When Noel Tried to Crack America

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[more Noel: House PartyNoel’s HQ]

Over the past year, Noel Edmonds has become the suspiciously-dark-bearded ghoul that hangs over my work. Though I worry my compulsive references to the man will eventually drive every Patron away, I just can’t help myself. But recently, I stumbled on something that’s worth sharing, even if every one of you switch your Patreon bucks to that security guard who got fired for broadcasting his gruffs.

Cracking America is the big goal for many an entertainer, particularly those who feel they’ve hit the ceiling over here. Actors regularly quit Eastenders to move to LA for bit parts as a paedo in CSI, while musicians and presenters are similarly eager to hit that massive US market, and the crazy money that comes with it. Even Brucie had a crack, with Bruce Forsyth’s Hot Streak; a gameshow that ran for 65 episodes on ABC in 1986. There are plenty who’ve made it — Craig Ferguson, Simon Cowell, Cat Deeley, Gordon Ramsay, Piss Morgan — while others, such as Robbie Williams, are condemned to elicit excited shrieks from the viewers of This Morning, but ego-crushing shrugs from each of the 327,000,000 men-on-the-street in God’s chosen country. There’s someone else who took a shot at the big league, and it’s our boy, Noel, who showcased his brand of crazy pranks, celebrity cameos, and dangerous stunts to American viewers, long before he’d broken soil on the foundations of Crinkley Bottom Manor.

01

The Noel Edmonds Show was given a week-long trial run in ABC’s midnight slot, in June of 1986. Though a household name in his homeland — with the show coming post-TOTP and Swap Shop, and between series of The Late, Late Breakfast Show — his only US exposure had been as the ‘foreign correspondent’ for ABC’s Foul-Ups, Bleeps and Blunders. The pre-show promotion played up Noel’s reputation as an unpredictable maverick; the sort of wildman who’d be interviewing Roger Daltrey in a bath, amid a televisual landscape of classy Johnny Carson types, with tailored suits and white teeth.

”I went to Switzerland to interview Daltrey in the bath,” said Noel, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune at the time, adding ”I’ve never had a bath with a man before. And never will again.” He also talked up the stunts, which had become the backbone of Late, Late, though in hindsight, his choice of words would age worse than the Micky Rooney scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s”We’re going to pull somebody out of the audience on the first show and train them to do a particularly difficult stunt. We do a lot of stunts on my show… it works very well in England because we really look after the people.”

02

The week of pilots were directed by British producer Michael Hurll (The Two Ronnies, TOTP), with an associate producer credit for Troy Miller, who’d go onto huge success in Hollywood, producing and directing shows like Arrested Development, Bored To Death, Mr. Show, and Flight of the Conchords. Only two episodes survive; the third, originally broadcast on June 25th, 1986, and the final edition, from June 27th.

It feels like glimpsing into another dimension to hear the blazing saxophone of 80’s American television, as a voice announces “Tonight, from Hollywood, it’s the Noel Edmonds Show!” The opening titles depict night-time Los Angeles, where movie theatres advertise Cobra and The Exorcist II, and billboards wear Noel’s superimposed face. He steers ABC’s helicopter through a black sky above the distant lights of Tinseltown, and down onto the studio roof, hopping on the back of a waiting motorbike. Episodes begin with celebrity VTs that play like character witness statements in a murder trial. A mulleted Julian Lennon promises “a friend of mine from London, Noel Edmonds” has something very special for us, while Phil Collins very earnestly shares how proud and pleased he is that “my mate, Noel Edmonds” has finally got a show in the US, as “everybody loves him” back home.

03

Sadly, Noel doesn’t kick off with a Jay Leno monologue about the day’s news; instead, it’s a rather British jaunt halfway down the stairs up in the bleachers, surrounded by audience members that he softly pranks in classic Noel style, turning the camera on them as they squirm through unrelated one-liners. This guy, looking awkward as he finds himself onscreen? “He wanted to see his wife in something long and flowing, so he threw her in the Mississippi!” This embarrassed lady? She’s the inventor of a non-drip, instant drying paint; “she’s gonna market it as soon as she can find a way of getting it out of the can!” Every joke is something a little nephew would read you off the back of a Penguin wrapper, especially when we go to the ad breaks, with toilet-grade material like “why is the Zebra at Dublin Zoo called Spot?” Bear in mind, this went out at midnight, and considering Noel’s self-styled reputation as a rebellious envelope-pusher, with ABC’s trailers warning “a wild man’s on the loose,” its toothlessness is something to behold. The raunchiest bit is a joke about a homeless man, where he keeps giggling over the word “bum,” aware of its far naughtier meaning back home.

