Plaza Patrol

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[This is Part 3 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart Two]

In my previous look back at Cannon and Ball, I made the comparison to an end of the pier Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, with an act that’s rooted in antagonism, and every skit laden with the simmering threat of violence. In 1991, two months before the debut of Rik and Ade’s Bottom, Cannon and Ball’s lone sitcom, Plaza Patrol, aired on ITV. This would be their final run on prime time television, as it was so appalling, everybody involved in its production should have been sent to prison.

Naturally, what you’d want from a Cannon and Ball sitcom, now out of the variety years and into the rude nineties, would be a slightly elevated version of their established characters. Given free rein, the trademark lapel-grabbing scuffles could raised into riotous slapstick brawls, coupled with the existing catchphrases they were famous for; “piggin’” or “you little liar!” You could do that, or, as the people behind Plaza Patrol figured, you could sit them in a room mumbling, with no “rock on, Tommy!” nor a pair of braces to be seen. Though it was written specifically for them, it seems like the bits of their act the writers most enjoyed were the pauses between jokes, lumbering the poor lads with truly the worst script I have ever sat through. A screenwriting duo lacking the credentials to pen a shopping list, Plaza Patrol‘s creative team consisted of the composer of the theme for Noel’s Telly Addicts, and a man whose sole other credits are two episodes of Noel’s House Party.

01

Plaza Patrol was a spin-off of Cannon and Ball’s Playhouse, an ITV anthology of six pilot episodes, though only two made it to air. Free Every Friday starred Tommy and Bobby as manager and reporter for a free newspaper, with Bobby saddled with all-time dreadful comedy name, Norman Tubby. The second, Growing Concern, sounds like a fake sitcom inside another sitcom that’s sneering at naff old comedy, featuring Bobby as a bumbling maintenance man with the catchphrase “I ‘aven’t got the right tools wi’ me” and Tommy as his manager. The rest were ditched, when ITV inexplicably decided to run with a full series of Plaza Patrol. Considering how that turned out, what was the quality of the episodes that didn’t get made?! Perhaps they took the ever-present master/subordinate dynamic to its natural end.

Slaving Away

Down on his luck binman Bobby Bottoms is forced to become sexual plaything to wealthy businessman Tommy Whiplash. In nothing but leather braces and a gimp mask, Bobby’s catchphrases include “please may I have the key to my penis cage, Sir?” and “the wax has scarred me piggin’ bell-end!”

Plaza Patrol debuted on Monday night of July 15th, 1991. By this point, even a young Cannon and Ball aficionado such as myself had since grown out of them, and gotten into more big-boy comedy, like The Mary Whitehouse Experience. This was the dying embers of their mainstream appeal, and rather than fanning the flames for a resurgence, they took a metaphorical piss that left us choking on the stink of smoked urine. The set-up is that Bernard (Cannon) and Trevor (Ball) are a pair of security guards working the night shift at Margaret Thatcher Plaza, a shopping centre in Leeds. Perhaps in an attempt to emulate the tedium of a job where nothing happens, but most likely out of cheapness, 99% of the ‘action’ takes place in one room and consists of dreary banter about biscuits. Forget Seinfeld; this is the real show about nothing.

02

Let’s consider the notion of Cannon and Ball as security guards. By this point, Cannon is a road-worn 53, and Ball’s 47. It’s like those Death Wish sequels where Bronson was 80, mowing down drug gangs with a face like a dropped lasagne, and they seem like the sort of guards you’d hire during an inside job to rob the place; “decrepit old man and a little fella, they won’t give us any trouble…” There’s a noticeably fascistic look to their uniforms, with the word SECURITY on the shoulders above a 7-pointed star, and medieval axes on a patch, suggesting the outside world is a dystopian police state, and any curfew breakers will have their eyes burned out by Tommy Cannon’s Silk Cut.

