Saturday Night Beadle

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In his heyday, the name Jeremy Beadle was national shorthand — settle down — for exasperating situations; synonymous with life throwing you a random, terrible curveball that must be a prank. If your plumbing burst or your car got clamped, you were on the lookout for some prick with a microphone, with a false beard glued on top of his real beard, to tell you it was all just a great big jape. In a precursor to the Piers Morgan types that are everywhere these days, Beadle revelled in his status as Britain’s Most Hated Man, making a career out of just wanting to watch the world burn.

Having established his pranking credentials on Game For a Laugh, Beadle’s About was his solo breakout, like when Geri left the Spice Girls, and quickly became a British institution, pulling in 15 million viewers on Saturday nights. In the years after it left our screens, the series become distilled into a couple of bullet points; one being its trademark bleeps and censor bubbles from angry victims, which Beadle would later confess were often faked, to make it funnier. The other is its pair of most infamous pranks; an early skit where a man believes his works van, containing his entire business stock, is pushed into the river; and another near the end, in 1996, where despite the national paranoia of a lurking Beadle, he was still capable of getting a housewife to believe a meteor had crashed in her back garden, complete with inflatable green alien that she offered a cup of tea.

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Both encapsulate the spirit of the show; a weird mix of cruelty and British resolve, though in the latter, what’s often missed in all the mockery is the moment Beadle sidles up behind her wearing a rubber mask, which she turns and spots with a look of the purest abject terror; in that moment, utterly convinced she’s in the presence of an alien overlord; her world completely changed. Until he yanks it off. There have been decades of prank shows since Beadle’s About ended, so I revisited some of the episodes from its early years, and in the process, turned up another Saturday Night Beadle vehicle that, far from being a televisual cornerstone, appears to have been wiped from history altogether.

Before we jump into it, as an aside, does anyone else remember the time he went on The Word promoting You’ve Been Framed with special late-night clips deemed too rude for YBF? One showed a couple kissing on a bench, before the woman suddenly vomited into her partner’s mouth, with another where a farmer tripped over, his trousers fell down, and he was bummed by a bull. I have a vivid recollection of this, but can find no evidence, suggesting it’s some perverse imagining, like that Beadle’s About where he pranked someone at a nudist beach, and they didn’t realise until he took off his merkin, revealing his real pubes underneath. If you saw his appearance on The Word, do let me know in the comments.

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For all the negative connotations of Beadle’s About, it’s got a GOAT theme tune; a glorious, raucous foot-tapping piano-basher, evocative of a right old knees up in a cockney boozer. That said, its constant lyrical threat “you’d better watch out, cos Beadle’s about,” is one slow, mournful cover away from a great soundtrack to a slasher movie trailer. In fact, the opening title’s rapid zooms on Beadle’s face do give the sense he’s chasing you. The 80’s footage is now wonderfully haunted-looking, the washed-out audience making me physically queasy as Beadle runs down the steps like you had to in those days.

The first thing that stands out is how there’s no effort to hide his little hand, unlike the 90’s You’ve Been Framed, where it was sequestered behind a variety of props. In fact, I don’t recall any jokes or mentions of it pre-dating YBF, as though nobody had noticed until then. Was it due to smaller screens and worse picture quality? It’s certainly not because we were a more kindly people in those days, as from the very beginning, Beadle’s About is marked with the cruel streak that history remembers it for.

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The climax of only the second episode features a skit that would be considered one of its classics, where a middle-aged bloke watches a portacabin he’s buying get accidentally dropped by a crane. Like all these pranks, there’s no invention; no humour; and the entire thing hinges on making somebody so frustrated, they lose their temper. They fill the scenes with actors to shout over the top of the victim, refusing to take the blame for various destructions, in situations which are painfully familiar from dealing with idiots for real. The targets are often lured to scenarios with the promise of work, and in this case, he’s shown up with £1748 in 1986 money for the cabin, so it’s presumably no small matter to waste a working day on, finding out it’s all for the laughs of some chortling jester with two beards.

Am I obsessed with Noel Edmonds? Perhaps. But it’s impossible not to think of him each time Beadle reveals himself, the only one amused, bent double with laughter and thrusting a mic into the face of a shocked member of the public, whose body language reads “this isn’t funny, I’m just so relieved my only source of income wasn’t really crushed by a wrecking ball.” The victims are all in the studio audience, “great sports” whose live reactions play in a little box in the corner, like Japanese TV.

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Not all the sketches are so dogfuck blunt, with many of the more whimsical situations lifted from American show, Truth or Consequences, whose producer Ralph Edwards is credited with the creation of Beadle’s About — along with This Is Your Life — and whose production company teamed with LWT to make it. These, like the ones from television’s first prank show, Candid Camera, are far more charming, focusing on the looks of wonder and confusion on a participant’s face, rather than the throbbing veins and bleeped out swearing. Take the businessman asking members of the public to cure his hiccups by slapping his back or giving him a fright; or the actor with two broken arms who needs help getting through a revolving door, or licking a stamp, which features a brilliantly That’s Life-style old lady, walking straight by because “I’ve got to get home for me dinner!” MTV’s Jackass would eventually reuse this idea, with Johnny Knoxville begging people to pull his trousers up, but back in 1986, it’s a simpler time, where even the sight of a public toilet gets an “ahh!” of amusement from the audience. Similarly, a fashion show gag, with men wearing ludicrous outfits for a fake Italian buyer, is less wacky in 2019, where you can genuinely buy the same see-thru trousers in Topshop.

