The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show

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In the history books of light entertainment, the name Mike Yarwood is invoked almost entirely as an example of being massively famous and successful before suddenly disappearing, never to be seen again. I’ve only the vaguest memories of watching at the time, aware of his work mostly through retrospectives, which cover the swiftness of his retirement, peppered with clips of him taking off now-long-dead politicians. In my head, Yarwood’s is the beige coloured comedy of centrist dads; a torch picked up off the floor by Rory Bremner, whose shows I sat down in front of as a kid, expecting laffs but finding stuff about interest rates and “imagine if Paddy Ashdown did a rap! (about interest rates)” For a proper reappraisal, I’m watching a pair of Yarwood’s Christmas specials, beginning with a show dating from Christmas Day, 1977.

We cold open on a message from Prime Minister James Callaghan, in a bit most notable for digs at Thatcher, with a joke about whether he’d kiss her under the mistletoe — “I wouldn’t kiss her under aesthetic!” Six years later, this gag would be reused on the Krankies Christmas special, but with Wee Jimmy’s teacher and chloroform. As becomes really clear if you watch enough of this stuff, it was a period when nobody owned a joke, and comedians on TV were just like the comedians in pubs, offices, and playgrounds; everybody repeating stuff they’d heard from someone else. Plagiarism didn’t exist until the 1990s, and even then it was copied from somebody who did it in the 80s.

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Yarwood as Yarwood enters onto a barren stage with a backdrop of bare white tinsel trees, which give a strong ‘stumbling through the poisoned woods during a post-apocalyptic nuclear winter’ aesthetic. He’s got tremendous Lego hair, and looks very pleased with himself over a joke about Callaghan cooking a Christmas cake — in the oven for six hours but only rising 10%. Somewhere, a young Rory Bremner was laughing heartily. Now, as regular readers will know, I’m fascinated by the creative decisions impressionists take to ensure the audience knows who they’re doing. It’s tantamount to an admission of failure, with the most egregious the good old opener “my name’s…” Many of these signposts are on hand in the first big sketch, showcasing a number of Yarwood’s take-offs, via clever — at the time — use of split screen, allowing him to interact with himself.

It’s the textbook setting of a celebrity party, which illustrates how the country’s most famous mimic really struggled with the easy ones. John Cleese is a standard of every comic’s arsenal; exaggerated leg movements and going “Right! Right!” while bouncing up and down on your heels. But Yarwood’s silly walk isn’t remotely silly, and his Cleese ‘thing’ is speaking through clenched teeth like a ventriloquist dummy. Without the signifier “welcome to the party, Mr. Cleese!” you’d have no idea. Even Davro’s is better. Even Davro’s! His Brian Clough’s less bad, but still requires a trackie with NOTTS FOREST on the front in big letters. Then Frankie Howerd says “ooh!” and whatnot, before introducing the star guest, “Mr. Sammy Davis Jr!

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Oh. Yarwood then does a duet with himself as a blacked-up Sammy. As the other characters join in, there’s no joke, other than I Could Have Danced All Night being sung in approximations of celebrity voices. Then we’re straight into a panto sketch, with the title card JACK AND THE PAY TALK, where 70’s comedy bit player Jenny Lee Wright welcomes us to Union Land. This is Bremner Defcon 1! I mean, Wright’s listed in the cast as Local Union Negotiator, and the wicked baron is “evil Enoch Powell,” although to give Yarwood credit, he’s probably the only impressionist to jump straight from Sammy Davis Jr. to Enoch. Rather than going for, say, the fascism, Yarwood plays him like a generic money-hungry politician, slagging off Labour, and with the catchphrase “Enochy nick-nacky, nicky nacky noo!” so it’s like stumbling across a skit from a 1940’s comedy troupe that focusses on Hitler kissing his niece.

