Uncool Runnings

•October 16, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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There’s a particular cliché in film and television that rings truer than the rest, that is, the social hierarchy of the highschool male. Almost always, unsporty, flailing nerds fester at the bottom, as the popular jocks spit at them from the top, with that Venn diagram of ‘sporty kids’ and ‘bullies’ usually a perfect circle. It’s true in The Breakfast Club, and it was true for my schooldays in Sussex, albeit without America’s weirdly fascistic worship of its school sports teams. Maybe things have changed now, and social currency’s accrued with Instagram followers or retweets, or how many wins you’ve notched up in Fortnite. But for my generation, if you were fat or weedy, clumsy or shy, the kids who were giving you dead legs or taunting you over a dead parent were the kids from the school football team.

It won’t surprise you, dear reader, to learn I was not a superstar athlete. Of course, now I’m a strapping warrior poet hunk, doing kale-scented belches on a yoga mat, but I didn’t hit my growth spurt until just before my GCSEs, and was a short, fat, clumsy child, with a mop of curly hair that couldn’t be teased into the trendy curtains cut of the day, and was likened on a daily basis to Nigel off Eastenders. For the lads like me, PE lessons were Lord of the fucking Flies, with but two variations. Either the unsporty types would left to piss about in a quiet corner, as a tacit acknowledgement from teachers that it was a waste of time us being there, or be forced into a team game, where you’d get yelled at “LEAVE IT!” if the ball came anywhere near. On occasion, you might get a kick in, and actually connect with the ball and have it go in the right direction, where you’d spend the next week getting sarcastic cheers of “Weeey! Here’s fuckin’ Gazza!” every time you entered the room.

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Though one of my PE teachers was a genuinely great bloke, the rest fell into that cliché, like Brian Glover from Kes, of being unable to hide their disdain for the last-picked, who they’d probably bullied themselves, twenty years earlier. I vividly remember the first PE lesson of big school, where the head of PE informed us of his hatred of boxer shorts, which “let your dingle-dangle dangle where it shouldn’t dingle.” Consequently, boxers were banned, and would have to come off if he saw them, forcing you to go commando. If he spotted a pair during a game, you’d have to run back to the changing rooms and take them off. Looking back, you know what really makes your dingle-dangle dangle out of the leg-hole of those little football shorts? Not wearing any underwear at all. Weird.

But in of all of PE’s sadistic obsessions with jumping over things, having balls pelted at your face, and making really sure that teenagers were showering, there’s one that seems most Dickension of all through adult eyes. Oddly, its where I found my lone moment of unlikely personal triumph. I’m talking about the cross country run, or in our school’s local parlance, road running. Though we had a massive field, road running sessions involved pegging it all the way around and out of the gate, and then along a busy main road and back through residential streets, until we reached the finish line at the rear entrance of the school. Every winter (it was always fucking winter), we’d be put through this Hell, where me and my fat mates would hobble over the line some 20 minutes after everyone else, limping into the changing room still in our sweaty gear, soaked with rain, clutching at the stitches in our abdomens, while the other kids were already showered and back in their uniforms. Whatever lesson was next, we’d be late for it.

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Back then, naturally, what I really wanted was to be good at sport, which was virtually the only way to measure success among your peers, especially at the age when academic achievements were something to be hidden behind your back. I was forever chasing the notion of getting better, getting fitter; of becoming good and becoming valuable. Girls like you if you’re good at sport, and most of my heroes were athletes — footballers and WWF wrestlers. I went to a weekly ‘soccer skills’ class at the local sports hall, and every Saturday night for years, played in a five-a-side league, into which the only qualification was showing up with 50p. My team was notable for losing every single game throughout every season, and any errant touch of the ball, other than to pick it out of the net, was met with that familiar, sarcastic “weeeey!” During one summer tournament, a player from a team of older lads prodding at my red bibbed-belly with a “Don’t he look like Pavarotti?” cuing insincere cheers of faux-encouragement — “Go on Pavarotti!” — as a soundtrack for every match. I sought my physical salvation in home fitness video, Fighting Fit with ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, making a nightly routine of its circuit of bizarre kid-cardio, though fast-forwarding through the anti-paedo self-defense section, where Roddy taught the best and loudest ways to yell “That’s not my dad!” when being snatched by a street-nonce.

Of all the pointless facets of PE, I was always particularly determined to do well during road running, talking myself up as I ran, to not give up and to keep going, dreaming of the day I’d not be stuck right at the back, finally able to earn a modicum of earnest respect from my peers, and my teacher. But no matter how hard I tried, I was always trapped in that last pack of stragglers. Then it got to year 9 or 10, and suddenly, all the cool kids discovered smoking. As we slogged it through town, with the staff waiting at the finish, those who were usually first over the line now had something better to do with all that freedom; smoke breaks. Out of the teacher’s sight, there were bushes and bus stops to stand; there was an auntie who lived along the route, where they could pop in for a cup of tea and a fag, while the rest of us pounded the pavements. Like the 1980 Summer Olympics boycott, this had a drastic effect on the field, and by the time they’d all stubbed out and rejoined the race, I’d already gone over the line. A hollow victory, sure, but my name was the highest it’d ever been on the time-sheet, by a mile. I was so buoyed by this; by the feeling of having achieved something with my terrible body; that I found myself actually looking forwards to the following week, vowing to try even harder, and to finish even quicker.

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It was the same story as the week before, where the sporty lads couldn’t be arsed, but I gave it everything I had. I finished with my personal best by some distance, and a genuinely respectable time by anyone’s standards. It turns out, the only encouragement I ever needed was simply to taste what it was to not be a failure. Having been trapped as this clumsy, perennially last-picked mess, and like all boys, always dreaming of sporting glory, I finally felt like I might not be so wretched after all. Look what happens when you apply yourself! Soon after that, the teams were being picked to represent the school for cross country, and by virtue of my most recent performances, I was eligible to be at the meeting.

Maybe I was being unreasonable, my ego inflated by flighty notions borne out of one good run amid a lifetime of last places. But if the other clichés are true, why not the underdog sporting victory? We’d all given up our lunchbreak to be there; me, wondering if this might be the start of something, and the sporty lads, who smelled of polos and smoke. The PE teacher clocked me as soon as he walked in. Maybe he sensed I was hanging loose and free in a pair of contraband boxer shorts. It was his duty to select the team, but he began with a speech, during which he never took his eyes off of me. Twenty-five years later, I’d wager this is verbatim. “Obviously some people deserve to be here, while others are treating it like a joke and just want to get out of lessons. Some ridiculous faces here today.” I didn’t run for the school, and from then until the day I left, I never put another atom of effort into PE. What’s more, I write this from the comfort of a pair of well-fitting boxer shorts, and am I egregiously exposing myself? No more questions!

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

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

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Danny Dyer Has a Butcher’s at Aliens

•October 7, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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It’s a miracle I’ve gone this long without tackling the works of Danny Dyer, who’s one of those celebrities that embraces their stereotype so hard, they’ve become an actual cartoon. I’ve often wondered what genuine Italians make of Gino D’Acampo’s Super Mario accent — “Mama mia! I’ve dropped-a the spaghetti!” but speaking as a real British person, Dyer seems like the offensive creation of an enemy nation trying to bait us into war. It’s been grimly fascinating to watch, in real time, Dyer’s transformation from the swaggering prick who once told a reader of his advice column to cut their ex’s face so nobody else would want her, into a swaggering prick who’s a national treasure; and all by taking his terrible acting to Eastenders. If that’s what it takes to rehabilitate your image, Ian Brady should have put in a stint behind the bar at the Vic before he snuffed it, and his obits might have looked back kindly on the loveable rogue who sang karaoke with Ian Beale and come off the Walford FC subs bench to replace an injured Ricky Butcher and score the winning goal, turning a blind eye to all that nasty business with the murdered kids. It worked for the cabbie killer.

(Note: I originally penned this piece before Dyer’s recent TV appearance, where he referred to David Cameron as a twat, and to his feet as ‘trotters’, and was promptly carried aloft through ticker tape parades beneath impassioned cries of “Danny Dyer for PM!”)

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Not that Danny Dyer’s a murderer, but since his recent teatime turns on the BBC have put him on the path from gutter-dwelling punchline into nan-friendly icon, it seems unlikely we’ll get another moment of foul-mouthed accidental-art, like he and Nick Love’s DVD commentary for the abysmal Outlaw, or more of his documentaries. For a while, Dyer was the face of docs for morons about hooligans and gangsters, riding his rep of having played a hooligan in a film once to hang out with ‘hard’ and ‘dangerous’ men, and react to them in a really cockney way. Why fanny about with private school ponces like Broomfield or Theroux when you can have a real life Jim London, stone the bleedin’ crows me old china, off for a cheeky Nandos, oi oi saveloy, look at the milkers on that right sort, and so on? But Dyer’s journalistic back catalogue doesn’t consist entirely of debt collectors with bent noses, as he once put aside the jellied eels for long enough to go looking for aliens.

Danny Dyer – I Believe in UFOs opens on Dyer telling us that “every six minutes, someone somewhere on Erf sees a UFO.” Sadly, it doesn’t go the whole ‘Bono clicking his fingers when a child starves’ and cut away every 360 seconds to show him violently nutting someone from a rival firm. “See that UFO did ya? Ur Fuckin’ ‘ospital bill!” I do feel at home here, in another alien doc that begins with montages of people pointing at out of focus lights in the sky, and a narrator that wants to believe we’re not alone. Consequently, like every celebrity doing a shit investigation, he’s “going on a journey,” which sadly doesn’t refer to an actual ride inside a barrel over the edge of a cliff, but a journey of belief and self-reflection. As we must, the first step of such a pilgrimage is to share one’s mission statement — “My name’s Danny Dyer, and I believe in UFOs.” While Shaun Ryder definitely believed in what he was talking about, the only thing I’ll wager Dyer believes in is making a few bob to play the wideboy while talking to a few damaged eccentrics, and he sets out on his quest with all the sincerity of a bully calling you ‘mate’ while putting his arm around your shoulder so tightly that it hurts.

