Especially September 1993 when the only children's channel available on the Astra satellite had been...well, The Children's Channel. And until recently, that had only been on until 10am thanks to channel sharing in much the same way Cbeebies and BBC Four do now. I'd been sat there all summer waiting for something good to come on and now I'm off back to school, you do this to me? Children be damned, September 1st 1993 saw the launch of Sky Multi Channels, its first real step into charging for its non-sport or film programming with fifteen paid-for stations including relative newcomers UK Living, QVC, UK Gold, Discovery Channel and Ten Free Minutes Of The Adult Channel.
But most exciting of all these was Nickelodeon, an incredibly American-looking station at a time where American things were unspeakably fascinating and exotic. A channel we now associate with mad cartoons and colourful teen comedies and yet looking back at that first schedule the first three programmes shown by the new Brit Nick were unspeakably twee British animation “James The Cat”, Bob Godfrey's evergreen “Roobarb” and sixties Mr Magoo cartoons. This was followed by “Guts”, a game show of the sort most common on Saturday mornings in the UK and presented by Peter Simon, and the well meaning but spine-splinteringly rotten “Kids Court” in which kids would be jury to extremely petty claims. The rest of the day wouldn't be much better with regular doses of things even my TV-obsessed brain can't (or wont) picture - “Rabbit Ears”, “Janosch's Dreamhour” (running time: 30 minutes) and “The Wild Side Show”.
But that’s not to say animation didn’t feature. Other than Magoo and things that were on UK kids TV a decade earlier, there was “David The Gnome”, a Tom-Bosley voiced Spanish cartoon that may have been the dullest thing ever broadcast outside of a prisoner detention centre. But mostly it was noisy game shows and slick but not especially funny sitcoms like “Hey Dude” (kids in a dude ranch), “Salute Your Shorts” (kids in a summer camp) and “Welcome Freshmen” (kids in an um...school). Most fondly remembered (for various age-appropriate reasons) was “Clarissa Explains It All”, an achingly hip day-glo look into a teen girl's life which was smart, original and actually capable of producing a laugh. Of course it didn't hurt that Melissa Joan Hart was impossibly cute to my five years younger self. I even read the ghostwritten Clarissa column that appeared in the News of The World! (Oh yes, this existed...)
|Viewers saw this slide throughout August 1993. Torture it were.|
What about these exciting “Nicktoons” the promotional material mentioned? In the US, the first three cartoons to come under this banner were all launched the same day in August 1991 – “Rugrats”, “Doug” and “The Ren and Stimpy Show” – two whole years earlier! So where the bloody hell were they in the UK? Well, “Rugrats” had been bought by the Beeb who immediately put it into heavy rotation on both BBC1 and 2's children's slots from April 1993. And “Doug” appeared on Channel 4 before moving over to ITV. The slightly more anarchic oddness of “The Ren and Stimpy Show” would find a perfect home on BBC Two's later teen DEF II block, with a same week post-midnight repeat on Fridays to freak out people just getting back from the pub. All would make it onto Nickelodeon UK in the following few months but there were clearly heavy rights issues to tackle first. And its perhaps this reason why “Rocko's Modern Life” just tiptoed in and became the first regular Nicktoon to make it onto its parent channel in this country.
Created by Californian animator Joe Murray, Rocko’s Modern Life was first broadcast in the US on September 18th 1993 – an impressive feat in the wake of all that led up to it including Murray's wife committing suicide two months prior to production – and introduced viewers Rocko, a sweet natured but exceptionally unlucky wallaby leaving the family home and making a new (modern) life for himself. The cast of characters included his idiot friend Heffer Wolfe (who in a nod to The Jerk’s Navin R Johnson fails to realise he's adopted, despite living in a family of wolves) and Filburt, a bespectacled turtle with unusually detailed OCD issues.
The tone of the series was not quite as unruly as Ren and Stimpy but undoubtedly had a more adult edge that crept under the radar. Be it the episode “Dirty Dog” in which the action is given over to the traditional old-school sitcom style adventures of Bloaty and Squirmy, two parasites living in the fur of Rocko’s dog Spunky. Or a local fast food eatery being named “Chokey Chicken”. Or there's the time Rocko gets a job at a (never mentioned but specifically implied) sex line. There's even a 1996 episode which bites the hand of professional animation where the characters create a “random humour” cartoon that becomes a smash hit, particularly an episode than consists of nothing but a stock image of a mayonnaise jar for half an hour.
When asked by network execs to add "a professional woman...with a good hook", Murray and writer / director Doug Lawrence invented the over-enthusiastic dentist Dr. Paula Hutchinson - a professional woman with an actual hook in place of one of her hands. The fact that this character later marries and has children with Filburt also points to something slightly more special than its cartoon counterparts with a level-headed approach at off-kilter topics, such as Heffer's aforementioned adoption storyline or Rocko being seduced by bored housewife neighbour Bev Bighead. A deft handling of issues with episodes often ABOUT SOMETHING whilst remembering to actually be funny.
There's allegedly a revival film on the way whilst best of DVDs recently appeared in Poundland but its a poor legacy for something that may not have been as headline-grabbing as its stable-mate “The Ren And Stimpy Show”, but is still a sharp, funny show in 2017. All 52 episodes of the cartoon are a joy to watch and watch again and certainly don’t suffer from the joyless grind of post-John K "Ren and Stimpy". (Or for that matter, 2000's “lets say they’re a gay couple and smash people’s brains in for no good reason” "Ren and Stimpy".) Even when Joe Murray steps down as executive producer after three seasons, new show-runner Stephen Hillenburg keeps things fun, no doubt picking up many valuable lessons for when it came for his own creation “Spongebob Squarepants” to appear on the channel in 1999.
|...watch and watch again....watch and watch again...|