Saturday Morning Archaeology: Multi-Coloured Swap Shop

•August 27, 2021 • 2 Comments

[More Noel: Noel’s HQFirst & Last: Noel’s House PartyThe Live, Live Christmas Breakfast ShowWhen Noel Tried to Crack AmericaNoel’s Christmas PresentsHouse Party Hell Playlist]

My latest video essay tackles early Edmonds vehicle Swap Shop, whose interactivity paints vivid pictures of a bygone Britain’s eccentricities & hang-ups, and sows the seeds for a generation’s impending obsession with creepy-arse hauntology.

This video first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could watch 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.

There’s over 500,000 words of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi or some PayPal cash.

ITV’s Cluedo

•August 17, 2021 • Leave a Comment

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There’s not been a great history of televised board game adaptations. Over the years, American viewers have ‘enjoyed’ short-lived onscreen runs of Monopoly, Boggle, and The Game of Life, while Brits were mostly limited to Pictionary rip-off, Win, Lose or Draw; a Rory McGrath-fronted Trivial Pursuit; and a live-action, giant-sized Mouse Trap segment on Saturday morning kids show, Motormouth. Though board games have surely gone through a lockdown renaissance, modern TV is more fixated on the shit you play on your phone, with Mario Lopez’s Candy Crush and a Jamie Foxx show where contestants race to name popular songs against mobile app Shazam, both actual things which have aired in the past few years, and not just me making stuff up for a laugh.

But in the early nineties, there was another, with ITV’s Cluedo taking one of the biggest tabletop brands and getting 25 episodes out of it, which is 24 times more than anyone would ever play it in real life. It was a good fit, since ITV has long been the channel for light and inoffensive tea-time murder mysteries, and while today’s games employ armies of faceless wooden meeples, Cluedo was one of the few with a firm cast of recognisable characters. Perfect foil, then, with its roster of middle-England country life archetypes, to have their roles filled by the familiar faces of British drama.

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Cluedo had a revolving cast, renewing its repertory players each series. Over the years, the role of society lady Mrs Peacock had been filled by — among others — Stephanie Beacham, Kate O’Mara and Joanna Lumley. For the Reverend Green, such pastorly figures as Derek Nimmo and Nicholas Parsons. Ambitious young socialite Ms Scarlet was portrayed by Toyah Wilcox, Jerry Hall and Tracy Somerset; an actual duchess. Tom Baker, John Bird and Ian Lavender tackled boffin Professor Plum, while housekeeper Mrs White is a roll-call of television’s best ladies-of-a-certain age, boasting Dame June Whitfield, Liz Smith, Mollie Sugden, Pam Ferris and Joan Sims; who’d reprise the role in a 1995 CD-I game. The role of Colonel Mustard contains a curious piece of typecasting, counting a certain ex-landlord of the Queen Vic among its number.

You have to admire the sheer gold-bollocked gall of hiring Leslie Grantham for a show where he’ll be publicly interrogated about whether — as a member of Her Majesty’s armed forces — he’s done a murder. They all must’ve been saying it behind his back; “It was Dirty Den, in the taxi with a pistol!” Following the episode where Grantham’s character did do it, ITV received a letter of complaint from the family of the man he shot dead for real, during a robbery while serving in the Royal Fusiliers. Incidentally, the Colonel’s full name is Mike Mustard, which sounds more like a local radio DJ who swears he’s best friends with Timmy Mallett as he cuts the ribbon on a new playground, than a fusty war hero of British colonialism.

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Each episode revolves around a series of pre-taped vignettes, where a guest character becomes involved in the affairs of the toffs at Arlington Grange — more recently seen as the home of Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders — and ends up getting done in. Just like the game, the player’s goal is to name the killer, murder weapon, and room where the foul deed was committed. I’m beginning with a second series episode dating from April 24th, 1991, where our host is a familiar face on these pages. But Chris Tarrant makes even less effort than usual pretending he’s not disgusted to be there, spending most of the show with a hand in his pocket, like a schoolboy kicking a 7up can along the pavement on the slow walk back to an unhappy home. Years later, he’d be quoted as saying of his stint: “I absolutely hated hosting Cluedo, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. It took forever to make the thing. We used to have to turn the studio audience over just to make sure they didn’t get any bed sores.

As well as the cast, it’s a double-celebrity fest, as the pairs of “guest detectives” are all off the telly too. This week sees Sally from Corrie and Matthew Kelly vs Brookie‘s John McCardle and Michaela Strachan, who’s wearing a massive hat like Blossom, and whom I always think of as Michelle Scratchin’, after a Popbitch story about one of the NKOTB reminiscing about a hot presenter they met back in their heyday, only half-remembering her name. This year’s cast is a cracker, with David McCallum as Professor Plum, Koo Stark as Miss Scarlet, Michael Jayston as the Colonel, Richard Wilson as Reverend Green, Mollie Sugden as the housekeeper, and as Mrs. Peacock, the woman who’d go on to feed an imaginary bowl of milk to horny George Galloway while he pretended to be a cat, Rula Lenska.

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The filmed sections are the absolute tip-top highest of camp, making Eurovision seem like Ross Kemp forthrightly demonstrating the correct way to lay a brick and mortar wall. Everything’s got the energy of those Jackie Collins type novels about shagging the stable boy, with characters giving murderous looks from atop staircases and dramatically falling on grand piano keys in moments of anger. But there’s also the strong feel of an FMV video game, as the storytelling limitations of a board game don’t lend themselves to good drama, coupled with the inherent problems of Cluedo itself. With just 24 minutes to play with, including Tarrant’s in-studio segments, there’s no time to construct a solvable mystery complete with red herrings, so it’s merely a series of scenes where every single character’s got massive beef with the victim and clearly thinking about — or outright voicing intentions of — murdering them.

