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As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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

Cheers.

 

Uri Geller’s Cursed

•November 22, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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Ah, Uri Geller. For a man so spectacularly up my alley, at the exact convergence point of naff paranormalism and television kooks, it was inevitable we’d meet on these pages for a deep dive. I have touched on Geller before, briefly in my book Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal, and in his appearance on Gamesmaster. He is, to put it in a way he won’t sue me for, an interesting man. Famously litigious, I’d like to state for the record, Uri is definitely real, and bends spoons with his mind and not just his hands when people aren’t looking. He absolutely does not flag copyright claims on his Gotcha clip from Noel’s House Party whenever it turns up on YouTube, as a hidden camera at an unfortunate angle definitely didn’t inadvertently catch him physically bending a spoon under the table. No, Uri Geller is legit, and 100% not a man who’s made an entire career off the back of basic conjuring tricks coupled with the distanced, alien aura of a colossal weirdo.

But whatever you believe about Uri Geller’s claims of extraordinary powers, it’s clear that he believes it, taking credit for various historic occurrences over the years. Moving the opposition’s ball during England’s penalty shoot-outs, the signing of nuclear arms treaties, Boris Johnson’s election win (via the gift of a spoon infused with positive energy), and the interruption of a crucial Brexit vote when a broken pipe flooded the House of Commons; if it happened, it was thanks to Geller, psychically altering the very molecules of our timeline like Dr. Manhattan. But like every tortured movie psychic, he’s pathologically incapable of turning it off. In an early 2000’s Channel 4 documentary, he exhausted everyone on a family holiday by repeatedly trying to guess the age of a stranger’s dog, while his Vimeo account’s packed with dozens of videos where he wanders through Israel at night, switching off street lights (and definitely not security lights on timers) with his mind; “1, 2, 3… turn off!

(Note: since originally posting this on Patreon last month, Uri’s at it again, using his powers to make Scotland’s opposition miss a penalty, and definitely not just rewinding his Sky+ and pretending)

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Though in some circles, he was best known as Michael Jackson‘s best mate — until suggesting MJ go with Martin Bashir instead of Louis Theroux, for a film which ended up sparking another child abuse trial, ending their friendship — Geller’s career has been ludicrously expansive. In truly countless TV appearances, he wowed audiences by using his mind (and not a magnetic ring) to make compasses move, radish seeds sprout in his hand, and to fix the broken appliances of viewers by having them hold it to the screen and shout “work!” He’s been on Stars in Their Eyes (as Charles Aznavour), I’m a Celebrity (finishing in last place), cameoed in a 1976 issue of Daredevil, and even released a single of spoken word poetry, reciting it in phonetic Japanese for the foreign pressing. Perhaps the highlight of a simply bursting CV is in a comedy sketch, telepathically bending Lenny Henry’s dick, and causing him to violently douse the bloke at the next urinal with hot piss.

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But while there’s an outrageous number of documentaries about Uri Geller, the thing I’m focussing on is a rare example of his taking the role as presenter. Uri Geller’s Haunted Cities: Venice aired on Sky One, Sunday January 9th, 2005 at 9pm, and judging from the title, I’m assuming it was a pilot for a prospective series of Uri bending in various locales.

Uri’s voiceover, both in grizzled foreign accent and misanthropic content, sounds like one of those bad Werner Herzog impressions, tragically overwrought in its attempts to inspire dread, as he tells us he’s “travelled the world in pursuit of the supernatural,” and come to a city he feels has been calling to him for years; a place “bedevilled by unexplained paranormal forces and death.” It’s all straight from the paranormal TV playbook, with spooky establishing shots of old buildings and portentous flocks of birds. This is a tiny production, and at points, Uri will allude to a crew, but it’s just him and a director/cameraman. Everything’s shot handheld on classic noughties digital video, which gives the feel of a holiday video by a divorced dad whose kids were meant to be coming, but cancelled last minute for a friend’s BBQ, leaving him traipsing round Venice alone, trying to strike up conversations with people who don’t speak English by putting an ‘a’ on the end of every word in a loud voice.

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Uri’s investigating the curse of Palazzo Dario (in native tongue Ca’Dario); a haunted palace overlooking the Grand Canal, whose mysteries he’s determined to solve. Anyone who lives in the sumptuous mansion will die, with a litany of murders, suicides, unexplained deaths, and bankruptcies in its walls. Rumours say the Devil lives there, and supposedly Woody Allen was interested in buying, but got scared off by its reputation. “I’ll be honest with you,” says famed truth-teller Uri Geller, “I’m terrified!” However, it turns out Uri’s yet to schedule a visit to the currently-empty palazzo, and doesn’t know who owns it, or even have details for anyone who can get him inside.

To enhance my sensitivity to Venice’s underworld,” he’s staying at another haunted palace, where the bedroom confessional cams are shot, in a classic example of superimposing a viewfinder and flashing red dot with the word REC to pretend it’s a different camera. There’s a weird sequence of Uri in bed clearly just pretending to sleep, anxiously twitching like a dog dreaming of squirrels, and obviously filming himself, like an Instagram captioned “can’t believe my gf took this of me sleeping lol” with a reflection that reveals the phone in their own hand. The general tone is a preposterous self-seriousness, every scene with Uri gazing into the middle distance, intensely and quietly ruminating; a body language that embodies headshots of men’s rights authors, thoughtfully grasping their chins while musing on Disney’s race-pandering and whether raw meat makes your big penis even bigger. Few have ever taken themselves so seriously as Uri Geller does in Venice.

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Days are introduced in caption like The Shining, suggesting our slide towards impending doom, and it’s off to a flier, as the morning after they arrive, Venice suffers its worst flooding in fifty years. Of course, it’s interpreted as a bad omen, with the very city itself trying to keep Uri from his quest; “an obstacle that has been thrown in my path to test me, perhaps?” This whole subplot where the presenter’s not merely investigating, but actively meddling with dark forces, which may even follow them home, was hugely popular with ghost hunting shows around this time, with everyone acting like they had ghost-induced PTSD. When Most Haunted‘s rigger developed alopecia, it was sold as the trauma of a spiritual attack, and the opening of every live show saw its audience treat the cast like heroic, battle scared soldiers returning from conflict. Thankfully, this does give us a truly incredible Alan Partridge moment, as seen below.

Alright, stop shouting! Perfectly normal, by the way, to enjoy your fashionable Italian breakfast, daintily dabbing the corners of your mouth with a tissue, while squatting on a table like a goblin because all the chairs are submerged in filthy canal water. With no hook-ups for the palazzo, sad Uri’s left trudging round the city in wellies, bothering random locals in the hopes they can help, pestering waiters who don’t speak English about Da’Cario, like someone in Union Jack shorts trying to mime egg and chips to a Spaniard, leading to helpful exchanges like this.

     Waiter: “Very…

     Uri: “Very, huh?

     Waiter: “Murder.

     Uri: “Thank you.

I mustn’t keep invoking Alan, but there’s a huge Partridge in Paris energy, with the overly contemplative Uri cutting a lonely figure in Venice’s crowds, his ensemble of black polo neck and Wellington boots irrefutably Goth Casual, at one point taking off a jacket and slinging it over his shoulder — “a paranormalist in Venice. It’s Aleister Crowley. It’s Gomez Addams. It’s Kelly Osbourne.”

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Unable to actually visit the palazzo he’s there to investigate, most of the run-time’s taken with Uri establishing Venice as Hell itself, plagued with restless spirits and sites of gruesome historic murder. Story after story play out under Uri’s narration as cheap reconstructions; a monk burned at the stake who haunts the city by turning on taps; the butcher who filled his sausages with children’s flesh; a female gangster whose torso was dumped in the canal inside a suitcase. The scares are somewhat undercut by the quality of the recreations, where at one point, I’m almost certain you can spot the sellotape holding up a false beard.

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The relentless stream of horrors, coupled with talk of Venice Syndrome — a psychological condition drawing people there for the sole purpose of killing themselves — gives the impression anyone daring to visit will almost certainly be dragged beneath the waters by the city’s many devils, casting brave Uri as the paranormal equivalent of a warzone journalist, risking life, limb and mortal soul. Even visually, the city’s presented as gloomy and dangerous, in perpetual darkness, with daytime footage shrouded beneath murky day-for-night filters, and a stuttery frame-drop effect from 1980’s TOTP over endless footage of the camera following Uri as he staggers through a labyrinth of narrow, flood-slicked alleyways.

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The angle they’re going with is The Wicker Man‘s, of the outsider detective struggling to get the time of day from tight-mouthed locals, as windows literally shutter at the approach of his footsteps. With no response from Ca’Dario’s owners, he tracks down a builder who did some work there, only to have a door slammed in his face, packing an incredible amount of bad acting into its three seconds. Wandering Venice’s maze of murder alleys, Uri’s blanked at every turn, even to ask for directions. “You speak English?” he asks a woman laden with shopping — “No.” Stopping another group, he’s aghast when they refuse to talk about the curse, and absolutely livid to be told “I don’t know” when asked where the Grand Canal is. “It’s fucking there!” yells Uri, pointing at it, which begs the question why he was asking where it was. The dizzying section ends with Uri spinning, arms outstretched, his voice echoing in an empty square — “I’m lost, please, I’m lost! WHERE AM I? HELP ME!

Still unable to get in the haunted house, he makes an excursion to one of Venice’s plague islands, but not before a pensive cup of coffee, where we cut back to Uri’s empty cup to reveal the spoon inside is now bent. Once on the island, he’s psychically drawn to the old hospital, where a dirge of buzzing flies fill the soundtrack, and stumbles outside, sweaty and reeling. It’s there he senses something in the undergrowth, and with hands outstretched seemingly following a telepathic instinct towards the ground, he discovers a hidden trapdoor. “Oh my god… oh my god!” cries Uri, with a level of acting one might see on Christmas Day — “oh, a Jeremy Clarkson book, thanks, dad” — before reaching down and pulling out… an actual human skull.

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Fucking hell. Imagine you’re just walking round hundreds of years ago, living your life, not knowing that the head you carry on your shoulders, eat with, talk with, kiss your lover with, will one day be casually picked up as a prop by that bloke who bends cutlery with his mind (and definitely not with his hands). “Oh my god, what have I found?!” he says, tossing it down wherever and fleeing. “I feel I’ve gotten into something even I didn’t bargain for.” Me too. Hard cut to Uri Geller in the shower, scrubbing off the bad vibes of the plague pit, though thankfully he’s only seen from the shoulders up, because with his powers, I bet he’s got a cock like a Curly Wurly.

Following the desecration of an unmarked grave, Day 3 begins with pulling on wellies in front of a Wonderbra billboard, before a visit to a cemetery on All Souls Day, where he idly fiddles with memorial trinkets on graves as he meanders through. Then, stood wistfully staring at the palazzo, he finally lands a meeting with Ca’Dario’s estate agent, and takes him down an alley, specifically so the house can’t see them gossiping about it. The estate agent confirms that people have heard noises at night, which is all the info he gives, as the conversation ends very abruptly with Uri suddenly pulling the man into a tight embrace and bidding him “bye bye!

