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 half-written, unlikeable 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 and not especially funny previous film - 1999's "Notting Hill" - is a proper MOVIE about actual thought out characters, which "Love Actually" never feels like. 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 début 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. I knew the Young Ones and Cliff single really well (before I'd seen a second of the series proper), we had silly events at school and we all paid 50p to get a red nose. Trouble was, they didn't buy enough red noses for every kid and so each class had a blind draw for who'd not get a nose but instead a 'special' egg box segment painted red. And yes, Dear Reader, you've guessed it - I went home with pinkish cardboard tied to my face.

I didnt mind too much though because it was all so exciting. An entire night of comedy on the telly! I didn't know that Lenny Henry, Jonathan Ross and Griff Rhys Jones were the "alternative" in 1988. I don't even know if I knew what "alternative" was but it felt fascinating to see. And I didn't even see that much because it was bed at nine. 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 dreary covers and the "we're all in it together" chumminess of the first few was completely gone, replaced by a slick shiny floor show that charity aside could be any Saturday night modern variety special. Its probably being presented by those same variety hosts too. I know its about spreading the message as far as possible and it was always going to enter the mainstream same as anything after so many years but that slightly dangerous "anything can happen"spirit of the original night has long disappeared and while I don’t expect Paul Daniels' ghost to turn up to bugger up the milk trick again, it would be good if some of that 'alternative' 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.

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...

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Why Cant I Be You?: Morrissey

Steven Patrick Overcoat Bulbous Salutation Chips For Tea Morrissey. What is there to say that hasn't been already over the past thirty plus years?

"Morrissey is three pounds of some bees in a big coat off to the new shop"

There, that's quite different. But really, there's no point me coming along here with my trousers and imagination to offer an opinion about Morrissey, a man who has released some very good records and some very average ones. Its also hard to think of any particularly original jokes about him, with those same thirty plus years featuring some brilliant homages, put-downs and complete character assassinations. Thinking up Moz gags put all of Collins, Maconie and Quantick's children through college. Whether they wanted it or not.

So, in the first of what will hopefully become a regular feature on this blog, here's some of my favourite parodies and pastiches of The Smiths and Morrissey himself throughout the years.

The first national spoof of any kind I can trace would be from Radio 4's long running series "Radio Active", perhaps the best radio comedy of the 80s and the launchpad for the careers of all its cast including Angus Deayton, the much missed Geoffrey Perkins and musical director Phil Pope who was by the mid-eighties in high demand thanks to his TV work on the great "Spitting Image" and the also on "Who Dares Wins" (of which more in a second.) With the premise of the show being a faux commercial radio station, almost every episode of Radio Active would feature a musical parody written by Pope or Steve Brown (equally prolific as a musical parodist and later to become better known as Alan Partridge's bandleader Glenn Ponder) and The Smiths got theirs in series five ("Episode 7: Music Festival") first broadcast on the 16th August 1985, six months after the album mentioned in Mike Flex (Perkins)'s surprisingly harsh introduction reached the top of the charts:

"Morrissey of The Smiths whose hit LP is called "Meat Is Murder"...has just announced the group wont play no more live concerts in front of their fans as they can no longer condone cruelty to vegetables."

What follows is "A Way With Words", possibly the shortest Radio Active spoof ever at around 25 seconds with Phil Pope extending every word as long as possible. And thats it.

Its not just Moz who cops for it that episode when Pope tears apart Malcolm McLaren's pop career as "Malcolm McConman" talks over a backing track, much like the real one's "Madam Butterfly (Un bel di vedremo)" from the previous year, about his lack of actual musicianship and general ripping off of anyone he can.

Pope would take another crack at The Smiths on TV in the largely dreadful "Who Dares Wins" in 1986 with the catchy "Life Isn't Fair", a proper song but bar the "woe is me" lyrics about shoes not really sounding very much like The Smiths. I mean they have synthesizers for god's sake!

1987, the final year of The Smiths' relatively short existence, finds two very different takes on the band with fellow Mancunian comedians. Along with other student night favourites "Love Will Tear Us Apart", "How I Wrote Elastic Man" and "Take The Skinheads Bowling", "Bigmouth Strikes Again" becomes "Little Frank Strikes Again" briefly in the joyful "Indie Medley" by Frank Sidebottom recorded for a flexi disc from issue 4 of the little remembered "Blah Blah Blah" magazine.

Sidebottom would return to the Smiths for the 1993 single "Panic" which shares a name and several words with Morrissey and Marr's poison pen letter to Steve Wright and his ilk but is otherwise a brilliant tall tale of the filming for the title sequence for his "Fantastic Shed Show" being disrupted by a "freak blustery windy thingy" which angered the producer ("because it spoiled the continuity") leading to the crew going for an early lunch in a pub with no music but cassettes of "presenters illegally taped off Radio 1" including Anne the DJ who is of course still clinging on there at 1am on a Wednesday night.  Bonus points for the names of the versions featured which include "Ace Mix", "Fantastic Mix", "Top Mix", "Bobbins Mix" and "Thingy Mix".