Consequently, the cast spend their time sinisterly caressing the six murder weapons, with Wilson idly twisting an ebony ruler in his palm while McCallum fills rat traps with poison, as Mollie Sugden furiously smashes a tray of cold cuts with a hammer. Everyone’s constantly looking at or picking up knives, and when the victim leaves the room after blackmailing Rula Lenska with the threat of prison, she takes a gun from a drawer and thoughtfully licks the barrel. Being laid out like this really exposes Cluedo as a pointless guessing game of pure numbers, with the requirement of “which room?” solely thrown in there to lengthen the odds of figuring it out too soon.

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This week’s plot, titled A Deadly Deal, involves investment broker, Simon Charles, swindling everyone out of their money. He got Mustard and Stark in big. He’s blackmailing Lenska out of her house. On his advice, the Reverend’s gambled — and lost — all the money Mrs. Peacock gave him for a stained glass window. He’s taken Sugden’s life savings. He’s stolen McCallum’s idea for a computer program “to make all software compatible,” mocking him with a “have you registered it, old boy? Patented it?” When Mollie Sugden bangs a gong to announce he’s been murdered, who could possibly have the motive to whack him?! Everyone. Literally everyone. Contestants just need to keep guessing until they hit the right combination of killer, weapon and room.

The suspects are revealed in line-up by Tarrant via dramatic lighting, before they’re interrogated by Matthew Kelly and co, with everyone roleplaying in character, in what it must be like to play Dungeons & Dragons with Victor Meldrew. Only the murderer can lie, while the rest must tell the truth, and they’re clearly having fun with it, improvising around the memorised backstory of their character’s movements. The highlight is Sugden floundering when questioned about the whereabouts of knife — “a ceramic bowl thing, that I just put things like spoons with ‘oles in…” The audience (quite audibly a studio of pensioners) are really into it, letting fly a loud “noooo!” and “awww” when Michaela correctly pegs Sugden as the killer.

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Once revealed, the guilty party gets a spotlight confession, complete with flashback under a Psycho soundtrack, which only shows them raising the weapon in slow-mo and no actual violence. Hauntingly, Tarrant informs us Sugden’s to remain there “for a very, very long time,” suggesting he means in the studio, which is the worst punishment of all; trapped for a ten-stretch in front of Strike it Lucky, Surprise Surprise, and You Bet, and praying for the return of the death penalty. But the world of Cluedo is within its own bubble, and the guilty are free to return to Arlington Grange, week on week, to commit yet more savage murders, as in the episode A Traveller’s Tale, four weeks later.

This could not be more up my street, opening on Richard Wilson wandering through the cemetery with another vicar, aghast as they come across a hippie commune, which is a glorious collection of clichés, somewhere between Swampy and the Manson Family, all loose dogs and an actual flower-painted love bus. The long-haired leader — denim waistcoat, neckerchief, t-shirt with a skull on it — strums a guitar by a campfire as Koo Stark drapes adoringly round his neck, offering the infuriated vicar to “pull up a crate,” and telling him “I’m sure if Jesus was alive today, he’d love our commune.” Will this week’s murder have helter skelter written on the drawing room wall in blood?

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Crack detectives on the case are the dream teams of Amanda Barrie and Jim Bowen versus DJ and rapper Mike Read and Michelle Collins, who’s introduced as “presenter of The Word,” which I don’t remember at all, and amounted to just four episodes. Our soapy tale of death sees smelly Dave (rubbish cult leader name) loudly slurping soup at dinner, to serious stink-eye across the banquet table from everyone but Koo Stark, madly in love because “he’s a free spirit!” Lenska believes “the cultists” are bringing property values down (after a single day in the village), while Dave harbours a secret with the Professor, and Sugden’s so mad at the “impertinent little oik” that she accidentally stabs herself with a corkscrew.

The school play-level ‘toffs struggle with hippie’ scenes are tremendous value, with Dave saying things like “I need to take a leak” and Stark trying to build common ground between the vicar and her new love, who’s “very devout” and spends ten minutes every day chanting. Colonel Mustard: “you should spend ten minutes shaving instead.” Dave suggests he and the vicar “drop acid” together. “You mean drugs?!” gasps a shocked Richard Wilson, storming off, but having a quick poke through the gun cabinet on the way out. “A dose of National Service,” says the Colonel, “that’s what that type needs if you ask me!” until inevitably, Mollie Sugden runs in all of a fluster, announcing “it’s the hippie; he’s dead!

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In interrogation, old dog Jim Bowen earnestly asks Koo Stark if she truly loved Dave, while casually slipping a reference to “those beautiful eyes,” while Mike Read pursues a bizarre ‘secret son’ line of questioning, believing Dave to be the Colonel’s illegitimate heir; something which isn’t even hinted at in the videos — “the way you spoke to him sounded fatherly…” I’m just surprised he didn’t get his guitar out. Jim should be working for the CIA, as he too goes off-script, forcing Colonel Mustard to improvise an admission about an affair with Koo Stark, much to her surprise. As a result, it takes ages for them to figure it out, back and forth with guess after guess, and Tarrant clearly wishing someone would stick a letter opener into his kidney and get it over with. As it turns out, Stark did it, having overheard Dave bragging about conning the “little rich girl,” and his plan to bring down land values in the village by flooding it with BO-reeking hippies, before buying up the manor and turfing them all out.

Jumping forwards to series 3, for 1992’s A Hunting We Will Go, its rebooted cast is the show’s best, with Lewis Collins as a younger, harder looking Col Mustard, Tom Baker as Professor Plum, Pam Ferris as Mrs. White, Lysette Anthony as Ms Scarlet, Susan George as Mrs. Peacock, and Christopher Biggins, with a lovely curtains haircut, as the Reverend. Tarrant’s out too, replaced by Richard Madeley, who also emerges with a hand in his pocket. What follows is a top-notch half hour of television, with tag teams of Valerie Singleton and Johnny Ball against the absolutely wild combo of Tory MP Edwina Currie and Richard O’Brien, who’s dressed like a space biker, with a studded waistcoat made from leather as thick as dinosaur hide and assorted glinting jewellery.

