Sunday, 13 April 2014

Confessions of a Taste Breaker


The subject of the critical mauling dished out to the ‘Confessions’ series over the years recently came up at one of my internet haunts, and reminded me of that brilliant defence of the film series, originally published in the September 1976 issue of Films and Filming, as well as causing me to offer up my own two penneth worth on the subject, which I thought was worth reposting and expanding on here (to the degree that ‘offering my own two penneth worth on the subject’ may now have bloated into ‘endlessly pontificating on the subject’ but so be it.)


At the risk of sounding like Citizen Smith here at times, I do find myself grimly drawn to the conclusion that loathing for the Confessions series by film critics –both then and now- could well be ‘a class thing’. As the Films and Filming letter suggests the Confessions series were the 1970s continuation of a tradition of British film comedies aimed specifically at the working classes. A part of British cinema, which by its very nature has tended to be looked down upon by middle class critics, who give the impression of not only being unable to relate to the people being depicted on screen, but of being embarrassed-or even offended- over that section of British society getting its own cinematic mouthpiece. To Brian Evans’ list of early comedy stars whose big screen vehicles act as the forefathers to the Confessions series, I’d also personally add Old Mother Riley and Frank Randle (whose ‘Holidays With Pay’ is very proto-Confessions in its centring around a dysfunctional working class family).


For the majority of the time the British sex film, of which the Confessions series were an important part of, was a predominantly working class genre of film, especially in terms of audience demographics and what you encounter up there onscreen. Now admittedly, you can punch a few Joan Collins and Pete Walker sized holes into that argument, the genre had its fair share of notable toffs both in front of and behind the camera, but it is the explicitly working class ‘Confessions’ side of the story which the genre will forever be associated with in the minds of the public. Not to mention the chief point of reference whenever the genre is up for parody (The Fast Show, Tramadol Nights, the films of Jan Manthey) or pornographic emulation (it could convincingly be claimed that 1990s/early 2000s porn stars Ben Dover, Dr Neil Down, Phil Mycok, Omar Williams, all carried the Timmy Lea gene, their hardcore videos serving as a meeting of Confessions ethos and the American originated ‘gonzo’ school of pornography).


I do find it significant that the few films from the British sex comedy era that fared poorly at the box-office –Keep It Up Downstairs, Mistress Pamela and the two Koo Stark vehicles- were all period pieces based around the affairs of upper class characters, and possibly for those very reasons were unsuccessful in connecting with audiences in the way that the Confessions and rival ‘Adventures of a…’ series were.


A sense of reverse snobbery existing within the core British sex film audience doesn’t look to have gone completely unnoticed by the filmmakers themselves. Once private but recently made public correspondence between Confessions honcho Michael Klinger and Confessions producer Greg Smith, sees the former voice concerns that with the first Confessions sequel ‘Confessions of a Pop Performer’ the series was in danger of drifting into the realms of escapist fantasy and away from the realistic, working class environment established by the first film ‘Confessions of a Window Cleaner’. A likely reason as to why the two remaining sequels saw the Timmy Lea character dropped into the believable, down to earth occupations of driving instructor and holiday camp entertainment officer. Klinger’s anxiety over Pop Performer might not have been without justification if you cast an eye over the genre as a whole. Even films with contemporary 1970s settings that diverted away from working class surroundings were prone to the curse of poor box-office returns. Adventures of a Private Eye’s central occupation likely being an alienating factor for audiences, never as relatable as the occupation of the previous film in that series, Adventures of a Taxi Driver. Likewise Private Eye’s middle-section which sees its hero plunged into some sub-Rawlinson End antics involving a faux-haunted house and its eccentric aristocratic owners, may well have been another obstacle for cinemagoers, it’s just too removed from anyone’s regular environment, even though these scenes are among the comedy highpoints of the Adventures series. Similarly miscalculated is the Confessions team’s Rosie Dixon-Night Nurse (1978). In spite of sharing Confessions’ producer and scriptwriter team in Greg Smith and Christopher Wood, it emerges as a considerably more middle class creation, both in appearance and P.O.V The trainee doctors who act as suitors to its forgettable bimbo heroine might be of a similar school of thought to Timmy Lea, but they clearly went to more expensive schools, and Rosie’s boyfriend –bespectacled, frequency seen trouser less and at one stage holding a symbolically flaccid bunch of flowers- is a nightmare vision of the bumbling, sexually incompetent upper class twit. Not even seasoned comedy pros John Clive and Bob Todd can work up much enthusiasm for this onscreen, and an equal amount of audience apathy meant that Rosie was a one movie wonder.


