Book review: Watching Neighbours Twice A Day, by Josh Widdicombe

Josh Widdicombe must be one of the busiest comedians working in Britain today. In the week before I wrote this review, I am aware that he has been on Who Do You Think You Are?, the newly-revived Blankety Blank and, as always, alongside Adam Hills and Alex Brooker on Channel 4’s Friday night hit, The Last Leg. And that’s without me even checking properly: goodness knows how many times he’s cropped up on Dave in that time, perhaps on a repeat of his own panel show, Hypothetical or on an old episode of Taskmaster.

This book isn’t a full-blown autobiography, however. It is the story of Josh’s youth growing up in Dartmoor as told through the TV he watched, specifically during the decade of the 1990s. As someone who watched a lot of TV myself during this period (and who still does), this format is very appealing to me. Many of the shows Josh watched were the ones I watched too. Josh can at least justify his childhood TV addiction on the grounds that he grew up in a remote sparsely populated area of Devon. I, however, grew up in Peterborough: not exactly a hub of culture but a busy enough, populous (new) town. What was my excuse?

Anyway, Josh begins by discussing Gus Honeybun, a regional ITV children’s puppet famous to anyone growing up in the south-west of England at almost any point during the last four decades of the 20th century but wholly unfamiliar to me and the vast silent majority of the world who grew up anywhere else. The only reason I’d ever heard of Gus before at all, is because I moved to Devon when in my twenties in the 2000s (presumably the exact opposite of what Josh himself did) and have had people talk to me about this great, mythical, winking TV birthday bunny since. Any young viewers who, like myself, grew up in the area covered by the Anglia ITV franchise were lumbered with a frenzied waving TV puppet called ‘B.C.’ during this period. ‘B.C.’ stood for ‘Birthday Club’ which was also not entirely accidentally, the name of the short segments of TV, ‘B.C.’ himself appeared on, often with Norwich-based presenter, Helen McDermott. Unlike Gus Honeybun whose identity was entirely unambiguous, I am genuinely unsure what animal ‘B.C.’ was supposed to be. Some sort of wildcat? Perhaps a leopard? Maybe even a giraffe? He doesn’t really look anything like either of these. Occasionally, ‘B.C.’ would be absent because “he’s on his holidays today” (translation: he’s in the washing machine). At any rate, as with the solar eclipse of August 1999, I suspect the south-west got the best of it here. ‘B.C.’ may as well have stood for “Bored Children.”

Anyway, this is only one of many items on TV discussed here. Others include:

Neighbours: Like Josh, I too, was a huge fan of the Australian soap for a fairly short period. However, I am over six years older than him (he was born in 1983, I was born at the end of 1976) and here it really shows. I’d largely lost interest by the time he got into it. Despite us both remembering Todd Landers being run over, there is little cross-over (he doesn’t mention ‘Plain Jane Super Brain’ or Dr. Clive Gibbons at all). His discussion of a horrendously racist 1996 storyline in which the character Julie Martin accuses her new Chinese neighbours of killing and barbecuing her missing dog is grimly fascinating though. As is the ‘Big Break’ chapter which details just some of the horrors of Jim Davidson’s career.

Ghostwatch: Unlike Josh (and many others) I never thought this notorious dramatized ‘live broadcast from a real haunted house’ was actually real. Although as he points out, knowing it isn’t real does nothing to diminish just how terrifying to watch it is even today. Or brilliantly made. Even the bit where Michael Parkinson gets possessed.

The Simpsons and I’m Alan Partridge: These chapters are essentially songs of praise about the brilliance of 1990s TV comedy. I am in full agreement.

GamesMaster: I watched it too. And, happily, Josh’s household was so far behind that his memories of 1990s computer games sit happily with my memories of 1980s ones.

In short, I loved the book and would highly recommend it. I agree wholeheartedly with him about some things: Election ’97 was a joyous and memorable night. The death of Diana was a genuinely tragic and shocking event but by time of her funeral had descended into a distasteful grief-fest which much of the population (myself and Josh himself included) felt wholly isolated from.

