The Accursed 90s – Endurance UK

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[More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad ContestsDon’t Forget Your ToothbrushTalk Show GothsJames Whale on TelevisionCraig Charles’ Funky BunkerThe WordThe Girlie ShowAn Accursed 90’s Christmas]

Before British television became uniformly embarrassing, home audiences had to ring second-hand cringe-laughs from the clip shows of Clive James and Chris Tarrant, shrieking at pre-watershed cereal ads from Europe which casually featured bare breasts, and game shows that tormented their contestants — often half-naked and crying — to physical and mental breaking point. This was the era when home-grown quizzes consisted of Lennie Bennett and Paul Daniels reading questions off cards and swapping light banter with people in lovely knitwear, pre-dating the performative rudeness of a Weakest Link or low-offer treachery of The Chase. Chief of these outrageous foreign shows was Japan’s Za Gaman, better known as Endurance; a gross-out hybrid of Jackass and The Running Man, whose Salò-esque antics boggled the innocent minds of a nation reared on Tom O’Connor’s Crosswits.

In 1997, Sky’s Challenge TV, a channel heavily centred on imported game shows, remade Za Gaman, under the title of Endurance UK. While other Japanese formats have since become popular in other countries — such as Sasuke, remade as Ninja Warrior — this would be the first to undergo a British remake. Although ‘British remake’ is perhaps an odd descriptor for a show whose tone and approach can be surmised by two words — spoken on the single surviving episode that hasn’t been put in the bin — “Lule Blitania!” They kept a Japanese theme; at least, the Japan of Batfink and Benny Hill sketches; all kanji fonts and a Japanese flag motif, in a mock-pagoda studio with demon masks on the walls and a pair of sliding paper doors for Paul Ross to enter through, along with “his crazy couple of Pot Noodle pals!” These pals are ‘Japanese’ sidekicks, Hoki and Koki.

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I generally like to let the material speak for itself, but Hoki and Koki are one of the most egregiously racist things from the last fifty years, and I say this as someone who sat through Curry & Chips. Rarely have characters so fully leapt into the bowing, “ah-so!” stereotype with both feet, and every word of the script exists solely to wring maximum laffs from switching Ls and Rs — “herro, Mistah Loss!” The concept designs appear to have been lifted from 1930’s anti-Japanese propaganda posters, hiding the white actors beneath yellow skin, enormous buck teeth, and prosthetic appliances that make their eyes all slitty. They’ve got karate headbands, glasses to squint through, and throughout the show are referred to by epithets like “yellow” and “inscrutable.”

The usual benchmark for bad yellowface is Micky Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; a character which sits in a film otherwise considered a Golden Age classic like a freshly-murdered corpse in the tub of your nice new bathroom. The only way to keep Tiffany’s from being condemned to the same vault where Song of the South and Rolf’s Cartoon Club live is to play it off as The Bad Old Days; we didn’t know any better then, but we do now. Endurance UK came 37 years later, and Challenge figured not only was it fine, but actually, Rooney’s character didn’t take it far enough — “yeah, plaster some canary-coloured paint on there too; have Paul Ross call them Pot Noodle pals…”

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Though Hoki and Koki are credited as themselves, they’re portrayed by a pair of comedians from Saturday morning kids show, What’s Up Doc?, which shares its director with Endurance. Both men were used to working under prosthetics while portraying nightmare characters, with Peter Cocks playing, among others, the genuinely terrifying Naughty Tortie, while Stephen Taylor Woodrow’s buck-toothed nerd character, Simon Perry the Cheese Ranger, would later be renamed as Norm in a series of successful Twix adverts. Though he doesn’t appear in the episode, Chris Sievey aka Frank Sidebottom would also feature on Endurance, wearing a German SS helmet, Hitler tash and leather shorts, in the role of Gimp-Man.

