Today's blog is a special guest blog from ScampySpiro who can usually be found writing over at The Spirochaete Trail
Channel 4 never garnered much of a reputation as a hub for quality children’s programming, although its early years did see it taking some novel, if largely forgotten stabs at the market.
Pob’s Programme, a show featuring a monkey puppet purported to literally inhabit the internal space of your television set, still evokes fond memories in a sizable number of people, but those who remember the channel’s very first attempt at a children’s production, Chips’ Comic, which initially aired in 1983 and boasted a central gimmick several stages more ambitious, are an altogether rarer breed.
Conceived by David Wood and Maureen Harter of Verronmead, and centring upon the efforts of an unusual trio of comic book editors to assemble a weekly comic under the guidance of their equally unusual computer, Chips, the big hook of the series was that, after each show had aired, you could actually go out and buy physical copies of the comic they were making at your local newsagents (in actuality, the comic was published by IPC Magazines).
Thankfully, my family was very pre-record happy back in the 1980s, so I did eventually flush out a single episode of Chips’ Comic which we'd managed to preserve on tape. As for the titular comic itself, no such luck. Typing the name into eBay usually means having to sort through pages and pages of listings for Whizzer and Chips, typically to come up empty-handed.
I suspect that my family did buy the comic at one time or another, which is how we wound up with a copy of that cassette in our collection (my research indicates that it was only ever made available as a comic book freebie), but evidently it didn’t leave much of a dent in my long-term memory.
Fortunately, I did manage to pick up the next best thing – namely, the 1984 Chips’ Comic annual published by Fleetway - so I do have something to discuss on that front.
The two human members of the Chips’ Comic editing team, Inky (Gordon Griffin) and Elsa (Elsa O’Toole), would spend each episode at the office reviewing various pages for the upcoming comic while the third member, a mute mongrel named Rover (Andrew Secombe, who later went on to voice Watto in the Star Wars prequels, dressed here in a costume that, frankly, appears to have been stitched together from bits of mouldy, discarded throw rugs) would venture out into the wider world to conduct investigative journalism upon the hidden curiosities of the modern world.
If you’ve ever wondered how post offices function or what ultimately becomes of your dirty washing-up water then Rover’s your dog. Did I mention that he rides about on a motorcycle called the Rovermobile? Beyond his muteness, Rover doesn’t actually behave very much like a dog, leading me to suspect that he was made one purely to exploit the pun opportunities offered by the name (because he roves, get it?).
As little as I care for his utterly grotesque costume, it has to be said that Andrew’s mugging and assorted pantomime mannerisms really do make up a huge chunk of this series’ life and soul. There’s a definite charm to his performance as Rover which certainly enlivens any scene in which he features.
Finally, there’s Chips, an enormous yellow computer with various buttons, wires and levers who, much like Rover, cannot talk and communicates instead via bleeps and bloops and primitive, Pac-Man-esque computer graphics (fun fact: the designs for the series’ computer-rendered idents were contributed by children’s illustrator Jan Pienkowski, most famous for his work in the Meg and Mog books).
The format of the show was structured around the various different pages of the comic in the works, with Inky, Elsa and Rover running through each one while providing educational features and games for the viewer to play along with.
The single episode which I have to hand opens with Elsa in a mildly annoyed state because she appears to have misplaced the puzzle page that she was working on. As Inky and Rover assist her in her search, the former remarks that it’s “like looking for buried treasure, only buried treasure is usually hidden underground”, thus setting out the theme of this particular edition of Chips’ Comic – ie: the hidden world beneath our feet.
This takes us into the first of our pages, the Poem Page, for which Elsa reels off a list of the wonders lurking beneath the Earth’s surface:
What’s to be found underground? Rabbit, worm, badger, mole.
What’s to be found underground? Earth, roots, gold and cole.
What’s to be found underground? Telephone wires, tube trains,
Cellar, car park, gas pipe, drains.
Mainly, the Poem Page appeared to be an opportunity for schools from around the UK to submit artwork illustrations for whatever’s listed off – here, Inky informs us that Stockbridge Infant School in Edinburgh have done the honours.
This is then followed by the Animal Page, which looks more closely at one of those aforementioned earth-dwelling creatures, the badger. Some stock footage of badgers plays, while Elsa reads out a few badger-related factoids (namely, that they’re partial to worms and berries and like to line their setts with dry grass and ferns).
Afterwards, as Elsa and Inky still struggle to figure out the location of that misplaced Puzzle Page, Rover is asked to put the kettle on and, while watching the surplus water disappear down the sink, gets the inspiration for his next Rover’s Report. He then disappears from the office in order to solve the absorbing mystery of what becomes of dirty water once it’s been banished down the plughole.
