The Unpredictable Michael Barrymore

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Lets go back to a time before Michael Barrymore was alleged to have done or covered up a murder, when he was arguably Britain’s most beloved entertainer. It’s 1994, at the peak of his popularity, when everything truly was awright. Well, almost, as he’s fresh off a highly-publicised drink problem, but we’ll get to that. Or at least, he will. 1994’s The Unpredictable Michael Barrymore was taped live at Blackpool Opera House, as the last night of a sell-out tour, and has the classic British variety opening of the crowd clapping along in time to the music (which, if you’ll recall, once led to me getting told off at the circus by a literal clown for refusing to join in with on principle). The curtains pull back to reveal the big man himself, stood in a jaunty pose, one leg crooked behind the other, arms out in a half-shrug, a “yep, it’s little ol’ me!”

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He’s accompanied by a full 6-piece band, and before the introductory cheers have died, a lady’s bombing down the aisle to the stage, receiving a handshake and a cheek-peck for her efforts. This is a hero’s welcome, feeling more like the close of a successful show than the start of one, and he basks in the adulation like a cat in a sunbeam. “Awright?!” he finally says. “Awright!” parrot the audience. “Awright at the back?!” asks Barrymore, unaware that in the decades to follow, this very question would function as perennial innuendo about anal sex, whenever his name came up in front of men who like football.

It’s mere moments before we’re thrown into the main heft of his act, which I previously described as ‘going in the audience to tip old lady’s handbags all over the floor’. Seeking out a supposed heckler, it’s straight to the Basil Fawlty voice ‘n walk, marching down the front to drag a laughing bloke out through the exit. Next, it’s a confused and tiny old man — “no geriatric punk rockers are allowed on these premises!” — before a woman hands him some flowers, and is immediately bundled to the floor in an embrace. “It’s alright,” he shouts, “I’ve been to a chemist!” inferring, I guess, that slid a precautionary condom over his william before the show, and we needn’t worry that he’ll cum right inside her. Another chap’s singled out, called “Rumpole” for wearing glasses and ejected, before the following happens. “My God, there’s a bloody Libyan down here! Come on, no terrorists allowed!

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This ‘Libyan’ is likewise yanked out of his seat as Barrymore escorts him out of the theatre while babbling faux-Middle Eastern gibberish — “bugahallalabuga!” Now, as the man exits, passing by the camera, it’s clear that he’s not even vaguely Arabic in appearance. You could say “what’s a Libyan look like then? Perhaps it is you, Millard, who is the racist,” but Barrymore’s not checking passports here, is he? The joke is he specifically looks Libyan. There’s a tale that comes to mind, possibly apocryphal, that I’ve seen from more than one punter at Bernard Manning’s old Embassy Club.

The story goes that Manning would interrupt his routine to point out a “Jap” in the audience, doing all his material about slanty eyes and Pearl Harbour, and returning to make various asides to and about said Asian gentlemen throughout the night, ending with his instructing another audience member to “go piss on that Jap.” Except, there was nobody Japanese sat there, or anywhere in the building. Maybe that works in a dark, smoky club, but Barrymore’s fella got a close-up here. As the show unfolds, this whole ‘Libyan’ angle will become more clear. But for now, we leave it with Barrymore yelling at him as he exits, “there’s a plane in the airport for you, Libyan. The pilot’s called Jack, just say hi-Jack!

He makes a meal of clambering back onstage, asking for help from a middle-aged man, sat front row. “My God, you’re keen,” he says, making a face that suggests the guy’s what Jim Davidson might describe as a ‘woolly woofter’. Barrymore wraps him in a headscissors, pulling his face towards his crotch. “What are you doing?!” he cries, “We’ve got children in!” After shaking the man’s hand, he stares in horror at his own palm. “You can’t catch it like that, can you?!” Presumably now riddled with AIDS, Michael Barrymore pretends to faint. One of the many aspects that make this show a psychotherapist’s dream is the amount of humour that’s milked out of Barrymore’s — and the audience’s — casual, shrieking homophobia, a year before he’d publicly come out as gay himself.

