Cool Britannia feat. Freddie Starr

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The mid-90s were an incredibly exciting time for British comedy. Among others, ’94 gave us the television debuts of The Day Today, The Fast Show, and Knowing Me, Knowing You, while the following year had Fist of Fun, Father Ted, and The Mrs Merton Show. These were exciting new voices who’d dominate the comedy landscape for years to come, and inspire the next generations that followed. Yet, among these young upstarts, rather surprisingly, a big name from the comedy of decades past was still flying the flag.

The first series of The Freddie Starr Show went out at 8:30pm on a Friday night, on August of 1994. Friday night! And we’re given fair warning by 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 Boston Strangler. Freddie was a wild comedy terrorist, unbound by rules, unafraid of convention, and when he appeared on Wogan or TV-am, you’d best hold onto your dang hats, because anything could happen! He might, say, stand on the sofa, or take a mouthful of water and dribble it a bit near Gyles Brandreth.

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We open with Starr emerging onto a brightly-lit stage in a pink 1950’s suit, wielding a guitar, for a straight version of End of the Line by the Traveling Wilburys. Whoa, slow down there, Mr. Anarchist! At this stage of his career, Freddie’s not really got the lungs for it, and even the pre-recorded vocals are out of breath. His acoustic guitar’s not plugged in, and you can’t hear it in the mix, but still he persists with the worst strum-miming I’ve ever seen; half the time forgetting, or strumming so far back, he’s stroking the wood. I’ve seen more realistic guitaring from a drunk aunt in a cardboard pirate hat waving an inflatable Stratocaster in a wedding reception photobooth. It may cross your mind this is an intentional gag, but — as we’ll learn — Freddie loves an earnest number, and unquestionably sees himself as a rock n’ roller, tragically rendering this the funniest moment of the entire show. See for yourself, keeping an eye on his hands, and regard with particular interest the sudden, random alignment of finger-shapes when he’s forgotten to make chord changes for a while — going a full minute at one point — and has to ‘catch up’, as well as the closing solo.

The first sketch turns out to be so long, it’s almost a sitcom, in a parody of The Godfather, 22 years after the film came out. By this point, every possible comedian and dad on a night out at Harvester had stuffed a load of bread into their mouth and said “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse,” and for someone so ‘unpredictable’, anyone betting the house that Freddie Starr would turn to camera with big fat Brando cheeks would now have two houses. Throughout the series, Freddie’s diction is awful, with speech that’s heavily slurred as the result of a two-decade-long addiction to Valium. Even in the regular sketches, I’m having to run it back two or three times to figure out what he’s saying, but with his comedy mafia-cheeks, he’s incomprehensible. Perhaps that’s for the best, given the quality of the jokes you can understand, like ordering a goon to “kiss my ring… my ring” with the goon giving a big “phew!” when he realises it’s the one on his finger and not his anus.

02

Of note here is that the goon’s played by Derek Deadman, aka Ringo from Never the Twain, and for a seasoned pro, he’s really egregiously mouthing all of Freddie’s lines, in the classic Dustin Diamond. It’s mostly physical humour, with moustaches getting stuck to faces when they kiss, and Benny Hill speed-ramping when Freddie shoots someone, all with Bodger and Badger style sound effects. Nora Batty comes in as his mum, to call him “a bad-a boy,” “no-good, two-bit gangster,” and — twice — “a bummer,” before serving him a plate of string. They do a horse’s head gag with a cartoony rubber one, all to get to the punchline where Freddie calms the screaming victim with a “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and the horse sits up with a “did someone mention hay?!

After the break, he’s back in his suit with a mic, and it seems like it’s going to be a joke, because he’s laughing, but no, we’re right into another heartfelt number, this time Please Stay, by the Bay City Rollers. Like all the comedians who came through the variety circuit, his voice isn’t good enough to be a singer, and nor is this funny enough to be comedy, though in a tiny concession to laffs, halfway through, he segues into “they’re coming to take me away, ha ha!” and does a manic little foot tapping dance, which the audience loves. It has to be said, they lap it all up, and every leaden scene plays to massive laughter.

