TV Cream’s Most Unforgettable Theme!
Let’s be clear, we fully expect Alan Hawkshaw’s roughly rubbed güiro to steal the day, but all the same, have fun!
Let’s be clear, we fully expect Alan Hawkshaw’s roughly rubbed güiro to steal the day, but all the same, have fun!
This week, time for a little edutainment as we battle four factual TV titles. Which will you decide is the most melodic? Ladies and gentlemen, once again, it is…
Holiday vs Tomorrow’s World vs Top Gear vs Wish You Were Here!
Welcome, welcome, welcome home to our battle of the TV themes initiative. After our Christmas break, we return with another round that we genuinely reckon will be hotly contested. Gird yourselves for this week’s…
That’s Bod vs Jamie and the Magic Torch vs Pigeon Street vs Rainbow!
The main battle for audiences on Christmas Day has always been sold as BBC1 vs ITV – although ITV rarely seem to make more than a token effort. Indeed, BBC1’s competition on the big day is more likely to come from the dinner table, the games console and the extended family than it is any other channel. While the broadcasters may cling to the idea of everyone sitting in silence to give the programmes their full attention, the chances of that actually being the case in the majority of homes seems pretty unlikely.
It used to be that the big shows would have to be watched live, or you’d wait until the following Christmas – or if the BBC were particularly stretched, the summer – to see them again. But nowadays it’s easier than ever to catch the main TV attractions without having to wolf down the turkey or tell Gran to keep the noise down. PVRs were whirring their way throughout the day, the Beeb were eager to promote iPlayer as an alternative and almost everything on the 25th got a swift repeat over the next few days.
This is perhaps the main reason why the highest rated programme on Christmas Day – as last year, an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys – could only pull in 7.9 million viewers on the day itself, over a million down on 12 months ago, while everything else also reported declining ratings year on year. This led to much hand-wringing and newspaper reports pondering if the Christmas fare was substandard, although early indications were that the number of people watching on-demand and recordings was extremely high and many shows edged up to a healthier figure as these viewers were added onto the ratings.
Certainly the BBC1 schedule, though perhaps a bit familiar in places, seemed perfectly good with big hit shows being rolled out one after the other, and no obvious weak spots like the episodes of Ground Force, Changing Rooms and Bargain Hunt that filled awkward gaps around the turn of the century, or even last year’s Michael McIntyre DVD.
Christmas Day on BBC1 got off to a solid start with the usual fare – Breakfast, cartoons, a service, the film Gnomeo and Juliet and a repeat of Only Fools and Horses. The latter was quite interesting though as it was a rare outing for ‘A Royal Flush’, the special from Christmas Day 1986. This was famously a very fraught production behind the scenes, with illness and other commitments (most obviously John Sullivan also writing Just Good Friends for the same day) meaning production ran way behind schedule to the extent contingency plans were in place to perform it live on Christmas Day. Though this didn’t happen, the resultant episode, rushed to the screens, was considered one of the worst of the series and John Sullivan supervised a re-edit, removing some 20 minutes, before it returned to the repeat rota.
Top of the Pops followed at 2pm, yet again, being probably as accurate and as effective a summary of the year’s hits as it had always been, and despite the Beeb clearly having absolutely no interest in reviving it on a regular basis, it looked as though the annual special was now a fixture in the schedule and seemed less at risk from the axe than at most times in the past few decades.
If you added together the ratings from its screenings on BBC1 and ITV (and, though it seems unlikely anyone would bother watching it there, Sky 1), The Queen’s message was actually the highest rated programme of the entire day – which perhaps says more about the low ratings for most other programmes than any increased interest in what Liz had to say. Almost as long a tradition now is BBC1 following the message with an animated film – in this case, another outing for the Shrek franchise in the shape of its spin-off Puss in Boots.
Strictly Come Dancing followed at 5pm, which not only saw the triumphant return of Bruce Forsyth as host but also past contestants who danced again. Given that in the past few years when new competitors appeared on Christmas Day only a handful had been any more interesting than the participants we’d been watching every week during the series, it probably made more sense to invite back old favourites, and the special, despite its earlier slot, managed to make it to third place in the day’s ratings – helped, perhaps, by it being one of the few shows viewers could happily dip in and out of, plus with no repeat scheduled.
Doctor Who followed at 6.15pm, and this year’s episode took something of a tumble ratings-wise with nearly a quarter of last year’s audience switching off – but at an earlier slot, minus the 50th anniversary hoopla of 2013 and without the obvious attraction of a regeneration to pull in the casual audience, this wasn’t perhaps too much of a surprise.
Following that came a programme making its debut on Christmas Day BBC1… for its penultimate episode. Miranda was the next in a long line of comedies that had started quietly, in this case, on BBC2, before pulling in large audiences through repeats and word of mouth. After three successful series, the last on BBC1 two years ago, this episode, and the second on New Year’s Day, were promoted as being the last ever, this instalment seemed to be coasting on viewers’ affections a bit too much, relying heavily on continuity, which may have puzzled any newcomers looking in on this high profile position.
Miranda Hart was on again straight after in the third Call the Midwife Christmas special. Unlike last year’s early evening placing, 7.50pm seemed a slightly more appropriate slot for this series and signalled to viewers a clear dividing line between absolutely all-ages family fun and something a bit more grown-up. While no programme this Christmas was up year on year, Midwife showed one of the smallest declines – and won its annual battle with Downton Abbey, which is pretty impressive given the previous episode of the BBC show was back in March, whereas Downton was still fresh in viewers’ memories only a couple of weeks after its last series.
If nothing was going up in the ratings this year, the Beeb would have to take their victories where they found them, and the news that EastEnders was the day’s top soap – and second most watched programme overall – would doubtless have been very welcome given 12 months ago the show had been in a pretty poor state. Some interesting new storylines and characters had given it a boost and, while it wasn’t pulling in audiences rivalling its pomp in the 1980s and 1990a, at least ratings seemed pretty solid for now and a few more people got to see the improvement on perhaps the only day of the year they ever watch it.
Mrs Brown’s Boys then followed, and, for the second year running, pulled in the day’s biggest audience – although down on 2013 when it was shown half-an-hour earlier. This was another show that now existed only as specials rather than a regular series and so remained big news with viewers, if not with critics. Then Michael McIntyre was back, though happily this year with a brand new special made especially for the BBC rather than an old DVD. His Very Christmassy Christmas Show was, like Mrs Brown, very much an acquired taste, but meant BBC1 was all new and original from 2pm to near midnight – a highly impressive attempt.
As usual ITV’s Christmas Day revolved around the four hours in the evening with Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Downton Abbey, with the other 20 something of a chore to be filled as cheaply and effectively as possible. A host of films took us up to The Queen, followed at 3.10pm by an ITV excusive as Alan Titchmarsh took a tour of the grounds of Buckingham Palace in The Queen’s Garden. Although this seemed a decent combination, the programme was, like 2007’s Lights Camera The Queen, totally out of place in a slot when something a bit brasher is required.
Then after skewing extremely old, ITV decided to aim for the younger audience with a screening for Buddy’s Musical Christmas. This was an animated spin-off from the film Elf which, in previous years, had become something of a Christmas favourite. This wasn’t, though, and if it hadn’t been for that connection it’s unlikely it would have enjoyed such a prime slot – its stop motion-animation and gloopy moralising looking pretty old hat next to the Pixar and Aardman fare we were used to seeing on Christmas Day. Coupled with a hopeless slot it pulled in less than a million viewers. You’ve Been Framed and Paul O’Grady’s regular dispatch from Battersea Dogs Home took ITV into the soap block in vaguely festive style.
