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As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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.

 

Baywatch does Monsters and Mermaids

•November 14, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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[previously: Baywatch does HulkamaniaBaywatch does Body-Issues]

The weird talking-point trivia about Baywatch is the way it eventually rebranded into paranormal detective series, Baywatch Nights, as though this marked a great tonal shift from a previously grounded drama. Dear reader, this is very much not the case, with half the back catalogue seemingly consisting of episodes where Hasselhoff fights off terrorists or escaped murderers, with a side-plot where lifeguards called Bryden or Kaycee befriend some kid in a wheelchair. Regard, a pair of ‘Here Be Dragons’ hours devoted to cryptozoological beasts roaming the waters of California. Beauty and the Beast aired on 29th January 1996; a title that could refer to any combination of Hasselhoff’s flabby-pecced beach-dad and female co-stars. To set the scene, it’s from the period Pamela Anderson was credited as Pamela Lee, and features an Aussie actor called Jaason Simmons, which are the only double-A’s you’ll see on this show.

We open, of course, on bikini hotties being all hot on the boardwalk, before panning down to reveal a storm drain with a dirty bum inside. I don’t mean an unwiped arse, rather, in unwoke 90’s television vernacular, a homeless gentleman (though he probably does have an unwiped arse). As a big fan of offensively cartoonish screen tramps, this is absolutely textbook; belching and spluttering into his beard, with the soundtrack inexplicably switching to jaunty jazz, giving the ironic air of a laid-back wine-bar, as he glugs on booze from a brown paper bag. His bear-like tramp-noises include yawps of “oooh ducky, oooh ducky,” though not in the homophobic bullying way; in reference to an actual duck that’s swimming nearby in the filthy water. With a monstrous growling noise, the duck disappears under the water, leaving nothing behind but a belch of scattered feathers.

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Sadly, the cowards at Baywatch destroy all the goodwill of their brilliant tramp by not having him rub his eyes and look at the booze before tossing it away. He staggers onto the beach, to the audible “yuck!” noises of disgusted bikini girls, and tells lifeguard Cody there’s a sea monster in the drain, to which Cody laughs and pours his booze away, giving him an address where he can get some help. As always with a hobo character, I was straight on IMDB to look at his resume.

     Married with Children (1993) – Bum

     Night of the Running Man (1995) – Homeless Man

     Baywatch (1996) – Homeless Man

     The Huntress (2001) – Grungy Customer

     The Young and the Restless (2004) – Homeless Man

     Rancid (2004) – Bum

Not since the elderly man who built a career on making baby noises has there been such a stranglehold monopoly on an archetype. Alex Zonn’s CV represents the labours of a lifetime spent working towards a starring role; perfecting his craft as the finest, filthiest bum in Hollywood. That’s why his final credit is so shocking.

     Tramps and Ramblers (2010) – Bernard

A whole movie about tramps, and he’s ‘Bernard’?! Bernard’s the name of a banker, or a retired accountant, wearing a suit and owning his own home. Goddamn sell-out. That said, I did stick him into Google Images and came across this brilliantly Zonn picture.

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But Cody was wrong, and it wasn’t merely the boozed-up imaginings of a “wino,” as demonstrated by an ominous hissing noise and the classic Jaws underwater POV shark-cam. A swimmer’s pulled underwater, and for Baywatch‘s light-hearted stylings, it’s surprisingly graphic, with the sea turning red as he’s presumably bitten clean in half. Seriously, there’s more blood than you could fit inside twenty people, shrouding he and his rescuer in a wet fog of scarlet, but he limps ashore with a tiny cut your mum wouldn’t even waste a plaster on. Soon, panicked swimmers are yelling “shark!” and they’ve closed the beach. In a couple of random observations, note that the male lifeguards always have their shirts tucked in, and a dubbed squawk of a seagull that flits into shot as Yasmin Bleeth runs along the beach, that was definitely performed by a man.

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Following the less-is-more model of Jaws, the monster’s glimpsed only in splashes, POV shots of delicious swimmer’s legs, and snarls that Caroline can hear from hundreds of yards away, because binoculars also magnify sound? Also like Jaws, it has its own theme, confusing the sparse, minimal dread of John Williams’ iconic motif for the endless repetition of a four-note dramatic sting that haunts the episode like a neighbour’s stuck doorbell. After it bites a chunk from some show-off teen’s boogie board, they figure it’s not a shark, but a crocodile; or more specifically, a crocodile that was flushed down the toilet as an unwanted gift. Who’s giving crocodiles for a gift? Kanye West?

Though sadly there’s no scene where the lads compare circumcision scars, they do keep to the Jaws beats, by having Mitch and his two lifeguard buddies hunt it down, heading into the sewers like they’re after Pennywise — “down here, we all float… because of our enormous implants.” I hope they don’t have an orgy to find their way out again. They’re well prepared, armed with some rope, and wading through the filthy, waist-deep shit-water in t-shirts and shorts. Eventually, they find its lair; a grotto filled with plastic rocks, where David Hasselhoff joins the growing list of people I’ve seen wrestling alligators through the course of this Patreon, along with Mr. T, Chuck Norris, and Mr. Miyagi. His thrashing with the bendy rubber croc is reminiscent of ten-year-old me doing WWF moves on the draft excluder, and soon we cut to the beach where he staggers triumphantly from the drain with barely a scratch, dragging the rubber crocodile behind him, though in close-up, it’s a real one.

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As always, each episode features two completely unconnected narratives. While the lads were off monster hunting, Beauty and the Beast‘s b-plot opens with the lifeguard girls ‘working out’ with 3oz weights and doing exercises that push their boobs towards the camera, before Mitch announces a big magazine’s holding a contest for a modelling shoot. They all start fantasising about becoming rich supermodels, triggering one of those 3-minute music videos, for a dream sequence where CJ and Caroline, who just wants to “be nasty and play with my hair,” do indeed get nasty and play with their hair. CJ’s the solid favourite, but comes down with chickenpox, which Neeley makes Caroline think she’s already had, so she’ll hang with CJ and catch it too. Pre-Game of Thrones, this was the high watermark of Shakespearian treachery on television, although the chickenpox is literally drawn on with a marker pen.

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The music video sections are integral to Baywatch‘s structure, padding out the shows with two per episode. We close on another, with Neeley on her photoshoot in Mexico, rubbing her hands over herself under a soundtrack of thumping tribal music and pan pipes, and occasionally looking straight down the camera, as if to say “you like this don’t you, you dirty dad?” to all the dirty dads watching at home. It’s a straight-up three-minute softcore wank video plonked into this adventure about three dickheads chasing a giant alligator into the sewers, which just emphasises the gulf between what Baywatch says it is, and what it actually is. Hasselhoff’s always sold it as a family show, at the time, describing it as for “the working class, action-adventure audience,” inspired by Michael Landon’s family-friendly shows that could run in syndication. It went out in a tea-time slot, but was undeniably made solely for pulling your penis to. I’m never not surprised at the ludicrous extraneous close-ups of women in tiny swimsuits stretching or oiling themselves, or the minutes given up to dialogue-free slow-mo sections which leave viewers legally qualified to practise as a gynaecologist. Once the porn ban kicks in, we’ll all be grateful for these. I could probably switch full-time to Baywatch recaps and break $5,000 in Patrons a month.

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The second episode, entitled Rendezvous, aired on 7th April 1997, opening with one of their toss-vids, except this time it’s arty, slow-motion shots of high divers, all played to eerie silence, except for the distorted sounds of their bodies hitting the water. I take this to be a brave artistic choice, forgoing the urge to plaster it with obnoxious 90’s butt-rock, but later realise whoever uploaded the copy I’m watching muted the music to circumvent copyright takedowns. This week’s main story is a Romeo and Juliet riff between a pair of young divers; he, from a family of rich snobs, and her the poor trailer park daughter of a single mom, played by Tasha Yar from Star Trek.

Todd and Kirstie’s fated love affair eventually sees him talking her into a suicide pact where they jump off a local cliff to kill themselves, (though they’re divers and it drops straight into the water?) and is only notable for the scene where Caroline gives Kirstie a pep-talk at her comatosed boyfriend’s bedside. Whatever I’m writing, there’s a thing that’s always in the back of my mind. Even if the work’s only reaching a small audience, it’s likely there will be readers for whom any plot points or references to, say, miscarriage, suicide, physical or sexual abuse, will take them out of the story and back to these moments in their own life. Consequently, even though art should take us to uncomfortable places, even if it’s a throwaway line, I can’t help visualising someone reaching that paragraph with a sharp intake of breath, and feel duty-bound to handle these moments with care.

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I think of this during the scene Caroline explains to Kirstie that she’s pretty sure there is a Heaven, or some sort of afterlife. Although the show can’t quite bring itself to say the word ‘Hell’, she rather pointedly states that “you would not be rewarded for trying to take your own lives.” This must’ve been a weird watch for those who’d lost someone to suicide, when the hot TV lifeguard let them know their loved one had not found peace, and was likely being tortured by the Devil for all eternity.

But monsters is why we’re here, though it’s been relegated to the b-story, behind all the shitty teenage melodrama. Out at sea on a boat, Cody prepares for a free-dive by meditating to lower his heart-rate, just like the dads watching at home. “Get up and make us a cup of tea will you love?” “Give me a minute to meditate myself soft.” He swims down 300ft to the bottom of the ocean, where it’s really brightly lit, with water so clean you could drink it, almost like they filmed it in a swimming pool. Way down in the depths, he starts hallucinating; hearing a woman’s voice saying the word “Christopher,” and turning to see a big floppy tail. Girlfriend CJ’s immediately convinced he saw a mermaid, leading to music video #2, where Cody dreams of frolicking with a tiara-clad mermaid in a bizarre underwater sequence made all the weirder by that copyright-dodging silence, but at least it gives me a few minutes break from transcribing the awful dialogue.

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Cody awakes on the beach groaning the name “Melisande,” as CJ flicks through a book about mermaids, reading how they communicate via telepathy, and figuring that must be her name. She’s strangely into it, like she’s hoping to get a soggy threesome out of the whole deal, and sends him back down for another look. Diving among the reeds, he immediately bumps into the mermaid again, and like television’s best excursions into the Fortean, it’s not a hallucination or something with a mundane explanation, but a genuine mermaid; now and forever confirmed as canon in the Baywatch universe.

She calls to him with a telepathic “Christopher!” and they have a conversation via their minds, where we find out she thinks he’s a sailor whose ship sunk a hundred years ago. She wears a gold medallion he gave her – “I have waited for you, Christopher, don’t you remember?” Mirroring the other plot, Christopher and Melisande had promised to be together forever, but CJ dives in and scares her off before he can find out more; like is there a whole undersea kingdom lurking just off the coast? Aquaman and sea monkeys, and a community of blobfish banging on about Brexit? And do mermaids swim around with really long poo hanging out of their arses for a week like goldfish?

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CJ still thinks it’s romantic, kissing Cody on the boat, just as Melisande surfaces to see her sweet Christopher getting off with someone else. At least he wasn’t honking the horn with his nob like Tommy Lee in that video. CJ dives down to explain that he’s Cody, not Christopher, and though I hoped the jealous mermaid would start throwing starfish at her, CJ clumsily KOs herself by swimming into a rock, and is rescued by Melisande. CJ can’t remember what happened, but finds the medallion around her neck, opening it to reveal an old-timey picture of ‘Christopher’ aka Cody with a big cowboy moustache. Citing the movie Splash and its poor treatment of Daryl Hannah, CJ vows never to let the world know of the existence of mermaids, and tosses it back in the sea.

