Live bands swearing, smashing up their instruments and flashing their bits on-camera. X-rated interviews with heroically drunk celebrities. Cringe-inducingly poor presenters who made Alan Partridge look David Dimbleby. Fame-hungry punters doing filthy things just to get on TV. It could only be notorious Nineties phenomenon The Word.
Back in the pre-mobile phone, pre-social media age, this anarchic student favourite revolutionised youth TV, pre-dated the reality boom and pushed so many boundaries, it frequently fell off the edge of acceptability. But for TV viewers born between 1970 and 1980, it opened their eyes, aroused their trousers and transformed their CD collections.
Relentlessly slated by the tabloids, picked over by lawyers and sparking sackloads of viewer complaints, The Word ran for five controversy-crammed years until Channel 4 reluctantly pulled the plug. Now it’s the subject of a "TV Gamechanger" event at the BFI, so let’s gird our loins and look back too. Warning: badly dated Nineties content and downright disgustingness follows...
The original watercooler TV
The Word was the successor to Channel 4’s seminal, Bafta-winning late Eighties “yoof” series Network 7. Co-created by Janet Street-Porter and broadcast live from a Docklands warehouse for two hours at Sunday lunchtime, Network 7 was conceived as a “channel within a channel” and had the mission statement ”News is entertainment, entertainment is news”.
It was renowned (and oft-parodied) for its frenetic visual style, which featured wild camerawork, rapid cuts, innovative graphics and snappy pop video-style segments. Network 7 gave older viewers a headache, which was semi-deliberate.
Street-Porter was soon poached to do something similar for BBC Two, where she launched the “Def II” early evening strand, which included the likes of hipster travel show Rough Guide, Euro-report Rapido, indie music show Snub TV and smegging space sitcom Red Dwarf.
Meanwhile, the Network 7 team made an aborted attempt at evening programming with the short-lived Club X: a sort of hip arts show, complete with acid house styling and club scene drag queens. In retrospect, it can be seen as a dry run for The Word.
In 1990, presenter-cum-producer Charlie Parsons took what he’d learned on both Network 7 and Club X, co-founded Planet 24 production house and pitched The Word. During Club X post-mortem meetings, Parsons had told Channel 4 execs that 16 to 34-year-olds wanted entertainment, not the highfalutin “arts”. The wary, worthy suits were eventually convinced and gave The Word the green light.
Its magazine-style structure - seemingly chaotic but actually precision-planned - combined cutting-edge bands with irreverent interviews, reports from the margins of society and outrageous studio stunts. The flexible live format meant that guests, presenters and producers could do just about anything to court controversy. Meaning, of course, they did.
“My goal was to get it talked about the next day,” Parsons said. “The watercooler moment, as it would later be described. Liz Forgan [then deputy to Channel 4 boss Michael Grade] told us that if she went to a dinner party and The Word wasn't being attacked by the chattering classes, it wasn't doing its job.”
Smells like TV spirit
Originally broadcast in The Tube’s former berth of 6pm on Fridays, The Word welcomed in the weekend. Within a few weeks, though, Grade realised he could stop worrying about it being too risqué by letting it off the leash in a late-night 11pm slot. It rapidly became cult viewing, coined the term “post-pub TV” and never looked back.
Much of The Word’s outrageous material is now a blur - if you can remember it, you weren’t properly there - but it threw up many memorable moments which still get regularly rewound today. There was Nirvana’s first TV performance of their signature hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in 1991, prefaced by frontman Kurt Cobain declaring Courtney Love to be “the best f*** in the world”.
Other musical highlights include the first screening of Madonna’s racy “Justify My Love” video on terrestrial telly; the 1994 screen debut of fresh-faced, anorak-clad Oasis, playing “Supersonic”; Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name Of” being brought to a chaotic halt by a stage invasion; and Donita Sparks, guitarist from girl-grungers L7, ending their performance of “Pretend We’re Dead” by dropping her jeans and knickers so she was nude from the waist down.
A favoured Word shock tactic was humiliating Hollywood stars with clips of their early soft-porn flicks, which rarely went down well. Presenter Mark Lamarr robustly tackled Shabba Ranks about homophobia in Jamaican dancehall lyrics and when ragga star Ranks advocated crucifixion of homosexuals, Lamarr snapped: "That's absolute crap and you know it” to cheers from the studio audience.
