The Accursed 90s: Craig Charles’ Funky Bunker

•April 27, 2020 • 1 Comment

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[More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad ContestsDon’t Forget Your ToothbrushTalk Show GothsJames Whale on Television]

This is going to be unpleasant. Take the nightmare of 90’s ITV’s post-pub programming — Get Stuffed, The Good Sex Guide, Carnal Knowledge, James Whale then throw in the era’s most irritating screen presence in Craig Charles, and cut him loose from the binds of the watershed. 1997 was his year; for six weeks, anyway, dominating the Friday night schedule with ITV’s Funky Bunker, BBC2’s Red Dwarf, and on Channel 4 with pirate sitcom, Captain Butler; a monopoly which landed him The Girlie Show‘s coveted Wanker of the Week. Incredibly, Bunker and Butler opposed each other in the 10:30pm slot, giving thirty minutes when 50% of all British television contained Craig Charles.

Funky Bunker ran for 13 episodes, each with a budget of £8,000, which seems a bit of an overestimate, if anything. It was directed and produced under the production company of the man who developed Channel 4’s Minipops, seemingly to fill his resume with something so bad, it would finally distract from his past. The opening titles show Craig running through empty backstreets at night, stalked by a magician, before raising a finger to his lips with a “shh!” and disappearing down a green-smoke-belching manhole into the Funky Bunker, as a clockwork rat runs across the screen.

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He emerges through one of those gold tinsel curtains newsagents used to have over the door to the back room, into a bar with steel-effect walls and no windows. There’s a drag queen hiding against a brick pillar; a man in a Fez and sunglasses; enormous plastic mushrooms on the tables. Everyone’s holding a drink, and half of them are smoking. The atmosphere’s like TFI Friday if they’d piped sleeping gas through the vents, with a quiet audience of 90’s clubbers just standing around, the women in strappy crop tops, the men with gelled hair in giant shirts or mod tees. The whole thing feels like Jabba’s Palace, with its cast of disparate characters, and with Craig Charles as Salacious Crumb, sweatily bouncing up and down, doing his fake Ernie from Sesame Street laugh — “chhh chhh chhh!” Viewers will hear that a lot, in its role as verbal tick, insincere response, or merely to fill the many horrible silences that permeate the Bunker.

Welcome,” bids Craig, “to the Funky Bunker, going out for all you spunky funsters!” The opening monologue treats us to some classic Craig Charles stand-up, about the sort of “jammy bastards” that get six numbers on the lottery — “the kind of little kid who opens his mouth for his first feed and goes ‘oh wow, Pamela Anderson’… he’s got a really big willy… he’s on TV with his hand up Anthea Turner’s skirt, getting a check for £14m!” But now, he says, it is us who is jammy, as it’s time for house dancers, the Funki Feathers. Each week, the troupe dress to a theme, and tonight, grinding along to Shake a Tail Feather, they’re… sexy chickens? In feathered bras and those 90’s bikini bottoms that go right up, the choreography and lusty camerawork is very much ‘did I just see an actual anus?’, for a full 2 ½ minute routine that doesn’t cut away once. That doesn’t sound like long, but set up a timer and see how it drags out, while trying not to think about how it’s probably the perfect amount of time for Craig to take a wank to completion.

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Stuff going on too long is the Bunker’s rule of thumb, with unsigned bands doing five-minute songs — “this is rock n roll, these are The Rhythm Conspiracy, AND THIS IS HEART AND FIRE!” — and competition clips from Withnail and I or Men Behaving Badly playing so fully, you wonder if you’ve sat on the remote. Their competition’s brought up between almost every segment, with Craig waving £500 at the lens to try and rake back some of that eight grand with a premium rate phone line.

In the first chat, Craig introduces “one of the finest comedians of his generation,” Rowland Rivron, in an awkward interview punctuated by lots of “chhh chhh chhh!” and ending with Craig bringing the dancers in and telling Rowland to “take your pick.” But all the interviews are awkward, with his technique of waiting for the guest to stop talking so he can ask the next question, or just butting in when he gets bored. Later, he talks to an author with bleached hair like Jambo off Hollyoaks, who’s featuring in a-then upcoming anthology called Disco Biscuits, an unbelievably 90’s sounding “collection of outrageous short stories about sex, DJs, drugs, dance floors and dealers.” They’ve not got a copy, but he holds up a folded photocopy of the cover, asking “what’s that about?!” and getting esoteric answers about rewiring consciousness with words like “framework,” leaving him unable to respond with naught but a “chhh chhh chhh!” and rubbing the copious forehead sweat into his hair.

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Incidentally, I remember when a friend from junior school likewise adopted the Ernie laugh, but eventually stopped because his mum said it would give him mouth cancer. If Mrs. Charles had doled out such a warning, half of Funky Bunker would be dead air. Furthering the Jabba’s Palace vibe, the Bunker’s got a live-in roster of comic characters, most regularly, Dr. Destiny. Played by Craig’s co-writer, Russell Bell — former member of the Gary Numan Band — Destiny’s a Mystic Meg parody, surrounded by tarot cards and a skull, and reciting ‘funny’ astrology, like telling people their plane’s going to crash and “everybody will decide to eat you first, because you’re fat and useless.” Most interesting is how he signs off.

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A year before Robot Wars, that’s Craig’s famous kiss-salute. Hope he asked permission, or he’s got no right to still be mad at Fash for stealing awooga. Always a welcome bonus, whoever uploaded this left the adverts in, which are a rather savage indictment of a decade. There’s phone dating lines, claymation Rice Crispy lads voiced by Chris Evans, a polo mint voiced by Danny John Jules, Nick Hancock narrating for a ska compilation — “the rudest sounds around!” — and a nagging wife who’s mad at a dad for buying a new football top, but soothed when he brings home some good value washing powder.

Back from the break, Craig says we’re gonna play a game to win £50, pulling a man and woman from the audience as volunteers. They’re blindfolded and sent behind the privacy of a blue tarpaulin, where they’re given two minutes to swap clothes. As soon as they get in, the tarp’s quietly dropped, revealing a transparent sheet, so we can all see them undressing. They’ve no idea they’re stripping down to their underwear on television, with Craig pushing his face into the camera and complaining “she’s cheatin’, she never took her pants off!” As is the Bunker’s way, two minutes is a really long time, and about halfway through, even the audience have stopped cheering, leaving just Craig Charles audibly enjoying himself as the woman pulls a sweatshirt down over her bra. When the clock runs out, he has them take their blindfolds off to reveal they were being watched, with a brusque “that was the end of the curtain game!” No interview, no prize; we’ve seen your bodies, now piss off.

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Little did I know, all that was like watching The Wire compared to what follows. Comics have died onscreen before, but never like this. Craig introduces “a fantastic stand-up” by the name of Just Adger, which is rather exotic for a balding Essex wideboy, who opens by telling the dancers their costumes are “very becoming on you. And if I were one of those costumes, I’d be cumming on you too!” This is seventies style stand-up, cuing gags with “one or two quick one-liners for you…” and with an opening zinger about a dyslexic devil worshipper who sold his soul to Santa. In response, someone shouts out “dyslexics rule, KO!” — an old and terrible joke in itself, but one that sets his sights on the ‘heckler’. “Save your breath for blowin’ up your girlfriend, mate! (“chhh chhh chhh!”) It’s a shame your prick ain’t as big as yer mouth, you’d be with one of the dancers, wouldn’t yer, mate?

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On and on it goes, with burns straight out of the Big Book of Heckler Put-Downs; assuring the crowd “I love when they have a go! When cousins marry and have kids, look at what we get!” With each new line, there’s growing bemusement that he’s still not letting it drop, wearing a big stupid grin, but obviously seething. “He’s confusing me with someone who gives a toss,” says the guy who won’t shut the fuck up about it. Finally, he gets back on track with this cracker — “What about the dyslexic gynaecologist? Stayed up all night looking at a woman’s vinegar!” Let’s examine this. Why did he stay up all night? That’s well outside a doctor’s working hours. Unless you’ve got confused with the more famous joke about the insomniac dyslexic agnostic who stayed up all night wondering about the existence of dog; the joke which you obviously used as a template for your fresh takes on dyslexia. Is that what happened, mate? Has the heckler thrown you?

I’m sorry to devote so many inches to this, but it’s a fascinating spectacle. Now he’s on a roll, switching to classic wife material — “we’re going through a divorce on religious grounds; I’m a Jew and she’s a pig” — and a water bed that froze when she got on it. His delivery is unconfident; half-bumbling, and he even does that one about going to the doctor with the world’s biggest haemorrhoid and they think he’s sitting on a beanbag. By now, the polite laughter has died out, and Adger turns on a silent crowd with “he thinks I’m gay, don’t you? I’m not even happy, mate!” At a loss, he asks “am I facing the right way?” Someone heckles with a cry of “sexist!” which he seizes on with the glee of Ricky Gervais sniffing out a snowflake who was triggered into not laughing at one of his attack helicopter jokes — “I’ll do a sexist one if you like, am I allowed to? What’s the difference between a clitoris and a golf ball? Craig Charles claps, and starts talking us into the next segment; “well, there you go…” and it’s finally over.

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Except, it’s not. Adger doesn’t realise, and keeps talking. Inexplicably, as though the Funky Bunker is powerless to stop him, or simply too embarrassed, the camera cuts back, and he just continues with his act, going into a minute-long joke about the Kama Sutra. By now, he’s drenched in sweat, returning to some crowd work, “I can see why you’re smiling, mate, she’s got small hands…” and leaving us with a final “rib-tickler,” which is a long story about having a wank on bull Viagra. We cut back to Craig Charles, this time with his finger in his earpiece like he’s being berated by a producer — “I tried to get him off a bit earlier, but he just kept going.”

