Ten of the greatest moments from Peter Kay’s Channel Four sitcom, set in a North West England Working Mens’ Club.
***WARNING: This entry may contain spoilers and some use of mature language. Aye, thank you…***
January 2001, Sunday night at Chez Vall at around 9.30pm. Our golden Cocker Spaniel is startled by the doorbell from a new sitcom. Reading the blurb in the Sunday People‘s telly magazine, it sounded convincing.
Having been to Working Mens’ Clubs and the like for family dos, and the late lamented Lime Street club in Dukinfield, it struck an immediate chord. The pathos and observational comedy was bang on, as was the warm Northern humour. Needless to say, it became an instant hit at Chez Vall with many a line quoted in general conversation.
Then we watched the next eleven episodes, and the spin-offs. Then the live shows, later recorded for DVD.
Fourteen years on, we’re still laughing. Phoenix Nights would be hailed as a comedy classic. Up with Fawlty Towers, Only Fools and Horses, The Office, Father Ted and Black Adder. And several times greater than The Squirrels or Duck Patrol. As well as its observational comedy, authenticity was ensured by the presence of audience members watching the acts. Its other joy, in ten of twelve episodes, was the audition at the end featuring one act. Which, apart from the penultimate episodes of series one and series two, would see a loud “Next…!”
Now for the ten greatest moments from Phoenix Nights. Given the fact there is more than ten to recall, whittling this down to ten isn’t an easy task.
- Clinton Baptiste (Series 1, Episode 3);
- Wild West Night (Series 1, Episode 2);
- Half A Shilling (Series 1, Episode 1);
- Keith Lard (Series 1, Episode 3);
- Talent Trek (Series 1, Episode 6);
- ‘Is This The Way to Amarillo?’ (Series 2, Episode 1);
- Family Fun Day (Series 2, Episode 2);
- Crimetime (Series 2, Episode 3);
- Quiz Night (Series 2, Episode 4);
- Stars In Your Eyes (Series 2, Episode 6).
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1. Clinton Baptiste: played by Alex Lowe, the centrepiece of episode (S.1, Ep.3) is the tactless hypnotist. In just 20 minutes, he offends a male audience by saying his mother died pretty young (actually 93). The high point of which is his exchange between a follically challenged male who says there is something he wants to get something off his chest. Shortly after this line:
“You’ve got to be cruel to be kind. Don’t shoot the messenger. Now, I’m getting the word… ‘nonce’.”
Cue a most aggrieved participant, contretemps, an exiting audience, and our hypnotist being snotted.
2. Wild West Night: the whole of this episode (S.1, Ep.2) from start to finish is a cracker! The gunslinging scene between Keighley Confederates and The Preston Posse stood out, as did the subplot with Wild Bill and Trigger. On introduction to Wild Bill and Trigger, Brian Potter sits aghast, uttering these very words:
“There is a horse in my cabaret suite.”
Then, our equine scene stealer does a dump on the floor before being sent to the Pennine Suite. More madness ensues as the gunslinging match follows. The first shot startles Trigger as he canters to a keg pump. Our Lancashire and Yorkshire gunslinging match turns hairy with the results being rigged. Cue angry Yorkshiremen after Jerry St. Clair ridicules one of their slingers for his height. Flying stools and tables. Hence Brian Potter saying to Jerry St. Clair that the two counties don’t mix (like Sonny and Cher).
Meanwhile, in the Pennine Suite, Trigger humps the Bucking Bronco given to Brian Potter on a trial basis. Cue 20 seconds of comedy gold and Brian Potter:
“He’s pissed. I know a pissed horse when I see one… give it a kebab!”
3. Half a Shilling: though the first episode was written to familiarise the viewers with The Phoenix Club (especially for those who missed In The Club on That Peter Kay Thing), it gave us an idea of the pathos that set the tone for the series. Plus the acts which, in spite of sounding good on paper, were far from what they bargained for.
Half A Shilling was no exception. On paper, a traditional Northern folk act. In reality, a far-right Northern folk act, whose song on communion shoes had anti-immigration rhetoric. Within moments of being able to work in near darkness (a brief power cut, curtailed thanks to Ray Von wiring the mains to a lamppost) they turned from heroes to zeroes before announcing their second song:
“Send The Buggers Back”.
