The Accursed 90s: Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush

•September 5, 2019 • 1 Comment

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[previously in the accursed 90s: Televised Lad Contests]

When last we saw Chris Evans, he’d been wahey-ing all over the Big Breakfast cottage, before growing too big for the show, both in fame and ego, and leaving to pursue solo ventures. His first breakout effort, screwball gameshow Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, resided in a post-watershed slot, unbeholden to the restrictions of breakfast television. Toothbrush almost didn’t make it to air, following two disastrous pilots, but went on to a pretty successful two-year run in Channel 4’s Saturday night slot. Though there were 26 episodes, scant few remain in 2019, outside of those sat in forgotten boxes in lofts, crammed alongside VHS tapes of The Brittas Empire, and all of Jet’s bits in Gladiators with ‘DAD’S SPECIAL TAPE, DO NOT WIPE’ scrawled on the label.

Toothbrush is definitely not gonna be repeated, hailing from perhaps the most culturally problematic era of them all. What the Ghost of Christmas Present is to the Yuletide season, so too Chris Evans is the embodied spirit of the 90s, with his tabloid-style positioning of women as hot babes to be yelling “phwoar!” at as much of the package as the wackiness and the bright, baggy suits. Even his Ginger Productions logo has a wolf whistle in it. The show’s conceit is that two randomly chosen audience members compete for a holiday to an exotic location, or as a loser’s prize, to a scabby British resort. Consequently, all 300 of them are required to bring their toothbrush, passport and luggage, and to have booked the following week off work, as winners are literally shoved out of the studio into a taxi as the credits roll.

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I watched a couple of episodes for this revisit, and I know I return to this reference point pretty frequently, especially in regard to Chris Evans, but let’s call Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush what it is — Noel’s House Party. While it’s sold as a gameshow to win a holiday, it’s effectively a Cool Britannia take on Noel’s show, which was airing on the BBC just an hour earlier. Whereas Noel filled his studio with your Tony Blackburns or bobbies off The Bill, Chris lived off the trendy reference points found in lad’s mags, sharing their idolatry of iconic performers and styles of the 60s and 70s, and shunned House Party‘s family audience in favour of a cult-like following of shrieking twentysomethings. Though at the time, there was a sense of naff Noel as the old guard, and Chris the anarchic young upstart, both shows share a near-identical structure of manic energy, self-congratulatory noise, and audience participation-slash-degradation.

The opening to its Easter ’94 show is textbook Noel, cutting from waving audience members to their embarrassing passport photos from, at worst, a decade earlier, before mildly pranking the voiceover man by showing him on camera as Chris taps him on the shoulder. In his autobiography, Chris would admit to threatening the audience at Toothbrush‘s pilot taping, with being dragged onstage and humiliated, should they fail to laugh loudly at any of his jokes. This is never far from my mind, as he runs on like a conquering hero to a completely wild response, kicking off an opening ten minutes of the most exhausting and excruciating television I’ve ever sat through. Let me try and describe it without accidentally smashing my keyboard and hands and bollocks to pieces with a hammer instead.

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He begins with a call-and-response of Leslie Phillips’ “He-llo!” before squeezing his dick so it makes a foghorn noise. Then it’s off to the house band, led by Jools Holland, as always, hunched over a piano looking unbearably smug. He blasts out boogie woogie while Chris jigs about, bringing on show hostess Rachel, who blows a kiss at the camera. A former model, and Chris’s then-girlfriend, she’d be replaced in the second series, both onscreen and off, by a new model girlfriend. Then we’re introduced to Little Johnny, a nervous child dressed like James Bond, backed by two scantily-dressed women, and pointing a handgun at the camera. If this sounds like random shit that doesn’t go anywhere, in the televisual equivalent of opening a kitchen cupboard and having loads of crockery fall on you, well, yeah.

As it’s the start of British Summer Time, he gets everyone to wind their watches forward an hour, as Rachel joins him for a lip-sync of Summer Nights from Grease, in one of many bits which exist solely to show off that he’s got a girlfriend. Under the cosh of their cruel master, the audience are loving every noxious moment, breaking into another sing-along, of Cliff’s Summer Holiday. And just what, he asks “the girls” in the audience, are you looking forwards to most about your holiday? By far the loudest squeal is for “big hunky blokes,” so with the words “would you like to see a naked man right now?YCMA kicks in, revealing the silhouette of a nude bloke in a construction helmet behind a screen. There’s nothing Chris Evans finds funner than a penis, and it’s clear from the riotous screams that the audience are getting a good look at a big floppy dick wobbling about — though it’s censored for the home audience — as Chris runs him through toe-touches and star jumps. “It’s Big Johnny!” says Chris, over and over again, simply dying at how funny a willy is; “It’s Big Johnny! It’s Big Johnny!

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Because this is most assuredly a 10pm Noel’s House Party, the naked guy’s girlfriend is in the audience, unaware it’s him, and collared by Chris with a mic. Big Johnny’s not the sort of guy you’d go for madam?! Well, joke’s on you, because it’s your fella! He pulls her onto the stage, where her naked boyfriend hides his sweaty genitals in his cupped hands, while Chris repeatedly praises his massive nob, and offers him £500 to catch a football. The ladies in the audience are brought to a terrifying frenzy as they get a proper look at a nice big william, while we have to settle for a censored arse. Chris is still making big dick innuendo long after the segment’s done.

Thankfully, we get a breather when Paul Young comes on to sing, only four years before he’d be burgled by Gino D’Acampo, though Chris asserts his dominance by awkwardly bringing up backstage in-jokes, and announcing that Young was late because he got in a car crash. The superfan segment, where Paul Young answers questions on his own career against a fan, brings the weirdest line of the night, when Chris looks straight down the lens to proclaim, rather solemnly “as in all the best quiz shows… I’m a raving lech.” Who was this in reference to, I wonder? It’s clearly not scripted, and barely gets a reaction, so must’ve been an insider dig at another host, rather than a reference to a news story. But even this, a two-minute quiz, can’t escape the pull of 90’s random wackiness, halted halfway through so Chris can lead the studio in a rendition of All Things Bright and Beautiful from hymn books, as Little Johnny passes on the revolving stage dressed like an angel.

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The most House Party skit of all is predicated on the idea Rachel will go and work on Play Your Cards Right with Bruce Forsyth if Chris can’t give away £1500 in the next minute. The mere invocation of Brucie’s name incites a chorus of boos; to the Evans Cult, just a boring old duffer who deserves no respect. Chris pulls the cash from his pocket, as Rachel slides a mic from her garter, with wolf-whistles as the camera dives up her short dress. Roaming the audience, he pulls victims into a series of ‘games’; a man literally kissing Chris on the (trousered) arse for £250; a girl who’s asked “how’s your father?” before said father is wheeled onstage in an armchair; a travel agent whose entire office is recreated in the studio, colleagues and all. But the relentless mini-games leave us 2/3 of the way in before they get to the holiday competition, which involves asking so many questions in so little time, Chris has to temper his natural instincts to constantly fuck about just to get it done. The contestants lose, sent from the studio in yellow raincoats for their wooden spoon of a week in Margate, while Chris and Paul Young sing us out with Bring Me Sunshine, which after sitting through that, seems to me a carrion call to climate change to hurry it up and scorch this rotten Earth clean.

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Just one month later, Toothbrush would air its most infamous episode, kicked off by Chris Evans descending from the ceiling straddled on a crescent moon, to serenade the audience with When You Wish Upon a Star. You see, this is a special night, with a very big surprise coming; a surprise referred to throughout the show via Chris dropping his fly to play the William Tell Overture. Nobody knows but Chris; not Rachel — shown gagged and tied to a chair — not special guest Barry White. Big Barry’s presence is notable for the silken sweat-rag, permanently gripped in his hand like a toddler’s blankie as he spends the hour mopping at his face, even presenting it as the prize to his superfan; at whom he throws a look for help when asked “what are the names of your eight children?

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After a bunch of tedious pranks, it’s time for the big reveal. In the course of this Patreon, I’ve seen some phenomenally unglued audience reactions, from the lust-riots of Man O Man to seat-quaking laughter at the antics of a young Bobby Davro, but when Chris announces tonight’s contestants, if successful, will be sending the entire audience to Euro Disney, it tips an already-giddy crowd over the edge into full-blown mania. 300 people leap as one, arms pumping, hugging and dancing in jubilation. Unable to contain herself, a woman rushes the stage to kiss him, while a promotional VT for the holiday is lost beneath a wall of noise. It’s madness; absolute madness, with the final half hour a barrage of screams so deafening and ferocious, I thought the Russians had drilled into Hell again.

What pressure, then, for two contestants for whom an entire studio’s trip depends, with the audience screaming answers at them with the kind of fervour you see when people are banging on the prison vans of recently convicted child murderers. Needing five correct answers for a win, and five wrong for a loss, when the student teachers go against the popular choice and lose a point, there’s a sense that everyone’s moments from piling down from their seats for a lynching. And who could stop them? Barry White, waving his sweat-rag in surrender? With one point left, the atmosphere becomes truly frightening, but thankfully, they win the holiday, igniting a jubilant roar that almost blows out my speakers, with balloons and confetti raining from above, the audience’s minds completely gone, as Chris leads them through a sing-along of Summer Holiday.

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In the carpark outside, all 300 have been crammed inside a fleet of coaches, rocking on their axels from the overexcited stag/hen behaviour. Chris scampers from vehicle to vehicle, offering lucky dips for the one cassette they’ll be allowed to listen to over the 11-hour journey. Two of them get the soundtrack to The Sound of Music, both times leading Chris to instigate sing-alongs of Do-Re-Mi. He commiserates with the people sat “11 hours by a smelly toilet,” and tosses a plastic water-bomb into the fray; his pleas to bring it back as he’s forgotten to wind it drowned by the shrieks as it’s hurled about the bus. As a pair of blokes push into the camera, fists in the air, and aggressively chanting “come on you Spurs,” I have found my personal idea of Hell, and vow to be a good boy for the rest of my days, lest I’m trapped for eternity on a party coach with people in Chris Evans baseball caps waving giant plastic toothbrushes and bawling “He-llo!

On Rachel’s coach, they have her identify Toothbrush‘s oldest passenger. A wizened chap raises his liver-spotted hand and reveals his age – “44?!” wows Chris. No doubt Methuselah there will be gone from natural causes before they reach Paris. They pick the last cassette (ABBA), and the lucky dip bucket gets chucked into the air, filling the coach with glitter. As some rowdy lads start madly flinging handfuls of it about, Chris leaves Rachel to it, and as he marches across the rainy carpark closing the show, Rachel’s hot mic picks up a genuinely very angry “Stop! No, Stop!” The coaches are waved off by Chris and Barry White, still clenching the sweat-rag, for a duet of Bring Me Sunshine. Barry’s so bored he’s almost asleep, and knows neither the words nor the tune, and one of the coaches clips the gazebo they’re standing under, as one of the most raucous hours of television ever broadcast goes off the air.