  


Less carefully considered critiques of the Confessions series regularly find class based prejudices rearing their heads. “Drab high streets, dull suburbs, tawdry holiday camps…Britain in all its glory” sneered one internet hack over the Confessions’ series landscape. A statement that –depending on the author’s background- either displays a deep distain for working class Britain, or self-hatred should the author have come from that background himself. All too often when the Confessions series –or films of a similar comedic ilk- come under scrutiny, the mask of film criticism falls away early on, revealing a frowning face of snobbery beneath. A recent Radio 4 piece on ‘Holiday on the Buses’ by Mark Gatiss and Matthew Sweet, saw that film produce a howl of disapproval from both parties. Not only did Holiday on the Buses fail to meet up to their high standards, but the physical appearance of characters, their holiday camp surroundings, occupations and indifference to bettering themselves socially, all proved to be an affront to Gatiss and Sweet’s sensibilities, with Gatiss at one point remarking that the main characters took to the setting of that film “like pigs wallowing in shit” (not his exact words, I’m quoting from memory here, but a toned down version of that expression was used.) A radio piece that was as joyless to listen to as Holiday on the Buses was for Sweet and Gatiss to obviously watch.


Male characters in the Confessions series don’t really conform to the idea of the working classes as noble, politically aware heroes as found in the cinema of Ken Loach, they’re an apolitical bunch who –as might be expected from a comedy series- are riddled with characteristics we are meant to find funny (carnal clown Timmy, wheeler dealer brother in law Sidney Noggett, uncouth kleptomaniac father Walter Lea). In the academic essay “Confessions of a Window Cleaner: Sex, Class, Popular Taste” Sian Barber puts forward a case that a bourgeois agenda hides within the Confessions series, one that encourages audiences to feel revulsion at the working class Lea family, with narratives that put them in their place (heavily citing the wedding reception scene in Confessions of a Window Cleaner). Personally I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that anything which shows the working classes in a less than saintly light is evidence of a bourgeois/undercover snob agenda. If anything British culture has a habit of adopting life’s losers as its comedy icons- Arthur Daley, Del Boy, Steptoe, Old Mother Riley, etc. At first glance none are flattering examples of working class Britain, flirtations with petty criminality, making enemies of authority figures and being a sucker for get rich quick schemes are common characteristics here, but the public took these characters to their collective bosom anyway, maybe even recognising these characters’ failings in themselves. The Lea family of the Confessions series fits in perfectly in that company. As for the wedding reception scene in Confessions of a Window Cleaner, which sees a culture clash between the Lea family and the upper middle class family of Timmy’s girlfriend Elizabeth Radlett, and results in the Leas failing miserably to endear themselves to the prim and proper Radletts. It all really depends on which side you identify with and who you take against, I’d argue that the film itself strongly pushes the audience into the corner of the Lea family.

For virtually all of Confessions of a Window Cleaner, we are in the company of various members of the Lea family, and –if the film is successful in working its magic on you- have been entertained and amused by that family unit. The use of voiceover to allow Timmy to talk directly to the audience, furthering an alliance to that character and his family. In contrast the Radlett family are outsiders to the narrative, introduced late on into Confessions of a Window Cleaner and the subject of a critical eyeballing by the film. In their brief appearances the Radletts are portrayed as humourless and uptight socially (in the case of the father, a police inspector), spoilt and uptight sexually (in the case of the daughter/girlfriend) and horribly judgemental (“there are criminals abroad you know” remarks Mrs. Radlett, to which Inspector Radlett looks at the Lea family and chips in “not only abroad”). All are quick to find fault with Timmy (upon their first meeting Inspector Radlett’s chief concern is that the tires on Timmy’s van are worn down) or turn him into something he isn’t (“you’re too good for that sort of job” claims Elizabeth of Timmy’s window cleaner occupation “you’d make a good policeman”).

That in mind I’d argue the film encourages the audience to get behind the Lea family patriarch Walter as he quickly loses his put on airs and graces, reverts to vulgar type and inadvertently offends the head of the Radlett household. “I’ve got a lot of respect for the police” he unconvincingly tells Inspector Radlett “anyone ever calls them bastards, I deny it”. It is in keeping with the series’ routine ridiculing of authority figures, anti-police force sentiments are strong in Window Cleaner, and in Confessions from a Holiday Camp the chief villain/object of humiliation Whitemonk is another bogeyman of the criminally orientated working classes, an ex-prison officer.



Robin Askwith personifying the aspirations of beliefs of the working man
 



An inability to succeed in any walk of life –another reoccurring characteristic in British comedy icons- follows the Lea family over the Confessions series. For all of Sidney Noggett’s best laid plans, every one of his schemes is destined to fall apart thanks to his accident prone brother-in-law. A situation that brings poor Sid closer and closer to insanity with each passing film. By the end of the series with Confessions from a Holiday Camp, Sid has been rendered as barking mad as Inspector Dreyfus of the Pink Panther series or Dennis Hopper in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 (the scene in Holiday Camp with a cowboy hat wearing, grass cutter wielding Sid might be what brought on that unlikely comparison). The comedy of failure is a series trait that puts the Confessions series at odds with another take on the British working class that has found favour with middle class audiences of late; that of the underprivileged outsider attempting to better themselves in areas perceived as being beyond their social status, succeeding and in doing so leaving their working class background behind. Exemplified by the popular ‘Billy Elliot’ (2000) and the loathsome ‘Starter for 10’ (2006). Confessions of a Window Cleaner however ends not with Timmy married, socially upgraded and tied to the Radlett family, but with the audience pleasing outcome of seeing him happily single, still working as a window cleaner and still chasing women on the same high street from the start of the film.


