GamesMaster II: The Wrestling

•July 15, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[Part One]

Growing up a wrestling fan in early 90’s Britain, you had to take what you could get. Nowadays, you’d have to retire to free up enough hours for the endless dreck they’re pumping out, but back then, everyone had to wait their turn for the VHS tape off the one kid in their class who had Sky. But while we didn’t have the matches, what we did have were plenty of promotional appearances, which were so weird, awkward and wild, the resulting footage was usually 18 carat TV gold.

The WWF lads regularly showed up on Saturday morning kids shows; often in character; often hungover; and always confused. There are myriad incidents that those who witnessed shall never forget; Scott Hall the drunkest anyone’s ever been on Live and Kicking; IRS — an evil taxman — taking questions, in character, from a bunch of nine-year-olds; Bret Hart really, really enjoying an early morning wrestle with Zoe Ball in her tiny PVC shorts. Hulk Hogan was a frequent guest on the circuit, cheerily telling Richard and Judy wrestling was fake (an unthinkable crime back then), or demonstrating transatlantic language differences when promoting his latest movie, by informing Terry Wogan “Mr. Nanny’s looking for fanny!

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One regular stop for these most concussed of all celebrities was Channel 4’s GamesMaster; so much so that (depending on how this goes down), I may have to examine their appearances in two parts. We begin with episode seven of the first series, airing on February 18th, 1992. These inaugural shows were held in an old church with an impressive gothic spire, and opened with choral monk chanting, and Dominik Diamond sat at a giant organ, which in later series, he’d definitely have turned into a gag about having an enormous nob. There’s more of that spooky green light from Uri Geller’s appearance, while smoke’s pumping into the cavernous space of St. Paul’s Church in London, which was laid in 1846, and since converted into a private nursery.

Here at the dawn of GamesMaster, Diamond is at his most boyish, with the happy-go-lucky affability of a legitimate children’s presenter. His voice is notably an octave or two up from the gruffer tone he’ll eventually adopt, like the unexpectedly high-pitched “hiya” one emits when bumping into an acquaintance in the street. So too, the links are lacking in trademark cynicism, as with his earnest introduction of “the man who put the M in Microchip, the GamesMaster!” Having flashed back from our visits to the later shows, it makes you wonder how it might’ve gone for other hosts, had they taken up the mantle. Would Andi Peters or old ‘Pip’ Schofield, after a couple of years watching kids in big shirts play through the first level of Ecco the Dolphin, have grown out evil-twin goatees and formed every link around allusions to blasting hot spunk out of their cockholes? However, even in his early form, Diamond’s still dressed like Dracula’s butler, and does include the phrase “soft and moist” in his intro.

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As it’s the first series, the titular GamesMaster’s in his generic phase, with a warped, flickering Moore wearing an 8-bit helmet connected to a metal tube, against a background of flames. His first challenge is to attain 5,000 points on Robocod.Don’t forget to use the hydraulic stretch-body!” warns Sir Patrick Moore CBE HonFRS FRAS. Diamond picks three challengers out of the audience; a pair of girls and a boy with a ponytail, having to hunch with one hand on his thigh to speak to the smallest, in perhaps the most child-friendly tableau of the series. So’s not to get hints while the others are playing, the kids are made to stand facing the wall like the end of Blair Witch, and noticeably, the boy hurriedly tucks the back of his shirt into his jeans, lest he get told off by his nan for being a scruff on telly. Up in the pulpit, co-commentator Dave Perry’s yet to establish his persona, sans bandana, and as all three children die (in the game), no golden joystick is issued.

On this week’s reviews, the droning journalists set a fine historical example of how human beings behaved before everyone was trying to get themselves noticed all of the time. A man who looks like a 1960’s occultist sells us on Monkey Island 2 with “there is a lot of amusing text in there,” while Alien 3’s reviewer appears in a little picture-in-picture box, with the dead emotional tone and camera angle of someone filming a goodbye message on the toilet while waiting for an overdose to kick in. “There are 15 levels like this,” he says, “all with different graphics, um… and… there is a big monster in each one.” Meanwhile, a convivial Diamond lists the top five “funky soundtracks,” including Betty Boo’s Magic Pockets theme. I tell you what, whenever Betty was on TOTP, there was certainly some magic going on in my own pock–[a striped crook emerges from the wings and pulls me offstage by the neck]

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But the celebrity challenge is why we’re here, with WWF Wrestlemania Challenge on the NES as the battleground between a small boy and World of Sport legend, Kendo Nagasaki. Kendo marches in like Darth Vader, in full samurai regalia, and responds to Diamond’s questions — “can I call you Ken?” — with complete silence, like a massive prick. A white guy from Shropshire called Peter pretending to be a mystical, mute, Japanese Samurai, you might think he and Dom had been larking about in the green room before the show. Nope. Fastidious about never breaking character, Kendo was notoriously a right barrel of laughs working sporadic guest appearances on small wrestling shows over the last couple of decades. He’s lightened up of late though, taking off the mask to shatter kayfabe in his autobiography, and in news stories where he’s evicting the parents of murdered fusilier, Lee Rigby.

Anyway, Kendo’s ‘manager’ Lloyd Ryan shoves his way on as a mouthpiece, and the game can begin. Wrestlemania Challenge is known for its terrible controls, and both characters aimlessly wander about the ring, kicking and punching at the air, unable to even meet each other. Kendo has so little idea of what he’s doing, they might as well have given the controls to a cat, and at no point during the match does his character face the right direction. As the boy beats him, Kendo throws his controller down in rage, with Lloyd Ryan making a big show of losing — “I think we’ve been conned, and we’re not staying here!” — storming out to a chorus of boos. Good stuff. Conversely, when GamesMaster‘s hooded monk presents the winner with the Golden Joystick and a toy WWF replica belt, he responds with a polite “thank you” that’s so loud and firm, one can vividly picture his mother’s reminder as he left the house, so’s not to disgrace the family on television.

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Three episodes in to my GamesMaster recaps, I’ve just realised the tips section is a pun; the Consoletation Zone. Every kid on here, wanting to know how to find the whistle on Zelda or some shit, is as comfortable on camera as the Joris Bohnson guy. Final challenge is Megadrive side-shooter, Thunderforce 3 on ‘mania mode’, which is what I go into when I’ve got to write 5,000 words in two days about Noel’s Telly Addicts. The game really showcases Diamond’s series one restraint, bypassing dirty comments on a section with “a very tight passage,” and a boss with a great big helmet. His co-commentator wears a red baseball cap, which is jarring in a current timeline where it’s the equivalent of rocking up in a Klan hood. They play up the impossible nature of the challenge, which the kid does indeed fail, so well done, I guess? Post credits, there’s a phone number for the GamesMaster club, at 48p per minute (in 1992 money, too). If I’m paying that much on a call, I want Thatcher’s screams piped in live from a direct line to Hell.

Next, we’re into series 3, in an episode airing on the 1st of February 1994. Series 3 is notable for the absence of Dominik Diamond — in storyline, having burned to death when series 2’s oil rig exploded — only to return the following year, after a unanimously negative reaction to his replacement; future Rocketman director, Dexter Fletcher. Fletcher was criticised for being too loud and obnoxious, with over-the-top, laddish energy, forever yelling, jumping, and leering right into the camera like something that should be sat on the guttering of a church, sicking up rain water. My mate was at a taping for this series, and when we watched the tape back to try and spot him in the background, we found that whatever moment you freeze-framed, it would always land on a ludicrous rubbery-faced close-up of Dexter Fletcher. We made a game of it in the end, to see who could pause on the most grotesque and annoying still. I had another go while I was writing this.

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Five more points for Millard. The first part of series 3 was shot at Oxford Prison, which was re-opened halfway through shooting, causing a hasty move to Clarkenwell House of Detention. Clarkenwell went onto feature in an episode of Most Haunted, where one of the crew claimed to have been slashed by a ghostly razorblade, which luckily left no visible wound. Phew! The Fletcher series is marked by its egregious sponsorship deal with McDonald’s, with the famous logo opening its credits, where the McDonalds M morphs into the M from GamesMaster. It’s this partnership which Diamond, whose brother was a fervent anti-McDonald’s campaigner, cited as his reason for leaving.

Unlike the airy industrial spaces we’ve seen so far, everyone’s crammed together down in the dungeons; all brick archways and steel prison bars. Fletcher’s in a grey jumpsuit, and being cockney on a level that would make even Danny Dyer beg him to turn it in, you pilchard. “ALLO,” he yells, “AND WELCUM TO GAMESMASTAH TEEM CHAMP-YUNSHIP!” Not only with Diamond’s absence is this series the attic-chained cousin of the GamesMaster canon, but half its episodes are eaten up by a tournament, with 27 teams of gaming teens, competing — no, sorry; “SLOGGIN’ IT AHT… KEEP WATCHIN’, AWRIGHT?!” Even for the modern Dickens here, it’s genuinely hard to get across in print how colossally annoying Dexter Fletcher is. Imagine Craig Charles on Cyberzone, except instead of yelling “awooga!” every five seconds, he’s literally never not pumping his arms, geeing everyone up to cheer and clap, or pushing himself so close to the lens, it legally qualifies as a home invasion. He carries himself with the energy of a Muppet who got sacked by Jim Henson after getting caught up in football hooliganism.

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Fletcher lurches down the aisle, greeting audience members with “AWRIGHT, MATE?” before the first team come out. Fowey Force; a group of lads in red baseball caps, arms folded and all serious looking, like those viral pictures of Russian kids trying to look hard at underage disco nights. “WOSS YOUR NAME?!” he barks. They’ll be competing against Laser Force, in green caps, and forgoing the night’s Force-theme, the yellow-capped Questers. Challenge one is 45 seconds on a rollerblading game, as Fletcher introduces “ME OLD MATE,” Dave Perry, yelling “GET READY, MATE,” at player one, like a rival firm’s about to start rushing them with broke bottles.

Each kid has a CV of gaming achievements, which Perry cuts down like those office braggarts who definitely jumped their BMX over the river once, when they weren’t even trying, but don’t believe you’ve been to Spain. One reckons he can complete Turtles on the first go, “but he doesn’t tell us if he’s a nancy-boy easy level player or not!” Perry’s commentary is lost beneath the simian hooting of Dexter Fletcher — “THERE’S A CAR COMIN’!” and “S’GOOD TO HOLD ONTO THEM VEHICLES, INNIT?” With neither man deigning to stop fucking yelling and neither listening to the other, it’s like a bad satellite link, except they’re stood right next to each other. “HAW MUCH TIME’S GAWN? FIFTEEN SECONDS GAWN!” Does Fletcher even realise he’s wearing a mic? That he’s on TV? “SLOW DAHN, YOU NUTTAH!

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Next, Fletcher announces the winners of a ‘Room of the Future’ contest in a bad American accent like his one from Press Gang. For a room of the future, I’d imagined a cloning lab or a wooden Fleshlight, but the winners each get a console — Amiga 32, Philips CD-i, Atari Jaguar, 3DO – basically all the infamous tech failures the Angry Video Game Nerd makes skits of himself dropping wet diarrhea on. In this week’s reviews, there’s an all-time bad simile by one of the games journos, regarding a basketball game where “they stumble around like geriatric marvel superheroes.” So… like normal athletes?