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Our first interviewee is, as we’re told by Dyer from the back of a minivan, is “a very, very intelligent man.” By his standards, that could be an actual scarecrow, or someone who thinks it’s “could of,” but in a further clue, it’s “a man I was brought up watching… a very old man now, unfortunately. I fink he’s 86 years of age.” As a sidenote, ‘of age’ always makes me laugh for some reason. “An old man of 86? 86 what? Hands high? Penises? Ah, years of age, why didn’t you say?” Anyway, it is of course Sir Patrick Moore, and chances are, on meeting Danny Dyer, Moore’s going to assume the BBC have brought him a primitive alien lifeform. Danny gets off to a bad start, confused by the artwork on the walls of Moore’s country cottage, like a picture of a palm tree, “these caricatures of ideas… what does it all mean? What does it all mean?

But Moore’s an old hand with this alien line, and politely fields the questions with characteristic bluster. Asked if there’s intelligent life out there, Moore responds with an immediate yes. He believes that we have to try and find it if we’re ever to discover life in the vastness of the universe, which is music to Danny’s ears, glad that Moore didn’t say “there’s nuffink going on, boy” and “shattered me dreams,” but given him hope. It’d be remiss of me to not mention how much Moore enjoyed a high trouser in later life, with the waistband almost up under his chin. If he’d lived another five years, he’d have been eating his dinner through the fly.

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Danny needn’t have worried about Patrick Moore taking offense at the low-brow subject of aliens, as he’s got a storied history of his own. In 1954, while holidaying in Scotland, a man named Cedric Allingham witnessed a flying saucer, and began telepathically communicating with its Martian pilot. Allingham’s book about his experience, Flying Saucer from Mars, was a fairly major hit, even covered by TIME magazine, at the height of 1950’s space-brother mania. Allingham was a mysterious and elusive figure, and with a single known photo that showed him stood beside an enormous telescope, investigators found him hard to trace, with rumours that he’d died from TB in a Swiss clinic. But there was one person who claimed to have met him; Patrick Moore. In 1986, Moore was revealed as the true co-author, along with friend, Peter Davies, who’d donned a false moustache to portray the fictional writer, in an early version of the JT LeRoy scam. The big telescope was recognisable as one of Moore’s, though he’d heaved it out of his garden shed, to throw friends off the scent. He strenuously denied his involvement in the affair, threatening to sue accusers, though he never did. Around the time of the Allingham hoax, Moore also starred in Them and the Thing, a flying saucer b-movie directed by Desmond Leslie, who’s otherwise best known for punching theatre critic Bernard Levin in the face on live TV for giving his wife’s play a bad review.

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Invigorated by the hopeful message of Patrick Moore, Danny’s “on my way to look at a very British phenomenon, that’s been causing a bit of a rumble for years.” It better not be that fucking ‘is Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit?’ shite. Thankfully, it’s crop circles, and eager to run around with a few hippies, Danny gets his wish, wandering through an intricate crop design with a bunch of Nu-Agers, where all sorts of energies are being felt. “Wow… feel somefing special’s ‘appened here, din’t ya?” he says, as experts stress that something so incredible couldn’t possibly be man-made; harping on about otherworldly intelligence and energy fields, leaving Danny convinced “a bunch of blokes larkin’ about couldn’t’ve done all this.” It must have been “from that mob up there.

Ah, the eternal battle between believers and sceptics. Now within touching distance of a real breakthrough, and perhaps imbued with galaxy-brain crop-magic, Dyer rages at the sheeple who don’t give any serious thought to life’s mysteries; something he admits to being guilty of in the past, having seen pictures of crop circles in the paper and thought “‘that looks a bit mad’; turn the page, have a look at a pair of tits.” Then he meets some circle-makers, who are alas, just human beings, though one of them’s wearing a flame-shirt which Danny compliments. High on the alien theory, and planning to rush them with “who the fuck do you fink you are?”, Danny’s brought back to Earth with a Roswell-sized bump, when he realises all those power-infused interstellar messages, which could never be made by a man, had been in fact literally been done by a couple of blokes with a plank and a piece of rope.

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But still clinging to hope, having heard about “summink so mysterious, even UFO sceptics struggle to explain it,” it’s onto that boring old chestnut, cattle mutilation. If he happens upon a cow that’s had her face slashed with a stanley knife, I’m gonna need a little more proof. Out in the sticks, he meets the Animal Pathology Field Unit, which turns out not to be a government organisation, but just some men who’ve formed an official-sounding club, like when I lead the Mr. T Bully Defence Force as an eight-year-old. The APFU — never good letters to end an initialism on — turn up at farms unannounced to show off their binder of mutilated cattle porn, and give subtle warnings about “something that is aerial” butchering their livestock. The farmer greets it with the weary side-eye reserved for door-to-door Jesus enthusiasts, before surprising them by emerging with his own album of decapitated sheep, causing an elated Dyer to exclaim “I feel like a Ghostbuster!

Now woke to the real alien presence, Danny’s on a plane to America to meet someone with first hand experience of ETs. But first, he visits a genuine American diner, to exclaim “fahkin’ hell, Jesus Christ,” at an enormous breakfast, while wearing a t-shirt that reads ‘SMUT’, where the M is a silhouette of a naked lady with her legs spread. Dyer’s contactee is the infamous Stan Romanek, who claims multiple visits from aliens, and a body that’s riddled with off-world implants. He plays Danny the famous video, which shows Romanek tip-toing towards his kitchen window like a Merry Melodies burglar, before an abysmal-quality CG alien head peeks through the glass. All Danny can do is drop an f-bomb, and accuse Romanek of mincing too camply in the footage. But the evidence keeps coming, in x-rays of his hip, where a little alien implant is visible, and a picture of him holding a test tube containing a colour-changing “nanobiological organism.” Although, I was distracted by his choice of t-shirt in the photo, which reads ‘I’M A NAUGHTY BOY (can I go to YOUR room?)‘. Most damning of all is Romanek’s ‘leaked’ letter from the Pentagon about Project Romanek, which has been sending alien visitors to his home.

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It’s almost too much for our host, left rubbing his eyes and unable to comprehend, “why is that not splashed over every news channel, all over the world?” For all its blasé beginnings, this simple documentary has shaken Danny Dyer to the core. “Some of the shit he’s shown me in there is unbelievable. He’s got evidence of aliens pokin’ their ‘ead round the fuckin’ windah and havin’ a pipe at him.” He feels like he’s losing the plot, physically shaking and unable to tell if Romanek was just taking the piss, or if his entire world-view just got shredded. In a rare moment of insight, Danny notes that Romanek’s got an agent, who demanded $50k for the alien footage. But now obsessed, he worries he’s caught UFO fever, desperate for something tangible. It’s not for me to judge if the guy was on the level, but since the filming of this interview, Stan Romanek has talked about fathering multiple alien-hybrid children, admitted to faking footage of a poltergeist, and been found guilty on possession of child pornography.

It wouldn’t be a UFO doc if we didn’t go up a hill — “Another hill? Why is it always hills?” — to attempt telepathic communication with them lot up in space, with a bloke called Phil who plays a dictaphone filled with alien languages down a walkie talkie for the aliens to hear. “Could either be genius real,” posits Danny, “or a complete load of bollocks.” Phil plays the alien noises from the movie Signs and everyone looks hopefully towards the sky, while a caption explains that any radio message would take 4 years to reach the nearest star. At this point, Danny’s increasing UFO madness and growing paranoia manifests in getting freaked out by the clouds, which he deems to be scarily spaceship-shaped. But there’s no response from the ETs, as everyone stands around flashing torches into the sky. It’s not even dark, and Danny worries they’re all lunatics. “We’ve got a young cockney, who wants to believe… but nuffink. Not a fuckin’ thing.” Empty handed once more, he suggests the government chuck a few coins Phil’s way, though he’s worried once the aliens land “…and start shaking everyone’s hands, they’ll probably blank Phil… that’ll be the irony.”

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By this point, Danny’s restless, having met countless people who’ve had their experiences, but yet to have his own. Getting desperate, he needs summink to get him excited again, so it’s back on a plane, this time to Washington State, home of the first famous UFO sighting in 1947. A hippie commune at a UFO hotspot seems like his best chance for finding answers, plus there might be “free love and all that.” The same ranch that Robbie Williams stayed at in that period he wasn’t well and got obsessed with aliens, the head hippie informs Danny the overlooking mountain’s got a door in it, where the spacecraft fly in and out. But he can’t just look at the sky here, and first must participate in group spiritual activities, where a nervous Danny, having to open his mind and let go, is afraid of “mugging meself off.”

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As the group opens their chakras with dumb hippie exercises, they start laughing with the mass hysteria of a religious revival. Meanwhile, he’s laughing like he’s just seen someone slip in dogshit, winking at the camera, and makes his excuses before leaving. But outside, he feels drunk and disoriented, “suh-ink’s happened to me, but I dunno what.” For the first time, he’s truly afraid, because when you open up spiritually, “all you got is your brain, and your fuckin’ thoughts.” Everything culminates in a final skywatch, where Danny immediately sees something. “Get on that,” he cries. The old hippie sees it too. Everyone cheers. “Fuckin ‘ell,” says Danny, finally vindicated, “that’s massive, innit?” Now they’re all seeing things; lights, a ship powering up, a doorway to the inner Earth. There are shrieks and woos, and Danny’s seen four or five alien craft. At last living up to the title of his show, Danny Dyer finally believes. “I’ve done it,” he laughs triumphantly, “I’ve done it. That is a fuckin’ UFO.”

