Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Chock-a-Block

Genre: Childrens
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 21/05/1981 - 13/08/1981



Computers were a source of complete and utter wonder to us as young children. They promised great, exciting things such as blocky graphics, bleeping soundcards and BASIC programming.

It doesn't sound much now, but it was a real escape from the tedium of life in the mid 80s. Our early memories of computers involve being in Dixons and setting off alarms as we flapped out tiny hands at the machines.

A much less frantic time with computers was spent lazing out on the sofa watching Chock-a-Block.


The series concerns itself with the less than sentient supercomputer, Chock-a-Block. Operating the machine are Chockabloke (Fred Harris) and Chockagirl (Carol Leader).

Each episode sees one of these Chockafolk arriving by way of their electric Chockatruck. Greeting the audience, they grab a 'block' which they awkwardly force into Chock-a-Block.

A small screen whirrs into life and displays a series of computer generated pictures - we're talking 8-bit not Pixar - which the Chockaperson has to identify. If they guess correctly, then a positive chime sounds! Guess incorrectly and they receive a rather flatulent response!

A rhyming theme runs through all the pictures e.g. crow, snow, toe and this leads to a song involving one of the pictures. The chockaperson then moves over to the Rockablock where they try and match up two pictures with similar rhyming sounds.

Finally, the chockaperson announces it's time for a song which results in a short animation commencing. Job done, the Chockaperson bids goodbye and jumps on their Chockatruck to, no doubt, get down the Chockapub.


Chock-a-Block was a thirteen part series which first aired in 1981 as part of the newly titled See-Saw slot on BBC1.

The series was created by children's TV supremo, Michael Cole who was also behind Fingerbobs, Bod, Pigeon Street, Bric-a-Brac and Gran. Writing the series alongside Cole was Nick Wilson who also directed the show. The marvelously modulated theme tune which SOUNDED LIKE A COMPUTER WAS TALKING!!! was composed by Peter Gosling.

Chock-a-Block was repeated fairly regularly up until 1989 where, we suspect, it began to look rather dated.


Chock-a-Block, unfortunately, seems to have been a late victim of BBC junking. Episodes were still being shown in 1989, so the wiping of these videotapes is distressingly late.

Kaleidoscope list 8 missing episode in their Lost Shows database, so that's over HALF the series. Out of the missing shows, a number of these have surfaced on YouTube and various torrent sites.

A poster on the Missing Episodes forum has noted that although the BBC have 'lost' the original 1" videotapes for a number of episodes, they do hold off air copies of all episodes[1]. This leaves us with a slim chance of there being a DVD remastered boxset one day complete with free block toy. Or perhaps not...


Curious British Telly's favourite part of the show is the electronictastic theme tune. It's a chirpy explosion of electronic drums, synths and 'computerised' speech which promises the future.

Most children of the early 80s probably weren't aware of the building synthpop movement, so Chock-a-Block no doubt acted as their introduction to electronic music.


Carol Leader and Fred Harris are both cheery, likable presenters forged in the primordial soup of children's television. Their roles in Chock-a-Block aren't complex, so all they're required to portray is a beaming smile and a slightly curious nature. Not testing, then, but they both give warm performances.

Mary Penley-Edwards has done a great job of designing Chockablock. It's a great, big colourful machine covered in flashing lights and movements. The reel-to-reel based face helps gives the machine a smidgeon of humanity and something to relate to. Perfect for arresting a child's errant attention. Kids today, of course, would scoff at its lack of HDMI sockets, but back in the 80s it felt like a thing of wonder.


The rhyming theme gives the show an educational feel and the picture sections allow the kiddywinks at home to interact. The pictures are ridiculously easy to guess and we found ourselves shouting "IT'S A HAT FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!" at the screen. We doubt even kids would struggle with this.

The rapport between the presenter and Chock-a-Block is rather limited. This leaves the presenter rather isolated and having to keep up spirits with a stream of consciousness. If the machine had been given more of a personality then it would have been a snappier affair.

The rockablock section is interminably dull and fails to advance the rhyming theme. Being a manually controlled affair, rockablock seems rather out of place with the computerised leanings of the show. Seemingly, it's been bolted on to fill up the running time.

We were more keen on the songs and animated sections of Chock-a-Block. The songs are dreamy little pieces which seem to have drifted in from a different age. These fuzzy little bursts of nostalgia make children's tv such emotional affairs and send our amygdala into overdrive.

Disturbingly, though, one song features a puppet cat which appears to have a cleft lip. It's the thing of nightmares and we're having trouble erasing it from our memory. Hopefully, the little horror was burnt to a cinder so it could do no more harm. Its possible, though, that it rose, phoenix like, from the ashes to become Scragtag.


