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: 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.

2000AD timeline 6: 1982

1982 (Progs: 245-296):

January (Prog 245): The year begins in style with the launch of a new Judge Dredd mega-epic, The Apocalypse War. Half of Mega City One and several other of the 22nd century world’s mega cities are wiped out. This is also the first Dredd story illustrated by Dredd co-creator Carlos Ezquerra to be published in the weekly comic. (Written: Wagner/Grant).

(Prog 246): Nemesis the Warlock Book Two (Mills/Redondo) begins.

April (Prog 259): Sam Slade moves to Brit Cit.

(Prog 260): Fifth birthday issue. The comic is dominated by Dredd, Nemesis, Robo-Hunter, Rogue Trooper, The Mean Arena (which ends in September) and Ace Trucking Co. This is a golden age for 2000AD and after three major new stories in 1981, there are no significant new arrivals.

June (Prog 270): The Apocalypse War ends. The real life Falklands War also ends at about this time. There are to be no more Dredd mega-epics for five years and only one more in the entire decade (Oz in 1987-88).

July (Prog 271): The cover price rises from 16p to 18p.

September (Prog 280): Otto Sump returns to Dredd.

October (Prog 287): Harry Twenty on the High Rock begins (Finley-Day/Alan Davis).

Elsewhere:

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain by Ian Livingstone is published. It is the first in the Fighting Fantasy series of role-playing adventure game books.

January: Peter Davison makes his debut as the Fifth Doctor in Doctor Who. The series which is nineteen years old now, undergoes a general controversial revamp.

Japanese sci-fi puppet series, Star Fleet arrives in the UK.

March: High quality monthly Warrior is launched featuring Laser Eraser and Pressbutton and the Alan Moore-scripted V For Vendetta and Marvelman (later Miracleman).

April: A new version of The Eagle is launched featuring another new Dan Dare, Doomlord, The Collector and Sgt. Streetwise.

July: Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan is released and unlike most non-E.T science fiction films released this year, is a box office success. Originally to be called Vengeance of Khan it had its name changed to avoid confusion with the forthcoming third (or sixth) Star Wars film, Revenge of the Jedi. This itself has its name changed and is released as Return of the Jedi in 1983. Khan is now widely regarded as the best of the original Star Trek films.

August: John Carpenter’s The Thing comes out in the UK. Regarded as a classic now, it is critically panned on release. Sword and sorcery epic, Conan The Barbarian is also released.

Life, The Universe and Everything (the third Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide book) is published.

September: Blade Runner is released in the UK. Author Philip K. Dick, who wrote the original novella, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, died in March, aged 53.

October: Tron is released, famously flopping at the box office.

December: Steven Spielberg’s E.T: The Extra Terrestrial is released in the UK. As of June 2021, it is the fourth biggest box office hit of all time when inflation is taken into account (just) behind The Sound of Music, the 1977 Star Wars and Gone With The Wind.

The first ever Doctor Who spin-off, K9 and Company arrives in the form of a pilot/Christmas special.

Chris Hallam is a freelance writer. Originally from Peterborough, he now lives in Exeter with his wife. He writes for a number of magazines and websites including The Companion, Yours Retro, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Dan Dare, The Eagle, Metalzoic and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In the past, he wrote for Metro.co.uk, Radio Times, DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and wrote A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He also provided all the written content for the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars as well as for sections of the 2014 South Park annual and all the 2015 Transformers annual.

Audiobook review: Ramble Book: Musings on Childhood, Friendship, Family and 80s Pop Culture

Do you know Adam Buxton? If you don’t, you should.

Long time ‘Buckles’ fans such as myself will have first encountered him on the hugely inventive late night 1990s Channel 4 programme, The Adam and Joe Show, which he hosted with his old schoolfriend, the equally hilarious Joe Cornish, now a film director. In the 2000s, the duo retained their cult status with an excellent radio show on what was then BBC 6 Music while Adam made occasional appearances in films like Stardust and Hot Fuzz. In the second of these, he plays an amateurish West Country reporter who suffers a comically horrific Omen-style death outside a cathedral. In recent years, he has become known for his celebrated podcasts which he records, often in the company of his dog, Rosie, from his home in Norfolk. He has also done many more things in the first fifty years of his life, than my brief summary here suggests. Many of these are mentioned this book.

