Ways You Can Support My ‘Art’

•November 11, 2018 • Leave a Comment

As I’m no longer able to edit the outdated list of links on the right, I’ve compiled some ways for you to help support my pumping out of the literary gold, if you so wish.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

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

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

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

Cheers.

 

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Cartoon Spinoffs – Rambo

•June 17, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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

Writing this latest piece about terrible cartoon spin-offs unwittingly dredged up a litany of embarrassing memories. Around the age of seven, I became fixated on Rambo; the lead character in a series of movies I’d yet to even see. Perhaps the young me, raised by a single mother, had hooked onto a child’s idea of a strong male role model, with his biceps, rocket launcher, curly mullet packed into a headband, and that veiny 80’s musculature where action heroes looked like actual boners.

Despite not watching the films, I knew the character from his place in popular culture, as the reference point for bombastic Reagan-era violence. One such appearance was an episode of Diff’rent Strokes, where Arnold went to a friend’s military-themed birthday party, which had a Rambo impersonator instead of a clown. This caused me to want a Rambo to come to my birthday party, in Sussex, talking it up so much, I became convinced Rambo was coming — perhaps even the real one — and going so far to write invitations stating such, which my mum disposed of before I could hand them out.

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Around that time, I vividly recall a favourite daydream, which involved Stallone dying in some kind of accident, and my classmates coming over to break the news. They felt very bad for me, the noted Stallone superfan, watching as I went off alone to mourn the loss of my idol by gazing forlornly at the sunset, and undoubtedly looking very brooding and hunky as I did. The nadir of my shame came with the television premiere of First Blood Part II. The reason I hadn’t seen the films was simply because I wasn’t allowed. We had one TV and no video recorder, and I had no older siblings to sneakily introduce me to forbidden sights. Regardless, the day before the Saturday night showing, when the teacher asked how we’d be spending our weekend, I stuck up my hand and loudly bragged that I’d be watching Rambo II.

Perhaps, like the birthday Rambo, I thought I could say it into being true. My statement got a shocked reaction I did not expect, and she asked me to repeat myself, before making a big scene of it. “What kind of parents would allow that?!” she cried, throwing up her hands in such disgust, it was almost a parody of her Frenchness, and stomping out of the room. These days, 7-year-olds are probably giggling through morning assembly as they pass around ISIS beheadings on their phones, but the eighties were a different time. Her apoplexy only emboldened me, as I boasted to my classmates that I couldn’t wait to see it, and would definitely be allowed. My teacher (who in previous incidents had called me ‘demented’, and told the class to shut up about Wally off Last of the Summer Wine dying, because she didn’t care) then appeared in the hallway outside, along with another teacher. She pointed me out through the door, both their mouths agape, as though readying to call Childline and have me taken away. Come Monday morning, I sank into my seat as all the kids who’d tuned in to First Blood Part II casually described its gory scenes, while I, of course, hadn’t been allowed to watch.

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Later that same year, after much begging and pleading, I was okayed to sit up for the less-shooty, more-punchy Rocky II, however the soft young me was so upset by the prosthetic eye make-up in the opening scene, I tearfully made my mum switch it off. There is a point to this meander down memory lane, regarding the audience demographic of the Rambo character. First Blood is a legitimately great action drama, with some serious things to say about the futility of war, and was planned to end with the PTSD-riddled Rambo killing himself, as in the original novel. However, like everything from that era, it immediately devolved into a super-dumb series, with a pair of wacky money-grab, high kill-count sequels. But irrespective of how silly it all got, one thing the Rambo franchise decidedly wasn’t, was something for kids.

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Clearly, such an iconic character smelled like easy pickings, if it could be introduced to a younger audience in a form they could actually watch, and launched as a toy range, but as evidenced by Rambo: The Force of Freedom, a family-friendly Rambo is really no Rambo at all. Force of Freedom was another Ruby-Spears production, airing for 65 daily episodes from September to December of 1986, between the cinematic releases of First Blood Part II and 1988’s Rambo III. Virtually identical to Ruby-Spears’ Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos (and airing at the same time), the Rambo cartoon sees our boy leading a team of specialists against an evil maniac. In keeping with the series’ tone, the baddies are a militaristic group of mercs under the umbrella of S.A.V.A.G.E. (Specialist-Administrators of Vengeance, Anarchy and Global Extortion), led by General Warhawk, and taking in a vast number of colourful bad twats. There’s another guy with a metal claw-hand, ninjas, bikers, androids, and all manner of dastardly foreign stereotypes, with names like Mad Dog, Black Dragon, Captain Scar, and most imaginatively of all, Jerkface.

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Rambo’s gang similarly contains vast, toyline-bolstering numbers, but generally features Turbo, a racing driver voiced by Uncle Phil, and Kat (a needless acronym of Katherine Anne Taylor), a master of disguise who, as a girl, gets roughly one line an episode. In a piece of incestuous toon trivia, she’s played by the same actress as Too Much in Karate Kommandos. Each episode opens on an arm so grotesquely swollen with muscle, it’s not immediately clear what you’re looking at. Is it a tumour? A large intestine? Some horrible old bollocks in the bath? No. This is Rambo, in a ‘getting ready’ sequence we see before each episode’s final battle, tying his boots, sheathing a knife, and finally applying the headband, though the shaky movement and slow pan makes it look like he’s having a death-grip wank.

Seconds into episode one, First Strike, I’m immediately taken with the bizarre art style. In close-up, everyone’s inflated with huge, round muscles, but in wide-shots, bodies are elongated and pinched, with barely-animated movement reminiscent of a Victorian zoetrope. Characters often become distorted, with the sense the artists have gotten cramp, or maybe just bored, and rushed to the end of the scenes, as bone structures warp, with inhuman cheekbones and Rambo’s eyes shifting to the sides of his head. The very opening shot of episode one focusses on a dog that looks half-human, like something washed up from Dr. Moreau’s island.

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First Strike is part of Force of Freedom‘s five-episode pilot, centring on SAVAGE trying to invade the country of Tierra Libre; one of those brilliant fake South American nations, like Val Verde from Commando and Die Hard 2. Warhawk’s cronies bust into a village with a tank, capturing residents at gunpoint, as Col Trautman, the only other returning film-character, barks “get me Rambo!” down a phone. Cut to a peaceful stream, where Rambo lays asleep in a boat with a book on his face, until Trautman yells at him from a helicopter, “your country needs you!” and pulls him up on a rope. This notion of warrior-poet Rambo as America’s one man army is the entire show, though disappointingly, his voice actor plays it as a generic action dude. C’mon, everyone does a Stallone; put some slur in it.

They’re met by the president of Tierra Libre, who looks just like Willie Thorne, and set about fighting off the invaders. However, this isn’t the John Rambo you know; a traumatised, cornered animal; but a rather chipper chap with a terrible line in wisecracks for the under-10s. After being captured, he mocks Warhawk by telling him he doesn’t have any friends, calling him “big mouth,” and escaping into the jungle. Harking back to the film, it’s the old ‘the land is his weapon!’ deal, as he leaps onto baddies from trees, snares one in a noose trap (“I don’t have time to hang around with you!”) and emerges from a pile of mud with a slurpy noise to pull a goon to the floor, before running off. That thing of just pulling someone over is Rambo’s main move, in another action show — based on a notoriously violent character — that can’t show anyone getting hurt. Each of the multitude fight scenes sees the swish of harmlessly-ducked punches, and characters being picked up and thrown. There are guns everywhere, but nobody gets shot, with the frequently unarmed, outnumbered Rambo disarming his enemies and safely tossing their weapons away.

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After his escape, Warhawk destroys the jungle with tanks, shooting down the trees like that bit in Predator for a full 40 seconds of orange explosions, which Rambo immediately jumps out of unscathed, hopping on the back of a tank, before jacking a motorbike to jump 200 feet over an exploded bridge. Rambo destroys Warhawk’s tanks with a tank buster, and gets thrown a celebratory dinner by El Presidente Thorne, with the one-man-army leaving precious little for his buddies to do, particularly Kat. In fact, when she’s first introduced to he and Turbo, the lads do a huge double-take, open mouthed like “a woman?!

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Tenth episode, Deadly Keep, begins with the kidnapping of a Nobel Prize-winning physicist (and KFC Colonel lookalike), whose cold-fusion skills SAVAGE want to use for a doomsday weapon. Again, Rambo’s just chilling, shirtlessly hand-feeding a wild deer, when Trautman shows up to bellow at him out of a warcopter, and soon finds himself in high-speed car chases and falling off mountains. Warhawk’s co-conspirator this week, the Count, is a straight-up Dracula. Red cape, Bela Lugosi voice, lives in a castle; the lot. Eventually, we find out he’s Vlad the Impaler’s great grandson, although the real Vlad died in 1477, so he maybe he’s a real vampire? Although, in a metaphor for the de-fanged action of the show, he’s got normal teeth.

Rambo tracks the Count to his funeral parlour, from where the scientist will be smuggled out of the country in a coffin, before chasing him onto a moving train by jumping out of a helicopter. There’s a rooftop fight on the train with the Count’s henchman, a big slow lad called Bruno, who’s inferred to be a Frankenstein, which is totally my jam. The quasi use of classic horror villains reminds me of that choose your own adventure book where Indiana Jones went poking around in Dracula’s grave. Incidentally, what I said about the weird animation? State of this station master.

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Eventually, they follow the Count to his Moldavian castle, disguised as racist caricature of gypsies; “Papers? We’re gypsies! Citizens of the world!” before Rambo rides up to the castle in a hot air balloon Turbo cobbled together from a wagon. Then there’s booby traps, a dungeon sword fight, with an actual pit and pendulum (which Rambo straddles like a horse before using as a massive axe), and they escape by filling a cannon with the Count’s cutlery and blowing up the castle. All this, from the same John Rambo you saw riding into Brian Dennehy’s town in First Blood.

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Moving along some, I skipped to episode 55, Blind Luck, which contains one of my all-time favourite tropes. But first, we must suffer through an endless battle scene, as Warhawk hijacks aircraft carrier, USS Johnson. It’s a strangely futuristic sky-fight between hovering discs and jetpacks, and all the colour of its dumb characters, like Rambo’s ‘Red Injun’ buddy, literally called Chief, and SAVAGE’s deformed mad scientist, Dr. Hyde, who resembles a testicle in a jam jar. This scene really emphasises a show that’s both completely obsessed with guns, and yet unable to shoot anybody. In the Force of Freedom universe, everything has a gun attached, with every vehicle or backpack strapped with an attached weapon, like Turbo’s helmet with missiles over the ears. If there’s no gun, inevitably, a bunch will pop up like little stiffies, with doors and flaps, and at one point, a guy’s chest, opening up to reveal a litany of gun barrels, flashing with impotent muzzle fire, hitting nothing.