Rewatching Chock-a-Block brought back some nice memories for Curious British Telly. There's a good show bursting to get out, but it doesn't quite happen on this occasion. Despite having some nice interactivity and animated sections, the rest of the show feels static and it fails to fully charm. However, we would still watch other episodes if they become available and certainly don't think the show was worth junking.

INTERVIEW

Carol Leader was gracious enough to spare some time to answer a few questions about the show.

CBT: You started appearing on our screens during the late 70s, notably with Play School, but how exactly did you get into the acting game?

Carol: I had acted in drama groups since being a teenager and continued when I went to University. After uni, I did a graduate one-year course at Bretton College in teaching drama. There I helped to form and became a founder member of a theatre company called Perspectives that became a professional group where I finished the course. The company is still going today under the name of New Perspectives. They are based in Nottinghamshire and recently celebrated their 40 year birthday.

It’s been over 30 years since Chock-a-Block first aired, but what can you recall about getting involved with the show?

I was doing Play School at the time and also doing a lot of acting parts in theatre and for TV. The producer asked me if I would like to take the female presenter part in a new series he was devising to get young children interested in simple computers. (How times have changed!)

Do you have any particular memories from recording Chock-a-Block that stand out?

Mostly crashing the car and having to go for re-takes. Also working with the directors and learning to relate to Chock-A- Block as another character.

Unfortunately, the BBC appear to have wiped a number of the original videotapes for Chock-a-Block. Were you aware of this and what are your feelings towards the loss? 

It’s a great shame that this was all before the digital age. Nowadays it would have been much easier to save things. Many important BBC drama productions and programmes have ended in the same way. It’s a shame they have not been archived.

You left the acting world to pursue a career in psychotherapy, but what prompted this change? And how do the two professions compare?

In some surface ways they are very different: one is very visible and the other has very strict boundaries of privacy – but at the heart of both is I feel an interest in the human psyche – what makes us all tick – especially in drama. But also Play School and Chockablock were made with strong developmental considerations that link in well with our understanding of what children need to develop – and that drama, narrative and story telling are strong features of this.  Many actors – as well as others- find themselves in therapy, as I did and then found my interest moving to a more specific exploration of the inner world and how having an inner emotional world that is very different from the external world impacts on human beings in helpful and unhelpful ways.

Thanks a lot for your time and insightful answers, Carol.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

In Bed with Medinner

Genre: Comedy
Channel: ITV
Transmission: 1992 - 1999



ITV hit a real winner with Harry Hill's TV Burp throughout the early part of the 21st century. Running for 11 years, it clocked up 166 episodes, numerous awards and guaranteed ratings. Cleverly, the producers also decided that it should contain a constant barrage of laughs. However, ITV had been running for 46 years when TV Burp first aired, so why did it take them so long to come up with the concept? After all, pairing a presenter with TV footage to commentate on isn't going to break the bank. What's that you cry? It actually only took them 37 years to come up with the idea? Well, lets take a look at the curious 90s beast that is In Bed with Medinner.

In Bed with Medinner stars Bob Mills as the sarcastic everyman chatting to the audience from the comfort of his flat. It's not his flat of course, it's in a studio. Furthermore, the studio set isn't even based on his flat. Initially it's a mock up of  Number 6's flat from The Prisoner and, later on, John Steed's flat from The Avengers. Nonetheless, Mills is there and the show starts with him rummaging about and finding various objects to tell a story. Series 2 also has a featured band each week such as Gary Numan or The Buzzcocks. Eventually, Mills grabs hold of a videotape featuring ITV archive footage and provides commentary to it.


London Weekend Television produced the series which ran for four series between 1992 - 1999. The first series comprised two 30 minute episodes which aired in November 1992. The remaining three series were transmitted in 1994, 1997 and 1998/99. The final series was renamed Still in Bed with Medinner. All episodes were 30 minutes long apart from series two which featured 60 minute episodes. A VHS release entitled 'Wot a Palaver' was released in 1994 and featured excerpts from series 1 and 2. Bob Mills also hosted a vague relation to the show for Comic Relief 1995. Episodes went out very late at night, usually after midnight.

Curious British Telly, as precious youths, were always intrigued by In Bed with Medinner. The title contained the word 'bed', an allusion to Madonna and was on very late at night. Rumours soon began to circulate, in the playground, that it was a show featuring non-stop, hardcore pornography. We were all too late to stay up and watch it, so it retained an air of mystery. At some point in the late 90s, the Paramount Channel began showing repeats of the earlier series. It was still on late, but we were that bit older and could stay up now. It became clear, early on, that there was to be no hardcore pornography. We nearly turned off instantly, but persisted and watched a few episodes. We recall enjoying it, but can't remember much apart from it featuring Bob Mills doing his Bob Mills thing.


