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As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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, since the launching of the Patreon, I’ve posted over 100,000 words of free material on here each year. 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.

CHUCK ME SOME MONEY ON PAYPAL.

Cheers.

James Whale Talks to the Dead

•November 25, 2021 • Leave a Comment

This video first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could watch 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, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s over 500,000 words 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 or some PayPal cash.

When 3-2-1 Went Spooky

•November 15, 2021 • 2 Comments

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When you’ve made it your actual job to dissect television, it’s clear that most of it’s basically the same, with only loose variations on all the standard cliches and structures. That cannot be said of 3-2-1; ITV’s Ted Rogers fronted game show which caused baffled audiences to bleed profusely out of the ears for a decade. Based on a Spanish show called — of course — Un-Dos-Tres, it was half quiz, half light entertainment sketch show, as if Davro’s Sketch Pad had gotten shoved in the fly machine with the Zodiac’s ciphers. Its reputation is well-vaunted, and though Limmy’s done the business of comedically picking apart episodes on Twitch, I couldn’t not tackle it myself, especially with a pair of episodes so appropriately themed for this festive month, the first of which hails from September of 1978.

Like all comics from that era, Ted’s musky vibe was a thin veneer of avuncularity over the sense you were one wrong word from getting fucking lamped. A leathery complexion with hair which may or may not be a wig, his name was a perfect spoonerism for too much wanking, which he must’ve been great at, considering his nimble fingers. The thing best remembered from 3-2-1 is undoubtedly Ted’s special hand signal. It’s a rare show with a trademark gesture; Wacaday‘s Wac-a-Wave, the Blockbusters hand jive, Craig Charles’ Robot Wars kiss salute; but nothing captured the public’s imagination like Ted’s metacarpal catchphrase. First flashing three fingers, nail-side out, it’s a rapid turn into to two digits, with a final twist leaving us on a single raised index — 3-2-1!

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Constantly showing it off, I’m surprised it’s not been picked up by conspiracy theorists as a secret signal to the Satanic Light Entertainment Illuminati (“the numbers add up to six; the same as if Billy Pearce joined the Grumbleweeds!”), but its beauty lay in the giddy thrill of being but one false move from flicking the vees and flipping the bird, hence why it became such a playground staple. However, all our heroes inevitably march into their graves on clay feet, and going through these displays frame by frame, behind the smoke and mirrors and blurring signet rings, it’s clear that most of the time, Ted actually performs a 3-3-1, or a 3-2-2. The half dozen times it’s done in this episode, he only lands a verified correct version once. If they’d had the pause-tech back then, this could’ve been television’s first big scandal.

The other thing everyone remembers is the notoriously nonsensical clues, with Ted’s explanations playing like 1960’s Batman solving a letter from the Riddler — “’Why didn’t the foolish Caped Crusader listen to my horse?’ What do horses have? That’s right, old chum; legs! And with legs you can run or walk or… climb on the sofa. What sounds like sofa if you aren’t really listening? Soda! Of course! Riddler means to blow up the old soda factory…” And Ted clearly sees himself as the Yorkshire Television Riddler; a string-pulling trickster who speaks like he’s recording a warning for Commissioner Gordon, from his very introduction, bedazzling us with wild alliteration. “As usual we have our packed package of prizes, personalities and puzzles, plus our prime prize, the car, but popping up will be a problem, our booby prize, Dusty Bin…

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Ah, Dusty; 3-2-1‘s mascot, brand, and booby prize. A buck-toothed sentient dustbin (garbage can to American readers) in oversized Mickey Mouse gloves and a clown nose, he’s a sort of homeless R2-D2, trundling along on castors, but generally having to be led/steered across the studio floor by a female assistant holding his hand. Incredibly for his rinkydink nature, due to the day’s limited technology, Dusty cost £10,500 to build — in 1970’s money, too — although they must’ve recouped it with merchandise, with various ceramic, cuddly and clockwork Dusties, and even a novelty single sung by Ted, which would make a great b-side for Nookie’s Song. Fittingly, Ted opens the episode by holding up a photo of schoolchildren who’ve decorated some bins.

It’s an intimate set-up, with the audience sat on metal folding chairs, and in the era where everyone looked like a murderer, every dress, shirt and haircut is absolutely disgusting. Contestants are made up of three couples, including a man on whom all ’70’s porn producer’ fancy dress outfits were based. While most quizzes have a cast of one, this is a busy show, jam-packed with bodies, as Ted employs a group of hostesses — “gorgeous secretaries” — credited as The Gentle Secs, along with dancers, plus a repertory cast of comedians.

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Ted’s extremely affable, bantering and crowbarring in jokes at every opportunity. One lady works in a hospital. “They do great work, hospitals,” says Ted. In round one, everyone has thirty seconds to name ten things in a given category, each of which are ludicrous; symbols you can make on a typewriter, nuts that are commonly eaten in the UK, or “major divisions of the compass.” They’re allowed to mime to each other, but these are scenes of blank-minded panic, all playing out under a Countdown-style ticking soundtrack filled with babyish whizzing noises, train whistles, and dog toy squeaks. There’s a great example here of 3-2-1’s needlessly complicated nature, with Ted’s introduction to a simple question.

We want fruit that you frequently find stored in the kitchen to be used in cooking, both dried fruit, and fruit that is preserved by sugar. We do not want the range of crystallised fruits that are eaten uncooked as a sweet meat, or tinned fruit, but dried and preserved fruit used in cookery. OK? So dried fruit, and fruit preserved by sugar…

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It took him longer to say than they have to answer. Between guesses, we cut to another room, where “three frantic funsters” — Duggie Brown (brother of Lynne Perrie), Chris Emmett, and Debbie Arnold — honk on clown horns and tell history’s worst jokes. “Come on, Millard. You’re always telling us something’s the worst. We’re supposed to believe The Les Dennis Laughter Show would’ve turned its nose up at these? I’m not having that.” Right then.

Chris: “Waiter, there’s something funny about this crab!

Duggie: “Something funny? Impossible, the script writer just cooked it!”

Debbie: [honking on a literal horn]

Have you got a gag about cricket?

No, I’m stumped!

Debbie: “I went to the canary islands, and there were no canaries there!

Chris: “I went to the sandwich islands, there were no sandwiches!

Duggie: “Just my luck, I’ve just booked for the virgin isles!” [gurns an expression that says ‘What a pisser. I was really looking forwards to some sex-tourism!’]

This is where 3-2-1 really sets itself apart from other game shows. Though The Krypton Factor would use skits as part of an observation round, half this show’s given up to comedy sketches, played around the week’s theme. As implied by sexy lady-devils swinging their forked tails, the black balloons behind Ted, and its placement here as Halloween content, this week is ‘Horror’. The opening sketch is a glorious example of the basic spooky aesthetic which drew me in as a child, setting the tone for my adult tastes; the butterfly effect where a mad scientist sketch on Russ Abbot’s Madhouse leads to the creation of a scripted podcast about Bigfoots and the occult, thirty years on. A crash of lightning; candles and cobwebs, a skeleton; this is my happy place. Although, the actual sketch is dogshit, with a loose Munsters parody where Frankenstein’s mad his daughter’s planning a “mixed marriage” with a human. Her beau turns out to be Enoch Powell, timelessly voicing the opinion ‘that lot’ should be repatriated to Transylvania, which has Frank changing his mind; “he’s one of us!

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This is an observation round, but incredibly, the questions aren’t read aloud, instead left on clipboards they have to fill out with a pen, while team-mates with spikes on their heads burst balloons decorated as boggle-eyed spiders with pipe cleaner legs. This means we have to sit through Ted going over each answer, like a badly-run pub quiz, before the losers are sent home with £150 and a silver photo frame, and the promise of a photo to fill it arriving by post shortly. It’s here we reach the meat of 3-2-1, over at “Ted’s treasure table.” To attempt to explain far more succinctly than they do on the show, after each sketch, they’re given an item (a “mcguffin”) and a cryptic clue. Each item represents one of six prizes, which they have to identify from the clues, and gradually eliminate from play, until all that remains is the one they’ll take home, aiming for the star prize of a car, and not the booby prize of a new dustbin. And then, Gotham shall fall!