Thank the maker for ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage, of all people, who spins and twirls his way through the packed dungeon, in a glittering green tassled jacket, sunglasses and a cowboy hat. Randy had unbelievable charisma and was always amazing value on this things, like being called Randy Pandy the Puppet on Live and Kicking, and tipping Trevor and Simon right off their sofa. For a game of Rage in the Cage on the Mega CD, Savage picks an opponent out of the audience; a girl named Bertha, who Fletcher immediately refers to as “B.” Bandana-clad Dave Perry, who might best be described by Alan Partridge as “he likes American things,” cuts the old ‘wrestling is fake’ promo on Randy, who’s playing as himself, vs. Bertha as Crush, who Savage was feuding with on WWF TV at the time. Randy’s character doesn’t move for ages, and when they cut back, he’s looking down at his controller like someone waking from a 20-year coma to headlines about President Trump’s piss tape. Even if he did know what he was doing, in the darkness of an ill-lit dungeon, and wearing sunglasses, he can’t see, and — as all celebrities do — he gets annihilated by a child.

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It turns out Randy Savage is the one man capable of shouting down Dexter Fletcher, who’s left to stand holding his mic like floppy Pelé at an orgy, as Savage asks Bertha to be his real-life tag team partner and does his classic spiel; “together we’ll be the tower of power, too sweet to be sour, funky like a monkey, sky’s the limit, space is the place, Bertha and the Macho Man!” Randy raises Bertha’s hand; “I’m so happy, man” she says. Me too. The final heat of the team challenge sees Laser Force unveil a choreographed move of all folding their arms and saying “Laser Force!” which genuinely makes the other team too nervous to speak when Fletcher prods them with a “OOH, SERIOUS BUSINESS GUYS! WHAT’S GONNE’R ‘APPEN?” He squashes his nose with a finger to introduce the SNES boxing game, and closes the show by inexplicably going on about how the winning player wants to hit him for real. Dexter Fletcher, punchable? C’mon, let’s #bekind.

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Jeeves, fetch me my biffing gloves.

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O.T.T.

•July 5, 2020 • 2 Comments

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All the best Saturday morning children’s TV had elements which appealed to the adults lounging around on their days off, be it Trevor and Simon on Going Live, pretty much all of Dick ‘n Dom in Da Bungalow, or female presenters the dads fancied. ITV’s Tiswas straddled that generational line perfectly, with an anarchic unpredictability which marks it as one of the all-time greats, even four decades on. It must’ve seemed a natural fit for a grown-up spin-off, taking the leap in 1982 for a live 11:15pm slot on Saturday nights. The concept for O.T.T.Over The Top — was essentially a ‘rude’ Tiswas, where all the winking asides and innuendo could come out of the shadows, like a past-sundown Live and Kicking where Andi Peters swore and Emma Forbes wasn’t wearing a bra.

Lasting just thirteen shows, O.T.T.’s episodes aired some twelve hours after those from the final series of Tiswas, which had been left in the hands of Sally James and a new selection of hosts, after most of the cast abandoned the morning version for late-night. Hopping across to the other side of the watershed were Lenny Henry, Helen Atkinson-Wood, John Gorman, Bob Carolgees, and television’s most insincere man, Chris Tarrant. I watched a couple of episodes, beginning with January 30th, 1982, and from the get-go, it’s unconsciously smug about its self-mythologised anarchy, with the continuity announcer all “the decent respectable people are tucked up in bed, but for the rest of you…

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The animated opening credits show an inflatable woman with nipples like lemon juicers flying through O.T.T.‘s entranceway, represented by two downward-turned feet moving up and down betwixt two upward-turned feet, in that horribly twee British way of depicting sex, as seen on the covers of ‘funny’ stocking-filler books about relationships, aimed at people who describe the act as bonking or ‘a bit of the old how’s your father!’ The audience of grown-arse adults mime out the letters O.T.T like YMCA, in show-branded shirts or office-joker fancy dress; one bloke done up like an old woman; another in a policeman’s helmet, his face covered in bandages.

There’s a vibe of a prehistoric Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, including intrusive laughter from the camera crew, and lots of that ‘it’s live TV, anything can happen!’ deal of laughing at their own jokes and flubs — “I’m breaking these teeth in!” Behind the desk with Helen Atkinson Wood, Chris Tarrant makes the Chris Tarrant Noise, and it’s impossible to believe he’s only 35. He’s looked like he did during Millionaire since he was just cum. The first sketch is a joke about Barry Manilow finally finding a hotel he’s happy with, with the punchline reveal of a topless woman. Ah yes, infamous breast-liker, Barry Manilow. “Didn’t they both look nice?” says Tarrant… hold on a second; he’s not talking about Barry and the lady!

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This is O.T.T. in a single line; showing nudity, then guffawing like a schoolboy that’s cajoling you into that thing where you push your hands together and peer inside because it looks like a fanny. Every joke is capital-n Naughty; introducing a live band, but accidentally reading out the number for ‘Lolita from the massage parlour’ instead. It’s at least appropriate that an adult spin-off of a kids show is the exact type of thing you’d only consider to be adult if you were a child, like those pens with a stripper inside, or finding rude playing cards stashed in a ditch, where the Queen of Clubs has got her hedge out. But this is an adult cast, and consequently it feels a bit pathetic. At one point, Lenny Henry actually uses the phrase “bonking away like billy-o,” which is effectively an admission he’s yet to get his fingers ‘n tops.

Almost primarily, O.T.T. is a sketch show, which is super weird when one of the main players is Chris Tarrant. The notion of Tarrant with the word ‘comedian’ anywhere near his job description blows my mind. Imagine if he’d jacked in Millionaire for a comedy comeback — actually don’t, because he’s dreadful, with zero comic aptitude. He’s on the level of a driving instructor or youth worker being pulled onstage for their church’s end of year show, except all the material’s about breasts. In one skit, a women with no bra walks towards the camera, while Tarrant and Gorman — dressed as Beano-style punks — argue whether or not she’s wearing knickers. She snags her skirt on a bush, leaving her naked from the waist down, and they excitedly give chase as she runs away.

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Later, they do a knickers-on version. “Oh, she is (wearing underwear)” moans Gorman. “But I’m not!” yells Tarrant, yanking down his jeans and running after her for — presumably — some cheeky rape. His bare arse is hanging out, and for a few frames, I’m afraid to say, so are the back of his genitals. What comes next is somehow worse, with a quiz show parody where he’s in a wig that’s actually less awful than his real scarecrow-hair, and the contestants are all on “live satellite link-up.

Representing the UK is Carolgees as a Brummie in a bald wig; for France it’s Wood in a beret and stripy shirt; and playing for Africa, oh, just Lenny Henry in a leopard skin headband and Zulu warpaint. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Let’s not automatically assume the worst of all old telly. Lenny then asks if he can say hello to a few friends of his, and does this:

It’s all like that, waving a skull-topped witchdoctor stick, singing an Over the Rainbow parody — “Somewhere Kilimanjaro, Tsetse Fly…” — and bursting into more monkey noises with an apologetic “sorry about dat; jungle fever!” After sitting through Jim Davidson, the Grumbleweeds, and Russ Abbot’s Three Tops, I was not expecting the most racist thing ever to grace these pages to have come from Lenny Henry.

Aside from the regular cast, occasional guest acts break up the titty-tittering. This week, a double-act called Lumiere and Son do a Victorian strongman routine, where a guy in trunks eats a bar of soap and some hand cream, washing it down with a bottle of Dettol. Trump’s not been watching this has he? Alexi Sayle shows up to do five minutes, but doesn’t go down great. The first words out of his mouth are about Lenin and Marx, as he shouts his way through material about communism and the proletariat for an audience who just pissed themselves at Chris Tarrant’s anus, and are suddenly being presented with punchlines about Mussolini and “murals by colour-blind Mexicans on acid…

There’s also a live performance from Robert Palmer, during that incredible period when men who looked like middle-aged photocopier salesmen were allowed to perform music on TV, and with lyrics like “girl the way you squeal when you get it” and “I thought my luck had held until you fingered me,” before Bob Carolgees comes out with Charlie the Monkey. God, what a wealth of puppet sidekicks we had back then; Emu, Orville, Sooty, Roland Rat, Nookie Bear. Charlie’s the Cuddles to Bob’s far more famous Spit, and marvellously cheap-looking, like it’s straight off one of those market stalls that sells backflipping dogs, forcing me to make the umpteenth Joe Beazley reference on here. In the next episode, Charlie tries to gnaw Bob’s testicles off, as he scalds it with “stop it, you bad lad!” Carolgees will also amble through an an extended musical number about Spit, with so much smoke filling the stage, he looks like Jack the Ripper. For those who didn’t catch Bob Carolgees in his prime, Spit was a dog who kept gobbing everywhere, which saved him having to come up with a voice.

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Lenny does his “gwapple my gwapenuts!” David Bellamy, singling out a “dirty, filthy” audience member to tell him he stinks, before announcing it’s time for Beat Your Brains Out. It’s the playground equivalent of someone yelling ‘bundle!’ as balloons and confetti drop from the ceiling, and the audience attack each other with plastic clubs, pillows and inflatable hammers. Under squealing guitar, the studio fills with smoke and party poppers, and I dread to think how much groping’s going on under there. This sort of contrived chaos is acceptable on kids shows, when it’s actual children — like Dick ‘n Dom’s joyous creamy muck-muck finales — but with fully-grown adults, I find myself taking on the ‘grow up, you idiot’ disdain reserved for those morons who shout you awake at 4am by riding a shopping trolley down the street.

Everything’s covered in detritus, with audience members brawling behind the desk, as a custard-smeared Tarrant tries to get back on track for a caption contest. Every cartoon is a bedroom in the midst of some right proper rogering, with plenty of upturned/downturned feet. “Someone’s bonking in there!” exclaims 35-year-old Chris Tarrant. The address to write in is printed on the shirt of a busty black woman in bikini bottoms, as a gurning tramp character readies to squeeze her swaying boobs. She’ll show up again in a bikini, to pour custard over a man in a thong, where, most depressingly of all, it’s Jan 30th, and the custard-bucket is still decorated with a balding string of Christmas tinsel.

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O.T.T has a lot of padding, like an ancient three-minute clip of the young Rolling Stones. Perhaps it’s an attempt to fully emulate Saturday morning kids shows, as the other episode even has a cartoon, with a truncated edit of Bob Godfrey short, Dream Doll, which depicts a sad-sack who buys a sex doll. The audience might be laughing, but with its sickly synth music and maudlin images of a lonely old man tenderly motor-boating a pair of pointy plastic tits, desperate for any physical contact while she keeps floating out of his grasp, the beams in the attic roof begun to call my name. Then a gang made up of a Nazi, biker, and Native American kick the shit out of him, and one by one, their shadows fall over the sex doll, ala Last House on the Left. They burst her with the first thrust, leaving the aul fella sobbing over the remains, before all the world’s sex dolls fly him away to freedom. Still made more sense than The fucking Raccoons, mind.

