The Accursed 90s: The Girlie Show

•September 23, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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

As a frequent stablemate on lists of Britain’s worst ever television, The Girlie Show was essentially sold as The Word, except instead of Terry Christian, there were a trio of female hosts talking about boozin’ and shaggin’. Wait, that can’t be right?! That’s exclusively men stuff isn’t it? Sorry pal, this is the nineties, and the ladies — sorry, ladettes — enjoy sex now too. Subsequently, like many of the things we’ve suffered through on here, it’s firmly placed in that post-pub wanking slot. The three presenters had little to no collective television experience, especially not in the bear bit of live TV, with an initial line-up consisting of Rachel Williams, an American model with a pierced lip; journalist Clare Gorham; and Sara Cox, now a comfy face of middle-England radio, televised pottery, and tweets about parenting, but back then, a 21-year-old model in her first onscreen role. Sarah Cawood would join in the second series, some years before being used as a human shield by a panicked Eamonn Holmes.

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The show’s whole angle is a turning of the gender tide, with a vibe of “look out lads, these loud-mouthed birds will probably crush your willy like sausage meat (though it’d still be nice to have someone touch it)!” Even the pre-show bumper has Cox brandishing a dominatrix whip, complete with kung-fu style swish noises, threateningly advancing towards camera with a knowing “are we sitting comfortably?” Most likely, this show raised a generation of men who identify on Twitter as submissive PayPigs and send money to other men pretending to be rude younger women.

The opening credits are the most on-the-nose thing since Fabio met that goose, with fast-moving shots of Girl Power which can only be appreciated frame-by-frame. The titular Girlies exhale cigar smoke; poke out their tongues; cut the heads off flowers; bite the head off an action man who’s been emasculated in a pink tutu. They circle a chained, half-naked fella like predators in the wild, before tattooing the show’s logo on his chest. As Coxy rides a hobby horse in a way that insinuates if she took you home from the pub, she’d fuck your brittle pelvis into crumbs, everything’s designed to leave us chaps clutching our tiny winkles in fear, with its soundtrack of witch-like cackling, spanking noises, and lion snarls when they open their mouths. But this is female empowerment by male committee, and for all its crowing of the girls finally being in charge, it’s all just something to have a lonely toss over.

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An episode airing March 1996 opens with Sister Sledge singing We Are Family below a gigantic statue of a suspenders-clad torso, jigging about right under the fanny as the dancing studio audience hold up banners like they’re at the wrestling, one of which is a cartoon cliché made real, reading “HELLO MUM!” As the very first word is spoken, a propah lad in the crowd can literally be heard shouting “OI OI!” and it’s all so ruddy wild, Rachel makes bunny ears behind her co-hosts head as she speaks. We’re two days from Mothering Sunday, so the girls’ mums are sat front row, to be presented with flowers. Coxy thanks her mum for the genetics of big tits, while Rachel thanks hers for not giving her up for adoption, “though she could’ve and should’ve,” which is pretty awkward, coming right after Clare’s thank you speech to her own adoptive mother. There’s a nightmare candy factory-cum-cathouse aesthetic, the studio walls pink and white, with decals of big red lips, while a close-up of puckered pink mwahs kiss us between segments.

Audience participation comes with a Viewers’ Husband’s slot, where it cuts to a sent-in photo of a smiling naked bloke, hands on hips, holding up a newspaper with his erection. In a pastiche of Readers’ Wives, there’s also a lad reclining in tiny pants, and a nude bloke covering his dick with what looks to be a Toblerone. Surprise, he’s in the studio, rising from his seat to lap up the cheers with an arms out “are you not entertained?!” pose, for a 90’s hero’s welcome. Sat next to him, his shocked girlfriend’s clearly fuming, mumbling into the mic about being “extremely embarrassed,” as another picture of him wearing only his pants sends the crowd into raptures.

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If it’s remembered for anything beyond just existing, then The Girlie Show‘s most notable mark on popular culture was the Wanker of the Week segment, where a famous man was put in his place with what we’d now call a roast. Liam Gallagher’s in their sights, for a monologue of bad jokes that get lost as Sara Cox rushes through it, to call him “a professional Mancunian, a scally wannabe, and a silly muppet.” I don’t remember how history panned out, but I think Liam was so ruined by this that he retired immediately. It’s topped off by a comedy song, voiced by some guy doing a Mexican bandito voice; “well, first you smoked a spliff, then you recycle riffs…

A key component of these type of shows is the need to constantly show off how grown up they are. Regard a section about “the S-word. It’s not sex, it’s not shagging…” no, it’s shoplifting. A man in the audience gets a big cheer as Rachel shows him a pack of condoms. “Twelve in there, in’t there?” he asks, as she goads out a story about nicking some as a 15-year old, giving him the packet as a prize to big cheers — go on, mate, catch yer cum in the end of those, wahey! Take it from someone who lived through it, it was impossible to do anything below the waist in the 90s without everyone going completely wild. Even in the toilets, there were crowds of excited men cheering you on at the urinal. “Weeey! He’s got his todge out! Give us a hold of it, lad!”

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In their ‘investigation’ into shoplifting, with CCTV of pixelated thieves sticking CDs down their jeans, a Tower Records security guard notes that girls make better shoplifters, “because they’re a lot more devious… as I’ve found out in the past.” Been red-pilled have you? They bring out “Britain’s most notorious and brazen shoplifter” for a dry interview, though even the mention of her having “a store detective on your backside” gets a few laddish cheers. An actual shoplifter is about The Girlie Show‘s level of guest, also boasting a ‘psychic’ who’s been transcribing recently-deceased Patric Walker’s Sunday Express column from beyond the grave when he visits her in dreams.

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The astrology segment is notable for the hilarious anger in the community regarding Mystic Meg, whose theatrics are making those people who believe that everyone born in the same month goes through an identical day look silly. Like Posh Spice played by Fenella Fielding, Meg’s weekly appearances on the National Lottery made her a household name, and it was a very 90’s thing to rake up people’s ‘shameful’ past, so The Girlie Show takes great pleasure in exposing her as someone who once wrote pornography, with a dirty magazine spinning into frame like a newspaper in a Dick Tracy cartoon.

I immediately Googled for more info, and it appears she penned some stories for Men Only in her younger days, but there’s scant information, and one of the only links goes to a grumble video entitled Mystic Meg Doesn’t Tell Futures, She Opens Her Legs Instead. Like any good journalist, I sat though the whole thing six or seven times to confirm that it wasn’t her. Another astrologer’s ‘porn past’ is highlighted via a clip of her tits out in a Lovers Guide video, and boy the evolution of what we class as porn then vs. now is fascinating. In those days, you were a filthy pornstar if your towel accidentally slipped while you were getting changed at the pool, but today, half your street’s running an OnlyFans and nobody bats an eyelid.

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But there is one big celebrity guest, in Corrie’s Reg Holdsworth, aka Ken Morley. In 2015, Ken would be kicked off Celebrity Big Brother for being a dirty old man and using the phrase “nice, big fat negro” during a chat with Alexander O’Neal, so it’s fully on-brand when “Randy Reg” takes a good long look at Coxy’s breasts. I’m amazed his nob doesn’t go off like a rocket when they’re reading out the names of rude-sounding foreign biscuits and she says “I like to spread a bit of margarine on my Kunto.

The other celebrity bit, trailed throughout the show, turns out to be paparazzi camcorder footage of “blobby” Robbie Williams on holiday, where they rip the piss out of his weight. Barring Cox’s joke, most of the ‘outrageous’ moments come from the great British public, relying heavily on footage of 90’s clubbers, either in clips of sweaty lads dancing under scathing commentary, or in the Toilet Talk section, where women stood in the bogs give their thoughts on whether big dicks are better than small ones, or if they’ve ever been bought a dildo as a present.

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The Girlie Show‘s worst segment doesn’t feature women at all, but a group of unbearably boorish lads called the Naked Apes, who, for some reason, have been given airtime with a regular slot. Documenting their lager-soaked lives on camcorders, it’s essentially a nascent reality show, pre-dating the Osbournes, let alone the Kardashians, with a group of “loveable rogues” who ride in with frosted tips like the Four Horsemen of the 90s. There’s barman Johnny; Kevin, “who loves his beer first and women later”; Brian, “a real-life Sid the Sexist”; and Nathan, “the shy student who’s desperate for a woman.” If you’re thinking “come on, boring old Millard, give them a chance; we were all young once,” then it opens with the Naked Apes title superimposed over a fart being lit on fire straight out of a bare arse.

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This week’s story is Kevin moving out of his parents’ into his own place, and the subsequent flat warming party. It’s standard blokeness for the time; posters of big-titted women, a joke about a toothbrush that’s covered in shit, and using the kitchen sink as a punch bowl, to huge cheers from the audience. There’s talk of bringing “some slapper back” and the “damp settee” the next morning, footage of toenail eating, and a party piece where one pulls down his jeans to set his pubes ablaze, wafting away the stink in the packed living room with a laugh. “Good harmless fun,” says his mate, “next time you’re at a party, just whip your wotsit out, get a lighter…” Nah, you’re alright. Next week will see them off to Amsterdam’s red light district, because of course it will. I actually found one of them on Twitter, where — presumably approaching his 50s — his posts are all about Cage Rage, gambling and boobs.

