•December 3, 2019 • 1 Comment


After tackling Cyberzone, I felt culturally obliged to cover another stinky futuristic game show from the same period. Scavengers went out on ITV in the summer of 1994, thrust into the prime Saturday tea-time slot where Gladiators had become a national obsession, with huge expectations. What’s it about? Ehh, I’ll let the opening narration explain.

The time: the future. The place: deep space. Aboard the mother ship Scavenger, the shuttle-craft Vulture prepares for take-off. At the helm, Commander John Leslie and a trainee rookie squad. Their mission: To locate the stricken cargo ship, Cyclops; legacy of a long-gone intergalactic war. To scavenge, salvage, and survive with honor! These are… The Scavengers!

Note that Leslie is credited, not as a character, but as Commander John Leslie, suggesting it’s the John Leslie from 1994, put into cryogenic stasis in an effort to save Earth’s mightiest specimens before the planet was ravaged by space genocide. Who else would’ve been on that mid-90’s ark; Stephen Hawking? Statto? Jo Guest? Leslie’s dressed like the Colonial Marines from Aliens, or Robocop if he’d gotten divorced rather than shot to bits. The armour’s got muscle shapes on it, right down to the cum-gutters on his hips, though his height just accentuates the stringy arms. His right eye’s marked by a scar, a testimony to his having seen combat. I wonder if he found a moment’s wistful pause while striding across battlefields of bones, to remember his old Blue Peter pals?

They’ll all be gone now,” he’ll have thought, from hundreds of years in the future; “Anthea, Diane-Louise.. even George the Tortoise. All dead.” Perhaps he made a journey to the ruins of the Blue Peter Garden — its pond now awash with blood, lapped by radiation-mutated goldfish with three anuses — to lay a wreath in their memory.


John Leslie prods buttons at the helm of a ship, against a greenscreened window showing the blackness of deep space lit by explosions, with clipart visuals you’d expect from ITV in 1994. Armoured contestants sit strapped into the back, once again, just like in Aliens. This, plus background music that’s often reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s score, isn’t a coincidence. Scavengers was produced with Carlton in association with 20th Century Fox; rights holders to the Alien franchise; and its working title was Aliens: The Game Show, however, this was nixed by Ridley Scott, and rebranded into something more generic. Around this time, the officially licensed Alien War was a popular attraction at London’s Trocadero, and there’s obvious similarities in having regular folks be dragged through the grates and grills of a darkly-lit spaceship by some guy in space-army gear who can’t act.

But the deathly seriousness of do-or-die galactic apocalypse is immediately deflated when John Leslie does the usual pre-game chat with the contestants, with everyone dressed like they’re part of a terrible space-Vietnam but trying not to laugh. “What’s so funny?” he asks, while smirking himself; “Cyclops awaits, it’s a deadly serious business out there!” It’s doubly awkward as they’ve clearly not done a pre-interview, with all the answers ums and ahs — “Are you naturally strong?” “I’m not sure?” Asking one pair if they compliment each other, Peter (who’s white) says of he and team-mate Dawn (who’s not) “I think the colours go well together!” while gesturing at each other’s skin-tone. So, this is the future utopia Star Trek promised?


The male contestants also have sculpted muscles on their outfits, while the women have booby armour, possibly to protect them from– (that’s enough, Ed), which looks like two metal coconut shells glued to a wetsuit. Before we begin, Commander Leslie introduces the imaginatively-named Android, ‘Android’; a sexy robot woman with pointy boobs and one bare shoulder, whose job is directing them where to go and adding up the scores. Leslie steers the Vulture through fiery debris and in through the smashed hull of the disintegrating Cyclops, swerving through fireballs and lightning bolts. “Here she comes, nice and gently,” he says, with all the urgency of getting his Land Rover between the white lines in Aldi’s carpark. And then, we’re off!

In format, Scavengers is essentially Crystal Maze with John Leslie as Richard O’Brien — even borrowing their clock countdown sound effect — but with half the show taken up by the bits where they’re madly running between zones. It’s during these that one thing really stands out; the set is absolutely fucking enormous. Seriously, it’s the biggest set I’ve ever seen. In the two episodes I watched, barring the finale, they never repeated a game, with each task taking place in separate, uniquely designed industrial stages. Housed at Pinewood, it’s a steel maze of corridors and platforms, guffing pipes and swinging chains, metal gantries flooded with dry ice, and spurting random fires. Designed by Quentin Chases, who previously made the arena games for Gladiators, it cost an extraordinary £2.5m, which was recouped by reusing it to tape the international versions, as Fort Boyard would with its fortress.


The games consist of running to various parts of the ship — The Crusher, Steel Works, Bomb Disposal Area, Solar Tower — to scavenge for futuristic-sounding objects which all have point values. Everyone spends their time clambering up or down girders or yanking on chains, with no safety wires I could see. Christ, imagine having that as your epitaph — ‘Beloved father, son, brother and uncle. Fell off a balcony while being yelled at by John Leslie in a plastic helmet.’ The impressiveness of the set actually plays against it, with confusing rules, and the contestants as tiny figures lost beneath the dramatic lighting and smoke, as Leslie shouts at them to hurry up, and “let’s see some biceps!” But the big budget feel often withers during the tasks. One game involves diffusing bombs, and when the first one ‘blows up,’ it’s with a pathetic balloon pop which makes everyone laugh. When a team successfully completes the mission, Leslie yells a very futuristic “wahey!” Sadly, there’s a real lack of future-y words, apart from the drink bottles thirsty contestants slurp from after the final game, which are filled with “Scav-Juice.” But they’re the scavengers, so does he mean… piss?

Other games see the lads lowering the women down on ropes onto a bed of dry ice that resembles Alien‘s facehugger nest, to collect flashing football-sized orbs into a net. In another, they’re scrambling across climbing nets draped in cobwebs to salvage giant eggs before “Mother Spider” awakes. There’s one game where they’re dismantling robots in a lab, where a bisected upper torso of a dead robot lays on a table (you know, like Ash or Bishop), coming to life to give hints when he’s plugged in, which 20-year-old contestant Dee looks deeply disconcerted by. But the task itself is just a Simon memory game with blinking, booping lights. In a rare game that’s not referencing the Alien franchise, they lift from Star Wars instead, salvaging junk from a trash compactor which threatens to crush them, rooting around in rubbish for ‘fuel rods’ for fucking ages like someone who dropped their car keys in the skip while doing a dump run.


But the best bits are the ludicrous action inserts, with each episode having a b-plot which showcases John Leslie’s A-List action hero skills. In episode one, we meet series villain Lord Tanargh, and honestly, he looks pretty great. Tanargh is the work of Bob Keen, one of the team who designed Jabba the Hutt, with credits on films like Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and The NeverEnding Story. A fearsome-looking character, with Predator-style dreads, and facepaint like the clown from Spawn, Tanargh is voiced by David McCallum, and really highlights the creative duality of Scavengers. They’ve created a nightmarish creature that genuinely wouldn’t be out of place in a movie, and put him up against… John Leslie off Blue Peter? Incidentally, there’s speculation on IMDB that as Fox also owned the Predator franchise, Tanargh might’ve been conceived as a relation to the titular Predators.

After warning Leslie from trespassing on his ship, Tanargh pulls a lever, teleporting a pair of green Xenomorph looking rubber monsters from their cage to attack him. Leslie pulls the same face he probably did watching Matthew Wright that time, and shoots one with a raygun, before running away, eventually tearing a pipe off the wall and throwing it through the alien’s chest, Commando style. None of these scenes are referred to when he’s with the contestants, with a jarring tonal shift between him fighting for his life, blasting monsters to death, and when he’s back to chucklingly telling some photocopier repairman from Bristol to “hurry it up, mate” as they shimmy down a rope.


The final game’s played under a countdown, with anyone who’s not inside the Vulture when it takes off getting left behind. Leslie gives them a pep-talk, with a bro-shake for each, and the motto “Scavenge, Salvage, and Survive, with honour!” before he fucks off on a zip-line. Of all the exhausting games of clambering down ropes and girders and winding on winches, the finale is the most exhausting of all, in six long, confusing minutes of people frantically… doing stuff? I dunno, it’s impossible to tell what’s going on. But at least this time, there’s an alien shooting at them from the gantry, though nobody reacts, as the laser beams and sounds are all added in post production, barring some little splash squibs in the water and a few fizzy explosions going off like a cheap box of fireworks from the local garage.

One team gets back in time, but Dawn gets her boot caught in the climbing net, missing the countdown and causing John Leslie’s finest piece of acting work, as he begs “I need more time, Android, more time! More time, Android!” and howling an emotive “Nooooo!” as she closes the airlock. “Sorry,” yells Dawn from the floor, as the Vulture flies off. Everyone else is pretty jovial in their post-game chit-chat, considering they’ve just left two contestants to their deaths and/or slavery and unspeakable torture at the hands of a cruel alien warlord. Weirdly, they dock at the same disintegrating ship at the start of every show, but there’s no mention of finding and rescuing their fallen crew.


One thing that’s fun is how they fill the ship with a background population of monsters. In various inserts, we see little aliens with eyes on stalks popping up above the water, or robotic eyes peering out of a flap before disappearing with a whir. Running to the final game in episode one, Leslie points something out to a female contestant, who screams and tries to run when she sees it, but he physically restrains her in a way which plays horribly now. “It’s just a limpet!” he says, picking up a little alien puppet, as a blast of fire is superimposed coming out of its cute little rubber gob — “they’re very friendly… say hello!” At one point, when they’re sprinting down another corridor, it cuts to an alien lurking nearby, looking like Jay Leno as Nosferatu. Another scene sees Lord Tanargh pick up and stroke a horrifying animatronic hairless cat, which jerks and kicks its little limbs, tipping its head back in pleasure as it’s tickled, before he throws it to a massive slime-dripping beast, who throttles it in its tentacles before eating it.


Episode two’s sci-fi subplot gives you a b-movie condensed down into 90 seconds, when Android warns John Leslie he’s got a price on his head, paid to the Cyberoid Clone Squad by Lord Tanargh. We cut to Tanargh speaking to the merc, who’s got another great alien mask, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Star Wars Cantina; at least, in the prequel trilogy. It demonstrates its abilities by cloning itself into John Leslie — which would make a great alibi — though the scar’s on the wrong cheek. I was salivating at the thought of a Good (?) John Leslie/Evil John Leslie face-off, and boy do we get it! “What the hell are you?” asks GJL. “Your worst nightmare,” replies BJL, reminding you in a single line that he is decidedly not a trained actor. They do a quickdraw, and one of them’s killed, but we don’t know who. Not until John Leslie fingers his scar, which is on the left — oh no! But they pull back to reveal he’s looking in a mirror, and the real, true, original John Leslie from Wheel of Fortune was the victor.


I went into Scavengers figuring there’d be plenty to take the piss out of — and there was, as it’s absolutely abysmal — but unexpectedly, there’s also the kernel of the interesting show that could’ve been. But it’s such an odd mix, with legitimately impressive sets and creature work, and in places, an admirable scope, all blended with a writer from Chucklevision, the director from Jimmy Tarbuck’s ‘Big Break but golf’ gameshow, Full Swing, and starring John Leslie as a Colonial Marine. For a show that’s impossible to take seriously, it’s nowhere near camp enough, with the sci-fi stuff played too serious between bits that are silly and jovial. For example, whenever Leslie speaks, a little mic that’s attached to his helmet whirs down to his mouth, then back up again when he’s finished. Up and down, up and down, every time he takes a breath, and it’s never not funny. Plus, with all the running about, alien subplots, and nonsensical games that last for five or six minutes, there’s no time to get to know the contestants’ personalities, so you’re not rooting for anyone, and just watching people you don’t care about scramble up girders for fucking ages.


