Owt Good On, Mam? – Bear Special

[previous Owt Good Ons: The Three L’s]

As I try to find my way back home, wandering lost through the ill-lit subterranean tunnels of British variety, it’s clear the 1980s were a boom period for puppet sidekicks, and 40 years on, the big boys of felt ‘n’ stuffing remain household names; Orville and Cuddles, Emu, Basil Brush, Sooty’s gang, the lads off Rainbow. Slightly less culturally significant but firmly atop the B-list is Nookie Bear. “Haha,” you’re thinking, “nookie is another word for sex! You know; when a man’s nob gets bigger!” Yes, you oaf, you are correct, and just imagine how embarrassed ventriloquist Roger De Courcey was when he realised. Roger’s another star from the talent show breeding grounds, as winner of the 1976 New Faces, and his double-act with Nookie rode the usual carousel of chat shows and Royal Varieties, even releasing a single in 1978, with Nookie’s Song.

The three-minute novelty record functions as an origin story, with Roger “just about to rise” one Sunday morning (I bet you were, you dirty old bollocks), to see a bear “peeping round the bedpost.” Admirably, Nookie’s lines still have that clipped ventriloquist impediment, pronouncing my as nigh and the like. Roger, mate, nobody can see your lips on a seven inch, just go nuts. He dubs the nameless bear Nookie, thus setting up a long showbiz career based around intercourse innuendo, exemplified by lyrics like “take a look around, you’ll see Nookie everywhere” and “we all love a little Nookie bear (bare)” Though there is a cracking gag about doing farmyard impressions. “Noises?” asks Roger. “No,” says Nookie, “smells.” The pair landed their own series aimed at children on Southern Television in 1981, the first episode of which I’ll be watching.

Nookie has a distinctly Five Nights at Freddy’s look, with big boggle eyes perpetually crossed in befuddlement, and no articulation beyond his head, leaving Roger’s spare hand to idly fiddle with and rearrange the lifeless limbs. Its chest is covered by a giant rosette for Crystal Palace football team — of which Roger is a fan — though this was changed to a rosette of Nookie’s own face for the range of replica toys. Speaking of those, here’s your cursed item for the next Conjuring sequel.

It’s funny to think this is who Fred Durst has been doing it all for. Watching him as a child, I found Roger De Courcey an intimidating figure, who seemed not to bother with that social norm of adopting a different, more jovial tone when speaking to kids, and coming across like he was ordering a pint. I’d always assumed this an act which had been honed in the rough working men’s clubs, with a tight ten minutes of swearing, filthy jokes, and ducking bottles of hot piss, before children’s television came calling, and all the blue bits had to be binned, but I’ve no idea if this is the case. Footage of the pair is incredibly sparse, barring a New Faces routine where Nookie’s talking about booze. I mean, the puppet is named after fucking. Like Keith Harris, did Roger have a stable of B-players; Shagger the Monkey and a dormouse called Little Felch? Joking aside, he really did have a dog puppet called Boobsy, with an MP character in the show named Ivor Bentwhistle, which is almost rude.

But as a consequence of Nookie, everything’s a double-entendre; badges with his face on, declaring I LOVE NOOKIE, and especially the title of his show — Now For Nookie — which is what 1970’s men said to their wives at bedtime, as they emerged tumescent from the bathroom, hands on hips, pipe in mouth, and wearing only their socks. Even the logo, to my foul toilet of a mind, seems slightly tit-like, with two googly irises inside the double OO of his name, like a pair of dark nipples. Now For Nookie began on June 15th, 1981, with Roger singing the theme; “together we laugh at trouble, we’re a perfect double, Nookie and me…” Right away, I’m struck by Roger’s look. Pale and red-headed, but bald on top, he’s grown the rest out long, like an egg wearing a grass skirt. With sideburns and a tash; shiny watch sat on a hairy arm; it’s halfway between Shakespeare and a truck driver.

If Tommy Cannon looked like he could knock the turds straight out of you, Roger’s the guy even Tom would back down from; stood at the pub urinal, stubbing a rollie out on the end of his own cock. He’s got the air of that teacher you had who clearly didn’t care about the job or expanding young minds, but gladly picked up a paycheck for sitting with his feet up, nipping out for a fag every ten minutes, only looking up from the Racing Post to laugh at some first year getting smacked in the face with a football on the playing field outside.

