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As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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

 

A Prince Among Men

•June 26, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[This is Part 9 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart Eight]

The latest Shitcom to fall under my gaze has a lot in common with the previous entry, Captain Butler. It too hails from the 1990s as a star vehicle for a Red Dwarf actor, and just like Butler, is an absolute clogged toilet of a show. Like Faith in the Future, Not On Your Nellie, Life of Riley, and Nelson’s Column, A Prince Among Men follows that classic sitcom title convention of picking an idiom and naming the lead character after it; in ex-footballer, Gary Prince. Although a more fitting title would’ve been The Shitass Empire. Speaking of Britass, Prince Among Men was co-created by a pair who’d penned four episodes of Chris Barrie’s swimming centre disaster-farce, and written for Birds of a Feather; plus one them played Jacko’s mate on Brush Strokes, so imagine an episode of Comedy Connections where it’s just a close-up of me scratching all the skin off my face.

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The opening titles show clips from the series, but jazzed up to look exciting with that weird stabiliser effect you get when someone’s filming their dad fall down the stairs on a phone. As the show-proper will when it starts telling jokes, the theme has me tossing batteries at the screen and setting fire to the curtains, as it kicks in with hooligan-style chanting — “he’s a winner, he’s a star; he’s a prince, a prince among men!” Fahkin’ come on then, you slags! I’ll stripe ya! But then a gravelly-voiced Chris Rea type takes over, with lyrics that read like a five-year-old smeared in cake icing explaining all about their favourite superhero.

he’s always right, cos he knows what’s what,

winnin’ is his game, he’s always said,

cos the best is the Prince, and he’s got the lot,

and he hasn’t let it go to his head!

He goes onto tell us Gary’s “an all-time great, the finest football player of the day” and “patted on the back by the hand of fate, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” What do you care, mate? This interminable song carries on into the opening scene, which showcases Prince Among Men‘s comedic one-two punch; technology going wrong and Chris Barrie pulling a face, while also demonstrating how the audience; clearly packed with rabid Red Dwarf fans; will laugh their throats bloody at anything he does. Gary’s a big tech guy, and gets a laugh purely by using a remote control to close his patio doors. The first comedian to go back in time with an Amstrad em@iler is gonna sell out stadiums.

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Throughout the series, the live crowd are popping off like loose firecrackers, ready to fall out of their seats whenever Barrie opens his mouth, like someone overreacting to the lunch room quips of a colleague they fancy. In one episode, just the name Sophie Moffett, not even meant to be a joke, gets a lone “hurh!” of amusement, likely from someone who entered the studio doing the Red Dwarf shuffle. To be fair, he is using his Lister voice from the Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers audiobook, as Gary Prince is a proper comedy Scouser, complete with that perm all footballers had in [checks notes] 1998. In a testament to great research, Scouse Gary is seen casually reading The Sun.

Chris Barrie’s a gifted performer, but he’s truly dreadful in this, with a zero effort performance, like he’s confused the actual shoot for the first table read. There’s a shocking lack of preparedness, everything played flat and bare minimum, with no extra little moments of physicality or added comic garnishes on the lines he’s merely remembered and is reciting, other than sometimes pulling a face. It feels like that stage show which re-enacts the whole of the movie Point Break, where a random audience member’s pulled on to play Keanu’s part with no warning.

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Despite the football setting, any actual footie-talk is so generic, the writers had all the interest of your mum glancing up from her sudoku on cup final day to ask why the goalie doesn’t just pick it up and run down the other end. This is a workplace sitcom in disguise, with Gary’s ’empire’ of assorted businesses running out of an office complex at the end of his garden. His secretary Sonia is one of those naïve comedy thickos with a baby voice, always squeaking on about unseen fiancée, Kevin, who’s got eczema and erupting dermatitis, giving Barrie the chance to make grossed-out facial expressions when hearing about his flaky skin, just like you loved when he did it with Colin in The Brittas Empire, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?! Also working for him are Susie Blake, Minty off Eastenders, and posho accountant Mr. Fitzherbert, who makes frequent reference to boarding school chums called things like Pongo and Shagger.

Right from the whistle, it’s clear we’re following the rote construction of all sitcoms from that era, as used so ineffectively by Big Top a decade later, where, rather than having a funny scene play out in front of camera, two characters sit down and talk about what happened, so we can imagine it instead. At a supermarket opening, Minty will mention a “routine with a salami” that went down well with the housewives; “of course, you always get one that faints.” Yes, great idea, keep the interesting incidents offscreen, and have the sitcom be all the boring stuff. The series begins with Gary reminiscing about taking blind kids skydiving, as though that’s an inherently funny idea and not, like, a thing there are actual charities for. Anyway, one of them got caught in a wind sock; but you can’t see it. Neither could the kid!

We’re 1,000 words in, and I’ve yet to mention the plot. That’s because they don’t settle on one until five minutes from the end, so it’s all just random shit. A dog gets fatally hung (later revealed to be fine) by an automatic garage door; Gary goes to the pub he bought for the manager of his old schoolboy team; and there are loads of jokes about his high-tech gadgets. The universal remote’s obviously intended to be their ‘Arkwright’s Till’, with doors opening suddenly and violently, and a wine dispenser tipping a bottle of red all over the floor as the audience hoot. There’s a bit where he goes to use his mobile and accidentally dials on the remote instead, cutting to all the shutters and blinds going at Benny Hill speed.

