Pop

Once in every lifetime: A tribute to Rik Mayall

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Once in every lifetimeIf 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.

"You utter, utter, utter..."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.

"Lord Flashheart, Lord Flashheart, we wish he were the star..."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.

"Yes, daughter..."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.”

"Doink! Bang! Doink! Bang!"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.

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Rik Mayall (with a silent P): 1958-2014

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Rik Mayall, RIP
“Hands up who likes me.”

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.

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TV Cream’s perfect Eurovision line-up

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TVC's Eurovision pick!
It’s Eurovision Song Contest time again, those few days when Britain, which has offered up a few useful pop acts over the years, tells itself it’s hopeless at music. Being “so b*d it’s g**d” means it’s become an epicentre of common knowledge cliches and assumptions, all of which are false.

Taking breakaway eastern European states out of the voting for the last few years would have made no difference to the winner, Katie Boyle hasn’t been directly involved since 1974, “nul points” is never said because the hosts only tend to read out the scores of the leaders (and even if they did they’d say “no points”, and were they to then read it in French they’d say “zéro point”) and most of those nonsensical entries know exactly what they’re doing. On this last point see under Austria’s Boom Boom Boomerang from 1977, only mentioned now to mock the lyrics and the back-to-front costumes even though both were intended as mockery. We only believe the UK is the sole arbiter of comedic intent because Wogan kept telling us so, when in fact Britain’s reluctance to offer anything other than plain seriousness is usually its downfall, especially that year Scooch were entered because they were “camp”, at which the rest of Europe put its metaphorical hands on its hips and just stared at us slowly shaking their heads as you would at someone who gets the wrong bit of the joke. Oh, and Dustin The Turkey didn’t get past the semi-final stage.

Back in the Creamup days we’ve covered A Song For Europe and the TV and radio coverage, so this time we’re offering TVC’s dream Eurovision line-up – a set of the songs we most like, one per country from the most regular entrants, all from the Cream Era. It may not be entirely representative of an average Eurovision final’s range, largely because of a no big ballads policy, but it’s what Eurovision should be about to us. Find our choices the other side of the reprise of the 1977 winner with gallery talkback from the Beeb’s Stewart Morris. Just as long as the caption roller works everything will be fine.

Austria!AUSTRIA: Mess – Sonntag (1982)
Perhaps Eurovision’s least possessingly named band were a perky boy-girl duo of the type we’ll see again later in this selection, and indeed in this year. Upbeat isn’t the half of it with the naggingly familiar refrain which sees our pair engage in a full leg-kicking routine. The female half wore a pink puffball skirt, as would soon become standard for such jaunty singers.
Belgium!BELGIUM: Telex – Euro-Vision (1980)
Country attempts self-effacing irony in its selection; Eurovision world look upon their work quizzically and give it a pointed post-performance pause and total of fourteen points. The trio do have external form – they’d appeared on Top Of The Pops a year earlier with a robotic slo-mo deconstruction of Rock Around The Clock literally a month before the Flying Lizards’ slo-mo rock’n’roll deconstructivism became a hit instead, and they’d later work with Sparks and remix the Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode. As for this evening the introductory photos of the band with a fisherman kind of set the scene, the very deliberate anti-performance polishing it off. “Are you sure Telex took part in the Eurovision? Can you prove it?” asks the FAQ of their website. You have to say they’ve got a point.
Cyprus!CYPRUS: Alexia – Aspro Mavro (1987)
Surprisingly few attempts to take on the Fairlight and wipe-clean Motown aping of the mid-80s but here’s a fine example, big note into the last chorus and truck driver’s key change present and correct through a singer who appears from her makeup and earrings to be auditioning for an uncast role in Bread. Apparently it’s about “a girl remembering a man she saw on a train but only being able to bring the memory back by playing on the piano”, however that works. And for those wondering, Chain Reaction was first released two years earlier.
Denmark!DENMARK: Brixx – Video Video (1982)
Very culturally on-message – he’s got both Humphrey Bogart *and* Wimbledon on his tape! Imagine the possibilities when he discovered Long Play. Something as set in the worlds of LE and schlager as Eurovision was going to find new wave difficult but this wouldn’t shame New Musik, though you get the impression the singer in his Richard Keys-like bright yellow jacket is lacking the space to really let loose. Confused by his purple skinny tie, the judges awarded it five points, only finishing in front of…
Finland!FINLAND: Kojo – Nuku Pommiin (1982)
Nul No points! Which is a shame, as despite wanting to be the early Sting Kojo also seems to be working that new wave demographic, albeit through a BA Robertson prism. One could also point to it sharing an anti-nukes message with the winner, Nicole’s A Little Peace, though you’d have to ignore the later released English translation revealing the lyrics to include “if someone throws some nuclear poo here on our Europe, what will you say when we get all the filth on our faces?” If nothing else congratulations in order to Kojo for getting Elvis Costello to play keyboards and massive bass drum.
France!FRANCE: Profil – Hé, hé M’sieurs dames (1980)
Self-explanatory title, barely comprehensible song by five singers sporting rainbow flashes as if they’re some kind of lightweight, non-threatening superhero team (The Fey-vengers?). Likeably light and vaguely sunshine harmonic, like something that would have classed up a 3-2-1 performance spot or PS It’s Paul Squires. All of which – and we shouldn’t really have to explain this – are a very good thing indeed.
West Germany!(WEST) GERMANY: Dschinghis Khan – Dschinghis Khan (1979)
Let us pay tribute to Ralph Siegel, writer of 21 Eurovision entrants between 1974 and 2013 ranging from A Little Peace to the magnificently uncoordinated Les Humphries Singers. More than that let us pay tribute to his masterwork, the band named after and here singing in tribute to Genghis Khan (in Israel!), featuring three of the scariest looking men you’ll ever see, including one Louis Potgieter and his beard in what can only be described as the Bobby Farrell role. Dschinghis Khan actually parlayed this into a five year career encompassing an Australian number one single and the actively remarkable Rocking Son Of Dschinghis Khan, which features perhaps pop’s greatest ever opening rhyme.
Greece!GREECE: Anna Vissi and The Epikouri – Autostop (1980)
Vissi would go on to perform at the 2004 Olympic opening ceremony and release the best selling Greece album of the 00s, none of which is obvious from her first attempt at international reach. No matter how many times they repeat it there’s no rhythm to that title and maybe in hijacking the comedy trombone sound it does sound a little too much like a comedic idea of a Eurovision entry but we like how it signposts the jauntiness of the chorus with prominent xylophone and how the Epikouri are clearly working twice as hard as Vissi.
Iceland!ICELAND: ICY – Gleðibankinn (1986)
The country’s first ever Eurovision entry, the band name an ABBA-like acronym rather than too knowing. Possesses about three choruses, a middle eight where a chorus should be and a first verse that sounds like the greatest synth sound Hue & Cry never found. Wardrobe: Bobby Davro as showbiz ringmaster. Translation of that title: ‘The Bank of Fun’ – which sounds like a great, lost Madness hit.
Israel!ISRAEL: HaBatlanim – Shir Habatlanim (1987)
Or as Tel obligingly translates the title, ‘Lazy Bums’. It kind of progresses from there, sadly losing something in fuller English translation. The one on the right went on to host the country’s version of Dancing With The Stars. Together they are a “joyful association of two actors,” apparently. Begins with the one of the left humming something that sounds reminiscent of ‘Happy Birthday’.
Italy!ITALY: Mia Martini – Libera (1977)
Ms Martini was one of Italy’s biggest selling artists at the time, so presumably didn’t just shout the chorus all the time. This is here as a fine example of how the live orchestra tried to get the hang of the early days of pop-disco around this time, producing dramatic flourishes and some vigorous rhythm work towards the end. Curiously she seems to have insisted on jeans all round for the backing singers.
Luxembourg!LUXEMBOURG: Baccara – Parlez-Vous Français? (1978)
The Grand Duchy haven’t been involved in Eurovision since 1994, maybe because they ran out of other countries’ singers they could temporarily claim as their own, including Nana Mouskouri, Plastic Bertrand, France Gall (with a Serge Gainsbourg song), Vicky Leandros and the colour-coded Spanish boogieing/lady-apologising duo with a song written by their usual composers. Here they have a little chat about pulling in France.
Monaco!MONACO: Laurent Vaguener – Notre Vie C’est La Musique (1979)
The principality’s last entry until 2004 was another attempt at evoking the joy of disco through low-rent TV orchestras, our man moving his head around far too much as he lists the types of music he likes (“Crazy or romantic”, anybody? How about “Fantastic or nostalgic”? No?). Someone needs to sort that bass synth sound out.
Netherlands!NETHERLANDS: Teach-In – Ding-A-Dong (1975)
A traditional target for ‘nonsense lyrics lol’ critiques but it’s no Diggi-Loo Diggi-Ley where the stupid bit is put in for the sake of it, that’s what we say. Partially written by Danny Mirror of I Remember Elvis Presley infamy, surely that’s a deliberate Stevie Wonder reference in the first line. Also notable, the pre-phone voting method through which Dutch TV chose their candidate. We wouldn’t like to think of the tiebreaker had the result been much closer.
Norway!NORWAY: Sverre Kjelsberg & Mattis Hætta – Sámiid Ædnan (1980)
Not sure what to think of this idea from 1980 of getting someone from the country’s broadcaster (we sent Noel) to pitch for each song in advance. Sámiid Ædnan was intended as political, a tribute to the freedom movement among the Sami people of northern Norway and referring to a hunger strike by Sami activists in front of the Norwegian parliament building. Their representative makes for quite the mood shift after the dramatic build of Kjelsberg’s part.
Portugal!PORTUGAL: Carlos Paiao – Playback (1981)
Despite its live instrumentation rules Eurovision isn’t strictly the best audience to air your anti-miming treatise to but full marks to Dave Gorman’s stunt double for trying, and for those ‘robot backing dancers’ interludes. Like someone heard the postmodern nature of new wave but got it crucially wrong.
Ireland!REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Sheeba - Horoscopes (1981)
How to follow Johnny Logan’s 1980 winner? With a cabaret female vocal group in glittery shower curtains singing about how rubbish following the stars is prior to ending up as the chorus vocalists on Name That Tune. “Believe in the truth and not celestial lies” is an ear catching lyric, though surely the truth has already happened and horoscopes refer by nature to the future?
Spain!SPAIN: Salome – Vivo Cantando (1969)
One of the year’s four joint winners, introducing both over-fringing and on the spot shimmying to the art of Eurovision performance. We admire the way it considers being a lovelorn ballad and then gets over itself.
Sweden!SWEDEN: Tomas Ledin – Just Nu! (1980)
The celebrated Melodifestivalen’s offering, by a protege of Abba’s who had had a solo spot when they played Wembley Arena, almost lets itself down with its self-consciously hard rock guitar sound, rescued by it generally sounding like arena rock in an airless vacuum. Watch before the second verse for the moment Ledin realises the cord has fallen out of the back of the mike, which he subsequently makes up for with some assured lounging.
Switzerland!SWITZERLAND: Peter, Sue & Marc and Pfuri, Gorps & Kniri – Trödler und Co (1979)
It’s worth their crediting all those names as a wholesome vocal trio do battle with some men and their junkyard contraptions, like Peter, Paul & Mary with Roger Ruskin Spear.
Turkey!TURKEY: Burak Aydos - Esmer Yarim (1993)
Songs that can’t decide what they really are seem to get a good hearing on this list. Here, Aydos and colleagues have heard Primal Scream’s Movin’ On Up and are doing it wrongly, on purpose, on a tight budget, after listening to nothing but early new romantic singles for a month. The saxophonist particularly makes the most of his time in the spotlight.
United Kingdom!UNITED KINGDOM: Bardo - One Step Further (1982)
Tel and Ray Moore building their parts there. To pick out one shining example amid the myriad ways the UK have got it slightly wrong we return to Harrogate and Jan Leeming’s headband once more. This was John Peel’s favourite Eurovision entry ever apparently, and Neil Tennant sang their praises in ver Hits. Sally-Ann Triplett off Crackerjack and Stephen Fischer, who’d been offered a place in Bucks Fizz but was contracted to Godspell at the time, shared a manager and producer with ver Fizz and were pre-show favourites but made a right hash of the live vocal and finished seventh. At least the tight choreography was on point with the orchestra adding some attractingly frantic percussion.
Yugoslavia!YUGOSLAVIA: Tajci – Hajde Da Ludujemo (1990)
Representing the participant diaspora, because there are research limits. Like Bardo, Tajci went in to bat for the hosts only to finish seventh. Europe, you just weren’t ready for the Croatian Wendy James.
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An A-Z of BBC2′s first 50 years