There’s also the good old stand-by, the funny foreign advert, mostly the kind where women get their knockers out, but otherwise, like a Japanese ad for phones, which is neither funny nor subtitled, merely making you wonder how staid British ads were at the time, that these were notable enough to show. The ruddy mad bloody nutters in the audience get time to shine too, with Tarrant interviewing a bloke called Roy who can blow smoke out of his ears, though he forgets to put the mic under Roy’s mouth, so we don’t hear a word he says. The ‘silliest dressed’ person — a vicar’s outfit smeared with paint and feathers — gets the BPITA Award, which I’m going to assume stands for Biggest Plonker in the Audience.

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For the finale, Tarrant welcomes the ‘strongman’ back, this time in a fez for a mind-reading act, where a background barrage of popping balloons tread over his punchlines. The gag is he accidentally starts eating his own brain, losing his faculties and eventually becoming deaf and blind, but as it’s gone midnight in the studio, and there’s no willies or fannies in this bit, the audience tire of it really quickly. We close on the bosomy dancer doing a striptease, peeling herself out of a dress into undies and suspenders, with the camera zooming in as she unfastens the front of her bra, aaaaand — cut to black. In credit-spotting, O.T.T. shares a writer with Bullseye, plus there’s an additional material credit for a young Angus Deayton.

The March 20th episode opens on a skit where Tarrant’s an actual cuckold, asking his wife he if can watch when she sleeps with her lover, before cutting to Carolgees sat on a lady’s lap in the audience, where she can be seen rearing back as though getting a whiff of some terrible BO. Then it’s over to Lenny, again with the grass skirt and Zulu paint, as “Africa’s first disco comedian.” He says touring British discotheques has really opened his eyes, “mainly because (as a skirt-wearer) I get to change in the women’s toilets… woola-banga bazoomy!” — he mimes the big tits that he’s been lucky enough to see, and a red emergency phone begins ringing off the hook on Graham Linehan’s desk.

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His launching into a “Swahili disco number” spells problematic in letters the size of the fucking Hollywood sign, singing about running around the jungle and having 87 wives, with battle cries of “Wakanga! Umbutu-wanga! Katanga!” Particularly weird in 2020, after decades of despotic rule, is the image of Robert Mugabe solving issues with his political opponents by “running into the bush and start rappin’ in the nude.” The whole thing’s summed up by the tremendously out-of-time clapping by a couple of blokes in the front row, before Tarrant quips “that was a clip from Black Emmannuelle.”

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Lenny, still in his Zulu outfit, joins Tarrant at the desk, where they show a tabloid picture of Julian Lennon with his new girlfriend. Is this, posits a letter, the same girl who was “jumping up and down on your snooker table last week?” They play the clip of a topless woman running into an old man’s embrace, showing her wobbling boobs from various angles, just to be sure. Tarrant grabs Lenny by the ankle, yanking his bare feet onto the desk, with a laughing “get your big, black feet away from me!” Then there’s a sex scene with Bob Carolgees. Sure, he and Helen are both fully dressed, bouncing up and down sideways beneath a sheet as the audience cheers them on, but we hear him reach a loud climax, where it’s impossible not to picture — as with the titular puppet — the resulting muck spitting from the end of his penis with a hock-tooey.

The next showcase of Tarrant’s comedic skills is so unspeakably awful, that when it suddenly cuts to a close-up of Jimmy Savile, in an archive clip introducing a performance by the unfortunately-named-given-the-context Nashville Teens, it’s a huge relief. In an clear attempt to corner the market on British showbiz’s most notorious villains, Bernard Manning then comes on to do a set. Bernard’s hair has an extraordinary structure, like corrugated iron, and for all the talk of his ‘amazing timing’ he’s got the stage presence of someone whose job is scraping suicides off the train tracks and hasn’t felt an emotion for decades.

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The material is what you’d expect, with an opening gag about a bloke buying a blow-up doll from a sex shop, but they only had black ones, so “he took it home, blew it up, and it mugged him.” This gets a huge laugh, and note that the entire cast, including Lenny Henry, are all sat crammed at the desk six feet away, where Lenny can be seen throughout the routine with his head in his hands. At one point, Bernard castigates him for laughing; “it’s alright for you black people, you can walk home on your own at night.” Bernard then does his ‘be kind’ bit, about how lovely it is being a comic and making people smile, before quoting Hitler.

Now, remember my Barrymore piece, and all the Libyan stuff? Where I theorised it was his version of Bernard’s apocryphal Japanese man who happens to be sat in the audience every night? Well, he interjects with an aside, stopping to look accusingly at someone in the front row — though notably the camera doesn’t pan around to show them — “You Japanese never laugh, do yer? We’ve not forgot Pearl Harbour, don’t you worry, pal. Shithouse trick, that was. Sat there, can’t wait to go home and make another Datsun.” That’s it; that’s the routine! An urban legend confirmed before our very eyes, word for word, even with the capper of pointing at another audience member (who they do show), and instructing them “you look a nice young fella, go piss on that Jap.”

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On he goes, with jokes about cheap Jews, thick Irish, and big cavernous pussies, and a gag about Red Adair, which turns out to be the exact same joke told by the contestant in Brucie’s Big Night, four years earlier. After a music video, we cut back to Tarrant at the desk, where he’s been joined by Bernard. It’s wild to see the big man so out of his element, sat like a proper TV presenter; but then he announces Beat Your Brains Out. Clearly unaware of what’s about to happen, he throws his arms up in genuine panic as a row of pyro sparks along the desk, in what will be Bernard Manning’s personal, confetti-soaked Pearl Harbour.

When we return from the civil disorder in the seats, Bernard’s become one of those ads for PTSD, where a soldier’s underneath the dining room table on bonfire night, as he brushes packing peanuts off his head and flinches from unseen screams and the bangs of bursting balloons. He seems afraid to lower his arms, in case something hits him, and is clearly trying to get his breathing under control. As Tarrant witters on, Bernard makes not a sound, shifting in his seat and squinting uncomfortably at the battlefield behind the cameras. When it finally cuts to a VT, he spits confetti into his palm.

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Onto a caption competition for LPs, including Motorhead and the soundtrack to Death Wish 3, Tarrant picks up on Bernard’s wariness — “It’s alright. You’re not frightened, are you?” “No, no,” says Bernard, before Tarrant reaches for a cuddly lion, and Bernard ducks out of the way like when a school bully lifts a hand to brush through his hair and you think he’s going to punch you. Even aside from the chaos, he’s utterly lost. As demonstrated by his appearance on The Mrs. Merton Show, Bernard’s unable to think on his feet, relying on heavily-rehearsed routines that are so rigid, his nightly act is now confirmed to have a scripted bit where he pretends to spot a Japanese man in the crowd.

Then we’re in a courtroom, with Lenny’s lawyer prosecuting a teacher who threatened to smack her pupil with a ruler. This “poor, unfortunate child” is played by Bernard Manning, wearing the same rainbow punk wig from the skirt-ripping sketch. Feel free to correct me, but is this the only sketch Manning’s played in during his entire career? It’s surreal to see him as part of ensemble, like when they bring athletes or politicians onto SNL, but more than that, such unfamiliar footing further exposes his legendary ‘talents’. It’s some achievement, being this noticeably awful with so little to do, in a way that brings to mind Frank Bruno’s cameo as a doorman in hooligan movie, Cass, where he somehow managed to overact while standing silently in the background with his arms folded.

The child’s said to have a twitch, so… lots of potential for a comedy tic? Nah, he doesn’t bother. Also, master of his craft, Bernard ‘he might’ve been racist, but his timing was world class‘ Manning fumbles over his one line, which has clearly been written down in front of him, with Gorman’s policeman literally nudging him on his cue and pointing to it. The end of the sketch sees the teacher physically attacking him, but as she whales away, he completely no-sells, breaking character, with a smile on his face like “if you lot think I’m gonna let a split-arse rough me up, you’ve got another thing coming…”

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This week’s BPITA award goes to a surly bloke in a red crash helmet and woman’s dress, while the lady next to him came in a negligee, and is made by Tarrant to stand up, so we can all see her nice body. He hands over to live band, Rocky Sharpe and the Replays; 50’s diner Americana doo-wop from Englishmen in 1982. Christ, can you not put that nice Mr. Manning on instead for some of his jokes? In a real Monkey’s Paw, after the final note, there he is, back on his home turf, stood with a mic in his hand, and calling the band “dirty, filthy bastards.” He tells a joke about “one of those skippies,” which barely gets a laugh, because I think he means ‘hippies,’ then it’s straight into the Irish thicko material, and “d’ya ever notice how there’s not many Pakistanis knockin’ about since the Chinese realised they taste like chicken?

Incidentally, I’ve seen comparatively little footage of Bernard Manning’s actual performances. I’m too young for his run on The Comedians, never went to his club, and in my lifetime, he made scant few TV appearances, outside of being a scowling talking head on docs where he was moaning about Alternative Comedy. And yet, I’ve definitely heard him tell every joke he did on OT.T., multiple times. It’s a wonder he kept hold of that trademark girth, after dining out on the same five-minute set of pub jokes for fifty years.

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Anyway, at this point during his closing routine, Bernard’s raised into the air on a (sturdy) harness like a racist Peter Pan, as the crew wheels in a big tub of suds for him to be dumped into, which from the look of him, is the first bath he’s had since man landed on the moon. It’s a prank by the barest of definitions, but all done with this jubilant air like ‘we gave loads of airtime to his bile, but look at him now, slightly uncomfortable in some bubbles!’ When they hoist him back out, he looks like a full-scale Mr. Stay Puft.

With barely any surviving episodes of TISWAS, I can’t rightly say whether its rep on the upper echelons of kids TV is earned, however, even on the basis of two hour’s worth, O.T.T.‘s place among television’s absolute worst is thoroughly deserved. There’s an overwhelming irony in how childish its notion of what constitutes ‘adult’ is; phrases like “dangly bits” and the constant depictions of sex through feet — ‘haha, look at this naughty old missionary! They’re having it off!!’ I’d suggest saving yourself the trouble of watching it, and instead just type BOOBIES into an upside down calculator while listening to your dad complain about Diane Abbott.

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.

A Prince Among Men

•June 26, 2020 • 1 Comment

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[This is Part 9 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart Eight]

The latest Shitcom to fall under my gaze has a lot in common with the previous entry, Captain Butler. It too hails from the 1990s as a star vehicle for a Red Dwarf actor, and just like Butler, is an absolute clogged toilet of a show. Like Faith in the Future, Not On Your Nellie, Life of Riley, and Nelson’s Column, A Prince Among Men follows that classic sitcom title convention of picking an idiom and naming the lead character after it; in ex-footballer, Gary Prince. Although a more fitting title would’ve been The Shitass Empire. Speaking of Britass, Prince Among Men was co-created by a pair who’d penned four episodes of Chris Barrie’s swimming centre disaster-farce, and written for Birds of a Feather; plus one them played Jacko’s mate on Brush Strokes, so imagine an episode of Comedy Connections where it’s just a close-up of me scratching all the skin off my face.

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The opening titles show clips from the series, but jazzed up to look exciting with that weird stabiliser effect you get when someone’s filming their dad fall down the stairs on a phone. As the show-proper will when it starts telling jokes, the theme has me tossing batteries at the screen and setting fire to the curtains, as it kicks in with hooligan-style chanting — “he’s a winner, he’s a star; he’s a prince, a prince among men!” Fahkin’ come on then, you slags! I’ll stripe ya! But then a gravelly-voiced Chris Rea type takes over, with lyrics that read like a five-year-old smeared in cake icing explaining all about their favourite superhero.

he’s always right, cos he knows what’s what,

winnin’ is his game, he’s always said,

cos the best is the Prince, and he’s got the lot,

and he hasn’t let it go to his head!

