“There’s a crack in my Crinkley Bottom”
In case you’re wondering: yes, it’s that one. This was the series that prompted its frontman to hot-foot it halfway through the run, blaming production decisions, bad writing and a depleted budget for his outburst.
It didn’t help that the outing to Florida so early in the series blew a hole in the already reduced coffers.
The opening titles remained similar to the previous run, with newer faster-paced exterior shots of Broughton Castle, though this time the entire sequence was depicted in daylight.
The limo gags were ditched and swapped (for the first 8 shows at least) with mini sketches from different windows of the house, which were often funnier than the material
in the actual show.
Making regular appearances in them were Russ and Jono (weeks after being ousted
by Chris Evans from Virgin Radio’s Breakfast Show), Oliver Skeete and Tessa Sanderson,
and an odd pairing of Antony Worrall Thompson and Coolio, none of whom were actually
appearing on the main part of the programme.
Even more bizarre and possibly saddening was Vicki Michelle reduced to fleeting appearances alongside Jim Bowen, throwing away all reference to her past as Noel’s flirtatious neighbour.
The new studio set was the most dramatic change, and one that is often cited as one of the controversial redesigns in TV history. Following on from the apparent destruction of the Great House
at the end of series 6, the new set eschewed the previous gradual evolution of the original set to drastically rethink the entire design.
The centre of the studio still featured a door, small window and staircase, but the stairs led to a balcony which stretched the length of the main part of the studio above all the action.
On top of this balcony was – well, not very much. Various girders and lights decorated the upper level, with sections of the “wall” disappearing towards the edges.
The balcony itself appeared to consist partly of the previous set and partly metal bars
and the general viewer reaction was that it didn’t appear to be finished. The jarring turquoise colour was ever-dominant, in a possible attempt to complement Noel’s outlandish outfits.
One addition on the ground floor was a video screen doubling as a window with the sole-purpose of providing weak visual gags, notably in the first show involving a parody of BBC One’s new balloon symbol.
The worst parts of the new set however were at either end of the studio: empty-looking areas owing little to a stately home at all other than abstract stairs and pillars. The audience seating was the same structure as the previous run but with all the mediaeval-style tables removed and the remainder painted dark red, resulting in an extremely gloomy appearance that was difficult to light effectively.
The new set appeared to aim to make the show feel younger, and presumably play upon the viewers all knowing it was really a set in White City. Rather than unfinished, it was perhaps intended to appear as a halfway point between a house and a shiny floor television studio.
And, following declining ratings over the previous two years, perhaps an acknowledgment that viewers were beginning to tire of the “house” schtick and begin to morph towards a standard entertainment format.
Unfortunately it required a bit too much imagination and had some key design failures, most notably that with the “house” section an island in the middle of TC1 it didn’t actually go anywhere. This left Noel and his guests making their entrance by running up the stairs to the balcony, waving and coming back down again.
To get around this there was a hidden exit point on the stairs to backstage which was easy to spot on crane shots, and on at least one occasion was left open revealing the studio wall.
The front door now had a balcony on top of it so often appeared to look fairly dark, and the door to the front porch now simply opened onto the red wall of the backdrop with no attempt to make it appear “outside”.
The new look was complemented with a number of visual stings involving dancers against a white background. These were undoubtedly another attempt to make the show feel younger and more trendy, but were often rendered inaudible due to often being drowned out by audience applause.
Continuing the aim to take it younger was “The Secret World Of The Teenager”, an updated “Wait Till I Get You Home” that was solely designed to jump on the bandwagon
ignited by Kevin and Perry.
Noel’s selling of said item when guesting on Live & Kicking hinted at just that, but it soon became clear that real teenagers (or at least those who could be persuaded to participate) wouldn’t necessarily provide the same sort of comedy as Enfield and Burke’s characters did.
On “Wait ‘Til I Get You Home” the children interviewed were of a certain innocence to unearth embarrassing secrets with just them and Noel in a small studio, whilst many of the teen participants in front of their parents and an audience appeared reluctant to engage full stop.
Like its predecessor the feature was pre-recorded and often quite clearly heavily edited.
Further attempts to distance the show from the pretence of being in a country house
may have been behind the introduction of the “Crinkley Bottom” soap opera,
self-containing the village antics in short episodes shot to “cinema standards” on location
in Quenington, a village in Gloucestershire.
None of the established villagers from previous series such as Bert the Bugler or Pru from the wool shop were used, opting instead for new characters including Old Joe as portrayed by Bill Pertwee, and landlord of the Lizt And Newt George Weeks, played by ex-EastEnder Brian Croucher. One episode saw a return for Bernard Cribbins, not as the vicar, but as escaped criminal “Mad Dog McGinty”.
