Ways You Can Support My ‘Art’

•November 11, 2018 • Leave a Comment

As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish. For context, in the last 7 months, since the launching of the Patreon, I’ve posted almost 80,000 words of free material on here. I hate getting into the grotty business of money, but I can’t do this if I starve to death, so here’s how you can slow my eventual descent into the skeletal realm.

SUPPORT ME ON PATREON. There are various tiers, starting at $1 a month, including access to tons of exclusive content which will never appear here on the free blog.

BUY MY BOOKS. I’ve got a number of titles available in both paperback and digital, on Amazon UK, and Amazon US, or your local Amazon of choice.

BUY ME A KO-FI, if you’d like to sling me the financial equivalent of a coffee. If it helps, feel free to pretend you’re throwing it in my face instead of letting me drink it.

Cheers.

 

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Big Top

•April 18, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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[This is Part 5 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart Four]

Usually these pieces see me wading through the televisual sewage of the 70s and 80s, but I’m afraid it’s time to stop pretending that lithe teenagers like you and I know any better, and tackle something from the last ten years that we all failed to stop; BBC1’s circus-set sitcom, Big Top.

The most obvious warning sign about Big Top, besides its constant appearance on lists of the worst ever sitcoms, is how savagely it seems to have been wiped from existence. Just how bad does something to be, to have aired in 2009 — on prime time BBC1 no less — and be almost impossible to find? With the DVD no longer in print, and absent from streaming services, a decade on, actual footage lives on in a mere two episodes, unloaded to Youtube in appalling quality, in an aspect ratio that gives the sensation of watching while debt collectors crank your skull in a workbench vice. What could have been so terrible as to see all trace evidence redacted like a high-ranking politician’s war crimes?

My last visit to a real circus was a terrifying experience. I went with my cousin and his toddler, where we stupidly sat in the front row. Immediately, I was busted by the clown for not clapping along at the beginning like everyone else; a British theatrical custom I will always refuse on principle. Singling me out, he even did the ‘point at his eyes; point at me’ mime for “I’m watching you,” causing me to double down. Never do what a clown tells you. What followed was 90 minutes of circus fun, under the constant, jump-scare threat of audience participation, leaving everyone over the age of 12 on edge, afeared they’d get pulled over the barricade to ride an imaginary motorbike around the ring or receive increasingly large bunches of plastic flowers from a ‘lovelorn’ clown. When it was over, physically exhausted from a death-grip on my plastic seat, I was drenched in sweat, but left with the remaining tatters of my dignity, plus a heavy dose of survivor’s guilt for those who’d not been so lucky. I felt much the same at the end of Big Top.

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I didn’t watch this when it originally aired, and assumed from its colourful visuals that it was broad, family fare, meant for sitting down with the kids and groaning at the dad jokes. As I discovered, this was not the case, unless your family’s into stuff about dicks getting bitten off, and has a weird fixation on Hitler. Although, in Brexit Britain, odds on that are 50/50. Clearly, this was intended as a star vehicle for Amanda Holden. A strange figure in pop culture, most known for tabloid headlines about cucking Les Dennis, Holden was a generic player in middling-to-bad shows, until 2007, when she was elevated seemingly at random, via casting as a judge for Britain’s Got Talent, to someone whose presence, opinions and dresses we will care about. In fact, the selling point of Big Top appears to be ‘here’s Amanda Holden as a sexy ringmaster in little shorts!’ No buys.

The circus is fertile storytelling ground, and if you’re making a BBC sitcom there, I want to see freaks. Give me Barry off Eastenders as a lobster boy; Mitchell and Webb as conjoined twins attached at the genitals; Nicholas Lyndhurst with a curly tash in an old-timey striped swimsuit lifting big round weights above his head. But no, in this worst of all worlds, we’ve a cast of dying performers who should know better. John Thompson and Sophie Thompson (no relation) as a married pair of unfunny clowns; Tony Robinson as… actually, I’m not sure. Some kind of miserable tech guy? Hi-de-Hi‘s Ruth Madoc as a dog trainer. In British sitcom name value, it’s bordering on a supergroup, and yet as palatable as a concert boasting a dozen holographic Bonos. There’s also a funny-foreign juggler doing a straight-up Borat voice, and that trope where he’s sexually obsessed with Holden, constantly proclaiming his unrequited love, which everyone figured was okay back in the dark ages of 2009, but if milquetoast incel Niles Crane did it now, he’d be Weinsteined before the first furtive glance.

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Big Top‘s costumes are Beano bright and child-like, with such a risible level of cheapness, everyone’s stood elbow-to-elbow, crammed in a tiny tent ‘backstage,’ while background artists juggle in the rear of frame. Its this CBBC feel that really threw me when John Thompson kept getting his arse out. There’s also a sound that permeates every scene, like the low-battery beep of a smoke alarm you can’t be bothered to get up and change in the middle of the night. For Big Top, it’s “huhuhu…” — the murmured, autopilot laughter of an audience who don’t want to be there. Every failed punchline, every bad simile, so it follows, like a limping, elderly dog, “huhuhu…” It’s the listless chuckle you’d use when a co-worker shows you a Minions meme, or at a hated neighbour’s ‘funny’ apron during a summer BBQ, haunting an already haunted show; “huhuhu… huhuhu…” like that Eddie Large routine about celebrities starting their cars, which incredibly, is far funnier than anything in the show, where no earnest laughs are to be had.

Alright, I’ve put it off long enough. Let’s tackle the plot. Episode one sees the visit of a health and safety inspector, played by Neil from The Office, leading to loads of ‘elf n’ safety gags, like Holden pointedly putting the lid back on a “very sharp” pen, with a “you can’t be too careful!Huhuhu. After they pass inspection, he asks her out, and the dinner date in her caravan is interrupted by various visitors, including Ruth Madoc with a box of dogshit, John Thompson pulling down his trousers and pants and pushing his penis into Neil’s face while yelling “does this look septic to you?” and Tony Robinson leaning through the window with a camcorder to film them fucking so’s he can use it for blackmail.

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If you’re thinking that sounds a bit risqué for 7:30pm on BBC1, then yes, and with its childish veneer and Sooty Show visuals, it’s a queasy, uneven mix, like a milkshake with a used condom in it. Never is this more the case than Big Top‘s running storyline about John Thompson’s dangerous new routine, which is “literally suicide,” where he puts three hungry ferrets down his trousers with a hot dog. If you were going to commit suicide, as I was tempted many times while watching, at best the ferrets might mistake your nob for a sausage and bite it off, leaving you to slowly bleed out, but the ambulance will probably arrive in time to tell you they can’t save it and you’ll have to live the rest of your wretched life with a useless, half-chewed nob.

Later, a rival circus owner lets the ferrets out, and Thompson has to offer up his dick again, as the bait to round them all up. He enters groaning from all the dick-bites, and the episode closes with him getting into bed, stripped fully naked, his bare arse (exposed for the second time) blocked only by a small lamp, Austin Powers style, unaware a dick-hungry ferret has gotten under the duvet first. As he turns the light out, there’s no laughter or applause, silently cutting to the closing theme, which plays as really sinister, like his wife’s going to peel back the covers to reveal a blood-soaked mattress and her dead husband’s shredded dick getting gnawed on by a ferret who’s wearing the helmet as a little hat.

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The other main plot is the old ‘will she/won’t she leave the road life behind for the love of a good man?’ but whenever Amanda Holden’s onscreen, Big Top‘s at it’s absolute worst, as she’s got all the comic timing of a misfiring letter-bomb taking off a postman’s jaw. At its core, this is a show comprised of two elements; people standing in a straight line, describing (unfunny) events said to have happened offscreen, which were too expensive or complicated to actually shoot, and the Bicycle Gag. If you’re unaware, the Bicycle Gag is that old comedy standby, where someone says “I’m definitely not riding that bicycle. I swear, the last thing I ever do is ride that bicycle. I’ll die before I ride that bicycle!” Hard cut to them riding the bicycle.

Over and over, someone says one thing, and Big Top cuts to the opposite, while the cast are completely static, like a dress rehearsal where everyone’s “I’ll do it properly on the night!” Whether it’s meant to be a running gag, or the writer’s just a fascist, there’s a strange preoccupation with the Third Reich. When reminiscing about the olden days, when circuses advertised their arrival into town by marching down the high street, Lady Clown exclaims “like the Nazis!” and later, Man Clown gets angry at Tony Robinson for ‘accidentally’ playing him on with Hitler’s Nuremberg Rally speech. Another episode repeats the wrong music gag, when we’re told the clown was led on with the theme from Schindler’s List. On the surface, that sounds like it might be an actual joke, but go ahead and hum that classic, recognisable theme. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Still, Hitler though, right?! Huhuhu.

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The other surviving episode revolves around the injury to their “death-defying” skydiver, who broke his leg jumping from the top of the tent, and finding a replacement act to keep their gore-hungry audience buying tickets. Though we never see the acts themselves, only hearing about them backstage — “I can’t believe when that crazy thing happened that we’re not going to show!” — sometimes we get the bow at the end, with cutaways to an applauding audience on different film stock. Holden offers a £100 bonus to anyone who finds a replacement act, to which the juggler offers a sword swallowing routine, where one goes in his mouth and one up his arse, and Robinson brings in a new human cannonball; a suicidal man whose wife has just left him, who’s hoping to be killed in the process.

Meanwhile, John Thompson gets in a feud with a human statue, played by Finchy from (again) The Office, and they end up getting in a fight during the show, with Finchy setting his Rottweiler on Thompson, who catches fire while he’s being savaged, much to the audience’s appreciation. Trust me, it makes even less sense in its full form than me describing it in one sentence. I’ll be honest, Big Top was a real struggle, so bad that I could only get through in tiny increments, constantly having to stop for a breather, like getting a painful full-body tattoo. In writing these, you have to take on all kinds of mad rationalising to survive, constantly doing maths in your head, like “well the credits are 30 seconds, so that’s 1/60th of it out the way for a start…” By the end of the second episode, I was down to 20 second chunks.

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The half asleep cast deliver a constant description of offscreen events, Bicycle Gags where Holden confidently brags her crew are mature adults who’re getting on really well, as it cuts to them arguing like children, and a level of punchlines that wouldn’t fly on the playground. One particular gag had me embarrassed for everyone involved, when Holden announced the circus needed more pizazz, causing Thompson to leap to his feet, and in a Super Mario accent, yell “Pizzas? what kind of pizzas?! Thin and crispy? Margherita?!” Granted, it’s supposed to be a bad joke in the logic of the show, but it plays to horrible silence, giving me multiple flashbacks to tumbleweed reactions of my own, in particular, aged nine, when a teacher mentioning the Pyrenees, and little ADHD-riddled me, excitedly shrieked to the class “I’ve got a pair a’ knees!” to a dead silence that still haunts me thirty years on. Though if I’d been plying the kind of jokes you get on this shitfest, my classmates would have been well within their rights to Mary Bell me.

Thompson: “I’ll have you know, one critic said we were the perfect act!

Robinson: “the perfect act for nipping out to the toilet.

Audience: “huhuhu…

At one point, the Juggler says he’ll take safety measures by wearing a hard hat, “like that homosexual pop group,” to the punchline “Coldplay?” Eh? The low-energy suggests everyone participating is fully aware of how terrible it is, with Big Top sitting on their resume like someone’s involvement as the balaclava-clad torturer in a dark web snuff film. But judging by this exchange between John Thompson and Look Around You‘s Robert Popper, maybe not.

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Still, maybe he’s just proud to have portrayed the most repugnant onscreen clown since Pennywise. Although I’d rather be murdered by John Wayne Gacy than sit through another second of Big Top, which is every bit as bad as its legend.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it 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 provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

The Accursed 90s: Televised Lad Contests

•April 8, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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When people talk about toxic masculinity, it’s hard to imagine a more virulent breeding ground than the mid-late 90s; a time when men were led to embrace the worst bullet points of their gender stereotype like never before. If you had to portray the era in one of those spinning-newspaper montages, it’d be a whirl of 18-30 holidays, Chris Evans’ TFI Friday and Cool Britannia, and lads’ mags like Loaded, FHM and Sky; tomes filled with aspirational pieces about being a bloody bloke, interviews with craggy old footballers, rockers and celebrity gangsters, and hot TV presenters in bikinis talking about sex. Even on the global stage, everything was similarly XXXtreme, like it’d spilled from a frathouse on a wave of beery vomit. How better to get a sense of the power dynamic between lads and ladettes of the time, than watch the battles to crown a Lad-King, while they desperately grasp for a mate, in the pre-swipe world of televised dating?

Despite running for two series, episodes of ITV’s Man O Man are almost impossible to find online, falling in the digital blind-spot that ingested much from the late 90s to about 2005. In that period when people had dropped VHS for DVD, but were yet to have Youtube or decent broadband, and before TV could be easily ripped to a computer without a capture card, great swathes of television output were either unshareable, or deemed unworthy of keeping. Man O Man fully deserves to stay in this hole, but survives as a single episode taken (of course) from a horrible VHS, beginning with a second-long glimpse of Cornershop performing Brimful of Asha, deemed by its curator to be less historically important than what it was wiped with.