At the close of the opening titles, he emerges in beige slacks and a brown polo shirt with the words Roger De Courcey, Bena Golf International on the pocket, bidding us welcome but interrupted by various crashing noises, revealed to be Nookie and some smashed crockery — “you said I’d have a big break on television!

What I found most unsettling about the duo as a kid, as I do now, is that Nookie pretty much uses Roger’s normal voice. The voice of a balding middle aged-man. Same bored-sounding intonation, same rhythms. He does drop it about a quarter of an octave and go slightly more common, but if you called their house phone, you’d have no idea who’d picked up. The back-and-forth that’s at the core of every vent act has never come across more like a man arguing with himself than with Rog and Nook, and I can’t decide if this is lazier than not bothering to do any voice at all, like with Sooty or Spit the Dog. Plus he’s clearly grown a tash specifically to hide the way his mouth moves the whole time, and even as a child, I thought “he can’t be arsed.”

Indeed, as ventriloquists are wont to do, the pair get in a squabble about Nookie using the coarse word “ain’t,” leading to that grammar/grandma joke so popular back then, and even referenced in Inside No 9‘s incredible Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room. The audience laughter is very young, but the kind where they’re shrieking because they understand the rhythm of a joke, and not necessarily the content, with Roger’s routine about linguistic syntax — “I have no tellies, we have no tellies, they have no tellies,” as Nookie replies “who’s got all the tellies?

Nookie ends up insulting the crew, and they cut to a test card, before a fortune teller sketch in a tent with Gypsy Lil, “Romany Clairvoyant, home-made pegs for sale.” It’s all spooky green lighting and dry ice — “don’t like it here, guvnah” — as she comes out in a veil, swinging an incense burner. “Blimey,” says Nookie, “it’s Danny La Rue!” It’s not; it’s Pat Coombs in a rubber witch nose, moaning occultishly and taking out a crystal ball for the honestly-pretty-great punchline “I think her goldfish are dead.” We zoom in on the ball to reveal a waving Anita Harris, performing a very sedate version of Can’t Smile Without You, at least until music’s best key change, when Nookie pops up to pull faces over her shoulder. With Anita squirming, and Nookie rolling his eyes ecstatically, it seems he’s living up to his name. Perhaps in the clubs, he’d have ducked down behind her with “I’ve never seen a neater harris!

After some hi-jinx with a clay ‘trained frog’ jumping through a hoop, which shoots past Anita at a speed which legitimately would’ve been lethal if she’d been stood a few inches to the left, she and the lads duet/trio on Froggy Went a-Courtin’. Nookie’s got his own stool between the humans, but it’s so high, Roger has to adopt a strange one-leg-up position to keep his hand in the back, like he’s posing for Victorian pornography.

It’s just hit me how weird this song is, centred on a frog who’s in a — presumably sexual — relationship with a mouse, and rides to her house on horseback, which must be quite a sight. Maybe that’s why Roger’s actually smiling all the way through, while Nookie interjects with borderline smut, like Missy Mouse opening the door to Mr. Frog with “I know what you’re here for.” The show ends with Rog revealing a new tiger puppet called Ozzy, who’s got a very different voice, a posh “how do you do?” But as Roger finishes with a “goodnight, God bless you, take care,” I fear I’ve previously judged him too harshly. This is much better than the sickly emotional blackmail of Keith Harris and Orville, and he’s less gruff than I remembered; although today, even at 75, he still looks like he’d make you bite the doorframe before kicking it shut.

We’re keeping the puppets and bears theme going with the next curiosity, for reasons that will soon become clear. Taking the Prince Among Men titling system of the good old surname pun, we’re onto the only surviving episode of ventriloquist Dawson Chance’s 1980 vehicle, Take a Chance. Dawson was a familiar face on very Millard-centric series of the era, pulling impressions on The Krankies Club, Who Do You Do? and Crackerjack. A kids show where he’s running a boarding house, Take a Chance has one of those squelchy-sounding theme tunes, like Roobarb and Custard, and its opening titles showcase a varied cast of puppets, from foam pigs and cutesy creatures to one of those haunted looking old-style ones with the bow tie and clacky jaw.

