Noel’s Christmas Presents

•December 22, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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

With my distressing fixation on Edmonds, Noel’s Christmas Presents is one of those suggestions that comes up a lot, and I almost went there last year, only to decide against it at the last moment. How could I possibly write about the cultural byword for kind-hearted event television which left its audience weeping, and to this day, remains embedded in our national psyche, both as entertainment and as the most powerful Christmas spirit Broken Britain had to offer? Noel’s only desire — like Scrooge on Christmas morning — was to bring a little joy to the needy and unfortunate, asking for nothing in return, and I’m supposed to blunder in with my observations; my cynicism and jokes about spunk; over the real tears of real people?

But then, in returning to the idea, I was reminded how every second of these shows was filtered through the singular creative vision of one of the oddest men who’s ever lived. With decades now passed since they first aired, time has splattered these hours with comically unwieldy tech and unimpressive gifts; with horrid fashions and naff celebrities, and the unique presenting style of Noel himself, all of which slightly dulls the edges of the endless parade of horrific sob stories, making them easier to view objectively.

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With the benefit of hindsight, to 2020 eyes, Noel’s Christmas Presents plays like a cross between House Party‘s Gotchas and those viral videos where someone’s filmed themselves buying a homeless man a meal, selecting a soppy soundtrack that’s just right before posting it on all their socials. While the conceit is philanthropic, essentially it’s Noel taking his pathological need to prank and surprise; to put people on the back foot; but using it for good instead of evil. The whole thing turns on that imbalance of power that he so loves; Noel Edmonds off the telly and Bob the photocopier repairman from Nottingham — only one of them’s got a microphone, and only one knows how this is all going to go.

Christmas Presents slotted firmly in a genre which was incredibly popular in its time, as also seen in Cilla Black’s Surprise Surprise, of making the Great British Public cry by springing a lovely video message on them, from a cousin they’ve not seen for 25 years after they emigrated to Australia, only to reveal that’s not the real surprise, before bringing the cousin out in person. The head of its class, Noel’s take became a festive tradition, as much a part of the British Christmas as turkey blow-offs and your grandma tutting when Lenny Henry came on a trailer for the Boxing Day line-up.

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The series of annual specials ran for a decade from 1989 — 1999, ending when Noel left the BBC after the cancellation of Noel’s House Party. Sky One would bring it back in 2007 for a six year run, but randomly shoving them out in the week leading up to the big day — missing the whole point of sitting down to watch right after the Queen was done talking — and perhaps with audiences more savvy to the cynical manipulations of television, the magic was gone. 2012’s final effort wasn’t even hosted by Noel, with Corrie‘s Sally Lindsay taking over for a rebranded All Star Christmas Presents.

Unthinkable, isn’t it? His thundering vehicle with someone else at the wheel. There’s a line at the end of Bill Murray’s Scrooged, after his character Frank Cross makes the babyface turn, and James Cross remarks “my brother, the King of Christmas!” In the nineties, there was only one man on that throne, and it’s the role he was born for, in perhaps the ultimate example of nominative determinism — “The First Noel, the Angels did say…” For nineties kids, he was basically our Santa. He even looks like an anime Father Christmas. We’ll be diving in with King Noel at the height of his powers, for an episode which aired in 1996, of course, on Christmas Day.

Festivities take place in the grounds of a medieval castle. A huge, war-like banner hangs from a tower, reading NOEL’S CHRISTMAS PRESENTS, as he emerges for the live crowd, flanked by dancers and dressed like a Victorian mayor. It’s so cold, you can see his breath as he takes his place in the audience beside a burning brazier, and tells us it’s ten years since the explosion at Chernobyl; “the result was an atomic cloud, spread across the countryside.” Merry Christmas! As we’ve learned on these pages, Alan Partridge comparisons are an unavoidable side-effect when delving into the hell of light entertainment, and Noel invites a powerful one right out of the gate.

Evidently, the people of Lancashire formed a tight bond with their radioactive brethren in Belarus, becoming pen-pals, and very occasionally, flying them over to the UK for in-person visits. This first present really sets the tone, and they each have the precise energy of Noel pulling someone out of the audience on a Saturday night, to answer embarrassing questions before getting covered in slime. As everyone’s waiting at the airport with gifts to be put on the plane for their friends, who should walk in but Noel bloody Edmonds; snazzy jumper, mic in hand — “they weren’t expecting to see me!” Everything’s a prank with him, and he tells them they’re all off to Belarus too, along with ten tons of aid he’s got secretly stashed in the aircraft’s hold.

The captain’s intercom fills with wheezing as Noel announces another surprise, with “someone who’s very popular in Belarus, and extremely committed to children’s charities.” Come on, any guesses? Norman Wisdom’s big in Albania, isn’t he? Or maybe Bono? Christopher Biggins? No, it’s — “…please welcome, Chris de Burgh!” Fucking hell, any spare parachutes? Never mind, I’ll go bareback. Truthfully, the people of 1996 are thrilled, one woman sinking into her seat with an orgasmic “oh my God!” and as friends from Minsk and Lancashire embrace, they’re serenaded by de Burgh’s rendition of Silent Night. Incidentally, do you think the words “the Chris de Burgh please, my good barber!” have ever been spoken?

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The presents are broken up by interludes at the castle, with dancers dressed as medieval jesters or harlequins, prancing all hey-nonny-nonny with Venetian ball masks while lip-synching to a warbled backing track of The Holly and The Ivy. It feels like the entertainment laid on for Joffrey Baratheon to sneer at on his wedding day, before ordering all their arses to be cut off and fed to a wolf. This strange mix of eras, with Victorian Noel in the Middle Ages, confirms his role as transdimensional trickster, ungoverned by the rules of time, and leaping through centuries to dispense presents/pranks.

His next double-cross centres on a recently widowed old lady, who’s been putting money on the horses to try and win the airfare to see her cousin in Canada. As if appearing in a cloud of sulphur, Noel’s suddenly behind her at the bookies, pulling a mic out of his jacket, with a look on his face that permeates the show, a look that says “yes, it’s me, off the telly, with you, who isn’t off the telly… let that sink in.” Noel’s other trademark bombshell is casually dropping the mark’s name – “Hello, Maureen…” “How do you know my name?!” But she’s enraptured by our BBC Puck; “ooh, he’s lovely,” and just like her grandson, “…exactly like him. I wish I’d have brought a picture for you!

Celebrity helper for this one is John McCririck, notably dialled down from the post-Big Brother years, and not once mentioning great big women’s tits, or eating a single bogey. Noel breaks the news he’s jetting her off to see cousin Dexter, whom she hasn’t seen for 72 years, as Enya’s Orinoco Flow kicks in on the soundtrack — “sail away, sail away, sail away…” Where Christmas Presents truly excels as saccharine emotional sob-fodder is in its musical choices, and I’ll be fastidiously keeping track of all the brilliantly on-point needle drops.

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The elderly cousins reconnect, but Noel’s the fucking Columbo of gift-giving, always with “just one more thing,” dropping surprise on top of surprise. Though she can’t stop gambling, the lady’s never been to a race, so Noel takes her, but I guess it’s off-season, as they just have a couple of horses ride by in an empty, rainy stadium. Amid all the globetrotting family reunions, there’s still room for smaller, if no-less emotionally devastating stories. One has a children’s dance teacher perform onstage at the West End with Anthony Newley, while another centres on a little girl who survived the car crash which killed her brother, with the other driver unidentified and still at large. Noel surprises her with a Father Christmas, revealed to be — thank God — her grandpa, flown over from Australia.

I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that most of the presents involve Noel gifting someone a holiday and tagging along, as the amount of countries he visits in a single hour of television put Michael Palin to shame. For Ted and Rita, just meeting the man is surprise enough — “Well I’m blowed. A Gotcha, is it? Strewth, Noel Edmonds, of all people!” The BBC appear to miss an unbleeped “shit” when the old boy learns they’re flying 6,000 miles to see his brother in South Africa. In a rather cruel jape, Noel spears this emotional moment with a casual “all we need are your passports,” to a sad reply of “we haven’t got one…” No worries, he takes a pair out of his pocket. Is that legal?! The pre-911 world was a different place; “Hello, British embassy? It’s me, Mr. Blobby’s dad, Noel Edmonds. I’d like to register passports in the names of two strangers without them knowing. No, no, I’m not a terrorist…”

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They can’t just meet though, and needlessly, long-lost brother Bob reports to a yacht club to record a video message for Ted, who hides as Noel plays producer, repeatedly butting in like it’s Trigger Happy TV, while elderly Ted very slowly walks up behind. Even after they’ve reunited, the pranking will not stop, having the lads pose for a portrait while they sneak in another dozen family members Bob’s never met (moving soundtrack: instrumental cover of He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother).

My favourite present goes down at the annual reunion for the ladies of the Royal Artillery who served in WW2. Noel interrupts a mayor to introduce a brass band, brought in on the back of a truck with NOEL’S CHRISTMAS PRESENTS written on it, playing Colonel Bogey, or as most people know it, Hitler’s Only Got One Ball. But there’s an enormous gift-wrapped box on the back too, and in a moment which genuinely floors me, Gloria Hunniford punches her way out of it. Not even a singer, Hunniford serenades the old soldiers with We’ll Meet Again, cut together with b/w footage of British women during the war — “everybody wave your flags!” Nigel Farage’s VHS of this must be fucking unwatchable by now.

The patsy is Vera, who wrote a book about the exploits of the war ladies, but couldn’t find a publisher. Pre-Amazon, if you wanted to get your work out there, the only route was through Noel surprising you with a contract with Harper Collins, as he does here. Out in time for Christmas, with the foreword by a Mister N. Edmonds, we see shots of it rolling off the printing presses (needle drop: Paperback Writer), and it’s still available on Amazon today (used) under its title Sisters in Arms.

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The year’s finale is the most outrageous stunt of all. Alerted by a letter from her mother, Noel targets a girl with a rare genetic condition, who’s written a poem about world peace. He meets the family on an open-topped bus touring London, but can’t just say hi, instead masquerading as a tour guide named Trevor who speaks in a Mr. Bean voice. After dropping the act, he has the bus pull up in Downing Street, and takes them into Number 10, right into John Major’s office. Luckily it’s not a single parent family, or Major would’ve kicked the girl straight out of the window. Even though he’s still a Fucking Tory, in today’s climate, it’s strange to see a leader behaving all professional and statesmanlike, rather than accidentally-on-purpose getting his foot caught in the fireplace to appear endearingly bumbling, or parroting whatever PR slogan’s been decided on for the day like a broken robot. Major, who’s name-checked in the poem, has her read it to him — in a shaky little whisper that seems on the verge of tears, in a terrifically awkward moment — before Noel takes the family off to Disneyworld, in a classic double-surprise.

Mickey gives her an enormous key to the Magic Kingdom (with the top shaped like his own head, rendering it very, very penisy), while I wonder who’d win in a fight out of Pluto and Blobby. But it’s Noelception, with surprises all the way down, and he interrupts their holiday with a second trip; to Washington DC, where they’ll be meeting President Clinton. In one of the more surreal moments ever to be televised, Hillary Clinton asks the girl who she’s brought with her to the White House, to the reply “my brother, my mum and dad… and Noel Edmonds.” Noel in the Oval Office, a dream come true! Try to imagine that happening today. Any scenario where Trump’s given a poem by a special needs child from the UK ends with Whitehall launching the nukes. Noel would probably end up Secretary of Defence, mowing down protesters with a gunge cannon.

