing his famous eye-patch-and-nip-grab injuries, as he demands “Kiss me, Hardy. On the lips.” As an aside, when I was a kid, and confused about the exact meaning of various adult words, ‘hard-on’ and ‘hardy’ were interchangeable at my junior school — “Millard’s got a hardy!” etc (I assure you I did not) — and consequently, I thought the trope of a deathbed Lord Nelson demanding “kiss me Hardy” was hilariously rude.

The third ep’s titled Desert Island Dick, where the crew wash up on an island and Butler falls in love with a mermaid. For someone who could be tortured into confessing anything by being strapped to a chair in front of loud kissing scenes, this episode was my Vietnam, with so much footage of the pair getting off with each other. But there’s worse to come, with a sudden cut to the soles of Craig Charles’ feet, as he lays flat on his stomach. The camera pans up the backs of his bare legs, all the way up to a horrible close-up of his naked arse, grinding away as he makes sex noises. You can virtually see up his hole. The punchline is she’s sat on a rock reading a magazine, while he’s fucking a pile of her eggs. Butler and Tracy the mermaid get married, which turns him half-fish, however it’s the top half, which is nicked from Red Dwarf, with Cat’s mermaid girlfriend.

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They also lift RD‘s ‘double polaroid’ gag in episode four, where a picture of a guy’s big dick unravels like a shopping list, as Butler’s eyes go all wide. Though my encyclopedic knowledge of Red Dwarf didn’t make me king of the playground, decades on, it’s invaluable in my blog posts about rubbish old sitcoms, so who’s laughing now? Not me, because I’m watching Captain Butler. Hidden between the laff-getters of Craig Charles calling someone a nob or saying a rudie, most of the jokes are of the “I’ve heard about your salty seamen” variety. It’s that kind of workplace humour, where the lads in the office respond to everything anyone says by pretending they’re talking about dicks. Boson’s teaching how to tie a sheepshank knot? Enjoy this repartee about sheep shagging! The Shitcoms series functions as a running barrel-scraping contest, and in this jailhouse joke, we may have peeled away the final layer before busting through to Hell.

Butler: “How long have you been banged up? How long have you been eating porridge?

Prisoner: “About 30 years.

Butler: “30 years?!

Prisoner: “How did you know I liked porridge?

Fourth episode, The Tale of the Ancient Mariner, is all about folklore and superstition, as Boson tells of a ship that went down 20 years ago this very night — the Lily Tomlin (a weirdly specific reference which gets no audience reaction) — before Roger shoots an albatross out of the sky with an arrow, unleashing the mariner’s curse. There’s a series of strange occurrences, which send Adeel mad, presenting “spotted dick” for dinner, which is his own nob draped across a silver dish. After a lightning strike, all that’s left of Roger is a hat, while Butler’s threatened by a scary disembodied voice. The Lily Tomlin’s crew all died “in order of their genital size, starting with the lad with the smallest tackle,” so there’s a bit where the crew go for a piss off the side, with Butler realising the other lads’ cocks are massive. As Cliff’s a black guy and this is a bad sitcom, when he takes it out, his bell-end hits the water with a big splash.

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Adeel goes missing during an eclipse, leaving a sign written in blood, “ADEEL IS DEAD, YOU’RE NEXT BUTLER!” There’s a séance, and Cliff does some witch-doctoring, before the voice of Neptune himself tells them there’s but one way to remove the curse and stop a giant albatross from eating their ballbags. This involves tying Butler to the deck with “a little girl’s bonnet” on his head, but larks ahoy, it’s all just a prank by Roger, and we end with another Craig Charles nude scene, covering his dick n’ balls with a hat.

As a lover of the Carry On films, I understand the power of a good double-entendre, but equally, I detest the kind that opens episode five. It’s one of those where it sounds like everyone’s wanking each other offscreen; all “go on, Roger, give it a good pull!” and “every time you touch that thing, it shoots all over the bloody floor!” Christ, it goes on for ages, but you’ll be shocked to find that, despite how it sounds — “If I put a dab of spittle on it, it stays up all night!” — they aren’t actually pulling each other’s penises and ejaculating cum everywhere, but playing with spinning tops. Though by the way it’s going, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Craig Charles showing a bit of bone for real, like when Gruey went hardcore in 9 Songs.