The implications of mermaids being real are huge. For one thing, as Melisande’s been waiting 100 years and looks 25, it seems they’re immortal, which must have far-reaching consequences for human medicine. And yet, next week, the lifeguards go right back to [checks Wikipedia] shutting down a nude beach, and investigating a crashed military jet which contains a deadly virus. Goddamn, what a show. If Netflix picked this up, I’d never see daylight again. This pair of episodes aren’t even the sum total of their monster plots, with another double episode centred on a sea monster attacking boats, which was released on VHS, and I suspect has a Scooby-Doo reveal. But then again, this is Baywatch, so it’s quite possible Cthulhu rises from the depths to devour the West Coast, with a sub-plot where CJ chases down a pervert who’s trained a crow to undo women’s bikini bottoms.

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: Talk Show Goths

•November 4, 2019 • 1 Comment

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[More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad ContestsDon’t Forget Your Toothbrush]

So much of 90’s trash culture either emanated from the raft of American afternoon talk shows, or used them as fertile breeding ground, like germs fucking in an old yoghurt. From “you ain’t all that!” to talking to the hand, cos the face ain’t listening, these series left a terribly brown and smelly mark across across pop culture, with make-overs, DNA tests, and truly endless episodes about wild kids with crying parents, which in hindsight, were an excuse to wheel out half-dressed teens in boob-tubes to brag about giving blowies for a home audience of pervs. I will be taking a closer look at the staples of the format in future posts, but for Halloween, we’re focussing on a frequent sub-genre of the talk show; one that’s able to skilfully cross-pollinate with popular themes such as ‘sneering at weirdos’ and ‘stirring up moral panic’ — the goth episode.

The 90s were a fulsome time for goths, with Marilyn Manson as Middle America’s public enemy #666, and every fancy dress party filled with twenty different blokes all dressed as The Crow. Of course, this made its way onto the talk show circuit, which had many hours to fill, and much outrage to spread, as it did on a 1996 episode of Ricki Lake. Ricki was the youngest of her generation, a Gen-X-er stood between the crinkled Maury Povich and grandmotherly Sally Jessy Raphael, and seeming like an aging highschooler at the clique table during lunch. “I’m one of you guys! I’m an anthropomorphised floppy hat, and I could’a been Winona!” Never was that more evident than in the frequent ‘look at these freaks!’ episodes. I’m not throwing that word around lightly, as the episode literally opens with zany circus music, and is genuinely titled ‘Mom, You Think I Look Like A Sideshow Freak, But Chill Out, ‘Cuz I Look Cool!

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Most teenage years are spent at the extreme ends of contemporary fashion, and the only reason to look at old photos is to laugh at that sullen, ridiculous version of yourself, back when you were trying to find your feet and establish your own persona. But each outrageous new trend will quickly become the norm, like those first long-haired men of the 1960s, and these shows existed solely on a shock value which is remarkably twee 20-odd years on. Regard Ricki’s opening promo, stood next to a juggling clown, which a snapshot of a time akin to 1920’s beach-goers fainting at the sight of an ankle, as she warns us “step right up… they have tattoos, body piercings, dyed hair, spikes through their faces… their mothers think they belong in a circus!

You know the format; the parents are brought out first, wiping away tears while describing the shame; their sweet little girl, a child no more, kicked out of the house lest she return to the sensible dresses and straight-As. Then the teen’s revealed to the baying mob, who rain down boos while thinking up zingers, ready for when Ricki comes round with the mic. By modern standards, most of the ‘freak’ kids — entering through dry ice with squealing guitar — wouldn’t get a second glance; average mall-goths with a dye-wash and a single tattoo. There’s an obvious gender divide, where much of the outrage sparks from the notion of girls wearing a leather jacket, which is boy-clothes! Thanks to the magic of evolving fashion, the parents are now as frightful as their offspring, each looking 20 years older than their age, and like they rode to the studio inside a tornado.

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One girl wears pink hot-pants, with half-purple hair, and though we’re primed by the mother to expect a vomiting demon-child, she’s well-spoken and polite, and explains that being from Utah, “I have to rebel. I have to.” Another mom sobs, cross hanging round her neck, convinced her daughter worships the devil. Though she’ll enter taking a lap of the stage with her cloak billowing like Dracula, it’s just a 19-year-old in a leather dress and black lipstick; a costume that’s taken off for work. There’s a brilliant moment when a jokey mention of a “master” who drags her round nightclubs on a leash has mom leaning across to whisper “it’s not S&M or anything?” though most telling is the plea to “go and live in LA with your sister.” They show side-by-side pics of how they used to be, like police warnings against the dangers of crystal meth, but the true weirdos here are the nervous Nellies of 1996, gasping as a mom describes her daughter’s blue hair — “every mother’s dream!” — and terrified of piercings and tattoos, especially on female bodies.

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Stars of the show are the Alans. Alan Sr, who looks like a scarecrow, is embarrassed to be seen with his 15-year-old son, Jr, who’s the classic Manson goth, in an ensemble of black lipstick, arm-stockings, spiked collar, and Manson shirt. He carries a lunchbox — a motif from that band’s infusion of goth with the trippy kid’s TV of the sixties; Sid and Marty Krofft, Willy Wonka and Dr. Seuss — and later reveals it’s filled with pictures of Ricki. His dad mockingly calls him Alice because of the make-up, while he burns his old man by calling him “Mr. Seventies.” Sr’s main worry is his son’s lack of masculinity, lipsticked and getting Valentine’s from boys, though in the kid’s last phase “he was acting black… into the rap music thing.” These days, Alan Jr has a mildly successful Youtube channel, trading off his fame as a budding crush for 90’s goth girls. On it, he discusses his experiences on the show, along with videos entitled Pain, and Conclustions (sic) Of Randomization — with a thumbnail of the bleeding word ALAN carved into flesh with a razor — and showing a night on the karaoke with David and Alexis Arquette. Decades on from Ricki Lake, most of the comments are from women as thirsty as they are pale.

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Of course, they do the table-turning deal of a preppy daughter with an outrageous mom. How outrageous? Prepare yourselves, because this is a woman with tattoos! Put in a crop top and hot pants to show off the ink, this is by far the guest with which the audience have the biggest problem.

An onscreen caption reads “MY MOTHER IS A FREAK, SHE HAS HOLES AND TATTOOS ALL OVER!” as eyebrows hit the ceiling, and an audience member chides “she doesn’t really have the body to be wearing that, cos she’s had children.” Though you may be picturing a P.T. Barnum tattooed lady with no visible skin, she’s just got a tat going up one leg, and one on her back. Still, this elicits actual shrieks. “Isn’t this a little extreme?!” asks Ricki, down on one knee to plead she changes her ways. Ricki plays up how the daughter’s crying, which she isn’t; not until the repeated assertion that she is eventually upsets her into sobbing for real.

There’s also a fun audience makeover “to the extreme, guys!” where the crowd are left open-mouthed, purely at the sight of the man who swaggers camply in a PVC vest to take the volunteer backstage. The resulting transformation is a good barometer of what was considered extreme back then, in this case, a light purple/brown hair-dye and a top that bares your shoulders. It’s off to the circus for you, my girl! Though let’s not get complacent, because they do save the best for last, bringing on a trio of goths to talk to the parents, and well…

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Ricki’s closing thought will set viewers’ minds at ease, telling watching parents to take heart, as “most of the flower children of the 60s graduated to three-piece suits and briefcases eventually, and your children will find their way too.” Tell that to Alan Sr. Of course, this mid 90’s goth revival began with one man, and before immi’gants and fake news liberal cucks, America’s boogeyman was Marilyn Manson. A corrupter of children, if legend was to be believed, concerts wouldn’t begin until a live chicken thrown into the crowd had been torn to pieces, and he’d removed a couple of ribs, so he could casually lean down and suck himself off, like those gym-bros who’re constantly supping from a gigantic jug of water. Conservative paranoia was riding on the fumes of the previous decade’s Satanic Panic, and elevated Manson to a literal Antichrist, when in reality, he was just a guy who really liked two things — David Bowie, and shocking people.

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One of Manson’s early introductions to the mainstream was an appearance on The Phil Donahue Show. Epitome of the old white man, Donahue traded in moral outrage, with Manson booked on a 1995 episode about the dangers of a deadly new craze sweeping America’s youth — moshing. By this point, moshing had been around for decades, but it’s presented like a hyper-addictive new drug, ready to take the life of your child. Great portions of the hour are taken with Donahue reacting to footage of slam-dancing at a rock club like he’s George C. Scott seeing his daughter getting nobbed in Hardcore. He returns, again and again, to the grainy video, offering WWE-style commentary — “That guy’s down! Where’d he go? This is the edge of violence!” A bloodied nose is replayed multiple times, glorified with slow-motion and zooms, as the camera cuts to concerned expressions in the audience, from people in turtle necks and big glasses. A hysterical caption reads “BLOODY NOSES AND BROKEN BONES, ROCK AND ROLL IN THE 90s!

Convinced moshing will lead to riots and stampedes that’ll stomp the nation underfoot, Donahue interrogates a row of young concert-goers, with whom he absolutely cannot connect; playing like Amy Adams trying to talk to the aliens in Arrival. In one comment, aiming to be psych-analysis, but coming off as the frustrated cry of a grandpa whose errant boner is straining painfully against his slacks, he remarks how moshing “really looks like the ultimate orgasmic expression of what ails us in this culture.” Once again, there are clear gender issues at play, with particular umbridge at a female rocker, of whom Donahue is most shocked by the leather jacket and black lipstick — “not what your father dreamed for you.” He becomes obsessed with the idea of crowd surfing, where “they just pass you around,” and enraged by “the liberties that could be taken by all those horny guys!” which cuts to this brilliant reaction shot.

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Eventually, with the kids not swayed on the perils of moshing, even when their own parents are forced to sit alongside and watch the video, he brings out a couple whose son died at a Life of Agony concert. It’s horribly exploitative, with the nervous, grieving pair fielding questions like “was he ambulatory after he hit the floor?” and asked for details of the autopsy, though it turns out, he was pushed offstage onto his head by a bouncer, so… murder and not moshing? Footage of a stage-diver is run back and forth like the Zapruder film, with Donahue sneering “a future CEO right there.” He constantly sounds like he’s getting off on it all — “all those bodies bumping together” — and you expect him to take it out at any moment and start pumping his muck into the front row. When a young audience member accuses him of showing fighting, not moshing, an aggressive Donahue sneers: “this is what old people do, then? They screw up the real truth?!

Finally, Marilyn Manson makes his entrance, flanked by bandmates Twiggy Ramirez and Madonna Wayne Gacy, who — it has to be said — look hilarious, with Twiggy rocking a Myra Hindley wig and green 1950’s housewife dress. Donahue reads a long Manson quote regarding music-related suicides, and audience jaws unhinge when it gets an an “effing.” But the man himself is articulate and surprisingly well-behaved. This appearance pre-dates the release of Antichrist Superstar, and the shock persona’s greatly dialled-down, perhaps yet to be so burned by the negative media that he’s still earnestly playing the game. When he eloquently explains the thinking behind his stage-name — the dichotomy of Charles Manson and Marilyn Monroe being elevated to equal celebrity status by television like this — both the audience and Donahue just stare, open-mouthed, like they can’t even hear him behind the glass at the zoo.