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There’s a bout of pretending to speak French, before the cast of previously ejected return to their seats. “No, Libyan, no, no, no!” He’s marched back out to more funny foreign-babble, given a middle finger, and threatened in pretend-French with “le nutty on le head.” Barrymore poses seductively against the wings, suggesting “le Libyan’s wife plinka my plonker,” “squeezy le plums,” and “mange my banana.” After some comedy dancing where he pretends to finger someone and that his hand is a big penis, there’s a jazz-scat segue into Leo Sayer’s Raining in my Heart. If you’re waiting for the punchline, there isn’t one, as this is the dreaded earnest song — “for all the ladies in the audience.

What’s shocking is the sheer amount of straight musical numbers. At one point, we suffer perhaps my least favourite trope of the era, as done by dads at weddings, Pontins talent shows, and the arse-end of lager-stinking family BBQs, with a tribute to the Blues Brothers. Barrymore and some husky bloke don sunglasses, but not hats (lazy), though in small mercies, it’s not Everybody Needs Somebody or the knees-up dance that goes with it. Unfortunately it is a medley that goes on for ten very sweaty minutes. Later, a stage school boy with a bad American accent bursts out of a theatrical case, for a duet of Broadway Baby, and its classic Hollywood choreography and cries of “gotta dance!” feels like MB’s audition for the West End. In grim trivia, the kid’s Haydon Eshun, who fronted 90’s boyband of actual-boys, Ultimate Kaos, when he was just nine. One of Simon Cowell’s early creations, Kaos supported Take That, and may be remembered for such singles as Some Girls, and Hoochie Booty. Nine.

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The Sayer bit goes into a Mariachi-flavoured original number with lyrics like “does your dad own a brewery? If I gave you a quid, would you show ’em to me?” and “we’d sit on a tip, you’d undo my zip, and give it a quick [Spanish-sounding noises], arriba, arriba!” Fucking endless, it’s then into Bobby Vee’s Rubber Ball, accompanied by three big rough-looking doormen types, aggressively snarling their backing lines and hoisting him in the air by the groin as he goes cross eyed. On closer inspection, for any number that’s more than a couple of lines or requires movement, Barrymore’s lip-synching to a pre-recorded tape. Eventually, dripping in sweat, he towels himself off with a knowing “welcome to the show,” and throwing in another reference to “the Libyan.”

As a man who’s career is filled with comebacks of varying success, Unpredictable is marked as the first, coming on the tails of a public battle with alcoholism, and performing again after a stint in rehab (and on the tabloid front pages), on the close of a tour rather pointedly titled Back in Business. Introducing his pianist, Barrymore raises a glass of orange juice, toasting the audience with “cheers, to your very good health.” There’s a huge round of applause, as he takes a bow with the glass raised, slowly tipping it around each side of the theatre for ages; like Hulk Hogan cupping his ear; before pointing to it like “observe, this is but humble fruit juice!” Then he pretends to gag while taking a sip, holding it to the sky while singing Memories. This moment is a perfectly-packed nutshell of his persona; a weird mix of fucking about all the time and jarring bouts of sentimental earnesty where he seems to be barely holding it together.

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But you can’t deny how utterly beloved he is here. The crowd response never dips below maximum level bananas, in 75 minutes plagued with shout-outs and chatty interjections, from an audience that feel such a kinship, they’ve no shame in just wandering up to the stage. Every applause is received with a real look of desperation, a needy “you really love me!” glugging down every cheer like a man dying of thirst. The feisty punters are demonstrative of Barrymore’s oddly specific fanbase; the 40+ housewives’ choice in menopausal boyband fervour. A bit about how people on the telly look different in person elicits pained cries of “no!” — you’re every bit as handsome up close, Michael! — like when you tell your mum you’re ugly. When he says he’s 6’3”, there are whistles and woos. The Virgin Ronnie Corbett vs The Chad Michael Barrymore.