Perhaps my favourite prank, elegant in its simplicity, is when a family in the audience are joined by the bald father, who’s wearing a hairpiece. But the legacy of Beadle’s About will be its more sadistic efforts. In the 1986 Christmas episode, riddled with cracker puns, it’s telling that Beadle’s favourite, when replaying past glories, is the bloke who came home to find his lawn dug up by the waterboard. Like all its best-remembered moments, there’s literally no joke, beyond refusing to let an exasperated man into his own house and fucking up his lawn, until the inevitable moment a bearded workman takes off his helmet. Other Christmas highlights include a proto-Gotcha on Duty Free‘s Keith Barron, where he’s aghast at the hilarious prank that his co-star Gwen Taylor, a woman, might be taking a computer course, and a stunt involving dozens of identical cars that goes wrong when a woman immediately twigs “this is Jeremy Beadle, isn’t it?

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As you’d expect, there’s stuff that would get Beadle trending as #cancelled nowadays, including a bit where married couples turn up to a meeting about a well-paid job opportunity abroad, only to find that “according to local custom, your husband is going to have to take a second wife.” The men are into it, particularly with the issue of consummation, and there’s a sense this led to some pretty heavy conversations when they got back home. They bring in prospective wives, each hidden beneath burqas resembling shiny wizard’s robes in a pantomime, and of course, that lovely lady with the heavy mascara turns out to be Beadle. In another skit, an office manager’s sworn in as an emergency United States Secret Service agent, before President Reagan commandeers his car, leaving him to wander around a country lane with what he thinks is a real gun.

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Beadle’s About went on for ten years, finishing in 1996 with a run of 94 episodes. Sitting through a mere handful emphasises how repetitive the format quickly became; a string of ordinary people believing they’d suffered a great misfortune, until Beadle appeared with a mic; then cut back to him sat in the studio audience like a fucking goblin. I must make mention of the one where a woman watched helplessly as her husband accidentally drove over a bunch of cars in a tank, leading to the single worst segue ever to close the show — “well, from tanks to thanks, and thanks for all your letters, we’ll be back next week…” There’s an interesting horror movie to be made of all Beadle’s reveals, a changeling trickster god in multitude costumes, feeding on the suffering of his victims, glistening with sweat, with his long, Pennywise teeth pinched in a manic grin, and the warning that we must all watch out, because he is about.

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In rooting around the works of Beadle, I came across a forgotten curio in his Saturday night career. Three years after the launch of Beadle’s About, ITV began airing Jeremy Beadle’s Box of Tricks; a show so deeply embedded between the cracks, it doesn’t even have an IMDB page. Despite its prime-time slot, where viewers were usually in the double-digit millions, there’s almost nothing about it online, with only a dozen genuine Google hits, giving that weird sense of cultural archaeology one sometimes feels when writing these pieces. As always, it’s likely anything with such a minimal imprint was suppressed for good reason, and rewatching it would be equivalent to digging up a cursed artifact and unleashing ancient and bloody Pagan horrors upon your sleepy village. So, let’s dive in.

At least early in the run, it’s essentially the BBC’s Paul Daniels Magic Show, except with Beadle, introducing various magic acts and doing the odd trick himself. Each week begins with a grand entrance; first with a stunt-double falling off the set — a towering, sheet-metal castle with lizards climbing up it — and Beadle re-emerging below as an Egyptian mummy. Another episode has the double abseil in and fall down some stairs, before — incredibly — the real Beadle somersaults perfectly through a flaming hoop, sending the audience into absolute apoplexy, as he skids about on fire extinguisher foam. It’s genuinely one of the loudest audience reactions I’ve ever heard, like John Cena’s return at the Royal Rumble, or when Elton did Crocodile Rock as an encore at Diana’s funeral.

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The acts vary in quality tremendously. At the low end, there’s a shouting American, throwing fire and setting bits of string alight, and a comedy magician in a red bowler, whose repertoire genuinely includes that thing where you go behind the sofa and pretend to walk downstairs. One guy does a routine with an oiled-up ping pong ball, spitting it in the air and catching it in his mouth, eventually spit-juggling with two, which gives me the fear. See, I went through a phase in my late teens of waking up with a movie-like lurch in the middle of the night, choking, often set off by recurring dreams of an angry ping pong player serving a ball straight into my open mouth. Consequently, while watching this bloke snort one into his throat, I was on the verge of giving myself a tracheotomy with a biro. Thankfully, I was soothed when Pop from the League of Gentlemen showed up with his young wife.

