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As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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

CHUCK ME SOME MONEY ON PAYPAL.

Cheers.

Jim Davidson’s Adult Pantos: Closing the Cursed Trilogy

•January 21, 2021 • 2 Comments

[Part I: SinderellaPart II: Boobs in the Wood]

This video first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could watch 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 or some PayPal cash.

An Accursed 90’s Christmas

•January 11, 2021 • 2 Comments

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

It somehow feels dirty letting the horrible 90s get their lager and spunk-covered hands on Christmas, but I regret to inform you there were at least ten of them held in that decade. To get a sense of what a 90’s Christmas was truly like, I’m afraid we must return to some of our previous haunts from that most desolate period, beginning with the televisual stylings of James Whale.

If you read the original piece, you’ll recall Whale’s presenting style is that of a man who neither knows nor cares what’s happening on his own show. Every cue, every link, is either late or incorrect; he can’t make it through three words without getting distracted; and spends his time glancing off-camera to ask what’s happening or to berate the crew. Over a soundbed of awkward silence and people loudly talking over one another, Whale’s onscreen excursions are some of the worst television ever made. 1993’s Whale On Christmas Party takes that atmosphere of perplexed disorder, and adds even more bodies to its eclectic crowd of chuntering gobs, along with copious amounts of booze.

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We open with Whale in a carpark, flanked by models in Christmas robes which hang open to show their underwear. Marching everyone inside, he dicks around with a control panel for the cameras, erupting into a cheer when it lands on a close-up of a cleavage. There’s a full party in swing on the studio floor, packed with revellers in a Mos Eisley Cantina of Whale’s in-house tabloid tribe. Underwear models stand side-by-side with panto dames, civilians in fancy dress and feather boas, and Beano-style punks with foot-high mohawks, all with glass in hand and mingling with the great and the good of British showbiz’s basement.

Screaming Lord Sutch, in full regalia as ‘celebrity floor manager’, mingles beside Irish singer Rose Marie, camp MP Jerry Hayes in a ballgown, and Doc Cox off That’s Life. “I see Tony Blackburn over there!” yells Whale, pulling weathergirl Sian Lloyd out of the crowd and ordering a close-up of her sexy mouth. She helps him read out a competition, where he tells us to “ring that nimber… number.” It’s clear from the off Lord Sutch is massively sozzled, and in the night’s worst decision, he’s been given a megaphone and head-mic. Subsequently his drunken witterings permeate proceedings like a neighbour’s fucked car alarm. Wobbly as he is in the beginning, as the show progresses, he’ll give Charlie Drake a run for his money.

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Whale moves everyone back, for Charlie Chuck’s outsider art cover of Tommy Cooper’s bottle routine, ending abruptly with Chuck swinging a plank and sending glass flying into the crowd. “He’s a walking haystack!” bellows Sutch into his megaphone, again and again, until Whale orders he calm down. “Alright,” shrugs Sutch. Not even ten minutes in, Tony Blackburn looks shell-shocked. You don’t get this on Noel’s House Party. Perhaps that’s why he steps in to calm the mood with his party piece, a song familiar to me from many guitar-toting Christian youth leaders, in a childhood spent on the fringes of the church, which goes thusly — “there’s a worm at the bottom of the garden, and his name is Wiggly Woo!

Blackburn is a doe-eyed innocent in Whale’s sordid carnival, joyously leading an acapella sing-a-long of a ditty of which nobody (at points, not even him) knows the words, with the shambolic, embarrassing energy of a teacher standing up at Christmas assembly to serenade the room with a sea shanty. Inexplicably, Whale invites Rose Marie to help Tony perform the entire song again; Sutch stood swaying with his microphone, and Blackburn kicking his legs with such ferocity, if a shoe flies off, it’ll bring down the ISS. After agonising minutes of Wiggly Woo, Blackburn’s push for a second encore is mercifully shut down.

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In more banter, a drag queen tells Whale she hopes to get stuffed, and Doc Cox gives a quick Wiggly Woo on his uke. Whale pushes past, over to porn star Linzi Drew. What would she like for Christmas? “Me two front teeth… I’ve already got them… um, I dunno…” As a bored Whale leaves, she yanks him back to add “a long, big and thick surprise!” (she means an erect penis) “Okay, fine,” he huffs, informing us a now distinctly queasy-looking Sutch is “not so well at the moment.” An absolutely hammered Sutch assures us “I’m alright, I’m… I’m doin’ alright, I’m working it out,” while in the background, Tony Blackburn can be heard singing Wiggly Woo.

The Whale On party serves up cursed moments like a rotten buffet; a prolonged dance number from male strippers the Dream Boys, shagging at the air, floor, and faces of women sat front row; Peter Straker with a warbling O Come All Ye Faithful, where even the word “Ye” has fifteen syllables; a troupe of Page 3 girls flashing their bras and knickers in another ‘dance’ routine which devolves into a giant conga. Perfectly capturing the grotty office party vibe, the conga line weaves in on itself on the cramped studio floor like Snake on an old Nokia; a kicking flesh sandwich of underwear-clad girls and middle-aged men; Tony Blackburn, porn star Charmaine Sinclair, Doc Cox.

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As Whale wanders the studio like an elderly dog searching for somewhere to die, Sutch is at his side, slurring nonsense about drinking a cup of tea; “I, I, I… dunno what’s happening?” Me either. At this point, everyone’s had a few, and our host has terrible trouble corralling them onto their marks for the panto finale. For maximum 1993 laffs, their Cinderella’s set in Chigwell with Shazarella (another 6’1” drag queen), but everyone’s so pissed-up and boisterous, Whale’s witticisms about Essex girls being thick slags are lost beneath a barrage of restless shouting and breakouts of Wiggly Woo. To make everyone feel better about our current-day world, we close with Whale telling us he’ll be back in the new year with a show about “political correctness,” as everyone; half-naked Page 3 girls, towering drag queens, Screaming Lord Alcohol Poisoning, and Tony Blackburn, gather round the piano for another go at O Come All Ye Faithful.

But at least ITV knew how to do a proper Christmas, following tradition with cosy trailers of their most bankable faces in festive jumpers under superimposed snow, and idents with holly and robins, and Victorian boys sledding down a hill. Channel 4 on the other hand, chose a more… eclectic flavour, filling schedules with stand-up shows from brash Americans, and films your parents wouldn’t want you renting from the local Video Paradise. Viewers who didn’t fancy the Queen’s speech could flick over at 3pm for an alternative message, exemplifying the channel’s dual personality, with a mix of right-on politics and contentious figures from the year’s headlines. In its 90’s airings, the platform went to names like Quentin Crisp, Ali G, Rory Bremner (impersonating Princess Di), and the parents of murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence. It was precious rare grandparents who’d let that on in place of Her Madge, in the boomer TV equivalent of “foreign muck.”

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As the channel most likely to put a great big dildo in the office secret Santa, it’s appropriate that one of its biggest brands, The Word, had its own seasonal special, airing on actual Christmas Day, 1992. So, while the BBC were pressing play on Victoria Wood and Shirley Valentine, over on Channel 4, The Word‘s opening titles were kicking off, where a man burst a rubber glove over his head and a young Max Beesley frantically banged on a set of bongos, with everyone looking like they’d quaffed a bucket-load of E’s. At least there’s no tit-sucking, as would feature in the 1995 intro.

For tonight’s panto theme, Terry Christian infers two ladies in the crowd are ugly sisters, and yanks a bloke out to get “a lad in… Aladdin, get it?” as Katie Puckrik tells him “Yule never improve!” Is this The Word, or Chucklevision? Come on, someone drink from a still-warm condom! First guest, described in his intro as “the strangest accent in movies today,” is Dolph Lundgren, and sat on the sofa with Terry, it looks like Gandalf and Frodo at breakfast. Terry has not an ounce of creativity in his bones, opening with the dullard’s ‘wrestler/boxer/big guy interview’ standard “I’d better be nice to you, or you’ll beat me up!” Later, when name-dropping the director of Gandhi, he’ll utter the words “Richard ‘luvvie darling’ Attenborough.” The highlight of a terrible interview is when Dolph pretends to throw a punch at Terry, causing him to flinch wildly.

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Mostly, it’s business as usual, with the true Christmas meat found in their celebration of panto, following an open invite to the stars of every theatre in the country. Consequently, backstage looks like the Garden of Earthly Delights as painted by Christopher Biggins; mince pies, mulled wine, a terrifying cat-beast from Puss in Boots, Simon Groom from Blue Peter; multiple Nolan sisters from multiple pantos, CBBC’s Simon Parkin, and dozens of little people in elf outfits. The American Puckrik’s deeply confused, with interviews conducted at cross purposes, drowned out by the carols of drunken revellers. A car pulls up containing Carmel off EastEnders and Sabra Williams from Ghost Train, and as a pantomime cow tumbles out of the back seat, they break into a rap.