He demands a woman in the front cross her legs — “we’re very near the sea, there’s a lot of ships go past!” — and tells everyone to ignore the ‘no photography’ signs, running through comedic poses with his legs up by his ears as they snap away, but making them stop, because with all the flashes “the Libyan thinks it’s a blitz!” He does an impression of Prince Charles (“urrrrr!”) and Brucie (“thththththu!”), and asks if there’s anyone in from Wales before telling a sheep shagging joke. It’s here we begin what will be known as the Country Boy section. As tempted as I am to briefly surmise this for space, I’m afraid for the cultural record, we must analyse it in the agonising depth it requires.

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This whole segment is backed by the live band’s Country and Western soundtrack, sticking through Barrymore’s constant asides and gear shifts, and his own repeated assertions that he’s “glad to be a country boy.” He begins by pretending to ride a horse around the stage, before doing the Freddie at Live Aid call and response; “say yo, yo, diddle-aye-doh!” including racist gibberish for the Libyan. “Goodnight grandma, goodnight grandpa, I love country music!” he sings, frenetically line-dancing, and pretending to fuck a haystack. But then my Manning suspicions are confirmed. “Okay, Libyan, this is just for you.” As he mimes a sitar, the guitarist plays stereotypically Eastern-sounding music, confirming this as a weird bit they do every night with a random person from the front row. The whole act lives on the appearance of spontaneity, but it’s just a series of contrived moments, with participants placed into pre-figured slots, and where merely wearing a nice shirt is enough for you to be cast as the night’s Libyan. “Look,” points Barrymore, “the Libyan’s crying now!

Country 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. There’s some comedy business with a fiddle and a pair of oversized bows, one which crushes his balls causing him to talk in a squeaky voice, and the other he tries to fire at the Libyan like an arrow; “I’m fed up with that Libyan staring at me. Enough’s enough!” After a song about a pretty girl that works in Tesco — “she elbowed Tom and Harry, cos Dick’s all she ever thinks about” — it’s another full number, singing/miming “it’s spring time on the mountain, and I’m full of mountain dew!” Note: he undoubtedly means semen. The big climax; a country song in a quasi-American accent, where “I won’t go huntin’ with you, Jake, but I’ll go chasin’ women,” sees him joined by a multitude of barely-dressed showgirls in cowboy hats, where his dancing consists almost entirely of Python’s silly walk sketch.

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Country Boy finally over, he mops himself up as a cowboy runs across the stage to deposit a stool. Let me rephrase that; he brings on a seat. Barrymore pulls a “don’t he look a bit poofy?” face, mimicking the lad with his wrist cocked and camply skipping, hands on hips — “nice boy, very good to his mother.” In a very progressive move, considering he might’ve caught AIDS from it, Barrymore sits on the stool to read out fanmail sent backstage. One’s from a fan who was supposed to be having a candlelight dinner tonight, with “very dear friend, Dougie Irving,” whom they love very much, but Dougie decided to go to the show with his wife instead. There’s a massive laugh for the punchline and Barrymore’s double take, on revealing the writer as Richard. That’s a man’s name!

We’ve another of those moments where a psychotherapist would need to break out a new pack of notepads, in the audience banter section, where he tones down the mania for a bout of sincerity, pointing out nice ladies in the audience, asking names and how they are, all “nice to meet you.” There’s an incredibly odd question of “any grandmothers celebrating anything this evening?” and repartee with an old lady whom he compliments on her lovely smile — “what’s your name my love?” It’s a jokeless and awkward back-and-forth, culminating in him asking if she’s English. The audience erupt into laughter, which he hits back with a strangely scalding “It’s not a daft question. I’m half Scottish. You can’t change what you are… what you are is what you are, what you’re born, you have to live with it.

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The change in mood is cemented with a quiet “alright” — very different from “awright?!” — and the announcement “I’m gonna sing a song now, to all the ladies in the audience. Or to everyone.” As an example of the raucous atmosphere, we get Are You Lonesome Tonight twice; once with the entire audience taking over from the first line, as he accompanies with unfunny sign language, before a solo, breaking during the final chorus to return to the old lady with the lovely smile. “She’s so tall, that when she got a coil fitted, she got Radio 4,” and God put man on this Earth “because you can’t get a vibrator to mow the lawn.” Alright, Chubby Brown.