They’re forced to endure a series of sketches; Macbeth‘s witches cackling round a cauldron, as they prepare a recipe from Jimmy Young’s cookbook; Dr. Finlay doing Jekyll and Hyde; Dracula as Larry Grayson — “Ooh, look at the muck on ‘ere (his coffin)! Everard, shut that tomb!” Each ends with the item and clue, such as this: “It’s a goodbye wave to transport delays, causing pleasure to be often spoiled. You’ll enjoy what you get, and the speed I’ll bet, but be sure that it hasn’t been foiled.” Sounds like the car! Or a bike? But let Ted explain. See, a pleasure often delayed by transport is an evening meal, and the prize is to be enjoyed at speed and never ‘foiled’, hence, quite obviously unless you are thick, a microwave. Although, it’s such a space-age device, a contestant incorrectly calls it “a microfilm oven,” and it’s wheeled out with a whole cooked chicken inside. “Done in about thirty seconds,” says Ted, who must’ve suffered some chronic diarrhea in his time.

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The fantastical clues keep coming; Dracula giving wind-up teeth, Barry Sheen dropping by with a helmet; as do rejected prizes, used to taunt the contestants’ bad choices, and reading like the estate sale of a recently assassinated South American drug lord. This is the show that once gave away a live dog, and unclaimed prizes this week include a pair of motorbikes (almost crashed by a very nervous hostess), a £1250 handmade Chinese carpet, and a home sauna so big it has to be towed into the studio on an airport car. They do avoid the booby prize, as Dusty comes out in a cape with fangs drawn on and rubber bats attached to his lid. “He’s gone bats,” jokes Ted, pulling out a skull with a “must’ve come out of a scullery!

A ceramic Dusty Bin’s presented as a leaving gift for Duggie, off to star in his own sitcom, the most 1978-named sitcom of all time, Take My Wife, and then, with the luck of the Devil himself, the players actually win the car, a gross little poo-coloured thing. Keeping with the theme, we hop forwards to 1982, in an episode themed ‘Spine Chillers’. Now into a new decade, Ted practically dances his way down a staircase to shake the hands of old ladies in the aisle seats. His hair’s a boot polish black, and he just about nails a proper 3-2-1. In a running count for the episode, I pegged it as two done correctly, one completely wrong, and one half-arsed. But it’s looking good for Halloween, with Dusty done up in a big green Frankenstein head, and his handler, a “lovely lady” in a dress promising “some very scary surprises!” Hope Dusty’s not been sat outside Dennis Nilsen’s back door.

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Meeting the contestants, it’s amazing how much fashions have simmered down in the intervening four years, transforming everyone from disco pimps to middle managers on a picnic. Ted reads off a piece of paper to introduce Martin and Michelle, and then seems to doubt himself. “Okay, Michelle… sorry, Michelle, isn’t it? Martin and Michelle. Michelle…” The quizzes have been streamlined, having to give the first name of actors while Ted throws surnames at them. Our opening sketch centres on two tourists in Transylvania. “They’re about to check out a blood count,” says Ted, unnecessarily adding in a Bela Lugosi voice “Count Dracula!

As with all the skits, it’s a crazily expansive set, decently recreating Tod Browning’s 1931 film, but wasted on a caped Henry McGee making puns about “wanting a bite” and singing “fangs for the memories!” which is a vampire joke I feel like I saw in a thousand Whizzer and Chips as a kid. Roundly, the most frightening thing on display is the amount of effort and resources, like an elaborate musical number about two bats — “oh what fun we have at midnight, we are definitely bats!” — which has a lengthy dance break with vamp ladies in negligees, like Pan’s People choreographed by Aleister Crowley, and a visual gag of a bat tap dancing with actual sink taps on his feet. It’s after a sketch where Quasimodo meets David Bellamy when I find myself punching the air at the greatest academic achievement of my life.

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If the pit or the pendulum were your choice, you might leave empty handed, if your brains aren’t ticking over, with a minute prize you’ll be landed.” Alright, so… ticking. Pendulum. Minute (meaning small) but spelled the same as minute (time). Empty handed, i.e. not a watch. It’s a grandfather clock! Eat my dick, Ted Rogers, I’m the smartest man alive! The stupid contestants think it might be a holiday to Kenya, but we’ll see who’s right.

Before that can happen, players miss out on silver candlesticks and assorted silverware, though Ted softens the blow by telling the wife it would’ve been a lot of polishing for her. Then there’s a doomy magic trick with magician Jeffery [sic] Atkins, whose assistant is another elderly man, hypnotising a screaming woman and burning her alive in a box. It’s pretty naff, with quite clearly enough room for her to be safely laying in the bottom, but they win me over spectacularly when opening the box for this reveal.

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They drop a broach on Ted’s table, with the clue “The lady’s not for burning, we’ve let the fire go out, within the dying embers, you may see what it’s all about.” Thatcher’s ashes? Let Ted walk us through it. Put the words “dying embers” together, and look at the new word you get. Gem, like the diamanté broach, which has the same initials as something you put ashes in — Dusty Bin.

You know, occasionally in my work rooting through pop culture’s time-hardened cesspit, I’ll come across something that’s formed from such an intense combination of my own interests, previous posts, and personal back catalogue of in-jokes, I worry I’m dreaming away my years in a coma. What happens next induces the strongest sensation yet of having fallen and hit my head while exploring the ruins of Blobbyland, and remaining unconscious ever since. The final sketch is launched via Ted doing a noise. It’s been a while, and perhaps we’ve all grown complacent, but he’s never truly gone, always lurking under the nation’s collective bed, waiting to cameo on old telly, leaping out like Freddy Krueger. That noise is the latest in a long-line of jump scares, as Ted makes the familiar ejaculating donkey bray while introducing a monster’s disco led by one “Boris Savile.” Happy Halloween, everyone! But this is just the beginning.

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In Top of the Chops, a dance floor overflows with boogying horror staples; Dracula, the Mummy, Quasimodo, various zombies, skeletons and ghouls, and Dusty Bin cosplaying as Frankenstein. The biggest wraith of all is a comedian in a blonde wig and cigar, doing Boris Karloff as Jimmy Savile. Savile lashes a cat of nine tails at ragged men chained to the wall, while running down a pun-heavy Top 10 — Fangs Ain’t What They Used To Be — before a handing over to a musical number by Franz Drac and the Hairy Monster, called Happy Birthday Frankenstein. The odd pronunciation of “Frankensteen” signals there’s a rhyme coming up, like in The Anfield Rap, when John Barnes says his name like “Bar-nes” to make it fit with “crowd go bananas.”

As we cut to Dracula and the Wolfman singing their song, I begin to tap out a joke about Wolfie looking like Dave Lee Travis, when I realise it actually is Dave Lee Travis. This is the second sketch on these pages where DLT’s been a werewolf, and with the added presence of Savile, it’s another double Yewtree; extra potent in this, the month of evil. Dave’s hamming it up so much, hotdogging and jigging about, that I pay little attention to Dracula, until it slowly dawns that, beneath the pale facepaint and widow’s peak, it’s him; it’s Mike Read. Ready’s only miming the guitar, unable to unleash the full rock star within, but giving it his best, with lyrics like “the nastiest monster we’ve ever seen, Happy Birthday, Frankenstein!” (called it) They head over to the treasure table, where Ted earnestly congratulates DLT for winning Pipe Smoker of the Year, as he pretends to bite into a contestant, before Mike tells him he’s writing a biography of The Shadows.

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Contestants reject the prize of double glazing, plus a holiday to “the land of the bat,” Transylvania, and Dracula’s castle. God, if I’d lost that, I’d have laid on the desk and begged Mike Read to chew straight through my neck. At least I have the pride of revealing that final riddle — “If the pit or the pendulum were your choice, you might leave empty handed, if your brains aren’t ticking over, with a minute prize you’ll be landed” — for the grandfather clock. Well, almost. It’s a wall-mounted clock and two gold watches, which must be a massive let-down when it’s all geared towards the car they’re obviously expecting. There’s no such disappointment for viewers, and even with its reputation, 3-2-1 is miles weirder than even history remembers, a combination of absolutely appalling comedy and cryptic riddles that seems to answer the question “what if the killer in Se7en was Syd Little?”

