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. 

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 ( 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?



THX 1139 said...

They started series 2 on Sunday but Debbie Arnold has been dropped by the show, the swines! She was a ray of sunshine, and now we're stuck with Chris Emmett and Mike Newman instead.

I share your fascination with the mysterious Mireille Alonville, where are you now, Mireille? Is she even still alive? Google for Debbie and you get her website full of beauty tips, but of the French lady there is no sign. Whereabouts was she in Come Play with Me? It's been ages since I saw it. I dread to think of her at the singalong.

Anyway, these repeats are weirdly compelling, like something from medieval times in TV terms. Also make you wonder, if they keep the Irish jokes in, what are those clumsy Challenge edits concealing?

gavcrimson said...

Mireille was one of the nurses in Come Play With Me, and choreographed the ‘its great to be here’ song and dance routine, I suspect she probably choreographed a few of the 321 sketches too where required. I did ask Suzy Mandel if she remembered anything about Mireille but she didn’t know her outside of CPWM.

That series 2 opener did leave me a bit cold, there was clearly a lot of work done on improving the show in-between series, and undoubtedly it’s a more professional looking and faster flowing show as a result, just a pity that the parts of the show YTV big-wigs felt needed to get the chop (the gentle sec’s concept, the ‘Two Way Test’ round, ‘George’ the Chauffeur) are the same that held such fascination for me in series 1.

THX 1139 said...

Thanks for the Mireille info, I wonder if she ever appeared on French TV after her British stint? Probably just got married and settled down.

I know what you mean about the start of series 2, but we're getting into the style of show I remember watching as a little kid, where the whole thing seemed impossibly opulent with no expense spared.

There is one good reason to stick with it, and that's to see who the special guests are, Rita Webb was on it last Sunday and much as I expected her to be, I'd never seen her as "herself" before. I think it was Anna Dawson there as well?