This is a sitcom that I don’t remember watching at the time, but there is one thing that I do know about this that has always made me want to find out more. Firstly, Blue Heaven starred and was written by Frank Skinner. At this point he was still fairly early in his comedy career, he had won the coveted Perrier Award, and he appeared in a few shows, including Channel 4’s Packet Of Three.
In 1992 the pilot episode was shown as part of the Bunch Of Five series, where various sitcom ideas were tried out, but this was the only one of them that received a series. Now my sister was in the studio audience for this, but when this returned in 1994 two years on, there was no audience, which seems to be a curious decision, as there was plenty to enjoy.
Blue Heaven starred Frank as, er, Frank, an aspiring singer who was in a duo with his friend Roache who played keyboards. They spent most of the time playing gigs at small-time pubs, and they were usually booed off, mostly because a lot of their songs were about how fond they were of West Bromwich Albion (and indeed, when Frank wasn’t down the pub, he was at The Hawthorns watching the Baggies).
His dream is to be a success though, despite everything, he is sure he’ll get there. Frank often looks into the camera to explain his feelings and the current situation. This show definitely got my approval for the episode where Frank and Roache get as far as making a music video for one of their songs, which was accompanied by yet another parody of The Chart Show icons, well done.
Throughout the episodes, a rather large amount of familiar faces appeared, including Bill Bailey, Carol Barnes, Lucy Davis, Kevin Eldon, Stephen Frost, Philip Glenister, Tamsin Greig, Brian Hibbard, Kate Lonergan, David Neilson, Beryl Reid, Tony Robinson, John Thomson, and Paula Wilcox. Frank clearly had musical aspirations for real, as he also wrote and performed the theme music.
And although he didn’t realise it at the time, he really would have a chart-topping single when he collaborated with The Lightning Seeds for the football anthem “Three Lions”. There were seven episodes of Blue Heaven, which never had a VHS or DVD release (unfortunately I couldn’t track the pilot down, but the series episodes are on YouTube). This seems to be little remembered now, but at least Channel 4 showed all of the episodes, unlike his other sitcom…
This is a popular American sitcom that I haven’t watched a huge amount of over the years, but somehow this does seem rather familiar, partly because it seems that this has been on the TV every day for the past ten years. The Big Bang Theory centres around a group of physicists, who know a lot about science and complicated formulas, but not much else.
In the earliest episodes, the main characters are Leonard and Sheldon, along with Penny (Kaley Cuoco, who had previously been in sitcom 8 Simple Rules…). I bet at this point they didn’t realise that there was going to be 12 series of this. Of course there are plenty of unusual situations. And as the series progress, further characters join, including the woman who used to be in Blossom (a sitcom that was regularly on Channel 4 in the early-90s but passed me by somewhat).
When they weren’t at home working on various ideas, Sheldon and co. could often be found at the comic shop. There were also a few running gags and traditional sitcom mysteries, like why did the lift never work, and why did Penny appear to not have a surname. And there were also the things that had too much read into them and probably weren’t mysteries, like if the messages on Sheldon’s T-shirts or the background items signified anything.
And there were guest appearances from various science-type people that resulted in a lot of fanboy squealing, including h-Wil h-Wheaton (he was in Star Trek: The Next Generation you know!), and the veteran comedian Bob Newhart. There was also a parody of this in Family Guy where the actual actors provided the voices, and it was interesting to see them send up their roles. And the theme music was provided by Barenaked Ladies, which was almost as good as “One Week”.
The scheduling of this has been remarkable though. This was occasionally shown on Channel 4, but there had been some repeats on E4. And then, after they lost the rights to Friends, they decided that they had to fill the schedule with another sitcom that was guaranteed to get people watching, despite having been shown several times before, and this is now practically the whole of their afternoon schedule.
And if this wasn’t enough already, there was the spin-off Young Sheldon, taking a look back at his younger years (which has also been shown frequently on E4). There were 279 episodes of The Big Bang Theory, and they have all been released on DVD, which contains plenty of extras. Well who can ever resist an out-take or two. You’ll never think of inert gases in the same way again.
