Writing on Russ

Classic Saturday Night Telly

If you were looking for comedy heroes back in the Eighties, they came no bigger than Russ Abbot. During those whirlwind ten years of television ubiquity Russ won countless awards, found himself described as 'the hottest comedy property since Peter Sellers' and was even named Comedian of the Decade. All of this, from a gangly-looking bloke with a propensity for dressing up in Fifties gear.Russ's success is based almost entirely on Russ Abbot's Madhouse. Yet that show wasn't devised with him in mind and actually began in 1979 under the name of Freddie Starr's Variety Madhouse. According to Abbot, three pilot shows of that series were made, each with different casts before a supposedly workable formula was hit upon. However it was far from a happy production, with Freddie Starr in particular causing a rumpus and complaining about what he felt was poor material ('You are a complete idiot!' / 'No I'm not, I've got a tooth missing'). When Starr walked off the set in protest a new team was put together with Russ, a supporting artiste in the original series, promoted to leader of the gang. Comedy actors of the calibre of Jeffrey Holland were brought in to provide a better balance to the line-up and although Tracey Ullman was considered for a part, the female roles went to Susie Blake, Sherrie Hewson and the soon to become iconic Bella Emberg.
The humour was, by and large, rather Silly and perhaps not a little surreal ('My mother never understood me -she was Japanese'), but it was also timeless in nature. The show's regular characters sought not to reflect or comment upon modern society and instead drew inspiration from the well of popular fiction: Boggles was a spoof on the stiff-upper-lip RAF pilots of wartime fiction, while Cooperman was the point at which American comic books and well-loved British comedians met. Other memorable creations included Barratt Holmes, Fritz Crackers ('Ladies and gentleman my name is Fritz Crackers and I come from Switzerland, but unfortunately I don't speak a word of English. So for the benefit of any people in the audience from Switzerland: "Good Evening"'), Basildon Bond, Vince Prince, Wilf Bumworthy, the Fat Man, Val Hooligan and most famously, Jimmy McJimmy (or CU Jimmy as he later became known). Bizarrely, the incomprehensible Jock owed at least some of his appeal to the Thin White Duke of Pop, David Bowie. Apparently fellow inmate Dustin Gee had been working himself up to impersonate Bowie when he decided that the red wig ordered as part of his costume looked out of place. Spying the discarded hairpiece, Abbot decided on a whim to try it out with his new character (apparently Abbot was often told he had an excellent face for wigs), and the rest-as they say -is history.
Each edition of Russ Abbot's Madhouse featured a vast array of comic characters and the sheer speed of the programme meant that many of these were reduced to Simple, repeatable catchphrases, almost all of which found their way into schoolyard vernacular. Big musical numbers were also important and the cast's performances as fictional acts such as Vince Prince and the Tone Deafs injected a youthful energy that few other shows of the time could match.
For six happy series, Russ Abbot's Madhouse attracted big Saturday teatime audiences and provided fast-paced inoffensive comedy that was never too proud to pick on the most obvious of comedy targets. In 1986 Russ brought the Madhouse to an end, and took his act to the BBC.
His show on BBC1 ran until 1991 when allegedly a BBC bigwig was heard to announce at the Montreux Television Festival that Abbot no longer represented what the audience wanted to see on their screens. But Russ remains proud that his show proved to be an important launch pad for a number of successful entertainers (chiefly Les Dennis, Dustin Gee and Michael Barrymore) and Abbot's influence can still be detected in today's popular alternative comedians (after all, what was Steve Coogan's Tony Ferrino if not an updated version of Julio Doubleglazias?). Whether or not there will ever again be a place on Saturday nights for Abbot's particular brand of comedy remains doubtful, but maybe some kind of revival, if only in the form of a DVD release, is now due.


The above excerpt is taken with kind permission from the fantastic book ‘The Encyclopaedia of Classic Saturday Night Telly’ by Jack Kibble-White and Steve Williams. Published by Allison & Busby Ltd.

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