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Absolute Dick: Dick Emery at Thames Television on DVD

  Dick Emery was a comic who had paid his dues, and by the nineteen-seventies his hard graft had paid off with one of the most successful comedy shows on television thanks to his Saturday night broadcasts which allowed him to demonstrate his range of creations. Some of those included a couple of drag acts, blowsy Mandy (with the catchphrase "Ooh, you are awful - but I like you!") and repressed spinster Hettie with one thing on her mind, and there was also the toothy Vicar who spent his existence at a succession of church fetes, "bovver boy" Gaylord (catchphrase: "Dad, I fink I got it wrong again!", dad played by Roy Kinnear), plus his favourite character, the wise old Lampwick who would undercut any pomposity.

There were plenty more in his repertoire, which was just as well because he was in great demand, good for his bank balance but not so good for his health for he suffered terribly with nerves, no matter that his public loved him: maybe it was a fear of letting them down by the stage he was in his highly-rated sketch programme. This was reflected in a personal life that saw him marry and divorce five times, and end his days living with showgirl Fay Hillier who would occasionally appear with him in his latter projects, his tortured inner life soothed by seeking out the company of women, though some thought he was trying to prove something by being the womaniser, after all one of his most celebrated characters was the flamboyantly camp Clarence (catchphrase: "Hello honkytonks!").

By the end of his career, he might have had the sense there were no more worlds left to conquer, but that did not mean he let up on his workload, and while his hit BBC show was winding down as he wanted to try something different than churning out variations on the same characters he had for a decade now, he hopped over to ITV, the London-based Thames Television to be exact, for three specials made within the space of two or three years. This did not mean leaving the BBC behind, however, as he was working with them right up to his death in 1983 at age 67, but these efforts for the other side offered him a chance to try out a format that had been honed to something like perfection by his contemporary Benny Hill.

The first of these, Dick Emery's Comedy Hour, was a summer special broadcast in June, which began with our hero sailing up to Thames' studios (actually on a boat pulled along the street by a truck) but then we were subjected to a sight that even by this late point no variety show would be without: the dance troupe who would crop up intermittently to provide a respite from the laughs. Quite why you would want such a thing was a mystery that only television producers of this era would be able to tell you; if Clarence looked camp, and he didn't appear in this programme, then these dancers were absolutely shrieking, cavorting with gay abandon in a manner that might have been slightly embarrassing even at the time.

Keep fit was the theme of the opening number, so the dancers sang about that, threw some shapes The Ambiguously Gay Duo would have approved of, while Dick appeared a few times for visual gags. Once that was out of the way we could settle down with a sketch, where the Vicar was tasting wine at one of those fetes and most impressed with the raspberry and rhubarb variations, less so on the others, growing progressively more drunk. It was a familiar routine, but he was experienced enough to garner laughs out of it, and much the same could be said of the humour to follow, as next up we saw Gaylord in the Napoleonic Wars trying without much success to load a cannon (watch for Emery covering for a failing prop with style). Silly slapstick, but genuinely funny.

After a spot of ballet (but not really), there was something else not often seen on his BBC 1 shows, Emery singing a song. Not a comedy song, mind you, and not a textbook musical interlude a pre-Bucks Fizz Mike Nolan performs here with his group Brooks either, but a sincere item of nostalgia for his son growing up and getting married. No matter how moving this was supposed to be, the fact remained the star was no Val Doonican, and his strained tones didn't sell the ditty too well, making it a relief that we were soon into the next sketch, or sketches to be exact when a series of quickfire gags unfolded, often with a war theme, and also featuring Hillier as the stooge in that old joke about the doctor asking the young lady to take off her clothes behind the screen - for an eye test.

Yes, it was the seventies, how did you guess? Lulu was the other musical guest, attempting a sultry disco routine, but it didn't suit her, and those dancers were back which sabotaged the steamy mood considerably; they might as well have got Beryl Reid to perform it, but she was here as well in a skit where she and Emery played a married couple who try to one-up each other with accounts of their ridiculous escapades. This actually was sweet, and amusing too, which led to the final sketch as Bert the hopeless handyman determines the world is about to end therefore he has built a rocket to Mars to begin again, not bad as these go. A bit of a pity it didn't end there, for Emery wanted to sing again for a capper, those dancers loitering around a faux-Alpine lodge set.

He hoped we watching at home would join him next year, indicating he had signed a contract for at least one more programme, and sure enough at Christmas 1979 we were treated to The Dick Emery Special on ITV. As the title indicated, this was even more of a variety effort, with the star himself performing less than before and allowing a selection of musical guests to take up half the show, which if you had tuned in for comedy may have come as a disappointment. Things kick off with that staple, the Nelson at Trafalgar joke, then we were plunged straight into a dance number where a selection of young ladies were put through their paces in a hymn to, well, dancing itself, all fixed grins and high kicks and beds for some reason, as if they were in a dormitory.

