1988 Children’s Royal Variety


It speaks of how comparatively little media there was back in the eighties that the Royal Variety Shows were such a big deal. Was it a thing in anyone else’s house to watch along with a copy of the Radio Times and a pen, crossing off celebrities from the cast when they appeared? “Show’s almost over, with Rustie Lee still to come!” Now we’re all famous, and half the people reading this have probably been made into a Funko Pop, but in those days it was exciting to see your favourite celebrities mixed it up; a real-life Avengers: Endgame unconstrained by channels, where the stars of BBC mingled with those from ITV, all palling around with Americans from stage and screen. Where else would you see Paul Daniels’ magic, a live performance from A-Ha, Brian Conley’s impressions, and an in-person skit from the Golden Girls, all in the same show?

In hindsight, these events are unfathomably strange, with grovelling acknowledgements towards the Royal in the balcony, and everyone on their best behaviour. The Children’s Royal Variety takes that ‘Dear Leader’ feel and skews the acts even younger, at its hallucinogenic best/worst in the 1988 edition. We begin with commentator Anneka Rice outside the theatre, surrounded by circus acts, as Princess Margaret arrives, shaking hands, and receiving the guard of honor from a regiment of clowns. So far, so on-brand. I’ll be honest, I picked a Royal Variety at random, hoping it would have some of that sweet, sweet hauntology, and I’m vindicated by the first image to pop onscreen after the BBC globe.


These shows are a brutal combination of two-hour run-times and a breathless pace, and we’re chucked right in after the national anthem, with all the fear and confusion of a naked groom being pitched off the pier on his stag night. Here’s the dad off Mary Poppins, wearing his RAF medals and telling jokes; guardsmen blowing their trumpets; child beefeaters screeching They’re Changing the Guards at Buckingham Palace, as the military drum cues Michael Barrymore from the wings with his John Cleese walk (“Can I cross him off, mam?”). “Awright?!” he says, “Awright?! Awright at the back?!” Actually, Michael, I’m feeling a bit low. I thought I’d be a lot closer to achieving my goals by now, but it seems like I’m going nowhe– “Awright?!” Anyway, now it’s the Mary Poppins musical with Lionel Blair in the Dick Van Dyke role. He loves that move where you roll a hat up your arm onto your head and keeps doing it, and his cockney accent is truly remarkable, with the plummy Blair dropping his aitches like a Tory minister caught on tape berating the poor — “me daddy gave me nose a tweak and told me I wuz bad…

I 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 sympathy — “There once was an ugly duckling…” Orville: “there still is; me!” Orville is an incel. Orville posts on r/ForeverAlone. Orville only wishes he could fly so he can go to Switzerland for skull-widening surgery to become a Chad. Harris gets the audience to join in with quacks. “I think they’re all quackers!” says Orville. “All quackers?” repeats Harris, as is his entire act. He noticeably has to really clench his teeth to say ‘quack,’ and so spends half the song grimacing like a chimpanzee that’s about to fuck a turf rival to death. The last verse goes all Vegas big band, and on the final note, he blows a kiss to the audience, before kissing Orville right on the lips/beak.


None of this feels real. Am I sweating under a crocheted blanket in 1988, clutching a bottle of Lucozade, having dreamed I was 40? Look, it’s Matthew Kelly as the White Rabbit; the Great Soprendo’s Mad Hatter piff-paff-poofing some milk into a hanky; Gordon the Gopher sticking his head out of a tea pot — tea they’re drinking, so surely he’s been terribly scalded; his cries of agony confused for adorable little squeaks. It feels like something thrown together for an Apprentice task by a team called Fusion or Thatcher’s Cock, with woeful singing, and choreography where everyone’s just running back and forth. They’ve barely scuttled offstage — no doubt Geoffrey ‘the Great Soprendo’ Durham is on the run for crimes of cultural appropriation — before Bonnie Langford’s out as Peter Pan. Flying across the stage in a pixie-cut and little shorts, she tells us to think “lovely thoughts,” presumably to balance out the dirty ones.

It’s a wonder we can think at all, when Roy Castle, in a big plastic nose, serenades Pinocchio with When You Wish Upon a Star. It’s one of those massive Disneyland Pinocchio heads, plonked on top of a normal body, and whichever dancer’s underneath must’ve looked like Gladstone Small when they took it off. Obviously blind, they’re gingerly led across the stage by Castle, as he segues into An Actor’s Life For Me. At this point, whoever’s striking out names in the Radio Times must have had a frenetic few minutes, with the random parade of characters that marches on — a cat, a fox, Charlie Chaplin, Caron Keating dressed as Marilyn, Yvette Fielding with fruit on her head, Floella Benjamin, Harpo Marx (carrying a ventriloquist dummy of dead brother Groucho?), Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor, Christopher Biggins — it’s a Sgt. Pepper cover come to life.