He goes onto tell us Gary’s “an all-time great, the finest football player of the day” and “patted on the back by the hand of fate, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” What do you care, mate? This interminable song carries on into the opening scene, which showcases Prince Among Men‘s comedic one-two punch; technology going wrong and Chris Barrie pulling a face, while also demonstrating how the audience; clearly packed with rabid Red Dwarf fans; will laugh their throats bloody at anything he does. Gary’s a big tech guy, and gets a laugh purely by using a remote control to close his patio doors. The first comedian to go back in time with an Amstrad em@iler is gonna sell out stadiums.

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Throughout the series, the live crowd are popping off like loose firecrackers, ready to fall out of their seats whenever Barrie opens his mouth, like someone overreacting to the lunch room quips of a colleague they fancy. In one episode, just the name Sophie Moffett, not even meant to be a joke, gets a lone “hurh!” of amusement, likely from someone who entered the studio doing the Red Dwarf shuffle. To be fair, he is using his Lister voice from the Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers audiobook, as Gary Prince is a proper comedy Scouser, complete with that perm all footballers had in [checks notes] 1998. In a testament to great research, Scouse Gary is seen casually reading The Sun.

Chris Barrie’s a gifted performer, but he’s truly dreadful in this, with a zero effort performance, like he’s confused the actual shoot for the first table read. There’s a shocking lack of preparedness, everything played flat and bare minimum, with no extra little moments of physicality or added comic garnishes on the lines he’s merely remembered and is reciting, other than sometimes pulling a face. It feels like that stage show which re-enacts the whole of the movie Point Break, where a random audience member’s pulled on to play Keanu’s part with no warning.

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Despite the football setting, any actual footie-talk is so generic, the writers had all the interest of your mum glancing up from her sudoku on cup final day to ask why the goalie doesn’t just pick it up and run down the other end. This is a workplace sitcom in disguise, with Gary’s ’empire’ of assorted businesses running out of an office complex at the end of his garden. His secretary Sonia is one of those naïve comedy thickos with a baby voice, always squeaking on about unseen fiancée, Kevin, who’s got eczema and erupting dermatitis, giving Barrie the chance to make grossed-out facial expressions when hearing about his flaky skin, just like you loved when he did it with Colin in The Brittas Empire, didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU?! Also working for him are Susie Blake, Minty off Eastenders, and posho accountant Mr. Fitzherbert, who makes frequent reference to boarding school chums called things like Pongo and Shagger.

Right from the whistle, it’s clear we’re following the rote construction of all sitcoms from that era, as used so ineffectively by Big Top a decade later, where, rather than having a funny scene play out in front of camera, two characters sit down and talk about what happened, so we can imagine it instead. At a supermarket opening, Minty will mention a “routine with a salami” that went down well with the housewives; “of course, you always get one that faints.” Yes, great idea, keep the interesting incidents offscreen, and have the sitcom be all the boring stuff. The series begins with Gary reminiscing about taking blind kids skydiving, as though that’s an inherently funny idea and not, like, a thing there are actual charities for. Anyway, one of them got caught in a wind sock; but you can’t see it. Neither could the kid!

We’re 1,000 words in, and I’ve yet to mention the plot. That’s because they don’t settle on one until five minutes from the end, so it’s all just random shit. A dog gets fatally hung (later revealed to be fine) by an automatic garage door; Gary goes to the pub he bought for the manager of his old schoolboy team; and there are loads of jokes about his high-tech gadgets. The universal remote’s obviously intended to be their ‘Arkwright’s Till’, with doors opening suddenly and violently, and a wine dispenser tipping a bottle of red all over the floor as the audience hoot. There’s a bit where he goes to use his mobile and accidentally dials on the remote instead, cutting to all the shutters and blinds going at Benny Hill speed.

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Gary’s wife is a German with a Herr Flick accent, switching all her Vs for Ws (“wegitarian food”), and he overhears her on the phone, erroneously thinking he’s getting the This is Your Life book during his speech at the policeman’s luncheon. Turns out, he’s wrong, though we do get a look at Gary’s patter. “I’ve always tried to do me bit for the boys in blue, but to be honest, I’d rather do it for the girls in blue! Ooh ooh!” At this, he salaciously thrusts his fist at 90 degrees, in the time-accepted mime for a big stiff willy going up a fanny. This is fully on a par with the rest of the jokes. Regard, this example of Prince‘s laff-getters.

     Fitzherbert: “I’m sorry if it offends you that I’ve got a pedigree.

     Gary: “I’ve got a pedigree, chum.

Ha, ha, just like the dog food! Then there’s this sparkling witticism, when Gary recalls a chat with his physio — “he says he’s never seen a knee like mine, he says another bloke would be hospitalised with my knee. Well, obviously not with my knee; he’d have his own, it’d be his knee…” Among all the talk of Gary’s side businesses, we learn there’s a tool designers; all to get to a line where Fitzherbert zings him by changing the company name to Gary Prince’s Toolworks — nothing more humiliating than having people know your penis can get hard and shoot cum out of its slit.

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But this is a rare case of the show understanding what a double-entendre is, incapable of pulling off (see, that’s how easy it is!) even the hoariest of comedy techniques. When Fitzherbert takes a phonecall with a woman, he suggests “why don’t we play around on Friday afternoon. I seem to remember you thrashed me last time,” Gary opens his gob in shock, eyebrows on the ceiling. But anyone — i.e. the whole audience — who’s laughing as though he isn’t clearly describing tennis or golf, but rather, a bout of violent S&M, must be sat in a fucking gimp mask and bollock-collar to make that connection. There’s another one in episode 3, where he tells Gary his wife’s mad because he “shot Nanny. She was old and passed it, and smelled dreadful, so I took her into the garden and shot her.” Maybe this would’ve been funny if he’d revealed he actually was talking about an old lady and not, as is patently obvious, a dog.

We’re supposed to be charmed by Gary’s cheeky Scouse jack-the-laddery, like in his banter with Susie Blake’s Bev, who tells him she prefers to be addressed as Beverly — “Well dat’s very ‘andy, Bev, cos dat’s your name!” Every line’s delivered with that “Accrington Stanley!?” cadence, and pushed from the side of his mouth, sometimes ending on a jaunty pose, like a medieval jester. For such a pedestrian show, the end credits are oddly allegorical, set against an ethereal cloudy sky with a tiny Gary ascending a ladder which stretches up the side of the screen, slowly sinking with each step, with him reaching the top just as it ends. Ah, yes; in that eternal and endless struggle for success, man’s true enemy is himself; a philosophy imparted through A Prince Among Men‘s tableaux of Chris Barrie flaring his nostrils as the patio doors refuse to open.

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Episode two follows the 1997 naming rule of making a pun on Changing Rooms, entitled ‘Changing Revs‘, and starts with the Princes trying to make breakfast with Gary’s new voice-activated microwave from Japan, giving us the hilarity of his wife shouting in her German accent like an SS officer. Later, she’ll yell at it in Japanese, causing the blinds to come down instead. It’s all laid on the same rails as episode one, with Gary doing the rounds of the supporting characters as they all do their bits; Sonia chatters about ugly, gross Kevin; Fitzherbert says some comical stocks-n-shares words, and namechecks a Johnny Nipple and Buttocks Bingham; and there’s a reference to an offscreen “papier mache incident.” Plot-wise, the church due to hold Sonia and Kevin’s wedding is being sold, so Gary decides he’ll buy it. As the warden tells him about dwindling attendance, Gary suggests they do a “transfer to the Catholics,” and then he pulls this face.

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There’s a brilliant example here of the way bad writers desperately scrabble around to find a joke — any joke — so they can pack up for the day, remembering how they once read that humour is born from confusion. Why, asks Gary, were there so many boxes of macaroons in the church? “Cameroons!” exclaims the warden, “they’re going to the Cameroons! We’re storing them for a charity.” “Oh, right.” That’s it. That’s a joke. And tellingly, it’s the first to barely raise a titter from the audience. The warden tells Gary the church is God’s house. “And does he know you’re selling it?” asks Gary. And then he pulls this face.

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Back at the office, a woman’s arrived from charity Tropic Aid — “I’m a Lucozade man meself!” says Gary, and yes, a face was made, but like everything else in this show, I’ll let you imagine it. However, Gary’s not buying the church to save Sonia’s wedding, and secretly plans to turn it into a go kart track called ‘God’s Hot Rods’ or ‘Onward Christian Go-Karts’ (the latter of which scores our first zero-laughs gag). Eventually, the church finds out, cancels the sale, and sends the go karts to Africa, mistaking them for a charitable donation (“so now the nomads can drive 15 miles to the nearest well”), but until then, Bev hates the idea of the church falling into secular hands.

     Sonia: “It can be a bit messy. Kevin’s got those, you know.” [oh Christ, don’t]

     Bev: “What?” [please…]

     Sonia: “Secular hands. He has to have them dressed twice a week by the health visitor.” [my office lays empty. The window beside the desk is wide open, curtain billowing, scattering loose papers about the room. In the street below, there is silence for a moment. And then, a scream]

It turns out Gary accidentally grassed himself up to the church on an answerphone tape, and there’s no mole, so t– “Kevin has moles, have you tried potassium manganate?” Sorry, I just blacked out for a second. Gary: “I mean in me organisation!” Sonia: “Kevin’s are in his armpits.” Look, let’s just MOVE ON. Episode 3, Where Were They Then? sees Gary’s old schoolboy team being reunited for an interview in the Independent. This week’s tech-yuks come from a little table that descends from the ceiling but keeps going out of reach, in a gag the show returns to about ten fucking times. Meanwhile, Gary’s wife is launching a range of cakes, and when told they’ll be puff pastry, Sonia lets out a big “Oh dear… Kevin won’t go near puff pasty, just in case.” Is this… a homophobic gag? Puffs? Fear of catching AIDS? What else could it be a reference to?

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Gary and his schoolboy manager discuss old teammates, including John the Murderer, who went onto kill both his parents in a mercy killing — sorry, “a Mersey killing. He pushed them both in the Mersey.” Christ, a man should be so lucky. Later, while wearing a huge 90’s smock-jacket like Pipes from Ghostwatch, he’s caught shit-talking John the Murderer, when he turns out to be Right Behind Him, covering himself with a brown-nosing “you were probably driven to it; you were pushed!” “No,” says John the Murderer, “I wasn’t pushed. But they were!” I cannot reiterate enough, I’d bloody love to have been murdered rather than sit through this. Nice head-stoving or charger cable round the neck; the edges of my vision going grey as Sonia talks about Kevin’s anal-fissure, and knowing, even if I’m due for the plague pits of Hell, things are looking up.

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At the team meet, old goalkeeper Derek’s now Deborah after a sex change — who craggy manager Vince immediately becomes besotted with — and there’s more offscreen antics when Bev berates Sonia for ruining her night at a posh society do, having had to resuscitate Kevin in a muddy lake after one of his ‘attacks’. “Yes, he chucked a banger at the orchestra and they attacked him!” The cartoonish nature of these anecdotes is tonally way off with the dreary stuff we do see, describing Kevin with his head stuck in a tuba, and a piccolo jammed up his arse.

