Captain Butler

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[This is Part 8 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart Seven]

Your early teens are that feet-finding period when you’re discovering things — movies, music, fashion — that didn’t come from your parents or siblings, but belong to you; a period when you like things so intensely, they become a defining part of your personality. For me, one of those things was Red Dwarf. Other than the time my whole class saw me tread in a massive pile of wet dogshit, and then when I went to wipe it off on the grass, standing on another big turd with my clean shoe, for a while, my Red Dwarf fandom is perhaps what I was best known for. Decades on, I vividly remember laughing in a GCSE German lesson; having the temerity to be visibly enjoying myself for a brief moment; as a more-popular kid from another table scythed me down to my place with a withering “fuckin’ hell, he’ll be singing the theme from Red Dwarf next.”

Honestly, I’ve since grown to detest it, but back then, I wore out my tapes, and devoured all the tie-in books, comics, and magazine articles, and of course, any other TV shows that featured the cast. This included the Craig Charles VR gameshow, Cyberzone, and 1997 Channel 4 sitcom, Captain Butler. Pirates were still massively out of vogue in the late ’90s, with no contemporary cultural imprint beyond the brilliant Monkey Island games, and little more than a narrow archetype of going “Arr!” and having an eyepatch. But for the writer/creators of Captain Butler — a duo who went onto write Mike Bassett: England Manager, Gnomeo and Juliet, and The Queen’s Corgies – these frugal pickings of “avast, me hearties!” and parrots were considered more than enough material for a truly appalling sitcom.

01

The opening titles show a cartoon ship being blown over a map by sea monsters and a cherub’s farts, for a rambunctious cover of the Sex Pistols’ Friggin’ in the Riggin’, where the characters all argue over each other — “calm down, lads, chorus coming up!” — and which ends with Craig Charles exclaiming “oh, bollocks!” Start as you mean to go on, I guess, because at its heart, this is not a show about piracy, but about men who simply cannot refrain from making constant references to, or touching, or taking out their sex organs.

Captain Butler‘s the cheapest show I have ever seen. There’s bigger budgets on Twitch steams of girls playing Manic Miner while viewers beg them to show their toes, and the set, though sharing its production designer with Scavengers, is so small, anyone sitting down was likely to get the whole thing wedged on their arse. For the most part, we’re looking at a blue sheet of sky behind a tiny ship’s deck, which is completely still, not even bothering to wobble the camera for the appearance of motion. Nor are there ocean noises or bird squawks, or anything to create a seafaring atmosphere, with the only sound the unholy shrieks of audience laughter whenever Craig Charles talks about his genitals. Similarly, the costumes are straight off the wardrobe department’s ironing board, like something you’d send your kid to school in for World Book Day.

02

For our cast of ineffective pirates, Craig Charles plays the titular Captain Butler, who accidentally led his crew on a mutiny from the navy when he was pissed. There’s a salty old boson; a ship’s cook, Adeel (Sanjeev Bhaskar); and Cliff, an African who they fished out of the water when a Spanish slave ship went down. In the opening minutes, they’re joined by the upbeat and effete Lord Roger of Crumsby, who’s a Lord Fauntleroy type, in a scene which reiterates the appalling cheapness; way out in a completely static and silent sea, and clambering up the side of the hull completely dry.

The deal is though they’re six months into it, they’ve yet to do any actual pirating, and though Butler talks a good game, he’s too lazy and cowardly to be a pirate. Roger tells him of a nearby Spanish galleon, laden with slaves, and more importantly, Inca gold, which the crew’s all for intercepting; Butler, not so much. “Oh, bollocks!” he says. Clearly this was intended to be up there with “Hello, Newman…” and “Tis I, LeClerc!” as one of the great sitcom catchphrases, dropping an “oh, bollocks!” a couple of times an episode, though as a viewer, the catchphrase that feels most apt is Blakey’s from On The Buses.

03

Butler tries to think his way out of the heist in ‘captain’s log’ scenes, where it’s in voiceover, and he’s acting it out with mime and pulling faces, like the excruciating behaviour of Alan Davies on QI. There’s a long monologue about him missing his home comforts from Tranmere, involving a yo-yo and a favourite garden hoe, all leading to the line “a yo-yo, hoe, and a bottle of rum!” This is a show which, like ‘Orrible, never reaches beyond the cliché. Regard, this absolute wringing dry of the handbook, starting with a disguised Butler onboard the Spanish ship. Imagine you’re writing a joke about characters who don’t speak the same language, and whose conversations have to be translated or dubbed. Got a gag in your head? It’s one of these, isn’t it?

One: A Spanish soldier with his tongue cut out makes 10, long seconds of guttural gibberish noises. A posh English voiceover translates simply as; “a ship.”

Two: In an episode they get stuck on a desert island, Adeel chats away in foreign with an old Chinese man, laughing, joking, having a good old chat. “What’s he said?” asks Butler. Adeel: “I don’t know.

