I Watched Jim Davidson’s Adult Panto II – Boobs in the Wood

•January 23, 2020 • 1 Comment

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[Part I: Sinderella]

Seeing as the response to my original piece about Jim Davidson’s adult panto, Sinderella, was the thing that pushed me into starting a Patreon, I figured I’d ruin another Christmas for myself, and sit down with its sequel, Boobs in the Wood. Though he shares a script credit with Bryan Blackburn; a writer for the Krankies and Cannon and Ball; Boobs in the Wood is a 105-minute ode to Jim’s absolute fucking loathing of women. It’s the manifesto they find in an incel’s pocket after he’s tazed for throwing jars of old cum up the walls of a yoga studio. When Todd Phillips said woke culture was killing comedy, this is the gold he meant.

Boobs was filmed in 1999, four years after Sinderella, which sadly wasn’t enough time for Charlie Drake to sleep off the amount of booze he put away. So who’s in this one? Finally accepting the general public’s desire to toss handfuls of human shit at him, Jim embraces his birthright as the baddie, and stars as the Sheriff of Nottingham, ‘Big’ Dick Dangling. His make-up’s very 1960’s Star Trek Klingon; all swarthy, with Nike-shaped sideburns, and a ginger goatee which looks like he’s been scoffing a big bag of Tesco-brand Wotsits, while the leather tunic and studded collar gives the impression he’s rushed to the theatre last minute, after a bruising session at a local S&M dungeon — “Stamp on as many balls as you can!”

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Leather Daddy Jim’s joined by a couple of celebrities this time — Victor Spinetti, off films, as Friar Tuck/Try-a-Fuck, and the actual R2-D2, Kenny Baker; while the role of Fairy Dildo’s played by a woman who’d go on to marry Shane Richie. Most of the cast is made up of performers for whom Boobs is either their only credited work, or, in the case of Maid Marion Fitz-Tightly and Robin Hood, ‘The Sherwood Shagger,’ something that’s been strangely left off their extensive stage resumes on Spotlight. Probably a clerical error.

You may have noticed the character names are of a type, and the show begins with Kenny Baker telling the audience to “fuck off!” as Fairy Dildo introduces herself by miming a blowie. All this nicely sets the tone for almost two hours of dicks, tits, and assertions that all busty women need a ruddy good seeing to. After a very up-to-date reference about sending “a fairy fax,” and Dildo cupping herself to ask “are these tits real?” for a frighteningly aggressive “YES!” from the audience, we’re straight into a musical number. A Humping We Will Go is the first of many songs, marking Boobs‘ production values as way higher than Sinderella‘s, but its content — in something that truly didn’t seem possible — as even grottier.

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A humping we will go, a humping we will go; bend me over, tickle me tits and kiss me down below!” Set against a grim visual tableau of sex-obsessed Nottingham — a city full of “poofters and pervs” — its cast of energetic young dancers give it the earnest straight-out-of-stage-school projection, with choreography where women are always on their knees, singing into men’s crotches, or bent double with skirts hitched above their knickers, while the lads pump away in time to the beat. In the background, a man 69s a blow-up doll, while I note the presence of a black dancer, and wonder what he’s in store for. The more ‘professional’ production means most of the hilarious lyrics are lost, sung properly and moving too fast for an audience of men for whom finding out the work experience lad once saw a musical is reason enough to spunk in his tea for a joke, for being such a wild bummer.

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We’re next into Maid Marion’s song about her “chas-titty belt.” Her boobs are mentioned in every scene, with the cast of lechers constantly staring, groping, or asking if she wouldn’t mind them “fingering you and feeling your bristols?” In scenes where she runs across the stage, Jim will improvise an excited cry of “wibbly wibbly wibbly!” or a “bob, bob, bobbling along!” accompanied by cartoon boinging noises. A virgin who’s “never even seen a bloke’s winkle,” Marion’s got the Jonathan Ross speech impediment, lusting after “Wobin Hood.” Just like Prince Charming in Sinderella, Robin’s got a massive cock that he keeps mentioning, and if Jim’s not got a crippling cuckold fetish, he certainly writes pantos like he has. Robin and Marion fall in love at first sight, with Robin feeling “all hot and sweaty and out of breath, as if Vanessa Feltz was sitting on my face.” Also, Marion’s affected bimbo voice is so shrill, when she calls to Robin, the dog I’m looking after suddenly lurches awake and turns its head to the screen like a squirrel’s gotten in.

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When Jim struts on for his big entrance, he’s aiming for the classic panto baddie, but accompanied by a half-dressed woman young enough to be his daughter, feels more like Wayne Lineker with his fist hovering over an unwatched drink. The many scenes of Jim being touched by lingerie-clad twentysomethings are never not uncomfortable, as fantasy fulfilment where he’s got a “pussy patrol” of 17 young prostitutes — “one more and I’d have a golf course.” At no point do you forget this ‘panto’ is just the cobbled-together views and hang-ups of Jim Davidson, like when going into his fantasy of “two women together, right lads?!” which gets a horrible cheer. “One doing the ironing, one doing the washing up,” he says, grimly muttering “fucking things they are,” as the laughter dies down.

Though there’s less audience interaction this time, we still get some classic crowd work, like Jim asking a lady in the front row “have you got any knickers on, or is that a crack in the chair?” He accuses the audience of being pikeys, and singles out an old woman — “look at the fucking state of Joyce.” While gags often fail to land, there’s always a big reaction to his comments on the opposite sex, with blokes hooting in their seats at Jim’s ideal woman having “two tits and a pulse,” and braying when the concubines exit, at the charming observation, “look at that arse, children, it’s a shame to shit through that, isn’t it?” It feels like a political rally for men whose Page-3-stiffened dicks steadfastly refuse to deflate, in a world where half the population’s cruelly taunting them by owning a fanny. Most confusing heckle is a lone female voice from the balcony, with a yell of “I love your willy!

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There are a couple of returnees from Sinders. The Ugly Sister’s playing Jim’s manservant, Piles, and we’re reunited with the big, black dildo Charlie Drake gave to his daughter. In a scene that simply goes on forever, Marion naively confuses it for “a stick of wock… shall I lick it, boys and girls?!” The bloody thing’s wobbling about for ages as they run through endless jokes, like boys who found it in a ditch on the way home from school, and chased each other round the newsagents with it. The dildo returns later for Jim to suggest giving it to a “rug-muncher,” and identifying it as “a genuine Linford,” holding it to his crotch as he breaks into the Chalkie voice.

Barring the ‘black cocks are massive’ stuff, and a single word spoken as Chalkie, Boobs is surprisingly light on racism. But don’t worry, Jim’s not gone all Politically Correct; his targets are simply more keenly honed this time; more… completely fixated, in a way that’s so utterly relentless, it seems like a cry for help from a man with a life-long identity crisis, and riddled by self-loathing. First warning sign is when the supporting cast start riverdancing, and he announces “and here comes Flatley, the f*ggot,” sucking in his cheeks and mincing across the stage. Then we meet the Merry Men — “come on in, you big, tough, lusty lads!

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And so, of course, they mince on doing a ‘gay’ walk, one hand on their wiggling hips, the other swinging and snapping, each with a flower in their hair, to launch into, what turns out to be, Boobs in the Wood‘s anthem, The Shirtlifter’s Song. Performed in a lisping hate-crime of a voice, it’s likely Jim likely considers this his magnum opus, cramming an astonishing amount of homophobia into its 2 ½ minutes, with lines about “bending over backwards,” and “gaily chasing little dears.” Nobody’s put as much thought into how the gays spend their time as Jim — they “like games upon the green, playing pass the Vaseline,” and “if you call round tonight for a snack, Jack, put some Preparation H in your knapsack!” He’s got more homophobic slurs than he has ex-wives who divorced him for domestic violence, packing the lyrics with words like bent, nancy, f*ggot, Mary, and in something that’s not been said since the 1930s by a blustering colonel, “woolly-woofters.

The Merry Men, promising to behave lest Robin confiscates their Judy Garland albums, introduce themselves as Scarlett Willy, Little John Thomas; who’s black, and consequently got a big nob — “It’s about 2 inches… off the floor!” — and Alan A’Dale, “the menstrual minstrel.” As Jim considers gay men to be women, I guess he thinks they menstruate too? You know that cliché about pulling the pigtails of a girl you fancy? I’m not saying Jim’s projecting, but he devotes an awful lot of time to slagging off the gays, for all their effete waddling about the place, calling out “hello, sailor!” and going into the bushes. There’s so much of it, you forget this is supposed to be a Christmas pantomime, and it’s almost impossible to excavate the shreds of plot buried underneath the avalanche of lines about arse-sex, stiffies, and lovely big wobbly knockers.

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As far as I can make out, Jim’s plotting to kill his niece and nephew, to inherent their fortune, except the children have already been killed and replaced by Kenny Baker and his mate; another little person, and sadly not Anthony Daniels. Consequently the pair are pretending to be, and dressed like children; foul-mouthed, sex-crazed children. Tee hee. There’s something very late 90’s about seeing a blue Baker, bang in that period old kids show celebs would milk their now-grown audiences by doing ‘adult’ shows for university freshers, to guffaw at Cuddles the Monkey saying fuck, or Timmy Mallett getting his perineum out. Kenny makes a beeline to Marion, lifting her skirt straight up in the air. “I’m just checkin’ out the old Jack and Danny,” says R2-D2. Kenny’s “the big time bopper with the two-inch chopper,” and as Marion leads the ‘children’ offstage, hand in hand, he remarks “what a pair of tits!

It makes you glad they never subtitled R2’s childlike beeps and boops, when a bog-mouthed Kenny Baker’s prattling on about jugs and spunk, and the sight of him struggling to run offstage “for a bit of oral sex,” all excited about getting his nob sucked, is the most depressing exit behind a curtain since my child’s cremation. As we’ve seen with this year’s Christmas content, there’s nothing comics find funnier in December than little people, especially when they’re swearing, smoking, or being horny. Because they’re basically kids, aren’t they? If they were adults, surely they’d be taller! As a result, their role is very much “ha ha, he’s smoking and said fuck,” with Baker’s cohort, Moose, dragging a blow-up doll behind him, which Jim turns upside down, shaking all the cum out of its mouth. Merry Christmas! And if you wanted to see an elderly Kenny Baker pretending to have a tommy tank, your wish is granted, when Jim reads him a mucky bedtime story. Incidentally, it’s about a flea who lands on a naked lady who’s asleep with her legs wide open, falling down a big hole and finding a dark cave with a funny smell, in another example of Jim Davidson being both obsessed with and disgusted by women’s bodies.

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Like Jim Davidson’s badly-bruised penis when he was writing it, the musical numbers keep coming. Marion gets a love ballad where drops the screeching thicko voice to showcase her actual vocal training, though it’s about being “wogered by hundreds of men.” This is later reprised by Jim, doing an Elvis and using the dildo as a mic. Robin has a country music solo about what’ll happen if he doesn’t shag Marion; “I’ll have to start wanking again.” The lyrics are straight out of my school jotter, with such Ivor Novello contenders as “each time I miss her, I just pull my pisser,” “all your problems will mend, when you shine your bell-end,” and the emotive climax “it really feels great, when you ee-jac-u-laaaate!” followed by the sound of loads of sticky spunk gushing out the end of his great big prick and flooding his tunic. Robin and Marion get a duet at the close of act one, which finishes with both of them loudly farting before they kiss, kicking off an interval where the queue to angrily wank off straight into the urinals must’ve been a mile long.

Jim often finds a way to crowbar his politics in, and things get well Brexity when he comes out waving a sword and yelling “I’ll die before I surrender to Europe!” I’ve gotten so used to the last few years of Farage-poisoned political discourse, I was surprised at the lack of response. If he did that bit now, moaning about Brussels and “these bloody stupid laws coming out that’s got nothing to do with England whatsoever,” his audience of salmon-coloured Joris Bohnson fanboys would carry him around the theatre on their shoulders. Although, it was all leading to a joke about Piles “sucking off a swan” and coughing up a fistful of feathers. There’s also a dig at the “bloody NHS,” and later, he suggests a bit of mime, “so the fucking leftie Labour leftie fucking Arts Council will give us £75,000 a year grant!” Go on, Jim lad, stick it to… the arts?

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With no Charlie Drake about to keel over from alcohol poisoning, Boobs contains precious few bloopers. The only notable fuck-up is when Jim tests Piles’ aptitude by asking how many D’s are in Match of the Day. Piles proceeds to “dee dee-dee-dee” the theme, only, it’s nothing like the tune at all, earning a confused silence from the audience. “Imagine how much funnier if he’d got the fucking tune right,” says Jim, who’s earlier dig at Piles only turning up to two rehearsals in the last fortnight may have been true, unless this is brave Jim’s way of avoiding the commie BBC’s copyright Stasi. In another moment, Kenny Baker has trouble locating the nozzle of a piss-prop, muttering “hang on, I can’t find it,” though maybe this was a small penis joke. But he definitely fucks up a line when Jim accuses him of being a convict called (for fuck’s sake) Bruce Foreskin. “Bruce Foreskin? I’ve never heard of me!

Boobs in the Wood‘s big set piece involves all of the characters disguising themselves as children for a classroom skit, in an obvious excuse for everyone to be dressed in school uniforms and pigtails. Incidentally, at what point did the once-ubiquitous St. Trinians schoolgirl fancy dress get dropped? Was it Savile? Yewtree? Even those School Disco club nights, so wildly popular in the early 2000s, have vanished, once everyone started to notice it all seemed a bit paedy. Anyway, regular teacher, Miss Spankem, has been replaced by Piles as ‘Mr. Shagnasty,’ who tells Kenny Baker to stand up, in a reprise of a joke last seen in the Les Dennis Christmas Laughter Show. Then Jim comes out, dressed like a schoolgirl, holding his crotch and doing a child-voice that makes me feel sick. “I’ve only been a girl five minutes, and already I’ve got thrush!

