All Star Comedy Carnival

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One Christmas special? Try a dozen! Between 1969 and 1973, ITV’s annual All Star Comedy Carnivals were an actual televisual selection box, packing miniature festive episodes of the era’s popular comedies into a ninety minute feast. Fronted by Jimmy Tarbuck, these were the Monday Nitro to the WWF Raw of BBC’s Christmas Night with the Stars. You literally couldn’t do this now, as there’s only about two sitcoms, with our nearest correlation Comic Relief doing a ‘funny’ five-minute episode of Dragon’s Den with James Cordon pitching an edible car, or a skit where losing contestants from Love Island show up in the Queen Vic.

We’re starting with the Carnival — a word so rarely used in titles — from 1972, which went out on Christmas evening. The presents are opened, you’re laid back with gut-ache, and here’s “the old JT himself,” in a tight banana-yellow jacket, with hair shaped like a medieval helmet. Can Tarby make it through the whole show without mentioning golf? Absolutely not. It’s the classic “welcome to my home” deal, studio done up like his living room, and a full orchestra just beyond the wall. The footage is one of those in-house recordings, complete with time-code, plus extra bits like Tarby moaning “it’s my fault, I missed the bloody joke out,” over a black screen cutting back from an ad, and script-editing on the fly, as he jettisons a cue card — “elbow the first one; that’s alright son, just hold that one up!

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Before they start overrunning, Tarby’s crushing you under an avalanche of gags; lines about Raquel Welch’s big knockers and confusing the mother-in-law for an uncooked turkey; plus a classic 70’s joke about the far East, concerning a snake-handler called Abdul and “his load of old cobblers (cobras).” Setting the pace, the first special comes from Love Thy Neighbour, aka your dad’s fave, as Eddie pops round to his black neighbours with a cheery “peace on earth and good will to all men, even sambos!

There’s no surprise about the content, as the standard bearer for grotty old racism, but they clearly felt compelled to cram an episode’s worth of epithets into a seven-minute sketch. After a pair of wife-swapped interracial kisses under the mistletoe — “get your hands off my wife, honky!” — Eddie and Bill are off to the pub, trading insults of “great black twit” and “big white berk,” getting in an argument about what colour Father Christmas was; “he came from Lapland, he wasn’t a nig-nog! And they were reindeers pulling that sledge, not bloody elephants!” But soon, they’re staggering home together, belting out carols. As daft Eddie left the turkey in the pub, it’s baked beans for Christmas dinner, until Bill invites them over, even though they’re “white honkies,” leading to the big reveal which leaves its audience gasping; a living room full of black people — Bill’s extended family and friends — and Rudolph Walker dressed as Santa. “I’m dreaming of a black Christmas,” sneers Eddie, and there’s your ending!

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The sitcoms are interspersed with guests calling at Tarbuck Towers; Bob Todd’s drunken milkman stumbling in in shredded clothes to the growls of a savage dog outside; the welcome appearance of a familiar yellow beak, reaching round the frame to pin Tarby to the wall. Even when not dragging someone round the room by their cock, Rod Hull’s routine is filled with great little touches, like Emu’s nods of “d’ya hear that?” when Tarby’s rude about him. And then, with sweet inevitability, beak goes betwixt legs, and over go Rod, Tarby, and the sofa. Enlivening any of the rotten light entertainment he cameoed in, modern telly’s in dire need of someone (meaning me) to revive the act, like that lad who bought Sooty off Matthew Corbett. Once I start making some real YouTube buck, cover your dicks, D-Listers!

After getting rid of Emu, Tarby’s next link is “here’s another bird, a totally different one,” with Moira Anderson doing a number, and when she’s done, he imitates her Scottish accent with an “och the noo!” As is completely unavoidable with Tarby, even though it’s fucking Christmas, he brings out golfer mate Tony Jacklin for an unbelievably tedious scripted chat, unless you’re a golf-obsessed weirdo who once had their own Saturday night gameshow based on it. Jacklin even gets to sing his own number — “I know it’s true, yes we’re pals through and through!” — obnoxiously self-congratulatory and peppered with Tarby’s gags.

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Next special is Nearest and Dearest, with a pair of leads in Jimmy Jewel and Hilda Baker who famously hated each other, and its running joke about an elderly man who could piss himself at any moment. This one flashes back to Christmas past, with 67-year-old Baker playing a child version of her character, skipping round in a dress and ringlet wig, causing the audience to just about die for real as she crams a giant lollypop in her gob, before Jewel arthritically runs in dressed as a little sailor boy. With both doing ‘child voices’, it pushes her iconically haunting duet with Arthur Mullard down to only the second worst thing she’s been involved in, and feels like some pervert paid them to make a fetish video which got broadcast on TV by mistake. It ends with the adult-again Jewel taking a cake in the face from Baker, and given their relationship, she’d probably wiped her fanny on it first.

