The Comedy Vault – special bonus edition!

When I was watching the sitcom The Mighty Boosh again recently, I remembered that there was a reference to Bethnal Green in an episode. Now this is the part of London that I live in, and I always find it surprising to hear a reference on the TV. I started to think about how many other comedy shows feature a reference. I don’t know why it seems to turn up so frequently, clearly it must be a big cultural reference point. I thought of six comedy shows that reference Bethnal Green, so here they are, although if anyone out there does know of any others, you are welcome to tell me.

Big Train. This was the odd BBC2 sketch show from the makers of Father Ted. There is a sketch in the second series that is a parody of detective drama shows, where Mark Heap’s character says “Bethnal Green”. Well to hear one of my favourite comic actors say that right in front of everyone, I was very pleased. Fame at last! vlcsnap-01181

The Mighty Boosh. There is a reference to Bethnal Green in this sitcom when Vince (played by Noel Fielding) is trying to track down where someone is by using his Celeb Radar. Also around this time, when the show was popular on TV, there were suddenly a lot of people walking around here who seemingly wanted to be Noel, how great. vlcsnap-01150

Goodnight Sweetheart. I’m fairly sure that there is at least one reference to Bethnal Green in this sitcom, and that’s because the area where Gary Sparrow time travels to is supposed to be around here, you even see him walk past a branded bin in the first episode. One person pointed out recently that Gary was supposed to live in Cricklewood, and the only reason he ever came here was when he was a TV repair man trying to find an address. So to continue his double life he would have to travel from Cricklewood to here every time to access the portal, which is rather a journey in itself, but you’re not supposed to notice that… vlcsnap-01183

Saturday Live. This pioneering 80s comedy show featured some of the earliest TV appearances by Harry Enfield, and his kebab shop owner character Stavros, who would become very popular with viewers, was always talking about “the Bethnal Green Road”, which is good innit. vlcsnap-01185

Only Fools And Horses. This sitcom needs no introduction, and in the 1989 episode “Chain Gang” none other than Del Boy says “Bethnal Green” near the end of the episode. Isn’t that lovely jubbly. And that isn’t the only sitcom created by John Sullivan to feature a reference… vlcsnap-01186

Sitting Pretty. This was a sitcom that launched on BBC1 in 1992 which was written by John Sullivan. Because his other sitcoms had been so popular with viewers, this show was simply sold as “this can’t fail!”. The main character in the show was Annie, a woman who had been successful in the 60s who had now fallen on hard times, and her character was described by Radio Times as “the Jackie Onassis of Bethnal Green”. Within the first few minutes of the first episode, Annie does say “Bethnal Green”, and also her catchphrase “phenomenal”, which they really thought would catch on, but didn’t. Although Sitting Pretty ran for two series, it wasn’t a big hit with viewers, there has been no DVD release, and it is now considered the low point of Sullivan’s career. Also, because of the Bethnal Green connections, I remember seeing Diane Bull (who played Annie) once when she was chosen to turn on the Christmas lights here one year (I don’t remember what year, either 1992 or 1993 as they were the only years that the show was on BBC1), now that really was phenomenal. vlcsnap-01180

BONUS! Now to go on to pop music. I am aware of at least two pop stars who were born in Bethnal Green who have had UK Number One hit singles, who are Helen Shapiro and Cheryl Baker of Bucks Fizz fame. Also, I’m not aware of any UK hit singles featuring Bethnal Green in the lyrics, but again if you know better, you can let me know. And I know I keep going on about this, but I just want to emphasise this again because I still find it unbelievable.

Now imagine that there is a famous pop group who’ve had a Number One single, say for example, Bananarama, and say that they all visited Bethnal Green one day, and the reason that they would do that was because one member of the group had a house here, say Siobhan, who was also in the awesome Shakespear’s Sister, and here was where they became friends again and decided to reform, that would be a great story, but that’s never going to happen is it… oh wait… b10

Now the fact that Sara from Bananarama said “Bethnal Green” in an interview will probably mean nothing to about 99.8% of the readership of Classic Pop magazine where this article appeared, but when I read this I was practically on the floor. But the fact that she said that her and Keren were here because they were round “Siobhan’s house in Bethnal Green“, you remember Siobhan, the woman whose Shakespear’s Sister song “Stay” was at Number One in the UK for almost two months in 1992, the crazy goth woman who appears in the incredible video that I’m sure any early-90s pop music fan has never forgotten even 25 years on, you know, that woman… b9

…well, I was now in a right old state. Discovering that in more recent years she had probably been walking round here (although presumably not dressed like that), and she had a party in her kitchen with her old pop star friends practically around the corner from me simply blew my mind (there’s even a picture of them all together on Twitter and everything), I just can’t believe it really happened. I told you all the cool people live round here didn’t I, aren’t I lucky.