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Gary’s wife is a German with a Herr Flick accent, switching all her Vs for Ws (“wegitarian food”), and he overhears her on the phone, erroneously thinking he’s getting the This is Your Life book during his speech at the policeman’s luncheon. Turns out, he’s wrong, though we do get a look at Gary’s patter. “I’ve always tried to do me bit for the boys in blue, but to be honest, I’d rather do it for the girls in blue! Ooh ooh!” At this, he salaciously thrusts his fist at 90 degrees, in the time-accepted mime for a big stiff willy going up a fanny. This is fully on a par with the rest of the jokes. Regard, this example of Prince‘s laff-getters.

     Fitzherbert: “I’m sorry if it offends you that I’ve got a pedigree.

     Gary: “I’ve got a pedigree, chum.

Ha, ha, just like the dog food! Then there’s this sparkling witticism, when Gary recalls a chat with his physio — “he says he’s never seen a knee like mine, he says another bloke would be hospitalised with my knee. Well, obviously not with my knee; he’d have his own, it’d be his knee…” Among all the talk of Gary’s side businesses, we learn there’s a tool designers; all to get to a line where Fitzherbert zings him by changing the company name to Gary Prince’s Toolworks — nothing more humiliating than having people know your penis can get hard and shoot cum out of its slit.

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But this is a rare case of the show understanding what a double-entendre is, incapable of pulling off (see, that’s how easy it is!) even the hoariest of comedy techniques. When Fitzherbert takes a phonecall with a woman, he suggests “why don’t we play around on Friday afternoon. I seem to remember you thrashed me last time,” Gary opens his gob in shock, eyebrows on the ceiling. But anyone — i.e. the whole audience — who’s laughing as though he isn’t clearly describing tennis or golf, but rather, a bout of violent S&M, must be sat in a fucking gimp mask and bollock-collar to make that connection. There’s another one in episode 3, where he tells Gary his wife’s mad because he “shot Nanny. She was old and passed it, and smelled dreadful, so I took her into the garden and shot her.” Maybe this would’ve been funny if he’d revealed he actually was talking about an old lady and not, as is patently obvious, a dog.

We’re supposed to be charmed by Gary’s cheeky Scouse jack-the-laddery, like in his banter with Susie Blake’s Bev, who tells him she prefers to be addressed as Beverly — “Well dat’s very ‘andy, Bev, cos dat’s your name!” Every line’s delivered with that “Accrington Stanley!?” cadence, and pushed from the side of his mouth, sometimes ending on a jaunty pose, like a medieval jester. For such a pedestrian show, the end credits are oddly allegorical, set against an ethereal cloudy sky with a tiny Gary ascending a ladder which stretches up the side of the screen, slowly sinking with each step, with him reaching the top just as it ends. Ah, yes; in that eternal and endless struggle for success, man’s true enemy is himself; a philosophy imparted through A Prince Among Men‘s tableaux of Chris Barrie flaring his nostrils as the patio doors refuse to open.

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Episode two follows the 1997 naming rule of making a pun on Changing Rooms, entitled ‘Changing Revs‘, and starts with the Princes trying to make breakfast with Gary’s new voice-activated microwave from Japan, giving us the hilarity of his wife shouting in her German accent like an SS officer. Later, she’ll yell at it in Japanese, causing the blinds to come down instead. It’s all laid on the same rails as episode one, with Gary doing the rounds of the supporting characters as they all do their bits; Sonia chatters about ugly, gross Kevin; Fitzherbert says some comical stocks-n-shares words, and namechecks a Johnny Nipple and Buttocks Bingham; and there’s a reference to an offscreen “papier mache incident.” Plot-wise, the church due to hold Sonia and Kevin’s wedding is being sold, so Gary decides he’ll buy it. As the warden tells him about dwindling attendance, Gary suggests they do a “transfer to the Catholics,” and then he pulls this face.

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There’s a brilliant example here of the way bad writers desperately scrabble around to find a joke — any joke — so they can pack up for the day, remembering how they once read that humour is born from confusion. Why, asks Gary, were there so many boxes of macaroons in the church? “Cameroons!” exclaims the warden, “they’re going to the Cameroons! We’re storing them for a charity.” “Oh, right.” That’s it. That’s a joke. And tellingly, it’s the first to barely raise a titter from the audience. The warden tells Gary the church is God’s house. “And does he know you’re selling it?” asks Gary. And then he pulls this face.

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Back at the office, a woman’s arrived from charity Tropic Aid — “I’m a Lucozade man meself!” says Gary, and yes, a face was made, but like everything else in this show, I’ll let you imagine it. However, Gary’s not buying the church to save Sonia’s wedding, and secretly plans to turn it into a go kart track called ‘God’s Hot Rods’ or ‘Onward Christian Go-Karts’ (the latter of which scores our first zero-laughs gag). Eventually, the church finds out, cancels the sale, and sends the go karts to Africa, mistaking them for a charitable donation (“so now the nomads can drive 15 miles to the nearest well”), but until then, Bev hates the idea of the church falling into secular hands.

     Sonia: “It can be a bit messy. Kevin’s got those, you know.” [oh Christ, don’t]

     Bev: “What?” [please…]

     Sonia: “Secular hands. He has to have them dressed twice a week by the health visitor.” [my office lays empty. The window beside the desk is wide open, curtain billowing, scattering loose papers about the room. In the street below, there is silence for a moment. And then, a scream]

It turns out Gary accidentally grassed himself up to the church on an answerphone tape, and there’s no mole, so t– “Kevin has moles, have you tried potassium manganate?” Sorry, I just blacked out for a second. Gary: “I mean in me organisation!” Sonia: “Kevin’s are in his armpits.” Look, let’s just MOVE ON. Episode 3, Where Were They Then? sees Gary’s old schoolboy team being reunited for an interview in the Independent. This week’s tech-yuks come from a little table that descends from the ceiling but keeps going out of reach, in a gag the show returns to about ten fucking times. Meanwhile, Gary’s wife is launching a range of cakes, and when told they’ll be puff pastry, Sonia lets out a big “Oh dear… Kevin won’t go near puff pasty, just in case.” Is this… a homophobic gag? Puffs? Fear of catching AIDS? What else could it be a reference to?