Of the genuinely big shows, Emmerdale, as usual, failed to beat its BBC1 opposition but perhaps surprisingly Coronation Street didn’t either, dipping 20 per cent from last year and losing out to Call the Midwife despite what would appear a very useful 8pm slot. Downton Abbey also suffered a sharp fall compared to 2013, though, as ever, it’s hard to imagine ITV getting too upset about ratings on a day that’s not a top priority for them commercially.
Elsewhere BBC2 offered a couple of programmes among a series of repeats that were a cut above the usual, including a celebration of 60 years of Carols From Kings, a tribute to Tim Rice, a new instalment of James May’s Toy Stories and a new episode of QI rather oddly scheduled against comedy on BBC1. And for those hankering for Christmases past there was a Morecambe and Wise compilation, Blackadder and, back after a year away, a Dad’s Army repeat.
Channel 4 also presented more of the mainstream fare that in recent years has replaced the religion and fine arts that used to offer a self-conscious alternative to the Big Two. Arthur Christmas was a film premiere that could have just as easily sat on BBC1, while Alan Carr’s two-hour special presented the lightest of light entertainment. At 8pm was a documentary looking at the huge appeal of Disney’s Frozen – which was the big film premiere on Sky Movies.
Channel 5 laid on the regular odds and sods line-up of classic films (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Scrooge) and cheap clip shows (Britain’s Favourite Christmas Songs), though perhaps the oddest bit of this or any other Christmas was the primetime screening of Chas and Dave’s Christmas Knees-Up, as seen on ITV 32 years ago to the day. Who’d have imagined Jimmy Cricket appearing on primetime Christmas Day again?
The pretty unspectacular ratings seemed to suggest Christmas Day TV had become less a part of the public’s festive season than ever before. Yet with online and on-demand viewing beginning to dominate, by New Year’s Eve just as many people will have watched the big shows as did in the past. The difference is they’re not all doing it at once.See post
Of course, Christmas isn’t Christmas without your quality TV listings guide. The one that covers telly with genuine enthusiasm – instead of under sufferance – and doesn’t, instead, try and make a beeline towards something more ‘grown-up’ like politics. Nor, indeed, does it employ the services of a TV Editor who, every week, moans about TV or a satirist who makes fun of televisual trends in a ‘What would X look like if Simon Cowell did it?’ sort of way…
Ah yes, that paragraph full of good cheer can only mean the double-sized Christmas Creamguide is now here! It gets sent out to our regular subscribers as an e-mag, but every year, we also like to flag up the fact it’s available here too on TV Cream. So, click on this for part one, and this for part two.
A Dr Lowther-bound Hilda Ogden, plus an ebullient Bet ‘Listen Lady’ Lynch, are perfect cover fodder, for once making TVT’s ITV allegiance feel like something approaching a boon. Yes! Their own cover shoot! Of TV’s biggest story! And doesn’t everyone look happy? NB: Don’t miss Ghost Busters!
Harry didn’t have to go to Paris to get an eyeful! Although he’d go on to helm one of the worst ever TVT covers, here he is in another quintessential ITV diorama, shipping, indeed, with George, Mildred and Violet Elizabeth Bott. As the coverline makes clear: glittering entertainment.
The Christmas hats aside, one could argue that this has a more Easter-ly vibe. But we care not! It also feels indicative of those mash-up-of-characters covers Fleetway comics would do when two of their titles merged, so it’s an aye to that. Sooty pumping the balloon an additional genius detail.
An art department triumph! There’s nothing here to indicate TVT even so much as met Des for this cover image, but the appropriation of his mugshot into a Santa face is masterfully done. And the concept of O’Connor-themed wrapping paper – YES. Also, very much appreciate the little telly themed Father Christmasses. Look! One of them is actually a tiny oven with a turkey inside.
Although Minder On The Orient Express would be duffed up in the ratings by Only Fools, who cares when it provided inspiration for this terrific winterscape? Tel and Arthur (holly sprig in trilby band) getting into some bother in Santa’s sled while a discomfited owl looks on. What’ll I get for Christmas for ‘er indoors? This! A smashing painting!
A lavishly budgeted restaging of the 1978 cover, this one has got the lot! Yes! ITV has a Bond, The Man With The Golden Gun actually, plus M&W arguably returning to the near-peak of their powers and – of course – Janet Brown as Mrs T. Roger: “I’ve pulled a few powerful ladies in my time before, but never pushed them…” Janet: “I push Denis around all the time!” Plus, a hint of appropriate shilling to the network, with the inclusion of that for-one-season-only ITV Christmas tag alongside the logo. ALL CHRISTMASSES SHOULD LOOK LIKE THIS!See post
Slap-bang in the ‘so much more than TV times’ magazine era, Harry Secombe, there, firmly on the highway to getting sozzled, in a perfunctory photo-shoot of the ‘let’s just split for lunch’ variety. Sack the art ed who married those red and white hues with a lime flavoured logo.
The concept – to bring together the TV Times family of stars in one Christmas super-shoot. The realisation – hastily scissored faces slapped upon stock Santa hoods. Many, not even looking into camera (“Frankie, over ‘ere!”).
“Christmas Morning service comes from the ancient parish church of Bierton in Buckinghamshire.”
M&W mark their first, desultory, Braben-less, Christmas on Thames with a TVT cover. Again, strong concept (and one they’d revisit with far more success in 1980) but shockingly poor realisation. There’s even a light reflection off the cardboard Connery’s shoulder. And as for Eric seemingly about to blow his own head off… well, perhaps the realisation of all of this was just sinking in.
Who’s that? A young Jan Leeming perhaps? “Here’s the news: It’s Christmas!” In fact it’s – as the cover caption tells us – The Boy Jesus by Florence Kroger. Turns out that shit vanity covers by ‘name’ artists aren’t just the province of modern day RT.
We’re fans of the over-sized heads school of caricature, but, in all charitableness, that’s probably an inadvertent feature of this horrid imagining of a – we’re going to say it too – ‘right royal Christmas’ with Charles, Di and William. What’s that Wills is reaching for? And is Di really leaning on a mattress, adjunct to a Ferguson TV set?
Everything generic, creepy Santa illustration which they’ve run in perpetuity since the mid 1990s.See post
Everyone knows how massive Christmas telly is. That’s why the TV listings magazines come out weeks and weeks in advance and why TV Cream is constantly speculating from about August what the big Christmas Day film’s going to be. But it’s not just the programmes that make Christmas so special it’s when these programmes are shown.
One way to spoil the Christmas season is to put the wrong programmes on at the wrong time. Take 1989, for example you had loads of great shows, like The Jolly Boys Outing episode of ONLY FOOLS AND HORSES, the last ever EVER DECREASING CIRCLES and, er, WOGAN’S CHRISTMAS FANCY DRESS. But on prime time in Christmas Night BBC1 gave us CROCODILE DUNDEE and MISS MARPLE: A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY rubbish! They’re too long and much too hard to concentrate on when all your relatives are making a right racket.
There are times, though, when the broadcasters or, at least, BBC1 get it exactly right and put together a killer schedule of back-to-back classic shows, keeping you glued to your sofas all night. Of course, nobody watches any other channel at Christmas, so we’ve scoured the archive to find those evenings on BBC1 when it was all killer and no filler. So what are the perfect Christmas nights of the past?
