Weird is good. Or, at least, it can be. If you are weird, but do something well, you’re an artist, an auteur, a maverick genius whose quirks merely accentuate the difference between you and the rest of us mere mortals.
Similarly, a TV show that manages to be both weird and good is seen as visionary, revolutionary, breaking free from the shackles of convention and taking entertainment in a bold new direction.
This list of the strangest programmes ever made does not discriminate between good weird and bad weird. If a show was weird enough, it makes the list. Most of the shows can be found on box set or online, so if you never saw them, you can judge for yourselves. But for heaven’s sake, don’t watch them all back-to-back, and don’t eat cheese too close to bedtime after viewing any of them. The human brain is indeed an impressive organ, but some things it cannot be expected to withstand.
10. Most Haunted
Everyone likes a good ghost story. There’s nothing like a chilling drama chock full of spectral spookiness to get the flesh crawling. But ghosts don’t tend to feature very much in factual series for one fairly significant reason: They don’t exist. This minor setback, however, didn’t stop former Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding and her husband Karl Beattie from making 18 series (and counting) of this quite extraordinarily peculiar show.
Each episode sees Fielding visit a haunted (hmmm) location, where she and a team of oddballs skip about hither and yon getting increasingly hysterical and shrieking things like “I’ve just walked through a really cold patch of air” and “something just touched me”. Until recently, the show also featured mediums who, on the odd, thrilling occasion, would become possessed. Unfortunately, they rarely seemed to become possessed by the spirit of someone who just wanted to sit down quietly and have a nice cup of tea.
Weirdness factor: 6/10
Good weird or bad weird: Terrible. But sort of watchably terrible.
The late 1970s were a weird time, a time of beards and bad music and power cuts and too-tight football shorts. But perhaps weirdest of all was bonkers cult-TV show Monkey. The Japanese drama ran for 52 episodes over two seasons, based on the Chinese book Journey to the West.
Attempting to sum up the plot is an exercise in futility, but needs must, so here goes: An immortal human-monkey hybrid with magic powers who was born from an egg on a mountain top joins a Buddhist monk who’s actually a woman on a pilgrimage to India. They are accompanied by a water monster (Sandy) and a pig monster (Pigsy) and travel around either on a biddable cloud or a shape-changing dragon who serves as the group’s horse. The horse can talk, and is voiced in the English version by Andrew Sachs.
Weirdness factor: 7/10
Good weird or bad weird: Gloriously good.
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8. Naked Jungle
Channel 5 has much to answer for, over its 19 years (yes really) of existence, but in terms of mind-bendingly bizarre ideas, nothing can hold a candle to Naked Jungle. The show was filmed on the same set as the CITV kids’ show Jungle Run and was, essentially, the exact same show, except for a couple of fairly significant alterations. Instead of featuring kids, clambering around a garish fantasy-world completing a selection of physical tasks, the show’s contestants were adults. Oh, and the presenter was Keith Chegwin. That’s it. Oh, sorry, we almost forgot – everyone was completely naked.
Why? That’s the question that still echoes around the annals of television history sixteen years later. Why were they naked? It added nothing whatsoever to the show’s format. Why did the, ahem, visibly unnerved Keith Chegwin agree to take part? He’s still trying to answer that himself, calling it “the worst career move I made in my entire life.” Why did TV execs think it was a good idea? Oh, that’s an easy one. It got an audience of 2 million, at the time the fledgling broadcaster’s biggest audience by a mile.
A poll in the Radio Times in August 2006 found the show to be the worst programme ever made. But at least one caller in to Channel 5 at the time said it had cured her of her Post-Natal Depression, so that’s alright then.
Weirdness factor: 7/10
Good weird or bad weird: Do you really need to ask?
Getting naked for somebody new
7. Monty Python’s Flying Circus
If you’re looking for an example of weird being visionary, revolutionary and touched by genius, look no further. When Monty Python came along in 1969, it didn’t so much move the goalposts as dismantle them and replace them with a giant inflatable fish. In a moment, comedy moved from safe, comfortable and cosy to surreal, bizarre and challenging. All of a sudden, there were sketches with no punchlines, sketches that ran through other sketches, sketches that messed with continuity, or sketches that simply made absolutely no sense whatsoever. And tying the whole lot together were the extraordinary surrealist cartoons of Terry Gilliam.
This new brand of comedy, at once madcap and intellectual, defied categorisation, so a new word was added to the lexicon – Pythonesque. Many of its sketches have become part of the national heritage – from the Spanish Inquisition to the Dead Parrot, the Lumberjack Song to the Ministry of Silly Walks. We’re so used to them now, it’s easy to forget how shockingly different and peculiar they were at the time.
Weirdness factor: 7.5
Good weird or bad weird: Oh, the very, very best of weird.
An interview with Terry Gilliam
This show isn’t surreal, or revolutionary, or touched by anything approaching genius. The strangeness really lies in the fact that it was ever made – that a series of people greenlit an idea so spectacularly, eye-poppingly terrible that it seemed to defy the very laws of logic. This 2015 series broke new ground, but only in terms of sheer awfulness. One might even say it forever lowered the baa. Sorry.
The idea, in a nutshell, was celebrity sheepdog trials. Strangely, De Niro, McCartney and Beckham were unavailable, so instead we got to see Tony Blackburn take on Lesley Joseph to see which one was better at asking a dog to guide some sheep across a pretend bridge. Presiding over it all was Gabby Logan, whose shouty bonhomie and gingham checked shirts couldn’t hide the creeping feeling that she knew TV would never be this bad again. The fear behind her eyes, as she hollered her unlikely catchphrase, “Release the sheep!” told its own story.
