TV’s Newest Series!

Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).

My first exposure to many of the action serials that ITC produced for ITV in the sixties and early seventies was via the repeats that hovered around the ITV network as cost-conscious schedule filler as the eighties drew on. Saturday and Sunday early afternoon for some of the more family-friendly examples, late at night – and especially overnight when they launched a full twenty-four hour service, which is where the video timer finally came into its own – for the more gritty, prestigious and outlandish efforts. Then there were weekday afternoons for the ones that had presumably been negotiated as part of a repeat deal but which nobody actually wanted to see. There you could find The Protectors, which promised much with its loudspeaker-rattling theme song and prominent producer credit for Gerry Anderson, which the incoherent storylines and dull renderings of picturesque locations singularly failed to deliver. The Baron, which was pitched somewhere between The Saint and Lovejoy, but not even a fraction as interesting as that might potentially sound. Then of course there was The Adventurer, and… well. Let me put it in plain terms. The theme from The Adventurer promises high speed Cold War boat chases and bleeping computers with tape spools and those red lightbulbs in cages, not Gene Barry wheezing around Amsterdam whilst apparently dressed as an entire MFI suite. You still had to watch them, though, as outside of scrappily edited shoddily transferred ludicrously expensive two-episode tapes released by Channel 5 Video, that was literally the only way that you could get to see them. What’s more, they weren’t even networked by ITV but simply left to individual regions to broadcast as and when they saw fit, giving rise to an additional element of excitement as you followed a certain programme title around that Regional Variations bit at the foot of TV Times pages or the grid thing at the end of Look-In, trying to work out if and when From A Bird’s Eye View would end up on your television.

Poor old Skiboy barely got to take a Blue Run around the schedules before disappearing back into the archival oblivion that some might not unreasonably argue it had never actually left in the first place. It was one of the ITC series I was most fascinated by though – certainly more so than I ever was by The Zoo Gang – and the fact that for a long time I seemed to be the only person with even the faintest trace memory of its existence only served to compound that. What was even weirder, though, was that very occasionally someone would let slip a casual passing reference to Skiboy in a situation where there was no capacity to grill them further about this, although you can read much more about all of that in the extended version of this feature in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Anyway, eventually I managed to get hold of some episodes of Skiboy, and decided to write a feature about this most forgotten of action serials. When this was first published, certain parties suspected this was all an elaborate hoax and I had completely invented Skiboy, using screengrabs from suitably Alpine-slanted European films of the era; I think some of them still aren’t convinced I hadn’t to be honest. I can assure you, however, that it’s all too real, and you can actually see and hear me discussing genuine non-faked clips from it as part of my appearance on Perfect Night In here

Something that those big walloping housebrick-sized books about the ‘end’ of ‘the sixties’ never get round to mentioning is the decline of ITC. Once ITV’s in-house powerhouse of dynamic fashion-driven action serials, when everything started sliding towards loudly-patterned curtains and mirror-disc top hats and all the hippies jumped in a bin to hide from the BBC Schools Diamond or something, ITC lost their small-screen hitmaking direction in a way that their Jaguar-swerving lead characters sure would never have done.

Perhaps reflecting the more street-level politicised nature of the times, as the seventies rolled on audiences were increasingly looking for something grittier and grimier featuring detectives who wrestled with real ‘issues’ rather than billionaire supervillains and dangerous new inventions, which ITC seemingly took as their cue to move in completely the opposite direction. They may have seen in the decade strongly with UFOJason King and The Persuaders! – all of which at least technically began production in 1969 – but within a couple of years they’d moved on to such unmemorable fare as Millicent Martin-starring swinging air hostess solving crimes in her spare time effort From A Bird’s Eye View, a vision of jet-setting glamour that was already jarringly several years out of step with the times, and bizarre co-production funding-driven Gerry Anderson-helmed detective series The Protectors, which even the cast and crew later admitted that they never quite understood. They also cut the average running time of their shows from an hour to thirty minutes, presumably in pursuit of some unfathomable Stateside ‘syndication’ deal, which hardly even gave them the chance to develop properly as action-driven television shows, let alone catch on with audiences. All in all, ITC’s single biggest success of the time was The Adventures Of Rupert Bear, a long way and yet only a few years from their triumphantly lording it over the schedules with Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons and The Prisoner.