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Gary and his schoolboy manager discuss old teammates, including John the Murderer, who went onto kill both his parents in a mercy killing — sorry, “a Mersey killing. He pushed them both in the Mersey.” Christ, a man should be so lucky. Later, while wearing a huge 90’s smock-jacket like Pipes from Ghostwatch, he’s caught shit-talking John the Murderer, when he turns out to be Right Behind Him, covering himself with a brown-nosing “you were probably driven to it; you were pushed!” “No,” says John the Murderer, “I wasn’t pushed. But they were!” I cannot reiterate enough, I’d bloody love to have been murdered rather than sit through this. Nice head-stoving or charger cable round the neck; the edges of my vision going grey as Sonia talks about Kevin’s anal-fissure, and knowing, even if I’m due for the plague pits of Hell, things are looking up.

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At the team meet, old goalkeeper Derek’s now Deborah after a sex change — who craggy manager Vince immediately becomes besotted with — and there’s more offscreen antics when Bev berates Sonia for ruining her night at a posh society do, having had to resuscitate Kevin in a muddy lake after one of his ‘attacks’. “Yes, he chucked a banger at the orchestra and they attacked him!” The cartoonish nature of these anecdotes is tonally way off with the dreary stuff we do see, describing Kevin with his head stuck in a tuba, and a piccolo jammed up his arse.

When the newspaper comes in, it turns out to a piece about Gary’s wife. “I guess zat’s the vay the cookie crumbles!” she says, which gets a huge laugh, presumably because she’s quoting Prince Edward’s brilliant and timeless quip from It’s a Royal Knockout, and we end on the ceiling-table shattering over Gary’s head, leaving him grimacing and rubbing his perm. Inexplicably, A Prince Among Men wasn’t cancelled the moment its opening titles had finished, but renewed for a second series. This would be relegated to the Sunday afternoon death slot, along with other shows that felt like punishment, and which existed solely as Gabriel’s trumpet-blast, announcing the imminent, dread approach of school or work. And what a way to see off the final dregs of the weekend, by watching Chris Barrie make a face as he hears about the infected penile scabs of an unseen man.

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

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

Gone To Pot

•June 16, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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Though ITV’s 2017 reality show, Gone To Pot — a series that sends celebrities to learn about marijuana — looks like classic Patreon material, I must admit, I’ve been putting it off. I usually cover things I’ve at least some cursory knowledge of, and as someone who doesn’t even drink, let alone smoke weed, I feel I don’t have the appropriate expertise. I’m not some reactionary weirdo; it’s just not for me, and consequently, I may be about shatter my image as the swaggering literary hedonist whose brilliant, prolific output could only be achieved by a diet of pharmaceutical-strength narcotics and pansexual swinging. Alas, this is such unfamiliar territory, I don’t even know what to call it. Weed? Pot? Cannabis? Gear? What’s the slang these days? “One packet of Lyndhurst’s please, my good dealer!” It’s like starting a new school and not knowing if you get beaten up for wearing your backpack with one strap or both.

The other reason for my hesitancy is a general dislike of weed culture. Anyone who makes a substance or foodstuff their entire personality is the worst kind of bore; craft beer drinkers, and people who made an active decision to walk this Earth as The Coffee-Liker, their daily Instagram stories flooded with boomerangs of brown liquid and stickers that say “WOW!” People whose ‘thing’ is weed seem to be suffering arrested development, forever the kids showing off in IT class by printing out clip-art of Bob Marley, and kicking around in Spliffy jackets. Growing up, I feel like every conversation anyone had between the ages of 16-20 consisted of positing “Mate, imagine if [relatively boring-seeming person] smoked weed! Imagine them with a spliff!

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Prior to writing this, I decided to do some extra research, and hit the streets to glean information from the local youths that hang around lampposts, spitting. Apparently, there’s a particularly virulent brand of skunk round here called Pence’s Piss, with other popular strains such as Reboot Cadfael, Dean Gaffney’s African Cleaner, and Just Fuck Off, You Paedo.

I needn’t have been concerned about my own lack of street knowledge, as Gone To Pot was obviously made by your mum, chatting away to your school chums about ‘the old wacky baccy’ and getting the munchies, while they wait for you to come down from the bathroom. There’s an unrelenting Summer of Love soundtrack, with every onscreen caption in that bubbly Woodstock font. All the travelling’s done in a tour bus decorated with psychedelic swirls, peace signs, and the word LOVE, and every inch of the interior’s adorned with colourful throws and giant flowers. Dreamcatchers hang from the ceiling; arriving celebrities are draped with leis. This is weed culture in a Poundland fancy dress outfit, its fingers held up in a peace sign, going “yeah man, peace man, I’m a hippie…

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The cast too, are endearingly innocent to the ways of marijuana, or as the Ric Flair of darts, Bobby George calls it, “happy baccy.” Riding with Bobby for the three-week tour of all things 420 are a group of aged minor celebrities with similarly shocking levels of drug inexperience, given that showbiz supposedly runs on wild coke parties. For Christopher Biggins, a human teddy bear locked in a permanent wheezing fit of raucous laughter, this is a comeback of sorts, recently shouldered from his perch as national treasure, after getting thrown off Big Brother for accusing bisexuals of spreading AIDS, and jokingly warning a Jewish contestant not to get gassed. Biggins aims to find out whether medicinal marijuana can help with his bad knee. Likewise, Pam St. Clement is riddled with arthritis, and a perfect fit for the show, considering EastEnders‘ love of the comedic ‘stuffy character takes drugs by accident’ plot. Connoisseurs of the trope may consider the genre peak Dot Cotton’s misadventures with some ‘herbal tea,’ but for me, no onscreen portrayal of drugs is as powerful as the time Martin Fowler was given LSD by Nick Cotton, in events portrayed via Martin’s POV of his brother making funny faces into a fish-eye lens. Finally, rounding off the group, there’s Linda Robson off Birds of a Feather, and Fash.