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, early access to my videos, my podcast, 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 or some PayPal cash.

Vampires Are Real (Sometimes)

•November 5, 2021 • 5 Comments

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[Previously in this series: Heartbeat’s Alien AbductionThe Waltons PoltergeistBaywatch Monsters & MermaidsAliens in Dukes of Hazzard and CHiPs]

Starsky & Hutch is the most 1970’s American thing that exists, with a wah-wah heavy funk soundtrack, an iconic car, chunky knitwear like what Giles Brandreth would wear to a swingers party, and a jive-talkin’ pimp so loveable, he presumably encouraged his ladies to unionise. This is the standard bearer for every buddy cop story that followed, and its pally banter, exchanging smiles and unafraid to give each other a matey pat on the shoulder, played in heavy contrast to the era’s arms-length machismo and ball-busting. Consequently, the two leads were derided by fragile Hollywood types at the time as being a bit… gay for their tastes, but nonetheless went onto spawn a thousand onscreen bromances.

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Kitsch as it seems now, the show wasn’t afraid to get gritty, with storylines where Starsky’s girlfriend was shot to death, a mentally-challenged woman got raped by a pair of thugs who’re released when the case is dropped, and a proto-Crank, where Starsky’s poisoned, and they’ve just 24 hours to track down who did it and find the antidote. One infamous episode saw Hutch abducted by mobsters who pumped him full of heroin, and was banned by the BBC for 25 years. They even did the requisite Charlie Manson plot, with cult leader villain of the week Simon Marcus; beard, upside down cross on forehead, blue courtroom jumpsuit. As an interesting sidebar (if you spent a decade working on a novel about Charles Manson), the actor portraying Marcus; the phenomenally-named Aesop Aquarian; lived with the Family at Spahn Ranch, until being approached by the girls to kill Manson’s trial judge and break him out. I should really do a series on the many pseudo-Manson episodes of American serials.

Even with the unavoidable absurdity which creeps into any show running for almost a hundred hours, the episode from October 30th, 1976 was atypically wacky. Ah, the night before Halloween, when the veil is not quite at its thinnest, but I guess thin enough that ghosts and witches can at least push their arses up against it for everyone to see, like a rugby player at his mate’s patio door. A monster tale titled The Vampire leaned in hard to the 70’s new-age boom, along with the simple desire for a good scare. For Brits at least, Starsky & Hutch is subliminally intertwined with spooky shit, having cameoed as posters on the wall of the classic Enfield Poltergeist ‘levitating, and definitely not jumping out of bed’ photos.

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The Vampire‘s certainly got the pedigree, sharing a director with Scream Blacula Scream and both Count Yorga films, and penned by the writing duo behind Poltergeist and a bunch of documentaries about alien abduction. We open on a scary full-moon, before a man wearing a puffy shirt in a candle-adorned attic promises a painting of a woman he’ll bring her back from death with his love. As he whips a cape around his shoulders, we see it’s the great John Saxon — Enter the Dragon; Nightmare on Elm Street — and he’s got a cracking pair of fangs. Then he’s watching a woman through a hedge, lightning illuminating his teeth, and her flares so big, she looks half-woman, half-Shire horse. And he attacks, running at his prey in the exact, exact manner of Bishop Brennan realising he’s been kicked up the arse.

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So, like Columbo, we know who did it, and it’s about waiting for them to figure it out. The lads are grooving away in Huggy Bear’s nightclub (he’s covering for a cousin who’s running a “frog ranch” in Venezuela), and hitting on a pair of hot twins, when they get a call from the captain. The body of a young woman’s been found; puncture wounds on the jugular, traces of human spit on the neck, and all her blood gone. They head to where she worked as a dancer; a club called Slade’s Cave, which is a monument to televisual pseudo-Satanism, faux-rock walls lit by candles, and a big mounted Devil head, as damned hippies lounge around on beanbags watching a half-dressed woman writhe. Slade’s played by Police Academy’s G.W. Bailey; a classic scuzzy burnout in a shark-tooth necklace, calling the cops pigs, and peppering every sentence with judicious use of “man…

Next lead is to the victim’s ballet class, lead by teacher Rene Nadasy (which seems like an anagram, but isn’t, besides the rubbish Ensnared Ya) who’s John Saxon with normal teeth, and slowly hobbling on a cane, inside an unbelievably tight polo neck. It’s broad daylight, and he’s visible in the mirror so… does he even belong on our list of the genuine paranormal? Distraught to hear of the death of his student, he points at another painting on the studio wall, of a ballerina — “that’s my late wife. She died recently too…” The deal here is that Starsky (wearing garlic around his neck) is convinced the killer is a vampire, because “these are modern times, anything’s possible… they’re landing cameras on Mars and taking pictures. Girls are trying out for football teams!” — whereas Hutch is sceptical and pragmatic, tracking down asylum escapees and “blood fetishists.

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Soon, vampire fever’s sweeping the city, with Huggy selling protection kits of a stake and crucifix, and hooking them up with a palm-reader called Guybo, who’s “heavy into the occult and Devil worship trip.” Guybo’s pad is another production designer’s dream; candles, wind-chimes and incense; a crystal ball and skull; questionable African masks and a statue of Vishnu, plus some spooooky rattle drums like from Karate Kid 2. Hutch gives Starsky a fright with a werewolf mask as Guybo enters through a beaded curtain, telling them “some Satanists” led by a man called Seethes hold ceremonies where everyone paints each other’s naked bodies with blood under a full moon. Honestly, that’s the thing I’ve missed the most during Covid.

Back at the ballet studio, Saxon’s eye is caught by the lovely neck of a student, whom he stalks to a parking garage. The lads; following reports of a caped prowler; interrupt his blood-sucking and give chase up to the roof, where he leaps to his escape quite supernaturally — “he flew 25 feet!” And we’re back in the game! Despite all the death, it’s way more comedic than I anticipated, perhaps getting muddled in my mind with The Professionals, as local weirdos falsely confess to being the vampire, including a nerdy Woody Allen type in a red cape calling himself Supergnat. They lean on Saxon, who says he’s had the bum leg since ’61, cutting short a promising ballet career, with a cast-iron alibi for his movements.

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With Saxon out of the frame, they turn up that Seethes is an alias for Slade, who’s “heavy into the Satanic rituals.” Without a warrant, they sneak into his bedroom, which looks like when Aleister Crowley stood in for Handy Andy on Changing Rooms, with more candles, and a nude Suzanne Somers passed out beneath a stained glass window of Baphomet. There’s a cape in the wardrobe, plus a jam jar of red liquid, so they bring him in. Slade explains the blood was just a goat’s, man, and the Satanic ceremonies are a scam aimed at gullible goths. “It’s a living! I got a bank account with 6 figures, how you doin’ sweetheart?” Not great, honestly. I’m clearly in the wrong game, and will be launching a new ‘standing outside in the nip while covered in goat-blood’ Patreon tier forthwith. Who’s in?

But the boys have a new theory. “We think he turned someone on with that blood Devil ritual, only whoever he turned on, turned on all the way and flipped out!” Succinctly put. They recognise Saxon’s wife in a photo from one of the ceremonies, and chase him to the theatre, where he’s lured Suzanne Somers, as the final kill to somehow bring his wife back to life. What follows is two whole minutes of vigorous ballet leaping, with Saxon’s body double, cloak twirling, performing a solo interpretive mating dance to an empty theatre. What a glorious portrait John Saxon is, of masculinity in all its shades; one moment, beating up henchmen with Bruce Lee, and the next, showing off elegant double cabriole derrière like Wayne Sleep at the Royal Variety.