Times change, though, and nowadays even the biggest and boringest of television flops of yesteryear has a reasonably profitable degree of cult appeal. Good, bad and The Adventurer alike, you’ll now find every last ITC series on DVD, on Bluray, and on repeat channels on an unending loop. With one very glaring exception. First seen in 1974 (though some sources insist that the two-part pilot The Mountain Witch was shown as a one-parter in an hour-long slot in 1973), Skiboy starred seventeen year old Steve Hudis – son of Carry On films creator Norman – as Bobbie Noel, a skiing instructor who solved crimes, mounted daring rescue missions and defused wartime bombs in the Swiss Alps in his spare time. And that was literally the only skill and advantage he had at his disposal – skiing. Not exactly John Drake in waiting.

One area where young Bobby’s quaterpiping skills should have proved an advantage, though, was in attracting viewers. At the time, fuelled by spectacular Olympic displays, glossy glamorous books like Stein Eriksen’s Come Ski With Me, and World Of Sport‘s need to fill fifteen billion hours every Saturday with sporting activities that they could actually get the rights to, skiing was seen as pretty much the high altitude of thrill-packed glamour and sophistication. Ski chases and Alpine romances were a regular feature in James Bond films, while the Milk Tray man wouldn’t even have considered delivering a single Strawberry Temptation without getting in a spot of downhill carving along the way. ‘Action’ comics like Tiger and Hotspur were crammed with storylines about their stunt plane pilot/record-breaking sportsman characters making emergency landings in hazardous off-piste areas, and their readers also thrilled to the endless procession of ski-themed Fisher Price Adventure People playsets. Toblerone was still the classy ‘expensive chocolate’ gift of choice, and it was unusual to see a European-made soft porn film that didn’t feature a spot of hot Ski Lodge lovin’. Erm, apparently.

There's No Sex Like Snow Sex aka Beim Jodeln Juckt Die Lederhose (1974).

There was more than enough behind the scenes ambition to pull this off too. Skiboy was masterminded by producer Derrick Sherwin, who had recently pulled off a successful full colour relaunch of the floundering Doctor Who – including casting Jon Pertwee – and cameraman Charles de Jaeger, who had worked on some of the early Quatermass serials and was also primarily responsible for the infamous Panorama Spaghetti Harvest hoax. Under the letterhead-friendly auspices of ‘Skiboy Productions’, they were essentially handed a huge wodge of co-production cash and told to go off and make a series on location to capitalise on this most intangible of crazes; only a couple of years later, they’d doubtless have done it as a martial-arts themed show called ‘Dragonboy’, which just goes to show what a huge potential audience they had. They were given all of this on the basis of what Sherwin recalls as a two-paragraph pitch, and the belief that a combination of their experience and the sheer glamour and exoticness of the setting would make for a winning formula. It was like Heaven’s GateNeither Fish Nor Flesh and The Contrabulous Fabtraption Of Professor Horatio Hufnagel all rolled into one. And about as successful as any of them too.

Is this really fair though? Does Skiboy really deserve its… well, it doesn’t even really have a reputation, does it. Does Skiboy deserve its obscurity? There’s only one way to find out – to do something that possibly nobody at all has done since the scattered repeats finally took an Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards-style jump into oblivion in the late eighties, and actually watch an episode…

Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).
Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).

Written by Derrick Sherwin himself, Hot Ice opens with a pair of standard issue big-coated seventies ‘heavies’ more or less shouting “BLAH BLAH SECRET PLAN” as they approach the ski lodge – to the accompaniment of some fancy wah-wah guitar and electric piano – in search of someone to guide them up a nearby mountain. While they do so, Bobbie and his fellow instructor stroke love interest Sadie pass by unwittingly in the background, chasing their bone-pursuing pet dog Gruff and uttering some conveniently foreshadowing dialogue about how “thieves always bury their loot”. Resort head honcho Claire is reluctant to assign any of her staff to guide them up what turns out to be called Monk’s Fall, pointing out that it’s completely inaccessible in winter, but clearly has some suspicions about their motives for wanting to visit the ‘beautiful’ Chalet Blanc; and not without good reason, as once they’re back outside, the flatter-nosed ‘heavy’ announces that he’ll find someone to take them “even if I have to use some… persuasion”, adding rather obvious-statingly that he’ll “kill anyone who tries to stop us”.

Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).
Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).

