Plaza Patrol

•February 7, 2019 • 2 Comments

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[This is Part 3 of my Shitcoms series. Part OnePart Two]

In my previous look back at Cannon and Ball, I made the comparison to an end of the pier Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, with an act that’s rooted in antagonism, and every skit laden with the simmering threat of violence. In 1991, two months before the debut of Rik and Ade’s Bottom, Cannon and Ball’s lone sitcom, Plaza Patrol, aired on ITV. This would be their final run on prime time television, as it was so appalling, everybody involved in its production should have been sent to prison.

Naturally, what you’d want from a Cannon and Ball sitcom, now out of the variety years and into the rude nineties, would be a slightly elevated version of their established characters. Given free rein, the trademark lapel-grabbing scuffles could raised into riotous slapstick brawls, coupled with the existing catchphrases they were famous for; “piggin’” or “you little liar!” You could do that, or, as the people behind Plaza Patrol figured, you could sit them in a room mumbling, with no “rock on, Tommy!” nor a pair of braces to be seen. Though it was written specifically for them, it seems like the bits of their act the writers most enjoyed were the pauses between jokes, lumbering the poor lads with truly the worst script I have ever sat through. A screenwriting duo lacking the credentials to pen a shopping list, Plaza Patrol‘s creative team consisted of the composer of the theme for Noel’s Telly Addicts, and a man whose sole other credits are two episodes of Noel’s House Party.

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Plaza Patrol was a spin-off of Cannon and Ball’s Playhouse, an ITV anthology of six pilot episodes, though only two made it to air. Free Every Friday starred Tommy and Bobby as manager and reporter for a free newspaper, with Bobby saddled with all-time dreadful comedy name, Norman Tubby. The second, Growing Concern, sounds like a fake sitcom inside another sitcom that’s sneering at naff old comedy, featuring Bobby as a bumbling maintenance man with the catchphrase “I ‘aven’t got the right tools wi’ me” and Tommy as his manager. The rest were ditched, when ITV inexplicably decided to run with a full series of Plaza Patrol. Considering how that turned out, what was the quality of the episodes that didn’t get made?! Perhaps they took the ever-present master/subordinate dynamic to its natural end.

Slaving Away

Down on his luck binman Bobby Bottoms is forced to become sexual plaything to wealthy businessman Tommy Whiplash. In nothing but leather braces and a gimp mask, Bobby’s catchphrases include “please may I have the key to my penis cage, Sir?” and “the wax has scarred me piggin’ bell-end!”

Plaza Patrol debuted on Monday night of July 15th, 1991. By this point, even a young Cannon and Ball aficionado such as myself had since grown out of them, and gotten into more big-boy comedy, like The Mary Whitehouse Experience. This was the dying embers of their mainstream appeal, and rather than fanning the flames for a resurgence, they took a metaphorical piss that left us choking on the stink of smoked urine. The set-up is that Bernard (Cannon) and Trevor (Ball) are a pair of security guards working the night shift at Margaret Thatcher Plaza, a shopping centre in Leeds. Perhaps in an attempt to emulate the tedium of a job where nothing happens, but most likely out of cheapness, 99% of the ‘action’ takes place in one room and consists of dreary banter about biscuits. Forget Seinfeld; this is the real show about nothing.

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Let’s consider the notion of Cannon and Ball as security guards. By this point, Cannon is a road-worn 53, and Ball’s 47. It’s like those Death Wish sequels where Bronson was 80, mowing down drug gangs with a face like a dropped lasagne, and they seem like the sort of guards you’d hire during an inside job to rob the place; “decrepit old man and a little fella, they won’t give us any trouble…” There’s a noticeably fascistic look to their uniforms, with the word SECURITY on the shoulders above a 7-pointed star, and medieval axes on a patch, suggesting the outside world is a dystopian police state, and any curfew breakers will have their eyes burned out by Tommy Cannon’s Silk Cut.

This all begs the question, how did they get into security work? Were they ex-military who went into the private sector? Actually, yes. As revealed in scraps of dialogue throughout the 3 episodes I tortured myself with, Cannon served in the army; more specifically, like your dad’s weird mate who reckons he won the speedboat on Bullseye, but won’t show anyone the tape, he was in special forces. Vague references to “the jungle” and being “in Malaya” seem to hint at sex tourism, but are later revealed to be the British involvement in guerilla warfare against rebel insurgents, during the 1950s. This adds Cannon’s Bernard Cooney to a growing list of fictional combat veterans I’ve uncovered in my work, including Saved by the Bell‘s Mr. Belding and Alf Stewart from Home and Away (Vietnam), and Herman Munster (WWII). A line about them serving together mostly exists to establish the rule that Cannon must always be in charge, but suggests a 13-year-old Bobby Ball lied about his age to sign up and kill commies. To further the dystopian feel, Cannon wears the 3 stripes of a sergeant on his work shirt and jacket, implying they are indeed part of a state security force.

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Under the wailing synth-sax theme shared with every early 90’s sitcom, opening credits show Cannon cuffing Ball round the chops for riding one of those kiddie horses outside a shop, furthering its MO of “Cannon’s the dad, Ball’s the kid, see?” Like my genitals, the bulk of the episodes are a two-hander, consisting of dreary work-room chat and literally zero jokes. Thoroughly lacking the snappy pace of their usual routine, there’s a Poundland kitchen sink naturalism to the dialogue, and though I hate to transcribe huge chunks, I present an example of the world’s worst writing, spoken slowly and softly over the course of about a minute’s screen time.

Cannon “There’s been times when I’ve been a bit of a… well.

Ball “You haven’t, Bernard.

C “I have.

B “Bernard, you haven’t, not really.

C “I know I have.

B (whispering) “No, you haven’t, Bernard.

C “Sometimes.

B “Bernard, never.

C “I have!

B “Have yer?

C “Erm… no. I don’t suppose so.

B “When?

C “Er… I haven’t really.

Why, it’s like Mamet, isn’t it? Or Sorkin? Just look at the way it pops! Someone was handed that on a script and signed off on it, and there was a table read and rehearsals, and then they performed it in front of human beings for money, and then it went out on telly, and at no point along the way did anyone stop it. Bewilderingly, rather than anguished howls of the damned, the audience provides easy chuckles at every turn, at top lines like “where’s the tea gone?” “it’s in the jar marked ‘tea’!” or “I wasn’t asleep, I was just resting me eyes.” Confined to the grey setting of its one room, with grainy CCTV monitors and the black pitch of night visible outside, it’s such a grim atmosphere, in a moment Cannon climbed on a desk to change a lightbulb, I assumed he was going to hang himself.

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Sandwiched between the extended discourse is the thinnest veneer of actual plot. Episode one sees Ball returning from holiday with a replica gun he found on the beach, sneaking up on Cannon to perform the entire Dirty Harry speech, which makes him corpse, but they keep it in. Then they’re taken hostage by two robbers in gorilla masks and washing up gloves. Usually, the hostage plot is your sitcom bottle episode, but every Plaza Patrol is a bottle episode, trapping us in an interminable crypt with references to Jeffrey Archer’s novels and actual mother-in-law jokes; left frantically scrabbling at walls for a way out, at the example of Melvin Bragg as an intelligentsia, or the suggestion one looks at the stars with a “stethoscope.” There’s no air in here. No escape. Just the cursory audience snickering and the dramatic tension of whether or not Bobby Ball, refused the request to “go toilet” by his kidnapper, will urinate on himself. Reader, he does.

Episode two, rather cruelly titled The End when there’s still four to go, is an obvious attempt at remaking Hancock’s The Missing Page, where the end of a film Ball’s watching is taped over with Emmerdale Farm. However, most of the running time’s filled with unrelated wittering; cats pissing in shoes, coffee mugs, the rules to I Spy, and a section about the correct way to dunk a biscuit that’s somehow even worse than the Peter Kay routine. There’s a sub-sub-plot about a group of kids sitting on the wall outside, that has Cannon ranting about today’s youth, who’ll soon be having “their own acid house disco down there… and I’ll be sniffin’ Dr Martins!” The hipness of the acid house reference is immediately cancelled out when Cannon bemoans his punk son, who’s shaved his head and “got a girlfriend who dresses like Max Wall.”

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Eventually, they go to a video rental place, so Ball can see the rest of the movie, but they’ve got no money and it’s about to shut, so logically, they try to seduce the young lady who runs it. She’s introduced with a weirdly lascivious shot of her legs and arse, and Ball brags about his motorbike and tells her he’s “in love.” She rebuffs him with a gross speech about erogenous zones and being “slowly brought to fever pitch,” while Ball makes a gurning cum-face, then Cannon outs him as seeing the black-teethed girl from the shoe shop, though only so he can get discount trainers to replace the cat-pissed ones. Poor Bobby never gets to see the end of the film, while in tragic irony, every wretched second of Plaza Patrol was fully available for me to sit through.

Episode 3, The Tramp Who Never Was, opens with them playing Monopoly, and like any onscreen portrayal of classic games, as they fight over the top hat, it segues into a terrible analogy about life. Hats, says Ball, denote social structure. Wearers of flat caps are the lower class, bowlers the middle, and “the ones in the top hats… you knew you were looking at a nob.” The utter lack of laughs at Cannon’s “you can say that again!” (an actual joke!) suggests the word ‘nob’ as a descriptor for penis was not in common usage in 1991. Thank God I wasn’t born 20 years earlier, or I’d have never survived.

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The titular tramp knocks at the door, a classic in fingerless gloves and a woolly hat, pleading for a moment to warm himself in front of the fire. Working class Ball welcomes him in (though he does wipe his hands after touching him), while Cannon, a top hat, is all “I don’t want a dirty filthy tramp in the office!” adding “he’s probably full of fleas!” But Cannon changes his tune when the homeless man outs himself as an old soldier, and soon, the pair are bonding with war stories. Ball refuses to thank them for their service, and is chided by the tramp as a “long haired beatnik.” These days, such little reverence to Are Brave Boys would have seen Bobby Ball leaving the studio with a blanket over his head to avoid being force-fed cardboard poppies until he choked by an angry Facebook mob. Eventually, as spoiled by the episode title, they find he’s not a soldier, but a conman who grifted them out of £80 and pinched Cannon’s war medals.

Something you definitely don’t see coming is the crazy political turn, which acts as a counterpoint the leftie-bashing inserts of Bottle Boys. An early scene sees Ball deface a Maggie Thatcher calendar with Hitler tash n’ fringe, and political tensions spill out during Monopoly, over the concept of privatising water. “There’s a lot of real life on that board for some of us,” says Cannon, demanding Ball tell him who he voted for in the general election. “Welsh, husky voice; am I right?” rages Tory Cannon, “if your lot were in power now, we wouldn’t have what we’ve got today!” In response, Ball tears the Thatcher calendar from the wall — “Wouldn’t have what we’ve got today? Inflation? Poll Tax?” He smacks the picture with an angry finger, seething “there’s people out there living in cardboard boxes! You’re not bothered about that, are yer?!” To say this is a surprising moment is an understatement, particularly in an episode where Bobby Ball describes the sight of a naked women he’s peeping at in a window across the street with an aghast “by Hell, she’s a big lass!

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Though it makes occasional — and thoroughly deserved — appearances on lists of the worst ever sitcoms, Plaza Patrol is effectively a lost show. A search for “plaza patrol” cannon and ball returns only 7 pages of Google results, most of which are foreign bot sites, and it was never released on DVD or VHS. Most of the episodes on Youtube have less than 100 views, making them as popular as accidentally uploaded footage of someone’s grandad testing out his webcam. I’ve great affection for Cannon and Ball, and it makes for a rather sad, indignant end to their prime time careers, addressing each other as Bernard and Trevor, and working with a truly awful script which should have never made it to air. Rik and Ade always talked about a planned final sitcom, where the pair would star as gross old men, hitting each other with bedpans, which we were sadly robbed of with Rik’s death. I know it’s not the same, but c’mon, Netflix, while there’s still time to give us the real Cannon and Ball sitcom, hit me up. I’ll even throw in my spec script for proposed Ricky Gervais vehicle, My Juggalo Dad.