After picking up a massive potted plant from the side of the stage and plonking it on the lap of the Libyan as “a starter home… you roll that up and start smoking it, Libyan, you’re out of here!” it’s time for the bit that made his name and won all those BAFTAs; physically mauling and/or being ironically rude to members of the public. He requests a lady to sing to, and a little boy in the front calls out — “what’d you say, son?” As he’s brought onstage, the kid’s in a full Man United kit, socks and all, and when Barrymore squats down with the mic, I have to run it back three times to fully comprehend what comes out of this child’s mouth: “My mum’s a Libyan!

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Barrymore accuses him of being an adult midget, as the boy giggles, pointing with a scream of “THAT’S MY MUM! THAT LIBYAN!” What is happening? It’s the full My Kind of People now, asking if he’s got a dad (thankfully a yes), and what his dad does. “Goes to work at night?” says the boy, which almost brings the roof down, to an audience where the mere notion of going out after dark is suggestive of prostitution. He wrestles the boy onto his knee, pretending he’s a ventriloquist dummy, gnashing out a choked “HELLO EVERYBODY, MY MUM’S A GYBIAN!” As the lad gets a tour of the stage, he’s pulling at his shorts the whole time. Barrymore asks “has your dad got a bike?” (what?) and an arm reaches out from the wings to give him some toys they just happened to have sat around — “do you like Playmobile?” On the reveal of the boy’s name, Christian, Barrymore reels away in terror, using the mic stand as a makeshift crucifix. Are you… confusing Christians for vampires?

Eventually sending the kid back, Barrymore shifts his attention to the mum, who turns out to be the woman he dragged to the floor at the beginning of the show. She presents him with a red rose, card, and bar of chocolate, yelling “You’ve made my night, you really ‘ave!” Her son leans over and screams into the mic, “NOT A LIBYAN!” It’s clear that, yes, she’s not from Libya either, and “Libyan” has been been interpreted by the boy as a generic insult. Christian’s mum is the Barrymore fanbase incarnate, far more excited than nervous, feeling that it’s fine, just fine, to endlessly babble away to your mate Michael while thousands of people sit watching. Now onstage, she keeps stepping over his jokes and turning her back to the audience. Her hands are shaking. “You don’t wanna waste that,” says Barrymore, “put it my pocket, love,” pretending like she’s giving him a furious banjo-snapper of a wank.

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He sits on a chair, laying the lady across his lap like a baby. “Ooh, I can’t believe this,” she keeps repeating, as Barrymore grabs her arse, sliding his hand down her leg and up her skirt; feeling for her bra strap; “wait till I tell ’em all at work, they won’t believe it!” He serenades her with Patsy Cline’s Crazy, though she turns it into a duet, and as the spotlight goes out, he says “goodnight, John-boy” which was another legal requirement in those days. She’s sent away with flowers and a bottle of wine, and he demands a big round of applause for the orchestra, before more of that gushing Barrymore honesty with a lengthy emotional statement from the heart. He wants to thank “each and every one of you” for the letters and kindness and love he’s been shown over the last couple of months. “It’s been some time in my life,” he says, describing troubles which, ten years on, must’ve seemed utterly trifling.

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The response is absolutely rousing; the kind of applause which shatters every bone in your hand, over the top of which he bellows “I’m thrilled to be here in Blackpool and back in business! Awright!” Just in case anyone’s confused, Michael Barrymore has… had and are… bounced… bouncing back. It seems like the perfect end, but no, there’s more music, lip-synching Back in Business from the Dick Tracy movie, joined by the showgirls, and with apposite lyrics about being “back again like a boomerang.. back in business and ain’t it grand?” “Guess who’s back?” “Yes, I’m back!” and ending on a triumphant and, in hindsight, tragically hopefully, “let the good times roll!