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Despite the promises of Major and Clinton after reading the poem, world peace was not achieved, but in every other respect — wringing audience tear-ducts dry while Noel looked tremendously pleased with himself — Noel’s Christmas Presents 1996 was a resounding success. So then, onto the 1999 edition. The final year has a markedly different feel, with Noel and the BBC on the outs, after House Party was acrimoniously taken off air the previous March. Presumably contractually obligated, this would be his final appearance for the Beeb, until a one-off presenting gig seven years later, followed by a public boycott of the licence fee, and threatening to buy the BBC, like when Vince McMahon bought WCW solely to publicly destroy it. Running out his contract, accordingly there’s a more lo-fi feel, significantly cutting down on the air-miles, and even the run-time, down to 50 minutes from the usual hour. Pretty harsh, if you recall the words of his own IMDB bio, which he definitely didn’t write himself.

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With no audience, we open in media res, with Noel strolling round the corner of a country manor, past a pile of chopped up logs, arms laden with pre-wrapped gifts. Is this meant to be where he lives? Because it’s definitely not Crinkley Bottom Manor. Maybe that place came with the job, like a lighthouse keeper. No House Party, no home! “As you can see,” he says, “I’ve got my Christmas presents. Hope you’ve got the box of tissues!” What’s in those boxes, grumble mags? Apparently, this year’s got a “watery theme” — oh yeah, I’ve seen that category on xhamster.

Establishing the stripped-down feel, the first present’s announced via message written in Comic Sans on the cluttered desktop of a Windows 95 PC. ‘Santa’ shocks the kids by unbearding, with a falsie on top of his real one like Jeremy Beadle pretending to be a traffic warden, before sending them to Universal Studios, where Fred Flintstone gives them a new computer, with a CRT monitor so unwieldy, the plane home probably crashed. To save money, a second giftee’s been flown to Universal too, on the pretext of winning a contest. She’s not seen her dad for over 50 years — though it turns out he was an American GI, her mum was married, and he scarpered. Noel accosts her for a random interview, needling round to the subject of her old man. Even talking about it upsets her, so it seems unnecessarily cruel when he reveals that dad’s been sat at the next table the whole time, leaving her convulsing with sobs.

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Every segment’s over very quick, with no post-gift interviews, and even the music budget’s been slashed, reducing the backdrop of lighter-raising chart toppers to maudlin stock piano. Instead of dancers, intermissions see Noel prepping for Christmas in his mansion. It’ll be a lonely one this year, traipsing round the east wing by himself like a weekend dad who’s weans have been turned; huge table laden with a banquet that’ll mostly end up in the bin. “This will make you laugh,” he promises, raising a glass of sherry to his lips, but cutting away before he drinks.

To be fair, it does go full Beadle’s About, with Noel clomping into a women’s clothes shop dressed in flippers and full scuba gear, to take a man who’s been crippled in a motorcycle accident to the Seychelles for diving lessons. Noel’s Free Holidays– I mean, Christmas Presents next sees him marching up a driveway in Cheshire, doubling over with laughter as he rings a doorbell only to read a sign “please knock, bell not working!” He’s here to give a boy with cystic fibrosis a trampoline, which crazily, is such a wild dream in 1999, that you have to ask for one off a celebrity. Nowadays, there’s loads of freebies just laying about in the street after a blowy night. So, Noel’s bouncing up and down with the lad, asking if he’s pleased… and? Go on, say it; “we’re taking you to NASA so you can bounce in a rocket!” Nope, no extras. Just a trampoline.

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I must touch on the deeply strange way that Noel reacts whenever a member of the public engages with his small talk, particularly when he’s chatting with children. Anyone responding with even minimal banter leaves him utterly aghast, hands on his thighs and looking at the camera with an expression like “my goodness, they’re not even off the telly and they can think; they can speak! How precocious!”

But Noel won’t be happy until every severed familial bond or lost friendship has been reconnected, taking an octogenarian to meet the Icelandic trawler captain who fished him out of the sea when his ship got sunk by a German U-Boat in WW2. His reaction is a genuinely heartwarming “today?! Is my wife coming with me?” Although the reunion is deeply moving, the trawler captain is now 100 years old, with the meet consisting of a very old man shouting directly into the ear of a very, very old man, sat right next to each other, but effectively on satellite delay. There’s a jarring shift when we cut from the misty-eyed chap reciting Ode of Remembrance as he tosses roses into the ocean, to Noel switching on the Christmas lights in Exeter, “in front of an enthusiastic crowd!

Mic in hand like a buzzing cattleprod, nobody can relax for a second as he plucks more victims from the audience. The wife of an ex-copper who nursed him through a battle with Parkinson’s gets a new handbag, with tickets for a VIP tour of London inside. Not bad, I guess, but they won’t be needing their passports. Would you feel a bit swizzed if you wrote to Noel for, say, a new bike, and he just gave you a bike, and didn’t ‘surprise’ you with a holiday for you and him to Italy, to try it out on the Appian Way while giving backsies to Sophia Loren? Noel ends the segment by telling her to look after her handbag, “as it’s a bit tough in the city,” implying she’ll be violently mugged. Fa-la-la-la-la!

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Even speaking as a husk, the reunions are generally quite affecting, but there’s an undercurrent that makes me uncomfortable, with normal people thrust into hyper-emotional situations, often (like the GI father) with complex backstories, reduced to the need for a hug and some tears that can be soundtracked by the key-change in a power ballad, and all under the glare of the camera, while a gleeful puppetmaster prods his mic into the maelstrom. This really crosses a line inside a cramped Northern pub for “a double whammy reunion.” A frustrated Noel pokes away at Ray, who misses the point when asked three times if he’s with the family for Christmas — The whole family? All the relatives? — only to repeatedly says yes. Eventually Noel just tells him, “no, you’re not,” and it’s the old ‘sister in Australia for 30 years’ deal, so he brings her out. Back then, everyone had a family member who emigrated to Australia solely for the purpose of being wheeled on TV as a surprise decades later.

As Ray and sister Carol share the teary hug, Noel tells Carol he knows a lot about her. She went to Australia aged 21, after having to give up a daughter for adoption. Oh, Christ. He won’t, will he? Not here? Everyone holds their breath as he reminds Carol of what she already knows; that she hasn’t seen that child since giving it up — “until now! Come out and meet mum!” Having pulled the pin on a hand grenade of feelings, Noel casually wishes them a very, very Happy Christmas and leaves them to pick up the pieces. After donating musical instruments to a special needs school and giving one boy a ride home in his helicopter, there is but one final present. A bloke called Chris — who we soon find out is dying from cancer — has only one wish, to go halibut fishing with his cousin Danny, who lives in Seattle. Enter Noel, collaring him outside a restaurant before rather sharply admonishing him for taking a step off his mark; “don’t keep walking away!

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Fittingly for the last at the BBC, it’s your classic Christmas Present, with a double-surprise of two trips; one to meet Danny, and another taking them both to Canada, where halibut’s still in season. They make a gag out of Noel being dragged along too, taking to the water with slo-mo footage of seals and bent fishing rods, and Noel looking cool with his hands in his pockets in a red mac and Gorilla Monsoon tinted lenses. Noel flails from the splashback as Danny lands a 50lber, and the entire music budget kicks in, in the form of Westlife’s Flying Without Wings.

The last ever real Noel’s Christmas Presents closes, as it should, with an absolutely textbook image of Christmas; Noel Edmonds in an armchair, surrounded by festive finery; tree, roaring fire, glass of sherry, Christmas pudding dripping with custard, a posh tray overflowing with Ferrero Rocher. Notably, two stockings hang above the fireplace, the other, we must assume, for Mr. Blobby. Knowing it’s the end of an era, Noel wishes us goodbye “for the final time,” with a sudden jarring close-up that really made me laugh.

We’re played out with Come Oh Ye Faithful by a completely deaf organist (like Daredevil?), living out his dream of performing at Liverpool Cathedral, which Noel informs us is the largest organ in Europe. Subscribers to my OnlyFans may disagree. Accompanied by his granddaughter, they use three combined hands on the keys, like that scene in NCIS where two people stop a hacker by using the same keyboard at once.

Would this show work today? Not in its most-beloved form. Though there are some right thickos about, people are generally more paranoid, and we’re all besieged by scams on a daily basis. Won a ‘contest’ for tickets to the zoo that you didn’t remember entering? Fuck that. Probably gonna get jumped by Dark Web gangsters who’ll suck the Bitcoin straight from our anuses like they’re syphoning petrol. Or worse, Edmonds is gonna leap out at the lizard house and make us all go on holiday together. The analogue world of Christmas Presents was heavily based around family reunions, but now we’ve got Facetime and Zoom, if there’s a relative you’ve not seen or spoken to in thirty years, it’s probably because they’re a prick.

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I guess that’s why modern takes on the ‘surprise’ genre rely on celebrities, bringing out someone’s favourite athlete or actor, or if they’re lucky, Gloria Hunniford punching her way out of a box. That’s nice and all, but I don’t know if it carries the simple emotional weight of two siblings meeting for the first time in decades. Through a modern lens, Noel’s Christmas Presents is in turns genuinely moving, cloyingly manipulative, and weird as hell, and at its worst, it’s just more of Noel’s pranking but with a toy at the end, like a bearded Kinder Egg. It works best when packed away with all the other halcyon memories of Christmas past, along with the big film premiere, circling things in the Argos catalogue, and yellowing photos of a much smaller you, sat on the floor in pyjamas, surrounded by He-Man figures and tapes for your ZX Spectrum. Sure, looking back will evoke feelings of comfort, warmth, and better days, but if a game took 14 minutes to load today, you’d probably just sling it in the fire.

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You Are Haunted: Christmas Special

•December 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

yahsm

A grotto, an unexpected visitor, and an incident at the nativity.

The Christmas special of my podcast is now live, and stuffed with the creepy festive hauntology of grim British Christmases past.

https://franticplanet.podbean.com/

Runaround at Christmas

•December 13, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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As a little behind the curtain goss, I had intended to cover Mike Reid’s adult panto, Pussy in Boots this year, but then something else came along, which I simply couldn’t refuse (to be put up just before Christmas). But Reid’s such an iconically bizarre figure, I still needed to see what Christmas was like, as viewed through the yellow-tinted medallion-man specs of his cockney eyes. When I think of Reid, I always recall the time a sadly out-of-it (and much missed) Tara Palmer-Tomkinson appeared the worse for wear on Frank Skinner’s chat show, under the impression she’d be talking to Frank Butcher. The thing that amuses me isn’t so much the idea of Reid hosting a show as his EastEnders character, as the distinction between Reid and Butcher is Rizla thin anyway, but more the notion of Mike Reid — a man whose veins seem to flow with the slop from the drip tray, and with a laugh like a knuckleduster — hosting any telly at all. How weird and horrible would that be? Let’s find out, with a Christmas special from 1979.

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The Runaround studio’s set up like a circus ring, with Reid as the hybrid of ringmaster and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser. Truly, no-one has ever been so ill-fitting for a role as filthy-mouthed working men’s club comic Mike Reid presenting a kids show. It’s like someone took all the sights, scents and contents of 1970’s British pubs and magicked it all down into humanoid form. Hairy forearms, hairy chest, signet rings, skin like a leather handbag and the voice of someone who fills his 40 daily roll-ups with asbestos, he’s an amalgam of every anchor-tattooed daytrip coach driver stood scowling at the seaside on a smoke break. This isn’t a ‘don’t judge a book by it’s cover’ thing either, as he wears a perpetual grimace, chirpy scripted lines snarled through gritted teeth, with every word out of his mouth sounding like a threat.