     “We’re MC Rapper and Pinocchio,

     we’re here from the shore, dontcha know?

     we’re on until January nine,

     so come along, and you’ll be fine; YO!

Biggest takeaway here is what a fabulously lazy name MC Rapper is, like Dr Doctor. Next guest is Milla Jovovich, dropped into the carnal fight club of The Word having turned 17 the day before. “Seventeen and never been kissed,” says Terry. “Not by you!” she zings. Evoking memories of Liv Tyler’s appearance, his opening question is whether she’s attracted to older men; say, ten or twenty years older? I can’t hear what Dolph says, but Milla jokingly slaps and shoves him, with a “your girlfriend’s gonna kill you!” But Milla’s more then they can handle, armed with a plastic yellow hammer with which she beats Dolph over the head. “Jesus Christ,” he says, “all because of last night?” licking his finger and striking an imaginary point against the air as the audience bray. Even in the Word’s anything goes atmos, Terry knows he’s lost control, pleading she “please behave yourself,” before squealing in pain/fright as she smashes him in the knee. In the chaos, Dolph hands Terry a fruit flavoured condom, which he gives to the 17-year-old.

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Later, Milla accidentally says “fuck,” covering her mouth as the audience ooh like someone dropped a glass at a pub, and we cut back from the final ad-break to find Terry in a Dolph headlock; a bit that’s broken up by Milla cracking Terry over the head with the hammer, really, really hard. Final guest is boxer Nigel Benn, who they immediately humiliate by showing a Playgirl shoot where he’s got his arse out and naked cock covered with a boxing glove. “That’s very nice, isn’t it, Milla?” asks Terry. “I wouldn’t know,” she says, “I’m just 17.” At this point, someone in the production booth obviously realises it all looks a bit noncey, as Terry pushes a finger in his ear, trailing off with “I don’t know,” and moving on very quickly. Benn’s an ill fit for the show, with a dour interview playing to silence, until he calls Chris Eubank “a pig,” inciting cheers.

Back in pantoland, they’re joined by Kodi from Neighbours, Tony Monopoly (me either), and Bucks Fizz’s Mike Nolan. Christ, a fire in the studio would’ve devastated the British Christmas industry for a good decade. Barbara Windsor’s the Fairy Godmother, leading everyone in a sing-along of Nat King Cole’s Christmas Song, where a self-conscious Nigel Benn, arms folded, gets through his solo line like a man pleading not guilty to a string of child murders. A flurry of fake snow falls from the ceiling, but far too aggressively and straight into people’s mouths, and as Babs gives it large, Mike Nolan can be seen retching at the edge of frame, batting it away like he’s being attacked by wasps. We go off air to the sound of Carmel from EastEnders‘ voice, heard above the carolling, with a half-laughing, half-revolted “I can’t breathe!

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As a horrid 90’s stocking filler bonus, let’s drop in on another infamous Channel 4 show, and a frequent point of reference on here, Eurotrash. Despite 153 episodes in the can, online footage is rare as angel cocks, as I doubt you could find a full thirty seconds which didn’t break YouTube’s rules on nudity. For the generation of British men who spent their early teens in the pre-internet dark ages, back when actual pornography was literally illegal in the UK, the post-parents’-bedtime borderlands of Eurotrash were many chaps’ first proper exposure to actual fannies and that. More kitsch than perverse, it was tongue in cheek and knowingly, joyously garish; a high camp Mondo, celebrating the wonders of the continent, before everyone got online and became as deviant as each other. That said, the show mostly consisted of naked foreigners dubbed with funny voices and men who painted portraits with their own shit.

The Eurotrash Christmas special dates from 1997, opening with German musical group Die Jacobs Sisters, a trio of older ladies in Santa suits holding sleepy poodles and singing over techno. Hosting solo after Jean Paul Gaultier moved on, is its creator, Antoine de Caunes, one of the early 90’s most impersonated men, thanks to easily-copied attributes of speaking with a French accent with his arms behind his back, on BBC2 yoof show, Rapido. Though fluent in English, de Caunes flowery, alliterative dialogue for his “gullible British chums” took the form of swipes at our uptightness and “terrible sexual reputation,” which considering the whole ‘grot was illegal’ deal, was well deserved.

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Dressed as a reindeer and pulling a sleigh filled with underwear models, we’re straight into a gift buying guide with French model, Lova Moor, as an excuse to show to her rolling on the grass in the nip. Moor’s emblematic of Eurotrash‘s role as spiritual predecessor to Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, with a supporting cast of oddballs from the fringes of European showbiz, their awkward pauses, asides to the crew — “that was okay?” — and goodbye waves that go on far too long, all kept in the edit. Featured Whack Pack member this week is elderly Belgian singer Eddy Wally, shilling his CD of Chinese-language songs, and looking like ‘Fluff’ Freeman with jet black printer ink slicked through his hair.

It all feels like you’ve been dropped into the after-hours of a weird 60’s euro cartoon, with puppets, wonk-angled, lurid backgrounds, and extremely Carry On voiceovers rambling on about “hard willies.” It tears through segments with the speed of a schoolboy flipping through his dad’s jazz mags before he gets back from the shops, with roughly the same amount of bare flesh and pubes. There’s a nude pseudo-aerobics video, with flopping tits and great big wangers, a naked hippie with his balls out, and an Austrian inventor who made a spinning coffee table with a hole in the middle you can do sex through.

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Even a Santa convention — filled with requisite jokes about coming down chimneys or only once a year — has Mother Christmases hiking their skirts, a pink-bearded Santa distributing condoms in the street, and a beach Santa, giving the opportunity for zooms on thonged bottoms and oiled boobs. Covering the scatological, there’s the Catalonian tradition of pooing in nativity scenes, with one featuring a human pooer; a bricklayer “who’ll be laying bricks of a different kind!” Antoine closes by interviewing a female director/star of amateur pornos, back in prehistoric 1997, when people taking nudes of themselves were still a wild phenomena, and not a daily occurrence for half the population. Her responses are dubbed with a Thatcher-esque voice by Kate Robbins; bons mots like “English guys have thinner dicks than French guys,” and as it’s Christmas, she’s wearing a Santa hat, with one of her nipples hanging out.

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We’re played out by Die Jacobs Sisters, as the models toss fake snow out of buckets, a plucked turkey is puppeted into a high-kicking jig, and de Caunes pretends to bum a pantomime cow. Honestly, it seems rather quaint now, and even considering all the dicks and tits, oddly innocent.

In terms of sheer faux-casual gratuitousness, it doesn’t touch fellow 4 show Naked Attraction, or men getting out their glistening micropenises for the Embarrassing Bodies doctors to bend over and sniff, in glorious HD. I was out walking a dog the other evening, and while he weed against someone’s gate, I glanced up at the window, where an enormous 4k TV, with the Channel 4 logo in the corner, had its entire screen filled with an erect woman’s nipple, individual bumps on the areola visible from my position on the street — and it’s all perfectly normal. What cruel irony. No sooner did we finally start fitting in with our European brothers and sisters, than we have to leave.

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 or some PayPal cash.

The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show

•January 2, 2021 • Leave a Comment

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In the history books of light entertainment, the name Mike Yarwood is invoked almost entirely as an example of being massively famous and successful before suddenly disappearing, never to be seen again. I’ve only the vaguest memories of watching at the time, aware of his work mostly through retrospectives, which cover the swiftness of his retirement, peppered with clips of him taking off now-long-dead politicians. In my head, Yarwood’s is the beige coloured comedy of centrist dads; a torch picked up off the floor by Rory Bremner, whose shows I sat down in front of as a kid, expecting laffs but finding stuff about interest rates and “imagine if Paddy Ashdown did a rap! (about interest rates)” For a proper reappraisal, I’m watching a pair of Yarwood’s Christmas specials, beginning with a show dating from Christmas Day, 1977.

We cold open on a message from Prime Minister James Callaghan, in a bit most notable for digs at Thatcher, with a joke about whether he’d kiss her under the mistletoe — “I wouldn’t kiss her under aesthetic!” Six years later, this gag would be reused on the Krankies Christmas special, but with Wee Jimmy’s teacher and chloroform. As becomes really clear if you watch enough of this stuff, it was a period when nobody owned a joke, and comedians on TV were just like the comedians in pubs, offices, and playgrounds; everybody repeating stuff they’d heard from someone else. Plagiarism didn’t exist until the 1990s, and even then it was copied from somebody who did it in the 80s.