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By the final act, a now-shirtless Uri’s confessionals are those of a beaten man, feeling his plan to “channel positivity into the house” and defeat the curse may be beyond even him. There’s another shot of Uri sleeping, twitching in nightmares shown as a montage of the recreations, though as it zooms in on his squirming face, it rather looks as though he’s having a powerful psychic wank. Soon he’s up and about, woken by ghostly noises tapping on the pipes, continuing the old story of the investigator getting lost inside his own case. “I’m so tired,” he says, rubbing his eyes.

At this point, there’s a very offhand cut to a green-tinted night vision shot of Uri sat up in bed, where, some feet away, a wooden chair moves across the floor by itself. “I’m really stunned that I can move this chair like this with my mind,” he says, in incongruously calm voiceover; “or is it an external force at work?” Is a piece of string an external force, Uri mate? Repeatedly, the chair drags itself across the floor, inches at a time, as he explains this is telekinesis, “but I’ve never been able to do it as easy as this before, and that really scares me.” Then it’s straight onto Day 4, the whole chair thing dropped in with an absurd faux-casualness; like someone coming back from the pub toilets with a “that was a nice wee I just had out of my ten-inch willy. Anyone see the game last night?” Replicate this in lab conditions, and Uri would be confirmed and lauded as the most amazing man in the world that he constantly tells you he is, but it’s just another day at the office — “My Ferrari? Oh, that old thing?”

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On the final day, he’s somehow landed access to Ca’Dario, via a housekeeper (that we never see). He feels like St. George about to face the dragon, praying the house doesn’t kill him, and telling the story of his friend Kit Lambert, manager of The Who, a former owner who died mysteriously from a haemorrhage (although from a quick Google, he actually died in London after allegedly being pushed down a staircase by a drug dealer). The empty palazzo is unfurnished, and Uri reckons its curse may be due to the architect looting relics from the mystic East; that “a piece designed to ward off evil in an Eastern environment, when misplaced here, has worked in the reverse.” He brings up Woody Allen’s interest again, whose superstitious wife put him off buying, but with a really obviously dubbed in after-the-fact-for-legal-reasons “ALLEGEDLY” which sounds like it was recorded in a toilet. See for yourself.

It’s then that he hears banging downstairs, and takes out a dowsing pendulum to seek out problematic spots of dark energy, leading him to the fireplace. “There’s something here…” he says, crystal swinging wildly, “yes yes!” Now with a taste for vandalism, he tugs at a loose brick, pulling out an old black and white photograph of a mummified corpse, dated 1941, which had been secreted many years earlier. Fearing ghostly repercussions, he puts it back, before a sudden fourth wall break, telling the cameraman “I can’t take it anymore. Stop. Stop filming.” It’s another Oscar-worthy performance as he stomps out of the palazzo — “there’s evil here!” — pleading with the crew to get out, before losing it all together. “Jason, I told you once, CUT! GET OUT OF HERE!” A desperate Uri grabs the boom mic, “GET THAT FUCKING BOOM OUT OF HERE, GET OUT OF HERE!

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Uri Geller’s Haunted Cities: Venice ends with blurry footage of the crew pelting for safety before making escape via boat like James Bond, and a closing voiceover that really leans into the Bobby-Davro-does-Herzog deal, describing Da’Cario as “like radiation; you can only be exposed to so much. It’s eclectic structure reeks of discord like an out of tune piano, and it’s this disharmony that feeds the curse. I hope I have not fallen pray to the curse of Ca’Dario. Only time will tell.” But like the ghost hunter who thinks it’s all over, only to realise the demons have followed them home, our nightmare has only just begun, as I regret to inform you there’s a second version of this show; one which sheds new light on events in the original.

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Giving no other context, and labelled on YouTube as Awful Re-Edit by Uri Geller, what I can surmise from Googling its production logo, this seems to be a version sold to Germany and Greece, as part of a package deal with the original, under the new title of Uri Geller’s Cursed. Though judging from a trailer, it’s an early cut of something intended for much wider release. What this definitively isn’t is the version that aired on Sky, reusing almost none of the footage, and falling under a different genre altogether, although running the same length at 74 minutes. Going in completely blind, little did I know, this would be the single greatest discovery in all my years as pop culture archaeologist of terrible, terrible shit; both the best and worst thing I have ever seen.

Haunted Venice 2.0 opens with text quotes bigging up yer man’s credentials; a professor of psychology stating “Uri Geller is extraordinarily gifted in telepathy”; the rather nebulous-sounding New Horizon Research Center, on his having “bent or divided” metal objects “such as to prove conclusively that the phenomena were genuine and paranormal.” A third endorsement from a physicist fills the screen, bragging how Uri wonkied his key, as more captions identify Uri as a “paranormalist,” who was invited to investigate Venice by a major TV network. Intriguingly, it’s described as a document of that trip, “interspersed with disturbing images from the film footage that Geller discovered.” Uri then bends a spoon.

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The opening’s far more cinematic than the original, with spooky shots of Venice under an original score, landing on the word CURSED written in condensation on a window, tinted red to look bloody. As it turns out, this is less a re-edit than a complete do-over, taking a hard left turn from documentary to… something else entirely. It’s a long ol’ while before we get to Venice, starting two weeks earlier, where Uri’s stricken with a psychic flu, brought about by delving into the cursed palazzo [BEEP]. Jarringly, as explained by more captions, this time, the producers have ‘had to’ hide the identity of Ca’Dario to protect the owner’s identity.

What follows are a series of video diaries, more professionally lit and lacking that REC nonsense, of the lead-up to Uri’s trip; cancelling a lecture in Sunderland because of dark energies; being interviewed on a “hit talk radio show”; sharing his story of the day a ghost banged on his front door. Round here we call that Knock Down Ginger. But mainly, the pre-amble’s an exercise in establishing Uri Geller as important and well-connected, dropping names like a shitty juggler, to crowbar in a series of phonecalls where famous friends — knowledgable in “curses, omens, supernatural, the paranormal” — give him advice.

Unfortunately, he’d fallen out with Jacko by then, so we get a private jet salesman, writers Colin Wilson and James Herbert — the latter Uri’s sure to tell us has had a book turned into a movie starring Kate Beckinsale — and “world famous, world renowned fashion designer” Roberto Cavalli. Wilson warns that a ghost could use Uri’s powers to travel from the TV into viewer’s homes (like Mr. Pipes), while Cavalli fails to answer a dozen calls. Of course, this is suggested to be the curse working its wicked magick, leading to footage of Uri shouting into a Blackberry, over-pronouncing his own name to Cavalli’s secretary at the top of his lungs — “OO-REE GE-LEHR!” Evidently, a couple of years from the launch of the iPhone, Blackberries were the fancyboy gadget of choice, as there are many scenes of Uri holding one up to his face while pretending to listen to messages which were dubbed on afterwards.

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Fifteen minutes in, Uri brings up a mysterious videotape. He’s evasive with details, only that it contains “horrible crimes” and they’ve sent it to the Italian authorities, who never replied. Incredibly confusing, not until much later does it become clear that some video diaries — this one included — date from after the visit to Venice. The tape itself shows a shirtless man covered in stage blood, thrashing and screaming in a scene of extremely poor no-budget horror, which Uri seems to imply is a paranormal snuff film. In a massive coincidence, it’s lit, framed and shot with wobbly close-ups in bad DV exactly in the distinctive house style of all the flashback/recreations from the Sky version of Haunted Venice.

While the first had the pretence of being a regular TV doc, this one’s constructed to elicit cheap scares, filling its eerie soundtrack with ticking clocks and screeching cats, and using loud jumps, like a sudden (and hilariously off-topic) close-up of a grey alien, which genuinely made me shit it. Even as Uri plays up how he may never return home, sweetly saying goodbye to his wife, it cuts abruptly to the pained death-howls of the ‘snuff’ tape. It’s almost half an hour in before we finally arrive in Venice, where Uri shows off his protective talismen, before a scene which feels like it got edited in by mistake. He’s oddly chipper, discussing how pleased he is with the establishing shots of birds the director’s got, and how much he’s looking forwards to making the film, which he tellingly calls a “docudrama.”

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Day One passes without note, as does Day Two, and where the first version was overpacked with ghost stories, when Cursed gets abroad, it becomes Slow TV, with languid shots of a pensive Uri strolling round Venice or sipping coffee, and murky footage of canals and clouds. Sparse voiceovers come like ad breaks, with Uri telling us he’s feeling anxious, before three more long, wordless minutes of doomy skies and buildings; a pan across an empty marsh; a construction crane; Uri pretending to be asleep on a boat. I cannot stress firmly enough that nothing is happening. Who’s this for? It’s all filler, with a somnambulist pace that’s ASMR for occultists; the demented travelogue of a 60 year old man, meandering flooded streets, convinced he’s going to die of ghosts.

Occasionally, he’ll chat with a tourist, asking a Welsh family if they believe in the paranormal, but you can’t hear them over the droning soundtrack and perma-slosh of the canal, so it doesn’t matter. On Day Three, we briefly see the cemetery visit, under the sound of howling winds, before more of him ‘asleep’ on a boat, flat on his back like Dracula on his way to Whitby. And about that soundtrack. Every scene is egregiously dubbed with whistling winds, buzzing flies and spooky creaking noises, straight off BBC Sound Effects No. 13 — Death & Horror, all cranked so high, it sounds like a weatherman reporting from the middle of a hurricane. Voiceovers witter on with words like “dark facade” and “mystery,” but there’s zero investigating, and when he reaches plague island, it’s more slow-mo of Uri Geller rambling through a muddy field for ages and ages. They briefly show the finding of the skull, but weirdly zoomed in, with grotty filters so you can’t see it properly, and none of the original audio.

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On the third night, as per onscreen caption, he’s been woken by noises, and is down in the hotel basement with a torch. Uri’s performance is pure Scooby Doo, eyes flitting side-to-side, jaw agape — “do I hear this, or is it my mind again?” Suddenly, a ghostly shriek comes out of the darkness, and Uri screams in fright as it cuts to black. Day Four, which makes no mention of the shriek, nor the chair-moving incident from that same night in the Sky version, sees Uri off to the palazzo.

This time, there’s nothing about struggling to get access; no builders or estate agents; but plenty of creepy dubbed-on gurgling baby noises, followed by a 15 second shot of the moon and 45 seconds of night time buildings and sky. He wanders the garden, finding a water hole, before three long, silent minutes of Ca’Dario’s interiors. Initially, the tone’s markedly different from 1.0, with Uri calmly admiring the beautiful woodwork and picking up ornaments on the mantle. But it’s there that he finds a camcorder tape. “Is this one of ours?” An offscreen voice confirms that it looks the same. “Are you still rolling?” asks Uri, pocketing the video and continuing the shoot. This tape is the snuff film.

