Miss Great Britain 1984

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There’s something inherently 1970s about the great British beauty contest, and though this is the 1984 edition of Miss Great Britain, both aesthetically and ideologically, it already feels a decade out of time. While the outside world was in thrall to Boy George, Madonna and Mr. T, and Ghostbusters was playing at the pictures, in the Waldorf Hotel’s Palm Court ballroom, the drab walls and potted plants are still vibrating under a disco beat. Even the opening music’s got a lecherous slide-whistle in it, over shots of our twenty-one lovely ladies, which as we will come to learn, even for the most tit-hungry playboys, swingers, and lusty hetero lads, is simply too many ladies.

The edges of the huge ballroom are filled with elegantly decorated tables and fairy lights, with a black tie dress-code for the assembled audience. Everyone’s done up in their finery, and I’ve even spotted some mayoral chains, making for a far classier do than the ‘Butlins knobbly knees contest but with arses’ that I’d envisaged. Our presenter is World in Action‘s Chris Kelly, bow-tied and bigging up “arguably the oldest beauty contest in the worldnot the contest you’ll find the oldest beauty, you understand.” This mix of solemnly sportifying the ogling of young women and horny dad-gags is the Miss Great Britain brand.

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We kick off with the evening wear section, where we’ll be introduced to each contestant in turn. Some hold regional titles, while others made it through from the weekly heats in Morecambe. Weekly?! In whittling down to the final twenty-one, the sheer number of knockout stages must’ve eaten up much of the national workload, in what would’ve been the equivalent of today’s relentless televised singing contests. Under a classy soundtrack of classical music, each girl takes a brief introductory stroll across the floor, ala a debutante ball, for a gathering of old men and the occasional wife, all sat in the kind of armchair your nan died in, politely clapping.

It’s the eighties, so they all have the make-up style of someone who’s just lost very badly at the works bi-monthly paintball outing, and wearing billowing gowns which resemble those novelty toilet roll holders of a knitted Spanish lady. The narrator’s not named until some ways in, and I’d wrongly assumed it was Stuart Hall, as both have the same combination of laid back, overly-eloquent delivery, and wildly inappropriate comments. As the ladies do their walk, he drops in bits of trivia. Maxine from Stoke on Trent wants to take her little brother to Disneyworld; Amanda from Northern Ireland makes her own clothes. Highlighting the prevalence of our modern gym culture, Debbie’s notable fact is a once-weekly visit to a keep fit class.

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Let’s pause a moment to imagine someone’s bet you that you can’t eat ten (full-size) Kit Kats. Doesn’t seem like that many, does it? Definitely doable. But by number six, they’re starting to repeat on you, and you’re fearing for the state of your toilet tomorrow. Similarly, twenty-one ladies initially seems like a fine number, but about a dozen in, there’s almost ten still to come. Ten more dead-eyed smiles. Ten more commentator’s jokes; “Debbie’s very fond of Chinese cooking, and all her friends and family keep giving her woks… she’s getting shocks with flocks of woks!” One’s a PR girl, who’s promoted all sorts, “even disposable nappies. I’d like to have seen her modelling those.” Filled or empty, mate? Jill from Sheffield is “trained in the art of self defence, which will probably come in very handy later on.” I bet it will, you dirty old bollocks. Half the names sound like characters from Look Around You; Wendy Phizacklea, Pauline J. Burnip, and Scottish #19, Isobel McPheators (pronounced McFetus). Every contestant is white.

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We’re introduced to the judges, of whom there’s also far too many. Judge number one’s an old toff who lent his stately home to the BBC for tonight’s proceedings, and has the facial expression of a boarding school headmaster that’s beaten a pupil to death and will not be apologising for it. There’s also Wayne Sleep’s ballet mistress, the Two Ronnies make-up designer, and the producer of The Good Old Days; who from the look of him, moonlights as the guy who comes out with a tape measure before an Old West shoot-out. When it gets to the final judge, honestly, I was expecting Savile, but it’s just some local big-shot, whose title as chairman of the Barclay’s Square Ball and managing director of Dutton Foreshore Motor Group requires a lengthy introduction, which Chris Kelly stumbles through, mispronouncing ‘motor’ as ‘moiter‘, like how a noir detective would say ‘murder’.