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The whole existence of this scene is for a running bit where one of the ‘children’ gets caned on the arse by Shagnasty, who gets her to bend right over, grossly pulling her skirt up over her underwear, to wolf whistles from the audience. On one caning, girl-voiced Jim says “moisten my gusset,” for anyone who needs help never masturbating ever again. At caning #4, he calls out “get the gusset to one side, teacher,” but in his real voice, which makes it so much worse, adding “so that’s where they’re starting the Channel Tunnel.” As the canings continue, the male characters are literally cumming with excitement. “So am I,” moans one of the girls, to a loud “eurgh!” from all the blokes, as there’s nothing more disgusting (and most likely, a fictional invention by those hairy feminists) as the female orgasm, right lads? “Fuckin’ rug-muncher,” spits Jim, to one of the biggest laughs of the night, with everyone losing it in a way that suggests it was unscripted.

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But I have to confess, the classroom scene contained the one moment to evoke as much as a wry smile in me, with a blackboard in the background scrawled with the words NEIL’S NOB STINKS. I previously used almost the exact same graffiti in my own Wakehaven and love me a smelly dick joke, but tragically, like being caught smoking by your dad and made to puff the entire packet, as a much-noted enjoyer and purveyor of jokes about nobs and jizz, the sheer unending flood in Boobs in the Wood started to turn me off them altogether. And it’s not just the scale, but the quality.

How big is your nob?

Four inches.

Four inches?!

Thick!

If that’s not value enough, Jim improvises an extra punchline; “no wonder your girlfriends have got stretch marks round their mouths!” Piles talks endlessly about sex with animals, and walks offstage to the sound of farts, while every line, every gesture, gets dragged back to talk of a bubbling phallus. Fairy Dildo: “I hear things are afoot!” Jim: “Actually, it’s about eight inches.” Jim had been a working comic for 25 years by this point, and behold, the master: “He went to a premature ejaculation clinic last week.” “How is he?” “Touch and go!” The true nadir of cock-based wordplay comes (haha, ‘cums’) with a kidnapped Marion screaming “I’m undone!” and Jim responding “you fucking will be undone in a minute” while feverishly trying to get his trousers off for a bit of the old rape. But as we learned with The Generation Game, he can work clean, with classic gags like “at school I was the teacher’s pet.. she used to keep me in a cage at the back of the class.” I must make special mention of the most bafflingly awful joke of the entire show, when the dwarves are tired from running through the woods.

My breath’s coming in short pants.

And mine’s got turn-ups on.

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Perhaps Boobs‘ ‘greatest’ scene is when Jim hides inside a log to spy on the other characters. Marion and Robin’s talk of trying each other’s lollipops — “can I have a lick of your thingy?” — sets Jim furiously cranking his hog, if you’ve ever wondered what kind of moany noises he makes when he’s having sex. His cock pops out of a knothole, where it’s smashed with a hammer, and shoots a fountain of cum into the air. It’s then that a succession of characters march on to piss on the log — and him. “Where shall I have a wee wee, children?” they all ask; Friar Tuck, Piles, Kenny Baker and his mate; each dousing Jim in urine, with Piles spraying it into his own face, and shambling offstage licking it off his fingers. But it’s not just piss, as the Merry Men rush on to puke the bull-semen they drank in an earlier scene, before the latest in a long line of degradation fantasies ends with a cut to black, as Robin empties an arse-full of hot diarrhea over a cum, sick, and piss-soaked Jim Davidson.

The story draws to a close with Jim kidnapping Marion — “my boobied little bosomy wench” — and tying her to a throne of skulls in his dungeon. He sticks a dagger in her boob and orders Friar Tuck to marry them; but wouldn’t you know it, perpetually-stoned old Tuck accidentally marries Jim to Robin instead. Oh, what a gay old lark! Marion, realising “now I’ll never get shagged” drags Tuck offstage for a fuck, while Robin has a sudden moment of self-realisation, camply announcing “open the doors, dears, I’m comin’ out the closet!” Then it’s Piles’ turn — “So am I!” — and all the gays prance offstage, “a humping we will go, to a cottage we all know!

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In a stark future-vision of the turnout for his gigs in the coming millennium, our final moments see Jim left all alone. “Everyone’s gone off, namby-pamby, shirt-lifting.” He cuts the lights. “I have to face the facts that nobody loves me...” Cue Fairy Dildo — “oh yes, they do!” Until now, her presence was a mystery; with about two lines through the whole show, but then she strips down into lingerie. Most distressingly, Jim does too; stockings, bustier; the full Rocky Horror, and the pair have an extended and full-on kiss, as a disco ball shaped like a big cock and bollocks lowers from the ceiling, gets hard, then jizzes sparks. Again, I’m not suggesting this is wish fulfilment, but the big ending is Jim properly getting off with a scantily-clad girl half his age for a really long time.

Our curtain call features wildly extravagant costumes we never saw during the actual show, which feels like a tax dodge, including Spinetti dressed like Hell’s Pope, for one last run-through of the Shirtlifter’s Song. Everyone; Jim, Kenny Baker, Piles; they’re all doing the limp-wristed dance moves, as the audience claps along, joyously belting out lines about “joining the nancy clan” and getting bummed. As with Sinderella, the sheer bleakness of knowing real families definitely sat down to watch this after Christmas dinner has almost done me in. Queen’s Speech, Wallace and Gromit, then a wizened R2-D2 pretending to pull on his penis. Odds are, there’s someone out there who’d decided to use the yearly visit to their parents to come out to them. But then dad pulled out a video — “here, son, you’ll bloody love this!” — and they had to watch their old man bobbing up and down on the sofa, face red with laughter, doing all the movements to the Shirtlifter’s Song.

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And about that. It’s not in the least bit catchy, but by sheer repetition alone, here in the woke future of 2020, the Shirtlifter’s Song has gotten stuck in the tubes of my brain like a poison, and I often catch myself humming it. I’ll be out dog-walking, minding my own business, and before you know it, my footsteps have formed a beat, and from under my breath, “a million woolly-woofters can’t be wrong!” Eventually, someone will overhear, and twenty years after his wretched, laughter-free, carpark flasher’s propaganda, poorly delivered by performers who’ll scrub it from their resumes, to an audience of Sun-readers straining wet-nobbed against their chinos, as I lay bleeding from the beating I’ll sorely deserve, Jim Davidson will have had the last laugh.

…put your hand upon your hips, flap your wrist and purse your lips…

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Les Dennis and Russ Abbot at Christmas

•January 13, 2020 • 1 Comment

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The Christmas edition of The Les Dennis Laughter Show aired on 22nd December 1990, between Challenge Anneka‘s restoration of a Romanian Orphanage and the TV premiere of Innerspace. Originally titled simply The Laughter Show, and featuring the double act of Dennis and Dustin Gee, the series was renamed for its titular performer, now working solo after Gee’s death in 1986. On evidence of this half-hour, it’s like giving Emu his own show after Rod’s fingers had curled away from the guttering. And I do take particular issue with use of the word ‘laughter’. It could be more accurately called The Les Dennis Reference Show, as there are no jokes, just plenty of references to things the audience has probably heard of.

All English comedy back then had very a strong policy of “fuck the Scottish!” and festivities begin with a fake continuity advert for upcoming programs; The Jock MacSporran Hogmanay Show — illustrated with a picture of Saddam Hussein on the bagpipes — and the Loch Ness Teenage Mutant Hero Monsters, showing the TMNT in tartan gear swigging from cans. Along with its funny ‘Scotch’ names like Hamish McWhiskeybreath, this is bang in that era of reducing an entire nation to red hair, tartan, and crippling alcoholism for cheap weekly laffs. But never mind, Scots, we’ll soon be done with Les, then it’s on to Russ Abbot. Oh.

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An opening musical number has extras in Victorian dress and the requisite sinister snowman lurking in the background. I wish it’d stoved my fucking head in with a shovel and replaced my eyes with coal, on the sinking realisation Les Dennis is about to do a comedy song. I say ‘comedy’, but it’s just him in a Val Doonican jumper singing Winter Wonderland, while falling over and getting his scarf snagged on the set. At one point, he actually steps on a rake. The sleeves are comically long, hanging down to the floor, and as he staggers through the fake snow, you feel you’re witnessing some horrible half-finished melting Les-Beast from Carpenter’s The Thing.

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He continues the trope of the be-jumpered Christmas host, cosied by a log fire, in a running gag where Brian Glover bursts in to repossess various items because of BBC cutbacks, eventually leaving him stood in his underwear in an empty room. It’s one of a series of digs at television’s poor budget and lack of creativity, which is a bit rum considering how utterly woeful this is; like marching into someone’s living room to announce “pee-yew, it stinks in here!” while covered in dogshit. In a sketch in a TV executive’s office, an elderly commissioner blows dust off the scheduling book they’ve been using since 1954, and takes a pop at Jeremy Beadle, who’s the BBC’s secret weapon. “But he works for ITV?” “I rest my case!” Again, this is Les Dennis taking a crack at someone for being bad at telly.

Because it’s 1990, there’s a Gazza impression, though thankfully one of his balls isn’t hanging out of his shorts like when Bobby Davro did it. Like Davro, there’s such contempt for the audience, even doing a Geordie accent in a full England strip, he still has to introduce himself so they know who he is. If you guessed the whole sketch is just Les going “why-aye, man!” and sticking his tongue out, then you are correct. And course he cries — in two of the three Gazza skits — because it’s a thing you remember, isn’t it?

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This shortcut of referring to a thing to incite a chuckle of recognition in lieu of structuring an actual joke, where the punchline is just a reference to the Spice Girls or Sellafield or the Cones Hotline or Myspace, or whatever was in the tabloid headlines six months ago, is absolutely rampant here. When Les plays a scouse department store Santa, it’s a roll-call of the year’s talking points; last Christmas was ruined by “that mad elf from Iraq,” Paddy Ashdown looks stupid, Tinkerbell’s off “writing fairy stories for The Sun,” and Donner and Blitzen have caught “mad reindeer disease.” In another skit when they’re on the pavement in sleeping bags waiting for the Boxing Day sales, “I’ve been here so long they started charging me poll tax,” while an unseen figure beneath a cardboard box is identified as Salman Rushdie.

Even when Les steps aside to give Lisa Maxwell a monologue as a haughty actress slumming it in panto, it’s just a barrage of references. Julian Clary, Nina Miskow, Bucks Fizz, Janet Street Porter and BSB Squarials; George Best likes a drink and Jason Donovan might be gay. They even do the era’s single most overused reference, as there’s a “halfwit from Blue Peter” in the cast, Cinders’ coach is made from “two toilet rolls and a reel of sticky-back plastic.” Perhaps interesting only to me as a writer is forcing the glaringly incorrect description of sticky-back plastic coming on a ‘reel’, because they’d already used ‘rolls’ in the same sentence; rather than just writing something different or good.

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Perhaps it’s best to keep them from attempting proper gags, with class material like telling a pair of dwarves to stand up when he comes in the room — “oh, you are standing up” — and announcing the death of store elf Harry Little with “such a short life… about 3ft 6.” In an office party scene where he’s doing the Mr. Bean nerd voice, leering at an attractive co-worker, you have to remind yourself Les is getting paid actual money to be on actual television and say everyone’s grandad at Christmas dinner’s annual joke about “pulling a cracker!

In the most confusing moment, we’re back on the Victorian street, in what first appears to be the start of a sketch where a man in a leotard with a bowl cut and Wolverine sideburns starts playing with a yo-yo, until gradually it dawns that, no, this is an actual yo-yo demonstration; all 2 ½ minutes of it. With the poor visual quality and tiny screens of 1990, I doubt anyone could even see the yo-yos against the snowy background, performed against a tableaux of extras who’ve been told to stand completely still, their faces wearing the rictus grins of freshly made-up corpses looking all pretty for an open casket, adding a further nightmarish David Lynch quality. There’s more variety, with a violin performance in front of people who’re supposed to be waiting for the sales, but it looks like a homeless Les Dennis, laying on a freezing pavement on Christmas Day with his fellow tramps, as a tragic backdrop to an upbeat jazz medley of Yuletide hits.

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But nothing’s as baffling as the big closer, which begins with a pan across the empty stands of unseen dolls — JANET JACKSON DOLL, MADONNA DOLL, NINJA TURTLES — under 1950’s American doo-wop music. Les is one of many unsold Rock n’ Roll dolls, dressed like Bill Haley era rockers, and coming to life for a 3 ½ minute musical number. It’s played almost completely straight; not quite Mike Yarwood going “and this is me,” but still an obvious attempt by Les to demonstrate his skills as an all-round entertainer; a song-and-dance man as well as virtuoso comedian. What’s the obsession with 50’s diners-and-hot-rods Americana for this generation of comics? 1993 had Bobby Davro’s Rock With Laughter, while Russ Abbot was doing his Teddy Boy character decades too late.

The whole thing’s excruciating, and when they mime air guitar, saxophone, bass, and piano, I was gnawing on the desk like a big rat. The most notable bit happens beneath a sign marked “M.C. HAMMER DOLL,” when a drumbeat kicks in for Les to (very slowly) start rapping. “What an awesome dude is that MC Hammer, it’s hard to rap when you got a st-st-st-st-st-stammer.” This is a frankly unbelievable piece of thievery from Morris Minor & Majors’ Stutter Rap, which was a decent-sized hit two years earlier (“but it’s hard to rap when you’re born with a st-st-st-st-st-stutter!”). This is what our Christmases were in the 90s; watching Les Dennis, dressed like a stag-do Elvis on Blackpool high street, as he spits mad rhymes about M.C Hammer in a shite American accent — “he shakes his grove thing and he just can’t miss, with his baggy pants you know… you can’t touch this.” Remember that? U Can’t Touch This? It was a thing, wasn’t it? You know things. You like things. Laugh at the reminder of a thing.

