Emu and Orville at Christmas

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This tale of two birds begins with Emu at Christmas, a festive episode of Emu’s All Live Pink Windmill Show from Christmas Day, 1984. I’ve a vivid memory of receiving a Pink Windmill filled with sweets that year, so I’m certain I was watching at the time. As a brief explanation for those who didn’t live through it, Emu was a violent, mute puppet, who despite the best efforts of his handler, Rod Hull, would use his beak to savagely grab people by the throat or arse, at which point you remembered there’s a hand in there. Emu’s psychotic tendencies led to some classic TV moments, including humourless pen-salesman Michael Parkinson getting the hump, and a chaotic visit to a supermarket. As is clear from these clips, though Rod Hull only had one joke, he was an absolute master at it, and a brilliant physical comedian. Famously, though the act made him a household name for decades, Hull grew resentful of Emu, as the one doing all the work, but viewed as the side-kick to a boggle-eyed pile of rags. Incidentally, do you think he ever… you know? Like when you sit on your hand?

Most people know Pink Windmill from the meme of the show’s stage school kids introducing themselves, but they’re nowhere to be seen here, as Rod and Emu are spending Christmas alone in the Pink Windmill. The kids are on “a hotel holiday in Scotland,” which suggests 1) they don’t have families to go home to, and live with/work for Rod full-time, and 2) they don’t care enough about him to invite him along. Hull was a unique looking chap, and here in his pink suit, resembles Willy Wonka as a Victorian undertaker, with his false arm hanging limp, and shivering from the cold. The water’s turned to ice, last year’s leftover cracker’s got no bang, and there’s but one stale sandwich left in the cupboard. “Never mind, Emu,” he says, putting on a brave face for the bird, “it’s Christmas!

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Trying to hang up some decorations demonstrates Hull’s lovely physical business, as Emu drops the hammer on his foot, and it’s remarkable how instantly you forget you’re watching a bloke get beaten up by his own arm. For a creature which doesn’t even speak, it’s imbued with a real personality. As we’ll later discover, this is markedly not the case with Orville. When Hull finds a Christmas card from the kids — “thinking of you two spending Christmas on your own” — it cuts to an intricately choreographed performance of Kool and the Gang’s Celebration. Though it’s Christmas Day in Scotland, the kids are outside having a BBQ, dancing with such exuberant, wild-eyed glee, it feels like newsreel footage from the last days of a death cult, and you half expect to blink and catch a flash-frame of them splashing around in entrails.

Then we check in on Rod and Emu’s mortal enemy, over at Castle Grotbags. Grotbags’ home is my MTV Cribs dream, covered in cobwebs and skulls, with the sounds of bubbling cauldrons and cawing ravens. For a goth, she’s surprisingly into a Christian festival, with her witch hat wrapped in tinsel, presents under the tree, and excited because evil wizard The Magnificent Fred’s coming over for dinner. At this point, my usual remit of ‘taking the piss out of old telly’ is out of the window, as Carol Lee Scott’s performance is an utter joy. She’s clearly having a blast, as are her sidekicks; robot Redford — a pun on Robert — who’s a catty C-3PO type, mincing around and calling people ducky; and Croc, a rubber crocodile suit with fixed eyes and a flopping jaw that looks like its been broken by Steve Irwin. Its deflated tail is stapled to its back, and as its mouth doesn’t move, its voice just is, coming from everywhere like the voice of God.

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The supercilious Redford hates Croc, in a classic class struggle double-act, and with the three of them bickering away, I was thrilled at the prospect of more robot insults. ‘Bags calls Redford an “animated dustbin,” and Croc “a walking handbag,” while Hull’s “a streaky bonehead!” and when Croc tries to kiss her under the mistletoe, Grotbags does her catchphrase of “that’s very personal!” which I make a note to use in my own life, should anyone ever show me a moment’s physical affection. Within one scene, it’s easy to see why Grotbags was such a strongly embedded icon for my generation, although as a sidenote, my childhood best friend once had a dream he found out his mum was Grotbags, and it fucked him up for years. Also of note is Grotbags’ ever-present cane/wand/hitting device, which is an umbrella crook with a hand on the end. Presumably this is where Richard Ayoade got the idea for the virtually identical one he carries in the Crystal Maze reboot.

