Series Two, Episode Four: “You’re aiming for losing tonight, are you Phill?”

Originally Aired on 6th October 1997

Introduction
“Hello, I’m Mark Lamarr, and welcome to Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the pop quiz that says ‘Don’t know much about history, but then I’m only a history teacher in a Hackney comprehensive.’ Our two team captains, it can truly be said, eat, drink and sleep rock and roll. Sean Hughes does the sleeping and Phill Jupitus does the eating and the drinking. Please welcome Phill and Sean, ladies and gentlemen!”

Guests

Shelly Poole – “Sean’s first guest is Shelly Poole, from platinum album sellers Alisha’s Attic. Shelly’s Dad Brian was a rock star in the sixties, so he would shout things like ‘Turn that bloody music up!’, ‘What time do I call this?’ and ‘Get upstairs and trash your bedroom!’”
A pretty quiet episode for Shelly, who does some good work in the Intros round but otherwise doesn’t say too much.

Math Priest – “Sean’s second guest is Math Priest from top five stars and Britpop heroes Dodgy. Dodgy recently went on a tour of Sarajevo, where they argued so much that the Bosnian-Serbs offered to mediate at band meetings.”
Math returns for his second episode, and brings a blokey charm and a couple of quick lines, as per usual. It’s nothing spectacular, but you can see why the show held onto his number throughout the first few series.

Midge Ure – “Phill’s first guest is legendary singer-songwriter, Midge Ure. Midge has sung vocals on three number ones by different artists, and what an enjoyable evening’s karaoke that turned out to be.”
Midge has a bit of a hard task, with two teammates who seem to be getting on very well and are on good form. Unsurprisingly he keeps relatively quiet, providing answers where necessary but keeping jokes to a minimum. He’ll come back a few years later and be dryly funny, but there’s not much evidence of that here.

Graham Norton – “Phill’s second guest is comedian Graham Norton. Since Graham took over the nightly chat show on Channel 5 he’s become famous wherever he goes – inside the Channel 5 building.”
Graham plays the episode perfectly, I’d say – he knows absolutely nothing about any of the music he’s asked about, so he makes that lack of knowledge into the big joke of his appearance. It’s a very good performance. The audience loves him, and it’s easy to see, watching this, why he went on to become such a big star.

Indecipherable Lyrics

Phill’s team must decipher the aural hieroglyphics of the Human League’s Sound of the Crowd. It’s absolute nonsense, frankly – usually in this round there’s an effort to at least concoct some story as to what the false lyrics mean, but all that’s proffered here is a string of nonsense phrases. Fortunately Graham’s on good enough form to at least keep the discussion lively. Midge has something close to the real lyrics – although, as he points out, they make about as much sense as the gag lyrics – and earns his team a point.

Sean’s team get the ‘I can’t believe it’s not a sketch show parody of Manc indie bands’ sounds of How High by the Charlatans. They give us a lot of stuff about monkeys and Courtney Love, and then Shelly gives us a close enough approximation of the truth to earn a point.

Intros Round

Sean and Shelley start with Madness’ Driving in My Car. It rightly draws praise from Mark, with Shelly in particular making what could have been a terrible mess sound exactly like the original record. No surprises that Math gets it.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of their rendition of She Drives Me Crazy by Fine Young Cannibals. Actually, Shelly does a good job with the music again, but blots her copybook by apparently getting Fine Young Cannibals confused with Cameo and miming a codpiece. Sean can’t get the riff right either. Math is, understandably, stumped, while Phill follows the Cameo route. No points for anyone.

Finally we get You Showed Me, as covered by the Lightning Seeds. I could quibble about Sean’s bit being a bit too fast, but he gets the essence of the song enough for Math to recognise it, so it’d be churlish of me to complain, and I’m no churl.

Phill and Midge start their turn with one of the most recognisable intros possible, The Final Countdown by Europe. To be fair, as easy a task as it is, they do it very well anyhow. There’s just one problem – Graham hasn’t heard any music recorded since 1964, so it’s up to Sean to get it right.

Phill and Midge keep up their good work with a well-realised version of Irene Cara’s Fame. Surely Graham knows it? No. No, he doesn’t. Shelly does, though.

Everyone on the planet recognises Ray Parker Jr., and the haunting strains of Ghostbusters, but that doesn’t mean Phill and Midge don’t give it their all. Graham, alas, isn’t actually on the planet, apparently, so Math gets it, plus a round of applause for a pretty good joke.

Connected Round

Phill’s team must find out the connection between Chris Isaak and Terence Trent D’Arby. There’s some funny business with Graham and Midge both being pretty bad at guessing, but Phill remembers that both singers were once boxers. A full complement of points.

Sean’s team get Sid Vicious and Ray Davies. Not much to report – a couple of quick jokes from Sean before he reveals that he knew the truth all along. Both men came close to marrying Chrissie Hynde.