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He goes for the killing bite just as they burst in, hauling up the gantry on a rope, and throwing sandbags at them like Donkey Kong. The climactic fight takes place in the ceiling, with stunt doubles in bad wigs swinging on ropes to a funk-rock soundtrack laden with tiger growls. After trying to bite Starsky, Saxon falls, cape spreading majestically in slow motion, but dies when he hits the ground, having not bothered turning into a bat or owt. Back at Huggy’s, they chat up the hot twins, and for a laugh, Starsky makes them jump with some plastic fangs.

They seem to have happily settled on vampires not being real, and that the killer was just ‘deranged’, but I’m not convinced. We saw him fly off the roof, and could joke shop fangs exert enough bite pressure to kill somebody? Plus, he did drink all that blood and not get sick, and his alibis checked out, including the crippling injury. Did he get turned after wrecking his leg, but Keyser Sozed it to hide that it’d healed? It’s never explained how he planned to revive his wife by murdering, nor why she was pictured at Slade’s ritual, when there was no connection between the pair. But more importantly, multiple times through writing this, I accidentally typed ‘Starkey’, and had to take five minutes to push away the mental picture of David Starkey holding a candelabra while addressing Huggy Bear with the most appalling slurs.

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There’s no such ambiguity with our next case study, an episode of Diagnosis Murder called The Bela Lugosi Blues. Originally a spin-off from the brilliantly Ronseal-titled Jake and the Fatman, the show featuring (best man in the world) Dick Van Dyke as Dr. Mark Sloan ran for a staggering 18 years and 179 episodes, plus five TV movies — all of which seemed to be the only thing on BBC1 during naughties’ afternoons. Stick a pin in any of the synopsis and you’ll land on something golden; a hitman is exposed to the bubonic plague; a rock star’s wife believes he was murdered by an alien; Dr. Sloan switches places with an exact double who’s a gangster; one simply called Murder at the Telethon. Or regard Rear Windows 98, which opens with the murder of Web 1.0 celebrity JenniCam playing herself, and its final regular episode, a parody called The Blair Nurse Project, during which the hospital may be haunted. Bela Lugosi Blues aired on a rather unfestive January 6, 1995, but this is my Patreon, where every day is Halloween.

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Opening shot’s the same as Starsky & Hutch‘s, showing wispy clouds over a full moon, as a woman in a flowing dress runs across a misty field, pursued by the slow strides of a man in a cape. He dramatically unlocks a wooden box, but then — what-ho! — she’s not the helpless victim after all, and advances on him as he stumbles backwards in fear. The camera rises into the sky and we see only the moon over the sound of his horrible screams. Cut to some delightful opening titles, which lay out the character of Mark Sloan via highlight reel of Dick Van Dyke; sneaking, investigating, bound and gagged, cowering from a gun, accidentally shooting a different gun, accompanying a lovely lady to a party, bound and gagged again (this time into an office chair that’s being rolled down the street), panicking at a saucepan fire, and finally, smiling from behind some balloons. Live forever, Dick, I demand it.

DVD’s main co-stars are Scott Baio (presently part of the Trump bois actors posse with Kevin Sorbo and Dean Cain), and real-life hunky son Barry Van Dyke, who plays his fictional hunky son, a policeman. This is another of those ‘busybody who isn’t a cop solving crimes for some reason’ shows, and Dick’s son lets him read the file of the man found bludgeoned in the park, missing all his blood, even letting pop poke around in the mysterious wooden box. Perfectly fine to give your dad the evidence for an ongoing, unsolved murder. Meanwhile, Scott Baio — fellow doctor at the inventively named Community General Hospital — has been voted as one of LA’s most eligible bachelors in Empire Magazine. Note, this is the only time professional actor Scott Baio has ever been in Empire.

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The bachelor contest launch party; waited on by sexy ladies in suit jackets but no trousers; is held at the lavish mansion of publisher and snidey nob-ache, Ivan Bock. Baio’s collared by Mariah Thomas, who’s both the magazine’s editor, and our killer from the opening scene. She introduces all the hunks using conspicuously-worded phrases like “now you’ve sampled the appetisers, it’s time you feasted on the main course… these delectable morsels,” and might as well be holding a knife and fork with a half-chewed dick on the end. Mariah describes people solely with food words, and by my count, says “dessert” at least half a dozen times while hornily pawing at some poor young chap. Baio’s competitors are a financier (Jackie Chiles from Seinfeld), a singer, and star player from the LA Flames (played by the guy who was Faceman in the A-Team pilot before being recast); a team owned by Bock.

As the ball winds down, Baio and Mariah slow-dance in front of the fire, with a tell-tale flicker of candles on the mantle signalling the occult must be near! “You’re quite something, doctor. I think I’ll save you for dessert.” EAT PEOPLE, DO YOU, YEAH?! The singer hunk cuts in, and they trade more innuendo about being “hungry” and “famished,” and soon, more death-screams are coming from the bedroom. The singer’s body is found behind a taco stand the next morning, drained of blood, and with small puncture marks on the neck. Here, Diagnosis Murder‘s approach of chirpily investigating grisly murders is summed up in a single dialogue exchange between father and son. “Steve, I wanna see those bodies.” “I thought you’d never ask!

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The Van Dyke Boys interrupt another bachelor event, nosying around Bock’s mansion, where Mariah’s mysteriously absent during the daytime, and they find a coffin inside an off-limits storage room. Just a perfectly innocent prop, says Bock; “every Halloween, I give a benefit for crippled children.” When Dick goes to open it, Bock pretends to fall over, faking an injury as distraction. All this, plus the lack of mirrors has Dick thinking vampire, and following another fucking bachelor event and more wink-wink dialogue about how “famished” she is, Faceman’s found dead in a dumpster by some binmen. Dick illegally breaks into Bock’s mansion for another wander, dramatically pulling back curtains to reveal there’s nothing behind them, and quite possibly doing a big poo in the toilet, although they don’t show it. Eventually he finds the coffin, which is also empty.

But Baio’s happy as Larry, all his hunk competition dead, and due to get his hole after a dinner date with Mariah tonight. “If things go well, I’m gonna be dessert!” Christ, now he’s at it. He laughs off Dick’s warning she’s a vampire for more slow-dancing in front of the fire. “I’m hungry,” she says. Baio replies “I’m saving myself for dessert.” Oh, give it a rest. “I could go for a little Italian… I like to eat in.” She directs him to the bedroom, with the instruction “get naked,” and as she ascends the stairs for the kill, Dick Van Helsing rings the doorbell.

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Here, we get an exposition dump. She was killing the hunks so Ivan Bock could cash a $20m life insurance policy on the football player, in exchange for a valid passport, as hers expired in 1938. Yes, she’s a real, centuries old vampire, although doesn’t sleep in a coffin (why did Bock pretend to fall over then?). She demonstrates her vampiric strength by hurling Dick across the room, in an impact that would’ve killed him, and then… she flies. “Holy mother of God…” mutters the elderly Dick Van Dyke, before being chucked into the wall again (with a stunt double that looks about twenty, in the sort of fake tash you’d get out of a Christmas cracker). Scott Baio breaks a broom handle over her back, but gets tossed too. “You don’t mind if I start with dessert, do you, doctor?” But as she levitates across to feast on Baio, Mariah accidentally impales herself on the broken broom; albeit in the stomach and not the heart, and as her voice goes all demonic, she dies, but doesn’t turn to ash or anything.

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As a postscript, the DA’s got such a strong case against Bock, he’s likely headed to death row, while Dyke Jr has the mysterious wooden box, and “asked the crime lab to try and reconstruct what was in it” — you wot m8? Through, I guess, fucking magic, they’ve ‘reconstructed’ the contents, as an intricately carved wooden stake. Dick and Scott Baio exchange a look; the sort of look that only comes from a shared experience nobody else could understand; a secret look containing but a single, unspoken word. Dessert.

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, early access to my videos, my podcast, 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 or some PayPal cash.

Prime Time Purgatory: You Bet

•October 22, 2021 • Leave a Comment

This video first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could watch 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, early access to my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s over 500,000 words 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 or some PayPal cash.