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Man O Man‘s vibe is established by its opening theme of Mousse T’s Horny, a song that literally informs you “my dick is hard/my minge is foaming,” over and over again, like a toddler in the back seat telling you it’s bored. The show begins, as everything did in the 90s, with shape-throwing dancers being clapped along to by an audience; sang along to — Horny, Horny, Horny! This refrain is the pounding backbone of the night, like a tribal pagan chant from its exclusively-female audience of 400. Horny, Horny, Horny! There’s the feel of a hen night mixed with civil unrest; riot police fending off pink cowboy hats and rampant rabbits. Horny, Horny, Horny! It’s an announcement that hundreds of fannies are busting for a sex, as hands clap and feet stamp, threatening to collapse the bleachers. Horny, Horny, Horny! and baying for blood, albeit blood that’s crammed into stiffening tunnels of erectile tissue.

Tonight’s winner seems likely to be fucked to death; his flattened remains burned inside a giant wicker clitoris, with Chris Tarrant hoping it somehow fixes the poor yield of the failing alcopops crop. “I’M HORNY!” chant the audience, unruly and restless; HORNY, HORNY, HORNY! even as Tarrant enters, to show off the winner’s prize. A £10,000 motorbike, it’s draped in not one, but six half-dressed girls, in flawless period-accurate sexual excess. Our ten contestants are introduced in VT; classic 90’s men with gelled hair and enormous shirts, who give thumbs up without a shade of irony. These are men who say “while you’re down there, love,” who live for footie, bacon sarnies and Only Fools and Horses; men who shout “Oi Oi!” as a greeting. More than just men, these are Lads.

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They emerge onto the stage – HORNY, HORNY, HORNY! – as the crowd rise in unison. Our twenty-something contestants are full of 90’s cheek; one does a Bruce Forsyth pose, another fucks the air, most do terrible dancing. It’s likely many of these specimens are someone’s dad now; bald and tired, and saying how music these days is just noise. To begin, each must introduce themselves with a brief, five-word statement. These stanzas of the damned, if spoken one after the other, will ignite Judgement Day by summoning the thousand-eyed beast with a dozen dicks. Oi Oi! Let’s meet our contestants.

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Simon, textile consultant & sci-fi fanatic, declares “I’m Simon, and I must be barking mad!” Nothing dates a thing to the late 80s-late 90s like jokingly inferring that you’re crazy; a time spent twirling a collective index finger at the side of our temples, and telling folk “keep taking the tablets!” In a self-fulfilling prophecy, twenty years on, we are all on tablets, just to drag our broken selves through another miserable day.

Stephen, “who once had a date with a large lady who kept passing wind,” introduces himself with “hi, I’m loveable, loyal, lickable; a luscious lad.” Unthinkable in today’s patter market that such a banter-boy could drop all those Ls without invoking “legend.” The pre-911 landscape was wild.

Paul. An insurance broker, claims his nickname is “Tripod,” (inferring he’s got a big one, girls!), yet nervously shifts on the balls of his feet, gazing at the studio floor as he mumbles “alright? I’m tall, cool, and ready to reveal all.” Huge screams at the suggestion of seeing a big willy.

Tim is the smallest of the contestants, bespectacled and lost inside a gargantuan shirt, the youth worker and “wannabe surfer” (like how I’m a wannabe millionaire?) gets the worst reaction so far, his Robbie Williams-inspired intro, “I’m Tim and… let meeeee, entertain you!” inspiring chants of “Off! Off! Off!

The rest includes Matt, a fireman whose job reveal almost takes the roof off; Andy, with a cracking pair of curtains, who claims to have been mistaken for DiCaprio; James, who owns a snake, but ruefully pleads “I’m scared witless, so please be… uh, please be gentle,” and Kieron, snowboarding lifeguard, whose handsomeness receives such a boyband frenzy, the leaping audience almost fall out of their croptops. Tarrant informs us the watching girls each have electronic devices under their seats — just to take the edge off, no doubt. Oh, electronic voting devices, I see.

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Round one is a dance-off. Supposedly, you can tell how good someone is at sex by how they dance, and if that’s true, most of this lot must be asking “have you cum yet?” five seconds after pushing one of their balls in. Under the sound of screeching catcalls and Sister Sledge’s Greatest Dancer, the lads listlessly jig on a stage, writhing and grinding, each with a five-second solo. One drops and fucks the floor, a couple straight grab their dicks to wild screams. Andy Curtains pretends to swing his cock like a rope. Tim breakdances. Nervous James does one lazy spin, like he’s forgotten why he’s gone into a room, and gets the fuck out of there.

There’s hi-tech computery music and close-ups of fingers prodding buttons as the audience vote, with the lads stood in front of the studio swimming pool, in a line that’s fittingly suggestive of execution by firing squad. The deal here is eliminations are revealed by a model pushing the losers in the pool. She teasingly moves up and down the line caressing them, all under the instrumental of HORNY, HORNY, HORNY; on a permanent loop here in Hell. Lickable Stephen is gone, so too Mark the fishmonger, and, one assumes with some relief, James. The survivors blow kisses to the baying audience, and there’s a continuing sense that everyone’s so horny, we’re teetering on the precipice of a 410-person orgy (Chris Tarrant just watching).

There’s nothing more uncomfortable than bad improv, and round two involves Tarrant reading aloud a story for the lads to act out, to demonstrate their sense of humour. Perhaps the defining characteristic of the self-style Lad is the unwavering and incorrect belief that they’re funny, confirmed here by these bozos’ exaggerated mimes of sneezing, scratching their arses, and getting poked in the eye by a straw. For me, this triggered a strong emotional sense-memory, Quantum Leap-ing me back to the period, amid the shrieking laughter of girls amused at unfunny lads showing off, while me, a comic genius, crafted elegant nob-gags alone in the corner. Today I’m telling my jokes on Patreon for $75 a month, while those losers are probably trapped with careers and families. Who’s laughing now?!

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For the second vote-off, another pair are shoved in the pool, this time by special celebrity guests, Melinda Messenger and Philippa Forrester. Though I’m sat here sneering at all the grotesque public displays of lust, the sight of 90’s-era Forrester in leather trousers causes a maudlin minor-key rendition of HORNY, HORNY, HORNY! at the writing desk. Tarrant asks what her bugbear in the opposite sex is, and she weirdly goes on about men leaving coins everywhere — “why don’t they have a purse?!

I’ve an immediate sinking feeling, when round three is revealed as ‘the kissing round,’ with five volunteers from the audience for contestants to pick from “and demonstrate how to give a girl a kiss that she’ll never forget.” Ensuring one lady will cruelly be picked last on television, there are various kissing displays, from chivalrous hand-pecks and actually getting off with each other, to the fireman sweeping her into his arms and planting one, all under squeals of clitoral apoplexy from the crowd. Then it’s Tim’s turn; little Tim the ‘funny’ nerd. He beckons his choice with a finger, instantly clasping her face tightly in his hands, inducing her immediate panic. An actual cry of “No!” can be heard as she tries to escape, while he bundles her hard to the studio floor, pinning her down with his full weight to force a kiss. He leaps to his feet, shirt popped open, pumping his fists with a victorious “YES,” aggressively punching the air in celebration, while she holds her head, aghast. Chris Tarrant chuckles about the “range of kisses” on display, following a really horrible moment that would be a fucking scandal today, but at the time, was just a great big laugh. See for yourself.

Next, it’s the singing round, performing love songs backed by the house band, led by Philip Pope, of all people. The guys are expected to properly sing each song at great length, with most completely tuneless, and their voices quaking with nerves. I’d expected Tim to thrust away to I Wanna Sex You Up, but he goes with the still-on-brand Everybody… number from Blues Brothers, with the little fucker falling over his own feet as he screams up and down the stage. But it’s Kieron who steals the show, with barely the first syllable of Robbie Williams’ Angels out of his mouth before inciting mass orgasm. In 1998, it’s guaranteed 100% of the Man O Man audience would have Robbie; clown prince of being an obnoxious wanker; as their dream man. He’s so funny and cheeky, ain’t he?! Invoking him in such a libidinous environment is like dropping a match in a box of dynamite, and as 400 women sing and sway along to Kieron like he’s the real thing, we cut to an ad break, presumably so crew can get sandbags down before the studio floods.

For the next vote-off, Tarrant reveals the third guest. After Messenger and Forrester, which era-befitting siren could it be? Jo Guest? Gail Porter? No, it’s Vera Duckworth. Are they Horny, Horny, Horny on Corrie too? Asked by Tarrant what she likes in a man, she replies “ooh, thighs… ooh, yeah. And a nice mouth.” Alright, steady on. We’re now down to the final three; ‘Tripod’ Paul, Kieron, and Tim, who reacts with a big double-fist “YES!” after another inexplicable survival. We briefly meet the contestant’s mothers, or “mummies” as Tarrant repeatedly says, making me feel sick. Tim’s posh Irish auntie says “he’s game for it,” as he pumps his fist. Paul’s mum looks annoyed to be there, says her son’s a useless bighead, and does a visibly big sigh when it’s over.

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The lads then take Blind Date questions from the celebrities. Forrester’s is an oddly aggressive ask about the correct temperature to wash sheets, after stripping a stinky bed the morning after. “Cos we know, don’t we?!” she yells, playing to the fellow girls and scornfully shaking her head at stupid men who don’t even know how to do laundry. When asked by Vera for his best lines, Tim, who bundled a woman to the floor and forced himself on her, responds “I feel that chat-up lines are really degrading to women and degrading to men.” Thankfully, the audience see right through it, showering him with boos. “They clearly agree,” he says, “NOT!

But even amid the massive shirts, gel-combed hair and shonky sexual politics, nothing so solidly places Man O Man as a show of its time like Melinda’s question; “are you brave enough to tell your girlfriend a new dress makes her bum look big?!” Before J-Lo made it acceptable and Kim K aspirational; before shifting beauty standards made it an necessity for squats or implants, to reach maximum thiccness, the 90s was a world where big arses were frowned upon, a disgusting imperfection, perhaps worth ditching your partner over. For clueless Millennials who don’t know what a cassette is, the notion that there was a time, a mere 20 years ago, when big ol’ butts weren’t desired, but something appalling to be avoided, must be aneurysm-inducing. That one-note joke from The Fast Show, with the woman asking “does my bum look big in this?” must be interpreted completely differently by those born either side of the century.

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The last round, as is tradition in contests which reduce humans to meat, is swimwear, with the final three in little shorts, gyrating and grabbing their williams to the Full Monty soundtrack. Like anything shirtless from this era, it’s shocking to see the kind of bodies that wouldn’t be allowed on TV now, in our culture of gym selfies and protein tub pyramid schemes, and here without an ab or tattoo to be seen. They bring out Ace from Gladiators to flex, before a chin-up contest, which Kieron blasts through, leaving the audience chanting his name, while Tim can barely reach the bar. The little turd does comedy muscle poses by the pool as the final vote-off arrives, and gets an undeserved kiss from Philippa Forrester before she finally shoves him in. Of course, as was clear the moment he stepped onstage, handsome Kieron is crowned champion, to the chanting refrain of four-hundred rabid women — HORNY, HORNY, HORNY!

Shockingly, though it seemed he was set to be devoured by the audience, like that bit in American Gods where she eats the bloke with her chuff, Kieron went on to have a career as a TV presenter and actor, including voice work on World of Warcraft and How To Train Your Dragon. But what happened to youth worker and absolute pest, Tim? I’m sure, many years on, he considers his Man O Man appearance an embarrassing youthful folly, and would be happy to seen it scrubbed from history. Not quite. As I scrolled up from the Youtube commenter complaining the two shortest guys went first, I noted that it was Tim himself who uploaded the footage.

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When exploring crass 90’s dating shows, the other side of this cum-rusted coin is surely God’s Gift. Another ITV show, but from the very start of Lad Culture, three years earlier in ’95, God’s Gift was strictly a late-night effort, as opposed to Man O Man‘s prime time family slot, meaning they could further push the boundaries of libidinous mating rituals. Our host here is Davina McCall (with Claudia Winkleman taking over the following year), accompanied throughout by an in-studio voiceover man, who effectively commentates over the onscreen action like they do on the wrestling.

As I’ve found when researching pop culture of the past, you’ll constantly come across the since-disgraced; fallen, jailed, and cancelled celebrities, occupying roles that seem specifically chosen for eliciting the greatest shock-face in its far-future viewers. Here, that announcer, who bids Davina flirtatious hello in a deep, Barry White sex-voice, receiving excited whoas from the audience, is now-convicted sex offender and Yewtree grab, Stuart Hall. Far from his trademark fits of giggles, this is Hall after-dark, horned up and beginning by reading a romantic poem to Davina and a girl from the audience he remembers from a previous appearance, because of her big boobs. Don’t worry, he was replaced in the second series. By Jimmy Savile. That sounds like a bad joke, but look it up.

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If Man O Man was about the well-established alpha Lad, then Gift‘s contestants are the proto-Lads at the start of the movement. Over the hour, their thin veneers of confidence will be chipped away, gradually revealing them to be nervous, inexperienced, afraid of women, and generally wretched. In the main, this is due to the audience; the judges; likewise a collection of excitable 18-24 year old women in bra-tops and colourful baggy trousers, but unlike Tarrant’s hen night, the shrieking girls of God’s Gift are more in control, with higher standards, and not about to be swayed into conniptions by the unbuttoning of a shirt. Also, with its smaller budget, the girls are within reaching distance of the fellas, roaming free on the studio floor like a nightclub; or more accurately, like TFI Friday, with the most attractive, least-dressed ladies pushed up the front. Make no mistake; this was made for blokes to wank over when they got back from the pub.