Scavengers was a colossal failure, ending its run with the final episodes being burned off in the post-GMTV Monday morning death-slot. Who knows how many more Alien riffs we’d have seen had the show continued? Perhaps it was all building towards John Leslie hiding under a clothes rack in an airlock while wearing a pair of tiny little pants. If it’d reached the Gladiators-level viewing figures they were hoping for, it’s possible they might’ve ditched the game show stuff and spun-off into a straight sci-fi action series; or maybe Ridley Scott would have changed his mind and brought Big John Leslie in for a proper Alien sequel. And now I’m dealing with my own parasite. It’s pushing against the inside of my stomach; fighting to tear its way out — it’s the urge to do the cliched Alien vs. Predator joke that everyone’s gonna tweet at me when this goes up anyway, so excuse me while I go blow myself out of the airlock.

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I’m Famous and Frightened

•November 24, 2019 • Leave a Comment


[related: The Michael Jackson SeanceOne World Over: The Day that Davro Died]

The mid-2000s were an amazing time for good-bad paranormal television, with Most Haunted in its glory years, and Living TV churning out a constant stream of weirdo psychics in green-o-vision pretending to be choked by dead jailers. Barring Most Haunted itself, the majority of these hundreds of hours of footage was disposable and instantly forgotten, which is a particular tragedy regarding one extraordinary show. I’m Famous and Frightened aired over three consecutive nights in 2004, bang in the middle of Living’s paranormal boom, in the scariest month of all, March. Even minus ads, it’s got an intimidating run-time of seven hours, which I’m tackling during the hottest day since records began. It’s 39 degrees outside, and I’m getting ahead of my Halloween content, sat here watching Terry Nutkins at a séance.

It’s a simple set-up, putting a bunch of celebrities in a haunted castle for some paranormal investigations. Nowadays, your reality rosters are filled by buff twentysomethings with sleeve tattoos and massive lips from Love Island or TOWIE, but this is an eclectic cast of recognisable celebs your dad might have trouble typing an earnest “who?” about in a tabloid comment section. The aforementioned wildlife expert Terry Nutkins — the British Hulk Hogan — is joined by Linda Robson, Cheryl Baker, Garry Bushell, Toby Anstis, and comically over-boobed glamour model and porn star, Linsey Dawn McKenzie, who at 26, is the youngest contestant by almost a decade, but by modern-reality standards, is a withered crone, soon for the grave. We’ve also got soap diva and Marilyn’s rightful heir, Julie Goodyear, and famed joke-thief and now ghost himself, Keith Chegwin. Incidentally, as a damning encapsulation of my body of work, OpenOffice just tried to correct ‘Keith Chegwin’ to ‘Keith Chemtrails’.


As will become clear over the next 4,500 words, the best part about this cast is their complete disregard for paranormal TV protocol. In that world, everything that happens is always a ghost, and things cannot and must not be questioned, especially not on a live show. They’re staying at 12th century Chillingham Castle, (“Chillingham by name, chilling ’em by nature!” says our host), a pot pourri of every classic British spook, with spectral hooves, grey ladies, dead boys, and ghostly pipers, all moaning and moving things about, and startling guests in the middle of the night when they’re definably not just dreaming. The owner goes over its history in a brief video; a toff called Sir Humphrey, which surely can’t be a real name outside of a cartoon villain that’s cutting down an enchanted forest to build a golf course. His plummy voice is so incomprehensibly posh, it makes Jacob Rees-Mogg sound like Danny Dyer, and the only words I can pick out are “their heads cut orf for treason…

Holding it all together; or rather, not; is former Blue Peter presenter, Tim Vincent. His presenting style is that of a shop assistant when you’ve come in to browse one minute before closing on a Friday. Oddly-aggressive and humourless, he barely cracks a smile over the three nights, with a rattled manner that suggests a producer is constantly yelling orders into his earpiece to reiterate, time and again, that whatever happens, a ghost did it. He falls over his words constantly, like someone who’s been woken by a 3am phonecall, losing syllables or adding extra ones to words that tumble from his mouth like those videos of newsreaders having a stroke. His introduction assures us things will be happening “to-nine” using “quip-e-ment” on the ghost hunt about to “take plate… take place.” The visuals are familiar from Most Haunted, with spooky fonts, flickering candles balanced on every available surface, and a soundtrack of trip-hop beats over a synthesised church organ.


But you have to have a psychic, and joining the celebs is Ian Lawman, who’d later guest on Most Haunted after Derek Acorah’s ousting. In 2017, Lawman told the Daily Star he’d been visited three times by George Michael’s ghost, who let him know that Geri from the Spice Girls was about to have a big comeback. That’s the Christmas Carol remake the nation needs! Like many psychics, Lawman seems a bubbling cauldron of poorly-concealed anger, under that constant pressure of a reputation hinging on his purported abilities being real, and put in situations where they often don’t work, and where people don’t always play along. Its this pomposity-puncturing which will lead to a pair of incredible scenes; one a hilarious example of mediumship falling apart when the participants are pointing out the emperor’s bell-end, and the other, one of the most appallingly manipulative things ever broadcast.

As we meet the celebs, we find out where they stand on the paranormal. Garry Bushell’s wife once saw her dead great-aunt, while Cheryl danced with her dead dad “when I was asleep,” quite literally in a dream. Terry Nutkins woke up one night “absolutely rigid” as the ghost of a dead cat ran across the room, and Linsey “had an experience in Greece once.” That’s a euphemism, isn’t it? I think I saw that video of hers. “I have, like, sixth sense type feeling,” she says, though by show’s end, it’ll be another celeb who’s gone the full Acorah. Meanwhile, Keith dances around singing the Ghostbusters theme, while Bushell proves he’s 2004’s most modern businessman, by wondering how he’ll survive a whole weekend without a fax machine, before bringing up “the multiverse… overlapping dimensions…


To kick off, Cheryl’s sent down the Devil’s Drive with a torch, to collect Julie Goodyear, who appears out of the dark in a gothic horse-drawn carriage, like Jonathan Harker’s Uber to Castle Dracula. In fact, Goodyear’s sharing Gary Oldman’s hairstyle from the film, and as it drives off, a hot mic picks up her complaints about being made to walk up the driveway. As Tim Vincent tells us the fireplace is spitting out embers whenever scepticism is voiced, he has a disastrous chat with a pair of resident ghost ‘experts’, who are so awkward on camera, mumbling and muttering, they’re never seen again. Though one did once see some ghostly feet — “you’ve actually seen feet?!” — so it’s likely Quentin Tarantino will be joining the cast by night two.

Frightened‘s first investigation sets the tone, with Lawman taking them to the haunted courtyard, where he harps on about the temperature dropping, as he’ll do for the entire three nights. While these shows are usually “did you hear that?” this one’s decidedly “do you feel cold?” Remember, it’s not cold because they’re outside at night; it’s because there’s ghosts. Lawman senses a “dark boy” and an angry guard, who eventually half-possesses him, demanding they all get out, but nobody’s really buying it, barely listening, and fiddling with their EMF meters like bored kids on a school trip. Still, he insists it’s really scary. “I feel very relaxed,” says Nutkins, while Anstis giggles, and Linsey points out various air vents causing the drafts. The guard, a nasty spirit called Dunwick, then passes on a message through Lawman. They’ll be amazed, says Dunwick, at how many viewers will ring in to report paranormal experiences while he was onscreen, which is a very impressive knowledge of 21st century television and mass communication for someone who died in 1657.


While most of the the show’s a generic ghost hunt with tedious filler, a number of wild scenes make it well worth the effort. The first begins with Linda’s “shitting hell,” as she trips on a cable, into a room haunted by the former lady of the house, who went mad and died in there, and whose painting decorates the wall. The canvas, as pawed at by Keith Chegwin, bulges in the middle, because she keeps escaping from it like Vigo the Carpathian, though Bushell reckons “she looks like Danniella Westbrook.” As to her name, Lawman senses it’s Elizabeth, while Julie Goodyear feels it’s Mary. Earlier, Julie spoke of her spiritualist gran, admitting that she has the power too, and as Tim Vincent confirms the lady’s name as Mary, Goodyear has usurped the official medium, establishing I’m Famous and Frightened as her occult origin story.

Within moments, she’s riddled with feelings of ghostly anguish, with Mary begging her to “end the madness!” leading us to a moment I never thought I’d see, as Julie Goodyear, Linda Robson, Cheggers, and star of Boob Cruise 2000, My Cousin is a Whore, and Big Tits at Work 17, Linsey Dawn McKenzie, lead the tormented spirit of Mary through the gates of Heaven. “That’s it, darlin’,” says Goodyear, in a moving spiritual ceremony which Keith will later describe to Tim Vincent with an actual “Wahey!” Once Mary’s off with Jesus, they move to investigate noises at the far end of the room, with Linsey still brilliantly argumentative — “I thought we just sent her away?” — and the gang unable to get there anyway, because they’ve turned off the lights for atmosphere, and can’t navigate past the furniture.


The exorcism raises an interesting moral point. If psychics like Lawman or Derek Acorah or Bet Lynch are able to move ghosts from their eternal torment on Earth up to the afterlife, isn’t it shitty to not do that every time? Later, they’ll visit a room containing a dead little boy, but just leave him to suffer alone for hundreds more years. Is Lawman in the pocket of Big Ghost, paid off by stately homes to leave their tourist-boosting spooks wandering the halls? Shit, it feels like I’ve got half the plot of a screenplay there. After the break, a spiritually drained Julie Goodyear’s recovering offscreen, while everyone else wows over the incredible way she psychically picked up on the name Mary. Well, almost everyone. “I’ve got to be honest,” says Linsey, “I did read it on the internet.

Likely because of her attitude, with an enormous 52% of the viewer vote, she’s sent to spend four minutes alone in a haunted dungeon. ‘Linsey Dawn McKenzie solo dungeon’ sounds like an xhamster link, and she quickly becomes hysterical with fear, convinced someone’s vibrating her seat. They’ve not put a Sybian down there, have they? When Lawman lets her out, jumpy Linsey thrashes around, screaming “something’s on my bloody leg!” which turns out to be her mic pack, and scares herself by sitting on a rocking chair. It’s a mystery why someone locked in a pitch-black torture dungeon, with a skeleton buried in the floor, might get a bit freaked out. Must be ghosts. In an incredible show of imagination, Lawman says he can see the spirit of a gaunt man with a long beard, down in this old medieval dungeon.


Garry Bushell’s turn in there is much calmer, though the celebs watching on a screen freak out at the sight of two dogs in the brickwork. Except, they can’t agree which dogs. Some see Jack Russells, others “a puppy and a big dog,” with Linda seeing a Labrador; they can’t even settle on whether it’s just heads or full bodies, or even where exactly they are, with nobody questioning the huge variation, and simply wowed because everyone sees the dogs. On night three, Vincent will pull out a painting of two dogs someone found hanging in the castle and pretend it’s identical to the wall, in a show of literal gibberish. This, plus the constant replaying of ‘orb’ videos flying around them, which are clearly just moths, as though they’ve got proof of the afterlife that’s rewritten the laws of physics, make me embarrassed for everyone involved. With ten minutes left, Ian Lawman gives us the classic night one medium’s ending, leaning against the wall and going all weak.

Night two makes it clear why the celebrities are feeling sick, tired and emotional (a sign of ghosts!), with videos of them titting around at 4am for more tasks. An offhand comment by Linsey mentions how they’d gotten up at 6am the day before, so by the time we see Terry Nutkins on a night-watch, getting his first feeling of dread from a haunted room, he’d been awake for 24 hours. It’s a cheery start, with Goodyear saying “I had the feeling flesh had been eaten there,” and everyone in smart clobber for Linda’s birthday. Vincent brings in a cake, and as she blows out the candles, Linsey hollars “give it a blowjob, girl!” Judging by what happens next, Linda must’ve wished for Ian Lawman to have the worst fifteen minutes of his life.