Three: Like yer old dad ordering drinks on Lanzarote, Butler transcends the language barrier, communicating with the old man via gestures and a raised voice. Cliff, who speaks a little Chinese, confirms that rather than understanding Butler, the old man; “he says ‘about half-past ten’, captain.”

Anyway, the Spanish galleon turns out to be a wine merchant, and the whole thing’s an exercise in letting the comedic talents of Craig Charles fly. Oh, bollocks. Never a great performer, he struggles outside of playing versions of himself, and runs through his repertoire of funny accents, from a Mexican bandito to, well, they all just go back to Scouse within half a sentence, so it doesn’t matter. Captain Butler was clearly intended as his star vehicle, with the other characters relegated to a handful of lines. Bhaskar, in particular, gets shit-all to do, outside of going on about curry and poppadoms. But it doesn’t matter, as the audience seem to enjoy seeing Dave Lister swear, laughing heartily at all his many references to dicks, piss, tits, and cum.

04

The most creative part of the series is the closing credits, which are listed pirate-style. Music’s “sea shanties,” costume design “breeches and blouses,” lighting “oil lamps filled by,” though I’m not sure what the role of “ship’s cat” entails. Episode two sees the boat actually rocking, and begins with a magazine blowing over the side, whose problem page Roger reads aloud from — “I’m 14, and have an enormous set of bosoms.” “Doesn’t appear to be much of a problem!” says Butler. This is all just to introduce Lord Nelson, who’s the mag’s Hunk of the Month. Butler’s sneering “If he came on this boat, I’d show him who’s boss!” signals he’s definitely gonna turn up.

Nelson’s played by Red Dwarf castmate, Robert Llewellyn — the young me must’ve been apoplectic with excitement — recruiting sailors for a battle, so they hide in a wardrobe, giving it the old Mary Celeste. Nelson rowing over with Hardy is an admirably cheap effect, plonked against a seascape that should be pinned to a grandparent’s fridge. There’s incredible contempt for the audience in the joke where Hardy tells Butler he’s gonna open a shoe shop with his mates, Willis and Freeman. It gets a huge laugh, but is followed with a really unnecessary “Freeman, Hardy and Willis, we’re gonna call it!” Thanks, mate.

05

Eventually, for the second time this episode (having already happening twice in episode one), Butler adopts another disguise and funny voice, when the crew dress as Frenchmen to scare off Nelson. It’s a 20th century sitcom, so of course it’s massively racist; all berets, an accordion, and strings of onions wrapped around their necks, and — in a show set in the late 1700s — around a bicycle. Butler asks what “Frenchies” say, cuing the kind of “Bleu! Bleu!” noises and exaggerated shrugging Nigel Farage would do behind an MEP’s back at the European Parliament to make Ann Widdecombe laugh. They scare off Nelson, giving him a Chinese burn and eye-poke, causing his famous eye-patch-and-nip-grab injuries, as he demands “Kiss me, Hardy. On the lips.” As an aside, when I was a kid, and confused about the exact meaning of various adult words, ‘hard-on’ and ‘hardy’ were interchangeable at my junior school — “Millard’s got a hardy!” etc (I assure you I did not) — and consequently, I thought the trope of a deathbed Lord Nelson demanding “kiss me Hardy” was hilariously rude.

The third ep’s titled Desert Island Dick, where the crew wash up on an island and Butler falls in love with a mermaid. For someone who could be tortured into confessing anything by being strapped to a chair in front of loud kissing scenes, this episode was my Vietnam, with so much footage of the pair getting off with each other. But there’s worse to come, with a sudden cut to the soles of Craig Charles’ feet, as he lays flat on his stomach. The camera pans up the backs of his bare legs, all the way up to a horrible close-up of his naked arse, grinding away as he makes sex noises. You can virtually see up his hole. The punchline is she’s sat on a rock reading a magazine, while he’s fucking a pile of her eggs. Butler and Tracy the mermaid get married, which turns him half-fish, however it’s the top half, which is nicked from Red Dwarf, with Cat’s mermaid girlfriend.

06

They also lift RD‘s ‘double polaroid’ gag in episode four, where a picture of a guy’s big dick unravels like a shopping list, as Butler’s eyes go all wide. Though my encyclopedic knowledge of Red Dwarf didn’t make me king of the playground, decades on, it’s invaluable in my blog posts about rubbish old sitcoms, so who’s laughing now? Not me, because I’m watching Captain Butler. Hidden between the laff-getters of Craig Charles calling someone a nob or saying a rudie, most of the jokes are of the “I’ve heard about your salty seamen” variety. It’s that kind of workplace humour, where the lads in the office respond to everything anyone says by pretending they’re talking about dicks. Boson’s teaching how to tie a sheepshank knot? Enjoy this repartee about sheep shagging! The Shitcoms series functions as a running barrel-scraping contest, and in this jailhouse joke, we may have peeled away the final layer before busting through to Hell.

Butler: “How long have you been banged up? How long have you been eating porridge?

Prisoner: “About 30 years.

