It’s a Royal Knockout

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The perception of the Royal Family is in an odd place right now. While thousands die of austerity, it’s hard to look favourably on anyone who takes their shits on a gold toilet, but on the other hand, remember how excitedly the nation’s gran pointed at some cows? Everyone loves The Crown, but you wouldn’t let Prince Philip near a lampshade if Jackie Chan was in the room, and Camilla will never be your dad’s Queen. The younger Royals are generally viewed more positively, with almost everyone fine with Will, Kate and Harry, although the same people who hate Raheem Sterling and Diane Abbott, and whose least-favourite Ghostbuster is Winston also seem to hate Meghan. And then there’s Andrew, who, thanks to palling around with a nonce, is perhaps the biggest Royal pariah of the modern era.

It was much simpler back in the eighties, when the Windsors were mostly beloved, and more importantly, respected. Their faces were constantly gazing out of commemorative plates, with mums hoarding newspapers of anniversaries or engagements as a valuable commodity; the Beanie Baby retirement plan of the age. But there was still a distance between the monarchy and their humble subjects, which was to be bridged by a televised spectacle that’d make them relatable; that’d show they were capable of mucking about and having fun. The Grand Knockout Tournament — or as it would be known, It’s a Royal Knockout — was the brainchild of Prince Edward, the most prematurely balding of all the Royals, scratched out on the back of an envelope in the grounds of Buckingham Palace with It’s a Knockout host, and future Yewtree grab, Stuart Hall.

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It seemed to me, as a then-eight-year-old, that the Royal kids each had their own gimmick. Charles was the eccentric who talked to plants, Anne the scary one on a horse, Andy the playboy soldier, and Edward the one who liked poncing about in the theatre. Only five months before Royal Knockout, Edward dropped out of his Royal Marine training to take a job as a production assistant at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatrical company; a move which he announced to the media before alerting his family, with Prince Philip’s reaction reportedly “reducing his son to prolonged tears.” The previous year, for the Queen’s 60th birthday, he’d commissioned a one-off musical from Webber and Tim Rice about cricket, called Cricket (Hearts and Wickets), which starred Fred Elliott from Corrie and Alvin Stardust. Fine, but I once painted my mum a portrait of Ross Kemp for her birthday, so who’s the better son?

The first in Edward’s pretensions of being a powerhouse producer, It’s a Royal Knockout was broadcast on BBC1 on Friday 19th June, 1987, with four teams of celebrities battling for charity. Each was captained by a member of the Royal family; Prince Edward, Prince Andrew, Princess Anne, and Fergie, the Duchess of York. The Queen and Prince Philip were dead against it, and Charles and Di declined to take part, or even make an appearance. It’s at this point I must make something clear. Not a single second of the event will sound like anything but my having tripped and hit my head and some LSD fallen into my open mouth, but I promise you, it all happened. As if to prove my point, before the cameras rolled, the crowd were warmed up by Bernie Clifton and the Wurzels.

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For a show supposed to make the Royals more relatable, it’s an odd choice to go with a medieval theme; a period when anyone who wasn’t nobility was doomed to a life of diarrhea and rickets, before dying of old age at 28. Hosted at Alton Towers, the giant set is a specially built castle, with everyone dressed as brightly-coloured minstrels, damsels or jesters, like that wedding in The League of Gentlemen (“I won the mums!”). Even the crowd are in Robin Hood caps and crowns, and for the ladies, those pointy, dunce-cap type hats. But we need to talk about the teams. People moan about the questionable fame of “so-called” celebrity contestants on reality shows, and it’s perhaps because of the calibre here; a truly extraordinary cast of athletes, actors and singers that will never be topped; like a Survivor Series of 80’s celebrities. Let’s look at a selection of the players and try to convince ourselves this actually happened.

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Playing with Prince Edward, we have Toyah Willcox, Barry McGuigan, John Cleese, Duncan Goodhew, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Tessa Sanderson, Nicholas Lyndhurst and Christopher Reeve. Superman and Rodney, together at last!