Sister Sledge play us out with another run through of We Are Family, and in case you hadn’t made your mind up about the decade, there’s a post-show trailer for a Tony Parsons show called Big Mouth. Though that’s the only full Girlie Show to have made it online, unfortunately it’s joined by a scattered handful of clips, which are at least interesting in trying to figure out what deemed these moments to be worth saving in someone’s eyes. Ten minute highlights from a football special are noteworthy for once again exposing the supposedly-unashamed 1990s as a real missionary position of a decade, collapsing into faints at stuff us 21st century kids got bored of years ago.

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Here, they give a female fan the “Millwall ta-oo” she’s always wanted, live in the studio, with Sara Cox biting her nails in fear at the shocking television moment of a tattoo being put on. Why, it’s virtually a snuff film! There’s real audience unrest, with everyone giddy that a human being’s going to be STABBED WITH INK right in front of them, mouths agape, shrieking in shock, and leaning forwards to get a better look like they’re at the Roman colosseum. The drill-like buzz of the ink gun elicits screams of horror, while Coxy commends the woman with an “oh my god, you’re so brave!” Later in the show, we actually see some go on live, as the tattooist dots it once with a full stop’s worth of ink, and Cox screams “gor blimey, I feel sick!” Meanwhile, the audience gives the sort or reaction usually reserved for walking into a public toilet to catch someone spraying diarrhea right up the ceiling. There’s also a viewer letter, signed “from two proper lads,” rebutting complaints to the show, a section of which is transcribed below.

only men with little willies,

who only pull with dirty mags,

could be afraid of lovely fillies,

discussing sex and jammy rags

Who were these mysterious lads, John Betjeman and Ted Hughes? Also deemed worth saving, and giving a window into the exact target demographic, is an interview with a female jockey, which ends with Cox riding on a practise horse; a kind of low impact bucking bronco; frantically riding up and down — like in sex!!! — and having to cover her cleavage. Thankfully the Naked Apes’ visit to a gay bar did not make the cut. Elsewhere, a visit from the Spice Girls has survived. Interestingly, the Girlie Show‘s producers claim the very term “Girl Power” was invented by the show and pinched by the Spice Girls — like Fash nicking Awooga off Craig Charles — after their very first televised appearance on there. They bring the cartoon anarchy familiar from all their interviews of the time, with the best bit when invocation of Thatcher has Mel B lifting up her bum to mime a blow-orf. Plus, it’s always funny to remember how comically h-dropping Victoria was for the one who got labelled Posh.

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But we must end at the very bottom, with another visit to the Naked Apes, in a segment someone liked enough to preserve as its own thing. This one follows them on a night out in Newcastle, described ideally as pints, puking, “and getting a shag at the end of the night. Except Nathan, he goes home and has a wank!” For some reason, there’s copious footage of one of them naked in the shower, including spreading his cheeks to spray water directly up his anus, all intercut with his mum moaning about getting him up in the mornings and finding random girls in his bed. The whole segment is a 90’s nightmare, with Britpop over a montage of the city centre on a Friday night; dirty ashtrays and broken glass; a drunken homeless man singing; a women pulling a moonie; a lad gobbing down himself for bants.

The extremely straight lads enter a club yelling how they are “shaggers,” before pretending to bum each other, and pulling down their trousers to show off their holes. Is this how everyone else’s twenties went? Did I miss out on all the alcohol poisoning and sucking my mates’ dicks for a laugh? The lead lad gives his philosophy on pulling, which may surprise you, as he doesn’t consider looks to be important, “so long as she’s got great big tits.” Luckily, they all like the same type of women, “just easy ones.” It’s then that he looks to camera to give an address to the watching ladies, speaking as representative for his entire gender. “All you girls at home, spoutin’ on about equal rights in your boiler suits and shaven head, lighten up. All you need’s a good shaftin’, and we’re the guys to give it to yer.

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What follows is an egregious shot of one of them sloppily getting off with a random girl, as the others pump their fists in celebration. Soon, they’ve got their fingers down their throats like they’re puking; “she were fucking rotten, face like a blind cobbler’s thumb!” The clip ends with a lovely group chant of “get your tits out for the lads!” as the rampantly hetero fellas segue into “get your bollocks out,” pinning one of their mates down and pulling his trousers off. Funny, but while The Girlie Show is (rightly) remembered as one of television’s worst, as a showcase for ladettes proving they could be just as crass as the lads, in hindsight, the thing that really stands out, from conception as pseudo-feminist fiddling-fodder to content, is the rancid behaviour of the men. Oi oi!

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Owt Good On, Mam? – The Three L’s

•September 13, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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In trawling through the worst of pop culture, I always want to give my beloved Patrons their money’s worth, but often come across something which is fully on-brand yet too short or singular for a deep dive. So, I figured I’d start a series bundling some of these orphans together, like Hell’s pick ‘n mix. If this was the 80s, it’d have a trendy name like Millard’s Channel Surfing!, with a picture of me riding the waves on a giant TV remote, but it’s 2020, we’re all boiling to death on a planet full of racist thickos, and I’m calling these pieces Owt Good On, Mam? Okay, let’s dip into some horrible shit.

First up is the Boxing Day 1987 episode of Double Dare, the gameshow segment within Saturday morning’s Going Live. Weird choice during a heatwave? Sure, but stay with me. A British remake of a much more culturally iconic American show, our Double Dare‘s rep was based on host Peter Simon repeatedly slipping on gunge, with all the realism of someone ‘accidentally’ leaning back too far in a dining room chair while the wife films it for You’ve Been Framed. Decades later, Simon would go onto viral fame when he blew a big snot bubble live on Bid-Up TV, only to double down by farting, and in weird trivia, played the first British Ronald McDonald.

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Sadly, as with anything featuring gunge, like Noel’s House Party or Get Your Own Back, Double Dare will fall in the pantheon of shows which have since been reclassified for a certain group of men as Erotica, with myriad clips on Youtube channels devoted to the fetish of women (or men, or puppets) getting covered in slime. My House Party Hell series racks up higher than average hits thanks to all the chaps who’re super horny for footage of Gloria Hunniford and Gordon the Gopher sat in Noel’s gunge tank, and Slime Guys are a constant presence in the comment sections of anything involving that most 90’s of muck. Regard this pretty typical comment, when I was hunting for another game show, found beneath an episode of GYOB.

I think it would have been funny if my pretty long haired support worker [MILLARD NOTE: REAL NAME REDACTED] was sitting Above the gunk dunk and a grubby brat with scabs, tooth decay, blemishes and braces pulls the leaver and sends [REDACTED] straight into the gunge and she emerges covered in goo great stuff.”

Great stuff indeed, cheers. Double Dare opens with Peter Simon dressed like an elf, with the hat pulled down so his ears stick out like that Limmy sketch. If it’s Christmas, it must be a celebrity special, and as the show’s squarely aimed at kids, obviously the first team are a pair of actors from Carla Lane’s Bread. Yeah, that grim kitchen-sinkcom about the financial struggles of a family of cheeky roguish scousers; must’ve been real big in playgrounds. Thing is, it was. Pre-Minecraft childhoods were fucking wild; stood round the park discussing the latest Last of the Summer Wine and doing impressions of Roy Hattersley. Despite its awfulness — I’ve been putting off doing a Shitcoms of it for ages because I can’t face it — Bread‘s ratings peak was 21 million viewers. 21 million! You wouldn’t get that now if the Pope was livestreaming a wank.

Team Bread consists of Gilly Coman, who played ditzy model Aveline, and Jonathon Morris, the pretentious poet fopp, Adrian. Incidentally, one of the things on my to-do list to cover here is Morris’ run in Full Moon Studios DTV vampire series, Subspecies, as a brooding gothic Leslat type, but they’re frustratingly hard to track down.

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Celebrity Double Dare is fancy dress, with Morris as a bellboy and Coman the Sugarplum Fairy. They do the small talk of “d’ya have a good Christmas? Get lots of presents?” though it was certainly filmed in July. But then we get to why I’ve brought you here today. Hold onto your hats as their opponents are brought out, because it’s… The Lads! Yes, Little and Large, in one of the precious few television appearances preserved to the current day. Eddie’s dressed as a pirate, in a hat and stripey shirt with the word MATE across the chest, in what one assumes is a period-accurate costume, while Syd’s the captain with a tricorn hat and military jacket. It’s an appropriate choice, seeing as Syd’s been stealing a living for his whole career, and puts him in the incredibly rare position of — in costume at least — being Eddie’s superior.

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Eddie jokes “I’ve always wanted a Cindy doll,” pulling Syd close with an arm round the shoulder, and Christ, he’s going to force feed him gunge, isn’t he? Putting a funnel in Syd’s mouth and making him drink the entire BBC supply; saying “oh dear, you’ve slipped again” while pushing him over and putting the boots in; pulling Gordon the Gopher out of his pirate slacks and forcing it all the way up Syd’s arse. Note that there’s a live audience of children in party hats, giving deafening, high-pitched cheers throughout the games, but deathly quiet during the talky sections, with not a single laugh.

Round One’s a Pin the Tail on the Donkey of gluing Christmas card ephemera onto a board, meaning Syd and Gilly are blindfolded. I’m genuinely in fear of Syd’s life here — “it’s a cucumber Syd, I promise, now open wide!” Christ knows how long the elastic is to even fit over his glasses. The general knowledge bits give plenty of opportunity for Eddie to stretch his comedic wings, straight into a Frank Bruno voice for a “know what I mean, ‘arry?” with a question about Boxing Day, and on Santa Claus’ nationality — “It was me Uncle Charlie when I were a lad!” The questions themselves — for a show aimed at ten-year-olds — are a strange mix of “pick a number between one and ten” and stuff that begins “in 1699, the Frenchman Henri Misson…” or where the answer is “Franz Xaver Gruber.”