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Our story begins the day of the Arlington Hunt, where a young man arrives at the manor, cut and bruised from a beating, from which he would’ve been killed if not for the intervention of Christopher Biggins — we’ve all been there. As Pam Ferris dabs his boo-boos with TCP, it’s not just any young man; the dirty coat and jeans of an obvious commie lefty layabout; lovely ponytail mullet; it’s only bloody Neil Morrissey! The politics of this episode are fascinating, unclear who we’re meant to be siding with, as they all return from ripping terrified foxes to shreds to slap each other’s backs for “teaching one of them (Neil Morrissey) a lesson.

Susan George is livid, as hunt saboteurs set off a firecracker, causing her beloved horse to throw her, before bolting into the road and getting mashed by a lorry. She arrives home to find one of the culprits wandering round the manor in his tatty jumper like that bloke who broke into the Queen’s bedroom, inspecting silver candlesticks all “how the other half live, eh?” It could be the Orient Express twist, as they all want him dead; George for the horse-icide, Mustard for ruining his dashed good fox torturing, Biggins for threats to expose years of his secretly helping the saboteurs, Lysette at the shame of letting him ride on her back in the day, and Baker because Neil Morrissey’s got a video of him “feeding a live fox cub to the hounds.” Fucking hell, Tom!

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Baker plays the Prof very differently to McCallum’s effete, glasses-wearing intellectual; now a big posh roughneck, with the bulging eyes, mad hair and clothes giving the air of a frightening waxwork on the Mary Rose that you move past quickly because you feel it may attack you. Teamed with army thug Lewis Collins, it’s no wonder Morrissey keeps them at bay wielding a poker like a fencing sword, as a livid Collins rips the phone out of the wall so he can’t call the rozzers, and threatens to wrap the curly wire around his neck. The pitch of a saboteur holed up in the hunter’s country mansion is a decent set-up for a survival horror movie, with a You’re Next or Ready Or Not vibe, and a woke activist facing a manorful of braying Tories, in a heavy-handed metaphor for class and the unending 21st century culture war. Netflix, come get me.

As Neil Morrissey stomps off to look for another phone, I don’t fancy his chances. Baker’s armed with the poker, while Susan George opens a desk drawer containing all the home office basics — calculator, spiral bound notebook, big glass bottle with POISON written on it and a literal skull and crossbones. But under questioning from Johnny Ball, George exonerates herself, as she was simply preparing to put down an injured foxhound; the humane way, by injecting it with poison. The slaughter of Neil Morrissey (does Les Dennis have an alibi?) is an emotive case, which leads the audience of elderly amateur detectives to emit a genuinely startling bovine murmur of uproar — “NOOOO!” — at an incorrect guess of Pam Ferris, before a big cheer of “YESSS!” when the killer’s correctly pegged as Christopher Biggins. “God help me,” he says, in a very impassioned confessional, “I actually forgot who I was…

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As television, Cluedo is hugely fun, with its bizarre detective pairings, actors having a ball hamming it up, and weekly guest corpses, but as a game show, it doesn’t work at all, hampered by all the reasons the cardboard version gets shelved after a single play. But now board games are back, with brand recognition to be had from the likes of Settlers of Catan, Gloomhaven, and Ticket to Ride, and the next great adaptation is obvious; Dean Gaffney getting buffeted through an assault course inside a cramped, airtight glass sphere for ITV2’s Screwball Scramble, (Paddy McGuinness to host).

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.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi or some PayPal cash.

GamesMaster III: Glamour, Grot, and Gore

•August 8, 2021 • 1 Comment

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[GamesMaster: Part IGamesMaster Part IIBad Influence]

Opening titles of the 1997-98 series have Dominik Diamond asleep on the couch in a filthy living room, dreaming a nightmare sprint down an endless tunnel of GamesMaster settings past, eventually bursting though a door into a tropical island paradise. Two busty models in animal print eye him salaciously, and like he did with series six’s mermaids, he gives us a wink and a thumbs up, as if to say “landed on my feet here, lads!” It’s a pretty elaborate Swiss Family Robinson set, with gorgeous blue water licking at a sandy beach, kitted out with palm trees, a hut, and a little pier. A live audience of children sit on giant faux bamboo rafts, dressed in swimwear and kicking their feet into the water, while Patrick Moore’s head sits inside a blazing sun, like some horrible clickbait about what the Teletubbies baby looks like now, which will SHOCK YOU.

Dominik, trousers rolled up like your dad in the front garden on a summer’s day, catches a fish before bidding us welcome, and right off the bat, is straight in with a spunk joke, having “come upon my two Girl Fridays… they invited me to feast upon their coconuts.” This is GamesMaster‘s last ever series, which makes me nervous for what Diamond might get up to. Over the years, we’ve witnessed a steep upswing in smut and misanthropy, along with a growing contempt for the show itself, and undergoing a rapid visual evolution from curtain-haired choirboy to big Scottish bruiser. What awaits us, now there’s nothing left to lose? Hooting “here’s your golden joystick!” at Lenny and Huw from EastEnders, while whipping out a visibly pulsating stonker wrapped in Easter egg foil?

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His look has now reached its final stage, hair fully gone, low cut vest, and the sideburns and goatee of a man who’d ask if you’ve got a light and then put the nut on you regardless. Tonight’s challenges are trailed with jokes about the huge erections in Rampage, and Lara Croft’s “two big tombs,” as a pair of blokes (a pair; like boobs!) are set to race through a custom level of Tomb Raider II. The whole section’s a grim reminder of how the 90’s gaming world was sent absolutely willy-wild by the introduction of a female lead character; a real dog-in-the-playground novelty. We’re told they’re running it on a 3dfx card, which is why the game — and Lara — look so gorgeous. All the lovesick leering is unbelievably quaint, like Neanderthals getting turned on by cave wall stick-figures. You forget how massively horny men were for the PS1 Smurfette, angling the camera right up her arse, and decorating their walls with sexy posters from games magazines, with legend of nude cheats whispered like a schoolyard El Dorado. With those simple polygons, they were basically wanking over Lego.

