A-Z of Television, The

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Knox and Bellingham not, sadly, includedThe talents of Bob Monkhouse – are we even close to totting them up? This comedy gazetteer of the state of the cathode ray arts at the start of the seventies, co-authored by the Reverend Robert with playwright Willis Hall, demonstrates at least three of them – the gag machine, the accomplished comic illustrator (all the crisply-drawn cartoons, pitched somewhere between big nosed Punch austerity and Cheeky Weekly exuberance, emanate from the Monkhouse pen) and, of course, his encyclopaedic knowledge and love of the goggle box.

An easy stocking filler of cheap gags about cigar-chomping producers, histrionic actors and inedible canteen rissoles, you might expect. Well, yes. But there’s much more, as Bob’s not afraid to get technical, both about life in front of the cameras (see ‘Cod Dry’, a detailed exploration of the art of fake corpsing), behind the cameras (there’s a breakdown of floor managerial gestures, an expert nailing of the similarity of early TV sci-fi scripts to TV western scripts, and a comparison of the relative merits of the clapometer and the all-new decibel-measuring digitometer) and even behind the screen (the vagaries of the vertical hold, and ‘what to do if your telly blows up’).

This, needless to say, is a book close to TV Cream’s collective heart. Sometimes spookily so. Try this piece on (pre-Tiswas) Saturday morning telly:

“Do not despise Saturday morning watching. You are quite likely to pick up, unheralded, a programme in Pakistani, or a short film urging you to join the Parachute Regiment, or a colourful travelogue concerning the Greek islands, or an interesting featurette about the spawning habits of salmon, or simple straightforward instruction in kerb drill. One of the authors prizes most highly a live programme he caught, purely by chance, one wet Saturday morning, devoted to a bevy of bards being crowned at an eisteddfod. Students of British weather variations might find it interesting to make note that while it was puring down in buckets at the author’s home in St Albans, in Llandudno the skies were bright and clear and it was so hot that many of the ladies in Welsh national costume had removed their tall hats. You can pick up lots of useful information such as this on any Saturday morning and it will further your education no end.”

We wish we’d written that.

Perhaps most presciently of all, the book’s musings on the sub-Hollywood nature of Grandaland’s tourist attraction ambitions ends: “The tourists may not yet be flocking to Grandaland in thousands, but given time – say ten more years of Coronation Street – and we could see the foundations laid for the Granadaland Hilton Hotel.” Well, it took a bit longer than that, and the Granada management went for “Victoria and Albert” as the moniker of choice, but it happened.

And, since you ask, Z is for ‘Zounds’: “an inoffensive expletive much favoured by upright children’s historical adventure series”.


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All the World’s a Globe, or from Lemur to Cosmonaut: the National Theatre of Brent’s Concise History of the Human Race from the Earliest Times to 1987

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'When is it my turn with the rocket, Desmond?'Friends, we are gathered together, in this here place, to praise Desmond Olivier Dingle, renowned classical actor, thinker and Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Brent, a two-man subsidised acting troupe given to mounting threadbare reconstructions of mighty moments from world history in childishly pretentious – to say nothing of factually mangled – productions. Patrick Barlow, the man behind Dingle (‘as it happens’), has taken the NToB, aided by a string of long-suffering ‘assistants’ (including Jim Broadbent, Robert Austin and John Ramm), from fringe performances to radio, television and the real National Theatre, all the while keeping up the chasm between their vaulting ambition and paucity of talent.

The same applies to their print excursion, which attempts to do exactly what the title attempts to say. Dingle is the master (or so he likes to think) of the grand manner. After a foreword (of sorts) from Omar Sharif come no less than three prefaces in which Dingle pays tribute to his publisher ‘Sir Geoffrey Methuen’, and humbly pledges to ’take up my pen, and bend myself before this mighty task to tell the history of the whole Universe from before it was begun to the present.’ There’s historical learning in abundance (‘The Romans wore long white bath-towels, covering everything, fortunately […] Unlike the Greeks, however, the Romans were Italian’), and a handy list of related activities (‘Things to do: Make a scale model of a rotating crop’).

The inspiration clearly comes from 1066 and All That, but unlike the cavalcade of re-imaginings of that seminal schoolboy error, Barlow injects a sense of pathos into the maelstrom of over-eager academic cluelessness. From his bedroom in Dollis Hill, Dingle beavers heroically away at his magnum opus with the naïve industry of the true dunce scholar, tempered only occasionally by the mounting frustration of the undiscovered genius. As Dingle himself puts it, ‘I am clearly an author of potentially massive proportions’. In this case, academia’s loss is the lavatory’s gain.


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Bestseller! The Life and Death of Eric Pode of Croydon

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Andrew Marshall and David Renwick. Aren’t they a panic? From End of Part One through Whoops Apocalypse and Hot Metal to the criminally forgotten pitch black Briers showcase If You See God, Tell Him, theirs was a comedy writing partnership that flailed in all directions, but somehow managed to strike gold practically every time.

