#BlastfromthePast: Aqua

Now here’s a blogging DeLorean hop this weekend that will make certain readers – namely around my age – feel old. Can you believe it’s 20 years to the week that a certain group of Danish Europop legends topped the charts with an ode to the world’s most plastic fantastic doll?

The story of Aqua really begins nine years prior to that breakthrough. Under the name Joyspeed, keyboardist Søren Rasted and guitarist Claus Norreen were working together from 1988, with raspy voiced rapper and DJ René Dif joining and lead singer Lene Nystrom joining before they changed name to the one that stuck for the release of their first single in Sweden in 1994.

However, ‘Itzy Bitsy Spider’ was a resounding flop, spending only one week in the charts. Dropped by their record label and management, they regrouped and beavered away on the sound that would make up their debut album ‘Aquarium’, finally signing with Universal Music Denmark in 1996. Success duly followed with their next single, ‘Roses are Red’, which spent two months in the Danish charts and went platinum.

By the time their third single, the Mattel lawsuit baiting, disco pumping Europop anthem ‘Barbie Girl’ was released, they had been catapaulted to super stardom. After becoming a huge top 10 hit in America, that single went to number one in 13 countries, including the UK, where it spent four weeks at the top, and save for Sir Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ single for Princess Diana, was the biggest selling single in the UK that year.

But anyone convinced they were a one hit wonder in a decade as full of them as the 90s were proved wrong in all respects. With the release of ‘Doctor Jones’ and ‘Turn Back Time’ in January and May 1998 respectively, they joined an elite list of acts to reach the top of the UK charts with their first three singles, with ‘Turn Back Time’ even appearing on the soundtrack to the Gwyneth Paltrow film Sliding Doors.

Quiet for most of 1999, they returned in the new millennium with their second album ‘Aquarius’. Its lead single ‘Cartoon Heroes‘ was another worldwide top 10 smash, but sales and subsequent singles didn’t hold a candle to the huge success and chart topping positions of their debut three years previously.

After performing as the interval act at the 2001 Eurovision Song Contest in their home country (with short lived drumming dance team Safri Duo, no less), they quietly disbanded, with all the band going off to pursue solo ventures.

However, in 2008, they reunited and released and toured a ‘Greatest Hits’ package to good success, and their third studio album, ‘Meglomania’ was another huge hit in Denmark and Europe in 2011. So with two decades now having passed since ‘Barbie Girl’, here’s to Aqua – the band that put brightly coloured Europop on the map.

What are your memories of this week’s #BlastfromthePast? Tweet me now @ThePensmith10 using the hashtag #BlastfromthePast and I may feature some of your Tweets in next week’s blog!

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A #CrazyStupidPlaylist Special: 20 Years of the Spice Girls (Part 2 – Solo Spices)

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As we left the first part, we touched on the release of “Viva Forever” being – at the time at least – the Spice Girls’ final single as a five piece before Geri walked out of the group in May 1998. Though the Spices would go onto release one final album together – the much maligned “Forever” in 2000 – before their triumphant reunions in 2007/08, and again in 2012 for the London Olympics closing ceremony, Geri’s departure was the signalling of a new chapter that would help extend their legacy to the two decades’ worth it has now spanned.

Over the last 18 of those 20 years, the girls’ individual solo releases have sold over 12 million units worldwide, as well as amassing a further nine UK number one hits. This month has seen renowned pop culture blogger, Quentin Harrison, publish his first ever book ‘Record Redux’ which chronically documents and reviews all the group and solo releases of the girls from 1996 to now. In the second and final of our specially curated playlists to celebrate the Spices’ 20th anniversary, I bring you my five personal highlights of the girls’ individual efforts…

1. EMMA BUNTON – “Maybe”

(2003, from the album ‘Free Me’, 19 Recordings, Highest UK chart position: #6)

When the Spice Girls initially parted company the first time round in 2001, and the press began their harried talk of who was ‘going to do a Robbie’, it’s fair to say Emma’s name barely came up in passing. Baby just didn’t seem like a viable solo star, even with a chart topping debut that year in “What Took You So Long?” and a gold selling album with “A Girl Like Me”.