We open on a Scottish piper playing Mull of Kintyre, sombrely marching through the darkness under a single spotlight like he’s leading a funeral procession, until joined by a full band in the studio. But the audience of rowdy, restless children aren’t even looking, with not a head turned the pipers’ way as they dutifully wail through the entire song. Instead, they amuse themselves with a pitched battle of crepe paper, ribbons and various under-seat detritus, flung over the entranceway that separates the bleachers like rival firms of hooligans lobbing batteries and coins at each other on a grim, rainy Saturday as a mud-streaked Trevor Brooking clatters into the advertising hoarding below.

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Even now, there’s something about children of the seventies I find rather frightening, perhaps a hangover from when I was young, and they represented the ultimate fear of bigger boys. If I went back in time, strutting around all cocky because I knew what Twitter was and I could see nudie ladies on my phone any time I wanted, as a jacked and handsome adult hunk, I’d still make a run for it if I saw a gang of tykes on Raleigh Choppers. They’d likely make a sport of chasing me down, tying me to a pylon, putting spiders in my mouth and bloodying my head with rocks; my delicate life of typing pleasingly-constructed sentences rendering me pitifully unable to fend off the perma-grazed little scrappers in dirty parkas who spend their evenings playing on the train tracks.

Almost three minutes later, the pipe band finally comes to a finish, inciting a loud, high-pitched cheer. Mike Reid is surrounded by children — this week’s contestants — who’ll be playing for tremendous prizes this fine Christmas Eve, including “a weekend in Brixton prison!” He’s joking (one assumes). With a “woss your name, son?” which has the energy of a store detective interrogating a boy he’s dragged to a locked back room on suspicions of eating a single chocolate mouse from the Pick ‘n’ Mix, the contestants introduce themselves. It’s a racially diverse group, and once he gets to Jaswinder, Reid repeats it in a stuttery voice; “juh-juh-juh-juh-jaswindah!” letting us know it’s a funny foreign name that is hard to say.

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Reid’s adjudicator this week is a black lady called Jude, whom he puts his arm around and informs us has just got back from holiday in Jamaica. “…and I said to her ‘what was the weather like?’ She said ‘marvellous, I’ve only been here three days, look!‘” Reid points at her skin and laughs, adding, “isn’t that fun, Christmas humour?” But before the game can begin, he corrals the pipe major for a chat, with a “d’you wanna come here, old son?” It’s an echoey studio, with Mike Reid’s rubbish questions about “do pipes take long to learn” reverberating off the walls, but still drowning beneath the background murmur of bored children. He pushes on, asking a beefeater of their wolfhound mascot “woss his name, govnor? Like the hat, son!

Eventually, the game can begin, and here’s how it works. The kids are given a bunch of multiple choice questions, and on Reid’s cue of “g-g-g-g-g-go!” — for which he briefly switches from mob enforcer to a Norman Wisdom voice — they pelt across the studio to stand on the circle which corresponds to what they believe is the correct answer. If they’re right, they get a tennis ball representing a point, which are collected in plastic tubes for scoring. It’s general knowledge and heavily clip-based, in that classic way of filling airtime by having each question be a minute of something else. We return from a scene culled from a particular Disney flick to Reid’s observation “How ’bout that? That was a Disney film called My Mother-in-Law’s Mouth. I’m sorry… The Black Hole.” Not one of these jokes get a laugh.

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Interaction with the contestants is unavoidable, and Reid has the hosting manner of both Krays at once, occasionally hunched with his hands on his knees, like someone told him that’s how to speak to children. But it’s not the players he has to worry about, forced to call for quiet from the row upon row of incessant shrieking and chattering, as a team of sled dogs enter the studio. An interview with the trainer is conducted over deafening whines, barks and howls, like that bit in The Thing, with Reid yelling at the top of his blackened lungs, but giving up after one question. He’s still aggressively chuckling about it after the dogs have gone, with a sarcastic “isn’t this fun” and a “fer crying out loud” where he may be smiling, but his blood’s piping hot.

At constant war with a studio of under-tens, he bellows a “listen to Mike!” just for a few second’s peace. The contestants too have short attention spans, looking around, whispering to each other, or fiddling with bits of the set. At one point, a lad’s got his arm poked down the tube they drop their tennis balls. The main problem is all the guest interviews are stuff that Mike Reid finds interesting, but children do not, like a posho in a vintage hot rod — “byootiful bit of machinery!” — who witters away while the audience toot on party blowers and chat amongst themselves. “Kids,” he yells, “I must ask yer once again, please be quiet, this is very interesting!” It’s not. Eventually, the contestants help push the car back out, with a warning “don’t touch the bodywork!” and as it cuts to the audience, one bored boy pops a gum bubble, while another’s head lolls to the side as he sinks into his seat, twisting the ends of his hair around a finger, vacant look on his face.

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The questions are just as kid-unfriendly, which they get away with because it’s multiple choice, with long-winded stuff like guessing the nationality of the Bugatti family who began building cars in 1901. Perennial guest Barbara Dickson does an in-studio spot with the dreary Caravan Song, where Reid mimics her Scottish accent, before the winner’s prizes come in, atop a Victorian horse and cart complete with waving Father Christmas. It’s one of the period-accurate scary ones with a cotton wool beard; your mate’s dad in a grotto in the utility closet of their local, not even bothering to put on a different voice and snorting up phlegm between kids.

Unfortunately, the contraption fills the entire studio floor, with two horses parked right in front of the main camera, completely blocking the view. The pipers break into Good King Wenceslas and fake snow falls from the ceiling, but none of the bulky 70’s cameras have room to get a clear shot of anything, so we cut between discordantly framed close-ups of army musicians, while the sound of Mike Reid’s angry voice can be heard shouting over the din. Fuck your chocolate box Victorians and their chestnuts, this is a proper period Christmas.

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I am able to add some minor production insight, courtesy of a water-damaged copy of Mike Reid’s autobiography, Triffic, which I was offered for free at a car boot 15 years ago, during a day of torrential rains. Perhaps unsurprising when you actually watch it is the speed they were made, with just eight weeks between receiving the script and the episode airing. Though it was pre-recorded, each show was taped as-live, with mistakes kept in, and filming starting at 4pm, wrapping by half-past. According to Reid, the first show was a disaster; a nine hour marathon where fifty sheep shat on the floor, while an elephant, well, I’ll let him tell it — “…its trunk round my plums, up my arse and sniffing my neck… when all of a sudden, this monstrosity of a cock starts to unfold. It was like a four-foot roll of lino.” The taping closed with Reid having to give an apologetic speech to an audience of children plus their parents and teachers after accidentally saying fuck.

Despite appearances, does he think of the show fondly? “Even today, I get people in their thirties and forties coming up to me and shouting ‘Runaround!’ And I go ‘yeah – nice one’, as though they’re the first person to have chucked it at me since the seventies.” Triffic! Moving onto 1980’s Christmas special, we open outside the entrance of Southern Television, where dual signs read SOUTH POLE and NORTH POLE, and a real reindeer and penguin mill around an igloo. An ‘Eskimo’ excitedly scuttles out of it to exclaim (in subtitles) “Hello everybody!!! It’s Christmas Runaround!!!

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Mike Reid’s pushed into the studio in a bob sled — “lahvlee!” — where it’s a special Runaround On Ice, with the floor turned into a skating rink, complete with a stuffed polar bear which looks like it was taxidermied by Picasso. Its lower jaw jutting past its snout, with a pair of beady doll’s eyes gazing into our souls, we’ll be treated to unsettling zooms on its existentially frightening face throughout the show. But Mike Reid is an earthy creature, at home on the solid ground of cobblestones and the beer ‘n’ blood soaked floorboards of his boozer, and not on the (faux) ice. Trapped on a pair of skates, he staggers bandy-legged towards the bear for something to cling onto, and will not leave the safety of its carcass for the entire show, spending almost the full half hour standing stock still, afeared of going arse over tit.

Welcome to Runaround,” he shouts, gazing at the bear’s fangs, “this is my mother-in-law. Her mouth’s as big as that, anyway.” Back outside, the Eskimo — “a right wally, ‘ave a look at this wally, go on” — demonstrates this week’s prizes. His supposed ‘Inuit’ dialogue sounds remarkably like Japanese, and the actor’s listed as Frankie Au, whose other credits include Son in The Chinese Detective, and Japanese Gentleman in a Terry and June. This is 1980, where the term ‘foreign’ is a broad umbrella, and we cut back to a cackling Reid, saying “televis-aahh!” in a Chinaman voice, demonstrating his versatility by going straight into a Jim Davidson-style Jamaican — “hoo yes, mon, welcome to de Christmas runaround!

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After the kids are introduced, he sings We Wish You a Merry Christmas in another foreign accent I can’t place, before pretending to make the bear growl. “What a wilf!” he says, before calling the kids “a load of wilfs” and inferring that he too might make a mistake, and would thus be “a wilf” himself. The audience are decidedly less riotous this year, sitting quietly in school uniforms, and clapping when they’re supposed to. Perhaps he sent someone round to ‘have a word’. Fucking wilfs.

This year’s first guests come from the Ice Follies show, skating onto the floor in a huge snake of colourful, extravagant costumes. There’s Aztec gods, sexy nutcrackers, a distressed poodle, a nightmare pig with big eyelashes and a Fu Manchu tash in an Oriental hat, and an extremely tight lycra frog outfit that’s giving me uncomfortable stirrings. Reid chats with the elderly man who runs the show, leaning on the bear for support, as they bring out a trio of costumes resembling the giant floating head from Zardoz, but painted silver with a pair of ladies legs poking out of the bottom. “Alright, big ‘ead?” laughs Reid, “like your hairstyle, who done that, the council?” The old man tells him they were supposed to be moon-people; “Ain’t got a bad pair-a legs for moon people, have they?” says Reidy. The man’s rather taken aback by this, stammering a “well, I don’t know, I haven’t studied them. I’ll take a look now…” As he cranes his head down towards the slender, silver thighs, I fear he’s about to have an awakening.

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The next guest is “a young lady, super skater, and a lovely looking girl.” Eighteen-year-old figure skater Ruth Lindsay spins around the rink doing a few twirls, but in the cramped space (and with a bear in the way), she’s limited to unspectacular and very slow spinning, jumping about half an inch off the floor. Reid admires from the safety of the bear as she passes, in her short skirt and leotard, greeting her for the chat with an “allo, gorgeous.” There are banging sounds through the interview, which I think is the kids sat above, boredly kicking their feet against the set, while the most Reid-ian question is whether she keeps her weight down by dieting. “Beautiful young lady, fine skater. Delightful!

In the related quiz question, Reid’s overwhelming instinct to be racist at every turn leaves him unable to even say the words “John Curry” without said surname causing him to drop into an Indian accent to remark “vunderful person!” Another question about the plant under which people kiss at Christmas is asked in a camp voice, because of how unmanly and effeminate the act of kissing is. One about who wrote A Christmas Carol has the wrong answers of Rudyard Kipling, whom Reid mispronounces as “Roger,” and Shakespeare as “Shakes-pove…” But it’s a Rudolph question that does him in, specifically an illustration of the reindeer with a torch strapped to its head. Something about this image reduces Reid to hysterics, purple-faced and wheezing through his “g-g-g-g-go!” and grasping onto the bear to stop from slipping as his legs go. By the time the kids get back, he’s still bemt double, muttering “wiv a torch… I can’t believe that, can you believe that?