The flailing began in earnest with Radio Four sketch meltdown The Burkiss Way,* a melange of unassuming insanity that played Fred Harris off Nigel Rees to tactically disorientating effect, switching from News Huddlines-esque cornball punning to controller-troubling dodginess at the muted turn of a script page.

As the series wound up, it made the transfer to print which few radio comedy shows manage. Leafing through Bestseller!, it’s not hard to see why. TV pantechnicons like Python could generate sufficient money upfront to pay for that all-important design expertise that was required to make the technical tomfoolery work. But the Burkiss book had a budget about the size of one of its shows, and it shows. Magazine and newspaper parodies lack the convincing typesetting and photography of the big boys’ versions, often being rendered in crude pen-and-ink drawings, like a schoolboy’s own misguided attempt to do a Goodies File in a wet lunch break.

No schoolboy, though, could write anything half this great. That goes for most professional comedy writers too. These days it’s a rule of thumb that if a comedy bills itself as whimsical, but with an “edge” (or better yet, a “dark edge”), it’s really mixing two kinds of boring to produce a lump of quick-setting tedium that’s vaguely offensive in a precisely unfunny way. But take this line in Bestseller!‘s obligatory spoof small ad page (from Big Tentacles: “the magazine for the dominant squid”): “Calling all paedophile starfish! Asterisk Monthly caters for your needs!” That’s how you do it. And there’s an actual joke in there, too.

The overarching conceit of the book is that it’s a collection of personal papers of the eponymous Pode, incarnated on the show by Chris Emmett as the most wretched individual who ever lived. As with most overarching conceits, it doesn’t arch over that far, and a lot of the show’s material is just tacked on “as is”. But when it’s stuff like wartime radio parody It’s That Script Again (“Cor! Don’t forget the octopus, chum!”) that’s pretty easy to forgive. And it wouldn’t be a comedy book without a string of trad targets: The Wurzels, Clive James, Frank Muir and Lowestoft are all soundly drubbed, as are show contributor Douglas ‘Different’ Adams and cast member Nigel Rees, hawking “the ever-popular ‘Things Scrawled on Walls’, at only 95p in paperback – a mere 94p dearer than visiting the gents at Waterloo and seeing it all for yourself.”

* Incidentally, if anyone’s got any skinny on Burkiss‘s Radio 3 predecessor, Half-Open University, drop us a line, eh?


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Brand New Monty Python Bok, The

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'What do you want?' 'Dirty books!' The naughty bits

Their first effort, the Big Red Book, may have invented the TV comedy picture book as a genre (if not quite, as Python’s main literary driving force Eric Idle claimed, the entire Christmas book market), but the second go round had more money, more anticipation, and best of all, bags more ideas. The invention began with the dust jacket, authentically printed with grubby fingerprints on its pristine white surface, encouraging bookshops to either send them back – and receive more soiled books by return of post – or attempt to display them without the jackets, thus uncovering the salacious montage above. Used to being kicked about the schedules by the Beeb, the Pythons were in no mood to make friends with the book trade.

Inside, there were more fancy tricks – a false school library card, two pull-out pamphlets and an attempt to beat the record for the most words ever on one page (failed). The tone was all over the shop, from the bewilderingly drab (How to Become a Segas Employee) to the, er, unforgettable sight of Graham Chapman’s ‘Right to Mast’ campaign. Michael Palin worried that the filthy stuff was in danger of overtaking the book, but it works like the Python shows at their best – an abrupt and delightfully bizarre change of gear every other page. Dozens of imitators followed in its wake, many great on their own terms, but the comedy book never got better than this.


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Call My Bluff

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Come with us if you will to a time when the comedy panel game was a shy and gentle beast. Long before it became the default shop window into which comedy agents slung their latest lugubrious signings, the rambling, three-a-side desk-bound banterthon was a quieter, more erudite and – if we may – gentlemanly affair. Imperial phase Call My Bluff was undoubtedly the acme of the genre.

The irony is, while the next generation of panel shows tried to appear more anarchic, they were by comparison impeccably professional, full of pre-scripted bits of business and cues for the guests’ well-worn material, all played with a gimlet eye on future career prospects. The Bluff, by contrast, was a room full of miscreant schoolkids sniggering behind the back of question-master Robert Robinson, throwing tantrums, going off on endless rambling anecdotes, falling out with and generally winding up each other. No-one, as a rule, seemed especially bothered about how they came over to the public.

The book of the programme wisely concentrates on getting this essential atmosphere into print, leaving all that farting about with dictionary definitions to look after itself. The premise: you, the reader, take the place of Messrs Ogilvy, Rushton, Lumley and Drinkwater, as the proxy ‘team’ (“Steady, team!”) for both Frank Muir and Patrick Campbell. Each launches a series of definitions at the other, who worries them into the ground, leaving you to pick the winner. Interactivity!