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In its final episode the following year, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush would go out on another surprise, giving away a £36,000 Ferrari, plus a year’s insurance, with the winner so blindsided, they had to receive medical treatment for shock backstage. Also, Evans played some hidden camera footage of his female producer on the toilet, doing a fart while she urinated; you know, as a funny prank. Toothbrush‘s format was remade internationally, in 14 different countries, none of which made it out of the 90s, barring the USA and Norway’s versions, which ended in 2000. There were reports in 2018 that Evans was planning to bring it back in a Friday night slot, under the new title Don’t Forget Your Suitcase, with an added £2m prize at the end of the series, but evidently no channel picked it up. Unfortunately for me, that’s not the end, as sometime soon, I must serve out my penance and conclude this Chris Evans triptych, with an inevitable look at perhaps the most 90’s thing of all, TFI Friday.

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.

Saturday Night Beadle

•August 26, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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In his heyday, the name Jeremy Beadle was national shorthand — settle down — for exasperating situations; synonymous with life throwing you a random, terrible curveball that must be a prank. If your plumbing burst or your car got clamped, you were on the lookout for some prick with a microphone, with a false beard glued on top of his real beard, to tell you it was all just a great big jape. In a precursor to the Piers Morgan types that are everywhere these days, Beadle revelled in his status as Britain’s Most Hated Man, making a career out of just wanting to watch the world burn.

Having established his pranking credentials on Game For a Laugh, Beadle’s About was his solo breakout, like when Geri left the Spice Girls, and quickly became a British institution, pulling in 15 million viewers on Saturday nights. In the years after it left our screens, the series become distilled into a couple of bullet points; one being its trademark bleeps and censor bubbles from angry victims, which Beadle would later confess were often faked, to make it funnier. The other is its pair of most infamous pranks; an early skit where a man believes his works van, containing his entire business stock, is pushed into the river; and another near the end, in 1996, where despite the national paranoia of a lurking Beadle, he was still capable of getting a housewife to believe a meteor had crashed in her back garden, complete with inflatable green alien that she offered a cup of tea.

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Both encapsulate the spirit of the show; a weird mix of cruelty and British resolve, though in the latter, what’s often missed in all the mockery is the moment Beadle sidles up behind her wearing a rubber mask, which she turns and spots with a look of the purest abject terror; in that moment, utterly convinced she’s in the presence of an alien overlord; her world completely changed. Until he yanks it off. There have been decades of prank shows since Beadle’s About ended, so I revisited some of the episodes from its early years, and in the process, turned up another Saturday Night Beadle vehicle that, far from being a televisual cornerstone, appears to have been wiped from history altogether.

Before we jump into it, as an aside, does anyone else remember the time he went on The Word promoting You’ve Been Framed with special late-night clips deemed too rude for YBF? One showed a couple kissing on a bench, before the woman suddenly vomited into her partner’s mouth, with another where a farmer tripped over, his trousers fell down, and he was bummed by a bull. I have a vivid recollection of this, but can find no evidence, suggesting it’s some perverse imagining, like that Beadle’s About where he pranked someone at a nudist beach, and they didn’t realise until he took off his merkin, revealing his real pubes underneath. If you saw his appearance on The Word, do let me know in the comments.

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For all the negative connotations of Beadle’s About, it’s got a GOAT theme tune; a glorious, raucous foot-tapping piano-basher, evocative of a right old knees up in a cockney boozer. That said, its constant lyrical threat “you’d better watch out, cos Beadle’s about,” is one slow, mournful cover away from a great soundtrack to a slasher movie trailer. In fact, the opening title’s rapid zooms on Beadle’s face do give the sense he’s chasing you. The 80’s footage is now wonderfully haunted-looking, the washed-out audience making me physically queasy as Beadle runs down the steps like you had to in those days.

The first thing that stands out is how there’s no effort to hide his little hand, unlike the 90’s You’ve Been Framed, where it was sequestered behind a variety of props. In fact, I don’t recall any jokes or mentions of it pre-dating YBF, as though nobody had noticed until then. Was it due to smaller screens and worse picture quality? It’s certainly not because we were a more kindly people in those days, as from the very beginning, Beadle’s About is marked with the cruel streak that history remembers it for.

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The climax of only the second episode features a skit that would be considered one of its classics, where a middle-aged bloke watches a portacabin he’s buying get accidentally dropped by a crane. Like all these pranks, there’s no invention; no humour; and the entire thing hinges on making somebody so frustrated, they lose their temper. They fill the scenes with actors to shout over the top of the victim, refusing to take the blame for various destructions, in situations which are painfully familiar from dealing with idiots for real. The targets are often lured to scenarios with the promise of work, and in this case, he’s shown up with £1748 in 1986 money for the cabin, so it’s presumably no small matter to waste a working day on, finding out it’s all for the laughs of some chortling jester with two beards.

Am I obsessed with Noel Edmonds? Perhaps. But it’s impossible not to think of him each time Beadle reveals himself, the only one amused, bent double with laughter and thrusting a mic into the face of a shocked member of the public, whose body language reads “this isn’t funny, I’m just so relieved my only source of income wasn’t really crushed by a wrecking ball.” The victims are all in the studio audience, “great sports” whose live reactions play in a little box in the corner, like Japanese TV.

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Not all the sketches are so dogfuck blunt, with many of the more whimsical situations lifted from American show, Truth or Consequences, whose producer Ralph Edwards is credited with the creation of Beadle’s About — along with This Is Your Life — and whose production company teamed with LWT to make it. These, like the ones from television’s first prank show, Candid Camera, are far more charming, focusing on the looks of wonder and confusion on a participant’s face, rather than the throbbing veins and bleeped out swearing. Take the businessman asking members of the public to cure his hiccups by slapping his back or giving him a fright; or the actor with two broken arms who needs help getting through a revolving door, or licking a stamp, which features a brilliantly That’s Life-style old lady, walking straight by because “I’ve got to get home for me dinner!” MTV’s Jackass would eventually reuse this idea, with Johnny Knoxville begging people to pull his trousers up, but back in 1986, it’s a simpler time, where even the sight of a public toilet gets an “ahh!” of amusement from the audience. Similarly, a fashion show gag, with men wearing ludicrous outfits for a fake Italian buyer, is less wacky in 2019, where you can genuinely buy the same see-thru trousers in Topshop.

Perhaps my favourite prank, elegant in its simplicity, is when a family in the audience are joined by the bald father, who’s wearing a hairpiece. But the legacy of Beadle’s About will be its more sadistic efforts. In the 1986 Christmas episode, riddled with cracker puns, it’s telling that Beadle’s favourite, when replaying past glories, is the bloke who came home to find his lawn dug up by the waterboard. Like all its best-remembered moments, there’s literally no joke, beyond refusing to let an exasperated man into his own house and fucking up his lawn, until the inevitable moment a bearded workman takes off his helmet. Other Christmas highlights include a proto-Gotcha on Duty Free‘s Keith Barron, where he’s aghast at the hilarious prank that his co-star Gwen Taylor, a woman, might be taking a computer course, and a stunt involving dozens of identical cars that goes wrong when a woman immediately twigs “this is Jeremy Beadle, isn’t it?

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As you’d expect, there’s stuff that would get Beadle trending as #cancelled nowadays, including a bit where married couples turn up to a meeting about a well-paid job opportunity abroad, only to find that “according to local custom, your husband is going to have to take a second wife.” The men are into it, particularly with the issue of consummation, and there’s a sense this led to some pretty heavy conversations when they got back home. They bring in prospective wives, each hidden beneath burqas resembling shiny wizard’s robes in a pantomime, and of course, that lovely lady with the heavy mascara turns out to be Beadle. In another skit, an office manager’s sworn in as an emergency United States Secret Service agent, before President Reagan commandeers his car, leaving him to wander around a country lane with what he thinks is a real gun.

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Beadle’s About went on for ten years, finishing in 1996 with a run of 94 episodes. Sitting through a mere handful emphasises how repetitive the format quickly became; a string of ordinary people believing they’d suffered a great misfortune, until Beadle appeared with a mic; then cut back to him sat in the studio audience like a fucking goblin. I must make mention of the one where a woman watched helplessly as her husband accidentally drove over a bunch of cars in a tank, leading to the single worst segue ever to close the show — “well, from tanks to thanks, and thanks for all your letters, we’ll be back next week…” There’s an interesting horror movie to be made of all Beadle’s reveals, a changeling trickster god in multitude costumes, feeding on the suffering of his victims, glistening with sweat, with his long, Pennywise teeth pinched in a manic grin, and the warning that we must all watch out, because he is about.

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In rooting around the works of Beadle, I came across a forgotten curio in his Saturday night career. Three years after the launch of Beadle’s About, ITV began airing Jeremy Beadle’s Box of Tricks; a show so deeply embedded between the cracks, it doesn’t even have an IMDB page. Despite its prime-time slot, where viewers were usually in the double-digit millions, there’s almost nothing about it online, with only a dozen genuine Google hits, giving that weird sense of cultural archaeology one sometimes feels when writing these pieces. As always, it’s likely anything with such a minimal imprint was suppressed for good reason, and rewatching it would be equivalent to digging up a cursed artifact and unleashing ancient and bloody Pagan horrors upon your sleepy village. So, let’s dive in.

At least early in the run, it’s essentially the BBC’s Paul Daniels Magic Show, except with Beadle, introducing various magic acts and doing the odd trick himself. Each week begins with a grand entrance; first with a stunt-double falling off the set — a towering, sheet-metal castle with lizards climbing up it — and Beadle re-emerging below as an Egyptian mummy. Another episode has the double abseil in and fall down some stairs, before — incredibly — the real Beadle somersaults perfectly through a flaming hoop, sending the audience into absolute apoplexy, as he skids about on fire extinguisher foam. It’s genuinely one of the loudest audience reactions I’ve ever heard, like John Cena’s return at the Royal Rumble, or when Elton did Crocodile Rock as an encore at Diana’s funeral.

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The acts vary in quality tremendously. At the low end, there’s a shouting American, throwing fire and setting bits of string alight, and a comedy magician in a red bowler, whose repertoire genuinely includes that thing where you go behind the sofa and pretend to walk downstairs. One guy does a routine with an oiled-up ping pong ball, spitting it in the air and catching it in his mouth, eventually spit-juggling with two, which gives me the fear. See, I went through a phase in my late teens of waking up with a movie-like lurch in the middle of the night, choking, often set off by recurring dreams of an angry ping pong player serving a ball straight into my open mouth. Consequently, while watching this bloke snort one into his throat, I was on the verge of giving myself a tracheotomy with a biro. Thankfully, I was soothed when Pop from the League of Gentlemen showed up with his young wife.

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The shows always end on a big set piece, and for episode one, Beadle drags a pair of audience members into a helicopter, for a night-time excursion to Stonehenge, which he promises to make disappear. Like all these ‘making a monument vanish’ tricks, the camera’s poised through the little window of a viewing platform, which is just rotated to an empty part of the field. After the stones have gone, Beadle interviews witnesses who were ‘stood there the whole time’. For some mysterious reason, they’re all hidden behind those forensic lab coats, with just their faces showing, to give some truly atrocious mystified-acting. As hokey as it was, why is “Jeremy Beadle made Stonehenge disappear” not part of our magical lexicon? Copperfield did the Statue of Liberty, Daniels did the elephant, yet the world’s most mysterious place went missing, and Big Jezza Beads gets no credit.