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The closing credits do at least get to add another to our growing collection of continuity panto announcements, giving us a few second’s much-needed respite from Les’s earnest cover of Winter Wonderland, with the news that “Lisa Maxwell is currently appearing at the London Palladium in Russ Abbot’s Palladium Madhouse.” Speaking of old Russ, let’s skip back to Christmas Day 1987, for one of six Russ Abbot Christmas Shows that aired during his BBC run. I’ve previously covered Russ in a Past Laugh Regression, so my expectations are way down the u-bend, especially when it opens on C.U. Jimmy, weirdly sitting down to watch the show he’s in, saying what we’re all thinking, “I just hope he disnae do that Scotchman!” At least they’ve dubbed sleigh bells over the opening theme.

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When I was eight, me and my mates had a playground joke where we’d pull the head off a daisy and stick it on the stalk of another daisy, forming a kind of tiny daisy dumbbell. “This is He-Man,” we’d say, making strained noises, struggling to lift it off the grass, before announcing “and this is Weed-Man,” and blasting out easy reps. This, in a nutshell, is the comic mind of Russ Abbot. Regard, the opening Batman skit, where Abbot’s sumo-suited ‘Fatman’ struggles to squeeze through a window to rescue Les Dennis’ Robin from the Penguin. The Riddler repeatedly grabs his crotch and runs to the toilet for a piss (Riddler/Jimmy Riddle/Piddle), while — of course — Bella Emberg plays Fatwoman. Showcasing the almost-admirable lack of effort, Fatman’s still got the bat symbol on his chest, and not a pie or something, yet still the audience shriek with laughter as he waddles about the set, getting chairs stuck to his arse. There’s a strong contender in the battle for the night’s worst joke, when Penguin threatens them with an ultron bomb. “Don’t you mean a neutron bomb?” “No, I couldn’t afford a new one — wack, wack, wack!

It’s clear that Abbot’s entire shtick is making a pun on a pre-existing character and turning it into a sketch. Fatman, Basildon Bond, Cooperman and Blunderwoman, and now, Idiot Ness and the Untouchables. In this black and white noir parody, Idiot’s got two brothers, Happy and Loch, and Les Dennis runs about doing a rubbish 1920’s radio announcer’s voice. The most Christmassy thing is more jokes about little people, with a killer midget — “how tall is he?” “3ft 6.” “Well, if he’s guilty, he’ll get a long stretch!” That’s the second 3ft 6 of this post. Is that considered the optimum height for humour? In another familiar-feeling bit, Abbot does his own ‘backstage at a panto’, where Cooperman and Blunderwoman replace a pair of actors who’ve come down with salmonella, giving us another powerful gag. “I like them.” “Like who?” “Sam and Ella.” Fucking save me.

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Perhaps my brain blocked out the previous trauma, but I’d forgotten how much of Abbot’s work consists of dreary musical numbers. There’s one where he’s dressed like a dad in post-war Britain, singing about his family Christmas, with the distressing choice to have the dog played by a full-grown adult in a costume. I can’t lie, there’s a line here that I did like for its weirdness, where he and the wife catch his daughter and the neighbour in bed together, but as it’s the parents’ bedroom, he hand-waves it with a relieved “oh, of course, it must be us!” Another number parodies Freddy Mercury’s Barcelona duet with Montserrat Caballé, titled Macaroni, with loads of jokes about Bella being fat. She’s great value as always, even with the absolute toilet material, growing bigger as the song goes on and eventually exploding. Just as Freddie was in the original, Abbot’s clean shaven, not even bothering with a big set of comedy gnashers, and singing in his normal voice, with none of Freddie’s mannerisms, so if you don’t get the reference, who he’s meant to be is anyone’s guess. Macaroni, it turns out, was written by Bobby Crush, of Opportunity Knocks and Orville’s Song (I Wish I Could Fly). What a fucking resume.

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Other sketches go backstage at a circus and on holiday, with Abbot in a wig that makes him look like Jeffrey Epstein. The latter’s another Russ Abbot staple, of spouting lines made up of complex-sounding words which rhyme, like the Two Ronnies after a bad fall. Following a breakdown where he got fixated on the phrase “Dr. Hector Dexter Proctor of 25 Henty Drive, St. Ives,” another holidaymaker introduces herself as “Phoebe McCreaby Beebee.” Unbearably naff as it is, this somehow induces the single strangest, most hysterical reaction I’ve ever heard, from one audience member.

Is that pleasure or pain? Is she sitting on a Sybian? We desperate jokers and mirth-makers (and sex-havers) could only dream of someday causing a human being to emit to such a noise.

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After the final of multiple visits back to C.U. Jimmy and his red-headed family knocking back the booze, it’s mercifully time for the closing number, where Abbot’s Santa has a rooftop party with other fairytale characters. Like Les Dennis’ rock n’ roll, it’s played pretty straight, with Abbot’s desire to be a serious singer once again trumping the urge to be funny, though there’s time for one last little person joke — “the Mad Hatter’s drinking tea, and all the dwarves are drinking shorts.” A Jingle Bells dance-break is the most festive thing that happens all night, before Les Dennis dressed as Mary Poppins flies in on an umbrella, demolishing a chimney stack. Russ signs off as himself in a lovely jumper, wishing us a Merry Christmas and — in his Scottish accent — “a happy, happy Hogmanay,” which, considering, is like when Trump’s secretary grabs his phone to tweet out warmest greetings for Eid al-Fitr. But we do get another continuity announcement, and it’s a double! “Russ Abbot is currently appearing at the Lyric Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue in One For The Road, and Les Dennis the Theatre Royal Nottingham in Babes in the Wood.” No wonder suicide rates spike at this time of year.

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, 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.

Noel’s Live, Live Christmas Breakfast Show

•January 3, 2020 • 1 Comment

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[more Noel Edmonds: House PartyNoel’s HQCracking America]

For a good while, Noel Edmonds was Christmas television manifest. More than just his seasonal first name, Noel’s Christmas Presents became as much an annual tradition as World’s Strongest Man, premieres of the big American film from five years ago, and your grandad ruining dinner by saying something awful when Lenny Henry came onscreen. It all started here, on Christmas morning, 1985, with The Live, Live Christmas Breakfast Show. It’s a weirdly unfestive intro sequence, with the usual Late, Late Breakfast stunts, where people jump through fire and stick their heads in killer whales’ mouths, without so much as a dubbed-on sleigh bell. But the opening shot perfectly sets the scene, with Noel in a crowd of people, everyone in party hats, and a man in a gorilla costume by his side. “…these idiots!” he playfully tuts.

I absolutely remember watching this as a six-year-old, and revisiting it 30+ years later still gets those nostalgia-neurons firing, with vivid sense-memories of Christmas mornings sat watching TV in my pyjamas, with the smell of dinner already in the oven. The gimmick here is that Noel’s hosting from atop the British Telecom Tower, 620 feet above London. The studio’s absolutely plastered in gaudy decorations, with an enormous bank of phones manned by tinsel-draped volunteers, who’ll be taking the viewer dedications that whizz across the screen for the whole show, at too dizzying a speed to be legible. Pretty much every second of the following two hours is plagued by a background noise of ringing phones, which is appropriate for a show that’s haunted, Marley-like, by the looming presence of British Telecom. A “percentage” (wonderfully vague) of money from the calls will be given by BT to charity; “a charity called Comic Relief,” which as it turns out, is being launched on the show.

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As we know, Noel’s big on television ‘firsts’, and just in doing a show from up the tower, he’s staking a flag into virgin soil. Spitting off technobabble like Geordi La Forge, he brags about BT’s “micro radio network,” and “a computer with 50,000 names in it,” for the world’s first ever computer prize draw. They’ve also moved a satellite dish 4,000 miles, and in another first, will be broadcasting live, and in-flight, from a commercial airline. All this, he nonsensically promises, will be “a Christmas show you’re not gonna be able to put down;” television that “really is international,” because it’s going all round the country. I’m… not sure that’s how that works.

For these international links, we cut to various local DJs on outside broadcast, in places we will revisit again and again over the next two hours. Manchester, Norwich, Bristol, Plymouth, Birmingham, Glasgow, Belfast — on and on it goes; over to Cardiff to a man who looks like Bobby Ball; to Newcastle for a wet DJ waving in an empty, rain-sodden carpark; to Leeds, for a team of presenters stood with the police, “and a rather charming lady as well.” In an effort to lure the public to these locations, he throws out none-more-Noel challenges, with prizes for those who arrive wearing another country’s national costume, carrying a fried egg, or accompanied by an actual door. What a great way to spend Christmas day; “sling that turkey in the bin, love, and bring me the screwdriver, we’ve gotta bomb down the high street in a kilt with the bathroom door to win a toaster off Noel Edmonds!”

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Another of those television firsts is the jumbo jet, with its take-off cued by a lucky viewer; “a lady with an amazing name,” called Mary Christmas. “Off you go, boys!” says Mary, launching 400 tons of plane, filled with 200 kids, Radio 1’s Gary Davies, and the Krankies. Noel tells viewers to look out for it, as it flies over the country — “it’ll be going over Norwich” — though this was the point I had to pause to write an alternative history novel about naughty Wee Jimmy hijacking that sucker and flying it straight into the Telecom Tower. The jet’s the scene for what became an infamous blooper, in another television first, as Feargal Sharkey and his 11-piece band are to perform/mime their latest single while 30,000 feet in the air. But when the vocals kick in, Sharkey’s left shrugging, and mouthing the words “I can’t hear it!” Already too-cool-for-this in his shades, he stands awkwardly running his fingers through his hair, while Jimmy Krankie energetically jigs at his side. Noted lover of cock-ups Noel must’ve been a very good boy that year.

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Later, we rejoin the jet for take two, where a dancing Sharkey serenades rows of children with the lovely festive lyrics “you little beauty, you little whore,” until the plane gets out of range and the feed starts breaking up. Final visit to the skies sees the Krankies playing a quiz with pony-tailed musician Paul King, which involves stunts where King pushes his face in treacle and wears an enormous stag’s head. When he dons an owl mask filled with custard, which oozes yellow gunk from its eye holes, it’s clear this is all just admitted-swingers the Krankies filling TV time with the pagan sex magick ritual that’s kept Wee Jimmy so youthful all these years.

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Noel’s helicopter buddy Mike ‘Smitty’ Smith is airborne too, touring the country in a chopper, with first stop at the posh Sussex village of Rusper. It’s likely during this section that Noel scribbled the words ‘Crinkly Bottom?‘ onto a post-it, as Smitty runs some Great British Eccentrics through a series of summer fete style games, in truly bottom-of-the-bin television. There’s races between villagers dressed as jesters and ‘Chinamen’, who’ve spun round until they’re dizzy, or wear welly boots filled with mud; a man called ‘Ice-Bo’ melting blocks of ice with a blowtorch; and a pretend-drunk who burns his hands on roast chestnuts, and puts them out in the punchbowl. It’s an Alan Partridge Comic Relief sketch made real, and we return for more dizzy-racing, and an egg-throwing contest between teams dressed as chickens, chefs, and Hawaiian dancers. Interviews are conducted at screaming level, as Smitty’s whirring helicopter blades thunder in the background.

The helicopter obsession leads to a bunch of location stuff filmed from above, where you might as well be leaning out of the bedroom window watching ants on the patio while someone runs a chainsaw next to your ear. There’s a chilly Christmas swim with Cheam Water Polo Club’s ‘Big Charlie’ (dressed as Snow White) and his mates diving in a lake — “what a load of wallies!” — then the Plum Forest Oglers doing a ‘traditional’ dance around a haddock while a man plays an accordion, and finally, a London street party, where Noel thinks he can see “a gentleman juggling.” “That’s a girl, actually,” says a resident on the phone, “she’s just very butch.” Noel plays up the size of the crowd; “they’re all drunk,” she says, “it’s disgusting.”

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You may have noted there’s been a lot of fancy dress. I can’t stress enough how 80’s wacky it all is; the embodiment of a decade where you didn’t have to be mad to work there, but it helped!! This was a time when office blokes on pub crawls dressed like St. Trinians girls, and bowties span so fast, one could simply fly to the shops to purchase their inflatable banana; the earnest years, before the internet made everyone ironic and detached; too self-aware to smile in a photo unless it’s the angle that makes our cheekbones really pop. There’s no such insecurities on Live, Live Christmas, and whatever’s going on, in the back of every shot there’ll be someone in a hat with big rubber ears attached, or dressed like a clown, with everyone leaning in to wave “hello, mum!” as being captured on camera was still a giddy thrill, before we were all livestreaming our morning dumps. The hosts are no different, with Smitty in a white jumpsuit covered in baubles and holly, a tinsel belt, and plastic Santa atop his hat, while Noel’s jumper’s got the tower knitted into it, with woollen helicopters and a procession of stick-men running up stairs.

Exemplary of this mood are Noel’s challenges, with a good 50% of the two-hour running time taken up with checking on every location, upon where Noel’s absolutely destroyed by the hilarity of it all. “In Norwich, we have a Scotsman!” he cackles, dead at a kilted man whose legs are on show. He’s rolling on the sofa at the first fried egg in Bristol, and ready for the grave with each new person that’s brought a door with them, which seems only to become funnier, with shrieks of “did you unscrew it? Will you get in trouble?!” yet always to be told, disappointingly, no, it was just laying around. On it goes, thoroughly done in by another fried egg in London; by a Scottish girl dressed all Welsh; by a garage door in Belfast, which between the man’s drunkenness and strong Norn Iron accent, and Noel’s mania, makes for a confused interaction. In Birmingham, he asks a middle-aged man in a sheik costume “why are you dressed as an Arab?” You asked for national dress? “Yes, I just wondered why you were inspired by an Arab?” The sheik keeps plugging his business, so Noel cuts him off. Most of note here is one incredible background goth, giving it the full Morpheus from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

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Maybe he’s just slap-happy at Christmas. The stair-marathon, with people racing up the tower’s 816 steps, ends as Noel cuts another segment off with a cry of “the first idiot’s arrived up the tower now!” and wheezing with laughter as the runner collapses to the floor with exhaustion. Hysteria aside, the show’s conspicuously absent of pranks, with a more restrained Noel behaving himself, thanks to the breakneck pace, where there’s no more than half a second between links, and he can’t have even had time for a piss. You can tell he’s busy, as he doesn’t mention when his mic pack falls out, and spends the next link dragging behind like Satan’s tail, loudly banging against the floor. On House Party, he’d have been doubled over for about twenty minutes. There’s always something happening, from cutting to the royals emerging from a church service, to segments which really highlight this as a 2-hour commercial for British Telecom, showcasing futuristic new “video conferencing” tech (CCTV on two massive old tellies), and a handover to Scotland, where a man from BT will connect their 21,000,000th landline to a school for the deaf.

