Saturday Morning Archeology – The Saturday Starship

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[previous: Saturday SuperstoreMulti-Coloured Swap ShopWOW!]

Continuing our root around in the Saturday morning shows, it’s back to 1984, when Star Wars was still hot shit, so ITV stuck Tommy Boyd in a spaceship. Think The Mandalorian, except instead of Baby Yoda, Boyd’s tiny sidekick is Bonnie Langford, who somehow remains endlessly energetic and chirpy in the face of some absolutely dire content. Boyd had been drafted in from TISWAS replacement, The Saturday Show, and while former child star Langford was a familiar face onscreen, this was her first full-time hosting gig. Incidentally, the funniest typo I’ve ever seen erroneously named the Crystal Tipps-haired, ten-stone DJ “Tommy Body.”

An episode airing on October 6th begins with Tron-like credits, hurling stars and geometric shapes at the screen, before the pair welcome us from the bridge of the titular Starship. Well, a tiny desk with some lights on it, a single 5-inch CRT monitor, and a control panel that literally appears to have been pulled off a producer’s old boat, with a Words and Pictures school-tech aesthetic. At one point, Boyd sits on it but quickly hops off when the entire thing starts tipping over. In comparison to Parallel 9, this is low Saturday morning sci-fi, with Boyd in very un-spacey jeans and a yellow shirt, and Bonnie in arm warmers and leg warmers. I suppose it is cold up there. But we do cut to breaks with “end of phase one” instead of ‘part’ and there’s a HAL 9000 computer called Earth Eye, which squawks at them with a high pitched voice, like Pinky Punky through an effects pedal.

01

Boyd sends us back to Earth for our first musical performance, promising it’s “really, really ultra totally live,” and who else would it be in this show aimed at small children but Motörhead? They’re playing on an outdoor stage for a crowd of adult toughies in denim jackets, all stood motionless with their hands in their pockets as a sea of blue backs. In close-ups on Lemmy, in his trademark stage posture of straining up at the microphone like a thirsty hamster, you can see an empty waste ground behind them, all under the shadow of a grimly Scarfolk multi-storey. With five numbers over the show, you basically get a full festival concert, though Boyd intros every song with the wrong title, suggesting they really are live, and bravely running the risk of Lemmy saying fuck or fannies on kids TV for a laugh.

After growled lyrics about “the Devil’s kiss” and “prepare to die,” with a ciggie hanging out of the drummer’s mouth, they bring what I take to be a squeaky-voiced teen out of the crowd. But an overexcited smoke machine has turned the entire stage into Silent Hill, choking the poor lad, as a presenter splutters “Oh God, are you there, mother? Can you see us?” Only when it’s finally cleared is this ‘teen’ revealed to be a young Timmy Mallett, promoting his brand new show, The Wide Awake Club, while Motörhead pull faces behind his back. This pre-dates the finalisation of the Mallett brand, and Timmy’s dressed like a normal bloke; tracksuit, regular-sized glasses, no funny hat, no hammer. He doesn’t go “blurgh!” once. It’s really jarring to see behind the curtain, like coming across an old picture of a cool mate on their parents’ mantle, with a bowl cut and shark tooth necklace, before they reinvented themselves at Uni. Except, the opposite.

02

From Lemmy screaming the words “killed by death!” over and over again, it’s back to Tommy Boyd and his curly mullet, asking if we’ve heard what Thatcher’s been saying; that kids need parental guidance instead of money? This is a prelude to the Hellbeast herself turning up, in the form of improbably-named comedy impressionist Fogwell Flax, in a towering wig and pearl necklace. Fake-Thatcher spends the show complaining about modern Britain’s loose morals and belting Boyd with her handbag, with incredible gags like “I’m free on Saturday mornings. I’m an AM PM!

