Forgotten Forteana – “Would you like a mince pie?”

•April 19, 2018 • 1 Comment

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I apologise to any who happen to be reading, but aliens are boring. That is, the modern alien. Whitley Strieber’s 1987 book, Communion, whose cover of the classic almond-shaped, black-eyed grey, inspired a cultural flattening of what had previously been a fantastical galactic menagerie. Grey is an apt label for these critters, smearing the previously colourful reports of human-grabbing space weirdos into one generic brand of workman-like medical students. Back in the day, you didn’t know if you were going to be snatched up by sexy Nordic hippies, weird little gremlins, or some one-off, random chap that looked like one of the background extras in $5 werewolf masks in the Star Wars Cantina. The fun got sucked out of the experience, and where previous abductees might’ve been taken for a spin in a UFO and shown videos of dinosaurs, or seduced by a heavily-breasted alien temptress, now they treat us like biology class frogs.

Once The X-Files hit, there was no going back, with aliens forever marked as sinister and conspiratorial, working either with, or against our governments, to creep around at night and grab us from our beds in terrifying home invasions. Arse invasions, more like. For the modern grey, it’s all about the anus. Prodding them, measuring them; cutting one out of a cow and taking it home like a paperweight from a safari park gift-shop. There’s not been such a fixation on arses outside of my bookmarks on Pornhub. That’s why we’re taking a look back at the classic days of aliens, with this tale from 1979, as described by a British housewife, in an interview given later that same year.

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On the snowy morning of Jan 4th 1979, in Rowley Regis near Birmingham, Jean Hingley looked out of the window of her council house and saw a strange orange light hovering over the garden. Opening the back door for a better look, three glowing “beings” with “wonderful wings” floated past, into the kitchen. They made a noise like “Zee zee zee,” and scared Jean so badly, she armed herself with a metal sink. Hobo, the family Alsatian, began to sway, with his fur sticking out like that picture of Donald Trump and the balloon, before promptly fainting. Jean, too, found herself unable to move or speak, before an elated, spiritual feeling washed over her, “as though I was in heaven, although I was still at home.” She floated into the lounge — literally, her feet didn’t touch the floor — where she was blinded by a bright light that she felt was telepathically penetrating her mind, and could hear the sound of the Christmas tree in the corner shaking.

As the glowing beings turned down the light, she got a proper look at them. Each were yanking on the Christmas tree, before floating around the room, curiously touching everything; furniture, cigarettes, a mantle of Christmas cards. Hingley describes them as slim, about 3 ½ – 4 feet tall, with black eyes, thin mouths, and no noses, ears, or eyebrows. They wore “ silvery-green tunics and silver waistcoats with silver buttons,” with similar material on their hands and feet. They each had pointed caps, with a lamp-like object on the top, completely covered by fish-bowl space helmets. She describes their wings as large, covered in Braille-like dots, and rainbow-coloured, but in a way that made our normal, Earthly colours seem bland in comparison.

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Finally finding her voice, she asked what they wanted — “Three of you and one of me. What are you going to do? What do you want with me?” They communicated by pushing the buttons on their chests, which she assumed was a translator. After a beeping sound — though they didn’t move their mouths — they spoke, always in unison, telling her they meant no harm, and that “We come from the sky.” It’s here that things get super weird. Jean tells the beings off for bouncing up and down on the sofa, and they retaliate by turning up the light again, at points shooting it from their helmets in a beam which paralyses her. Afraid of their power, she engages them in small talk, where they reveal their familiarity with the Queen, Christmas — “We know all about Jesus” — and the entertainer Tommy Steele. They were particularly taken with Jesus, telling Jean “There is only one Lord,” after she showed them the New Year Honour list in the Sunday papers. At one point, they bantered with the catchphrase of Bruce Forsyth. “I started to say, ‘Nice to see you! Nice.’ They replied: ‘Nice.’

So’s not to appear a bad host, she offered them a drink, to which they requested water, and brought four glasses, with one for herself, so they wouldn’t think she was trying to poison them. At the moment they were about to remove their helmets to drink, they blinded her once again. She brought in some leftover mince pies, but they were too big for their tiny mouths, and the beings became distracted by a packet of cigarettes on the side. As Jean lit a match to demonstrate how the ciggies worked, they became terrified, and made their escape through the back door, still holding the mince pies.

Jean, still floating, took after them, yelling “Come back! Come back!” but reached the garden to see her new chums entering a ten-feet-long, egg-shaped space ship, with round portals, a tail, and a wheel-like object at the top. The ship flashed its lights twice, like your dad’s mate honking the horn when he drives home, and took off towards Oldbury, never to be seen again. The entire incident lasted around an hour, and left Jean with a feeling of warmth and happiness, “as though I had been blessed.” She was straight on the phone to the police, who couldn’t do much, and was soon repeating her tale to numerous outlets in the local media. Signed off work for two weeks by her doctor, Jean took to wearing dark glasses, with her eyes sore from the bright light, and complained of jaw ache, brought about by her literal open-mouthed shock throughout. Her TV, radio and clock had also ceased to function, and cassette tapes touched by the creatures had been wiped.

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Clearly, there’s a lot to unpack here. Though the above is based on an early interview given by Hingley, as is always the case, extra details get added in over the years, sticking to the original like gum to a boot. Some versions of this story add an epilogue, two days later, when the Christmas tree mysteriously vanishes from the living room, eventually reappearing in the garden, stripped of its decorations. There are also mentions of “prints,” of some sort, left by the creatures on the kitchen door, and a circular scratch etched into the glass. Hingley’s wedding ring was also alleged to have turned white, and she later added in a vision of a tall figure in a white robe appearing in the living room as she lay on the sofa recuperating. Though even the earliest reports note the confirmation by investigators of an impression in the snow where the little space ship had been parked, no amount of physical evidence can take away how patently absurd it all is.

Though this is a singular incident, certain elements tie in with previous close encounters. The strange look of the aliens/fairies is consistent with a lot of first wave alien sightings, pre-Communion, which wore the influence of the lurid pulp sci-fi covers of the time. That whole ‘goblins in romper-suits’ aesthetic most notably comes to mind in the Cennina, Italy incident of 1954, where the creatures didn’t have wings, but were child-sized, clad in jumpsuits and functional helmets, and bothered a forty-year-old peasant woman before making their escape in a small ship.

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Likewise, the button-pushing communication was a common trope of those early stories, with the buttons either on the outfits themselves, or attached to boxes the creatures were carrying, I guess before they upgraded to outright telepathy. The puckish nature of Hingley’s visitors also bring to mind the Wollaton Park gnome incident, occurring later that same year, only 50 miles away in Nottingham. There, seven children reported thirty miniature bubble cars tearing around the park, each carrying a pair of gnomes in bobble hats. The religious aspect of these ‘Mince Pie Aliens’ is something of a throwback to the Space Brother aliens from the heyday of the counter-culture, preaching love and warning us of straying from the light. But perhaps the closest link with Jean Hingley to another reported experience is that of Cynthia Appleton, also a housewife from Birmingham, also suffering a strange home invasion by a being in a domed helmet and silver jumpsuit, throughout the late 50s. Appleton’s experience extended over multiple visits, culminating in the announcement in a national tabloid that “I’m going to have a baby from Venus,” and the eventual birth of her alleged space-baby. As the Venusian father eventually stopped dropping in, it seems like a rather elaborate catfishing escapade. The core of Hingley’s story has more in common with fairy reports than aliens, though both are essentially retellings of the same experience, dependant of the culture of the time.

So what happened here? In the least, Hingley herself clearly believed what she was saying, and there’s a wonderful level of specific detail, like the previous day’s Sunday papers containing the Queen’s honour list, or intergalactic fairies being aware of the work of Tommy Steele. It’s remarkable how readily the human brain, especially a human brain from the British Isles, will accept and adjust to a weird occurrence. Look at that episode of Beadle’s About where they plant a crashed meteor in a lady’s back garden. The alien is one of those pound shop inflatables you see getting bummed at a stag do, but within a couple of minutes, it’s being offered a cup of tea. Regardless of the truth of this incident, whether it’s a genuine home invasion by fairies, a psychotic episode, or just some local kids pissing about, almost immediately, it becomes an incredibly British scene of chit-chat and refreshments, with everyone’s anus left completely untouched.

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And on that notion of a psychotic episode; I’m sure I’m not the first one to throw the suggestion of a hallucinatory seizure into the mix. Though the above piece quotes Hingley as having a euphoric feeling as the creatures departed, other interviews describe the exit being heralded by deafening noises, and her suffering a terrible pain in the limbs as they flew away. The pains were so severe, she crawled to the sofa where she lay for a long time, until finally feeling well enough to put her husband’s tea in the oven. Could those muscles have been sore from contracting and thrashing during some kind of seizure? My own experience with somebody suffering a seizure is of their jaw being very sore in the days that followed, as a result of it having clamped so tightly shut during the event. An aching jaw was part of Hingley’s after-effects, attributed by her to its hanging agape during the visitation. Much of the incident revolves around bright light, sent in paralysing beams, or as narrative gaps, where blinding light acted as a ‘cut point’ between scenes, for instance between them lifting the cup to their mouths, and the water being ‘drunk’. Are these the intermissions of misfiring neurons? To perhaps further grasp at straws, the likelihood of seizures can be increased by fatigue, stress, and lack of sleep. What more stressful time than the Christmas period? And what kind of lights were on the tree? Flashing, like those episodes of Pokemon that triggered fits in its viewers? Three years after the event, Jean Hingley was dead, aged 46. Now, we don’t know the cause, and I’m not a doctor — a fact I’m legally required to disclose, after the closure of my free prostate exam business — but may I float the possibility of a brain tumour?

While I’m here discrediting the words of a dead woman, other sources specifically note the cause of being signed off work by a doctor as a nervous breakdown. And, before calling the police, she’d first called her husband, “shaking and crying.” Rather than coming home from his job at the cement factory, he told her to “go and have your hair done and tell the girls about it.” Not to get crucified in the age of #metoo, but is this suggestive of a previous history of dramatics, or just of the dismissive sexual politics of the time? Clearly on her mind, the role of woman in the then-modern world even came up in conversation with her visitors. “I was stuttering with nervousness. I was talking about politics and women going to work and said, “It’s a man’s world.” They seemed interested and excited as though they were listening and understanding.” Could this be a manifestation of buried frustrations, coming to the surface at the start of a new year?

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Though Hingley was quick to establish herself as a normal woman, not prone to flights of fancy — “I have never read books about UFOs. I don’t look at a lot of television, but like the Crossroads programmes and Coronation Street.” — she was deeply religious, with the experience merely confirming her beliefs, which is no surprise considering how devout the aliens seemed to be. Conversation repeatedly turned back to Jesus, with them telling her that “Everybody will go to Heaven. There are beautiful colours there,” and explaining to her what a synagogue was; “no need to worship in them,” they’d said. The entire story is replete with spiritual aspects, in a story filled with blinding white light and euphoric floating, and beginning with a feeling like being in Heaven. Following the experience, Hingley claimed to have psychic abilities, and in the weeks leading up to it, she’d been embroiled in a theological feud with members of her fundamentalist church.

Perhaps a combination of her pious nature, stress over Christmas and its increasingly commercial nature, and the inter-feuding at church, caused her to visualise a group of beings, not unlike those found on top of a Christmas tree, violently shaking, and eventually stealing one, returning it free of ornaments; and all the while talking up the galaxy-spanning power of their Lord Jesus? The whole story strikes more as a religious vision than a UFO encounter, although I don’t know the shrine at Lourdes would be such a popular ticket of faith-tourism if the Blessed Virgin Mary had materialised with a Brucie ‘thinker’ pose, and a “Didn’t they do well?” In truth, there’s no one answer for the Mince Pie Martians, which is likely down to a jumble of various factors, though it’s possible there’s a space museum out there somewhere, with a ‘do not touch’ sign by a glass dome on a plinth, displaying three mince pies, and a photograph of Tommy Steele. But we’ll never know for sure. Even Hingley herself didn’t know where to file it.

Some people have written to say that they think the visitors were elves or beings from the Fairy Kingdom, or even robots, but I don’t know what to think. I know I shall never forget them if I live to be a hundred.”

This piece is from my new Patreon, where subscribers could read this a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help me provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, the Fortean, and all kinds of other stuff.

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No Holds Barred, aka The Madness of King Vince

•April 9, 2018 • 1 Comment

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I’ve got a storied personal history with Hulk Hogan. In 2012, I posted this, which went semi-viral, retweeted by the likes of the Iron Sheik, which obviously brought it to the attention of the big man himself, as I soon found myself blocked by him on Twitter; a state of affairs that would have made the 12-year-old me weep. But eventually, my childhood hero, clearly practising some of that Christian forgiveness, decided to give me another chance, rescinding the block, and leaving me free to read his tweets about preventing middle-school shootings by arming librarians, and how leggy his daughter is. Then, in 2014, I published an updated version of the same piece in my book, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal, upon the release of which…

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As of today, me and the Hulkster are still on the outs. I’m not welcome at his Florida BBQs, and he’ll probably drop the big leg on my dick if he gets wind of this, though he’s since fallen out with Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake too, so at least I’m not alone. But this piece isn’t about the modern-day Hogan, rather, the model of three decades ago.

The Hulk Hogan of 1989 is what I consider ‘Hogan Classic’; an orange-skinned, coke-bloated maniac, swollen with pulsing musculature that sprayed the camera with rivulets of sweat during nonsensical, 200-decibel pre-match interviews, his eyes wide and crazed like he was mere seconds from death via spontaneous explosion. In 1991, a steroid scandal hit the news, leading to an infamous appearance on the Arsenio Hall Show, where a shifty-looking Hogan denied using them — though legend states he was due to confess all, but changed his mind right as he stepped onto the stage — which absolutely nobody believed, and made genuine front page news on both sides of the Atlantic. In the fallout, he suddenly lost a ton of muscle, leaning out his tall frame and taking on a more placid, sunken-cheeked look, which he wore for the rest of his career. The movie No Holds Barred captures peak Hogan Classic, both in physical appearance, and mental state, with Hulk as executive producer and alleged co-writer. But it’s also a snapshot of prime-era WWF. While over the decades, the matches got more athletic, and the production grander and more polished, the wrestling of my childhood was Hasbro figures, Silvervision VHS catalogues and sticker books filled with grimacing heels and colourful babyfaces so jacked they wouldn’t live to see 40. No Holds Barred is that world in its purest form.