He does the Johnny Carson deal and invites Adger over for a chat. Craig “she never took her pants off!” Charles says he tried to cut him off “because I thought he was a bit sexist,” as Adger complains that everyone’s too PC these days, acting like the gallant White Knight of free speech, while playing pubs, restaurants, and hotel bars. “End of the day, there’s too much sufferin’ in this world, so why not go out and have a laugh?” Incredibly, Craig asks if he has writers. More incredibly, he’s still working today, as Adger Brown, described on his own website as “one of the UK’s most sought after mainstream comedians.” And this paragraph, on a website for booking ‘elite’ entertainers, may be the most haunting collection of words since M.R. James went in the ground.

Despite Adgers’ many T.V. appearances, his most recent being on Granada T.V.s “The Comedians” & Channel 4s “The Big Breakfast” he remains very affordable and extremely good value for money.

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After the five longest minutes of my life, surely things can only be on the up? “Cartoon time!” announces Craig, “this has got nothing to do with Pluto, it’s much closer to your anus!” In a corruption of the animated segments in Saturday morning kids shows, it’s random a clip of an anime where some bloke gets shot in the arse and blood gushes out of his cheeks. “There ya go, weird cartoons from manga, but this is a weird show!” He’s right there, as we come back from another unsigned song, featuring a literal 2 ½ minute guitar solo, to Deric Cantona, a lookalike in a Man United kit who walks on, says “a wise man said it is better to have loved and lost than to microwave your ‘ead” in an appalling French accent, then leaves. Then there’s Abdul Fez — sunglasses and a fez — who tries to get Craig to snort some camel dung, before singing a country song about the Northern Line.

Events close with a visit from resident gossip expert, David Wigg. “How ya doin’ Wiggy? Wiggy, what’s hot and what’s not?!” I’m sure they got on fine, but the effete, much-older Wigg’s presence alongside a now-very-sweaty and loud Craig has the air of a school bully sitting down at the soft lad’s lunch table. “It’s action time, Craig; Bond is back!” — with the incredible Wiggy exclusive that it’ll be shot in exotic locations. “I’d love to be a Bond villain,” says Craig, headbutting the desk, and asking why Timothy Dalton stopped doing it. According to Wiggy, it’s because “Tim” wanted to wear jeans. Craig makes a joke about a big dick before getting sidetracked — “who’s the smallest actor you’ve met?” Wiggy says it’s Hoffman; “his nose is bigger than his height.” Craig does an anecdote about working with Janet McTeer, who’s 6ft tall, and his mate telling her he wanted to “make love to her, standing on a bucket.” When she said he couldn’t, he told her “I wouldn’t stand on it, I’d put it on your head and swing off the handles!” which leaves him chhh chhh chhhing and banging his fists on the desk. With Wiggy’s final exclusive that Nicole Kidman is taller than Tom Cruise, it’s time to go, “and I want you to join us again next week when we say Awooga! Awooga!” Take that, Fashanu!

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My second episode opens with Craig reading out the most asked questions they get sent in, which are one-liners like “can an amateur footballer do a professional foul?” and “why do they make toasters with a settin’ that burns the toast?!” The drummer from that week’s unsigned band provides actual rimshots, but Craig deems him to have come in too early or too late — “Jesus, keep up, will yer?” — so strides across the floor, calling him a wazzock and snatching the sticks out of his hand. Craig’s doing his own hits now, getting louder and wetter with each line; “Why do world heavyweight champion boxers have bodyguards?! If crystals have healing powers, why are they so bleedin’ hard to swallow?!” Vibrating with excitement, he promises “this is a good one, this is a good one… where do female to male sex change patients get their dicks from?!” which he punctuates with a cymbal crash.

This week, the Funki Feathers are gyrating to Labour of Love by Hue and Cry, wearing safety helmets and jorts. Craig announces a competition winner called Jackie, weirdly referring to them as “he” and “kid” before it’s time for the first interview, with a pair of special effects artists who worked on Hellraiser III and Nightbreed. They’re surrounded by prosthetic monster heads and grotesque creatures, and Craig spends his time draped in the arms of a hairy troll, casually playing with its fingers, and at one point, gnawing on his own thumbnail. He interviews like a child granted a Jim’ll Fix It to present TV — “what’s the favourite thing you’ve made?” “what’s the most gruesome thing?” “what’s the silliest request?” He butts in over an answer to point at a rubber monster with a “what’s ‘e from?” A yet-to-be-released Samantha Janus film, they say. Craig’s eyes light up; “you mentioned Samantha Janus,” dropping to a hushed tone to ask “if you could do a nude cast of any actress, who would it be? Chhh chhh chhh!” “My girlfriend,” comes the reply, inciting Craig’s yell of “OH, LOOK AT HIM, AFTER BROWNIE POINTS OR WHAT?!

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Next, a bad stand-up does an agony uncle section, opening with another fucking joke about dyslexics, and reading out letters from “Miss P. Brain” and “Dan Druff.” Every few seconds, it cuts back to Craig stood in the front row laughing. Craig tells us they get a lot of letters about Bunker character Nanny Whip’s big tits, so they play a clip from Russ Myer’s Faster Pussycat, which also has big tits in it. It’s after this that Funky Bunker pulls off it’s most astonishing feat, producing a comedian so bad, he makes Just Adger look like Stewart Lee. It’s a bad sign from the off, with Joe Beazley and Cheeky Monkey vibes from Craig having met the guy at Edinburgh, and given him a slot after he pestered him for it.

Roger D’s first gag is the old “I’m mixed race. My dad’s Scottish, my mum’s African, which makes me a comedian.” You know the routine; leopardskin kilts, and taking up boxing because “I figured if I was half black, I’d be half good.” He meets the horrible silence with a knowing look, but ploughs on. “White people, what is it about the mountains you gotta climb them? See a black guy climbing a mountain? He’s on the run!” Even the “chhh chhh chhh” is muted, as he goes into an extended routine about collecting his dole money, and shouting “Yo!” at the workers who are all drinking tea (“like this…”). As he mimes answering a mobile phone (in 1997, so he’s actually rich!!) a woman’s voice breaks the silence with a “get off!” forcing him to cap the routine with a sad “you had to be there…

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He slinks over for an interview, where Craig consoles him by saying there were a lot of French people in the audience, and Roger D jumps in fright at a rubber severed head moving around on the bar. Despite the material, Craig suddenly notices “you’re a black comedian!” and ends the interview by stroking Roger’s goatee, “cos there’s no toilet paper,” and Roger totally blanks when Craig asks where people can see him perform. I Googled Roger D to see what he’s up to these days, and found a video from 2011, almost 15 years later. First gag; “my dad’s Scottish, my mum’s African…

There’s then an interview with The Man in Black from Enigma Magazine, a very short lived Fortean Times rip-off during that X-Files era when the paranormal went mainstream. The solemn MiB’s in a bowler hat, sunglasses, and pale face paint, and Craig’s completely unable to shut up and let him speak about crop circles, repeatedly butting in with witticisms about finding a one in his Weetabix — “but I’d just left me spoon on it for a while!” — or asking “why can’t the aliens get in touch by fax?!” MiB, who’s being pawed and stroked by Nanny Whip the whole way through, looks like he’d rather be getting his colon cored out by the greys, and Craig ends the interview by asking if he can have a kiss, and leaning in to give him a peck on the cheek.

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With the cry of “we’re gonna play Egg in Your Face!” it’s time for a game, requiring 6 volunteers. He shoves some lads on without much thought, but takes the women by the hand, all flirty — “ooh, lovely orange top, I love your navel!” The game involves breaking eggs on people’s foreheads, with one containing £50, and the other just yolk n’ shit. “GOD, I LOVE EGG ON YOUR FACE!” he yells, as shells shatter messily on foreheads, jumping up and down; “IT’S EGG IN YOUR FACE!” The winner’s a woman he tells “you’re far too cute to do this to,” but the £50’s not actually inside the egg, so he fumbles £40 out of his own pocket, promising to give her the rest later. Yeah, I bet he will — “Come to me dressing room and I’ll have a look for it, chhh chhh chhh!”

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Into the final 15 minutes, Craig is half-leprechaun, enveloped in an enormous, damp suit, gurning and twitching and stamping his little feet, poking his fingers towards the lens, and scratching at the side of his neck like a rodent. He pisses himself at Jo Enright’s bit as a comedy make-up lady, her jokes about perms and scrunchies causing his chhhs to go off like a factory whistle. So too, he’s loving Deric Cantona, and Dr. Destiny’s gags about flatulence. When Destiny does the kiss-salute, his ring gets snagged in the tablecloth. In a film review section, they go with weird-as-hell choice, The Boy From Mercury, described on Wikipedia as a “nostalgic Irish Film, which concerns the science-fiction daydreams of a young boy in 1960 Dublin.” Craig’s first comment after a clip is a confused “black and white, wan’ it?!

As Funky Bunker has the feeling of a nightmare house party, it ends in the only appropriate way, with Craig Charles staggering onto the studio floor repeating “we’re gonna do a song, we’re gonna do a song, we’re gonna do a song,” and pulling out an acoustic guitar. He’s joined by Dr. Destiny with a guitar of his own, as Craig’s gonna sing a song he wrote, called Everybody Knows. Despite all that I’d seen, I still thought this was the start of a comedy skit, but no, it’s Craig earnestly singing a self-penned number, while we have to listen. “Everybody knows, I love you so… everybody knows, I can’t stand still…” Yeah, I had noticed, mate. “Everybody knows, you know you’re my best friend… everyone knows, my soul’s on fire…” Remind me, did this win an Ivor Novello?

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Craig’s guitar playing is on a par with Dave Lister’s, as it reaches a sudden crescendo with a big, clanging chord and a mournful “oh, I get lonely cos I hide, don’t ask me to go public cos I’ve TRIED!” But like Just Adger, there’s no end, and he merely loops back to the start, playing the whole song in full twice, and then a third time, as the camera pans to faces of the audience; faces of rubber monsters with pointy fangs, until finally, a thousand years later, the credits roll. In one last bilious example of the grotty 90s, the uploader taped Funky Bunker over the top of an episode of Baywatch. But it’s over, and you can all move on. Not me. I’m still trying to shake that sound, etched on my brain like the dark scars across your vision when you’ve been staring at the sun; “chhh chhh chhh!