07b

After being boinked on the head (like what happened to Fonzie), an unconscious Rambo’s fished out of the sea, and awakes in hospital with a bandaged bonce, to say those magic words, “I’m blind!” He’s coached through his disability by Stacy, a fellow-sightless blonde, and their walk about the grounds of the blind school with matching white sticks is probably the closest the big weirdo’s ever had to a date. But rather than humanising our superhuman warrior, he’s about as weakened by it as Daredevil, fending off Warhawk’s goons with such ease, I suspected he might be faking. “Sure you can get changed in my room, Stacy, I’m blind, remember? I definitely won’t be able to see your arse.” Sadly, Rambo’s condition is cured via the impact of an exploding grenade, leaving him free to take back the captured aircraft carrier single-handed. He dispatches literally dozens of baddies with classically Rambo non-violence, from the ol’ trip ‘n throw, to hiding inside a locker and spraying a fire extinguisher in someone’s face. The grateful navy offer anything he wants in return; say, medals or a promotion? We cut to the blind school, and Rambo dropping out of a chopper to give Stacy a bunch of flowers (paid for by the navy?), which she sniffs out from inside his bag like a dog. “I’m an expert at smelling the roses,” she laughs; “too bad everybody isn’t,” replies Rambo. Eh?

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So far, Force of Freedom is quite the collection of my faves, from classic Universal monsters to sudden and improbable blindness, but final episode, Horror in the Highlands, tops them all, taking us to the shores of Loch Ness. With portrayals like those in Russ Abbot’s Madhouse or Bottle Boys, I feel like the Scottish get a terrible rap when brought to screen, and the run continues with a depiction that’s the full screeching bagpipes and “och aye the noo!” Rambo’s mate, TD ‘Touchdown’ Jones, rocks up to visit his uncle George McGregor’s Scottish castle, which overlooks the Loch from a cliff, just in time to see an enormous green Nessie breathing fire over a boat. Now, I love the monster, and have even written a novel about it (exclusively serialised here), but nobody’s excited, immediately scoffing “I dinnae believe, laddie!

They’re right, as it’s Warhawk’s remote controlled submarine, with which he’ll (somehow?) take over the world! Rambo’s whisked away to Scotland while quietly feeding ducks, with time for a quick PSA about not drowning as he fishes a boy out of the water. With authentically-Scottish lines like “I’ll tear off me kilt if that’s our Nessie!” mad props to White Dragon the Ninja, who succeeds in being an even more racially offensive stereotype — “there is no Rock Ness monstah! I don’t be-reeve in monstahs!” As Warhawk realises Rambo’s on the case, he sends his goons to kidnap McGregor’s Scottish terrier, Bobby; another pitifully deformed creature which suggests nobody who worked on the show had ever seen a real dog. When Rambo goes to look for it, McGregor warns him to stay off the moors like they’re the Australian outback — “there are bugs and animals and all sorts of dangers!” Mostly there are goons on motorbikes, who fall in a swamp as Rambo rescues wee Bobby.

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Warhawk calls his men “a bunch of hair-brained dunderheads!” and “lily-livered bunglers!” before Rambo blows up the Nessie-sub with depth charges. A troupe of bagpipers serenade the gang in thanks as Bobby licks Rambo’s face. “At least we found out once and for all that there is no Loch Ness monster,” he says, as Bobby runs barking to the cliff edge to see — of fucking course — a long, green neck swimming away, leaving Rambo and co aghast.

09b

Seeing Nessie is just one of the many incidents from the colourful life of John Rambo, along with rescuing the stolen Liberty Bell from an evil magician, battling a hypnotised killer whale, and stopping a frozen WWII Nazi who’s an animal/human hybrid. For all the cash-grab stupidity of basing a show on films its intended audience shouldn’t have been able to see, Force of Freedom‘s greatest gift is the knowledge that the same hardass who turned blokes to mush with a big gun in the 2008 film is self-same man who rescued a kidnapped Santa Claus from terrorists. Thank God he didn’t kill himself at the end of First Blood, a film which, along with its sequels, I have definitely seen. And I didn’t cry once.

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

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

Great Moments in Pop Culture – Ricky Gervais Has a Fight

•June 7, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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[Previous Great Moments: “I’m Not a Real Witch”Jimmy Stewart’s Yeti FingerJames Cameron Digs Up ChristMr. T Thanks His Mother]

One day, I turned on the telly, and watched Bob Mortimer beat Les Dennis in a boxing match. No, that’s not a dream you’ve gotten stuck listening to me drearily describe right into your ear on the bus, but a thing that actually happened. The bout took place in 2002, during the heyday of celebrity boxing, in a year that also saw the battle between Willis from Diff’rent Strokes and Vanilla Ice, and other such names as Tonya Harding and Screech from Saved by the Bell lacing up the gloves.

Dennis vs. Mortimer was part of BBC1’s Sport Relief; a Comic Relief spin-off charity that mostly involves Eddie Izzard running marathons until his piss turns red. The show was successful enough for the planning of further fisticuffs, including Darren Day vs. Donal MacIntyre, and Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley against political journalist, John Pienaar, with Hadley warning Pienaar that he’d “batter him.” Sadly, the British Boxing Board of Control stepped in to pressure the BBC, claiming its unlicensed fighting was too dangerous, and that was that. But everyone loves to watch familiar faces clumsily knocking the shit out of each other, and by 2004, it was back with more televisual sights that read like what you see after quaffing a huge block of cheese before bed; Ben Fogle fighting Ricky Butcher; the hottest one from S Club 7 spitting blood into a bucket. Now some years on, it’s the BBC’s initial showing, The Fight, which stands the most culturally significant, having featured the unarmed combat skills of the newly-famous Ricky Gervais.

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The Fight sits in that fledgling era of reality TV, nestled between the launch of Big Brother and the rise of TOWIE/Real Housewives faux reality. Back then, if you were a regular schlub who wanted to be on TV, with no social media to post your aspirational selfies on, you didn’t need to be young and beautiful, but merely romantically involved with someone who was already on the box. Such a landscape helped fill the rosters of shows like Channel 5’s The Farm, which is best known for Rebecca Loos tommy tanking a pig, but should be remembered for a baffled Flava Flav’s questioning of Kat Slater’s real-life ex-boyfriend, which saw a growing existential crisis play out across the latter’s face.

     “What do you do?

     “So… I used to go out with a girl from a soap.”

     “But what do you do?

     “I’m a fireman.”

     “But why are you on this show though?

     “I used to go out with a girl from a soap.

     “But why are you here?

     “Um…

Gervais’ opponent was Grant Bovey, a textbook example of achieving fame through being married to someone. Along with his then-wife, Anthea Turner, Bovey was victim of an early celebrity cancellation, after the pair were handed Cadbury’s Flakes by a paparazzi at their wedding. One snap of the newlyweds cartoonishly gorging on the chocolate was all it took for tabloids to deem them crass beyond repair. If Twitter had been around then, they’d probably have been burned in the streets.

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What really stands out, 17 years on, is how strongly The Fight is the kind of thing that’d be sneered at by the modern Gervais, now seeing himself as a shock-jock Woody Allen, self-seriously hosting the Golden Globes while sipping a beer with a sixth former’s faux-nonchalance to show how hard he is. Filmed after series two of The Office and a year before its Christmas finale, it’s a portrait of the man before he spent all his time asking people if they’re offended — yeah? — before the endless tweets and headline quotes of “just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re wrong;” a line which has become his “I am Groot!” The auteur champion of ‘free speech’ and friend of the Hollywood elite would never headline a reality show against the husband of a TV presenter. And yet, even the brutally honest footage of him sweat-drenched and cowering is markedly less embarrassing than pictures like this.

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Now he’s long-since locked into that character, it’s weird to see him in his nascent form, half an inch from David Brent and yet to self-filter through the whitened teeth and measured media presence, back to the innocence of cackling at an endless parade of his own quips. Unlike the modern war he’s battling daily from the trenches of Twitter, this fight is not against the snowflakes, yeah? It begins with his getting kitted out at a sports shop for the essentials; gumshield, gloves, a protective cup. “I need a big one,” he says, looking at the camera, happy to flaunt his paunch for comic effect.

Gervais’ team is led by Kellie Maloney, putting him through the paces in the kind of grotty gym you’d see in Guy Ritchie’s shitty films; push-ups, heavy bag, and shadowboxing in front of a filthy mirror. He wears a black beanie like Phil Mitchell when he was on the crack, hands wrapped in bandages soaked with the sweat of their previous user, and is beasted until he collapses, wheezing and flat on his back, as water’s tipped into his mouth. If only he’d worked so hard on the scripts for Derek.

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When he’s put in sparring sessions with a bent-nosed ex-pro, his fascinating mindset comes to the fore. Obviously I write this as a coward who’s never demonstrated the girth of my dick by entering into combat, and ever only thrown a punch at the boiler when it won’t light for my nightly bubble-bath, but man, for someone who signed up for a boxing match, he is really afraid of getting hit. A huge chunk of the documentary’s taken up with Ricky’s exasperated team trying to talk him into actually throwing a punch, so terrified that if he hits the guy, he’ll enrage him, and catch a right hand in response.

This trainers try to reach Gervais in pep talks; to convince him he won’t be murdered by his sparring partner, and if he’s going to box, he should learn how to, you know, punch someone. He’s all “but listen, listen, but listen,” bartering and pleading like a kid trying to talk their parents into letting them sit up late. It’s a curious mix of abject terror and macho bravado, promising that while he won’t punch the ex-pro, rest assured, he’ll fuck up Bovey. “I’ll do it on the night,” he says, “I’m gonna knock him out.” When he finally starts swinging at his sparring partner, they’re sailing right past, like when teenage draftees in Vietnam deliberately shot over the heads of their enemies. Throughout his training, he remains too frightened to hit the boxer, wanting to stick to sit-ups and punchbags, and yet, is utterly convinced that on the night he’ll be an animal, and knock Grant Bovey’s head into orbit.

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Speaking of Bovey, though he’s given markedly less screentime, in the brief looks at his training, it’s clear he’s in far better shape; lean and able, and not afeared to throw dem hands. Cutting between the two camps has somewhat of a Rocky IV feel, with Grant Drago all abs and hi-intensity cardio, and Ricky looking like he’s been made to do PE in the rain. In a weird piece of trivia, Grant Bovey’s sparring partner is Alan Partridge’s chum Michael (Simon Greenall), who himself previously fought at a white collar boxing event against a 56-year-old librarian.

The final bout takes place in front of a VIP audience of A-listers, with Gervais’ cheering section consisting of luminaries such as Darren Day, Michael Ball, Davids Baddiel and Walliams, Dawn and Tim from The Office, Ralph Little, and DJ and rapper Mike Read. Across in the Bovey section, he’s got, well, his wife. At ringside, Bob Mortimer interviews Jonathan Ross, who suggests Grant shaves his chest because he’s “a ladyboy.” Topping off the sub-Ritchie vibe, our MC is professional geezer, Johnny Vaughan, introducing a red-robed Ricky, who looks more Hugh Hefner than Rocky, strutting down the aisle to LL Cool J’s Mama Said Knock You Out. The shuffling timidity of training is gone, as he stalks round the ring, chest puffed, chin out, ironically putting you in mind of that Office meme of his own face — “Ooh, you’re hard!”

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Vaughan’s joined on commentary by veteran fight-mouth Reg Gutteridge, who assuredly never saw a match like this, with three 90-second rounds akin to those lunchtime scraps from school, when some lad would get his jacket pulled over his head. A mess of arms hitting arms, its wild swings are demonstrative of desperate male pride; unable to bear the shame of being out-battered, and standing so bullishly close to each other, there’s no room to even crank back for a punch.