The slip seems to unsettle our host, and it all falls apart when cuing the next segment, where we’re off to Morecambe. The spiritual home of Miss Great Britain, their tourist board seemingly bunged the contest a nice wedge for repeated plugs. “Incidentally,” says Kelly, “it’s well worth a visit, particularly in this…” Now flustered, he stammers “Brit-igsh heritage year,” before leaning out of frame, with a “uh, I’m going to have to read from me notes… having a bit of difficulty.” He’s down there a few seconds, leaving an empty mic-stand, as the smiles on the girls behind him begin to buckle. The camera pans down to search for him, but cuts to a panicked wide shot of the ballroom. Finally ready, he repeats some lines he’s already said, composure now gone, and barely glancing up from the cards.

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It’s then over to Morecambe’s countryside hall, owned by the family of “a great furniture empire” for the parade round. If that sounds a bit horsey, the narrator introduces our “runners and riders,” with each coming down stone steps amid a blustery wind that sets the big 80’s hair rippling. Meandering flute music gives sickly flashbacks to being in a hospital lift after falling out of a tree at school, and the whole thing has the frumpy vibe of a Gratton catalogue — albeit without the mysteriously self-opening pages of bras, in which one could sometimes make out the darkened circular hue of a nipple, and had to be careful to aim away from, as you’d never be able to explain that.

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Anyway, there’s a surprising counter to the idea these shows are just a meat market by doing the opposite of a swimsuit contest, and burying a bunch of beautiful women under the sort of dreary clobber you’d wear to a funeral or while applying for a bank loan to pay off your child’s crippling medical bills. The commentary points out the “white tea-cosy” on one girl’s head, while another’s “hands on hips, quite ready for action.” Again, there are twenty-one women, so it takes fucking ages, and we pause every three ladies for a recap, with unsettling close-ups held far too long; teeth drying; aching to swallow a mouthful of stale saliva.

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Presumably because of the gale, proceedings move indoors, for hauntologically powerful zooms on candelabras and severed deer heads mounted on the wall. Equally unsettling is the girl moving cautiously in stilettos, upturned mouth betrayed by her eyes, which seem to yell “I’m going to die on this staircase!” Another wears skintone trousers, and on first glance, appears to be in nothing but a half-jacket and captain’s hat, fanny casually out for all to see. One’s dressed like Darkwing Duck.

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There’s just too many of them, and by number twelve, I’m exhausted; that weedy looping Muzak, the Smylex grins; it’s like launching into a lengthy anecdote, only for you and the listener to realise halfway through that you’ve told it before, but having to plough onto the end regardless — “24 years old, smile as broad as Yorkshire!” Please, help me. 19 year old Kim takes her hat off, “oh my goodness, she’s gonna get undressed!” McFetus looks like an Amish magician. #21 is “a pert little waitress.” Ten minutes after it began, the parade concludes with a shot of a Union Jack “flapping flaccidly in the summer breeze,” and the welcome news that nine contestants have been eliminated offscreen.

The remaining dozen earn their way into the beauty contest’s most infamous section; the swimsuit round; which Kelly tells us is “a very English mixture of wholesome and saucy” — like sending an unsolicited dickpic, but with the filename mywillylol.jpg. As he must, lest he be revoked of his status as a bloody bloke, the voiceover man relays dimensions of tit, waist and hip — “Debbie’s measurements are 36-24-35, and it’s all moving along nicely” — while the live musical accompaniment is what you’d play over a silent movie when two big oafs are trying to shove a piano up the stairs.