This is something that I have wanted to review for a while, so I am pleased to have tracked it down. This is the first end-of-year review special of The Chart Show, that was shown on Channel 4 on 30 December 1986, coming in at a whopping 80 minutes! The opening sequence has been amended to feature different music videos, and I think that I am right in saying that this was the final edition until May 1987.
I also think that this was the final edition to feature the sludge green-coloured captions, and the rather impenetrable HUD graphics. There were a few awards, along with the charts of the year. First off is Best New Act, which goes to The Housemartins. The fourth best band in Hull did indeed have a great year, including the chart-topping “Caravan Of Love”. Then it’s the Dance Chart, which has to be among my favourites.
Played are Billy Ocean’s “When The Go And Get Stuffed”, Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately”, Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On But The Rent”, and Number One is Cameo with “Word Up”. Great songs all. Best Foreign Video goes to Prince with “Kiss”. Next is the Heavy Metal Chart, a genre that I am not hugely interested in.
Played are AC/DC, Iron Maiden, Van Halen, and Number One is Bon Jovi. After the break, The One That Got Away is Inxs with “What You Need”. They would eventually break through to the big time though. Then it’s the Album Chart. Played are Run DMC’s “Walk This Way” (which was on “Now 8” when compilations were still on the main chart), Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” (from “True Blue”), and the Number One is Dire Straits with “Brothers In Arms” (“Money For Nothing” is played). You play the guitar on The Chart Show.
The Worst Video Of The Year goes to “Rage Hard” by Frankie Goes To Hollywood. A little harsh perhaps, but their return was considered to be rather disappointing, and couldn’t live up to the hype. The Indie Chart is next. Played are We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It’s “Rules And Regulations”, The Mission’s “Serpent’s Kiss”, Erasure’s (of course) “Sometimes” (“Vince used to be in Yazoo”), and Number One is The Smiths with “Panic”.
Next is a 1987 Preview. Big things are predicted for new singles by Thrashing Doves, Eric Clapton, and World Party. On to part three, and Best Reggae goes to Smiley Culture. Then it’s the Network Chart Top 20. Yes, 20! These are the biggest hits of the year. Played are Wham’s “The Edge Of Heaven”, Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus”, The Communards’ “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (Number 2 on this chart, but actually the biggest-seller of the year), Doctor And The Medics’ “Spirit In The Sky”, and Diana Ross’s “Chain Reaction”.
But the Number One is Nick Berry with “Every Loser Wins”, an all-time classic if ever there was one. Then there’s another 1987 Preview, with Heaven 17 (they were still going?), Europe, Was Not Was, and Swing Out Sister. Finally, The Best Video Of The Year is revealed, which maybe not too surprisingly is “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. Well done, Peter.
Richard And Judy (Channel 4, 2001-2008, Watch, 2008-2009)
The husband-and-wife team of Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan caused a rather big stir when they decided to move to Channel 4 after hosting ITV’s This Morning for 13 years. It took a long time for that show to develop a new popular double-act, but they got there eventually. I thought that I might as well take a look at their next move.
They would now be in a different timeslot, and be live five days a week for most of the year. And with the likes of the long-running Countdown and Fifteen-To-One already established with a dedicated audience, Channel 4 hoped that they would now have completed their rather cosy schedule that would keep the viewers watching all throughout the afternoon.
There would be a mix of features, competitions, and celebrity interviews. Richard continued to surprise viewers though, because he didn’t ask the questions that nobody else would dare to as such, it was more like the questions that nobody else would ever think to ask. Many a guest ended up baffled by his thoughts that really did come in from a bizarre angle sometimes.
One of the more memorable features was You Say We Pay, where viewers could phone in and play for some big cash prizes (if they didn’t run out of time), and this wasn’t anything like Midday Money at all, honest. This did well enough for there to be an interactive DVD game version to be released, although I never had that. This ended rather abruptly though after the phone-in scandal, and suddenly none of this ever happened.
After about seven years of this excitement, there was another unexpected twist in the story. Richard and Judy decided to move on again, and their show would now be on the newly-launched digital channel Watch. This is because they had suddenly realised that digital TV was going to be the next big thing, and they would be there for it. However, for all the hype, this is a channel that wasn’t on Freeview (at the time).