GamesMaster IV: The Gladiators

•October 16, 2021 • 6 Comments

[GamesMaster: Part IGamesMaster Part IIBad InfluenceGamesmaster: Part III]

In my role of dissecting 90’s TV which seemed fine at the time, but now feels completely unhinged, Gladiators sits as the suspiciously-vascular elephant in the room. On the surface, it’s an odd omission, as there’s nothing more on-brand, as a hybrid of two regular points of reference; pro wrestling and John Fashanu. But the actual show is too on the nose; too over-discussed. Tabloids pump out cast reunions and ‘Where Are They Now’s on a weekly basis, and pictures of Wolf are now at home in Facebook memes with a million likes; his straggly hair and claw-like hands cited alongside playing out after dark, Ro-land, and cheap Freddos as iconography from the pre-snowflake Britain when everything was great, which “if you remember this, you had a brilliant childhood!” Yes, the past was weird and I like to pick it apart, but I’m not Richard Blackwood on Channel 5’s Telly We All Loved, Didn’t We, Mate? Fortunately, there is another way in without having to sit through hours of bodybuilder school sports day, while trying really hard not to be lecherous over Jet humping a fitness instructor off some rings. Such was their massive popularity, the Gladiators made a ton of guest appearances on other shows, many of which occurred on GamesMaster.

To my great distress, we first must return to the era of Victorian goblin, Dexter Fletcher, who pushes through the live audience and down the steel gantries of Oxford Prison with the manner of a man being rushed out of court with a jacket over his head. He slides the last few feet down the bannister on his arse, as kids toot air-horns and bang metal cups against the bars, like they’re just back from throwing a face-full of boiling sugar over a nonce. After calling for quiet with one of those loud whistles where you bite down on your lip, the way you’d signal the 5-0 are coming, Fletcher informs us this is a “special sports edition.” The Gladiators were the premier athletes of their day, and opening challenge is James Pond’s Crazy Sports on the SNES, which I believe is set to be an event at the next Olympics.

Fletcher does the old “argh!” and dropping to his knees in mock agony when shaking hands with the biggest teen (who looks about 30), and our presenter’s very presence — Artful Dodger via someone banned from every ground in the country for throwing batteries — seems to engender an aggressive atmosphere. Young players cut cocky promos on each other; the little kid bragging “I’ve got an Amiga at home, I’m a dab hand at it… I can rock and roll now,” the girl replying “I’m gonna stuff him,” and big lad simply waggling his fingers with a promise “these two are gonna do it all for me.” And not so much as a look to camera from Fletcher, as was guaranteed with Dominik Diamond; eyebrows raised to imply that fingers might also go inside a lady or up a bottom. Similarly, his co-commentator’s lines about steady rhythm and peaking too soon go whizzing past, exposing such a blind-spot for innuendo, I’d be shocked if Dexter Fletcher’s even aware of his own nob. “Bleedin’ ell, guv, wos that in me grundies?! Some kind of sausage wot’s alive? It’s spraying all hot yellow water out the end! Tastes disgustin’, bettah get a cork…”

Gaming commences with a cry of “ARE YA READY, SUNSHINE?” and some controversy. There are times GamesMaster feels oddly fake, demonstrated here when Big Boy uses a cheat to fire himself halfway down the track in a cannon, before proceeding to hit every obstacle and come dead last anyway. In the post-game humiliation, Little Kid fumbles over the zinger “I proved that steroids just isn’t the answer, Ben Johnson!” and for the shame of cheating and losing, Patrick Moore (whose bits are all pre-recorded ages ago) orders the cheat “off to the furnaces with you,” as he’s led away by a Mad Max-looking muscleman in a welder’s mask.

But we’re here for the Gladiators Supreme Challenge, which plays out over three episodes, in a tournament of Clayfighter for the SNES. We lead with Shadow verses Falcon, and ITV’s finest are in their work outfits, with Shadow in a lovely sports bra over his pecs, Gladiators emblem medallion, and cock and balls visibly jiggling as he jogs down the stairs. He’s also wearing a bumbag, I guess in case he needs to pop an emergency steroid in the five minutes he’s onstage. Falcon’s mullet is absolutely spectacular; the classic ‘your GCSE German teacher in the 90s’, and she seems especially underdressed next to the jumpsuited Fletcher, in one of those high-cut (and low-cut) leotards rendering her a woman stood in swimwear in the middle of a grotty prison. Shadow’s got experience here, having triumphing over Jet in the previous series, and wins in straight sets, with the same wide-eyed death-stare that made postmen and part-time children’s football coaches shit themselves on the Duel platform. When they stand up out of their gaming seats for the walk back to Dex, the camera’s so far up their cracks, it’s basically an endoscope.

Kids in the sports challenge final go hard on the banter. The smallest one brags “I’m the pioneer of joystick waggling,” before his opponent burns him with “say hello to Napoleon when you see him,” like it’s bloody 8 Mile. Again, imagine what Dominik would’ve done with the joystick waggling line, as we’re left with Dexter Fletcher chuckling a “well, there ya go!” Fletcher’s patter is dire, with zero ability to improvise, and all banter coming off like small talk with your neighbour when you’re putting the bins out. He asks one kid if he’s got a computer at home, and they reply yes, a Sega Megadrive. “Sega Megadrive? Is that quite good?” Alright, Johnny Carson. So lacking in response is Dex, “good stuff” ends up being an inadvertent catchphrase. In watching multiple episodes, his shortcomings stick out like a bee-stung beller, with even his links first-draft basic, like “somefing for everyone in those reviews!” (in more than one episode). Even though he’s in his twenties, he’s that meme of Steve Buscemi with a skateboard, and when saying stuff like “we all like to spend a little while on the old games console,” it sounds like a mate’s uncle telling you he’s just downloaded an app called ‘eye-something-or-other’ that lets him listen to Paul Weller on his phone.

Dexter’s lone personal stamp is the weekly sign-off, in the form of celebrity quotes, and this week’s is “in the words of Andre Agassi, ‘always keep your eye on your balls, man’ bye!” The following episode opens with speedruns of Mr. Nutz on the SNES, with the youngest contestant I’ve ever seen; a tiny, tiny boy, dubbed Tom Thumb by Fletcher, who’s so terrified when a mic’s poked in his face, he can barely speak. With Dave Perry watching on — stars ‘n’ stripes bandana, gold earring, sleeveless shirt tucked into jeans — Tom Thumb chews his own lip with concentration before getting eliminated, and post-match, mumbles “shut up, stupid” to Fletcher, who responds “d’you wanna fight, mate?!” The self-serious Perry is a heavy presence this series, carrying himself like he thinks girls are watching his every move, and too cool for babyish stuff like Fantastic Dizzy — “I mean, the guy’s an egg, how interesting can that get?” Yeah, I bet he’s never even popped a wheelie.

Everything’s broken up with your weekly GamesMaster weirdness, like a Consoletation Zone child with an American accent who pronounces SNES as “suh-ness.” The tips sections are where you’ll find the subversive moments, with Tom Thumb returning to nervously ask for a shortcut on the game he just lost at — Moore: “a pity you didn’t know that earlier on, eh?” — to another kid who’s only visible as the top of a head until Moore adjusts his viewing eye. One man’s forced to repeatedly beg for help on Mortal Kombat, told to go away until the GamesMaster relents; “oh, that’s excellent, GamesMaster, fanks!” There’s a small feature about a home automation system, which is merely a four-way extension lead with an on/off remote — it’s the space age! — and ‘Games Animal’ Perry bemoans a poor Gameboy adaptation of Garfield, which really lets down fans of the comic. Hey, come back girls; where are you going?!

Second round of our Gladiators challenge sees “colossal” Cobra versus “sexy” Scorpio (to be fair, she is outrageously attractive, although anyone would look their best stood next to Dexter Fletcher). Like Shadow, Cobra’s got a bumbag too, which suggests a deliberate attempt by production to cover up the male Glads’ genitals. However, the way they sit right above the bulges just further highlights them, like balancing a hat on it, while the females are afforded no such luxuries to shield their cameltoes. Cobra’s role in Gladiators was class clown, with a great line in quips and eyebrow-raising reaction faces, as second favourite of all the mums, behind that big unit, Saracen. He demonstrates why he was the jacked-up 90’s James Acaster by quipping that “if we was boxers, she’d be Mike Tyson, I’d be Julian Clary!” Indeed, he’s got the give-away non-gamer stance of holding the controller right up in the air by his head, and Scorpio beats him by spamming a low kick. “I was about as fast as a paraplegic tortoise!” says Cobra. Channel 4 must still have his number; get him on Taskmaster!