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Other than being bad, one common thread between these mini-episodes is their slapdash nature. Presumably filmed in a rush before or after regular tapings, slinging some tinsel up on the set, there was little time for rehearsal, with lots of obvious ‘remembering’ pauses, and everyone falling over dialogue or coming in early. If this is a portrait of British television at the time, it’s a damning one. Father Dear Father‘s turn sees a line you don’t often hear in modern comedies — “It’s all your fault for pinching my shoe horn!” — and a plot about a missing dog which exists solely for the shot of the titular father (in a red hat to hide the switch to a stunt double), stepping on a child’s roller skate and ending up in a lake.

Harry Worth gets a sketch as butler to a posh Lord and Lady, becoming increasingly pissed, and needing to be carried off at the end, meaning the lucky bastard doesn’t have to watch a Christmas On The Buses. The elephant in the room here is the absence of Reg Varney, though we still have Blakey and Jack Harper; the pair who wrote this mini episode. If you’ve any cultural awareness of the show, there are no surprises; Blakey threatening Jack with the sack — “I’ll have you for this!” — and jokes (from Bob “the teeth” Grant, no less) about how ugly a drunken Olive is. There’s a goose in a sack, Blakey takes of his hat to reveal a load of its smashed eggs, and when peering under the bus, he gets covered in exhaust soot, to which Jack breaks out in an Al Jolson. It ends when they run into Olive and her shopping, causing bags of flour to explode over everyone’s faces.

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Indisputable highlight is introed with Tarby’s Irish accent, in a segment titled Christmas with Wogan. Shot during a Lunchtime with Wogan taping, there’s a superb cut to an audience comprised of very elderly ladies in black-framed glasses and party hats. They’re joined by a host of celebrity guests, including an in-character Amy Turtle from Crossroads, security guard Lionel Blair; dancing offscreen to The Good Ship Lollypop; student nurses from General Hospital (including a young Lynda Bellingham), and a quiz between married couples played by Leslie Crowther and Sylvia Sims, and Hugh Lloyd and Peggy Mount; the latter of whom is needlessly heaved up onto her stool by Crowther and Wogan with a beautiful comic lack of dignity. It’s full of innuendo about “it” and “enjoying a really good fiddle,” before the delightful appearance of Larry Grayson in black domino mask, hat and cape; a sort of Darkwing Ducky. Christmas with Wogan ends with Noelle Gordon wheeling on a refreshment trolley, blowing a kiss to real-life friend Larry, and Leslie handing him a fairy cake to an appreciative “ooh!” and then all the celebrities and audience have a good old sing-along of Jingle Bells. A shot of the crowd shows a man with an extremely bad wig, and the audience waving back to the cast as everyone says ta-ra. Absolutely joyous, if this segment had been the whole 90 mins, we’d have had a bonafide classic on our hands.

It’s quite the comedown returning to Tarby, with some “lovely singing from a fine group of lads and good pals of mine,” as a private school choir give it that high-pitched cathedral deal, though it’s worth it for the inevitable solo from a 1970’s schoolboy who looks 45. Tarby banters with the boys — “Stand up! Oh, you are stood up.” — pulling one in for a matey side-hug and calling him a rascal, then joins a round of Do-Re-Mi. When magician David Nixon shows up at the door, promising a trick “to help you beat the rising cost of living in the new year,” it feels like maybe I can save the country, but it’s just tedious mathemagic, like that riddle with the waiter and the missing pound. Karate chopping eggs balanced on matchboxes into glasses of water, it’s like he got lost on the way to Timmy and Theo’s party. Spirits briefly lift with the appearance of Les Dawson, who batters the viewer senseless with one-liners, but gets less screentime than Tony Jacklin.

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The final special visits The Fenn Street Gang; a spin-off from Please Sir!, when they could no longer deny the hard-faced cast of schoolkids were approaching thirty. It’s a nothing six-minutes, ending with child-man Frankie accidentally going down the trash chute during a game of hide and seek and re-emerging with a banana peel on his head. Tarby wishes us a sincere peace on earth, and closes with a festive Yarwood; a rendition of White Christmas shared between all the in-studio guests, with the half asleep nation of darkened, Christmas tree-lit rooms serenaded by a golfer and Bob Todd, Tarbuck and Emu, and a private school boys choir as the credits roll.

Tarby was back the following year for the 1973 edition, in the same set, with an opening monologue looking back on a chaotic year riddled with inept politicians, industrial strikes and a petrol crisis, as topical political humour of the seventies increasingly seems plucked from the current week’s headlines. Savile gets a reference, and there’s a gag about his daughter renting her new dollhouse to Ronnie Corbett, before Bob Todd returns, this time Tarby’s butler, but again played as a slurring drunk. Here’s where it hits me how much of these shows revolve around getting sloshed, which was clearly the go-to from writers faced with knocking up a festival special.