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To even begin to understand this movie, you need to have a feel for Vince McMahon. For those unfamiliar with the man outside of his appearance in funny gifs, Vince has been owner, performer, and writer of now-WWE since 1982. More importantly, for those who aren’t aware, Vince McMahon is a fucking lunatic. A glorious, wonderful lunatic. Imagine Trump if he’d been raised in a circus, instead of in business. There aren’t enough paragraphs to fully put across the bombastic oddness of Vince McMahon; a man whose warped view of the world has played out onscreen via weekly wrestling shows for decades. From the Playboy interview where he talked of a childhood desire to fill his cousin’s vagina with crushed leaves, to the aborted storyline where he’d reveal his own daughter was pregnant with his child (having previously ogled her boobs on TV), to the time he said the n-word before comedically strutting past a black man on a live PPV, these are but three of literally a million insane things he’s said and done over the years. A 72-year-old billionaire who sleeps four hours a night, is ridiculously ripped, and thinks nothing of slashing open his head with a razorblade on live TV, he’s truly one of the maddest, most fascinating characters, both fictional and real, to have ever graced our planet. Hogan himself would probably make the top ten.

Despite enormous success in his chosen field, Vince is forever looking to escape the low-rent stain of wrasslin’ and succeed in ‘real’ entertainment, and his attempts to branch out into non-wrestling ventures are notable by the scale of their failure. The World Bodybuilding Federation; the (soon-to-be-revived) XFL; the $100m he tossed at a failed campaign to get his wife Linda elected to the senate. Before all of these — before even WWE’s straight-to-DVD albatross WWE Studios — came No Holds Barred; a three-pronged plan envisioned to get a foot in the door of movie production, turn Hogan into a bonafide Hollywood star, and add a new, ready-made monster heel to his roster of in-ring performers.

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At the time, Hogan was at the top of his game as an American icon. A regular on talk shows, he was the flag-waving, gun-flexing, prayer-saying American dream; if that dream was to look as though you were literally made of cocaine. But as iconic and ubiquitous as he was in the late 80s, Hulk Hogan was not a movie star. His role in Rocky 3 was seven years prior; a thousand years ago in Hollywood terms; and despite his undeniable charisma, there was another big issue holding back the Hulkster’s cinematic ascent. He couldn’t act. Before the Rock, casting a wrestler in your movie was to invite jokes about bad acting. But even within the world of wrestling, Hogan’s acting ability has always been remarkably terrible. A huge part of his success was the ability to connect with everyone in the building, while almost exclusively playing to huge arenas. The way a rockstar can look into a crowd and make everyone feel as though he’s meeting their eye, he did with his ear-cupping routine; the finger pointing; the goofy double-takes. People talk about actors chewing scenery, but if there was a wrestling equivalent, Hogan walked back to the dressing room every night slurping up the last of the ring ropes like spaghetti. A ham even by the standards of a business where cartoon characters pretend to fight, his playing to the cheap seats — playing to everyone — turned him into the franchise of the medium. But under the close-up scrutiny of the film camera, as an untested lead, there were no casting agents booting in his door, and he would likely never see his name on the marquee. Until Vince, who’d been wanting to make a movie for a while, decided to simply fund and produce one himself.

No Holds Barred was pitched as a classic battle between good and evil, and intended from the very beginning to escape from cinema screens after release, when the movie’s villain, Zeus, would jump to the WWF to feud with Hogan in-ring. Consequently, casting of the role — scripted to fulfil Vince’s desire for a frightening black villain, while Middle America was running scared from the burgeoning rise of gangsta rap — required an actor who could stand up as physically imposing next to the billed-as-6’8” Hogan. Tom ‘Tiny’ Lister Jr, who you may know as Deebo from Friday, or from the boat scene in The Dark Knight, or the myriad other films that call for a huge scary guy with a wonky eye, already had an in, sharing an agent with Hogan and Mr. T. He won over Vince instantly, auditioning in character, shirtless and flexing, and with a Z stuck to the side of his head in electrical tape. He was given three months to ‘prepare’, during which he went from 285-305lbs.

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As the story goes, Vince and Hulk weren’t happy with the first draft of the screenplay, and locked themselves in a hotel room with a mountain of coke to rewrite it over a single 72-hour session. While the Writers Guild accredit does not agree, anyone watching the movie can see their sweaty fingerprints all over it. Essentially a feature-length version of the dreadful between-match skits WWE fans have suffered through for decades, No Holds Barred is every favourite McMahon trope stretched over ninety minutes of piss, poo, farts, and gigantic, grunting men clouting each other. While wrestling’s onscreen episodes often showcase Vince’s love for the puerile, the business’s scatological obsession extends behind the scenes, and it’s rare when a character-breaking interview fails to drop a casual anecdote about locker-room hazing via wrestlers shitting in each other’s hats, suitcases, sandwiches, or anywhere else one can fit a turd. 80’s WWF was a big boys club; a closed circle that couldn’t fathom the rules of the world outside, robbed of wrestling’s inherent deceptions and unwritten locker-room code. Consequently, No Holds Barred is a view of our world through the eyes of theirs, like how The Room gave the human condition as seen by Tommy Wiseau.

It’s weird from the opening scene, where announcers ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund and Jessie ‘The Body’ Ventura are playing themselves, in the World Wrestling Federation. Hulk Hogan, however, is not Hulk Hogan. He’s Rip; the WWF champion. The decision to use as the actual WWF makes it play like a weird mirror universe, made all the more jarring by Rip’s blue and white attire, in a straight colour-swap from his trademark red and yellow, like an action figure with a new paint job. Not a creative choice, this was purely in the hopes of shifting Rip merchandise. But if this is the WWF, it’s the WWF of a dark timeline. Even as a kid, it felt sinister; brooding; like the WWF that might develop in a future dystopia. We’re only three years out from the Saturday morning Rock n Wrestling cartoon, with the company aimed solely at children, but the WWF of No Holds Barred is layered with sleaze and soundtracked by gloomy synth-sax. A 15 certificate on release, watching as a child gave the distinct feel of being slightly forbidden, too grown up for me, while simultaneously jam-packed with stuff about willies and piss.

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Barring the colour scheme, Rip is Hulk Hogan in all but name, right down to the noted 24 inch pythons. He’s accompanied to the ring by an Old Black Trainer, and his younger brother, Randy, sadly not played by Randy Savage, but by a young Jacob from Lost, to whom we’re told Rip has been more of a father, since their parents were killed. Rip also has a special hand gesture, the “Rip ’em,” that looks like the hang-ten of a surfer with arthritis, and is used throughout, to power him up, when exiting a room, or just as general punctuation. I can’t help but think back to the publicised court battle with Gawker, where it was stated on legal record by the man himself that, while Hulk Hogan has a ten-inch penis, Terry Bollea does not, and wonder what Rip’s packing down there.

Before I get to the terrible plot, there’s a very important point to establish. No Holds Barred takes place in a universe where wrestling is real. This has serious implications for the greater world outside the main story, where we must presume the rewritten laws of physics allow a man to be punched in the face 50 times a night with no serious injury, and where everyone from Asia can spit poison mist, and black people have hard heads. There are many fictional worlds made crazier through confirming their version of pro wrestling as canon-legit, such as Little House on the Prairie, Baywatch, The A-Team, 2002’s Spider-Man, and even specificity wrestling-set films like Dirt Benedict’s Body Slam, and Stallone’s Paradise Alley. Quantum Leap chose a confusing middle-ground, making the least sense of all, where everything was fake except for the title matches. For this movie, it’s 100% real, which makes sense given the utter lack of logic, and cheerily casual participation by almost everybody in offhanded acts of violence, murder, and attempted rape.

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To briefly sum up, Rip’s such a rating sensation that he’s killing the other networks (presumably his matches run 24/7?), including the World Television Network. Played by the great Kurt Fuller, WTN’s new network head Brell — just the one name, like Madonna — is that most eighties of villains, the evil television executive, forever threatening underlings with paperweights and backhanding secretaries. Unfortunately, as a man of noted integrity, Rip refuses all offers to jump ship, so Brell discovers a scuzzy underground fighting league, rebranding it as Battle of the Tough Guys, to huge success, where a murderous ex-con called Zeus rises the ranks. Brell’s plan is to have Rip accept Zeus’s challenge to a fight, live on WTN, by any nefarious means necessary.

One of these schemes, early in the movie, leads to the only scene from No Holds Barred that anyone ever remembers. Brell’s evil limo driver takes Rip for a scary ride — as Hogan rolls around in the back and makes “whoa!” noises — to a warehouse filled with pipe-welding goons. Leaping out of the sunroof like the other Hulk, he dispatches the henchmen with ease. It’s here we see the film’s most iconic moment, as Rip, gripping the lapels of the driver, and snarling and spluttering into his face, stops to sniff the air like a wolf, leading to the following exchange.

Hogan: “What’s that smell?

Limo Driver (stuttering): “Doo-doo-dookie!

Hogan: “Dookie?” [eyes pop out of head; pulls faces for ages]

Boy, that one must’ve shook the walls of Vince’s hotel room. Dookie. Definitely how adult men refer to shit. And about that snarling. It’s no exaggeration to say that 50% of the screenplay was the instruction “make weird dinosaur noise here,” as almost all communication is done via cheek-shaking grunts or pained shrieking. Hogan’s dialogue heavily consists of all those weird, bestial noises he made in the ring, but now in the cleanly-recorded closeness of an ADR booth, complete with lingering close-ups on pulsing forehead veins and saliva-dripping lips. There’s something primeval about it; something inhuman, with both leads more bear than man, snarling and roaring with such stroke-inducing intensity, they’re never not violently quivering. Zeus’s monosyllabic yells, every time he’s onscreen, are utterly exhausting, like something the CIA would use to drive a cult leader out of their compound and into the sweet freedom of lethal gunfire.

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The scene that most plays into the scuzzy, base nature of wrestling happens when Brell and his goons visit a gross dive bar, with many of Vince’s most beloved cliches on display. It’s all leather vests and brown teeth, tattoos and arse-cracks, nose-picking and tobacco spitting, with a cage suspended from the ceiling containing a cackling dwarf. A waitress, who snorts up phlegm between every line, tells the execs “The gay bar’s across the street!” Then, one of them needs the bathroom.

Exec: “Where do I go to bleed the old lizard?

Enormous Biker in Dungarees: “In your pants, wimp.

That’s right, round here we all pee our pants, like real men! There is some comic mileage to be had in the nervy suits (who genuinely elevate the material) going to the world’s most disgusting bathroom, where urinal troughs overflow with frothy yellow piss and honest-to-God pond algae, as a wild dog pulls its chain to full-stretch. This is the toilet of my nightmares when I’m asleep with a full bladder. When a diarrhoea sound causes them to turn and piss all over each other, Stan Hansen kicks the door off its hinges, and goes in for such a close look at their exposed dicks, he could give them a peck right on the bell if he wanted.

What have we got here? A teeny wanger. And heeeere’s another.

The nob-inspector is called Neanderthal, and where No Holds Barred truly excels is in the names of its fighters. Brock Chiseller. Bulldog McPherson. Klondyke Kramer. Lugwrench Perkins. They’re all deliciously oafish, slapping at their heads or spraying deodorant into their own face, with the kind of enormous barrel-like physiques you don’t see anymore; steroid beef but high on bodyfat, and nobody south of 300lbs. If they remade this today, they’d all have abs. When Battle of the Tough Guys is announced, there’s a great montage of toughies listening in; a blacksmith at a forge pulling a big chain; a man with an eyepatch eating raw walnuts at a pool table; a trucker clutching a rag; and all the fights take place in greasy foundries or other 80’s rock video settings, with belching fires and molten sparks, like somewhere you’d shoot a nude calendar of hunky welders.

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However, the most disturbing aspect of No Holds Barred isn’t any of the deliberate gross-out stuff. Brell’s other plan involves the seduction of Rip by a beautiful woman posing as his new agent, which leads us into — at the time — uncharted waters that might drown us all; the sexualizing of Hulk Hogan. Here in the stupid future, as the star of an actual sex tape, Hulk’s dogged thrusts and post-coital wheezing have been witnessed by millions, which may undermine collective memories of his holy public image back in ’89. Forever harping on and on about the little Hulksters, and pointing his clasped hands at the sky in thanks to God, he was a sexless giant, with a big cross around his neck, and nothing under the trunks but a polished nub worthy of his 4-inch Hasbro. Unfortunately for its viewers, No Holds Barred marks Hulk Hogan’s announcement to the world that he is a sexual being, and guys; he’s practically hopping from foot to foot, begging you to pull over, because he is busting for a wank.

The second he’s introduced to Joan Severance’s Samantha, his facial expression suggests he’ll be shaking the cum out of his trouser-legs as soon as she’s turned her back. As she leads the power-meeting, with him sat at a table of old businessmen, he’s a bundle of hormonal rage, fidgeting and sucking on his own thumb, with Sid James-like exhalations of lust as he unashamedly cranes his head sideways to get a good look at her arse. While she’s talking about branding, he’s chewing on his lips and growling like a lion, clearly acting under directorial instruction to “pretend like you’re real horny,” and playing the whole scene like his dick’s about to start spraying like a loose firehose and bring down the ceiling.

We soon switch genres into a dire middle-act romcom, with the old “the hotel’s double-booked, so we’re sharing a room with a single bed!” trope. Wildly misreading the amount of sexual chemistry between its leads — none — we’re punished with a 1950’s screwball section, in a bad cover-version of the Pankot Palace scene from Temple of Doom. He’s in the main room and she’s in the bathroom, each shit-talking the other, each putting a curious ear to the wall, and ooh, they hate each other, but they’re definitely going to kiss! Of note during this, they’re both brushing their teeth, but there’s no sink in the main room, so I guess he just gobs it all on the floor?

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Anyway, Rip hangs up a bedsheet, splitting the room down the middle into his ‘n hers, like that episode of Steptoe and Son, while clad in his nightwear of a giant tie-dye muscle vest and a pair of shorts that would be too small for a premature baby, cut right up the thigh, exposing his entire leg. The hideous unsexiness of this raises an important issue. At no point in the movie do you buy the notion that Joan Severance, an incredibly gorgeous woman, would be into him. Despite being a super-jacked, world famous pseudo-athlete, at no point in his career has Hulk Hogan ever been portrayed as a sex symbol. He’s safe; dad-like, and in the many unforgiving close-ups, looks to be in his fifties, rather than the 36 he was at the time. A guy like that nowadays would shave their head, but the middle-aged baldness, with its rear draping of weird doll-hair, is Trumpian in its self-denial, to the point Vince’s wrestlers were banned from bringing it up in promos. Consequently, no matter how intense his fuck-me-eyes as he swaggers about with a boner, and despite the best efforts of Severance, the utter lack of chemistry makes it feel like one of those news stories about a woman who’s gotten married to a metal stairwell.

Following a bit of pillow-talk where they bond over their lonely lives, while still separated by the sheet, the pair say goodnight, leading to the weirdest scene in an already very weird movie. Next to this, The Room‘s tuxedo football toss looks like something from the back catalogue of Ken Loach. From the “goodnight,” we hard cut to Samantha, asleep in her bra, with the bed violently shaking up and down; and I mean violently, like that bit in The Exorcist. The room is filled with the sound of creaking bedsprings and Rip’s ragged breathing, the entire intention of which is to suggest to the audience he’s furiously jerking off, as is Sam’s assumption when she’s woken by it. Judging by the sound and fury, it must be a particularly ferocious wank, quite likely to have a bit of blood in it. As Samantha slowly pulls back the dividing sheet, this is what she sees.