As tends to be the case with many exploitation sub-genres, little can be gleaned about the British sex comedy on the basis of initial critical responses. Searching through old Monthly Film Bulletins, Films and Filmings, and Films Illustrated leads nowhere but hostile pan after hostile pan. If anything the British sex comedy story acts as a reminder of how little attention the public actually pays to film critics (something that in itself is unlikely to ever endear the British sex film to critics). For if the public did listen to critics this is a genre that would have been strangled at birth, rather than have been a recognisable strand of British cinema for over a decade. Its remarkable then that Brian Evans’ Films and Filming letter slipped through their net, albeit branded with that ‘taste breaker’ title by the magazine, and followed by letters of condemnation in the October 1976 and January 1977 issues. The latter counter arguing “while my local ABC continues to show Robin Askwith, even if he be a modern George Formby losing his trousers, I will not enter their foyer at all”.





Over a year earlier in the October 1975 issue of the Monthly Film Bulletin the widening gap between the tastes of film critics and the tastes of the public was touched upon in the MFB review of the John Cleese comedy featurette ‘Romance with a Double Bass’. A write-up which resentfully acknowledges the words of the critics were falling on deaf ears with the public; “it is probably too much to expect that a whimsical comedy made with a measure of style will do as well these days as the current crop of lamentable but money spinning British sex comedies- but one can hope”. Fat chance, not only did that review fail to divert an audience away from those sex comedies and in the direction of Romance with a Double Bass, it couldn’t even deter that film’s director Robert Young from the allure of the genre, which saw Young later helm Keep It Up Downstairs and The World is Full of Married Men. In the years since the British sex film’s demise there has been a concentrated critical effort to denigrate the genre further and instil a sense of shame in the public for ever having held it dear, the films are called unfunny, miserable, unsexy, a forgotten embarrassment or “films from the darkest days of British cinema” as the Daily Mail dubbed the Confessions series a few years ago.


Confessions of a Driving Instructor playing Piccadilly Circus in 1976 (photo courtesy of Klaus Hiltscher)




Facts which inconveniently serve as a reminder of the popularity the films enjoyed with the public –Come Play With Me’s four year run at the Moulin cinema, and Adventures of a Taxi Driver out grossing Taxi Driver upon their release in 1975 – are therefore a source of torment, maybe even the odd sleepless night by the genre’s detractors. A response of head scratching, feigned confusion over these successes, chooses to ignore the glaringly obvious explanation for them, that people simply liked Come Play With Me and went to see it over and over again, and that as far as 1975 British audiences were concerned they’d rather spend money on seeing Barry Evans losing his trousers than they would on seeing Robert De Niro losing his marbles. In Shepperton Babylon, Matthew Sweet –an author whose fixation for British exploitation cinema is matched by his inability to say anything remotely positive about it- claims of the entire sex comedy era films “they are neither funny nor sexy. It’s hard to believe that they ever made anybody laugh; that the people who bought tickets for them through the 1970s watched in anything but glum resignation.” But if that is the case, why when I put on a DVD of Confessions of a Window Cleaner for an audience of working class males do they still laugh like a drain at Robin Askwith’s trouser dropping antics?



Despite the Confessions films boasting a series regular who was a known heavyweight when it came to left wing politics in Anthony Booth, and Askwith’s own close association with a highly regarded figure from the British new wave movement (Askwith’s roles in the Confessions films being bookended by appearances in Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’ and ‘Britannia Hospital’) the series currently joins the ranks of many a form of 20th century British entertainment –bawdy and working class in nature- that are seen as suspect, threatening and a cause for concern amongst the more influential elements of British society. Their averse reactions to which can often boil over into calls for censorship or suppression- consider the persecution of Donald McGill over his seaside postcards in the 1950s, or the current middle class led backlash over Lad’s Mags and Page 3.


The knives have definitely been out for Confessions of a Window Cleaner in these last few years, likely singled out purely on the basis of it being a well-remembered and genre defining title. I’ve grown increasingly tired nay intolerant to hearing it described along the lines of ‘the nadir of British cinema’. A tag that feels unsuited to, and unfairly hung around, a film that on a technical level could hardly be considered an example of Ed Wood type ineptness. It is in fact a reasonably budgeted film, professionally directed by a veteran filmmaker, financed by a major studio, and with an experienced –and to a UK audience- well known supporting cast. As for nadir in terms of lack of success, we’re talking here about a film seen by millions of British cinemagoers, one that sold all over the world, spawned sequels, imitations (The Ups and Downs of a Handyman) and imitations of imitations (Close Encounters of a Handyman, The Ups and Downs of a Superstud), I daresay there are plenty of filmmakers around today who’d give their right arm to stumble upon such a lucrative ‘nadir’ as Confessions of a Window Cleaner.