When the newspaper comes in, it turns out to a piece about Gary’s wife. “I guess zat’s the vay the cookie crumbles!” she says, which gets a huge laugh, presumably because she’s quoting Prince Edward’s brilliant and timeless quip from It’s a Royal Knockout, and we end on the ceiling-table shattering over Gary’s head, leaving him grimacing and rubbing his perm. Inexplicably, A Prince Among Men wasn’t cancelled the moment its opening titles had finished, but renewed for a second series. This would be relegated to the Sunday afternoon death slot, along with other shows that felt like punishment, and which existed solely as Gabriel’s trumpet-blast, announcing the imminent, dread approach of school or work. And what a way to see off the final dregs of the weekend, by watching Chris Barrie make a face as he hears about the infected penile scabs of an unseen man.

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.

Gone To Pot

•June 16, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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Though ITV’s 2017 reality show, Gone To Pot — a series that sends celebrities to learn about marijuana — looks like classic Patreon material, I must admit, I’ve been putting it off. I usually cover things I’ve at least some cursory knowledge of, and as someone who doesn’t even drink, let alone smoke weed, I feel I don’t have the appropriate expertise. I’m not some reactionary weirdo; it’s just not for me, and consequently, I may be about shatter my image as the swaggering literary hedonist whose brilliant, prolific output could only be achieved by a diet of pharmaceutical-strength narcotics and pansexual swinging. Alas, this is such unfamiliar territory, I don’t even know what to call it. Weed? Pot? Cannabis? Gear? What’s the slang these days? “One packet of Lyndhurst’s please, my good dealer!” It’s like starting a new school and not knowing if you get beaten up for wearing your backpack with one strap or both.

The other reason for my hesitancy is a general dislike of weed culture. Anyone who makes a substance or foodstuff their entire personality is the worst kind of bore; craft beer drinkers, and people who made an active decision to walk this Earth as The Coffee-Liker, their daily Instagram stories flooded with boomerangs of brown liquid and stickers that say “WOW!” People whose ‘thing’ is weed seem to be suffering arrested development, forever the kids showing off in IT class by printing out clip-art of Bob Marley, and kicking around in Spliffy jackets. Growing up, I feel like every conversation anyone had between the ages of 16-20 consisted of positing “Mate, imagine if [relatively boring-seeming person] smoked weed! Imagine them with a spliff!

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Prior to writing this, I decided to do some extra research, and hit the streets to glean information from the local youths that hang around lampposts, spitting. Apparently, there’s a particularly virulent brand of skunk round here called Pence’s Piss, with other popular strains such as Reboot Cadfael, Dean Gaffney’s African Cleaner, and Just Fuck Off, You Paedo.

I needn’t have been concerned about my own lack of street knowledge, as Gone To Pot was obviously made by your mum, chatting away to your school chums about ‘the old wacky baccy’ and getting the munchies, while they wait for you to come down from the bathroom. There’s an unrelenting Summer of Love soundtrack, with every onscreen caption in that bubbly Woodstock font. All the travelling’s done in a tour bus decorated with psychedelic swirls, peace signs, and the word LOVE, and every inch of the interior’s adorned with colourful throws and giant flowers. Dreamcatchers hang from the ceiling; arriving celebrities are draped with leis. This is weed culture in a Poundland fancy dress outfit, its fingers held up in a peace sign, going “yeah man, peace man, I’m a hippie…

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The cast too, are endearingly innocent to the ways of marijuana, or as the Ric Flair of darts, Bobby George calls it, “happy baccy.” Riding with Bobby for the three-week tour of all things 420 are a group of aged minor celebrities with similarly shocking levels of drug inexperience, given that showbiz supposedly runs on wild coke parties. For Christopher Biggins, a human teddy bear locked in a permanent wheezing fit of raucous laughter, this is a comeback of sorts, recently shouldered from his perch as national treasure, after getting thrown off Big Brother for accusing bisexuals of spreading AIDS, and jokingly warning a Jewish contestant not to get gassed. Biggins aims to find out whether medicinal marijuana can help with his bad knee. Likewise, Pam St. Clement is riddled with arthritis, and a perfect fit for the show, considering EastEnders‘ love of the comedic ‘stuffy character takes drugs by accident’ plot. Connoisseurs of the trope may consider the genre peak Dot Cotton’s misadventures with some ‘herbal tea,’ but for me, no onscreen portrayal of drugs is as powerful as the time Martin Fowler was given LSD by Nick Cotton, in events portrayed via Martin’s POV of his brother making funny faces into a fish-eye lens. Finally, rounding off the group, there’s Linda Robson off Birds of a Feather, and Fash.

John ‘Fash’ Fashanu, Fash the Bash, is an extraordinarily weird man; a top-level oddball who carries himself with both the wide-eyed innocence and know-it all arrogance of a child, like he made a wish at a Zoltar machine, right before making another one, asking to be a massive prick. So otherworldly, like every day is his first on Earth, I suspect most will think it’s an act and he’s doing a ‘bit’. Not just a prude, but a wildly intolerant religious bigot, who once paid his now-dead gay brother £75,000 to stay in the closet and save his embarrassment, Fash is your classic target for “imagine him on the weed though, be mad wouldn’t it?!” Greeting the arrival of the bus with an “amen, brother,” he claims, like old muggins here, to have never taken drugs or been drunk, but has a dim view of those that have. With that old classic, “I don’t need drugs because I’m high on life,” And where does Fash stand on weed? “I classify marijuana with cocaine, heroin, any other of the a-listed drugs.”

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As such a zero tolerance hard-liner, the real story of the show is Fash’s struggle though an endless series of visits to weed dispensaries and grow farms, and how that affects his attitude towards “smoke heads” as despicable junkie scum. We begin, of course, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, birthplace of the counterculture, and where a fresh-out-of-jail Charles Manson picked up his first followers. “I can actually smell wacky baccy!” shrieks an overexcited Linda Robson, likely soon to be giggling off the fumes, like year 9 girls on a school trip, drunk on shandy. Even I’m beginning to feel pretty hip, as Bobby imagines what it might be like to smoke some, with a “yeah baby, alright man!” But not everyone’s so open to experimentation, as Fash confesses to camera that he’s nervous about admitting to the others he doesn’t want to smoke, because, well…

Before the first of many, many trips to a dispensary, the gang list their ailments to a Skype doctor, who signs each a medical note for just $100 apiece. Boy did they get rinsed! I got a thorough examination over webcam by a urologist I met on ChatRoulette, and it only cost me a tenner, though I did subsequently get blackmailed for £20,000 in bitcoin by Chechnyan mobsters. Now eligible for medicinal usage, the first-time buyers stock up on cannabis oils, brownies, and weed-infused sweets. All except for Fash, who refuses everything but a bro-handshake from the hipster behind the counter, coming off like a real Poo Poo Boy in the process.

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A permanent ingénue, forever shocked by the world around him, he’s aghast at the speed at which the others transform into filthy druggies, chucking a-list funny cigarettes into their baskets like a speed run on Supermarket Sweep. But then, we get to the crux of the matter, as Fash finally confesses his true reasons for staying away from that demon weed. Despite all the talk of morals and Christian faith, Fash’s opposition is actually a safety issue; the safety of others, concerned he may “take some weed,” and as a result “I may go completely out of control.” Fearing another Helter Skelter, Fash’s terror at endangering innocent victims increases at a grow commune operated by a group of nuns, the cartoonish Sisters of The Valley, who believe the plant to be a spiritual gift from Mother Goddess. With Pam and Bobby taking their first ever honks on an actual joint, a frightened Fash just says no, further explaining, with complete sincerity. “I might become extremely aggressive and start using martial arts… I’ve got 16 years, 4 black belts, so that would be horrible.”

Terrified he’ll take a single toke and snap out of a weed-madness fugue to find himself standing over a pile of dead nuns, Fash considers even medicinal use too much of a risk. But as an ex-footballer with bad knees, he’s seen the benefits from his new friends, with Biggins bragging of a very fast nightly piss, having rubbed cannabis oil all over his thighs. As a result, he seems to be considering it, and soon, a now-shirtless Fash is having CBD oil massaged into his skin by the stoned sisters. However, in that morning-after regret typical of overdoing it on a big sesh, second thoughts quickly follow. “What’s really disturbing me, is the connotation that for the next 3 or 4 days, everybody will be smelling marijuana, thinking I’m a junkie.

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To be fair, Fash’s Reefer Madness notion of an immediate psychotic break on ingesting marijuana was initially shared by the rest of the group. Putting droplets of cannabis oil under their tongues, each seemed to be expecting that hard cut to their pupils shrinking into pinpricks, and the real world peeling away to reveal a moving patchwork of cartoon rainbows, mandarin music and talking bunnies. But unlike Fash, once they’ve had their first puff, the others are quick to embrace it, immediately going full Cheech and Chong, and leaving him open mouthed, making noises like he’s at a firework display when watching them inhale. This hedonism hits its pinnacle when the group meet pink-haired 94-year-old edibles chef, Nonna Marijuana, giving us this phenomenal exchange, with Fash introducing himself to the very spritely old lady with a patronising decibel-level normally reserved for trying to rouse an actual corpse.

“FASH! FASH! I’M FASH!”

Flash?

“FASH!”

Flash?

“FASH!”

What knowledge I lack about drugs, I make up for in experience with memes. One thing I’ve learned from them is the behaviour of edibles, with those two-panel images of someone scoffing pot brownies and feeling fine, followed by a second frame depicting the moment ‘when that edible hits’, where they’re trapped in a Photoshop blur and clinging on for dear life. Nonna cooks a feast, with lashings of weed mixed into the butter, and though Fash eats the ‘clean’ alternative, Biggins and Bobby, a couple of big lads who never turned down a free dinner, gobble down about fifteen helpings. It’s now that Fash takes an enormous step. “To debate marijuana,” he says, “I must know what it’s like.” Know thy enemy, indeed, and with a deep breath, he succumbs to a few spoonfuls of marijuana ice cream, ensuring poor old Nonna’s imminent death from a flurry of demented karate chops. Like a man sitting on a ticking bomb, he holds his breath and waits. And… nothing happens.

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Two hours later, the memes are all true, and when the edibles hit, it’s an ugly sight. Fash’s mouthful of ice cream leaves him unharmed — Awooga! — but Bobby and Biggins undergo what I’m informed is known as a well-bad whitey. Not laughing for the first time in his life, Biggins weakly begs for help, even sicker than he was when the driver inquired of little old England “do you you guys have bidets?” to the furious reply of “we invented them!” As a poor production assistant holds a plastic bag to catch the vomit of a sobbing Bobby George, a staggering, vacant Biggins, caked in sick, has to be helped into his deathbed. The morning after, with everyone shook, Bobby describes last light’s events as “100 sea-sicks at once.” It’s only lucky Fash didn’t overindulge too. Christ, they’d had to have rolled out the tanks to stop him.

