Wigan building…on a break!
Photo set 2 from BURPology private view, London
Photos: Michael Orrel
Picture set 1 from BURPology private view, London
Haha! I’ve received my first suspicious review! Come along to see some gross thimbles of Harry Hill’s TV Burp…it unfortunately stops after a week…but will be on again in February in Wigan! :)
Making the paper base for Knobbin Oss’s skull head.
Some of the knitted figures made by ladies from Beech Hill Book Cycle Knit and Natter group and Wigan Library Craft and Chat.
The Making of ‘Heather’
A Contemporary Grotesque
TV Burp’s ‘Heather’ is a caricature of Heather Trott, a character in the soap opera Eastenders. Heather Trott, as played by the actress Cheryl Fergison, is notably plain and overweight. ‘Heather’ first manifests in series 8, and carries on to the end of the TV Burp. She is played by a man (Steve Benham), wearing the pink headband and maroon tabard of her serious counterpart, is regularly portrayed eating and is often seen with a sausage in her mouth. She appears in many TV Burp sketches where food, weight, or Eastenders are mentioned. Her greed, and the fact that she is played by a man, burlesque the features of the original character.
Though the source of her persona is contemporary, she encapsulates some of the roles found in Medieval Carnival. She is a Grotesque; her body and actions are exaggerations, and excessive, typifying the hyperbole which is a fundamental attribute of the grotesque style. This is representative of transgression by the Carnival public, temporarily gluttonous, drunken and celebratory. ‘Heather’ caricatures the negative and the inappropriate, which, in the case of Heather Trott, is being fat, ugly, greedy and simple-minded but, behind the satiric origins, there is positivity in the ‘Heather’ character. The mockery of her does not contain malice and there is often a warrant for sympathy towards her character, on occasion she has even become heroic in her scenes.
The fact that ‘Heather’ is played by a man is another demonstration of the Carnival Grotesque; the direct satire pointing to her counterpart’s unattractiveness and yet there is something more symbolic in the situation. The feminisation of men and the masculinisation of women were both part of the topsy-turvy world, or transgression, of Carnival, allowing a break from typical behaviours and expectations, although one of the earliest recorded ancestors of the comedic cross dresser in Britain is possibly ‘Mrs. Noah’ in the Miracle plays of the Middle Ages.[i] Later, ‘Molly’ dancers attended Plough Monday processions; transvestites named as such from 17th and 18th century ‘Molly’ houses in which transvestites met and drank.[ii] To celebrate the first yield of milk, milkmaids would dress neatly and parade, balancing silver trays laden with silverware on their heads. The rag pickers (male dancers) would join in, parodying the milkmaids by dressing like them, carrying garlands and milk pails and dancing lewdly.[iii]
In his carnivalesque works, Goya often visited the theme of the man with the distended stomach, indicating both gluttony and male pregnancy. In ‘Goya: The Last Carnival’, Victor I. Stoichita and Anna Maria Coderch assert, “The round bellied man represented exuberance, adulation of worldly goods, the vindication of fertility and the importance of the lower bodily regions”[iv]. Although in Goya’s society the transvestite was a negative figure, as he was a man taking on the submissive role of the woman, in Carnival these double figures, at once both male and female, represented both the comedy of the role reversal whilst embodying the whole human.
In the Carnival canon, the grotesque always suggests the cycle of life, and ‘that, which is in all of us’. The grotesque highlights the lower bodily functions, such as copulation, birth, eating, drinking, defecation, and death, and In TV Burp, ‘Heather’s scenes always hint towards, or enact some of these elements.
One episode sees Harry mocking a television programme about butchers where the presenter’s catchphrase is ” It’s sausage o’clock!”
Harry: It’s sausage o’clock!
He then looks quizzical.
Harry: Is it?
The camera cuts to a clock face where the hands are made of sausages.
Harry: Well, the big sausage is on the twelve, and the little sausage is on the nine, so that’s…sausage o’clock!
A sausage moves in and out of the clock with a cuckoo-clock sound effect. The audience cheers. ‘Heather’ leaps into the scene and grabs the protruding sausage with her mouth. She is pulled in and out as she tries to wrestle it away.