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Yarwood as Yarwood enters onto a barren stage with a backdrop of bare white tinsel trees, which give a strong ‘stumbling through the poisoned woods during a post-apocalyptic nuclear winter’ aesthetic. He’s got tremendous Lego hair, and looks very pleased with himself over a joke about Callaghan cooking a Christmas cake — in the oven for six hours but only rising 10%. Somewhere, a young Rory Bremner was laughing heartily. Now, as regular readers will know, I’m fascinated by the creative decisions impressionists take to ensure the audience knows who they’re doing. It’s tantamount to an admission of failure, with the most egregious the good old opener “my name’s…” Many of these signposts are on hand in the first big sketch, showcasing a number of Yarwood’s take-offs, via clever — at the time — use of split screen, allowing him to interact with himself.

It’s the textbook setting of a celebrity party, which illustrates how the country’s most famous mimic really struggled with the easy ones. John Cleese is a standard of every comic’s arsenal; exaggerated leg movements and going “Right! Right!” while bouncing up and down on your heels. But Yarwood’s silly walk isn’t remotely silly, and his Cleese ‘thing’ is speaking through clenched teeth like a ventriloquist dummy. Without the signifier “welcome to the party, Mr. Cleese!” you’d have no idea. Even Davro’s is better. Even Davro’s! His Brian Clough’s less bad, but still requires a trackie with NOTTS FOREST on the front in big letters. Then Frankie Howerd says “ooh!” and whatnot, before introducing the star guest, “Mr. Sammy Davis Jr!

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Oh. Yarwood then does a duet with himself as a blacked-up Sammy. As the other characters join in, there’s no joke, other than I Could Have Danced All Night being sung in approximations of celebrity voices. Then we’re straight into a panto sketch, with the title card JACK AND THE PAY TALK, where 70’s comedy bit player Jenny Lee Wright welcomes us to Union Land. This is Bremner Defcon 1! I mean, Wright’s listed in the cast as Local Union Negotiator, and the wicked baron is “evil Enoch Powell,” although to give Yarwood credit, he’s probably the only impressionist to jump straight from Sammy Davis Jr. to Enoch. Rather than going for, say, the fascism, Yarwood plays him like a generic money-hungry politician, slagging off Labour, and with the catchphrase “Enochy nick-nacky, nicky nacky noo!” so it’s like stumbling across a skit from a 1940’s comedy troupe that focusses on Hitler kissing his niece.

With Enoch putting up the rent, trade unionist Jack Jones rides in on a pantomime cow, with gags about striking, withdrawing labour, and time-and-a-half. With the weird non-humour, bad acting, and constant references to workers’ rights, it feels more like a workplace training video than a sketch show, and I’m half expecting Scargill to wander on and show me how to use the clocking-in machine. Michael Foot shows up, bragging that he’s “one of the idle rich.” Asked if he’s a landowner, Foot replies “no, I’m on the dole!” which gets a very aggressive round of applause from a handful of audience members, no doubt very keen on bringing back National Service. The cherry on the cake is the giant on top of the beanstalk; Yarwood in a fat suit as Cyril Smith. Or to give him his full title, notorious dead serial paedophile, Cyril Smith. It’s shocking to me we’ll get through the two shows without Savile putting in an appearance.

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There’s a welcome break from the murderer’s row of voices, as Yarwood introduces some very special guests with their new hit record, Wings, and — oh, it’s actually Paul, Linda, and Denny Laine (the latter in a Rodney Bewes tuxedo shirt), singing Mull of Kintyre for real, and not Yarwood willying about with a prop guitar and Joey Boswell accent. I know Linda got a lot of shit over a perceived lack of contribution to the band, but someone made the decision to have her sit between the other two with a mic on her lap, not doing or saying a thing for the whole first two minutes of the song. They stick around for a sketch with Yarwood’s Denis Healey — then chancellor — who’s dressed as a punk; studded collar, denim jacket with a patch of Karl Marx, safety pin through a bushy eyebrow; “I got tired of being a silly billy, so I decided to become a chunky punky!

I’m no political history buff, but I reckon that must’ve brought the entire dang system down. Incidentally, “silly billy” as a Healey catchphrase was entirely a Yarwood invention, but it took off so much that Healey started working it into his speeches for real. Anyway, he sits backwards on a chair like A.C. Slater and says he’s changing his name to Johnny Rotten, while Callahan is Sid Vicious, which all gets big laughs, as Never Mind the Bollocks only came out two months earlier. Though modern day Paul McCartney resembles the confused King of the Wood Elves, in 1977, he at least looks as much of a comedian as Yarwood, with a rotten gag about writing Healey some “eyebrow (high brow?) music.

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Of course, Big Mike does bust out his most famous character, Prince Charles, which stood out as the Charles amid a landscape of Charlie Windsor impersonations; everyone moving their stiff hands up and down and going “errrr” from the sides of their mouths. It’s a topical routine which must’ve taped close to transmission, with jokes about Princess Anne’s new baby — Peter, born on Nov 15th — with a line “for Pete’s sake” which gets an actual aww from the audience, like they’re watching The Big Bang Theory. What’s probably the show’s best gag is hiding in here; a line about decorating the tree by giving it a knighthood, and one about the baby, who’s “only a few weeks old, he knows all about the Royal we(e).”

A final song runs us through a gamut of of voices; Perry Como, Dave Allen, Eddie Waring, Bruce Forsyth, Frank Spencer, Frank Spencer doing John Wayne; confirming again that he can’t do the easy ones (and perhaps not the less obvious ones either, who I’m unfamiliar with). Honestly, all of us could do much better Brucies. Come on, Mike, it’s the easiest one! “Thththththth, good game, good game!” His Frank Spencer’s shit too, while Dave Allen’s portrayed via the tic of constantly brushing fluff off his trousers, and tells a joke about the Irish being thick. Ending an exhausting routine, he sings a Christmas carol as Ted Heath, My Way as Harold McMillan, and bids us “tatty bye!” as Ken Dodd.

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Though this is my first time properly covering Mike Yarwood, I’ve referred quite frequently to the “and this is me” moment at the end of each show, where he drops character to do a song as himself, in what can most politely be described as earnest yet terrible club singing. The “and this is me” is the standard by which all earnest songs by comedians must be judged, and they all did it back then, with TV’s comics coming up through the working men’s club scene, meaning if you did comedy, you sang too. Even Bernard Manning had a single, while Jim Davidson released two albums and seven singles, including White Christmas — sung in his Chalkie voice — and Much Too Late For That (The Nagging Woman Song). As recently as the nineties, Jim was ending shows with a heartfelt duet with his own son, which left him dabbing at his eyes like he’d just had to toss out a whole fortnight’s worth of grocery shopping because the Tesco delivery man was black. For Christmas Day 1977, Yarwood, mask off, exposed and raw, croons a rather unfestive Sunshine of My Life.

Though the truth of Yarwood’s withdrawal from the limelight resulted from a number of factors, including stage-fright, alcoholism, and the changing tastes of the audience, when seeing a roster so heavy with blustering old male prime ministers, you can understand the theory that he jacked it in when he realised he couldn’t do a good Thatcher. Speaking of witch… sorry, which, the VHS rip containing 1978’s Christmas special confusingly opens with live footage of BBC’s election coverage from the night she was first voted into Number 10.

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A young, dark-haired David Dimbleby, under a backdrop reading DECISION 79, informs us that, as nothing much is happening while the votes are counted, they’re cutting over to a Mike Yarwood Christmas Special — in May, mind you. That would be unthinkable nowadays, when you could fill all that precious dead time with endless speculation and waffle. Weirdest of all, the footage on this tape dates from mere hours before I was born, making all of Yarwood’s references to “this very special day” seem like he’s on about the momentous occasion of my birth; the fulfilling of a great prophecy about a boy who would grow up to save the world by crowbarring dick and spunk jokes into essays about shit old telly.

Fittingly, the setting for our first sketch is the door of Number 10, with Callaghan poking his head out with the security chain on to tell some carol singers “go away, I’m not coming out!” and “I might’ve known you’re not from the conservative party, you’re all singing the same tune.” But with the looming ghoul of Thatcher so unavoidable, Janet Brown was drafted in to play The Hellbeast, opposite Yarwood’s Parkinson. Parky (quite correctly) refers to himself as “a male chauvinist pig,” and his wig’s very ‘middle-aged Paul Weller fan only has access to the kids every other weekend’. The whole routine’s about Thatch being domineering, with a simply awful gag-quality, like this one about being the proud mother of twins; Parky: “And what did you call them?” Thatcher: “Children.”