All that, though, is beside the point. The real joy lies in witnessing two crotchety old buffers rub each other up the wrong way and generally arse about on paper. Muir digresses in quizzically boyish fashion. Campbell takes against said boyish quizzicality in no uncertain terms. Campbell uses a bit of florid language, which Muir instantly mocks. Both affect to be affronted at the crassness of the “obviously” false definitions. Strops come and go, and the game eventually makes its excuses and leaves them to it.

In a masterstroke, each captain’s increasingly irrelevant musings are reproduced longhand, complete with Muir’s little cartoons of hairy legs and bishops falling over, making the whole thing look like a sheet of foolscap that’s been passed to and fro at the back of a Friday afternoon double history lesson. Which is of course exactly how it should be. Not only is this book amateurish in the best sense, it’s also amateurish in the worst sense, but somehow manages to turn that amateurishness into a definite plus. Now that’s the work of true professionals.


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Custard Stops at Hatfield, The

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Comedians’ autobiographies are, as a rule, to be approached with a critical ten foot pole, if not a censorious mop and bucket. Quite apart from the pitfalls of disillusionment and boredom that so often follow the dread phrase “and this… is me”, every page must be turned with trepidation, lest the next one’s contents unwittingly reveal your favourite gag merchant as a jumped up, egotistical nitwit whose best lines, on the evidence of his memoirs, were clearly written by the long-suffering backroom boys who barely get a mention halfway down page 118. Only a handful of comics manage to avoid at least one of these mortal sins, and none dodge the lot with the carefree aplomb of Kenny Everett.

In memoir as in life, Ken starts as he means to go on. After the obligatory arsing about with comedy introductions, you get a soup-to-early-’80s-nuts romp through Cuddly Ken’s life and career, from being tricked onto drinking his big sister’s wee put of a Lucozade bottle to a climactic chat in Kensington’s Tratoo restaurant with Barry Cryer and Ray Cameron about Video Show minutiae, including the Beeb’s crackdown on Cupid Stunt (and her subsequent redubbing as Mary Hinge).

It’s written in exactly the way you’d expect: a frothily faithful prose transcription of Ken’s rambling, sing-song conversational mode. Names are unashamedly dropped and products are unashamedly placed. The pirate radio days in particular provide rich anecdotal pickings. Tony Blackburn swallows a mouthful of weevils and saves a drugged-up Kens life aboard Radio London. Ed Stewart muses on the Fabs’ Yesterday to our sexually innocent hero: “doesn’t it just make you want to orgasm?” On dry land, an increasingly canny Everett gives the censorious Beeb the media runaround not once, but twice, and fills us in on the furious temper of Food and Drink‘s cuddly crafty chef Michael Barry (Bukht as was) in his capacity as controller of Capital Radio. And to give the story even more of a kaleidoscopic sketch show feel, each chapter is illustrated by a different cartoonist, among them the redoubtable Martin Honeysett.

The accent’s on the larks, but there’s more to it than that. Adventures with acid, coke and the malevolent sleeping pill Mandrax are honestly recounted, with neither sympathy courted nor born-again puritanism pushed. A suicide attempt precipitated by an overdose of mandies is, if anything, made all the more affecting by being recounted in the same breezy, matter-of-fact style as the anecdote of the exploding Video Show violin. The only reason a reader of this book wouldn’t instantly warm to its author is that they’ve most likely already warmed to him years before. Self revelation is in, but self serving and self indulgence are shown the door from page one. Homosexuality and Ev’s, er, singular marriage to Lee Middleton are the only subjects to be nervously skirted around, but even so, this is still an unusually ingenuous book in an age when the confessional, gut-spilling showbiz autobiography was still the exception, not the rule.

What could easily have turned into a shapeless junket of wacky frippery becomes instead the perfect comic memoir: an ideal balance of personal history, random digressions (a musing on Britain’s regional differences vis-a-vis choice of pudding sauce gives rise to the book’s title), silly gags and insights into the nuts and boots of TV and radio broadcasting. Kenny’s a chatty, flirty and pretty much entirely reliable narrator, with only one or two exceptions: it’d be great to think Lennon’s lyrics to I Am the Walrus were inspired by a shared LSD trip with Ev on Weybridge golf course, but perhaps some things are just too good to be true.


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Fist of Fun

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Jelly not picturedLast chance for a half-decent TV comedy book before Mitchell and Webb! Stewart Lee and Richard Herring’s debut TV series was deceptively ramshackle in appearance, but with plenty of finely-wrought comedy under the Tipp-Ex-stained bonnet – a self-reflexive and self-deprecating take on the age-old “Why Don’t You..? as presented by terminally hip perpetual student and pathologically unworldly West Country pervert” chestnut. In essence, they were you and your mate riffing into a tape recorder about the secret life of Steve Priestley while wondering where all the girls had gone. Only funny. Throw in Peter Baynham’s tragic Welsh manchild with a life bypass and you had the de facto comedy mascots of the Britpop years, as Vic Reeves was to baggy or Chris Morris to, er, whatever people listened to in 1997.

