One of my fondest televisual memories of the 1970s was the Saturday evening treat that was Candid Camera. Not the American version which (unknown to me at the time) had been running since 1948, but the one which, despite having borrowed the name and the format from our transatlantic cousins, revelled in a style of humour that was so uniquely British.
The configuration was simple. Mischievous but deceptively straight-faced Candid Camera team would set up a farcical situation into which unsuspecting random members of the public would be inadvertently led. Their reactions were then recorded for posterity and broadcast before the nation for their comedy value.
Myriad imaginative and innovative scenarios kept us glued to the box and in fits of laughter across the weeks and months, but some were so priceless that their memory has survived the decades which have passed since first they were aired. A hired temp (victim) being required to take down a letter in shorthand from a shady employer (in fact a team member), which progressed incrementally into a threat to have the intended recipient beaten up. A new secretary (team member) presenting herself to an employer (victim) wearing nothing but a smile (despite the programme being broadcast hours before the watershed), the hapless employer then being expected to dictate a letter whilst unconvincingly pretending that he hadn’t noticed her nakedness. A newly-installed telephone box unexpectedly rising up into the air on hydraulic stilts whilst occupied (this one was actually filmed in my home town, one of the victims being the father of a schoolfriend). An eccentric shopper (team member) stealing and eating goldfish (actually strips of carrot) from an ornamental fish tank whilst waiting to be served in a shop, observed by incredulous fellow customers (victims). Two men (team members) carrying an imaginary plate of glass across a pavement, causing members of the public (victims) to walk tentatively around it, even if it meant stepping out into the road. And this was just a small selection.
Self-parodying and flippant
Candid Camera embraced just about every social and political incorrectitude known to man as it made memories from mockery. People filmed without their consent or even their knowledge, folks ridiculed for their innocent stupidity, stereotypes aplenty. It was a minor miracle that the show made it through to 1976. One imagines that victims would have been asked for their permission to broadcast, possibly they were even paid an appearance fee. But nobody, as far as I’m aware, ever claimed to have been traumatised irreversibly by the experience. No lives were ruined. It was all just…well…fun, and those who fell for the pranks accepted their short-lived predicament with humour and good grace. When the prankster eventually lifted the victim out of their misery with the immortal words “Smile, You’re on Candid Camera!”, they almost invariably did.
As it happened, the format itself outlasted the show. Programmes such as Beadle’s About, Just For Laughs and Dom Joly’s Trigger Happy TV ensured that the genre lived on, in the case of the last two into the 21st century. But Candid Camera exuded a style and a panache which was uniquely of its era. It was a one-off.
Although it first appeared on our screens way back in 1960 – then hosted by Bob Monkhouse – Candid Camera really came into its own in the seventies. Its humour reflected the self-parodying, flippant, laid-back spirit of that age. It is perhaps apposite that it finally took its bow in 1976, the year when so much in popular culture changed in such a short space of time and with such a heavy heart we closed the door on all the magic that had passed before.
We look back upon both with fondness and longing.
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