Weaver's Week 2020-06-21

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By 1982, Noel Edmonds was ready for a new challenge. He'd spent five years hosting the Radio 1 Breakfast Show, the most popular pop programme on the dial. He'd invented the Saturday morning magazine programme through Swap Shop, and had dipped his toes into primetime television. Now, he's going to dive in.


The Life and Career of Noel Edmonds

A Beard for Saturday Night

The Late Late Breakfast Show took its name from the much-hyped plans for breakfast television, which would arrive on our screens early in 1983. It was also a very public joke at the BBC's expense, as Edmonds had been offered the lead host's job on Breakfast Time – Frank Bough would eventually take that role.

Wake up!

Airing at 6.35 in the evening, Late Late was positioned between imported martial arts show Kung Fu – which had been running all summer – and a new series of established panel game Blankety Blank. ITV retaliated on the opening evening by showing Jaws, a film about an incompetent leader's response to a deadly threat. BBC2 offered highbrow programmes; Channel 4 had the test card and some music, as it wouldn't launch until November.

By October, the channels had settled into a familiar schedule. The Dukes of Hazzard was followed by Late Late Breakfast Show, then Blankety Blank and Juliet Bravo. ITV gave us Metal Mickey, then Steve Jones (1) on The Pyramid Game, and the established Game for a Laugh before an action film filled the evening.

Every week, Noel would bring up the line to a pop star. Barry Manilow, Sheena Easton, a world premiere of Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson's video, and some of the last ever interviews with ABBA. "The Hit Squad" staged hidden camera stunts, the Golden Egg awards were handed out for television bloopers, viewers sent in their home movies, and there were plenty of bad puns.

The high point of the show was "Give Us a Whirl", where an applicant from the viewing millions would be picked out on the spin of a wheel. They'd be given a stunt to do, and train all week for it, before performing the stunt live on air the following Saturday. It was dangerous, edge-of-your-seat stuff: if something went wrong, it could go quite painfully wrong.

Tonight's stunt: walk on water, helped by a hot-air balloon.

While every programme was chock-full of stuff, and nothing ran longer than it needed to, the early Late Late Breakfast Show felt disjointed. If we wanted to see a similar format done better – more coherent, more entertaining – we only had to click a button. Game for a Laugh was on ITV, and had more experience in this sort of thing. Their hidden camera work was better, their audience involvement was stronger, and they'd had a successful series last year.

Noel had brought in many of the successful elements of Swap Shop, but was only known for that "kid's programme". And – crucially – there was a sit-down interview to take much of the energy from the programme. At this early date, chat shows were confined to late-night Wogan or BBC2's Harty.

The new face of Saturday entertainment.

There was a lot of flapping behind the scenes. Leni Harper, billed as a co-host for the first episodes, was relegated to a walk-on part and eventually left Late Late after a few weeks. The interviews with pop stars were obviously pre-recorded, with Noel voicing someone else's questions. John Peel commentated on some outside broadcasts. But the show had light entertainment genius Michael Hurll (of Crackerjack and Top of the Pops), and enjoyed the confidence of senior management.

The Late Late Breakfast Show came back in 1983, still broadcast live, still between The Dukes of Hazzard and Blankety Blank. ITV still offered Game for a Laugh. The series was very nearly ended after two episodes, when Richard Smith broke his pelvis while attempting a dangerous stunt. Driving a Jenson car at 140mph, he tried to leap 230 feet along a line of scrap cars; he never looked likely to land the trick, and ended up plunging into the metallic mess. Richard declined Noel's offer of a transfer by private helicopter.

Race for the skies

For our money, Late Late Breakfast Show sparked to life on 24 September 1983. It is possible to get from Television Centre in London to France Télévision in Paris in under an hour. But can a pop star do it in the 50 minutes Late Late is on air? Or can someone take the journey in the opposite direction? The great London-to-Paris (Or Back Again) Air Race is on.

Next stop: Paris!

In the London studio is Noel Edmonds, and a map updated by Suzanne Dando. The first leg is from Television Centre to Biggin Hill, 17 miles covered by helicopter in about eight minutes.

At Biggin Hill is Cliff Michelmore, seasoned current affairs commentator. He'll look on the first change, from chopper to a small – but very powerful – jet. The first pop star, Leo Sayer, is so fast that he moves from chopper to Niki Lauda's plane faster than the camera can look. Glenn Gregory Of Heaven 17 takes forever to get strapped into his seat in the back of a Red Arrow.

