Truly, we live in an age of miracles. The last few years have seen a deluge of television shows arriving on DVD that this writer had previously thought would never see the light of day. Yet there they are, blinking owlishly in the sunlight, waiting to be purchased and enjoyed all over again.
Fans of panel games received a major treat last month when the first series of Whodunnit was released by Network DVD. They follow up this month with series 1 of Jokers Wild. According to the initial press release this is coming out because of fan demand. I can only applaud this action on both sides – the fans for requesting it, and Network for listening. This really is a surprising treat.
First broadcast in 1969, Jokers Wild (not to be confused with the American show of the same name) was a mainstay for Yorkshire Television. It ran until 1974, initially networked in a prime time early evening slot before being shuttled around and eventually ending up in a somewhat less prestigious mid afternoon spot. It still racked up a substantial number of episodes. More than 150 were made : up until recently the highly useful lostshows.com had the twentieth episode logged as missing, but it now appears to have been located – certainly the database listing now claims the run is complete. If true, Jokers Wild is – with the exception of a couple of inserts on All Star Comedy Carnival – theoretically available for a full DVD release. Let’s hope so. It deserves it. This first season run of 19 episodes is an excellent start.
As with all of the best game shows, not only is the format terribly simple, but the scoring is the least important part of proceedings. It’s not the winning or losing that matters, it’s the journey the contestants take to get there that’s important.
With occasional tiny tweaks the setup never varies. Two teams of three comedians are pitted against each other in a simple quest to discover “who knows all the jokes”. Each contestant in turn is given a subject to crack wise about. At any point one of the other contestants may buzz in and attempt to finish the joke. If the punchline is correct, extra points are scored, but the original contestant still gets the chance to try and finish their original story. Needless to say, with six comedians all jostling for position the punchline is very rarely guessed – even when it is you tend to see the original contestant switching tracks and trying to come up with a new joke on the spot. One-upmanship is definitely the order of the day.
You’ll hear several routines cropping up time and time again. Not necessarily a problem – Jokers Wild was obviously never made with a future home release in mind. These shows were meant to be aired once a week, probably never to be seen again. It’s only watching a batch in quick succession that certain patterns begin to appear.
Immediately before the commercial break one comedian is selected and led to a microphone set up within inches of the front row of the audience. They have precisely one minute to garner as many laughs as possible, with the scoring held back until the beginning of part two.
At the end of the show all six contestants are given the beginning of a joke along the lines of “I wouldn’t say the food was tough, but…” – it’s then up to them to complete the joke for extra points.
With this many comic talents in one place it’s inevitable that something sometimes has to give. When someone launches forth on a rambling shaggy dog story, it’s not unusual for them to be interrupted with another rambling shaggy dog story. When the game returns to the original contestant – who then takes their own time to complete their original joke – we frequently find ourselves in the situation where the unfortunate comedian who is last on the rota is unable to get more than a couple of words in before the credits roll. A shame, but sometimes it’s the rambling digressions that make it all so much fun.
Presiding over the madness with something resembling beatific calm is the ever reliable, ever wonderful Barry Cryer. As a man who would spend a lifetime being given silly things to do on I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, Barry knows a thing or two about jokes. Here he confines himself to an occasional barbed aside and lets everyone else take the spotlight.
For the first few episodes Barry is aided and abetted by Isabella Rye, who contributes precisely nothing to assist the flow of the game but it’s obvious Barry enjoys her company. Occasionally she leads the contestant of choice over to the standup microphone, but other than that she sits beside Barry giggling helplessly. It’s pretty fair to say that her appearance leads to some comments you almost certainly wouldn’t get away with today. It’s also pretty fair to say that she plays up to it as well. Some of the panel appear hypnotised by her, and Barry frequently doesn’t know where to look. Before we’re even a third of the way through this initial run she disappears, leaving an embattled Barry to deal with a malfunctioning desk all on his own.
The chairman’s desk is fitted out with what obviously seemed like a useful gadget – press a button and it pops up a card with the subject of the next joke. Unfortunately, it rarely works, leaving Barry vamping furiously and trying desperately to dislodge the card from the innards of the machinery. By the middle of the series I was envisioning the mechanics being removed altogether and replaced by a technician in a brown overcoat and flat cap, sitting under the desk and physically pushing the cards up to Barry.
As for the contestants themselves – you’re in safe hands here. Humphrey Lyttleton would undoubtedly refer to them as a “veritable who’s that of British Comedy”, but you’ll be intimately familiar with the works of a large proportion of them.