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Cool Britannia feat. Freddie Starr

•April 17, 2020 • 1 Comment

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The mid-90s were an incredibly exciting time for British comedy. Among others, ’94 gave us the television debuts of The Day Today, The Fast Show, and Knowing Me, Knowing You, while the following year had Fist of Fun, Father Ted, and The Mrs Merton Show. These were exciting new voices who’d dominate the comedy landscape for years to come, and inspire the next generations that followed. Yet, among these young upstarts, rather surprisingly, a big name from the comedy of decades past was still flying the flag.

The first series of The Freddie Starr Show went out at 8:30pm on a Friday night, on August of 1994. Friday night! And we’re given fair warning by announcer, calling him “the unpredictable Freddie Starr.” Though Barrymore would use that term in his own stage show, it was essentially Freddie’s nickname; like ‘The Immortal’ Hulk Hogan, or the Boston Strangler. Freddie was a wild comedy terrorist, unbound by rules, unafraid of convention, and when he appeared on Wogan or TV-am, you’d best hold onto your dang hats, because anything could happen! He might, say, stand on the sofa, or take a mouthful of water and dribble it a bit near Gyles Brandreth.

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We open with Starr emerging onto a brightly-lit stage in a pink 1950’s suit, wielding a guitar, for a straight version of End of the Line by the Traveling Wilburys. Whoa, slow down there, Mr. Anarchist! At this stage of his career, Freddie’s not really got the lungs for it, and even the pre-recorded vocals are out of breath. His acoustic guitar’s not plugged in, and you can’t hear it in the mix, but still he persists with the worst strum-miming I’ve ever seen; half the time forgetting, or strumming so far back, he’s stroking the wood. I’ve seen more realistic guitaring from a drunk aunt in a cardboard pirate hat waving an inflatable Stratocaster in a wedding reception photobooth. It may cross your mind this is an intentional gag, but — as we’ll learn — Freddie loves an earnest number, and unquestionably sees himself as a rock n’ roller, tragically rendering this the funniest moment of the entire show. See for yourself, keeping an eye on his hands, and regard with particular interest the sudden, random alignment of finger-shapes when he’s forgotten to make chord changes for a while — going a full minute at one point — and has to ‘catch up’, as well as the closing solo.

The first sketch turns out to be so long, it’s almost a sitcom, in a parody of The Godfather, 22 years after the film came out. By this point, every possible comedian and dad on a night out at Harvester had stuffed a load of bread into their mouth and said “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse,” and for someone so ‘unpredictable’, anyone betting the house that Freddie Starr would turn to camera with big fat Brando cheeks would now have two houses. Throughout the series, Freddie’s diction is awful, with speech that’s heavily slurred as the result of a two-decade-long addiction to Valium. Even in the regular sketches, I’m having to run it back two or three times to figure out what he’s saying, but with his comedy mafia-cheeks, he’s incomprehensible. Perhaps that’s for the best, given the quality of the jokes you can understand, like ordering a goon to “kiss my ring… my ring” with the goon giving a big “phew!” when he realises it’s the one on his finger and not his anus.

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Of note here is that the goon’s played by Derek Deadman, aka Ringo from Never the Twain, and for a seasoned pro, he’s really egregiously mouthing all of Freddie’s lines, in the classic Dustin Diamond. It’s mostly physical humour, with moustaches getting stuck to faces when they kiss, and Benny Hill speed-ramping when Freddie shoots someone, all with Bodger and Badger style sound effects. Nora Batty comes in as his mum, to call him “a bad-a boy,” “no-good, two-bit gangster,” and — twice — “a bummer,” before serving him a plate of string. They do a horse’s head gag with a cartoony rubber one, all to get to the punchline where Freddie calms the screaming victim with a “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and the horse sits up with a “did someone mention hay?!

After the break, he’s back in his suit with a mic, and it seems like it’s going to be a joke, because he’s laughing, but no, we’re right into another heartfelt number, this time Please Stay, by the Bay City Rollers. Like all the comedians who came through the variety circuit, his voice isn’t good enough to be a singer, and nor is this funny enough to be comedy, though in a tiny concession to laffs, halfway through, he segues into “they’re coming to take me away, ha ha!” and does a manic little foot tapping dance, which the audience loves. It has to be said, they lap it all up, and every leaden scene plays to massive laughter.

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There are barely a half-dozen sketches in the entire show, but we do get some quickies. There’s a golf one where he shouts “duck!” and a duck lands on the ground at his feet, and one where he’s dressed like a teddy boy, grabbing a female passer-by. “You goin’ my way, darlin?” he leers. “What if I am?” “Could I go with yer, cos I’m lost?” Shitting hell, there’s better stuff sat in the drafts of a million tweeters. Surprisingly, there’s not a lot that’d get the already-cancelled Starr exhumed for a double-cancellation today, barring a sketch where an elderly linesman slowly makes his way along a line of cheerleaders, pulling “cor!” faces at their bouncing boobs, which ends on this visual gag.

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Then the linesman kicks both his legs when he’s done, like he’s shaking all the cum out of his trousers. Freddie put himself on the map with a crowd-pleasing turn at the 1970 Royal Variety Performance, with high-energy impersonations of Mick Jagger, Norman Wisdom, and Hitler, which were so well-received, he was called out of the wings for an almost unheard-of second bow. 25 years on, we’ve got the same set-up, giving him a live mic and a stage, and just letting Freddie be Freddie, but even the most hardened anti-monarchist would be relieved the Queen wasn’t suffering through this one. “Remember Zorro?” he asks, as one very clear old lady voice in the audience calls out a loud “no!” But he wins them back with a line about Zorro “mounting his horse” — you know, a bit like sexual intercourse — before waffling on; “used to get on his horse, didn’t he? He used to get on his horse.. called Florrie.”

Freddie mimes getting on a horse, pretending to ride it around, while doing sound effects like the lad from Police Academy. He’s out of puff after one circuit of the stage, before more mimes; chewing noises as he feeds the horse (“sorry, wrong end!”) and sword swishes when accidentally cutting off his nob and pocketing it. A lengthy sword fight sequence, jumping about, huffing and puffing, has the embarrassing quality of being made to sit down by your 6-year-old niece to watch a puppet show with all her toys, except it’s a grown man on TV of a Friday night. He takes an actual bow when it’s over, but looks thoroughly ready for the grave.

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The pooeyness of the material’s spiced with the extra fart-stink of his constant looks to the audience like he’s going to laugh; like it’s so funny, he can’t carry on. It’s the facial equivalent of Frankie Howard’s “oooh no!” or Noel’s wheezing, with Freddie unable to get through a single line without pausing to gather himself. Half the runtime’s chewed up by these contrived snorts, or starting a line over because he ‘broke’.

Christ help me, his Brando returns for a Godfather II skit, where they’re dicking around with tommy guns in double-quick time. It’s all done like a silent movie, with old-timey rag-town piano and everyone doing that running where you’re you skidding everywhere with your arms flailing. I do a sharp intake of breath when they stop outside a Chinese laundry, and sure enough, Ringo comes out in a lampshade hat and Fu Manchu tash, eating rice with chopsticks. We also get some of noted impressionist Freddie’s take-offs, with a noir cop who says “schweet-heart” and James Cagney on a rooftop saying “I’m on top of the world, ma!” like if your team had to guess him in a party game where you couldn’t say his name. It’s no surprise this was co-written with long-time Benny Hill collaborator, Dennis Kirkland, though as Freddie rolls around on the floor like a toddler through the credits while the cops riddle him with bullets, it’s incredible to think this went out seven months after The Day Today.

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The Freddie Star Show continued into 1995, as witnessed via an episode which shares its writers with Davro’s Sketch Pad and Terry and June. This one’s much more quick-fire, and even the opening musical number’s over in seconds, as Freddie — dressed in an oversized parrot costume — takes a header off the stage onto his face. There’s something hugely uncomfortable about seeing the then-56-year-old, clearly in terrible shape, take these painful-looking pratfalls to elicit laughs, like the teacher sketch where he goes to cane a pupil, but hits the overhead light and is electrocuted (wooden canes being famously good conductors), hurling himself over the desk like Dolph Ziggler. This sketch keenly demonstrates the lack of desire to push further than the most obvious first-draft cliché; with a pupil called Carruthers caught smoking behind the bikesheds, and the line “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.”

There’s a meandering bit of stand-up where he’s falling over his lines, filled with those knowing pauses that suggest the waiting punchline is so potent, those with asthma or heart conditions won’t make it out the other side — “I was on this camel in the middle east… camels have got humps, d’ya know that?” He ambles towards the point like Rowley Birkin QC, which is that “this Arab” kissed his camel’s balls to make it run off, so now the Arab will have to kiss Freddie’s balls too. Weirdly, the word “balls” is bleeped, which we see again in a sketch where he’s trying to fake a video for You’ve Been Framed, and calls his neighbour a bastard, though this has added Batman-style BLEEP signs covering his mouth. Did the unpredictable wildman get moved to an earlier timeslot? Is this family-friendly Freddie? Then we return from an ad break to be greeted by this title card.

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With the goose-stepping, tash, swastika shorts and wellies that the real Hitler was also known for, this is Freddie’s trademark, and clearly still part of the act in 1995. In some real hand-me-down, Chinese Whisper comedy, one of Bobby Davro’s trademarks was an impression of Freddie Starr’s impression of Hitler, which one can only presume becomes funnier with each successive level. Imagine the hilarity if someone had the skill to pull off Bobby’s Freddie’s Hitler. Anyway, it was a golf bunker. Hitler hitting a ball out of a golf bunker. There’s other quickies, like a highwayman in the woods jumping a horse and carriage to start cleaning the windows with a bucket, and one where he comes out onstage in a suit that’s too small, before Boobs in the Wood‘s Kenny Baker comes on with a suit that’s too big, suggesting a wardrobe mix-up.

