Monthly Archives: March 2017

Back to the Future

If you were watching TV in the 1980s, there are certain things you will remember. The Vietnam veterans who were brilliant at taking down loan sharks despite their inability to actually shoot straight. David Hasselhoff running into the ocean in slow motion – and then, regrettably, running back out again. Richard Dean Anderson building a small explosive out of three rolls of parcel tape and a paperclip. Scott Bakula in a wig and heels. David Hasselhoff again, upstaged by a Trans Am. David Duchovny, in a wig and heels. And Tom Selleck somehow managing to make Hawaiian shirts look almost cool.

There was a technique to producing a memorable intro, and that was to talk over it. I say “In 1972”, you say “a crack commando unit”. I say “A shadowy flight into the dangerous world”, you say “of a man WHO DOES NOT EXIST”. I say “…hoping each time that his next leap”, you say “will be the leap home”, the unavoidable lump in your throat stemming from the knowledge that he never quite managed it. We knew those voiceovers as well as we knew the opening themes that followed, whether they were by Mike Post, or – actually, they were all by Mike Post, so let’s leave it there. In any event those voiceovers have entered fan lore and it is impossible to imagine the show without them. We still do them at parties. Perhaps that’s just me.

But Doctor Who has always had that opening theme, and it’s always been…well, very of its time, somehow, whatever time that happened to be. The titles have always been played over stars, or a swirling vortex, or weird camera effects – something abstract and general. You can’t really imagine it any other way. It’s difficult to envisage a Doctor Who that emulates that cheesy montage-style opening, replete with freeze frame stills of the leads, and shots of at least one explosion, or Dwight Schultz with a glove puppet.

Hence this.

Technical stuff first. It had to be Tennant. The ‘Voyage of the Damned’ speech that makes up the bulk of his narration practically lends itself to an 80s style intro (the BBC used it for at least one trailer back in 2007) and even if it hadn’t, there was no one else who could have pulled off that debonair, slightly irritating leading man pastiche. Smith is just too…English. As much as I love the Eleventh Doctor, his predecessor’s monumental impact with fans is easy to analyse: he’s the sort of person they grew up watching in the 1990s. He’s Fox Mulder, right down to the suit. Barrowman’s presence was a given. Casting a companion was trickier – I almost plumped for a selection until the moment I realised the shot of Tennant closing the TARDIS door with his fingers was ripe for inclusion – and he’s with Donna, so the decision was more or less made.

“Why Max?” asked Gareth, and various other people, so I explained. “It is scientific fact that any American sci-fi / private detective drama from the 1980s had an eccentric older character played by an established veteran, and he was usually called Max.”
“Is it? I can’t think of any at the moment. What examples are there? (So that I can say “oh, really?” or “ah, I haven’t seen that”.)
Hart To Hart. And. Um. Max from Ben Ten? OK, that may be it.”

Details aside, the casting of the comic relief veteran was standard practice, as evidenced by Macgyver and Magnum P.I., among others. Actually, when I think about it this whole thing was really just a reaction to this trailer, which I did years back and which I was unable to post on Facebook.

Right down to that shot of Barrowman hefting the gun. Which may be iconic one day. But not today. Tomorrow doesn’t look good either.

Music was provided by Philip Chance – I wandered around YouTube looking for appropriate rights-free synth-and-drum-machine combos for a good long while before I found what I was looking for. The post-production work was done in Adobe After Effects – which I downloaded specially – although I couldn’t have managed the grainy VHS look without the help of this tutorial. Basically it’s a question of whacking up the contrast and pasting over some noise effects. If you look at the bottom of the screen you’ll see a jagged line running throughout, which is supposed to be that poor tracking you always had when the heads needed cleaning.

“Do you see what I mean about the old-style 3D-ness, though?” said Gareth.

“I do,” I said, “because the process is basically the same. Basically you split the picture into three separate signals and then isolate the colour in each – one red, one blue, one green – and overlay them. Then you shift each one a few pixels to the left and right so that the different colours are very slightly out of sync. It’s not enough to make it look any worse than a less-than-brilliant VHS transfer – real 3D signals are completely separate and are headache inducing when watched with the naked eye – but it’s a similar principle.”

