The dead ITV variety show, the revived Greatest Show on Legs and grave laughs

The Greatest Show on Legs in the Fringe Programme

Greatest Show on Legs’ balloon dance – original and still best (from left to right: Malcolm Hardee, ‘Sir Ralph’, Martin Soan)

Last night, ITV tried and failed to revive legendary, classic and once classy variety show Sunday Night at The London Palladium under the inexplicably shortened title Sunday Night at The Palladium.

If Simon Cowell had produced it, the show could have retained some class. Instead, ITV transformed class into crass and the result was somewhere between a reality show produced by Endemol on an off night and Saturday Night at Butlins for Essex Man.

Stephen Mulhern presented it like an edition of Big Brother’s Bit On The Side and it came complete with what looked very much like an audience plant towards the start of the show.

To compound the felony of failing to revive an old classic rather than thinking up a new idea – and rather than have highly original variety acts – they went for Cirque du Soleil performers Les Beaux Freres who nicked the idea of the Greatest Show On Legs’ classic 1982 Naked Balloon Dance and replaced the balloons with towels.

They performed perfectly serviceably and at least, unlike many acts, they changed the music and the objects. But original it most certainly was not.

Sunday Night at The London Palladium used to go out live. It did not last night. It went out dead.

By coincidence last night, the latest incarnation of the Greatest Show On Legs were performing live in Leipzig for a second consecutive night.

The Feinkost venue in Leipzig before the show

The Feinkost venue in Leipzig before the Saturday night show

On Saturday, the new Legs line-up (Martin Soan, Matt Roper and Adam Taffler) had performed together for the first ever time at the Pull The Other One show at Feinkost in Leipzig.

“It’s this big old East German canning factory,” Adam told me via Skype this morning, “which is now a communal arts hub.”

“It’s a huge Hof,” added Martin, “covered in glass. It was probably where all the lorries loaded up the cans and I managed to get a set up, but our stage curtains got totally soaked.”

“How?” I asked.

“We made a mess in the crowd games.”

“Crowd games?” I asked.

“There were two sections to the show. There was Vivienne (Martin’s wife) doing her laughter yoga to warm them up. And then we played some games – egg tossing and stuff like that.”

“Without,” I asked in some shock, “supervision by the increasingly prestigious World Egg Throwing Federation?”

“Yes,” said Martin. “Then we got on with the main Pull The Other One comedy show. But we had made a mess in the crowd games and the Germans, with their efficiency, immediately sloshed disinfectant all over the floor and started scrubbing the concrete. Our curtains got wet at the bottom.”

“Steve Rawlings,” I said, “remembers being told about you and Boothby Graffoe being in Germany years ago. You were running around naked in the audience spraying them with a fire extinguisher and Boothby told Steve it was around this point he thought: They’re just not ready for us yet.

Martin Soan on Saturday – This time the Germans were ready

Martin on Saturday – The Germans were ready

“That was a number of years ago,” remembered Martin. “We did a freeform existentialist theatre piece. The climax of it was me climbing up the central marquee pole bullock naked with a John Major mask on – so that time dates it a bit. Boothby and I did two shows at that festival. The first one was absolutely brilliant. We did a tribute to Christo who wrapped the Reichstag in polypropylene.

“There must have been a thousand people at that first show and they adored Boothby and me.

“Then we were booked to do a second show in a marquee very late at night. There were 800 people when we started and 4 people when we finished. We scared them all off. But the four people who stayed came up afterwards and said: That was just the best piece of existentialist theatre we’ve ever seen.”

“Define existentialist,” I said.

“I dunno,” said Martin. “I didn’t understand it, really. But, once we saw them leaving in groups of twenties and thirties, me and Boothby started really, really experimenting. It was great, great fun. Steve Best was there too and he performed with Boothby while I improvised with props and my body.”

“Improvised with your body?” I asked, suspiciously.

“Yeah. Doing a bit of modern dance around people, dressed-up as John Major. Posing every now and again. I hid from the audience in various places and just picked up various objects and improvised with them. Nothing sexual; I was naked, that was all.”

“But this time,” I said, “the Germans were ready for you?”

Pull The Other One act Wilfredo (left) with Adam Taffler on Skype this morning

Pull The Other One act Wilfredo (left) with Adam Taffler talked to me via Skype from Leipzig this morning

“I think they really, really enjoyed it,” replied Martin.

“They really did enjoy it,” agreed Adam. “They want so much to open up and we opened them a bit. They’re ready for a lot more of this type of style of humour.”

”What type of humour is that?” I asked. “Surrealist anarchy? When they saw Candy Gigi perform at Pull The Other One in Leipzig, they enjoyed it but mostly reacted with open-mouthed amazement: they hadn’t seen anything like her.”

“I think,” laughed Martin, “that it’s the supreme professionalism we bring to it that gobsmacks them.”

“What is it like now with Adam and Matt as the other two members of the Legs?” I asked.

New Legs (left to right) Adam Taffler, Matt Roper, Martin Soan use sanitised rubber bands

The new Legs (left to right) Adam Taffler, Matt Roper, Martin Soan now use sanitised rubber bands in their Thriller routine

“Well,” said Martin, “my two new members have got a thing about personal hygiene which I’ve never experienced with other Legs members before. They don’t want the balloons being in other people’s mouths. Nor their rubber bands. They sanitised their rubber bands before they went on. They were also rehearsing a bit too much for my liking. They may be a bit too polished for Legs purposes; but I will persist with them.”

“Saturday was our first show together,” said Adam.

“But not the last?” I asked.

“No,” said Martin. “Absolutely not the last.”

At this point, Vivienne Soan arrived on Skype.

“I’ve been in the bath with a mud pack on,” she said.

“What is next?” I asked.

On 4th October,” said Adam, “an irreverent variety night in a secret Victorian cemetery in London… with Stewart Lee, shadow puppetry and the British Humanist Choir.”

Soiree in a Cemetery

Soiree in a Cemetery – the location is kept secret until the day

“What happens if it rains?” I asked.

“People will bring umbrellas,” said Adam. “And we’ll have covered areas.”

“Like tombs?” I asked.

“Like awnings,” said Adam. “It will be cosy.”

The Greatest Show on Legs’ 1982 Balloon Dance is on YouTube.

3 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Germany, Television

3 responses to “The dead ITV variety show, the revived Greatest Show on Legs and grave laughs

  1. John Stringer

    I seem to recall the guys from The Goodies doing a precursor to the balloon dance on TV in the early seventies. With pieces of paper. Fully clothed.

  2. Reblogged this on feinkostblog and commented:
    Sind die Deutschen bereit für englisches Anarcho-Theater? Diese und mehr Fragen stellt und/oder beantwortet John Fleming in seinem Blog im Gespräch mit unseren großartigen Gästen vom Samstag, der Comedy-Gruppe Pull the Other One, nach ihrem Auftritt auf der Feinkost:

  3. Spike Eaton

    Nice piece and couldn’t agree more, but where is the new blood of British variety to be found? Well, I suggest the greater contingent currently exists within the largely un-tapped London burlesque scene, although one or two bravely manage to survive on the UK comedy circuit such as the commendably original “The Raymond and Mr Timkins Revue” (re-packaged some years later, and with varying success, by Tom Binns’ “Ivan Brackenbury” character). Originality in TV variety remains extremely rare and this lack of risk-taking sadly only fuels it’s out-dated image.

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