With Enoch putting up the rent, trade unionist Jack Jones rides in on a pantomime cow, with gags about striking, withdrawing labour, and time-and-a-half. With the weird non-humour, bad acting, and constant references to workers’ rights, it feels more like a workplace training video than a sketch show, and I’m half expecting Scargill to wander on and show me how to use the clocking-in machine. Michael Foot shows up, bragging that he’s “one of the idle rich.” Asked if he’s a landowner, Foot replies “no, I’m on the dole!” which gets a very aggressive round of applause from a handful of audience members, no doubt very keen on bringing back National Service. The cherry on the cake is the giant on top of the beanstalk; Yarwood in a fat suit as Cyril Smith. Or to give him his full title, notorious dead serial paedophile, Cyril Smith. It’s shocking to me we’ll get through the two shows without Savile putting in an appearance.

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There’s a welcome break from the murderer’s row of voices, as Yarwood introduces some very special guests with their new hit record, Wings, and — oh, it’s actually Paul, Linda, and Denny Laine (the latter in a Rodney Bewes tuxedo shirt), singing Mull of Kintyre for real, and not Yarwood willying about with a prop guitar and Joey Boswell accent. I know Linda got a lot of shit over a perceived lack of contribution to the band, but someone made the decision to have her sit between the other two with a mic on her lap, not doing or saying a thing for the whole first two minutes of the song. They stick around for a sketch with Yarwood’s Denis Healey — then chancellor — who’s dressed as a punk; studded collar, denim jacket with a patch of Karl Marx, safety pin through a bushy eyebrow; “I got tired of being a silly billy, so I decided to become a chunky punky!

I’m no political history buff, but I reckon that must’ve brought the entire dang system down. Incidentally, “silly billy” as a Healey catchphrase was entirely a Yarwood invention, but it took off so much that Healey started working it into his speeches for real. Anyway, he sits backwards on a chair like A.C. Slater and says he’s changing his name to Johnny Rotten, while Callahan is Sid Vicious, which all gets big laughs, as Never Mind the Bollocks only came out two months earlier. Though modern day Paul McCartney resembles the confused King of the Wood Elves, in 1977, he at least looks as much of a comedian as Yarwood, with a rotten gag about writing Healey some “eyebrow (high brow?) music.

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Of course, Big Mike does bust out his most famous character, Prince Charles, which stood out as the Charles amid a landscape of Charlie Windsor impersonations; everyone moving their stiff hands up and down and going “errrr” from the sides of their mouths. It’s a topical routine which must’ve taped close to transmission, with jokes about Princess Anne’s new baby — Peter, born on Nov 15th — with a line “for Pete’s sake” which gets an actual aww from the audience, like they’re watching The Big Bang Theory. What’s probably the show’s best gag is hiding in here; a line about decorating the tree by giving it a knighthood, and one about the baby, who’s “only a few weeks old, he knows all about the Royal we(e).”

A final song runs us through a gamut of of voices; Perry Como, Dave Allen, Eddie Waring, Bruce Forsyth, Frank Spencer, Frank Spencer doing John Wayne; confirming again that he can’t do the easy ones (and perhaps not the less obvious ones either, who I’m unfamiliar with). Honestly, all of us could do much better Brucies. Come on, Mike, it’s the easiest one! “Thththththth, good game, good game!” His Frank Spencer’s shit too, while Dave Allen’s portrayed via the tic of constantly brushing fluff off his trousers, and tells a joke about the Irish being thick. Ending an exhausting routine, he sings a Christmas carol as Ted Heath, My Way as Harold McMillan, and bids us “tatty bye!” as Ken Dodd.

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Though this is my first time properly covering Mike Yarwood, I’ve referred quite frequently to the “and this is me” moment at the end of each show, where he drops character to do a song as himself, in what can most politely be described as earnest yet terrible club singing. The “and this is me” is the standard by which all earnest songs by comedians must be judged, and they all did it back then, with TV’s comics coming up through the working men’s club scene, meaning if you did comedy, you sang too. Even Bernard Manning had a single, while Jim Davidson released two albums and seven singles, including White Christmas — sung in his Chalkie voice — and Much Too Late For That (The Nagging Woman Song). As recently as the nineties, Jim was ending shows with a heartfelt duet with his own son, which left him dabbing at his eyes like he’d just had to toss out a whole fortnight’s worth of grocery shopping because the Tesco delivery man was black. For Christmas Day 1977, Yarwood, mask off, exposed and raw, croons a rather unfestive Sunshine of My Life.

