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As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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

Saturday Morning Archaeology – WOW!

•September 15, 2021 • 2 Comments

[previous: Saturday SuperstoreMulti-Coloured Swap Shop]

Continuing our run of Saturday morning shows, the cursed bog of YouTube has burped up another bone with 1996’s WOW!; a true forgotten example of the genre, even carrying the excitement of the Bad Influence! exclamation mark, and with the added urgency of caps implying its title should always be shouted. WOW! was a CITV effort, following the axing of Telegantic Megavision and It’s Not Just Saturday, and playing opposite the titans of Theakston and Ball on a reinvigorated, post-Andi Peters Live and Kicking. The unenviable task of fronting this cannon fodder slot went to a pairing of Sophie Aldred, formerly assistant to McCoy’s Doctor Who, and Simeon Courtie, who’d recently departed rivals CBBC, where he presented the weekday links with Otis the Aardvark. Set against the BBC’s biggest dog, WOW! had a clear plan of action, which was to embrace the same spirit of anarchy that led TISWAS to become so popular and iconic, decades earlier.

This is on show from the cold open, where comedy tea ladies Pat and Barbara bust into the dressing room, only to interrupt Sophie pulling hair onto Sim’s bald-wigged head. The tea ladies, whose role is to always be pulling faces in the background, are another pair of CITV grotesques with busted teeth performed by Peter Cocks and Woody Taylor, who you may remember as Hoki and Koki on Endurance UK. Evidently, this is a weird episode to start with, as following the titles, we find cast, crew and audience crammed onto a small patch of grass outside the studio, with a gravel car park visible in the background. Due to a power cut in Maidstone, WOW! is reduced to making telly like they did in the 1800’s, with everything running off a generator. Down to a single camera and handful of working mics, they’re robbed of an earpiece link to the production gallery, and the phones which run their precious competitions and celebrity Q&As. Unable to even magic a picture of Peter Andre onscreen, they have to make do with pulling a girl from the audience and pointing at her PAndre t-shirt.

For a show priding itself on unpredictability, nobody can hide their obvious glee, symbolically tossing the script into a crowd of children, while a bald man in plastic Spock ears screams “BURN IT! WE DON’T NEED IT!” Sim urges viewers to “ring your mates and tell them, ITV this morning… this is gonna be a legend in television!” and in hindsight, there’s a rather sad quality to all the giddy joy, believing themselves the centre of cultural history, in an event — and series — not a soul would remember. It’s hard to feel like ITV’s choking on the smoke of revolution with everything pitched so young, and as Sim jokes “put some more coal in!” we do the most Saturday morning thing of all and cut to a cartoon. There’s even a puppet — Sid the Bluebottle — the final talking glove on Phil Cornwell’s résumé, just one year before I’m Alan Partridge; and he’s really phoning it in.

You’ve no need of end credit Roman numerals to discern the year, as this is 1996 to its fullest, with gigantic shirts you could host the Glastonbury dance tent in, and audience foreheads visible through perfectly parted curtains. The guests too, are mid-90s incarnate, with Gaz Top under his “I’m a big boy now” real name of Gareth Jones, in a buzzcut and Liam Gallagher shades, plus lovely Scottish Sally Gray (a powerful teenage crush for old Millard), Sam Kane off Brookside, and both kids from The Upper Hand. Big guest is Peter Andre, dressed all in black like an evil spider and slouching in gangster poses with his shoulders lolloping. It’s strange to see this first phase of his career, before the post-Jungle reboot as Prince Pete the Wonderful Dad, back when all the semen he’d fired out of his penis had thus far gone to waste. During his interview, an entourage of stern-faced dancers in puffa jackets the size of inflatable sumo suits sit behind, whispering, gossiping and pointing at people off camera. The tea ladies shuffle on with milky cuppas, and Pete spills his when a wasp flies in.

As Sim’s got the only clip-on mic that works, links are delivered with Sophie or the guests leaning on his chest like he’s nursing them, while kids wanting to win a poster of Peter’s abs can’t fax answers in, forced to write with their hands like cavemen. Speaking of Neanderthals, the bald bloke’s constantly mouthing off, with the job of sitting among the child audience, yelling at the top of his lungs, and the catchphrase “NO NEED TO SHOUT!!!!” In a bit where football teams have written in to win a WOW! sponsored kit, a letter from a girl whose school doesn’t have a kit incites baldy to laddishly bellow “wahey!” Note that this is a primary school, as he adds an offscreen “PUT YOUR KIT ON FOR THE LADS!

All the other beats of childrens TV are in place; reading out a happy 9h birthday greeting to a poshly-named Christopher Nibbs, who in a striking example of social determinism, has “just started boarding school.” I’m sure that’s of great comfort, if he’s able to hear the telly over the sound of flushing, and the cold, familiar taste of toilet water. Out of contact with the producer’s gallery, everyone talks over each other, as Sam Kane wishes good luck to wife Linda Lusardi on the imminent birth of their baby, Peter Andre refuses to take his top off and show his sexy body for the excited under-tens, and Sim explains how they’re running the show off a genny, before further adding that genny means generator. Thanks for that.

The televisual landmark comes to a sudden end halfway through, when the power comes back — but now caught up in the moment, they stay outside anyway. Crossing to a thin and pre-jacked Andi Peters in a trail for his show, The Noise, which follows in the schedule, he’s the meat in a 90’s sandwich, sat between Skin from Skunk Anansie and Louise Nerding. Andi Peters was the premier music journalist of the age; the sonic Pauline Kael; a man who once cited his favourite ever song as Shout by Ant and Dec. Back to WOW!, to mark the VHS release of 101 Dalmatians, the dinner ladies walk on with puppies, one of which is so frightened, it absolutely drenches Simeon and Sophie in a wild arc of piss, spraying so ferociously, I first thought it was a comedy bit with a puppet. But no; real dog, real piss, and Sim cues a break while wiping pissy hands on his massive shirt which is absolutely soaked with steaming dog urine.

We return with more puppies and a Dalmatian expert, who takes the wheel and careens us down a dark alley, with breeders who execute puppies at birth if they’ve not got perfect spots — “this one’s deaf, she would’ve been put down.” Shitty hell, I wonder what Theakston’s up to on the other side? And all conducted over the sound of nervous pups incessantly whining (and probably pissing), while the daughter from The Upper Hand tries to quiet them. Pat or Barbara waddles into frame, complaining about “all these dog businesses” and pretends to slip on one, while Gaz Top wafts his hand with a “terrible whiff of dog poop in here…”

Perhaps it’s all the piss and turds that lead everyone to stop being so silly and finally go back inside, for a mortifying wig modelling segment, showing off the era’s “cool cuts.” Gaz Top swaggers down the stairs to Oasis’ Roll With It in a Liam wig, pretending to chew gum; “it ain’t no morning glory” says Sim. Then lovely Sally Grey’s in a Mel B wig, looking like Rachel Dolezal, as a tired-sounding Phil Cornwall, laying behind the sofa with his arm in the air, keeps repeating his “secret cigar” (zig-a-zig-ah) line until it gets a laugh. Of course, the world’s most popular haircut then was The Rachel, which naughty Sim tells us is actually called “a bouncy shag,” and consequently, I’ve spent the last week on hold to the ITV complaints line. Disgusting.

There’s a quick review section, with Sophie inside a kebab van in a fake tash as ‘Donna Kebab’, before the Upper Hand phone-in, with everyone awkwardly perched on giant replica handsets like Borrowers with cramp. In a classic demonstration of the Saturday morning Q&A, the sole question’s a bored-sounding kid asking “what’s it like acting on TV?” The other call’s Cornwell’s bluebottle doing an impression, which an accidental whistle of feedback cuts off in such a way — “My name is Michael C–” — that it really sounds like they’ve bleeped the name Michael Cunt. “Who does your hair?” he asks, in a joke last heard from Mike Reid, “is it the council?” And then Peter Andre plays us out with Flava.

Skipping forwards a couple of weeks, we get a proper look at the studio, with a spiky design mimicking action bubbles in comics, down to the painful-looking furniture, with chairs resembling Pinhead’s bollocks. Although it doesn’t matter, because nothing in the 90s was as uncool as sitting on things properly, so the hosts assume a variety of trendy sitting positions, often with one or both feet propped up, or their legs lazily splayed out in positions their grans would hate. At one point, Sim crooks one knee over the back of a sofa, having to use both hands to faux-casually stop himself falling off, and leaving the seat completely empty. Imagine if someone sat on it with their arse; spoddy little feet resting on the floor. What a nerd!