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bbc2at50

TV Cream offers its own string of bunting to be hung at BBC2′s 50th birthday party: a courageous* inventory of what we rate to be the channel’s defining stars, scars, flaps and flops of its first half-century.

*In the Jim Hacker sense

A is for…

"Ah dear, Pollicks, you have pressed too soon"

“Ah dear, Pollicks, you have pressed too soon”

Acka Raga

Signature tune to Ask the Family. A touch creepy, vaguely over-familiar yet damned impossible to forget. Welcome to BBC2.

Apocalypse Wow

One of a number of fucking atrocious episode titles to crop up during the otherwise unimpeachable This Life, along with The Bi Who Came In From The Cold, Milly Liar and Wish You Were Queer. Utterly sublime theme tune by The Way Out, lest we forget.

Armchair shepherds

Fans of One Man and His Dog who tartly brushed the creases from their Rohan-trousered form to stand as one in protest when the show was axed as a regular series in 1999 after 23 years. Their complaints resonated with as much volume as a dog whistle.

David Attenborough

Danced cheek-to-cheek with Joan Bakewell around the BBC TV Centre doughnut after a particularly lively edition of Late Night Line-up. Controller of BBC2 1965-69.

B is for…

‘Bear in mind I’ve given you a lot of machines’

Sir Jim’ll shows Louis Theroux his own version of a top-down reorganisation of the NHS. This was the year 2000, and it was all there, in plain, spangly-suited sight.

Best logo in the history of television

This one.

New balls

“They’re competing for the Joe Davis decanter”

Black and White Rag

Hectic honky tonk whose octave-tickling cut through any living room melee like a snooker cue through butter to announce the arrival of perennial ratings-rescuer Pot Black.

‘But this was a fantasy’

Catchphrase of documentary-maker and clippage-cobbler Adam Curtis, usually detonated immediately after a sequence of a Cold War politician gesticulating, a posh woman buying a frock and a giant reel of computer tape rotating first one way then the other, all to the sound of The New Vaudeville Band.

C is for…

Cardboard box

Collapsible cuboid tossed at Brian Cant and other drama graduates by Play School leaderene Joy Whitby with the command: “Now row out at sea”. A recruitment policy recently revived at London Live.

Candle

Star turn of BBC2′s opening night. Snuffed it 24 hours later.

The theme from The Carpetbaggers

Breath-stealingly cool slice of jazz funk, whose farting brass and braying horns are forever associated by at least one generation with Sunday evening teatime and Valerie Singleton trying to make stagflation and consumer protection sound sexy on The Money Programme.

‘Chutney! Let’s do it! Let’s get on with it!’

Condiment-infused battle cry from the first (and best) series of The Apprentice.

D is for…

Desmond’s Weepies

Mocking but accurate nickname for documentary series Man Alive, thanks to the proclivity of the titular Wilcox for poking his lens into the mucky tear-smeared face of a provincial down-and-out.

"He appointed Jill Chance general manager"

“He appointed Jill Chance general manager”

Did You See?

what we did there?

Doogy rev

Catchphrase from, and description of, The Adventure Game.

Dr Who

Often to be seen on BBC2 in various states of undress, sometimes half-clothed (Peter Davidson in A Very Peculiar Practice), sometimes with arse on display (Tom Baker in The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, Matt Smith in Christopher and His Kind), though you’d have to retune to BBC4 to see it ALL on display (Christopher Eccleston in Lennon Naked).

E is for…

Egg

Hapless ovoid in need of weekly transportation, usually but not exclusively involving pipe cleaners.

F is for…

Fatality

Alex Mitchell, 50, who died from laughing too much during an episode of The Goodies in 1975.

"Bom-bommm, bom-bom, bom-bommmm"

“Bom-bommm, bom-bom, bom-bommmm”

Floating neon bottle

You want one image that sums up the entire 50 years of BBC2? This is it.

Food and drink

Chilli chutney sandwiches (Red Dwarf), soggy leeks (Butterflies), oranges (…Are Not The Only Fruit), Bollinger (Absolutely Fabulous), scotch eggs (I’m Alan Partridge), turnips (Threads), waldorf salads (Fawlty Towers), livers (The Body in Question).

Food and Drink

Taught the nation how to sniff wine, grope fish, finger cauliflower and burnish tarts. Anything but consume the fucking things, basically.

Fry and Laurie arriving at BBC Television Centre

What’s not to love?

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G is for…

Gargantuan personal dining room

What Aubrey Singer converted his new office annexe into while BBC2 controller from 1974-78. “It’s not my personal dining room,” he insisted to junior colleagues. “I don’t want that appearing in Private Eye.”

Goldfish

Best bit of Working Lunch (yes, even better than you, Chiles).

Goodbye-eee

Musical fancy trilled by Cook and Moore at the conclusion of each episode of Not Only… But Also…, and sarcastic salutation of BBC mandarins when ordering the archived destruction thereof.

Green peppers

Far and away the coolest of the two vegetable-themed giant-sized cards waved by the adjudicating audience at the conclusion of every edition of Ready Steady Cook.

H is for…

Janice Hadlow

Liked “intelligent pleasure” but was “not opposed to romping”. BBC2 controller 2008-14.

"Yeah, you go an' all... Maria... MARIA!"

“Yeah, you go an’ all… Maria… MARIA!”

An hour

What The Bureau was closed for.

Hullabaloo and Custard

Two cartoon kangaroos that were the original BBC2 logo. Axed by David Attenborough, who called them “demented”.

I is for…

I

What Claudius was.

‘I can’t believe there’s no hope’

Peter Kerrigan’s death-rattle lament for Liverpool at the end of Boys From The Blackstuff.

‘It was a maaaad year!’

Britt Ekland discharging the exposition in I Love 1971.

‘I’ve got a story to tell you – it’s all about spies’

Hwyel Bennett discharging the exposition in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

IP

What everyone tried to “trace-route” in Attachments.

J is for…

Michael Jackson

Used to cut up issues of Radio Times as a child. Turned up late to meetings as he thought “that was what a channel controller ought to do”. BBC2 controller 1992-96.

K is for…

Roly Keating

Had to go into hiding with security protection after Jerry Springer: the Opera in 2005. BBC2 controller 2004-08.

