Who Do You Do?

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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.

I’ve picked a bunch of episodes at random from the handful that survived, in the form of VHS rips — in SP! — of late 90’s repeats on Granada Plus, which really was the home of nightmare British variety and horrible old telly. Their line-up predicts the eventual streaming service my Patreon will become, including You Bet, Dennis Waterman’s Stay Lucky!, Surprise Surprise, Terry and June, Brush Strokes, Fresh and French Fields, and the oft-mentioned here as the best example of something which ran for ages but nobody remembers, The Upper Hand.

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Who Do You Do? is so end-of-the-pier, within seconds, I’m windmilling my arms just to stop from falling in. The quality of sideboards is second to none, with the full Amos Brearly at every turn, and its cast of sweaty scarecrows is wonderfully unphotogenic, all busted teeth and squashed hooters that would never be allowed on TV now. People talk about the importance of representation, but not since the seventies have real man — men like me, who look like they wish they’d worn a seatbelt — been able to see themselves onscreen. In an outrageous display of cheapness, there’s literally no set. Every skit takes place in tight medium shot against a plain white background, giving viewers the sensation of being trapped in limbo, wandering the lands betwixt life and death, scouring their past for incidents of suffering they’ve caused others.

It’s incredibly fast-paced, with sketches often lasting seconds, like someone throwing Christmas cracker jokes at you. At that speed, impressions are reduced down to a catchphrase or noise. Often, that’s the whole sketch; in, catchphrase, out. Weirdly, the pace feels quite modern, in a post-Vine, TikTok world, and where jokesters like myself had to hone our written material down to 140 characters. But it’s clear the driving force wasn’t figuring out who did who, and writing around that; rather, coming up with jokes and celebrities first, before everyone had a go.

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With this formula, none of the cast’s impressionists ‘owns’ any celebrity, who get wheeled out in different incarnations, often one after the other — here’s three Max Bygraves and a pair of Tommy Coopers. At such a rate, there’s no time for finesse, so everyone takes a tic and keeps doing it. The Tommy Coopers all keep sniffing, the Eric Morecambes shake their glasses, and Dave Allen’s always scratching his face. Consequently, impressions are bad. Real bad. Sat here taking notes, I was worried I’d have no idea who anybody was, but it wasn’t a problem, as almost every sketch lets you know.

My name is James Mason…” “Hello dah-links, I’m Zsa Zsa Gabor…” “Good evening, Boris Karloff here…” “Hello, my name is Joyce Grenfell…” “This is your obedient servant, Orson Welles…” Sometimes, they’ll give additional clues, in case it’s still too hard – “Hello, I’m John Huston, I’m a movie director,” or “Hello, playmates, Arthur Askey, comedian.” Paul Melba does the classic variety intro for his – “Mr. Anthony Quinn… Mr. Rod Steiger,” while Margo Henderson outright asks the audience “do you know that gentleman from television up in Scotland, Mr. Chic Murray?” (note: they did not)

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We’re here for Freddie Starr, and even he’s at it. Imagine, it’s the 1970s, he’s wearing an open silver shirt, big quiff and sideburns, and his first line, in an American accent through a curled lip? “My name’s Elvis Presley, everybody.” Yeah, thanks. Was Freddie’s popularity partially down to that thing of laughing at your own jokes, barely able to get them out, in a psy-op to make the audience think “if he’s laughing, and he’s already heard it, then it must be hilarious?” Because he does it every time. It’s amazing how many of Freddie’s impressions require the same arse-out duck-walk waddle — Norman Wisdom, Mick Jagger, Max Wall, John Wayne, Hitler — was he working around a twisted testicle?

Also of note is how often he’s shirtless or half-naked, while the rest of the cast remain fully dressed. I guess amongst this roster of anthropomorphic tins of Ye Old Oak ham, anyone could be a sex symbol, so it’s up to him to play boxers or Tarzan, or, for no reason at all, to be wearing an ab-exposing belly-shirt while being Charlie Chaplin. There’s a real haphazard quality to his performances, which is rockstar-ish, in that he either seems drunk, or too cool to be fussed about doing it properly. But then, half-arsing it is Who Do You Do?‘s MO, half the time not bothering with basic props. In duelling Orson Welles impressions, neither man’s even got a beard. How long does it take to hook one over the ears? To don a pair of glasses as Eric Morecambe? There’s something unintentionally arthouse about it, with the theatrical minimalism of Lars von Trier’s Dogville, everyone doing impressions without adopting the target’s props, mannerisms, or voice.