With Rover gone, Inky and Elsa turn their attentions to the Story Page, although frankly there isn’t much of one. We get a basic animation sequence in which an earthworm is spooked into staying underground by a robin hovering about above the surface.
The robin then encounters a centipede, which Elsa describes (incorrectly!) as “an insect with lots of legs” (hopefully I won’t come across as too much as a smart alec for pointing out that centipedes are myriapods, not insects, or for suggesting that the fact that they have so many legs really should have been Elsa’s first clue), a grasshopper and then finally a mouse, which frightens the murophobic robin away.
Not a lot of plot there, but it’s essentially just an elaborate set-up for a game which Inky and Elsa then proceed to play, in which viewers are encouraged to identify each of the aforementioned creatures by their footprints (or lack of, in the worm's case).
Rover then checks back in for his Rover’s Report. This comes with its own intro sequence, boasting both a glorious theme song (performed by Martin Jay) and some wonderfully ropey green-screening.
Rover has tracked the dirty water on its magical journey through the sewers and all the way to the sewage farms and treatment plants (I’m sure he’ll smell divine when he gets back to the office) and can now explain (all by way of Andrew’s brilliant pantomime performance, of course) how sand and grit is separated from the water and powders are added to make it fit for human (or canine) consumption once again.
Inky then moves onto the Do-It-Yourself Page, where he shows you how to draw a diagram of the various pipes and wires connected to your house from underground. Shortly after, Rover returns with a version of his Rover’s Report now set out in a full-page comic strip form, which Elsa then explains to the viewer all over again. One criticism that I have of Chips’ Comic from watching this one episode is that it does move at a rather slow pace at times, and this particular sequence definitely feels a bit repetitive, so it’s a relief to move on to a song, “Underground”, which is easily one of the episode’s high points.
Elsa has, finally, remembered where she put the Puzzle Page (twist: it was inside the damned computer all along), so we end the episode with a segment in which Inky and Rover get to test their knowledge about which plant foods are grown above ground and which are grown underground. They both do very well at this (potato and carrot = underground, tomato and strawberry = above ground), until Elsa throws a wildcard at them in the form of a peanut (or monkey nuts, as Inky calls them).
Inky reasons that a peanut would probably grow above ground, on a tree, recalling the nursery rhyme, “I had a little nut tree”, but Rover disagrees. Inky actually does have the right idea, as nuts do indeed grow on trees - the problem is that pea”nuts” aren’t actually nuts, but legumes, so Rover wins this round. With that, the latest issue of Chips’ Comic is finally ready for publication. Inky, Elsa and Rover then bid the viewer farewell and the episode ends.
As to the comic itself, my only current form of reference is, as noted, that 1984 annual published by Fleetway, which I assume gives a fair representation of what the comic was like to read. Based on the annual, I can certainly see why the comic would have failed to leave such a lasting impression – the overwhelming majority of content is awfully nondescript.
There’s surprisingly little in there about Inky, Elsa and Rover, with most of the pages being taken up by kitschy stories about royals and guinea pigs – basically, the kind of filler material which could be readily slipped into the back pages of just about comic. That’s perfectly cute and all, but what, precisely, makes it a Chips’ Comic comic?
The few pages that do focus upon the Chips’ Comic characters include an origin story for Rover (apparently he just showed up on Inky and Elsa’s doorstep and they didn’t have the heart to turn him away so they gave him the Rovermobile instead – I assume that this was based upon events from the very first episode?), a feature titled “Elsa’s Parcel” describing the journey taken by a package in transit, and a board game based upon Rover’s visit to the supermarket. These are nice, and I regret that the annual doesn’t feature more of their ilk.
Although undeniably ambitious, the gimmick of having a TV series so closely entwined with the publication of a tie-in comic was not without its challenges. Chips’ Comic ran into one such problem when it came to airing repeats of the series, when the comic was no longer in publication and the original context was removed. The solution, as described by David Wood in a comment left upon the website Child of the 1980s, was to make content relating to the entire series available in a book that the viewer could send away for.
And that’s Chips’ Comic, Channel 4’s first attempt at cracking the children’s entertainment market. Despite its slow pacing and occasional repetitiveness, it’s a bright and inventive series that’s definitely not without its charm and, if nothing else, I recommend that you try tracking down a copy of that audio cassette to hear “Underground” and other such delights. Not that copies are particularly easy to come by – locating one might take patience, luck and something of a deep pocket (the last seller I saw who had one listed on eBay was asking for £25), but what a precious little trove of buried sonic treasures it is.