O.T.T.

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All the best Saturday morning children’s TV had elements which appealed to the adults lounging around on their days off, be it Trevor and Simon on Going Live, pretty much all of Dick ‘n Dom in Da Bungalow, or female presenters the dads fancied. ITV’s Tiswas straddled that generational line perfectly, with an anarchic unpredictability which marks it as one of the all-time greats, even four decades on. It must’ve seemed a natural fit for a grown-up spin-off, taking the leap in 1982 for a live 11:15pm slot on Saturday nights. The concept for O.T.T.Over The Top — was essentially a ‘rude’ Tiswas, where all the winking asides and innuendo could come out of the shadows, like a past-sundown Live and Kicking where Andi Peters swore and Emma Forbes wasn’t wearing a bra.

Lasting just thirteen shows, O.T.T.’s episodes aired some twelve hours after those from the final series of Tiswas, which had been left in the hands of Sally James and a new selection of hosts, after most of the cast abandoned the morning version for late-night. Hopping across to the other side of the watershed were Lenny Henry, Helen Atkinson-Wood, John Gorman, Bob Carolgees, and television’s most insincere man, Chris Tarrant. I watched a couple of episodes, beginning with January 30th, 1982, and from the get-go, it’s unconsciously smug about its self-mythologised anarchy, with the continuity announcer all “the decent respectable people are tucked up in bed, but for the rest of you…

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The animated opening credits show an inflatable woman with nipples like lemon juicers flying through O.T.T.‘s entranceway, represented by two downward-turned feet moving up and down betwixt two upward-turned feet, in that horribly twee British way of depicting sex, as seen on the covers of ‘funny’ stocking-filler books about relationships, aimed at people who describe the act as bonking or ‘a bit of the old how’s your father!’ The audience of grown-arse adults mime out the letters O.T.T like YMCA, in show-branded shirts or office-joker fancy dress; one bloke done up like an old woman; another in a policeman’s helmet, his face covered in bandages.

There’s a vibe of a prehistoric Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, including intrusive laughter from the camera crew, and lots of that ‘it’s live TV, anything can happen!’ deal of laughing at their own jokes and flubs — “I’m breaking these teeth in!” Behind the desk with Helen Atkinson Wood, Chris Tarrant makes the Chris Tarrant Noise, and it’s impossible to believe he’s only 35. He’s looked like he did during Millionaire since he was just cum. The first sketch is a joke about Barry Manilow finally finding a hotel he’s happy with, with the punchline reveal of a topless woman. Ah yes, infamous breast-liker, Barry Manilow. “Didn’t they both look nice?” says Tarrant… hold on a second; he’s not talking about Barry and the lady!

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This is O.T.T. in a single line; showing nudity, then guffawing like a schoolboy that’s cajoling you into that thing where you push your hands together and peer inside because it looks like a fanny. Every joke is capital-n Naughty; introducing a live band, but accidentally reading out the number for ‘Lolita from the massage parlour’ instead. It’s at least appropriate that an adult spin-off of a kids show is the exact type of thing you’d only consider to be adult if you were a child, like those pens with a stripper inside, or finding rude playing cards stashed in a ditch, where the Queen of Clubs has got her hedge out. But this is an adult cast, and consequently it feels a bit pathetic. At one point, Lenny Henry actually uses the phrase “bonking away like billy-o,” which is effectively an admission he’s yet to get his fingers ‘n tops.

Almost primarily, O.T.T. is a sketch show, which is super weird when one of the main players is Chris Tarrant. The notion of Tarrant with the word ‘comedian’ anywhere near his job description blows my mind. Imagine if he’d jacked in Millionaire for a comedy comeback — actually don’t, because he’s dreadful, with zero comic aptitude. He’s on the level of a driving instructor or youth worker being pulled onstage for their church’s end of year show, except all the material’s about breasts. In one skit, a women with no bra walks towards the camera, while Tarrant and Gorman — dressed as Beano-style punks — argue whether or not she’s wearing knickers. She snags her skirt on a bush, leaving her naked from the waist down, and they excitedly give chase as she runs away.