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Is that… a tiny little bottom? The first time I saw this as a child, my brain couldn’t parse it. It’s actually the bottom of his heels, as he does push-ups with his feet up on the bed, wearing a pair of women’s bikini briefs. Come morning, he’s been up all night exercising, and backed by an erotic sax soundtrack, we’re given a lingering pan up Severence’s sleeping body, when, just to ruin it for anyone who started masturbating at that point, there’s a savage a cut to Hulk Hogan in his little knickers. He jumps up on the bed, which breaks, rolling her on top of him, and as this fails to initiate immediate sex, Rip angrily yells “You build bigger walls than I ever could!” and storms off in a huff. Remember, she’s his agent, not his girlfriend, but still looks thoroughly ashamed of herself.

So anyway, a bunch of nonsense happens, including Rip being treated as a hero by vanquishing a pair of armed robbers at his favourite diner by throwing pies at them, completely trashing the place in the process, and a scene where Samantha — now Rip’s girlfriend — is attacked in an underground parking lot by a rapist who I’m 90% sure is dubbed by Vince McMahon. Incidentally, Hogan’s punishment for the rapist is to perch him on the handlebars of his Harley and drive him into a tree, while laughing uproariously. With Samantha now unable to betray Rip as she’s fallen for him for real, Brell finally eggs Rip into fighting Zeus by having him batter his little brother, and the fight is on.

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This act of barbarism finally takes us back to the 80’s action movie we were hoping for. We get Rip trashing Zeus’s empty gym, where a wall of Enter the Dragon style mirrors echo Rip’s paranoia, and a TV in the corner plays Brell’s looped gymspiration video — “Rip said the worms are too good for you. He said the maggots will gag on your rotten flesh...” as he watches via a CCTV camera with his goons, before Rip spears a barbell through the lens like a javelin. Then we get some acting! Or at least, Hulk Hogan’s approximation of grief, clad in funereal black bandana, fingerless gloves, and lycra bodysuit, at the bedside of a comatose Randy, who’s been kicked to near-death by Zeus. When Rip’s words of encouragement rouse Randy to open his eyes, the tears of an emotional Rip lead us into what we’ve all been waiting for — training montage!

In a sequence borrowed from the great Rocky/Drago one in Rocky IV, we’re shown the two disparate styles of our fighters. Zeus smashes cinder-blocks with his fists, while Rip helps doctors lower the paralysed Randy into a bath, gently stroking his hair; Zeus goes mad on a rowing machine, spurred on by Brell’s “worms” video, as Rip helps Randy take his first steps on a set of parallel rehab bars; every comically-broad beat highlighting this battle between gentle giant and deranged beast. It’s also very meta that a Hulk Hogan film would so focus on a brother, brother. Finally, it’s time for the main event, live on WTN. Though Battle of the Tough Guys has thus far featured sweaty barbarians in smelting factories swinging pipes at each other’s heads, the watching audience resembles the Mar-a-Lago ballroom on New Year’s Eve, exclusively posh folks in expensive dresses and tuxedos, hyped up from watching Lugwrench Perkins drown a trucker in a vat of piss in the quarter final.

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With crippled Randy watching from ringside, and Samantha kidnapped by Brell’s goons in the suite upstairs, Rip’s told to make it look good for ten minutes, before taking a dive, or he’ll be “pushing matching wheelchairs.” If only he’d listened, as the following ten minutes, by any standards, are not good. There’s a lot of close-ups of angry-acting; of puffing cheeks and bulging eyes; but it’s over-long and poorly choreographed, consisting mainly of Zeus’s choke-holds, while the wobbly ropes shake up and down distractingly, though shooting was briefly stopped after Hogan accidentally broke Lister’s nose. At one point, there’s a stomach-churning slow-mo of the top of Rip’s head, with sweat flying from his strands of thinning hair, which looks like a scarecrow’s bollock in a thunderstorm. The whole time he’s getting battered, Rip’s weakly reaching out for his brother, who gives tearful encouragement like “C’mon, Rip, try!” Eventually, Samantha escapes, freeing Rip to beat the superhuman monster, if he can. But this is such a shoddy movie, none of the emotional cues for him to mount his comeback — Randy’s little finger twitching; realising Samantha has escaped; Zeus attacking Rip’s trainer — are the signal for his resurgence, which just kinda happens eventually, following the same tired structure as every Hulk Hogan vs. Big Bad match in the WWF. The fight, and the movie ends with his punching Zeus off a balcony into the ring below, to his death, while Brell fatally electrocutes himself on a smashed-up bank of monitors.

The last line of the above paragraph, and indeed all of the content in this movie, is doubly-baffling when you consider Hogan’s reasoning for having waited so long to star in his own movie. “With all the training, the prayers and the vitamins, I had to worry about all the little Hulksters,” he said, during a promotional stop on Arsenio. Yeah, I’m sure the kids all loved this festival of death and piss; perfect family entertainment. He wasn’t shooting machine guns, Hogan said, so “it’s real squeaky-clean for all the little Hulksters.”

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No Holds Barred opened on June 2nd, 1989, at number 2 behind Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, domestically grossing $16m in its four-week run. But box office was only part of its intended purpose, with promotion for the film, and the feud between its villain and Hulk Hogan beginning in earnest on WWF television some months earlier. Zeus had always been intended as a future opponent for Hogan, with the official story that the pair hadn’t gotten on during filming, and Zeus had gotten a big head with all the publicity, and begun to think he could beat him for real. Though an interesting idea in theory, Tiny Lister’s crossover from acting to wrestling was fraught with problems.

Initially, Lister, said to be vocally homophobic backstage, wasn’t sold on the idea of wrestling, because “I don’t wanna touch no dudes. I’m not into touching dudes,” until they told him how much money he was set to make (Years later, in 2011’s prison film K-11, in role where he raped a trans female character, played by a cis-female actress, Lister had the director bring in a female stunt double, so the rape scene wouldn’t ‘damage his street cred’). Used sparingly at first, he wasn’t trained before his April 25th debut in front of a live crowd, where he chased a ring announcer. During Zeus’s television debut, attacking Hogan with punches in the aisle during NBC’s Saturday Night’s Main Event, the segment that aired was a spliced-in retape from the next day, after Lister, an actor used to pulling punches in fake movie fights, and born blind in one eye, missed Hogan by a mile.

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Struggling to walk on the lifts in his boots, to make him appear taller, and with no depth perception, Zeus was kept limited to simple moves like chokes and bear hugs, to lessen the possibility of fucking up. He wore a painted-on unibrow, and the costume props from the movie, which began to fall apart under the rigours of regular use. Backstage, he was unpopular, viewed as an actor unfairly coming into the big money top-spot against Hogan, and granted special privileges, sequestered away in his own dressing room. The rest of the roster ribbed him mercilessly, from anonymous phone-calls of racial abuse in his hotel room, to Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts tossing his giant python onto him while he was showering. As a working actor unused to roles extending past the set, he was confused by the hatred of the fans, some of whom sent death threats, and who didn’t see him as Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister playing a role, but Zeus, hateful enemy of their beloved champion. Wrestling’s strict kayfabe forbade him from breaking character, and he was banned from public excursions, so’s not to have the snarling maniac from TV being seen buying groceries or doing laundry. Lister later claimed that Vince leaked a bunch of lies to the National Enquirer to sell Zeus’s heelish credentials, saying that he was a Blood and a Crip, had killed 3 people, and was a heroin addict who beat his wife. Though he did refuse to get into a red rental car, forcing his WWF handler to switch to a blue one, so’s not to disrespect his gang status as a blue-wearing Crip.

Though it should have been a disaster, in contemporary interviews, Lister remembers the period fondly, no doubt due to how wildly financially successful the Zeus/Hogan program turned out to be. Put in a tough spot, he made it work, and the day before the SummerSlam match, a main event of Zeus and Randy Savage vs. Hogan and Brutus Beefcake, the WWF took the unusual step of a practise run, so that he’d be more comfortable. While it was dreadful, the show did over a million PPV buys, leading to Lister’s return for November’s Survivor Series, just in time to promote the home video release of No Holds Barred. There, his physical participation was even more limited, disqualified in the first three minutes for shoving a referee. Finally, on December 27th, Zeus made his final appearance in a special PPV, No Holds Barred, The Match/The Movie, where a showing of the film was followed by a rematch from SummerSlam, this time in a steel cage. The close of his WWF run saw the previously-invincible Zeus soundly and cleanly defeated by Hogan after three legdrops.

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Incredibly, Lister’s wrestling career contains a pair of brief footnotes. Shortly after leaving the WWF, Zeus participated in the most unbearably awful match of all time against the wobbly-titted Abdullah the Butcher. Held in the notoriously wild wrestling scene of Puerto Rico, a territory fresh off the locker-room murder of Bruiser Brody, Lister was so afraid for his life that he travelled with a pair of armed cops, who accompanied him everywhere, even the bathroom. Then, in 1996, a noticeably flabbier Zeus, under the name Z Gangsta, reappeared in Hogan’s new home, WCW, for a run accurately described by Lister as “Hulk Hogan offered me 20k to get hit in the head with a frying pan. Hell yeah.

Though Hogan did feature in more films in the near-30 years following No Holds Barred (films I will hopefully cover here at some point), and even his own TV show, Thunder in Paradise — a Baywatch/Airwolf hybrid, featuring a hi-tech superboat — the subsequent screen careers of Duane Johnson, Dave Bautista, and John Cena merely emphasis the fact that he never became a bonafide movie star. But for all its horrors, No Holds Barred is a wonderful capture of a moment in time; of America, of 80’s cinema, and of the period when we could watch Hulk Hogan punching a black guy without knowing he was probably thinking the n-word as he did it. There’s currently a Vince McMahon biopic in the works, but nothing, especially not a WWE-approved film, could ever capture the bonkers contents of his mind. Besides, the closest thing to that has already been made. And it has an amazing closing theme.

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Noel’s H(oly) Q(uest)

•March 31, 2018 • 2 Comments

faun

Noel Edmonds is an… interesting character. Few have endured through as many decades of the shifting entertainment world, and like Madonna, he’s had to evolve to survive. His path began as a DJ and phone prankster, moving onto television host and King of Saturday nights, and inevitably wilderness-dwelling pariah, spoken of only as a punchline, before bouncing back with a hugely successful show where people take ages to open boxes like they’re in a cult. Since then, he’s reached a further stage of enlightenment, reinventing himself as a wizard.

The signs of his latest, modern-alchemist direction began with televisual resurrection, claiming to have acquiring Deal or No Deal simply by asking the universe for it via cosmic ordering. Jon Ronson’s incredible piece written during a week’s filming of the show painted a portrait of a backstage beholden to a hippie guru, with contestants terrified Noel might see negative vibes buzzing through their auras and have them banished. Then there’s the time he made a video criticising the BBC in falsetto while dressed like an old lady, before later threatening to buy the broadcaster himself. Nu-Noel’s media appearances function as opportunities to spread his gospel, such as the dead parents that visit him in the form of two melon-sized orbs of light, or the service he offers to cheer up depressed cats over the phone by sending them messages of positivity. It’s not just cats and dogs psychically yacking, as Noel confirms that trees and bushes chat too, sending each other warnings up to 50 miles away, if hungry giraffes are lurking in the vicinity. Water can also speak. “It’s communicating with us, it’s communicating with other water,” he said, which is probably why my ears were burning after my morning poo.

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Positivity has become Noel’s MO, officiating ‘Positivity Weddings’, and helpfully announcing that diseases like cancer are caused by negative attitudes. Coincidentally, around this time Noel was hawking a magic box which uses soundwaves to cure cancer and prevent aging. But if you couldn’t find the required £2,315 to buy one, your tumours could still be shrunk by listening to his new station, Positivity Radio, which aimed to soothe the listener with birdsong noises, the ethereal sounds of Noel’s laughter, and as per an article in the Guardian, a quiz section where “the subject is Prisoner: Cell Block H but… the answer to every question is “Lord Archer.” Positivity Radio has currently taken a new direction, as Noel locks the same laser-focus that took Telly Addicts to the top of the ratings onto another target. Lloyds Bank. His rebranded website, Noel World, in all its 1999-looking glory, is an unending diatribe of rambling words and pictures, which seem like they should be pinned to a garage wall and connected with red string, detailing the crimes of Lloyds Bank. Or, as he calls them, Liars Banking Group, seeking £300m compensation for the collapse of his business, and subsequent emotional damage. Noel claims that, thanks to all the publicity, his computers and phones are constantly being hacked, and while on a trip to France, was approached by two sinister men who told him “be very careful, you are making powerful enemies.” The radio station playlist consists entirely of songs that relate to his plight, Abba’s Money, Money, Money and You’ve Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two from Oliver! — interspersed with interviews about his Lloyds experience by somebody who sounds suspiciously like Noel putting on a voice.

Though it seems as though he’s gone the full David Icke, there’s still a way for Noel to mount a comeback. Picture this — a slasher movie, set in the ruins of Blobbyland, where urban explorers are picked off, one by one, by the beast himself. As the final girl slays Blobby by impaling him on a Gotcha, its head comes off revealing Noel, gone mad. If he signed off on that, he’d earn back all the lost money, and reclaim his place in the nation’s hearts. But while the Ozymandian rubble of Blobbyland is long-considered Noel’s greatest folly, there’s another; a perfect outlet for his self-help delirium; a perfect disaster. I’m speaking of Noel’s HQ, a television pilot airing on Sky on September 14th 2008.

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The phrase ‘Event Television’ is often overused, but that’s obviously the intention behind Noel’s HQ, which even Sky’s continuity announcer claims will “inspire the viewer.” From the opening salvo, Noel makes it clear that this is no mere television show; it’s his call to arms. He’s fully back in crazed philanthropist mode, the Christ-Noel of Noel’s Christmas Presents, where he’d appear on a factory floor to usher a confused man in a hairnet onto a private jet because he’d not had a day off in thirty years. Like some weird goblin guarding the door of a mysterious labyrinth, Noel begins by telling the viewer to prepare for three questions. Should we say yes to even one of them, this show could change our lives forever. What might these questions be? Do you know what happened to Roy ‘Spook’ Jay? Have you got a scrap of paper? Because if so, did you know, you can cosmic order Anna Kendrick to be your wife?

He makes his entrance, to a large, wildly applauding live audience, pointedly wishing good evening, with a serious look in his eye; a look that seems to say “there will be no gunge tonight.” He means business. Then, ask he me, the riddles three. “Are you unhappy with life in Britain today? Are you concerned with the lack of respect, compassion, and freedom in our society? Would you like to be part of a fairer, more caring Britain?