As Dexter sends them off, he calls Scorpio Shadow, but nobody picks up on it. When they return the following week, Shadow takes it, beating Scorp 2-1, which puts him just three awards shy of a rare EGOT, (Emmy, GamesMaster Golden Joystick, Oscar, Tony). Although, considering how his life went after getting fired for roids; recently jailed six years for kidnap and torture; it was likely either pawned off or threateningly brandished. In non-Gladiators stuff, a beat-em-up special brings together — supposedly — the four best Street Fighter II players in the country, including one nerd who’s cosplaying as David Sowerbutts and brings along a big hardback atlas — “it’s to hold my control pad.” The book is a powerful advantage, and he crushes his opponent in about half a second. Fletcher’s post-match interview with the loser is really something.

Dexter: “Was it a tough battle?

Loser: “Quite.”

Dexter: “Quite a tough battle, okay, good stuff…

The final begins with Fletcher asking; in identical tone to Linton Travel Tavern staff enquiring of Partridge whether he’s got his big plate; “got your lucky book?” to which Sowerbutts replies “certainly is.” Things take a bit of a turn in the commentary booth, when Fletcher notes the players “look very similar to their characters,” one of whom is, let’s be blunt, a great big fat fella. Book-Boy wins, and in the closing chat, Fletcher outright tells him he bears an uncanny resemblance to the character they literally just described as “the big fat character, the fattest,” and he leaves with a Golden Joystick under one arm, atlas under the other. For history’s sake, we should make note of Fletcher’s sign-offs, one from Parkinson’s sufferer Muhammad Ali — “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, end up wiv brain damage indefinitely!” — and another purportedly quoting Jean-Claude Van Damme (who is Belgian); “Ich bin ein Berliner, auf wiedersehen, baby!

Unfortunately, we must endure yet more Dexter Fletcher, with an episode from later that series, after they’d been booted from the prison, and switched filming to the cramped space of Clerkenwell House of Detention. Part of the ongoing team challenge, three rowdy trios in different-coloured baseball caps strut on like chimpanzees about to fuck each other’s eyes out for territory. In red, we’ve got the Dream Team, “a lairy bunch of lads” who give big-ups to the Canvey Posse and find the place is too small to unfurl a banner. Charlton Crew are in yellow, one of whom Fletcher steps on as they come out, while Team Perfection claim they’re gonna kick arse. “Dunno if you can say that,” says a nervous Dex, “but you just did.”

Team challenges include Empire Strikes Back on the SNES, and a pinball game bouncing balls off a pair of Amazonian warrior women in metal bikinis to defeat an evil tree, with commentary that makes it unwatchable; Perry showing off by shouting play-by-play, while simultaneously Fletcher talks to himself at the top of his lungs; “AW BLAST ‘IM! WICKED! CHOP IT UP!” and hums the Star Wars theme. But these shows move at a clip, and soon it’s the celebrities, with guest player, the Games Mistress. “Hold on?” you cry, inspired by the wild cockneyness of Dexter Fletcher, “ain’t this a bleedin’ Gladiators special? I’m gonna shove one of Dave Courtney’s straight-to-DVD gangster films right up your ‘arris for tellin’ me porky pies!” Settle down, as the Games Mistress is better known as Jet, from Sky’s Games World series, in an exciting televisual crossover.

Under her nom de plume, and with no mention of Gladiators, she’s allowed to wear an actual dress, rather than clothed like she’s rescuing a brick in the swimming gala, and enters to a cacophony of horny teenage wolf whistles. Jet shows Fletcher how it’s meant to be done, with “I like nothing better than frolicking with my consoles!” Of course, Fletcher can only laugh with an “okay, well…” Weirdly, though she gets to play, Jet’s also the prize for two audience members, who’ll be competing for a date with her. Picking the lads herself, every hand shoots towards the ceiling with a manic “ME! ME! ME!” and she selects a couple of spods who both look like a child’s drawing of Louis Theroux.

I’m not sure on the legality of a grown woman going on a date with a 13-year-old, but it’s contested over Megadrive light-gun game, Lethal Enforcers. “Don’t kill no citizens!” warns Fletcher, in the sort of American accent even Eddie Large would be ashamed of. This is 90’s tech, so players have the gun half an inch from the screen, and Jet accidentally shoots a cop within the first two seconds, followed by an innocent old man. She is terrible, but blows across the barrel as if it’s smoking, and I’ll hear no bad words against her. Quite understandably, Theroux #2 completely falls apart with Jet stood there, massacring every civilian in a panic before dying with no points, and having to watch as Jet leads the other boy away through the cheering crowd. I’d genuinely love to know what this dream date consisted of; presumably a quick burger in the green room, trying not to get a lobber with his parents sat there.

It’s here we say goodbye to the gargoyle stylings of Dexter Fletcher, for a welcome return to Dominik, in our first visit to series 5, with an episode from November ’95. Opening titles see Dom flattened by a bus as he exits a chippy, life flashing before his eyes as surgeons battle to save his life; a bully pushing him over in school; a teacher yelling “you’ll never amount to anything!”; getting caught cheating in a nightclub and being slapped. Dom flatlines, as a green mist rises from his chest into a tunnel of light, coming out the other side to meet the giant head of Patrick Moore; big white beard, crown, and lightning shooting from his eyes. The series title is held aloft by golden cherubs, “New GamesMaster: Born Again.”

The set’s halfway between Heaven and Mount Olympus (albeit on a tea-time Channel 4 budget), with shrubbery, white clouds swirling against a clear blue sky, and hot model angels in togas, while players enter down a golden CG entranceway, lined with clone-stamped trumpeters. Dominik’s at the midpoint in his evolution here, still with most of his hair, and with stubble and a sprig of chest hair poking up above his enormous, open collar. The celebrity challenge is titled “Gladiators? Hard? Don’t make me laugh!” with the Glads facing off against members of the public in two rounds of fighting games. After the mandatory joke about spandex, out come Cobra and Panther.

Times have changed in the last two years, as they’re wearing jackets and shorts, and aren’t being forced to stand there with the indents of their urethras visible to anyone with a big enough screen. Notable here is the meeting of Cobra and Dom; the two styles of comedy. It’s Joe Pasquale vs. Bill Hicks; McIntyre vs. Manning. Dom asks how many chickens you have to eat to get that jacked, to which Cobra replies “I used to eat ten chickens a day, but it was too fowl!” before turning to the camera with a beautiful Cobra look — pre-dating Tim/Jim from The Office by some years — which Dom’s very amused by. In fact, there’s a great rapport between the three, and I’m a little blindsided, expecting sneering piss-taking, but getting a lovely chat. It’s so matey, Dom breaks kayfabe by casually addressing them as Mick and Helen, before asking Cobra for some muscle measurements, with big man reeling off chest, biceps and legs, with a cheeky “I think I’d better stop there.” Dominik does put them on the spot, asking when Wolf’s going to retire, “because he is 74 years old now,” but Cobra agrees; “he looks like Max Wall’s love child, doesn’t he?” — a joke and reference Dom bloody loves. There’s more conversation here than a whole series of Dexter Fletcher, and as he makes improv comedy magic with another great wit, one can witness the cynicism falling from Dominik’s eyes in real time.

Away from his new friends, he reverts to type in the news section. “The machine’s more fun than my mum… details for the launch are more secret than my pants,” plus another reference to pants being soiled. There’s a bit about Spielberg launching a computer service allowing terminally ill children to play games with each other from different hospitals; a CD-ROM of the week, which is another ‘edit clips together into a film’ be-the-director jobs; and an excursion to the Wing Commander IV set in LA, for sit-downs with Mark Hamill (a polite joy) and Biff from Back to the Future, during which Dom implies that he and Michael J. Fox fisted each other on set.

