The 11 O’Clock Show

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Channel 4’s The 11 O’Clock Show was one of the most reviled series of the early 21st century, by critics and audiences alike, only fading from the discussion when people forgot it’d existed. Running Tuesdays to Thursdays, smack bang in the middle of Blair’s Britain, it’s a living museum to late-90’s edgelord banter, back when everyone’s main hobby was being really rude to everyone else and not giving a ruddy shit about their feelings; you know, for a joke. Just a joke. Lighten up, mate, you old paedo. You ugly bastard. You stupid fucking twat. It’s only a laugh, not gonna cry are you, like Diana’s kids at her funeral when she died (PMSL)? Give your head a wobble. And while you’re down there…

Let’s start with the first episode, from 30th September 1998, while keeping in mind that daily satirical current affairs shows (2011’s 10 O’Clock Live; ITV’s 1997 effort, Stuff The Week) at best, take some time to find their feet. Opening theme is Morcheeba’s Shoulder Holster — “I am the news, for reasons I can never explain” — sung via animated celebrities, in a kind of Panini sticker album of the era’s news. Chris Evans, Gary Glitter, the Clintons and Monica, Gerry Adams, Saddam, Vinnie Jones, Gazza, The Spice Girls; these are the faces that flash before your eyes when you lay dying from a fatal beatdown by the U2 ‘massive heeds’ from TFI Friday.

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We open, not as history remembers; having palmed all the blame onto Iain Lee; but with the duo of Fred Macaulay and Brendon Burns. Macaulay’s opening line is immediately indicative of the show’s failure, along with its troll MO of being knowingly shit, but smugly proud of it, welcoming us with “the time is exactly 10:55, and this is The 11 O’Clock Show. On the air ten seconds, and we’ve already screwed it up!” Burns, bless him, tries ever so hard to be a punk; thinning hair gelled into spikes, tongue poked out, and lounging awkwardly on the back of the studio sofa rather than the cushions, where only a virgin would sit. Despite the anarchic air, the gags are pure Two Ronnies by way of teenage boys on Sickipedia, with the first proper joke really nailing their brand to the mast.

Macaulay: “This is the day when it was discovered that five million gallons of raw sewage flowed into the River Cray.”

Burns: “Five million gallons? That’s shitloads!

It’s a peculiar mix, tacking shit, cock and cum jokes onto the day’s headlines about trade unions and government policy, with unbearably weak punchlines; doctors forgetting what M.E. stands for; a TV show “Can Cook, But Will Vomit.” In these early days, Iain Lee’s role is roving reporter, in a jacket so big, you could unbutton it, Russian Doll style, and reveal history’s biggest suits — John Cena, Nathan Fielder, Joe Longthorne — all comfortably sat inside. Out on the street doing vox pops about community spirit, a mere 18 months after Brass Eye, from the moment he opens his mouth, Iain Lee clearly watched his copies taped off the telly until they crumbled. Aping Chris Morris with every mannerism, it’s a very Harfynn Teuport intro of “earlier today I sent out myself out to find out, and here I am now, on film.” He was notoriously quoted in an interview at the time — perhaps tongue-in-cheek — that “I take what Chris Morris does and extend it.”

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But there are no classic Morris meets man-on-the-street moments here, as Lee gets strangers to tie his shoes, pretending he doesn’t know how, telling an old man; who’s not even listening; that he’s got a very “hush hush” date with George Michael — the existence of gayness perhaps the 11OCS‘s most beloved comic motif. He tests whether people would help a criminal, asking if they’d bury his gun in their back garden, getting old women to post explicit photos of “ladies and animals” for him, and stopping strangers for a light, before revealing a comedy joint the size of a flute. Morris’s skits worked by demonstrating how people deferred to anything which was presented as ‘official’; well-spoken and armed with a mic, earnestly interpreting meaning from Morris’s gibberish — “No words, just physical action. Flatten the bugger.” But Iain Lee’s, all filmed voyeuristically from 20 feet away, often cut as soon as Lee stops talking, the second the ‘funny’ line’s out, obviously never getting the reactions they wanted.