To set the scene, Garry and Cheryl are tasked with investigating the Edward I room, so-named because he stayed there once, and supposedly haunts it still. For Lawman, this is a bad pairing, with neither celeb prone to jumping or shrieking, though he tries to instil some dread by pretending a chandelier is casting the shadow of a pentagram on the floor, not seeming to even know what a pentagram is, even referring to it as a pentagon. “Clearly,” he says, “there’s something going on.” Then he casually makes the weekend’s boldest statement, “I actually made contact with Henry the VIII in the courtyard today.” With nothing much happening, Garry and Cheryl are soon joined by another celebrity; King Henry himself. Lucky for us he never went to Heaven, and just wanders about Chillingham, waiting for film crews. As Garry Bushell has a chat with Henry VIII, we get to live one of those conversation-starters about which great minds you’d invite to a dinner party. “What does he think of England since his reign?” asks Garry. “He thinks it was a disaster,” replies Lawman, immediately. Now, I simply cannot stress strongly enough how psychics are never questioned or doubted in these shows, ever. It just doesn’t happen.


That was ever such a quick answer,” says Cheryl, laughing, “I don’t believe Henry VIII is here.” Sadly, we don’t get a cut back to the psychic’s face, but know he must be seething. Having forged a rod for his own back in the shape of a fat king, he pushes on, with Bushell asking if Henry’s got a message for the English. This time, he considers his answer. “His message would be… if I could bring it in our English…” Wait, can’t you just repeat what he’s saying, mate? It’s not like you’re having to suddenly improvise realistic medieval-sounding dialogue. But go on. “…stand up for our rights. Tell ’em to stand up for our rights.” A haunting premonition of Brexit, there, from a very real Henry VIII, who is definitely in the room. Surely this has won them over? Alas, cynical Cheryl; “I don’t believe he’s here. I’m really sorry, I don’t believe it.

But he can’t end on a failure, and sets to prove Henry’s there by having him move a pair of crystal dowsing pendulums held by Garry and Cheryl. It’s decided the arbitrary direction of left to right means Henry VIII is there, while circular motions mean he’s not (knock once if you’re not here!). It’s all very scientific. The pendulums start moving, but by spinning slowly round, so no Henry. Lawman has them try again. This time, Cheryl’s side-to-side, while Garry’s round-and-round. Like a child wanting best of three, then best of five, then seven, until they win, Lawman has a third go, this time with the celebs’ elbows on the table. Now, finally, Garry’s is moving side-to-side, as Tim Vincent berates him with “Garry, look at it moving! Do you not believe Henry VIII is there?” Vincent and Lawman are adamant this is proof; that a little weight on a thin chain, held from someone’s hand in a cold room for ages, will only move a couple of millimetres because of ghosts.


As an example of our psychic definitely not being angry or embarrassed, he suddenly goes off topic to shout at Tim in the studio, psychically sensing that he’s been thinking of moving. “Stop being so sceptical, and you’ll find that you will actually move house!” he yells, like a man who heard his wife laughing with her friends about his impotence, running in with a biro stuffed down his cock, roaring “LOOK AT MY STIFFY!” Back from a break, he’s still arguing about Henry — “them pendulums moved!” — though I’d never suggest it’s this televised scoffing at his powers which drives what happens next.

At this point, as there’s a needless Big Brother style vote-off tacked onto proceedings, Garry is eliminated, so will miss night two’s climax — the séance. Just the mention of a séance has everyone on edge, with a long discussion beforehand where Lawman, a “qualified exorcist,” assures them he can protect anyone who gets possessed. Cheggers is so worried, he’s finally stopped pissing about. It’s important to note here that both Linda and Cheryl are grieving over the recent loss of their fathers, with Linda hoping to contact hers during the ceremony. As he’ll do again and again, Tim Vincent assures us that everything’s genuine, and nothing we see will be fake, in a way that brings to mind that famous tweet, “My ‘Not involved in human trafficking’ T-shirt has people asking a lot of questions already answered by my shirt.


In something else I thought I’d never see, Terry Nutkins and Cheggers sit sombrely around a séance table with their mates; everyone in black fleeces with their voting numbers on the back, like Alan Partridge at Tony Hayers’ funeral. While this is supposedly an attempt to contact the spirits of Chillingham Castle, vile Garry Bushell type sceptics may instead see someone trying to reassert themselves after a recent humiliation, particularly in who gets singled out first. The spirit that comes through isn’t a grey lady or Dunwick the guard; it’s Cheryl’s dad. An uncomfortably emotive scene, Lawman gives the kind of info only a real medium could know, like how the father of a woman in her 50s liked being in the garden; all filled with the usual psychic verbal ticks like “would you understand?” Next to say hi is Julie’s old Corrie castmate, Pat Phoenix, passing on messages to fuck lung cancer and keep puffing away, and that the spirits say Julie will be returning to the show someday soon (note: she didn’t). Julie gets a strong smell of onions — “does onions mean anything to anyone?” — as Lawman does that thing psychics do, playing dumb with obvious facts to make it more revelatory when the mark fills in the blanks, telling Julie he sees a charity and feels “you should be president of the pink ribbon. What does that mean to you?” Julie thinks a moment, and then proclaims — “AIDS!


It’s a long, bruising séance, leaving Toby with a hot head, and Julie suffering the painful psychic symptoms of Pat Phoenix’s fatal lung cancer. Linsey’s getting a message from Pat, telling Julie to stop smoking, which they shoot down immediately, with a growing sense everyone’s had enough of Linsey, and her constant complaints of a ghost blowing on her cleavage. Who’s next to come through? Maybe the sea lion that fell out of Terry’s car window when he was going down the motorway? Nope, it’s Linda’s dad. Far more misses than hits, Lawman brings up her dad’s son. Linda’s got no brothers — oops! — but she jokes he was a bit of a lad. “So it is a possibility,” says Lawman, vindicated, because who’s to say Linda’s dad didn’t have a wank and some of his spunk flew out of the window and went up someone’s fanny when they were walking by? By now, Linda’s sobbing, as “dad” talks about her kissing his forehead before he died — an easy guess, after she’d previously described his passing the night after going into hospital.

     Lawman: “And your dad had curly hair?

     Linda: [silence]

     Lawman: “Who had curly hair?

     Linda: [silence]

     Lawman: “He’s coming through with hair.”

     Linda: “It had a wave in it, I suppose.”

That’s me convinced. By the end, half of them look shell-shocked, with Linda particularly upset, and Toby Anstis a shaking wreck, feeling “rejected” after no lost family members came through for him. It’s then that an ice-cool Terry Nutkins drops the bomb, “I’ve taken part in many different kinds of séance… but none pre-planned.” What’s the story there?! Sadly, he’s voted off before we can find out. We close with a vigil in a room haunted by a blue boy, whose entombed bones were found in the fireplace by builders. Lawman again plays dumb, “not sure” why he wants to climb in the fireplace, or why he’s drawn to it, despite them telling the story all night. Though he says the child’s walled in and needs help to get out, unlike Mary the Carpathian, they just leave him there. As night two comes to a close, they make a huge deal how a bunch of people in their 50s who’ve been kept up until 5am in a cold castle two nights running, are feeling drained at the end of their second three-hour live shoot. It’s ghosts what done it!


Night three sees a live audience in the castle, and news of a thrilling paranormal event earlier in the day, when Linda picked up a newspaper and a junk-mail leaflet showing Henry VIII fell out. Strangest of all is her casual admission that it’s the first time she’d ever seen a picture of Britain’s most famous monarch. The final night’s packed with fun, dumb stuff, like the visit to a haunted pantry, where Ian Lawman “gets his throat slit” by a ghost, and has to be exorcised by Julie Goodyear, who’s really come into her own as a powerful sorcerer. But there’s also more shite with temperature drops and arguing whether or not something’s moving a bit; this time with a swinging chain in a former torture dungeon. Frightened‘s catalogue of ‘paranormal evidence’ is down to believing stuff that’s hanging down in breezy rooms stays perfectly still at all times, unless a ghost moves it. Hold on, my neighbour’s wind-chimes keep going off, better shut my kitchen window before their poltergeist flies in.

Our main event is another séance, this time with a ouija board, which Tim Vincent gives us Trumpian assurance, over and over again, has never been done live on television before, even though Most Haunted had already done it loads. I’ll be honest, I’m not massively put at ease by his promise “there are no hidden magnets.” The celebs are a nervous group, with Keith letting out an “oh, no” at the first utterance of the word ouija, and Lawman having to confirm, as is Keith’s fear, that the ghosts won’t follow them home. Julie won’t even participate until it’s confirmed not to be “witchcraft.” It’s a small crew of four now, with Toby, Linsey and Cheryl voted off, leaving Julie Goodyear, Keith Chegwin, and Linda Robson to put their fingers on the glass with Ian Lawman, who’s dressed even more like a pick-up artist than usual, in Harry Hill collar, choker, and jacket with EYE FOR AN EYE REVENGE written all over the left-hand side in spunky font.


Ironically, it’s their fear that keeps anything from happening. Unlike the excitable crews of a Most Haunted; where the glasses would fly round the board, and they were familiar with the mechanics and rhythms of hitting the letters; everyone’s so tentative, all they produce is a very slow gibberish — WQ2S. As it can’t ever just be that it hasn’t worked, they try to decode this very genuine message from the other side. “Is that your initials? (yeah, it’s a robot) Are you two years of age?” Almost afraid to touch the glass, it’s barely moving. Linda asks her dad to come through, and as the glass points to a NO, Julie Goodyear gets another feeling — “is my mother there? Mam? Mam? Mam?” But Julie’s mum refuses to spell her own name, so they have one last go at reaching Chillingham’s ghosts, which — very, very slowly — give the following message.

     W, O, C, G, M, W, O, Z, N or O, M, C, L, K, 5 or 6, B, I

Bless ’em, they try so hard at deciphering it, desperate to find meaning. “WOZ. Woz?!” “B, I… are you trying to spell birthday?” Then, in a terrible moment, Julie asks the ghost if it’s Linda’s dad.


They ask how he died, spelling out D, C, which is taken to mean Died of Cancer, as proof that he’s there, (though his death was discussed in depth on night one). Eventually, Lawman closes it down, sending Linda’s dad and Julie’s mum back off to Heaven, to the Love and Light. Though, the oddly specific phrasing of moving them back to their side, “whichever that may be,” suggests he’s hedging his bets, unsure whether they might be in Hell.


Just when it seems the crass exploitation is finally over, there’s some last-minute confusion over a ring given to Linda by someone in the audience, “for her dad.” Was it was her dad’s actual ring? A present from beyond the grave? Nobody’s sure, so they ask the audience member. She says she’s a psychic, who uses the ring to calm her clients during readings — “Linda’s dad was adamant she had to have the ring.” Linda looks deeply uncomfortable, and as the psychic proposes she come to her for a sitting, “because your dad’s desperate to talk to you,” she bursts into tears. This use of the celebrities’ grief as a narrative device is fucking horrible, and Vincent’s suggestion she talk to the woman after is met with a pointed silence. With ten minutes left, they vote off Cheggers, who literally cartwheels through the courtyard, before being brought back all of two minutes later when they reunite the whole gang. There’s one last black eye for the doubters, as Vincent rather gravely informs us ouija board letters sometimes come out in the wrong order, and you have to rearrange them, like fucking Countdown.


As was only fair, viewers voted Julie Goodyear the winner, and with her rapidly-growing psychic powers now unlocked, we must pray she doesn’t go all Dark Phoenix on us, and devour the sun while puffing on a Benson & Hedges. As a demonstration of the massive public appetite for this stuff at the time, I’m Famous and Frightened ran for three more series, two of which happened in the same year, with a final show in 2005. To give you an idea of the calibre of contestants, celebs included Rustie Lee, Richard Blackwood, Jo Guest, Christopher Biggins and Handy Andy from Changing Rooms. Cheggers returned with a promotion, hosting for series 2 and 3, while duties for series 4 fell on the 21st century Cher, Claire Sweeney. As proven by its ludicrous highs and disgusting lows, there’s an incredible show to be had in this format. If I make enough money on Patreon, perhaps I’ll shoot one of my own, and finally sit around a ouija board with Zammo, Cleo Rocos, Noel Edmonds, Lightning from Gladiators, Bobby Ball, and Big Alan Jackson from Eastenders, while Ann Widdecombe’s eyes roll back in her head as she pukes out a six-foot snake of ectoplasm. If I do, I make you the promise that Keith Chegwin, who died in 2017, will make his return to our screens.