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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Trump’s Forgotten Gameshow

•January 28, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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What’s left to say about Donald Trump? For a moment, let’s put aside everything but the propensity to vampirically attach his name to any old shit; that classy Midas-touch, breeding instant success with everything from failed vodka to failed steaks, to a failed ‘university’ with all the educational legitimacy of Sweet Valley High. The one thing I didn’t expect to find stamped with the Trump brand was a Bob Monkhouse gameshow. Bob’s Full House, as inferred by the title, was a bingo-based quiz, enjoying a successful run in the UK for six years, until January 1990; the same year it was adapted for American television under the title Trump Card.

Trump Card, for its single-season run — another winner! — was filmed at Trump’s Castle casino in Atlantic City, which previously hosted the TV adaptation of Yahtzee. Unfortunately, it was sold off before Mario Lopez’s Candy Crush (a real thing that actually exists) could make its home there too. In fact, the building almost went under during the filming of Trump Card, until a bail-out by chronically disappointed father and Halloween mask model, Fred Trump, with a purchase of $3.5m of gambling chips, in a move consequently deemed to be illegal and resulting in a hefty fine for the buffoon who turned a loss with a casino.

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Its opening titles give classically Trumpian images of crass extravagance, with piles of money, limousines, high kicking girls, and the word TRUMP in a big gold font, heralded by stately parping trumpets. And about that gold. As you’d expect, the whole scene is bedazzled in a sickly golden hue, with literally everything in faux-gold, from the set, the host’s little cards, and even the contestant podiums, with their names on gold plates like those on the desk of an impotent yet sexually entitled CEO. Just like the pictures of his grotesque inner sanctums, this is a toddler’s idea of wealth; golden pillars and floors and toilets; literally eating handfuls of the stuff, clogging his bowels with gold nuggets, in a futile attempt to fill the aching hole that leaves him unable to glimpse his own reflection without instinctively spitting at it.

But perhaps we, as a people, need to stop referring to Trump’s ‘gold’ obsession and call this what it is. It’s not stately, it’s not high-class; it’s the same as what comes out of your urethra. It’s piss. It’s all just piss. He built a piss mansion with piss walls, bedecked with piss, and put his name on the outside in massive, piss-coloured letters. I imagine when he first stepped in the oval office, his first call was to an interior designer. “Could you make it more… pissy?

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Trump Card was hosted by retired football player Jimmy Cefalo, a jock in a bow tie, who introduced the man himself, putting in an appearance for all of 30, contractually-obligated seconds. Reading robotically from the teleprompter with the shifty-footed ill-ease of a middle schooler giving a book report, he welcomes us to Trump Card, which is “an intelligent and challenging game, and in the great tradition of America, if you’re smart and persevere, there’s a good chance you’ll come out on top.” Ironically he stumbles over the word “intelligent,” before vanishing into the wings as quickly as he arrived.

There are no great insights to be had from this show, which, like everything else plastered with his brand, is a pedestrian, generic take on something else, only stained with pish. Contestants aim to fill their Trump Card (a bingo card) by answering various trivia questions. Confusingly, in the second round, they’re given an actual card, also called a Trump Card, but not the same Trump Card as the Trump Card they’re trying to fill to win the game Trump Card. The physical Trump Card blocks a opposing player from filling their onscreen Trump Card, by covering the screen with a giant gold T. It’s all so needlessly confusing, you have to assume there was a clause for minimum uses of his name per episode.

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The gameplay is random general knowledge on topics like movie quotes or ‘people named George,’ though there is a question about which hand to place on your heart when the American flag passes by, which likely gave a young Mike Pence a downstairs swelling that later had to be flagellated away with one of Mother’s aprons. Presuming he didn’t exit his cameo straight into a limo and order the driver to get him the hell out of there, Trump would have been smugly nodding in vindication when the white frat-guy with a part-time rock band defeated the housewife and the black lawyer to successfully win $10,000, though he didn’t bother coming out to congratulate him with one of those BDSM handshakes.

There’s no deep dive to be had here, but Trump Card does make for an interesting historical footnote; like if Pol Pot had put his name to a remake of Bullseye. It’s weird that for all his harping on about the ‘great success’ of The Apprentice, his CV has been whitewashed of the Trump TV show based on the thrilling game of bingo. In fact, so like the pastime seen in nursing homes worldwide, during the tapings, audience members were given their own Trump Card to play along, with the chance to win an enormous $10 per round. “88 – two fat dictators!”

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The Bob’s Full House format was adapted a few more times, including a 1995 rebrand as Shane Richie’s Lucky Numbers, which finally gives us a direct link between the respective works of Shane Richie and Donald Trump. Mostly, Trump Card‘s existence makes me wonder which other British game shows he could put his branding on? Touch the Truck, except instead of a truck, it’s women in elevators and on planes and on the set of The Apprentice? How about Dave Benson Phillips’ Get Your Own Back, but with a slide going into a giant vat of wee wee? Alright, that’s probably enough satire to bring down the government. PEACE.

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.

When Hulk and Chuck Tried To Save My Soul

•January 18, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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About twelve or thirteen years ago, you couldn’t avoid Chuck Norris. Not that he was getting much work, but as a meme, Chuck Norris Facts were inescapable, both to internet users, and the man himself. Tired of being asked about it, Norris finally opened up, penning an op-ed on conservative news aggregator, World Net Daily; one of the big promoters of the Obama birther conspiracy; where he rebuked a handful of the ‘facts’ to spread another message.

There is no theory of evolution. Just a list of creatures Chuck Norris has allowed to live.

It’s funny. It’s cute,” replied Norris. “But here’s what I really think about the theory of evolution: It’s not real.

Another read:

Chuck Norris’ tears can cure cancer. Too bad he never cries. Ever.

If your soul needs healing, the prescription you need is not Chuck Norris’ tears, it’s Jesus’ blood.

Writers of the facts had been taking their barest cues from his 80’s work, like Cannon Films’ Invasion USA and the Missing in Action series, or more likely, their box art alone, with an open-shirted hero framed by the white-orange of an explosion, which was often, like everything from that era, more thrilling than the tape inside. But as was clear by his reaction to the facts, he never considered that airbrushed savage to be the real Chuck Norris. If you want to know how Norris really sees himself, you need only watch Walker, Texas Ranger.

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The character of Chuck Norris’s Walker is remarkably similar to the portrayal of Donald Trump by conservative political cartoonists; a barrel-chested, flag-embracing patriot, taking on the evils of drugs, gangs, and general lawlessness, with his American brand of second amendment rough-housing, and a moral code drawn from the pages of the bible. With a tight demographic of republican grandmas who’d have shied away from his violent rental store heyday, Walker ran for eight years, and was inspired by his 1983 film Lone Wolf McQuade, though sadly jettisoning the lead’s pet wolf.

Walker‘s episodic nature effectively gave viewers a condensed straight-to-VHS action movie every week, albeit a really bad one, with the family-safe, soapy trappings giving it a fantastically uneven tone, along with a level of heavy-handed moralising quite unlike anything I’ve encountered before. Conan O’Brien famously did a recurring bit about Walker, where he’d pull a lever that played a random, out of context moment from the show, to gales of laughter. Truthfully, even in context, every moment is gloriously quotable, meme-able, and begging to be made into a gif. Each scene, each line, each backhanded punch with a jarring, cartoon sound effect is absolute bad TV gold, and honestly, I could happily shift my Patreon over to nothing but recaps of Walker, Texas Ranger. But I’ll begin where I often do, with an episode guest-starring Hulk Hogan.

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The Walker entitled Division Street aired 3rd February 2001, 10 shows from the end of its 201 episode run. 201 episodes. I can already feel every bone breaking as I begin my tumble down the depths of this particular rabbit-hole. This was originally going to be a Megapowers double-header, where I recapped this, along with one starring Randy Savage, but that’s going to have to wait, as in Division Street, I’ve inadvertently stumbled on one of the strangest hours ever put before a camera.

Often the biggest ingredient of terrible-great television is inauthentic writing. When the people who make the shows are completely unfamiliar with the world they’re portraying, they’re forced to take cue from other fictional portrayals, drawing on the existing pool of stereotypes. In this specific case, Chuck Norris’s brand of family-friendly, conservative-value drama takes us into the world of gang-bangers. The hoodlums on show are all do-rags, swagger, and calling each other “dawg,” ya feel me? Like the senate-floor impersonation by a racist politician bemoaning ‘thugs’ that dirty up police batons with their blood, Walker‘s gangsters are the wild youth as seen by white men in MAGA hats peeking nervously out of the living room curtains. But as the hoodlums funky rap-walk us towards the all-important moral lesson, everything’s filtered through the crippling toothlessness of Walker’s PG rating, and as a result, it’s got the exact feel of an amateur theatre group coming into your highschool to put on a play about the dangers of weed. Of all my expectations about Walker, Texas Ranger, I did not expect Legz Akimbo Theatre Company. But worse than that, Walker contains another trap for its audience, and by the time you’ve noticed, it’ll be far too late.

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Opening with a starkly realistic portrayal of gang life, Danny, a little kid in a do-rag sneaks onto rival turf to spray a tag on a graffiti-strewn underpass. With a “yo man,” he’s spotted, and the enemy gang give chase, hopping fences and yelling violent threats of “we’ll kick your butt!” and “we’re gonna catch you good!” Fearing for his life and about to get… well, probably not shot, or stabbed, or even kicked, but perhaps called a doo-doo head, he sees salvation in sight, a building with a sign reading CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY CENTRE. If heathen gang members breech the entrance, they’ll be turned to ash! Danny runs inside, followed by the teenage gang. “Is there a problem?” asks Hulk Hogan, or as he’s portraying here, Walker’s old buddy, Boomer Knight.

As you’ll come to learn, Walker provides its audience with the finest terrible names television can offer, with Boomer Knight a brilliant example. An ex-con who’s giving back by running a community centre to keep troubled kids off the streets, along with the facial hair, Hulk’s Boomer is basically the Geoff of this American Byker Grove remake. The centre is the only neutral ground in the turf war between the Blades — Danny’s gang — and the Guardians, led by Ace, a tough teenager with the name of a Doctor Who assistant. Boomer makes the gang leave, because “this is a place of peace!” and invites Danny to stay and play basketball, which he scoffs at.

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At this point, I should address the issue of race, in a way the show doesn’t, at least until right near the end. There’s a very clear racial divide between the Guardians, a gang of white kids in enormous JNCO jeans you could park a school bus in, and the Blades, run by Danny’s older brother Mike, who have an entirely black roster. During a minor scuffle outside, even though he’s addressing both groups, a 2019 viewing gives an uncomfortable undertone to Walker’s threat of “serious prison time” for those who, I guess, loiter and give each other dirty looks. Everything’s further heightened by Hulk’s real-life issues with race, which make it impossible to see him surrounded by black children without wondering if he was thinking of them as little n-words.

But the fictional, not-racist Boomer only wants to help, with he and Walker wondering how they can get the gang-bangers inside for basketball. It’s then that the episode fires its first warning shot. “I’ve been doing a lot of praying about it,” says Boomer, “I’ve gotta get to these kids before gang life totally sucks them in.” Hmm. Walker’s background check on young Danny reveals his father was “killed in a gang fight when he was just a baby,” and he lures the lad in, along with the younger Blades and Guardians, with the offer of free pizza and sodas. Soon, they’re all shooting hoops.