John ‘Fash’ Fashanu, Fash the Bash, is an extraordinarily weird man; a top-level oddball who carries himself with both the wide-eyed innocence and know-it all arrogance of a child, like he made a wish at a Zoltar machine, right before making another one, asking to be a massive prick. So otherworldly, like every day is his first on Earth, I suspect most will think it’s an act and he’s doing a ‘bit’. Not just a prude, but a wildly intolerant religious bigot, who once paid his now-dead gay brother £75,000 to stay in the closet and save his embarrassment, Fash is your classic target for “imagine him on the weed though, be mad wouldn’t it?!” Greeting the arrival of the bus with an “amen, brother,” he claims, like old muggins here, to have never taken drugs or been drunk, but has a dim view of those that have. With that old classic, “I don’t need drugs because I’m high on life,” And where does Fash stand on weed? “I classify marijuana with cocaine, heroin, any other of the a-listed drugs.”

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As such a zero tolerance hard-liner, the real story of the show is Fash’s struggle though an endless series of visits to weed dispensaries and grow farms, and how that affects his attitude towards “smoke heads” as despicable junkie scum. We begin, of course, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, birthplace of the counterculture, and where a fresh-out-of-jail Charles Manson picked up his first followers. “I can actually smell wacky baccy!” shrieks an overexcited Linda Robson, likely soon to be giggling off the fumes, like year 9 girls on a school trip, drunk on shandy. Even I’m beginning to feel pretty hip, as Bobby imagines what it might be like to smoke some, with a “yeah baby, alright man!” But not everyone’s so open to experimentation, as Fash confesses to camera that he’s nervous about admitting to the others he doesn’t want to smoke, because, well…

Before the first of many, many trips to a dispensary, the gang list their ailments to a Skype doctor, who signs each a medical note for just $100 apiece. Boy did they get rinsed! I got a thorough examination over webcam by a urologist I met on ChatRoulette, and it only cost me a tenner, though I did subsequently get blackmailed for £20,000 in bitcoin by Chechnyan mobsters. Now eligible for medicinal usage, the first-time buyers stock up on cannabis oils, brownies, and weed-infused sweets. All except for Fash, who refuses everything but a bro-handshake from the hipster behind the counter, coming off like a real Poo Poo Boy in the process.

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A permanent ingénue, forever shocked by the world around him, he’s aghast at the speed at which the others transform into filthy druggies, chucking a-list funny cigarettes into their baskets like a speed run on Supermarket Sweep. But then, we get to the crux of the matter, as Fash finally confesses his true reasons for staying away from that demon weed. Despite all the talk of morals and Christian faith, Fash’s opposition is actually a safety issue; the safety of others, concerned he may “take some weed,” and as a result “I may go completely out of control.” Fearing another Helter Skelter, Fash’s terror at endangering innocent victims increases at a grow commune operated by a group of nuns, the cartoonish Sisters of The Valley, who believe the plant to be a spiritual gift from Mother Goddess. With Pam and Bobby taking their first ever honks on an actual joint, a frightened Fash just says no, further explaining, with complete sincerity. “I might become extremely aggressive and start using martial arts… I’ve got 16 years, 4 black belts, so that would be horrible.”

Terrified he’ll take a single toke and snap out of a weed-madness fugue to find himself standing over a pile of dead nuns, Fash considers even medicinal use too much of a risk. But as an ex-footballer with bad knees, he’s seen the benefits from his new friends, with Biggins bragging of a very fast nightly piss, having rubbed cannabis oil all over his thighs. As a result, he seems to be considering it, and soon, a now-shirtless Fash is having CBD oil massaged into his skin by the stoned sisters. However, in that morning-after regret typical of overdoing it on a big sesh, second thoughts quickly follow. “What’s really disturbing me, is the connotation that for the next 3 or 4 days, everybody will be smelling marijuana, thinking I’m a junkie.

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To be fair, Fash’s Reefer Madness notion of an immediate psychotic break on ingesting marijuana was initially shared by the rest of the group. Putting droplets of cannabis oil under their tongues, each seemed to be expecting that hard cut to their pupils shrinking into pinpricks, and the real world peeling away to reveal a moving patchwork of cartoon rainbows, mandarin music and talking bunnies. But unlike Fash, once they’ve had their first puff, the others are quick to embrace it, immediately going full Cheech and Chong, and leaving him open mouthed, making noises like he’s at a firework display when watching them inhale. This hedonism hits its pinnacle when the group meet pink-haired 94-year-old edibles chef, Nonna Marijuana, giving us this phenomenal exchange, with Fash introducing himself to the very spritely old lady with a patronising decibel-level normally reserved for trying to rouse an actual corpse.

“FASH! FASH! I’M FASH!”

Flash?

“FASH!”

Flash?

“FASH!”

