We all love a good cameo. It’s fun, seeing a celeb from a different context pop up in a much-loved show, right? Errrr… sort of. When they’re handled right, cameos can be hilarious, moving, self-satirising and brilliant. But when they’re handled wrongly, they can be hugely irritating distractions or cynical bits of shoehorning that can destroy a show’s narrative and destroy both plausibility and credibility. Thanks to our enduring and, it seems, increasing fascination with celebrity, there is an ever-growing pool of cameo appearances from which to choose. Here, we select our five best, and our five worst. You might well disagree with our list. Unfortunately, you’d be quite, quite wrong.
Best cameo appearances
5. Liz Taylor, The Simpsons
Although she appeared as herself in a later episode of the brilliant long-running US animation, it’s her first cameo we’re concerned with here. In the episode Lisa’s First Word, the Simpson family gathers around Maggie, trying to get her to say her first word. In so doing, they recall big sister Lisa’s first word, but Maggie stays resolutely silent throughout. In the end, Homer puts Maggie to bed, telling her that once kids learn to speak, they can talk back. He hopes that she never says a word, she is perfect as she is. He tenderly puts her to bed, turns off her light and closes her door, whereupon she removes her ever-present pacifier and says a single word. “Daddy.” And that deeply moving one word is Liz Taylor’s first Simpson’s cameo.
4. Kathleen Turner, Friends
Oh to have been a fly on the wall when the conversation took place as to who to cast as the dad of long-running lead character Chandler Bing in Friends. How many names were kicked around before someone had the utterly inspired idea of giving the role to Hollywood grand dame Kathleen Turner? It sounds weird (okay, it was a bit weird) but in context, it makes some sense. Chandler’s dad turns out to be a Las Vegas drag queen (the brilliantly-named Helena Handbasket) who became estranged from his son after an acrimonious divorce. In an attempt at reconciliation, Chandler travels to Vegas, where he encounters Turner in deliciously OTT form. To this day, Chandler actor Matthew Perry refers to Turner as dad.
3. Sir Ian McKellen, Coronation Street
Our third grand dame of the acting world on this list is the indisputably marvellous McKellen, who popped up in his beloved Corrie back in May 2005. Some might argue that a ten-episode stint is more than a cameo, but on a show as long-running as Corrie, it’s a blink-and-you-miss it moment. He played author Mel Hutchwright, who was invited to a book group, and ended up staying on in Weatherfield for a while. But Mel, it turned out, wasn’t all he seemed, and was ultimately unmasked as serial conman Lionel Hipkis. McKellen said of his stint on the show that it was his ‘dream role’, and recalls: “I had a ball. I loved them all. They were so friendly.” Awww!
2. Tom Baker, Doctor Who
In November 2013, the long-running sci fi series celebrated its 50th anniversary with a feature-length special, Day of the Doctor, that was simulcast in 94 countries worldwide. The Stephen Moffat-penned film featured the Doctor played by Matt Smith, but also other iterations of the same character, played by David Tenant, John Hurt, Peter Capaldi and, best of all, Tom Baker. For a generation of Whovians, Tom Baker defined the role and made it his own. He was certainly the best doctor of the original collection. Seeing him here, as a confused, mysterious and hammy art gallery curator (or was he something else altogether) was a reminder that the show’s glory days did not begin with Russell T Davies’ 2005 reboot.
1. Sir Stephen Hawking, Big Bang Theory
Hawking was something of an aficionado of the cameo. Indeed, with appearances on shows including Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons, Futurama, Comic Relief and many more, it’s tempting to question whether Hawking’s hobby of particle physics ever got in the way of his acting career. His Star Trek cameo was a memorable one, which found him playing poker with Newton and Einstein, but his recurring role in Big Bang Theory (he appeared in seven episodes) was, if anything, better. The scene where he first meets uber-geek and superfan Sheldon Cooper, and points out to him an “arithmetic mistake on page tewo” of his thesis is one for the ages.