03

There are barely a half-dozen sketches in the entire show, but we do get some quickies. There’s a golf one where he shouts “duck!” and a duck lands on the ground at his feet, and one where he’s dressed like a teddy boy, grabbing a female passer-by. “You goin’ my way, darlin?” he leers. “What if I am?” “Could I go with yer, cos I’m lost?” Shitting hell, there’s better stuff sat in the drafts of a million tweeters. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot that’d get the already-cancelled Starr exhumed for a double-cancellation today, barring a sketch where an elderly linesman slowly makes his way along a line of cheerleaders, pulling “cor!” faces at their bouncing boobs, which ends on this visual gag.

04

Then the linesman kicks both his legs when he’s done, like he’s shaking all the cum out of his trousers. Freddie put himself on the map with a crowd-pleasing turn at the 1970 Royal Variety Performance, with high-energy impersonations of Mick Jagger, Norman Wisdom, and Hitler, which were so well-received, he was called out of the wings for an almost unheard-of second bow. 25 years on, we’ve got the same set-up, giving him a live mic and a stage, and just letting Freddie be Freddie, but even the most hardened anti-monarchist would be relieved the Queen wasn’t suffering through this one. “Remember Zorro?” he asks, as one very clear old lady voice in the audience calls out a loud “no!” But he wins them back with a line about Zorro “mounting his horse” — you know, a bit like sexual intercourse — before waffling on; “used to get on his horse, didn’t he? He used to get on his horse.. called Florrie.”

Freddie mimes getting on a horse, pretending to ride it around, while doing sound effects like the lad from Police Academy. He’s out of puff after one circuit of the stage, before more mimes; chewing noises as he feeds the horse (“sorry, wrong end!”) and sword swishes when accidentally cutting off his nob and pocketing it. A lengthy sword fight sequence, jumping about, huffing and puffing, has the embarrassing quality of being made to sit down by your 6-year-old niece to watch a puppet show with all her toys, except it’s a grown man on TV of a Friday night. He takes an actual bow when it’s over, but looks thoroughly ready for the grave.

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The pooeyness of the material’s spiced with the extra fart-stink of his constant looks to the audience like he’s going to laugh; like it’s so funny, he can’t carry on. It’s the facial equivalent of Frankie Howard’s “oooh no!” or Noel’s wheezing, with Freddie unable to get through a single line without pausing to gather himself. Half the runtime’s chewed up by these contrived snorts, or starting a line over because he ‘broke’.

Christ help me, his Brando returns for a Godfather II skit, where they’re dicking around with tommy guns in double-quick time. It’s all done like a silent movie, with old-timey rag-town piano and everyone doing that running where you’re you skidding everywhere with your arms flailing. I do a sharp intake of breath when they stop outside a Chinese laundry, and sure enough, Ringo comes out in a lampshade hat and Fu Manchu tash, eating rice with chopsticks. We also get some of noted impressionist Freddie’s take-offs, with a noir cop who says “schweet-heart” and James Cagney on a rooftop saying “I’m on top of the world, ma!” like if your team had to guess him in a party game where you couldn’t say his name. It’s no surprise this was co-written with long-time Benny Hill collaborator, Dennis Kirkland, though as Freddie rolls around on the floor like a toddler through the credits while the cops riddle him with bullets, it’s incredible to think this went out seven months after The Day Today.

06

The Freddie Star Show continued into 1995, as witnessed via an episode which shares its writers with Davro’s Sketch Pad and Terry and June. This one’s much more quick-fire, and even the opening musical number’s over in seconds, as Freddie — dressed in an oversized parrot costume — takes a header off the stage onto his face. There’s something hugely uncomfortable about seeing the then-56-year-old, clearly in terrible shape, take these painful-looking pratfalls to elicit laughs, like the teacher sketch where he goes to cane a pupil, but hits the overhead light and is electrocuted (wooden canes being famously good conductors), hurling himself over the desk like Dolph Ziggler. This sketch keenly demonstrates the lack of desire to push further than the most obvious first-draft cliché; with a pupil called Carruthers caught smoking behind the bikesheds, and the line “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.”