On any given episode you can expect to encounter the likes of Les Dawson, Roy Hudd, Don MacLean, Lennie Bennett, Alfred Marks or John Junkin. When Ray Cameron turns up he appears to have brought his own fanclub with him, as every time his name is mentioned girlish squeals erupt from the audience. Still, as one of the series’ creators he probably deserves some recognition. Not that he needs any help as he is far and away one of the most accomplished contestants. Kenneth Earle even cheats during the standup round, bringing his longstanding double-act partner Malcolm Vaughan up from the audience for a bit of quick-fire cross talk. Norman Collier pitches up several times, too. Not once does he do his malfunctioning microphone routine. I was waiting for it, but he contents himself with telling some really rather splendid jokes.
Surprisingly, the contestant who seems the least comfortable is the one I would have thought would take to the format like a duck to water. Those familiar with the barnstorming, blustering performances of Jimmy Edwards in shows like Take It From Here and Whacko! may be surprised by the diffident, gentle, shy figure he presents here. He barely says more than a few sentences in his one appearance, and really doesn’t seem happy working without a script. It’s an interesting peek at the quiet soul underneath the bravado, and it’s really rather fascinating.
Several of the other regular participants are – I’m afraid to say – unfamiliar to me. Bobby Pattinson, Kenny Cantor, Dave Allenby and others all make a creditable showing, but I can’t recall ever encountering their work before. Still, that’s one of the joys of a series like this. You get a little peek into light entertainment history. It’s a snapshot of the British comedy scene as it was in 1969.
Captain of the first team is the ever avuncular and smiling Ted Ray.
As a man who has been in the business of telling jokes for years, Ted has nothing to prove and he’s the perfect choice here. If the show appears to be falling a little flat you can always rely on Ted to pull an absolute howler out of the recesses of his catalogue-like brain. Like Bob Monkhouse it’s obvious that this man has thousands of jokes on any given subject at his disposal. He sits there, looking uncannily like Ernie Wise, letting fly every single round. I don’t think he’s ever lost for a punchline – not even once.
This is just as well, because sitting next to him for the entire run of these episodes is the remarkable Ray Martine.
I think it’s fair to say that – for better or worse – Martine dominates these episodes. Sporting a remarkable close perm, defiantly, flamboyantly camp at all times, Martine specialises in waspish comments and bitchy asides. What he doesn’t specialise in – as he admits himself – is being able to complete a joke satisfactorially. I don’t think he gets through one single round in the entire run without being interrupted, distracted or otherwise doing battle with one of the other contestants.
He can be massively entertaining, especially when he locks horns with Les Dawson (who takes an almost indecent amount of pleasure in nicking the joke off him on every single occasion). Les can frequently be heard complaining at the length of time it takes Ray to get to the point – “Has Alice Faye finished, then?” Ray is never, ever lost for words, usually nasty ones – his favourite insult is definitely “you can talk, sitting there in the remains of your demob suit” which crops up on more than one occasion. Frequently lapsing into Polari and on one show getting away with a very strong joke indeed (at least for primetime ITV in 1969), he ensures that every programme is lively and unpredictable and he’s certainly essential to these early shows.
At other times he’s overpoweringly disruptive – shouting over the top of other contestants, wandering about the set and on one occasion lying on the desk and pretending to have passed out through sheer boredom. Ted Ray gamely pretends to give him the kiss of life. Depending on what sort of mood he’s in, Martine can make a show superb, or kill the atmosphere stone dead. Occasionally Ted Ray has to slap him down, and Barry even has to stop the game sometimes to tell him to settle. Even so he’s still esssential as when he works with the flow of the show rather than against it he’s frequently the funniest thing on there.
Apart from Les Dawson, of course. All sane and sensible people love Les Dawson, and there’s a very good reason for that. He’s brilliant. That lugubrious face is put to good use here with a version of his legendary “blow the candle out” routine, and his love of the English language shines through almost every time he opens his mouth. Listening to Dawson speak is frequently like listening to poetry. He loves words, and he knows how to use them. The fact that he frequently uses them just to annoy Ray Martine is merely a useful bonus. On one show he even tag-teams with Roy Hudd to utterly destroy Martine’s turn and ends up collapsing into Hudd’s arms, hysterical with mirth.
That show is by several miles the funniest, warmest and most enjoyable of the 19 in this selection – you’ll know it when you get to it.
Here’s the maestro at work…
The second team captaincy is shared out over the series, never settling on one regular for too long. Initially it’s Charlie Chester, another old-school joke machine. It’s a joy to watch him and Ted Ray swapping quips with evident relish. They know what they’re doing, and they obviously adore doing it. Charlie obviously had other commitments though, because he disappears after six shows. Alfred Marks has a go, as does Roy Hudd. Panel game veteran David Nixon even turns up. Presumably years working on What’s My Line made him a shoe-in. It’s interesting that the slot is never permanently fixed. Maybe it was as the show settled down, but for now it’s refreshing because you never quite know who you’ll get next.