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Back at Rod Hull’s Pink Windmill (which sounds like a euphemism he must’ve used when inviting groupies backstage), Hull’s wondering what his “great, great ancestor” King Boggle is up to in Boggle’s Kingdom. This is clearly a way for Hull to showcase his own performing skills, without that fucking bird, with him playing a bumbling medieval king. But Boggle’s Kingdom is “locked away in the timezone,” surrounded by a magic screen that drops once a year on Christmas day, inviting many confusing questions; like why does the barrier disappear at Christmas? Is it Jesus who’s trapping them there? Also, as Hull’s his (eventual) ancestor, and the currently-heirless Boggle’s stuck in the past, with his own sister the only female, this seems to confirm that, eventually, there’ll be some Lannister shenanigans between them.

After some textbook ‘carrying a plank’ slapstick with a big log, there’s another musical number, with We Need a Little Christmas, where the tension between Princess Hortensia and manservant, Odd-Job John suggests under-stairs Lady Chatterley business going on behind Boggle’s back. Like all musical sequences in old TV, it feels really long, going the full duration, including a key change, but seeing Hull bumble about as an old man, joyfully doing that arm-linking dance, makes me yearn for a Christmas Carol with him as Scrooge, and every ghost played by Emu in various outfits. Tired of being stuck behind the bubble, the Princess decides to venture into the outside world, and the three of them head out into woods.

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Meanwhile, Grotbags and co. take off on the Hover-Grot to procure a roast Emu for Fred the Magnificent, leading into another song, with a greenscreened, mid-air cover of the Jackson 5’s Goin’ Places. When they crash-land, there’s a cracking reference-for-the-sake-of-it, as Redford breaks the fourth wall to complain “it’s like Star Trek gone mad!” Back at the Windmill, Hull gets a solo number, with an emotive Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which – to me, a broken man – is shockingly moving, as he strolls about their sorry home; deflated balloons, a withered tree, bare shelves; with the usually-violent, now-sad Emu cradled against his shoulder, tenderly stroking its head. Even Grotbags, watching through the window in the snow, is reduced to tears, but she’s gotta get that bird, so bursts in with “this is a raid! It’s coi-tens for you!

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Poor Rod Hull’s just so happy to have company, he wishes her a Merry Christmas, but Grotbags’ henchman stuff a thrashing Emu into a sack, which weirdly bulges in the shape of a very small person crouched inside. But then, Boggle’s gang, Fred the Magnificent, and the kids all show up, leading to a mass brawl, akin to a Youtube video titled RUSSIA’S WILDEST FOOTBALL HOOLIGANS. Truly, it’s chaos, with Fred trampled underfoot, and Emu biting Grotbags right on the arse. Oh, right — there’s a hand in there. Finally, the smallest child shames them with a speech about it being Christmas, and with a “three cheers for Good King Boggle,” everyone’s friends again, for a riotous final number, It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. It’s everything one could hope for, with Grotbags getting down, a flawless mid-song tango break for her and Fred, and Hull’s terrible soft-shoe shuffle getting him booed off. Even the post-credits continuity announcement is great — “Carol Lee Scott is now appearing in the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury” — for what one can only assume was the best goddamn panto villain the world had ever seen.

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Unfortunately, from a shining highlight of children’s TV past, we must venture into the bin; into the toilet; down into the bowels of the dying Earth. Emu and Orville the Duck, while both birds made of felt, couldn’t have been more different. When Emu was invited onto shows, it was to inject some anarchy, pulling down the set and grabbing celebrities by the dicks, as a flailing Rod Hull screeched his apologies. In contrast, Orville wasn’t merely safe, but sickly, with huge, babyish eyes, and still wearing a nappy, suggesting he was yet to be toilet-trained by cloying companion, Keith Harris, perhaps as a deliberate decision to keep him infantilised to be more commercially appealing. The worst of that queasy soppiness is in full display with The Keith Harris Christmas Party, which aired on BBC1 on Boxing Day afternoon of 1983, sandwiched between Bridge on the River Kwai and David Icke reading out the football scores.

If Pink Windmill was a great British pantomime, then this is the repressed memory of being dragged to Father Christmas’s grotto at the back of a church hall; the smells of bleached floorboards; an alcoholic civic councillor wearing a cotton wool beard that hooks over the ears. Notably, this is the Keith Harris Christmas Party, not Orville’s, with Harris another performer having grown resentful of his far more famous puppet, unable to go anywhere without being asked “where’s Orville?” Harris always felt he had more to share with the world than singing gnashed falsetto through an incontinent duck, but having sat through this, I beg to differ. However low your expectations, dig a little further, as Christmas Party shares a writer with Reg Varney’s sketch show, Little and Large, 3-2-1, and The Jim Davidson Show.

