❉ This anarchic show pushed the barriers of television as far as they could go – in the best possible taste.
“The commitment to television is absolute, with the majority of jokes throughout the whole run concerned with exposing the ‘nuts and bolts’ of television production, with Thames’ Teddington studios as his playground. The Pythons may have mucked around with their title sequences, but they didn’t have the technology to either make or interrupt them like Kenny did.”
My, this is a release that many fans of the great Kenny Everett thought would never see the light, including me. Until now, this iconic and idiosyncratic show has lived on through furtively swapped off-air recordings, and it’s ironic, perhaps, that Network have managed to cobble together a release just as the DVD market is slowly dying out. The release that includes The Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980 Show just about made it to DVD. Quite frankly, I can’t guarantee that this release wouldn’t be the first thing I’d grab if I had to escape my house being on fire.
Network have let us get six DVDs in our grubby little paws, covering all four series (the first three series are called The Kenny Everett Video Show with the final series renamed to The Kenny Everett Video Cassette), including the three New Year specials. Having all this in far better quality than was ever available before is quite the treat. However, this treat comes at a certain price which many fans will be familiar with; the cutting of material that, despite Network’s best efforts, could not be cleared for DVD release. So let’s get these out of the way first.
The Video Show was made at a time when music videos were in their infancy. Many artistes and their record companies were slow to figure out the possibilities of the medium, and the Video Show’s tendency, especially in the first series, to have many musical guests, means that more than one artist used their performance on the show as the ‘official’ video for the song concerned. As irritating as it is to have the likes of Kate Bush, or Wings, or The Rolling Stones (or their record companies) being unwilling to let these ‘official’ promo videos be released on this DVD (especially as it appeals to one of the most niche audiences I can think of), the Video Show’s role in the evolution of music video is an interesting aspect of the show to talk about.
The majority of the edits fall within the first series, due to that series relying on musical guests a lot more than subsequent ones, and with an average of three musical guests a show, this still leaves us with an awful lot to get our teeth into. Incidentally, Kate Bush appears in the Video Cassette in a way that doesn’t entirely explain why her appearance in the first series wasn’t able to be cleared, but I’m no expert in this sort of thing, so we will move on…
The main stumbling block (so much so, that Network devote a section of the inner notes to it), was the difficulty of clearing the artistes that appeared on the show. The anarchic nature of the show spread to the paperwork surrounding it, with some artistes listed, but not actually appearing, or artistes who appeared seemingly on a whim, with no paperwork having been signed. Of course, this casual attitude, oddly enough, is a relic of Old TV, where the production of many shows in one building could facilitate this sort of off-hand production. Nowadays, it’s an awful lot harder for a production team to simply ’bump into’ a possible guest in the canteen, and have the confidence to know the channel management would be very relaxed about this sort of change to the guest list. It’s virtually impossible to reproduce this trust and familiarity in the modern era, where production teams don’t work for the channel their work is shown on.
Another aspect of the difficulty in clearing this release lies in the idiosyncratic nature of the show, which is a natural side-effect of its star. Kenny was fascinated with commercials, and was able to insert these into the Video Show, as the structure was tailor-made for an anarchic collection of all the things that he found interesting. Sadly, some of these haven’t made it into the release, but we also have some important inclusions, such as the famous Technics Cassette Tape domino advert, the Philips Cassette Player advert featuring a military parade, and the Mama Mia advert full of out-takes that made it onto so many ‘blooper’ programmes of my childhood.
Regardless of cuts, the main selling point of Kenny’s productions is the technical imagination on display. The commitment to television is absolute, with the majority of jokes throughout the whole run concerned with exposing the ‘nuts and bolts’ of television production, with Thames’ Teddington studios as his playground. Kenny had a natural fascination with the form and function of broadcast media, and he assumed that at least some of this audience were just as interested. No aspect of the show was safe from his capacious imagination, including the title sequences, which were often interrupted by a bored Kenny, even though the titles themselves were like nothing else seen on British television.
The Pythons may have mucked around with their title sequences, but they didn’t have the technology to either make or interrupt them like Kenny did. For example, the video wall used in the titles, each column playing a different take of Kenny’s opening spiel, must have been astonishing to watch and complicated to produce in 1978. The most astonishing thing about it in 2018 is that no-one bothers to attempt the same effect, even though the technical challenges are much easier to overcome.
