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Mar 11

HALE AND PACE – “The Stonk”

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#662, 23rd March 1991

When I tell people I’m doing this blog they usually ask me what my favourite ever number one is. I have a stock answer – “Come On Eileen” – which is true often enough to pass muster. They also sometimes ask me what the worst number one ever is. No shortage of candidates, here! We’ve seen some of them already: the mawkish horror of Saint Winifreds, the gross precocity of Little Jimmy, the pathological bonhomie of Mallett. But “The Stonk” holds a special dread for me – it’s the only number one whose badness induces a reflex physical response, a kind of skin-creeping sensation of shame and repulsion. In the age of the Internet, your disgust reflexes can harden pretty easily – I’ve seen goatse and tubgirl and met them with a jaded shrug, but something about this forgotten little record just gets me in the guts.

What’s odd is that I can’t predict when the flight reaction will kick in: sometimes it’s the rhythm track built on farts, sometimes I get as far as the “come quietly” joke. In between is a hellish obstacle course – the impressions section! The comical accents! The worn-out surrealism! The grim truth is that “The Stonk” achieves a critical mass of badness for me where elements which on paper don’t sound particularly awful jump out as infuriating simply because you’re too busy guarding yourself against the worse stuff. Just now I played it and felt myself crumple inside at the “stonky stonky / conky conky” backing vocals. The record’s gravity well of crapness is so powerful that I’ve for years assumed terrible jokes from other Comic Relief records – like Right Said Fred’s 1993 effort “Stick It Out” – were in fact in “The Stonk”.

Hale And Pace were an odd case, though. What was going on in British entertainment around this time – what had been for a while – was a sort of generational handover. You saw it gathering force at Radio 1, which instigated a rolling purge of the old guard (DLT, Blackburn) and replaced them with self-consciously edgier presenters from independent radio. And you saw it in comedy, where the “alternative”, Comedy Store crowd were fast becoming an establishment, shouldering aside a lot of the old school comedians. But what people forget in these stories of overthrow was that there was also a compromise phase – people carving out careers by dressing up the old orthodoxies in the trappings of the new, and often ending up more dislikeable than both. On radio the best example was Nicky Campbell – in his own mind a fearless investigative presenter and man of substance, in most other people’s an even smugger version of Simon Bates. And I think Hale And Pace fit into this transitional bracket too – they were ordinary blokes, ex-teacher mates who made each other laugh and turned it into a career, but they’d come up via the alternative circuit.

Problem was, they weren’t funny. This Wikipedia list of “recurring sketches” from one of their final series gives a flavour of them. “London cabbies / Waiter(s) with “black pepper” / Are you nervous… nervous now? / Curly and Nige (1) in the garage (2) at the DIY shop / American sheriff and his deputy / Rappers with baggy clothes / Yorkshiremen / Crime boss and his muscle / Two redheads who copy the end of what people say / Trainspotters / Elderly gentleman who can’t swear / Meditating man who wishes for things to happen”. Now, if you boil any sketch show down to its elements it’s not going to sound great but this comes across as a particularly bum-clenching experience, a mix of stereotypes, easy targets, and kneecapped running jokes. The overall impression is one of will-this-do laziness, pervasive mediocrity, like the first idea anyone had went into the script and there was an end to it.

And this is basically what I can hear in “The Stonk”, too. Hale And Pace are cut off from even the very mild daring of an evening show – the “microwave a pussycat” line here, which sticks right out, is a reference to their most notorious sketch. Instead they’re tasked with making something fun for all the family, and so they take the most basic, shopworn elements of British comedy – bum jokes, impressions, wacky juxtapositions, silly voices – and throw them together with nothing even approximating wit or skill. Brian May gives the track a raucous lift but can’t stop the pain. If you want a record which shows how exhausted, directionless, mirthless and desperate British pop culture – and, sod it, Britain – could seem in the Major years then you won’t find a better example than “The Stonk”.

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Comments

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  1. 31
    Billy Smart on 31 Mar 2011 #

    TOTPWatch: Hale & Pace & The Stonkers twice performed ‘The Stonk’ on Top Of The Pops;

    7 March 1991. Also in the studio that week were; Quartz featuring Dina Carroll, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Roxette. Mark Goodier was the host.

    21 March 1991. Also in the studio that week were; Jesus Loves You, Banderas and Feargal Sharkey. Anthea Turner was the host.

  2. 32
    punctum on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Isle of WHITE????

    H&P were on ITV for most of their career; when they did move to the BBC, they flopped instantly.