With Fergie, there’s Mel Smith, Jane Seymour, Pamela Stephenson, Chris de Burgh, and Meat Loaf.

Princess Anne’s got Cliff Richard, Emlyn Hughes, the artist Peter Blake, Eddy Grant, Jenny Agutter, Kevin Kline, NFL player Walter Payton, Sheena Easton, and Tom Jones.

And finally, ‘Randy’ Andy’s star-loaded team includes Anneka Rice, Gary Lineker, Nigel Mansell, George Lazenby, Fiona Fullerton, Michael Palin, Nightshade from Gladiators, Margot Kidder, Griff Rhys Jones, and Jeffrey Epstein. Okay, not that last one, but what a roster!

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We open with a voiceover from Rowan Atkinson, bidding us “noble spectator, lay aside all worries, cast aside all cares, and travel with us back, back through time, to a magical era…”Atkinson emerges onto the stage as Lord Knock — who’s just Blackadder II — accompanied by Lady Knock, aka Barbara Windsor, in a dress so big, she struggles to make her way down the stone staircase. Courtiers parp on banner-draped trumpets, as Aled Jones, looking and sounding exactly like Joffrey, reads the royal decree from a scroll. Atkinson introduces “three roistering knaves and one rollicking maiden,” which turn out to be Les Dawson, “wizard supreme” Paul Daniels — dressed like he’s been conjuring a homunculus — and Su Pollard. Geoff Capes is there, as a proto Mountain, while “jolly jester” Stuart Hall does his usual Knockout shtick. Speaking of sex offenders, let’s finally get to why we’re here, with Prince Andrew leading the charge for the Royals.

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Each Windsor is playing for a charity, and Andrew’s is the World Wildlife Fund, which is a bit rich considering his family’s love for hunting, with his dad having slaughtered everything from tigers to crocodiles, and blasting his 10,000th pheasant out of the sky by 1993. Flanked by bannermen, he leads his team onto the field, waving a stuffed panda mascot, in a way that seems to scream “I am waving a panda. I am, as they say, ‘having a laugh‘.” Andrew and Edward in particular seem noticeably uncomfortable, aware they need to make a show of letting loose, and with the gritted teeth and firm eye contact of someone who’s at their first party in a decade and trying to be normal when the small talk starts. Conversely, an excited Fergie runs her team out with Full Metal Jacket chant-jogging.

Throughout, the most interesting Royal by a mile is Anne, an imposingly self-assured figure, whom Hall approaches “with some trepidation.” Whenever she’s pulled into the theatrics, there’s an obvious air of not giving a single, solitary shit. “We’re the strong silent types,” she says of her team, the Red Perils, and when Hall asks “have you a war cry for us, ma’am?” he gets a brusque reply of “no, no; I told you, we’re the strong and silent type.” Andrew does have a team chant — “What are we going for? GOLD! GOLD! GOLD!” while Team Fergie’s call to arms is led by Pamela Stephenson and an armour-clad Meat Loaf. As is clear from the previous line, this is less an event than a scattered collection of hallucinatory moments; Alice’s tumble to plague-ravaged Wonderland, but instead of following a white rabbit, it’s Gary Lineker dressed as a potato.

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There’s an early sense of the class disconnect, when Prince Edward tells Hall “it was just the way the cookie crumbled,” and his team buckle in laughter at the hilarious use of a well-known idiom. Oh, very witty, your highness! Have you ever thought of doing stand-up?! Boschian setting aside, Stuart Hall’s persona is as odd as always; overly-wordy and acting half-drunk, like Jack Sparrow played by Will Self. His entire deal, as with Kris Akabusi after him, is laughing; at everything, all the time. And It’s a Knockout gave him ample opportunity, with its MO of sticking people in ridiculously oversized costumes and making them run around so they’d fall over. That’s every game in a nutshell, and the kick-off sees celebrities crammed into outfits with great big feet and wobbly bellies to tow a cannon up a field. In the chaos, Hall’s just shouting shouting whatever he sees — “George Lazenby! Michael Palin!” A puffed-out Duncan Goodhew runs past the Earl of Wessex. Eddie Grant adjusts a giant foam helmet that’s slipping off his dreads. Princess Anne’s cannon goes off; Cliff Richard leaps for joy; Jackie Stewart collapses in exhaustion. At the conclusion, Gary Lineker’s skirt gets caught in the cogs, exposing him down to the stockings. Even Anne’s laughing.

