Rod Hull: A Bird in the Hand

We all have TV shows we loved as a child, and for good reason, but is revisiting them as an adult purely for nostalgia all it’s cracked up to be? A recent online rendezvous with Rod Hull (and, of course, Emu) explains why it might be better to leave it all in the past.

If you’re in your thirties or over, you’ll appreciate this: There’s a strange current phenomenon where TV shows that you may have rose-tinted memories of (or perhaps missed the first time around, back when programmes were only on once), and never thought you’d see again, are now readily available to watch on YouTube. Sometimes they are as you remember, sometimes not at all.

For twenty-somethings this situation doesn’t exist – there’s no need to share mis-remembered anecdotes about the TV of their youth, as it’s never gone away. Episodes of recent popular shows are repeated ad infinitum and have always been available online. For older generations though, particularly those born in the 1970s and 80s, sit us down and start talking about children’s shows from CBBC or Children’s ITV and we can reminisce for hours.

It would be easy for me to do the same here – whereas once a mysterious and exhilarating show such as Knightmare was a beautiful memory somewhere in my brain, it’s now fully catalogued in every detail on the Internet. Another similar ITV stalwart, Emu, on the other hand, occupied very little of my attention, aside from a few short flashbacks to the then terrifying Grotbags, and the Pink Windmill.

So how did we get here? Well, it was another of these ‘missed it the first time around’ moments that brought me here. For the last few years I’ve listened to Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (RHLSTP), first brought to my attention – as with many people – by the Stephen Fry episode. Richard Herring himself, specifically in his Lee & Herring days, ironically is someone I had very little knowledge of, despite their double-act being at the height of its fame during my early teens.

I vaguely remember This Morning With Richard Not Judy (which I think I dismissed at the time largely due to its terrible title), and have seen Stewart Lee performing stand-up, but never really correlated the two. Thanks, though, to Herring’s often undeniably honest outlook into his past, his relationship with both his former comedy partner and those that employed him, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with that world that I missed at the time.

Fans of Lee and Herring will already know where the Emu fits in. Searching through YouTube for clips I stumbled upon a sketch with the pair and (the actor) Kevin Eldon, playing a character who thinks he’s Rod Hull, from their 1996 show Fist of Fun. In the final episode, and indeed the final gag of the series, the real Rod Hull makes an appearance which is genuinely very funny.

Now, a few things are striking about this. Rod Hull died not long after this, as most people know, trying to adjust the TV aerial on his roof while watching Manchester United in the Champions League. Here, the man looks a shadow of his former lively self, and indeed appears without the bird which gave him all that vibrance. Secondly, despite this being not long after the height of his fame for which I remember him, he’s already being used in the series as a cult figure, for which a large part of the humour comes from the fact that he’s a slightly tragic, faded former star.

For someone my age, it’s truly strange watching the clip now. Back in 1996, the ‘real’ Rod Hull is being used to provoke a strange schadenfreude in the then largely early twenties audience to wonder what happened to their former childhood star for him to end up like this (remember this is long before the Internet existed), and yet watching it now, in 2016, you can’t help but wonder exactly that same thing.

Naturally you turn to Wikipedia, but due to the concise nature of the article, it only serves to add more intrigue. We have a man that in the space of a decade went from his absolute peak with 11 million viewers, to going bankrupt almost overnight. It also turns out he came to despise Emu, the essence of his infamous act that brought him all that fame.

Thankfully YouTube, as well as serving up these various pieces of TV nostalgia, came up trumps with its ‘Recommended’ sidebar. Having watched various Emu related clips, up popped a 49 minute documentary entitled ‘Rod Hull: A Bird in the Hand.’ Initially wrongly assuming it was a tribute, on watching I discovered it to be a very candid retrospective of Rod Hull’s life, with honest interviews from those that knew him.

It’s certainly a strange watch, especially with his more promiscuous side being almost joked about (this was made in 2003, in the very much pre Operation Yewtree era), with his various, and often sexually motivated, foibles being discussed at length. It’s certainly often a long way from the fluffy nature of the Pink Windmill and its carefree children. And yes, he did also come to despise the bird.

It’s a fascinating, if slightly disturbing, insight into a man that many would only know from that Parkinson clip, and their own limited memories. And with that, it dawns that maybe you shouldn’t trust your rose-tinted recollections of the shows you watched as a child. And, more importantly, revisiting them now may destroy more memories than revitalising them.