Weirdness factor: 7.5
Good weird or bad weird: Desperate.
5. Man v. Food
You can imagine the pitch for this show. “A guy goes into a restaurant and eats as much as he can.” There’s a pause. “And then what?” Another pause. “That’s it!” Two strange things about this. One: The execs said yes. And two? It really worked.
It worked because of its host, Adam Richman. His ability to express genuine unbridled enthusiasm as he toured some of the most gluttonous fast food establishments in America was infectious. As for his capacity to put away vast amounts of meat and fried food… he could have taught Elvis a thing or two. Each show climaxed with him attempting to devour a life-threatening portion of food against the clock in front of a wildly excitable crowd. Just watching the show clogged your arteries. Whether he was putting away a 12lb burger, 15 dozen oysters, two gallons of ice cream, or a thermonuclear amount of ghost chillis, there was something heroic about his labours.
Weirdness factor: 8
Good weird or bad weird: Good – unless you happen to be a cow.
4. The Day of the Triffids
In 1981, the BBC produced this six-part drama, an adaptation of a post-apocalyptic, dystopian novel by author John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris (a favourite author of all journalists paid by the word). In late 20th-Century Britain, a meteorite shower has rendered most of humanity blind. Only a lucky few have escaped the fate, and a state of chaos reigns.
You might expect chaos to reign when most of humankind is rendered sightless in an instant. What you wouldn’t necessarily reckon upon was giant, mobile, man-eating flowers running amok and feasting upon the population. The plants were sort of wobbly, slow-moving gladioli that brought to mind all the menace of a particularly angry clump of weeds.
Weirdness factor: 8.5
Good weird or bad weird: Sort of a bit of both. The triffids were undoubtedly crap, but the series was actually oddly compelling.
3. Twin Peaks
Back in the early 1990s, the world became transfixed by a TV whodunit in a way that hadn’t happened since someone had put a couple of richly deserved slugs into JR Ewing. This time, though, everyone wanted to know who was responsible for the brutal murder of Laura Palmer, in the one-horse town of Twin Peaks, Washington. Only this one horse town was beyond weird – if it actually had a horse, it would have been a pantomime horse who spoke only in Latin proverbs. Or something.
Kyle McLachlan played FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper, back in the day when the FBI was more intent on solving murders than influencing elections. Only this investigation turned out to be anything but routine. Then again, big-quiffed auteur and writer-director David Lynch was never likely to make an American version of Midsomer Murders. The action featured demonic possession, giants, hallucinogenic visions, a backwards-talking dwarf, multi-dimensional realms, surreal dream sequences, David Duchovny in drag, evil doppelgangers, and a lady who talked to logs. It was all so utterly bonkers, by the end, viewers had sort of forgotten all about who killed Laura Palmer, and just wanted to get out with their sanity intact.
Weirdness factor: 9
Good weird or bad weird: Oh, undoubtedly excellent. What’s more the series is set to return in 2017, after a 25-year hiatus.
2. The Prisoner
In the late 1960s, it seems it wasn’t just the young, blissed-out hippies who were getting out of their minds on a cocktail of mind-bending substances, it was TV executives as well, if this utterly incomprehensible piece of television history is anything to go by.
Patrick McGoohan, the show’s star, also created the series, and the results were a one-way trip to Bonkerstown. The plot saw an unnamed British agent drugged and kidnapped, and taken to a picturesque and fabulously sinister village (actually Portmerion in North Wales). Here, a compliant and oddly serene population spent their days pottering about being weird, and referring to each other not by name but by number (McGoohan’s agent was Number Six).
The village was run by Number Two (no giggling at the back) although Number Two’s identity seemed to change almost completely at random. Nobody appeared to know the identity of Number One, pulling the strings in the background. Oh, and on the rare occasions when someone did try to escape, they were hunted down and swallowed up by an enormous plastic ball called Rover. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
Weirdness factor: 9.5
Good weird or bad weird: Just weird weird.
1. In the Night Garden
Ever found yourself wondering why kids are so weird? Because kids TV is so weird, that’s why. We show them a ceaseless tide of brightly-coloured lunacy and then expect them to grow into well-rounded individuals.
In the Night Garden, which broadcast for the first time in 2007, was invented by Andrew Davenport, who had presumably decided that his grotesquely cheerful and incomprehensible creation Teletubbies just wasn’t quite weird enough. So he created In the Night Garden.
Those of you who have watched the show with your grandchildren (or, indeed, on your own, I’m not here to judge…) will be aware that it features a small, blue human-teddy-bear called Iggle Piggle, his friend Upsy Daisy, a peculiar little round, rock-collecting creature called Makka Pakka, the Tumbliboos (three beings who live in a hedge and brush their teeth a lot) and the tiny families the Wottingers and the Pontypines. Various cast members can travel around either aboard the Ninky Nonk a trackless train that looks like Brighton Pavilion on steroids, or on a large, farting airship that has a habit of crashing, called, naturally enough, the Pinky Ponk.
But worst of all is the huge, silent, grinning and looming presence of the Haahoos, enormous inflatable shapes with dead eyes and perma-smiles who drift about the place making an occasional boing-noise. Of course, the great Derek Jacobi narrates.
Weirdness factor: 2,178
Good weird or bad weird: Wibble.
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