No surprise, then, that the paper spin-off, lovingly modelled on the classical architecture of its Python and Goodies predecessors, was worth the £8.99 price tag in a way that contemporary efforts by The Mary Whitehouse Experience and Father Ted weren’t. Ice T, Patrick Marber, Tony Parsons and The Fall loomed large. A page of Nelson’s Column-style fag packet BBC sitcom concepts struck comedy gold with the contrived likes of Otherfoot’s Shoe and Myy Cup Upstairs. Cornish curmudgeons were excoriated, mediocrity and Ians of all stripes celebrated, and gratuitous mentions of Leee’s Place and Gaz Top Non Stop helped future generations date its provenance precisely. (Although if we’re being pernickety, the rather flat “Adobe – the Early Years” graphic design’s a pretty big clue as well.)

There was, inevitably, controversy. A routine about Brian Keenan was nixed at the copy editing stage on legal advice,  but Simon Quinlank’s jauntily blasphemous Christian Church Crawl hobby (“So far I have eaten seven whole Jesuses plus one of Jesus’s legs!”) oddly wasn’t, despite being denied an airing on TV. There was even a pisstake of Nigel Rees’s Graffiti books, tipping the nod to decades-old toilet book tradition. Only Adam and Joe came close to such a sustained comic effort in the ensuing years (with a similar DIY aesthetic), while everyone else just punted out a DVD with a few drunken commentaries tacked on the end. The idiots.


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Go Ask Alice

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Anonymously penned Jefferson Airplane-referencing perma-controversial purported diary of a sixties teenager, pretty much your average football-team-captain-lusting-after girl next door until she was slipped some crazy acid courtesy of a spiked drink, causing her to ‘see’ the evil radioactive waves in jello pudding and consequently slide into depression, schizophrenia and ultimately overdose-assisted suicide. Presumably originally intended as a cautionary tale, its lurid ‘square’s eye view’ of lysergic imagery made it into an illicit cult favourite with adolescents in search of risk-free literary kicks, and can still be found in large quantities in university halls of residence to this day. Also inspired a TV Movie adaptation starring – haw – William Shatner.


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Goodies File, The

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It's anything you want it to be...Altogether now: “Kids’ book!” Well, in many cases yes, but what a kids’ book! The first comedy TV tie-in to fully capitalise on the ‘warped Eagle annual’ format that Monty Python’s Big Red Book inaugurated, The Goodies File settled into its new habitat with alarming gusto. Compiled by all three Goodies  (unlike the series, which was mainly a Bill and Graeme production), the brown-covered File followed the ‘random scrapbook’ format of the Python templates (with invaluable visual input from designer Anthony Cohen) and gave it an admittedly slight sitcom-like overall ‘plot’ – in this case the determination of Edna Tole (Mrs), the lady who ‘does’ for our intrepid trio, to fit them up for the tabloids as a bunch of ne’er-do-well ‘coots’, and cop a fat cheque from publishers Weiden, Feld and Nicolson (‘a song, a smile, and amazing stunts with a grapefruit!’) in the process.

The stage is set for an assortment of as-it-occurs-to-them daftness: a lurid home-printed promotional booklet for the ‘anytime, anyplace, anywhere’ outfit; a ‘dress your own Goodies’ cut-out doll tableau (complete with ‘Tim’s sensible shoes’, ‘Bill’s tasteful trousers’ and ‘Graeme’s impressive shirt’); the story of the smash-hit musical Super-Pope; a good hundredweight of OBE references, and Bill’s bird-watcher’s guide with over-defensive foreword (”There’s nothing weird about me, you know […] STOP GETTING AT ME. OR I shall CRY.’)

It’s the early years of the Superchaps’ telly incarnation clapped effortlessly between hardcovers, and with its copious photostatted royal invitations ans secret plans (some scrawled on the backs of actual fag packets – ’20 Gut-rotters coke-tipped’), criminal records and notes from one Izzy Bent, it set the template for even greater, more intricate literary excursions that were to follow. At the time, it was the most Goodies-related fun you could have at the time without access to a VCR, a trandem, and the lease on a 6-legged pantomime dromedary costume. Will you please get off my desk?


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How to be a Wally

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Get in!!!Of all the great pretend sociological toilet books the eighties (literally) threw up, actually funny titles were few and far between. (Next time you’re pottering about the local Mencap, have a flick through The Sloane Ranger Handbook. Spot any jokes? Exactly.) Of the few that had any substance to them, Paul Manning’s study of lower middle class social prattishness led the pack.

As (cough) TV Cream’s new book exclusively reveals, this sort of coarse gaucherie has a long literary tradition going back to ancient Greece, but Manning’s Wally is both timeless and of the moment. His is a world of Ford Cortinas, C&A trainers, CB radios, saying ‘this is it’ instead of ‘I agree’ and standing outside DER showrooms in the pouring rain watching Game for a Laugh. It’s brand name comedy in the days before it went stale, and it remains infinitely more evocative of its era than a million clips of Brian Hanrahan in a flack jacket boasting about how many planes he can count.

