That Yellow Bastard – The Occult Whimsy of Wizbit

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As I’ve addressed before, I detest the lazy way of looking back at kids TV and importing adult sleaze onto it — “The Magic Roundabout were all on drugs! Mr. Benn rented those costumes so he could sniff the shoes for a wank!” But undeniably, there are shows where there’s no need to go flailing beneath the surface for hidden horror, as it’s readily on display; series which seem like creepypastas about lost footage that turned its viewers mad. American television had the trippy worlds of Sid and Marty Krofft, with giant-headed foam monsters staggering through technicolour dreamscapes where everything could speak. For British children, chief of these eldritch fever visions was Wizbit.

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Launched on the BBC in January 1986, Wizbit was a co-creation between magician Paul Daniels and Barry Murray, formerly record producer for Mungo Jerry. This blend of magic and music, with Daniels controlling the rights for character and designs, while Murray controlled the songs, led to a deeply strange, off-kilter brew, best exemplified by its memorable theme tune. A swirling, hypnotic melody acting as the cursed incantation to summon the Great Yellow Beast, with Daniels rapping his own lyrics over a bastardised cover of Lead Belly’s Ha-Ha This A Way, it doubles as an early example of a mash-up.

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Very little of the show survived to the present day, and all that’s salvaged of episode one, Enter Wizbit, is a truly haunted piece of footage, captured by a camcorder pointed at a television screen, with its tinny audio echoing around the confines of an unseen living room. Initially I was afraid I might catch a reflection of our archivist in the screen, but quickly realise no TV-collecting ghoul could possibly be freakier than the actual show. As suggested by the title, this is an origin story, and begins with Paul Daniels greeting us with “hello, my little magic wands!” This sounds cute, but there’s simply no way a man who claimed to have slept with over 300 groupies in his touring days never once wooed a conquest with the suggestion to “come backstage and see my little magic wand.”

This is prime-era Daniels, full-wigged and in his magic clobber of a bow tie and tux, which, coupled with his height, gives the impression of a Victorian boy-lord. He will serve as our guide to the setting of Puzzleopolis, “the most magical town in the whole world!” A walled-off city, it’s visually somewhere between Byzantine-era Constantinople and Sesame Street, and home to Paul’s Playhouse, which is a magic theatre, but thanks to Hugh Hefner’s monopoly on the word ‘play’, is impossible not to imagine crammed with naked 22-year old girls, all dead behind the eyes.

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I’ll be honest, at the time of writing this, I’ve been up for two days, so am already filled with dread when he mutates a Queen of Spades into an ominously all-black card, heralding the arrival of some terrible being. Like Ray Stantz, I try to clear my head, but it’s too late, as the camera pushes in on the card like we’re falling, dragging us down into the black. The darkness explodes with a monochrome galaxy of swirls, twisting and forming into shapes, all white on black; a shifting cave painting kaleidoscope, like those 70’s public information films warning on the dangers of LSD. Stars become flowers which morph into a terrifying fetus, all under a the dirge of a folk-horror medieval jig. Then, a voice booms out, in what I assume is a close approximation of what it’s like to trek deep into the rainforest for a nightmare vision-quest.

In the beginning, there was magic in the world, there was the magic of day and night, of winds and plants, and the magic of birth, and of life, until the first beings who had crawled agonisingly out of the primeval mud to crouch in caves against the long nights of fear, everything was magic. There was white magic, and there was black magic, and there was darkness, thunder and lightning. That was in the beginning…

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This is for kids, yeah? The speech is actually a slightly altered quote from the beginning of John Northern Hilliard’s 1938 book, Greater Magic, though they might as well have been reading aloud from Aleister Crowley’s spellbook judging by what’s been invoked into our cast of characters. Wooly is a giant rabbit, whose costume has an oddly fleshy, skin-like quality to it, dummy thicc and jiggling when he jumps. But the head’s really cheap, like something from a fancy dress shop, with a static mouth and eyes. Weirdest of all, according to IMDB, the actor inside, at least in the first episode, is this guy.

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Yes, Frank Tate from Emmerdale. Who’s inside Wizbit, Phil Mitchell? Walking to market, Wooly bumps into the titular Wizbit, who informs him “I come from the planet Wow!” on visit for a year and a day to learn about humans. Wizbit’s a big yellow cone, reminiscent of a brim-less wizard’s hat, with gorgeous long eyelashes, and a disturbing pair of holes on the edges of his eyes, to stop the poor fucker inside from suffocating. Like Kamala, he’s got a moon and stars etched on his body, with scattered stars across his skin. Curiously, like tattoos of swallows on tough lads’ necks, there’s also a Seal of Solomon on the side of his head; an occult symbol which endowed the biblical King Solomon the power to command demons and djinn. Again, as you’ll repeatedly need to remind yourself, Wizbit is a show for small children.