Endurance UK‘s racism runs deeper than its sidekicks; it’s the core structure of the show. Unashamedly, the vibe that Challenge are going for is a cheery nod towards the Japanese reputation for committing unspeakable acts of torture on POWs during World War 2. When contestants line up at the beginning, Paul Ross describes the formation as “Tenko style,” while Hoki and Koki threateningly parade up and down, brandishing bamboo canes and yanking players out for a chat with Ross like they’re about to be sewn to a live boar with a grenade up its arse for the amusement of the guards.

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Contestants are clad in red PE shorts, with headbands and bibs bearing Japanese writing, like that tattoo you got on holiday in Ibiza ’99 which you think says WARRIOR but actually reads STUPID ENGLISH DOGFUCKER. Most hold bottles of booze which they raise in toast as the camera whizzes past, one of them crying “ah-so!” while another pushes his face into the lens, yelling “mad for it!” like the entire 90s has been manifested into a half-cut tulpa with Britpop sideburns. They’re playing for a place in the grand final, where a round-the-world trip for two is at stake, but the evening’s only actual prize is a trophy of a golden hand with two fingers up in the peace sign — you know, like Japanese people do in photos and that? Ross uses it to flick Vs at the camera while a loud fart noise is piped into the studio.

The short chats between contestant and host are a vivid portrait of a time; a time when everything and everyone was absolutely awful; each regaling with their best anecdote, as one would when finding oneself on telly. Nick showed his pubes on stage in front of 200 people, Mark likes football and drinking, while Steven “got stitched up on holiday, where I had to teach about 400 people to do the Agadoo dance!” Alastair teaches children with special needs, and asked if he could do anything for Hoki and Koki, replies “I’m afraid they’re beyond my repair.” Nicky describes herself in two words — “cheeky but probably a bit of a nightmare” — before Paul Ross asks, well, see for yourself.

The first round is Pee Wee Herman’s breakfast machine by way of Dr. Mengele, with everyone taking a “rie down for sreepy times” on their backs, legs in the air, so the “big prick” of a needle held between the thighs doesn’t drop and burst a balloon, which will empty a bucket of pig urine over their face. It goes on for fucking ages, with Hoki and Koki berating and poking them with sticks like the Russian roulette scene in Deer Hunter, and tossing handfuls of white powder in their eyes to put them off, like in the old wrestling tradition of sneaky Japanese heels blinding opponents with handfuls of salt. After endless close-ups of trembling legs, four buckets of pig-piss half the field, and plinky-plonky Oriental music plays off the vanquished as Paul Ross bids them “sayonara!

Proceedings are broken up by clips of the original Japanese show, where “rubbery rads” (lovely lads) are hogtied and covered in birdseed while pecked by chickens, holding in wee after being forced to drink gallons of water, and hanging upside down dressed as bats while covered in cockroaches. But all this, and the studio games; it’s just twee nowadays. We’ve all seen Steve-O stapling his ballbag, and we’re two decades removed from Dave England re-eating a previously digested omelette. You gasping nineties try-hards, you are babies, squealing in horror as loose chickens peck seeds from a man’s legs, while we’re casually putting Netflix on as we eat our tea, to watch a pig munching an apple right out of Preston Lacy’s anus while Bam Margera vomits.

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But there is a genuine air of danger in the studio, of unpredictability, with everyone on edge, and a sense that even the audience aren’t safe, pulled into participation sections, like a bit with a puppet ‘Japanese fighting cock’ — “you rike-a cock?” — where Hoki and Koki hurl eggs into the crowd. Of course, the puppet violently mauls Ross like Emu, and later they’ll take it into the stands with a fiver in its beak for anyone brave enough to try and grab it. The female volunteer’s asked “have you ever had an encounter with a one-eyed cock before?” before the bird attacks. She screams like she’s being murdered, pulled around by the hair and dragged to the floor, and laughing with a shocked “oh my god!” as she’s finally let up, looking like she’s just fallen out of a passing tornado.