They’re joined by the other musical acts, Lionel Blair and co, with more of that ‘turn round and clap’ choreography, while Bonnie Langford does relentless, high-speed somersaults in the air above. She comes to such an abrupt stop, the wire violently jerks her backwards, pulling her shirt Girls Gone Wild high, which she has to yank back down to cover herself. I know it can’t be the case, but going frame-by-frame (for purely historical purposes) on the awful quality rip, it genuinely looks like her boobs are out, or at least, her bra, immediately cupping herself before pulling the top back into place.

Who better to calm the audience following an exhausting march through musicals than Jeremy Beadle; a man likely to yell ‘Fire! The theatre’s on fire!’ having locked all the doors for a funny joke? In things that haven’t aged well, he presents “a very silly little game” involving blindfolded children guessing the identity of celebrities by touching them. This was weird when They Think It’s All Over had Jonathan Ross and Rory McGrath groping female athletes for laffs, and it’s no better with kids, who all look like hostages. Beadle’s joke here is instructing celebrities to place the kids’ hands “on your most prominent feature” with a look on his face that says ‘like a dick or tits!!’ How many celebrities are so uniquely shaped that one could guess by feel alone? R2-D2? John Holmes? Certainly not, as presented here, Sharon off Eastenders.


Barry McGuigan places a blindfolded child’s hands on his bare chest, Sharon rubs their hands all over her face, while Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards has them grasp his chin. They all give a miming clue, with Sharon ‘pulling a pint’ that, even to a pure-minded virgin nun, just looks like she’s gleefully wanking a massive stiffy right in front of this blind kid while Beadle leans over for a closer look. And here’s Rene from ‘Allo ‘AlloI bet Johnny Depp was thrilled — introducing Bananarama, in one of those weird lip-sync performances where the track fades out, so they stand there dancing, getting progressively quieter, like their souls have fallen into a void.

Because this is ‘variety’, there’s a juggler rolling hoops up his back, sandwiched between the randomness of Bros, Phillip Schofield, and Chas & Dave. Then Anneka tells us it’s time for some “brilliant puppets,” and you’re right to be afraid. Puppets, especially in stuff from decades ago, are never not horrifying, but I’m sure it can’t be as bad as the hellscape on the Krankies’ Christmas special, right? What’s that? They’re from the same puppeteers? Oh.


Christ on a Brexit bike. Even the way they move somehow seems racist, jerking up and down like in 1920’s cartoons, to a jazzy When the Saints. During his solo, it becomes apparent one of the drummer’s googly eyes has fallen off. There are other puppets throughout the show, with Kermit, those old Muppets who sit in the balcony, and a bloke who’s got four Michael Jacksons strapped to him with broom-handles. Of course, there’s comedians too, and Jimmy Cricket blessing us with amazing gags like “a motorcar knocked me down. He said ‘look out,’ I said ‘why, you coming back?‘” Incidentally, like his Krankies Christmas performance, this show was uploaded by Jimmy to his own Youtube channel from VHS, which gives us a brilliant glimpse into the man, showing he deemed it important enough to wipe over a 1987 episode of This is Your Life, featuring orchestral conductor Georg Solti.

After Jimmy sings Thumbelina with some children, Ken Dodd’s out to make you appreciate, now watching as an adult, how much of his act was about cocks. Happiness/’a penis’ is a rite of passage revelation for every Brit, but man, he’s greeting the lady mayoress by poking a tickle stick between his legs like a boner; he’s bringing out little kids dressed as the Diddy Men to sing about “having a bash” and their “six inch shillelaghs.” Just like George Formby — ‘hold on, this song’s about wanking!’ — talk about hiding in plain sight.


The night’s absolute nadir comes in the form of a pair of Belgian clowns, fresh from winning a big circus award in Paris. One’s done up in plasticy make-up pretending to be a mannequin, as his partner in an actual beret pushes one of his arms down while the other arm goes up; shit like that. It’s absolutely wretched, like a parody of how you’d imagine 80’s Euro-clowning; big, open-mouthed faces and slide-whistles on a Casio keyboard to accompany the coughing in the audience. They bring up a ‘volunteer’ that we’re assured isn’t part of the act, despite her being a recognisable face from TV, and clearly doing a choreographed routine (mostly involving the dummy groping her arse). Genuinely, this act may have been the spark behind Knowing Me, Knowing You‘s Cirque de Clunes.