I disagree with him about other things. The Spice Girls certainly were not “the greatest pop band of all time.” And on points of factual accuracy: nobody ever died of a drug overdose on Grange Hill (Zammo, the school heroin addict never died while Danny Kendall’s death in the series was not drug-related). And Tony Blair famously never once sent an email while in Downing Street.

There was too much football talk in the book for me, but for this he cannot be faulted. He was and is a football fan. It would be unreasonable not to expect him to discuss it. In truth, I could have written a far longer review than this one.

There are chapters on many 1990s TV shows here, amongst them, Gladiators, Badger Girl, Knightmare, You Bet!, TFI Friday, 999, The X-Files and Eldorado. There are no chapters on Twin Peaks, Our Friends in the North, Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse, Cracker or Queer as Folk. But so what? There are no chapters on Baywatch, Hollyoaks, The Darling Buds of May, Friends, Byker Grove, South Park or Sweet Valley High either. You cannot write about everything.

Who does he think he is? Josh Widdicombe is a fine comic writer and as Adam Hills would put it, “the pride of Dartmoor.”

Published by: Blink.

A Starlord story

ARTICLE FIRST PUBLISHED IN 2018.

WRITER: CHRIS HALLAM

Forty years ago, in May 1978, Starlord came to Earth. “A new wild era of sci-fi starts here!” the front page of the new comic promised and on early evidence, it seemed to deliver, promising a weekly offering of British comic strip excellence likely to endure well into the 1980s and beyond.

Starlord was bold. It was exciting. It was a bit like 2000AD.

Ultimately, Starlord’s star shone brightly, but only briefly. The last issue, only the 22nd, appeared that October. Readers who had bought every issue from the start would have spent 12p a week during 1978, adding up to a grand total of £2.64. This is slightly less than one copy of 2000AD costs today.

What went wrong for the Galaxy’s OTHER greatest comic? We take a look back…

The same. Only different…

Starlord was supposed to be 2000AD’s older brother: indeed, perhaps a slightly posher brother who had picked up certain airs after attending the local grammar school. Eight of its pages were in full colour – a lot for the time – and at 12p, it was actually more expensive than 2000AD, which was a mere 9p.

2000AD, which was also edited by Kelvin Gosnell, had started just over a year before. Although a success – Judge Dredd was enjoying his first major epic storyline in ‘The Cursed Earth’ during the brief era of Starlord – there is little doubt looking back: Starlord was, for a while, the better of the two comics.

Just as 2000AD had Tharg the Mighty as editor, Starlord had Starlord himself, an alien humanoid with something of the look of Shakin’ Stevens about him. Unlike Tharg, Starlord had an important and urgent message for humans everywhere. “Hail, Star-Troopers,” he declared in the first of his “starzines,” “I have escaped the satanic forces of the INTERSTELLAR FEDERATION…to bring you A DIRE WARNING!”

Yes! Earth was under threat and a crash course in interstellar survival offered the only hope for survival. The comic’s stories were thus “Starlord Survival Blueprints” while the range of six badges given away with issue one were “Starlord Star-Squad Equipment.” Rather alarmingly, Starlord warned of the badges: “DO NOT place it on your skin, as the badge is made from a special metal mined on AXIS 1A you could develop a skin disorder, putting you out of combat”! Issue 2, incidentally, included a free space calculator offered to the reader with the warning: “Use it! It could save your life!”

Like a series of tweets written by an increasingly unbalanced 21st world leader, the use of capital letters grew more frequent as Starlord’s tone grew increasingly shrill. “I have seen the Gronks swarming in the star-spawned outer reaches of space – a sure sign of inter-Galactic disaster!…THE ENEMY IS MASSING TO STRIKE!” Finally, Starlord evoked the memory of a line from the 1951 film, ‘The Thing From Another World,’ which ended with an appeal to “Watch the skies!” “REMEMBER TROOPERS, STICK WITH ME,” urged Starlord. “AND WATCH THE STARS!”