As a consequence, they dropped off the TV radar so to speak. They then expressed surprise when their ratings slumped compared to what they were getting on Channel 4, and they were also cut back to only one edition a week. Some felt that this was all a little embarrassing for established daytime hosts of their stature, and not long after, their show ended with little fanfare, and they haven’t been seen that much since.
Clive Anderson Talks Back (Channel 4, 1990-1996)/Clive Anderson All Talk (BBC1, 1996-1999)
This is one of those shows that was on Friday nights rather frequently. Clive Anderson first appeared on TV in the mid-70s as a member of the Cambridge Footlights (alongside the likes of Griff Rhys Jones and Douglas Adams). He remained in comedy, although as a writer instead of an actor, contributing to sketch shows including Not The Nine O’Clock News and Alas Smith And Jones.
By the late-80s, he was given a chat show of his own on Channel 4, where he was already familiar as the chairman of improvised comedy panel game Whose Line Is It Anyway? The first notable thing about Clive Anderson Talks Back was the opening sequence, which was rather unusual, but appropriately accompanied by the song “Yakety Yak”.
Clive would become known for his interviewing style, where he wasn’t rude as such, but he would ask the questions that the average host wouldn’t dare to. On the scale, he was closer to Jonathan Ross than Terry Wogan. There would be about two or three celebrity guests in every edition who would be up for this though. Between guests, Clive would often make a comment on what was happening in the news, and if these didn’t always hit the target, he would try and make up for it by talking as fast as is humanly possible.
One of the more memorable editions was a special when comedian Peter Cook appeared as three different characters, which was well received. By the mid-90s, the format hadn’t become that stale, but maybe it was time for a new challenge. So the whole kit and caboodle right down to the last pipe cleaner moved over to BBC1, and was renamed Clive Anderson All Talk.
This was a big enough deal to earn a Radio Times cover, and there was speculation about whether his style would be suitable for this new slot. Again, there was a decent level of famous guests, but fortunately, this is only really remembered now for the interview that went wrong, which is harsh, as there were hundreds by comparison that went off without incident and were rather amusing.
Many years later, Clive went to BBC Radio 2 to host Clive Anderson’s Chat Room, which was more of a debate about the news with various panellists. My mum was in the audience once, and when she saw him arrive, he had a surprised look on his face as if to say “what are all these people doing here?”, and I just thought, yes, I bet he does that every time. He has also hosted a few game shows, including Brainbox Challenge.
Following “Ted Heath” (as he probably would’ve put it himself) of Victor Lewis-Smith late last year, I thought that I would take a look at another of his shows that I found online. He was best-known for being a TV critic in the London Evening Standard on weekdays for many years, and for a short while he had a column in the national Daily Mirror at the weekend too (I often read both of these).
He became known for making rather bad taste jokes, and barely liking any of the shows that he reviewed, often despairing at the state of the industry. I would quote some more of his famous jokes, but you know what they say, imitation is the sincerest form of being an unoriginal thieving bastard (oh no, I’ve done it again!). He also once managed to get on to the cover of Radio Times.
And it could be said that there were some people who didn’t consider the style of humour in his TV and radio comedy shows (including Ads Infinitum and TV Offal) to be the funniest of its era, although even they would have to concede that they were some of the weirdest. This was a one-off that was a spin-off from Club X, a late-night Channel 4 culture show that was so badly received even The Word looked classy by comparison (if you can believe such a thing).
I’m not even sure when this was shown though (possibly around 1989?), maybe in typical VLS style this just randomly turned up in the schedule one night where an episode of Cheers or some such show was expected to be. Now, despite working in the business for so long, he clearly made a very basic mistake. This show was called Up Your Arts, which sounds a lot like “up your arse”, do you think that nobody noticed, how embarrassing!
This was a parody of arts shows, that looked at various subjects, including, opera, the BBC, showbiz, and foreign films. This led to all kinds of unusual moments, including out-of-context interviews with various industry figures, revealing the difference between Bruce Forsyth and Ben Elton, and the idea that Ceefax took a very long time to reach the page that you wanted to look at.
I also noticed that among the cast taking part in the sketches was Denise Black, who would later go on to find fame as Denise Osbourne in Coronation Street, which is a rather big career swerve. I don’t know if Up Your Arts managed to break the barriers of television as was the possible intention, and this was probably watched by about nine people at the time, but it is proof of how VLS really was a one-off.