Cold open sees Sally Gunnell trying to hijack the show by tying and gagging Sim ‘n’ Sophie. While Sim breaks free, Sophie hops into the studio, arms and legs bound by ropes, to remain hog-tied for the entire first half, having to pull out viewer faxes with her teeth. To this turn of events, horny YouTube commenters had such varied reactions as “so hot,” and “If this was one of our American programmes they’d have untied her right away! Rule Britannia!” along with a plea for footage of “that smtv episode where cat deeley hopped onto the set bound and gagged. Also June sarpong on t4 one Saturday morning where she had a gag over her mouth and hands possibly tied behind.” I’ll keep an eye out, mate. But they’re all at it, with Sim complimenting her “bindings” while Sid the bluebottle frantically vibrates with what one must assume is overwhelming sexual arousal.

In a weird aside, as a tied-up Sophie lays next to him on the sofa, Sim presents a copy of The Sun — “Hugh Grant’s girlfriend… I have to show you this. She has come out with inflated lips!” Holding up a double-page spread with the headline LOOK AT THE LIPS ON THAT, he’s kissed by the tea ladies, using sausage-meat for collagen, leaving his face smeared in red. Like all the jokes, it’s soundtracked by that unavoidable Big Breakfast style crew laughter, everyone braying like Tory MPs at a shit zinger to the opposition, as the thing all 90’s shows feared the most was not seeming like it was a fun, rule-free workplace. The stench of Chris Evans’ influence hangs heavy, demonstrated again when Sim asks for some “walking music” while strutting three feet across the studio floor to footballer Dean Holdsworth.

Dean was one of the era’s most prolific tabloid cocksmiths, though here he’s helping their football strip contest, reading out phone numbers with the wide-eyed terror of a man stumbling into the kitchen at 3am for a glass of water to find masked intruders going through the drawers. A phenomenal collection of the period’s most cliched guests continues with Louise Wener from Sleeper and three of the Hollyoaks cast — including cheeky lad Will ‘Jambo’ Mellor — a trio who’ll be referred to singularly as “The Hollyoaks,” like they’re a band or a human centipede. As Jambo finally unties Sophie, I’ve a prevailing memory of the Hollyoaks launch, with the gang doing the rounds on all the magazine shows, and the big recurring talking point being Will Mellor’s absolutely outrageous bleached hair. Good god almighty, the 90s.

Jambo’s got the textbook “pissed off I was up at 5am for a kids show I can’t even talk about shagging on; I’m too cool for this” vibe, not helped by the tea ladies pointing out his big ears and nose, which is a Jambo/Dumbo joke, but he’s not laughing. The interview’s a waste, with everyone struggling for family-friendly answers to questions about what they got up to in Ibiza and the worst thing about flat-sharing together — “the boys nick our hoover!” Nick Pickard takes the piss out of Jambo’s blue contact lenses, so Jambo gets him back by saying he’s “got feet like apes’ fingers,” and gosh, have Criterion put out a WOW! box set yet? The Hollyoaks lads brought back some prizes from Ibiza for the competition, which thankfully is a baseball cap and not a vial of herpes.

Later, the hosts will subtly burn last week’s guest, Dieter Brummer from Home and Away, who was also meant to provide prize — “he offered us loads of goodies” — which turned out to be one (1) signed t-shirt from his own BACK FROM THE DEAD TOUR, after his character got killed off, with RIP SHANE and a picture of his face encircled with the text DIETER LIVES. This appears to be a David Brent-esque cash-in tour of nightclub appearances, and Sim gives an insincere “so thanks, Dieter, for your generosity on that one,” before Cornwell’s fly calls him “Dieter Bummer.” (note to defend myself from accusations of being a ghoul: as of publishing, Brummer died for real a few weeks ago, some months after I originally wrote this)

Everyone’s sent into thigh-slapping merriment at a prank where a pantomime cow’s unmasked to reveal Sim’s mum, before a game called Fly in your Soup, involving a blindfolded Jambo armed with a giant spoon, as Sophie sneaks up behind with a thought bubble which makes it appear like he’s thinking “UH-OH!! I’ve got no pants on!!” What a wheeze! They’re bloody bonkers here, I tell you. Oh and by the way, as they’re setting up the game, a kid in the background does this.

To sidestep for a moment, I pinpoint the 2007 Ant and Dec phone-in scandal, where competitions were found to be rigged, as the point television’s relationship with the audience became irrevocably damaged. Trust was broken, inciting a sense of viewer entitlement which now leads to outrage and floods of complaints over every minor incident they don’t like. Goaded on by tabloid clickbait, any accidental peek behind the curtain is now seen as a SHOCKING EXPOSURE of television’s desire to TRICK you (by say, rehearsing, editing or doing re-takes), while reality show vote-offs inevitably result in petitions from people crying FIX. But I may have stumbled on an earlier incident, which if spotted, could’ve shaken TV right off its foundations.

On behalf of the kids, Jambo’s playing for 10 CD singles and a Sega Saturn, Whack-a-Mole-ing flies in a giant bowl of soup. Following very basic “up, left” instructions over the phone, he nails a 100% hit-rate, often while doing the exact opposite of the nervous child’s directions, with a precision that makes it obvious he can totally see through the bottom of the blindfold, which is just a regular sleep mask. If they’d all been put in prison for this like they deserved, we never would’ve got Will Mellor’s music career, and more importantly, I never would have had that colleague who went “here’s your mate, you love him, don’t you, Millard?” every fucking time When I Need You came on the radio. Scum. Absolute scum.

A bunch more nonsense happens; a kid caller’s asked where they are, and first says “a house,” before correcting it to “Glasgow.” Andi Peters shills The Noise with the brag of an appearance by — then Superman, now one of the Trumpy D-List crew — Dean Cain, and bigs up an exclusive showing of the first ten seconds only of Boyzone’s new video. Then Phil ‘The Fly’ Cornwell witters on to himself about the freeing experience of urinating; “having a wee wee, I’ve had a wee wee!” Cheer up, Partridge and Stella Street soon. A closing interview has Louise Wener as another free-talking 90’s character struggling with the tone of a child-audience, as the fly puts on a Nazi accent to ask if she’s Sleeper’s “Führer” before they play us out. WOW! Lasted just 16 weeks, partially due to ITV spending a fortune on live rights to the Formula 1, and its sharing a timeslot with Andi Peters’ expensive music show bomb. LWT were eager to get Scratchy and Co on instead, condemning the series to its fate, not as TISWAS for the Lad Mags generation, but as another faded selection box of bizarre moments from pop culture’s most distressing decade.

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 videos, my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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Little and Large – The Final Series

•September 5, 2021 • 10 Comments

[more Little and Large: Who Do You Do?Double DareSeries 1Stout and Reed]

To quote myself in my previous piece on the pair: “Against all good judgement, I’m really curious to what that final series looked like, being that the format wore itself out before episode one was over.”

The leap between seventies comedy and that of the nineties was enormous, and after alternative comedy had swept through the landscape like a flash fire, club comics and traditional ‘straight man/silly one’ double acts become the punchline; hoary old forbears whose only worth was in being lampooned. By 1991, the old guard had started disappearing from our screens, with the ascent of names like Chris Morris, Steve Coogan, Lee and Herring, and Harry Hill, all lurking round the corner. Newman and Baddiel were just two years from filling Wembley Stadium, and despite Freddie Starr’s best efforts in years past, titting around in a teddy boy outfit, comedy really was about to become the new rock ‘n’ roll, at least for a while.

And yet, Syd and Eddie persisted. Now twice the age of the incoming class, Syd, already starting to grey in ’78, was the full silver fox, while Eddie lived up to his name more than ever. Many hours of television have passed between that first BBC stretch and their last hurrah with series eleven. Eleven! Nobody can deny this is a phenomenal run, traversing three decades, but what shape would that final set of half hours take? Worryingly, having jumped into this closing year, I find myself growing curious about the transition period, and those nine intervening series. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. For those whose parents put a porn block on the Wi-Fi, there’s still plenty of Syd in drag, however some of the female roles are taken by singer and impressionist Maddi Cryer. Something to keep in mind throughout is that Syd’s 48 here, and Eddie 49.

We start with episode one, which aired on Saturday 16th March, 1991 at 7pm, following Jim’ll Fix It and ‘Allo ‘Allo. It would be watched by an audience of 8.7 million. There’s no opening titles this year, so’s best to cram in even more of its new standard; the extremely lengthy musical number. And we’re straight into a rockin’ rap beat, punctuated by power chords and the shrill peep of whistles, conjuring images of illegal, sweat-soaked raves. Adding to our rapidly growing collection of troupes named after their choreographers, the Jeff Thacker Dancers do an energetic running man on a revolving stage, their baggy clothes and skew-whiff baseball caps helping pull us out of the grotty, smoke-filled seventies and into the modern era. This is unmistakeably the nineties — the Gulf War, EMF, Gazza, The Mary Whitehouse Experience; Syd Little and Eddie Large. Syd’s voice bids us welcome, introducing “the UK’s answer to The New Kids on the Block!