Jokers Wild was initially filmed in black and white at Yorkshire’s newly custom built for colour studio. On plugging in the first episode you may be as pleasantly surprised as I was when after the lovely original Yorkshire logo, the terribly scratchy filmed title sequence gives way to beautiful, fluid studio videotape. Unfortunately that fluidity is rarely matched by the thunking camera work which for the first few shows sways about and zooms in and out in a disconcerting manner. An attempt at a lengthy pan across the panel fails completely at one point when the camera obviously gets snagged on a trailing cable and comes sheepishly to a halt. Early days for director David Mallet, who would go on to an illustrious pop video career working with the likes of Queen, Pink Floyd, Blondie and many others. He obviously enjoyed working with Les Dawson, as he’s behind the camera on the latter’s long-running Sez Les series too.
At roughly the halfway mark the series switches to colour, presumably in preparation for the commercial network’s incumbent switch over in November 1969. The show gains a new venue as well, moving to “The Famous Varieties Theatre” in Leeds (a fact proudly emblazoned on every end-of-episode credit from then on). It’s a very good move – the early studio shows sometimes have quite a dry feel to them, with everyone not quite sure how to get the format moving. Once they’re up on a raised stage playing before a theatre audience pretty much all of the contestants raise their game and the second half of the series is frequently superb. Just watch Roy Hudd when called upon to deliver the standup spot. This man is in his element. He totally nails it, with frequent cutaways to the other panellists showing a variety of reactions from utterly helpless with mirth to awed astonishment. It’s a masterclass, and it’s one which is rarely matched – perhaps only the remarkably polished and quickfire Don MacLean comes close. As someone I only ever knew for gooning about on Crackerjack, his winning way with a one-liner was a very pleasant surprise.
Viewers of todays game shows will be struck almost immediately by one very obvious fact – everyone, and I mean everyone, smokes like chimneys. I’ve never seen a studio so full of cigarette smoke. Even Barry has one on for the duration of the series. The ashtrays are frequently full to overflowing, and the air is blue with smoke. Which matches some of the jokes. Those of a timid disposition should be aware that this being 1969, some of the humour veers a little towards subjects that you just couldn’t use today. Don’t be too offended, or upset. There’s no malice intended from anyone. At worst some of the jokes are unthinking. There’s more than enough genuine wit and humour on display elsewhere to compensate. You have been warned though. It’s another reason which makes this a remarkable historical document. You will never see their like again.
Network have stuck to the original broadcast order for this release, and several things become immediately clear. Firstly, it’s obvious that Jokers Wild was recorded in batches of several episodes at a time. The same combination of panellists crops up over two-to-three shows, all wearing the same outfits. Ray Martine of course, passes comment on this and gives the game away, but it’s pretty clear anyway. Later on Kenneth Earle goes to the effort of changing his gear between tapings but it doesn’t disguise the fact that nobody else does.
It also becomes obvious that Yorkshire mixed the run of the shows up a bit on original transmission. I believe it’s traditional to shuffle the running order to place the strongest shows at strategic points through the run in order that the pacing doesn’t flag, but this does have the unfortunate knock-on effect of completely destroying a promising running argument between Alfred Marks and Ray Martine on the subject of hair loss. We get the aftermath before the original joke, which is slightly disconcerting. As a result of this shuffling we also leap between colour and black and white, and Isabella Rye suddenly reappears in episodes 13 and 14 after an absence of some weeks before disappearing again. Nothing to worry about, though – it does mean you’re never sure what’s coming next. Indeed, it becomes something of a guessing game with each new episode – who’s going to be in it, will it be in colour or black and white? It does if you’re me, anyway.
Also included with this batch is the original, unaired pilot episode. The format isn’t that different to the main run, although Barry has acquired two uncomfortable looking hostesses in very silly Joker outfits, who stand on either side of him.
On every round they physically turn a little calendar-like device to reflect the points scored. By the time the series proper begins, Yorkshire have obviously stumped for an electronic scoreboard. It’s one of the few things on Barry’s desk that actually works properly. Other than that, it’s business as usal, with Ted Ray, Ray Martine et all present and correct. It is substantially longer than the other episodes, and is perhaps a little more sprawling and undisciplined. Very very worth a look though.
On the whole, I fell hard for this release. It’s not only fascinating as a little peek into what workaday television of 1969 actually looked like, it’s frequently very funny indeed. It’s time well spent with a lot of people we’ve known and treasured over the years, and even when it isn’t hilarious, it’s fascinating. Well worth your time and warmly, wholeheartedly recommended. I loved it. So will you. Do go and pick up a copy from Network’s website. If enough people do, hopefully we’ll get the next installment sooner rather than later.
Jokers Wild is available from January 31st. It’s a web exclusive from Network DVD.