  3. 33
    Billy Smart on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #29. Historically, Hale & Pace were always more of an ITV act, though, the ten (!) laughter-filled series of their sketch show between 1988 and 1998, produced by LWT, usually transmitted on Sunday nights.

    Then they moved to the BBC in 1999 for one season of the cutting edge, internet-savvy ‘h&p@bbc’

  4. 34

    My opinions stand high and unharmed above the flood of mere inaccurate facts and poor speeling.

  5. 35
    Birdseed on 31 Mar 2011 #

    I’ve always tried to find good qualities in the stuff you’ve panned, having a fresh pair of ears and without the cultural baggage I reckon I can be more objective.

    Not this time though. This is irredeamably horrendous by any cultural standard. :o

  6. 36
    Tom on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #33 didn’t the Goodies do the same in reverse? (the very thought of “Funky Gibbon” after this is paradise)

  7. 37
    Kat but logged out innit on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Was this the Comic Relief year that they handed out noses to put on the front of your car?

  8. 38
    JimD on 31 Mar 2011 #

    I’ve for years assumed terrible jokes from other Comic Relief records – like Right Said Fred’s 1993 effort “Stick It Out” – were in fact in “The Stonk”.

    Ha, similarly I was considering a very slight defence of this record on the basis of a likeable little solo by Bernard Cribbins near the end…but that was actually Stick It Out too wasn’t it?

    Last time I saw the shorter less fat one from H&P he was in a side street near the Tate Modern having a screaming row with a much younger woman.

  9. 39
    lonepilgrim on 31 Mar 2011 #

    I loathe the whole mentality that has grown up around ‘charity’ which demands that people ‘do something funny for money’ (to quote this year’s Comic Relief).

    My understanding is that Comic Relief has a good track record in delivering projects, but rather than support the self congratulating celebrity culture which this song embodies I’d rather the money went more directly to those in need.

    Adam Curtis sheds some interesting light on the history of humanitarian intervention here:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/adamcurtis/2011/03/goodies_and_baddies.html

    Meanwhile Madonna seems to have overreached herself in Malawi:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/mar/30/madonna-malawi-charity

  10. 40
    Mark G on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #38, A good time to ask for an autograph.

  11. 41
    weej on 31 Mar 2011 #

    As this is number three in my four-number-ones-purchased-in-a-row I guess I have to claim some reponsibility for this abomination getting to number one. I don’t really have any explanation for buying it (“I was too young to know better” probably doesn’t wash), just an apology.
    The Smile Song is quite a bit better though. It’s not funny of course, but it’s a well-crafted fairly witty thing which displays a deal of care and thought conspicuously lacking in The Stonk. I’d give it a 6 probably. It was just about worth checking out again.

  12. 42

    Victoria Wood is to me an excellent example of someone who actually retained an excellent grasp of “lost vaudeville values” (presumably not irrelevant that she’s a songwriter as well as a skit-writer), and found a way to combine them with post-alt perspective. But — like Stanley Baxter before her — she very carefully husbands the time she’s offered; is only all-singing all-dancing in deliberately limited supply. And — though she continues to be popular — she’s more niche than not.

    I should write a book about this, shouldn’t I?

  13. 43

    An excellent book.

  14. 44
    Billy Smart on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Use your contacts at Palgrave/ BFI to follow up the If monograph with a TV classic about ‘Victoria Wood- As Seen On TV’. That would be excellent, indeed.

    A Hale & Pace TV classic would be hard to justify, though.

  15. 45
    CarsmileSteve on 31 Mar 2011 #

    hold on, Ned’s were on ToTP??? how can i have no recollection of that????

    equally i honestly can’t remember how the stonk goes although 20 years ago I’m sure I was involved in some sixth form comic relief stuff, and i can sing from start to end all the other stuff on that now 19 disc (and the Ned’s album!)

  16. 46
    Mark G on 31 Mar 2011 #

    I don’t recall it, but a quick look at everyhit says it’s for “Happy”

  17. 47
    punctum on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Nobody’s ever done a Stanley Baxter monograph!

