Thursday, 23 February 2017

Happy Birthday 2000AD: Madness In Mega City One

Depending on whether you believe the actual release date or the one if the cover, its generally round about the 40th anniversary of 2000AD, a comic it took my younger mind a long time to get into the spirit of, especially when compared to the slightly more sedate sausage-snaffling and smacked slippers antics of DC Thomson characters. Even the slightly more chaotic characters of 2000D's publisher IPC (later Fleetway) couldn't prepare me for the sheer amount of ideas going on in an average issue, not to mention the bafflement at the long-running sagas of the likes of Celtic warrior Slaine, batshit good vs. evil to the extremes battler Nemesis The Warlock and future robot soldier action in ABC Warriors.

Judge Dredd was always incredibly simple to understand though. There were bad guys and then there was Dredd. Occasionally you might agree with the reasons behind what the bad guys were doing  - its tough, after all, living in a future dystopian USA (now named Mega City One) where residents are crammed into "blocks" up to 50,000 at a time, all named after ridiculous famous types (real and fictional) - but you knew ultimately that in the end, they were still bad guys and Dredd was...Dredd. No contest. Justice always prevails. And if you knew all this and feel like you're being told how to suck off your grandma's eggs (NB: check phrase before publishing) then congratulations, five years into the Iso-Bins, you grud-sucking Bennett Beany wannabe.

Ultimately, whilst more outright comedic strips like Ace Trucking Co and DR & Quinch were my real entry point over into the 'Greatest Comic in the Galaxy' through reprints, one of the biggest influences on me becoming interested in 2000AD to begin with was none other than Suggs. No, not Mean Machine's beloved Sarah "Seven-Pound Sadie" Suggs but Suggs. Off of Night Fever. And the "Full House" advert ("and puzzles all for 40p!") Oh and ska pop legends Madness, who were the first band I became absolutely obsessed with thanks to their fun easy-going singles that everyone in my family seemed to adore and were about to make a big comeback with the "Divine Madness" compilation and return of "It Must Be Love" to the top ten.

When reading one of the many articles heralding their return I learnt that Suggs and Chas Smash after the Madness split had done a one-off 2000AD themed single in the mid 80s. The idea baffled me even when I learnt that the band had started its own Virgin Records sub-label "Zarjazz" in 1984 named after a term used in the comic by its fictional editor Tharg The Mighty to describe something excellent. When I saw the characters the pair were meant to be dressed as, I was even more confused...

"Mean Machine" and Fink Angel (the duo on the right of the above foursome) were two of the nasty low-down rotters that made up the Angel Gang, a family of variously mutated criminals that live in the post-apocalyptic Cursed Earth, distinguishable by, in turn, a dial on Mean's forehead that controls his anger and a green skeletal look from a life spent living in holes away from the family home. So, how did that translate to the ex-Nutty Boy cosplayers? You decide.

Personally, I think its surprisingly decent for 1985 (if a tad Wurzel Gummidge in Space) with Suggs quoted as saying "we wanted as much as possible to make it like the comic, not just a record by a couple of out-of-work pop stars" and even seemed to stand up to the stresses of performing. And boy, did they perform! A lot! Popping up on kids programmes all over, such as this truly strange "Saturday Starship" appearance...

Or for a bit of additional wire-work and break dancers (!), there's the slightly hipper "ORS'85" (the new name for the pop 'n' issues for YOUNG ADULTS series The Oxford Road Show) that cuts back to an out of character pair at the end, which seems a bit of a swizz after the previous clips' commitment to the full character bit.

As for the song itself, its a fun if not exactly Cursed Earth-shattering bit of electro pop with hip hop beats, brass and lots of catchphrase bellowing just about passing in places for rap. "We wanted to make an electro/hip-hop record like the ones we'd heard in the New York clubs", Suggs told Smash Hits. Whilst you cant imagine the hippest denizens of NYC grooving down to the Judgin' jives, its also nothing like their former band and had they made one of the oft-mooted Dredd movies in the 80s, it would've fit perfectly over the end credits.

There were other songs based in the big Meg, such as the slightly point-missing "I Am The Law" by The Human League from the massive "Dare" album, "Judge Y'Self" by the Manic Street Preachers (demoed for the movie but unfinished until 2003 due to 2000AD fan Richey's still unsolved disappearance) and the popular but dreadful Anthrax who wrote a song absolutely packed with knowledge about the strip but also filled it with lyrics like:

They call him Judge, his last name is Dredd
So break the law, and you may wind up dead
Truth and justice are what he's fighting for
Judge Dredd the man, he is the law

Yeah. Tell 'em Steve-Dave.