What knowledge I lack about drugs, I make up for in experience with memes. One thing I’ve learned from them is the behaviour of edibles, with those two-panel images of someone scoffing pot brownies and feeling fine, followed by a second frame depicting the moment ‘when that edible hits’, where they’re trapped in a Photoshop blur and clinging on for dear life. Nonna cooks a feast, with lashings of weed mixed into the butter, and though Fash eats the ‘clean’ alternative, Biggins and Bobby, a couple of big lads who never turned down a free dinner, gobble down about fifteen helpings. It’s now that Fash takes an enormous step. “To debate marijuana,” he says, “I must know what it’s like.” Know thy enemy, indeed, and with a deep breath, he succumbs to a few spoonfuls of marijuana ice cream, ensuring poor old Nonna’s imminent death from a flurry of demented karate chops. Like a man sitting on a ticking bomb, he holds his breath and waits. And… nothing happens.

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Two hours later, the memes are all true, and when the edibles hit, it’s an ugly sight. Fash’s mouthful of ice cream leaves him unharmed — Awooga! — but Bobby and Biggins undergo what I’m informed is known as a well-bad whitey. Not laughing for the first time in his life, Biggins weakly begs for help, even sicker than he was when the driver inquired of little old England “do you you guys have bidets?” to the furious reply of “we invented them!” As a poor production assistant holds a plastic bag to catch the vomit of a sobbing Bobby George, a staggering, vacant Biggins, caked in sick, has to be helped into his deathbed. The morning after, with everyone shook, Bobby describes last light’s events as “100 sea-sicks at once.” It’s only lucky Fash didn’t overindulge too. Christ, they’d had to have rolled out the tanks to stop him.

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But are there two hollower words than never again? Despite their near-death experiences, we follow the group through various hippie communes and grow factories, where everyone’s having a grand old time of it, with Bobby, Linda and Pam in particular puffing away like Cyprus Hill. Meanwhile. Fash is constantly fucking around on his phone, and in every scene of bus frivolity, can be seen in the corner, head down, fingers tapping away. Most likely, the sight of an ODing Biggins has him starting an online petition to make possession a hanging offence. But then he meets a little girl in a wheelchair, stricken by 1,000 seizures a day, until cannabis oil did what traditional medicine couldn’t, which opens his eyes to the benefits of medicinal marijuana, and leaves him in tears. Before we know what’s happening, they’re at a party in the Hollywood hills, and old Poo Poo Boy’s quaffing back a brownie. “What I don’t want,” he tells the chef, “is to take enough to put myself out of control.”

By morning, he’s shooting smack into the head of his penis with a dirty needle. No, don’t be silly. As the tour continues, we’re treated to more classic reality TV that’s so weird it sounds made up. Pat Butcher tags along to a SWAT raid on an illegal grow farm; Bobby George invites his mate Engelbert Humperdinck to a BBQ and mistakes ‘Bel Air’ for ‘bell-end’; Fash gets told off by a cop for picking up chemicals seized from a Mexican drug cartel. Then it’s off to the millionth weed farm, this time state-licensed, like moving up from Walt’s van to Gus’s underground lab.

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Even on an industrial scale, it’s still run by a bloke with a massive ratty beard and man-bun of white-boy dreads. When they visit a farm foods superstore, it filled with edibles, bongs, pipes and t-shirts; a weed-bore paradise. The guy behind the counter wears a beanie and Spider-Man jacket, and every customer is a scruffy hipster with flesh-gauged ears and sleeve tattoos. I shouldn’t judge appearances, being that I resemble a back alley crack dealer from an episode of Diagnosis: Murder, but damn if everyone involved in the legal weed industry doesn’t look exactly like they’d be depicted by a conservative newspaper cartoonist.

The gang split into groups, with Fash, Linda and Bobby off to Denver’s International Church of Marijuana, an ornate building painted up like a Grateful Dead cover, where ‘services’ consists of a dozen unbearably tiresome stoners with Counting Crows hair and steampunk goggles on top hats, lazing on pews in camo getting blazed. By the time Pam and Biggins join a ‘mobile cannabis lounge’, filled with another background cast of gross unkempt beards, trucker hats, and flannel, huffing on custom bong rigs, I’m 18 again, listening to my friends go on and on and on about weed all the fucking time, and never wanting to do anything but hang out at creepy older men’s houses to smoke. This is when I realise. It’s me, isn’t it? It’s always been me. I’m the Poo Poo Boy.

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There’s one final moment of television magic, when Fash gets a chance at clay pigeon shooting, excitedly decked out in hunting gear, but on realising it’s up a mountain, becomes too afraid to move within 20ft of the edge. Though his hands and feet may be deadly weapons, he cowers behind a production truck, literally clinging to it, while Linda merrily blasts away with a shotgun. Fash addresses one of the guides; “Brother, how can we fix this so I can have a go?” When told “you just gotta do like everybody else,” Fash replies, in classic nonsense-wisdom, “we’re not all born the same, brother.

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The trip concludes with the celebrities taking a (not legally-binding) vote on whether weed should be legalised in the UK, with a unanimous yes for legalising on medical terms. Regarding recreational use, the only surprise on Bobby, Biggins and Linda raising their hands, is that they’re even able to, considering the Snoop Dogg amount of stuff they’ve been putting away the past few weeks. And for my vote? Having sat through hours of people in dirty hoodies smugly exhaling like they’ve just written the world’s greatest symphony, I’m all for bringing back full prohibition. If Christopher Biggins wants to use his I’m a Celebrity trophy as a bong, he can do it at an underground speakeasy like everyone else. “Millard, mate, that’s going a bit far,” you think. Is it? Soon after Gone To Pot finished shooting, Mr. Clean himself, John Fashanu ended up locked away in a Nigerian jail. Sure, it was for an alleged land sale scam, but I’ve seen the memes. ‘When the edible hits…‘ Think on, yeah?