Kinda lingers

Fourway kiss-off from Not The Nine O’Clock News.

L is for…

Last thing at night

Still a slot crying out for a topical, daily, witty, must-see show. Late Night Line-up was almost it. The Late Show wasn’t late enough.

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Likely stories

Forever bobbing to the surface of the BBC2 schedule cauldron like a skittish apple, you can trace this genre all the way back to the eponymous Lads, through Yes Minister, Colin’s Sandwich and Coogan’s Run to The Trip and Inside No 9.

M is for…

Graeme McDonald

Needed a medical doctor to help him prepare for a press conference. BBC2 controller 1982-87.

Bob Monkhouse chatting to comics in a pretend front parlour

Possibly the finest Monday night alternative to Panorama ever.

N is for…

"And I know that your next band is Altern-8!"

“And I know that your next band is Altern-8!”

Normski

Aka Norman Anderson, sometime Mr Janet Street-Porter, and the trendiest man ever to appear on BBC2. Dance Energy was also the liveliest thing ever to appear on the channel, while Dance Energy House Party – direct from inside your man’s titular crib – the most preposterous. Never dull, always entertaining, frequently unmissable. To whom else could the nation turn for a guide to the correct way to do a 1990-era handshake? Let arf!

O is for…

Opera

Remit-filling last resort. This fat lady has sung more times than a chorus in a Glenn Medeiros fade-out, including at least two complete multi-week performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Aubrey Singer’s Opera Month, Mike Smith attempting to popularise recitatives in The Opera Roadshow, and Jeremy Isaacs almost bringing down The House.

Overblown tart

Paul Merton’s favourite description of Princess Diana on Have I Got News For You pre-1997. All these episodes are now buried underneath Television Centre along with all the Jim’ll editions of Top of the Pops.

P is for…

Michael Peacock

Convinced the nation that spaghetti grows on trees. BBC2 controller 1963-65.

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‘The prime minister now stands to speak’

Sample BBC commentary on Westminster Live during the early years of the televising of the House of Commons. This was also when, like Elvis, you couldn’t show MPs below the waist.

Puddle of blood

Sprayed across the studio floor at Television Centre after Vivian Stanshall cut his hand on a glass of Bloody Mary during a Christmas episode of Up Sunday.

"We have... to touch people..."

“Into this pond were flushed four million people…”

Puddle of mud

The most important thing BBC2 has ever broadcast.

R is for…

Jane Root

Described her favourite programmes as “culture snacks” from “the edges of life”. BBC2 controller 1998-2004.

S is for…

Sagas

Turn up on BBC2 with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season. First came the never-ending Forsytes, all black-and-white bodices and clicking teeth. The Pallisers tried to repeat the trick in colour but flopped. Then came The Borgias (“They got nipples together”) and The Cleopatras with Richard Griffiths in drag. Our Friends in the North and In a Land of Plenty rescued the format, but Gormenghast wrecked everything and now nobody’s got any money. What a saga.

Saturday nights devoted to seasons of subtitled films or Amnesty International concerts

BBC2 c. 1987-92 (see Alan Yentob)

Robin Scott

Co-writer of Ruby Murray’s 1955 number one, Softly Softly. Real name Robin Scutt. BBC2 controller 1969-74.

Shakespeare

Subject of a gargantuan dose of doublet and hose by way of the Beeb’s Bardathon from 1978-85, during which adaptations of every single play were shown on BBC2. A very mixed endeavour. About the only consistent things were the straw on studio floors and close-ups to disguise the fact the sets looked crap. The Shakespeare in Perspective spin-off shows were better, with the likes of George Melly, Clive James, Dennis Potter and Barry Took doing chipper “study guides” designed to appeal to sitcom characters played by Penelope Wilton.

Silent piano

Star of Face the Music.

6

Number of English towns visited by Alec Clifton-Taylor; number of wives taken by Henry VIII.

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625

Any BBC2 programme in the 1960s with these numbers in its title meant you were in for a treat. Jazz 625 was pretty much the channel’s first proper hit, and still looks ace today. Theatre 625 was BBC2′s “alternative” to 30 Minute Theatre, where Nigel Kneale, Alun Owen and John Hopkins could run amok with scarves, sauce and socialism.

Staggering stories

…of depressed pandas, recalcitrant popes, pontificating pilots, sex, old women, Soviet politicians, toffs, drugs, English villages, housewives, working class oiks, mad medics, rock’n’roll, boffins, Ronald Reagan… and Ferdinand de Bargos. Look: a Ukip parody!

Janet Street-Porter

First person rung up by Alan Yentob after he was made BBC2 controller. DEF II and Normski (qv) was the result.

T is for…

"...But no one was available for interview."

“…But no one was available for interview.”

10.30pm

Home of Newsnight, now and forever. Probably.

Theme nights

The best thing about bank holidays in the early 1990s. Top five: TV Hell; Granadaland; Goodbye to Lime Grove; One Day in the 60s; Radio Night.

Mark Thompson

Axed This Life because he didn’t understand it. Sold BBC Television Centre. Owns a solid gold house. BBC2 controller 1996-98.

A tree

What Bob Peck got turned into at the end of Edge of Darkness.

Tuesday Term

Centrepiece of Michael Peacock’s daffy Seven Faces of the Week idea for the inaugural BBC2 schedule. Tough shit if Tuesday was your night for babysitting duties: you’d a whole evening of educational series for company. You should’ve picked Thursday: an entire night of shows about obscure hobbies.

U is for…

University of the air

Original name for the Open University, as dreamed up by Harold Wilson.

V is for…

Video diary

One part tedious, two parts terrific strand of do-our-job-for-us programming that threaded its way through the early 90s, both as full-length documentaries and five-minute snapshots. Swearing, homelessness, drinking, posh people and yoofs abounded. Major’s Britain as full-colour Canon fodder.

W is for…

War

Responsible for two multi-part, multi-cameo blockbusters documentaries, both of which were only just over by Christmas: The Great War and Cold War. See also The World at War, nicked off Thames for a repeat run in the 1990s, and recent stellar-cast-list sit-and-chats on Yugoslavia, Israel and Iraq.

Take or leave it as you please

“We’ve had 12 straight hours of meatball surgery!”

Wednesday evening, 9pm

“…it’s time for this week’s episode of M*A*S*H.”

Brian Wenham

Fond of wearing a raincoat and lying on his desk. BBC2 controller 1978-82.

Whisper

A character in Live and Let Die who gets squashed by an inflatable sofa; a particularly awkward type of lunch endured by Larry David and Richard Lewis; and a presentational decibel level popularised by Bob Harris.

Windmill Road

Former home of the BBC archives, which gave half its name to the original – and best – of the Beeb’s bran tubs of old clippage, brusquely hosted by a freshly de-Rantzenised Chris Serle.

The world

…specifically, About Us. More specifically, about us on Kodachrome given a spit and polish up by BBC Bristol.

Worst logo in the history of television

This one.

X is for…

X-rated

Well, it was this or xylophone. Often self-evident in Moviedrome, crepuscular film slot introduced by first Alex Cox then Mark Cousins.

Y is for…

Alan Yentob

Inordinately fond of rewriting Radio Times billings. Inordinately not fond of Eldorado. BBC2 controller 1987-92.

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Z is for…

Zircon

Spy satellite, subject of an episode of the 1987 documentary series Secret Society that was notoriously pulled from air just before transmission after [sentence redacted following issue of a government D-notice on grounds of unsubtle satirical purposes]

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In pictures: the launch of BBC2

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When the BBC’s first television channel launched in 1936, the world had yet to cotton on to the value of photographing interesting things.

By 1964, the likes of Hitler and Cliff Richard had made cameras very fashionable indeed, so it was no surprise that the Beeb invited scores of shutterbugs along to the launch of its second television channel, scheduled for 20 April.

Sure enough, some fantastic pictures got taken. They were published in loads of newspapers, almost certainly meaning more people saw photos about the launch of BBC2 than saw the actual launch on their TV set: a trend that continues to this day (hello, London Live).

Here are a few of those pictures: all genuine, all fascinating (admittedly for contrasting reasons), and all very… well, BBC2ish.

1. 14 April 1964

Just under one week to launch, and BBC2 controller Michael Peacock (far right) holds a meeting in his office. Standing up and taking the minutes is Peacock’s secretary, Yvonne Homan. No chair for her. Giving Peacock the evil eye is Roger Greenwood, assistant head of BBC TV presentation. Leaning awkwardly is the other assistant head of presentation, Rowan Ayers. Sprawled on top of the desk clutching his shin is their boss, head of presentation Rex Moorfoot. Also present: a map on the wall showing the tiny number of people who’ll actually be able to see BBC2 when it launches; lots of untidy in-trays; a bulldog clip; and – look out! – a 3D model of the BBC2 “logo”: a kangaroo named Hullabaloo (seen here saluting fascistically) and her baby, Custard (pointing out the fact Yvonne has no chair).

"And what time will the power go off again?"

2. 19 April 1964

Rehearsing the launch. Peacock is in the studio in Television Centre that will be the hub of the night’s programmes; the person he’s gesticulating towards is not known. Behind him is one of the “faces” of the launch, Pamela Donald. She seems to be talking to Oliver Hardy: undoubtedly a coup for the launch of any TV channel, particularly one taking to the air seven years after Hardy’s death.

"Who invited Oliver Hardy?"

