Remembering It’s A Royal Knockout – A 1980s TV Fever Dream

Looking back to a more innocent time, when Royal scandals simply involved celebrities in funny costumes throwing buckets of water at each other.

Given the current media woes being navigated by the British Royal Family, it’s difficult to remember the way that once, back in 1987, they were a laughing stock because of a TV programme which had (to my best knowledge) nothing to do with Emily Maitlis. No, this particular programme was the brainchild of the Queen’s youngest son – Edward, the Earl of Wessex – a man who magically got into Cambridge on grades C, C and D, dropped out of his military training post-graduation and then had a go at television production, before this also went tits up. He had a go at working. Think Marie Antionette with her ducks. It’s quite a feat to fail this hard and still live in a fucking mansion, but God bless the class system.

Why was his TV show so derided?

It’s a Royal Knockout speaks to a simpler time, an innocent time, a time when a band of direct heirs to the British throne only had to immediately worry about getting felled by minor celebrities in huge, ungainly costumes. If you have no idea what any of that means, then maybe you live in a country where It’s a KnockoutJeux sans frontières – never enjoyed a successful run; if that’s the case, let me provide some context. It’s a Knockout is essentially a team competition, usually some variant on an assault course or a race of some kind, albeit one where the contestants are clad in large, ungainly and usually sight-obscuring/coordination-obscuring outfits. To make it more fun, the contestants’ paths tend to be strewn with trip hazards and wet surfaces, and other teams are invited to pelt their opponents with items as well. This was a very popular format – I suppose if people falling over is inherently funny, then someone dressed as the Giant from Jack and the Beanstalk falling over should by rights be better still – and so, this truism having filtered all the way through to Prince Edward, he decided to do a one-off charity special, with several members of The Firm on board. It should be noted that the Queen thought it was a dreadful idea, and whatever you think of Her Majesty, she was absolutely right.

This specific show revolved around a Tudor theme (itself an interesting choice) replete with fanfares, a herald (Aled Jones just before adulthood got him) and a Lord and Lady in charge of proceedings. This was not long after Rowan Atkinson had filmed Blackadder II, so he appears here as Lord Knock, in the Blackadder costume; his Lady is none other than the late Barbara Windsor, sadly not in the outfit she’d worn in Carry on Henry, but a close facsimile. There’s a huge list of celebrities on board, from Gary Lineker to John Travolta to Sheena Easton. The programme flits annoyingly between different minor presenters, but what you can glean if you’re careful is that there are a range of games in the tournament, at least a few of which are exactly the same as one another, and these games are individually sponsored by a number of UK high street names. Interestingly, most of these are still going: Asda, McDonald’s, Canada Life. The companies remain, but many of the participants have shuffled off the mortal coil: this show serves as an odd eulogy for the likes of Christopher Reeve (here being encouraged across a body of water by the equally late Les Dawson), tiny wizard Paul Daniels, and none other than Meat Loaf. We never got to ask him, but surely Meat Loaf would rate running pell-mell across a field armed with a giant fake leek as a career high. He also came close to pushing Prince Andrew into a fake moat, so there’s that too.

As for the Royals themselves, I’m sure that the show would have been rated far more highly had they gone all in, getting muddy and running the gauntlet with the rest of them, but tellingly, they can’t be doing with that. Instead, we have the Duchess of York, the Duke of York (more anon), Prince Edward his very self, and Princess Anne – who at least has the good sense to look like she absolutely couldn’t be arsed – acting as team captains. This means they get to do what they have plenty of experience in doing, which is giving orders from the sidelines. The only times it gets very tense is on the occasions when they have to talk to the normal people, and God bless regular It’s a Knockout host Stuart Hall for getting on with it and largely ignoring their discomfort.

Perhaps in hindsight, this whole thing is so jaw-droppingly odd now as it features none other than Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, participating in a reasonably normal fashion, although he spends a fair bit of time kvetching about things not being to his liking. I suppose we should all be grateful that this salt-of-the-earth Falklands veteran wasn’t being asked to draw a set of curtains. I’ll admit, I watched a lot of the footage featuring Andrew to see if I could detect so much as a second of footage where he appeared to mop his brow, in which case this would be a Reprobate scoop of ginormous proportions. Sadly, nothing – though he didn’t particularly exert himself, as this is something he (allegedly) keeps for within doors. The jury is therefore still out.

So, what do we say to this ridiculous, often shambolic, overly-long piece of mid-Eighties entertainment now? At the time it was made, it was largely considered a crushing embarrassment. And for good reasons: as much as the British tabloids were happy to go after the Royals for any number of things, splashing their misdemeanours on their front pages (this was a long time before any investigations into media misconduct) they usually had to look for these stories, at least a bit. No long lenses were necessary to pick up images of Sarah Ferguson bellowing at the top of her voice whilst dressed as a Tudor lady-in-waiting. The worst transgressions for which the Royals had been known were otherwise long in the past. Princess Margaret’s divorce was a decade back, whilst new marriages for the Queen’s children were within recent memory; Sarah Ferguson and Prince Andrew had only married a year before the show. Now, with the benefit of awful, awful hindsight, It’s a Royal Knockout looks like a halcyon moment of aimless silliness before the absolute horror show which kicked off in the early Nineties. The Prince of Wales longing to be a tampon, Sarah Ferguson having her toes sucked, separations, divorces, Nazi armbands, naked photos, and finally – to bring us up to date – allegations that the Duke of York gained sexual access to young girls via his mysteriously-dead millionaire paedophile mate, Jeffrey Epstein. The court case is pending, but already his erstwhile supporters are jumping ship, a feat which none of his reported rude, obstreperous antics had managed to muster. Oh, and of course, the avuncular Stuart Hall was also Yewtreed into prison for a string of sexual offences on girls aged between 9 and 17 some years ago.

All things considered, then, It’s a Royal Knockout is an admittedly awful, but strangely mesmerising time capsule from a moment before the wave broke, and when the worst thing the Royal Family looked to be guilty of was participating in a weird TV idea. It’s strange how things turn out. Oh, and the show did raise a million pounds for charity, so there’s that. Let’s quickly get past the fact that Prince Edward has a net worth of over £33, 000, 000. Enjoy the silly outfits, and if you wish, you can see the whole thing here in its entirety.


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