Home > Features > Bye-gones No. 3: Illingworth
picture of

Bye-gones No. 3: Illingworth

From the seventies onwards Michael Parkinson was the undisputed chat show king - fighting off fierce competition from competitors like Aspel, Wogan, Harty and ... Illingworth. PDCC remembers how Yorkshire Television's attempt to turn Raymond Illingworth from a gritty cricket captain into a talk show host floundered under half a ton of ostrich feathers.

If there is one thing certain about a massively successful television show it is that it will spawn imitators; and usually they will be bad.

And sometimes the most popular shows come from nowhere.

Who would have thought that in the early 1970s that an unknown craggy-faced ex-Barnsley batsman, and provincial journalist, called Michael Parkinson would become a chat show legend?

picture of
Before Parkinson chat shows were often dull and boring.

Parkinson's appeal did not got unnoticed by Yorkshire Television's managing directors who, during 1975, had grandiose plans for the company and its potential to rival LWT as commercial television's leading light.

Yorkshire Television's top brass thought that the formula of a cricket loving Yorkshireman, special guests and musical interludes would increase their share of viewing figures and attract greater levels of lucrative advertising revenue.

Early in 1976 YTV's producers met to decide on who should front the new show. It didn't take them long before one name started cropping up more and more ... Raymond Illingworth.

He was the right age, looked a little 'lived-in 'and had the right number of syllables. It couldn't fail.

Ray Illingworth was then contemplating the end of a long and successful cricketing career in which he had captained both Yorkshire and England - winning 61 test caps in the process.

picture of
'Nous, knowledge and knitwear'. Ray Illingworth poses at Lord's before launching his chat show.

In 1976 he was skippering Leicestershire where his reliable Yorkshire grit was resurrecting a side long stuck in the doldrums. Under his guidance they had won the County Championship in 1975 for the first time.

Ray Illingworth had long divided opinion in cricketing circles with his no-nonsense style and no-fashion sense knitwear. Yorkshire TV producers felt that this combination of bluntness and acrylic fibres would make their show a roaring success.

Thus Illingworth was born.

The former England captain himself was very receptive to the idea especially as he was reassured that the questions would be written for him in advance and all that he would be required to do would be look at the camera, read from his clip board and laugh uproariously at his guests' hilarious anecdotes.

Unluckily for the Leeds based ITV station Parkinson had just started a brand new run of shows and was boasting an impressive line up of some of the world's biggest star names: Muhammad Ali, Burton and Taylor, David Niven; as well as wits and raconteurs such as Billy Connolly, Peter Ustinov and Kenneth Williams.

picture of
Author Maureen Goldsworthy appeared on the second episode of Illingworth to plug the follow-up book to her best-selling Dressing the Retarded.

Illingworth on its limited budget struggled to compete with its rival's impressive guest list.

Instead of Billy Connolly Illingworth had Brian Conley. Instead of Muhammad Ali it was Bill Alley. Parky had Abba ... Illingworth had the Grumbleweeds.

The first show had guests Barry Leadbeater, 'family entertainer' Dickie Funn, Farmhouse Kitchen presenter Dorothy Sleightholme and music from Lieutenant Pigeon.

The viewing public stayed away.

After a couple of programmes it was clear the show was struggling against its higher profile rival on BBC1.

The producers knew that they had to take drastic action.

After the infamous incident during Michael Parkinson's show in which he was nearly throttled by Rod Hull's Emu, the Illingworth producers decided to cash in by engineering a similar incident.

Rod Hull was rather out of their price range so as an alternative they booked Australian keeper Rod Marsh and fitted him out with one of Bernie Clifton's spare Ostrich outfits.

picture of
Rod Marsh's son Romney carries on the family tradition of ostrich based entertainment to this day.

On the final show of its six week run comedian Billy Wickets and snooker commentator 'Whispering' Ted Lowe on the Illingworth couch had just listened to a song by the Todmorton based cricket-folk group The Off Spinners when they were joined on the sofa by Marsh and ostrich.

Marsh had taken advantage of the liquid hospitality available in the studio's green room and by the time the cameras rolled was suitably refreshed. The wicket-keeper-turned-bird-handler's instructions were clear: simply to tug at Illingworth's pullover sleeve, ruffle his hair a bit and finally fling his clipboard to the floor.

However, fuelled by alcohol, Marsh's ostrich proceeded to grasp Illingworth's head in its beak whilst at the same time landing the quickly retreating Billy Wickets a painful kick in the groin. Then, after pulling the Leicestershire captain off his chair and dropping him onto the table, Marsh and his ostrich proceeded to chase a petrified Ted Lowe into the orchestra pit, where the Pot Black presenter fought back by snatching a tuba and bringing it down over Marsh's head.

Confused and disorientated, Marsh crashed into the first row of the audience scattering the elderly crowd into the aisles.

The viewers loved it but the costs to those involved were high.

Ray Illingworth sprained a wrist in the assault and was unable to bowl for the first two months of the season. In later years any mention of Joel Garner - the Big Bird - would be enough to drain the colour from his face.

picture of
Yorkshire Television's Sooty and Friends suffered a similar fate to Illingworth.

Illingworth resumed his cricketing activities - playing for Leicestershire until 1978 before making a surprise return as Yorkshire captain in 1982 for one season. He later returned to broadcasting as a commentator for the BBC before becoming a controversial Chairman of Selectors in 1997. But his dream of a career in light entertainment was over.

Billy Wickets tried to sue Yorkshire Television claiming that the physical and emotional harm inflicted by the incident had left him unable to work. In truth Wickets - an incomprehensible alcoholic - was on his bare bones anyway and was secretly grateful for the publicity.

Marsh barely remembered his contribution to the programme and it is not mentioned in his autobiography You'll Keep published in 1976. However, he did later consider the idea of becoming a full-time children's entertainer but his glove puppet show featuring two bears - Swampy and Sweep Shot - was widely ignored by children everywhere and Marsh let the idea quietly die.

After 6 shows Yorkshire admitted defeat in their battle of the Saturday night chat shows and looked for something else to bring the viewers in.

Sadly for them, both the subsequent Jackie Birkenshaw's Generation Game and Brian Close's Blind Date rip off Close Encounters fared even worse.