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

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

The Other Time Roseanne Got Cancelled

•September 27, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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Whoopi and Ted. Bruce and Demi. Gareth and Norman. But amid the early 90’s landscape of wonderful celebrity couplings, there were none quite like Roseanne Barr and Tom Arnold. In many ways, they were the Kim and Kanye of their time, a true Hollywood power couple virtually printing money, and wearing their brashness like wrestling heels, as exaggerated versions of their true selves that, in hindsight, was just who they really were. Though perhaps a better comparison is Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers, with a reputation as tyrant backstage leaders of NBC’s Roseanne. A genuine classic, which had the young me wanting nothing more than to marry Darlene, the sitcom was almost as notorious for its behind the scenes politics as it was for its jokes. Even now, with the revival pulling monstrous ratings, Roseanne‘s biggest story is the ousting of its creator and star, after the kind of racist tweets you’d expect from that uncle who always cocks a leg when he farts. But imagine if she’d hit back by producing a cartoon, starring herself, entirely devoted to burning the network execs who fired her. Even in this gibbering nightmare timeline of 2018, that’s too wacky. Well, she did it once before.

First, we need to go back a couple of decades. BBC documentary, Feeding the Monster: A Week in the Life of Roseanne, aired on 13th December 1992, and was shot in November of the previous year, during production of the Roseanne Christmas episode. Its opening gives us the single most encapsulating portrait of Roseanne Barr as viewed by the culture of the time, that is, trolling America by screeching a purposely horrendous rendition of the national anthem at a baseball game, beneath a rain of furious booing. Capping the performance by grabbing her crotch and spitting on the ground, national reaction was immediate disgust at the flagrant disrespect of such a holy sacrament, with then-President Bush Sr declaring it “disgraceful.”

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Barr (“I think I did great, and people wanted more”) and Arnold (“she sang the best she could”) sidestepped the usual apology tour, as was fitting with their image as a pair who wallowed in their obnoxious personas, and could get away with anything. Ironically, 25 years on, she’s a free-speech darling of the flag-hugging conservatives that shit their pants when a black football player dares sully their precious anthem by taking a knee to protest police brutality. Anyway, that unrepentant fuck-em attitude was familiar to a nation drowning under gossip column inches about Barr and Arnold’s behind the scenes dictatorship at Roseanne, then in its forth season.

Tom Arnold was a former meat-packer and prop comic who’d been hired as a writer on the show, quickly writing himself in as an onscreen character, and getting married — offscreen — to its star. Arnold was promptly elevated to creative co-head, alongside his new wife, which led to a purge behind the scenes, during which the entire production team was ousted. Feeding the Monster beautifully captures the terror of a group of frazzled writers trying to appease the twin gods of Roseanne and Tom Arnold, particularly head writer Bob Myer, in a position Arnold describes as “the job with the highest turnover.” There’s a sense of banana republic in Roseanne‘s crew, with two of the writers Tom’s old roommates, one the boyfriend of the wardrobe designer, and of course Tom himself, a mediocre comic who’d be creatively out of his depth in a cup of tea, having married his way in.

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Appropriately, each day is marked by a Shining-style caption, in a week-in-the-life doc laden with a growing sense of impending doom. The BBC, whose classic sitcoms were written solo or in pairs, seem intoxicated by the concept of giant American writing teams, punctuating its opening with “FEED ME!” soundclips from Little Shop of Horrors, with the monster of the title, of course, Roseanne herself. So stressful that merely watching turned all my hair white, it starts with a bad table read that leaves Barr and Arnold with faces like thunder, and follows the increasingly exhausted writers as they try to nail down a funny draft, bleary-eyed beneath humming lights in all-night scramble sessions, while the clock ticks towards Friday’s shoot. “We are in hell,” says one, slumped on a couch, exhausted and desperate, though most of them are making $45k a week in 1991 money, and for that amount I’d let Tom Arnold funnel his cold piss directly up my nostrils while I typed.

Aside from the scene where they show off their tattoos — him with Rosey’s face on his chest and name on his arse, and her with ‘Property of Tom Arnold’ across a buttock — the most telling moment comes when Barr discusses the writers. People from NY and California, she says, have no idea about Mid-Westerners like the Conners, viewing them as a “sub-class of people,” and have only experienced working class families through television. Backstage, the trailer park girl made good barks orders with pointing fingers clad in 10-carat diamond rings. In another apposite comment from Rosey, Roseanne is not just “a show about fat people,” but it’s a show that’s “anti-television… anti-media,” and she hates TV because it ruined her whole generation. As for the troubled script, it all comes together in the end, though an end caption states Bob Myer is no longer head writer, and out of the writing team of ten, only one remains. An additional caption informs us the syndication rights have just been sold for $180m.

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Roseanne‘s enormous success gave its star the power to do whatever she wanted, which at the time, was her own cartoon. Forget your weird-arse manga about Japanese girls going to school inside a giant alien penis, everyone knows the best cartoons came out of the early 90’s fad for animated shows based on real celebrities. There was Camp Candy, featuring John Candy running his own summer camp; Hammerman, where MC Hammer got superpowers from a pair of magic shoes; and 1990’s Gravedale High, which will sound like I made it up, but I promise, really did star an animated Rick Moranis, working as the principal of a highschool attended by teenage versions of famous movie monsters. But within this genre was the even smaller sub-genre of autobiographical cartoons based around child-versions of celebrities, like Louie Anderson’s Life with Louie, and the show that chose to put Roseanne Barr’s foghorn personality in the body of a eight-year-old, Little Rosey.

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I hope one day to have an animated series depicting my own childhood adventures, such as the day I met Bill Oddie, or the time me and my friends went to look at a dead body before Kiefer Sutherland pulled a knife on us. Little Rosey aired in the autumn of 1990, a generic ‘kids getting into hijinx’ toon, as an effort to expand the Roseanne brand, by introducing her to a younger audience. The main character was voiced by an impersonator giving it her best Barr shriek, though the actual Roseanne intended on taking over the role for the second season. But ABC wanted other changes, such as adding more boys to Rosey’s gang, and they were unable to come to a compromise. Along with its low ratings, and perhaps due to the weirdness of having Barr’s parents feature as characters, having since been publicly accused by her of childhood sexual abuse, Little Rosey was cancelled after a single season. As the queen of a sitcom empire, not used to losing fights with network heads and tired of their meddling, the decision was not easily swallowed. It’s this retching that spat out The Rosey and Buddy Show.

Self-financed by Barr and Arnold, the 23 minute pilot had 11 credited writers, including two of Tom Arnold’s, a couple from Roseanne, and the guy who’d go onto write Shrek 2 and Daddy Day Care. Consequently, it’s not hard to imagine it was penned under the same strain as your typical episode of Roseanne. Though its cheap animation style seems made for the young Saturday morning audience, The Rosey and Buddy Show aired in prime-time, likely hoping to emulate the success of The Simpsons. However, as is clear from the very beginning, it’s less a cartoon than one giant diss-track against television and its interfering bosses. Incidentally, Roseanne and Tom do the voices, but while she’s playing herself, drawn as an obvious likeness, Tom is ‘Buddy’, a freckled child-looking character with a mullet. I’d loved to have seen the meeting where it was decided poor old Tom wouldn’t get to play himself.

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Playing on their real-life reputation as troublemakers, we begin in Cartoonland, where news of their arrival incites panic in its residents. An anthropomorphised fire hydrant gasps; a gorilla faints; a talking cab, just like the one from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, makes a run for it. The bad guy is a giant purple weasel; the network head of Cartoonland, which I guess is a place and a TV channel? Furious that Rosey and Buddy will “warp the minds of children all over the world!” he vows to stop them, “or I’m not an important guy with a really big office!” That’s the entire plot, as the evil bosses try to no-platform a pair of creative geniuses, in the 23-minute equivalent of those photoshoots where a comedian who swears has got a piece of tape over their mouth.

Roseanne’s earlier admission that she hates television emerges in a slew of digs about the crass, money-obsessed nature of a business that stifles her simple desire to make people laugh. They’re informed “there are ways of doing things in Cartoonland!” and shoved into a giant limo for a meeting, despite protests they’ve not got time as they’re trying to put on a show. Tied to chairs in the office of the Powers That Be — literal weasels, each with the surname Powers — they’re told they don’t belong in Cartoonland. “Cartoons are supposed to be cute!” yells a weasel, demanding they be more like the Care Bears, or big and tough like Transformers. When Rosey plays them a skit, hoping to get a few laughs, “cartoons aren’t about laughs,” spits the boss, “they’re about selling commercial airtime when little kids are glued to their TV sets!

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By now you’re thinking ‘okay, point made,’ as they’re forced into a show where talking lunchboxes push a sponsored snack product, before being sectioned at the Betty and Veronica Clinic. There’s a brief reference to the national anthem incident, before they walk into a padded cell filled with old cartoon characters, locked away because “all we wanted to do was get a few laughs.” Even Tom and Jerry are there, with Jerry hitting Tom with a hammer, and a sarcastic Rosey asking “but where are the redeeming social values?” Those aren’t the only ‘celebrity’ cartoon cameos, with appearances from Beetlejuice (voiced by his regular actor, but oddly green-skinned, for copyright reasons), Droopy, and even the Care Bears, with a “there goes the neighbourhood!” as Rosey and Buddy’s caravan crashes through their picnic.

After a couple more terrible sketches — Rosey as a lawyer for female fairytale characters, suggesting to Alice that the White Rabbit “forced you to take diuretics” to fit through a tiny hole; Buddy reporting on a palimony suit by a fox who had an affair with a duck — the end credits are finally within sight. Rosey breaks out all the old characters from the asylum, and they come for the Powers That Be with massive cartoon hammers, leaving her and Buddy free to spread their laffs and artistic genius all across Cartoonland like a malfunctioning sewage pipe.

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It won’t knock you off your feet to learn the pilot aired to terrible reviews, and was not picked up as a full series. Amid the bitter personal snipes, there were some valid, if hoary old points about the commercial nature of kids TV, with fake commercials where sickly green kids are revitalised by sugary cereal, and a throwaway line about a Desert Storm Barbie. As such a singly-focussed product, it’s hard to imagine where The Rosey and Buddy Show would have gone if it’d been gotten more episodes, with barely enough mileage in the meta angle for 23 minutes. If comics should always punching up, they were punching sideways at best, taking aim at the Powers That Be, while simultaneously welding huge amounts of stroke themselves; enough to get this abomination produced and onto screens. This is even alluded to in a gag which seems to reference Roseanne‘s charges of nepotism, when a terribly drawn stick man lumbers into frame, which Rosey blames on Buddy hiring his brother as an animator.

