Metal Mickey

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Metal Mickey was a notable figure during my time as a small boy, due to his fitting solidly within that best and most formative of all categories — things I liked but was also a bit afraid of. I think it was the voice; clanging and metallic, like a ghost calling to you through the overflow, and a bit too Darth Vader-y for a child whose greatest fear was Luke’s aul’ fella. Not too coincidentally, Mickey originated as a way of pumping out novelty singles in the midst of Star Wars fever, as the brainchild of guitarist and former Bowie bandmate, John ‘Purpleknees’ Edward (I dread to think the story behind that nickname), who worked the controls and did the voice. The success of Mickey’s cover of Lollipop led to a string of guest appearances, on shows like Game for a Laugh, Russ Abbot’s Madhouse, TISWAS, and inevitably, Jim’ll Fix It, before landing a permanent gig on Bill Oddie’s Saturday Banana.

Note that Mickey is always credited as ‘himself’. In Anthony Daniels’ wonderfully self-obsessed autobiography, (which has, like, two references to Kenny Baker, one simply reading “the diminutive actor cast to animate some of Artoo’s scenes”) he complains about the way the droids were promoted in their numerous TV appearances following the first movie. While Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and even Peter Mayhew were listed under their actual names, the droids were always “as themselves,” to keep the magic of suggesting they were real. Similarly, when Mickey span off into his own series on LWT, his credit read “METAL MICKEY appears by arrangement with HOLLYWOOD ROBOTS.” Thus, Metal Mickey the sitcom isn’t the origin story and wacky home life of the Mickey from Saturday Banana, but rather, a show that he’s simply acting in, like when Will Smith got plucked from rap to do the Fresh Prince.

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The series has a weird pedigree, created by Humphrey Barclay — after spotting Mickey on Jim’ll Fix It — written by perennial 80’s gagsmith Colin Bostock-Smith, and produced and directed by Mickey Dolenz from The Monkees, presumably drafted in to bring some of that wacky musical sitcom flavour. Landing his own show really solidified Metal Mickey’s role as our Robby the Robot, but unlike the sleek metal lads from Star Wars, his design has a beautifully British clunkiness, with a squat, primate’s frame, like Dominic Littlewood in a silver marathon cape. There’s nobody inside; nobody ‘wearing’ it; essentially rendering him a real robot, albeit operated with an iffy 1980’s remote control. He’s got tufts of coiled wire for hair, and chest panels with coloured lights, which flash in spacey shapes and the phrase COSMIC ZONE. Despite the name, he’s very plasticy, and moves via castors on the bottom of his static legs, though the upper body and head can spin 360 degrees independently, meaning — if he so chose, and if he’d been retrofitted with an anus — Mickey could’ve watched himself defecate.

Episode one, entitled Metal Mickey Lives, aired on September the 6th, 1980, in the Saturday tea-time slot. Unsurprisingly given its creative team, the theme tune — the buried memory of which instantly unlocked within a single note — is an absolute banger, with a chugging guitar riff and swooshy robot noises. According to the lyrics, he weighs half a ton, which must play havoc with the floorboards. As inferred by the episode’s title, Mickey’s a mere husk when we begin, yet to be sparked into life, and the first half’s all about establishing the human family, who’ve got the very sitcom name of Wilburforce. But the living arrangement’s strange, with three grown siblings — two brothers and a sister — sharing bunk beds in a single room. There’s punk teen Steve, with studded bracelet and neckerchief; bespectacled boffin and Mickey’s inventor, Ken; and sister Hayley. As with all TV, they’re clearly adults playing younger, but Ken and Hayley are meant to be doing their A-Levels, which gives the mixed-gender bunks the air of a commune rather than a family home.

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Conversely, while Ken (classic teen name) looks 35, the mum was a youthful 31 at the time of filming, and the dad looks old enough to be her father. But the thing that immediately stands out is the fucking ludicrous size of the house. As a consequence of having to manoeuvrer a lumbering great robot through it, every room’s like an aircraft hanger, with enormous spaces between the furniture. The dining table’s about 20 feet back from the wall, surrounded by a desert of empty floor, and one low-angle shot of father stood on a chair reveals infinite walls rising to the heavens. The off-kilter proportions give it a sickly vibe, like sleeping off mumps and staring at an Artex ceiling that’s a hundred miles away. Also, on closer inspection, all the ‘carpet’ is just lino patterned to look like carpeting, allowing for the roll of Mickey’s wheels.

After the opening titles end with the simply delightful words “and Irene Handl as Granny,” we begin on Ken tinkering with a dormant Mickey, while Granny plays darts with punky Steve. On rewinding, as Granny gets out of her wheelchair, it tips as she leans on the handle, almost sending the 79-year-old Handl over. They’re joined by neighbour Janey, who enters through the window, in a trait connected both with cool and quirky sitcom characters and with Ted Bundy. Highlighting Mickey‘s eclectic roster, Janey’s played by Lola Young, or to give her full contemporary title, Baroness Young of Hornsey, a life peer in the House of Lords. Is Baron Ponsonby of Roehampton about to crawl in through the catflap?

