Series Two, Episode Six: “Three and six. And that’s about what they were.”

Originally Aired on 20th October 1997

Introduction
“Hello, I’m Mark Lamarr, and welcome to Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the pop quiz that says ‘There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a bracelet from Ratner’s’. Out two team captains have both been banned from heavy metal concerts, Sean because he’s too scruffy, and Phill because he would insist on stage-diving. Hughes and Jupitus, ladies and gentlemen, my team captains.”

Guests

Brian Molko – “Phill’s first guess is Brian Molko, singer with top five big goth’s blouses Placebo. The band are named after a type of medication, like many other groups: Brian Enos, Adam Antacid and Dexys Midnight Rennies.”
The first of three appearances for Brian, who’s winsome and sweet and has some good lines, although maybe not the best delivery. Definitely a good guest, though.

Bruce Dickinson – “Phill’s second guest is heavy metal warrior, Bruce Dickinson, former lead singer with Satanic cock rockers Iron Maiden. In the Maiden Bruce knew all too well the number of the beast. In fact, the beast has since gone ex-directory to get rid of him.”
Bruce returns, having been on the very first episode. He’s hamstrung by being sat to Phill’s right – his strong point on his previous appearance was his gameness in the Intros Round; here he comes across as quite low-energy and disengaged from the show.

Saffron – “Sean’s first guest is Saffron, lead singer with top ten techno monkeys Republica. Republica’s hit Ready to Go was played on Baywatch, the only show where both the soundtrack and the cast are available in vinyl.”
Saffron turns in what is pretty much the standard for a one-off musical guest at this point in the show. She doesn’t contribute many jokes but takes part in the Intros Round well and has a few of the answers. Nothing memorable but no disgrace.

David Baddiel – “Sean’s second guest is comedian, author and chart-topper, David Baddiel. David’s got a new video out right now. It’s called Swedish Lesbian Sauna Schoolgirls and it’s due back on Wednesday.”
Some good jokes from David, who seems relaxed and at home here. Not exactly the sort of performance that dominates an episode, but a good, solid show for a comedian.

Indecipherable Lyrics

Phill’s team must make whimsy from the Rolling Stones’ Tumbling Dice. They decide it’s about cheese. We do get some funny Stones/cheese based humour – Bruce even gets in a good (but clearly pre-scripted – stop looking at your notes!) variant on the hoary old ‘Keith Richards getting his veins changed’ story – but the actual lyrics themselves are as tedious as ever. Well, OK, it does sound a bit like he’s singing “slow down Bagpuss”, I’ll give them that. Anyway, Bruce pretty much has the right lyrics. Two points.

Sean’s team get the Happy Mondays’ Kinky Afro. Cue some nonsense about amputees. To be honest, Sean and David’s hearts seem to be more in making the standard Happy Mondays ‘what did Bez do, loads of drugs’ jokes. I don’t blame them, mind. Saffron bails us all out with a close enough approximation for two points.

Intros Round

Sean and Saffron get us started with Alice Cooper’s School’s Out. Sean, as is his wont, lets Saffron handle the tune and busies himself with mimes: golf, hanging himself, etc. Saffron does a solid enough job with a pretty recognisable riff, anyhow, and David gets it.

Next, it’s Ann Peebles and I Can’t Stand the Rain. It’s an OK version – a little too slow for my liking but they do it well enough for that not to matter. David keeps up his hot streak.

Finally, New Pollution by Beck. It’s recognisable if not quite spot-on, but David’s lost. Brian gets the artist but the wrong song, so no points.

Phill and Brian start their turn with Bachman Turner Overdrive’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet – quick, do your best Smashie and Nicey impressions – and do a very good job, all told. Remarkably, no-one gets it. Bruce, at least, seems ashamed not to have got it.

Next, the Stray Cats, and Runaway Boys. It’s close but not quite there – a little slow and too-sparse for my liking – but at the very least they manage to get over the visual clue of miming a double bass and Brian pretending to have a quiff. Admirable restraint in not just pointing at Mark. Bruce has the band but not the song; Sean’s team appear to have fallen asleep.