What a shock everyone got then, just two years later, as Emma readied the release of her second solo album, “Free Me”. The record in itself is a 60’s styled Motown and bossa nova influenced affair, all clever, lush production and aesthetics, but it’s second single “Maybe” was the real standout. Highly influenced by musicals like “Chicago” and “Sweet Charity” (even the video is an homage to the famous Bob Fosse choreographed scene in the latter) with an ultra catchy chorus, it’s the one solo Spice track that I use to convert the disbelievers.

2. MELANIE C – “Never Be the Same Again” (with Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes)

(1999, from the album ‘Northern Star’, Virgin, Highest UK chart position: #1)

It’s fair to say that the one they called Sporty has always been seen as ‘Serious Spice’ when it comes to her music – her first venturing away from the girls was as guest vocalist on Bryan Adams’ worldwide smash “When You’re Gone” in November 1998. Melanie’s debut album that followed just under a year later, showcasing a rougher, tougher punk girl look (see uber-shouty first single “Goin’ Down”) was even more of a shock (and one partially met with derision to begin with).

But for those who invested in the album, produced with the likes of Rick Rubin and William Orbit, they were in for a surprise, as the rocker in Mel wasn’t the only side of her as a singer and performer that was showcased – as demonstrated by this album’s chart topping third single. A sweetly ambient, electronic R&B styled ballad with TLC’s late lead rapper Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes, “Never Be the Same Again” was a cool and contemporary cut that was still getting consistent radio play even in the years after it’s release.

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3. GERI HALLIWELL – “Look at Me”

(1999, from the album ‘Schizophonic’, EMI, Highest UK chart position: #2)

When Geri walked away from Spiceworld in the summer of ’98, an unusual but perhaps expected silence descended from the quarters of the girl who flirted with royalty and stomped down the stage in a skimpy Union Jack dress at the 1997 BRIT awards. Geri being Geri though, wasn’t silent for long – she did after all, in her parting speech, said “I’ll be back”. Everyone was looking to her as the spirit of the Spice Girls, even as the remaining four continued on with their success.

‘Look at Me’, her first solo single, was a bold statement of intent, announcing her arrival in a brassy big beat number that Dame Shirley Bassey would have been proud of. Shame then, that it succumbed to an even mightier force than girl power on release – namely, Louis Walsh scheduling Boyzone’s latest single for release the same week, which pipped it to the top – and whilst Geri would eventually score four UK chart toppers on her own, none or indeed much else of her solo venturings come close to the impact of this musically.

4. VICTORIA BECKHAM – “Not Such an Innocent Girl”

(2001, from the album ‘Victoria Beckham’, Virgin, Highest UK chart position: #6)

It’s hard to imagine, looking at her now with a successful fashion and business empire, that Victoria Beckham even attempted solo material away from the rest of the other girls, more so as she seems to dismiss that period of her life ever existing now. But in the early 00’s, that’s precisely what she did – albeit to a fair amount of overly harsh criticism, such was her ubiquity as one half of Britain’s best loved power couple.

Whilst on paper she may seem like the least successful – she was the only one of the girls who didn’t score a solo chart topper – those with an open ear would be surprised by what she put out. ‘Not Such an Innocent Girl’, complete with a visually eye grabbing, futuristic video with her playing Good and Bad alter egos of herself, was a polished and preened offering of early 00’s pop, the sort of thing early Britney Spears would have turned out on a lunch break. Not ground breaking, true, but not the unlistenable horror the press made Posh out to be.

5. MEL B – “I Want You Back” (feat. Missy Elliott)

(1998, from the album “Why Do Fools Fall in Love? – Original Soundtrack, Virgin, Highest UK chart position: #1)

Ginger may have been the first to up sticks from the Spice rack, but it was Scary who gave us the first ever solo Spice single all the way back in September 1998. Recorded in New York whilst the remaining quartet had a day off from the American leg of the Spiceworld Tour, Mel B released this very hip R&B styled cut with female rap superstar Missy Elliott for the soundtrack of a Frankie Lymon biopic, and scored a UK chart topper straight off the bat.

With hindsight though, this was about as good as she ever got solo wise. She was never going to make a convincing, bonafide R&B singer – her debut album “Hot”, released two years later, had all the right people for such a record at that time – Darkchild, Sisqo, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis amongst others – but none of the punch or pizzazz to get either that crowd or her existing Spice fans excited.