The trippiness of Chuck Norris playing basketball with Hulk Hogan makes me wonder if I’ve nodded off at my desk, and they’re hitting baskets with every throw, halfway across the court or showily tossed behind their backs like the Harlem Globetrotters; by which I mean, they lob the ball offscreen and it cuts to it going through the hoop. Each of the many basketball scenes feature the same thumping rap on the soundtrack. I’ve usually got an ear for this stuff, and it’s either Tupac or NWA, but definitely not an in-house track written by some white dude in jeans and cowboy boots.

I’m a backboard breaker, I’m a 360 spinner,
I’m a slam dunk daddy, in a word I’m a winner

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Perhaps Eminem’s new album would have gotten better reviews with lyrics like “I got the biscuit in the bucket, I go fifty a night!” It doesn’t take long before everyone’s friends, with the remaining tension alleviated by Walker forcing two little kids to step in a makeshift ring made from traffic cones and string, to box each other to exhaustion until they respect each other. And now they’ve got enough kids for a team, they can enter the community centre tournament.

When two acting titans like Norris and Hogan are credited together, audiences expect a brutal throwdown, but they’re tragically limited to normal conversations, where they have to ‘act’, and neither man throws a single punch. This is a real shame considering Walker‘s house-style for fights, where every kick sends its recipient spinning 720 degrees, with uppercuts that leave villains screaming in slow-mo, legs in the air, like when you KO someone on Mortal Kombat. When Walker’s ranger buddies roll up on a crew of teeth-kissing ghetto drug dealers, the confrontation immediately turns into a karate fight. Everyone in Walker knows karate, with every low-level hoodlum, aggro drunk, or wayward teen capable of spin-kicks, while each hit is punctuated by that comedy punch sound of someone taking a hammer to a watermelon.

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Boomer’s community outreach angers the local toughs, and in the worst vandalism since the Blue Peter Garden, a group of ne’er-do-wells break in and trash the centre, by stabbing basketballs and tossing Boomer’s stereo through the tuck shop window. Kids from both gangs help the clean up, in an inspirational montage of scrubbing and sweeping, as the soundtrack warns “if I don’t change it, this world will be hurtin’ still!” It’s here, under refusal to hunt down the perpetrators for revenge, Boomer reveals his own criminal past, showing the kids his tattoo; the symbol of the legendary Jackals gang.

Though it’s hard to believe, the real Hulk Hogan has a thug-life past of his own. No, not the nWo. When he was caught being racist, he explained that it was just part of his culture growing up, and that “people need to realize that you inherit things from your environment… and all my friends, we greeted each other saying that word.” C’mon snowflakes, that’s just how it was in [checks notes] South Florida in the 1960s. He’s practically black himself! All of which fully explains why it was perfectly fine to say of his daughter — “If she was going to fuck some n*****, I’d rather have her marry an 8-foot-tall n***** worth a hundred million dollars! Like a basketball player! I guess we’re all a little racist. Fucking n*****.

Anyway, when they find out Boomer was a Jackal, the kids are crazy excited, until he reveals the rest of the gang are (like I’d be if I hadn’t taken up writing) either dead or in jail. Boomer’s fresh off a ten-stretch himself, and the cop who put him inside? Walker. “I was so violent,” he says, “I landed in solitary my very first day.” I can’t lie, after the waste of a pair of brutes like Hogan and Norris on endless scenes of polite conversation, when it suddenly cut to a prison flashback, I involuntarily ejaculated. It’s Boomer who now wears the do-rag, thrashing around in a denim vest as he’s dragged along a prison corridor, with classic Hulk Hogan “Raah! Raash!” sounds of rage. Tossed in a cell too small for his bulging, handcuffed body, he angrily kicks and shoulders at the walls. Then he hears a voice, and that’s when Division Street extends itself beyond the bounds of a mere television show.

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When I was a kid, I went to a ‘Halloween Fun Night’ run by my family’s church. As is my brand, I love Halloween, and nine-year-old me was excited for a night of ghost stories and leering pumpkins. But there were no ghosts; no skeletons; no fun to be had. Instead, I’d gotten hoodwinked into an anti-Halloween event, designed to keep our young minds on Godly pursuits during this most evil of nights, with the adults too afraid to even say the H-word directly, and the only vague allusion to anything fun when my boy Satan got name-dropped, during group prayers to keep his antics at bay. Division Street took me right back to that night, with a pocket full of rubber snakes and nobody to throw them at.

Alone in his cell, Boomer heard a voice. Now, random jail voices could be any number of things, like air-vent whispers threatening imminent bummings, or as in Silence of the Lambs, back-handed compliments about the smell of your genitals. “I would have gone totally nuts if not for the voice,” says Boomer. Go on… “he started telling me about the Lord our Savior… he told me if I knelt down and asked for forgiveness, everything would become bearable.” Firstly, that’s not a great sell. Secondly, as flashback-Boomer is bathed in a halo of ethereal light, with complete scriptures being quoted in length, I realise it’s gone on far too long for a regular scene. Ironically, while trapping us in solitary confinement, Walker tears down the fourth wall to directly evangelise to its audience, through the vessel of Hulk Hogan. In terms of product placement, it’s the spiritual equivalent of a movie that cures all the world’s cancer patients by having them sip a Pepsi, as all the gang kids sit thoughtfully listening to Boomer’s salvation. The mysterious voice is revealed as another inmate, whose promise that “from this day on, wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge be pleasant to your soul” as he soulfully gazes at Boomer through the little door slot, reveal him the most aggressively on-trope Magical Negro on record.

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Eventually, in this weird infomercial for Christ that goes on forever, Boomer kneels down and asks God to take away his sins and “remove all the hatred from my heart,” staring up at a bright, heavenly light, hands clasped in prayer, and recanting that “my life changed forever from that moment.” Slotted in the middle of this network drama, it’s as glaringly brazen as the sudden knock of a door-to-door evangelist, when you’re minding your business and trying to lay in bed all day crying in peace. One can imagine it sparking from a producer’s meeting where someone flipped on a TV and caught an ad for Girls Gone Wild, and realised they had to do something to stop the moral decay before God smote us all into the boiling seas. I wonder though, if Walker‘s outreach was successful, and if any viewers, caught at a particular low moment, were inspired by the abysmal acting of Hulk Hogan to drop to their knees and convert as a direct result. As the lone family atheist, there’s been various methods of encouragement over the years from family friends trying to lure me into the church. It’s almost worth being baptised to share the story of how I came to the Lord through a Walker, Texas Ranger where a criminal Hulk Hogan was soothed by bible quotes.

But there are some kids even Jesus can’t reach, and though the young’ins are happy to play ball together, the older Blades and Guardians are still fussin’ and feudin’, with Mike furious that “Boomer done turned my own brother against me!” So, Walker brings in some ex-cons to scare them straight, in an absolutely ludicrous scene which must have been the inspiration for The Office‘s Prison Mike. The lads include a guy in a camo waistcoat with a silver eyepatch like a GI Joe villain, and a bloke who looks like ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin drawn on a thumb, with names like Slash and Rock. They force the adult gang-bangers to sit, calling them “girlfriend,” and “little girl,” and berate them by saying the word ‘prison’, over and over. “You’ll end up in prison! I thought I was pretty tough too, TILL I WENT TO PRISON!” Slash shares his origin story, by pulling off his eyepatch; “guy slashed it right out of the socket!” Note that he totally has his eye, though he is squinting. Like the evangelism scene, some minutes in, it hits you that they’re directly addressing the younger members of the audience, in a hilariously vague PSA written by someone whose sum experience of the big house is seeing the trailer for Shawshank Redemption once. Personally, while having someone yell “Prison! You’ll go to prison!” isn’t much incentive to be good, I was given pause to keep on the straight and narrow when Slash described the assembled teenagers and ten-year-olds as “hot new young looking studs,” and that hardened cons would “love ’em, hate ’em, beat ’em, KILL EM!” No more littering, fly-tipping, or murder for me!

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Like American History X, where the hardcore Nazi was converted by folding laundry with a mildly-witty black man, merely having the word ‘prison’ yelled in their faces has all the neighbourhood toughs leaving that gang life behind. However, Boomer’s mentorship angers the local drug kingpin. Periodically, we’ve seen him collecting money from the gangs, who’ve been slinging his unspecified product, though we never see a drug onscreen. But they’d be making way more if not for Boomer, whose presence somehow affects the drug trade massively, and thanks to him, now everyone’s basketball buddies, leaving the streets empty. The former Blades and Guardians; now Boomer’s Blue Angels; ditch the gang clothes for Sunday best, and are cured of racism by Walker making black and white kids sit next to one another. “God doesn’t see us in colours,” says Hulk Hogan — bit rich, considering — “go out there today and see each other as brothers in Christ.

With God on their side, they win by two points, with the kingpin seething at the sight of his former corner boys embracing. Next morning, Boomer takes a baseball bat to the back of the head and gets bundled into a van, and dragged to an industrial warehouse covered in graffiti. Boomer tells the kingpin that shooting him won’t change anything. Not to worry, he replies, “I’m gonna hang ya, Boomer!” As the previous high-water mark of violence was a threat of someone having their “butt” kicked, the sudden sight of a noose is somewhat of a shocker. A brutal lynching it is, too, with Boomer’s feet still on the ground, his eyes closed and seemingly dead, though he’s clearly heard with an overdubbed, perfectly normal “Enough! Stop it! Stop it!” when the goodies pile in to save the day.

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The drug kingpin is indicted, and at the basketball finals, Walker tells Boomer he’s really making a difference. “No, Walker. God’s making a difference.” We close on the freeze frame of a high-five, where a white hand meets with a black one. Powerful. It’s impossible to say exactly how many lives, or indeed souls, Division Street saved, with one IMDB reviewer calling it “a good dose of spirituality and Peace,” adding “Bravo to this series for trying to deter youngsters from joining gangs.” Not since Cannon and Ball’s West Side Story has there been such an honest portrayal of the realities of thug life. Perhaps if Hulk Hogan had sat down to watch it himself, he would never have ended up in that mess.

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.

Bottle Boys

•January 9, 2019 • 3 Comments

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[This is part two of my Shitcoms series. Click here for the previous entry.]

The very concept of a milkman is one of those indicators of being old as shit, as nobody under the age of twenty has any idea what you’re talking about. But more than the outdated job of delivering milk to your doorstep at 5am, the strength of the milkman archetype was their other reputation. Roughly half of all jokes in the 1970s were based on someone resembling the milkman, and until the industry was destroyed by supermarkets, according to British lore, a nation of cuckolded fathers unknowingly raised children that were actually the milkman’s, while all housewives were constantly up for it, hornily waiting for a knock on the door, so’s to ravage a passing tradesman. In modern parlance — Milkmen? They fuck. Now they aren’t a thing, there’s no equivalent to the travelling salesman shagger cliché. Amazon drivers don’t drop their trousers unless they’re shitting in your driveway, because they don’t have time for toilet breaks, much less to entertain lonely housewives with a next-day dildo inside a cardboard box the size of an elephant’s coffin.

Perfect then, that the role of a milkman in ITV’s mid-80’s sitcom, Bottle Boys, would go to Robin Askwith, who’d spent a decade with his trousers round his ankles in cinematic sex comedies, featuring the kind of inherently British sex that could only ever be referred to as ‘bonking’, ‘rumpy pumpy’, or ‘a bit of how’s your father?’ Bottle Boys is one of the great pieces of almost-casting, like Bill Murray as Tim Burton’s Batman, or Jeff Goldblum as Kramer, although the latter happened only in my mind. The role of Askwith’s randy milkman was originally written for Jim Davidson. On the surface, particularly in comparison to the likeable screen presence of Askwith, it seems an odd fit, however, in watching the show, it’s clear that Jim would have been perfect, because the character is a massive wanker, and Bottle Boys is shit.

