Pauline’s Quirkes

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As a one-line pitch to sell me on something, ‘chat-cum-magazine-cum-sketch show hosted by a teenage Pauline Quirke’ is hard to top. The title’s even got a pun in it! Pauline’s Quirkes debuted on Thames, on November 15th 1976, for a six episode run, with Gilliam-style opening titles where Quirke as King Kong rises from the depths to devour the Thames logo with a hearty belch. Each episode kicks off with the theme — “What’s her name? What’s her game?” — belted out by energetic young pop group, Flintlock; a five-piece who’d previously been house band on kid-comedy show You Must Be Joking, in which Pauline also starred. But as it turns out, they’re more than just the Roots to Pauline ‘s Jimmy Fallon, and that initial pitch is a Pauline Quirke-shaped Trojan Horse, for one of the Top 5 weirdest things I’ve ever sat through.

The seventeen-year-old Quirke is merely a smaller iteration of the one we all know from Maisie Raine and Emmerdale, and that thing about a serial killer which was constantly trailed on ITV, with her sat behind bars threatening “do what I want or I’ll stick pins in you,” and she seems to have been born fully-formed. I feel like the teenage me would be unrecognisable, both physically and in mannerisms, from the modern Millard, but Linda Robson appears too, and you could’ve dropped the pair straight into Birds of a Feather, as-is. From the start, there’s a lot of Python-esque wall-breaking and meta stuff, getting into an argument with the announcer and then taking a pie to the face. In one episode, everyone runs out of frame cos “there’s a sketch coming!” which barges in from the left, and Pauline will open a dressing room door to nearly get flattened by a bluescreened speeding train.

01

The series’s prevailing theme is gender inequity, and Pauline does some political stand-up, all ‘how come boys can wear trousers to school while girls have to wear skirts?’ — “in the winter, the wind goes right up it!” This segues into a survey section, taken from the readers of Look In magazine, and hosted by Pauline, Flintlock drummer Mike Holoway, and Nula Conwell, who went onto play Viv Martella in The Bill. Mike’s aghast at suggestions of boys doing housework and dads looking after their babies, while Pauline reads a letter from a girl who wishes her dad would push the pram, with The Quirke calling him “a right male chauvinist pig!” She tells us that boys are shy too, and girls; “if you want your fella to be more adventurous, then tell him; encourage him, make him!

Of note here is a letter replying to the query “what would you most like to see the opposite sex doing?” from a 7 year old boy called Mmoloki Chrystie. He simply replied ‘kissing me.’” Little horn-dog Mmoloki would grow up to be in Grange Hill, and take centre stage in the Just Say No campaign. But there’s heavy focus on a very specific issue; should boys be allowed to wear dresses? In pre-Drag Race times, the very idea gets huge laughs, with Mike daring a lad who says he would to see what ‘appens, insisting that he’d never do such a thing. Asked if he can run faster in a skirt, he replies “I’d have to,” implying…? What seems like a regular opinions bit only happens once, taking on an entirely different slant the further one treks into Pauline’s Quirkes, which is thoroughly and compulsively fixated on getting Flintlock into girls’ clothes.

02

With its single-mindedness, much of the show plays like those imaginary ‘forced feminisation videos’ your Alex Jones types think are hypnotising kids into using the wrong toilets, with half the sketches building to a punchline where Flintlock are emasculated; wearing a dress, crying, or putting on a 70’s comedy homosexual voice. A classroom skit about sexist uniform rules ends with Flintlock standing up to reveal they’re in skirts, while another sees sat Mike in the audience with Linda Robson, who tells him seductively “I haven’t got a bra on today,” before turning to camera with “I have really.” Mike too, looks into the lens; “so have I!” Two of the boys are gay policemen (“Goodnight, super.” “Goodnight, gorgeous!”), cuddling up and swinging their whistles camply, and when they’re cavemen, one simpers “he loves me!” after a bandmate clubs him over the head. All these early examples of shipping send the audience into conniptions.

Pauline makes an announcement that the sketches aren’t real, and “when Flintlock take part in them, they are only acting,” in one of a few bits which tread the line between ‘just a joke’ and something the band’s management demanded be written in, to clarify to their young, record-buying fans that they don’t really have knickers on under their flares. “If there’s anyone who’s a bit kinky here, it isn’t Derek for wearing dresses, it’s the writer” — but hee-hee, it was Bill from Flintlock who wrote all them gay skits!