Coming from a decidedly different generation is this sketch from "The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross" which has filled more than a few comment boxes since YouTube reared its head a decade ago as Bernard Manning pays tribute to the recently split The Smiths...

Now I'm no fan of the late Manning's brand of humour which was calculated to cause as much offense without especially representing the comic's own opinions but you have to applaud him giving this sketch the enthusiasm it deserves and going along with the joke.

Moving along to the 21st April 1989 and the third edition of Radio 1's hip and edgy new comedy series "The Mary Whitehouse Experience" which at that point had more of a mix of contributors including Jo Brand, Mark Thomas and comedy musical duo Skint Video (Steve Gribbin and Brian Mulligan) do more "Morrissey is depressing" jokes, equating him to a "wet weekend in Grimsby" with a voice like "Clement Freud on Mogadon".

Ironically this is probably more studenty and obvious than the subject parodies being slightly naughty in that way that isn't really but sounds rude if you're with your Nan. And as this fascinating footage from Glastonbury 1984 shows, it wasn't their first attempt at parodying the bequiffed one...

By the nineties, the cult of Morrissey was slowly starting to build in America, eventually, particularly in South America, becoming the safety blanket for his unsigned and unwanted years. The fourth series of I'm-told-its-great-but-I've-never-really-sort-it-sorry comic commentary over bad films series "Mystery Science Theater 3000" invited the singer (Actually head writer and later host Michael J. Nelson) to perform his new single "Hairdresser In A Coma" in 1992. Spoilers: he is quite depressed.

You know Bill Nye, the bloke with the bow-tie who crops up in memes about science you don't quite understand? Well, he became beloved in America thanks to his long running US kids series "Bill Nye The Science Guy" which humourously explained various scientific topics with sketches, experiences and parodies of mostly recent chart songs. Thus momentum was described in November 1994 by "Momentisey" and "The Faster You Push Me", which I'm fairly sure is just using the backing of "The More You Ignore Me", Moz's biggest US hit from the February of that same year.

The same song would feature in Armando Iannucci's Radio 1 series in January 1994 as Rebecca Front plays the alarmingly real victim of Moz's increasingly unhinged adoration, also featuring Richard Herring as her boyfriend, Peter Baynham as a policeman and Armando as a judge rightly putting him away for the rest of his dirty Morrissey life. Click here to go straight to that clip.

Moving swiftly past Dana Gould's "Clown Fucker", many comedy fans of a certain age will fondly remember Harry Hill's 1999 turn performing "This Charming Man" on a "Stars In Their Eyes" Celebrity Special when he was still a relatively cult comic on Channel 4, a decade and a half before he would briefly become the host of a 2015 revival of the series. He didn't win (he was beaten by newsreader Kirsty Young as Peggy Lee.) And yes, Morrissey allegedly HATED it.

Not quite parodies but affectionately nodding that direction in subject and sound are Mitch Benn's "Never Went Through A Smiths Phase" and MJ Hibbett & The Validators' "The Lesson Of The Smiths", both initially quite dismissive of the group but going in opposite directions by the conclusion. Benn can be quite hard work when doing brief topical stuff on the radio but there are some great lines in this particular track that nail the "fan" experience solidly ("A peculiar voice sang with Mancunian twang / About how he was miserable then / I sat through the song as he droned on and on / Like some pale intellectual outlaw / And when he was done I thought "That wasn't much fun / That feller wants to get out more")

Likewise MJ Hibbett has an even more painfully real experience as a fan as he sings "You see, I didn't have that great a time in my later years at school / I didn't really like anyone / least of all the kids who were cool / I had to hate their music / and therefore / The Smiths became the epitome of all that I abhorred". As the song continues he realises that it doesn't actually matter who likes what and we should all just enjoy the things we want, even Take That if we must. Although that was when Gary Barlow still paid his tax of course...

I'm reaching the end of this particular mix of Morrissey adoration and acrimony but before I do I couldn't not mention undoubtedly the strangest of the lot. "Foster's Home For Imaginary Friends" was a sweet and colourful cartoon from 2004 to 2009 about exactly as the title suggests, the place where all sorts of mad imaginary creatures reside including a Morse code machine with a black quiff and an ever so familiar twang...

Finally, one which sadly no longer has the video online it but is as joyful as everything else on the series when Horrible Histories sang all about Charles Dickens, a rather pale, intellectual and unhappy chap. Now, who does that remind us of?

Got someone in mind you'd like me to cover in a future "Why Can't I Be You"? Or spot any Moz-mocking that I've missed. Let me know on Twitter @ThatBenBaker or in the comments box below.

