I tell thee, I’d never quite appreciated the genius of Bo’ Selecta.
The Year of our Lord 2002 seems like a long time ago, it’s top three popular culture moments being Attack of the Clones, Nelly and Kelly, and Rivaldo crying about being brushed in the thigh. There’s to make you feel wizened. I was but 11 years old, and Leigh Francis’s Surrealist experiment was the kind of thing I would surreptitiously watch post-midnight at sleepovers, giggling at the funny masks and swearing. I didn’t understand it, but it was inviting to the average pre-teen because of its cartoonish silliness and the fact that someone would say ‘fuck’ or ‘bugger’ every episode.
When I first stumbled across Bo’ Selecta, I probably thought it was an impressions show. When you see Craig David with a peregrine falcon, or Mel B with a hairy chest, you realise that it isn’t, but there is no way that in 2002 I understood the level of parody and social commentary implicit among the stupidity. Episode One introduces us to Transylvanian ‘salabrity’ stalker Avid Merrion, who wears a neckbrace thanks to a scuffle with Liza Tarbuck. His flat is decorated with mannequins wearing the masks of famous people, often in compromising positions: it’s like the opening scene of A Clockwork Orange, but with the milk replaced by ‘sex wee’. Within the opening minutes, we find out that Avid lives with his dead mother (who eats tuna) and has Craig off of Big Brother chained up in his toilet.
In this one image, Craig chained up, we see the raison d’etre of Bo’ Selecta. It is total lampooning/celebration of Z-list celebrity culture, which was beginning to sprout its desperate head in the early noughties. The joke, of course, is that being on TV for five minutes gives Avid enough reason to stalk you and lock you in his toilet. Thinking more meta-theatrically, Bo’ Selecta provides a stepping stone in Craig’s already dwindling TV career (he won Big Brother in 2000). Turns out the cost of fame is imprisonment among the plumbing.
Ignoring the masked tomfoolery for a moment, just look at the other famous faces who appear in Series 1: Liberty X; Kate Thornton; Christine Hamilton; Jade Goody; Keith from Boyzone; Vanessa Feltz; Sarah Cawood. This is a conveyor belt of also-rans; a kaleidoscope of thick fringes and double denim. The show never really mocked these people – it celebrated their willingness to get involved and not be too disgusted by a bear’s erection. Even in Avid’s lexis, we hear references to Big Brother, Pop Idol, Popstars: The Rivals and Fame Academy, reminding us that this was a time when normal people had more and more routes to fame, and the power of exposure (of any form) was more and more valued.
Bo’ Selecta forces Z-listers into embarrassing situations to question the cost of fame, and Francis’s work with his famous rubber masks is also an exploration of what it means to be famous, framed by a simple ‘what if’ scenario. What if the people we see on television and in magazines aren’t the idols of twenty first century existence, but are actually flawed, unimpressive human beings who are trying their hardest to stop us realising this fact? Francis’s grotesque rubber masks and costume choices are a way of separating the perceived image of celebrity from the truth, as they act as an un-airbrushed, warts-and-all portrait of previously adored celebrities.
However, the mask and outfit is only half of the performance. The true parody of fame comes in Francis’s characterisation. By giving some of his creations a Northern accent, Francis goes some way in removing the veneer of the celebrity, turning them into local people with local problems. Britney Spears, for example, comes complete with a double chin, a pint in hand, and the kind of nonchalant shrugging so often seen in Britain’s northern men. Mel B is actually from Yorkshire, but here she is re-imagined as a truly scary, foul mouthed battleaxe, lacking in any grace. She refers to her fellow Spice Girls as ‘Sporty’Un’, ‘Baby’Un’, ‘Ginger’Un’ and ‘Posh’Un’ with the inelegant love of a Rovers Return landlady.
Elsewhere, Destiny’s Child are three South London girls who buy their jewellery at Index, and Elton John is an aggressive imp who threatens to bum anyone who gets in his way (art/life). Crucially, Bo’ Selecta’s most popular character, Craig David, was also its most damaging. The British public are still struggling to say his name without adopting a Leeds accent and putting their hands up into L shapes, and it’s not unrealistic to suggest that the show is the main reason we don’t see much of the real Craig on our shores any more. Does Craig David have a right to be pissed off? Well, not really. As aforementioned, Francis is not doing an impression of David, but an approximation, and the important thing is that he is mocking pop stars in general rather than David personally, whom he is merely using as a mouthpiece. Ok, the voice and piss bag might be annoying, but we must remember that Craig David is not the butt of the joke.
It’s really difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes these creations funny, but perhaps it is simply down to the element of surprise. To see a celebrity rendered down to his/her barest parts, swearing, farting and drinking, gives us a hidden camera style voyeurism, and debunks idolatry in favour of ridicule. In the decade since Bo’ Selecta finished, we haven’t quite departed from celebrity worship, as the rise of obsessive fan groups on social media shows. Equally, the most visited website in the world is still amazed by a celebrity’s ability to go to the shops or wear a hat, which is exactly the kind of fawning nonsense mocked by Leigh Francis over ten years ago. Urrrrgh, the bastards!