3. 20 April 1964

It’s launch day, and time for Pamela to get her hair done. The hairdressers don’t seem best pleased. Perhaps they’ve just looked at Radio Times and seen the channel won’t actually show anything interesting until 1967.

Some of the "highlights"

4. 20 April 1964

Oh no! There’s been a power cut and the whole channel has fallen off the air before it’s even begun. Peacock sits in the gloom with only his candles, a cigarette and a polystyrene cup from the canteen for company.

Snuffed it

 5. 21 April 1964

Hurrah! 24 hours later than planned, Peacock and his missus Daphne sit in his office and watch the launch night finally get broadcast. Here they’re enjoying – if placing your forefinger on your chin can be called enjoying – a production of Cole Porter’s stage musical Kiss Me Kate, starring Howard Keel and Patricia Morrison. It’s not known if they stuck around for what came later: a comedian from the Soviet Union, and a man doing an impersonation of David Jacobs.

On the air - finally

EPILOGUE

5 March 1965

Fast forward a year and BBC2 has been a flop. Peacock gets booted over to BBC1 and replaced with good-natured naturalist David Attenborough. Here they are, doing their best to look like this was how things were meant to turn out all along, together with (far left) Huw Wheldon, controller of BBC television, and (far right) Kenneth Adam, the, er, director of BBC television. Whatever their respective responsibilities, one of them at least knows how to arrange a good vase of tulips. Hullabaloo and Custard have been killed.

The BBC: an equal opportunities employer

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The Burst of Creamup

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The Burst of Creamup

Cheers!

That was Derek Griffiths downing a celebratory glass of Vimto as the printing press whirls on The Burst of Creamup! What is The Burst of Creamup? It’s a 139-page compendium of bits from TV Cream’s mostly dead ‘e-mag’, bits sent out to readers over 92 progs between 2001 and 2008.

As Creamup was the work of various folk, all contributing for free, this vanity-press, perfect-bound book is being offered via Lulu at a no-profit margin price of £2.94 (plus their p&p charge). Yes, if you make a purchase, you can rest assured not even Steve Berry is making any money. Here’s the link to buy it on Lulu.

However, you might not even want to do that. You might just want to download the whole thing for free right now in PDF format. And you’re very welcome to do so. It’s 8 meg in size and the link (tell your friends, tell your enemies, tells Marksplace) is: www.tvcream.co.uk/creamup/book.pdf

Hope you enjoy the thing – and a huge thanks to all Creamup contributors and readers over the years. Tim “TJ” Worthington is, right now, working on a summer special…

With that chilling thought left hanging, below is a Lulu preview of the book. Don’t be put off by the seemingly terrible resolution here, though. We can assure you in reality it is lovely.

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1) “No wonder Noel Edmonds is out of work!”

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Chris Tarrant is very excited about Sally James’ trick, 1980
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What makes a great TV moment? It’s something that leaves you open-mouthed in amazement when you first see it, and continues to startle and entertain no matter how many times you watch it. More than three decades on, this moment from Tiswas is still hilarious and still absolutely startling in its audacity. We assume you’ve already clicked through to see what it is, but in case YouTube’s overloaded or something, the premise is a familiar Saturday morning staple as Sally James announces she’s going to perform a magic trick, to general boredom from the assembled cast and crew. Though ingenious enough, Chris Tarrant has clearly spotted that the trick takes a bit of setting up which might make for rather dull television. Hence he then decides that, rather than play down the quality of the trick, he’ll talk it up – and how! Hence an extended stream-of-consciousness rant, delivered at the top of his voice, mixing effusive and elaborate praise with plenty of grown-up references for the adult audience to enjoy (“Eat your heart out, Blankety Blank! This is where Lew Grade’s been going wrong!”). That would be great if Tarrant had just sat at the desk, but instead he continues to extol the virtues of Sally’s trick on a tour of the studio, and then up to the production gallery, not just breaking the fourth wall but smashing through it and then jumping up and down on whatever’s left. The fact the cameras can barely keep up with him, as we just see him in the distance and hear fragments of his bellowing, illustrates how clearly spontaneous the whole things was. While all this is going on, Sal’s trying her best to actually do the trick, but is totally overshadowed by Tarrant’s antics. Eventually he bounds back down the stairs, exclaiming “No wonder Noel Edmonds is out of work!” to an enormous laugh and gives Sal moral support for the last stages of the trick by making increasingly desperate shrieks in a croaking voice. This really is going beyond the call of duty and few people would have put so much energy into so much silliness, and the fact it clearly took so much out of him is what makes it even funnier. Later on, other shows would make a virtue of their informality and glorify in their artificial nature, but Tiswas did it first, and did it best. Incredible in 1980, this is still hilarious and thrilling in 2014, and therefore we have no hesitation in naming this the finest two minutes and 41 seconds of television ever made.

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2) “Please explain exactly what we’re going to do about this week’s draw!”

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The lottery machine breaks down, 30th November 1996

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Look at all the rigmarole that surrounded the lottery in those days, even going as far as following John Willain to the Lyceum (with “3.47pm today” caption) to watch someone pick the machine. These days it’s all done and dusted within a minute and on Wednesdays they don’t even bother televising it. But back in 1996 it was still the national talking point, simulcast on Radio 1, heralded by some pyrotechnics and one of the most watched things on TV. That was why huge names queued up to appear, including as Bob points out here Elton John and Pavarotti, but as that performance was pre-recorded they weren’t around to start the draw and a bit of business involving an ostensibly unsuspecting punter was cooked up. Then, the horror of it all! The machine breaks down! So after Deadly (who sounds incredibly young here) pads out for a bit it’s back to Lord Bob Monkhouse to get things moving. And the brilliant thing is that it’s Bob in charge because heaven knows how it would have gone had Anthea Turner or someone like Lulu had been there. Bob, of course, had to marshal The Golden Shot for many years and when you’ve seen crossbows ricochet across a studio, the lottery machine breaking down is all grist to the mill, and after he brilliantly takes Deadly at his word, literally, he smooths things over and pledges to return later. After Casualty we’re back, and given Bob once managed to improvise an entirely new stand-up routine when the autocue went down, of course he’s come up with a few suitable and very amusing gags for the occasion, as well as quoting from Reeves and Mortimer, which doesn’t get the laugh it deserves. Eventually the draw takes place as planned, and it turned out that John Willain had forgotten to close the back of the machine, the silly sod. But the whole thing is fantastic fun and confirms again that Bob was that master of live television and was the only person to make the lottery draw worth watching even if you didn’t have a ticket. We shall never see the likes of him again.

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3) “I was on the last plane!”

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The new presenter of World of Sport, 24th December 1977

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On Christmas Day 1977, Morecambe and Wise appeared in their final BBC show, as previously seen in this countdown of course, but 24 hours earlier the four-eyed one made another television appearance that’s just as celebrated and just as amusing. Why would you send a Christmas card to World of Sport? Well, simpler times we suppose, but unlike its BBC competitor, ITV’s Saturday afternoon sports sequence always had a bit more to do with light entertainment, regularly serving up pointless but amusing oddities like the World Bus Jumping Championships or Cliff Diving from Acapulco rather than “serious” but grim rugby league from Widnes. This more freewheeling approach meant that they were perfectly willing to oblige when Dickie Davies, said by all who know him to be the nicest man you could ever wish to meet, suggested he invite his mate Eric Moreca mbe on to the show on Christmas Eve. Contrary to some suggestions this wasn’t a spur of the moment idea after they’d been out the night before, great though that sounds, as it was actually billed in the TV Times, but it’s clear Dickie and the rest of the crew had no idea exactly what Eric was going to do. Sadly only a fragment of the show is on YouTube, so we miss the delights of Eric sitting on a chair that’s far too high and reading Dickie’s autocue along with him, but what we do have is the lovely sequence where Dickie tries his best to introduce some darts highlights while Eric messes around, ad-libs (we love “Ohhh… what!”) and sends Dickie up wonderfully. Dickie himself adds plenty to the humour by not attempting to compete comedically but simply letting Eric get on with it, establishing himself as a very impressive straightman with immaculate comic timing, and clearly having an absolute whale of a time. There’s such a great relationship between the pair, and so much good humour in the studio, it can’t fail to come across to the viewer. Of course this time the following year Eric would be on ITV full-time, albeit via Thames rather than LWT, but nothing he ever did on the light channel was as entertaining as this.

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4) “Your tone is antagonistic and you’re making me very angry!”

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The Day Today report on bombdogs, 9th February 1994

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The highest placed scripted moment in our chart (if you want another clue as to what might be number one), The Day Today is as close to perfection as television comedy gets, a sublime blend of satire, parody and sheer unadulterated silliness, and all of these are illustrated in their sequence on the bombdogs campaign. As a parody of television news coverage in the early nineties it’s without equal, expertly combining library footage with newly shot material to create total accuracy alongside the absurdity. Eugen Fraxby’s mannered, strangulated delivery (and slightly odd name) is absolutely spot-on (compare and contrast with Anthony Dworkin on TV-am), meaning that even when he’s talking complete bollocks (“and told the public to clear off!”) it’s totally convincing. The graphics are also brilliant, wi th genuine ITN designers engaged to create something that wasn’t all that different to the daft ideas that were turning up in the proper news at the time. The bit everyone remembers is the interview with Sinn Fein’s Rory O’Connor, a hilarious performance from Steve Coogan, which is not just silly for the sake of it but expertly satirises the then-current IRA broadcasting ban and emphasises just how ridiculous that law was. And all this actually did change things, twenty years ago the news really was like this, presenters read the news as if carved on tablets of stone, reporters came across like automata and graphics did baffle and bore the audience, and however overblown it can get these days, at least it looks like human beings are involved. But even if the stuff it’s parodying is less common, it remains just as funny now thanks to it being absolutely stuffed full of gags, from Coogan’s overexcited eyewitness to the foul-mouthed MP, via the policeman’s helpf ul directions. And once all comedic potential has been extracted from the idea, it immediately comes to a close with an outrageous but totally hilarious punchline. We could have included all of The Day Today in this chart but this distils into four and a bit minutes everything that made it a masterpiece.