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Later, they do a knickers-on version. “Oh, she is (wearing underwear)” moans Gorman. “But I’m not!” yells Tarrant, yanking down his jeans and running after her for — presumably — some cheeky rape. His bare arse is hanging out, and for a few frames, I’m afraid to say, so are the back of his genitals. What comes next is somehow worse, with a quiz show parody where he’s in a wig that’s actually less awful than his real scarecrow-hair, and the contestants are all on “live satellite link-up.

Representing the UK is Carolgees as a Brummie in a bald wig; for France it’s Wood in a beret and stripy shirt; and playing for Africa, oh, just Lenny Henry in a leopard skin headband and Zulu warpaint. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Let’s not automatically assume the worst of all old telly. Lenny then asks if he can say hello to a few friends of his, and does this:

It’s all like that, waving a skull-topped witchdoctor stick, singing an Over the Rainbow parody — “Somewhere Kilimanjaro, Tsetse Fly…” — and bursting into more monkey noises with an apologetic “sorry about dat; jungle fever!” After sitting through Jim Davidson, the Grumbleweeds, and Russ Abbot’s Three Tops, I was not expecting the most racist thing ever to grace these pages to have come from Lenny Henry.

Aside from the regular cast, occasional guest acts break up the titty-tittering. This week, a double-act called Lumiere and Son do a Victorian strongman routine, where a guy in trunks eats a bar of soap and some hand cream, washing it down with a bottle of Dettol. Trump’s not been watching this has he? Alexi Sayle shows up to do five minutes, but doesn’t go down great. The first words out of his mouth are about Lenin and Marx, as he shouts his way through material about communism and the proletariat for an audience who just pissed themselves at Chris Tarrant’s anus, and are suddenly being presented with punchlines about Mussolini and “murals by colour-blind Mexicans on acid…

There’s also a live performance from Robert Palmer, during that incredible period when men who looked like middle-aged photocopier salesmen were allowed to perform music on TV, and with lyrics like “girl the way you squeal when you get it” and “I thought my luck had held until you fingered me,” before Bob Carolgees comes out with Charlie the Monkey. God, what a wealth of puppet sidekicks we had back then; Emu, Orville, Sooty, Roland Rat, Nookie Bear. Charlie’s the Cuddles to Bob’s far more famous Spit, and marvellously cheap-looking, like it’s straight off one of those market stalls that sells backflipping dogs, forcing me to make the umpteenth Joe Beazley reference on here. In the next episode, Charlie tries to gnaw Bob’s testicles off, as he scalds it with “stop it, you bad lad!” Carolgees will also amble through an an extended musical number about Spit, with so much smoke filling the stage, he looks like Jack the Ripper. For those who didn’t catch Bob Carolgees in his prime, Spit was a dog who kept gobbing everywhere, which saved him having to come up with a voice.

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Lenny does his “gwapple my gwapenuts!” David Bellamy, singling out a “dirty, filthy” audience member to tell him he stinks, before announcing it’s time for Beat Your Brains Out. It’s the playground equivalent of someone yelling ‘bundle!’ as balloons and confetti drop from the ceiling, and the audience attack each other with plastic clubs, pillows and inflatable hammers. Under squealing guitar, the studio fills with smoke and party poppers, and I dread to think how much groping’s going on under there. This sort of contrived chaos is acceptable on kids shows, when it’s actual children — like Dick ‘n Dom’s joyous creamy muck-muck finales — but with fully-grown adults, I find myself taking on the ‘grow up, you idiot’ disdain reserved for those morons who shout you awake at 4am by riding a shopping trolley down the street.

Everything’s covered in detritus, with audience members brawling behind the desk, as a custard-smeared Tarrant tries to get back on track for a caption contest. Every cartoon is a bedroom in the midst of some right proper rogering, with plenty of upturned/downturned feet. “Someone’s bonking in there!” exclaims 35-year-old Chris Tarrant. The address to write in is printed on the shirt of a busty black woman in bikini bottoms, as a gurning tramp character readies to squeeze her swaying boobs. She’ll show up again in a bikini, to pour custard over a man in a thong, where, most depressingly of all, it’s Jan 30th, and the custard-bucket is still decorated with a balding string of Christmas tinsel.

