Unless we’re talking about the long-wiped episode of Ragtime with the doo-wop parrots, I’m not exactly what you might call overly sentimental. Even so, I have a box – which over the years has evolved through a succession of slightly larger boxes – crammed full of bits and pieces that remind me of various people, times and places, and is probably what I would grab first if my house ever came under attack by the Voord. By accident rather than design, it houses the most bizarre and bewildering Mr. Benn-rivalling diversity of knick-knacks and nonsense imaginable and is somewhere between Emily’s shop from Bagpuss and one of those scenes in Doctor Who where the Doctor flings all manner of incongruous inexplicable objects out whilst searching for something of significantly greater importance. It’s not quite a musical box (although good lord I would like to get a replacement built based on that), but it can indeed hide a secret inside, and sometimes even I have no idea what to expect.
Even just rifling through a random handful of pulled-out objects is a kaleidoscopic, un-coordinated trip through a haphazardly zigzagging past. Typewritten – yes, typewritten – ideas for sitcoms worked up with Stephen O’Brien. Vikki Gregorich‘s security pass from University halls. A sketch Jim Sangster did of Jason Donovan walking off a cliff. Fanzine ideas in Paul Condon‘s handwriting, that did make my eyes moisten a little just now. Everything from a playing card doled out by a worryingly intense Mad Hatter to an NBC Page badge from all manner of adventures and escapades with Emma Burnell. A letter from ‘Styggron’ someone sent to cheer me up during a particularly difficult time; I have always suspected I know who this was but they deny it to this day and suggest that maybe it actually was Styggron. Ink cartridge from my beloved Canon StarWriter. Business cards, birthday invites, women’s phone numbers scrawled on the back of nightclub flyers (I suspect ‘Myra’ may have been using a false name), photos of long-forgotten shared houses, something someone left behind once that I really should not have kept, Gustav Klimt bookmark, cat collars, keyrings, press photo of Peter Cook, thank you letter from Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, copy of Marianne Faithfull’s autobiography that either Red Rachel or Brown Rachel (my money’s on Brown Rachel) shoplifted in her bra, Radio Merseyside ID badges, hospital wrist bracelet from the end of a particularly wild night out (it’s neither as debauched nor as impressive as you’re thinking), inactive glow sticks, receipt from Muster Coffee, ‘St. Skeletor’s Day’ card, guest list passes, Invicta Hi-Fi promo discs, record shop bags, distinctively torn Rizla packet, stack of photos of Balok from Star Trek cut out of book club leaflets, empty vape canister (not mine), letters, postcards, badges, train tickets, plane tickets, theatre tickets, cinema tickets, seven copies of a spectacularly unsuccessful CD single by a band I managed, and most recently a cinema handbill for Le Mans ’66. I’ve been doing this for long enough to know when something is worth keeping hold of.
Perhaps undermining my claims against sentimentality, there are also some items with sadder connotations. Letters from a lost close friend with a wit and imagination that sparked like lightning until they literally disappeared into substance abuse. Photographs of people I don’t like to think about every day but don’t want to forget either. Tape of Syd Barrett’s solo albums done for me by a relative that I have no need or purpose for on any level, but god dammit, it has their handwriting on the inlay card. However, much of it is also just often intentionally silly and ephemeral creative stuff that I should have filed away properly but didn’t, especially around Christmas when I just can’t be bothered, and enjoying pride of place right at the bottom of the box – having turned up unexpectedly one day wedged between issues of Smash Hits – is my draft Christmas List from 1986, and a couple of years back I decided to revisit it and, well, this is what happened. Why does it open with a photo of Karen Gillan downing a massive hit of wine? Well, some things will just have to stay in the box…
“I don’t want a lot for Christmas”, Mariah Carey once sang. This is an adage well worth adhering to. Personally I am only hoping to receive a Camberwick Green Village Playset with the street lamp intact, the original film spool of Doctor Who And The Mission To The Unknown, and two Karen Gillans waving a bottle of Macallan 50.
However, this was not always the case, and back in the greedy capitalist eighties, come Christmas time the grabbing hands grabbed all they could, only with chunky green and white mittens on or something. Others may have yearned for B.A.R.T., Rock Lords, Stonewashed Chinos or one of those big Ferrero trays with the two other foul-tasing liqueur-based ones, but back in 1986 there was only one present I wanted. Well, five, to be honest, but this was the age of the Filofax-toting ‘entrepreneur’ and greed was good., Ish.