Anyone who knows their ITC will be aware that this is usually the moment when the opening titles kick in, and lo and behold we’re promptly treated to some startling footage of Bobbie skidding down slopes and hurtling through the air, to the accompaniment of the truly astonishing theme song. Written by Anthony Isaac, who was not exactly noted for his subtlety and restraint in the art of small screen show-openers, this features a brass-led disco-funk combo whipping up a storm whilst a string section play as if running on an overload of adrenaline and some harmonising girls belt out “SKI-BOY! SKI-I-I-I-I-YEE-BOY” at appropriate intervals. If nothing else, the series is worth revisiting for this thrillingly alarming piece of music alone, which is uncannily close to the sound that Air would later turn into a global sensation; and as the series was actually rather popular in France, where it was broadcast as A Skis Redoubles! –  a more or less untranslatable title which basically means nobody skis more than him – and they also covered the theme from French wildlife show 30 Millions d’Amis, it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that they might have been tuning in.

Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).
Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).

The ‘heavies’ take their coats off menacingly and approach Peter Stringfellow-esque ski instructor Jean, who rejects their substantial offers of money and sternly informs them of the story of how Monk’s Fall got its name. It’s exactly how you suspect it got it. Back outside, there’s some more conspicuous exposition about how they have to get there before a fellow criminal is released from prison and “we can’t wait… and we won’t”. With a menacing growl of slap bass, this is followed by lengthy footage of them skiing and arguing, more or less confirming the suspicion that the pair are played by stuntmen rather than full-time actors. Bobbie and Sadie, watching from the top of a nearby slope, are also suspicious of them, but for very different reasons; they’ve noticed the ne’er-do-wells watching them, though not closely enough to get wind of the plot to kidnap Gruff to ensure their assistance. And sure enough, once they’ve gone for a nice sit down in the lodge, the hapless mutt is tempted away with a rather inflexible-looking chop and bundled into the boot of a car.

Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).
Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).

Bobbie and Sadie head out to look for the errant pooch, and split up after about eight seconds, upon which Bobbie is promptly approached by the suspicious characters, who persuade him to help them in exchange for Gruff’s safety in the manner of Dino and Luigi Vercotti. Early the next morning, Sadie can’t find her dashing chum, and that’s because he’s already headed out to help guide the crooks on their treacherous journey, which takes in some genuinely hazardous-looking ice-climbing, occasioning the nervier of the ‘heavies’ to throw a momentary panic and refuse to move any further; “then stay there”, adds his more menacing chum, “you’ll either fall off, or freeze to death”.

Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).
Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).

Back at the lodge, Claire, Sadie and Jean are busily comparing notes about Bobbie’s disappearance, Gruff’s disappearance and their respective encounters with the two sinister interlopers, but bewilderingly manage to conclude that none of them are in any way linked. They’re in for a surprise, though, as Gruff has somehow managed to tunnel his way out of the hut where the villains had stashed him, and bounds up to them like some snow-drenched Lassie trying to alert them to the situation. It’s only at this point that Claire realises that she recognises the men and that they’re actually dangerous criminals who’d been up to no good in the area a couple of years previously; surely you’d actually have to make an effort not to remember that?! A lengthy display of skiing across Monk’s Fall follows before the trio arrive at the Chateau, with the bad guys electing to shoot the padlock off the door when they find it’s frozen shut. “That was no hunting rifle!”, exclaims Jean from some considerable distance away, informing Sadie to call the authorities as he races off in his car.

Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).
Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).

After Bobbie is unconvincingly thrown to the floor, the ‘heavies’ start chiselling open the wall and find a cache of stolen diamonds – “the only ice on this mountain that’s hot!” – but while they’re babbling some rubbish about the ghosts of the old monks hiding it, Bobbie makes his escape and deftly skis not only around their gunshots but with sufficient verve to cause the snivelling smuggler to tumble down the mountainside. Every action series from around this time was required by law to have a scene featuring a helicopter, and sure enough, that’s how Jean, Sadie and a snow-copper in a furry hat arrive on the scene; the less easily dissuaded bad guy tries firing on them but they zoom in close enough to make him lose his balance, upon which Bobbie races up and literally skis the gun out of his hand. You don’t get that in Sons Of Anarchy.

Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).
Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).

