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.

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