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With all these shows, the best stuff is the audience questions, like the woman who demands to know why everyone onstage has got “Satanic signs all over you.” Twiggy responds by holding a small tape player up to his mic and playing a sped-up guitar riff. “That’s funny, ‘Twiggy’…” scolds Donahue. Another says moshing is a “self-centred way to live,” and “who knows what kind of perverts you have, the security touching and feeling the kids?!” A guy who looks like they should be chasing him in the next season of Mindhunter asks the teens, “kids, have you got violence other places in your lives, or is this kind of a fantasy thing for you?” Sadly, Manson’s line “I went to a private Christian school, see how I turned out” gets lost in the murmurs of discontentment, and when a rock club owner quotes a stat citing more people are killed skiing than moshing, there’s a grumbling from the audience of boomers that you can feel in your bones.

Despite the broey mosher in a baseball cap name-checking “local bands like Hermaphrochrist,” the Satanic evil of moshing turned out not to be the biggest killer of a generation, and Conservative parents turned their concerns to other threats, like vaccinations. But ridiculing goths wasn’t an entirely American phenomena, with one British show taking it further along the evolutionary path of the goth, to guests who were actual vampires. Vanessa Feltz has absolutely nothing to say that’s worth hearing, yet has been afforded baffling hours of airtime and column inches over her career. Perhaps the highlight of the Feltz oeuvre, barring her appearance in Brasseye — “I’m Marvin Gaye, shot by my own father” — is an episode of mid-90’s afternoon talk show, Vanessa, entitled Vampires and Goths.

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It’s sure to be an intelligent and even-handed look at a sub-culture, being that it opens with Vanessa bathed in green light and dry ice, and stroking a coffin, with a pair of plastic fangs shoved in her gob. First guest, Sam, emerges to the strains of Thriller, in a red velvet cape. But we know how these shows work, and if you went on with a PhD in folklore to discuss feminist iconography in 15th century woodcuts of witches, they’d send you out of wardrobe with a pointy hat and broom. Sam’s deal is that she’s got ‘real’ fangs, which they harp on about, even though they only cost £30 and can easily be popped in and out. Regardless, Vanessa does a big “eeurgh!” Middle-aged male comedians with Netflix specials titled Triggered! moan about snowflakes and safe-space culture now, but fuck me, in the supposedly xxxtreme nineties, everyone was permanently on the verge of a faint, and outraged by anything that dipped as much as a toe outside the middle path.

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Sam, who bites men’s necks in pubs, is training to be a teacher, and the audience are very much not into that. A parent governor stands to announce she wouldn’t have that in her school; “your ideas to society today are wrong… you say you bite necks and stuff like that, it’s rubbish!” She’s livid at the idea a child might see the fangs, as though Sam would wear them to work. A women who looks like Charlie Chuck tells her “I wouldn’t be seen dead like that,” while a bloke with a horrible droning voice chastises with “you’re watching too much movies… you can’t be a teacher, it can’t happen.” As the show’s psychiatrist (previously the shrink on Have I Been Here Before?) talks about vampire myths, all Vanessa wants to know is if Sam’s “just a very sad kind of sicky?

Vanessa is a patronising presence, with the insincere eagerness of a bored kindergarten teacher counting down the hours until gin o-clock. The audience behind her form an incredible gallery of 90’s looks; all big shirts, curtains and ponytails; gel-combed heads with spider-leg fringes; women with hair like instant noodles, and glasses so perfectly round, they could only have been forged by the gods. Next out are a pair of newlyweds who legally changed their surname to Dracul. Let’s take a look.

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For a pair so extravagantly dressed, their mild manner is delightfully British, but the thing that stuns the audience into silence is the revelation that, as well as a normal white wedding cake, they also had a sponge cake with black icing. Sacrilege! When they stick up a photo of their baby, the mere fact it’s dressed in black sets the audience grousing like they’d stuck a little Hitler tash on him. Yes, they named the baby Jareth Valen Lestat Dracul, but the idea this pair could be in charge of a child causes mass consternation in the audience of fuming dunces. A very serious women lectures that “something fundamental must be missing in your life,” while they’re mocked by a lad over their outfits, his arms folded as he fumes, “it’s really ridiculous, you should grow up and get a life!” Note that he is wearing a waistcoat over a denim shirt over a polo neck. The audience despises everything about the Draculs, from their hats to their parenting, to the fact they’ve got pet rats; which gets a grossed-out reaction in the good old nineties. Rats?! What’s wrong with a normal pet, like a cat named after Enoch Powell? When one man takes the mic to spit “there’s a difference between looking different and looking weird,” it educes a very loud and impassioned “YES!

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The lifestyle shaming is outrageous, and sure, they’re comedy sketch goths who’d be too cartoony for an episode of Keeping Up Appearances where Hyacinth accidentally double-books the church hall for a mayor’s silent auction with a Bram Stoker convention, but the crowd wants them lynched just for dressing funny. Nowadays, reality show oddballs or people with mental health issues are just laughed at by Simon Cowell, but in the 90s, we wanted them beaten until they bloody well stopped it. But we’ve still yet to meet an actual vampire. Bring out Lesley, who drinks blood, sleeps in a coffin, and claims to be immortal. Even in the interests of journalistic impartiality, Lesley’s really hot, in that Elvira/Morticia Addams way, and if I’d seen this episode when it first aired, aged 16, I’d have damaged myself. Vanessa takes her to task over drinking blood, which is a bit rich, considering her own habits.

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As they bring out Lesley’s drinking vessel; a skeezy-looking guy in a leather jacket; the audience ups pitchforks for a final round of abuse, in a series of back and forths between guests and gallery. Folded-arms guy takes another shot at the married couple, so incandescent, he can barely speak — which you simply must see below — while Lesley tells one detractor that she’d kill herself if she looked like him.

Soon, we’re down in the dirt, when Goth Bride (who in the biggest shock, turns out to be just 18), loses her rag, telling an audience member she hopes they never have children, and we go off air with Vanessa shaking everyone’s hand, as a close-up on Lesley’s boyfriend reveals a Nazi iron cross medal pinned to his jacket. Thanks to Youtube comments from Goth Bride, in a 2019 update, the pair have since divorced, while Lesley sadly left neither a comment, nor a forwarding address. As for Vanessa, the show soon moved to the BBC, where it was cancelled after allegations of hiring actors to portray fake guests. God, I hope none of those real vampires were just pretending.

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.

Cyberzone

•October 24, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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Nowadays, with all the videos of dads wearing goggles smashing their heads on the living room floor, it’s clear that Virtual Reality works, but its first iteration in the early 90s? Not so much. Graphics consisted of looming, brutalist blocks, allowing players the fun of slowly waving a disembodied hand in front of their eyes, before falling prey to a crippling migraine. It was far from the cybernetic paradise we were promised; to be whisked inside computers like Lawnmower Man and roll around in badly digitised jpegs of naked ladies with big hair, like happy dogs on a bed. Not that it stopped television embracing VR 1.0 as the next giant leap.

In the early 90s, TV was constantly searching for ways to bring the technologically-adolescent medium of videogames out of stinky bedrooms and onscreen, under the banner of being ‘interactive’. This was the era of the phone-in gaming slot on Saturday Mornings, with viewers calling in to ‘play’ computer games in the studio, via touch-tone sounds on their land-line, or by straight-up yelling instructions of “Go left! Duck! Jump!” to an unseen crew member with a controller. With the added split-second broadcast delay, it was incredibly clunky, giving the kind of lag you get on Fortnite when your flatmate’s got a torrent going for every episode of a Japanese cartoon about a sentient highschool with a sixty-foot penis.

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That disconnected feel is evident in 1993’s Virtual Reality gameshow, Cyberzone. Lasting for a single series of ten half-hours, Cyberzone was part of BBC2’s DEF II strand of hip youth programming, and hosted by Red Dwarf‘s Craig Charles, who’s an intensely irritating presence. It did at least have a tech-gameshow calibre, as the creation of Tim Child, the man behind Knightmare, and made by Child’s Broadsword production company. There’s a lot of fuss kicked up about sending man to the moon with wobbly 1969 computers, but the real miracle is Cyberzone‘s set-up, with the entire show powered by six 486 PCs, each with 8MB of RAM.

Only one full episode survived into the fascist shithole future of 2019, and opens with Craig Charles castigating the audience, who’re behind a chain-link fence and dressed in dystopian rain macs and sunglasses, banging on the metal railings of the grim industrial set, which looks like the hull of a grotty spaceship salvaged from Charles’ more famous show. He wears a fringed brown jacket — fitting with the loose neo-Western theme — with glass eyes as rings on two of his fingers, like Jimmy Savile.

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We know we’re in the digital realm, by the way he uses computery-sounding words, and constantly saying “cyber.” Viewers are “cybernauts,” and the audience “cyber-filth,” while contestants kick “cyber backside.” Clued-in digital junkies like us are “cyber-dudes,” tossed into a post-apocalyptic world, where he tells us “Great Britain just got lucky,” suggesting other nations have been destroyed, or in the least, are without the haven of a virtual world to escape from the miserable drudgery of cockroach sandwiches and roaming the wasteland in rusty cars powered by piss. Aside from cyber, there’s another word that’s thrown around like sausage rolls at an Eastenders wedding brawl, heard for the first time as he bursts through the fence — “Awooga!” But more on that later.

There is a very Knightmare feel, with Charles a swaggering Treguard, beckoning contestants with a cry of “enter the arena!” In Thesp, “the sentient centre of the hyper computer,” Cyberzone has its own Lord Fear. Thesp is a kind of computerised oil baron, in white suit and ten gallon hat, with a bootlace tie and pocket square, who sets the challenges for the “data-duelists.” Contestants wear rather non-futuristic t-shirts and shorts, setting a pair of blokes against champion women rally drivers, one of whom Charles is aghast to learn has an MBE, and the other, a blonde Swede, that he greets with “I’m in love already!

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The games themselves involve players controlling an onscreen avatar by jogging on a treadmill; an avatar known as the borg (short for cyborg), in an incredible show of lazy naming, right at the height of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Charles tells Thesp to build him one, as the crowd chant “BORG! BORG! BORG!” standing well back while it forms in the centre of the room. What emerges is a monstrosity; Frankenstein’s monster with an ICQ account. The crudely sculpted female borg has vacant eyes, sexy lips, and a Hitler-esque side parting, while the male avatar resembles a nightmare Vin Diesel, built like a green body-stocking stuffed with broken bricks. These digitised wraiths shamble through a poorly-rendered landscape of house-shaped blocks solving puzzles. And I do mean fucking shamble.

Though its lofty ideas are admirable, Cyberzone simply does not have the technology to make it work, with every game consisting of players madly sprinting on the spot to make their borg float across the screen in a random direction at one frame a second. They earn points via puzzles, which mostly require (very slowly) moving a crosshair over an object — rubber ducks, arrows, footballs — and pushing a button to shoot it, but there’s so little correlation between the actions of the players and that of their avatars, it’s like giving an unplugged controller to a toddler when they’re bugging you during Call of Duty.

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During all this, the opposing team give chase in virtual buggies or helicopters which handle just as poorly, with the aim of trapping the enemy by parking in front of doors, or crushing them from above with blocks. Craig Charles does his best, overexcitedly whooping at the thrill of players painstakingly trying to make their avatar face the right way, but it’s like watching someone swish at the air after they’ve thrown a bowling ball down the lane, hoping it somehow affects what’s happening. Given decent controls, these are literally games a baby could do, with no ingenuity beyond slowly dragging a crosshair towards a block and mashing a big button; but fighting against the lag, these are monumental tasks of human mettle.

