It’s a Royal Knock Out!: The Holiday Special Buckingham Palace Wishes We’d Forget

Just in time for the Jubilee, Sarah Kennedy takes a look at a forgotten piece of television history: It’s A Royal Knockout!

Its a royal knockout

Just in time for the Jubilee, Sarah Kennedy takes a look at a forgotten piece of television history: It’s A Royal Knockout!

You’d think that the worst TV show ever made would be hotly contested, but no.

The outright winner of that notorious title is the Star Wars Holiday Special, a Christmas ‘treat’ broadcast on CBS in 1978; a show so clumsy and unbearable it made people hate Star Wars. It’s currently ranked as 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. In the UK we have It’s a Royal Knock Out! It’s baffling to think either show was ever considered a good idea. I urge you to add both to your watch list if you’ve not had the dubious pleasure. One of them undermines beloved, lucrative, internationally famous characters, and the other one has Chewbacca in it.

It’s a Royal Knock Out! is part of a long history of the Royals’ desperate attempts to be seen as a nice normal family. Television, seemingly such a friendly format, has been their Achilles heel. They appeared in a fly-on-the-wall documentary way back in 1969 to soften and modernise their image. Despite it being popular with the public, the Queen and her family disliked the finished product so much it was only ever shown in full once.

Eighteen years later, in 1987, the Queen’s own children and daughter-in-law cavorted in a field at a celebrity tournament in aid of charity. But why? For fun? For good PR? To distract from yet another royal scandal? It’s hard to say… Unlucky for the Royal family, It’s a Royal Knock Out! is on YouTube – in full! –  for your royal viewing pleasure. If The Crown ends before covering this moment in history, it would be a crime.


But there they all are: HRH Prince Edward, Prince Andrew the Duke of York, his wife Sarah, Duchess of York, and Anne, Princess Royal. Fergie is up for it but the others look like they’ve had their arms twisted. Princess Anne somehow manages to retain some decorum. But it’s a tough task on this peculiar field of battle, even with obsequious presenters observing strict royal protocol, calling them Sir and Ma’am which makes it all the more ridiculous. Princess Diana would probably have had top billing, but she employed advisors with cooler heads. 

Do you know the original It’s A Knockout? The gameshow was a worldwide hit format and on British TV for three decades. It had a few specials in the 1980s and a failed Channel 5 reboot in 1999. It’s also the inspiration behind Peter Gabriel’s Games without Frontiers (Kate Bush sings the line ‘jeux sans frontières’ which was the French name of the franchise). And for that earworm, you’re welcome, mes amis.  

Live from a field at Alton Towers, this spectacle is presented by a veritable who’s who of 80’s comedy; Barbara Windsor, Les Dawson, Sue Pollard, Rowan Atkinson (not a stretch as he’s 100% Blackadder throughout) and a DJ who the BBC would prefer, in hindsight, to never have employed. 

The set-up is absurd, sports day-style games for charity, with celebrity participants dressed in oversize comedy foam suits styled in mock mediaeval knight, jouster and a royal court. It’s as if Gladiators was taking place on one of Morecambe and Wise’s stage sets. The teams in their pantomime costumes are a sea of colour against the wobbly castle set.

I wonder if at the time people were as baffled as me at the variety of celebs. There’s presenter Annika Rice, magician Paul Daniels, strongman Geoff Capes, Superman himself Christopher Reeve, singers Tom Jones, Meat Loaf, Aled Jones, and Cliff Richard, sports personalities Jackie Stewart, Emlyn Hughes, Duncan Goodhew, and Gary Lineker, and On Her Majesty’s Service’s George Lazenby, plus various Pythons. The improbable list goes on and on. Clearly no one’s agent said no, because saying no to this would have probably been considered high treason.

It's a royal knockout

There are some moments I’ll never forget.

Griff Rhys Jones and Chris de Burgh as parkouring Romeos, scaling ropes and jumping into ponds to deliver roses to Juliet on her balcony. The words “You got it Meaty! Go Meaty!” are shouted repeatedly by his teammate as Meatloaf knocks down knights with an oversize punchbag.

There are enormous top-heavy giants, huge tournament horses dressed in their finery, and people dressed as vegetables being chased down to make a stew.

Killer lines include “She’s felled Sheena Easton ” and “I don’t think Meatloaf will ever catch that onion”. I demand more ingredients! A whole banquet’s worth! I could watch this part for hours. Princess Anne’s team trounces the competition but it’s clear the props department have won the day.  

Pantomime costumes and fake medieval nonsense pageantry is just another day at the office for the royals, but looks the part on TV. I expected it to be cringe-y but it’s quite endearing. It’s old-fashioned family entertainment but would have been perfectly fine without the royals. It makes a lot more sense as a celebrity special. The royals, especially the princes, are very wooden. Given that their jobs are mainly making small talk and speeches to entertain the public, it’s quite annoying. What exactly are we paying them for?

This blatant determination to modernise via the medium of embarrassing attention-seeking makes me wonder whose idea was this? And how many minutes after the broadcast were they fired?

Shockingly, the credits reveal the Event Producer for Knockout Limited was none other than HRH Prince Edward. On leaving the Marines, he decided he wanted a career in TV production, as one does. Oddly this was not the boost he expected, and he never did anything quite like it again.

This is such a strange act of normalising by being completely abnormal. It’s alright! They’re ‘avin a larf! Just like us.

Which begs the question, what might they do now, with all their drama cranked up to 11? Think about it; we’ve got Prince Andrew, at time of writing, still residing ironically at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in rather more comfort than people who typically associate with friends like his, the prospect of King Charlie, Harry and Meghan’s conscious uncoupling from Buck House, the evaporating of any confidence in the Commonwealth on the eve of the Commonwealth Games…

2022 is the perfect time for a reboot. But what will it be? Family dances on TikTok? William versus Harry with Gladiator pugil sticks? The Queen proving to be a natural at Total Wipeout, keeping her perm safe from the water as she bounces over those big red balls? That’s a sight that might just unite the country; both monarchists and republicans would enjoy it.

Let’s do it annually instead of the Royal Variety Performance. My ideal line-up would be Harry, Will, Meghan, Catherine, Camilla, and Charlie venting their pent-up rage for our entertainment. It would be so much cheaper than a lifetime of therapy. And we wouldn’t have to pay them an appearance fee because they already work for us. The ideas are genius, and all in the best possible taste.

Hey, Prince Edward, call me…

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