Runaround at Christmas

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As a little behind the curtain goss, I had intended to cover Mike Reid’s adult panto, Pussy in Boots this year, but then something else came along, which I simply couldn’t refuse (to be put up just before Christmas). But Reid’s such an iconically bizarre figure, I still needed to see what Christmas was like, as viewed through the yellow-tinted medallion-man specs of his cockney eyes. When I think of Reid, I always recall the time a sadly out-of-it (and much missed) Tara Palmer-Tomkinson appeared the worse for wear on Frank Skinner’s chat show, under the impression she’d be talking to Frank Butcher. The thing that amuses me isn’t so much the idea of Reid hosting a show as his EastEnders character, as the distinction between Reid and Butcher is Rizla thin anyway, but more the notion of Mike Reid — a man whose veins seem to flow with the slop from the drip tray, and with a laugh like a knuckleduster — hosting any telly at all. How weird and horrible would that be? Let’s find out, with a Christmas special from 1979.

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The Runaround studio’s set up like a circus ring, with Reid as the hybrid of ringmaster and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. Truly, no-one has ever been so ill-fitting for a role as filthy-mouthed working men’s club comic Mike Reid presenting a kids show. It’s like someone took all the sights, scents and contents of 1970’s British pubs and magicked it all down into humanoid form. Hairy forearms, hairy chest, signet rings, skin like a leather handbag and the voice of someone who fills his 40 daily roll-ups with asbestos, he’s an amalgam of every anchor-tattooed daytrip coach driver stood scowling at the seaside on a smoke break. This isn’t a ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ thing either, as he wears a perpetual grimace, chirpy scripted lines snarled through gritted teeth, with every word out of his mouth sounding like a threat.

We open on a Scottish piper playing Mull of Kintyre, sombrely marching through the darkness under a single spotlight like he’s leading a funeral procession, until joined by a full band in the studio. But the audience of rowdy, restless children aren’t even looking, with not a head turned the pipers’ way as they dutifully wail through the entire song. Instead, they amuse themselves with a pitched battle of crepe paper, ribbons and various under-seat detritus, flung over the entranceway that separates the bleachers like rival firms of hooligans lobbing batteries and coins at each other on a grim, rainy Saturday as a mud-streaked Trevor Brooking clatters into the advertising hoarding below.

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Even now, there’s something about children of the seventies I find rather frightening, perhaps a hangover from when I was young, and they represented the ultimate fear of bigger boys. If I went back in time, strutting around all cocky because I knew what Twitter was and I could see nudie ladies on my phone any time I wanted, as a jacked and handsome adult hunk, I’d still make a run for it if I saw a gang of tykes on Raleigh Choppers. They’d likely make a sport of chasing me down, tying me to a pylon, putting spiders in my mouth and bloodying my head with rocks; my delicate life of typing pleasingly-constructed sentences rendering me pitifully unable to fend off the perma-grazed little scrappers in dirty parkas who spend their evenings playing on the train tracks.

Almost three minutes later, the pipe band finally comes to a finish, inciting a loud, high-pitched cheer. Mike Reid is surrounded by children — this week’s contestants — who’ll be playing for tremendous prizes this fine Christmas Eve, including “a weekend in Brixton prison!” He’s joking (one assumes). With a “woss your name, son?” which has the energy of a store detective interrogating a boy he’s dragged to a locked back room on suspicions of eating a single chocolate mouse from the Pick ‘n’ Mix, the contestants introduce themselves. It’s a racially diverse group, and once he gets to Jaswinder, Reid repeats it in a stuttery voice; “juh-juh-juh-juh-jaswindah!” letting us know it’s a funny foreign name that is hard to say.