How long could Starlord have maintained this perpetual state of high alert and frantic calls for vigilance for? Sadly, we never got the chance to find out.

Time after time

According to Starlord’s Survival Blueprints, the story ‘Planet of the Damned,” “toughens your endurance as your strength is tested to the very limit!” In fact, this description turned out to be surprisingly accurate. The first ever story in the comic was a hoary tale of nonsense based on what might happen to survivors lost in the midst of the mysterious Bermuda Triangle. In short, they got transported to another dimension. The story held over from its original planned home in 2000AD was the weakest of the new line-up. A test of endurance indeed…

Things improved somewhat with Timequake in which London tramp steamer skipper and working-class hero James Blocker inadvertently causes World War III. He then gets the opportunity to undo his error thanks to the intervention of a Star Trek type organisation called Time Control made up of recruits from Earth’s past and future ranging from the Roman era to the 40th century. This is all after we are told ‘Lyon Sprague’ invented time travel in the year 1997. But, of course, we all remember that…

The characters including Blocker (“M-me? Y-you’re round the flamin’ twist!”) were all pretty dull but there were lots of fun moments in Timequake. There were the frog-like Droon, Time Control’s enemy who inspired Brian Bolland to do an excellent cover for issue 2. “Human scum! You’re the last survivors!” one Droon says (as with Star Trek’s the Borg, the plural and singular are the same). “We have destroyed every one of your accursed sub-stations from 1978 backwards! And now we Droon destroy you!”

The next Timequake story envisaged a Nazi future created by a maniac who turned out to be real-life senior Nazi Martin Bornmann in disguise, but the follow-up in which another defunct empire, this time the Incas, took over the future, rather suggested inspiration was starting to dry up, despite some excellent visuals from Ian Kennedy.

But the best Starlord strips were yet to come…

Alpha male

John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s Strontium Dog introduced us to the world of 2180 and mutant bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, a man warped by the impact of a Neutron War thirty years earlier (neutron bombs which kill people while leaving buildings and property relatively intact being briefly a fashionable but terrifying possibliity in 1978).

Johnny Alpha, as extensive captions inform us, has been given white eyes but mind-reading powers by his mutation. Like all mutants, however, he is shunned by society, forced to work as a bounty hunter: an SD or Search/Destroy agent. In common, anti-mutant parlance they are known as “strontium dogs”.

Originally conceived as a New York taxi driver type, Alpha’s sidekick ultimately became Wulf Sternhammer, a formidable but benevolent Viking. “Comrades ve are, Johnny! Vere you go, Wulf go!” Wulf argues, explaining why he sticks with Alpha, despite his own non-mutant status. “A skull to crack with the happy stick und Vulf is fine!”

Strontium Dog provided Starlord with its first cover hero and many of the comic’s best moments: a space pirate attack, a giant, but irritable and slightly deaf computer called McIntyre and a creature called the Gronk, a timid creature, who lives in a box and has a mouth in its stomach.

Is this one of the same Gronks Starlord was on about “swarming in the star-spawned outer reaches of space” before? It was never really made clear.

Big jobs

Finally, there was Ro-Busters. Rejecting an initial bizarre idea from someone else about wounded Second World War veterans developing superpowers, writer Pat Mills instead created droids Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein (get it?) who are rescued from destruction by billionaire Howard Quartz (known as “Mr Ten Percent” as 90% of his actual body parts have been mechanically replaced in a bid to cheat death) to form a new international rescue organisation in the late 21st century. With the robots dealing with such trifles as a hole emerging in the trans-Atlantic tunnel and an organised robot uprising, this soon became very much “Thunderbirds with robots”. Ultimately, however, it was the likeable characters of Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein themselves, rather than the overall android international recue concept which would prove most enduring.