Finally, Whatever You Want by Status Quo. It’s one of those early series piss-easy ones, frankly, but you can only play the cards you’re dealt and Phill and Brian do it well enough that Bruce finally earns a point.

Connected Round

Phill’s team are first up and have to find the connection between ZZ Top and Jerry Lee Lewis. The answer, is, of course, that Steve Albini has covered both artists, with Rapeman’s rendition of Just Got Paid being the stand-out of their album, while Big Black really made the latter’s Kerosene their own. What? Oh, OK. There’s some japery involving teenage brides and beards and the like, but the actual ‘grounded in reality’ answer is the accidental non-fatal shootings of bassists, ZZ Top’s bassist Dusty Hill having accidentally shot himself in the ‘lower abdomen’, while Jerry Lee Lewis shot his bassist Butch Owens. Full points.

Sean’s team must then link Axl Rose to Cher. David has a very funny but incorrect anagram-based answer, but the truth lies in their brief marriages, both having had marriages lasting less than a month. Saffron was in the marriage ball-park, so two points are administered.

Identity Parade

Sean’s team are tasked with identifying a bona fide legend, X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene. It’s one of “number one, polyester, number two, polyunsaturate, number three, polyurethane, number four, Polly put the kettle on, or number five, Polly Wolly Doodle all the day”. We appear to have a team of X-Ray Spex fans, so it’s pretty simple stuff – number two.

From the sublime to the ridiculous – Phill’s team get Paul Griggs and Martine Howard of Guys ‘n’ Dolls. The line-up, alternated by gender, is “number one, Lenny Bruce, number two, Pam Ayres, number three, Lennie Bennett, number four, Pam Shriver, number five, Lenny the Lion, or number six, Pam-Pam-Pam-Pam [to the tune of whatever that fanfare is… sorry, I don’t know]”. Brian pulls the ‘before my time’ card, Bruce was too busy going to Poly Styrene concerts (he claims – don’t worry Bruce, you can admit you were too busy listening to Yes, this is a safe haven), but Phill has an encyclopaedic knowledge of this sort of shite. He correctly identifies them as three and six.

Next Lines

There’s an amusing moment of synchronicity when Sean and Saffron somehow simultaneously guess the wrong lyric. Otherwise, it’s a largely textbook round. Saffron and Brian are both pretty good, Sean’s team, having gone in as winners, hold onto that lead, winning 17-13.

In Closing

Standard guitar chord stuff: “I’ve been Mark Lamarr, and may I say, not in a gay way. Good night.”

How Good Is The Script?

  • The Good: I like a good silly joke, and the joke about the Stray Cats is very silly and very good.
  • The Bad: Take your pick. The introductory jokes are pretty shit.
  • Overall: A couple of decent jokes, but otherwise it’s a parade of the hackneyed, well-worn and obvious.

Proof That It’s 1997

  • Saffron’s the big stand-out guest in this regard – Republica had a handful of hits but are almost entirely remembered for Ready to Go, and the legal mandate that it be played before every football match between 1997 and 2005 (roughly). Everyone else looks very young – even Bruce, despite being close to 20 years into his career at this point.
  • Ratner’s hasn’t actually been called as such since 1993, so the joke in the introduction was already pretty dated. Still, Gerald Ratner’s ill-advised remarks were probably more fresh in the memory at the time.
  • I don’t think anyone’s made reference to going ex-directory since about 2004, while the joke about David renting pornography in his introduction harkens back to the more innocent days when obtaining grumble actually took effort.
  • There’s almost a trifecta of dated references in the introductory jokes, but seeing as a Baywatch film has just been released at the time I’m writing this, clearly some things don’t ever fully go away.