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O.T.T has a lot of padding, like an ancient three-minute clip of the young Rolling Stones. Perhaps it’s an attempt to fully emulate Saturday morning kids shows, as the other episode even has a cartoon, with a truncated edit of Bob Godfrey short, Dream Doll, which depicts a sad-sack who buys a sex doll. The audience might be laughing, but with its sickly synth music and maudlin images of a lonely old man tenderly motor-boating a pair of pointy plastic tits, desperate for any physical contact while she keeps floating out of his grasp, the beams in the attic roof begun to call my name. Then a gang made up of a Nazi, biker, and Native American kick the shit out of him, and one by one, their shadows fall over the sex doll, ala Last House on the Left. They burst her with the first thrust, leaving the aul fella sobbing over the remains, before all the world’s sex dolls fly him away to freedom. Still made more sense than The fucking Raccoons, mind.

There’s also the good old stand-by, the funny foreign advert, mostly the kind where women get their knockers out, but otherwise, like a Japanese ad for phones, which is neither funny nor subtitled, merely making you wonder how staid British ads were at the time, that these were notable enough to show. The ruddy mad bloody nutters in the audience get time to shine too, with Tarrant interviewing a bloke called Roy who can blow smoke out of his ears, though he forgets to put the mic under Roy’s mouth, so we don’t hear a word he says. The ‘silliest dressed’ person — a vicar’s outfit smeared with paint and feathers — gets the BPITA Award, which I’m going to assume stands for Biggest Plonker in the Audience.

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For the finale, Tarrant welcomes the ‘strongman’ back, this time in a fez for a mind-reading act, where a background barrage of popping balloons tread over his punchlines. The gag is he accidentally starts eating his own brain, losing his faculties and eventually becoming deaf and blind, but as it’s gone midnight in the studio, and there’s no willies or fannies in this bit, the audience tire of it really quickly. We close on the bosomy dancer doing a striptease, peeling herself out of a dress into undies and suspenders, with the camera zooming in as she unfastens the front of her bra, aaaaand — cut to black. In credit-spotting, O.T.T. shares a writer with Bullseye, plus there’s an additional material credit for a young Angus Deayton.

The March 20th episode opens on a skit where Tarrant’s an actual cuckold, asking his wife he if can watch when she sleeps with her lover, before cutting to Carolgees sat on a lady’s lap in the audience, where she can be seen rearing back as though getting a whiff of some terrible BO. Then it’s over to Lenny, again with the grass skirt and Zulu paint, as “Africa’s first disco comedian.” He says touring British discotheques has really opened his eyes, “mainly because (as a skirt-wearer) I get to change in the women’s toilets… woola-banga bazoomy!” — he mimes the big tits that he’s been lucky enough to see, and a red emergency phone begins ringing off the hook on Graham Linehan’s desk.

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His launching into a “Swahili disco number” spells problematic in letters the size of the fucking Hollywood sign, singing about running around the jungle and having 87 wives, with battle cries of “Wakanga! Umbutu-wanga! Katanga!” Particularly weird in 2020, after decades of despotic rule, is the image of Robert Mugabe solving issues with his political opponents by “running into the bush and start rappin’ in the nude.” The whole thing’s summed up by the tremendously out-of-time clapping by a couple of blokes in the front row, before Tarrant quips “that was a clip from Black Emmannuelle.”

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Lenny, still in his Zulu outfit, joins Tarrant at the desk, where they show a tabloid picture of Julian Lennon with his new girlfriend. Is this, posits a letter, the same girl who was “jumping up and down on your snooker table last week?” They play the clip of a topless woman running into an old man’s embrace, showing her wobbling boobs from various angles, just to be sure. Tarrant grabs Lenny by the ankle, yanking his bare feet onto the desk, with a laughing “get your big, black feet away from me!” Then there’s a sex scene with Bob Carolgees. Sure, he and Helen are both fully dressed, bouncing up and down sideways beneath a sheet as the audience cheers them on, but we hear him reach a loud climax, where it’s impossible not to picture — as with the titular puppet — the resulting muck spitting from the end of his penis with a hock-tooey.

