The American sitcom that can claim to not only be one of the finest of all time but, as a live action version of a cartoon, could also have been one of the most bizarre. The story begins in 1961 when Hanna Barbera, in its golden age, had yet another animated hit on its hands with TOP CAT. Then, in 1962, a TV executive had a brain wave - why not turn the cartoon into a live action comedy series. And after a long period of casting the producers found just the man to take on the role of the mischievous cat - a previously unknown comedian and actor called Phil Silvers. At first Silvers objected to spending four hours in make-up being painted yellow from head to toe and performing naked but for a purple waistcoat and small hat, but he certainly grabbed his big break with both hands as he delivered one-liner after one-liner. To further strengthen the tie between the cartoon and live action show, Maurice Gosfield who had provided the voice of Benny the Ball was asked to play the character in the latter version, even though he had to put on two stone in weight and agree to be painted in a highly toxic blue paint. And so with the eponymous hero changed from Top Cat to Bilko to differentiate the live action show from the cartoon version, the show was finally aired to great press and even better viewing figures. Some critics wondered why the makers had changed the lead character's name yet not reimagined him in a different environment (interestingly an army base had been discussed at development stage) and why the human actors had been asked to essentially play a gang of alley cats rather than a group of people. But most considered that part of the charm and although the ensemble were all fantastic as the naughty gang of cats, it was Phil Silvers as Bilko himself who shone as a star among stars, and endless re-runs have helped him and the show enter the pantheon of American sitcom legends.
DID YOU KNOW: When Peter Rogers was casting CARRY ON FOLLOW THAT CAMEL he originally wanted Hanna Barbera voiceman Arnold Stang to play a fully animated cat in the role of Sgt Nocker. However when Kenneth Williams refused to play opposite a cartoon, Phil Silvers was drafted in to play a character who bore more than just a passing resemblance to Top Cat/Bilko. Williams wrote in his diary "I have never been so insulted in all my life. Not only is this Top Cat fellow a cartoon but he is a coarse bully and could never be called a gentlemen".
THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WENT TODAY WHEN THERE WAS THE WEEK THEREAFTER WHICH THEN WAS THE WEEK THAT WILL (AKA TW10) BBC TWO (1963)
The granddaddy of satire! Usually referred to fondly as TW10, THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WENT TODAY WHEN THERE WAS THE WEEK THEREAFTER WHICH THEN WAS THE WEEK THAT WILL was one of the very first genuinely satirical shows on television and was thus the forerunner to so much of the comedy on television today. Coming live every Saturday night, TW10 was the scourge of the establishment whether it was David Frost delivering topical jokes, Percy Lancival singing rapier-sharp calypsos, or studio discussions hosted by Bernard Levin. TW10 was also lucky enough to be on air to cover such hot potatoes as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Profumo Scandal - Lancival's brilliant 'John Profumo Calypso' practically brought the government to its knees single-handed. Other great moments that have passed into TV lore include the episode in which David Frost came face-to-face with the leader of The Yippies (an underground religious cult devoted to the worship of the future star of THE CHINESE DEFECTIVE David Yip), the time that Bernard Levin got glassed by an irate Edith Sitwell and of course Kenneth Tynan being responsible for the second ever 'cunt' on British TV (the first being Brian Clough).
Not strictly a TV show of course but as one of the greatest comedy singles ever committed to vinyl, it was seen and heard many times on our television screens on such shows as READY, STEADY, GO and SOUL TRAIN. Having previously managed to negotiate a piano up the stairs, Bernard Cribbins was now tackling the far more onerous task of torturing and questioning a suspected grass and disposing of the body. Combining a great vocal performance by Cribbins with some wonderfully gruesome sound effects from a nose cut off with a Stanley knife to teeth being drilled with a Black & Decker, this is surely the apex of the comedy record. They don't make them like this anymore!
Little-seen in the UK but this unbelievably silly desert island sitcom is much celebrated in the United States mostly for the performance of its bloated smug star Andrew Gilligan. Basically, a group of ambitious BBC journalists (double-chinned Gilligan and his pals) set sail in their ship but wind up fighting each other and trying to survive attacks from the government, spin doctors and falling coconuts while desperately trying to get someone to rescue them. The slapstick humour carried on for two years until Gilligan suggested that the character of Mary Ann Summers be 'sexed up' resulting in actress Dawn Wells committing suicide. A tragic business all round.
STEPTOE AND SOOTY BBC ONE (1966)
What a shame! What with careful production might have been a triumph was destroyed by one monumental casting cock-up. The BBC comedy department was looking to cast two rag and bone men for what promised to be an excellent new Galton and Simpson sitcom. However, due to a clerical error children's entertainer Harry Corbett was booked to play the role of the son instead of the original choice, Harry H. Corbett. By the time the BBC realised their mistake there was nothing that could be done as the contracts were all signed, sealed and delivered. Wilfred Brambell was to play opposite a glove puppet. Hence what should have been a gritty black comedy examining the claustrophobic relationship between father and son descended into a juvenile, knockabout piece of slapstick. Indeed much of the original edgy script had to be abandoned altogether and the show was soon moved to the 'Watch With Mother' slot. The show was still hugely popular in Australia and so Brambell and Corbett went down under to tour schools and children's parties with a specially written panto. However while on this tour the pair had an acrimonious falling out when a pissed-up Brambell attacked Corbett on stage, grabbed Sooty and ripped his orange head off in front of an audience of screaming infants. Wilfred walked and Harry Corbett requested that Albert's shoes be filled by none other than his own son, Matthew Corbett (confusingly playing his own Dad's Dad.) The subsequent film 'Corbett And Son Ride Again' was to be their swansong, a daft tale of the two scrap dealers investing in a blind dog (played by newcomer Sweep!) In all honesty, he was probably the best thing in it.