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Roseanne and Tom went through a caustic public divorce in 1994, and he promptly left the show. These days, she’s using that loud-and-proud outrageousness to be racist and believe everything she reads on Infowars, while he’s on the other side, pretending he’s going to bring down the government by finding tapes from his time on The Apprentice of Trump saying the n-word, as if President Pissbaby couldn’t just say it live on Fox News right now with zero consequences. With Roseanne reeling from another battle with the weasels, getting ousted from the wildly successful revival of her own show, maybe she should take aim at all those network heads and triggered snowflake libs with another cartoon. Picture this; it’s Scooby-Doo, except with Roseanne in a van, trying to stop Hillary Clinton from performing Satanic blood drinking rituals that turn our frogs gay, while also battling a team of Soros-funded Antifa goons. Roseanne, you in? I want an exec producer credit, but I’m not willing to marry for it. Unless Darlene’s interested.

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

There’s tens of thousands of words worth of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British light entertainment-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too.

Baywatch does Body Image Issues

•September 19, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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I couldn’t stay away. I think we all knew, once I watched the Hulk Hogan episode and realised how gloriously stupid a show it was, that I’d be coming back to Baywatch. But it ran for so long, and the episode guide is a wonder of earthquakes and sea monsters and bungee jump contests, where to begin? How about an hour revolving around body image issues they are ill-equipped to tackle, and guest starring a dog?

As perverse as I may seem; like a man with a rhino-hide penis; I’m not that au fait with Baywatch beyond the cultural bullet points. Barring Hasselhoff, this is an entirely different cast to Bash at the Beach, which aired five years after this episode, 1991’s rather threateningly titled Thin or Die. Pamela Anderson, so tied to the image of the show, is still a year away from filling the blonde lifeguard role. In her place is Erika Eleniak, who you may remember from Steven Seagal’s Under Siege, but is best recalled by me for some lad at school trying to sell Amiga floppy disks containing pictures of her in the nuddie. Also starring is the amazingly named Billy Warlock, fresh off Brian Yuzna’s fantastic Society; and as Hasselhoff’s son, a young Jeremy Jackson, last seen being thrown off Celebrity Big Brother UK for exposing the breasts of a woman who was helping him vomit. Eleniak is the only woman in the credits, full of old smilin’ white dude police chiefs and whatnot, in contrast to those later casts with Hasselhoff amid a literal harem of swimsuit models.

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This is not the boob-obsessed Baywatch of popular legend, which clearly evolved over time. Not so crazily-focussed on the female body, even the iconic red swimsuits are less revealing, with little shorts that offer more modest coverage than the better-remembered cameltoe years. Clearly the show became more explicit as the seasons went on, making me afraid to look at anything from its final year, in case it opens with a shot of Hasselhoff cranking on a speculum, like that time I turned over to watch Black Mirror and accidentally caught the end of Embarrassing Bodies with the close-up head of a glistening micropenis filling my living room in glorious HD. Compared to how it’s remembered, this is essentially 1920’s Baywatch, with slow-mo ankle shots and little changing booths. Even for the easily-titillated analogue naifs of 1991, this is a hard episode to jerk your william to, unlike its prime-era, where you basically had to, just to take the edge off, or else you’d end up fucking the TV right off its stand.

There’s further discombobulation with its weird opening theme that’s not the famous “I’ll be there,” and the opening credits run a full two minutes, which is a shrugging admission of “we ain’t got a lotta content!” As is the deal with this show, things cut between two unconnected plotlines. Let’s begin with the A. Way out to sea, Hasselhoff’s Mitch spots someone in trouble; but better than an actual person, it’s a dog! A literally doggy-paddling golden retriever, which hits me with those two familiar sensations; joy — it’s a dog — and grief — the lovely dog is now long-dead. Mitch dives in for the rescue and rushes back to headquarters “before hypothermia sets in.”

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With no tag, Mitch has to adopt the doggo, which is given the name Sandy by his son, who has the even worse name of Hobie, or to his dad, ‘Hobester.’ And so begins a buddy comedy like K9 or Turner and Hooch, with the mutt forever chewing Mitch’s tracksuit trousers or ruining a romantic dinner with its incessant barking. Sadly, this doesn’t save us from Hasselhoff’s disgusting kissing noises when bidding his lady goodnight, all “mmmhm, mmmm,” like a man playing with himself on the bus in the hopes of getting caught. Sandy torments Mitch, disobeying his every command, and forcing him to lay awake by loudly ruffing from his laundry room cell. Incidentally, while he’s laying in bed, doesn’t Mitch’s shadow look just like Jay Leno?

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Eventually, a furious Mitch leaps out of bed to accost Sandy with the brilliant question to scream at a dog, “WHAT IS IT? WHAT DO YOU WANT? WHAT IS THE STORY?!” The dog makes a run for it, and a surfboard magically falls in such a way to barricade Mitch in the laundry room, while Sandy adorably wraps himself in a blanket on Mitch’s bed before going to sleep. Aww! (that dog is just bones now) Curiously, while Mitch was cooking his soon-to-be-ruined dinner, we cut in midway through one of those “…dangerous escaped prisoners…” newsflashes on the TV, complete with skeezy-looking mugshots. Is that dog a fucking jewel thief? After some Three Stooges slapstick, where the dog gives Mitch’s cop mate the run around on the beach — hiding in an oil drum; disguising itself with a hat — two shifty-looking fellows cause him to bark in recognition. Yes, it’s the escaped criminals from the telly. “It can’t be…” says one, before they make their escape in a boat, with Sandy giving chase.

Thankfully, Sandy wasn’t a criminal, which would have been devastating, but the victim, with the goons having kidnapped his owner and stolen her boat. Mitch (along with Sandy and the cop) give chase in a speedboat and both groups immediately start shooting at each other. Mitch peels off his shirt and boards the baddies’ boat like a pirate, overpowering them, where he’s led below deck by Sandy to find an old lady in a cupboard. Reunited with her beloved Henry — Sandy’s real name — I discover there’s nothing you can’t stick a dog in that I won’t cry over. Sat here in tears over fucking Baywatch. Mitch blows off the old lady’s offer of a thank-you meal, for a date with his girlfriend, having been robbed of sex the previous night by Sandy’s barking. Despite his overinflated bollocks being one sperm away from destroying the harbour like a WW2 naval mine, she won’t take no for an answer; “I’m gonna fix you a whiskey stew. It sticks to the ribs, boy!

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Speaking of food, it’s onto the b-plot! There’s that statistic about a third of the internet being porn, but some days, it feels like the other 66% is someone having “the best response” to body-shaming. They do have a point. I’m tired of getting shamed about my dick at the library. But the Vanilla Ice-liking, Bartman-doing Neanderthals of 1991 didn’t have the internet to help them get woke. What they did have, was Baywatch. And what better show, known for its unending parade of stork-like perfect 10s with tiny waists and massive boobs, to educate audiences that it’s what’s inside that counts?

We begin with Erika Eleniak’s Shauni testing the compatibility of her relationship with boyfriend Billy Warlock, with one of those multiple-choice quizzes out of a magazine. Please note that I don’t care what his character’s name is, I will refer to him only as Warlock, thereby forcing you to picture him in a floppy wizard’s hat. Of course, they only score 10/100 and get into a fight, where it’s decided they need some space. Immediately throwing a tantrum when Shauni speaks about work-matters to a male lifeguard, he decides to make her jealous. “Two can play at that game,” he tells Sandy the dog, who then sneezes, in a brilliant piece of improv.

Earlier, we saw Warlock call up a message service, and clearly become aroused by the message lady’s wildly over-sexualised voice, as she relayed weather information with the kind of breathy, gasping tones one would only ever use while literally masturbating. Now he’s got a girlfriend to hurt, Warlock invites Sexy Phone Lady to come and watch the sunset, ignorant of the many Cadbury’s Caramel Bunny-fancying boys who got catfished by Miriam Margolyes.

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Later at work, Warlock hears a “hi,” and turns around to see Nicole from the phone, face to face for the first time. True to form, she’s what today would be referred to as plus-size, but in 1991, is signposted in that classic TV ‘here is a big girl!’ way, swathed in billowing, tent-like fabrics and a giant floppy Blossom hat, to emphasise that what she lacks in self-control, she also lacks in style. They might as well have played Baby Elephant Walk and had the camera shake with her footsteps, and Warlock does a very bad job of hiding disgust at the only woman ever to have graced that beach with the temerity to not be a size-zero. Shauni picks that moment to drive by with the hunky new lifeguard, and wishes him a good time with Nicole, with a look of such trenchant pity on her face, it’s as if she’d walked in on him desperately trying to scoop enough spilled paracetamol out of the toilet to end it all.

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Forced out into the light, Nicole drops the sex-voice as they eat at a quayside diner, where a squirming, humiliated Warlock hides his face, unable to even look at her. “I’ve embarrassed you, haven’t I?” she says, guilty of literally just showing up, “I know I embarrassed you on the beach today in front of your friends, and I’m embarrassing you right now.” The suggestion here is ‘by existing’, as she correctly guesses that he’s brought her somewhere he won’t be recognised. He assures her he’s not embarrassed, while virtually dry-heaving. “I owe you an apology,” she continues, “I just wanted to meet you so much. And I’m ashamed of the way I look. That’s why I got the job at the answering service, so no-one could see me.” At no point when she’s describing herself as too fat to be seen in public does he interrupt and tell her she’s wrong, instead wearing an expression like ‘you make a good point!’

Baywatch‘s mixed messages continue as they take a walk, with Warlock telling Nicole she has “a lot of wonderful qualities that have absolutely nothing to do with your weight” and that “all I see is a beautiful person who has a lot to offer.” See, you stuck ‘person’ in there. A person can be beautiful, but once you’re a ‘beautiful person,’ son, you’s ugly. Except, you know, on the inside, which doesn’t count. Anyway, in case you thought the episode’s lesson was about renouncing patriarchal beauty standards and being happy with who you are, Warlock tells her it’s a lot easier to fix the outside than it is the inside.

