This feature first appeared in the February 2020 issue of FourFourTwo. Subscribe now and get a free pair of headphones worth £49.99!
Republic of Ireland 0-0 Egypt. On June 17, 1990, two men sat in front of a television before a comedy night in south-west London. They’d never met before, and they were watching a match that’s since been described as the worst in World Cup history.
Had it not been so monumentally dire, one of football’s most loved TV shows may never have happened. Instead, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner became two of the 1990s’ biggest stars. By the time Euro 96 began, they were chart-topping national heroes. All thanks to Fantasy Football League – and Ireland vs Egypt.
“I’d seen Frank previously at the Comedy Store,” Baddiel explains to FourFourTwo today. “He was a new comic and I remember thinking, ‘This bloke’s really good’. But we hadn’t spoken, until we were both at Jongleurs in Battersea.
“The World Cup was on in the dressing room, and we got into an argument about the Irish team. I said they were dull; Frank said they shouldn’t be playing like Brazil. We had a row, and I remember thinking, ‘I disagree with that bloke but he knows a lot about football – he seems all right’. Apparently he thought the same thing. He also thought, ‘I’ve never met a posh bloke who knows about football’. I’m not posh, so that shows how working-class Frank is!”
In January 1994, Baddiel and Skinner’s Fantasy Football League landed on BBC Two, to little fanfare, at 11.15pm on a Friday night. The duo had become friends, then flatmates, before sharing a sofa together in front of the TV cameras.
“Today it’s not unusual to have a set like someone’s front room, but it was revolutionary then,” says show producer Andy Jacobs – now part of Hawksbee & Jacobs on talkSPORT, having worked alongside Paul Hawksbee on Fantasy Football.
“We said, ‘Let’s build a set that’s like our house’,” Baddiel explains. “Frank had got chucked out of his flat in London by his girlfriend and he couldn’t go back to Birmingham because he’d bought a house with his wife, who he was divorced from. He was basically homeless, so I offered him a room in my flat. “Over the course of the entire time I lived with him, I never put Frank’s rent up. He became a TV star, started doing huge tours, earned loads of money, and it was always £40 a week!”
Before Fantasy Football League came along, Baddiel had starred in a popular sketch show called The Mary Whitehouse Experience and sold out Wembley Arena with his writing partner, Rob Newman. He had also performed skits as part of early-’90s football programme Standing Room Only.
Meanwhile, the fantasy football concept had been launched in England in 1991 by Andrew Weinstein, who had seen its popularity in American sports. Both Baddiel and Skinner had appeared on a short-lived BBC Radio 5 Live show, picking their own fantasy teams. Then Baddiel got a call from Weinstein.
“He asked, ‘Do you think there’s a TV show in the game?’” Baddiel explains. “I said, ‘I’m not sure... it’d have to be more than that’. I talked to Frank. We said, ‘Maybe the game could be the basis of a comedy show about football’. We did a pilot and Michael Jackson – the head of BBC Two, not the pop star – really went for it. He didn’t give us six shows; he gave us 22.”
Each show would feature celebrity guests, competing against each other in a fantasy league. Among those in the first series were Bob Mortimer, Karren Brady, Eddie Large and Roy Hattersley. “We got people together for an auction where they picked their teams – I think it was some sort of cocktail party,” Jacobs says.
“I remember I won the league one season, which I was pleased about!” says a beaming Baddiel. “But the league was just a structure for the show, on which to hang jokes about football.”
Later, Fantasy Football League’s fantasy football league was phased out entirely. By then, it was clear people were tuning in for the jokes.
The butt of many of them was Statto, played by Angus Loughran, a TV commentator and horse racing betting expert who had once invaded the pitch at a Test match in his teenage years, poking fun at the boring batting of England’s Chris Tavare by offering him a stool.