The route then flies direct to Le Bourget airport, where there's a camera to catch a glimpse of the next interchange. Our intrepid star then goes to another helicopter, which will land at Issy heliport. From there, it's three minutes and 3km on the back of a motorcycle courier to the Maison de la Radio, where Mike Smith, Sandra Dickinson, and Norris McWhirter are waiting to ratify the record.

David Boyce is going in the other direction, so we get to see action throughout the programme. Noel is in his element throughout, he can describe all of the hardware, credit all of the pilots and suppliers. Within the big drama of the chase, Noel can build a little tension: will Glenn Gregory Of Heaven 17 fit into the plane? Will the radio link with Leo Sayer work? Might that storm over Boulogne knock everyone off schedule?

This edition also carried live coverage from the America's Cup, because it's live television and they can do it, and by golly Noel's going to do it. Two weeks after near tragedy, the Whirly Wheel stunt is very much filler: our wheeler tries to break the world record for putting on and taking off a pair of Y-fronts in one minute. There's an interview with Charles Maughan, the current holder of the record – and footage from an attempt they made earlier in the day. Once you've started watching this edition, the drama is compelling, and no-one can switch off.

David Boyce made it from Paris to London in a new record time: the hardest part was navigating the ring road at Television Centre, Noel's studio wasn't well signposted. Glenn Gregory Of Heaven 17 completed the journey in 43 minutes 7 seconds; Leo Sayer was more badly affected by the storm over Boulogne, and took 46 minutes 37 seconds. Tony Hadley was billed as a competitor in the Radio Times, but bailed out when he realised he'd have to be strapped to an ejector seat.

Late for the High Jump

The 1984 series began with another spectacular, trying to cross the English Channel by various means of transport, all within the 50-minute running time. ITV decided to run The A Team directly opposite, but we reckon Late Late followed by Bob's Full House remains a one-two punch to knock any opposition out.

The show began to take on a life of its own. Mr. Puniverse and Mr. Poseur, subverting the concept of the "beautiful body" by celebrating weak and vain men. Aborted plans for "Mr. Puniverse International" would have experimented with 0898 phone voting. There was a Noel Edmonds lookalike contest. Stars like Boy George would pop in to perform their new single and join in the high jinks.

How high can a toaster eject toast?

Noel built recurring features out of the slightest idea. For instance, the woman whose toaster ejected toast at a great speed, and it could jump higher than some people. "Can your toaster leap higher than this?" Claim to Fame gave any viewer their ten seconds of fame, and Noel called out a number at random hoping someone would pick up the phone and give the telephone passphrase. Any viewer could take part, and quite a few did.

By now, there were also spin-off series. In 1984, the Noel Edmonds Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show came from the top of the Telecom Tower; it expanded to two hours in 1985. A special Golden Egg Awards over Easter showed the best out-takes and gaffes, and there were a couple of "Hit Squad" compilations.

Noel was a success at everything – he'd hosted the 1985 and 1986 BPI awards, honouring the great and the good of the record industry. His helicopter charter company was doing great business – he'd been a taxi for stars performing in the 1985 Live Aid For Africa concert, landing at deep square leg on the London Transport cricket pitch. Noel divorced his first wife, and married Helen Soby in July 1986; they'd later have four daughters. He made fourth place in Best Dressed Man of 1985, a poll conducted by the Menswear Association. Behind Barry Norman, Don Johnson, and Michael Aspel; ahead of Brian Ferry, Roger Moore, and Des O'Connor.

Well, perhaps Noel wasn't a success at everything. He'd been swindled out of £40,000 by Basil Wainwright, who said he'd develop a record-breaking powerboat. No boat existed, and Wainwright had misappropriated more than £100,000 from various investors. He was sent to jail for three years. A late-night talk show on ABC in America got no further than a pilot week. And Noel's invitation to The Rangdo's birthday party on The Adventure Game ended in the inevitable long walk home.

A teapot for his highness? What an idea!

The climax to each Late Late Breakfast Show was the whirly wheel stunt. (The segment had been licensed from Lyle McCabe Productions as "Give It a Whirl"; Lyle McCabe also licensed out "The Hit Squad".) Mike Smith had become the regular host for the outside broadcast. As the show went on, so the stunts had to get bigger and bigger. Dare-devil balancing act. Trapeze artist. Cable car rescue. The new series in autumn 1986 put these stunts in the framework of an action movie, often incomprehensible, often looked very dangerous on screen.