Due to 60 episodes being transmitted, a number of these were recorded off air by late night telly aficionados. Many of these have found their way onto the internet. The majority of them are hosted at www.medinner.co.uk, but sadly we have not been able to get any of these to play. There are, however, several episodes and the 'Wot a Palaver' compilation to be found on YouTube. Setting up camp in our bed with nothing but an internet connection and eager eyes, we reacquainted ourselves with a couple of episodes.

The two different intros - parodying either The Prisoner or The Avengers - are nice little nuggets of pop culture knowingly spoofed by Mills. The sets too are dedicated nods to the past of British TV and indicate a decent budget for the series. However, after a while, you begin to realise that the intros and the sets bear very little relation to the show's core concept. The disjointed air starts here and pervades throughout unfortunately.

For now, though, we'll take a quick look at the man hosting the whole shebang, it's Bob Mills. He brings a laid back, everyman approach to the show with a healthy dose of sarcasm. One sketch sees him chatting to a woman who is complaining that her mother has "All damp in her passage.". It captures Mill's persona perfectly. This teasing sarcasm is put to good effect when he's viewing the archived footage and can bang out the tongue in cheek barbs. These sections are easily the best and we wish more had been made of this.

Our main problem with In Bed with Medinner is that it feels rather jumbled. Large sections of the show are given over to Mills wandering round his flat examining random objects. Mills always has a story to tell about them, but most of the time they're painfully contrived gags. We suspect they're being told with a knowing wink (at least, we hope they are), but they add little and feel like filler. Some lead on to brief little sketches, but again, these feel rather redundant and hold up the archived footage sections. The inclusion of live bands in series 2 highlights how the production team really didn't know what type of show they wanted to make - was it chat show, clip show or variety show? We had difficulty clarifying what it is and just settled at 'comedy'.

In Bed with Medinner is... ok. It's not brilliant, but neither does it give us a stitch. The show dithers a bit and this leads to the viewer's brain entering sluggish territory. The production team should have done more to sharpen the focus of the show - they had four series to do this, but it barely evolved. Reviewing TV footage would be perfected by TV Burp a few years later and it outclassed In Bed with Medinner in every way. It's not a show that's without charm and it does contain a few gems, such as the Northern boxer turned actor stalking car showrooms in search of a sponsored car. We would recommend watching it, but be prepared to hover your finger above the fast forward button.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The House of Windsor

Genre: Sitcom
Channel: ITV
Transmission: 15/05/1994 - 26/06/1994


Here at Curious British Telly we've encountered a  fair bit of scandal over the years. Only last week we were caught eating a grape in Tesco without paying for it. Luckily, our fame doesn't spread too far, so the news barely made the tabloids. What if we were more famous though? And we're not talking Brian Cant famous, we're talking 'head on a 10p piece' famous. We've all cupped our ears towards a royal scandal, but what about the people trying to suppress this attention? To meet them, take your shoes off and enter The House of Windsor.


The Royal Family's affairs are managed by the steady hands of Lord Montague Bermondsey (Leslie Phillips) and Sir Nicholas Foulsham (Neil Stacy). They head up a loyal team at Buckingham Palace who fawn to their wealthy employers and maintain damage limitation to their good name. Prince Charles, however, is rather fed up with the pasting his family keeps receiving from the tabloids. Taking matters into his own hands, he employs Max Kelvin (Warren Clarke) aka "the spitting cobra of Fleet Street" to protect, and therefore improve, the Royal Family's image.


The House of Windsor was a Granada production which aired in 1994 and was six episodes long. To give the show a topical edge, episodes were recorded 48 hours before transmission. The series was directed by Graeme Harper who has also directed episodes for shows such as Doctor Who, EastEnders and Grange Hill to name but a few. Episodes were written by a number of different writers, the most famous being a young Russell T Davies. The series has never received a commercial release.

Curious British Telly can't remember the show airing at all. Back in 1994 we were probably more concerned with the upcoming World Cup and our school trip to France. Fast forward 19 years and we were still none the wiser about the show. Then, fortuitously, we received a DVD housing several rare ITV sitcoms. The House of Windsor was one of them, so we put on our ermine robe (Monster Munch t-shirt) and sat down upon our throne (bed) to give it the once over.