A #CrazyStupidPlaylist Special: 20 Years of the Spice Girls (Part 1 – Their Greatest Hits)

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Picture the scene exactly 20 years ago, in July 1996. Pop has never mattered the least in such a long time. Take That have split, and neither Gary Barlow nor Robbie Williams are yet emerging with viable solo prospects. Oasis and Blur, the two heavyweights of Britpop, are the main games in town. And Peter Andre is flashing his giant man chest all over the shop in the video for ‘Mysterious Girl’. Hardly cause for celebration, is it? But behold, what is plastered across the back of that fortnight’s copy of the much loved pop bible, Smash Hits:10509600_790185421022249_302676545059108279_n

And girl power, did well, come at us. And not just at the UK, but the rest of the world too. In the 90s, the Spice Girls became an unstoppable force, as Ginger, Posh, Baby, Sporty and Scary stomped their way to worldwide domination, with number one hits on every continent (including nine in the UK – a record for a girl group), record sales of over 50 million, BRITs and MTV awards, a smash box office movie, sponsorship deals aplenty and America conquered into the bargain too. They achieved more in their short time together than most bands manage in 10 years, with some of the most glorious, unapologetic pop music since ABBA, delivered with a sisterly touch.

Now, as today marks the 20th anniversary of the release of their debut single that started it all, and with ‘Spiceworld: The Exhibition’ curated by fan and Guinness World Record holding artist Liz West on my agenda to visit this month at Watford Coliseum, today I begin a two part look back at their incredible legacy on pop with two specially curated Spotify playlists from myself, as we celebrate the music of five normal, loud and in-yer-face girls who taught the world how to zig-a-zig-aah…

1. ‘WANNABE’
(1996, from the album ‘Spice’, Highest UK chart position: #1)

Well, I couldn’t not start this playlist without it, could I? Not before or since (with the possible exception of Girls Aloud’s “Sound of the Underground”) has there been a more arresting, manifesto setting debut single from a girl group. Written by the girls in half an hour with Richard Stannard and Matt Rowe, who would go onto write and produce this and many of their biggest hits, when they signed with Virgin Records in late 1995, they were absolutely adamant it had to be their first single. Executives weren’t convinced, but took the gamble nonetheless, and complete with a madcap, unscripted video, seeing them gatecrash a bohemian party at St Pancra’s Grand Hotel in London, the world instantly wanted to be their lover and get with their friends.

2. ‘SAY YOU’LL BE THERE’
(1996, from the album ‘Spice’, Highest UK chart position: #1)

Even for all its worldwide chart trajectories, sales and ubiquity, ‘Wannabe’ was one of those records that could very easily have been a one hit wonder in a year, and indeed decade, full of them – ‘Macarena’, anyone? Exactly – but ‘Say You’ll Be There’ proved that the lightning bolt struck twice. A cool but cute R&B styled pop gem, coupled with a visually impressive video set in the Mojave desert with the girls re-imagined as space vixen B-movie characters a la ‘Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!’, it too flew to number one upon release in October 1996 and established the Spices as bonafide pop giants.

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3. ‘2 BECOME 1’

(1996, from the album ‘Spice’, Highest UK chart position: #1)

If there’s one type of single that the Spice Girls were always surprisingly really good at, it was their slower numbers, and this, their first of three consecutive Christmas chart toppers, was the finest example in their canon. Crisp, heart warming production and stunning vocal turns from all the girls – but in particular Emma Bunton, who shines the brightest of all in her pre-chorus verses on this single – even now when December rolls around, it doesn’t feel like December until we’ve heard the girls seductively crooning ‘Wanna make love to ya baby’…

4. ‘STOP’

(1998, from the album ‘Spiceworld’, Highest UK chart position: #2)

I remember clearly two days in 1998 – one of which we’ll get onto in a second, but this being the other. Namely, the Sunday when Mark Goodier was running down the new top 40 on BBC Radio 1, and the shock amongst all that the Spices had, for the first time in seven single releases, failed to make the UK number one spot (the record that did beat them, a hard hitting dance rework of Run DMC’s “It’s Like That” by top DJ Jason Nevins, went onto spend 6 weeks at the top and sell over a million copies). Shame then, that this misfortune happened to easily one of their best singles for me. Complete with an iconic hand jive dance routine mimicked at school discos for the rest of the years following, “Stop” was an endearing and catchy pastiche of Motown flavoured pop, right down to the Supremes inspired ad libs on the second verse.

