Brian Conley

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Brian Conley’s another of those cultural oddities who were massive for years, endlessly quoted in classrooms and offices, yet never deemed worthy of a DVD release or even repeats, outside of minor satellite channels. The Brian Conley Show ran for 53 episodes over a full decade, taking us from the neon and knitwear of 1992 to television’s post-911 trench warfare, and all powered by hand-clapping holiday camp confidence. Like Shane Richie hurled at Jack Nicholson, Conley’s passport probably read “actor, comic, West End star, cheeky boy!” And how to even define his act? It was a bit of everything; sketch comedy, physical flailing, impressions, variety, song and dance; the jack of all trades club style which dominated TV for decades, but never made it out of the 90s. Sketches with a sing-a-long catchphrase? Of course. Slapstick pratfalls? Also yes. The serious song? I’m afraid so. And now, barring “it’s a puppet!” every minute has all but been forgotten.

A career represented in digital dregs, there’s just two episodes available to look at, so we’ll begin chronologically, with 1992’s first series. This isn’t a great way in for a reappraisal, with a feet-finding and very slight show, sharing the sub-30m screentime with guest acts. Brian’s in a leopard skin, fedora and shades ensemble, opening with a thunderous “do you love me?” by The Contours — I can mashed potat-er! I can do the twist! But at least it’s not the Blues Brothers. One day, we’ll get to the bottom of that era’s obsession with 1950’s and 60’s Americana. From Davro, Abbot and Dennis to Little and Large, and every lay-jeh-men act between, they bloody loved their teddy boys and greasers twirling big-haired diner waitresses over their shoulders.

01

Halfway through the show, he’s joined by the Singlettes, a kitsch Australian comedy group in beehive wigs, performing covers from that exact genre, doing dances where you pretend to be going underwater and shit. His coming out in a vest, pants and helmet during Leader of the Pack, covering his genitals with a hand, sends the live crowd unglued. Whatever’s been lost in the intervening years, it’s clear that in his time, the people loved him. He has a real connection with the audience, imbuing shoddy gags with an infectious sense of “we’re only mucking about!” and big on the aura of chaos, perpetually glancing offscreen with a laughter that suggests this isn’t how it went in rehearsal.

It’s a fast moving show, with onstage costume changes before the previous punchline’s dry; assistants running on to slide jackets over his arms or help shed tearaway trousers as the next set’s wheeled in behind him. Keeping the energy level high helps distract from the quality of material, like Brian’s gardener character, running through lines about “the hanging gardens of Basildon,” suggesting the use of a corset to “lift the begonia without getting a big ‘ernia,” and implying his penis has gotten hard from drinking fertilizer. At one point, a Red Indian dances out from the wings — “I said have a ho, not Navajo!” There’s enough dad jokes in these 24 minutes for a thousand bastard sons.

02

Both Dangerous Brian and Nick Frisbee are present from the beginning. Frisbee; psychotic children’s presenter parodying CBBC’s broom cupboard; runs through jokes about big tits, ear wax, and the Chinese eating animals, while Dangerous Brian hypnotises a real elephant, saying “poppadom, poppadom” in its ear because it’s Indian. Even with the professional presence of Nick Owen, the elephant upends the sketch by repeatedly reaching for Brian’s cock with its trunk, though after that recent video of an elephant pretending to eat someone’s hat for a joke, perhaps it’s deliberate, with the good old nob-gag transcending species. We go out on a real Butlins closer, curtain raising to reveal all the dancers and guests, everyone clapping along to a jolly sing-a-long of Enjoy Yourself, in the TV equivalent of a stranger in the street telling me “cheer up, might never happen!”

Next, it’s a stage show from 1996, which went out live on ITV, and became Brian’s only VHS/DVD release, with promised ‘extra bits’. The title Alive and Extra Dangerous plays into his rep, which was not quite in the Freddie Starr/Barrymore league of “anything might happen!” but sneaking up just behind, with vague threats of going into the audience. This is a weird thing to be watching in 2022, but especially when you’re running a fever from the booster shot, and spent all night looping one line from a Mitski song in your head while tumbling in and out of recurring dreams where Neil Buchanan built a proton pack so heavy, you couldn’t stand up while wearing it.

