Great Moments in Pop Culture – Byker Grove Nukes the Fourth Wall

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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 MotherRicky Gervais Has a Fight]

Long-running shows often get defined by their endings, good or bad, which retroactively colour the perception of a series as a whole, like The Sopranos’ cut to black, or the denouement of Lost, which was generally-beloved for the bulk of its run, but clouded by an unpopular final season. As I write this, squealing man-babies are voting next week’s Game of Thrones 1/10 on imdb before it’s even aired. But there’s one show in particular whose ending was so magnificently out of character, nobody speaks about or remembers it; like the myth of the natives who’d never seen a ship before, rendering the Conquistadors’ fleet invisible to their eyes.

Byker Grove, for those unaware, was a CBBC teen soap set in a Newcastle youth club, supervised by a man who looked like he ran a Victorian workhouse. To me, who grew up in an area there was nothing to do but play football or hang around corners spitting, youth clubs seem about as real a setting as a moon colony. Regardless, by constantly refreshing its cast, with the oldest kids leaving for a new batch of youngsters every year, there were a lot of episodes, with 344 in total from 1989 to 2006. 343 of those were relatively grounded, in that drama-school way of exploring issues through children’s television, albeit issues that could go out at ten-to-five after school.

01

All the usual topics were covered; teenage romances, drugs, troubled-but-good kids from care homes, a running feud with the bad lads and lasses of rival club, Denton Burn, (like Grange Hill’s St. Joseph’s), and a boy who kissed another boy on the cheek at the cinema in 1994, which naturally lead to The Sun calling for Byker‘s producer to be sacked. The show wasn’t afraid to go dark, having a girl be electrocuted to death in a flooded kitchen, a kid get crippled after falling from the roof, and killing off manager Geoff in a gas explosion (where his facial hair must’ve gone up like a fucking rocket). Most famously, there was the blinding of PJ after taking a pair of paintballs to the eyes. Incidentally, I once had a dream about touring the country’s schools with an enormous oil painting of that scene; a dream so vivid, to this day, I have trouble separating it from my real memories.

Like most soaps, it could be slightly wacky, like when Duncan rescued a a girl from a cult; a girl who’d later go onto form a real-life pop duo with castmate Donna Air, in one of the many musical acts to result from Byker Grove. But despite the occasional silliness, it never took one of those outright turns into fantasy that I love; like that time The Waltons had a poltergeist. And that’s what makes the finale all the more bamboozling, as if Eastenders, for all its implausible murders, accidents, and toothless gangster shit, suddenly did an alien invasion storyline, where Ian Beale was forced to mate with a giant cockroach, and shown giving birth to a litter of hybrid space-children right out of his arse.

02

When I first learned about Byker Grove‘s final episode, I figured it must be Wikipedia vandalism. Christ knows what the audience thought at the time, though by 2006, I was 27, and my tastes had switched to more grown-up viewing, such as internet pornography. It seems to have been pretty normal right up until the very end, with the penultimate couple of shows centring on the Grove being sold off, in the classic Evil Property Developer bit, plus a story where “Hayley learns the shocking truth about her disappearing father.” Unless the shocking truth is he’s a werewolf, nothing would’ve prepared the viewers for what was to come.

There are warning signs of its cack-handed pretension from the very title of the episode, DEUS EX MACHINA, literally rendered onscreen in the fucking Papyrus font from Avatar and your geocities website of Final Fantasy midis. We open on the camera moving through the Grove, past a tableaux of frozen characters, in poses typical of such Mannequin Challenge shots; hula-hooping; dropping trays of drinks (everyone always drops stuff right before they get Bullet-Timed); the air filled with a flow of spilled milkshakes, juggling clubs and paper planes caught mid-flight; all set to the music of Gollum’s Song from The Two Towers.

03

The Grove’s manager, Akili, walks through, seemingly untouched by time. “It’s started,” he says. “What’s started?” thinks a statue-child. “I can’t move,” another. “Of course you can’t,” adds a third, “they haven’t written anything yet.” Yes, the cast of Byker Grove, after 343 episodes of rote storylines about crushes, have suddenly hit on the horrible truth — they’re just characters in a TV show; a TV show that’s about to be cancelled because of “the people who make us do what we do,” aka the writers.

The fact they’re frozen because there’s no script suggests this is their normal, between-episode state; paused, yet fully-conscious, locked in the limbo that exists between the end credits of one episode and the start of the next. Poor PJ must have been silently screaming with paint in his eyes for days, to say nothing of the surely-agonising months-long gaps between series. And now, they’re faced with that deepest of existential human horrors; not just that nothing matters, but that nothing’s real, especially not you.

04

Lines of dialogue bat back and forth between close-ups of unmoving faces, like the brilliant box task from Big Brother 6, as children ponder the grisly truth; there is no destiny; no free will. As we all secretly fear, they’re merely the playthings of an unseen creator; Sims shut inside door-less rooms, to stand knock-kneed and piss ourselves for their voyeuristic amusement; dropping us into swimming pools with no ladders to flail until we drown. “We’re not real,” says one, “we’re just characters in a story.”