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5) “Their heroes; not the nice clean Rolling Stones!”

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That interview, 1st December 1976

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Well, we all know what this one is, though kudos to the person who’s put the video there together from various sources to create the most complete version of an interview so famous most people can probably now recite the obscenities along with Steve Jones. So, the known facts – they were a last minute booking as Freddie Mercury had to go to the dentist, and only agreed to it after Malcolm McClaren said he’d stop their wages if they didn’t go on, and as we all know it was only shown in London so most of the country were blissfully unaware of the world changing until the papers went nuts about it the next morning. You’d imagine viewers in the North West, at least, would have been able to take it in their stride given their teatime telly chum Tony Wilson had put them on screen three months earlier. Over the years, opinion seems to have changed to the extent that now most people blame Bill for being a stupid old bastard and bringing it all on himself, while the producer Mike Housego suggested on TV Hell that they couldn’t terminate the interview any earlier because it would have taken a while to get a standby film on and there could have been more trouble if they’d cut them off, and decided they could ride it out for another thirty seconds because, apparently, “they couldn’t do much else”, not realising Bill was going to ensure the last thirty seconds were by far the worst bit. Possibly the most shocking thing from a modern perspective is the one thing that was perfectly fine at the time, the fact they’re all smoking. Steve Jones’ use of the word “rotter” has continued to puzzle scholars to this day, as it was pretty much archaic in the seventies and adds a touch of even greater absurdity to the whole thing. As Mike Housego suggested, “I really couldn’t wait to hear our signature tune Windy” and the band’s prancin g about to it is the most hilarious thing, while Grundy clearly says “Oh, shit!” and realises the whole thing’s gone tits up. Apparently it’s the most requested archive clip in history, most viewers these days reacting to it like a fondly remembered comedy classic, up there with Del Boy falling through the bar.

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6) “Talk about a red box!”

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Julian Clary goes back to basics, 12th December 1993
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They’re still going now but the British Comedy Awards are nowhere near as exciting as they used to be, when they genuinely felt like a truly alternative awards show, subverting light entertainment with its ridiculous set and its disrespectful host, and at this point still live on pre-watershed ITV too. The 1993 shindig was happily progressing along similar lines, with lots of industry in-jokes and Jonathan Ross happily spoiling its opposition of Sports Personality of the Year by revealing the winner half an hour before the BBC did. But then things started to go a bit awry when Norman Lamont came on to present an award and was met with a shower of boos, leading Jonathan to suggest it was a show “positively dripping with irony”. Then on came Julian Clary to give out a gong and indulge in a bit of chit-chat with Jonathan. Unfortunately for all concerned, he then made an undeniably funny but extremely rude joke. Perhaps even more unfortunately for ITV, the audience exploded with laughter for a good minute or so, thereby rendering all potential apologies pretty useless. It’s kudos to Ross that he manages to keep something like a straight face during the whole thing, although the irritatingly truncated clip we’ve got here cuts off before the exchange about Julian “clawing his way through”, followed by Jonathan wondering out loud if they were still on air. They were, just, though sadly Julian’s career was never the same again and the bookings rather dried up, eventually resurfacing in some rather dull formats that never really allowed him to shine. Yet for all the outrage in the papers – albeit led by that arsehole Garry Bushell – and seemingly within ITV, everyone seemed to forget that the joke was then continued by that family friendly entertainer and primetime regular Michael Barrymore, although his career was soon to implode as well. Finally staggering to the end of the show, and before Jonathan rounded off proceedings with an off-key rendition of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, the host concluded that, if nothing else, the show had given a generation of kids something to talk about in the playground the next morning. That wasn’t it from the Comedy Awards, with Spike Milligan’s “grovelling bastard” speech the following year, before someone at ITV realised what was going on and finally shoved it post-watershed, much to our chagrin. Never has a show been so joyously out of control.

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Dimbleby’s exit poll: what’s behind the BBC’s election selection?

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election2010

We learned this week something of the BBC’s plans for covering the 2015 general election.

Given it’s still over a year until polling day, this was somewhat unprecedented. But then so was the announcement. 2015 will see a ceremonial passing of the indiscreet Mars bar. David Dimbleby, who has anchored every general election for the Beeb since 1979, will serve his last tour of duty behind the desk. Moreover, he won’t even helm the entire programme. Huw Edwards will take over the morning after, and will remain in place for as long as it takes to form a government. Which, given Huw’s unambiguously capable charms, will be hopefully at least a week.

Huw (one of the few people in Britain who can be referred to by one name and not as an insult) will present all future election coverage on the BBC. This isn’t really a surprise; Dimbleby (see preceding parenthesis) has been fashioning an exit for ages. The only real question is whether he’s chosen to walk through it or was pushed.

There’s a trace of a Granita-style deal about the transition. Dimbleby could, and arguably should, have bowed out in 2010. His lightness of touch and sureness of tone disappeared around the same time as Robert Kilroy-Silk’s Veritas, only with more dignity. Given Kilroy-Silk bowed out after having a hissy fit over someone squirting him with a water bottle, admittedly this was not hard.

BBC election night studio, 8 October 1959: Dimbleby senior

BBC election night studio, 8 October 1959: Dimbleby senior seduces the nation

BBC election night studio, 1 May 1997: Dimbleby junior salutes the nation

BBC election night studio, 1 May 1997: Dimbleby junior salutes the nation

But even the sometime host of Shafted knew better than to give the impression of wanting, to coin a phrase, to go on and on and on. One of Dimbleby’s best election night ad-libs was prompted by the toxic gales of self-delight forever swirling around the originator of that desperate quote. Asked by Robin Day during the BBC’s coverage of the 1987 election to speculate on whether she’d still be PM in 2000, Mrs Thatcher replied she could well be “twanging a harp” by then. Back in the studio, Dimbleby unleashed a zinger. “Well, she’s absolutely convinced she’s going to heaven one day!” he cracked, to knowing laughter from the studio crew.

Which brings us to this week’s other election news. It got somewhat overshadowed by David’s long goodbye day. In fact, it barely drew any comment – at least from the mainstream media. But buried down towards the bottom of the press release, sounding as half-apologetic as a Lib Dem lost deposit, was confirmation that all the BBC’s election results coverage will now be broadcast from Elstree.

Granted, part of this is expediency. Seeing as TV Centre is no more, Elstree is the closest property nearest to the capital in which the BBC can afford to take the time to plan and build an election studio. The newly-expanded Broadcasting House, in a bittersweet irony, is too small to both co-ordinate and transmit a programme. Salford, Glasgow or Birmingham were deemed presumably too far away, although the last time we looked each of those cities contains both MPs and actual voters.

 

BBC election night studio, March 1966

Elstree has space to spare, which the BBC has the resources to fill. Whether politicians will be among them is another matter. For Elstree is not easy to get to. It’s not on the doorstep of any transport interchange. The A1 and M1 are nearby, but not easy to reach. And it’s a 10-minute walk from a small and moderately-served railway station.

These may sound like parochial observations. And sure, the Beeb has trusted ways of shuttling people to and from the site. But just how many MPs will want to pop over to Hertfordshire for a psephological natter on polling night? In the time it takes a big beast to ride up from London, a dozen backroom deals might have been done to deny the minister their chauffeured car back home.

It matters having guests in the studio on election night. In 2001 ITV decided to junk them all and speak to contributors only via outside broadcasts. It was a major error, robbing proceedings of spark and hubbub. Technology mediates the impact of a presenter starting into the whites of someone’s eyes, and not always to the good. DG Tony Hall is long enough of tooth to appreciate the value of on-the-spot diagnoses when the nation’s returning officers start clearing their throats. Hopefully a battery of politicians will be hunkered around Dimbleby doing the same.

There’ll definitely be room for them at Elstree. For history also shows that the bigger the election night set, the more bracing the coverage.

Those occasions when the Beeb shunned scale for cosiness never made for quite so irresistible television. Think of 1983 or 1987. Minus all the multi-level gantries, whirring mechanoids and thronging foot soldiers, both proved stubbornly unsatisfying viewing.

Election 83: this brown is coming like a ghost brown

BBC election night studio, 9 June 1983: this brown is coming like a ghost brown

Ladies and gentlemen, we are voting in space

BBC election night studio, 5 May 2005: ladies and gentlemen, we are voting in space

But going big isn’t itself enough. In 2001 and 2005 you had the size but not the sociability. Dimbleby and co were plonked in atriums of shimmering glass and banquettes, capacious enough to accommodate the entire of House of Commons. Yet much like the real House of Commons, few people bothered to turn up. Election studios need bodies for news to ricochet off ferociously like pinball. Instead they might as well be on an iceberg in the Arctic. At least the hot air would have tangible impact there.