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.

Baywatch does Monsters and Mermaids

•November 14, 2019 • Leave a Comment


[previously: Baywatch does HulkamaniaBaywatch does Body-Issues]

The weird talking-point trivia about Baywatch is the way it eventually rebranded into paranormal detective series, Baywatch Nights, as though this marked a great tonal shift from a previously grounded drama. Dear reader, this is very much not the case, with half the back catalogue seemingly consisting of episodes where Hasselhoff fights off terrorists or escaped murderers, with a side-plot where lifeguards called Bryden or Kaycee befriend some kid in a wheelchair. Regard, a pair of ‘Here Be Dragons’ hours devoted to cryptozoological beasts roaming the waters of California. Beauty and the Beast aired on 29th January 1996; a title that could refer to any combination of Hasselhoff’s flabby-pecced beach-dad and female co-stars. To set the scene, it’s from the period Pamela Anderson was credited as Pamela Lee, and features an Aussie actor called Jaason Simmons, which are the only double-A’s you’ll see on this show.

We open, of course, on bikini hotties being all hot on the boardwalk, before panning down to reveal a storm drain with a dirty bum inside. I don’t mean an unwiped arse, rather, in unwoke 90’s television vernacular, a homeless gentleman (though he probably does have an unwiped arse). As a big fan of offensively cartoonish screen tramps, this is absolutely textbook; belching and spluttering into his beard, with the soundtrack inexplicably switching to jaunty jazz, giving the ironic air of a laid-back wine-bar, as he glugs on booze from a brown paper bag. His bear-like tramp-noises include yawps of “oooh ducky, oooh ducky,” though not in the homophobic bullying way; in reference to an actual duck that’s swimming nearby in the filthy water. With a monstrous growling noise, the duck disappears under the water, leaving nothing behind but a belch of scattered feathers.


Sadly, the cowards at Baywatch destroy all the goodwill of their brilliant tramp by not having him rub his eyes and look at the booze before tossing it away. He staggers onto the beach, to the audible “yuck!” noises of disgusted bikini girls, and tells lifeguard Cody there’s a sea monster in the drain, to which Cody laughs and pours his booze away, giving him an address where he can get some help. As always with a hobo character, I was straight on IMDB to look at his resume.

     Married with Children (1993) – Bum

     Night of the Running Man (1995) – Homeless Man

     Baywatch (1996) – Homeless Man

     The Huntress (2001) – Grungy Customer

     The Young and the Restless (2004) – Homeless Man

     Rancid (2004) – Bum

Not since the elderly man who built a career on making baby noises has there been such a stranglehold monopoly on an archetype. Alex Zonn’s CV represents the labours of a lifetime spent working towards a starring role; perfecting his craft as the finest, filthiest bum in Hollywood. That’s why his final credit is so shocking.

     Tramps and Ramblers (2010) – Bernard

A whole movie about tramps, and he’s ‘Bernard’?! Bernard’s the name of a banker, or a retired accountant, wearing a suit and owning his own home. Goddamn sell-out. That said, I did stick him into Google Images and came across this brilliantly Zonn picture.


But Cody was wrong, and it wasn’t merely the boozed-up imaginings of a “wino,” as demonstrated by an ominous hissing noise and the classic Jaws underwater POV shark-cam. A swimmer’s pulled underwater, and for Baywatch‘s light-hearted stylings, it’s surprisingly graphic, with the sea turning red as he’s presumably bitten clean in half. Seriously, there’s more blood than you could fit inside twenty people, shrouding he and his rescuer in a wet fog of scarlet, but he limps ashore with a tiny cut your mum wouldn’t even waste a plaster on. Soon, panicked swimmers are yelling “shark!” and they’ve closed the beach. In a couple of random observations, note that the male lifeguards always have their shirts tucked in, and a dubbed squawk of a seagull that flits into shot as Yasmin Bleeth runs along the beach, that was definitely performed by a man.


Following the less-is-more model of Jaws, the monster’s glimpsed only in splashes, POV shots of delicious swimmer’s legs, and snarls that Caroline can hear from hundreds of yards away, because binoculars also magnify sound? Also like Jaws, it has its own theme, confusing the sparse, minimal dread of John Williams’ iconic motif for the endless repetition of a four-note dramatic sting that haunts the episode like a neighbour’s stuck doorbell. After it bites a chunk from some show-off teen’s boogie board, they figure it’s not a shark, but a crocodile; or more specifically, a crocodile that was flushed down the toilet as an unwanted gift. Who’s giving crocodiles for a gift? Kanye West?

Though sadly there’s no scene where the lads compare circumcision scars, they do keep to the Jaws beats, by having Mitch and his two lifeguard buddies hunt it down, heading into the sewers like they’re after Pennywise — “down here, we all float… because of our enormous implants.” I hope they don’t have an orgy to find their way out again. They’re well prepared, armed with some rope, and wading through the filthy, waist-deep shit-water in t-shirts and shorts. Eventually, they find its lair; a grotto filled with plastic rocks, where David Hasselhoff joins the growing list of people I’ve seen wrestling alligators through the course of this Patreon, along with Mr. T, Chuck Norris, and Mr. Miyagi. His thrashing with the bendy rubber croc is reminiscent of ten-year-old me doing WWF moves on the draft excluder, and soon we cut to the beach where he staggers triumphantly from the drain with barely a scratch, dragging the rubber crocodile behind him, though in close-up, it’s a real one.


As always, each episode features two completely unconnected narratives. While the lads were off monster hunting, Beauty and the Beast‘s b-plot opens with the lifeguard girls ‘working out’ with 3oz weights and doing exercises that push their boobs towards the camera, before Mitch announces a big magazine’s holding a contest for a modelling shoot. They all start fantasising about becoming rich supermodels, triggering one of those 3-minute music videos, for a dream sequence where CJ and Caroline, who just wants to “be nasty and play with my hair,” do indeed get nasty and play with their hair. CJ’s the solid favourite, but comes down with chickenpox, which Neeley makes Caroline think she’s already had, so she’ll hang with CJ and catch it too. Pre-Game of Thrones, this was the high watermark of Shakespearian treachery on television, although the chickenpox is literally drawn on with a marker pen.


The music video sections are integral to Baywatch‘s structure, padding out the shows with two per episode. We close on another, with Neeley on her photoshoot in Mexico, rubbing her hands over herself under a soundtrack of thumping tribal music and pan pipes, and occasionally looking straight down the camera, as if to say “you like this don’t you, you dirty dad?” to all the dirty dads watching at home. It’s a straight-up three-minute softcore wank video plonked into this adventure about three dickheads chasing a giant alligator into the sewers, which just emphasises the gulf between what Baywatch says it is, and what it actually is. Hasselhoff’s always sold it as a family show, at the time, describing it as for “the working class, action-adventure audience,” inspired by Michael Landon’s family-friendly shows that could run in syndication. It went out in a tea-time slot, but was undeniably made solely for pulling your penis to. I’m never not surprised at the ludicrous extraneous close-ups of women in tiny swimsuits stretching or oiling themselves, or the minutes given up to dialogue-free slow-mo sections which leave viewers legally qualified to practise as a gynaecologist. Once the porn ban kicks in, we’ll all be grateful for these. I could probably switch full-time to Baywatch recaps and break $5,000 in Patrons a month.


The second episode, entitled Rendezvous, aired on 7th April 1997, opening with one of their toss-vids, except this time it’s arty, slow-motion shots of high divers, all played to eerie silence, except for the distorted sounds of their bodies hitting the water. I take this to be a brave artistic choice, forgoing the urge to plaster it with obnoxious 90’s butt-rock, but later realise whoever uploaded the copy I’m watching muted the music to circumvent copyright takedowns. This week’s main story is a Romeo and Juliet riff between a pair of young divers; he, from a family of rich snobs, and her the poor trailer park daughter of a single mom, played by Tasha Yar from Star Trek.

Todd and Kirstie’s fated love affair eventually sees him talking her into a suicide pact where they jump off a local cliff to kill themselves, (though they’re divers and it drops straight into the water?) and is only notable for the scene where Caroline gives Kirstie a pep-talk at her comatosed boyfriend’s bedside. Whatever I’m writing, there’s a thing that’s always in the back of my mind. Even if the work’s only reaching a small audience, it’s likely there will be readers for whom any plot points or references to, say, miscarriage, suicide, physical or sexual abuse, will take them out of the story and back to these moments in their own life. Consequently, even though art should take us to uncomfortable places, even if it’s a throwaway line, I can’t help visualising someone reaching that paragraph with a sharp intake of breath, and feel duty-bound to handle these moments with care.


I think of this during the scene Caroline explains to Kirstie that she’s pretty sure there is a Heaven, or some sort of afterlife. Although the show can’t quite bring itself to say the word ‘Hell’, she rather pointedly states that “you would not be rewarded for trying to take your own lives.” This must’ve been a weird watch for those who’d lost someone to suicide, when the hot TV lifeguard let them know their loved one had not found peace, and was likely being tortured by the Devil for all eternity.

But monsters is why we’re here, though it’s been relegated to the b-story, behind all the shitty teenage melodrama. Out at sea on a boat, Cody prepares for a free-dive by meditating to lower his heart-rate, just like the dads watching at home. “Get up and make us a cup of tea will you love?” “Give me a minute to meditate myself soft.” He swims down 300ft to the bottom of the ocean, where it’s really brightly lit, with water so clean you could drink it, almost like they filmed it in a swimming pool. Way down in the depths, he starts hallucinating; hearing a woman’s voice saying the word “Christopher,” and turning to see a big floppy tail. Girlfriend CJ’s immediately convinced he saw a mermaid, leading to music video #2, where Cody dreams of frolicking with a tiara-clad mermaid in a bizarre underwater sequence made all the weirder by that copyright-dodging silence, but at least it gives me a few minutes break from transcribing the awful dialogue.


Cody awakes on the beach groaning the name “Melisande,” as CJ flicks through a book about mermaids, reading how they communicate via telepathy, and figuring that must be her name. She’s strangely into it, like she’s hoping to get a soggy threesome out of the whole deal, and sends him back down for another look. Diving among the reeds, he immediately bumps into the mermaid again, and like television’s best excursions into the Fortean, it’s not a hallucination or something with a mundane explanation, but a genuine mermaid; now and forever confirmed as canon in the Baywatch universe.

She calls to him with a telepathic “Christopher!” and they have a conversation via their minds, where we find out she thinks he’s a sailor whose ship sunk a hundred years ago. She wears a gold medallion he gave her – “I have waited for you, Christopher, don’t you remember?” Mirroring the other plot, Christopher and Melisande had promised to be together forever, but CJ dives in and scares her off before he can find out more; like is there a whole undersea kingdom lurking just off the coast? Aquaman and sea monkeys, and a community of blobfish banging on about Brexit? And do mermaids swim around with really long poo hanging out of their arses for a week like goldfish?


CJ still thinks it’s romantic, kissing Cody on the boat, just as Melisande surfaces to see her sweet Christopher getting off with someone else. At least he wasn’t honking the horn with his nob like Tommy Lee in that video. CJ dives down to explain that he’s Cody, not Christopher, and though I hoped the jealous mermaid would start throwing starfish at her, CJ clumsily KOs herself by swimming into a rock, and is rescued by Melisande. CJ can’t remember what happened, but finds the medallion around her neck, opening it to reveal an old-timey picture of ‘Christopher’ aka Cody with a big cowboy moustache. Citing the movie Splash and its poor treatment of Daryl Hannah, CJ vows never to let the world know of the existence of mermaids, and tosses it back in the sea.