Other Observations

  • One thing the show never seems to quite get right is heavy metal. Even as a dyed-in-the-wool punk, I know that Iron Maiden aren’t cock rock. Bruce doesn’t seem to mind, at least.
  • We’ll save a big, in-depth discussion about whether or not Mark is (or at least can be) misogynistic for the Gail Porter episode – at my rate, probably sometime in 2023 – but there is an unnecessarily aggressive tone to the remark he makes to Saffron – “Put your head down then, don’t push your tits up” – when she and Sean are performing Beck in the Intros Round. It’s more in what he says than how he says it. By comparison, David was able to make fun of the same action without seeming unpleasant, because he didn’t seem inexplicably angry as he did so. Saffron, for what it’s worth, seems distinctly unimpressed by Mark’s remark and/or tone.
  • Actually, I don’t want to pile on him, but Mark’s pretty gratingly bad in this episode. He’s working off a bit of a lame script, but his off-hand jokes are crap here too, and I could have done without hearing his rendition of X-Ray Spex’s Identity, however brief. Probably the most grating thing at this point, though, is that he’s still trying to be deadpan, but can’t stop laughing, so he has a barely-suppressed smirk throughout. He’ll improve a lot once he learns to relax and actually be himself.
  • Alright, I’ll take a pop at someone besides Mark – I made a fuss over Bruce reading his notes earlier on, but he seems to do it a lot, even at times when he’s not delivering jokes. Slight shyness, maybe?

Final Verdict
Not a great episode, truth be told. The biggest problem is that no-one really takes it by the scruff of the neck. I’ve said my piece on Mark, but neither Phill nor Sean have anything memorable to contribute, David does alright but doesn’t dominate and none of the musical guests are that interesting as guests. It’s OK, but it’s not one you’d specifically pick out to watch.

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Series One, Episode One: “Motivation? Oh yes, £500, that’s what it was.”

Originally Aired on the 12th November 1996
Watch it here.

I suppose, this being the first episode and everything, this is the place to discuss Never Mind the Buzzcocks’ opening credits. I think they remained in place, completely unchanged, until Mark Lamarr left, and they do have a whiff of mid-90s about them, partly from the fashions on show, partly from the drum ‘n’ bass theme tune but mostly from the way it evokes youth programming of the era. It took me years to realise, mostly because I was seven and had only been to one gig, Space at Derby Assembly Rooms, at the time the show aired, that the opening credits are meant to represent the crowd at a rock gig, and the rapid cuts between people generally looking drunk or stoned and doing things like making out are meant to tell us that ‘this isn’t Have I Got News For You you’re watching now, sonny Jim!’ Of course, that sense of edginess doesn’t necessarily hold up once the show starts, but there is an effort to keep up the gig theme with the show’s set.

Introduction
Hello, I’m Mark Lamarr, and welcome to Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the show that says ‘Hey Mr. Tambourine Man, what first attracted you to the Salvation Army?’ Our first team captain is Ireland’s very own answer to the question ‘Who’s that bloke over there?’ It’s Sean Hughes! And leading the second team, a man who comes from Essex, so he’s the only one here who thinks the set’s tastefully understated, it’s Phill Jupitus ladies and gentlemen!”

One area in which the show continually changed was in its opening jokes – the first few series open with jokes based on famous lyrics. Later series would construct convoluted alliterative one-liners based on musical genres, and toward the end of Lamarr’s run they would become ever more elaborate.

Additionally, the show introduces the two team captains for every episode in the first series, probably a safe bet because, as near as I know, prior to the show neither was a real star – both were known on the stand-up circuit, and Sean Hughes had had his Channel 4 sitcom Sean’s Show but only Mark was really a household name. As with most panel shows NMTB will eventually develop a series of running jokes about each of its regulars, although these introductions don’t show any signs of those to come – Phill being from Essex isn’t touched on too often and Sean’s introduction is a bit too vague and nonspecific to hint at anything. In truth, the show will struggle to think of a defining characteristic for Sean, with the odd joke about him being scruffy or a bad poet, but nothing as obvious as Phill’s size or Mark’s greaser image.

Everyone involved looks very young, particularly Phill, who also looks a bit bigger than he will in later years and who is clean-shaven here.

Guests

Math Priest – “Sean’s first guest is the drummer with one of the country’s hottest bands, Dodgy. He’s a singing drummer but swears that’s the only similarity between him and Phil Collins, it’s Dodgy’s Math Priest!”

During the first series there seems to be a slight unwillingness to make jokes at the expense of the musical guests during their introductions, so these tend to be more lightly humorous than anything for a few episodes. Math is a regular guest on the show in the early days, although he’s more likeable and knowledgeable than outright hilarious.

