Live from Birmingham
Tonight I’ll be tuning in to find out whether Katherine Ryan gets released from her narrowboat captivity, and raising a glass to Late Night Lycett after five weeks of canalside mayhem.
Seeing local haunts like The Bond and Ruprai beamed to the nation has been surreal to say the least, while gawping past various celebrity guests at familiar faces in the audience. It can be difficult to tell how well this has translated outside our Brummie bubble – social media opinion is, surprise surprise, divided – but it feels like Lycett has done a brilliant job of distilling the city’s essence while exploiting his distance from the capital to ensure a bit of creative control.
There’s a long tradition of this in TV. One of the reasons Philip Donnellan got away with making spiky, freewheeling documentaries in the 60s was because he was based at BBC Birmingham with minimal interference from head office, and later on Pebble Mill became an amazing wellspring for new ‘regional voices’ in drama for the same reason. However, leaving aside the post-pub punch-ups on Central Weekend I assumed that Late Night Lycett was a first in bringing live late-night telly to Birmingham – until I saw a 1982 clip of The Beat last week.
This was the band at their peak, and although miming they seem to be having a good time. But who are the slightly immobile folks in matching Tshirts? It turns out this is the studio audience for O.T.T., a Saturday night zoo broadcast from the new Central studios on Broad Street. After seven years of custard-based chaos for early risers, the Tiswas team have decided to try their hand at adult entertainment - having road-tested the format in various working men’s clubs under the name The Four Bucketeers. The ringmaster is Chris Tarrant, previously best known for ‘and finally…’ items on ATV, with support from Dudley-born New Faces winner Lenny Henry, onetime MAC security guard Bob Carolgees and comedy actress Helen Atkinson-Wood.
If you put O.T.T. alongside LNL it tells you a fair bit about how TV, Birmingham and the world have changed in the last 40 years or so. In some ways they have plenty in common – the topical and scatological jokes, the anarchy, the animated title credits. But where LNL kicks off with a neon-drenched tour of local icons, O.T.T. has an inflatable woman flying through a day-glo mix of psychedelia and seaside postcards. The misogyny carries through to the show itself, where bikini-clad lovelies serving drinks get doused in custard. In one sketch, a character played by Tarrant forces an aspirin on his sleeping wife to pre-empt any excuses about headaches. And let's not even get started on the casual racism. The whole thing leaves a pretty bad taste at the back of the mouth – a cocktail of Rothmans, watered-down Banks’ Bitter and heavily leaded petrol.
The show was made at a moment between two very different eras of comedy, as demonstrated by the fact that when guest comic Alexei Sayle left – reportedly because he objected to the tone of some of the humour – he was replaced by Bernard Manning. A wave of ‘politically correct’ alternative comedy was on its way, not dissimilar from the avalanche of woke snowflake comedy supposedly burying us today. Lycett’s sharp wit and big-hearted silliness are proof positive that you don’t need to be nasty to particular groups of people to raise a laugh (excepting maybe GB News presenters).
O.T.T. survived 13 episodes before getting the axe from Central. Only time will tell us whether Late Night Lycett fares better, but it’s made a good start and reminded us of the nostalgic pleasure of the live communal home viewing experience.
Joe Lycett's latest short film Linda has its world premiere at Flatpack 2023 as part of the Short Film Competition: Off Your Chest.