It could be said that Christmas Eve is the most exciting day of the holidays, as you anticipate all sorts of excitement in 24 hours’ time before your expectations are slightly crushed. What you want, then, is loads of big, brash light entertainment to stop you from jumping up and down for a bit to accompany the thrill of it getting darker and darker.
6.05pm Little and Large
6.35pm Top of the Pops
7.15pm Are You Being Served?
7.45pm The Kenny Everett Television Show
8.15pm The Poseidon Adventure
If you were nine years old in 1981, this must have been the most exciting evening’s television you’d ever seen, with a whole host of kid-friendly comedy stars proffering slightly mucky but generally harmless fun. Surely every kids’ comic staples in 1981 were Sid Snot, Mr Humphries and Eddie Large in a dress? In between them all, because it’s a Thursday, it’s Pops not the Christmas show but a normal weekly edition with the neon turned up to eleven and cracking pop from Dollar, Altered Images, Human League (the one with Phil getting a load of silly string in his face) and, er, Elvis Costello. Then after Cuddly Ken’s first appearance on the Beeb it’s a Christmas cinema staple not a premiere, that was in 1979, but still a big draw and exactly the sort of cheap thrills we demand from Christmas Eve telly. Indeed, so amazing was this line-up that one Andrew Collins, in his diary, renamed 25th December 1981 as “The Day After The Poseidon Adventure”.
We all know that Christmas Night is the broadcasters’ shop window, but there’s still the rest of the day to get through first. Obviously, you don’t want anything here that you need to actually sit down and watch, but a bit of excitement while your dad’s rummaging around for spare batteries wouldn’t go amiss.
8.35am Play School
8.55am Muppet Babies
9.20am Knock Knock
9.35am This Is The Day
10.05am The Gnome Mobile
11.30am Roland’s Yuletide Binge
11.55am The Noel Edmonds Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show
2.00pm Top of the Pops
This timing works out brilliantly, we think. Before it begins there’d be some festive test card music and suitably seasonal Ceefax graphics to accompany you opening your stocking, then the first two programmes would help fill the gap after you’d got bored of coughing into the
toilet bowl to wake your parents up. Surely they’ll have surfaced by the time the religion comes on and then you can abandon the box to open your presents, switching back on after the film’s finished. Surely, at 45 minutes, that must the smallest amount of religion ever
broadcast on Christmas Day, compared to the three and a half hours from TV God Michael Hurll, who produced all of the last three programmes. You knew whenever you saw Michael Hurll’s name in the Radio Times credits that the programme would be unsubtle, trashy and
brash - ie, exactly what you want to see on Christmas Day.
You don’t need us to explain this, do you?
6.05pm Bruce Forsyth and The Generation Game
7.05pm The Mike Yarwood Christmas Show
7.35pm The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show
8.35pm The Odd Couple
10.30pm Gala Performance
11.35pm Lost Hearts
Well, everyone bangs on about 1977 as the ultimate Christmas Night, but because it was a Sunday, you had to sit through an hour of religion before it all came on. All the big hitters are here as well, without the need to be bashed around the head by a vicar beforehand. The weak link is probably the Gala Performance, an hour of light classics presented by Michael Flanders, but we quite like the scheduling as, if you fell asleep during that, you’d wake up for MR James’ shit-scary ghost story and it’d be even more terrifying. The added bonus here was that this was one of the last times for a while you got to stay up late before the three day week put the kybosh on late night telly. And don’t forget, you can see this very Gen Game on BBC2 this Boxing Day. Hooray!
No more presents to open. The Beano Book long read. Boxing Day can be tough work, so you need some indulgent telly to get through it. With the relatives probably packed off, this is the time to sit back and enjoy some serious telly watching.
5.15pm Bob’s Christmas Full House
5.50pm No Place Like Home
6.20pm Escape To Victory
9.00pm Miss Marple
9.55pm Dave Allen
So you’ve got “your Boxing Day bingo boy” and sitcom silliness to start you off, then a cracking bit of cinematic fluff, here getting its TV premiere. Dallas is perhaps the odd show out, and is only really here because it’s Wednesday, but at least it’s not on Christmas Day like it was in 1980 and 1981. We slagged off Miss Marple earlier on, but although it’s not a Christmas Day show we think it’s just right for the more involved Boxing Day slot and it’s the first one ever too. Then for a while Allen was the official fun-poker at the festive season.
It’s official New Year’s Eve telly is bloody awful. Always has been, always will be. The idea is that everyone’s out, so it’s a waste putting anything new and interesting out. It’s tough to find a great New Year’s Eve, so here’s the least worst.
7.35pm Larry Grayson’s Generation Game
8.25pm Murder On The Orient Express
10.40pm The 70s Stop Here!
12.01am A Toast To The 80s
This is still pretty rubbish, starting off with “an opportunity to see in one evening the story enjoyed by so many as a serial last year”. At least the film’s a premiere, and everyone in the world’s on Penelope Keith’s splurge of clippage, while there’s no better way to welcome in the new decade than with Reginald Bosanquet, Aiden J Harvey and Andy Cameron on the cliched Scotch quota-filler at midnight. In fact the only reason we’ve chosen this is because they repeated the Gen Game on UK Gold a decade or so ago, and left in Larry announcing at the end, “1980 is nearly upon us, and the Orient Express is waiting at the station”. We just wanted to mention that.
As opposed to the previous night, New Year’s Day is the night where you’re not even expected to move away from your sofa. One of the “big” days of the holiday, this is perhaps second only to Christmas Day it terms of prestige, and you expect something extra-special.
5.40pm Blankety Blank
6.15pm Twenty Years Of The Two Ronnies
7.35pm The Bounty
A cracking triple bill of light entertainment kicks the evening off. It’s a bog-standard normal Blank, but none the worse for that, especially with a line-up of, from the top left, Ian McCaskill, Kathy Staff, Sir Ken of Bruce, Bonnie Langford, Bernie Clifton and Aimi McDonald. Then there’s sundry spoonerisms before Wogan, what with it being a Friday, and a pre-recorded show where Fry and Laurie join Dawn French to launch that year’s Comic Relief. We’re not sure if this is the show where the Comic Relief representatives ended up giggling when they had to explain how they were going to try and stamp out diarrhoea in Africa, and then later one (Hugh?) picked up a fact pack only for everything to fall out and said “as you can see, it’s got a trap door bottom”, and another (Stephen?) said, “Ooh, back to diarrhea again”. Maybe that was another year. Either way we have fond memories of it. Then there’s a big brainless Mel Gibson film to round off the holidays, and there was still a weekend to come! Result!See post
*Aside from not watching TV programmes, of course.
Celebrating Dr Who’s return to Christmas Day after 40 years, the Tardis gets plonked in a globe along with a snowman sporting Tom Baker’s scarf, the inevitable pepperpot, and blobs of space junk looking like baubles. Nobody would’ve expected this 12, even nine months earlier. Sod Narnia; please Mum, can I have a Dalek for Christmas?
Not for the last time, RT puts a bunch of pricks on the cover. But there’s Claus for thought in the shape of not one but two Saint Nicks, one vaguely resembling Alan Whicker, the other crouched behind a camera thumbing a red nose at the electricians’ union. Why can’t you give Santa the sack? Because he’s already got one. Ho bloody ho.