Sadly "Mutants In Mega City One" was far from a (Chas) Smash, peaking at 50 in the charts on 16th February 1985 and staying in the top 75 for just four weeks. A disappointment after so much publicity - and no more so than in the pages of 2000AD itself which even permitted an exclusive Brian Bolland-painted cover of Dredd as the single artwork - but a noble endeavour entered into with full gusto by two men who clearly genuine fans of the thing they were promoting. As Smash said "For anyone who had any interest in the Marvel comics when they were young, they just didn't change over the years. Nothing really happens....I think the very real appeal of 2000AD is that it turns everything upside down: heroes may die and things aren't always as they seem". In today's climate, where comics are mostly bags of toys tied to a licence and pop is Chris Martin dueting with Chris Martin in honour of the late Chris Martin, we could definitely use a little more of that uncertainty, experimentation and - dare I say it? - madness.

Happy birthday 2000AD. Here's to 40 more zarjazz years.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Seven Richard Curtis Things I'd Much Rather See A Sequel To Than Love Actually

Trump. Brexit. Trousers.

I dont know what any of these mean as I never watch the news but I'm led to believe by several of the Prosecco fangroups I'm in on Facebook that Richard Curtis has decided to mount a mini-sequel to his 2003 hit movie "Love Actually" on Red Nose Day's big fund-raising programme this March 24th. To say I'm excited would be an understatement! I wish I could say which of the awful characters I couldn't give a damn about I'm most looking forward to returning. I hope Andrew Lincoln is back with his fucking signs.

And then Rachel gets punched in the face.
Yeah, its fair to say I don't like "Love Actually" very much. That’s not to say there aren’t good things in it - Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson in particular are a master-class in the acting of pain - but they all seem from different films entirely with no real through-line binding any of it together. Even Curtis' unspeakably twee previous film - 1999's "Notting Hill" - is a proper MOVIE about actual thought out characters, which "Love Actually" never feels like. It wants to be Robert Altman but its more a sketch movie with pretensions of grandeur.

Still, its no surprise he fancies a sequel considering the original came out in a year when the world's highest grossing films included "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King", "The Matrix Reloaded", "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines", "The Matrix Revolutions", "X-Men 2" and "Bad Boys II". Its no wonder that first "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie seemed so fresh and exciting back then... sigh....

Whether the follow up to the ITV2 staple will be a spoof or a genuine return to the characters will be revealed in next month's telethon and it can't be denied its a brilliant tease to get people watching on the night. But probably not me I'm afraid.

Here's "Seven Richard Curtis Things I'd Much Rather See A Sequel To"...

The Tall Guy

Huge at the time and particularly infamous for a over-the-top sex scene during which a house is trashed, it is strange how little people talk about 1989's "The Tall Guy" today, Curtis' full-length big-screen screen bow (not to mention directing d├ębut of former "Not The Nine O'Clock News" colleague Mel Smith) in favour of starting the Curtis success story with "Four Weddings And A Funeral". Naturally this is is a huge shame as "The Tall Guy" is a smart, very funny romantic comedy based on Curtis' own time as the straight man to Rowan Atkinson. Here, because its the movies, he has been upgraded to the handsome and extremely bankable Jeff Goldblum while the smarmy, dominating Rowan Atkinson role is taken, Rowan Atkinson.

There's no real window for a sequel left in the film itself but I'm sure for its fans, people would be happy to see what Dexter and Kate were up to now, plus more chance for Curtis and musical director Peter Brewis to tear apart the current West End, like this film's terrific "Elephant!" in which the story of The Elephant Man gets its very own distinctly Lloyd-Webber-esque musical take. The biggest tragedy now being the loss of the magnificent Mel Smith who even gets a brilliant cameo.

Comic Relief Comic

In 1991, a rather brilliant thing turned up in my local newsagents for about five seconds. Thankfully I managed to grab one in that brief period and its as such that the solitary issue of "Comic Relief Comic" is still a much-loved possession of mine. Published by Fleetway (at the time home to 2000AD, Buster, Crisis and increasingly little else thanks to endless comics mergers), it was an incredibly exciting coming together of comic artists and writers from all over the strip spectrum - DC Thomson, Marvel, DC, even Viz - such as Garth Ennis, Jamie Hewlett, Dave Gibbons, Mark Millar, Hunt Emerson and Bryan Talbot. More importantly for this article, it was "conceived, plotted and edited" by Neil Gaiman, Richard Curtis, Grant Morrison and Peter K. Hogan. Just take a second to think about that creative line-up. Now change your underwear.