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Created by Vince Powell, who also brought the world such timeless classics as Mind Your Language and Love Thy Neighbour, Bottle Boys‘ reputation is of one of the worst sitcoms ever put to screen. But as with other infamous stinkers, like Curry and Chips, or Heil Honey I’m Home, it’s only ever seen on talking head shows, where Paul Ross or Hi-Vis off Big Brother describe the 10 second clip we’re watching, that they themselves have only just seen on a monitor. I needed to find out for myself if it was bad as everyone says; if its reputation as a sexist dinosaur was unfair. I begun by watching the earliest surviving episode, entitled Danger, Women at Work. Oh.

Under a football chant theme, composed by Denis King, who scored Holiday on the Buses, and sung by a chorus of cockneys, (“milk, eggs and buttah…”), an animated title sequence shows Askwith on his rounds, “making sure each customer is satisfied.” He winks to camera, suggestive of “sexually satisfied, that is; in their fannies!” as bottles excitedly jump up and down on a doorstep, filled with some unnamed white liquid that’s most likely cum. Maybe that’s the plot, with Askwith clocking in to fuck bottles down at the factory. “Pick up the pace, you slacker!” “I’m shaggin’ as fast as I can! Me old ballbag’s dry as the Sahara!”

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The opening scene is a perfect encapsulation of the bygone world half of us were happy to see consigned to the toilet, while the other half spend their days lionising its penny sweets and casual racism in nostalgic Facebook posts. A bimbo secretary in leopard print adjusts her stockings, responding to concerns her short skirt might inflame the lads with a randy “Ooh, I hope so!” Then, a phonecall from an irate customer. “What’s she complaining about now?” asks Askwith. “Her tits!” replies his boss. I’d wager Vince Powell’s lightbulb moment of creating the show was realising the blue tits that peck at milk bottles, and tits that you find on a lady, are the same word, treating us to a mime of Askwith dipping his imaginary boobs into some milk.

It’s certainly a diverse workplace at Dawson’s Dairies. First, there’s Joe, a black bloke as written by a white man, whose every action serves to highlight his race. When they bring booze to a stag do, he’s got Trinidadian rum; when he talks about his mate, it’s “Clyde from the Caribbean Club”; as they scoff their lunchboxes on break, he’s got got curried salt-fish sandwiches. There’s also a thick one who’s a sort-of teddy boy; a nondescript fella; and Stan, the Welsh boss played by Please Sir‘s Richard Davies, who calls everyone “boyo” and uses “Llangollen!” as a swear. Most egregious of all is the Scots character called — with incredible invention — Jock. The comedy drunk is not a new stereotype, but never before or since has it been played so ruthlessly. Permanently paralytic, he’s either slumped or staggering, forever on the verge of a vomit, with every line of dialogue a slurred and desperate demand for more booze. In comparison, Russ Abbot’s violent ginger CU Jimmy seems a sensitive, rounded portrayal of the modern Scot.

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If the intention was to create a sitcom that replicated the unfunny, boorish banter of the workplace, then in that respect alone, Bottle Boys is a success. Much of its ‘action’ takes place in the break room, where pornography is taped to the outside of their lockers, in scenes of bants entirely unrelated to the plot. One long, jokeless section exists solely as a mouthpiece for the writer’s politics, in a series of digs at Labour politician, Tony Benn, who at the time was being maligned in The Sun for his support of the Miner’s Strike. They bemoan how much money he’s got, the silver spoon in his mouth, and how much of a leftie he is. “Left of centre? He’s left of left!” rages Askwith. Benn used to be right honourable, but “you ask me, he’s a right berk!” later adding, “he’s bloody barmy!” What a shock to realise the brain behind Mind Your Language is a Tory.

The story proper gets underway with Welsh Stan complaining that he had to advertise for a “milkperson” at the job centre, and only had one applicant. Will he be starting tomorrow? “No, but she will!” Shock horror, the thought of a milko with milkers has the lads fuming, with Askwith delivering the kind of scathing rebuke you see from people who spend their days signing online petitions to have all the black people removed from Star Wars. “Why don’t they call Manchester ‘Personchester’?” or the song “My Old Person’s a Dustperson!” or in a joke which doesn’t land at all, and is really reaching “listening to the singing strings of Person-tovany!” We’re clearly supposed to be on his side, as he rants on the madness of “emancipation gone mad! Or should I say, eperson-cipation!

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It would be unfair of me to mark all the women of Bottle Boys as giggling dollybirds, as Askwith finds out when he queue-jumps at the pub, apologising with a “sorry, love,” and getting “I’m not your love” in return, from a stern, bespectacled feminist, played by a young Pat Butcher. Existing as an analogue for the writer’s obvious feelings about bra-burning lesbians who don’t let you call them ‘love’ (“a four letter word, apparently”), she tells him he’s a chauvinist before storming out with a “Men!” Incidentally, this scene contains the rare appearance of an actual joke. “What’s the difference between an egg and a bit of nookie? You can’t beat a bit of nookie!” Great.

The next day, the new milkperson arrives, and shock of shocks, it’s Pat Butcher. Though not their superior, she lays down the law, which is “no smoking, no drinking, no swearing or filthy talk, and no sexist posters!” and tearing down the porn. She changes the break room into a cosy space, with floral furniture, matching curtains and carpet, and pink scatter cushions. The old mugs are binned, replaced with dainty bone china cups and saucers, and the men have to take their shoes off. “What’d you think this is,” fumes Askwith, “a mosque?!

Desperate to get rid, they formulate a plan utilising the dairy’s policy banning husbands and wives from working together. Drawing the short straw, Askwith has to propose marriage (it’s assumed she’ll happily accept), and once she’s gotten the boot, he’ll break off the engagement. Of course, as a dullard chauvinist’s idea of what a feminist is, all her spirited self-reliance and empowered ideals are just the symptom of needing a ruddy good seeing to. At the slightest interest from a man, Pat becomes overtaken with lust, taking off her glasses and pawing at his “young and vital” body. She immediately accepts his proposal, before pinning him down for the big, laugh-getting kiss. Now engaged, Askwith breaks the news to Welsh Stan, who first checks the lad hasn’t “gone all funny” and proposed to another fella, before firing him instead — “she’s not going, boyo, you are!

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Drowning his sorrows at the pub, the jubilant lads all show up, with the great news that Pat’s quit. Once Askwith got fired, they told her the truth, “and she said she wouldn’t work where she wasn’t wanted.” There’s a huge cheer at his reinstatement, and thankfully, nobody who mattered (a man) got hurt in the process. Though she does get a modicum of payback, re-entering as the flinty feminist to call him a “despicable little man,” and pour a pint on his head, in the only time-accepted way for women to ever get revenge on a bloke. “Have one on me!” Classic Pat!

A mere three episodes later, series one closer, Here Comes The Groom, again revolves around Askwith’s sudden engagement, this time to dairy secretary Sharon. With no suggestion of romantic feeling up to this point, the pair suddenly decide they’re in love, to be married on the morrow. This manifests in that awful sitcom way, all sickly hand-clutching and staring into each other’s eyes, with faux-Shakespearean declarations of love and babyish pet names. Promising he wouldn’t drink on his stag night, Askwith gets bantered into it by the lads, and ends up hungover in Luton, having to race back to London on a stolen postperson’s bike, in hopes of making it to the registry office.

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Here Comes the Groom does at least introduce more female characters, like Sharon’s mum, watching Corrie with her hair in curlers, and leaving the front door wide open in the hopes of being sexually assaulted by passing rapists. No, really. Sharon’s best mate shows up too, played by former page 3 girl Candy Davis, who starred in various comedies of the time as a big-knockered dollybird. He makes it to the wedding in the nick of time, but stinking of booze, so Sharon hits him with flowers and calls it off. But he doesn’t want to let let a good honeymoon go to waste, taking Sharon’s mate instead, for a weekend of the old nookie.

But lads are not made by shagging alone, and we must also consider the importance of footie. Bottle Boys‘ final episode, series two’s The Milk Cup Runneth Over, is an attempt at one of those ticking-clock farces, like John Cleese’s Clockwise, or that — absolutely genuine — episode of Eastenders where Shane Richie’s running around trying to buy condoms before a horny Kat changes her mind. Here, it’s a ticket for the Milk Cup clash between Chelsea and Arsenal that’s forever just out of reach, in ways I can’t be bothered to explain, but which takes in hooligans, scalpers, not wanting to sit next to his black friend (for some reason), and an actual use of the phrase “you’re asking for a knuckle sandwich, my son!

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Each episode is astonishingly unfunny, at a subterranean level quite unlike anything I’ve witnessed before. “I had so much ham, it’s a wonder I didn’t start to look like a pig!” is an actual joke on television, with a pause for audience laughter and everything. In another, Askwith treads on Stan’s pen, breaking it. “I’ve had that pen for years” — “Lucky it wasn’t a new one!” Though there are precious few pop culture references, such as comparing the black guy to Sidney Poitier, there’s a pandering mention of Return of the Jedi, where Askwith strained his groin at the sight of Princess Leia, though a line about “Jabba the Hutt’s knee” suggests the writer hasn’t seen it. Biggest audience reaction, by a mile, comes with Askwith trying to finish his round early, cuing footage of a milk float driving in double-quick Benny Hill time, to shrieks of laughter so wild, they almost blew out my speakers.

In place of jokes, there’s an end-of-the-pier Tarantino feel, with long scenes of unrelated group chit-chat, but writer Vince Powell has all the ear for dialogue of the cop from Reservoir Dogs. While it’s certainly not a funny show, it is an oddly realistic portrayal of the male workplace. I love the Carry Ons, and their constant double-entendres with linguistic utility player ‘it‘, but in Bottle Boys‘ sex-obsessed world, literally everything anyone says is immediately taken to mean something dirty, and an elderly man can’t even sit on a stool without Askwith loudly announcing “he’s gonna get his leg over!” These are men who’ve worn their dicks down to nothing, constantly wanking, thrusting, and pumping away, obsessed with bums and boobies and willies, and having it off with a nice piece of crumpet. Unsurprisingly, Powell’s CV contains the providing of jokes to Carry On Emmannuelle.

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Though I’m sure he was just aiming for laughs, the portrayal of women is a brutal snapshot of 80’s male attitudes to gender dynamics. Askwith’s groin strain goes untreated when his regular doctor’s off, and he has to see his partner. “What did he say?” Enquires his colleague, who’s firmly corrected by Askwith — “It. It was a she.” It. Not just a way to infer intercourse, but a descriptor of women too; barely human beings. When his mate’s preparing for a big date, Askwith says “so it’ll be that big fat bird down the fish shop then?” and in describing Pat Butcher, “I wouldn’t say she was pretty and I wouldn’t say she was ugly. I’d say she was pretty ugly.” The only female regular, Eve Ferret’s Sharon the secretary, is a sex-starved airhead, typing slowly with a single finger, and doing stretching exercises into camera to “improve my bust.” Now that’s a real woman, right lads?

Obviously when you’re revisiting old shows like this, you have to look at things in the context of the time. Comedy evolves along with everything else, and all the ‘problematic’ stuff stands out as more jarring in hindsight than it would have when it was first shown. Feigning shock at old comedy which turned out to be a bit sexist is not particularly insightful. However, one thing that’s truly shocking is that Bottle Boys isn’t the 70’s comedy it seems, with its first episode airing some months after The Young Ones had already shown its last, in 1984. There’s a feel that it’s a show both kicking against the wave of alternative comedy and “eperson-cipation,” while simultaneously aware it was being helplessly swept underneath. That said, Vince Powell did go onto create Never The Twain, giving the world the finest character name ever conceived; and great fun to sing in the tune of Eleanor Rigby; Oliver Smallbridge.