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This is very much a distressed nephew of Knowing Me, Knowing Yule, with Keith bidding us hello in a green jumper on the way to Orville’s house. Wait, Orville has his own house?! He can’t even sit on the bog, but he’s living by himself? And shouldn’t his home be a nest? It’s with the first appearance of Keith’s other puppet — Cuddles the Orville-hating monkey — that things take a turn for the sinister. When he’s behind a desk or on Keith’s arm, he’s fine, but it’s the ‘walking’ version that emerges through the front door; a hunched, bipedal Cuddles with unsettling, lolloping movements, long, slack arms dragging in the snow, and his usual gurning face now an immobile plastic mask.

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We cut to inside, where scary Cuddles is ‘dancing’ with Keith and Orville, and a giant buck-toothed yellow dinosaur wearing a jacket but no trousers. Dippy the Dinosaur was an attempt to branch out with a third character, which didn’t take off like the other two, as a basic ‘big, stupid oaf’ whose dialogue mostly consists of gormless “hur-hur-hur” laughter. Like a child grasping for acceptance by playing along with the bullies (“Fatty Millard, that’s me haha!”), when Cuddles later calls him “the original dumb-waiter,” Dippy will chirpily respond “that’s right, cos I’m stupid!

As with Pink Windmill, this is a heavily musical show, and Orville kicks off with a performance of Come To My Party, which was released as a single that year, peaking at 44 in the charts, and not reaching the heights of January 1983’s Orville’s Song (I Wish I Could Fly) which got to #4. Orville grossly pronounces it as “Kissmas,” which he’ll do for the entire show, forcing me to hold back sicks with the back of my hand. Encapsulating his entire career, for the duration of the song, Keith’s role requires him to hold Orville while making simpering, teeth-clenched “ahh, isn’t that nice?” faces, like those future history book pictures of Mike Pence stood lovingly behind Trump when he’s doing something awful.

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Aside from the lurching Cuddles, everything about this is discordant and frightening. There’s a snowman with huge, black staring eyes, like its actual eyes have been plucked out by crows, who seems like it’ll come to life and dance, but just stands there, lurking, until suddenly falling to its knees. Cuddles — always a puppet in close-up — gets a ‘snowball’ of shaving roam to the mush, and is blown up, black-faced, by a cracker, before holding up some mistletoe and getting off with his own reflection. “Ooh,” sings Orville, “he does smell!” With modern hindsight, a couple of things really stand out. Keith is so much worse of a ventriloquist when doing Cuddles’ voice, which is the full ‘gottle of gear!’ It’s also amazing how much of the act is him repeating what his puppets have just said, perhaps not trusting the audience to understand their strangled little voices.

But it wouldn’t be Christmas without special guests, and a ring of the doorbell brings Shakin’ Stevens, the Welsh Elvis. Dressed in a scarf, he brushes fake snow from his quiff, and seems amused by the situation, chuckling to himself as he follows a waddling dinosaur across the set, before shaking Cuddles’ stiff, plastic hand. “I wonder who’s gonna drop in next?” asks Keith, cuing the scream of a soot-covered Stu Francis falling down the chimney. “I could wrestle a reindeer!” says Stu. “Ooh, ‘eck,” replies Keith. Stu tells a joke about Santa being Irish, because he parked his sleigh over the chimney, and the heat from the fire melted all his Easter Eggs. “Ooh, I could frighten a fairy!

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That Irish joke is a good indication of the quality of gags, which seem to be locked in a vicious battle for dead-worst. Regard, Orville’s claim of a family member who was a Christmas tree — “the Christmas tree’s evergreen, my ancestor was feather-green” — or the skit where an Orville-less Keith gets to demonstrate his solo skills with Stu Francis in a haunted bedroom, where Stu feels a presence; “Not a Christmas presents, I ‘ope!” says Keith. Perhaps the true nadir comes in a moment with Cuddles, where Keith needles him about “inviting all your mates over from that tea advert. There was tea all over the place, wasn’t there?” Keith’s chuckles fail to fill a now-silent studio, with a dreadful desperation in his eyes. This is the look of a man who knows exactly how bad it is, morphing for one terrible moment into Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey.