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But are there two hollower words than never again? Despite their near-death experiences, we follow the group through various hippie communes and grow factories, where everyone’s having a grand old time of it, with Bobby, Linda and Pam in particular puffing away like Cyprus Hill. Meanwhile. Fash is constantly fucking around on his phone, and in every scene of bus frivolity, can be seen in the corner, head down, fingers tapping away. Most likely, the sight of an ODing Biggins has him starting an online petition to make possession a hanging offence. But then he meets a little girl in a wheelchair, stricken by 1,000 seizures a day, until cannabis oil did what traditional medicine couldn’t, which opens his eyes to the benefits of medicinal marijuana, and leaves him in tears. Before we know what’s happening, they’re at a party in the Hollywood hills, and old Poo Poo Boy’s quaffing back a brownie. “What I don’t want,” he tells the chef, “is to take enough to put myself out of control.”

By morning, he’s shooting smack into the head of his penis with a dirty needle. No, don’t be silly. As the tour continues, we’re treated to more classic reality TV that’s so weird it sounds made up. Pat Butcher tags along to a SWAT raid on an illegal grow farm; Bobby George invites his mate Engelbert Humperdinck to a BBQ and mistakes ‘Bel Air’ for ‘bell-end’; Fash gets told off by a cop for picking up chemicals seized from a Mexican drug cartel. Then it’s off to the millionth weed farm, this time state-licensed, like moving up from Walt’s van to Gus’s underground lab.

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Even on an industrial scale, it’s still run by a bloke with a massive ratty beard and man-bun of white-boy dreads. When they visit a farm foods superstore, it filled with edibles, bongs, pipes and t-shirts; a weed-bore paradise. The guy behind the counter wears a beanie and Spider-Man jacket, and every customer is a scruffy hipster with flesh-gauged ears and sleeve tattoos. I shouldn’t judge appearances, being that I resemble a back alley crack dealer from an episode of Diagnosis: Murder, but damn if everyone involved in the legal weed industry doesn’t look exactly like they’d be depicted by a conservative newspaper cartoonist.

The gang split into groups, with Fash, Linda and Bobby off to Denver’s International Church of Marijuana, an ornate building painted up like a Grateful Dead cover, where ‘services’ consists of a dozen unbearably tiresome stoners with Counting Crows hair and steampunk goggles on top hats, lazing on pews in camo getting blazed. By the time Pam and Biggins join a ‘mobile cannabis lounge’, filled with another background cast of gross unkempt beards, trucker hats, and flannel, huffing on custom bong rigs, I’m 18 again, listening to my friends go on and on and on about weed all the fucking time, and never wanting to do anything but hang out at creepy older men’s houses to smoke. This is when I realise. It’s me, isn’t it? It’s always been me. I’m the Poo Poo Boy.

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There’s one final moment of television magic, when Fash gets a chance at clay pigeon shooting, excitedly decked out in hunting gear, but on realising it’s up a mountain, becomes too afraid to move within 20ft of the edge. Though his hands and feet may be deadly weapons, he cowers behind a production truck, literally clinging to it, while Linda merrily blasts away with a shotgun. Fash addresses one of the guides; “Brother, how can we fix this so I can have a go?” When told “you just gotta do like everybody else,” Fash replies, in classic nonsense-wisdom, “we’re not all born the same, brother.

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The trip concludes with the celebrities taking a (not legally-binding) vote on whether weed should be legalised in the UK, with a unanimous yes for legalising on medical terms. Regarding recreational use, the only surprise on Bobby, Biggins and Linda raising their hands, is that they’re even able to, considering the Snoop Dogg amount of stuff they’ve been putting away the past few weeks. And for my vote? Having sat through hours of people in dirty hoodies smugly exhaling like they’ve just written the world’s greatest symphony, I’m all for bringing back full prohibition. If Christopher Biggins wants to use his I’m a Celebrity trophy as a bong, he can do it at an underground speakeasy like everyone else. “Millard, mate, that’s going a bit far,” you think. Is it? Soon after Gone To Pot finished shooting, Mr. Clean himself, John Fashanu ended up locked away in a Nigerian jail. Sure, it was for an alleged land sale scam, but I’ve seen the memes. ‘When the edible hits…‘ Think on, yeah?

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.

The Accursed 90s: The Word

•June 6, 2020 • 2 Comments

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[More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad ContestsDon’t Forget Your ToothbrushTalk Show GothsJames Whale on TelevisionCraig Charles’ Funky Bunker]

Unlike a lot of what I cover on here, The Word isn’t some forgotten piece of pop culture, but one of the most frequently reviled, having fully earned its place in the history book of very, very smelly telly. But for each of its oft-cited moments of viewer outrage — members of the public drinking a glass of sick; Mark Lamarr being rude; her off L7 getting her fanny out — every one of its live hours is packed with dozens more that have gotten lost. Like GamesMaster, its scattershot nature perfectly captures a moment in time, and I’ll be sifting though a couple of random episodes, each from early 1995, to see what cursed magic belches up to the surface.

Perhaps the most 90’s thing of all is the show’s sponsorship by Tango, before it’s straight into the Yewtree material, with a voiceover by Stuart Hall, who’d later be jailed over historic sex offences. The opening titles, where a horned-up couple accidentally sit on the remote as they get off with each other, is more explicit than I remember, with a woman fellating a 3-foot-long salami for a cheering crowd, and the guy on the sofa casually sucking the girl’s bare tit as they watch TV. As a mishmash of random stuff, The Word functions as a ‘dark’ version of morning magazine shows, exactly conforming to the structure of This Morning or Anne and Nick. Celebrity guests stick around on the sofa to add their thoughts to issues and topics they know nothing about, there’s live music, and pre-recorded VTs from the exotic climes of America.

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In a very Loaded-era thing; which we see now in Brexiteer Facebook memes about remembering jam sandwiches and playing out after dark, where anything from twenty-plus years ago is celebrated as Britain’s glorious past; guest Stuart Hall’s intro pegs him as “the greatest living Englishman.” Did they take that title from him too when his OBE got annulled? Accompanied by Dani Behr, Terry Christian bids us “hello, and welcome to the last outpost in maverick television. There have been and will be loads of imitators, but there can only be one The Word!” Even now, at the arse-end of its lifespan, a half-dozen episodes from finishing, the opening’s one big brag about how bad-arse they are, delighting in their status as trash-culture kings, with Behr adding they’ll be “keeping an army of TV critics in work over the next 7 days.” It’s important to remember just how despised Terry Christian was at the time, as a Jeremy Beadle-style national irritant, and his ability to chew my fucking chocolate has held up remarkably well 25 years on.

In case you forgot what decade this was, show proper begins with a number from Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, of whom Dani makes a crack about formerly playing backup for Oliver Reed, during his shambolic cover of Wild Thing, in one of the show’s most infamous moments. Invited on as a guest, Reed’s dressing room was filled with bottles of booze and hidden cameras, as they secretly filmed him getting drunk backstage, before playing the footage as he sat there, in a horribly humiliating sting. Anyway, the band play in front of a greenscreen projecting Windows Media Player visualisations, as the singer holds the mic upside down like a hamster drinking from its water bottle, and a woman in the crowd wobbles her tits at the camera.

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Terry’s “my first guest had his whole life turned upside down last July, when he was arrested and charged with rape” isn’t the usual cheery intro for Craig Charles, though he does stress, “he’s since been cleared by a jury; he’s been proved innocent.” Craig has become one of the faces on my Patreon’s Mount Rushmore of appalling television, his sweating mug hewn into the rock alongside Noel, Chris Evans, and Jim Davidson. He seems distracted during his intro, fiddling with a Pez dispenser that Terry relieves him of, and repeatedly touching the sofa before looking at his hands as if they’re wet, or have grown tiny little mouths that whisper secrets.

One thing you can say about The Word, is that its haphazard interviews have no sense of the PR-approved backslapping you get with a Graham Norton or Jonathan Ross. Craig’s brutally honest, talking a mile a minute about his time on remand, where murderers were spitting in his coffee and banging on his cell door shouting “beast!” and “nonce!” Note that his accuser was an adult woman, and back then, ‘nonce’ just meant general sex-past. Heck, when I was at school, it was a generic insult, like prick. The governor offered to put him on Rule 43 with the vulnerable prisoners, but “I wasn’t havin’ any of that. I wanted to go out on the landing where the real people were.” This is Craig’s big comeback, having spent “3 ½ months in a cell and 4 ½ months in exile,” and he must be taking it serious, as he barely does the fake Ernie laugh. Little did he know, in two short years, he’d be dominating Friday nights.

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In a way, The Word‘s closest cousin isn’t the chat show, but the Mondo genre of exploitation films, sandwiching their interviews between random scenes of ‘shock’, introduced with the insincere nonchalance of a teenage edgelord peeling off his jacket at Sunday lunch to reveal a shirt with FUCK on it. Suddenly, we’re off to San Francisco; “a place where women can get all the essential features of men just by taking the right medicine,” with lots of shots of transmen’s genitals and an interview with a “a hetero-affectional homosexual queer guy” called Shadow (in a classic case of picking your own cool-sounding nickname), shown riding a motorbike, and soundtracked by Born to be Wild. There’s footage of black market testosterone being injected into arse-cheeks, and lots of talk about big clits, and when we cut back to the studio, a shaken Craig’s holding Terry’s arm for support; “all I can say is, they put me in jail!” He points at the screen in disbelief, repeating “they put me in jail!

The rapid change in how we tackle trans issues is always the big shocker in aged television, and even this side of 911, beloved family entertainer Harry Hill was getting laffs from dry-heaving to clips from There’s Something about Miriam on TV Burp. If he did that now, they’d be burning his effigy in the streets, with only Graham Linehan on hand to provide a bucket of water. Later, there’s a ‘funny TV from Japan’ bit, even name-checking Clive James, who they stole it from, where a woman has a plaster-cast of her big floppy breasts.

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We return to Hall pointing at a girl in the front row who was retching, and of whom Terry says “can’t compete, can she?” intimating her tits are too small to bother making a mold of. Then we’re shown a naked keep fit video, which is just a load of boobs and nobs bouncing up and down, as Terry makes an unbelievably hackneyed reference to nudity appearing in “the middle pages of National Geographic.” Like The Big Breakfast, ad breaks are topped and tailed by fun little quizzes, like asking which celebrity has not spent the night in a bed at Cedars-Sinai hospital? “The answer is River Phoenix, he spent the night in their morgue.” Fucking hell.

In what will be an unintentionally remarkable interview, tonight’s second guest, Stuart Hall, is flanked by two of the ludicrous Knockout costumes as he makes his way to the sofa. It’s an interesting mix of sexual assault charges, respectively dealt with and still yet to come, with the found-innocent Craig Charles and guilty Hall sat side by side. If Hall’s hoping one could view his TV work and not associate it with his crimes, it won’t be happening here. Even in appearance, he’s cartoonishly sleazy, with an actual medallion around his neck, and unnervingly white teeth beaming out of a Ronseal tan, like the Millennium Falcon jumping to hyperspace. He looks like he should be selling you a blimp at marked-up prices in an old click-n-point videogame.