Ponce alert! Radio Times goes a bit way out as it dips a toe into the cold Serpentine of mid-60s abstract art. It could be the British Isles, it could be a dove of peace, it could be what happens when one of your Woolworths baubles falls on the floor. Whatever, it’s rather splendid.
Got your number, ducky. RT goes gay with a swinging toast to the roaring 20s, offering up its own Christmas Reith in the guise of a bell ringing out – huzzah! – radio waves. ALL THE CHRISTMAS PROGRAMMES too, should there be any doubt.
Groovy typeface adorns a preposterously pendulous bauble, star-encrusted with the famous and not so (who’s the chap on the far left with the teeth and suit?). It looks like a poster for the original (and best) Casino Royale. If only this HAD been the cast of the original (and best) Casino Royale.
The most imaginative seasonal cover ever – and the most gorgeous. Carol singers with no eyes, a clump of Lowry parishioners trudging to worship, reindeer that look like the Black Rabbit from Watership Down, and an angel with a bouffon. Bold, unique, and utterly baffling: the true spirit of Christmas.
Let’s be charitable and say this was done for a dare. On the other hand, let’s not, and wonder how the hell this grisly confection ever made it past the proofs. As if 1940s Britain hadn’t had enough of terrifying things falling from the skies.
Not merely a gollywog, but a gollywog looking desperately pissed off. The tree’s fallen to pieces as well, while a box of cigars lies ready for a child to begin a lifetime’s addiction to narcotics. Merry fucking Christmas.
What could be funnier that a Dalek in a Santa hat? Quite possibly everything. But look: the RT Christmas issue has now somehow become LEGENDARY. Who could have known? We prostrate ourselves in front of your biblical self-righteousness, oh mighty tome of insufferable cant.
An ugly kid pulls a gormless face, and we’re meant to feel festive? Come back when you’ve grown some teeth, son – not to mention some manners.
Ah look, Wallace and Gromit are back. Well, yes, in the sense they were on the front of the Christmas Radio Times just 12 months earlier. But no, in the sense of them starring in a brand new adventure that’s the centrepiece of the Christmas schedules. In fact there was no new Wallace and Gromit on TV at all. This was just an idle, lousy reworking of the previous year’s cover. Thank heavens they never tried that again. Oh, wait…
Britain’s unfunniest comedy creation gestures at a tube of tatty shiny paper. To pour piss into the wound, look at that long, long list of names, any one of whom would have been 100 times better as cover star. “I’m a failure!” And so say all of us.
Look at his face! Just look at his face! Because it’s week six of…
Here we are with unarguably the four strongest themes yet to do battle. Although, we have to admit, we haven’t been able to procure the golden era World of Sport theme, thanks to the baffling fact someone has actually gone to the trouble of ensuring it’s copyright protected on Soundcloud. Nonetheless, we do like the rather stately version above, but you can still hear the more familiar banners-in-the-sky take at the end of this link.
[Looks up from some busy work] Hullo! Welcome to this week’s…
This time, we’re voting on the theme tunes to four popular children’s factual television shows. Feel free to support your favourite, which, obviously, should be Windmill, because, otherwise Terry Nutkins has got this all-but sewn up.
So many questions! And an exclamation! It’s the fourth ever-lovin’ week of our quest to find…
And here’s our choice of the greatest ever sitcom themes. Which is the best? Lodge your binary opinion below…
Welcome! Welcome to week three of…
This time around we’re pitting four 999-flavoured compositions against each other. You know the drill by now; listen to the above, then vote for your favourite below.
It’s week two of the electrifying electoral eclectica the nation has dubbed…
We’re in the process of identifying the very best theme tune ever heard on British TV. In this heats stage, we’re battling themes of a similar genre. This time around, that’s News themes. Listen to the four above, then vote for your favourite below.
Welcome! To the opening salvo of what we’re calling…
Over the next umpteen weeks, we’re going to be asking you to vote on an array of different theme tunes as we ultimately progress to identify the very best ever heard on British TV. We’re in the ‘heats’ stages right now, wherein we’re battling themes of a similar genre. And so we begin in the world of politics. What do you need to do? Simply listen to the four tunes (above) and then vote for the best, below…
[NB. To get around Soundcloud copyright issues, we’ve added 30 seconds of actual continuity at the start of the Weekend World track. But, everyone loves actual continuity, right?]
1. “As you can hear we’re in Beatleville”
Highlights had been shown on Saturday nights since 1959 and ITV had actually shown a live league game in 1960 as part of an experiment the Football League instantly brought a halt to, but it wasn’t until Kenneth Wolstenholme and a BBC outside broadcast unit pitched up at Anfield on 22nd August 1964 that football highlights became a standard part of television culture.
2. The 1967 Charity Shield
It was supposed to be the first game ever shown in colour, but the special VT machine broke down. Never mind, we did get Ken being completely confused by Pat Jennings scoring from a long kickout and then hailing Bobby Charlton’s howitzer as “good enough to win the league, the cup, the World Cup and even the Grand National”
3. Sandy Brown’s own goal
A moment everyone seems to recall, Brown headed into an open net in the Merseyside derby. “He must wish the ground could open up” declared a sympathetic David Coleman.
4. Barry Davies
Poetic of linguistics, stern of moral, appealingly clipped of description (see the first comment here from his first commentary on the programme), it’s hard to think Barry was was originally an ITV man, covering Granada and working the 1966 World Cup. When Brian Moore was brought in from BBC radio he saw he wasn’t required, jumped ship and became the purist’s choice until leaving in 2004. Refused to state his birthplace until after his retirement from the programme lest he be accused of bias (Islington, for the record)
5. Ronnie Boyce’s volley
The cameras were at West Ham’s game at Manchester City to catch Jimmy Greaves’ debut; they got that, and a goal, but better still was City’s Joe Corrigan booting the ball downfield on an allotment patch of a pitch only for Boyce to smack the ball straight back from near enough the halfway line.
6. Barry Stoller’s masterwork
Debuted in 1970 by the library music composer, the theme was named the most recognisable TV theme in
the country by PRS For Music in 2010 but it’s never been officially released – if you have a version, it’s most likely former Manfred Mann member Mike Vickers’ cover from a year later.
7. The donkey kick
Willie Carr flicks the ball up between his heels from a free kick, Ernie Hunt volleys in. The first ever goal of the season, and practically banned on the spot.
8. “Leeds will go mad! And they have every right to go mad!”
Jeff Astle ends Leeds’ 1970-71 title charge with a goal that isn’t offside (it’s not even passed!), Barry urges on the fans and coaches invading the pitch to protest.
9. John Motson
Brought in from the radio in 1970 at Coleman’s suggestion. Never the stats automaton of legend – see the end of the 1979 Cup final or Spain-Yugoslavia from Euro 2000, where he lets the occasion carry him along. Though actually he remained quite prosaic in the face of…
10. Ronnie Radford
Despite the legend not his first commentary for MOTD (he’d already covered the leading game twice) but that which made his name as the Radford rocket stirred a nation. BBC bias, though – Ricky George, a mate of Motson’s from when he played for Barnet and John was a local press reporter, gave Motson a lift to the ground and went on to score the winner.
11. “Every man jack of this Leeds side is now turning it on”
Imperious Leeds, 7-0 up against Southampton, keep the ball between themselves in increasingly extravagant ways for more than thirty passes. “Poor old Southampton just don’t know what day it is” a spellbound Davies remarked.