Emery returned for another fallback position, the job interview sketch, though this had a none more 1979 twist in that it featured The Incredible Hulk as the prospective candidate. Not, sadly, Lou Ferrigno himself, but a stand-in who smashes up the office and provides decent laughs as the comedian remained unflappable in the face of his destruction, leading up to a punchline that would never have happened in the pages of the comic books. After that, The Three Degrees turned up to perform their contemporary hit My Simple Heart, a familiar trio in this context, and professional as ever, leading in to a curious one-joke sketch about a man from the council arriving at a hovel to help with their rats - handing them out, rather than exterminating.

The musical interludes just kept coming as we were treated to an actual ballet, or a bit of one, where a Beauty and the Beast arrangement saw a man dressed as a yeti dance with a woman dressed as a snowflake: this was evidently intended to be sensitive, but it stood out like a sore thumb in a Dick Emery comedy extravaganza. That was not all, as there was also a disco harpist named Annabel who made The Beatles' Eleanor Rigby as funky as she could with the instrument at hand(s), and Gemma Craven aspired to a one woman show at the West End in a self-aggrandising, top hat waving number she performed in front of a huge sign of her own name in lights. Should we not have been seeing Emery doing his characters before a huge sign spelling out "DICK"?

Whatever, the skits he did show up for were leaning on his tendency towards caricature, with his Napoleon finding someone wearing a certain style of footwear has beaten him to Josephine, a spoof chat show where he dressed up as a supposed Indian to demonstrate fakir tricks (featuring an actual Indian in a bit part, who is deigned by Emery to have a terrible accent, in self-deprecating acknowledgement of his own limitations), and the rather sweet tale of public toilet attendants in love, with all the double entendres you'd expect - there were more in the finale, a King Arthur piece that took potshots at British Leyland and had a gay Sir Galahad (not Clarence) Emery complains was getting all the laughs. He closed with a snatch of "and this is me" singing.

In spite of David Renwick assisting on script duties, that second special was probably the least of the trio, but the best saw the comic actor's preferred writer John Singer asserting himself more in The Dick Emery Comedy Hour which took into account the less Emery-focused second Thames instalment and opted to include him in just about every bit for the duration. He had one special guest, Wonder Woman star Lynda Carter, who appeared in a bit of business with Emery proving he was uncomfortable being himself when he interviewed her, and was happier when he did the WW spin to turn into Hettie. Then Carter emotively performed You Don't Bring Me Flowers in what was the only solo music turn in the programme.

The other special guest, according to the credits, was The Dam Busters star Richard Todd, living up to his status as a leading man in British war pictures by appearing in a sketch spoofing The Great Escape and other P.O.W. dramas. He did pretty well, and Emery was obviously pleased to be alongside him as he was more of a celebrity than the jobbing support actor he usually appeared with; there was also a scene with him making a model plane, presumably a nod to his leadership of the Airfix Modellers' Club which was advertised in a variety of comics to encourage kids to take up and stick with this "quiet" hobby, though that involved plastic and glue and decals rather than the carving his character got up to here.

This early Christmas special actually began with Dick parodying the sort of recent film Car Wash by showing up as his famous characters at said establishment for various jokes, including Clarence getting soaked, Gaylord playing a soapy prank and so on, a rapid string of gags that suited his approach very well. But he did not capitalise too much on those past successes, indicating he was keen to move forward, and only Lampwick singing A Very Good Year and Bert the inventor seeing about law and order and constructing his own Robocop harked back to personas who had served him so well in his BBC television series, not that he concentrated exclusively on those there either, but he wanted to show there were other strings to his bow.

Therefore there was a sketch, quite elaborate for a studio-based affair, where he played an eccentric (or madman) who is allowed cause havoc in a country tavern because the owner thinks he is a brewery representative, more French stuff with actual Frenchwoman Françoise Pascal as D'Artagnan's wife who is cuckolding him (Emery playing the Musketeer), an old gent meeting terrible luck and worse behaviour in a park (a little cruel, this one), and to end on a hoedown about Grandma's Feather Bed, where he sang but left the dancing to others. Additionally, there were quick gags between the segments. All in all, this special showed Emery at somewhere near his best at this stage in his career, and there were some giggles to be garnered.

Network have released these specials on a DVD, a valuable record of a man who was at one time one of the most famous comedians in the country, although "comic actor" was likely a more accurate description, whose style would go on to influence other shows in the future from The League of Gentlemen to Little Britain to Tracey Ullman's Show: anything where the stars dressed up in costumes and makeup to present their sketches, essentially. As extras on the disc there is a photo gallery packed with publicity shots, and a curio from the sixties where Emery played various roles in a promotional short for a carbon paper manufacturer - you would get more laughs from the main trio of shows, yet it was an interesting slice of ephemera. For Emery, he would try out new formats for his productions as the eighties dawned, but did not last to see them succeed; it was his compilations of wacky, cheeky characters that would be his legacy.
Author: Graeme Clark.


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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018