Elstree has the size, but will it have the camaraderie? Both are crucial for successful election night television. While the studios complemented admirably the anticipated razzmatazz of last year’s Strictly Come Dancing, coping with the unanticipated, not to mention unending drama of an election aftermath will be tough. Even getting Jeremy Vine to clatter up and down one of Strictly’s giant staircases won’t drown out a silence begging to be filled with the hum of a hundred number-crunchers.

Election shows are ensemble affairs, not star turns. Without a supporting cast of heft and volume, it won’t matter a jot whether Dimbleby or Huw takes the lead: the first result of the night will be a landslide swing away from the Beeb.

 

Election 66: master of revels Cliff Michelmore and a few friends

BBC election night studio, June 1970: master of revels Cliff Michelmore entertains a few friends during rehearsals

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The not-quite-late-enough shows

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When Britain tries to do topical late-night TV: eight-and-a-half examples

For unfussy disciples of US popular culture, which nowadays is pretty much the whole planet, this past week has been an occasion to rank alongside the Oscars or the Olympics. What a shame someone cocked up and scheduled all three for the same month.

Talk about bad timing. Which, not coincidentally, is exactly what the departing host of America’s most famous TV programme has been doing for much of the last decade. Jay Leno leaving the Tonight Show is a big deal. That it’s not the biggest deal in town is only partly the fault of the Academy Awards and the Sochi Games. What is the biggest deal is the fact that Jay Leno is leaving the Tonight Show AGAIN.

He’s had to do what Larry David dubbed a “double goodbye”: having already once said farewell in the worst possible circumstances, he faced the same ordeal over again.

“Dammit, where’s the Lewinsky gag?” Jay Leno checks cue cards before his last Tonight Show

It’s all part of the glorious shambles that is the recent history of the Tonight Show – but a history entirely in keeping with its status as crucible for the most talked-about brouhaha in showbusiness.

If there’s nothing that rings true about any of the preceding paragraphs, it’s because there’s nothing like it in this country. And more’s the pity. We’ve never been blessed with the kind of programme that demands to be watched – and on which the biggest names demand to appear – at bedtime.

We have, however, been cursed with a fair few not-quite-late-enough shows. And in this we have endured the worst of both worlds: programmes that have tried and failed to copy America, and programmes that have simply failed.

Below you’ll find eight-and-a-half attempts by British TV to crack the secret of a successful late night series, each teasing us with flashes of that all-elusive self-sustaining longevity, only to falter and flop like a post-watershed piss-up.

We’ve drawn up two rules.

One: the show had to be on after 9pm. Sadly, this means no Wogan, Ross or Harty. But on the positive side, no Live With Chris Moyles or Johnny Vaughan Tonight.

And two: the show had to be more than once a week. As you’ll see, this almost, but not quite, spares us having to talk about Parky.

“I’m want to give you the bad news first,” said Steve Allen at the start of the Tonight Show’s debut on NBC on 27 September 1954. “This show is gonna go on forever. Boy, you think you’re tired now!” Six decades on, America is still rubbing its eyes expectantly at 11.30pm. If only the same were true here.

In descending order of merit…

8. 24 HOURS

(BBC1, October 1965-July 1972)

America had Johnny Carson to wish it goodnight in the 60s. We had Cliff Michelmore. If only Cliff, like Johnny, had stayed behind his desk right through to 1992. For here was Britain’s first, and best, wind-down merchant. On 24 Hours, Cliff took the authoritative but convivial schtick he’d essayed on the Tonight programme – as reassuring and hardwearing a teatime fixture as your mum’s kitchen pots – and recast it as something as functional yet soothing on your palate as an after-hours mint.

24 Hours' party people: Cliff Michelmore and Kenneth Allsop

24 Hours’ party people: Cliff Michelmore and Kenneth Allsop

The time slot wandered about for a bit, until landing at 9.55pm in 1967 to steal a five-minute lead on ITN’s News at Ten. We know which one we’d have tuned in for.

The light channel may have had the heavyweights, but the Beeb had the lighter touch. 24 Hours hopped with relish between avuncular discussion, live votes from the Commons, breaking news from the US, newspaper reviews and topical skits, besides sporting a guest policy elastic enough to stretch from people who could read backwards to the premier of China.

On the night the Post Office Tower opened, the team broadcast live from a party at the very top. Some of the rude daubings left on windows by intoxicated staff members exist to this day. 24 Hours could have evolved into the biggest show of the 70s. Instead David Dimbleby took over and, just like he’d do 10 years later with Nationwide, swapped tonic for gruel. Lesson one: never serve up something indigestible last thing at night. At least Cliff was canny enough to have the last word of all.

7. LATE NIGHT LINE-UP

(BBC2, September 1964-December 1972)

A show that spent part of its very first week on air doing the history of Radio Times was always likely to be remembered fondly – if not by the viewing millions, then by the enthusiastic several who salivate at the idea there was once a programme that had Margaret Rutherford, Burl Ives and Arnold Ridley all in the same week.

Joan gets Muggeridged at a Late Night Booze-Up

Joan gets Muggeridged at a Late Night Booze-Up

Or Tim Buckley, Cicely Courtneidge and Kingsley Martin on the same night.

Fans of live, late topical shows on the BBC were truly spoiled in the late 60s. After a slice of Michelmore, you could turn over for an open-ended helping of Sheridan Morley, Joan Bakewell, Tony Bilbow and co munching on counter-cultural cud with whoever was still hanging around TV Centre once the bar closed.

Some of it must have been ghastly: Yoko Ono and Malcolm Muggeridge on the same bill; any number of earnest discussions of “happenings”.

But a week in the life of Kenny Everett? A chat with Benjamin Britten and Billy Cotton? Hundreds of “last ever interviews” or “first ever performances?” David Attenborough dropping by to put his feet up after another day running BBC2?

We’d never have gone to bed.

6. THE LATE SHOW

(BBC2, January 1989-June 1995)

What did we think of this programme’s insightful, fresh and fun take on the arts, media and popular entertainment? We’d have welcomed it.

Fridays were decent enough to begin with, while Clive James was host. Then he fell out with Alan Yentob over how many women he should have on as guests, and quit to spend more time with his clips of Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf. We were left with Tracey MacLeod, Michael Ignatieff and Sarah Dunant: three of the most intelligent people on television, but also the least intelligible. This non-brio trio, one of whom went on to be leader of the opposition in Canada, rotated nightly but sadly not fast enough to create even a wisp of passion to disturb the studio’s arid air.

This was a show that thought it was a good idea to do a spoof Juke Box Jury featuring recordings of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, to devote not one but two editions profiling the redevelopment of Stansted airport, and – most heinous of all – to launch Mark Lawson’s TV career. Because of that, and despite any number of classy guests, live music and being gatecrashed by Lenny Henry during Comic Relief Night in 1989, it can never be forgiven.

5. TONIGHT

(BBC1, September 1975-July 1979)

Having ditched 24 Hours after Dimbleby knackered it, the Beeb replaced it first with Midweek: a show that, like its title, was neither one thing nor the other. When this also flopped, someone decided to dig out an old teatime treat from the back of the cake cupboard. Only the lid hadn’t been properly screwed on, and its contents had gone off.

Granted, Tonight Mark II had precious few good stories to tell – the rest were all nicked by Nationwide. Plus once a week you’d get, in capital letters, The Ludovic Kennedy Interview. Still, even that was preferable to Melvyn Bragg interviewing Oswald Mosley about antisemitism, or recreations of the Northern Ireland Troubles using Action Men dolls.

Sue Lawley got out as soon as she could, leaving Denis Tuohy and John Timpson to pass hosting duties between them like a leaky bin bag. Eventually BBC1 controller Bill Cotton decided the nation needed a smile and a song to send it to bed. Instead what it got was…

4. PARKINSON

(BBC1, September 1979-April 1982)

It’s not often we find ourselves siding with Robin Day against Bill Cotton, but on this occasion the old bugalugs called it right.

A flock of "bloody birds" takes revenge on a journalist

A flock of “bloody birds” takes revenge on a journalist

Bill wanted Michael Parkinson’s Saturday show, running since 1971, to air five nights a week. Sir Robin, and the BBC governors, disagreed.

Topical entertainment of the Carson kind had no place on BBC1, they said. What they meant to say was topical entertainment of the Parky kind had no place on BBC1. The thought of Mike trying to do an opening monologue of zingers about “prices” or “that bloody bird” every weeknight was grisly enough to make even substitute show Question Time – with a crowing Sir Robin in the chair – seem preferable.

Cotton still had gaps in his schedule, however, so Parky was tossed the bone of a Wednesday night “serious” talk show to rub alongside his ongoing Saturday night snorefest. Both came to an end when Mike, not for the last time, defected to ITV in order to moan about the BBC while getting filthy rich.

For his part, Cotton didn’t let up and a few years later tried to woo Wogan for the same five-nightly gig. “That’s too late for my Radio 2 audience,” snapped Tel. What, and 7pm wasn’t?

3. V GRAHAM NORTON

(Channel 4, May 2002-December 2003)

This had the high-profile guests and the blessing of a permanent slot in the schedules. But it was almost all pitched on one note, and that note was very high and very loud.

If all else fails, wield an over-sized TV company logo

If all else fails, wield an over-sized TV company logo

V Graham Norton could make glitter come out of your set, but only if fired from Cape Canaveral. Being shouted at tactically is one thing; being bellowed at lazily, even if it’s being done with Grace Jones or Ruby Wax next to you on the sofa, is not entertainment.