“Andrew Weinstein played Statto in the pilot, but the BBC felt he wasn’t quite right – they wanted a boffin,” Jacobs reveals. “Then I was on the gantry for Spurs against Leeds and my eye was taken by this very strange guy, making funny head movements. We chatted and I thought, ‘He’d be good for the role’, so I got him in for an audition.”
Janet Street-Porter, BBC head of independent commissioning and a key supporter of the show, wasn’t initially convinced by Loughran. “Janet said, ‘Statto’s terrible; he needs f**king acting lessons!’” Jacobs remembers. “I said, ‘No, that’s the point: he’s meant to be terrible!’”
Before he accepted the role, Loughran wanted to make sure it wouldn’t jeopardise his day job. “I was commentating for Eurosport at the time,” he tells FFT. “I had a meeting with Simon Reed there. I told him that I had this opportunity, but I wouldn’t take it if it compromised what we were doing at Eurosport. He said, ‘You’ve got to take it – I’ll support you all the way’. I asked, ‘Will I still be able to do the Eurogoals programme?’ He said, ‘Absolutely’.
“I knew Fantasy Football wasn’t going to be normal, but it was great fun. If you took that role, you were all in – they were comedians and no matter how much they took the piss out of you, it was a professional job, a deadpan role. I was a good foil for them. We got on well.
“Sometimes, I did two jobs on the same day: Royal Ascot for the BBC during the day, in top hat and tails, then I was in pyjamas and dressing gown for Fantasy Football at night. Trying to do those two on the same day, your head was screwed up a bit.”
With Baddiel and Skinner, Loughran’s role was often bizarre. “Once, they wanted David Attenborough to pelt onion bhajis at me,” he recalls. “The bravest thing I did was going on stilts, live – I dressed up as a woman but couldn’t keep my balance. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to fall on the guests, or on Frank and David’. Then there was the time I got stuck in a lion suit, trying to get this lion head off. I had to sing a duet with Basil Brush, too.”
Jacobs picks up the story. “When we had Basil Brush on, the guy who did it insisted there had to be an illusion that Basil was real. These people are nuts. The audience couldn’t know it was a glove puppet, so he insisted on being in place before they arrived. He had to fit under the counter where Statto stood. He must have been in his late sixties, and the recording was so long that he was completely stuck in one position by the time the audience had gone. It took him about two hours to straighten his legs.”
Later, singing duties were taken by former West Bromwich Albion striker Jeff Astle, Skinner’s musically-challenged boyhood hero, who often arrived in costume. After Eric Cantona’s famous seagulls speech, Astle dressed as a trawler, while Baddiel and Skinner danced behind him with pictures of Steven Seagal.
Things were no less bizarre in Phoenix From The Flames, a segment in each episode that involved a star recreating one of their most famous moments in football, often after being asked to do a spot of acting or recite lines from a script full of in-jokes.
One strange sketch featured Eusebio, in which the legend played a trombone, talked about former West Brom star Bobby Hope opening a sandwich bar, then dribbled past a team of six-year-olds. Patrick Battiston was run over by a racing car. Yordan Letchkov danced with a Womble. George Best had to punch Baddiel in the face. Convincing players to go along with it all wasn’t always easy.
“We did the George Best one at a health farm,” Baddiel remembers. “When we got there, George said, ‘I’m not doing it’. Denis Law was there, saying, ‘Yeah, George, you don’t want to do this’. We nearly didn’t get it, then I think George put all of that into his punch!
“We flew by the seat of our pants a lot. We did one with Mario Kempes. He’d come all the way from Argentina and the premise of it was the 6-0 defeat of Peru at the 1978 World Cup. They needed six goals to get through, and the next day the Argentine government gave a huge supply of grain to Peru, so it was clearly a fix!
“Kempes didn’t speak any English, but we had a translator. When he realised what the script was, he just said, ‘I’m not doing it’. We thought, ‘What are we going to do?’ We just kept asking, and eventually he did it. By the end he was dressed as Super Mario, scoring obviously fixed goals!” Jacobs remembers that day with a smile.
