Onstage, three robots are stacking boxes in a cack-handed fashion that hasn’t been seen since Jon Pertwee era Dr Who had the Cybermen clumping about in a similarly ungainly manner. Earlier, groups of people huddled together wrapping one of their number in brightly coloured balloons in an attempt at imagining an alien, while others lined up to bash out theme songs to science-fiction classics on a kazoo. Joe Meek’s 1960s hit for The Tornadoes is more recognisable than the selection of slowed down and sped up Gerry Anderson soundtracks, although another Joe, specky puppet braniac Joe 90, is a hit.
Overseeing the melee is a tall chap with Eraserhead hair and the manner of a Butlins Redcoat if he’d gone to art school and been weaned on Vic Reeves. This is Wilson, the evening’s smooth-talking compere cum handyman who, with his glamorous assistant Betty and a full quota of overalled-up lackeys, makes things swing with some piped-in patter and the odd Moviedrome era Mark Cousins impression thrown in for good measure.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to It’s Funtime, the best post-modern quiz night in town. After a year and a half honing its nostalgia-based aesthetic for the Saturday night crowd, the It’s Funtime gang are ready to open their doors for the next three Tuesdays as they make their Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut. With the emphasis on interactivity and with rounds such as Tower of Strength, Hanky Panky and the aforementioned Kazoo Gang, and with an upstairs after-show involving Scalextric and Giant Ker-Plunk, it’s a night too that’s tailor-made for today’s austerity era.
“It came out of a conversation one night when three of us went to a pub quiz,” says Sean Lee, aka Wilson, in chipper tones not a million miles from Wilson’s own Mr Showbiz routine. “It was alright, but we started wondering how we could improve it. We decided to do something that kept the quiz element, but to introduce a more physical, fun aspect to it that was somewhere between The Generation Game and It’s A Knockout, with all these elaborately arranged film clips to accompany each question.”
The roots of such inter-active nightclub tomfoolery can also be traced back to the equally nostalgia-based Going Places night, as well as the far wilder Hotel-Gassed-All-Weekendo club in the early 1990s. It’s Funtime, though, is a far gentler affair.
“The main thing to point out,” says Lee/Wilson, “is that the audience participation is really friendly. I think people enjoy messing about, and there’s this whole nostalgia thing for the 1970s, so people can feel safe but have fun as well. I’m not sure how much there’s any social context to that with the recession and everything, but it’s certainly not an art piece. It’s just a good night out.”
Lee chose Wilson and Betty’s names as a knowing homage to Wilson, Keppel and Betty, the 1930s music hall trio who became famous for their Egyptian sand dance routine. While there may be no sand dancing at It’s Funtime (yet), festival themes include Romantic Funtime, James Bond and a re-run of the Science Fiction Special described above. If the whole thing sounds like it was designed to accompany a seaside postcard from the 1950s, Lee’s recent past as an illustrator of caricatures for the Radio Times makes perfect sense. Many of the six hundred plus images he provided are currently on show in a just launched exhibition to accompany It’s Funtime’s August extravaganza.
“People like funny faces,” Lee explains of the caricatures appeal, “but you couldn’t choose who you did, and quite often it could be really boring depending on who you got to draw. One week you might get Albert Steptoe, who had a really great face, but the next you might get some anodyne blonde like Fearne Cotton or Cat Deeley, and that was a bit dull.”
Since pulling the plug on his Radio Times gig, however, most of Lee’s time is spent on the ever-expanding beast that It’s Funtime has become.
“We initially started It’s Funtime just to entertain ourselves,’ says Lee, ‘but the way it’s taken off, it might be quite good to do it for corporate events or office parties. It’s a lot of work, though. If I’m not making repairs to robot suits I’m building a giant Ker-plunk. It’s Funtime now is like a screaming baby that keeps demanding attention. It’s rather an odd life, really.”
It’s Funtime, The Bongo Club, August 10th, 17th and 24th, 7.30pm
The Herald, August 10th 2010