Graham’s more reticent guests – your Nigel Havers and your Peter Davidsons – always looked thrown by the show’s format, while Graham himself seemed panicked whenever the star count swelled from one to two. Few could make the prospect of interviewing Brian Capron and Jane Birkin feel like a task of Sisyphusian ordure. Graham did.

Weekly outings to New York and Los Angeles at least made for a change of scene, if not tone. And the daily turnover of guests was bracingly unfussy: Monica Lewinsky one night, Mark Owen the next. But you could never get purchase on this show. The comedy phone calls rang particularly hollow. A case of too many handsets, not enough heft.

2. THE JACK DOCHERTY SHOW

(Channel 5, March 1997-June 1999)

“We ran out of guests,” offered the host in lieu of a coroner’s verdict. He was half right. More accurately, The Jack Docherty Show ran out of guests who wanted to appear. Promoted as the jewel in the navel of Britain’s newest network, within months it became the grit in the eye. A roving eye at that; the Friday edition got dropped for episodes of La Femme Nikita.

Those three Fs in full: a fool, his fate and some food

Those three Fs in full: a fool, his fate and some food

A bit like Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, the show was simply and brutally squashed out of existence to be replaced by lots of leather and shouting.

By September 1997 it was down to four nights a week; by April 1998 three; by November 1998 two; and by the time of its demise just one. Bookending its existence like two nonplussed tentpoles were appearances from Roger Moore and Michael Aspel. Other nights you were lucky if you got Steve Punt.

The biggest problem, however, was the tone of the thing. The show was taped early evening in a poky West End theatre (now the Trafalgar Studios) then broadcast “as live” at 11pm. Atmosphere fled out of the premises from day one. Star guests did likewise from day two. Ultimately its host followed suit, disappearing for weeks on end while the likes of Dr Fox and Melinda Messenger held court. When it died, no one rejoiced, because no one cared.

But The Jack Docherty Show isn’t quite the worst series on our list. By virtue of its miniscule budget and scant self-regard, it ranks one place behind…

1. THE 11 O’CLOCK SHOW

(Channel 4, September 1998-December 2000)

Iain Lee approaches a woman in the street to do a “comedy” vox pop. “Do you believe in life… after love?” he asks. She looks nonplussed, then terrified, then out of politeness gives a small chuckle. She is the only one in the nation to do so.

Charlie Brooker, Ricky Gervais et al not pictured

Charlie Brooker, Ricky Gervais et al not pictured

Most of the programmes in this list managed to get right at least one of the ingredients of late night TV. The 11 O’Clock Show failed to achieve even that. It was a classic Channel 4 flop: when it went wrong, which was very quickly, money was thrown at it, which was a lot, and the presenters were changed, who got sequentially awful.

Any jokes surfaced in spite of not because of the format. The show had to signal the end of its “funny” news-in-brief section by announcing “that’s the end of the news in brief”, because it never finished on a funny enough line to generate spontaneous applause. None of its stars were people you’d ever choose to spend time with, let alone – as David Letterman once said in praise of Johnny Carson – be tucked in at night by.

C4 boss Michael Jackson stuck with it for a couple of years, as he was the one who’d come up with The Late Show for BBC2 and was loathe to have two late night turkeys on his CV. But even he accepted the last revamp, swapping the ghastly Iain Lee and Daisy Donovan for the rotten Jon Holmes and Sarah Alexander, was laughable (ironic, given that nothing else had been) and that it was time, finally, to stop the Clock.

Special mention for…

THE RDA (60 editions during 2000 and 2001)

This is a tale of a show undermined by its own over-ambition, but fantastically so.

About the only thing worth remembering of digital channel BBC Choice, The RDA revelled in its shoestring budget, down-at-heel feel and love of amateurism. No pretence here; host John Gordillo made a virtue of his inexperience as well as the show’s lamentable choice of guests, frequently botched stunts and lacklustre gags.

A very Savile row: John takes Sir Jim'll down a peg

A very Savile row: John takes Sir Jim’ll down a peg

And yet, by the end of its short life, it had become one of the best shows on television. This was thanks both to its imagination – no nook of BBC TV Centre was left unmilked for its comedy potential – and its unabashed determination to make the best of the worst of all possible worlds.

It became a show about the making of a nightly topical TV show, but not in a crass, uber-arch way, rather one that was shamelessly honest and infectiously fun.

A typical episode saw Gordillo ring up the BBC duty log to lodge a complaint about his own show. Or taking the studio crew (and us) for a coffee to avoid watching a musical number by Bonnie Langford. Or spying on Huw Edwards leaving TV Centre after each day’s Six O’Clock News, until – wonderfully – the tables were turned. Or exploiting whatever big event the Beeb were covering that day, be it the London mayoral election or Eurovision. Or mounting OBs from wherever would have him, from the Royal Albert Hall to the set of East Midlands Today.

Taped as live at 7pm then transmitted a few hours later, the RDA was everything a British late night hit show could and should be… except popular. With a bigger profile and much larger TV audience, things may have been different. But then so would the show, and Gordillo’s foibles might have been transformed from boon to boondoggle.

Maybe one day – or better still one night – we’ll see its like again. As Michael Jackson instructed Paul McCartney on The Girl is Mine: you keep dreamin’.

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2013

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“Agnes finds the festive spirit lacking”

20140101-141506.jpg
Christmas Day, at least on BBC1, has long been held up as the most important broadcasting day of the year, with a show’s appearance seen as a major honour – the televisual equivalent of an OBE. Certainly the perception of Christmas Day schedules is of a host of the biggest stars in Britain in some of the biggest shows, so you would assume that only the most established names would make an entrance.

Yet in recent years this hasn’t been the case and BBC1, in particular, have made some brave choices when it comes to the big day’s schedules. In 1999, The Royle Family‘s first Christmas special appeared on BBC1 less than 18 months after it had begun as a late night BBC2 experiment. Catherine Tate’s festive show in 2007 was the first of her efforts ever to be screened on BBC1, while Little Britain and Gavin and Stacey hadn’t long graduated from BBC3 by the time they enjoyed a swift promotion to the Christmas Day schedules. All enjoyed highly impressive viewing figures too, which illustrate the importance of refreshing the line-up with some new names and new shows.

So it was in 2013 that the honours for most watched programme of the day went to something that had again begun in modest circumstances – but Mrs Brown’s Boys was a bit different to some of the comedic fare that had made its debut on Christmas Day in recent years. Brendan O’Carroll’s panto dame-style character had made her first appearance on Irish radio more than 20 years ago, and had enjoyed cult success via stage productions until the BBC decided to take a punt on a TV version, which arrived on BBC1 in a late night slot in early 2011 with little in the way of promotion and a distinctly lukewarm response from critics. However the bawdy comedy struck a chord with audiences and via word of mouth and a repeat or two started to pull in huge audiences, with the special on Boxing Day in 2012 getting the highest rating of the entire festive season. Hence this year it was an obvious choice for Christmas Day itself, and “Buckin’ Mammy”, to give it its typically unsubtle title, was the highest-rated show of the day, with 9.4 million viewers.

Okay, so few would hold it up there with some of the comedy shows that have appeared on the 25th in the past, but for every Only Fools and Horses and One Foot in the Grave there’s been a Bread and a Birds of a Feather, so it perhaps wasn’t quite the new low that some would have you believe. One thing that was unique though was probably the amount of swearing it included – surely the first f-words on Christmas night BBC1 ever?

Regardless of your views of Mrs Brown, though, it did provide some comedy on a night that seemed otherwise bereft of laughs. Following Mrs Brown at 10pm was Michael McIntyre. Two years ago the Marmite comedian had done decent business in a late slot with his Christmas Comedy Roadshow – but this wasn’t that; instead a first TV screening for his most recent DVD. A big show maybe, but on a night when you expect something a bit out of the ordinary this seemed a pretty half-arsed affair, up there with 1978′s True Grit – A Further Adventure. Opening with 10 minutes of jokes about the 2012 Olympics surely just emphasised that we were getting some second hand stuff here, with distinctly average ratings to match.

The rest of BBC1′s Christmas line-up had been motoring along fairly steadily up to there, starting in familiar form with Breakfast, the cartoons and the service and two animated movies in Chicken Run and The Princess and the Frog which saw us through to lunchtime in amiable fashion. Just as familiar was what followed at 2pm. With continued newspaper stories about some of its previous presenters, and the weekly show now a distant memory, the return of Top of the Pops seems less likely every year, but here it was again a week before its 50th anniversary – not that anyone seemed particularly interested in celebrating that fact.

The annual word from Liz was followed by, surprisingly, the teatime news, clearing the decks for non-stop entertainment until late at night. That began with the premiere of Toy Story 3, an excellent choice for the afternoon and also making it the only film series where every instalment has premiered on Christmas Day (a honour previously held by Indiana Jones for some 20 years before they decided to make a fourth). After that came Strictly Come Dancing in its earliest ever Christmas Day slot of 5pm. Again five new celebrities took to the dancefloor, although none seemed particularly more interesting than those we’d been following for the past three months. Nevertheless the all-round family fun made it perfect for teatime vegging out.

Then came a triple bill of drama, and the second Christmas Day outing for Call the Midwife. Last year’s special seemed somewhat out of place as the centrepiece of Christmas Day and was roundly criticised for being far too gloomy. This year the latter was addressed, at least, with a more frivolous storyline including a wedding, though its slot at 6.15pm seemed even more out of place, surely inviting most dads and kids to switch over. The ratings proved fairly stable year on year, though, but still down on the kind of figures it receives any other day.