Due to the current global state of unpleasantness, the release of the actual book has been delayed until September. This is no great tragedy for anyone with the inclination and capacity to listen to this audio version of his autobiography, however, as it’s available now. The book reads very much like an extended version of one of Buxton’s podcasts and which, like that, is nicely broken up by amusing ingenious musical jingles and occasional comments on the text from the reader (who is, of course, Buxton himself).

Fans of The Adam and Joe Show will remember the BaaadDad sequences in which Adam’s father, would make a guest appearance to provide a unique upper middle-class seventy-something’s perspective on the popular music of the day. Typically expressing presumably perfectly genuine outrage at the likes of Firestarter by The Prodigy or Born Slippy by Underworld, these reviews were one of the most popular bits of the show.

In reality, Nigel Buxton, who died in 2015, aged 91, though certainly not an out and out ‘bad dad’ himself, nevertheless seems to have often been a difficult person. His presence looms large in the book. Despite the moderate degree of celebrity he achieved through his son’s show late in life, Buxton the Elder, a onetime writer for the Telegraph seems to have regarded Adam’s obsession with popular culture and pursuit of a comedy career with a degree of disdain, often bordering on contempt. A particular peculiarity of the older Buxton’s personality was his absolute obsession with keeping Adam in private education, very nearly bankrupting himself in the process. At one point, he was reduced to asking for a substantial loan from his friend, John Le Carré to pay for it (the famous author was not forthcoming). Adam – who initially suffered terrible homesickness after being sent away from home to boarding school at the age of nine – had no idea about the financial crisis his father had needlessly created for himself, until many years later.

If Nigel Buxton’s aim was to instil in his son the same sometimes dubious values which he possessed himself, he failed. Adam Buxton is never less than respectful to the memory of his father, throughout this memoir. But his obsession with the trivia and minutiae of popular culture, liberal outlook and a sense of humour, have ensured that he is about as different a man from his father as it’s possible to be.

A sad development since the book was completed has been the death of Adam’s mother which he has spoken movingly about on his podcast.

Perhaps we should be grateful to Adam’s father for his public school obsession. For it was at school that Adam formed his career-defining friendship with Joe Cornish (as well as Louis Theroux).

This is ultimately an often very funny and enjoyable account of Buxton’s formative years with particular focus on the 1980s: the decade which saw him move from childhood to adulthood.

Anyone who remembers the 1970s and 1980s will find much of resonance here: Adam’s discovery of Kraftwerk through surreptitious late night listening to Radio Caroline while at school, details of an explosive adolescent erotic dream about the actress June Whitfield, happy experiences seeing Ghostbusters and less happy experiences watching David Lynch’s Dune.

There are also occasional light hearted interruptions with details of a log of recent arguments Adam has had with his wife, anecdotes about socially awkward experiences Adam has experienced on trains and perhaps a little too much about his obsession with David Bowie.

As the title suggests, Buxton is inclined to ramble here, just as he does during his ‘Ramble Chats,’ when he interviews people on his podcast. But this is an enjoyable read. Adam Buxton is a thoroughly charming man and is always a delight to listen to.

Ramble Book: Musings on Childhood, Friendship, Family and 80s Pop Culture, by Adam Buxton. Audiobook available now. Hardback/Kindle version available: 3rd September 2020. Published by: Mudlark.

Life lessons from He-Man

The popular TV cartoon series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe ran from 1983 until 1985. Essentially designed to promote the Mattel toy range of He-Man action figures, the series was based around Adam, a prince on the planet Eternia and his ongoing struggle for win control of Castle Greyskull with his rival, the malevolent Skeletor. By holding his sword (be serious, please!) and exclaiming “By the power of Greyskull!” Adam could transform into the all-powerful He-Man. There were a whole host of other characters, plus a spin-off entitled She-Ra in 1985, aimed at girls.

