Fist of Fun

Ian Jones on The 1993 British Comedy Awards

First published August 2001

Banished to the deepest of ITV’s vaults is an occasion that must rank as one of the most unforgettable – but also incomprehensible – events ever broadcast on British television. Award ceremonies never successfully translate onto TV without some factor conspiring wholly to refocus attention away from “the real reason we’re here tonight” and onto a choice selection of supporting distractions. The promise of big ratings can lure even the most puritan of television networks to dice with disruptive auditorium crowds, fluffed cues on the part of special guests, and of course those expletive-laden outbursts from well-lubricated award winners. But transmitting these events “as live” with a convenient time-delay as a safety net cannot accommodate one further factor: the performance of the ceremony host.

The role of the awards’ anchor is a perilous one. Time delay doesn’t compensate for plain inadequacy. Falling to pieces faced with a parade of catastrophes (most famously, Mick Fleetwood and Sam Fox live from the 1989 Brit Awards) is no better than failing to persuade even the most sympathetic viewer that they’ve really no clue what the hell is going on (most recently, Angus Deayton at the 2001 BAFTAs – a performance more shocking when remembering this wasn’t going out live). But sometimes the right mix of potential looming meltdown and front man delivers the most memorable of telly landmarks. History is made thanks to anything from the smallest of indiscretions to the snappiest of ad-libs – but the resulting crucible of outrage and notoriety keeps the offending footage off-screens for almost a decade.

Our host for the 1993 British Comedy Awards was Jonathan Ross – already an experienced hand at overseeing the distribution of gongs. The location was the cavernous London Studios, and the production masterminded as ever by the Comedy Awards’ creator Michael Hurll. Viewers were promised a couple of hours live fun, honouring Britain’s brightest and best comics, as had become an annual tradition. There was no indication this would be anything other than well-packaged, good-humoured, family entertainment.

Tuning in, audiences were immediately greeted with an ill-conceived nightmarish vision of an ecological orgy – thanks to a set design reminiscent of an overgrown cemetery, complete with malevolent triffids and the sort of back garden hell a pint-sized David Bellamy used to patrol. A house band piped in guests with anodyne muzak – some vague traces of half-familiar TV themes thrown in – while your obligatory tanked-up belligerent audience seemed more than a little rowdy.

Looking back, it’s clear that potent elements were already in place. The event is flawed from the outset thanks to the sheer number of awards that have to be dished out. Jonathan promises viewers 22 categories, though only 21 are shown, implying a whole round is cut to save time. Proceedings quickly overrun, clips are dropped, guests ditched and cues missed. The linking script is good – co-written by Jonathan and Jez Stevenson – and Ross undoubtedly relishes the occasion. Indeed, his performance ensures our attention is drawn both to the idiosyncratic behaviour of guests and award winners, plus the increasingly precarious nature of the show itself – implicitly suggesting we might not all make it to the end in one piece. Jonathan signposts the evening’s collapse with a sequence of ad-libbed asides which wonderfully compound the viewers’ pain and pleasure at what is unfolding. Basically, he knows he’s onto a winner here. Setting up the two awards to be voted for by viewers, Jonathan drawls at the camera: “Remember, phone-in polls are nothing more than mere popularity contests.”

He seems bemused, however, at the order in which special guests have been organized to hand out the awards. First out is Jerry Hall, who seems vexed, and when Jonathan ribs her over a new yoga video she snaps, “Do I look like a girl who needs money?” to complete silence. Then it’s Hulk Hogan, also on the promotional trail. “I guess the world of scripted comedy is no stranger to you,” cracks Jonathan. “It’s a bit lowbrow for my tastes,” recites Hulk. Who decided on these two cardboard goons as opening attractions?

After the first of many in-jokes from Jonathan, all utterly meaningless to most viewers (in this case a gag about the lack of nominees from the new ITV franchises) Debbie Gibson and Craig McLachlan appear looking stressed – “We should get on with this, shouldn’t we?” pleads Craig. None of the winners look at all interested until we reach Top ITV Entertainment Presenter, which goes to Barrymore, and it is now the evening begins to career dramatically off track. In retrospect you can see Barrymore already poised on the edge of the abyss he was shortly to fall headlong into: the man devotes almost five minutes to a protracted joke at the expense of the then head of LWT, Greg Dyke, and his apparent frosty relationship with ITV director of programmes Marcus Plantin. The audience love it, of course, but we’re none the wiser. Get off the stage!

As the night unfolds all participants become more oblivious to the fact that there is a proper TV audience out there; all that matters are the people inside this one room. So Jonathan reminds us that BBC Sports Personality of the Year is being shown at the same time – “I can reveal exclusively that Linford Christie has won!” and then, introducing Top C4 Entertainment Presenter, he shouts, “We all know it’s going to be Chris Evans.” Sure enough Evans triumphs, and delivers an embarrassing speech about not wanting to win before “giving” the award to Gaby Roslin. Jonathan wipes away mock tears. When some unlikely guests walk on in the shape of Richard and Judy; watching them die on their arse is fascinating. Here’s Richard already fashioning his doomed stand-up routine. “I’ve got a wife and 10 children in Croydon,” he cracks, to an icy response.