  18. 48
    Billy Smart on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Light Entertainment Watch. No shortage of guest appearances for Hale & Pace on other people’s shows;

    THE BOB MONKHOUSE SHOW: with The Harry Stoneham Band, Jimmy Cricket, Hale & Pace, Robert Guillame (1986)

    THE BOB MONKHOUSE SHOW: with The Harry Stoneham Band, Pamela Stephenson, Ray Alan, Hale & Pace (1986)

    THE BRITISH COMEDY AWARDS: with David Jason, Michael Parkinson, Rowan Atkinson, Hale & Pace (1990)

    CELEBRITY READY, STEADY, COOK: with Fern Britton, Gareth Hale, Norman Pace (1997)

    COMIC RELIEF 1991: Stonktabulous Type Stuff From Harry Enfield & Hale & Pace (1991)

    THE FUNNY SIDE: with Hale & Pace (1985)

    JACK DEE’S SATURDAY NIGHT: with Hale & Pace, kd lang, Brenda Gilhooly, Steve Rawlings, Chinese State Circus, James Doherty, Venol John, Carmine Canuso, David Kirk Raylor (1996)

    THE LAUGHTER SHOW: with Al Dean, Nik Kershaw, Hale & Pace (1984)

    THE LAUGHTER SHOW: with David Copperfield, David Essex, Hale & Pace (1984)

    THE LAUGHTER SHOW: with Lorraine Chase, Brian Conley, Hale & Pace (1984)

    THE LAUGHTER SHOW: with Su Pollard, Hale & Pace, Trevillion & Nine (1984)

    LIVE FROM THE PALLADIUM: with Dionne Warwick, Les Dennis, Hale & Pace, Elkie Brooks, Percy Sledge (1987)

    LIVE FROM THE PALLADIUM: with Donny Osmond, Joe Longthorne, Hale & Pace, Frank Carson (1987)

    THE NEW ENTERTAINERS: with Hale & Pace, Joe Griffiths, Terry Morrison (1983)

    SATURDAY LIVE: with Hale & Pace (1986)

    SHOOTING STARS: with Ulrika Jonsson, Mark Lamarr (Team Captain), Matt Lucas (George Dawes), Gareth Hale, Kathy Lloyd, Norman Pace, Patsy Palmer (1995)

    SUNDAY, SUNDAY: with Nana Mouskouri, Gene Hackman, Kelly Monteith, Gareth Hale, Norman Pace, Christopher Reeve, Mike Yarwood (1986)

    SUNDAY, SUNDAY: with Roger Whittaker, Anita Dobson, Gareth Hale, Norman Pace, Lulu, Des O’Connor, John Dominic (1986)

    SUNDAY, SUNDAY: with Gareth Hale, Norman Pace, Michael Elphick, Marti Webb, Richard Attenborough (1987)

    SUNDAY, SUNDAY: with Frank Bruno, Gareth Hale, Norman Pace, Audrey Hepburn, John Wells (1988)

    THE TUBE: with Jools Holland, Paula Yates, Tears For Fears, Co-op City, Gareth Hale, Norman Pace, Muriel Gray, Terry Gilliam (1985)

    WOGAN: with Billy Graham, Hale & Pace, Sir Peter Scott, Cher, Simply Red (1985)

    WOGAN: with Clive Chaplin, Go West, Hale & Pace, Ulick O’Connor, John Gordon Sinclair, Elisabeth Welch (1985)

    WOGAN: with Beija Flor, Stefan Dennis, Hale & Pace, Redmond O’Hanlon (1988)

    WOGAN: with Lenny Henry, Tony Robinson, Hale & Pace, Rowan Atkinson (1991)

    THE WORD: with Hale & Pace, Sinitta, Warrant, Victoria Wilson-Jones (1991)

  19. 49

    Nevertheless I am tempted to pitch an h&p@bbc project for sheer wtf value.

  20. 50
    Andrew F on 31 Mar 2011 #

    I had forgotten that “The Management” (of “They do, Ron, Ron” fame) had their own 6-part TV show.

  21. 51
    Cumbrian on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Brian May is, objectively, an intelligent man. Even if it weren’t evident in some of his recorded work with Queen, the guy was studying for a PhD before he dropped it to try and conquer the world with Freddie Mercury but he subsequently returned to his studies and is now Dr May. At the minute, he’s trying to save badgers and foxes.

    At this point in his career, he’ll have been in the studio constantly on the off-chance that Freddie Mercury might be well enough to stick a vocal track down, so he obviously had the resources to hand and he must have thought – it’s for charity, let’s do something, hopefully it will do some good.

    But, strip away the “comedy” sound effects and the lyrics (which, rightly, most have pointed to as the main problem with this #1) and what you’re left with is a boogie that goes on too long with a general air of “will this do?”. Even without the lyrics, this can’t go much above a 3 because the music is not very good at all.