A sequel, Superwally, followed in due course, after which Manning decided we’d got the idea and moved on to other things. Ah, if only today’s novelty book authors would show such restraint, eh?


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Not the General Election

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The last knockings of the Not the Nine O’Clock News literary franchise and, by its creators’ own admission, the least. Whereas the calendars of previous years were packed with gags from a platoon of writers, here John Lloyd and Sean Hardie did most of the work themselves, finding out along the way that the 1983 campaign wasn’t quite the non-stop laugh riot it might have been. Add to that increasing disenchantment from the TV series mainstays (you’ll search in vain for any evidence of Rowan, Mel or Griff) and it looks like an ignominious end to a mighty comedy book empire.

Well, maybe a bit, but there’s still a selection of good stuff in this slim volume: comedy graphs; comedy pie charts; Denis Thatcher in abundance; “How the Cartoonists See It” (containing parodies of Tim Hunkin and Mordillo, yet!); plenty of photos of Roy Jenkins looking like Arthur Askey, or Martin Webster looking like the scum of the Earth; a parliamentary version of The Meaning of Liff (“Boyson (v.): to verbally obstruct the passage of one smaller than oneself”); the inevitable election day Radio Times listings (“11.45 Moomins in Voterland”); a list of MPs privileges (“the right to decline to taste anything offered to them in the street by Esther Rantzen”); an election coverage I-Spy checklist (“An ITV reporter interviewing a politician on BBC TV: 5 points, Robin Day eating: 2 points”); an impassioned plea for Weekending to stop doing jokes about Shirley Williams’s hair; plenty of all-round SDP-baiting and that picture of Cyril Smith rubbing his eye. All this and Lord Hailsham too! A valuable historical record.


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Not! Calendars, The

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1981 and 1982
Not! 1982 Not! 1983

With the multimedia satire factory that was Not the Nine O’Clock News launching records, books and – oh, yes – TV shows left, right and centre, you’d think producer John Lloyd and his army of writers had enough on their plate as it was. Oh no, sir! Christmas 1981 brought the third Not!-related publication (and the second that year, after Not the Royal Wedding) in the shape of the first of two doorstop-thick bog-paper calendars, featuring a quickie gag on the front of each date-stamped loose leaf (“Things a microchip can’t do: Guess Kenny Ball’s age”, “Great Unsolved Mysteries No. 402: Why does Campari never taste the same when you’re sitting in a dentist’s chair?”), and a slightly more involved bit of silliness on the reverse. That’s 730 bits of comedy business in each. (In fact, it was slightly more, with the addition of the bonus month of Thatch, and a plethora of spare February 29ths.)

Small wonder Lloyd went spare collating the gags from the untold dozens of contributors (and, indeed, sorting out the manifold royalty cheques at the other end of the process). But the pain was worth it, as the golden comedy book rule of ‘cram gags into every orifice’ was rigidly adhered to, with tomfoolery aplenty in the jacket blurb, production credits and even the British Library Cataloguing details. In the main bulk of the book, you had running skits as varied at The Skinhead Hamlet, Roger’s Thesaurus of filthy synonyms (“Screw: to stick Jeremy beadle’s head in a bucket”) and The Oxtail English Dictionary, the latter being the first print incarnation of Lloyd and Douglas Adams’s ‘place-name dictionary’ drinking game which would later spawn The Meaning of Liff.

One-off gags varied from the satirical (plenty of Reagan-and-Scargill-baiting photo caption hilarity) to the plain daft (an emergency DIY teabag, a ‘write your own porn’ combination wheel, the autobiography of a toilet roll) via a treasury of unfortunate misprints and outrageous BBC news department expenses claims. Hence, despite the famously topical nature of the programme itself, these calendars are still as much fun as they were the best part of two decades ago. If you can find a reasonably decay-resistant copy, that is.


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Pan Book of Horror Stories, The

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1958 to 1988

From 1958 onwards, paperback house Pan published a regular anthology of short stories of the macabre: spine-chilling tales of uncanny terror, subtle beastliness, eldritch nightmare, Grand Guignol and other adjectives only ever used to describe fruity horror of a certain vintage.  For three generations of children, it was a grisly winner. The stories, ranging from a couple of pages to several chapters, were selected by the perfectly-named Herbert van Thal, who beckoned the reader in with foreboding entreaties on the back cover: ‘We feel that the stories in this book are such that if your nerves are not of the strongest, then it is wise to read them in daylight.’ Or, Mr van Thal neglected to add, retold in school playgrounds with added wide-eyed spooky mugging and judiciously placed ‘mwah-ha-ha-haaaa!’s by ‘flamboyant’ pre-teen boys the nation over. The oral tradition of storytelling was well-served by these tatty black paperbacks.