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After a performance by Madness, dressed as Santas and miming to One Step Beyond, it’s the end of the quiz, where a little child’s voice, full of the joys of the season, can he heard crying out “it’s snowing!” Reid replies “it’s snowin’ again? Oh, fer crying out loud.” Counting the scores, he walks very gingerly across the floor, like a man with a recently burst anal fissure. The winner’s decided after a tie-breaker, and our host announces “have we got a surprise for you, OR WOT?! Everybody follow Michael!” Like a Polio-stricken Pied Piper, he inches his way across the floor as the kids — and Madness — follow behind. Suggs’s legs go out from under him, and he crashes right on the back of his head for a definite concussion. To the audience, for a brief moment, it must look like Santa just died.

There’s a frankly incredible green screen of a sleigh flying over the studio, as we pan down to Reid and the kids stood outside the igloo, and he shakes hands with the Japanese Eskimo with a “nice to see you,” adding “woss he talking about? What a lot of rubbish!” A reindeer’s pulled into frame by a stage hand, and I do mean pulled, tug-of-warring with the poor thing, which does not want to be there, bucking angrily against the rope. The sleigh behind is hilariously rinkydink; literally a small plastic sledge from Woolies, which can barely contain its massive Father Christmas, revealed to be Big Daddy — again, with a superb cotton wool beard — aggressively hurling presents at the children.

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The British Hulk Hogan, Big Daddy’s physique is a genuine wonder for someone who became a household name as a pseudo sportsman. Hilariously unathletic, he’s comprised of 90% gut, which Reid can’t stop touching, and which makes his limbs appear disconcertingly baby-like in comparison. The effort of standing up off the sleigh just about finishes him off, with the cold weather giving a wicked case of rosacea. Unsurprisingly, Daddy deems Christmas “the finest day of year, we can eat all the grub and drink all we want to.” I think you’ve probably had enough, mate. Famously, he made a career of standing on the apron while younger partners did all the work, tagging in for the big belly bounce — the most devastating finish in wrestling history — which on request, he gives to Mike Reid. Thank God he must’ve held back, because we might never have had Frank Butcher. The pair break into We Wish You A Merry Christmas as the nightmare pig returns, and Christmas Runaround 1980 goes off air with everyone posing for a photo, while Big Daddy holds a frightened, thrashing reindeer in place by the antlers.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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

Bad Influence!

•December 2, 2020 • 2 Comments

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[GamesMaster Part IGamesMaster Part II]

I simply couldn’t cover GamesMaster without looking at its opposite number, CITV’s Bad Influence! “I have observed, Millard,” you sniff, “the exclamation point denoting your wild excitement. I’d venture we’re in for quite the thrill ride?” Please be aware, you idiot, that this punctuation is not an endorsement, but part of the show’s title; like Airplane! or That Darn Cat!, in reference to the shrieking moral panic around videogames in the early 90s. With this ‘owning it’ reclamation of the medium’s bad-boy rep, it seems like the two shows got their identities switched, with Bad Influence! sat in the post-school, pre-Home and Away slot, right after the cartoons, while its rival was held together by Dominik Diamond’s barely-even-single entendres about firing spunk from the end of his nob like a WW2 anti-aircraft gun.

But despite the title, it shared more with Tomorrow’s World‘s puff pieces about a toaster that tells you it loves you than it did its cultural sister-show on C4, and feels like it would’ve ran and hid in the stationary cupboard when it heard GamesMaster coming, for fear of getting another dead leg. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. We must start at the beginning, with episode one, airing on October 29th, 1992, nine months after GamesMaster‘s debut. After being poisoned by that show’s unending stream of filth, I must keep reminding myself this was aimed squarely at children, literally airing on Children’s ITV. But it’s still jarring to go from Diamond to Andy Crane, who’s got the vibe of a hip youth pastor, handing out photocopied celibacy pledges for everyone to sign before the pizza arrives (plain cheese; one to share between everybody).

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Credits open on Andy and co-host Violet Berlin playing a game — rather like people do in EastEnders, wrestling the controllers up by their faces — before jumping into the screen, with Andy holding his head like he’s going to be sick. The in-game characters are human-dinosaur hybrids which function as the BA! mascots — referred to as ‘humanasaurs’ — a pair of Poochies in American college jackets, one with an afro, the other a rockin’ mohawk and shades. Like almost everything in 2020, the cool-dude dinos have been ruined by the knowledge that putting up so much as a screengrab is inviting certain corners of the internet to start tugging themselves over it.

While Violet Berlin is an avid and outspoken gamer, Crane admitted in later interviews to have not been fussed. I’m not saying he lacks the expertise to front a techy show, but in his introduction, he brags “this is the only place you’ll be able to see moving screenshots of the latest games.” Moving screenshots? Do you mean… video? With jorts over red leggings and a bleach-blonde Guile haircut, Berlin was the crush of every nerd boy watching at home, with the inevitable heartbreak of discovering she’s married to How 2‘s Gaz Top, forming the true British 90’s power couple, one rung above Posh and Becks. In research, I fell down a Gaz Top rabbithole, and found he’s spent the last few years appearing in a stage production about Tommy Cooper.

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Bad Influence! was shot in the studio that housed 3-2-1 and Rising Damp, and they’ve given it an airy, open-plan feel, brightly lit and full of kids stood playing random consoles like the demo stations in shops. It was one of the first shows to be broadcast in surround sound, so early adopters could have the sensory thrill of Andy Crane’s voice in various positions around their head. The pacing’s strongly of that era producers were convinced children would change the channel if the conversation lingered on a single topic for longer than 0.5 seconds, and flits back and forth between segments like, as my mum would say, “a fart in a colander.” Andy blows dust off an old BBC Micro, as I flash back to being seven years old in our school’s ‘computer room’ (computer singular), and my hands instinctively begin typing 10 print willy, 20 goto 10. He asks a girl on a Quickshot Supervision what she’s playing, and she mumbles a response, though it appears not to be switched on. The Quickshot is just the first in many examples of dead-tech and vapourware, with the series devoting more time to abandoned or forgotten consoles and speculated releases than the boxes everyone was playing Sonic on.

Violet runs us through the incredible innovation of Deluxe Paint, with about 24 colours to choose from, painstakingly writing her name with a mouse in a way that’s unfathomably quaint, and must look to modern kids; casually posting intricate greenscreen videos on TikTok; like a caveman bashing a line of bloody handprints against the rock. “I don’t think Rolf Harris has got too much to worry about,” says Andy. Oh, I don’t know. Talking of men who’d be locked away from society, we periodically pass over to a shed, where cheat-code guru Nam Rood lives. His bits are cut in with static like he’s hacked the broadcast, surrounded by piles of cables and sticking level select codes to his forehead on long strips of card. Rood’s doing a kind of shaven headed, pre-watershed Rik Mayall, in red waistcoat and fingerless gloves, and you can tell he’s an anarchist, as he’s got his boots up on the desk.

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‘Nam Rood’ is Door Man backwards, as in, he’s giving you the back door to games, and he refers to viewers as “furtlers.” This all plays on that 90’s idea of computers as a secretive underground world with its own hidden language, a concept which sold stacks of books in the early days of the internet, to parents navigating the slang of dial-up, such as ‘LOL’ or ‘my wife is seeking BBC’. The review sections are handled by kids, unscripted and wittering on with insights like “I like the graphics, this is a good game,” while one lad gives a thumbs down to Battletoads —I’m not that keen on it, it’s just gratuitous violence.” And today’s kids are snowflakes? BA‘s odd house style splits the scores into separate ratings for boys and girls, I guess figuring there’d be a gender split between cutesy graphics and shooting at shit, but generally the scores are identical.

Transatlantic tech reports come from a teen with the impressively irritating name of Z Wright, clearly meant to be one of those cool Americans that impress British viewers, like kids skateboarding in adverts for yoghurt or Dexter Fletcher’s accent in Press Gang. They even cue him in by heading “stateside,” which nobody has ever said outside of handing over to Ross King for naff Hollywood gossip. Z’s taking a virtual reality tour of the Seattle skyline, with pan pipe music over horrible 90’s VR so jerky I went though two birthdays between every frame. He shows off futuristic VR equipment, like the Data Glove, which looks like something Michael Jackson would use to molest the characters of Skool Daze, and signs off with “Z Wright for Bad Influence in Seattle… SORRY — in Cyberspace!

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One thing in Bad Influence‘s favour is the refusal to pander to companies who’ve given them a look at new games or gear. If something’s shit, they’ll let you know, and the pair bring up how real VR’s not that impressive when compared to Lawnmower Man. Yeah, that movie where a guy webs a woman to the floor with cyber-cum during their gyroscope computer-sex; bet your audience of 10-year-olds loved that bit. But all arguments about virtual reality are put to bed by renowned tech aficionado, Andy ‘Guy Goma’ Crane — “take my opinion, it’s excellent.” Fair enough.

The show comes to an end with a warning to standby for the Datablast; a gimmick where pages of fast-moving text are packed onto the credits, and can only be read with the decade’s most judicious use of a VHS pause button outside of watching your Eurotrash tape when mam was out doing the big shop. Lee and Herring would do something similar a few years later with the credits on Fist of Fun, and decrypting info like this gave kids the feel of being a super hacker, although it’s only now, decades on, that it can actually be viewed as intended, no longer hidden behind the terrible track-lines and lucky draw pausing that rendered it unreadable at the time. The bulk of it’s news, cheats and game reviews, but excitingly, all the way down on page 48 is “Bad Influence jargon,” with the following invaluable resource for time travellers finding themselves trapped back in the nineties, hammering on Andy Crane’s door for help like he’s Doc Brown.

Jurassic — Excellent

Triassic — Not So Excellent

Turnip — A nasty tasting vegetable

Ream — better than Jurassic

Many — no way man!

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We skip forwards to an episode from September of 1993, opening the second series with trendy Andy, shirt tucked into his jeans, promising more of our old favourites, “including some phat reviews!” What we need, he tells us, “is one of those new personal computers you can write on. [terrible American accent] Right on!” Oh, Andy. The Amstrad PenPad supposedly learns your handwriting and translates it into text, though when Andy writes his name, it comes up as AnGr CrAnO. Judging by Alan Sugar’s tweets, he’s still got his hooked up to the Wi-Fi. In a further dig, the end credits are all in misspelled gibberish, having supposedly been written on the device. Sugar must’ve been bladdy fuming.

In this new series, Rood’s taken on more of a pallid complexion, sickly-skinned with dark, junkie circles drawn under his eyes, and the studio’s filled with flannel-clad teens and tweens just wandering about, chatting amongst themselves. There’s a real vibe of a youth club night, the chaperones and leaders attempting to cajole surly kids into a game of pool, but they’re all off by the bins tying to talk girls into swapping a cigarette for a quick feel. Any time one of the background kids realises they’re on camera, they give a scowl before turning their backs and returning to more important business. Andy calls Z the Z-Man as he bigs up the 3DO, while Violet hypes up CDs, erroneously stating a single CD can hold as much info as 800 floppy disks.

