Channel: The Children's Channel
Transmission: 1990 - 91
If you're anything like us then you storm through the door after a hard day at work, grab a beer and crank out the songs of your youth to relax.
Kids, though, tend to waltz through the door with an insouciant swagger, a pack of sweets in their back pocket and, rolled up under their arm, a comic.
It's not much, but it's enough to satisfy anyone under the age of 10. And there's only one comic these youngsters can be seen with. And that's the Beano.
Dennis the Menace, of course, is the star of the Beano and he's received several TV adaptations over the year, but the most interesting one is The Dennis the Menace and Gnasher Show.
A Menacing Young Boy
Dennis the Menace lives in Beanotown and lives for a bit of mischief. His best pal is his beloved Abyssinian wire haired tripehound who gnashes and chomps his way through life whilst gasping out the odd hiss of a word.
Trying to stand in the way of Dennis' quest for unabashed fun and menacing are Mum and Dad who just want their darling son to be less reckless and naughty. They'd probably much rather he be like well behaved Walter the Softy who often finds himself on the receiving end of Dennis' pranks.
Behind the Menace
The Dennis the Menace and Gnasher Show aired on The Children's Channel (TCC) between 1990 - 91 and, as well as the standalone story segments, Dennis and Gnasher also starred in 'Dennis Link Shows' to present other programming on the channel. Around 100 episodes of these link shows and the story segments were produced.
The puppets produced for the series were made by Ultimate Animates but for the first series, only Dennis, Gnasher and Walter featured. The second series saw Dennis' Mum and Dad also being added to the puppet roster to flesh/fabric out Dennis' world.
Writing the series was Mike Barfield (see interview below) and directing the whole affair was Bob Harvey.
And how exactly did TCC end up winning the coveted adaptation of Dennis the Menace? Well, there was a tie up between Starstream (a subsidiary of TCC) and D.C. Thompson who just happened to be the publishers of The Beano.
Menace to Society
Satellite television was somewhat of a rarity to us in 1990/91. We certainly didn't have it and not one of our mates did either. So, yeah, all we could do was make do with reading the Sky listings in the paper and dreaming of this wonderful Astra shaped world.
And then, one day, we discovered that our Aunt had Sky! Finally, the world of The Simpsons, WWF and, yes, Dennis the Menace was within reach! Only problem was that our Aunt lived in dear old London while we were stranded in the depths of East Anglia.
Thanks to VHS, though, and a family visit we soon received a magical 3 hour tape packed full of satellite goodness. And there was a fair old bit of The Dennis the Menace and Gnasher Show on it, but we can't remember too much about it apart from puppets and some guessing game where the answer was "painting". It's a vague memory, but it's there. AND IT'S OURS, GUVNOR!
Some right kind soul, thankfully, has gone and uploaded 7 episodes to YouTube, so it gave us another chance to get to grips with it.
And this time we'd write a damn blog about the whole affair!
The anarchic theme tune sets the tone of the show and taps deeply into the riotous, unabashed youthful vibrancy of bad boy Dennis. It's accompanied by some cool animations, but they're a bit misleading as there's no sign of puppetry here and appears to be setting you up for 100% cartoonage.
Anyway, when the puppets do appear they're pretty damn ace!
Have you ever seen those lifesize 3-D versions of The Simpsons? They're bloody awful, all out of proportion and unnatural looking, but the puppets on show here are fantastic. They genuinely look like they've leaped off the pages of The Beano, so it's a great job by Ultimate Animates and gets the series off on the right foot.
The animated locations are also amazingly put together and incredibly faithful to the backdrops provided on the pages of The Beano. If real life locations had been used then it would have really clashed with the feel of the piece, but the use of green screen here genuinely lends a cartoony edge to proceedings.
But what about the stories?
Well, they're pretty faithful to the source material of the Beano. You see, that Dennis, right, is a menace. Handy with a catapult and absolutely addicted to mischief. That's why he spends most of his time trying to bunk off school, testing the patience of adults and, perhaps his main raison d'être, terrifying poor Walter the Softy.
Walter's a softly spoken, effeminate chap who breaks into a cold sweat at the sight of a butterfly and Dennis ain't exactly in the mood for making overtures of brotherly friendship towards him.
And it's this clear dichotomy between Dennis and Walter which engenders a primeval cheekiness in Dennis' id and leaves him aching to pelt Walter with soot bombs and give him a good old fashioned kick up the jacksie.
It's a dubious message to deliver to youngsters, but the writers aren't lazy enough to just let Dennis get away with it. No, they make sure that, more often than not, Dennis comes a cropper due to his actions. He does prevail sometimes, though, and it's that visceral thrill which keeps him coming back for mischief again and again.
And these stories are all condensed into just 5 minutes. At this length they can really maintain the exhilarating wham bam thank you ma'am feel of the comic strips. Nothing drags and three act structures of intense menacing have unfolded, shaken your senses up and then cleared off before you know it.
So what did we think of Dennis and Gnasher's first foray into the world of TV?
It was actually bloody alright and a downright acceptable adaptation of one of Britain's best loved anti-heroes.
Yeah, sure, Dennis lacks some basics in moral integrity but ultimately the rights and wrongs of his actions are laid bare for the viewers to see.