Kenny practically revels in the medium of TV; he uses televisions and video spools as set dressing, and he wants to take you behind the scenes as much as possible. A frequent item throughout the run is for Kenny to appear in the ’Thames Video Vault’, complete with fake cobwebs, ‘monster’ hands reaching out for him and other assorted items scattered amongst the Ampex tapes. In series 3, Kenny ‘accidentally’ sets the Thames video vault on fire and ’George’, presumably a Teddington commissionaire, judging from the crew shouting “Go on, George!”, puts it out. He gets a hug and a kiss on the cheek from Kenny, leading into the ‘video vault’ item of the Technics Cassette domino ad.
Kenny certainly had many more routine comedy sketches, such as his commercial parodies (often featuring members of Hot Gossip) with outrageous props, but his interaction with the crew was definitely unique to his comedy. Kenny’s close relationship with the crew, especially those on the studio floor, led to moments such as celebrating Ray the cameraman’s birthday in series 2 by cosying up to him on the studio floor and hitting him in the face with a custard pie.
Although Kenny had already introduced what is probably Thames’ first portable Steadicam in the first episode of series 3 by leading it through the scenery dock, he beckons Ray, operating the steadicam in a later episode, up to the set. Kenny fondly recalls giving Ray a pie in the face on his last birthday… and promptly does it again. The relationship with the crew also extended to the writers, with Barry Cryer always standing around on the studio floor, and Ray Cameron making a rare appearance on camera when Kenny asks him to do a link he’s stumbling over.
The relationship with the crew, of course, ended up being something of a metaphor for Kenny’s (sometimes fractious) relationship with Thames itself. Kenny always talks as if he’s barely been allowed on set, and that he’s constantly at risk of being stopped by the evil Lord Thames, with Kenny, in series 1, claiming that Lord Thames has flooded the studio; “Thank goodness I’m a drip-dry DJ!”. The opening to series 3, where the titles start with a mention of the fictional IBA’s ‘Heights of Perfection Act’, suggest that the pressure on Kenny wasn’t entirely a case of Thames management cracking the whip, though, and it’s worth mentioning that this series, transmitted in 1980, would have been made with franchise renewal looming. Kenny finishes episode 3 of series 3 by declaring to the audience: “Hope you liked the show, if you didn’t, it’s too late, we’ve already got the money!” and claims Lord Thames has sent a car to get him for a meeting, which promptly drives into the studio, the occupants seemingly assassinating Kenny and the crew.
Happily, Kenny and the crew survive to finish the series, with Kenny saying goodbye as the set is dismantled around him, whilst praising his treatment at Teddington and the kindness of Lord Thames. He continues to talk whilst being put in a bin and chucked into a dustcart. The Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980 Show is almost entirely (and extraordinarily) built around the threat of Lord Thames refusing to let them go into 1980, with Kenny blowing up Teddington in order to thwart him, giving the viewers a New Year celebration with Thin Lizzy, the Sex Pistols and friends.
The change of series title for the fourth series; The Kenny Everett Video Cassette and the reduction of episodes from ten to six may well have hinted to the viewer that not all was well, but the introduction to the first episode of Video Cassette is perhaps a very stark dramatisation of Kenny’s feelings towards Thames at this point. Thames announcer Philip Elsmore announces that the show is cancelled due to ‘censorship’, and is promptly ‘kidnapped’ by masked men, with Kenny removing his mask to show the ‘Video Cassette’ to the camera, which he then puts in a VTR and presses play. The end of the Video Cassette isn’t quite so dramatic, however. Kenny says goodbye by suggesting the contract gives Lord Thames control of his mortal soul, which sees him being put in a box along with other stars on Lord Thames’ ‘Only In Case Of A Ratings War’ shelf. His yell of “It’s a wrap!” over the endcap and the crew cheering seems somehow a fitting end to an extraordinary run of shows.
