A former producer of mine once posited that there should be a “breathalyser” attachment on computers that would prevent, in his case, the late-night purchase of a Fonz-themed board game for £50 from eBay. “I don’t even like Happy Days” was his rueful morning-after buyer’s remorse. Alcohol, or the kind of mass hysteria seemingly baked into the online world, might partly account for the oddest story of recent days: that an online auction for a Mr Blobby suit developed a crazed momentum that ended with a winning bid, later reneged on, of £62,000. But there is surely more to it than that.
Generation Z start here. Mr Blobby, a bloated, demented pink humanoid inhabited initially by the actor Barry Killerby (who was appearing in Measure For Measure at the time) first appeared on our screens on 24 October 1992 as a prank segment of Noel Edmonds’s insanely popular light entertainment show House Party. The set up was simple. A minor celebrity would be persuaded, possibly for the sake of “charidee”, to perform some banal routine that Blobby would disrupt with great mayhem and distress. Looking on imperiously, luxuriant of beard and barnet but with the chill gaze of the basilisk, Edmonds himself would watch these tableaux of humiliation with quiet chortling relish, like a Roman emperor about to lower his thumb.
“Blobby is going to be huge,” remarked Edmonds to a producer. “We get three post bags of mail each week and 70 to 80 per cent of the postbag is to do with Blobby.” Later Blobby beat Take That to the Christmas number one of 1993. Later still there were three short-lived theme parks, whose maudlin, shabby decline echoed subtly the moribund Major government. In a New York Times “profile”, Blobbymania was “a metaphor for a nation gone soft in the head… proof of Britain’s deep-seated attraction to trash”. This was a haughty hot take for a nation that eats Twinkies and later elected Donald Trump president, but the analysis was elsewhere sound. “Mr Blobby has become a star, albeit one with a malevolent bent.”
Malice and stupidity were never far from Blobby’s puce, bulbous surface. There was surely something of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty in Blobby’s defiantly senseless, nihilistic interventions. But there was more. Blobby at some level was, I would contend, lampooning with Leavisite scorn the profound vacuousness of much pop culture and the ignominy “stars” would put up with to stay on prime-time television.
A later Blobby, Paul Denson, pointed out to Vice that “when you’re in the suit you are essentially blind”. The temptation then to read Blobby as a Nineties incarnation of Milton’s sightless and raging Samson Agonistes is hard to resist. In Denson’s first appearance as Blobby, Gary Barlow of Take That was pitted against his pink chart nemesis. Barlow assaulted him and pulled his leg off. “You could tell he was genuinely pissed off that this character had the audacity to rub it in his face,” says Denson. “I don’t blame him for turning on Blobby, but I’m in the costume and I have no idea that he’s pushing me over. You’ve got no chance of winning a fight like that.”
But why does Blobby still exert such a hold on the British collective psyche? Partly it is our love of the gleeful anarchist (see also John Lydon and Norman Wisdom). But nostalgia for happier times is there too. A 2019 Tesco campaign captioned “Prices That Take You Back” cast Blobby as an endearing reminder of a more innocent (and cheaper) era, when the thought of hoarding loo rolls and shopping in a mask – as we ended up doing not long afterwards – would have been ludicrous and terrifying. As a former Blobby panto producer Steven Gordon-Wilson remarked in late 2021, “I think right now, while people are in a weird place, having a bit of nostalgia is just right… It reminds us of a simpler time, when all we had to worry about was Noel Edmonds.”
[See also: The Britpop nostalgia complex]