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A satellite link sketch gives Yarwood the chance to do celebrities from the US, all the while holding onto his American accent like a man whizzing down a Slip ‘n Slide with a bowl of fruit. His Sinatra looks like Sluggs from This Country, while his Bob Hope is a textbook example of impressionists telling bad jokes through the mouths of other, better comedians — “…all those Arabs are causing problems for your traffic wardens in London, I mean, where do you stick a ticket on a camel?” The Arabs get a rough ride in these shows, and later there’s a joke about an Arab prince who bought a dairy and became “the world’s first milk-sheik.”

A news review of 1978 sees him struggling to get through the hilarity of sub-Two Ronnies gags about a round the world yachtswoman taking a lap of honour, striking bakers who “(k)need the dough,” and an Irishman eliminated from the Best Butcher contest after spending eight hours trying to hang up mince. A bit about manure and Big Ben going “DUNG!” has him properly corpsing, and I’m glad someone’s laughing. Who knows, maybe that was the one to break my mum’s waters? There’s also a headline about British TV programs having been “sold to red China.” Red China? Alright, Trump. If it’s comedy from the seventies talking about China, we all know what’s coming. And those shows are… “The Two Lonnies, The Lag Trade, and of course, Rittle and Rarge.” Yarwood’s so amused by this, he breaks character.

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Special guests this year are ABBA — “ladies and gentlemen, two girls, two boys, a phenomena in pop music…” But I’m dying of shame when they join him for a Generation Game sketch, in Britain’s worst crime against another nation’s people since the days of the Empire. Yeah, Larry Grayson was camp, but Yarwood might as well just have him cottaging, the way he plays it; leg cocked and wrists limp, sucking in his cheeks, all “what a gay day!” like Ricky Gervais’ panto genie in Extras. He hits on ABBA’s Benny — Larry: “What songs have you done?” Benny: “Take a Chance On Me.” Larry: “Oooh, ain’t he forward?!” — eyeing him up with an “ain’t he big?” It goes on for ages, bantering as ABBA get laughs doing Larry’s catchphrases, which feels odd because it’s not Larry, it’s Mike Yarwood; a real band playing with a covers act.

The last big sketch is a crossover with my blog, in a parody of the disastrous Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. His Brucie hasn’t gotten better in the intervening year, although he has glued some pubes into a wig/tash formation, with corpse-like make-up which resembles a sickly Keith Lemon. Mimicking Big Night‘s amateur jokers section, politicians tell boring, meandering gags that go on forever, quickly becoming the very thing it’s satirising, with Michael Foot played as Max Wall, Harold Wilson as Max Miller, and Enoch Powell as Groucho Marx. The latter’s joke isn’t racist, but does fill over a full minute’s screentime, and with this year’s show running 15 minutes longer than 1977’s, you can see where the padding is.

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Even Brucie’s disco dance contest gets a kicking, with Yarwood jigging around in a fat suit as jumbo-nonce Cyril Smith, then as Patrick Moore, copying my pinpoint boyhood impression by closing one of his eyes. Moore’s joke is a truly shocking “better be careful, or I could end up on my Aurora or my Bore-e-anus!” That’s not a thing. How long do you think the writers tried to make Uranus fit there, but couldn’t make it work? Office full of cigarette smoke and screwed up paper — “But it’s not your anus, it’s his… fuck!” It’s a powerful example of the law to which all comedy impressionism is beholden, where even the most accurate voice can’t elevate shoddy material.

The final section nicely sidesteps that rule, by having the voices and jokes be equally shite. I mean, he outright tells us he’s about to do Tom O’Connor, perhaps aware that he could start killing audience members one by one until they identified who he was meant to be, and there’d be nobody left standing. It’s a quickfire flit through characters; O’Connor tells a gag about Jews and Scots being tight; Dave Allen brushes his trousers; Frank Spencer’s “got a boil in my botty!” Max Bygraves is there; the same Max everyone does, shaking your hands like the dryer’s bust in the bogs. Frankie Howerd shows up, along with Eric Morecambe, Prince Charles, and Eamonn Andrews, who’s presenting the Big Red Book to Sammy Davis Jr. Thank God there’s no time to get the boot polish out, and he makes do with a pair of prop glasses, behind which he squints, hunched and pushing his chin out, before pretending his eye’s fallen out, “and it’s the good one!

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With a final “and this is me,” he sings us out with Swinging on a Star, pointedly belting a very self-satisfied “you have been swinging with the stars!” That’s got a very different connotation these days, mate. Maybe the Krankies pinched that too. Though this originally went out on Christmas Day, it’s find myself hanging on the historical weight of the repeat, and the VHS tape which preserved it. Not long after the end credits rolled, Thatcher would ascend to her dark throne, while some miles away, a small baby was born — much like that other famous baby born on the first-run date of December 25th. I’m not saying that post-election child was a saviour, but I am implying it. Though I love the cultural archaeology in digging out these forgotten works of TV-stink for a new generation, there’s a horrible circular feel to this one, like time travel stories about men who accidentally become their own grandfather. “…and this is me!” [pull back to reveal I’m the midwife at my own birth, except I’m dressed as Sammy Davis Jr.]

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 or some PayPal cash.

Noel’s Christmas Presents

•December 22, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[More Noel: Noel’s HQFirst & Last: Noel’s House PartyThe Live, Live Christmas Breakfast ShowWhen Noel Tried to Crack AmericaHouse Party Hell Playlist]

With my distressing fixation on Edmonds, Noel’s Christmas Presents is one of those suggestions that comes up a lot, and I almost went there last year, only to decide against it at the last moment. How could I possibly write about the cultural byword for kind-hearted event television which left its audience weeping, and to this day, remains embedded in our national psyche, both as entertainment and as the most powerful Christmas spirit Broken Britain had to offer? Noel’s only desire — like Scrooge on Christmas morning — was to bring a little joy to the needy and unfortunate, asking for nothing in return, and I’m supposed to blunder in with my observations; my cynicism and jokes about spunk; over the real tears of real people?

But then, in returning to the idea, I was reminded how every second of these shows was filtered through the singular creative vision of one of the oddest men who’s ever lived. With decades now passed since they first aired, time has splattered these hours with comically unwieldy tech and unimpressive gifts; with horrid fashions and naff celebrities, and the unique presenting style of Noel himself, all of which slightly dulls the edges of the endless parade of horrific sob stories, making them easier to view objectively.

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With the benefit of hindsight, to 2020 eyes, Noel’s Christmas Presents plays like a cross between House Party‘s Gotchas and those viral videos where someone’s filmed themselves buying a homeless man a meal, selecting a soppy soundtrack that’s just right before posting it on all their socials. While the conceit is philanthropic, essentially it’s Noel taking his pathological need to prank and surprise; to put people on the back foot; but using it for good instead of evil. The whole thing turns on that imbalance of power that he so loves; Noel Edmonds off the telly and Bob the photocopier repairman from Nottingham — only one of them’s got a microphone, and only one knows how this is all going to go.

Christmas Presents slotted firmly in a genre which was incredibly popular in its time, as also seen in Cilla Black’s Surprise Surprise, of making the Great British Public cry by springing a lovely video message on them, from a cousin they’ve not seen for 25 years after they emigrated to Australia, only to reveal that’s not the real surprise, before bringing the cousin out in person. The head of its class, Noel’s take became a festive tradition, as much a part of the British Christmas as turkey blow-offs and your grandma tutting when Lenny Henry came on a trailer for the Boxing Day line-up.

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The series of annual specials ran for a decade from 1989 — 1999, ending when Noel left the BBC after the cancellation of Noel’s House Party. Sky One would bring it back in 2007 for a six year run, but randomly shoving them out in the week leading up to the big day — missing the whole point of sitting down to watch right after the Queen was done talking — and perhaps with audiences more savvy to the cynical manipulations of television, the magic was gone. 2012’s final effort wasn’t even hosted by Noel, with Corrie‘s Sally Lindsay taking over for a rebranded All Star Christmas Presents.

