The component parts never made a lick of sense: a popular UK garage artist, a 1960s Ken Loach film, congenital incontinence, a deranged neckbeard who stalks celebrities. Yet for two years, beginning in 2002, Bo’ Selecta! was Friday night’s unmissable twisted freakshow, a riotous riff on fame that appalled as many as it thrilled.
Leigh Francis’s warped take on celebrity culture featured him in a series of sketches, wearing a series of unconvincing latex masks, playing a series of celebrities. Rory Bremner it was not. Francis’s grotesques were impressionistic impressions that barely looked like, and sounded nothing like, their targets. UK garage phenom Craig David was now a blunt Yorkshireman with a urostomy bag and a plastic falcon, Michael Jackson was a jive-talking badass and Spice Girl Mel B was a leery, drunken sex oaf. Stringing it all together was Avid Merrion, an unhinged celebrity stalker – a Transylvanian Rupert Pupkin in a neck brace.
Bo’ Selecta! coincided with the peak years of Big Brother and the celebrity gossip magazines such as Heat, Now and OK! that fuelled its rise. As celebrity ate itself, regurgitating non-stories about non-notables in a seemingly neverending cycle of hook-ups, bust-ups and breakdowns, Bo’ Selecta! was the demented Greek chorus commenting on the action. There had never been anything quite like it and it mixed the gut-punch of relentless toilet humour with a surreal satire of celebrity culture that is still relevant.
How terrible, then, that it got starstruck itself. Having earned a little fame of his own, Francis became increasingly willing to let celebrities in on the joke. The real Craig David appeared in the last episode of series two and from there things became way too cosy. The Proper Crimbo Christmas single the show produced had a video packed with real-life stars. Who invited the enemy?
It felt like a cessation of hostilities. As if to confirm this, the Office Christmas special that year had David Brent impersonating the Bo’ Selecta! Michael Jackson. An endorsement from the Brent-Meister was the kiss of comedy death. It was now the chosen show of unfunny office jokers, a point from which few return.
The joke wore thinner in the third series. The real Patsy Kensit became a series regular, flatsharing with the unreal Mel B. It was becoming apparent that Francis now just liked hanging out with famous people.
“It’s weird when some of the people I’ve done a homage to have ended up as friends,” he said, apparently not considering it a problem. Series three also introduced Merrion’s manager Keith Lemon, a black hole of a character whose longevity would go on to baffle an entire generation of light entertainment fans.
Two more series followed with Merrion and the horny Bear character doing a lot of the heavy lifting, but the magic of the early days was gone. The very appearance of a famous person was now a punchline. Whereas it had once lampooned the cult of celebrity, it was now assimilated, an integral part of the famous-for-being-famous circuit. Bo’ Selecta! had become another branch of the monster it set out to destroy and no amount of gurning or catchphrases could save it.