A Good Day for a Gunging

The king of gunge, Dave Benson Phillips, speaks to Evan Beswick about reviving Get Your Own Back – and then douses him in slime

feature | Read in About 5 minutes
Published 16 Aug 2015

It is, it appears, impossible to conduct a low-key gunging. "It's a fiiiine day for an outdoor gunging," roars Dave Benson Phillips as we walk towards Bristo Square. Within seconds, Phillips has pulled in a crowd and whipped them to a frenzy – the Fringe equivalent of a baying mob, yowling for the sight and smell of, erm, gunge. And this scrawny journalist, now barefoot on a blue tarpaulin, is the offering upon the altar of '90s nostalgia. DBP begins the countdown – him shouting the even numbers, the rabble the odd ones. Three, two, one...

Mention "gunge" or "the gunk dunk" to anyone who watched after-school television in the years that preceeded the new millennium, and they'll know exactly what you mean. Others may stuggle. So, by way of explanation: Get Your Own Back was a game show which ran on BBC One from 1991-2004. Presented with unforgettable gusto by Dave Benson Phillips, the show encouraged children to write in and complain about the heinous crimes commited by their parents – being boring, eating their cereal loudly, etc. Revenge was enacted by submersion in a mysterious, horiffic liquid: brightly-coloured gunge.

It's worth stressing just how popular the show was for a generation of youngsters. Phillips recounts a story of a recruitment round for the show: "We thought, 'oh, we'll get a couple of thousand letters'. Remember, this was the days pre-email. And, I'll never forget it, my girlfriend at the time who's now my wife said: 'Dave, brace yourself, we've had to employ more staff'." The postbag, it transpires, contained around 50,000 plaintive missives.

And it's the teenagers of the '90s who, with GYOB returning for the first time, are now drawn to the Gilded Balloon for their long-awaited fix. Phillips, smiling broadly, is genuinely flummoxed: "It's weird, watching the audience when I walk out and, do you know, it's wall-to-wall adults – people who have given it the name "nostalgia" or "retro". They say 'my inner nine-year-old was doing cartwheels'...'Took me back to when I was a kid again'."

As a result, there's a lot riding on GYOB's first reappearance. "I kid you not, I had a lot of sleepless nights," Phillips reveals. "It became such an iconic show for such a simple idea."

Phillips, though, has good reason to be slightly wary: after GYOB finished, he was swept up in the peculiar early internet hoax of "fake deaths", where deaths of minor celebs were made up, reported, believed and repeated for years afterwards. As a result, the calls dried up. It's the only time this morning when Phillips' infectious enthusiasm lulls: "It was an awful thing. I was only doing, sometimes, three or four jobs per year, because people believed I had passed on.

"We even had the situation where Chris Moyles, on Radio 1 at the time, put out this number for people who had suffered this celebrity death thing, and they'd have an interview and say to the world, 'I'm not dead'. So, I actually phoned up Chris Moyles' office, and there was a guy at the other end of the phone who said, 'how dare you pretend to be Dave Benson Phillips, everybody knows he's dead'. So, yeah, that was horrible. But we've put it behind us."

It's hard to imagine him waiting for work, for Phillips clearly has entertainment in every strand of his DNA. Picked up by the BBC after a builder on holiday took a video of the then Pontins Bluecoat entertainer leading kids in a ballet performance and looking "like a loon", Phillips's style—bombastic, utterly committed and without hint of cruelty—came to define children's entertainment at the time. And so it is that, as Phillips pours a bucket of cold gunge over my head ("we left that one out overnight"), there's no question of malice. And as it engulfs my hair, and drips in a viscous film over my eyes, nose lips and chin, like a gelatinous waterboarding, I'm giggling uncontrollably.

For those who have always wondered, gunge is made of...a secret ingredient which Phillips won't reveal to me. "There's no explanation needed – just embrace it! Really, if I explain it to you it's just giving it a science!" It is remarkable stuff. It attaches itself to surfaces indiscriminately, yet doesn't feel sticky. It coagulates in lumps, but is thin and slippy to touch. It smells like those jelly toys that stick on windows. And tastes like one imagines they would do if you bit off a chunk. At the time of writing, I don't know if it washes out of clothes.

But if anyone can dump a bucket of undefined slime over your head and get nothing but smiles, it's Dave Benson Phillips – "the most entertaining man I've ever put on a stage", according to his producer (Phillips seems genuinely overwhelmed by this unsolicited testimonial). So what next for GYOB's new lease of life? Ready to take around the country? He smiles warmly: "Oh, I don't know! Do you know what, I don't know! I would love to think we could!"

Britain, prepare to be gunged.