On that note, I can’t not mention Davina’s nipples, peering out through a white t-shirt like a snowman’s eyes, in that 90’s fad of everyone’s nips being on show constantly. If Friends had been around in the advent of 3D TV, we’d all be wearing eye-patches now. So too the set design is blisteringly of its time, with a garish colour scheme of weird, day-glow shapes bent at funhouse angles; all multicoloured swirls, spiky comic strip impact shapes, and a bright yellow vintage fridge just randomly plonked on the side. This is the battleground for five contestants who’ll compete to “prove their manliness,” with the winner taking an audience member of their choice on an exotic date.

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When the lads come out, it’s a reminder of a time before we became self-aware and self serious; like the Man O Man boys, each prancing and giving thumbs up. As a culture, we’re now drowned in irony, unable to be real. Like teenagers morosely refusing to smile in a school photo, the sort of personality who’d apply for a show like this is now hyper-aware that everyone’s watching, all the time, even if only via Instagram stories, and could never let a moment of earnesty creep through. These chaps have no such worries, hailing from a time where you could unironically shout “wahey!” and nobody would call you a pedo.

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Matt, a small, slight chap with a “top sense of humour,” sets the tone by thrusting his groin. Davina patronisingly says she’ll mother him. “I’ll mother ‘im!” comes a lecherous cry from the audience.

Nigel‘s introduced with a crashing power chord, and wearing sunglasses indoors. He pulls comedy muscle poses, as Stuart Hall informs us the psychology student is “ready to probe your mind… or whatever you want probing.”

Garfield is sadly not the cat, but a 19-year-old human who works in window displays. “He’s got a lot to display,” says Hall “as you’ll see as the evening unfolds.” So, what, he’s been measuring all the lads backstage as part of his duties? Hall keeps going on about the “big gun” on the small teenager, and his constant interjections have the gruffly focussed tone of a man who’s tugging himself off in the recording booth.

We’re rounded out with Billy, a cocky lawyer who enters with a double-bicep pose, and Anthony, from Burnley, who’s shy and gets a big “aww” from the assembled sex-harpies. “Burnley’s the sex centre of the British empire,” Hall informs us, multiple times through the show.

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This is classic early-period Davina, mucking about and really personable, before she soured on me by treating Makosi like a war criminal in her Big Brother eviction interview, all for playing a gameshow like, you know, a gameshow. Round one, or as it’s called here, Test One: Stud-U-Like, sees the lads attempting to mimic the hot guys you see in adverts that make Davina think “I’d give him one!” Nigel’s tasked to spray deodorant sexily, while Matt has to shave, though he’s clearly not capable of growing a beard. He’s so nervous he drops his props, and resorts to holding the shaving can by his crotch and spraying a load of ‘cum’ out of it, to rub over his nipples. “Go on, you naughty boy!” taunts Hall. “Your schoolmaster won’t be pleased when he sees you on Monday morning.”

Anthony shows off Mickey Mouse boxers like he can’t believe something can be so funny, and tries to put on a pair of trousers he’s gotten out of the fridge in an erotic way. Reader, he fails. “Them legs ain’t bowed,” says Hall, “they’re just pleasure-bent!” It’s then we take our first turn from the twee into the vulgar, with a horrible close-up of a flopping posing pouch stuffed with nob, as Billy comes out inexplicably bare-arsed and pretends to fuck a bright yellow bathtub. His cock swinging back and forth, Davina runs in to cover his hole with a cue card. In later years, she’d tell a story about a contestant yanking down his trousers to reveal a shit-smeared arse.

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The voting mechanic to see who’s most popular is mildly terrifying, with the lads sat on stools as every girl in the audience “runs screaming and shouting” to stand in front of who they like best. Poor Matt’s got just two girls in his line, while Anthony, the current leader, is taken out into the crowd by Davina and asked what kind of girl he’d go for. “This one right here,” he says. Davina suggests the stranger “give him a quick kiss” and they proceed to get off with each other, as we hear off-camera screams of chaos. The MO of God’s Gift seems to be ‘how can we make this unbearably awkward at every turn?’ Though it was meant for post-pub titillation, having a tommy tank over this must’ve been the Russian Roulette of its day, suddenly cutting away from an audience hottie in a strappy top and leaving you to lamentably ejaculate over footage of some tosser breathing on his nails and polishing them on his shirt, in the most 90’s way of proclaiming yourself to be great.

At one point, Anthony’s ex is pulled out of the crowd. This isn’t a planned bit; she just turned up with her mates to watch the show being taped, and realised to her horror, her ex-boyfriend was one of the contestants. She clearly doesn’t want to be on camera, as Davina shoves a mic at her face, demanding “you’ve actually been with him, haven’t you? What was he like?” YEAH, WAS HE GOOD AT SEX? WHAT’S HIS WILLY LIKE? YOU SHOULD KNOW; IT’S BEEN INSIDE YOU! GO ON, TELL EVERYONE AT HOME! The poor girl, trying to hide behind Davina, is frozen with nerves, unable to utter a sound. “I think that says it all!” says Davina.

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Test 2: Smarm or Charm is the patter round, where the lads roleplay chatting up audience members in a supermarket. Matt tells the girl to put her porridge back and “have yer oats now” (he means his cum (cum from out of his penis)), while Nigel opens with the incredible “have you been shopping long?” Soon he’s demanding booing audience members shut up, and defending himself to an angry Davina with “it was kind of a metaphor for summink.” Unable to simply get his dick out, Billy’s similarly lost and mumbles incoherently, while Anthony straight-up asks his girl out, even if he doesn’t win. She says yes.

So far, so kind-of-innocent. Then it’s Test 3: Suck it and See, which commences with the vile phrase “sucking the little belly button.” As five girls from the audience lay on their backs on the floor, the whole thing feels very disorganised, like a team-bonding exercise at a call-centre, with nobody sure what’s happening. Davina walks them through it, by first cleaning the belly buttons with q-tips and a cloth. One girl has second thoughts, sitting up, but is told to lay back down, and ensured “he’s not gonna hurt you!” As the clock starts, the lads are ordered to “get sucking!” What follows are super yucky shots of dudes going down on belly buttons, with Davina sticking a mic in the women’s faces as their bellies get tongued, and not even listening to them, like when Lord Alfred Hayes cut off Stu Hart at Summerslam ’91.

Davina: “He’s doing well, is he?

Girl: “Yeah, well he’s not–

Davina (already moved on to another girl): “What’s your name?

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The lads have to mop all their flob off the girls’ stomachs before Davina can interview them, and their reviews range from “dreadful” to “it was alright.” At this point, let’s take a short break and go the the good old reliable Youtube comments.

I’ve been looking for YEARS to find a gods gift episode with a toe sucking game. In this episode the “suck it and see” is licking bellys. If you or anyone can get me a toe sucking part I will happily pay you money! (paypal, quick pay, good wallet, or cash app) Not joking. This is a mission in life I’m on!

Please help!

The next test should be called Chinny Wreck-On, Mate, as contestants have to confess the biggest skeleton in their closets. Matt says he likes wearing women’s clothes, and used to dress up for his girlfriend. “Very sad,” spit back a disgusted audience, who aren’t into it at all. Though in the next round, asked what kind of girl he goes for, Matt admits “I dunno, I’ve never had one,” spending the rest of the show a broken figure. Meanwhile, Billy reckons he fucked his sister’s girlfriend at a party, and Garfield’s story involves seeing two girls at the same time, unbeknown to each other, and having to run back and forth between opposite ends of a restaurant during a double-date on the same evening. Yeah alright, Mrs. Doubtfire.

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Nigel’s is markedly less funny, though he’s certainly chuckling away at his anecdote of getting a girl so drunk at a party that she blacked out on the bed, unconscious. He then hitched up her skirt, pulled her knickers off and shaved her pubes into a heart shape, before taking a photo and sticking it up in the student common room for everyone to see. Davina and the audience are shocked at the cheeky bit of 90’s sexual assault, but in a comedy “what are you like?!” way, as he pumps his fist like Arsenio Hall. The girls in the audience clearly love a good sense of humour, as following his story, harmless prankster Nigel’s got a huge crowd of women voting for him. Billy Bum-Out, however, is doing so badly, a pitying Davina suddenly announces to the audience “he stopped three guys attacking a woman once!

In Test 5: Larf or Barf, they’re given 30 seconds to perform a party piece. Now, I’m not saying they’re of low quality, but Matt’s impression of “Bert and Ernie off Sesame Street, yeah?” which involves saying their names over and over, is the only act that doesn’t get booed off. Though in the case of Nigel’s self-penned ditty, which got as far as the opening line “on top of my Sarah, covered in sweat,” I’d like to have seen where he was going. To prison, hopefully.

As is the law, final test, Bare Essentials, is the ‘bods out for the gals’ round. Unless you’re both ripped and a decent mover, there’s no way for a bloke to look sexy while swaying around, unbuttoning his shirt. Beneath thumping techno, they unveil physiques that would be laughed at on a modern dating show, with Anthony tossing his shirt into the crowd, drawing a reaction as though he’d flung some roadkill at them. The kecks come off, which incites actual wooing, until Billy reveals his bare arse again, flopping his dick-pouch at them, and turning the shrieks to those of horror. Sickly virgin Matt, emaciated in purple y-fronts, is utterly lost; first metaphorically and now literally stripped bare, arm nervously wrapped around himself, with all the mediocre bravado completely gone.

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For the final vote, Get Gartered, the lads wander into the crowd in their pants, soliciting votes by having garters slid over their arms. By now, the audience seems bored, locked in the tiny, sweaty studio, forced to stare at the antics of five dunces. Davina talks to a girl who can’t even remember the name of who she voted for 10 seconds ago. They roll a video of the previous week’s winner, who asks a woman in the crowd if she’ll be his date. “I don’t know if I can,” she says, but is berated into a dubious “okay…” by Davina. He does a casual to-camera piece while sat on a toilet, taking the girl by limo to a Turkish restaurant. She describes the food as “different,” which is always a good sign, before they get off with each other really grossly (even though she deemed him too short), and end up announcing they’re off back to hers for some 90’s shaggin’.

Back at the studio, Anthony is crowned the winner, and thus, God’s Gift. He doesn’t pick the girl he previously asked out in the patter round, nor is she acknowledged, but makes an immediate beeline for the blonde in the PVC dress Stuart Hall read the poem to earlier. He has to get down on one knee to ask, and they make his ex-girlfriend watch. PVC-girl says yes, “but only if he takes me out for a meal.” It’s a weird set-up. What if the chosen girl says no? Is there no date? Would the winner have to keep asking different girls until they get a yes? It seems from last week’s VT that anyone who’s not keen is just cajoled into it. Anyway, the pair are given a bulky analogue camcorder to shoot a video diary for next week, I guess of them shitting then fingering in the back of a cab?

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In a grim piece of God’s Gift trivia, even considering an actual necrophile was the voiceover man, in its first series, the show held a gay episode, which was still controversial in 1995. During the taping, one of the contestants, chef Anthony Morley, met audience member and future contestant, Damian Oldfield. Thirteen years later, Morley would murder Oldfield, dismembering his body, and partially eating his flesh. Unsurprisingly, Paddy McGuinness, the spectre of 90’s masculinity haunting our modern day, was also a contestant at one point. I’m not sure which is worse.

But as horrendous as these shows were, there’s only so much we can blame on the cursed decade. Yes, the fashions, sexual politics, and dance moves were mortifying (as ours will seem in 2039), but there’s literally a show on TV right now where contestants show their genitals through a hole so people can judge if the nipples are too dark, or if the dicks are big enough, or so small and gross they don’t even want to see the tiny-dicked loser’s face. Whatever the decade, whatever the prevailing culture, if you reduce the search for sexual partners to a gladiatorial setting, nobody comes out well. Plus, as even proven by me, sneering from up on my high horse, and yet occasionally glimpsing an audience member and thinking “cor, she’s nice,” as a species, our defining quality is that, mostly, we’re just horny, horny, horny.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it 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 provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Great Moments in Pop Culture – James Cameron Digs Up Christ

•March 26, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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[Previous Moments: “I’m Not a Real Witch”Jimmy Stewart’s Yeti Finger]

Remember that time James Cameron, Oscar-winning film director, held a press conference to announce he’d found Jesus’s bones? No? Yeah, nobody does. Except me, in my personal Mandela Effect Hell. Every day, I feel like I’m going crazy. You lot out there are just walking around, going to work, or screencapping chats with Tinder deviants for retweets, and here I am, unable to stop thinking about the time the guy who made Terminator II told the assembled world’s media that he’d dug up Christ’s skeleton.

A likely story, Millard,” you say, “I suppose Spielberg went on CNN to unveil the Devil’s dick, and it was just a shoebox with an old banana in it?” I assure you, it did happen. So let’s give it some context. Though we associate him with robots and icebergs, before this whole incident went down, James Cameron had previously delved into religious ‘investigations’, with 2006 History Channel documentary, The Exodus Decoded. Note that even on Wikipedia, the descriptor of “documentary film” is in quote marks, which is perhaps the most scathing Wiki-shade since the time (genuinely) some anonymous wag edited my hometown’s page to include a description of me as a “big fat bender” — [citation needed].