A teenage girl and boy contest the Gladiators challenge, as Dom tries to hook her up with Cobra, which is probably how Epstein got started. She takes on Panther in Victory Boxing for the Saturn, as Dominik refers to kidney punches as “some top lady-on-lady lower body action,” and Cobra jokingly threatens his opponent in the background. Panther gets TKOed, and in the post-match interview, Cobra simply cannot stop mucking about, leaning over and tapping the boy on the head. We return from a feature to find the Gladiators getting choked and yanked around by the teens, with Cobra doing some great comedy selling, really emphasising how he missed his true calling as a Santino Morella style comedy wrestler.

Fittingly, they must’ve heard me, as his turn is on the Wrestlemania game, playing as “a great big fat bloke” (Yokozuna) versus Doink the Clown, who he could’ve been in real life. He does the job 2-1, with Dom concluding that “Cobra is soft,” and the kids get one Golden Joystick to share between them. With one final joke about Mick’s spandex, we’ve finally tackled the cultural behemoth of Gladiators, with minimal horniness and not a single awooga.

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, early access to my videos, my podcast, 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 or some PayPal cash.

Saturday Morning Archeology – The Saturday Starship

•October 5, 2021 • 3 Comments

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[previous: Saturday SuperstoreMulti-Coloured Swap ShopWOW!]

Continuing our root around in the Saturday morning shows, it’s back to 1984, when Star Wars was still hot shit, so ITV stuck Tommy Boyd in a spaceship. Think The Mandalorian, except instead of Baby Yoda, Boyd’s tiny sidekick is Bonnie Langford, who somehow remains endlessly energetic and chirpy in the face of some absolutely dire content. Boyd had been drafted in from TISWAS replacement, The Saturday Show, and while former child star Langford was a familiar face onscreen, this was her first full-time hosting gig. Incidentally, the funniest typo I’ve ever seen erroneously named the Crystal Tipps-haired, ten-stone DJ “Tommy Body.”

An episode airing on October 6th begins with Tron-like credits, hurling stars and geometric shapes at the screen, before the pair welcome us from the bridge of the titular Starship. Well, a tiny desk with some lights on it, a single 5-inch CRT monitor, and a control panel that literally appears to have been pulled off a producer’s old boat, with a Words and Pictures school-tech aesthetic. At one point, Boyd sits on it but quickly hops off when the entire thing starts tipping over. In comparison to Parallel 9, this is low Saturday morning sci-fi, with Boyd in very un-spacey jeans and a yellow shirt, and Bonnie in arm warmers and leg warmers. I suppose it is cold up there. But we do cut to breaks with “end of phase one” instead of ‘part’ and there’s a HAL 9000 computer called Earth Eye, which squawks at them with a high pitched voice, like Pinky Punky through an effects pedal.

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Boyd sends us back to Earth for our first musical performance, promising it’s “really, really ultra totally live,” and who else would it be in this show aimed at small children but Motörhead? They’re playing on an outdoor stage for a crowd of adult toughies in denim jackets, all stood motionless with their hands in their pockets as a sea of blue backs. In close-ups on Lemmy, in his trademark stage posture of straining up at the microphone like a thirsty hamster, you can see an empty waste ground behind them, all under the shadow of a grimly Scarfolk multi-storey. With five numbers over the show, you basically get a full festival concert, though Boyd intros every song with the wrong title, suggesting they really are live, and bravely running the risk of Lemmy saying fuck or fannies on kids TV for a laugh.

After growled lyrics about “the Devil’s kiss” and “prepare to die,” with a ciggie hanging out of the drummer’s mouth, they bring what I take to be a squeaky-voiced teen out of the crowd. But an overexcited smoke machine has turned the entire stage into Silent Hill, choking the poor lad, as a presenter splutters “Oh God, are you there, mother? Can you see us?” Only when it’s finally cleared is this ‘teen’ revealed to be a young Timmy Mallett, promoting his brand new show, The Wide Awake Club, while Motörhead pull faces behind his back. This pre-dates the finalisation of the Mallett brand, and Timmy’s dressed like a normal bloke; tracksuit, regular-sized glasses, no funny hat, no hammer. He doesn’t go “blurgh!” once. It’s really jarring to see behind the curtain, like coming across an old picture of a cool mate on their parents’ mantle, with a bowl cut and shark tooth necklace, before they reinvented themselves at Uni. Except, the opposite.

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From Lemmy screaming the words “killed by death!” over and over again, it’s back to Tommy Boyd and his curly mullet, asking if we’ve heard what Thatcher’s been saying; that kids need parental guidance instead of money? This is a prelude to the Hellbeast herself turning up, in the form of improbably-named comedy impressionist Fogwell Flax, in a towering wig and pearl necklace. Fake-Thatcher spends the show complaining about modern Britain’s loose morals and belting Boyd with her handbag, with incredible gags like “I’m free on Saturday mornings. I’m an AM PM!

Cartoons come in the form of random scenes from Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats, which is less weird when you realise they’re respectively still 6 and 11 years from a VHS release in the UK, and thus a rare commodity. Similarly, there’s a montage from the year’s biggest movie, Temple of Doom — supposedly cut together by Spielberg himself — complete with snake eating and monkey brains at 10am on a Saturday morning, which must’ve been a pretty nifty way to promote movies back then, having shown one the previous week for Ghostbusters.

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Back from the toons, bearded Rory McGrath-alike presenter Nigel Roberts mans a mildly futuristic bar — a Blue Peter Mos Eisley — with kids sat around on cafe tables, along with The Jets, Alison Moyet, two blokes from Madness, and Feargal Sharkey, all looking down at the floor and trying not to laugh when they catch each other’s eye. This is classic pre-boyband, ‘proper musicians forced onto kids shows’ television, although ironically, one of the groups there is called Boyzone, but not the Boyzone, rather, an 80’s duo who are now impossible to Google, due to the threat of accidentally coming across Ronan Keating and instantly dying of boredom.

While the celebrities wait by patiently, Roberts leads a room full of children through a cooking segment. And I do mean full. Saturday Starship‘s defining quality is just how many children they pack into the studio, with the little blighters filling every available inch of screen, having been piled onto set like the end of the aforementioned Temple of Doom, when they’re all running out of the slave mines. Roberts really earns his wage slip, in a long segment preceding the days when a crew’s off-camera laughter would fill the silence of dying jokes. As it’s the anniversary of the Sputnik, they’re making a “Spudnik. It’s good, isn’t it?” and Feargal Sharkey has to sit there for absolutely ages, as Roberts willies around shoving blue food colouring and tomato guts into a baked potato, resulting in this horrifying thing.

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Thatcher takes a big bite, then gobs the lot straight into the crowd of kids, before a Q&A session where monotone children read questions off clipboards. “Who was your best friend in school and what was his name?” A bloke from Madness quickly answers “Dick Mud!” before changing it to the less penisy “Barry Roberts.” Next guest is music video director Steve Barron, who went onto direct Coneheads and the 1990 TMNT movie, here to promote his debut, Electric Dreams. Like all guests, the very sleepy Barron, up all night working on a video for a young Canadian singer called Bryan Adams, is absolutely surrounded by children, breathing down his neck the whole time, their bored faces and little coughs, never once smiling or laughing. When 1950’s Diner Americana throwback band The Jets mime to their single, the surrounding semi-circle of weans gives an air of “Fight! Fight! Fight!” on the playground, and as an exuberant Bonnie tries to coerce the audience into dancing, she’s met with a wall of stony expressions from boys mortified by even seeing a sock-hop going on, let alone joining in, as the singer croons in an Elvis voice “I wanna make love to you…

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Bonnie reads out letters suggesting names for a dance she’s been teaching viewers, with the winner ‘Bonnie’s Starbuster,’ which sounds like a finishing move she’ll win the WWE Women’s Championship with, before a chat with Alison Moyet, who says she wouldn’t go into acting because “I’d probably make a real nambo of myself.” Is being a nambo worse than being a wilf? The original Boyzone perform, frontman greenscreened in front of a volcano as he jigs about in a toga, before ending with the essential era-compliant joke about Arnold Schwarzenegger having a funny name, where Earth Eye bids Boyd “bless you!” each time he says it. This is noteworthy as perhaps the earliest example on record, considering Terminator was still three months away from hitting British cinemas, and Arnie’s advertised as being on the show in a fortnight, but I’d guess only in video-form.