Cartoons come in the form of random scenes from Lady and the Tramp and The Aristocats, which is less weird when you realise they’re respectively still 6 and 11 years from a VHS release in the UK, and thus a rare commodity. Similarly, there’s a montage from the year’s biggest movie, Temple of Doom — supposedly cut together by Spielberg himself — complete with snake eating and monkey brains at 10am on a Saturday morning, which must’ve been a pretty nifty way to promote movies back then, having shown one the previous week for Ghostbusters.

03

Back from the toons, bearded Rory McGrath-alike presenter Nigel Roberts mans a mildly futuristic bar — a Blue Peter Mos Eisley — with kids sat around on cafe tables, along with The Jets, Alison Moyet, two blokes from Madness, and Feargal Sharkey, all looking down at the floor and trying not to laugh when they catch each other’s eye. This is classic pre-boyband, ‘proper musicians forced onto kids shows’ television, although ironically, one of the groups there is called Boyzone, but not the Boyzone, rather, an 80’s duo who are now impossible to Google, due to the threat of accidentally coming across Ronan Keating and instantly dying of boredom.

While the celebrities wait by patiently, Roberts leads a room full of children through a cooking segment. And I do mean full. Saturday Starship‘s defining quality is just how many children they pack into the studio, with the little blighters filling every available inch of screen, having been piled onto set like the end of the aforementioned Temple of Doom, when they’re all running out of the slave mines. Roberts really earns his wage slip, in a long segment preceding the days when a crew’s off-camera laughter would fill the silence of dying jokes. As it’s the anniversary of the Sputnik, they’re making a “Spudnik. It’s good, isn’t it?” and Feargal Sharkey has to sit there for absolutely ages, as Roberts willies around shoving blue food colouring and tomato guts into a baked potato, resulting in this horrifying thing.

04

Thatcher takes a big bite, then gobs the lot straight into the crowd of kids, before a Q&A session where monotone children read questions off clipboards. “Who was your best friend in school and what was his name?” A bloke from Madness quickly answers “Dick Mud!” before changing it to the less penisy “Barry Roberts.” Next guest is music video director Steve Barron, who went onto direct Coneheads and the 1990 TMNT movie, here to promote his debut, Electric Dreams. Like all guests, the very sleepy Barron, up all night working on a video for a young Canadian singer called Bryan Adams, is absolutely surrounded by children, breathing down his neck the whole time, their bored faces and little coughs, never once smiling or laughing. When 1950’s Diner Americana throwback band The Jets mime to their single, the surrounding semi-circle of weans gives an air of “Fight! Fight! Fight!” on the playground, and as an exuberant Bonnie tries to coerce the audience into dancing, she’s met with a wall of stony expressions from boys mortified by even seeing a sock-hop going on, let alone joining in, as the singer croons in an Elvis voice “I wanna make love to you…

05

Bonnie reads out letters suggesting names for a dance she’s been teaching viewers, with the winner ‘Bonnie’s Starbuster,’ which sounds like a finishing move she’ll win the WWE Women’s Championship with, before a chat with Alison Moyet, who says she wouldn’t go into acting because “I’d probably make a real nambo of myself.” Is being a nambo worse than being a wilf? The original Boyzone perform, frontman greenscreened in front of a volcano as he jigs about in a toga, before ending with the essential era-compliant joke about Arnold Schwarzenegger having a funny name, where Earth Eye bids Boyd “bless you!” each time he says it. This is noteworthy as perhaps the earliest example on record, considering Terminator was still three months away from hitting British cinemas, and Arnie’s advertised as being on the show in a fortnight, but I’d guess only in video-form.

I followed that up with an undated episode from the same year, but with all the music cut for copyright reasons, sadly excising Bonnie Langford’s instructional for the Wild Boys dance. Boyd’s in a lovely brown leather dad-jacket, and he and Bonnie’s banter is very This Morning — “ooh, isn’t Christmas shopping hard? Look, we’re both wearing white socks. Sock twins!” But when they tell us Nigel’s off “doing watersports,” there’s not even a flicker; innocents from an era when said phrase didn’t instantly conjure images of lovers dousing each other with yellow nectar, straight from the tap. Imagine how many ‘unscripted’ laughs Holly and Phil would’ve dragged out of that; a shaking Scofe covering his mouth with his cards; This Morning‘s social media manager making a note of the time-code, so he can upload the clip to YouTube with the comments switched off.