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Another grand finale sees Beadle take a little girl and her dad onto a steam train, along with Su Pollard, who’s told by Beadle to open her legs, as he handcuffs her, bondage-style, by the wrists and ankles across the width of the carriage. The crucified Pollard is blindfolded, as Beadle reiterates there will be no camera cuts, and we’re watching a single shot; a decision which leaves him wildly out of breath as he sprints the length of the train and back. They cut to a split screen, for a camera attached to the back of the train, while he takes to the air to watch from a helicopter, as the train enters a tunnel, we’re told, is haunted by the ghost of a headless signalman. When it re-emerges through the other side, the middle carriage, containing Su Pollard and father & daughter, is gone, with the latter pair now sat behind Beadle in the back of the chopper. I hoped they’d blow my mind by revealing Su was piloting it, perhaps in a ball-gag and gimp suit, but alas, her carriage is found dumped in the middle of the moors, like the ship in Close Encounters. Her gasping portrayal of shock on realising she’s now miles from the train is a hilariously awful performance; a spiritual ancestor to Tim Robinson’s “What?!” in I Think You Should Leave‘s nacho sketch.

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In another pointless aside, the show’s title card gave me a sudden flashback to senior school sex education, when an elderly lady teaching assistant announced “this is my box of tricks,” and pulled out a shoebox filled with pills, johnnies, and a big, stiff banana (and possibly dildos?). But anyhow, it wouldn’t be a Beadle show without pranks, though these are of a gentler ilk, tricking little kids into thinking they’re performing actual magic. One has them doing voodoo on their teachers during morning assembly, with a hundred children going berserk as a teacher levitates out of her chair. In another, a real rabbit magically appears at the tap of a wand. What’s great is the way the kids just accept it — ‘yes, I can transform matter now. I am become death.’ — as I did, aged 5 or 6, when I waved my Paul Daniels Magic Set wand over my unmade bed, before my mum, unbeknown to me, snuck into my room to make it, which saw me march through the school gates that day like Aleister Crowley. Speaking of the Daniels magic set, Beadle gives all the kids a Beadle’s Box of Tricks, which was presumably a (much less successful) attempt to piggyback the craze of Daniels’ massively selling kit, and hopefully not a selection box of flavoured condoms and arse-plugs.

By episode four, the magic conceit’s all but abandoned, in favour of nightmarish variety and more pranks. A guy dressed like Prince does a roller skating act, while a singing quintet perform a cover of Five Guys Named Mo, except it’s Five Guys Named Blow, and they’re all bouncing up and down on whoopee cushions. The latter’s so slapdash, it has to be a last-minute replacement by some kind of university sketch group. There’s also bumbling slapstick from a double act familiar from Saturday morning TV of the era, Heap and Wall; who confusingly, despite the name, aren’t the 80’s kids act to feature a baby Mark Heap from Spaced — that was The Two Marks.

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The only trad magician, doing posh candle magic in a tux, is quickly revealed to be the stooge in a comedy skit, as a young Joe Pasquale tits about in the background, wearing a robe and bow tie but no shirt, just like Brutus ‘The Barber’ Beefcake. For the finale, Beadle brings out the 1989 Arsenal squad, for a wildly convoluted segment, culminating in giving Perry Groves, who’s dressed like Anneka Rice in a blond wig and shell suit, 60 seconds to hobble into the carpark with his ankles tied together, to stop Paul Davis’ Porsche from being crushed between two bulldozers. Of course, he doesn’t make it, and Davis watches his beloved car get destroyed, before it’s revealed the car’s fine, and it’s all just a prank. Well, a ‘magic trick’. “Nobody knows how we did it!” brags Beadle, who made a career out of destroying lookalike vehicles on Beadle’s About without behaving like he was fucking Houdini. It goes off the air with Paul Davis having to stand there with Beadle’s arm threaded through his for ages, like he’s walking him to a fancy ball.

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Because of the dearth of information, it’s unclear how long Box of Tricks ran for, and though it seems like it lasted a single series, maybe it’s still going on now, somewhere. After all, when browsing the Youtube comments for Beadle’s About, I did find this:

RIP Jeremy I know your making God laugh in heaven…. TV sucks now a days angry

If that’s what Heaven’s like; an eternity of Hendrix being told his guitar fell off a cloud and killed a bunch of kids in Earth, or Adam West being made to think the Batmobile’s been smashed up, before ‘God’ pulls off his white beard, revealing another beard underneath, then send me down to the fires to be roommates with Thatcher, thanks.

BONUS HAUNTED IMAGE

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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.

Failed Pilots – Tagteam

•August 16, 2019 • Leave a Comment

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To save the suspense on whether Tagteam — self-styled as a single word — is any good, it’s with a heavy heart I must report the biggest missed opportunity since every participant in James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke failed to nudge the wheel into oncoming traffic. ABC’s 1991 pilot starring ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper and Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura seems like a true can’t miss, coming three scant years after Roddy’s turn in genre classic, They Live, and with Jesse’s incredible 1987 double-bill of Predator and The Running Man still within touching distance.

With 20-inch biceps, and a dimpled butt-chin so severe, he probably poos out of it, peak Ventura was the wild combination of a baritone voice in a Navy Seal’s body, while decked out like your nan going down the local function room with the girls from the bingo to watch a nice young man dressed like a fireman take out his cock. In the homophobic hellscape of 80’s masculinity, here was a man so tough, he could fearlessly swan around in flowery tights and a feathered earring, and still be the baddest motherfucker in any room. And then there’s Roddy. Someone who couldn’t exist outside the bonkers world of pro wrestling, Hot Rod was a pure tornado of sweat, violence, and surrealist cocaine-scatting. A Canadian in a kilt pretending so hard to be Scottish that he believed it himself, his brawling in-ring approach of lightning quick punches and eye-pokes was mirrored by his frenetic promo style. Like watching a stand-up routine by someone about to get dragged offstage and violently medicated by a bunch of panicked orderlies, wrong-footed viewers were in for anything, from breaking beer bottles over his own head, to a non-sequitur about leaving so he could “eat a garage.”

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With Tagteam initially conceived and cast as a solo vehicle for Ventura, the pair suggested adding Piper as another lead, finally putting the Rock and Dave Bautista of their era together onscreen. Picture this — Lethal Weapon, with Roddy as the craziest possible Riggs, and weary Jesse being too old for this shit. That’s what I thought I was in for with Tagteam, but sadly, they’re stepping into a script that could have been written for any random pairing of blokes. Warren Oates and Martin Kove. Ernest Borgnine and Adam Woodyatt. Syd and Eddie. With the pair’s pre-formed personalities, and the bickering buddy format there for the taking, bafflingly, Tagteam writes them as like-minded and affable generic wrestlers. Jesse’s sole personality trait seems to be ‘eats grapes’ — tossing them into his mouth as he lays in bed in one scene; buying a whole crate from the store in another — while Roddy’s so dialled down from the Hot Rod we’re used to, when taunted about an upcoming bout, he replies with an earnest “we’re sure gonna give it our best shot!

In a real stretch, Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura plays Billy ‘The Body’ Youngblood, in familiar tie-dye and feather boa, while Roddy stars as Glasgow’s own ‘Tricky’ Rick McDonald, with a brown leather waistcoat and Ultimate Warrior style arm tassels. We begin backstage, with Jesse locked in Roddy’s painful submission hold, for the old ‘you thought he was hurting him, but he was just fixing his back!’ A small boy wanders in with an autograph book and gives us exposition about the pair recently changing gimmicks from ‘the Lizard Brothers’, with green scales and fake ears. How can we trust anything from Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura, now we know he used to drink baby’s blood with the Queen and the rest of his illuminati lizard mates?

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With a full house of 25,000 fans (though filmed in a darkened arena to hide how small it is), the promoter gives a pep talk before their upcoming match with the Samurai Brothers. Clearly, a lot of hard graft went into a script which required the invention of just two fictional tag teams, and named them both ‘The Something Brothers’. Similarly, when we meet the Samurais, played by the WWF’s Orient Express alongside Mr. Fuji, it’s a real show of wordsmithery, with “the Unpredictable Soji” accompanied by “the Unpredictable Mr. Saki.”

Tagteam quickly adds itself to the list of fictional universes where wrestling is real, as the promoter’s glamorous wife, Leona, takes our boys aside and orders them to take a dive. If they don’t, she’ll tell her husband they’ve been hitting on her and they’ll be blackballed, just like Tyrone the Terrible (the only half-decent fake wrestler name we get). And also, just like Jesse Ventura was threatened with for real in 1986, when Hulk Hogan grassed him up to the boss for trying to unionise backstage. So that Tagteam‘s viewers won’t be confused, a handsome ring announcer dubbed with the voice of ‘Mean’ Gene Okerlund explains to the live crowd of wrestling fans the very complex rules of a tag team match. As is their wont, the inscrutable, sneaky Japanese chuck salt in Jesse’s eyes, though despite the plot-quandary of taking a dive or suffering the consequences, the lads casually get the win. True to her word, Leona whispers into her husband’s ear, and they’re both immediately fired.

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So low is their self-esteem, they dismiss the idea of opening a wrestling school, as that’s for champions, not losers. Roddy offers to take the heat, so Jesse can keep his job, but he won’t have it. Not only are they besties who’ve always got each other’s backs, but roommates too. Middle-aged, perpetually shirtless roommates, with no savings, sharing one giant loft they can no longer afford. Their beds are only a few feet apart, in full sight of each other, but thankfully Tagteam seems to take place in a wholly asexual world, without a hint of erotic tension or flirtation, even after the eventual introduction of a helpless blonde.

We cut to them shoving a piano up a flight of stairs, now working as removal men. Jesse’s back goes out, and the piano falls down the stairs, smashing straight through the brick wall like a wrecking ball, and down onto their truck, which explodes in a fireball, in a weird, one-time use of cartoon physics. Unemployed again, it’s not until they head out for the Friday big shop that fate throws them a bone, in the form of over-zealous criminals. Four armed robbers coming for a single cashier at an empty supermarket, the lads beat them up with hokey wrestling moves, with the cops, having witnessed such a textbook example of police brutality, assuming they must be undercover. “You did all of this unarmed? It’s too bad you’re not cops…

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Now, you’d think the pitch of ex-wrestlers being forced to find work would see them opening a private detective agency, or becoming bounty hunters, or just plain old muscle-for-hire. What does Tagteam do with these middle-aged men? Why, send them to the police academy! If this sounds like the dumb idea a child might have, that’s because it literally is, sparked by the six-year-old son of Tagteam‘s writer saying it would be neat if there were wrestlers who became cops. Big Bossman should have sued. According to what I’ve just Googled, the upper age limit on new recruits (at least in 2018), is 37. Roddy was 36 at time of shooting, while Jesse was 40. As a blatant excuse to cover for the fact neither man would cut their hair for a TV show, the commander announces some recruits have been “pre-selected for undercover assignments.” The police academy sections are sadly lacking in guys making beep noises with their mouths and enormously-breasted women falling into swimming pools.

After scenes at the assault course and firing range, the lads are getting sworn in, with Jesse’s big muscles accidentally tearing his new uniform when he salutes. Meanwhile, a dogwalker, played by the college girl Venkman flirts with during the ESP test in Ghostbusters, accidentally sees two mob guys murder a pair of undercover cops in a parking garage, and gets put into protective custody before the trial. You can see where this is going.