Therefore the much hyped reopening was marred by (in Brian Potter’s words) “a singalong with Combat 18”.
4. Keith Lard: our second entry from the third episode of the first series sees the return of one character from That Peter Kay Thing. First seen in the Apollo Bingo Club in Eyes Down, is caninophile fire safety officer Keith Lard. For The Phoenix Club committee, a trip to Den Perry’s Banana Grove club was bad enough. Add ‘Dogtanian’, worse still. Apart from drawing a club layout that resembled a dog, his overzealous approach to fire safety would later thwart the arrival of Clinton Baptiste.
Or so we thought. After setting a bonsai tree alight during a rehearsal for Les and Alan’s ‘Karate Kid: The Musical’ and turning the music down at a fitness session, he threatens to stop Brian Potter’s licence. The presence of a padlock on a fire door is enough to sway his decision. Then, thanks to a meeting with Brian Potter and the power of Adobe PhotoShop…
“You’re the disease, Dogtanian… Word is you’re back on the prowl.”
Ray Von passes Brian the pictures of Keith Lard with an Airedale Terrier.
“Man and beast in perfect harmony.”
Shortly afterwards, our hypnotist appears. More chaos ensues.
5. Talent Trek: Brian Potter’s at a loose end as Les and Alan’s ‘Karate Kid: The Musical’ clashes with Talent Trek final. Les Alamos are replaced by Right Said Frank (a Right Said Fred tribute act), whom we see steal a few car radios later on. We also find out how The Phoenix Club bagged ‘the biggest night in clubland’. The claim was that Jerry St. Clair was dying, though he returned from hospital with a clean bill of health (“Spasms… Irritable Bowel Syndrome”). Brian passes Jerry a sky blue Chorley FM cap where he says “It makes you look ill”.
The setlist sees Jerry singing Terry Jacks’ ‘Seasons in the Sun’, with cue cards reading ‘fall’ and ‘collapse’ placed in front of him. After a mawkish setlist, we see the Talent Trek finalists. Shortly after the ventriloquist and monkey’s act, we see the members of Right Said Frank nicking car radios.
Which leads us to the resolution of one subplot. Since the third episode, some of The Phoenix Club staff were addicted to the Armchair Superstore shopping channel. One purchase, a voice recording car alarm, would help to scupper them, courtesy of Max’s words:
“Get back, you bastard! Or I’ll break your legs…”
Les Alamos would return to the stage, following the end of ‘Karate Kid: The Musical’. Thanks to a strategically placed cigar by Den Perry, the second series would begin almost exactly as the first one began.
6. ‘Is This The Way To Amarillo?’: the fire led to Messrs Von, St. Clair, and Max and Paddy working elsewhere. Brian Potter was working his wheels off in rallying the troops. We see Jerry St. Clair singing in Asda, Ray Von beside a kids’ ladybird ride, and Kenny Senior lying to children whilst as a lollipop man. One of the greatest moments came courtesy of a song written by Neil Sedaka, covered by Tony Christie in 1971.
Here’s the scene: Max and Paddy are seen driving a minibus for the local Asian Elders’ group. We see the former bouncers singing along to Is This The Way To Amarillo. Our elderly Asian gentlemen look bemused as they pip the horn along Deane Road.
Besides kickstarting the second series, Tony Christie’s career would also be revived. March 2005 saw the rerelease of ‘Is This The Way To Amarillo’, with all funds going to Comic Relief. The video would see Tony Christie and Peter Kay accompanied by Geoffrey Hayes (of Rainbow fame), Bobby Davro, Ronnie Corbett and Shakin’ Stevens among others.
7. Family Fun Day: besides the relaunch, we see Max and Paddy sent to Calais for the booze. Key to this episode (S.2, Ep.2) was a risqué bouncy castle. Eric (played by The Bolton Bullfrog, Bernard Wrigley) offered them the inflatable attraction, dubbed as “inflatable filth”. This led to Kenny Senior saying:
“That’s almost as big as mine.”
Prior to modification, the castle depicted a masturbating monkey with a very prominent set of male genitalia. Our bumbling Eric suggested the penis could be ‘Sammy snake’ with its testicles being ‘snakes eggs’. Two paper plates and a bit of camouflage material convinced Mr Potter.