The House of Windsor is packed full of sublime performances. Leslie Phillips brings his usual suave charm to the role of Lord Montague and Neil Stacy has an impressively stiff upper lip on show too. Warren Clarke's gregarious, wideboy charm is the perfect contrast to the two toffs and creates a healthy level of conflict. Sean Gallagher who plays Ray Barker (part of the lowly house staff) injects the character with a level of 'jack the lad' brio last seen in a 70s sitcom. It was his first recurring role and he's been working steadily ever since. The rest of the cast give admirable performances including one of the final hurrahs for Preston Lockwood.

Taking aim directly at the Royal Family through a sitcom would be a risky prospect. There's enough royalists out there to destroy ITV with bricks if offended. Therefore, choosing to look at the people around them allows more subtle digs. Recording the show 48 hours before transmission gives the writers more license to be biting - an approach which helped give Drop the Dead Donkey a real edge. Had The House of Windsor been recorded during the Royal's 'annus horribilis' of 1992, it would have really given the beast teeth. Sadly (for us, not them), 1994 was a rather quiet year for the Royal Family. We can't blame the writers for this, though, it's just the luck of the draw.


We guffawed a few times throughout the episode as there's some decent, if not sparkling, writing on show. Some of the jokes do sink into predictable territory, though, which is disappointing - Prince Edward is frequently ribbed for his 'ambiguous' sexuality, The Queen Mum likes a drink and Prince Charles is planning secret liasons with Camilla. Even in 1994 these jokes were scraping the barrel, so today they seem very amateurish indeed. There's enough decent jokes present, though, to keep us entertained rather than groanin.

Despite the ensemble cast all being very talented, there's just too many of them. Lord Montague and Sir Nicholas are essentially the same character. They're both acting as a foil to Max Kelvin, so one of them could easily have been disposed of. The same could be said of Caroline Finch (Serena Gordon) and Giles Huntingdon (Jeremy Sinden) who are both delegated various tasks by Lord Montague and Sir Nicholas. A bit of streamlining to the cast could have led to sharper, more direct episodes.


Overall, we found The House of Windsor to be a decent enough sitcom. It's not spectacular, it's not depressingly bad. Our main issue with it is that it never fulfils its main aim of skewering the Royal Family and their staff. Yes, Minister, of course, wrote the rulebook on how to satirise the Establishment, but here it's sadly lacking. The humour on show isn't too bad and, thanks to the great performances, we would be interested in viewing more episodes. If anyone can help, then get in touch!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Elidor

Genre: Childrens
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 04/01/1995 - 08/02/1995



Many moons ago, we were in the grounds of our local church collecting conkers from their Horse Chestnut trees. One of our friends suddenly called for silence and we stopped throwing sticks up at the branches. There was the faint sound of music coming from the church. Eerily, this was not during Sunday Mass and the church doors were firmly shut. The music soon stopped and we returned to the more pressing task of stockpiling conkers. Perhaps we were imagining things. Perhaps there was a perfectly reasonable explanation. Or maybe, a world in distress was calling to us as in Elidor.


Whilst their parents prepare for their upcoming move, Roland (Damian Zuk), Helen (Suzanne Crowshaw), David (Alexander Trippier) and Nick (Gavin J Morris) take a trip into Manchester. After visiting a mysterious video games store, they wander through some desolate streets and discover an abandoned church. All the while, Roland has been catching glimpses of a mysterious monk. Venturing into the church, to retrieve a lost football, Roland's siblings disappear into thin air. Whilst searching for them, Roland comes face to face with Malebron (Stevan Rimkus) - exiled king of Elidor masquerading as a violin playing monk. Taking him back to the monochrome landscapes of Elidor, Malebron reunites the children. He tasks them with fulfilling a prophecy that they will bring light to Elidor. This involves them protecting the treasures of Elidor from the evil forces trying to extinguish Elidor. These evil forces are represented by the curiously named couple Lead Warrior (Renny Krupinski) and Sniffer (Abi Eniola). Malebron sends the children back to their own land, but the evil forces are intent on retrieving the treasures and give chase.


Elidor was a 6 episode series produced by Screen First for BBC1 and made up part of the 1995 Winter schedule for CBBC. The series was based upon the 1965 novel 'Elidor' written by Alan Garner and was adapted for TV by Don Webb and directed by John Reardon. Composing the orchestral soundtrack was perennial Curious British Telly favourite, Ilona Sekacz. This was not the first adaptation of Elidor for the small screen as Jackanory was first to have a stab in 1968, but was purely a narrative affair. The possibility of filming the series had been proposed previously, but apparently the limits of special effects put paid to this until the 90s. Elidor is fairly unique - for it's time - in it's use of CGI mixed in with the live action, although it is used sparingly.