03

For all the recurring talk of sexism, and despite the title, this is entirely The Flintlock Show, clearly a marketing exercise, ala The Monkees, but needing someone capable of holding everything together. You’re never more than five minutes from a (mimed) Flintlock number, drowned out by audience screams, the air thick with the hormonal violence of first love. In every thrashing row, scarves wave with band member names knitted into the design, where CAROLINE LOVES JAMIE stretches across the seats like an SOS. “Cor,” says Pauline, “you’ve gotta admit it girls, they are ‘andsome, ent they?” It’s Mike who fills the Mark Owen/Davey Jones role, of the smallest one they fancy the most, and consequently gets all the screentime. Looking like a young Tony Blackburn, he’d graduate from this to The Tomorrow People.

With an audience 100% comprised of their fans, each appearance of the boys elicits rabid screams, crushing everything under a wall of noise; the savage power of adolescent lust and longing. As a viewer, the unending sonic exhaustion feels like being sat underneath Michael Jackson’s hotel balcony (minus the threat of falling babies), and as there’s no real difference between screams of excitement and those of pain, when they sing about — say — taking you into their bedroom and turning out the light, it sounds like when that Swedish drill team supposedly bored right into Hell.

04

Where this noticeably differs from usual TV audiences is its unfiltered nature, not beholden to signs cuing applause, and absolutely refusing to quieten down when they should, leaving every reaction painfully natural. Unable to hold it in, shouts come like heckles, every sketch under fire from the shrieking of names, as though the band might step offstage into the cheap seats and sweep a fourteen year old girl onto the tour bus. Anyone who’s not part of the group feels in genuine danger, with one wrong word capable of tipping the whole thing into civil disobedience; demonstrated with the astonishing level of aggression when Pauline pretends to flirt with of “their” lads, or when it’s joked that bass player Jamie is stupid; furious ripostes cutting through the dialogue of “HE ISN’T! HE ISN’T!” Even the appearance of an actual flintlock pistol has them losing their minds in Pavlovian mania.

This demented fan energy is the juice which powers the engine, and everything in Pauline’s Quirkes is devised to milk it. Episode one starts a running bit with a shoulders-up poster where the band are shirtless, and the rumour of a full-length version “in the noddy!” which sets off an estrogenous warhead. Barely audible beneath the shrill cacophony, the band promise to bring it next week; “all of us wiv nuffink on, except our socks!” It’s here I should point out that Mike is fifteen years old, and the rest of the band not much older. Perhaps I’ll end up on the register for pressing play on episode two, which opens with a marching Pauline chanting “rudie time for Flintlock fans!” But it’s repeatedly put off until later, after another song; another sketch; with each postponement causing angry no’s and rowdy chants which quake the bleachers. If they don’t get their dicks out before the end credits, the gates of Thames Television will wear the piked head of Pauline Quirke.

05

Refusing to let them play until they’ve exposed their teenage penises, the place comes unglued when she finally unrolls the poster; but to agonised cries and a collective “NOOOO!” like they’ve witnessed someone fall to their death from a trapeze — the crotch parts have been snipped out with scissors. With the air of a pilot calling for calm during a hijacking, Pauline moans “they’ve cut out the bit we all wanted to see, ent they, girls?!” until Mike (15) announces they’ll strip off, right now, the reaction to which broke every window in my street. Of course, they’re interrupted for time, but promise that next week “Flintlock live in the studio, with nuffing on at all!” “Except our socks!

It’s wild how long they milk it, with half the entire run devoted to the promise of Flintdick, and show three opens with the threat “they’ll rip off a lot more than just your clothes,” implying cannibalised genitals. Edging fans to the brink, a fake-out where they start unbuttoning is only watchable with the volume down, as a girl in the crowd audibly demands “get ’em off!” Eventually, Pauline forces them to strip or be fired — “no more excuses! Strip, strip now!” as teens who must’ve been coughing up blood when they got home are rendered more beast than girl. The trousers come down, then the pants, but revealing disconcertingly tiny chroma-key underpants, leaving the band with invisible groins, like the poster. Rather than laughing, the audience are deflated, shouts of “no!” and “off!” heard under the groans.

06

Aside from the nob-stuff, sketches are the usual; ad parodies for cat food baked into a husband’s pie; a big girdle; even a bit where someone’s blown up and left black-faced in ragged clothes. Most are hung up on a few recurring motifs. A prop gun gets a good innings; used by Pauline to kill one of Flintlock as way of a break-up, before another shoots himself in the head. Teacher Ali Bongo guns down Pauline, frustrated he can’t cane female pupils, while Pauline-as-a-burglar gets shot to death by Mike, even though “she’s a girl, burglars ain’t girls!