Most of the comic value came near the end with our bouncy castle bursting, thanks to children increasing the air pressure. Midway through Jerry St. Clair’s rendition of ‘Walking on Sunshine’ (the one by Katrina and the Waves). The cover is blown off with the penis fully erect and bursting towards the audience.
What other attractions were there? Brian Potter’s Pink Paradise, an overpriced funhouse with the ‘Hurricane Hand Dryers’ and a ball pond using footballs hitherto seen on the roof. Plus a slide made with scaffolding.
8. Crimetime: anyone familiar with Peter Kay’s act from ‘…New Bungalow’ tour would remember his references to crime and programmes like Crimewatch. This episode (S.2, Ep.3) sees Brian Potter trying to give the club extra TV exposure. Presented by Stuart Maconie, the regional crime programme (inspired by Granada Television’s Crime File, BBC’s Crimewatch and LWT’s Police Five) was seen as a free advertisement.
Besides the realpolitik of a serious crime programme, Mr. Potter encouraged his fellows to promote the club. Hence some gloriously hammy lines about the joys of The Phoenix Club; the cover of Les Alamos’ keyboard detailing the telephone number during S Club 7’s ‘Reach’. To his disdain, the free advertising guff was pulled from the clip, plus he was grilled by an officer on his past record in the Crimetime studios.
9. Quiz Night: the organisation of the quiz (hosted by Ray Von), up against Jerry St. Clair’s Free and Easy night provided much of the humour. On one level, we have the tension between Den Perry’s team, Top Banana, and The Phoenix Club’s team, in their quest for free Kamikaze Lager. The first question was an ironic one:
“I suffer from pyrophobia. What am I afraid of?”
Max’s response was “pirates”. Meanwhile in the other room, an increasingly manic and sozzled Jerry St. Clair did his usual act at around 300mph. Then, high as a kite, did some karate chopping.
Meanwhile, the music round started with two songs, where the song title formed the opening line. Third song, Berlin’s ‘Take My Breath Away’ was erroneously answered as The Police’s ‘Walking on the Moon’ by Max.
Though a consistently good episode, the ultimate punchline came when Den Perry thought Brian Potter backed The Phoenix Club’s team (featuring Young Kenny and Spencer). It turned out he backed The Gypsy Kings, Ray Von’s friends from the traveller community. The glory was short-lived when the Kamikaze lager turned out to be alcohol free!
10. Stars In Your Eyes: the final episode of the second series had an open ending, probably leaving the option of a third series open. Instead, it was the spin-off Max and Paddy’s Road to Nowhere that segued with their departure in a motorhome (£3995) near the end. After the cancellation of the original Stars In Your Eyes event (thanks to a ‘phone call from Den Perry with a disguised voice), The Phoenix Club ensured the show would go on. Which they did in style.
In other words, Kenny Senior dressed up as Britney Spears – the real highlight of the final episode. Closely followed by Young Kenny’s impersonation of Meatloaf and trying to sing ‘Bat Out Of Hell’ with a sheet of paper in front of him.
For Brian Potter, justice was done when his nemesis from the Banana Grove was arrested. We see a toast to Jerry St. Clair and, at the end of this episode, Chinese chefs Ant and Dec replacing Max and Paddy as bouncers.
* * *
From 2001 to 2002, the whole series had a great impression on me. Unsurprisingly, the first and second series of Phoenix Nights were among the first DVDs in Chez Vall’s video library.
How Many More Magic Moments?
I could have listed 20 or 50, but too many may have spoilt the essence of the series for anyone unfamiliar with Phoenix Nights. If you’re unfamiliar with the series, why not sign up to 4oD, Channel Four’s Video on Demand service? Besides last week’s episode of The Undateables, it also has an impressive archive of programmes like GBH, A Very British Coup, and Derek – as well as Peter Kay’s finest works of course.
Failing that, if you have a truly pants internet connection or wish to have a physical copy, your favourite tax-dodging online retailer may suffice. If you’ve got one, your local record shop might do; better still is That’s Entertainment or CeX (branches in Ashton-under-Lyne and Manchester city centre), if you can get a cheap secondhand copy.
If you can think of any other moments or wish to elaborate on the ten, feel free to do so. Dink dank doo…!
S.V., 01 February 2015.