The art of taking the piss out of your mates runs through the British DNA like drizzle on a Sunday afternoon or arguments over the pronunciation of ‘scone’.
Your average Brit is terrified of direct communication. Your average Brit starts trembling at the thought of confrontation. And your average Brit is largely incapable of revealing their true feelings towards something or someone.
So we resort to ‘banter’ as a means of demonstrating affection instead. When a group of male friends slaughter your choice of haircut or clothing, it’s because they feel comfortable enough to do so. When your partner lightly ribs you, it’s because they care.
And one show elevated this strand of British life into prime-time television gold and got an entire playground children ‘merking’ each other. Step forward Rio Ferdinand and his ‘World Cup Wind-Ups’.
With England poised to sweep all before them at Germany 2006, and media interest in celebrity footballers at an all-time peak, ‘Rio’s World Cup Wind-Ups’ was commissioned by, to nobody’s surprise, ITV.
And Ferdinand, who always gives the air of a class clown that no amount of media training can quite shake, was the perfect frontman for the show.
Inspired by a generation of no holds barred candid camera prank shows including Jackass, Dirty Sanchez and – most flagrantly – Punk’d, ‘World Cup Wind-Ups’ saw our hero mess with a handful of ‘Golden Generation’ talent including David Beckham, Wayne Rooney and Ashley Cole.
Hours after England’s opening match with Paraguay had sent the nation into a mid-afternoon slumber, ‘World Cup Wind-Ups’ was aired to a baffled television audience.
Ferdinand, in a derelict London warehouse designed to remind everyone of his Peckham upbringing, introduced his first victim with a flick of a wrist that couldn’t be less credible if he donned the garms of Ali G.
We then cut to “the hit”. Two comedy policemen approach Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs near Neville’s car.
Neville doesn’t look for one minute like he bought their accusations of speeding, not stopping at red lights and being over the carbon emissions limit – but that doesn’t stop Ferdinand from visibly shaking with mirth.
“Just send me the paperwork”, Neville said in his broad Mancunian accent and a face that suggested he’s just peered into a future that contains Ralf Rangnick’s Manchester United. Ferdinand was now unable to breathe from laughing.
With Neville well and truly merked, Rio sprung from his hiding place, guffawing and pointing at his gullible friend. At the same time, millions across the nation began scrambling for their remotes.
The camera returns to Ferdinand, back in his spiritual home of the derelict, asbestos-ridden building. Mid-00s hip-hop wafts from the television screen. “That was a classic,” he smirked. “Sorry son, you got merked.”
The show continued in a similar vein; Beckham resorted to jogging through Moss Side after being made late for a meeting, Shaun Wright-Phillips accidentally got a waiter sacked – the original victim, John Terry, discovered the prank on his wife’s phone and found Wright-Phillips as a substitute – while Cole was accused of deleting the vocal parts of a charity single.
Victims of Rio’s incoherent stings generally came across well. Rooney was courteous, helpful and even affecting when faced with a ‘dead dog’. Beckham was – as ever – a true gentleman.
And, having lifted the nation’s spirits with his robot dance, Peter Crouch cemented his position as England’s most appealing player with a display of almost unbearable cuteness.
Faced with two buxom laydeez – spelling courtesy of Match Magazine – tumbling out of a bedroom in their underwear, Crouch perched on the sofa like an embarrassed schoolboy. “Hello there,” he said. “Hi,” cooed one of the girls, “How are you?” “I’m very well,” said Peter, “and yourself?”
But the most extraordinary sting came at the expense of David James. After revealing his disinterest in ‘abstract’ art, Ferdinand merked the thoughtful James into talking about children’s paintings, believing them to be the works of a cult French artist.
After failing to impress his companions with pictures of his own artwork on his phone, and proceeding to ‘break the displayed artwork, James appeared thoroughly cheesed off.
“Haaahahaha!” yelled Rio, bursting into the room with the energy of a newborn puppy, “I was watching in the basement and you were talking absolute rubbish!”
“What do you know about art?” asked a tinder-dry James. Ferdinand ploughed on, unaware of the fact he’d just been merked by England’s backup goalkeeper.
There’s something compelling about bad television, making the viewer rubberneck and unable to reach for their remotes despite the growing disconnect between their brain and body.
In this vein, ‘Rio’s World Cup Wind-Ups’ was utterly abysmal, but at the same time a little bit brilliant.
The nation spent most of the 75-minute running time watching from the other side of the room, not wanting to go near the television through sheer embarrassment, but determined not to miss any more footage of Crouch asking a millionaire in a penthouse suite if he could have “an orange squash, please”.
It was the kind of TV show that wasn’t just a product of its time, but that couldn’t exist at any other moment in history.
And it was arguably the most British thing we’ve ever seen. Rio, we salute you. This was your finest hour.
By Michael Lee