To his credit, Gutteridge gives the the shitshow the weight of his serious analysis, until interrupted by Vaughan, as barely-dressed ring girl Jo Guest passes by. “There’s a view viewers aren’t getting at home” he says, lustily adding the pair of them are “getting the lion’s share of the buttcheeks.” A visibly disgusted Gutteridge lets the words sit rotting in a festering silence. The hypnotically awful fight goes the distance, with the high-point coming when Gutteridge provides a glorious spoonerism, hoping for some final round “thud and blunder.” In the end, Gervais takes it in a split decision, capping this strange snapshot of early 2000’s reality TV. Though it’s no Rumble in the Jungle, The Fight was hugely historically important, as testament to the last time in the career of Ricky Gervais that he was seen punching up.

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

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

Being Judas

•May 27, 2019 • Leave a Comment

judas2

On Good Friday of this year, the area’s local churches got together to perform a public Walk of Witness through the high street, recreating the capture, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus. In what would be my first public performance for about 25 years, I volunteered to play Judas. It’s a long gap in the CV, with my most recent credits the dual roles of Fat Man (typecasting) and Jackdaw in a stage production of C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew for a Christian youth theatre I was a part of as a lad. Previous to that, we’d put on display of street dance and mime for Saturday morning shoppers, right in the exact spot I’d be clubbing Christ round the back of the head with a baton some two-and-a-half decades on.

Whoa, hold on — “Christian?!” I hear you ask. “But you’re Blogging’s Bad Boy! A foul-mouthed enfant terrible who’s always slagging off God and making jokes about genitals! And now you’re in a Passion Play?!” Before we go any further, perhaps I should fill in a little of my background as regards religion.

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My first experience of the church is one I don’t even remember. When my mum tried to arrange my Christening, she was refused by the vicar, for the sin of being an unmarried, single mother. He quoted the bible at her; the bit that goes “a bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord.” Deemed unfit to be baptised, I grew up right around the corner from my aunt, uncle and five cousins; all Christians, whose lives were centred around the church. In fact, my oldest cousin, ten years my senior, ran the youth theatre for which I bodypopped outside of John Menzies in the early 90s. The writer/director of this year’s Walk of Witness is his younger brother. Growing up, their house was my second home, and while often a tornado of chaos from six boys pelting up and down the hall, much of my memories from that time involve tagging along to church events with my younger cousin, who was closest to my age.

I figured I believed in God, but I didn’t feel it like the other kids said they did. Though I never went to an actual church service, there were a stream of social events over the years, from youth nights to fundraisers to various one-offs. As was the fad then, I remember a lot of barn dances, a Comic Relief event involving a tin bath and some home-made gunge which fucking stank, and even a supposed ‘Halloween’ night I’ve talked about previously. Mostly, it was kickabouts at picnics down the local park, where my mum would be sat with my auntie, while I was off with the other kids, as the lone ‘non churchy’. Although, this vague edge-skirting was enough for me to get labelled a “bible basher” at school, even getting into a fight over it once. I remember shoving the other kid over, and thinking “it’s not even true…

My prevailing sense of that church, even back then, is that most of the young leadership wanted to be on TV. Chris Evans was on his ascent, and they too were all big glasses and overt wackiness. Occasionally, I don’t know why, they’d come into our school and give ‘talks’ where they’d just recite, word-for-word, Trevor and Simon’s sketches from the previous weekend’s Going Live. One Christmas, I was in the audience for a panto they’d written, and there was bit of audience participation where I got picked out, and was asked to stand up. In my head, I was playing along with the banter, but after the show ended, one of the adults came up to me and told me, rather solemnly “he thought you were really going to hit him…”

However, in that community, my basic beliefs were never enough. Back then, I believed that God existed, and we go to Heaven when we die, or if we’re bad, down to Hell. But unlike all the other ten-year-olds who definitely understood the weight of what they were saying, I hadn’t accepted Christ into my life like they had, and so wasn’t saved. No matter how many times I showed my face, until I started doing it weekly on Sunday mornings, I was always an outsider, playing football with other little kids who’d tell me I was going to Hell; almost all of whom dropped religion entirely when they got to University. Even my younger cousin, all of twelve years old, once saw me looking at a magazine about UFOs. “You’re going to burn in Hell for reading that,” he said, with a weirdly authoritative sneer, “and I’m going to Heaven.”

As I got into my early teens, for a couple of years, I was involved in the summer kids’ club as a helper. One of my primary memories is of a time-filling bit where one of the adults asked if anyone had any jokes. This kid I knew from school put his hand up; the younger brother of a classmate I still see around town, now always murmuring to himself, with a thin ponytail right down to his back. The lady first got him to tell his joke into her ear, but obviously hadn’t quite heard as she handed him the live mic. “What do you call a Russian with three balls? Triple-nika-bollocka!” They rushed that stage to wrestle it from his hands like Herod was about to knife a newborn. My other prevailing memory is after packing down on the final day, being taken aside by one of my friend’s mums, and rather sternly told it was time to stop messing about and putting it off, and to give my life to Jesus. I remember telling her “I’m 13?” in a way that was both a statement and a question. A lifelong commitment seems a bit much when your body’s still yet to settle on a final shoe-size.

02

That church of my youth has long-since disintegrated, and I carried my basic beliefs with me into adulthood. It’s pretty hard, especially for someone from my generation, to have not been infused with that early faith, like the pink tinge from a red jumper that’s run in the wash. It comes first in the form of the easy answers from parents bombarded by a child’s questions of ‘why?’ Why is the sky blue? (God did it) Why are there trees? (God made them) Why did my goldfish die? (he went to Heaven) Also, the truth of a God was pushed by my junior school in a way which seems weird now, like it would make the papers. Each morning started with assembly, with its daily hymns and prayers; every song, every topic, a parable about God (apart from the one that went “milk bottle tops and paper bags…). Biblical stories and the personal beliefs of elderly teachers were presented as fact; as history. God made the Earth in seven days, and Noah filled the ark with animals before the flood, with no mention of Evolution until big school.

I was also surrounded by people who did believe, constantly reaffirming themselves and each other; people who yelled “praise the Lord!” if something good happened, or blamed the Devil if it didn’t. It was like living in the fantastical world of a movie, surrounded by angels and demons, who’d help you if you asked, or destroy you if you slipped. These kind of engrained childhood beliefs, told to you with conviction by adults — by people you trust — are sometimes hard to shake, like those who’ve got kids of their own by the time they realise the ice cream van doesn’t really play music to let you know it’s run out of stock. As such, they stayed with me until my early twenties.

Up to this point, I always looked at the Christians and just assumed that’d be me one day, fully part of this church community, and that all the ecstatic arm-waving and speaking in tongues would suddenly make sense, even though I never felt anything like they all seemed to, and always had these enormous doubts. Those, I ignored, because if there’s no God, then this is it, and we don’t get to meet up with our dead family members or pets, and we don’t get to hang out in paradise for literal eternity. If there’s no God, then dead means dead, and after a (short) lifetime of believing and being told otherwise, that was a horrifying prospect. Eventually, I realised the only thing propping up my most basic belief in a creator was the fear of death. So, I did a thought experiment. Put aside all the worry about not seeing your loved ones again, and of being snuffed out into nothingness, and now ask yourself what do you believe? “Nothing,” I thought, “not a word of it.”

I immediately felt the lifting of a great weight from my back. Thankfully, the quite Godless UK isn’t like many parts of the world in terms of ‘coming out’ as an atheist and immediately being disowned, but I kept it to myself within my family until after my uncle had died. I knew he so badly wanted me to feel something, and be a part of the church family too. Only a couple of years before, I’d looked after the house while they were away and he’d given me a version of the bible told in less archaic, more accessible language, and written a really nice inscription inside. I don’t think he’d have been disappointed in me as such, but at least in the situation, and that was enough.

03

My lack of belief is merely a friendly joke at the first rehearsal, mostly regarding how appropriate it is for an atheist to fill the role of Judas. It’s surprising to me how utterly reviled a character he is to the rest of the cast. It’s like name-checking Jimmy Savile. To me, who counts Jesus Christ Superstar among my absolute favourite films and musicals, Judas is the anti-hero. If he doesn’t grass up Christ and get him crucified, there’s no ascension, and no Christianity. And isn’t it all in God’s plan anyway? Pulling the strings to have himself sacrificed to himself? Anyway, the evening closes with a prayer while I loiter nearby, looking at flyers on the wall.

But (my cousin) Flix’s church isn’t the passive aggressive church of my childhood, and I’ve got many friends there. Not close friends — I don’t really do close — but I go to their houses on board game nights. I sit their dogs. Most of them are around my age, and we ingest the same pop-culture, and though I’m sure I’ve got a rep as a bit of a weirdo with a dark sense of humour, nobody’s offended that I don’t believe. That said, it does still happen occasionally; when someone realises they’re not gonna get you through the doors on Sunday and suddenly loses interest. About a decade ago, following a couple of family deaths in quick succession, my mum went on an Alpha course. She’d tell me all about the friends she made there, and the laughs they had, but decided the follow-up bible study course wasn’t for her. I accompanied her to a funeral, and watched as the Alpha group, sat together at a table, completely blanked her at the wake. Personally speaking, more than once, as the communication dries up, I’ve realised I was more of a soul-saving project than a friend.

But I’ve been involved with stuff there before; building bonfire floats, props for plays, stewarding and submitting work to various art shows and installations; and I’m sure there’s always a hope that my involvement will lead to some revelatory spark. I’m convinced half of them, who constantly see me helping out with these things yet never at a service, think I’m in the least conflicted; a curious near-believer who holds back out of stubbornness or embarrassment, and is due one of those born again origin stories, where you’re standing in the queue at Lidl thinking you might hang yourself when you get home, then suddenly there’s a flash of light and now you’re thrashing around on the floor in spiritual ecstasy. A friend once asked if I’d accompany them to see this showy American preacher who’d flown over from his Texas Megachurch for an evening talk, as they didn’t want to go alone. Fine, I thought. It might be interesting and maybe I could do a couple of funny tweets about it. They took a nap before the show, and ended up sleeping right through, leaving me stood waiting outside, sheepishly saying hello to loads of people who knew me as they went in, each with that look in their eye — “There he is again, still unable to take the leap. Atheist? A likely story.”

04

After the first rehearsal, my brain starts percolating. I was always in for two roles, quick-changing after Judas runs off and reappearing in scene two as a soldier. I fire off a message to Flix, asking what if there was a captain of the soldiers?! He could rile up the crowd, be yelling at the others to put the boots in, and generally be that prick bully-cop you get in every film; it’d be great. And like that, I’ve effectively badgered myself into a new, bigger part. It’s a collaborative process, and we’re given loose rein over how we want to interpret the narration, which is written in rhyme, and sprinkled with gags and funny local references. It’s great to watch everyone getting more assured in their roles, and finding new ways to get the story across with a movement or a look. Peter’s introduction sees him “creeping metre by metre” and at first the actor — a very soft-spoken and lovely older man named David — is unsure, so me and Flix demonstrate sneaking techniques. “Imagine a cartoon burglar,” I tell him, hunched over and balanced on my toes. By the next rehearsal, his creeping is a Scooby-Doo masterpiece. My embrace of Jesus begins as a simple hug, but over time, evolves into my taking him by the shoulders and rearing back for a final good look – “There’s my boy!” The old Mafia kiss of death.

