Past Laugh Regression: Part Five – The Grumbleweeds

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Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four

With the least name value of all the ‘artists’ featured on Past Laugh Regression so far, I expect this piece to get less hits than a video entitled 1 Piers Morgan 1 Cup. However, I’ve committed to rooting out the laff-makers of my childhood, so here we are, and for reasons of untoppable horrors that will soon become apparent, this is the final part. Unlike the solid structure of the double-act, or the rigid grouping of a Monty Python, historically, the Grumbleweeds’ number seems to gradually wither; at first five, then three; at times a lonely duo beneath the Grumbleweeds banner, like the Butlins performance of a band proclaiming to be The Real Original Bucks Fizz. While the line-up changes suggest a comedy version of The Fall, with a constant internal battle of artistic spats, it’s clear from the output that nobody ever raised a critical voice beyond a “yeah, that’ll do.”

The Grumbleweeds very name is a pun on the universal image for a joke landing so badly, it gets no response, and the human sound of moaning about something because it’s shit. Consequently, it’s the most apt name for an act since Little and Large. For such mooted ‘comedy legends’ (more on that later), oddly their oeuvre can’t be found on Netflix, or lovingly compiled Blu-ray box sets, with one lone episode and a bunch of scattered clips cast across Youtube in wobbly, visually-awful rips. Perhaps as a way of warding off any potential viewers, watching Grumbleweeds skits today is like being inside your own found footage horror movie, stumbling on scenes that were likely buried in a pit in the woods, or locked inside a ventriloquist’s trunk at the bottom of a lake, for the protection of the audience.

01

This whole endeavour started off harmlessly enough with Gary Wilmot and chums, but the further I get into the series, the deeper and more suffocating the dread as I press play, knowing that my dealings with the arse-end of variety mean I’m in for both terrible comedy and terrible music. This has never been more true than with the Grumbleweeds, who began as an actual band, with each member taking an instrument, like a Yorkshire version of The Monkees. The most exciting thing about 1988’s Grumbleweeds Granada TV Special, ripped straight from a VHS with all the adverts intact, is that it begins with the trail for a regional kids show starring a young Doon Mackichan, as part of forgotten double act Rabbitt and Doon, which is far more appealing than anything that follows. The audio quality’s so bad, the quivering title music is straight from Satan’s carnival, with a full compliment of five Grumbleweeds strolling into frame to continue the nightmarish theme music by singing along to it live.

As they’re nowhere near as iconic as the other acts I’ve covered, I’m unfamiliar with their names and personalities. There are a pair of brothers; the sinisterly-named Sutcliffe Brothers, which sounds like a great double-bill with the Manson Twins. There’s a thin one who does all the impressions, and a short one who looks like Charlie Drake. Finally, we’ve got a big Justin Lee Collins/Bee Gees looking one, and as he’s the biggest, I’m assuming he’s the leader. Confusingly for a Bee Gees lookalike, his name actually is Maurice. Please forgive my slapdash research in not delivering five in-depth bios, but like staring too long at the sun, I want to keep the Grumbleweeds at safe distance.

02

Continuing Past Laugh Regression‘s spiralling sense of each successive act as a grotesque Chinese Whisper of what came before, the Grumbleweeds yank me down the well-trodden paths of familiar settings. The pub, the doctor’s surgery, the courtroom, the chat show — I’ve a sense of having been here before; of something awful happening within these walls. I flinch at repressed memories of Bobby Davro and Les Dennis and Bobby Ball, all sat behind the doctor’s desk, like bumping into an old PE teacher and having a mental flash of of him scrubbing my back. But I’m trapped within my art, and must traipse these old backdrops one last time. The gags are the same, only the faces change, with the echo of listless laughter chasing me through another pet shop; another marital bedroom; into the thousandth identical hospital ward, where a Rabbi on his deathbed refuses to give up his fortune of cigarette coupons. The first thing that stands out is how quick everything is, with most sketches clocking in at no more than 30 seconds. A good subtitle for this piece would be ‘A Waste of Wigs,’ as every skit’s clearly more trouble than it’s worth, with costumes and sets and cameras, all for a ten second bit that asks, in one specific case:

Do you think Engelbert Humperdinck’s his real name?

Do I think Engelbert Humperdinck’s whose real name?