Despite being set on a mythical world, He-Man would often end with a straight to the camera moral message to the audience delivered by He-Man himself or by one of the other non-evil characters. These were sometimes edited out of the British transmissions.

Here are just some of them:

There are no magic drugs (He-Man)

“In today’s story Ilena tried taking a magic potion which she thought would help her. Well, she found out there aren’t any magic potions. And you know what? There aren’t any magic drugs either. Anytime you take one from anybody but your parents or your doctor, you’re taking a very big chance. Your gambling with your health, maybe even your life. Drugs don’t make your problems go away, they just create more.”

Very true. Skeletor would be especially well advised to stay off cocaine as he doesn’t have a nose.

Be careful when doing practical jokes (Man-At-Arms)

“You’ve all seen how Orko’s magical tricks don’t always go the way he planned. Sometimes they backfire on him. The same thing is true of practical jokes. Sometimes they don’t go the way you planned, and you or someone else can get hurt. So be sure and think twice before playing a joke or a trick on anybody. It might not go the way you planned and someone could wind up losing a finger or an arm, or maybe even an eye. And no joke is worth that is it? See you again soon.”

Bloody hell! An arm or an eye? What sort of practical jokes were they thinking of? One involving a chainsaw? Is that what happened to Skeletor’s eyes?

Respect Magna Carta (He-Man and Teela)

Teela: “A very long time ago a wonderful document came into being. It was called the Magna Carta.”

He-Man: “It was the first big step in recognizing that all people were created equal. But even though more laws have been passed to guarantee that, there are still those who try to keep others from being free.”

Teela: “Fortunately Queen Sumana realized in time that only by working together could her city be saved. And that’s the way it should be. Together. Right?”

He-Man: “Right.”

Er…so they had Magna Carta on Eternia too then? I didn’t know they even had it in the USA.

Don’t ram things too much (Ram Man)

“In today’s story I sure was busy. Boy, did that hurt. Ramming things may look like fun, but it really isn’t. Trying to use your head the way I do is not only dangerous, it’s dumb. I mean you could get hurt badly. So listen to Rammy, play safely and when you use your head, use it the way it was meant to be used, to think. Until later, so long!”

Got that? If you’re ramming while reading this, please stop immediately. Ram Man (not to be confused with ‘Rainman’) was a minor character. He’s wrong about this though. Ramming is definitely fun. Ram Man, thank you man.

Sleep properly (Orko and Cringer)

Orko: “Hi, today we met some people who had slept for over two hundred years. Well, we don’t need that much sleep, but it is important to get enough sleep. So here’s some things to remember. Don’t eat a lot before going to bed, a glass of milk or a piece of fruit makes a good bedtime snack. Try to go to bed at the same time every night, and avoid any exercise or excitement before going to bed. Well, goodnight. Oh, goodnight Cringer!”

Cringer: (snoring).

Does eating fruit before bedtime really help you sleep? I’m not convinced. Anyone…?

We all have a special magic (Sorceress)
“Today we saw people fighting over the Starchild, but in the end her power brought these people together. It might surprise you to know that all of us have a power like the Starchild’s. You can’t see it or touch it, but you can feel it. It’s called love. When you care deeply about others and are kind and gentle, then you’re using that power. And that’s very special magic indeed. Until later, good-bye for now.”

Sorceress was clearly to busy building a nest to read the first moral, Sorceress. Stay off the magic drugs! (Also, looking at this picture suspect Sorceress might have been introduced “for the dads”).

Your brain is stronger than any muscle (Man-At-Arms)

“Being the most powerful man in the universe isn’t all that makes He-Man such a great hero. Being strong is fine, but there’s something even better. In today’s story He-Man used something even more powerful than his muscles to beat Skeletor. Do you know what it was? If you said, ‘his brain,’ you were right. And just like a muscle, your brain is something you can develop to give yourself great power.”