“These days, I’m all about wearable technology.”

It’s not perfect, but I got bored. Some projects have a clear beginning, a middle and an end. When you’re doing a montage you’re looking for clips that work. Intro parodies (as with the Magnum one above) are trickier but narrow down your scope considerably, so that it’s easy to tell when it’s done. When mashing up dialogue it’s usually a question of finding enough material that works and then chipping away at the bits that you don’t need until you’re telling the best story you can.

With something like this it’s harder. Should I move that frame a little more to the right? Up the blur to 60 rather than 50 per cent? How authentic does this need to look? What’s it going to look like after encoding? In the end I settled for “Well, you get the idea”, which is sometimes about the best you can do when you’re not actually getting paid for doing this stuff. At least you don’t have to worry about copyright.

Reaction was…variable. Lots of people liked it, but more than a few missed the point.

“Umm, shouldn’t it be ‘If NuWho was produced in the 80s’? Because there were new episodes of Doctor Who coming out in the 80s.” (Reaction: Yeah, I was being vague. It helps with the hit count.)

I will never understand the fetishization of VHS. (Reaction: That’s TOTALLY NOT WHAT I’M DOING, it’s just about authenticity.)

“One thing – Tennant would have been a pimply teenager in the 80s (or possibly a little kid, I’m not sure how old he is), and Capaldi looked more like Colin Baker.” (Reaction: Yeah, he does look like Colin Baker.)

“Have people actually forgotten that doctor who was in fact around during the eighties and still looked better than this?” (Reaction: No one’s forgotten. Why have you reminded us?)

“Doctor Who was around in the 80s and before and shot on video so what’s the point of this?” (Reaction: Ah yes. The old ‘What’s the point?’ maxim. It’s people like you who get arts funding cut.)

“But… there already were episodes made in the 80s…” (Reaction: You’re really not getting this, are you?)

Gaah. Look, it’s a parallel universe, right? A parallel universe where we never moved beyond VHS and cassette tapes and gigantic brick-sized mobile phones (glances at Samsung S7 on desk, shifts uncomfortably in office chair) and contemporary Doctor Who, when they eventually made it, looked like this. And you had to tape it off the TV and find you’d missed the last five minutes because the Videoplus got the timing wrong, so you’ll never see Peter Capaldi bust through that wall. And it looks rotten because when you see 1980s TV recordings uploaded to YouTube, they look rotten as well. Savvy? I’M TIRED OF HAVING TO EXPLAIN THIS SHIT TO YOU PEOPLE.

Missing the point is something that happens quite a lot in fandom. It’s appropriate that we’ve just had Mothering Sunday, because last year I published the meme you can see below, which was picked up by a fan page (as opposed to Peter Capaldi himself – a man who is not on social media, although it’s sorely tempting to pretend he is and is reading my stuff). Comments varied from ‘LOLOLOL’ (which doesn’t even make sense) to the acidic ‘That’s horrible, and so are you’ – but it was one particular remark that caught my eye and then twisted a sharp stick into the socket over the course of the head-against-the-brick-wall conversation that followed. It is reprinted below as is: I have no qualms about embarrassing the girl / boy, because that’s not a real photo and that’s almost definitely not her / his real name.

I despair.

Then along comes John, who gets it instantly. “We found the Americanized Who!” he said.

“Yeah,” I replied. “That’s what I should have called it.” Dammit.

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They may be drinkers, Robin, but they’re also human beings

In the first instance, this.

We watched the 2010 version of Green Lantern one Friday a few weeks ago when we had nothing much else to do. I think Emily and I may be among the few people who actually like it. Oh, it’s hokum. It’s poorly acted and thoroughly ridiculous and over-reliant on CGI. On the other hand you’re talking about a flying superhero who can summon up things purely by thinking about them: CGI kind of goes with the territory. Besides, Greeen Lantern has one of the best disguise-penetrating scenes in any superhero film ever. “I’ve known you my whole life!” splutters Carol Ferris (Blake Lively). “I’ve seen you naked! You don’t think I would recognise you because I can’t see your cheekbones?!?”