We join the challenge in progress, contestants in Hawaiian shirts, awkwardly hunched on sideways barrels, leaving them stretching out like cats in the sun to reach the keyboard, and hurting my back just looking at it. In a chat with Dominik, one’s anecdote is having a girlfriend who lives in Japan, while the other, the gel of his hair glistening under studio lights, recants a “pants-related disaster.” In a real reach for a decent story, “I washed my pants with the red and they came out pink. I’m the Pink Pants Man!” As this happened on the morning of the show, one wonders which incredible tale got ditched for this at the last minute? “Bloomin’ shoelace came undone the other day, didn’t it? Had to bend down and tie it! All my mates call me Lace Lad now!” Simpler times, though Dominik really loves saying the word pants, at least half a dozen times every episode, as both classic 90’s slang for things being rubbish, but also the place where nobs live. Another period-specific colloquialism is the pronunciation of “huge” as “h-yow-gh,” which he does three times.

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Leaving the lads to it, Dominik can feel “a stirring deep within my clams,” which signals the celebrity challenge, with Jo Guest. Frequent cover star of Loaded and FHM, for men like me who came of age during the ascent of Blair, Jo was our Marilyn; our Dame Vera. Pull up those JNCOs, boys, this is what you’re fighting for! Jo’s ferried across the water by the Girl Fridays in a palm frond boat, and already horned-up by Lara Croft, Dominik’s exceedingly thirsty, practically tucking it under his waistband. Greeting Jo with a hello, he immediately drops her backwards into a movie style kiss, bragging he’ll someday marry her. But unlike the other contestants rooting around in those of Lara’s, Jo’s “not fiddling with my tombs, unfortunately.”

When joined on commentary by bestie Kirk Ewing, Kirk grabs Dom by the cheeks and gives him a full and unexpected kiss on the lips. “Just wanna catch the tail-end of Jo, there,” says Kirk. She completes the challenge of 10,000 points on Rampage World Tour right on the whistle, despite not managing to eat the helicopter. “You did have a problem with the chopper,” says our cheeky host. “I usually do,” giggles Jo, as Dom deems her to be “the best girl in the whole world,” before scrambling for more filth with “you’ve got the large objects between your hands…” Incredibly, as she receives her golden joystick, it isn’t likened to a phallus.

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You’d think that Dom would’ve run out of double entendres by this point in the series, but Tomb Raider‘s incorporated boobs, bum and (presumably lurking under the shorts) a fanny, is like a steroid shot in the bell. It’s all “gaping pits” and telling Lara to “hop on that big, red, powerful shiny thing” when she rides a ski-doo, even letting out an extremely era-specific “wahey!” as the player opens a drawbridge, which I suppose is like a great big member being lowered from a zipper, ready for action? When Dominik jokes the losing player’s Japanese girlfriend just emailed in to say that he’s chucked, it seems like he really believes it, while the winner puts it down to “those pink pants.” Dom asks if he finds Lara attractive — “very attractive!” — before burning him with “you know she’s not real?” The lad panics, stumbling and mumbling out a response with the word “man” in it, which Dominik picks up on, miming the digging of a hole as Pink Pants attempts to talk his way out of outing himself as gay by having said the word “man” on television in the 90s. Fellas, is it gay to acknowledge men exist? In the credits, there’s a strange one of Program Consultant for “The Dickster” — is that the man who comes up (like bubbling semen shooting through a urethra) with Dom’s cock puns?

If that’s the way he behaves in the 6pm tea time slot, what on earth would he do post-watershed, or even in the witching hour? In 1995, we’d find out, when GamesMaster went XXX, with a “gore special” airing at 12:35am. Raunchy versions of tea-time shows aren’t unique, like late night Hollyoaks with sex scenes and swearing, and Grange Hill: After Dark, where the opening credits showed a fork being stabbed into a penis. Always the network most likely to show you some pubes, a couple of years later, Channel 4 would bolster its late-night repeats of TFI Friday with ‘naughty’ bits that couldn’t be shown on its six o’clock version, once consisting solely of Chris Evans holding up Dannii Minogue’s nude calender, and going through it month by month while saying “wahey!

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This is our first visit to series four, which opens with a spooky steam train conductor telling us “you don’t need a return ticket where you’re going… STRAIGHT DOWN!” before a CG track drops through the Earth like a rollercoaster, to orange flames and the distant screams of torture. The Hell setting is a precursor to series five’s Heaven, and continues the vague running storyline of Dominik’s death at the end of the second series, when the oil rig exploded (and rightly erasing Dexter Fletcher’s year from history). The audience are behind bars, with metal chains hanging on the wall, and Dom sat on a throne as fire flickers in the background. Patrick Moore’s in a chrome helmet, sadly missing the open goal of sticking some devil horns and a pointy beard on him and really going for it.

We’re mere seconds in before gushing arcs of 16-bit blood and actual genuine full motion bare breasts. You wouldn’t get that on Bad Influence. In fact, if Andy Crane happened to tune in (by accident), he’d have definitely called the police by now. In the innocent pre-internet days, these rare windows into the ‘adult’ world had a truly forbidden feel, like stepping beyond the beaded curtain in a mucky bookshop. This would’ve been perhaps a year or two after my own first encounter with pornography; torn from a bluey and discarded on the floor of the school toilets, filling me with excitement and revulsion all at once, like I’d somehow perpetrated a criminal act by unwittingly seeing a big hairy bush on some glossy A4, stained with dark blobs of urine soaking through from the floor beneath.

