Sunday, 1 May 2011

"Is Sir Jasper at home?"

Last week's Graham Norton show was made less hard work by the presence of Adele, naturally supplying the perfect mix of modesty and raucousness, and with a neat line in smutty anecdotes of the sort these programmes like to think they can engineer themselves, but can't. Every other guest, and of course the host, was a comedian by profession and she left them all sitting there looking like dullards, relying on shouting out callbacks to her stories to get anything like a laugh of their own. They almost killed themselves with competitive showboating, while Adele effortlessly trumped their efforts while giving nary a toss. And she sang a bit too, which was nice.

Suddenly I thought, hang about. Those old variety specials. Lulu's Back in Town. Cilla. Bassey. Susan Maugham's All-Terrain Vehicle Cavalcade. At last we've come up with a pop singer with the charm and wit to negotiate those treacherous scripted humorous interludes without sounding like an over-friendly telex machine. Give her her own special, quick, before her people get her on-message and she goes all boring. Saturday night! Get some personality back into pop and some pop back on telly! And then I remembered what one old variety special in particular was actually like.

The Special London Bridge Special was shown on BBC1 on March 15th 1973 at 10.15PM, immediately after the beauty contest cumbersomely known as Miss England, Miss Scotland, Miss Wales. (Earlier that evening similar scheduling brilliance pitted The Burke Special against Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.) It was a Transatlantic pop extravaganza with two jobs: to give Tom Jones an all-star TV vehicle suited to his own unique way with a diaphragm, and to give a big hefty plug to Lake Havasu City, the Arizona theme park which had lately taken delivery of the crumbling original London Bridge from the City of London.

Tom capers about good old grainy 16mm London in one of those knitted coats with a built-in belt, singing the Thames's praises as only a Welshman can. Then he gets on a double decker bus – the kind of double decker bus which can lead to adventures, and employs Hermione Gingold as conductor. To cut an overblown format short, he ends up at the Arizona resort, watches Charlton Heston play tennis, does a full soft shoe shuffle with Kirk Douglas, and goes to a Carpenters concert. In between, Jonathan Winters does some Benny Hill-style 'playing all the characters in a sketch at once' shtick, Elliot Gould does some silent film baddie shtick, and Terry-Thomas does his Terry-Thomas shtick. Bits of a previous Raquel Welch special that Tom happened to guest on are shoved in to bulk out the three quarters of an hour. The Beeb called it a “musical fantasy”. Clive James called it “abominable”.

The Special London Bridge Special was an especially overcooked variety event, but it was no freak, as a glance at Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas will attest. You could say it's worth the risk – for every Cilla's Comedy Six there has to be a few Special London Bridge Specials – but who'd be willing to take it today? If it happened, it would be a straight-as-a-die Christmas with the Osmonds, not some switched on high concept quirk-in with Dusty. Variety programmes these days are serious affairs, with no humour beyond the puns Ivor Baddiel writes on the backs of fag packets and slips to Louis Walsh when the adverts are on. Freddie and the Dreamers whimsy, not Beatles banter.* Anything else just isn't playing the game properly. Adele won't find herself looking after Sir Jasper's country house any time soon.

* Though even that's unfair, given Freddy Garrity's hand in disturbing ITV children's musical fantasy series Oliver in the Overworld.

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