03

Surprisingly modern opening titles switch Brian between wigs, glasses and smiles on a computer screen, in a techy take on the classic Davro’s Sketch Pad “man of a thousand comedic faces” format. We begin with a cameo from the real Mystic Meg, at the height of her fame, alongside Brian’s parody character, Septic Peg. This lays the table for what’s to come, with jokes which genuinely take me aback with their Christmas cracker rankness. But the audience are fully onboard, roaring as he quaffs whiskey and makes one eye look massive through a magnifying glass. As usual with a stage version, there’s more of a rock concert feel, with everyone just wanting to see all the classic bits in person.

Cut to Brian dressed like a giant orange, accompanied by flamenco dancers, and singing in a Spanish accent — “you can keep your peach or mango, cos you know when you’ve been tangoed!” The suit could easily be resprayed for a bollock cancer awareness campaign, and it feels like scenes in biopics where the price of fame has our protagonist sign up for a humiliating advert, like Rocky as the caveman. Brian bangs out an Oriental riff on a steel drum, before pushing the sticks into his eyes to make them go slitty, with a buck-toothed “aah, glasshoppa!

04

Out of the orange and into a shiny black jacket for one of many stand-up sections, which set lofty new records for hackiness, with fellas walking into bars and doctor’s offices, Germans reserving deckchairs, and did you know Brian’s got a black belt in karaoke? Plus there’s willies. Lots and lots of willies. What I didn’t remember about Conley’s work was the incessant references to penis. In a hundred-minute show, you’re lucky to find a 60-second stretch without either talking about, miming, or touching his own, or orating about phalli in more general terms so frequently that even I, the master of nob comedy, end up thinking “turn it in, mate!” Small willies, big willies, hard willies, soft willies; Brian Conley is utterly fixated on willies. Balls rarely get a look in, although there is a fair bit about arses.

Admittedly, it’s a bit rich me knocking anyone for being puerile, and I did laugh when he pulled a “Tarzan in the jungle with a belly ache, wants to do a toilet, [fart] too late,” but whenever he’s straight gagging, it’s a compilation of every joke you got told in school. Nick Frisbee reels off strings of laffers about bogies and farts, and condom lines Mike Reid used in his panto. He even nicks one of my personal favourites, with a letter from Spanish viewer Señor Willy (in mine, he’s author of the book Spying On You in the Bath), although Brian’s is a fireman with two sons, “Hose-A and Hose-B!” Obviously we can’t judge these by modern comedy standards, as this was simply the way back then, taking ownership of a gag, not by writing, but by performing it to the largest audience, and there’s nothing you won’t have heard on the playground or from uncles at Christmas.

Doctor, I’m suffering from incontinence.”

Where are you (w)ringing from?

The waist down!

Though the material’s stinky, Brian kinda sells it on enthusiasm alone, and it’s not even bad per se, just weird that it went out in a juicy live evening slot, and not 9am of a half term. Likewise, you can set your watch by the topical references, with two jokes about Linford Christie’s lovely big dick and bollocks, Madonna being a slag (“why does she wear knickers? To keep her ankles warm”), Skodas being rubbish, Fatima Whitbread’s hairy armpits (“nah, she’s a nice bloke”) and Camilla looking like a horse. The French are frogs, and the Welsh sheep-shaggers, while accusing audience members or dancers of being gay is an easy laugh. We all get that standards change, and I’m not about to drag him to the gallows, but it’s all so lazy. Perhaps we’re more attuned in the Twitter era, where you can watch a topical joke burn itself out from fresh to hackneyed in the span of a day, before hearing it on HIGNFY a fortnight later.

05

Breaking for a whistle-stop tour of his career, he’s laughing at an old picture from 1978, and running a clip of a debut TV appearance with Bernie Winters in 1982. “If they were brains, you’d be Prime Minister!” says young Brian, pointing at an audience member’s large tits. Then it’s back to the present, where you can’t diss the gag-rate, in a show which runs an hour and forty minutes, but won’t let you catch a breath. Yes, they reek — “Lone Ranger and Tonto came across a bacon tree… it was a ham-bush!” — but they never stop. Dangerous Brian beats up goons in a cartoony fight scene; there are numerous magic tricks; there’s even a rap, marching round to a quasi hip-hop beat and grabbing his cock, though rap skits are outdated by 1996, and he confuses it with acid house, repeatedly screaming the word “acciiiid!