Perhaps because of the pace, or maybe just as he’s at the tail end of a thirty-year career which required him to be ‘on’ and wacky all the time, Freddie seems completely exhausted, like he’s huffing oxygen between takes. There’s a sketch where he’s trying to open his garage with a remote, which closes when he gets near, which is meant to showcase the great clown of our generation, but plays like Brexit Mr. Bean, with the bullish 50-something headbutting a metal door in frustration, cheeks reddening with each passing second. Another’s set at the offices of Guinness World Records, where he’s got both hands frantically waggling down his crotch, stammering and twitching like Jack Douglas, to claim the record for longest time keeping a ferret down his trousers. The punchline’s “I’ll just go home and get him,” meaning he was playing with his dick, I suppose?

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We get another musical number, where on Blue Moon’s “you saw me standing alone,” the house band lay down their instruments and fuck off, and a long sketch where he crawls out from under a female singer’s skirt with a variety of comedy props, including a stuffed cat which makes a “REEOW!” sound when he hoofs it out of frame. Weirdest of all, he’s back in the parrot outfit, pulling blokes from the audience onstage for a “mind-reading” bit where they’re sat on stools with straw hats on, which he mashes down with his palm to find the one with an egg under it, in something that belongs as the entertainment of a Spanish holiday kids club, and not on television.

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The big finale sees him in a mustard coloured suit, singing again, foot tapping and leg jiggling to Roy Orbison’s Heartbreak Radio. Quickly it sinks in that this isn’t the lead-in to a joke, but another sincere performance; and he’s doing the whole song. Remember, we’re in the Britpop heyday of ’95, where Blur were battling Oasis, and the summer festivals were headlined by Soundgarden, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Green Day. And in the midst of it, here’s Freddie Starr, 56 years old and singing about being a “young fool,” like your old dad down the karaoke, snapping his fingers with a cry of “whoa yeah, shake it now, honey!” Suddenly, Paul Shane’s Pebble Millbaby bay-BEH!” feels rather trendy.

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There’s a trailer at the end for the infamous Audience With, where he chucked a load of maggots at Vanessa Feltz, airing the following week, which at the time, and even historically, was viewed as Freddie’s big comeback; a bravura performance showing the world that he’s still got it. Was his then-currently-airing show so forgettable that he needed a comeback while still on TV? Incredibly, The Freddie Starr show ran until 1998, a year after the original run of Brass Eye, where this once-energetic young pioneer, some decades older, squeezed back into the old swastika shorts for another wheezing turn of comedy goose-stepping. The great tragedy is that Princess Di would not live to see it.

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 Unpredictable Michael Barrymore

•April 7, 2020 • 4 Comments

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Lets go back to a time before Michael Barrymore was alleged to have done or covered up a murder, when he was arguably Britain’s most beloved entertainer. It’s 1994, at the peak of his popularity, when everything truly was awright. Well, almost, as he’s fresh off a highly-publicised drink problem, but we’ll get to that. Or at least, he will. 1994’s The Unpredictable Michael Barrymore was taped live at Blackpool Opera House, as the last night of a sell-out tour, and has the classic British variety opening of the crowd clapping along in time to the music (which, if you’ll recall, once led to me getting told off at the circus by a literal clown for refusing to join in with on principle). The curtains pull back to reveal the big man himself, stood in a jaunty pose, one leg crooked behind the other, arms out in a half-shrug, a “yep, it’s little ol’ me!”

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He’s accompanied by a full 6-piece band, and before the introductory cheers have died, a lady’s bombing down the aisle to the stage, receiving a handshake and a cheek-peck for her efforts. This is a hero’s welcome, feeling more like the close of a successful show than the start of one, and he basks in the adulation like a cat in a sunbeam. “Awright?!” he finally says. “Awright!” parrot the audience. “Awright at the back?!” asks Barrymore, unaware that in the decades to follow, this very question would function as perennial innuendo about anal sex, whenever his name came up in front of men who like football.

It’s mere moments before we’re thrown into the main heft of his act, which I previously described as ‘going in the audience to tip old lady’s handbags all over the floor’. Seeking out a supposed heckler, it’s straight to the Basil Fawlty voice ‘n walk, marching down the front to drag a laughing bloke out through the exit. Next, it’s a confused and tiny old man — “no geriatric punk rockers are allowed on these premises!” — before a woman hands him some flowers, and is immediately bundled to the floor in an embrace. “It’s alright,” he shouts, “I’ve been to a chemist!” inferring, I guess, that slid a precautionary condom over his william before the show, and we needn’t worry that he’ll cum right inside her. Another chap’s singled out, called “Rumpole” for wearing glasses and ejected, before the following happens. “My God, there’s a bloody Libyan down here! Come on, no terrorists allowed!

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This ‘Libyan’ is likewise yanked out of his seat as Barrymore escorts him out of the theatre while babbling faux-Middle Eastern gibberish — “bugahallalabuga!” Now, as the man exits, passing by the camera, it’s clear that he’s not even vaguely Arabic in appearance. You could say “what’s a Libyan look like then? Perhaps it is you, Millard, who is the racist,” but Barrymore’s not checking passports here, is he? The joke is he specifically looks Libyan. There’s a tale that comes to mind, possibly apocryphal, that I’ve seen from more than one punter at Bernard Manning’s old Embassy Club.

The story goes that Manning would interrupt his routine to point out a “Jap” in the audience, doing all his material about slanty eyes and Pearl Harbour, and returning to make various asides to and about said Asian gentlemen throughout the night, ending with his instructing another audience member to “go piss on that Jap.” Except, there was nobody Japanese sat there, or anywhere in the building. Maybe that works in a dark, smoky club, but Barrymore’s fella got a close-up here. As the show unfolds, this whole ‘Libyan’ angle will become more clear. But for now, we leave it with Barrymore yelling at him as he exits, “there’s a plane in the airport for you, Libyan. The pilot’s called Jack, just say hi-Jack!

He makes a meal of clambering back onstage, asking for help from a middle-aged man, sat front row. “My God, you’re keen,” he says, making a face that suggests the guy’s what Jim Davidson might describe as a ‘woolly woofter’. Barrymore wraps him in a headscissors, pulling his face towards his crotch. “What are you doing?!” he cries, “We’ve got children in!” After shaking the man’s hand, he stares in horror at his own palm. “You can’t catch it like that, can you?!” Presumably now riddled with AIDS, Michael Barrymore pretends to faint. One of the many aspects that make this show a psychotherapist’s dream is the amount of humour that’s milked out of Barrymore’s — and the audience’s — casual, shrieking homophobia, a year before he’d publicly come out as gay himself.

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There’s a bout of pretending to speak French, before the cast of previously ejected return to their seats. “No, Libyan, no, no, no!” He’s marched back out to more funny foreign-babble, given a middle finger, and threatened in pretend-French with “le nutty on le head.” Barrymore poses seductively against the wings, suggesting “le Libyan’s wife plinka my plonker,” “squeezy le plums,” and “mange my banana.” After some comedy dancing where he pretends to finger someone and that his hand is a big penis, there’s a jazz-scat segue into Leo Sayer’s Raining in my Heart. If you’re waiting for the punchline, there isn’t one, as this is the dreaded earnest song — “for all the ladies in the audience.

What’s shocking is the sheer amount of straight musical numbers. At one point, we suffer perhaps my least favourite trope of the era, as done by dads at weddings, Pontins talent shows, and the arse-end of lager-stinking family BBQs, with a tribute to the Blues Brothers. Barrymore and some husky bloke don sunglasses, but not hats (lazy), though in small mercies, it’s not Everybody Needs Somebody or the knees-up dance that goes with it. Unfortunately it is a medley that goes on for ten very sweaty minutes. Later, a stage school boy with a bad American accent bursts out of a theatrical case, for a duet of Broadway Baby, and its classic Hollywood choreography and cries of “gotta dance!” feels like MB’s audition for the West End. In grim trivia, the kid’s Haydon Eshun, who fronted 90’s boyband of actual-boys, Ultimate Kaos, when he was just nine. One of Simon Cowell’s early creations, Kaos supported Take That, and may be remembered for such singles as Some Girls, and Hoochie Booty. Nine.

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The Sayer bit goes into a Mariachi-flavoured original number with lyrics like “does your dad own a brewery? If I gave you a quid, would you show ’em to me?” and “we’d sit on a tip, you’d undo my zip, and give it a quick [Spanish-sounding noises], arriba, arriba!” Fucking endless, it’s then into Bobby Vee’s Rubber Ball, accompanied by three big rough-looking doormen types, aggressively snarling their backing lines and hoisting him in the air by the groin as he goes cross eyed. On closer inspection, for any number that’s more than a couple of lines or requires movement, Barrymore’s lip-synching to a pre-recorded tape. Eventually, dripping in sweat, he towels himself off with a knowing “welcome to the show,” and throwing in another reference to “the Libyan.”

As a man who’s career is filled with comebacks of varying success, Unpredictable is marked as the first, coming on the tails of a public battle with alcoholism, and performing again after a stint in rehab (and on the tabloid front pages), on the close of a tour rather pointedly titled Back in Business. Introducing his pianist, Barrymore raises a glass of orange juice, toasting the audience with “cheers, to your very good health.” There’s a huge round of applause, as he takes a bow with the glass raised, slowly tipping it around each side of the theatre for ages; like Hulk Hogan cupping his ear; before pointing to it like “observe, this is but humble fruit juice!” Then he pretends to gag while taking a sip, holding it to the sky while singing Memories. This moment is a perfectly-packed nutshell of his persona; a weird mix of fucking about all the time and jarring bouts of sentimental earnesty where he seems to be barely holding it together.