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Case in point, a singer outside who “sounds like an Arab singing Christmas carols!” turns out to be Neville King’s horrible ventriloquist puppet Grandad. Under the poor quality of the tape, the flat-capped puppet initially appeared to be a real person, with gaping mouth and limp arms. Like many characters of the era, Grandad is a paralytic drunk, turning the usual back-and-forth routine between vent and puppet into a screaming match, with Neville yelling “SHUDDUP!” and the three of them upturning the sofa during a fight where Grandad’s supposedly being violently sick from its papier mache face. A line about a woman being “in the family way” is considered so outrageous, they cover the puppet’s mouth and wrestle it down.

The stinky little sitcoms include a party at the Roper’s during Man about the House, with piano/piss confusion over the word “tinkle”; Leslie Crowther eliciting mass hysteria in the audience by entering frame dressed as a spider for My Good Woman; and in the TV version of Billy Liar, led by a young Jeff Rawle, apprentice undertaker Billy casually spiking his gran’s drink with embalming fluid for a laugh. Tarby gets his own special-within-a-special, with the team from Tell Tarby (a show which is now lost/wiped); Lynda Bellingham, Kenny Lynch, Frank Williams, Josephine Tewson, and Hugh Paddick, who run through a two-minute quickie Cinderella.

     Tarby: “And I am Buttons.”

     Lynch: “I thought I was Buttons.”

     Tarby: “Who the hell wants chocolate Buttons?

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Lynch throws on a blonde wig to play Cinderella, causing Tarby to exclaim “Oh my God, in living colour!” Cinders has been slaving away in the filthy kitchen, all dirty — Tarby paws at Lynch’s face, “Cinders. You’ve been stood near the fire again, haven’t you? Hello, he’s had a fall of soot!” Then Bobby Moore shows up, in full football kit, speaking most of his line underneath the applause which greets him, and ending the sketch by leaving with Lynda on his arm.

Highlight this year is Les Dawson, or as our host introduces him, Fatty Dawson, telling a fireside tale, glass of brandy in hand, about the Wolfman, with all that beautiful Dawson wordsmithery; “the stench of evil hung like a curtain on a forbidden grave… a black, hairy hand that scrabbled at the snow like a bloated spider…” It’s brilliant, though feels more like a Halloween special, and follows the Carnival’s theme, as the Wolfman’s caught after getting drunk on a barrel of ale. Sez Les’s bit closes with a blast of Anchors Away by trumpeter Syd Lawrence and his orchestra, accompanied by flag-waving dancers in gold trousers and bras. Back at the house, Tarby’s got the boys choir back, and there’s a slight intake of breath for 2022 viewers, as he praises Leslie Crowther and Sylvia Sims for their charity work with the Stars Organisation for Spastics.

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Yet in a parade of dire sitcoms, the in-house segments are still the worst part, at one point cutting back to Tarbuck squatting by a Christmas tree like he’s doing a protest shit under it. Duelling impressions with the real Fife Robinson give the master of accents another chance to Och Aye the Noo, and when Kenny Lynch turns up as the third Fife, Tarby manages to go a full minute without mentioning his skin col– no, hold on, he’s just taken off his hat and used it to imitate big minstrel lips singing a Jolson song. When Henry Cooper rings the doorbell for a sit-down, at least it’s not a golfer. “Henry and I have a great passion, and it’s golf…” Bollocks. Now an after dinner speaker, Henry’s asked “tell us a few tales,” and it’s not a bit, just Henry (never the most electrifying raconteur) telling a couple of anecdotes Tarby’s previously enjoyed at a golf dinner. Even Val Doonican, who stops by for a song off the new record and a duet, is another name culled from Tarby’s black book of golfing buddies.

Both in ’72 and ’73, the evenings’ offerings are certainly of a tone; like Doctor in Charge, with a Christmas drink at the bar, moans about mother-in-laws, and George Layton showing up with a blonde on his arm who doesn’t speak English — “This is my Christmas cracker, and I’m going to pull it! Oh, she’s fantastic, goes like a bomb!” In all this, Spring and Autumn‘s entry is akin to finding a Chick Tract at the bottom of the stocking. The buddy comedy between pensioner Jimmy Jewel and teenage roustabout Charlie Hawkins presents a sombre sketch about religion, with a hushed conversation in a church and lines like “after my dad left I prayed every night for him to come back and he hasn’t,” leaving it the only show without the soundtrack of audience laughter, as though the writer either didn’t get the memo, or wanted to rise above all the jokes about boobs and urine-soaked trousers.

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Oddly low energy, with an old man gently admonishing a teenager for not believing in miracles, it ends with the lad sneaking back into the church for a heartfelt prayer. “I hope you’re listening to me, God, i’m not asking for anyfing for meself, but please could you see that people are nicer to each other all year round and not just at Christmas?” Its lone, tiny audience chuckle comes for the addendum of asking God if could see to it Arsenal win the cup. Tarby closes out the year, and the entire run of All Star Comedy Carnival, surrounded by guests, each with drink in hand, over the strains of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas from the choir, as Bob Todd staggers on, covered in balloons and too wasted to speak, for a second pratfall over the sofa.

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~ by Stuart on January 6, 2023.

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