The whole comic is both issues-led and sensitively addresses why Comic Relief exists whilst also being magnificently bonkers anthology of incredibly talented people being happy to raise money for charity. There's a sort-of central story that sees the third live telethon going ahead in its pages and going smoothly...except Griff Rhys Jones has been replaced by an evil being called a House Head and the world is doomed unless everyone in the UK donates to Comic Relief, including Britain's meanest man Edmund Blackadder. There are fun cameos from lots of celebrities, a section where Dawn French and Ben Elton mutate into superheroes, Desperate Dan's charity car wash, we learn what goes into the gunge tank, Theophilous P Wildebeeste's hitherto unseen alter ego Love Man, a trip to a very pissed off Africa and lots of other thoughtful but very well done material. And it all looks wonderful.

Jamie Hewlett having a bit of a revel there.
So why don't they reprint it every year and make more money? Well, it seems DC were arseholes over the whole experience and legal issues now prevent any more than the existing 40,000 appearing. But a proper follow up feels smart and long overdue. For now you'll just have to read the whole thing at my friend Ryan's blog. And give him a subscribe while you're there.

Bernard And The Genie

Curtis' second full length feature was produced for BBC One shortly after Blackadder came to an end (Incidentally I wont be campaigning for that to come back because its been too long, would spoil the legacy and besides, Back and Forth was bloody awful) and despite only being shown the two times on TV (with no British DVD) remains a much beloved favourite of those whose who saw it. A charming comic fantasy starring a pre-megafame (even pre-Air Scotia) Alan Cumming as a down on his luck art dealer and an absolute peak-of-fame (this was the year of his flop Hollywood movie “True Identity”) Lenny Henry as a pissed off and pleasingly over the top genie. Rowan Atkinson, a staple in many of these entries, is also very much present, once again as the bastard of the piece. Direction came from the reliable Paul Weiland, making his first feature since the baffling Bill Cosby vehicle "Leonard Part 6" in 1987.

Long been mooted for a Hollywood remake (at one point with a script by Father Ted's Linehan and Mathews), Curtis told the Radio Times his reason for writing it: "My family and I had just watched an Agatha Christie during which two people were stabbed and one was forcibly injected with heroin. By the end of it we were totally miserable." This has always remained quite an elusive despite its clear potential to be a holiday staple with sequel hook gold. Well, we can wish can't we...?

Odysseus the Greatest Hero of Them All

Tony Robinson got his "hey kids, here's history but its not boring like those squares at school!" start with this retelling of the, co-written with Curtis when the two were collaborating on the higher profile Blackadder and made into a popular Children's BBC series. This ones a bit of a cheat as there actually was a follow up book but some new kids material would be rather nice. Can you imagine their take on Horrible Histories? Cor...

The Atkinson People

A Radio 3 comedy programme. Yes, these exist! Someone should write a book about them. Four episodes of these dry but wonderful profiles into fictional characters (all played by Rowan Atkinson) were put out in 1979 just as Rowan's star was in the ascendant, likely explaining why there were no more. Written by the star and Curtis, the four folk profiled - phenomenally tedious actor Sir Corin Basin, typically unpleasant French philosopher George Dupont, all-rounder Sir Benjamin Fletcher and hero of the charts and self-proclaimed "Pope of Pop" Barry Good - are all engaging, funny characters that Atkinson would never use again.

With everyone getting much older now (and how long can a Maigret take to do?), maybe its time to go back to the radio for both men. They could even rope in its original producer - a chap called Griffith Rhys Jones - whose sister was going out with a chap named John Lloyd who was about to make the stars of his new show very famous indeed...

Lufthansa Terminal

One of the 80s greatest fake pop groups, Lufthansa Terminal will always be remembered for their annoyingly catchy February 1982 synthpop classic "Nice Video Shame About The Song". Taken from the final series of that programme John Lloyd went off to do with Sean Hardie, "Not The Nine O'Clock News" was where Curtis first found real success writing both sketches and song lyrics (usually with Howard Goodall.) These include the brutal Game For A Laugh parody, ABBA spoof "Supa Dupa", the bad language debate ("Part and parcel and pubes of everyday conversation"), "I Like Trucking" (which even got a single release), "Not The Parrot Sketch" and of course the above nice video...