The implications of mermaids being real are huge. For one thing, as Melisande’s been waiting 100 years and looks 25, it seems they’re immortal, which must have far-reaching consequences for human medicine. And yet, next week, the lifeguards go right back to [checks Wikipedia] shutting down a nude beach, and investigating a crashed military jet which contains a deadly virus. Goddamn, what a show. If Netflix picked this up, I’d never see daylight again. This pair of episodes aren’t even the sum total of their monster plots, with another double episode centred on a sea monster attacking boats, which was released on VHS, and I suspect has a Scooby-Doo reveal. But then again, this is Baywatch, so it’s quite possible Cthulhu rises from the depths to devour the West Coast, with a sub-plot where CJ chases down a pervert who’s trained a crow to undo women’s bikini bottoms.

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.

The Accursed 90s: Talk Show Goths

•November 4, 2019 • 1 Comment


[More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad ContestsDon’t Forget Your Toothbrush]

So much of 90’s trash culture either emanated from the raft of American afternoon talk shows, or used them as fertile breeding ground, like germs fucking in an old yoghurt. From “you ain’t all that!” to talking to the hand, cos the face ain’t listening, these series left a terribly brown and smelly mark across across pop culture, with make-overs, DNA tests, and truly endless episodes about wild kids with crying parents, which in hindsight, were an excuse to wheel out half-dressed teens in boob-tubes to brag about giving blowies for a home audience of pervs. I will be taking a closer look at the staples of the format in future posts, but for Halloween, we’re focussing on a frequent sub-genre of the talk show; one that’s able to skilfully cross-pollinate with popular themes such as ‘sneering at weirdos’ and ‘stirring up moral panic’ — the goth episode.

The 90s were a fulsome time for goths, with Marilyn Manson as Middle America’s public enemy #666, and every fancy dress party filled with twenty different blokes all dressed as The Crow. Of course, this made its way onto the talk show circuit, which had many hours to fill, and much outrage to spread, as it did on a 1996 episode of Ricki Lake. Ricki was the youngest of her generation, a Gen-X-er stood between the crinkled Maury Povich and grandmotherly Sally Jessy Raphael, and seeming like an aging highschooler at the clique table during lunch. “I’m one of you guys! I’m an anthropomorphised floppy hat, and I could’a been Winona!” Never was that more evident than in the frequent ‘look at these freaks!’ episodes. I’m not throwing that word around lightly, as the episode literally opens with zany circus music, and is genuinely titled ‘Mom, You Think I Look Like A Sideshow Freak, But Chill Out, ‘Cuz I Look Cool!


Most teenage years are spent at the extreme ends of contemporary fashion, and the only reason to look at old photos is to laugh at that sullen, ridiculous version of yourself, back when you were trying to find your feet and establish your own persona. But each outrageous new trend will quickly become the norm, like those first long-haired men of the 1960s, and these shows existed solely on a shock value which is remarkably twee 20-odd years on. Regard Ricki’s opening promo, stood next to a juggling clown, which a snapshot of a time akin to 1920’s beach-goers fainting at the sight of an ankle, as she warns us “step right up… they have tattoos, body piercings, dyed hair, spikes through their faces… their mothers think they belong in a circus!

You know the format; the parents are brought out first, wiping away tears while describing the shame; their sweet little girl, a child no more, kicked out of the house lest she return to the sensible dresses and straight-As. Then the teen’s revealed to the baying mob, who rain down boos while thinking up zingers, ready for when Ricki comes round with the mic. By modern standards, most of the ‘freak’ kids — entering through dry ice with squealing guitar — wouldn’t get a second glance; average mall-goths with a dye-wash and a single tattoo. There’s an obvious gender divide, where much of the outrage sparks from the notion of girls wearing a leather jacket, which is boy-clothes! Thanks to the magic of evolving fashion, the parents are now as frightful as their offspring, each looking 20 years older than their age, and like they rode to the studio inside a tornado.


One girl wears pink hot-pants, with half-purple hair, and though we’re primed by the mother to expect a vomiting demon-child, she’s well-spoken and polite, and explains that being from Utah, “I have to rebel. I have to.” Another mom sobs, cross hanging round her neck, convinced her daughter worships the devil. Though she’ll enter taking a lap of the stage with her cloak billowing like Dracula, it’s just a 19-year-old in a leather dress and black lipstick; a costume that’s taken off for work. There’s a brilliant moment when a jokey mention of a “master” who drags her round nightclubs on a leash has mom leaning across to whisper “it’s not S&M or anything?” though most telling is the plea to “go and live in LA with your sister.” They show side-by-side pics of how they used to be, like police warnings against the dangers of crystal meth, but the true weirdos here are the nervous Nellies of 1996, gasping as a mom describes her daughter’s blue hair — “every mother’s dream!” — and terrified of piercings and tattoos, especially on female bodies.


Stars of the show are the Alans. Alan Sr, who looks like a scarecrow, is embarrassed to be seen with his 15-year-old son, Jr, who’s the classic Manson goth, in an ensemble of black lipstick, arm-stockings, spiked collar, and Manson shirt. He carries a lunchbox — a motif from that band’s infusion of goth with the trippy kid’s TV of the sixties; Sid and Marty Krofft, Willy Wonka and Dr. Seuss — and later reveals it’s filled with pictures of Ricki. His dad mockingly calls him Alice because of the make-up, while he burns his old man by calling him “Mr. Seventies.” Sr’s main worry is his son’s lack of masculinity, lipsticked and getting Valentine’s from boys, though in the kid’s last phase “he was acting black… into the rap music thing.” These days, Alan Jr has a mildly successful Youtube channel, trading off his fame as a budding crush for 90’s goth girls. On it, he discusses his experiences on the show, along with videos entitled Pain, and Conclustions (sic) Of Randomization — with a thumbnail of the bleeding word ALAN carved into flesh with a razor — and showing a night on the karaoke with David and Alexis Arquette. Decades on from Ricki Lake, most of the comments are from women as thirsty as they are pale.


Of course, they do the table-turning deal of a preppy daughter with an outrageous mom. How outrageous? Prepare yourselves, because this is a woman with tattoos! Put in a crop top and hot pants to show off the ink, this is by far the guest with which the audience have the biggest problem.

An onscreen caption reads “MY MOTHER IS A FREAK, SHE HAS HOLES AND TATTOOS ALL OVER!” as eyebrows hit the ceiling, and an audience member chides “she doesn’t really have the body to be wearing that, cos she’s had children.” Though you may be picturing a P.T. Barnum tattooed lady with no visible skin, she’s just got a tat going up one leg, and one on her back. Still, this elicits actual shrieks. “Isn’t this a little extreme?!” asks Ricki, down on one knee to plead she changes her ways. Ricki plays up how the daughter’s crying, which she isn’t; not until the repeated assertion that she is eventually upsets her into sobbing for real.

There’s also a fun audience makeover “to the extreme, guys!” where the crowd are left open-mouthed, purely at the sight of the man who swaggers camply in a PVC vest to take the volunteer backstage. The resulting transformation is a good barometer of what was considered extreme back then, in this case, a light purple/brown hair-dye and a top that bares your shoulders. It’s off to the circus for you, my girl! Though let’s not get complacent, because they do save the best for last, bringing on a trio of goths to talk to the parents, and well…


Ricki’s closing thought will set viewers’ minds at ease, telling watching parents to take heart, as “most of the flower children of the 60s graduated to three-piece suits and briefcases eventually, and your children will find their way too.” Tell that to Alan Sr. Of course, this mid 90’s goth revival began with one man, and before immi’gants and fake news liberal cucks, America’s boogeyman was Marilyn Manson. A corrupter of children, if legend was to be believed, concerts wouldn’t begin until a live chicken thrown into the crowd had been torn to pieces, and he’d removed a couple of ribs, so he could casually lean down and suck himself off, like those gym-bros who’re constantly supping from a gigantic jug of water. Conservative paranoia was riding on the fumes of the previous decade’s Satanic Panic, and elevated Manson to a literal Antichrist, when in reality, he was just a guy who really liked two things — David Bowie, and shocking people.


One of Manson’s early introductions to the mainstream was an appearance on The Phil Donahue Show. Epitome of the old white man, Donahue traded in moral outrage, with Manson booked on a 1995 episode about the dangers of a deadly new craze sweeping America’s youth — moshing. By this point, moshing had been around for decades, but it’s presented like a hyper-addictive new drug, ready to take the life of your child. Great portions of the hour are taken with Donahue reacting to footage of slam-dancing at a rock club like he’s George C. Scott seeing his daughter getting nobbed in Hardcore. He returns, again and again, to the grainy video, offering WWE-style commentary — “That guy’s down! Where’d he go? This is the edge of violence!” A bloodied nose is replayed multiple times, glorified with slow-motion and zooms, as the camera cuts to concerned expressions in the audience, from people in turtle necks and big glasses. A hysterical caption reads “BLOODY NOSES AND BROKEN BONES, ROCK AND ROLL IN THE 90s!

Convinced moshing will lead to riots and stampedes that’ll stomp the nation underfoot, Donahue interrogates a row of young concert-goers, with whom he absolutely cannot connect; playing like Amy Adams trying to talk to the aliens in Arrival. In one comment, aiming to be psych-analysis, but coming off as the frustrated cry of a grandpa whose errant boner is straining painfully against his slacks, he remarks how moshing “really looks like the ultimate orgasmic expression of what ails us in this culture.” Once again, there are clear gender issues at play, with particular umbridge at a female rocker, of whom Donahue is most shocked by the leather jacket and black lipstick — “not what your father dreamed for you.” He becomes obsessed with the idea of crowd surfing, where “they just pass you around,” and enraged by “the liberties that could be taken by all those horny guys!” which cuts to this brilliant reaction shot.


Eventually, with the kids not swayed on the perils of moshing, even when their own parents are forced to sit alongside and watch the video, he brings out a couple whose son died at a Life of Agony concert. It’s horribly exploitative, with the nervous, grieving pair fielding questions like “was he ambulatory after he hit the floor?” and asked for details of the autopsy, though it turns out, he was pushed offstage onto his head by a bouncer, so… murder and not moshing? Footage of a stage-diver is run back and forth like the Zapruder film, with Donahue sneering “a future CEO right there.” He constantly sounds like he’s getting off on it all — “all those bodies bumping together” — and you expect him to take it out at any moment and start pumping his muck into the front row. When a young audience member accuses him of showing fighting, not moshing, an aggressive Donahue sneers: “this is what old people do, then? They screw up the real truth?!

Finally, Marilyn Manson makes his entrance, flanked by bandmates Twiggy Ramirez and Madonna Wayne Gacy, who — it has to be said — look hilarious, with Twiggy rocking a Myra Hindley wig and green 1950’s housewife dress. Donahue reads a long Manson quote regarding music-related suicides, and audience jaws unhinge when it gets an an “effing.” But the man himself is articulate and surprisingly well-behaved. This appearance pre-dates the release of Antichrist Superstar, and the shock persona’s greatly dialled-down, perhaps yet to be so burned by the negative media that he’s still earnestly playing the game. When he eloquently explains the thinking behind his stage-name — the dichotomy of Charles Manson and Marilyn Monroe being elevated to equal celebrity status by television like this — both the audience and Donahue just stare, open-mouthed, like they can’t even hear him behind the glass at the zoo.


With all these shows, the best stuff is the audience questions, like the woman who demands to know why everyone onstage has got “Satanic signs all over you.” Twiggy responds by holding a small tape player up to his mic and playing a sped-up guitar riff. “That’s funny, ‘Twiggy’…” scolds Donahue. Another says moshing is a “self-centred way to live,” and “who knows what kind of perverts you have, the security touching and feeling the kids?!” A guy who looks like they should be chasing him in the next season of Mindhunter asks the teens, “kids, have you got violence other places in your lives, or is this kind of a fantasy thing for you?” Sadly, Manson’s line “I went to a private Christian school, see how I turned out” gets lost in the murmurs of discontentment, and when a rock club owner quotes a stat citing more people are killed skiing than moshing, there’s a grumbling from the audience of boomers that you can feel in your bones.