Worst cameo appearances
5. Lou and Andy, Neighbours
There have been quite a number of cameos on Neighbours over the years, from Clive James to Lily Allen, Michael Parkinson to Derek Nimmo (yes, really). But none have been quite so odd as the appearance of Lou and Andy, comic characters played by David Walliams and Matt Lucas from their sketch show Little Britain. In the scene in question, Lou and Andy are in the background – you could very easily watch it and miss them entirely, as the foreground (and all the dialogue) is taken up with a car crash blind date of epic proportions. But in the background, Lou pushes the wheelchair-bound Andy to a table, and then goes off to chat with Harold. Andy then climbs out of his chair and goes off to play on a motorcycle game, before returning to his seat. And… um… that’s it. Utterly wordless, utterly pointless and – in its way – utterly, terribly glorious.
4. Boy George, The A-Team
When you tuned into The A-Team, the hit Saturday evening TV show of the 1980s, you knew what to expect: Explosions, gunfire, cartoon baddies, the A-Team being imprisoned somewhere, making some absurd contraption, and then a load more shooting and exploding, in which, miraculously, no-one ever got hurt, let alone died. What you didn’t expect was an androgynous 1980s pop star playing himself, having been accidentally booked by Face to play a tour of honky tonk cowboy bars. And that’s exactly what you got, on February 11th 1986. In the event, wouldn’t you just know it, Boy George’s music was so enthralling, it persuaded a bunch of macho cowboys to abandon their prejudices and embrace the sweet, sweet sound of Culture Club. Absurd doesn’t even come close.
3. Ed Sheeran, Game of Thrones
It should have been so good. The biggest pop star in the world appears on the biggest TV show in the world. What’s not to like? Well, a lot, apparently, if the reaction of Game of Thrones fans is anything to go by. The cameo is brief and ostensibly harmless enough – Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) comes across a group of Lannister soldiers in the woods, drinking blackberry wine and eating rabbit. They are kind to her, and Sheeran’s character sings a song. No harm done, right? Wrong!!! The reaction among fans was so furious that it caused a devastated Sheeran to close down his Twitter account. The show wouldn’t receive that much opprobrium again until what fans deemed an unsatisfactory final series.
2. Donald Trump, Saint and Greavesie
Some things you can’t unsee, no matter how much you might wish it. Donald Trump’s participation in the draw for the fifth round of the Rumbelow’s Cup in December 1991 was so peculiar and utterly incongruous, it seems almost plausible that it was a mass hallucination. Ian St John and Jimmy Greaves were in the US to cover the World Cup qualifying draw. Filming a segment outside Trump Tower, they were recognised by Trump’s (English) secretary, who invited them to meet the boss. Before you knew it, he was drawing the away teams for the next riounbd of the Rumbelows Cup, and being presented with a Saint and Greavesie mug (which may or may not now have pride of place in the Oval Office). The whole thing, it goes without saying, is so painfully stilted, the viewer is left with an overwhelming desire to bleach their own brain. Americans, huh? You’d never get a British future leader doing anything so crass…
1. Boris Johnson, EastEnders
Oh cripes. This is bad. Really bad. Why was it ever allowed to happen? Who signed it off? With what justification? Are they still working? Or are they in jail, where they belong? In 2009, when he was Mayor of London, Boris turned up, as himself, in the Queen Vic, in need to help, having burst a tyre on his bicycle. Cue Peggy Mitchell (who had just completed a hostile rant about the mayor) going into nauseating obsequious mode. Boris has a swift pint, and gives Peggy a card, asking her to feel free to contact him with any thoughts on how to make London a better place. Hmm. Maybe the garden bridge was her idea? Anyway, the whole experience is considerably worse than unspeakable, and the acting is more wooden than the panelling of the Queen Vic’s bar. Whatever happened to Johnson anyway, I wonder?