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Now, this came during that strange era when Dan Brown-a-mania was running wild. The worst writer of all time — and a man could buy me a million times over with thirty seconds worth of royalties — he’s why the mid-aughts were flooded with pseudo-religious ancient conspiracies, and while his various books sat in the fiction aisle, were they?! Yes. But that didn’t stop people from thinking they were based on fact, sparking renewed interest in the Holy Grail, Knights Templar, and other things believed in by the sort of people who post racist Facebook statuses on St. George’s day. The movie adaptation of The Da Vinci Code had the same result as The X-Files a decade before, which had seen anything vaguely related to the paranormal branded as The [Something]-Files, or The X-[Something]. Likewise, in 2006, it was all the [Something] Code, with the suggestion there were hidden riddles in every old piece of art from Shakespeare’s plays to that canvas print of Paul Ross, and that history as we knew it was a lie.

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James Cameron called shotgun on that bandwagon, and his Exodus Decoded was a co-production with Israeli-Canadian film-maker and self-described “investigative archaeologist,” Simcha Jacobovici. You may have noticed another snarky use of quotes there, as Decoded‘s attempt to prove the historical truth of the Biblical Exodus with overly complicated, spurious archaeological evidence pissed off both Christians and actual scientists. The following year, Cameron reunited with Jacobovici for a second documentary, entitled The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which was announced via press conference in New York, one week before it aired on television. Backed by a team of religious scholars, and his face strobed by excited flashbulbs, Hollywood royalty James Cameron opened his mouth, to release these words into the world like toxic gas.

I’ve never doubted there was a historical Jesus; that he walked the Earth 2000 years ago; but the simple fact is, there’s never been a shred of physical, archaeological evidence to support that fact. Until right now.”

I’d love to tell you this is the point he reached below the podium and pulled up a bearded skeleton, but like all Barnum-style promoting, it wasn’t nearly so exciting. As his story goes, a long-uncovered tomb in East Jerusalem was found to contain a number of ancient ossuaries, aka boxes o’ bones. These ossuaries joined Cameron on stage, hidden beneath a red cloth, to be revealed at the pertinent moment, like a magician’s “ta-da!” when his sequinned younger wife jumps out of a trunk.

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One of the burial containers bore the Aramaic inscription Yeshua bar Yehosef – or in English, Jesus son of Joseph. The adjoining containers had markings including Maria (Mary), Yose (Joseph), Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah son of Jesus), and Mariamene e Mara (Mary the Master, aka Mary Magdalene). With DNA testing confirming that the Jesus and Mary were not blood related, Cameron assured us this was incontrovertible proof that the remains were Jesus, son of God and his wife, Mary Magdalene; the original shippers dream. In essence, that tomb was the cast of first-century reality show, Meet The Christs, though sadly, there was no coffee jar containing the pelvis of Judas, to provide the table-tipping villain one needs to avoid cancellation after a single season.

Though he publicly claimed, exactly like the fiction of Dan Brown, that Jesus didn’t die on the cross, nor divinely ascend; and also that he’d made a child, via sex with his willy; James Cameron was not lynched by evangelicals. Though he did assure reporters he wasn’t trying to undermine Christ’s message, but rather, to help shine a light on it. That’s not to say The Lost Tomb of Jesus was well received, sparking a lot of terrible Youtube documentaries debunking its claims, and scoffing responses from both the religious and scientific communities. Possibly what saved it from controversy is the same reason this incident slipped everybody’s minds; because it was dumb as shit.

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Entirely relying on supposition, Cameron and Jacobovici simply took a bunch of names that were very common at the time, and assumed it must be the Jesus and Friends. According to another prominent archaeologist at the time, in 900 similar burial caves near the find, there were 71 further ossuaries marked with the name Jesus. Then there’s the DNA testing, which proved only that the skeletal Jesus and Mary didn’t share a mother, but didn’t rule out the possibility they were siblings or cousins, or so on. As far as I’m concerned, don’t be saying you have Jesus’s bones unless you’re part of a travelling carnival, as this was the most disappointing press conference since those guys who said they had a dead Bigfoot in a freezer, and it turned out to be a Halloween costume draped in raccoon guts.

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If any comparison can be made, the grandstanding is reminiscent of the 1995 Roswell alien autopsy film, which was similarly tied to the cultural fads of its time, and embraced as a piece of modern folklore, except this time, it didn’t really take. It’s shocking to me that it isn’t constantly brought up whenever Cameron’s name is mentioned, and a permanent stain on his reputation, like when someone slips on dog mess in year nine, and is greeted with “here comes Shitback!” at the 20 year reunion. Though it’s all I can think about now when I’m watching Terminator or Aliens, it does make sense that nobody would even bother listening when he said he’d found the bones of the messiah. After all, this is the man who’s spent the last decade trying to convince everyone that there’s an audience demand for four sequels to fucking Avatar.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it 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 provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Cartoon Spinoffs: Ewoks

•March 16, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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After tackling one half of the Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour, with the pleasantly not-that-bad Droids, I figured I should sit through the other show. It’s telling that, as Star Wars crazed as I was back then, the young me was not a fan of the Ewoks cartoon. Dear reader, it has not gotten better with time. While Droids was a legitimate extension of the Star Wars world, albeit with that market stall aesthetic, Ewoks feels completely unrelated; a generic and incomprehensible kids show about magical teddies. Maybe it’s because I’m a man in his late 30s watching an old cartoon meant for children, but I found it hard to follow, with its enormous cast, each name stupider than the last. Funnily, that’s the one kinship with the source material. There’s a brilliantly in-depth series of books by J. W. Rinzler about the making of the original trilogy, which follow the various evolutions of the screenplay, from draft to draft. Here’s how George Lucas’ original treatment began:

“…the story of Mace Windu, a revered Jedi-bendu of Ophuchi who was related to Usby C.J. Thape, a padawaan leader to the famed Jedi.”

Oh, that Usby C. J. Thape, the Jedi padawaan. I thought you meant Usby C. J. Thape of Thapes the Fishmongers, next to the pound shop; Colin Thape’s son who burnt his dick on a toaster. All of the cute little bears and associated aliens in Ewoks have similarly gibberish names, like a rack of letters you’d exchange during a shit round of Scrabble. Look at some of these genuine episode synopsis.

After rescuing Mring-Mring’s brother Oobel, Wicket and his friends journey with them to save the Gupins’ homeland from the Grass Trekkers.”

The Gorph Queen Slugga kidnaps Latara masquerading as a princess for her son to marry. Wicket and his friends rescue Latara and trap the Gorphs.

Kneesa takes in a Quarf (actually a monster) called Silky sent by Jadru to hold her ransom for the Sunstar. Wicket and Baga come to the rescue and turn the tides on Jadru.

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Clippy the Paperclip just popped up to ask if I was having a stroke. Thanks to the names, coupled with a simplistic design and limited colour palette, as well as being bored by Ewoks, I felt confused and old. One of the main reasons it doesn’t feel like Star Wars is that the Ewoks speak English. Droids gave us the actual Anthony Daniels, and R2D2’s regular beeps n’ boops, but if R2 had been voiced by some wise-talking child actor, all “Threepio, you golden ninny!” I daresay it would take you out of the moment. Ironically, like the urban legend about Charlie Chaplin coming third in a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest, Warwick Davis tried out for the lead voice role of Wicket, a character he played in ROTJ and both the live-action Ewok spin-off movies, but lost out to another actor. Incredibly, the same thing happened to Ernie Hudson, who auditioned to reprise Winston Zeddemore in The Real Ghostbusters, even being told in the booth to do it “like Ernie Hudson in the movie,” while the role went to Arsenio Hall.

Ewoks centres around the adventures of Wicket “World Wide Web” W. Warrick and his tribe of family and friends. The show nails down a family tree for the creatures, Holiday Special-like in its idiocy — the show that gave us Chewie’s family, Itchy and Lumpy. Wicket has one sister, Winda, and two brothers, Weechee, and another who’s a real two-fer in childish toilet humor, alternating between the names Willy and Widdle. Who are Chief Chirpa’s kids; Poo and Wee? The Ewok voices are the same ‘voice actors pretending to be children’ deal familiar from every other cartoon featuring anthropomorphised animals or vehicles or kitchen implements, and like any alien tribe who lives in an outdoorsy environs, there’s an overpowering vibe of faux Native American mysticism.

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After my Droids experience, with C-3PO re-enacting Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em in every scene, I’m filled with dread as barely 15 seconds into episode one, The Cry of the Trees, Wicket slips over and tumbles down a big hill. Everyone’s excited about the upcoming Festival of Hoods, which sounds like another alt-right march, though Endor’s in the middle of a dry spell, leaving Wicket in trouble for playing with “fire folk,” aka little fairies called Whispies, in case he sets the forest alight. The theme here is that Wicket’s always in trouble, particularly with his aunt Bozzie, forever shaking her fist as he accidentally tips a tub of water on her head, or chases some weird purple bull thing, which butts her into a fish stall, covering her with smelly dead fish.

Paploo, another character from ROTJ, suggests Wicket unwind with “a nice, relaxing game of Drop the Sack!” The suggestive phrasing is not helped by the conspiratorial way he looks around to check the coast’s clear before saying it into his cupped hand, nor the fact Paploo, with his moustache and grizzled gold prospector voice all adult Ewoks have, is a grown up, suggesting this to Ewok children. Given his lowly status, he seems the equivalent of the college dropout hanging round highschools in a leather jacket, looking all cool and worldly. Forbidden by the elders, Drop the Sack, as we discover, involves one Ewok running through the forest while the others drop sacks of mud (or possibly faeces) on them from the treetops. Of course, who gets dumped with a load of the wet brown stuff? Only bloody Aunt Bozzie! Wic-kettt! [shakes fist]

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Meanwhile, fearful of forest fires amid the heatwave, Logray’s been “brewing a magic foam,” which sounds like another euphemism. “What are you doing in the bathroom with those Carol Kirkwood pictures?! You’d better not be brewing any magic foam!” Beyond the Ewok village, some weird monsters that look like Beast Man riding giant spiders help Morag the Witch capture the queen of the Whispies, Izrina, to enact Morag’s terrible vengeance on “those cursed Ewoks!” With the fairy queen manacled up like the Spanish Inquisition, Morag enchants her to set the Ewok forest alight. However, Wicket redeems himself, saving the day by playing Drop the Sack, only this time dropping sacks of magic foam onto the burning trees from an Ewok glider. Strangely, the glider gives me the first real kick of Star Wars nostalgia, from the memory of wistfully gazing at the toy version in the Argos catalogue.

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Episode two, The Haunted Village, concerns the Ewoks’ eternal feud with a race called the Duloks, who resemble Cyril Sneer from The Racoons cosplaying as the Grinch. Naked (but genital-free), and with the bumbling nature of your classic cartoon foe, the Duloks are so filthy and stinkin’, they’re covered in flies, which becomes an actual plot point. But first, Morag sends a giant bird called the Mantigrue to destroy all the Ewok sunberry trees. Chief Chirpa tells a story about the last time Morag took their trees, and how the Ewoks soon became ill without their precious sunberries. Wait, so do the Ewoks have some congenital medical disorder that can only be kept in check with the sunberries, akin to insulin for a diabetic? Or do they become ill without their berries in the same way one might go all sweaty and achy when they can’t cobble together the money for a wrap of heroin because their Patreon’s not been doing so great lately? Either way, the Mantigrue’s coming back tomorrow, and they must figure out how to defeat it.

Luckily, the chief has a secret plan, revealing… a bar of soap. Made from the Shadowplant, anything it washes becomes temporarily invisible. I’m not saying Ewoks strays from the original source material of the movies, but the plan is to wash magic trees with invisible soap to hide them from a big bird. What a sentence! While Wicket’s stuck babysitting the younger ‘woklings’, they’re seen by the smelly old Duloks, spying a (normal) bar of soap as the Ewoks bathe in the river, and deciding to steal it. Ewok soap, it’s said, is the best for keeping flies off. Hoo boy, I wonder if there will be some kind of exciting soap mixup?! But really, two episodes in, someone pitched the storyline involving a misunderstanding between two important but different bars of soap?

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While the Ewoks are busy making trees invisible, the Duloks, honking of BO, with nuggets of poo matted into their green fur, sneak into the village, looking for the regular soap. Of course, they find the wrong one, and after disappearing themselves with it, create an evil plan to go to the Ewok village and scare them. The invisible Duloks spank the Ewoks with brooms and chuck plates about like poltergeists, before announcing in spooky voices “we are the tree spirits!” and banishing them from the forest. Mercifully, the Ewoks figure it out immediately, switching the Dulok soap with a third soap, which attracts flies, and leaving the dirty bastards to get swarmed. Finally, Wicket redeems himself again, having previously dropped the last bar of invisibility soap into a puddle, by scooping the puddle into a sack, and dousing the final trees in it, so the Mantigrue can’t wreck any berries. Though the sack didn’t turn invisible? Sadly, we got this over my better idea of the idiot Dulok shaman stealing what he thinks is invisible soap, and cut to him immediately being arrested in a women’s locker room.