The rhythm never allows the audience to settle, and without exception, every joke is both confusing and dreadful. A tramp gets written up by a policeman for eating a sandwich by a sign warning ‘TRESSPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED’, until a priest turns the sign to read ‘TRESSPASSERS WILL BE FORGIVEN’. A character who appears to be Frank Carson, inside a ludicrously enormous fat-suit, tells a woman dressed like a farmer’s wife from the 1800s that they were sold out of 28-inch TVs, so he bought two 14-inchers. A man tries to change channels, but the cowboy in the film aims a remote at the screen and makes him disappear. There’s yet another impersonation of John Cleese consisting entirely of jumping around while saying “Right! Right!” Maybe the intention was to pump it out so quickly, the audience wouldn’t have a chance to realise how bad it was, making The Fast Show look like Andy Warhol’s Empire in comparison, with five-second quickies where a drunk Alex Higgins plays golf with a snooker cue, or a man with split a personality asks for separate rooms at the asylum.

03

Truly surreal, but not in a Vic and Bob way, there’s a genuinely unsettling tone. It’s like a sketch show written by AI, or a script that’s been translated it into a dozen different languages and back into English, and they got some morons to film it. If Google’s DeepDream invented a comedy group, it would be the Grumbleweeds, with each scene the comedic equivalent of a beast with a dozen twirling eyes and a mouth where its balls should be, and in place of a punchline, there’s a goat that’s half-melded into a dishwasher, pleading for death. I came in expecting shit comedy, but ended up inside another hauntology curio. The distorted VHS wobble of their voices has a hypnotic quality, like being underwater, and with each joke, I’m dragged further into the depths and screaming bubbles. By the time I get to Big Maurice interviewing ‘Vincent Price’, who looks exactly like 2018 George Galloway, I’ve been pulled so deep, I no longer know which way is up.

04

The audience too seems far away, with their smatterings of polite chuckles as detached as the peculiar material. Oddly, I only find solid ground beneath my feet when they get to the kind of stuff everyone’s waiting for when discussing bad comedy from the eighties. Either fortunately or unfortunately, the Grumbleweeds have this comedy-of-offense in spades. One of their many musical numbers sees a supergroup of Freddie Mercury, Danny La Rue and Boy George knowingly ask the audience “What have we got in common?” They tell us “we’re the strangest group ever seen!” as Freddie sings about how the fans scream for him — “but most of the screamers are chaps” — while La Rue will “put on my manly voice, and yell to the fans ‘watch your cocks!” (or, I guess ‘whatcha, cocks’?). By the end of the sketch, they’re ready to let us in on their secret, that they’re “not just fancy toys” but Rolf Harris fans, in a punchline which, incredibly, has aged even worse than the homophobia.

Speaking of Harris, with both him and Jimmy Savile, when rewatching comedy from this era, it’s as though a time-travel prankster went back solely to insert references to them into old shows, deliberately picking the worst possible context. Savile’s a recurring figure, with one of the ‘weeds doing a really good impression, and in one scene, a schoolboy requests a Fix It of a night with Bo Derek, Raquel Welch and Samantha Fox. “If I could fix that for you, I’d fix it for myself, you jumped-up little wazzock!” says Jim, in the most sexually-bland way he’s ever been portrayed, as a run of the mill lech of sexy ladies off the telly. Their Savile shows up later with a couple of dollybirds on his arm to introduce one of the straight musical numbers, and again during at the Children’s Royal Variety Show, in a performance which is their most hallucinatory yet, with regular Grumbleweeds character, Gasmask Grimshaw. Wearing an overcoat, policeman’s hat, and WW2 gas mask that covers his entire face, Grimshaw inflates a balloon out of his eyehole, which whizzes off into the crowd, before telling a bad joke in a shrill, child-like voice. If nothing else, he’d make for a great slasher villain. By the bye, the Children’s Royal Variety clip opens with a subliminally fast freeze-frame of a smiling Bernie Winters and the real Jimmy Savile, advertising ‘the age of the train’, planting the thought in my head that I should jump in front of one rather than continuing.

05

I suppose I should cover the Grumbleweeds’ music, which takes up 50% of their act, and isn’t meant to be funny, but a sincere rocker where big, handsome Maurice asks “do you wanna rock n’ roll?” This is music for those who listened to Russ Abbot and asked “too hardcore for me, can you tone it down a bit?” and for a bunch of lads who claim they want to rock and roll, it’s alarmingly white-bread, with Maurice cheerfully querying “do ya feel funky? do ya feel right?” before demanding “you gotta turn yourself on without a fight” with all the power and passion of wishing good morning to a newsagent. Rock n roll is one of the many things the Grumbleweeds aren’t, and with their Granada special coming six years after the debut of The Young Ones, it’s all decidedly limp and Kid’s-TV broad. Tramps have blacked-out teeth, farmers wear spotted neckerchiefs while holding enormous crooks, and every under-rehearsed scene has the feel of year 8 drama class, when you’d be told to find a corner for 10 minutes and come back with a sketch.