Down to my core, I’m a frustrated performer. Most of my idols are writer/performers, working from their own material. I never wanted to be the great British novelist; I wanted to be Chris Morris or the League of Gentlemen. As much as I aspire to direct my own stuff, I always visualise myself being in it too. It’s my greatest pain that however articulate I come across on the page, in person, I feel I’m the opposite; marble mouthed, with a sinister manner and thuggish appearance. Thanks to my ADHD, my written work is woven together like a patchwork, frantically jumping about the page to tap a line for the ending, half a paragraph for the middle, two words at the beginning; opening another file for a different idea I’ve had while writing this one. Gradually, it all comes together, but that doesn’t work in the 3D world, where I’ve a dozen conversations going on in my head at once, and find it hard to focus on what I’m thinking, let alone saying or doing. Plus, I’m the kind of person who forgets how to walk if people are looking. This performance, with no scripted lines, and the freedom to develop my own moves, is the perfect jumping-in point for me.

Flix, on the other hand, bleeds confidence. When I was a kid, at eight years my senior, he seemed the coolest guy in the world. He had long hair and a leather jacket, and he drew comics (and still does). In adulthood, he’s got the quick-witted manner of an old pro gameshow host, utilised to its fullest in the play, which has the vibe of a medieval mummer’s farce. As one of the dual narrators, he jumps in and out of the fourth wall as a trickster; at one point, giving Peter a comedy uppercut to the gut as a visual demonstration of his guilt. Similarly, Gareth, a South African who’s playing Caiaphas, has an innate level of self-confidence that makes me wonder how much more I’d have achieved if I were like that. He’s an incredible deadpan, always riffing tall tales to bemused bystanders purely to amuse himself. On the first rehearsal, he nonsensically introduces himself to the lady playing Mary as “Laurel.” With this ability to flatly sell a ridiculous lie, he’s a man after my own heart. During the 2012 Olympics, I successfully got various people to believe that instead of building 300 toilets for the Olympic village, they’d accidentally built one massive toilet, thirty storeys high. “You can only get up by helicopter! It takes a dozen people to weigh the flush down. What a waste of money…

At one point, at the behest of a cast member, a line gets changed from “…these bloody Romans” to “rotten Romans.” It reminds me of the time someone from the church told me how I’m always making jokes on Twitter, yet they’d never heard me say anything funny in real life. I explained I’m working at about 5% comic capacity with the church crowd. Most of my material is about paedos or spunk, and in that company, it’s a rare punchline that pops in my head and is appropriate to leave my mouth.

05

By now, rehearsals have moved to the high street, where we’ll be performing. Our town, particularly the centre, has something of a reputation. While the very concept of the British high street is dying, ours is especially rasping and skeletal; a parade of pubs, bookies, and charity shops, sandwiched between vacant properties, thanks to slumlord business rates and extortionate parking charges. The comment section of the local paper is a daily flood of references to the ubiquitous town centre drunks, by pearl-clutchers who think you’ll be killed if you walk through there without a police escort. Though that is mostly bollocks, a friend of mine was murdered a year ago, albeit in his own home. It should also be noted that the Good Friday performance is a postponement from last Easter, after a triple-stabbing involving a group of teenagers, two days before. At the time our Jesus would have been walking past Superdrug, buckled and beaten, someone who’d lay in the same spot, bleeding for real, only 48 hours earlier, was still in intensive care, so the decision was taken to pull it.

This year’s prep sees the same problem as 2018’s, with numerous cast members skipping on rehearsals. Half the reason I muck into this stuff is because, while the church has a congregation of about 400, it’s a scant handful who actually volunteer to help, leaving friends who’re running the things to shoulder the weight themselves. Most nights see a core crew of the narrators, Ciaphas, Peter, and Judas, but we’re constantly having to fill in for others. By now, I know Jesus’ part better than my own. Due to my being the right height and the most Jesus-y looking, a photo exists somewhere from last year’s aborted run, of me testing out the cross, and being crucified outside of The Dolphin — a pub which cites itself the most haunted in Britain, and in which I once displayed a painting for a local arts festival, depicting Bill Cosby suffering a guilt-induced nosebleed.

We run through it in the high street once a week on evenings, moving between the four locations, from the old arcade, where an alcoholic ex-neighbour died after falling and hitting his head, and up to the millennium clock tower. The first rehearsal earns a round of applause from a homeless couple sleeping in the doorway of the abandoned off-license. The following week is the town in its full comment-section pomp, with rowdy drunks and gangs of spitting youths asking “What you doin’?” On my cue line, a motorbike rolls through and cuts off my entrance. A group of kids on bikes stand nearby, curiously watching for a while, before loudly (and one assumes not entirely seriously) bemoaning how there’s “no fuckin’ decent heroin in this shit town!” It’s 5pm on a Sunday evening when a man with flammable breath accosts me, to ask what I’m wearing on my face — at my suggestion, the soldiers hide their faces beneath Antifa style bandanas. He’s in a football shirt and aiming a finger at my chest, as he demands to know what the crucifix symbolises. “Literally what you see,” I say, “it’s a big a cross for a man to go on.” He’s angered by this; angered by us and our ungodly display, and begins quoting verses in Latin, as though putting on a curse. He staggers off over the zebra crossing, berating us all the way. Moments like this, I feel like Winston at the end of Ghostbusters — “I love this town!

06

While this is all going on, I’m suffering a medical issue. Another fun accoutrement of my ADHD is that I constantly grind my teeth, especially at night. Last year, one tooth either side on the bottom finally crumbled from the constant pressure. One eventually fell out in broken shards, but the other, with its top half sheered off by decades of grinding, needles away in my jaw like a hot nail. The dentist is another thing I can’t afford, so I’ve just been riding it out. I’ve never had so much as a filling before, but shattering the tooth in half has left the nerves exposed. It comes and goes, but there have been a couple of bad bouts lately, where the pain’s so excruciating, I can’t think, much less be able to remember cue lines or emote. One week out, the pain’s mostly subsided, though the surrounding gum has become grotesquely swollen. Fearful of it hurting on Good Friday, I spend the next seven days gingerly swallowing a careful diet of yoghurt, instant mash, and Ibuprofen, constantly rinsing my mouth with salt water to stave off infection.

The day before, I’m getting slightly antsy, strapped into a front row seat at the anxiety brain-cinema, which projects a calamitous reel in your mind of every possible thing that could go wrong. What if I go light-headed on my entrance through sudden nerves, and end up fainting or vomiting? Might all that yoghurt come spurting out of my mouth and nose and arse? I have to step up on a platform to embrace Jesus, but maybe I’ll slip, like Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars, except not sexy enough to get away with it. The cardboard batons I made as a practise stand-in have been replaced with the final prop; lethally heavy wood, sawn from a broom handle. Shit, just imagine KOing Jesus for real by mistake.

Late Thursday evening, final on-location run-through sees people filming us on their phones. “Where’s the fuckin’ nails?!” asks a woman so drunk, only the chemists’ window is keeping her vertical. Each scene incites heckling from passers by, most inebriated, and some with a level of anger and offense that I find surprising. It’s funny, but I’ve written before about how irritated I’ve been by public displays of Christianity when I’m trying to go about my business, and yet here I am. As Ciaphas addresses Jesus, who’s stood up on the flowerbeds, a woman sat outside the cafe next door says “bunch of weirdos” loud enough for us to hear, and I think back to pushing that kid over in year seven. But it’s all still frivolous, and we’re mostly mucking about. Then, at the final scene, the lady playing Jesus’ grieving mother falls to her knees, weeping and wailing as though her son really is being crucified. It’s a sudden injection of emotion, and I catch Ciaphas’s eyes in unspoken agreement that, man, she’s really going for it.

07

Good Friday comes and it’s the earliest I’ve set an alarm in years. My tooth is fine, and so’s the weather. I go light on the wax to ensure my hair’s looking particularly biblical. Of the various Judas portrayals I watched, visually, I think I can pull off the young Ian McShane. At least, from a distance. We’re prepping in a nearby church, and everyone’s here. Mary, Peter, Ciaphas, Pilate, the soldiers, the accusers, Jesus — last week, he told me “social justice warriors are the real fascists,” and that he’s a huge fan of Donald Trump. I can’t tell if he’s winding me up, or trying to motivate my kicking him down the high street later. Some of the cast have been fasting for Lent. I had a mini pork pie before I left the house.

We get moved from a side hall into the main church because of 9:30 Tai Chi. It’s a proper old church with gorgeous architecture; a huge, complex roof and stained-glass window; upper balconies with ornately detailed railing. Its layout is a maze of seemingly endless corridors, side-rooms and tunnels, presumably from various extensions over the years. It’s here the pre-performance prayer goes on for quite some time, as a reminder of our differing motivations. Obviously, there’s a far deeper meaning for the others — who feel they’ve a personal relationship with the lead character — than there is for me, for whom a retelling of the crucifixion is as emotionally resonant as acting out King Arthur or Rumpelstiltskin. I remember seeing Mel Gibson’s Passion at the cinema with my younger cousin and asking, pretty simplistically, “doesn’t it feel weird; like seeing your mate getting killed onscreen?” They have a deep connection to the material, and see this as a way to reach the godless masses, by invading their high street for an hour. For them, this is evangelism. I just want to put on a good show. Although I figure I should clear my pop-culture-addled brain until we’re done. If I start crying at the crucifixion, they’ll never believe it’s because it reminds me of Gannicus’s at the end of Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

08

As it’s Friday, the artisan market’s on, narrowing the main thoroughfare, which seems unnervingly empty as we march through towards the starting point. A drummer beats out a rhythm, as Flix clambers up poles and onto walls, plying for trade with his megaphone, like Barnum in a medieval jester’s hat. When we arrive, it’s absolutely heaving with people; a full house. I spot a few faces I know. My mum’s right in the front. Flix, the old pro, is now up a ladder and doing crowd work; gags and “where you from?” and pointing out the emergency exits in case of a fire (“everywhere… we’re outside!”) I’m pacing like a caged animal waiting for my cue, just wanting it to be over so I know I haven’t fucked it up. I calm myself by stroking a passing greyhound. Then, “…and there can be no doubt…

That’s my line. I push my way through, flanked by a pair of soldiers. Despite taking almost 6,000 words to write about it, it’s a small role, and with little time to impart the emotional beats, we’re playing panto and broad, so I swagger in like an absolute prick. Boos rain down as I embrace Jesus and smugly watch his arrest. Thirty pieces of silver (big washers in a velvety Dungeons & Dragons dice bag) are tipped in my lap, falling onto the ground. I scratch and scrabble for them on my hands and knees like a rodent, biting a coin to check that it’s real, before scurrying out of scene. I don’t shoot yoghurt out of my anus. I don’t trip. I throw on the red shirt and bandana of a soldier, running with the crowds to be part of scene two. By the time I get there, the first line’s already been spoken, as I briefly stopped to stroke a dog outside the cafe, and enter the scene wiping the wetness of its nose from the back of my hand.