There’s a meandering bit of stand-up where he’s falling over his lines, filled with those knowing pauses that suggest the waiting punchline is so potent, those with asthma or heart conditions won’t make it out the other side — “I was on this camel in the middle east… camels have got humps, d’ya know that?” He ambles towards the point like Rowley Birkin QC, which is that “this Arab” kissed his camel’s balls to make it run off, so now the Arab will have to kiss Freddie’s balls too. Weirdly, the word “balls” is bleeped, which we see again in a sketch where he’s trying to fake a video for You’ve Been Framed, and calls his neighbour a bastard, though this has added Batman-style BLEEP signs covering his mouth. Did the unpredictable wildman get moved to an earlier timeslot? Is this family-friendly Freddie? Then we return from an ad break to be greeted by this title card.

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With the goose-stepping, tash, swastika shorts and wellies that the real Hitler was also known for, this is Freddie’s trademark, and clearly still part of the act in 1995. In some real hand-me-down, Chinese Whisper comedy, one of Bobby Davro’s trademarks was an impression of Freddie Starr’s impression of Hitler, which one can only presume becomes funnier with each successive level. Imagine the hilarity if someone had the skill to pull off Bobby’s Freddie’s Hitler. Anyway, it was a golf bunker. Hitler hitting a ball out of a golf bunker. There’s other quickies, like a highwayman in the woods jumping a horse and carriage to start cleaning the windows with a bucket, and one where he comes out onstage in a suit that’s too small, before Boobs in the Wood‘s Kenny Baker comes on with a suit that’s too big, suggesting a wardrobe mix-up.

Perhaps because of the pace, or maybe just as he’s at the tail end of a thirty-year career which required him to be ‘on’ and wacky all the time, Freddie seems completely exhausted, like he’s huffing oxygen between takes. There’s a sketch where he’s trying to open his garage with a remote, which closes when he gets near, which is meant to showcase the great clown of our generation, but plays like Brexit Mr. Bean, with the bullish 50-something headbutting a metal door in frustration, cheeks reddening with each passing second. Another’s set at the offices of Guinness World Records, where he’s got both hands frantically waggling down his crotch, stammering and twitching like Jack Douglas, to claim the record for longest time keeping a ferret down his trousers. The punchline’s “I’ll just go home and get him,” meaning he was playing with his dick, I suppose?

08

We get another musical number, where on Blue Moon’s “you saw me standing alone,” the house band lay down their instruments and fuck off, and a long sketch where he crawls out from under a female singer’s skirt with a variety of comedy props, including a stuffed cat which makes a “REEOW!” sound when he hoofs it out of frame. Weirdest of all, he’s back in the parrot outfit, pulling blokes from the audience onstage for a “mind-reading” bit where they’re sat on stools with straw hats on, which he mashes down with his palm to find the one with an egg under it, in something that belongs as the entertainment of a Spanish holiday kids club, and not on television.

09

The big finale sees him in a mustard coloured suit, singing again, foot tapping and leg jiggling to Roy Orbison’s Heartbreak Radio. Quickly it sinks in that this isn’t the lead-in to a joke, but another sincere performance; and he’s doing the whole song. Remember, we’re in the Britpop heyday of ’95, where Blur were battling Oasis, and the summer festivals were headlined by Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day. And in the midst of it, here’s Freddie Starr, 56 years old and singing about being a “young fool,” like your old dad down the karaoke, snapping his fingers with a cry of “whoa yeah, shake it now, honey!” Suddenly, Paul Shane’s Pebble Millbaby bay-BEH!” feels rather trendy.

10

There’s a trailer at the end for the infamous Audience With, where he chucked a load of maggots at Vanessa Feltz, airing the following week, which at the time, and even historically, was viewed as Freddie’s big comeback; a bravura performance showing the world that he’s still got it. Was his then-currently-airing show so forgettable that he needed a comeback while still on TV? Incredibly, The Freddie Starr show ran until 1998, a year after the original run of Brass Eye, where this once-energetic young pioneer, some decades older, squeezed back into the old swastika shorts for another wheezing turn of comedy goose-stepping. The great tragedy is that Princess Di would not live to see it.

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~ by Stuart on April 17, 2020.

One Response to “Cool Britannia feat. Freddie Starr”

  1. […] 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. […]

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