Despite the broey mosher in a baseball cap name-checking “local bands like Hermaphrochrist,” the Satanic evil of moshing turned out not to be the biggest killer of a generation, and Conservative parents turned their concerns to other threats, like vaccinations. But ridiculing goths wasn’t an entirely American phenomena, with one British show taking it further along the evolutionary path of the goth, to guests who were actual vampires. Vanessa Feltz has absolutely nothing to say that’s worth hearing, yet has been afforded baffling hours of airtime and column inches over her career. Perhaps the highlight of the Feltz oeuvre, barring her appearance in Brasseye — “I’m Marvin Gaye, shot by my own father” — is an episode of mid-90’s afternoon talk show, Vanessa, entitled Vampires and Goths.


It’s sure to be an intelligent and even-handed look at a sub-culture, being that it opens with Vanessa bathed in green light and dry ice, and stroking a coffin, with a pair of plastic fangs shoved in her gob. First guest, Sam, emerges to the strains of Thriller, in a red velvet cape. But we know how these shows work, and if you went on with a PhD in folklore to discuss feminist iconography in 15th century woodcuts of witches, they’d send you out of wardrobe with a pointy hat and broom. Sam’s deal is that she’s got ‘real’ fangs, which they harp on about, even though they only cost £30 and can easily be popped in and out. Regardless, Vanessa does a big “eeurgh!” Middle-aged male comedians with Netflix specials titled Triggered! moan about snowflakes and safe-space culture now, but fuck me, in the supposedly xxxtreme nineties, everyone was permanently on the verge of a faint, and outraged by anything that dipped as much as a toe outside the middle path.


Sam, who bites men’s necks in pubs, is training to be a teacher, and the audience are very much not into that. A parent governor stands to announce she wouldn’t have that in her school; “your ideas to society today are wrong… you say you bite necks and stuff like that, it’s rubbish!” She’s livid at the idea a child might see the fangs, as though Sam would wear them to work. A women who looks like Charlie Chuck tells her “I wouldn’t be seen dead like that,” while a bloke with a horrible droning voice chastises with “you’re watching too much movies… you can’t be a teacher, it can’t happen.” As the show’s psychiatrist (previously the shrink on Have I Been Here Before?) talks about vampire myths, all Vanessa wants to know is if Sam’s “just a very sad kind of sicky?

Vanessa is a patronising presence, with the insincere eagerness of a bored kindergarten teacher counting down the hours until gin o-clock. The audience behind her form an incredible gallery of 90’s looks; all big shirts, curtains and ponytails; gel-combed heads with spider-leg fringes; women with hair like instant noodles, and glasses so perfectly round, they could only have been forged by the gods. Next out are a pair of newlyweds who legally changed their surname to Dracul. Let’s take a look.


For a pair so extravagantly dressed, their mild manner is delightfully British, but the thing that stuns the audience into silence is the revelation that, as well as a normal white wedding cake, they also had a sponge cake with black icing. Sacrilege! When they stick up a photo of their baby, the mere fact it’s dressed in black sets the audience grousing like they’d stuck a little Hitler tash on him. Yes, they named the baby Jareth Valen Lestat Dracul, but the idea this pair could be in charge of a child causes mass consternation in the audience of fuming dunces. A very serious women lectures that “something fundamental must be missing in your life,” while they’re mocked by a lad over their outfits, his arms folded as he fumes, “it’s really ridiculous, you should grow up and get a life!” Note that he is wearing a waistcoat over a denim shirt over a polo neck. The audience despises everything about the Draculs, from their hats to their parenting, to the fact they’ve got pet rats; which gets a grossed-out reaction in the good old nineties. Rats?! What’s wrong with a normal pet, like a cat named after Enoch Powell? When one man takes the mic to spit “there’s a difference between looking different and looking weird,” it educes a very loud and impassioned “YES!


The lifestyle shaming is outrageous, and sure, they’re comedy sketch goths who’d be too cartoony for an episode of Keeping Up Appearances where Hyacinth accidentally double-books the church hall for a mayor’s silent auction with a Bram Stoker convention, but the crowd wants them lynched just for dressing funny. Nowadays, reality show oddballs or people with mental health issues are just laughed at by Simon Cowell, but in the 90s, we wanted them beaten until they bloody well stopped it. But we’ve still yet to meet an actual vampire. Bring out Lesley, who drinks blood, sleeps in a coffin, and claims to be immortal. Even in the interests of journalistic impartiality, Lesley’s really hot, in that Elvira/Morticia Addams way, and if I’d seen this episode when it first aired, aged 16, I’d have damaged myself. Vanessa takes her to task over drinking blood, which is a bit rich, considering her own habits.


As they bring out Lesley’s drinking vessel; a skeezy-looking guy in a leather jacket; the audience ups pitchforks for a final round of abuse, in a series of back and forths between guests and gallery. Folded-arms guy takes another shot at the married couple, so incandescent, he can barely speak — which you simply must see below — while Lesley tells one detractor that she’d kill herself if she looked like him.

Soon, we’re down in the dirt, when Goth Bride (who in the biggest shock, turns out to be just 18), loses her rag, telling an audience member she hopes they never have children, and we go off air with Vanessa shaking everyone’s hand, as a close-up on Lesley’s boyfriend reveals a Nazi iron cross medal pinned to his jacket. Thanks to Youtube comments from Goth Bride, in a 2019 update, the pair have since divorced, while Lesley sadly left neither a comment, nor a forwarding address. As for Vanessa, the show soon moved to the BBC, where it was cancelled after allegations of hiring actors to portray fake guests. God, I hope none of those real vampires were just pretending.

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.


•October 24, 2019 • 2 Comments


Nowadays, with all the videos of dads wearing goggles smashing their heads on the living room floor, it’s clear that Virtual Reality works, but its first iteration in the early 90s? Not so much. Graphics consisted of looming, brutalist blocks, allowing players the fun of slowly waving a disembodied hand in front of their eyes, before falling prey to a crippling migraine. It was far from the cybernetic paradise we were promised; to be whisked inside computers like Lawnmower Man and roll around in badly digitised jpegs of naked ladies with big hair, like happy dogs on a bed. Not that it stopped television embracing VR 1.0 as the next giant leap.

In the early 90s, TV was constantly searching for ways to bring the technologically-adolescent medium of videogames out of stinky bedrooms and onscreen, under the banner of being ‘interactive’. This was the era of the phone-in gaming slot on Saturday Mornings, with viewers calling in to ‘play’ computer games in the studio, via touch-tone sounds on their land-line, or by straight-up yelling instructions of “Go left! Duck! Jump!” to an unseen crew member with a controller. With the added split-second broadcast delay, it was incredibly clunky, giving the kind of lag you get on Fortnite when your flatmate’s got a torrent going for every episode of a Japanese cartoon about a sentient highschool with a sixty-foot penis.


That disconnected feel is evident in 1993’s Virtual Reality gameshow, Cyberzone. Lasting for a single series of ten half-hours, Cyberzone was part of BBC2’s DEF II strand of hip youth programming, and hosted by Red Dwarf‘s Craig Charles, who’s an intensely irritating presence. It did at least have a tech-gameshow calibre, as the creation of Tim Child, the man behind Knightmare, and made by Child’s Broadsword production company. There’s a lot of fuss kicked up about sending man to the moon with wobbly 1969 computers, but the real miracle is Cyberzone‘s set-up, with the entire show powered by six 486 PCs, each with 8MB of RAM.

Only one full episode survived into the fascist shithole future of 2019, and opens with Craig Charles castigating the audience, who’re behind a chain-link fence and dressed in dystopian rain macs and sunglasses, banging on the metal railings of the grim industrial set, which looks like the hull of a grotty spaceship salvaged from Charles’ more famous show. He wears a fringed brown jacket — fitting with the loose neo-Western theme — with glass eyes as rings on two of his fingers, like Jimmy Savile.


We know we’re in the digital realm, by the way he uses computery-sounding words, and constantly saying “cyber.” Viewers are “cybernauts,” and the audience “cyber-filth,” while contestants kick “cyber backside.” Clued-in digital junkies like us are “cyber-dudes,” tossed into a post-apocalyptic world, where he tells us “Great Britain just got lucky,” suggesting other nations have been destroyed, or in the least, are without the haven of a virtual world to escape from the miserable drudgery of cockroach sandwiches and roaming the wasteland in rusty cars powered by piss. Aside from cyber, there’s another word that’s thrown around like sausage rolls at an Eastenders wedding brawl, heard for the first time as he bursts through the fence — “Awooga!” But more on that later.

There is a very Knightmare feel, with Charles a swaggering Treguard, beckoning contestants with a cry of “enter the arena!” In Thesp, “the sentient centre of the hyper computer,” Cyberzone has its own Lord Fear. Thesp is a kind of computerised oil baron, in white suit and ten gallon hat, with a bootlace tie and pocket square, who sets the challenges for the “data-duelists.” Contestants wear rather non-futuristic t-shirts and shorts, setting a pair of blokes against champion women rally drivers, one of whom Charles is aghast to learn has an MBE, and the other, a blonde Swede, that he greets with “I’m in love already!


The games themselves involve players controlling an onscreen avatar by jogging on a treadmill; an avatar known as the borg (short for cyborg), in an incredible show of lazy naming, right at the height of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Charles tells Thesp to build him one, as the crowd chant “BORG! BORG! BORG!” standing well back while it forms in the centre of the room. What emerges is a monstrosity; Frankenstein’s monster with an ICQ account. The crudely sculpted female borg has vacant eyes, sexy lips, and a Hitler-esque side parting, while the male avatar resembles a nightmare Vin Diesel, built like a green body-stocking stuffed with broken bricks. These digitised wraiths shamble through a poorly-rendered landscape of house-shaped blocks solving puzzles. And I do mean fucking shamble.

Though its lofty ideas are admirable, Cyberzone simply does not have the technology to make it work, with every game consisting of players madly sprinting on the spot to make their borg float across the screen in a random direction at one frame a second. They earn points via puzzles, which mostly require (very slowly) moving a crosshair over an object — rubber ducks, arrows, footballs — and pushing a button to shoot it, but there’s so little correlation between the actions of the players and that of their avatars, it’s like giving an unplugged controller to a toddler when they’re bugging you during Call of Duty.


During all this, the opposing team give chase in virtual buggies or helicopters which handle just as poorly, with the aim of trapping the enemy by parking in front of doors, or crushing them from above with blocks. Craig Charles does his best, overexcitedly whooping at the thrill of players painstakingly trying to make their avatar face the right way, but it’s like watching someone swish at the air after they’ve thrown a bowling ball down the lane, hoping it somehow affects what’s happening. Given decent controls, these are literally games a baby could do, with no ingenuity beyond slowly dragging a crosshair towards a block and mashing a big button; but fighting against the lag, these are monumental tasks of human mettle.

Thematically, it’s all over the place, with Western clothing, and maps set in medieval times, where a futuristic tank roams the streets. Another setting’s called Cyber-Swindon, with a maze-like layout that satirises the confusing design of the real Swindon; effectively turning a local newspaper’s complaint letter about incompetent town planners into a trendy televised computer game. Teams are tied at the final round, where Charles calls them “dudelies,” and for no reason at all, tells one of the male contestants that he’s never liked him, doing his Ernie from Sesame Street fake laugh. “It’s a battle of the sexes, and I want the girls to win!” he says, and they do, after repeating a bunch of puzzles from earlier, with the avatars spending most of their time walking into walls. The prize? Literally anything they want, says Charles, as “I’m in love with yers!” One requests a helicopter licence, so he hands her a prop computer cartridge, said to contain a virtual helicopter. So, no prizes, then? Our host signs off by telling us “reality is for losers!” though he’s yet to develop the Robot Wars kiss salute.


The most interesting thing about Cyberzone is Craig Charles’ constant use of “awooga!” By the end of the half-hour episode, it’s been said 30 times. In fact, I had to knock up a montage to keep track of them all.