Though the truth of Yarwood’s withdrawal from the limelight resulted from a number of factors, including stage-fright, alcoholism, and the changing tastes of the audience, when seeing a roster so heavy with blustering old male prime ministers, you can understand the theory that he jacked it in when he realised he couldn’t do a good Thatcher. Speaking of witch… sorry, which, the VHS rip containing 1978’s Christmas special confusingly opens with live footage of BBC’s election coverage from the night she was first voted into Number 10.

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A young, dark-haired David Dimbleby, under a backdrop reading DECISION 79, informs us that, as nothing much is happening while the votes are counted, they’re cutting over to a Mike Yarwood Christmas Special — in May, mind you. That would be unthinkable nowadays, when you could fill all that precious dead time with endless speculation and waffle. Weirdest of all, the footage on this tape dates from mere hours before I was born, making all of Yarwood’s references to “this very special day” seem like he’s on about the momentous occasion of my birth; the fulfilling of a great prophecy about a boy who would grow up to save the world by crowbarring dick and spunk jokes into essays about shit old telly.

Fittingly, the setting for our first sketch is the door of Number 10, with Callaghan poking his head out with the security chain on to tell some carol singers “go away, I’m not coming out!” and “I might’ve known you’re not from the conservative party, you’re all singing the same tune.” But with the looming ghoul of Thatcher so unavoidable, Janet Brown was drafted in to play The Hellbeast, opposite Yarwood’s Parkinson. Parky (quite correctly) refers to himself as “a male chauvinist pig,” and his wig’s very ‘middle-aged Paul Weller fan only has access to the kids every other weekend’. The whole routine’s about Thatch being domineering, with a simply awful gag-quality, like this one about being the proud mother of twins; Parky: “And what did you call them?” Thatcher: “Children.”

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A satellite link sketch gives Yarwood the chance to do celebrities from the US, all the while holding onto his American accent like a man whizzing down a Slip ‘n Slide with a bowl of fruit. His Sinatra looks like Sluggs from This Country, while his Bob Hope is a textbook example of impressionists telling bad jokes through the mouths of other, better comedians — “…all those Arabs are causing problems for your traffic wardens in London, I mean, where do you stick a ticket on a camel?” The Arabs get a rough ride in these shows, and later there’s a joke about an Arab prince who bought a dairy and became “the world’s first milk-sheik.”

A news review of 1978 sees him struggling to get through the hilarity of sub-Two Ronnies gags about a round the world yachtswoman taking a lap of honour, striking bakers who “(k)need the dough,” and an Irishman eliminated from the Best Butcher contest after spending eight hours trying to hang up mince. A bit about manure and Big Ben going “DUNG!” has him properly corpsing, and I’m glad someone’s laughing. Who knows, maybe that was the one to break my mum’s waters? There’s also a headline about British TV programs having been “sold to red China.” Red China? Alright, Trump. If it’s comedy from the seventies talking about China, we all know what’s coming. And those shows are… “The Two Lonnies, The Lag Trade, and of course, Rittle and Rarge.” Yarwood’s so amused by this, he breaks character.

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Special guests this year are ABBA — “ladies and gentlemen, two girls, two boys, a phenomena in pop music…” But I’m dying of shame when they join him for a Generation Game sketch, in Britain’s worst crime against another nation’s people since the days of the Empire. Yeah, Larry Grayson was camp, but Yarwood might as well just have him cottaging, the way he plays it; leg cocked and wrists limp, sucking in his cheeks, all “what a gay day!” like Ricky Gervais’ panto genie in Extras. He hits on ABBA’s Benny — Larry: “What songs have you done?” Benny: “Take a Chance On Me.” Larry: “Oooh, ain’t he forward?!” — eyeing him up with an “ain’t he big?” It goes on for ages, bantering as ABBA get laughs doing Larry’s catchphrases, which feels odd because it’s not Larry, it’s Mike Yarwood; a real band playing with a covers act.