It’s here that I uncovered a wrongful conviction. While the first game is cued by Barbara Windsor dropping a hanky, the rest have Paul Daniels firing a duelling pistol into the air. Stuart Hall will blather on about Daniels taking off his eyebrows with the first shot, bringing it up multiple times during the show, and warily stepping out of the way each time Daniels fingers the trigger. But I found reference in an old interview to it actually being an ill-timed cannon boom by Prince Andrew which set Hall’s face alight. I went back to the game and managed to locate the exact moment, and am glad to posthumously clear the name of Paul Daniels, who, like Jack the Ripper before him, shouldered the blame for the crimes of the monarchy.

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One game’s straight out of school fetes, giving us the sight of Superman shimmying across a pole while Tom Jones and Jenny Agutter throw plastic hams at him. Though, watching George Lazenby bust off headshot after headshot with rubber bread makes you doubly-sad he only did one Bond. Sadly, Les Dawson’s not on top form, with jokes like “Lazenby, once known as 003!” and even reusing the same gag about big-thighed athletes — “look at those legs, there should be a message tied to ’em.” That said, he does suggest a dog has pissed or shat in the water, and at one point, is accompanied by Su Pollard as he badly plays Greensleeves on a harpsichord which collapses, which is all you can hope for. Incidentally, there’s a cut to Fergie during this, with her fingers in her ears and a look on her face like “This Les fellow is terrible at piano! Why on Earth did they let him perform?”

There’s a huge amount of games, most of them sponsored, and consequently carrying egregious titles like “McDonalds Restaurant Knock a Knight,” “Canada Life Assurance Lovers,” and in really speaking to the common man, “Harrods King of the Castle.” Nothing makes any sense, so it’s best to just roll with it. Young Gary Lineker, looking like the Karate Kid, is blindfolded under a mask of Peter Sutcliffe to swing a wrecking ball. Prince Andrew cheers him on, stood next to a skier whose dick is extremely visible through his tights. Chicago Bear, Walter Payton, is ‘knighted’ with a plastic sword by Princess Anne. Meat Loaf — called “Meaty!” a hundred times through a megaphone by Pamela Stephenson — falls over and splits a hole in the arse of his armour. Chris de Burgh slips into a pond, soaking his stockings and blouse. Christ, what if Tom Jones’ tights get wet? He’s already testing the seams to their limit.

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You may have noticed that so far the Royal involvement has amounted to standing around and shouting, and not getting physically involved. If Andrew was capable of sweating, he’d still be dry as a bone, as the Windsors keep off the field of play, happy to bark instructions or point fingers at Mel Smith. But when they feel they’ve been aggrieved, it’s a different story. At one point, Anne sprints at Paul Daniels to furiously contest an enemy’s point, while an unwitting rule-break by the opposing team’s Anneka Rice’s has Prince Andrew jubilantly clapping and roaring, in by far his most animated showing so far. Andrew’s competitiveness comes to a head in the King race, with celebrities stuffed inside twelve-feet-high costumes for a sprint. After his men are eliminated, the Duke’s squaring up to Hall to complain his team weren’t ready, and demanding a re-run. Andrew’s steely gaze marks him as a man who is not even remotely joking, as he snatches the mic with a “right then,” and addresses the crowd — “Who says we should have a re-run?” But cheers or not, the judges refuse; there will be no re-run. An elated Emlyn Hughes punches the air.

