Studies show that people are more likely to start smoking if surrounded by smokers when they are children, and public health watchdogs are always wringing their hands about TV & movies making cigarettes look glamorous. The same goes for beards – I didn’t have my first beard until the age of thirty-three. Trying to work out why, I looked back at my childhood and realised that not only did my Dad and Santa Claus have beards, but beards proliferated TV too, surely having something to do with my late-developing urge to have facial hair.
1. Timothy Claypole (Michael Staniforth) in Rentaghost
One of my earliest TV memories was of Timothy the medieval jester cavorting around a suburban house in Rentaghost. The show was about a bunch of ghosts who worked for a supernatural agency, but grew increasingly surreal with the more characters added. Timothy eventually became almost the straight man when surrounded by a Scottish witch, a pantomime horse, and Miss Popov, who teleported every time she sneezed. Which was about twenty times an episode. I had absolutely no idea what was going on as a kid, and re-watching an episode before writing this, I still have no idea.
2. Matthew Corbett in The Sooty Show
Matthew was a faintly camp presenter driven to distraction by the antics of three glove puppets, Sooty, Sweep and Soo. Sooty was a yellow bear, who only communicated via Matthew, whispering in his ear. As the protagonist, Sooty also had a fondness for magic, with the catchphrase “Izzy wizzy let’s get busy!”
Sweep was an excitable and mischievous grey dog, often playing pranks involving sausages on Matthew, and talking in a high-pitched squeak. Soo was the calm amid the storm, a chilled out and sensible female panda who talked in a soothing voice.
3. Captain Birdseye
The food was rubbish in the Eighties. It seemed like we grew up on a diet of Findus crispy pancakes, Fray Bentos cook-in-the-tin pies, and Angel Delight. Thankfully, it was a golden era for TV adverts, with brands using recurring characters to secure brand loyalty. The Smash Martians, the Bisto family, and the Honey Monster were all friendly faces growing up. Few were more friendly than Captain Birdseye, an avuncular old sea dog with a twinkle in his eye, peddling fish fingers while sailing the ocean waves with his crew of young scallywags.
In the 90’s, Birds Eye execs decided to revamp the ads with a younger, hunkier Captain with a five o’ clock shadow. The idea was a flop, so they reinstated the jaunty white bearded Captain. Remember, kids will do anything for Captain Birdseye’s crispy cod fingers…just don’t tell Jimmy or Rolf.
4. Michael Rosen
While the former Children’s Laureate may have a face for radio, he is a hit with the kids, and has penned over a hundred books. One of the greatest things about school in the Eighties was the hope that Michael Rosen would turn up in assembly one day and read some poems, killing an hour of regular lesson time.
5. David Bellamy
With a big bushy beard and a safari suit, Bellamy was a kind of David Attenborough for kids. He gestured wildly with his hands and talked like his mouth and nose were stuffed with toffee, but his enthusiasm for nature burst off the screen. The best bits were in Bellamy’s Backyard Safari, when the bearded adventurer shrunk down to ant-size and faced off against slugs and spiders. The idea was to encourage kids to explore the natural world around them, but the image of kindly David Bellamy trapped in a spider’s web scarred a generation.
6. Treguard (Hugo Myatt) in Knightmare
Video games these days are for wimps – any reasonable gamer can finish the latest X-Box title with a bit of perseverance. On my Acorn Electron, there were games so rock hard I couldn’t even get off the first level. This level of difficulty translated to the screen in Knightmare, possibly the hardest kid’s game show in TV history.
The format was simple. A group of kids would show up on the doorstep of dungeon master Treguard, wearing new threads their mums had bought them from C&A for their big TV appearance. Treguard would stick a helmet on the “dungeoneer”, which impeded their vision, and send them off into a computer-generated fantasy land. The dungeoneer’s friends would help them negotiate the fiendish traps, pitfalls and monsters by issuing instructions, usually with disastrous results – “Left! Left! Left! – no, Right!”
Knightmare was brilliant, but I don’t think I ever saw anyone win. It was particularly harsh on the team playing at the end of the series – when the time ran out, the dungeon collapsed and they lost, through no fault of their own.
7. Noel Edmonds
Cutting a vaguely sinister character these days on Deal or No Deal, Edmonds was a ubiquitous presence on our screens during the Eighties in shows like Swap Shop, Telly Addicts and The Late, Late Breakfast Show. Capitalising on his festive first name, he even broadcast live to us on Christmas Day with Noel’s Christmas Presents.
Edmonds popularised the Saturday evening light entertainment format still peddled today by the likes of Ant & Dec. The Late, Late Breakfast Show came to an abrupt end when tragedy struck – a contestant in the “Give it a Whirl” segment died while training for a dangerous stunt. Edmonds resigned immediately and the Beeb cancelled the show.
Edmonds reinvigorated the format a few years later with Noel’s Saturday Roadshow, which morphed into Noel’s House Party, bringing the British public the pleasures of gunge tanks, Gotchas! and Mr Blobby.
8. Uncle Albert (Buster Merryfield) in Only Fools and Horses
Uncle Albert was a conniving old codger who replaced Grandad in the long-running, immensely popular sitcom. With his fluffy white beard and “During the War…” catchphrase, he was a more likeable character than Lennard Pierce’s lazy, dirty old Grandad, yet his arrival pinpoints the show’s slow decline into broad slapstick.
Frequently playing on Del Boy & Rodney’s emotions, he gave us the immortal: “Cold? You bits of kids don’t know the meaning of the word. You should have been with me on the Russian convoys. One night it was so cold the flame on my lighter froze. ”
9. Edmund Blackadder (Rowan Atkinson) in Blackadder II
Not only did the beard make Rowan Atkinson look surprisingly dishy, it was also key to establishing Blackadder’s newfound dastardliness. In the strange misfire of a first series, The Black Adder was a whining, bug-eyed nitwit and his servant Baldrick (Tony Robinson) was relatively smart.
The second series, set in Elizabethan England, gave us everything we came to know and love – Blackadder as a sarcastic, self-serving misanthrope and Baldrick as a thick-as-pig-muck servant known for formulating moronic “cunning plans”. As a kid, I didn’t always understand the jokes, but loved Atkinson’s withering delivery.
10. Jeremy Beadle
Almost as omnipresent as Noel Edmonds, Beadle was rarely off our screens in the Eighties, with hit shows like Game For A Laugh (featuring another beardy, Matthew Kelly) and Beadle’s About.
Beadle’s About was a hidden camera prank show, where Beadle would usually switch someone’s car out for an identical model, have a bulldozer push the replacement off a cliff, and film the owner losing their shit. The great thing about Jeremy Beadle was that he had such a generosity of spirit, and the pranks were never mean – he always knew when to stop it. I’ve saved him for last for two reasons:
* When he brought the prank to a close, he usually appeared dressed as a policeman or a vicar, wearing a big comedy beard over his regular beard – double beard action!
* Arguably his most famous prank was convincing a nice middle-aged lady that a space craft had crash landed in her back garden. In a moment of TV gold, his hidden camera captured perhaps the most English thing ever caught on film – an awestruck housewife offering an intergalactic traveler a cup of tea.
Or, BRIAN BLESSED, as he might say. I never saw Flash Gordon, and can’t remember seeing him in anything in particular, but the big shouty man often popped up on telly to talk in capitals and laugh very, very loudly.
Harris encouraged many kids to pick up a pen and get drawing with his popular show Rolf’s Cartoon Time, and surely would’ve made my top ten if it hadn’t been for recent revelations about him being a nonce and a rapist.