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Roddy and Jess rock up to the bustling precinct for their first day at work, to sneers of derision from the rest of the cops. “Looks like we started recruiting from clown camp,” says one, “all rookies look like that,” says another. What, like aging bodybuilders with skullets? To save on paying another actor, the trainer from the academy’s been promoted to new commander of their precinct, and immediately puts them to work as plain clothes backups at the dogwalker’s safe-house. ‘Plain clothes’ is certainly one way to describe Jesse Ventura’s fringed beige leather jacket, bandana, and giant pink feather earring.

One of those shows that’s made far worse by having a stupidly accelerated time-frame, they’re fresh off their two week training course to a first day on the job protecting the witness of a trial that could bring down the city’s mob boss. Oh, and the trial is tomorrow. The godfather locates the safe-house, and sends his goons over to kill the witness. Incidentally, these are the same goons who’ve been fingered for the cop murders; just two defendants in a capital murder trial, free to wander about and do more killing. The bad guys take out the other cops with spin-kicks and shotguns, leaving Roddy and Jess to disarm them by literally pulling a rug from under their feet, before throwing them through a window, rather than slapping on the cuffs. In fact, nobody arrests these goons for trying to kill more cops on the eve of their trial for cop-killing, and they scamper away.

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But in the kerfuffle, the witness also made a break for it, jeopardising the trial, and giving the commander no option but to suspend the wrestlers. Again, this is still their first day. The next morning, the witness is still missing, and if she can’t be located by 3pm, the whole trial will collapse. Rather than, like, taking their own car, Roddy and Jess steal a cop car and head to the local dog pound, where they correctly guess that the witness is hiding. The setting’s mainly an excuse to introduce a homeless dog with a bandaged paw, who clearly would have been a sidekick had it gone to series.

Racing the witness to the trial with three minutes to spare, Jesse and Hot Rod have to fight off more goons, including the defendants, who jump out of a van in front of the courthouse with machine guns and aren’t immediately riddled with bullets by a SWAT team. Rather, there’s an endless fight scene that beautifully exposes how dumb wrestling moves look outside of a ring. On the steps of this enormous mafia trial, everyone stands back and watches the bad guys get hit with clotheslines, double arm-wringers, classic Roddy Piper nose-rakes, and an honest-to-God Irish Whip into a wall. At one point, Jesse defends himself with a bag of manure, which sprays shite everywhere as he blocks the bad guy’s punches with it. The bad-action nadir is when Jesse, getting choked with a lead pipe, holds out his hand, and in slow-mo, Roddy tags in and takes over.

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With all of this somehow not having caused a mistrial, the commander’s thrilled with the new recruits, barely 24 hours in, still suspended, and showing up to initiate a lengthy courthouse brawl in a stolen cop car. But they did deliver the witness. In our denouement, a shirtless Jesse opens the door of the apartment to a thank-you visit from the dogwalker. Roddy emerges, also shirtless, wearing only a kilt, as she whistles to signal the poorly dog from earlier, who sprints in and tackles Roddy to the floor. I correctly pegged him as their new canine sidekick, which they give the awful name of ‘Bodyslam’. We end on a pan across a gallery of photos pinned to the wall, of the lads together in their wrestling days, finishing on a shot of them as cops, which best of all, shows us what the Lizard Brothers actually looked like.

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Tagteam‘s lone episode was burned off the night before the 1991 Super Bowl. A co-production between Disney and Carolco, as Ventura tells it, the pilot was so well-received, it was picked up for 13 episodes, with $1m of sets built, and a writer’s room assembled from the team that penned Magnum PI. Exteriors were to be filmed at a Venice Beach mansion, which Roddy moved into for the duration. But he didn’t have time to unpack, as the morning of the first shoot, production was put on hold, with Disney and Carolco now on either sides of a bitter lawsuit. Tagteam promptly fell into Development Hell, never to resume. It’s a shame, despite the dreary episode we’re left with, as we know pilots are often unrepresentative of what a show might become. A prime Jesse ‘The Body’ and ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper, headlining their own A-Team style Saturday night goon-punching action series, with a dog? That could have been TV magic. Though if it had happened, Jesse Ventura wouldn’t have gone on to become governor, nor would the world have had the VHS Fighting Fit with Rowdy Roddy Piper. Robbed of Roddy’s advice, an entire generation of children would likely have been snatched by random street-paeds, never to be seen again. Maybe everything does happen for a reason.

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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.

Cartoon Spinoffs – Mister T

•August 5, 2019 • 1 Comment

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[previous entries in this series — DroidsEwoksChuck Norris Karate Kommandos Rambo]

It’s hard to convey just how ridiculously famous Mr. T was in the eighties, and how fast it all happened. His breakout role of Clubber Lang in Rocky II hit theatres in May of 1982, with The A-Team debuted the following January, as an immediate hit. Later that year, in September of ’83, the rather formally titled cartoon, Mister T, landed in the iconic Saturday morning cartoon slot. It would run until ’86, right through T’s most bountiful years of fame; a period which took in the movie D.C. Cab, in-ring appearances at the first two Wrestlemanias, a top-selling motivational video, and lending his persona to Nancy Reagan’s Just Say No campaign. As an aside, perhaps a more polite ‘Just Say No Thank You’ would have been more effective.

Mr. T’s anti-drug PSA; furiously ranting about drugs in a diner, so mad that he crushes his milkshake glass, eventually bundling the camera to the floor in rage — “don’t, or else!” — but ending on a smile; was a thirty-second distillation of Mr. T’s character; tough, brash, but good-hearted; a cartoon, even before it was inked onto an animation cell. Mister T is the show on which all ‘real celebrities teaching animated morals’ toons sprang forth, from the earnest (Chuck Norris’ Karate Kommandos) to the parody (Mike Tyson Mysteries), and what a perfect figure to nab the wandering attentions of kids. Being in the perfect age range at the time, I was a huge fan of Mr. T, and an avid watcher of the cartoon, with a bunch of tie-in books and books on tape, to shut me up on long car journeys. One of my most vivid childhood memories is of walking to the shops with my gran, and finding an unpeeled sticker sitting on the pavement. Mr. T’s scowling face on a plain blue background, the 6-year-old me convinced myself it was some kind of backstage ticket for the A-Team set, or maybe even membership to the team itself. It wasn’t, but still, when Mr. T spoke, I listened.

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Mister T‘s set-up has the famously-nimble star as the coach of a team of teenage gymnasts, who drive around in a bus solving mysteries, generally of a non-paranormal bent, in what’s essentially a secular Scooby-Doo. Aside from the teenagers, the large gang includes such characters as Ms. Priscilla Bisby, a Southern school marm type with the catchphrase “my stars and garters!” and a mohawked dog named Bulldozer. Because it’s required in these shows, so’s to give an audience surrogate, Mr. T’s the guardian of a young boy, Spike, who dresses like his hero, in denim waistcoat and gold chains, and grunts all his lines in a T-like voice, with a gruffness so thick, the voice actor must’ve been hocking blood into a spittoon between takes. Though she didn’t appear in the episodes I watched, Wikipedia also notes this character, which may help give an idea of the tone:

Courtney Howard — An African-American girl gymnast whose father is a major in the military. Her uncle is a magician who was previously a burglar.

Like Karate Kommandos, Mr. T does his own voice, but unlike Kommandos and the Rambo cartoon, which were outright action shows, Mister T is surprisingly light on fight sequences. Primarily, there’s a real kid-detective vibe, like the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, with everyone looking for clues, and the soundtrack heavy with ‘sneaking’ music. Detective/Spy stuff in general was a big fad at the time, with those brilliant Usbourne books that taught children the basics of spycraft, like writing invisible messages in lemon juice, making false soles in your shoe, or fatally poisoning foreign journalists with Novichok.

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Episode one sets out its crime-solving stall in the Mystery of the Golden Medallions. Of course, the best part is the bookended live-action inserts, and the first sees a really stern Mr. T, perhaps yet to find the right level for a children’s cartoon, angrily introducing himself as “Mr. T. First name is Mister. Middle name is dat period. Last name is T.” Fucking hell, alright mate, don’t hit me. With each moral linked to the adventures we’re about to see, it’s established that, just like Chuck Norris, the cartoons depict real things that happened, and that animated Mr. T and real Mr. T are one and the same.

We open in San Francisco, where the young team are unimpressed at new boy Woody’s flawless display on the rings. They don’t want him on the team, and aren’t shy in letting him know, all hands on hips sneering and chucking a towel at his face. Unfortunately, as Woody’s black, their open disgust at his presence unwittingly comes off a bit racist. Sadly, Woody misses out on a gold medal, as the medallions get stolen by bad guys, with Mr. T and the gang giving chase. Kids constantly get abducted in these shows, and Spike gets bundled into a van, with his abductors dropping a list of addresses as a clue. “Can I help?” asks Woody. “Yeah,” says Jeff, “stay here.” Sure sounds like someone started watching Jordan Peterson videos and got red-pilled by the algorithm.

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Spike’s sister, Robin, plaintively bounces a basketball around the gym in worry. The name and sight of the redheaded, freckled Robin unlocks the vaguest fingertip brush of a memory in me, with a feeling I may have had a nascent crush on the character back then, which would explain my crippling fetish for leotards and poorly-animated women who move at about five frames a minute. The gang split into two teams (Woody with Mr. T, as the others refuse to work with him, creating an awkward racial divide) to search a posh restaurant and an ancient medieval castle; the Clubhouse of the Dragon Slayers Society. Sounds very Masonic, I hope Savile’s not inside.

They realise the goons want the medals because there’s a hidden microfilm inside; the 80’s espionage equivalent of a USB stick containing jpegs of a politician’s genitals; and a bunch of nonsense happens, including baddies jumping out of a giant cake, a dog biting an arcade machine to reveal a boy locked inside, and Mr. T diving in the sea to beat up some sharks. It’s in the action where the show luxuriates in its gymnastic angle, battling baddies with backflips and roly polys, with an “alley-oop!” as Robin locks a goon in headscissors (no doubt instilling confusing feelings in the young me). But these are more than just simple gymnasts, for instance, Robin’s got a catchphrase — “what the hairy heck?!” while Kim (the Asian character), is superhumanly good at maths. Anyway, the microfilm’s recovered, and Woody finally earns the respect of the gang. “Lookin’ good!” says Mr. T, throwing up the ‘okay’ hand sign, which has since become the universally accepted symbol for white supremacy.

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Episode 16 takes things in a noticeably “ruh-roh, Shaggy!” direction. The live opener has Mr. T with his foot on a picnic table, admiring the crafts of neighbourhood kids, with today’s lesson about making money off your own work, not that of others. The sheer level of gold chains around his neck is ludicrous, clanking with every step, and they must’ve reinforced the ground to stop him from sinking. Perhaps that’s why he’s so angry as he introduces us to “The Mystery of the Panthermen!