Thematically, it’s all over the place, with Western clothing, and maps set in medieval times, where a futuristic tank roams the streets. Another setting’s called Cyber-Swindon, with a maze-like layout that satirises the confusing design of the real Swindon; effectively turning a local newspaper’s complaint letter about incompetent town planners into a trendy televised computer game. Teams are tied at the final round, where Charles calls them “dudelies,” and for no reason at all, tells one of the male contestants that he’s never liked him, doing his Ernie from Sesame Street fake laugh. “It’s a battle of the sexes, and I want the girls to win!” he says, and they do, after repeating a bunch of puzzles from earlier, with the avatars spending most of their time walking into walls. The prize? Literally anything they want, says Charles, as “I’m in love with yers!” One requests a helicopter licence, so he hands her a prop computer cartridge, said to contain a virtual helicopter. So, no prizes, then? Our host signs off by telling us “reality is for losers!” though he’s yet to develop the Robot Wars kiss salute.

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The most interesting thing about Cyberzone is Craig Charles’ constant use of “awooga!” By the end of the half-hour episode, it’s been said 30 times. In fact, I had to knock up a montage to keep track of them all.

But surely awooga is the intellectual property of John Fashanu? Rarely has a catchphrase been so tied to an entertainer. Awooga is Fash’s “awright at the back?”; his “nice to see you, to see you,” or “as it ‘appens, guys and gals.” Who does Craig Charles think he is?! Brilliantly, there’s a long-brewing controversy over its ownership. Red Dwarf fans will recognise the word from 1989 episode, Marooned, when ship’s computer Holly mimicked the broken siren, with a warning of “Awooga! Awooga! Abandon ship!” Craig Charles brought it with him to Cyberzone, where one of the contestants in the very first episode was… John Fashanu. Fash liked awooga so much, he pinched it, and began using it on Gladiators; a show with a far larger audience and cultural imprint; where consequently, it became his. Still, 25 years on, I’m sure Craig Charles isn’t bothered about it.

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Hope you’re well! In further confusion, it’s often attributed to Kris Akabusi, seen here in a video confirming that he’s never said awooga, and that his catchphrase is “awriiiiight!” while raising his fist to his ear and pumping it in a circular motion. Glad we got that cleared 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.

‘Orrible

•October 14, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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[This is Part 8 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart Seven]

To understand the existence of ‘Orrible, we need to recall the weird early-2000’s national obsession with gangland criminals. This was the era of Lock, Stock and Snatch; of cockneys in football manager coats with names like Mad Dog, Tight Foreskin Steve, and Harry the Piss, letting off shooters in lap-dancing clubs, and pushing batteries up guy’s dicks for looking at their birds; and not AAAs, but the rectangular ones you get in smoke alarms. Even Eastenders switched from its genteel storylines about Dr. Legg’s greenfly to a ludicrous gangster phase, recruiting forgotten character actors whose faces had since gone leathery enough to look intimidating when glaring at Phil Mitchell from the back of a car.

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In the midst of this, Johnny Vaughan was hot off a run on The Big Breakfast, and though his acting work was limited to its dire comedy skits, the BBC greenlit a sitcom, which he would co-write and star as the lead. ‘Orrible‘s setting was that familiar story of the fast-talking chancer forever hustling for that one big score, this time, aiming to move up the ladder of London’s colourful criminal empire. Though he certainly should’ve been sent to death row for crimes against comedy, maybe it helped that Vaughan had the real-life cred of a four-year prison term for coke dealing, two decades earlier. ‘Orrible’s first episode, The Driver, went out on BBC2 on September 10th, 2001. Now, I’m not saying the series is linked to the events of the following day, but having sat through it, nor can I definitively rule it out.

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To set the scene, Vaughan’s Paul Clarke is an illegal minicab driver, pulling schemes with his best mate, Sean; Ricky Grover, doing his Bulla character, of a big, angry thug. It’s all small-time shit, like torching a mate’s flower stall for £20, until Paul gets the opportunity to move up, by giving a lift to feared gangland boss Mervyn Rees, when his jag breaks down. Mervyn is Welsh, in that hyper-broad sitcom way, calling people “boyo” and obsessed with his prized vintage rugby kit, which immediately signals it’s going to be destroyed. They do that joke of Paul thinking he’s speaking fluent Welsh, but in the subtitles, he’s calling Mervyn’s mum a slag, and the story ends with him being brutalised in Merv’s actual torture dungeon when he accidentally burns the rugby kit. Though it seems like Mervyn Rees is set up to be the big baddie, he’s never mentioned again.

Besides the main lads, there’s a large cast of supporting characters. Paul still lives with his mum, plus his sister and her boyfriend, Lee, who’s the token thicko, but not funny like Father Dougal or Baldrick, just tediously confused by everything. You can tell he’s meant to be a good egg, as, like The Fonz or loveable losers in soaps, he calls Paul’s mum “Mrs. C,” but the weed he’s smoking, always puffing on a big joint, makes him confused – “What you doing, Lee?” “Dunno, I forgot?” For someone who actually got sent down for drugs, Vaughan writes about them like a kid who swears he’s high as fuck off dried banana skins. Most of the action takes place in the pub, where the landlord spends spins tall tales from his years in special forces, played by Willmott-Brown from Eastenders, so don’t get stuck alone with him during a lock-in.

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‘Orrible is that thing I fear the most when writing about bad television, where there’s no gasping moments of shock; no blackface or Mollie Sugden flashing her gusset; just no-effort dreary shite with an utter lack of creativity that’s hard to fully get across in print. There’s only so many ways you can say something is boring. I can’t quote any jokes, because there aren’t any, and it’s not setup-punchline ‘humour’, but conversational dialogue that’s meant to be amusing, which is like being trapped in a breakroom with the worst people you know; the kind of bores who’d — as Lee does here — say to a happy person “What are you on? I’ll have half!” Its closest cousin is Cannon and Ball’s wretched Plaza Patrol, where you’re similarly stuck listening to the first-draft conversations of dullards. Here’s a sample witticism for you to enjoy, as Sean remarks on Lee’s weed smoking.

What planet are you on today?

Uranus, Sean. Apparently we’re gonna have no trouble with re-entry.

There’s no laugh track, though that doesn’t mean there was no live audience, as they may simply be sat like I am; ashen-faced and silent, and pondering the choices that brought them here and not somewhere better; like dead in a grave. Episode 3, No Sleep ’til Wembley, is that old “gotta get cup final tickets” plot, except they’re promised to various villains who’ll hurt him if he doesn’t deliver. They head to collect a debt of Sean’s, with Paul nervous it might be thugs with baseball bats. Cut to him aggressively threatening some offscreen figure to pay up or get a beating. At this point, I realised ‘Orrible’s lack of imagination could be turned against itself, to make a guessing game out of it. It’s obviously going to be a child or old lady when they cut to who he’s shouting at, right? Close, it’s a little old man. Three points to me! But as Paul celebrates getting the old boy’s tickets, laughing about how it was probably his last cup final, and his grandkids will show up with painted faces, only to be told they’re not going, you just know it’s about to cut to big, scary Sean blubbing like a baby. I’m so confident, I’ve paused it to write this in my notes, and I’m going to look back now…

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I promise I’m not cheating, it’s just a really bad show. Loads of the time’s taken up with Paul boasting he uses his dole money to “get myself a nice little gram of Charlie, 10 pints of lager, chicken jalfrezi, taxi home, and lovely little brass to round off the night,” and the whole pub doing sums to disprove it. There’s a bunch of tedious ticket mix-ups, culminating in him tearing up Gary the Hitman’s fake tickets which turn out not to be fake, and it seems like the whole cup final story’s an excuse for Vaughan to portray his beloved Chelsea winning the cup (it was Liverpool vs. Arsenal that year). But they do get tickets, and after a cameo from Gary Lineker, we end on a tight close-up of Gary the Hitman telling Paul “You. Are. Dead!” “What’s the matter,” says Paul, got you in Wembley, didn’t I?” What are we guessing? Ball boys? Stewards?

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Fuck my arse. With episode 6, Two Men and a Bastard, it’s not just punchlines you can guess from one cack-handed visual, but the entire plot. Purely on seeing Sean in a toyshop with tears down his cheeks buying an enormous teddy, it’s obvious he’s just found out he’s got a son, who’ll turn out to be a surly teen they can’t control. This is pretty much spot on, though the mother had banned him from contact until his twelfth birthday. But still, young Ryan does show up in a stolen car, played by James Buckley from The Inbetweeners, and they take him to the pub, where he breaks a bottle over someone’s head, before getting arrested for shoplifting, as Sean weeps with pride.

A good third of the episode’s taken up with a running… I hesitate to say ‘joke’, but let’s say ‘bit’, where they’ve copied the rhythm of a joke from proper sitcoms but forgot to put the funny bit in. There’s a series of engravings — on a bracelet; on a birthday cake — where instead of putting ‘Little R’, Paul’s nickname for baby Ryan, they’ve instead put a lower case r; an actual little r. Do you see?! Do you?! On and on it goes, like ‘Who’s On First Base’ written by someone with the IQ of a plate of cress.

Woss that?”

It’s a little R.”

No, you muppet! I wanted ‘Little R.’”

But this is a little R…”

We suffer multiple scenes of this, suggesting Vaughan was 10 pages short the night before shooting and ended up on a Cake Fails website. Bastard‘s b-plot involves celebrity gangster Billy Marks (played by Preacher‘s Saint of Killers), on home leave from prison, and due to hilarious misunderstandings, convinced his wife’s been sleeping with Paul. As one would if they thought they’d been cucked by Johnny Vaughan; who probably calls it “a cheeky nobbing” and pinches his bell-end with his thumb so it looks like it’s speaking — “lemme in, luv, I’ve got terrible cramp!” — Marks is murderous, hunting for Paul at the zoo before showing up at Little R’s birthday party to confront him.

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Their meeting is an encapsulation of ‘Orrible‘s tonal uncertainty. Are we supposed to be laughing? Tense? It seems dramatic, because it’s not funny, but then, none of it is. Marks is magically soothed by his child’s drawing of their family, under the sad piano typical of its sparse soundtrack, with incongruous stock music that’s more fitting with an advert for dementia care. There’s time for a parting life lesson, where Marks tells little Ryan, who’s his biggest fan, that crime doesn’t pay. Apropos of nothing, I Googled the actress who played Marks’ wife, and the 4th result was a Youtube link titled ‘Deep cleavage of Kim Thomson from Emmerdale‘. I didn’t click on it, but I daresay the video-edits of Tommy Tit-Hang have more artistic merit than what I did watch next.

Episode seven takes the worst of ‘Orrible‘s pretensions above its subterranean ability, of fusing comedy with a dramatic storyline, and stretches it over 55 minutes. I clocked the length and assumed they’d mashed the last two episodes together, in the burning-off of a failed show, but to my horror, a title card announces this as ‘DIRTY DOZEN (Feature Length Version)’. I can’t decide what’s funner; the notion that this sweeping, epic tale couldn’t be told in a normal episode, and needed (almost) an hour, or that they couldn’t write another five minutes of material to hit the full sixty. This is practically ‘Orrible: The Movie, with the feel of an idea Vaughan had for a film once, which got reused for the series.