It’s fun, but we seem to be in a minority. That’s fine. From general consensus, I think we’re also among only a handful of people who loved the 2004 / 2007 Fantastic Four movies. with Ben Grimm and his “Stupid buttons” scene in the phone booth. Both films are ridiculous, but they’re also about superheroes who actually enjoy it, rather than superheroes who are burdened with all that responsibility. That sort of thing doesn’t happen too much these days, presumably out of fear that a less-than-melodramatic script will push you into Batman & Robin territory (more on them in a moment). I’m happy for the Richards family to be given a lighter touch. But I think that’s what happens when you’re not overly attached to the source material – nothing else, I suspect, could explain my love of the Lord of the Rings movies. I’m not a cheerleader for Tolkien: he writes about amazing worlds but his prose is often plodding. And I enjoy the films, as stupid as they are. Sometimes stupid is OK.

The thing with Green Lantern – as I’m sure I’ve written before – is that he’s actually a pretty dreadful superhero, and for this I hand over to my longtime friend, Jonathan Oliver, who was once quizzed about the galactic defender in a panel discussion at a festival I attended some years ago. “He’s basically rubbish,” he said. “You have this incredible ring that can do anything you want, and because they needed a flaw, it has no effect on the colour yellow.”

The panel’s moderator nodded in agreement. “It’s funny when you think that in a straight fight, Laa Laa could have him.”

Too much power is a dangerous thing: that’s why, over in the Whoniverse, they ditched both K-9 (or found ways of keeping him in the TARDIS) and the sonic screwdriver. Not that I lament its return. It is, like the psychic paper, that most convenient of plot devices when you’re trying to tell a story in 45 minutes instead of 96. It’s easy to complain about quick fixes but let’s be honest: having the Doctor and his companions accused of murder or espionage and constantly locked up really was tedious, at least in the 1970s when it happened every week – sometimes you don’t have enough story without a bit of enforced captivity, and the narrative was certainly padded, even if the cells weren’t.

Finding a workable Kryptonite is the sort of thing that doesn’t happen in Batman, because you’re dealing with a costumed character whose only superpower is a seemingly limitless piggy bank. It’s always quite fun to see Batman crack ribs, tear ligaments and generally get the crap beaten out of him. It makes it all the more satisfying when he inevitably triumphs and it serves as a reminder that any of us could theoretically put on the cape and fight crime, given the right investors and a couple of dead parents. I mentioned money as his superpower: perhaps, in all honesty, it’s actually an unquenchable thirst for justice.

Not that we had much brooding back in the sixties, when Batman was a happy-go-lucky caped crusader whose history of orphandom (that’s supposedly not a word, but I’m inventing it) was barely mentioned – if ever – when he was gallivanting round Gotham City in the company of Burt Ward. The Batman TV show was splendid until you got to its third series, when it swiftly jumped the shark (immediately before Adam West sprayed the rubber prop with his Bat Shark Repellant). But as a child I loved it: the cliffhangers were ridiculous and the whole thing was as gay as a daffodil but that’s all part of the charm. It’s why I was absolutely thrilled to find a set of TV show figures on sale in our local branch of TK Maxx some months ago – Batman and Robin and three of the Big Four (Catwoman, Joker, Penguin). Curiously the Riddler is absent; I assume he’s off planting clues in Arkham City.

It’s a far cry from the renaissance the character experienced back in the 80s when Frank Miller did The Dark Knight Returns and everything changed. It’s a horrible (if brilliant) story but even its most grotesque scenes have nothing on All Star Batman and Robin, which is an insult both to the character and the fans, for reasons I can’t be bothered to unpack here. Miller’s one of those writers whom you initially like before realising that not only has his quality of work gone down the tubes, he’s actually keen to live out his worldview: reading Sin City, for example, it swiftly becomes apparent that this is not a nightmarish dystopia, this is actually the way Frank Miller would like the world to be. Oh look, Vicki Vale’s got her tits out. Didn’t see that coming.