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Team L&L’s strategy sees a clueless, shrugging Eddie throw a “you tell em, Syd,” with each question, and when the wee man guesses correctly, it’s his finest hour, with even Eddie letting out a fist-pumping “woo!” But then Syd lets himself down. Years later, he would — genuinely — convert to Christianity in Cannon and Ball’s dressing room (Jimmy Cricket was also present), when Bobby Ball encouraged him to pray. The beginnings of Syd’s yearning for a connection with the Almighty can be glimpsed here, tackling a question about the robin redbreast’s colouring with uncustomary confidence — “it’s the blood of Christ, off the cross.” Merry Christmas, kids! “What’s that to do with Christmas?” asks Peter.

By now, I’m a bundle of nerves. The winning team gets to run the obstacle course, and Bread are currently in the lead. If I’m robbed the sight of The Lads scaling up nets, I’m walking straight into the sea. Breaking up the questions are physical challenges, like building a snowman out of ice cream. Eddie will have Syd’s hand off if he’s not careful. In an interesting moment background moment, as Jonathon Morris tries to get the ice cream out by banging the tub on the table, he accidentally brings it down on Coman’s thumb, causing her to jump back in pain. Alas, the sight of Syd Little mashing handfuls of ice cream together has probably got this video stuck on another fetish playlist. In another game, Syd’s throwing Christmas cake ingredients for Eddie to catch in a bowl. Instead of tipping the raisins into his hand, Syd chucks the whole glass at him, no doubt with headlines dancing in his mind of “Much-loved comedian killed in tragic glass-throwing accident. ‘I’ll persevere solo’ Says Sad Syd.” At the end, Eddie jokes “for another 50 points, you have to eat it, Syd.” Yeah, bowl and all.

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Each time he’s tasked with something, Syd’s nervy indecision is palpable. In a game where Christmas decorations are laid out on a table, and he’s told to decorate Eddie, who’s got his arms outstretched and will act as the tree, Syd can be heard mumbling “what have I got to do?” Fucking hell, lay one in backstage for me, Eddie. But as the final whistle goes, I am crestfallen. Bread are victorious, meaning no obstacle course for comedy’s finest. They pick where their charity prizes are going — or in Eddie’s words, “all the pressie-wessies” — and when it cuts back, Peter’s armed with a pair of custard (or more specifically, shaving foam) pies. “I’m starving,” mutters Eddie.

What follows, on poring over the footage like Costner in JFK, is Classic Syd. Let’s break it down.

Peter dishes out the pies, one in each face, but on rewinding, we can see Syd’s got his own pie waiting under the desk; a surprise to be thrown at Peter. However, the master of comic timing, Syd Little takes it out too early, and after they get pie-faced, Peter’s already moved onto the next link. Shy Syd, seemingly too embarrassed to do it himself, or once again confused at a simple cue, just sits there. Eventually, he passes it to Eddie, who saves the moment by nailing Peter. Then Syd pretends his fingers are windscreen wipers, cleaning his glasses.

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I couldn’t give a fuck about the final obstacle course, mate. It’s heartbreaking, like watching the only person you ever loved walk the aisle with someone else. There’s slides, climbing ropes and even a big chimney to clamber in. Just imagine them doing this; Eddie getting stuck in the chimney; Syd all tangled up in the net, pleading for help as Eddie stamps on his glasses. When it seems like we’ll have to make do with Eddie licking his lips at a big Christmas pudding prop, they’re invited to “cheer them on,” meaning L&L still get to do the gungy stuff. Also, it quickly becomes clear this was all a fix, and the chance at witnessing the athletic prowess of Syd Little was never on the table. The young and spry Jonathon Morris flies through the course, with Coman down the chimney like a rocket, saving the BBC what could’ve been an insurance nightmare. The show ends with Eddie going arse over tit, and everyone rolling around in a big custardy human pile, for what must’ve led to the most distressing shower since American History X. “Scrub my back, Syd, there’s a good lad.”

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Next up, seeing as my entire life’s work has somehow evolved into painstakingly covering the most cursed of light entertainment, I figure should take a perfunctory gander at Joe Longthorne. Though he sat firmly on the B-List, Longthorne was solidly A-List both in having a name which seems inaccurately Native American, and in showcasing all the classic British variety tics; Impressions; earnest songs; constantly addressing the audience as “lay-jeh-men…” Joe was in that Daniel O’Donnell demographic, beloved by mums and nans, and one of the many stars of that era to have arrived via televised talent shows, first — as a 14-year-old — on Junior Showtime, and later on LWT’s Search For a Star. After a spot as a player on The Les Dennis Laughter Show, his solo vehicle The Joe Longthorne Show would run for three series on ITV. It’s an episode of that, circa 1989, which I’ll be sitting through.

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The opening titles are very Dallas, with Longthorne in triple split-screen, jigging about like he’s in residency at Vegas. It’s pure cruise ship, as he comes out fingers clicking, surrounded by a troupe of dancing girls in fedoras and stockings, for the Everly Brothers’ Crying in the Rain. Joe does all his numbers on a mini stage which looks exactly like a big reflector from a BMX. Speaking of big things, we need to talk about his suit. This thing is enormous; it’s Talking Heads; it’s Nathan For You; it’s Andre the Giant’s hand-me-down; it’s Slimming World ‘after’ photos, holding up trousers they could now fit three of their arses in. You never get used to it, and every time it cuts back to him, it seems as though he’s shrinking; like by the end, there’ll be a squeaky ant-voice blasting out Mustang Sally from an empty pile of clothes.

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Though it’s Joe’s name on the banner, magician Wayne Dobson gets a lot of screentime. Dobson was an onscreen regular in the 80s and 90s, before a diagnosis of MS. His suit’s enormous too, with shoulders so big, he’d have to turn sideways to get through a double door, but it’s cut off at the wrists, either to show there’s no cards up there, or because The Joe Longthorne Show caused the world to run out of fabric. The patter between them makes me yearn to be cut in half, but by Jeffrey Dahmer. Wayne’s “gonna try some mental telepathy.” Joe: “that’s because I’m telepathic.” Wayne: “no, I think you’re mental.” He pulls out LPs for a trick, cuing Joe’s impressions of Elvis and Cliff Richard — “hi folks, got myself a cryin’, walkin’…” — and gags like “Eartha Kitt? I know her brother, First Aid!

When Joe’s own LP comes out, it gets a sustained round of applause. “If everyone else can plug their albums, I can plug mine, is that right, lay-jeh-men?” Audience: “Yeeeeah!” After Joe leaves, Dobson does a hacky old Find the Lady bit, and later a gothic routine in an expansive cemetery set; cobwebs, candles, a hooded organist in Satanic red robes. The voiceover must’ve had Joe’s bussed-in nans coming over all funny, with a sinister baritone opining about “swirling mists of time and space,” and human sacrifice, as Dobson emerges, with his bleached hedgehog haircut, to get levitated by a pair of druids, as “the dark one’s prize!” The gothic aura’s punctured somewhat as Dobson ends his routine with the magic words “and here with some great music from the seventies, Joe Longthorne!” In 2015, Dobson would divorce his wife after alleging best mate Bobby Davro fucked her in the kitchen after she’d showed him her boobs on Skype.

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Unbelievably, Joe’s 70’s medley sees him changed into even bigger clothes, with the waist of his jacket now almost knee length. All the variety cliches are on show; “here’s a little song you’re going to enjoy… it goes like this,” and seguing into impressions with “the one and only,” or “keep clapping; David Bowie!” His Bowie impersonation stretches to him holding the mic stand, while for Barry White, he’s waving a fistful of handkerchief, which he occasionally dabs at his face. The numbers as ‘himself’ are proper “baby bay-BEH!” club singing, and back from the break, it’s a third costume change, with a bow tie and shoulders that, even in medium shot, practically extend beyond the edges of the screen. And all for an introduction to “a young man that’s really making a big name for himself here in the UK. He’s from the US of A…” An American, how exciting!

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Darryl Sivad is the perfect picture of late 80’s American stand-up, with observations you wouldn’t smile at if a minicab driver made them, and the opening gambit “you know what’s nice about this town? You got so many women!” After Joe and Wayne, the bar’s on the floor, but Sivad somehow manages to limbo under it with a hacky routine about how men and women be different. The most notable moment is the blowing of a punchline about his wife’s chihuahua, which only eats sausages; “I’m thinking if we snap his legs off, honey, he’ll be a snausage! [sic]” Disappointingly, Sivad doesn’t take out the two Alsatian hand-puppets he’s seen wearing in the opening credits.

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Then Joe’s back out, in his forth enormous suit of the night, for another medley, with a huge 27 piece orchestra stood behind him on balconies. Every show devotes a segment to a single performer, and this week’s is “the one and only Freddie Mercury!” As the opening bars to Bo-Rap kick in, immediately it becomes clear that Joe has neither heard Freddie perform, nor even seen a picture. Most likely, standing in the wings as the intro played, he asked a runner to describe him and they shouted “er.. gay, big gnashers!” and does the whole thing in a silly voice, pulling open-mouthed faces to show off a set of false teeth, which aren’t even that big, to the point I didn’t notice until he triumphantly removed them at the end. Trying to imitate music’s most charismatic frontman really highlights how Joe should only be on television as someone being interviewed by the local news outside Poundland about the rampant amount of dog dirts in the high street.