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We open on a dream sequence of two dollybirds with a briefcase of money beckoning to Paul, but he can’t get to them as he’s chained to a giant rock which, to win me another 3 points, morphs into Sean, who’s quite literally holding him back. Here begins a level of your protagonist getting shit on by life not seen since part one of The Office Christmas special, shaken awake by his mum who tells him to “pay up, or get out!” Pretty soon, this trope of sneering at adults so broke they’re forced to live at home is going to seem like a quaint portrait of times gone past.

Paul’s mum berates him for his wasted life, as Sean bursts in to announce they’ve finally that big score. The local nightclub’s doing a relaunch, and they’re in for… security team? Managing the strippers? Not quite — “twelve urinals,” the dirty dozen of the title. Paul makes it very clear he’s not interested, so obviously we cut to him driving a urinal-crammed car, as Sean does the maths; “this baby alone has swallowed a million pints of urine!” They get ripped off at the scrapyard, so dump them in the canal, where a dogwalker spots the splashing and takes down the licence plate. Back at the pub, Paul’s childhood frenemy Reuben is back in town, throwing his money around, with a girl on each arm. Paul, on the other hand, was spotted in his piss-mobile by a mate who happened to be buying a hooky Polaroid camera, before he’s publicly barred for not paying his tab, piling on the misery.

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Black and white flashbacks show the lads riding bikes as kids, with Reuben and Sean leaving Paul lagging behind on stabilisers even though they’re about ten. With Sean palling up with Reuben, Paul enlists Lee to fish the urinals out of the canal, when a museum offers $100 per pisser, but the camera pans down to a dead body floating nearby. Oh, to be face-down and bloated in a stagnant canal, rather than watching ‘Orrible‘s elderly scrapyard owner describe the time “a total stranger shoved a dildo right up me” and doing a protracted mime. Sean and Reuben are now super-tight, but Paul’s moved on, getting a hug from his mum, proud her boy’s finally on the straight and narrow. “You ain’t never gonna see me in trouble again,” he says, as the cops burst into the kitchen and arrest him for murder, giving him a biff up the stomach for absolutely no reason.

Vaughan’s Big Breakfast colleague Jasmine Lowson reports he’ll likely get 20 years, so this is a prison show now? Nope. Straight to a ‘ONE WEEK LATER‘ title card where he’s out, and goes home to his apathetic family, where the copper who beat him up is there in a dressing gown, now moved in and banging Paul’s mum — “We’re family now.” His urinal money’s stolen by the bent cops for a poker game, where he’s threatened to make sandwiches or be sent back inside, and his room’s been taken by Lee’s mum, drunkenly passed out in her bra. So which is it? Is this a cartoonish Mrs Brown’s Boys, where the copper stinks out the bathroom with his dumps, or the dramatic story of a man on the edge? It doesn’t help that Vaughan’s too atrocious an actor to portray the existential crisis he’s shooting for.

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Sean’s now working for Reuben (weirdly morphing into an 80’s yuppie with a stick-on ponytail), in a luxury flat with sex-trafficked Eastern European prostitutes, who offer Paul a blowie. Reuben sets Sean up with a car full of coke, putting him in jail, as Paul whines to Wilmott-Brown Paul that he’s lost everything thanks to whoever dumped that body. Walking home that night, he’s knocked out with a karate chop, and awakes tied up in a field, where the masked hitman apologises for wrecking his life, offering the choice of fixing it, or taking £30k to start over.

Magically, his life mends itself at karaoke night. Lee’s mum moves out, the copper’s given the boot, and Sean’s out of jail as Reuben turned himself in. With a wink, Willmott-Brown reveals himself to be the hitman, and Paul gets up to sing sad solo karaoke, missing his duet buddy, Sean. Of course, he suddenly turns up to join him onstage in belting out that song from Officer and a Gentlemen, carrying Paul aloft in his arms like a lady. Okay, I’ll be honest, I don’t know if that happens, because I’ve paused it when Sean comes through the door, but I’m willing to bet my entire life savings (about 20p) that that’s exactly how it pans out. I swear, if I’m wrong and they pleasantly surprise me, I’ll leave all this in and apologise to Johnny Vaughan. Ready?

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Fuck’s sake, Vaughan. And this all plays over a vaseline-soaked montage of bromance moments from the past… 6 episodes. On every level, ‘Orrible is a colossal failure, but none more so than on the very foundation of comedy, which is surprise. If you can guess a punchline, you won’t be laughing. The only legitimate smiles to be had were at Johnny Vaughan’s ludicrous Hitler-esque hairpiece, and the moment I was pushed into a full psychotic break, and began daydreaming of a crossover with Up the Elephant and Round the Castle.

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.

I Was The Stan Lee of Sussex – Reappraising Fred Ace #1

•October 4, 2019 • 1 Comment

Seeing as I spend my time on here tearing apart other people’s bad old content, I figured before karma comes for my head, I’d better tip out the bones from my own closet.

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This magnificent comic is my first ever published work, Issue #1 of Fred Ace. Fred. What a cool and heroic name! None of this Max Power shit. My heroes had the names of fly-fisherman, real ale connoisseurs, and retired gardeners.

Before we get into it, a little bit of history. I can’t recall an exact date, but I think it’s from around 1989/1990, with August marking it as a summer holiday project. It was a co-production with my cousin, who’s a couple of years younger than me, and who I gave a shorter story in the back, as was tradition with a lot of the American comics we were obsessed with as kids. Comic-making and selling was a huge thing in our family, as a gang of boy-artists obsessed with superheroes, decades before you couldn’t move for the masked bastards.

As a pre-cursor to an adult life spent self-publishing poorly-selling books on Amazon, I made a proper venture of Fred Ace, painstakingly photocopying each page at the local library, gluing the whole thing together, then having my mum stitch the spines, which seems needlessly time-consuming, when we could’ve just stapled them. The result was a big box of comics, sold to family members who felt obliged to cough up £1.50 because we were children. £1.50 was double the cost of the photocopying, though a pretty poor outlay on labour, having to draw and write a whole 15 pages. Though I probably made more money than I have from Charlie and Me. Psychedelic Cheese Dip Comix, seen in the label at the top (and giving it both 90’s barrels of well-random humour and spelling things with an X), was my publishing imprint, which I really should’ve kept going. If I’d thought to release all my books under such a strong brand, I’d be living in a mansion now.

Let’s examine the cover. As will become clear, I was going for a martial arts/Eastern mysticism vibe, hence the rising sun. From a framing point of view, the thoughtful giant head isn’t a bad concept, but smaller Fred’s pose seems to say “I’m busting for a piss and a shit.” Also note my autograph scrawled on the front, because it’s a signed collector’s edition. My cousin signed it too, but he’s not consented to be part of this nonsense, so I Photoshopped his name off. Alright, let’s get into it.

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I saw myself as the young Stan Lee, and this, manually bashed out on my mum’s typewriter, is my version of Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins. It’s meant to say ‘RAMBLINGS,’ but is misspelled, and ‘PSYCHADELIC‘ is not only spelled wrong, but differently than it is on the cover, though I did hand-correct the typing error of ‘bonUS‘.

It’s pleasing that I was looking to offend even at an early age, anticipating complaints from those “budding Mary Whitehouses” who’d be fanning themselves into a faint at such subversive content. Presumably ACE IN THE HOLE would differentiate feedback from all the other fan-mail I was getting as a ten-year-old. Reader, we did not receive any letters, possibly because I signed off with:

SEE YA (but I wouldn’t wanna be ya!)” Yeah, readers (who consist of my elderly grandmother and other family members), you fuckin’ stink! Go dine on my farts, losers!

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Alright, here we go. Right off the bat, the title of the story is spelled wrong. But what a hip guy, leaning against the frame all casual. You can tell he sits on chairs like A.C. Slater. The literal first line is a rip-off of James Bond’s catchphrase, while “are you sitting comfortably?” is just as original.

But hello; what’s going on here?

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There’s all of an inch between the belt and bulge. Was he born without a pubic bone? Dick and balls sat directly below his navel?

The lettering at the top is super wonky, but actually an improvement on my current handwriting. And observe how big I’m thinking; the first Fred Ace story in the history of the galaxy! If Martians tell you they’ve seen one, they lyin’.

Page 03

As an origin story, I could really let my imagination fly. Bitten by a radioactive Fred? Hit by a dump-truck filled with chemicals? Nope — answering an ad in the paper. “MINIMAL DANGER,” eh? We’ll see. Grafton is clearly intended to be a big, evil corporation; my Oscorp, Tyrell Corporation, or Amazon.

Like Rob Liefeld, I couldn’t really draw feet, but I also couldn’t draw bodies. What’s going on here?

Page 03b

Oh, just some random legs, come to make a bit of extra cash. Though it’s not particularly clear, the guy at the front of the line is the future Fred Ace. It’s an interesting mix in that queue; a lady with one boob, a bald guy with no legs, and everyone else with their faces half-missing because I clearly got bored. The flaring pig-nostrils are making me feel quite ill.

Page 04

By this point, my horrible handwriting needs to be transcribed.

Out of the 50, I was lucky enough to be chosen. After signing a contract taking all responsibility for accidents away from the company, needless to say, I was a tad concerned. I almost pulled out but then I saw the payment $10,000. Then they led me to a room where I was to be a guinea pig.

It’s just Captain America getting the Super Soldier Serum, isn’t it? Also, “a tad.” Is he a superhero, or the Conservative candidate in a local by-election?

They strapped me into this strange contraption.”

Again, what’s going on with his groin? It looks like a bad ‘sawing someone in half’ trick with a pair of false legs. Speaking of groins.

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Trivia fans take note that his real name is Frederick Ashton.

Page 05

Then he flicked the switch*. I was bombarded with radioactivity.”

(*at least I hope that’s what it says, but judging by the previous panel…)

Then I blacked out.”

Colouring that little box must’ve been the most time-consuming part of the entire comic.

Then apparently, I lapsed into a 7 week coma. Obviously I don’t remember this**. 6 weeks and 5 days after the experiment… I began to come round.

(**thanks for clearing that up)

It’s not very heroic, rounding it up to 7 weeks to make it sound worse than it was. In the “PAIN… PAIN!” section, I think I’ve mistaken ‘a harrowing depiction of agony’ with a dog dragging its itchy arse across a carpet. And when he’s in a coma, what’s that other hand doing under the sheets? Without context, that panel could be a man fiddling with himself while he kisses a big snake.

Page 06

Apx 2 weeks after I awoke, they sent me home without telling me what the experiment was about. While I was in a coma, Grafton burned down.”

That’s convenient. I wonder what’s in the redacted box of text? Though judging from the handwriting, Fred wasn’t the only one who’d just woken from a coma. From an artistic standpoint, the ‘waking’ section is my favourite, though honestly, the fucked up wobbly doctor is about my usual standard for drawing faces.

Later, a strange power began to manifest itself. If I yelled a certain note, I could make people see their worst nightmares, then they would black out.”

Great power. Not just shouting like Banshee from the X-Men, but specifically ‘a certain note’. He’ll be stood there all Mariah Carey, with one finger in his ear, blowing into a pitch pipe, while the bank robbers escape, because he hit an E-flat minor instead of E-flat major. Also, if he’s making people see their worst fears, I guess he’s terrified of snakes? Or is that just a random snake that happens to be there, watching him practise his superpower? The same snake he was getting off with at the hospital? Fred Snakefucker, more like.