The gang show up to an island for a gymnastics exhibition, but it’s almost deserted, as rumours of men who can transform into panthers has been scaring people away. Meanwhile, a property developer tries to convince the island’s elderly owner to sell. I think you can figure it out, in a conspiracy that involves the cops, crooked real estate, and weirdos in masks who control jaguars with a dog whistle. There’s a slapdash quality to the animation, with geometry shifting wildly depending on what the story calls for. Do three people need to stand on each other’s shoulders to see out of a window, or can a dog casually hop though it a few minutes later? Occasionally, they forget to move characters’ mouths when they speak. Eventually, Dozer the dog befriends a baby seal, who helps them out by distracting baddies and saving Mr. T from drowning. In the live-action sign off, he orders us to not go “tearing up the environment trying to make a fast buck.” Someone get this DVD to our politicians; right, guys? [is immediately hired as new host of Have I Got News For You]

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Drugs, backtalk, playing with yourself in the bath; by the time we get to episode 22, it seems like they’ve used up all the big moral no-nos, as this week’s lesson is the incredibly specific “get your damn eyes checked, fool!” In UFO Mystery, Woody’s refusal to see a doctor over his eye-strain leads to a world of trouble. Taking a wrong turn when visiting an old inventor friend, he gets picked up by a flying saucer and dropped over a mountain. The gang go searching for him at the inventor’s place, only to find a robotic Mr. T, who introduces himself as “Mr. T II, anything I can do?

Oh, so this inventor who doesn’t know and has never met Mr. T can build a fully working robot version of him and it’s fine, yet my Anna Kendrick doll made from old newspaper stuffed into a onesie is “really creepy” and “inappropriate to bring as a ‘date’ to a wedding”? Fine. That said, as a noted fan of robot insults, I’m thrilled when Mr. T hits his imposter with burns like “junkyard reject” and “you metal man!” So, they rescue Woody, fight at a hospital, including Woody shooting out of an ambulance on a bed to roll along the street like Norman Wisdom, and get trapped in a cave by a UFO. They’re freed by Mr. T II, hijack some mules, and catch the baddies by swinging from Lincoln’s nose on Mount Rushmore. The UFO was merely an invention, stolen to rob money trucks, figuring the drivers would be too embarrassed to tell cops they’d been abducted by aliens. See, kids? If you don’t get your eyes checked, this exact chain of events will happen to you!

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All this ridiculous shit, inapplicable in the real world, makes the turn the show takes in episode 23 all the more jarring. It’s wild they got this far before tackling the biggest lesson of all, in the suggestively titled Mystery of the Stranger. The live action opening sees Mr. T calling a kid away from a stranger’s car with a whistle. “You gotta learn how to deal with ’em; YOU GOTTA!” Its status as a Very Special Episode is marked by Mr. T’s insistence “I want to you get your mother, your daddy, your uncle or your aunt. I want them to watch the ‘Mystery of the Stranger’ with you!” To say my mother was confused when I left a panicked voicemail and forced her take a seat would be an understatement, presumably assuming I was finally moving out of her airing cupboard, however I didn’t want to incur the wrath of the big man.

Confusingly, we start on a pirate ship, where the gang fight off enemy boarders with gymnastics. Mr. T’s in full puffy shirt and jaunty feathered hat. If he’s trying to warn about paedophiles, he’s doing a good job looking like one. But it’s just a movie set, and an audition to be Hollywood stunt doubles, though Spike and Bulldozer are too small to be stuntmen, so mope off into the streets of Los Angeles. A van-nonce immediately tries to lure Spike inside by asking directions to a hamburger stand. Robin stops him just in time, but after a stern warning, the little idiot’s straight back out again, this time getting snatched with the old “your sister’s been in an accident!”, leaving Dozer on the kerb as they speed away.

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It was all pretty relaxed when Spike got kidnapped by feckless goons in episode one, but there’s a disconcerting realness here, with his abductors, an unassuming man and woman, roughly tying his arms behind his back and chucking him down with another pair of crying children. “A lot of people want kids,” the woman casually admits, “we go out and find them. We get a lot of money for the kids we bring back.” They children talk amongst themselves about how they got snatched; the boy was offered a free puppy (classic), while they showed the girl police badges and said they were cops. Using a different cover story for each kid, if nothing else, you have to admire the work ethic of these horrible paeds.

Dozer does a Lassie, alerting the gang to what’s happened, and they borrow a helicopter from the film set to search for the van from above. Brilliantly, Mr. T’s A-Team fear of flying is canon here, (which makes no sense; is B.A Baracus real too?) but for the good of Spike, he takes flight. Briefly, the children escape at a red light, although Spike and the boy are recaptured. This scene really demonstrates the shifting attitudes to pedos over the last 30 years, with bystanders ignoring the kids as they scream for help while being dragged away; the captors explaining “don’t worry, he’s just my naughty son!” Nowadays, wrong’un spotting is a national pastime, and local Facebook pages are flooded with angrily-snapped pictures of men who must be nonces because they’re out on their own in a public place, with thousands of comments from people you were at school with about hanging the sick bastards. For a show that’s done evil magicians, sea monsters, and a robot Mr. T, it’s surprisingly powerful when the escaped girl runs into a cop, triggering flashbacks to when the baddies pretended they were cops. It’s a distressing example of how trust can be permanently broken with a single act of abuse, and when she runs to a lady in a flower shop to confirm that he’s a real cop, hugging him and tearfully pleading to be taken back to her mom and dad, I, an adult human in 2019, shed an actual tear over the Mr. T cartoon.

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Eventually, Mr. T gets the licence plate, the cops track the kidnappers down, and with some bullshit gymnastics, the kids are rescued. Returned to their families, a detective darkly tells them “I’ve got a big file on kids who were never found.” And that’s the sinister backbone of Mystery of the Stranger, with no wacky reveal for Spike’s unspoken fate. The kidnappers talk about how they’ll finally be able to “afford that trip to the islands, with the dough we get for these two,” and it’s clear they’ve stolen and sold a lot of children, who were never seen again. But to who? For what? In the real world, those answers are unthinkably grim, but this is a silly cartoon, so they were surely being shipped off to work in an under-volcano diamond mine for a voodoo priest, and barely getting minimum wage? Nope. Spike and those kids, and all the ones Mr. T didn’t rescue, were literally getting sex trafficked. The villains weren’t cackling goons in eye-patches, slipping on banana peels, but regular-looking grown-ups you couldn’t pick out of a crowd. Chilling.

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We end with cartoon Mr. T telling Spike never, ever to get in a stranger’s car again, but in POV, with his finger coming right down the lens, addressing the audience. Real Mr. T talks about kids who are never rescued, and forbids us to take toys, candy, or puppies from strangers (can’t promise I’ll stick to that last one), and suggests making a secret codeword with your family, in case someone says they’re here to pick you up. “If they don’t know it, you don’t wanna know them. Take it from me, Mr. T!” Like I said earlier, Mr. T talks, I listen, and I will not be talking to any more strangers. Unless they’ve got a free puppy, in which case, lemme in your dang van!

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.

First and Last: The Big Breakfast

•July 26, 2019 • 2 Comments

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Having previously covered Noel’s House Party, it was inevitable that I’d eventually tackle The Big Breakfast, which puts us at the dawn of that baffling period when the nation was bewitched by Chris Evans. Yet, even the most cynical can’t deny the show’s genuine innovation, in a time when all breakfast telly followed the same format; of well-behaved presenters discussing the day’s news, before cutting across to Gyles Brandreth for a section on hedge mazes. The Big Breakfast put radio’s Morning Zoo format onscreen to enormous success, and next to its rivals, it was like the switch from black and white to colour, destroying the fourth wall, and making characters of its crew, whose whoops and laughter formed a background battle cry of “look how much fun we’re having!” But like much of the culture from that era, its actual content has aged terribly.

Looking back, The Big Breakfast is the most 90’s thing imaginable, but with almost 2,500 episodes, it did slightly bleed into the 21st century, in the TV equivalent of coming out of a bathroom with an “I’d leave it a minute if i were you.” At the time, I fell right in the target demographic, with the show a constant bleary-eyed companion, as I moped around the house getting ready for school. Consequently, this rewatch gave me the morning equivalent of the Pavlovian dread that’s kindled by the theme music of one’s youthful Sunday evening viewing. By the time the little clock in the corner reached 8:35, I’d instinctively slunk out of the front door with my PE kit.

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In March of 1992, Channel 4 announced the cancellation of their morning magazine show, The Channel 4 Daily. Seeing opportunity, Bob Geldof combined his production company with the producers of C4’s hellish Friday night shock-festival, The Word, with the aim of bringing that same sense of lawlessness to breakfast television, which had thus far ignored the youth demographic altogether. One of 33 bids for the franchise, they were up against big boys like Granada and Central Television, but eventually swung it with Geldof’s promise of big celebrity interviews, having scored Nelson Mandela for the pilot.

Seeing it as punky alternative to the settees ‘n sweaters brigade, and with the aim of a televised morning radio show, anarchic DJ Chris Evans was in mind from the beginning, lured by the promise of creative freedom his radio bosses didn’t allow. Hundreds of women were auditioned for the co-host slot, eventually landing on Gaby Roslin; a late replacement for Emma Forbes, who pulled out at the 11th hour, over fears of a Word-like tone, and after taking offense at a joke about Live and Kicking co-host, Andi Peters. Puppet duo Zig and Zag were brought over from Irish TV, in the hopes they’d do for C4 what Roland Rat had done for TV-am, while presenters Mark Lamarr and Paula Yates were respectively drafted in from The Word and the Geldof household. The Big Breakfast debuted on 28 September 1992, at 7am.

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Free of the formal constrictions of a studio, everything takes place in a real house, formerly a lock-keeper’s cottage, plonked alongside the river like a Lego building on an empty playmat. Chris gives us a tour, which like everything else, is done at breathless pace, skidding though its walls and floors, each decorated in bright, cartoonish colours, and all shot on handheld, giving a constant sense of movement, next to the staid, sofa-locked formats of traditional breakfast television. But more than just the colour-scheme, at every turn, modern viewers are clued in that this is the 90s; the horrible 90s. Chris’s “wahey!” wackiness could only thrive in one decade, referring to pounds as “squid” and pushing his face right into the lens. Within minutes, he’s made mention of Page 3, Peter Stringfellow, and Princess Di, and joked of Neil Kinnock’s new radio show that “he’s on the air, but he still hasn’t got any! (hair) Wahey!

However, in 2019, knowing his future reputation as a backstage tyrant, it’s impossible not to find signs of that monstrous control freak behind the smile. Perhaps as early as 7:06am, we see the first flash of Evans’ temper, when a joke about keep fit videos being bad for your health sees one thrown into frame, cracking him painfully on the hand. The constant sycophantic laughter drops to a sudden silence, and he’s clearly seething. A few minutes later, he reads out a made-up fax from ‘Alf Garnett,’ which suggests he should be “the minister of fun.” Evans balls it up, with a miffed “that wasn’t very funny, why did we do that one?” and humourlessly points at an unseen writer — “sacked!” When, Gaby reads a genuine viewer fax accusing Chris of talking too fast, he switches to a mockingly slow monotone, until she tells him to stop. “Make up your bloody mind!” he says. Later he’ll halt the show to admonish people chatting on the floor, like a teacher; “don’t let us disturb you!

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While fresh and different on the surface, The Big Breakfast followed the same old beats as traditional breakfast TV. There’s a clock in the corner, and we’re only ten minutes in before the first cartoon. Three times an hour, they cut to the news and weather. Peter Smith, grey-haired and broad shouldered, perhaps the most dad-like of all newsreaders, sits in front of a lurid background of gradually shifting colours. His sheets of script are yolk-yellow; stories about politics, a train crash, and ending on a pair of dogs who can play the piano. Chris takes us through the day’s papers, with a Sun front page about their own Paula Yates, in trouble for not having a TV licence. The camera swings round, so the cheering crew can wave licences of their own.