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The shows always end on a big set piece, and for episode one, Beadle drags a pair of audience members into a helicopter, for a night-time excursion to Stonehenge, which he promises to make disappear. Like all these ‘making a monument vanish’ tricks, the camera’s poised through the little window of a viewing platform, which is just rotated to an empty part of the field. After the stones have gone, Beadle interviews witnesses who were ‘stood there the whole time’. For some mysterious reason, they’re all hidden behind those forensic lab coats, with just their faces showing, to give some truly atrocious mystified-acting. As hokey as it was, why is “Jeremy Beadle made Stonehenge disappear” not part of our magical lexicon? Copperfield did the Statue of Liberty, Daniels did the elephant, yet the world’s most mysterious place went missing, and Big Jezza Beads gets no credit.

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Another grand finale sees Beadle take a little girl and her dad onto a steam train, along with Su Pollard, who’s told by Beadle to open her legs, as he handcuffs her, bondage-style, by the wrists and ankles across the width of the carriage. The crucified Pollard is blindfolded, as Beadle reiterates there will be no camera cuts, and we’re watching a single shot; a decision which leaves him wildly out of breath as he sprints the length of the train and back. They cut to a split screen, for a camera attached to the back of the train, while he takes to the air to watch from a helicopter, as the train enters a tunnel, we’re told, is haunted by the ghost of a headless signalman. When it re-emerges through the other side, the middle carriage, containing Su Pollard and father & daughter, is gone, with the latter pair now sat behind Beadle in the back of the chopper. I hoped they’d blow my mind by revealing Su was piloting it, perhaps in a ball-gag and gimp suit, but alas, her carriage is found dumped in the middle of the moors, like the ship in Close Encounters. Her gasping portrayal of shock on realising she’s now miles from the train is a hilariously awful performance; a spiritual ancestor to Tim Robinson’s “What?!” in I Think You Should Leave‘s nacho sketch.

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In another pointless aside, the show’s title card gave me a sudden flashback to senior school sex education, when an elderly lady teaching assistant announced “this is my box of tricks,” and pulled out a shoebox filled with pills, johnnies, and a big, stiff banana (and possibly dildos?). But anyhow, it wouldn’t be a Beadle show without pranks, though these are of a gentler ilk, tricking little kids into thinking they’re performing actual magic. One has them doing voodoo on their teachers during morning assembly, with a hundred children going berserk as a teacher levitates out of her chair. In another, a real rabbit magically appears at the tap of a wand. What’s great is the way the kids just accept it — ‘yes, I can transform matter now. I am become death.’ — as I did, aged 5 or 6, when I waved my Paul Daniels Magic Set wand over my unmade bed, before my mum, unbeknown to me, snuck into my room to make it, which saw me march through the school gates that day like Aleister Crowley. Speaking of the Daniels magic set, Beadle gives all the kids a Beadle’s Box of Tricks, which was presumably a (much less successful) attempt to piggyback the craze of Daniels’ massively selling kit, and hopefully not a selection box of flavoured condoms and arse-plugs.

By episode four, the magic conceit’s all but abandoned, in favour of nightmarish variety and more pranks. A guy dressed like Prince does a roller skating act, while a singing quintet perform a cover of Five Guys Named Mo, except it’s Five Guys Named Blow, and they’re all bouncing up and down on whoopee cushions. The latter’s so slapdash, it has to be a last-minute replacement by some kind of university sketch group. There’s also bumbling slapstick from a double act familiar from Saturday morning TV of the era, Heap and Wall; who confusingly, despite the name, aren’t the 80’s kids act to feature a baby Mark Heap from Spaced — that was The Two Marks.

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The only trad magician, doing posh candle magic in a tux, is quickly revealed to be the stooge in a comedy skit, as a young Joe Pasquale tits about in the background, wearing a robe and bow tie but no shirt, just like Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake. For the finale, Beadle brings out the 1989 Arsenal squad, for a wildly convoluted segment, culminating in giving Perry Groves, who’s dressed like Anneka Rice in a blond wig and shell suit, 60 seconds to hobble into the carpark with his ankles tied together, to stop Paul Davis’ Porsche from being crushed between two bulldozers. Of course, he doesn’t make it, and Davis watches his beloved car get destroyed, before it’s revealed the car’s fine, and it’s all just a prank. Well, a ‘magic trick’. “Nobody knows how we did it!” brags Beadle, who made a career out of destroying lookalike vehicles on Beadle’s About without behaving like he was fucking Houdini. It goes off the air with Paul Davis having to stand there with Beadle’s arm threaded through his for ages, like he’s walking him to a fancy ball.

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Because of the dearth of information, it’s unclear how long Box of Tricks ran for, and though it seems like it lasted a single series, maybe it’s still going on now, somewhere. After all, when browsing the Youtube comments for Beadle’s About, I did find this:

RIP Jeremy I know your making God laugh in heaven…. TV sucks now a days angry

If that’s what Heaven’s like; an eternity of Hendrix being told his guitar fell off a cloud and killed a bunch of kids in Earth, or Adam West being made to think the Batmobile’s been smashed up, before ‘God’ pulls off his white beard, revealing another beard underneath, then send me down to the fires to be roommates with Thatcher, thanks.

BONUS HAUNTED IMAGE

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~ by Stuart on August 26, 2019.

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