I nearly fucking died when the curtain went up to reveal Fenella Fielding as the Evil Queen from Snow White — oh, my heart! Sadly, it’s the lead-in to another insipid musical sequence, with Snow White and the Dwarfs, who’ve all got those massive theme park heads. The most interesting thing is watching the struggling performers feel their way around the stage, kept in a line formation like a school outing, so none of them blindly plunge off the edge. Being separated from the context of the full show highlights hitherto unrealised weirdness, like how they’ve all got these big old-man heads, apart from Dopey, who’s got a small, scary baby-head. Similarly, during the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wizard of Oz medley — with Imelda Staunton as Dorothy — I realise the Cowardly Lion namechecks, and is thus aware of, Julius Caesar.


The stars keep coming. Here’s Derek Griffiths as a jester, telling the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Lord, are we about to see Biggins’ cock and bollocks? Thankfully, Derek’s a master storyteller, so they let him go unaccompanied in sharing this lovely tale about a king who gets his nob out. And look, it’s Gloria Hunniford (“give us the biro, mam!”) with “the most famous boy’s choir in the world!” Now, I’m thinking “famous choir? Jog on, Gloria,” but I’d venture you have heard of the Vienna Boy’s Choir. From where? From being the reference whenever people in sitcoms or cartoons or wrestling matches get hit in the balls and talk in a high voice; the choir Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan says a 300lb man just joined when he crotches himself on the ropes. 500 years of musical history and what a legacy.

As Anneka introduces “the greatest storyteller in the world today,” I instinctively rise from my chair, clearing my throat and brushing the crumbs off my jogging bottoms. Bizarrely, she’s not talking about the author of multitude Noel Edmonds thinkpieces, but Roald Dahl, who emerges in a custard-coloured suit to “tell you a story, which is also a secret.” Is it what you think of the Jewish people, mate? Actually, it’s a deleted character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who got drowned in hot caramel for the crime of disobedience. I know he’s the author of many wonderful stories, but Dahl’s got the manner of a child murderer in the casual way he talks about horrible weans (“nasty little blisters”) and the cruel punishments they receive for, like, not sitting down when they’re told, with an abrupt “goodbye” when he’s finished.


Talking of children’s entertainers, American magician Harry Blackstone must be the inspiration for every “looks like a magician” jibe, straight off the set of The Devil Rides Out. He does the disappearing bird cage trick from The Prestige, then invites kids from the audience to lay their hands on the cage for a re-run. The stage is flooded with children, most of whom are very young, that he warns not to fall in the orchestra pit, because it’s filled with alligators — and musicians. “And may I point out to young ladies onstage, if you should fall into the pit, it’s not the alligators you should worry about” Even in 1988, there’s very awkward audience laughter at the chuckling suggestion of ravaged 5-year-olds, as he adds “I’ve met them all,” in the most random paed-accusation since Elon Musk last logged into Twitter.

Blackstone instructs a little girl to put her hand on his, giving a little sigh of “that’s nice,” — Elon, where you at? — and about twenty kids are touching the cage when it suddenly disappears. In having the ability to frame-by-frame it, it’s clear that something in the cage’s vanish mechanism hurts or injures the nearest children, a couple of whom are immediately wincing and rubbing at their eyes. One boy’s holding his arm as he walks offstage, examining his skin as though he got pinched. The birdcage prop would eventually be sold for $2,600 by Harry’s wife, Gay Blackstone, on an episode of Pawn Stars.


When Nikki from Neighbours comes out to introduce Cinderella, you’re left wishing it was Jim Davidson’s version, with a pissed up Charlie Drake waving his fuckin’ fingerin’ finger at Princess Margaret. That’d be preferable to Michael Barrymore, robbed of the option to go in the audience and tip the contents of old ladies handbags all over the floor, and having to act as Buttons, opposite Jessica Martin’s Cinders. It’s an odd choice of scene, picking the bit where Cinders tells the love-lorn Buttons she only likes him as a friend, giving us five minutes of Barrymore tantruming like Elliot Rodger. “IT’S NOT FAIR! YOU CAN’T DESTROY SOMEONE LIKE THAT!” he yells. Yeah, kids love watching some bloke rant and cry and punch the furniture cos he’s sick of being a Nice Guy. With no natural end, they resort to a fake ‘heckle’ — a child in the audience shouting “I’ve got a rabbit!” — which allows them to break character and abandon the script. Barrymore tells a rude limerick — “hey diddle diddle, the cat had a piddle” — before it descends into Fawlty Towers impressions and just ends.