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As it’s comedy from the seventies, it’s chock full of stuff the Brexit bois want back on the box, stat. We’re barely ten minutes in before the first Savile, with Freddie Starr in a blonde wig, holding a cigar and making Jim’ll’s donkey noises, for a rare double-Yewtree. The clichéd ‘gay voice’ is a sure-fire laugh-getter, as in one skit with Freddie describing a cowboy who got into ballet dancing and interior decorating. “He went thattaway,” he says, flopping his wrist. At one point, a Welsh character (no idea who) says to “never hit a woman when she’s down. Kick her, it’s easier.” ‘Arthur Askey’ does a routine about Germaine Greer — “I hope she took the bra off before she burned it!” — which is all about how massive she is; “6’4”, soaking wet!” Had they even seen her, or just heard the word feminist and assumed ‘cartoon of a female shot putter’? Regardless, the material storms it.

In case I’ve not been clear, every joke is truly awful. Regard an On the Waterfront parody, which builds to three Rod Steigers shooting each other. Freddie’s Brando counts the corpses with a “1, 2, 3… I’m a Steiger counter!” Extraordinary. How many people in 70’s Britain had even heard a Geiger counter? Perhaps the worst gag seen here, or indeed anywhere, ever, comes from one of the many Eric Morecambes; “overheard at a camel’s tea-pot… one lump or two?” Fucking — and I cannot stress this enough — hell. However, there’s stiff competition from actual use of that thing we all did in the playground in the 80s, of waving your hand around and claiming it’s a naked Sooty.

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Who Do You Do? is rife with that device we’ve seen on here before, of using impressions to deal out jokes which are worse than the real celebrity’s usual material. Being a more recognisable face is the spoonful of sugar on a shitty joke, like you can get away with it if it’s told by Max Bygraves. At one point, ‘David Frost’ literally opens with a “hello, good evening, and welcome; here is a joke…” But I did laugh a couple of times, at the quickie where “a word from the Minister of Transport” turned out simply to be “bollards!” This is repeated later as the Minister of Agriculture (“bullocks!”) and the Cox of the Cambridge rowing team (“rollocks!”). Lovely stuff. There’s a lot of vague political humour, which mostly goes over my head, barring a joke from Boris Karloff who’s got a ray that revives the dead — “I’ve already had a big offer from the Liberal party.” A timeless gag that plays just as well in 2020 as it did in 1974.

For a show set in the rockin’ seventies, much of the impressions are old Western actors from decades before, with the most contemporary a brief Marc Bolan, where he sings a few “da da das” before being dragged away by men in white coats; take that, youngsters! This raises an interesting point, that in a series pre-dating home cinema, and even VHS, the spread of cultural references must’ve been far smaller, so they’re having to rely on movies twenty-plus years old. It’s that or “Here’s a parody from a little film called The Exorcist!” “Not seen it, mate.” Speaking of unfamiliar, a lot of airtime goes to Dailey and Wayne, a double act I’ve never heard of. They’ve both got the haircuts of someone being executed in Robin Hood times, with one skinny, bird-like one, with the stare of Fred West, and one bigger lad who milks endless minutes of laughs out of dancing in a competent, energetic way that’s mildly surprising for his girth.

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It’s here we reach a momentous occasion on this blog, as The Lads finally make their debut, ceasing the endless messages, phonecalls, and 3am through-the-letterbox yells of “when are you going to cover Little and Large, you pathetic hack?!” Sadly, very little (no pun intended) of Syd and Eddie’s incredible comedy careers made it into the digital era, with mere scraps available online, of the odd sketch or short appearance at the Royal Variety, leaving 7 episodes from ITV, and 83 half-hours at the BBC, all tragically lost. Christ, almost two full days worth. Also, this thread on Cook’d and Bomb’d covers the pair in such depth, I felt there was little to add in picking over those clips myself. Though it did really help solidify the idea; which I think was already apparent from the atmosphere between the two, and the — shall we say — differing levels of talent, as they became the decade’s hottest act; that Eddie was almost certainly flushing Syd’s head down the bog backstage.