Now, before you scream “Yes!” so hard that you strain a bollock, let’s step back and remind ourselves about the Britain of 2008. Culturally, it seems a million years ago, before the joy of George Osborne getting booed at the Paralympics, and preceding the horrors of Farage, Hopkins, and Brexit. Compared to today, 2008 seems like some kind of Star Trek utopia, back when nobody had heard of Logan Paul, and we weren’t deluged with daily videos of racists on trains shrieking at brown people. What did we worry about back then, before things slipped into the dystopian fascist hell-hole we now call home? Don’t worry, Noel’s here to remind us, at great length, immediately slipping in the phrase “Broken Britain.” Used frequently in this show, back then, it was a two-word battle cry for The Sun, in its daily front page scares about poor people and hoodie-wearing feral youths in need of the birch or National Service; and tales of petty ‘elf n safety’ regulations from Barmy Brussels. David Cameron would go on to use the phrase as the backbone of his election campaign, as would your dad when reposting articles from the Onion while thinking they were real.

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And that’s essentially Noel’s HQ; it’s your dad’s Facebook page; it’s the comment section of the Daily Mail; it’s every local newspaper photo of an angry resident squatting beside a pothole. It’s all those things, and so much more, as presented by a genetic hybrid of Alan Partridge and Infowars‘ Alex Jones, who’s dressed as a divorced lion. Noel opens with an impassioned rant about the evils we, as a nation have to deal with. Poverty? Racism? Underfunding of vital public services, and poisonous media billionaires stirring up hatred with daily propaganda? Of course not. These are but petty concerns. Noel’s bothered by the real problems we face, the “tidal wave of new rules, regulations and laws, that’ve been introduced on behalf of health and safety, security, or the environment.” Yeah! Fuck the environment!

Throughout the show, each of the many times these words are uttered; phrases like “health and safety” or “red tape,” they’re spat with the chuckling, weightless contempt you’d use to utter the name of a disgraced local clown; caught shiteing against the counter in McDonalds again. This is Noel with a purpose, angry at politicians who’ve “had their turn,” livid at “red tape and bureaucracy.” There’s a fire in his heavily-made-up eyes, and he clearly sees Noel’s HQ as the spark to light the fuse, sending Britons into the streets with bread knives to hack their local fat-cat councillors to mush and reclaim these lands.

The assembled audience have obviously been hand-picked for their virtue; noble men and women who hold our sceptred, crumbling isle on their broad shoulders. As he passes, he thrusts his mic towards their mouths like King Arthur’s sword; a lady who works in a soup kitchen; a plumber offering one free bathroom; for a show which promises life-changing qualities, its reliance on man-on-the-street interactions pulls us right back to Noel’s Prankster Claus roots. Seemingly unable to stop himself from awkwardly surprising regular folks, with that look on his face like he’s walking on fucking water, much of Noel’s HQ consists of suddenly pulling unsuspecting audience members into his game, in a series of consistently awkward interactions. The first victim is a man who started a Kind Deeds Day in his local area, whom Noel patronises by putting on a bad Brummie accent. But in the Church of Noel, he is God, and as he judges and condemns the bad, so he will reward those who’ve earned a place at his right hand. Their prize, while not quite eternal life, is a go on the Wonder Wall; a television screen which displays the words Wonder Wall with a magic tinkling noise, and a series of ‘random’ prizes hidden behind numbers. Mr. Kind Deeds picks #12, landing himself a (heavily sponsored) spa holiday to Spain.

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And on it goes, with Noel hijacking his own show about making Britain more caring to wrong-foot ordinary people, not expecting to find themselves on camera, suddenly thrust onto live television, and forced to watch emotional videos about their various deeds. When he accosts a nervous man who found a holdall containing £3,800, and handed it into the police instead of keeping it, I half expect the Wonder Wall to land on live footage of Anton Chigurh hiding behind his bedroom door with a shotgun. Instead, he picks a number and wins a cruise, which Noel says he’s specially arranged, knowing the man hasn’t had a holiday for a while. So, the numbers aren’t random? What’s the point of making them choose? Later, a young woman who set up an anti-bullying website has to watch a VT of her mum talking about her daughter’s horrific schooldays, before being product-placement gifted a Pocket Surfer 2; an evergreen piece of tech up there with Alan Sugar’s em@iler. She doesn’t even get a go on the Wonder Wall. Finally, as a show closer, Noel surprise-calls on a couple who lost their honeymoon when a holiday company collapsed, and hands them a trip to Malta, cuing a messianic soundtrack of “You raise me up!” Ever generous, back in the studio, he gives us a gift, of the most Partridge line of all time, regarding the bride — “In case you didn’t cry then, let me just tell you, Kelly, earlier this year, had meningitis, and had a very serious disease as well.

The most egregious of these “you thought you were here because x, but actually…” surprises is a show-long tale we frequently cut back to, between the other maddening skits. Switching pace from Noel’s Christmas Presents to Challenge Anneka, we’re introduced to some “girls” from a nursery for special needs children whose opening has been hobbled by that ever-present red tape. It’s not exactly clear the nature of their problem, other than Noel’s repeated, vague emphasis, over and over again, that there was red tape, but he’s cut through it. Then it’s over to Konnie Huq, “slashing through that red tape,” and renovating the building so it can be opened tomorrow, in a scene that’s hilarious in its wild efforts to look industrious. A constant stream of people walk busily past the camera, carrying items; paint pots, planks of wood, a tool bag. Nobody’s working, but everyone’s rushing, pushing past Konnie as she speaks, bustling in front of the lens, some carrying single items; a tiny stool, a tube of polyfilla; one boy has a single packet of wipes in his hand as he barges though. Others carry ‘presents’ that are clearly just identically wrapped empty boxes. By the end of the 40-second piece, during which some 50 people rush by, the faces are starting to repeat, going back the way they just came, with one lady holding the same paint can from her first appearance, now also armed with two ‘presents’ that someone else has just carried off-frame.

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Konnie then gives us a tour of the place, with a Japanese gameshow style reaction box in the corner of the screen, so we can catch every falling tear from the nursery workers back in the audience at Noel’s HQ. It’s a true monument to the fight against Broken Britain, showcasing the kind souls willing to take a stand and help those less fortunate; heroes; like the artist painting a mural on a wall; Rolf Harris. Rolf explains that he “loves working with kids and for kids, cos it keeps you young,” in an appearance Noel describes as “a good surprise,” promising us “we’ll be getting through the tissues.”

But television’s soon-to-be-convicted-for-sexual-crimes-against-children Rolf Harris isn’t the only celebrity on show, as Noel’s pulled a few strings to round up more big names similarly sick of Britain’s slide into the bureaucratic abyss. On Brighton beach, a shivering Andi Peters harangues passers-by into signing up to the organ donor list, and encourages viewers to do the same, during what Noel suggests “could be the most important commercial break in the history of TV.” In Liverpool, Liz from Atomic Kitten waves a placard reading ‘NOEL EDMONDS NEEDS YOU TO GIVE THE GIFT OF LIFE‘, urging people to blood test for bone marrow compatibility with a pair leukaemia-stricken children. Gail Porter’s in Glasgow, rounding up volunteers for a ‘guerilla gardener’, planting flowers in a public space that’s a mess of overgrown grass and suspiciously-placed whiskey bottles. Back in the studio, he brings out Helen Chamberlain — “she’s got a great idea!” — who’s pushing for football clubs to donate match tickets to soldiers. Your dad’s all for giving Are Brave Boys footballers’ wages, but they’ll have to do with tickets instead, with Noel threatening to name and shame the clubs that aren’t giving enough seats, to rabid applause from the audience. These celebrity interactions give us the incredible ad-break teaser, when coming up, “our senior citizens are going to be helped by Nell McAndrew.”

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This section is Noel at his most righteous; his most fearless; like a young Che Guevara, almost shaking with rage as he bemoans the fact “our senior citizens should be shown more compassion, and more respect.” Noel shows this respect by chucklingly describing elderly covers band The Zimmers as “a group of people who, quite frankly, have got more energy than the rest of us put together!” The group mime along to My Generation at Birmingham airport, as Nell collects coins from travellers in a bucket with Noel’s face on. Back in the studio, Noel tightly grips a collection box, careful to angle the part with his face towards the camera, and as though spitting the name of his mother’s murderer, informs us “if I rattle it too aggressively, in the Britain we have created, I can be accused of begging, and I can be arrested!” Yeah, and I hear if you order a black coffee the PC Police will hang you for racism. “That’s a rule,” he confirms of the tin, “that’s a regulation brought in!” Then, in a powerful act of political rebellion, surely seconds from having his beard doused with pepper spray, he forcefully, deliberately shakes the tin, holding the lens with a firm glare.

The audience applause that follows almost collapses the foundations of the studio. Emmeline Pankhurst. The Tank Man at Tiananmen Square. Noel Edmonds. Perhaps he’s not the hero we asked for, but he is the hero we need, a desperate martyr being dragged to the bowels of Hell by red tape; smothering, constricting his limbs; but never gagging his words. Damn these barmy rules; damn the stupid elf ‘n safety regulations that stop him from orchestrating another televised stunt that leads to a man’s death. We go to commercial with Noel aggressively shaking the tin once again, practically daring the police to cart him off. Frankly, it’s a shock that Noel’s HQ wasn’t taken off the air at this point, replaced by a black government test-card and high-pitched whistle.

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Thankfully, we do return, as Noel’s HQ is a busy show, with a huge amount crammed into its ninety-minutes. At one point, Noel bemoans the abuse of the word “hero,” casually thrown at footballers and celebrities, who aren’t true heroes, unlike… well, if you couldn’t tell he was about to unveil a soldier, please leave your internet access and badge on my desk and get out. A show like this, post 911, couldn’t fail to remind us that man’s noblest, most worthy aspiration is killing, and after giving the soldier a bunch of stuff for his charity, he plays him a video message of adoration from Richard Hammond on behalf of Top Gear, and lends him a Ferrari for a day. Absolute tippy-top peak Brexit gammon.

There is a danger here that I’ll look to be sneering at worthy causes, but even the most genuinely deserving charity, when spotlit by Noel’s simperingly earnest approach, turns into a peculiar sideshow. Regard the piece about knife crime, where we’re introduced to a man whose son was stabbed to death, and is unprepared to find himself pulled out of his seat in the audience and onto the stage. “This,” says Noel, “is an electrifying story!” as he cues a VT taking us through the ‘electrifying’ tale of the boy’s murder, and father’s subsequent opening of a charitable foundation. Already shell-shocked, the man is told by Noel that he’s “ploughing a lonely furrow,” and doesn’t possess the three vital skills he needs to properly grow his charity. Which three skills? The ones that Noel shows him on the big screen, in giant font; COMMUNICATION; BUSINESS ACUMEN; PUBLICITY. He wheels out three experts; one in each field; the members of his new team, entering to the weird Arthurian music that punctuates everything. The grieving father continues to sob, as Noel drowns him with rewards — a procession of helpers; a video message from boxer Ricky Hatton; and a final gift from Noel’s HQ, of a people-carrier, which is his to use, for the oddly-specific period of one year.

But everything so far is mere side dressing when compared to the three course mania of the Noel’s HQ main dish. After introducing tabloid hag Carole Malone, he tells us to brace ourselves, like someone who uses the word “methinks” ending a Facebook post with “rant over!” Then begins the section entitled Noel’s News, where an eye-rolling Edmonds, chuckling so hard he can barely get the words out, reads a selection of news stories about barmy rules and regulations. You know the kind of thing; man banned from taking wheelbarrow to the tip; old lady stopped from gardening public spaces without a hi-vis jacket; man banned from wearing kilt to the pub. Each are accompanied by brilliantly illustrative pictures from the local news, of the subject folding their arms and looking miffed, while Malone adds colour with hilarious comments like “sounds barking mad” after a story involving dogs. Unfortunately, the camera doesn’t cut to Noel for a reaction shot when she humorously brings up the dangers of bungee jumping.

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But for almost all of these stories, even a cursory thought reveals the logic behind the ‘barmy’ decisions, which are less examples of jobsworth red tape nonsense, than someone putting a stop to an idiot. Noel’s pissing about a man fined for overfilling his wheelie bit, but you know he’d be the first to complain if Pringles tubes and old nappies started blowing across his driveway. And for all the harping on about the elderly, I’m sure he’d have loved it if that old lady had been mown down while weeding the roundabout because she couldn’t be seen in the car’s headlights. Kilt not allowed in the pub? Nobody wants to stare at your dick. Likewise, news of bagpipers who’ve been restricted over noise complaints leaves Edmonds aghast, and Malone beside herself that police are going after bagpipers and not “the yobs and the hoodies and the drunks!” who presumably are playing that nasty rap music on their phones, and not the beautiful, melodic bagpipes, which she and Noel would be only too happy to hear outside their bedroom windows at 3am.

Noel’s News, which occurs three times during the show, always ends the same way, with the final story pushing Edmonds over the edge, into a priapic cry of “Bonkers Britain!” Ironically, these words are the cue for the most unhinged scenes ever broadcast; the televisual equivalent of opening the puzzle box from Hellraiser. Over wacky boing noises and a looped refrain of “bonkers here, bonkers there, bonkers everywhere!” the doors to the set burst open, filling the stage with a tidal wave of bodies. By bodies, I specifically mean people in fancy dress costumes that look as though they cost about £10 between them. Someone’s dressed as a banana, a cheerleader, Dorothy from Wizard of Oz, a burlesque dancer in a top hat tossing handfuls of confetti, Sherlock Holmes, Gladiators (ITV, not Roman) with a pugil stick; there’s no rhyme nor reason, just a wacky mass of humanity, filling every inch of the screen. It’s like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights; an astronaut dances with a pantomime horse; a (real) dog looks confused; people in tutus and feather boas; a balcony of bagpipers; the audience waving their arms and cheering “bonkers here, bonkers there…” Incredibly, Mr Blobby doesn’t put in an appearance. Keith Chegwin does though, dancing inside a wheelie bin with arm and leg-holes cut into it. Later, he’ll be sat in a wheelbarrow being pushed by a caveman, screaming the word “bonkers!” with the desperation of a man calling for help from inside a burning house.

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The final story from Noel’s News is so ruddy bonkers, it needs its own section. “Over to you, Noel,” says Noel, handing over to himself in a pre-tape, where he rants and raves about “the killjoys at Worcester city council,” who’ve brought in rules to limit the irritating chiming of ice cream vans down to 4-second blasts. Noel’s terrified that “one of our great traditions” will become a thing of the past, in that blanket nostalgia for every single thing from Britain’s ‘better (whiter) days’ that always immediately leads to “why can’t I fill my window with gollywogs?!” Doing his best Michael Moore, Noel gathers a fleet of ice cream vans, occupying the pavement outside Worcester council offices with a group of bell-ringers and people dressed as ice creams, to hand out free cones, and force the council to face the consequences of their actions. As we wait, there are angry vox pops with locals, moaning that they’ve taken the chimes away, though as is patently obvious from the very beginning, they haven’t. This is confirmed when a councillor emerges to meet a puffed-up Edmonds, explaining that they’ll investigate if someone complains about the noise, but there won’t be any chime-wardens lurking with stopwatches. Noel gets his guarantee there won’t be any stopwatches, and then acts like he’s scored a big victory, when nothing’s changed at all, and like all of these things, his righteous anger was entirely based on a knee-jerk reaction to an incorrect assumption.