This is the era of the in-character prank interview, in the wake of both Morris and Dennis Pennis, who forwent straight-faced ironic sincerity to just hurl savage one-liners at his victims. The 11OCS packed its airtime by riding the format, which must’ve seemed an easy route to laffs. Episode one features It Girl Pandora Box-Grainger, aka Daisy Donovan’s Sloane Ranger at the West End premiere of “rubber-faced womaniser, Steve Cog-an”s new tour. But she doesn’t interact with anyone, all after-the-fact narration over footage of celebrities, confusing Noel Gallagher for “the guy from The Verve,” Gary Wilmot for Trevor McDonald, and pronouncing names wrong; “Frank Skinner and David Bad-e-yell.” It’s possible they did some interviews but got no usable responses, judging by zingers like “there’s Goldie! Apparently, he was named after that dog from Blue Peter” and “there’s that woman inside Mrs. Merton, she’s always drunk.”

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The guy who took the prank interview and ran with it makes his debut here, interviewing Lord St. John Fawsly. Though Sacha Baron Cohen had performed a similar character on Granada Talk TV, this is the first televised appearance proper of Ali G, who’d rapidly become the most country’s most imitated persona among office and classroom bores, and Richard Madeley. In this pupae stage, he’s yet to land on the iconic look, with a 90’s festival bucket hat, no glasses, and a voice that’s halfway between the proper Ali G and Sacha’s real one, posher tones occasionally slipping in when an H gets undropped. This is more low key, with a confused Fawsly rather gamely explaining who’s filling the metaphorical roles of DJ, rapper, and human beatbox during parliamentary debates,

From the birth of one of this century’s most successful comedians to more of Iain Lee’s titting about, ‘interviewing’ Mo Mowlam, via prank phone call to Andrew Neil’s Conference Talk, asking why she’s trivialising her great work in Northern Ireland “by being photographed with that ginger bloke everyone hates?” She’d recently been pictured in the tabloids dancing with Chris Evans, but joke of jokes, Lee actually means Robin Cook! They never seem to get the reaction they’re hoping for, and Mo handles it with good humour. Returning from a break, Brendan Burns welcomes us back to “The 11 O’Clock Shoe… Show… grabbing today’s news by the neck and spaffing on its back!

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Then it’s more ideas which don’t land and dated attempts to shock. Geri Halliwell gets it particularly hard, having “stopped dressing like a tart” and adopted a “Louise Woodward look, which makes it rather scary when she’s seen clasping a child.” She supports breast cancer charities, after discovering a benign lump aged eighteen; “because she can remind people what great tits she’s got.” Tommy Vance shouts punchlines over old news footage, with hacky jokes about Gorbachev’s Russia-shaped birthmark, and footage of the Pope lying in state (which didn’t half give me the horn). Clinton’s White House covered in spunk, ‘Golden Globes’ meaning breasts; this is 90’s innuendo, where you said a double-entendre about something big and hard, then muttered “I’m talking about me cock…” so everyone knows it’s not that bad 70’s innuendo; it’s ironic. Wahey! Most egregious moment comes in a bit about smoking at the 1978 Labour Party conference, included solely for the joke “are fags allowed at the conference?” and a cut to a long-haired fellow with “he is!

We skip forwards six months, for a pair of episodes from 1999’s second series, extended from a six-episode run to thirty-two. It’s now got its own theme, with cool scratchy noises and horns, and Iain Lee’s been promoted to main host, joined on the other desk by Daisy Donovan and a pre-Office Mackenzie Crook. Crook was Lee’s some-time double-act partner, and co-writer of the sadly-now-removed-from-YouTube Penis Song (“my cock’s bigger than yours…”) from the unbroadcast pilot for Crook and Lee. Lee’s Morris mimicry is amped up to eleven, with every line riding on Morrisian intonations and disdain, and his vox pops opening on Dutch angles which evoke the spirit of Ted Maul. So too, the show’s mischievous desire to shock at every turn has been supersized.