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Now, Eddie’s no George Carlin, but I will always maintain — even in the face of our screens being filled with Love Island and TOWIE types who’ve become celebrities because they can’t tell the time, or were filmed running out of a sexual encounter with cry of “oh no, I’ve got poo all over my willy!” — that Syd Little is the single least-talented person to have ever found fame. He stands there like a kid waiting for his mum to stop chatting with another grown-up outside the shops while Eddie does his thing; putting on a schoolboy voice, or almost making it to the end of a 30-second sketch without breaking into his Porky Pig. When he does speak, Syd’s got the stage presence and delivery of someone who’s having to give a soundbite after being handed a cheque from the Postcode Lottery.

Later in the show, Syd’s got his guitar out, and as Eddie’s being Cliff Richard, he introduces ‘Hank Marvin’, forcing Syd to do the Shadows strut; hopefully to a proficient enough standard that Eddie won’t be stapling his foreskin to the wall when they get offstage. In another skit, Eddie’s running through all his voices, while the obvious fear in Syd’s eyes of another backstage beatdown, should he fuck up his task of standing there and doing nothing, nicely recreates that lad who sat on Saddam Hussein’s knee. Though he is eventually given the chance to perform some blinking when Eddie steals his glasses, and later, gets to lip-sync to Eddie singing Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue, as Eddie crouches behind him out of sight, surely moments from wrapping the wire around Syd’s thin neck, or ramming the whole thing right up his anus.

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The pair’s highlight is a real comedy fan’s dream, when they come out in bowler hats to Laurel and Hardy’s famous music, with Syd doing his best to pull a face, and moving his fingers like he imagines Stan Laurel might’ve done. AND THAT’S IT! THAT’S THE WHOLE SKETCH! “He’s fat, he’s thin; find ’em hats and get ’em onstage!” Trust it to fall on Eddie Large to produce a reference I finally understand, addressing Syd — who has no lines, and is once again, merely a prop — as Walter, and asking if he’s been. “Have you been, Walter? Has he been?” was a catchphrase from 1960’s Hylda Baker sitcom, Nearest and Dearest, which found a repeat run in my gran’s house on Saturday afternoons in the early 90s. For the millennials, let’s Wiki that reference, to understand the sort of comedy they used to make before the SJWs took over, back when it was good.

…the Pledges’ second-cousin, Lily Tattersall, who was married to constantly-mute octogenarian Walter. Walter was unable to control his bladder, which led to one of the programme’s oft-used catchphrases, ‘Has he been?’”

‘Has the old man had a piss, or is his dick about to start spraying?’ — they don’t make ’em like that anymore! Not to get bogged down in this unrelated sitcom that pre-dates the moon landing, but this line made me roar more than anything from Who Do You Do —In another episode, Nellie has a suitor named Vernon Smallpiece, whom she addresses as ‘Vermin Bigpiece‘.” Vernon Smallpiece is the handle I post all my cock and hole-pics under on OnlyFans. As a bonus, Who Do You Do‘s uploader’s left the adverts in, giving an added garnish of accursed 90s to the 1970’s facial hair. Granada Plus tell us “the old jokes are the best!” over footage of Benny Hill dressed as a Chinaman, then as a milkman squeezing a woman’s breast with a literal honk sound, along with Chris Tarrant doing a voiceover for Practical Aquarium magazine, a £1 a minute virtual chat and date phone-line, and a trail for Kojack soundtracked by My Boy Lollypop, with Telly Savalas’ head superimposed on a row of lollies.

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But after Syd and Eddie, there’s nowhere to go but down, even with Russ Abbot’s Tommy Cooper. The contrast of my final episode is so washed out, faces are just eyes and mouths on a burned pink blob, with everything else dissolving into the white background. Anyone wearing white clothes loses their torso or limbs, like weathermen in green jumpers reduced to a floating head pointing at Scotland. It’s horrific. At the piano, a woman with big hair namechecks Walter’s weak bladder once more; Freddie Starr as Elvis picks his nose; he sits on a lap as a ventriloquist dummy; hides under Richard III’s hunchback; does the show’s nth James Cagney, all of which consist entirely of going “top of the world, ma!” No, all we can do is forget this ever happened, and pray for the return of those lost Little and Large shows; 90 episodes I will dissect with the finest tooth comb, in the great work I was put on this Earth to write. Rest in piece, Eddie, mate.

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, early access to my podcast, 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 May 26, 2020.

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