Harry: No, Heather leave it, you’ve got your own sausage!
‘Heather’ stops and walks away, defeated. The audience groans in sympathy. Harry shakes his head and says in a gruff voice,
Harry: Dirty girl! Taking advantage like that!
Here we see ‘Heather’s’ supposedly insatiable hunger played out with simple buffoonery, the sausage she wants pulling her against the wall repeatedly as she struggles to eat it. The affection towards her is apparent, as the audience demonstrates when her attempt is thwarted. However, Harry’s comments, ostensibly chiding her for her gluttony, insinuate something more carnal, highlighting the obvious similarities between sausages and the male genitalia, and mocking a different kind of female greed.
At the same time he could also be hinting at ‘Heather’s’ ‘true’ (male) nature.
‘Heather’ is a manifestation of banquet imagery, of feasting and gluttony, which are key elements to carnival. In ‘Rabelais and His World’, Bakhtin states that the fat body and gaping mouth were not symbols of negative greed but were instead the image of the “satisfied man”.[v] ‘Heather’s’ role in the TV Burp Carnival is that of Gros Guillame, or his English equivalent, Pickwick (whose name was borrowed by Charles Dickens). These characters were always drinking and eating, and were, unsurprisingly, obese. Gros Guillame wore two belts, one just below his chest and one below his belly, to represent a wine barrel, and his face was powdered in flour to represent bread. These figures were the incarnation of celebration and the people’s utopia.
In a number of episodes Harry mocks a Victorian expert for stating that jelly was used as amusement in the Victorian era, by repeatedly exhibiting a wobbling jelly to the song ‘Wipe Out’ by The Ventures. When Knitted Character, one of his puppets, asks to have a ride on the jelly, Harry reluctantly obliges and pulls the jelly out from under his desk, only to find a few remnants left on the plate.
Harry: What the… the jelly’s been eaten!
‘Heather’ then rises from behind the desk and lets out an enormous wide mouthed belch and speaks in a docile voice,
‘Heather’: Sorry, was that important?
Harry: Important? I get two minutes a week out of that!
The audience laughs and ‘Heather’ slobbers and licks her lips.
‘Heather’: I like jelly.
This is another clear example of the gluttony of ‘Heather’s’ character, as once again her appetite has got the better of her. The scoffing and the loud, unashamed belching are the signs of celebratory abundance. In this scene we also witness her simple-mindedness. This demonstrates her lack of premeditation and cognitive malice. She is a metaphor rather than a personality.
In TV Burp, Heather also acts as Harry’s stooge; he controls her and he sets her up for mockery, often quite cruelly. In one episode Harry has already inked up his own face to find out his face shape, prompted by advice on the Great British Hairdressers reality programme.
[Clip from Great British Hairdressers]
A contestant has created an unusual hair cut on a model. It is long on one side and cropped short on the other. The judge calls it ‘schizophrenic’.
Judge: What woman would want this haircut?
[Cut back to the TV Burp studio.]
‘Heather’ pops up from behind Harry’s desk bearing this new haircut. She looks at Harry flirtatiously.
‘Heather’: Do you like my new hair cut, Harry?
Harry: I’m not sure it suits your face shape.
Without asking, Harry runs the roller over her face to ink it up, and then slaps on a sheet of paper, ‘custard pie’ fashion. He peels it back to see the result.
Harry: No, see. You have more of a blob shape, which suits something a bit more symmetrical.
Heather rubs her eyes sadly and her lip quivers. She walks away downcast and upset. The audience groans in sympathy with ‘Heather’.
The festival ‘Molly’ is often one of a gang of buffoon characters mocked and insulted for their lack of beauty and wanton ways. This tradition is coexistent with that of the Dame figure, or Ugly Sisters, of stage Pantomime (its influence oscillating between the folk play and the stage). They are, in themselves, a joke, as pantomime dame actor of 33 years, Berwick Kaler says, “I’m nothing but a man and that’s where your comedy comes from’”[vi].
As one well-known pantomime routine goes:
Bystander 1: You don’t look a day over thirty.