Richard Fairbrass – “Sean’s other guest is one of that small group of bald, singing gymnasium owners who named their band after a Bernard Cribbins record. Please welcome, Right Said Fred’s Richard Fairbrass!”

Another regular, although Richard sticks around for pretty much as long as Mark does. He’s one of the funnier musical guests, and develops a good rapport with Mark, which is something that helps the show a lot – these early episodes are a little stiffer and more formal, and it’s guests like Richard, musicians who are at ease, funny and get on well with the comedians, who help to lead the show toward the more relaxed tone it’ll take on.

Bruce Dickinson – “Phill’s first guest sold millions of records around the world with Iron Maiden. He’s a historian, a fencer and the voice of British heavy metal, Bruce Dickinson!”

The first of three appearances for Bruce, who comes across as pleasant and game for a laugh without being overly amusing. He somehow manages to look the youngest on the show despite being the second oldest there, as near as I can tell.

Donna McPhail – “Phill’s other guest is a comedian and presenter of the Sunday Show, a programme whose ratings have remained high despite stiff competition from Farming Outlook and Morris Dancing Weekly. Please welcome Donna McPhail!”

I have to admit I’m a bit young to really remember Donna McPhail, but I know that she was a comedian who, as the introduction says, hosted the Sunday Show and was involved with the Mary Whitehouse Experience in its radio form – Wikipedia tells me that she’s no longer a comedian and is now a journalist. She never really manages to take the show by the scruff of the neck, although she’s far from alone in that in the show’s earliest days.

Freeze Frame
A popular game early on, it’s essentially the classic ‘What Happens Next’ from A Question of Sport and the like. It’s a good showcase for wacky videos, but that can get old fast.

Sean’s team get the video for Prefab Sprout’s The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and are shown Paddy McAloon and co hanging out by a swimming pool, accompanied by a Speedo-clad hunk and a waiter with a frog’s head, before the video pauses on a robotic talking bust (as in a statue, not a lady’s chest). Richard, setting the tone for most of his appearances early on, wishes to focus on the man in his trunks, but Sean gets the first big laugh and round of applause on the show by claiming it was Irish swimmer Michelle Smith, then in the news for alleged urine sample tampering. Math believes that what happens next is that Prefab Sprout made one more album and their career nosedived – hmm, people in glass house and all that. After some more tomfoolery the correct answer is successfully given – three dancing hot dogs appear, a little bizarre but not inexplicable given the song’s lyrics.

Phill’s team get some prime late-period Rolling Stones with the video for She Was Hot, and are shown a man answering several telephones while a model reclines on a television set and breathes flames. Their guesses aren’t especially funny or interesting, although Bruce does get tongue-tied, referring to ‘the alien in Chestburster’, something that goes unnoticed, before Richard jumps in to joke that she lights her fart. Mark deems this close enough to show what happens next, which, as you can imagine, is that the young lady farts a column of flame.

Intros
One of the show’s signature rounds, I don’t think they’ve done an episode without it.

Phill and Bruce start with ABBA’s Dancing Queen. These early shows have a lot of distinctive, famous intros, perhaps understandably, and with this one done fairly well Donna gets it almost immediately.

Next, Down Down by Status Quo. Not an especially great performance, with Bruce in particular making it sound far too heavy and neither really giving much of the tune. Through no fault of her own Donna doesn’t get it; inexplicably Math does.

Reach Out, I’ll Be There by the Four Tops next – a very good performance, but Donna can’t remember the title so Math gets it.

Finally, Step On by the Happy Mondays. Bruce wants to do the distinctive piano intro but gets it wrong, so Phill takes over and does it near perfectly. Bruce’s contribution is… less perfect, and leads to him dancing on the desks. I seem to recall that early on the show was famous/infamous for this happening fairly often, with it having the whiff of pre-planned ‘spontaneity’. In hindsight it feels similar to the opening credits, an attempt to push the show as being edgier than its contemporaries, although how well it achieves those aims is open to your interpretation. Anyway, Donna doesn’t get it, so once again Math leaps in.