The plot involves them being anchored in port, where they accidentally kidnap a child who turns out to be Blackbeard’s daughter. Like with Nelson, you can tell Blackbeard’s gonna show up, because they keep talking about him, and he’s played by the bloke from those Tango ads that led to a million busted schoolboy eardrums in the ’90s. Now this is a man who found a niche and really stuck to it.

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They get disguised yet again for the handover, with a classic example of the wretched bicycle gag, when Butler assures us “I’m not getting dressed in some third-rate pirate get-up!” and it cuts to this.

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Honestly, those are better than their regular costumes. But it turns out, it’s not the Blackbeard, but Roy Blackbeard, a hat-maker. The final episode, Jailhouse Crock, sees the crew captured by the royal navy, and put on trial for piracy. Weirdly, after five bottle episodes, there’s an actual courtroom set with desks and docks, and it’s not just a painted sheet, and we even get a jail. In a show so thoroughly beholden to the cliché, it’s straight into the prison bumming material, with Craig Charles literally warning the lads not to pick up the soap. Then there’s more disguise antics, with Butler escaping in someone else’s clothes. I’m convinced the audience is made up of hardcore Dwarfers, thrilled at any chance to see its star, in the content-barren analogue age, because the ratio of weak material to raucous laughter is remarkable. When Butler disguises himself a-fucking-gain, visiting the lads while dressed as their ‘lawyer’, Adeel’s “for a minute, I thought he was the captain!” almost brings the house down.

It seems like there’s going to be a happy ending, as Butler’s outed by the judge and sentenced to be hanged, with a final “oh, bollocks!” Only in the final five minutes do they start making an effort, with the great Michael Fenton Stevens as a charismatic executioner, in a scene with honest-to-God background extras. Sadly, when they drop him through the trapdoor, Butler’s crew’s waiting below, stood on each other’s shoulders, to catch him. We end with the lads sailing for Tahiti, and now the ship’s actually rocking, there’s bird noises and sea sounds, leaving just enough time for the most Captain Butler final words of all — “I’m going to me cabin for a toss!

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.

It’s a Royal Knockout

•February 7, 2020 • 3 Comments

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The perception of the Royal Family is in an odd place right now. While thousands die of austerity, it’s hard to look favourably on anyone who takes their shits on a gold toilet, but on the other hand, remember how excitedly the nation’s gran pointed at some cows? Everyone loves The Crown, but you wouldn’t let Prince Philip near a lampshade if Jackie Chan was in the room, and Camilla will never be your dad’s Queen. The younger Royals are generally viewed more positively, with almost everyone fine with Will, Kate and Harry, although the same people who hate Raheem Sterling and Diane Abbott, and whose least-favourite Ghostbuster is Winston also seem to hate Meghan. And then there’s Andrew, who, thanks to palling around with a nonce, is perhaps the biggest Royal pariah of the modern era.

It was much simpler back in the eighties, when the Windsors were mostly beloved, and more importantly, respected. Their faces were constantly gazing out of commemorative plates, with mums hoarding newspapers of anniversaries or engagements as a valuable commodity; the Beanie Baby retirement plan of the age. But there was still a distance between the monarchy and their humble subjects, which was to be bridged by a televised spectacle that’d make them relatable; that’d show they were capable of mucking about and having fun. The Grand Knockout Tournament — or as it would be known, It’s a Royal Knockout — was the brainchild of Prince Edward, the most prematurely balding of all the Royals, scratched out on the back of an envelope in the grounds of Buckingham Palace with It’s a Knockout host, and future Yewtree grab, Stuart Hall.

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It seemed to me, as a then-eight-year-old, that the Royal kids each had their own gimmick. Charles was the eccentric who talked to plants, Anne the scary one on a horse, Andy the playboy soldier, and Edward the one who liked poncing about in the theatre. Only five months before Royal Knockout, Edward dropped out of his Royal Marine training to take a job as a production assistant at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatrical company; a move which he announced to the media before alerting his family, with Prince Philip’s reaction reportedly “reducing his son to prolonged tears.” The previous year, for the Queen’s 60th birthday, he’d commissioned a one-off musical from Webber and Tim Rice about cricket, called Cricket (Hearts and Wickets), which starred Fred Elliott from Corrie and Alvin Stardust. Fine, but I once painted my mum a portrait of Ross Kemp for her birthday, so who’s the better son?

