Poopers and bloopers: the greatest TV fails

It’s 50 years since Lulu the elephant went rogue on Blue Peter. We look back at the biting ferrets, gurning kids and sweary slips that have delighted viewers, and ask: are they a dying breed?

Studio G at the BBC’s old Lime Grove studios in London was on the second floor of the building, meaning that furniture and props had to be transported in a goods lift. On 2 July, 1969, the items being raised included a baby elephant. Accompanied by Alex, a keeper from Chessington Zoo, and his assistant Martin, Lulu had come to appear on the children’s show Blue Peter.

The animal had been booked as a preview of the “summer expedition”, an annual filming trip abroad for the presenters, this time to what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka.

“We would introduce Lulu, and talk about the work elephants do in Ceylon, what they eat and drink, how they live, and so on,” recalls co-presenter Peter Purves in his 2013 autobiography, Here’s One I Wrote Earlier.

Inquiries into corporate mishaps often find that there was one decision or omission, seemingly minor at the time, that, in retrospect, seeded disaster. And so it was with Lulu. Rehearsal, Purves reports, had gone smoothly: “Lulu was quite compliant – she had a big chain around her neck that Alex held with one hand, and in the other he held a three-foot long stick with a bulbous end – to emphasise what he wanted Lulu to do, he would tap her with it on the forehead. After which Lulu obeyed his instructions.” However, after the run-through, Blue Peter editor Biddy Baxter came down to the studio floor with an editorial note: “She thought the stick he used looked a little bit cruel, and [asked] could he do the programme without it.”

Whether or not because the swish was missing, Lulu lost studio discipline. The rehearsed drink of water from a bucket triggered a downward geyser of pee. Valerie Singleton, John Noakes and Purves stayed on script, feeding their guest some buns, which seemed to go down well, but perhaps accelerated the digestive process. Lulu turned her buttocks to the camera and defecated, something even Piers Morgan has never done on TV.

Watch a video of Blue Peter’s elephant encounter

To relief in the production gallery, Lulu lurchingly began to leave screen-right. But, as the presenters delivered their next lines, she returned, treading on the foot of Noakes, who yelped and leapt into the dung pile. Lulu’s attempted screen-left exit dragged across the floor, through the bathroom soup, her keeper, who keeps yelling “Martin!”, a reference that has confused viewers, but is a request to his assistant for the control tool that had been removed.

Elephants are famous for remembering, but Lulu was the elephant no TV viewer could forget. Fifty years on, tens of millions of viewers know this moment: most recently, from YouTube, but before that, from anthologies of TV cock-ups – such as It’ll Be Alright on the Night (ITV, 1977-2018) and Auntie’s Bloomers (BBC1, 1991-2001), or in the United States, TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes (1984-2013).

That 1969 edition of Blue Peter is often cited as an example of the risks of live television. Although, in that respect, Purves’s book drops his own party-pooping scoop: “For years I have honestly believed this was a “live” performance [but] I have to admit … my memory is at fault. In fact the entire programme was recorded as if it was live, on Wednesday 2 July 1969 and transmitted the following day exactly as it all happened in real time.”

In an age more sensitive to duty of care, viewers have to overlook the visible distress of the elephant and her master, focusing on the very English professionalism of Singleton, who carries on as steadily as the Queen opening parliament – “I’m sure we’re going to see all sorts of exciting things in Ceylon!” – as mayhem unfolds.

This attempt to pretend that nothing has gone wrong is a feature of many classic broadcast meltdowns, including cricket commentator Brian Johnston trying to summarise the match position – wheezingly, gigglingly – after imploding when co-commentator Jonathan Agnew remarks that Ian Botham “couldn’t quite get his leg over” the stumps.

A ferret bites Richard Whiteley on the magazine show Calendar, 1977.
A ferret bites Richard Whiteley on the magazine show Calendar, 1977. Photograph: ITV/YouTube

For purists of media mishaps, the Johnston moment is disqualified because Agnew subsequently admitted that the double-entendre was a deliberate goad to his colleague’s known schoolboy humour. (Distinguishing such set-ups from impromptu blunders is the reason that legally punctilious US television added “And Practical Jokes” to the title of its blooper show.)

The best-known – because most rescreened – broadcast disasters mainly divide between three categories. Many, like Blue Peter’s Lulu, play simultaneously to the common human love of animals and delight in the misfortune of others. On one memorable clip, a collie, booked to demonstrate its tricks to a number of children, ignores the various hoops and balls, knocking over the children instead. Another classic news blooper features an American reporter, sent to a turkey farm to record the traditional Thanksgiving item, becomes visibly unnerved by the birds, and then stalked by one. Numerous hosts – holding ferrets, snakes, or dogs for some pet-friendly segment – have suddenly squealed a bleeped-out word before being rushed to the emergency room for a tetanus injection.