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Our closing number — please, God, let this be the last one — is Let the Heartaches Begin, with Joe Longthorne performing as the one and only Joe Longthorne. For me, the heartaches began about 20 minutes ago. But on the final line, “I can’t hold back on the tears any more,” the camera zooms in to reveal two wet streams on his cheeks. Have I been harsh? Is this the kind of artiste that’s capable of conjuring such emotion, he’s able to cry on command? On closer examination (i.e. sitting through the fucking song twice more), it’s nothing more than sweat, from standing underneath baking studio lights and weighed down in about six stone of linen. The whole fiasco was produced and directed by ‘Nasty’ Nigel Lythgoe of Pop Idol, who’s worth hundreds of millions now, in an egregious demonstration that crime does pay. The tape cuts off with a trailer announcing Michael Aspel will be hosting Central’s “murder weekend,” which sounds like The Purge. Sign me up, I’ve got some got some terrible stuff I suddenly need to forget.

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.

Wacaday

•September 4, 2020 • 1 Comment

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Wacaday‘s something which crops up a lot in suggestions, but like much of the stuff I cover, very little footage has survived. In this case, that’s not surprising, given even even The Upper Hand would slink off defeated at Wacaday‘s genuinely incredible tally of 455 episodes. Barring all those creepy drama series from the 70s and 80s which got rebranded post-millennium as hauntology, there’s a real dearth of old kids TV online. I’ve always wanted to do a run on the Saturday morning shows, but even full episodes of the big boys like Going Live are digital gold dust; partially because of their length (a whole tape in SP), but also due to their throwaway nature. Nowadays, it’s all just weightless data, but back when Timmy Mallett was pumping out half-hours every weekday when school was off, nobody thought to preserve it for future generations. And any kid who did press record on Mallett arsing around would’ve grown out of it, eventually sacrificing the contents for an episode of Eurotrash where you could see actual German fanny lips.

Confusingly, Wacaday takes its name via spinning off from the Wide Awake Club, and not the word ‘wacky’ — five letters which run through its hosts bones like a stick of rock. Timmy Mallett is the absolute King of Colin Hunts, jigging round in bermuda shorts and oversized Elton John specs, his top and bottom lip always off in different directions, and never not cementing how loud and bloody bonkers he is. He’s less Mr. Rogers than the adult victim in a body-swap comedy, approaching forty, and switching souls with an eight-year-old boy who’s been mainlining sugar with a dirty needle. A clown without face paint, even for the 90s, Mallett’s is the most extreme case of kee-rayzee ever recorded.

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During Wacaday‘s run, Mallett’s persona and the house style intersected with mainstream kids fashions, when ‘loud’ clothes were in, with everyone in bermuda shorts and neon pink socks, five pairs a pound from the market. But like a Hulk Hogan or John McCririck, he lived that character onscreen and off, and still rocks the shorts in modern TV appearances. It was strange to see him pared down to the default khaki of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, and trapped with only other adults for company, he turned out to be weirdly passive aggressive and insincere, at one point, cheating during a race to down a crocodile-bollock milkshake by roughly pinching another contestant’s arm.

One of Wacaday‘s trademarks was the Wac-a-Wave, putting the tip of your thumbs together to form a W shape and waving your fingers, like the kind of thing a wrestler would do at the crowd before hitting his finishing move. I’ve a strong childhood memory of sitting up the front on a coach trip with my cousin and Wac-a-Waving through the big window to oncoming traffic on the motorway, feeling like a ruddy anarchist. We must’ve brought into Wacaday‘s cult-like brainwashing, as, like the wave, almost every word is front-loaded with Wac, reminiscent of 1960’s Batman, as calls come in on the Wac-a-phone, and even a entire continent is rebranded into WacAfrica.

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Remember British television’s great catchphrases? “Awright at the back?” and “nice to see you, to see you…”? Well Timmy’s is “blurgh!” — the noise one makes while being violently sick — accompanied, as is everything he does, by a poking of the tongue, and gesticulating his arms like he’s trapped in a burning building. The look of the show is the most early 90’s thing imaginable, all neon colours and pulsating, broken shapes; Saved by the Bell‘s opening titles but with a child-man bouncing off the wonky walls. The custard-yellow set is emblazoned with red dots and green stripes, like ITV’s carpenters were handed instructions which simply read ‘build a headache’.

Keep in mind, this show was very much just for kids, and as kids, I probably speak for most of us who lived through Wacaday, in having spent every school holiday glued to it. Mallett really got what made children tick, and he’s the reason it’s remembered so fondly. But with no double-entendres for the adults in the room, and no hot lady co-presenters for the dads, perhaps it would be disingenuous for me, a grown man, to pick it apart, thirty years on. Still gonna do it, mind. I’ll be sampling episodes from Wacaday‘s final year, 1992, which had a world tour theme, with each week focussing on a different country.

First up, it’s Scotland, which should set every alarm bell ringing itself to pieces, if you recall our growing catalogue of televised brutality suffered by the Scots at the hands of the English. And indeed, we open with Timmy emerging through a revolving wall, clad in kilt, sporran, and t-shirt of the Loch Ness Monster, ‘singing’ Scotland the Brave in blurghs — “blurgh blurgh, blurgh-blurgh-blurgh, blurgh blurgh…” under a constant background dirge of tuneless bagpipes.

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Timmy bids us welcome to an “utterly, utterly brilliant McScottish McWacaday” in a Maynards Wine Gums accent, before being interrupted by Pinky Punky. An anthropomorphised foam hammer who speaks in Timmy’s sped-up voice as it’s waved in front of camera, Pinky Punky’s catchphrase “Mr. Mallett, Mr. Mallett, can I go to the toilet?” infers that it’s got a urethra and/or anus. However, it manages to hold in the piss and shit long enough to tell a joke. “I done A. I done B. I done C. I done D. Dundee!” Yes, that is a place in Scotland. Well done. “Who has done de washing up?!” jokes Timmy.

His other sidekick is “wee timourous beastie,” Magic the cockatiel, who’s pretty well trained, and spends most of the series sat on children’s heads or on Timmy’s shoulder, as his master skips about, screaming. “He’s gone nuts this morning!” cackles Timmy, as Magic flits madly around the studio after being let out to see a cockatiel-sized kilt and caber sent in by a fan. There’s a horribly sad note at the end of Timmy’s wiki page, noting that Magic now resides in a grave in his garden, though at least he probably went of natural causes, unlike Koko B. Ware’s parrot, Frankie, who died in a house fire while screaming the words “help me!” Sorry, but if I have to live with that trivia, so do you.

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With no co-hosts, presenting duties are shared out between pairs of children appearing as guests-slash-contestants, giving an air of the amateur when tasked with reading out names and addresses or fielding callers. The English kids are cosplaying as Scottish, in fancy dress kilts, and one in a tartan Tam o’ Shanter about two feet wide. The little girl is very nervous, introducing herself in a flat tone with “och aye the noo, I’m wee McSamantha from Chingford,” but the next child is an exuberant ginger boy, confidently announcing “och aye the noo, I’m James wee Mc… um…” and forgetting where he’s from. His hobbies are watching Wacaday, playing football, and making models. Models, that’ll be planes and stuff, yeah? “Houses, out of paper and sellotape.” Right you are. His sporran is from “my dad’s mate, Bill,” and he’s borrowed his father’s socks. “Poo! I can tell, it’s a bit pongy round here!” shrieks Timmy, holding his nose and staggering from the stench.

I am — as should be patently obvious by my work and the photo of my face — a single, childless man, and during Covid lockdown, there were a lot of assumptions from people trapped indoors with small children, that the likes of me, free to watch Netflix and defecate in peace, don’t know we’re born. Trust me, I got months worth of grizzling toddler energy from a single episode of Wacaday. Timmy’s a 37 year old baby, and worst of all, he’s a baby with all the power. Were he an actual six-year-old, running round with his tongue out, jumping on the furniture, he’d be getting a clip round the ear, but this is decidedly his show, and every squeal is met, not with threats of the naughty step, but loud offscreen laughter from the crew. The vibe of a pre-school Noel’s House Party or Big Breakfast is no coincidence, as Chris Evans considers Timmy a mentor, getting his start in showbiz as one of Timmy’s on-air radio posse and general dogsbody. Consequently, there’s that same sense that anyone caught failing to add Wac to a word — “here’s your coffee… I mean Wac-coffee, Mr. Mallett!” — faces being bludgeoned with a real hammer.

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The kids are made to yell “Wac aye the noo,” as Timmy warns us a painted-on spill of crude oil is about to live up to its name; specifically by saying “Spotty botty!“OH MY GOODNESS ME!” shrieks Timmy, absolutely unable to contain himself, “COVER YOUR EARS!” You homeschooling parents fancy a swap? Thought not. He introduces his “utterly brilliant cousin, Hamish McMallett,” who’s Timmy in a big ginger beard and hot water bottle sporran, pratting about with Scottish dancers in a school hall. In staggering creativity, minutes later, someone dressed in tartan and the same beard, also called Hamish (the Haggis), will prance into the studio covered in viewer’s drawings. While most pictures are of Pinky Punky, one child’s sent in a really detailed rendering of an oil rig. We go to a break with a chant of “Wac-a-haggis, Wac-a-haggis,” as I start petitioning neighbours to add me to the 8pm clap for heroes, especially after the ad for a disturbing doll called Baby Alive, where a child examines its nappy and excitedly exclaims “ooh, she’s dirtied it too!