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Incredibly, Bottle Boys is far worse than Richard Blackwood will tell you, after he’s seen five seconds of it on C5’s Britain’s Most Manky Old Telly. More than just the outdated sexism, racism, and frankly preposterous level of unfunniness, the performances are truly dreadful. I do consider Robin Askwith a national treasure, but he’s lumbered with a turd of a script, and lengthy takes that leave everyone pausing to remember lines, or stumbling through mistakes to avoid another run-through. The main indicator of its chronic badness is just how easy it is to picture Jim Davidson slotted into the role instead.

With these things, I always ask myself if it raised a genuine laugh. Yes, it did. A hearty one, thanks to the almost-too-on-the-nose continuity announcement over the end credits, informing viewers that Robin Askwith is currently appearing in Run For Your Wife at the Criterion Theatre in London. But as we learned with the Grumbleweeds, no matter how dreadful a thing, or how many years have passed since it was relevant, there’ll always be an audience. Those asking “who would laugh at this?” need only look at the comment sections on Youtube. While Bottle Boys has sparse views, a couple of people have taken time out to share their thoughts on one cast member.

Eve Ferret’s bra cups runneth over…

Eve Ferrett had a great 44 inch set.

But I’ll leave you with the most confusing comment I’ve ever seen, regarding the cultural legacy of Bottle Boys.

not as good as Home James but better than The Young Ones etc

Jim? Is that you?

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.

Britain’s Strongest Man 1979

•December 29, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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Some images are so overloaded with festive sense-memory that a mere whiff, no matter the time of year, sends you tumbling through a blur of green and red, back to the Christmases of yore. Victorians skating on frozen ponds on the front of a biscuit tin; a Radio Times so thick, you could concuss an elephant with it; and in particular for those who grew up in 80’s Britain, great big fellas with red faces pulling an aeroplane with a rope. Traditional Christmas viewing for decades, modern World’s Strongest Man is a proper legislated sport, with rules, records, and safety measures, but its place as a seasonal stalwart had to begin somewhere. That somewhere, at 1979’s inaugural Britain’s Strongest Man, was Woking Leisure Centre, in a bizarre television curio that mashed up a school sports day dads’ race, BBC’s Superstars, and Indoor League on six big dinners.

Like all the best finds, surviving footage is ripped from a VHS tape of truly appalling quality, with wobbling scan-lines, frequent dropouts to black, and a constant crackle in the left speaker — this is hauntological heaven. The live audience is mostly kids, all with frightening late-70’s haircuts done by mum in the kitchen chair, groups of cub scouts in uniforms, and older youths in donkey jackets who look like they just got sprung from borstal after bashing up a newsagent. The fashions and wide-eyed appreciation at a day’s cheap entertainment gives me visceral childhood flashbacks to jumble sales in smelly church halls, and rough boys from juniors who warned you that their brother knew the Devil.

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Shown on Thames Television over three nights, Britain’s Strongest Man 1979 was presented by Derek Hobson, host of ITV’s New Faces, following the popularity of the newly-formed World’s Strongest Man, which made its debut in the US two years earlier. I always check the credits of these things, and must note the name of director, Bob Service, which sounds like a Bob Mortimer creation. “More than 2,000lbs of flesh and muscle,” contestants are introduced as “eight modern gladiators,” heralded by a dirge of circus music, and led into the gym by fire-breathing ‘circus strongman,’ Gunga Din, aka some white bloke in an Ali Baba turban.

Just like Bloodsport, there were no qualifiers, and contestants come by way of invitation. There’s a couple of highland games competitors, a weightlifter, hammer thrower, and a powerlifter who looks like an inflated Kevin Keegan. My personal favourite is the phenomenally named Tosher Killingback, a lorry driver from Surrey, whose only qualification seems to be a drunken bet, referred to in commentary like local pub legend, that saw him pull a 3-ton truck half a mile. A trucker named Killingback should be going mad with a hammer in a grindhouse flick, and with sideboards like a nest of spiders, spaghetti arms and a beer belly, I’ve not got high hopes for his chances.

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In fact, much of the field would struggle in today’s notion of an athletic contest. While each has credentials in strength-related endeavours, two are PE teachers on the side, and one’s a town planner. Pat Roach is in by qualification of being a wrestler, but carries the kind of soft physique you’d never see on television these days, in a culture where even weathermen have to be jacked before they’re allowed onscreen. Reminiscent of those first UFCs, full of toothless bikers and mulleted karate guys, this is a line-up of part timers, who all look how men looked in 1979; that is, old as fuck. Bill Anderson, former world caber tossing champion, is 41, but legitimately could be 65, like those black and white photos of child miners, with haunted faces simultaneously eight and fifty years old all at once.

The one stand-out is Geoff Capes. Only 29 here, the young Capes resembles Hercules, with a thick beard and thicker body, stuffed into a dark singlet over a red top, like Desperate Dan. Capes demonstrates the classic strongman shape, before they evolved from the fatty type to more ripped creatures like Mariusz Pudzianowski, eventually settling into a kind of mid-point between the two. This show is Capes’ ascension, soon to become a national icon, and dominating his opponents by finishing first in 8 out of the 12 events. Although such was his amateur status at the time, he wasn’t allowed to keep the prize money, which had to be stuffed in the coffers of his athletic club.

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Appearing throughout to introduce each round with a brief skit, is Barbara Windsor. In her forties with Sid Justice hair, and still playing her Carry On character, every moment she’s not reciting the script, she’s completely dead behind the eyes. Babs’ introduction sees her yelling “ta-ra!” at the top of her lungs while tottering across frame to backstage, where she’s going to “warm up the competitors,” basically inferring she’ll be cranking on their willies like someone starting an old car. Babs’ duties include both physical humour — a comedy trouser-split sound when bending to lift a car — and the dishing out of puns, e.g., following a barrel event, “we’ve rolled out the barrel!” or “I do feel tired!” while hiding inside a stack of tires. There’s much flirtation, getting Roach to demonstrate his favourite hold “the rummage and bump,” and asking another contestant about his big muscles. “Well,” he replies “just like you (or more specifically, your knockers), they grew and they grew and they grew.” The constant allusions to tiny Babs hornily eyeing up the massive hunks makes me uncomfortable, and for some reason, puts me in mind of one of those troll dolls sitting on the top of a pencil.

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The first event, the barrel lift, demonstrates the newness of a thing where nobody knows what they’re doing, with no established techniques, and everyone muddling through. You’ll see no gloves or knee wraps, no chalk to help the grip, or thick weightlifters belts to protect their spines. Everyone lifts with their back and not their knees, and when they’re done, competitors clumsily chuck the heavy items onto the floor, leaping clear before a foot gets crushed. Truly, this is strongman in its purest form; a load of dads egging each other on to pick up something heavy before one of them puts his back out.

Hobson invokes the Samsons of ancient myth, bragging of the show as a series of strength tests specifically devised to finally answer the question of who’s strongest out of a caber tosser and a wrestler, or a bodybuilder and a truck driver, effectively, inventing the MMA of lifting things. His commentary is full of weird trivia, like how the hammer thrower and his mates once lifted a Volkswagen Golf onto their shoulders, or that one contestant holds the world hod carrying championship, with 52 bricks up a 15 foot ladder. There are sporadic interludes with demonstrations by Gunga Din, bending iron bars with his windpipe, and raising all the strongmen about half a inch in the air with his feet while they’re sat on a big plank.

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The circus feel is evidence with the contests, like the race to bend iron bars over the back of their necks and top of their heads, while making horrible noises; faces beet-red and teeth clenched to the brink of shattering. As I’ve written before, there’s a real naked level of exposure about strongmen, in the facial expressions and sounds they make when pushed to the absolute limits of physical capability; unguarded moments of relinquishing all self-control, right up there with doing a big shit or ejaculating all the cum out of your nob. I wouldn’t even want anyone to see me playing on my Xbox, with the weird habit of mashing my lips together during moments of concentration when I’m headshotting fools in Overwatch. Consequently, my workouts are a private act, as I couldn’t infect a gym with my grunts, which is the only thing that’s prevented me from being crowned World’s Strongest Man.

Evidently, 1979’s idea of a strongman never strays far from the end of the pier, with one event a two-minute race of tearing phonebooks in half. Presented with huge stacks, each man has their own technique in destroying the small pink directory of London E-K. Bill Anderson bisects them with the speed and violence of a sneeze; weightlifter Andy Drzewiecki, as though it’s the Dear John letter from a wife who’s been sleeping with his brother; Pat Roach snapping them over his knee and twisting; and Tosher, poor old Tosher, just struggling to do one. Most Generation Game of all, is the contest to see who can lift the most bricks, when balanced in a long line between the palms of their hands, which feels like something played by men on a construction sites who’ve grown bored of popping to the portaloo for quick a tommy tank over a Sun double-spread of Vicki Michelle.

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The most classic strongman occurs when we head outside for the truck pull. Almost three tons of British Leyland, loaded with “four lovely ladies” clinging to the wing mirrors, the lads have to pull it 100ft uphill. Roped to their backs via a harness, they struggle forwards with the slow, flailing gait of Frankenstein’s monster reaching for a frightened villager. Bent and buckled into camera, giving us a look at their comb-overs and bald spots, enormous men are reduced to toddler-like crawls, inching up the concrete in tiny stutter-steps. Tosher can’t get it moving. Pat Roach’s shoes come off. He finishes in bare feet, under encouragement of “Come on, Pat!” from the dolly birds as they hang off the truck, wearing black knickers under stockings, with an assembled crowd of cold-looking kids and old ladies in coke-bottle glasses and thick overcoats.

The rest of the show has the feel of PE, with the lads scuffing around an echoing, squeaky-floored gym, or sat on a little bench affixed to the bare brick of the wall, like they’re waiting to be picked for shirts vs. skins 5-a-side. Lumbering bodies twirl in dainty spins for the tire toss, and by the time they announce the wheelbarrow race, you’re half expecting Pat Roach to grab Killingback’s ankles, with the winners getting a mini Mars Bar and no homework. Though it’s actual wheelbarrows crammed with weights, it’s no less frenetic, bombing to the finish at full sprint about six seconds after the elderly referee’s done firing his starting pistol directly into the audience. Anyone in the path of the wheelbarrows as they smash into the far wall would have been killed, and the day’s most anxious moment comes as Big Kevin Keegan loses control with a wild 180 spin off track, very nearly pulping the attendant dollybirds into a sexy pâté. Tosher though, is left wobbling and stuck at the very back.

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We wouldn’t see the like of Tosher’s poor performance again until bodybuilder Curtis Leffler’s spectacularly dreadful turn in the heats of 1995’s World’s Strongest Man. Leffler’s shredded physique, with 3% bodyfat and noodle-veined vascularity, stood in marked contrast to the barrel-shaped beef boys. Yet, dehydrated from cutting weight for a bodybuilding contest 2 days before, and thrown straight into 100-degree temperatures in the Bahamas, his show-muscles could barely wangle a single piece of equipment, leading to a humiliating series of dead lasts. Although, Tosher looks more likely to have seen the inside of a hitchhiker’s skull after it’s been pried apart with a paint scraper than the inside of a gym.