Unthinkable, isn’t it? His thundering vehicle with someone else at the wheel. There’s a line at the end of Bill Murray’s Scrooged, after his character Frank Cross makes the babyface turn, and James Cross remarks “my brother, the King of Christmas!” In the nineties, there was only one man on that throne, and it’s the role he was born for, in perhaps the ultimate example of nominative determinism — “The First Noel, the Angels did say…” For nineties kids, he was basically our Santa. He even looks like an anime Father Christmas. We’ll be diving in with King Noel at the height of his powers, for an episode which aired in 1996, of course, on Christmas Day.

Festivities take place in the grounds of a medieval castle. A huge, war-like banner hangs from a tower, reading NOEL’S CHRISTMAS PRESENTS, as he emerges for the live crowd, flanked by dancers and dressed like a Victorian mayor. It’s so cold, you can see his breath as he takes his place in the audience beside a burning brazier, and tells us it’s ten years since the explosion at Chernobyl; “the result was an atomic cloud, spread across the countryside.” Merry Christmas! As we’ve learned on these pages, Alan Partridge comparisons are an unavoidable side-effect when delving into the hell of light entertainment, and Noel invites a powerful one right out of the gate.

Evidently, the people of Lancashire formed a tight bond with their radioactive brethren in Belarus, becoming pen-pals, and very occasionally, flying them over to the UK for in-person visits. This first present really sets the tone, and they each have the precise energy of Noel pulling someone out of the audience on a Saturday night, to answer embarrassing questions before getting covered in slime. As everyone’s waiting at the airport with gifts to be put on the plane for their friends, who should walk in but Noel bloody Edmonds; snazzy jumper, mic in hand — “they weren’t expecting to see me!” Everything’s a prank with him, and he tells them they’re all off to Belarus too, along with ten tons of aid he’s got secretly stashed in the aircraft’s hold.

The captain’s intercom fills with wheezing as Noel announces another surprise, with “someone who’s very popular in Belarus, and extremely committed to children’s charities.” Come on, any guesses? Norman Wisdom’s big in Albania, isn’t he? Or maybe Bono? Christopher Biggins? No, it’s — “…please welcome, Chris de Burgh!” Fucking hell, any spare parachutes? Never mind, I’ll go bareback. Truthfully, the people of 1996 are thrilled, one woman sinking into her seat with an orgasmic “oh my God!” and as friends from Minsk and Lancashire embrace, they’re serenaded by de Burgh’s rendition of Silent Night. Incidentally, do you think the words “the Chris de Burgh please, my good barber!” have ever been spoken?

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The presents are broken up by interludes at the castle, with dancers dressed as medieval jesters or harlequins, prancing all hey-nonny-nonny with Venetian ball masks while lip-synching to a warbled backing track of The Holly and The Ivy. It feels like the entertainment laid on for Joffrey Baratheon to sneer at on his wedding day, before ordering all their arses to be cut off and fed to a wolf. This strange mix of eras, with Victorian Noel in the Middle Ages, confirms his role as transdimensional trickster, ungoverned by the rules of time, and leaping through centuries to dispense presents/pranks.

His next double-cross centres on a recently widowed old lady, who’s been putting money on the horses to try and win the airfare to see her cousin in Canada. As if appearing in a cloud of sulphur, Noel’s suddenly behind her at the bookies, pulling a mic out of his jacket, with a look on his face that permeates the show, a look that says “yes, it’s me, off the telly, with you, who isn’t off the telly… let that sink in.” Noel’s other trademark bombshell is casually dropping the mark’s name – “Hello, Maureen…” “How do you know my name?!” But she’s enraptured by our BBC Puck; “ooh, he’s lovely,” and just like her grandson, “…exactly like him. I wish I’d have brought a picture for you!

Celebrity helper for this one is John McCririck, notably dialled down from the post-Big Brother years, and not once mentioning great big women’s tits, or eating a single bogey. Noel breaks the news he’s jetting her off to see cousin Dexter, whom she hasn’t seen for 72 years, as Enya’s Orinoco Flow kicks in on the soundtrack — “sail away, sail away, sail away…” Where Christmas Presents truly excels as saccharine emotional sob-fodder is in its musical choices, and I’ll be fastidiously keeping track of all the brilliantly on-point needle drops.

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The elderly cousins reconnect, but Noel’s the fucking Columbo of gift-giving, always with “just one more thing,” dropping surprise on top of surprise. Though she can’t stop gambling, the lady’s never been to a race, so Noel takes her, but I guess it’s off-season, as they just have a couple of horses ride by in an empty, rainy stadium. Amid all the globetrotting family reunions, there’s still room for smaller, if no-less emotionally devastating stories. One has a children’s dance teacher perform onstage at the West End with Anthony Newley, while another centres on a little girl who survived the car crash which killed her brother, with the other driver unidentified and still at large. Noel surprises her with a Father Christmas, revealed to be — thank God — her grandpa, flown over from Australia.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that most of the presents involve Noel gifting someone a holiday and tagging along, as the amount of countries he visits in a single hour of television put Michael Palin to shame. For Ted and Rita, just meeting the man is surprise enough — “Well I’m blowed. A Gotcha, is it? Strewth, Noel Edmonds, of all people!” The BBC appear to miss an unbleeped “shit” when the old boy learns they’re flying 6,000 miles to see his brother in South Africa. In a rather cruel jape, Noel spears this emotional moment with a casual “all we need are your passports,” to a sad reply of “we haven’t got one…” No worries, he takes a pair out of his pocket. Is that legal?! The pre-911 world was a different place; “Hello, British embassy? It’s me, Mr. Blobby’s dad, Noel Edmonds. I’d like to register passports in the names of two strangers without them knowing. No, no, I’m not a terrorist…”

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They can’t just meet though, and needlessly, long-lost brother Bob reports to a yacht club to record a video message for Ted, who hides as Noel plays producer, repeatedly butting in like it’s Trigger Happy TV, while elderly Ted very slowly walks up behind. Even after they’ve reunited, the pranking will not stop, having the lads pose for a portrait while they sneak in another dozen family members Bob’s never met (moving soundtrack: instrumental cover of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother).

My favourite present goes down at the annual reunion for the ladies of the Royal Artillery who served in WW2. Noel interrupts a mayor to introduce a brass band, brought in on the back of a truck with NOEL’S CHRISTMAS PRESENTS written on it, playing Colonel Bogey, or as most people know it, Hitler’s Only Got One Ball. But there’s an enormous gift-wrapped box on the back too, and in a moment which genuinely floors me, Gloria Hunniford punches her way out of it. Not even a singer, Hunniford serenades the old soldiers with We’ll Meet Again, cut together with b/w footage of British women during the war — “everybody wave your flags!” Nigel Farage’s VHS of this must be fucking unwatchable by now.

The patsy is Vera, who wrote a book about the exploits of the war ladies, but couldn’t find a publisher. Pre-Amazon, if you wanted to get your work out there, the only route was through Noel surprising you with a contract with Harper Collins, as he does here. Out in time for Christmas, with the foreword by a Mister N. Edmonds, we see shots of it rolling off the printing presses (needle drop: Paperback Writer), and it’s still available on Amazon today (used) under its title Sisters in Arms.

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The year’s finale is the most outrageous stunt of all. Alerted by a letter from her mother, Noel targets a girl with a rare genetic condition, who’s written a poem about world peace. He meets the family on an open-topped bus touring London, but can’t just say hi, instead masquerading as a tour guide named Trevor who speaks in a Mr. Bean voice. After dropping the act, he has the bus pull up in Downing Street, and takes them into Number 10, right into John Major’s office. Luckily it’s not a single parent family, or Major would’ve kicked the girl straight out of the window. Even though he’s still a Fucking Tory, in today’s climate, it’s strange to see a leader behaving all professional and statesmanlike, rather than accidentally-on-purpose getting his foot caught in the fireplace to appear endearingly bumbling, or parroting whatever PR slogan’s been decided on for the day like a broken robot. Major, who’s name-checked in the poem, has her read it to him — in a shaky little whisper that seems on the verge of tears, in a terrifically awkward moment — before Noel takes the family off to Disneyworld, in a classic double-surprise.

Mickey gives her an enormous key to the Magic Kingdom (with the top shaped like his own head, rendering it very, very penisy), while I wonder who’d win in a fight out of Pluto and Blobby. But it’s Noelception, with surprises all the way down, and he interrupts their holiday with a second trip; to Washington DC, where they’ll be meeting President Clinton. In one of the more surreal moments ever to be televised, Hillary Clinton asks the girl who she’s brought with her to the White House, to the reply “my brother, my mum and dad… and Noel Edmonds.” Noel in the Oval Office, a dream come true! Try to imagine that happening today. Any scenario where Trump’s given a poem by a special needs child from the UK ends with Whitehall launching the nukes. Noel would probably end up Secretary of Defence, mowing down protesters with a gunge cannon.