Page 07

I decided to use my powers for good causes and donned a mask to become the costumed crime fighter Fred Ace.”

I was a huge fan of the Marvel encyclopedias that listed characters’ stats, like height, weight, and how much they could bench press, with cut-out blueprints of all the headquarters and vehicles. This was my attempt at the same thing, using my obvious knowledge of Asian culture. Yes, the old “Chinese ying-yang symbol.” It’s good the belt is “very strong.” Incidentally, everyone in my comics had those same shoes; steel bricks with laces scribbled on the front.

Page 08

Another tough night on the streets, wrapping his balls around hoodlum’s necks. I don’t know what Chang-Qui translates to, presumably something like “you’re cancelled, you racist.” Where’s a guy who was doing shady medical experiments out of the newspaper getting the money for all those boomerang-diamonds? I’m presuming he never got his $10,000 after Grafton burned down.

Page 09

I’m also a black belt in both judo and karate making me a force to reken with.”

Yeah, I’m shitting myself.

Page 09b

That final panel though. Fucking hell, calm down, mate. “That’s my story, now GET OUT!” He’s got the posture of a cop interrogating a nonce. Though the comic was in black and white for reasons of photocopying, the character had been around for years in full-colour drawings. Fred’s costume was light blue, with orange boots and orange stripes on top of the mask.

At this stage, proceedings hand over to four pages of my cousin’s story, The Bionic Boxer. I won’t reproduce it in full, but you get the idea from these snippets of panels.

Page 10

Page 10b

Incredibly, I hadn’t landed any advertisers, so had to fill the back page with something else.

Page 11

Double plus! I knew I had them hooked by this point. I think I used more unironic exclamation marks in this single issue than I have in the last 20 years combined. What most strikes me is how achingly “all boys of the era” my attitude is. “See ya in 30!” It’s the classic late 80’s-early 90’s kid who thinks he’s cool, wearing a pair of neon bermuda shorts as I scribbled, nailing that last exclamation mark and sliding a pair of fake £2 ray-bans from the market down from my forehead. Eat my willy, dudes!

Sadly, the second issue is lost. As teased, it was the origin story of Sgt Blaster. Set to be Ace’s main nemesis, Blaster was a Sgt Slaughter drill instructor type with a Hitler haircut, whose origin involved beasting recruits with push-ups until they died. To further my pretensions of being the next Stan Lee, I glued the photo from my swimming centre membership onto the editor’s page before photocopying. Issue #2 sold poorly, that’s to say, not at all. You can only get away with milking your family once, and that was the end of Fred Ace. That is, until Netflix pick it up for the inevitable adaptation, and I get to ride out the rest of my life making cameos in the Psychedelic Cheese Dip Cinematic Universe, and judging cosplay contests where nerds with no pelvis make out with a snake.

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.

When Noel Tried to Crack America

•September 25, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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[more Noel: House PartyNoel’s HQ]

Over the past year, Noel Edmonds has become the suspiciously-dark-bearded ghoul that hangs over my work. Though I worry my compulsive references to the man will eventually drive every Patron away, I just can’t help myself. But recently, I stumbled on something that’s worth sharing, even if every one of you switch your Patreon bucks to that security guard who got fired for broadcasting his gruffs.

Cracking America is the big goal for many an entertainer, particularly those who feel they’ve hit the ceiling over here. Actors regularly quit Eastenders to move to LA for bit parts as a paedo in CSI, while musicians and presenters are similarly eager to hit that massive US market, and the crazy money that comes with it. Even Brucie had a crack, with Bruce Forsyth’s Hot Streak; a gameshow that ran for 65 episodes on ABC in 1986. There are plenty who’ve made it — Craig Ferguson, Simon Cowell, Cat Deeley, Gordon Ramsay, Piss Morgan — while others, such as Robbie Williams, are condemned to elicit excited shrieks from the viewers of This Morning, but ego-crushing shrugs from each of the 327,000,000 men-on-the-street in God’s chosen country. There’s someone else who took a shot at the big league, and it’s our boy, Noel, who showcased his brand of crazy pranks, celebrity cameos, and dangerous stunts to American viewers, long before he’d broken soil on the foundations of Crinkley Bottom Manor.

01

The Noel Edmonds Show was given a week-long trial run in ABC’s midnight slot, in June of 1986. Though a household name in his homeland — with the show coming post-TOTP and Swap Shop, and between series of The Late, Late Breakfast Show — his only US exposure had been as the ‘foreign correspondent’ for ABC’s Foul-Ups, Bleeps and Blunders. The pre-show promotion played up Noel’s reputation as an unpredictable maverick; the sort of wildman who’d be interviewing Roger Daltrey in a bath, amid a televisual landscape of classy Johnny Carson types, with tailored suits and white teeth.

”I went to Switzerland to interview Daltrey in the bath,” said Noel, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune at the time, adding ”I’ve never had a bath with a man before. And never will again.” He also talked up the stunts, which had become the backbone of Late, Late, though in hindsight, his choice of words would age worse than the Micky Rooney scenes in Breakfast at Tiffany’s”We’re going to pull somebody out of the audience on the first show and train them to do a particularly difficult stunt. We do a lot of stunts on my show… it works very well in England because we really look after the people.”

02

The week of pilots were directed by British producer Michael Hurll (The Two Ronnies, TOTP), with an associate producer credit for Troy Miller, who’d go onto huge success in Hollywood, producing and directing shows like Arrested Development, Bored To Death, Mr. Show, and Flight of the Conchords. Only two episodes survive; the third, originally broadcast on June 25th, 1986, and the final edition, from June 27th.

It feels like glimpsing into another dimension to hear the blazing saxophone of 80’s American television, as a voice announces “Tonight, from Hollywood, it’s the Noel Edmonds Show!” The opening titles depict night-time Los Angeles, where movie theatres advertise Cobra and The Exorcist II, and billboards wear Noel’s superimposed face. He steers ABC’s helicopter through a black sky above the distant lights of Tinseltown, and down onto the studio roof, hopping on the back of a waiting motorbike. Episodes begin with celebrity VTs that play like character witness statements in a murder trial. A mulleted Julian Lennon promises “a friend of mine from London, Noel Edmonds” has something very special for us, while Phil Collins very earnestly shares how proud and pleased he is that “my mate, Noel Edmonds” has finally got a show in the US, as “everybody loves him” back home.

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Sadly, Noel doesn’t kick off with a Jay Leno monologue about the day’s news; instead, it’s a rather British jaunt halfway down the stairs up in the bleachers, surrounded by audience members that he softly pranks in classic Noel style, turning the camera on them as they squirm through unrelated one-liners. This guy, looking awkward as he finds himself onscreen? “He wanted to see his wife in something long and flowing, so he threw her in the Mississippi!” This embarrassed lady? She’s the inventor of a non-drip, instant drying paint; “she’s gonna market it as soon as she can find a way of getting it out of the can!” Every joke is something a little nephew would read you off the back of a Penguin wrapper, especially when we go to the ad breaks, with toilet-grade material like “why is the Zebra at Dublin Zoo called Spot?” Bear in mind, this went out at midnight, and considering Noel’s self-styled reputation as a rebellious envelope-pusher, with ABC’s trailers warning “a wild man’s on the loose,” its toothlessness is something to behold. The raunchiest bit is a joke about a homeless man, where he keeps giggling over the word “bum,” aware of its far naughtier meaning back home.

But Noel’s medically incapable of playing it straight or ‘boring’ like his rivals, with his prankster streak evident throughout, and half the celebrity interviews are laboured comedy skits which subvert the desk-bound chats of Carson and co. Star Search winner Sam Harris repeatedly closes the door in his face, and Annie Lennox — “a very talented lady who’s got a very keen sense of humour” — refuses him an interview in a restaurant, while gladly fielding questions from a fan. The final show’s “satellite trans-global” link with Patsy Kensit has the two side-by-side in split screen, and ends with Kensit leaning over and shoving Noel out of frame; though he blatantly signposts it, playing up sound problems and moaning about the ‘satellite delay’ while trying not to laugh. The proper interviews have a completely different tone, playing serious journalist for a dour chat with Julian Lennon about the cruelty of the press.

04

The Noel Edmonds Show has the overwhelming feel of that Knowing Me, Knowing You which was broadcast live from Vegas, with spectacular Alan Partridge-isms everywhere you look. Before one break, he tells us they’ll be back shortly, before dropping to his knees and adding, “very shortly!” For another, “we will be back in 1/24th of an hour!” Every segment’s begging to have the North Norfolk Digital jingle dubbed on, like when he cues up an interview with the line “on a lake called Geneva, with a band called Genesis!” He’s not got a sidekick, but throws an occasional greeting to his unseen female announcer, whom he grossly calls “Fingers,” and is credited as ‘Fingers’ Fontaine. I dread to think what her booth smells like.

His bone-deep Britishness just doesn’t translate to a flashy American network, with gags receiving deathly silence, and overly-wordy intros lost on an audience who aren’t sure if it’s meant to be a joke; like a bit about growing up alongside a guest in the south side of Chicago. In a prime example of his needless loquaciousness, stand-up Marsha Warfield is introduced as “an extremely funny and perceptive observer of the human parade,” which is high praise for an act which opens with “we got any black people here tonight?” Warfield — earlier cameoing as an audience member who thought she’d come to watch the Price is Right, calling Noel ‘Nigel’ — presents a set which is spectacularly awful, and fascinatingly 80s. Though she’s African-American, the material seems like it was cribbed from Bernard Manning, with jokes about hating when black people come to her shows because “they suck up all the light,” and that in the film The Color Purple, “I’ve never seen so many ugly black people in one place in my entire life!

05

Under the slicker format, and pre-taped rather than the live TV he’s used to, Noel’s robbed of his usual fallbacks. Hamstrung from pretending like everything’s comically going wrong, he’s left to face the dead air of jokes that didn’t land, and moments which fall flat. But it wouldn’t be Noel without stunts involving members of the public; an audience of “simpering wrecks… innocent buffoons,” from whom brave volunteers are plucked for a challenge to be aired on the following show. For the entirety of the June 25th episode, he harps on about an infallible sex test, that’ll help viewers find out if their husband or wife is really the sex they claim to be. This, in an agonisingly long finale, turns out to be a weird party trick, where members of the audience are made to rest their hands on the arms of a plastic chair and their foreheads against a wall, to see if they can lift the chair and stand up, which women can do, but men can’t. That’s scientific fact.

The only thing it demonstrates is Noel’s inherent weirdness with real people, leching over one volunteer by eyeing her and down — “from the view, I think we’re pretty certain you’re a lady!” and asking if she’d be “happier without your shoes on… happier without your trousers on?” Noel’s giggling with glee in the knowledge millions of people at home will definitely be trying this, and it seems like it’s building to a reveal, like there’s wet paint on the wall, or it’s just a psyche test, where the men only think they can’t stand up, because they don’t want anyone questioning their masculinity. But no, it’s just the sort of trick you see in a children’s magic book, like pushing your fingertips together and seeing a floating sausage in the middle, and works because the women they selected were short and wearing high heels, while the men, with bigger, flatter feet, were standing much further back.