Keep in mind, the previous hour has been an overly-sedate documentary with occasional silliness, so the turn it takes in the final ten minutes is absolutely fucking wild. A door slams shut out of frame. “What the hell was that?!” says Uri, taking off towards it and feverishly yanking on the handle. “I’ve gotta get in here! I’ve gotta open this door!” The acting here is truly an astonishing new low for these pages, as Haunted Venice goes full Blair Witch. Uri gets the door open, revealing a nursery where empty rocking chairs move by themselves and stock SFX of children’s laughter can be heard. The camera swings back to Uri, but he’s gone all blurry — Blurry Geller — and when it finds its focus, a ghostly child is standing there, plain as day. “Holy shit,” says the cameraman. Yeah.

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Let’s pause a second to remind ourselves both versions of the show were filmed at the same time; this more… dramatic take (though still presented as genuine) and the very real and legitimate Sky documentary. It’s quite a coincidence for Uri to have found that photo in the fireplace — an incident not shown in Cursed — while they were dicking around with props and effects for this version, and for a magic-man whose entire career hinged on his abilities being 100% realsies, it’s a strange muddying of the waters. I’d imagine he was fuming when he realised this might throw doubt on his earlier moving of the chair, which he did with telekinesis and not with fishing wire like the rocking chairs here.

The camera finds Uri sat on the bed, telling us there’s a presence; “maybe more than one… I did not expect a child spirit here.” The whole building starts to rattle with creaks, bangs and whispers like a shit version of The Haunting, and he makes a run for it — “something is pushing me out of this house. I’ve gotta find the truth!” Even the ghosts are impressed by his fancy Blackberry, causing it to ring. “That’s funny,” says Uri, “my phone is shut.” But all that’s on the end are terrible ghostly screams. “What the hell was that? I need some air…

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Instead of going outside, he somehow ends up alone in the basement, filming himself on night vision for a breathless conclusion, stumbling in the dark over Hot Topic horror movie objet d’art; a spooky mannequin; human bones; a large cage. Panic sets in when he can’t find the way out, with a loud jump scare as an angry, demonic face rears into camera from inside the cage. “KEEP AWAY! KEEP AWAY!” yells Uri, flailing against the locked exit with his fists, for the classic found footage trope of the victim’s terrified face filling the lens in fleeting green flashes. Once out of the basement, they reuse the scene of him angrily telling Jason to cut, with a reply in obvious ADR, “Uri, I need a few more shots,” as spoonboi pelts off down an alley. We cut to a black screen with another caption.

     “The following recording was taken from the dictaphone that Uri Geller brought with him to each location while filming in Venice.”

This, it’s explained, is from the basement scene, where unusual sounds were discovered when the tape was played back — “What follows is the entire recording.” While Uri’s begging to be let out, we hear demonic growls which, honestly, sound pretty avuncular. It’s meant to be the pièce de résistance of frights, but sounds like Chewbacca talking in his sleep. Uri’s voiceover reveals the doc was filmed over a year ago, and its events “will haunt me for the rest of my life.” The snuff tape’s played again, with a caption that it’s been “provided to the proper authorities.” Who’s that, Uri mate, the bin? There’s one final treat tucked away at the end of the credits, for fans of legal requirements; “after filming at the palazzo, certain images became mysteriously distorted, requiring recreation.” Did they, aye?

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One note about production, though it plays out over an escalating four days, Haunted Venice was actually shot in eight. Its genesis lies in a 2003 documentary about Irish ghosts by director/cameraman (and offscreen voice) Jason Figgis, of which Uri was so impressed, he contacted Figgis, before the two set up a production company together. Uri described Figgis as “Ireland’s Spielberg,” and Venice was intended to be merely the first of many projects they were developing, including a film called 3 Crosses, described as “a violent gangster movie in which Coronation Street star Keith Duffy plays a serial killer, written and directed by Figgis, with Geller as executive producer and in a supporting role.

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While Figgis now has an enormous list of directorial credits; mostly horror; sadly, the film co-starring him off Boyzone as a murderer alongside Uri Geller never materialised. As for Haunted Cities: Venice, the show was intended to emulate the creeping dread of Japanese horror, but in every scant interview or reference, is described and categorised — as it is on IMDB — as a documentary. In the lead-up to airing, Uri was very clear to point out there was no dramatisation, and events occurred exactly as shown.

Uri’s final coda on the mysterious tape was that “the victim was never identified.” I can identify the victim in all this. It’s me. This whole thing left me reeling. I expected your standard bad paranormal documentary from one of televisions’s overly-dramatic oddballs, but in classic arrogant ghost hunter fashion, found myself blundering into something far darker, for which I was not prepared. There’s almost no reference to Uri Geller’s Haunted Cities: Venice online, particularly the European cut. It’s as though it never happened, and I feel like I’m sole living witness — for now. Is this how it feels for people who see Bigfoot or UFOs? Let this written piece serve as document to my experiences, although it all sounds so implausible — a Uri Geller documentary recut into (an unbelievably inept) found footage horror film — alas, I that fear nobody will believe me, and just like Uri, the events in Venice shall haunt me the rest of my days.

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Michael Jackson’s Ghosts

•November 13, 2020 • 1 Comment

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[More MJ: Derek Acorah’s Live Michael Jackson Seance]

A recent story in the Hollywood Reporter about Bryan Singer’s toxic sets on the X-Men movies opened with a brief anecdote, meant to demonstrate the general disarray of production. In it, Michael Jackson showed up at the studio, to pitch himself for the role of Professor X; an old, bald white man, who’d eventually be played by Patrick Stewart. Initially this seemed so wacky to me as to be unbelievable, but in the context of Jackson’s life and career, it’s decidedly standard behaviour.

Though history will remember Jackson as a singer/beast, he kicked off a limited acting career with a genuinely brilliant and star-making performance as the Scarecrow in 1978’s The Wiz. Following world domination in the intervening years, 1986 saw him lead as the titular Captain EO in something which truly sounds like some absolute bollocks I’ve invented just to fill my word-count; a 3D sci-fi short played in Disney theme parks, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, exec produced by George Lucas, and written by a man called Rusty Lemorande. Following that, his outside acting jobs were limited to cameos; shown in video call as Agent M in Men in Black II, and the famous guest spot in The Simpsons, which has since been pulled by Disney+ for reasons of being a massive paed.

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His later choices for roles followed the same eccentric line as his Wacko Jacko persona — or as Joe Jackson amusingly misremembered in his Louis Theroux interview, “Jacko Wacko” — and before the Professor X incident, he’d attempted to grind down George Lucas in a bid to play Jar Jar Binks, for which he wanted to forgo computer graphics and wear prosthetic make-up. His final acting role would be an appearance in 2004 film Miss Castaway and the Island Girls, one of Eric Roberts’ 594 credits (at time of writing), in a role explained by the wiki page thusly:

An R2D2-like droid projects an image of agent M.J. (Jackson) who has been assigned by the Vatican to manipulate the castaways for the Vatican’s own purposes.”

Through the King of Pop era, the videos for Jackson’s singles had become increasingly cinematic, with Bad and Thriller expanding into short films, directed respectively by Martin Scorsese and John Landis, and the video for 1987’s Liberian Girl featuring an enormous number of celebrity cameos which read like a Peter Kay routine about 80’s America, including Weird Al, Dan Aykroyd, Brigitte Nielsen, Corey Feldman, David Copperfield, Blossom, Don King, and Steve Guttenberg. The feature-length Moonwalker was released in 1988, a wild collage of long-form music videos which ended with MJ turning into a spaceship to shoot Joe Pesci, and by 1992, the promo for Remember The Time was a 9 minute epic starring Eddie Murphy. But the following year, the first round of child abuse allegations hit, permanently tainting Jackson’s image to a large portion of the general public.

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So then, the perfect time to take his biggest hit, Thriller, and go one better, with another scary short on a much grander scale. Running over three times Thriller‘s length, it would be titled Michael Jackson’s Ghosts, and as I’ve since discovered, now that he’s dead, googling for ‘Michael Jackson ghosts’ is a wild ride. Like the greats — Neil Breen and Tommy Wiseau — he’d be doing it himself, co-producing, co-writing, and paying the entire $15m budget out of his own pocket. MJ’s much-mooted love of horror always feels weird to me. I simply cannot picture Michael Jackson — at least the persona of Michael Jackson as presented to the public — being able to sit through a horror film without launching his popcorn into the air in fright at the first sight of the THX logo.

We’re supposed to believe this man-child character; sensitive, effete, otherworldly, exchanging teasing barbs of “doo-doo head” with his posse of young ‘playmates’; spent his down-time sticking on laser discs of The Exorcist or Texas Chainsaw Massacre? But then, as we came to learn, the persona and the real Jackson were some lengths apart, and it’s in this knowledge which Ghosts’ only scares are to be had. Besides, horror comes in many forms, and for MJ, this was the fully on-brand family-friendly horror of theme park terrors, with spooky cobwebs and skellingtons, and saying the word “boo!

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Ghosts started life in 1993, as an unfinished promo for Addams Family Values, titled Is It Scary?, but after getting dropped from the soundtrack altogether — supposedly for contract reasons unrelated to his scandals — it lay dormant until 1996. Revived as its own thing, it was expanded into a 39 minute short with a six week shoot, where the word ‘video’ was banned on set, because they were making a ‘short film’. Ghosts did have decent horror pedigree, with a story credit for Jackson himself, along with Stephen King and Mick Garris, a screenplay by Garris and Stan Winston, and with Winston directing.

Before we get into the actual film, it’s important to remember the context of Jackson’s reputation at the time. Through his career, there were three rounds of child abuse accusations; Jordan Chandler in August 1993; in 2003, following the Martin Bashir interview; and with 2019 documentary Leaving Neverland. While the loyal fans are Jacko till they die, for most people, and certainly for the media, Neverland was the definitive destruction of his legacy, and at this point he’s effectively (and literally, with Disney+, multiple radio stations, and Mohammed Al Fayed’s giant statue) been cancelled. But in 1993, criminal charges were never filed, and his career continued unabated, with the furore merely adding to his already rock-solid rep as the World’s Strangest Man.

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By this point, the years long back-and-forth with the press over their constant intrusion and portrayal of him as a lunatic who sleeps in an oxygen tent and pals around with a chimpanzee had begun to infect his music. Tired of being a punchline, in the mid-90s, he came out swinging, with sweet lil’ Michael even dropping an f-bomb while duetting with sister Janet in 1995 single Scream, an angry rebuke to the tabloids, where he warns “stop fucking with me!” While Ghosts, released a year later, is a horror movie on the surface, unashamedly, this is MJ in full fightback mode against all the shit-talkers, doubters and prodding media. As we’ve seen with Yewtree and massive chunks of old British telly, in retrospect, it’s impossible not to view the film differently, with every line; every look; now loaded with horrible double meaning, and interpretable as the words of a predator hiding in plain sight.