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Despite the promises of Major and Clinton after reading the poem, world peace was not achieved, but in every other respect — wringing audience tear-ducts dry while Noel looked tremendously pleased with himself — Noel’s Christmas Presents 1996 was a resounding success. So then, onto the 1999 edition. The final year has a markedly different feel, with Noel and the BBC on the outs, after House Party was acrimoniously taken off air the previous March. Presumably contractually obligated, this would be his final appearance for the Beeb, until a one-off presenting gig seven years later, followed by a public boycott of the licence fee, and threatening to buy the BBC, like when Vince McMahon bought WCW solely to publicly destroy it. Running out his contract, accordingly there’s a more lo-fi feel, significantly cutting down on the air-miles, and even the run-time, down to 50 minutes from the usual hour. Pretty harsh, if you recall the words of his own IMDB bio, which he definitely didn’t write himself.

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With no audience, we open in media res, with Noel strolling round the corner of a country manor, past a pile of chopped up logs, arms laden with pre-wrapped gifts. Is this meant to be where he lives? Because it’s definitely not Crinkley Bottom Manor. Maybe that place came with the job, like a lighthouse keeper. No House Party, no home! “As you can see,” he says, “I’ve got my Christmas presents. Hope you’ve got the box of tissues!” What’s in those boxes, grumble mags? Apparently, this year’s got a “watery theme” — oh yeah, I’ve seen that category on xhamster.

Establishing the stripped-down feel, the first present’s announced via message written in Comic Sans on the cluttered desktop of a Windows 95 PC. ‘Santa’ shocks the kids by unbearding, with a falsie on top of his real one like Jeremy Beadle pretending to be a traffic warden, before sending them to Universal Studios, where Fred Flintstone gives them a new computer, with a CRT monitor so unwieldy, the plane home probably crashed. To save money, a second giftee’s been flown to Universal too, on the pretext of winning a contest. She’s not seen her dad for over 50 years — though it turns out he was an American GI, her mum was married, and he scarpered. Noel accosts her for a random interview, needling round to the subject of her old man. Even talking about it upsets her, so it seems unnecessarily cruel when he reveals that dad’s been sat at the next table the whole time, leaving her convulsing with sobs.

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Every segment’s over very quick, with no post-gift interviews, and even the music budget’s been slashed, reducing the backdrop of lighter-raising chart toppers to maudlin stock piano. Instead of dancers, intermissions see Noel prepping for Christmas in his mansion. It’ll be a lonely one this year, traipsing round the east wing by himself like a weekend dad who’s weans have been turned; huge table laden with a banquet that’ll mostly end up in the bin. “This will make you laugh,” he promises, raising a glass of sherry to his lips, but cutting away before he drinks.

To be fair, it does go full Beadle’s About, with Noel clomping into a women’s clothes shop dressed in flippers and full scuba gear, to take a man who’s been crippled in a motorcycle accident to the Seychelles for diving lessons. Noel’s Free Holidays– I mean, Christmas Presents next sees him marching up a driveway in Cheshire, doubling over with laughter as he rings a doorbell only to read a sign “please knock, bell not working!” He’s here to give a boy with cystic fibrosis a trampoline, which crazily, is such a wild dream in 1999, that you have to ask for one off a celebrity. Nowadays, there’s loads of freebies just laying about in the street after a blowy night. So, Noel’s bouncing up and down with the lad, asking if he’s pleased… and? Go on, say it; “we’re taking you to NASA so you can bounce in a rocket!” Nope, no extras. Just a trampoline.

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I must touch on the deeply strange way that Noel reacts whenever a member of the public engages with his small talk, particularly when he’s chatting with children. Anyone responding with even minimal banter leaves him utterly aghast, hands on his thighs and looking at the camera with an expression like “my goodness, they’re not even off the telly and they can think; they can speak! How precocious!”

But Noel won’t be happy until every severed familial bond or lost friendship has been reconnected, taking an octogenarian to meet the Icelandic trawler captain who fished him out of the sea when his ship got sunk by a German U-Boat in WW2. His reaction is a genuinely heartwarming “today?! Is my wife coming with me?” Although the reunion is deeply moving, the trawler captain is now 100 years old, with the meet consisting of a very old man shouting directly into the ear of a very, very old man, sat right next to each other, but effectively on satellite delay. There’s a jarring shift when we cut from the misty-eyed chap reciting Ode of Remembrance as he tosses roses into the ocean, to Noel switching on the Christmas lights in Exeter, “in front of an enthusiastic crowd!

Mic in hand like a buzzing cattleprod, nobody can relax for a second as he plucks more victims from the audience. The wife of an ex-copper who nursed him through a battle with Parkinson’s gets a new handbag, with tickets for a VIP tour of London inside. Not bad, I guess, but they won’t be needing their passports. Would you feel a bit swizzed if you wrote to Noel for, say, a new bike, and he just gave you a bike, and didn’t ‘surprise’ you with a holiday for you and him to Italy, to try it out on the Appian Way while giving backsies to Sophia Loren? Noel ends the segment by telling her to look after her handbag, “as it’s a bit tough in the city,” implying she’ll be violently mugged. Fa-la-la-la-la!

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Even speaking as a husk, the reunions are generally quite affecting, but there’s an undercurrent that makes me uncomfortable, with normal people thrust into hyper-emotional situations, often (like the GI father) with complex backstories, reduced to the need for a hug and some tears that can be soundtracked by the key-change in a power ballad, and all under the glare of the camera, while a gleeful puppetmaster prods his mic into the maelstrom. This really crosses a line inside a cramped Northern pub for “a double whammy reunion.” A frustrated Noel pokes away at Ray, who misses the point when asked three times if he’s with the family for Christmas — The whole family? All the relatives? — only to repeatedly says yes. Eventually Noel just tells him, “no, you’re not,” and it’s the old ‘sister in Australia for 30 years’ deal, so he brings her out. Back then, everyone had a family member who emigrated to Australia solely for the purpose of being wheeled on TV as a surprise decades later.

As Ray and sister Carol share the teary hug, Noel tells Carol he knows a lot about her. She went to Australia aged 21, after having to give up a daughter for adoption. Oh, Christ. He won’t, will he? Not here? Everyone holds their breath as he reminds Carol of what she already knows; that she hasn’t seen that child since giving it up — “until now! Come out and meet mum!” Having pulled the pin on a hand grenade of feelings, Noel casually wishes them a very, very Happy Christmas and leaves them to pick up the pieces. After donating musical instruments to a special needs school and giving one boy a ride home in his helicopter, there is but one final present. A bloke called Chris — who we soon find out is dying from cancer — has only one wish, to go halibut fishing with his cousin Danny, who lives in Seattle. Enter Noel, collaring him outside a restaurant before rather sharply admonishing him for taking a step off his mark; “don’t keep walking away!

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Fittingly for the last at the BBC, it’s your classic Christmas Present, with a double-surprise of two trips; one to meet Danny, and another taking them both to Canada, where halibut’s still in season. They make a gag out of Noel being dragged along too, taking to the water with slo-mo footage of seals and bent fishing rods, and Noel looking cool with his hands in his pockets in a red mac and Gorilla Monsoon tinted lenses. Noel flails from the splashback as Danny lands a 50lber, and the entire music budget kicks in, in the form of Westlife’s Flying Without Wings.

The last ever real Noel’s Christmas Presents closes, as it should, with an absolutely textbook image of Christmas; Noel Edmonds in an armchair, surrounded by festive finery; tree, roaring fire, glass of sherry, Christmas pudding dripping with custard, a posh tray overflowing with Ferrero Rocher. Notably, two stockings hang above the fireplace, the other, we must assume, for Mr. Blobby. Knowing it’s the end of an era, Noel wishes us goodbye “for the final time,” with a sudden jarring close-up that really made me laugh.

We’re played out with Come Oh Ye Faithful by a completely deaf organist (like Daredevil?), living out his dream of performing at Liverpool Cathedral, which Noel informs us is the largest organ in Europe. Subscribers to my OnlyFans may disagree. Accompanied by his granddaughter, they use three combined hands on the keys, like that scene in NCIS where two people stop a hacker by using the same keyboard at once.