Window Twankey: That’s very kind of you.
The dame, or grotesque female character of the mumming play, was not just insulted but was occasionally also dispatched at some point in the proceedings but then, happily, revived. This reversal of fate of is demonstrated in the Sword dance from Bellerby, Yorkshire, England, around 1879.
Bessie: Just now I’m going to die,
As you can plainly see.
These six fine glittering swords
Will soon put an end to me.
Farewell unto you all,
And my old father here;
Farewell unto you all,
And my old grannie dear.
After being resurrected by the Doctor she sings:
Good morning, gentlemen,
A-sleeping I have been.
I’ve had such a sleep
As the like was never seen.
But now I am awake
And alive unto this day;
So we will have a dance
In the final episode of TV Burp ‘Heather’ comes to her own sticky end. Harry is covering an incident on Eastenders where they have found a body. (This sequence will be further covered in ‘A Song and Dance’).
[Clip from ‘Eastenders’]
Phil Mitchell: Heather’s dead! Awright?!
[Back in the TV Burp studio Harry wails]
Harry: Heathers dead!!! Oh dear, my own Heather gone…
He makes a joke about Shirley (of Eastenders) crying in the manner of the Coronation Street theme tune, and then begins a non sequitur.
Harry: Hang on! Where’s my tea towel? I had it here a minute ago
[Clip from Eastenders]
Ben, who has just killed Heather Trott, places a tea towel over the dead Heather’s face.
[TV Burp studio]
Harry: That’s my tea towel!!
Somebody pops up from behind his desk with a tea towel across his or her face; Harry whips off the tea towel, not noticing that he has revealed the actress, Cheryl Fergison.
Harry: Oh, thanks very much
The audience cheers loudly and Harry starts back, shocked, and stutters.
Harry: B-b-but if you’re here, who’s she?
He points to ‘Heather’ sitting on the couch eating chocolate. Cheryl Fergison looks disgusted.
Cheryl: So, what have you got to say for yourself, eh?
Harry looks awkward, and delays for a moment.
Harry: Erm…Sorry? …Couldn’t we make a fresh start?
Piano music begins to play and Cheryl bursts into the first line of the haunting song ‘Someone Like You’ by Adele. Harry continues the duet followed by other characters from the show.
Here we have a perfect example of the carnivalesque death and rebirth scene, with the murdered Heather Trott being resurrected in both the actress Cheryl Fergison, and the comical ‘Heather’.
In modern British society, the soap opera genre has a devoted and fiercely loyal popular audience, with its stars becoming iconic figures to many. It would be a step too far to suggest that they are ‘worshipped’, but they have high status within their constituency, at least for a time. The lives of the characters are closely followed, as are the lives of the actors and people have real feelings for them.
The potential offence caused by Harry’s mocking of the ‘real’ Heather actress is demonstrated, and then negated as she has appeared in person and accepts the feigned apology. ‘Heather’ continues as a greedy cross dresser but the actress at the butt of the joke is involved in and aware of the situation. Cheryl’s appearance on the show confirms both the grotesque parody, and also its ambivalence as an act, by openly acknowledging the scoffing ‘Heather’.
At the end, the characters all live on in harmony where no-one is truly upset by the situation and the romantic finale with the promise of new hope demonstrates that, in the words of Stoichita and Coderch again, “This duality shows that transgression creates complex iconography at the heart of which the sacred and the profane can communicate.”[ix]
[i] ‘Pantomime Dames’ http://www.its-behind-you.com/pantodames.html<14/07/2012>
[ii]Sir Benjamin Stone, ‘Festivals Ceremonies and Customs.’ http://www.scribd.com/doc/94533138/Sir-Benjamin-Stone-s-Pictures-Records-of-National-Life-and-History-Vol-I-Festivals-Ceremonies-And-Customs <21/08/2012>
[vi] Jasper Rees, ‘Interview:Pantomime Dame Berwick Kaler’ http://www.theartsdesk.com/theatre/interview-pantomime-dame-berwick-kaler <28/10/2012>
[vii] ‘Pantomime Dames’ http://www.pantosdirect.co.uk/dame.html