12. George Best against Sheffield United
A commonly replayed clip from Best’s Mancunian dotage, running across the defence before slotting home from an acute angle.
13. Jimmy Hill
Invented the modern way of football presentation on LWT’s The Big Match alongside Brian Moore (not to mention John Bromley and Bob Gardam offscreen) and was the region’s deputy controller of programming for a while to boot but got asked what he was doing these days by taxi drivers outside London one too many times so jumped channels in 1973 so he could speak tactically and forthrightly to the nation. The beard lasted another decade until Gillette paid him £100,000 at a charity auction to shave it off.
14. Francis Lee sends Barry Davies over the top
“Interesting… very interesting! Oh! Look at his face! Just look at his face!” Davies’ favourite moment of his storied career, voice cracking as he goes.
15. Keegan and Bremner’s fight
Entertaining Charity Shield spat followed by shirt disposal somehow filled out by Davies’ scented-handkerchief moralising.
16. Mickey Walsh
“Ainscow coming square, that’s the ball…” A great example of how MOTD exposure could make a local hero into a national figure, Walsh’s turn and drive for Blackpool against Sunderland in 1975 was a totemic goal of the season.
17. “A quality goal by a quality player”
Motson could turn words on a dime too, watching Tony Currie turn a West Ham defender inside out in that same season.
18. The penalty spot repainting
Doesn’t sound like the greatest television as the mark gets lost in a notorious bog of a pitch at Derby’s Baseball Ground, but you haven’t seen the groundsman’s little run to the penalty area. Tape measure and everything. Motson sounds positively enthralled.
20. The annuals
Entertainingly scattershot around the turn of the Eighties. 1979, for instance, features Eric Morecambe admitting he “sneaks a look” at MOTD despite his LWT contract, Jimmy on campaigning to enforce the non-movement of keepers at penalties, a competition to match the players to a photo of their knees and Archie Macpherson described as “a man with hair resembling rusty steel wool”.
21. “Look at that! Oh, look at that!”
We already are, John. Liam Brady’s strike lit up a 5-0 derby win for Arsenal even further. John Radford told MOTD after the game he’d be celebrating the win with champagne. Jimmy: “I can well remember the day when players celebrated with a light ale on Saturday nights”
22. ITV couldn’t do this
And we mean that literally. After one of many protracted contractual disputes, this one after Michael Grade’s LWT had attempted to snatch the lot in 1978, ITV’s regional programming was obliged to switch to Saturday nights with MOTD taking up Sunday afternoons. ITV struggled and lost viewers, BBC settled into shirt sleeves and more time for Jimmy to work his oracle, and once the contract was up Central’s Gary Newbon declared “we don’t want Saturday night football ever again on ITV”. If only Brian Barwick had listened in 2001, eh?
23. Attempting to tamper with the theme doesn’t end well
1979 – synthesiser pre-set. 1990 – ambient post-Madchester. Both dropped within a month, the former, according to Jimmy, complained about by “a lot of gentlemen and even more ladies”.
24. Justin Fashanu
Norwich might have lost the game 5-3 to Liverpool, but Fashanu’s flick up and volley was named goal of the season and stayed in the opening titles for an age.
25. Clive Allen hits the stanchion
Improbably, all three officials managed to miss Allen’s free kick for Crystal Palace going in as it rebounded from the support at the back of the Coventry net.
26. The game of three goalkeepers for one team
First choice and first outfield reserve injured by the same player, at that. And Leicester still beat Shrewsbury 5-2 – Gary Lineker’s favourite game as a City player, apparently.
27. Ian Rush’s four in the Merseyside derby
Not to mention Glenn Keeley being sent off on his Everton debut, and it turned out swansong.
28. Commentators introducing their matches in-vision
For a while at the start of 1983-84 Motson and Davies would preview the games they were covering with predictions. Very much a Jimmy idea, this.
29. David Pleat runs across the pitch
After saving Luton from relegation. Makes that Derby groundsman look confident.
30. Kevin Keegan’s farewell
No, the first one, as a player at Newcastle, where he seemingly attempted to shake the hand of everybody in the stadium.
31. Graeme Sharp’s volley
A monumental strike in the… Merseyside derby. Some games are more equal than others.
32. Match Of The Day Live
Highlights fell out of favour with television so after plenty of toing and froing the league allowed a number of games to be shown live on Friday nights from 1983. The first ended Manchester United 4 Spurs 2. Before too long BBC1 was running Wogan over the first fifteen minutes of “live” games.
34. Sutton United
The BBC lost the league rights to ITV in 1988 but kept hold of the FA Cup and were on hand to witness a famous giantkilling of Coventry. Sutton manager Barrie Williams quoted Kipling in his programme notes; the programme ended with the goals accompanied by Richard Burton’s reading of If, perhaps the only time poetry and football action have actually worked well together.
35. 15th April 1989
The best broadcasters adapt to their surroundings. Lynam had been at Hillsborough that day intending to host the show from the ground. When tragic events transpired as they did he returned to London and expertly marshalled and questioned a series of interviewees while attempting to make sense of what had happened.
36. Motson makes the sheepskin coat iconic
Caught in a sudden snowstorm while waiting to tell Football Focus viewers that the FA Cup game at Wycombe had been postponed, the image of warming outerwear made the man.
38. “Is Gascoigne going to have a crack? He is, you know…”
“Schoolboy’s own stuff”, Barry mixing metaphors, as Gazza puts all he’s got into a free kick against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final and then goes completely to pieces in an entertaining way with Ray Stubbs afterwards.
39. Mickey Thomas
“The magic little man at the venerable age of thirty-seven” indeed.
40. “Stands the church clock at five to three, and is there football again to see?”
It was never going to be Alan Parry quoting Rupert Brooke by way of introducing a new top division, was it? The BBC got the rights back for the Premier League and had a subtle new approach to show off, chiefly involving…
41. Alan Hansen
He’d done some work for Sky on Italian football but hated it and was only too keen to take up the offer from editor Niall Sloane, where he was given free reign to redesign the art of sharp football punditry at a time when Andy Gray, who always had much more time to work out his analysis, was still faffing about with counters on a Subbuteo pitch.
42. The discreet charm of the editor
Gerald Sinstadt voicing over a goals round-up. Pitchside post-match nterviews with distracted players. A shot of a man eating a pie to denote half time. Now that every game is cut to the quick we miss all this.
43. “Bruce! Yes!”
The 96th minute goal that tipped the first Premier League season Manchester United’s way. Yet more of Barry carried away in the moment, if not half as much as Brian Kidd, who he then proceeds to ignore.
44. Everton’s escape
A nuts game in which Everton beat Wimbledon 3-2 to stay up, but also one of the first instances of MOTD, now they were able to show action from every Premier League game rather than just two or three, being able to switch between games to heighten the last day tension.
45. The BBC videos
101 Great Goals. The 60s-70s-80s double VHS pack. The Entertainers. The club-specific histories. No shelf was complete without them.
46. Blackburn winning the title
More smart cutting between two games, Rovers’ and Man Utd’s, and with a twist in the tail, topped with various Blackburn players in assorted states of inebration while being interviewed.
47. Matt Le Tissier against Blackburn
Southampton actually lost the game but it’s the Goal Of The Season-worthy jinking run, lazy top corner chip and non-celebration that people remember.
48. Manchester City taking the ball to the corner
Drawing with Liverpool they chose to run down the clock erroneously believing the score would prevent them from being relegated. Hansen’s apoplexy can only be imagined from his face.
