Worst to Best
Blankety Blank
Series Four

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6 Episode Six

Guest Panellists: Barry Cryer, Noele Gordon, Larry Grayson, Roz Hanby, Alfred Marks and Anita Harris.

Episode six raises the question of what we should laugh at today, and what we laughed at in yesteryear. In these more sensitive times there's more protection of vulnerable groups, which is, at least in principle, well-meaning and kind.
     This episode features a male contestant, Graham Oldham, who could be described as, at best, socially awkward. He gives offbeat, left-field responses to Terry's interview questions, doesn't give the customary handshake to any of his beaten co-contestants, instead walking past them, but then runs across the set to kiss panellist Anita Harris when she gives him the winning answer.
     The biggest response from the audience comes when he stands up after winning the first game, the sight of his trousers tucked into his knee-length socks producing a huge laugh, with Wogan playfully mocking him. It's notable that when Graham stands for the final game, he's taken his trousers out of his socks. When he finally - spoiler - wins the game, he complains that he doesn't want the prize and has plans to sell it, before appearing to have indigestion on the stage next to Terry, covering his mouth while blowing out his cheeks.
     In the very different world of 2021, his behaviour and dress would perhaps lead many to considering him part of a vulnerable group, and believing that he should be supported. A diagnosis of a contestant will not be assumed here, particularly as he's been named, but Oldham's behaviour is, at best, a little odd. Whatever the case, and whatever your reaction to him, Graham certainly makes the episode one of the more striking.

5 Episode Nine

Guest Panellists: Lenny Henry, Dinah Sheridan, Fred Housego, Maureen Lipman, Jimmy Tarbuck and Anita Harris.

One thing that does inadvertently make poor Terry look something of an idiot is the decision to mix the episodes up and screen them out of order. It's a very common practise, and would help disguise certain panellists recording a couple of shows on the same day by spacing them out, but does have the odd effect of Terry introducing "new" panellists when they've already been seen. Here Dinah Sheridan and Fred Housego make their Blankety Blank debut as far as viewers are concerned, but we're told the whole panel has done the show before, and their first episodes to be recorded (4.11 and 4.12 respectively) sees Terry welcome them to the show for the "first" time.
     Also on the panel is Maureen Lipman, making her third and final appearance on the show after a couple of turns in the third series. Other than getting irritated by Paul Daniels in series three (and who wouldn't?) she didn't make a particular impression during her time on the show. Thirteen years later she was a guest on the first series of Room 101, a show where celebrities nominate things to be banished forever.
     Choosing Blankety Blank to be banished, she stated that Terry and Les Dawson were funny as the hosts, and that it wasn't a particular issue with Blankety Blank, but quiz shows in general, "representative of all those mindless games [...] You put them all together and you think of the hours of mindless time that's spent by mindless people. Wouldn't have to do that any more, we could have proper programmes. We could have plays again." Suggesting that being on the show "called upon you to have one brain between six of you", it clearly wasn't something Maureen regarded as a high point of her career... and this is someone who'd appeared in Carry on Columbus.
     This is a fairly amusing episode, incidentally, explaining its high placing, as Lenny Henry is in energetic form, which has its charms if you're in the mood. But Lenny's role in the show is something we'll look at in more detail later...

4 Episode Fifteen

Guest Panellists: Brian Murphy, Dawn Addams, Derek Nimmo, Julia McKenzie, Bernie Clifton and Tessa Wyatt.