Far better, instead, that we should concentrate on the good stuff – and The Dark Knight Returns, whatever its flaws and uncomfortable legacy, is a masterpiece, answering empirically the question of who’d win in a fight between Batman and Superman years before Affleck and Cavill squared off in Dawn of Justice. More to the point, it’s actually interesting and fun, in a way that the much-anticipated Dalek / Cybermen face-off in ‘Doomsday’  – the Who equivalent of such a contest – really wasn’t. I’ve always contested that you should be wary of giving the fans what they want, but perhaps if you get Miller to write it, you can make it work.

In any event, here’s what I’ve always thought would happen if he wrote Doctor Who.

“I’m glad,” said someone in a group I frequent, “that you left out the word ‘retarded’.”

“I confess part of me didn’t want to,” I replied. “You know, the puritanical artist part. But that’s the sort of thing that gets you banned.”

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The Kasterborous Archives, #4: Slap in the Face – Why Doctor Who’s Domestic Violence Has To Stop

Author’s notes:

Tackling this sort of subject matter is always going to be tricky. In the process of doing so I encountered a few people who thought I was overreacting and one or two feminists who felt it trivialised male-on-female violence. I contend that neither statement is true and that I’m making a valid point – but I would add that this was written before series 9, which seemed to fix many of the problems we’d had. Whether that was down to a general lightening of the Doctor’s character, a shift in tone, or perhaps a growing realisation that casual slapping was both dramatically lazy and downright irresponsible, I’ll never know. The third option is somehow unlikely.

Thinking back, I wonder if I shouldn’t have used the words ‘domestic violence’. But I stand by the content, so I trust you’ll forgive the occasional lapse into sensationalism.

Slap in the face: Why Doctor Who’s domestic violence has to stop

Published: 19 August 2015

Picture the scene. The TARDIS’s lights glow eerily. Up at the console, the Doctor flicks switches, pulls a couple of levers in quiet desperation. Finally, with an anguished sigh, he gives up. “It’s gone,” he tells Clara. “Gallifrey. Completely gone. I’ll never see it again.”

Clara, who is feeling particularly mean this afternoon, gives a nonchalant shrug. “You were the one who lost it in the first place. Can’t leave you alone with anything, can they?” Whereupon the Doctor turns from the console, striding across the floor of the TARDIS and slapping her savagely across the face.

The inclusion of a moment like this is more or less unthinkable. Even if you could write the characters this way, the OFCOM fallout would be potentially catastrophic. The tabloids would have a field day. The Mail’s headline would be a smug “BBC GOES TOO FAR”. The forums would be clogged with debates about whether the Doctor has become irredeemably dark, irreversibly unpleasant, and whether we need to see violence against women represented at this scale – counter-balanced against the views of those who simply see it as a natural progression, a chance for the show to journey into uncharted waters.

You’ve probably already seen where I’m going with this, but just in case it needs pointing out, when the reverse happens – as it does, with increasing frequency – the net result is a string of animated GIFs and YouTube compilations and the sound of much laughter. Because slapping in Doctor Who is something that they seem to do a lot, and while it’s undoubtedly a source of much hilarity to most of the Tumblr brigade, I’m not one of them. And every time it happens, I get very uncomfortable.

There’s certainly been a history of Doctor-companion violence. Perhaps one of the most notable early stories was The Edge of Destruction, with its strangulation cliffhanger and the notorious scene where Susan attacks Barbara with a pair of scissors. It was a stage in the production history where they were still working out tone and it’s almost inconceivable that it would have happened even, say, a year later. Meanwhile, strangulation rears its ugly head again in The Twin Dilemma, as a paranoid, post-regeneration Doctor shouts poetry at Peri before trying to throttle her. I’ve had dates like this, but it’s a nasty scene in a largely ridiculous story, and we will not dwell on it.

Besides, such things seem to be anomalies in twenty-five years of comparatively chaste television, in which the relationship the companion has with their Doctor is seldom discussed openly. For better or worse, a companion-based intensity is central to the dynamic of New Who, and generally you either love it or hate it. The Ninth Doctor famously tells Rose that he doesn’t “do domestic”, but that almost feels like Eccleston himself protesting against the tide of relationship issues that clogged the show both during and after his stint in the leather jacket.