49. Match Of The Day 2
Especially in its first year or so when Adrian Chiles and Gordon Strachan made every week a combination of knowledgeable debate and post-modern double act.
50. It’s still there
And perhaps uniquely, especially when you consider all the Trojan-friendly online streams, pub satellite hook-ups of borderline legality and lunchtime and early evening live games, still with roughly the same number of viewers as it had twenty years ago. Fifty more years!
CBTV (Thames 1982)
Yes, several hundred words on Mike Smith. Don’t worry, there’s loads of funny clips coming up. Smitty, as we always called him, started out on the radio and at the start of the eighties was getting plenty of attention as Capital’s breakfast DJ. In this capacity he reported on the first London Marathon and met his wife-to-be Sarah Greene, and indeed among his earliest TV appearances were various uncredited anonymous appearances on Blue Peter as Saz’s partner as she learned to dive. But it was on Thames’ post-Magpie Blue Peter baiter where Mike got his first regular telly work and here he is up there inviting a bunch of kids to interrogate Toyah. Sadly for Jim Sweeney an awkward camera angle about three minutes in rather spoils the illusion of the chute he “slides” down. In fact since we’ll probably never have the opportunity to talk about CBTV again we’ve got some other clips, including the rather odd theme tune, and some later stuff, post-Smitty. And much of it is far more middle class than Blue Peter, natch.
By the end of 1982 Mike had been poached by Radio 1, a station he’d previously worked at as jingle maker and helper. He was immediately included on the Pops presenting rota, famously introducing the debut of Wham! on his first show, which doesn’t appear to be online anymore but his horrendous jumper does still exist at the above link. Mike continued to present the Pops for six years and even had the honour of still fronting it during a two year spell from 1984 he wasn’t on Radio 1.
BREAKFAST TIME (BBC 1983)
Mike was part of the original team bringing us breakfast telly, originally as pop correspondent but, within a few months, being promoted to one of the main presenters, in the words of Frank Bough “proving DJs can be cerebral as well as noisy”. Mike stayed on the show for four years before going back to Radio 1 and competing with it, but he made so little impact we can’t find a single clip of him doing it on the internet, and his most memorable moment came when he tried to get a bit more comfortable on the red sofa and ended up getting stuck in it.
One of umpteen attempts to create a TV show based around entertainment news, Show Business went out on Friday evenings for a couple of months in 1983 and Mike was the anchorman – getting a writing credit and everything, though we don’t know if he was responsible for the cock-up he has to do an apology for up there. Dullards may note that the Late Late Breakfast Show trailer after it is clearly filmed on a redressed Top of the Pops set, thanks to a strike. Eighteen months later, with the requirement to find fillers for the newly vacated 5.35 slot, it was back with a new name and Mike still in charge, though it still didn’t catch on and sadly the clip we have doesn’t feature the theme tune, which was the ace Garden Party by Mezzoforte.
Although The Late Late Breakfast Show had recovered from its atrocious start, it still wasn’t doing much, so a new co-presenter was sought. Noel had been something of a mentor to Mike in his early career so he seemed the logical choice and it turned out to be pretty inspired, the pair’s banter becoming a much anticipated part of the show. As we’ve mentioned on TV Cream before, Mike’s role on the show was to spend a dank Saturday night in somewhere like Bealieu Motor Museum watching a punter drive a Honda Melody through a burning hoop, and for a while it was hugely successful before it all ended in unpleasant circumstances, Mike falling out with Noel over it due to the internal ructions at the Beeb.
As we know, the responsibility of televising Live Aid fell to the Whistle Test team, a role they were woefully underequipped for, and Janice Long and Mike were the only representatives from the other side of BBC pop involved in the broadcast. Mike’s role didn’t involve him going to Wembley, though, but that equally iconic location, er, Legends nightclub. He anchored the late shift until 4am, mixing performances from Philadelphia with clips from earlier in the day and interviews with whoever turned up, and here’s the last hour or so of it, happily editing all the music out.
A rather thankless task for Mike here, replacing the great Johnny Ball on this kids quiz, but he had a decent go at it. Basically it’s What’s My Line for kids – and this is when What’s My Line was still on the telly, so it couldn’t even pretend to be original – but here’s some nice clips with Pip Schofield showing up to jolly things along and the Grange Hill cast as resident panellists, who were a bit more cheerful than Gilbert Harding or George Gale.
A big show of the kind you don’t seem to get on telly anymore, this ninety minute extravaganza aimed to increase AIDS awareness as part of a week of programming on all channels on the subject. Now Radio 1 breakfast DJ, Mike was very much the voice of youth so drafted in to anchor proceedings, while comic relief came from, among others, Rik Mayall, and we vividly remember the sketch linked to above because a juvenile Creamguide was so embarrassed at the sex talk we actually asked our parents to turn it off.
SEASIDE SPECIAL (BBC 1987)
THE FUNNY SIDE (Granada 1988)
Two bog-standard light entertainment formats here, where Mike did his usual professional job but couldn’t rescue their rather uninspired concepts. Despite being officially billed as Seaside Special 87, there was nothing particularly dynamic about the Jersey-based variety show, following a format that harked back to the earliest days of television, especially when the big innovation was a revival of Beat The Clock. The Funny Side borrowed from a slightly more up-to-date format, one of dozens of shows following in the slipstream of Game For A Laugh mixing studio games and guests to little effect, but sadly all we can recall is the Herbie Hancock-inspired theme tune.
TRICK OR TREAT (LWT 1989)
If Danny Baker’s Pets Win Prizes is the thing we’d most like to see on YouTube, this is a close second. Trick or Treat was a Saturday night quiz which, on paper, looked pretty conventional, but on screen certainly wasn’t, as Mike was joined by Julian Clary as co-host. Each week Clary would flounce around the audience until he was “strangely drawn” to a punter who he’d invite to play a game with Mike which was almost always fixed to make them look stupid, and then win a prize that might be genuinely good but just as likely be totally worthless. You could argue this was an attempt to subvert the conventions of light entertainment years before Shooting Stars but it was a bit of an awkward mix that didn’t really gel and just baffled and bored the audience. Love to see it again, though.
Of all the shows he’s done, Mike reckons this is the worst. After the success of Hospital Watch, seemingly the idea was you could stick a camera anywhere and it’d be interesting, so for a whole week Mike was at York station, crossing to reporters up and down the East Coast Main Line. No doubt the whole thing is fascinating in a proper edited documentary but live for an hour a day next to nothing happened, Mike remembering the most interesting thing of the entire week being a trolley blowing onto a line, and he was thoroughly relieved when it was all over. Happily, though, you can relive the whole week online!
This series has its roots in A Question of Sport, which was then repurposed in 1988 to become A Question of Entertainment, which, despite the presence of Doddy and Larry Grayson, never really caught on. Not wishing to write the whole thing off, though, another revamp saw all traces of Pringle removed and a new name. The first few series of this show were hugely enlivened by the presence of Cuddly Kenny Everett as team captain alongside Gloria Hunniford, though only a fraction of that era exists online. What we’ve got more of is the show from 1992 onwards where there were no regular captains, while the horrible synth theme was replaced by a horrible sax-driven theme. Eventually it ran to over a hundred shows, though it’s a fair bet only Mike remembers much about it.