As with Noel’s House Party, there’s a strong sense of false anarchy beneath the freckled fist of a ruthless dictator. Phone and fax numbers are repeated like a cult mantra, and each ad break’s preceded with a question, and the sing-along phrase “don’t phone, it’s just for fun!” with verbal castigation for any crew or host who forgets. When a viewer’s fax criticises the show as insulting garbage, Evans blows a raspberry at the camera, with a victorious “Yes! We don’t care!

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The speed of the show gives a constant sense of impatience in Evans, particularly when dealing with members of the public, either in person or over the phone. One game — Whose Washing Line is it Anyway? — has callers guess the identity of a celebrity via a series of abstract clues. Like all these sections, it’s phenomenally awkward; stilted conversations between a rushed host, and nervous callers, either talking over each other, or both waiting out the pauses. Chris gets huffy when someone doesn’t know the answer, “well, have a guess, then!” or when they’re too slow, “you’ve gotta be quicker, we’re on television.” During a later competition to win a stack of CDs, he tells a Scottish caller to “say och aye,” to which the Scotsman responds with a flat and firm “no.”

Joining Chris and Gaby in the house are a Family of the Week, a mum, dad and two sons from Liverpool. They’re a self-described ‘mad family’, of whom “people think we’re a bit crackers!” However, the mum’s sit-down section with Chris is painful; taking the piss with a bad scouse accent, and quizzing her about living in Aintree. “Do you ever go to the races?” “No.” “Did you go and see Michael Jackson when he played there?” “No.” What’s the family’s politics? She doesn’t like to talk about that, as she doesn’t understand it. As the mad mother meets television’s wacky young jester, he ends up asking whether they have a ticket system in their supermarket delicatessen, or if it’s just random queuing. Riveting stuff. But as always, it’s refreshing to see real people so blasé and unprepared, knowing that any family nowadays would be primed and self-aware, having whitened their teeth and been pre-selected based on their number of Instagram followers.

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Much of what everyone remembers from The Big Breakfast is in place from the very beginning. Alien puppets Zig and Zag, thrashing about and screaming over each other, give me a headache real quick, as they review a boxing game on the Megadrive; a console which trendy media mogul Chris Evans pronounces as “See-gah.” It’s all so rushed, the player character in the clip has been hastily named AAAA. Paula Yates interviews Joanna Lumley in her weird punk-luvvie style, of gushing compliments and clawing desperately towards smutty euphemisms on a giant bed. As Lumley talks of her hope of travelling to Tibet or India, Yates wonders if it doesn’t bother her, going to places where it’s “very, very primitive.”

Even Mark Lamarr’s first appearance is exactly as early viewers would remember; like he doesn’t want to be there, and might start throwing punches at any moment. He’s at a traffic jam in Leeds, stuffing various cheery weirdos into people’s passenger seats; an elderly accordion player, an opera singer, a laughter-yoga coach in a floppy hat. Not all the public are enthusiastic on giving rides — “no, I don’t know him” — and on the final segment, Lamarr’s forced to leap into the now-moving traffic for a victim. Showbiz gossip segment, Snap, Cackle and Pop, which by the end of the show’s run would be concerning itself with Britney’s love-life, opens with an earnest promotion for Cliff Richard’s latest tour with, as he calls them, “the Shads,” plus a new single featuring a voiceover by Terry Waite.

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Speaking of things that are hip, Geldof’s played up like a huge star; an unpredictable firebrand, randomly popping round corners or from behind chairs with his big smelly hair. He debuts by interviewing Australian prime minister, Paul Keating, then in trouble with the tabloids for putting his arm around the Queen. For someone sold as a puckish wildman, with his segment signalled by a crashing guitar riff and monochrome freeze-frame of him in cool shades where his name’s spelled wrong, Geldof is a dry, boring interviewer, eating up five minutes of his wacky “anything can happen!” show with a tedious chat about diplomatic protocol.

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But when it comes to jarring tone shifts, there’s frightful TV magic in the interview with a women only-days released from prison for her husband’s murder, which is markedly free from off-camera “waheys!” Gaby muddles the lady through a harrowing description of domestic violence, told with a borderline incomprehensible combination of nerves, heavy-accented broken English, and an almost completely-lost voice. It’s likely the only time during The Big Breakfast‘s run in which Gaby would casually ask “so, you then set fire to him, didn’t you?” Cut back to Chris, for a ‘helmet’ double entendre as he cues up a Blackadder clip.

Undoubtedly the oddest inclusion into this shrieking funhouse is a pre-recorded piece which you simply must allow me to cover in the detail it requires. The debut People’s Report, self-shot with a consumer-grade camcorder, features a middle-class old doctor; the director of public health for the Hull Public Authority; in what initially seems like a quickie joke satirising consumer shows, as he sternly tells us that more people should use hard toilet paper. But then it keeps going, in the morning’s longest segment by some distance. Soft toilet paper, you see, leads to dysentery, because it will “contaminate the wiping hand.” If you’re wondering ‘is some aul fella talking about getting shit on your hands?’ then yes, he is. In fact, he demonstrates as much, using a bottle of ink and a dirty finger. “The time has come to act!” he says, with his modern mission taking him to the streets to interrogate random, embarrassed people about how they clean their shitty anuses.

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For one mousy woman with huge glasses, soft toilet paper “is more absorbent. I get wet hands with hard,” inviting us to eat our breakfasts while picturing her getting piss on herself. Next, the doctor’s sat on the bog (fully clothed), explaining how visitors to his home are encouraged to combine one sheet of soft and one sheet of hard paper, before he’s off to test this in echoey public toilets. Stood by a row of urinals, he hands the soft-hard prototype to a confused-looking man, who takes it in a cubicle for a tryout. Thankfully it cuts to the flush and we don’t hear him shitting, but the doc’s there with a mic as soon as the door opens, asking for the verdict. “It’s fairly soft, and it protects your ‘ands.” Then, he’s talking to three small boys, who he’s also given paper to and told to do a shit while he stands outside the cubicle door with a mic. “Your fingers don’t go through it,” says one lad. Sadly for the doctor, a bigwig in manufacturing tells him his idea is “beyond current toilet paper technology,” so it’s either sore holes or pooey thumbs for the rest of us. Now, as described, you might be picturing this as an ironic skit with a wry smile. Nope. The launch of this radical new show curiously chose to devote a chunk of airtime to a po-faced segment about people getting feces on their hands when they wipe their arses.

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Even in this long dissection, I don’t have space to recant every myriad segment of an incredibly busy two hours, but must note a scene where Chris interviews a woman called Virginia Cheeseman and ‘Alf the hissing Cockroach’, plus a terribly cheap piece of television with a competition expert, suggesting contests viewers might like to enter. Her big tip is a competition from a nappy firm, “and all the answers are given in the leaflet, so it’s not difficult,” before giving out the address of a firm that prints tie-breaker slogan cheat books. Just in case it somehow slipped your mind which decade this is, the first Big Breakfast goes off air with the breaking news of an MP’s resignation, as Chris Evans suggests “the entire cast of Eldorado resign, and take up acting maybe!

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The Big Breakfast was an immediate success, doubling the viewers of Channel 4 Daily in its first week, and in its heyday, bringing in two million viewers, and 40% of Channel 4’s entire advertising revenue. Evans, having grown too big for the show, left in 1994, while Roslin’s departure followed in ’96, with Evans announcing on the radio, for a definitely-very-funny joke, that his former co-host was leaving because she was pregnant.

Following the original pair’s exit, there was an unsettled and revolving cast, initially taking in Paul Ross, Zoe Ball, Richard Orford, and Neighbours actor, Mark Little. Mark Lamarr left in ’96, replaced on Down Your Doorstep by Keith Chegwin, whose new role served to permanently reinvent him from has-been punchline into ironic ‘legend’. Yates was gone by ’95, after leaving Geldof for Michael Hutchence, in a scene which played out publicly, following an on-the-bed interview with such simmering sexual tension, they probably had to use the flopping husks of Zig and Zag to mop up the sheets. Vanessa Feltz took Yates’ place on the bed, but was replaced with Sara Cox after a sexed-up relaunch, tipping a plate of beans over the producer in response.

Flailing under its constantly shifting presenters, 1996 saw a fated relaunch with Sharron Davies and Rick Adams, boasting all the chemistry of a locked and darkened room. But as it hit the mid 90s, inevitably the show moved away from its kitsch beginnings to embrace the lad culture which was infecting everything, revelling in its own obnoxiousness with segments like Wet Bikini Birthdays, where a bikini-clad Jo Guest — whose very name incites horny cries of “Schwing! Schwing, schwing!” from the crew — is doused by buckets of water, as a giggling Cheggers dashes to cover her accidentally-exposed nipples; and all at ten-past-seven in the morning.

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This cultural period of fratty laddishness is what finally allowed for a combination of presenters that wouldn’t just stick, but usher in the biggest boom period since 1992. Denise van Outen and Johnny Vaughan were a perfect fit for the times; the Essex Girl and the Wideboy. With smutty banter and a sense they might be copping off with each other during the ads, the double-act were an enormous hit with viewers and critics. But by ’98, van Outen was gone (though she’d later return for another year in 2000), and the story of her replacement is the purest capsule of 90s Britain, with Melanie Sykes, Gail Porter and Caprice all losing out to Kelly Brook. However, Brook, then only twenty, lasted a mere six months, under heavy tabloid speculation that she struggled with the autocue, and that longer words had to be written out phonetically.

By 2001, the show was in trouble again. Ratings had fallen by 50% over the last five years, and a stand-off with C4, who refused to increase Vaughan’s fee, had resulted in him quitting, with Richard Bacon taking the chair. The bad feeling over Vaughan’s departure, coupled with poor ratings — by the end, barely doing 250,000 viewers; sliding under the 400,000 of Channel 4 Daily — led to The Big Breakfast‘s cancellation, after almost five-thousand hours of television.

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The final episode, airing on 29th March, 2002, is a nightmarish ride through the eight levels of Hell, extended to 3 exhausting hours. They’re selling it, not as a cancellation or ending, but an early 10th birthday party, with a raucous end-of-term atmosphere. Presenters Richard Bacon and Amanda Byram are virtually lost in a sea of glitter and balloons, hooting crew and minor celebrities. Ralf Little’s there. So’s Richard Whiteley, Tamer Hassan and Linda Lusardi. There are Page 3 girls in bikinis, and half a dozen dwarves dressed as Christmas elves.

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From the opening second, the almost-fatally hyperactive Bacon’s bouncing off the walls, excitedly pointing out famous faces. Look, there’s Vanessa Feltz! There’s Penny from Big Brother — “she doesn’t look like a man anymore!” He bursts out of the patio doors revealing a huge crowd of 500 cheering fans crammed in the garden, before thrusting the mic at a woman who doesn’t want to be on camera. At 7:08am, twitchy Bacon knocks over a vase, before going over the day’s papers, held aloft by guests. Danny Dyer brandishes The Sun‘s front-page about underpaid foreign workers in care homes, headlined as THE SLAVE NURSES. “Sounds kinky!” says Byram. Bacon runs through his topical gags, announcing then-17-year-old Prince Harry, suffering with glandular fever, “has a sexually transmitted disease!” Harry’s got painful joints — “not again… don’t put the lit end in your mouth!” and Hollywood legend Billy Wilder has died — “Director of ‘Some Like it Hot’… some like him cold!