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Reid’s adjudicator this week is a black lady called Jude, whom he puts his arm around and informs us has just got back from holiday in Jamaica. “…and I said to her ‘what was the weather like?’ She said ‘marvellous, I’ve only been here three days, look!‘” Reid points at her skin and laughs, adding, “isn’t that fun, Christmas humour?” But before the game can begin, he corrals the pipe major for a chat, with a “d’you wanna come here, old son?” It’s an echoey studio, with Mike Reid’s rubbish questions about “do pipes take long to learn” reverberating off the walls, but still drowning beneath the background murmur of bored children. He pushes on, asking a beefeater of their wolfhound mascot “woss his name, govnor? Like the hat, son!

Eventually, the game can begin, and here’s how it works. The kids are given a bunch of multiple choice questions, and on Reid’s cue of “g-g-g-g-g-go!” — for which he briefly switches from mob enforcer to a Norman Wisdom voice — they pelt across the studio to stand on the circle which corresponds to what they believe is the correct answer. If they’re right, they get a tennis ball representing a point, which are collected in plastic tubes for scoring. It’s general knowledge and heavily clip-based, in that classic way of filling airtime by having each question be a minute of something else. We return from a scene culled from a particular Disney flick to Reid’s observation “How ’bout that? That was a Disney film called My Mother-in-Law’s Mouth. I’m sorry… The Black Hole.” Not one of these jokes get a laugh.

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Interaction with the contestants is unavoidable, and Reid has the hosting manner of both Krays at once, occasionally hunched with his hands on his knees, like someone told him that’s how to speak to children. But it’s not the players he has to worry about, forced to call for quiet from the row upon row of incessant shrieking and chattering, as a team of sled dogs enter the studio. An interview with the trainer is conducted over deafening whines, barks and howls, like that bit in The Thing, with Reid yelling at the top of his blackened lungs, but giving up after one question. He’s still aggressively chuckling about it after the dogs have gone, with a sarcastic “isn’t this fun” and a “fer crying out loud” where he may be smiling, but his blood’s piping hot.

At constant war with a studio of under-tens, he bellows a “listen to Mike!” just for a few second’s peace. The contestants too have short attention spans, looking around, whispering to each other, or fiddling with bits of the set. At one point, a lad’s got his arm poked down the tube they drop their tennis balls. The main problem is all the guest interviews are stuff that Mike Reid finds interesting, but children do not, like a posho in a vintage hot rod — “byootiful bit of machinery!” — who witters away while the audience toot on party blowers and chat amongst themselves. “Kids,” he yells, “I must ask yer once again, please be quiet, this is very interesting!” It’s not. Eventually, the contestants help push the car back out, with a warning “don’t touch the bodywork!” and as it cuts to the audience, one bored boy pops a gum bubble, while another’s head lolls to the side as he sinks into his seat, twisting the ends of his hair around a finger, vacant look on his face.

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The questions are just as kid-unfriendly, which they get away with because it’s multiple choice, with long-winded stuff like guessing the nationality of the Bugatti family who began building cars in 1901. Perennial guest Barbara Dickson does an in-studio spot with the dreary Caravan Song, where Reid mimics her Scottish accent, before the winner’s prizes come in, atop a Victorian horse and cart complete with waving Father Christmas. It’s one of the period-accurate scary ones with a cotton wool beard; your mate’s dad in a grotto in the utility closet of their local, not even bothering to put on a different voice and snorting up phlegm between kids.

Unfortunately, the contraption fills the entire studio floor, with two horses parked right in front of the main camera, completely blocking the view. The pipers break into Good King Wenceslas and fake snow falls from the ceiling, but none of the bulky 70’s cameras have room to get a clear shot of anything, so we cut between discordantly framed close-ups of army musicians, while the sound of Mike Reid’s angry voice can be heard shouting over the din. Fuck your chocolate box Victorians and their chestnuts, this is a proper period Christmas.