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Mickey’s being built to help mum with her chores, and good job too, as she’s a pure sitcom housewife, never without a feather duster, and living to cook, clean and pick up after her pipe-smoking, building society manager husband, who’s such an old sexist, he has to be reminded they’ve even got a daughter. Speaking of the daughter, her ‘thing’ is having small boobs, borrowing Granny’s tape measure to see if they’ve grown since yesterday, only to be burned with “I seen larger gooseberries!” This is returned to repeatedly, but — how to put this without sounding like a perv? I mean, the actress is an adult, so I’m probably fine — they’re noticeably not small, especially going by some of the YouTube comments. It’s a bizarre thing to keep harping on about; doing exercises to make them grow, while Janey cheers her on, and Steve does a tit-pun and mimes a wazzo pair of jugs. Along with everyone pretending the cast are children and the house isn’t gigantic, Metal Mickey‘s one big gaslighting experiment. I bet if you really looked, Mickey was actually made of paper.

There’s a strong parallel with Saved by the Bell and Screech’s robot, Kevin, in Ken’s project, which in a Woolworths take on the Frankenstein myth, sparks into life when Janey pops a sherbert-filled sweet into its mouth. Even now, I can see why the voice frightened me so as a child. It’s all done with vocoder like Peter Frampton, but with an utter lack of intonation; every line completely flat, and making Stephen Hawking sound like Matt Berry. Half the time, you have to run it back to decipher what he’s saying, while the other half, no clue. It sounds like someone banging two metal pipes together.

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Declaring “Metal Mickey lives!” as the puny humans back away in fright, his first act as a self-aware entity is to return Hayley’s compliment with “you’re not so bad yourself, stringbean,” and scanning his eyes up and down her breasts. “Oh, you’ve noticed,” she says, once again sad about her tits. Mickey recommends “comfy sweaters and tight cords” before winking, the steel paed. There’s a debate about gender which inadvertently feels quite modern, with the kids asserting that smooth-crotched, nob-less Mickey is “not exactly male, is he?” which he counters with simply knowing that he’s a male. Although it then dates itself with a gag about the shame of being born to an unmarried mother.

So’s not to freak out the parents, the kids pretend Mickey’s being controlled by Ken, during a dinner scene where everyone’s crowded round one side of the table like the last supper. After Mickey almost ploughs through the patio doors, dad orders him to leave, because “it’s a small bungalow, and there’s not enough room for a robot.” No room? Your house can be seen from space! You need a week’s supplies to walk over and switch the telly on! They plan to impress dad into letting Mickey stay by having him clear up all the “choss.” I’d not heard that word before, but dad says it about a hundred times — “it’s choss in here, absolute choss, get it cleared up!” — and it seems to mean general untidiness. Mickey wins him over by telekinetically floating “two buckets of choss” (specifically, laundry) off the floor, before accidentally wrecking his beloved greenhouse for the classic sitcom ending. Your man from the Monkees is credited here as Michael Dolenz. Very grown up, mate.

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Metal Mickey is typical of shows from that awkward tea-time slot where adults will be watching but it’s ostensibly aimed at kids, in that its jokes are abysmal, like when Ken’s tinkering with Mickey and told to “watch the oil,” replying with “why, what’s it doing?” Most of the dialogue’s people being snippy at each other, especially the grown-ups, who communicate entirely in passive-aggressive sarcasm.

Dad: “Look, it’s Ken’s robot.”

Mum: “No dear, it’s the abominable snowman.”

Dad: “Silly me!

In another episode, mum asks Hayley if she’s packing her suitcase (while watching her do just that), and dad responds “no, Marjorie, she’s making a collection for one-legged refugees!” Yeah, alright; you haven’t exchanged a tender touch in 15 years, and he only built that greenhouse for the privacy of a much-needed wank. Thankfully, there’s a ton of robot insults to be found, which long-time readers will know of my love for, racking up quite a list. Bionic dustbin, disaster on castors, iron deficiency, scrap metal on wheels, titanium twerp; it’d almost be worth sitting through all 41 half-hours to make a supercut. But three’s probably enough, and I jump forwards to episode 8, Music Man.

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This is the old ‘character becomes famous pop star in Faustian deal with evil showbiz agent’ plot, when Mickey’s song Come On Boogie attracts pop manager Jake Jason, an American in a fringed leather jacket whose every other word is “baby” or “man.” Granny gets a bit Brexity, suggesting “all those with American accents should be sent back to America,” and Jake promises to give the family “something up front,” leading to another joke about Hayley’s sad jugs. Mickey’s meteoric rise is shown via black and white stock film of stream trains, passing exotic place names such as SWINDON, BASINGSTOKE and WIGAN, and spinning magazine headlines, like the Rolling Stone‘s HE’S TOP OF THE ROBOTS (and not the more phonetically pleasing “BOTS”).