We open in black and white, 1930’s Universal Monsters style, as lightning crashes over a graveyard, where a large gothic house looms in the background. A signpost — topped by a cawing raven — reads WELCOME TO NORMAL VALLEY, a place for NICE REGULAR PEOPLE, as an angry mob marches into frame with flaming torches, towards, what we now realise, is the home of Michael Jackson. “Why don’t we just leave him alone? He hasn’t hurt anybody,” asks a kid. Any kid in a Jackson production, of course, is always smarter and wiser than those stupid grown-ups. The mayor; the old white man leading the mob; sneers “he’s a weirdo. There’s no place in this town for weirdos.” And dear reader, have you spotted the subtle allegory at play?

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Once inside, the film switches to colour, ala The Wizard of Oz, and it’s your classic PG haunted house, all cobwebs, cavernous ceilings, and shards of moonlight bleeding through arched windows. The doors magically slam shut, locking everyone inside, as a robed figure in a skull mask emerges from the shadows. “Did I scare ya?” he asks, revealing himself to be Michael Jackson, although he’s not playing himself, but a character called The Maestro. Immediately, it’s unsettling seeing Jackson in character (or perhaps ‘out of character’), with the speech rhythms and confidence of a regular human, after years as the evasive wraith, with a medical mask and Mickey Mouse voice.

The entirety of Ghosts‘ dialogue is the mayor telling MJ he’s a weirdo who needs to leave town, calling him “freaky boy” and relentlessly hammering the point home with lines like “you’re weird, you’re strange, and I don’t like you,” and “back to the circus, you freak!” The parents are afraid of the Maestro, though he’s just Michael Jackson in a puffy pirate shirt, and the mayor lays into him — “We have a nice, normal town, normal people, normal kids, we don’t need freaks like you telling ghost stories.” But it’s never clear exactly what the Maestro’s been up to. Telling ghost stories? Doing magic tricks? He doesn’t even own any furniture. One kid suggests Maestro shows the mayor “the neat stuff you did for us,” before his brother slaps him round the head; “that’s supposed to be a secret!” Yeah, that’s not aged well. When the mother lightly slaps the lad for hitting his brother (the second time this happens, a mere five minutes in), she gets cuffed round the ear by a ghostly wind, signalling to the audience that adults are bloody hypocrites.

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Jackson taunts the group by pulling funny faces — “is this scary?” — before yanking his jaw out like in Beetlejuice, pulling the skin right off his head, leaving just a skull, and causing Mos Def — in a small pre-fame role as a nervous nerd — to burst into tears. With a dramatic “meet the family!” doors fly open and fires burst alight, and if Joe Jackson’s about to walk out with a belt in his hand, then they really should be afraid. Terminator 2 style puddles of ectoplasm morph and rise into a backing troupe of ghosts, with a zombified 18th century Venice costume ball aesthetic, and terrific make-up which gives a Disneyland cenobite vibe.

Michael grabs his dick, sending us into a musical number, with horrendously-aged lyrics like “creepin’ from a dusty hole… tales of what somebody told.” It’s a long routine, with minute after minute of the stuffy old mayor adjusting his tie in anger and slow zooms into the amazed faces of open-mouthed children. MJ whips off his entire skin, leaving a dancing skeleton moonwalking around the floor, and while the mob’s chins are hanging, the Scotch Video ads were doing that years ago. The skeleton changes into a giant Michael Jackson, in that Lost Boys vampire make-up which looks like when Bear Grylls got stung by bees, but it’s still less frightening than his 2003 mugshot.

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He possesses the mayor by flying into his mouth, for that thing Hollywood repeatedly insists is hilarious, when a boring ol’ overweight white fella busts some moves. Remember the way they pushed Tom Cruise’s dance from Tropic Thunder as the funniest thing ever, like an office bore making you watch a video on their phone? — “wait, wait, the good bit’s coming up!” It’s more of that, as the mayor shakes his fat tush, moonwalking and really grabbing that penis, with a big close-up of him clutching at the meat. The song’s classic 90’s Jacko, pathologically incapable of work that wasn’t a cack-handed metaphor about fake news, with more prophetic-seeming lyrics, about “a ghoul on the bed.” It ends with the mayor transforming into a big rubber monster, taunting MJ with “who’s scary now? Who’s the freak now, freaky boy? Freak circus freak!

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He pukes up Michael Jackson’s ghost, returning to normal, as a defeated-sounding Jackson tells them, fine, he’ll go. He drops to the ground, smashing the brick with his bare hands, and bashing his own head into the floor. His face breaks and crumbles like stone, for a tragic martyr’s death, with the camera circling his remains from above, composed in an extremely Christ-on-a-cross manner. A coincidence, I’m sure. The rubble of Jackson blows away, to slow-mo reaction shots of all the sad kids; their innocent hero driven to self-destruction by small-minded grown-ups. But as everyone goes to leave, the mayor finds the big double doors filled by an even gianter MJ head, and makes a run for it by jumping through a window to leave a mayor-shaped hole.

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Did I scare ya?” chuckles the Maestro, revealing himself to be alive. By now, the parents are on-side too, realising — after ripping all his skin off and summoning zombie demons to do a scary dance — that he wasn’t a freak at all. Ghosts plays as a flagrant Frankenstein/Edward Scissorhands rip, with Jackson positioning himself as the tortured capital-B Beast in the tower, who only wants to love and entertain the cheel-dren, despite the best efforts of ignorant adults who only see him as a dangerous freak, and want to keep him away from their kids. The symbolism is very subtle. The credits are six minutes long, but with good reason. Opening with shots of Michael in the make-up chair, it’s somewhat of a gotcha, showing the gradual application of latex pieces which transformed him into the mayor. Yes, that old white guy was played by Michael Jackson too, and in a certain order, his full credits for the film read like a potted biography of his life.

Self / Maestro / Mayor / Mayor Ghoul / Skeleton / Super Ghoul

It’s pretty much accepted that Jackson’s plaintive “ee-hee” schtick was a put-on, but it’s surprisingly disquieting, post-Leaving Neverland, to see him using a regular adult voice, as he did when portraying the mayor. Even in behind the scenes footage, casually describing the movie in the mayor’s get-up and deeper tones, it feels like the taking off, rather than wearing of a mask. Obviously Jackson was a performer — and at the height of his powers, undeniably one of the best ever — and the job of an actor is to transform, but it plays oddly against the cultivated Peter Pan persona, with his innocence in many eyes hinging on how meekly he came across. Like the Maestro, Jackson went out of his way to let everyone know they needn’t worry about him corrupting the children, as he was perfectly harmless. He doesn’t even speak like an adult, so how could he think like one, let alone one that’s horny?

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Ghosts ended up forming part of Jackson’s presentation to the Fox executives when selling himself as Professor X, as proof he was capable of playing older white men. In the end, it had a limited theatrical run in a weird-arse double bill with King-adaptation, Thinner, but in no way became the Thriller beater as intended. Interestingly, a workprint of the unfinished 1993 version, Is It Scary, exists today, with a lot of SCENE MISSING cards in place of unfinished effects, and a temp soundtrack of the scores from Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Unsurprisingly, given how closely the plot of Ghosts resembles parts of Scissorhands, MJ was a huge fan of the movie. Around 1991, he’d been developing a project with its screenwriter, Caroline Thompson; an adventure musical called MidKnight, where he’d star as shy, gentle man who turned into a brave warrior at the stroke of midnight.

There’s a few differences between Ghosts and Is It Scary?, the main being Jackson doesn’t play the mayor in the latter. With its Addams Family beginnings, there are brief cameos from Lurch, Thing, Wednesday and Pugsley, and all the town’s children are noticeably younger, though it’s still super on-the-nose with the whole Frankenstein angle. At the beginning, when a little boy tells the mayor that he’s scared, it’s not the haunted house that frightens him, but the mob. The Maestro’s much sadder here, played as disappointed rather than mad at the adults, and their loud chants of “come out where we can see you!” Like the paparazzi, are they, Michael mate?

     Mayor: “You’re not like us!

     MJ: “Why do I have to be?

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When he kills himself in this version, the children kneel down to gather up his remains, tearfully pleading “please come back, I wanna see you dance again!” eventually piecing him back together, and resurrecting our lord and saviour, Michael Jackson. They hold his hand, asking if it was “just pretend,” and why can’t the adults realise it was all “just fun,” and man, even in 1993, this was really pushing it. A caption card reading MICHAEL DISAPPEARS leaves the kids all looking skyward, suggesting in the finished version, he would’ve literally ascended to Heaven.

Even in a making of, Jackson seems genuinely pissed at the “fat, grotesque, ridiculous mayor,” who he considers “a creep, he’s really a creep, and I don’t like him.” The character was conceived as representing everything Michael hated about the true monsters — people who don’t get him — “those sort of people… they just don’t see the beauty on the inside of a person.” But the mayor feels like the strawman antagonist in those Christian movies; the evil atheist liberal professor forcing his students to fart on the bible, until one brave, God-fearing teen takes a stand.

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Ghosts‘ persistent framing of Michael Jackson as someone who’s seen as a monster but merely misunderstood sits especially badly now, when it’s widely accepted he got away with some terrible, terrible shit, under the guise being of incapable of hurting children, as he was essentially a child himself, unwittingly trapped inside an adults body, just like the moonwalking mayor. There’s a hugely trippy, psychologically fascinating quality to watching MJ, known for his ever-changing face, wearing a rubber mask and spitting the word ‘freak’ at himself, in what’s likely his real voice. In Ghosts, Jackson set out to make a scary movie, and in that, he did succeed, as 25 years on, it makes for a creepy and thoroughly disconcerting watch, just not for the reasons intended.

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The Dukes of Hazzard & CHiPS – Science Fiction Double Feature

•November 2, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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[Previously in this series: Heartbeat’s Alien AbductionThe Waltons PoltergeistBaywatch Monsters & Mermaids]

Is it Halloween already? Like your most annoying Facebook friend from school’s birthday, our greatest festival now takes up a full month. It seems to get earlier every year, although it only starts to feel like Halloween when you see the Coca-Cola hearse. October is the perfect time to march through the streets, eyes black as coal, chanting the name Aleister Crowley, in the exact cadence and tune of “have a banana!” But it’s also the most prurient month to examine episodes of TV shows which brought real paranormal elements into their usually-grounded worlds. Sadly, a Starsky and Hutch featuring John Saxon as a vampire continues to elude me, and there wasn’t much mileage in the Golden Girls where Rose sees a UFO over the house, which turns out to be a secret military jet… or does it?