We vaguely recall Elidor from our youth, but truth be told, we kept getting it mixed up with Earthfasts. No footage of Elidor was available online, so we had resigned ourselves to the fact that we were going to have to shell out a tenner - yes, a WHOLE ten pounds - on a black market DVD of the series. Luckily, the whole series has recently been uploaded to YouTube which meant we could afford that haircut we were in dire need of.


Elidor starts off promisingly with the typical mystery and intrigue that children's telefantasy throws up. It's an oft used idea to have children charged with saving some otherworldly kingdom, but frankly you've got to get the kids involved, so we'll ignore that. The early scene's with Malebron hint that there will be a mammoth struggle in saving the day, so we began to get excited. Before we knew it, we were meeting the enigmatic owner of the creepy video games store. Our heart began to soar at this point. We were in for a treat. And that was before we realised the mysterious mask outside the store had a passing resemblance to Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars.


Then we meet Lead Warrior and Sniffer and the wheels begin to come off. Disappointingly, they  barely say a word throughout the entire series. Most of their dialogue involves snarls and, predictably, sniffing. There's very little background on them or the forces destroying Elidor and the scenes set there are vague. The pacing of the plot is very frustrating too. The children get back to Earth and there's a couple of episodes where virtually nothing happens. There were moments where it looked as though Lead Warrior and Sniffer were about to break through from Elidor, but then they bugger off back there. We actually fell asleep during episode four as it was dragging so much, so we were rather irritated at having to go back and rewatch it. Action wise, things finally begin to pick up in episode six, but it's too late by then. Six episodes was definitely too long for the series. Earthfast, which had gone out in the same slot a year previously, settled at five episodes and this would have suited Elidor much better.


Another issue that bugged was the amount of plot beats which are never resolved or explained. The video games shop feels like a plot strand which was cut very early on - the kids go in and buy a game before the owner waffles some nonsense at them. He never reappears and his words have no resonance throughout the series. The lady who instructs Malebron to search out the children is never explained and promptly disappears. Talking of Malebron, why and how does he manage to drown himself in the sea before being resurrected? It just boggles the mind what the producer and script editors were drinking. Judging by the haphazard storyline, we reckon it was pints of Creosote. Finally, Findhorn the unicorn must be killed by Roland at the end, but why? So it can sing it's dying song? That's a pretty cruel way to insist a kingdom is restored if you ask us.

The acting is of the typically poor standard on show in most British children's programming. Out of the kids, Damian Zuk is the only one who stands out, but even he only managed a few more years in the acting world. He never managed to make his way to Coronation Street where we feel he could have played a good meaning paperboy at The Kabin. To be fair on the kids, apart from Roland, the quality of the dialogue they're given is abysmal, so we doubt anyone could squeeze much out of it. Stevan Rimkus isn't too bad and perhaps our favourite performance of the series along with David Beckett as Frank Watson the father. Overall, though, the acting falls short. The casting director was Nic Horsey who appears to have had a fairly short career in this role and we thank the Lord he moved on to pastures new. There are, however, two notable debut performances in Elidor. Ralf Little pops up as a morris dancer's son and Suzanne Crowshaw went on to become Suzanne Shaw in Popstars disaster Hear'Say.


As ever, there are some aspects of Elidor we liked. There's a scene in episode 3 where all the household appliances come alive and everything goes a bit Poltergeist. Sadly, this chilling moment is rather deflated by the parent's suggesting everyone just go to bed. The music, as touched upon already, is magnificent stuff and Ilona Sekacz has, again, come up with a cracking soundtrack which encapsulates the mourning, tension and horror that the script fails to convey. Finally, we rather enjoyed all the dating references sprinkled throughout the show. Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat, Our Price, Half Man Half Biscuit and "Oooh Ahhh! Cantona!" all get mentions and reminded us of a simpler time. There's even time for a quick bit of TV footage of one of our favourite footballers, Andrei Kanchelskis.

As I'm sure you can tell, Curious British Telly was not impressed with Elidor. There's potential for a great adaptation, but sadly the BBC have fallen flat on their face with this attempt. A couple of nice set pieces mingle with some nice production, but the pacing of the plot is its downfall. This coupled with the endless questions being raised results in nothing but a yawnfest. It's worth a watch if you remember it from your youth, but you'd be better off recapturing those days with a game of conkers.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Get Stuffed

Genre: Cookery
Channel: ITV
Transmission: 1991 - 94



It's a common complaint that there's too many cookery programmes on television these days. As we watch nothing but archived television 24/7, we're not too bothered about contemporary TV schedule monotony. Also, we love cooking so ain't never complain of new and mouthwatering ways to manipulate a humble rump steak. The people who do complain are the same people who make tuna pasta bake with crisps crumbled on top i.e. culinary peasants. Perhaps a TV show is needed for these people. Perhaps their saviour lies way back in the early 90s with Get Stuffed.