This all begs the question, how did they get into security work? Were they ex-military who went into the private sector? Actually, yes. As revealed in scraps of dialogue throughout the 3 episodes I tortured myself with, Cannon served in the army; more specifically, like your dad’s weird mate who reckons he won the speedboat on Bullseye, but won’t show anyone the tape, he was in special forces. Vague references to “the jungle” and being “in Malaya” seem to hint at sex tourism, but are later revealed to be the British involvement in guerilla warfare against rebel insurgents, during the 1950s. This adds Cannon’s Bernard Cooney to a growing list of fictional combat veterans I’ve uncovered in my work, including Saved by the Bell‘s Mr. Belding and Alf Stewart from Home and Away (Vietnam), and Herman Munster (WWII). A line about them serving together mostly exists to establish the rule that Cannon must always be in charge, but suggests a 13-year-old Bobby Ball lied about his age to sign up and kill commies. To further the dystopian feel, Cannon wears the 3 stripes of a sergeant on his work shirt and jacket, implying they are indeed part of a state security force.

03

Under the wailing synth-sax theme shared with every early 90’s sitcom, opening credits show Cannon cuffing Ball round the chops for riding one of those kiddie horses outside a shop, furthering its MO of “Cannon’s the dad, Ball’s the kid, see?” Like my genitals, the bulk of the episodes are a two-hander, consisting of dreary work-room chat and literally zero jokes. Thoroughly lacking the snappy pace of their usual routine, there’s a Poundland kitchen sink naturalism to the dialogue, and though I hate to transcribe huge chunks, I present an example of the world’s worst writing, spoken slowly and softly over the course of about a minute’s screen time.

Cannon “There’s been times when I’ve been a bit of a… well.

Ball “You haven’t, Bernard.

C “I have.

B “Bernard, you haven’t, not really.

C “I know I have.

B (whispering) “No, you haven’t, Bernard.

C “Sometimes.

B “Bernard, never.

C “I have!

B “Have yer?

C “Erm… no. I don’t suppose so.

B “When?

C “Er… I haven’t really.

Why, it’s like Mamet, isn’t it? Or Sorkin? Just look at the way it pops! Someone was handed that on a script and signed off on it, and there was a table read and rehearsals, and then they performed it in front of human beings for money, and then it went out on telly, and at no point along the way did anyone stop it. Bewilderingly, rather than anguished howls of the damned, the audience provides easy chuckles at every turn, at top lines like “where’s the tea gone?” “it’s in the jar marked ‘tea’!” or “I wasn’t asleep, I was just resting me eyes.” Confined to the grey setting of its one room, with grainy CCTV monitors and the black pitch of night visible outside, it’s such a grim atmosphere, in a moment Cannon climbed on a desk to change a lightbulb, I assumed he was going to hang himself.

04

Sandwiched between the extended discourse is the thinnest veneer of actual plot. Episode one sees Ball returning from holiday with a replica gun he found on the beach, sneaking up on Cannon to perform the entire Dirty Harry speech, which makes him corpse, but they keep it in. Then they’re taken hostage by two robbers in gorilla masks and washing up gloves. Usually, the hostage plot is your sitcom bottle episode, but every Plaza Patrol is a bottle episode, trapping us in an interminable crypt with references to Jeffrey Archer’s novels and actual mother-in-law jokes; left frantically scrabbling at walls for a way out, at the example of Melvin Bragg as an intelligentsia, or the suggestion one looks at the stars with a “stethoscope.” There’s no air in here. No escape. Just the cursory audience snickering and the dramatic tension of whether or not Bobby Ball, refused the request to “go toilet” by his kidnapper, will urinate on himself. Reader, he does.

Episode two, rather cruelly titled The End when there’s still four to go, is an obvious attempt at remaking Hancock’s The Missing Page, where the end of a film Ball’s watching is taped over with Emmerdale Farm. However, most of the running time’s filled with unrelated wittering; cats pissing in shoes, coffee mugs, the rules to I Spy, and a section about the correct way to dunk a biscuit that’s somehow even worse than the Peter Kay routine. There’s a sub-sub-plot about a group of kids sitting on the wall outside, that has Cannon ranting about today’s youth, who’ll soon be having “their own acid house disco down there… and I’ll be sniffin’ Dr Martins!” The hipness of the acid house reference is immediately cancelled out when Cannon bemoans his punk son, who’s shaved his head and “got a girlfriend who dresses like Max Wall.”