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Reversing even a few years from series seven, Diamond’s remarkably boyish again, in an all white, priest-like suit, clean shaven, and far less vocally gruff, as he promises “every game today is guaranteed to offend!” Handing over to the GamesMaster, there’s a pseudo blooper as he cocks up the intro — “ah, fuck, that’s not gonna work…” — causing Moore to laugh. We’re seeing behind the curtain here, lads! That said, they still bleep it. First challenge is beat-em-up Kasumi Ninja on the Atari Jaguar; a very grown-up game for big boys, where blood flies out wildly whenever the characters make contact, which could be censored with a parental lock feature. I heard your mum put that on before she let you play it. “Keep an eye out,” leches Moore, “for some truly gruesome fatalities!

Contestants are shoved onto set by a hooded little person wielding a pitchfork. During pre-game banter, it’s clear that in the hedonistic freedom of late night, now that it’s allowed, there’s no thrill to the subversive anarchy of innuendo, and far from pulling out some ballbag and offering a piece of gum, Dominik barely does a single nob gag. Unfettered and unchained, post-watershed Diamond is all about the gore, and spends the half hour metaphorically calling us over to the bike sheds to show off a jar of dead flies his older brother keeps under the bed, asking contestants “what’s the most sick, disgusting thing you’ve seen in your life?” Player one’s got a nu-metal goatee, baggy jeans and a silver chain, and his shoulders rock side to side with the swaying posture of those teens who pretend like they’re going to hit you when you walk past on the pavement. He kisses his teeth with a “has to be me mum’s casserole, dunnit? Dis fing taste better comin’ up than it does goin’ down!

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Next contestant, same question. “There was this one dead cat I saw get run over.” “Excellent!” says Dom, practically punching the air; “what did it look like?” Told “well, the eyes were bulging out a bit, and it did smell,” it cuts to Moore roaring with laughter, as though he’s in the studio live and ruddy loving it. Player one jumps in with “nah, nah, nah, that was leftover of me mum’s casserole, mate.” Yeah alright, Jimmy One-Joke. With Dominik giggling all the way through, there’s an oddly nostalgic vibe, like you’re leaning on your bikes down the farmer’s field, shivering because the sun’s gone in, but you’ve not bought a jacket and you don’t wanna go home yet, listening to your mates discuss the banned cut of Ghostbusters where Slimer spunks all over Venkman which one of ’em saw on a pirate, and how the English teacher who’s fit but also a bitch was standing on a chair to pin some tinsel to the ceiling and, apparently, one of her tits fell out.

The co-commentator gets the ‘most disgusting thing’ question, and describes — at length — some “green gunk” a hospital scraped from the back of his eyeball during an infection. Casserole Lad spams fireballs, and fatalities involve stomping a head flat and exploding a skull with dynamite, all in poorly-rendered graphics. Had they failed to hide this footage from delicate eyes in the post-midnight slot, polite society would’ve crumbled into a Caligulan trauma-orgy. Dominik destroys the loser by saying “the words big, girls, and blouse come to mind,” as there’s nothing more devastating than separating a phrase out into its component parts like that. Dead Cat Lad is a good sportsman, crediting his opponent as “a well-good player,” and my suspicions the spontaneous ‘adult’ bloopers are scripted are confirmed when Dominik blows another link, with a frustrated “fuck, fuck!” causing the pre-recorded Patrick Moore to angrily bellow “what?!

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We wipe between segments with bloody machetes, a squelchy slithering brain, and maggots wriggling over eyeballs, for features on “the sickest games around!” showcasing death moves from Mortal Kombat and Bloodstorm, with slo-mo replays of decapitated heads sailing through the air. Viewers in the tips section beg for help unlocking the goriest fatalities, and as Sir Patrick Moore shares the code for a meat grinder move to splash guts everywhere, a teen in a baseball cap thanks him with a “yea, safe, rudebwoi.” Other TOO HOT FOR PRIMETIME shockers include a hilariously basic 1995 medical website where perverts can view vertical cross sections of an executed prisoner’s body, and footage of American series Battlebots, before it came to the UK as Robot Wars; which is sold — not as Craig Charles’ kiss-salute and the thrill of a victory interview with George Francis — but as a wild underground grindhouse death-fight; its footage of toy robots steered by middle-aged men in leather jackets under Diamond’s excitable voiceover, playing up “chainsaws, nails, and hacksaws!

Next challenge is Alien vs. Predator on the Jaguar, with celebrity guest, Robocop, finally linking GamesMaster‘s canon with that of WCW. The costume’s a bit too big for whichever GM crew member’s inside, wobbling as they robot-walk onstage, and looking very silly without the accompanying whirry noises. Noticeably out of frame, and in a clearly dubbed voiceover, Dominik complains about the pathetic segment, and says the word “bumhole,” moaning “the crime is an arse actor in a crap costume, let’s pretend this never happened and go to a break.” And indeed, when we come back, the bit’s been abandoned, with no further mention. Even in regular episodes, they’d done stuff like this before, with series two opening on a bunch of fake technical faults before a literal reboot.

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For a feature on FMV game Phantasmagoria, Dominik takes a rare excursion to the design studio in California, wandering round a dark props cupboard, to make gags about severed heads and withered rubber corpses — “this is actually Judy Finnigan without her make-up.” Claiming not to have interviewed the lead actress “as she didn’t fancy me,” instead he chats to Phantasmagoria‘s producer, and founder of Sierra Games, Roberta Williams; “and I asked her if she thought it was big and clever for a bird to make a gruesome game.” After a calming breath, she gives a considered response about it being more of a thriller, as Dom’s voiceover declares “bollocks to that, then,” quickly moving onto rude porn games for “the one handed typists.” Women with big hair and no clothes writhe in postage stamp sized QuickTime video, from titles like Voyeur and Spy Club, which involve trying to unlock no-res stripping scenes; like a level where players can bribe a receptionist with a teddy bear, resulting in her immediately getting her milkers out in gratitude.

