It’s cold – much colder than you’d expect. It’s a lot more watery than it looks on TV, too – it has a way of permeating your clothes, although thankfully it doesn’t smell. It’s been poured over everyone from Peter Andre to Pink, Ariana Grande to Antony Worrall Thompson. Up until now, you probably thought it was a unique quirk of your childhood, but it’s actually been a mainstay of British entertainment for over 50 years.
It’s gunge, obviously. But where did it come from? What is it made of? Why was it so prominent at the turn of the millennium, and why has it seemingly disappeared now?
Depending on when you were born, you might have enjoyed a good gunging on Not Only… But Also, Tiswas, Crackerjack, Noel’s House Party, Live & Kicking, Get Your Own Back, or Horrible Histories: Gory Games. The premise, however, has always remained much the same: thick, gooey, vibrant stuff dropped on the heads of everyone from celebs to ordinary unsuspecting folk. But although gunge first debuted on British TV in the 60s, it’s undeniable that its heyday came in the 90s, when you could catch it in both Saturday morning and Saturday night slots.
“Everything was a little bit more anarchic back then,” explains Richard Greenwood, an executive producer who worked on gunge-heavy shows Noel’s House Party and The Generation Game in the 90s. He describes gunge as “the go-to tool” of the era, explaining that producers often “just made stuff up as you went along.”
His former colleague Helen Tumbridge – who now works at ITV and is executive producer of The Chase – was responsible for booking celebrity guests on House Party. She says she can only recall two celebrities turning down the opportunity to gunged.
“It was such a huge show, I think we could have stolen everyone’s money and they would’ve been quite happy,” she says – at its peak, House Party was watched by 15 million viewers on a Saturday night. Tumbridge also had to set up audience members to be gunged and once convinced a couple to leave their wedding reception (on Valentine’s Day!) to be covered in the slimy stuff. On occasion, she tipped the buckets of gunge over people’s heads herself.
She only drew the line once: when a certain former James Bond appeared on the show. “There was no way I was going to gunge Roger Moore,” she says, “I wouldn’t have done it to him, he was a knight of the realm.”
If you watched someone getting gunged on TV in the late 80s or 90s, it’s likely the man who made it happen was Andy McVean. Nicknamed “the king of gunge” by Greenwood, McVean is a now-retired visual effects designer who was tasked with creating gunge on countless shows. At first, he made the stuff out of wallpaper paste – until the anti-fungicides in the mix were determined to be hazardous.
Then, McVean started using powdered food-thickening agents (“25 kilo sacks full of the stuff”, he says) which he mixed with water and colourings obtained from Early Learning Centre, a British toy retailer (“it all had to be stuff that if you did ingest it, it wasn’t going to give you any sort of stomach problems”).
But still, when asked about health and safety, McVean laughs: “You know, there wasn’t that much regard. Nowadays, I think you’d have to be fully goggled up, but in those days you were just told to close your eyes.”
Greenwood, Tumbridge, and McVean all attribute a relaxed attitude to rules and regulations as a partial explanation for the popularity of gunge in the 90s. “There was a lot of stuff we got away with that you just wouldn’t get away with now,” Tumbridge says. She once gunged her sister on House Party when she couldn’t find a member of the public in time. “And she came out in a terrible, terrible rash. She had some severe allergic reaction.”
McVean did give safety briefings before gungings, but he doesn’t recall making anyone sign any waivers. He remembers one serious accident on the set of sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey, when the director didn’t hear his instructions to avoid the slippery floor after a gunging. “There was a huge tsunami wave of green gunge and the director came running out to say, ‘Darling! This is wonderful!’ and of course went head over heels and broke her collarbone.”
Most of the time, however, gunge was more unpleasant than dangerous. Though the original food-thickening agent McVean used to make gunge had to be mixed up with warm water, he later swapped for one that could be made with cold water, which was easier to procure on set. “It was just another added bonus for these poor people who were sat in these tanks.”
So what does it actually feel like to be gunged? Kate Neilan, a 38-year-old book marketer, was “pushed” into a pool of purple gunge by Wolf from Gladiators when she was ten (in actual fact, he just made it look like he pushed her, and she had to jump). She and her school were taking part in a gameshow called Around the World in 80 Seconds when her classmates voted for her to be gunged because she was “too clever”.
“It was essentially like cold purple water,” she says, though she was particularly repulsed by the “bits floating around in it”. Though Neilan was instructed to take her shoes off before being gunged and was offered a change of t-shirt afterwards, she didn’t have an extra pair of shorts. “I was a bit damp for the rest of the day.”
Gunge, unsurprisingly, is not especially easy to clean up. McVean says occasionally “sludge gulpers” were hired from waste disposal companies – these huge vessels would get backed up into studios and a long pipe would suck up all the gunge. If you should find yourself gunged, McVean advises against immediately stepping into a shower. “If you just try and wash it off, all it does it dilute it and it becomes even more slippery” – first, you need to pat yourself down with “dozens and dozens of dry towels”.