Personal highlight is a Devil Went Down to Georgia bit, appearing to play the fiddle, until a finger suddenly emerges from his open fly, moving back and forth in time to the music like a knuckled penis. It’s a genuinely funny visual, particularly when it casually grips the bow, but the absolute gall to do on television what didn’t get a laugh when I did it in GCSE drama. What’s next, turning his pockets inside out and saying “now for my elephant impression”? Throughout the show, he’ll randomly revert to a rotten American accent, which we get a lot of in a film noir skit, acting out a radio drama with an onstage Sound FX Department adding slide-whistles and gunshots to jokes about trusses and gay snakes. He’ll pull the soundman out to grope at his chest, informing him his nipple’s gone hard, in a routine he’d recreate years later, without the patsy’s consent, with a female Big Brother contestant.

06

Switching styles again, there’s observational humour; “Why do women pluck their eyebrows? Remember playing kiss chase at school, lifting up girls skirts? Why are the windows in plane toilets frosted? What’s the deal with old men wearing their trousers so high?” Then impressions; an ice cream man having a poo, an Eskimo going for a wee (flicking ice cubes out of his crotch into the crowd), and a gay chicken; “any cock’ll do!” There’s Barrymore style audience interaction, ordering women in the front row to close their legs and not fold their arms — “you’ll curdle your milk” — and pretending to polish bald men’s heads, although he doesn’t eject any elderly. And more jokes; about wanking, about grandad’s willy going hard, and the expiry date on condoms.

As a willy-fanatic, Brian’s obviously well into condoms too, evidenced by the show’s most baffling section, announcing in a dramatic movie trailer voice “we now live in the age of the condom!” Ah yes, the mid-90s, when they first came in. A musical number replete with swirling spotlights and a big band voice, if you take out his comedy thrusting, the lyrics are straight off an 80’s government flyer about the threat of AIDS.

Sex today is filled with many dangers,

going to sleazy bars and picking up strangers,

for every thrust you make, another chance you take,

if you go down, you may go down forever…

He gets the men in the audience to sing along with its anthemic chorus “yes, I’m a condom man, I’m a condom man!” while pointing at his penis for the thousandth time, with a call for “the lads with small willies” leading to predictable silence, while the men with big willies are raucous, and my, couldn’t the final scene of Scrooged have been very different with Brian in the lead? He takes a huge bow at the finish — “I’m safe as can be, cos I put on thirty three!” — like he’s just closed on Broadway rather than being a 35-year-old little boy giggling through the first sex education module.

07

Other than the subject of rubbered-up boners, Brian’s favourite is undoubtedly what appears to be the Yarwood Earnest Song, but gets subverted by say, accidentally backhanding a woman into the piano, or when “I believe that children are the future,” a tiny trombone poking out of a pram for a solo. “Do you fancy a bit of Elvis?!” he yells, before tossing a prop of Elvis’s arm into the crowd, and in a blast of Yesterday, on “there’s a shadow hanging over me,” a cut-out of Hank Marvin descends from the ceiling. Consequently, when he is being sincere, you’re waiting for the turn, like a number off his upcoming album, which is dedicated to his wife. Fool me once, Brian; I know the stool’s gonna break and send the pole up your hole, or the harmonica player’s trousers will fall down! But it’s played straight, with impassioned crooning to the end, soaking in applause with a look of pride.

The big show closer involves special guest “Mister Al Jolson!” where Brian showcases his Olivier nominated stage role. Thankfully he’s not in blackface, but is in slick West End performer mode, singing about that Swanee River properly, with nobody chucking a bucket of water over him from the wings, or pretending a carrot is his winkle. The accent still honks though. ‘Al’ does three numbers, including a bullfighting themed routine, which feels like the worst bits of the Royal Variety, and comes across as pretty self-involved after a preceding 90 minutes about bogeys and farts. But everyone’s up for a standing ovation as he takes his final bow, with a clapping which could be described as ‘violent’. The advertised ‘Extra Bits’ on the VHS take the form of Conley’s Cock Ups; minor bloopers we’ve either already seen, or which couldn’t possibly exist if the show actually went out live as purported. To no great shock, the script’s attributed to Brian, plus a pair of writers who’ve credits for — brace yourselves — Little and Large, Russ Abbot, Davro, and The Les Dennis Laughter Show.