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Tommy Vance bellows at the top of his lungs; an elderly woman being rescued from a flood — “THIS OLD WRINKLY’S OFF TO GET SOME BREAD! SILLY BAT! SHE JUST FANCIES THE FIREMEN!” and footage of Geoff Hurst and Bobby Charlton — “OLD TEAMMATES CHARLTON AND HURST SEEM PLEASED, I’M NOT SURPRISED, THEY’VE SEEN EACH OTHER’S COCKS!” There’s an insincere apology to Bob Geldof for implying he killed Michael Hutchence; that Lee conducted the interview with his trousers down and a belt round the neck, and that they in-no-way meant to imply Geldof’s a “a no-wife, money grabbing, self-promoting fucked-up old has-been, who was shit then, and even worse now.” With Princess Di a constant point of reference, Crook plays a Diana-themed arcade game, Henri Paul’s Paris Rally, with booze glass attachment, which is noticeably spelled on the prop cabinet as PARIS RALLYE.

Lee’s street bits tackle the church’s need to modernise, asking strangers “do you believe in life after love?” and focus testing a new Ten Commandments. “Thou Shall Not Bum. Do you enjoy bumming? Have you ever bummed?” Again, the public give Lee nothing, and Daisy fares no better outside the House of Commons in dry conversations with MPs. Ali G’s ‘race’ and youth made his stuffy old interviewees over-conscious of putting their foot in it by saying “hang on, that’s a bit daft…” and the conceit of Donovan’s character was that a pretty lady flicking her hair all doe-eyed could likewise get away with anything. But it’s all straight-facedly dropping in phrases like “I’ve shot my load” hoping the victim notices, like casually answering the register with a “yes, piss” instead of miss while your mates laugh into their blazers. Tony Banks’s “what on earth are you talking about?” when she asks “Glenn Hoddle… what’s the Jackanory, is it all hunky dory?” makes one embarrassed for everyone involved.

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Later, she’s off Dennis Pennising at the British Book Awards, asking Edwina Currie and Uri Geller how they write a book, with mildly-unusual turns of phrase like “do you climb the ladder of hope?” so that Alan Titchmarsh will say “pardon?” or something. It instantly falls apart with a mark who’s actually listening or experienced in tomfoolery, as with Ben Elton. Asked “where would you like to go from here?” he tells her “the bar,” and Donovan quips “do you drink a lot?” “No,” replies Elton, “that was just a whimsical comment.” As toothless as it is pointless, the bit’s saved by the eccentric presence of Geller, ignoring whether writing a book is like “being raped by an angel” to suggest four million people stare at their televisions to psychically concentrate on “the nuclear missiles in silos and submarines and moving trucks, and neutralise them… we say 1, 2, 3, disarm!

Which quip will Iain Lee make about Uri when they cut back to him? If you guessed “Uri Geller there, what a bender… of spoons!” then a full collection of Star Wars Tazos is winging its way to you. Some skits are a time capsule of the madness of 90’s tabloid culture; say, focussing on media attention around the ex-wife of Grant Bovey (Anthea Turner’s then-husband, who once boxed Ricky Gervais on TV) who’d just gotten a new dreadlocked toyboy. It almost makes you wistful for the days of no proper news. Or Iain’s line “it appears that every day, Sophie Rhys Jones (now Countess of Wessex) is appearing in the papers with her jugs out!” This refers to a Sun front page SOPHIE TOPLESS, with accompanying photo labelled “sexy fun,” of Chris Tarrant pulling up her top and exposing a nipple for a joke, taken eleven years earlier and sold to the papers by a third party. Sophie’s boobs become a running bit.