And so we turn our attentions to a pair of classic vehicle-based actioners from the US. On a sliding scale of wackiness, when compared to Heartbeat, The Waltons, and Baywatch, The Dukes of Hazzard — as a knowingly-silly action comedy — is already at the far end, down where all the farts live. But even so, Strange Visitor to Hazzard is pretty out there. I have to admit, even as the world’s foremost pop-culture authority, I’m flying pretty blind here. I have minimal memories of the show from its transmission in the UK in the early ’80s, mostly of them getting in their car through the window.

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Hazzard was one of those American things from childhood which is viewed in memory just as it was in reality; through a small, fuzzy screen; wrestling with the aerial in the summer to get a decent picture, as French broadcasts bled into the picture from across the channel. Primarily a show about the hi-jinx of moonshine runners in rural Georgia, in looking through its synopses, the series did trade in broad-stroke plots about buried treasure, escaped convicts, mistaken identity, and long lost relatives, but nothing paranormal; not until 1985’s Strange Visitor to Hazzard. Perhaps the biggest clue in the whys can be found in pure, dry numbers. The Dukes of Hazzard ran for 147 episodes. Strange Visitor was its 145th.

We open with Bo and Luke Duke and jorts-innovating cousin, Daisy, whizzing round in an iconically problematic car; a pumpkin-orange Dodge Charger, topped with a decal of the Confederate flag, and named in loving tribute to General Robert E. Lee. The radio’s abuzz with news of UFOs in Hazzard County, with a hick excitedly babbling over the CB, “I seen one, I seen one! It was round and shiny, and give off this awful light!” Both parties almost collide head on, for the first of many — many — car crashes, and the classic Hazzard shot of a car sailing through the air in slow-motion.

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Everything’s narrated by music star Waylon Jennings, who sang and composed the theme song. And I do mean everything. Pretty much every scene begins with Jennings telling you what you’re looking at, or explaining that the Dukes, seen filling up their car with gas, have pulled into town to fill up their car with gas. It reminds me of being at my grandad’s, when he’d complain that someone kept speaking over his programs, only to find he’d once again sat on the remote, accidentally triggering audio descriptions for the blind. It’s not like the plots are hard to follow, but I guess the voice-over’s meant to give the good ol’ boy charm of being recanting a tall tale on the porch.

And if there is a porch, it’s on a wooden shack, stinkin’ of moonshine and surrounded by chickens, as Hazzard’s stock character in trade is very firmly that of the redneck. Rednecks were one of three types of Americans I thought existed as a child, alongside buff California ladies in fingerless gloves and bikinis roller-skating along the beach, and NY street toughs, selling drugs in alleyways where smoke belched out of manhole covers. Hazzard‘s bumbling brand of loveable hillbillies feel quaint compared to where the archetype’s at now, after decades of influence by everything from Jerry Springer and Tiger King to footage of Trump’s political rallies, which rewrote the redneck model to something more aggressive; to toothless meth-heads with assault rifles, afeared that Commies will take away their God-given freedom to say the n-word.

Even the cops are hillbillies, with Deputy Sheriff Enos driving his patrol car through Skunk Hollow later that night, where a mysterious bright light can be seen through the trees. Staring aghast in a moment reminiscent of PC Ventress’s abduction in Heartbeat, his radio explodes when attempting to call it in — “it’s a slying faucer… I mean a flying saucer!” and as he drives away, a three-fingered hand parts the nearby shrubbery.

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The way he screeches into town to announce it is endemic of the show’s myriad driving scenes. Everyone in The Dukes of Hazzard drives like they’re playing Grand Theft Auto, with even short jaunts to the shops done at fatal speed, swerving and drifting, and sending other cars ploughing over ramps and through billboards. Although, when the camera goes inside the car, the view through the windows is charmingly rear-projected, with unseen crew members rocking the chassis, and everyone turning the steering wheel at hard angles along straight roads, like they’re dancing to Limp Bizkit’s Rollin’.

The whole town’s gone UFO crazy, and once Boss Hogg gets wind of it, he plans on turning Skunk Hollow into a money-spinning monument to the world’s first flying saucer landing site. Hogg is Hazzard‘s most iconic figure, the white-suited, white-hatted villain from which all corrupt local politician characters spawned; Jabba the Hutt meets Colonel Sanders, with a bumbling sidekick in Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, who’s the Laurel to Hogg’s Hardy. The episode’s overpacked with villains, as a pair of local hoods are using Skunk Hollow as a hideout, after robbing a church bingo game. But they’re not the only one sneaking around the trees.

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And there’s your alien, confirmed as real. Its head’s a bit… you know, penisy, isn’t it? Like someone’s dickpic got muddled in with the sketches to the prop guy. The actor inside the costume previously played Cousin Itt in the 1960’s Addams Family show, and Twiki from Buck Rogers. He spends half his time here up in trees, teleporting into the branches when he’s spotted, and into the Duke’s car to hide, when they turn up to pick crab apples. Hogg and Coltrane show up too, cementing the show as an endless procession of scenes where each group of characters arrive in a place, one after the other, usually following a chase; like the one here when the Dukes tip apples over Hogg’s head before speeding off, with the alien stowed in the back. There is a great line, when Coltrane yells the brilliantly specific crime of “crab apples on a county official!

The chase scenes are The Dukes of Hazzard‘s brand, sticking to a rigid formula of a bluegrass fiddle soundtrack over shots of stunt drivers kicking up dust and crashing through BRIDGE OUT signs for slow-mo jumps; and all with frequent cuts back to the actors in those indoor-shot close-ups. The Dukes get home to realise the nob-head alien’s in the car, and communicate with mime that they want to be friends, giving it the name Little Cousin, with everyone perfectly calm about aliens being real. Truly unsettling is how the space fella speaks in gurgling sci-fi noises which use the EXACT same vocal filter as Mr. Blobby.

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Could this be a baby Blobby? Noel was always suspiciously reticent to give details about Blobby’s hometown… or should I say, homeworld? Maybe we’ll see the mothership and it’ll be shaped like a gunge tank. The alien mask has no articulation or movement, beyond blinking through the eyeholes, and the mouth’s a moulded piece that doesn’t open, leaving the actor to push at it from behind with his tongue when making the Blobby sounds. Like the Mince Pie Martians, the Dukes feed him a cookie — even though his rubber mouth is sealed shut — while he gives them some yellow space gum.

The robbers plan to hijack the town radio station — WHOGG — and “scare the overalls off these hicks” with a War of the Worlds bulletin about invading space monsters, leaving them free to empty the cash registers of a deserted Hazzard. There’s a bunch more chasing back and forth, as Hogg wants the alien for a freakshow, while the Dukes want to take him to the landing site, to be picked up by his family. It builds to a stand-off at the radio station, with every single character locked in a closet at gunpoint, and Lil’ Cousin pistol whipped unconscious by a robber the size of Geoff Capes. As the KOed alien’s carried out under his arm, it’s clear that the top of its head is a straight-up urethral opening. After more chasin’, everyone ends up back at Skunk Hollow, and c’mon, just look at that head.

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They’ve even moulded a retracted foreskin on it! A bright light comes out of the sky, and Little Cousin walks towards it like Close Encounters, waving goodbye as it takes off. Unfortunately, we don’t get to see what the ship looks like, which is presumably a giant urinal, or massive pair of metal underpants with a door where the fly would be. The world isn’t changed by confirmation of intelligent life on other planets, and everyone casually chalks it up to another day of adventures. With a lone alien left behind by its pals, taken in by a friendly group of locals, and kept from the clutches of villains who want it for nefarious purposes, the genesis of this episode was undoubtedly someone filling the silence of the writers room with the words “can we just do E.T.?” — which had been the world’s biggest film upon its release, three years earlier.

That same time period was rife with vehicle-centered action series from the US, with Knight Rider, Airwolf, Blue Thunder, Streethawk, the weekly footage of rolling, crashing, exploding cars in The A-Team, and the other show we’re looking at, CHiPS. The series took its name from its setting of the California Highway Patrol, aka the traffic cops who wobble about on fat motorbikes. A light-hearted episodic police drama, this too was often on the sillier side of things, having to fill a run of 139 hours with gangs of cartoonish criminals and troubled teens who just needed a good mentor, but generally played it straight as far as fantastical elements. If anything’s remembered about CHiPS (whose small ‘i’ makes it a pain in the arse to type), it’s that there was a character called Ponch, played by Erik Estrada, a man solely known for playing a character called Ponch in CHiPS, in some real pop-culture Ouroboros.

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Although 1978’s Halloween episode caught my eye with its delightful synopsis — After stopping a speeding van carrying 13 black cats on Halloween, Ponch has an entire day of bad luck — we’re focussing on another final-season show, from October 1982 (four months after the release of E.T.), entitled The Spaceman Made Me Do It. We open at night, as a hooded figure breaks into a jewel store using a brick of Blu Tack to magic open the lock, before the alarm triggers.

The lads; Ponch and his partner Bobby ‘Hot Dog’ (any relation to Ronnie?), are working graveyard shift after Hot Dog scratched the boss’s new car, so take off in pursuit. It’s like 60 seconds in before we’re on another swervy, horn-honky chase, which ends with the jewel thief crashing right through a parked milk truck that seems to be made from cardboard. And behind the wheel? Just a kid! Specifically, one of those wayward, 13-year-old girls who can hotwire a car but has a good heart, if only someone could reach it, who were behind the bulk of all crimes on 80’s television.

Ponch takes pity on the girl; Jodi — fatherless with a semi-absent single mother — who opens up about why she was on the rob, telling him “the E.T. made me do it.” I suppose he could get loads of rings on his long fingers. We see her tale in flashback, awoken by a bright light and billowing winds, wandering outside, trance-like, to a pulsating orange space-ship with a mushroom aesthetic. In the inevitable Close Encounters lift, an alien-shaped silhouette shuffles down a ramp, and quell surprise, its helmet looks like a massive bell-end. Jodi communicates with it telepathically, like a bad exposition phonecall — “you need diamonds to fix your communication system?!” and vows to help it get back home, as “I bet someone loves you and misses you.”

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Ponch is so moved by her plight, he immediately takes the kid under his wing. Incidentally, she’s played by Kyle Richards, who’s one of the babysat kids in Halloween (and reprising the role in 2021’s Halloween Kills), Paris Hilton’s aunt, and a future cast member of both The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and Celebrity Apprentice. They set up that she’s got a big imagination, her mom telling them she’s got an imaginary friend called David, reads a lot, and has seen E.T.over four times!” So… five times? The patronising way everyone treats Jodi, it seems like they cast a 13-year-old in a part written for a child half that age, especially when mom skips out to Vegas during a court hearing, and Ponch suggests he get custody of this kid he’s spend two minutes talking to, which the judge casually agrees to.

So now Jodi’s living at Ponch’s pad, sleeping in his room, which is filled with teddy bears, as he and Hot Dog kiss her goodnight. Look, I know they’re not paeds, and I know it’s tiresome everyone always inferring characters are for comic effect, but a bunch of cops were just handed a child, like a stray dog they found out back by the bins, and now she’s hanging out at the station playing backgammon with surly Sergeants and being kissed atop the head by every cop she meets. That night, the alien comes for her again, and though Ponch sees a bright light sweeping past the kitchen window, he misses the ship. Jodi tells her the E.T. — never ‘alien’, always E.T. — wants to take her with him. “I can’t find happiness here, maybe I can find it in another world!