Set the Table

Get Stuffed is as bonkers as a French chef who's hit the cooking sherry rather hard and tried to commandeer a set of traffic lights. But don't worry, this ain't exactly some exercise in avant-garde cookery, the central premise is ridiculously simple: students - aka 'them young people' - are given five minutes of fame to cook up a meal which not only tantalises the tastebuds, but also minimises the damage on their student load - which is obviously reserved for booze.

Episodes usually start with the manically cheerful students out on the street introducing their recipes with a level of enthusiasm that even children's TV presenters would struggle to match. Bounding off to the shops they bamboozle petrified shop owners who just wanna get them off their promises sharpish. Pogoing back to their grubby and potential E.coli holiday camp kitchens, they proceed to cook up a cheap, quick and so called 'tasty' meal.

The recipes are accompanied by ditties and interstitial cartoons relating to the cooking process. Occasionally, the Mystery Chefs appear with cooking tips, but make sure you have your ear plugs at the ready to deal with them and their insane screeching.

Recipe for Success

Get Stuffed originally started life as short segments on the now defunct Lifestyle Channel which was one of the early Astra satellite channels. Honing the idea, Last Ditch TV took the format to ITV who aired the series between 1991 - 94. The show usually aired in the graveyard slot, often after midnight.

Episodes were generally between 5 and 10 minutes long and this allowed the series to amass 284 episodes of culinary madness. There was at least one Christmas special which ran to 30 minutes and a recipe book published under the title 'Banquets for Bankrupts'. The series was off air for several years, but 108 of the episodes were repeated on ITV between 2001 - 2005.


There's very little details online about the people behind the show; quite who devised the show is a mysterious affair. Andy Murrow founded Last Ditch TV and also authored the 'Banquets for Bankrupts' book, but we can only speculate that it was his brainchild. Andy Barber presented and produced the show as well as providing the music, but at no point does he lay claim to coming up with the idea. It's something we're keen to discover and shall continue to investigate in the future.

Getting Stuck In

Curious British Telly was only aware of Get Stuffed thanks to our childhood love of American wrestling. We didn't have satellite television at home, so couldn't watch our beloved WWF wrestling. Instead, we had to settle for WCW wrestling which ITV would air in the graveyard slot on Saturday evenings. Our father would set the video to record the wrestling and, quite often, it would also capture an episode of Get Stuffed which preceded WCW.

We were always a bit bemused by the show as we weren't interested in cooking and we didn't really get what was going on. Sometimes we'd watch it, but at other times we'd fast forward through it to see who Sting was fighting that week. The memory, though, of anarchic energy and lo-fi production loitered in our memory and reminded us of a simpler time.

The only footage online of Get Stuffed is over at the official website (http://www.getstuffed.info), so we duly investigated the clips.


The opening titles feature an oven exploding which - apart from setting the tone for the show - triggered some long forgotten memory. We were taken back to early Sunday mornings in the 90s for a brief second. It's moments like this which remind us why we blog. The students featured in the show are high energy and a bit wacky. One recipe sees a couple of chaps wearing the headpieces from the board game 'Bizzy Buzzy Bumble Bees' for no particular reason. Yeah, they're irritating and sum up why the rest of the population despises students, but if you want straitlaced cookery programmes, seek out Delia, mate.

The DIY ethic is strong throughout and we imagine the show was made for next to nothing. In this time of economic hardship, we would have expected a return of shows like this to our screens. Sadly, production values seem high up on the list for television these days. The internet, thankfully, retains this lo-fi ethic as YouTube shows.

The actual recipes featured on Get Stuffed seem to be post-pub food, but do involve a lot of frying, so be careful kids. They're cheap and cheerful affairs, so perhaps they were of use to the type of people up late enough to watch. Personally, we'll be sticking to our beef wellington stuffed full of truffles.


Our favourite bit of the show is probably Andy Barber's songs. They're witty little thrashes reminiscent of an Oi! busker which act as a wonderful side dish to the show's anarchic edge. Students gurning and waving their arms about ain't exactly enough to engage viewers, but chuck in some three chord madness and it makes everything a bit more palatable.

Michelin Star?