The humour may have worked in the viewers imagination when told in anecdotal form by the host, but less so in the polished surrounds of the village, coupled with some questionable scripts.
With a number of soap episodes in the can before transmission, it was originally intended to return to the the Cotswolds to film more episodes in the winter, but the soap was abandoned after show 7, ending on a far-fetched cliffhanger involving zombies.
As one of the major new features the series was built around (including being the sole content in that year’s launch promo) the dropping of the soap represented an uncertain start for the run. Edmonds himself later slated it as “expensive and not funny”.
It also meant that with My Little Friend, the Gotchas and Secret World of the Teenager
also pre-recorded, an unprecedented amount of the programme was not actually live.
“My Little Friend” was the only addition from series 6 to survive into this series with House Party stalwart Barry Killerby now joining Noel to add voices for the now pairs of puppets
chatting to schoolchildren, of which aliens Malcolm and Arthur were the most used.
This was a fairly successful change, pushing the item more towards comedy than the cute angle of the previous run. Killerby was introduced once only (as “Barry” in the launch episode) but his presence was otherwise unexplained, which may have led to some viewers wondering who he was (unless they spotted he bore a passing resemblance to Liam).
The child receiving a present at the end gave the segment a feel-good conclusion.
The scrapping of “Cash For Questions” however left the whole show without a big money climax for the first time, or even a climax at all, with one show ending on a lengthy screening of the postal address for Noel’s Christmas Presents and another not even displaying any credits.
The first half of the run was completely without the regular cast of previous years, aside from Tony Blackburn making just one appearance in show 8 as Noel’s “decrepit record player”.
This ended up as Blackburn’s final appearance on the show, coinciding with losing his breakfast show on London’s Capital Gold to former “Panel Game” participant Mike Osman.
The Christmas special however saw a return at the door for two of the more fondly remembered villagers, PCs Stamp and Quinnan, with Graham Cole returning later in the series swapping PC Quinnan for PC Page AKA Lisa Geoghan.
Although the series launched in a very self-assured and slick manner, within a few weeks episodes were beginning to lose structure and consistency. The title sequence was cut down to a very swift 20 seconds devoid of sketches.
The audience, without Felix Bowness on warmup duties for the first time, often sat in silence throughout sketches. That old fallback of the format, dragging people out of the audience for a funny anecdote and punishment, was pressed into service like never before.
On one occasion, when one of the mini gunge tanks suspended above the audience failed to release the ball cock as intended, Noel raced past the cameras and up into the seating to pull it out himself before exclaiming “if you want a job done round here, you have to do it yourself!”.
Whilst an amusing ad-lib, the tales that were beginning to emerge from behind the scenes
put the comment in a different light.
For the first time in the programme’s history not every show featured a Gotcha, a previous anchor point of every episode. Noel would later reveal that some Gotchas were dropped due to not being funny or their poor technical standards.
Those that did air had some oddities, included the live reveal of Tiff Nedell’s Gotcha centering on unveiling the outlandish car that hadn’t yet been shown to viewers (leading to predictable silence from the studio audience) and Channel 4 Racing pundit John Francombe not even getting an appearance from Noel on the day.
Meanwhile you knew a Gotcha was on its backside when it cut back to the studio to explaining what was happening or attempt to make whatever desperate twist was about to take place sound more exciting than it was. A fate that befell Michela Strachan’s hard-to-follow Gotcha amongst others this run.
John Parrott on the other hand suffered the extra ignominy of having his Gotcha
plugged on air as “coming soon” but never actually appearing.
One of the first on-screen changes to be made to improve the show was the set being progressively renovated over the last three shows before Christmas. Initially this provided proper backdrops to the areas on the extreme left and right before addressing the balcony, which was now dressed with proper wooden beams and the complete frontage of the previous year’s upper level.
The biggest transformation of all was upstairs, which was properly built to appear like a house (this time with a door to lead to the rest of the building!) and crucially mask the transition from set to studio. The process was even alluded to on air with some sketches involving builders.
Despite the visual improvement, all was not well with the actual content. Noel would describe in an interview with Kirsty Young the following summer that the show’s planning wall for the 22 shows was, as they hit January 1998, completely blank.
He described how on 2nd January he was presented with a show so poor he couldn’t put his name to it (and the Radio Times listing sounded particularly desperate).
In a completely unprecedented move, he walked out.
This drew great press attention to the problems with the programme. Whilst viewing figures had been falling, they were still respectable.
Now viewers were left in no doubt that their memories weren’t playing tricks on them: even the host though it wasn’t as good as it used to be. The press were quick to speculate on the show’s future, or whether it even had a future..
The outcome to be revealed in Series 7 Part Two…