5. ‘VIVA FOREVER’

(1998, from the album ‘Spiceworld’, Highest UK chart position: #1)

So the other memorable day from 1998? Ah yes, that would be 31st May, when, following a no-show appearance at the Helsinki date of their world tour and the BBC National Lottery show, Geri Halliwell had announced that she was packing up Ginger’s platform shoes and walking away from the group that made her a household name. What followed with almost impeccable timing, as the remaining four girls continued their world tour around the arenas and stadiums of America over the summer of that year, was a genuinely moving and heartbreaking, almost “Bright Eyes” esque ode to a fleeting Mediterranean romance, and indeed, to a Ginger snapping away from the Spice.

“Friends” at 20: The One With my 10 favourite episodes

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This week, exactly 20 years ago, a show launched on primetime US TV that would change the face – and world – of television forever. Over 236 episodes, and 10 seasons of laughs and one liners galore, “Friends” bought ensemble comedy to the mainstream, as we became engrossed in the lives and loves of six twentysomething flatsharers – Rachel Green, Monica Geller, Phoebe Buffay, Chandler Bing, Joey Tribbiani and Ross Geller.

It was a show that was as much a cultural phenomenon as it was a sitcom – with coffeehouses springing up in towns and cities from London to Lisbon, “the Rachel” haircut being a staple request of most beauty salons, and catchphrases like “How you doin’?” and “We were on a break!” becoming ubiquitous.

As a comedy writer myself, the show has greatly inspired me in my writing with the delivery of lines and the wit and warmth behind a show that is even continuing to find a new audience from repeated airings on Comedy Central. With this in mind, I’ve been watching my boxsets of the show all this week to ascertain what I think are the 10 best episodes from Friends’ 10 series. Shall we go get some coffee, guys?

10. THE ONE WITH THE CANDY HEARTS
(Season 1, 1994)

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Phoebe: Ok, so now we need… um, sage branches and the sacramental wine.
Monica: All I have is oregano and a Fresca.
Phoebe: Um… that’s ok! Ok, all right. Now we need the semen of a righteous man.
Rachel: Huh. Okay, Pheebs? You know what? If we had that, we wouldn’t be doing the ritual in the first place.

When I watch all the series back, it’s often the first one that I find hasn’t dated the best, so I had a bit of a hard time deciding which episode from Season 1 was worthy of inclusion on my list.

So why ‘The One With the Candy Hearts’? Well, for starters it’s where we first meet Chandler’s notorious, nasally challenged ex-girlfriend Janice (“OH! MY! GAWD!!!”) on a double date with Joey that goes awry. It’s also where the girls plan an anti-Valentine’s ritual that quite literally goes up in smoke (with hilarious effect).

But props has to go to Ross in this episode, where he ends up forgetting his date at a sushi restaurant to spend the evening with ex-wife Carol with a final scene that is as touching as it is humourous – something the show would continue to get exceptionally good at further down the line.

9. THE ONE WHERE CHANDLER TAKES A BATH
(Season 8, 2002)

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Monica: What do you think you’re doing?
Chandler: Leaving my troubles behind?

Though this episode was the start of the what to me, felt like it was slightly incestuous Joey and Rachel storyline, this was still a great one for its other, smaller storylines – namely that of Chandler and Monica, who just a few months into wedded bliss were still as riotously funny as ever in this series.

Chandler getting into the art of drawing baths (made a bit more ‘butch’ with the addition of a plastic navy ship – “so it’s a boy bath”, asserts Monica) was a nice little nod to the start of their relationship in the fifth series (more on that later) when they snooped around to keep it a secret from the others.

Props also go to Ross and a now heavily pregnant Rachel, who find out they’re having a girl at their latest scan and literally veto a bunch of potential names – among them Sandrine, Phoebo and Ruth (“I’m sorry, are we having an 89 year old?”)