The lads burst through a backdrop, dressed like NKOTB, and accompanied by the gangly and now-elderly Eli Woods, Kenny Baker, and a bloke who legitimately appears to be seven-feet tall. Baker does the splits, and about a minute in, it hits me there’s been no funny lyrics, and we’re literally watching a straight cover of The Right Stuff, dancing and all, by a near-50-year-old Little and Large. Eventually, it segues into parody, albeit under the impression NKOTB were rappers — “we’re the New Kids on the Block, we like to sing and we like to rock!” — and with gags like the tall fella having a high voice and Kenny Baker having a deep one. Kenny’s called Lofty, Eddie’s Slim, and Syd’s called Fatty. Syd: “I’m funky and I’m hip…” Eddie “I’ve seen more fat on a chip!” There’s a textbook example of that 90’s joke, rapping that you’re doing a rap “but the others think I’m a load of cr…” and getting your mouth covered, before an excruciating four-and-a-half minutes ends with Eli Woods soiling himself.

The musical numbers are bridged by a huge amount of sketches, most lasting under twenty seconds, in a hop and a skip to a visual punchline. Syd and Eddie as policemen at the Blackpool illuminations, where it’s revealed they too are covered in lightbulbs. Syd (or rather, a stunt-double) running into automatic doors. Eddie winning a trolley dash and filling it with cash registers. Eddie ringing Syd the vicar’s front door, which plays a cacophony of church bells. Eddie asking shop assistant Syd if he can try out some boxing gloves before decking him. Traffic warden Syd unable to write down an Arabic numberplate to issue a ticket, as Sheik Eddie gives him a cheeky bow before driving off. Syd on the pier, taking a picture of his girlfriend with a “disposable camera,” and Eddie the road sweeper slinging it into the sea. Eddie the lifeguard, thinking drowning men are giving him a friendly wave.

So fast and sparsely verbal, these quickies feel like three-panel strips in the Beano or Whizzer and Chips, and hold up far better than the longer sketches, all of which shine a blinding great spotlight on how dire the scripts are, with material so thin, it’s slipping between atoms. ‘Toytown in Trouble’ is a garish nightmare, with Syd as Noddy and a nee-nawing Eddie as PC Plod, which finally gives us our first Eddie Large impression, of Kojak. Then Eddie pulls the string on a giggling, bimbo-esque rag doll, who asks “do you have a stwing I can puww?” and Eddie makes a face like “yeah, me prick” — an expression we’ll see again when asked if he’s got a big truncheon.

That one routine they had in the first series; Eddie interrupting Syd with impressions; doesn’t really happen at all here, with copious amounts of TV time in the intervening years forcing them to branch further than just “Sid wants to sing, but Benny from Crossroads is here!” What we’re left with is a real scrapbook of the period; lines padded with pop culture references, and continually mentioning people and things you get the sense the pair don’t understand — “heard about them Ninja Turtles, Syd?” — but saw when flicking through the paper. The unrelenting pace gives less a sense of two mates dicking about, leaving no time for corpsing, amid an extraordinary amount of work, with myriad costume changes and lengthy dance numbers which they flail through for seven-minute stretches. Was all this energy and effort a desperate attempt at remaining relevant; at staying on air, with the encroach of younger comics at their heel?

While that first series should’ve been called The Eddie Large Show, at this end, it’s more evenly balanced, and Syd himself is a noticeably more confident performer. Not a good performer, just less like he’s stood with his knees knocking and a gun to his wife’s head off-camera. Now he only fumbles some of his lines rather than all of them. Incredibly, Eddie’s impressions have gotten even worse, perhaps because they’re used sparingly and he’s not even getting the practise, now reduced to the absolute basics — “Lovely jubbly! Cushty, Rodders!” as Del Boy, with a “my wife Marlene…” as he slips into Boycie. Most consist solely of saying the names of other characters from the shows of whoever he’s meant to be.

The ‘character’ of Eddie is also less sex-obsessed, and the series has an even more babyish feel, not helped by the garish early 90’s colour pallet. One notable absence is the word ‘Soopersonic’, which doesn’t get used once. Things are broken up with a song by weekly guest performers, like Chesney Hawkes and Bananarama, who don’t interact with the pair, and most likely hopped over from the studio next door when they were doing TOTP.

In show canon, there are ‘at home with the boys’ skits, starting when Syd, in pyjamas, comes into Eddie’s bedroom to wake him over a noisy car alarm, establishing that they share a house (and “our lovely new car”), but not a bed. Through there’s a bunch of bachelor domesticity sketches, including one where Syd’s about to propose to his girlfriend of 12 years (who’s apparently not fussed him sharing a house with Eddie Large), it’s noticeably not always the same set, even in the space of a single episode. Another (mildly) interesting note comes in an art gallery skit, where Eddie’s called Cyril, which is Syd’s real name, as they argue whether a painting’s by Michaelangelo or Leonardo, leading to this reveal, which is either ruined or made better by Eddie letting out a “Cowabunga! Let’s go for a pizza dude!

I’ve seen some foreboding title cards in my time, like true crime docs warning “this film contains real footage of human death,” but none so chilling as the words LITTLE AND LARGE GREASE MEGA MEDLEY. These medleys are the real core of their closing era, with incredibly dense, seemingly unending segments functioning as a Jive Bunny megamix of both the period’s culture and Syd and Eddie’s comedy. It starts how you’d expect; a greaser gang, Eddie in a quiff singing Summer Lovin’, and Syd in falsetto and a dress as Sandy. Barely begun, and already I’m yearning for Arthur Mullard and Hylda Baker.

Once again, for much of its stretch, the lyrics are unchanged, until eventual comic intervention in the form of impressions; Eddie as Jimmy Cricket and Vera Duckworth, Maddi Cryer as Cilla and Dot Cotton. It pivots into various asides, including Eddie rowing a bathtub out of frame to the Hawaii 5-0 theme, a Blind Date parody with Eddie as Rab C. Nesbitt, the Kwik Fit Fitters, and Syd dancing in a tiny bikini. These big closers tail every episode, and I can’t lie, they end up winning me over; undeniably awful, terrible shit, but at the same time, pretty great. Each one a tour de force of naffness, to their credit, the energy level is off the scale, neither them nor us allowed a breath, in the comic equivalent of hardcore techno that shakes your fillings out. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for the audience, as with costume changes and stop-start filming, these things must’ve taken half the night to shoot, leaving them sat listening to a looped Ronnie Hazlehurst cover of the Ghostbusters theme or whatever, for hours on end.

Episode two’s opener respectively puts Syd and Eddie as Rod Stewart and Tina Turner, joined by David ‘Kid’ Jensen, who they confuse for David Jason. “Know what I mean, Rodders?” says Eddie. Notable sketches include Eddie as a tattooist who gets a call from his wife, inking the shopping list on Syd’s back, most likely with a real tattoo gun he swapped with the prop one for a joke. If you’ve slept with Syd Little, please confirm or deny in the comments. A BBC gift shop skit, shelves lined with Edd the Ducks, showcases their MO of bombarding you with visual gags, terrible puns, and Eddie’s voices; with Bruce Forsyth soap — “nice to clean you, to clean you!” — Blankety Blank wine — “more like Plonkety Plonk!” and an 18-inch long matchstick — “that’ll be Match of the Day!” Of course, there are haunting Jim’ll references, like the notion he’s got his own brand of glue; “a tube of this, and you can say Jim fixed it for you!

This week’s finale is very exciting for me, with a bat and spooky skull, and the legend LITTLE AND LARGE’S MONSTER MEGA MIX, in a conflation of both my main interests; horror and Syd Little. I loathe just repeating what’s onscreen, but to help one appreciate the sheer density of material, it really needs to be accounted for in full. Opening with another straight cover, this time Ghostbusters, we spin off into Thriller, The Birdy Song, and Stayin’ Alive, as Eddie the vampire bites into a goth lady — “She’s tasty, tasty, very very tasty!” Sister Sledge’s Frankie gets sung at a Frankenstein, while Syd (as the Bride) bashes it to bits with rubber wrenches. Buddy Holly, Dave Clark’s Bits ‘n’ Pieces, and when Eddie catches Frankie’s severed noggin, Oops Upside Your Head. For an eerie skit, the only genuinely frightening moment comes during an arbitrary turn into Do The Bartman.