For all the hundreds of unkind words spewed forth over the Confessions series by critics, and recent attempts by the likes of Sweet and Dominic Sandbrook to portray them as a cultural embarrassment, it is worth pointing out that the Confessions films have rarely been out of circulation since they were made, what with theatrical releases (and double-bill re-releases) in the 1970s, being pretty much everywhere on video in the 1980s, and in recent years the Channel 5 and Paramount TV airings and the DVD releases. Which when all is said and done, to me speaks volumes as to how the British public really feels about these films. So Mr Brian Evans of Sydenham, London, whatever else you did with your life, on account of that Films and Filming letter alone, this fellow taste breaker salutes you.

 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Proto-Confessions


8mm glamour film from the 1960s; this has the double distinction of anticipating Confessions of a Window Cleaner by a decade, and for having nicked a title from Michael Powell.















Sunday, 6 April 2014

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

An Arabian Adventure on Space Hoppers


Persons of a superstitious mind-set have a tendency to believe that the number ‘13’ has unlucky connotations. Likely to agree wholeheartedly with this thinking is John, after his disastrous stint as a contestant on episode 13 of 321. Frequently looking downwards, squeezed into an uncomfortable shirt a few sizes too short for him, the very definition of the expression ‘a bag of nerves’, everything about John’s body language indicates a man who’d rather be anywhere rather than hopelessly battling his way through the early rounds of 321. Occupation: ‘the licensee of a disco and wine bar’, which, along with the age of the programme might explain John’s Gibb brothers fashioned barnet and beard. Just about every other question causes him a mental freeze, his partner/fellow contestant frantically miming an answer to the task of naming ‘dictionary words ending with the letters …oss’ fails to bring him to a moment of inspiration. Deathly silence from the audience, the sound of the 321 clock ticking away, marking the passing of every vital second that John is wasting. Its surprising the amount of sympathy you’re able to muster for a total stranger on a 36 year old game show. John stares upwards, as if looking up to whatever god John worships for divine inspiration. John’s god must possess a sense of humour, as an answer suddenly comes to John, one that will spare him the embarrassment of being struck dumb on a game show, but not a couple of childish titters as a result. Q: ‘we want dictionary words ending with the letters… oss’; John’s highly anticipated answer: ‘toss’.





A habit of saying the first word that comes into your head and bypassing any thought for self-censorship –perhaps understandable within the panicked context of a TV game show appearance- also affects contestant Martin, who when asked for words ending in ….ape, comes out with ‘rape’ resulting in a lot of male-led laughter from the audience, and possibly for The Gentle Sec’s to make a mental note to keep one extra step away from this particular contestant. Again to reiterate what I previously said about episode 12, we do seem to be witnessing here a show caught in a tug of war between being family friendly in nature and forays into smuttier territory. This episode likely provoking such awkward child to parent questions as “mum, what’s a rape” or “Dad, what’s a Eunuch”.

Series one of 321 can just about lay claim to having had part of its formula later copied by The Kypton Factor. Both shows at different stages in their histories featuring sketches proceeded by observational rounds that relies upon contestants’ ability to recall the minutiae from those sketches (although The Kypton Factor started a year before 321, 321 appears to have been first to use this idea). This round of 321, officially entitled ‘Two Way Test’, is acted out by The Disrepertory Company of resident comedians. Cruelly they look to have saved their worst comedy material for this part of the show. From a viewer perspective it is the section of 321 you find yourself tuning out from the most, whilst sparing a thought for the contestants whose survival on the show depends on paying close attention to these corny antics.

Here the sketch starts, joltingly enough, with live camels being hastily herded off stage, a defective microphone either spares us or deprives us of (depending on your P.O.V) Debbie Arnold’s impression of Mae West. This is followed by a Sultan (Dave Ismay) being offered a series of prospective wives by a camp slave trader, played by Chris Emmett impersonating John Inman’s character in Are You Being Served? Much limp wristed theatrics from Chris of the alarmingly bushy eyebrows ensues, “ooh, he’s a big fellow” says Chris of Dave’s eunuch protector. Plentiful references to other Are You Being Served? characters (“I bet this middle name is peacock”) overstate the fact that Chris Emmett is ‘doing’ Mr. Humphries here, despite this being a decent enough impression of a very well-known sitcom character.