8. THE ONE WITH THE DOLLHOUSE
(Season 3, 1996)

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Monica: What’s this?
Phoebe: That’s a dog. Every house should have a dog.
Monica: Not one that can pee on the roof.
Phoebe: Well, maybe it’s so big because the house was built on radioactive waste.
Chandler (holding a tissue): And is this in case the house sneezes?

Most people usually go for the excellent ‘The One Where No One’s Ready’ from this series, but this particular episode holds a sentimental value to me, hence why it had to be this one. Namely because aged 8, this was the first episode I remember watching when Channel 4 used to air it on Friday nights.

Monica and Phoebe storylines are often hilarious because of their competitive streak and opposing points of view (see also storylines with Phoebe and Ross) and this is no exception, as Monica’s straight laced takes on home making with an inherited doll house from a recently deceased relative causes Phoebe to make her own wacky, bohemian doll house with a bubble chimney and an aroma room.

Also of note is the start of the hilarious storyline between Chandler and Joanna, Rachel’s snooty boss at Bloomingdale’s, who is utterly enamoured with ‘the Chan Chan man’, but who he refers to as a ‘big dull dud with weird mascara goop in her eyes’ – something that makes it difficult for him to break off their fling, which he learns to his peril when he ends up handcuffed to Joanna’s office chair at the start of series 4.

7. THE ONE WITH THE HOLIDAY ARMADILLO
(Season 7, 2001)

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Ross (as the Holiday Armadillo): Merry Christmas. Oh, and Happy Hanukkah!
Ben: Are you for Hanukkah, too? Because I’m part Jewish!
Ross: Huh? You are? Me too!
Monica: Because armadillos also wandered in the desert?

Aka ‘The One I Put on at Christmas’ – especially when I’m wrapping presents or writing cards with a Mexican hot chocolate. Festive “Friends” episodes produced some great moments over the years, and this was one of them. As Ross ponders how to teach his 7 year old son Ben about Hanukkah in the face of jingling bells and flying reindeer, he ends up doing so in an oddly unique way, via his disguise as “Santa’s part Jewish representative for all the Southern states”.

Elsewhere, Phoebe discovers her apartment that was on fire in the previous series is ready for her to move back into – alas, Rachel’s new found fun living with Joey results in a series of hilarious Christmas presents for him (drums and a tarantula) to try and drive Rachel out the apartment and back to living with her again.

6. THE ONE WITH RACHEL’S OTHER SISTER
(Season 9, 2002)

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Chandler: So let me just get this straight. So my two friends die; I get Emma; then my wife dies; then Emma, the one tiny ray of hope left in my life, gets taken away from me?
Phoebe: There’s your movie!

We’d met Rachel’s sister Jill in the 6th series (played by the brilliant Reese Witherspoon), but it wasn’t until three series later when her other sister, Amy, showed up unannounced (and some would say uninvited) to Thanksgiving with the gang.

In a move that proves to be, as Ross put it, ‘like when the Indians gave the Pilgrims syphillis’, Amy’s lack of tact or social skills at the annual dinner at Monica’s provides laughs-a-minute in this episode from Christina Applegate who plays her, culminating in a catfight even non-sitcom shows would find hard to top.

Elsewhere, there’s a hilarious storyline involving Joey as he and Phoebe try to come up with a good excuse for him not showing up at a downtown parade with the rest of the ‘Days of our Lives’ cast – and one that doesn’t involve a raccoon.

5. THE ONE WITH THE EMBRYOS
(Season 4, 1997)

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Ross: According to Chandler, what phenomenon scares the ‘bejesus’ out of him?
Monica: Michael Flatley, ‘Lord of the Dance’!
Ross: That is correct!
Joey: The Irish jig guy?
Chandler: His legs flail about as if independent of his body!

Though this episode’s title derives from Phoebe’s quest to have her half brother Frank Jr and his wife Alice’s eggs placed in her uterus as a surrogate for them to have kids, this episode should really have been called ‘The One with the Apartment Game’.

Having been kept awake all night by Joey and Chandler’s rooster, Rachel and Monica challenge them to a furious battle of the sexes as Ross invents a quiz to test how well the friends really know each other – which for the girls, comes at the expense of losing their apartment to the guys.