No idea who this idiot is, mind....

Friday, 27 January 2017

Ten Forgotten Number One UK Box Office Films Of The 90s

Well would you look at that? There's a new Trainspotting film out at the cinema! Yes, Renton, Sick Boy, Hamble, Big Ted and Hamish Macbeth are back back back! When we think back to "90s cinema", Trainspotting is probably one of the films that stands out from the decade as a truly iconic, huge movie that swiftly entered the national consciousness regardless of whether you'd seen it or not, much like Reservoir Dogs, The Matrix or Fight Club.

Those slightly older readers will remember the utter disarray that was attending a cinema in the 1990s before the modern chains for better worse took over. Video shops were decimating the audiences who were put off by the prices, sticky carpets and poor regional distribution with London getting premieres often months before the North. And those films that did get through? Yeesh, its fair to say that while there's always been bad movies, the British film industry was at a real low point throughout much of the decade. Say what you like about "Nativity" or "The Inbetweeners Movie", they're no "Ladder of Swords"...

There's the opening trailers out of the way, time for the main feature. Here are ten films that were once genuinely big deals, reaching number one in the UK box office that are now forgotten by the nation as a whole. (That's my get out if you read one and say "I remember that!", alright?)

10. Waking Ned (19/03/99)

It would be fair for anyone wishing to argue that the British film industry was alright in the nineties thanks to the heart-warming and undoubtedly BRITISH likes of Brassed Off and The Full Monty. Small scale stories with great ensemble casts that America lapped up. Added to that list would be "Waking Ned" (extended to "Waking Ned Devine" in the US bafflingly, thus spoiling the rhyming slang gag), a gentle comedy set in Ireland about the entirely inhabitants of a small village covering up the fact that the Lottery has been won by a dead man. Britain loved it but the huge buzz was undoubtedly because America took to it so strongly in a typical example of "Well, if the Yanks like it, it must be alright..." ITV showed it as a big New Years Day film two years later after which...nothing really. Repeats have been few and far between and director Kirk Jones, once feted as the next big thing, wouldn't have a film reach cinemas until 2005's "Nanny McPhee", his last feature to date being "My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2". Perhaps "Waking Ned" is so laid back and sweet as to not leave much of a mark on the national conscience but this is definitely worth reawakening.

A: Bristol.

9. Dead Again (25/10/91)

Speaking of Nanny McPhee, here's Emma Thompson with ex-husband 'Chuckles' Kenneth Branagh from the era where the two were seen as inseparable (going as far as a Spitting Image sketch where Ken couldn’t eat something because Em wasn’t in it) in an intriguing thriller about past lives and regression. (You know the past bits are in the past because its black and white.) Its an enjoyable bit of fluff which will involve you getting past the AMERICAWN accents both main actors use but coming mere months after the genre-defining Silence Of The Lambs, its hard to think of it as anything more.

8. Jack and Sarah (02/06/95)

Despite a decade of solid work with appearances in "LA Story", "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and "Prêt-à-Porter", critics and fans always seemed to feel that Richard E Grant's star had never quite risen sufficiently after the tour-de-force that was and remains "Withnail and I". Looking at the state of the film industry in this country at the time and the relative failure of his second feature with Withnail's writer / director Bruce Robinson "How To Get Ahead In Advertising", its easy to see why Grant took second banana work in the US rather than stay and headline something British. "Jack and Sarah" briefly changed all that with Grant starring in an occasionally dark and moving but ultimately uplifting comedy about a grieving father bonding with his newborn daughter. Not that looking at the cover would tell you that with its bleedin' Friends-esque posing and thin non capitalized fonts. Growl. (Oh and spoilers: see her there, she's not Sarah...)

Oh and there's a baby in it. 
7. Quigley Down Under (05/04/91)

Regularly one of my comedy go to names for utterly forgotten fare, this comic Western released a year before Clint Eastwood refined the genre with "Unforgiven" was one Tom Selleck's last starring roles (anyone remember "Mr Baseball"?) in a big budget film. Alan Rickman plays Naughtyman McBadness (or near enough) who employs Selleck's Quigley to shoot Aborigines. As we know rule two is no mistreatment of the Abbos so Quiggles refuses and becomes enemy number one. Its a perfectly serviceable Western that my granddad would've loved but I was always confused by the title which feels like the second or third in a series. "Oh that Quigley! Where's he off now? The Australias?? Now this I gotta see!"

Speaking of Friends things from the mid 90s...
6. Black Rain (26/01/90)

A huge film at the time, directed by Ridley Scott and featuring the still very much in prime Michael Douglas as a cop chasing a Yakuza member through the "Japanese underworld" (Copyright Cinema Alan's Big Book Of Movie Writing Shortcuts), its strange how forgotten "Black Rain" has become. It could be that none-more-generic title that gives little about the plot away - then again what’s a "Blade Runner" when its at home? More likely is the fact its just a fine but forgettable run around, occasionally shoot someone and pout action movie of the sort that were ten a penny seemingly back then. And frequently involved Steven Seagal...