09

We finish with what Dominik promises is “the sickest, most bloodthirstiest game of all,” Doom 2, where a contestant’s anecdote about seeing a motorbike helmet filled with sick leaves him visibly excited; “what was it like when he took it off then?!” Never thought I’d see the day when Dominik Diamond heard the word “helmet” and didn’t make a single reference to glans. Dave Perry’s there, American flag bandana, and shirtless under a leather waistcoat like a divorced biker, as Dom jokes Doom enemies are from The Village People, letting out a cry of “yes!” as the player picks up a chainsaw. “It’s blood frenzy here!” he howls, when digital viscera splatters with all the HD graphic realism of a calculator, although we do, at long last, get a reference to a back passage. As this is the finale to series four, we end on Dominik saying he’s “off to make people watch the last series” (the Dexter Fletcher one), and muttering “may you rot in hell” as he wanders off. Will do, mate.

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.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi or some PayPal cash.

VHS:WTF – Barrymore’s Best Bites

•July 27, 2021 • 1 Comment

Barrymore Month draws to a close with a 30-min video essay, examining the big man through his own selection of hand-picked favourite moments. One particular song is very much not awright.

This video first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could watch 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.

There’s over 500,000 words of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi or some PayPal cash.

You Are Haunted – Episode 7: The Lady Corrinne

•July 21, 2021 • Leave a Comment

yah

“your dad’s got himself a boat x”

Listen now on Spotify, Anchor, Youtube, or Google Podcasts.

This show first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could listen to it a fortnight 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.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi or some PayPal cash.

Seaside vs. Summertime – Part II

•July 18, 2021 • Leave a Comment

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In part one, we examined ITV’s Summertime Special, so now it’s the BBC’s turn, with Seaside Special. However, I must begin on a devastating note. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, certain footage just refuses to be found. Often — like Backstreet’s Back it surfaces eventually, but on occasion, I will fail you, as I have in locating Seaside Special’s Ronnie Corbett Go-Kart Challenge Cup. Exactly what it sounds like, this was an all-star racing tournament, and what one must assume was the most electrifying sporting contest of all time, with competitors including Mike Reid, John Inman, Windsor Davies, Tony Blackburn, and most crushing of all, Noel Edmonds. I imagine this is what they based Mario Kart on, with Frank Butcher dropping a banana skin onto the track, causing little Ronnie Corbett’s car to spin round and round. But I’m afraid that’s for another day.

01

We start with an episode from August 23rd, 1975, and the most British sound of all; an audience clapping along in time to a theme tune, that of Summertime City by Mike Batt. The opening sequence is a picnic basket of summery moments; a circus big top, a lovely lady sliding down a slide on a doormat, and a donkey chariot race along the beach, where the poor things are being whipped by laughing men. Inside the tent is Tony Blackburn, alongside an audience decked out in tiaras (the ladies) and feathered musketeer hats (the fellas), which he describes as a carnival atmosphere, although seeing so many people tightly crammed together like that nowadays just gives me anxiety.

First act out is New Edition, but not the R&B band, rather a troupe of a dozen dancers singing Shirley Ellis’s Clapping Song (“3, 6, 9, the goose drank wine…”), leading to close-ups of some wonderfully off-rhythm clapping from old ladies in the audience. With their bright red outfits and minute after minute of relentless hand-claps, the scene has a huge Suspiria feel, as though everything’s rising to a demented crescendo, audience hands raw and bleeding, as sound and body and will shall part the sands and summon the Great Dark God of British Seaside Variety.

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Evidently their foul beach magick works a treat, as Blackburn reveals he’s not actually the host, and roused up from Hell into the big top comes Rolf Harris. “D’ya feel like singing?” he asks, teaching the audience the chorus of his latest novelty song. As is the nature of these disgraced paeds, everything from his mouth seems loaded with perversion, and the lyrics “up a tree, fiddly-diddly, up a tree” are suggestive of a ditty about your neighbour sunbathing without her top on. Although the actual song does have a bit about a nudist camp. Young Rolf’s got a very Max Wall manner, with a lot of high-kneed marching, and has me holding my breath with the question “is there anybody here from South Africa tonight?

I’m tempted to put it on pause and do the washing up for a few years, but let’s press on. Rolf says whenever he tours a new place, he likes to create a song especially for the country. Fuck it, see you in 2055. No, come on, hear him out. In a jokeless monologue, he describes penning a tribute song to Dr Christiaan Barnard (who performed the first heart transplant), and that, to his shock, South African audiences hated it, before strapping on an accordion with a “I still think it’s a good song, let me sing it for you.” Must you? A surprisingly moving power ballad on the wonders of modern medicine — no, not really; it goes “who’s got Sidney’s kidney? Well, he said we could use it, didn’t he?” He doesn’t bounce back when introducing the next act, an impressionist, with an honest-to-God “he’ll make an impression on you!” and promising “the mad, mixed-up comedy of Johnny More.” More was a player in both Copy Cats and Who Do You Do? and my balls retract into my abdomen when I spot a table of glasses and beards, from which he’ll take props while dramatically turning his back on the audience before spinning around COMPLETELY CHANGED, now under a hat.

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This is the gold-standard of shite impressionist routines, opening with a literal “what if Les Dawson hosted Film Night?!” and running straight through the gamut; waggling his glasses as Eric Morecambe and “imagine that Kojak being in London.” In a spectacular example of awful segue plus a ‘this is who I’m doing,’ he brings up “that big fat fella, Cannon” before putting on a tash, pushing out his gut, and saying “my name’s Cannon!” Outstanding; ten Eddie Larges out of ten. After a thick Irishman joke, he ends on a high-kicking medley of Johnny Cash, Sinatra, and Rex Harrison, and you have to admire the bravery of going into showbiz with an act like that and the name Johnny More, which is practically begging for reviews of “Johnny Less, more like!”