This year though the midwives ceded the prime slot to Doctor Who – and rightly so. In the year of its 50th anniversary and, in this programme, a brand new Doctor, it received the plum 7.30pm slot and, while it finished in second place to Mrs Brown’s Boys in the overnight ratings (before those who recorded it or watched online are added), the moment where Matt Smith became Peter Capaldi was the most watched thing of the whole day with over 10 million tuning in to see this little piece of telly history.

Next came EastEnders, which for the past four years had been the most watched programme on the big day. However this Christmas came at the end of a pretty poor run for the soap, with dwindling figures and a revolving door of cast changes, while viewers seemed unimpressed with some less than gripping storylines. Mindful of the boost the show normally gets on Christmas Day, the production team therefore took the opportunity to mount something of a relaunch with Danny Dyer making his debut as the new landlord of the Vic (though quite why you’d buy a pub on Christmas Day was never adequately explained). Unfortunately this wasn’t enough of a boost to interest casual viewers and for the first time since 2000 it found itself beaten by Coronation Street as it slipped to fourth place in the day’s chart. We’ll have to wait until next Christmas before we can judge whether Dyer’s arrival will help lure back lapsed fans.

After the McIntyre DVD, and the late news, BBC1 rounded off Christmas Day in by now traditional style with a few comedy repeats, including The Vicar of Dibley from 1996, and a late film. Overall it hadn’t been a vintage Christmas for BBC1, with new comedy extremely thin on the ground. The individual programmes – bar EastEnders and McIntyre – seemed decent enough, we just needed more of them.

For ITV, where Christmas Day in the past has often been a case of damage limitation at best, the fairly credible showing they’d put in for the last few years was enough for the commercial channel to say “same again” – indeed, almost literally. After an unusual head-to-head clash of news bulletins at 3.10pm (though for ITV it was a late lunchtime rather than an early teatime bulletin), the schedule was virtually an exact repeat of 2012 – the film Tangled, Paul O’Grady at Battersea Dogs Home, Emmerdale, Coronation Street and Downton Abbey, followed Love Actually, which was no stranger to Christmas Day on ITV.

Compared to last year, Tangled and Paul O’Grady fell foul of BBC1 juggernauts but Emmerdale perked up a bit running head-to-head with Call the Midwife, as opposed to 2012′s thankless slot as stooge to Doctor Who, though still didn’t beat its BBC opposition – one of the few days of the year that’s the case. Despite facing Doctor Who, Corrie was virtually neck-and-neck and managed to beat its London rival for only the second time this century, but Downton posted another bog-standard rating – though obviously far better than more or less everything else they’d shown in this slot before it made its first appearance in 2011.

As for the other channels, a major shock on BBC2 – no Dad’s Army repeat! Instead the comic relief came from The Two Ronnies and a Morecambe and Wise compilation. It was a very good day for Mark Gatiss too, with his drama on the creation of Doctor Who, An Adventure In Space and Time, getting a repeat outing in the afternoon, and then at 9.30pm came his adaptation of MR James’ The Tractate Middoth, followed by his tribute to the writer himself.

Channel 4 again aimed for the mainstream with animation, family films and Deal or no Deal during the day, while a screening of Home Alone 2 at 6.15pm no doubt offered sanctuary for families unimpressed by the female-skewing offerings on BBC1 and ITV and pulled in the biggest audience away from the main channels of the day. A new show from Alan Carr and a special of Greg Davies’ sitcom Man Down meant C4 actually offered up more new comedy than BBC1, not something that’s happened before. For Channel 5 it was pretty much businesses as usual too – old films during the day, including Gone With the Wind again and Casablanca, then Eddie Stobart in the evening. Just the one hour with the truckers this year, though, with the main attraction being the premiere of the ghoulish documentary Michael Jackson’s This Is It.

In fact despite BBC1 not quite firing on all cylinders, and what would appear to be a far more attractive schedule than in other years, ITV was actually only ahead of BBC1 for half an hour from 10pm when Michael McIntyre was on. That’s testament to how, for many people – regardless of some rather illogical scheduling and threadbare bits of the schedule – Christmas Day continues to mean BBC1.

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The Creamup Christmas Number 2013

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The Great British Flake Off

The moon is right! The spirit’s up! We’re here tonight! And that’s enough of a reason for us to unleash a little something upon you – a special Christmas edition of TV Cream’s long defunct Creamup ‘emag’.

This one comes sporting a ‘tribute or trash’ vibe, as we battle 20 festive favourites against each other to discover the best in show. So will that be Merry Xmas (War is Over) or Wonderful Christmas Time? The Christmas Radio Times or the Christmas TV Times? Scrooge or Scrooged? You get the idea.

Subscribers to our Creamguide service will already have received an email with details about how to obtain this organ. But now you can dive in too and download the 1.8meg PDF right here.

Merry Christmas!

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Christmas Creamguide 2013

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Have a cracking Christmas... with Creamguide!
It’s out today! The new Christmas Creamguide is now winging its way through the email chimneys of all our subscribers! And, as is its custom, it’s also ready for you to read right here on good ol’ TV Cream!

Simply click on this link and this link to jump straight to our selection of all the very best things on TV and radio over the festive fortnight.

Also, look out for the Christmas Creamup, which will also be with you very soon.

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The six worst Christmas Radio Times covers

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Worried about heating your home this Christmas? Dig some of the following disgraces out of your attic, douse with a bit of brandy, then WHOOOMPH: a conflagration that’s both physically and sanctimoniously satisfying.

Alternatively, use these covers as an alternative to wrapping paper – on presents for people you deeply dislike.

We’ve spared you this year’s effort. You’ll have seen enough of it by now, and besides it’s almost identical to last year, which counts as laziness not calculated distaste. Unlike what follows:

6: 1949

What the..?

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.

5: 1936

By golly

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.

4: 2009

Pro - cras - ti - nate!

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.

3: 1993

Grow some teeth, kid

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.

2: 2010

Legendary

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…

1: 1974

A failure, yesterdayBritain’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.

Dishonourable mentions for…

No, us neither

1952: fright before Christmas

Oh no, it's "me"

1978: oh bollocks, it’s “me”

Plonkers

1985: plonkers needing stuffing

Get back in your box

1996: typographical trauma

Not wild about Harry

2000: not wild about Harry

Get out, Claus

2007: call Crimestoppers now

Now see the six best Christmas Radio Times covers

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The six best Christmas Radio Times covers

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IT’S NOT HARD. You’ve all year to think about it. You’ve been doing it for almost a century. And it’s not like the occasion hasn’t been responsible for inspiring, at the last count, 134,932 carols, songs, films, plays, musicals, myths, costumes, jokes, rituals, foodstuffs, fluids, religious fables and drunks shouting.

And yet this year’s Christmas Radio Times cover is so poor, so throat-narrowing, colon-clenching, Scrooge-besting poor, you have to wonder just what the magazine has been up to these past 12 months*.

Anyhow, let’s not dwell on the periodical equivalent of a Brussel sprout dry fart. Let us instead look back to half a dozen festive fancies we’d drop everything to save from the flames of an Advent crown, fireproof tinsel or no fireproof tinsel. Doff your paper hats to the six greatest Radio Times Christmas front covers.

*Aside from not watching TV programmes, of course.

6: 2005

Oh, and by the way...

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?

5: 1959

Claus for thought

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.

4: 1964

Er...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.

3: 1927

A dose of the clap

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.

2: 1968

Hanging looseGroovy 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.

1: 1963

Toppermost of the poppermostThe 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.

Honourable mentions for…

A hard-working family, yesterday

1923: a hard-working family

What fascist undertones?

1926: what fascist undertones?

That's what they call you

1929: that’s what they call you

Christmas Deco-rations

1933: the Deco in decoration

Pop goes Christmas

1966: taking Christ out of Xmas

Oh no it isn't - oh yes it is!

1988: oh yes it is, oh no it isn’t

Now see the six worst Christmas Radio Times covers

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26) “I don’t do French, I do woodwork!”

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Chrissie swims the Channel, January 1985

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“Dark” comedy was something that seemed to be invented at some point in the last decade, with the likes of Julia Davis and Ricky Gervais aiming to unsettle as much as amuse, but back in the eighties Victoria Wood was doing all that in the middle of primetime, and few comedy sketches have been both as hilarious and as sad as Chrissie’s attempt to swim the channel, as seen on TV on, er, As Seen On TV. In fact the sketch is also years ahead of its time in the way it sends up the conventions of the television documentary and its various artifices (we love the way her parents really awkwardly walk out of the front gate, clearly the last of several hundred takes). The forced banter and Chrissie’s bedroom (with its “Learn To Swim With The Daily Mirror” posters) are both absolutely perfect. The concept of an ambitious but deluded character ineptly aiming to complete an impossible feat is something that Wood portrayed quite frequently over the years but she did it so well, imbuing her characters with such warmth that you really feel for Chrissie even though she’s on screen for less than five minutes. This does mean that the whole thing is really quite bittersweet and at the end of it you feel quite melancholy, but there are loads of brilliant jokes in it before you get there – like the fact she constantly wears the swimming cap and her parents can’t remember how many children they have, which reminds us that it’s just a bit of daftness that isn’t supposed to be taken seriously. A lesser comedian would have expanded this over several minutes for several weeks, and hammered home the pathetic-ness of the participants, but Victoria Wood isn’t like other comedians.

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