Butler: “30 years?!

Prisoner: “How did you know I liked porridge?

Fourth episode, The Tale of the Ancient Mariner, is all about folklore and superstition, as Boson tells of a ship that went down 20 years ago this very night — the Lily Tomlin (a weirdly specific reference which gets no audience reaction) — before Roger shoots an albatross out of the sky with an arrow, unleashing the mariner’s curse. There’s a series of strange occurrences, which send Adeel mad, presenting “spotted dick” for dinner, which is his own nob draped across a silver dish. After a lightning strike, all that’s left of Roger is a hat, while Butler’s threatened by a scary disembodied voice. The Lily Tomlin’s crew all died “in order of their genital size, starting with the lad with the smallest tackle,” so there’s a bit where the crew go for a piss off the side, with Butler realising the other lads’ cocks are massive. As Cliff’s a black guy and this is a bad sitcom, when he takes it out, his bell-end hits the water with a big splash.

07

Adeel goes missing during an eclipse, leaving a sign written in blood, “ADEEL IS DEAD, YOU’RE NEXT BUTLER!” There’s a séance, and Cliff does some witch-doctoring, before the voice of Neptune himself tells them there’s but one way to remove the curse and stop a giant albatross from eating their ballbags. This involves tying Butler to the deck with “a little girl’s bonnet” on his head, but larks ahoy, it’s all just a prank by Roger, and we end with another Craig Charles nude scene, covering his dick n’ balls with a hat.

As a lover of the Carry On films, I understand the power of a good double-entendre, but equally, I detest the kind that opens episode five. It’s one of those where it sounds like everyone’s wanking each other offscreen; all “go on, Roger, give it a good pull!” and “every time you touch that thing, it shoots all over the bloody floor!” Christ, it goes on for ages, but you’ll be shocked to find that, despite how it sounds — “If I put a dab of spittle on it, it stays up all night!” — they aren’t actually pulling each other’s penises and ejaculating cum everywhere, but playing with spinning tops. Though by the way it’s going, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Craig Charles showing a bit of bone for real, like when Gruey went hardcore in 9 Songs.

The plot involves them being anchored in port, where they accidentally kidnap a child who turns out to be Blackbeard’s daughter. Like with Nelson, you can tell Blackbeard’s gonna show up, because they keep talking about him, and he’s played by the bloke from those Tango ads that led to a million busted schoolboy eardrums in the ’90s. Now this is a man who found a niche and really stuck to it.

08

They get disguised yet again for the handover, with a classic example of the wretched bicycle gag, when Butler assures us “I’m not getting dressed in some third-rate pirate get-up!” and it cuts to this.

09

Honestly, those are better than their regular costumes. But it turns out, it’s not the Blackbeard, but Roy Blackbeard, a hat-maker. The final episode, Jailhouse Crock, sees the crew captured by the royal navy, and put on trial for piracy. Weirdly, after five bottle episodes, there’s an actual courtroom set with desks and docks, and it’s not just a painted sheet, and we even get a jail. In a show so thoroughly beholden to the cliché, it’s straight into the prison bumming material, with Craig Charles literally warning the lads not to pick up the soap. Then there’s more disguise antics, with Butler escaping in someone else’s clothes. I’m convinced the audience is made up of hardcore Dwarfers, thrilled at any chance to see its star, in the content-barren analogue age, because the ratio of weak material to raucous laughter is remarkable. When Butler disguises himself a-fucking-gain, visiting the lads while dressed as their ‘lawyer’, Adeel’s “for a minute, I thought he was the captain!” almost brings the house down.

It seems like there’s going to be a happy ending, as Butler’s outed by the judge and sentenced to be hanged, with a final “oh, bollocks!” Only in the final five minutes do they start making an effort, with the great Michael Fenton Stevens as a charismatic executioner, in a scene with honest-to-God background extras. Sadly, when they drop him through the trapdoor, Butler’s crew’s waiting below, stood on each other’s shoulders, to catch him. We end with the lads sailing for Tahiti, and now the ship’s actually rocking, there’s bird noises and sea sounds, leaving just enough time for the most Captain Butler final words of all — “I’m going to me cabin for a toss!

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 February 17, 2020.

4 Responses to “Captain Butler”

  1. […] with ITV’s Funky Bunker, BBC2’s Red Dwarf, and on Channel 4 with pirate sitcom, Captain Butler; a monopoly which landed him The Girlie Show‘s coveted Wanker of the Week. Incredibly, Bunker […]

  2. […] a revival — that the full series wasn’t available on Youtube, so I didn’t have to Shitcom it. Plus, it’s another pre-tape, allowing Brucie to put his feet up while that £87,000 rolls […]

  3. […] [This is Part 4 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part Three — Part Four — Part Five — Part Six — Part Seven — Part Eight] […]

  4. […] [This is Part 9 of my Shitcoms series. Part One — Part Two — Part Three — Part Four — Part Five — Part Six — Part Seven — Part Eight] […]

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