It proved to be dangerous. It proved to be fatal. In rehearsals for the next week's show, contributor Michael Lush fell to his death. At the inquest, we found that the BBC hadn't taken enough care with safety, they'd later be fined the maximum amount for these failings.

The Late Late Breakfast Show was cancelled, of course. Noel stepped back from the limelight – he kept commitments he'd made for Christmas Morning with Noel, co-ordinating acts of goodness from the top of the Telecom Tower. A charity awards show in late May 1987 was Noel's next appearance, and he gave frank and contrite interviews on Wogan and Saturday Superstore.

Later in 1987, Noel Edmonds' Awayday proved to be interesting conversation for Monday mornings on Radio 4, who were reported to be interested in tempting him back onto the wireless. Whatever Next was a bizarre guessing entertainment that few people understood, and those who did said "It's the 'What Happened Next' round from A Question of Sport thrown into a full show".

Noel returned to host the BPI awards in 1988: with The Who rambling on, and the Nine O'Clock News looming, they decided not to televise the awards for Best Single. Things Rick Astley will never do number 522: collect a Brit award on live TV.

But you can't keep a good entertainer down. Nor could you keep Noel Edmonds down.

The Noel Edmonds Saturday Roadshow

New for autumn 1988 was a safe light entertainment show. Pre-recorded, all done in advance. No-one's going to get hurt, no-one's going to get injured. Even the filmed stunts are as safe as falling off a log.

The star of Saturday Roadshow was set designer Martin Methven and the set dressers. Every week, they'd turn the studio into a different world. The Channel Tunnel for the first episode, later visiting Moscow, a submarine, Monaco, and finishing the series in outer space. On this set, we'd get topical jokes, star cameos, some comedy cross-talk and extended sketches. Everything from Late Late Breakfast, except no interaction with the audience.

Working in space, with Patrick Moore.

Four regular features provided a theme through the series. Clown Court, a themed series of bloopers and out-takes. One of the stars of Eastenders, or someone gaffe-prone like Murray Walker, would turn up and defend their incompetence on screen. Yes, it's the Golden Egg Awards but set in a court of law, and still just as funny.

For Wait Till I Get You Home, Noel talked with the children in a family, and asked them leading questions about their life. If the parents could predict what their child had said, they could win some entirely ordinary prizes. Three decades later, ITV spun this idea into Big Star's Little Star, with the equally guileless Stephen Mulhern.

The actors here include Sarah Thomas – Glenda from Last of the Summer Wine; and Ben Davies, later a Laurence Olivier award winner.

The Gotcha Oscar was loosely based on The Hit Squad, a practical joke played on a celebrity. It's often the longest feature in the show, running for a good ten minutes. And it had to be long, the scenarios began as completely credible ("here, do a voice over for this advert") and gradually became more bizarre ("do us a demo of this product") until they became completely absurd ("demo this over-sized model of our product"). This gradual creeping absurdity was one of Noel's hallmarks, but usually he'd know when to draw the joke to a conclusion and reveal himself.

Finally, In Other Words, a game of syllables and phrases. Noel would describe one-syllable answers to a contestant and their celebrity partner. When guessed, those syllables would slot into a phrase. The contestant bid on how many answers they'd get (three for a small prize, four or five for larger prizes) against a strict 90 second time limit. Fail to meet the bid, and our player – and perhaps our celebrity – will get covered in BBC gunge, carted out to the Great Pyramid or the Aztec Jungle or whatever zone they're in today.

A worked example might help explain. Noel could shout out:
"Stings. Makes honey. Not a wasp."
"Young woman, unmarried."
"Mix with a spoon. Like milk and sugar in coffee."
"Spot. Shapeless lump."

These syllables form a well-known phrase. We'll give the answer later.

This week's guest is Les Dennis. As it's the last in the series, Noel gets Gotchaed and gunged.

Saturday Roadshow was part of a balanced diet of light entertainment: in 1989, for instance, it went out after a collection of cartoons, and was followed by Bob's Full House, then sitcom 'Allo 'Allo, comedy with Russ Abbott, and gentle drama on All Creatures Great and Small.

Out of the light entertainment, Noel continued to pursue his passions: fast cars, fast planes, that successful helicopter business, and his 400-acre estate in Devon. He'd make a documentary about Concorde, and reported on the Biggin Hill Air Show and on the Motor Show with genuine passion. He wasn't going back to the BPI awards, not when they can call on a pair of presenters like Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood. That'll end well.