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The review kids are just as mopey, with a monotone destruction of the Jurassic Park game (or in BA-speak, Excellent Park), as “an average platform game hyped on the back of a major film license,” or “overrated, just like the film.” One girl moans about Soccer Kid because “I found the title misleading… it was not a sports game.” In the scoring, Cool-Guy Crane surfs in with “the girls gave it a PHAT 4/5,” but then over-eggs the righteous pudding — “and the boys gave it a PHAT 4/5 too.” Even Violet’s at it with the next game, which gets another “PHAT 4/5.” Sorry, but I only play games whose score is THICCC.

At time of airing, the coming weekend saw the home release of Mortal Kombat, which Andy plays (no doubt after a quick couple of puffs on the inhaler), randomly smashing the buttons as he talks and barely taking a sliver of health from his AI opponent before dying. The big story at the time was a gore code which added digitised blood, to which Andy addresses the camera, “take it from me, it doesn’t add anything to the gameplay, bear this in mind before you part with your hard-earned.” Violet, meanwhile, rages; “once again, videogames have been put under the spotlight and given bad press by people who really don’t know what they’re talking about.” By now, the Datablast is expanded to 98 pages, but the font’s massive, and it’s mostly stuff they’ve already covered, barring a news section that claims Arnie’s going to make a comeback in Terminator 3 (which was still a decade off), with a profoundly 90’s joke of misspelling his name as “Arnold Schwartzomeaba-ger.”

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Finally, it’s forwards another year, to the series 3 opener in September of 1994. There’s a markedly different feel, with new opening titles which ditch the humanasaurs for an industrial look; all early CG machine parts, and screens showing images from (or ‘inspired’ by) Rise of the Robots, one of the worst games ever. Clearly they’re trying for a slightly older demographic, with a clanking industrial remix of the theme, and even the studio’s darker, opening with Andy promising “amazing new titles, fantastic new sets!” Christ, is this going to be like GamesMaster, when Dominik went from cheeky chappy to serial killer? Is Andy gonna spend the whole show harping on about pushing things right up inside his pale bottom? Thankfully, he’s quickly lifted in the air by promotions actors wearing a rubber mask and lampshade hat, dressed as Mortal Kombat characters, and squealing in a way that marks him as the same old lovely soy-boy.

Nam’s been moved from the shed to the basement, with half his dialogue now consisting of Rik-like noises, and the game-reviewing kids are noticeably older. One would definitely get served in pubs, and looks like he knows his way round a flick-knife. These, says Violet, in a rather barbed statement, are experts, and unlike games journalists, they actually buy games. Plus Bad Influence‘s new rating’s system doesn’t give a fig about graphics or sound, focussing purely on playability; in an early vanguard for “actually, it’s about ethics in games journalism.”

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The rest’s more of the same; Z in So-Cal meeting the man behind Earthworm Jim; Violet at a computer trade show looking at more VR headsets which’ll never get released, and Andy demonstrating a word-processor that types what you dictate to it (very, very slowly) through a headset mic, losing massively in a race against a secretary using her fingers. I always dread having some kind of accident to my hands where I have to use one of those, where anyone passing by the window will hear me yelling about Noel Edmonds cleaning out Mr Blobby’s litter tray or whatnot. We close on a deeply embarrassing ‘interview’ with Rayden from Mortal Kombat, who keeps shoving Andy to the floor, before Violet sends him packing. Rather impressively for 1994, there’s an email address over the end credits, though it’s a string of 10 random numbers @ Compuserve, and the Datablast’s gone too. It’s probably for the best, as with this new harder-edged attitude, you’d just be freeze framing through Andy Crane’s self-penned erotica about a man who sees a lady’s ankle.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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

Uri Geller’s Cursed

•November 22, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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Ah, Uri Geller. For a man so spectacularly up my alley, at the exact convergence point of naff paranormalism and television kooks, it was inevitable we’d meet on these pages for a deep dive. I have touched on Geller before, briefly in my book Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal, and in his appearance on Gamesmaster. He is, to put it in a way he won’t sue me for, an interesting man. Famously litigious, I’d like to state for the record, Uri is definitely real, and bends spoons with his mind and not just his hands when people aren’t looking. He absolutely does not flag copyright claims on his Gotcha clip from Noel’s House Party whenever it turns up on YouTube, as a hidden camera at an unfortunate angle definitely didn’t inadvertently catch him physically bending a spoon under the table. No, Uri Geller is legit, and 100% not a man who’s made an entire career off the back of basic conjuring tricks coupled with the distanced, alien aura of a colossal weirdo.

But whatever you believe about Uri Geller’s claims of extraordinary powers, it’s clear that he believes it, taking credit for various historic occurrences over the years. Moving the opposition’s ball during England’s penalty shoot-outs, the signing of nuclear arms treaties, Boris Johnson’s election win (via the gift of a spoon infused with positive energy), and the interruption of a crucial Brexit vote when a broken pipe flooded the House of Commons; if it happened, it was thanks to Geller, psychically altering the very molecules of our timeline like Dr. Manhattan. But like every tortured movie psychic, he’s pathologically incapable of turning it off. In an early 2000’s Channel 4 documentary, he exhausted everyone on a family holiday by repeatedly trying to guess the age of a stranger’s dog, while his Vimeo account’s packed with dozens of videos where he wanders through Israel at night, switching off street lights (and definitely not security lights on timers) with his mind; “1, 2, 3… turn off!

(Note: since originally posting this on Patreon last month, Uri’s at it again, using his powers to make Scotland’s opposition miss a penalty, and definitely not just rewinding his Sky+ and pretending)

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Though in some circles, he was best known as Michael Jackson‘s best mate — until suggesting MJ go with Martin Bashir instead of Louis Theroux, for a film which ended up sparking another child abuse trial, ending their friendship — Geller’s career has been ludicrously expansive. In truly countless TV appearances, he wowed audiences by using his mind (and not a magnetic ring) to make compasses move, radish seeds sprout in his hand, and to fix the broken appliances of viewers by having them hold it to the screen and shout “work!” He’s been on Stars in Their Eyes (as Charles Aznavour), I’m a Celebrity (finishing in last place), cameoed in a 1976 issue of Daredevil, and even released a single of spoken word poetry, reciting it in phonetic Japanese for the foreign pressing. Perhaps the highlight of a simply bursting CV is in a comedy sketch, telepathically bending Lenny Henry’s dick, and causing him to violently douse the bloke at the next urinal with hot piss.

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But while there’s an outrageous number of documentaries about Uri Geller, the thing I’m focussing on is a rare example of his taking the role as presenter. Uri Geller’s Haunted Cities: Venice aired on Sky One, Sunday January 9th, 2005 at 9pm, and judging from the title, I’m assuming it was a pilot for a prospective series of Uri bending in various locales.

Uri’s voiceover, both in grizzled foreign accent and misanthropic content, sounds like one of those bad Werner Herzog impressions, tragically overwrought in its attempts to inspire dread, as he tells us he’s “travelled the world in pursuit of the supernatural,” and come to a city he feels has been calling to him for years; a place “bedevilled by unexplained paranormal forces and death.” It’s all straight from the paranormal TV playbook, with spooky establishing shots of old buildings and portentous flocks of birds. This is a tiny production, and at points, Uri will allude to a crew, but it’s just him and a director/cameraman. Everything’s shot handheld on classic noughties digital video, which gives the feel of a holiday video by a divorced dad whose kids were meant to be coming, but cancelled last minute for a friend’s BBQ, leaving him traipsing round Venice alone, trying to strike up conversations with people who don’t speak English by putting an ‘a’ on the end of every word in a loud voice.

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Uri’s investigating the curse of Palazzo Dario (in native tongue Ca’Dario); a haunted palace overlooking the Grand Canal, whose mysteries he’s determined to solve. Anyone who lives in the sumptuous mansion will die, with a litany of murders, suicides, unexplained deaths, and bankruptcies in its walls. Rumours say the Devil lives there, and supposedly Woody Allen was interested in buying, but got scared off by its reputation. “I’ll be honest with you,” says famed truth-teller Uri Geller, “I’m terrified!” However, it turns out Uri’s yet to schedule a visit to the currently-empty palazzo, and doesn’t know who owns it, or even have details for anyone who can get him inside.

To enhance my sensitivity to Venice’s underworld,” he’s staying at another haunted palace, where the bedroom confessional cams are shot, in a classic example of superimposing a viewfinder and flashing red dot with the word REC to pretend it’s a different camera. There’s a weird sequence of Uri in bed clearly just pretending to sleep, anxiously twitching like a dog dreaming of squirrels, and obviously filming himself, like an Instagram captioned “can’t believe my gf took this of me sleeping lol” with a reflection that reveals the phone in their own hand. The general tone is a preposterous self-seriousness, every scene with Uri gazing into the middle distance, intensely and quietly ruminating; a body language that embodies headshots of men’s rights authors, thoughtfully grasping their chins while musing on Disney’s race-pandering and whether raw meat makes your big penis even bigger. Few have ever taken themselves so seriously as Uri Geller does in Venice.

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Days are introduced in caption like The Shining, suggesting our slide towards impending doom, and it’s off to a flier, as the morning after they arrive, Venice suffers its worst flooding in fifty years. Of course, it’s interpreted as a bad omen, with the very city itself trying to keep Uri from his quest; “an obstacle that has been thrown in my path to test me, perhaps?” This whole subplot where the presenter’s not merely investigating, but actively meddling with dark forces, which may even follow them home, was hugely popular with ghost hunting shows around this time, with everyone acting like they had ghost-induced PTSD. When Most Haunted‘s rigger developed alopecia, it was sold as the trauma of a spiritual attack, and the opening of every live show saw its audience treat the cast like heroic, battle scared soldiers returning from conflict. Thankfully, this does give us a truly incredible Alan Partridge moment, as seen below.

Alright, stop shouting! Perfectly normal, by the way, to enjoy your fashionable Italian breakfast, daintily dabbing the corners of your mouth with a tissue, while squatting on a table like a goblin because all the chairs are submerged in filthy canal water. With no hook-ups for the palazzo, sad Uri’s left trudging round the city in wellies, bothering random locals in the hopes they can help, pestering waiters who don’t speak English about Da’Cario, like someone in Union Jack shorts trying to mime egg and chips to a Spaniard, leading to helpful exchanges like this.

     Waiter: “Very…

     Uri: “Very, huh?

     Waiter: “Murder.

     Uri: “Thank you.

I mustn’t keep invoking Alan, but there’s a huge Partridge in Paris energy, with the overly contemplative Uri cutting a lonely figure in Venice’s crowds, his ensemble of black polo neck and Wellington boots irrefutably Goth Casual, at one point taking off a jacket and slinging it over his shoulder — “a paranormalist in Venice. It’s Aleister Crowley. It’s Gomez Addams. It’s Kelly Osbourne.”

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Unable to actually visit the palazzo he’s there to investigate, most of the run-time’s taken with Uri establishing Venice as Hell itself, plagued with restless spirits and sites of gruesome historic murder. Story after story play out under Uri’s narration as cheap reconstructions; a monk burned at the stake who haunts the city by turning on taps; the butcher who filled his sausages with children’s flesh; a female gangster whose torso was dumped in the canal inside a suitcase. The scares are somewhat undercut by the quality of the recreations, where at one point, I’m almost certain you can spot the sellotape holding up a false beard.