Pretty much every song on NOT! is a winner through all four series but there's something especially intriguing about this one which has always made me think it could've been a proper smash hit, especially in the US where MTV had only just launched. Its an era of pop often parodied both contemporaneously and today but rarely does anyone get the sound right of that 'post-punk into pop' era that saw Japan, The Cure and Bauhaus move into the mainstream. Likewise the video catches so many of those editing tricks, effects and set-ups before we even knew they were cliches. So yeah, I want more of the Terminal! What would their album have been like? And the cover?! And the other videos...

The Spirit Of Comic Relief 1988

My partner was in Comic Relief HQ recently and confirmed to me just how much good they do with the money. From those early live shows at the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1986 to next month's live telethon, they've come a very long way and in the process have raised over a billion pounds. That cannot be overlooked and they should feel extremely proud of what has been accomplished out of a few comedy types doing their bit to initially help fundraising for Ethiopia and the Sudan. So what comes next is not a slight on them or the work they do but...fuck me, when did the TV programme become so utterly dull?

I remember, aged seven years old, how excited I was for the first Red Nose Day. An entire night of comedy on the telly! When I finally got chance to see everything it was well worth the wait, from Fry and Laurie running the gunk tank to Stavros getting on Peter Davison's tits in the Telecom Tower via "Blackadder - the Cavalier Years", a briefly reunited Goodies and Michael Palin doing a bit of new Vercotti. Beautiful.

This enthusiasm continued through the next few Red Nose Days until something suddenly just started feeling off. The comedians were slowly being replaced by TV hosts, the singles became drearier and it slowly morphed into by a slick shiny floor show that, charity appeals aside, could be any Saturday night modern variety series. I know its about spreading the message as far as possible and it was always going to enter the mainstream after so many years but Comic Relief was always unique, a bit quirky and inspired by the alternative so while I don’t expect Paul Daniels' ghost to turn up to bugger up that milk trick again, it would be good if some of that excitement could return. Much like Curtis' own output, things have got a bit safe in recent years but there's still the potential to be incredible in the future, even if it means learning a few lessons from the past.

MARCH UPDATE: Just finished watching and I have to say this was the best one in a very long time (Bar the sound - please never use the O2 again! It sounded horrible!) Lots of good comedy people involved and some fun surprises with usually post-watershed stuff like Toast Of London, Alan Partridge (effectively doing a The Day Today style bit) and Vic and Bob doing The Stotts right up front and pre-watershed. I still don't like Love Actually though. Soz.

What do you think? Would we you like to see a return from? Let me know in the comment box below or @ThatBenBaker on Twitter. And now its time for the BBC to close down. Forever.


Find out how you can help Comic Relief on this upcoming Red Nose Day Friday March 24th by clicking here

Friday, 10 February 2017

The Kids Are Sick Again: A Day Off School With The Telly

The thing they say about writing a successful world-beating blog is regular content. Doesn't necessarily have to be any good as long as its REGULAR. But, this week, instead of being sat at my laptop bashing out a hot new take on some old shite probably from the 90s, I've instead been sat on the sofa with a chest infection watching children's programmes with my girlfriend's equally poorly 7 year old. Then I remembered that great piece of lazy writer advice - write what you know - and that's when it hit me that if I'm going to watch nothing but CBBC all day I could review it like such big sociological experiment about the Beeb and value for money on the licence fee and fake news and...hey, look Shaun The Sheep is on...

The fact of the matter is that Children's BBC as both a strand and a channel has always been a real jewel in the corporation's jewel box  (not a phrase) and while its the junior channel CBeebies that gets all the plaudits for its developmental and toddler-orientated programmes, the CBBC Channel is fun, accessible and a million miles away from Pip Schofield singing over the top of the Ulysses 31 theme tune or Children's Film Foundation filler that was part of the package when I was his age. Not that I don't still look fondly back at that era but its considerably easier when I don't have to sit through Gentle Ben repeats, The Puppy's Further Adventures or the other 24 minutes of Ulysses 31 after the theme had finished playing.

IDEANTS (correct spelling)

That said I was no snob when it came to the commercial channels and would generally watch whatever was more interesting. ITV tended to have much better comedy stuff and less ancient cartoons whilst the shoestring Children's BBC would dominate with drama and magazine programmes. Its a shame that many of the shows of my youth have yet been passed over by the likes of Network DVD in favour of every fart recorded in 1972 but maybe some of it is better left in the memory. Which is why I'm going to destroy those childhood remembrances by comparing my day in front of the TV with the same date thirty years earlier. (Actually, twenty nine years and 363 days as February 7th 1987 fell on a Saturday so not a fair comparison.)