So did Noel’s HQ change the nation? Certainly Noel’s self-belief saw this as the beginnings of a revolution, with the audience becoming increasingly riled, and taking on the tone of a political rally. He bade us goodnight with “That’s what we’ve done tonight. What are you going to do tomorrow?” and earned a full series from Sky to further his cause. Airing to dismal and mocking reviews, Noel’s HQ was cancelled after four episodes, with its star threatening to walk, after a prolonged verbal attack from a teary Noel, at a council officer who’d rejected a housing application from a soldier, was edited from the repeat.

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In the long run, it didn’t matter. The spirit of Noel’s HQ lives on, long-since scattered to the winds and sprouting in every direction. From Matthew Wright and his tawdry show for morons, to the constant presence of Nigel ‘Turd of Turd Hall’ Farage, with his army of Brexit gammon-men, spitting everywhere as they ask about immigration on Question Time. NHQ‘s ambiance; it’s misplaced rage by middle-aged white people yearning for the better days when bananas were straight and you could say the n-word without the lefty snowflakes getting all funny about it; that’s basically what half the internet is now. Watching it a decade on, there’s something twee about its focus on leaves on the line and wheelie bins when we’ve now got over a million people using food banks, as our feckless leader holds hands with a conman dictator. Where’s Noel when you need him? Oh right, outside the bank, talking about magic boxes. Though, as familiar as its ideas have become, Noel’s HQ will probably be the last time you’ll see a load of woman going in for a group hug with Rolf Harris. Bet they had to burn that fucking mural.

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I Watched Jim Davidson’s Adult Panto (Because I Hate Myself)

•December 11, 2017 • 6 Comments

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Jim Davidson’s long stint as the legitimate face of prime-time family entertainment, beginning in the mid-nineties, is bewildering to look back on as a nation. How did we let that happen? Were we all hypnotised? It must be what modern-day Germany feels like when recalling the antics of the 1930s, or how a sightless band of survivors staggering the post apocalyptic wastelands of 2030 will feel about President Trump. Millennials who only know Davidson from newspaper headlines where he’s cancelled a show rather then perform for fans in wheelchairs, or from a weirdly successful stint on Celebrity Big Brother, will find it hard to picture him as Mr. Saturday Night. But it happened.

Sinderella was filmed slap-bang in the middle of Davidson’s first season as host of The Generation Game, a role he held until 2002. People talk about 911 as the great cultural sea-change, as though everything can be categorised into coming before, and consequently being old, or after, and modern, but as the towers fell, Jim Davidson was still employed at the BBC, in that Strictly/X-Factor sweet spot, before we had broadband or Twitter to help kill time on our trudge towards the grave instead. Similarly, Jim’s snooker-themed gameshow, Big Break, went out on Saturday nights for 222 episodes over eleven years. That’s 111 hours of Jim Davidson making jokes about snooker and waistcoats; Christmas specials with celebrity contestants like Little and Large; and it was all just allowed to happen. Of course, now he’s about as welcome on our screens as a live feed of some lunatic in a balaclava folding a baby into a George Foreman Grill, and as the BBC have another pet fascist in Nigel Farage, it seems he’ll see out his career playing to increasingly-small club audiences of like-minded Tories.

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But to fully comprehend the horrors of Sinderella, we need the context of where we were as a nation in 1995. It was the summer of Britpop, and Lad Culture had begun to swagger over the horizon, in the form of TFI Friday and rags like Loaded Magazine. These were spaff-mags disguised as a style guide for the modern lad; heavy on a post-ironic embracing of ‘real’ men who’d previously been cast aside by political correctness, of whom the word “legend” was thrown around until its meaning had rotted. Cover stars were made of hatchet-faced old footballers; seventies actors; gangland figures and “hard men” — with drug smuggler Howard Marks the messianic figurehead on the prow of HMS Lad — and comedians whose decidedly un-PC material had become more laughed at than with, following the rise of Alternative Comedy in the previous decade. Maybe Jim was hoping to find a home there, on the walls of uni students, between ‘Chopper’ Harris and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, his portrait lit like a villain from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

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“She turned them against meeeee…”

Christmas has always been the time for weird vanity cash-grabs, making stocking fillers of stand-up DVDs and expensive biographies with giant fonts. This year’s “what shall I get me mam?” trend is albums from men who look like they built a recording studio in the empty bedrooms of their estranged children. Nick Knowles’ Everyday Kind Of People, Shane Richie’s A Country Soul; who next for the mid-life crisis put to song, Yer Old Dad’s She Might Have Taken the Kids, But I’ve Still Got My Top Gear Box Set? It makes sense that Davidson, a ‘blue’ comedian both trapped by and made rich from a family friendly cage, and who saves his real material for off-camera, would make the move into “too hot for TV!” pantomime, with panto-themed Christmas specials a yearly Big Break tradition. Besides, he’d already released his solemn sad-dad album years ago, including intriguingly self-penned number The Gates of Heaven.

The very concept of panto must seem strange to American readers. Imagine going to see a play, but it’s a musical Christmas fairy tale. The humour is broad vaudeville style, and high in pro wrestling-like audience participation, with encouragement to boo, cheer, sing along, and yell “He’s behind you!” The phrase “camp as Christmas” surely originates from the medium, where it’s a sensory overload of glitter and lights, and earnest, beaming smiles; where men drag up as dames in outfits so ostentatious, RuPaul would tell them to take it down a notch. Panto is a land of handsome princes and snarling villains, as played by soap stars off the telly who can take a break from the drudgery of suicide and alcoholism-based storylines to devour the scenery, and pull in five-figures a week doing it.

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One of the many A-Listers to have blocked me on Twitter

So then, from this festive tradition aimed solely at families, and to a ‘rude’ version, beginning at the very title. Taking the traditional story of Cinderella, Jim’s outrageously naughty spelling of it with an S lets us know we’re in for a wild ride. Sins, like scoffing cakes, or playing with yourself in the bath, or the murder of an elderly neighbour. Put the kids to bed and drop your trousers, because from here on in, it’s adults only. But which to sin specifically does Sinderella refer? The priapic, cocks-and-wanking obsessed material might suggest Lust. But as we’ll discover, the entire thing’s so fucking lazy, the most applicable is Sloth.

I watched the home video version. I did not travel back to 1995. Although watching this is basically time travel to a period when Jim Davidson wasn’t a cultural leper. Sinderella opens with a to-camera address from Davidson, in 45 seconds which perfectly set the tone for what’s to come. He repeatedly refers to the high concept of a “mucky panto,” does a visual impersonation of Hitler, and explains that every character, including a pony, is trying to “shag” Sinderella, while mistiming a look into the camera, and not bothering with a second take.

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To no surprise, Davidson casts himself as the put-upon, lovelorn Buttons, recalling the rage of Keith Harris when he met Louis Theroux, upon reading a review condemning him as too old for the role. But that’s fine, after all, this is an auteur project. Like the films of Woody Allen. Or Roman Polanski. Or Victor Salva. For a naughty adult panto that never really goes further than saying the word “shit,” one of the few genuine shocks is the casting of Sinders herself. While the dancers, perpetually pawing at Prince Charming, are young enough to be his daughters, Sinderella, the object of pre-cum-soaked lust for every male character, is an age-appropriate actress of 45. Don’t misunderstand; she’s an attractive lady, but it must have gone against Jim’s chauvinist instincts not to hire a 22-year-old to stage-kiss with. It’s official; Jim Davidson is more progressive than Tom “in his fifties but always with a twenty-something love interest” Cruise. The actress in question is Dianne Lee from Peters and Lee, a British folk-pop duo who had success through the seventies and eighties, after winning Opportunity Knocks.

The plum role of every panto is the dame, with Cinderella-proper’s Ugly Sisters possibly the most iconic. Jim’s twosome are named Camilla and Madonna, with the former a reference to Prince Charles’ then-mistress, now-wife, that’d long since been beaten to death by tabloids and panel shows; and the latter, even by ’95, a badly-dated excuse to get an overweight bloke into a pointy bra. Of vague casting note is Camilla’s Roger Kitter, whose career highlights were taking over the role of Italian stereotype Bertorelli for one season in ‘Allo ‘Allo, and a minor hit with John McEnroe-themed novelty single, Chalk Dust – the Umpire Strikes Back. For the role of Prince Charming, Jim went back to the good ol’ days, with swinging sixties singer and personality Jess Conrad, dressed here like Evel Knievel, with a massive dick-bulge in the front of his tights, while Dandini, who has no further credits to his name, truly seems like someone they found manning the till at B&Q.

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SILF

But the selling point of every panto is the big celebrity name on the marquee. In recent years, the likes of Pamela Anderson and David Hasselhoff have spent their Christmases earning megabucks throwing sweets at kids. Hell, down here once, we had Wolf from Gladiators. Who then, for Sinderella? Ladies and gents, starring, not as Baron Hard-up, but Baron Hardon (like a stiff willy!), Charlie Drake. A popular oldschool slapstick comic in the fifties and sixties, Drake is best known for the incident during a live broadcast, when he was smashed through a breakaway bookcase that had been — as legend tells — ‘fixed’ by a disgruntled crew member because he was such a nob. Out like a fucking light, Drake’s floppy carcass was heaved through a window of the set, right on top of his head. Unable to break the fall, he spent the next three days in a coma after cracking his skull, and didn’t return to work for two years. But in the years leading up to Sinderella, Drake had made only a handful of cameos onscreen, with his last regular work, a role in BBC’s Bleak House, a decade prior.

As Sinderella gets under way, the wizened Drake’s big intro, with the dancers reverentially applauding and his arms outstretched like he’s finally come home, is played like the grand entrance of a showbiz legend, but his catchphrase “Hello, my darlings” gets zero audience reaction. I’m not overly familiar with the Baron Hard-Up character this is based on, but apparently he’s a paedophile munchkin. From the opening scene, it’s immediately clear that there’s no budget, and this is Hell.

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The first mistake was selling the illusion of a genuine panto by having the audience pretend that they’re children, and addressing them as ‘boys and girls’. The 40-something Davidson does his lines in a bouncy, schoolboy cadence, while the chorus line are likewise supposed to be kids, spoken to in baby-talk like one would a toddler, by men winking to the audience that they’re going to fuck them. It’s creative choices like these which mark Charlie Drake’s grim introductory scene as the perfect storm of post-Savile horrors.

As the dancers stand in a line, the gnomish seventy-year-old Drake lecherously shuffles along, stopping by each female to clasp their hands inside his, and to offer sweets. To a “little girl” who informs him “I’d do anything to be famous!” he gives two sweeties, while the next baby-voiced woman, who “hasn’t had it yet” gets a frantically tossed handful, as Drake makes a cum face. The whole thing feels like a Crimewatch recreation of Yewtree allegations, especially when the male dancer’s brushed past with a brisk “fuck off!” The final girl, when given a Mars Bar, asks “may I suck it later?” His excited reply — “a star is born!” Back then, this was just hacky shite, but as we stand in the nuclear winter of the Weinstein fallout, such routines accidentally work on a satirical level, exposing the regularly-groped underbelly of backstage showbiz. Even Drake’s asides to the audience — “hello little girl; like a sweetie?” — are straight up noncery, capping the scene by asking a woman to open her legs so he can sling a Mars Bar up there.

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Later, Drake gives his daughter Sinders a great big wobbly black dildo — black dicks always funnier than white ones to yer Davidsons — that vibrates so hard, it shakes the set. “What’s it for, daddy?” she asks, in that sickly baby voice, and proceeds to say the word “daddy” about a thousand times, giving Sinderella the feel of something that can only be viewed on the Dark Web. Eventually, he tells her to rub it three times to see “the genie of the prick.” At this point in proceedings, Baron Hardon disappears from the story. Given Drake’s performance, sleepwalking through muttered lines with the disdain of a man reading recently-discovered letters from his wife to her secret lover, presumably he was in the dressing room writing his suicide note, and cursing the fact he’s not tall enough to sling a belt over the light fitting. Though when he does return, it’s immediately obvious just how he spent that time [does the charades mime for ‘necking back a load of booze’].

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Like most times a comedian leaves the safety of their stage act, the terrible dialogue is created by crowbarring Jim’s existing stand-up observations into the empty spaces in the script. Quite often, punchlines stand aside for straight-up vulgarity, such as Prince Charming’s zinger — “A dragon in the woods? If it’s got big tits, I’ll give it one!” Jim’s erection honks whenever he touches it. A Fairy Godmother shits herself. Literally never does Sinderella surprise you with a well-crafted joke. In fact, the times it stops the farting long enough to present the structure of an actual joke, it’s this kind of thing:

Buttons: “The difference between Sinderella’s sister’s fanny and a cricket ball? If push came to shove, I reckon I could just about eat a cricket ball.

Or

Prince: “Now look here, you country person!

Buttons: “Don’t you call me a tree person. And stop using my first name!

This outrageously-clunky line, Jim decides, having failed to land with the audience at all, is so clever, we’ll need to rewind the VHS a few times to get it. But fear not, there are simpler yuks to be had for non brain-geniuses, such as the naked man being chased offstage by Camilla, who’s chased back by a pantomime horse with a 4 foot erection. This leads, when Jim opens a door to reveal her being fucked by the horse, to an odd dig about the Freemasons. Perhaps the Sin of the title refers to Jim’s Pride, constantly peppering the script with his personal gripes; expensive divorces, the police, getting done for drink driving; and all the repressed homophobia, with everyone going on about great big cocks all the time. Women get it too, with one non-sequitur where he points at his dick, rolling his eyes about the illness women get every month; in another, he breaks from the script to parrot other character’s lines in a ‘deaf voice’ while mimicking sign language.

Much of Jim’s regular stage act is of the “laughing at woofters” variety, but here, his homophobia mostly raises its head in the kind of latent obsession you see in right-wing politicians who spend their political careers denouncing the foul perversion of gays before inevitably being caught in a toilet cubicle with one. There’s one accusative catcall at the man in the orchestra pit — “he’s a homosexual” — and a couple of puns about big poofs, but the whole show is awash with a tsunami of jokes about enormous penises, with the running gag of Prince Charming’s massive nob, requiring a condom like a windsock, taking up at least a third of the script. The DVD cover shows a young lady (who doesn’t appear in the show) hiking up her dress to reveal stockinged legs and a bare bum, but any straight banter-boys watching Sinderella for titillation won’t even be able to rouse a semi, cos there’s not a sniff of boobs, and this show is all about the dick.

