Tune in, switch off - Booze, blunders and brilliance

17th July 2009 at 01:00
Education on the box

TV's Believe it or Not (BBC Four) was a series of surprises, featuring real out-takes that no one bothered to take out at the time. This was television's lows that, over the years, have become tremendous highs.

Oliver Reed (pictured) was certainly on a high when he played the part of booze-sozzled celebrity on the sofa talk show, After Dark (1991). Except he wasn't acting. It really was live, late night and alcohol-infused. And we thought standards were going down.

Reed's lines included: "That's where the widges, the widges and the women all go `Ooooooh' and the big old chopper and we're gonna go down there, lads." You can tell he was drunk just by reading it aloud. But don't try doing it in the staffroom - unless you're looking to get signed off before the end of term. Or risk losing your licence to teach.

Teachers, of course, know how to deal with difficult characters: they're called pupils. So we knew engaging Reed in serious conversation would just create more disruption - and it did. His sofa sophistry made the other normal guests seem oddities too. Perhaps they were.

By 12.30am, the middle of the night in those days, Reed tried a different tactic, refusing to speak anymore, with fingers over his lips like a naughty three-year-old. Then he removed them to force down another drink. After that, surprised that no one liked him, he upped and went. It was the cue for viewers to leave as well.

A snippet from Diane Abbott and Michael Portillo's late night sofa programme, This Week, was also featured, from 2004.

Their guest, Shane MacGowan, poured forth streams of noise while Janet Street-Porter, then presenter, tried to keep the conversation going. And she did - but Shane was the conversation - one long drivel of drivel.

Diane Abbot's eyes pointed to the heavens (or perhaps it was the studio ceiling). Michael Portillo first looked fascinated and then cross. He reminded me of a cat caught licking its bum who tries to cover up by appearing nonchalant. Cats do that - and so, it seems, do ex-politicians. Appear nonchalant, I mean.

In the section on TV chefs, we were reminded of where cookery began. Fanny Cradock, on Success Story, served her guest an assiette de fruits de mer. This was 1959 so he'd never seen such stuff before, never mind eaten it, but he couldn't help noticing his meal was moving. "It must be the quality of the champagne," whispered Craddock. She could have sorted out Oliver Reed.

Still, it was preferable to the young lady promising to cook placenta pate who admitted she wasn't quite sure of the recipe. Well if I were you, I'd miss out the main ingredient. An excuse for summer repeats of forgotten lowlights, TV's Believe it or Not also contained plenty of ingredients to make you choke, but all with laughter

Ray Tarleton is principal at South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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