I’m not sure Man-At-Arms was the best choice to put forward this argument, to be honest. He’s got “university of life” written all over him.

Play it safe (He-Man and Battle Cat)

He-Man: “I’d like to talk to you for just a moment about safety. When we go to the beach there are lifeguards there to watch out for our safety. Crossing guards are in the street for the same reason, to help protect us. Now things like that are fine, but we can’t count on someone always being around to protect us. We should practice thinking of safety all the time. So don’t take a chance. And that’s true whether you’re crossing a street, or driving a car. Think safety.”
Battle Cat: (Roaring)

The beach? ‘Crossing guards’? Has He-Man been to Earth at some point? And what does “practice thinking of safety” mean? Nice of Battle Cat to contribute here too. Much appreciated, thanks.

Learn from experience (He-Man and Battle Cat)

He-Man: “As we’ve just seen Skeletor went back into the past to make evil things happen. In reality no one can go back into the past, that’s only make-believe. But we can try to learn from the past, from things that have happened to us, and try to apply them toward being better people today. Remember, it’s today that counts. So make it the best day possible. Until next time this is He-Man wishing you good health and good luck.”

Battle Cat: (Roaring)

Learn from he mistakes of history. But also live for today: that’s all that matters. Make your mind up, please!

No job is unimportant (He-Man)

“Have you ever had a job to do you thought was boring and unimportant. We all have. Opi did. But no job is unimportant. Opi learned that if he’d done the little jobs his father gave him, things would not have gone wrong. So remember, any job worth doing is worth doing well. No matter how dull it may seem at the time. Bye for now.”

Sadly, this one isn’t true. Some jobs are both boring and unimportant. Composing the moral messages used on the end of children’s TV cartoons, for example.

Fighting is bad (Teela)

“Some people think the only way to solve a difference is to fight. Skeletor for example, his answer to every problem is fight. He doesn’t care who’s right or wrong. He thinks that might makes right. Well, it doesn’t. He-Man knows that, even with all his power, he always tries to avoid fighting. Fighting doesn’t solve problems. Fighting only makes more problems. See you soon.”

Bloody hell! This is a bit rich. He-Man spends half of every episode fighting.

Read a book (He-Man)

“I hope you enjoyed today’s adventure. You know television is not the only way to be entertained by an exciting story. There is another way; it’s called reading. And one of the wonderful things about books is that they allow you to choose whatever kind of adventure you like; a trip with an astronaut, an adventure with the great detective Sherlock Holmes, a comedy, anything. You can find it in a book at your school or neighbourhood library. Why I’ll bet there are even some good books right in your own home just waiting to be read.”

In other words, in the immortal words of the 1980s UK kids’ show, ‘Why Don’t You?’ “switch off your TV set and go out and do something less boring instead.” Especially now this episode of He-Man has finished.

The 80s: The ultimate exam

So you think you know the 1980s. But could you pass a full blown exam on the subject? Take a look at the questions below and if more than half of them even make the slightest bit of sense to you, you may consider yourself a true aficionado of the decade that brought us break dancing, Bermuda shorts and Bergerac. Ready? You may turn over your papers now…(And no, it’s not a proper quiz. Sorry).

1. You are sitting at home in front of the TV. Why don’t you…

a) Just switch off the TV set

b) Go out

c) And do something less boring instead?

2. Complete the phrase: “You can’t get quicker than…”

a) Maximum velocity.

b) The speed of light.

c) A Kwik-Fit fitter.

3. Philosophy. Consider the following…

a) How soon is now?

b) What is love anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?

c) Do you really want to hurt me? Do you really want to make me cry?

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4. You are driving home from work, listening to the radio when you hear the following announcement:

“Humidity’s rising. The barometer is getting low. According to our sources, the street is the place to go. Because tonight for the first time at just about half past ten. For the first time in history, it’s going to start raining men.”