Like the Carry On films, rounds are initiated with the banging of a gong, by an outrageously dated sexy nurse in suspenders, whom Paul Ross saucily instructs to “bang for us.” I don’t know if you’re aware, but ‘bang’ is occasionally used as slang for intercourse. What is he like?! Other introductions include “some people say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, personally, I prefer a pear (of great big tits!!!)” and a simple “in lovely, wobbly action; bang away, babe!

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Round two has contestants wrapped in bin-liners to hang from a bar with an egg in their mouth. It’s massively overbooked, with hissing cockroaches down their tops, rats running over their hands, fake shit smeared on their faces with a mop, a boxing glove on a broom punching them, and wax strips (clearly just sellotape) being ripped from their thighs. Everything takes longer to explain than do, which is still ages, and it all feels like the ‘initiations’ a school bully makes kids do under the presence of joining a fake gang, where 20 years later, he lives off cup-a-soups in a hovel because all his wages go on a crippling addiction to bespoke S&M pornography. Though it’s all basic I’m a Celebrity stuff, I did grip the edge of the desk when they pushed the whole egg right inside their mouths, having flashbacks to that bloke whose act was swallowing a billiard ball.

At the start of the third round, stood at his ‘sushi bar’, Hoki greets Ross with a “herro, Paul” instead of the subservient “Mistah Loss” — an infraction which usually earns a slap round the face as punishment. But he doesn’t do it here, perhaps as a result of the incident in this clip where Hoki bundles Ross to the floor in retaliation and legitimately kicks the shit out of him. Ross can be heard grunting in pain and calling for a Stanley(?), before they get back into character and carry on; “harmony has been restored.” “I ruv you.”

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The third round is more stuff that would get crossed off Ant and Dec’s whiteboard for being too boring, with everyone getting pig brains, dead cockroaches, and smelly old eggs dropped into their mouths via a feeding tube. Beforehand, they give one of the eggs to a middle-aged bloke in the audience to sample, which he calmly nibbles like he’s eating a digestive. Contestants also have live chickens pecking seeds off their legs, and we go to an ad break with Hoki turning his back to camera and pretending to show the audience his dick, although judging from their reaction, it seems like he actually got it out. The final game has the last surviving pair attached to a winch by the ankles, pelted with lumpy gravy and maggots, with the loser whoever lets go first and gets yanked into a pile of manure.

A shit-covered winner is crowned, earning a cigar and the chance to do it all again in the final, as Hoki and Koki fulfil another stereotype — love of karaoke — and sing us out with Endurance UK‘s anthem, which is rife with kung fu sound effects and lots of Ls and Rs they can swap around.

beat me, whip me, cover me in jam,

flog me, snog me, I don’t give a damn

tweak me twang me, make me eat lard,

but you know you’ll never break me cos i’m too flippin hard!

08

Endurance UK ran for, well, I’m not sure. Though it’s vividly remembered by its target demographic of ‘people who were in their 20s in the 1990s,’ almost everything about the show has been scrubbed from the internet, to the point I can’t even discern how many episodes occurred in its run from 1997-98. Challenge’s other big Japanese import was Takeshi’s Castle, dubbing footage from the original version with ‘funny’ English voiceover from Craig Charles, and his catchphrase “happy clappy Jappy chappies.” While Takeshi’s Castle went through a number of revivals between 2002 and 2013, jumping to Comedy Central in 2017, and is still running today, funnily enough, Endurance UK has stayed in the late 90s where it belongs. It’s for the best, considering the torture gimmick has since been adopted by television’s cosy mainstream, robbing it of that precious shock value. Also, you know, cos of all the terrible, terrible racism.

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 February 17, 2021.

3 Responses to “The Accursed 90s – Endurance UK”

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

  2. […] [More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad Contests — Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush — Talk Show Goths — James Whale on Television — Craig Charles’ Funky Bunker — The Word — The Girlie Show — An Accursed 90’s Christmas — Endurance UK] […]

  3. […] busted teeth performed by Peter Cocks and Woody Taylor, who you may remember as Hoki and Koki on Endurance UK. Evidently, this is a weird episode to start with, as following the titles, we find cast, crew and […]

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