I’ve been thinking about losing some weight,” she says.
You can do it, Nicole!

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Cut to: the beach, in classic Baywatch slow-mo, as the frame fills with slender bikini hotties, and we intercut between their lithe, delicate bodies, and Nicole, schlubbing across the sand in her big t-shirt. Warlock nods a friendly hello from his perch, but never during this lengthy montage, can he gaze in her direction without the look of a man who’s caught the scent of dog dirts on the breeze. Surrounded by the cavalcade of sexy girls, a sullen Nicole quaffs back a diet pill, before nervously heading down to the water. She’s barely got her feet wet when the music amps up to indicate DANGER, and 0.5 seconds later, she’s trapped inside a thrashing tsunami. Warlock and Shauni run out to rescue her, sprinting through 50 yards of ankle-deep water, where the actress is clearly just laying flat on the bottom to appear like she’s in trouble.

In case you didn’t get that your lot in life when you choose to be over 110lb is public humiliation, Nicole’s traipse back up the beach is the afternoon’s entertainment for a huge pack of extras who follow behind, wooping as she retches up seawater and sobs hysterically. The mob shriek with that kind of laughter you only get in nightmares about old school bullies, hands over their mouths in shock, and there’s even a dubbed line “is that a beached whale?” While it must be a genuine novelty to see anyone on that beach over a size-2, the sarcastic jeer of “Whale! Woo!” as she’s loaded into the lifeguard jeep is a bit much.

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Back at lifeguard HQ, Shauni chides Nicole for the diet pills which lead to her getting light-headed in the water and almost drowning. “You could have been hurt!” she says, cuing a teary Nicole’s noble speech. Imagine that Louie episode, So Did the Fat Lady, except it’s shit, and also not subsequently clouded by admissions of its maker’s penchant for sexual misconduct.

Seriously hurt? I’ve spent my entire life being seriously hurt! Hurt by jokes at my expense. You heard them out there. I’ve always hated girls like you. Thin and beautiful, everything coming so easy. Cheerleading and dates. Clothes that fit. I can’t tell you how many crash diets I’ve tried; how many times I’ve lost 20lbs, only to gain 30 back. A person can only be called ‘lard butt’ so many times. Do you know what class I dreaded all through school, Shauni? Not history, or biology or algebra; gym class… know what I realise now, Shauni? It’s not even the girls like you I hate… it’s me. I hate myself!

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Though everything we’ve seen so far suggests Shauni will respond by puffing out her cheeks and poking Nicole’s belly with a cuttlefish, it turns out to be a bonding experience, with Shauni crying too. Never sure if guys liked her for who she was, or because she was hot, her brains never mattered, and she did a lot of things she’s not proud of. Until she met someone who believed in her for who she was. That person? The Warlock. Nicole tells Shauni that she’s never felt so liked or accepted as when she was with him — I guess during that one dinner where he could barely keep his food down? “He’s my best friend,” says Shauni, his girlfriend who he has sex with. “He’s mine too,” says Nicole, who’s met him twice; once when he was too ashamed to look at her, once when rescuing her from drowning.

The episode closes with Shauni giving Warlock a peace-offering of Dodgers tickets, and they kiss, grossly intimating they’ll have sex before and after the game. There’s no mention of Nicole, who I thought they might take along, and Warlock’s ‘best friend’ will never be seen or heard of again. Literally, as this is her sole acting credit. That thing of having an issues-character appear once and then fall into the void is very Saved by the Bell, another show I’ve written about extensively. In fact, SBTB beat them to the punch with both the fat-panic story, when a plus-sized girl won Zack in a date auction, and the telephone-catfish, when Zack hit on a girl over an advice hotline who turned out to be in a wheelchair, with hilariously Gervaisian consequences.

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Though horrifically misjudged, the worst part of this episode was the lack of Sandy’s credit. Dogs in credits are the best. ‘Starring Pudding as Rosco,’ or ‘Introducing Scruffy!’ that kinda thing. But nothing. I suppose it could’ve been worse. At one point, I was worried they’d have Nicole go mad with hunger from the diet pills, and–

Hey Nicole, thanks for watching Sandy. Where is he?

[BURRRRP]

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

There’s a bunch of posts up, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British light entertainment-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too.

New Kids in The Sewer – When Ninja Turtles Go Pop

•September 9, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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As a nine-year-old boy, I was right in the sweet spot when TMNT hit, or rather, TMHT, with the H for Hero, as the very word ‘ninja’ was banned in the UK, lest us delicate British dandies timorously trickle wee-wee into our knickers. A franchise built around bloodless beat-downs, its wild success caused headaches among the censors for a nation where nunchucks not only couldn’t be purchased, but couldn’t even be seen, a rule which saw the excising of a scene from the movie where a string of sausages was swung around by a giant turtle. Had the Ninja Turtles phenomena begun with Coming Out of Their Shells, perhaps our nation would have been more tolerant.

A touring stage musical, where the Turtles sang and played instruments, Coming Out of Their Shells debuted on August 17th 1990, during peak Turtlemania. With their toys flying off the shelves, Shells functioned as a sort of capitalist Justice League, by teaming with Pizza Hut in a brazen sponsorship deal. The first performance of the show, at Manhattan’s historic Radio City Music Hall, was broadcast live on pay-per-view, which is what I’m watching here.

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The stage costumes are a midpoint between the realistic ones from the first movie, and the kind of thing you’d see falling into a barbecue after a terrible roundhouse kick at a children’s party. The bodies are sculpted muscle, but lightweight enough for the performers to run through simple dance routines, while the heads have animatronics capable of eye-blinks and lip syncing. Well, sometimes. The three banana-sized fingers are too bulky to form a chord, which is explained away in a behind the scenes doc by Donatello building special instruments. Leo’s got a 1-stringed bass, for example, while Don’s keytar keys are triple-wide. At least, that’s what we’re told. In the actual stage show, they’re all just miming with regular human six-strings, with Don’s fat fingers pushing down about a dozen keys at once.

For identification purposes, on top of their unique bandanas, each turtle wears their colour in knee-pads, elbow-pads, boots, and a flap of fabric around their waist, and with a funereal black armband bearing their initial. With denim waistcoats on top of the whole ensemble, the poor fuckers inside must have only needed about one piss a week. They needn’t have bothered individualising them, as they’re scripted with the exact same personality; they’re all a party dude, and the majority of the dialogue consists of 90’s surfer speak, where everything’s totally tubular. The early 90’s was rife with that Cali surf-dude affectation, but as New Yorkers who’ve never left the state, shouldn’t the Turtles sound like gruff Brooklyn cabbies? “Fuck ya mutha, I’m tryin’a eat a pizza here!

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Frequently, the mouths don’t move in time with the words, and often get jammed in a fixed position, gaping open through an entire song, with vocals floating into the ether like the voice of a dead spouse though a tranced Victorian spirit medium. The limited movements of the masks, coupled with the sameness of the characters, make it a disorientating experience, never sure which turtle is supposed to be talking, but as a rule, whoever’s gesticulating the hardest is the one speaking or singing. Also confusing, while each Turtle’s speaking and singing voices are credited as separate performers, the occasionally breathless vocals seem to indicate it’s the dialogue that’s pre-recorded, with the singing performed live. And try as I might, I cannot figure out where their eyeholes are.

Storyline-wise, they’ve chucked in the vigilante work to start a band, after Splinter told them songs were better for the world than kicks and punches. It’s clear the entire Coming Out of Their Shells deal was an effort to rebrand, distancing the Turtles from the fighty, ninja aspects, and shifting to the lucrative medium of music. There’s constant reference to not fighting — unless you have to — like they’re trying to lure in the sort of sensitive, sword-hating parents who made their kids watch Bibleman instead. It’s an odd move, right in the midst of Turtlemania, and in 1990, this was far from a flagging franchise. Any kids who came to see the martial arts action the movie and cartoon were built on would have gone home disappointed. There’s a brief sort-of fight scene with the Foot Clan, but it plays really weird without sound effects on the hits, and is one of those dance-fights, where they’re not even touching each other, and everyone’s swinging with the sort of force you’d use when fist-bumping a baby.

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No, music is why we’re here, with an album-full of TMNT-themed numbers. Usually when I write these things, I end up with the songs stuck in my head for a week; Jim Davidson’s “a bus driver I would be,” the theme tune to Thunder in Paradise; even Cannon and Ball’s Together We’ll Be Okay (a fucking banger). But with this, every song is the opposite of an earworm, so uncatchy and muddy, I can’t remember how any of them go, even while I’m listening to it.

Inevitably, we open with a song called Pizza Power, which features a couple of dancing pizza delivery boys sliding about the stage, before moving onto Tubin‘, a Michelangelo ditty. An ode to surfing, Tubin‘ serves as a reminder that, despite their Valley accents, the lads live in a sewer in New York surrounded by shit and piss, and the only waves they catch down there are filled with turds, tampons, and spunk-filled johnnies. Backed by dancing sharks in hula skirts, Mike remembers to mime to his guitar for about 10% of this number, which includes the lyric “you don’t have to wait for high tide, when you’re surfing on the sewer side!” Now there’s a pun I can get behind. Because this show has made me suicidal. Many of the songs carry messages of positivity, or in turtle lingo, “walk straight, no need to mutate!” while a couple are straight-up raps. In Michelangelo’s Cowabunga, one of those raps that runs through a backstory for each member of the band, the mechanical mouth can’t keep up with the speed of the lyrics, and opens and closes like a dying fish.