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Dick-pie

As anyone who reads my Twitter knows, I love a good cum joke, but every other line in Sinderella is “would you like to come on my boat” or “I’ve come all the way from the palace” or some other semen-based innuendo. I swear, there are at least twenty jokes based around ejaculatory double-meaning, and with the obvious obsession over giant throbbing cocks spraying cum all over the place, you’d be forgiven for assuming Jim spends all his time thinking about sucking on a nice thick one, the bigger the better. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but this is the man who was kicked off 2007’s Hell’s Kitchen for referring to a gay fellow contestant as a “shirt-lifter.”

Heading into this, I had imagined the audience would be the kind of howling morons in jester hats you see at the darts, kicking their feet in the air and literally rolling in the aisles. But rather, in its frequent cuts to the audience, at least half of them look bored, sat next to spouses with their chins resting on their hands. Evidently, the sort of people who’ll laugh at Davidson’s blue material aren’t into the kind of audience participation required to make a panto seem like it isn’t conducted in a mortuary. Given the quality of the show, who can blame them? If I were to encapsulate Sinderella‘s script in a single moment, it would be the part when Sinders gives Jim a peck on the cheek, and he runs offstage with “I’m going for a wank!

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Sinderella is loaded with obviously-scripted bloopers, with none of the charm of those in the Bottom Live stage shows. One sees Camilla mistakenly refer to Prince Charming as Prince Charles, in a topical reference so witty, it puts a halt to the show while corpsing performers gather themselves. This is a constant theme throughout, with a purveying sense of false anarchy, where Jim’s perpetually doubled over in laughter, and every fart noise (of which there are many), sees the cast breaking character and meeting each other’s eyes. These kind of chuckling-at-your-own-lines performances exist solely to get across the great time the actors are having, as though it will magically transfer to the audience. The cast constantly breaks character at Jim’s lines, I suspect, to give the impression that he’s improvising the whole thing, and is such, a comedic genius, leading us through this fucking jazz panto, in the equivalent of a band noodling away as he runs through his material on big dicks n balls; “looks like a golf driver, don’t it?” “look at the drivers on him.” “what a pair of drivers!” Why, it’s like the glory days of Second City! Although it seems like Drake’s blunders, constantly forgetting lines and props, are genuine, because, in what turns out to be the real story of Sinderella, he doesn’t give a shit, and is incredibly drunk.

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In such a broad setting, one might fear for an unrestrained Jim Davidson’s lack of subtlety in the arena of race-based humour; his trademark. His most famous bit by far is the Chalky White character. Though ‘character’ is a generous way to describe a gammon-faced prick doing a cartoon West Indian voice to act out the foolish antics of a fictional black mate; like Irish jokes painted up with boot polish. Jim even released a 7-inch single in 1980, performed entirely in Chalky’s voice (blackvoice?). Festively enough, it’s a cover of White Christmas, featuring steel drums, the line “break open a coconut,” and Jim breaking character at the end to wish the child backing singers a nauseating Merry Christmas — “Merry Christmas, Uncle Jim.”

While there’s not a single black face in the many shots of the audience, there is one in the small cast. Initially, this is surprising, but within the first three minutes, all becomes clear. In the opening scene, Jim exits the stage past a line of dancers, greeting the lone dancer of colour with “Skin one up, man!” in his Chalky voice, and slapping out a double high five. Because that’s what black people do; smoke weed and high five. Barring one scene, the black man is cast as the punch line in every interaction, and during Drake’s paedo-with-sweets bit, he’s told to piss off as he’s in the wrong show; “Five Guys Named Moe, up the road!” His one speaking line comes as a dame walks in brandishing an oversized prop piece of meat, for no reason other than to ask “Do you want a joint?” Now in dreadlocks, he replies in a Bob Marley voice, “No ‘tank you, me have one of me own!”, revealing a foot-long spliff. Even the cod-reggae riff of The Police’s Walking on the Moon is enough for Jim to sing a line from it in a fucking minstrel voice. But Jim’s an equal opportunities racist, and also has a pop at Chinese takeaways, informing us that “fish wipe their chads (?) on the seaweed,” before slitting his eyes and bucking his teeth to properly intone “you wan’ fishy or no fishy?!” The PC Police have robbed us of some real comedy gold, haven’t they?

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But aside from the dick-stuff, noncing, and racist bollocks, how does Sinderella fill its 95 minute runtime? I was worried there’d be musical numbers. As evidenced by his discography, Jim’s not averse to singing, especially in earnest “and this is me” character-dropping power-ballad show-closers. But the closest thing to a heartfelt number occurs when he stuffs a whole apple into his mouth, core and all, and spends Joe Cocker’s Up Where We Belong spitting gob-fulls of it into the audience and Sinders’ face. It’s absolutely disgusting, though markedly less distressing than the other two songs, which we’ll get to soon.

Another oddity is the smattering of weird, always slightly-wrong Star Trek references, which suggest he was watching TNG videos on the tour bus, inbetween angry wanks over posters of the WWF’s British Bulldog. There’s “beam me up Data,” a Vulcan salute while referring to William Shatner, and a mumbled “elementary, Riker,” which gets silence from the audience, and seems to conflate Star Trek with Sherlock Holmes.

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When Charlie Drake eventually returns to the story, he’s even drunker than before. If he was a few sheets to the wind in the first half, after the interval, he could’ve belched over a lit match and roasted the entire audience to ash, Game of Thrones style. Actors are told to project to the cheap seats, but he’s so low-energy, it’s like watching someone use their dying breath to plead “just leave me here” from the bottom of a well after breaking every bone on the way down. What fine timing, then, for Charlie Drunk to lead the crowd through a lengthy musical number that’s literally just a play on the word arseholes (“what a beautiful fish… are soles”).

Where ‘adult panto’ doesn’t work is when it turns into audience karaoke, and the cameras repeatedly cut back to an audience rooted statue-like to their seats and self-consciously mumbling the lyrics under their breath. Children — the normal panto demographic — love joining in, but Jim’s fanbase of gruff brickies, Sun-reading dunces, and football men who think crying over their child’s cot-death is for poofs aren’t going to sing along. Consequently, like he wishes he would for real, Drake dies a horrible death up there, and you couldn’t have harnessed the energy in that room to power a lightbulb.

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Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

As the show creeps wraith-like towards its closing act, his drunkenness becomes too obvious for even the cast to ignore. Jim makes an aside about his stinky booze-breath, before Drake seems to improvise a ditty about being “a gnu, with shit on my shoe.” As bad as Sinderella was up to this point, from here on in, it’s an absolute shambles, as the elderly Charlie Drake, either in a scripted fuck-up, or just being a gross old drunk man, substitutes the scripted “fondling” for the line “fingerin’ a fuckin’ hitchhiker,” complete with protracted mime, and gleefully sucking on his fingerin’ finger. For ages. I’ve not eaten since. This entire section is chaos, with Drake barely able to stay upright and going on about “fuckin’ a fuckin’ lizard,” while Jim cackles in hysterics. In fact, Jim’s soft, off-camera “oh no” when Drake tries to put Sinders’ slipper on while it’s still in his pocket instead of in his hand is the most genuine moment of the show, and merely one of the punchlines ruined when the old pro forgets a prop. Charlie Drake’s visible contempt for the material, the audience, and himself for participating, makes this one of the great/tragic drunken late-career performances.

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Finally, I must tackle, at some length, the most extraordinary section of the show. For no reason at all, in a bubble outside of the story, Jim marches onto the empty stage and breaks into the song Nothing I’d Rather Be. You know the one. If I were singing it right now, it would go something like “If I were not a book writer, something else I’d rather be. If I were not a book writer, a serial killer, me!” It originated as a campfire song for scouts, but its structure as a ’round’, where everyone sings their lines over each other, like “row row row your boat,” makes sense as a panto standard. Each performer’s verse has associated actions, meaning the others standing in the line have to duck or react each time, like clockwork toys. With me? Okay.

So, the chorus for all posits “If I were not upon the stage…” Jim’s first out, and he’d be a bus conductor. “Full inside, two up top, and move along — ding ding!” The Fairy Godmother’s next, and she’d be a doctor. You get the idea. By number three, the brainstorm session over jobs has already run dry, with this wonderfully creative refrain — “If I were not upon the stage, an actor I would be.” If I wasn’t acting, I’d be an actor? Brilliant. But the cast keeps on coming. What next; another bus conductor? Here’s Ugly Sister Camilla — “If I were not upon the stage, a Gestapo officer, me!” Let’s take a look.

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Nazi uniform with a Hitler tash, and a gigantic yellow star around his neck — you know, what the Jews had to wear during the holocaust — hanging there like a swinger’s medallion. He’s Seig Heiling and jackbooting, and it’s all a great big laugh. Though this is the first moment to made me sit upright and paw at my eyes with my fists to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, for all its obvious try-hard offense, it’s almost a child’s idea of a Nazi. “Jackboots… Hitler tash; they all had them, yeah? Eyepatch, Helga wig… big yellow star? Think I’ve seen them somewhere.” It’s at once trying for the easy shock laugh from its audience of morons, and wilfully ignorant of history. When the other Ugly Sister follows, the combination of one after the other somehow succeeds in making them both worse; a greater sum of their terrible parts.

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Dressed as the kind of portrayal of a Rabbi you’d expect to see next to an advert for bullets in a White Nationalist newsletter, the giant comedy scissors are there to aid the actions of his verse, which goes “Snip it here, snip it there, oy vey, I’ve cut it off!” As another example of how a man who uses Nazis as a joke in 1995 hasn’t moved on, Jess Conrad’s rather-be is a Teddy Boy, which is a spectacularly outdated reference. Because the song starts anew each time someone else comes out, this section goes on forever. Seriously, it’s 6 ½ minutes, with the final dozen or so verses, where everyone’s long-since given up, just a hellish cacophony of cluttered noise.

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Starring Ricky Gervais

Anyone who survived the ordeal of Sinderella would find no respite, as Jim Davidson persisted with 1999’s Boobs in the Wood. I’ll confess, I had planned on reviewing that here too, but there’s only so much a man can take. Maybe next year, if I’m at another low point. Still, the nineties, eh? It was a different time. But this was pre-911, so as we’ve discussed, old. We’ve moved on since then. Except, almost a full decade later, Jim went touring with a sequel, 2004’s Sinderella Comes Again, taking his 70’s style mucky panto into the 21st century. Incredibly for how frail he looked in the first one, like a pickled homunculus of Mick Hucknall, Charlie Drake would reprise his role, aged 79. This would be his final credit. And what an indignant end to the career of Drake; chucking a raspberry flavoured condom to an embarrassed man in the front row, and telling him to “have a quick fuck and pass it round.”

The sequel also saw Jess Conrad and Dianne Lee return, again unlocking the strange realisation that Jim Davidson, of all people, has written a sexy leading lady role for a 54-year-old woman. Never one to use a reference while it’s still fresh, 2004’s Ugly Sisters are called Vagina and Viagra. Amazingly, in 2011, Davidson was aiming to complete the trilogy with Sinderella 3, but once written, he could neither afford to fund the production, nor convince his envisioned leads, Bradley Walsh and Junior Simpson, to join the cast.

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Where we’re going, we won’t need eyes to see

Though this show plainly belongs in the toilet, adult panto can be done well. Look at The League of Gentlemen Are Behind You. They’ve clearly paid attention to the medium, and it’s fun, camp, festive, and an absolute joy. Since its release, …Are Behind You has joined Scrooged as a yearly watch for me. Sinderella, on the other hand, is severely lacking in a panto feel, with a few static performers on a big, empty stage in front of a single backdrop. If Davidson wanted to emulate a British Christmas institution, he’s unintentionally succeeded, as it perfectly captures the grim, amateur tedium of sitting through a school nativity. Perhaps the whole thing is a Jacob’s Ladder deathbed vision of Charlie Drake, still laying on the floor of that studio in 1961, bleeding out from a fatal head-wound, as gaffers stand around to watch him die.

The worst part of all this is that it’s clearly pitched as a Christmas present. Christmas Day 1995, there were those, likely numbering in their thousands, eyeing an obvious VHS-shaped parcel under the tree, hoping to find Red Dwarf’s Smeg Ups, or Danny Baker’s Own Goals and Gaffs, but tearing off the paper to reveal this monstrosity. Just imagine having to sit through it after your turkey. Children, who in 2017, would be vainly arguing with their Daily Mail-reading parents about immigrants, spent that one bleak, mid-nineties Christmas afternoon putting on a brave face at all the jizz-gags, while in his chair in the corner, Dad was chuckling, while also secretly annoyed there weren’t even any tits in it.

But in all its failures, in a way, Sinderella is as representative of the British Christmas as anything. What’s more festive than going back to your childhood home and sitting through an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys, stony-faced, as your parents rock with laughter, free to do so now we’re out of the EU? Keep your Snowman and your Muppet Christmas Carol; this is as festive as it gets. Whether you like it or not, that sound of audience laughter as Jim Davidson and a pissed Charlie Drake shriek about big dicks; this is the Merry, oh the very Merriest, British Brexit Christmas.

If you enjoyed that, check out my books dissecting bad or weird pop culture; Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal and So Excited, So Scared: The Saved by the Bell Retrospective. Or solve that tricky Christmas shop for a sinister relative with my new novel about the Manson Family, Charlie and Me, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US.

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The Train Man, the Owl Man, and Others

•November 12, 2017 • 2 Comments

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Like a lot of British writers of a certain age, I’ve got an obsession with unsettling stuff from the seventies and eighties. Everyone’s always harping on about Ghostwatch or The Stone Tape, or the giant, teasingly-climbable pylons looming over the analogue landscape of our youth, and it’s an area I frequently return to in my work. Almost the entirety of this disconnected sense of dread is rooted in our collective childhood, and consequently, hauntology’s biggest treasure chest of nauseous memories can be unearthed from our early schooldays.

Obviously, I’ve been unable to attract a mate with which to sire children, and as such, have no idea what goes on in today’s schools, or what kind of classroom visitors are allowed though the gates in a post-911, post-Limp Bizkit world. 1980’s junior school assemblies seem inherently strange through adult eyes; jammed-packed with prayer and hymns, and threatening allusions to God’s ever-watchful eye. The enforced daily sing-a-longs now seem more at home in Jonestown, with each song wilfully composed to instil various good-boy behavioural traits, including the one that went “Milk bottle tops and paper bags,” which gives a Pavlovian urge to violently beat anybody I see littering to this day. Occasionally, these morning gatherings would deviate from the Godly into something more entertaining, like when the PE teacher played cassettes of Bob Newhart’s driving instructor sketch, or Benny Hill’s novelty single Ernie over the speakers, or, when a special visitor came in to give a talk.

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“Slip on the wet floor, did you?”