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Technology’s the spectre behind the ‘first’ of a computerised prize draw, with Noel at the helm of a brilliantly low-tech set-up; green font on a huge square monitor, and keys like segments of a Yorkie bar. It’s funny, watching from a time where everybody casually uses technology all day long, to see a grown man baffled by a keyboard, typing very, very slowly with a single finger — “where’s K?” — and having to redo it three times, because he keeps fucking it up. He eventually gets a winner; a 12-year-old girl, who gets a goody bag containing a phone and some champagne. Live, Live Christmas‘s biggest technological gambit is the launch of Comic Relief, which involves the shipping of a satellite dish on a cargo plane, and to a Sudanese aid camp, along a road “which really does deteriorate like mad,” for a video link-up. Interestingly, the aid worker in charge is Helen Fielding, who went onto write the Bridget Jones books.

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As part of the launch, there’s a bunch of sketches from comics like Billy Connolly, Jasper Carrot, and Tracey Ullman, the highlight of which — and of the entire show — is an appearance by Rik and Ade, though Ade does appear to pull one of his eyes into a slit with his finger during a Chinese reference, which seems to be a legal requirement in the ’80s. For anyone scanning through for all the ‘problematic’ bits, when Noel’s handing out medals to the runners, he compares himself to Jimmy Savile, though I’ve come to realise it’s pretty impossible to watch something from this era and not spot a Savile reference, which demonstrates how impossibly enormous a cultural figure he was.

While 40-something white males bang on about freedom of speech, they’re probably just pissed that the cutting down on ableist language stops all that lazy banter from the ’80s and ’90s, which is entirely based around accusing people of being clinically insane. Anyone taking a drink each time Noel or Smitty describes someone as mad or a nutter won’t live to see Boxing Day. Members of the public are frequently introduced as “here’s the manic,” or “an exclusive team of loonies,” and even though “Smitty’s got a fair few nutters,” Noel’s “never met such a mad bunch of people!” To be fair, the sprint up the stairs is crammed with textbook office-jokers, in a flapping seagull hat or full suit of armour. A woman runner’s in regular t-shirt and shorts — “a nice, pretty ankle,” says Noel, as the camera pans up, “and the rest ain’t bad either.”

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After taking a moment to moan about the winners’ foreign-sounding names — “have we got any English people taking part?” — it’s off to the viewer stunts, which were Noel’s TV trademark, until, you know. But despite the opening credits, which showed daredevils jumping out of planes and setting themselves on fire, the thrilling Christmas day caper they’ve been training all week for is… balancing stacks of drinking glasses and trays. Ungodly amounts of airtime gets wasted on cycling through the many locations, multiple times, to watch volunteers looking at a big stack of trays; sometimes carrying it, sometimes dropping it. Belfast’s contestant appears to be the Babadook, while in over Leeds, Noel tells a woman who can’t hear playback, “you pick’ em up, dear, I’ll do the talking!” The winner balances a stack that’s 40 trays high, before it topples, sending 160 drinking glasses careening towards a woman holding a baby where they shatter over the pavement at her feet.

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For the last half-hour, Smitty joins Noel in the studio, which is like when Finchy shows up at Wernham Hogg, sat there in his kee-razee outfit, creasing up at the wackiness and technical blips, and spraying Noel with silly string, as the pair laugh themselves Babybel-red; kindred spirits in being mad bloody British nutters. They do a purported ‘live-link’ to Rowan Atkinson’s home, where Rowan introduces his dinner guest, Mike Smith, in a variation of a gag Noel would use on his American pilot. Incidentally, did I imagine a tabloid newspaper posting lurid pictures of Mike Smith and Sarah Greene’s 1988 helicopter crash, showing the pair of them all fucked up and bloody on hospital beds, with tubes coming out? I had nightmares about that for months as a kid, but can find no evidence.

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Speaking of horrible sights that leave witnesses with crippling PTSD from which they’ll never recover, after 125 life-sapping minutes, the Live, Live Christmas Breakfast Show finally draws to a close. We get goodbyes from all the locations — which takes fucking ages, because there’s hundreds of them — with Noel almost unable to speak at how funny it is someone brought a car door to Newcastle; and from the jumbo jet, where 200 lucky children eat airline sprouts off lap trays with the Krankies. We go off air with Smitty in fits of giggles as he lets off a party popper that’s sewn to his jumper, Noel wishing everyone a very merry Christmas, and me hunting around for an application form to join the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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, 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.

Emu and Orville at Christmas

•December 23, 2019 • 2 Comments

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This tale of two birds begins with Emu at Christmas, a festive episode of Emu’s All Live Pink Windmill Show from Christmas Day, 1984. I’ve a vivid memory of receiving a Pink Windmill filled with sweets that year, so I’m certain I was watching at the time. As a brief explanation for those who didn’t live through it, Emu was a violent, mute puppet, who despite the best efforts of his handler, Rod Hull, would use his beak to savagely grab people by the throat or arse, at which point you remembered there’s a hand in there. Emu’s psychotic tendencies led to some classic TV moments, including humourless pen-salesman Michael Parkinson getting the hump, and a chaotic visit to a supermarket. As is clear from these clips, though Rod Hull only had one joke, he was an absolute master at it, and a brilliant physical comedian. Famously, though the act made him a household name for decades, Hull grew resentful of Emu, as the one doing all the work, but viewed as the side-kick to a boggle-eyed pile of rags. Incidentally, do you think he ever… you know? Like when you sit on your hand?

Most people know Pink Windmill from the meme of the show’s stage school kids introducing themselves, but they’re nowhere to be seen here, as Rod and Emu are spending Christmas alone in the Pink Windmill. The kids are on “a hotel holiday in Scotland,” which suggests 1) they don’t have families to go home to, and live with/work for Rod full-time, and 2) they don’t care enough about him to invite him along. Hull was a unique looking chap, and here in his pink suit, resembles Willy Wonka as a Victorian undertaker, with his false arm hanging limp, and shivering from the cold. The water’s turned to ice, last year’s leftover cracker’s got no bang, and there’s but one stale sandwich left in the cupboard. “Never mind, Emu,” he says, putting on a brave face for the bird, “it’s Christmas!

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Trying to hang up some decorations demonstrates Hull’s lovely physical business, as Emu drops the hammer on his foot, and it’s remarkable how instantly you forget you’re watching a bloke get beaten up by his own arm. For a creature which doesn’t even speak, it’s imbued with a real personality. As we’ll later discover, this is markedly not the case with Orville. When Hull finds a Christmas card from the kids — “thinking of you two spending Christmas on your own” — it cuts to an intricately choreographed performance of Kool and the Gang’s Celebration. Though it’s Christmas Day in Scotland, the kids are outside having a BBQ, dancing with such exuberant, wild-eyed glee, it feels like newsreel footage from the last days of a death cult, and you half expect to blink and catch a flash-frame of them splashing around in entrails.

Then we check in on Rod and Emu’s mortal enemy, over at Castle Grotbags. Grotbags’ home is my MTV Cribs dream, covered in cobwebs and skulls, with the sounds of bubbling cauldrons and cawing ravens. For a goth, she’s surprisingly into a Christian festival, with her witch hat wrapped in tinsel, presents under the tree, and excited because evil wizard The Magnificent Fred’s coming over for dinner. At this point, my usual remit of ‘taking the piss out of old telly’ is out of the window, as Carol Lee Scott’s performance is an utter joy. She’s clearly having a blast, as are her sidekicks; robot Redford — a pun on Robert — who’s a catty C-3PO type, mincing around and calling people ducky; and Croc, a rubber crocodile suit with fixed eyes and a flopping jaw that looks like its been broken by Steve Irwin. Its deflated tail is stapled to its back, and as its mouth doesn’t move, its voice just is, coming from everywhere like the voice of God.

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The supercilious Redford hates Croc, in a classic class struggle double-act, and with the three of them bickering away, I was thrilled at the prospect of more robot insults. ‘Bags calls Redford an “animated dustbin,” and Croc “a walking handbag,” while Hull’s “a streaky bonehead!” and when Croc tries to kiss her under the mistletoe, Grotbags does her catchphrase of “that’s very personal!” which I make a note to use in my own life, should anyone ever show me a moment’s physical affection. Within one scene, it’s easy to see why Grotbags was such a strongly embedded icon for my generation, although as a sidenote, my childhood best friend once had a dream he found out his mum was Grotbags, and it fucked him up for years. Also of note is Grotbags’ ever-present cane/wand/hitting device, which is an umbrella crook with a hand on the end. Presumably this is where Richard Ayoade got the idea for the virtually identical one he carries in the Crystal Maze reboot.

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Back at Rod Hull’s Pink Windmill (which sounds like a euphemism he must’ve used when inviting groupies backstage), Hull’s wondering what his “great, great ancestor” King Boggle is up to in Boggle’s Kingdom. This is clearly a way for Hull to showcase his own performing skills, without that fucking bird, with him playing a bumbling medieval king. But Boggle’s Kingdom is “locked away in the timezone,” surrounded by a magic screen that drops once a year on Christmas day, inviting many confusing questions; like why does the barrier disappear at Christmas? Is it Jesus who’s trapping them there? Also, as Hull’s his (eventual) ancestor, and the currently-heirless Boggle’s stuck in the past, with his own sister the only female, this seems to confirm that, eventually, there’ll be some Lannister shenanigans between them.

After some textbook ‘carrying a plank’ slapstick with a big log, there’s another musical number, with We Need a Little Christmas, where the tension between Princess Hortensia and manservant, Odd-Job John suggests under-stairs Lady Chatterley business going on behind Boggle’s back. Like all musical sequences in old TV, it feels really long, going the full duration, including a key change, but seeing Hull bumble about as an old man, joyfully doing that arm-linking dance, makes me yearn for a Christmas Carol with him as Scrooge, and every ghost played by Emu in various outfits. Tired of being stuck behind the bubble, the Princess decides to venture into the outside world, and the three of them head out into woods.

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Meanwhile, Grotbags and co. take off on the Hover-Grot to procure a roast Emu for Fred the Magnificent, leading into another song, with a greenscreened, mid-air cover of the Jackson 5’s Goin’ Places. When they crash-land, there’s a cracking reference-for-the-sake-of-it, as Redford breaks the fourth wall to complain “it’s like Star Trek gone mad!” Back at the Windmill, Hull gets a solo number, with an emotive Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which – to me, a broken man – is shockingly moving, as he strolls about their sorry home; deflated balloons, a withered tree, bare shelves; with the usually-violent, now-sad Emu cradled against his shoulder, tenderly stroking its head. Even Grotbags, watching through the window in the snow, is reduced to tears, but she’s gotta get that bird, so bursts in with “this is a raid! It’s coi-tens for you!

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Poor Rod Hull’s just so happy to have company, he wishes her a Merry Christmas, but Grotbags’ henchman stuff a thrashing Emu into a sack, which weirdly bulges in the shape of a very small person crouched inside. But then, Boggle’s gang, Fred the Magnificent, and the kids all show up, leading to a mass brawl, akin to a Youtube video titled RUSSIA’S WILDEST FOOTBALL HOOLIGANS. Truly, it’s chaos, with Fred trampled underfoot, and Emu biting Grotbags right on the arse. Oh, right — there’s a hand in there. Finally, the smallest child shames them with a speech about it being Christmas, and with a “three cheers for Good King Boggle,” everyone’s friends again, for a riotous final number, It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. It’s everything one could hope for, with Grotbags getting down, a flawless mid-song tango break for her and Fred, and Hull’s terrible soft-shoe shuffle getting him booed off. Even the post-credits continuity announcement is great — “Carol Lee Scott is now appearing in the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury” — for what one can only assume was the best goddamn panto villain the world had ever seen.

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Unfortunately, from a shining highlight of children’s TV past, we must venture into the bin; into the toilet; down into the bowels of the dying Earth. Emu and Orville the Duck, while both birds made of felt, couldn’t have been more different. When Emu was invited onto shows, it was to inject some anarchy, pulling down the set and grabbing celebrities by the dicks, as a flailing Rod Hull screeched his apologies. In contrast, Orville wasn’t merely safe, but sickly, with huge, babyish eyes, and still wearing a nappy, suggesting he was yet to be toilet-trained by cloying companion, Keith Harris, perhaps as a deliberate decision to keep him infantilised to be more commercially appealing. The worst of that queasy soppiness is in full display with The Keith Harris Christmas Party, which aired on BBC1 on Boxing Day afternoon of 1983, sandwiched between Bridge on the River Kwai and David Icke reading out the football scores.

If Pink Windmill was a great British pantomime, then this is the repressed memory of being dragged to Father Christmas’s grotto at the back of a church hall; the smells of bleached floorboards; an alcoholic civic councillor wearing a cotton wool beard that hooks over the ears. Notably, this is the Keith Harris Christmas Party, not Orville’s, with Harris another performer having grown resentful of his far more famous puppet, unable to go anywhere without being asked “where’s Orville?” Harris always felt he had more to share with the world than singing gnashed falsetto through an incontinent duck, but having sat through this, I beg to differ. However low your expectations, dig a little further, as Christmas Party shares a writer with Reg Varney’s sketch show, Little and Large, 3-2-1, and The Jim Davidson Show.