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The YouTube Files – A classic Stars In Their Eyes moment.

Stars In Their Eyes (ITV, 1994)

Recently I wrote a blog piece about when I discovered something about the pop group Bananarama that really blew my mind, if you haven’t read it yet, you should! Whilst putting the piece together I was reminiscing about Siobhan Fahey’s other group, top goth-rockers Shakespear’s Sister, and when trying to track down some more information, I had an odd thought: “were they ever done on Stars In Their Eyes?”. As far as I know, people could only take part individually, performing as solo artists or the frontman or woman from groups, I’m not aware of duos being able to appear, so I thought it was rather unlikely, oh well, it would’ve been good but it was just a thought, it doesn’t matter. vlcsnap-01020

I’ve already written about Stars In Their Eyes on here and I’m sure you remember how it all works, the main elements being Matthew Kelly and his waistcoats, people coming on stage to perform as their pop idol for five minutes of fame, an entertaining Saturday night show on ITV throughout the 90s. When I was fiddling about on Google recently, I noticed an image of a YouTube video thumbnail of what appeared to be Matthew welcoming two women to the stage. I thought that duos didn’t take part. Then I thought, well, two young women, performing as a duo, how many successful female pop duos were there in the early-90s… wait a moment, they’re not going to be… are they? You are kidding me. vlcsnap-01018

So I tracked down the video to watch on YouTube (in fuzzy YouTube-o-Vision, but it’s better than nothing for now), and Emma and Julie who both work in a pub in Oswestry, Shropshire (who can also do a great impression of Zig and Zag) went through those famous doors, and well shut my face, they only did come back out as Siobhan and Marcella didn’t they? I know that Stars In Their Eyes liked to feature a wide variety of pop acts, from 50s crooners to 90s indie blokes, but I never expected this, the show was about to get a little weird. And of course they go on to perform the 1992 chart-topping blockbuster “Stay”. The performance is also rather faithful to the famous award-winning video, there’s even a dead man (well probably) wheeled on to the stage to crank up the emotion. (I should also point out that this edition is from 1994 by which point Siobhan and Marcella had gone their separate ways.) vlcsnap-01050

How did they do? Well they definitely didn’t do too badly at imitating them, as if there could ever be another, and then at the end Matthew kindly congratulated the ladies on their performance, the experience really had been a dream come true for them. They didn’t win though however, they were beaten by Jim Reeves who went into the final. I am so thrilled to discover that it actually happened though, two ladies wanting to do that on ITV prime-time in what must be the most bizarre moment in the 16-year history of Stars In Their Eyes, I can only wonder what viewers made of it. I’ll try and stop going on about Shakespear’s Sister now, I really should buy their album one day… 

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EXTRA! They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so along with Stars In Their Eyes, here are three other occasions that I’m aware of where people donned the old make-up to imitate Shakespear’s Sister in various TV shows in the early-90s. First, the most famous one is by French and Saunders (with Dawn French as Siobhan and Jennifer Saunders as Marcella), who memorably parodied their videos “Goodbye Cruel World”, “Stay”, and “I Don’t Care”. (In 1989 French and Saunders did a parody of Bananarama for Comic Relief as Lananeeneenoonoo, With Dawn French as Keren, Jennifer Saunders as Sara and Kathy Burke as Jacquie. Also, Marcella Detroit appeared in two episodes of Jennifer Saunders’s sitcom Absolutely Fabulous). Second, in the sketch show The Mary Whitehouse Experience, there was a parody by Robert Newman (as Marcella) and David Baddiel (as Siobhan), who were introduced as “that equally talented vocal partnership”, the joke being that Siobhan literally honked her way through the songs and was outshone by Marcella. Best of all, proof that they had become a cultural reference was when the video for the 1993 Christmas Number One by Noel Edmonds’s mate Mr Blobby also featured a parody of the “Stay” video. Now there’s a legacy to be proud of! vlcsnap-01057

Musical Memories – A Story About Pop Music.