With alarm, you see that it is nearly half ten now and you are still a good twenty minutes from home. What do you do?

a) Desperately hope that the multi-storey car park is still open so you can take shelter from the imminent aerial male adult human precipitation assault there.

b) Park in a lay-by and frantically attempt to hide underneath your own car

c) Realise that you are, of course, listening to the popular 1982 hit, “It’s Raining Men” by The Weather Girls.

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5. You purchase a bizarre but cute furry creature from a Chinese antique shop, an unusual but ideal Christmas present for anyone. What must you remember not to do?

a) Don’t feed it after midnight.

b) Don’t let it get wet.

c) Don’t leave it home alone in the apartment over Christmas while you go on holiday, forcing it to defend itself from two clumsy burglars by devising an elaborate system of dangerous but amusing booby traps (I may be thinking of another film here).

6. It is a Saturday evening on a Bank Holiday in 1980 and you and your friend end up having a fierce disagreement in the pub over the name of an actor who was in a TV show you both watched as a child. What do you do?

a) Wait until the library opens on Tuesday and look it up in the appropriate reference book, if such a book even exists.

b) Find a new friend. You never liked him/her that much anyway.

c) Go home. Wait twenty years.  Look it up on your phone.

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7. If your mansion house needs haunting call…

a) Some sort of medium.

b) An expert on the paranormal.

c) Rentaghost.

8. Alternatively, if there’s something strange in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call?

a) The police.

b) The local branch of the Neighbourhood Watch.

c) Ghostbusters.

9. Steven Seagal is…

a) An actor.

b) A leading Buddhist.

c) Hard To Kill.

10. Who recorded the song “True Blue?”

a) Madonna.

b) Diego Maradona.

c) The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies by Van Klump.

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11. Michael Jackson’s Thriller may be described as…

a) A thriller.

b) A horror.

c) A song and music video.

12. You hear a car horn. Do you…

a) Get off the road.

b) Jump.

c) Go “Yeeee-haaaa!” in true Dukes of Hazzard fashion.

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13. Finally, write a short essay on ONE of the following…

a) War is stupid. And people are stupid (Culture Club).

b) The history book on the shelf. It’s always repeating itself (ABBA – not actually from the 1980s).

c) Bum bum bum. Bum bum bum. Bum. Bum bum bum bum (The Frog Chorus).

Thirty years of The Ballad of Halo Jones

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If you were reading the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 20000AD, thirty years ago this month, you would doubtless have noticed a new character.

The Ballad of Halo Jones written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Ian Gibson first appeared in July 1984. 2000AD, which had started in 1977, already featured many of its best known science fiction and fantasy strips notably Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, Strontium Dog, Nemesis the Warlock and Slaine. Ian Gibson had, in fact, drawn many Dredd episodes as well as the more humorous Sam Slade: Robohunter.

Alan Moore is a legend in the world of comics today. This was less true in 1984, but he was hardly unknown then either, having already penned both the futuristic drama V For Vendetta and Marvelman (later known as Miracleman) for Warrior, a title Moore had largely dominated but which was on its way out by 1984. He was also doing Swamp Thing for DC and had produced the extraterrestrial fantasy Skizz and D.R. and Quinch for 2000AD.  He had also written many Tharg’s Futureshocks; the Twilight Zone-style one off stories which many 2000AD staff first get established on. Moore had worked once with Gibson on one of these, “Grawks Bearing Gifts”.

But the first Halo Jones story wasn’t a hit. Lance Parkin in his biography Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore writes: “Now, Halo Jones is regularly cited as a high point of the magazine’s long history. Then, it was a different story. Every week, the magazine polled its readers on their favourite strips, and Halo Jones was notably unpopular during its first run (#376-385, July-September 1984)”. What was the problem?

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Was it because most of the characters were girls? Halo is introduced as a teenager, one of a group of female friends (plus Toby, a robot dog) who live on the Hoop, a large crime-infested artificial population centre constructed off Manhattan Island. It was fairly unusual for 2000AD to have a female lead character at this time but it is probable a few factors conspired against the strip. Readers complained of a lack of “action”. Moore assumed they meant a lack of “violence”. Cynical but perhaps accurate, there is little of either in Volume One (at least, not until the end). The story also features a fair amount of futuristic slang which may have alienated some readers. Although to be fair, the slang “Squeeze! Squeeze with a bare arm!” isn’t that unusual bearing in mind the strip is set in 4949, nearly 3,000 years in the future. Another possible point against it is that there is also little interesting to mark out Halo at this point. She is just another one of the girls.