The thing everyone remembers is Mallett’s Mallet, a word association game where repetition or hesitation earns players a bash over the head with his foam mallet, and “the one with the most bruises loses!” Except, by 1992, TV bosses are worried impressionable viewers might batter each other for real, so infractions are now scored by Timmy swinging his tool at a contestant’s mascot on the desk; hats with googly eyes, representing someone from the contestant’s life. In this case, “my cousin Nestor, because he’s an absolute twit!” There is a dark, gritty remake to be made of Wacaday, with Timmy stoving in heads as a deranged hammer-wielding killer, and Pinky Punky a sexy Harley Quinn type in a crop top. I do feel we need to address how the constant references to Mallett’s mallet sound really phallic. Like Rod Hull’s Pink Windmill and Paul Daniels’ magic wand, I refuse to believe Timmy never used Mallett’s mallet as euphemism for his penis, if one can ever picture Timothy Mallett doing something as grown up as sex — “Cor lummy, there’s white stuff coming out of my Wac-a-willy!”

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Instead of filling time with real cartoons, Wacaday breaks for daily visits to a home-grown ‘cartoon’, consisting of felt-tip drawings of Timmy and Magic (weirdly depicted as a fat grey pigeon), slowly zoomed in and out of to give a sense of movement. We do get some VTs filmed in Scotland, cued by Timmy walking across the studio without realising his mic pack’s fallen out, dragging it clattering across the floor. He visits an earthquake measuring system in the highlands, and comically bashes the ground with a hammer, inducing a “10.9 on the Wac-tor scale!” before visiting the headquarters of The Beano in Dundee. This inspires a comedy skit, where Timmy the Terror picks on lisping softy, Olly the Wally (“gis yer lolly, you big fat wally!”), and gets chased by lollypop man, Jack McWhack. It ends with Timmy directing schoolkids across the road with his mallet — which sounds disgusting — with perhaps the worst punchline I have ever witnessed, “is this what you call Crocodile Dundee?!” (especially if you’re unfamiliar with ‘crocodile’ as a term for a long line of children)

Running a tight second is Pinky Punky’s “Mr. Mallett, Mr. Mallett, is a cartoon a song about a car? You know; car tune?!Wacaday finishes on phone-in game, Chat and Splat, where Wee James can’t read the autocue, so Timmy has to painstakingly stage-whisper every question for him to repeat. Notable here is the kid puts one hand in a small bowl of gunge, and even when scalded by Timmy “you don’t need that,” spends the next five minutes at the side of frame frantically wiping at unseen gunge with a towel; fingers, legs, face, stomach, back; clearly suffering a dirt phobia and no longer paying attention to the show. We play out with a montage of viewer-submitted photos of Wac-a-Waves; pictures of kids by funny street signs or buried up to their necks at the beach; which under the sombre drone of Mull of Kintyre, especially following all the preceding silliness, feels like a memorial for children who’ve died.

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Sadly, tomorrow’s show isn’t available online, where Timmy promises we’ll meet “Robert the Bruce Springsteen.” Of interest in the credits, Jack McWhack is credited as ‘wactor’ Andrew Wightman, who’s now a Scottish MP for the Green Party. But anyone homeschooling their kids could land the little fuckers an A* in GCSE Geography by sitting them down in front of Wacaday‘s impeccably researched week on South Africa. Timmy enters pretending to fly and bawling the Batman theme — “nana nana nana nana, Wacaday Man!” He’s in a cape, you see, as they’re going to Cape Town, and I’m sure, like me, you’re very excited at the prospect of Timmy Mallett tackling apartheid.

What about the kids; will they somehow be dressed South African? No, just capes, as well as two baseball caps each, one on top of the other. This “twin peaks” was one of Wacaday’s fashion trends, pushed on the audience each summer, along with rolling up a single trouser leg; which I definitely remember doing. Timmy himself is wearing two pairs of glasses; one on his eyes, the other on his hat(s). But today is a special day, as our sweet little bird boy is turning seven, and Magic gets a cake and a round of Happy Birthday from Timmy, children and crew. The latter are far louder than the Scotland shows, oohing and laughing in all the right places, and parroting the host’s chant-a-longs, where he could be wearing six pairs of glasses and still not hide the megamaniacal glint in his eye. “Completely bonkers!” yells Timmy. Everyone laughs.

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Disconcertingly, the loud sound of children’s cheering is occasionally piped in to sweeten a punchline or a correct answer, giving the impression there are hundreds of kids just off camera, and inviting questions of why they remain unseen. Squalid conditions? Frightening deformities? Are they all chained together like in Temple of Doom, begging Magic to pick the locks with his beak? I know it’s a thing now where we pick any pop culture headline — ‘Six9ine Calls Out N-Word Fortnite Streamer Who Catfished Jake Paul With Hot Faceapp Pic; President Trump Must Condemn!‘ — and say you couldn’t explain it to someone from 15 years ago, but honestly, stuff from 1992’s no better. I mean, there’s a game where the kids fish small items like sunglasses out of a bowl of very watery custard while blindfolded, which is called Wac-Columbus, because, I guess, they’re discovering the things, where the winner gets a load of Matey bubble bath.

But the meat of this is South Africa, and Timmy’s a schoolboy who’s giving a ten minute book report having only glanced at the cover. What have we learned about the country so far? Well, there’s capes, aren’t there? And there’s Cape Town, “with its table cloth on top of its table mountain.” Yes, I’d say my favourite chapter was when all the flies made that one fly the Lord. When we finally visit South Africa — sorry, WacAfrica — Timmy’s on the beach in a massive Dracula cape, running away from the tide. I should note the full ensemble; cloak, billowing white mumu covered in stars, glasses with lightning on the frame, fingerless neon green gloves, rainbow striped parachute pants, and two multicoloured baseball caps. This is our cultural envoy. If he meets an actual South African while dressed like that, I’ll simply die.

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No, come on, let’s give him a chance. He’s out there now in Cape Town, pointing out Table Mountain (which you can’t see behind clouds), “and the other thing it’s famous for is its capes!” Just to be clear, it definitely isn’t. The naming of Cape Town is completely unrelated to capes, but he fills airtime by wittering on, “in summer you wear a cape to keep the sun off, and in winter you wear a cape to keep the rain off, and it’s also brilliant for flying with” before yelling “Wac-Cape-Cadabra!” and spinning around on the sand. Well, that’s me applying for Mastermind with South Africa as my specialist subject. Fifteen hours of flight time to get him there for this, by the way.

Then it cuts to him in front of a Wac-a-windmill, or to use English, a windmill, before — I’m afraid to report — chatting to a local, stood in his fucking two hats and a cape. Hearing about all the different races and cultures, Timmy skips over the whole racial segregation stuff to declare “it’s a great, huge, massive melting pot!” before being handed an actual melting (cooking) pot. Now here’s the opportunity for a child-friendly analogy about apartheid. This might be tough with the subtlety of a host who plays up Cape Town’s variety by skipping past a row of black children and cheerily commenting “the people are multicoloured, even the houses are multicoloured…

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Soon Timmy’s strolling through a shanty town, the only white face — and the only one in a cape and rainbow Hammer pants — with his melting pot, containing items he’s collected from Cape Town, for a wonderful metaphor about the way seemingly-disparate elements can blend together for something magical and unique. Except all he’s got is one cupful of spice and a single block of cheese, mixed together with some water he’s scabbed off a passing and highly confused lady. “Not perfect by any means,” he says, swirling the gunk with his bare hands, “but it’s getting there, slowly,” and then he’s pushing this disgusting concoction into children’s faces on the end of his finger, while dressed like a vampire at a Pride march. The sight of everyone retching doesn’t make a particularly great analogy for the benefits of multiculturalism, but we cut back to the studio as he opines “yeah, it is getting there, isn’t it, Magic?” and like that, Timmy Mallett has fixed racism.

(As an addendum, between writing and posting this piece, I became aware of another clip from the South African series, where a much more sedate Timmy properly explains apartheid in a rather lovely, non-patronising way, and fully redeems himself)

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With that out of the way, there’s more hijinx, like the Mallett’s Pallette [sic] art section, where the kids help him sponge the letter W on a cloth with “really good African colours” under a backing track of chirping crickets, and a VT where he’s riding on the back of a Wac-ostrich, while pretending to be an old lady for some reason, barely avoiding getting kicked to death after being bucked off in a paddock while doing a Hinge and Bracket voice. But after everything we’ve seen, I’m gutted the next episode’s not online, which sounds like it may set new standards of problematic, as he’ll be meeting up with “the Zulus, who are terribly scary!” That definitely ends with him inside a giant cauldron, doesn’t it? We close with Pinky Punky chanting “Zulu! Zulu! Zulu! Can I go to Zu Loo (the loo) please?!” Bloody Eurotrash. I’d much rather see Timmy and the Zulus than a great big muff.

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.

Bill & Ted: The Series

•August 25, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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As 1990 was the era of the animated spin-off, it’s a given that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure landed a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. More surprising is the original cast reprising their roles, with Keanu, Alex Winter and George Carlin all returning as voice actors. Season two of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures (plural) saw a move from CBS to Fox Kids, with production switching from Hanna-Barbera to DIC, who we all remember from the logo where a little kid yells “dick! But Fox recast, binning Keanu and co, and the show was cancelled at the end of the season.