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

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

The Accursed 90s: The Word

•June 6, 2020 • 2 Comments

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[More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad ContestsDon’t Forget Your ToothbrushTalk Show GothsJames Whale on TelevisionCraig Charles’ Funky Bunker]

Unlike a lot of what I cover on here, The Word isn’t some forgotten piece of pop culture, but one of the most frequently reviled, having fully earned its place in the history book of very, very smelly telly. But for each of its oft-cited moments of viewer outrage — members of the public drinking a glass of sick; Mark Lamarr being rude; her off L7 getting her fanny out — every one of its live hours is packed with dozens more that have gotten lost. Like GamesMaster, its scattershot nature perfectly captures a moment in time, and I’ll be sifting though a couple of random episodes, each from early 1995, to see what cursed magic belches up to the surface.

Perhaps the most 90’s thing of all is the show’s sponsorship by Tango, before it’s straight into the Yewtree material, with a voiceover by Stuart Hall, who’d later be jailed over historic sex offences. The opening titles, where a horned-up couple accidentally sit on the remote as they get off with each other, is more explicit than I remember, with a woman fellating a 3-foot-long salami for a cheering crowd, and the guy on the sofa casually sucking the girl’s bare tit as they watch TV. As a mishmash of random stuff, The Word functions as a ‘dark’ version of morning magazine shows, exactly conforming to the structure of This Morning or Anne and Nick. Celebrity guests stick around on the sofa to add their thoughts to issues and topics they know nothing about, there’s live music, and pre-recorded VTs from the exotic climes of America.

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In a very Loaded-era thing; which we see now in Brexiteer Facebook memes about remembering jam sandwiches and playing out after dark, where anything from twenty-plus years ago is celebrated as Britain’s glorious past; guest Stuart Hall’s intro pegs him as “the greatest living Englishman.” Did they take that title from him too when his OBE got annulled? Accompanied by Dani Behr, Terry Christian bids us “hello, and welcome to the last outpost in maverick television. There have been and will be loads of imitators, but there can only be one The Word!” Even now, at the arse-end of its lifespan, a half-dozen episodes from finishing, the opening’s one big brag about how bad-arse they are, delighting in their status as trash-culture kings, with Behr adding they’ll be “keeping an army of TV critics in work over the next 7 days.” It’s important to remember just how despised Terry Christian was at the time, as a Jeremy Beadle-style national irritant, and his ability to chew my fucking chocolate has held up remarkably well 25 years on.

In case you forgot what decade this was, show proper begins with a number from Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, of whom Dani makes a crack about formerly playing backup for Oliver Reed, during his shambolic cover of Wild Thing, in one of the show’s most infamous moments. Invited on as a guest, Reed’s dressing room was filled with bottles of booze and hidden cameras, as they secretly filmed him getting drunk backstage, before playing the footage as he sat there, in a horribly humiliating sting. Anyway, the band play in front of a greenscreen projecting Windows Media Player visualisations, as the singer holds the mic upside down like a hamster drinking from its water bottle, and a woman in the crowd wobbles her tits at the camera.

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Terry’s “my first guest had his whole life turned upside down last July, when he was arrested and charged with rape” isn’t the usual cheery intro for Craig Charles, though he does stress, “he’s since been cleared by a jury; he’s been proved innocent.” Craig has become one of the faces on my Patreon’s Mount Rushmore of appalling television, his sweating mug hewn into the rock alongside Noel, Chris Evans, and Jim Davidson. He seems distracted during his intro, fiddling with a Pez dispenser that Terry relieves him of, and repeatedly touching the sofa before looking at his hands as if they’re wet, or have grown tiny little mouths that whisper secrets.

One thing you can say about The Word, is that its haphazard interviews have no sense of the PR-approved backslapping you get with a Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross. Craig’s brutally honest, talking a mile a minute about his time on remand, where murderers were spitting in his coffee and banging on his cell door shouting “beast!” and “nonce!” Note that his accuser was an adult woman, and back then, ‘nonce’ just meant general sex-past. Heck, when I was at school, it was a generic insult, like prick. The governor offered to put him on Rule 43 with the vulnerable prisoners, but “I wasn’t havin’ any of that. I wanted to go out on the landing where the real people were.” This is Craig’s big comeback, having spent “3 ½ months in a cell and 4 ½ months in exile,” and he must be taking it serious, as he barely does the fake Ernie laugh. Little did he know, in two short years, he’d be dominating Friday nights.

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In a way, The Word‘s closest cousin isn’t the chat show, but the Mondo genre of exploitation films, sandwiching their interviews between random scenes of ‘shock’, introduced with the insincere nonchalance of a teenage edgelord peeling off his jacket at Sunday lunch to reveal a shirt with FUCK on it. Suddenly, we’re off to San Francisco; “a place where women can get all the essential features of men just by taking the right medicine,” with lots of shots of transmen’s genitals and an interview with a “a hetero-affectional homosexual queer guy” called Shadow (in a classic case of picking your own cool-sounding nickname), shown riding a motorbike, and soundtracked by Born to be Wild. There’s footage of black market testosterone being injected into arse-cheeks, and lots of talk about big clits, and when we cut back to the studio, a shaken Craig’s holding Terry’s arm for support; “all I can say is, they put me in jail!” He points at the screen in disbelief, repeating “they put me in jail!

