One of Not the Nine O’Clock News' parody sketches featured a man who comes home from work to find his wife has had her head cut off. He starts screaming and wailing with grief until he is approached by a presenter with a microphone who proclaims that he is ‘Game for a Laugh!’ upon which he realises that the programme’s crew are responsible for the slaying of his wife. He joins in the laughter, happy to have been part of the joke, even though his wife is dead.
Amusing as this was, once you know that Pamela Stephenson had once been in line to present the very show Not the Nine O’Clock News was taking the mickey out of before being passed over, you wonder if there was a slight sense of bitterness behind the parody. Apparently Game for a Laugh was originally designed to be called Gotcha, and be fronted by the slightly peculiar trio of Paul Daniels, David Copperfield (not the big-haired US magician, but the substantially less famous Yorkshire comedian) and Ms Stephenson. It was supposedly rejected for being ‘too vulgar’; I’m sure I’m not alone in really, REALLY wanting to know what that premise was. Vulgarity and Paul Daniels: television gold I would have thought.
Thankfully, bearded snigger-fest Jeremy Beadle stepped in, and tinkered around with the format in conjunction with Hollywood producer Michael Hill and British TV executive Jeremy Fox until LWT decided it was for them.
Obviously I’m not going to let what I’ve just written pass without comment: of course I thought the same thing as you are thinking now – what on earth was Beadle doing in Hollywood? This was before Beadle’s About, so he can’t have been introducing the mammoth Golightly family to the unsuspecting US public…No, it turns out that Beadle had connections with Michael Hill and his Los Angeles-based production company, although unfortunately I don’t have the time right now for further research into the dynamics of this; a shame I’m sure you’ll agree as I’m now left with even more questions than I had before.
And so to the premier series of Game for a Laugh. When I tell you that the first four presenters of the show were Beadle himself, Matthew Kelly (You Bet!), Henry Kelly (Going for Gold) and Sarah Kennedy (Busman’s Holiday) you may well feel underwhelmed. If I mention, however, that a later line-up was Beadle, Martin ‘Paul’s son’ Daniels, Rustie Lee (that laugh still haunts me in my nightmares) and Lee Peck (nope, Wikipedia doesn’t know who he is either) then the original quartet look positively A-list.
The show would start with the presenters entering down the studio stairs with fashions ranging from underperforming estate agent (Kelly H.) through ‘whacky’ teacher trying to be your mate (Kelly M.) to 1960’s librarian (Kennedy), finishing with punchable sniggering git (Beadle). The audience clapped along to the theme tune, trying to pretend they weren’t hoping to see Jezza lose his footing at the top. This approach didn’t work out quite so well on the first show however; Matthew Kelly had been practicing a parachute jump for a section of the programme and had to be wheelchaired on to the set after breaking his leg. I personally think they should have made him take the stairs in it anyway, just so he didn’t mess up the symmetry of the first entrance.
Game for a Laugh was supposedly created as a ‘people show’ but it was based on the elements of humour I hate the most; practical jokes and the pretence that watching people get covered in gunk time and time again is actually funny. Members of the public would be set up for an elaborate prank, either in the studio or somewhere on location before eventually one of the presenters would reveal the joke to the person, and then proclaim that they were ‘Game for a laugh!’ (That was really code for ‘They have to pretend they are happy about being made to look stupid ‘cos it’s being filmed!’)
In between these veritable feasts of humiliation there would be other hilarious features, including madcap reports from nudist camps, and other areas of the country where individuals felt a desperate need to do something stupid on camera, quick ‘shove a lens in their face’ slots where members of the public were asked to do something stupid on camera in the street, and crazy stunts in the studio where the audience members were pretty much forced in to doing something stupid on camera. Obviously the audience thought all of these zany goings-on were the funniest things they’d ever seen, and showed their appreciation by screeching and hollering whenever anybody moved.
It was a fast paced show, cramming in lots of ‘d’oh’ moments when somebody realised they’d been duped, and not forgetting the infamous Pie Chair – a seat featuring long arms on both sides, with each ending in a hand holding a custard pie. An audience member would be sat on it, asked a fiendishly hard question (‘name 50 animals beginning with the letter Q in under 30 seconds’) and got belted in the face with both pies when they inevitably couldn’t do it. Kudos should therefore be given to the contestant who, when asked to name 50 words that didn’t contain the letter ‘a’, simply started reeling out numbers (no number between one and 100 has the letter ‘a’ in it). He beat the chair, and if that ever did happen (rarely), a celebrity would be wheeled out to get smacked in the face instead. It doesn’t get funnier than that, does it? Oh, it does. Sorry.
Having already shown my distain for this type of ‘And he didn’t see this coming, aha ha ha’ type of entertainment I’m stunned that Game for a Laugh could have kept viewers interested for more than a couple of shows, but it actually managed to creak on for 56 episodes between September 1981 and November 1985 – that’s five series and four specials of making ordinary people look a bit stupid for the enjoyment of the smirking masses who were mostly laughing out of relief that it wasn’t them that had got caught out.
At the end of each episode the four presenters would all be chuckling at their own comedy cleverness before incanting into the camera - somewhat creepily - ‘Join us again next week when we very much hope you’ll be…’ and then in turn they’d individually say ‘Watching us…’ (spoken by Henry Kelly) ‘Watching you…’ (Sarah) ‘Watching us…’ (Matthew) ‘Watching you…’ (Jeremy) before all saying ‘Goodnight!’ I could never shake off the feeling that their eight evil eyes actually were still staring at me after the television had been turned off, and so used to staple the curtains together before I went to bed to ensure they couldn’t peek through any gaps should they happen to have been outside my house.
Here is a discussion point for you all: has there been a game show since Game for a Laugh that features two bearded presenters? Especially one who was obviously hankering after being a Bee Gee; Matthew Kelly had the teeth, hair and chest hair to make him a perfect stand-by.