06

The June 27th episode was the last in the run, with footage of the previous night tragically lost, having boasted a guest list of Billy Ocean, The Pet Shop Boys, and David Hasselhoff. There are dual themes at play in Noel’s final hour, of ‘aren’t the English eccentric?’ and ‘we’ve run out of ideas’. In the same big-shouldered suit he’s been wearing all week, he pelts onstage to introduce his “tea-slurpers” — a trio of Americans who’ll be learning the “noble art” of drinking tea. Gor blimey, guv. They have to slurp down tea for as long as possible, in the kind of game you’d play at a shitty toddler’s birthday party, presenting a video of “England’s best tea-slurper,” who’s in fingerless gloves and buried beneath a truly horrifying rubber mask. I just assumed it was Noel, but then he unveils the slurper’s identity.

07

Fuck me. But McCartney’s not there, and it’s just a way to run a clip of him on The Late, Late Breakfast Show from the previous November, where they first did the tea-slurping skit. Finally, Noel’s brought some star power, if only via archive footage. It’s a long clip too, with Macca answering questions written by the audience, in the worst Q&A since the Ninja Turtles went on Oprah. “Are you wearing a vest?” “How many baths do you have a week?” “Do you still enjoy brushing your teeth?” As noticeably bored as McCartney is, nothing ever touches the awkwardness of moments involving small talk with members of the public; spectacularly so in a skit attempting to break the world record of Champion Underwear Leaping — that is, jumping in and out of a pair of underpants. Noel greets a short-haired woman with “and your name, Sir?” and gets into an exchange with a man called Jaime Short that I’ve clipped below, because it demands to be seen in full.

Though 60 seconds of people hopping into shorts sounds like something that should be seen during a rainy afternoon at Butlins rather than on television, incredibly, Noel did the exact same segment the night before, with one of tonight’s contestants the returning champion.

08

The longest interview, and the most conventional, with Noel simply chatting to a guest on a sofa, is reserved for “home movie mogul,” Charlie Schmidt. Schmidt is essentially a man who makes funny sketches with a camcorder, in a primordial precursor to viral video stars going on Ellen, and is introduced with a clip of him making his nose wiggle in time to music with a sheet of glass. They play a bunch of his sketches, including a fake dating video where he buries a sack of plastic ducks upto their necks, and Mr. Spam Man, which involves systematically pulling the limbs and head off an Action Man figure and forcing them into a block of spam. The latter, shown in full, for ninety very weird seconds, is the most genuinely subversive broadcast Noel’s ever been a part of. Nowadays, this is the sort of shit you’d scan through on TikTok without a second glance, but regular folks making their own content was hugely novel in 1986, with a video of Schmidt lip-syncing to a falsetto song with a stocking over his head inciting shrieks of laughter. Noel’s so enamoured that Schmidt returns for more in the second half, performing the dancing nose trick live in the studio. You get the joke after 5 seconds, but it goes on for two whole minutes, while Noel creases up on the sofa. Schmidt would eventually perform the dancing nose for a series of lucrative Dime Bar commercials, though his widest fame would result from a video filmed 2 years before his appearance here, and not released until 2007, of his cat playing a keyboard.

09

The week draws to a close, and as Edmonds is wont to do, he ends his American adventure with another audience-participation stunt, aiming to go out with a real bang. Unfortunately, it’s more of a terrible whimper, in what turns out to be a disaster, albeit, not that kind of disaster. It’s only five months before the fatal accident that would end The Late, Late Breakfast Show — when an untrained hod-carrier was killed during a bungee jump stunt — as the finale of The Noel Edmonds Show sees a member of the audience re-enact a famous Houdini escape. Plucked out of the crowd on Monday’s show, he’s had the week to rehearse being hung upside down in a straight jacket, with 60 seconds to escape, before a burning rope drops him headfirst onto the studio floor.

Noel plays up the danger massively, as they hoist him up and set the rope alight, and the poor fucker swings about like a panicked pendulum, trying to get his arms free. The rope, Noel tells us, again and again, will snap when the countdown runs out. He gets his arms free, but he’s only on the first of four metal buckles as the clock hits single figures. And then… the countdown reaches zero. He doesn’t fall, undercutting the tension somewhat, and they take the clock offscreen. “Come on,” pleads Noel, “hurry up!” About 15 seconds late, the man finally wriggles the jacket off, with the fire safety officer needlessly squirting foam over a ‘burning’ rope that’s pretty much gone out. As they get him down, Noel’s forced to admit there was a wire in the middle of the rope, “just in case,” and all magic has been ruined forever. Still, better safe than sorry.

10

Noel bids farewell, thanking his audience, and saying he hopes it won’t be too long before he’s back in America. As we know here in the future, he didn’t go onto become the King of Late Night, and reviews were not good. The Noel Edmonds Show was savaged in the LA Times, in a piece which marked Noel as a Brit who’s a Real Twit, with the devastating opening salvo “When it comes to British humorists, Noel Edmonds is right up there with Margaret Thatcher.” The wacky style didn’t play, with a withering “…most of the big names in music are required to join Edmonds in awful comedy bits. Edmonds interviewed Daltrey while sitting in a bathtub filled with water. ISN’T HE OUTRAGEOUS? No.” The piece can be surmised with its plea for our nations to “bring back Jerry Lewis. Send back Noel Edmonds.”

The New York Times were likewise unimpressed, noting “the remainder of the hour-long show consisted of double entendres and adolescent jokes. One gag, about a New York prostitute, evidently had its punch line scrambled by the network censor.” They too, were keen to stop free movement of lion-haired, wheezing DJs — “Mr. Edmonds, still chipper, looked directly into the camera and said, ”Thank you for giving me such a great welcome to your country.” It might be even warmer next time – if he leaves his show at home.”

11

Though a failure by any standards, The Noel Edmonds Show gives us a peek at an alternate timeline, where Noel abandoned the BBC to become the next big British export. In this world, Mr. Blobby wasn’t pestering your Ronnie Corbetts and Tony Blackburns, but bundling Bruce Willis to the floor, and pulling down Prince’s purple slacks, while Julia Roberts got drowned in gunge. America’s loss was our gain, although don’t say it too loudly, in case they take their revenge by sending back James Corden.

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 – The Karate Kid

•September 15, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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[previous entries in this series — DroidsEwoksChuck Norris Karate Kommandos RamboMister T]

I cannot stress strongly enough how much I love The Karate Kid. Along with Ghostbusters, it’s my all-time favourite film, and I was flooded with excitement and terror when Youtube announced the original (surviving) lead cast would be returning for a sequel series. Thankfully, Cobra Kai is incredible, as a legitimate continuation of the world, and with enough fan-pleasing references for obsessives like me. But thirty years ago, there was another spin-off, which ran for 13 episodes in the vaunted Saturday Morning cartoon slot, and is all but forgotten. Though, timeline wise, it came right after Karate Kid III, you’ll find no cameos from well-loved characters, no callbacks to a now-disbanded Cobra Kai Dojo, and few connections to the in-movie universe. In their place, there’s enough foreign stereotypes and funny accents to get a modern show sent to cancellation-outrage Hell a thousand times over.

I’ll admit, the films weren’t without their silly moments, particularly in the sequels. I never really count IV, the Hilary Swank one; not because I’m an incel, but because it doesn’t feel like a Karate Kid movie, with a single recurring character in Miyagi, a new, decidedly non-KK setting, and a subplot about a bird with a bad wing. While the original is the great underdog movie, with a fairly realistic dramatic tone, by part three, there’s a rich-prick baddie who literally makes his money illegally dumping toxic waste into rivers. Plus, a twenty minute section involving Daniel abseiling down a cliff to retrieve a special bonsai tree, with a dramatic musical score when the other bad guy snaps it in half, as Daniel and his oddly-platonic friend Robin rush it back to Miyagi to be mended, cradling the tree with all the pained emotional urgency one would use on a toddler who’s bleeding out from an accidental gunshot wound. But this is Tolstoy in comparison to the cartoon, which went down the absolute weirdest route possible.

01

The Karate Kid cartoon has a much smaller cast than the Mr. T, Chuck Norris, or Rambo shows, presumably as it wasn’t serving as a backdoor launch for a toyline, with a core crew of Daniel-san, Mr. Miyagi, and new character, Taki Tamurai; though as she’s a girl, Taki doesn’t get much to do. So, are the characters like their movie counterparts? Daniel, is at least the hot-headed, chip-on-his shoulder braggart of the films, which is part of their beauty, selling you on an underdog that’s still a bit of a wanker. But this is a Saturday Morning cartoon, so he also gets the C-3PO Droids role, constantly falling into fountains or off piers, and accidentally tucking the tablecloth into his collar, so he pulls everyone’s food over himself when he stands up. Chairs collapse beneath him to a comedy slide-whistle, and he falls down an open manhole, although the cast spend half the time wading around in sewers anyway.

Miyagi’s film version was deep and nuanced, where he was a old wise master, but he still a fallible human. He got grumpy. He got drunk. Cartoon Miyagi is essentially the Buddha; a flawless wellspring of Eastern wisdom, who’s never wrong, never angered, and for an elderly gent who’s scornfully called “grandpa” or “old man” by everyone he meets, is constantly back-flipping and somersaulting in and out of scene. It’s hard to do a Mr. Miyagi voice without sounding racist, and even though the voice actor actually is Japanese, you still get the sense he’s pushing up the corners of his eyes with his fingers. Every L is an R, and his vocabulary is so sparse, it seems like he’s suffered a debilitating brain injury. Miyagi never once uses a “to” or “the,” so instead of saying “where’s the boy?” it’s “where boy?!

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The show’s concept is that the trio are searching the world for a stolen shrine, pinched from Taki’s village in Okinawa. This shrine, a miniature Japanese temple, endows whoever’s touching it with an endless variety of random powers; a magical MacGuffin that’s basically the Infinity Stones mashed into the sort of ornament your nan might bring back from a daytrip to Blackpool. The shrine is capable of reshaping reality to the whims of its master, but Miyagi’s sole goal in retrieving it is to return it to the village rather than, say, ending world hunger, or making his dick really big.

Now I’m a ways into my animated spin-offs series, I’m noticing the rote construction of these shows, each using the same small array of settings; jungle, voodoo island, London, a movie set; and padded with chase scenes through foreign cities comprised of empty streets. But no amount of familiarity could have quite prepared me for what was coming my way. Through the course of my work, I’ve sat through Russ Abbot’s C.U. Jimmy, Jim Davidson’s rude panto Rabbi, and the truly abominable Curry & Chips, and yet, find myself in awe of the Karate Kid cartoon using its world-travelling setting to rack up the lazy racial stereotypes at a rate which is genuinely astonishing.

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The opening titles depict the shrine being stolen and the gang running across a backdrop of global monuments, under 80s music infused with a plinky-plonky Chinaman soundtrack and a chant of “Karate Kid!” There’s a bit where Miyagi honks someone’s nose before winking at the camera, in that classic spin-off move of making a throwaway bit that happened once in the original a primary aspect of their character.

Episode one, My Brother’s Keeper, opens with the gang boating along the Amazon, investigating rumours of animals acting weird, and figuring the shrine’s to blame. Cut to Amazonian tribesmen, all bowl cuts n’ loin cloths, chasing a boy who uses the shrine to call down jungle birds in attack. Daniel gets stuck in quicksand, and Miyagi swings in on a vine, before letting himself be kidnapped. Meanwhile, Kala, the shrine thief, invites Taki and Daniel to “come to my house and change clothes.” Bit weird. Every time I’ve opened with this, the police were called. Daniel’s soon out of those karate PJs and into a loin cloth, and he’s fuckin’ jacked.