Many of the tales were disturbing indeed.  Favourite subjects were grotesque creatures found in eerily empty Edwardian houses, brilliant surgeons taking revenge on unfaithful lovers as only they knew how, immobilised men being slowly devoured by swarms of rats, and best of all, lovingly-described scenes of methodical dismemberment, preferably carried out by innocent young children.  The writing was often of a high calibre – as well as genre stalwarts such as R Chetwynd-Hayes and Nigel Kneale, the likes of Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark, and even John Lennon contributed unholy offerings of nameless dread to leave sleep cowering in the halls of terror.

With their distinctive covers depicting the remains of some unfortunate victim, and their ghostly wobbly font, the books provided the ideal literary counterpart to spooky TV programmes like Armchair Thriller and Hammer House of Horror.  With the advent of the video nasty, however, the spooky schoolboy samizdat network which had kept the books in such good business moved on to more graphic prurient kicks, and the anthology’s popularity started to wane. After van Thal’s death in 1983 the series limped on with derivative unpleasantness largely written by hacks (oh, and Stephen King), before finally resting in peace in 1988.


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Pigsticking: a Joy for Life

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Whatever happened to Saturday afternoon?Willie Rushton, we’re sure you don’t need telling, was the man. Multi-talented in that unassuming ‘what, this old thing? Just dashed it off in between Punchlines recordings’ way, the gentleman amateur of stage and screen was just as at home pointing satirical barbs at Tory home secretaries as he was pottering about in a wood relating the exploits of Winnie the Pooh. So who better than this ebullient all-rounder to write a chummy guide to getting started in every sport ever invented?

Setting himself up as a fellow keen amateur, ‘a man who has just entered his Roaring Forties and has never been asked to play for England at anything’, Rushton takes the reader on a merry traipse round the basics of every sport from Hang-gliding to marbles, jokey summaries of the current state of competition melding with what at the time were genuinely useful, if a tad routine, info-dollops. Often the would-be sportsman is encouraged to write to governing bodies of obscure activities in gloriously twee locations – for the English Women’s Bowling Federation, write c/o ‘Devonia’, Dogthorpe Road, Peterborough.

If all this practical advice sounds a bit ‘Ron Pickering’s Stopwatch factsheet’, fear not: this is Rushton we’re talking about, and the man’s not afraid of the odd – actually, make that the frequent – bibulous after-dinner digression into rambles about Greek cricket, the films of C Aubrey Smith, and Edward Heath removing the toilet door of his yacht ‘for added speed’. And it’s laced throughout with his wonderfully Edwardian-looking pointy-footed cartoons. The whole thing reads like a long, pointless, but greatly enjoyable post-prandial clubroom chat. And Pigsticking itself? It’s the competitive pursuit of wild boar on horseback with spears, as practiced by the old colonials in Afghanistan, which sadly doesn’t have a quaintly-addressed society to whom to send your SAE.


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Rock Dreams

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We normally treat the phrase “of its time” with the contempt such a corny, the-pubs-are-open cliche deserves, but for this collection of airbrushed rock ‘n’ roll “fan-tasies”, no other words will suffice. After all, how much more 1973 do you get than Guy Peellaert’s ragbag collection of spray-on doctored pics of the Stones, Beatles and, er, Cilla nicked from the pages of the Sunday Times and Playboy? None more 1973, fortunately.

Music scribe Nik Cohn lards the captions with the sort of rock journalese that makes the jacket blurb for Jeffrey Archer’s latest look like an elegant arrangement of finely-wrought aphorisms. But no-one’s looking at the words, they’re concentrating on the grainy, smeary, luridly-coloured pix. And just as future generations will look at the Photoshopped monstrosities of today and wonder just what percentage of the population had access to the gift of sight, so the modern reader of this bizarrely popular coffee table kaleidoscope might be excused for wondering whether everyone back then had to spend a year with their eyes shut for tax purposes.

Artistically it’s a pile of reconstituted crap. But what zany reconstituted crap it is! Sometimes the level of imagination undercuts your average News of the World sub-editor. Here’s a picture of the Drifters… under a boardwalk! A-and look, here are The Chairmen of the Board, chairing a… and so on. But where it’s not ludicrously vapid, it’s vapidly ludicrous. The Stones in bondage tranny gear, with Mick reclining as if to the manner born and Charlie looking hilariously uncomfortable in his buckle-down catsuit, is actually pretty funny. Turn the page, and there they are again, in full-on SS garb, teaching a gang of naked pre-pubescent girls to play the piano. Oh dear, 1973. And the nude spread of Mama Cass and Michelle Phillips in the full lotus position we’ll gloss over completely, if you don’t mind.

In its defence, you could say this is a fairly honest depiction of the sort of solemnly silly stuff that goes through the mind of your average hormone-addled pop fan: corny and prurient at the same time. The untamed passion of the unhinged pranny. But the effect is disturbing, with the initial sniggering giving way to a kind of sad embarrassment by proxy, like stumbling across the secret diary of an especially extreme David Bowie fan. (And how bizarre that the Dame gets only a page toward the end of the book, while full double spreads are lavished on the likes of Ruben and the Jets.)