That’s a different debate, of course, but it has fallout. The Doctor is slapped by Jackie Tyler for taking away his daughter. Francine Jones slaps him because she believe he’s a threat. A bolshy, pre-enlightened Donna Noble slaps him because she thinks she’s been kidnapped (and then again when she thinks he’s making light of a serious situation). Martha slaps the Doctor to bring him out of his self-induced fugue.

Some of these are understandable within the context of the narrative, even if we could question the writers’ decision to subsequently make light of them (the Doctor and Rose share a joke about Jackie on a rooftop, while a reeling Tennant remarks “Always the mothers” while he’s getting up). But that’s television. The comedy value of a good slap in the face is, apparently, worth its weight in gold, whether it’s Tasha Lem in Time of the Doctor, or Clara’s assault on the Cyberplanner Doctor in Nightmare in Silver. It would be churlish to single out Doctor Who for this sort of thing. It happened practically every week in Friends. It goes back to the golden age of television and beyond. Every short film Leon Errol ever made would end when his wife hit him over the head with a vase.

Perhaps comedy slapping has its place, given the right characters and context. But there’s been a shift over the years from a literal slapstick – the Eleventh Doctor hitting himself for his own stupidity – towards a darker, violence-as-reaction ethos, and perhaps that’s what makes me uncomfortable. I’ve mentioned the mothers, but the rot truly sets in when Matt Smith enters his second series: River’s reaction upon seeing an apparently resurrected (but actually two hundred years younger) Doctor is to slap him. She does it again when he fixes her broken wrist. Clara’s about the most violent of the lot, particularly when she’s working with Capaldi: thoughtless behaviour is punished with physical abuse in both Last Christmas and Into the Dalek, while she threatens, in Kill the Moon, to “smack you so hard you’ll regenerate”.

“But surely,” I can hear people arguing, “It’s OK, because the Doctor’s an alien?” And yes, the Doctor’s not human. He’s already demonstrated amazing resistance to injuries. He’s probably got a healing factor. He’s like an abrasive, declawed Wolverine, so that makes it OK. Besides, thumping non-human life forms isn’t a problem: if Han Solo’s response to being captured by the Ewoks had been to punch one of them in the face, I’m sure that would have been entirely acceptable to most children. It’s a poor analogy, but it illustrates that the line’s very hard to draw. To what extent do we disavow the actions of a character on the grounds that the humanoid patriarch they’ve thumped has two hearts instead of just one?

“Or,” the argument continues, “he deserves it, right?” Well, yes, of course he does. The Twelfth Doctor’s an alienating (in a quite literal sense of the word), clinically detached sociopath, at least in his worst moments. He says the horrible things we’re all thinking, only the little switch inside his head that stops you saying them out loud doesn’t seem to be working. That’s a perfectly justifiable reason for casual domestic violence. He deserves it in the same way that provocatively dressed women presumably deserve to be raped.
Why even question the motives of the one doing the slapping, when the one being slapped is so obviously asking for it?

I watch quite a lot of Jeremy Kyle on the weekday mornings I’m folding laundry instead of writing, and a couple of months ago one particular guest recounted the time he was locked in his flat by a girlfriend who supposedly beat him. The authenticity of his narrative was ultimately disputed, of course, but long before that happened Kyle had taken the audience to task for laughing. “If this was the other way around,” he said, “and if a woman was sat here and a bloke had locked her in a flat and she’d been forced to jump out and injure herself you would not be laughing. You would be saying he is a complete nightmare, he should be locked up and that’s disgraceful, but somehow if it happens to a bloke that’s funny. That’s not funny.”