The last big sketch is a crossover with my blog, in a parody of the disastrous Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. His Brucie hasn’t gotten better in the intervening year, although he has glued some pubes into a wig/tash formation, with corpse-like make-up which resembles a sickly Keith Lemon. Mimicking Big Night‘s amateur jokers section, politicians tell boring, meandering gags that go on forever, quickly becoming the very thing it’s satirising, with Michael Foot played as Max Wall, Harold Wilson as Max Miller, and Enoch Powell as Groucho Marx. The latter’s joke isn’t racist, but does fill over a full minute’s screentime, and with this year’s show running 15 minutes longer than 1977’s, you can see where the padding is.

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Even Brucie’s disco dance contest gets a kicking, with Yarwood jigging around in a fat suit as jumbo-nonce Cyril Smith, then as Patrick Moore, copying my pinpoint boyhood impression by closing one of his eyes. Moore’s joke is a truly shocking “better be careful, or I could end up on my Aurora or my Bore-e-anus!” That’s not a thing. How long do you think the writers tried to make Uranus fit there, but couldn’t make it work? Office full of cigarette smoke and screwed up paper — “But it’s not your anus, it’s his… fuck!” It’s a powerful example of the law to which all comedy impressionism is beholden, where even the most accurate voice can’t elevate shoddy material.

The final section nicely sidesteps that rule, by having the voices and jokes be equally shite. I mean, he outright tells us he’s about to do Tom O’Connor, perhaps aware that he could start killing audience members one by one until they identified who he was meant to be, and there’d be nobody left standing. It’s a quickfire flit through characters; O’Connor tells a gag about Jews and Scots being tight; Dave Allen brushes his trousers; Frank Spencer’s “got a boil in my botty!” Max Bygraves is there; the same Max everyone does, shaking your hands like the dryer’s bust in the bogs. Frankie Howerd shows up, along with Eric Morecambe, Prince Charles, and Eamonn Andrews, who’s presenting the Big Red Book to Sammy Davis Jr. Thank God there’s no time to get the boot polish out, and he makes do with a pair of prop glasses, behind which he squints, hunched and pushing his chin out, before pretending his eye’s fallen out, “and it’s the good one!

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With a final “and this is me,” he sings us out with Swinging on a Star, pointedly belting a very self-satisfied “you have been swinging with the stars!” That’s got a very different connotation these days, mate. Maybe the Krankies pinched that too. Though this originally went out on Christmas Day, it’s find myself hanging on the historical weight of the repeat, and the VHS tape which preserved it. Not long after the end credits rolled, Thatcher would ascend to her dark throne, while some miles away, a small baby was born — much like that other famous baby born on the first-run date of December 25th. I’m not saying that post-election child was a saviour, but I am implying it. Though I love the cultural archaeology in digging out these forgotten works of TV-stink for a new generation, there’s a horrible circular feel to this one, like time travel stories about men who accidentally become their own grandfather. “…and this is me!” [pull back to reveal I’m the midwife at my own birth, except I’m dressed as Sammy Davis Jr.]

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 January 2, 2021.

2 Responses to “The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show”

  1. […] historic essence boiled down into the catchphrases “shut that door” and “what a gay day!” Mike Yarwood and co drained a great many hours of mileage from Larry, sucking in their cheeks and cocking their […]

  2. […] it into slurping up bogies. Inexplicably after all the sweaty silliness, Dixie segues into a Yarwood Earnest Finale, albeit with another beautiful example of the terrible variety goodbye; “[singing] look awaaaaay […]

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