Peter’s brilliant sneaking gets a huge laugh, as does the local flavour from Jesus’s accusers, who denounce him for parking on double yellows on Beach Road, feeding the seagulls down the pier (despite warning signs), and not picking up his dog dirt in a nearby park. I’m background here, with my baton cocked over my shoulder, threateningly stalking. I feel more comfortable under a mask. When we rehearsed this bit last night, someone outside the cafe pointed towards me and said “he’s really scary.” Scene 3 is heavy on action. I waffle Jesus over the back of the head, thankfully not cracking him for real. We lay in punches with red ribbons folded in our fists, which Jesus grips the ends of as we yank them out, giving the theatrical appearance of arterial blood spray. I place the crown of thorns on his head with a sarcastic curtsey, having spend the previous afternoon Googling “how to curtsey like a proper lady” and practising.

From here, we lead Jesus along the high street, cross over his shoulder and staggering as the crowd follows down behind us. I clank my baton off lamp posts, running it against the caged shutter of an abandoned shop, and hitting it against the cross. Halfway down, just as I choreographed, Jesus collapses. I put my foot on his back, pushing him down. “Get up!” I goad. “Get up, King of the Worms!” A weird Joker laugh comes out of me, as I prod my baton into the nape of his neck. Once at the cross, the other soldiers tie him in place, and I spend so long eyeballing him, I almost forget to take my final position. When it comes to a close, a trumpet kicks in, leading the audience into a rendition of Amazing Grace. Somehow, we all forget to take Jesus down first, leaving the poor messiah stuck up there playing dead for three verses, holding himself up with the rope around his hands. Later, he tells me he kept his head down because the trumpet was making him laugh — “It made me think of Coronation Street.

09

Of course, as the local vicar comes on for the ending sermon, encouraging non-believers to seek out Christ, he’s right by my side, my mask now down, captured at the right hand of God’s envoy in all photographic evidence of the day. Afterwards, familiar faces from the church tell me I’ve done well, while assuming I’m there as I’ve finally seen the light.

     “Are you a Christian now?!

     “No, just here to help.

     “So you still don’t believe in God?!

     “Nope.

     “Well, He believes in you!

As much as I don’t believe, it pales to how hard nobody seems to believe that I don’t. As they serve refreshments, Ciaphas’s wife jokes that they won’t let me leave until I’ve converted. By now, the others have dispersed back to their groups, with warm greetings and bracing hugs. My younger cousin’s there, and we exchange nods from across the room. Someone walking past rears away from me in mock fright – “Argh, Judas!” As I knew I would, now it’s over, I feel rather melancholy and empty. The one thing I most remember from those plays back in the day was the sense of camaraderie. One of my weird emotional triggers is that I sometimes tear up just at the credits of a movie, even if it’s shit, and certainly at the end of theatrical performances, appreciating how it’s this big piece of art made by lots of people working together. That bit at the end of the League of Gentlemen live DVDs where they take a bow is as crippling to me as Bambi’s mum or Spider-Man turning to dust. Creating is all I do; all I care about. Only, I don’t do it as a group, but in 12 hour working days, hunched over a keyboard and leaving the flat once a month. Now this is over, that’s where I’m headed back to. I’ve said many times to those trying to get me into the church that I enjoy their company, it’s just a shame they don’t meet up every week for a different reason. I lurk by the organ sipping from a bottle of water as the acoustics of the church echo with conversation. Even after being a part of this, collaborating across the yawning divide of belief, for me, there is no God; I just like making things. And for a little while, at least, that was enough.

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Slinger’s Day

•May 17, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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[This is Part 6 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five]

Since starting the Shitcoms series, I occasionally get suggestions tweeted at me, and Slinger’s Day has come up more than once. I’d never seen it, and at first glance, it didn’t seem like it would be that bad. It’s not one of the obviously problematic ones like Bottle Boys or Curry & Chips, nor poisoned with the presence of Jim Davidson, like Up the Elephant and Round the Castle. It’s just Bruce Forsyth running a supermarket, how bad could it be? The answer is real bad; Plaza Patrol bad; visiting the local chemists dressed as Oliver Twist, dumping a basketful of Ibuprofen on the desk and begging “please, sir, can I have some more? Enough to put me into the long sleep? In the ground? In the dirt, where there’s no more suffering?” bad.

Unapologetically, I was a big fan of Sir Brucie. His wallpapering routine with Norman Wisdom at the London Palladium is one of my favourite pieces of comedy, and I once played him in an audition piece for our school’s arts festival, in a Generation Game skit. Chin jutting and tash drawn on with biro, I did the famous pose; the standing Rodin’s Thinker; and most incredibly at the time, even convinced the girl I most fancied in the world into playing Miss Ford (some 20 years later, she went onto rebuff my Facebook friend request). Though the act did not get selected for the show, if we’d instead chosen to portray his 1986 sitcom, it’s likely we’d have been pelted offstage with bricks. And rightly so.

01

Slinger’s Day is an oddity, as a quasi-sequel to a series that was retooled (and renamed) after its lead actor, Leonard Rossiter, died. Though this suggests the original show, Tripper’s Day, was so successful, they simply had to find a way to continue; like Two and a Half Men after Charlie Sheen’s brain broke; it too, was reviled by critics and audiences alike. I’ve not seen the coroner’s report, but Rossiter’s death, which occurred following the second episode’s airing, was likely due to shame. Stepping in to replace Rossiter’s Norman Tripper as manager of Supafare, Bruce was an odd choice for a sitcom leading man, having done little onscreen acting, aside from the exaggerated version of himself that hosted all those game shows, forever giving exasperated looks to camera. Though he’d done a lot of stage work, and played a henchman in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, his placement in the series is as ill-fitting as his wig, which here resembles someone who’s risen from the depths of a lake with a covering of fine seaweed.

Like many other bad series, the writing of Slinger’s Day comes from one very specific school of comedy — if the characters are mistaken, then you’re laffin’! A more fitting title would be Confusion Ensues! Who needs jokes when you can just have characters confusing one person for another person, or a thing for an entirely different thing? This end-of-pier farce bollocks, which drags on interminably, is practically the whole show. The first episode starts with the staff mistaking some random old fella for their new boss, the old fella thinking the secretary is the new boss (“well I never, a woman!”) and Bruce (the actual new boss) being mistaken for an applicant for the tea boy position. All in the first five minutes.

02

This is a big cast, though I hesitate to use the word ‘ensemble’, as it’s little more than a pack of thinly-drawn stereotypes. Among others, there’s Mr. Christian, the clipboard-wielding lickspittle; Higgins, the Jack-the-Lad (played by PC Dave Quinnan from The Bill, a regular on Noel’s House Party); Dottie, the gum-chewing black girl, manning the till with her walkman on; and beloved character actor David Kelly as yet another piss-drunk Irishman, always hungover, and with every rambling piece of dialogue recanting tales of horse-racing, priests, shagging widows, or going to funerals. Man, did the Irish and Scots ever get kicked about in comedy back then.

Brucie’s Cecil Slinger lines up all the staff, so he can march up and down berating them like a Nazi commandant. “I want you to think of me like a father,” he says, before reaching Dottie and correcting himself; “father figure.” Snarling with that glorious chin fully cocked, it’s the classic sitcom boss, where they’re more like drill instructors than your modern CEO, posting inspirational statuses on LinkedIn about 4am kale enemas and bravely making time to see their kids for one hour a month. They even do the Full Metal Jacket bit, where he dares the stock boy to laugh while leaning right into his ear. Sadly, if anyone’s likely to blast the top of their head off with a rifle at the end of the first act, it’s me. From the get-go, Bruce is falling over his words, struggling with the structure of scripted performance, which allows no elbow-room for improv or asides to the audience, and throws his legendary timing off-whack. And what a script it is. How’s this for a gag?

I had a bit of trouble with the bus.

What sort of trouble?

I missed it!

03

The back-and-forth dialogue clearly thinks it’s Vaudeville, but is just tedious repetition, with every interaction that panto comedy of spinning around looking for someone, and not realising they’re behind you the whole time. The “plot,” (said in air-quotes 100-ft high) sees a sit-in by a group of women protesting against whale-meat dogfood. It’s the 80s, so you get the picture; shrieking lefties in badge-covered denim jackets, with Greenham Common haircuts and masculine voices, waving SAVE THE WHALES signs. Of course, there’s a hilarious misunderstanding between ocean-going whales and Wales the country, though we do get a classic “I studied origami” threat from the elderly security guard; a line legally required to feature in every sitcom between 1977-1995. A pregnant protester goes into labour, threatening to sue, so Bruce agrees to take the dogfood off sale, and it’s eventually revealed the ladies take turns stuffing a pillow up their shirt to pull the “I’m giving birth, see you in court!” act at various protests.

The end of each episode gives a little Brucie Bonus, with the scene continuing wordlessly beneath the scrolling credits. This week has him running round the shop in a fury, knocking over a big stack of cans, spilling a glass of Alka-Seltzer all over the desk, and ending with his head in his hands right on the beat of the closing kettle drum. And I must make special mention of the brilliantly naff theme; a childish composition of wacky synth noises, oddly reminiscent of Roobarb and Custard, it sounds like a monster bouncing along on its own farts. Episode one does contain the only legitimate chuckle in the entire series, albeit an inadvertent one, during a moment Bruce peers in through the window in the exact manner of Scum‘s greenhouse bumming scene.

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My heart sank with the mere title of the next episode, A Right Royal Mix-Up. A mix-up? Oh good. Double-peril for this one, which was written by Vince Powell, who previously appeared in my Shitcoms series as the writer/creator of Bottle Boys. Deep breath, lads, I’m going in. First ensuing confusion concerns the arrival of a Frenchman to man the promotional display of cheese. Brucie greets him with Del Boy Frenglish and cheek kisses, but “steady on, old chap!” he’s got the wrong man! Stammering posho, Forbes-Fortescue, is merely one of many bowler-hatted toffs armed with umbrellas to show up over the twelve episodes and be confused for someone else. In reality, he’s an envoy from Buckingham Palace, here to announce Charles and Di will be dropping in to visit the supermarket tomorrow.

But that’s not all, as the Frenchman turns out to be a French woman; sacré bleu! There’s less comic mileage than they think in having Brucie mispronounce French words, and mistake her suggestion of cheese counter “nibbles” as an offer for sex. There is a decent sight gag, when Bruce fantasises about getting a tapped with the sword for a knighthood, and his jacket sleeves fall off, but the royal visit gets cancelled. It’s then that all the misunderstandings and poor performances come back to bite Slinger’s Day, as Prince Charles shows up to do his shopping. Or does he? Obviously the real Prince Charles isn’t going to cameo, but it’s unclear if it’s meant to be him, or if the joke’s that Brucie’s confused again, doling out a golden trolley of free shopping to a commoner. He has got big ears, and does the Charles hand movements and voice everyone did in the 80s, “errrr, my wife, errrr…” but as it turns out, no, just another regular guy who happened to act and look like exactly someone else who was due to show up anyway. The under-credits action sees Brucie knock a policeman’s helmet off and get rushed through the store with his arm pulled behind his back, hopefully to get a 10-stretch in the nonce-wing for crimes against sitcom.

