The outrageous post-pub show of the early 1990s resulted in some classic television moments and unforgettable band performances.
Britain’s Channel 4 loves to think of itself as edgy and rebellious, even as it chases ratings with the trashiest reality shows and empty lifestyle shows, all sprinkled with a touch of contrived diversity and smug self-importance aimed at reassuring its pompous middle-class audience that they are in some way radical. It’s a creatively dead channel and has been for a long, long time – any risky programming is, despite what it thinks, long buried in the past. The channel that once showed experimental cinema and difficult programming, and which once pushed the boundaries of broadcasting is now a mainstream, hand-wringing shadow of its former self, cutting innocuous dialogue from American sitcoms lest they upset prudes – and to hell with the fact that it often removes the punchline to a gag.
It wasn’t always this way. Channel 4 used to be genuinely cutting edge and challenging, and even as it slipped towards the mainstream, there were still shows that were unlike anything else on TV. The Word, broadcast in the first half of the 1990s, is symbolic of both the slide into crass commercialism and the uncontrolled chaos that made the channel so interesting. As Yoof TV, it is the sort of hedonistic programming that we are unlikely to see again anytime soon, a Friday night shambles that mixed some of the most useless presenters ever to grace our TV screens with outrageous guests, shocking imagery and rampant bad taste. And it featured some of the best bands of the era, playing live in performances that felt out of control and very, very live. With the studio audience of clubbers and hipsters gyrating away and handheld cameras that never stayed still, the performances on The Word make you feel as though you are there.
The show started out as a tea-time teen show, but when it moved to the late-night slot, all restraints were off. Shown live, the show was a complete mess – lead presenter Terry Christian is, of course, a noted buffoon and barely seemed to know what he was doing, though the show – at least in the original, early evening lightweight version – was actually his idea to begin with; sidekick Mark Lamarr was a slick and arrogant twat, and the pair clearly hated each other. Other members of the sideshow included American dancer Katie Pukrick, the remarkably vacuous Amanda de Cadenet and failed pop star Dani Behr, who all – to one degree or other – embraced the chaos of the show. Some of these presenters were more convincing than others.
Naturally, the show caused outrage amongst all the right people. Seen as a symptom of trash TV and the dumbing down of culture (if only the critics knew what was waiting around the corner, eh?), the show’s more outrageous elements included a slot called ‘the hopefuls’, where nobodies agreed to do awful things – from drinking vomit to snogging toothless geriatrics – in order to appear on TV. Gross, yes, but also a knowing dig at the hunger for empty fame that was already becoming a thing, and which Channel 4 would soon be at the centre of with shows like Big Brother. Naturally, this stoked the fury of both the conservative and liberal viewers, who felt that this was the decline of western civilisation writ large across their screens – but The Word was smart as a whip compared to the sort of thing that Channel 4 routinely pump out now and are praised for.
The show encouraged provocative behaviour from guests – Christian was on the receiving end of more than one slap to the fact and whithering put-down, though he could sometimes give as good as he got, asking a stand-offish Traci Lords “which of your old films should I splash out on?” – a rare moment of wit from the hapless presenter. Guests could be outrageous, offensive or dangerous – Shabba Ranks saying that homosexuals should be crucified was a particularly low point for all concerned, while newly-fired Coronation Street star Lynne Perrie drunkenly singing I Will Survive is painful and embarrassing. Another controversial spot was when the show allegedly plied Oliver Reed with drink, secretly filming him getting more hammered in his dressing room before wheeling him out and showing him the footage. It’s possible that this was staged, and certainly, Reed’s reaction to it is telling – but his glowering contempt for Christian seems all too real. The show ended with him drunkenly performing Wild Thing with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, and at least he seems to be enjoying himself.
The bands who appeared on The Word were a mixed bag, and any suggestion that this was a curated selection would be a stretch – they were just what was new and cool at the time. But the fact that they performed live – late on a Friday night after a possible evening of refreshment and in front of a hopped-up audience – seemed to encourage some acts to go the extra mile in terms of entertaining the crowd. Most notorious was the appearance of L7, which included some trouser-dropping by Donita Sparks, but there are several fantastic performances from across the show’s run – and you’ll find a bunch of them below.
The Word ran out of steam in 1995 – the outrage had reached Parliament and Channel 4 boss Michael Grade, who had been instrumental in setting the show up as a post-pub outrage machine but was now stinging from tabloid references to him as the ‘pornographer-in-chief’ on the channel, began to impose more restrictions – more lawyers, less anarchy. Ultimately, the show was pulled and confined to history, its archive of classic performances mostly lost apart from the private recordings of viewers who weren’t too drunk to use the VCR. Some of those recordings appear below and remain as exciting and unique as they were at the time.
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