Skipping forwards into Ewoks‘ second and final season, there’s a noticeable dip in quality, with a more simplistic look, severely reduced frame-rate of animation, and the bears themselves redesigned to be even cutesier. The voice for Wicket has been recast, and it’s still not Warwick Davis, but the guy who does Murray the talking skull in the Monkey Island games. Home is Where the Shrieks Are is one half of an episode split into two stories, where Wicket tires of his mum’s nagging about chores and declares he’s moving out, stuffing his possessions into a bindle and shaking up in a dilapidated treehouse with his mate, Teebo. Thinking they’ll be self-sufficient big boys, all that keeps them staying through the leaky roof and starvation is Wicket’s fear of ridicule at going back so soon. But even worse, the treehouse is haunted!

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The eponymous Shriekers, seen only as three eyes peering from the darkness, keep the lads awake, even ruining a card game between Teebo and his mates; a trio of big squirrel things who talk like gruff truckers from the Bronx. In the morning, they venture into the tree trunk to hunt them out, jumping at booming warnings to turn back. However, it’s the old Wizard of Oz ruse, and the Shriekers are but one weird little furry pink creature with three eyes and a Groucho mask nose/tash, who farts when they jump on him, called Larry. Larry?! Your classic Star Wars name. He’s even got the sad-sack voice of a Larry, like a Rodney Dangerfield type complaining about his old broad, who gets constipated and takes it out on him. Larry he says he’s been living alone in the tree since he ran away from home as a kid, and when he returned, everyone had left. This makes the lads run back to the village, just in time for the Harvest Festival, where everyone’s pleased to see them, and their new friend Larry, who psychotically scoffs down food like only someone who’s been living off bark and ant-piss for forty years could.

Until now, there’s been no clue where Ewoks stands chronologically in the SW timeline. The mystery’s finally solved in season 2, episode 12’s Battle For the Sunstar, introducing actual Star Wars accoutrements to the show. We open in space, as a Star Destroyer zooms overhead, and cut to Doctor Raygar, bragging how he’ll soon take Endor’s powerful Sunstar. This is the Empire’s first contact with Endor, placing Ewoks as a prequel to the original trilogy. I guess they forgot how to speak English and reverted back to animalistic behaviour after washing with magic reverse-evolution soap or something?

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Though the sight of an admiral flanked by proper Stormtroopers inflames glorious nostalgia, the ludicrously outfitted, ridiculous looking Raygar is so out of place, it’s like when you pulled other random 80s toylines into your play, teaming the Thundercats with He-Man, or as someone tweeted at me after my Noel Edmonds posts, using the Ghostbusters firehouse playset, a tub of slime, and a Ted DiBiase WWF figure to recreate Noel’s House Party. Raygar’s mission, to liberate a magic stone from a planet guarded by “furry warriors” is sneered at by the sceptical admiral, but has been approved by the Emperor. We get a trademark SW wipe back to Endor, where it’s right back to Ewoks bullshit, halfway up a mountain, carrying the “jing-jang berries up to the gooba-bird’s nest or else the baby goobas will starve!” The cross-eyed gooba birds knock the Ewoks out of their nest, where they fall 1000ft into a bush and are perfectly fine, like in the shit Hobbit movies.

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On the way back to the village, they’re kidnapped by Dr. Raygar’s giant robots, as he shoots lasers from a giant flying cereal bowl. Tossed in a cell, they land on each other with a fart, farting again as they bounce off the force field door. Whoever was in charge of the fart button this week went buck wild, with each of the many pratfalls punctuated with a toot. Anyway, soon the Ewoks are rescued by Raygar’s droid, a cute little robot called PD-23. Uncomfortably shortened, post-Yewtree, to ‘Paedy’, PD-23 looks like he’s been recycled from R2D2’s component parts; same colour scheme, same little noises, though he can speak too. There’s also a cameo by the mouse droid from the Death Star, though in the babyfied Ewoks world, it’s got a pair of eyes and a tail that wags when it gets excited.

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They find an escape pod, accidentally launching it by sitting on the controls, and it careens around Endor, while everyone inside falls around farting. Raygar launches an assault on the Ewok village, in a battle scene that harks back to ROTJ, except instead of that horrid scene where the Ewok weeps over the corpse of his dead friend, they all just land safely onto bags of flour, farting as they fall. Raygar steals the Sunstar we keep hearing about, and makes his escape, but it’s got the purple and yellow colour scheme of UKIP, so he can chuck it in the trash compactor for all I care.

Though it is interesting how the Ewoks have no concept of spaceships, and like the myth of indigenous peoples who simply couldn’t see the first approaching ships, they refer to Raygar’s hi-tech vehicles as “canoes,” as is their only frame of reference. Chief Chirpa even confuses the escape pod for a living creature. The Ewoks and PD-23 jack a canoe and chase Raygar to the Star Destroyer, disguising themselves as droids by putting buckets on their heads, and overhear Raygar outlining his evil plan to himself, where rather than hand the Sunstar to the Emperor, he’ll destroy him with it, before taking his throne. Then there’s a half second shot of a conveyor belt. Could it be…?

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After more bumblin’ and fartin’, the Ewoks defeat Raygar, who accidentally shoots at the Emperor’s shuttle, and is arrested for treason. He’s last seen begging for mercy, with the Emperor wanting to punish him “personally.” Back at Ewok village they’re Yub Nubbing at the return of the Sunstar, and invite PD to stay, but he goes off in search of his kindly original master, from whom he was stolen by the Empire. After that, I guess the Empire figure Endor, with its population of cretinous farting teddies, is a good place to set up base. But what I’d most like to see is the mysterious traumatic event that turned the Ewoks from clumsy mischief-makers, spinning round in hammocks and playing Drop the Sack, to the fucking savages who tried to BBQ Han Solo alive. What a glow up.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it 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 provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Curry & Chips

•March 5, 2019 • 2 Comments

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[This is Part 4 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart Three]

Furthering my quest to actually sit through the oft-named Worst Ever sitcoms that most people have only seen in the same 30-second clip on C5 talking head shows being described to them by someone who once shat themselves during a threesome on Geordie Shore, I’m finally diving into the big one. Curry & Chips is roundly regarded as one of the most badly-misjudged or outright racist shows in the history of television. Conceived by and starring Spike Milligan, and written by Johnny Speight, the ITV sitcom turned out to be the worst thing to happen in 1969, putting the Manson murders in distant second. It’s notable for centring on a Pakistani lead, played by Milligan in blackface, decades before nobody-at-the-time gave a shit about Fisher Stevens’ appearance in Short Circuit 2. Following the recent controversy about Apu of The Simpsons, it seems like a particularly timely moment to revisit it.

I’m already slightly suspicious of Speight, who must have known he was getting laughs from racists in his classic Till Death Us Do Part and its follow-up, In Sickness and In Health, with an audience split between those who appreciated the irony, and those who merely loved Alf Garnett’s punchlines about “darkies.” The have-your-cake-and-eat-it cheat of another character saying “ooh, bit racist” to a racist joke, while still milking the laughs from it, has become the go-to for sneaking such material through in recent years, but these old shows live in a much greyer area. While Till Death and In Sickness were pitched as an ironic dig at bigots, even if that’s truly what he was going for, the point was missed by many, and they’ve since fallen firmly in the pantheon of shows held up by morons as an example of television as it used to be, before PC culture stole the Grumbleweeds and Black and White Minstrels from us. Alf has since become embraced as a no-nonsense, straight-talking mascot of the right, as the face of a popular Twitter ‘parody’ account that spends its time moaning about liberal snowflakes at the BBC, and campaigning to bring back the great British gollywog.

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Curry & Chips does nothing to allay my mistrust, with a portrayal of other cultures that makes Temple of Doom‘s heart-ripping, monkey-brain-eating Indians look subtle. It’s abhorrent from the opening theme, which is a dirge of sitars and chimes, and Spike doing the “bud-bud ding-ding, 2.99” voice British schoolkids tormented 1980’s Asian newsagents with, to wail “oh Pakistan, the poppadoms are calling!” to the tune of Danny Boy. This plays over real, documentary-style footage of actual ethnic minorities going about their lives, framed with the finger-pointing voyeurism of the People Are Strange bit from The Lost Boys, and ending with the bleeped swear of presumed racial abuse being hurled at a black lady.

Our setting is Lillicrap Limited, a manufacturer of novelties and practical jokes, and the kind of place I dreamed of working at as a kid, when all my pocket money went on plastic turds from those Joke Shop by Post catalogues you got out the back of Whizzer and Chips. At Lillicrap, burly factory blokes test Groucho glasses, rubber spiders, and knives that look like they’re going through your head; a man bounces up and down on whoopee cushions, as a foreman marks the quality of farts on a clipboard. Heaven! Our introduction to Lillicrap’s manager, Eric Sykes, sees him smoking a cigar while wearing an enormous rubber hand. About Sykes…

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Eric Sykes, another beloved comedy figure with a CV of classic work, perfectly illustrates the worst part of watching Curry & Chips. The cast is packed with familiar comic actors, like Kenny Lynch, Geoffrey Hughes aka Onslow from Keeping Up Appearances, and of course, Spike himself. It’s from these usually-comforting faces that the wretched material spouts. In our future Hell-world, heroes expose their clay feet, day by day, in terrible headlines, and when you see the name of an adored celebrity trending, your first hope is they’ve died rather than the alternative. Spike’s participation in Curry & Chips is one of those incidents that you wish you hadn’t heard about. Perhaps if this was Jim Davidson slathered in cocoa powder and wobbling his head from side to side, the whole thing could be easily dismissed as the on-brand work of a noted imbecile, but Spike?! Lovely Spike? Still with that playful twinkle in his eye, perpetually on the verge of cracking up? It’s painful. And the excuse people wheel out for this, that Spike was born in India so it’s all fine, is a real “How can I be sexist? My stupid fat wife’s a woman!” what with him being, you know, white.

Alright, let’s get into this. So, Spike turns up looking for a job, and Eric literally recoils in horror at the sight of an Asian man. Similarly, there’s uproar on the factory floor, with union rep Norman pointing an angry finger at Kenny Lynch; “We’ve got our coloured quota, we don’t want any more blacks!” The whole notion of Kenny not counting as black (vs. other black people) because he’s their mate, runs strongly through the entire series, with everyone falling over themselves not to be seen as anything but British. In a way, the show reminds me of Ricky Gervais’ “haha, dwarves” sitcom, Life’s Too Short; a show that operated in a world where everyone was incredibly rude to each other all the time for no reason, as everyone in Curry & Chips is super racist, including Kenny Lynch’s character, who’s desperate not to be be lumped in with Spike as (a) black.

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Lillicrap’s biggest racist is Norman, who in a modern reboot would be booking days off to go and march for brave Tommy Robinson. A lifelong Labour voter, although “when it comes to blacks, I’m with Enoch,” he threatens a strike if they get a Pakistani on the books. Though he does offer the compromise of sacking Kenny, to keep the racial balance. He ends up storming off, angrily muttering about “bloody micks and coggers(?) and rednecks and piccaninnies and c**ns and w*gs… I tell you what, if they sent all the w*gs back home, we’d have an extra hour of daylight!” Two things to note here. Firstly, while the archaic racial slur ‘piccaninnies’ really dates this as a late 60’s piece, Boris Johnson used it in a newspaper column as recently as 2002, and secondly, this whole section, particularly the punchline about daylight, gets a huge laugh from the audience. If it’s such an ironic show, meant to caricature and laugh at racist opinions rather with them, why is all the racist abuse structured like a well-crafted gag, with punchlines cued by holding up the fucking ‘laugh’ sign?

Anyway, joke of jokes, Spike reveals his name to be Kevin O’Grady, only half-Pakistani with an Irish father, allowing them to throw around endless jokes about ‘Micks’ as well as people of colour. He too, is in constant denial of his own race, or as he puts it “there are far too many w*g in this country… I leave Pakistan because there are far too many w*gs there, so I come to England, and there are still too many w*gs.” If it even has a theme, outside of “aren’t we naughty?!” shock humour, then Curry & Chips is predominantly about Britishness, and what it means to stand beneath the Union Jack and truly belong. What this always boils down to, to the only idiots that care about such toss, be it potato-like cavemen spitting at black footballers, or the cartoon bigots of a horrible old sitcom, is being white.

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Over lunch break in a canteen decorated with pornography, Spike refuses to eat pork, even though “a few years ago they were eating each other!” Then the lads explain the intricacies of British social etiquette, such as the “chivalry” of whistling at a piece of crumpet, and the ogling of Page 3 girls. But where he’s from, such harlots aren’t considered good women. Based on its reputation, I expected Curry & Chips to be bad, but this section in particular had me rocking back in my seat, uttering ‘fucking hell‘ to an empty room. Firstly, Onslow helpfully informs us that “w*g birds have to wear masks,” leading to the following outburst from Norman. “I tell you one thing about the w*gs, they know how to treat their women. Keep ’em right down, they do, keep ’em right under the cosh. When a bloke dies out there in w*g-land, they burn his missus!” It’s said with such wild glee, he’s practically fucking the table, evoking images of the modern racist, furiously raving against the oppression of the burqa while simultaneously sending casual rape threats to women who they’ve disagreed with online.

After a scene at the pub, Eric takes Spike home, to introduce him to his landlady and have him be the new lodger, though I don’t know what they’re paying at Lillicrap if the 50-something manager’s living in a spinster’s spare room. She’s shocked when she sees him, and though Eric assures her “it won’t come off on the sheets,” she’s “not keen on the colour.” However, as a glass half-full type, she does admit “he’s not as black as some,” but will still have to pay “the coloured-rate.” When Kenny shows up, he’s horrified, warning Eric that “they’re all bloody poofs, his mob,” as Spike’s religion believes if they have enough gay sex, then one day a bloke will give birth to a baby. That’s a new one on me, but perhaps listeners to Nigel Farage’s radio show are more educated.