Mike was very much the Beeb’s golden boy in the eighties but he was one of the first presenters to make the leap to the brand new frontier of satellite television, Mike throwing his lot in with the classy, professional BSB. Mike’s shows were on Now, the barely watched “Channel for Living”, and according to the ads in the Radio Times (as nobody watched the actual shows) met people with unusual hobbies and reviewed the week’s news. In addition Mike also fronted the very exciting glossy promo video you can see up there, striding around Marco Polo House (which has just been demolished, fact fans) while parroting dodgy statistics about “the fed-up factor”.
GHOSTWATCH (BBC 1992)
THE EXCHANGE (LWT 1995)
The nineties weren’t so kind to Mike, becoming perhaps more famous for stuff he did off camera, including complaining about Cheggers turning up at his house for The Big Breakfast, joining and then leaving Hearts of Gold with some harsh words for Esther Rantzen and applying to be Controller of BBC1. On screen there were a few notable appearances, including his first official co-starring credits with his wife. You know about Ghostwatch and we think he was quite good in it, while The Exchange was another attempt at an adult Swap Shop, Mike here promoting the Bad Influence-style datablast coming up. But by the end of the decade Mike decided to jack in the telly and concentrate on his business interests, in which he’s had huge success and still contributes to many top TV shows via the aerial photography company he runs which is responsible for virtually everything you see filmed from a helicopter on TV. So well done to him.See post
If you didn’t like or understand The Young Ones, you were just too old. We all said it, and it rings true now. Every generation blames the one before, as we’ve been told, and while parents of kids born in the 1960s and early ’70s despaired at what now passed for comedy when four dysfunctional, vulgar, self-obsessed prats turned up on their BBC2 screen in the late autumn of 1982, the kids knew better. It was marvellous; it was something made by them for them, and their parents were squares for not understanding it.
It wasn’t even Rik Mayall’s favourite work, nor even the work that launched him initially to a television audience, and like any sitcom that represents an era, it dated before the rust enveloped the pin badges on his jacket. But it was totally definitive. His brainchild (with girlfriend Lise Mayer), his jokes, his university mate Ben Elton merely called in to “churn out the gear” and make it half-an-hour long. His career made, a cult movement veering into the mainstream. He is probably the most important individual to come from the fabled alternative comedy boom of the new wave era as a result.
Alternative comedy – loosely defined as an X-rated stand-up and character led antidote to gag-tellers whose material was offensively old hat – was a necessary phenomenon. Terry and June were worrying about the boss coming round to dinner, and Jim Davidson was inexplicably nick-nicking his way to variety show stardom. Mayall, brought up in Worcestershire, went to Manchester University as an 18 year old in 1976, but when back home during holiday time spent every evening down the pub with his friends because his parents’ telly was full of stuff made just for his mum and dad’s generation.
“I don’t half feel sorry for you, having to stay in every night,” he’d say to his folks, both actors.
“I don’t half feel sorry for you, having to go out every night,” they’d reply.
Back at university, he developed a plan to try to find a new source of entertainment for his student generation. He had theatrical ambitions but was a natural comic, something ingrained in him since a gurning session during a school nativity play in the 1960s reduced the audience of parents to hysterical jelly and got him the cane from a mortified teacher. With fellow undergraduate Adrian Edmondson, he formed a raucous comedy duo, 20th Century Coyote. The name nodded to the famous failed cartoon Acme customer, a favourite of both men, and they followed the slapstick model of cartoons but with little emphasis on self-protection, resulting in hospital treatment for each when they were genuinely set alight or knocked out cold by a flying kettle.
The Comedy Store opened in London in 1979, with Alexei Sayle and Arnold Brown performing on the opening night, and soon 20th Century Coyote were there too, eventually moving on to their self-formed Comic Strip Club nearby, evolving into The Dangerous Brothers as they did so and getting on the telly. Mayall’s reputation as a singular performer was also growing; a spotty, spoiled, political activist with appalling poetry was starting to get laughs, mainly via his scripted incompetence and petulance, while investigative reporter Kevin Turvey, Brummie and condescending, was Mayall’s solo route to recognition. Little was recalled of this character once The Young Ones hit the headlines, but nevertheless he remained a key ingredient of the growing Mayall legend, and once he became a superstar, the BBC cobbled together a disparate bunch of Turvey lectures on to video for release.
The poet, just called Rick (leading to lifelong confusion as to how the actor spelled his forename), had much more going for him as Mayall began plotting his next move. Noting the soon-to-be-launched Channel 4’s commissioning of a stack of Comic Strip films, the BBC asked him, and others, to come up with ideas to make them look like they too wanted to acknowledge the emergence of this comic boom. Mayall suggested a sitcom. Given the go-ahead, he fleshed out the characters, co-wrote the jokes, hired Elton to turn them into dialogue and liaised with assigned producer Paul Jackson (who was instantly hooked) to develop the programme’s course.
What we got was a student house full of unlikeable people, and the most generationally divisive cultural phenomenon in years. The humour was as much in the surprise element as it was in the script, though some of the jokes, verbal or physical, were instantly brilliant. Mayall portrayed his alter ego as a childish, hypocritical, self-absorbed nonentity-in-waiting, and did so spectacularly. Edmondson as the psychotic punk, fellow Comic Strip performer Nigel Planer as wimpish house-slave hippy Neil and Christopher Ryan (an unconnected actor auditioned at the last minute after Planer’s performing partner Peter Richardson fell out with Jackson and withdrew) as smooth-talking, borderline villain and house leader Mike, made for riotously brilliant television. It introduced slapstick, mindless violence, second degree swearing, masses of fake bodily fluids, surrealism, barking mad cameos, unrelated sideshows and audience participation, plus the innovative interlude featuring a live band. It was spectacularly different. And like with anything else, the people who complained tended to be the people who were not in the target audience: the mums and dads, who had to find a way of preventing their youngsters from watching this “vulgar”, “unfunny”, “bad influence” of a series without, in some cases, coming across as killjoys. Most failed.
The Radio Times and national newspapers, without exception, used one of two buzzwords in their synopses of the show when it featured in their listings. One was “anarchic”; the other “offbeat”. However, despite its narrow intentions, it became a hit beyond the target teenage crowd. The slapstick element helped, as a well-timed smack in the face with a large piece of crooked wood and a judiciously chosen sound effect will always raise a laugh, even if humans are doing it instead of a cat and mouse. And when Vyvyan was electrocuted by his own hamster, or Dawn French’s barking mad God-squadder was crushed by an enormous sandwich chucked from the skies by Keith “Pestilence” Allen, you couldn’t help but laugh. The element of surprise was key, and it was Mayall who made sure it was there.
Two series were made, along with a spin-off single by Planer, and that was deemed enough. Mayall wanted to move on. “I don’t know what it will be yet, but it will be different,” he said at the time. The Young Ones was missed, but unsurprisingly it did date, which was why it became an adored comic museum rather than an overblown parody of itself and not many people begged for more. A year later, with Elton now recruited to co-write the failing Blackadder dynasty (in which Mayall had appeared once as Mad Gerald – “close the bloody door!”), the character of Lord Flashheart was created, specifically for him. In Blackadder II’s first episode, Flashheart turns up at the eponymous peer’s wedding, attacks Percy, flirts with the Queen and Nursie, mocks Melchett, tries to castrate Edmund and then buggers off with the bride – all in one scene and all with a healthy dose of fourth-wall shoving. Mayall’s totally over-the-top portrayal of this seafaring narcissist, recreated as a squadron commander at episode length in Goes Forth four years later, was outrageous and beyond hilarious, and despite the character being somewhat irregular, contributed much to his comic armoury, while leaving his co-performers visibly aghast at his energy. It was the first time we’d seen him as the hero, the wit, the heart-throb, the attractive cad. And he was, and remained, the only man to truly equal Rowan Atkinson in a Blackadder scene.
