“Network, we’ll have to come back and do the draw…”
BBC 1, 30th November 1996, 7:50pm, The National Lottery Live. And a 15-year-old John Hoare, already over-excited from Noel’s House Party, watches in wonder as his other very favourite thing in the whole world happens: the telly goes wrong.
Yes, it’s the infamous 107th draw, where the lottery machine failed to act as a lottery machine and draw some damn balls. Like many TV moments I didn’t record on VHS, the memory faded over the years… until some kind soul uploaded it to YouTube back in 2010. Brilliantly, the video includes both the initial failure of the machine, and the hastily-improvised update show which aired after Casualty, where the balls were drawn successfully.
It’s been endlessly pointed out over the years how brilliantly Bob Monkhouse deals with the situation. I’ll just pick out three of my favourite bits, all from the successful draw show 50 minutes later: his admission at 4:04 amidst apologies that “I must say, I’m enjoying this”; his Vic and Bob reference at 4:57 (reminding you that Monkhouse was a true comedy fan, across all eras of comedy); and most importantly, the brilliant setup and tag of the extra show. He starts the programme by pointing out Mystic Meg had been predicting the machine’s failure all day. And the end?
MEG: I told you this was going to happen…
MONKHOUSE: Belt up, Meg. Belt. Up. Meg.
That would be a fun enough gag even under normal circumstances. But as something improvised whilst Casualty was on, it’s utterly amazing. Not just because it’s funny – although it is – but because it gives a hastily-improvised update show a real structure. It’s brilliant.
And so that video lived on, on YouTube.1 I’d watch it a couple of times a year, occasionally link to it on Twitter, and then go about my life. And my life was taking a rather unexpected direction. After years of failing university, failing to run a web design consultancy, and failing to find any kind of career at all… I ended up working in my beloved television.
Oh, I started right at the bottom: working as a VT Operator for some channels very low down on the EPG. I worked my way up to Scheduler, Transmission Operator, Transmission Supervisor… and then left to work on some channels rather higher up on the EPG, with plenty of live events. This felt like almost a completely different job: all of a sudden, a major part of my work was talking to live productions.2
Which leads us to Gold’s three-part documentary from last year: Bob Monkhouse: The Million Joke Man. It had its faults – the cropping of 4:3 footage made me want to throw things, and it oddly glossed over his Central years as a failure when they’re some of the shows I remember him best for – but on the whole it was an excellent set of programmes. And it contained one bit which made my mouth absolutely drop open. Here’s the section on that National Lottery breakdown – and note the bit at 3:04:
Talkback from the production gallery, over the final moments of the show.3
And all of a sudden, two disparate parts of my life suddenly welded themselves irrevocably together. The gawky teen which sat and watched that National Lottery show go out… and the gawky adult whose job it is to listen to production talkback, and actually has to act on what they are saying. From someone who could never really comprehend what that job would actually involve, but was just fascinated with breakdowns… to someone who calmly has to cope with the evening’s carefully planned schedule being torn apart.
Life is odd. Despite running around the playground with a camera over my head – albeit a camera made from an ice-cream tub, stickers, and a toilet-roll – I never really thought I’d get a chance to peek behind the curtain of my favourite thing in the world. And then suddenly, without knowing it… I’m on the other side. I’m network.
Though I must admit, I still love breakdowns. I just want to be safely sitting at home when they happen.
It’s amazing this even survives, incidentally. You can only assume that this is thanks to the archive of a certain Mr. Bob Monkhouse. The same guy who recorded both the teatime and late-night versions of TFI Friday, just in case they were different edits. And thus Bob Monkhouse becomes the only comedian who would have been better at writing Dirty Feed than I am. ↩