Such are viral videos made of. A forgotten moment from CBBC in 2016 became a pop culture touchstone in April this year. In the 18-second clip, brazen puppet Hacker T Dog (performed by Phil Fletcher) makes co-presenter Lauren Layfield crack up with the most bizarre exchange a children’s television live link is likely to have ever had. The delivery so plaintive, the attempt by Layfield not to laugh so infectiously funny.
Now she has the most famous snort in the country. “Pretty sure that snort is when my career peaked,” she tweeted after the clip went viral a little time after being shared by singer Jacqui Abbott, who was co-lead vocalist with The Beautiful South.
“I’m just letting the snot flow now,” she tells The Big Issue. “I used to try and contain it. But it’s a part of me, I can’t deny it.” Layfield says she can’t remember any of the background to the exchange. “This kind of thing always used to happen,” she says. “We would get given really bare bones scripts, just a guide. You want to find things to make it funny, to make each other laugh.”
The ‘innocent men’ may relate to a story Fletcher had told about being out with a friend who said something similar when panicked by a policeman. But the clip exists sublimely out of context, meaning nothing and everything at the same time.
“I have no idea why that went viral to this day,” Layfield says. “Somebody put it on a list as being one of the top viral moments along with the Chris Rock and Will Smith slap and I thought, well, I’ve made it now. I think people locked into the silliness of it being a live moment when you know you’re not supposed to laugh. The other person is cracking up, you’re cracking up, and then the egg breaks and you’re a mess.”
Presenting on CBBC was a dream job for Layfield, but a dream that for a long time she didn’t know she could have. From the middle of the Midlands, she says the notion of working in broadcasting was totally alien. Then local radio station Mercia FM held a roadshow in her school playground.
“They were going to bring one of their branded cars and I remember being like, oh my god, this is the best thing ever! I was so excited. I remember being nervous going up to, essentially, a load of teenagers tasked with handing out leaflets and badges. That was the first taste of people doing radio for a job. I remember writing on my MySpace that my name is Lauren, I’m 16 and in the future I want to be a radio presenter.”
It wasn’t all glamour and talking puppet dogs at first though. Layfield started on her local hospital radio. The studio next to the mortuary: “I used to be able to hear the clanging of the metal beds going by.”
She then studied media and journalism, realising that the likes of Ant and Dec and Holly Willoughby had all started in children’s television. She landed an audition at CBBC, and the task was to present opposite Hacker T Dog.
“Phil Fletcher, as Hacker, wants to see if you’re a person that can handle a bit of chaos,” Layfield explains. “He will throw curveballs at you. He’ll say something that’s a bit cheeky or a bit rude to see how you deal with it. And I think I was quite good at dealing with him trying to put me off.”
Since her CBBC days, Layfield fills the early breakfast slot on Capital FM, reports for The One Show and campaigns to raise awareness of big issues like period poverty. The timing of ‘innocent men’ trending became pretty ironic when not long after, it was announced that CBBC was to be taken off the air.
“I still haven’t really worked out how I feel about it,” Layfield says. “Sometimes I think, is it my own nostalgia that wants me to see it on a TV channel? Then in my head I go, but kids are online. So I completely understand why that decision has been made. I think that sometimes we’re possibly trying to fight the internet. We forget that children are very adept. They just go with it, they don’t want things to stay stagnant. We do have to accept that things are going to change. As long as it is changing for the better.”
If kids only stream their favourite shows, there’s less chance to come across a presenter improvising with a puppet dog to fill a few seconds.
“Will the silliness still exist?” Layfield asks. “I also did things like The Dengineers – we used to design children their dream den – and it was a bit more worthy but I always came back to silly stuff. I think that’s what children need. Kids spend six, seven hours at school learning loads of stuff. Their heads are very full. And they’re also bombarded with the world. Sometimes they just want to come home and enjoy a little bit of fun.
“It’d be a shame if it’s the wrong decision, because there’s nowhere else that does what CBBC does.”
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