Dogs, farts and regurgitated Rubik’s cubes – the golden age of Freshers novelty acts

As Freshers Weeks modernise across UK campuses, Jim Dickinson looks back to the 90s to remember the novelty acts that once entertained new students

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Well done everyone.

This year’s emerging welcome week festivities might be a bit “woke” for some, and may still be a bit too “foam party/wristband” for many tastes, but the range of activities now on offer to new students is now starting to really reflect the diversity of the student body and their need for “shallower starts” to student life.

The published programmes will confuse many – because for those working in the university sector that we might characterise as “young baby boomers” or “older Gen Xers”, the “golden age” of Freshers Weeks was largely about bands.

There was a time – as documented elsewhere on the site – when elected sabbatical ents officers would book all the big acts in the charts to play the first week or so of term, often with little regard for budgets, health and safety or venue capacity.

But as the 80s wore on, the music industry got more global and SU commercial operations professionalised, the ability to secure the big names in the hit parade started to dry up.

Club nights, cheesey events and novelty acts started to take their place – with Radio DJs phoning in a set where the songs they were playing might have been performed a decade previously in the same venue by the actual artists.

Another genre was the Europop act with interchangeable members – allowing Rednex (of “Cotton Eye Joe” fame) and the Vengaboys often to appear miming on the same night at the same time in multiple university cities in the UK.

There was, though, still a whole week of fun to programme and only so many times the Baywatch theme could be played.

So as the night-time economy grew and diversified in most major student towns and cities, on the SU Freshers circuit there ended up a trio of questionable and cheap-to-book names who would spend the whole of September and October appearing in venues to bulk out the programme with almost the same regularity as the pot plant seller and the ubiquitous poster sale.

All three were drawn from British music hall and variety traditions, mixed in with a bit of the “Loaded Lad” and ironic-detachment excuses of the 1990s. And all three now seem like a long long time ago.

Dogged determination

It’s hard to imagine now, but at one point, “stage hypnotism” was huge in the UK. A mix of an often creepy man with a swinging watch inducing participants into acting like a dog or being “inappropriate” with others on stage first got going in the 1800s and saw regular revivals every few decades – with a moral panic about the activity in the 1950s becoming so intense that local authority licensing was introduced that survives to today.

By the late 80s and early 90s, a new wave of self-development gurus had produced a new wave of hypnotists – with Paul McKenna and his prime time ITV show taking the top spot. In that slipstream, a less famous hypnotist was able to eek out his career around SUs – and his thing was that it wasn’t him that hypnotised you – it was his dog.

By the mid 1990s Hugh Lennon was selling out Edinburgh festival shows, once famously telling the press that his black labrador Oscar had escaped their flat and was now roaming the streets of Edinburgh, randomly hypnotising people. And once the festival was over, it was always into the car to take the tour to campuses.

Leeds and Reading festivals followed, and while the press got bored of the annual antics eventually, Lennon was able to obtain repeat bookings in SUs until 2001, when after 12 years of performing, Oscar’s eyesight failed and he was no longer able to hold the penetrating stare necessary for stage hypnosis.

As luck would have it, Hugh then discovered that one of Oscar’s sons, Murphy, shared the same “incredible magic powers”, and another decade of welcome week bookings ensued – until he retired in 2010, handing over the reins to his daughter Krystyna Lennon and her dog Princess.

She appeared on Series 9 of Britain’s Got Talent – announcing that she wanted to be “The next Paul McKenna” to the nonchalance of much of the audience. The bigger problem was that the dog failed to hypnotise Simon Cowell – and the act did not proceed to the final.

Lennon was last seen in an SU at a St Andrews refreshers event in 2018, which one student on the “St Feudrews” confessions page was none too pleased about:

Last year the events were great throughout the year. It’s embarrassing for you really that while last year they got Cascada this year the headline was a dog.

Don’t bring that up

Also appearing in my UWE Freshers programme from 1995 was a different kind of act altogether. Stephen Wright had spent the first eighteen years of his life in care in a children’s home in Glasgow, where he had discovered a talent to keep the bullies at bay:

I think I was about four when I started swallowing my pocket money… And then I tried other things, like going out into the garden and swallowing a bumble bee and then bringing him back and letting him fly away.

Decades later he adopted a new name – Stevie Starr – and was taking his act, consisting of swallowing bizarre items and then bringing them up again, (dry and clean, and to order) around the working men’s clubs of the UK. Coins, lightbulbs, balloons, nails, billiard balls, dry sugar, lighter fluid and goldfish all went down and came back up.

One notable party trick that I remember was my lit cigarette. Another was a miniature Rubik’s Cube that was mysteriously solved when he later… brought it up.

Starr was a fixture of freshers weeks throughout the 80, 90s and 00s, and as well as has wrestling and performing as a stunt man in Marvel movies, also eventually also made an appearance on BGT in 2010 – after which he toured the world, never getting further than the semis in nine more “Got Talent…” formats.

He was last spotted at Maynooth’s Freshers Week in 2018 in Ireland, demoted to a lunchtime spectacle.

Performance fart

Probably the most notorious, surreal and frankly offensive of the trio was a man called Paul who discovered a weird talent when he was fifteen when doing yoga. The following day he performed twenty “rapid fire rasping farts” in under a minute for a group of his friends – a performance which became so popular he made it into a regular event.

“Mr Methane” and his “performance (f)art” flatulist act was born.

Oldfield went on to work for British Rail, but in 1991 turned pro, performing as an opening act for Macclesfield-based bands like the Screaming Beavers and the Macc Lads.

Freshers weeks were a perfect outlet, and his act is one I remember vividly – consisting of Oldfield farting notes of music in time and in tune to the pop hits of the day. His version of MN8’s “‘I’ve Got a Little Something for You” was a particular highlight, for obvious reasons.

He became such a cult hit that a novelty Christmas single was almost released – but his parody of the Phil Collins song “In the Air Tonight” titled “Curry In the Air Tonight” was blocked, with Collins’ manager arguing:

This is a very serious song and we cannot see any reason for it to be taken so lightly.

An album of other covers nevertheless followed, with his suitcase of CDs often selling out on his trips to campus. His opening line at almost every appearance was the same:

I actually went to this university, so this is the career you’ve got to look forward to.

In 2009, Oldfield also auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent, where he announced his intention to “put the art into fart”, but like Starr and the dog, failed to make it through to the live finals.

His flatulist performance of the “Blue Danube” waltz and was “buzzed” out by all three judges – despite two of them, Piers Morgan and Amanda Holden, laughing uncontrollably, while Simon Cowell called him “a disgusting creature”.

He was last seen on campus in the early 2000s, sharing a Volvo that year with Stevie Starr and 80s kids’ TV sensation Timmy Mallett. It was a different time.

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