Richard and Judy

Tuesday, October 1, 2002 by

The status of “TV institution”only really registers its full impact when the subject takes unflinching pride in being mocked. Hence the reason why Parkinson, rather than revelling in his critics and thereby becoming a more curious and compelling character, has merely ended up a miserable old grouch. Richard and Judy, however, have made their efforts to deal with their naysayers the centrepiece of their “act”. As a consequence they remain two of the most intriguing media personalities of the present day; and it’s also why their Channel 4 series is still appointment viewing.

Tonight’s show was potpourri telly at its most conquering. With a rather engaging absence of shame, the pair opened with an attempt at a comedy routine. “Women may talk more than men,” Judy announced, “but they’ve got twice a big a vocabulary.” Richard retorted, “I don’t know what you, erm, what you, erm …” “Mean, Richard?” cooed Judy, with perfect timing. Neatly laying out the foundation of the show, Richard instantly struck up the pace. “Now let’s get down to it,” he barked, and already they’d moved to a new part of the set. All this energy expended in maintaining such an urgent and bucolic atmosphere, however, was at their expense; never once did we really feel out of breath or buffeted by the grand formation of features that now began to glide briskly by.

So along came the obligatory consumer item, rooted as ever around another piece of quirky research – “apparently absolutely true” Richard stated piously – backing up the idea of women holding more words in their head then men. And as ever – familiarity being the watchword here, and all the better for it – it was going to be tested live in the studio in a duel of the sexes. “Judy and I,” blurted Richard, “will be going head to head, to take the head – to take the test, I’m sorry!” “You’re playing right into my hands,” cackled Judy with relish, at which Richard predictably looked off camera and sighed, “That didn’t work at all.” A hackneyed payoff, sure; but unlike, say, Chris Moyles throwing a similar comment to an invisible lackey, Richard always gets away with it because you know he’s not just doing it for effect, he really is looking intently at a member of the production team and relaying what’s on his mind with the utmost concern.

After some banter with a sofa of experts, Richard brandished a piece of paper at the camera, presumably the aforementioned research, and decided it was time to “check it out”. Brilliantly, the adjudicator enlisted to supervise the ensuing experiment was Countdown‘s Suzie Dent. Acquitting herself with a suitable mix of sternness and whimsy, Suzie refereed a series of jousts between some students over who could think up the most alternatives to any given word. “Go on, go on!” bawled Richard across the studio, egging on the blokes. The entire item was a triumph of charm over circumstance, though it’s a pity there was no time for the much trailed showdown between the hosts themselves.

“As you may know, we’re looking for new untried reporters for this show.” Now this is what we wanted. In a resolute, doing-what-the-big-shows-do-but-on-a-tiny-budget display of aplomb, Judy explained how they’d been holding various regional auditions, and today it was the turn of Birmingham. A motley selection of contestants paraded across the screen, while back in the studio three finalists were sequestered on the sofa; but as one timidly waved at the camera Richard rasped, “Don’t try to suck up to the viewers.” Such sudden explosions of fury are the necessary punctuation marks that continue to beautifully shape every edition of Richard and Judy. Meantime to decide which of the three would go through to the grand final, random assignments were handed out “which you’ve never seen before”. The first contestant opened their envelope and promptly exclaimed, “Oooh, I was hoping to get this one.”

The day’s theme of the virtues of vocabulary had by this point become a simple prop that both Richard and Judy leant upon for support. “And there’s another chance for you to take part in You Say, We Pee,” slurred Judy at one point, confirming that for all the conjecture over either presenter’s predilection for contriving verbal gaffes there’s still a healthy streak of authentic and spontaneous clumsiness at work in both of them. A live interview with a boy suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome and his mum also proved the pair past masters of the slightly over personal and intrusive interview. While there was no interrupting a poignant anecdote to self-consciously stir the tea this time, Judy was on hand with the tears, lolling on the sofa and confessing in a husky voice, “Half of getting by in life, y’know, is sort of just saying the right things.” The boy, who earlier countered, “People with Asperger’s are more honest, and usually have an obsession; mine is computers” blinked repeatedly.

It really was a packed programme, because in-between this and a cosy interview with none other than Michael Palin there was even room for some magic tricks. Needless to say Richard was in his element, being slightly too eager to take off his jacket when simply asked to roll up his sleeves, and summoning up a ready anecdote about when they met The Great Soprendo – “do you remember, Judy?” – who is one of Richard’s heroes. In this instance it was a good-natured American guy who asked Richard to bare his arms and demonstrate some tricks involving the power of the mind. Lively, perplexing, dazzling, this was really good stuff, especially when he offered up a trick you thought had gone wrong but in fact had turned out better than you ever imagine. Richard and Judy were enthralled, and you couldn’t help but feel the same.

It’s been almost a year since the pair kicked off their afternoon shift on screen, and there’s still a slightly unsettling urgency to the programme – at odds with the laid back demeanour Richard still desperately tries to peddle – that suggests the past is no longer important. The only thing that matters is what’s coming up next. It’s an eerie sensation, but the whole of Richard and Judy seems increasingly obsessed with a point in time somewhere half an hour from now. This manifests itself constantly in the compelling gleam of panic shining out from Judy’s eyes. It’s a look that entertains a tiny drop of confidence awash in a huge dose of comic insecurity. And perversely it makes the programme all the more entertaining.

It helps to explain why the hour the show is supposed to be on air feels half that amount. On this occasion of course the timing went to pieces on a spectacular scale, as numerous items – including the ever-popular You Say, We Pay – had to be dropped and the running order speeded up to a frenetic pace. But again this made proceedings all that more enjoyable, as both hosts battled to resurrect the skeleton of a programme from the rubble of discarded features. Lest we forget, moments of crisis always bring out extreme responses from both Madeley and Finnegan, often – memorably – within the same sentence. Which is precisely what works at this time of the TV day; and which is why by rights Richard and Judy deserves to remain Channel 4′s nationwide teatime fixture for a fair few years to come. Few other programmes are so charismatic and immediate; no other programme is so downright beguiling.


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