Essays: Tellie's olde rubbishe |
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Tellie’s olde rubbishe

ASSIGNED to exhilarate us during the Festive Season were a host of British and American entertainers. It was easy to tell the British from the Americans. The British were mainly in drag, whereas the Americans were either very old or dead.

The star of Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas (ATV) lived a long time, but not quite long enough to find out how his last big spectacular was received. Through no fault of Bing’s, the show turned out to be a load of olde rubbishe. Some of the jokes were aimed at America, thereby tipping Lord Grade’s pudgy hand: once again he was hoping to score a hit in two separate markets.

The setting was a country house right-here-in Britain, with Bing’s semi-talented family playing the guests and Stanley Baxter playing most of the servants, these latter being based on characters in ‘Upstairs, Downstairs,’ a series much beloved in America. What the Americans made of Baxter in drag it is hard to guess, but from where I sat his act was just another dud ingredient in the general sludge. Bing looked as tired as the gags. There was a song about ‘geneology’ — by which, presumably, ‘genealogy’ was meant.

Perry Como’s Olde Englishe Christmas (BBC2) was similarly guaranteed to leave you colde. If the show had been called ‘Perry Como’s Olde Italiane Christmas’ it would have made more sense, since Perry’s origins, though European, tend more towards the Mediterranean. But for reasons unknown the chosen setting was a country house, situated right-here-in Britain.

An ice rink was laid down over the lawn so that John Curry, a dream in rose pink, might skate a frozen solo. Petula Clark, dripping with sequins, sang a number containing such exhortations as ‘Hold on, baby, to this beautiful thing.’ Perry gave his usual impersonation of a man who has been simultaneously told to say ‘Cheese’ and shot in the back with a poisoned arrow.

But at least the Americans, however advanced in life’s course, were determined to retain their trousers. The British were equally bent — the word seems not misplaced — on losing theirs. As always, nobody was quicker at climbing into high heels than Dick Emery, star of The Dick Emery Christmas Show (BBC1), an extravaganza which left you wondering whether it wasn’t time to abolish Christmas entirely. The setting was a British country house. There was a mystery afoot. The plot was meant to confuse, although in the event nothing was more confusing than the way dire jokes were swamped with ecstatic audience reaction.

Most of Emery’s alleged humour was about poo, pee and buggery. ‘Peter, I want to have a peep at Uranus.’ ‘Surely you want a telescope for that.’ ‘I want to have a look at Mars as well.’ Somewhere on the sound-track, a lady died laughing at that one. But not even her expiring cries would have stood out in the general uproar of hilarity which greeted Emery’s every appearance in female costume. He had only to pull on the wig, paint the lips, wriggle into the frock and hop up on the heels. The result was panic.

On ITV, neither Stanley Baxter nor Benny Hill had a new show to offer this year. They gave us ‘best ofs’ instead. The Best of Benny Hill (Thames) showed no more signs than usual of being significantly different from the worst. The trailer was all I could stand. From Stanley Baxter we expect something more adventurous, but The Best of Stanley Baxter (LWT) unintentionally reinforced the impression that he is happiest as a female impersonator. Nor does he seem particularly concerned about which female he impersonates, as long as the costume gives him a chance to show off his legs. These are long, smooth and finely turned, but the hips at the top of them are irredeemably masculine. There is something desperate about his mimicry of female movements. He is too good at it: the laughter dies, leaving a sad admiration.

The Two Ronnies (BBC1) tried hard. Apart from the regular Piggy Malone number — which never works, but gives the boys a chance to grope a scantily-clad damsel — the show was reasonably diverting, and for a wonder it was not until the last item that the stars appeared in female attire. The idea of either Ronnie, but especially the large one, coming on in drag is meant to be automatically amusing because of the otherwise heavy emphasis on heterosexuality. But if it strikes you that all the stridently proclaimed interest in tit and bum is pretty hysterical anyway, then the frocks look unsurprising rather than otherwise. Like most British comedians, the Ronnies operate in a unisex limbo: theirs is the straight version, but it is just as camp as the bent one.