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There is another aspect to Slinger’s Day I’ve yet to go into, and it’s a huge part of its construction. A handful of times each episode, the action’s broken up by these weird interludes, amounting to small quickie skits, where Brucie interacts with customers on the shop floor. A posh Major back from India who refuses to basket his own goods; a woman crying over a milk carton because her husband left her, and it’s not worth getting a full pint; a vicar who’s paying with a cheque signed by Donald Duck; most are so thin on jokes, they’re effectively pausing the story to show us Bruce Forsyth running a supermarket for real. As another example, an old man asks where the potatoes are, so Brucie reels off a long list of the varieties they’ve got in stock. Turns out, he wants instant mash, causing a fourth-wall break, as a disgusted Bruce looks at us to spit “instant mash!” By the time we hit the second series, Slinger’s Day is almost entirely composed of these filler sketches, for those wanting to wind down from a hard day at work by sitting in front of the box and watching a Knight of the Realm roleplay customer assistant.

Series 2’s Whose Baby? is the classic ‘look after/hide the baby’ episode, as best seen in Saved by the Bell. With a straight one-in, one-out policy, token black character Dottie’s been replaced by Shirley, whose baby niece has to be hidden from Brucie while her sister-in-law goes to the dentist. He does a lot of “What was that?! I thought I heard a baby!” stuff, but aren’t babies often taken into supermarkets anyway? Eventually, it wees on him, and he tries to feed it with a jug of milk poured through a washing up glove. The mix-up comes when he hilariously assumes the baby is Shirley’s, leading to another cross-purpose scene, entirely based around the comic potential of an unmarried mother. This is Thatcher’s 80s, where it wasn’t terrorists and grooming gangs tearing apart the fabric of British society, but the moral plague of the single mother. “Like Eve,” he tells her, “you fell.

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Also in Whose Baby, the staff are introduced to the new secretary. Like I always do with these things, I casually fired up IMDB to see what else the actress had been in. Now, permit me a few moments to go off on a sidetrack. Consider it a well-earned intermission. I saw the actress had starred in a show called Number 96 for 130 episodes. I’ve never heard of it, but it turns out to be an Australian soap opera, you know, like Neighbours

Drama examining the lives of residents of a Sydney apartment block. Initial storylines focused on adultery, drug use, frigidity, rape, gossip, homosexuality, marriage problems and racism. Original residents included busty blonde virgin Bev Houghton who fell in love with her neighbour, homosexual lawyer Don Finlayson.

Sounds interesting…

An early storyline was the dreaded ‘knicker snipper’, a devious intruder who ransacked the women’s bedrooms and cut holes in their panties and bras.

And there I go, right down the rabbit hole.

…the Mad Bomber storyline, in August–September 1975…

…the horrific pantyhose strangler killing off two young women residents, and attacking one other.

The show’s final months in 1977 included a range of shock storylines including the exploits of a group of Nazi bikers and a psychopathic blackmailer.

…a scene where Jane Chester becomes a prostitute and is asked to whip her male client gave viewers a brief glimpse of full frontal male nudity

In one outrageous moment, Miss Hemingway wore a bra but no panties and yet despite screening at 8.30pm on free-to-air TV

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An Ozploitation soap opera?! Get me every goddamn one of the 1,218 episodes immediately. Oh right, Slinger’s Day. Christ, I don’t want to get back to it after this. I want the Knicker Snapper and fannies out at tea-time! Alright, final episode, A Pane in the Neck, begins, because this is the Hell I have made for myself, with Supafare’s chairman Mr. Crawford turning up unannounced, and Bruce mistaking him for the dogfood rep and shit-talking old “Clueless Crawford.” One of the staff chucks a tin can right through the shop window, smashing it, and hitting Crawford on the bonce, and as the glassiers can’t come until tomorrow, Brucie has to stay in the store overnight, to guard all of the stock.

With the second half consisting of Bruce’s stay, perhaps this will be one of those masterclasses in solo bottle episodes, like that One Foot in the Grave where Victor does a crossword, or The Bedsitter from Hancock’s Half Hour. Nah, it’s more of the same shite. Bruce puts on a radio play about cops and robbers and a real policeman charges in, thinking he heard gunshots, then his staff keep turning up, including the staggering-drunk Irishman, who’s looking for more booze. In the end, a burglar breaks in, so Brucie wraps him in a blanket and beats him with a foil tray, but when he lets him out, it’s only bloody chairman Crawford, ain’t it?! Cuh.

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I wish some posh bloke had turned up at my flat and been mistakenly shepherded to sit down at the computer and watch this nonsense. Though it doesn’t outwardly give the sense of an all-time toilet of a show, I probably should have known, with such electrifying episode synopsis as “the store must move five hundred units of fishcakes before they go bad.” Thankfully, it all ended after series two, and didn’t go on in perpetuity, with every comedian taking their shift as Supafare manager like national service, until all the comics ran out, and they started hiring people off the street. Minimum wage and a six episode contract, to mistake a mayor for a bog-roll salesman, or show an angry farmer to the tinned veg aisle, in an endless cycle that marches on until the sun burns itself out. Davidson’s Day. Edmonds’ Day. Sutcliffe’s Day. Millard’s Day. Sorry, I think I got lost in the piece. I’ve watched so much Bruce Forsyth over the last week, I’m starting to see double. Chin, chin!

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

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

Cartoon Spinoffs – Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos

•May 7, 2019 • 1 Comment

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[previous entries in this series — DroidsEwoks]

For me, Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos is the perfect Venn diagram intersection of dual fascinations, sitting in that sweet spot of ‘cartoons featuring real people as themselves’ and ‘weird as Hell 80’s karate guys’. I previously examined the macho kick-punch scene of that era in my book Smoke & Mirrors and Steven Seagal, and took a deep dive into Chuck’s ultra wacky Walker, Texas Ranger show, so when I discovered he’d produced a cartoon depicting his own fictional heroism, I practically broke both my legs in the mad rush to watch it.

Karate Kommandos, dangerously skirting towards a third aliterative K, centres on Chuck’s eclectic team of government toughies battling the evil forces of The Claw and his organisation, VULTURE; an acronym which is never revealed. Airing on consequtive days from September 15th – 19th, 1986, it was produced by Ruby-Spears, the team behind the basically-identical Mr. T cartoon. Clearly, Kommandos is one of the shows, along with Mister T, that’s parodied in Adult Swim’s Mike Tyson Mysteries, with the zany adventures of an animated celebrity bookended by short, live-action inserts, where everyone’s favourite convicted rapist says something cute. From its opening titles, Kommandos never lets you forget who its star is, with the name CHUCK NORRIS crashing onto screen in flashes of lightning, amid live inserts of him kicking and punching, with a gravitas-laden voiceover saying his name so often, it feels like the brainwashing induction video to a death-cult.

Chuck Norris… Chuck Norris, man of action… Chuck Norris stars in Chuck Norris: Karate Commandos. Chuck Norris; he’s got nerves of steel and strength to match. Chuck Norris, with his team…

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Let’s meet that team! Chuck’s main heavies are Kimo, a Samurai in full feudal-era Japanese armour, and Tabe, a sumo champion who spends the entire show waddling around in a nappy. It may surprise you to hear Republican creationist Chuck runs a progressive workplace, with a female tech expert, Pepper; though she’s never allowed to fight and limited to the occasional fiddling with wires. Pepper’s brother, Reed, is Chuck’s teenage apprentice, and between them, the siblings get about one line of dialogue per episode.

Completing the line-up is young boy, Too Much, or, to give him a more honest name, Short Round. Gruff American action hero with a smart-mouthed Asian kid sidekick in a baseball cap; been to the cinema recently, Chuck, mate? On top of raising an apprentice, Too Much is Chuck’s ‘ward,’ which isn’t at all sinister for a middle-aged man who frequently visits Thailand. Too Much’s involvement invites so many questions; mainly who’d leave their kid in the hands of Chuck Norris? He’s dragged on endless life-threatening adventures, but not once seen reading a book or doing homework, and what kind of a name is Too Much? There’s probably a story behind it, like he warned Chuck not to eat too much sushi, but he did it anyway and got diarrhea everywhere and had to burn his best karate pajamas. Maybe that’s how his parents died.

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There’s a huge quasi-Oriental vibe to the show, with Chinese menu fonts, and a cast of villainous ninjas and settings that draw from a heavily-stereotyped East. Chuck himself is presented in his Canon-era peak, shirtless and jacked, and yet, even in animated form, has the screen presence of a dad. Is it the moustache? The flat delivery? Like Hulk Hogan, Chuck Norris is one of those strange outliers that fits firmly in categories like muscular and famous, yet never in the category of sex symbol. I can easily visualise him roundhouse kicking a terrorist into a bonfire, but having sex or getting boners? No way. Even if he popped an accidental one, I’m sure it’d get instinctively chopped in half with the edge of his hand. “Down, boy!”

But despite this being pre-meme, 80’s b-actioner Chuck, it doesn’t feel like a kiddy version of either the Canon films or his martial arts flicks. Instead, Karate Kommandos strongly reminds the viewer of another franchise. With focus on a ragtag ‘family’ participating in vehicle stunts and enormous set pieces, the show’s closest spiritual neighbour is the Fast and Furious series. In fact, you could reboot it with the F&F cast with very little change. The nondescript features of Vin Diesel are easily animated by tracing an egg, they’ve got a couple of characters with absolutely no value (Tyrese and Ludacris), plus they could bring Paul Walker back, and maybe even give him a teenage apprentice.

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Like most shows from that era, Kommandos has the stink of a hastily thrown-together ad for action figures, with each vehicle and weapon looking like a big plastic toy, and every character design real fuckin’ dumb. As suggested by his name, the Claw has a claw-hand, which is ludicrously oversized; about twice as big as his head. The first time he wiped his arse with it, he must’ve goatse-d himself. A solid gold arm that goes right up to his shoulder, it’s a mystery why he doesn’t just sell it, instead of all the convoluted crimes. The rest are equally stupid looking, with the imaginatively-named Super Ninja a flowing KISS wig attached to a purple mask, and the Claw’s other main thug running round shirtless in a balaclava and MC Hammer pants.

By their nature, the toy-ad ‘toons were repetitive and lazy, but KK is something else. As you’ll see, every plot is exactly the same. Literally. And they only made five! As with the Mr. T series, the best part is the live-action bookends with the man himself, giving life advice that supposedly ties in with that week’s adventure. Episode one opens with Chuck interrupting some karate to tell us about determination, and having to tough it out if we want to succeed. Mate, I’m sitting through your shitty cartoon for my Patreon, I’m well aware. The great part about these inserts is that we get to see how embarrassed he is, having to pretend that cartoon-Chuck and live-action-Chuck are one and the same, and look into a camera to earnestly tell us how “things got pretty tough for us down in Florida with… the deadly dolphins.” Poor bastard looks like he’d rather be feeding fifty feet of barbed wire into his urethra.