Back To Skool
Skool Daze, a noisy, witty and fast-moving game about trying to ‘liberate’ a disapproving report card from under the noses of a staffroom full of academic archetypes, was arguably the single greatest game ever made for the once-mighty rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum. It sold in such deservedly high quantities that manufacturers Microsphere – whose very name recalls a lost era when the word ‘micro’ was seen as a powerful futuristic totem and authentic glimpse of things to come, and whose other releases included Wheelie, Skyranger, Contact Sam Cruise and the ever-playable ZX Sideprint – couldn’t resist the temptation to produce a sequel, and that’s where it all started to get a bad School Report. Where the original had restricted its gameplay to one single cramped-yet-capacious scrolling school building, Back To Skool (“Skooldaze Too”, as it described itself in an hilarious Grimleys-tempting Slade-style misspelled cover tag gambit that no doubt backfired and saw more than one purchaser complaining to WH Smith that they didn’t in fact have two games on the tape) expanded the concept to bring in an adjoining girl’s school with a playground straddling the two, and a load of jolly hockeystick-wielding St Trinian’s escapees to join the established cast of Einstein, Boy Wander, Mr Wacker et al. And whereas the objective of the original game had been simple and straightforward, involving little more than judicious use of a pixelated catapult and a book about historical battles, Back To Skool had a rambling, nonsensical and almost unplayably complicated plot which took in a bicycle, a water pistol and, erm, some stray frogs. The must-have game of the year, no question, but it took a couple of months for everyone to start admitting it wasn’t quite what they had been expecting. “Please sir, I cannot tell a lie… BACK TO SKOOL is rubbish!”.
Santa Claus Is On the Dole by Spitting Image
Following on from the irony-caked runaway success of supposed-to-be-a-sendup-of-novelty-hits-but-ended-up-a-novelty-hit-itself chartbuster The Chicken Song earlier in the year, Spitting Image made another bid for chart stardom with the somewhat overlooked Santa Claus Is On The Dole. Penned by imminent Red Dwarf launchers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor and perennial Christmas-hater and skinner alive of Roland Rat while shouting hooray Phil Pope, half withering social satire, half silliness for silliness’ sake, unlike The Chicken Song this was planned as a seasonal market-cornering single from the outset, which makes it all the more surprising that it only just limped into the top twenty and has been pretty much forgotten since then. Anyway, ignore the revisionists – Spitting Image was fantastic and the spinoff releases were a must-have (well, maybe not The Giant Komic Book) for anyone who liked their devastating critiques of the Thatcher regime served up with a side order of silly puppets hitting each other. The Ian Hislop-instigated b-side The First Atheist Tabernacle Choir was top stuff too. So why get it for Christmas rather than just buying it yourself? Because the ever so slightly more expensive 12″ version contained proper extended versions of both songs, with extra comedy material and everything. You try telling the streaming-fixated young people of today that, and they won’t believe you.
Now That’s What I Call Music! 8
Well there was also Hits 5, but that’s impossible to sum up in a single paragraph. Just you wait. Nowadays we’re all more familiar with the Now! series as a long unending string of shoddy cash-ins themed around weddings, random relatives, hopscotch training and Ruby-Spears ‘Anthems’, but back when the series was first launched, it seemed new and exciting to be able to get that many chart hits for minimal financial outlay. Plus in those days they couldn’t convince every record company or pop star to play ball, meaning that there were often hefty gaps where massive chart hits should have been that ended up plugged with all manner of straight-in-at-number-twenty-six obscura. Adhering to the usual vague thematic approach that it sort of loosely took in the age of vinyl, tape and four sides to every double-album, Now That’s What I Call Music 8 – which by then had jettisoned its baffling ‘pig with headphones’ motif in favour of oh-so-eighties cover designs based on silk, satin or in this case strangely warped chrome – started off strongly with Duran Duran’s ace comeback single Notorious, Pet Shop Boys’ dog bark-equipped Suburbia, The Communards with politically subtext-laden video-accompanied Don’t Leave Me This Way, Aerosmith and Run DMC’s urban myth-inducing Walk This Way, and the incomparable Breakout by Swing Out Sister, rubbing shoulders with Steve Winwood’s quite good but a bit out of place in such company Higher Love, OMD’s boring Forever Live And Die, and Genesis’ frankly shudder-inducing In Too Deep. Side Two took a dance/soul approach, starting off well enough with Cameo’s Top Of The Pops viewer-infuriating Word Up! and Mel & Kim’s Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend), a