The first in Edward’s pretensions of being a powerhouse producer, It’s a Royal Knockout was broadcast on BBC1 on Friday 19th June, 1987, with four teams of celebrities battling for charity. Each was captained by a member of the Royal family; Prince Edward, Prince Andrew, Princess Anne, and Fergie, the Duchess of York. The Queen and Prince Philip were dead against it, and Charles and Di declined to take part, or even make an appearance. It’s at this point I must make something clear. Not a single second of the event will sound like anything but my having tripped and hit my head and some LSD fallen into my open mouth, but I promise you, it all happened. As if to prove my point, before the cameras rolled, the crowd were warmed up by Bernie Clifton and the Wurzels.

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For a show supposed to make the Royals more relatable, it’s an odd choice to go with a medieval theme; a period when anyone who wasn’t nobility was doomed to a life of diarrhea and rickets, before dying of old age at 28. Hosted at Alton Towers, the giant set is a specially built castle, with everyone dressed as brightly-coloured minstrels, damsels or jesters, like that wedding in The League of Gentlemen (“I won the mums!”). Even the crowd are in Robin Hood caps and crowns, and for the ladies, those pointy, dunce-cap type hats. But we need to talk about the teams. People moan about the questionable fame of “so-called” celebrity contestants on reality shows, and it’s perhaps because of the calibre here; a truly extraordinary cast of athletes, actors and singers that will never be topped; like a Survivor Series of 80’s celebrities. Let’s look at a selection of the players and try to convince ourselves this actually happened.

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Playing with Prince Edward, we have Toyah Willcox, Barry McGuigan, John Cleese, Duncan Goodhew, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Tessa Sanderson, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Christopher Reeve. Superman and Rodney, together at last!

With Fergie, there’s Mel Smith, Jane Seymour, Pamela Stephenson, Chris de Burgh, and Meat Loaf.

Princess Anne’s got Cliff Richard, Emlyn Hughes, the artist Peter Blake, Eddy Grant, Jenny Agutter, Kevin Kline, NFL player Walter Payton, Sheena Easton, and Tom Jones.

And finally, ‘Randy’ Andy’s star-loaded team includes Anneka Rice, Gary Lineker, Nigel Mansell, George Lazenby, Fiona Fullerton, Michael Palin, Nightshade from Gladiators, Margot Kidder, Griff Rhys Jones, and Jeffrey Epstein. Okay, not that last one, but what a roster!

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We open with a voiceover from Rowan Atkinson, bidding us “noble spectator, lay aside all worries, cast aside all cares, and travel with us back, back through time, to a magical era…”Atkinson emerges onto the stage as Lord Knock — who’s just Blackadder II — accompanied by Lady Knock, aka Barbara Windsor, in a dress so big, she struggles to make her way down the stone staircase. Courtiers parp on banner-draped trumpets, as Aled Jones, looking and sounding exactly like Joffrey, reads the royal decree from a scroll. Atkinson introduces “three roistering knaves and one rollicking maiden,” which turn out to be Les Dawson, “wizard supreme” Paul Daniels — dressed like he’s been conjuring a homunculus — and Su Pollard. Geoff Capes is there, as a proto Mountain, while “jolly jester” Stuart Hall does his usual Knockout shtick. Speaking of sex offenders, let’s finally get to why we’re here, with Prince Andrew leading the charge for the Royals.

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Each Windsor is playing for a charity, and Andrew’s is the World Wildlife Fund, which is a bit rich considering his family’s love for hunting, with his dad having slaughtered everything from tigers to crocodiles, and blasting his 10,000th pheasant out of the sky by 1993. Flanked by bannermen, he leads his team onto the field, waving a stuffed panda mascot, in a way that seems to scream “I am waving a panda. I am, as they say, ‘having a laugh‘.” Andrew and Edward in particular seem noticeably uncomfortable, aware they need to make a show of letting loose, and with the gritted teeth and firm eye contact of someone who’s at their first party in a decade and trying to be normal when the small talk starts. Conversely, an excited Fergie runs her team out with Full Metal Jacket chant-jogging.

Throughout, the most interesting Royal by a mile is Anne, an imposingly self-assured figure, whom Hall approaches “with some trepidation.” Whenever she’s pulled into the theatrics, there’s an obvious air of not giving a single, solitary shit. “We’re the strong silent types,” she says of her team, the Red Perils, and when Hall asks “have you a war cry for us, ma’am?” he gets a brusque reply of “no, no; I told you, we’re the strong and silent type.” Andrew does have a team chant — “What are we going for? GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!” while Team Fergie’s call to arms is led by Pamela Stephenson and an armour-clad Meat Loaf. As is clear from the previous line, this is less an event than a scattered collection of hallucinatory moments; Alice’s tumble to plague-ravaged Wonderland, but instead of following a white rabbit, it’s Gary Lineker dressed as a potato.