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Little seems to remain from the first episode, beyond the desperate need to be madcap. A decade on, newsreader Peter Smith’s gone, with the super glam Jasmine Lowson in his place. The headlines are a portrait of a depressingly changeless world; suicide bombings, missing girls, and a sausage dog that’s dressed like Ali G. I’m not saying they’ve sexed things up in the intervening years, but she closes the weather by promising “the south will get it in the mouth” from regular showers. Zig and Zag, who left the show in ’98, make their return, to ask Jon Culshaw what Tony Blair would say about all this. Satan, grant me the strength to make it through the next 2 ¾ hours.

Keith Chegwin’s final section sees him out and about in Stevenage, trying to bury a Big Breakfast time capsule in someone’s back garden. Christ, I hope Richard Bacon’s going in. Cheggers’ voice is fading, running madly to knock on a random door with that classic Noel Edmonds air of “Oh, God, it’s all going wrong on live TV!” when nobody answers. Eventually, he cajoles a neighbour downstairs; an old fella in a dressing down who’s unenthused when Cheggers gives it the big sell, asking “will the council allow it?” At the burial site, he chats with a woman who’s genuinely traumatised, in floods of tears because the BB is ending. “It just won’t be the same in the mornin’,” she says, wiping her eyes.

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Keith mentions it’s his first time in lovely Stevenage, until the mayor reminds him he switched on the Christmas lights a few months earlier, while at the burial, he announces they’re in Peterborough, before correcting himself. He then drops a badge in the time capsule with “we’re putting a pride of… er, um, [cough] [panicking handflap] STEVENAGE badge in there!” It’s clear the assembled public, including the mayor, house owners, and certainly the sobbing woman, believed the time capsule would be a proper thing; a future tourist attraction of great cultural importance; and seem baffled as they’re made to fill it with a wig, a plastic lobster, and a piece of sellotape with Chegwin’s tummy hairs on it. As it’s lowered into the hole, a(nother) dwarf dressed like Napoleon plays the Last Post on a little horn. Incredibly, the upset woman appears to be deeply moved, shoulders shaking and blubbing away.

Throughout, there are bitter asides to the other, more boring shows that’ll be left in the wake of their departure; “the dark side,” and “the news and snooze.” They ask callers if they’ll be watching these dreary lesser horrors; “oh, definitely,” they all say, misunderstanding the question. An outside broadcast sees Mike ‘Squeaky’ McClean, an oily-haired jack the lad type, delivering The Big Breakfast‘s enormous twenty-foot garden gnome to a new home. In a defiant twist, they dump it outside the Channel 4 building, amended with a pair of fingers flicking the vees at their old bosses. Tee hee. Various video messages drop in, from such celebrity well-wishers as Atomic Kitten and Samantha Mumba, plus the present-day Republican Dad Squad of Mel Gibson, Twitter moron James Woods, and Jon Voight, who warns “when you get to my age, people can think you’re losing it!Uh huh. All it’s missing is a cheery goodbye from Savile.

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With footage from the 2,481 previous episodes at their disposal, there’s surprisingly little harking back to past glories, barring a section where viewers vote to choose between VHS tapes of purported best bits, with labels like ‘Hollyoaks Hotties‘ and ‘Chris Eats Turd‘. The latter, showcasing Evans in full enfant terrible attention-seeking mode, appalling an archaeologist by chewing on a 1,500-year-old fossilised poo, inexplicably loses to a clip of Denise van Outen confessing to nicking some tissues from Buckingham Palace. Still, if you want to watch Chris Evans eat shit, just look at the ratings for all his big television comebacks over the last decade.

Though there’s a prevailing sense of contrived disorder, the ‘no teachers, no rules’ vibe often threatens to genuinely spill over. Gary Beadle from Eastenders spends his time in the wings doing ‘funny’ heckling, with Bacon telling him to shut up, leading to a back-and-forth which goes from jokey to genuine annoyance. Possibly that’s who he’s addressing later, with an oddly-parental warning of “honestly, man, you’ll be escorted off the floor in a minute.” When Amanda runs out to greet the fans, she lets out a pained “ow!” as a man behind the railing gropes her, with a shocked “he just squeezed my boob!” as everyone laughs like it’s hilarious.

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Because it’s 2002, there’s the added wildcard element of Johnny Vegas, seen at the height of his ‘drunkenly hijacking every show’ period, slurring and yelling, and barging into shot to interrupt whatever’s going on. At the time, this seemed funny and anarchic, but in hindsight, it feels like depressing enabling. We go to a break with the foghorn irritant trying to induce birth in a heavily pregnant woman by screaming up her vagina. Later, geed up by the audience chanting his name, Vegas tears off his shirt like Hulk Hogan, demanding producers not cut to the ads as, like a child showing you a handstand — “watch this, watch this!” — he runs full-force into the crowd to ‘stage dive’, knocking over bystanders like bowling pins, while the presenters stand open-mouthed. It’s unclear if the pregnant woman was among them, but she’s never referred to again. As a live performance by the So Solid Crew is put on hold while they wait for vocalist Megaman to arrive, he’s stupidly given a megaphone to freestyle a rap, shouting the line “you’re like a black boy, but you’re white,” before it’s hurriedly taken off him. It’s here that Vegas disappears for an hour, presumably either removed, or collapsed face-down on the floor of some luridly coloured cottage room.

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It all feels like the series of random visions you see when you die, if you’ve been particularly bad; say, committed a holocaust or stood on a dog’s foot. Lisa Rogers points out the World’s Smallest Man, who’s stood outside with a flag stuck down his back, because “he’s a trip hazard, and we don’t wanna be tripping over him.” Later, Richard Bacon gets him to do a handstand. Richard Whiteley’s spun around ten times, and sent across an assault course with two trays of tea. Fashion designer Wayne Hemingway is embarrassed by old photos, Noel’s House Party style. Jon Culshaw’s asked, again and again, what George Bush would say; what Tom Baker would say; and all the voices are the same. Elderly clockwork radio inventor Trevor Baylis touches Johnny Vaughan’s arm, inciting a jokey yet aggressive “don’t touch me up!” Byram asks a caller if they’re doing anything as electric as they are at the Big Breakfast, nonsensically suggesting they “go and play with a kettle.” On and on it goes, and I’m sorry, Lord, so sorry for what I have done.

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Like the quiz call-ins, the most awkward sections are any interaction with a civilian; bags of nerves waiting to be cued for their stilted soundbites, in segments under the gun of an unseen producer screaming in the presenter’s earpiece. Here, Lisa Rogers introduces some “completely bonkers” past guests in a wildly disastrous section. There are men with terrible back tattoos — Irish band the Coors and Buffy for one; a full Star Trek piece for another, with the perplexing choice of Scott Bakula’s forgotten captain across his chest — and a ten-year-old boy, born on the day The Big Breakfast launched. Face stern and arms folded, he refuses her offer of a balloon, or indeed, to present more than monosyllabic grunts. She chides him for not speaking, moving on to some fuckin’ nerd playing air guitar, who ends up on his back on the grass, and though he’s nowhere near her skirt, Rogers clasps her crotch, shrieking “Zac just saw my fanny! Look at the smile on his face!” 1992’s very first Family of the Week are there, with the younger brother aghast when Rogers chats to the others, and blows right past him like he’s not there. Finally, two little boys are given five seconds to perform ukuleles, but one stands frozen. “Brilliant!” she says, “just as bonkers as ever!

It’s all so relentlessly loud and fast, I feel a hundred years old, but at 9:16am, they drop the pretence, taking down the 10th birthday banner to reveal a solemn black sign reading ‘IT’S THE LAST SHOW EVER‘. From here, it’s tribute time, as a now-bearded Evans reminisces in the LA sunshine about his “temper tantrums,” highlighted by a clip of him taking a snowball to the face and storming off — “there’s no need for that.” Tellingly, Gaby says she’ll not have a bad word against Chris, “no matter what anyone says.” Oh, and what’s everyone saying? Conversely, he says she was wonderful, but “one of the biggest prudes I’ve ever met, she’s actually cold, she’s so frigid!” I guess she wasn’t a fan of him constantly getting his dick out? This is illustrated with a clip of Gaby straight-up fellating a glowing lolly under a blanket.

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Pointedly, a bunch of presenters get no mention, with zero footage of Kelly Brook, Sharon Davies, Rick Adams, Lily Savage, and others who’re written out of history, possibly to make room for the celebration of legendary broadcaster, Paul Ross. He’s shown here at his best, with clips of him missing the birth of his daughter by being on air, and marching unannounced into an admittedly-filthy living room at 7am, berating the dressing-gown clad owner for living in “a slut’s den!” Evans and Vaughan bemoan C4 killing off such a strong brand, though clips of the latter’s boorish sex-banter with van Outen, and Evans admitting he used to fall off his chair on purpose, make you glad to see the back of it. Sadly, they don’t show that old bloke going on about people’s shitty fingers.

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In the last fifteen minutes, the emotion kicks in, with a wobbly-voiced Bacon reading a lengthy, and absurdly genuine letter of thanks from Prince Charles, who I’m sure loved all Johnny Vaughan’s “I’ve got a cock up my end!” shite. Our future king speaks on the “immense pity when an institution fades,” perhaps with a sideways glance at his immortal mother. Then, with an audible “Oh my God!” as Johnny Vegas staggers into shot with a pint glass, The Big Breakfast‘s final moments manifest as a berserk End of Days carnival. The sky darkens with confetti, as Gabriel’s Trumpet comes in a dirge of party blowers and a marching band, and hundreds of people lose their minds. A frenzied Richard Bacon, now half-animal, leads a damned conga line out of the garden, followed by guests, crew, and someone dressed like a medieval king in trainers, holding a confused dog in the air. One presumes the Crying Woman of Stevenage is disembowelling herself in the throes of a dread ecstasy. With a final wave, it’s over, with that trope of a camera moving through the cottage, now empty, and haunted by the ghosts of old soundbites. Some say you could even hear one yourself. Switch off your TV and stare quietly at the blank screen, and there, on the winds… do you hear it? A plaintive, distant call from the spectre of our past — “Wahey!

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.

Colonel Spokes

•July 23, 2019 • Leave a Comment

This is the only known footage of Colonel Spokes, also known as the Rumble Tumble Man, or Ernie Tattles. A familiar sight to motorists of West Sussex throughout the 1970s and ’80s, local legend puts him as the only survivor of a terrible car accident which took his entire family. As a result, he never got behind the wheel again, switching to his famous bicycle, and becoming a roadside spectacle to warn speeding drivers from a similar fate. Or perhaps to distract them straight to it.

Those who witnessed him as children, from the backs of their parents’ cars, will vividly remember passing Spokes at the side of a roundabout, only to see him at the next one too, some miles down the road; bike on its stand, cream suit immaculate. Spot him beside a single roundabout, and he’d be at every one, yet for the adults, each encounter was always the day’s first, never recalling how they’d passed him down the road. “Oh, there’s Mr. Tattles,” they’d say, or “look, children, it’s the Rumble Tumble Man,” and the kids who dared glance up would catch his eye, as they had twenty miles back, and as they knew they would again, craning out of the back window to see his white gloves waving a “ta-ta, for now!” No matter how fast you were travelling, no matter how far you drove, he’d always be waiting.