The observational round spun off from this sees contestants alternating between answering questions on the sketch and performing a physical challenge, which in this episode’s case happens to be transporting Ping-Pong balls from A to B using a tube whilst riding on the back of a space hopper (no 1970s kitsch extremist in your life should be without one). For the male contestants this means answering questions about a Eunuch, then due to bouncing about on those space hoppers, living out the few moments of their lives when they probably wished they were Eunuchs too.


 


Episode 13 marks the end of the first series of 321, and fittingly there is an office party type atmosphere of raging libidos, sexual frustrations being aired and people losing their inhibitions. Returning comedian Dave Ismay, wheeling out Dusty Bin at the start, can’t get no satisfaction “every week in this show couples reject him, and every week The Gentle Sec’s reject me” he moans to Ted Rogers. Poor Dave obviously lacks the ability to stir up the animal passion in the opposite sex that Ted so effortlessly possesses. Demonstrated a few moments later when hostess Gail Playfair whisks Ted off his feet in order to suck face with our host. Even Dusty Bin is having better success with the ladies than Dave, acquiring a dustbin girlfriend/wife in this episode, one who sports Gentle Sec’s sized glasses, and in keeping with this episode’s ‘Arabian Adventure’ theme, a harem girl veil.


 


Such is the hallucinatory quality of early 321, that transcribing episodes’ events goes hand in hand with resignation to the fact that anyone unfamiliar with the show is likely to grow increasingly suspicious that you are simply making this gibberish up. Even after you have witnessed these episodes first-hand, lingering doubts and questions follow you as to the show’s existence, a description of these shows feels less like that of a genuine, real life TV show, and more a dream of the variety that you wake up from and immediately vow never to eat cheese that late at night again. A classic example of this, from towards the end of this episode, can be found in a sketch that sees Aladdin (Dave Ismay, again) unleash a genie from a lamp, who appears in the form of Welsh Trade Unionist Clive Jenkins, or rather Chris Emmett impersonating Clive Jenkins. Part genie, part tough talking union leader “rub me the right way you get three wishes, rub me up the wrong way you’ll get three million workers out on strike” Clive grants him the three wishes. So what does our man Ismay wish for? Peace between all nations, incalculable wealth, eternal life, a cure for all known illnesses, …no, no, no this being 321 he wishes to see what Dusty Bin’s girlfriend looks like, for Debbie Arnold to do an impersonation of Frank Spencer, and with one wish that at least holds up to red blooded male logic, to catch another eyeful of The Gentle Sec’s, who all appear dressed as Mother Christmas. The latter wish adding up to nothing other than a crass, but alluring, plug for the show’s upcoming Christmas special. “We’ll be with you over the Yuletide, so you’ll watch us, won’t you” asks Gentle Sec’s member Jenny Leyland aka the 321 hostess most likely to win a Barbara Steele lookalike competition.

The Clive Jenkins bashing in that sketch is the latest in a long running theme of anti-unionist, anti-labour party humour unsubtly at work in 321. Along with my other vintage game show viewings of this week, an episode of Celebrity Squares that followed this on Challenge TV (a tanned, portly 1990s Bob Monkhouse doing anti- Arthur Scargill jokes), and the dusting off of an old Golden Shot episode (a youthful, b/w Bob Monkhouse doing anti-work to rule jokes) it does put forward a case that Britain likes its game show hosts in the same way that America likes its action film heroes, that is veering to the right politically, and not shy of bringing their opinions to the material. Ted Rogers having bigged up Thatcher at the 1979, 1983 and 1987 general elections. Don’t get me wrong this is an aspect of 321 that torments my own leftish leanings, but the past is what it is, and the only way to gain a true understanding of how it worked is to approach it with honesty and without bias. Even if in the process the past insists on telling you a few stories that you feel uncomfortable learning.


In fairness to Ted Rogers he isn’t the first person to go under this site’s microscope to hold such political allegiances. This blog’s very own mascot and frequent sweetheart Mary Millington was –like Ted- a lifelong conservative party voter. A true blue confession she makes on page 75 of her 1979 biography –but hey- never let it be said this blog doesn’t like its subject matter to come complete with a few challenging ‘character flaws’ (the Millington legacy especially haunts the 1987 321 Christmas special, which features a family comedian who guest starred in one of her last films, a TV personality she had an affair with in the late 70s, and a name check reference of one of her famous ‘clients’.)


Overall episode 13 isn’t really tainted with the bad luck so commonly associated with that number. Dusty Bin gets rejected early on, leaving Ted to desperately try and stir up tension with the suggestion that a second dustbin booby prize could be awaiting the contestants. “We might have another Dustbin, Mr and Mrs Bin, they might have reproduced during the show, who can tell”, he speculates, terrorising the contestants with that idea, and planting the unwanted mental image of Dusty Bin humping away at the female dustbin – a la Belial and his girlfriend at the end of Basket Case 2- and siring an offspring as a result. Cheers for that, Ted.