“I had to say to Kempes, ‘Look, everybody’s done this: Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto, Eusebio...’,” he tells FFT. “I said, ‘All of these great players have done the most ridiculous things for us. It would be such a shame if you let down this great tradition.’ I came up with such bollocks. But he did it!”
“Some of my favourites weren’t the funniest ones,” Baddiel adds. “Some were just: ‘F**king hell, I can’t believe I’m with this person’. I was standing at Hendon’s ground, thinking: ‘I can’t believe I am doing this with Eusebio’.
“We did Roger Milla as well, which also included Peter Purves. Milla’s World Cup goals were in 1990, so we based it on a National Power advert that Peter did all through that year. It ended with Roger Milla doing the National Power advert, dressed as Peter Purves.”
There were also some touching moments behind the scenes. “One really beautiful one I remember,” says Baddiel, “was Charlie George’s 1971 double-winning goal. He turned up, a quiet, shy bloke, and said: ‘I can’t actually kick the ball, because I’ve got arthritis’.
“But before we shot Phoenix From The Flames, we would always kick the ball about, because the cameras took a while to set up. I ended up kicking a ball about with Eusebio, Gordon Banks – a lot of players. This time, Charlie was standing out of the way, and me and Frank were kicking a ball about. We aren’t that good, so the ball ended up going towards Charlie. With his toe he flicked it up in the air and just trapped it. Then he said, ‘Oh, I suppose you never lose it’. It was just really beautiful.”
After three successful series, Fantasy Football had become hugely popular when Euro 96 arrived in England. Baddiel and Skinner were approached by Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds, enquiring whether they’d be interested in joining forces to make an England song for the tournament.
Baddiel recalls, “With Three Lions, we sat down and said, ‘What is the real experience of an England football fan? That we lose all of the time!’ It’s quite a melancholy and vulnerable song, but it’s hope against despair. That seemed to really speak to people.”
It didn’t immediately speak to the England players themselves, however. Baddiel, Skinner and Broudie visited the Three Lions’ camp to invite the players to appear in the music video. Only Teddy Sheringham, Stuart Pearce, Robbie Fowler and Steve Stone agreed.
Each of the quartet was asked to recreate a famous England moment, à la Phoenix From The Flames. Sheringham emulated Bobby Charlton’s long-range thunderbolt against Mexico from 1966 – a daunting task even for him. “I thought: ‘Wow, Jesus, I’ve got to do that? OK…’” Sheringham tells FFT. “But I did it on the first take, believe it or not! I said, ‘Have you got it, cameraman?’ They said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got it, no problem!’ It was good fun.”
Three Lions swiftly went to No.1. It was knocked off top spot by The Fugees’ cover of Killing Me Softly seven days later and never actually topped the charts during Euro 96 itself, but returned to No.1 in early July after becoming the anthem of the tournament.
“Me and Frank were as surprised as anyone when the DJ put it on at the end of England vs Scotland and the whole crowd joined in,” says Baddiel. “We had no idea everybody knew the song. It was amazing.”
A rejigged version also went to No.1 in 1998. Then, 20 years later, Three Lions reached top spot for a fourth time as fans adopted it once more during England’s run to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals. “The continuation of it – we didn’t expect that, either,” Baddiel admits. “It’s the only song that’s got to No.1 four times. It also had the longest fall anyone’s ever had from No.1: after we lost to Croatia, it went to No.97!
“I’m incredibly proud of Three Lions. I think it created a kind of English patriotism that wasn’t aggressive or nationalistic.”
The show switched to ITV for the 1998 World Cup, becoming a live broadcast. That led to some infamous incidents with studio guests – most notably the Hollywood actress Brigitte Nielsen, who ranted nonsensically during an utterly madcap appearance.
“The ITV show had some brilliant things in it, but it did become much more like event television,” Baddiel says. “It had elements of The Word about it, because it was live and always off the back of a big game, so the mood in the studio was often crackling and crazy.