On occasion, clean-ups didn’t go according to plan. Greenwood explains that on House Party, producers would take a celebrity’s clothes and dry clean them after a gunging. One actor/presenter was gunged in a beige linen suit shortly before going on holiday. Unfortunately, when it came back from the dry cleaners, it was still covered in green stains. “He got on the phone and played merry hell with us because he was about to head off with his family to Thailand or somewhere like that,” Greenwood recalls.
Most celebrities got a heads up before their House Party gunging, but the same courtesy wasn’t extended to members of the public. Tumbridge recalls that audience members would come to the studio in their best clothes before heading out for dinner. If someone was gunged and their clothes were taken away for cleaning, they were offered “a really shoddy BBC tracksuit” to wear for the rest of the night. “It was only ever one size fits all.”
Some audience members, however, were so busy enjoying the show that they opted out of the backstage clean up. Mireille Eustace is a 52-year-old aromatherapist who was set up by a friend to be splattered with fake seagull poo on House Party in 1998.
“I didn’t have a change of clothes as I was completely in the dark about the gunging and there was certainly no forms signed,” she says. “Once gunged, I was asked if I wanted to leave the audience to clean up, but I refused until the show had ended – I wasn’t missing a single second.” Unfortunately, the poo-gunge was made of natural yoghurt, meaning it started to smell under the heat of the studio lights. Afterwards, Eustace was given a place to shower and provided with a tracksuit.
After nine years on air, Noel’s House Party was cancelled in 1999, and gunge began to fall out of favour with adult audiences. On children’s TV, however, the trend continued only slightly abated – freelance producer Jude Winstanley recalls doing risk assessments on CBBC’s Smile in the early 2000s, so things were no longer quite so reckless. Still, she doesn’t recall a single child being upset after a gunging – “small children would shriek with excitement”.
Máire Messenger Davies is a professor of media studies at the University of Ulster who has researched humour on children’s television. She explains how gunge has managed to have an enduring appeal for nearly 60 years: “I think the attraction is A) the element of surprise, B) obviously the humour in the humiliation of the person concerned, and C) we can speculate if we like, about the Freudian implications of slimy stuff being reminiscent of human excretory processes which children are fascinated by.
“I don’t think you need to be an advanced psychologist to see why this appeals to the young and relatively powerless child,” she adds. Messenger Davies also shouts out fictional show The Demon Headmaster, which aired on CBBC between 1996 and 1998, as the evil headmaster was foiled by a gunging in its first series finale. “So gunge clearly has subversive political uses too!”
You can’t get more subversive than Dick & Dom in da Bungalow, which aired between 2002 and 2006 and was slammed in Parliament by then-Conservative MP Peter Luff, who lamented its “lavatorial nature”, bemoaned “photos of children with underwear on their heads” and spoke briefly of turtle poo before asking, “Is that really the stuff of public service broadcasting?”
Dick & Dom in da Bungalow saw contestants covered in both gunge and “creamy muck muck” (cold Ambrosia custard). Over email and as one, Dick and Dom say: “It was always a joy knowing that your actual job in life was to have a creamy muck muck fight every weekend”, though they add, “we would find solidified creamy muck muck in our ears two weeks later.”
The pair say the vast majority of kids on the show enjoyed the opportunity to be gunged but lament that S Club 7’s Rachel Stevens once “legged it” away from a creamy muck muck fight. (After noticing some celebs would duck away from a gunging, visual effects designer McVean placed a ball in the spout of his gunge tanks. This meant the gunge would no longer gush out centrally, but spout in all directions.)
Dick and Dom have also both been gunged on other TV shows such as Get Your Own Back – they say it’s “something everyone should try in life – get that box ticked.” They describe gunge as cold and say it “gets into every nook and cranny”, and also note that Bungalow had a crack team of cleaners who had to replace the set’s carpet after every single episode.
Though it’s common to see people lament that nobody gets gunged on TV anymore, that’s not strictly true – CBeebies’ Swashbuckle sees regular gungings, and Nickelodeon has run SlimeFest since 2012 (though a gunge by any other name is just as gross). Potentially, the rising popularity of the internet contributed to gunge’s mainstream decline as it is now readily apparent that some people enjoy gunge a bit too much.
“I think it became just one of those things, a fad that just died away,” McVean says when asked why gunge disappeared from adult programming, “I think the gunge tanks are probably still sitting in somebody’s warehouse somewhere just in case there’s a resurgence.” Greenwood says reality TV “rang a death knell” for gunge in the early 2000s, as shows like Pop Idol and Popstars: The Rivals ushered in a new age of TV. Arguably, gunge also lost its power to impress: the impact may no longer have been worth a new carpet every week.
“Have we moved on since then? As a viewing nation are our tastes more mature? I don't know. I’d hope not,” ITV’s Tumbridge says. She ties the decline of gunge with the rise of more rigorous standards. “I think people would worry now that you might get sued, so you have to be much more careful with who you gunge.”
She says that nowadays, a team researches potential contestants for The Chase for months before they’re allowed on air. “On Noel’s House Party they’d just say, ‘Can you gunge this person?’ and we’d say ‘Yes’ and get on with it.”