The hero of Mike Yarwood’s Christmas Show (BBC1) is a remarkable impersonator for more reasons than mere talent. Far from being happy in drag, he does his best to avoid it — to the extent that he would rather farm out the job of aping Margaret Thatcher than attempt it himself. Perhaps I am making butch claims on my own account, but I’m bound to say it’s a relief to know that at least one comedian isn’t aching to get into his beads.

‘The best fun is on ITV,’ squeaked the TV Times. Adduced as evidence for this assertion was Max’s Holiday Hour (Thames), starring Max Bygraves. Max’s show was variously billed as ‘a fun-packed hour of Christmas entertainment’ and ‘a whole lot of festive fun.’ It was no more fun than a sinus wash, but on the other hand it was no less fun either, and there is never any telling what will make the watching millions laugh.

They had some cause to laugh at Morecambe and Wise (BBC1), whose Christmas special stuck to their by-now-classic format, including a production number sung and danced by a host of the Beeb’s familiar faces. To the strains of ‘Nothing Like a Dame’ the likes of Barry Norman were allowed to fulfil their fantasies by dancing in top hat, white tie and tails. This made me very envious of the likes of Barry Norman.

Penelope Keith was the guest. Eddie Braben’s script invited her to mistake Ernie for Kermit the Frog. Angie Rippon danced through. Every component of the show was triple-tested. The sense of adventure was consequently lacking. Eric was twice as funny busking with Dickie Davies on ITV’s World of Sport on Christmas Eve.

Getting down to the dregs, The Little and Largest Show on Earth (BBC1) showed the inevitable effect of straining a comic turn beyond its natural capacity — the two lads ended up as guests on their own show. Little and Large have one trick, which they work to death. Little tries to sing a song while Large keeps interrupting him with impersonations. Large is a gifted impersonator, but Little’s lack of inspiration is scarcely ameliorated by making a point of it. Little is not pretending to be just standing there. He is just standing there. Meanwhile Large knocks himself out. There is a certain terrible fascination to it, like watching two men share one parachute.

But better an eternity in Hell with Little, Large and Max Bygraves than a single Christmas with the Osmonds (BBC1). Generations of Osmonds gathered on the snowy heights of Provost, Utah, where they set about the task of conveying their good cheer. Their good cheer is awful because you know they are never not like that. The Osmonds are not even phoney: they are sincerely vacuous. ‘Our special friend Andy Williams’ was the guest star. It is a damning thing to say, but he fitted in perfectly. Little Jimmy Osmond was present. Nowadays little Jimmy is not so little, but he is still incontestably the Bad Sight of any week he might happen to turn up in.

The rest of the festive season was films, mystery and horror. The BBC had the best films, which did not stop the TV Times asserting that ‘The big films are on ITV.’ Actually the biggest ITV film was the creaky old The Guns of Navarone, which the Beeb easily matched with the equally creaky, although infinitely more disgusting, The Dirty Dozen. Lee Marvin’s boot coming down on John Cassavetes’ head was an eloquent tribute to the efficacy of Christ’s transforming message.

On the whole the science fiction movies were the best value. Dark Star (BBC2) justified its cult reputation. I have always been an admirer of Silent Running (BBC1), despite the cute robots and Bruce Dern’s teeth. And on most mornings during the festive season BBC1 disinterred an episode of Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe. Would Flash sacrifice Dale Arden and Dr Zarkov to save Earth from the path of the Purple Plague? The question was asked in perfect innocence and was valuable for that, since there was so little innocence available elsewhere.

Karen Kain, a Kanadian — sorry, Canadian — ballerina featured in The Lively Arts (BBC2), was the thing I liked best about Christmas. Watching her dance, you could forget the world without feeling that you were running away. But otherwise television, especially when it was trying to be funny, offered little escape from the realities of a mean age. Eliot has a line somewhere about the laceration of laughter at what ceases to amuse.

The Observer, 1st January 1978

[ An edited version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]