Still, a million customers can’t be that wrong, and this much-reprinted volume did at least have one enduring legacy beyond the walls of student flats worldwide: the opening reproduction of a newspaper Sinatra story headlined “Frankie Goes to Hollywood” was returned to pop culture over a decade later by one H Johnson. Now there’s a musical era we’d love to see immortalised in a coffee table fan-art tome. Using Teletext graphics, of course.


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Rutland Dirty Weekend Book, The

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Psst! Want a lovingly crafted, font-perfect collection of printed parodies? This stoutly-bound spinoff from Eric Idle’s recession-beating Rutland Weekend Television series is the book for you. Just as the TV original served up warped copies of Heath-era telly tropes via ‘the country’s smallest independent TV station’, so this tome collates facsimiles of books and magazines of the period: your sex manuals, Who’s Who, the TV Times, Rolling Stone, even a school exam paper.

It’s all beautifully done. Thanks to Derek Birdsall, designer extraordinaire, the man behind the Python books and, most practically, director of the company which did the printing, each section looks uncannily like the thing its parodying, right down to the paper it’s printed on. ‘Rutland Stone’ comes on exactly the same pulpy, yellowing newsprint with the ragged edges and the two-colour red-on-black print as its American counterpart. The ‘Rutland TV Times’ showcases screengrabs from the series on precisely the sort of lightweight, slightly shiny, slightly anaemic paper stock used for vintage era TV Times. It’s not all about parchmental verisimilitude: the Who’s Who section turns up on stout brown Post Office issue wrapping paper. And the Monty Python Bok cover wrapper gag is reversed: this time a ‘bottom inspecting’ wraparound jacket conceals the anodyne ‘Wonderful World of Prince Charles’. This is one comedy book that genuinely deserves the epithet ‘lavishly tooled’. (Ironically, while the TV series was famously cheap to produce, even with strings pulled, the book remains the most expensive comedy spin-off ever printed).

Is it a triumph of style over substance? Very nearly. Idle writes the whole thing himself, and things do get repetitive in places. One or two mock Who’s Who entries in prime Idle-ese for the likes of Janet Rabbit-Endorsement and Alice B Topless are fine, but the gag starts to wear thin over seven pages. On the other hand, it’s great to see a TV listings parody go all the way from front to back cover, taking in Badedas ads, Army Recruitment tests and the holiday section on the way. In a nutshell, it’s the best of Eric Idle (four-star wordplay, extreme seediness, microscopic attention to detail), it’s the worst of Eric Idle (one idea stretched beyond breaking point, bitchy in-jokes about celeb chums, a slightly off-putting halfway-to-LA sense of louche superiority about the whole deal). But at least it’s a special washable edition.


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“Mani-legs go on forever. I’d follow that tush ANYWHERE!” It didn’t take the Internet to prove that there’s no creature on Earth more rampantly obsessed than a Barry Manilow fan. Fred and Judy Vermorel, two academics with a penchant for annotating the collected phlegm of Sid Vicious, branched out in 1985 to ransack the fan mail of pop’s great and good and collate the most hilarious bits for a volume of cheap laughs – er, that is to say, present their considered findings as the culmination of a painstaking piece of important socio-cultural research. But you can see how the resulting thesis might work on both levels.

Most of the ardour is reserved for the expected big hitters, especially the three B’s: Bowie, Bolan and Barry M (whose fans are the most worryingly organised, with their own bootleg networks, fanzines and secret Mani-language). But no pop star is without their cohort of demented nutjobs, and it’s somehow reassuring to know that healthy niche obsessives existed for the likes of Nena. (“What will turn me on will be her face, her mouth and the way she laughs. But I do imagine her vagina.”) Even Blondie drummer Clem Burke (“I would then get whipped cream spread in his anal passage and then eat it with a spoon”) and Bruce Foxton (“then he withdrew and I licked my fingers as I had got them full of his ace-tasting juice”) are roped into the horse-frightening shenanigans.

It’s not the lasciviousness that’s entertaining here, more the naïve ways these sheltered kids choose to express their filthy desires. Sometimes the earnestly gauche phrasing puts you in mind of a Jim’ll Fix It letter gone awry. (“I would like to make Debbie Harry’s quim ache.”) At others, the tone takes on the formality of a job application. (“My secret sexual fantasy is about Bruce Foxton of The Jam and it is as follows.”) One Sheena Easton fan is so endearingly shy, he tries to excuse himself from his own pun-strewn wet dream. (“She said: ‘Isn’t it awfully warm?’ and I said: ‘I think I’d better be going now’. She said: ‘It’s all right. I’m not that much of a Modern Girl!'”) But worry not, he gets there in the end. (“And she says: ‘I don’t know about your kettle but mine’s just blown over.'”)