I followed that up with an undated episode from the same year, but with all the music cut for copyright reasons, sadly excising Bonnie Langford’s instructional for the Wild Boys dance. Boyd’s in a lovely brown leather dad-jacket, and he and Bonnie’s banter is very This Morning — “ooh, isn’t Christmas shopping hard? Look, we’re both wearing white socks. Sock twins!” But when they tell us Nigel’s off “doing watersports,” there’s not even a flicker; innocents from an era when said phrase didn’t instantly conjure images of lovers dousing each other with yellow nectar, straight from the tap. Imagine how many ‘unscripted’ laughs Holly and Phil would’ve dragged out of that; a shaking Scofe covering his mouth with his cards; This Morning‘s social media manager making a note of the time-code, so he can upload the clip to YouTube with the comments switched off.

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Down on Earth, Nigel is indeed watersporting, showing off stuff which probably seemed really exciting in 1984, including a boy who’s supposedly great at barefoot waterskiing, but sinks immediately. The ‘expert’ adult who follows him tumbles in too, before Nigel tells us the chap will demonstrate a special way of standing back up and– no, he’s gone again, left hundreds of yards behind in the water. Starship has a weekly Jim’ll Fix It rip-off section, where viewers write in to have their wishes fulfilled, but I suppose if it’s ever okay to plagiarise, it’s with the oeuvre of one of history’s worst ever paedos. Last week, a girl met Paul Young, while today’s is a charmingly urchin-like boy whose dream is “to gah inna speedboa’!” As it’s the 80s, they let a tiny child who can barely see over the wheel just drive off in a powerboat, containing only him and Nigel, and with no safety team on hand as they tear into the distance like a tourist’s 8mm film of the Loch Ness Monster. The boy’s shrieks of delight are audible over the roar of the engine — “GOOD THIS, INNIT?!” — and as he veers back to the pontoon, it’s genuinely quite tense. Will he slow down, or plough straight into it, knowing his young life shall never again reach such heights? “WOTCHA, GOD, MATE! I’M COMIN’ ‘OME!” Note: he did slow down.

We return to the studio, for big guest David Essex, where the amount of children has gotten completely out of hand, their sheer number swallowing Essex and Boyd entirely, tightly packed like a 100-strong game of sardines; standing, sitting, kneeling; one squashed on the sofa between the two men like that beach goblin from Five Children and It. Imagine Hitchcock’s The Birds, but instead it’s sorrowful under-tens, impossibly multiplying every time you blink. Essex gamely plays along with the space theme — “I was worried about the afterburn from the starship coming in, but one dealt with it.” Then Boyd brings up how “bonkers” Essex is about Helicopters, asking “did you see Airwolf last night? Good one, weren’t it?

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It’s here we move into one of the most unintentionally funny pieces of television I’ve ever seen, as Starship‘s misjudged sense of ‘what kids like’ is laid nob-out bare, in what’s intended as a plug for Essex’s upcoming West End musical flop, Mutiny!, which he wrote and starred in. Tommy Boyd states (correctly) that “not a lot of children are familiar with the true story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.” You know why, Tommy, old pal? Because it’s boooring. That’s not gonna stop him teaching these kids though — all thousand of them, crammed around, on, under, and likely inside the sofa — about a naval incident from hundreds of years ago. Essex attempts a succinct retelling, but soon, the words “commissioned by the British navy to take bread-fruit, from where it grew readily…” have left his mouth.

Thousand yard stares all round, the loud breathing of children, “…cheap food for the slaves…” Feet shuffle, coughing, scratching, “…they had a botanist who was taking care of it…” Boyd tries to win back the room by excitedly announcing they’re about to see a clip of Charles Laughton, “one of the great actors of all time!” Yeah, I remember from being a kid, the one thing I loved the most about being at my grandparents’ house was black and white films from the 1930s where old men were stood around talking. But wait — here’s a clip from the 1962 version too, with Marlon Brando! And in colour! That’s what kids from 1984 like, isn’t it? Yo-yos, He-Man, Marlon Brando? Dear Christ, Essex is still going, the soundtrack filled with fidgeting noises as they keep themselves entertained by leaning into shot to see their faces on the studio monitor, while he wonders aloud if Captain Bligh was perhaps too much of a disciplinarian? Poor sods probably thought they were going to meet R2D2.

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Like a mountaineer who’s watched the rest of his exhausted team plummet to their deaths, Boyd dutifully ploughs on to the summit, eager to demonstrate — to these now suicidal children — the growing complications of Fletcher and Bligh’s disagreement with each successive film adaptation. Look, kids, here’s Anthony Hopkins shouting! If you’re wondering what the opposite of Rik Mayall on Jackanory is, it’s this. Ten, long minutes from when we began, it finally ends with an applauding Boyd saying “fascinating. This man tells a great story!” Then he says “rock on!” like someone shouting “I don’t believe it!” at Richard Wilson while he’s playing Macbeth, but David Essex doesn’t even look up, so Boyd says it again. “Rock on, Tommy,” replies Essex, quietly, and out of politeness.

Pointlessly, there’s a load of non-Mutiny on the Bounty content too, with 2/3 of Bronski Beat — Somerville’s busy, I guess — who’ve never even stepped foot on an 18th century breadfruit transport, so who cares? Bonnie asks Steve Bronski where the band’s name comes from, while Larry Steinbachek makes a joke about Japanese journalists calling them “Blonski Beat.” “I bet they do!” laughs Bonnie. Larry is also quick to laughingly raise a hand and shout “me!” when she asks if anyone’s ever been “watersporting.” Then the bearded, in-house conservationist shows off Starship‘s pet potato, Richard, whose tentacle-like eyes dangle from a polythene bag like a Lovecraftian beast (headcount; 35 children), and there are interviews with two of the Flying Pickets, and the director of the Red Cross; a rather stern looking Colonel, explaining at complex and tedious length the various subcommittees which deal with the finances of donations. When they cut to the all-important address to send money to help people who are literally dying, Nigel is very briefly superimposed on top, in an errant piece of greenscreen, as he sits waiting for the next segment, where he’ll appear a ghost for a Ghostbusters competition.

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We end on some Bonkers Britain consumerism, with a news story where Swindon 6th formers have been drafted in as Lollypop ladies/men, to the anger of local parents. Boyd’s not happy either, suggesting to viewers that if they’ve got an aunt or gran — “they make smashing lollypop ladies” — who’d like to do it instead, they must tell their teacher to tell the local road safety officer. The Saturday Starship couldn’t be an odder program if it actually were in space, although if they did encounter a real alien, they’d probably show a ten minute video on Martian farming techniques. While it’s not as shambolic as Our Show, it’s similarly lacking in its sense of what children are interested in. People moan about focus groups, but no kid’s ever demanded to see a bloke in a jumper promising “news on those potatoes we did.”

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Starship lasted a single series of 21 shows, ending in January 1985. 16 months later, Saturdays would see another spaceship, on ITV’s Get Fresh, with the Millennium Dustbin ferrying Gaz Top to weekly locations. Following a successful host run on CITV, Tommy Boyd went onto make a radio career out of the ‘contrary opinions troll’ methodology that’s been stinking up the internet and newspaper columns for the last 20 years — all “that thing everyone hates is actually good!” or pretending to believe something stupid, so people would challenge him on it. In the early 2000s, he briefly attempted to relaunch British wrestling, running a single show at Crystal Palace, and even participating as the villainous, leather jacketed owner; the Talksport Vince McMahon; playing off heat he’d gotten on the radio from arguing there was someone hiding underneath the ring who poured Heinz ketchup on wrestlers’ faces when they ‘bled’. Although that is slightly more believable than a children’s show giving up ten minutes to David Essex recanting the Mutiny on the Bounty off the top of his head, like Alan Partridge describing the opening scenes of The Spy Who Loved Me.

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