1990s Show The Word Was Anarchic and Anti-Establishment. Where’s Today’s Equivalent?

TV

The Word was a magazine-style entertainment show that ran from 1990 to 1995 on the UK’s Channel 4. It was helmed by Mancunian motormouth Terry Christian and a medley of once and future stars, including Amanda de Cadenet, Dani Behr, Katie Puckrik, and Mark Lamarr. The show was the brainchild of Charlie Parsons and Terry Christian, who were tasked with filling the hip, cultural hole left behind by the departure of music-oriented, youth-skewed shows like The Tube

The Word began life in August 1990 as a tame, tea-time shadow of the fearlessly innovative show it would later become. What saved it from becoming a real-life version of Nozin’ Aroun’ – the spoof youth show so insufferably condescending it prompted Rik to destroy his TV set in the anarchic 1980’s BBC sitcom The Young Ones – was the decision by Channel 4’s Chief Executive Michael Grade to shift transmission from 6pm to late-night. Unmoored from pre-watershed restrictions, The Word flourished, and went on to both encapsulate the 1990s, and help define them: a sonorous ball of music, mess, madness, mayhem, complaints and controversy that rolled its way through the bedrooms of millions of bored teenagers and post-pub drinkers, all the way to the Houses of Parliament, with a few detours through the pages of The Daily Mail along the way. 

You can trace a direct evolutionary line from The Word to the risk-taking of TFI Friday and The Big Breakfast, through the narcissism of Big Brother and Love Island, all the way to the testicle-munching hijinks of I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here. We haven’t exactly been starved of controversy in the decades since The Word went off-air, with comedy establishment figures like Jimmy Carr, Dave Chapelle and Ricky Gervais always happy to stir the pot. And the invasive nudity on display in recent Channel 4 shows like Embarrassing Bodies and Naked Dating make the occasional flashes of delicate bits on The Word (looking at you, Donita Sparks) look positively quaint by comparison. So why, then, does it feel like the spirit of joyous anarchy forged by The Word has been diluted to the point of death? Where did it go? And what made it work so well in the first place?

In the Beginning, There was The Word

Everyone who worked on The Word was firmly in the show’s 16 – 34 target age group, so they were able to give viewers what they actually wanted, and not what some antediluvian, bowler hat-wearing executive thought they ought to want. And what they wanted was what no other broadcaster was willing or able to give them: sex, smut, rock n’ roll, fun, frivolity, and a family-sized bag of F-words. Where else could audiences see a visibly hammered Oliver Reed perform ‘Wild Thing’ with Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, or Rod Hull and Emu attacking a visibly anxious Snoop Dogg? Hitherto only in their wildest fever dreams. 

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While The Word was lewd, lairy, and borderline legal in places, its headline-grabbing tawdriness was in part a reaction to, and a rebellion against, the buttoned-down, finger-wagging conservative values that had reigned in the UK for over a decade. The Word wasn’t just a rude ratings’ grabber, but a riotous middle-finger in the face of the establishment (nowhere was this better encapsulated than when Rage Against the Machine performed their iconic anthem ‘Killing in the Name’ in 1993, live and uncensored). Pushing the boundaries of the possible and the permissible, then, were The Word‘s political mission statement and raison d’etre. As reported in The Guardian, Liz Forgan, Michael Grade’s deputy at Channel 4, told Parsons and the team 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.’ And what a job it did. 

Courting Controversy

It would be impossible to detail all of The Word‘s many line-crossing moments, but a selection should provide enough of a flavour to imagine or recall the full effect: a man dressed as Santa was once pulled across the studio by his testicles; Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain loudly proclaimed that his partner, Courtney Love, was ‘the best fuck in the world’; incarcerated killer Dennis Nilsen reportedly tried to get songs he’d written in jail played on the show (this never reached air, but it speaks to The Word‘s anarchy and mass-appeal); and security had to be tightened after an anonymous call received during a recording claimed that an armed, drugged-up and disgruntled audience member was ready to shoot Terry Christian.  

However, the segment that people remember most vividly – probably because the horror was indelibly scorched into their brains – was ‘The Hopefuls’, wherein ordinary members of the public scrambled for their fifteen minutes of fame – and never has the word ‘ordinary’ begged to be enclosed within inverted commas more than right now – by doing such viscerally unpleasant things as drinking pints of sick, eating blocks of lard, snogging a pensioner, raking for a party whistle inside animal guts, eating sandwiches filled with things like pubic hair, verrucas and toenails, and dipping a finger in a morbidly obese man’s sweaty belly-button cavity and greedily licking the residue. This latter feat of no-holds barred fame-hunting was witnessed by one of the evening’s special guests, actor Rob Morrow, who looked visibly disturbed and disgusted.

And, yet, while The Words satirical take on the fame game was cruel and exploitative, it was also pure. Nowadays, people are savvy to the point of cynicism, and expect sustained fame from even the most insignificant of reality-TV appearances. Back then, for ‘The Hopefuls’, an appearance on TV was an end in and of itself. It was more innocent – if that can ever properly be said of people rubbing their faces through faeces and innards. Audiences, too, have become inured to that variety of shock. What felt edgy in the 1990s is now passe. There are new lines in the sand, and swearing, nudity and the grotesque are ignored. 

In a recent interview with The Guardian, former presenter Katie Puckrik summed up the show’s legacy: “This was the pre-internet age, before all the portals of opportunity were locked down. The Word predicted reality TV, Jackass-style stunts, TikTok pranks. It was a crucible of 21st-century culture.” 