Noel had also started up the Unique Company, selling unlikely products. An advertisement in October 1990 promoted Unique Sparkling Water (only available at Sainsbury's, 55p per litre). "There's a tree in every bottle", promised the advert, saying Noel would plant a tree – or manage an existing one – with part of the profit from each sale. "If we all do our bit, it mounts up," he's quoted as saying.

House Party

After three years on the pre-recorded Saturday Roadshow, Noel was allowed to go live on Saturday evenings, on Noel's House Party. The format of the show blended elements of his radio fantasies. The village of Dingley Dell gave us the people of Crinkley Bottom, country yokels with curious ways. Perkins Grange was transformed into the titular House, a dreamscape mansion with all sorts of rooms that appeared when needed.

But we weren't watching for half-memories of obscure radio shows from fifteen years ago. We watched because Noel entertained us. A sample show in December 1992 began with a topical monologue, loosely structured around the fictional village. Soon we're into the Gunge Vote, pick from two familiar faces to be covered in BBC gunge (Phillippa Forrester! Timmy Mallett!).

Gunging Timmy Mallett, and giving Cheryl Baker her Gotcha.

A viewer with a talent performs at the Crinkley Bottom talent show, gets his fifteen seconds of fame. Dotted through the show are little comedy skits, featuring Harold and Madge from Neighbours and some of the stars from Last of the Summer Wine. It's curious how many foreign stars we'd seen on Going Live that morning.

There were games! Of course there were games. Wait Till I Get You Home was still going, as were the Gotchas – hastily renamed after some self-important Californish had huffed at the BBC. There's another game where stars sing songs that are meant to be related to some of the items in Noel's cupboard (and some early telly work for comedy star Rebecca Front).

The audience at home had their moment in the spotlight. NTV was a completely unpredictable moment, where Noel would say "Hello, Doreen in Margate!", and Doreen would suddenly find herself on the nation's television. Tiny cameras had been installed in the viewer's living room while they were out, and the production team had been fed all kinds of embarrassing moments from their past, just so Noel could go through his notes on air. The segment would end in some sort of silly stunt, like blow-up sumo in your living room.

NTV was usually played for embarrassment, but could occasionally play for the heartwarming, an unexpected reunion with long-lost friends, or a celebrity hero dropping by. NTV was also live, and we could cross to the room and find – the viewer's gone out! Or they've got stage fright and will hide in the kitchen for the rest of the show! Anything could happen, and it often did.

Each episode ended with the "Grab a Grand" contest, and it took a bit of setting up. Last week, Noel asked a question about something that was going to happen on BBC Television on Sunday or Monday. It's usually to do with sport, such as "in tomorrow's FA Cup draw, how many Premier League teams will draw sides from the Football League?" Call the 0898 number, pay 35p, and hope to win.

One of the people who got the answer right is randomly selected, and called live on air. They're asked three general knowledge questions – 20 seconds for each right answer. They also pick one of three bundles of foreign currency, worth a total somewhere between £1200 and £1600. And they're introduced to a sporting celebrity or other fit person, such as cyclist Chris Boardman.

Chris will get into a converted Crystal Dome phone box, and he'll have the gold tokens currency notes posted in. His objective is to gather lots of notes, stick them into his jacket, and bring them out at the end of the time. Whatever he can bring out will be weighed, and converted into a decent cash prize for the winner. The house limit was £1000, most winners got that or something close. It's a high-octane end to the show.

Noel's House Party was an instant ratings winner, the cornerstone of Saturday night light entertainment. ITV had the solid and successful Blind Date, and Noel was careful to avoid Cilla's audience. It meant that he was up against Gladiators, another show that was innovative and genre-defining and felt like it had been around forever. The competition worked for both programmes, Noel had to think up even bigger and better feats.

He knows he'll show the world a thing or two

"In Other Words" answer: MISS STIR BLOB BEE.

One of his ideas would completely capture the cultural zeitgeist. Mister Blobby, a cartoon brought to life to provide a convenient backstory for some of the Gotcha Oscars. Young children absolutely loved Blobby, his mixture of incompetence and slapstick was just at their level. The character couldn't be used once the Gotchas had aired – some of the targets would surely have been watching – but it kept coming back on the show. Blobby was scripted, and Barry Killerby acted the character with great care – just enough pratfalls to provide a comedy payoff, but not so many that it became a complete farce too soon.