Then, to more Thriller, it’s Eddie as a hunchback (cape falling down to reveal a plastic-fanged Kenny Baker on his back); the Addams Family; Eddie as Max Wall doing the Monster Mash; Syd as Freddy Krueger — glasses perfectly on top of the mask — scratching a vinyl of U Can’t Touch This with his razor-glove. By now, I’m reeling, on the ropes and waiting for the knockout blow. L&L charge in with another devastating combo; Eddie as Frank Spencer as the Phantom of the Opera; Charles and Di, but cheating by using rubber masks, and an ET parody where the silhouette of Eddie Large rides a bike across the moon, and ET’s revealed to be a shop-bought mask of Michael Jackson wrapped in a shawl. By the end of it, with them back to dancing round to Ghostbusters, I’m completely done in, needing six months of bed rest and plenty of fluids. But I’m jerked upright with the defibrillator of episode three’s opening number, and the words “please meet those rivals of rap, Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer!

48-year-old Syd’s out first, blonde wig with lines shaved in it, no glasses, and ‘dancing’ on like he’s skipping through a field. Eddie soon follows, in huge parachute pants and a gold chain — oh, and blacked up; blacked right up; face to chest, for a rap battle with disses like “I’ve seen more life in an old string vest” and “you make Julian Clary seem like a man.” Syd really struggles here, accent and fast delivery leaving him unable to keep up with the lip-synching, and even his pre-recorded track goes a bit Pam Doove. Visibly unconfident at the dancing, he looks terrified, eyes flitting off-centre and clearly trying to remember which move is next. At first, I thought part of the gag was his being a few steps behind the backing crew, like Jones in Dad’s Army, but by the end it’s clear he’s just fucked, almost bumping into the others during the final dance-off. Though Eddie does well to keep up with a hugely energetic routine, it honestly seems like he might not survive it, if indeed he’s not slayed by the sheer heat of Vanilla’s bars — “Iceman’s a nice man, a very very nice man. I play it cool, but you gotta pay the price, man…

By far, the funniest sketches are those with such an obvious reveal, they give the satisfaction (and shame) of feeling like you came up with it first. When Eddie’s a goalie, fouling Syd for a penalty and asking if he can change his gloves, you know it’s cutting to him in a giant pair about six feet wide. Ditto when Syd reminds him the doctor’s banned him from chocolate and booze, but he can have one chocolate liqueur a day. Is said liqueur the size of a child? You bet! There are loads of these; a customs officer pulling apart Russian Eddie’s babushka doll, and then his suitcase, which has a succession of smaller suitcases inside; Eddie using a car jack and Syd’s head busting through the sunroof; “smoking table, sir?” asks Eddie the waiter, before Syd’s whole table starts billowing like Carry on Screaming; the lads betting on golf, and Eddie tipping the telly so the ball rolls in the hole. Having your expectations so vividly met feels like lucid dreaming when you’re awake. Am I shaping reality? When Syd complains of Eddie hanging a mirror wrong, did I make Syd shake his head at an upside down reflection?

This final series perfectly demonstrates the reason sketch shows don’t get made now, with dozens of quickies, all needing costumes, props, background extras and locations that only get used once, and must’ve burned up half a day’s filming. Barring two Antiques Roadshow bits over the six episodes, there are no recurring sketches, with everything a one-off. One has Syd giving Eddie a pass on his cycling proficiency test, with the joke that Eddie cycles straight off in sped-up footage, weaving all over the road and causing an accident. That probably took a whole morning; getting the road closed, the cars rehearsed and in sync, all the cones laid out, plus time for Syd to work out how to get a high vis bib on. Later, they’re sailors christening a new boat, but realise it’s been bricked up (ala cars with their wheels nicked). Twelve seconds long, for which cast and crew had to get to the dock, procure a boat and other props, plus jumpers and a captain’s hat. Before you ask, yes, I have seen a sketch show before, but the amount of work and money really stands out, considering the quality, and the fact these shows were essentially consigned to the dustbin of pop culture the moment the final credits rolled.

Megamix three is ROCK AND ROLL, and as we’ve learned, comics of that era, from Davro to Starr to Les Dennis, fucking loved the 1950’s diner Americana aesthetic. Eddie as the Big Bopper does the phone bit, with Maureen Lipman picking up, before cameos from Mary Poppins and Syd as Postman Pat, and Eddie as Elvis (the toilet years) meets Eddie as Deputy Dawg in split screen, with matte lines about six inches thick and the eyelines all wrong. Syd as Buddy Holly you expect; less so, Eddie as Little Richard — one foot up on the piano, one tin of boot polish slavered over his face. But then it’s Syd as Chuck Berry (blacked up, and looking like a sleep paralysis demon), Eddie as Fats Domino (blacked up), and Eddie slinging on a pair of glasses (but still blacked up) as Ray Charles. What with MC Hammer, is this the most individual uses of blackface in a single episode of anything?

Episode four’s opener is a Status Quo tribute, with Syd ‘n’ Ed in wigs, joined by Bob Holness for some reason. Bob’s not into it, and various celebrities try to cajole Bob into banging his head. So wonderfully, terribly Eddie Large are the impersonations, that I don’t need to name them for you to know who he’s doing.

     “Come on, Bob, join in with me and Di! Bang your heads!

     “Oh, we love to headbang, don’t we, Zippy?” “Oh, yes, it’s exciting, isn’t it, George!

     “I’m Popeye. Eat your spinach and bang your head!

     “Tell him to bang his head, Barney!” “You’ve gotta bang your head, says Fred!

The megamix is COUNTRY AND WESTERN, opening with The Devil Went Down to Georgia, which is fitting, given that I too stood at the crossroads, ignoring a sign marked ‘Normal Life Kissing Girls and That‘ to fucking pelt straight down the road for ‘Become Obsessed with Little and Large‘. Eddie’s Kenny Rogers and Syd’s the Milky Bar Kid, with Maddi Cryer donning giant knockers as Dolly, battering her dancers offstage to boing sound effects. In one-in-the-eye for alternative comedy, Maddi’s Ruby Wax tells Syd and Eddie (as Laurel and Hardy) that they’re “up-chuck city,” so they give her a pie in the face. There’s also appearances by Rab, Jimmy Cricket, Gazza, and a parody of The Bill‘s opening credits, needlessly dressing Syd as a female PC with absolutely gigantic jugs, seeing as they were already out of the prop cupboard. It ends with a fiddle duel, where Syd spins around like Wonder Woman and morphs into Nigel Kennedy, which out of Syd’s many, many looks, is the closest he’s come to being a hunk.

This makes episode five’s opening doubly upsetting, with Syd as Cher, in the outfit from Turn Back Time where you could basically see right up. It’s quite the sight, with shocked cackling from the audience, especially when Eddie joins dressed like a Mad Max dominatrix, in knee high boots and stockings over leather knickers. There’ll be some out there for whom this skit really awakened something. Later, Dannii Minogue makes a cameo, politely laughing through Eddie’s jokes about Skippy and Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport, and screaming when he accidentally (for real) squirts her with a can of Castlemaine XXXX which goes everywhere when he opens it.

But the pair have never seemed more at home than in the CLIFF megamix. Cliff’s been one of Eddie’s trademarks, and Syd was born to be Hank Marvin, miming to his guitar even when there’s no guitar on the track. Running through Cliff’s various hits and looks, this is very much an Ages of Cliff retrospective, although we’re some decades too early for Syd to impersonate the pilot of a BBC helicopter filming a house that’s being raided by Operation Yewtree. A wraith-like Thatcher crawls up out of the mist during Devil Woman (I knew they were good Labour boys), and then during a recreation of Cliff’s single from Phantom, this happens.

Okay, dude, who ordered the pizza?!” Syd lets himself down terribly here, given the world’s easiest impression of Jim Bowen, and fucking up the lines — “marvellous, smashin’, super, great, smaffin’ [sic]… smashing!” — but they don’t have him do another take. The last eighty seconds knocks the subversion on the head, and is simply Eddie Large in a white suit, doing a very straight, very impassioned, very gospel cover of From a Distance, in what at this stage in my viewing, becomes something close to a religious experience. As we reach the final episode, this is more than just the end of a series; it’s the end of an era. How will the lads go out? What form will their final bow take, as watched at the time by 6.4 million people? “It’s our tribute to those glitter rock stars of the 70s!” Okay. “Elton John…” Fine so far. “…and Gary Glitter!” Oh.

Syd as Elton, in pound shop comedy glasses, bangs away on the piano, before the stage starts to revolve. A chant goes up; “Come on, come on! Come on, come on!” The cheers are enormous as Eddie’s Gary Glitter emerges triumphantly, under a shower of confetti. His shiny Max Moon outfit leaves Eddie glinting as studio lights ricochet off its surface, and in a strangely prescient gag, Syd tells Eddie he looks like a mirrorball. “Cos I sparkle?“No,” says Syd, “you want hanging.” After an admirably awful joke — “It took five cobblers to make these shoes.” “That’s a lot of cobblers!” — it’s a routine which takes on greatly different resonance in hindsight.