There were car-crash, barely coherent interviews with alcoholic actor Oliver Reed, who’d been plied with booze backstage and secretly filmed, and a reeling drunk Lynne Perrie (aka Ivy Tilsley), who’d just been sacked from Coronation Street). Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder appeared highly “refreshed” with Bungle, George and Zippy from Rainbow. Lamarr openly took the mickey out of MC Hammer’s trousers and Snoop Dogg got attacked by bird puppet Emu.
There was an extreme hidden camera strand called “The Revengers”, while gameshow segment “Win Or Weep” saw contestants' most prized possession destroyed on-air if they lost. This, ahem, “inspired” later shows such as MTV's Trashed and Sky1's Beat The Crusher.
Most infamously, there was gross-out slot “The Hopefuls”, subtitled: “We’ll do anything to get on TV”. In a portent of the reality TV explosion, it saw shameless members of the public perform tasteless acts to secure their two minutes of fame: snogging grannies, drinking vomit, eating worm sandwiches, bathing in pig faeces, licking sweat from a tramp’s bellybutton, that kind of classy stunt.
This egalitarian, anyone-can-be-a-star spirit reflected the era’s rave culture, as did The Word's warehouse-like set, psychedelic projections and theme music by Hacienda acid house pioneers 808 State. Everyone seemed to be off their face: presenters, guests, studio audience, viewers at home. On those heady Friday nights, you felt mildly intoxicated just watching it.
Hosts with the least
Presiding over the madness was professional northerner Terry Christian, who’d helped create the show with Parsons. It was even named after Christian’s column about Madchester’s burgeoning, buzzing music scene in the Manchester Evening News. With his mad-for-it drawl and shambolically amateurish presentational style, Christian gave the impression that the wheels could come off at any second. And they frequently did, which only made the show more unmissable.
As he later confessed in his surprisingly entertaining memoir “My Word”, for most of this period, Christian was suffering not just from a chronic case of piles but an agonising-sounding “anal fissure”. He cheerfully puts the fact that he was a pain in the backside down to the fact that, well, he had a pain in his backside. No wonder, like viewers, he was forever squirming in his seat.
He admitted getting stoned with guests in the green room before the show and once drinking magic mushroom tea before doing a piece to camera. “I was so wrecked, I could hardly speak,” he wrote, which doesn’t narrow it down much.
Christian was accompanied by a random-seeming ragbag of co-presenters - in fact cunningly cast to appeal to the widest possible demographic. There was teen “wild child” Amanda De Cadenet, a braying boho-Sloane who married sharp-cheekboned Duran Duran bassist John Taylor before trading him in for Strokes guitarist Nick Valensi. When Amanda swanned off to become a rock WAG, she was briefly replaced by her snotty little brother Alexander, aka “Bruiser”, but he proved even more plummily irritating than his big sis.
Instead, Dani Behr later became the bland, blonde mane-tossing yin to Christian’s yang. Perky, punning Katie Puckrick, with her geek chic clothes and shaved eyebrow, added a dash of ballsy American kookiness, while stand-up comic Mark Lamarr was a sort of Southern, even stroppier Terry Christian. A bitter rivalry sprang up between the pair and Parsons later admitted that he had to break up a post-show fight between them in the green room.
Jasmine Dotiwala and Alan Connor were fairly forgettable but one Word alumnus who certainly wasn’t was roving reporter Huffty (full name: Andrea Huftika Reah), a Geordie skinhead renowned for her excruciatingly stilted interviews and for shouting "lesbian power!” over the closing credits. You don’t get that on Loose Women.
Too close to the edge
The Word attracted 3m viewers per week and became comfortably the most talked-about TV programme on-air. “What gave the show its edge,” said Parsons, “was that everybody who worked on it was firmly in the target age group and we put it together to please ourselves.”
Its near-the-knuckle content helped earn Michael Grade the somewhat unfair tabloid sobriquet of "pornographer-in-chief” and legal problems kept mounting. The show got a slap on the rest from Ofcom when a man dressed as Father Christmas was pulled across the studio by his testicles (ho ho ouch). Malcolm McLaren threatened a lawsuit after guest John Lydon was less than complimentary about him.