For those with no memory or worse, not actually being born then, here's what both terrestrial kids programming looked like from slightly later that year...

Our day began at 8:25am with "Naomi's Nightmares of Nature", the latest in CBBC's always dependable nature programmes although notably different from previous series "Deadly 60" by having a presenter more terrified by the animals than any of the kids watching. Naturally the idea that you could sit at home in '87 and watch kids programmes all day was a pipe dream and the best offered so far is our old friend "Popeye cartoon" during TV-AM as their Beeb rivals "Breakfast Time" had switched to a harder news format and Channel 4 didn't start until the afternoon. Even "Pages From Ceefax" didn't start until 9am!

The Dumping Ground

"Drama series. Class war ensues in a country estate when the young people become Edwardian masters and servants for a day."

One of the mainstays of CBBC Channel since launch in various forms both with and without Tracy Beaker and still covering difficult subjects, this should be one of those series you go "oh yes, very well done, glad its there....what's on the other side?" but its a deserved hit with all ages thanks to sharp scripts, realistic scenarios and some brilliant child actors. There's a few rubbish ones too but you know, they int got no house or parens so its not their fault.

Not that 'dumping' though. That's right out.
Back in 1987, Breakfast Time has given way to its consumer spin-off "Watchdog" before the familiar fumble-in-a-Ford-Cortina hum that is Robert Kilroy-Silk with his programme we all remember called...erm, "Day By Day", which would eventually the following year (with the same titles and theme!) become everyone's favourite pre-Wetherspoons venue for a shout at 9am "Kilroy". Until he was a racist anyway.
The Next Step (double bill)

Okay, to be honest we might have skipped out on this because its about dancing. Unfortunately that's when my young charge decided he desperately that minute needed to see cinema's "The Smurfs", a film I had steadfastly avoided for most of his life (even the bits with Vanity Smurf) but ended up not...I mean its not good but...I just don't know anymore. I just don't know.

4 O'Clock Club
Nine Minute Ninja

Three programmes (including a sitcom co-created by comedian / rapper Doc Brown and provider of huss, Paul Rose) that are definitely far too entertaining to be in the time-slot once the proud stomping ground of SCHOOLS PROGRAMMING TM. And folk of a certain age will be delighted to learn that on this day, BBC Two opened with "Look and Read" although unfortunately "Geordie Racer" was still a year away so this was a repeat of 1983's "Fair Ground!" featuring Judy Cornwell, the voice of TV's "Mr TV's Animal Voice" Percy Edwards and a theme by - yes - Derek Griffiths. Could you point your erection the other way please? Thanks.

Meanwhile, ITV went with these...

How We Used To Live as standard. That series they were recreating "half three on a wet Sunday in August 1974".

The only real respite for the sick child in desperate need of not returning to school having actually...guh - LEARNT SOMETHING - back then was when BBC1 would show Neighbours (before Michael Grade famously moved it to 5:35 on the advice of his daughter) before Pip (never "Schofe") or whoever was in the Broom Cupboard that day sprung up like a delicious ghost of telly future to show off over-elaborate birthday cards for those kids with parents who clearly had a cleaner and no drink problem. Then its "Play School" (with Chloe Ashcroft, future perverts) and the oh-well-at-least-its-animated adventures of "Ivor The Engine".

We don't talk about "Five To Eleven".

My Life

"Ella takes us into her extraordinary world of wheelchair skating (or WCMX) and introduces us to her friends Kumaka, Hunter and Luzi who also do WCMX. They show us that even in a wheelchair you can back flip, grind and jump. It's the World WCMX championships coming up in Texas, how will Ella and her friends do?"

AKA The point where I start crying my eyes out at the brave disabled children doing so well while the child looks at me as if I've gone soft in the head. I'd love to say this is the illness making me so emotional but no, I just cry like a loon at most things. Over on BBC One thirty years previous, the TV forum "Open Air" had Alan Titchmarsh talking to Eamonn Holmes which is enough to make anybody cry...

Got What It Takes?

There's something that strikes me inherently high pressure and wrong about a singing competition for children, or indeed any contest that doesn't involve gunge, daft games or a literal Fun House. The winner gets to sing at Radio 1's Big Weekend providing some across-the-board brand synergy that made me feel a bit sick in my mouth and for the first time I was pining for 1987 where ITV had the double whammy of "The Raggy Dolls" and "Rainbow" although less so BBC One's "Tom O'Connor Roadshow" which had been hastily put together when they decided after just fifteen years that "Pebble Mill at One" was, in fact, bloody awful.