You’ll notice, at this point, that to begin with the show had four intros. After a couple of series it became three, and then eventually two. In some ways this is indicative of the way the show goes – these early episodes are absolutely packed with games, with very little room to breathe, chat or even tell jokes, and I suspect this is the reason why knowledgeable guests like Math flourished early on. This is pretty much the way it goes with panel shows – early Have I Got News For You episodes can feature as many as eight rounds, and even the looser, more free-form QI would rush by at a hectic pace in its first series to accommodate all the questions.

Sean and Richard get Baker Street by Gerry Rafferty. They do it well although it’s hard to do it badly, really. Math gets it.

Next we have Parklife by Blur – Richard’s impression of the guitar isn’t great but Sean, just shouting “Oi!”, gets the song over and is funny doing it, something that doesn’t happen too often in this round, with laughs usually coming from how bad the performances are. It also starts a trademark of Sean’s, which is to get the song over not through performing it but more through visual or verbal clues.

After that, I Love You Love Me Love by Gary Glitter. Richard performs the song on his own, and does a pretty god job, Sean busying himself with an admittedly very good impression of the then-reputable Mr Glitter. Math gets it.

Finally, probably the first legitimately bad performance of the series, How Soon Is Now? by the Smiths. Neither Sean or Richard really does it well, although Sean’s impression of the famous swooping guitar line is probably more distracting than anything, with their rendition making the song sound more like some bizarre avant-garde experiment in noise than an indie anthem. Math doesn’t get it, but Sean’s impression of Morrissey waving flowers is enough for Phill to get it. For the first time they play the song after, possibly to show just how bad Sean and Richard’s rendition was.

Indecipherable Lyrics
A popular round early on; unfortunately it’s rarely funny, since for the most part it just devolves into reading nonsensical, vaguely ‘random’ phrases which, presumably, have been pre-prepared by or for the guests. It’ll stick around for a while, though, so strap yourself in.

Phill’s team get Elvis Costello’s Pump It Up. After some perfunctory jokes claiming that the lyrics are indeed nothing but mumbling, and the first appearance of a ‘Well, that last bit was [title of song]…’ joke, Bruce contributes some joke lyrics. Oddly enough, when Mark says he’d like to hear them sing them along with the track, they sing the real lyrics, apparently written down by Phill since Bruce is leaning over to read them. Strange editing perhaps?

Sean’s team get Boogie Wonderland by Earth, Wind & Fire. There’s a couple of jokes about the video but not even a token effort at joke lyrics, not that I’m complaining. Richard can remember it all, except for one line.

The Identity Parade
Probably the round most closely associated with the show, they’ve tried out a few games in its place here and there but for the most part it’s remained intact.

Phill’s team get the Glitter Band, and have to identify lead singer Gerry Shephard and drummer Pete Phipps. There are no introductions for the individual line-up members, as there would be in later shows, but Phill tries an early variation of the standard ‘talk to them and hope they respond’ routine, while Donna is the unfortunate first panellist to eliminate someone based on rather illogical reasoning, claiming that number three ‘looks like somebody’s Dad’ and therefore couldn’t be in the Glitter Band. She needn’t feel too bad, as plenty of other people down the line will come out with far more bizarre statements during this round. They guess 1 & 4; it turns out to be 2 & 4 and we all move quickly on, with no statements about what they’re up to now or the like. These episodes really are very fast-paced.

Sean’s team get Paul Hardcastle, looking rather like John Sessions in the video clip shown. They identify him immediately, on the sound logic that number two looks like Paul Hardcastle, and lo and behold they’re right.

Dance Craze
A round dedicated to Legs & Co, Pan’s People and the like, in which their performances are played with the soundtrack removed and the team have to guess what song is being danced to. It’s in most episodes this series, but after that only appears a couple more times before being done away with.

Sean’s team get several Crazy Joe Davola-esque clowns dancing while one of them lies dead on a chair; the other clowns pass a rose down a line which is placed on the dead clown. The team offers joke suggestions that seem inappropriate or focus on minute details before correctly guessing Tragedy by the Bee Gees. Simple as that.