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But you can’t deny how utterly beloved he is here. The crowd response never dips below maximum level bananas, in 75 minutes plagued with shout-outs and chatty interjections, from an audience that feel such a kinship, they’ve no shame in just wandering up to the stage. Every applause is received with a real look of desperation, a needy “you really love me!” glugging down every cheer like a man dying of thirst. The feisty punters are demonstrative of Barrymore’s oddly specific fanbase; the 40+ housewives’ choice in menopausal boyband fervour. A bit about how people on the telly look different in person elicits pained cries of “no!” — you’re every bit as handsome up close, Michael! — like when you tell your mum you’re ugly. When he says he’s 6’3”, there are whistles and woos. The Virgin Ronnie Corbett vs The Chad Michael Barrymore.

He demands a woman in the front cross her legs — “we’re very near the sea, there’s a lot of ships go past!” — and tells everyone to ignore the ‘no photography’ signs, running through comedic poses with his legs up by his ears as they snap away, but making them stop, because with all the flashes “the Libyan thinks it’s a blitz!” He does an impression of Prince Charles (“urrrrr!”) and Brucie (“thththththu!”), and asks if there’s anyone in from Wales before telling a sheep shagging joke. It’s here we begin what will be known as the Country Boy section. As tempted as I am to briefly surmise this for space, I’m afraid for the cultural record, we must analyse it in the agonising depth it requires.

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This whole segment is backed by the live band’s Country and Western soundtrack, sticking through Barrymore’s constant asides and gear shifts, and his own repeated assertions that he’s “glad to be a country boy.” He begins by pretending to ride a horse around the stage, before doing the Freddie at Live Aid call and response; “say yo, yo, diddle-aye-doh!” including racist gibberish for the Libyan. “Goodnight grandma, goodnight grandpa, I love country music!” he sings, frenetically line-dancing, and pretending to fuck a haystack. But then my Manning suspicions are confirmed. “Okay, Libyan, this is just for you.” As he mimes a sitar, the guitarist plays stereotypically Eastern-sounding music, confirming this as a weird bit they do every night with a random person from the front row. The whole act lives on the appearance of spontaneity, but it’s just a series of contrived moments, with participants placed into pre-figured slots, and where merely wearing a nice shirt is enough for you to be cast as the night’s Libyan. “Look,” points Barrymore, “the Libyan’s crying now!

Country Boy Mike reuses his “hey diddle diddle, the cat had a piddle” limerick from the Children’s Royal Variety, doing rude Little Miss Muffets and Old King Coles, like a stretched Andrew Dice Clay. There’s some comedy business with a fiddle and a pair of oversized bows, one which crushes his balls causing him to talk in a squeaky voice, and the other he tries to fire at the Libyan like an arrow; “I’m fed up with that Libyan staring at me. Enough’s enough!” After a song about a pretty girl that works in Tesco — “she elbowed Tom and Harry, cos Dick’s all she ever thinks about” — it’s another full number, singing/miming “it’s spring time on the mountain, and I’m full of mountain dew!” Note: he undoubtedly means semen. The big climax; a country song in a quasi-American accent, where “I won’t go huntin’ with you, Jake, but I’ll go chasin’ women,” sees him joined by a multitude of barely-dressed showgirls in cowboy hats, where his dancing consists almost entirely of Python’s silly walk sketch.

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Country Boy finally over, he mops himself up as a cowboy runs across the stage to deposit a stool. Let me rephrase that; he brings on a seat. Barrymore pulls a “don’t he look a bit poofy?” face, mimicking the lad with his wrist cocked and camply skipping, hands on hips — “nice boy, very good to his mother.” In a very progressive move, considering he might’ve caught AIDS from it, Barrymore sits on the stool to read out fanmail sent backstage. One’s from a fan who was supposed to be having a candlelight dinner tonight, with “very dear friend, Dougie Irving,” whom they love very much, but Dougie decided to go to the show with his wife instead. There’s a massive laugh for the punchline and Barrymore’s double take, on revealing the writer as Richard. That’s a man’s name!

We’ve another of those moments where a psychotherapist would need to break out a new pack of notepads, in the audience banter section, where he tones down the mania for a bout of sincerity, pointing out nice ladies in the audience, asking names and how they are, all “nice to meet you.” There’s an incredibly odd question of “any grandmothers celebrating anything this evening?” and repartee with an old lady whom he compliments on her lovely smile — “what’s your name my love?” It’s a jokeless and awkward back-and-forth, culminating in him asking if she’s English. The audience erupt into laughter, which he hits back with a strangely scalding “It’s not a daft question. I’m half Scottish. You can’t change what you are… what you are is what you are, what you’re born, you have to live with it.

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The change in mood is cemented with a quiet “alright” — very different from “awright?!” — and the announcement “I’m gonna sing a song now, to all the ladies in the audience. Or to everyone.” As an example of the raucous atmosphere, we get Are You Lonesome Tonight twice; once with the entire audience taking over from the first line, as he accompanies with unfunny sign language, before a solo, breaking during the final chorus to return to the old lady with the lovely smile. “She’s so tall, that when she got a coil fitted, she got Radio 4,” and God put man on this Earth “because you can’t get a vibrator to mow the lawn.” Alright, Chubby Brown.

After picking up a massive potted plant from the side of the stage and plonking it on the lap of the Libyan as “a starter home… you roll that up and start smoking it, Libyan, you’re out of here!” it’s time for the bit that made his name and won all those BAFTAs; physically mauling and/or being ironically rude to members of the public. He requests a lady to sing to, and a little boy in the front calls out — “what’d you say, son?” As he’s brought onstage, the kid’s in a full Man United kit, socks and all, and when Barrymore squats down with the mic, I have to run it back three times to fully comprehend what comes out of this child’s mouth: “My mum’s a Libyan!

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Barrymore accuses him of being an adult midget, as the boy giggles, pointing with a scream of “THAT’S MY MUM! THAT LIBYAN!” What is happening? It’s the full My Kind of People now, asking if he’s got a dad (thankfully a yes), and what his dad does. “Goes to work at night?” says the boy, which almost brings the roof down, to an audience where the mere notion of going out after dark is suggestive of prostitution. He wrestles the boy onto his knee, pretending he’s a ventriloquist dummy, gnashing out a choked “HELLO EVERYBODY, MY MUM’S A GYBIAN!” As the lad gets a tour of the stage, he’s pulling at his shorts the whole time. Barrymore asks “has your dad got a bike?” (what?) and an arm reaches out from the wings to give him some toys they just happened to have sat around — “do you like Playmobile?” On the reveal of the boy’s name, Christian, Barrymore reels away in terror, using the mic stand as a makeshift crucifix. Are you… confusing Christians for vampires?

Eventually sending the kid back, Barrymore shifts his attention to the mum, who turns out to be the woman he dragged to the floor at the beginning of the show. She presents him with a red rose, card, and bar of chocolate, yelling “You’ve made my night, you really ‘ave!” Her son leans over and screams into the mic, “NOT A LIBYAN!” It’s clear that, yes, she’s not from Libya either, and “Libyan” has been been interpreted by the boy as a generic insult. Christian’s mum is the Barrymore fanbase incarnate, far more excited than nervous, feeling that it’s fine, just fine, to endlessly babble away to your mate Michael while thousands of people sit watching. Now onstage, she keeps stepping over his jokes and turning her back to the audience. Her hands are shaking. “You don’t wanna waste that,” says Barrymore, “put it my pocket, love,” pretending like she’s giving him a furious banjo-snapper of a wank.

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He sits on a chair, laying the lady across his lap like a baby. “Ooh, I can’t believe this,” she keeps repeating, as Barrymore grabs her arse, sliding his hand down her leg and up her skirt; feeling for her bra strap; “wait till I tell ’em all at work, they won’t believe it!” He serenades her with Patsy Cline’s Crazy, though she turns it into a duet, and as the spotlight goes out, he says “goodnight, John-boy” which was another legal requirement in those days. She’s sent away with flowers and a bottle of wine, and he demands a big round of applause for the orchestra, before more of that gushing Barrymore honesty with a lengthy emotional statement from the heart. He wants to thank “each and every one of you” for the letters and kindness and love he’s been shown over the last couple of months. “It’s been some time in my life,” he says, describing troubles which, ten years on, must’ve seemed utterly trifling.

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The response is absolutely rousing; the kind of applause which shatters every bone in your hand, over the top of which he bellows “I’m thrilled to be here in Blackpool and back in business! Awright!” Just in case anyone’s confused, Michael Barrymore has… had and are… bounced… bouncing back. It seems like the perfect end, but no, there’s more music, lip-synching Back in Business from the Dick Tracy movie, joined by the showgirls, and with apposite lyrics about being “back again like a boomerang.. back in business and ain’t it grand?” “Guess who’s back?” “Yes, I’m back!” and ending on a triumphant and, in hindsight, tragically hopefully, “let the good times roll!

After a truly needless pat-a-cake synchronised clapping/thigh slapping routine with the dancers, it’s finally over. Or is it? Barrymore, now alone, still isn’t done being sincere — “I hope that one day, all of us here this evening, I hope we all meet again…” And it’s on that number, We’ll Meet Again, that we actually come to the end, leading everyone in a sing song, like they used to in the Anderson shelters when Hitler was dropping doodlebugs on our nans; “put your hands in the air, let’s enjoy ourselves…” At least it’ll make a perfect first-act closer for my big-screen Barrymore biopic, Awright at the Back? (starring Vince Vaughn, once I get the Kickstarter rolling).

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As he takes a bow, from all sides of the theatre, women run up to the edge of the stage, pushing past their rows to form a moshpit of mums, aunties and nans. Many bear gifts; flowers, chocolates, a balloon; more fitting with a teen idol than a 40-something comedian. Barrymore’s slapping hands like Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart walking to the ring, doling out kisses, and lifting the little boy above his head. Footage of this revelry is almost as long as the show itself, and when the curtain finally drops, cries of “More! More!” can be heard over the credits. The whole thing is a remarkable spectacle, moreso for the fact it was sold as a video, intended to be re-watched multiple times.