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This is very much a distressed nephew of Knowing Me, Knowing Yule, with Keith bidding us hello in a green jumper on the way to Orville’s house. Wait, Orville has his own house?! He can’t even sit on the bog, but he’s living by himself? And shouldn’t his home be a nest? It’s with the first appearance of Keith’s other puppet — Cuddles the Orville-hating monkey — that things take a turn for the sinister. When he’s behind a desk or on Keith’s arm, he’s fine, but it’s the ‘walking’ version that emerges through the front door; a hunched, bipedal Cuddles with unsettling, lolloping movements, long, slack arms dragging in the snow, and his usual gurning face now an immobile plastic mask.

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We cut to inside, where scary Cuddles is ‘dancing’ with Keith and Orville, and a giant buck-toothed yellow dinosaur wearing a jacket but no trousers. Dippy the Dinosaur was an attempt to branch out with a third character, which didn’t take off like the other two, as a basic ‘big, stupid oaf’ whose dialogue mostly consists of gormless “hur-hur-hur” laughter. Like a child grasping for acceptance by playing along with the bullies (“Fatty Millard, that’s me haha!”), when Cuddles later calls him “the original dumb-waiter,” Dippy will chirpily respond “that’s right, cos I’m stupid!

As with Pink Windmill, this is a heavily musical show, and Orville kicks off with a performance of Come To My Party, which was released as a single that year, peaking at 44 in the charts, and not reaching the heights of January 1983’s Orville’s Song (I Wish I Could Fly) which got to #4. Orville grossly pronounces it as “Kissmas,” which he’ll do for the entire show, forcing me to hold back sicks with the back of my hand. Encapsulating his entire career, for the duration of the song, Keith’s role requires him to hold Orville while making simpering, teeth-clenched “ahh, isn’t that nice?” faces, like those future history book pictures of Mike Pence stood lovingly behind Trump when he’s doing something awful.

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Aside from the lurching Cuddles, everything about this is discordant and frightening. There’s a snowman with huge, black staring eyes, like its actual eyes have been plucked out by crows, who seems like it’ll come to life and dance, but just stands there, lurking, until suddenly falling to its knees. Cuddles — always a puppet in close-up — gets a ‘snowball’ of shaving roam to the mush, and is blown up, black-faced, by a cracker, before holding up some mistletoe and getting off with his own reflection. “Ooh,” sings Orville, “he does smell!” With modern hindsight, a couple of things really stand out. Keith is so much worse of a ventriloquist when doing Cuddles’ voice, which is the full ‘gottle of gear!’ It’s also amazing how much of the act is him repeating what his puppets have just said, perhaps not trusting the audience to understand their strangled little voices.

But it wouldn’t be Christmas without special guests, and a ring of the doorbell brings Shakin’ Stevens, the Welsh Elvis. Dressed in a scarf, he brushes fake snow from his quiff, and seems amused by the situation, chuckling to himself as he follows a waddling dinosaur across the set, before shaking Cuddles’ stiff, plastic hand. “I wonder who’s gonna drop in next?” asks Keith, cuing the scream of a soot-covered Stu Francis falling down the chimney. “I could wrestle a reindeer!” says Stu. “Ooh, ‘eck,” replies Keith. Stu tells a joke about Santa being Irish, because he parked his sleigh over the chimney, and the heat from the fire melted all his Easter Eggs. “Ooh, I could frighten a fairy!

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That Irish joke is a good indication of the quality of gags, which seem to be locked in a vicious battle for dead-worst. Regard, Orville’s claim of a family member who was a Christmas tree — “the Christmas tree’s evergreen, my ancestor was feather-green” — or the skit where an Orville-less Keith gets to demonstrate his solo skills with Stu Francis in a haunted bedroom, where Stu feels a presence; “Not a Christmas presents, I ‘ope!” says Keith. Perhaps the true nadir comes in a moment with Cuddles, where Keith needles him about “inviting all your mates over from that tea advert. There was tea all over the place, wasn’t there?” Keith’s chuckles fail to fill a now-silent studio, with a dreadful desperation in his eyes. This is the look of a man who knows exactly how bad it is, morphing for one terrible moment into Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey.

The one moment of relief is during a Keith/Cuddles bit involving a Chinese Guillotine, where he’s only got one free hand, so won’t be able to make his eyes go slitty. Although Cuddles does do a Jimmy Savile impression, and we get our second Peking/peeking gag of the Christmas season. Most distressing here is when Keith picks up Cuddles to move him, revealing him as flat and limp with no stuffing. Cuddles keeps chattering away, while hanging loose like an empty suit, in contrast to the care Keith takes when carrying Orville. Couldn’t he have fattened him up with a pillow? “Yeah kids, it’s just a skin-sack with no innards. Fuck yourselves.”

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The onscreen dynamic of Keith’s favouritism to “little Orville” over Cuddles seems to play out even in the puppeteering. While Orville’s lovingly cradled in a natural pose, with Cuddles, he’s just stood behind with his hand stuffed in the back of its head. Orville’s constant low self-esteem is a real time-filler, with proceedings constantly stopping for Keith to console him because “people don’t like ducks, do they?” or as when he’s reassured that everyone loves him, asking with a sniffle “even though… even though I’m ugly?” These saccharine attempts to garner sympathy are particularly repellent, as at no point does it ever feel like anything but grown a man talking to himself in a baby-voice. Contrast the moon-eyed little fucker with Emu, who doesn’t even speak, yet feels like a fully realised character, and not just Rod Hull’s arm.

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Closing sketch sees Orville in a Scrooge hat as Keith tucks him into bed. Why, asks Orville, did they have a Christmas party, when you only have parties for birthdays? “But it is a birthday!” says Keith. The story of the nativity has never made less sense than when described by a man pretending to be a duck. There’s another reference to Jimmy Savile, a joke about hotels being booked on Christmas Eve which they use twice, and Orville getting upset because Jesus has two daddies (“Joseph and The Lord”) while “I haven’t even got one daddy!” All this is leading to a performance of Orville’s latest single, which is such a wretched milksop dirge, I spent three minutes vomiting blood straight into my lap. Just look at these lyrics.

“…thank you, for telling me ’bout Kissmas… a lickle baby boy was born, who would be very good; he never would be naughty, as often babies could…

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The triumphant final verse is laden with heavenly trumpets, as Keith lifts Orville over to the window where it’s snowing outside, before laying him back in bed for a gentle kiss goodnight. Now alone downstairs, Keith pours himself a glass of wine, where the new single they just performed is conspicuously propped up against a stereo beside him, which he puts on and plays. The doorbell goes, and I hope it’s Tony Hayers bringing stern warnings against product placement, but instead, it’s Stu Francis, accompanied by an incredible assortment of whoever was at BBC Television Centre when this was being filmed. The room floods with a who’s who of early-80’s British celebrity, including John Craven, DJ and rapper Mike Read, the Green Goddess, Fern Britton, Janet Ellis (who trips down the steps when giving Keith a kiss), Simon Bates, Floella Benjamin, and Sir Patrick Moore, who all dance up to Orville’s room in a raucous conga line as we go off air.

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It’s worth sticking around after the credits to hear the rather stern and posh BBC announcer having to advertise Orville’s new single in his clipped accent, “…it’s coupled with another song, ‘Thank You For Telling Me ‘Bout Christmas’. And Keith Harris is now appearing in Humpty Dumpty at the New Theatre in Cardiff.” No doubt, for many audiences of children, panto was ruined forever, when Keith Harris kept pausing the show for five minutes to change Orville’s poo-and-piss-filled nappy.

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, 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 Krankies at Christmas

•December 13, 2019 • 3 Comments

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For non-Brits or millennials unaware of the Krankies, how best to describe them without seeming like I finally ran out of material and made up the sickest thing imaginable? A wildly popular double-act throughout the 1980s, the Krankies were a real-life married couple from Scotland, Ian and Janette Tough, with Ian playing ‘himself’, and his wife as naughty schoolboy, Wee Jimmy Krankie. Jimmy was a genuine icon to their demographic of children, with the pair headlining a number of TV series, including The Krankies Club, K.T.V., and in a title that can only be read in a staccato robot voice while moving your arms stiffly up and down, The Krankies Elektronik Komik. Jimmy’s catchphrase was a double-thumbs-up cry of “Fan-dabi-dozi!” which — of course — resulted in a surprisingly rockin’ 7-inch; one of many Krankie musical releases, among 9 singles and 3 albums, making them more hard-working, and one might argue, better, than lazy artists like the Sex Pistols or Lauren Hill, who only bothered with the one.

The Krankies at Christmas went out over Christmas 1983, though it was shot in the first week of October, adding another disconcerting nightmare element to those trapped in the audience, draped in tinsel and party hats, but still some weeks from Halloween. As a show which shares its writer with Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, Copy Cats, The Les Dennis Laughter Show, and Little and Large, I’m expecting some big things. And boy, do Ian Krankie and his small wife disguised as a child deliver.

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After an opening disco theme, Ian emerges from behind a cheap-looking Christmas tree, in a lovely Pringle jumper, falling over his first line as he promises “a super show tonight, we’ve got some super g-rests! (sic)” The Krankies are yet another double-act predicated on that struggle between the parental one, with frustrated pretensions of singing or acting, and the flighty, child-like one, who keeps interrupting. Here, it’s Ian’s serious rendition of White Christmas that’s ruined by Wee Jimmy — supposedly locked backstage for misbehaving — being lowered from the ceiling on a rope, and tossing handfuls of snow out of sack literally labelled SNOW. Ian looks like a slightly pixelated Kevin Keegan, while Janette’s only 36 here, and not quite at the frightening wizened-schoolboy stage of their later years, which always seemed like a visual tribute to the ending of Don’t Look Now. And yet, there’s still a hint of that scene in The Passion where Satan was doing the school run.

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Even in the 1980s, this feels like a gimmick out of its time, and more fitting with the postwar Britain of Billy Bunter or The Clitheroe Kid. What school uniforms had a little red cap in the ’80s? Does that imply Wee Jimmy goes to public school? Any why’s he always in his uniform when it’s not school hours? It’s the Christmas holidays, but he’s still wearing his school clothes. Has he not got any gear of his own? Is that how Ian pays for the tuition fees? Scrimping on basics like trousers and heating, just to give the poor lad a better start? And what is the manner of their relationship? They’ve got the same surname, but Wee Jimmy doesn’t call him dad. Are they siblings? Was he a ‘surprise’ baby of older parents, with Ian taking guardianship after they died? Or did Ian, as a single man, adopt Jimmy, who took his new pappy’s name? In the closing song, they hang on the line “I’m so sorry for this laddie, he hasn’t got a daddy,” confirming they aren’t father and son.

Following a brilliantly shonky reference-for-the-sake-of-it — “beam me down, Mr. Spock!” — the show kicks off with a barrage of jokes, all of them fucking rancid. Wee Jimmy’s school dinners are so bad, “even the dustbins have got ulcers,” and on whether he’d kiss his teacher under the mistletoe, “I wouldnae kiss her under chloroform!” When Jimmy says he wants a new dog to replace the old one, which is “ready to snuff it,” a horrifyingly dessicated mutt rolls across the floor on wheels, covered in bloody bandages, with one eye hanging on a spring. The stuff that doesn’t just seem weird for an audience of 8-year-olds is merely clunkily worded, with ungainly set-ups like “D’you know what Cinderella sang when the chemist mislaid her photographs?” and “What pantomime was staged in a chemist’s shop?” If you’re keeping count, that’s three chemical-based gags in the opening sketch. Very festive! But the kids are lapping it up, shrieking with glee at Wee Jimmy’s every line or cheeky gesture. That sound, which is very prevalent here, of high-pitched children’s laughter in a live TV audience, feels very retro now. Maybe it’s still a thing on CBBC, but it feels like once we hit the 90s, that was the end of playing to kid-only rooms.

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Sadly, this isn’t a pure Krankies show, as they’re mostly just bookending a series of variety acts. Barbara Dickson does Stop in the Name Of Love, in what must’ve been an excruciating 3 ½ minutes for a crowd of fidgeting children, while a young David Grant, two decades before he was a judge on Fame Academy, mimes to his pop single, with hair like nuclear fallout. These Krankies-less segments take on a different undercurrent following revelations in their autobiography of being swingers, and taking their sexual adventures into various dressing rooms (which perhaps explains the time I was perusing their official website, and spotted a picture of them on the beach, where a smiling Janette’s exposed breast could be seen hanging out of her bikini top). Armed with this knowledge, as the audience squeals through a performance by the band Modern Romance, current day viewers will be horribly aware Wee Jimmy was likely getting nobbed by his ‘father’ up against the back of the set; little shorts pulled to one side; Dennis the Menace fan-club badge rhythmically clinking, faster and faster.

As it’s Christmas, we’re gifted a bunch of celebrity cameos including Jimmy Cricket, who’s been singing carols with Jimmy — “disgusting, like begging!” derides Ian — and made £1.10 ½p. Who gave them the half-pence? “They all did!” — which is a clean rewrite of a joke that’s usually about sucking dicks. They change the words to well-loved songs, with outrageous stuff about Good King Wenceslas’ central heating, and in Deck the Halls, “there’s tears in the eyes of a girl named Molly… I filled her knickers with jagged holly!” A Youtube commenter notes that these disgusting ‘blue’ carols ruined the show for them, but in the most incredible nugget of trivia, it was Jimmy Cricket himself that uploaded this show, though he left 40 minutes of blank screen at the end, which is testament to his commitment of the dunce character. “C’mere, there’s more… empty runtime!”