06

I am able to add some minor production insight, courtesy of a water-damaged copy of Mike Reid’s autobiography, Triffic, which I was offered for free at a car boot 15 years ago, during a day of torrential rains. Perhaps unsurprising when you actually watch it is the speed they were made, with just eight weeks between receiving the script and the episode airing. Though it was pre-recorded, each show was taped as-live, with mistakes kept in, and filming starting at 4pm, wrapping by half-past. According to Reid, the first show was a disaster; a nine hour marathon where fifty sheep shat on the floor, while an elephant, well, I’ll let him tell it — “…its trunk round my plums, up my arse and sniffing my neck… when all of a sudden, this monstrosity of a cock starts to unfold. It was like a four-foot roll of lino.” The taping closed with Reid having to give an apologetic speech to an audience of children plus their parents and teachers after accidentally saying fuck.

Despite appearances, does he think of the show fondly? “Even today, I get people in their thirties and forties coming up to me and shouting ‘Runaround!’ And I go ‘yeah – nice one’, as though they’re the first person to have chucked it at me since the seventies.” Triffic! Moving onto 1980’s Christmas special, we open outside the entrance of Southern Television, where dual signs read SOUTH POLE and NORTH POLE, and a real reindeer and penguin mill around an igloo. An ‘Eskimo’ excitedly scuttles out of it to exclaim (in subtitles) “Hello everybody!!! It’s Christmas Runaround!!!

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Mike Reid’s pushed into the studio in a bob sled — “lahvlee!” — where it’s a special Runaround On Ice, with the floor turned into a skating rink, complete with a stuffed polar bear which looks like it was taxidermied by Picasso. Its lower jaw jutting past its snout, with a pair of beady doll’s eyes gazing into our souls, we’ll be treated to unsettling zooms on its existentially frightening face throughout the show. But Mike Reid is an earthy creature, at home on the solid ground of cobblestones and the beer ‘n’ blood soaked floorboards of his boozer, and not on the (faux) ice. Trapped on a pair of skates, he staggers bandy-legged towards the bear for something to cling onto, and will not leave the safety of its carcass for the entire show, spending almost the full half hour standing stock still, afeared of going arse over tit.

Welcome to Runaround,” he shouts, gazing at the bear’s fangs, “this is my mother-in-law. Her mouth’s as big as that, anyway.” Back outside, the Eskimo — “a right wally, ‘ave a look at this wally, go on” — demonstrates this week’s prizes. His supposed ‘Inuit’ dialogue sounds remarkably like Japanese, and the actor’s listed as Frankie Au, whose other credits include Son in The Chinese Detective, and Japanese Gentleman in a Terry and June. This is 1980, where the term ‘foreign’ is a broad umbrella, and we cut back to a cackling Reid, saying “televis-aahh!” in a Chinaman voice, demonstrating his versatility by going straight into a Jim Davidson-style Jamaican — “hoo yes, mon, welcome to de Christmas runaround!

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After the kids are introduced, he sings We Wish You a Merry Christmas in another foreign accent I can’t place, before pretending to make the bear growl. “What a wilf!” he says, before calling the kids “a load of wilfs” and inferring that he too might make a mistake, and would thus be “a wilf” himself. The audience are decidedly less riotous this year, sitting quietly in school uniforms, and clapping when they’re supposed to. Perhaps he sent someone round to ‘have a word’. Fucking wilfs.

This year’s first guests come from the Ice Follies show, skating onto the floor in a huge snake of colourful, extravagant costumes. There’s Aztec gods, sexy nutcrackers, a distressed poodle, a nightmare pig with big eyelashes and a Fu Manchu tash in an Oriental hat, and an extremely tight lycra frog outfit that’s giving me uncomfortable stirrings. Reid chats with the elderly man who runs the show, leaning on the bear for support, as they bring out a trio of costumes resembling the giant floating head from Zardoz, but painted silver with a pair of ladies legs poking out of the bottom. “Alright, big ‘ead?” laughs Reid, “like your hairstyle, who done that, the council?” The old man tells him they were supposed to be moon-people; “Ain’t got a bad pair-a legs for moon people, have they?” says Reidy. The man’s rather taken aback by this, stammering a “well, I don’t know, I haven’t studied them. I’ll take a look now…” As he cranes his head down towards the slender, silver thighs, I fear he’s about to have an awakening.