Most who grew up in that era will remember their school’s visit by the Owl Man. Unfortunately not the Cornish Owlman — a terrifying man-bird that stalked Mawnan cemetery — the Owl Man was, as the name suggests, a man who brought in owls and other small creatures, to educate us on owl-facts, such as how owls don’t poo, but sick it all up instead. If he came to your school, you’ll recall that the Owl Man had snakes too, although inviting schoolkids to touch his snake to demonstrate that it wasn’t slimy seems like the laziest possible set-up for a Yewtree joke. Incredibly, if you Google for the Owl Man, he’s still going today. That is, a franchised ‘Owl Man’ mantle that’s worn, like a falcon on the arm, by numerous men from zoos and bird sanctuaries nationwide, like Santa’s Helpers at the mall. There is no Owl Man; there are Owl Men.

But I’m not here to reminisce about Owl Men, or the writer of ITV’s After Henry, who came in our class to critique some stories, or even the lady whose puppet told us about recycling, which I remember as being very badly received, and pure Legz Akimbo. The latter was surely the result of a ‘green’ phase at our school at the time, with teachers telling us we’d all be underwater by 1996 and there was only 5 years of petrol left, painting a very Mad Max view of the future that made learning seem rather pointless, when we’d all be scavenging rat carcasses to feed our mutant children. But there’s one visitor that’s the most vividly burned into my brain, no doubt due to its status as a Public Information Film made literal flesh. This is the Train Man.

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Picture it. It’s 1988, or thereabouts. 150 of Thatcher’s children are sat on the floor of a dirty school hall. At the front stands the television on wheels; an always exciting intrusion of technology into our midst. Colour, with a VHS, and at least 18 inches, it was usually rolled in to display some of childhood’s most golden hauntological offerings. Sickly BBC Schools countdown clocks, Look and Read‘s Boy from Space, and on one occasion, a wildlife program that got me into trouble when I said “Bottoms up!” as a duck went under the water, causing the tape to be stopped under angry teacher-demands for the culprit to identify themselves (I did not, and consequently, remain on the run for my crimes). But today, its jittery track-lines are frozen on the image of train tracks. Then a man — not a teacher, but an adult nonetheless — asks a question. “Who here wants to see a dead body? Stand up if you want to see blood and gore!

Of course, the young Millard was up on his feet in a flash. Despite the show of bravado, and years of frankly vile and depraved output as an adult, I was a scaredy lad. An only child raised by a single mother, I simply didn’t have access to horror films, missing out on the slashers my classmates were raised on, thanks to older siblings and dads with a Rent-a-Film membership, and therefore, was unused to terrors beyond the plasticine stop motion of The Trap Door. In fact, at the height of my youthful cowardice, I pleaded to sit up and watch the television premier of Rocky II, only to cry during the opening scene, due to the frightening prosthetic swollen eyes, and beg for it to be switched off.

But then, “Who here wants to see a dead body?” There was glee in his voice; an invitation. He was one of the lads. Even now, I remember in that moment, I was trying to be one of the lads too; trying to look tough. Girls will gaze up at me, I thought, from their position down on the floor, and think “That Millard’s so hard. He’ll see slides of corpses and not even blink. What a hunk.” I looked around. Joining me were maybe half a dozen other boys, all from the category we’d now call ‘troubled’. Boys with poor discipline and bruised knuckles; boys whose dads were football men from the pub. I suddenly felt tall and exposed, amid the sea of cross-legged children. Teachers with folded arms met my eye from the edges of the room, and the eyes of the other gore-hungry standers, as though taking stock of this degenerate minority, to mark it down on our permanent records.

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Sensing I’d walked into a trap, I panicked and sat back down, my hurried manner suggesting my standing had been an accident. It’s okay, I thought, nobody saw. It’s with relief I was not one of the boys still on my feet when the Train Man’s tone suddenly changed, from tempting to berating. Instead of inviting everyone to watch a video of dismemberments while high-fiving the lads who’d stood, he had the room turn their eyes on them; to look at the “sick, stupid little boys” who wanted to see the horrible sights he saw, every day. “Sit back down,” he barked, with disdain.

You see, Train Man was familiar with dead bodies and innards. His job was dealing with the consequences of children like us using the train tracks like a playground and getting flattened into boy-pulp on a daily basis. He’d seen it all — severed heads; little fingers wrapped around the wheels; probably even an arse up a tree — and wore a distant stare that suggested he’d personally scraped dozens of dead kids off the tracks with a spatula. His visit that day was as if the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water itself had wandered in, with the sole purpose of scaring kids away from the tracks. They weren’t a place to play; not to skip or build dens or lay pennies; because if we did, there was but one unavoidable outcome — we’d be killed. We’d be killed, he said, and the police would knock on our door to tell our families, and then, our grans would immediately suffer a fatal heart attack from the shock. So, he told us with absolute certainty, not only would we be killing ourselves, but murdering our grandparents. I’d never been more glad to have sat down.

The talk was concluded by his telling us that, not only was it stupid to play on the tracks, it was illegal. To every school he visited, he brought along a video of some boys who’d been on the tracks, spraying graffiti on trains, and gotten caught on CCTV. He’d shown them to our headmaster before the assembly, but the suspects didn’t go to our school. But one day, he promised, with the haunted obsession of a man who forever felt he was finally within fingertip reach of his White Whale, a headmaster would recognise the faces in the video, and then, during this exact moment during the talk, he’d play the footage, with the boys themselves in the audience! No doubt, they’d be hauled up to the front and arrested on the spot.

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I always wondered if Train Man ever found his boys, or if this was another pointed fear-tactic to keep us off the railways, like the nan-killing, or other teacher urban legends; quadriplegics who were crippled after leaning back in their chairs; eyeless girls blinded by paper aeroplanes and elastic bands. One teacher wove a tale of a beloved paperboy who always wrote a Christmas card to her cats. One year, the card mysteriously failed to arrive, and she later found that, too hip and trendy to wear gloves on a cold winter’s day, he’d cycled his route with both hands in his pockets, and gone under the wheels of a van. Maybe someone reading this remembers Train Man visiting their school. Did he tell the same story, of faces that would be identified “some day,” or had they been found by the time he got to your assembly? Perhaps his later talks had footage of the boys being led off to borstal? Leave a comment below if you can add another piece to this puzzle, especially if you were there the fateful day the boys in the video were in the audience too.

Soon, sometime around that same year, we did see death and gore, no doubt due to the same staff-member who’d been behind the planet-conscious puppeteer. One afternoon, a large group of 9 and 10-year-olds took their floor-space in front of the wheely television. Just being told we’d be watching TV after lunch was enough to rouse excitement, though it would’ve been less so if we’d have known it was a video of animals being tortured. Battery chickens and vans crammed with sheep; laboratory monkeys and rabbits having shampoo squirted into their eyes; the thrash-scream death of slaughterhouse cattle. This was the era of hardcore animal rights activists, frequently on the news for blowing up cars outside of labs, and throwing paint over catwalk models. Perhaps the video was a mail-away shock tactic propaganda-piece for people to show their McDonalds-quaffing friends where their meat really came from.

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The finale of this legitimate video nasty lingered for many long minutes, on footage of baby seals being clubbed to death, over, and over again. One of my clearest childhood memories is the “ahhs” of children who’d been subjected to relentless images of panicked monkeys being force-fed bleach, at the sight of a puppy-like seal, inching its way along the snow. And then the shrieks, as an arc of red and brain-tissue stained against the white, as its head was smashed to fuck by a man with a club. Baby seals were a big cause back then, and well into the nineties. As a teenager, a t-shirt proclaiming ‘Wear the Shirt, Not the Skin‘ was in regular in rotation with my Nirvana smiley. It’s possible, in the pre-Youtube days, that this video was distributed like some kind of underground activist-meme, maybe in other schools. Again, if anyone has any idea what we watched, or suffered through the same thing, drop a comment.

I don’t remember any adverse reactions to the video, just the “urgh!” noises of kids too young to comprehend watching cows getting bolted through the head, and there were certainly no parents marching en-mass to burn down the school. When it was over, we all went back to class, full of chatter about the evil seal-killers, and spent the lesson drawing baby seals violently clubbing the men instead. I’d say it didn’t do us any harm, but here I am writing about creepy old shit again, and about to link you to the novel I just published about the Manson Family. Still, at least I never did play on the train tracks.

If you enjoyed that, check out my book containing similarly-hauntology themed pieces, including a chapter about Ghostwatch, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal. Or, my new novel about the Manson Family, Charlie and Me, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US.

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The Darker Waters of Loch Ness

•October 24, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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Like a lot of things I’ve written about at length, the Loch Ness Monster was a huge obsession of mine growing up. Well into my teens, I wanted to follow the example of Steve Feltham, who jacked in his job selling burglar alarms, stuck two fingers up to the rat race, and parked up on the banks of the Loch in a mobile library, where he could spend all day scanning the water with binoculars. Twenty-six years later, he’s still there. And I’m still here.

Aside from a brief holiday as a boy in the mid 90s, I never made it. But it’s still an incredibly appealing notion. The simplicity. The magic of an unsolved mystery. The solitude. Even though I live by the sea, some days, when I’m repeatedly having to pause Netflix to wait for the deafening roar of a motorbike to buzz out of earshot, it feels like there’s nowhere I’d rather be. I often think about how much I’d love to do it, if only just for a year, to write a book or shoot a film about my hunt for a monster that I don’t even really believe in any more. Maybe I should do a Kickstarter.

Even as a kid, in the storm of my obsession, the Monster felt like a mystery from a slightly bygone era. Time, and belief, had moved on, leaving much of its power back in the 1970s, alongside black and white photos of flying saucers on strings, Leonard Nimoy in a roll-neck talking about Bigfoot, and the unexplained mystery cards given away with Brooke Bond tea. The evidence I pored over back then is stronger now in its hauntology than it was even at the time. The grainy video of eyewitness reports featured weathered Scotsmen talking of ‘upturned boats’ rising from the waters in concrete-thick accents, most memorably, with Father Gregory from the monastery demonstrating the movement of a long neck through the waves with a buckled, arthritic finger. My favourite of all was an underwater picture taken through the murk by a team of American scientists, dubbed ‘The Gargoyle Head Photo,’ (seen at the top of this post) which suggested that, whatever species Nessie was, she was capable of screaming.

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While definitively silly season filler material to the real news, Nessie was a genuine enigma back in the day. There’s a plucky Britcom movie to be made of the story of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau, which formed in the early sixties in response to the flood of sightings, and existed for a decade, with over 1,000 members at its peak. The enormous cast of bearded men in macs, their necks bent by heavy cameras, spent many thousands of rainy man-hours sat on wooden watch-platforms along the 23-mile length of the loch, watching, waiting; though I fear the only thing they found was violent haemorrhoids.

The eventual winding down of the project must have been reflected in their notepads. From the early days, full of youthful excitement, feeling as though they were on the verge of some great discovery, and the thrill of those first sightings; a distant row of humps, a shape cutting through the water; sights which, over time, became familiar; explained. Converging boat wakes. Native ducks. An otter. The longer you spend looking, the less you’ll see her, until she’s almost entirely disappeared. For many, rationality — and the elements — must have chipped away at the mystery, leading towards the central truth of Nessie; that she is many things all at once. Waves, ducks, otters; shapes that elsewhere hold little meaning, in a place imbued by such folklore became the embodiment of the fable about the blind man and the elephant; disparate necks and humps and wakes, converging into a single entity; an entity which soon appeared more often on boxes of shortbread than on rolls of film. Like everything always does, the Loch Ness story got distilled down to a handful of specific beats. The surgeon’s photo. The Dinsdale film. The flipper. The sonar sweep, as shown on Newsround. But lost in these classics, are a whole heap of singular, weird tales, half-forgotten because they were too creepy or wacky, or didn’t fit the established canon.

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“Can’t sit back down. I’ll burst ’em”

While beautiful, Loch Ness can also be a dark, foreboding place, and is almost a tale of two shores. The north side of the Loch is the one you know, home to the ruined castle, and perpetually feuding museums and gift shops. Shelves of stuffed green plesiosaurs in tartan, gift bags of chocolate pellets purporting to be her poos, boat rides for tourists; it’s where you imagine the Family Ness might live, or where The One Show could shoot a short VT, before quickly shifting topics and asking a confused Russell Crowe for his thoughts on bladder cancer. This is the Loch Ness of postcards. Across the water — freezing, peat-thick waters that could swallow a man — away from the £7.99 tam o’shanters with comedy ginger hair, are mile upon mile of empty, rolling fields and ancient woodland. And the former residence of Aleister Crowley.

The years have been particularly kind to Crowley’s reputation, with the label of ‘Wickedest Man in the World’ having stuck for over a century, rather than a more truthful descriptor, say ‘World’s Dirtiest Old Fucker’. His incredible skill as a self-publicist sees Crowley, to this day, held up as the great (and real) black magician, his poster on the walls of sixth form goths, his figure looming over every mention of the spooky dark arts, and inspiration for countless occult murderers in novels and episodic detective shows, each with similarly wicked-sounding names — always Lucien Ravens or Anton Devilscratch, and never just ‘Bill’.

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Not a magician in the traditional sense –“please don’t show your appreciation by throwing coins in the top hat; it’s full of cum!” — in reality, Crowley was mainly a prodigious enjoyer of sex and drugs, whose ‘magick rituals’ consisted almost entirely of prolonged bumming sessions that went on for days, in an effort to pull down the walls of consciousness. It’s little wonder that participants in these ‘workings’ generally didn’t skip happily back into everyday life once they’d clocked off for the day. Crowley’s first wife, party to all manner of black ceremony and possession, was committed to an asylum, where she died some 21 years later, while Victor Neuburg, frequent partner in his rituals for many years, would eventually be broken, both mentally and physically, after, to borrow a phrase from my previous work, Crowley smashed his back door right off its hinges.

None of this is to diminish the life of the man, who was incredibly culturally influential, and one of the most fascinating characters in human history. Grandfather of the counter culture, and a true polymath who walked every corner of the globe, it’s a tragedy he didn’t live into the age of the chatshow, to swap patter and innuendo with Kenneth Williams about alien gods like a Mephistophelian Ustinov. Perhaps subject to the greatest collection of rumour and tall tale of any historical figure, Crowley’s reputation spread far beyond the years of his own life, weaving him deep into the fabric of history. Stories of his influence, and his excess, only seemed to grow after his death; some true, others not. Crowley, it’s said, was a double-agent working for British Intelligence. He was part of a plot, along with Bond-creator Ian Fleming, to influence the Nazis via faked horoscopes. He committed human sacrifice. He was friends with L. Ron Hubbard and Jack the Ripper. He’s the real father of Barbara Bush (and grandfather of George W). The poet Dylan Thomas, in the midst of an affair with one of Crowley’s initiates, would often talk of the time Crowley had turned Neuburg into a camel.