Two become one

There was more. Some brilliant covers: “It’s Planet Earth’s last day for this is the day of the clone. The day of Clone Wars!” There was another major strip, Mind Wars (“my brain is a time-bomb programmed to destroy all human life!”) and a brilliant one-off about a man, Sheldon and his ultimately deadly dream house.

But in October 1978, Starlord delivered his final message. “EARTH IS SAVED! The Int. Stell. Fed have abandoned their plans to attack and destroy us.” And there was other more news: “This is it! The big one! Two sci-fi greats unite in a giant leap for mankind!” Starlord – or at least, some of Starlord – was merging into its sister title, 2000AD.

Why had Starlord failed? Some argue it was doomed from an early stage.

“Starlord had been the creation of Kelvin Gosnell,” Steve MacManus wrote later. “His initial concept was a monthly science-fiction title that would sit comfortably alongside magazines such as Omni and Metal Hurlant. Both these titles were printed on glossy magazine paper and were aimed at fans of science-fiction stories and comic strips”. It was envisaged as an aspirational magazine packed with stories and sci-fi features which a 2000AD reader’s older brother might enjoy.

Sadly, all of these admirable plans soon went out the window.

“Out of the blue, management had decreed that the frequency should be weekly, not monthly,” MacManus explains. “This single change more or less ruined the title’s chances of establishing itself as a serious science-fiction magazine.”

The altered situation also caused problems for Ro-Busters’ author, Pat Mills.

“After writing it as a twelve-page self-contained story, there was a change of plan and the story was cut down to six pages an episode. This leads to all kinds of pacing problems,” Mills explains. And these were problems which he didn’t have time to fix. “A pity, because I knew the new format was wrong for it, and it’s why I started to lose interest in the series.”

MacManus soon found himself frustrated to be writing Starlord’s comparatively juvenile starzines. Although it often sold better than 2000AD, its similarity to the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic essentially doomed it to failure.

“Starlord was still a relatively unknown quantity to the five thousand odd newsagents who stocked comics and magazines at the time,” muses Steve MacManus. “whereas they’d had a year to grow accustomed to 2000AD.”

So that was it. The final cover proclaimed: “Starlord’s ship is waiting to carry him beyond the stars!” “Now that your future is assured, I must return to the spaceways for the Gronks are calling and I cannot let them down.” Yes. The Gronks again.

He concluded: “And so, it is farewell for the last time, my friends! But keep watching the stars, for one day I may return!”

This hasn’t happened.

Afterlife

Actually, in a way, Starlord did return: in three annuals dated 1980, 1981 and 1982. All three were a pale shadow of the short-lived comic which had spawned them: a monochrome assortment of below par Strontium Dog and Mind Wars episodes, random short stories (“Ghost Hunter”) and scientific features (“Telephone lines in space”) and a few stories which had never been in the original comic (“Jimmi From Jupiter”).

2000AD and Starlord became 2000AD and Tornado in 1979 when another short-lived sister comic merged into it. In 1980, it became just 2000AD again. It has just been 2000AD ever since. Very unusually for a British comic it survived the whole of the 1980s and 1990s without ever merging again with anyone else.

Timequake returned briefly in 2000AD in 1979 but never appeared again. The other characters have enjoyed a rich post-Starlord afterlife, however. Although Ro-Busters ended in 1979, the characters Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein have appeared in the strips Nemesis the Warlock and particularly The ABC Warriors up to this day. Hammerstein even appeared in the 1990s Judge Dredd film. Strontium Dog too, still continues.

In short, forty years on, Starlord’s legacy continues.

Watch the stars!

My cinema year: 1987

A-Ha! They did the theme tune, I mean.

TOP 1987 MOVIES AT THE WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE

I saw one of these at the cinema in 1987. I have seen nine of them now.