Biographies are never quoted here, only autobiographies, so that what's referenced is "straight from the horse's mouth", as it were. However, it's notable that one of the biographies on Terry alleged that there was a panellist he didn't like, and who wasn't asked back while he was on the show. It's not disclosed which panellist this refers to, though speculation out there on the net seems to suggest Bernie Clifton as the most likely candidate.
     Clifton makes his panel debut here, along with Dawn Addams and Tessa Wyatt. Addams appeared just this once, but Wyatt came back four more times, three under Terry. Perhaps the main reason why so much suspicion falls upon Clifton (if this story of Terry's dislike was, in fact, true) is because he came back another five times, but every one of those return appearances was under Les Dawson.
     So, is there tension between Terry and Bernie Clifton? Well, maybe, maybe not. For a man who based 99% of his act around an ostrich, then Clifton's input is, as you may expect, prop-based. A lot of it is just fairly passable, forgettable nonsense that doesn't overtake the show, Daniels-style, but instead is easy to ignore. Terry doesn't seem especially enamoured of it, more smiling politely, but Clifton doesn't make enough of an impression as shown to give any indication that Terry is seeing him the same way he later saw David Bowie.
     It's a generally awkward show anyway. A particularly uncomfortable moment occurs when Derek Nimmo does his usual scornful schtick, asking Terry where he gets the contestants from, following a particularly stupid answer. The slighted contestant gets out of his seat to walk all the way across the studio up to Derek, and it's not clear what his purpose is. For a light-hearted quiz show, it gives the troubling feeling that you're about to see someone try to fill in one of the panellists, leading the rest of the questions to read "And Derek Nimmo went home in a [BLANK]".
     Also making up the panel is Brian Murphy, and there's perhaps an article that needs to be written on the "worst to best Blankety Blank wigs". Certainly, with Brian, it's clear he's playing the long game, the syrup he sports in this one longer and unruly, suggesting that the 70s have finally caught up with him. This was Brian's last appearance in the original run, not returning until an episode of the 1998 Lily Savage revival, by which time Brian was in his mid sixties and had long given up the pretence.
     Yet a wig was a surprisingly large part of his career, seemingly there, with little footage available, in The Incredible Mr Tanner, which had aired in February and March of that year. One definitely featured in 1982's L for Lester, where a golden rodent climbed on top of his head for the duration. While an entire research book on Brian Murphy and his wigs is waiting to be written in full, it must also be noted that he wore a hat for 1984's Lame Ducks. It's arguable that all this was attempts to escape the character of George, though doesn't explain him wearing them on quiz shows as himself. Yet Murphy's need to supplement hair gets his biggest laugh when he draws a moustache on Terry's face, showing his innate skills didn't go to waste.

3 Episode Sixteen

Guest Panellists: Billy Dainty, Janet Brown, Cyril Fletcher, Rula Lenska, Paul Daniels and Tessa Wyatt.

An interesting coda to Paul Daniels' time on the programme, this was his sole series four appearance, and the final time he'd ever take part in the show. Naturally, Daniels is irritating and has a selection of silly prop hats and moustaches to try and get some laughs. But the crucial moment occurs when Billy Dainty pretends to be stressing out over having to give an answer for a tiebreaker.
     The sound of the audience is still very much one of the "blue rinse" set at this stage, and gales of granny laughter meet his mock-nervous floundering to try and get out an answer. Every time Billy repeats the question it gets a big laugh, so naturally... Paul Daniels tries to join in. And, when he can't attach himself to the laughter that Billy Dainty is generating, he of course has to fall back in his chair with raised arms, his own laughter very much a showy display of mirth, there, seemingly, to ensure he still has the attention he so clearly desires.
     Yet when Billy jumps out of his seat, and, as pictured, does one of his dances, the response from the audience is so great that he shows himself to be in a class of his own, and no one can join him for the ride. The presence of Paul Daniels on Blankety Blank has been one of the more interesting elements of these early series, a source of many ill-tempered shows with bad atmospheres, where Daniels often disregards several levels of unspoken social mores. Even here, trying to tramp over a comedian's routine, he's out of line. But all terrible things must come to an end, and from this point on, Blankety Blank continues without almost inarguably its greatest irritant.

2 Christmas Special

Guest Panellists: Lenny Henry, Beryl Reid, Larry Grayson, Liza Goddard, Jimmy Tarbuck and Lorraine Chase.