Phill’s team get bank robbers dancing behind some flimsy cardboard jail bars. Phill gets a good joke in – “Is it Free Nelson Mandela, Mark?” – before correctly guessing ‘Bankrobber’ by the Clash.

Next Lines
And to finish with, another round that has stayed on ever since. Compared to later episodes the quickfire aspect of the round is very much on display here, with the teams getting very competitive and telling few jokes. It finished with Phill’s team on 23 and Sean’s on 25.

In Closing
“So thanks to both our teams, you’ve been watching Never Mind the Buzzcocks.”
LOUD GUITAR CHORD
ANNOUNCER: ‘Til next time, thank you!
“I’ve been Mark Lamarr, good night.”

I believe this remains the show’s closing sequence for a couple of years at least – it’s a while before they start putting jokes here.

How Good is the Script?

  • The Good: There’s a pretty good joke after the Prefab Sprout bit, with the male model in the video dubbed ‘Albert Kirky’ in reference to the song’s lyrics, while the Rolling Stones video comes with an amusing play on Jerry Hall’s famous ‘whore in the bedroom…’ line.
  • The Bad: There’s a pretty predictable ABBA joke that’s not helped by Mark repeating the set-up to emphasise the punchline, and the Prefab Sprout question does chuck up a fairly obvious Elvis Presley joke that also suffers from being overexplained a bit.
  • In General: It’s OK. More jokes work than don’t, but very few feel genuinely inspired, and we’re a long way off the playfulness that makes some of the later episodes really work.

Proof That It’s 1996

  • Is there a phrase that evokes 1996 more than ‘one of the country’s hottest bands, Dodgy’? Donna is also a very 1996 guest.
  • Bruce is referred to as having previously been in Iron Maiden, this coming during his ten year solo spell. He also looks, curiously enough, like a lost member of Teenage Fanclub.
  • There are topical jokes about Michelle Smith and Brookside.
  • Mark does a John Major impression, which is also a sure sign we’re in the mid 90s.
  • There’s two rounds related to Gary Glitter with nary a mention of, well, exactly what you’re thinking of.
  • A lot of the music covered dates from the 1970s, and particularly the late 1970s, which fits in with my own personal theory that most pop cultural nostalgia tends to stretch back about 15-20 years. Interestingly, the audience laughs at Nineteen by Paul Hardcastle, with nothing obvious to laugh about – I seem to remember the 1980s being seen as far more embarrassing during the 1990s, rather than  now when they’re seen as something cheesy to be embraced somewhat.

Other Observations

  • Mark is quite stiff to begin with, and his surly demeanour here feels more put-on than it would later, which is understandable, but oddly also feels more put-on than on Shooting Stars, which predates this.
  • Even by his own standards, Richard’s suit is, shall we say, distinctive in this episode.
  • Richard jokes that his motivation, before the intros round, is £500, leading Mark to say “Or as you call it, Two Little Boys”. A discussion of the comedic conflation of homosexuality with paedophilia is more a topic for Street Laughter to analyse, but it’s Richard’s good nature that stops the joke from coming across as unpleasant.
  • As I’ve mentioned a couple of times the quiz as a whole is taken more seriously not just by Mark but the teams too, with the Intros round particularly looking far more well-prepared and rehearsed than it usually would later on.
  • Phill is a big Star Wars fan – I believe he themed a stand-up show around it in the late 90s – and makes a lot of Star Wars jokes in these early episodes, beginning with a Wookie reference in Indecipherable Lyrics.
  • During the Next Lines round, Mark lets quite a few slightly wrong lyrics go, and also doesn’t read out the correct answer when they do get them wrong.

Final Verdict
Well, it’s interesting, that’s for sure. It’s all delivered at breakneck pace, as if audiences are watching for the quiz aspects rather than the comedy, and as a result it’s hard to judge it on its comedic merits as even the team captains get barely a word in edgeways. As it is it feels like the skeleton of what is to come – the basic rounds are there, but nothing’s quite in its finished state. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, which makes it watchable at least, but there’s no great laughs and in the end it’s mostly of interest for historical purposes only.