With less than thirty minutes of their TV careers remaining, Eddie says the television of the 1970s is coming back, as an excuse to do his Columbo (“Hi, my name is Columbo”); his Kojak; his JR Ewing; “What do you think of my platforms? These are oil platforms!” Syd reprimands him; “Eddie, we can’t be stuck in the 70s, we’re in the 90s now. There’s new programs on television!” — and all in a sketch which finally harks back the format of 1978’s first series, with Syd barely getting a line in while Eddie runs through his repertoire of voices. There’s a circular feeling, with Eddie getting the audience to join in with Brown Girl in the Ring, which he sang in the very first episode, although their sing-along with Glitter’s Do You Wanna Touch Me, the camera cutting to rows of people joyously raising their hands on the YEAHs, may be the biggest mass cancellation on record, like those stadium weddings by the Unification Church.

There’s more than a little pathos in all this; a routine about moving forwards whilst falling back into their old rhythms, and energetically (and from their position in the past, unknowingly) performing a medley by, at best, history’s second most reviled performer — behind Savile — sadly rendering the episode forever unrepeatable. The audience are well into it, but watching from here, it’s like seeing the pair slowly sinking into the mud, and not realising that everything seems to be getting taller until Syd’s glasses are floating on the top. To cap off the irony, it ends on the line “as a matter of fact, we’re back!” as Eddie and Syd punch the air under a shower of sparks, and the cheering and whistling of their fans.

One odd stand-out here is the stopover to a canal boat to meet Wandering Walter, a Jethro type comedian, dispensing rambling old jokes via regional accent. This clip has been semi-notorious among comedy fans for years, and Walter was a popular comic around the local clubs, whose obituaries all make mention of his lone TV appearance on The Little and Large Show. It’s infamous for a reason, with the half-asleep/suddenly-shouty delivery of when you pushed your nice teacher a bit too far, and with jokes like “Where would you find a tortoise with two legs on the canal? Where you left it.” But there’s clearly not enough room on the barge for all three of them and a camera, so it’s all been shot in three separate takes, making it worse in the knowledge they’re all just talking to nothing. Nearing the end, there’s a sketch in a train carriage where Eddie’s got a right sweat on. As he does impressions from ‘Allo ‘Allo, the unforgiving close-ups are of a man who’s aged twenty-five years since the first episode, and by the end of it, there’s great rivulets of sweat streaking down his face.

Our final megamix fills me with the most dread yet, with two simple words: BLUES BROTHERS. I’ve spoken before about my loathing for the most ‘two dads at a wedding reception’ song of all, Everybody Needs Somebody to Love, which served as the lazy, audience-rousing standard for what felt like endless decades of men putting on sunglasses to run up and down bellowing “You! You! You!” over the sound of trumpets, for literally hours at a time. Like their Laurel and Hardy, at least they’re the right shape for it, as Syd runs on the spot while Eddie thrusts a Cumberland finger at us to implore “we need you, you, you!” Judging by the look of him in that train sketch, this one might put him in the ground. They must’ve had to burn his suit at the end.

This time, I’m grateful for the impressions which interrupt, taking precious respite in Vera Duckworth and Mavis, in Gazza and a line of nuns doing the Kia-Ora ad, and even in a trio of women I drew a total blank on, until the line “leave it out, we’re birds of a feather!” Though they’d appear together on other shows, such as Win Lose or Draw, Noel’s House Party, and the Big Break Christmas special (dressed as Popeye and Olive Oyl), as a duo, the last big hurrah on a stage they could call their own is a final ninety seconds of furious dancing to the same two bars of Everybody. Eddie’s visibly struggling, even jokingly flinging a handful of sweat from under his armpit, and an exhausted Syd is giving it his best, but then, like every fragile human life, suddenly, it’s all over. Thirteen years and seventy-six episodes, finished, and literally never to be repeated, leaving its songs and jokes an occurrence which could only be experienced by those who were there at the time, like seeing a UFO. If Eddie as Vera Duckworth says “Mr. Holdsworth sent me t’ fish finger counter to count the fish fingers. Well I never knew fish had fingers!” and it’s never repeated or released on DVD, did it really happen?

Their next act at the BBC would be to collect their p45s, before history — rightly or wrongly — relegated them to the creative bottom rung, below their contemporaries, and with the legacy of embodying all the horrors of variety past. The lads, they took it as far as they could, against all odds, laffin’ and jokin’ all the way from the seventies and into the nineties, and they (and I) have earned a nice sit down. But maybe I’ve just spent 5,000 words telling you what I could’ve in a single sentence — in a sketch with Billy Pearce, a man’s wig gets whipped off with a fishing rod. “Alright,” says Eddie, “keep your hair on!

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 videos, 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.

Saturday Morning Archaeology: Multi-Coloured Swap Shop

•August 27, 2021 • 2 Comments

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

My latest video essay tackles early Edmonds vehicle Swap Shop, whose interactivity paints vivid pictures of a bygone Britain’s eccentricities & hang-ups, and sows the seeds for a generation’s impending obsession with creepy-arse hauntology.

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 over 500,000 words 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.

ITV’s Cluedo

•August 17, 2021 • Leave a Comment

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There’s not been a great history of televised board game adaptations. Over the years, American viewers have ‘enjoyed’ short-lived onscreen runs of Monopoly, Boggle, and The Game of Life, while Brits were mostly limited to Pictionary rip-off, Win, Lose or Draw; a Rory McGrath-fronted Trivial Pursuit; and a live-action, giant-sized Mouse Trap segment on Saturday morning kids show, Motormouth. Though board games have surely gone through a lockdown renaissance, modern TV is more fixated on the shit you play on your phone, with Mario Lopez’s Candy Crush and a Jamie Foxx show where contestants race to name popular songs against mobile app Shazam, both actual things which have aired in the past few years, and not just me making stuff up for a laugh.

But in the early nineties, there was another, with ITV’s Cluedo taking one of the biggest tabletop brands and getting 25 episodes out of it, which is 24 times more than anyone would ever play it in real life. It was a good fit, since ITV has long been the channel for light and inoffensive tea-time murder mysteries, and while today’s games employ armies of faceless wooden meeples, Cluedo was one of the few with a firm cast of recognisable characters. Perfect foil, then, with its roster of middle-England country life archetypes, to have their roles filled by the familiar faces of British drama.

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Cluedo had a revolving cast, renewing its repertory players each series. Over the years, the role of society lady Mrs Peacock had been filled by — among others — Stephanie Beacham, Kate O’Mara and Joanna Lumley. For the Reverend Green, such pastorly figures as Derek Nimmo and Nicholas Parsons. Ambitious young socialite Ms Scarlet was portrayed by Toyah Wilcox, Jerry Hall and Tracy Somerset; an actual duchess. Tom Baker, John Bird and Ian Lavender tackled boffin Professor Plum, while housekeeper Mrs White is a roll-call of television’s best ladies-of-a-certain age, boasting Dame June Whitfield, Liz Smith, Mollie Sugden, Pam Ferris and Joan Sims; who’d reprise the role in a 1995 CD-I game. The role of Colonel Mustard contains a curious piece of typecasting, counting a certain ex-landlord of the Queen Vic among its number.

You have to admire the sheer gold-bollocked gall of hiring Leslie Grantham for a show where he’ll be publicly interrogated about whether — as a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces — he’s done a murder. They all must’ve been saying it behind his back; “It was Dirty Den, in the taxi with a pistol!” Following the episode where Grantham’s character did do it, ITV received a letter of complaint from the family of the man he shot dead for real, during a robbery while serving in the Royal Fusiliers. Incidentally, the Colonel’s full name is Mike Mustard, which sounds more like a local radio DJ who swears he’s best friends with Timmy Mallett as he cuts the ribbon on a new playground, than a fusty war hero of British colonialism.

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Each episode revolves around a series of pre-taped vignettes, where a guest character becomes involved in the affairs of the toffs at Arlington Grange — more recently seen as the home of Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders — and ends up getting done in. Just like the game, the player’s goal is to name the killer, murder weapon, and room where the foul deed was committed. I’m beginning with a second series episode dating from April 24th, 1991, where our host is a familiar face on these pages. But Chris Tarrant makes even less effort than usual pretending he’s not disgusted to be there, spending most of the show with a hand in his pocket, like a schoolboy kicking a 7up can along the pavement on the slow walk back to an unhappy home. Years later, he’d be quoted as saying of his stint: “I absolutely hated hosting Cluedo, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. It took forever to make the thing. We used to have to turn the studio audience over just to make sure they didn’t get any bed sores.