Incidentally, what a fantastic name Dawson Chance is; like a mormon-turned-pornstar. There’s big, high-pitched cheers as he comes out in a dentist’s smock, with cuddly turtle puppet, Willy. Visually, it’s a bit odd, as he’s not supporting Willy like how Keith gently cradled Orville, so there’s no way to interpret this other than it being held aloft by the anus. There’s a recurring bit when he ducks into his shell, as Dawson and the audience cry “Willy!” and honestly, most of my childhood was spent running around shouting about willies, so I’d have loved this. Though there is a weird moment where he ‘hypnotises’ Willy by tickling him, and the audience of kids goes dead quiet when he can’t find a pulse — “he’s stopped breathing!” The threat of a kiss of life rouses him back, and by the end of an energetic sketch, Dawson’s very sweaty.

It’s when Dawson takes delivery of a parcel and we meet the hotel’s owner, Stanley, that we get to why we’re really here, as his voice is instantly recognisable as Bungle off Rainbow. Note that Stanley Bates was the good Bungle, and not that horrible The Shining bastard they started with. But even stripped of the giant head, I feel like you’d have known. His hangdog expression seems like Bungle’s merely been run through a human filter on a photo app, and even his mannerisms; hands planted on hips, fists in balls, elbows at perfect 90-degree angles; are exceedingly Bungle-esque. Every moment he’s onscreen is an absolute joy; camp and expressive; and it’s a real shame his most famous role required his face to be covered. Watching him, I can’t help imagining there’s an alternative universe out there where Stanley Bates was inside C-3PO, and it was fabulous.

The story this week is Dawson’s off to a fancy dress party, but Stanley’s going to the circus instead. When the circus animal trainer turns up, seeking a lost gorilla and python, it turns into the Rainbow version of that KISS album where they took the make-up off, as he’s played by Roy Skelton, aka the voice of Zippy and George. It might not be clear at first, as Skelton’s Claude Bottoms (Bottoms and a Willy?! Did I write this show?) has a blustery old military voice, but when he’s chasing the gorilla — “stop monkeying about!” — it’s far more recognisable, with bits of Zippy and George in there, and sometimes a hybrid of both.

As Dawson’s fancy dress is a gorilla costume (identical to the ‘real’ ape), it’s a masterclass in classic farce — people going in and out of a room to look for each other; mistaken identity; characters just missing each other; lots of double takes. All we need to complete the tropes is a pair of trousers falling down (that’s enough willy. Ed). As evidenced by the sudden audience quiet when it walks in, the gorilla outfits are genuinely pretty frightening, and closer to a Bigfoot, and when the two bump into each other, for a second I worry it’s gonna go all Trading Places and get Dawson bummed. Thankfully, there’s just a terrific Marx Brothers gag with an empty mirror frame (or for a less-refined reference, Crush and the two Doinks at Wrestlemania IX). Added points for the bit they put a wicker bowl on their heads and the jaunty music subverts all expectations by not going into a Chinese motif. But then, Take a Chance is miles better than the usual swill we suffer through on here, even beyond the novelty of seeing the Rainbow animals do an acoustic set. Conclusion: telly bosses, more bears please.

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 April 8, 2021.

12 Responses to “Owt Good On, Mam? – Bear Special”

  1. Every autobiography I read of someone in the business around that time refers to Roger as a grumpy old sod (apparently the Krankies saw him beat the crap out of Nookie following dying the death one night), so how the kids TV gig worked out I’ll never know. BTW, apparently for a time in the clubs Nookie was Bollocks the Bear, just a sideline in what was a reasonably good one of those guitar vocalist acts that permeated through clubland. Always wondered if he resented being associated with the ventriloquism more than the rest of it given how many times he tries to get his singing into this show.

    • I’ve heard the “they gave their puppet a kicking backstage” story about Rod Hull and Keith Harris before, but with Roger, I really believe it. Bollocks the Bear does ring a bell. Shame he changed it; Now For Bollocks would’ve been a great title for a show.

  2. When is your next piece up?

  3. […] relationship he shares with his pilot, who always refers to him as “guv,” like Nookie Bear. There’s lots of scripted banter, such as asking for an increase in his “map […]

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  5. […] and clockwork Dusties, and even a novelty single sung by Ted, which would make a great b-side for Nookie’s Song. Fittingly, Ted opens the episode by holding up a photo of schoolchildren who’ve decorated […]

  6. […] [previous Owt Good Ons: The Three L’s — Bear Special] […]

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