Identity Parade

Phill’s team get the job of picking out both Karel and Matthew Fialka, of Hey Matthew fame. But hey, hey, come look at this – the show’s finally hit on the formula for the Identity Parade gags! Rather than a string of unrelated jokes about the line-up, we get an evolving string of jokes on a single theme. It’s not quite the elaborate lattice that later episodes will hit upon, but it’s a start. The line-up is “number one, Matt Goss, number two, Matt Bianco, number three, Matt Dillon, number four, Matt Le Tissier, number five, the young Matt Munro, and number six, matt emulsion.” It’s all very funny stuff – Phill manages to pose the line-up in a good bit – before the team guesses two and five, correctly, as it happens.

Sean’s team are given a tuxedo-clad line-up, from which they must identify Tenpole Tudor’s rhythm section of Dick Crippen and Gary Long. It’s two of “number one, James Bond, number two, Scaramanga, number three, Pussy Galore, number four, Q, or number five, back of the queue.” Sean’s team guess number two and four look like old punks – and number four looks absolutely chuffed to be described so – but they’re only half-right, with numbers one and two being the real culprits.

Next Lines

If the idea of a quickfire round is to end the game on a note of tension, consider that note pretty flat this week, as Sean’s team starts off miles ahead and then proceeds to rack up such a high score that Phill’s team, having not especially distinguished themselves at the quiz aspect of the show up to this point, don’t have a chance, especially when Graham confuses R Kelly for Orville. In the end, Sean’s team wins 19-13.

In Closing

Still sticking with the standard guitar chord and announcer, before this mangled wreckage of a reference: “I’ve been Mark Lamarr, and I’m not afraid of any ghosts. Good night.”

How Good Is The Script?

  • The Good: The joke confusing the Charlatans and the Charltons is pretty funny.
  • The Bad: There’s a joke about Sid Vicious’ mother being stripped of her title of Mother of the Year which is a good example of a joke letting the facts do the work for it. She bought him the heroin that killed him and then dropped his ashes next to a vent – funny, in a very grim way. The actual punchline is weak and unnecessary after that.
  • Overall: Quite good. There are a few jokes I could have picked for the good, and while nobody’s going to confuse it for a work of high art, it does its job. Besides, we finally have the Identity Parade line-up jokes working.

Proof That It’s 1997

  • The opening joke about the standards of education in Hackney appears to relate to an ongoing news story from the time. 
  • Other contemporary references in the script include the conflict in Bosnia, Suzanne Charlton and a man who entered the lion cage at London Zoo.
  • Math is, of course, the very spirit of mid-to-late 1990s distilled into one drummer with an inoffensive second-tier Britpop band, while Alisha’s Attic haven’t really clung to the national consciousness, despite 1997 being the year in which they were nominated for Best Newcomer at the Brit Awards. They lost to Kula Shaker. 1997!
  • Graham is, of course, a huge star now, but he’s introduced here as the regular guest host of the Jack Docherty Show, and looks frighteningly young.
  • Both the Charlatans’ and the Lightning Seeds’ featured songs were pretty contemporary, and I’m not sure either is among their better remembered songs today.
  • Phill makes reference to the Teletubbies, then a new show, while Graham, prompted by Phill, refers to Boxing Helena, which isn’t exactly forgotten but you can’t imagine a mainstream BBC comedy show making reference to it at any other time than within a year or two of its release.
  • Graham makes a reference to the equalisation of age of consent laws for same-sex couples. He actually jumps the gun somewhat – Labour were trying to equalise the law, but wouldn’t successfully push it through until 2000.
  • Phill has a joke about the now-defunct Littlewoods catalogue.

Other Observations

  • It’s Math’s turn to wear the ‘Support the Liverpool dockers’ t-shirt that both Sean and Mark Thomas wore in the first series. I hope it got washed between episodes.
  • After Mark introduces Phill’s team, Phill and Graham seem to be having a very good, animated chat, while Midge looks on forlornly. Poor chap.
  • There’s something very odd about Phill’s team’s contribution to the Indecipherable Lyrics round, in that Graham’s suggestions keep being contradicted by Phill and Midge. Was Graham not available for the pre-episode working-out of the round and had to write his own lyrics?
  • Mark seems to be getting restless – three times he gets up from behind the desk for the sake of a joke. None of them are really that funny, but it’s something he’ll do to greater effect in later series, and at the very least it’s one way to distinguish him from other panel show hosts.
  • A bit of an oddity – while Mark explains how both Sid Vicious and Ray Davies almost married Chrissie Hynde, Brass in Pocket is played very quietly in the background, with accompanying footage. It doesn’t really serve any purpose – we don’t need it to illustrate who Chrissie Hynde is for us – other than to try and make a lengthy, gag-free explanation more interesting.
  • Number five in the Fialka line-up – the actual Matthew – completely corpses when the man stood next to him is introduced as Matt Le Tissier, and appears to glance back to his father, which somewhat gives the game away.

Final Verdict
Another good episode, with Graham and Phill in good self-deprecating form and a decent script. It starts slowly – I know I keep banging on about it, but Indecipherable Lyrics can go badly awry – but it just keeps getting better as it goes on.

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.