06

Down on Earth, Nigel is indeed watersporting, showing off stuff which probably seemed really exciting in 1984, including a boy who’s supposedly great at barefoot waterskiing, but sinks immediately. The ‘expert’ adult who follows him tumbles in too, before Nigel tells us the chap will demonstrate a special way of standing back up and– no, he’s gone again, left hundreds of yards behind in the water. Starship has a weekly Jim’ll Fix It rip-off section, where viewers write in to have their wishes fulfilled, but I suppose if it’s ever okay to plagiarise, it’s with the oeuvre of one of history’s worst ever paedos. Last week, a girl met Paul Young, while today’s is a charmingly urchin-like boy whose dream is “to gah inna speedboa’!” As it’s the 80s, they let a tiny child who can barely see over the wheel just drive off in a powerboat, containing only him and Nigel, and with no safety team on hand as they tear into the distance like a tourist’s 8mm film of the Loch Ness Monster. The boy’s shrieks of delight are audible over the roar of the engine — “GOOD THIS, INNIT?!” — and as he veers back to the pontoon, it’s genuinely quite tense. Will he slow down, or plough straight into it, knowing his young life shall never again reach such heights? “WOTCHA, GOD, MATE! I’M COMIN’ ‘OME!” Note: he did slow down.

We return to the studio, for big guest David Essex, where the amount of children has gotten completely out of hand, their sheer number swallowing Essex and Boyd entirely, tightly packed like a 100-strong game of sardines; standing, sitting, kneeling; one squashed on the sofa between the two men like that beach goblin from Five Children and It. Imagine Hitchcock’s The Birds, but instead it’s sorrowful under-tens, impossibly multiplying every time you blink. Essex gamely plays along with the space theme — “I was worried about the afterburn from the starship coming in, but one dealt with it.” Then Boyd brings up how “bonkers” Essex is about Helicopters, asking “did you see Airwolf last night? Good one, weren’t it?

07

It’s here we move into one of the most unintentionally funny pieces of television I’ve ever seen, as Starship‘s misjudged sense of ‘what kids like’ is laid nob-out bare, in what’s intended as a plug for Essex’s upcoming West End musical flop, Mutiny!, which he wrote and starred in. Tommy Boyd states (correctly) that “not a lot of children are familiar with the true story of the Mutiny on the Bounty.” You know why, Tommy, old pal? Because it’s boooring. That’s not gonna stop him teaching these kids though — all thousand of them, crammed around, on, under, and likely inside the sofa — about a naval incident from hundreds of years ago. Essex attempts a succinct retelling, but soon, the words “commissioned by the British navy to take bread-fruit, from where it grew readily…” have left his mouth.

Thousand yard stares all round, the loud breathing of children, “…cheap food for the slaves…” Feet shuffle, coughing, scratching, “…they had a botanist who was taking care of it…” Boyd tries to win back the room by excitedly announcing they’re about to see a clip of Charles Laughton, “one of the great actors of all time!” Yeah, I remember from being a kid, the one thing I loved the most about being at my grandparents’ house was black and white films from the 1930s where old men were stood around talking. But wait — here’s a clip from the 1962 version too, with Marlon Brando! And in colour! That’s what kids from 1984 like, isn’t it? Yo-yos, He-Man, Marlon Brando? Dear Christ, Essex is still going, the soundtrack filled with fidgeting noises as they keep themselves entertained by leaning into shot to see their faces on the studio monitor, while he wonders aloud if Captain Bligh was perhaps too much of a disciplinarian? Poor sods probably thought they were going to meet R2D2.