Seven months later, in June of 1992, the live action Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures — confusingly the same title as the cartoon — made its debut on Fox. It had been due to air six months earlier, but a contract clause stipulated Bogus Journey first needed to hit a specific mark at the box office. Consequently, the show’s dialogue always refers to present day as 1991, while captions mark it as 1992. They kept the main cast from the re-jigged cartoon, with Alex Winter’s Bill now played by Evan Richards — Billy Warlock’s buddy in Brian Yuzna’s Society — and Keanu’s Ted by Christopher Kennedy. There’s a decent pedigree to the rest of the cast, with Christopher Guest regular Don Lake as Bill’s dad, and comedian Rick Overton (Willow, Groundhog Day) filling the Carlin role as Rufus. Missy’s played by Lisa Wilcox aka Alice from the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

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This is less Bill & Ted than Invasion of the Body Snatchers, leaving distressed viewers feeling like the last uninfected human — “It’s not them! Can’t you see?!” They’re in the iconic outfits and doing the voices, but these are impressions, not performances. Richards, taking the place of Alex Winter, is not terrible, but Christopher Kennedy’s Ted amps up Keanu’s slacker swagger by perpetually swaying, with one shoulder always a foot lower than the other, and swinging his arms like he’s on a rocking ship. Plus, he’s got a creeping hairline which suggests he’s got a year, at best, to enjoy those long Ted-locks. God knows, I shouldn’t looks-shame, being I resemble a 17th century witch-finder, but Keanu’s one of history’s most beautiful people, while the TV incarnation…

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There’s none of the charm or self-awareness of the movies, though the unaired pilot spends its entire runtime in a metaphorical howl of “hey remember when you saw Bill & Ted at the cinema? This is the same! Exactly the same!” There’s a ton of air guitaring and “no way!” and the scripts mimic the classic film dialogue, which is that weird mixture of Cali-slang and overly-portentous, almost medieval formality, in a kind of surfer Stuart Hall. Missy — “I mean, mom” — is there to luridly make out with Bill’s dad (whom she’d left for Ted’s dad in Bogus Journey, to which they obviously didn’t have script access) and serve the lads drinks in a tiny bikini, giving Ted “a full-on chubby” in a 7pm timeslot.

The story here is they’ve blown out their amp, so apply for a job at hardware store, World of Nails. The manager agrees to hire them, but only if they take his daughter to the dance. They react in that grossed-out 90’s way of signposting that someone’s fat, so get thrown out, as Rufus shows up in the phone booth, warning them the fate of mankind is now in jeopardy. No amp means no performance at the dance, and no Wyld Stallyns-based future-utopia. They go back in time 15 minutes, so’s to not be rude about the daughter, but accidentally get sucked inside the Crime Stories magazine they use to fix the aerial. Oh yeah, no longer just a time machine, they can travel inside books and shit now.

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Accidentally flattening a tommy gun-toting goon, they bring back a noir dame, who’s black and white in a colour world — an effect achieved by painting the actress grey. Missy befriends her, while the store-owner pays them to take his daughter to the dance, in some reverse-escorting. They still have to get the dame back home, but Missy’s sent her away in a taxi to start a new life travelling round the world, hitting us with a “no way!” and TO BE CONTINUED, only 17 minutes in.

Reader, we most certainly do not continue. Episode one proper starts from scratch; most notably with Ted’s hair, switching from the balding bed-head to an absolutely horrendous Beatles wig, which spends every scene flopping around hideously like a smelly penis next to your plate at a naturist BBQ. They’re now working at Nail World, where boss Mr. Keilson has just landed the big promotion, which Rufus warns will destroy the future. Keilson goes to call the wife, but uses Bill & Ted’s phone booth, sending him back to England, 512 AD.

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The costumes are on a par with It’s a Knockout, and this week’s historical celeb is Deidrich Bader’s King Arthur, who hands the freshly-pulled sword to Keilson and — uh-oh, mix-up — Keilson’s crowned the king! He’s mostly just excited about having sex with Princess Guinevere, hornily rolling on the bed together, readying to take it out of his boxers, while Bill and Ted, a pair of highschoolers, stand chatting with him the whole time.

King Keilson’s dragged into a battle against an evil knight, which was clearly shot hurriedly in the ten minutes before dawn with no lighting, as you can see fuck all, but faints, and is taken back to 1991/1992 where he thinks it was all a dream. Far more intriguing than the actual show is an over-credits announcement for Charles S. Dutton sitcom Roc, whose entire 2nd season was aired live. Oh, right, this is a sitcom too. Honestly, I struggled to find a single joke-joke, and this is probably the best example of what we’re dealing with. A delivery man asks for the lads’ signature; the ol’ John Hancock.

     Bill “Who’s John Hancock?

     Ted: “I don’t know.

What a timeless gag, as funny now as it was 30 years ago. Speaking of timeless, Excellent Adventures‘ use of time travel makes zero sense. Sure, time travel’s not real, but it has to stick to its own rules. Every episode has Rufus coming back in a panic to make them fix something that’ll ruin the future, if gone unchecked. But hasn’t that stuff already happened? Hasn’t everything already happened? There are no evil time travellers going back and altering the existing timeline, so how are these butterfly effect jeopardies cropping up? And if there’s a future world where the entire history of Bill and Ted is already written, why are they still entering Battles of the Bands and Elvis lookalike contests to win recording contracts? Surely their path to success is set in stone?

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In more things which make dick-all sense, episode 2, As The Dude Turns (The Lives That We Live), opens with Missy drooling over hunky soap opera doctor, Lance Steelflex. Bill’s dad runs in from his lunchbreak, tie already off, ready to get his lunchtime shag in. But Lance confesses that he’s living a lie. “I don’t feel angry… I feel pretty,” dramatically peeling off his lab coat to reveal a pink dress. “I’m trapped in the body of a lie I can no longer live… a life that’s a lie is only a half-life!” Revealing he’s booked in for sex-change surgery, a sobbing Missy is distraught, while JK Rowling must be spitting up blood. Missy’s so mad, she’s in no mood for sex, punching Bill’s dad, who’s immediately so sexually frustrated, he takes over the Wyld Stallyns rehearsal space fixing up a greasy old car, rather than just having a tommy tank and getting on with his day.

As Rufus shows up with his latest dire warning, let’s be clear what the stakes are: if the TV doctor becomes a woman, Missy permanently goes off sex, leaving Bill’s dad dangerously backed up with cum, the Wyld Stallyns unable to rehearse, and the future destroyed. Cool, cool. The lads wire the phone booth to the TV cable and get sucked into the satellite, where a channel-surfing Mr. Preston, with a full day’s worth of semen bubbling in his inflated bollocks, sees them appear onscreen. They’re glitching with a “b-be excellent, p-p-party on!” as Max Headrooms; they’re working out with sexy aerobics ladies, which Bill’s dad should not be watching in his condition, as he’s liable to shoot a new skylight into the ceiling.

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Bill and Ted jump into the soap, claiming to be Dr. Lance’s son. As nobody yells cut, it’s not performed by actors on a set, but its own universe filled with sentient characters. Earlier, Bill’s dad was complaining over the phone to the network, but now they’re all real? It plays with TV conventions, like Bill and Ted hearing each other’s thoughts as narration, or stepping harmlessly out of a ‘moving’ car. By now, the doctor’s draped in pearls and Pat Butcher earrings, in a tiny skirt and heels, acting all effete. “I didn’t know I had two sons!” he says; “We didn’t know we had two mothers!” His girlfriend wakes from her faint to ogle the schoolboys — “mmm, a little young, but cute!” — and they try to talk him out of the operation, with the advice “dad, historically, dudes do not make good babes!” Bill and Terf, more like!

But it turns out, his girlfriend was cheating on him with another doctor, who’d been blackmailing Lance’s psychiatrist into tricking him to believe he was trans, so he could marry her instead. Lance decides he’s happier being a dude than a babe, cancelling the op, as Missy rushes home to give Bill’s dad a thorough despunking, saving the future once again. It was almost worth sitting through this trash to see, tucked away in the credits playing a senator, the incredible ‘very nearly a ribbed condom’ name French Tickner.

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Episode 4, It’s a Totally Wonderful Life, is the Back to the Future II trope, with one tiny change in the past resulting in a dark and fascistic alternate timeline; like say, the commissioning of a reality show called The Apprentice. It’s all so dumb, it sounds like I got bored and made something up, but honestly, Rufus goes back to 1991, and after a nightmare about being served one, accidentally gets ‘Chicken Kiev’ engraved on a Policeman Of the Year award for Ted’s dad, who’s so humiliated, he sends Ted to military school, changing history.

Back in 2692, everything’s bedecked in Nazi-esque banners, in a society based on the music of Gunther and Plotnik, a 22nd century polka band. Rufus is imprisoned by black-clad troopers, but breaks out to 1996, where Bill’s a corporate yuppie arsehole and Ted’s a street-tough in a bandana, busted by an undercover cop for dealing drugs on skid row. Perfectly normal in a sitcom for kids. But it’s just a ruse; Ted pulls his own badge — “Detective Logan, internal affairs!” — and military academy’s turned him into a hard-nosed stomping boot of the police state.

As the pair now hate each other, Rufus drops an anonymous tip about Bill so that Ted goes after him, wearing a wire when they meet for dinner, and brings the 1991 lads along too. The ’91 Bill and Ted berate their future counterparts; who roll around on the floor in a brawl; before fixing the engraving and the future. “Millard, my love, who directed this episode?” you ask; “presumably a raccoon that got into the set through an open window?” Mate, it was David Nutter; the one who won an Emmy directing Game of Thrones.

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Indeed, the most Excellent Adventure I’m having is in the credits. Episode 4, Hunka Hunka Bill and Ted is co-written by the writer of Hollywoodland and Nic Cage psychic magician flick, Next. Honestly, the title’s enough for you to guess the plot; they bring a pre-fame Elvis to an Elvis lookalike contest and he loses, but finds his mojo back in 1954 when they play one of his future tapes in a bowling alley, for a full-on choreographed dance number. The time-fixin’ stuff’s ditched from here, with an episode which feels more like Quantum Leap, and marks Rufus’ last appearance in the series.