  1. Fatal Attraction
  2. Beverly Hills Cop II
  3. Dirty Dancing
  4. The Living Daylights
  5. 3 Men and a Baby
  6. Good Morning Vietnam
  7. Lethal Weapon
  8. Predator
  9. Moonstruck
  10. The Untouchables

The Living Daylights was the first of Timothy Dalton’s two outings as 007. Dalton is not usually considered to have been the best Bond by most fans and nobody seems to consider this to have been the best James Bond film. I am not a big Bond fan and maybe it was the novelty of seeing the character on the big screen for the first time. But I’m sure I have never enjoyed any James Bond film as much as when I saw this as an excited ten-year-old. I was consistently entertained throughout. The bit where he hangs off the back of a plane. The beautiful blonde cellist. The chase through the snow. I loved it.

Sadly, Dalton’s next outing as Bond, Licence to Kill flopped, perhaps in part because it was given a ’15’ certificate preventing twelve-year-olds like me from seeing it. The first ’12’ certificate film, Tim Burton’s Batman was released a week after Licence to Kill in August 1989, which presumably didn’t help. Dalton was dropped and the franchise was ‘rested’ for five years as filmmakers contemplated how to respond to the end of the Cold War and films like Die Hard driving up budgetary expectations.

Another reason for Licence to Kill’s failure? Unlike The Living Daylights, it was rubbish.

“Replacing me?…What?…Pierce who???”

The Living Daylights didn’t actually make the U.S top ten, so am pleased I got a list for the global 1987 box office here. Aside from that and one other film, I’m pretty sure I saw all the other films on either video or TV by the end of the 1990s, the decade where I truly became a film buff.

The Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop franchises never impressed me much and Fatal Attraction (directed by Adrian Lyne, who like me, was born in Peterborough) always seems a bit overrated, perhaps because of the famous bunny boiler sequence. Presumed Innocent was better. I liked Moonstruck when I saw it. Cher’s in it. John Mahoney crops up in it too. What was it about? I’ve no idea now. Is Nicholas Cage in it too?

The Untouchables is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are a number of memorable sequences: De Niro and the baseball bat, the exploding suitcase girl, Costner pushing the guy off the roof (“he’s in the car”) and the copied Odessa Steps gunfight. Connery’s ‘Irish’ accent is all over the place though. He basically won an Oscar because he was shot about a million times and still took an hour to die.

I quite liked Dirty Dancing (the film I mean, not the activity). When I was about 18, it seemed to be every girl’s favourite film.

The Untouchables: no inhibitions about enforcing prohibition.

A friend showed me all the violent bits of Predator on video. I hadn’t asked him to. This came in handy when I later saw the heavily censored version on ITV. It’s a classic sci-fi. Good Morning Vietnam also made an impact.

I’ve never seen 3 Men and a Baby. I suspect I never will now. I don’t think I’ve missed much. For a while rumours circulated that a ‘real-life’ ghost appears briefly in one scene of this comedy, supposedly a boy who died in the apartment where the movie was filmed. Stills of the supposed phantom apparently standing in the background and ‘looking’ towards the camera do genuinely look quite creepy. Some have claimed the rumours were deliberately encouraged to boost sales and rentals of the video on its release in 1990.

Slowly, the truth emerged. The ‘boy’ was revealed to have been a cardboard cut-out of Ted Danson’s character (dressed in a top hat and tails) which had been left in the background after being used in a scene which was subsequently deleted. Danson’s character in the film was apparently an actor and the cut-out would have been related to a commercial the character was filming. Director Leonard ‘Mr Spock’ Nimoy seems not to have noticed the prop was still in shot, or at least was unable to remove it for whatever reason.

An odd explanation? Perhaps, yet still more plausible than the alternative, especially when you remember ghosts don’t actually exist in real life. Also, no boys died in the apartment. There wasn’t even an apartment. The film’s ‘apartment’ scenes were not even filmed in an apartment at all but on a sound stage.

One man, one woman, one cardboard cut-out. And a baby. But which is which? Find out next time.

My cinema year: 1986

TOP 10 U.S FILMS IN 1986

I saw none of these at the cinema then. I have seen 7 since.