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At the time this went out, It’s a Knockout had been off air for 12 years, yet Hall’s fury about its cancellation still hasn’t cooled, blaming the BBC Controller, who “took off 12 million viewers and gave them to ITV in one week!” He rants and raves, trying to get the young crowd behind him with an aghast “they also took off the Good Old Days, and gave ITV another 8 million!” Shockingly, the audience of horny students chewing their jaws off aren’t exactly rioting over the loss of the Beeb’s tribute to Edwardian music halls, over a decade prior, but Hall keeps at it. “I said ‘what are you going to replace it with?’ He said ‘The Thorn Birds’. The Thorn Birds!” he scoffs, swishing a hand dismissively through the air, to utter bemusement from kids who, twenty minutes earlier, were moshing and fingering to Ned’s Atomic Dustbin.

Hall seems to view Knockout as the character-building equivalent to National Service. The show’s still ongoing in Europe, “but Britain aren’t playing!” he says, standing to illicit boos, in a damning prognostication on a future Brexit, shouting “D’YA WANT TO PLAY FOR BRITAIN?!” Terry’s lost control, as Hall bangs on about taking “boys and girls like these” and forming them into Knockout teams, to face the best in Europe at… tripping over in silly costumes? Finally getting a question in, Terry brings up Royal Knockout, as “the start of the rot for the Royal Family,” putting its co-creator on the defensive. “IT WAS A WONDERFUL IDEA!” bellows Hall, blaming the press for killing a show that would otherwise still be running. Perhaps of all their terrible crimes, the papers robbing us the sight of Rylan and Hugh Jackman throwing giant plastic sausages at Vanessa Feltz is their worst.

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The silence now is palpable, with a real sense of ‘I can’t cheer or wank to this!’ as he goes into a meandering anecdote about pole vaulting over a dyke. Time stands still; my beard trails to my ankles; new species are born and fade into extinction, and even the bloke from the opening credits’ erection is deflating, as Stuart Hall fills the silent studio with tales of raw sewage, a Dutch mayor, and crushing his own testicles. Craig welcomes us back from the break with an “awooga!” as Hall distracts from a question about “a copper, and like, going the wrong way up a motorway?” with another tall story about Liverpudlians making wine for charity, and all the “verrucas, varicose veins and anthrax” on their feet exploding the bottle factory. Everybody looks exhausted.

Mercifully, they hand over to their own Knockout revival, which in the cramped studio, is like trying to recreate Gladiators in a toilet cubicle. A girl in a furry bra selects audience members from a tumbler, as three men dressed as budgies dive through hoops and burst balloons with their tummies, while Hall does his thing of laughing really hard at people falling over a bit. The winner’s presented a key to the city on a pillow by an elderly and comically nervous mayor who seems afraid for his life surrounded by half-dressed clubbers.

07

The final segment has the same energy as Gary Glitter’s “shh!” on his This is Your Life, when Terry asks Hall if it’s true the coppers once knocked on his door with a noise complaint and he answered it naked. “It was a set up!” he says, launching into a rather panicked story about hosting a pool party and getting chucked in — “and suddenly, down the slide, came this young lady with breasts like the north face of the Eiger…” Craig’s “this isn’t gonna stand up in court!” is ironic in hindsight, as Hall witters on — “she was wearing nothing but a faint smile, so I turned to the guests and said…” At this point, a thonged muscleman comes out with a tray of champagne, and the others begin talking amongst themselves. But Hall’s alibi must continue. “The girl was a total stranger, and the guy with her was a journalist. It was a set-up!” Wait, so what’s that got to do with answering the door naked?

Finally, in her first words since the opening, Dani introduces Luscious Jackson to play us home. Janeane Garofalo and Mark Morrison were both trailed as appearing throughout, but presumably got cut for time with Hall’s incessant yacking. Interestingly, tucked away in the credits as a researcher is the name Eliot Fletcher; a unique spelling we’ve seen before, swearing down the phone at Five Star on Going Live. Next, we’re jumping back a few weeks to February 3rd, 1995, in an episode which cold opens with Trevor Jordache, who’d recently been dug up from the patio in Brookside, in ghoulish make-up asking if he’s in Hell — “Worst than that, buster. You’re on The Word.

08

Terry’s at a family funeral this week, so Dani and Jasmine Dotiwala are running the show — “the sisters are doing it for themselves!” — and we open with the first live television appearance of Supergrass. But from here, it’s a downhill slalom into the abyss. Our first guest is “one of Britain’s brightest comics.” It’s 1995, so that’ll be Vic Reeves? Steve Coogan? Close. Out comes cheeky chappy, Shane Richie, immediately leaning over Dani to kiss her face and neck, pinning her down as a funny joke. He’s got puffy shirt sleeves like a 19th century vampire, and is clearly very, you know, ‘energetic’, chewing on gum the whole time like a cow, and unable to stop showing off. It’s like a shit Robin Williams; pulling faces, and doing voices and insufferable schoolboy bits like rewinding himself like a video or pretending to eat his own eyeball.

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There’s a weird energy between Shane and Dani, and when she brings up her appearance on his Win Lose of Draw, he blurts “shall we tell them about that night in the hotel in Edinburgh?!” leaning into the camera with “I’ve got it on video, we’ll be showing it later, ladies and gentlemen!” It’s less an interview than a power struggle of information, and she tries to wrest control by asking about “you and your geography teacher when you were fifteen,” but Richie flips it to the topic of Ryan Giggs (Dani’s then-boyfriend, as the first real tabloid WAG), as the audience goes wild. “Don’t go all silly on me,” says Shane, wrapping Dani in a big hug, before a brilliant segue, about fortune smiling down on Shane, unlike those kids from Diff’rent Strokes.

After a video about the rough old lives of Gary Coleman and co, where Todd Bridges talks about being molested as a child, Shane’s yells over Dani’s comments on how sad it all was with a gag — “the moral of the story is, don’t take drugs and hold up laundrettes!” — which, even with this rabid crowd, doesn’t get a laugh. She asks how many groupies he’s got, and he holds up four fingers, before they bring out the next guest, “the most lusted-after teenager in America,” the then-17-year-old Liv Tyler. Dani jokingly tells Shane to leave her alone, and he says “she’s alright, we’ve been in touch for a couple of years now.” Asked if she’s a “flirtatious sex-kitten” like in the Aerosmith video, Tyler describes herself as shy, to which Shane butts in, “you’re not coming round my house then, ooh no!” Then Dani asks if she’s worried she only gets cast to take her clothes off, and a cheer goes up from the blokes in the audience.

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There’s one of their Mondo type videos, where they dredge up a mucky old softcore that Eric Pollard from Emmerdale did when he was younger, like a pre-internet Mr. Skin, and the Hopefuls section where a bloke sucks on an old man’s dirty foot, which has the audience shrieking in horror, but seems delightfully quaint in a future where rolling news will happily show footage of freshly-blown up bodies. The band Live do a number; and what a delicious shitpost of a name. Not just “is it Live or Live?” but having to Google for ‘live band’. Trendy, hip, young Shane Richie, still rocking his Teddy Boy look into the mid-90s is not a fan, sneering over the wailing feedback and shrugging “is it just me? I miss The Rubettes.

Dani brings up Shane’s famous wife, Colleen Nolan, and suddenly writhing with embarrassment, he’s back to his Giggsy material, before Dani deflects with rumours that Shane’s a “screamer” who flies into rages, and “a bit of a naughty one to live with.” More Giggs jokes leave an exasperated Dani whining “it’s not funny anymore,” and he admits he got into in rages when he was writing his sketch show and got interrupted. Ooh, mustn’t disturb the maestro! I’m presuming the show he’s referring to was 1990 BBC series Up To Something!, co-starring David Schneider, which remains the only time Shane Richie’s shared writing credits with Richard Herring and Armando Iannucci, in one of my biggest televisual holy grails.

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Incredibly, we’ve yet to hit bottom, but arrive flat-back and concussed to a Mr. and Mrs style quiz called Perfect Partners. Every question is indicative of the era everyone was shagging their little willies off, with the answers a revealing picture of the 90’s Lad. A sex trick the boys use to turn on their partners? Have a bath. Take it out. What do they think about to stop from cumming too quick? Lager. Having a fight. But under the surface of this hedonistic decade, it was all rather vanilla, with nobody eatin’ ass, and struggling to even name a fantasy, beyond doing it on the pitch of your fave footie team. Agonisingly slow, every contestant is monosyllabic and camera-shy, having to be pushed into each answer, and their names seem made up — Fathom and Aleace?!

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For the final question, with the girlfriends in a soundproof booth, they bring out three blokes and ask a contestant which is the one his partner recently slept with. Bear in mind, they’ve been together for years. He’s clearly distressed, and when Alan the host is later running down the answers, he accidentally brings the three men back out too early. A crew member can be heard yelling “no no no!” and a whisper of “second question,” and now the lads have to stand there, while Fathom’s hand-to-mouth in shock, confronted with someone she cheated on her boyfriend with, until they get around to revealing who it was. Finally, we reach the end, as Shane holds onto Dani’s hand for ages when she shakes it goodbye, because he’s a cheeky wee lad, and I have suffered far worse than any of the Hopefuls who gobbled old men’s feet or drank horse piss to get on the show, just by watching it.

[staring straight into the camera, my eyes dead and haunted]

I’ll do anyfing to get new Patrons…

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.

Who Do You Do?

•May 26, 2020 • 2 Comments

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Having looked at Freddie Starr during the arse-end of his television career, it’s time to examine his peak, when — legend states — he was a comedic force of nature, like Robin Williams, Johnny Rotten, and Norman Wisdom rolled into one. Freddie’s early rise occurred during his time on LWT sketch show, Who Do You Do?, an impressions-based series which would later be rebooted as Copy Cats, which I covered back in 2018. In a run that stretched between 1972-76, the show had an unbelievable cast of revolving guests, with some wildly on-brand faces that won’t be appearing in this piece, but can eventually be seen on the Celebrity Big Brother they’ll make you watch in Hell, with Les Dennis, Dustin Gee, Arthur ‘Living Mushroom’ Mullard, Max Beesley’s dad, and big Michael Barrymore.

I’ve picked a bunch of episodes at random from the handful that survived, in the form of VHS rips — in SP! — of late 90’s repeats on Granada Plus, which really was the home of nightmare British variety and horrible old telly. Their line-up predicts the eventual streaming service my Patreon will become, including You Bet, Dennis Waterman’s Stay Lucky!, Surprise Surprise, Terry and June, Brush Strokes, Fresh and French Fields, and the oft-mentioned here as the best example of something which ran for ages but nobody remembers, The Upper Hand.

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Who Do You Do? is so end-of-the-pier, within seconds, I’m windmilling my arms just to stop from falling in. The quality of sideboards is second to none, with the full Amos Brearly at every turn, and its cast of sweaty scarecrows is wonderfully unphotogenic, all busted teeth and squashed hooters that would never be allowed on TV now. People talk about the importance of representation, but not since the seventies have real man — men like me, who look like they wish they’d worn a seatbelt — been able to see themselves onscreen. In an outrageous display of cheapness, there’s literally no set. Every skit takes place in tight medium shot against a plain white background, giving viewers the sensation of being trapped in limbo, wandering the lands betwixt life and death, scouring their past for incidents of suffering they’ve caused others.

It’s incredibly fast-paced, with sketches often lasting seconds, like someone throwing Christmas cracker jokes at you. At that speed, impressions are reduced down to a catchphrase or noise. Often, that’s the whole sketch; in, catchphrase, out. Weirdly, the pace feels quite modern, in a post-Vine, TikTok world, and where jokesters like myself had to hone our written material down to 140 characters. But it’s clear the driving force wasn’t figuring out who did who, and writing around that; rather, coming up with jokes and celebrities first, before everyone had a go.