Destiny Babes is another ‘collect a historical figure’ ep, enrolling Casanova to help them get off with a couple of girls who look like Brian May. By now the laboured B&T speak is really irritating, padding the script with lines like “we must expeditiously rectify this most non-triumphant situation!” Casanova’s got the worst wig in the series, which is really saying something; a pony-tailed, joke shop Eddie Large, which gives me horrible flashbacks to drama in school, when a class loudmouth pulled a curly wig out of a costume box to get massive laffs by slouching around going “my name’s Stuart!” in a miserablist voice. It’s fine, I’m over it. He’s dead now.

Casanova is very horny, and if his penis ever touched with Bill’s dad’s, they’d be sparking like lightsabers. They take him back to a singles bar in 1991 where he ogles some arses and works his magic, surrounded by doe-eyed babes and stroking a woman’s hand — “I am in you, you are in me.” In fashion from centuries past, with shit facial hair, and manky, touchy ‘deep soul connection’ flirting techniques, we’re witnessing the prototype for the modern pick up artist. Bill and Ted use his lessons to win a date with their ‘destiny babes’, but ho-ho, they turn out to be boring bimbos. If nothing else, Excellent Adventures is aspirational, as this whole cacky mess was written by Joel Surnow, the co-creator of 24, who’s probably a billionaire now.

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Penultimate episode, Deja Vu, does BTTF‘s ‘meeting your parents in highschool’ deal, centring on music teacher Mrs. Pearl, who despises Ted and has history with his mom, with whom she gets in a MILF catfight, throwing each other into lockers and getting arrested. Back to 1969, Pearl’s leading a group of hippies protesting the lunch menu, in what may be the single tightest collection of Summer of Love cliches ever compiled. There’s beads and Lennon shades, a VW camper painted in flowers and peace-signs, a soundtrack of sitar music, and every other word of dialogue is “man” and “groovy!” Of course, Captain Logan’s revealed as a hippie too — like when cool young Mr. Belding was running Bayside’s school radio — and the gang head to Woodstock together. When the local sheriff shows up (whom Ted recognises as his maternal grandfather), the face he pulls when he opens the van, along with sex noises and a shocked plea to “put your clothes on” indicates there’s an actual highschooler orgy going on, in this sitcom for kids.

As it’s not time travel without incest, Ted’s mom gets a wide-on when she sees him in jail, and asks him to the dance, but Ted talks her into taking his future-dad instead. Captain Logan immediately drops the hippie stuff, revealing himself a Blue Lives Matter bootlicker, who was just pretending so he could sleep with Mrs. Pearl, who sobs as Ted’s future parents leave together. The lads head back to 1991, giving her a final mantra of advice; “remember, dudes are the weaker sex, babes bounce back,” only to find 90’s Pearl has straightened her frizzy hair (which denoted misery and spinsterness), and now loves the Stallyns. Gotta say, huge missed opportunity to not have Kevin Pollack guest star as Charles Manson, bringing a little Helter Skelter to San Dimas. “Missy — I mean, mom — where’s your head?”

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Final episode, Stand Up Guy, kicks off with the boys in math(s) class, humiliated by the teacher for being thick, and mockingly called Einstein (who they’ve never heard of), so they go back in time to learn from the man himself. The big ticking clock here is they only have 11 hours to become smart before needing to return in time for class. You’re time travelling; return whenever you fucking like! Stay there ten years and return one second after you left. (Note: as I’ve since been reminded, this is how it works in the movies too, so fair enough) Unfortunately, Einstein decides to quit science and become a stand-up comedian, performing in a castle-looking pub called Ye Olde Comedy Cabaret. 1916; the dark ages; it’s all the same!

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How did the writer throw this episode together? Bill and Ted get threatened with weekly stand-up tests in class and called “Einstein,” so now the real Einstein wants to be a stand-up? Was this written by an alien?! In random added weirdness, the smartest kid in San Dimas High is called Glen Nevis, in a pun of a Scottish mountain. Sadly, big Albert’s gag “I knew this man who didn’t have a cent to his name, so he changed his name!” is the strongest joke in the entire series. B&T trick him into giving his speech about relativity, preventing more causality shit and saving all future timelines, apart from the one in 2020 where I had to painstakingly sit through Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventures taking 5,000 words of notes, and wishing someone had dropped a phone booth on my ancestors.

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

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

The Cannon and Ball Project: Episode I

•August 16, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Occasionally from now on, I’m going to be releasing my content as a video essay instead of a written piece. Here’s the first one.

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

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

The Upper Hand

•August 5, 2020 • 3 Comments

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[This is Part 10 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart EightPart Nine]

If you’ve been reading my work regularly over the last few years, you’ll recall I’ve a specific bar for things which ran a really long time while simultaneously leaving no cultural mark. Remember 90’s ITV sitcom The Upper Hand? You should, having racked up 94 episodes. Go on, quote a line. A scene. Give me anything beyond humming a few bars of the dreadful theme tune. You absolutely can’t. Nobody can. There are other examples — the similarly unquotable Birds of a Feather with an astonishing 128 episodes — but The Upper Hand is the benchmark for racking up copious airtime yet leaving millions of viewers with absolutely no specific memories whatsoever.

Try and picture it; 94 episodes. 94 times a script was written, rehearsed, and performed in front of hundreds of people who got specially dressed, piled into their cars or the train, for a specific journey to a TV studio to spend an evening watching it being recorded. 94 times a continuity announcer said “and coming up after the break…” And in its wake, not a goddamn bean. It’s truly remarkable. To put 94 episodes in perspective for a British sitcom, Fawlty Towers is always held up as the perfect ‘two and done’, with a pair of 6-episode series, while longer-running shows fully ingrained in the national psyche barely compare. At the lower end, there’s The Vicar of Dibley (20 episodes), Porridge (21), Open All Hours (26), and The Good Life (30) — all at less than a third of our tally. Even distance runners like One Foot in the Grave (42), Only Fools and Horses (64), and Dad’s Army, topping off with 80 episodes, trail by some distance. But each of these are highly quotable, with scenes that most Brits of a certain age can repeat verbatim.

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Clearly, The Upper Hand‘s wonk-ass ratio of airtime to cultural impact is extraordinary, but surely the sheer amount is suggestive of massive success? Not so much. A big part of the prolific output comes from its status as an American import. As a remake of ABC’s Who’s The Boss?, which began six years earlier, ITV had a stack of pre-existing scripts at their disposal, with most of the episodes straight adaptations, allowing them to be pumped out at a much faster rate. As a result, they could bypass the British system, usually stuck on blocks of 6, and air the show in yearly batches of anywhere between 7-19 half-hours, cramming all 94 shows into just 7 series.

Now, when I say nobody remembers The Upper Hand, I’m talking about specifics. Most who lived through it can recall its existence, but all will draw a blank when asked to call upon a line or a moment. This is a world where social vernacular is comprised of pop-culture references, and people communicate almost entirely in gifs or quotes from The Simpsons, Father Ted and Alan Partridge. Did this show truly leave nothing behind? I recently tweeted about the Upper Hand cultural vacuum, and got replies with vague memories of having watched, but nothing anyone could nail down, with repressed images coming in flashes, like alien abductees wincing at the sight of a speculum.

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One viewer recalled a joke about recognising a belt-buckle through a letterbox; another repeated a gag about a purse, but with no further information online, it’s impossible to verify. Someone remembered nothing beyond a single line from the theme tune. Sadly, I had to inform them The Upper Hand‘s theme was instrumental, and the quoted lyrics actually came from Dennis Waterman sitcom On The Up. I was sent a link to an Upper Hand fan account. Registered five years ago, it has yet to make a single tweet. Everyone seemed to agree that Honor Blackman’s granny character liked sex.

Part of the reason I’ve been so fascinated with the 47 hours of ‘scene missing’ is that I’m in the exact same boat. I’d have been ten when The Upper Hand began, which was right in that period when televised comedy mostly consisted of MOR sitcoms about middle-aged tribulations, which, back in four-channel analogue Hell, us late-80’s/early-90’s kids were weirdly entertained by. As a boy, along with the shows we’d be quoting in the playground the next day, like ‘Allo ‘Allo or the stuff in my Past Laugh Regression series, I spent my evenings watching weekly instalments of Fresh Fields, After Henry, Up The Garden Path, and Surgical Spirit — the slow romancing of a ‘feisty’ surgeon and her shy anaesthetist. I’ve a vivid memory of my cousin coming over to play and both of us excitedly sitting down in front of May to December, where widowed solicitor Anton Rogers had taken up a relationship with a younger woman. There’s 39 episodes of that, by the way. The Upper Hand is the epitome of these sitcoms that solely existed within their own time, and like all the other trash on here, the only way to understand it is to watch.

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Episode one, Just the Job, opens with a piano rendition of the theme that’s so slow and sickly, i’m half-expecting a child’s coffin to be wheeled past my desk. But our tragedy is merely that sad-sack Charlie Burrows is moving house. Charlie’s played by one of the McGanns (specifically Joe); a kind of British Baldwins, as four distressingly similar-looking scouse brothers who all act and sing. One went onto be Doctor Who. Googling the lads, I came upon a DeviantArt account filled with images of them lovingly rendered as individual Ken dolls, including a delightful picture of the four wrapped in each other’s skinny plastic arms, titled ‘McGann brothers cuddle puddle.’ As the father to — future wife of Danny Dyer in Eastenders — Kellie Bright’s Joanna, Charlie’s an ITV DILF; something for the mams in his brown leather jacket and bum-chin. He’s packing up the van to leave the rough streets of London; as evidenced by Joanna’s black eye; taking them off to a fresh start in the country where a new job awaits.