These are the ten people who have made the most appearances as host or co-host on Countdown since 1981. Who will come out on top?
10th. Anne Robinson (265 appearances, 2021-2022). Anne had previously made six appearances in Dictionary Corner in 1987. She became best-known for hosting shows including Points Of View, Watchdog, and The Weakest Link. Her appointment as host was a surprise, any many wondered if she would apply her curt style from The Weakest Link to a show with a much more cosy atmosphere. This even earned Countdown the honour of a Radio Times cover in anticipation of her debut. However, although she wasn’t rude to the contestants as such, it was clear that she wasn’t the most suitable choice, and she vanished about a few weeks into a series to the relief of many which sums it up really.
9th. Des Lynam (303 appearances, 2005-2006). Des found fame as a sport host, on BBC shows including Grandstand and Match Of The Day before surprisingly defecting to ITV. He was a contestant on a celebrity special in 1998 which he won. He had the difficult task of replacing the irreplaceable after Richard Whiteley’s departure. He hoped that viewers would approve by saying on his first edition “you can’t be more nervous than I am… I hope I’m not too much of a shock for you”. He acknowledged that the show was about the contestants, and he also brought an air of calm, where once the studio had threatened to descend into a cacophony. There was even a Saturday edition briefly added, meaning that Countdown was six days a week. Unfortunately, after a short while, Des became frustrated with having to travel to the studio, and he had also started to look rather bored. He soon departed, although he did return to appear in Dictionary Corner for the 5,000th edition.
8th. Des O’Connor (470 appearances, 2007-2008). Des had been famous for many years, as a comedian, game show host, and chart-topping singer. He added a touch of showbiz to things, and as he also had a daytime chat show for a short while a year or two before, five decades into his career he was appearing on TV more than ever. He decided to leave at the same time as Carol Vorderman though.
7th. Cathy Hytner (647 appearances, 1981-1987). Cathy put the letters on the board going all the way back to the unaired pilot, and eventually did the numbers too.
6th. Jeff Stelling (675 appearances, 2009-2011). Jeff found fame as a host on Sky Sports, and made his debut alongside Rachel Riley. Sometimes he did seem to think that he was hosting sport coverage, and sometimes fell back into thinking the game was a football match, but he showed a lot of enthusiasm, and I would have to say that he is my favourite of the post-Whiteley hosts. After his departure, he hosted game show Alphabetical, which wasn’t a success.
5th. Nick Hewer (2,129 appearances, 2012-2021). Nick first became known for being one of the assistants on The Apprentice. He was an unlikely choice for host, but he managed to always help things along, even if sometimes he looked like he was about to fall asleep. He was also the host for almost a decade.
4th. Rachel Riley (3,310+ appearances, 2009-present). When Rachel replaced Carol Vorderman, she was a newcomer to TV, but soon made the role her won. And 14 years later (how time flies), she is still there, and she has hosted various other shows.
3rd. Richard Whiteley (4,107 appearances, 1981-2005). I have already done some pieces reflecting on Richard’s career, so I shall just say that he was the host who had been there since the unaired pilots, and he presided over the peak of Countdown‘s popularity. His final edition was shown posthumously, and if he was still with us, he would’ve been 80 this year. Who knows if he would’ve been the host all these years on.
2nd. Carol Vorderman (4,832 appearances, 1982-2008). Carol was originally only a vital statistician, and she became the only co-host in 1989. She has also gone on to host several other TV shows, and her double-act with Richard Whiteley which eventually developed would it has to be said often veer from being hugely entertaining to immensely irritating (usually in the same edition). There was supposedly a big scandal with Carol’s departure, well if you read Woman’s Own magazine there was. But who could possibly top Carol’s huge amount of appearances to be the Number One?
1st. Susie Dent (5,250+ appearances, 1992-present). Susie made her first appearance as a lexicographer in 1992. By the mid-2000s she was the only lexicographer to appear in Dictionary Corner, and by the late-2000s she was officially made one of the co-hosts (which is how she qualifies for this list). Just like the break for the celebrity anecdote, Susie has one for the Origin Of Words feature, telling us about all of the weird and wonderful stories that are behind phrases. She is a regular to the point that in more recent years when she was been unavailable, there hasn’t been a stand-in for her. She has also released several books about the English language, and is seen as the ultimate authority on such things. Congratulations, Susie!