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How do the Salvation Army save souls?” asks Wee Jimmy. “They walk about on their heels!” I hope you laughed at that, because it’s the last smile you’ll ever do after what comes next. Inside a shimmering Santa’s grotto, the Krankies open a big present, revealing a horrible puppet with a swollen head and a pair of gigantic swivelling eyes. Inexplicably, the audience does a loud “aww!” rather than run for the exits. We cut to a stage shrouded in the kind of all-devouring blackness familiar from the room in Under the Skin where Scarlett Johansson pulls those horny lads inside out through their boners. There, a boggle-eyed mouse marionette hammers away on a piano, in a raucous cover of the Rolling Stones’ I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. A squirrel shambles on with unnatural bucking movements; its dead, musty body jerking as it performs a cursed solo, where the sounds of guitar come from the end of its saxophone.

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Again, the camera cuts to blackness, but penetrated by two spotlights. Beneath the first, are three giant birds dressed like Vegas showgirls, each in feathered headdresses the same colour as their plumage, like wearing a hat made from your own skin. They kick and wave their wings in time to the beat. To their left, our eyes are drawn to the hypnotic sway of a blue, sequinned robe. With its back turned, we do not see what vile creature lurks beneath. Until we do. A big chicken wearing a yellow bra but no knickers; its black eyes all iris, like it’s fucked out of its mind on ayahuasca; deadly beak emitting shrill vocals of River Deep Mountain High; lizard feet mashed into a pair of stilettos. Wee Jimmy runs onstage to kneel beside it, perhaps to pay reverence; to beg for a quick death. They’re joined by another string-lurching fowl, with a face I recognise. It’s Dooby Duck, six years before breaking out into his own show with the Disco Bus. Dooby wears a rain mac, and the most warped part of my brain goes right to “gonna flash us that corkscrew duck-dick, you dirty old shit?” Then he does. Kind of. There’s no dick, and he’s got an old-timey striped swimsuit underneath, but Jimmy covers the chicken’s eyes as Dooby gleefully open and closes the mac like a carpark masturbator.

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This horror show is credited as Pepe & The Gang, which in 2019 sounds like the roll-call of incel weirdos at a Straight Pride march. The Krankies try to steer us back from Hell with some gags, and as always, they want to make real sure that you get the joke. Jimmy has come out dressed as a pirate.

          Ian: “What are you dressed like that for?

          Jimmy: “I’m just going round to my pals to watch a video.

          Ian: “And why are you dressed like that?

          Jimmy: “Well, he told me it was a pirate video!

There’s more variety with The Flying Rollers; a pair of French male/female roller-skaters, whose act involves spinning round and round on a platform really fast while he swings her by the ankles. For a kids variety show, she’s shockingly underdressed, in a borderline pornographic see-thru bodystocking, with her boobs and junk barely covered by a splash of sparkly sequins. In the many side-on shots, she’s effectively naked, and one can sense an uncomfortable shifting in the seats of the audience dads, especially when she’s bent inside out, with every rotation giving a drive-by look right up her. “Oh, there’s her fanny. And there it is again. Good day once more, madam!” It’s almost certain the Rollers were specially selected by the Krankies, so they might be invited back to the dressing room for post-show ‘drinks’.

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After Wee Jimmy gets the bloke to spin him round, Jimmy Cricket comes out for some stand-up, reading aloud a Christmas card from his mammy, for more homespun gags about how fucking thick his fellow countrymen are. The big finale is a panto, with a classic double-act set-up, where Ian’s written the script, and begs Wee Jimmy not to muck about and ruin it. As a musical sketch, between each scene, the characters perform a ditty — “pantomime, pantomime, magic words, songs sublime…” It’s exactly as you’d expect, with Jimmy Cricket as the Fairy Godmother, Melvin Hayes as either Cinderella or Mother Goose (it’s unclear), and now-dated pop culture references to Dallas. And then a young woman in knickers comes on as Aladdin, who “in China spied a sweet princess, to be her boyfriend he was seeking…

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Naughty little Chinaman, no Peking!” Oh, Jimmy; cancelled for Christmas. Things get even worse with Bernie Winters in a Mystic Meg wig, skipping around in a cape as Baron Hardup. I know appearance-shaming’s not on, especially from someone who resembles a homeless Yorkshire Ripper, but Christ alive, Bernie Winters looks like some bog-hag granted a troll’s wish to be human for a day. Jimmy almost gets off a joke about beans making you fart, but Ian covers his mouth, and finally, it’s over.

Ian closes the show by wishing the audience a Merry Christmas, but hold on — where’s Wee Jimmy’s present?! Krankie Sr breaks the news that he’s not got the boy anything, and the audience heckle him with abuse. Jimmy starts crying in a piece of acting which is far too good for the show, brewing up actual tears. It’s unbelievably jarring amid the silliness, like if you saluted a colleague with finger-guns from across the office, only to blow the skull clean off their fucking neck.

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I suppose I’m just the wee boy that Santa Claus forgot,” sobs a devastated Jimmy, as — terribly inappropriately — Ian bursts into song, with The Little Boy That Santa Clause Forgot. A tear-streaked Jimmy gazes down at the floor, weeping, before Santa shows up to save the day. I say Santa, but it’s Bernie Winters in the red and white, accompanied by Schnorbitz, who’s pulling a sleigh crammed with presents for an elated Jimmy. It should be noted, Ian still didn’t get him anything. We go off air full of the joys of Christmas; even me, old Ebenezer Millard, the 21st Century Grinch, jigging round the bedpost in relief, as the sight of Bernie Winters’ face is safely shielded behind a beard. Fan-dabi-dozi!

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, 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.

Scavengers

•December 3, 2019 • 2 Comments

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After tackling Cyberzone, I felt culturally obliged to cover another stinky futuristic game show from the same period. Scavengers went out on ITV in the summer of 1994, thrust into the prime Saturday tea-time slot where Gladiators had become a national obsession, with huge expectations. What’s it about? Ehh, I’ll let the opening narration explain.

The time: the future. The place: deep space. Aboard the mother ship Scavenger, the shuttle-craft Vulture prepares for take-off. At the helm, Commander John Leslie and a trainee rookie squad. Their mission: To locate the stricken cargo ship, Cyclops; legacy of a long-gone intergalactic war. To scavenge, salvage, and survive with honor! These are… The Scavengers!

Note that Leslie is credited, not as a character, but as Commander John Leslie, suggesting it’s the John Leslie from 1994, put into cryogenic stasis in an effort to save Earth’s mightiest specimens before the planet was ravaged by space genocide. Who else would’ve been on that mid-90’s ark; Stephen Hawking? Statto? Jo Guest? Leslie’s dressed like the Colonial Marines from Aliens, or Robocop if he’d gotten divorced rather than shot to bits. The armour’s got muscle shapes on it, right down to the cum-gutters on his hips, though his height just accentuates the stringy arms. His right eye’s marked by a scar, a testimony to his having seen combat. I wonder if he found a moment’s wistful pause while striding across battlefields of bones, to remember his old Blue Peter pals?

They’ll all be gone now,” he’ll have thought, from hundreds of years in the future; “Anthea, Diane-Louise.. even George the Tortoise. All dead.” Perhaps he made a journey to the ruins of the Blue Peter Garden — its pond now awash with blood, lapped by radiation-mutated goldfish with three anuses — to lay a wreath in their memory.

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John Leslie prods buttons at the helm of a ship, against a greenscreened window showing the blackness of deep space lit by explosions, with clipart visuals you’d expect from ITV in 1994. Armoured contestants sit strapped into the back, once again, just like in Aliens. This, plus background music that’s often reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s score, isn’t a coincidence. Scavengers was produced with Carlton in association with 20th Century Fox; rights holders to the Alien franchise; and its working title was Aliens: The Game Show, however, this was nixed by Ridley Scott, and rebranded into something more generic. Around this time, the officially licensed Alien War was a popular attraction at London’s Trocadero, and there’s obvious similarities in having regular folks be dragged through the grates and grills of a darkly-lit spaceship by some guy in space-army gear who can’t act.

But the deathly seriousness of do-or-die galactic apocalypse is immediately deflated when John Leslie does the usual pre-game chat with the contestants, with everyone dressed like they’re part of a terrible space-Vietnam but trying not to laugh. “What’s so funny?” he asks, while smirking himself; “Cyclops awaits, it’s a deadly serious business out there!” It’s doubly awkward as they’ve clearly not done a pre-interview, with all the answers ums and ahs — “Are you naturally strong?” “I’m not sure?” Asking one pair if they compliment each other, Peter (who’s white) says of he and team-mate Dawn (who’s not) “I think the colours go well together!” while gesturing at each other’s skin-tone. So, this is the future utopia Star Trek promised?

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The male contestants also have sculpted muscles on their outfits, while the women have booby armour, possibly to protect them from– (that’s enough, Ed), which looks like two metal coconut shells glued to a wetsuit. Before we begin, Commander Leslie introduces the imaginatively-named Android, ‘Android’; a sexy robot woman with pointy boobs and one bare shoulder, whose job is directing them where to go and adding up the scores. Leslie steers the Vulture through fiery debris and in through the smashed hull of the disintegrating Cyclops, swerving through fireballs and lightning bolts. “Here she comes, nice and gently,” he says, with all the urgency of getting his Land Rover between the white lines in Aldi’s carpark. And then, we’re off!

In format, Scavengers is essentially Crystal Maze with John Leslie as Richard O’Brien — even borrowing their clock countdown sound effect — but with half the show taken up by the bits where they’re madly running between zones. It’s during these that one thing really stands out; the set is absolutely fucking enormous. Seriously, it’s the biggest set I’ve ever seen. In the two episodes I watched, barring the finale, they never repeated a game, with each task taking place in separate, uniquely designed industrial stages. Housed at Pinewood, it’s a steel maze of corridors and platforms, guffing pipes and swinging chains, metal gantries flooded with dry ice, and spurting random fires. Designed by Quentin Chases, who previously made the arena games for Gladiators, it cost an extraordinary £2.5m, which was recouped by reusing it to tape the international versions, as Fort Boyard would with its fortress.

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The games consist of running to various parts of the ship — The Crusher, Steel Works, Bomb Disposal Area, Solar Tower — to scavenge for futuristic-sounding objects which all have point values. Everyone spends their time clambering up or down girders or yanking on chains, with no safety wires I could see. Christ, imagine having that as your epitaph — ‘Beloved father, son, brother and uncle. Fell off a balcony while being yelled at by John Leslie in a plastic helmet.’ The impressiveness of the set actually plays against it, with confusing rules, and the contestants as tiny figures lost beneath the dramatic lighting and smoke, as Leslie shouts at them to hurry up, and “let’s see some biceps!” But the big budget feel often withers during the tasks. One game involves diffusing bombs, and when the first one ‘blows up,’ it’s with a pathetic balloon pop which makes everyone laugh. When a team successfully completes the mission, Leslie yells a very futuristic “wahey!” Sadly, there’s a real lack of future-y words, apart from the drink bottles thirsty contestants slurp from after the final game, which are filled with “Scav-Juice.” But they’re the scavengers, so does he mean… piss?

Other games see the lads lowering the women down on ropes onto a bed of dry ice that resembles Alien‘s facehugger nest, to collect flashing football-sized orbs into a net. In another, they’re scrambling across climbing nets draped in cobwebs to salvage giant eggs before “Mother Spider” awakes. There’s one game where they’re dismantling robots in a lab, where a bisected upper torso of a dead robot lays on a table (you know, like Ash or Bishop), coming to life to give hints when he’s plugged in, which 20-year-old contestant Dee looks deeply disconcerted by. But the task itself is just a Simon memory game with blinking, booping lights. In a rare game that’s not referencing the Alien franchise, they lift from Star Wars instead, salvaging junk from a trash compactor which threatens to crush them, rooting around in rubbish for ‘fuel rods’ for fucking ages like someone who dropped their car keys in the skip while doing a dump run.

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But the best bits are the ludicrous action inserts, with each episode having a b-plot which showcases John Leslie’s A-List action hero skills. In episode one, we meet series villain Lord Tanargh, and honestly, he looks pretty great. Tanargh is the work of Bob Keen, one of the team who designed Jabba the Hutt, with credits on films like Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and The NeverEnding Story. A fearsome-looking character, with Predator-style dreads, and facepaint like the clown from Spawn, Tanargh is voiced by David McCallum, and really highlights the creative duality of Scavengers. They’ve created a nightmarish creature that genuinely wouldn’t be out of place in a movie, and put him up against… John Leslie off Blue Peter? Incidentally, there’s speculation on IMDB that as Fox also owned the Predator franchise, Tanargh might’ve been conceived as a relation to the titular Predators.

After warning Leslie from trespassing on his ship, Tanargh pulls a lever, teleporting a pair of green Xenomorph looking rubber monsters from their cage to attack him. Leslie pulls the same face he probably did watching Matthew Wright that time, and shoots one with a raygun, before running away, eventually tearing a pipe off the wall and throwing it through the alien’s chest, Commando style. None of these scenes are referred to when he’s with the contestants, with a jarring tonal shift between him fighting for his life, blasting monsters to death, and when he’s back to chucklingly telling some photocopier repairman from Bristol to “hurry it up, mate” as they shimmy down a rope.

05

The final game’s played under a countdown, with anyone who’s not inside the Vulture when it takes off getting left behind. Leslie gives them a pep-talk, with a bro-shake for each, and the motto “Scavenge, Salvage, and Survive, with honour!” before he fucks off on a zip-line. Of all the exhausting games of clambering down ropes and girders and winding on winches, the finale is the most exhausting of all, in six long, confusing minutes of people frantically… doing stuff? I dunno, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on. But at least this time, there’s an alien shooting at them from the gantry, though nobody reacts, as the laser beams and sounds are all added in post production, barring some little splash squibs in the water and a few fizzy explosions going off like a cheap box of fireworks from the local garage.