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In a needless cameo, celebrity therapist Dr. Joyce Brothers reckons the alien’s just an imaginary friend, and they shouldn’t worry, as Jodi’s got such good real friends in all the cops. Yes, the 40-something men in leather gloves and tight shirts; perfectly normal hangout buddies for a tween girl. With lab results confirming the magic plasticine was a mix of chemicals and soil she could’ve learned to combine from TV show Uncle Henry’s Workshop (which really does sound like the Yewtree clubhouse), everyone’s erring on the side of ‘probably not an alien’. But Jodi takes Ponch and Hot Dog to the landing site, where they find burn marks and indentations, and tells them the spacemen are returning tonight, to take her with them.

Aside from the alien stuff, there’s a couple of random subplots; one about a chain letter going round the station, gifting misery to those who bin it, and luck for the ones to pass it on; like a $850 tax rebate to a cop who exactly resembles a grown-up Gonch Gardner. Also, some bag-snatchers are terrorising Chinese tourists, so they bring in Data’s dad from The Goonies from the Asian Task Force to chase down the baddies, one of whom falls in a fountain for no reason, as plinky-plonky oriental notes pepper the soundtrack. The former’s wrapped up in literally the last five seconds, with a punchline where whoever’s job it was to do so forgot to mail the letters; but at least he got his $850, right? “Not really,” he says, “it was for another Gonch Gardner! (not his name)” tossing the letters in the air as everyone laughs for the credit freeze frame.

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That night, Jodi understandably can’t wait to flee this hellhole for the wonder of space (N.B. for any aliens reading, you’re welcome to come and get me off this fascist nightmare-rock before it boils, but only if you have proper, human toilet facilities. I’m not pooing in some communal muck-pit or having my wee float past my face because you haven’t got any gravity). When the lads find her missing, they rush to the landing site; a place so far away, they have to drive, while she’s just walked barefoot in a nightie. She changes her mind just as the aliens come, but all we see are howling winds, with the three of them rolling on the ground, screaming over the noise for ages. After Ponch shrieks at them to leave her alone, the wind suddenly stops, and all is quiet.

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I saw it,” says Hot Dog, “but I still don’t believe it.” I’m glad someone saw something; we didn’t even get a big light. Just then, a police helicopter flies overhead — Jodi’s mysterious gazing at choppers throughout the episode suggesting she might’ve been imagining them as a space ship. “It’s a helicopter,” says Hot Dog, to which Ponch replies with an enigmatic “Bobby, it’s whatever you want it to be…” Jodi’s mom thanks the lads, and vows to be a better parent, taking back custody from My Dozen Cop Dads, and, oh yeah, aliens are real, and it’s fine. They threw in the possibility of an imaginary friend, but we all saw them; the viewers, the police; as real as Bruce Grobbelaar. I figured there’d be a gang of bad’uns with a fake ship and a Halloween costume, conning vulnerable kids into pinching diamonds, but it’s yet another world where UFOs are certified real and nobody’s the slightest bit fussed. Preposterous. That would never happen in real life.

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 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.

And There’s More…

•October 24, 2020 • Leave a Comment

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In digging around weird old shit off the telly, I spend half my time falling off the end of the pier down various light entertainment wormholes. One minute, it’s the height of summer and you’re watching the Krankies Christmas special, then you realise it’s been uploaded by Jimmy Cricket himself, as was the 1988 Children’s Royal Variety, in an admirable attempt to preserve his own legacy for the aliens who’ll eventually stumble on the ruins of our civilisation. And in rummaging through the rest of his videos, you find a sketch show you’ve never heard of — ITV’s And There’s More — and know, as is your curse, you’re gonna be sitting through it with a notepad and pen instead of hitting the casinos or (consensually) touching a butt, which is definitely how you’d have otherwise spent the evening.

Cricket was an absolute stalwart of television when I was growing up, often as an impression done by other comics, with instructions on how to ‘do’ him even featuring in Gary Wilmot’s guidebook. A ubiquitous guest spot, it never occurred to me he’d had his own show, which seems to have vanished from cultural memory. And There’s More ran for four series, with a supporting cast of aging faces and television noobs. 1985’s first series had the debut of a young Rory Bremner, with Brian Conley in the second, and Joan Sims and Mr. Rumbold from Are You Being Served? in series three. I’ll be watching episodes from the fourth and final series, where, who knows, we may witness the showbiz beginnings of Peter Kay or Dave Chappelle.

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First, let’s briefly examine the character of Jimmy Cricket, which only takes its name from Pinocchio’s sidekick, and not the species’ innate susceptibility to infection by host parasites — “C’mere… there’s a massive swarm of horsefly larvae bursting out of my stomach sac!” Cricket is one big racial stereotype; a flesh and blood tulpa of every Irish joke about thickos called Paddy who sit facing the cistern. Unlike Russ Abbot’s C.U. Jimmy, he’s at least a genuine Northern Irishman, which possibly makes it less bad, and a slight level down from your dad getting all excited doing Snoop Dogg at the karaoke because he knows an n-word’s coming up. Of particular note is that Cricket’s a clean comedian with family-friendly material, which usually amounts to ‘shite you’d read from a Christmas cracker’ and a comedic death-knell, but we’ll see.

Like Norman Wisdom or Freddy Krueger, he picked a look and really stuck with it, with the too-short trousers and evening jacket, red bow tie and flower, one fingerless glove and a buckled hat; and of course, his most famous trademark, the welly boots. Labelled R and L and worn on the wrong feet, you remember them, don’t you? Ah, sure, everyone does. Google “Jimmy Cricket” + “wrong feet” and see what I mean. Except, in And There’s More, they’re worn on the correct feet. Is this a mass Mandela Effect? Or, in Jimmy Cricket canon, did he eventually learn to identify which foot was which, and by 1988 was able to dress himself (albeit requiring the R/L instructions)? In his first televised appearance, on ITV’s Search for a Star in 1980, the character’s only half-developed, with no hat or glove, but the wellies are there, and on the wrong feet, suggesting this is indeed the case. How inspiring!

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Episode one of the fourth and final series aired May 28th, 1988. As with all the videos on Cricket’s Youtube account, he’s edited a web address onto the beginning, from where you can purchase his live DVD. The And There’s More theme tune is — obviously — jaunty Oirish music, but the credits are surprisingly visually beautiful, with Jimmy animated in scratchy rotoscope, riverdancing like he’s in Ralph Bakshi’s Lord of the Rings. It’s not the last time I’ll be surprised by how un-terrible some aspects of the series are. Roughly half of each show’s taken up with Jimmy’s most iconic bits — letters from and phonecalls to his Mammy, which thankfully came before comedy Irish mammies were saying the proper F word and going on about their hairy old muffs. The Mammy stuff is a comedic device allowing Cricket to batter you with Irish jokes about his family’s life in Ballygobackwards; a fictional town of inbred dunces originally used by Irish comedians Jimmie O’Dea in the 1940s, and Jack Cruise in the ’60s.

The series was scripted by Eddie Braben — best known for writing Morecambe and Wise’s classic material — and seemingly while he was sleepwalking, but it’s still a step above the fuckin’ trash we’re used to on here. When Jimmy first told Mammy he was going into showbusiness, “the tears rolled down her cheeks. They rolled up ’em as well. She was standing on her head.” Then Jimmy tells us he walked out onto the stage, and “the spotlight fell on me… I was unconscious for 2 ½ hours.” It’s hard to be mad about such amiable dad jokes, which come in a gatling gun barrage that you’ve barely time to process. As the series rolls on, with the luxury of running stuff back, it’s clear that some of the lines might have the rhythm and cadence of jokes, but make no sense; quickly buried beneath the next gag and still getting a laugh because of the delivery — “I’ve got some Japanese people in tonight, Mammy. I might have to do my jokes in plastic.” What?

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I know people generally read these to see me sneering at stuff, and I frequently get recommended the worst things in the world to watch and tear apart, but it’s all so affable and innocent, on balance, I’m smiling more than I am pushing unravelled paperclips under my fingernails. Let’s be honest, half the fun with old TV is being floored by scenes that are now appalling, but And There’s More is inoffensive in a way that’s rare with comedy of this era, perhaps because Jimmy Cricket seems an entirely sexless being, who you simply cannot imagine so much as having a wank. Go on, give it a try.

Seriously, do it. Picture him there, with his trousers round his wellies, flopped back in a swivel chair. He’s typing Y in his browser bar and clicks on the autocompleted link. It’s a Youtube video; a short clip from Countryfile where Julia Bradbury’s in a one-piece swimsuit, running into a freezing cold bog with some hardy butchers. They’ve looped it so I– so he doesn’t have to keep replaying it. It’s five minutes long. Just long enough. He mutes the sound, just in case, maximising it to fullscreen, and within seconds, he’s going absolutely wild down there. Or is he? I’d wager you just can’t see it; not sweet old Jimmy Cricket. What would Mammy think? I challenged all my family to imagine such a scene, and eventually they agreed that you couldn’t, before asking me to leave without finishing my Christmas dinner.

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Not that there aren’t glimpses of darkness inadvertently revealed in the missives from his bumbling family. Read without Cricket’s light-hearted folksiness, they’d play very differently; like the uncle who saved someone from drowning, then accidentally killed them by hanging him up to dry, or the time his dad got sacked from the battery farm by sodomising six chickens to death trying to get the AAs in. The closest we get to a cancelling is an impression of a “midget farmer milking a cow,” where he perches a little “midget farmer’s hat” on the top of his head, standing on tip-toes to mime squirting milk into his eye. Another sketch sees him judging Miss Sportswoman of the Year, with Miss Golf, Miss Football and so on, seen only as bare, slender legs, but it’s all building to the punchline where Mrs Cricket — his wife — a frump in wrinkled stockings, shows up to beat him with her handbag. Unlike your Benny Hills, all the women in And There’s More are frowning in a big overcoat and specs, berating henpecked husbands, and there’s not a single cleavage to be seen.

This series takes the list of sketch show settings and reels off the entire dang thing; hospital ward, job centre, doctor’s surgery, noir detective, library; a travel agent where he sells a trip to Australia for £10, which is a big shovel; building sites manned by Tosh Lines off The Bill, where Jimmy’s eating stew out of a cement mixer, or pushing so many wheelbarrows of bricks, his arms are comically long, like a Vic Reeves painting. Most of the sketches rely on cartoon physics and oversized props, like a wild maracas dance in a sombrero that grows in size each time he leaves the stage. By the end, the hat’s so big, it covers his entire body, with his arms poking through a little flap. I knew it was coming, but reader, I did laugh. The first episode closes with a song — Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree. As you’ll know, I’m always on the lookout for truly unhinged audience reactions, and though it’s not quite Russ Abbot’s squirter, the animalistic sounds when a giant apple falls from the ceiling are a Top 5, for sure. See for yourself.