It’s also clear that no thought has been given to co-ordinating the presentation of awards. When Steve Coogan wins Best Radio Comedy for Knowing Me Knowing You, Armando Iannucci does all the speaking – only he’s not been properly introduced, so those watching have no idea who he is. As it becomes increasingly harder for viewers to find any entry point into proceedings, Jonathan churns out the in-jokes – “I’m breathless with excitement to see what Mentorn are going to do with Happy Families …” – and while it’s amusing to see a clip from Just a Gigolo again, it’s galling to remember how much this show was hyped (plus the fact it’s considered worth a nomination for Best New TV Comedy).

After another joke about the prospective LWT/Granada merger, Jonathan at lasts welcomes an interesting guest: Danny Baker, whom he introduces with of one of Danny’s jokes from a previous Comedy Awards: “Comedy relies on new blood almost as much as the black pudding industry.” Both he and Danny then repeat this joke at length – to ever-diminishing audience interest – before Danny announces how the funniest line so far, according to the green room, was when Jonathan greeted his wrestler guest “Hello, Hulk!” This backstage gossip is all very well, but what about the awards?

The ceremony is an intriguing document of British TV comedy caught in transition – Marti Caine, Hannah Gordon, Eddie Izzard and Reeves and Mortimer all parade across the stage within minutes of each other. Then when Norman Lamont appears to give out an award you can hear the audience hissing. As the former Chancellor exits the stage, Jonathan reminds us this is “a show positively dripping with irony.” But of course it’s the final half hour that is the most amazing. Events are pushed even further overtime thanks to a terribly disorganized section where first Alan Plater then Lenny Henry give massive speeches praising the Best Comedy Writer Richard Curtis. Ken Dodd wins Top Variety Entertainer, and here’s – who else? – Tony Slattery to present him with the award live on stage in Manchester. The sound is lost, then the picture, then Ken splutters, “I thought you were the man from the VAT,” before he too loses it.

Then Julian Clary arrives:

Jonathan: Good to see you – how’s it hanging?
Julian: Oh, very well thank you. Very nice of you to recreate Hampstead Heath for me here [much mirth]. As a matter of fact, I’ve just been fisting Norman Lamont … [explosion of laughter that goes on for half a minute]
Jonathan: [visibly panicking] Let me ask you Julian … [tails off]
Julian: [almost inaudible] Talk about a red box …
[We see Richard and Judy in hysterics]
Jonathan: [struggling] So. How did you jump to the front of the queue then?
Julian: Just clawed my way through …
Jonathan: Are we still on?

The event never recovers from this outburst. The one award left goes to Barrymore for Best Entertainment Series, and the man quickly refers back to Julian’s comments, Jonathan egging him on by wondering whether they should illustrate the remarks “for the hard of hearing” – which predictably Barrymore proceeds to do. So this “glittering jewel in family entertainment’s TV crown” comes to an end, Jonathan reassuring his audience and us that at least the show has given “schoolchildren a whole new expression to talk about in the playground tomorrow morning.” It’s somehow fitting that he concludes proceedings with an off-key, out-of-time recital of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

As the whole occasion went out live, or near enough to rule out last minute editing, Julian’s timeless confession was lobbed bang into the living rooms of a million families and straight into the heads of millions of kids and teenagers who the following morning did indeed swap tales of hearing the man’s utterances live on air in front of purple-faced grown-ups. Clary was never allowed back; the Awards and others like it forever put on much tighter leashes.

Such a debacle can probably never happen again, though the 1993 Comedy Awards remain a sparkling example of both astonishingly bad, yet also gruesomely addictive television – and therefore one of the best events of its kind. It’s equally instructive, however, to consider the event in the context of its host’s career. Then still a major TV presence, Jonathan Ross’ short-term future as a master of live television seemed assured. Indeed, his handling of this particular coverage stands as maybe the model example of matching sequential mishaps and mismanagements with exactly the right responses and rationale.

But it was to prove a turning point not just in certain attitudes to award ceremony policy, but also for the man Ross himself. For not one thing he’s done on television since has ever come close to matching his performance at those awards in terms of timing and skill. He either couldn’t be bothered, or never found the best vehicle for showcasing what he does best. It’s almost as if Ross sacrificed his future in telly for one overwhelming evening that could and would never be repeated. Even his continuing role as Comedy Awards host rarely seems to come alive. He’s now proven himself superb at live, unscripted radio – his fantastic Saturday morning Radio 2 show – but in light of prospective similar forays onto the small screen it’ll be equally fascinating to see if he can ever rework that formula back where he started: on live television. A big, big revival must come.