Kenny’s past career meant that he could easily persuade certain stars to come on the show to muck about. In Series 1, Kenny is particularly keen on showing clips of Cliff Richard on the 1960s show Oh Boy!, and Cliff is used frequently in later series, which is mildly ironic, as a promo video of his used in series 1 had to be cut for this release. Kenny is mainly interested in mistreating a game Cliff for laughs, such as in series 2, where Cliff was hung from the ceiling with Kenny whipping him as a ‘Cliffhanger’, or, as in The Will Kenny Make It to 1980 Show where Kenny interrupts Cliff playing Living Doll several times, including wheeling him out of the studio.
Kenny ‘makes amends’ for this in series 3, by letting him get through a song, then tries to drop a vase on him from the gantry and fails. Cliff returns in The Kenny Everett Video Cassette to re-create his Oh Boy! performance to prove he looks better nowadays, in a beautiful early example of what is a fairly standard effect nowadays, and Kenny attempts to help Cliff in the ‘Change Your Image’ sketch by giving him a book called ‘Sarcasm for Rock Stars’. Cliff only succeeds in being sarcastic when an exasperated Kenny shoots himself in the head.
It’s probably fair to say that, although series 1 is extraordinary in its invention, the show starts to hit its stride during series 2, when it’s obvious that the budget has been increased. Many of Kenny’s more famous characters are introduced in this series, such as Brother Lee Love and Marcel Wave.
The famous ‘booby’ Thames ident makes its first appearance, the beloved Bee Gee sketch turns up, and the appearance of David Bowie probably marks the high water point in musical guests.
Captain Kremmen sketches feature throughout the run, although it’s not until The Kenny Everett New Year’s Daze Show that the format changes to live action ‘quickies’, rather than the longer animated sketches. Personally, I prefer the shorter version of Captain Kremmen, but that’s a matter between you and your remote control.
Kenny’s vicar is an ever-present feature, with the unforgettable musing in the Video Cassette: “Life is like the Nolan sisters; it seems to be all happening, but in a very real way, it isn’t.” Series 3 introduces the US motivational speaker ‘Peter Thrust’, whilst his famous character ‘General Bomb the Bastards’ sneaks in during the very last episode of the Video Cassette, just as President Reagan was settling in at the White House.
Yet another aspect in which Kenny seemed to somewhat lead the way was the use of ‘gunge’ on celebrities, with probably one of the earliest items to specifically humilate the celebrities involved being in his first series for Thames, Who Do You Goo, on location with Robin Askwith, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Janet Brown, with Kenny as the sadistic presenter, asking the celebrities questions to avoid a dip into the ‘Video Vat’. Of course, they’re impossible to answer, with each celebrity helplessly meeting their fate, with the help of the Portsmouth Sub-Aqua Club once they hit the goo. The gunge action was revived in The Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980 Show and the subsequent Video Cassette with a studio item, ‘Star Quiz’, which took the more direct approach of simply placing the celebrity victim underneath a tube of the gunge, ready to splatter them once they’d failed to get the 31 points out of a possible 30 that they required to escape, or the secret word that they were unlikely to mention.
In the case of Terry Wogan, his bending of Kenny’s microphone in retailation for Kenny bending his on ‘Blankety Blank’ produced a “Screw the game, hit him with the gunge!”, but Billy Connolly was too fast for Kenny, grabbing hold of him to ensure that he got revenge for himself and all the other celebrities forced by Kenny to have a good, hot shower. Of course, the presenter MOST famous for gunge antics in the UK is Noel Edmonds, who Kenny gets a couple of digs at during the course of his time at Thames, once with a memorable wig which is hung from the studio gantry, so Kenny simply steps away once he’s done, leaving the wig hanging.
Kenny wasn’t particularly political in his comedy, seeing his appearance at the 1983 Conservative Party Conference as a silly stunt, and I suspect the real truth is that Everett was always more interested in a ‘rebellious’ position when it came to politics, rather than being a supporter of any particular party. His work for Thames included a couple of unusual (for him) sketches; a Gary Numan parody in series 2 with Kenny singing: “Margaret Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher, see the way she’s looking at’cha, she can see inside your head, she is going to steal your bread, prices rising, mortgage squeeze, you will soon be on your knees, but you will vote for her again, because who the hell wants Tony Benn?”, and, in the Video Cassette, doing an impression of Thatcher (without bothering to dress up) cracking a joke about the country being in ‘Dire Straits’ in order to introduce the band.