Volume Two which appeared in 1985, however, was much better.

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For one thing, the intriguing prologue features a lecture, set even further in the future which not only updates us but hints for the first time that Halo might be destined to become a figure of genuine historical import. Halo also develops more as a character, working as a stewardess on a space cruise liner the Clara Pandy during a year long voyage and leaving her less ambitious or unlucky friends back on the Hoop.

The ship turns out to be a perfect vehicle for all sorts of great stories, many working as stand alone strips. Toby, Halo’s companion reveals a ferocious dark side while a particularly strong story concerns The Glyph, a soulless sad character rendered invisible after countless sex changes have robbed him of his true identity.

Volume Three, is by Alan Moore’s own admission, the best of all.

Although it appeared only a year later, in 1986, ten long years have passed for Halo and she has become a more cynical, harder and more interesting figure. Washed up, she bumps into her old friend Toy Molto (a giantess) and the two decide to join the Army.

Predictably, this ends badly with the two becoming involved in the encroaching war in the Tarantula Nebula, a Vietnam-style conflict, periodically alluded to in the strip since Book One. Funny, ingenious and at times, moving, (one episode sees Halo talking for some time to a wounded colleague before realising with total horror that they have been dead for some time), Halo experiences the full indignity of combat. The war on the planet Moab, particularly leads to a memorable battle in which the strong gravity of the large planet leads time to be distorted leading the conflict to literally be appearing to pass either in slow motion or sometimes even accelerated speed. Halo also becomes embroiled in an unwise love affair with the monstrous General Luiz Cannibal and loses her innocence in more ways than one.

Adverts for the Titan anthologies of the story at the time hinted at ten volumes of Halo even suggesting she became a pirate queen. But, in fact, Volume Three would be the end. Moore fell out with 2000AD and went onto The Watchmen and phenomenal comic success. Only Neil Gaiman has come close to his status amongst contemporary British comic writers.

The Ballad of Halo Jones remains his overlooked masterpiece. I urge you to seek it out.

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80 years of The Beano : A timeline (1938-2018)

Happy birthday Beano! If you’ve never read it, here’s what you’ve missed…

1938: The first edition of the Beano appears, dated 30th July. The Dandy started the previous year. Stories include Big Eggo (the cover story centred on an ostrich), Pansy Potter: The Strongman’s Daughter and the more enduring Lord Snooty and his Pals which lasts into the 1990s.

There are only twelve copies of the first issue known to still be in existence.

1939 -1949: Due to paper rationing, the Beano and Dandy both appear on alternate weeks, rather than weekly.

1940: The first ever Beano Book. If you own one without a year on the front, it must be from between 1940 and 1965. If it’s called The Magic-Beano Book, it must be from between 1943 and 1950 (the regular comic was never called this). The one below is from 1948.

b1948

1940-43: Musso The Wop appears, the racist title of a strip mocking Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini. The real leader was overthrown in 1943 and the strip ended.

1948: Biffo the Bear appears and immediately knocks Big Eggo off the front page. Eggo disappears forever in 1949.

1950s: Despite (or perhaps because of) the threat provided by TV and new comics like The Eagle, the Fifties is something of a golden age for The Beano with most of its most famous stories starting during this decade.

1951: Dennis the Menace appears, undoubtedly the comic’s most popular and famous story.  By strange coincidence, a US strip with the same name about a similarly mischievous but blonde brat started in the same week. The American one was usually just called “Dennis” in the UK to avoid confusion. Cartoons and films of the US version started to appear in the UK after the Eighties.

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Biffo remains on the front page. Dennis’s distinctive black and red jumper appear after a few weeks and Dennis’s friends Curly and Pie-Face as well as Softy Walter all appear from the early Fifties onward. Gnasher comes later.