Despite seeming to be an integral part of Blankety Blank's DNA, the Christmas Specials have rarely aired on the actual date. From the original series run, only 3 of the 10 Christmas Specials were actually broadcast on the day itself, with Boxing Day, as here, the more frequent occurrence.
     In many ways, the 1981 Christmas Special does feel a little less "special" than the two that came before it. The decorations aren't as expansive, there's no elaborate costumes, and the "two panels in one show" concept has been dropped in favour of the standard arrangement. Not only that, but, while it's the longest episode of the fourth series, running over 34 minutes, that's not unusual for a regular episode length.
     Yet despite this, it's a highlight, helped by being one of the rudest Blankety Blanks ever. The questions are all powered by triple the usual innuendo (including a replacement fig leaf in a nudist camp which half the panel answer as mistletoe), Terry calls Lenny Henry "Kunte Kinte", and Beryl Reid talks about the whole thing being "knicker gripping". (Speaking of Beryl, then she gets - spoiler - the traditionally easy Christmas "Head To Head" here, and in two other episodes, getting all three right, bringing her overall series total up to a 9-2, 82% success rate.)
     What really makes the show such a good one, though, is a collection of truly eccentric contestants. In particular there's Edith, an Irish lady who has so many funny responses and reactions it's almost impossible to believe she's not an actress playing a part. Particular suspicions are aroused when Jimmy Tarbuck repeats his "it's nice to be on your show" gag that he used in the previous Christmas Special, though, this said, expecting Jimmy Tarbuck to have more than one joke per year is perhaps hoping for a miracle.
     Yet it's something of a snotty gag from "Tarby", the assertion that they're the "stars", and that the contestant is just a regular member of the public straying outside of her lane; a slight made ridiculous by the fact that Edith gets so many more laughs than Jimmy, the professional "comedian".

1 Episode One

Guest Panellists: Roy Kinnear, Beryl Reid, David Jacobs, Tracey Ullman, Lenny Henry and Madeline Smith.

No one's ever done a poll of who the general public remember as celebrities on Blankety Blank, but as 90% of online memories seem to involve the words "Kenny" and "microphone", it's a safe bet to say one person is out in front. Yet others seem to be forgotten, with many surprised that, say, David Jason was a regular throughout the first three years. Another such aberration here is Lenny Henry. Perhaps because he had moved on from Tiswas to Three of a Kind (Tracey Ullman sits next to him on the panel here) then this has somehow eclipsed memories of him ever appearing on this show.
     There's a nice age test, where you can tell how old someone is by whether or not they can remember when Lenny Henry was actually funny. While his "comedy" pretty much always involved yelling and force of personality, there was actually a time when he could generate laughs, even if you were waiting around for an eternity for them.
     It perhaps doesn't help that today Lenny has become the world's arbiter of racial equality in the media, given that those with long memories will recall him dressing up as a "Chinaman" on Tiswas, or, here, bringing back Algernon Razzmatazz within seconds of the show starting. In 2021 he co-authored a book called Access All Areas: The Diversity Manifesto for TV and Beyond (in fairness, he admits he doesn't like the word "diversity") and yet here he is on Blankety Blank, talking about how he came from "the jungle" and doing a "witch doctor" voice when the panel's lights stop working. Other episodes will see him refer to himself as "the big coloured guy", or tell people "I mustn't cry, I get little white lines running down my face."
     This is not to say that people aren't allowed to change, or develop during the forty years since this episode went out, and the pressure on him to conform to certain standards must have been immense. Yet there is perhaps the feeling that when Dawn French advised Lenny to be more politically conscious and take away the racial humour, he didn't really seek to replace it with anything in return. As a result, his work became sanitised and formulaic, to the extent that he's now the guy who phones it in on charity shows, bellowing in the place of real wit.
     There's still something of a spark to him here, at his youthful peak. It's weird to look back and think of Henry and Ullman being "cutting edge", after a fashion, but then there's an interesting clash of styles where Lenny goes into a routine about Roots, and Beryl Reid can be seen behind him looking utterly perplexed. While from the perspective of 2021 Lenny's presence may seem very safe and middle-of-the-road, by Blankety Blank standards it was something quite different. He became a semi-regular during series 4-6, appearing five times, twice with Jimmy Tarbuck sharing the same panel.
     Aged just 22, Henry does grab his opportunity with both hands, though the 21-year-old Ullman seems shy and somewhat withdrawn. It's quite shocking, looking back, just how young both of them were, though just two years later Tracey was a legitimate pop star, with three top ten hits in a row. Series four of Blankety Blank saw just four celebrities make a "one and done" appearance on the show, with Tracey joined in this regard by Roz Hanby, Michele Dotrice and Dawn Addams.
     Despite criticisms of Henry and his complex past, while he plays the role of "noisy maverick in the middle lower seat", he does it in good spirit here. Also making this a standout show is another Irish lady, Mary Jackson, who worries that she's "a bit of an eejit", and gives so many offbeat responses and complaints about everything to do with the show, that, as with the Christmas Special, has a "too funny to be a real member of the public" vibe about her.


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