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The relentless stream of horrors, coupled with talk of Venice Syndrome — a psychological condition drawing people there for the sole purpose of killing themselves — gives the impression anyone daring to visit will almost certainly be dragged beneath the waters by the city’s many devils, casting brave Uri as the paranormal equivalent of a warzone journalist, risking life, limb and mortal soul. Even visually, the city’s presented as gloomy and dangerous, in perpetual darkness, with daytime footage shrouded beneath murky day-for-night filters, and a stuttery frame-drop effect from 1980’s TOTP over endless footage of the camera following Uri as he staggers through a labyrinth of narrow, flood-slicked alleyways.

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The angle they’re going with is The Wicker Man‘s, of the outsider detective struggling to get the time of day from tight-mouthed locals, as windows literally shutter at the approach of his footsteps. With no response from Ca’Dario’s owners, he tracks down a builder who did some work there, only to have a door slammed in his face, packing an incredible amount of bad acting into its three seconds. Wandering Venice’s maze of murder alleys, Uri’s blanked at every turn, even to ask for directions. “You speak English?” he asks a woman laden with shopping — “No.” Stopping another group, he’s aghast when they refuse to talk about the curse, and absolutely livid to be told “I don’t know” when asked where the Grand Canal is. “It’s fucking there!” yells Uri, pointing at it, which begs the question why he was asking where it was. The dizzying section ends with Uri spinning, arms outstretched, his voice echoing in an empty square — “I’m lost, please, I’m lost! WHERE AM I? HELP ME!

Still unable to get in the haunted house, he makes an excursion to one of Venice’s plague islands, but not before a pensive cup of coffee, where we cut back to Uri’s empty cup to reveal the spoon inside is now bent. Once on the island, he’s psychically drawn to the old hospital, where a dirge of buzzing flies fill the soundtrack, and stumbles outside, sweaty and reeling. It’s there he senses something in the undergrowth, and with hands outstretched seemingly following a telepathic instinct towards the ground, he discovers a hidden trapdoor. “Oh my god… oh my god!” cries Uri, with a level of acting one might see on Christmas Day — “oh, a Jeremy Clarkson book, thanks, dad” — before reaching down and pulling out… an actual human skull.

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Fucking hell. Imagine you’re just walking round hundreds of years ago, living your life, not knowing that the head you carry on your shoulders, eat with, talk with, kiss your lover with, will one day be casually picked up as a prop by that bloke who bends cutlery with his mind (and definitely not with his hands). “Oh my god, what have I found?!” he says, tossing it down wherever and fleeing. “I feel I’ve gotten into something even I didn’t bargain for.” Me too. Hard cut to Uri Geller in the shower, scrubbing off the bad vibes of the plague pit, though thankfully he’s only seen from the shoulders up, because with his powers, I bet he’s got a cock like a Curly Wurly.

Following the desecration of an unmarked grave, Day 3 begins with pulling on wellies in front of a Wonderbra billboard, before a visit to a cemetery on All Souls Day, where he idly fiddles with memorial trinkets on graves as he meanders through. Then, stood wistfully staring at the palazzo, he finally lands a meeting with Ca’Dario’s estate agent, and takes him down an alley, specifically so the house can’t see them gossiping about it. The estate agent confirms that people have heard noises at night, which is all the info he gives, as the conversation ends very abruptly with Uri suddenly pulling the man into a tight embrace and bidding him “bye bye!

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By the final act, a now-shirtless Uri’s confessionals are those of a beaten man, feeling his plan to “channel positivity into the house” and defeat the curse may be beyond even him. There’s another shot of Uri sleeping, twitching in nightmares shown as a montage of the recreations, though as it zooms in on his squirming face, it rather looks as though he’s having a powerful psychic wank. Soon he’s up and about, woken by ghostly noises tapping on the pipes, continuing the old story of the investigator getting lost inside his own case. “I’m so tired,” he says, rubbing his eyes.

At this point, there’s a very offhand cut to a green-tinted night vision shot of Uri sat up in bed, where, some feet away, a wooden chair moves across the floor by itself. “I’m really stunned that I can move this chair like this with my mind,” he says, in incongruously calm voiceover; “or is it an external force at work?” Is a piece of string an external force, Uri mate? Repeatedly, the chair drags itself across the floor, inches at a time, as he explains this is telekinesis, “but I’ve never been able to do it as easy as this before, and that really scares me.” Then it’s straight onto Day 4, the whole chair thing dropped in with an absurd faux-casualness; like someone coming back from the pub toilets with a “that was a nice wee I just had out of my ten-inch willy. Anyone see the game last night?” Replicate this in lab conditions, and Uri would be confirmed and lauded as the most amazing man in the world that he constantly tells you he is, but it’s just another day at the office — “My Ferrari? Oh, that old thing?”

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On the final day, he’s somehow landed access to Ca’Dario, via a housekeeper (that we never see). He feels like St. George about to face the dragon, praying the house doesn’t kill him, and telling the story of his friend Kit Lambert, manager of The Who, a former owner who died mysteriously from a haemorrhage (although from a quick Google, he actually died in London after allegedly being pushed down a staircase by a drug dealer). The empty palazzo is unfurnished, and Uri reckons its curse may be due to the architect looting relics from the mystic East; that “a piece designed to ward off evil in an Eastern environment, when misplaced here, has worked in the reverse.” He brings up Woody Allen’s interest again, whose superstitious wife put him off buying, but with a really obviously dubbed in after-the-fact-for-legal-reasons “ALLEGEDLY” which sounds like it was recorded in a toilet. See for yourself.

It’s then that he hears banging downstairs, and takes out a dowsing pendulum to seek out problematic spots of dark energy, leading him to the fireplace. “There’s something here…” he says, crystal swinging wildly, “yes yes!” Now with a taste for vandalism, he tugs at a loose brick, pulling out an old black and white photograph of a mummified corpse, dated 1941, which had been secreted many years earlier. Fearing ghostly repercussions, he puts it back, before a sudden fourth wall break, telling the cameraman “I can’t take it anymore. Stop. Stop filming.” It’s another Oscar-worthy performance as he stomps out of the palazzo — “there’s evil here!” — pleading with the crew to get out, before losing it all together. “Jason, I told you once, CUT! GET OUT OF HERE!” A desperate Uri grabs the boom mic, “GET THAT FUCKING BOOM OUT OF HERE, GET OUT OF HERE!

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Uri Geller’s Haunted Cities: Venice ends with blurry footage of the crew pelting for safety before making escape via boat like James Bond, and a closing voiceover that really leans into the Bobby-Davro-does-Herzog deal, describing Da’Cario as “like radiation; you can only be exposed to so much. It’s eclectic structure reeks of discord like an out of tune piano, and it’s this disharmony that feeds the curse. I hope I have not fallen pray to the curse of Ca’Dario. Only time will tell.” But like the ghost hunter who thinks it’s all over, only to realise the demons have followed them home, our nightmare has only just begun, as I regret to inform you there’s a second version of this show; one which sheds new light on events in the original.

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Giving no other context, and labelled on YouTube as Awful Re-Edit by Uri Geller, what I can surmise from Googling its production logo, this seems to be a version sold to Germany and Greece, as part of a package deal with the original, under the new title of Uri Geller’s Cursed. Though judging from a trailer, it’s an early cut of something intended for much wider release. What this definitively isn’t is the version that aired on Sky, reusing almost none of the footage, and falling under a different genre altogether, although running the same length at 74 minutes. Going in completely blind, little did I know, this would be the single greatest discovery in all my years as pop culture archaeologist of terrible, terrible shit; both the best and worst thing I have ever seen.

Haunted Venice 2.0 opens with text quotes bigging up yer man’s credentials; a professor of psychology stating “Uri Geller is extraordinarily gifted in telepathy”; the rather nebulous-sounding New Horizon Research Center, on his having “bent or divided” metal objects “such as to prove conclusively that the phenomena were genuine and paranormal.” A third endorsement from a physicist fills the screen, bragging how Uri wonkied his key, as more captions identify Uri as a “paranormalist,” who was invited to investigate Venice by a major TV network. Intriguingly, it’s described as a document of that trip, “interspersed with disturbing images from the film footage that Geller discovered.” Uri then bends a spoon.

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The opening’s far more cinematic than the original, with spooky shots of Venice under an original score, landing on the word CURSED written in condensation on a window, tinted red to look bloody. As it turns out, this is less a re-edit than a complete do-over, taking a hard left turn from documentary to… something else entirely. It’s a long ol’ while before we get to Venice, starting two weeks earlier, where Uri’s stricken with a psychic flu, brought about by delving into the cursed palazzo [BEEP]. Jarringly, as explained by more captions, this time, the producers have ‘had to’ hide the identity of Ca’Dario to protect the owner’s identity.

What follows are a series of video diaries, more professionally lit and lacking that REC nonsense, of the lead-up to Uri’s trip; cancelling a lecture in Sunderland because of dark energies; being interviewed on a “hit talk radio show”; sharing his story of the day a ghost banged on his front door. Round here we call that Knock Down Ginger. But mainly, the pre-amble’s an exercise in establishing Uri Geller as important and well-connected, dropping names like a shitty juggler, to crowbar in a series of phonecalls where famous friends — knowledgable in “curses, omens, supernatural, the paranormal” — give him advice.

Unfortunately, he’d fallen out with Jacko by then, so we get a private jet salesman, writers Colin Wilson and James Herbert — the latter Uri’s sure to tell us has had a book turned into a movie starring Kate Beckinsale — and “world famous, world renowned fashion designer” Roberto Cavalli. Wilson warns that a ghost could use Uri’s powers to travel from the TV into viewer’s homes (like Mr. Pipes), while Cavalli fails to answer a dozen calls. Of course, this is suggested to be the curse working its wicked magick, leading to footage of Uri shouting into a Blackberry, over-pronouncing his own name to Cavalli’s secretary at the top of his lungs — “OO-REE GE-LEHR!” Evidently, a couple of years from the launch of the iPhone, Blackberries were the fancyboy gadget of choice, as there are many scenes of Uri holding one up to his face while pretending to listen to messages which were dubbed on afterwards.

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Fifteen minutes in, Uri brings up a mysterious videotape. He’s evasive with details, only that it contains “horrible crimes” and they’ve sent it to the Italian authorities, who never replied. Incredibly confusing, not until much later does it become clear that some video diaries — this one included — date from after the visit to Venice. The tape itself shows a shirtless man covered in stage blood, thrashing and screaming in a scene of extremely poor no-budget horror, which Uri seems to imply is a paranormal snuff film. In a massive coincidence, it’s lit, framed and shot with wobbly close-ups in bad DV exactly in the distinctive house style of all the flashback/recreations from the Sky version of Haunted Venice.

While the first had the pretence of being a regular TV doc, this one’s constructed to elicit cheap scares, filling its eerie soundtrack with ticking clocks and screeching cats, and using loud jumps, like a sudden (and hilariously off-topic) close-up of a grey alien, which genuinely made me shit it. Even as Uri plays up how he may never return home, sweetly saying goodbye to his wife, it cuts abruptly to the pained death-howls of the ‘snuff’ tape. It’s almost half an hour in before we finally arrive in Venice, where Uri shows off his protective talismen, before a scene which feels like it got edited in by mistake. He’s oddly chipper, discussing how pleased he is with the establishing shots of birds the director’s got, and how much he’s looking forwards to making the film, which he tellingly calls a “docudrama.”