The next showcase of Tarrant’s comedic skills is so unspeakably awful, that when it suddenly cuts to a close-up of Jimmy Savile, in an archive clip introducing a performance by the unfortunately-named-given-the-context Nashville Teens, it’s a huge relief. In an clear attempt to corner the market on British showbiz’s most notorious villains, Bernard Manning then comes on to do a set. Bernard’s hair has an extraordinary structure, like corrugated iron, and for all the talk of his ‘amazing timing’ he’s got the stage presence of someone whose job is scraping suicides off the train tracks and hasn’t felt an emotion for decades.

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The material is what you’d expect, with an opening gag about a bloke buying a blow-up doll from a sex shop, but they only had black ones, so “he took it home, blew it up, and it mugged him.” This gets a huge laugh, and note that the entire cast, including Lenny Henry, are all sat crammed at the desk six feet away, where Lenny can be seen throughout the routine with his head in his hands. At one point, Bernard castigates him for laughing; “it’s alright for you black people, you can walk home on your own at night.” Bernard then does his ‘be kind’ bit, about how lovely it is being a comic and making people smile, before quoting Hitler.

Now, remember my Barrymore piece, and all the Libyan stuff? Where I theorised it was his version of Bernard’s apocryphal Japanese man who happens to be sat in the audience every night? Well, he interjects with an aside, stopping to look accusingly at someone in the front row — though notably the camera doesn’t pan around to show them — “You Japanese never laugh, do yer? We’ve not forgot Pearl Harbour, don’t you worry, pal. Shithouse trick, that was. Sat there, can’t wait to go home and make another Datsun.” That’s it; that’s the routine! An urban legend confirmed before our very eyes, word for word, even with the capper of pointing at another audience member (who they do show), and instructing them “you look a nice young fella, go piss on that Jap.”

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On he goes, with jokes about cheap Jews, thick Irish, and big cavernous pussies, and a gag about Red Adair, which turns out to be the exact same joke told by the contestant in Brucie’s Big Night, four years earlier. After a music video, we cut back to Tarrant at the desk, where he’s been joined by Bernard. It’s wild to see the big man so out of his element, sat like a proper TV presenter; but then he announces Beat Your Brains Out. Clearly unaware of what’s about to happen, he throws his arms up in genuine panic as a row of pyro sparks along the desk, in what will be Bernard Manning’s personal, confetti-soaked Pearl Harbour.

When we return from the civil disorder in the seats, Bernard’s become one of those ads for PTSD, where a soldier’s underneath the dining room table on bonfire night, as he brushes packing peanuts off his head and flinches from unseen screams and the bangs of bursting balloons. He seems afraid to lower his arms, in case something hits him, and is clearly trying to get his breathing under control. As Tarrant witters on, Bernard makes not a sound, shifting in his seat and squinting uncomfortably at the battlefield behind the cameras. When it finally cuts to a VT, he spits confetti into his palm.

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Onto a caption competition for LPs, including Motorhead and the soundtrack to Death Wish 3, Tarrant picks up on Bernard’s wariness — “It’s alright. You’re not frightened, are you?” “No, no,” says Bernard, before Tarrant reaches for a cuddly lion, and Bernard ducks out of the way like when a school bully lifts a hand to brush through his hair and you think he’s going to punch you. Even aside from the chaos, he’s utterly lost. As demonstrated by his appearance on The Mrs. Merton Show, Bernard’s unable to think on his feet, relying on heavily-rehearsed routines that are so rigid, his nightly act is now confirmed to have a scripted bit where he pretends to spot a Japanese man in the crowd.