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The audience are constantly out of control, as during a hospital skit, where the mere sight of Cricket’s wife walking in with wilted flowers sets them off in hysterics, and spend the whole series laughing like people being killed by the Joker’s gas. I guess it’s the 80’s equivalent of full theatres pissing themselves at Michael McIntyre’s observations about scissors and shoelaces. He later jokes the audience comes from “all over… Holloway, Strangeways, Broadmoor,” which suggests some of those big laughs are from Peter Sutcliffe, having a whale of a time on day release.

By episode two, the charm’s starting to wear off, and watching the Mammy routines back to back exposes their cynical construction. In the worst joke yet, his dad’s woken up in the middle of the night crying “I’ve crushed my ribs,” which turns out to be a bag of crisps in his pyjama pocket. In a tacked-on DVD ad from 2015, there’s the same gag but with a hole in his heart/polo mint. Another joke has Mammy dreaming of eating a giant wine gum, “I woke up and the hot water bottle was gone.” In the previous episode, she dreamed she was plucking a giant turkey, and woke up to find daddy was now bald.

At another edited-in Youtube ad for his new CD, where he’s pictured with a lampshade on his head, my mind’s starting to wander. Don’t the sketches, by their nature, go against canon? If he’s such an oaf, how’s he capable of acting? He’s not ‘Jimmy Cricket’ in them, just a parade of generic men. Plus the stories are all over the place. One minute his dad’s hanging curtains outside the house, the next, he’s in prison. Wait until CinemaSins hear about this! And what’s with the single glove? Is it like that lad in Of Mice and Men, who keeps one hand all smooth for touching his missus? In a sketch where he’s wearing a Scrooge sleep hat, climbing into a single bed complete with stuffed Paddington, his wedding ring’s visible. Come on, mate, commit to the character. You can see it in the next sketch too, where he’s having his first ever kiss (as judges rate him from the balcony). Then again, having never kissed his own wife merely confirms my own theory of Cricket’s celibacy.

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ITV’s listings archive is almost non-existent, but I’m certain this show went out in the evening, and not — as the material suggests — between The Raggy Dolls and Count Duckula. When Jimmy got pulled over for speeding, he showed the copper his license; “he says ‘this is a dog license’, well, I’m driving a rover.” He’s playing Three Blind Mice on strings of sausages; he’s chasing a meat pie that doesn’t want to be eaten; he’s walking out of a fortune teller’s tent and leaving his hand behind, so she can “read the rest in bed.” In a bit where Cricket’s a clumsy tennis player, I have to run it back multiple times to figure out why the audience are dying as he walks onto court. In And There’s More‘s time of tiny 80’s footballer shorts, the pair he’s wearing appear comically big — like the sombrero gag — but I’ve lived through Kevin Smith’s jorts and nu-metal JNCO, rendering Jimmy’s shorts perfectly normal size, in some weird time-specific comedy colour-blindness.

As we get deeper into the series, Cricket’s modern-day trailers get more extravagant, and by episode three, there’s a full 4-minute ad — from Welly Boot Productions — for his first ever live DVD, boasting special features like, God help us, ‘Mammy’s letter rap’. Curiously, the boots are on the wrong feet here, and the lettering’s very shabbily drawn, reminding me of an interview with an aging Honky Tonk Man, where a certain angle exposed his stick-on sideburns coming away from his face. But he has updated the act for 2015, with “that all important phonecall to his Mammy” taking place over a cordless; although as he’s well into his seventies now, how old is she? They’re solid stock in Ballygobackwards. The DVD’s listed as MEGA RARE on Amazon and eBay, and you can only get it via Paypal from his own website, or by sending an actual cheque to a physical address. Shame, I only trade in crypto and furs.

07

This is oldschool variety comedy in its purest form, where every other line is that beautiful verbal tick “lay-jeh-men…” and almost every joke involves taking a word at its logical meaning, like when crooning That Old Black Magic, as a prop guy comes out and messily paints Cricket’s white suit with black emulsion. The noises the audience make here are extraordinary, shrieking like he’s being flayed before their eyes. Thankfully, though it always seems the musical numbers will take an earnest turn, the only sort-of non-jokey sequence is a pre-record involving dancing binmen, where I guess someone wrote ‘dance routine with some binmen?’ on a whiteboard, and they went and filmed it and I had to watch it.

But you’ll still mine some good material buried under all the “Daddy’s done something stupid?!” stuff. There’s a particularly great joke in “our cat took first prize at the budgerigar contest,” though it’s ruined by immediately over-explaining “he ran off with the winner!” My biggest laugh came with Cricket wearing a pith hat, named after its inventor, “Sir Basil Helmet,” but only because — like all jokes innocently unaware the word helmet would eventually become become utterly synonymous with the head of the penis — it’s since become absolutely disgusting. The end of Jimmy Cricket’s final ever solo effort has a sense of ‘last show, might as well piss about’, with additional material credits for various names, including Tranmere Rovers, Patrick Moore’s Pianist, Lionel Blair’s Auntie, Old Lady in Bus Queue, and Two Drunks. There’s also a credit of “fights arranged by Sir William Rees-Mogg”; aka father to horrible Tory Slenderman, Jacob.

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In conclusion, it was nowhere near as bad as I feared, with actual laughs to be had, and pleasing guest appearances from the likes of Round the Horne‘s then 73-year old Hugh Paddick, Hugh Lloyd, and the bloke from those Chocolate Orange adverts that parodied Raiders of the Lost Ark. But And There’s More really emphasises Jimmy Cricket as an act that works better in the guest appearances we all remember him for, than stretched out to a series of half-hours, as demonstrated in the final episode, when Mammy’s relating another dream. This time, Daddy Cricket was Tarzan, swinging about collecting coconuts — “and when he woke up, all the brass knobs were missing from the bed!” Or to put it another way, “c’mere… there’s less!”

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 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.

Dream Stuffing

•October 12, 2020 • 1 Comment

[This is Part 11 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart SevenPart EightPart NinePart Ten]

The latest Shitcom entry is a video essay.

This piece 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 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.

Our Show

•October 4, 2020 • 5 Comments

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Lasting two series from 1976-77, ITV’s Our Show was the Bugsy Malone of television, the very Our of the title a metaphorical ‘NO ADULTS ALLOWED!‘ sign swinging from the door handle. Surely intended to be a proto Why Don’t You?, using a team of child presenters the same age as its audience, the result was closer to CBS’s infamous Kid Nation, with a disjointed level of chaos not seen outside of the 1989 Brit Awards. These were not kids off the street, but from the stage school breeding grounds that filled the casts of Grange Hill and EastEnders, introducing future stars, like a young Nicholas Lyndhurst.

It’s telling that this set-up has never fully been repeated. Sure, there have been younger hosts since, but never so comprehensively or with such free rein, and on watching, it’s entirely evident why. If Our Show is remembered at all, fittingly it’s through a famous blooper, with one of its presenters reading ‘Grand Prix off a script the exact way my gran used to — Grand Pricks. But the entire series was one giant blooper, and all that remains is a lone episode which made its way online, dating from 17th December, 1977.

01

The bedlam is evident from its opening moment, cameras bent at a 45 degree angle replicating exactly the POV of waking from a fainting fit, with disorientating pans across a studio filled with dancing children and blindingly bright lights. What am I doing here? Did they kick me unconscious while stealing my wallet and mockingly calling me “grandad”? Every child is in the dead-eyed throes of that dance-style from junior school discos, where you move your arms like you’re skiing while keeping your upper torso completely rigid. This weird jigging kicks in at the start and end of each ad break, like someone dropping 50p into a slot at some off-brand theme park, and all the rusty animatronics whirring into life, limbs bucking, faces lacking any trace of emotion, barring eyes that creak and loll in your direction; “Oh, Christ, they’ve seen me…”

Our four presenters are Veronique Choolhun, Graham Fletcher (fedora-clad brother of Rocketman director Dexter), Su-Su (aka Susan Tully off EastEnders, ten years old and absolutely tiny), and the superbly named Elvis Payne, a much taller black teenager, who’s the oldest by a good few years. From the intro alone, it’s clear we’re in for a wild ride, with everyone fumbling over their words, Tully’s eyes flicking upwards as she tries to remember a complicated paragraph, and Elvis giving us three rapid greetings in succession — “hey hiya, good morning, alright?” — which is tremendous value for money. They’re bobbing up and down to Donna Summer’s Love’s Unkind the whole way through, which must’ve been the main inspiration for Nozin’ Aroun’. Even when they move to a desk like O.T.T., the audience are still ‘dancing’ in the background, marching up and down like they’re wearing in a tight new pair of school shoes on the last day of summer holidays.

02

Though nothing has ever felt as live as Our Show, episodes were recorded two days earlier, which is incredible considering. Handily, I’m watching a raw tape of production rushes, retakes included, which demonstrates the high bar on what sort of errors were deemed worthy of a do-over, in light of the stuff that did make it to air. Although if they stopped to redo everything that went wrong, they’d still be filming it today. This is absolutely top-drawer amateurishness, like public access cable on a TOTP budget, and rife with the kind of awkward pauses, stumbles, and lost, lingering eye contact that Tim and Eric would turn into a whole genre, decades down the line.

All the kids are extremely cockney, and there’s not a single aitch to be found, all with that precocious/arrogant, stage-school demeanour, unprepared for and unintimidated by the adult guests, and obviously unwilling to listen to them, with the next question always out before the previous answer’s finished. It’s impossible to refrain from Alan Partridge comparisons when watching bad light entertainment, but the host/adult interactions reek of the KMKYWAP with the American child actors. The level of disdain isn’t just reserved for guests, with Veronique falling over lines at the start, losing her place, tutting to herself, and handing over to Graham, whose eyes are in a full 360 roll.

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Graham is the strangest presence, continually gurning and showing off, adding little noises and vocalisations to his script, while simultaneously looking like he’s bored by the childishness of it all, and would rather be having lunch at The Ivy with François Truffaut and John Lennon. For those who recall series 3 of GamesMaster, he’s very much his brother’s brother. Graham’s demeanour helps with the dystopian vibe, with a 2000AD sense that kids have stormed the studio and killed all the adults, with what little over-23s survive in the outside world used as slaves to lug wheelbarrows of sweets and comics to the violent young usurpers. It’s a mere five minutes in before the first re-take, the camera woozily swinging off-frame and everyone frozen as Veronique half-whispers “what’s happened?” to Elvis. The first adult voice we’ve heard calls cut. Nobody’s laughing. The audience shuffle uncomfortably.