It's very different to the BBC versions which followed in its wake where Dennis is less of a bully and Walter the Softy can tread the streets of Beanotown with less fear. But we kinda like this 1990 incarnation where everything's rough and ready and slightly flawed.
It's an honest portrayal of what it's like to be a boy growing up. You're not gonna make the right choices, you're not always going to be the nicest apple in the cart, but you're gonna make damn sure you have some fun along the way.
And, despite making a humungous amount of episodes in such a short time, we think there was room for more. The Dennis the Menace and Gnasher Show could easily have made the transition to a terrestrial channel such as Channel 4 where it would have slotted into their early morning programming.
As it is, it remains a hidden gem and one of the best productions for TCC.
Mike Barfield kindly took the time to answer a few of our probing questions about writing for the show, so feast your eyes on this!
Curious British Telly: How exactly did you find yourself writing for The Dennis the Menace and Gnasher Show?
Mike Barfield: I had been the producer, writer, researcher and co-presenter of a kids' show for BSB called Comic Cuts. It was made by a subsidiary of The Children's Channel called Starstream. D C Thomson had a share of it, and the parent company TCC had been hoping for a long time that they would let them make a Dennis show. I knew lots about British comics, part of the reason why I got the job producing a show for BSB about cartoons, though I wasn't a cartoonist myself back then. The people who ran Starstream realised I was a big comics fan from doing Comic Cuts and offered me the chance to write the pilot, and if DC Thomson liked it, then I could get to write on the series.
CBT: Did you have to do much research into the characters or did you come to the show as a die hard Dennis the Menace fan?
MB: I'd been reading the Beano since I was a kid in the 1960s. I had old annuals and a few comics. Obviously I didn't read so many Beanos once I was a teenager and I simply had to catch up with where the character had got to in the 'Beano-verse'. It didn't take long though! I think DC Thomson sent me a load of comics to read.
CBT: There were an insane amount of episodes produced, so did this mean the writing process was a hectic affair consisting of many late nights?
MB: There were 100 episodes made, most of them not stories but simply what we called Dennis Link Shows. These were set in Dennis' den and he and Gnasher did pieces to camera against green screen, letters from kids etc, before introducing stock cartoons - usually US ones - that they'd bought in. I also wove in story segments that had been written by me and filmed earlier. No late nights. Just lots of time spent sat at the dining table in my flat in Shepherds Bush. I knew the Menace world well so it came quite easily - speech patterns, vocabulary, sense of fun. I also had a good idea of what I could and couldn't do or say. DC Thomson are understandably careful about their characters and the image they present to the world. Dennis was still allowed to be naughty back in 1991 but in order to get the nod to write for him I was sent up to Dundee to meet all the Beano team. It was great. A dream come true. Euan Kerr was the editor then. They took me to lunch and we talked about the characters and what I could and couldn't write. I also got to meet one of the tea ladies who was the inspiration for Olive the Bash Street cook.
CBT: Writing for puppets must be very different to writing for humans, so what did you have to bear in mind when penning the scripts?
MB: First series there were only three puppets - Dennis, Gnasher, Walter. So I had to bear in mind that all other characters could only appear as drawings or out of shot! Not easy! Drawings were done in Paintbox by a brilliant art school graduate called John Bonner who now lives in the States and paints big canvases. He mimicked the Beano art brilliantly and I could set him any task and he'd achieve it brilliantly. John was a mate of Robb Hart, who co ran the Children's Channel. For the second series the puppets Dad and Mum were made. However, I can recall going to a first meeting where we were to be shown Dennis, Gnasher and Walter for the first time. They had been made by a top puppet company called Ultimate Animates, owned by a man called Mike Barclay. I remember asking him what the puppets could do and he said it was easier for him to tell me what they couldn't do - run (they had no legs), hold things, or get wet. For a physical character like Dennis it was quite restricting.
CBT: Dennis doesn't have the strongest set of morals, but he's an idol to many young boys. Did you find it important to demonstrate that his dubious actions often lead to him falling flat on his face?
MB: Dennis is inventive, loyal, brave, and when he does behave cheekily - such as scrumping apples or teasing walter, he always comes off worse. It was important to show that. Dennis couldn't be a bully. DC Thomson wouldn't have let it be any other way. And indeed, though I tried to bring in other writers, by getting writer friends of mine to write sample scripts, DC Thomson rejected every one of them. (Probably reflecting the fact I knew the world, characters and language better.) As a result I ended up writing all 100 episodes - with just one of them being co-written by me and the director/producer Bob Harvey.
CBT: Do you know if there were any plans for a third series or maybe even a move to a terrestrial channel?
MB: Don't know. I think it stopped because DC Thomson changed their mind or had plans afoot to do an animated series.
CBT: Finally, what have you been up to post-Dennis?
MB: Became a cartoonist myself - 19 years in private Eye - carried on writing jokes - also scripted in TV, most notably for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and You Are What You Eat. Now work as writer, poet, in schools - have a children's book out called SWAT! A Fly's Guide to Staying Alive available from Amazon.
CBT: Thanks a lot, Mike!
More of Mike's work and activities can be found at www.mikebarfield.co.uk