In the desert days before Charlie bit anyone’s finger and that baby panda sneezed its way into our hearts, there was scant opportunity to see funny home videos. Video recording equipment was strictly a luxury item. Even if your town had a Rumbelows, it would set you back roughly the price of an Austin Allegro Estate to buy a camcorder only slightly smaller than an Austin Allegro Estate.
All of which meant that back then, the only way to see a toddler accidentally tip their nan into a pond, or a drunken man fall foul of an attempt to ride his son’s BMX up an improvised garden ramp was to be there in person.
You’d hear tales. Playground talk about the pantomime horse that skidded off the school stage, or the wildlife park monkey who stole some auntie’s sunglasses. A schoolmate might come back from the weekend armed with the anecdote to end all anecdotes: the moment when the trousers of an old man dancing at a family wedding had unaccountably and delightfully fallen off.
Imagining it wasn’t the same as seeing it, though. All that changed in 1990, when a show arrived that pelted us with funny home video clip after clip – a glorious stream of people toppling over, footballs meeting faces and cats falling down the back of sofas. It wasn’t just funny, but prescient. People like to say that novelist William Gibson predicted the internet but no. That was Jeremy Beadle.
Presenter Jeremy Beadle pierced humanity’s soul and saw that funny home videos were what we craved. He predicted our lust for cat antics, and from his hairy teat poured forth succour in the form of grainy clips of emus attacking video cameras and old ladies getting into trouble with deckchairs.
Did Beadle know that in the future, we’d each pay hundreds of pounds for hand-held You’ve Been Framed! delivery systems? Did he foresee that today’s chief technological advancements would be geared around satisfying our need for ready access to clips of people falling off jetties? Perhaps.
YouTube wasn’t the only modern trend You’ve Been Framed! predicted. It was also an early precursor of today’s TV talent show, with misfortune taking the place of talent. Ordinary members of the public could now trade their mishaps for a few seconds on the telly and a handsome payment of £250. (Roughly equivalent to just under £400 in today’s money, unless you subscribe to the You’ve Been Framed! model of inflation, in which case it’s roughly equivalent to £250 in today’s money.) Either way, in 1990 it was enough to keep the average family in shell suits and Spooky Wooky-flavour Fiendish Feet low-fat dairy yoghurts for a year.
You’ve Been Framed! wasn’t just funny. It also fulfilled a moral function as a chastising record of human vanity and folly, a chronicle of the humiliations that result from our most Icarian ambitions. The teenager who tries to trampoline over a shed. The grandad who attempts to pull off an overly optimistic dance move at the community centre do. The cat repeatedly trying and failing to pounce on its own reflection…
Show a belligerent alien race an episode of You’ve Been Framed! and they’ll scoot away from Earth at light-speed, wiping tears of laughter from whatever orifice of theirs contains the tear duct. It’s TV proof that we’re no threat to anyone and require no destruction other than that brought about by our own refusal to submit to the combined laws of garden furniture and physics.
We also shouldn’t ignore the show’s function as a document of social history. The preponderance of videos from the early 1990s on later shows hosted by Lisa Riley and Harry Hill, make it a rich educational resource for schools. “Miss, why does that phone have a tail?” a child might ask of one clip. “Who is Fido Dido, Sir, and why did these people worship him as a king?” might another. “Ha! The collapse of that shoddily constructed skateboard ramp is just the visual metaphor I needed to fully comprehend the fall of the Soviet Union, Miss. That man in the pond is totes Gorbachev!” might say another.
Outside the classroom, the show’s recycled clips are also a diary for those of us who were there at the time. Without You’ve Been Framed!, I might have assumed that the leisure craze of summer 1991 was James Pond: Underwater Agent on the Mega Drive. I’d have been wrong. Thanks to Beadle’s show, I now remember that we all spent the summer of 1991 running around in the back garden with our heads balanced on a stationary broom handle until we went dizzy and fell into a hydrangea.
Back gardens are a recurring theatre of cruelty in the show, whose clips broadly group themselves under a few umbrella categories: Human Error, Animals Do The Funniest/Entirely Characteristic Of Their Species Things, and Babies. (Babies is the worst of these, largely thanks to the overwhelmingly popular but misplaced belief that a six-month-old wearing adult-sized sunglasses requires no further punchline. Animals is the best thanks to the regular updates it provides on the eternal battle being waged in living rooms around the world: Cat Vs Christmas Tree – The Un-Tinselling.)
I mention cruelty, but You’ve Been Framed! can largely be enjoyed guilt-free. It’s not just watching unfortunate people falling over, it’s watching people behaving like idiots, falling over, agreeing to show it on national TV, and getting paid for it. If some muscle-bound Adonis is vain enough to film himself doing press-ups in his galley kitchen, why shouldn’t we be allowed a laugh and a roar of ‘Stick that in your NutriBullet!’ when he inevitably head-butts the toaster.
Like all the best comedy, You’ve Been Framed! is a great leveller. In it, the weak battle the strong. Toddlers whack dads with sticks. Chickens chase off massive dogs. Animals gawped at in questionable zoos get their own back on car aerials. Mums, no doubt remembering years of sleepless nights and dinner table ingratitude, absolutely piss themselves watching their kid get clotheslined by an over-excited Labrador tail.
You’ve Been Framed! was more than just a teatime guilty pleasure. It was a mirror reflecting mankind back to itself. Its vain, daredevil, schadenfreude-loving, self. If this really is the end, it can go in glory, with Grandad’s wedding trousers at half-mast.