Get Stuffed is indicative of the 90s obsession with lo-fi 'yoof tv' which included The Adam and Joe Show, Fist of Fun and also bears a passing resemblance to Vids and Bits. The episodes are frenzied affairs which have a ramshackle charm and, at such a short length, just avoid grating at your nerves. And, dare we say it, they're more fun than going back to early 90s WCW.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Mad Death

Genre: Drama
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 16/07/1983 - 30/07/1983




Curious British Telly stumbled home the other night after several hours involving much curry and much alcohol. Fumbling about in the darkness of the kitchen, we saw our lovable West Highland Terrier asleep in her basket. Staggering over to her, we preceded to stroke, hug and make ridiculous noises at her before we bumbled off to bed. Luckily, she's a genial girl and took it all on her furry chin. Not all dogs are this accommodating, though, and we'll be taking a look at some of the more highly strung canines in The Mad Death.


Beloved sparring partners of the English, the French, kick start The Mad Death when Bibi (Marianne Lawrence) can't bear to be separated from her cat, so smuggles it into the UK. In her fur coat. They were simpler times of course, so we'd rather not think about where you'd have to conceal a cat these days. Anyway, unbeknownst to the sappy Bibi, her little siamese is infected with rabies after a scrap with a rabid fox. After being run over, the cat is promptly devoured by a fox who becomes infected with the virus. It's not til the Americans get involved, however, that things really start happening. Tom Siegler (Ed Bishop) foolishly takes the poorly fox home where he thinks he can keep it as a pet.


Whilst whipping up a gin and tonic, Siegler cuts his finger and provides the perfect entry point for some fox saliva. Tom is soon in hospital hallucinating and knocking glasses of water everywhere. Next thing you know, he's stone cold dead. The government get involved and call in veterinary genius Michael Hilliard (Richard Heffer) to contain the spread of the virus. At Hilliard's side is the rather beautiful Anne Maitland (Barbara Kellerman) who lives with her jealous partner Johnny Dalry (Richard Morant). The final element of series revolves around the troubled mental state of quintessential 'crazy old cat lady', Miss Stonecroft (Brenda Bruce).


The Mad Death was produced by BBC Scotland and adapted from the Nigel Slater book of the same name. The series consisted of three 55 minute episodes which were transmitted on BBC1 during July 1983. The keen eyes of director Robert Young were behind the camera whilst Sean Hignett adapted Nigel Slater's novel for the small screen. Numerous Scottish locations were utilised for the action, most notably the East Kilbride Shopping Centre - packed full of now defunct shops such as John Menzies and Saxone. Only two repeats of The Mad Death followed, one in 1985 on the BBC and the final one in 1994 on UK Gold. An edited VHS release was available at some point in the mid 80s, but is now very scarce and very expensive.


We can't remember where we first heard about The Mad Death, but comments such as "The Threads of the rabies world" and "the most bleak television show ever" caught our attention. We love depressing ourselves and vintage TV is fantastic for exploring that particular state of mind. The 70s/80s forever saw the British public being whipped up into a paranoid frenzy over nuclear war, disease and Neil Kinnock. The televisual depiction of these events never failed to pull any punches. They were bleak, gritty pieces and featured little comic relief - these days, production companies seem obliged to chuck in James Corden or David Walliams.

The Mad Death isn't the easiest thing to track down. As mentioned previously, the VHS is very difficult to get hold of and YouTube yields little more than a few clips. Luckily, delve deep enough and you'll find websites specialising in 'rare TV on DVD'. Curious British Telly paid several pounds to a shadowy figure and, a few days later, received our DVD.


Exploiting humanity's fear of disease coupled with their love of furry little animals provides themes difficult to ignore. It's a compelling plot and one that would have acted as an education on rabies for many. These days, you could head online and be reading all about rabies within minutes. However, The Mad Death aired in the pre-internet age, so there would have been little information available. That's not to say the serial bombards viewers with facts. The science side of things is, if anything, kept to a minimum. The British public's tender brains could have handled a few more facts and would have dealt them a respectful nod.


The vague 'love triangle' subplot is perhaps the weakest part of the serial. The romance between Hilliard and Maitland is fleetingly explored, but it's difficult to invest any care in it. When it does come to fruition, we were more interested in getting back to the rabies side of things. Dalry's jealousy of Hilliard seems to escalate quickly and his response seems a bit drastic. After using Hilliard for a spot of '"target practise", all bitterness between the pair evaporates as they go to rescue Maitland. There's no real closure to this particular thread and we found it disappointing.


One area of The Mad Death that has had a few critical voices raised is the middle class bias of the piece. All the heroes are middle class professionals whereas the working class - such as the family featured in the shopping centre - are labelled as bumbling idiots. We find it a difficult area to criticise as a rabies outbreak would be dealt with by doctors, vets and scientists rather than builders and electricians. We're not saying there isn't room for a chilling rabies table about a builder and electrician stranded on a remote building site with an infected beagle, but The Mad Death is not the place for this.