This game reveals some amusing facts about the gang along the way – Monica’s high school nickname of ‘Big Fat Goalie’, Joey’s imaginary friend Maurice, the space cowboy, and the gang’s inability to remember what Chandler’s job is (according to Rachel, ‘he’s a transponster!’)

4. THE ONE WHERE HECKLES DIES
(Season 2, 1995)

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Chandler: If I’m gonna be an old, lonely man, I’m gonna need a thing, you know, a hook, like that guy on the subway who eats his own face. So I figure I’ll be Crazy Man with a Snake, y’know. Crazy Snake Man. And I’ll get more snakes, call them my babies! Kids won’t walk past my place, they will run. “Run away from Crazy Snake Man,” they’ll shout!

I’ve chosen this episode because for me, watching this as a teenager it was the first time I remember being blown away by someone’s acting performance. And Matthew Perry puts on by far his best performance as Chandler here, in a comedic and dramatic sense.

When Rachel and Monica’s cranky neighbour Mr Heckles suddenly dies, he bequeaths his old apartment of strange posessions to them. Amongst them, Chandler finds his old high school yearbook, and realises, to his horror, some uncanny similarities.

Overcome with panic at the direction his life is heading in, he ends up calling – who else? – Janice, before the rest of the guys make him realise he’s not completely the same as their late neighbour, and that he has the chance to change for the better.

3. THE ONE WHERE ROSS IS FINE
(Season 10, 2003)

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Ross: Okay, I guess it’s just flan for three. Hey! Hey, that rhymes!

And from one star performance to another, as David Schwimmer put in his craziest, most stooge like performance as Ross in this episode as he struggles to come to terms with Joey and Rachel’s budding relationship. His overreaction to events results in an awkward dinner party at his place with his new girlfriend (and Joey’s ex) Charlie.

Not only is it an episode that has forever altered the way I say the words ‘fajitas’ and ‘margaritas’, but Rachel and Joey’s reactions to his antics are just as hilarious – especially the final scene with Joey and Ross the following morning.

Elsewhere in this episode, Monica and Chandler make progressions to try and adopt a baby – with things going greatly awry when they meet a couple that Phoebe is friends with, and Chandler lets slip to their son that he is in fact, adopted.

2. THE ONE WITH THE ROUTINE
(Season 6, 1999)

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Ross: Hey, when the snippy guy sees The Routine, he’ll wanna build us our own platform!
Monica: Was it really that good?
Ross: We got honourable mention in the Brother-Sister Dance category!

As I mentioned earlier, Christmas episodes provided some comedy gold on “Friends”. This however, for me, is the gold standard. As Joey and his dancer roommate Janine (played by Elle MacPherson) get dancing parts on Dick Clark’s Millennium Eve special, über fans of the show Ross and Monica tag along like puppies, and end up stealing the show with a dorky and side splitting high school routine to the Loreta song ‘The Trouble with Boys’, that has since spawned an internet craze for wedding first dance recreations.

Also in this episode, Phoebe and Rachel bribe Chandler into hunting Monica’s apartment for their Christmas presents – which results in finding some unusual presents for the gang from Chandler, and a rather puzzled look on his face (‘priceless’, suggests Phoebe) when he finds out what Monica has got him.

1. THE ONE WHERE EVERYONE FINDS OUT
(Season 5, 1999)

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Phoebe: They thought they could mess with us! They’re trying to mess with us? They don’t know that we know they know we know! And Joey, you can’t say anything!
Joey: I couldn’t if I wanted to.

What other episode could I have picked as my all time favourite but this one? With all the gang at their comedic best in this episode, Monica and Chandler’s secret relationship finally comes out in the open as Phoebe attempts to seduce Chandler.

From the opening scene where Phoebe catches them having sex from the window at Ugly Naked Guy’s (soon to be Ross’s) apartment, to the awkward exchange between Chandler and Phoebe on their “first date” where she performs a hilarious dance and claims she’s “very bendy”, and the ‘They don’t know that we know” exchanges, every time I watch this particular episode I laugh just as hard as I did the first time I saw it.

And that, for me, is just one of the reasons that makes “Friends” one of the most timeless shows, let alone sitcoms, that there has ever been. Here’s to 20 years of laughs with our friends.