Following on from the list of the Top 50 people who have made the most appearances in Countdown‘s Dictionary Corner which was rather well received, I thought I would also do a list featuring all of the hosts and co-hosts that there have been over the years, going all the way back to the unaired pilots in 1981. Only appearances as host or co-host will be included, although if they did also appear in Dictionary Corner, that will be noted. This list is only for the main afternoon edition, anyone who has only hosted the 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown spin-off will not be featured. I have also decided not to feature people who only appeared as lexicographers, as there isn’t a huge amount of information out there about them. I make it that there have been 27 people who have hosted or co-hosted Countdown, part one will feature positions 27-11.
27th. William G Stewart (1 appearance, 1997). William first found fame in TV as a director and producer. He became a host in 1988 when Fifteen-To-One launched, which was soon shown before Countdown, resulting in a popular daytime game show double. He hosted the 1997 Christmas special, when Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman were the contestants. He also hosted a special to celebrate the 2,000th edition.
26th. Angela Garbut (2 appearances, 1981). Angela was the “vital statistician” (the fancy term for the co-host who solved the numbers rounds) in the two unaired pilots. A blackboard was used to write the solutions.
25th. Jenny Eclair (4 appearances, 2022). Jenny has made 45 appearances in Dictionary Corner, going back to 2012. She was a last-minute stand-in host when the other last-minute stand-in host Les Dennis was unavailable. If that makes sense.
=21st. Floella Benjamin (5 appearances, 2022). As part of the 40th Anniversary celebrations, four people hosted for one week, some of them having no previous association with Countdown. One of them was Floella, who is best-known as a children’s TV host of several shows including Play School.
=21st. Richard Coles (5 appearances, 2022). Richard had made ten appearances in Dictionary Corner, before he became another one-week host for the anniversary. He had previously found fame in the 80s as a part of the group The Communards alongside Jimmy Somerville, whose cover of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was a chart-topper, and the biggest-selling single in the UK in 1986. He then went on to become a vicar and a regular face on TV.
=21st. Angela O’Dougherty (5 appearances, 1983). Angela was a stand-in for Cathy Hytner for one week at the end of the second series.
=21st. Moira Stuart (5 appearances, 2022). Moira is best-known as a BBC news host. She was another one-week host for the anniversary, having previously never appeared.
20th. Trevor McDonald (6 appearances, 2021-2022). Trevor is the news host who worked for ITN for several years. He hosted a special edition, and he was then invited back as another one-week host for the anniversary.
19th. Denise McFarland-Cruickshanks (7 appearances, 1982). Denise was the vital statistician in the Calendar Countdown series.
18th. Les Dennis (8 appearances, 2022). Les is known for being a comedian, actor, and the host of various game shows, including Family Fortunes for 15 years. He made five appearances in Dictionary Corner in 2011, and he was a last-minute stand-in for Colin Murray who was unavailable.
17th. Robena Sharp (9 appearances, 1981-1982). Robena put the numbers on the board in the unaired pilots and Calendar Countdown series. She also selected the target, which was a rather low-tech one-armed bandit machine, before the shinier CECIL came along.
16th. Linda Barratt (41 appearances, 1982-1983). Believe it or not, in the first couple of series, there were two vital statisticians, who appeared in alternate editions. And while Carol Vorderman would find fame and appear for many years, Linda was barely ever seen again.
15th. Lucy Summers (56 appearances, 1989). Lucy put the letters and numbers on the board for one series, before it was decided to make Carol Vorderman the only co-host.
14th. Anne-Marie Imafidon (61 appearances, 2021-2022). Anne-Marie was the co-host for the special, and then she returned when Rachel Riley was away on maternity leave.
13th. Beverley Isherwood (117 appearances, 1982-1983). Looking back now, it is remarkable how many young female co-hosts Countdown used to have, up to four in some series, an idea that was more suited to game shows like 3-2-1 or The Price Is Right. Beverley put the numbers on the board and pressed CECIL’s button, and that was about it.