If I could say that the show were making a valid point about this sort of thing, I’d probably be more tolerant. But it doesn’t: moral debate is sandwiched into inappropriate contexts where it is dealt with poorly and rapidly (Kill The Moon again) or, more often, sidestepped entirely. So by turns we’re supposed to laugh, or shake our heads in dismay and mutter “Well, he was asking for it”. We laugh because it’s a powerful Time Lord being brought down off his pedestal by a weak and feeble human. And we shouldn’t, because when it’s supposed to be funny, it usually isn’t, and when it’s supposed to be angst-ridden, it just comes across as nasty. Besides, it’s not just the Doctor. In Asylum of the Daleks, Amy slaps Rory twice. At least that’s consistent. Amy spends most of that story being an absolute bitch, whether it’s the arrogant smugness that pervades the early scenes, or the tirade of fury directed at her ex-husband for considering himself the wronged party (“Plastic man standing outside in the rain for two millennia? Pah. I THREW YOU OUT OF THE HOUSE BECAUSE I CAN’T HAVE YOUR BABIES!”).

I’m not advocating a reduction of violence. I approach many of these situations – inevitably and unavoidably – from the perspective of a parent, but that doesn’t mean I think the show is too unpleasant. I recently showed The Deadly Assassin, arguably the peak of 1970s unpleasantness, to my eight-year-old (and was thrilled when, just last week, he remembered an obscure detail while forming an analogy). The most sensible response to stories that cross your own particular line of acceptable viewing is to simply not watch them.

But I am worried about the show I’m watching. Perhaps Series 8 was Capaldi’s Twin Dilemma moment, borne out across twelve weeks, and the lighter touch hinted at in Series 9 will mean Clara no longer needs to react in anger. Or perhaps not. Perhaps this is the way Moffat and the producers choose to do things; a sort of counterbalance to the sexism charges thrown his way last year. But I know we live in a world where The Sun spearheads a campaign to highlight battered women with one hand and dismisses a marital assault charge against its (female) editor as “a silly argument” with the other. I know it’s a world where domestic violence against men is granted less credence than its (admittedly more common) antipode. Once again, that’s another debate for another day. But above all I know this: it’s not the sort of thing I want to see in Doctor Who.

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Remastered: A Town Called Mercy, Silent Movie Style

There are different types of YouTube comments. Some heap undeserved praise to the point of sycophancy. People will tell you that a mediocre product is the best thing they’ve ever seen on the internet; it is crucial above all else to ensure that you do not start to believe your own hype, because therein lies artistic complacency and the excessive inflation of ego. At the other end of the scale are the downright abusive. I used to be polite; these days I’m inclined to argue back, albeit without letting them see that they’ve got to me. I’m not suggesting you should ever feed the troll, but sometimes you can poke it with a stick.

Somewhere in the middle there is a sweet spot; a small compartment of users who offer something that actually might be considered constructive feedback – the people who say “I liked this, but have you tried…?”. For instance, there was the chap who told me my Kraftwerk montage was a little too long. He was quite right, and were I to redo it now I’d go for a shorter edit. There were the numerous people who pointed out the mistakes in the Red Dwarf mashup – a hard lesson learned about when less is more – to the extent that I gave it a substantial overhaul in the tail end of last year and made something I actually almost liked.

Then there’s the silent movie I did three and a half years ago. Generally people seemed to like it, but a comment I got a few months back got me thinking. “Speed it up just a little more and put it slightly out of focus,” said a user named cemeterymaiden1. “It will look authentic I think! :D”

And that’s great. I can work with that. It did need to be faster, and it did need a little blurring round the edges. That’s the sort of comment I love receiving, because it is constructive without being disrespectful. It makes a welcome change from this –

I’ve decided, after careful reflection, that most Doctor Who fans are fucking idiots.

[coughs]

In any event: when I decided to retouch a few old projects that never quite lived up to their potential, this one seemed like a prime candidate. Most of the changes are cosmetic – loose frames tucked, timings adjusted. Then I ran it through a gaussian blur and tinted it with sepia, rather than the black and white I originally used. I’m still not sure how authentic this makes it as a result – my knowledge of silent movie production techniques isn’t as comprehensive as it ought to be – but it’s a Western, dammit. It looks cooler.