But Noel’s medically incapable of playing it straight or ‘boring’ like his rivals, with his prankster streak evident throughout, and half the celebrity interviews are laboured comedy skits which subvert the desk-bound chats of Carson and co. Star Search winner Sam Harris repeatedly closes the door in his face, and Annie Lennox — “a very talented lady who’s got a very keen sense of humour” — refuses him an interview in a restaurant, while gladly fielding questions from a fan. The final show’s “satellite trans-global” link with Patsy Kensit has the two side-by-side in split screen, and ends with Kensit leaning over and shoving Noel out of frame; though he blatantly signposts it, playing up sound problems and moaning about the ‘satellite delay’ while trying not to laugh. The proper interviews have a completely different tone, playing serious journalist for a dour chat with Julian Lennon about the cruelty of the press.

04

The Noel Edmonds Show has the overwhelming feel of that Knowing Me, Knowing You which was broadcast live from Vegas, with spectacular Alan Partridge-isms everywhere you look. Before one break, he tells us they’ll be back shortly, before dropping to his knees and adding, “very shortly!” For another, “we will be back in 1/24th of an hour!” Every segment’s begging to have the North Norfolk Digital jingle dubbed on, like when he cues up an interview with the line “on a lake called Geneva, with a band called Genesis!” He’s not got a sidekick, but throws an occasional greeting to his unseen female announcer, whom he grossly calls “Fingers,” and is credited as ‘Fingers’ Fontaine. I dread to think what her booth smells like.

His bone-deep Britishness just doesn’t translate to a flashy American network, with gags receiving deathly silence, and overly-wordy intros lost on an audience who aren’t sure if it’s meant to be a joke; like a bit about growing up alongside a guest in the south side of Chicago. In a prime example of his needless loquaciousness, stand-up Marsha Warfield is introduced as “an extremely funny and perceptive observer of the human parade,” which is high praise for an act which opens with “we got any black people here tonight?” Warfield — earlier cameoing as an audience member who thought she’d come to watch the Price is Right, calling Noel ‘Nigel’ — presents a set which is spectacularly awful, and fascinatingly 80s. Though she’s African-American, the material seems like it was cribbed from Bernard Manning, with jokes about hating when black people come to her shows because “they suck up all the light,” and that in the film The Color Purple, “I’ve never seen so many ugly black people in one place in my entire life!

05

Under the slicker format, and pre-taped rather than the live TV he’s used to, Noel’s robbed of his usual fallbacks. Hamstrung from pretending like everything’s comically going wrong, he’s left to face the dead air of jokes that didn’t land, and moments which fall flat. But it wouldn’t be Noel without stunts involving members of the public; an audience of “simpering wrecks… innocent buffoons,” from whom brave volunteers are plucked for a challenge to be aired on the following show. For the entirety of the June 25th episode, he harps on about an infallible sex test, that’ll help viewers find out if their husband or wife is really the sex they claim to be. This, in an agonisingly long finale, turns out to be a weird party trick, where members of the audience are made to rest their hands on the arms of a plastic chair and their foreheads against a wall, to see if they can lift the chair and stand up, which women can do, but men can’t. That’s scientific fact.

The only thing it demonstrates is Noel’s inherent weirdness with real people, leching over one volunteer by eyeing her and down — “from the view, I think we’re pretty certain you’re a lady!” and asking if she’d be “happier without your shoes on… happier without your trousers on?” Noel’s giggling with glee in the knowledge millions of people at home will definitely be trying this, and it seems like it’s building to a reveal, like there’s wet paint on the wall, or it’s just a psyche test, where the men only think they can’t stand up, because they don’t want anyone questioning their masculinity. But no, it’s just the sort of trick you see in a children’s magic book, like pushing your fingertips together and seeing a floating sausage in the middle, and works because the women they selected were short and wearing high heels, while the men, with bigger, flatter feet, were standing much further back.

06

The June 27th episode was the last in the run, with footage of the previous night tragically lost, having boasted a guest list of Billy Ocean, The Pet Shop Boys, and David Hasselhoff. There are dual themes at play in Noel’s final hour, of ‘aren’t the English eccentric?’ and ‘we’ve run out of ideas’. In the same big-shouldered suit he’s been wearing all week, he pelts onstage to introduce his “tea-slurpers” — a trio of Americans who’ll be learning the “noble art” of drinking tea. Gor blimey, guv. They have to slurp down tea for as long as possible, in the kind of game you’d play at a shitty toddler’s birthday party, presenting a video of “England’s best tea-slurper,” who’s in fingerless gloves and buried beneath a truly horrifying rubber mask. I just assumed it was Noel, but then he unveils the slurper’s identity.

07

Fuck me. But McCartney’s not there, and it’s just a way to run a clip of him on The Late, Late Breakfast Show from the previous November, where they first did the tea-slurping skit. Finally, Noel’s brought some star power, if only via archive footage. It’s a long clip too, with Macca answering questions written by the audience, in the worst Q&A since the Ninja Turtles went on Oprah. “Are you wearing a vest?” “How many baths do you have a week?” “Do you still enjoy brushing your teeth?” As noticeably bored as McCartney is, nothing ever touches the awkwardness of moments involving small talk with members of the public; spectacularly so in a skit attempting to break the world record of Champion Underwear Leaping — that is, jumping in and out of a pair of underpants. Noel greets a short-haired woman with “and your name, Sir?” and gets into an exchange with a man called Jaime Short that I’ve clipped below, because it demands to be seen in full.