As well as the cast, it’s a double-celebrity fest, as the pairs of “guest detectives” are all off the telly too. This week sees Sally from Corrie and Matthew Kelly vs Brookie‘s John McCardle and Michaela Strachan, who’s wearing a massive hat like Blossom, and whom I always think of as Michelle Scratchin’, after a Popbitch story about one of the NKOTB reminiscing about a hot presenter they met back in their heyday, only half-remembering her name. This year’s cast is a cracker, with David McCallum as Professor Plum, Koo Stark as Miss Scarlet, Michael Jayston as the Colonel, Richard Wilson as Reverend Green, Mollie Sugden as the housekeeper, and as Mrs. Peacock, the woman who’d go on to feed an imaginary bowl of milk to horny George Galloway while he pretended to be a cat, Rula Lenska.

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The filmed sections are the absolute tip-top highest of camp, making Eurovision seem like Ross Kemp forthrightly demonstrating the correct way to lay a brick and mortar wall. Everything’s got the energy of those Jackie Collins type novels about shagging the stable boy, with characters giving murderous looks from atop staircases and dramatically falling on grand piano keys in moments of anger. But there’s also the strong feel of an FMV video game, as the storytelling limitations of a board game don’t lend themselves to good drama, coupled with the inherent problems of Cluedo itself. With just 24 minutes to play with, including Tarrant’s in-studio segments, there’s no time to construct a solvable mystery complete with red herrings, so it’s merely a series of scenes where every single character’s got massive beef with the victim and clearly thinking about — or outright voicing intentions of — murdering them.

Consequently, the cast spend their time sinisterly caressing the six murder weapons, with Wilson idly twisting an ebony ruler in his palm while McCallum fills rat traps with poison, as Mollie Sugden furiously smashes a tray of cold cuts with a hammer. Everyone’s constantly looking at or picking up knives, and when the victim leaves the room after blackmailing Rula Lenska with the threat of prison, she takes a gun from a drawer and thoughtfully licks the barrel. Being laid out like this really exposes Cluedo as a pointless guessing game of pure numbers, with the requirement of “which room?” solely thrown in there to lengthen the odds of figuring it out too soon.

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This week’s plot, titled A Deadly Deal, involves investment broker, Simon Charles, swindling everyone out of their money. He got Mustard and Stark in big. He’s blackmailing Lenska out of her house. On his advice, the Reverend’s gambled — and lost — all the money Mrs. Peacock gave him for a stained glass window. He’s taken Sugden’s life savings. He’s stolen McCallum’s idea for a computer program “to make all software compatible,” mocking him with a “have you registered it, old boy? Patented it?” When Mollie Sugden bangs a gong to announce he’s been murdered, who could possibly have the motive to whack him?! Everyone. Literally everyone. Contestants just need to keep guessing until they hit the right combination of killer, weapon and room.

The suspects are revealed in line-up by Tarrant via dramatic lighting, before they’re interrogated by Matthew Kelly and co, with everyone roleplaying in character, in what it must be like to play Dungeons & Dragons with Victor Meldrew. Only the murderer can lie, while the rest must tell the truth, and they’re clearly having fun with it, improvising around the memorised backstory of their character’s movements. The highlight is Sugden floundering when questioned about the whereabouts of knife — “a ceramic bowl thing, that I just put things like spoons with ‘oles in…” The audience (quite audibly a studio of pensioners) are really into it, letting fly a loud “noooo!” and “awww” when Michaela correctly pegs Sugden as the killer.

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Once revealed, the guilty party gets a spotlight confession, complete with flashback under a Psycho soundtrack, which only shows them raising the weapon in slow-mo and no actual violence. Hauntingly, Tarrant informs us Sugden’s to remain there “for a very, very long time,” suggesting he means in the studio, which is the worst punishment of all; trapped for a ten-stretch in front of Strike it Lucky, Surprise Surprise, and You Bet, and praying for the return of the death penalty. But the world of Cluedo is within its own bubble, and the guilty are free to return to Arlington Grange, week on week, to commit yet more savage murders, as in the episode A Traveller’s Tale, four weeks later.

This could not be more up my street, opening on Richard Wilson wandering through the cemetery with another vicar, aghast as they come across a hippie commune, which is a glorious collection of clichés, somewhere between Swampy and the Manson Family, all loose dogs and an actual flower-painted love bus. The long-haired leader — denim waistcoat, neckerchief, t-shirt with a skull on it — strums a guitar by a campfire as Koo Stark drapes adoringly round his neck, offering the infuriated vicar to “pull up a crate,” and telling him “I’m sure if Jesus was alive today, he’d love our commune.” Will this week’s murder have helter skelter written on the drawing room wall in blood?

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Crack detectives on the case are the dream teams of Amanda Barrie and Jim Bowen versus DJ and rapper Mike Read and Michelle Collins, who’s introduced as “presenter of The Word,” which I don’t remember at all, and amounted to just four episodes. Our soapy tale of death sees smelly Dave (rubbish cult leader name) loudly slurping soup at dinner, to serious stink-eye across the banquet table from everyone but Koo Stark, madly in love because “he’s a free spirit!” Lenska believes “the cultists” are bringing property values down (after a single day in the village), while Dave harbours a secret with the Professor, and Sugden’s so mad at the “impertinent little oik” that she accidentally stabs herself with a corkscrew.

The school play-level ‘toffs struggle with hippie’ scenes are tremendous value, with Dave saying things like “I need to take a leak” and Stark trying to build common ground between the vicar and her new love, who’s “very devout” and spends ten minutes every day chanting. Colonel Mustard: “you should spend ten minutes shaving instead.” Dave suggests he and the vicar “drop acid” together. “You mean drugs?!” gasps a shocked Richard Wilson, storming off, but having a quick poke through the gun cabinet on the way out. “A dose of National Service,” says the Colonel, “that’s what that type needs if you ask me!” until inevitably, Mollie Sugden runs in all of a fluster, announcing “it’s the hippie; he’s dead!

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In interrogation, old dog Jim Bowen earnestly asks Koo Stark if she truly loved Dave, while casually slipping a reference to “those beautiful eyes,” while Mike Read pursues a bizarre ‘secret son’ line of questioning, believing Dave to be the Colonel’s illegitimate heir; something which isn’t even hinted at in the videos — “the way you spoke to him sounded fatherly…” I’m just surprised he didn’t get his guitar out. Jim should be working for the CIA, as he too goes off-script, forcing Colonel Mustard to improvise an admission about an affair with Koo Stark, much to her surprise. As a result, it takes ages for them to figure it out, back and forth with guess after guess, and Tarrant clearly wishing someone would stick a letter opener into his kidney and get it over with. As it turns out, Stark did it, having overheard Dave bragging about conning the “little rich girl,” and his plan to bring down land values in the village by flooding it with BO-reeking hippies, before buying up the manor and turfing them all out.

Jumping forwards to series 3, for 1992’s A Hunting We Will Go, its rebooted cast is the show’s best, with Lewis Collins as a younger, harder looking Col Mustard, Tom Baker as Professor Plum, Pam Ferris as Mrs. White, Lysette Anthony as Ms Scarlet, Susan George as Mrs. Peacock, and Christopher Biggins, with a lovely curtains haircut, as the Reverend. Tarrant’s out too, replaced by Richard Madeley, who also emerges with a hand in his pocket. What follows is a top-notch half hour of television, with tag teams of Valerie Singleton and Johnny Ball against the absolutely wild combo of Tory MP Edwina Currie and Richard O’Brien, who’s dressed like a space biker, with a studded waistcoat made from leather as thick as dinosaur hide and assorted glinting jewellery.

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Our story begins the day of the Arlington Hunt, where a young man arrives at the manor, cut and bruised from a beating, from which he would’ve been killed if not for the intervention of Christopher Biggins — we’ve all been there. As Pam Ferris dabs his boo-boos with TCP, it’s not just any young man; the dirty coat and jeans of an obvious commie lefty layabout; lovely ponytail mullet; it’s only bloody Neil Morrissey! The politics of this episode are fascinating, unclear who we’re meant to be siding with, as they all return from ripping terrified foxes to shreds to slap each other’s backs for “teaching one of them (Neil Morrissey) a lesson.

Susan George is livid, as hunt saboteurs set off a firecracker, causing her beloved horse to throw her, before bolting into the road and getting mashed by a lorry. She arrives home to find one of the culprits wandering round the manor in his tatty jumper like that bloke who broke into the Queen’s bedroom, inspecting silver candlesticks all “how the other half live, eh?” It could be the Orient Express twist, as they all want him dead; George for the horse-icide, Mustard for ruining his dashed good fox torturing, Biggins for threats to expose years of his secretly helping the saboteurs, Lysette at the shame of letting him ride on her back in the day, and Baker because Neil Morrissey’s got a video of him “feeding a live fox cub to the hounds.” Fucking hell, Tom!