Here’s a story about when I was watching an old music video which led me to discovering something that I couldn’t believe. Often late at night I like to watch old videos on YouTube of Top Of The Pops and The Chart Show, it brings back memories of pop music throughout the 80s and 90s and reminds me of the time when in the days before social media if you wanted to find out what your favourite bands were up to you had to wait for the latest issue of Smash Hits to come out every fortnight or join a fan club or mailing list, and if you wanted to see them on TV you had to hope that they would appear on one of the few channels available. Not so long ago when I wanted to watch some videos of The Chart Show online, I picked out a Top Ten from May 1992 (when I was eight years old), and one of the videos that was played was “I Don’t Care” by Shakespear’s Sister. I can’t really remember the last time that I saw this video, and my thoughts while watching went from “I can’t believe that this song is 25 years old now”, to “this video is really weird” to “that was actually rather great”. I hadn’t thought about the group for such a long time, but because their music still clearly stirred feelings in me I wanted to have a reappraisal of their work and I decided because I was curious to take a look at their discography and biography, and I was satisfied to have learned a little more about them, and I then started to think to myself “those women who were in the group, they were really great and had personality, I wonder where they are now?”. I must admit that I am now at the age where current pop stars don’t really interest me any more, the last wave of singers that I really got into was around the late-2000s when the likes of Paloma Faith, Jessie J and Florence Welch came on to the scene, and I have always enjoyed a quirky pop star. 

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Ooh, now I remember this one!

The story of Shakespear’s Sister is rather interesting, so here it is. Bananarama are a pop group that formed in 1979 consisting of Sara “the blonde one” Dallin, Keren “the brunette one” Woodward and Siobhan Fahey who had their first Top Ten hit single in 1982. They quickly became popular and appeared on the cover of various pop magazines including Smash Hits and Number One, and even the more rock-oriented NME and Melody Maker, and they were always good value in interviews. Although they never had a Number One single in the UK (excluding their contributions to charity records), they were consistently successful for a decade and even managed to crack America when their version of the Shocking Blue song “Venus” was a chart-topper in 1986 (this was even referenced in an episode of American Dad, now there’s a legacy). They worked on this song with Stock-Aitken-Waterman, the production team who were really in demand at that point, their work seemed to be all over the singles chart in the late-80s, they produced a huge amount of hits, and they collaborated with everyone from Sonia to Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Shortly after a performance at the 1988 Brit Awards Siobhan was reported to be unhappy with the increasing SAW-isation of their sound, and realising that she wouldn’t be able to achieve her plans for a different musical direction within the group, she decided to quit, and they didn’t appear on TV together again until an edition of TFI Friday in 1998. I’m fairly sure that my sister saw Bananarama live on stage at the 1988 Smash Hits Poll Winners Party at the Royal Albert Hall, by which point Sara and Keren were on their second line-up alongside newcomer Jacquie O’Sullivan. 

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Keren, Sara and Siobhan do their impression of the Thames ident

It was a gamble that would definitely pay off though. Siobhan’s new project was called Shakespear’s Sister, named after a song by The Smiths, and after a slow start, she teamed up with the American singer-songwriter Marcella Detroit who had previously worked with the likes of Eric Clapton and had a vocal ability that was little short of operatic, which contrasted with Siobhan’s low singing voice, creating a unique sound. In the summer of 1989 they had their first Top Ten hit single with the great “You’re History”, and Siobhan was soon back on Top Of The Pops and the cover of Smash Hits. Something that was also noticed about Siobhan was her new look, in the space of just a few years she had transformed from a short blonde-haired dungaree-wearing tomboy into a stunningly seductive black-haired goth goddess, looking totally unrecognisable from her girl group days in what has to be one of the most amazing image changes in pop music history. Then followed a quiet couple of years (although they did win the highly prestigious honour of The ITV Chart Show‘s Best Video Of The Year award in 1991 for “Goodbye Cruel World”), and at the start of 1992 they suddenly hit the big time. 