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There’s an early sense of the class disconnect, when Prince Edward tells Hall “it was just the way the cookie crumbled,” and his team buckle in laughter at the hilarious use of a well-known idiom. Oh, very witty, your highness! Have you ever thought of doing stand-up?! Boschian setting aside, Stuart Hall’s persona is as odd as always; overly-wordy and acting half-drunk, like Jack Sparrow played by Will Self. His entire deal, as with Kris Akabusi after him, is laughing; at everything, all the time. And It’s a Knockout gave him ample opportunity, with its MO of sticking people in ridiculously oversized costumes and making them run around so they’d fall over. That’s every game in a nutshell, and the kick-off sees celebrities crammed into outfits with great big feet and wobbly bellies to tow a cannon up a field. In the chaos, Hall’s just shouting shouting whatever he sees — “George Lazenby! Michael Palin!” A puffed-out Duncan Goodhew runs past the Earl of Wessex. Eddie Grant adjusts a giant foam helmet that’s slipping off his dreads. Princess Anne’s cannon goes off; Cliff Richard leaps for joy; Jackie Stewart collapses in exhaustion. At the conclusion, Gary Lineker’s skirt gets caught in the cogs, exposing him down to the stockings. Even Anne’s laughing.

It’s here that I uncovered a wrongful conviction. While the first game is cued by Barbara Windsor dropping a hanky, the rest have Paul Daniels firing a duelling pistol into the air. Stuart Hall will blather on about Daniels taking off his eyebrows with the first shot, bringing it up multiple times during the show, and warily stepping out of the way each time Daniels fingers the trigger. But I found reference in an old interview to it actually being an ill-timed cannon boom by Prince Andrew which set Hall’s face alight. I went back to the game and managed to locate the exact moment, and am glad to posthumously clear the name of Paul Daniels, who, like Jack the Ripper before him, shouldered the blame for the crimes of the monarchy.

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One game’s straight out of school fetes, giving us the sight of Superman shimmying across a pole while Tom Jones and Jenny Agutter throw plastic hams at him. Though, watching George Lazenby bust off headshot after headshot with rubber bread makes you doubly-sad he only did one Bond. Sadly, Les Dawson’s not on top form, with jokes like “Lazenby, once known as 003!” and even reusing the same gag about big-thighed athletes — “look at those legs, there should be a message tied to ’em.” That said, he does suggest a dog has pissed or shat in the water, and at one point, is accompanied by Su Pollard as he badly plays Greensleeves on a harpsichord which collapses, which is all you can hope for. Incidentally, there’s a cut to Fergie during this, with her fingers in her ears and a look on her face like “This Les fellow is terrible at piano! Why on Earth did they let him perform?”

There’s a huge amount of games, most of them sponsored, and consequently carrying egregious titles like “McDonalds Restaurant Knock a Knight,” “Canada Life Assurance Lovers,” and in really speaking to the common man, “Harrods King of the Castle.” Nothing makes any sense, so it’s best to just roll with it. Young Gary Lineker, looking like the Karate Kid, is blindfolded under a mask of Peter Sutcliffe to swing a wrecking ball. Prince Andrew cheers him on, stood next to a skier whose dick is extremely visible through his tights. Chicago Bear, Walter Payton, is ‘knighted’ with a plastic sword by Princess Anne. Meat Loaf — called “Meaty!” a hundred times through a megaphone by Pamela Stephenson — falls over and splits a hole in the arse of his armour. Chris de Burgh slips into a pond, soaking his stockings and blouse. Christ, what if Tom Jones’ tights get wet? He’s already testing the seams to their limit.

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You may have noticed that so far the Royal involvement has amounted to standing around and shouting, and not getting physically involved. If Andrew was capable of sweating, he’d still be dry as a bone, as the Windsors keep off the field of play, happy to bark instructions or point fingers at Mel Smith. But when they feel they’ve been aggrieved, it’s a different story. At one point, Anne sprints at Paul Daniels to furiously contest an enemy’s point, while an unwitting rule-break by the opposing team’s Anneka Rice’s has Prince Andrew jubilantly clapping and roaring, in by far his most animated showing so far. Andrew’s competitiveness comes to a head in the King race, with celebrities stuffed inside twelve-feet-high costumes for a sprint. After his men are eliminated, the Duke’s squaring up to Hall to complain his team weren’t ready, and demanding a re-run. Andrew’s steely gaze marks him as a man who is not even remotely joking, as he snatches the mic with a “right then,” and addresses the crowd — “Who says we should have a re-run?” But cheers or not, the judges refuse; there will be no re-run. An elated Emlyn Hughes punches the air.