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Also of note during this game, visible in the background as they’re doling out scores, a Droogs-like mob led by John Travolta bum-rushes Hughes, stripping him of his tights as he tries to cover himself, in a scene that would’ve ended in someone doing jail time in 2020. Perhaps the apex of Knockout‘s concussion-dream mirage is when celebrities dressed like onions, leeks and potatoes have to evade opposing cooks, before they pull off their veg and toss it in a giant cauldron. If someone played snippets of Hall’s commentary down the phone, you’d think it was a CIA trigger code to awaken buried assassin programming — “Pamela Stephenson running for the blues against Cliff Richard… the onion’s hiding behind a tent there, that’s out of bounds.” Anneka Rice strips Rodney Trotter of his potato; John Travolta yanks a giant onion off Toyah Willcox’s head; an ultra competitive Emlyn Hughes violently flays Griff Rhys Jones of his leek, like he’s making him give up the location of a kidnapped child.

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After a quick joust, proceedings conclude with a victorious Princess Anne having decimated the competition, and awarded a big ceramic potty by Barbara Windsor. Andy’s in second place, with Edward third, and Fergie bringing up the rear. But really, it was just a series of moments; a living Bayeux Tapestry by Coldwar Steve, where Jane Seymour plugged her ears as Paul Daniels fired a gun, Su Pollard held a platter with a pig’s head on it, and the Duke of York expressed obvious displeasure as an exhausted Meat Loaf failed to catch an onion on legs. Incidentally, isn’t The Princess Royal an odd title? Like saying Prime Minister Politician or something.

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It’s a Royal Knockout garnered 18 million viewers, with a worldwide audience of 400 million. 400 million people heard the phrase “I don’t think Meat Loaf will ever catch that onion!” But its legacy wasn’t the ratings, nor the total of £1.5m the obscenely wealthy Royals inspired in public donations, but what happened in the immediate aftermath. At 6:30am on the morning of filming, fearful of them jeopardising the live broadcast rights, Prince Edward had the assembled media quarantined to the press tent. Forced to watch the show on a little monitor, and given no food, leaving them hot, exhausted and hungry, when the Prince strolled in some fourteen hours later, beaming with pride, to ask if they’d enjoyed themselves, the response was somewhat muted. “Well, thanks for sounding so bloody enthusiastic,” he snapped, “what have you been doing in here all night?” (starving in a sweaty tent?) Edward then stormed out, stopping only to berate a group of photographers as he boarded the helicopter back to Buckingham Palace, warning “one day, you lot are going to have to learn some manners.

The following day’s coverage focussed entirely on Edward’s tantrum, with headlines like “It’s a Royal Walkout.” Far from helping popularise the Royals, Knockout marks the moment that public opinion begun to turn against them. Seeing them pratting about with Rodders and arguing the toss over points with Paul Daniels punctured the Royal aura of stately dignity, and it was long-considered their worst PR disaster, until Newsnight came along. Royal Correspondent James Whitaker pinpoints it as the moment perception changed, but less ‘they seem fun and normal’ and more “who are these appalling people?” while Charles’s biographer Jonathan Dimbleby puts it as the Windsor’s “nadir.

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Before filming, Edward attempted to assuage the fears of doubters, including his own mother. “I don’t think the British monarchy will suffer in the process,” he said, “I hope it will be viewed as being like a breath of fresh air.” But the show’s monstrous failure created schisms behind the scenes at the Palace too. The Queen Mother was said to be “incensed,” and Philip was quoted as saying the show “made us look foolish.” Sarah Ferguson, whose time as a Royal was marked by tabloids deeming her coarse and common, blamed Knockout on launching that characterisation. Speaking about it in her book, Fergie felt she’d unfairly gotten the brunt of the backlash, trying to be a good sport by joining in, and branded vulgar as a result. “What of Edward and Anne and Andrew, whose lead I was following? Why should I be blamed?” Still, as we found out last year, it could’ve been much worse, and at least we’ve got the It’s a Royal Knockout episode of The Crown to look forwards to. Leave your dream casting in the comments, keeping in mind Paul Daniels will be a puppet like Baby Yoda.

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, 2020.

2 Responses to “It’s a Royal Knockout”

  1. Assuming they do film it for The Crown, I want Toby Jones as Paul Daniels and Jason Watkins as Stuart Hall. (Yes, I know Watkins has already been in The Crown, but the man’s chameleonic I tells ya!)

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