Meanwhile, our bad guy, Professor Doom, lives in Castle Creep, floating above the city on a rock, with his pet cat, Jinx, who’s a bad-taxidermy puppet that keeps biting him. In his high top hat, Doom resembles a Vaudevillian Bruce Forsyth, making home of a classic medieval alchemist’s lab, with dusty old grimoires, phrenology heads, and Erlenmeyer flasks filled with coloured liquid. I half expect to see Hell’s mighty King Beleth heaving itself across the floorboards, as Doom apports a crystal ball to spy on Puzzleopolis and devise ways of messing with them.

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For a sub-half-hour show, Wizbit has an enormous cast, demonstrated with a lengthy sequence where residents aimlessly prance around the town square, inadvertently exposing the depraved Dr. Moreau shit Paul Daniels gets up to in his workshop. As you’d expect, we have circus-type human characters; clown, mime, stilt-walker, gypsy fortune teller; even the lovely Debbie McGee in a spangly leotard; but many are anthropomorphic magic props. There are giant magic wands, with no arms and a pair of lady-like eyes at the tip; foam balls with big sexy lips and a Mary Portas bob; playing cards and dice with no discernable features beyond a feminine pair of human ankles and feet.

What kind of existence is this; sans eyes, mouth and arms, unable to eat or scream for help? Do the ones with hands have to act as carers for the rest? Do they defecate on the floor like animals, or did Paul specially build a wide array of toilets for all the various body shapes? And what’s the sexual landscape in Puzzleopolis? Like all locked-off societies, eventually they’ll be tempted to experiment with each other. Who among us could blame the green-haired human grocer for becoming sexually obsessed with the luscious-lipped bouncy ball, who’s essentially just a sentient tit?

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There’s yet more dancing, as Professor Doom’s evil plan involves Pied Pipering everyone up to his castle through a magic door, by hypnotising them with Wizbit‘s theme. It’s no surprise, given his Satanic nature, that Wizbit undoes the curse by playing the song backwards, causing the footage to be reversed and the gang to return home. We end on Paul in his dressing room, magicking a big carrot out of the air and giving it to his young wife with a “there you go, Deb.” It’s best not to ask. This is still less disconcerting than the interactions between Wooly and Wizbit, both doing that theme park mascot acting, of emoting by leaning back and waving their arms, miming to dialogue that’ll be dubbed on later, with Wizbit’s mouth yammering up and down relentlessly like a Cenobite, in sync with nothing.

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Aside from its arcane weirdness, the trippiest aspect is the visual style, which is roundly ‘someone editing a wedding video in 1988,’ taking an already-lurid set of characters and careening them about the screen with endless neon spinning wipes and cheap effects. There’s heavy use of split screen and picture-in-picture, simultaneously giving multiple angles or close-ups, or at times, completely unconnected footage of weird puppets, too small and choppy to be made sense of, when glimpsed in bubbled frames on top of the scene, like portals to a dark dimension. Perhaps the ADHD editing means to remind at all times of Daniels, flitting between the story and his dressing room in shots which rarely exceed a few seconds. Sometimes, a little frame of him whizzes past as he comments on the action. In one scene, we suddenly cut back to Paul holding a pan. “Pandemonium!” he says, pretending to play it like a guitar, before it neon-wipes us back to Puzzleopolis.

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Episode 3, A Game of Hanki-Poo, opens on Wizbit working on his thesis about Earth. I’m not sure focussing on the residents of Puzzleopolis alone will paint an accurate picture. And what’s his plan? Is he assessing Earth’s resources before an invasion of cone-people, enslaving us to work in their mines and beating us until we perfect the pulling of a coin out of someone’s ear? Things quickly get strange as fuck, as Wooly falls asleep outside the city gates, leading to a dream sequence where he’s ogling a seductively-posed sexy carrot — a woman with a green face, stuffed into an orange tube — before an erotically charged dance where they’re coquettishly giving chase around a wishing well and tenderly stroking each other’s faces. With lyrics opining “I can’t survive without you,” and taking place in a hauntingly darkened set, this is an assuredly terrible fit for the child-demographic, but ploughs on regardless for a full two minutes.

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Wooly wakes with a wiggling nose, and probably a dick like a broom handle, before he’s accosted by Professor Doom’s goons, the What Brothers — solely named to pad out the script with loads of sub-par “Who’s on first base” gags. The bros bilk Wooly out of all his money with the old ‘Find the Lady’ game, named as the Hanki-Poo of the title, which had I feared would be the thing I once had to do on a long coach trip when the toilet was out of order. Wooly’s consoled in another long musical number by Puzzleopolis’s lady gatekeeper, swaying and twirling in each other’s arms with heartfelt lines like “since you don’t love me,” which definitely implies they’re fucking. Wizbit gets his money back, and Paul closes on a trick, with wording of “a piece of candy or a sweet” suggesting his eventual goal was selling the Wizbit franchise to an American network. In a later episode, Wizbit similarly introduces a prop that’s “a model of an elevator, or lift…” while several characters have American accents, all of which are dire.