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It’s all a lead-in for Ali G speaking to royal boff, James Whitaker. G’s fully formed here; do-rag, glasses, yellow FUBU; opening with the finger snap. Amid this pile of shit, it’s clear why he became the breakout star, with lines about how “Carmella” will never be Queen because she looks like Rod Hull, and the pictures of Fergie “sucking someone’s nob or somefing.” What gets lost as Cohen riffs over him is James Whitaker emphatically agreeing that Diana was “a very tasty woman.” And it’s not all bad, though obviously dependant on contributors being given creative freedom, as Robert Popper shows up in proto Robin Cooper character, Simon Michael Simon, getting MPs to sign his autograph book as he vomits on the pavement with nerves. “Sorry, Mr. Davies, I was sick, I’m sorry.” “Yes, I can see that…”

A real highlight is Chris Morris radio show alumni, Paul Garner, doing his man on the street routine, in the wake of Vanessa Feltz being busted for fake guests, convincing members of the public to lie so he can interview them. Big laughs at the cut to a middle-aged man in a ludicrous wig which straps under the nose, playing a government minister with information about UFOS, followed by a lady “pretending to be a prostitute” reading cue cards of her movements on the night she saw a flying saucer — “2 Hand Shandies, 2 Dick Turpins, 7 Ring-Stingers” — a throwaway joke which is inexplicably referenced in Goldie Lookin’ Chain song The Maggot. The bit culminates in dressing some bloke up as a bishop.

Anything half-decent plays in stark contrast to another directionless Iain Lee segment, surveying people on whether sex is the key to eternal youth, “or if it’s just an excuse to shoot your load over a lady’s knockers.” Though it’s here I must confess to my first actual laugh at his nonsense, as he reels off a list of sex acts, ranging from “touching the booby” to a pearl necklace, before unexpectedly producing a picture of Bill Maynard. “If it was scientifically proven tossing off Bill Maynard added ten minutes to your life, would you toss him off?” Man in Street: “I would never toss him off, no.”

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At this point, I jump forwards to the forth series, from March 30th, 2000. By now, Ali G’s popularity has rocketed, having left at the end of series three for the solo Da Ali G Show, which would debut on Channel 4 the following night. Curiously yet to land his own series, Iain Lee’s gone full Jay Leno, with an opening monologue about British paras caught taking drugs — “Welsh inbreds” becoming a “crack squad,” and “they thought the paras were the wheelchair regiment [doesn’t get a laugh] think about it…” A routine piss-taking the army, with a sarcastic “our brave boys,” could only fly in a pre-911 world, and one wonders if a certain someone was taking notes backstage on with Lee’s riff about the TA. “ Every morning I erect a tent with me bedsheet, and I’ve used my bayonet in plenty of trenches! It’s a euphemism, I’m talking about me cock…

Yes, for a “fuckwit’s guide” to the internet, here’s Ricky Gervais, with entrance music of The Stranglers’ Nice and Sleazy, and a floppy Hitler fringe. The 11OCS website had just launched, getting 10,000 hits, deemed such an enormous number in 1999 that it’s worth mentioning, with Gervais putting on a Mr. Bean nerd voice to imitate pathetic web surfers. It’s a segue into reading out ‘favourite facts’ he’s found online, “all absolutely true, apparently,” and all to eventually become material for his 2003 Animals tour; Koalas fingerprints are similar to humans; elephants being “caught” swimming two miles offshore; and a bit about inflatable sheep in sex shops. “How fucked are you if you can’t get a real sheep? Not even an ugly one?” Amazing to think a few years later, he’d be doing these bits on the West End. Naughty Ricky closes with a bit about Quincy, calling him “a nosy fucking cunt,” leaving Iain Lee shrieking “GERVAIS!” and Daisy covering her mouth in shock.