The rapid change in how we tackle trans issues is always the big shocker in aged television, and even this side of 911, beloved family entertainer Harry Hill was getting laffs from dry-heaving to clips from There’s Something about Miriam on TV Burp. If he did that now, they’d be burning his effigy in the streets, with only Graham Linehan on hand to provide a bucket of water. Later, there’s a ‘funny TV from Japan’ bit, even name-checking Clive James, who they stole it from, where a woman has a plaster-cast of her big floppy breasts.

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We return to Hall pointing at a girl in the front row who was retching, and of whom Terry says “can’t compete, can she?” intimating her tits are too small to bother making a mold of. Then we’re shown a naked keep fit video, which is just a load of boobs and nobs bouncing up and down, as Terry makes an unbelievably hackneyed reference to nudity appearing in “the middle pages of National Geographic.” Like The Big Breakfast, ad breaks are topped and tailed by fun little quizzes, like asking which celebrity has not spent the night in a bed at Cedars-Sinai hospital? “The answer is River Phoenix, he spent the night in their morgue.” Fucking hell.

In what will be an unintentionally remarkable interview, tonight’s second guest, Stuart Hall, is flanked by two of the ludicrous Knockout costumes as he makes his way to the sofa. It’s an interesting mix of sexual assault charges, respectively dealt with and still yet to come, with the found-innocent Craig Charles and guilty Hall sat side by side. If Hall’s hoping one could view his TV work and not associate it with his crimes, it won’t be happening here. Even in appearance, he’s cartoonishly sleazy, with an actual medallion around his neck, and unnervingly white teeth beaming out of a Ronseal tan, like the Millennium Falcon jumping to hyperspace. He looks like he should be selling you a blimp at marked-up prices in an old click-n-point videogame.

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At the time this went out, It’s a Knockout had been off air for 12 years, yet Hall’s fury about its cancellation still hasn’t cooled, blaming the BBC Controller, who “took off 12 million viewers and gave them to ITV in one week!” He rants and raves, trying to get the young crowd behind him with an aghast “they also took off the Good Old Days, and gave ITV another 8 million!” Shockingly, the audience of horny students chewing their jaws off aren’t exactly rioting over the loss of the Beeb’s tribute to Edwardian music halls, over a decade prior, but Hall keeps at it. “I said ‘what are you going to replace it with?’ He said ‘The Thorn Birds’. The Thorn Birds!” he scoffs, swishing a hand dismissively through the air, to utter bemusement from kids who, twenty minutes earlier, were moshing and fingering to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin.

Hall seems to view Knockout as the character-building equivalent to National Service. The show’s still ongoing in Europe, “but Britain aren’t playing!” he says, standing to illicit boos, in a damning prognostication on a future Brexit, shouting “D’YA WANT TO PLAY FOR BRITAIN?!” Terry’s lost control, as Hall bangs on about taking “boys and girls like these” and forming them into Knockout teams, to face the best in Europe at… tripping over in silly costumes? Finally getting a question in, Terry brings up Royal Knockout, as “the start of the rot for the Royal Family,” putting its co-creator on the defensive. “IT WAS A WONDERFUL IDEA!” bellows Hall, blaming the press for killing a show that would otherwise still be running. Perhaps of all their terrible crimes, the papers robbing us the sight of Rylan and Hugh Jackman throwing giant plastic sausages at Vanessa Feltz is their worst.

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The silence now is palpable, with a real sense of ‘I can’t cheer or wank to this!’ as he goes into a meandering anecdote about pole vaulting over a dyke. Time stands still; my beard trails to my ankles; new species are born and fade into extinction, and even the bloke from the opening credits’ erection is deflating, as Stuart Hall fills the silent studio with tales of raw sewage, a Dutch mayor, and crushing his own testicles. Craig welcomes us back from the break with an “awooga!” as Hall distracts from a question about “a copper, and like, going the wrong way up a motorway?” with another tall story about Liverpudlians making wine for charity, and all the “verrucas, varicose veins and anthrax” on their feet exploding the bottle factory. Everybody looks exhausted.

Mercifully, they hand over to their own Knockout revival, which in the cramped studio, is like trying to recreate Gladiators in a toilet cubicle. A girl in a furry bra selects audience members from a tumbler, as three men dressed as budgies dive through hoops and burst balloons with their tummies, while Hall does his thing of laughing really hard at people falling over a bit. The winner’s presented a key to the city on a pillow by an elderly and comically nervous mayor who seems afraid for his life surrounded by half-dressed clubbers.

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The final segment has the same energy as Gary Glitter’s “shh!” on his This is Your Life, when Terry asks Hall if it’s true the coppers once knocked on his door with a noise complaint and he answered it naked. “It was a set up!” he says, launching into a rather panicked story about hosting a pool party and getting chucked in — “and suddenly, down the slide, came this young lady with breasts like the north face of the Eiger…” Craig’s “this isn’t gonna stand up in court!” is ironic in hindsight, as Hall witters on — “she was wearing nothing but a faint smile, so I turned to the guests and said…” At this point, a thonged muscleman comes out with a tray of champagne, and the others begin talking amongst themselves. But Hall’s alibi must continue. “The girl was a total stranger, and the guy with her was a journalist. It was a set-up!” Wait, so what’s that got to do with answering the door naked?

Finally, in her first words since the opening, Dani introduces Luscious Jackson to play us home. Janeane Garofalo and Mark Morrison were both trailed as appearing throughout, but presumably got cut for time with Hall’s incessant yacking. Interestingly, tucked away in the credits as a researcher is the name Eliot Fletcher; a unique spelling we’ve seen before, swearing down the phone at Five Star on Going Live. Next, we’re jumping back a few weeks to February 3rd, 1995, in an episode which cold opens with Trevor Jordache, who’d recently been dug up from the patio in Brookside, in ghoulish make-up asking if he’s in Hell — “Worst than that, buster. You’re on The Word.