Would this show work today? Not in its most-beloved form. Though there are some right thickos about, people are generally more paranoid, and we’re all besieged by scams on a daily basis. Won a ‘contest’ for tickets to the zoo that you didn’t remember entering? Fuck that. Probably gonna get jumped by Dark Web gangsters who’ll suck the Bitcoin straight from our anuses like they’re syphoning petrol. Or worse, Edmonds is gonna leap out at the lizard house and make us all go on holiday together. The analogue world of Christmas Presents was heavily based around family reunions, but now we’ve got Facetime and Zoom, if there’s a relative you’ve not seen or spoken to in thirty years, it’s probably because they’re a prick.

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I guess that’s why modern takes on the ‘surprise’ genre rely on celebrities, bringing out someone’s favourite athlete or actor, or if they’re lucky, Gloria Hunniford punching her way out of a box. That’s nice and all, but I don’t know if it carries the simple emotional weight of two siblings meeting for the first time in decades. Through a modern lens, Noel’s Christmas Presents is in turns genuinely moving, cloyingly manipulative, and weird as hell, and at its worst, it’s just more of Noel’s pranking but with a toy at the end, like a bearded Kinder Egg. It works best when packed away with all the other halcyon memories of Christmas past, along with the big film premiere, circling things in the Argos catalogue, and yellowing photos of a much smaller you, sat on the floor in pyjamas, surrounded by He-Man figures and tapes for your ZX Spectrum. Sure, looking back will evoke feelings of comfort, warmth, and better days, but if a game took 14 minutes to load today, you’d probably just sling it in the fire.

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 or some PayPal cash.

You Are Haunted: Christmas Special

•December 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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A grotto, an unexpected visitor, and an incident at the nativity.

The Christmas special of my podcast is now live, and stuffed with the creepy festive hauntology of grim British Christmases past.

https://franticplanet.podbean.com/

Runaround at Christmas

•December 13, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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As a little behind the curtain goss, I had intended to cover Mike Reid’s adult panto, Pussy in Boots this year, but then something else came along, which I simply couldn’t refuse (to be put up just before Christmas). But Reid’s such an iconically bizarre figure, I still needed to see what Christmas was like, as viewed through the yellow-tinted medallion-man specs of his cockney eyes. When I think of Reid, I always recall the time a sadly out-of-it (and much missed) Tara Palmer-Tomkinson appeared the worse for wear on Frank Skinner’s chat show, under the impression she’d be talking to Frank Butcher. The thing that amuses me isn’t so much the idea of Reid hosting a show as his EastEnders character, as the distinction between Reid and Butcher is Rizla thin anyway, but more the notion of Mike Reid — a man whose veins seem to flow with the slop from the drip tray, and with a laugh like a knuckleduster — hosting any telly at all. How weird and horrible would that be? Let’s find out, with a Christmas special from 1979.

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The Runaround studio’s set up like a circus ring, with Reid as the hybrid of ringmaster and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. Truly, no-one has ever been so ill-fitting for a role as filthy-mouthed working men’s club comic Mike Reid presenting a kids show. It’s like someone took all the sights, scents and contents of 1970’s British pubs and magicked it all down into humanoid form. Hairy forearms, hairy chest, signet rings, skin like a leather handbag and the voice of someone who fills his 40 daily roll-ups with asbestos, he’s an amalgam of every anchor-tattooed daytrip coach driver stood scowling at the seaside on a smoke break. This isn’t a ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ thing either, as he wears a perpetual grimace, chirpy scripted lines snarled through gritted teeth, with every word out of his mouth sounding like a threat.

We open on a Scottish piper playing Mull of Kintyre, sombrely marching through the darkness under a single spotlight like he’s leading a funeral procession, until joined by a full band in the studio. But the audience of rowdy, restless children aren’t even looking, with not a head turned the pipers’ way as they dutifully wail through the entire song. Instead, they amuse themselves with a pitched battle of crepe paper, ribbons and various under-seat detritus, flung over the entranceway that separates the bleachers like rival firms of hooligans lobbing batteries and coins at each other on a grim, rainy Saturday as a mud-streaked Trevor Brooking clatters into the advertising hoarding below.

02

Even now, there’s something about children of the seventies I find rather frightening, perhaps a hangover from when I was young, and they represented the ultimate fear of bigger boys. If I went back in time, strutting around all cocky because I knew what Twitter was and I could see nudie ladies on my phone any time I wanted, as a jacked and handsome adult hunk, I’d still make a run for it if I saw a gang of tykes on Raleigh Choppers. They’d likely make a sport of chasing me down, tying me to a pylon, putting spiders in my mouth and bloodying my head with rocks; my delicate life of typing pleasingly-constructed sentences rendering me pitifully unable to fend off the perma-grazed little scrappers in dirty parkas who spend their evenings playing on the train tracks.

Almost three minutes later, the pipe band finally comes to a finish, inciting a loud, high-pitched cheer. Mike Reid is surrounded by children — this week’s contestants — who’ll be playing for tremendous prizes this fine Christmas Eve, including “a weekend in Brixton prison!” He’s joking (one assumes). With a “woss your name, son?” which has the energy of a store detective interrogating a boy he’s dragged to a locked back room on suspicions of eating a single chocolate mouse from the Pick ‘n’ Mix, the contestants introduce themselves. It’s a racially diverse group, and once he gets to Jaswinder, Reid repeats it in a stuttery voice; “juh-juh-juh-juh-jaswindah!” letting us know it’s a funny foreign name that is hard to say.

03

Reid’s adjudicator this week is a black lady called Jude, whom he puts his arm around and informs us has just got back from holiday in Jamaica. “…and I said to her ‘what was the weather like?’ She said ‘marvellous, I’ve only been here three days, look!‘” Reid points at her skin and laughs, adding, “isn’t that fun, Christmas humour?” But before the game can begin, he corrals the pipe major for a chat, with a “d’you wanna come here, old son?” It’s an echoey studio, with Mike Reid’s rubbish questions about “do pipes take long to learn” reverberating off the walls, but still drowning beneath the background murmur of bored children. He pushes on, asking a beefeater of their wolfhound mascot “woss his name, govnor? Like the hat, son!

Eventually, the game can begin, and here’s how it works. The kids are given a bunch of multiple choice questions, and on Reid’s cue of “g-g-g-g-g-go!” — for which he briefly switches from mob enforcer to a Norman Wisdom voice — they pelt across the studio to stand on the circle which corresponds to what they believe is the correct answer. If they’re right, they get a tennis ball representing a point, which are collected in plastic tubes for scoring. It’s general knowledge and heavily clip-based, in that classic way of filling airtime by having each question be a minute of something else. We return from a scene culled from a particular Disney flick to Reid’s observation “How ’bout that? That was a Disney film called My Mother-in-Law’s Mouth. I’m sorry… The Black Hole.” Not one of these jokes get a laugh.

04

Interaction with the contestants is unavoidable, and Reid has the hosting manner of both Krays at once, occasionally hunched with his hands on his knees, like someone told him that’s how to speak to children. But it’s not the players he has to worry about, forced to call for quiet from the row upon row of incessant shrieking and chattering, as a team of sled dogs enter the studio. An interview with the trainer is conducted over deafening whines, barks and howls, like that bit in The Thing, with Reid yelling at the top of his blackened lungs, but giving up after one question. He’s still aggressively chuckling about it after the dogs have gone, with a sarcastic “isn’t this fun” and a “fer crying out loud” where he may be smiling, but his blood’s piping hot.

At constant war with a studio of under-tens, he bellows a “listen to Mike!” just for a few second’s peace. The contestants too have short attention spans, looking around, whispering to each other, or fiddling with bits of the set. At one point, a lad’s got his arm poked down the tube they drop their tennis balls. The main problem is all the guest interviews are stuff that Mike Reid finds interesting, but children do not, like a posho in a vintage hot rod — “byootiful bit of machinery!” — who witters away while the audience toot on party blowers and chat amongst themselves. “Kids,” he yells, “I must ask yer once again, please be quiet, this is very interesting!” It’s not. Eventually, the contestants help push the car back out, with a warning “don’t touch the bodywork!” and as it cuts to the audience, one bored boy pops a gum bubble, while another’s head lolls to the side as he sinks into his seat, twisting the ends of his hair around a finger, vacant look on his face.

05

The questions are just as kid-unfriendly, which they get away with because it’s multiple choice, with long-winded stuff like guessing the nationality of the Bugatti family who began building cars in 1901. Perennial guest Barbara Dickson does an in-studio spot with the dreary Caravan Song, where Reid mimics her Scottish accent, before the winner’s prizes come in, atop a Victorian horse and cart complete with waving Father Christmas. It’s one of the period-accurate scary ones with a cotton wool beard; your mate’s dad in a grotto in the utility closet of their local, not even bothering to put on a different voice and snorting up phlegm between kids.