song that was pretty much The Clothes Show made music, but soon tailed off with overly repetitive offerings from Jaki Graham and Janet Jackson, Boris Gardiner’s ear-offending I Wanna Wake Up With You, that We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off thing, and Grace Jones’ I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect For You), which barely even qualifies as a song. For some reason, The Human League’s Human is plonked in the middle of all this too. Side Three is the muso-friendly one; Big Country, Huey Lewis And The News, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush joining forces for half the expected impact, they’re all there in full-on dreariness mode, mercifully interrupted by The Housemartins, Madness, Status Quo’s only halfway decent record of the entire decade, and the most unlikely inclusion on a Now! album ever, Billy Bragg’s Greetings To The New Brunette. Finally, Side Four is something of a White Elephant Stall, yet all the same manages to pretty much sum up 1986 in eight tracks flat, primarily via Kim Wilde’s ridiculous cover of You Keep Me Hangin’ On, Dr And The Medics’ flop revival of Waterloo, It Bites’ Calling All The Heroes, and two date-specific television spinoff singles par excellence – Paul Hardcastle’s one-time Top Of The Pops theme The Wizard, included here with runout groove message from Geoffrey Bayldon intact, and Nick Berry’s May-composed soundtrack to Lofty sliding down his bedroom door, Every Loser Wins. It was the best of Now! albums, it was the worst of Now! albums, but if you want to read more about Nick Berry’s Now!-conquering escapades, well, maybe somebody has written a book about BBC Records And Tapes…
From the neon suits and is-he-alternative-comedy-or-isn’t-he? positioning of its rubber-faced star, to the Housemartins-like theme tune and accompanying pastel shaded semi-animated opening titles, there was no television show more intrinsically and unequivocally ‘1986’ than BBC2’s surprise sandwiched-between-repeats-of-Fawlty–Towers-and-new-episodes-of-Victoria–Wood–As–Seen–On–TV hit vehicle for the versatile impressionist Phil Cool. That year, excitingly, BBC Video had finally stopped charging eight hundred and seventy six million pounds per release and had started to make stuff available at a more affordable ‘Budget Price’, and while massive queues were forming (literally) for copies of Watch With Mother and Doctor Who And The Death To The Daleks, discerning comedy fans were equally keen to get their hands on this hour-long compilation of Cool with the old BBC Video ‘star’ logo tacked on to the start. Unfortunately – well, not exactly unfortunately, as it was still ace – this material was actually culled from the previous year’s overlooked tryout run of three shows, presented here pretty much in their entirety but with a decidedly sparse set of opening titles in place of the definitive item. Still, how many comics do you know who can get a massive laugh out of ‘doing’ Rik Mayall, just by moving their mouths a bit and not actually saying anything?
The Utterly Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book
While Comic Relief is undeniably serving a useful purpose and is a good cause in general, it has to be said that much of its associated spinoff fundraising merchandising falls distinctly into the ‘will this do?’ bracket. And the next time that Peter Kay does unspeakable things to an innocent ‘pop classic’, let’s hope that the answer is ‘no it fucking won’t’. Time was, though, when with Comic Relief you really did get something substantial for your donated money, especially to accompany its launch in 1986 when they came up with the still-entertaining Cliff Richard & The Young Ones single, a genuine bona fide all-star live comedy stage show that later became an equally enjoyable album and video, and The Utterly Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book; edited by Douglas Adams and Peter Fincham, as if that wasn’t recommendation enough, and just look at the contents. An exclusive new Hitchhikers story! Meaning Of Liff addenda! Otherwise unpublished Adrian Mole! The Young Ones’ Nativity Play! Material from the then still-lost Out Of The Trees! Contributions from the writers of Yes, Minister and Spitting Image! Angus Deayton, Lenny Henry, Terry Jones and Mel Smith in general! And most notoriously of all, Richard Curtis’ controversial The Gospel According To A Sheep, which got the book withdrawn under blasphemy laws following complaints from idiot God-botherers who decided that likely extra future sales and the ensuing benefit for people dying of hunger in the third world wasn’t worth offending their religious sensibilities for! It’s funny, and it’s controversial – beat that, Don’t Get Done Get Dom Meets Mock The Week!
Meanwhile, if you’re still wondering what to put on your own Christmas List this year… how about one of these books? In fact you can find a radically different version of this feature, including the terrible tale of how I never got an MB Games Star Bird, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.