After a while, you start feeling rather sorry for the poor, sweet, innocent pop stars who have to read the more unhinged stuff. Clean cut Nick Heyward suffers especially badly. “You can lick me out if you wish! I’ve got a good mind to throw a custard pie in your face! Your sperm would last me through breakfast, lunch, dinner, tea and supper!” (The frequency with which young, impressionable types somehow conflate the prospect of oral sex with the more childlike, Beano-esque sense of anticipation at a ‘slap-up feed’ is oddly touching, or perhaps just odd.) Some fans exhibit stalkerish tendencies, but luckily they don’t seem to have really thought their methods through. “We’ve got a rough idea of what area she lives in. We’ll have to go knocking on every door: ‘Does Cheryl Baker live here?’ Then she’d either say ‘come in’ or ‘go away’.” Good luck with that one.

It’s not always good clean fun. Groupies have real, sordid tales to tell about Richard Jobson and a bag of grapes, and one girl almost tops herself over a year’s worth on unanswered Nick Heyward correspondence. But mainly these are harmless, sweetly protective obsessions. (“If a nuclear war did happen I’d be thinking: is Boy George safe?”) Usually the worst crime they commit is slipping into boring pretension. Bowie fans, unsurprisingly, win hands down on this score. (“I AM THE SON OF A RACE OF NUCLEAR CYBERNETICS AND ROCK N ROLL STARS. SKEMATICLY CALCULATING SCIENTISTS THAT WALK AROUND ON STILTS.”) Yes, yes. Hell’s bells, is that the time?


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Seemingly never-ending ‘improving’ sci-fi saga of dubious scientific veracity from the pen of Nicholas Fisk, concerning futuristic boarding-school children who go off exploring space on a whim. Phenomenally popular, especially with present-buying relatives who’d heard that you liked ‘space’, but in truth little more than a traditional children’s adventure yarn with a couple of ‘meteorites’ bolted on for good measure and of scant use to anyone who’d been suckered by the imaginative flair of The Tomorrow People.


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This Is Their Life

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Laughing all the way to the Meades“Hey TV Cream,” people ask us. “Where do you get your ideas from?” Actually, no-one’s ever asked us that, because it’s quite clear that any chunks of genuine wit and wisdom with our name attached to them are lifted clean as a whistle from one of two sources: the sainted Clive James on the one hand, and on the other, this marvellous collection of Callaghan-era celebrity profiles.

The commission for this slimline puff piece came from TV Timesland, but the tyro hack landed with the unpromising task of collating details of the great and good was none other than a young Jonathan Meades. As a result, blandness is kept to an acceptable minimum, and the bizarre truth seeps out from under the showbiz formica all over the shop. Where else would you find out about Bob Langley’s ‘King of the Road period, riding the boxcars of mid-west America? Penelope Keith’s dues-paying years playing ‘cockney whores in courtroom dramas’? Or Derek Nimmo’s time as part of a roller-skating dance troupe?

Inside its garish My Lovely Horse jacket lies the entirety of late-’70s showbiz in a 120-page time capsule. Assuming the mantle of deadpan deference, Meades celebrates the strange, subtly skewers the hopeless, and almost single-handedly invents the sort of smart, ironic showbiz journalism that Guardian writers wrongly imagine they’re carrying on to this day. Meades, of course, went on to greater things. We, of course, didn’t. So whenever inspiration flags at TVC Towers, the call goes out for a copy of This Is Their Life, a pair of nail scissors and a tube of Gloy. This site doesn’t write itself, you know.


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Usborne books

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1973 to present

Bags me the nuclear powered artificial heart!From the 1970s onward, Peter Usborne’s children’s factual publishing empire was the Oxford University Press for the pre-secondary set. Their colourful info-packed tomes, liberally sprinkled with friendly, big-nosed cartoon characters, were the darlings of the school library (when The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was on loan, at least). The Usborne Book of Things to do on a Rainy Day was a self-explanatory favourite. Two friendly, big-nosed cartoon clowns guided the indoor-bound reader through a plethora of homely activities: growing washing soda crystals, making paper hats, etc. The friendly, big-nosed, overcoated spies dotted throughout the Usborne Spy’s Guidebook inhabited an exciting world where unbreakable codes could be written on a belt wrapped round an old stick, and oppressive Eastern Bloc governments thwarted with the cunning deployment of lemon juice as writing medium. More heavyweight was the Usborne Book of World Geography, a comprehensive guide to the friendly, big-nosed peoples of the Earth, full of inoffensively rendered world facts. For instance, comparative gross national product was indicated by figures in national dress holding appropriately scaled money bags: while a sheikh from the United Arab Emirates rejoiced in his ten-foot sack, a peasant representing Bhutan put a bravely cheery face on his golf ball-sized pouch. Best of all, however, was 1979’s Usborne Book of The Future: A Trip in Time to the Year 2000 and Beyond: a mind boggling grab-bag of never-going-to-happen wonders like lunar Olympics, nuclear-powered artificial super-hearts, domed underwater cities, and Jupiter being taken apart and rebuilt as a big shell around the sun, for some unfathomable reason. Its timeline of inventions from 1980 to the twenty-second century has, twenty-five years in, so far proved to be something of a disappointment to the legion of thirtysomethings still awaiting that robot butler.


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