In early 2015, Len Goodman off Strictly Come Dancing and the Farm Foods advert was on the TV panel show Room 101, more than ably hosted by Frank Skinner, in which celebrities and sometimes comedians compete to have their pet hates consigned to oblivion. Len’s selections included ‘all foreign food’, ‘the Metric system’ which was introduced in the UK forty-six years ago, and, most remarkably of all, ‘too much choice’. I’m guessing he voted Remain.
For me, Len’s appearance underlined the shift between the attitudes of millennial Room 101 – too often a howl of despair at ‘modern life’ (it even has a regular category called that) – and those attitudes of its early incarnation. Because when the programme began, in January 1992, it was less about banishing the Present Day than rejecting the Past. Back then, it was a low-key lunchtime radio series, with one guest not three, and no studio audience. Somewhere between a comedy show, a chat show and a game show, Room 101 launched just a fortnight before Desert Island Discs celebrated its golden jubilee on BBC Radio. And it’s probably one of the funniest radio series ever made.
For its origins, it’s back to the summer of 1990. After BBC Radio 2 aired a short series about all-time worst films, called Talking Turkey, its producer Harry Thompson received some feedback. ‘Two people sent a letter the same week, both suggesting a “bad records” show,’ remembers Room 101’s original producer Lissa Evans. ‘One was called “Devil’s Island Discs”, the other “Desert Island Discards”. And Harry said, “Does anyone want to do something with this?”’
Evans immediately thought of the stand-up and actor Nick Hancock as a presenter, ‘because he’d always made me laugh, he had this emphatic delivery’. She had previously booked him for a spot on a series called The Cabaret Upstairs in 1988, and for a topical sitcom called Little Blighty on the Down. But Hancock had also been a relatively early exponent of comedy about trivia, thanks to a double-act with Neil Mullarkey – where they, with limited resources, recreated title sequences of old television shows – and a series for the satellite station BSB called La Triviata.
A show about hated records had been done – Radio 2’s Hit List in 1982 and 1984 with guests including Kenneth Williams, Denis Norden and Claire Rayner – so Evans and Hancock expanded the idea to also encompass terrible films, books, people, places, TV programmes and objects. Both of them fans of George Orwell’s books, it was the host who hit upon the final title, and which resulted in probably the only comedy show to boast a theme tune by Eurythmics.
Despite what its producer rightly describes as ‘a perfect pilot’ (with Paul Merton as the guest), Radio 1 inexplicably turned it down, and so the series would battle with cruddy medium wave reception over on the newly-created BBC Radio 5. For a show that asks a lot of a guest, Merton grasped its sense of humour almost immediately. When subjected to Kenneth More’s laugh from the film Genevieve, his groan contains proper horror.
Stand-up comedy in the 1980s had been political, observational or surreal, but rarely directly autobiographical. This gave way in the 1990s to a more personal take on comedy, and guests on Room 101 were encouraged to choose items that could evoke personal experience, a way of forcing them away from pre-prepared material and into some quite revelatory and individual anecdotes. The result was not just good comedy, but a superior kind of talk show.
So when Jo Brand chose ‘Angie’ by The Rolling Stones, it was less about the record itself than a misguided early relationship her parents disapproved of. Frank Skinner remembered awful bus journeys in the West Midlands. Caroline Quentin recalled her unsung days in the original West End chorus of Les Miserables and the modest role of ‘Blind Beggar’. Danny Baker lambasted his brief spell as a presenter on a consumer TV show. David Baddiel brought along a lo-fi tape of his own teenage band with a future indie rock guitarist on lead vocals. Jenny Eclair shivered about her early 80s attempt at recording The Kinks’ ‘Tired of Waiting for You’. Steve Punt reminisced about the harsh limitations of the Bontempi keyboard as a Christmas present (‘Look, I’m sorry – I asked for this, but this is rubbish.’) And perhaps best of all, the late John Walters harked back to his personal nightmare: in a recording studio playing trumpet for the Alan Price Set.
This was an exercise in catharsis and closure, about safely transferring one’s past hell from the jail of one’s mind into a dustbin of a room. And relax. Assuming, of course, that Nick agreed your argument was strong enough for the selection to be banished.
In radio days, it was easy to collar willing victims. ‘It was so last-minute,’ says Evans. ‘We’d get the guests the week before, perhaps even the day before recording. Then I’d rush down to the record library to find clips.’ For occasions when the guest’s suggestion was accepted, she would also find material to put ‘behind the doors’, such as Derek Jameson, ‘Seasons in the Sun’, Norman Tebbit and the showjumper Harvey Smith’s rendition of ‘True Love’. Sometimes, she would mischievously rile the host, like the time she put in footage from a cup defeat suffered by his beloved Stoke City.
In all, Radio Room 101 lasted twenty-seven episodes, including a terrific Christmas special where the tables were turned, and Hancock finally got the chance to suggest his least favourite things: ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ by the Singing Sheep, an excruciating single by Gordon Banks, Scrappy Doo, and his own adolescent song lyrics. Guest custodian Danny Baker was aghast: ‘No, don’t read anything called “Dreamland”.’
Partly because ‘no-one listened to Radio 5’, Room 101 in radio days was left alone. When it moved to television in 1994 on BBC2, booking people became trickier. Lissa Evans: ‘I once drew a Venn diagram: people who are funny, people who are famous, people who want to do Room 101. [The intersections were tiny.] It was absolutely nightmarish. [But] it’s very exposing. And a lot of people, especially actors, are so frightened of exposing their personal opinions.’ In Hancock’s words, some traditionally candid performers suddenly went coy in recording mode, and were reduced to choosing ‘supermarket trolleys with wonky wheels’.
Though the television incarnation – hosted by Hancock, then Merton and currently Skinner – has had many memorable moments, I prefer the radio version, partly because there is no studio audience, simply a conversation where the two participants could actually be outside Room 101 itself. On medium wave.
On one level, comedy about trivia and nostalgia has a poor reputation:
‘Do you remember Deputy Dawg?’ ‘Yes, shut up.’
‘Who remembers those crisps?’ ‘Yes, we still have crisps, I had some yesterday.’
‘Remember dogs?’ ‘No, I don’t, but that’s hilarious.’
‘Do you remember eggs, for God’s sake? Come on!’
But, when on form, Room 101 has risen way above this kind of hackery. Sometimes, it’s not just the stuff you love from childhood that stays with you – it’s also the stuff you hate or even fear. Even if the dogmatism has palled with age, it still reminds you of what you used to be, and what you are now. Don’t be Len. Don’t look back. Embrace that Metric system.
Special thanks to Lissa Evans (@LissaKEvans) for her time and her memories. She now writes fantastic novels, notably Crooked Heart and Their Finest Hour and a Half (now adapted for the big screen as Their Finest), and her books for younger readers include the recently published Wed Wabbit.
The television version of Room 101 continues on BBC1 and Dave. Apart from the links to a handful of radio episodes, most aren’t currently online, but hopefully that’ll change.