 


Mercifully he is only joking, and series one ends on a high note for just about all concerned, the winning contestants go home with the car, the rejected Dusty Bin gets the girl (bin), the hyped Christmas special points to a show with a bright future, the result of the 1979 general election no doubt put a smile on Ted Rogers’ face, and a male audience’s reward for sitting through 50 minutes of this is the sight of Mireille Allonville de paris and Co. dressed as Mother Christmases and Harem girls. Happy endings all round then, well as long as we forget about the unfortunate known as John.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Living in a Caveman’s Dream


Call me a moth to any old flame if it happens to be highlighting a sign with ‘1970s and British’ written on it, but lately I’ve found myself drawn to weekend repeats of game show 3-2-1 on Challenge TV. The hook being that the current set of repeats takes the show right back to its beginnings in 1978. Providing a welcome break from the final few series of the show-which appear to have been on constant rotation on Challenge TV these last few years- as well as the channel’s seeming reluctance to screen shows dating before the mid-1980s, save for a 2005 screening of a b/w Bob Monkhouse era episode of The Golden Shot (good for working out exactly how you pronounce ‘Yutte Stensgaard’) and a colour Charlie Williams era episode of the same show – an unforgettable experience, me old flower.

Due to my own age, and recent repeats tending to favour the show’s tail end over its early years, the slicker, more polished and professional late 1980s 321 is the incarnation of the show I’m au fait with. So these repeats offer up the chance to peek at the show’s extremely humble beginnings, during which its visibly under-budgeted and looks every bit the summer filler underdog of a show that few could have predicted would catch fire and become the Saturday night TV heavyweight it was during the 1980s. As alluded to in its cartoon opening titles, 321’s origins can be traced back to the Spanish game show “Un, dos, tres... responda otra vez”. A piece of misinformation that has been lodged in my mind for years was the idea that the original show was devised by the spanish actor Narciso Ibáñez Menta. Further research reveals that it was in fact the brainchild of his son Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, whose film directing career includes at least one bona fide horror classic in 1976’s ‘Who Can Kill a Child?’ (released here by Tigon as ‘Death is Child’s Play’) but who clearly hit gameshow gold with Un, dos, tres which ran from 1972 to 2004.


 

Part quiz show, part variety show and part game show, its appeal –not unlike Bollywood cinema- lay in offering various forms of entertainment under the one roof, -comedy, musical numbers, variety turns- and likewise taking up a whole afternoon’s worth of viewing with its 142 minute running time. Yorkshire Television’s remake reduced the running time to a less demanding 50 minutes, and retained its multi-genred format (‘it’s a quiz’, ‘it’s a game’, ‘its fortune and fame’ claim the opening titles), the best-remembered aspects to the British version –loveable mascot/booby prize bogeyman Dusty Bin and host Ted Rogers’ 321 hand gesture- however appear to be home grown additions to Ibáñez Serrador’s formula.

Su Tune of the Robin Askwith blog detects characteristics of her favourite thespian in 321 host Ted Rogers (“he has a Robin-ish way about him, his talking or cadence or something”) high praise indeed. These early shows certainly find Rogers in more blokish form than the shows’ later years, where he was complementary but fairly asexual around hostesses Lynda Lee Lewis and Caroline Munro (“that’s a lovely dress you’ve got on this week Caroline”). Of course at the show’s start Rogers was as spoiled for choice as Askwith when it came to attractive female co-stars. The first episode boasts an indulgent count of six hostesses, who adopt ridiculously oversized glasses and ‘secretary’ roles in the early Q&A rounds of the game. All done in order to signpost this as the ‘intellectual’ part of the show, as well as to justify their collective name “The Gentle Sec’s.” With regards to the hostesses, early 321 is not unlike Val Guest’s Au Pair Girls (1972)… its the world as seen through the eyes of a middle-aged crumpet chaser, one that can only view women in one way, but does at least place women of different nationalities and skin colour on an equal level of attractiveness and desirability, The Gentle Sec’s being a multi-racial, multi-cultural affair.

 


Six quickly became five after the departure of Gentle Sec’s member Tula alias Caroline Cossey. Born Barry Kenneth Cossey and having had a male to female sex change operation in 1974, a tabloid had threatened to run an expose on Tula, forcing her to ask to be let out of her contract in order to avoid a scandal. By episode two Tula has gone, leaving behind the remaining five to preside over various holiday camp flavoured rounds -one such example involving contestants with umbrellas on their heads tossing toy frogs into pans-, fiendishly cryptic clues that hide the identity of star prizes and the ever present danger to contestants of potentially ending up going home with a ceramic dustbin. The world of 321 is, to misquote a famous Kinks song “a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Tula”. The real reason for Tula’s departure didn’t become public knowledge until 1981 when a bit part in a James Bond film finally resulted in a tabloid making good on the threat to make a sensationalist scoop out of her sex change. Its an aside to 321’s history that is far more interesting than the whitewash of a reason for her absence given by Ted in episode two “unfortunately Tula isn’t with us tonight, but Tula we know you’re looking in and get well soon please”.