The one moment of relief is during a Keith/Cuddles bit involving a Chinese Guillotine, where he’s only got one free hand, so won’t be able to make his eyes go slitty. Although Cuddles does do a Jimmy Savile impression, and we get our second Peking/peeking gag of the Christmas season. Most distressing here is when Keith picks up Cuddles to move him, revealing him as flat and limp with no stuffing. Cuddles keeps chattering away, while hanging loose like an empty suit, in contrast to the care Keith takes when carrying Orville. Couldn’t he have fattened him up with a pillow? “Yeah kids, it’s just a skin-sack with no innards. Fuck yourselves.”

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The onscreen dynamic of Keith’s favouritism to “little Orville” over Cuddles seems to play out even in the puppeteering. While Orville’s lovingly cradled in a natural pose, with Cuddles, he’s just stood behind with his hand stuffed in the back of its head. Orville’s constant low self-esteem is a real time-filler, with proceedings constantly stopping for Keith to console him because “people don’t like ducks, do they?” or as when he’s reassured that everyone loves him, asking with a sniffle “even though… even though I’m ugly?” These saccharine attempts to garner sympathy are particularly repellent, as at no point does it ever feel like anything but grown a man talking to himself in a baby-voice. Contrast the moon-eyed little fucker with Emu, who doesn’t even speak, yet feels like a fully realised character, and not just Rod Hull’s arm.

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Closing sketch sees Orville in a Scrooge hat as Keith tucks him into bed. Why, asks Orville, did they have a Christmas party, when you only have parties for birthdays? “But it is a birthday!” says Keith. The story of the nativity has never made less sense than when described by a man pretending to be a duck. There’s another reference to Jimmy Savile, a joke about hotels being booked on Christmas Eve which they use twice, and Orville getting upset because Jesus has two daddies (“Joseph and The Lord”) while “I haven’t even got one daddy!” All this is leading to a performance of Orville’s latest single, which is such a wretched milksop dirge, I spent three minutes vomiting blood straight into my lap. Just look at these lyrics.

“…thank you, for telling me ’bout Kissmas… a lickle baby boy was born, who would be very good; he never would be naughty, as often babies could…

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The triumphant final verse is laden with heavenly trumpets, as Keith lifts Orville over to the window where it’s snowing outside, before laying him back in bed for a gentle kiss goodnight. Now alone downstairs, Keith pours himself a glass of wine, where the new single they just performed is conspicuously propped up against a stereo beside him, which he puts on and plays. The doorbell goes, and I hope it’s Tony Hayers bringing stern warnings against product placement, but instead, it’s Stu Francis, accompanied by an incredible assortment of whoever was at BBC Television Centre when this was being filmed. The room floods with a who’s who of early-80’s British celebrity, including John Craven, DJ and rapper Mike Read, the Green Goddess, Fern Britton, Janet Ellis (who trips down the steps when giving Keith a kiss), Simon Bates, Floella Benjamin, and Sir Patrick Moore, who all dance up to Orville’s room in a raucous conga line as we go off air.

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It’s worth sticking around after the credits to hear the rather stern and posh BBC announcer having to advertise Orville’s new single in his clipped accent, “…it’s coupled with another song, ‘Thank You For Telling Me ‘Bout Christmas’. And Keith Harris is now appearing in Humpty Dumpty at the New Theatre in Cardiff.” No doubt, for many audiences of children, panto was ruined forever, when Keith Harris kept pausing the show for five minutes to change Orville’s poo-and-piss-filled nappy.

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~ by Stuart on December 23, 2019.

3 Responses to “Emu and Orville at Christmas”

  1. […] anyone’s guess. Macaroni, it turns out, was written by Bobby Crush, of Opportunity Knocks and Orville’s Song (I Wish I Could Fly). What a fucking […]

  2. […] make an audible shriek as we suddenly cut to a close-up of Keith Harris and Orville, with Harris singing Ugly Duckling, a song which enables the worst of their cloying grabs for […]

  3. […] we need to address how the constant references to Mallett’s mallet sound really phallic. Like Rod Hull’s Pink Windmill and Paul Daniels’ magic wand, I refuse to believe Timmy never used Mallett’s mallet as […]

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