12th. Colin Murray (125+ appearances, 2020-present). Colin has been a TV and radio host, and he has made 60 appearances in Dictionary Corner, going back to 2009. He was first the stand-in host when Nick Hewer was unavailable, and he also took part in a celebrity special, which he won. He is still the stand-in host, although he is the favourite to be given the job full time. He almost seems to be playing the game along with the contestants, rather than being impartial, always fiddling with pieces of paper, and seemingly trying to guess what their words will be. But he’s definitely brought a lot of enthusiasm to proceedings.
11th. Karen Loughlin (168 appearances, 1987-1988). Karen looked after the letters and numbers following Cathy Hytner’s departure.
When the digital channel E4 launched in 2001, among the repeats and imports, there was some space in the schedule for some original comedy programming. This included the final series of The Adam And Joe Show, and TVGoHome, but there was also this rather bizarre game show, which led to some critics saying that they were knocking spots off what some of the competition had to offer.
Banzai was essentially a parody of those Japanese game shows that were sometimes shown in this country where contestants had to endure some rather bizarre things. But this one had betting elements, and viewers were invited to guess the outcome of some rather unusual challenges. Some of these were rather bad taste, and some featured celebrities, who probably wondered what they were getting themselves into.
Look, there’s Pat Sharp! Look, there’s Peter Davison! He used to be on the telly! The challenges would be explained, we would then be asked to bet, and the outcome would be revealed. This was all usually accompanied by some breathless commentary from Harry Hill’s mate Burt Kwouk (there was no in-vision host as such). And there were also a few regular features.
These included Lady One Question, who simply asked a celebrity just one question, and viewers would have to guess how long it would be before they walked off. And there was also Mr Shake Hands Man, who would interview someone whilst shaking their hand for as long as possible. He started to become well-known to the point that he was replaced by someone else for the second series.
I also remember at the NME Awards one year somebody thought that it would be good to do this (I can’t remember if it was connected to this show or not), so there was a page with lots of short interviews that mostly consisted of “yeah, it’s been great, I’ve been having a good time… er, you can stop shaking my hand now”. 32 seconds, wow!
Viewers at home really could play along though. If they pressed the red button on their remote control, they could make their choices, and their score would be calculated and revealed at the end. I remember that I did play this once, although I don’t think I did that well. There was some merchandise released too, including a book, DVD, and even a soundtrack of the music. Banzai ran its course after a few series though.
This is one of the most successful home-made sitcoms in Channel 4’s history, which ran for almost a decade. Drop The Dead Donkey was a satirical sitcom that was created by Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton, who wrote the majority of the episodes, and have worked on various other comedies and dramas that have focussed on politics over the years.
The main setting is the TV company Globelink News (prop. Sir R Merchant), and the people who work there, who are always hoping that they can deliver only the biggest and best news to viewers, eagerly awaiting the telex machine to rattle out the latest updates, or whatever they did in those days. But if it was chaos behind the scenes, then it was certainly no better in front of the camera.
The hosts were as incompetent as anybody else was, often looking into the wrong camera, being virtually inaudible, or somewhat unprofessional, thank goodness news channels aren’t as error-riddled these days?! I can only imagine that the management were tearing their hair out at this chaos, if they had any (management that is, not hair).
As this was a sitcom that was about the world of news and politics, where the various happenings seemingly never ceased to surprise people, scripts were written rather close to transmission, to make sure that they could be as topical as possible (it is probably no surprise that the same production company was also behind Have I Got News For You).
This meant that when there were repeat runs, they were proceeded with short additional introductions that featured newspaper headlines to remind viewers of what exactly was on the agenda that week, as things can’t always be topical, and there was the possibility that we were another two or three Prime Ministers down the line by this point.
And episodes would also end with cast members speaking over the credits about the news too. CITV’s Press Gang also did this, but I’m not sure who came up with the idea first. Drop The Dead Donkey did well with viewers, and a film version was planned in the mid-90s, but didn’t get too far, although there was a novel which contained a further exploration of the new familiar characters. And a Bafta award was won as well.
There were 65 episodes of Drop The Dead Donkey in six series (including a couple of short specials for Children In Need in the mid-90s), and they all been released on DVD. I don’t recall there being too many repeat runs on any channels in more recent years, although it has to be remembered that some of the episodes are now over three decades old.