Imagine if you transplanted the brain of Francoise Pascal’s character in Mind Your Language into the body of Anna Bergman’s Mind Your Language character, the resulting female creation would probably look and sound a lot like 321 hostess Mireille Allonville. Mireille ticks many of the boxes of what 1970s Englishmen thought foreign women should all be about, blonde, tall, buxom and with an ooh-la-la French accent that brings sexiness to just about everything, even summaries of the mundane lives of 321 contestants. In keeping with the Mind Your Language comparisons, Mireille’s struggle with the English language proves to be a rich vein of comedy in these shows. Resulting in Mireille introducing a chartered surveyor contestant as a “shattered chevalier”, a contestant who works for an occupational therapist as someone who “works as a occupation of the rapist”, and the occupational rapist’s wife, called Moira, as ‘Moron’. The appearance of another contestant who works as a chartered surveyor in a later episode does allow Mireille her moment of Eliza Doolittle-type triumphalism when she finally manages to pronounce it correctly the second time around, bless.

Despite or perhaps because of her penchant for second language english goofs, Mireille has quickly become my favourite of The Gentle Sec’s aka Ted’s Harem of Bespectacled Hostesses, her no bra/see through dress choice of clothing in episode 2 probably also tipping things in her favour. A cynical mind might think that this blog post is merely an excuse to reproduce that image in screenshot form.





Zoning in on obscure starlets whose careers ended abruptly (no known TV or film credits exist for Mireille after her departure from 321 in 1980) does inevitably lead you to the ‘whatever happened to…’ question. A search of the internet for answers reveals I’m following a well-trodden path when it comes to asking this about Mireille, with the discovery of a Mireille Allonville website (https://sites.google.com/site/mireilleallonville/home). Sadly, not the work of the lady herself, but of a fan attempting to discover the current whereabouts of Madame Allonville. A quest that evidently resulted in a flurry of emails during 2011 to the likes of Melvyn Hayes and other showbiz types, alas resulting in only a thumbnail sized amount of information about her and no lead as to her current activities. That website fell silent in its search for Mireille as of 2012. A pity as a combination of dogged determination, perseverance and good luck can occasionally pay off and grant you a small window into what retired sex symbols of yesteryear are up to these days, as I can vouch for, since I do -ahem- now know what happened to Heather Deeley.

Mireille is one of a number of actresses whose careers both touched upon and glued together the worlds of exploitation film and game shows. The aforementioned Yutte Stensgaard is another example, and Me Me Lai, Pat Astley, Suzy Mandel and Sue Longhurst likewise have game shows on their resumes. 321 of course would later be responsible for the best remembered example of this due to Caroline Munro, whose stint on the show coincided with her trashier career choices, thanks to roles in Dick Randall produced horror cheapies.

Mireille is also part of a small band of people who cause me to wonder –with a mixture of perverse amusement and cultural embarrassment- just what somebody from overseas made of Britain based on their sudden exposure to the eccentric side of its culture. What for instance did Bela Lugosi make of Britain after a journey to these here parts ended with him playing opposite to- and the love interest of- Old Mother Riley in ‘Mother Riley Meets the Vampire’, witnessing all of Arthur Lucan’s squawking Irish drag act routine in the process. Ditto German actress Monika Ringwald, whose British career saw her painted green for a scene in Derek Ford’s Sexplorer, naked on an altar and having Kensington gore squirted out of her neck for Norman J Warren in Satan’s Slave, then being photographed with The Kinks for the sleeve of their album ‘Preservation Act 2’, a photo-shoot that captures Ray Davies looking like an Auton version of Max Miller. Mireille definitely had an equally colourful magic carpet ride through late 70s British culture, what with an appearance in a Frankie Howerd TV show, Queen Kong and a full on blast of the madness of King George (Harrison Marks) in the form of Come Play With Me, before getting a hostess gig on a game show centred around a loveable dustbin. An appearance by Bernie Clifton in these early shows means Mireille would have also gotten an eyeful of Clifton’s Ostrich routine too. Strange days indeed, especially for a French bird.


A reason for the uncertain tone of these early 321’s might be down to its original timeslot, from what I can gather the episodes we’re getting at the moment went out on a Friday night, a timeslot that would indicate a ‘pre or post pub’ audience demographic in mind, rather than the family oriented Saturday evening slot it eventually got upgraded to. At this point in its history 321 does seem torn between going in the direction of a family friendly show or more ‘adult’ material –in the form of the flirtatious banter between Ted and the hostesses and stabs at political satire/impersonations- all of which would have surely gone over the heads of kids.