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An interview with two actors from The Bill has the expected quips about Anne Summers uniforms, furry handcuffs and cavity searches, and a very contemporary-feeling gag about real coppers teaching them to beat up suspects in the back of the van with steel toe-capped boots. Weirdest note is when DC Danny Glaze says he’d most like to arrest David Jason, for “impersonating Del Boy, badly impersonating Peter Falk playing Columbo… it’s terrible, isn’t it?” which lands gasps from hosts and audience alike. The requisite joke about being good with truncheons and polishing their helmet results in a Photoshopped picture of PC Michael Barrymore.

I’ve not seen so much humour wrung from the concept of ‘being gay’ since my schooldays, with a real “backs to the wall lads!” outside of double Design and Technology energy. Whether it’s Iain saying “ET, GO HOMO” in an ET voice over a picture of ET in a Village People hat and moustache, or a joke conflating gay policemen and bent coppers, you’re never more than 30 seconds from a suggestion someone might, hilariously, be a bummer. One episode opens on Daisy reading from then-chancellor Gordon Brown’s diary — “what the hell am I going to tax? Need ideas. Well, at least I’m not gay,” while another other closes with a joke about his budget freeze on booze and ciggies “proving he’s not a gay.”

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Not that the non-homophobic stuff’s any better, now a hundred-plus episodes into honing their brand, and proudly belching out piss-weak lines like “they say that life is all swings and roundabouts, but not if you’re a paedophile under a restraining order!” or that Britney’s starring in a remake of Dirty Dancing, “and in a tit-for-tat move, Patrick Swayze’s had a boob job!” Or simply a joke about France being smelly. Credits roll over Gervais asking a member of the public if they’d rather stab a fish to death or “get caught wanking by a girl you quite like?” This moment notwithstanding, the 11OCS credits are the most interesting section, perhaps giving the inadvertent sense of a fertile breeding ground for comedy’s new class.

Among obvious names like Cohen, Gervais and Crook, there are writing credits for Charlie Brooker, Stephen Merchant, Jimmy Carr (also the warm-up man), and Rhys Thomas and Tony Way, while among the directors, James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords, Muppets Most Wanted), and Simon Staffurth (Rio 2016’s opening and closing ceremonies). One episode lists Leigh ‘Keith Lemon’ Francis as a performer, but I didn’t spot him, so presumably a pre-record got cut for time.

Iain Lee would quit the show less than a week before its fifth and final series was due to air. Thrust into a smarmy, sneering role as a 25-year-old with no TV experience, he struggled to shake the persona, having received his first death threat a year into the 11OCS from a fan of Danniella Westbrook, after referring to her onscreen as a “coked-up slut,” and constantly battling Ofcom complaints over wilfully-tasteless jokes. As Cohen, Gervais and Crook became genuine Hollywood stars — and with the latter penning some of the most beautiful television in recent years, in Detectorists and the Worzel Gummidge reboot — Lee floundered, until finally finding a home, and his own voice, on call-in radio. After a run on I’m a Celebrity, he hit the headlines in separate incidents where he pretended to fall down a well and get attacked by an owl, having decided he’d rather be Andy Kaufman than Chris Morris.

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The first time I knew I wanted to write comedy — aside from scribbling “Mr. Bean Goes On Holiday” at the top of a blank page, only to add nothing but an underline — was the moment the credits rolled on the first episode of The Day Today. It’s only the slimmest hyperbole to say that Chris Morris’s aggressively wayward inflections, wielding language as a deadly weapon, were a life-changing revelation, and immediately I began crafting my own “old woman killed by little glass planet” style headlines, no doubt the exact moment I became truly insufferable to my classmates. That’s The 11 O’Clock Show; a schoolboy imitation, like all those Jackass videos kids made with their mates, jumping into hedges and licking sun-dried dog mucks; except the cast and crew here went out into the highstreet to do their own Brass Eye.

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~ by Stuart on March 9, 2022.

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