Unfortunately, the contraption fills the entire studio floor, with two horses parked right in front of the main camera, completely blocking the view. The pipers break into Good King Wenceslas and fake snow falls from the ceiling, but none of the bulky 70’s cameras have room to get a clear shot of anything, so we cut between discordantly framed close-ups of army musicians, while the sound of Mike Reid’s angry voice can be heard shouting over the din. Fuck your chocolate box Victorians and their chestnuts, this is a proper period Christmas.

06

I am able to add some minor production insight, courtesy of a water-damaged copy of Mike Reid’s autobiography, Triffic, which I was offered for free at a car boot 15 years ago, during a day of torrential rains. Perhaps unsurprising when you actually watch it is the speed they were made, with just eight weeks between receiving the script and the episode airing. Though it was pre-recorded, each show was taped as-live, with mistakes kept in, and filming starting at 4pm, wrapping by half-past. According to Reid, the first show was a disaster; a nine hour marathon where fifty sheep shat on the floor, while an elephant, well, I’ll let him tell it — “…its trunk round my plums, up my arse and sniffing my neck… when all of a sudden, this monstrosity of a cock starts to unfold. It was like a four-foot roll of lino.” The taping closed with Reid having to give an apologetic speech to an audience of children plus their parents and teachers after accidentally saying fuck.

Despite appearances, does he think of the show fondly? “Even today, I get people in their thirties and forties coming up to me and shouting ‘Runaround!’ And I go ‘yeah – nice one’, as though they’re the first person to have chucked it at me since the seventies.” Triffic! Moving onto 1980’s Christmas special, we open outside the entrance of Southern Television, where dual signs read SOUTH POLE and NORTH POLE, and a real reindeer and penguin mill around an igloo. An ‘Eskimo’ excitedly scuttles out of it to exclaim (in subtitles) “Hello everybody!!! It’s Christmas Runaround!!!

07

Mike Reid’s pushed into the studio in a bob sled — “lahvlee!” — where it’s a special Runaround On Ice, with the floor turned into a skating rink, complete with a stuffed polar bear which looks like it was taxidermied by Picasso. Its lower jaw jutting past its snout, with a pair of beady doll’s eyes gazing into our souls, we’ll be treated to unsettling zooms on its existentially frightening face throughout the show. But Mike Reid is an earthy creature, at home on the solid ground of cobblestones and the beer ‘n’ blood soaked floorboards of his boozer, and not on the (faux) ice. Trapped on a pair of skates, he staggers bandy-legged towards the bear for something to cling onto, and will not leave the safety of its carcass for the entire show, spending almost the full half hour standing stock still, afeared of going arse over tit.

Welcome to Runaround,” he shouts, gazing at the bear’s fangs, “this is my mother-in-law. Her mouth’s as big as that, anyway.” Back outside, the Eskimo — “a right wally, ‘ave a look at this wally, go on” — demonstrates this week’s prizes. His supposed ‘Inuit’ dialogue sounds remarkably like Japanese, and the actor’s listed as Frankie Au, whose other credits include Son in The Chinese Detective, and Japanese Gentleman in a Terry and June. This is 1980, where the term ‘foreign’ is a broad umbrella, and we cut back to a cackling Reid, saying “televis-aahh!” in a Chinaman voice, demonstrating his versatility by going straight into a Jim Davidson-style Jamaican — “hoo yes, mon, welcome to de Christmas runaround!

08

After the kids are introduced, he sings We Wish You a Merry Christmas in another foreign accent I can’t place, before pretending to make the bear growl. “What a wilf!” he says, before calling the kids “a load of wilfs” and inferring that he too might make a mistake, and would thus be “a wilf” himself. The audience are decidedly less riotous this year, sitting quietly in school uniforms, and clapping when they’re supposed to. Perhaps he sent someone round to ‘have a word’. Fucking wilfs.

This year’s first guests come from the Ice Follies show, skating onto the floor in a huge snake of colourful, extravagant costumes. There’s Aztec gods, sexy nutcrackers, a distressed poodle, a nightmare pig with big eyelashes and a Fu Manchu tash in an Oriental hat, and an extremely tight lycra frog outfit that’s giving me uncomfortable stirrings. Reid chats with the elderly man who runs the show, leaning on the bear for support, as they bring out a trio of costumes resembling the giant floating head from Zardoz, but painted silver with a pair of ladies legs poking out of the bottom. “Alright, big ‘ead?” laughs Reid, “like your hairstyle, who done that, the council?” The old man tells him they were supposed to be moon-people; “Ain’t got a bad pair-a legs for moon people, have they?” says Reidy. The man’s rather taken aback by this, stammering a “well, I don’t know, I haven’t studied them. I’ll take a look now…” As he cranes his head down towards the slender, silver thighs, I fear he’s about to have an awakening.

09

The next guest is “a young lady, super skater, and a lovely looking girl.” Eighteen-year-old figure skater Ruth Lindsay spins around the rink doing a few twirls, but in the cramped space (and with a bear in the way), she’s limited to unspectacular and very slow spinning, jumping about half an inch off the floor. Reid admires from the safety of the bear as she passes, in her short skirt and leotard, greeting her for the chat with an “allo, gorgeous.” There are banging sounds through the interview, which I think is the kids sat above, boredly kicking their feet against the set, while the most Reid-ian question is whether she keeps her weight down by dieting. “Beautiful young lady, fine skater. Delightful!

In the related quiz question, Reid’s overwhelming instinct to be racist at every turn leaves him unable to even say the words “John Curry” without said surname causing him to drop into an Indian accent to remark “vunderful person!” Another question about the plant under which people kiss at Christmas is asked in a camp voice, because of how unmanly and effeminate the act of kissing is. One about who wrote A Christmas Carol has the wrong answers of Rudyard Kipling, whom Reid mispronounces as “Roger,” and Shakespeare as “Shakes-pove…” But it’s a Rudolph question that does him in, specifically an illustration of the reindeer with a torch strapped to its head. Something about this image reduces Reid to hysterics, purple-faced and wheezing through his “g-g-g-g-go!” and grasping onto the bear to stop from slipping as his legs go. By the time the kids get back, he’s still bemt double, muttering “wiv a torch… I can’t believe that, can you believe that?

10

After a performance by Madness, dressed as Santas and miming to One Step Beyond, it’s the end of the quiz, where a little child’s voice, full of the joys of the season, can he heard crying out “it’s snowing!” Reid replies “it’s snowin’ again? Oh, fer crying out loud.” Counting the scores, he walks very gingerly across the floor, like a man with a recently burst anal fissure. The winner’s decided after a tie-breaker, and our host announces “have we got a surprise for you, OR WOT?! Everybody follow Michael!” Like a Polio-stricken Pied Piper, he inches his way across the floor as the kids — and Madness — follow behind. Suggs’s legs go out from under him, and he crashes right on the back of his head for a definite concussion. To the audience, for a brief moment, it must look like Santa just died.

There’s a frankly incredible green screen of a sleigh flying over the studio, as we pan down to Reid and the kids stood outside the igloo, and he shakes hands with the Japanese Eskimo with a “nice to see you,” adding “woss he talking about? What a lot of rubbish!” A reindeer’s pulled into frame by a stage hand, and I do mean pulled, tug-of-warring with the poor thing, which does not want to be there, bucking angrily against the rope. The sleigh behind is hilariously rinkydink; literally a small plastic sledge from Woolies, which can barely contain its massive Father Christmas, revealed to be Big Daddy — again, with a superb cotton wool beard — aggressively hurling presents at the children.

11

The British Hulk Hogan, Big Daddy’s physique is a genuine wonder for someone who became a household name as a pseudo sportsman. Hilariously unathletic, he’s comprised of 90% gut, which Reid can’t stop touching, and which makes his limbs appear disconcertingly baby-like in comparison. The effort of standing up off the sleigh just about finishes him off, with the cold weather giving a wicked case of rosacea. Unsurprisingly, Daddy deems Christmas “the finest day of year, we can eat all the grub and drink all we want to.” I think you’ve probably had enough, mate. Famously, he made a career of standing on the apron while younger partners did all the work, tagging in for the big belly bounce — the most devastating finish in wrestling history — which on request, he gives to Mike Reid. Thank God he must’ve held back, because we might never have had Frank Butcher. The pair break into We Wish You A Merry Christmas as the nightmare pig returns, and Christmas Runaround 1980 goes off air with everyone posing for a photo, while Big Daddy holds a frightened, thrashing reindeer in place by the antlers.

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