The only other items which might be termed political is the parody of high-minded discussion shows, ‘Fulcrum’, which first appears in series 2 and pops up throughout the run whenever the show fancies making pompous discussion look silly, and the ‘shooting’ of Bernard Manning, which begins as another Kenny impression in series 3 and turns into an appearance by the actual Manning in The Kenny Everett New Year’s Daze Show’ One pointed reference which isn’t often discussed actually refers (in my opinion) to George Harrison, who Kenny talks about in his autobiography The Custard Stops At Hatfield as having been a right santimonious pain in the arse (I paraphrase) at showbiz parties circa 1966. It seems likely that the Liverpudlian accent of the Guru character that Kenny affects isn’t just an easy voice to slip into.
Of course, just because something isn’t considered political at the time, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t acquire a political meaning of its own when seen at a later date. At the time of writing, series 1 is now just over 40 years old, and although many aspects of the show were groundbreaking, it’s fair to say that the social attitudes underpinning some of the writing were not. As those who have enjoyed the BBC Four repeats of Top of the Pops know, dancing troupes had been a staple of entertainment shows throughout the 1960s and 1970s, but although the dancers were always nice to look at, their routines were usually no more suggestive than the average belly dance. Then ‘Hot Gossip’, formed by famous choreographer Arlene Phillips, got their big break on the first series of The Kenny Everett Video Show. Kenny famously defended the troupe in The Custard Stops At Hatfield against the likes of Mary Whitehouse by stating they were “…only lovely bodies writhing about…”, although what he fails to mention is that the group were genuinely revolutionary not only in their hypersexualised image, but in the way they raised the bar for the standard of the dancing they displayed.
It’s also worth pointing out that the male dancers in the (unusually multi-ethnic) troupe were often just as sexualised as the female dancers, something Top of the Pops attempted with Ruby Flipper very shortly before, to general audience disapproval. Kenny’s approach to the troupe on the show was a mixture of the playful, by once introducing them with the phrase “It’s tea-break time at British Leyland!”, or to emphasise their sexualised performances, for example, chucking water over them because they were “…too turny-onny…”. He also refers to the difficulty the production sometimes had getting the troupe’s performances past Thames’ management in a series 3 sketch, where he claims that the censor still has the Hot Gossip performance, and visits the ‘Head of Saying No’, coming out carrying a video reel on fire and claiming to the viewers that it’s “…much too naughty for you!”
In that vein, although ‘Hot Gossip’ dancers frequently appear in supporting roles in sketches, it isn’t until the Video Cassette that this seems to take a Benny Hill-esque turn, with Debbie Linden (a regular TV ‘glamour girl’ in the 1980s) getting her dress caught in a lift and ripped off, with Kenny playing what can only be described as a dirty old man; an unusual part for someone who previously only leered in the abstract. The sketch then cuts to Kenny as an ‘EEC Joke Explainer’ holding up a ’Surefire Boob Joke’ sign and expanding on the definition, then cuts back to an even ruder version of the lift ‘accident’ and then a ‘touring version’. It’s an odd departure for a show that tended to only feature women who only had their clothes off by choice. As his subsequent BBC shows featured more ‘glamour girls’, albeit with Kenny using Cleo Rocos to undermine the practice, we can only speculate as to how committed Kenny really was to that sort of comedy.
One commitment was absolute, however; that of Kenny’s to television. Glimpses of his spirit can be seen in modern TV on certain shows, but it’s probably true that it’s much harder to objectify this aspect as television loses its moving parts and several long-standing production studios.
Nowadays, both crew and premises are a lot more nomadic, and perhaps this release can be seen as a precious historical document, showing what the medium can produce when a TV company were indeed Lords of all they surveyed, and had the resources to support a visionary entertainer who was determined to push the barriers of television as far as they could go, at a time when the media industry was changing rapidly enough to hop on board the train Kenny was driving, with him being able to tell the audience exactly where they were going. Such a confluence of imagination and technical evolution would never occur again.
“But now…it’s time to turn the cameras off, and kiss the crew goodnight, We’ve had a song, a laugh, a dance, We’ve even had a fight, And if you thought the show was fun, We’d like you all to send, Your cheques and all your credit cards, To Thames TV, the end.”
❉ ‘The Kenny Everett Video Show’ DVD is out now from Network Distributing, RRP £40.00