The audience wanted more Blobby, and it got more Blobby. Three videos were released – a compilation of Blobby's Gotchas, and two Blobbyvision videos where the character turns up in hit television shows of the time. (And, in the case of lifeguard drama Blobwatch, the character proves a better actor than the regular show.) A hit single was released for Christmas 1993, up against the might of Gary Barlow and Take That's fans.

"Mr Blobby" emerged on top – not just because it's better written and wittier and more fun than "Babe", though that helps. Blobby sold to his established fans, and to grandparents who wanted a cheap something to put in their four-year-old's stocking, and perhaps introduce her to the idea of buying music when she has human heroes of her own. The pink-and-yellow-spotted vote won, and Gary Barlow has been disagreeable ever since.

Bob and Baz from Live and Kicking with television royalty (and Noel Edmonds).

Unfortunately for Noel, he risked being overshadowed by his own comedy creation. Blobby was everywhere. He sold bow-ties. He sold soap. He sold duvet covers and squeaky toys and all sorts of bobbins. For a time in early 1994, Blobby almost as big a cultural thing as Take That or the Gladiators. While he couldn't exile Blobby from Crinkley Bottom, Noel could ration Blobby's appearances, keep him as a surprise for somewhere in the show. Noel was the host, on air throughout; Blobby was a contributor.

Other games came and went. One particularly long-lasting one was the Number Cruncher. Two contestants had won their place – usually by arriving at the Number Cruncher's secret location first. Their challenge was to work out the correct four-digit scramble, knowing what the four digits were. For instance, you're given the digits 7-9-4-2. The answer is some arrangement of these digits. First to find it wins.

For the last in the series, the Number Cruncher (and Jono Coleman) moves to Disneyworld Florida.

But what do you win? The total of the digits you've tapped into the keypad. If you're tapping 7-9-4-2, that's £22 into your pot. If you tap 9-9-9-9, then it's £36 in the pot, and you can do that a lot quicker than tapping 7-9-4-2. Sooner or later, one of our players will try to find the right combination. If the game drags on a bit, Noel might give a hint – "the first digit's 9". Eventually someone will win – and take home £500 or more – and the loser will get covered in BBC gunge.

At the end of March 1996, House Party marked its 100th edition. We knew it was going to be the final Grab-a-Grand. There was a little nostalgia, some erstwhile Gotcha victims were Gotchaed again (under the pretext of making a video explaining the value of the television license fee). Some NTV victims turned up to prank Noel, a ritual at the end of almost every series.

Noel was the reigning king of Saturday night. If House Party had ended there, we would have wanted more, we would have remembered how almost every time was a great time, a cup final every weekend. What was next for the little beard that could?

In other news...

Dates for next year's Senior Eurovision Song Contest have been announced. 18, 20, and 22 May 2021, at the Ahoy arena in Rotterdam.

There will also be some changes to the rules, introducing an idea Junior Eurovision has followed for a few years now. Backing vocals can be pre-recorded. This will help smaller delegations, who need only send Serhat and a tape of vocals – that's much cheaper than flying Serhat's Amazing Backing Band out, and putting them up in a hotel room for two weeks. We just hope that the scrutineers will make sure the backing vocals are the backing vocals, and not the main melody sung by someone other than the person on stage, because that's a two-faced trick.

There'll be no Winter Love Island next year, ITV isn't confident that it can secure the health and safety of all participants. There will be a new series of The Circle on Channel 4, with both a celebrity and a perfectly normal people series. Supermarket Sweep looks set to come back, and move from ITV2 evenings to the main ITV channel. Rumours have been swirling about a revival of The Cube. Nothing has been confirmed, and we'll accept nothing less than a press release on ITV headed notepaper, complete with a faint picture of The Body in the bottom corner.

Best of the Web Jack's Online Writings has written a summary of the BBC University Challenge years. From peak quiz, through a change in the new century, through the Trimblequake and everything afterwards, and on to the present day.

A very quiet week for new games, in that there aren't any. Best we've got: the Sewing Bee final (BBC1, Thu) and another chance to miss Killer Camp (ITV2, weeknights).

Photo credits: BBC. Video courtesies: S Crutley, 2ombieboy, Neil Miles, Killian M2, Greggles 2412, Andy Pearman.

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