Once they unfreeze, some take it better than others, with many blaming this unseen trickster for their weekly teenage woes. For one gangly lad, “that explains why I never got off with Hayley!” A boy called Stumpy freaks out, with cries of “How can we not be real? We’re here! We exist!” while one girl snaps altogether, becoming gripped with a desperate religious mania. Wearing a THE END IS NIGH sandwich board, she screams at the Creator for mercy, falling to her knees to plead with the “great and glorious Scribe!” not to abandon them.

05

After a phonecall from the Creator, a stack of blank paper magically appears on Akili’s desk, with each character handed a sheet to write their personal ending. “It may be the only chance to save the Grove… and ourselves.” Now, handing a bunch of teenagers the opportunity to shape their own reality seems dangerous. The 14-year-old me, given the chance, would’ve scribbled myself a place in the Liverpool FC squad, a trendy curtains haircut, and Madusa from WCW walking round my room with her knockers out. Byker Grove‘s gang of teens don’t fare much better. One kid gets one of those ‘squeaky voice on the other end’ phonecalls you don’t see on TV these days, from Alan Sugar, buying his business for £5m. Another’s magically running her own modelling agency, though is appalled to find one of the Grove’s dweebs has written himself as her husband, forcing a kiss on her (though she later re-writes it so they’re divorced). But it’s when her coffee cup starts shaking things get really weird.

At this point, let’s take a quick moment to remind ourselves this is Byker Grove, a show that exists on the same level of reality as a Grange Hill, or a Holby City, so it’s pretty startling when a dinosaur appears at the window. The full-sized, roaring T-Rex stomps into frame, as the sting from Jurassic Park plays. We even get an inside-of-mouth POV shot as it rears down on the boys who wrote it into life, before handily defending them against the flesh-eating zombie mummies that’ve shambled into the club. Once the zombies are defeated, they get rid of the dinosaur by summoning a UFO to disintegrate it, before flying back to Mars. The effects are as shitty as the terrible acting, with PS1-cutscene spaceships and mummy costumes straight from the 70’s Doctor Who dressing-up bin.

06

While this is going on, Akili reveals the basement, or, what used to be the basement, has been eaten by an encroaching void. The glowing white limbo-space has seemingly devoured the outside world, and is gradually disappearing the Grove — “it’s the end of our world!” The only way to stop it is by saving the Grove from being sold, but they can’t buy it with the £5m from Alan Sugar, as the money’s been eaten by the void — “The writer clearly wants us to come up with a believable ending!” — so they decide to hold a protest. I got excited when they suggested getting all the old members down to join, figuring we’d be seeing Spuggy and the Dobson sisters, Geoff’s ghost waving like in Return of the Jedi, and even Ant and Dec, taking an afternoon off from force-feeding bowls of alligator clits to former members of the Blazin’ Squad.

Sadly, despite having the power to make literally anything happen, it seems they can’t convince wealthy ex-cast members to put in a cameo, instead just lazily referring to “old faces” in the couple of dozen protesters chanting “SAVE OUR GROVE!” though there clearly aren’t any. As a JCB rolls in, it’s your “save the youth club from evil property developers” plot that I’ve suffered through many times on Patreon, though this is a direct appeal to their God, with the pious girl looking to the sky, arms outstretched, pleading for mercy from “oh great scribe!

07

It’s then that Stumpy rocks up in a limo, having frantically dug up the grounds in search for Geoff’s time capsule, but instead finding a glowing treasure chest filled with gold bullion. Stashed years ago by a local bank robber, he used it to outbid the developers and buy the Grove, vowing to keep it open forever. So, the club is saved, and all is well, as everybody celebrates inside. Except, that is, for some last-minute drama in stopping a pair of nihilistic little girls in army fatigues, who rigged the place with dynamite, intending to blow it up, rather than be destroyed by the writers. A couple of lads go on a desperate dash to stop them, and of course, get there just in time. Except, they don’t.

After 17 years and roughly 143 hours of television, the final shot of Byker Grove shows an explosive plunger being pushed down, setting off the dynamite, and presumably killing everyone inside. It cuts to a blinding white light, some 3 years ahead of Lost using the same device to cliffhang a season finale, and strongly implying that, whether lost to the void, or merely blown to bits, every one of those kids is fucking dead. Pre-credits, we’re shown a montage of old cast photos. They’re all there; Spuggy, Jill Halfpenny, PJ and Duncan, even Geoff’s funeral; all played to a haunting silence. So too, the end credits are silent, and though a split-second blast of music suggests it might be an error with my copy, it does seem fitting, as there’s no appropriate musical accompaniment to dragging your young audience down into existential Hell.

08

Despite its ideas, DEUS EX MACHINA‘s played a lot lighter than it reads here, even in a scene which amounts to the all-is-lost suicide pact trope (think the grenade in the tunnel in Aliens), where a boy tries to convince a girl he fancies into taking his hand and walking into the void. The whole thing’s replete with wacky sound effects and record-scratch noises, and the moments that feel most genuine are when it uses the ‘write your ending’ powers to tie up existing plotlines; mending broken friendships, and bringing back a missing sister who ran away the previous episode, before it all went bollock-out wild. Personally, I’m not worried about my own characters realising they’re imaginary, as I pile them with such a continual weight of misery, they’ve probably killed themselves by now. Judging by the last 40 years, my own mighty Scribe has been doing much the same.

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.

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~ by Stuart on July 16, 2019.

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