It may well be that The Word’s spirit of anarchy hasn’t died, but transferred from network television to the largely unregulated Wild West of the internet, where anyone can do anything, and anyone can watch it, whenever and wherever they like.  

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Facing the Music 

Of course, The Word would never have captured the zeitgeist of 90s youth culture so completely were it just a compilation of testicular mishaps, and people saying and doing all manner of gross things. The show also brought edgy, exciting and essential music to the masses. The Word‘s roster of guest acts reads like a Who’s Who of the emerging Madchester, Britpop, and transatlantic grunge scenes. Nirvana performed ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit‘ on the show in 1991, the first time they’d performed their soon-to-be-iconic hit on television. Nirvana could sometimes be difficult beasts to tame, but instead of supplying defiance, as they’d done and would do on Tonight With Jonathan Ross and Top of the Pops, they turned out an effortlessly and earnestly furious performance that cemented their place in the pantheon of the grunge greats. Oasis, too, got their big TV break thanks to The Word.   

Authenticity was another vital ingredient of the show. As Charlie Parsons explained to The Guardian: “We had an agenda. We wanted to be positive and have fun, a reaction to the depressing view of Britain that was seen in the Daily Mail. We wanted to reflect what our contemporaries really thought.” Case in point: host Mark Lamarr’s handling of the vicious homophobia espoused by the reggae star Shabba Ranks. When the musician opined that gay men should be crucified, citing Biblical precedent, Lamarr railed: “That’s crap, and you know it.” The still-furious Lamarr later told co-host Dani Behr that he’d be off shooting bigots instead of presenting next week’s show. It’s a testament to how firmly The Word had a handle on the progressive direction in which the country – and indeed the western world – was slowly but surely heading that Shabba Ranks lost his upcoming spot on NBC’s The Tonight Show, was dropped from Bobby Brown’s tour, and found himself persona non grata on the UK festival scene. His international career never fully recovered. 

Not all attitudes espoused and reflected by the show have aged well, particularly the objectification of women. While there’s definitely an argument to be made against the current climate of knee-jerk moral outrage – especially relating to the social fabric of bygone decades and ages, much of it stoked and sustained by the media – sometimes things look uncomfortable not because we’re puritanical virtue signallers with axes to grind, but because we’ve evolved. We can understand and appreciate a piece of the past in its proper context, and breathe a sigh of relief that we’ve moved on from things like Terry Christian asking pop duo Fem2Fem: ‘Some people are saying, you don’t look like lesbians, you look like porn stars. How do you respond to that?’ A follow-up question about virginity prompted a female member of the audience to approach Terry and deliver a stinging, open-handed slap across his face. When Chris Rock received similar treatment at The Oscars earlier this year, Christian declared on Twitter: “I was getting slapped on live TV when Will Smith was still hanging around Bel-aire (sic) and Chris Rock was hustling to get on Saturday Night Live.”

The Final Word

The Word was never deserted by its loyal and enthusiastic audience, but in 1995 Channel 4 bowed to the pressure that had been exerted on TV regulators by the very forces the show existed to counteract. Channel 4’s Chief Executive Michael Grade even had to answer questions in parliament, and earned himself the unflattering soubriquet of ‘Pornographer-in-Chief’.

Mark Lawson, writing in The Independent just prior to the show’s end, opined that Channel 4’s chairman Michael Bishop seemed to have ‘introduced to a channel established to take risks the old British broadcasting tradition of paternalistic taste-policing from the top floor.’

And we can follow the trail of that ‘taste-policing’ all the way to today. Recently, producer Steven D. Wright, who cut his teeth on The Word, wrote a piece in The Times sounding the death knell for risk and innovation in the contemporary TV landscape. “Despite the streamers launching shows every week, most offerings are dreadful and there is almost nothing to watch on terrestrial except baking cakes, buying antiques or B-list celebrities freeloading around Britain’s B-roads.” 

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Wright thinks he can identify the turning point: “What really changed things was the huge amounts of cash generated by producers finally getting to own their own intellectual property, in 2003, when “terms of trade” finally became law. Idea generators like me could now sell their formats internationally and keep the profits. Unique to the British TV industry, it changed everything and a mega-boom began. But as fun formats became revenue streams, big business suddenly took notice. As the serious money moved in, telly became intensely serious.” 

Channel 4’s TFI Friday may be a case in point, even adjusting for shifting tastes. When it first burst onto screens in 1996 – looking to serve The Word’s demographic and sate similar appetites – it contained segments such as ‘Ugly Blokes’ and ‘Fat Lookalikes’. When it returned for a short run in 2015, those segments had been replaced by ‘Too Good Not to be on TV’ and ‘Cute Contest Purely for Ratings’.     

Arguably, the last vestiges of The Word’s anarchic, anti-establishment spirit have been diluted by a risk-averse, bottom-line-obsessed industry, and the steady desensitisation of the viewing public, not to mention the siphoning of audiences to the endless possibilities of the internet. But the pendulum has swung before, and it could swing again. Right now a middle-finger could be readying itself to rise up in defiance of the serious, staid, and safe status quo. And when it does, those of us old enough to remember The Word in its prime will puff out our chests, throw back our heads, and say: “Bloody young people. Wasn’t like that in our day.” And that’s okay. Because, this time, the middle finger will be directed at us. 

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