1953: Three major stories Roger the Dodger, Minnie the Minx and Little Plum all begin. Little Plum (“your redskin chum”) ceases to appear regularly after 1998.

1954: The Bash Street Kids (initially called When The Bell Goes or When The Bell Rings) appears. There were initially a vague and often changing large group of pupils eventually settling down to a hardcore of eight: Danny, Sidney and Toots (brother and sister), Smiffy (stupid), Erbert (short sighted), Plug (ugly), Spotty (spotty and has a very long tie), Wilfred (face partly obscured by jumper) and Fatty (obese)

Cuthbert Cringeworthy (the teacher’s pet) first appears in the Bash Street Kids from 1972.

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1955: The first Dennis the Menace book appears. It is available most years until 2010.

1959: The Three Bears, a Wild West take on the fairy tale featuring blunderbusses appears (until 2011).

1964: Billy Whizz races onto the page for the first time.

1966: The Beano Books have the dates on the cover from now on.

1968: Gnasher appears alongside Dennis the Menace for the first time.

1972: Babyface Finlayson – appears (on and off) from now into the 21st century.

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1974: Dennis replaces Biffo the Bear on the cover after a twenty-seven year run. Biffo ceases to be in the comic regularly after 1986.

1975: The football-obsessed Ball Boy kicks off.

1976: The Dennis the Menace Fan Club begins.

1979: The Bash Street Kids book (just called The Bash Street Kids) starts appearing most years until 2010.

Rasher, Dennis’s pet pig gets a story of his own.

b79

1980: Smudge (a bath-averse boy) appears in the comic, lasting into the 1990s.

1982: The first Beano Comic Libraries (small book-like comics with one long story in) appear.

1985: Ivy the Terrible, the Toddler Terror,. makes her first appearance.

1986: The terminally unlucky Calamity James arrives at The Beano.

Gnasher goes missing in a well-publicised story, only to return with a new puppy Gnipper who has one solitary tooth (a new story Gnasher and Gnipper appears). Gnasher is male. Who Gnipper’s mother is, is never explained.

b1986

1988: The comic is revamped for its 50th birthday. Extra pages appear and more colour is used. Many other British comics fold in the Eighties and Nineties (The Beezer, Topper, Buster, Whizzer and Chips). The Beano does well to survive.

1991: The comic’s oldest story Lord Snooty ceases to appear regularly. Some blame John Major’s “classless society.”

1993: The Beezer and Topper merge into The Beano.  The Numskulls – who live inside and operate a human body – now appear in The Beano. The comic goes into full colour for the first time.

1994: A new look politically correct Bash Street Kids are unveiled. The new look is quickly abandoned after a fierce public backlash. Some suspect it is just a publicity stunt.

1996: A Dennis the Menace cartoon appears on TV. Voices include Billy Connolly and Hugh Laurie.

1998: Birth of Dennis the Menace’s sister Bea.

b2000

2002: The Beano Book becomes The Beano Annual.

2004: Dennis the Menace becomes the longest running strip in Beano history (it became the longest-running front page story in 2000). As of 2013, the most enduring strips are Dennis the Menace,  Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger, The Bash Street Kids followed by the previous longest-running story, Lord Snooty.

2007: The Dandy undergoes a dramatic and probably ultimately fatal revamp, becoming Dandy Xtreme.

2009: Another new TV series, Dennis and Gnasher begins. It continues until 2013.

2012: The Dandy ceases to appear in print and becomes The Dandy Online. Bananaman, the third longest running strip in The Dandy now appears in The Beano and Dandy Online.

2013: The Dandy Online formally ends. The Beano has another revamp for its 75th birthday.

2016: Beano Studios is launched. It is described as “a brand new multimedia Studios set up to create, curate and deliver mischievous entertainment for kids worldwide”.

2018: With weekly sales figures hitting an impressive 37,542, The Beano approaches its 80th birthday.

May there be many more!

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