Though 60 seconds of people hopping into shorts sounds like something that should be seen during a rainy afternoon at Butlins rather than on television, incredibly, Noel did the exact same segment the night before, with one of tonight’s contestants the returning champion.

08

The longest interview, and the most conventional, with Noel simply chatting to a guest on a sofa, is reserved for “home movie mogul,” Charlie Schmidt. Schmidt is essentially a man who makes funny sketches with a camcorder, in a primordial precursor to viral video stars going on Ellen, and is introduced with a clip of him making his nose wiggle in time to music with a sheet of glass. They play a bunch of his sketches, including a fake dating video where he buries a sack of plastic ducks upto their necks, and Mr. Spam Man, which involves systematically pulling the limbs and head off an Action Man figure and forcing them into a block of spam. The latter, shown in full, for ninety very weird seconds, is the most genuinely subversive broadcast Noel’s ever been a part of. Nowadays, this is the sort of shit you’d scan through on TikTok without a second glance, but regular folks making their own content was hugely novel in 1986, with a video of Schmidt lip-syncing to a falsetto song with a stocking over his head inciting shrieks of laughter. Noel’s so enamoured that Schmidt returns for more in the second half, performing the dancing nose trick live in the studio. You get the joke after 5 seconds, but it goes on for two whole minutes, while Noel creases up on the sofa. Schmidt would eventually perform the dancing nose for a series of lucrative Dime Bar commercials, though his widest fame would result from a video filmed 2 years before his appearance here, and not released until 2007, of his cat playing a keyboard.

09

The week draws to a close, and as Edmonds is wont to do, he ends his American adventure with another audience-participation stunt, aiming to go out with a real bang. Unfortunately, it’s more of a terrible whimper, in what turns out to be a disaster, albeit, not that kind of disaster. It’s only five months before the fatal accident that would end The Late, Late Breakfast Show — when an untrained hod-carrier was killed during a bungee jump stunt — as the finale of The Noel Edmonds Show sees a member of the audience re-enact a famous Houdini escape. Plucked out of the crowd on Monday’s show, he’s had the week to rehearse being hung upside down in a straight jacket, with 60 seconds to escape, before a burning rope drops him headfirst onto the studio floor.

Noel plays up the danger massively, as they hoist him up and set the rope alight, and the poor fucker swings about like a panicked pendulum, trying to get his arms free. The rope, Noel tells us, again and again, will snap when the countdown runs out. He gets his arms free, but he’s only on the first of four metal buckles as the clock hits single figures. And then… the countdown reaches zero. He doesn’t fall, undercutting the tension somewhat, and they take the clock offscreen. “Come on,” pleads Noel, “hurry up!” About 15 seconds late, the man finally wriggles the jacket off, with the fire safety officer needlessly squirting foam over a ‘burning’ rope that’s pretty much gone out. As they get him down, Noel’s forced to admit there was a wire in the middle of the rope, “just in case,” and all magic has been ruined forever. Still, better safe than sorry.

10

Noel bids farewell, thanking his audience, and saying he hopes it won’t be too long before he’s back in America. As we know here in the future, he didn’t go onto become the King of Late Night, and reviews were not good. The Noel Edmonds Show was savaged in the LA Times, in a piece which marked Noel as a Brit who’s a Real Twit, with the devastating opening salvo “When it comes to British humorists, Noel Edmonds is right up there with Margaret Thatcher.” The wacky style didn’t play, with a withering “…most of the big names in music are required to join Edmonds in awful comedy bits. Edmonds interviewed Daltrey while sitting in a bathtub filled with water. ISN’T HE OUTRAGEOUS? No.” The piece can be surmised with its plea for our nations to “bring back Jerry Lewis. Send back Noel Edmonds.”

The New York Times were likewise unimpressed, noting “the remainder of the hour-long show consisted of double entendres and adolescent jokes. One gag, about a New York prostitute, evidently had its punch line scrambled by the network censor.” They too, were keen to stop free movement of lion-haired, wheezing DJs — “Mr. Edmonds, still chipper, looked directly into the camera and said, ”Thank you for giving me such a great welcome to your country.” It might be even warmer next time – if he leaves his show at home.”

11

Though a failure by any standards, The Noel Edmonds Show gives us a peek at an alternate timeline, where Noel abandoned the BBC to become the next big British export. In this world, Mr. Blobby wasn’t pestering your Ronnie Corbetts and Tony Blackburns, but bundling Bruce Willis to the floor, and pulling down Prince’s purple slacks, while Julia Roberts got drowned in gunge. America’s loss was our gain, although don’t say it too loudly, in case they take their revenge by sending back James Corden.

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.

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.

~ by Stuart on September 25, 2019.

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