The third and final episode begins with Hobson kissing Babs on the end of the nose, appropriately leading into the most 1970’s test of what it is to be a man, with the literally-named Girl Lift. A long steel beam filled with concrete is straddled by an increasing number of knickers-and-heels clad lovely girls, which may sound erotic, but is most dangerous apparatus so far, with no rack, and just a piece of foam rubber squashed between the bar and the strongmen’s bodies. Even though they’ve only to raise the girls about an inch off the stand, bent-double contestants are forced to lift with their backs, in a way that workplace health and safety videos have been rallying against for decades.

“How’d you end up in the wheelchair, grandpa?”

“Well, there were about a dozen girls. Lovely they were, all in their knickers…”

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More and more girls get added, starting with six — too much for Tosher — and then eight, squealing with nervousness as the beam bucks and tips. Once ten girls are positioned on the bar, Hobson informs us that’s the weight of two grand pianos, finally confirming the conversion rate as one grand piano to every five girls. That’s going to save me so much admin in my everyday life, for reasons I’m not willing to discuss. Though for your own equations, do remember, those are girls without the weight of any trousers. Anyway, even Capes can’t manage ten girls, and Big Kevin Keegan takes it.

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The variety hobbles towards its natural conclusion, with an actual test your strength machine from a funfair. Are those accurate to a professional level?! Bring out a coconut shy or a love tester, then Tosher could finally get on the scoreboard for being “hot and horny!” While you’d think a trucker called Killingback would be good at hitting something with a hammer, perhaps unsurprisingly for such a carny event, wrestler and ex-fairground booth boxer Pat Roach finally finds something he’s good at. But by the final event, Capes has utterly dominated, setting up a tug of war between the top four that’s mostly for pride. Like many of the boy scouts who saw Barbara Windsor up close that day, the first round losers will “tug for third place.

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A roaring, bear-like Capes yanks his victim across the floor in seconds, before, much like those who watched the aerobics scene in Carry On Camping, there’s “the pull-off for first and second.” In the final tug, it’s all Capes; it’s always been Capes. The final tally, with some weirdly specific decimals, has Capes with 98.16 points, ahead of second place’s Old Bill Anderson, at 55.83. Wrestling fans may be interested in ‘Bomber’ Pat Roach’s 7th placing, with a mere 12.75, while dead last, with a point and a half, my boy Tosher, who at least goes home with £300 prize money to spend on blueys and rope.

Capes’ congratulatory kiss from Babs and Waterford Crystal Glass trophy was merely the beginning of a storied career spent lifting really heavy shit above his head, going on to place third in 1980’s World’s Strongest Man, before taking the title twice, in ’83 and ’85. Such was his success, even in a niche pursuit like strongman, Capes became a regular face on the light entertainment circuit throughout the eighties, making life-long strongman fans of legions of British kids, including myself. I’d later go onto write about it as an adult, as spectator at a couple of small live events I definitely would have won, if I’d been willing to have people suffer through my spaff-face.

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So too, following combat at Woking Leisure Centre, the sport of strongmen went from literal strength to strength, with Britain’s Strongest Man continuing to this day. 1982’s contest was co-presented by Geoff Capes and Dave Lee Travis, and though I’ve not seen it, I imagine the Girl Lift was very prominent. Personally, they should have stuck with the name from a brief mid-eighties rebranding as ‘Britain’s Most Powerful Man’. If I wasn’t already ‘Blogging’s Bad Boy,’ then ‘Britain’s Most Powerful Blogger’ would have a nice ring to it.

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

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A Kempmas Carol

•December 19, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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[click here for last year’s Christmas special — Jim Davidson’s adult panto]

A Christmas Carol must hold the record for the single most adapted piece of literature, with countless feature films and stage shows, and TV episodes borrowing the premise for Christmas specials. While many, particularly the most well-loved, pull their take straight from the page for that Victorian nostalgia of the id, Dickens’ moral fable is often updated for the modern era, demonstrating people’s ability to be miserly in a variety of settings. Aside from the classics, with Alastair Sim or Albert Finney dourly striding through 19th century cobbled streets, it’s been told with Muppets and Smurfs, Mr. Magoo and Fred Flintstone, and in a televised Carry On, with Sid James’ Scrooge battling Dr. Frankenstein and Dracula. Though the original Scrooge was a money-lender, he’ll sometimes be transposed into another self-centred profession, as in Bill Murray’s television executive, or in any one of the fifty Lifetime versions they seem to churn out every year, as some sort of evil cupcake magnate. How then, would ITV interpret the material, for their Christmas 2000 extravaganza, featuring the new, scowling face of the channel, Ross Kemp?

A man so round and smooth, he seems entirely made from buttocks, Kemp was aggressively poached from the BBC in 1999, in a 2-year deal reported at £1.2m. Viewed as the franchise player around which to build a channel, his early ITV output is… of a type. There’s Ultimate Force, where he starred as an SAS hardman, Without Motive, as a hardman police detective, and In Defence, a hardman barrister. Let’s examine, for a moment, the strange accepted wisdom of this hardness. Ross Kemp is not a trained fighter, nor can I recall ever seeing him throw a punch, outside of the comedy scuffles in Eastenders. He’s not jacked, with the stocky, potato-like build of a forklift driver who’d be out of breath after chasing a mugger down a single flight of stairs, and there’s not even a whisper of stories about behind the scenes hellraising. In fact, in a Christmas Carol scene where he raises a glass of lager in toast, it (unintentionally) goes fucking everywhere, dripping down his fingers at the edge of frame like he’s never held one before. This is assuredly a man who’s tucked up by 9pm with both hands well above the covers.

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Though he’s since proven himself in his Sky One shows, getting guns pulled on him in warzones without squeaking out even the tiniest fear-fart, 2000’s rep of this well-spoken drama-school boy was built purely on a bullish expression and bald head, at a time just before men started freely shaving them, when such a look was associated with thuggishness. It’s this reputation which ITV and Kemp were clearly unwilling to puncture, to the hilarious detriment of one of literature’s greatest classics. Consequently, the pitch for this sounds exactly like something from Alan Partridge’s dictaphone, when Dickens’ most famous creation is reborn as council estate lone shark, Eddie Scrooge.

The modern reimagining was thought up by Ross Kemp himself, back in his days as a drama student in 1980’s Peckham. While mucking out public toilets (“it was disgusting”) and walking amongst a council estate, “the idea of a contemporary version of A Christmas Carol came to mind, with Scrooge as a loan shark.” Eddie Scrooge was the role he’d been dreaming of for twenty years, and he’d pitched it to a BBC drama producer while still on Eastenders. When the producer jumped to ITV at the same time, they were able to get a greenlight. While he didn’t pen the screenplay, the initial treatment was written by Kemp, who described the 90-minute TV movie in an interview at the time as “the best thing I’ve ever done.”

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But the reason A Christmas Carol still resonates is because of its timeless message of hope, told through a simple structure, with much of its events taking place over a single night. It doesn’t matter if it’s a gender-swapped Edwina Scrooge, Year 3000 robot grump, E-B Screwz, or set in the sewers with surly anthropomorphised turd Ebenezer Poop; stick to the basic story, and it’s a can’t miss. Unless, say, you decide to toss that out, by plundering from an altogether different Bill Murray film.

It begins traditionally enough, with the choral strains of Silent Night, as the camera sweeps across the grey vista of a filthy tower block adorned in fairy lights. Then, the man we’ll come to know as Jacob Marley swaggers into a piss-stained lift. Thinking he’s being followed, he calls out into the darkness — “Eddie?” There’s nobody there. A gunshot rings out, as Eddie Scrooge lurches awake from his nightmare. Get used to that, as half the running time features Ross Kemp gasping into frame, like a great egg rearing down on you, with the rest, him waddling around carrying a massive TV.

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An introductory Christmas Eve walk amongst his community introduces us to A Kempmas Carol’s urban brutalism; the archetypal council estate described in The Sun articles about benefit scroungers and feral youths. This, you see, is a rough area, 90% comprised of graffiti-stained stairwells. Every inch, every surface, has been scribbled on by louts, beneath the loud, rhythmic clack of a nearby train track. Dickens’ urchins have been given a ‘chav’ makeover, racing round on stolen supermarket trolleys to vandalise shop windows. One bad-blud tears a decorative snowman down from a lamppost with a tea-towel wrapped around his head, like a bastardised Virgin Mary. As Kemp passes through, he raises a sneer at the carollers, catching the disapproving eye of Jacob Marley’s grieving mum, before a very subtle visual, where we follow the path of a single snowflake down from the sky and into her bucket, to lay among its feeble smattering of two and ten pence pieces.

Kemp’s the big man about town, a notorious money lender both taking advantage of and exacerbating the rampant poverty. He lives in a grotty underpass, in a padlocked, minimalist lair with a nuclear bunker aesthetic, where stark concrete walls are propped up by iron girders, all lit in post-apocalyptic near-dark shadows. Constantly shaking people down, he’s accompanied by Bob Cratchit, reimagined here as Scrooge’s snivelling accountant-cum-press-agent, on hand with a calculator or simpering word of encouragement to sobbing clients. Eddie’s repossessed your television? “There’s still books!

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The first of three regular customers is introduced via hard cut to Kemp growling “no cash, no telly!” as he unplugs the TV of a single mum with crying kids. Then there’s a man in desperate need of a ticket to Australia, to see his daughter “one last time,” to which Kemp offers him a £700 loan, to be paid back at £10 a week for 10 years, which by my (likely terrible) maths, is roughly 750% interest. But Scrooge could probably do with the cash, considering the finances on display when London’s most successful loan shark collects from sweet old lady, Liz Smith, counting out pennies with her arthritic fingers, but coming up short. “It’s £5, Joyce,” grunts Kemp, “like it always is.” All that hassle running around with Cratchit for a fiver?! Even in year 2000 money, they’re not clearing minimum wage. Kemp talks Smith’s husband into handing over the £2 he’d hidden in his sock, rather than saving it up for the stairlift they need. Don’t spent it all at once, Eddie.

In what’s soon to become a familiar sight, Kemp grimly struggles through town carrying an enormous old telly, before laughing at a woman who falls into a big pile of Christmas trees. Trailing behind, the single mother begs for compassion, unable to have a traditional Christmas without a TV. He responds by committing perhaps the most evil act of any of the Scrooges, by gleefully chucking it off the edge of the tower block and causing her to miss Noel’s Christmas Presents. Didn’t he take that so he could sell it? Also, after running it back half a dozen times to check, you can definitely hear the sound of the prop TV safely hitting the airbag half a second before the SFX of it smashing.

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Incidentally, every time somebody addresses Ross Kemp as “Mr. Scrooge,” which is a lot, it’s never not funny. This is a man who is forever, eternally, Ross Kemp, or at best, Grant Mitchell, especially in his Grant Mitchell outfit of baldy head and leather jacket. Incredibly, there was talk at the time, in that bastion of truth, Matthew Wright’s showbiz column, that he was considering hair plugs for the role, or even a ponytail “in a nice shade of tobacco yellow.” As often with his non-Eastenders acting work, he seems at constant war with his accents, with his real, posher voice constantly breaking through the cockney, like the sudden ‘help me’ of a possessed little girl who’s been growling like a demon. As if the general poor quality wasn’t clue enough, you’re constantly reminded it’s an ITV production with background cameos by their other shows, from the credit sting of Crossroads, to the dire Friday Night’s All Wright playing in his living room, and even The Raggy Dolls showing on a TV he’s repossessing. If it’d been shot two years later, while Mr. Scrooge was been cuffing an urchin round the ear, behind him through the window of Dixons, Ant and Dec would be retching as a cold pint of alligator cum spilled down the chin of Dean Gaffney.