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Terry’s at a family funeral this week, so Dani and Jasmine Dotiwala are running the show — “the sisters are doing it for themselves!” — and we open with the first live television appearance of Supergrass. But from here, it’s a downhill slalom into the abyss. Our first guest is “one of Britain’s brightest comics.” It’s 1995, so that’ll be Vic Reeves? Steve Coogan? Close. Out comes cheeky chappy, Shane Richie, immediately leaning over Dani to kiss her face and neck, pinning her down as a funny joke. He’s got puffy shirt sleeves like a 19th century vampire, and is clearly very, you know, ‘energetic’, chewing on gum the whole time like a cow, and unable to stop showing off. It’s like a shit Robin Williams; pulling faces, and doing voices and insufferable schoolboy bits like rewinding himself like a video or pretending to eat his own eyeball.

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There’s a weird energy between Shane and Dani, and when she brings up her appearance on his Win Lose of Draw, he blurts “shall we tell them about that night in the hotel in Edinburgh?!” leaning into the camera with “I’ve got it on video, we’ll be showing it later, ladies and gentlemen!” It’s less an interview than a power struggle of information, and she tries to wrest control by asking about “you and your geography teacher when you were fifteen,” but Richie flips it to the topic of Ryan Giggs (Dani’s then-boyfriend, as the first real tabloid WAG), as the audience goes wild. “Don’t go all silly on me,” says Shane, wrapping Dani in a big hug, before a brilliant segue, about fortune smiling down on Shane, unlike those kids from Diff’rent Strokes.

After a video about the rough old lives of Gary Coleman and co, where Todd Bridges talks about being molested as a child, Shane’s yells over Dani’s comments on how sad it all was with a gag — “the moral of the story is, don’t take drugs and hold up laundrettes!” — which, even with this rabid crowd, doesn’t get a laugh. She asks how many groupies he’s got, and he holds up four fingers, before they bring out the next guest, “the most lusted-after teenager in America,” the then-17-year-old Liv Tyler. Dani jokingly tells Shane to leave her alone, and he says “she’s alright, we’ve been in touch for a couple of years now.” Asked if she’s a “flirtatious sex-kitten” like in the Aerosmith video, Tyler describes herself as shy, to which Shane butts in, “you’re not coming round my house then, ooh no!” Then Dani asks if she’s worried she only gets cast to take her clothes off, and a cheer goes up from the blokes in the audience.

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There’s one of their Mondo type videos, where they dredge up a mucky old softcore that Eric Pollard from Emmerdale did when he was younger, like a pre-internet Mr. Skin, and the Hopefuls section where a bloke sucks on an old man’s dirty foot, which has the audience shrieking in horror, but seems delightfully quaint in a future where rolling news will happily show footage of freshly-blown up bodies. The band Live do a number; and what a delicious shitpost of a name. Not just “is it Live or Live?” but having to Google for ‘live band’. Trendy, hip, young Shane Richie, still rocking his Teddy Boy look into the mid-90s is not a fan, sneering over the wailing feedback and shrugging “is it just me? I miss The Rubettes.

Dani brings up Shane’s famous wife, Colleen Nolan, and suddenly writhing with embarrassment, he’s back to his Giggsy material, before Dani deflects with rumours that Shane’s a “screamer” who flies into rages, and “a bit of a naughty one to live with.” More Giggs jokes leave an exasperated Dani whining “it’s not funny anymore,” and he admits he got into in rages when he was writing his sketch show and got interrupted. Ooh, mustn’t disturb the maestro! I’m presuming the show he’s referring to was 1990 BBC series Up To Something!, co-starring David Schneider, which remains the only time Shane Richie’s shared writing credits with Richard Herring and Armando Iannucci, in one of my biggest televisual holy grails.

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Incredibly, we’ve yet to hit bottom, but arrive flat-back and concussed to a Mr. and Mrs style quiz called Perfect Partners. Every question is indicative of the era everyone was shagging their little willies off, with the answers a revealing picture of the 90’s Lad. A sex trick the boys use to turn on their partners? Have a bath. Take it out. What do they think about to stop from cumming too quick? Lager. Having a fight. But under the surface of this hedonistic decade, it was all rather vanilla, with nobody eatin’ ass, and struggling to even name a fantasy, beyond doing it on the pitch of your fave footie team. Agonisingly slow, every contestant is monosyllabic and camera-shy, having to be pushed into each answer, and their names seem made up — Fathom and Aleace?!

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For the final question, with the girlfriends in a soundproof booth, they bring out three blokes and ask a contestant which is the one his partner recently slept with. Bear in mind, they’ve been together for years. He’s clearly distressed, and when Alan the host is later running down the answers, he accidentally brings the three men back out too early. A crew member can be heard yelling “no no no!” and a whisper of “second question,” and now the lads have to stand there, while Fathom’s hand-to-mouth in shock, confronted with someone she cheated on her boyfriend with, until they get around to revealing who it was. Finally, we reach the end, as Shane holds onto Dani’s hand for ages when she shakes it goodbye, because he’s a cheeky wee lad, and I have suffered far worse than any of the Hopefuls who gobbled old men’s feet or drank horse piss to get on the show, just by watching it.

[staring straight into the camera, my eyes dead and haunted]

I’ll do anyfing to get new Patrons…

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

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

Who Do You Do?

•May 26, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night

•May 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[more Brucie: Slinger’s Day]

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

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

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

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

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

so let’s get the network together.

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

not even a telephone,

so let’s get the network together!

It’s eternal, it’s a party…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10b

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Great Britain 1984

•May 6, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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