“Then we had Brigitte Nielsen, who I don’t think knew much about the show or about football – she’d just taken the gig. I didn’t know much about her, either, apart from the fact that she’d been Sylvester Stallone’s wife. She was an amazing guest, but she did choose to attack me with a Danish pastry at one point. There was an element of, ‘What’s happening to us? Our little football show seems to have gone a bit mad’.”
Her behaviour took Jacobs by surprise. “She was fine beforehand – I don’t know what happened to her,” he tells FFT. “During the commercial break I said to her, ‘You’re ruining the show. What are you doing?’ She was so subdued in the second half of the show. Then, afterwards, I nearly had a fight with her manager. Paul Hawksbee had to come between us – it was ridiculous.
“John Lydon was on another show, and he was just the most f**king unpleasant man I’ve ever met in my life. This idea that he’s a national treasure – I think he’s an absolute c**t. “I walked in, said, ‘Hi John’ and he said, ‘F**k off’, for no reason – he’d never even met me before. That set the tone from the word go. At half-time of the show, I said, ‘You can bugger off. Why don’t you just leave now?’” By the time the programme returned from the commercial break, Lydon had been removed from the studio – “off to join Brigitte Nielsen,” said Baddiel, to cheers from the audience.
There had been controversy during the BBC era as well, though: most notably, the lampooning of Nottingham Forest striker Jason Lee, whose career never totally recovered from becoming a figure of fun across the country. In one sketch, Baddiel blacked up and wore a pineapple on his head, which is something he looks back upon as a mistake. “Being made up like that was wrong – I own that and I’m happy to apologise for it,” he says. “Making fun of Jason Lee for not scoring, which was the point of the sketch, was not wrong. That was what the show did: make fun of footballers. But that’s a nuanced discussion for another time.”
Jacobs admits that a number of jokes used on Fantasy Football in the ’90s would not be appropriate today, given the way that times have moved on. “There are things we did then that we could never have done now,” he says. “Comedy has changed.”
Even the general mocking of Lee’s supposedly substandard striking skills became an uncomfortable issue. “It started off as a joke, and, like all jokes, you hope the person will laugh along with it,” Jacobs says. “But then we heard he wasn’t happy about it. Once that happens, you don’t want to do it any more, because you don’t want to upset somebody. I did say to him and his people, ‘Why don’t you come on the show?’ But he didn’t want to.”
Fantasy Football returned for one last series during Euro 2004. Its stars are remembered even now. Angus Loughran, who had cameo roles in Bean and Blackball thanks to his Statto fame, has continued to work in horse racing and he’s often recognised. “I call it a pissed recognition factor,” the 53-year-old says. “In the mornings, no one says anything to me, but after they’ve all had a drink, it happens regularly. I get people thinking I’m Stavros, or Angus Deayton. One bloke said, ‘You were that bloke on the Fantasy Channel’. I said, ‘In your dreams!’”
Could the show return? “I don’t know, is the honest truth,” Baddiel tells FFT. “It was talked about before one World Cup, and we got quite close to it. I’m not totally against it, but I think both myself and Frank – possibly Frank a bit more than me – are very keen on not tarnishing the memory of a show that lots of people love. Frank is 62 and I’m 55, so going back to do it again might feel like trading on past glories.
“I love that people still love Fantasy Football. I think the show was genuine about football. Some of the ways we talked about footballers were quite cruel – we did a Phoenix with Peter Beardsley and he says, ‘I’m not going to do this Quasimodo stuff’, then it cuts to me and Frank, holding a hump and a bell – but it reflected how fans talk about footballers. They love them, but they want to take the piss out of them.
“Julian Barratt from The Mighty Boosh said that to make fun of something, you have to love it. That was very true of us and football.” The success of Baddiel, Skinner and Fantasy Football League was borne out of that common love for the game. Sometimes, the best way to prove it is by letting George Best punch you in the face.
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