“It’s not like last year! …We weren’t here last year”
Much anticipation surrounded the start of the eighth season of the House Party.
That is, at least, amongst the press.
The events of the previous January alongside the gradual decline of the programme over the previous two years had served to turn off a large chunk of the Saturday night audience from the show entirely – an audience that was itself shrinking as competition increased
and viewing habits changed.
Early BBC One teasers gave nothing away, centering around some of the destinations NTV would send victims to, with later promotions combining footage of the set being built (er, we thought it was an old stately home Noel?) with rehearsals for the show.
Radio Times wasn’t convinced, even going as far as calling the new NTV “bizarrely competitive”.
Series 8 in the end launched with a compilation of footage from around the new set featuring some of the new members of the cast and that week’s guests, accompanied by a remix of “House Of Fun” (curiously only credited to Steady Productions in the first week), which itself got a helium injection from the second show (along with a credit for Madness).
No proper title sequence was ever used for this series – with the rest of the pre-Christmas run generally starting with a compilation of clips recapping the previous show and promoting what was to come. A new logo made an appearance – a transparent motion graphic with the show’s title created from animated party streamers appearing crude to the point of unreadable.
The original logo however remained in place on the walls of the set and on new crew sweatshirts – suggesting the new design was either a late addition, or it just didn’t work
as a static image.
In line with the new theme tune, the venue was rebranded the “House Of Fun”, though the resemblance to Shakespeare’s Globe and the horror-inspired furniture and lighting didn’t appear to reflect that intention. The new set finally erased all resemblance to the original design and for the first time was completely enclosed, now with a back garden too (though with zero backstory provided as to why the appearance had changed so dramatically).
It was probably the most convincing design so far, given the presence of traditional TV Centre audience seating in a stately home seemed slightly unlikely, and achieved the ambition of the previous year by being more colourful than previous beige incarnations.
It was however undoubtedly smaller than previous years and often felt a little cramped, so much so that towards the end of the run the late arrival of an NTV victim to the studio gave up any pretence that the programme was anywhere other than a TV studio.
The audience was now split into two halves either side of the studio and far fewer in number than in previous runs, possibly to reduce the temptation for audience interaction that had padded out the last few series. This design also gave birth to the welcoming of the East and West Wings (years before becoming a trademark of a future telly outing) but was unfortunate in meaning Noel no longer faced any of the studio audience directly, meaning the viewer would often see him looking to the left and right during links.
Along with the new set, Noel had ditched the loud jackets, returning to more casual clothing this series, consisting mostly of darker shirts to match with the colours and lighting within the “House of Fun”.
In an attempt to refresh the concept of guests appearing at the door, they were now treated
to a ribbing before entering the house from a puppet door knocker voiced by one of the programme’s researchers Carlton Dixon, frequently with the tortuous catchphrase
“I don’t wanna knock you…” before slagging them off and sometimes
turning them away entirely.
This was clearly introduced to allow some pre-recording of brief cameos from guests not even entering the house full stop, and some appearing twice over two weeks, as was the case with the late Jill Dando. An appearance by Robin Williams was even pre-recorded in Paris with a small pop-up version of the set, only given away by the slightly ropey picture quality.
Other lesser-known guests had to be addressed by the knocker by name and television job, put to practice with a return visit from Jon Ratzenburger, and the slightly more familiar
Eric Knowles. The high calibre of guests (if mostly veteran actors) would be another element that disappeared as the series went on.
One early issue with the new set was the front door being up a flight of stairs for the first time, which meant either unflattering camera shots pointing up people’s noses whenever someone appeared at it, or the guests immediately having to invite themselves in and walk down a flight of stairs upon arriving. That’s if they had anything to talk about.
All reference to Crinkley Bottom was eradicated, possibly to erase the memory of the laughter-free soap opera in the last series but more realistically down to the departure of long-standing writer Charlie Adams, and perhaps the understandable feeling that the joke had worn thin.
In the place of the old writing team was just one or two writers, and the notable absence of pretty much any jokes at all.
Given Noel’s complaints about the quality of the writing it seemed an odd move.
A notable change was the reduction of the show’s running time to 45 minutes, essentially losing 2 shows over the course of the 22 weeks.
Despite this it often felt longer, with the padding of items still a factor.
For the new run rather than lavish publicity on new features that might not be popular enough to last the series, the two longest-running and (despite their decline) most popular features of the programme were placed front and centre: NTV and the Gotchas.
The former was reborn as “NTV: You’re On Your Own”, sending victims to far-flung locations of torture for a week or longer if failing a play-off. Where NTV in earlier series had put armchair victims under the spotlight of silliness, or made entertainment out of the buildup to the reveal of them being the star, the end goal of this series was to reduce them to misery.