Most interesting act of the evening is Tony Blackburn, as himself, chatting with carnival queens and princesses, taking one out of her seat by the hand — “come over here and talk to me, my darling.” He genuinely hits the young lady with “if I said you had a nice figure, would you hold it against me?” causing her to awkwardly laugh with an “I don’t know.” Mate, you know this is going out on TV? Then he gets Miss Poole to stand up, taking her hand too, and getting all coy and flirty like Partridge judging Miss Norwich, as she tells him she’s been visiting local hospitals with her princesses. “That sounds rather gorgeous, doesn’t it?” simpers Tone, still clasping hold of her, “that sounds absolutely lovely…

04

Footage of Poole carnival is a nostalgic jolt back to the rubbish town carnivals of my childhood; marching bands of young cadets who all grew up to be angry at newsreaders for not wearing a poppy in September; breweries waving from the back of trucks done up like Alice’s Wonderland; scouts and papier mache, and — hang on, a load of women dressed as mermaids with crepe paper wigs and nothing covering their boobs but two seashells?! I’ve changed my mind, bring back the great British carnival! Wait, no, changed my mind again. Ban ’em.

05

Following a nervous Blackburn commentating over footage of a hang glider — “ooh, I bet that sea’s cold!” — we’re treated to the debut of a brand new double act, teaming two solo performers for the first time, in a Megapowers of variety, with the combined talents of Stuart Gillies and Bernie Clifton. It’s another early days shocker, seeing Clifton without his usual partner, and I feel bad watching Gilles, knowing he’d be ditched for an ostrich. Scotsman Gilles was known as the Singing Coach Driver, a winner of Opportunity Knocks, and singer of the theme for Love Thy Neighbour (which your dad wants played at his funeral). However, paired up, the structure’s all wrong; Gilles is out first, earnestly belting out Neil Sedaka’s Sing Me all the way through, without Bernie interrupting once, like Eddie Large or Bobby Ball would do. What sort of double act is this?! Thankfully, during Gilles’ Rabbie Burns poetry, Bernie’s dicking around with a stuffed cat. But like seeing both of Rod Hull’s arms, Bernie Clifton walking about on solid legs is very unsettling, until he disappears backstage, returning with an enormous rubber fish. This is a prototype of the ostrich routine, flailing around as he tries to control it, its mouth bouncing up and down, and biting at the crotch of a woman in the front row as he takes it into the audience.

The short-lived Gillies and Clifton end on a duet of Judy Garland & Johnny Mercer’s Friendship, (“if you’re ever in a jam, here I am”), before New Edition do Sloop John B, halfway up the rigging of a ship, and Rolf gives us our second Irish thicko joke of the night while introducing the final act. “The three best known Irishmen in showbusiness… they were telling me the other day Eartha Kitt was a set of gardening tools!” God, the Irish had it as rough as the Scottish back then. It’s amazing England wasn’t just walled off by its neighbours, with Russ Abbot crucified atop Big Ben as a warning. As it’s all we xenophobic bastards deserve, we close on the blue jacketed Bachelors, singing about Cigarettes, Whiskey, and Wild, Wild Women, but no mention of the rippin’ and the tearin’.

06

Compared to Summertime Special, Seaside definitely feels more, well… seasidey, having grown up on the beach myself, with memories of my grandad dressed as a pirate on the float from his working men’s club, and the marching band of Spider-Mans chasing a tattered Green Goblin into the grounds of the local convent as the nuns scattered. Although Seaside is too heavy on music, and didn’t have Barrymore Barrymoring all over the place, the nostalgia takes it. Up your arse, ITV. After ending in 1979, the BBC revived the series for a couple of summer runs through ’81 and ’82, confusingly ditching the Seaside branding for the Summertime Special title as used by ITV. For completion sake, I’m also watching an episode from this run, dating from August 22nd, 1981.

Brighton beach. Children on donkeys. Blonde models licking Kiss Me Quick lollies and munching on candyfloss. Sweeping shots of a promenade. Police horses being stroked. God save the Queen! The exuberant in-house dance group serenade us from an open topped bus, as a girl dances out of an antique shop holding a still-live lobster, and singing a plaintive prayer, which seems to cry straight from the aching hearts of every noble countryman and woman, 40 years in the future — “I’ve never needed summer more than this!” Jazz hands raised high, we end outside another massive circus tent, brilliantly listed in the credits as “the big top tent of Captain Bill Lewis.” As the show proper begins, each dancer’s got their name printed on their shirt, like the Pink Windmill kids, mugging, flexing and pushing each other out of the way as we’re introduced to our performers, who are phenomenally on-brand. It won’t make up for the Ronnie Corbett Cup, but it’s a start.

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Hosting is Paul Daniels, during the wig years, and though I normally like magic, he comes out holding a newspaper with coloured fabric threaded through it. Like the linking rings, I can’t get excited about cloth magic, unless there’s 500 miles of it being pulled out of Piers Morgan’s anus. Half the routine’s him holding the newspaper in his mouth and mumbling, solely to set up a segue into the next act, who you can understand while his lips aren’t moving! It’s ‘friend’ of the blog, Roger De Courcey and Nookie, and like the Bye Bye Man, once I summoned Roger by saying his name, he’s now in everything I watch; Royal Varieties, blueys, lurking in the background of a VHS from my 6th birthday party.

As usual, Roger’s routine is endearing in its balls-out laziness, with a fair chunk of stage-time padded by having Nookie keep saying “pardon?” so Roger has to repeat himself. There’s an admirable use of the decrepit old gag about sea weed — “did it?” — and another about Roger “going for a paddle in the water,” which the piss-obsessed Nookie rebukes as “not very hygienic!” As a commenter recently reminded me, before the pair hit prime time, Nookie was called Bollocks the Bear, and he embraces his anarchic roots by slipping in a “bloody,” plus a joke about going to the “nuddy” beach. “And what were the gentlemen doing?” asks Rog. Nookie: “Hanging about, mostly.” Lovely stuff. But then there’s this.