Then we’re in a courtroom, with Lenny’s lawyer prosecuting a teacher who threatened to smack her pupil with a ruler. This “poor, unfortunate child” is played by Bernard Manning, wearing the same rainbow punk wig from the skirt-ripping sketch. Feel free to correct me, but is this the only sketch Manning’s played in during his entire career? It’s surreal to see him as part of ensemble, like when they bring athletes or politicians onto SNL, but more than that, such unfamiliar footing further exposes his legendary ‘talents’. It’s some achievement, being this noticeably awful with so little to do, in a way that brings to mind Frank Bruno’s cameo as a doorman in hooligan movie, Cass, where he somehow managed to overact while standing silently in the background with his arms folded.

The child’s said to have a twitch, so… lots of potential for a comedy tic? Nah, he doesn’t bother. Also, master of his craft, Bernard ‘he might’ve been racist, but his timing was world class‘ Manning fumbles over his one line, which has clearly been written down in front of him, with Gorman’s policeman literally nudging him on his cue and pointing to it. The end of the sketch sees the teacher physically attacking him, but as she whales away, he completely no-sells, breaking character, with a smile on his face like “if you lot think I’m gonna let a split-arse rough me up, you’ve got another thing coming…”

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This week’s BPITA award goes to a surly bloke in a red crash helmet and woman’s dress, while the lady next to him came in a negligee, and is made by Tarrant to stand up, so we can all see her nice body. He hands over to live band, Rocky Sharpe and the Replays; 50’s diner Americana doo-wop from Englishmen in 1982. Christ, can you not put that nice Mr. Manning on instead for some of his jokes? In a real Monkey’s Paw, after the final note, there he is, back on his home turf, stood with a mic in his hand, and calling the band “dirty, filthy bastards.” He tells a joke about “one of those skippies,” which barely gets a laugh, because I think he means ‘hippies,’ then it’s straight into the Irish thicko material, and “d’ya ever notice how there’s not many Pakistanis knockin’ about since the Chinese realised they taste like chicken?

Incidentally, I’ve seen comparatively little footage of Bernard Manning’s actual performances. I’m too young for his run on The Comedians, never went to his club, and in my lifetime, he made scant few TV appearances, outside of being a scowling talking head on docs where he was moaning about Alternative Comedy. And yet, I’ve definitely heard him tell every joke he did on OT.T., multiple times. It’s a wonder he kept hold of that trademark girth, after dining out on the same five-minute set of pub jokes for fifty years.

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Anyway, at this point during his closing routine, Bernard’s raised into the air on a (sturdy) harness like a racist Peter Pan, as the crew wheels in a big tub of suds for him to be dumped into, which from the look of him, is the first bath he’s had since man landed on the moon. It’s a prank by the barest of definitions, but all done with this jubilant air like ‘we gave loads of airtime to his bile, but look at him now, slightly uncomfortable in some bubbles!’ When they hoist him back out, he looks like a full-scale Mr. Stay Puft.

With barely any surviving episodes of TISWAS, I can’t rightly say whether its rep on the upper echelons of kids TV is earned, however, even on the basis of two hour’s worth, O.T.T.‘s place among television’s absolute worst is thoroughly deserved. There’s an overwhelming irony in how childish its notion of what constitutes ‘adult’ is; phrases like “dangly bits” and the constant depictions of sex through feet — ‘haha, look at this naughty old missionary! They’re having it off!!’ I’d suggest saving yourself the trouble of watching it, and instead just type BOOBIES into an upside down calculator while listening to your dad complain about Diane Abbott.

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.

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~ by Stuart on July 5, 2020.

3 Responses to “O.T.T.”

  1. Marvellous. Couple of things: look up Saturday Stayback, the series Central brought nearly the whole cast back for a year later as long as they didn’t do this again (it doesn’t improve matters much); and odd how the regular Busty Black Woman role is missing from this otherwise fulsome CV: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Thomas_(actress)

    • I’d intended on covering Saturday Stayback, as it looks dreadful, but as of now, sadly/mercifully there’s only about half an hour of it online.

      And what a resume for Ellen Thomas. Four separate runs in EastEnders!

  2. […] been the main inspiration for Nozin’ Aroun’. Even when they move to a desk like O.T.T., the audience are still ‘dancing’ in the background, marching up and down like […]

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