08

Like a mountaineer who’s watched the rest of his exhausted team plummet to their deaths, Boyd dutifully ploughs on to the summit, eager to demonstrate — to these now suicidal children — the growing complications of Fletcher and Bligh’s disagreement with each successive film adaptation. Look, kids, here’s Anthony Hopkins shouting! If you’re wondering what the opposite of Rik Mayall on Jackanory is, it’s this. Ten, long minutes from when we began, it finally ends with an applauding Boyd saying “fascinating. This man tells a great story!” Then he says “rock on!” like someone shouting “I don’t believe it!” at Richard Wilson while he’s playing Macbeth, but David Essex doesn’t even look up, so Boyd says it again. “Rock on, Tommy,” replies Essex, quietly, and out of politeness.

Pointlessly, there’s a load of non-Mutiny on the Bounty content too, with 2/3 of Bronski Beat — Somerville’s busy, I guess — who’ve never even stepped foot on an 18th century breadfruit transport, so who cares? Bonnie asks Steve Bronski where the band’s name comes from, while Larry Steinbachek makes a joke about Japanese journalists calling them “Blonski Beat.” “I bet they do!” laughs Bonnie. Larry is also quick to laughingly raise a hand and shout “me!” when she asks if anyone’s ever been “watersporting.” Then the bearded, in-house conservationist shows off Starship‘s pet potato, Richard, whose tentacle-like eyes dangle from a polythene bag like a Lovecraftian beast (headcount; 35 children), and there are interviews with two of the Flying Pickets, and the director of the Red Cross; a rather stern looking Colonel, explaining at complex and tedious length the various subcommittees which deal with the finances of donations. When they cut to the all-important address to send money to help people who are literally dying, Nigel is very briefly superimposed on top, in an errant piece of greenscreen, as he sits waiting for the next segment, where he’ll appear a ghost for a Ghostbusters competition.

09

We end on some Bonkers Britain consumerism, with a news story where Swindon 6th formers have been drafted in as Lollypop ladies/men, to the anger of local parents. Boyd’s not happy either, suggesting to viewers that if they’ve got an aunt or gran — “they make smashing lollypop ladies” — who’d like to do it instead, they must tell their teacher to tell the local road safety officer. The Saturday Starship couldn’t be an odder program if it actually were in space, although if they did encounter a real alien, they’d probably show a ten minute video on Martian farming techniques. While it’s not as shambolic as Our Show, it’s similarly lacking in its sense of what children are interested in. People moan about focus groups, but no kid’s ever demanded to see a bloke in a jumper promising “news on those potatoes we did.”

10

Starship lasted a single series of 21 shows, ending in January 1985. 16 months later, Saturdays would see another spaceship, on ITV’s Get Fresh, with the Millennium Dustbin ferrying Gaz Top to weekly locations. Following a successful host run on CITV, Tommy Boyd went onto make a radio career out of the ‘contrary opinions troll’ methodology that’s been stinking up the internet and newspaper columns for the last 20 years — all “that thing everyone hates is actually good!” or pretending to believe something stupid, so people would challenge him on it. In the early 2000s, he briefly attempted to relaunch British wrestling, running a single show at Crystal Palace, and even participating as the villainous, leather jacketed owner; the Talksport Vince McMahon; playing off heat he’d gotten on the radio from arguing there was someone hiding underneath the ring who poured Heinz ketchup on wrestlers’ faces when they ‘bled’. Although that is slightly more believable than a children’s show giving up ten minutes to David Essex recanting the Mutiny on the Bounty off the top of his head, like Alan Partridge describing the opening scenes of The Spy Who Loved Me.

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 videos, my podcast, and all kinds of other stuff.

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~ by Stuart on October 5, 2021.

3 Responses to “Saturday Morning Archeology – The Saturday Starship”

  1. When is your next article up?

  2. Tommy Boyd is an absolute legend as well as being a great storyteller.
    Check out this funny story from him –

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