Miss Stonecroft's role has also come in for some criticism. The character is described as painful viewing and over the top. On the contrary, Curious British Telly thought her role in the serial captured the obsessive love that owners shower on their pets. A rabies outbreak would absolutely devastate a nation of pet owners and Miss Stonecroft highlights the emotional effect of this. The scenes set in her house have a creepy, claustrophobic feel which ratchet up the tension.

The acting on display is a mixed bag. Richard Heffer - one of our favourites from Survivors - is in great form as the man charged with sorting out the crisis. He's a charismatic actor with a swashbuckling look. You just know he's capable of changing a horseshoe, bowling a googly and downing a pint of ale. British through and through and perfect for the role. Barbara Kellerman had a long career in acting, but we found her vision of Anne Maitland unspectacular. It's not a completely wooden performance - the scenes in Miss Stonecroft's house are good value for money - but she fails to match Richard Heffer in the lead role. Richard Morant, too, never seems to really get beneath the skin of the suspicious Dalry. The character calls out for more caddishness, but he's played with too much of a stiff upper lip which stunts the character's emotive output.

Ed Bishop brings some American glamour to the table and his confident, chatty persona is a joyful contrast to the more reserved English acting on show. It's a shame he departs fairly early on, but we couldn't have an American saving Britain, now could we?! Another highlight is Brenda Bruce as Miss Stonecroft. You can see the vengeful madness in the whites of her eyes and it's a terrifying perfomance based on the edge of insanity. The rest of the supporting cast provide middling performances which fail to linger in the mind.


We feel that the bleakness of The Mad Death has been mythologised over the years. It's certainly no Threads, a show which leaves us feeling moribund. Nonetheless, there's some disturbing action in the serial which lays down some strong synapses in your emotional memory. The opening titles are particularly haunting featuring shots of animals disturbed by a rippling effect. This is partnered by a haunting rendition of 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' which sent chills down our spines.

The fox attack on Siegler is a tension filled affair which leaves the pulse racing. Many people criticise the fox puppet, but luckily the camera doesn't linger on it too long. Alarming hallucinations are one of the rabies symptoms and poor Siegler is left 'drowning' in his hospital bed at one point. It's a strong scene which reminds us of the fragile nature of our health. One scene, which is rather graphic, sees a farmer forced to shoot his beloved sheepdog. This is a particularly upsetting scene which emphasises the emotional cost in halting the virus. Finally, Miss Stonecroft takes The Mad Death into horror territory with her psychotic solution concerning Maitland. They're dark scenes which threaten to jeopardise the containment program.

Overall we enjoyed The Mad Death very much. It's got a dark and sometimes shocking plot which is driven by some powerful performances. The emotional impact of certain scenes is enough to ensure you won't forget the serial any time soon. Sure, there are some dud performances on show and it needs more emphasis on the love triangle, but these are minor quibbles. The full three episodes can be hard going at times due to the lack of action, but we've found that the edited VHS version keeps a brisker pace. The picture quality of available copies isn't horrific, but it could be better. Therefore, we feel The Mad Death is a real candidate for an official DVD release. Or, at the very least, a BBC4 showing. It's a serial that we will definitely revisit in the future and recommend you seek out a copy. In the mean time, don't worry about coming home stinking of Jack Daniels and Dhansak. It's unlikely you'll have a rabid dog waiting for you.

ARTICLES:

Radio Times

A rich French lady, soppy about her cat, smuggles it into Scotland when she's invited there for an extended holiday. But the cat had previously tangled with a fox. And the fox is the great European carrier of that dreaded disease, rabies. Such is the ominous situation of The Mad Death, loosely based by Sean Hignett on a novel by Nigel Slater. When Sean wrote the script he was aware of the need to provide entertainment in the form of a thriller and to inform the public, which takes disease less seriously than it should. In realising this story on film there is more than just a touch of Hitchcockian horror in the way cuddly domestic animals are transformed by the demon seed into beasts touched by evil but the film-makers have gone to great lengths to ensure accuracy and naturalism. Both medical and veterinary advisors were at hand throughout the filming and in the research stage of scripting the writer had the full co-operation of the Ministry of Agriculture. Naturally there are many scenes involving what appear to be diseased and berserk animals, all filmed under strict vetinary supervision and with all animals under the control of their owners at all times. Working on this project for several months had had a lasting effect on Sean Hignett. He avoids stray dogs like the plague.