The show’s undoubted highlight is the Norman Wisdom wallpapering routine I’ve referenced before, as one of the all-time great bits of slapstick. In place of Brucie from the 1961 version, here we’ve got Nicholas Parsons. By this point, Norman’s 73, but still bombing up ladders, carrying the 65-year-old Parsons on his shoulders, and slipping on his arse. After a lifetime of pratfalls, what state was his body in, I wonder? All smashed up like an old wrestler? It finishes with a paste-drenched Norman seguing into a song about “the poor painted fool,” repeatedly opining “the joker is me!” Goddamn, what a movie that would be. If they can deepfake James Dean out of the grave for a role, then we need a real gump-ass Joker falling down the stairs, with Mr. Grimsdale as the head of a crime syndicate.


For the big closer, Doddy returns as Dr. Dolittle, and the stage fills with animals which are just onesies with Wicker Man masks, in disparate sizes where robins and butterflies are as big as a horse. Thanks to the internet, it’s impossible to see an animal costume and not be hit with a psychic stink of BO and old cum, which adds to an already cursed scene. Some chimps have shorts on, accentuating the nakedness of the others. Are the clothed chimps too well-hung to be flapping about in public? A few are sexified human showgirls in feathered headdresses; one’s a nightmare wolf whose fanged jaw jigs up and down as it moves (“quick, mam, cross off Black Shuck!”); all in that classic Royal Variety choreography, where everyone’s marching on the spot in a big line. I’ve a sharp intake of breath when the push-me–pull-you, made of two performers blindly stuck back to back, inches its hooves halfway off the edge, towards the certain death of the orchestra paedo-pit.

Once they’ve finished with Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah, we’ve survived to the curtain call, where the entire population of planet Earth comes on to take a bow. Norman Wisdom gets a solo clap, with a trademark stumble on both his entrance and exit, and then the massive crowd of comedians, singers, impressionists, choirboys, and Michael Barrymore parts like the Red Sea. Who’s coming on now?! If your guess was ‘Ken Dodd riding on the back of an elephant,’ then a) you’re correct, and b) you’ve got problems, man. Princess Margaret joins them, getting a wolf whistle, and a cheque for £69,000 (nice!) for the NSPCC. Weirdly, they neither go with a big novelty cheque, nor a regular one, and settle on a half-arsed double-size.


Ken Dodd asks the audience for three “plumptious” cheers for Margaret, which seems like a frankly disgusting level of Colonialism, but I do remember kids doing this in junior school assembly — “three cheers for sir, hip hip!” — and I went to a grotty, urine-soaked comp, not a boarding school. There’s still fun to be had in the credits, where we see the Princess shaking hands backstage, with the unbearable tension of wondering whether Norman Wisdom will trip and fall and spear her right through the wall.

Interestingly, while she shakes Jim Henson’s (left) hand, she completely blanks Kermit, which is reason enough to disband the monarchy. Finally, they bring the elephant out to do a bow at her feet. Most notable for me was spotting the incredibly naff name Jolly Wally in the credits; an act who was evidently famous enough to perform at the Royal Variety (and get cut for TV), yet leave zero historical record of who he was or what he did. With a name like that, I’m guessing it was so unconscionably wacky, the government had to have it redacted from the record for public safety.

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 March 6, 2020.

4 Responses to “1988 Children’s Royal Variety”

  1. […] Boy Mike reuses his “hey diddle diddle, the cat had a piddle” limerick from the Children’s Royal Variety, doing rude Little Miss Muffets and Old King Coles, like a stretched Andrew Dice Clay. […]

  2. […] having to sit through interrogations by kids who’ve forgotten their names. Christ, imagine famed child-hater Roald Dahl with that lot. Graham probably ended up with skateboard wheels for hands and feet while […]

  3. […] Christmas special, then you realise it’s been uploaded by Jimmy Cricket himself, as was the 1988 Children’s Royal Variety, in an admirable attempt to preserve his own legacy for the aliens who’ll eventually stumble […]

  4. Imelda Staunton wasn’t the only famous thesp in the Wizard of Oz segment, the Cowardly Lion was none other than Downton’s own Mr Carson, Jim Carter!

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