There’s something of the Michael Jackson fanbase about Barrymore’s audience, with an astonishing level of devotion and familiarity, comfortable to interact with him like he’s part of the family, or to have him squeeze their buttocks for a laugh. Where did they stand, I wonder, after the pool party? Do they live on in tabloid comment sections and beneath Youtube clips of him looking up Susan Boyle’s skirt, as pleas to “let him back on the telly, he’s an innocent man!” What of wee Christian’s mum, superfan for whom the night at Blackpool on Barrymore’s lap must’ve been her most treasured anecdote? There’s a family friend who used to dine out on the fact Savile had used their toilet once. They went strangely quiet about it in recent years. And for Barrymore himself, the usual struggle of the falling star who misses the rush of performing and the adulation of the crowd must have carried an even greater sting. If this is indicative of his usual audience, practically weeping at his feet, he tumbled much further than most, and it goes some way to explaining the horrible sense of entitlement he’s shown in every interview for the last 19 years.

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The Unpredictable… was Barrymore’s celebration of coming through the bad times, where only sunshine lay ahead — “let the good times roll!” — but we know how that went. After more public troubles, but preceding the real bad stuff, there’d be another video release in 1998, titled Live And Uplifting — Back in Business! Okay, I know I said I was back in business before, but it turns out, I just thought I was back in business. This time, I really am back. In business. It’s weird he didn’t complete the trilogy with a post-2001 BiB. Maybe one day.

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.

That Yellow Bastard – The Occult Whimsy of Wizbit

•March 26, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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As I’ve addressed before, I detest the lazy way of looking back at kids TV and importing adult sleaze onto it — “The Magic Roundabout were all on drugs! Mr. Benn rented those costumes so he could sniff the shoes for a wank!” But undeniably, there are shows where there’s no need to go flailing beneath the surface for hidden horror, as it’s readily on display; series which seem like creepypastas about lost footage that turned its viewers mad. American television had the trippy worlds of Sid and Marty Krofft, with giant-headed foam monsters staggering through technicolour dreamscapes where everything could speak. For British children, chief of these eldritch fever visions was Wizbit.

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Launched on the BBC in January 1986, Wizbit was a co-creation between magician Paul Daniels and Barry Murray, formerly record producer for Mungo Jerry. This blend of magic and music, with Daniels controlling the rights for character and designs, while Murray controlled the songs, led to a deeply strange, off-kilter brew, best exemplified by its memorable theme tune. A swirling, hypnotic melody acting as the cursed incantation to summon the Great Yellow Beast, with Daniels rapping his own lyrics over a bastardised cover of Lead Belly’s Ha-Ha This A Way, it doubles as an early example of a mash-up.

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Very little of the show survived to the present day, and all that’s salvaged of episode one, Enter Wizbit, is a truly haunted piece of footage, captured by a camcorder pointed at a television screen, with its tinny audio echoing around the confines of an unseen living room. Initially I was afraid I might catch a reflection of our archivist in the screen, but quickly realise no TV-collecting ghoul could possibly be freakier than the actual show. As suggested by the title, this is an origin story, and begins with Paul Daniels greeting us with “hello, my little magic wands!” This sounds cute, but there’s simply no way a man who claimed to have slept with over 300 groupies in his touring days never once wooed a conquest with the suggestion to “come backstage and see my little magic wand.”

This is prime-era Daniels, full-wigged and in his magic clobber of a bow tie and tux, which, coupled with his height, gives the impression of a Victorian boy-lord. He will serve as our guide to the setting of Puzzleopolis, “the most magical town in the whole world!” A walled-off city, it’s visually somewhere between Byzantine-era Constantinople and Sesame Street, and home to Paul’s Playhouse, which is a magic theatre, but thanks to Hugh Hefner’s monopoly on the word ‘play’, is impossible not to imagine crammed with naked 22-year old girls, all dead behind the eyes.

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I’ll be honest, at the time of writing this, I’ve been up for two days, so am already filled with dread when he mutates a Queen of Spades into an ominously all-black card, heralding the arrival of some terrible being. Like Ray Stantz, I try to clear my head, but it’s too late, as the camera pushes in on the card like we’re falling, dragging us down into the black. The darkness explodes with a monochrome galaxy of swirls, twisting and forming into shapes, all white on black; a shifting cave painting kaleidoscope, like those 70’s public information films warning on the dangers of LSD. Stars become flowers which morph into a terrifying fetus, all under a the dirge of a folk-horror medieval jig. Then, a voice booms out, in what I assume is a close approximation of what it’s like to trek deep into the rainforest for a nightmare vision-quest.

In the beginning, there was magic in the world, there was the magic of day and night, of winds and plants, and the magic of birth, and of life, until the first beings who had crawled agonisingly out of the primeval mud to crouch in caves against the long nights of fear, everything was magic. There was white magic, and there was black magic, and there was darkness, thunder and lightning. That was in the beginning…

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This is for kids, yeah? The speech is actually a slightly altered quote from the beginning of John Northern Hilliard’s 1938 book, Greater Magic, though they might as well have been reading aloud from Aleister Crowley’s spellbook judging by what’s been invoked into our cast of characters. Wooly is a giant rabbit, whose costume has an oddly fleshy, skin-like quality to it, dummy thicc and jiggling when he jumps. But the head’s really cheap, like something from a fancy dress shop, with a static mouth and eyes. Weirdest of all, according to IMDB, the actor inside, at least in the first episode, is this guy.

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Yes, Frank Tate from Emmerdale. Who’s inside Wizbit, Phil Mitchell? Walking to market, Wooly bumps into the titular Wizbit, who informs him “I come from the planet Wow!” on visit for a year and a day to learn about humans. Wizbit’s a big yellow cone, reminiscent of a brim-less wizard’s hat, with gorgeous long eyelashes, and a disturbing pair of holes on the edges of his eyes, to stop the poor fucker inside from suffocating. Like Kamala, he’s got a moon and stars etched on his body, with scattered stars across his skin. Curiously, like tattoos of swallows on tough lads’ necks, there’s also a Seal of Solomon on the side of his head; an occult symbol which endowed the biblical King Solomon the power to command demons and djinn. Again, as you’ll repeatedly need to remind yourself, Wizbit is a show for small children.

Meanwhile, our bad guy, Professor Doom, lives in Castle Creep, floating above the city on a rock, with his pet cat, Jinx, who’s a bad-taxidermy puppet that keeps biting him. In his high top hat, Doom resembles a Vaudevillian Bruce Forsyth, making home of a classic medieval alchemist’s lab, with dusty old grimoires, phrenology heads, and Erlenmeyer flasks filled with coloured liquid. I half expect to see Hell’s mighty King Beleth heaving itself across the floorboards, as Doom apports a crystal ball to spy on Puzzleopolis and devise ways of messing with them.

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For a sub-half-hour show, Wizbit has an enormous cast, demonstrated with a lengthy sequence where residents aimlessly prance around the town square, inadvertently exposing the depraved Dr. Moreau shit Paul Daniels gets up to in his workshop. As you’d expect, we have circus-type human characters; clown, mime, stilt-walker, gypsy fortune teller; even the lovely Debbie McGee in a spangly leotard; but many are anthropomorphic magic props. There are giant magic wands, with no arms and a pair of lady-like eyes at the tip; foam balls with big sexy lips and a Mary Portas bob; playing cards and dice with no discernable features beyond a feminine pair of human ankles and feet.

What kind of existence is this; sans eyes, mouth and arms, unable to eat or scream for help? Do the ones with hands have to act as carers for the rest? Do they defecate on the floor like animals, or did Paul specially build a wide array of toilets for all the various body shapes? And what’s the sexual landscape in Puzzleopolis? Like all locked-off societies, eventually they’ll be tempted to experiment with each other. Who among us could blame the green-haired human grocer for becoming sexually obsessed with the luscious-lipped bouncy ball, who’s essentially just a sentient tit?

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There’s yet more dancing, as Professor Doom’s evil plan involves Pied Pipering everyone up to his castle through a magic door, by hypnotising them with Wizbit‘s theme. It’s no surprise, given his Satanic nature, that Wizbit undoes the curse by playing the song backwards, causing the footage to be reversed and the gang to return home. We end on Paul in his dressing room, magicking a big carrot out of the air and giving it to his young wife with a “there you go, Deb.” It’s best not to ask. This is still less disconcerting than the interactions between Wooly and Wizbit, both doing that theme park mascot acting, of emoting by leaning back and waving their arms, miming to dialogue that’ll be dubbed on later, with Wizbit’s mouth yammering up and down relentlessly like a Cenobite, in sync with nothing.

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Aside from its arcane weirdness, the trippiest aspect is the visual style, which is roundly ‘someone editing a wedding video in 1988,’ taking an already-lurid set of characters and careening them about the screen with endless neon spinning wipes and cheap effects. There’s heavy use of split screen and picture-in-picture, simultaneously giving multiple angles or close-ups, or at times, completely unconnected footage of weird puppets, too small and choppy to be made sense of, when glimpsed in bubbled frames on top of the scene, like portals to a dark dimension. Perhaps the ADHD editing means to remind at all times of Daniels, flitting between the story and his dressing room in shots which rarely exceed a few seconds. Sometimes, a little frame of him whizzes past as he comments on the action. In one scene, we suddenly cut back to Paul holding a pan. “Pandemonium!” he says, pretending to play it like a guitar, before it neon-wipes us back to Puzzleopolis.

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Episode 3, A Game of Hanki-Poo, opens on Wizbit working on his thesis about Earth. I’m not sure focussing on the residents of Puzzleopolis alone will paint an accurate picture. And what’s his plan? Is he assessing Earth’s resources before an invasion of cone-people, enslaving us to work in their mines and beating us until we perfect the pulling of a coin out of someone’s ear? Things quickly get strange as fuck, as Wooly falls asleep outside the city gates, leading to a dream sequence where he’s ogling a seductively-posed sexy carrot — a woman with a green face, stuffed into an orange tube — before an erotically charged dance where they’re coquettishly giving chase around a wishing well and tenderly stroking each other’s faces. With lyrics opining “I can’t survive without you,” and taking place in a hauntingly darkened set, this is an assuredly terrible fit for the child-demographic, but ploughs on regardless for a full two minutes.