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The first episode ends with Eric sat on his bed armed with a metal poker, and with a chair pushed under the door handle, too afraid to go to sleep in case Spike tries to bum a divine baby into his arse. A microcosm of the modern plague of middle-aged men falling pray to scaremongering about immigration, terrified of being raped, he makes a break for the landlady’s room, to explain why Spike has to go, as “a consenting Pakistani male… he’s expecting a baby!” There are huge laughs for all of this, including the gag “I’d better take it easy, if he’s wandering around in the dark, I’ll never see him!” Satire, eh?

Unless you’ve got a Twitter bio that reads “52, love football, beer, and my kids, Brexit means Brexit,” there are no legitimate laughs to be had, though something there is a lot of is racial epithets. In a 24 minute show, I counted 16 uses of w*g, 9 of c**n, 8 of sambo, 6 apiece of coloured and blacks (pejorative), and various others, including 10 micks, making it the Goodfellas of casual racist slurs. Note that these words are rarely just said, but spat, with real teeth-clenched venom, to peels of audience laughter. Even aside from the racism, Curry & Chips took a lot of heat for its foul-mouthed dialogue at the time, racking up 59 uses of ‘bloody’ in a single episode.

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Skipping forwards to episode four, it’s clear this is less a sitcom than a meandering series of protracted arguments about whether or not brown people are even human. By now, Eric Sykes’ character functions as a parody of today’s professionally Woke, flaunting a more progressive attitude to his bigoted colleagues, whilst still being pretty fucking racist and referring to Spike as “Pa*i-Paddy”. We open on a policeman down at the cop shop, bemoaning “bloody race riots” in a long monologue about violent hooligans and “supposed police brutality” when it’s really the civilians at fault, which plays to no audience laughter, to establish that it’s meant to be serious social commentary.

Spike’s landlady’s there to collect him after he got racially assaulted, and she too, is now Woke, explaining to the copper “all he’s done is been coloured, ain’t it?” adding that it’s all just bad luck for the poor fella, who’s only half-coloured anyway. “If his father was a bit more fussy who he slept with, Kevin would be white like us,” she says, though “knowing the Irish, his father was probably drunk.” Like all policeman, this one isn’t racist, agreeing that gentle Spike wouldn’t hurt a fly, because “they do seem to be a bit fond of them,” as he’s seen them sat there covered in flies, too lazy to brush them off. In contrast to the opening dialogue, this stuff is purely for the laffs, evoking gales of them.

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At work the following Monday, Spike’s in an eye patch, while Eric, aka the original Lena Dunham, assures everyone the emotional pain he feels over what happened to Spike hurts far worse than the jackbooted beating itself. The others have less sympathy, as that lot ask for race riots, just by being here. There’s more on the continuing theme of what constitutes a ‘proper’ black, where Kenny Lynch, as their mate, isn’t as bad as the real blacks, but still a step down from the whites. It also touches on the attitude you see all the time today, even from the current President, wherein minorities should be grovelling with gratitude at every crumb of humanity we toss their way, as talk turns to British colonialism. Norman brings up the “British bloody Raj” with the spluttering fervour of a Question Time audience member talking all over a woman MP, about how when we went out there, it wasn’t to steal jobs or women (unlike them!) but to civilise; to educate. Onslow’s “and a rotten job we made of it too!” triggers such a raucous round of closing applause, as though the whole audience have stood in agreement, it’s the most uncomfortable moment of the whole series.

We then head to the most British place of all; the pub; where Curry & Chips‘ King of all the racists can be found. With his classic look of a bald old white man gnarled with rage, Tom exists solely as a cypher to say fucking dreadful shit for the audience to cackle at. This week’s boozy argument centres around religion, with tricky notions of whether God could be black, and the thought of having to share our white Heaven when we’re dead; “we’ve got to put up with them up there as well?!

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Now, I hate to be offering more recap than analysis in these pieces, but I feel like it needs a full record of what’s going on, because “a load of mad racist shit happened” doesn’t cover it. Tom’s livid at Eric’s suggestion minorities can’t be too bad, because the Queen shakes hands with them at the Royal Variety. “Ahh,” fumes Tom, “they were your top w*gs, wasn’t they? They was prime minister w*gs!” He wants them all exported, and says Britain actually helped America out in the old days; “they was understaffed, so we helped em out by flogging ’em all our c**ns, (from the) surplus of them, all sitting about in Africa doing nuffink.” Again, this is a comedy show, and all this shite’s getting laughs.

Because of course it does, talk turns to warfare and the military. Spike says he fought for the UK, while Eric defends him by bringing up the Gurkhas, though portrays them like animals, banging on drums and cutting German dicks off with holy machetes. Then God’s race comes up again, with Tom so mad at the suggestion he might not be white — “are you trying to imply that god’s coloured, sambo?” — that a fight breaks out, with the copper from the opening scene getting a call about a “religious riot” at the pub. Just two episodes into my watch, and above all else, with every single scene arguing the wrongs of “being coloured,” it’s utterly exhausting.

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Curry & Chips‘ final half-hour is the weirdest episode of a sitcom I’ve ever seen. A Christmas special, we open on the lads decorating the factory for the office party. Briefly, there’s the usual banter, tackling the Queen’s 1969 skipping of her speech, and the tedious confusion of Spike not knowing what “on the box” means. “Not a soapbox, you chocolate-coloured nit!” This segues into a prolonged dig at the BBC, who “must have upset her,” as Eric rants that “shifty little Harold Wilson’s behind that lot!” Settle in for a party political broadcast, as he spends the next ten minutes thumping the table about socialists’ propensity for atheism, and a really lengthy section on the contraceptive pill.

As evidenced by the silence throughout, it was likely somewhat of a surprise for those who turned up to watch a sitcom being recorded, to find themselves sitting through a jokeless debate about which class of people should be allowed to breed. A single, 13 minute take, everyone’s constantly losing their place and muddling through forgotten lines, in a haunted version of that scene from Hunger, if Fassbender had been harping on about “Shifty Wilson” wanting to ban the pill so he can get more Labour voters. Though I do take some pleasure in knowing there are gammons out there who bought the DVD to stick it to the libs, and watch great comedy as it used to be, sat with rictus grins and trying to kid themselves it’s a classic. “They’re really sticking it to the Archbishop of Canterbury about his views on contraception; brilliant! They wouldn’t allow that on Mock the Week! I don’t regret this purchase at all!” Like most scenes of their ilk, the whole thing feels like the pained cry of an old white man who’s confused and afraid by the changing world around him.

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But amid all the political stuff, there’s still room for terrible racism that has the audience howling. A doddery old man called Smelly uses the phrase “Jew-boy” numerous times, while Norman wants to “stuff the pill in the w*gs’ mouths,” to stop any more of ’em being born. By now, he’s implied to have some gained some small affection for Spike, shown by repeatedly referring to him as “w*g-head.” Oddly, Spike spends much of the scene up a ladder with his head out of frame, tossing in occasional lines, while part two sees a similar lack of screen time. It feels like he’s half written-out, like when a pregnant actress spends a whole season standing in front of desks or holding boxes to hide her belly. Was he ill? Had he had enough?

After the ad break, another long, single take covers the Christmas party, with a live band of aul’ fellas in the corner, and everyone bumping into each other as they waltz around the tiny set, catching eyes with the camera while squeezing through. According to IMDB, a young Bella Emberg is one of these uncredited extras. The lads moan about Labour’s wage freeze, and Sykes reads out a Christmas message from Lillicrap’s owner, to a response of “bloody prosperous for himself, that’s what he bloody means, bloody Jew-boy!” Most of it’s a talent show for the workers, the ‘highlight’ of which is the performance of a song that goes “there was a little fly, flew in a grocer’s store and he [shitting noise] on the ceiling, and he [shitting noise] on the floor” in its entirety, with multiple verses of the fly shitting everywhere.

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A drunk Norman gives Spike a Christmas present, which is a tub of Blanco; an industrial cleaning product for sinks, so’s he can scrub all that disgusting brown off his face, and then goes to drive home drunk to “stick it to Barbara Castle,” but collapses. The merry festivities end with blood-curdling screams of terror from workplace crumpet, Julia Breck, who runs into the party distraught, with her bra exposed by a ripped shirt, and Onslow following behind. His face is smeared in lipstick, shirt hanging open, and Christmas hat all wonky, following a cheeky attempted rape in the toilet. The chaos is broken up by the national anthem, and as the credits roll, the offscreen screams of Julia Breck are heard again, and this time, Spike emerges from the toilet, with his trousers round his ankles and shirt torn, I guess, after trying for a quick rape himself? Though as she chases him offscreen, she seems to be laughing, either corpsing, or continuing the show’s MGTOW theme of white women being sexually fascinated by brown men, and suggesting it was her committing the sexual assault.

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Curry & Chips was cancelled after a single series, when the Independent Television Authority forced LWT to take it off air, following accusations of racism, including from the Race Relations Board. Speight always maintained it was meant to satirize British bigotry, and function as a social commentary. If that was the goal, it’s a colossal failure. Fifty years on, it’s not exactly held up as a great, scathing satire, and if you look at that ever-reliable indicator, five seconds spent browsing its Youtube comment section, the fanbase speaks for itself. All of these are genuine.

The pc brigade nowadays makes me sick! If you don’t like it then don’t bloody well watch it!!!!

Trust the urban Guardianista lefties to pounce on anything they find unfunny and attach the racism card. Yawn. Some people have too much time on their hands.

ahh the days before the politicly correct muzzle !!!

they took the golly wog of the jam jars after we had it for years……the trouble is to politicaly correct

good oldfashiond humour before they destroyed it with their not to cleaver think tanks

Extra hour of daylight!

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Now we’re used to seeing racism everywhere again, the most striking thing about the show is that it’s barely a sitcom at all. There’s a distinct lack of jokes, other than ‘funny’ ways to insult minorities, with most of its monotonous minutes taken up with protracted circular discussions about race. What point was Johnny Speight trying to make? Racists are bad, so here’s a loveable band of them saying loads of jokes about coloureds that you can laugh at?

Spike Milligan would black up again, six years later, for BBC sitcom The Melting Pot, in which he starred as an illegal immigrant from Pakistan who rowed ashore to England. Suggestive of how wildly racist it must’ve been, it lasted just a single episode in the bigot’s paradise of 1970’s Britain, before being pulled off air. He’d also go on to don the brown paint, reprising his Curry & Chips character, for a trio of appearances in Speight’s Till Death Do Us Part, with one episode taking the name of his titular P*ki-Paddy. Alf and Kevin; together at last. That’s double the satire. Take that, racists!

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it 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 provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Cartoon Spinoffs: Droids

•February 27, 2019 • 1 Comment

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There’s this notion that Star Wars was born in 1977 and has been incredibly popular with everyone ever since, but it’s not true. Kids like me, who were still properly obsessed with SW into the late 80s, were derided as being weird for still liking that old (!) children’s movie, and back then, the word ‘nerd’ still carried weight, as a wholly pejorative term, said only in a mocking, Mr. Bean voice. Now, everyone’s a self-proclaimed nerd or geek, because they too, like movies that make a billion dollars. But Star Wars didn’t move beyond the preserve of these first nerds until the release of the ’97 special editions with the Gameboy-quality Jabba and backgrounds packed with comedy CG Jawas falling face-first into bantha turds.

I don’t want to come across all ‘I liked it before it was cool!’ because nobody gives a shit, but it’s relevant when recalling how precious little onscreen action there was for SW fans to cling onto back then. Beyond well-worn VHS of the three movies, in the dark period between ROTJ and the 90’s revival, all we had were a handful of weird spin-offs, each slightly-off brand, like something you’d find on a market stall beside RobertCop figures and ‘Bulk Bogan’ wrestlers moulded in purple plastic. As the most kid-marketable characters, the Ewoks had a pair of abysmal live-action movies — finally bringing Wilford Brimley into the Star Wars universe — and a cartoon. This was paired with another spin-off in 1985, as ABC’s The Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour; the latter starring the franchise’s other most demographic-pleasing act, that filthy box-droid who waddles around going “GONK!” No, don’t be silly; starring, of course, R2D2 and C-3PO.

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The animation of both Droids and Ewoks was handled by Canadian company Nelvana, who’d been hired by George Lucas after their work on the animated sections in the wretched Star Wars Holiday Special. Lucas was hands-on during pre-production, aiming for a high-quality in storytelling and voice acting, which saw the casting of Anthony Daniels. Initially sceptical, Daniels would often rewrite Threepio’s dialogue as he saw fit, but as a show focussing on entirely new characters, was the only returning cast member. With both series, each 22-minute episode was estimated to cost somewhere between $500,000 and $600,000, and of all people, Stewart Copeland of The Police was drafted in to compose a theme. Copeland’s Trouble Again is an oddly mature effort, considering the young target audience, but an era-perfect buddy pic theme, albeit punctuated by the boops and laser blasts of the footage it plays over.