Channel 4 lawyers pulled the plug on The Word airing stolen home video footage of a well-known actor masturbating and another item on serial killer Dennis Nilsen, featuring songs written and performed in prison by him, especially for his favourite show.
Shortly before one live link, presenter Alan Connor was kidnapped by swingers at a German sex club, who demanded a ransom. Metal detectors were installed at the studio door after a mystery caller threatened to shoot Terry Christian live on-air.
When a weekly meetings with TV regulators was deemed necessary and a Daily Mail report resulted in questions in Parliament, the show’s fate was sealed in 1995. “In the end,” said Parsons, “The Word became a victim of its own success. A show that had set out to upset people at dinner parties eventually upset too many and it couldn't go on.”
The Word blazed a trail with the diversity of its presenting line-up - you still don’t see many people like Huffty on TV - but most of them have since disappeared from the national TV landscape. Terry Christian returned to Manchester, where he’s a radio DJ-cum-author and, scarily, occasional stand-up comic. The professional motormouth was last seen on our screens chuntering on about Brexit until being told to shut up by Jeremy Vine.
Mark Lamarr became a team captain on Shooting Stars, where he was mercilessly ribbed by Vic and Bob for his “Fifties throwback” image, and sarkily hosted Never Mind The Buzzcocks but seems to have vanished in the past decade. Amanda De Cadenet is now a talkshow host on US cable and brother Bruiser is a sub-Damien Hirst artist.
Dani Behr’s a real estate agent in LA and dear old Huffty is a youth worker back in her native North-East. Katie Puckrik is one of the rare broadcasting success stories, deploying her soft American twang and impeccable music taste as a DJ on 6Music and recently presenting a BBC Four documentary series on yacht rock.
Behind the screens
The Word’s behind-the-scenes team would go onto fare better than those in front of the camera. Paul “big brother of Jonathan” Ross - later a TV host himself - was the series editor. Zoe Ball worked as a researcher, while her mate Jo Whiley bagged her first TV job as The Word’s band booker. She was credited with giving big TV breaks to the likes of Blur, Elastica, Pulp, Suede and Pixies.
Indeed, the show’s grubby fingerprints were all over our TVs for the next decade or two, especially on Channel 4’s output. The station launched a music-focused copycat called Naked City, co-presented by Johnny Vaughan and a still-only-17 Caitlin Moran.
The Word was was later replaced by feminist follow-up The Girlie Show - a sort of televisual version of the Spice Girls, which took over the same 11pm slot and gave Sara Cox her first presenting gig. Meanwhile, Planet 24 went on to make the game-changing Big Breakfast, which essentially replaced The Word’s rock with pop and its swearing with silliness.
Without The Word, there would have been no Eurotrash, no Graham Norton Show, no Top Gear nor TFI Friday. There might even have been no Big Brother nor I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. What are Bushtucker Trials, after all, if not recycled stunts from The Hopefuls?
Its day-glo backgrounds, wobbly camerawork and freewheeling live feel exerted a major influence on a generation of programming, from Saturday Night Takeaway to Soccer A.M. The pop anarchy of SM:TV, The O-Zone and Popworld owed The Word a debt, while its culture-clash casting, which saw bemused Hollywood stars rubbing shoulders with cult Brit characters, prefigured the likes of Strictly Come Dancing and Celebrity Big Brother.
The Word was Wogan for the rave generation. The One Show with tattoos and a binge-drinking problem. Loathed by parents but loved by their offspring, feared by the “The Man” but adored by “The Kids”.
“In this post-Big Brother and X Factor world, it’s hard to imagine now how revolutionary The Word was,” concludes Parsons. “But back in 1990, multichannel TV had hardly started, the independent TV production sector was tiny and the most risqué show on TV was Blind Date. The Word became essential post-pub fodder and it changed viewing habits forever.”
Nowadays the craziest thing you'll see on Friday night TV is Graham Norton cracking a dirty joke or Giles from Gogglebox supping half an IPA. The Word seems like a world away. Let’s hope we see its like again.
The Word: TV Gamechanger, featuring a Q&A with Terry Christian and Katie Puckrik, is at the BFI at 6.15pm on Tuesday August 13