5. Out For Justice (04/10/91)

Oh bollocks, I had to go and invoke the spirit of facekickingness past, didn’t I? From the sweet spot period where Seagal had climbed up through the VHS rental mountain to become an indicator of brainless but enjoyable big screen tut which the self-respecting action fan could happily spend a few quid on without fear of being ripped off ("How many killings?", as Henry and Ally from The League Of Gentlemen might say.)  but before everyone realised he was bat shit crazy and nobody wanted to work with him. That said, with an impressive seven films under in his belt in 2016 alone, somebody must still be watching his stuff. Just not at the cinema...

4. What About Bob? (15/11/91)

Weirdly, as I was putting this article together, NBC announced it was going ahead with a TV spin-off from this fun but occasionally quite unpleasant Frank Oz-directed comedy where Bill Murray (in his pre-walking deity on Earth days) plays a psychiatric patient who annoys his therapist (Richard Dreyfuss) on holiday to the point of insanity, but with the added twist that this time the Bill Murray one will be a woman called Barb. Nothing like jumping on a property when its hot, eh?

BONUS ANECDOTE FROM MY FRIEND TIM: "I once saw Drop Dead Fred and What About Bob next to each other on a hoarding at a time where Freddie Mercury and Robert Maxwell had literally just died." Ouch.

3. Memphis Belle (07/09/90)

Now this bastard. If there's any film on this list you've gone "OH YEAHHHHHHH" to, it'll probably be this based-on-a-true-story-but-not-really yarn of annoyingly handsome US army boys with unique but endearing quirks and their flight in the titular plane. This was absolutely everywhere at the time of release with the cast cropping up on TV - Harry Connick Jnr in particular crooning his guts out wherever permitted - and in the still not-deemed-only-for-girls-yet magazines TV Hits and Big! I recall our excitement of finally getting a copy at the video shop only to be bored rigid within about half an hour and longing for a crash.

I mean, there's a bleedin' dog for god's sake...
2. Shooting Fish (17/10/97)

Before I talk about this one, here's the trailer for Shooting Fish:

Gadgets! Cons! Swish camera angles! Yes, its Britpop "Hackers"!

Thankfully, "Shooting Fish" is thankfully a slower and all together nicer film than the trailer would have you assume. Two orphans scam the rich and clueless to live out their dream of owning a mansion before one of those GIRLS gets involved and both fall for her. It is twisty and turny in places and indeed does have a wonderfully Britpop soundtrack with The Divine Comedy, Space, Dubstar and The Wannadies among others but feels at home with the Ealing capers that were a regular sight on UK television on a Saturday afternoon. Why its disappeared is anyone's guess as its far from terrible and features a series of familiar British actors including Annette Crosbie and a wonderfully slimy Peter Capaldi. The director and co-writer Stefan Schwartz didn't trouble the big screen much after this but is seemingly in big demand on TV with recent gigs on The Americans, Fear The Walking Dead and Dexter.

1. Curly Sue (27/12/91)

Few things have ever kicked me in the gut as a movie fan than after years of slagging off this thin, horrendously sentimental treacly old bollocks about a pre-teen con artist than finding out it was written and directed by John Hughes. Just a year after his magnificent script for Home Alone and now iconic 80s favourites "Sixteen Candles", "The Breakfast Club", "Weird Science" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". And that's not even mentioning "Uncle Buck", "Planes Trains And Automobiles" or the "Vacation" films. But this shower of saccharine shite, whilst a hit both here and America, was the last he ever directed for the big screen and while it'd be wrong of me to suggest its because of this violently eye-soaping, gut-emptying hollow spew-barrel of Jim Belushi headlining family guff, it is truly a hateful cotton candy made out of hair and tears that no right human should ever have to sit through from start to finish. Hughes would write many more films (including the solid if equally toothless "Flubber", "Dennis", "Beethoven" and "Baby's Day Out") before his death at the tragically young age of 59.

Still, Curly Sue (or rather her actress Alisan Porter) won America's version of The Voice last year so that' ending? ....Right?

"Now they're going from the poorhouse to the penthouse..." Oh FUCK OFF.

So, did I just ruin your favourite film or is there something burning inside you that you need to share? Should I instead have featured other forgotten No.1 box office hits if the 90s? Is Dick Tracy forgotten enough? Did anyone go see Circle Of Friends, A Walk In The Clouds, Six Days Seven Nights or Practical Magic at the cinema? And did I actually honestly pay to see Forces of Nature and The Jackal? Let me know via Twitter @ThatBenBaker or in the comments below.

And remember: Jim Belushi is just a fictional character. He can't hurt you now.