One team gets back in time, but Dawn gets her boot caught in the climbing net, missing the countdown and causing John Leslie’s finest piece of acting work, as he begs “I need more time, Android, more time! More time, Android!” and howling an emotive “Nooooo!” as she closes the airlock. “Sorry,” yells Dawn from the floor, as the Vulture flies off. Everyone else is pretty jovial in their post-game chit-chat, considering they’ve just left two contestants to their deaths and/or slavery and unspeakable torture at the hands of a cruel alien warlord. Weirdly, they dock at the same disintegrating ship at the start of every show, but there’s no mention of finding and rescuing their fallen crew.

06

One thing that’s fun is how they fill the ship with a background population of monsters. In various inserts, we see little aliens with eyes on stalks popping up above the water, or robotic eyes peering out of a flap before disappearing with a whir. Running to the final game in episode one, Leslie points something out to a female contestant, who screams and tries to run when she sees it, but he physically restrains her in a way which plays horribly now. “It’s just a limpet!” he says, picking up a little alien puppet, as a blast of fire is superimposed coming out of its cute little rubber gob — “they’re very friendly… say hello!” At one point, when they’re sprinting down another corridor, it cuts to an alien lurking nearby, looking like Jay Leno as Nosferatu. Another scene sees Lord Tanargh pick up and stroke a horrifying animatronic hairless cat, which jerks and kicks its little limbs, tipping its head back in pleasure as it’s tickled, before he throws it to a massive slime-dripping beast, who throttles it in its tentacles before eating it.

07

Episode two’s sci-fi subplot gives you a b-movie condensed down into 90 seconds, when Android warns John Leslie he’s got a price on his head, paid to the Cyberoid Clone Squad by Lord Tanargh. We cut to Tanargh speaking to the merc, who’s got another great alien mask, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Star Wars Cantina; at least, in the prequel trilogy. It demonstrates its abilities by cloning itself into John Leslie — which would make a great alibi — though the scar’s on the wrong cheek. I was salivating at the thought of a Good (?) John Leslie/Evil John Leslie face-off, and boy do we get it! “What the hell are you?” asks GJL. “Your worst nightmare,” replies BJL, reminding you in a single line that he is decidedly not a trained actor. They do a quickdraw, and one of them’s killed, but we don’t know who. Not until John Leslie fingers his scar, which is on the left — oh no! But they pull back to reveal he’s looking in a mirror, and the real, true, original John Leslie from Wheel of Fortune was the victor.

07b

I went into Scavengers figuring there’d be plenty to take the piss out of — and there was, as it’s absolutely abysmal — but unexpectedly, there’s also the kernel of the interesting show that could’ve been. But it’s such an odd mix, with legitimately impressive sets and creature work, and in places, an admirable scope, all blended with a writer from Chucklevision, the director from Jimmy Tarbuck’s ‘Big Break but golf’ gameshow, Full Swing, and starring John Leslie as a Colonial Marine. For a show that’s impossible to take seriously, it’s nowhere near camp enough, with the sci-fi stuff played too serious between bits that are silly and jovial. For example, whenever Leslie speaks, a little mic that’s attached to his helmet whirs down to his mouth, then back up again when he’s finished. Up and down, up and down, every time he takes a breath, and it’s never not funny. Plus, with all the running about, alien subplots, and nonsensical games that last for five or six minutes, there’s no time to get to know the contestants’ personalities, so you’re not rooting for anyone, and just watching people you don’t care about scramble up girders for fucking ages.

08

Scavengers was a colossal failure, ending its run with the final episodes being burned off in the post-GMTV Monday morning death-slot. Who knows how many more Alien riffs we’d have seen had the show continued? Perhaps it was all building towards John Leslie hiding under a clothes rack in an airlock while wearing a pair of tiny little pants. If it’d reached the Gladiators-level viewing figures they were hoping for, it’s possible they might’ve ditched the game show stuff and spun-off into a straight sci-fi action series; or maybe Ridley Scott would have changed his mind and brought Big John Leslie in for a proper Alien sequel. And now I’m dealing with my own parasite. It’s pushing against the inside of my stomach; fighting to tear its way out — it’s the urge to do the cliched Alien vs. Predator joke that everyone’s gonna tweet at me when this goes up anyway, so excuse me while I go blow myself out of the airlock.

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I’m Famous and Frightened

•November 24, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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[related: The Michael Jackson SeanceOne World Over: The Day that Davro Died]

The mid-2000s were an amazing time for good-bad paranormal television, with Most Haunted in its glory years, and Living TV churning out a constant stream of weirdo psychics in green-o-vision pretending to be choked by dead jailers. Barring Most Haunted itself, the majority of these hundreds of hours of footage was disposable and instantly forgotten, which is a particular tragedy regarding one extraordinary show. I’m Famous and Frightened aired over three consecutive nights in 2004, bang in the middle of Living’s paranormal boom, in the scariest month of all, March. Even minus ads, it’s got an intimidating run-time of seven hours, which I’m tackling during the hottest day since records began. It’s 39 degrees outside, and I’m getting ahead of my Halloween content, sat here watching Terry Nutkins at a séance.

It’s a simple set-up, putting a bunch of celebrities in a haunted castle for some paranormal investigations. Nowadays, your reality rosters are filled by buff twentysomethings with sleeve tattoos and massive lips from Love Island or TOWIE, but this is an eclectic cast of recognisable celebs your dad might have trouble typing an earnest “who?” about in a tabloid comment section. The aforementioned wildlife expert Terry Nutkins — the British Hulk Hogan — is joined by Linda Robson, Cheryl Baker, Garry Bushell, Toby Anstis, and comically over-boobed glamour model and porn star, Linsey Dawn McKenzie, who at 26, is the youngest contestant by almost a decade, but by modern-reality standards, is a withered crone, soon for the grave. We’ve also got soap diva and Marilyn’s rightful heir, Julie Goodyear, and famed joke-thief and now ghost himself, Keith Chegwin. Incidentally, as a damning encapsulation of my body of work, OpenOffice just tried to correct ‘Keith Chegwin’ to ‘Keith Chemtrails’.

01

As will become clear over the next 4,500 words, the best part about this cast is their complete disregard for paranormal TV protocol. In that world, everything that happens is always a ghost, and things cannot and must not be questioned, especially not on a live show. They’re staying at 12th century Chillingham Castle, (“Chillingham by name, chilling ’em by nature!” says our host), a pot pourri of every classic British spook, with spectral hooves, grey ladies, dead boys, and ghostly pipers, all moaning and moving things about, and startling guests in the middle of the night when they’re definably not just dreaming. The owner goes over its history in a brief video; a toff called Sir Humphrey, which surely can’t be a real name outside of a cartoon villain that’s cutting down an enchanted forest to build a golf course. His plummy voice is so incomprehensibly posh, it makes Jacob Rees-Mogg sound like Danny Dyer, and the only words I can pick out are “their heads cut orf for treason…

Holding it all together; or rather, not; is former Blue Peter presenter, Tim Vincent. His presenting style is that of a shop assistant when you’ve come in to browse one minute before closing on a Friday. Oddly-aggressive and humourless, he barely cracks a smile over the three nights, with a rattled manner that suggests a producer is constantly yelling orders into his earpiece to reiterate, time and again, that whatever happens, a ghost did it. He falls over his words constantly, like someone who’s been woken by a 3am phonecall, losing syllables or adding extra ones to words that tumble from his mouth like those videos of newsreaders having a stroke. His introduction assures us things will be happening “to-nine” using “quip-e-ment” on the ghost hunt about to “take plate… take place.” The visuals are familiar from Most Haunted, with spooky fonts, flickering candles balanced on every available surface, and a soundtrack of trip-hop beats over a synthesised church organ.

02

But you have to have a psychic, and joining the celebs is Ian Lawman, who’d later guest on Most Haunted after Derek Acorah’s ousting. In 2017, Lawman told the Daily Star he’d been visited three times by George Michael’s ghost, who let him know that Geri from the Spice Girls was about to have a big comeback. That’s the Christmas Carol remake the nation needs! Like many psychics, Lawman seems a bubbling cauldron of poorly-concealed anger, under that constant pressure of a reputation hinging on his purported abilities being real, and put in situations where they often don’t work, and where people don’t always play along. Its this pomposity-puncturing which will lead to a pair of incredible scenes; one a hilarious example of mediumship falling apart when the participants are pointing out the emperor’s bell-end, and the other, one of the most appallingly manipulative things ever broadcast.

As we meet the celebs, we find out where they stand on the paranormal. Garry Bushell’s wife once saw her dead great-aunt, while Cheryl danced with her dead dad “when I was asleep,” quite literally in a dream. Terry Nutkins woke up one night “absolutely rigid” as the ghost of a dead cat ran across the room, and Linsey “had an experience in Greece once.” That’s a euphemism, isn’t it? I think I saw that video of hers. “I have, like, sixth sense type feeling,” she says, though by show’s end, it’ll be another celeb who’s gone the full Acorah. Meanwhile, Keith dances around singing the Ghostbusters theme, while Bushell proves he’s 2004’s most modern businessman, by wondering how he’ll survive a whole weekend without a fax machine, before bringing up “the multiverse… overlapping dimensions…

03

To kick off, Cheryl’s sent down the Devil’s Drive with a torch, to collect Julie Goodyear, who appears out of the dark in a gothic horse-drawn carriage, like Jonathan Harker’s Uber to Castle Dracula. In fact, Goodyear’s sharing Gary Oldman’s hairstyle from the film, and as it drives off, a hot mic picks up her complaints about being made to walk up the driveway. As Tim Vincent tells us the fireplace is spitting out embers whenever scepticism is voiced, he has a disastrous chat with a pair of resident ghost ‘experts’, who are so awkward on camera, mumbling and muttering, they’re never seen again. Though one did once see some ghostly feet — “you’ve actually seen feet?!” — so it’s likely Quentin Tarantino will be joining the cast by night two.

Frightened‘s first investigation sets the tone, with Lawman taking them to the haunted courtyard, where he harps on about the temperature dropping, as he’ll do for the entire three nights. While these shows are usually “did you hear that?” this one’s decidedly “do you feel cold?” Remember, it’s not cold because they’re outside at night; it’s because there’s ghosts. Lawman senses a “dark boy” and an angry guard, who eventually half-possesses him, demanding they all get out, but nobody’s really buying it, barely listening, and fiddling with their EMF meters like bored kids on a school trip. Still, he insists it’s really scary. “I feel very relaxed,” says Nutkins, while Anstis giggles, and Linsey points out various air vents causing the drafts. The guard, a nasty spirit called Dunwick, then passes on a message through Lawman. They’ll be amazed, says Dunwick, at how many viewers will ring in to report paranormal experiences while he was onscreen, which is a very impressive knowledge of 21st century television and mass communication for someone who died in 1657.

04

While most of the the show’s a generic ghost hunt with tedious filler, a number of wild scenes make it well worth the effort. The first begins with Linda’s “shitting hell,” as she trips on a cable, into a room haunted by the former lady of the house, who went mad and died in there, and whose painting decorates the wall. The canvas, as pawed at by Keith Chegwin, bulges in the middle, because she keeps escaping from it like Vigo the Carpathian, though Bushell reckons “she looks like Danniella Westbrook.” As to her name, Lawman senses it’s Elizabeth, while Julie Goodyear feels it’s Mary. Earlier, Julie spoke of her spiritualist gran, admitting that she has the power too, and as Tim Vincent confirms the lady’s name as Mary, Goodyear has usurped the official medium, establishing I’m Famous and Frightened as her occult origin story.

Within moments, she’s riddled with feelings of ghostly anguish, with Mary begging her to “end the madness!” leading us to a moment I never thought I’d see, as Julie Goodyear, Linda Robson, Cheggers, and star of Boob Cruise 2000, My Cousin is a Whore, and Big Tits at Work 17, Linsey Dawn McKenzie, lead the tormented spirit of Mary through the gates of Heaven. “That’s it, darlin’,” says Goodyear, in a moving spiritual ceremony which Keith will later describe to Tim Vincent with an actual “Wahey!” Once Mary’s off with Jesus, they move to investigate noises at the far end of the room, with Linsey still brilliantly argumentative — “I thought we just sent her away?” — and the gang unable to get there anyway, because they’ve turned off the lights for atmosphere, and can’t navigate past the furniture.

05

The exorcism raises an interesting moral point. If psychics like Lawman or Derek Acorah or Bet Lynch are able to move ghosts from their eternal torment on Earth up to the afterlife, isn’t it shitty to not do that every time? Later, they’ll visit a room containing a dead little boy, but just leave him to suffer alone for hundreds more years. Is Lawman in the pocket of Big Ghost, paid off by stately homes to leave their tourist-boosting spooks wandering the halls? Shit, it feels like I’ve got half the plot of a screenplay there. After the break, a spiritually drained Julie Goodyear’s recovering offscreen, while everyone else wows over the incredible way she psychically picked up on the name Mary. Well, almost everyone. “I’ve got to be honest,” says Linsey, “I did read it on the internet.

Likely because of her attitude, with an enormous 52% of the viewer vote, she’s sent to spend four minutes alone in a haunted dungeon. ‘Linsey Dawn McKenzie solo dungeon’ sounds like an xhamster link, and she quickly becomes hysterical with fear, convinced someone’s vibrating her seat. They’ve not put a Sybian down there, have they? When Lawman lets her out, jumpy Linsey thrashes around, screaming “something’s on my bloody leg!” which turns out to be her mic pack, and scares herself by sitting on a rocking chair. It’s a mystery why someone locked in a pitch-black torture dungeon, with a skeleton buried in the floor, might get a bit freaked out. Must be ghosts. In an incredible show of imagination, Lawman says he can see the spirit of a gaunt man with a long beard, down in this old medieval dungeon.