"He said you're a dirty old man"
Unhappy at working opposite a glove puppet
DID YOU KNOW: A similar casting balls up occurred in YES MINISTER when the part of Bernard, Jim Hacker's aide, went to Basil Brush rather than Mr. Derek? Actor Rodney Bewes sympathised with Derek Fowlds in Equity magazine, complaining that he too had unfairly lost the part of Bob Ferris in THE LIKELY LADS to "that fucking fox."
OK OK so it wasn't a comedy show blah blah. That as may be, but it would be impossible to compile an archive of classic British comedy without at least mentioning one of the most sublime incidents ever committed to tape. We've all seen it a hundred times be on I LOVE shows, 100 GREATEST or TOP TENS but here for one final time is the John Noakes/elephant episode. The BLUE PETER presenters were on a day trip to Chessington Zoo and Peter Purves had just finished an informative look around the reptile house. But he had no idea of what was coming when he handed over to Noakes in the elephant cage. The item was to be the BP presenter meeting Lulu the elephant and her zoo keeper, however, with almost no warning at all, Noakes suddenly lowered his trousers, squatted on the straw-filled floor, and began to defecate live on children's TV as he shouted 'get off me foot'. No matter how many times one sees the clip it still manages to amuse - just look at the zoo keeper's face as he tries to keep on with what he was saying while avoiding eye contact with Noakes or the steaming turd that he has laid Meanwhile Purves, now joining the party, tries to stifle his laughter. Amazingly some parents actually phoned in to complain claiming that human faeces were inappropriate for five o'clock viewing, forcing producer Biddy Baxter to make an on-air statement about the unforeseen things that can happen on live television. As for Noakes himself, he sheepishly blamed the entire affair on a dodgy chicken tikka he'd had the night before. And so a legend, remembered by more people than were actually alive to see it happen, was born.
The steaming evidence
DID YOU KNOW: The incident did in fact inspire a John Noakes-fronted series focused around the subject of toilet visits entitled GO WITH NOAKES.
CALL MY BLUFF BBC ONE (1968)
A veritable national institution it may be, but in 1968 CALL MY BLUFF was the centre of a scandal that rocked the world of light entertainment to its very foundations. At that point the dictionary definitions series was at the peak of its popularity and was all ready to have its format sold worldwide. But then one Sunday tabloid splashed quite amazing revelations about the show across its front page. For it was alleged that Patrick Campbell had been using his stutter to indicate the correct definitions of words such as 'nozzer' and 'rodomontade' in morse code to his supposed rival captain Frank Muir. Campbell of course denied the claims, arguing that he had had a bad stutter since birth, but when the case came to court it emerged that Campbell and Muir had hatched the plan together after meeting with representatives from a Hong Kong betting syndicate who had offered big money in return for Campbell throwing the series. Extremely large bets made from account holders in the Far East backing Muir to win each episode had first raised suspicions and then a wily soundman had noticed Campbell's excessive stutters during a recording and alerted the producers. In the end, despite being found guilty, Muir had to only pay a fine and was allowed to carry on as a team captain. Campbell similarly got away without a custodial sentence but he was forced to step down, losing his job to Arthur Marshall, and was tormented for years after by people stuttering to him wherever he went. Avarice and greed had claimed another soul while the great British public had another great TV moment to talk about.
DID YOU KNOW: The BBC have recently announced they are planning a movie about the scandal and subsequent trial entitled PARLOUR SHOW starring Gareth Gates as the disgraced former captain.
FAB... LIVERBIRDS ARE GO BBC ONE (1969)
Following the huge success of STINGRAY and CAPTAIN SCARLET, Gerry Anderson spectacularly misfired with his attempt to move into comedy and make the world's very first 'supermarionation' sit-com. The series was set in Liverpool in the swinging sixties but sadly the only thing 'swinging' were the ropey puppets. Long-time Anderson fans were shocked to find a distinct lack of spy intrigue and secret HQs, all jettisoned in favour of two young female puppets philosophising about boyfriends, money, jobs and parents! Even worse, the Liverbirds themselves, Beryl and Sandra were both voiced by the plummy Sylvia Anderson whose 'scouse' accent was little short of unintelligible. Of course never ones to miss an opportunity for a pointless revival, the BBC brought the series back in 1996 under the title LIVERBIRDS 2086, this time as a poor cartoon featuring a live-action Molly Sugden. Avoid.
DID YOU KNOW: After several years of languishing in the BBC Props Store, one of the LIVERBIRDS puppets was brought to life by a voodoo witchdoctor leading to the creature taking the lead role in medical drama DISTRICT NURSE.