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Baker plays the Prof very differently to McCallum’s effete, glasses-wearing intellectual; now a big posh roughneck, with the bulging eyes, mad hair and clothes giving the air of a frightening waxwork on the Mary Rose that you move past quickly because you feel it may attack you. Teamed with army thug Lewis Collins, it’s no wonder Morrissey keeps them at bay wielding a poker like a fencing sword, as a livid Collins rips the phone out of the wall so he can’t call the rozzers, and threatens to wrap the curly wire around his neck. The pitch of a saboteur holed up in the hunter’s country mansion is a decent set-up for a survival horror movie, with a You’re Next or Ready Or Not vibe, and a woke activist facing a manorful of braying Tories, in a heavy-handed metaphor for class and the unending 21st century culture war. Netflix, come get me.

As Neil Morrissey stomps off to look for another phone, I don’t fancy his chances. Baker’s armed with the poker, while Susan George opens a desk drawer containing all the home office basics — calculator, spiral bound notebook, big glass bottle with POISON written on it and a literal skull and crossbones. But under questioning from Johnny Ball, George exonerates herself, as she was simply preparing to put down an injured foxhound; the humane way, by injecting it with poison. The slaughter of Neil Morrissey (does Les Dennis have an alibi?) is an emotive case, which leads the audience of elderly amateur detectives to emit a genuinely startling bovine murmur of uproar — “NOOOO!” — at an incorrect guess of Pam Ferris, before a big cheer of “YESSS!” when the killer’s correctly pegged as Christopher Biggins. “God help me,” he says, in a very impassioned confessional, “I actually forgot who I was…

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As television, Cluedo is hugely fun, with its bizarre detective pairings, actors having a ball hamming it up, and weekly guest corpses, but as a game show, it doesn’t work at all, hampered by all the reasons the cardboard version gets shelved after a single play. But now board games are back, with brand recognition to be had from the likes of Settlers of Catan, Gloomhaven, and Ticket to Ride, and the next great adaptation is obvious; Dean Gaffney getting buffeted through an assault course inside a cramped, airtight glass sphere for ITV2’s Screwball Scramble, (Paddy McGuinness to host).

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 videos, 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.

GamesMaster III: Glamour, Grot, and Gore

•August 8, 2021 • Leave a Comment

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[GamesMaster: Part IGamesMaster Part IIBad Influence]

Opening titles of the 1997-98 series have Dominik Diamond asleep on the couch in a filthy living room, dreaming a nightmare sprint down an endless tunnel of GamesMaster settings past, eventually bursting though a door into a tropical island paradise. Two busty models in animal print eye him salaciously, and like he did with series six’s mermaids, he gives us a wink and a thumbs up, as if to say “landed on my feet here, lads!” It’s a pretty elaborate Swiss Family Robinson set, with gorgeous blue water licking at a sandy beach, kitted out with palm trees, a hut, and a little pier. A live audience of children sit on giant faux bamboo rafts, dressed in swimwear and kicking their feet into the water, while Patrick Moore’s head sits inside a blazing sun, like some horrible clickbait about what the Teletubbies baby looks like now, which will SHOCK YOU.

Dominik, trousers rolled up like your dad in the front garden on a summer’s day, catches a fish before bidding us welcome, and right off the bat, is straight in with a spunk joke, having “come upon my two Girl Fridays… they invited me to feast upon their coconuts.” This is GamesMaster‘s last ever series, which makes me nervous for what Diamond might get up to. Over the years, we’ve witnessed a steep upswing in smut and misanthropy, along with a growing contempt for the show itself, and undergoing a rapid visual evolution from curtain-haired choirboy to big Scottish bruiser. What awaits us, now there’s nothing left to lose? Hooting “here’s your golden joystick!” at Lenny and Huw from EastEnders, while whipping out a visibly pulsating stonker wrapped in Easter egg foil?

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His look has now reached its final stage, hair fully gone, low cut vest, and the sideburns and goatee of a man who’d ask if you’ve got a light and then put the nut on you regardless. Tonight’s challenges are trailed with jokes about the huge erections in Rampage, and Lara Croft’s “two big tombs,” as a pair of blokes (a pair; like boobs!) are set to race through a custom level of Tomb Raider II. The whole section’s a grim reminder of how the 90’s gaming world was sent absolutely willy-wild by the introduction of a female lead character; a real dog-in-the-playground novelty. We’re told they’re running it on a 3dfx card, which is why the game — and Lara — look so gorgeous. All the lovesick leering is unbelievably quaint, like Neanderthals getting turned on by cave wall stick-figures. You forget how massively horny men were for the PS1 Smurfette, angling the camera right up her arse, and decorating their walls with sexy posters from games magazines, with legend of nude cheats whispered like a schoolyard El Dorado. With those simple polygons, they were basically wanking over Lego.

We join the challenge in progress, contestants in Hawaiian shirts, awkwardly hunched on sideways barrels, leaving them stretching out like cats in the sun to reach the keyboard, and hurting my back just looking at it. In a chat with Dominik, one’s anecdote is having a girlfriend who lives in Japan, while the other, the gel of his hair glistening under studio lights, recants a “pants-related disaster.” In a real reach for a decent story, “I washed my pants with the red and they came out pink. I’m the Pink Pants Man!” As this happened on the morning of the show, one wonders which incredible tale got ditched for this at the last minute? “Bloomin’ shoelace came undone the other day, didn’t it? Had to bend down and tie it! All my mates call me Lace Lad now!” Simpler times, though Dominik really loves saying the word pants, at least half a dozen times every episode, as both classic 90’s slang for things being rubbish, but also the place where nobs live. Another period-specific colloquialism is the pronunciation of “huge” as “h-yow-gh,” which he does three times.

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Leaving the lads to it, Dominik can feel “a stirring deep within my clams,” which signals the celebrity challenge, with Jo Guest. Frequent cover star of Loaded and FHM, for men like me who came of age during the ascent of Blair, Jo was our Marilyn; our Dame Vera. Pull up those JNCOs, boys, this is what you’re fighting for! Jo’s ferried across the water by the Girl Fridays in a palm frond boat, and already horned-up by Lara Croft, Dominik’s exceedingly thirsty, practically tucking it under his waistband. Greeting Jo with a hello, he immediately drops her backwards into a movie style kiss, bragging he’ll someday marry her. But unlike the other contestants rooting around in those of Lara’s, Jo’s “not fiddling with my tombs, unfortunately.”

When joined on commentary by bestie Kirk Ewing, Kirk grabs Dom by the cheeks and gives him a full and unexpected kiss on the lips. “Just wanna catch the tail-end of Jo, there,” says Kirk. She completes the challenge of 10,000 points on Rampage World Tour right on the whistle, despite not managing to eat the helicopter. “You did have a problem with the chopper,” says our cheeky host. “I usually do,” giggles Jo, as Dom deems her to be “the best girl in the whole world,” before scrambling for more filth with “you’ve got the large objects between your hands…” Incredibly, as she receives her golden joystick, it isn’t likened to a phallus.

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You’d think that Dom would’ve run out of double entendres by this point in the series, but Tomb Raider‘s incorporated boobs, bum and (presumably lurking under the shorts) a fanny, is like a steroid shot in the bell. It’s all “gaping pits” and telling Lara to “hop on that big, red, powerful shiny thing” when she rides a ski-doo, even letting out an extremely era-specific “wahey!” as the player opens a drawbridge, which I suppose is like a great big member being lowered from a zipper, ready for action? When Dominik jokes the losing player’s Japanese girlfriend just emailed in to say that he’s chucked, it seems like he really believes it, while the winner puts it down to “those pink pants.” Dom asks if he finds Lara attractive — “very attractive!” — before burning him with “you know she’s not real?” The lad panics, stumbling and mumbling out a response with the word “man” in it, which Dominik picks up on, miming the digging of a hole as Pink Pants attempts to talk his way out of outing himself as gay by having said the word “man” on television in the 90s. Fellas, is it gay to acknowledge men exist? In the credits, there’s a strange one of Program Consultant for “The Dickster” — is that the man who comes up (like bubbling semen shooting through a urethra) with Dom’s cock puns?

If that’s the way he behaves in the 6pm tea time slot, what on earth would he do post-watershed, or even in the witching hour? In 1995, we’d find out, when GamesMaster went XXX, with a “gore special” airing at 12:35am. Raunchy versions of tea-time shows aren’t unique, like late night Hollyoaks with sex scenes and swearing, and Grange Hill: After Dark, where the opening credits showed a fork being stabbed into a penis. Always the network most likely to show you some pubes, a couple of years later, Channel 4 would bolster its late-night repeats of TFI Friday with ‘naughty’ bits that couldn’t be shown on its six o’clock version, once consisting solely of Chris Evans holding up Dannii Minogue’s nude calender, and going through it month by month while saying “wahey!