But at this point, we’re following the traditional plot beats, with everything still in place. Cratchit asks for Christmas day off, Kemp chases some scabby-faced homeless teens from outside his front door, and rejects his policeman nephew’s invite for Christmas dinner; so far, so Scrooge. But then we start to get that extra ITV seasoning, like Kemp being angry at posters offering a reward for Jacob Marley’s murder, injecting a mystery into proceedings. Then they finally give us what that coward Dickens refused to; a horny Scrooge, as Kemp makes sex-eyes at a lady across the bar at the local. This, it turns out, is his ex, Bella, though she refuses his offer for a drink, and he storms out into the cold night at the approach of a conga line, turning back for a last wistful look.

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It’s Christmas Eve night, and as Scrooge heads home, we too know exactly where we’re going. After yelling at a Big Issue seller to “get a job!” Kemp experiences the first supernatural happenings, when one of Jacob’s posters says his name before catching fire. Soon, he’s hearing a clank of chains, and turns to see his dead friend standing in the kitchen. Unlike the great Marleys — Alec Guinness’ pale, ragged spectre, ravaged by his eternal torment; Scrooged‘s John Forsythe with a mouse coming out of his head – here, it’s a cockney in a football manager coat. As he must, he warns Kemp of three coming visitors, and urges him to change his ways. But he also seems to imply that Eddie Scrooge was behind his murder, adding a well-gritty subplot to an established classic to definitely make it better.

Flickering lights signal the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Past, who appears in the snowstorm static of Kemp’s television. Other than what a stone-cold banger it is, one thing that keeps me returning to this story is seeing how each version interprets the visual design of the ghosts. In the book, Past is a sort of angelic candle-man, and the most ethereal of the visitors; translucent and androgynous. And Eddie Scrooge’s spectral harbinger? Alf Garnett. Well, Warren Mitchell, playing Kemp’s dead dad, and punching his way through the screen before clambering out of the TV like that girl from The Ring, if she’d slipped on a Radio Times in her warden-assisted home.

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Daddy Scrooge walks Kemp to the scene of his mum’s funeral when he was a lad — huge missed opportunity not casting a bald child — where he berates his dad for not comforting him. He’s forced to watch Papa Scrooge’s bad-dadding, as a boozing, absent father, before being taken to the early days of he and Bella’s courtship. In that old romantic story, they met when he was chasing someone into the hospital she works at as a nurse to give them a kicking, and romanced her at the end of a night shift by setting up a posh table with champagne and flowers next to the bins. In another huge waste, they fail to put a wig on the younger Kemp, even as we flash forwards to her dumping him for being obsessed with money, as he proposes with a big sparkly ring. In one of many great/terrible witticisms of misanthropy, Kemp tells his dad “happy’s a painkiller for losers, and I ain’t a loser!” before he vanishes.

I did a quick Google to see if the lad playing the younger Kemp had gone onto greater things, but found only a 2012 news story about being jailed after committing burglary to fund his drug habit. No doubt from the shame of having this on his credits. Just watching, I personally developed a crippling ketamine addiction around twenty minutes in. As Kemp blames his visions on “bad cider from Rasheed,” we await the next visitor, yes? Nope. It’s Christmas Eve again, as he emerges into an identical re-run of the previous day. Did ITV okay a remake of “that Bill Murray film,” but someone’s wires got crossed? Kemp’s no worse off from his experience, getting an even bigger laugh at the lady falling into the trees, and having a whale of a time hoying the TV off the balcony again, while freaking everybody out by predicting what they’re going to say, and nonsensically threatening the Big Issue seller with “I’ll Big Issue you from one end of the road to the other!

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Possibly because it contains much of the hard nut aura, at no point does Eddie Scrooge take his leather jacket off. Not when he’s taunting no-showing ghosts with “come on then!” Not when he’s sleeping. He gasps himself awake from another nightmare about Jacob – who says “I was supposed to meet Eddie down here,” before getting capped by an offscreen shooter — to find the Ghost of Christmas Present laying beside him. Who have they cast to enact this iconic role? Geoff Capes? Big Ron in a glowing green tracksuit? An eight-feet-tall Zak Dingle? You wish. It’s Jacob Marley, again, wrapped in fairy lights and pulling double duty. To compound the laziness, he kicks off the Christmas Day ghost-tour with an actual “It’s showtime!

Jacob leads him through a series of festive tableaux to clunkily illustrate how he may be rich in fivers, but when it comes to love, he’s wearing a barrel held up with braces. Liz Smith sips sherry with her husband; the single mother plays with her kids; Australia-dad unwraps the present of a boomerang. In perhaps the only intentionally good moment, the latter’s called back to, with a fleeting appearance in a later hospital scene where he’s nursing a bloody nose, inferring the boomerang came back a little too hard. It’s the classic Christmas Present rounds for Scrooge, loitering at his nephew’s as he toasts “lonely old Uncle Eddie,” watching Tiny Tim wheeze with Cystic Fibrosis in hospital, and listening to Bella mope how he would have been the one, if he wasn’t so greedy. In one final scare, the two homeless show up as ghosts; a brother and sister who’ve just died from hypothermia, which must have taken them very suddenly.

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Kemp jerks awake again, now into his third consecutive Christmas Eve. Though he’s yet to meet the final ghost, he’s got a new attitude this time. Well, kind of. He does give Cratchit the week off, and gifts the single mother a video recorder, though with a yell of “IT’S A PRESENT, YOU STUPID LOSER!” And while he’s popping tenners into charity tins with a grin, he bundles one client to the ground, violently stuffing the unwanted payment in their mouth like Ted DiBiase. The eventual, inevitable face turn is sorely diluted by this weird half-turn, where he’s a bit less of a bastard, but not fully nice yet. I daresay the original would have lost some of the magic if Alastair Sim had bought the big turkey, only to yell “you’re as stupid as your son!” to the mother of a recent murder victim, as in this version. Anyway, then the woman falls into the trees again.

Up until now, my favourite badly-dated tech reference was that Busta Rhymes Knight Rider song where he’s “cruisin’ to the sound of my enhanced CD-ROM,” but Kemp finally bests it, when he shows up to hospital to give a gravely ill, unconscious Tiny Tim a football. He reassures Tim’s dumbfounded mum that “scientists are always coming up with new things, and now they’ve discovered DVD, disease could be a thing of the past!” But still Bella refuses to take him back, even after bragging of giving a “sick kiddie” some football boots, in a pre-courser to those inspiring viral videos of some ‘stay humble’ twat filming themselves buying a homeless person a meal, under the sound of Westlife’s You Raise Me Up.

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Speaking of homeless, in a copy of the bit from Groundhog Day where Bill Murray tries to save the tramp, Kemp displays his new-found Christian charity by aggressively grabbing the Big Issue seller and yelling “I NEED A WORD!” like he’s about to kick his head in, before embarking on a terrifying footchase. As the guy’s sister lays dying on the concrete, Kemp runs to the pub to get Bella, who performs fruitless CPR as Kemp berates the dying girl for not asking for help. They’re just lazy, aren’t they? She can’t even be bothered to come back to life as Kemp shakes her corpse while purple-faced screaming at it. Ironically, the ambulance wouldn’t come to the estate “without a police escort” because of the way he’s made things.

Incredibly, dragging her out of a pub to watch him scream at a fresh cadaver isn’t enough to win back Bella, and he returns to his bunker to see off Christmas Eve v3.0 alone. Jacob emerges from his fridge, now just appearing willy nilly, telling him he needs to make real amends, starting with the murder. Kemp confesses that, while he wasn’t the shooter, it was “Ricky Styles,” who he’d sent to shake down Jacob, but who went too far. “I hate being me,” says Scrooge, as Jacob disappears. Kemp makes a run for it, emptying his safe into a holdall, as a strange boy appears in the back seat of his car, and at last, on what’s now Christmas Day, the final ghost has come.

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The silent boy-ghost leads him down a wreckage-strewn underpass, into the hospital, where a nurse boxes up Tiny Tim’s things on an empty bed. A slow on the uptake Kemp asks “has Tim gone home?” Kind of? If home is a wormy grave. He’s forced to watch, wet-eyed, as the Cratchits mourn in the hospital chapel, with poor old Bob having found “a smashing spot” for the dead lad, leading to my favourite line, “vicar was a lovely bloke… he was bald, but very nice with it.” Ross Kemp had creative input, you say? Unfortunately, to top off the dead kid, Bob then gets the boot from his wife for choosing Eddie’s work over family, left to weep “what about me?” alone in the chapel.

Though we do get the classic scene of locals rifling through a car boot sale of tat from a mysterious unnamed figure who’s just died, we’re robbed the sight of Ross Kemp tumbling into his own grave, as his breaking point comes with slow motion screams of “Nooooo!” at a mound of dirt. A Christmas Carol has an odd kinship with revenge flicks like Last House on the Left and I Spit on Your Grave, where the audience rides out the main character’s horrible suffering, knowing it’s all leading to the moment the baddie’s penis gets a four-colour biro shoved up it. In Scrooge, we see a bloke acting the misery-arse for 90 minutes, but the worse he behaves, the more we enjoy that moment when he sees the light. So much of its power lies in the catharsis of the eventual turn.

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A Kempmas Carol’s anti-hero has no such release, nor any real catalyst for change, in fact, right before he’s pawing at his grave, he sees his ex and nephew together at the cemetery, and angrily assumes they must be fucking. There’s no revelatory moment; no hard cut to Ross Kemp dancing a child-like jig round the bedpost in sheer joy at being alive; no “Boy, what day is it?” I’d love to have seen them fully embrace it, but he merely jolts awake for the millionth time, and gives himself a little smile in the mirror. Seemingly just to keep his hard nut image strong, we’re left with a deflating mash-up of Dickens, Groundhog Day, and the terrible gangster stuff in Eastenders.

Finally a changed man, he goes out into… Christmas Day? Nope. Christmas Eve #4. He runs through the good deeds, buying Australia Dad a ticket, carrying the homeless girl into hospital (and looking like a big toughie lugging her in his arms), and stopping the woman falling into the trees. But even now, clearly worried that audiences will think “he looked a bit camp with all that being nice, didn’t he? Maybe he’s a woofter?” they can’t hold back the hardman stuff. He relieves Cratchit the stress of work, not with shorter hours or a raise, but by sacking him and chasing him off while yelling that he’s a useless idiot.

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He still hasn’t really changed, giving his nephew, a policeman, the name of Ricky Styles, even telling him where the killer keeps his gun, but not putting himself in the frame. He says he found a conscience in his stocking, though evidently not enough to turn himself in for conspiracy, or accessory to murder. The ghosts should be putting him through years of Christmas Eves until he learns, and hopefully he gets striped by the spectre of ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser for being a grass. But that’s only the beginning of his new-found charity, which becomes so ludicrous, it genre-hops into outright fantasy.

When Bob turns up at the hospital to break the news he’s been sacked, his wife says it doesn’t matter, as, in another brilliantly dated reference, they’ve won £50k on the premium bonds. Kemp somehow found time in the two hours since he woke to fake and send the letter himself, having it be delivered (during the post office’s busiest day) and the cheque not be from Eddie Scrooge’s personal NatWest account. Also surprising, is a man who runs around chasing fivers from old ladies and lives in a pissy underpass having a spare fifty grand.

That night, he sneaks into hospital to gently leave presents for the homeless brother and sister, who’re ADULT SIBLINGS SHARING A SINGLE HOSPITAL BED, curled up together asleep, in a moment that so ravaged my already Kemp-rotted brain, I had to take a fifteen minute break to regather myself. Bella catches him in the act, and they kiss and make-up, triggering an instant and violent blizzard.