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We open on the exotic island home of Chuck’s mate, Dr. Sanford, as the gang play with his trained dolphins. But the Claw sends in VULTURE to kidnap Sanford, so they can steal his creation; underground base Sealab, and use it to “dominate the oceans of the world!” Claw’s teamed with sea-specialist Angelfish, who amid a palate of grotesque weirdos is one of those sexily-drawn, dominant lady characters, like G.I. Joe‘s Baroness, in an obvious psy-op by Big S&M to create a generation of whimpering slaves who’ll spend billions on gimp masks. VULTURE’s attack emphasises Karate Kommandos as one of those weird “it’s an action show, but nobody can get hurt” deals, like The A-Team, but aimed at an even more delicate demographic.

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Every fake-looking gun makes laser noises and shoots light that never hits anything, though mostly, swords or guns are used to knock another gun out of an enemy’s hand. At one point, Kimo swats away a laser blast with his Japanese fan like he’s playing baseball. This is the violence of being knocked into a wall and having a comical item fall down and boink you on the head; where henchmen themselves are used as weapons, thrown at each other when making your escape. Though there is plenty of karate, it’s generally used to kick down doors, and Chuck resorts to other methods, like squirting thugs with a hose until they fall over.

Regardless, Claw’s goons get away, and locate Sealab by putting Sanford in a CAT scan and “reading his brainwaves.” Is that how Chuck Norris thinks CAT scans work? Refusing to get his chest pains looked at cos he doesn’t want doctors seeing the time he briefly glimpsed a bare lady’s bottom on a pop-up while browsing bible passages online? The gang head to Angelfish’s boat to rescue Sanford, inciting a fight where they’re shot at by yellow lasers which look like streams of urine, and eventually break into Sealab to save the day by riding trained dolphins into a pipe. We end on Angelfish getting batted between dolphin beaks like a ball, to a classic shoulder-shaking 80’s cartoon laugh.

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The dumbness of the show is its real strength, forcing the self-serious Chuck Norris to earnestly recite dialogue about CIA dolphins, laser robots, and a nasty Super Ninja. Also, when limited to just his voice, Norris’ terrible acting is somehow even worse than normal. With nothing else to play off, forced to stand in a booth in front of a mic, unable to even hold a gun to help him imagine that he’s shooting someone, lines about Earth’s imminent destruction at the hands of the Claw are flatly announced in voice of a dad reading aloud a story from the local paper about the council changing the opening times of the allotment. Check out this short highlight reel I knocked up, where you can fully appreciate Chuck’s sheer level of boredom and terrible diction.

One question I found myself asking was is Karate Kommandos racist? It feels like it should be. Made in the 80s and heavy with broad-brush Japanese characters, every accent is very “ah, so!” Benny Hill; like appalling stereotype Mr. Yoshi, who greets Chuck with an “Ah, Norris-san!” under plinky-plonky Chinaman music. The VULTURE assassins speak in accents I’m pretty sure are racist, but they’re hard to place to any specific region, so I couldn’t commit to that in court. Tabe, the sumo guy, does have a comedy-Asian voice, but he’s also half the big fella from Green Mile; a big teddy bear referring to Chuck as “boss.” Perhaps to steer future viewers like me from crying “Hate crime! You’re cancelled!” his one-note joke is that he’s fat and constantly eating. Even his weapons are two massive golden platters strapped to his hands, like Alan Partridge’s big plate.

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Skipping episode two, which is lost to history, and featured Chuck rescuing a stolen computer chip while Too Much is kidnapped by VULTURE, it’s onto third episode, Terror Train, where Chuck rescues a hi-tech Laser Robot, while Too Much is kidnapped by VULTURE. Karate Kommandos lack of imagination raises serious questions about Chuck’s guardianship. While much of the action involves multiple characters walking, running or sneaking in a single line past repeating backgrounds, another big KK fave is the multi-vehicle chase. Terror Train one-ups The French Connection, as Chuck runs down the boy’s captor first on jet-ski, then on foot, and finally jacking a motorbike from some fisherman, apologising with a very informative “sorry guys, this is an emergency. I’m Chuck Norris; contact me through the American embassy.

That Fast and Furious vibe is overwhelming in the incredible set piece that follows, which sees Chuck Point Break skydiving without a parachute twice to catch the goon, choking him out with one arm, freeing Too Much with the other, while hanging on at 40,000 feet, before casually landing on the roof of a speeding train where they have a fist fight. Perhaps this is why Chuck seems so rattled in his live-action inserts, disconnected and falling over his words, describing adventures of fighting the Claw as though they actually happened. Did the crew of Walker, Texas Ranger have to play along with his delusions like the family of a dementia patient, so he didn’t become distressed?

Gee, my back’s never been the same since Super Ninja threw me off that rocket. Too Much never calls me anymore…

I know, buddy, I know.”

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It’s incredible how much nonsense they pack into twenty minutes, adding to the previous guff with an albino baddie that’s allergic to light, a bomb on a train, and the Kommandos being captured in a dungeon which floods with water, escaping by using a live snake as a climbing rope. If these were movies, they’d have $300m budgets, as the action shifts to Tibet, where there’s a car chase, sled chase, and plane chase, before Chuck catches up to the speeding train in a sports car, having a karate fight with Super Ninja on a tightrope which is attached between the train and car, both going about 100mph. He finally defuses the bomb, jumping on a passing plane and chucking it in the sea as he clings to the wing. Exhausting. It’s in Terror Train when they finally remember that Too Much has a ‘thing’, and finally exclaims “Too Much!” twice in a few minutes. And never again.

Like all franchises that go too big too soon, there’s only one place left to take it, leading to episode four, Menace from Space. Once again, there’s a powerful device that Chuck’s supposed to be protecting, which once again, the Claw steals for nefarious purposes. This time, it’s a space shuttle with a laser gun, hijacked by the Claw’s goon, Croc, a green-skinned, reptilian type with fucked up teeth, who parachutes down, accompanied by actual crocodiles, also on parachutes. As one of them crashes through the window, Chuck gets it in a headlock and locks it in a closet, putting the little kid in charge of it.

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The Claw squashes a piranha inside his metal hand and demands $10b or he’ll start blowing up capital cities with the laser, so Chuck’s charged with returning the shuttle by the actual president, (seen only as the back of a head like Steinbrenner in Seinfeld). This leads to more croc-wrestling in the swamp, a trip to Alaska where they fall through the ice, a battle on a giant sub, and breaking into a museum to steal a rocket plane, so Chuck can fly it into space, for a low-gravity karate fight. We finish with the gang working out in Chuck’s dojo, except for Pepper, who’s drying her hair after a shower because she’s a girl. The end joke is a bamboozling line that’s neither a joke, a reference to anything that happened, or even a pun. Wondering what the Claw will do to Super Ninja now; “he probably took him out behind the woodshed,” says a chortling Chuck, kicking a punchbag off its ropes for the big He-Man laugh.

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In the final live-action intro, clad in a ludicrous sweat-soaked belly-shirt and tiny footballer shorts, Chuck lectures us on mistakes. We all make ’em, and though it’s hard to face up to it, because you might get laughed at or punished, you’ll be a stronger person for it. Now sitting through my fifth episode of Karate Kommandos, I feel personally attacked. Episode five, Island of the Walking Dead, is the exact same plot once more, but still infinitely better than the popular TV show of similar title.

This week’s MacGuffin is a satellite that controls all military communications, hijacked by Super Ninja from right under Chuck’s nose, again. That said, in their many battles through the series, Ninja doesn’t land a single blow on Chuck, suggestive of the star’s creative control. Just as we hit the end of the run, Kommandos introduces its first black character, Tank, a mate of Chuck’s who briefly appears to get a ride to the gym, along with his barbell, in a really obvious shoehorning in of a potential action figure plus accessory.

They chase the downed satellite to Voodoo Island, a creepy place infested with actual zombies, led by a Papa Shango/Baron Samedi witch doctor. They fight the undead with sumo belly-bumps, and swing on vines into a cave to escape from a giant snake. Then it just becomes Indiana Jones, with Short Round accidentally setting off a booby trap that unleashes a giant rolling boulder, before getting trapped on a rope bridge, while Chuck’s downed by the stabbing of a Chuck Norris voodoo doll. In fact, Temple of Doom‘s brought to mind in every episode, as Too Much, a tiny child, beats up adult men three times his size with feeble karate, like those Thuggee guards who must’ve got fired by Mola Ram when he found out they got their dicks kicked in by an eight-year-old.

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The rest of the gang are captured and caged, set to be barbecued alive, but Chuck saves the day and blows up the volcano by crashing a bulldozer into it. In his final live-action spot, he tells us mistakes are okay, and that everyone makes them. Us, our parents; “even me,” he says, with a rather knowing look in his eye, as his terrible filming experience on Karate Kommandos finally comes to a close.

Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos is a startling combination of zero imagination when it comes to plot, and yet wildly imaginative in its action. With its “this happened then this happened…” pacing, it’s a series as described to you by a little boy, which is likely exactly what they were aiming for. It clearly feels like the toys were designed first, with a basic construction and colour scheme, ensuring they’d look exactly like their onscreen counterparts. That explains why the weapons are so weird, with Pepper’s giant screw, Tabe’s big plates, and Chuck’s shite-brown horned staff all making it into the box as picture-perfect accessories.

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After Kenner won the bidding to produce the toys, the line wasn’t a big success, resulting in ten figures and a single vehicle. All the Kommandos barring Too Much and Pepper got releases, with eight figures in the first series; three of those Chuck Norris variants (Battle Gear, Training Gi, and Undercover Agent). An aborted second series included ninjas, the Claw, another Chuck, and as I figured, Tank, no doubt with the famous barbell. But still no Pepper or Too Much. Though there was also a ‘Take Me Along’ playset, with plastic ninja stars and bandanas, if you want to pretend you’re Chuck Norris’ ward, and a comic book, drawn by Steve Ditko, which was binned after four issues.

[in my pants; dropping down from a pull-up bar, all sweaty] We’ve really learned something today.

If you’re a grown man who sits through a dreadful thirty-year-old cartoon aimed at children, and take 6,000 words of notes while doing so, and if you persevere with it long enough, through the frustration, the self loathing; through the noise of your neighbour endlessly revving their car; the temptation to fire up Pornhub and search for ‘PAWG + shower’ and have a tommy tank instead; eventually, you’ll craft a mostly-coherent piece of work that’ll bring in nine, ten… maybe a dozen hits for your blog. Hard work pays off. Namaste. [I bow, before collapsing]

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

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

Great Moments in Pop Culture – Mr. T Thanks His Mother

•April 28, 2019 • 1 Comment

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[Previous Great Moments: “I’m Not a Real Witch”Jimmy Stewart’s Yeti FingerJames Cameron Digs Up Christ]

The WWE Hall of Fame sits at the start of Wrestlemania weekend, as the one evening a year when the carny-ass business that proudly rolls around in shit for the other 364 mops up the sweat and gets classy. Essentially, this is wrestling’s Oscar night, playing up its decades of tradition, even with a red carpet pre-show on their streaming network. There’s something magical about the world of pretend fights glamming it up, with frequent cutaways from podium speeches to a watching audience of wrestlers, showcasing everything from the weepy applause of a literal giant to Michael P.S. Hayes dressed like blaxploitation Satan. Held together by the glue of nostalgia, the shows are a mix of cracking anecdotes, tearful sentiment, and painfully dreary speeches that push desperate audiences into fantasies about glugging down refreshments at Jonestown. Hillbilly Jim’s rambling soliloquy from the 2018 ceremony is likely still ongoing to this day.

