From Mandy and Myrtle to Keith Lemon, Leigh Francis is the laugh excluder who cannot be stopped
It gives me no pleasure to say that Leigh Francis is at it again. Britain’s most reliable laugh-excluder has yet another new berth, in the new mockumentary The Holden Girls: Mandy and Myrtle (E4). The man simply cannot be stopped. As other comedians fall by the wayside, Francis ploughs on, an indefatigable warrior against wit and taste. The new idea, if that’s not too generous, is that Amanda Holden plays Amanda Holden, a British celebrity. Francis, in thick rubber mask and Mrs Doubtfire outfits, plays her grandmother, Myrtle, “a cleaner from Doncaster who knows nothing about the world of celebrity”. Yes.
This ironclad setup established, Myrtle and Mandy proceed to get themselves into scrapes. Myrtle plays on her iPad while Amanda has a meeting with her agent. Myrtle gets her Take That members mixed up. Myrtle moves her old-lady furniture into Amanda’s house. Myrtle walks in on Amanda’s husband, Chris, in the bathroom. Can you feel the tremors running down your sides yet? The sole amusing moment of the opening episode is down to Holden. Her pronunciation of wasabi as “wossabi” is delightful. But is it deliberate? It’s to the show’s detriment that it’s impossible to tell. Other than that, it is a graveyard of mirth, with non-jokes piled high.
As Amanda brings Myrtle into contact with some of her real-life celebrity chums, you can tell that they share these concerns. During the studio visit to Heart, her co-presenter Jamie Theakston is visibly worried. I wonder if he had a quiet word afterwards. When Mr Motorway Cops thinks something might be an iffy career move, you ought to pay attention.
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You have to hand it to Francis, who has been pushing the boundaries of unfunny for almost 20 years. Like Picasso barrelling on from his blue period or Bowie sloughing off the Ziggy Stardust spandex, he refuses to stand still. Whatever the fans demand, Francis moves ruthlessly on, beholden to nothing but his muse (although in this case, temporarily beholden to A Holden).
First there was Bo’ Selecta! For younger readers, this was a sketch show in which Francis played a fictitious and not-at-all creepy “celebrity stalker”, Avid Merrion, permanently in a neck brace, while interviewing “celebrities”, also played by Francis in a variety of more-or-less racist rubber masks. The early episodes were propelled by a gentle frisson of surreality, as the caricatures bore no resemblance to the real people. Michael Jackson spoke in jive, Mel B was a sex-crazed maniac. The most famous was Craig David, who has said in interviews that Francis’s impersonation, which portrayed him as a pigeon fancier from Leeds, “ruined” his life. Last year, in the wake of Black Lives Matter, Francis made a tearful apology, saying he had done a lot of “talking and learning”.
We’re still waiting for an apology for Keith Lemon. As Bo vanished up itself, Francis moved on. Lemon, another character born on Bo’ Selecta!, became a TV presence in his own right, a blonde and moustachioed menace whose sole gag was to speak in a strange voice while hanging out with celebrities. There aren’t jokes. Googling him, I learn his spoof gameshow Celebrity Juice is somehow still going, like one of those early spacecraft still broadcasting from beyond the solar system. It’s impressive, in a way. Between Merion, Lemon and now Myrtle, Francis can claim to have been responsible for three of the least funny characters on TV. Pacino would be proud of that hit rate. Even more than Mrs Brown’s Boys or the amounts bequeathed to animal charities, Francis’s enduring career is one of those bewildering truths that makes you wonder what else the population thinks. Dare we ask? Can we ever hope to heal a country so divided?
I refuse to believe this is simple metropolitan TV snobbishness. Where are the Francis stans? His presence is endured rather than enjoyed. This is an impression rather than scientific analysis, but I would say among British entertainment figures he enjoys almost unmatched consensus, a kind of inverse Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Longevity is not in itself a mark of quality. What does Francis know? What Faustian deal did he strike in the early Noughties? It is a depressing turn for E4, too, which once upon a time was a venue for Skins and The Inbetweeners and Made in Chelsea. What’s E4? We could ask the same of Francis.
In a representative moment from the first episode, Myrtle decides that she can’t do a photoshoot in which she is sitting on the toilet with her knickers down. It’s “too crude”, she says. The camera turns to the boom mic operator. “He wasn’t laughing at it, and I definitely wasn’t,” Myrtle says, gesturing towards him. Nor was I, nor were you, nor will you if this piece inspires you, in some fit of contrarianism, to investigate. The only one laughing is Francis, deep inside his rubber mask, all the way to the bank. Just as it’s always been.