Almost every sketch is made weird due to their ages, filled with nudge-nudge allusions to sex, like Linda buying a manacled and nude-but-for-shorts Mike in a slave auction, and excitedly pulling him into bed, and by the time the titles roll, you half expect a writing credit for Everyone Who Got Collared by Yewtree. Many bits exist purely for the band to get a pie in the face, or soup or spaghetti or custard tipped over their heads, which I know is a staple of kid’s shows, but in this tawdry school disco atmosphere, with the 17-year-old Quirke casually chatting about booze and fags, feels like somebody shoe-horning in a fetish. Perhaps a credit for the “would you get gunged in jeans for charity” Twitter pest too?

07

The sustained delirium inadvertently turns a guest role for real-life president of the Flintlock fan-club into a very funny moment, playing to genuine silence at the appearance of the plain-looking and elderly 31-year-old DJ Tony Prince. He chats about the psychology of girls screaming at bands; a phase they’ll grow out of — to a loud, impassioned “NOOOOO!” — as Pauline invokes the legend of Adonis. “Women were driven mad with love for him and tore him to pieces, so it’s nuffink new, girls!” Although he pours tea over his head for no reason at all, and takes a custard pie to the face, continuing the wet and messy theme.

The real treat comes in episode five, where parody girl-band The FlinTarts (Pauline, Linda and Nula) guest on the show of “a couple of loony disk jockeys, called Mike Read and Steve Wright.” Punch the air? Mate, I pretty much fucked it. Sadly Ready doesn’t get up and join Flintlock for their final number, and the DJs of course nail Mike and Jamie with custard pies. But half the runtime of every episode is taken up with Flintlock’s songs, and the amount of numbers they get through — 3 or 4 a show — must’ve burned through their entire discography. Occasionally bonkers creative choices keep things interesting, like green-screening the lead singer really tiny, perched on the keyboard like a pixie, or a cover of Whiter Shade of Pale which plays under half-faded shots of hands dealing tarot cards.

These songs, like everything, are dominated by screaming, in a show held hostage by its audience of teenage girls, always hysterically into it, until they’re not; until a sketch where Linda asks “how’s it going with you and Derek?” and they react like they’ve been spat on. Near the end of the run, Pauline lines up alongside Linda and Nula, to let everyone know they’re only acting when they play Flintlock’s girlfriends. Again, this feels less a joke than something mandated in case it turned off the fanbase, with Robson clearly stating the (still romantically available!) band are too busy travelling and performing to have girlfriends anyway. “So you see girls, you can ‘ave em, cos we don’t want ’em!

08

The last of the series begins with a final battle-of-the-sexes monologue from Pauline — “we’ve tried to say a few fings about the relationships between girls and boys… but mostly what we’ve said has been drownded [sic] out by the noise of girls screaming at Flintlock!” A reminder they’re just normal boys who get spots, and that “there’s probably better looking blokes sat in the audience tonight,” sparks grumbles of consternation and livid howls of “NO!” and “WHERE?!” and extra riled, the next song can scarcely be heard. When Mike takes lead vocals atop a camera rig looking down on the audience, it ignites perhaps the wildest frenzy yet; three solid minutes of screaming and crying, with security guards lined along the front row, to stop anyone hurling themselves over.

We close on an emotional Pauline, sat on the edge of the stage bidding the series goodbye. Someone heckles “I’m gonna cry,” and Pauline replies “so am I, girls, so am I.” It’s a customarily odd speech, tearfully letting us know (in case we were worried?) that she’s got loads of work lined up with Thames and the BBC, and giving that old celebrity pep-talk “the fact is kids, and girls especially, you can get what you want from life if you’re prepared to work hard enough for it.” Derek and Mike, the two most fancied Flintlockers, surprise her with a little present, clearly expecting a custard pie, but getting jewellery. The caterwauling as they take a fumbling age to clasp it to her wrist reaches its terrifying apex; equal parts libidinous, jealous and rageful, with one of the band having to shush them with a finger. And fittingly, that’s how Pauline’s Quirkes goes off air.

09

There’s a rather pertinent observation in the last show, of “boys may be useless but where would we be without em, eh girls?” Though this was sold as a vehicle for Pauline Quirke, with its entire theme the rebuffing and subverting of gender roles and sexism, its female star was reduced to an ornament, in what’s nothing more than the Corey Hotline with comedy sketches. What really marks this out as a both a curio and a failure is the career of Flintlock. I’d assumed, due to the fan behaviour and amount of screentime, they were a gap in my cultural knowledge, whose many hits had passed me by. But in a four-year span of releasing music, only one single reached the top 40, with none of their four albums cracking the top 75. Not even a one hit wonder. Every Flintlock fan must’ve been in that studio, and only once the stabbing pangs of erotomania had faded, may it have hit them that they’d been living witness to a truly baffling, truly dreadful piece of television.

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 videos, my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on June 9, 2022.

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