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While these are one-piece swimsuits and there’s no midriffs on show (though in that big, draughty ballroom, some of them are a bit nipply), parading past people in fancy dinner jackets really accentuates the skin on display. As the tables of businessmen and local dignitaries languidly applaud the half-naked ladies stood beside them; the outlines of whose muffs can occasionally be seen through the fabric; it’s got the air of those documentaries about brothels, when all the girls are brought out in their knickers for a trucker to make his selection from. At the end of the round, half the contestants get the boot, before a surprise dance break.

Pre-taped in the empty ballroom, we begin with some beefeaters — four men, four stockinged women — regally assuming the slow-dance position, before the women move the men’s hands onto their arses, throwing a look to camera that says “girl power, right, fellow birds?” Then they’re suddenly dressed in disco gear, and it’s all high tempo kicks, with really angry choreography, where women claw at the sky like feral cats. There’s a clear visual tension between the pairs; the look you see in that bad TV cliché, where a couple have an angry shouting match before suddenly fucking up against a bookcase. At the end, they’re back to being beefeaters, the ladies curtseying subserviently at the feet of the men, having merely imagining their wild emancipation from this weird subculture of Tower of London based S&M.

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In some of that cultural trivia I love, the sequence was choreographed by Irving Davies, whose extensive CV also includes two episodes of The Jim Davidson Show, and the fantastically evocative credit “stager: The Mikado sequence” for an episode of Fresh Fields. For the final six, Midlands Today‘s Kaye Alexander is tasked with the interview round, where it’s back to elegance, with the ladies in enormous ballgowns in antique armchairs. They’re sat either side of Alexander, who’s forced to turn her back on the one she’s not talking to, like when Russell Harty got clouted by Grace Jones.

This is meant to show their personalities, but they tackle it with the energy of those job interviews at Tesco where you’re sat in a circle with twenty people and have to say something interesting about yourself when the tennis ball comes your way. Plus, Alexander has all the journalistic scrutiny of your nan asking if you had a nice day at school, and all we learn is one’s been down a coal mine and (in a separate event) was “taught the arts of the samurai warrior,” while another’s bikini bottoms fell down once at a fashion show, along with a thrilling tale of “having to model long johns, would you believe?” You know what? I would.

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As the judges retire to decide who is the best lady of all the ladies, there’s a musical interlude with Mexican-American flautist, Elena Duran, whose introduction is the single most Alan Partridge line ever spoken — “since this has essentially been a woman’s hour, live here at the Waldorf, she’s decided to play the theme from that enduring radio program, Woman’s Hour…” Let’s hear it for the wonderful women, everyone! Sadly, as all twenty-one contestants re-enter the ballroom, they don’t bring out Yo-Yo Ma to accompany with a rousing rendition of Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler? Though the six finalists are in their gowns, the rest conspicuously take their places in swimwear, before we’re introduced to the reining monarch, Miss Great Britain, 1983.

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So who then, will take the title of this 39th annual contest? Awarded her seat on the throne (one of the ugly chairs they’ve been sat in all night), and coroneted with a crown and sash reading MISS GREAT BRITAIN, MORCAMBE, is Debbie Greenwood. Greenwood would go onto a long career in television, including presenting QVC and marrying Pebble Mill‘s Paul Coia, in the greatest forging of royalty and showbiz since Harry and Meghan. She’s also awarded a cheque for £4,000, a holiday, some jewellery, “and the use of an Austin Maestro, during her year of office.”

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As always, I’m overjoyed there’s a good 30 minutes of bonus material on the end of the VHS, with the start of an Irish magazine program about the dangers of the beauty industry, hosted by a man made entirely of hair, followed by an ‘Allo ‘Allo special of Les Dawson-era Blankety Blank. Herr Flick’s wearing a lovely red jumper emblazoned with piano keys, and Gruber’s got pink hippos on his, while sat bottom left, in Blank‘s traditional crumpet seat, is Vicki Michelle, who to my mind, is the rightful Miss Great Britain of 1984, or indeed, any year.

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~ by Stuart on May 6, 2020.

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