I saw him myself on a number of occasions, doffing his hat as my mum excitedly told me to “salute the Colonel,” and passing so close as to note the unsettlingly pink hue of his skin; like a child’s felt-tip drawing of their father. Like a lot of kids from around here, I got in trouble for tipping drawing pins and nails all over the road outside our house. I didn’t want to lay in bed at night and hear the noises my classmates talked about. The ding of a bell. A bicycle stand being kicked into place. Jaunty footsteps dancing up the garden path.

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.

Great Moments in Pop Culture – Byker Grove Nukes the Fourth Wall

•July 16, 2019 • 1 Comment

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[Previous Great Moments: “I’m Not a Real Witch”Jimmy Stewart’s Yeti FingerJames Cameron Digs Up ChristMr. T Thanks His MotherRicky Gervais Has a Fight]

Long-running shows often get defined by their endings, good or bad, which retroactively colour the perception of a series as a whole, like The Sopranos’ cut to black, or the denouement of Lost, which was generally-beloved for the bulk of its run, but clouded by an unpopular final season. As I write this, squealing man-babies are voting next week’s Game of Thrones 1/10 on imdb before it’s even aired. But there’s one show in particular whose ending was so magnificently out of character, nobody speaks about or remembers it; like the myth of the natives who’d never seen a ship before, rendering the Conquistadors’ fleet invisible to their eyes.

Byker Grove, for those unaware, was a CBBC teen soap set in a Newcastle youth club, supervised by a man who looked like he ran a Victorian workhouse. To me, who grew up in an area there was nothing to do but play football or hang around corners spitting, youth clubs seem about as real a setting as a moon colony. Regardless, by constantly refreshing its cast, with the oldest kids leaving for a new batch of youngsters every year, there were a lot of episodes, with 344 in total from 1989 to 2006. 343 of those were relatively grounded, in that drama-school way of exploring issues through children’s television, albeit issues that could go out at ten-to-five after school.

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All the usual topics were covered; teenage romances, drugs, troubled-but-good kids from care homes, a running feud with the bad lads and lasses of rival club, Denton Burn, (like Grange Hill’s St. Joseph’s), and a boy who kissed another boy on the cheek at the cinema in 1994, which naturally lead to The Sun calling for Byker‘s producer to be sacked. The show wasn’t afraid to go dark, having a girl be electrocuted to death in a flooded kitchen, a kid get crippled after falling from the roof, and killing off manager Geoff in a gas explosion (where his facial hair must’ve gone up like a fucking rocket). Most famously, there was the blinding of PJ after taking a pair of paintballs to the eyes. Incidentally, I once had a dream about touring the country’s schools with an enormous oil painting of that scene; a dream so vivid, to this day, I have trouble separating it from my real memories.

Like most soaps, it could be slightly wacky, like when Duncan rescued a a girl from a cult; a girl who’d later go onto form a real-life pop duo with castmate Donna Air, in one of the many musical acts to result from Byker Grove. But despite the occasional silliness, it never took one of those outright turns into fantasy that I love; like that time The Waltons had a poltergeist. And that’s what makes the finale all the more bamboozling, as if Eastenders, for all its implausible murders, accidents, and toothless gangster shit, suddenly did an alien invasion storyline, where Ian Beale was forced to mate with a giant cockroach, and shown giving birth to a litter of hybrid space-children right out of his arse.

02

When I first learned about Byker Grove‘s final episode, I figured it must be Wikipedia vandalism. Christ knows what the audience thought at the time, though by 2006, I was 27, and my tastes had switched to more grown-up viewing, such as internet pornography. It seems to have been pretty normal right up until the very end, with the penultimate couple of shows centring on the Grove being sold off, in the classic Evil Property Developer bit, plus a story where “Hayley learns the shocking truth about her disappearing father.” Unless the shocking truth is he’s a werewolf, nothing would’ve prepared the viewers for what was to come.

There are warning signs of its cack-handed pretension from the very title of the episode, DEUS EX MACHINA, literally rendered onscreen in the fucking Papyrus font from Avatar and your geocities website of Final Fantasy midis. We open on the camera moving through the Grove, past a tableaux of frozen characters, in poses typical of such Mannequin Challenge shots; hula-hooping; dropping trays of drinks (everyone always drops stuff right before they get Bullet-Timed); the air filled with a flow of spilled milkshakes, juggling clubs and paper planes caught mid-flight; all set to the music of Gollum’s Song from The Two Towers.

03

The Grove’s manager, Akili, walks through, seemingly untouched by time. “It’s started,” he says. “What’s started?” thinks a statue-child. “I can’t move,” another. “Of course you can’t,” adds a third, “they haven’t written anything yet.” Yes, the cast of Byker Grove, after 343 episodes of rote storylines about crushes, have suddenly hit on the horrible truth — they’re just characters in a TV show; a TV show that’s about to be cancelled because of “the people who make us do what we do,” aka the writers.

The fact they’re frozen because there’s no script suggests this is their normal, between-episode state; paused, yet fully-conscious, locked in the limbo that exists between the end credits of one episode and the start of the next. Poor PJ must have been silently screaming with paint in his eyes for days, to say nothing of the surely-agonising months-long gaps between series. And now, they’re faced with that deepest of existential human horrors; not just that nothing matters, but that nothing’s real, especially not you.

04

Lines of dialogue bat back and forth between close-ups of unmoving faces, like the brilliant box task from Big Brother 6, as children ponder the grisly truth; there is no destiny; no free will. As we all secretly fear, they’re merely the playthings of an unseen creator; Sims shut inside door-less rooms, to stand knock-kneed and piss ourselves for their voyeuristic amusement; dropping us into swimming pools with no ladders to flail until we drown. “We’re not real,” says one, “we’re just characters in a story.”

Once they unfreeze, some take it better than others, with many blaming this unseen trickster for their weekly teenage woes. For one gangly lad, “that explains why I never got off with Hayley!” A boy called Stumpy freaks out, with cries of “How can we not be real? We’re here! We exist!” while one girl snaps altogether, becoming gripped with a desperate religious mania. Wearing a THE END IS NIGH sandwich board, she screams at the Creator for mercy, falling to her knees to plead with the “great and glorious Scribe!” not to abandon them.

05

After a phonecall from the Creator, a stack of blank paper magically appears on Akili’s desk, with each character handed a sheet to write their personal ending. “It may be the only chance to save the Grove… and ourselves.” Now, handing a bunch of teenagers the opportunity to shape their own reality seems dangerous. The 14-year-old me, given the chance, would’ve scribbled myself a place in the Liverpool FC squad, a trendy curtains haircut, and Madusa from WCW walking round my room with her knockers out. Byker Grove‘s gang of teens don’t fare much better. One kid gets one of those ‘squeaky voice on the other end’ phonecalls you don’t see on TV these days, from Alan Sugar, buying his business for £5m. Another’s magically running her own modelling agency, though is appalled to find one of the Grove’s dweebs has written himself as her husband, forcing a kiss on her (though she later re-writes it so they’re divorced). But it’s when her coffee cup starts shaking things get really weird.

At this point, let’s take a quick moment to remind ourselves this is Byker Grove, a show that exists on the same level of reality as a Grange Hill, or a Holby City, so it’s pretty startling when a dinosaur appears at the window. The full-sized, roaring T-Rex stomps into frame, as the sting from Jurassic Park plays. We even get an inside-of-mouth POV shot as it rears down on the boys who wrote it into life, before handily defending them against the flesh-eating zombie mummies that’ve shambled into the club. Once the zombies are defeated, they get rid of the dinosaur by summoning a UFO to disintegrate it, before flying back to Mars. The effects are as shitty as the terrible acting, with PS1-cutscene spaceships and mummy costumes straight from the 70’s Doctor Who dressing-up bin.

06

While this is going on, Akili reveals the basement, or, what used to be the basement, has been eaten by an encroaching void. The glowing white limbo-space has seemingly devoured the outside world, and is gradually disappearing the Grove — “it’s the end of our world!” The only way to stop it is by saving the Grove from being sold, but they can’t buy it with the £5m from Alan Sugar, as the money’s been eaten by the void — “The writer clearly wants us to come up with a believable ending!” — so they decide to hold a protest. I got excited when they suggested getting all the old members down to join, figuring we’d be seeing Spuggy and the Dobson sisters, Geoff’s ghost waving like in Return of the Jedi, and even Ant and Dec, taking an afternoon off from force-feeding bowls of alligator clits to former members of the Blazin’ Squad.

Sadly, despite having the power to make literally anything happen, it seems they can’t convince wealthy ex-cast members to put in a cameo, instead just lazily referring to “old faces” in the couple of dozen protesters chanting “SAVE OUR GROVE!” though there clearly aren’t any. As a JCB rolls in, it’s your “save the youth club from evil property developers” plot that I’ve suffered through many times on Patreon, though this is a direct appeal to their God, with the pious girl looking to the sky, arms outstretched, pleading for mercy from “oh great scribe!

07

It’s then that Stumpy rocks up in a limo, having frantically dug up the grounds in search for Geoff’s time capsule, but instead finding a glowing treasure chest filled with gold bullion. Stashed years ago by a local bank robber, he used it to outbid the developers and buy the Grove, vowing to keep it open forever. So, the club is saved, and all is well, as everybody celebrates inside. Except, that is, for some last-minute drama in stopping a pair of nihilistic little girls in army fatigues, who rigged the place with dynamite, intending to blow it up, rather than be destroyed by the writers. A couple of lads go on a desperate dash to stop them, and of course, get there just in time. Except, they don’t.

After 17 years and roughly 143 hours of television, the final shot of Byker Grove shows an explosive plunger being pushed down, setting off the dynamite, and presumably killing everyone inside. It cuts to a blinding white light, some 3 years ahead of Lost using the same device to cliffhang a season finale, and strongly implying that, whether lost to the void, or merely blown to bits, every one of those kids is fucking dead. Pre-credits, we’re shown a montage of old cast photos. They’re all there; Spuggy, Jill Halfpenny, PJ and Duncan, even Geoff’s funeral; all played to a haunting silence. So too, the end credits are silent, and though a split-second blast of music suggests it might be an error with my copy, it does seem fitting, as there’s no appropriate musical accompaniment to dragging your young audience down into existential Hell.

08

Despite its ideas, DEUS EX MACHINA‘s played a lot lighter than it reads here, even in a scene which amounts to the all-is-lost suicide pact trope (think the grenade in the tunnel in Aliens), where a boy tries to convince a girl he fancies into taking his hand and walking into the void. The whole thing’s replete with wacky sound effects and record-scratch noises, and the moments that feel most genuine are when it uses the ‘write your ending’ powers to tie up existing plotlines; mending broken friendships, and bringing back a missing sister who ran away the previous episode, before it all went bollock-out wild. Personally, I’m not worried about my own characters realising they’re imaginary, as I pile them with such a continual weight of misery, they’ve probably killed themselves by now. Judging by the last 40 years, my own mighty Scribe has been doing much the same.

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