Shaun the Sheep
Strange Hill High

It does a heart good that even after all these years (and that time Chas burnt down the Aardman studio), Morph is still popping up on telly like a Plasticine pantless pal of yesteryear. Equally well thumbed (stop that) is 'stable'mate Shaun The Sheep now approaching ten years on TV with over 150 wonderfully slapstick yet never patronising episodes, not to mention the superb film which you need to go watch right now! Just after Smurfs. I mean not Smurfs. I mean....

"Have you tried turning on the computers?" LOL
"Strange Hill High" (sadly unrelated to the Dandy strip of the late 80s), is an unusual but visually wonderful mix of animation, vinyl dolls and puppetry which gained a lot of excited talk when it launched thanks to its impressive cast (including Richard Ayoade, John Thomson and the achingly missed Caroline Aherne) and the showrunner being Josh Weinstein who had worked on REAL programmes that grown ups had heard of, like "The Simpsons", "Futurama" and "Seinfeld", using the US table writing model of those shows. Thankfully it wasn't another "Bromwell High" (ask yer dad) and 26 episodes were made between 2012 and 2014.

Meanwhile, thirty years back, you had the choice of news or news.


One of the things you'll notice when spending the day watching kids TV is how much is actually co-productions with other countries such as the half-Australian "Bottersnikes and Gumbles", RTE going in on puppet science show "Brain Freeze" and this fantasy drama very much in the tradition of classic productions "Moondial", "Elidor" or "Earthfasts" about half wolf / half human teens was made with ZDF in Germany, who presumably don't get the cast to re-record every line in German thus getting the lesser of the deal. Wake up Merkel!!!!

Over in the past there's the last gasps of the See-Saw programme strand with "Heads And Tails" (more Griffiths!) before a choice of baffling repeats with a 1976 "The Liver Birds" and the slightly more recent "Bulman" from 1985. Thankfully BBC Two have got your back with the multi-generational favourite "You and Me" featuring whatever Cosmo and Dibs were meant to be and Jeni Barnett. This was actually one of the more controversial periods of the series which later sadly became fodder for tiresome sketch troupes on Channel 4 clip shows to watch out of context and shout "OMG" at, as this article explains thoughtfully and without any cutaways to Pappy's doing a face.

Unless the question is "Would you like to murder this pensioner?" 

So, potentially shocking but well-handled and potentially life-saving to a kid at home then. I mean...OMG LOOK AT PUPET (MAKE CHEQUE PAYABLE TO AVALON) and rounding off this first part immediately after "You and Me" is one of the biggest kiddies favourites of the era...

The Cocaine Explosion? Weren't they a funk band from the 70s?

From here we get into the rather more kid friendly programmes in the past, such as "Jackanory" (with Su Pollard. Because 1987.), strange Mike Smith fronted hobby guessing gameshow "Secret's Out" (a Grange Hill special viewable above and featuring one of Britain's greatest modern directors. And Zammo.) , "Newsround Extra" (excitingly a story about 50 years of The Dandy!) and more actual "Grange Hill" on BBC One while ITV (regions may vary) went with "Rainbow" again, the already mothballed-for-twenty-years "Batfink", the third T-Bag and T-Shirt adventure "T-Bag Bounces Back", invariably forgotten Cosgrove Hall creation "Alias The Jester" and "Bellamy's Bugle", which, of course, was still legal back in those days...

So there you go, thirty years with markedly little hurt and surprisingly a lot of my childhood past on YouTube which I'll fondly revisit before getting bored, turning it off and watching The Smurfs again instead. I mean Not Smurfs....definitely not Smurfs....I DID NOT ENJOY THE SMURFS FILM AND YOU CANT PROVE THAT I DID. Ahem...did I mention I was ill??


Friday, 3 February 2017

Rocko Action: Modern Life's Not Rubbish

In retrospect, who would launch a new children's channel in September?

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 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. and watch and watch again...
Sky Multi Channels might have stiffed us on Nick At Nite, delayed VH-1 until a year later and thought Country Music Television was something we'd actually enjoy. But you finally gave us a vibrant, exciting channel full of things we'd come to adore that is still going strong and approaching its 25th birthday next year. And if Nickelodeon is never going to grow up, why should we? Modern life can be a hoot...