Of course, Splinter shows up, and a talking rat would have been a fun character as a puppet, but it’s another guy in a costume; a gigantic, Bigfoot-sized outfit that’s bigger than the Turtles, with the disconcerting animatronic mouth of a Chuck E. Cheese or end of the pier automaton. During his solo number, he jarringly switches from the normal Splinter speaking voice, aka the kind of voice a white supremacist would use during the racially-motivated assault of an elderly Asian man, into a grizzled Bruce Springsteen. He waffles on about pebbles and ripples in ponds, “everything you do makes good or bad rings, and you must only make good rings,” while the big screen shows black and white footage of real homeless people. This must have been a bathroom break for the audience of ninja-craving kids, and a chance for the Turtles to glug about 8 gallons of water backstage. The worst part about this scene is knowing for sure that modern day furries have had some powerful wanks over it, and there’s probably a bunch of pornographic fan art where Bigfoot Splinter is pregnant with Sonic the Hedgehog’s baby.

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Just when it seems like this is purely a naff concert, Shredder finally makes an appearance, signalling the injection of plot, and transforming it into a naff musical. Now, I know theatre is its own beast, but it’s like they saw the Shredder that fans were familiar with and said “it’s good, but what if instead, he was Widow Twanky in a tinfoil helmet?” The stage Shredder is pure pantomime, down to the eyeshadow and Skeletor-esque insults. He calls Baxter Stockman an “Albert Einstein reject,” and the audience “punoids,” and zings with classic villain alliteration, “you pretentious pile of pate!” A hater of music, Shredder’s plan involves the enslavement of humanity with a machine given to him by Krang, that can suck all the musical notes out of Earth and destroy all of the world’s goodness. I mean on one hand, mass genocide and enslavement under a cruel master, but as a plus, we’ll never hear Robbie Williams again. Swings and roundabouts. But I can’t help but think how much infinitely better this would have been if Uncle Phil had reprised his role from the cartoon.

After he scarpers, it turns into classic panto, with the kids going nuts at the thought of the real Shredder loose inside the theatre, and the Turtles — who were frozen in place with Shredder’s magic — asking them if they know what happened, even though he told them not to grass. “It’s true, Shredder is here,” says April O’Neill, appearing in the audience, and instantly drowning in hysterical children swinging plastic nunchucks, with parents holding their kids aloft and thrusting them towards her like she can heal them. The Turtles further stir the delirium, geeing them up with “our friends will help us!” and asking “are you guys afraid of Shredder?” (“NO!”) There are a couple more songs, a horrific impression of Bart Simpson, and some “he’s behind you!” business with Shredder, signalling the Turtles retreat.

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Receiving the kind of nuclear booing you’d see if Harvey Weinstein showed up to present an Oscar with his dick out, Shredder tells the “little snot-nosed brats” that they’re soon going to be his slaves, except for the ones who look “too scrawny.” The kids honestly look shit-scared, and they cut to the crowd for reaction shots like the ones the WWF did when the Undertaker first started, with one kid in a bandana readying to defend himself with foam nunchucks. He says he’s locked all the doors, so there’s no escape, before confusingly telling them to get out. It sounds like there’s a fucking riot in the audience, and with a final “I said get out!” they cut back to a crowd of children who are genuinely scared for their lives.

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One aspect that does work quite well, particularly with the children’s fear and frenzied fandom, is the sense of the audience have gotten dragged into the story. The intermission features Kip, April’s jittery roving reporter colleague, who’s got the manner of a first responder on scene at the fall of the Twin Towers. In perpetual freak-out, he shrieks at a lobby full of children that “Shredder’s locked all the doors and he’s got April; what are we gonna do?!” before arming himself with a plastic glow-sword and heading down to the basement. He scuttles and stumbles in the dark, desperately calling “Hello?!” at shadowy corners, and “SNAKES! SNAKES!” at a coil of ceiling wires. Lost and crying, he finally happens upon the Turtles, riling them up by calling them “a bunch of weenies.”

Undoubtedly the terrible highlight of the show is when they send Shredder out to do some crowd work, kicking off the second act with a full five-minutes of him pacing the stage to insult a literal crowd of six-year-olds. “What planet did you just fly in from?” he asks, like he’s doing open mic at a smoky stand-up club, telling some kid he saw their face on a milk carton — inferring their parent is a kidnapper? — and hitting on a mom by offering her “a one-way ticket to my Technodome,” which is probably what he calls his ballbag. On and on it goes, mocking a little boy for sitting with his female cousin, and thus, not being able to get a date. The fidgeting audience, now bordering on genuine civil unrest, chant for the Turtles to return, while Shredder admonishes them for standing on their seats; “that’s made of velvet!

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Eventually, we get back to the plot, where Shredder unveils his weapon; a grey dustbin with a NO MUSIC sign on it, into which he dumps LPs to destroy all the world’s music forever. After demonstrating how it works three times, he yells “I HATE MUSIC” and breaks into a rap. Like all white people doing a rap on TV in the early 90s, it’s a single repetitive beat all the way through, with rhymes like:

I hate music, I think it’s the worst

The gift of song is a gift I curse,

I hate music, I said I think it’s the worst

Well, now I hate it too. At least this confirms they’re singing live, because he loses track of the beat a bunch of times. Though he does get one of the loudest reactions of the night by name-checking NKTOB, immediately summoning a deafening cacophony of squeals. By this point, April’s tied around the waist with a rope, which lets her roam the stage like a cartoon bulldog, as Shredder uses his machine to steal Kip the reporter’s voice right out of his mouth. Now alone, April further incites a crowd which is on the verge of razing the building to ashes, asking “they aren’t weenies, are they?!” and “you guys aren’t afraid, are you?!” Then it’s time for, possibly, the last piece of music the world will ever hear, with a song the Turtles taught her, to help her not be afraid, April’s Ballad.

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I can only imagine, to a room full of agitated children who’ve not seen the Turtles onstage since the first act, how this went down, but April’s Ballad is the musical highlight of the entire show, and the closest thing to a proper song. She really gives it some welly, and one might feel as though they’re watching Broadway, at least, until the word ‘turtles’ shows up in the lyrics. But then Shredder uses his machine to steal her voice, leaving April mute, and they cut to news reports on the sudden disappearance of all music. A confused NY busker shakes his guitar as though music will fall out of it; birds have stopped singing and all radio has switched to a talk format; and some fucking nerd in a bow tie captioned as “Chester Ashworth, Music Industry Executive” sobs about Mr. Bojangles.

But as they must, the Turtles return to save the day, even though Shredder’s machine saps their life-force, cuing a surprisingly dark suggestion from Raph of “what are we supposed to do, kill ourselves?!” After some in-fighting, where the lads insult each other with burns like “lard face,” they accidentally discover the machine’s weakness was, of course, inside us all along, and that having faith in the music is enough to turn its warning dial to TOTALLY UNCOOL. The only way to win, Splinter says, is to believe in yourself and follow your heart. Michelangelo’s maudlin acapella, Follow Your Heart, echoes up to the balconies, through the entirety of which, his mouth is stuck wide open, like the silent scream of a man who’s discovered the ritually mutilated bodies of his entire family. To finally defeat the machine, our boys enlist the help of the audience, while Shredder threatens to steal all their voices forever. “Prepare yourselves to never speak again!” he says, as the camera focuses on a frightened child holding a plastic sword aloft as though it’ll help him.

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After a call-and-response with the audience for one more dreadful song — “you guys, keep singing!” — the infernal machine is destroyed and Shredder is defeated. He pegs it to an escape pod, but they plug it into the machine, sucking him into a TV. We go out on a reprise of the battle song, with an audience of jubilant kids rocking out on inflatable guitars and rushing the stage, while others restlessly squirm in their parents’ laps, long-since ready for bed. As the credits rolled, I felt like I’d lived through the end of Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey for real, but I now had such an awful headache, I’ve no idea how any of the parents who were actually there survived. Both musically, and as a piece of theatre, Coming Out of Their Shells is an astonishingly awful production, but if nothing else, I must applaud its conviction to continually frighten an audience of tiny children, who merely came to see their heroes in a concert, and genuinely believed Shredder’s invasion wasn’t part of the show.

Sadly, there’s no info about this maddeningly weird stage production to be found in the accompanying Making Of video, which turns out to be a Behind The Music style mocumentary, entirely in kayfabe. Taping outside the rigours of a stage performance allows them far better-looking costumes, though as a consequence, it’s clear the performers can barely move. The heavy animatronic heads loll to the side, and every time they cut back to the Turtles, they’re stood in an odd lean, like they’ve been shot in the stomach, unable to bend at the legs or waist. At one point, there’s an interview with Raphael, who stands slumped against the wall with the posture of a cardiac arrest. They frequently cut back to footage from the live show, where the more flexible Turtles look like a different species. I say ‘flexible,’ but there’s a backstage shot from the tour, where we see the spry young ninjas gingerly being helped up a couple of steps by multiple stagehands like they’re ninety years old.

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They interview real producers and label-heads, selling the storyline of discovering “this incredible group that was playing in the sewers of NY,” and showing them laying down tracks in the studio. Music nerds will be thrilled to learn minor details, like how Michelangelo plays 3 fingers tuned to an Open E. There’s a lot of serious talk about how the label sees them as a band and not just a commodity to be exploited, before the genuine press launch for the tour, where a guy from Pizza Hut informs a crowd of six-year-olds that “Pizza Hut will launch the most aggressive promotion ever done in the record industry to support the Turtles’ new music.” Cut to them playing Pizza Power on the roof of Radio City.

The most confusing thing is when the director talks about the Turtles incorporating Broadway storytelling elements into the show, over footage of Shredder using his machine. Wait, so the Shredder stuff wasn’t genuine and he was scripted to disrupt the show every night? Did they pay him (and make him promise not to fight them for real)? Or did they hire someone to play the role of Shredder? It would explain why he was so dumb and white, and why none of the punches connected. What if the real Shredder had invaded the stage, furious at this fictional portrayal? Or did Shredder really take over the exact same way every night, and destroy all the world’s music in the process? I have so many questions. Thankfully, so did the audience of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

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The TMNT’s promotional drop-in to Oprah, mid-way through the tour, was even weirder than the stage show itself. By this point, turtle fandom is at fever pitch, and we’re told the soundtrack album has gone double-platinum. The whole thing’s conducted in character and mostly unscripted, resulting in a bizarre piece of improv performance theatre. With an audience of small children and a handful of parents, there’s a Santa’s Grotto vibe, with every kid mesmerised at the jigging Turtles mere feet away, half in elation, and the other half in wide-eyed terror. Each song further unsettles the weans, with that confusing switch between their on-mic speaking voices, and the tinny second voice that sings from a distant speaker. Though modern viewers will take solace in the fact Michelangelo is clearly a time-travelling Charlie Day.