04

The rest of the episode’s a power struggle between Kala and the tribal chief; a ripped guy with a jaguar pelt on his head. His henchman is unmistakably voiced by Uncle Phil, a constant present in the spin-offs series; as is the trope of someone wrestling an alligator, which Miyagi also does. As Daniel trains Kala, it’s clear they wanted to do their own take on the muscle memory waxing/fence painting, with Daniel wackily helping Kala improve his coordination by playing keepy-uppy with a pumpkin. Though that’s still not as dumb as the shit remake, where Jackie Chan teaches Will Smith’s loser kid karate by having him take his jacket on and off.

Anyway, the chief steals the shrine, using it to morph into an actual talking jaguar, and they fight on a log above a lava pit, where Kala uses his pumpkin training to defeat him. As they leave, the shrine accidentally falls in the Amazon and gets swept away, so the chase must continue! Just one episode in, they’re showcasing some of the shoddiest animation yet. One scene loops a close-up of Daniel moving through the jungle, lips still flapping though he’s not talking the second time round, and characters who’re walking often jerk backwards a few frames, like whoever was photographing the cell sneezed. The artwork’s wildly inconsistent, switching from “yes, this is an actual cartoon” to moments that seem like some animator’s kid was let loose on bring your child to work day, where Daniel’s suddenly twelve feet tall with limbs like cocktail sticks.

05

The Greatest Victory, episode 2, takes us to Hong Kong, which is under the control of a mafia-type imaginatively called the Dragon, running protection rackets on all the vase shops. With an Asian supporting cast, everyone talks rike– sorry, talks like Benny Hill’s Mr. Chow Mein, giving an uncomfortable Charlottesville vibe to Daniel “the only white guy” LaRusso’s leading of an anti-Dragon protest march, waving signs and chanting “Dragon go home!” (to where?!) I was half expecting Tommy Robinson to come out and give a speech before chopping through matchsticks with his little hands.

The gang track down an old mate of Miyagi’s by traipsing through the sewers, casually wading through a waist-deep river of Hong Kong’s piss and shit in their clothes, and celebrating with wonton soup, which was presumably on the writer’s room whiteboard of ‘Asian things’, along with gongs, big whicker hats, and “Ah, so!” The Dragon ends up with the shrine, which this time, turns its owner into a giant electric ninja, and Miyagi throws one of the Dragon’s goons so hard, his trousers come off. Daniel defeats the Dragon with an example of the show’s terrible attempts at creating Eastern pacifist philosophy, having him recall an earlier use of riddles to “think, not fight,” while trapped under a bookcase. “A book about bonsai trees… trees… water… pool… that’s it!” He spies a pool table and tips the balls over the floor, for the Dragon to comically trip over.

06

With the shrine getting sucked down another fucking drain, episode 3, The Homecoming, takes the crew to New York, where the Statue of Liberty stands right next to the Twin Towers. Finally, the chance for some sweet Karate Kid lore, as they head to New Jersey; Daniel’s old stomping ground, seen in the opening scenes of the movie. I hope we get to meet his ex-girlfriend, Judy, who he references with his mom after meeting Ali, though confusingly, when movie-Daniel is saying farewell to a group of neighbourhood kids at the beginning, the girl he yells “Bye, Judy!” at is clearly eleven years old. Let’s hope it was a common name in 80’s Newark, and he’s not the Karate Paed.

However, Daniel does run into an ex, pulling off her balaclava when foiling a subway bag snatching, in a portrayal of the freaky NY subway which has punks with ghetto blasters, but nobody masturbating through their dirty jeans. The gang are put up by Daniel’s friend, Papa Tony, and see if you can guess his racial heritage through his introductory dialogue:

Stupid-a truck, I’d be betta off with-a jersey cow! I gotta pizza to deliver!

07

Mama mia, his delivery boy “he’s-a late again!” Meanwhile, Daniel’s ex, Tina, is shacked up with a biker called Brick; the same bad lad who interrupted their date at the carnival back in the day. With Tina’s help, Brick finds the shrine, which briefly transforms him into a giant spider, leading to a showdown at the old carnival. But before that, there’s nonsense with Daniel and Miyagi crashing a pizza van filled with Papa Tony’s bees, which Miyagi uses as a teaching moment in being calm, plus another riddle where Daniel needs to find Papa Tony’s secret savings for gas money. “Where would that be? Be? BEE?!” Yes, it’s in the bee hives. Hardly fucking 3-2-1 is it?

Brick, in classic 80’s baddie leather jacket and mullet combo, calls Daniel “wimp” and “short stuff,” still some-ways short of the movie’s best-worst insult of “must be take a worm for a walk week!” At the carnival, Brick uses the shrine to triplicate himself, and there’s a scuffle atop a rollercoaster, but the shrine gets tangled in some balloons, and inexplicably floats away into the sky for next week. All the while, I’m constantly having to remind myself this is a Karate Kid cartoon. That bit in the first movie where Miyagi chops the drunks’ beer bottles in half always seemed a bit far-fetched, but here we’ve got giant spider-people, and Miyagi using a luggage trolley as a skateboard to ride up the side of buildings. And who’s funding all this globe-trotting? Is Mr. Miyagi’s Little Trees still in business? Yeah, the kind of ‘trees’ that college kids and white men with dreadlocks love, I bet.

Episode 4’s The Tomorrow Man takes us to another place rich in possibilities for egregious racial stereotypes, in Paris. This week, they’re following a smuggler named Whiskers who’s ‘thing’ is a fondness for the dessert ‘parfait a chocolate,’ which Miyagi uses to track him to a restaurant. Like all the French characters, Whiskers speaks English with an accent, like ‘Allo ‘Allo, and they get into a speedboat chase where Daniel waterskis in his karate slippers.

08

Daniel enlists the help of a psychic called The Amazing Roland, who’s cheating with the old Peter Popoff earpiece trick, and eventually steals the shrine for himself, giving Daniel a magic premonition of Mr. Miyagi holding the shine while he’s mown down by a red truck (or blue, when they fuck up the continuity). It’s that old ‘every time Daniel tries to alter the future, he helps it along’ deal, cursed by visions of Miyagi’s death, while Miyagi’s all philosophical and “if dis fate, so be it!” Eventually, Whiskers hijacks the truck — a baguette truck, of course — and it barrels towards a downed Miyagi (though he’s got time to reel off three lines of Okinawan wisdom as he’s laying there). But at the last second, Daniel karate kicks his way into the vehicle and steers it clear, accidentally hitting the shrine and sending it… down another drain. Christ, that thing must smell like an anus by now. There should’ve been a TMNT crossover where Michaelangelo finds it and magicks up a sentient RealDoll of April made entirely out of pizza dough.

The search resumes in All the World His Stage, taking us off to London, where Daniel immediately rescues a window cleaner by swinging from a Union Jack, guvnah! The shrine’s been sold as a prop to a movie studio, where teen heartthrob type, Kevin Woods, is shooting a King Arthur flick. Portrayed by a voice actor who saw Spinal Tap once, Kevin becomes obsessed with Taki, getting her a part as a chambermaid, as a jealous Daniel, described by Taki as “like my big brother,” gives furious skunk-eye. Karate Cuck, more like.

09

The shrine touches a prop sword, endowing it with all its power, and turning Kevin mad, thinking he’s really the Black Knight, and Daniel — on-set as newly hired stunt coach — is his mortal enemy, King Arthur. There’s a horseback duel for “fair maiden” Taki on Tower Bridge at noon, though it’s dark out, and swamped in Victorian pea-soup fog. Taki gets knocked off the edge, hanging on by her fingertips, as Kevin gives a lone, likely unintentional Cobra Kai easter egg, “I give no mercy to traitors!” Daniel wins, and the shrine falls in the Thames and floats away. Incredibly, this piece of shit 23 minutes has four writers, rather than just a chicken who was pushing down the typewriter keys by pooing on them.

Such is my grim fascination with seeing my favourite movie be wildly perverted, I sat through six full episodes of this trash, with the final being The Paper Hero. Set in Mexico, it’s clear the writers did a tremendous amount of research, namely, watching The Three Amigos. Though it’s 1989, this is Mexico as seen in Westerns set a century before, where droopy-tashed banditos ride through dusty streets on horseback, with Eddie Guerrero voices and oversized sombreros that would have been too big for an episode of The Goodies. These no-goodniks have stolen the shrine, which gives them various X-Men like superpowers, from Cyclops’ eyebeams to Superman’s breath.

10

But the best part of the episode concerns their attitudes to a homeless man with an eyepatch who appears in Miyagi’s window (while the gang are working at an enchilada restaurant for some reason?). With his back to the window, Miyagi nails him in the face with an onion, before giving him some money. How did he know he was there? “Beggar smell like dirty gym socks,” he says, waving the stink away with a hand. Later, when being rounded on by Mexicans with bull-whips and clubs, the tramp rescues Daniel and co by tossing in a smoke bomb so they can escape. “That was pretty clever,” says Daniel, adding — right to the homeless man’s face — “I bet he if put his mind to it, he could be more than a poor beggar!” Bloody hell, alright, Norman Tebbit.

Not that this excuses their harping on about how smelly and disgusting he is, but when Miyagi realises “dirty beggar have clean fingernails,” he rips off the beard, revealing Daniel’s Uncle Jack, who’s a secret agent on a mission. Though, as it later transpires, he’s really just a file clerk at the FBI, there to steal the shrine for himself. It’s interesting to meet a new member of the LaRussos, and they sorta follow the Karate Kid 3 line of having Daniel go against Miyagi by siding with a cooler mentor with a hidden agenda, tagging along with Uncle Jack against Miyagi’s wishes. The plot takes in a Catholic Padre with a hidden key, a booby-trapped Mayan temple, and “the world’s most notorious smuggler,” The Bear; a guy with a metal claw-hand. We close on the shrine falling into a horse’s pack, as the horse bolts away into the distance.

11

The Karate Kid cartoon ran for a further seven episodes, including trips to the Himalayas, Australia, where they meet an Aborigine (I dread to fucking think), Russia, and a Norwegian whaling vessel, on which they’re working. Presumably it was cancelled when they ran out of minority groups to offend. That said, I wish I could track down episode 12, The Grey Ghosts, set in a San Francisco community of elderly ladies. Check out the synopsis.

They learn the shrine may be in possession of a reclusive tycoon named Frump. Daniel has to work with one of the Gray Ghosts, who is very different from the stereotypes Daniel has of old ladies.

12

A tycoon called Frump, eh? Look, this is a decidedly terrible show; a warped incarnation of beloved characters who carry great meaning for me. Even though nothing that happened is now considered part of canon, at the time, this was meant as an extension of the Karate Kid universe, so for a while, Miyagi and Daniel, ‘Karate’s Bad Boy’ Mike Barnes and Chozen, Ali Mills and John Kreese’s teenage skeleton-bullies; they all sat alongside the evil magicians, talking jaguars, and mulleted spider-boys as part of the same world. Now we’ve seen what a true great follow-up can be, in Youtube’s fantastic Cobra Kai, the Karate Kid cartoon is effectively lost; consigned to the sewers of pop culture history, like so many drain-bound shrines. I guess if Cobra Kai gets stuck for material, at least they’ve got plenty to draw from here. I’ll leave you with part of the synopsis from the animated show’s final episode:

Somewhere in the South, the shrine has come under possession of a shy black boy named Walter, who uses the power of the shrine to shrink actual items such as railroad cars and add them to his model collection. In doing so, Walter accidentally uses the shrine to shrink the trio

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