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Also of note during this game, visible in the background as they’re doling out scores, a Droogs-like mob led by John Travolta bum-rushes Hughes, stripping him of his tights as he tries to cover himself, in a scene that would’ve ended in someone doing jail time in 2020. Perhaps the apex of Knockout‘s concussion-dream mirage is when celebrities dressed like onions, leeks and potatoes have to evade opposing cooks, before they pull off their veg and toss it in a giant cauldron. If someone played snippets of Hall’s commentary down the phone, you’d think it was a CIA trigger code to awaken buried assassin programming — “Pamela Stephenson running for the blues against Cliff Richard… the onion’s hiding behind a tent there, that’s out of bounds.” Anneka Rice strips Rodney Trotter of his potato; John Travolta yanks a giant onion off Toyah Willcox’s head; an ultra competitive Emlyn Hughes violently flays Griff Rhys Jones of his leek, like he’s making him give up the location of a kidnapped child.

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After a quick joust, proceedings conclude with a victorious Princess Anne having decimated the competition, and awarded a big ceramic potty by Barbara Windsor. Andy’s in second place, with Edward third, and Fergie bringing up the rear. But really, it was just a series of moments; a living Bayeux Tapestry by Coldwar Steve, where Jane Seymour plugged her ears as Paul Daniels fired a gun, Su Pollard held a platter with a pig’s head on it, and the Duke of York expressed obvious displeasure as an exhausted Meat Loaf failed to catch an onion on legs. Incidentally, isn’t The Princess Royal an odd title? Like saying Prime Minister Politician or something.

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It’s a Royal Knockout garnered 18 million viewers, with a worldwide audience of 400 million. 400 million people heard the phrase “I don’t think Meat Loaf will ever catch that onion!” But its legacy wasn’t the ratings, nor the total of £1.5m the obscenely wealthy Royals inspired in public donations, but what happened in the immediate aftermath. At 6:30am on the morning of filming, fearful of them jeopardising the live broadcast rights, Prince Edward had the assembled media quarantined to the press tent. Forced to watch the show on a little monitor, and given no food, leaving them hot, exhausted and hungry, when the Prince strolled in some fourteen hours later, beaming with pride, to ask if they’d enjoyed themselves, the response was somewhat muted. “Well, thanks for sounding so bloody enthusiastic,” he snapped, “what have you been doing in here all night?” (starving in a sweaty tent?) Edward then stormed out, stopping only to berate a group of photographers as he boarded the helicopter back to Buckingham Palace, warning “one day, you lot are going to have to learn some manners.

The following day’s coverage focussed entirely on Edward’s tantrum, with headlines like “It’s a Royal Walkout.” Far from helping popularise the Royals, Knockout marks the moment that public opinion begun to turn against them. Seeing them pratting about with Rodders and arguing the toss over points with Paul Daniels punctured the Royal aura of stately dignity, and it was long-considered their worst PR disaster, until Newsnight came along. Royal Correspondent James Whitaker pinpoints it as the moment perception changed, but less ‘they seem fun and normal’ and more “who are these appalling people?” while Charles’s biographer Jonathan Dimbleby puts it as the Windsor’s “nadir.

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Before filming, Edward attempted to assuage the fears of doubters, including his own mother. “I don’t think the British monarchy will suffer in the process,” he said, “I hope it will be viewed as being like a breath of fresh air.” But the show’s monstrous failure created schisms behind the scenes at the Palace too. The Queen Mother was said to be “incensed,” and Philip was quoted as saying the show “made us look foolish.” Sarah Ferguson, whose time as a Royal was marked by tabloids deeming her coarse and common, blamed Knockout on launching that characterisation. Speaking about it in her book, Fergie felt she’d unfairly gotten the brunt of the backlash, trying to be a good sport by joining in, and branded vulgar as a result. “What of Edward and Anne and Andrew, whose lead I was following? Why should I be blamed?” Still, as we found out last year, it could’ve been much worse, and at least we’ve got the It’s a Royal Knockout episode of The Crown to look forwards to. Leave your dream casting in the comments, keeping in mind Paul Daniels will be a puppet like Baby Yoda.

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