As of 16/03/2014 the Challenge TV repeats have taken us up to episode 12 and on the basis of this detective themed episode it is easy for even amateur sleuths to detect signs of 321’s growing popularity, evidence of a cash injection into the budget can be found in the star prizes and the set- now decorated with plants and a few larger variations of those mysterious ‘O’ shaped symbols that have been menacingly lurking behind the audience- plus the public’s fascination with Ted’s 321 hand gesture is once again proudly acknowledged in his opening banter. We can also deduct that the pudding bowl haircut was all the range when this originally aired, returning contestant Jenny sports one, as does rival contestant Pauline, and a few further examples can be sighted in the audience. Of the contestants, only Lynne is not following the pudding bowl trend, but gets the big laugh of the night, when upon being asked to name breeds of wild cats comes up with the answer ‘Zebra’. Was it nerves, her husbands’ attempt to mime her an answer, or an audience member having a coughing fit, that caused her to come up with that howler of a game show answer? Either way that answer combined with her equally funny backstory about entering a beauty contest-only to fall through the stage- does threaten to steal all the comedy highpoints to this episode from its resident trio of professional comedians.

This trio, collectively known as ‘The Disrepertory Company’ originally consisted of Duggie Brown, Chris Emmett and Debbie Arnold, and whose chief purpose in the show is to dish out cringeworthy jokes as punishment for contestants getting the questions wrong. Emmett and Arnold look to be sticking around but the show is having serious problems keeping hold of a third member of this team. Brown left after six episodes, seduced away by a part in the short lived sitcom ‘Take My Wife’, his replacement ostrichman Bernie Clifton was poached away by Crackerjack, and his successor the comparably non-entity Dave Ismay has now regenerated into Mike Newman, introduced by Ted in episode 11 as “a very funny Irishman”. Newman’s persona, given its best airing so far in this episode’s Sherlock Holmes sketch, is of an out of control loon, clumsily stampeding his way through sketches, bellowing uncontrollably, shooting mad stares, tearing pieces out of a carpet, and inspiring worried looks and confusion from his co-stars, as if he has completely strayed from the script. He is not unlike Tommy Cooper in that respect (making it rather ironic that it is Chris Emmett who is given the job of directly impersonating Cooper in this episode) and as with Cooper, Newman’s is a routine that plays a guessing game with the audience as to whether his outward appearance as a punch-drunk wildman is all secretly controlled and pre-rehearsed, or the real deal.


You suspect that a fair amount of early 321 isn’t going to hold up to scrutiny by today’s politically correct standards –Newman’s self-deprecating ‘Irishman’ jokes being a prime example- but the use of Debbie Arnold in these shows is a reminder that the pre-alternative comedy world wasn’t entirely the domain of men, and in fairness the show does present her as an equal to the male comedians, rather than just their sidekick or foil. The two episodes repeated on Challenge TV last weekend also see her offering competition to the 321 hostesses in terms of -dare we say- sexy 321 moments, doing a Marilyn Monroe impersonation in the Saturday episode, blown up skirt bit included, while this episode sees her dressed up as wonder woman, a ‘one for the dads’ TV moment if ever there was one, and no doubt inspiring much Kenneth Connor-esque ‘phwoaring’ and back of the neck slapping when this originally went out.

Probably the biggest curse laid upon old game shows when viewed today is that the passing of time robs the star prizes of the glamorous appeal and seductive power they once must have had over Dawn of the Dead era consumerists. Yesterday’s high coveted treasures now cannot help looking like today’s car boot sale junk. More fascinating from the perspective of cultural archaeological is 321’s eye for mod-cons that never seem to have really caught on with the public, and would otherwise be long lost to time. Check out this episode’s folded up caravan prize, whose cream and dark orange-bordering on brown colour scheme not only represents the most ‘of the period’ trapping of the entire episode but also colour co-ordinates with Ted’s own checked blazer and bold orange shirt ensemble for this episode. Another curio, wheeled out as a prize in this episode, is one of a trio of different TV sets, the one in question being uniquely shaped like a theatre spotlight and complete with rotatable monitor… again, those never really caught on, did they?

Of the other two tellys, the big money one perfectly illustrates the “yesterday’s treasure is today’s boot sale dust gatherer” theory, the real audience attention grabber here is the pocket sized mini-TV, initially appealing in a sci-fi movie gadget way, but –lets face it- the impracticality of watching TV on a screen the size of a large stamp quickly became apparent.







Given the audience’s show of awe and wonder over that pocket sized TV though, you have to wonder how they’d react to the knowledge that 36 years into the future people would be able to preserve these episodes on shiny, silver discs?


      

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

I’m Bedabbled



I have a couple of articles in the upcoming issue of Bedabbled!, the fourth issue of this magazine of British horror and cult cinema is based around the theme of 'Strangers in a Strange Land' and includes coverage of Straight on Till Morning, The Yes Girls, Her Private Hell and other films in which young people venture to London…. only for things to not work out so well.  For further details and ordering information check out the magazine’s own blog



Saturday, 28 December 2013

Happy New Year














“Free at last…. Good luck and god bless you”