06

Garry Bushell’s turn in there is much calmer, though the celebs watching on a screen freak out at the sight of two dogs in the brickwork. Except, they can’t agree which dogs. Some see Jack Russells, others “a puppy and a big dog,” with Linda seeing a Labrador; they can’t even settle on whether it’s just heads or full bodies, or even where exactly they are, with nobody questioning the huge variation, and simply wowed because everyone sees the dogs. On night three, Vincent will pull out a painting of two dogs someone found hanging in the castle and pretend it’s identical to the wall, in a show of literal gibberish. This, plus the constant replaying of ‘orb’ videos flying around them, which are clearly just moths, as though they’ve got proof of the afterlife that’s rewritten the laws of physics, make me embarrassed for everyone involved. With ten minutes left, Ian Lawman gives us the classic night one medium’s ending, leaning against the wall and going all weak.

Night two makes it clear why the celebrities are feeling sick, tired and emotional (a sign of ghosts!), with videos of them titting around at 4am for more tasks. An offhand comment by Linsey mentions how they’d gotten up at 6am the day before, so by the time we see Terry Nutkins on a night-watch, getting his first feeling of dread from a haunted room, he’d been awake for 24 hours. It’s a cheery start, with Goodyear saying “I had the feeling flesh had been eaten there,” and everyone in smart clobber for Linda’s birthday. Vincent brings in a cake, and as she blows out the candles, Linsey hollars “give it a blowjob, girl!” Judging by what happens next, Linda must’ve wished for Ian Lawman to have the worst fifteen minutes of his life.

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To set the scene, Garry and Cheryl are tasked with investigating the Edward I room, so-named because he stayed there once, and supposedly haunts it still. For Lawman, this is a bad pairing, with neither celeb prone to jumping or shrieking, though he tries to instil some dread by pretending a chandelier is casting the shadow of a pentagram on the floor, not seeming to even know what a pentagram is, even referring to it as a pentagon. “Clearly,” he says, “there’s something going on.” Then he casually makes the weekend’s boldest statement, “I actually made contact with Henry the VIII in the courtyard today.” With nothing much happening, Garry and Cheryl are soon joined by another celebrity; King Henry himself. Lucky for us he never went to Heaven, and just wanders about Chillingham, waiting for film crews. As Garry Bushell has a chat with Henry VIII, we get to live one of those conversation-starters about which great minds you’d invite to a dinner party. “What does he think of England since his reign?” asks Garry. “He thinks it was a disaster,” replies Lawman, immediately. Now, I simply cannot stress strongly enough how psychics are never questioned or doubted in these shows, ever. It just doesn’t happen.

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That was ever such a quick answer,” says Cheryl, laughing, “I don’t believe Henry VIII is here.” Sadly, we don’t get a cut back to the psychic’s face, but know he must be seething. Having forged a rod for his own back in the shape of a fat king, he pushes on, with Bushell asking if Henry’s got a message for the English. This time, he considers his answer. “His message would be… if I could bring it in our English…” Wait, can’t you just repeat what he’s saying, mate? It’s not like you’re having to suddenly improvise realistic medieval-sounding dialogue. But go on. “…stand up for our rights. Tell ’em to stand up for our rights.” A haunting premonition of Brexit, there, from a very real Henry VIII, who is definitely in the room. Surely this has won them over? Alas, cynical Cheryl; “I don’t believe he’s here. I’m really sorry, I don’t believe it.

But he can’t end on a failure, and sets to prove Henry’s there by having him move a pair of crystal dowsing pendulums held by Garry and Cheryl. It’s decided the arbitrary direction of left to right means Henry VIII is there, while circular motions mean he’s not (knock once if you’re not here!). It’s all very scientific. The pendulums start moving, but by spinning slowly round, so no Henry. Lawman has them try again. This time, Cheryl’s side-to-side, while Garry’s round-and-round. Like a child wanting best of three, then best of five, then seven, until they win, Lawman has a third go, this time with the celebs’ elbows on the table. Now, finally, Garry’s is moving side-to-side, as Tim Vincent berates him with “Garry, look at it moving! Do you not believe Henry VIII is there?” Vincent and Lawman are adamant this is proof; that a little weight on a thin chain, held from someone’s hand in a cold room for ages, will only move a couple of millimetres because of ghosts.

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As an example of our psychic definitely not being angry or embarrassed, he suddenly goes off topic to shout at Tim in the studio, psychically sensing that he’s been thinking of moving. “Stop being so sceptical, and you’ll find that you will actually move house!” he yells, like a man who heard his wife laughing with her friends about his impotence, running in with a biro stuffed down his cock, roaring “LOOK AT MY STIFFY!” Back from a break, he’s still arguing about Henry — “them pendulums moved!” — though I’d never suggest it’s this televised scoffing at his powers which drives what happens next.

At this point, as there’s a needless Big Brother style vote-off tacked onto proceedings, Garry is eliminated, so will miss night two’s climax — the séance. Just the mention of a séance has everyone on edge, with a long discussion beforehand where Lawman, a “qualified exorcist,” assures them he can protect anyone who gets possessed. Cheggers is so worried, he’s finally stopped pissing about. It’s important to note here that both Linda and Cheryl are grieving over the recent loss of their fathers, with Linda hoping to contact hers during the ceremony. As he’ll do again and again, Tim Vincent assures us that everything’s genuine, and nothing we see will be fake, in a way that brings to mind that famous tweet, “My ‘Not involved in human trafficking’ T-shirt has people asking a lot of questions already answered by my shirt.

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In something else I thought I’d never see, Terry Nutkins and Cheggers sit sombrely around a séance table with their mates; everyone in black fleeces with their voting numbers on the back, like Alan Partridge at Tony Hayers’ funeral. While this is supposedly an attempt to contact the spirits of Chillingham Castle, vile Garry Bushell type sceptics may instead see someone trying to reassert themselves after a recent humiliation, particularly in who gets singled out first. The spirit that comes through isn’t a grey lady or Dunwick the guard; it’s Cheryl’s dad. An uncomfortably emotive scene, Lawman gives the kind of info only a real medium could know, like how the father of a woman in her 50s liked being in the garden; all filled with the usual psychic verbal ticks like “would you understand?” Next to say hi is Julie’s old Corrie castmate, Pat Phoenix, passing on messages to fuck lung cancer and keep puffing away, and that the spirits say Julie will be returning to the show someday soon (note: she didn’t). Julie gets a strong smell of onions — “does onions mean anything to anyone?” — as Lawman does that thing psychics do, playing dumb with obvious facts to make it more revelatory when the mark fills in the blanks, telling Julie he sees a charity and feels “you should be president of the pink ribbon. What does that mean to you?” Julie thinks a moment, and then proclaims — “AIDS!

11

It’s a long, bruising séance, leaving Toby with a hot head, and Julie suffering the painful psychic symptoms of Pat Phoenix’s fatal lung cancer. Linsey’s getting a message from Pat, telling Julie to stop smoking, which they shoot down immediately, with a growing sense everyone’s had enough of Linsey, and her constant complaints of a ghost blowing on her cleavage. Who’s next to come through? Maybe the sea lion that fell out of Terry’s car window when he was going down the motorway? Nope, it’s Linda’s dad. Far more misses than hits, Lawman brings up her dad’s son. Linda’s got no brothers — oops! — but she jokes he was a bit of a lad. “So it is a possibility,” says Lawman, vindicated, because who’s to say Linda’s dad didn’t have a wank and some of his spunk flew out of the window and went up someone’s fanny when they were walking by? By now, Linda’s sobbing, as “dad” talks about her kissing his forehead before he died — an easy guess, after she’d previously described his passing the night after going into hospital.

     Lawman: “And your dad had curly hair?

     Linda: [silence]

     Lawman: “Who had curly hair?

     Linda: [silence]

     Lawman: “He’s coming through with hair.”

     Linda: “It had a wave in it, I suppose.”

That’s me convinced. By the end, half of them look shell-shocked, with Linda particularly upset, and Toby Anstis a shaking wreck, feeling “rejected” after no lost family members came through for him. It’s then that an ice-cool Terry Nutkins drops the bomb, “I’ve taken part in many different kinds of séance… but none pre-planned.” What’s the story there?! Sadly, he’s voted off before we can find out. We close with a vigil in a room haunted by a blue boy, whose entombed bones were found in the fireplace by builders. Lawman again plays dumb, “not sure” why he wants to climb in the fireplace, or why he’s drawn to it, despite them telling the story all night. Though he says the child’s walled in and needs help to get out, unlike Mary the Carpathian, they just leave him there. As night two comes to a close, they make a huge deal how a bunch of people in their 50s who’ve been kept up until 5am in a cold castle two nights running, are feeling drained at the end of their second three-hour live shoot. It’s ghosts what done it!

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Night three sees a live audience in the castle, and news of a thrilling paranormal event earlier in the day, when Linda picked up a newspaper and a junk-mail leaflet showing Henry VIII fell out. Strangest of all is her casual admission that it’s the first time she’d ever seen a picture of Britain’s most famous monarch. The final night’s packed with fun, dumb stuff, like the visit to a haunted pantry, where Ian Lawman “gets his throat slit” by a ghost, and has to be exorcised by Julie Goodyear, who’s really come into her own as a powerful sorcerer. But there’s also more shite with temperature drops and arguing whether or not something’s moving a bit; this time with a swinging chain in a former torture dungeon. Frightened‘s catalogue of ‘paranormal evidence’ is down to believing stuff that’s hanging down in breezy rooms stays perfectly still at all times, unless a ghost moves it. Hold on, my neighbour’s wind-chimes keep going off, better shut my kitchen window before their poltergeist flies in.

Our main event is another séance, this time with a ouija board, which Tim Vincent gives us Trumpian assurance, over and over again, has never been done live on television before, even though Most Haunted had already done it loads. I’ll be honest, I’m not massively put at ease by his promise “there are no hidden magnets.” The celebs are a nervous group, with Keith letting out an “oh, no” at the first utterance of the word ouija, and Lawman having to confirm, as is Keith’s fear, that the ghosts won’t follow them home. Julie won’t even participate until it’s confirmed not to be “witchcraft.” It’s a small crew of four now, with Toby, Linsey and Cheryl voted off, leaving Julie Goodyear, Keith Chegwin, and Linda Robson to put their fingers on the glass with Ian Lawman, who’s dressed even more like a pick-up artist than usual, in Harry Hill collar, choker, and jacket with EYE FOR AN EYE REVENGE written all over the left-hand side in spunky font.

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Ironically, it’s their fear that keeps anything from happening. Unlike the excitable crews of a Most Haunted; where the glasses would fly round the board, and they were familiar with the mechanics and rhythms of hitting the letters; everyone’s so tentative, all they produce is a very slow gibberish — WQ2S. As it can’t ever just be that it hasn’t worked, they try to decode this very genuine message from the other side. “Is that your initials? (yeah, it’s a robot) Are you two years of age?” Almost afraid to touch the glass, it’s barely moving. Linda asks her dad to come through, and as the glass points to a NO, Julie Goodyear gets another feeling — “is my mother there? Mam? Mam? Mam?” But Julie’s mum refuses to spell her own name, so they have one last go at reaching Chillingham’s ghosts, which — very, very slowly — give the following message.

     W, O, C, G, M, W, O, Z, N or O, M, C, L, K, 5 or 6, B, I

Bless ’em, they try so hard at deciphering it, desperate to find meaning. “WOZ. Woz?!” “B, I… are you trying to spell birthday?” Then, in a terrible moment, Julie asks the ghost if it’s Linda’s dad.

     YES

They ask how he died, spelling out D, C, which is taken to mean Died of Cancer, as proof that he’s there, (though his death was discussed in depth on night one). Eventually, Lawman closes it down, sending Linda’s dad and Julie’s mum back off to Heaven, to the Love and Light. Though, the oddly specific phrasing of moving them back to their side, “whichever that may be,” suggests he’s hedging his bets, unsure whether they might be in Hell.

14

Just when it seems the crass exploitation is finally over, there’s some last-minute confusion over a ring given to Linda by someone in the audience, “for her dad.” Was it was her dad’s actual ring? A present from beyond the grave? Nobody’s sure, so they ask the audience member. She says she’s a psychic, who uses the ring to calm her clients during readings — “Linda’s dad was adamant she had to have the ring.” Linda looks deeply uncomfortable, and as the psychic proposes she come to her for a sitting, “because your dad’s desperate to talk to you,” she bursts into tears. This use of the celebrities’ grief as a narrative device is fucking horrible, and Vincent’s suggestion she talk to the woman after is met with a pointed silence. With ten minutes left, they vote off Cheggers, who literally cartwheels through the courtyard, before being brought back all of two minutes later when they reunite the whole gang. There’s one last black eye for the doubters, as Vincent rather gravely informs us ouija board letters sometimes come out in the wrong order, and you have to rearrange them, like fucking Countdown.

15

As was only fair, viewers voted Julie Goodyear the winner, and with her rapidly-growing psychic powers now unlocked, we must pray she doesn’t go all Dark Phoenix on us, and devour the sun while puffing on a Benson & Hedges. As a demonstration of the massive public appetite for this stuff at the time, I’m Famous and Frightened ran for three more series, two of which happened in the same year, with a final show in 2005. To give you an idea of the calibre of contestants, celebs included Rustie Lee, Richard Blackwood, Jo Guest, Christopher Biggins and Handy Andy from Changing Rooms. Cheggers returned with a promotion, hosting for series 2 and 3, while duties for series 4 fell on the 21st century Cher, Claire Sweeney. As proven by its ludicrous highs and disgusting lows, there’s an incredible show to be had in this format. If I make enough money on Patreon, perhaps I’ll shoot one of my own, and finally sit around a ouija board with Zammo, Cleo Rocos, Noel Edmonds, Lightning from Gladiators, Bobby Ball, and Big Alan Jackson from Eastenders, while Ann Widdecombe’s eyes roll back in her head as she pukes out a six-foot snake of ectoplasm. If I do, I make you the promise that Keith Chegwin, who died in 2017, will make his return to our screens.

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