A video diary of the week’s victim succeeded not just in giving a sense of the drudgery involved, but also draining out the energy from the show. This was worse when one victim revealed on the show itself that he was told by the production team to act that way. This did however allow for a brilliant twist at Christmas when despite the usual buildup Imran Khan was in fact sent to see his family in Pakistan for the first time in twenty years.
The mechanic to decide whether the victim would be going home after their week away or not was also inconsistent. One week involved a tug of war, another had questions based around topical gags from Bob Monkhouse (struggling to get a reaction from the oddly arranged audience seating).
Spun out over the whole programme, the shows would close with the departure of the victim to their destination accompanied by the “Your On Your Own” song, performed (often very badly) by guests, trying too hard to give their own spin on the song despite a lack of familiarity with the source material. These included Sian Lloyd channelling her Michelle Pfeiffer with Edmonds almost matching Beau Bridges’ piano miming abilities.
Ironically the song itself was penned by one Ed Welch, the man behind many otherwise superb telly tunes, questioning why his abilities weren’t put to better use. Welch himself mentioned at a one man show some years back that he got the gig via the producer of series 8 who had previously produced the National Lottery game show “Big Ticket” earlier that year.
“New” features included “Party Animals”, previously a short-lived item in series 7 now reborn essentially as a karaoke competition forming part of this year’s contractual commitment to include gunge in some form. The performing punter, if judged to be below standard, would be “unexpectedly” dropped from a trap door into a large inflatable toilet.
Unfortunately given the scale of this admittedly impressive stunt it was a one-joke idea, with no real tension over whether anyone performing would be dropped or not once you knew the purpose of the feature. The item lasted just two shows, with a painfully executed parody of the item featuring Joan Collins in show 3 and a short sketch involving a Queen lookalike in show 4 being the last times the toilet was “flushed”.
The latter featured a much-reduced drop, presumably due to an incident in rehearsals where a 19 year old woman seriously injured her ankles following the descent, leading to mental health repercussions. The BBC eventually paid her £250,000 in compensation.
This area of the set was modified a few weeks later to become a musical performance area,
no doubt to Noel’s relief as he now didn’t have to present each week with a giant toilet
in his eyeline.
One positive move was to address the lack of a big money climax to the show the previous year following the demise of Grab a Grand and Cash For Questions. The new back garden played host to “Sofa Soccer”, which almost saw the show coming to a more rounded ending than in series 7, had it not been for the “sad song” that followed it.
Heralded by a re-sing of The Osmonds’ Crazy Horses, there were high hopes that the competition would catch onto the nation’s football fever following the Paris World Cup.
The idea was that a top goalkeeper would try to save penalties fired by the “ball blaster”,
with none other than England’s David Seaman launching the feature.
Unfortunately the balls were fired far too fast for even the notional best goalkeeper in the country to save. Initially pitching two callers against each other, it was reduced to just one in show 4 due to the subsequent goalies’ complete inability to save the balls being blasted.
One show took the item to Celtic Park (due to the ‘back garden” being stored away for the Children In Need studio move), but was set up so poorly that the balls didn’t even reach the goal in the multiple attempts at the start of the show (resulting in another Noel vs production team outburst), meaning the main game only had time for one penalty.
Noel’s enthusiasm for the item visibly waned over the 22 weeks, with Mr Blobby’s destruction
of the goal during his inevitable return seeming a fitting end to the item.
A more traditional item was added as an occasional feature a few weeks into the series. Coming Out saw the return of that venerable part of the House Party playbook – Noel creeping through the audience seating to spring a surprise, though the new set offered limited options with the victims usually all sat in exactly the same few seats.
The wafer-thin concept was someone would reveal a secret about themselves in voiceover only to their nearest and dearest, before “coming out” – literally, as the chimney breast opened and revealed them as a closet belly dancer, kissogram or something.
Another notable addition to the set which didn’t get put to use until show 8 was a giant nose. “Noel’s Nose/Noel Knows” was dressed up as a viewer correspondence feature, with letters sneezed out of the nose on giant strands of snot (yes, you are reading this right), but was seemingly designed solely for Edmonds to settle another score with Garry Bushell
who had once again slagged off the show in his newspaper column.
The nose and the toilet didn’t make it past Christmas meaning the show became more reliant on NTV, resulting in more focus on the setup to each hit, often with mixed results. One victim didn’t even make an effort to play along after sussing it. Edmonds in the run up to the series had bragged about the number of “items that other shows would base whole programmes around”, only to end up with a half-baked item taking up at least two thirds of his own show.