Back at the lodge, Gruff and Bobbie are both eagerly tucking into breakfast when Claire suggests that he’s likely to receive a reward; like some slalom-friendly Alberto Frog, Bobbie announces that he wants the biggest ice cream sundae Sadie’s ever seen, and – in as standard issue an ITC closing gag as it’s possible to get – as a special treat he’s going to let her watch him eat it. Then there’s some really rather thrilling closing titles, in which Bobbie races down a slope, slicing up huge clouds of snow and zigzagging through what look like real-life skiers, before pausing, grinning at the camera in close-up, and whizzing off across the horizon into the invisible distance… and that’s Skiboy.

Look-In - Skiboy Cover (May 1974).

Never exactly the star of the television slopes – some regions would hastily shunt it into their weekday children’s schedules, while all that Look-In could find to say to promote it was that it was ‘TV’s Newest Series’ – poor old Skiboy never quite made the jump to a second series. Before long it had become TV’s Forgottenest Series, to the extent that only just over a decade later, the famously exhaustive fanzine Time Screen overlooked it entirely in a massive retrospective of ITC scriptwriter Dennis Spooner’s career. ITC looked as though they were finding their feet again afterwards, with Space: 1999 and Return Of The Saint, but other ITV companies had stolen their thunder with the likes of The Professionals and The Sweeney. ITC’s response to this was a significant and ambitious change of direction, turning their attention towards grittier and harder-hitting feature films; a plan which was derailed by their washing their hands of the already-completed The Long Good Friday, and then sunk completely by Raise The Titanic.

Given that it’s quite possibly the first thing that anyone has said about it from that day to this, the first thing to say about Skiboy is that it’s not actually a bad series. In fact it’s actually rather charming and enjoyable, and certainly a lot more fun than Spyder’s Web or The Zoo Gang to name a couple of contemporaneous ITC offerings. True, it’s hardly The Singing Detective, and the all-too-obvious desire to make it as ‘family friendly’ as possible leaves it feeling a bit on the lightweight side, but it looks amazing and zips along at a fair old pace, and sometimes, that’s all you want from a television programme. Viewers at the time might not have wanted it, but that’s not really a good enough reason to leave it languishing on the archive shelves; after all, they didn’t want The Strange World Of Gurney Slade either.

Skiboy isn’t just a half-decent not-even-half-remembered action series from a lost age of television, though; it’s also a fascinating snapshot of that lost age of television, and indeed in some ways of the world around it. It’s a textbook example of how shows were commissioned and made in the days before focus groups and tone meetings, when anyone with a proven track record could pitch a basic idea, and more than likely be handed a wodge of cash and told to go off and bring home the televisual bacon; which admittedly Skiboy didn’t exactly manage to do but they were at least allowed to try before failing. It’s also a vivid depiction of the last gasp of that sixties and seventies fascination with jet-setting Eurocentric glamour, before harsh economic realities and The Sex Pistols saying ‘BARSTARD’ at Bill Grundy moved the sociocultural goalposts and the entire world went on to washed-out 16mm ITN newsfilm. On top of all that, thanks to the combination of dazzling location footage and equally dazzling fluorescent Alpine fashions captured on garish oversaturated film stock, it doesn’t even look like any other TV show of the same vintage; if anything, it looks closer to those films that you’d stumble across on SAT1 and Bravo at a million o’clock in the morning like Modesty BlaiseVampyros Lesbos and that German one about the three girls who stole a speedboat and a cine camera and… um… sorry, you were saying? Anyway, the cold hard fact remains that no matter how many column inches of ecstatic raving-over the latest HBO/AMC/Showtime/They’re Just Making These Up Now heavyweight drama might inspire, none of them will ever be as inadvertently redolent a document of their time as Skiboy.

So, there you have it. Skiboy may not be the greatest television series ever made, but nor does it deserve to be languishing at the back of a cupboard where it’s been for so long that it’s probably gone mad and thinks it’s actually zigzagging between Melbourne House Software and Hardware lorries on the way to the nearest ski hire shop. Given that even Stainless Steel And The Star Spies has been dusted down for reassessment, it’s high time that TV’s Newest Series got an opportunity to be TV’s Newest Old Series. Just don’t ask me to reassess The Adventurer.

Skiboy (ITC/Skiboy Productions, 1974).

Buy A Book!

You can find an extended version of TV’s Newest Series, including much more about the background to Skiboy, in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Further Listening

You can hear me talking about Skiboy – and see some clips from it – as part of my appearance on Perfect Night In here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.