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Wooly wakes with a wiggling nose, and probably a dick like a broom handle, before he’s accosted by Professor Doom’s goons, the What Brothers — solely named to pad out the script with loads of sub-par “Who’s on first base” gags. The bros bilk Wooly out of all his money with the old ‘Find the Lady’ game, named as the Hanki-Poo of the title, which had I feared would be the thing I once had to do on a long coach trip when the toilet was out of order. Wooly’s consoled in another long musical number by Puzzleopolis’s lady gatekeeper, swaying and twirling in each other’s arms with heartfelt lines like “since you don’t love me,” which definitely implies they’re fucking. Wizbit gets his money back, and Paul closes on a trick, with wording of “a piece of candy or a sweet” suggesting his eventual goal was selling the Wizbit franchise to an American network. In a later episode, Wizbit similarly introduces a prop that’s “a model of an elevator, or lift…” while several characters have American accents, all of which are dire.

For the next full surviving episode, it’s a big jump to series 3, episode 3, entitled Treasure. Two years on from the first series, Paul’s either ditched the wig, or swapped it for a hairpiece which replicates balding, like that sketch in I Think You Should Leave. By now, he’s taken over the voices of both Wizbit and Wooly, with the latter sounding exactly like Mickey from The League of Gentlemen, while the costumes are noticeably different. Wizbit’s cheaper and more ‘moulded’ looking, and Wooly’s got bright pink eyes, like he and Wizbit have been smoking up a storm since moving in together, as they’re now flatmates. Or lovers; it’s not clear. Thankfully for my anxiety, the constant video effects are gone too, and scenes are much longer, though there’s repetitive background music playing through the whole thing, like the menu screen of a ZX Spectrum game.

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Professor Doom’s plan this week, launched with a pounding 80’s synth rock number, involves planting a fake treasure map in Puzzleopolis, tricking the residents into digging up the disgusting bog monster, Squidgy, who’s purportedly sitting on the loot. Squidgy’s a jive-talking Audrey II rip-off, voiced by a white actor throwing around phrases like “soul brother.” Eventually, Wizbit points out the map’s got 1st of April 1998 (more than a decade in the future) written on the top in massive letters, so it must be a prank. Why did Doom; who we saw painting the map; put that on there if he wanted to fool them? Then Squidgy pulls some real ‘treasure’ out of his bog; an old shoe he was saving until Christmas to eat, which means Christianity exists in their world. Do all wand-people go to heaven? Also in this show for little kids, the mime does a riddle where we have to guess who said a famous quote, which turns out to be from Lord Olivier.

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Paul’s closing trick, pulling a piece of string through a drinking straw, is about as spectacular as Wizbit‘s magic gets, all small scale trickery like making napkins disappear, or tearing a newspaper into the shape of a ladder. When Paul’s sliding a pom pom down another piece of string, it reminds me of Dave Courtney getting shirty with a children’s party magician. The dad-audience is probably just as bored, with S3 taking Debbie McGee out of the spangly leotards and into a full three-piece suit. The chronic misunderstanding of what children like is at its best in final surviving episode, Badbit, where Wizbit (Paul doing a squeaky voice) gives a lengthy retelling of the Willow Pattern fable, with this thrilling exchange aimed at eight-year-olds:

Wizbit: “The story is about a beautiful Chinese girl, whose father was a mandarin.”

Wooly: “Her daddy was an orange?!

Wizbit: “A mandarin was a public official in the old Chinese empire! It is also the name of a small orange tree, but it’s the civil servant we’re concerned with in this story.

The kids will love that, mate, especially the bit about how “the girl’s angry father carried a whip to prevent her from leaving.” This is endemic of the whole series, which is incredibly babyish, yet written in the tone of a weekend dad trying to connect with his children by asking if they saw last night’s Question Time. Badbit, as suggested by the title, revolves around an evil Wizbit, sent to Puzzleopolis by Professor Doom. Identical but for bushy eyebrows, Badbit is bad to the dang bone, first asking “where can I get a beer around here?” and threatening everyone in 1920’s gangster speak, see? Badbit bemoans Puzzleopolis being a dry town, and smears Wizbit’s good reputation, calling the gatekeeper a “dumb broad,” yelling that he hates the French, and physically shoving people — “outta the way, jerk!

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After the real Wizbit gets the cold shoulder from his pals, he identifies Badbit as an imposter, and “an android.. a living robot, a synthetic being!” Wizbit hacks him, sending back to Castle Creep to threaten Professor Doom — “speak when you’re spoken to, big nose!” Of course, we break for a stupidly grown-up musical number, completely unrelated to the plot, where Squidgy sings about getting old and that he’s “got problems weighin’ down on me,” while giant magic wands and decks of playing cards blindly shuffle across the set, trying not to topple into the boghole as they meekly kick their human legs to the beat. Wizbit ended in February 1988, after 27 episodes of horrifying occult whimsy.

Just as you’d expect in this age of no new ideas, in 2007, a failed attempt to reboot Wizbit went into pre-production. Planned to be fully CG, a handful of animation tests made their way online, with what little charm was to be had in the franchise sucked out by the utterly rank visuals. The most complete sequence is a scrubbing of the only thing anyone remembered about the original, the theme tune, for a much more cheery, less cursed ditty, though the new lyrics do at least confirm his species. “Wizbit is back (he’s back!), and he’s a little yellow magical hat (a hat!)

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In 2009, off the back of a line of small-press Wizbit storybooks, focus shifted from a TV series into a feature-length animated movie, with an announced cast of — genuinely — Paul Daniels, Todd Carty, and Rustie Lee, but this too fell into development hell. As Paul died in 2016, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see Wizbit on our screens again. All we can hope is that Paul closed the portal before he went, and banished the Yellow King back to planet Wow, or as it’s known in its native tongue, Carcosa.

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.

Launching a Podcast: You Are Haunted

•March 25, 2020 • Leave a Comment

You Are Haunted logo small

As it’s illegal for bearded white guys not to have one, I’ve finally launched my first podcast. They’ll be uploaded onto my Patreon a few weeks before general release, but with the lockdown, I figured I’d let the first one out a little early. Here’s what it’s about:

“In You Are Haunted, writer & Fortean curator, Stuart Millard, shares listener-submitted and definitely true ghost stories and paranormal experiences.”

I’ll get it up on Apple podcasts and the usual places soon, but for now, here’s the link: You Are Haunted, Episode 1.

The Accursed 90s: James Whale on Television

•March 16, 2020 • 2 Comments

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[More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad ContestsDon’t Forget Your ToothbrushTalk Show Goths]

Few things encapsulate the feel of 90’s Britain quite like the ‘tell it like it is’ tabloid columnist or DJ; beer garden philosophers ‘putting the world to rights’ who were inexplicably popular at the time; men like Garry Bushell, Richard Littlejohn, Ceaser the Geezer and James Whale. Though they’ll always exist, aggressively pointing a finger at the camera in promotional shots as if to say “you’re in my sights, snowflakes!” it was during their 90’s heyday TV channels sought to put those men on television, as with The James Whale Radio Show.

How to describe Whale to those only familiar with him from the 2018 incident where he was suspended after the studio webcam caught him laughing at a guest’s description of her own rape? Whale’s got the vibe of a teacher who was fired for drinking on the job and throwing chairs; of someone who spends all day posting “who?” in the comments under obituaries; of your mate’s divorced dad who’s got him for the weekend and takes you both to a working men’s club instead of letting you stay in and rent a film; of a cabbie who switches the radio over when Stevie Wonder comes on and who’s “not being funny, but…”; of someone stood outside a parents’ evening smoking a roll-up.

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The James Whale Radio Show‘s opening titles give a strong flavour of who he is, a dad-rock guitar riff with wild electricity sparking across a big jukebox. I can smell the cider from here. Now loosed from the confines of a radio setting, he’s roaming free in a big studio, and along with its viewer call-ins, competitions, and cuts to music videos and live bands, it feels like a Saturday morning kids show in a mid-life crisis. We’re just ten seconds in before he’s made a mother-in-law joke, and the first pre-tape is a skit with Whale searching phone boxes for sex worker business cards, laying them out on the pavement in front of bystanders who are nowhere near as shocked as he’s making out. The only genuinely offensive thing is the filthy pair of fingerless cycling gloves he’s wearing.

First guest is pornographer David Sullivan, then merely owner of the Sunday Sport, but in our present-day hellworld, a billionaire. He shows off tomorrow’s edition, featuring columnists Whale and Bernard Manning, with “the lady off Baywatch topless,” and the front page headline “FILTHY KRAUTS SHOW DI IN NUDE,” containing a censored picture of a ‘topless’ Princess Di. He’s promoting a Best of the Sunday Sport VHS, from which they air a dreadful comedy sketch starring Neil ‘Dr’ Fox, who at this early stage of his career, has an affected cockney accent straight from Oliver Twist — “bleedin’ ‘ell!

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I simply cannot stress firmly enough just how terrible Whale is at his job. His rambling delivery is packed with ers and ums, and it’s rare he makes it through a whole sentence without being distracted by a noise in the studio, or pushing a finger in his ear to yell at a producer because something’s gone wrong. The whole series isn’t a car crash, it’s an endless pile-up, with a humourless presenter who acts like he doesn’t want to be there, constantly being corrected on the names or locations of callers and guests, and asking for close-ups he doesn’t get, with every cue either wrong or late, or putting him in a huff because it’s changed from rehearsal.