With the gang sitting still under studio lighting, we get a better look at the stage costumes, which each have a couple of coin-sized air-holes bored into the top of the head, hidden in the liver-spot paint design. Though I still can’t figure where their eyeholes are. The whole endeavour is clearly a PR push for their new brand as musicians and not fighters, to sell positivity-infused albums to the kind of parents unwilling to buy ‘violent’ action figures. “If you sing a song with someone, you make a friend. If you fight someone, you make an enemy.” Though the adults in the room are nodding, it’s a tough sell to their fanbase, as a little boy with a rat-rail tells them he wants them to fight. Mikey tries to sooth him with “if you get pushed in a corner and there’s no other recourse, you gotta fight… but we’d rather not fight.” “Mmm-hmm” says the kid, clearly deciding at that moment he’s making the switch to Power Rangers.

But they can’t get away with a whole show of “stay in school, read; don’t skip class and hang out with bad dudes,” and Oprah soon takes them to task with her brand of hard-hitting journalism, warping reality by asking how they can be in a cartoon, but also here in person. They show a clip from the movie, with the really good costumes and the Japanese Shredder, and I wonder if she’s going to eviscerate them like she did James Frey and demand an explanation. April joins the lads onstage, and tries to keep things on track, under Oprah’s questioning of possible romantic dalliances. It’s established in the later Q&A that the Turtles are 14-15 ½ in human years and 3-4 in turtle years, so April keeps it clean and plays like they’re all just friends, but Oprah keeps pushing it. Raph tells her he’s been unsuccessfully trying to talk April “into an interspecies relationship for months,” adding “the biggest problem is she can’t hold her breath long enough, you know what I’m sayin’?” to which they make this cut to the audience.

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A panicking April states that, as a reporter, “the good thing about these guys is that, they’re not black or white; they’re green,” and there’s a brief Shredder cameo, where he cackles and threatens the Turtles to “follow you all over the city, to destroy your totally tepid turtle tunes!” Then he just blatantly lists tour dates “When you’re in Boston, I’ll be there. When you’re in Miami, I’ll be there…” You can barely hear him over the booing, with Oprah leading a manic chant of “TURTLES! TURTLES!” until he scuttles away.

The absolute solid gold highlight is a Q&A with the audience, with questions that have clearly not been vetted beforehand. It’s fascinating watching the unspoken dynamic at play between the performers, who can’t even see each other’s eyes, put on the spot and forced to instantly figure out who answers and how, mentally unpacking pages of PR bullet-points and years worth of TMNT backstory. Leo and Don barely speak through the whole thing, with Michelangelo the clear leader, and he and April getting them all through it. The sort of questions only kids would ask, the first sets the tone with “Where’s your bed? Where do you sleep?” It only gets odder from there, with a recurring preoccupation with the sewer. “Is it dark in there?” “Can you see in the sewers?” “If you live in the sewer, is there any water comes down the sewer?” When one kid asks “has anyone ever caught you in the sewer,” Raph’s weary “What do you mean ‘caught us in the sewer’, dude?” has an undertone of “four years at Juilliard for this shit?”

Some of the questions read like they haven’t even seen the show, like “who made your weapons?” or “who gave you your names?” One kid asks what their favourite pizza is — “Pizza Hut!” — followed literally 2 seconds later by another kid’s “what kind of pizza do you like?” Other questions suggest the musical rebrand isn’t going to fly, with “where are your weapons?” and “if you don’t have your weapons today, how you gonna fight somebody?” Toeing the new company line of friendship over fighting, Raph tells them “you don’t ever purposely want to start a fight, or kick someone in the head or somethin’…” But they just keep coming, in what must be the actors’ personal Vietnam — “are you gonna sing any more educational movies?” and “who’s the coolest guy?” and “WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT SPLINTER?!” Some forgo questions altogether to fling statements at their heroes, like “I’ve got your toys,” or the boy who informs them “I have your soundtrack,” only to shake his head with a huge grin when they ask him if he likes it, like a psychopath. Perhaps the deepest cut of all is “who was your mom and dad?” which Michelangelo palms off by describing frequent dreams of being a baby turtle in a big fishbowl, but sadly adding “we don’t know.”

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Before the show ends with Oprah and a stage full of kids dancing around with pizzas, she makes a grown woman in the audience stand up and explain why she’s wearing a cape, bandana, and green plastic nose. She won tickets to their tour, she says, by dressing like a turtle, eating their cereal, and walking backwards down Michigan Avenue with turtle underwear on her head. Clearly, this was a cruel radio morning show prank, and she was probably kicked out by the box office when they saw the ‘tickets’ were slices of ham.

Though it did spin off into a smaller follow-up tour, 1992’s Gettin’ Down in Your Town, the musical experiment was not a success. Financially, the initial blitz sold a ton of records, but as was constantly clear throughout, kids were in it for the fighting, not saccharine songs about believing in yourself. Decades later, the franchise lives on, with countless reboots, both live-action and animated, none of which saw the green lads put down the nunchucks for a banjo. The message is clear; fuck peace and love and singing a song, let’s all just punch each other in the face. Besides, everyone knows the best Ninja Turtle song has already been written.

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

There’s a bunch of posts up, 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.

New Novel Announcement

•September 4, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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In the summer of 1962, a flurry of monster sightings at the famous Loch inspire a group of volunteers to band together and keep watch on its waters.

That’s more of a log-line than a blurb, but I want to take advantage of serialising and reveal surprises to the audience at my own pace.

Men of the Loch is a Patreon exclusive at the $5 level, and at least for a couple of years, the only place you’ll be able to read it is there. It’ll be a full-length novel, and I’m aiming to post a new chapter roughly every 10 days, the same as Jangle and the $3 pieces.

Tonally, this is a lot lighter than my most recent stuff, if you want a bit of a breather from the unrelenting bleakness. When I conceived of the idea, I’d been watching a lot of Mackenzie Crook’s fantastic BBC sitcom Detectorists, and after dragging readers through the pissy gutters with murderers and vampire-paeds, I wanted to give them a group of characters they’d enjoy spending time with.

That said, this is the final part of my unofficial ‘Evil Men trilogy’ of books inspired by real-life shits, following works about Manson and Savile, and given the setting, you can probably figure out the central bad sod without too much trouble. If I’m including Jangle, then Men of the Loch is my tenth book. I should probably take that as a point of pride, but I’m finding it to be a profoundly depressing statistic.

Obviously it will be out in paperback and on Kindle eventually (almost certainly in 2020), but $5 folks will get first dibs by a mile, and it’ll be exclusive on Patreon until long after it’s completed. Hopefully, when it is published to the general public, I’ll be able to throw paperback copies in as a perk, but I’m still keeping that to a ‘hopefully’ and not a definite, as I’ll need to have picked up way more patrons by then for that to be financially viable, and I don’t want to renege on a promise.

Forteana has been woven through my work since the beginning, so I’m relishing finally being able to go all-in. Loch Ness especially is a topic I’ve wanted to write about forever, and I’m really excited to have people read it. If you haven’t already, hit that $5 subscription, where the first part will be posted soon, and there’s already tons of content. Or if you’d just like to aid in its creation, then you can do so for as little as $1 a month. Your support literally allows me to keep writing.

Cheers.

https://www.patreon.com/franticplanet

Have I Been Here Before?

•September 1, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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[This is a continuing series about terrible celebrity paranormal shows. Part One is here.]

Reincarnation is a nice idea, and out of all the afterlife possibilities, it’s the one I most hope is real. What better than a chance to respawn and try again if, say, you completely fucked up your life by trying to be a writer, subsequently condemning yourself to an empty existence of failure and poverty? But everyone’s always Cleopatra, and never some nameless serf who shat themselves to death on a big pile of corpses. ITV’s 2005 series, Have I Been Here Before? explores this concept, using hypnotic regression to uncover the past lives of celebrities. It’s an evocative thought, how today’s stars may have fared during previous turns of the cosmic wheel. Could Hulk Hogan have been one of the founding members of the KKK? Was Jamie Oliver one of those fish that swims up your piss into your dick?

Hypnosis is powered by the human trait of being too embarrassed not to do what’s expected of you, be it hen night parties dancing like a chicken when they hear a whistle, or alien abductees spinning stories of bug-eyed greys sticking lasers up their arse. Its use as a scientific tool in past life regression exclusively allows people to remember stuff they’ve seen in history books or movies, which is why everyone’s past life was in medieval Britain or ancient Rome, and not some obscure Turkish hamlet they have no cultural knowledge of. Though they missed the opportunity to call it Who Do You Think You Were?, the show occupied that lunchtime spot just before Loose Women, aimed squarely at the same demographic as magazines with cover headlines like ‘RAPED AT MY OWN FUNERAL‘ and ‘DEAD DAD’S TOXIC GHOST FARTS MADE MY HUBBY IMPOTENT‘.

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Historically, it’s an important series to remember, if only for when its host Phillip Schofield is getting all pompous with guests on This Morning, as the CV equivalent of that gameshow Cheggers did with his cock out. The opening credits set the scene beautifully, with Schofield walking through a hazily-filtered wood and into a magic door, before a Coldwar Steve photo-montage of D-list celebrities in possible past lives, including Barry off Eastenders as Henry VIII, and a Victorian Dr. Fox married to Lisa I’Anson with Anneka Rice as their maid. At worst, this could be a mildly interesting look at the imaginations and improv skills of people off the telly, and the sort of celebrities desperate enough to appear on this definitely won’t just be playing along and pretending.