Now on the A-list, in Elton John glasses and an earring, Mickey wishes his loser family an arrogant goodbye in a Mid-Atlantic accent, rebuffing Hayley’s pleas to stay — “But we love you!” “Everybody loves me. I am a star, bay-bee!” There’s a genuinely funny moment where he makes a chatshow host’s wig fly off, before realising the agent’s ripping him off. Mickey’s revenge? To telekinetically make Jake Jason’s trousers disappear — which he did to Steve in episode 1, suggesting it’s more of a fetish than anything. But Mickey’s also got the power to vanish people entirely (when he sneezes), and atchoos Jake out of existence, presumably into some sort of limbo Hell-dimension. Possessing dad’s body and forcing him to join a celebratory dance-off when he returns home, it’s clear that Mickey is more God than robot, able to do his own snap, without a single Infinity Gem. It’s likely he appeared on so many shows because everyone was terrified of him, and one wonders if the Saturday Banana gig came about when he threatened to magically fill Bill Oddie’s cock with Lego.

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My final episode jumps forwards to series 3’s Mickey and the Future, where Mickey’s projecting Ken and Janey’s future from next week onto the telly, in one of those gags where someone’s describing what could be a sexual act, but turns out to be completely innocuous. “It is fun. She’s very good at it, she always takes control” — making it sound like Janey’s paddling his bollocks bloody. But ho-ho, they were just playing tennis. Then we forget Mickey can see through time for a plot where dad’s annoyed at Hayley taking so long in the bathroom that she must be “nice and pink and glowing now.” Janey (who’s black) opens the door with a “not quite!” An argument results in Hayley leaving home, and in a real sign of the times, the 16-year-old casually wanders off to rent a flat with her pocket money.

Now in a manky bedsit with urine-coloured tap water and resident cockroaches, the family concoct a plan to get her back home by having everyone else leave too, causing lonely old dad to beg them all to return. With the kids all gone, he calls his wife “the most stupid woman in all the world,” and she takes off too, with suitcase and feather duster. There’s no Granny this week, “on holiday in Devon,” apparently, and Handl only appeared in roughly half the episodes.

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Now homeless, everyone’s crammed in Hayley’s flat and getting no sleep because Mickey keeps needing “to go wee wee,” while dad’s loving the bachelor life, boozing it up on the sofa all day. Mickey goes all Ghost of Christmas Future, showing him ten years from now if he doesn’t change his ways, living in a rat infested hovel with a filthy second wife, while his kids are off being professors (Ken), in jail (Steve), and in Hayley’s case, working as a model, for suspiciously lingering shots of her wearing a bikini. Sure, Steve’s locked up, but the others seem better off without him, and future-mum’s in bed with a hunk, so if anything, this should redouble his commitment to drinking himself to death.

Instead, he vows to change his ways, reuniting the family. It’s not clear if that was the real future, or if Mickey’s abilities include the construction of flawless deepfakes, which is a terrible notion considering how dang horny the Wilburforces are. From Mickey asking Hayley if she thinks he’s sexy, to Granny flirting with Jake Jason, to Steve’s rage when he realises there’s just next week’s tennis on the telly, and not hot footage of his brother getting pegged, along with everyone’s endless obsession with Hayley’s knockers, it’s shocking that Mickey wasn’t constructed with a fleshlight for a mouth.

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Initially, this was intended as a Shitcoms piece, but it’s not quite bad enough, with the defining quality of being another kids show which was frequently inappropriate for its intended audience. At its peak, Metal Mickey pulled in 12 million viewers, which is really just demonstrative of the lack of options back then. Running until January 1983, by the time 20 hours of hijinx had aired, the magic seemed to have worn off, and Mickey disappeared from our screens. Around 2008, old Purpleknees tried to relaunch him as a Basil Brush style evergreen brand, passing the duties onto a younger team, like Sooty had been, for a series of corporate gigs, but it fizzled out. An official Twitter account with 106 followers has lain inactive since 2015, with a handful of tweets offering personal appearances, and tagging Derren Brown in a hopeful suggestion “Metal Mickey meets the Miracle Maker!!” But I wouldn’t count him out yet. All it takes is for some creative young go-getter to snap up the rights and reboot Mickey for modern audiences, perhaps in a horror-action franchise, pitting childhood nightmare icons against each other. Mickey. Blobby. Whoever wins, we lose.

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

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~ by Stuart on April 19, 2021.

2 Responses to “Metal Mickey”

  1. When is your next piece up?

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