08

Jumping forwards ten years from his first TV series to July of 2002, this is a different format in a different world, and comes from the final run, three years into the revamped Brian Conley Show. Doubled in length from thirty mins to the full hour, no longer a sketch show, we’re in capital-letters Late Night, with Brian as Carson or Letterman — at least, in his mind. The continuity announcer warns guests will be “braving” him, as Brian tells us “it’s party time,” rearing into camera to yell “HIT IT!” like he’s The Mask or something. The set’s cavernously noughties, evoking Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush with swirling shapes and a staircase which takes guests roughly twenty minutes to descend. Brian bursts out of the wings through smoke, swinging Sinatra voice belting out “baby, let the good times roll!” and gone are the silly wigs, replaced — again, in his mind — with a Rat Pack cool. This is simply Conley as Conley, barring a lone skit, satellite interviewing a racing driver who’s sponsored by Vicks and Anasol, played by himself in grotesque joke shop teeth and a nerd voice going on about skidmarks.

After the standard opening topical monologue, he bids us welcome in one of his American accents, before bantering with the band leader like Partridge and Glen Ponder — “he’s ad-libbing now, ladies and gentlemen!” This is notably trippy because the band leader is Steve Brown, aka the actual Glen Ponder, giving a real multiverse Knowing Me, Knowing You vibe. Will we close on him fatally shooting Michael Winner with a pair of antique duelling pistols? Brian’s definitely moved with the times, as this runs on the blithe cruelty of the fresh millennium, when every TV doc was titled Britain’s Fattest Pieces of Shit: Look at These Dick-Ugly Bastards. There are constant digs at other celebs; Martine McCutcheon for missing West End shows through illness; Angus Deayton for doing cocaine; while Rik Waller’s a fat bloater and Jade Goody should move to “the Isle of Dogs.” Even Todd Carty gets it, in a routine about his EastEnders sacking for being part of the furniture — “Wooden. He is putting on a brave face, the only face he can do!” Is there Conley/Carty heat?! In 2014, they starred together in CBBC’s Celebrity Driving Academy, but any scenes of Carty forcing him to suck on a hot exhaust pipe for penance never made it to air.

09

Some segments are oddly Barrymore in both tone and content, coming just a year after the death of Stuart Lubbock and the big man’s subsequent television exile. A skit where he’s on the street, auditioning members of the public with his catchphrases, is fully just My Kind Of People, with Brian laughing at accents and asking an old man “was it cold in the ground this morning?” Conley’s Kids puts him in an infants school, dancing with children who say the funniest things, and making them laugh in yellow tights with an enormous gold codpiece, which honestly seems a bit penisy for under-sevens, thrusting it at the camera to S Club’s Reach.

Let’s be very clear; this is a truly appalling show, and I would kill for a whole series of it. The celebrity interviews are somehow worse, and first is Emily Symons — Marilyn from Home and Away — who as one-time fiancée of anti-vax goblin, Matt Le Tissier, sees him holding the all-time punching above your weight championship. As an Australian, she gets all the gags about barbies and Kylie Minogue’s arse, and accompanies Brian blowing across the top of a bottle for a duet of Tainted Love, before he pretends to eat a live cockroach, like they do in the bush — “that was tasty, but not as tasty as you!

10

Brian interviews like he’s writing for the school newspaper, asking Natalie Imbruglia “do you miss being in Neighbours?” and “was it difficult going from acting to singing?” leaving his guests reeling off dead-eyed press junket auto-replies. As Natalie stretches out on the sofa, Brian calls it “my little casting couch,” and makes a joke about going down on his wife, before leaving her shrugging to a punchline about Jeremy Clarkson, having to gamely laugh at gags about Michael Jackson being white and George Michael being gay. Enrique Iglesias fares no better — “why’d you think you’re so popular?”is there anyone special in your life?” — and forced to identify funny plastic fish props. One with big ears? Herring aid. Candles in it? Fish cake. And so on.

Final guest Phillip Schofield pisses himself during an anecdote about a dead scuba driver, then plays Russian Roulette with Brian, using bottles of champagne, where they’re strapped in an office chair while Glen Ponder furiously shakes the bottles at their faces like he’s at a swinger’s party and realises he’d better get home soon if doesn’t want to miss The Apprentice. It’d be unfair to judge Brian’s work solely on the latter series, as everyone came out of the era looking like a horrendous cock, but like the music of Madonna, Brian’s surviving work shows that whatever era he was in, he was a man of the times. These days, he’s acting in EastEnders as Sonia’s estranged dad. If he gets fired, I hope Todd Carty’s got a nice zinger lined up.

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~ by Stuart on May 9, 2022.

One Response to “Brian Conley”

  1. He also, inexplicably, has a small role in the awesome/ridiculous cult action movie Equilibrium – he gets beaten up and thrown through a wall by Christian Bale. Felt genuinely bizarre realising it was him the first time I saw it.

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