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Day One passes without note, as does Day Two, and where the first version was overpacked with ghost stories, when Cursed gets abroad, it becomes Slow TV, with languid shots of a pensive Uri strolling round Venice or sipping coffee, and murky footage of canals and clouds. Sparse voiceovers come like ad breaks, with Uri telling us he’s feeling anxious, before three more long, wordless minutes of doomy skies and buildings; a pan across an empty marsh; a construction crane; Uri pretending to be asleep on a boat. I cannot stress firmly enough that nothing is happening. Who’s this for? It’s all filler, with a somnambulist pace that’s ASMR for occultists; the demented travelogue of a 60 year old man, meandering flooded streets, convinced he’s going to die of ghosts.

Occasionally, he’ll chat with a tourist, asking a Welsh family if they believe in the paranormal, but you can’t hear them over the droning soundtrack and perma-slosh of the canal, so it doesn’t matter. On Day Three, we briefly see the cemetery visit, under the sound of howling winds, before more of him ‘asleep’ on a boat, flat on his back like Dracula on his way to Whitby. And about that soundtrack. Every scene is egregiously dubbed with whistling winds, buzzing flies and spooky creaking noises, straight off BBC Sound Effects No. 13 — Death & Horror, all cranked so high, it sounds like a weatherman reporting from the middle of a hurricane. Voiceovers witter on with words like “dark facade” and “mystery,” but there’s zero investigating, and when he reaches plague island, it’s more slow-mo of Uri Geller rambling through a muddy field for ages and ages. They briefly show the finding of the skull, but weirdly zoomed in, with grotty filters so you can’t see it properly, and none of the original audio.

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On the third night, as per onscreen caption, he’s been woken by noises, and is down in the hotel basement with a torch. Uri’s performance is pure Scooby Doo, eyes flitting side-to-side, jaw agape — “do I hear this, or is it my mind again?” Suddenly, a ghostly shriek comes out of the darkness, and Uri screams in fright as it cuts to black. Day Four, which makes no mention of the shriek, nor the chair-moving incident from that same night in the Sky version, sees Uri off to the palazzo.

This time, there’s nothing about struggling to get access; no builders or estate agents; but plenty of creepy dubbed-on gurgling baby noises, followed by a 15 second shot of the moon and 45 seconds of night time buildings and sky. He wanders the garden, finding a water hole, before three long, silent minutes of Ca’Dario’s interiors. Initially, the tone’s markedly different from 1.0, with Uri calmly admiring the beautiful woodwork and picking up ornaments on the mantle. But it’s there that he finds a camcorder tape. “Is this one of ours?” An offscreen voice confirms that it looks the same. “Are you still rolling?” asks Uri, pocketing the video and continuing the shoot. This tape is the snuff film.

Keep in mind, the previous hour has been an overly-sedate documentary with occasional silliness, so the turn it takes in the final ten minutes is absolutely fucking wild. A door slams shut out of frame. “What the hell was that?!” says Uri, taking off towards it and feverishly yanking on the handle. “I’ve gotta get in here! I’ve gotta open this door!” The acting here is truly an astonishing new low for these pages, as Haunted Venice goes full Blair Witch. Uri gets the door open, revealing a nursery where empty rocking chairs move by themselves and stock SFX of children’s laughter can be heard. The camera swings back to Uri, but he’s gone all blurry — Blurry Geller — and when it finds its focus, a ghostly child is standing there, plain as day. “Holy shit,” says the cameraman. Yeah.

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Let’s pause a second to remind ourselves both versions of the show were filmed at the same time; this more… dramatic take (though still presented as genuine) and the very real and legitimate Sky documentary. It’s quite a coincidence for Uri to have found that photo in the fireplace — an incident not shown in Cursed — while they were dicking around with props and effects for this version, and for a magic-man whose entire career hinged on his abilities being 100% realsies, it’s a strange muddying of the waters. I’d imagine he was fuming when he realised this might throw doubt on his earlier moving of the chair, which he did with telekinesis and not with fishing wire like the rocking chairs here.

The camera finds Uri sat on the bed, telling us there’s a presence; “maybe more than one… I did not expect a child spirit here.” The whole building starts to rattle with creaks, bangs and whispers like a shit version of The Haunting, and he makes a run for it — “something is pushing me out of this house. I’ve gotta find the truth!” Even the ghosts are impressed by his fancy Blackberry, causing it to ring. “That’s funny,” says Uri, “my phone is shut.” But all that’s on the end are terrible ghostly screams. “What the hell was that? I need some air…

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Instead of going outside, he somehow ends up alone in the basement, filming himself on night vision for a breathless conclusion, stumbling in the dark over Hot Topic horror movie objet d’art; a spooky mannequin; human bones; a large cage. Panic sets in when he can’t find the way out, with a loud jump scare as an angry, demonic face rears into camera from inside the cage. “KEEP AWAY! KEEP AWAY!” yells Uri, flailing against the locked exit with his fists, for the classic found footage trope of the victim’s terrified face filling the lens in fleeting green flashes. Once out of the basement, they reuse the scene of him angrily telling Jason to cut, with a reply in obvious ADR, “Uri, I need a few more shots,” as spoonboi pelts off down an alley. We cut to a black screen with another caption.

     “The following recording was taken from the dictaphone that Uri Geller brought with him to each location while filming in Venice.”

This, it’s explained, is from the basement scene, where unusual sounds were discovered when the tape was played back — “What follows is the entire recording.” While Uri’s begging to be let out, we hear demonic growls which, honestly, sound pretty avuncular. It’s meant to be the pièce de résistance of frights, but sounds like Chewbacca talking in his sleep. Uri’s voiceover reveals the doc was filmed over a year ago, and its events “will haunt me for the rest of my life.” The snuff tape’s played again, with a caption that it’s been “provided to the proper authorities.” Who’s that, Uri mate, the bin? There’s one final treat tucked away at the end of the credits, for fans of legal requirements; “after filming at the palazzo, certain images became mysteriously distorted, requiring recreation.” Did they, aye?

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One note about production, though it plays out over an escalating four days, Haunted Venice was actually shot in eight. Its genesis lies in a 2003 documentary about Irish ghosts by director/cameraman (and offscreen voice) Jason Figgis, of which Uri was so impressed, he contacted Figgis, before the two set up a production company together. Uri described Figgis as “Ireland’s Spielberg,” and Venice was intended to be merely the first of many projects they were developing, including a film called 3 Crosses, described as “a violent gangster movie in which Coronation Street star Keith Duffy plays a serial killer, written and directed by Figgis, with Geller as executive producer and in a supporting role.

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While Figgis now has an enormous list of directorial credits; mostly horror; sadly, the film co-starring him off Boyzone as a murderer alongside Uri Geller never materialised. As for Haunted Cities: Venice, the show was intended to emulate the creeping dread of Japanese horror, but in every scant interview or reference, is described and categorised — as it is on IMDB — as a documentary. In the lead-up to airing, Uri was very clear to point out there was no dramatisation, and events occurred exactly as shown.

Uri’s final coda on the mysterious tape was that “the victim was never identified.” I can identify the victim in all this. It’s me. This whole thing left me reeling. I expected your standard bad paranormal documentary from one of televisions’s overly-dramatic oddballs, but in classic arrogant ghost hunter fashion, found myself blundering into something far darker, for which I was not prepared. There’s almost no reference to Uri Geller’s Haunted Cities: Venice online, particularly the European cut. It’s as though it never happened, and I feel like I’m sole living witness — for now. Is this how it feels for people who see Bigfoot or UFOs? Let this written piece serve as document to my experiences, although it all sounds so implausible — a Uri Geller documentary recut into (an unbelievably inept) found footage horror film — alas, I that fear nobody will believe me, and just like Uri, the events in Venice shall haunt me the rest of my days.

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Michael Jackson’s Ghosts

•November 13, 2020 • 1 Comment

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[More MJ: Derek Acorah’s Live Michael Jackson Seance]

A recent story in the Hollywood Reporter about Bryan Singer’s toxic sets on the X-Men movies opened with a brief anecdote, meant to demonstrate the general disarray of production. In it, Michael Jackson showed up at the studio, to pitch himself for the role of Professor X; an old, bald white man, who’d eventually be played by Patrick Stewart. Initially this seemed so wacky to me as to be unbelievable, but in the context of Jackson’s life and career, it’s decidedly standard behaviour.

Though history will remember Jackson as a singer/beast, he kicked off a limited acting career with a genuinely brilliant and star-making performance as the Scarecrow in 1978’s The Wiz. Following world domination in the intervening years, 1986 saw him lead as the titular Captain EO in something which truly sounds like some absolute bollocks I’ve invented just to fill my word-count; a 3D sci-fi short played in Disney theme parks, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, exec produced by George Lucas, and written by a man called Rusty Lemorande. Following that, his outside acting jobs were limited to cameos; shown in video call as Agent M in Men in Black II, and the famous guest spot in The Simpsons, which has since been pulled by Disney+ for reasons of being a massive paed.

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His later choices for roles followed the same eccentric line as his Wacko Jacko persona — or as Joe Jackson amusingly misremembered in his Louis Theroux interview, “Jacko Wacko” — and before the Professor X incident, he’d attempted to grind down George Lucas in a bid to play Jar Jar Binks, for which he wanted to forgo computer graphics and wear prosthetic make-up. His final acting role would be an appearance in 2004 film Miss Castaway and the Island Girls, one of Eric Roberts’ 594 credits (at time of writing), in a role explained by the wiki page thusly:

An R2D2-like droid projects an image of agent M.J. (Jackson) who has been assigned by the Vatican to manipulate the castaways for the Vatican’s own purposes.”

Through the King of Pop era, the videos for Jackson’s singles had become increasingly cinematic, with Bad and Thriller expanding into short films, directed respectively by Martin Scorsese and John Landis, and the video for 1987’s Liberian Girl featuring an enormous number of celebrity cameos which read like a Peter Kay routine about 80’s America, including Weird Al, Dan Aykroyd, Brigitte Nielsen, Corey Feldman, David Copperfield, Blossom, Don King, and Steve Guttenberg. The feature-length Moonwalker was released in 1988, a wild collage of long-form music videos which ended with MJ turning into a spaceship to shoot Joe Pesci, and by 1992, the promo for Remember The Time was a 9 minute epic starring Eddie Murphy. But the following year, the first round of child abuse allegations hit, permanently tainting Jackson’s image to a large portion of the general public.

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So then, the perfect time to take his biggest hit, Thriller, and go one better, with another scary short on a much grander scale. Running over three times Thriller‘s length, it would be titled Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, and as I’ve since discovered, now that he’s dead, googling for ‘Michael Jackson ghosts’ is a wild ride. Like the greats — Neil Breen and Tommy Wiseau — he’d be doing it himself, co-producing, co-writing, and paying the entire $15m budget out of his own pocket. MJ’s much-mooted love of horror always feels weird to me. I simply cannot picture Michael Jackson — at least the persona of Michael Jackson as presented to the public — being able to sit through a horror film without launching his popcorn into the air in fright at the first sight of the THX logo.

We’re supposed to believe this man-child character; sensitive, effete, otherworldly, exchanging teasing barbs of “doo-doo head” with his posse of young ‘playmates’; spent his down-time sticking on laser discs of The Exorcist or Texas Chainsaw Massacre? But then, as we came to learn, the persona and the real Jackson were some lengths apart, and it’s in this knowledge which Ghosts’ only scares are to be had. Besides, horror comes in many forms, and for MJ, this was the fully on-brand family-friendly horror of theme park terrors, with spooky cobwebs and skellingtons, and saying the word “boo!