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With this formula, none of the cast’s impressionists ‘owns’ any celebrity, who get wheeled out in different incarnations, often one after the other — here’s three Max Bygraves and a pair of Tommy Coopers. At such a rate, there’s no time for finesse, so everyone takes a tic and keeps doing it. The Tommy Coopers all keep sniffing, the Eric Morecambes shake their glasses, and Dave Allen’s always scratching his face. Consequently, impressions are bad. Real bad. Sat here taking notes, I was worried I’d have no idea who anybody was, but it wasn’t a problem, as almost every sketch lets you know.

My name is James Mason…” “Hello dah-links, I’m Zsa Zsa Gabor…” “Good evening, Boris Karloff here…” “Hello, my name is Joyce Grenfell…” “This is your obedient servant, Orson Welles…” Sometimes, they’ll give additional clues, in case it’s still too hard – “Hello, I’m John Huston, I’m a movie director,” or “Hello, playmates, Arthur Askey, comedian.” Paul Melba does the classic variety intro for his – “Mr. Anthony Quinn… Mr. Rod Steiger,” while Margo Henderson outright asks the audience “do you know that gentleman from television up in Scotland, Mr. Chic Murray?” (note: they did not)

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We’re here for Freddie Starr, and even he’s at it. Imagine, it’s the 1970s, he’s wearing an open silver shirt, big quiff and sideburns, and his first line, in an American accent through a curled lip? “My name’s Elvis Presley, everybody.” Yeah, thanks. Was Freddie’s popularity partially down to that thing of laughing at your own jokes, barely able to get them out, in a psy-op to make the audience think “if he’s laughing, and he’s already heard it, then it must be hilarious?” Because he does it every time. It’s amazing how many of Freddie’s impressions require the same arse-out duck-walk waddle — Norman Wisdom, Mick Jagger, Max Wall, John Wayne, Hitler — was he working around a twisted testicle?

Also of note is how often he’s shirtless or half-naked, while the rest of the cast remain fully dressed. I guess amongst this roster of anthropomorphic tins of Ye Old Oak ham, anyone could be a sex symbol, so it’s up to him to play boxers or Tarzan, or, for no reason at all, to be wearing an ab-exposing belly-shirt while being Charlie Chaplin. There’s a real haphazard quality to his performances, which is rockstar-ish, in that he either seems drunk, or too cool to be fussed about doing it properly. But then, half-arsing it is Who Do You Do?‘s MO, half the time not bothering with basic props. In duelling Orson Welles impressions, neither man’s even got a beard. How long does it take to hook one over the ears? To don a pair of glasses as Eric Morecambe? There’s something unintentionally arthouse about it, with the theatrical minimalism of Lars von Trier’s Dogville, everyone doing impressions without adopting the target’s props, mannerisms, or voice.

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As it’s comedy from the seventies, it’s chock full of stuff the Brexit bois want back on the box, stat. We’re barely ten minutes in before the first Savile, with Freddie Starr in a blonde wig, holding a cigar and making Jim’ll’s donkey noises, for a rare double-Yewtree. The clichéd ‘gay voice’ is a sure-fire laugh-getter, as in one skit with Freddie describing a cowboy who got into ballet dancing and interior decorating. “He went thattaway,” he says, flopping his wrist. At one point, a Welsh character (no idea who) says to “never hit a woman when she’s down. Kick her, it’s easier.” ‘Arthur Askey’ does a routine about Germaine Greer — “I hope she took the bra off before she burned it!” — which is all about how massive she is; “6’4”, soaking wet!” Had they even seen her, or just heard the word feminist and assumed ‘cartoon of a female shot putter’? Regardless, the material storms it.

In case I’ve not been clear, every joke is truly awful. Regard an On the Waterfront parody, which builds to three Rod Steigers shooting each other. Freddie’s Brando counts the corpses with a “1, 2, 3… I’m a Steiger counter!” Extraordinary. How many people in 70’s Britain had even heard a Geiger counter? Perhaps the worst gag seen here, or indeed anywhere, ever, comes from one of the many Eric Morecambes; “overheard at a camel’s tea-pot… one lump or two?” Fucking — and I cannot stress this enough — hell. However, there’s stiff competition from actual use of that thing we all did in the playground in the 80s, of waving your hand around and claiming it’s a naked Sooty.

05

Who Do You Do? is rife with that device we’ve seen on here before, of using impressions to deal out jokes which are worse than the real celebrity’s usual material. Being a more recognisable face is the spoonful of sugar on a shitty joke, like you can get away with it if it’s told by Max Bygraves. At one point, ‘David Frost’ literally opens with a “hello, good evening, and welcome; here is a joke…” But I did laugh a couple of times, at the quickie where “a word from the Minister of Transport” turned out simply to be “bollards!” This is repeated later as the Minister of Agriculture (“bullocks!”) and the Cox of the Cambridge rowing team (“rollocks!”). Lovely stuff. There’s a lot of vague political humour, which mostly goes over my head, barring a joke from Boris Karloff who’s got a ray that revives the dead — “I’ve already had a big offer from the Liberal party.” A timeless gag that plays just as well in 2020 as it did in 1974.

For a show set in the rockin’ seventies, much of the impressions are old Western actors from decades before, with the most contemporary a brief Marc Bolan, where he sings a few “da da das” before being dragged away by men in white coats; take that, youngsters! This raises an interesting point, that in a series pre-dating home cinema, and even VHS, the spread of cultural references must’ve been far smaller, so they’re having to rely on movies twenty-plus years old. It’s that or “Here’s a parody from a little film called The Exorcist!” “Not seen it, mate.” Speaking of unfamiliar, a lot of airtime goes to Dailey and Wayne, a double act I’ve never heard of. They’ve both got the haircuts of someone being executed in Robin Hood times, with one skinny, bird-like one, with the stare of Fred West, and one bigger lad who milks endless minutes of laughs out of dancing in a competent, energetic way that’s mildly surprising for his girth.

06

It’s here we reach a momentous occasion on this blog, as The Lads finally make their debut, ceasing the endless messages, phonecalls, and 3am through-the-letterbox yells of “when are you going to cover Little and Large, you pathetic hack?!” Sadly, very little (no pun intended) of Syd and Eddie’s incredible comedy careers made it into the digital era, with mere scraps available online, of the odd sketch or short appearance at the Royal Variety, leaving 7 episodes from ITV, and 83 half-hours at the BBC, all tragically lost. Christ, almost two full days worth. Also, this thread on Cook’d and Bomb’d covers the pair in such depth, I felt there was little to add in picking over those clips myself. Though it did really help solidify the idea; which I think was already apparent from the atmosphere between the two, and the — shall we say — differing levels of talent, as they became the decade’s hottest act; that Eddie was almost certainly flushing Syd’s head down the bog backstage.

07

Now, Eddie’s no George Carlin, but I will always maintain — even in the face of our screens being filled with Love Island and TOWIE types who’ve become celebrities because they can’t tell the time, or were filmed running out of a sexual encounter with cry of “oh no, I’ve got poo all over my willy!” — that Syd Little is the single least-talented person to have ever found fame. He stands there like a kid waiting for his mum to stop chatting with another grown-up outside the shops while Eddie does his thing; putting on a schoolboy voice, or almost making it to the end of a 30-second sketch without breaking into his Porky Pig. When he does speak, Syd’s got the stage presence and delivery of someone who’s having to give a soundbite after being handed a cheque from the Postcode Lottery.

Later in the show, Syd’s got his guitar out, and as Eddie’s being Cliff Richard, he introduces ‘Hank Marvin’, forcing Syd to do the Shadows strut; hopefully to a proficient enough standard that Eddie won’t be stapling his foreskin to the wall when they get offstage. In another skit, Eddie’s running through all his voices, while the obvious fear in Syd’s eyes of another backstage beatdown, should he fuck up his task of standing there and doing nothing, nicely recreates that lad who sat on Saddam Hussein’s knee. Though he is eventually given the chance to perform some blinking when Eddie steals his glasses, and later, gets to lip-sync to Eddie singing Buddy Holly’s Peggy Sue, as Eddie crouches behind him out of sight, surely moments from wrapping the wire around Syd’s thin neck, or ramming the whole thing right up his anus.

08

The pair’s highlight is a real comedy fan’s dream, when they come out in bowler hats to Laurel and Hardy’s famous music, with Syd doing his best to pull a face, and moving his fingers like he imagines Stan Laurel might’ve done. AND THAT’S IT! THAT’S THE WHOLE SKETCH! “He’s fat, he’s thin; find ’em hats and get ’em onstage!” Trust it to fall on Eddie Large to produce a reference I finally understand, addressing Syd — who has no lines, and is once again, merely a prop — as Walter, and asking if he’s been. “Have you been, Walter? Has he been?” was a catchphrase from 1960’s Hylda Baker sitcom, Nearest and Dearest, which found a repeat run in my gran’s house on Saturday afternoons in the early 90s. For the millennials, let’s Wiki that reference, to understand the sort of comedy they used to make before the SJWs took over, back when it was good.

…the Pledges’ second-cousin, Lily Tattersall, who was married to constantly-mute octogenarian Walter. Walter was unable to control his bladder, which led to one of the programme’s oft-used catchphrases, ‘Has he been?’”

‘Has the old man had a piss, or is his dick about to start spraying?’ — they don’t make ’em like that anymore! Not to get bogged down in this unrelated sitcom that pre-dates the moon landing, but this line made me roar more than anything from Who Do You Do —In another episode, Nellie has a suitor named Vernon Smallpiece, whom she addresses as ‘Vermin Bigpiece‘.” Vernon Smallpiece is the handle I post all my cock and hole-pics under on OnlyFans. As a bonus, Who Do You Do‘s uploader’s left the adverts in, giving an added garnish of accursed 90s to the 1970’s facial hair. Granada Plus tell us “the old jokes are the best!” over footage of Benny Hill dressed as a Chinaman, then as a milkman squeezing a woman’s breast with a literal honk sound, along with Chris Tarrant doing a voiceover for Practical Aquarium magazine, a £1 a minute virtual chat and date phone-line, and a trail for Kojack soundtracked by My Boy Lollypop, with Telly Savalas’ head superimposed on a row of lollies.

09

But after Syd and Eddie, there’s nowhere to go but down, even with Russ Abbot’s Tommy Cooper. The contrast of my final episode is so washed out, faces are just eyes and mouths on a burned pink blob, with everything else dissolving into the white background. Anyone wearing white clothes loses their torso or limbs, like weathermen in green jumpers reduced to a floating head pointing at Scotland. It’s horrific. At the piano, a woman with big hair namechecks Walter’s weak bladder once more; Freddie Starr as Elvis picks his nose; he sits on a lap as a ventriloquist dummy; hides under Richard III’s hunchback; does the show’s nth James Cagney, all of which consist entirely of going “top of the world, ma!” No, all we can do is forget this ever happened, and pray for the return of those lost Little and Large shows; 90 episodes I will dissect with the finest tooth comb, in the great work I was put on this Earth to write. Rest in piece, Eddie, mate.

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