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The hypnotist’s website describes her as an “intuitive soul whisperer” if you were wondering the tone of this show, but for someone who puts people into a relaxed state, she’s got the shrill, sing-song voice of a dial-up modem doing drunken baby-talk to a stranger’s puppy. As alluded to, because it’s a terrible reality show, of course Shaun “Big Barry off Eastenders” Williamson is legally required to be involved. As a sidenote, I tried to track down that C5 show where he put on prosthetics to disguise himself as a lady, and was sent to a speed dating evening, but it tragically appears lost.

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The session begins with the hypnotherapist dangling a crystal over Barry’s head, perhaps to cure his baldness, and a puff of incense rises to the ceiling as he takes his place on a couch, near a table of yet more crystals. Each celebrity regression has a slightly different focus, with this one all about rooting out past life traumas. See, all phobias, fears and ailments are rooted in incidents from past lives, and by finding them, we can cut those connections and cure them in the present day. For Barry, it’s a preoccupation with choking, which sees him chop his children’s food up really small, and lurch awake in the night, struggling for breath. He’s hoping to cure it by regressing to its origin, which is like going back in time to kill Hitler, except it’s the Hitler of Barry off Eastenders fear of getting a pickle wedged in his throat as he scoffs a big dinner.

Barry looks really comfortable, eyes closed and tranced beneath a tartan blanket, like it’s the best nap he’s had in ages, as she takes him back to his former life. The first thing he sees is a shield, and when asked to describe his clothes, he says it’s armour, chain-mail; “some sort of knight.” The year is 1315, and his name is Richard Florin, making his home in a castle in rural France. “I fight for the Count,” says Richard/Barry, before the hypnotist asks if there’s anyone he loves. “Madeline,” he says, “she’s a lady in waiting.” His revelations are interspersed with flashes of dramatic reconstructions, on a production level of BBC Schools programs from the 1980s. On hearing Madeline’s name, we glimpse a French maiden, and on the not-at-all-leading question of “is she someone you’re allowed to be with?” we learn this is a romantic tragedy, with Sir Barry the Brave forced to admire Madeline from afar, as she waits on the Count.

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We flash forward, and Barry finds himself on a horse, going “somewhere muddy.” Painting quite the picture isn’t he? “What’s happening with the mud?” she asks, which is an odd question in any context, and he tells her there are people fighting in it. He’s battling the English — though he doesn’t hate them — and he’s been away from Madeline for three months. The therapist time-skips Barry to the day of his death, where he can’t breathe after getting piked through the neck by an English soldier. Richard Florin’s last moments on Earth consist of “just lying… lying in mud,” unable to move, and thinking “I’ll never see the castle or Madeline again.” That’s not so bad, mate. In 700 years, you’ll be reduced to appearing on a show about celebrity reincarnation. But what a tale he’s woven; something HBO would be wise to pick up the rights to once Game of Thrones is finished. Though it’s disappointing for me, having hoped the hypnotism would trigger intense memories of a past life as a cabaret diva, and leaving him physically unable to stop belting out Mustang Sally, 24 hours a day for the rest of his life.

Barry wakes with clammy hands, as a string of talking-head psychologists argue that it was purely imagination based on childhood fantasies of knights and warriors, while Uri Geller informs us it’s all real. Einstein proved energy cannot be killed, he says, “so why not believe in past lives, for goodness sake?” For craven sceptics for whom the good word of Uri Geller isn’t enough, the show sends out a historian, armed with Barry’s story, to hunt for corroborating evidence. Now, I’ve seen some bold claims before, but the promise that he’s “uncovered some astonishing facts” leads you to believe we’re getting a tearful reunion as they wheel in Madeline’s skeleton. They don’t, but the evidence is still rock solid. Would you believe, there were battles and castles back then? How could Barry have possibly known?! Also, the historian believes he’s pinpointed the castle (hundreds of miles from where Barry said), the actual count; James I of Barcelona; and believes Richard Florin met his end at the Battle of Bannockburn. Sadly, my own 20 seconds of research on Wikipedia reveals the count had been dead for 50 years before Florin’s unrequited love story, and that Bannockburn happened years before he got shanked through the windpipe.

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Each celeb has a sit-down post-mortem with Schofield, where the pair speculate that Barry was a heroic mercenary for hire, and celebrate finally getting to the root of his choking phobia, revealed as having his throat slashed in a field back in the 1300s. In an incredible example of not seeing the wood for the windchime-draped trees, Barry says how glad he is to be finally get to the root of his fear, having — in his current life — almost choked to death as a child, turning red and being saved by a Heimlich. “And ever since then” he says, “I’ve had a fear of choking.” Similarly, I’ve got an irrational fear of being hit by a car after I got knocked off my bike when I was a teenager, so logically, I must have been run over by a carriage in Victorian London. Brilliantly, there’s a throwaway reveal of another past life when he was under; a Peter Edmonds from Hull, who lived alone after his parents were killed in a car crash, never loved or cared about anyone, and worked in a canning factory until he died of TB with no hospital visitors. Classic Barry!

Another episode opens with original Page 3 glamour girl Linda Lusardi getting her knockers scanned with a crystal on a bit of string. She’s not a believer, but “quite open to spirituality,” so who knows what past lives she might uncover? Perhaps an Egyptian princess, or a Chinese farmer, or a man who killed a load of people with a hammer. Alas, it’s back to medieval Britain, as a ten-year-old girl called Mary. The vivid level of detail is simply astonishing; she lives “in a house,” and wears a brown tunic — “there’s a belt.” But in contrast to Barry’s gentle slumber, Lusardi seems in the midst of a nightmare, eyes scrunched and squirming through pained speech. Mary lives with her brother Robert and their daddy (“mummy’s dead”), and she’s got a gimpy arm after falling on a piece of wood. “It really hurt… I smashed my elbow… I was screaming and crying.”

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We skip forward in time, and Mary’s now 30 with two sons, in the year “one… three… four… six,” which is how we all say the date. Unfortunately, 1346 makes a crossover with Barry’s knight unlikely. Shifting uncomfortably on the couch, Lusardi complains of being cold, “always cold… I’ve dropped my baby… he’ll probably die.” She’s lost four babies so far in this miserable existence, and with another time-jump, things become genuinely unsettling, where a distressed Linda Lusardi weeps, “they’ve all gone.” Children, husband; all dead. Properly sobbing through closed eyes, she emits a wail of anguish, describing the black boils that fester on her armpits, legs and crotch. “I’m dying,” she says, “but it’s nice.” As Mary breathes her last, the hypnotist asks what she’s learned in that life. “I’d have been a better mother if my arm worked.”

Though there’s no historical record of a nondescript 14th century peasant who died of boils, the historian’s wowed by Mary’s spot on description of “a brown tunic,” and the impressive detail of living in a house made from basic materials. In Linda’s talk with Phil, she’s shook by the dramatised recreations, which are just like she remembered, as though this indicates everything was true, and not just the fact whoever shot them was drawing on the same pool of historical pop culture as Linda’s imagination was. But then there’s the spooky connection of Mary’s constant coldness and Linda’s dislike of being cold now. Because the rest of us all love being cold, don’t we? Most of all, Linda’s shocked that she had the same face as Mary. “I didn’t realise in a past life you would have the same outer body, but I did have the same outer body.” But then after all that, she concludes that it’s all just made up. Or at least, “memory cells passed down from generation to generation.

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The final episode I watched (there were 33 half-hours of this shite) featured Joe Pasquale. Pasquale was hot property at the time, fresh off winning I’m a Celebrity, mostly through talking about his ‘Jacobs’, aka his balls, which became a popular catchphrase even cited on his wiki page. Jacobs Crackers/Knackers, “ooh, me Jacobs are hanging out of me shorts,” that kind of thing. Necklace adorned with crystals of his own, toddler-voiced Joe seems the perfect foil to take this nu-age piffle seriously, and regresses back to 1917, where he’s a lad called Samuel. Asked if he’s got a surname, Samuel replies with the immediacy of an old west quick draw; “Jacobs.”

In the equivalent of me reliving my past life as Billy Cum, Pasquale takes us through the world of young Samuel Bollocks, with a rapid string of specifics, including names, full street addresses, and a harrowing account of WW1 trench warfare — “people died… nurse… nurse…” After taking one in the shoulder, Jacobs is sent home, and lives out his days running his own food shop. When asked if he’s got a family, “I’ve got a van,” he says, snickering. She tries again, asking if he met anyone. “No,” says Samuel. “Got a van. I like driving me van.” The rest of the session consists of a corpsing Joe Pasquale endlessly waffling on about his big grey van, and Samuel dies with the final musing on life that “it was okay… just looked after me mum.”

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For once, the historian’s got plenty to work with, with both Samuel’s full home address, and the address of his shop. There’s no record of these places existing. But then there’s the license plate of his beloved van, which they hope to trace back to its owner. It doesn’t contain enough characters, and is in a nonsensical order. Fine. However, there’s still hope, as Samuel talked of having his photo taken, and they play it up as incredible that Pasquale could have known cameras existed back then. They even find that grey vans were around in those days, and you couldn’t know something like that without having driven one in the past! Pasquale’s chat with Phil does bring up the whole Jacobs issue, and that, along with Samuel’s shop being on Stella Street, and his local boozer being the Jacobean Arms, rather brilliantly renders the entire exercise one massive, subconscious joke about men’s testicles. And yet, in an amazing example of that nu-Ager, conspiracy-buff thinking, where everything ‘spiritual’ or fringe must all be true, our soul-whispering hypnotherapist remains convinced that Joe’s past life was 100% real. Joe’s got a family now, having learned from the lonely mistakes of Samuel, who only had a van, see?

Though this show hasn’t changed my perception on the reality of reincarnation, it’s only further made me wish it were true. In this life, I can’t even drive, but just think, someday, in some other life, I might even be able to have my own van. And be named after a ballbag.

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

There’s a bunch of posts live already, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as my new novella, Jangle. Please give my existing books a look too.

 
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