Mayall loved Filthy, Rich & Catflap, the next venture after The Young Ones which Elton wrote alone. He starred as Richie Rich, a clapped out actor of negligible talent, with Planer as his alcoholic agent and Edmondson as his drifting, violent minder. It aired in early 1987, six months after The Young Ones had reunited for a day’s recording for Comic Relief alongside Cliff Richard, but, despite good reviews and strong figures, the BBC didn’t touch it again. Every time he was subsequently asked how come, Mayall would always say: “I don’t know why – that is, I genuinely don’t know why – it wasn’t seen as a success.” Certainly his character retained some of Rick’s infantile self-obsession but, befitting the self-indulgence of showbiz life Elton intended to satirise. Planer’s character of Ralph Filthy proved he was a proper actor, and often he stole the show. Yet it never floated the BBC’s boat, and it has still to be repeated terrestrially, took years to come out on video, and is only occasionally spotted on digital channels.
Although there was always little affinity with Mayall’s characters, there was something pitiable about them that made them hard to hate. His next creation, however, was quite the opposite. Having bumped into Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran at a promo event, and admired their work as writers of Shine On Harvey Moon, he asked, nay instructed, them to create a sitcom for him. The result was The New Statesman, based in the House of Commons in which Mayall’s character, Conservative MP Alan B’Stard, trod a fine line between believable malevolence and his love of the slapstick. He wanted 20 laughs per page; if he got 15, he’d create the other five himself just from a gesture, a sneer or a chuckle, all now guaranteed comic tools in Mayall’s armoury. B’Stard was appalling; the programme was ITV’s best sitcom since Rising Damp and there hasn’t been a better one on the network since. During the same period, Mayall reprised the character on the BBC for a Comic Relief skit (“Cor, bloody hell, Cecil Parkinson and a whip!”) and narrated George’s Marvellous Medicine for Jackanory, with parents missing the point completely when they complained to the BBC about it being “frightening” and “chaotic.”
When Mayall and Edmondson reunited for Bottom in 1992, a sitcom of squalor and physical humour that again exceeded boundaries of realism, it was like coming home. The characters – jobless ne’er do wells who share a Hammersmith flat and can live neither with nor without each other – were variations on their personas in The Young Ones but without a satirical eye. This time there was nobody in society to poke fun at; it was about the two of them, with little help from others, conceiving their own grimy little world ridden with desperation, bad puns, sexual inadequacy, outlandish violence and intentionally over-elaborate twists. Mayall was the frustrated, gloomy misanthrope who revelled in occasional victories of wit over Edmondson’s character, as useless as his counterpart but more worldly-wise, clever and with an unmatchable capacity for drink.
The show was Mayall’s finest as a post-alternative performer; the scripts didn’t always hit every height going but he exploded into the television screen with every wild scream of terror, evil guffaw or pompous bit of uninformed lecturing. This was the firebrand comic colossus he had always been, but this time he was being nothing more. The Young Ones gave him activism; Filthy, Rich & Catflap gave him satire; The New Statesman gave him a sinister side; Bottom gave him, very simply, licence to act like a child and be very, very funny with it. It is repeated more often than any of its predecessors.
There were some whiffy moments, mainly in longer productions. Drop Dead Fred, where he played the imaginary friend of an adult had concocted in childhood, was totally panned. Guest House Paradiso, a Bottom spin-off, was jokeless and directionless. The modern Comic Strip efforts, such as Four Men In A Car, were disappointing, although Mayall’s spoof adoration of Gold by Spandau Ballet after finding it on a cheap compilation CD he’d bought at a service station was enjoyably cruel. But in making some clunky choices, he wasn’t alone.
On stage, it was better – anyone who viewed a Bottom video or attended one of the many live shows will tell you that while the script was funny, the ad-libs and corpsing – Mayall was always more prone to that than Edmondson – would leave people fearing for their constitutions through laughter. Their comfort in performing together and trusting one another when stuff went awry was never more prominent, and it made them all the more loveable. And when Marks and Gran relaunched The New Statesman as a stage production, with B’Stard as a New Labour convert and fresh scripts each week to keep it topical, he was in his element – though again, the biggest laughs were reserved for his bouts of forgetfulness – brought on by the infamous quad bike crash in 1998 which left him technically dead for five days – and occasional turns to the audience to moan about the one-way system in whichever city they were in.
Edmondson’s desire to become slightly more befitting of a man in his 50s brought their partnership to an end a decade ago, and while he did BBC dramas and an ITV documentary series about Yorkshire, Mayall was forced to find his own new direction, and he too took on serious roles, while also clowning around as a narrator and on adverts, most notably sponsor bumpers on digital channels for Bombardier ale.
The death of Rik Mayall could be the first one that makes the Cream-era audience consider its own mortality. If we were old enough to remember him when he was 22 and affecting a ludicrous Birmingham accent while investigating sex (“I did find out that eating aphrodisiacs make you violently sick”), we’re now old enough to wonder when our own time will come, given that 56 is such a ludicrously young age to lose him, or anyone. For a drama student whose initial self-appointed brief was to make his own telly (“If there’s nothing on for you, you make it yourself”), he achieved so much.
The body of work he leaves behind is considerable; the adoration he attracted from pretty much everyone who watched him as a kid will remain undimmed. The influence he had on the whole shift in comic thinking, however, as comedians got cleverer, sillier and more politically aware, is probably impossible to put into words. He died once in The Young Ones (and tried to commit suicide another time) and a few times in Bottom (fell off a Ferris wheel via a ghostly hand, shot by “A-squad”, among others) but always came back for more.
That he won’t do this time isn’t just tragic, it feels very final for all of us.See post
TV Cream’s hands are up and waving. And we’re wailing at the news the unkillable (cos he came back from the dead) Rik Mayall is no more. A seminal comedy star who, if you’re anything like us, pretty much defined the kind of things you found funny, has gone. And much too early.
Hopefully we’ll put together something a bit more fulsome soon. But until then, here’s something he said to TV Cream in 2013 about being 55.
Being in your mid-fifties is not… it doesn’t hold. When we’re in our twenties we’re thinking, “Fuck, I don’t want to be 50, I don’t want to be 60!” I’ve got good mates now who are in their sixties. I’ve always been ever so slightly younger, just two or three years younger than the guys in my gang and I didn’t have a problem with the male menopause in my forties, which a lot of guys do. They think, “I’m getting a bit of a paunch, I’m going a bit bald, I’m not as interesting as I used to be, I get a bit tired and I’ve got to give up smoking and not drink so much”. They get the blues. I didn’t get that because I was off my head – I’d had my brain smashed in [by a quad-biking accident in 1998]. I was just trying to think properly, so by the time…
No, I’m making a big deal of it. No, I was fine! I was just glad not to be dead. So I was pretty happy to be alive, no matter what. And then 50 comes along and I think, “Hey, I’m really glad I’ve grown up now. God, I’m a grown-up now! I’m a fucking grown-up!” The power! It’s like being a baaaad headmaster. “Yeaaah! Look at my knob!” or rather, “Look at me, I’m 55 and happy”.
Rik Mayall was just 56. RIP, Rik.See post