Also joining him is Page 3 model, Debbie Ashby, dressed in a tiny swimsuit and boots, to co-host a ‘fashion show’ where models, male and female, parade about in their underwear. The gimmick here is a ‘Thrill Cam’, which pushes in on the bums and tits while the crew hoot like wanking monkeys, and unwittingly gives a clear (and unacknowledged) shot of a shaved vagina as it leers up a pair of shorts. Most grottily of all, the ladies are from the Dreamgirls dance troupe, and were due to perform, but got banged up in a car accident, and strut through the lingerie show while covered in body make-up to hide the bruises.

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In a jarring tonal shift, it’s straight to an interview with a urologist about vasectomies. It’s clear the doctor thought he was in for a serious show, attempting to discuss testicular cancer under duress of Whale’s insincere pratting about, and forced to draw some bollocks on a blackboard. The viewer mail section is more tedious smut, with a letter from a woman who enjoys sex, whom Whale calls “Sarah the Slut,” one bloke talking about wanking, and another asking where to buy mail-order dildos. Whale holds up an “Irish birth control device” — a plastic cock with a cork jammed in the piss-hole — with messages from a woman asking if you can try out vibrators in the shop to see if they fit, and a chap who asks “why do women take longer to cum?” These are definitely all real letters from real people, and not written by Whale and his team of snickering incel dunces.

But it’s worth sitting through the whole shit-fest for the solid gold of our final segment, where Ashby and Sullivan join Whale for callers. Sat around an old dog cage inexplicably used as a table, there’s a weird vibe from the off, with Ashby still in her swimsuit, barracked by Whale’s MRA questioning of “why should women get paid to take their clothes off?” waving an old topless shoot of hers at the camera as he suggests that it gets blokes so horny, it “encourages men to beat women up.” The whole scene descends to further bleakness with a quick flick through her wiki page, to learn she since regrets her modelling career, which was marked by bulimia and sexual exploitation, and was in a relationship with Tony Curtis when he was 58 and she was 17. But in 1991, the scowling Ashby informs Whale she’s moving on to an agony aunt column, where she’ll tell men what to do “if they had any lumps in their ballbags.”

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The feel of a fucked up Live and Kicking reaches its apex with the viewer calls. Caller one doesn’t answer. Caller two’s a prank — “I’ve got a collection of smelly, unwashed knickers…” Caller three; another prank. Caller four’s on a bad line with an accent they can’t understand. They say they’ll ring her back, but don’t. Caller five accuses Debbie of ridiculing intelligent women, further irritating her. But she gets a break as moral adjudicator James Whale introduces a caption contest for a picture of an anthropomorphic dildo with a knotted hanky on its head. Runner up prize is a year’s supply of gin seng to make their stiffies hard, while the winner gets a “cuddly vibrator” with eyes and a smiley face, holding a vodka miniature. Next week’s prize, genuinely, is the dancers’ dirty underwear and a VHS of either the Sunday Sport tape or the Wicked Willie cartoon (a crass series of comics about a talking nob). The worst part of this journey back into cheeky 90’s perversions, giggling at mucky drawings because actual porn was illegal, is the cut back to a wide shot, revealing the old ball-doctor is now sat there too, paying grim witness.

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By now, all the guests have given up hiding their desire to leave, with a horrible atmosphere as they take the final set of callers. One says the show’s brilliant, but accidentally gets cut off. Another tells Debbie she’s looking great. “Nice of your sister to call,” jokes James. “I haven’t got a sister?” she replies, confused. A man says it’s his birthday, and he was born on the day Kennedy was shot — “I wondered what your thoughts were on reincarnation?” The despairing James sighs, cutting him off, and describing his frustrations in never making it as a breakfast TV presenter, in a moment which feels hauntingly honest. “I’m stuck here talking to people about being the reincarnation of… Edward… mmm, what’s his name, Kennedy? Wasn’t Edward, was it?” Eventually Sullivan remembers it was John, as Debbie fiddles with her nails.

There’s another prank caller, and Whale’s not got the patience for it. One accuses him of wearing a g-string, another moans about opening the paper and seeing breasts when “me and the lads wanna see…” cutting him off before he can say “fannies.” Though it’s November, Whale randomly gives his guests an Easter egg, and the rest of the scene’s filled with the plasticy crunching noise of David Sullivan, so bored, he’s unable to stop himself taking it out of the box and eating it. For an idea of who this was aimed at, let’s take a glance at the Youtube comments for this episode.

imagine the libtard rage haha

In later series, the show was rebranded as Whale On, tackling a single topic each week, and switching to a late-night Kilroy-type audience show. In the writing equivalent of those monks who whip the flesh from their own backs, I dove straight into an episode from April 16th, 1993, where James fucking Whale tackled the subject of abortion. For once, Whale’s ahead of the curve, with that thing that’s now the basis for all current affairs television; giving airtime to marginal hate groups with dangerous fringe beliefs. Here, it’s a bunch of American weirdos who think Planned Parenthood is part of a eugenics conspiracy to “eliminate certain people” and build a master race.

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But regardless of topic, it’s Classic Whale through and through; introducing a guest by the wrong name and being angrily corrected, left tapping his pen against the desk while fuming. Later, he segues from a talk about anti-abortion protesters throwing acid, invoking Hitler’s name before handing straight across to music from “Barbara Dickson; Easy Times.” The second the final note’s out of her mouth, he corrects the song title as “Easy Terms.” The tone swings back and forth like a dangerous dog’s clangers, cutting from morons in frumpy dresses calling women murderers to comedy sketches where Cleo Rocos tips a pint jug filled with Jane Seymour’s piss over a bald drag queen. And all held together by our hapless ringmaster with a wacky snooker tie, pathologically unable to let anybody get more than two words out before cutting them off, leaving everybody — guests, audience, host, me — simmering with rage.

The highlight here is a Q&A section, beginning with a pan to the audience that reveals one of the pieces from Whale On‘s in-studio art students; an enormous canvas of a blood-smeared sanitary towel. Star of this bit is a very nervy but opinionated pro-lifer, whose introductory exchange with Whale plays like a vaudeville routine. The kind of prick who’d spend all his time posting bad reviews for Captain Marvel in 2020, he’s involving himself with the rights of women’s bodies because “men have a traditional role of protecting women,” but further loses the room when revealed to be a virgin. Failing to win them back by mumbling “aren’t half of all aborted babies have… have… parents that are men?” he retorts to pulling out photocopies of a fetus. “I love this baby!” he implores, before he’s murdered in his seat by a heckler’s “you should learn to love a woman!

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A real piece of work, who casts doubts on the claim of a guest who’s had an abortion, because she doesn’t fit their profile of a mad baby-murderer, a quick Google finds the chap on Quora giving Godly advice on abortions, women, and why it’s okay not to tip them, with an avatar in which — I swear on my life — he’s literally tipping a fedora. Anyway, the show goes off air with Whale mocking him for being a virgin and a studio full of frustrated guests all talking over one another. Needing a palate cleanser after the abortion stuff, I skipped forwards to an episode about the supernatural. Many’s a time in the 90s I sat up to watch the paranormal episodes of these terrible shows, and Whale On doesn’t disappoint with a wonderful selection of kooks.

First, we’ve a couple of ghost experts no-budget cosplaying Wayne and Garth, as Whale reads a true ghost story from one of their books, about a man who met a “stunning woman who looked like Princess Di” at the pub and went back to his, even though “she was quite flat chested.” Joke on jokes, the big reveal is that she had a dick, “so I punched her… she disappeared.” The other chap reveals a little sword, one of seven uncovered by his team of psychics “concealed in the foundations of a footbridge,” and somehow linked to the 1987 hurricane. But the most haunted creature on display is Whale himself, who even by his standards, has a fucking nightmare, with perfunctory descriptions of his actions reading like chapters from The Usbourne Book of The Cursed.

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He introduces celebrity lawyer Jerry Issacs. ‘Jerry’ immediately corrects him — “Gary Jacobs.” In a chat with live band Bagatelle, he tells them they’ve not had much success, then gets the name of their single wrong. During a ghost story from camp MP Jerry Hayes, he gets bored halfway through, startled by a musician accidentally leaning on a keyboard offscreen, and tells Hayes to come out of the closet. By the Cleo Rocos skit, where she’s bending a false pair of legs over her own head, he’s stopped listening altogether, off on a tangent about Esther Ranzten, though he’s unable to remember her name, rambling on about “the one with the teeth.”

At least half the show is Whale being distracted by various banging sounds off-camera, constantly losing his train of thought and snapping his head towards the studio floor, like a dog at the rustle of a crisp packet. Though it’s ghost-themed, much of the running time is miscellaneous nonsense, like a pair of men hawking their VHS tape of a car-bonnet POV trek down the M25. They bring him a gift-wrapped traffic cone, but it gets stuck at the bottom of the bag and he starts getting antsy. At one point, the lairy art students are making too much noise in the background, so he wanders over to ask what they’re painting, finding “it’s a woman with about 12 breasts…” and, as the camera zooms in on it, a gigantic dangling cock. Even when something’s actually brilliant, like Charlie Chuck being given free rein to do his thing, Whale tires of it within seconds, walking all over his act and butting in while sighing.

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All this leaves precious little time for the paranormal, with just a short Q&A to close. But James has the attention span of someone who’s just cum and is faced with closing down a dozen Pornhub tabs. Refusing to let anybody speak, a woman who reads auras is interrupted as he starts mucking around with the boom mic; a teacher sharing her experience of a ghost gets cut off by questions about her earrings. Would you believe it, the one person who’s allowed to get two words in is a man?

It’s clear from watching Whale chair these faux-debates, that like Piers Morgan, he holds no actual views, merely going with whatever will stir the most shit at any given time; like a teenager swearing on a packed train, the gasps and tuts making them feel alive; noticed. Today, the media’s filled with James Whales, abysmal at their job, unprepared, and disinterested in anything but the sound of their own voice, only now, they’re not broadcasting from the leper purgatory of midnight on Channel 4, but from everywhere; seething men with no insight, no opinions, and nothing to say, but unable to stop themselves talking over anybody who does.

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.

 
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