Roger: “Did you know, you can get iodine from sea weed?

Nookie: “I get mine from the chemist.”

08

What? That’s not even a joke (until someone explains it and makes me feel stupid). But it’s hard not to warm to them, with their heartfelt, and slightly mucky sign off “we hope you live as long as you want to…” “…and want to as long as you live.” It seems like we’re in for an all-time great crossover when Nookie introduces The A-Team, but sadly it’s not Mr. T and his mates, but a load of awkward white dancers spinning round in satin shirts and tight trousers, taking the odd choice to sing Stevie Wonder’s I Wish; “looking back on when I was a nappy-headed boy…

Then Joe Brown’s marching on to sing “pop songs of yesteryear,” in an actual pearly king jacket (though they’re just white plastic buttons) and accompanied by a piano sat centre of stage, like the corner of an East End boozer. Even in his resting state, the Roddy Piper-looking Brown is exceedingly cockney, but the pearls and piano amplify his powers ten-fold, and I keep the volume low in fear of waking Barbara Windsor’s ghost, with a medley which plays like 3am ads for a compilation CD of GREATEST GOR BLIMEY COCKNEY KNEES UPS. Brown treats us to Where Did You Get That Hat, All Me Life I Wanted To Be a Barrow Boy, Wotcha (Knocked ‘Em In The Old Kent Road), Any Old Iron, and a song that teaches rhyming slang, where we learn that kippers are “Jack the Rippers.” It’s the setlist Dave Courtney polishes his knuckle dusters to, and the audience are super into it, knowing all the words to all the songs. Joe introduces the next act as someone who “walks, talks, whistles and sings.” Any ideas?

09

Barrymore’s back! Now both the ITV and BBC shows are perfectly Barrymore-balanced, they can be judged objectively. This is an early appearance for the big man, before he’d been given his own show, and was known entirely through guest spots on Who Do You Do?, Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, and Blankety Blank. Some of his standards had yet to develop, and most notably, he opens with a jarring “good evening!” rather than “awright?” But then he’s out into the audience, mic cable trailing behind, to pick on an old bloke in the front row. Standard. Things get genuinely interesting when he hops back onstage and asks us to imagine that we’re not here (inside Captain Bill Lewis’s tent), but at a place called Fawlty Towers. It’s a real college-improv-team-setting-the-scene intro — “What has happened is, the cabaret hasn’t turned up for the evening, so Basil has to cover, and it could turn out… well, we’ll see what happens!

Considering how much of the Barrymore stage persona was an unattributed Cleese/Fawlty, it’s fascinating to see him doing the same schtick as an outright impersonation, which — as with every impressionist — is just the funny walk and the “Right! Right! Shut up!” which he did for years as himself anyway. He gets huge laughs pelting back and forth across the stage with all the bandy-legged physical gymnastics, clattering himself in the head with the mic and so on, but when asking, as Basil, if it’s “alright with everyone?” it hits me that Fawlty might’ve been the genesis of “awright?” having evolved out of the recurring tic of “Right! Right! Right!

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Hoo boy, his act whole is wretched, with that joke about an astronaut landing on the sun, where he hops about like his feet are burning, and the ‘classic’ Barrymore move of throwing an audience member out of the theatre. An elderly man who laughs gets the treatment too — “You found that funny, did you, Rumpole? Come on, up you get!” — literally dragged up onstage, far too quickly for his old legs, and leaving him to try to find a way off through the wings while thousands of people shake with hysteria. As we’ve learned, “I hope that one day we meet again” was the closer throughout his career, leading the audience into a sing-along of Dame Vera’s hit, with everyone swaying their arms, though to be fair, it always brings the house down. Perhaps the only way to follow that is with another truly unhinged dance number, and an appearance by Kate Robbins, sadly from the period before she took did comedy impressions and was just a straight singer.

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We close with more of Paul’s magic, bringing up three volunteers, and unable to stop doing an accent after one turns out to be “not English.” It’s a ‘prediction in an envelope’ trick, and if he’s written “I’ll do a funny accent at a foreign woman while awkwardly holding her hand for ages,” then magic is confirmed genuine. The volunteers all have different props — coloured discs, a clock, place names — from which they’ll select one at random. The Swiss lady given the clock reveals herself to be Swiss-German, leading to a gag about it usually going tick-tick-tick, but as a German, “she vill have vays of making it tock!” Very funny and normal to bring up Nazi war crimes to a confused holidaymaker, Paul mate.

He’s usually great value, but this is Daniels at his worst, over-explaining every miniscule aspect of the props to demonstrate they’re ‘real’, and being hugely patronising, in a fucking appalling showing. He seems in a worse mood than when Louis Theroux filmed him in a huff on Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook, and when nervous Sheila’s selecting the place name, he jokingly admonishes her for sitting down without being told, ad-libbing “where I come from, women wait till they’re told before they move,” yelling to the audience “is that right, men?!” The tent fills with deep-voiced cheers, and a single, higher-pitched “no!” “That’s a woman,” says Paul, “shuttup!

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Prediction tricks like this stink, as you know what the ending’s gonna be as soon as it starts. He gets the correct answers — colour, number, place — from an envelope secured away in a magic wooden pagoda with MADE IN HONG KONG written on it, before a model in a bathing suit (wearing the right colour etc) emerges from it too, so all the lads get some magic and a look at a cracking bird. It’s weird that this isn’t Debbie McGee. Is her absence related to his rotten mood and red-pill outbursts? Next to the tiny Paul, this non-Debbie looks eight feet tall. So who takes it, out of ITV and the BBC? Perhaps it’s the coward’s route, but I declare a tie. Both series are as dreadful as they are wonderful, which is a pinpoint metaphor for summertime on these shores. It’ll either be baking hot or pissing down, and what’s more inherently British than that? Plus, Michael Barrymore will be there for some reason.

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.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi or some PayPal cash.

 
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