05

Eventually, they go to a video rental place, so Ball can see the rest of the movie, but they’ve got no money and it’s about to shut, so logically, they try to seduce the young lady who runs it. She’s introduced with a weirdly lascivious shot of her legs and arse, and Ball brags about his motorbike and tells her he’s “in love.” She rebuffs him with a gross speech about erogenous zones and being “slowly brought to fever pitch,” while Ball makes a gurning cum-face, then Cannon outs him as seeing the black-teethed girl from the shoe shop, though only so he can get discount trainers to replace the cat-pissed ones. Poor Bobby never gets to see the end of the film, while in tragic irony, every wretched second of Plaza Patrol was fully available for me to sit through.

Episode 3, The Tramp Who Never Was, opens with them playing Monopoly, and like any onscreen portrayal of classic games, as they fight over the top hat, it segues into a terrible analogy about life. Hats, says Ball, denote social structure. Wearers of flat caps are the lower class, bowlers the middle, and “the ones in the top hats… you knew you were looking at a nob.” The utter lack of laughs at Cannon’s “you can say that again!” (an actual joke!) suggests the word ‘nob’ as a descriptor for penis was not in common usage in 1991. Thank God I wasn’t born 20 years earlier, or I’d have never survived.

06

The titular tramp knocks at the door, a classic in fingerless gloves and a woolly hat, pleading for a moment to warm himself in front of the fire. Working class Ball welcomes him in (though he does wipe his hands after touching him), while Cannon, a top hat, is all “I don’t want a dirty filthy tramp in the office!” adding “he’s probably full of fleas!” But Cannon changes his tune when the homeless man outs himself as an old soldier, and soon, the pair are bonding with war stories. Ball refuses to thank them for their service, and is chided by the tramp as a “long haired beatnik.” These days, such little reverence to Are Brave Boys would have seen Bobby Ball leaving the studio with a blanket over his head to avoid being force-fed cardboard poppies until he choked by an angry Facebook mob. Eventually, as spoiled by the episode title, they find he’s not a soldier, but a conman who grifted them out of £80 and pinched Cannon’s war medals.

Something you definitely don’t see coming is the crazy political turn, which acts as a counterpoint the leftie-bashing inserts of Bottle Boys. An early scene sees Ball deface a Maggie Thatcher calendar with Hitler tash n’ fringe, and political tensions spill out during Monopoly, over the concept of privatising water. “There’s a lot of real life on that board for some of us,” says Cannon, demanding Ball tell him who he voted for in the general election. “Welsh, husky voice; am I right?” rages Tory Cannon, “if your lot were in power now, we wouldn’t have what we’ve got today!” In response, Ball tears the Thatcher calendar from the wall — “Wouldn’t have what we’ve got today? Inflation? Poll Tax?” He smacks the picture with an angry finger, seething “there’s people out there living in cardboard boxes! You’re not bothered about that, are yer?!” To say this is a surprising moment is an understatement, particularly in an episode where Bobby Ball describes the sight of a naked women he’s peeping at in a window across the street with an aghast “by Hell, she’s a big lass!

07

Though it makes occasional — and thoroughly deserved — appearances on lists of the worst ever sitcoms, Plaza Patrol is effectively a lost show. A search for “plaza patrol” cannon and ball returns only 7 pages of Google results, most of which are foreign bot sites, and it was never released on DVD or VHS. Most of the episodes on Youtube have less than 100 views, making them as popular as accidentally uploaded footage of someone’s grandad testing out his webcam. I’ve great affection for Cannon and Ball, and it makes for a rather sad, indignant end to their prime time careers, addressing each other as Bernard and Trevor, and working with a truly awful script which should have never made it to air. Rik and Ade always talked about a planned final sitcom, where the pair would star as gross old men, hitting each other with bedpans, which we were sadly robbed of with Rik’s death. I know it’s not the same, but c’mon, Netflix, while there’s still time to give us the real Cannon and Ball sitcom, hit me up. I’ll even throw in my spec script for proposed Ricky Gervais vehicle, My Juggalo Dad.

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

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~ by Stuart on February 7, 2019.

5 Responses to “Plaza Patrol”

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