For the next full surviving episode, it’s a big jump to series 3, episode 3, entitled Treasure. Two years on from the first series, Paul’s either ditched the wig, or swapped it for a hairpiece which replicates balding, like that sketch in I Think You Should Leave. By now, he’s taken over the voices of both Wizbit and Wooly, with the latter sounding exactly like Mickey from The League of Gentlemen, while the costumes are noticeably different. Wizbit’s cheaper and more ‘moulded’ looking, and Wooly’s got bright pink eyes, like he and Wizbit have been smoking up a storm since moving in together, as they’re now flatmates. Or lovers; it’s not clear. Thankfully for my anxiety, the constant video effects are gone too, and scenes are much longer, though there’s repetitive background music playing through the whole thing, like the menu screen of a ZX Spectrum game.

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Professor Doom’s plan this week, launched with a pounding 80’s synth rock number, involves planting a fake treasure map in Puzzleopolis, tricking the residents into digging up the disgusting bog monster, Squidgy, who’s purportedly sitting on the loot. Squidgy’s a jive-talking Audrey II rip-off, voiced by a white actor throwing around phrases like “soul brother.” Eventually, Wizbit points out the map’s got 1st of April 1998 (more than a decade in the future) written on the top in massive letters, so it must be a prank. Why did Doom; who we saw painting the map; put that on there if he wanted to fool them? Then Squidgy pulls some real ‘treasure’ out of his bog; an old shoe he was saving until Christmas to eat, which means Christianity exists in their world. Do all wand-people go to heaven? Also in this show for little kids, the mime does a riddle where we have to guess who said a famous quote, which turns out to be from Lord Olivier.

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Paul’s closing trick, pulling a piece of string through a drinking straw, is about as spectacular as Wizbit‘s magic gets, all small scale trickery like making napkins disappear, or tearing a newspaper into the shape of a ladder. When Paul’s sliding a pom pom down another piece of string, it reminds me of Dave Courtney getting shirty with a children’s party magician. The dad-audience is probably just as bored, with S3 taking Debbie McGee out of the spangly leotards and into a full three-piece suit. The chronic misunderstanding of what children like is at its best in final surviving episode, Badbit, where Wizbit (Paul doing a squeaky voice) gives a lengthy retelling of the Willow Pattern fable, with this thrilling exchange aimed at eight-year-olds:

Wizbit: “The story is about a beautiful Chinese girl, whose father was a mandarin.”

Wooly: “Her daddy was an orange?!

Wizbit: “A mandarin was a public official in the old Chinese empire! It is also the name of a small orange tree, but it’s the civil servant we’re concerned with in this story.

The kids will love that, mate, especially the bit about how “the girl’s angry father carried a whip to prevent her from leaving.” This is endemic of the whole series, which is incredibly babyish, yet written in the tone of a weekend dad trying to connect with his children by asking if they saw last night’s Question Time. Badbit, as suggested by the title, revolves around an evil Wizbit, sent to Puzzleopolis by Professor Doom. Identical but for bushy eyebrows, Badbit is bad to the dang bone, first asking “where can I get a beer around here?” and threatening everyone in 1920’s gangster speak, see? Badbit bemoans Puzzleopolis being a dry town, and smears Wizbit’s good reputation, calling the gatekeeper a “dumb broad,” yelling that he hates the French, and physically shoving people — “outta the way, jerk!

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After the real Wizbit gets the cold shoulder from his pals, he identifies Badbit as an imposter, and “an android.. a living robot, a synthetic being!” Wizbit hacks him, sending back to Castle Creep to threaten Professor Doom — “speak when you’re spoken to, big nose!” Of course, we break for a stupidly grown-up musical number, completely unrelated to the plot, where Squidgy sings about getting old and that he’s “got problems weighin’ down on me,” while giant magic wands and decks of playing cards blindly shuffle across the set, trying not to topple into the boghole as they meekly kick their human legs to the beat. Wizbit ended in February 1988, after 27 episodes of horrifying occult whimsy.

Just as you’d expect in this age of no new ideas, in 2007, a failed attempt to reboot Wizbit went into pre-production. Planned to be fully CG, a handful of animation tests made their way online, with what little charm was to be had in the franchise sucked out by the utterly rank visuals. The most complete sequence is a scrubbing of the only thing anyone remembered about the original, the theme tune, for a much more cheery, less cursed ditty, though the new lyrics do at least confirm his species. “Wizbit is back (he’s back!), and he’s a little yellow magical hat (a hat!)

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In 2009, off the back of a line of small-press Wizbit storybooks, focus shifted from a TV series into a feature-length animated movie, with an announced cast of — genuinely — Paul Daniels, Todd Carty, and Rustie Lee, but this too fell into development hell. As Paul died in 2016, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see Wizbit on our screens again. All we can hope is that Paul closed the portal before he went, and banished the Yellow King back to planet Wow, or as it’s known in its native tongue, Carcosa.

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 March 26, 2020.

One Response to “That Yellow Bastard – The Occult Whimsy of Wizbit”

  1. […] references to Mallett’s mallet sound really phallic. Like Rod Hull’s Pink Windmill and Paul Daniels’ magic wand, I refuse to believe Timmy never used Mallett’s mallet as euphemism for his penis, if one can […]

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