But surely awooga is the intellectual property of John Fashanu? Rarely has a catchphrase been so tied to an entertainer. Awooga is Fash’s “awright at the back?”; his “nice to see you, to see you,” or “as it ‘appens, guys and gals.” Who does Craig Charles think he is?! Brilliantly, there’s a long-brewing controversy over its ownership. Red Dwarf fans will recognise the word from 1989 episode, Marooned, when ship’s computer Holly mimicked the broken siren, with a warning of “Awooga! Awooga! Abandon ship!” Craig Charles brought it with him to Cyberzone, where one of the contestants in the very first episode was… John Fashanu. Fash liked awooga so much, he pinched it, and began using it on Gladiators; a show with a far larger audience and cultural imprint; where consequently, it became his. Still, 25 years on, I’m sure Craig Charles isn’t bothered about it.



Hope you’re well! In further confusion, it’s often attributed to Kris Akabusi, seen here in a video confirming that he’s never said awooga, and that his catchphrase is “awriiiiight!” while raising his fist to his ear and pumping it in a circular motion. Glad we got that cleared 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.


•October 14, 2019 • 1 Comment


[This is Part 8 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart FivePart SixPart Seven]

To understand the existence of ‘Orrible, we need to recall the weird early-2000’s national obsession with gangland criminals. This was the era of Lock, Stock and Snatch; of cockneys in football manager coats with names like Mad Dog, Tight Foreskin Steve, and Harry the Piss, letting off shooters in lap-dancing clubs, and pushing batteries up guy’s dicks for looking at their birds; and not AAAs, but the rectangular ones you get in smoke alarms. Even Eastenders switched from its genteel storylines about Dr. Legg’s greenfly to a ludicrous gangster phase, recruiting forgotten character actors whose faces had since gone leathery enough to look intimidating when glaring at Phil Mitchell from the back of a car.


In the midst of this, Johnny Vaughan was hot off a run on The Big Breakfast, and though his acting work was limited to its dire comedy skits, the BBC greenlit a sitcom, which he would co-write and star as the lead. ‘Orrible‘s setting was that familiar story of the fast-talking chancer forever hustling for that one big score, this time, aiming to move up the ladder of London’s colourful criminal empire. Though he certainly should’ve been sent to death row for crimes against comedy, maybe it helped that Vaughan had the real-life cred of a four-year prison term for coke dealing, two decades earlier. ‘Orrible’s first episode, The Driver, went out on BBC2 on September 10th, 2001. Now, I’m not saying the series is linked to the events of the following day, but having sat through it, nor can I definitively rule it out.


To set the scene, Vaughan’s Paul Clarke is an illegal minicab driver, pulling schemes with his best mate, Sean; Ricky Grover, doing his Bulla character, of a big, angry thug. It’s all small-time shit, like torching a mate’s flower stall for £20, until Paul gets the opportunity to move up, by giving a lift to feared gangland boss Mervyn Rees, when his jag breaks down. Mervyn is Welsh, in that hyper-broad sitcom way, calling people “boyo” and obsessed with his prized vintage rugby kit, which immediately signals it’s going to be destroyed. They do that joke of Paul thinking he’s speaking fluent Welsh, but in the subtitles, he’s calling Mervyn’s mum a slag, and the story ends with him being brutalised in Merv’s actual torture dungeon when he accidentally burns the rugby kit. Though it seems like Mervyn Rees is set up to be the big baddie, he’s never mentioned again.

Besides the main lads, there’s a large cast of supporting characters. Paul still lives with his mum, plus his sister and her boyfriend, Lee, who’s the token thicko, but not funny like Father Dougal or Baldrick, just tediously confused by everything. You can tell he’s meant to be a good egg, as, like The Fonz or loveable losers in soaps, he calls Paul’s mum “Mrs. C,” but the weed he’s smoking, always puffing on a big joint, makes him confused – “What you doing, Lee?” “Dunno, I forgot?” For someone who actually got sent down for drugs, Vaughan writes about them like a kid who swears he’s high as fuck off dried banana skins. Most of the action takes place in the pub, where the landlord spends spins tall tales from his years in special forces, played by Willmott-Brown from Eastenders, so don’t get stuck alone with him during a lock-in.


‘Orrible is that thing I fear the most when writing about bad television, where there’s no gasping moments of shock; no blackface or Mollie Sugden flashing her gusset; just no-effort dreary shite with an utter lack of creativity that’s hard to fully get across in print. There’s only so many ways you can say something is boring. I can’t quote any jokes, because there aren’t any, and it’s not setup-punchline ‘humour’, but conversational dialogue that’s meant to be amusing, which is like being trapped in a breakroom with the worst people you know; the kind of bores who’d — as Lee does here — say to a happy person “What are you on? I’ll have half!” Its closest cousin is Cannon and Ball’s wretched Plaza Patrol, where you’re similarly stuck listening to the first-draft conversations of dullards. Here’s a sample witticism for you to enjoy, as Sean remarks on Lee’s weed smoking.

What planet are you on today?

Uranus, Sean. Apparently we’re gonna have no trouble with re-entry.

There’s no laugh track, though that doesn’t mean there was no live audience, as they may simply be sat like I am; ashen-faced and silent, and pondering the choices that brought them here and not somewhere better; like dead in a grave. Episode 3, No Sleep ’til Wembley, is that old “gotta get cup final tickets” plot, except they’re promised to various villains who’ll hurt him if he doesn’t deliver. They head to collect a debt of Sean’s, with Paul nervous it might be thugs with baseball bats. Cut to him aggressively threatening some offscreen figure to pay up or get a beating. At this point, I realised ‘Orrible’s lack of imagination could be turned against itself, to make a guessing game out of it. It’s obviously going to be a child or old lady when they cut to who he’s shouting at, right? Close, it’s a little old man. Three points to me! But as Paul celebrates getting the old boy’s tickets, laughing about how it was probably his last cup final, and his grandkids will show up with painted faces, only to be told they’re not going, you just know it’s about to cut to big, scary Sean blubbing like a baby. I’m so confident, I’ve paused it to write this in my notes, and I’m going to look back now…


I promise I’m not cheating, it’s just a really bad show. Loads of the time’s taken up with Paul boasting he uses his dole money to “get myself a nice little gram of Charlie, 10 pints of lager, chicken jalfrezi, taxi home, and lovely little brass to round off the night,” and the whole pub doing sums to disprove it. There’s a bunch of tedious ticket mix-ups, culminating in him tearing up Gary the Hitman’s fake tickets which turn out not to be fake, and it seems like the whole cup final story’s an excuse for Vaughan to portray his beloved Chelsea winning the cup (it was Liverpool vs. Arsenal that year). But they do get tickets, and after a cameo from Gary Lineker, we end on a tight close-up of Gary the Hitman telling Paul “You. Are. Dead!” “What’s the matter,” says Paul, got you in Wembley, didn’t I?” What are we guessing? Ball boys? Stewards?


Fuck my arse. With episode 6, Two Men and a Bastard, it’s not just punchlines you can guess from one cack-handed visual, but the entire plot. Purely on seeing Sean in a toyshop with tears down his cheeks buying an enormous teddy, it’s obvious he’s just found out he’s got a son, who’ll turn out to be a surly teen they can’t control. This is pretty much spot on, though the mother had banned him from contact until his twelfth birthday. But still, young Ryan does show up in a stolen car, played by James Buckley from The Inbetweeners, and they take him to the pub, where he breaks a bottle over someone’s head, before getting arrested for shoplifting, as Sean weeps with pride.

A good third of the episode’s taken up with a running… I hesitate to say ‘joke’, but let’s say ‘bit’, where they’ve copied the rhythm of a joke from proper sitcoms but forgot to put the funny bit in. There’s a series of engravings — on a bracelet; on a birthday cake — where instead of putting ‘Little R’, Paul’s nickname for baby Ryan, they’ve instead put a lower case r; an actual little r. Do you see?! Do you?! On and on it goes, like ‘Who’s On First Base’ written by someone with the IQ of a plate of cress.

Woss that?”

It’s a little R.”

No, you muppet! I wanted ‘Little R.’”

But this is a little R…”

We suffer multiple scenes of this, suggesting Vaughan was 10 pages short the night before shooting and ended up on a Cake Fails website. Bastard‘s b-plot involves celebrity gangster Billy Marks (played by Preacher‘s Saint of Killers), on home leave from prison, and due to hilarious misunderstandings, convinced his wife’s been sleeping with Paul. As one would if they thought they’d been cucked by Johnny Vaughan; who probably calls it “a cheeky nobbing” and pinches his bell-end with his thumb so it looks like it’s speaking — “lemme in, luv, I’ve got terrible cramp!” — Marks is murderous, hunting for Paul at the zoo before showing up at Little R’s birthday party to confront him.


Their meeting is an encapsulation of ‘Orrible‘s tonal uncertainty. Are we supposed to be laughing? Tense? It seems dramatic, because it’s not funny, but then, none of it is. Marks is magically soothed by his child’s drawing of their family, under the sad piano typical of its sparse soundtrack, with incongruous stock music that’s more fitting with an advert for dementia care. There’s time for a parting life lesson, where Marks tells little Ryan, who’s his biggest fan, that crime doesn’t pay. Apropos of nothing, I Googled the actress who played Marks’ wife, and the 4th result was a Youtube link titled ‘Deep cleavage of Kim Thomson from Emmerdale‘. I didn’t click on it, but I daresay the video-edits of Tommy Tit-Hang have more artistic merit than what I did watch next.

Episode seven takes the worst of ‘Orrible‘s pretensions above its subterranean ability, of fusing comedy with a dramatic storyline, and stretches it over 55 minutes. I clocked the length and assumed they’d mashed the last two episodes together, in the burning-off of a failed show, but to my horror, a title card announces this as ‘DIRTY DOZEN (Feature Length Version)’. I can’t decide what’s funner; the notion that this sweeping, epic tale couldn’t be told in a normal episode, and needed (almost) an hour, or that they couldn’t write another five minutes of material to hit the full sixty. This is practically ‘Orrible: The Movie, with the feel of an idea Vaughan had for a film once, which got reused for the series.


We open on a dream sequence of two dollybirds with a briefcase of money beckoning to Paul, but he can’t get to them as he’s chained to a giant rock which, to win me another 3 points, morphs into Sean, who’s quite literally holding him back. Here begins a level of your protagonist getting shit on by life not seen since part one of The Office Christmas special, shaken awake by his mum who tells him to “pay up, or get out!” Pretty soon, this trope of sneering at adults so broke they’re forced to live at home is going to seem like a quaint portrait of times gone past.

Paul’s mum berates him for his wasted life, as Sean bursts in to announce they’ve finally that big score. The local nightclub’s doing a relaunch, and they’re in for… security team? Managing the strippers? Not quite — “twelve urinals,” the dirty dozen of the title. Paul makes it very clear he’s not interested, so obviously we cut to him driving a urinal-crammed car, as Sean does the maths; “this baby alone has swallowed a million pints of urine!” They get ripped off at the scrapyard, so dump them in the canal, where a dogwalker spots the splashing and takes down the licence plate. Back at the pub, Paul’s childhood frenemy Reuben is back in town, throwing his money around, with a girl on each arm. Paul, on the other hand, was spotted in his piss-mobile by a mate who happened to be buying a hooky Polaroid camera, before he’s publicly barred for not paying his tab, piling on the misery.


Black and white flashbacks show the lads riding bikes as kids, with Reuben and Sean leaving Paul lagging behind on stabilisers even though they’re about ten. With Sean palling up with Reuben, Paul enlists Lee to fish the urinals out of the canal, when a museum offers $100 per pisser, but the camera pans down to a dead body floating nearby. Oh, to be face-down and bloated in a stagnant canal, rather than watching ‘Orrible‘s elderly scrapyard owner describe the time “a total stranger shoved a dildo right up me” and doing a protracted mime. Sean and Reuben are now super-tight, but Paul’s moved on, getting a hug from his mum, proud her boy’s finally on the straight and narrow. “You ain’t never gonna see me in trouble again,” he says, as the cops burst into the kitchen and arrest him for murder, giving him a biff up the stomach for absolutely no reason.