“Don’t you think,” said Gareth when I posted the original, back before ‘Day of the Doctor’, “that the joke about the Eccleston cameo is going to date rather quickly?” He was right, of course – it’s not something that bothered me at the time, given that all it did was time stamp the original, but the remaster replaces it with a gag that’ll never go out of style, even if the BBC eventually follow through on it.

The original is still up there, if you want to take a peek. But I’m happier with this one. Some things don’t need changing. But sometimes you reap the benefits when you do. Happy trails, y’all.

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No, I’ve met cat people

It was a Wednesday, and I was giving Edward a bath, when Emily popped her head round the door and announced she was going to work.

“What time will you be back?” I asked.

“No idea,” she said. “I’ll probably get drawn into something.”

So I have drawn her into this picture of the Tenth Doctor. I rock.

 

In our ongoing Nu Who marathon, we passed ‘Fear Her’ months ago, and the Tenth Doctor has long since regenerated. Indeed, the Eleventh is currently into his ‘new lease of life after Amy and Rory phase’, cavorting around the rings of Akhaten with Clara. (I seem to be the only one who actually likes this episode, or at least I thought I was until a recent reappraisal saw its other fans emerging from the woodwork, like the slaves at the end of Spartacus.) What’s annoying is that he has yet to shed a single tear over any of the deaths, or any of the departures. I know I didn’t either, but it’s hardly the point.

That doesn’t stop Daniel having an appreciation for Classic Who, of course, judging by the scene he played out with the Character Creations set last week: not content with building a wall and casting Peter Davison’s incarnation in the role of Donald Trump, I came in the other day to find the Sixth and the First Doctors emerging in what looked an awful lot like cosplay.

I only wish I could find the Seventh Doctor. Can somebody (hello Gareth) come up with an amusing, series-related suggestion?

Also this week: Daniel told us he had a dream where the Eleventh Doctor was having an adventure with Rose, “only she had an emoji face and she threw Captain Jack from the roof of a building”.

It took me all morning to find the right building, but eventually –

 

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What really happened to the Pink Windmill kids

windmill_catrina

Hi. My name’s Catrina…

If something goes viral on the internet it’s usually a combination of market awareness and serendipity. (Occasionally talent is involved as well, but the ludicrous success of Charlie Bit My Finger is ubiquitous proof, as if any were needed, that this isn’t necessarily the case.) Sometimes you just need to get noticed by the right people. And sometimes it’s because it’s the end of an annus horribalis and we could all do with some light relief, which is why everyone spent December watching a bunch of stage school teenagers in leggings cavorting around a TV set.

For many of us, this was like opening up a box in the attic and fishing out a thirty-year-old diary. You forgive yourself for particular habits, but it’s difficult not to cringe. I don’t remember whether I actually thought The Pink Windmill Show was cool, but I watched it every week without fail, so they must have done something right. The clip doing the rounds was new to me, but I must have seen it – it’s just that in the 1980s, out-camping the Village People was standard practice. We didn’t question it because it happened so frequently. No one questions the over-reliance on sob stories in The X-Factor, do they? It’s just what we do now.

Not that it always worked. At the bargain basement end of Rod Hull’s prime time glamour, there was a children’s show called You Should Be So Lucky – a sort of amateur talent competition run by Colin Bennett, supported by a group of sparkly child dancers. Each week you’d have a different group of stage school prodigies (at least half of whom were named Tiffany) taking to the floor to deliver music hall numbers, indulge in a spot of amateur magic – or, worst of all, do a monologue. It ran for twelve episodes. It was trainwreck television: indeed, I can find no footage on the internet save a recording of the theme music, accompanied by a single still of Bennett and his Purettes gathered at the back door of a caravan.

lucky

Listening to that now – and reading some of the comments – I think it’s become apparent that it was a programme I misjudged. I remember being horrified by it, even at the age of ten – and I wonder if Bennett’s saccharine-drenched, prozac-infused host wasn’t playing a caricature, a man who’d watched a promising career go down the tubes and who was as appalled by his current situation as we were. Had the show continued past its first series he would, no doubt, have had some sort of breakdown on stage, in the manner of Michael Caine’s character in Little Voice. As it was we got an impassioned plea to get out and watch some live theatre, before it was too late.