  1. Top Gun (watched on TV in 1990. Flying scenes ace. The rest is rubbish).
  2. Crocodile Dundee (video in 1980s. Seemed fun then. Now seems offensive).
  3. Platoon (saw in 90s Excellent but grim)
  4. The Karate Kid Part II (Never seen)
  5. Star Trek IV; The Voyage Home (saw in 90s. Fun)
  6. Back To School (Never seen. Straight to video in UK)
  7. Aliens (saw in 90s. Excellent)
  8. The Golden Child (Never seen)
  9. Ruthless People (saw in 90s? Unmemorable)
  10. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (saw in 90s. Quite enjoyed)

The Transformers were the dominant toy craze of my childhood. At least, they were for boys.

There were other toys, yes: He-Man, MASK, Thundercats, Action Force and Zoids. But nothing else came close to the robots in disguise from Cybertron.

It was a different era. Who needed Amazon Prime when you had Optimus Prime? Need a villain? Forget Meghan Markle, try Megatron! Suffering from heartburn? Check out Galvatron! Instead of…er…Galviscon. Well, you get the general idea anyway.

I was fully sold. I got two Transformers Choose Your Own Adventure books. I replaced The Muppets lunchbox I’d had since Infants’ School with a new one featuring Optimus Prime. The Marvel UK TF comic joined Whizzer and Chips, The Beano, Buster and Oink! amongst my regular reads. I collected the Transformers’ Panini sticker collection and once got a very nearly complete album in exchange for a Whoopee cushion I’d brought to school. This was a real bargain: my friend burst the cushion later that day anyway. But I did get a mild telling off as the cushion had been given to me as a present. I shouldn’t have swapped it. It now seems odd I was allowed to take it to school.

We were given the opportunity to write stories for a special school storybook that year. I was regarded as one of the best storywriters in school but of all the topics in the world, I chose to write one about the Transformers. A friend (the same one who I got the sticker album off) drew the pictures. The narrative featured a U.S leader called ‘President Reynolds’ and another human hero called ‘Flip Jackson’. ‘Reynolds’ still sounds like a good name for a fictional US president but, on reflection, I’m not sure ‘Flip Jackson’ is entirely convincing as a typical American name.

In December 1986, I went to see Transformers: The Movie to celebrate my tenth birthday. The late Orson Welles, Eric Idle and Leonard Nimoy were amongst the voice cast for this cartoon but while I knew of Star Trek’s Mr Spock, I would not have recognised these names as a nine-year-old. There was a clever time travel storyline with the action switching between 1986 and the futuristic year of 2006. By the actual year, 2006, the live action Transformers film was in fact poised to come out. It’s stars, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox? Both were born in 1986. This makes me feel a bit old, especially as both actors are in their mid-thirties now.

Transformers: The Movie did not come close to making the U.S top ten in 1986. I make no apology for not having seen any of the films on the list at the cinema. It is not a very child-friendly list. Roughly half of them would not have been accessible to a nine-year-old cinemagoer. Top Gun, Aliens, Platoon, Ruthless People and Crocodile Dundee were all rated ’15’ or above (cinema age classification was much stricter then) and with the exception of Star Trek (yes, this is the even-numbered one where they go to 1980s Earth and Spock silences a noisy punk on the bus), I either had no interest or was unaware of all the others. The Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back To School was never released at the cinema in the UK. Two of my subsequent favourite films, Stand By Me and Hannah and her Sisters were released in 1986 incidentally. Neither made the top 10 US films’ list and, of course, neither would have interested me then, had I even been aware of them or able to go and see them.

An odd feature of my Transformers-obsession was that I was not particularly into the toys themselves. I was not very adept at transforming them and did not really enjoy playing with them. My interest did yield dividends though. Earlier this year, I produced a 2,000 word feature on the Transformers Marvel UK comic series for the ‘1984’ volume of the History of Comics anthology. In 2014, I also provided nearly all the written content for the Transformers 2015 annual, published by Pedigree.