Droids, or to give it its full title, Droids: The Adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO, is classically of the official-bootleg era; a warped version that plays like Star Wars as described to you by someone who saw thirty seconds of it while falling down a cinema staircase. In the least, it’s set in the same universe, and takes elements familiar from the movies. In this case, one specific element; any moment C-3PO fell over like a clumsy golden prick. The comparison of the droids to a space Laurel and Hardy is pushed to its limits by the show, which shifts genres to outright slapstick, and in the process, turns Threepio into a metal Frank Spencer.

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Set 4 years after the prequel trilogy, and 15 years before A New Hope, first episode, The White Witch, opens on the familiar sight of C-3PO wandering lost in the desert, moaning and complaining like a right fucking nob-ache. Similarly, there’s the comforting return of all the familiar SFX from the movies, from ship noises and laser blasts to the tweeps and beeps of R2, who’s cutely credited as ‘himself’. Following on from events in ROTS, the pair hooked up with a new master who turned out to be a smuggler, and they got tossed from the ship when the cops caught him. Now lost, Threepio comes across what he believes is the remains of his old sidekick, dissolved by a corrosive acid storm, and gives a eulogy to “a true prince among droids… a dear, dear friend.” Of course, R2 pops up from the sand, unharmed, allowing C-3PO to exclaim “R2D2!” which happens a lot, with his full name constantly being said, so the kids can never forget that he’s in it; the mascot they’re all watching for, like Slimer in The Real Ghostbusters. In fact, though being a direct quote from A New Hope makes it hard to verify through Googling, I’m sure I remember as a kid that “R2D2, where are you?” was used heavily in the Droids‘ advertising.

After more trudging and bickering through endless desert — you know, like in Star Wars?! — The pair get picked up by a couple of passing humans in landspeeders. As this is wacky 80’s SW, one’s got half his head completely shaved, with a red ponytail mullet on the other side, while his pal’s got the regular Brian Knobbs mullet-mohawk. A pair of professional racers, they adopt the droids, despite C-3PO’s grovelling subservience being a hundred times worse than in the movies. He repeatedly carps on about needing “a master” in a way that plays as gross here in the oversexualised 21st century, seeming like he gets fin-dommed over Twitter and has said the phrase “choke me, daddy” in each of his six million languages. The new masters introduce themselves as Thall Joben and Jord Dusat. Man, Star Wars expanded universe names are the dirt worst.

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Here’s a game. I’ll list a bunch of names, and you guess which are real characters from Droids, and which I’ve made up.

Mungo Baobab

Admiral Terrinald Screed

Uncle Gundy

Vlix Oncard

Kybo Ren

Greej

Mon Julpa

Zebulon Dak

Coby

Fidge

Jimmy Penisbreath

Apart from the last one (until Disney steals it for Episode IX), they’re all real; even Kybo Ren, though here he’s some racially-questionable Genghis Khan-looking guy with a Fu Manchu. Anyway, the droids and their new masters hoon around on speeders, while being watched from afar by a mysterious woman. Noticeably Rey-ish as a lone survivor on a desert planet, she saves them from big blue balls that give chase when they enter a restricted zone, and quickly becomes part of the gang, revealing her name to be Kea Moll. Incidentally, she’s got a normal haircut, but with a blond mohawk balanced on top of it, presumably so’s not to be condemned to whatever’s the space equivalent of the social leper colony 90’s British schoolboys were sent to for not having hair curtains.

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While joyriding their speeder, the titular White Witch, they accidentally discover the hidden base of Tig Fromm, a frog-like gangster. Tig’s the son to a galactic godfather, and continuing the franchise’s obsession with giant super-weapons, he’s developing a killer satellite named Trigon One. Worried Threepio and his mates will grass on their secret base, the baddies kidnap Jord, leaving his pals to rescue him. Sneaking through service tunnels, Thall casually takes out a lightsaber — left in the glove box by some guy he did some work for, who never returned — and cuts his way through. Take note, everyone who whined at Finn using a lightsaber; this guy is literally a mechanic who found one when a Jedi took his speeder in for an MOT.

Tig’s obsessed with building robots, and his base is filled with dumb droids for them to fight off. That skinny Nosferatu droid from Jabba’s Palace, who was burning the robot’s feet, would be salivating at so many potential torture victims. About that; the screams from that little robot indicate that droids have pain receptors in their feet for some reason? Seeing as they spend all day waddling about, working, why would you build in potential for foot-ache, and them complaining “master, I’m tiiired…” like a little kid who wants carrying? Except, it’s even worse, because the shuffling units generally can’t speak, leaving them just thinking how much agony they’re in, with no way to express it or to beg for mercy. The concept of wasting all those resources on ensuring robots can feel pain is a frequent concern when watching this show, as C-3PO is constantly rubbing his head whenever he bumps it, which is all the time.

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Regarding Threepio’s clumsiness; you know when they take a character trait and go wild with it, like how Joey from Friends went from a regular dumb-dumb to someone who seemed like he was being fatally poisoned by a faulty boiler? Not only does Droids dial C-3PO’s trademark fussiness up to 11, anxiety-ridden and perpetually shrieking in terror, but he’s the clumsiest being in the entire universe, and that’s including Grimsdale-3, the planet populated entirely by genetic clones of Norman Wisdom. Under a litany of boinging/crashing sounds, he’s eternally falling over or getting thrown out of frame, his legs poking out of trash piles, and flailing like an upturned turtle, before staggering around with a bucket stuck on his head. The kind of slapstick Daniels’ real-life costume, which didn’t let him have a piss, wouldn’t allow for, Threepio can’t even ride in speeders properly, always hanging over the edge, or with his head jammed in the seat after falling in it as it speeds away. In one scene, he squats on the end of the speeder as it races off like he’s riding a Sybian.

There’s also a lot of scenes where he’s effetely waving his arse around, like an animal in heat, as though he doesn’t know what he’s doing. “Ooh, my shoelace is undone. I’ll just bend over and tie it up; I do hope my little shorts don’t expose my sexy butt, that’d be sooo embarrassing…”

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After a battle with Tig’s robot insects, and the casual name-dropping of Jabba the Hutt, the gang rescue Jord and make their escape, and the episode ends with Threepio bragging he’s got great balance before fucking falling over again. Surprisingly, Droids is not an episodic show, but has actual story arcs, and continues in episode two, Escape into Terror, which opens in space, with the droids fixing the outside of the ship. 3PO’s straddling the hull like a cowgirl, while R2’s got his weird dick thing poked in it, like when he fucks open the bunker door on Endor. Ho-ho, hee-hee, clumsy Threepio warns R2 to make sure he’s properly tethered before floating off himself, and then puts his back out and gets stuck, bent double, forced to back his way around the ship like he’s twerking.

They head off to Kea’s home planet to see her parents, and pick up a new hyperdrive after 3PO let the last one float off into space, and discover Kea’s really a rebel spy, seeking to bring down the Fromms before they launch Trigon One. Checking in at the spaceport, R2 farts on another robot, who fires on them, leaving C-3PO’s face all black with just his eyes showing, like when Elmer Fudd’s given a birthday cake that’s actually a bomb. Incredible what you could get away with in a spaceport before 911. At Kea’s parents, while R2 sticks his dick in the wall again, Threepio’s tasked with vacuuming the arses of giant sand sloths. Of course, the sloth hits him with its tail and he goes flying.

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Kea’s mum tasks the gang with taking down the Fromms, so Threepio warms up with some space kung fu, complete with plinky plonky faux oriental soundtrack. They stowaway on Fromm’s ship, taking everyone back to his base, intending to blow up the satellite, but getting into a fight with more robots, whom R2 sprays with foam, which just looks looks like he’s spaffing on them. They don’t destroy the satellite, but make their escape into space, ending with Threepio trying to karate chop R2D2, and putting his back out again.

Now we skip forwards to episode four, A Race to the Finish, as this one’s got a familiar face in it. Headed to planet Boonta for the big speeder race, the Fromms attack them in a manky old imperial shuttle, causing a crash landing in a junkyard. C-3PO gets all caught up in cables, and is helped down by an elderly cockney robot with a walking stick. Meanwhile, the Fromms are stuck in a Boonta ghetto because of our heroes. Godfather Fromm talks to an unseen figure in the shadows, demanding they bring them to him, and make them pay! “Jabba the Hutt has a reward out for you,” says the voice, but telling Fromm not to worry as he owes him a favour. He then steps into the light, revealing himself to be… Boba Fett.

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Turning down the cockney-bot’s offer to mend the White Witch, C-3PO suggests the garage space of his new chum, fancy robot BL-17, for Jord and Thall to do repairs. Interestingly, R2 wears a welding mask while he’s fixing the ship, like he might damage his retinas. It turns out, fast friends BL-17 and C-3PO were built at the same factory, which is preferable to the prequel trilogy’s ‘Vader built him!’ shite. Like all the other background weirdos, BL-17 has an enormous potted history in the Expanded Universe, where no character can just be an underachieving Regular Joe, and even the Cantina alien that’s a $5 Halloween werewolf mask has a biography packed with thrilling, historically important adventures. The prissy pair get on like a shiny Niles and Frasier, spurning R2D2 as a dummy who can’t hold a proper conversation, before mincing off to run errands together, while sad R2 blows a fart at them.

Quell surprise, BL-17 is really a bad guy, locking Kea inside the garage and flooding it with poisonous gas, making it look like an accident, and leaving R2D2 to save the day. C-3PO berates R2, blaming for the whole thing, and he slinks away like a beaten dog, making sad crying boops, while Threepio praises his new bff, that arsehole BL-17, who’s given them ‘somewhere safe’ to keep the White Witch. It’s there they bump into robo-cockney, who exposes BL as “the lowest form of synthetic life to ever crawl across a planet.” Tossing Danny Dyer-bot into the wall, BL-17 shows his true colours, leaving C-3PO to gasp “What have I done?! What a fool I’ve been, to trust a stranger over R2, my true friend!” But Artoo heroically rushes in, and Threepio shoulder tackles BL-17 to the floor with the “hiii-ya!” noise that you fucking had to use in the 80s when you were hitting someone.

Amid all the chaos, everyone else shows up, including Boba Fett swinging in on a rope, and the White Witch makes its escape to the race, albeit booby-trapped with a Froom thermal detonator, set to explode after ten laps. Fett gives chase on his jetpack, following Thall to the arena race, where speeders whizz round circular tubes, like a big hamster city. Boba Fett shoots Thall’s engine, which R2 puts out with his foamy cum, and another shot knocks the cum loose and the bomb with it, sticking it to Fett’s windscreen. Thall wins the race, and Fett jetpacks clear just as his speeder explodes. The Fromms appear one last time to ruin things, but Boba Fett turns on them, tying them up so’s he can turn them in to Jabba for the bounty.

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Impressed by their victory, an alien called Zebulon Dak offers Thall, Jord and Kea dream jobs at his speeder corp, which they gladly accept. But back in space, as Artoo and Threepio hack the comms to listen in on their mates, they overhear how they turned down the jobs, because Zebulon didn’t want the droids — “You couldn’t find two better friends in the galaxy!” Unusually for the universe’s most bellyaching Little Lord Fauntleroy, the pair make a noble sacrifice for their buddies’ careers, sneaking off to an escape pod right as the ship jumps to hyperspace. “That’s what friends are for,” says Threepio; “we may be surrounded by nothingness, but we do have something, friend.” Surprisingly, that is the end of that story arc, and the last the cartoon sees of Thall, with the droids off to find new masters, and ten more episodes of adventures. Although, as they didn’t leave a goodbye note, and the gang had no idea they’d overheard the conversation, once they realised they were missing (having given up dream jobs because they cared about them so much), they probably spent many years fruitlessly searching the galaxy for the droids, to the great detriment of their own lives.

In all, considering the time period and obviously young target market, Droids is a pretty decent offering. Unlike most cartoons of that era, it’s not a vacuous toy advert with about a dozen frames of animation per show, heavy moralising, and an ending gag that shakes everyone’s shoulders up and down. Here we’ve got full story arcs, dramatic tension, and, well, Threepio tripping over his own feet every five seconds. But even its black market feel is charming, like how Daniels’ voice occasionally goes an octave too low and decidedly human, or the way the animation, though not quite as bendy as the Holiday Special, warps the characters into bizarre spectacles as a means to give more expression.

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There’s also a nice selection of robot insults; always the best part of any show with a metal sidekick. See, Dr. Smith in Lost in Space. Those thrown around here include “greasebucket,” “mechanical maniacs,” “shiny pants,” “chrome dome,” and in something Johnny 5 may have taken inspiration from, “your maker was a trash compactor!” I’ve always been tempted to get a Roomba, purely so I’ve reason to bark “you bucket of infernal bolts!” and not be deemed a madman. I’m also a big fan of those ‘this is space/the future!’ signifiers, like Aunt Beru’s blue milk, or as used by the cockney robot in Droids, the phrase “…any day of the millennium” rather than ‘week’. Now we’re into Prestige TV era, it’s doubtful Disney’s upcoming The Mandalorian will give much opportunity for mockery like the 80’s efforts. More’s the pity. What better way to welcome Star Wars to the Golden Age of Television than with weekly scenes of Werner Herzog slipping on space-banana peels and emerging from a pile of trash with a saucepan stuck on his head? May the Crushing Existential Horror of Existence be with you!