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There must be serious festive magic in that snow, as evidenced by the final montage of Kemp’s Christmas Presents. A limo drives through the now-snow-covered estate, taking Australia-Dad to the airport (where the flight will surely be cancelled). The single mother awakes on Christmas morning to find piles of presents beneath the tree, including a new bike, which he must have had to break in to put there, and break into a shop to steal, considering he didn’t turn good until Christmas Eve night. He also found the time to break into Liz Smith’s house without her hearing and silently install two stairlifts. Say what you will about the beefy bastard, he must be light on his feet.

Now the kindest man in all of Olde London Towne, he takes Bella to lunch at his nephew’s, but it’s a nut roast as they are vegetarians ha ha; imagine tough old Ross Kemp having to eat poofy weedy old nuts and not tearing raw meat from the bone with his teeth and slathering the blood all over his big bald head until it resembles the doorknob to the underworld. Anyway, it ends with a flash-forward, with Kemp in studious spectacles to denote aging, seeing as they can’t make him grey or balder, as he and Bella mug to an unseen cameraman while slipping about on an ice rink. ‘They’ put the camera down, stepping into frame to reveal it’s their son, the Ghost of Christmas Future, and smile for a family portrait. Clearly, he didn’t do prison time for Jacob’s murder, and the lesson of Dickens’ morality play as interpreted by ITV, is that rich white men can buy their way out of any crime. A timeless story indeed.

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It’s all well and good me sat here sneering for clicks, but A Kempmas Carol attracted an audience of 9 million, and is seemingly incredibly well-remembered. Though the single, unanswered question on IMDB’s FAQ is a rather pointed “Why is Ross Kemp in an adaptation of A Christmas Carol?” the user reviews are a litany of 10/10s. “Amazing,” says one viewer, “This version is a must!!!” Another invites jealous burglars with a brag of “I managed to get a hold of a VHS copy and treasure it.” And witness this comment from an American viewer: “I just happened to click on one of the local public stations out of Long Island and immediately became transfixed.” They don’t make ’em like Kemp over there. Imagine The Rock if he was an uncooked sausage.

Tragically, it’s not available on Amazon as a DVD or Blu-ray, with no videogame adaptation or action figures, but there is an extensive range of Ross Kemp merchandise, including key-rings, coasters, and a lovely wall clock. I shouldn’t mock. For a recent birthday birthday, in my role as a terrible disappointing son, I made this for my mum (a diehard Kemp fan).

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If the Patreon subs don’t pick up soon, I might have to open an Etsy store, so get your orders in early for next year, and we’ll all have a very Merry Kempmas!

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.

Very Special Episodes – Fonzie Goes Blind

•December 9, 2018 • Leave a Comment

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[click here for another Very Special Episode]

Trope-wise, Happy Days has been very generous, giving us the phrases Jump the Shark, and Chuck Cunningham Syndrome, named for the sudden, unspoken disappearance of Richie’s older brother. It also popularised the way a show’s wacky nice-guy character will always refer to ‘grown-ups’ by the initial of their surname, “Eyy, Mr. C!” That last one’s hugely popular with British soaps, with at least one “Alright, Mrs. S?” chap in the cast at all times. But while Happy Days is remembered for its quintessential coming-of-age Americana, a cursory look through the synopsis of its 255 episodes reveals it to be way dumber than anyone gives it credit for. There’s one where Fonzie stages his own funeral to escape from local hoodlum ‘The Candyman,’ a Halloween special where the gang perform an exorcism on Al, who believes he’s been cursed, and a dream episode where Fonzie has to win back Chachi’s soul from the Devil’s nephew. 1978’s Fonzie’s Blindness, as suggested by the title, is on the more dramatic end of the super dumb.

Entering the diner to the big Kramer reaction, Fonzie’s not seen by Al, who accidentally catches him very lightly on the head with a tray. It’s a glancing blow which doesn’t connect hard enough to stun a fly, and one of those really thin diner trays that you couldn’t hurt someone with if you tried. Maybe if you stuffed it all the way up their arse, but certainly not from hitting them with it. Keeping in mind, Fonzie’s defining characteristic is being a leather jacket-wearing toughie, this ‘accident’ doesn’t get a laugh, with an audience hush that’s very disconcerting, to cue us in that this no mere slapstick, but a Very Special Episode.

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The entire diner gasps, rushing over to check on Fonzie, who assures them everything’s cool, all the while staggering around on bandy-legs, with pleas to “give him some air,” as though he’s been run over by an elephant. Al can’t stop apologising, everyone open-mouthed in shock, again, at a glancing blow by a tray. Fonzie addresses Richie by looking entirely in the wrong direction, and then misses his chair and almost ends up sat on the floor. “I ain’t goin’ to see no doctor,” he says, until grabbing at what he thinks is a hot girl but is actually Al.

When Fonzie returns to the Cunninghams, he’s wearing sunglasses and feeling his way inside, but he’s still the cocky Fonz we know and love. It’s a different story the next morning, when a happy go lucky Richie, splayed backwards on a chair like A.C. Slater, can’t rouse a downcast Fonzie into breakfast. “I’m not hungry”, he says, before begging Richie not to leave him alone.

Richie: “Why not?

Fonzie: “I’m scared.

This very un-Fonz admission cues a dramatic soundtrack, and the slow removal of sunglasses with a long zoom to inform us “Richie… I’m blind.” Fonzie must have a papier mache skull, because I’ve hit my head harder putting on a woolly hat. The tray’s such a throwaway choice for a character who’s entire persona is that he’s cool. No offscreen motorcycle accident, or retina-popping make-out session with a hot chick? No heroically pushing a little kid from the path of a speeding hotrod? Other shows have used temporary blindness in a much more exciting way. Murdoch got powder burn from a terrorist’s gun in The A-Team, while Hawkeye from MASH had a boiler explode in his face. Even getting perfume sprayed in his eyes, like the WWF’s Jake the Snake during his feud with Rick Martel, would have been a more fitting end than a little boink with a tray.

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Fonz’s condition is given the medical term of Optic Neuritis, which is a real thing involving inflammation of the optic nerve, also occuring as a plot device in Dickens’ Bleak House and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It’s generally caused by MS, but can result after ‘cerebral trauma’, in this case, having someone tap you with a metal tray with all the force of a sneezing ant. Determined to keep things normal, Richie announces to the applause of a packed diner that Fonzie’s on his way. Their faces drop when they see the once-mighty hunk gingerly feeling his way around the walls and folornly gazing off into the middle-distance, robbed of his mystique. This whole section is a brilliant example of the cloying way chucklefuck sitcoms deal with the invasion of disability into their worlds, where every character immediately turns into Ricky Gervais in, well, everything he does, all patronising over-help and “Oh God, a wheelchair, better lay on the floor in front of it, or they’ll be upset by my working legs!

Richie takes him to his regular booth for a drink, where there’s an actual laugh to be had at feeling Al’s face, and confirming it’s him upon grabbing his massive hooter. But now it’s all about that Gervaisian awkwardness, with Richie super patronising, and Ralph Malph and Potsie nervously gibbering a bunch of sighted-people talk. Though perhaps the question “you see the new Playboy centrefold?” results in cringing, not because he’s blind, but in the sudden realisation that a highschool kid is asking a man in his 30s if he popped a nice big stiffy. The entire diner goads him into doing the jukebox bit, with Richie yelling “he’s gonna do it!” and a huge crowd cheering him on… as he accidentally hits Al instead. Lucky he used his fist and didn’t do the hip-thrust, or poor Al’s hole would be in for a rough old time. “Fonz, it’s been half an hour, just stop…” “Eyyy!

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The whole episode seems designed to destroy Fonz’s image as the World’s Coolest Man, blindly fumbling his way through the sea of people in a panic, and screaming Richie’s name while he pulls things over, like a greaser Baby Jane. During dinner at the Cunninghams, Fonz explains all food tastes the same when you’re blind anyway, in a seeming reverse of the old enhanced-senses deal. “I’m deaf now too. And I cum diarrhoea. Eyyy!” In a scene which becomes even weirder in hindsight (see the end of the episode), Richie literally screams at Fonzie’s pitiful requests for help in passing the salt or buttering his rolls. They’ve arranged his food in a specific pattern on the plate — vegetables at 10 o’clock, meat at 2 o’clock, potatoes at 6 — and by this point, it’s accepted that Fonzie is blind for life. This may have worked in a longer show, but we’re halfway through a 20-minute episode, and cutting straight from Fonzie’s anxiety attack at the diner, making Richie seem psychotic; the kind of man who’d berate a child trapped beneath the wheels of a cement truck for being late for school. The scene closes on Richie’s explosion of anger.

     “Help me! Salt me! Pick up my fork! Fonzie, I never thought I’d say this to you, but you’re a coward!

     “I’m useless! I’m blind!” yells Fonzie, smashing a jug, and leaving Winkler’s face and leathers dripping with milk, in an image begging to have the Brazzers logo pasted into the corner.

     “You may be blind, but it’s your decision to be useless!” Richie then does a dramatic flailing run out of the room.

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Fonzie’s next seen laying on the bed, having Joanie describe the funny pages to him, before Richie shows up to stop him being such a big baby, which he does by having Ralph and Potsie dump the pieces of Fonzie’s beloved, now-destroyed motorcycle on the floor before scarpering. “I hate your guts, Cunningham!” yells Fonz, while Richie bravely watches through the safety of the window, at his buddy’s full-on breakdown, gesturing at the sky with a pained cry of “How could you do this to me? I thought I was your favourite person!” It’s not clear if he’s aiming that at Richie or God, before symbolically smashing his fists into his eyes and collapsing back onto the bed, in an image more suited to an allegorical European art film about a poverty-stricken farmer suffering the trials of Job than the show which brought the world Scott Baio.

Though there are nowhere near enough pieces to build a full bike, we of course cut to Fonzie, still blind, sat astride the rebuilt and polished vehicle. He thanks Richie for the tough love, and has him hand over the leather jacket, so he can become symbolically become the old Fonzie again. There are plenty of organisations in Milwaukee that can help, says Rich, and maybe he can get “a seeing-eye chick.” Incidentally, now a blind man’s got to get a motorbike down a flight of stairs. And what’s he going to do with it anyway, swap it for some Playboys on audiobook? “She’s got her knockers out. And her muff. You can sorta see the side of her butt too.

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In the final scene, clearly some some weeks have passed; even months, as Mrs. C talks up how well ‘Arthur’ has been getting on with his cane and “blindness instructor.” So Fonzie’s definitely blind for life now, I guess? Richie grossly jokes about all the making-out Fonz has missed out on, and that they’ve closed off the local fingering spot so he can catch up. Enter Fonzie, dramatically tossing his white stick into the umbrella stand and making a point to tell Joanie “I think pink looks very good on you.” Well, how about that? So what brought on this 11th hour miracle cure? Expensive, experimental surgery? The realisation it was purely psychosomatic? Even better, according to Fonzie, he went to a doctor who “started playing with my eyes,” and suddenly he could see. Oh that’s very specific and fast. Jolly good. He thanks everybody, and tells them how hard it’s been “when you’ve been in darkness like I have for a week…

A WEEK?! So, when Richie was yelling at him over dinner, he’d only been blind for a day? Jesus. Twenty-four hours, and he spends his first sit-down meal as a blind man being screamed at for his cowardice. If this is how people behaved in the sixties, maybe we really are Generation Snowflake. Despite the fast and thoughtless tying of loose-ends, it’s a shame they didn’t stick with it for a while. Imagine Fonzie with a growling seeing-eye dog in a studded collar, or identifying girls by feeling their pointy 1950’s boobs. I’m going to stop there, as when Googling this episode, I discovered that someone wrote fanfic of an alternative version, and I don’t make nearly enough buck to get into that.

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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