I saw part of a TV show about the series Candid Camera last night, which brought to mind memories of the late, extremely talented, much underestimated and very amiable Jeremy Beadle.
I encountered him when he appeared as a guest a couple of times on the last series of the ITV kids’ show Tiswas and then worked with him as a researcher when he presented the hidden camera stunts on peaktime Saturday night ITV series Game For a Laugh. I was asked to work on his subsequent Beadle’s About series but turned it down because, much as I liked and greatly admired Jeremy, his new producer on Beadle’s About (now dead and extremely unlamented) was a devious little shit with a track record for stealing ideas and taking the credit for himself – a prime example of the old saying “Television is like a porcupine – full of little pricks”.
Alright, I made up that old saying and it has only ever been true a couple of times in my experience (I guess I’ve been lucky). But, in the case of this dead producer, it was true. (My parenthetic advice: never give cunts a namecheck.)
Anyway, Beadle’s About got big ratings, just as Game For a Laugh had, but in the course of its run it unjustly turned Beadle’s image from populist prankster to nasty practical joker. Beadle’s About was a cruel show. The public perception of him changed from smart-arse to out-and-out arse, the man you love to hate. I always thought this was probably the fault of the producer, but I never understood why Jeremy went along with the prick’s ideas; by this time, Jeremy had a lot of creative production clout.
While we were working on Game For a Laugh, Beadle once explained to me what he believed the perfect Candid Camera style stunt was: that you put someone in an extraordinary and embarrassing situation apparently of their own making (though set up by us) and they then have to try to dig themselves out of that embarrassing hole which they cannot explain. There is no cruelty. The audience knows it is a set-up and, when the punter realises a joke has been played on them, there is the laughter of relief. You laugh at the situation and with the punter; you do not laugh at the punter.
The epitome of this, to me, seems to be a stunt which copied a scene from the movie The Graduate.
In one scene, Dustin Hoffman takes his girlfriend Katharine Ross to a hotel in which he has previously had secret sexual assignations with her mother Mrs Robinson (played by Anne Bancroft). All the hotel staff recognise him and talk to him. It is obvious that he has been there before on more than one occasion despite the fact he claims he hasn’t. He has to try to dig himself out of the hole.
On Game For a Laugh, London Weekend Television had bought rights to some US Candid Camera type shows (though not Candid Camera itself). We rarely copied their stunts but we considered recreating one involving an engaged couple.
In the US TV version of the stunt, the woman knows about the gag and the man is the guy on whom the joke is played. Under some pretence, the couple have to go to a hotel for an event and, as in The Graduate, the staff seem to all know the guy, despite the fact he has never been there before. This makes it look like he has been secretly staying at the hotel with another woman, but the audience and his fiancee know it is a set-up. He has to explain to his seemingly worried/upset fiancee why everyone seems to know him, despite the fact he does not himself understand how they can… He has to dig himself out of an embarrassing hole not of his own making but, of course, it is an impossible hole which he cannot ever dig himself out of because it does not exist. When the stunt is revealed to be a hoax, there are laughs and great relief all round.
We did not copy this stunt on Game For a Laugh because, as far as I remember, we could not find the right couple to make it work. However Beadle’s About did later copy the same stunt. But they crucially changed the details.
In their version, it was the guy who knew about the set-up and it was the fiancee on whom the ‘joke’ was played. The result was that – as the stunt progressed and as it became more and more obvious that her lover had been unfaithful to her in this very hotel with another woman – you could see the anguish get worse and worse on her face, because she realised that her life had been destroyed, her relationship was a sham and was breaking up, her beloved was a shit and her marriage would have to be cancelled.
On Game For a Laugh, we would have played the joke on the poor man who had to explain an impossible situation to his knowing fiancee. Funny.
On Beadle’s About, the ‘joke’ was to pretend to the fiancee that her relationship was disintegrating. Not funny. Cruel.
It is the difference between aiming your camera at the face of a man who is apparently seeing his own car being destroyed (which Beadle’s About did) and aiming your camera (as Game For a Laugh did) at the face of a man who appears to have destroyed someone else’s car (which had been set up by us) and then has to explain to the apparently irate owner of the car (a Game For a Laugh performer) how and why he destroyed the car.
Game For a Laugh laughed at the situations and with the punters; Beadle’s About laughed at the punters. The result was the destruction of Jeremy Beadle’s public image.