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it 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 provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

Mr. Horatio Knibbles – Britain’s Forgotten Monster

•February 17, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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As a British man raised in the eighties, my childhood consisted of a seemingly endless parade of hauntological horrors which imprinted on my subconscious like a baby chick who thinks a shoe is its mum. As attested by the popularity of Scarfolk, the ill-lit dramas, sinister kids shows, and Public Information Films that made much of our formative viewing really left their psychological mark. There’s a great pantheon of unintentionally-scary figures from this period, from Noseybonk and Rainbow‘s first Bungle, to the Boy from Space, to the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, each rendered in washed-out 4:3-ratio memories. No wonder Britain’s fucked; we’ve all got PTSD from the shit they were piping into our homes.

What’s the American equivalent? The Peanut Butter Solution and people being afraid of television idents? You lot have got no idea. But there’s a forgotten spectre lurking in our collective brains, whose very name may trigger screeching flashbacks; the titular star of 1971’s Children’s Film Foundation release, Mr. Horatio Knibbles. A story about a little girl’s imaginary friend, who’s a giant rabbit, I know you’re thinking you’ve seen sinister bunnies before, in Donnie Darko or Sexy Beast, or riddled with myxomatosis in Watership Down, but trust me, Knibbles is something else entirely. I first saw the 55-minute film as a child, when it regularly popped up on the Easter and Christmas TV schedules. It was one of those things that you liked because it had the giddy thrill of fear, where you were both ready to bolt for the door, and yet wanting to keep watching, to push on; to test yourself; things like Worzel Gummidge or the Child Catcher scenes in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; or these days, my own reflection.

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In stark contrast to the bleak settings of hauntology’s classics, we open on a beautiful English countryside, as a little girl, Mary, whizzes down a country lane on a chopper bike, while a boy who looks like Boris Johnson plays cricket in a huge, well-kept garden. Far removed from the working class grot of pylons on a nappy-strewn heath, this is the post-war idyll, all cream teas and being polite to nanny, under a lilting soundtrack of flutes. Even the family’s name, Bunting, evokes village fetes and three cheers for the headmaster. This all serves to make the monster at the centre all the more unsettling and unwelcome, like a great big rippling fart at a christening.

There’s a timeless quality, slightly reminiscent of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where council vans and buzzing mopeds share road space with shire-horses and 19th century wicker bathchairs, and though clearly set in the 1970s, there are elements more at home in 1910. A sense of timelessness, of having fallen into an uncertain space, was always the most disconcerting thing about the weird television of youth, when half-terms were filled with strange European imports made 20 years before, with their mismatched dubbing, and equally dreary film stock and fashions. Though as I’ve come to realise, almost anything becomes sinister when watched on an abysmal quality rip from an old VHS, unwittingly preserved off the telly decades before, like the last surviving brass rubbing of Satan’s headstone.

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Quickly, Knibbles sets up its war of the genders, with young Mary just a “stupid girl” amid the sound and fury of her brother and his rough friends, and not allowed to join their games. Her only respite is Nancy, the delicate girl next door, who’s perpetually screaming in terror or being called away by an overbearing mother to take her medicine. It’s little wonder lonely Mary wants a rabbit for her coming birthday. On the mention of the word ‘rabbit’, the bushes behind her rustle, and a strange groaning noise comes from within. This is merely the first instance of a scene that would work just as well in this children’s film as in a grotty 60’s exploitation flick about a maniac slashing up nurses. Anyway, she skips inside, with the garden gate opening and closing on its own behind her, where she’s told by mummy to take a tray of drinks out for the lads.

Once alone, poor Mary puts her head in her hands, as a big bunch of flowers gets placed on the table, with an unseen voice bidding her good afternoon. The attached note invites her to meet “a rather unusual personality,” by closing her eyes and counting to five. I know it sounds sinister, but it’s signed ‘a friend’ and not ‘The Invisible Pedo’, so it’s probably fine. She makes the count, allowing her — and us — to see him for the first time. Listen, I know everyone pretends like things are worse then they are for hits, in a landscape where reactions to everything get cranked up to 11, so clickbait headlines can shout about someone who’s just realised Picard and Professor X are the same actor and just can’t deal!! in an effort to go viral, but I need to you understand, when describing the horror of Mr. Horatio Knibbles, if anything I’m underplaying it. Look.

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As you can see, the mystery flower-giver is revealed to be the most horrifying thing ever captured on film. A giant rabbit with human proportions, he’s done up in a blue suit and red waistcoat adorned with gold pocket-watch chains, with a top hat that’s got an exit hole for his ears. The mask is a grotesque full-head fur-piece, tight fitting and with whiskers and giant eyelashes, but with limited articulation that leaves his buck-toothed mouth to yammer up and down in rough time to the plummy dialogue. Following that trope of countryside animals being posh, he’s got the voice of a middle-aged man; of a Tory MP; and no matter his delightful hi-jinx with Mary, there’s a sense that if a black family moved in next door, he’d have strong opinions about it.

Knibbles tells Mary he’s been watching her for a while, which is how he knew to pick her favourite flowers. “My favourite flower,” he says, doubled over in hysterics, “is the cauliflower!” When Mary’s mum returns, it’s established only Mary can see him, though the things he picks up are seen ‘floating’ through the air, presumably causing mummy to wonder if an unspoken history of family schizophrenia is starting to kick in, as her daughter talks to an imaginary friend, while a glass of squash drinks itself. These rules are very inconsistent, and though adults will see, for example, a plate of sandwiches floating through the air, they don’t see his clothes, like you would the invisible man’s bandages. But at least he’s not running round with his rabbit-dick flapping. Incidentally, like Al from Quantum Leap, Knibbles can be seen by dogs.

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So what are we dealing with here? Is he Mary’s Tyler Durden; a manifestation of her loneliness, allowing her to act out all the things deemed unbefitting of a mere girl? Knibbles’ cheeky behaviour does mostly consist of booting doubting family members up the arse. Or, as hinted by his admission he’s been watching her for a long time, is this some ancient trickster God; a Pan of the nearby woods? Or is he simply the imaginary friend he’s accused of being throughout the film? It’s not uncommon for young children who’re lacking in willing playmates to conjuror one up. As an only child myself, I had a couple of imaginary friends. There was Great Uncle Bulgaria from The Wombles, and at night time, the Skeleton with Neil-Hair; a talking skeleton that lived behind my bed, who had long, straight hair like Neil from The Young Ones, and would clamber out from the headboard to talk to/scare me after the light went out.

But like those clickbait headlines, the easiest and lamest cliché when discussing old kids shows is the suggestion that, beneath the innocence, lurks a now-obviously sleazy subtext. “The Magic Roundabout were all on drugs!! Mr. Benn was a nonce! Little Ted off Playschool got that name cos of his micropenis!” While I really hate that sixth form common room shit, and though I’m sure the makers had nothing in mind but the earnestly telling of a charming little tale, there’s no way around how strongly Mr. Horatio Knibbles plays like a PSA on the dangers of child predators.

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Mary and Knibbles become fast friends, as he helps her ‘bowl’ her brother out at cricket, by invisibly walking the ball down to the stumps, before it’s time for him to go home. He invites her to write him any time, at his pleasingly League of Gentlemen address of Rhododendron Mansion, The Woods, Local. Posted through the hollow tree, with nuts as payment for the squirrels who act as postmen, she invites him round to play again. This time, she demands he show himself to Nancy, which he agrees, but only if they do it in the greenhouse. I was worried a Scum-like scenario was in the offing, but he just wanted to scoff all the veg. As soon as she sees him, Nancy’s reaction is to scream like she’s being murdered and run for her life.

Let’s look at this from the parents’ point of view. Their little girl’s been given a bunch of flowers by a mysterious stranger, and the dad’s so worried, he’s promising not to tell anyone if she’ll only fess up to where they really came from. And now there’s screaming, while they find mummy’s diamond ring is missing, implying that Knibbles has been using his invisibility to rifle through their jewellery, and most likely, underwear drawers. I know this is an innocent tale, but my God, the dark places you could take it with minimal change. I was half expecting the rabbit to dive across the room and switch off a radio midway through a newsflash about an escaped child murderer from the local asylum, who hopped the wall and slaughtered the owner of a nearby fancy dress shop. Or for Mary, innocently twirling her heels into the rug, to announce “I swear it, daddy, it was Mr. Horatio Knibbles what burned my brother in his bed!

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Nancy’s mother, furious a giant rabbit has “given my Nancy hysterics” blames it on too much imagination. “Syrup of figs,” she says, “that’s the only cure!” A cure for constipation, usually, so when she says imagination, does she mean… poo? I’m regular as clockwork, but could any eggbound readers let me know if they hallucinated giant posh rabbits before finally squeezing out a log? Sent to bed and grounded for lying/stealing, Mary announces to her teddy that she’s done with grown-ups, and come first light, “we’ll run away and live with Mr. Knibbles!” Filling the bed with a fake dummy like they did in Alcatraz, she makes her escape, merrily skipping through fields, until being snatched out of frame by a furious farmer, in a legitimate jump scare. Shown in bulging-eyed close-up, in a modern remake, he’d definitely be played by Steve Pemberton, but here, is the ace Freddie Jones from The Elephant Man. Ludicrously angry, he sends her on her way, effectively threatening to blow her head off with a shotgun for trespassing.

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At Rhododendron Mansion, Mary’s greeted by Knibbles in his PJs, who informs her she can’t move in, as “it’s a bachelor establishment, you see.” Makes sense that, as a rabbit, Horatio Knibbles fucks. But he will at least entertain her for the day, taking her off for a riverside breakfast of raw turnips on a picnic blanket, and a kipper he reels in himself. However, the farmer, livid at catching Mary poaching, stalks towards her with his gun like Tony Martin. The tension of “is a child gonna get shot in this kids film?” deflates with invisible slapstick hijinx, with the farmer dizzily turning round in circles as Knibbles taps him on the shoulder; the best way to deal with an armed maniac who’s legally entitled to shoot you. Knibbles disarms him, turning the gun on the farmer, which he sees floating at his face, before a truly bonkers second of screentime where he pistol-whips the farmer in the gut, causing him to sit on the bonfire as the gun goes off, blowing Knibbles’ hat clean off his head, and the farmer to run off with his arse on fire.

There’s a scene where Knibbles reveals himself to a friendly policeman, before magicking up a boat, and heading downriver to raid the nest of Mags the Pie; a magpie who’s the real culprit behind the stolen jewellery. Meanwhile, Mary’s finally discovered to be missing, as her parents take to the woods, but give up the search almost immediately. Mary returns soon enough, but when she reveals the stolen loot, sticking to the story that a bird did it, her parents are so enraged, they refuse to even speak to her. “You worry us to death and then come back with another pack of fibs!” Then they see Maggie the Magpie eyeing up a broach from the windowsill and suddenly realise it was true, rushing Mary with hugs.

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However, they’re still unsettled by Knibbles, the stranger who lives in the woods, buys their daughter flowers, and lures her from her bed for days at a time. We finally get to Chekhov’s Birthday Party, where it’s all floating plates of raw parsnips and Nancy’s mum getting hoofed up the arse, plus Tom lobbing a spoonful of chocolate blancmange at Knibbles; a sight which will give many unfortunate flashbacks to Two Girls, One Cup.

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There’s a Chinese Whisper down the line of kids of “Mary’s got an invisible rabbit,” as everyone watches poor, crazy Mary having a conversation with an empty chair. Christ, was that who Clint Eastwood was talking to at the RNC? Of particular note in this scene is the most incredibly weird line reading from a child actor. The fuck is in that trifle?

All puffed up from gorging himself, Knibbles takes a nap in the Bunting’s water butt, which was alluded to earlier as in need of replacing. Of course the water butt removal men show up (one of them Roy Barraclough), and Knibbles gets loaded onto the back of a truck and taken away. He rocks himself free, kicking his feet out of the bottom, as onlookers watch a floating barrel run about, and returns to the party. Daddy refuses to crack it open, until Knibbles promises to show himself if he’s freed, finally revealing his horrifying visage to the assembled crowd — arse-first, mind, as he backs out of the barrel. He shakes Daddy’s hand, before giving Mary her present, which is an actual, normal rabbit, and then announces he’s going on a trip to Australia for a while, where presumably he went onto rebrand himself as Mr. Cruel. In one last act of depravity, lest anyone in that garden get another wink of sleep ever again, he exits with a threat of “I’ll be back soooon!” Shitting hell, I hope not.

One of the most frightening totems of my childhood, the scarifying power of Mr. Horatio Knibbles hasn’t dulled over time. The toothy nature of Mary reminds me so much of the girls at the centre of the Enfield Poltergeist, especially with invisible objects flying around, and I was waiting for Mummy to catch Mary ‘doing’ Knibbles’ voice, and floating across the bed inside his arms. Aside from the sinister behaviour of this unseen friend beguiling a lonely child from her home, it’s just such a horrible costume. If you woke in the night to see someone dressed like that at the end of your bed, you’d never recover, and anyone digging its moth-eaten remains out of storage today could make an incredible horror with it. Even an edit that swapped out the playful score for discordant synth would instantly up the certificate from U to an 18.

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I don’t know where the rights are these days, but I’ve big plans for him in my eventual British hauntology cinematic universe, featuring reboots of Noseybonk, Scary First Bungle, and the rabbit himself. No way is my generation the only one that’s having to suffer through our cream tea Pennywise. On second thoughts, after what the furries did to Tony the Tiger’s Twitter account, it’s probably best to keep Horatio Knibbles where he belongs; locked away in our nightmares.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it 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 provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

 
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