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Shakespear’s Sister make their debut on the UK Top 40 singles chart in 1989

Their epic song “Stay” went on to spend eight consecutive weeks at Number One, making it the longest-running chart-topping single by an all-female group in UK chart history, even the Spice Girls at the peak of their popularity in the mid-90s didn’t spend longer at the top with any of their hits. Part of the success of “Stay” is down to the famous (and much parodied) video, featuring Marcella’s memorably emotional performance alongside Siobhan’s rather crazed delivery of her lines, which created a huge buzz around the song and got the public talking. They became the band of the moment and I still honestly can’t believe that it’s the same woman who just five years earlier was making songs like “I Heard A Rumour” and “Love In The First Degree”. The fact that a song and video as out there as “Stay” was able to touch a mainstream audience on such a scale really was remarkable, it went platinum and was one of the UK’s biggest-selling singles of the year. (“Stay” also spent six weeks at Number One in Ireland and reached the Top Five in America and Canada). “Stay” won over a new generation after it was performed on The X Factor in 2010 and looking back 25 years on I’m still so pleased that they reached the top. They then had some more success including their third and final Top Ten hit single “I Don’t Care” (they even appeared on Parallel 9 and everything), and they rounded off their incredible year with one final rousing performance of “Stay” live on BBC1 at the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party which took place at the Olympia Arena, but it was clear that things were beginning to go wrong, and barely a year after “Stay” was released, their moment had passed. 

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Marcy gives it her all on live TV

Shortly after winning at the 1993 Brit Awards for which only Marcella turned up it was all over, and unfortunately the lyric from “Goodbye Cruel World” “you’re never gonna see my face again” became all too appropriate. There was a clear clash of personalities between the two and one rumour is that Siobhan and Marcella had a huge falling out, Marcella was receiving most of the plaudits for their success, and wanting to regain sole control over her own project, Siobhan threw Marcella out the group. Marcella was never informed directly about this, only discovering the news through a statement that was released, she never really forgave Siobhan for the way she was let go, they haven’t spoken to one another since, and they are never ever getting back together. After this, Marcella had success with a solo album in 1994, Siobhan returned in 1996 with Shakespear’s Sister now a solo project again, and more singles and albums have been released under the name since in various musical styles, whereas regarding Bananarama, Jacquie left in 1991, and Sara and Keren decided to carry on as a duo, having more hits and touring the world.

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Sara and Keren perform “Movin’ On” on CITV’s What’s Up Doc in 1992, their first hit single as a duo

The reason I am telling you all this is because there was then a rather odd coincidence. In April 2017 there was the surprise announcement that Siobhan had decided to rejoin Bananarama after 29 years and they were going to go on tour across the UK. After wondering what she was up to now, it was great suddenly seeing Siobhan and indeed all three of them back in the spotlight appearing on various TV shows and the news of the reunion seemed to make a lot of people very happy. I do like lots of Bananarama singles of course including “Cruel Summer”, but Shakespear’s Sister were more to my style really. I should also point out that I never thought to try and track any of them down on social media or fansites or anything like that because I hadn’t thought about them for such a long time. 

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They’re back!

Then it began to get rather weird. In one of the many articles that have appeared in newspapers and magazines looking back at their careers since the announcement, it was mentioned that the first step towards their reformation was when they met one another for the first time in goodness knows how many years in Bethnal Green. Now this is the part of London that I live in, and I was rather amused to think they are familiar with this area and have been here, and this was where they built their bridges, started to look at one another and began to think about doing it all over again. It made me feel a part of it a little more to think that one of the most successful pop groups that there has ever been who paved the way for the likes of the Sugababes and Girls Aloud know all about here. Then, doing a little more research, I managed to find a picture that had been posted on Twitter featuring the ladies looking somewhat emotional and clearly having a good time reminiscing about the old days, and Sara stated that they were all having a dance and a barbecue round Siobhan’s house in Bethnal Green. I thought to myself “wow, so one of them had been living here, that’s really great, I never would’ve expected that, I…” waitasec. 

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At the what and where was I?!

Siobhan lived in Bethnal Green? The woman who was in Bananarama and Shakespear’s Sister actually lived in Bethnal Green?? I thought she was great and wondered where she was now and it turned out that she was almost literally living across the road from me all along??? It just had to be her out of the three didn’t it! She had a number one single in America for goodness sake!! To say that I couldn’t believe it is something of an understatement, I was totally shocked and blown away by this news. I first went online about two decades ago now, and I honestly think that this is just about the most extraordinary thing that I have ever discovered in all that time. I still can’t believe it, she lived in the same part of London as me, the woman who sang on “Stay”, she was there… yes, really… just… how? What an incredible coincidence, this pop music eh, who would’ve thought? It does make an impact on your life and it really can sometimes do great things. 

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What more can I say?