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Ghosts started life in 1993, as an unfinished promo for Addams Family Values, titled Is It Scary?, but after getting dropped from the soundtrack altogether — supposedly for contract reasons unrelated to his scandals — it lay dormant until 1996. Revived as its own thing, it was expanded into a 39 minute short with a six week shoot, where the word ‘video’ was banned on set, because they were making a ‘short film’. Ghosts did have decent horror pedigree, with a story credit for Jackson himself, along with Stephen King and Mick Garris, a screenplay by Garris and Stan Winston, and with Winston directing.

Before we get into the actual film, it’s important to remember the context of Jackson’s reputation at the time. Through his career, there were three rounds of child abuse accusations; Jordan Chandler in August 1993; in 2003, following the Martin Bashir interview; and with 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland. While the loyal fans are Jacko till they die, for most people, and certainly for the media, Neverland was the definitive destruction of his legacy, and at this point he’s effectively (and literally, with Disney+, multiple radio stations, and Mohammed Al Fayed’s giant statue) been cancelled. But in 1993, criminal charges were never filed, and his career continued unabated, with the furore merely adding to his already rock-solid rep as the World’s Strangest Man.

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By this point, the years long back-and-forth with the press over their constant intrusion and portrayal of him as a lunatic who sleeps in an oxygen tent and pals around with a chimpanzee had begun to infect his music. Tired of being a punchline, in the mid-90s, he came out swinging, with sweet lil’ Michael even dropping an f-bomb while duetting with sister Janet in 1995 single Scream, an angry rebuke to the tabloids, where he warns “stop fucking with me!” While Ghosts, released a year later, is a horror movie on the surface, unashamedly, this is MJ in full fightback mode against all the shit-talkers, doubters and prodding media. As we’ve seen with Yewtree and massive chunks of old British telly, in retrospect, it’s impossible not to view the film differently, with every line; every look; now loaded with horrible double meaning, and interpretable as the words of a predator hiding in plain sight.

We open in black and white, 1930’s Universal Monsters style, as lightning crashes over a graveyard, where a large gothic house looms in the background. A signpost — topped by a cawing raven — reads WELCOME TO NORMAL VALLEY, a place for NICE REGULAR PEOPLE, as an angry mob marches into frame with flaming torches, towards, what we now realise, is the home of Michael Jackson. “Why don’t we just leave him alone? He hasn’t hurt anybody,” asks a kid. Any kid in a Jackson production, of course, is always smarter and wiser than those stupid grown-ups. The mayor; the old white man leading the mob; sneers “he’s a weirdo. There’s no place in this town for weirdos.” And dear reader, have you spotted the subtle allegory at play?

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Once inside, the film switches to colour, ala The Wizard of Oz, and it’s your classic PG haunted house, all cobwebs, cavernous ceilings, and shards of moonlight bleeding through arched windows. The doors magically slam shut, locking everyone inside, as a robed figure in a skull mask emerges from the shadows. “Did I scare ya?” he asks, revealing himself to be Michael Jackson, although he’s not playing himself, but a character called The Maestro. Immediately, it’s unsettling seeing Jackson in character (or perhaps ‘out of character’), with the speech rhythms and confidence of a regular human, after years as the evasive wraith, with a medical mask and Mickey Mouse voice.

The entirety of Ghosts‘ dialogue is the mayor telling MJ he’s a weirdo who needs to leave town, calling him “freaky boy” and relentlessly hammering the point home with lines like “you’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you,” and “back to the circus, you freak!” The parents are afraid of the Maestro, though he’s just Michael Jackson in a puffy pirate shirt, and the mayor lays into him — “We have a nice, normal town, normal people, normal kids, we don’t need freaks like you telling ghost stories.” But it’s never clear exactly what the Maestro’s been up to. Telling ghost stories? Doing magic tricks? He doesn’t even own any furniture. One kid suggests Maestro shows the mayor “the neat stuff you did for us,” before his brother slaps him round the head; “that’s supposed to be a secret!” Yeah, that’s not aged well. When the mother lightly slaps the lad for hitting his brother (the second time this happens, a mere five minutes in), she gets cuffed round the ear by a ghostly wind, signalling to the audience that adults are bloody hypocrites.

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Jackson taunts the group by pulling funny faces — “is this scary?” — before yanking his jaw out like in Beetlejuice, pulling the skin right off his head, leaving just a skull, and causing Mos Def — in a small pre-fame role as a nervous nerd — to burst into tears. With a dramatic “meet the family!” doors fly open and fires burst alight, and if Joe Jackson’s about to walk out with a belt in his hand, then they really should be afraid. Terminator 2 style puddles of ectoplasm morph and rise into a backing troupe of ghosts, with a zombified 18th century Venice costume ball aesthetic, and terrific make-up which gives a Disneyland cenobite vibe.

Michael grabs his dick, sending us into a musical number, with horrendously-aged lyrics like “creepin’ from a dusty hole… tales of what somebody told.” It’s a long routine, with minute after minute of the stuffy old mayor adjusting his tie in anger and slow zooms into the amazed faces of open-mouthed children. MJ whips off his entire skin, leaving a dancing skeleton moonwalking around the floor, and while the mob’s chins are hanging, the Scotch Video ads were doing that years ago. The skeleton changes into a giant Michael Jackson, in that Lost Boys vampire make-up which looks like when Bear Grylls got stung by bees, but it’s still less frightening than his 2003 mugshot.

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He possesses the mayor by flying into his mouth, for that thing Hollywood repeatedly insists is hilarious, when a boring ol’ overweight white fella busts some moves. Remember the way they pushed Tom Cruise’s dance from Tropic Thunder as the funniest thing ever, like an office bore making you watch a video on their phone? — “wait, wait, the good bit’s coming up!” It’s more of that, as the mayor shakes his fat tush, moonwalking and really grabbing that penis, with a big close-up of him clutching at the meat. The song’s classic 90’s Jacko, pathologically incapable of work that wasn’t a cack-handed metaphor about fake news, with more prophetic-seeming lyrics, about “a ghoul on the bed.” It ends with the mayor transforming into a big rubber monster, taunting MJ with “who’s scary now? Who’s the freak now, freaky boy? Freak circus freak!

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He pukes up Michael Jackson’s ghost, returning to normal, as a defeated-sounding Jackson tells them, fine, he’ll go. He drops to the ground, smashing the brick with his bare hands, and bashing his own head into the floor. His face breaks and crumbles like stone, for a tragic martyr’s death, with the camera circling his remains from above, composed in an extremely Christ-on-a-cross manner. A coincidence, I’m sure. The rubble of Jackson blows away, to slow-mo reaction shots of all the sad kids; their innocent hero driven to self-destruction by small-minded grown-ups. But as everyone goes to leave, the mayor finds the big double doors filled by an even gianter MJ head, and makes a run for it by jumping through a window to leave a mayor-shaped hole.

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Did I scare ya?” chuckles the Maestro, revealing himself to be alive. By now, the parents are on-side too, realising — after ripping all his skin off and summoning zombie demons to do a scary dance — that he wasn’t a freak at all. Ghosts plays as a flagrant Frankenstein/Edward Scissorhands rip, with Jackson positioning himself as the tortured capital-B Beast in the tower, who only wants to love and entertain the cheel-dren, despite the best efforts of ignorant adults who only see him as a dangerous freak, and want to keep him away from their kids. The symbolism is very subtle. The credits are six minutes long, but with good reason. Opening with shots of Michael in the make-up chair, it’s somewhat of a gotcha, showing the gradual application of latex pieces which transformed him into the mayor. Yes, that old white guy was played by Michael Jackson too, and in a certain order, his full credits for the film read like a potted biography of his life.

Self / Maestro / Mayor / Mayor Ghoul / Skeleton / Super Ghoul

It’s pretty much accepted that Jackson’s plaintive “ee-hee” schtick was a put-on, but it’s surprisingly disquieting, post-Leaving Neverland, to see him using a regular adult voice, as he did when portraying the mayor. Even in behind the scenes footage, casually describing the movie in the mayor’s get-up and deeper tones, it feels like the taking off, rather than wearing of a mask. Obviously Jackson was a performer — and at the height of his powers, undeniably one of the best ever — and the job of an actor is to transform, but it plays oddly against the cultivated Peter Pan persona, with his innocence in many eyes hinging on how meekly he came across. Like the Maestro, Jackson went out of his way to let everyone know they needn’t worry about him corrupting the children, as he was perfectly harmless. He doesn’t even speak like an adult, so how could he think like one, let alone one that’s horny?

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Ghosts ended up forming part of Jackson’s presentation to the Fox executives when selling himself as Professor X, as proof he was capable of playing older white men. In the end, it had a limited theatrical run in a weird-arse double bill with King-adaptation, Thinner, but in no way became the Thriller beater as intended. Interestingly, a workprint of the unfinished 1993 version, Is It Scary, exists today, with a lot of SCENE MISSING cards in place of unfinished effects, and a temp soundtrack of the scores from Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Unsurprisingly, given how closely the plot of Ghosts resembles parts of Scissorhands, MJ was a huge fan of the movie. Around 1991, he’d been developing a project with its screenwriter, Caroline Thompson; an adventure musical called MidKnight, where he’d star as shy, gentle man who turned into a brave warrior at the stroke of midnight.

There’s a few differences between Ghosts and Is It Scary?, the main being Jackson doesn’t play the mayor in the latter. With its Addams Family beginnings, there are brief cameos from Lurch, Thing, Wednesday and Pugsley, and all the town’s children are noticeably younger, though it’s still super on-the-nose with the whole Frankenstein angle. At the beginning, when a little boy tells the mayor that he’s scared, it’s not the haunted house that frightens him, but the mob. The Maestro’s much sadder here, played as disappointed rather than mad at the adults, and their loud chants of “come out where we can see you!” Like the paparazzi, are they, Michael mate?

     Mayor: “You’re not like us!

     MJ: “Why do I have to be?

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When he kills himself in this version, the children kneel down to gather up his remains, tearfully pleading “please come back, I wanna see you dance again!” eventually piecing him back together, and resurrecting our lord and saviour, Michael Jackson. They hold his hand, asking if it was “just pretend,” and why can’t the adults realise it was all “just fun,” and man, even in 1993, this was really pushing it. A caption card reading MICHAEL DISAPPEARS leaves the kids all looking skyward, suggesting in the finished version, he would’ve literally ascended to Heaven.

Even in a making of, Jackson seems genuinely pissed at the “fat, grotesque, ridiculous mayor,” who he considers “a creep, he’s really a creep, and I don’t like him.” The character was conceived as representing everything Michael hated about the true monsters — people who don’t get him — “those sort of people… they just don’t see the beauty on the inside of a person.” But the mayor feels like the strawman antagonist in those Christian movies; the evil atheist liberal professor forcing his students to fart on the bible, until one brave, God-fearing teen takes a stand.

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Ghosts‘ persistent framing of Michael Jackson as someone who’s seen as a monster but merely misunderstood sits especially badly now, when it’s widely accepted he got away with some terrible, terrible shit, under the guise being of incapable of hurting children, as he was essentially a child himself, unwittingly trapped inside an adults body, just like the moonwalking mayor. There’s a hugely trippy, psychologically fascinating quality to watching MJ, known for his ever-changing face, wearing a rubber mask and spitting the word ‘freak’ at himself, in what’s likely his real voice. In Ghosts, Jackson set out to make a scary movie, and in that, he did succeed, as 25 years on, it makes for a creepy and thoroughly disconcerting watch, just not for the reasons intended.

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