Vaughan’s Big Breakfast colleague Jasmine Lowson reports he’ll likely get 20 years, so this is a prison show now? Nope. Straight to a ‘ONE WEEK LATER‘ title card where he’s out, and goes home to his apathetic family, where the copper who beat him up is there in a dressing gown, now moved in and banging Paul’s mum — “We’re family now.” His urinal money’s stolen by the bent cops for a poker game, where he’s threatened to make sandwiches or be sent back inside, and his room’s been taken by Lee’s mum, drunkenly passed out in her bra. So which is it? Is this a cartoonish Mrs Brown’s Boys, where the copper stinks out the bathroom with his dumps, or the dramatic story of a man on the edge? It doesn’t help that Vaughan’s too atrocious an actor to portray the existential crisis he’s shooting for.


Sean’s now working for Reuben (weirdly morphing into an 80’s yuppie with a stick-on ponytail), in a luxury flat with sex-trafficked Eastern European prostitutes, who offer Paul a blowie. Reuben sets Sean up with a car full of coke, putting him in jail, as Paul whines to Wilmott-Brown Paul that he’s lost everything thanks to whoever dumped that body. Walking home that night, he’s knocked out with a karate chop, and awakes tied up in a field, where the masked hitman apologises for wrecking his life, offering the choice of fixing it, or taking £30k to start over.

Magically, his life mends itself at karaoke night. Lee’s mum moves out, the copper’s given the boot, and Sean’s out of jail as Reuben turned himself in. With a wink, Willmott-Brown reveals himself to be the hitman, and Paul gets up to sing sad solo karaoke, missing his duet buddy, Sean. Of course, he suddenly turns up to join him onstage in belting out that song from Officer and a Gentlemen, carrying Paul aloft in his arms like a lady. Okay, I’ll be honest, I don’t know if that happens, because I’ve paused it when Sean comes through the door, but I’m willing to bet my entire life savings (about 20p) that that’s exactly how it pans out. I swear, if I’m wrong and they pleasantly surprise me, I’ll leave all this in and apologise to Johnny Vaughan. Ready?


Fuck’s sake, Vaughan. And this all plays over a vaseline-soaked montage of bromance moments from the past… 6 episodes. On every level, ‘Orrible is a colossal failure, but none more so than on the very foundation of comedy, which is surprise. If you can guess a punchline, you won’t be laughing. The only legitimate smiles to be had were at Johnny Vaughan’s ludicrous Hitler-esque hairpiece, and the moment I was pushed into a full psychotic break, and began daydreaming of a crossover with Up the Elephant and Round the Castle.

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.

I Was The Stan Lee of Sussex – Reappraising Fred Ace #1

•October 4, 2019 • 1 Comment

Seeing as I spend my time on here tearing apart other people’s bad old content, I figured before karma comes for my head, I’d better tip out the bones from my own closet.


This magnificent comic is my first ever published work, Issue #1 of Fred Ace. Fred. What a cool and heroic name! None of this Max Power shit. My heroes had the names of fly-fisherman, real ale connoisseurs, and retired gardeners.

Before we get into it, a little bit of history. I can’t recall an exact date, but I think it’s from around 1989/1990, with August marking it as a summer holiday project. It was a co-production with my cousin, who’s a couple of years younger than me, and who I gave a shorter story in the back, as was tradition with a lot of the American comics we were obsessed with as kids. Comic-making and selling was a huge thing in our family, as a gang of boy-artists obsessed with superheroes, decades before you couldn’t move for the masked bastards.

As a pre-cursor to an adult life spent self-publishing poorly-selling books on Amazon, I made a proper venture of Fred Ace, painstakingly photocopying each page at the local library, gluing the whole thing together, then having my mum stitch the spines, which seems needlessly time-consuming, when we could’ve just stapled them. The result was a big box of comics, sold to family members who felt obliged to cough up £1.50 because we were children. £1.50 was double the cost of the photocopying, though a pretty poor outlay on labour, having to draw and write a whole 15 pages. Though I probably made more money than I have from Charlie and Me. Psychedelic Cheese Dip Comix, seen in the label at the top (and giving it both 90’s barrels of well-random humour and spelling things with an X), was my publishing imprint, which I really should’ve kept going. If I’d thought to release all my books under such a strong brand, I’d be living in a mansion now.

Let’s examine the cover. As will become clear, I was going for a martial arts/Eastern mysticism vibe, hence the rising sun. From a framing point of view, the thoughtful giant head isn’t a bad concept, but smaller Fred’s pose seems to say “I’m busting for a piss and a shit.” Also note my autograph scrawled on the front, because it’s a signed collector’s edition. My cousin signed it too, but he’s not consented to be part of this nonsense, so I Photoshopped his name off. Alright, let’s get into it.

Page 01

I saw myself as the young Stan Lee, and this, manually bashed out on my mum’s typewriter, is my version of Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins. It’s meant to say ‘RAMBLINGS,’ but is misspelled, and ‘PSYCHADELIC‘ is not only spelled wrong, but differently than it is on the cover, though I did hand-correct the typing error of ‘bonUS‘.

It’s pleasing that I was looking to offend even at an early age, anticipating complaints from those “budding Mary Whitehouses” who’d be fanning themselves into a faint at such subversive content. Presumably ACE IN THE HOLE would differentiate feedback from all the other fan-mail I was getting as a ten-year-old. Reader, we did not receive any letters, possibly because I signed off with:

SEE YA (but I wouldn’t wanna be ya!)” Yeah, readers (who consist of my elderly grandmother and other family members), you fuckin’ stink! Go dine on my farts, losers!

Page 02

Alright, here we go. Right off the bat, the title of the story is spelled wrong. But what a hip guy, leaning against the frame all casual. You can tell he sits on chairs like A.C. Slater. The literal first line is a rip-off of James Bond’s catchphrase, while “are you sitting comfortably?” is just as original.

But hello; what’s going on here?

Page 02b.jpg

There’s all of an inch between the belt and bulge. Was he born without a pubic bone? Dick and balls sat directly below his navel?

The lettering at the top is super wonky, but actually an improvement on my current handwriting. And observe how big I’m thinking; the first Fred Ace story in the history of the galaxy! If Martians tell you they’ve seen one, they lyin’.

Page 03

As an origin story, I could really let my imagination fly. Bitten by a radioactive Fred? Hit by a dump-truck filled with chemicals? Nope — answering an ad in the paper. “MINIMAL DANGER,” eh? We’ll see. Grafton is clearly intended to be a big, evil corporation; my Oscorp, Tyrell Corporation, or Amazon.

Like Rob Liefeld, I couldn’t really draw feet, but I also couldn’t draw bodies. What’s going on here?

Page 03b

Oh, just some random legs, come to make a bit of extra cash. Though it’s not particularly clear, the guy at the front of the line is the future Fred Ace. It’s an interesting mix in that queue; a lady with one boob, a bald guy with no legs, and everyone else with their faces half-missing because I clearly got bored. The flaring pig-nostrils are making me feel quite ill.

Page 04

By this point, my horrible handwriting needs to be transcribed.

Out of the 50, I was lucky enough to be chosen. After signing a contract taking all responsibility for accidents away from the company, needless to say, I was a tad concerned. I almost pulled out but then I saw the payment $10,000. Then they led me to a room where I was to be a guinea pig.

It’s just Captain America getting the Super Soldier Serum, isn’t it? Also, “a tad.” Is he a superhero, or the Conservative candidate in a local by-election?

They strapped me into this strange contraption.”

Again, what’s going on with his groin? It looks like a bad ‘sawing someone in half’ trick with a pair of false legs. Speaking of groins.

Page 04b

Trivia fans take note that his real name is Frederick Ashton.

Page 05

Then he flicked the switch*. I was bombarded with radioactivity.”

(*at least I hope that’s what it says, but judging by the previous panel…)

Then I blacked out.”

Colouring that little box must’ve been the most time-consuming part of the entire comic.

Then apparently, I lapsed into a 7 week coma. Obviously I don’t remember this**. 6 weeks and 5 days after the experiment… I began to come round.

(**thanks for clearing that up)

It’s not very heroic, rounding it up to 7 weeks to make it sound worse than it was. In the “PAIN… PAIN!” section, I think I’ve mistaken ‘a harrowing depiction of agony’ with a dog dragging its itchy arse across a carpet. And when he’s in a coma, what’s that other hand doing under the sheets? Without context, that panel could be a man fiddling with himself while he kisses a big snake.

Page 06

Apx 2 weeks after I awoke, they sent me home without telling me what the experiment was about. While I was in a coma, Grafton burned down.”

That’s convenient. I wonder what’s in the redacted box of text? Though judging from the handwriting, Fred wasn’t the only one who’d just woken from a coma. From an artistic standpoint, the ‘waking’ section is my favourite, though honestly, the fucked up wobbly doctor is about my usual standard for drawing faces.

Later, a strange power began to manifest itself. If I yelled a certain note, I could make people see their worst nightmares, then they would black out.”

Great power. Not just shouting like Banshee from the X-Men, but specifically ‘a certain note’. He’ll be stood there all Mariah Carey, with one finger in his ear, blowing into a pitch pipe, while the bank robbers escape, because he hit an E-flat minor instead of E-flat major. Also, if he’s making people see their worst fears, I guess he’s terrified of snakes? Or is that just a random snake that happens to be there, watching him practise his superpower? The same snake he was getting off with at the hospital? Fred Snakefucker, more like.

Page 07

I decided to use my powers for good causes and donned a mask to become the costumed crime fighter Fred Ace.”

I was a huge fan of the Marvel encyclopedias that listed characters’ stats, like height, weight, and how much they could bench press, with cut-out blueprints of all the headquarters and vehicles. This was my attempt at the same thing, using my obvious knowledge of Asian culture. Yes, the old “Chinese ying-yang symbol.” It’s good the belt is “very strong.” Incidentally, everyone in my comics had those same shoes; steel bricks with laces scribbled on the front.

Page 08

Another tough night on the streets, wrapping his balls around hoodlum’s necks. I don’t know what Chang-Qui translates to, presumably something like “you’re cancelled, you racist.” Where’s a guy who was doing shady medical experiments out of the newspaper getting the money for all those boomerang-diamonds? I’m presuming he never got his $10,000 after Grafton burned down.

Page 09

I’m also a black belt in both judo and karate making me a force to reken with.”

Yeah, I’m shitting myself.

Page 09b

That final panel though. Fucking hell, calm down, mate. “That’s my story, now GET OUT!” He’s got the posture of a cop interrogating a nonce. Though the comic was in black and white for reasons of photocopying, the character had been around for years in full-colour drawings. Fred’s costume was light blue, with orange boots and orange stripes on top of the mask.

At this stage, proceedings hand over to four pages of my cousin’s story, The Bionic Boxer. I won’t reproduce it in full, but you get the idea from these snippets of panels.

Page 10

Page 10b

Incredibly, I hadn’t landed any advertisers, so had to fill the back page with something else.

Page 11

Double plus! I knew I had them hooked by this point. I think I used more unironic exclamation marks in this single issue than I have in the last 20 years combined. What most strikes me is how achingly “all boys of the era” my attitude is. “See ya in 30!” It’s the classic late 80’s-early 90’s kid who thinks he’s cool, wearing a pair of neon bermuda shorts as I scribbled, nailing that last exclamation mark and sliding a pair of fake £2 ray-bans from the market down from my forehead. Eat my willy, dudes!

Sadly, the second issue is lost. As teased, it was the origin story of Sgt Blaster. Set to be Ace’s main nemesis, Blaster was a Sgt Slaughter drill instructor type with a Hitler haircut, whose origin involved beasting recruits with push-ups until they died. To further my pretensions of being the next Stan Lee, I glued the photo from my swimming centre membership onto the editor’s page before photocopying. Issue #2 sold poorly, that’s to say, not at all. You can only get away with milking your family once, and that was the end of Fred Ace. That is, until Netflix pick it up for the inevitable adaptation, and I get to ride out the rest of my life making cameos in the Psychedelic Cheese Dip Cinematic Universe, and judging cosplay contests where nerds with no pelvis make out with a snake.

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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