    Then you come to the lyrics and it’s clear that this is really very bad indeed. What’s worse though is that, I reckon, there’s a pretty decent idea at the core of this. Comic Relief is about looking a bit silly for money right? And dance songs (The Twist, Shake A Tail Feather, Willie And The Hand Jive, etc) are a good opportunity to get everyone together to look a bit silly together? So this could be a great marriage of form and function. But you stick two unfunny comedians on top of a backing that doesn’t work as well as the dance records it seeks to emulate and you wind up with something that misses the mark by so far, it’s the anti William Tell. 1 seems right – though I would say that I don’t think this is as bad as some of the other records that have got a 1 (if we got into decimals, I’d have Bombalurina at about a 0.5 and this at about a 0.6, for instance).

  22. 52
    LondonLee on 31 Mar 2011 #

    I’m sure Tom has some rule about this but surely this is deserving a zero? And I say that without (mercifully) being able to remember a second of it.

    I’m reminded of Woody Allen saying to Tony Roberts in Annie Hall when the latter is using a canned laughter machine on his unfunny sitcom: “Is there booing on that?”

  23. 53
    Cumbrian on 31 Mar 2011 #

    On the “on marks out of 10” link, Tom does mention 0 as a possibility.

  24. 54
    wichita lineman on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Is it time to try and rank the 1 out of 10s again? I’d definitely rather suffer St Wins (and Don McLean, natch) than this.

  25. 55
    thefatgit on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Having acquainted myself with this by the medium of YouTube, I’m scratching my head, wondering how on earth something as humourless and desperate as this could possibly pass muster.

    Observations on the video: is that Nick Lowe “jamming” alongside May in the studio? And the “topical” insertion of Bush Snr’s “read my lips” speech shoehorned in alongside moon landing footage, suggesting a committee of writers were each given an opportunity to stick something in for posterity.

    And yes, it goes on WAY too long, inspiring epic levels of antipathy towards everyone involved. Worse than Little Jimmy and St Winifreds School Choir, which at least have a cringeworthyness about them…something to chuckle about after enduring their all round awfulness. This, on the other hand annoys me in a “was that the best you could do?” sense.

  26. 56
    RDMcNamara on 31 Mar 2011 #

    “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s stonk”? I could have picked anything from it, but that jumped out. How is that even *supposed* to be funny?

    I remember at the age of eight most of the playground en masse trying to do the ‘dance’ for what felt like every lunchtime until the end of the academic year. Did not go over well with the powers that were..
    On that topic, the only vaguely – and I mean vaguely – noteworthy thing about this bilge is Baddiel in the video. Makes Peter Buck’s moves in ‘Shiny Happy People’ look unstilted..!

  27. 57
    lonepilgrim on 31 Mar 2011 #

    this seems an appropriate space to note that Miranda Hart seems to be the latest example of a comedy vacuum being promoted as side-splittingly funny, despite all evidence to the contrary

  28. 58
    Billy Smart on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #28 Five! Christopher Ryan from The Young Ones is Kiv in Mindwarp (1986).

  29. 59
    MikeMCSG on 31 Mar 2011 #

    #55 I must admit I found the George Bush bit mildly amusing which is the only nice thing I can say about this.

    I seem to recall that Q (back when it was good) did a “Who The Hell” on Hale And Pace to coincide with this and the first question was “Why are you obsessed with your genitals ?” which was far funnier than anything on the record. They were dire – the true heirs to Little and Large who they more or less replaced albeit on a different channel. I have to say though that I would take them above a so=called comedian that pops up later in 1991.

    And Victoria Wood. Much as I hate to diss anyone from my neck of the woods I just don’t get her at all. I sit stone-faced through her stuff waiting for a punchline that never arrives and when she’s in semi-serious mode (as in Great Railway Journeys) she’s just unbearable with the bombard of wacky similes. Dinner Ladies was the perfect vehicle for her humour because that’s exactly what she’s like, your mum’s “wacky” workmate that you just want to shut up. Rant over.

  30. 60
    abaffledrepublic on 31 Mar 2011 #

    Oh God the ‘enforced fun’ aspect of Comic Relief makes me grind my teeth in frustration. It seems to not matter if a whole evening of crap is made and broadcast because it’s for charidee. Doesn’t it occur to anyone involved that it might be a good occasion to actually raise their game?

    Musically the CR bar started low, sank lower and with one terrific exception which wasn’t recorded specially for the event, maintained a consistency of awfulness which I find weirdly fascinating.

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