After a truly needless pat-a-cake synchronised clapping/thigh slapping routine with the dancers, it’s finally over. Or is it? Barrymore, now alone, still isn’t done being sincere — “I hope that one day, all of us here this evening, I hope we all meet again…” And it’s on that number, We’ll Meet Again, that we actually come to the end, leading everyone in a sing song, like they used to in the Anderson shelters when Hitler was dropping doodlebugs on our nans; “put your hands in the air, let’s enjoy ourselves…” At least it’ll make a perfect first-act closer for my big-screen Barrymore biopic, Awright at the Back? (starring Vince Vaughn, once I get the Kickstarter rolling).

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As he takes a bow, from all sides of the theatre, women run up to the edge of the stage, pushing past their rows to form a moshpit of mums, aunties and nans. Many bear gifts; flowers, chocolates, a balloon; more fitting with a teen idol than a 40-something comedian. Barrymore’s slapping hands like Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart walking to the ring, doling out kisses, and lifting the little boy above his head. Footage of this revelry is almost as long as the show itself, and when the curtain finally drops, cries of “More! More!” can be heard over the credits. The whole thing is a remarkable spectacle, moreso for the fact it was sold as a video, intended to be re-watched multiple times.

There’s something of the Michael Jackson fanbase about Barrymore’s audience, with an astonishing level of devotion and familiarity, comfortable to interact with him like he’s part of the family, or to have him squeeze their buttocks for a laugh. Where did they stand, I wonder, after the pool party? Do they live on in tabloid comment sections and beneath Youtube clips of him looking up Susan Boyle’s skirt, as pleas to “let him back on the telly, he’s an innocent man!” What of wee Christian’s mum, superfan for whom the night at Blackpool on Barrymore’s lap must’ve been her most treasured anecdote? There’s a family friend who used to dine out on the fact Savile had used their toilet once. They went strangely quiet about it in recent years. And for Barrymore himself, the usual struggle of the falling star who misses the rush of performing and the adulation of the crowd must have carried an even greater sting. If this is indicative of his usual audience, practically weeping at his feet, he tumbled much further than most, and it goes some way to explaining the horrible sense of entitlement he’s shown in every interview for the last 19 years.

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The Unpredictable… was Barrymore’s celebration of coming through the bad times, where only sunshine lay ahead — “let the good times roll!” — but we know how that went. After more public troubles, but preceding the real bad stuff, there’d be another video release in 1998, titled Live And Uplifting — Back in Business! Okay, I know I said I was back in business before, but it turns out, I just thought I was back in business. This time, I really am back. In business. It’s weird he didn’t complete the trilogy with a post-2001 BiB. Maybe one day.

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 April 7, 2020.

5 Responses to “The Unpredictable Michael Barrymore”

  1. An incredible, insightful and detailed piece that encompasses the persona of the psychopath called Michael Parker. The man is now trying to revive his career on Instagram playing strikeitlucky with his online deluded and adoring fanbase. No remorse for the family of Stuart Lubbock. Thank you for this.

  2. […] announcer, calling him “the unpredictable Freddie Starr.” Though Barrymore would use that term in his own stage show, it was essentially Freddie’s nickname; like ‘The Immortal’ Hulk Hogan, or the […]

  3. […] — name is Jean and shrieking “Hi, Jean! HYGENE!” (Quick poll: better or worse than Barrymore’s “Hi, Jack!”?) Her challenge involves filling a cup with the teapot that’s strapped to her head, but the […]

  4. […] Having looked at Freddie Starr during the arse-end of his television career, it’s time to examine his peak, when — legend states — he was a comedic force of nature, like Robin Williams, Johnny Rotten, and Norman Wisdom rolled into one. Freddie’s early rise occurred during his time on LWT sketch show, Who Do You Do?, an impressions-based series which would later be rebooted as Copy Cats, which I covered back in 2018. In a run that stretched between 1972-76, the show had an unbelievable cast of revolving guests, with some wildly on-brand faces that won’t be appearing in this piece, but can eventually be seen on the Celebrity Big Brother they’ll make you watch in Hell, with Les Dennis, Dustin Gee, Arthur ‘Living Mushroom’ Mullard, Max Beesley’s dad, and big Michael Barrymore. […]

  5. […] remember my Barrymore piece, and all the Libyan stuff? Where I theorised it was his version of Bernard’s apocryphal […]

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