2014 saw the induction of names such as Lita, Jake ‘the Snake’ Roberts, and Razor Ramon, whose speeches touched on classic road stories, backstage ribs, and inspiration-bait recovery from life-long substance abuse. That year’s class is best remembered for the return of the Ultimate Warrior, inducted and welcomed home by a company who previously released a DVD about how crazy and loathed he was. Warrior returned from exile as a racist shit-stirrer to cut an emotional, redemptive monologue, before dropping dead four days later. But the real biggest story of 2014 emanated from the Hall of Fame’s celebrity wing.

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The names in this section are, shall we say, of a type, with Pete Rose, Kid Rock, and Donald Trump mostly serving as the foil in WWE’s constant pandering for mainstream press attention. In 2014, they finally picked someone who, by any standards, deserved to be there, in Mr. T. As a monumentally huge star in the mid-80s, the celebrity rub of Mr. T broke WWE out of the grotty sidelines and onto MTV, in front of enough eyes to make the first Wrestlemania, where he teamed with Hulk Hogan, a wild success, which pushed the company to the next level, rather than down into bankruptcy. It’s arguable that without he and Cyndi Lauper, there’d be no WWE as we know it, and it would never have fully escaped from its roots as a niche pseudo-sport, like American Gladiators, Rollerball, or the Soggy Biscuit Game. Also, we’d never have gotten to see the wild chatshow appearance where Hogan choked the host unconscious, while Mr. T pacified the audience with “he’s alright, he’s just sleepin‘” as blood pooled on the studio floor. So, it’s on one night in 2014, that Mr. T, inducted by ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund and introduced by his son, took to the stage.

Though he’s obviously older, undeniably, forever and always, this is the Mr. T we know and love. He’s still rocking the mohawk, though wears a bow tie in place of the famous gold chains; dropped in 2005, in solidarity with the losses suffered by victims of Hurricane Katrina. Mr. T rightfully receives a standing ovation from the live crowd, consisting of regular fans in the bleachers, and in the floor seats, wrestling personalities from every era, crammed into tailored suits and expensive dresses, pairing tuxedos with bandanas, sunglasses, and colourful masks. Faces from the current roster sit alongside those who beat each other bloody with chairs in the 90s, and those who survived the high bodycount of the 80s; now grey and bald, with time turning toned muscle to paunch, and scowling faces that once spat threats of violence into dimpled grandpas. The front row consists of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin, Jim Ross, and Hulk Hogan, with his reality-show kids on one side, and young, blond girlfriend who looks just like his daughter on the other.

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A clearly moved Mr. T takes a big, calming breath, before giving us the first clue we’re about to witness history, cutting short his opening spiel about how honoured he is to be there, to announce “let me stop right here to pray.” It’s a shame the camera stays tight on T’s face as he leads the room through a prayer of thanks “to God almighty, for making all this possible for me,” robbing us the sight of rows of heads scarred with razor-slashes bowing in holy reverence. Then, it happens. “As you honor me… please allow me a few minutes to honor and pay tribute to my dear mother.”

A few minutes, he says. That’s barely enough time to run to the bathroom. You could put the kettle on for a cup of tea, but you couldn’t finish drinking it. This, it turns out, is an understatement. Stick a roast dinner in the oven and by the time he’s done, the smoke alarm will be beeping. Hell, even his promises to not go on for too long take up a full minute. “Please indulge me for a couple of minutes,” he says, “I thank you in advance for your patience and understanding,” adding “I promise, I won’t be too long, and I hope I don’t bore you.” At least the latter’s accurate, as what follows is never boring, however by the time he’s physically removed from the stage, our beards will be down past our knees, and he’ll have spoken the word “mother” 71 times.

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Mr. T’s love for his mother, and indeed, for all the world’s mothers, is well documented. At the height of his fame, 1984 motivational video, Be Somebody… or Be Somebody’s Fool! famously featured the single, Treat Your Mother Right. Though, as with the album, Mr. T’s Commandments (with songs such as Don’t Talk To Strangers and No Dope No Drugs), he doesn’t actually sing, but gruffly ‘talks’ the lyrics like a constipated Rex Harrison. Regardless, its message of loving mothers (and not in the MILF way you might see on Pornhub) is as relevant today as it was thirty years ago. I’ve no doubt Mama T is a wonderful woman, fully worthy of gushing tribute, and what better setting than a WWE Hall of Fame induction ceremony?

T opens his prepared speech with hopes it will inspire, and that “maybe some wayward teenager might find his way back home.” His childhood is a sadly familiar story of hardship and poverty, surrounded by crime and drugs, and ghetto-born as the eighth of twelve children, who his mother raised alone; correction, “with the help of God.” On the mic, Mr. T is an extremely likeable presence who quotes the bible often, and is endearingly child-like, occasionally mispronouncing words and genuinely taken by every appreciative cheer. Beneath the bad attitude and mohawk, he tells us, he’s “an old-fashioned mama’s boy,” immediately throwing out a casual string of golden lines:

Every time I think about my mother, it sends a certain feeling up and down my body.”

I believe the genius of God’s soul expresses itself through the body of a mother, like no other.”

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Using his mother’s loss of her once-streamlined waist, inch by inch, as he grew in her womb, Mr. T introduces us to the concept of God giving Mama T a credit for each of her many sacrifices; a notion which carries us through the next few minutes. Like tipping a bellboy for lugging a particularly heavy suitcase up six flights of stairs, God keeps piling up Mrs. T’s credits; one for every varicose vein, for every morning of nausea, for every discomfort; “and every kick that I gave her.” It’s here, where the mood of the audience first begins to shift, initially offering supportive applause in all the right places, but now baffled; lost in an unending riff on the rigours of pregnancy. At six minutes in, Nick Hogan awkwardly straightens his tie, as Mr. T informs a packed house that “her heart had to pump for two; her urinary tract had to work for two.”

With thoughts about Mr. T’s mum pissing like a horse (“I’m weeing for two!”), and a mention of her digestive tract, around the eight minute mark, he namechecks his hit single. Treat Your Mother Right, he says, was penned as a love-letter to his mother, so she’d know that he loves her every day – “Not just on her birthday, not just on Mother’s Day, not just on Valentine’s day, or Christmas day, but I love my mother on President’s Day, I love my mother on election day, on Labor Day, Independence Day, Columbus Day, Earth Day, Memorial Day, Flag Day…

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By this point, the various days are punctuated by the boisterous “WHAT?!” of an audience primed by call-and-response in-ring wrestling promos, to a slight visible confusion from Mr. T as he continues. “…Groundhogs [sic] Day, April Fool’s Day, New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and yes, even on Father’s Day, I love my mother.” In the time it takes to reel off an entire calendar of holidays, another full minute has passed. Now ten minutes in, in case anyone’s unclear, Mr. T confirms “I’m just tryin’ to tell you about my mother.” The fans, who showed up to hear tales of old wrestlers shitting in each other’s hats as a prank, respond with rowdy chants of “Thank you, Mother! Thank you, Mother!

Resilient, he returns to his upbringing, financially poor but spiritually rich, and again quotes from the bible. At Minute 12, those in attendance return to stunned silence, as Mr. T describes his mother’s discipline, when she’d fetch “that big thick strap and whip our behinds,” adding “thank you, mother!” The restless crowd respond with another chant of “thank you, mother!” which one feels, at this stage, is sarcastic. He relates a story of running home with a drawing of a house, promising his mother one day he’d grow up big and strong and buy her a real one, plus lots of pretty dresses. As was the Lord’s willing, he did.

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In minute 14, Mother T is praying at the bedside of her sickly child. “Her love was like a blanket on a cold Chicago’s night,” stronger than peer pressure from the streets, than any gang, he says, before reciting the words of Jesus. By minute 15, he’s quoting Genesis (the bible, not the band), positing “how can I tell my mother that I love her, then get arrested for breaking into somebody’s house?” He would rather die, he says; die and burn in hell, than bring dishonour to his mother. As the speech reaches its sixteenth minute, it takes a minor shift from his mother, and onto other family members, thanking his seven big brothers for setting good examples. They didn’t drink, smoke, or do drugs, instead, getting into sports and the armed forces; the cops; the fire service. Mr. T’s brothers never joined a gang (“What?!”), they never stole a car (“What?!”), they never robbed anybody (“What?!”). Mr. T’s brothers, “they never raped anybody.”

B.A. Baracus has seemingly made permanent residence of the stage, set to ramble forever about his enormous, go-getting family, now eighteen minutes in, and congratulating his own children; a son receiving a masters degree; a daughter who’s sitting her doctor’s exam. Is this how we live now? Trapped in front of the incessant rolling panegyric to the T dynasty, as words pour from an unmoving host like talking statues of plague-ridden peasants at living history museums? Will mother come to whup us with a strap if we dare rise from our seats? But then comes the startling sound of an explosion, and the music of the Undertaker’s onscreen brother, Kane. It paints the giant screens behind our speaker with rippling flames, casting a flickering orange sheen across the stage, and giving the impression he has indeed been taken to Hell, and us with him. Confused, Mr. T soldiers on over the music, “is it time?” he asks softly, before Kane emerges from the wings.

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A desperate tactic from producers in the booth watching the runtime be devoured by a T’dipus complex, this is an in-joke of sorts, as Kane’s gimmick, back in the day, was to interrupt other people’s matches; the pyro explosion of his theme signalling his stepping into the ring to destroy whichever poor sods were waiting. Though this is 2014, and he’s old and out of his mask, as another 6’11 guy filling out a suit; the sole clue to his demonic character a jaunty red bow tie. He’s come, not to chokeslam Mr. T through the stage, but to intimate through glowering his time is up, like a striped walking crook hooked around the neck, or a sound mixer who’s won an unimportant Oscar category trying to pay tribute to a dying spouse as she’s drowned out by the orchestra. “Sorry,” says Mr. T, straightening his stack of papers with a newsreader’s tap and folding them inside his bible, “they tell me my time is up.”

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We don’t even get a goodbye, and with a “sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry,” he backs away from the podium and offstage with a wave, making failed sons of the rest of us. Bless you, Mr. T, and the mother who raised you. I know my deal is usually “haha look at this dumb thing,” but I genuinely admire Mr. T’s steadfast decision to pay tribute to his mother, soldiering on until he was physically stopped, through a 22-minute speech at a wrestling show that made zero mention of his time in the business, and only speaking the word wrasslin’ once. Someday I hope to find a level of success where I can have such a platform to thank my own mother for all she’s done, perhaps writing a screenplay that goes onto win an Academy Award. Then, as I’m standing there in front of Will Smith, Anna Kendrick (my wife), and Dril, I can finally tell the world about how much I love my mother, and the thankless effort she put in all those decades ago, with her overworked urinary tract.

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

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

Big Top

•April 18, 2019 • 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audience: “huhuhu…

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

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

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

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

 
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