Into the opening credits, Charlie’s grotty green van with a TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR decal on the windscreen drives out of the city and into the sticks, all under the appalling theme, mild variations of which are the sole musical score for the series. With the dreary melancholic of early-90’s sitcom woodwind, it’s a tune to perfectly soundtrack the watching of a distant plume of smoke rising from your uninsured family business, or opening a letter from the hospital and seeing the word ‘malignant’. Charlie arrives at the massive country home of Diana Weston’s Caroline and her young son, Tom, and the split-second she opens the door, in hair-rollers and a bathrobe, it’s clear this is your ‘posho falls for dirty-boy bit of rough’ opposites attract deal; six seasons of will-they/won’t-they? erotic bickering followed by a wedding.

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The gag here, and the premise for the whole show, is that he’s the new housekeeper. A man! Keeping house! Caroline cannot believe her ears; “you’re the wrong sex!” She’s right, men can’t cook or clean. He’ll probably try to roast a football for Sunday dinner, won’t he?! Hoovering the poos out of the toilet and whatnot. Horny nan Honor Blackman tries to sell him to Caroline, giving the tragic backstory; he’s an ex-first-division footballer who got injured, and then his wife died; plus the kids he coaches at the youth centre worship him. “Mother, on Christmas Island, they worship coconuts!” [citation needed] Of course, she relents, as little Tom (not for the last time) can be seen looking straight down the camera.

The main plot is Caroline’s affair with her boss and upcoming mucky weekend, right when there’s a promotion in the offing. Charlie advises against going, as she’ll never know if she got the job through merit or for being a good ride. In the end, she passes on it, and gets the job anyway, but not before various mix-ups, including Charlie coming at the boss with a cricket bat when confusing him for a burglar/rapist, and the pair getting off with each other on the kitchen floor so roughly, it elicits genuine gasps of excited shock from the audience. In the midst of this, I’m finally able to give the world an actual confirmed joke from The Upper Hand, which we can all quote with our friends tomorrow. Picture the scene; she’s offering her boss some food from the fridge. Are you ready?

     Caroline: “How about a green salad?

     Boss: “This is potato salad?

     Caroline “True, but it is green!

Truly worth the wait. That’ll be a Steamed Hams by next week, mark my words. In a couple of quick notes, a scene where Charlie’s flirting with Caroline’s secretary over the phone gets no laughs, presumably pissing off an audience who already want to see C&C together; and each week’s closing credits show the four main characters playing football in the garden, in a way that makes it clear none have ever even seen a football before, or been on grass, or worn shoes. From here, we skip forwards, past episode two, which is the old ‘whoops, Charlie accidentally saw Caroline’s boobs’ story, all the way to episode five; Caroline’s First Fight.

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This is a straight adaptation of a Who’s The Boss? episode — Angela’s First Fight — with a find/replace for any Anglo-centric references. The American writers do a bang-up job with Charlie’s realistic ‘watching footie on TV’ dialogue, with shouts of “come on, ref, he was offside!” and the like. The kids (and Honor Blackman) have gotten in a fistfight with a neighbourhood boy, and the resulting argument sees Joanne run back home to London, with Tom in tow, having been enamoured by her tales of rats and people sleeping on the streets — “you can put spiders on them and they won’t even wake up!

The London scenes really establish this isn’t just a sitcom aimed at the middle classes, but produced by them too, with the capital portrayed as a Mad Max warzone. As Charlie and Caroline pull up outside his old flat, she’s in fear for her life. There’s boarded up windows and a trio of actual skinheads bouncing up and down on a car bonnet, running off to shove each other into an old shopping trolley as they spray graffiti on some corrugated iron nailed over the front of a house. “Alright, Charlie?” says one, all matey. Note that Charlie himself is really well-spoken, and not even a Jim Davidson ‘stone the bleedin’ crows!’ type cockney, but everyone here is straight out of a 70’s pulp novel where people have been eating their own nans to survive, or just for a laugh.

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A load of kids come bombing out of an alley and one turns out to be Tom; face dirty, clothes ripped. “Mummy, my cockroach won the race!” he says, excitedly holding it aloft. Did they run all the way back to Victorian times?! Joanna also looks like she’s been up a chimney, and to complete the cliché, their old Jamaican neighbour invites them to stay for a tea of chicken and rice. Charlie takes Caroline to his old local, a graffiti strewn piss-pit called The Windsor Castle, where the regulars mock him for being a poofy housekeeper — “whatcha gonna do, plump my pillows?” — culminating in Caroline pouring a pint over a brassy barmaid (and Charlie’s former lover), and getting into one of those sitcom fights where they just push and pull each other’s shoulders. Of course, the kids show up just in time to see it, and when they get home, where she’s somehow got a black eye, everyone hugs and bonds across the class divide over their shared inability to not throw dem hands at the first opportunity.

Just a couple of episodes in, it’s clear up why nobody remembers any jokes. It’s because there aren’t any. It’s one of those shows where everyone talks in ‘humorous’ repartee, with every character that annoying prick you know who’d shrug and say “I knew that!” when corrected on something. To quote any actual gags, I’d have to transcribe entire conversations, but as an example, at one point Caroline storms out of the room with “inflexible? I have never been inflexible. If there’s one thing I cannot tolerate, it’s inflexibility!” and God, the 11-year-old me must’ve been rolling on the floor at that one. By now, on Covid lockdown in a little flat on my actual birthday, I’m finding the expansive country house hugely depressing, but must soldier on for one final episode.

07

Against my better judgement, I randomly skip all the way past a two-parter with the synopsis “Caroline’s estranged husband (played by Nicky Henson) returns from his jungle explorations” to episode 13, the final in the first series, entitled Requiem. Compounding the sickly feeling, it’s a Christmas special, which I’m watching in May. They don’t even garnish that fucking theme tune with sleigh bells, as we open on Honor Blackman sat at a typewriter surrounded by scrunched up paper, having decided to be a writer, and spending the whole episode speaking only in trashy opening paragraphs. Charlie’s acting weird; rushed off his feet, forgetful, acting all nervy, and unable to stay for dinner. “The mysterious housekeeper disappears into the night,” says Blackman; “oh, why would anyone want to be a writer?” I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.

It turns out he’s been moonlighting at a pizza place, and they speculate he’s in debt to the mob, so Blackman tails him, in full detective mode, dressed like when The Thing or the Ninja Turtles disguise themselves out in public. The flashbacks are in black and white with noir sax and Blackman doing a surprisingly awful 1940’s American detective accent. Sorry, I can’t keep saying Blackman; it sounds like I’m talking about a black man. Honor follows him to a block of flats where a woman invites him inside, and a fuming Caroline’s response is that classic bad sitcom mistake of believing something’s funny just because it’s alliterative — “so you can sneak down some back alley to a torrid tryst with a Neapolitan nymphet!” Eff right off.

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Shock of shocks, it’s not what it looks like, and he’s merely paying the rent on his dead dad’s flat, because he can’t face clearing it out. What a joyous Christmas special, watching Charlie mope about the dismal living room, as him and Caroline connect over his dad’s old tat; Glenn Miller LPs and a football signed by the ’66 World Cup squad. Charlie regales her with the story of his first division debut, in another clearly American-penned monologue — “I beat the full back, I passed the keeper…” The episode ends on Christmas morning and the disgusting opulence of the rich, surrounded by torn wrapping paper and capitalist merchandise. “Gosh,” says Joanna, “how did Father Christmas know I wanted the new Madonna Album?” Charlie replies “well, Santa’s a pretty funky guy!” There you go, another joke. Merry Christmas. Then they all dance around to Glenn Miller, as I celebrate leaving the other 91 episodes unwatched.

In scanning through the rest of the synopses, more often than not, they curiously take the titles of other TV shows or films. A selection from series 6 includes Home Improvement, Quantum Leap, Second Thoughts, and Moonlighting. One year, there’s a load of game shows; Wheel of Fortune, Full House and The Price is Right, but also Misery and Cheers. If they’d gotten another few series out of it, they’d have been stuck writing plots that thematically tied in with Cannibal Holocaust or Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Presumably an in-joke to keep the crew sane, it’s dropped by series 7, barring a single episode entitled Friends, which had been airing for two years by that point, in one of those weird historical crossovers, like finding out Rasputin lived at the same time as Darren Day.

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In hindsight, it’s obvious why The Upper Hand ran so long while leaving no comedic trace. While it’s technically a sitcom, that’s not why people were tuning in, and like To The Manor Born — a similarly unquotable comedy, but with an unbelievable ratings peak of 24m — it was sold on its slow-burn love story. As predicted, it built towards a wedding episode, which I planned on watching before realising it was an hour-long special, so the synopsis will have to do — “It’s Charlie and Caroline’s wedding day and everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.” Standard.

While it’s been utterly forgotten in all but the most general sense, it does have its fanbase, as evidenced by a popular Youtube account filled with loving tribute montages of the two leads falling for each other, cut together with the full, three-minute version of the theme, should you ever need musical accompaniment to thumbing at tattered pictures of your kids that no longer speak to you while teetering on the edge of a motorway bridge. Critically, it’s been forgotten too, though when McGann joined Hollyoaks, he was described in the press as “sitcom legend.” But now, let this document lay proof that The Upper Hand did exist, it had scenes and lines, and (repeats not included) appeared on millions of televisions 94 times. It just wasn’t funny.

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.

 
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