The closest to a touch of anarchy comes during their set at Live from Her Majesty’s — a series made famous by Tommy Cooper’s onstage death a few years earlier. If his ghost was watching from the wings, it’d be begging to be taken down to the tortures of Hell rather than witness the Grumbleweeds flagrant display of shambling variety. Introduced by Jimmy Tarbuck as “zany, wonderful, madcap,” like he’s trying to goad me into hanging myself, they start by squirting the audience with water, before gorgeous hunk Maurice introduces ‘Alison Moyet,’ who’s in a fat-suit about eight feet wide. They completely baffle the audience with a lengthy impression of Jim from Taxi!, and everything’s interspersed with their music, which is mimed as though they’ve never seen an instrument before, not moving their hands for chord changes, and pretending to strum without touching the strings. At one point, Stevie Wonder’s feeling his way around the stage, aka one of them with a black stocking over his head like that bit in Psychoville, and it ends with them going into the crowd like Barrymore to rifle through audience members’ handbags, pulling out booze, muscleman mags, and a potty, while Maurice sings “it’s party time!

06

Thirty years on, and the Grumbleweeds are still going. Sort of. The classic quintet fell apart after the Granada special and the departure of the Sutcliffe Brothers. Maurice followed in 1998, leaving just the impressionist one and Graham Walker (the Charlie Drake one) to carry the brand, until Walker’s death in 2013. The Grumbleweeds touring Northern theatres today do so in much-reduced capacity, as a double-act of the last remaining original GW, and a new, younger sidekick. The official Grumbleweeds website claims they’ve “dominated the UK comedy scene” since the 1960s, and there seem to be more retrospective videos out there than actual footage, including a video titled ‘Neil Sean meets the Grumbleweeds’, which boasts an alarming 4-hour running time. So how did such a roundly awful act end up, not as deserved, in a skip, but held up — in some quarters — as comedy icons?

Remember the song with Boy George and friends? You can find that on Youtube under the title ‘The Grumbleweeds take on popular gay performers’, as part of that curious phenomena where similar acts, some decades later, get upheld as bastions of free speech. Just rummage about on Youtube, and you’ll find their most egregious material championed as ‘England’s better days’, with comments about how “they don’t make ’em like this any more, shame!” and how they represent the good old days before PC culture took away all the fun, and now you can’t even go to the darts dressed as Diane Abbott without getting in trouble. The unavoidable conclusion I have to draw at the end of Past Laugh Regression is that this is the comedy of Leave, getting forced yuks from the sort of people who moan about ‘SJWs’ ruining Star Wars by putting a woman in it. No matter how shoddy the material, anyone who laughed at blacks or poofs or had women as suspender-clad window-dressing automatically gets elevated to “when comedy was comedy,” because as attitudes change and television fills with libs, it’s all they’ve got left. All it takes to invoke that modern spirit of flag-fucking nostalgia-Nationalism is a handful of boot polish, especially we as take the inexorable slide towards fascism. Maybe you think I’m milking this angle a bit, but I write this 24 hours removed from a Britain’s Got Talent performance by WW2-themed choir, the D-Day Darlings, which looked like colourised footage from Triumph of the Will. Here’s a quick example from the group described by a comment section dolt as “how funny British TV used to be, talented people with a skill!

07

But it’s not just the fans. In closing, let us regard the showreel put together by their own agents. Included as an example of their finest work is a Steptoe and Son parody where Albert’s got crippling bowel problems, but won’t go to his Indian doctor, because “with all that curry they eat, what do they know about constipation?” In fact, three of the first four skits in the showreel revolve around constipation, so maybe they were chasing those corporate bucks from Big Arse Medicine. But amid the quickies with a Jew talking about money and Liberace singing about flashing his ring, there’s something else, and I find I’ve stumbled upon the most culturally terrifying jump-scare imaginable. Their Savile character returns, this time with a nervous Gasmask Grimshaw, who’s about to remove the mask and reveal his true self to the audience for the first time. Go on, mate, show us what you’ve been hiding.

And that’s been Past Laugh Regression.

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~ by Stuart on July 27, 2018.

5 Responses to “Past Laugh Regression: Part Five – The Grumbleweeds”

  1. I saw a duo version of The Grumbleweeds (no idea if either of them were original members) in a pantomime “Aladdin”, alongside Jon Barrowman. It also featured Daleks. I am not making this up.

    • Incredible. It seems like the Grumbleweeds intentionally appear only in situations which sound like somebody suffering a fatal overdose of hallucinogens.

      • Looks as though ‘Grumbleweed’ is the street name for some sort of lysergic. They’ve been hiding their ways in plain sight, all this time.

  2. The one reason I let the Grumblweeds off the hook is that their radio series towered over what the did on telly. Mind you, I was ten years old when it went out.

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