Y.O.Y.O’s “loser stays on” premise was dropped midway through the series with the victim spending just one week away. This no doubt saved a lot of money on live links to the location and logistics for planning multiple departures and returns, instead substituted for a video diary clearly made over a couple of days by a low-quality camera.
The destinations also moved away from a theme of isolation to putting the recipient in unusual situations with new companions, which theoretically could be more entertaining if rendering the Y.O.Y.O acronym meaningless.
However the lack of investment in whether they would stay or return after a week away meant the trips away often felt a bit of an afterthought next to the elaborate setup for the next victim.
The change to the format also meant “the sad song” couldn’t appear either,
and the show reverted back to rushed and messy endings.
One unfortunate recurrence this year was Edmonds chastising the production team live on the show.
Such instances had occurred previously in series 6 and 7, but with a relatively new set of individuals behind the scenes, Edmonds’ frustrations knew no boundaries, in many situations that could have been avoided by the frontman wearing an ear piece (though this did give rise to an entertaining series of practical jokes between the crew and the host, the closest the final run got to the traditional revenge Gotcha).
Newer characters included “Father Seamus Plug” as played by Irish comic Paul Tylak. Plug’s main purpose was providing product placement for the guests at the end of each show. This was perhaps the show attempting to laugh at its flaws, along with the many gags spelling out the differences between this series and the last.
Along with the Knocker, Plug, and a variety of crew members with on air roles including the aforementioned Carlton Dixon and Production Finance Manager Stan “the man” Matthews, Phibber and Waffle from “My Little Friend”, the latest additions to the only new feature to survive the last two series bolstered the ensemble cast in the studio.
The last new character was a short-lived talking sofa voiced by Bobby Davro. Undoubtedly the weakest of the regular performers, the sofa had a weird obsession with bodily functions which began the predictable drift towards throwing stuff over the audience once more. Davro appeared as himself in a number of cameos, which was entirely unexplained to the viewing audience who must have wondered why this has-been was popping up randomly.
From January cushions were placed over the sofa’s face and the item never returned.
One notable absence from this series was that of Mr Blobby, still appearing on Live And Kicking where Noel appeared in the Hot Seat a week into series 8, explaining how focus groups and research prior to the current series suggested that the pink spotty one was no longer in favour.
He made a surprise cameo via a rushed sketch at the end of that evening’s House Party with Blobby told to sling his hook by the door knocker, which backfired as a result of being not just drowned out by the studio audience but them chanting his name, illustrating in a nutshell the dilemma of the previous attempts to rest the character.
In retrospect it’s hard to register Blobby’s absence this series, having become too-long associated with the series to the point of forgetting he wasn’t introduced until series 2.
The Gotchas this series were an improvement on the previous run, reducing the running time to become a tighter item (and actually produced to a decent technical standard), but a major change was filming them shortly before each transmission rather than mostly in a block
over the summer.
This was presumably to be able to react to what was working and what wasn’t, but was undoubtedly risky for putting the regular cast on screen. It also had the unfortunate effect of meaning many of the recipients were unable to appear in the “House of Fun” to receive the award due to prior commitments.
Infamously this impacted one for Trevor McDonald behind the scenes at the 1998 National Television Awards. A lazy set-up involving false trailers for the different ITV regions using a tired stereotype for each one was shambolic enough for McDonald to be the only Gotcha recipient to not even appear via video link to revisit their torture.
This was played up on air as if he had refused to appear out of spite when in actual fact it was because McDonald was on holiday, which the BBC had to address in a subsequent complaints bulletin. One could argue that McDonald lacked a sense of humour, on which you would force them to watch his much repeated appearance on Tiswas to prove otherwise.
The Gotcha failed by subjecting the “client” to embarrassment at completely the wrong time, when near to the point of being knackered after compering a big awards ceremony.
Whilst few series 8 Gotchas are up there with the greats, there were a few very decent ones (Alan Titchmarsh – receiving his second statue almost exactly ten years after his Saturday Roadshow Oscar – and Mike Reid spring to mind), and most are an improvement
on the previous series.
But there was one standout this series, a Gotcha for Richard Whiteley utilising the hallmarks that made DLT’s Gotcha memorable, basing it within the recipient’s familiar surroundings of the Countdown studio, and all of the show’s participants bar the Mayor of Wet Wang were in on it.
Whiteley mentioned in his autobiography that he cottoned onto it quickly (all the more noticeable when going for the jugular with the male contestant) but unlike previous members of the “Sussed It Club” played along with it to great effect. The lengthy uncut footage circulating on YouTube contained even funnier moments that didn’t make the transmitted version.
A Gotcha remembered with the greats, but was it enough to save the show at it’s twilight stage?
Part 2 to follow…