(As an aside, the article I’ve just linked to references the words “Bran Barrel!”, something I do recall them saying quite a lot – but for the life of me I can’t remember why. If there’s someone reading this who does, perhaps you might care to enlighten me.)

But The Pink Windmill Show has survived, even if Rod Hull sadly hasn’t. Falling from the roof of his home while fixing the TV aerial during a football match not long before the millennium turned, Rod had survived a declining career and bankruptcy and was trying to make the best of things at a shepherd’s cottage in Essex. Resentment towards the puppet that had typecast him notwithstanding, he seemed to drift towards his death with a cheery optimism – “Complaining about your life,” he was heard to say (I’m paraphrasing) “is all codswallop”. Which is what makes things even worse. I reflected, when I heard the news, that I hadn’t heard about him for years, which I suppose makes it worse.

Back at the windmill, there’s somebody at the door. Oh look, it’s the screamer.

Sit down, Bonnie. Have a glass of carrot juice.

Even at the age of six or seven, some of those scripted exchanges were frankly awkward. And the formulaic approach nagged and teased at my inner pedant. Why, in the name of sanity, were the kids able to memorise complicated dance routines seemingly off the cuff, but unable to remember that the witch always turns up to kidnap someone in the audience at precisely the same moment? “DON’T ANSWER THE DOOR!” I can remember shouting on more than one occasion. “IT’S ALWAYS GROTBAGS THE SECOND TIME!”

grotbags

Grotbags – the creation of the sensational Carole Lee Scott – was, of course, the best thing about The Pink Windmill, whether she was stomping across the studio with a brat under one arm or bickering with her hapless minions, Croc the cringing crocodile, Grovel the sycophantic manservant, and an effeminate mechanical butler called Robert Redford. By the end of it we didn’t care whether the kids she’d abducted had actually won anything – it was more fun watching the banter. The image of Grotbags leering through the fourth wall with her goth-decorated eye makeup and missing teeth – before breaking into a song about UFOs – was something that most of us never really got out of our heads. The 1980s were rather short on iconic children’s TV moments, but this was one of them – and when CBeebies launched their hugely successful soft play pirate show, Swashbuckle, some years later, the influence of Rod and the Windmill was undeniable.

Still. Some things are best consigned to the past: audiences don’t know when they’ve had enough. It’s why, when I read that the cast had reunited for a Comic Relief sketch, my heart sank. It’s bad enough that they’re revisiting Love Actually, in order to show us what a bunch of fictional characters we never really cared about in the first place are doing fourteen years after a film that gets far more press attention than it deserves. I know I’m in full-on grumpy old man mode now but I do get a bit fed up with this obsession with nostalgia and revivals; it’s not so much that we’ve run out of ideas, more that an age of anniversary-themed news (something I willingly contribute towards) and ‘Remember when…?’ articles have led to a culture where everyone over the age of twenty-five is prone to excessive navel gazing, convinced that their past was better than your past, and you’d better get used to it.

I’m right about this. Three or four of the Lord of the Rings actors go out for a drink and it’s a fucking reunion? Seriously? People who think televised cast reunions are a good idea should have to shampoo my crotch. It’s like watching foreign tourists go to the Costa del Sol and eat fish and chips and drink English lager. When revivals work (The X-Files) they’re great. When they don’t (also The X-Files) they make for horrible, horrible television. (Twin Peaks, it must be noted, has a get-out-of-jail-free card, because it ended on a massive cliffhanger that was supposedly going to be resolved twenty-five years later, so that’s fine.)

For all my whinging, it must be said that the new version of the Pink Windmill dance is quite fun, and it’s for a good cause. Spencer is notably absent, due to ‘personal commitments’, a euphemism for ‘I work in advertising now and don’t want to make a tit of myself on national television’. But everyone else is present, correct and inevitably a little thicker round the waist, although that could be said of me, so I’m not judging.

Besides, it gave me an idea. “Why don’t you make your own version?” asks Joe at the end. So I did.

Only mine, of course, has Cybermen.

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