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In August 1899, aged 23, Crowley purchased Boleskine House, on the banks of Loch Ness; but not because of the monster. There was no monster then, at least, not in popular legend. People talk of Water Kelpies and Saint Columba — who saved a local man from a “water beast” in 565AD — but those are folkloric backfills, and despite plenty of sightings from the late 19th century onwards, the Nessie of myth began in 1933. Not that Boleskine was without its ghoulish charms, said to be haunted by a severed head which could be heard rolling across the floor, and built on the ruins of a 10th century church that mysteriously caught fire, burning the trapped congregation alive. With its own personal graveyard, linked to the main house via hidden tunnel, the relator must have kissed the ground when Aleister Crowley walked in, and true to form, paid twice the asking price.

But like Alan Partridge’s cast-iron egg-tree, these gothic accoutrements were happy accidents. For a number of months, Crowley had been seeking a location in which to perform the Abramelin Operation; a six-month-long occult ritual designed to summon his personal Holy Guardian Angel. Boleskine House had been chosen as it fulfilled a number of specific requirements; an isolated location overlooking the water; a room set aside for the ritual, with a north-facing exit onto a terrace containing sand from a riverbed, two fingers deep (to record the footprints of invoked beings), and a lodge at the north end, into which conjured spirits could be contained.

Moving in on November of that year, the self-titled Laired of Boleskine Manor wasted no time getting up to general mischief, writing a letter to the National Vigilance Association — a Victorian society devoted to the halting of decaying public morals — complaining that prostitution in the nearby village of Foyers was “most unpleasantly conspicuous” by its absence. Even before the rite-proper had begun, preparation was stirring up cosmic unpleasantness, with workmen at Boleskine claiming they were unable to complete their tasks due to the unruly presence of half-formed beings, while on a return trip to his London residence, Crowley found the contents to have been thrown all about the place, and witnessed the same entities “marching around the main room in almost unending procession.”

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But now settled, it was time to get down to business, for the sixth-month ritual of Abramelin. This would require all of Crowley’s commitment, stamina and focus, as well as abstaining from alcohol and sex, which must have been tough going for someone who so loved pulling on his penis. The purpose of the ritual was summoning demons — more specifically, the 12 Kings and Dukes of Hell — and cowing them into submission; into serving the Lord of Light, in a weird occult version of the face-turn trope, like when Vader throws the Emperor down the reactor shaft. In turn, they would summon their own minions, to also serve, then, using the combined power of the now-good forces of Hell, the Holy Guardian Angel could be invoked, to impart the operator of the ritual with blessings and wisdom.

As the rite got underway, Crowley reported the movement of shapes within encroaching darkness. The air became thick with shadowy spirits, choking the daylight, even on the sunniest afternoons. Local labourers started to go mad. Crowley’s housekeeper disappeared. His lodge-keeper, tee-total for twenty years, went on a three-day bender and tried to murder his wife and children. But on he went, inviting the Lords of Hell into his home and trying to whip them into obedience. This demanded all of his fastidiousness, though one story tells of a local butcher who interrupted the Operation, and chopped off his own fingers after taking Crowley’s hastily-scrawled order for sausages on a scrap of paper with an old spell written on the back. But the spreading madness aside, all seemed to be working as it should. The demons were coming, thick and fast. And then Crowley received a missive from the head of his magical order, The Golden Dawn, calling him to Paris. He left immediately.

As any occult expert or Most Haunted viewer will tell you, rule one of performing any supernatural ritual is shutting things down properly. Even usually-sensible folk will scream at you to “make sure you say goodbye when using a ouija board!” as though ghosts will come pouring out, like when Peck shut down the containment unit in Ghostbusters. Open the doors, I say. Life would be way more exciting if there were ghosts everywhere. Anyway, Crowley’s mid-ritual scarpering to Paris was the equivalent of going on holiday while leaving the gas on, with gaping portals left wide open, and Hell’s denizens free to come and go as they pleased, without so much as the common courtesy to turn to the good side once they were through.

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In his absence, the property was said to be under a looming dark cloud, weirding out locals, who went out of their way to avoid the place. When finished with his business in Paris, Crowley briefly returned, writing of rooms now so thick with spirits that you couldn’t see a thing, even with the lights on, before other matters took him away to various locales, such as New York, Mexico, Egypt, and China. Three years later, he returned again, now disillusioned with the universe, and leaving the ritual to lay unfinished.

On and off, when he wasn’t travelling, Boleskine served as Crowley’s home for over a decade. In 1904, Boleskine found itself under magical attack from a fellow black magician in Paris, which Crowley claimed had killed his dogs and laid sick his servants. In response, he summoned Beelzebub, and his 49 servitor spirits, one of whom, according to his clairvoyant wife Rose, took the form of a large red jellyfish. Finally, in 1906, while Crowley was on his world travels, the Abramelin Operation was performed to completion, putting him in contact with his Holy Guardian Angel, ‘Aiwass’, who dictated to him The Book of The Law, aka the sacred bible for Crowley’s religion, Thelema. Despite further Boleskine ‘workings’ with Neuburg, he never closed down the half-finished Abramelin ritual there, nor did he banish back whatever demons he believed to have summoned.

Boleskine changed hands a few times over the next century, with the events that followed adding to its grim legend. Two of the subsequent owners committed suicide, with one of them shooting his own skull off in Crowley’s old bedroom. His housekeeper found a fragment of it in his dog’s mouth, throwing it for the dog to fetch before realising what it was. Besides Crowley, its most famous owner was Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, who was fascinated with the occult, but spent little time there. Page’s house-sitter, plagued by noises and shadows, once heard a monster snuffling against the bottom of the door. But then, Crowley did claim to have left one of the demons bricked up in the walls. In December 2015, a mysterious fire razed much of the manor to ashes. All that remains is blackened timber and a few free-standing walls. And whatever Aleister invited in.

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Curiously, though the notion of a prehistoric monster lurking in the nearby waters was some decades away, while in residence, Crowley had a warning sign posted outside the house. It read “Beware the Ichthyosaurus!

1933 was the Monster’s true date of birth, with most of the classic sightings and photographs hailing from a two-year period of prolific reports, both in the water, and on land. There had been many odd stories in the preceding decades, but the trademarks of a long neck, broad back, and multiple humps first coalesced into the Monster during the flap of 1933-34. She was subject to daily column inches, in newspapers like the Daily Express and Daily Mail; of whom the latter’s persistent front-page championing of the beast suggests they believed a surviving British dinosaur to admirably represent the farthest possible thing from an immigrant.

Of all the sightings, my absolute favourite occurred before all of this. In fact, it’s my favourite eyewitness account because it pre-dates the rest; a singular event before the established folklore was written, before the parameters were set, which doesn’t fit Nessie-lore at all, and consequently, is weird as shit. On April 1932, a Lieutenant Fordyce was driving back to Kent from a highlands family wedding with his fiancée, along the shoreline of Loch Ness. It’s there that he saw something, not in the water, but on the road. As you might expect, it did have a long neck, but as for the rest…

Travelling at about 25 mph in this wooded section, we were startled to see an enormous animal coming out of the woods on our left and making its way over the road about 150 yards ahead of us towards the loch. It had the gait of an elephant, but looked like a cross between a very large horse and a camel, with a hump on its back and a small head on a long neck. I stopped the car and followed the creature on foot for a short distance. From the rear it looked grey and shaggy. Its long, thin neck gave it the appearance of an elephant with its trunk raised.

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Pleasingly muppet-like illustration from the June 1990 issue of Scots Magazine

With zero frame of reference for craziness at Loch Ness, what did Fordyce think he’d seen?

Unfortunately. I had left my camera in the car, but in any case I quickly thought discretion the better part of valour and returned to the vehicle. This strange animal occupied our thoughts and conversation for many, many miles and we came to the conclusion that it was an escaped freak from a menagerie or zoo. We felt that a beast of such tremendous proportions would soon be tracked down and captured.

To digress slightly for a paragraph, though Fordyce was just offering a vague explanation to sooth his troubled mind over something he couldn’t explain, the old ‘escapee from a zoo’ idea is a classic Fortean problem-solver which crops up time and again, most often in the hypothesised form of a crashed circus train. Everything from big cats to the Dover Demon have been instantly rendered as ‘case closed!’ by the conjecture of an event that’s never happened outside of The Beano. Similarly, a few years ago, there were big headlines about Nessie being solved, with the theory that simpletons had merely misidentified elephants from a nearby circus, swimming beneath the surface of the Loch, with their trunks raised above the water. At every turn of the Fortean landscape, you find blind acceptance of the first ‘rational’ answer that’s proposed, rather than equal levels of investigative thought into explanations both rational and preternatural.

Interestingly, though Fordyce made his sighting in 1932, he kept quiet about it until 1990, and despite years of pop-culture Nessie bombardment, didn’t relent on what he’d seen, second-guessing his memories, or reshaping them into a more palatable, populist image of the monster. ‘Our’ Nessie doesn’t have fur, or spindly legs, but regardless, that’s what he saw. So what else could it be? Let’s revisit that description again. …like a cross between a very large horse and a camel, with a hump on its back and a small head on a long neck. Where else in this piece have we seen talk of a camel? Ah yes, Crowley, said to have magicked his associate into such an animal. Interestingly, if we investigate where the sighting took place…

…we had a lovely run by the side of Loch Ness as far as Foyers where we spent a short while admiring the famous waterfall. Shortly after leaving Foyers, the road to Fort William turns away from the lochside and runs through well-wooded country with the ground falling slightly towards the loch.

Foyers falls, you say? Along the road that leads into the woodland. Let’s take a look.

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Fordyce’s creature was coming from the woods on the left, and moving towards the loch, which indicates they were driving away from Boleskine, but this still puts the incident within walking distance of Aleister Crowley’s old home. Perhaps this strange, camel-like creature was one of Crowley’s enemies, transformed into a beast and left to forlornly wander the shores. Or maybe something that had crawled from Boleskine’s shadows while he was away gallivanting in Paris. Or perhaps it spilled out with the clowns and strongmen and monkeys on little bikes when a passing circus train flew off the tracks.

Though Fordyce’s experience was far from the last time Nessie was seen waddling about on land, reports of these excursions dried up decades before their aquatic counterparts. After a rash of land sightings during the boom of ’33-’34, there have been only a handful since the 1970s. In fact, it was another report of the beast on land, one year after Fordyce’s encounter, where an enormous prehistoric creature was seen slithering across the same stretch of road near Boleskine, that first started the media furore, and the whole Nessie phenomena.

As a child, I sent fan-mail to three celebrities. One was Norman Lovett from Red Dwarf; another was WCW wrestler Johnny B. Badd. Both replied with signed photos. The third was newsreader and royal correspondent, Nicholas Witchell. Now best-known for being called an “awful man” whom Prince Charles hates, when the future King was caught muttering on a hot mic, or for the time he sat on a lesbian protester live on the news, back in the day, Witchell was Nessie’s biggest evangelist. An active member of the Loch Ness Phenomena Investigation Bureau in his youth, Witchell’s book, The Loch Ness Story, was taken out of the library by me, every two weeks for about a year, until my mum finally bought me a copy of my own.

Eventually, I sent him a letter, telling him how much I loved the book, and that I was sure he’d one day see Nessie for himself. Enclosed was a drawing I’d made, of Nicholas Witchell astride the monster like a valiant knight, rearing up out of the water, his shining ginger hair lovingly rendered in felt tip. The brief reply of thanks was CC-signed by his secretary, but I was sure my portrait took pride of place in a golden frame on his desk. Such was my Witchell fandom, for that year’s birthday I requested, and self-decorated, a Loch Ness cake, where green humps arose from a spread of blue icing. Loch-side, represented by a plastic Subbuteo-fan with little binoculars, a dob of orange icing for hair, was Witchell himself, ever watchful. Ironically, by the time I wrote to him, Witchell had disowned his book, considering Nessie an embarrassing youthful misadventure, and long-since stopped believing.

If you enjoyed that, check out my book of similarly-themed pieces about weird Fortean stuff, Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal. Or, my new novel about the Manson Family, Charlie and Me, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US.

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Charlie and Me, and Me.

•September 4, 2017 • Leave a Comment

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Hello. As you might have seen if you follow me on Twitter, I’ve got a new book coming out very soon, on October 10th. Here it is.

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January 1971, and Charles Manson is acquitted of the famed Manson Family murders. As a free man, he finds himself folk hero to the disenfranchised youth that flock to his side, where one young follower quickly becomes enamoured with the freedoms of this brave new world.

But something unimaginably terrible may be brewing, in a place where life and death are “just an illusion,” and where a lie, told enough times with enough conviction, can become the truth.

Millard’s alternate history fable is a story of freedom and control; of love and obsession; and of charismatic leaders with big promises.

The digital version is available to pre-order right now in all regions, so please click here and do that. Once it hits 10/10, it’ll automatically download to your device. For info about print versions, keep reading down to the bottom.

In the wake of the controversy over HBO greenlighting an alternative history show based on the notion slavery was never abolished, I figured I’d do “What if?” about something tasteful.

No, of course not. This book has been a (really) long time coming. I first started working on Charlie and Me eight and a half years ago, and for the last six years, have just been sat on it. A piece I wrote about the toll that took on me, both the writing process, and the inability to get it released, is now itself two years old. But I dunno, something about the radicalisation of disaffected young people, and an outrageous leader whose rise is built on a cult of personality just seemed timely.

Other than the recent paperback of 2014’s Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal, this is my first release for over two years. Truthfully, I got severe burn-out after the last one, and jacked it all in. I’m a writer, not a promoter, and the spammy, unending grind of trying to make something fly isn’t great for one’s mental health, particularly as mine was already in a really bad place at the time. But now I’m back on the horse, finally ready to put myself through all that shit again, because for me, this is the one. I put everything I have into this — including another draft, to tighten it up to 2017-me standards — and I can no longer keep it to myself. Live or die, crash or burn, I have to cut the chain and let it loose.

Although, lately I realised I’m practically at the age where if I do suddenly find success, I’ll be used as one of those inspirational “It’s never too late!” memes. “This bell was 38, with a decade-plus of failed releases behind him when he finally wrote the big one. Hang in there, kids!” Weirdly, though Charlie and Me will be the 8th book I’ve published so far, it’s the first actual novel (3 anthologies followed by 4 non-fiction).

So here again are those pre-order links. Be a pal and snap one up, won’t you? I promise it’s really great.

Charlie and Me on Amazon UK

Charlie and Me on Amazon US

As for the question of paperbacks, currently the limitations of Amazon publishing’s print arm (with no proof copies, no author copies at cost, no pre-ordering) makes it tricky to time releases to a specific date. But I’m going to try to get Charlie and Me available in paperback around the day the digital versions hit. But don’t let that stop you from grabbing yourself a digital version, because who knows, right?

For further emotional blackmail, if this does well enough to keep me from burning all my notebooks in a fit of artistic pique again, then I’ve something else ready to go very early next year. And if you think mass murderer Manson is an offensive topic for a novel, wellllll…

 
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