“Our presenter was kidnapped by German pornographers” – How we made the Word

Charlie ParsonsCreator

Channel 4 asked me to do a youth arts show called Club X but it was a disaster. I told them, “Young people don’t watch art shows. Let me do something entertainment-based: a mix of celebrity interviews, cool music and wacky global stories, all in a crazy live format. A show for young people, made by young people.” When they said OK, I got a team together and Word was born.

I decided that the presenting duo would be North and South. That’s how we ended up with Terry Christian, this sly guy from the Madchester scene, and Amanda de Cadenet, a posh-sounding It Girl. Polar opposites but a brilliant contrast. We’ve always wanted presenters who weren’t the usual Oxbridge-educated, Soho media circuit types. That’s why we later chose people like Katie Puckrik and Huffty. The show’s look was influenced by Ready Steady Go, Hairspray and Bridget Riley. An American pop sensation from the 60s with a crazy studio crowd.

We recruited Jo Whiley as a music booker because she had brilliant taste. The bands had to perform live, no lip syncing. It meant we missed pop acts but got the likes of Nirvana and Oasis. Its unpredictable live nature led to great moments like L7 guitarist Donita Sparks dropping her pants and Kurt Cobain saying, “Courtney Love is the best fan in the world.”

We launched in August 1990 at 18.00. After five weeks, Michael Grade, then CEO of Channel 4, moved it to 11pm, where we could be more outrageous. The word became the post-pub show for the 90s generation. It changed viewing habits. We got ratings of 2m in a slot where no previous show had gotten more than 300,000. It lacked polish but had real energy. The aim was to be reprimanded the next day – often unflatteringly, but it didn’t matter.

Maggots please... The Hopefuls slot.
Maggots please… The Hopefuls slot. Image: Channel 4

In the beginning, we were shocked by accident. The stunts that were actually designed to shock didn’t happen until three series in. The idea of ​​The Hopeful’s slot was that anyone could get on TV if they dared, like snitching on a grandma or lying in a bath full of pig shit. It was a precursor to reality TV and social media: a way for ordinary people to become famous. It was pretty unPC. We wouldn’t be able to do the drunken Oliver Reed interview these days. It was exploitative but he had been drunk on TV before and knew what he was doing.

Those were dangerous moments. A presenter, Alan Connor, was kidnapped by German pornographers. Another night, the police surrounded the studio because someone called to say their friend was getting high, had a gun and wanted to kill Terry Christian. During the ad break, we searched for the audience. No one was armed, so we just kept going. Grossly irresponsible but what fun it all was.

Eventually there was a backlash. Not from viewers, who still loved the show, but from the channel. They kept having problems with the regulators and canceled us after five series. I don’t think Grade particularly enjoyed being called “Chief Pornographer” by the tabloids either.

Mark Lamarr interviews Snoop Doggy Dogg with Rod Hull and Emu

Katie Puckrik, host

I was a professional dancer loosely in 1991 after touring the world with the Pet Shop Boys. A friend said: “This TV show is looking for a new host. No experience necessary. You should go for it.” So I cobbled together a showreel. Thousands applied and they filmed the audition process for a spin-off called Word Search. Next to me in the final 20 were Davina McCall and Jez Nelson. For the next round I had to interview this awful Liverpudlian politician called Derek Hatton and a band of boys who were like unruly puppies and groping for me. I was very happy when I was offered the gig. I had never seen the Word until I was on it.

I introduced the infamous L7 show but missed Nirvana because I was doing an outside broadcast at the home of a disgruntled viewer. He had written and complained that we never had decent bands on, so I brought the Bay City Rollers to play in his kitchen. That was the beauty of the Word. It was so random and sloppy but that’s how people’s brains work. You want a taste of the hippest but also to be amused. I loved its mix of British sea variety and hot young stuff. It was like a fever dream. One minute I was interviewing Zsa Zsa Gabor, the next I was encouraging a young man to eat a bowl of cereal with caterpillars. Maybe it’s a metaphor for life.

I also did hard-hitting stories: exposés on cosmetic surgery for teenagers and Scientology in Hollywood. I met some sex addicts, which was a new concept at the time. When I got back to my hotel in West Hollywood afterwards, the guy I had just interviewed was found up in a tree, peering into my room. My first interview was with Demi Moore and she practically cut it short when I asked her about nudity. Hollywood PR had no idea what they were letting their clients in for. Humorless A-listers sat on a sofa in the studio with risqué questions being asked of them in a room full of squirming teenagers.

The wheels kept coming off. That’s what made it jump off the screen, but it probably took years off the lives of everyone who worked on it. The word would not come into existence today. People are way too bet safe. This was before the internet age, before all the portals of opportunity were locked. The Word predicted reality TV, Jackass-style stunts, TikTok pranks. It was a melting pot of 21st century culture.

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