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This is our first visit to series four, which opens with a spooky steam train conductor telling us “you don’t need a return ticket where you’re going… STRAIGHT DOWN!” before a CG track drops through the Earth like a rollercoaster, to orange flames and the distant screams of torture. The Hell setting is a precursor to series five’s Heaven, and continues the vague running storyline of Dominik’s death at the end of the second series, when the oil rig exploded (and rightly erasing Dexter Fletcher’s year from history). The audience are behind bars, with metal chains hanging on the wall, and Dom sat on a throne as fire flickers in the background. Patrick Moore’s in a chrome helmet, sadly missing the open goal of sticking some devil horns and a pointy beard on him and really going for it.

We’re mere seconds in before gushing arcs of 16-bit blood and actual genuine full motion bare breasts. You wouldn’t get that on Bad Influence. In fact, if Andy Crane happened to tune in (by accident), he’d have definitely called the police by now. In the innocent pre-internet days, these rare windows into the ‘adult’ world had a truly forbidden feel, like stepping beyond the beaded curtain in a mucky bookshop. This would’ve been perhaps a year or two after my own first encounter with pornography; torn from a bluey and discarded on the floor of the school toilets, filling me with excitement and revulsion all at once, like I’d somehow perpetrated a criminal act by unwittingly seeing a big hairy bush on some glossy A4, stained with dark blobs of urine soaking through from the floor beneath.

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Reversing even a few years from series seven, Diamond’s remarkably boyish again, in an all white, priest-like suit, clean shaven, and far less vocally gruff, as he promises “every game today is guaranteed to offend!” Handing over to the GamesMaster, there’s a pseudo blooper as he cocks up the intro — “ah, fuck, that’s not gonna work…” — causing Moore to laugh. We’re seeing behind the curtain here, lads! That said, they still bleep it. First challenge is beat-em-up Kasumi Ninja on the Atari Jaguar; a very grown-up game for big boys, where blood flies out wildly whenever the characters make contact, which could be censored with a parental lock feature. I heard your mum put that on before she let you play it. “Keep an eye out,” leches Moore, “for some truly gruesome fatalities!

Contestants are shoved onto set by a hooded little person wielding a pitchfork. During pre-game banter, it’s clear that in the hedonistic freedom of late night, now that it’s allowed, there’s no thrill to the subversive anarchy of innuendo, and far from pulling out some ballbag and offering a piece of gum, Dominik barely does a single nob gag. Unfettered and unchained, post-watershed Diamond is all about the gore, and spends the half hour metaphorically calling us over to the bike sheds to show off a jar of dead flies his older brother keeps under the bed, asking contestants “what’s the most sick, disgusting thing you’ve seen in your life?” Player one’s got a nu-metal goatee, baggy jeans and a silver chain, and his shoulders rock side to side with the swaying posture of those teens who pretend like they’re going to hit you when you walk past on the pavement. He kisses his teeth with a “has to be me mum’s casserole, dunnit? Dis fing taste better comin’ up than it does goin’ down!

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Next contestant, same question. “There was this one dead cat I saw get run over.” “Excellent!” says Dom, practically punching the air; “what did it look like?” Told “well, the eyes were bulging out a bit, and it did smell,” it cuts to Moore roaring with laughter, as though he’s in the studio live and ruddy loving it. Player one jumps in with “nah, nah, nah, that was leftover of me mum’s casserole, mate.” Yeah alright, Jimmy One-Joke. With Dominik giggling all the way through, there’s an oddly nostalgic vibe, like you’re leaning on your bikes down the farmer’s field, shivering because the sun’s gone in, but you’ve not bought a jacket and you don’t wanna go home yet, listening to your mates discuss the banned cut of Ghostbusters where Slimer spunks all over Venkman which one of ’em saw on a pirate, and how the English teacher who’s fit but also a bitch was standing on a chair to pin some tinsel to the ceiling and, apparently, one of her tits fell out.

The co-commentator gets the ‘most disgusting thing’ question, and describes — at length — some “green gunk” a hospital scraped from the back of his eyeball during an infection. Casserole Lad spams fireballs, and fatalities involve stomping a head flat and exploding a skull with dynamite, all in poorly-rendered graphics. Had they failed to hide this footage from delicate eyes in the post-midnight slot, polite society would’ve crumbled into a Caligulan trauma-orgy. Dominik destroys the loser by saying “the words big, girls, and blouse come to mind,” as there’s nothing more devastating than separating a phrase out into its component parts like that. Dead Cat Lad is a good sportsman, crediting his opponent as “a well-good player,” and my suspicions the spontaneous ‘adult’ bloopers are scripted are confirmed when Dominik blows another link, with a frustrated “fuck, fuck!” causing the pre-recorded Patrick Moore to angrily bellow “what?!

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We wipe between segments with bloody machetes, a squelchy slithering brain, and maggots wriggling over eyeballs, for features on “the sickest games around!” showcasing death moves from Mortal Kombat and Bloodstorm, with slo-mo replays of decapitated heads sailing through the air. Viewers in the tips section beg for help unlocking the goriest fatalities, and as Sir Patrick Moore shares the code for a meat grinder move to splash guts everywhere, a teen in a baseball cap thanks him with a “yea, safe, rudebwoi.” Other TOO HOT FOR PRIMETIME shockers include a hilariously basic 1995 medical website where perverts can view vertical cross sections of an executed prisoner’s body, and footage of American series Battlebots, before it came to the UK as Robot Wars; which is sold — not as Craig Charles’ kiss-salute and the thrill of a victory interview with George Francis — but as a wild underground grindhouse death-fight; its footage of toy robots steered by middle-aged men in leather jackets under Diamond’s excitable voiceover, playing up “chainsaws, nails, and hacksaws!

Next challenge is Alien vs. Predator on the Jaguar, with celebrity guest, Robocop, finally linking GamesMaster‘s canon with that of WCW. The costume’s a bit too big for whichever GM crew member’s inside, wobbling as they robot-walk onstage, and looking very silly without the accompanying whirry noises. Noticeably out of frame, and in a clearly dubbed voiceover, Dominik complains about the pathetic segment, and says the word “bumhole,” moaning “the crime is an arse actor in a crap costume, let’s pretend this never happened and go to a break.” And indeed, when we come back, the bit’s been abandoned, with no further mention. Even in regular episodes, they’d done stuff like this before, with series two opening on a bunch of fake technical faults before a literal reboot.

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For a feature on FMV game Phantasmagoria, Dominik takes a rare excursion to the design studio in California, wandering round a dark props cupboard, to make gags about severed heads and withered rubber corpses — “this is actually Judy Finnigan without her make-up.” Claiming not to have interviewed the lead actress “as she didn’t fancy me,” instead he chats to Phantasmagoria‘s producer, and founder of Sierra Games, Roberta Williams; “and I asked her if she thought it was big and clever for a bird to make a gruesome game.” After a calming breath, she gives a considered response about it being more of a thriller, as Dom’s voiceover declares “bollocks to that, then,” quickly moving onto rude porn games for “the one handed typists.” Women with big hair and no clothes writhe in postage stamp sized QuickTime video, from titles like Voyeur and Spy Club, which involve trying to unlock no-res stripping scenes; like a level where players can bribe a receptionist with a teddy bear, resulting in her immediately getting her milkers out in gratitude.

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We finish with what Dominik promises is “the sickest, most bloodthirstiest game of all,” Doom 2, where a contestant’s anecdote about seeing a motorbike helmet filled with sick leaves him visibly excited; “what was it like when he took it off then?!” Never thought I’d see the day when Dominik Diamond heard the word “helmet” and didn’t make a single reference to glans. Dave Perry’s there, American flag bandana, and shirtless under a leather waistcoat like a divorced biker, as Dom jokes Doom enemies are from The Village People, letting out a cry of “yes!” as the player picks up a chainsaw. “It’s blood frenzy here!” he howls, when digital viscera splatters with all the HD graphic realism of a calculator, although we do, at long last, get a reference to a back passage. As this is the finale to series four, we end on Dominik saying he’s “off to make people watch the last series” (the Dexter Fletcher one), and muttering “may you rot in hell” as he wanders off. Will do, 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 videos, 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.

VHS:WTF – Barrymore’s Best Bites

•July 27, 2021 • 1 Comment

Barrymore Month draws to a close with a 30-min video essay, examining the big man through his own selection of hand-picked favourite moments. One particular song is very much not awright.

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 over 500,000 words 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.

 
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