09

The next guest is “a young lady, super skater, and a lovely looking girl.” Eighteen-year-old figure skater Ruth Lindsay spins around the rink doing a few twirls, but in the cramped space (and with a bear in the way), she’s limited to unspectacular and very slow spinning, jumping about half an inch off the floor. Reid admires from the safety of the bear as she passes, in her short skirt and leotard, greeting her for the chat with an “allo, gorgeous.” There are banging sounds through the interview, which I think is the kids sat above, boredly kicking their feet against the set, while the most Reid-ian question is whether she keeps her weight down by dieting. “Beautiful young lady, fine skater. Delightful!

In the related quiz question, Reid’s overwhelming instinct to be racist at every turn leaves him unable to even say the words “John Curry” without said surname causing him to drop into an Indian accent to remark “vunderful person!” Another question about the plant under which people kiss at Christmas is asked in a camp voice, because of how unmanly and effeminate the act of kissing is. One about who wrote A Christmas Carol has the wrong answers of Rudyard Kipling, whom Reid mispronounces as “Roger,” and Shakespeare as “Shakes-pove…” But it’s a Rudolph question that does him in, specifically an illustration of the reindeer with a torch strapped to its head. Something about this image reduces Reid to hysterics, purple-faced and wheezing through his “g-g-g-g-go!” and grasping onto the bear to stop from slipping as his legs go. By the time the kids get back, he’s still bemt double, muttering “wiv a torch… I can’t believe that, can you believe that?

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After a performance by Madness, dressed as Santas and miming to One Step Beyond, it’s the end of the quiz, where a little child’s voice, full of the joys of the season, can he heard crying out “it’s snowing!” Reid replies “it’s snowin’ again? Oh, fer crying out loud.” Counting the scores, he walks very gingerly across the floor, like a man with a recently burst anal fissure. The winner’s decided after a tie-breaker, and our host announces “have we got a surprise for you, OR WOT?! Everybody follow Michael!” Like a Polio-stricken Pied Piper, he inches his way across the floor as the kids — and Madness — follow behind. Suggs’s legs go out from under him, and he crashes right on the back of his head for a definite concussion. To the audience, for a brief moment, it must look like Santa just died.

There’s a frankly incredible green screen of a sleigh flying over the studio, as we pan down to Reid and the kids stood outside the igloo, and he shakes hands with the Japanese Eskimo with a “nice to see you,” adding “woss he talking about? What a lot of rubbish!” A reindeer’s pulled into frame by a stage hand, and I do mean pulled, tug-of-warring with the poor thing, which does not want to be there, bucking angrily against the rope. The sleigh behind is hilariously rinkydink; literally a small plastic sledge from Woolies, which can barely contain its massive Father Christmas, revealed to be Big Daddy — again, with a superb cotton wool beard — aggressively hurling presents at the children.

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The British Hulk Hogan, Big Daddy’s physique is a genuine wonder for someone who became a household name as a pseudo sportsman. Hilariously unathletic, he’s comprised of 90% gut, which Reid can’t stop touching, and which makes his limbs appear disconcertingly baby-like in comparison. The effort of standing up off the sleigh just about finishes him off, with the cold weather giving a wicked case of rosacea. Unsurprisingly, Daddy deems Christmas “the finest day of year, we can eat all the grub and drink all we want to.” I think you’ve probably had enough, mate. Famously, he made a career of standing on the apron while younger partners did all the work, tagging in for the big belly bounce — the most devastating finish in wrestling history — which on request, he gives to Mike Reid. Thank God he must’ve held back, because we might never have had Frank Butcher. The pair break into We Wish You A Merry Christmas as the nightmare pig returns, and Christmas Runaround 1980 goes off air with everyone posing for a photo, while Big Daddy holds a frightened, thrashing reindeer in place by the antlers.

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 December 13, 2020.

One Response to “Runaround at Christmas”

  1. […] game show posts: Trump Card — Cyberzone — Scavengers — Naked Jungle — Runaround — Endurance […]

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