The first celebrity guest follows a clip from Marty Feldman’s The Last Remake of Beau Geste; a historical comedy that’s not-particularly-for-kids, as Veronique asks the others if they’ve seen any Wilder/Feldman joints. Graham states that he loved The Producers;Mel Brooks directed that one,” he says. Despite the age of its presenters, much of the content belongs on a late night BBC4 arts show, like when Beau Geste‘s co-writer, Chris Allen, comes out for a chat. How often do you see screenwriters interviewed? Especially with not much else on his CV but half a dozen episodes of The Black and White Minstrel Show. The questions are a weird mix of the sort of the inane fluff you’d get on the Live and Kicking phone lines — whether Marty’s “a hilarious character [in real life], rolling his eyes from side to side?” — and weighty topics that further bore the audience of under-twelves, as Elvis gets into contract signings and Zoltan Korda’s The Four Feathers.

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No matter how cool and like us they’re meant to be — it’s Our Show, not Theirs — these are showbiz kids through and through, showing their hand when Allen talks about acting at the Young Vic; “do you know the Young Vic?” “Oh yes,” they exclaim, “Scapino!” Then Allen’s off talking at great length about The Taming of the Shrew and the French Foreign Legion, while behind him, rows of gloomy children in their nan’s knitwear sit slack-jawed in boredom, one literally twiddling her thumbs like in a cartoon. I should note that Allen’s look is amazing; black polo neck under a leather jacket, and the hair of a Spinal Tap drummer.

One minute it’s all highbrow, old-soul takes, the next, Susan’s struggling to read her script, forced to point to a word and ask Graham “wos that say?” She introduces “some new wave to send you to the grave, it’s wiv punk rock, it’s called Wild Youth by Gerry-nation X [sic]!” As it cuts to Generation X miming live in the studio, she scalds the other kids for correcting her, with a “don’t butt in again!” And what an odd few minutes, straight from a screenwriter discussing Scapino to Billy Idol and the lads snarling and pogoing.

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Back after a break, Graham’s wearing a Biggles flying helmet and welder’s sunglasses, while the kids have been joined by Micky Dolenz and Davy Jones, “from that popular group The Monkey!” Look, just mentally insert “[sic]” after every quote. The camera pans up the steps, as though expecting the Monkees to walk down, but they’re already at the desk, so a floor manager cuts the interview with “I think they want you to walk in, actually.” Monkees superfan Elvis asks what Peter and Mike are up to; “I know Mike’s a musician now… still,” and the pair are in promoting a Harry Nilsson musical they’re starring in called The Point! I looked it up, and it’s extremely ‘here’s a failed musical from the seventies that nobody remembers’.

The Point! is a fable that tells the story of a boy named Oblio, the only round-headed person in the Pointed Village, where by law everyone and everything must have a point.”

Third billed in the cast for this run was Mr. Bennett, the caretaker from Take Hart, and further falling down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, I learn Bennett once wrote a play about Tony Hancock, where in its 2008 revival, Hancock was played by Benny from Crossroads! Incidentally, the clock’s ticking on my movie idea about a pair of aging hippie brothers, played by Dolenz and Terry Gilliam, on one last road-trip to scatter their sister’s ashes on the grounds of Woodstock. Let’s get it done, Hollywood.

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But back to Our Show, Davy calls down a dog from the musical, which sadly turns out to be a freaky blue puppet that snarls at the kids. Susan asks “you were actors, so how comes you went into the singing business?!” and the lads gather round a piano for a number from the show, which confusingly, shares its opening lines with the theme from absolutely rotten sitcom, Bread — “gotta get up, gotta get out…

However, in terms of cataclysmically bad television, this is all merely the entrée, with a main course taking the form of a pre-tape at the world circus championships, in perhaps the most glorious dogs dinner ever broadcast. Elvis is the roving reporter, and it’s frankly asking for trouble having him interview Czech tightrope walker, Rudy Omankowsky. who’s clearly struggling in his second language — “…looks very problem…”And yet, he still makes far more sense than his English interviewer, who’s proffering questions like “now, this tent, it looks bigs [sic] to me, but I dunno, is it a very big tent?” Every single exchange is like this. All of it.

     Elvis: “How come you don’t seem to have more accidents than you do?

     Omankowsky (clearly offended): “What you mean accidents? We have many accident before in my family, but a thing like this, we don’t like to speak.”

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If Our Show had done their research, they’d have found that Omankowsky had lost sixteen family members due to tightrope accidents. Perhaps Elvis will have better luck meeting nine-year-old Becky, who’ll be making her trapeze debut next year.

     Elvis: “And what do you do in the circus?

     Becky: “Nothing yet.

     Elvis: “Have your grandparents been in the circus also?

     Becky: “No.

     Elvis: “What made your mum and dad wanna join the circus?

     Becky (shrugging): “I dunno.”

The highlight is Elvis asking whereabouts in America Becky’s from. “Salem, Oregon,” she replies. “Which state is that in?” asks Elvis, leading to a terrifically awkward pause which goes on forever, until her dad can be heard off camera; “Oregon. Salem, Oregon.” “Oh,” says Elvis, “Oregon.”

Remember, none of this is live. They could’ve just quickly done it again properly, but someone made a conscious decision that this was all okay; that it was broadcastable for Elvis to ask Becky’s dad “When do you first go up, is it Friday or Saturday?” and the reply to come “Tuesday.” On meeting a horse trainer, Elvis asks whether the horse is a boy or girl, and is really thrown on hearing it’s a Polish-Arab. “Polish Arab?! I didn’t know they had horses in Arabia!” Even in fucking voiceover, as Elvis promotes the circus, he informs viewers he’s forgotten the location and the date, and will have to tell us later. In voiceover! At least he had fun watching it being set up, because “everything’s dirty and messy and ‘orrible.”

08

When they cut back to the studio, Rudy Omankowsky’s joined them at the desk, for a cracking intro from Elvis, who adds the guy’s name to the list of things he can’t remember — “It’s Rudy somefing funny-surname, and here he is!” Through gritted teeth, Omankowsky breaks his surname down phonetically, and the whole thing’s conducted at crossed purposes, through pissed-off looks and “What you mean?” Still yet to remember the date of the big show, Elvis asks when it starts. Rudy sighs.

     Omankowsky: “You mean today? Or…

     Elvis: “I dunno. I dunno when it starts.

     Omankowsky: “I start when I was a small child…

Oh dear. To top off the act of pulling a man out of an incredibly busy and stressful period of work to disrespect him on television, as Rudy’s sat there, Elvis outs Graham as hating circuses, and that he’s been whispering in his ear the whole time that this is boring. Still not sure of when the circus championships are on, Elvis does let us know it’ll be live “on the telly,” but can’t remember what time. How hard is it to get a piece of paper in front of him?! Incidentally, the Omankowsky family are legendary in tightrope walking. Rudy’s father, ‘Papa Rudy’ was mentor to Philippe Petit, who walked between the Twin Towers, and was portrayed by Ben Kingsley in Robert Zemeckis film, The Walk.

09

As it’s almost Christmas, there’s a consumer spot reviewing that year’s annuals, where Graham’s absolutely raging about Valiant. “I thought this one was terrible! It’s virtually all in black and white, the whole way through! It’s just dull to look at and a very boring book.” With the switch from b/w to colour TV having occurred in their lifetimes, the kids are fixated on colour printing, and anything less is old-fashioned and boooooooring! There seems to be no script here at all, letting them riff away, with Veronique’s bits so flustered, it’s like watching someone suffer an asthma attack. It ends with some amazing maths from Susan, who tells us Rupert the Bear’s been around since 1920, “which makes it 77 years old!” Note: it is 1977.

You may imagine a show by kids for kids would be fun and laughter for all involved, and that the reason it’s such a shambles is because everyone’s mucking about, in fits of giggles and unable to meet each other’s eye without breaking, but the studio atmosphere is absolutely fucking deathly. Whatever’s happening, the audience are always visible in the back of shot, utterly silent, and gawking miserably at the camera. In the handful of times things stop for a retake, it’s got all the seat-creaking ambience of those WW2 movies where someone’s old nan’s been brought out into the town square to be shot. I didn’t expect to find much hauntology in this, but it’s loaded with it, there in the background at all times; haunted little faces that belong in urban legends about a painting that burns down the house of anyone who hangs it.

10

Calamity follows calamity. Elvis reads out an ad for a local cinema, but gets the address wrong, before being corrected on the opening time too. Graham reads out a news item about a pair of rally drivers who were previous guests — “they finished fifth, that’s great!” Then we get to something which is clearly Graham’s baby, like he’s threatened to ruin anyone who opposes it, in an extremely specific weekly section of skateboarding news. Graham must say the word “radical” a hundred times, with “radical news for radical dudes,” photos of “the Slick Willies team getting radical,” in “a radical book,” and a “radical dudette” female skater being interviewed. This cues another retake, when they start the interview without giving her a mic, and Graham’s questions are hurled like tomatoes; doozies like “being a girl, don’t you get scared of mashing up your face sometimes?

The final segment is a promotion for West End musical Elvis!, putting a confusing four Elvises (or Elvii?) at the desk; Elvis Payne, plus the trio of performers portraying the man at various stages in his life. And what an eclectic cast, with PJ Proby doing the Vegas Years, Shakin’ Stevens the mid-point King, and young Elvis played by a teenage Timothy Whitnall, who’d go on to CITV’s Mike and Angelo, twelve years later. But the way the Our Show kids rudely bumble through puts everyone on edge. At this point in his career, Shakin’ Stevens was yet to hit mainstream success, while Whitnall’s sixteen and ill at ease in front of the camera, so despite looking like he’d shank you with a pissy knife behind the dodgems and think nothing of it, Proby does his best to keep it all together. That said, he does open with a joke to the black Elvis Payne of “I’m gonna take these dark glasses off. Looks like you’ve been in the make-up room too long!

11

For a children’s show discussing a feel-good musical, the atmosphere is one of bubbling violence about to erupt at any second. Payne’s first faux pas is to ask Shakin’ Stevens his real name, to a terse “you can call me Shaky,” and he spends the whole segment glowering like a man who’s about to offer them outside. Coming three short years before he’d wrestle Richard Madeley to the floor, there’s a real sense that, were he of legal age, Graham’s fedora would be booted right off his head. At one point, Graham asks if there’s much dialogue in the musical — there’s not, says Shaky — before the boy states that people would probably rather hear about Elvis’s life, and instead of seeing the show, they could just go home and listen to their records instead.

The hour finally draws to a close with Graham reading out the competition before handing over to Elvis for goodbyes, but Graham stops him as he realises he’s forgotten to give the address. Even on the retake, Graham shushes the others while he reads. Next week’s episode sounds good though, a double-length Christmas special with a bumper cast of Lynsey de Paul, Michael Aspel, Donald Pleasence, Tim Rice, and Roald Dahl; all having to sit through interrogations by kids who’ve forgotten their names. Christ, imagine famed child-hater Roald Dahl with that lot. Graham probably ended up with skateboard wheels for hands and feet while Dahl rode him home.

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