Happy Hanukah … an unusual greeting from Baltimore.
Happy Hanukah … an unusual greeting from Baltimore. Photograph: YouTube

The next most popular sub-genre features the elaborately planned shot that is ambushed by an unplanned element. During a live link to an American rabbi explaining the rituals of the Jewish feast of Hanukah, the minister’s young son first pulls faces at the camera, and then starts playing with his brother’s yarmulke. As with Singleton and Johnston, the comedy is intensified by the rabbi’s heroic attempts to continue his commentary while restraining his offspring.

A third group of bloopers involves verbal slips, ideally double-entendres. ITV World at Sport presenter Dickie Davies, trying to say “cup soccer”, suffers the oral cock-up of saying “cop sucker.” It’ll Be Alright on the Night often ran long montages of solemn actors, in period costume for The Onedin Line or Poldark, forgetting or garbling a line, collapsing into a volley of apologies or swearwords, which would be bleeped with, latterly, their mouths also pixelated in case lip-reading viewers were offended.

The best examples tend to come from live shows because there is no safety net: during the incident of the rabbi’s mischievous son, you can imagine the production team first attempting to keep him out of shot, and then debating whether to abandon the item. However, many bloopers – including almost all cases of actors going wrong – are un-broadcast “outtakes”, made available by the networks, often initially through the tradition of a “Christmas tape”, in which technical crews filed away bloopers for screening at the end-of-year party.

The onscreen mistake compilation remains most associated with Denis Norden, who presented It’ll Be Alright on the Night for almost three decades. But, when Norden died last year, aged 96, it was striking that the prime clips cited in obituaries were almost as old as he was.

See how a BBC interview goes awry

One reason for this is that ever fewer shows, outside of news and sport, are now broadcast live, partly because of concern about the risk of slips going viral. And even programmes going out as they happen are often transmitted with a slight delay, primarily intended to limit on-air disruption by terrorists or lobbyists, but allowing producers more general control over what is shown.

Dropping a clanger … then Olympics minister Jeremy Hunt in 2012.
Dropping a clanger … then Olympics minister Jeremy Hunt in 2012. Photograph: Sky News/Reuters

Things do still go wrong, but will no longer wait for blooper shows to reveal them at Christmas. On-air fails are now immediately posted by viewers on YouTube: the super-shared clip in which a woman tries to drag her children out the room while her academic husband is interviewed live from home on Skype is the modern equivalent of the rabbi’s naughty boy. There is also a little industry in shares or memes of the tendency of so many BBC presenters to pronounce the surname of Tory leadership contender Jeremy Hunt with a C. (Hunt provided a classic blooper of his own when a bell he was ringing at a ceremony to mark the 2012 Olympics flew off its handle live on air, narrowly missing members of the public.)

But those (presumably) accidental aspersions on a would-be national leader could never be featured on Auntie’s Bloomers or It’ll Be Alright on the Night because the error is too obscene for peak-time. Another problem for making of cock-up anthologies is a recent increase in restrictions and permissions. Before live programmes or recordings, BBC producers are now required to fill in a “compliance form”, outlining any safety, legal or taste issues that may result. In this risk-averse culture, it seems highly unlikely that approval would be given to the presence of an elephant in a studio. There would also be concerns about animal welfare, which the editor had interestingly anticipated 50 years ago by asking the keeper to manage without his stick.

Another elephant in the studio for blooper shows these days is the rise in legislation that restricts public exposure. If footage of an actor or presenter requiring multiple retakes were broadcast, sardonically glossed by a voiceover, and perhaps subsequently becoming a YouTube favourite, the performer might object that their professional reputation was threatened; and, furthermore, that the release of unscreened material broke recent data protection law relating to material held by an employer.

The advice of TV legal departments now tends to be that it is wiser to have the permission of those featured unflatteringly. This was one reason why, an ITV source told me, last year’s revival of It’ll Be Alright on the Night predominantly contained vintage TV mishaps, many from the Norden era. It also explains why the main survivor of the banana-skin-clip genre is You’ve Been Framed, now in its 30th year on ITV, in which the public submit home-video faux-pas, thus effectively licensing the material for use.

Lulu the unforgettable elephant seems unlikely to be replaced in the popular imagination.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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