Emergency Questions is the name of a book by the comedian, Ftone Clearer and TV’s Percy The Shepherd from Servants Richard Herring. Technically, it’s actually the name of three books by the comedian, Ftone Clearer and TV’s Percy The Shepherd from Servants Richard Herring, but we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves there. Others have ‘borrowed’ the idea – uniformly badly and boringly – but Emergency Questions originated as a feature in the ever-excellent Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast (and if you don’t know what that is, you can find a whole website full of them here), ostensibly as a tactic for rebooting a stalled or stilted interview although the very first Emergency Question was in fact asked as the very first question in the very first edition. Sometimes the answers have been revealing – notably the unexpected response to ‘what’s it like being Stephen Fry?’ – sometimes they’ve been silly, once or twice they’ve generated no kind of interesting or entertaining response whatsoever, and on one occasion it provoked David Mitchell into a rumination on whether Kettle Crisps were being given undue prominence over Kettle Chips. In case you were wondering, only one Looks Unfamiliar guest – Paul Putner – has also been on RHLSTP (RHLSTP!) so far, and if you want to know what Emergency Question he was asked and what answer he gave, you’ll have to listen to his episode. Though listen to him on Looks Unfamiliar here first though, obviously. There’s an exclusive behind-the-scenes This Morning With Richard Not Judy anecdote in it and everything.
Richard has published three books full of Emergency Questions – the original one available from here, Christmas Emergency Questions which is available here and the big swanky coffee table gift book version which you can get from from Ian Amazon here (though see below for details of a fantastic deal involving all three, which you can use to become some sort of Thanos of Emergency Questions by, I don’t know, stapling them to a gardening glove or something), and a while back I went through a phase of answering a different randomly selected Emergency Question on Twitter each day; usually to an overwhelming response, which always felt a little awkward as although it was my answers that were getting the traction, it wasn’t really ‘my’ idea in the first place but in fairness this is exactly what the books were designed for. Actually someone on Twitter did try to snitch on me to Richard once for ‘stealing’ his clearly labelled and acknowledged idea and the results were entertaining to say the least. The cult of Emergency Questions is larger than you might expect too; I’ve witnessed them used as tie-breakers in pub quizzes and have more than once been surprised by someone pulling that all too familiar book out on a date and asking me if I’ve ever seen a bigfoot (if you know me, you know my answer to that). In fact I did try using Emergency Questions on a date myself once, and you can find out what happened below – as this is a collection of highlights from those Twitter Emergency Questions, with new details that wouldn’t fit in the original character limit and links to all kinds of other interesting related bits and pieces. Meanwhile, in the absence of any halfway decent way of concluding this long-winded introduction, I’ve literally just picked out a random question from the first Emergency Questions book. ‘237. Isn’t liquid soap just an elaborate con?’. Well, that aged well…
6. Have you ever seen a ghost?
I’m about as resolute a sceptic as you’re liable to, well, encounter, so the answer is unsurprisingly no. Although a very weird and freaky thing did once happen when I was round at a friend’s house as a teenager and listening to a sell-through cassette of the Joy Division compilation Substance, and our conversation somehow recorded itself onto the tape merged in with the music. It was muffled and indistinct apart from a brief moment when we were talking about Ian Curtis, when it suddenly became momentarily loud and clear. It still freaks me out a little when I think about it.
To my absolute bewilderment, this Emergency Question was immediately set upon by ‘Didn’t Happen’-type characters, who started demanding ‘proof’ of it – sorry, I should have thought ahead that I might need to preserve documentary evidence of something I didn’t even realise was happening in about 1988 or something – and some of them started pulling out diagrams of azimuth paths or something in a bid to discredit a silly and entertaining anecdote. All I can say is that this really did happen and is the sort of thing I would normally dismiss as nonsense if someone else related it to me – for the record I’m certain there is a scientific explanation for it but as for what that explanation might be, your guess is as good as mine – and that perhaps you really ought to reserve that level of rigorous and persistent scepticism for, I don’t know, discrediting the government or something?
7. What is your favourite cheese?
Parmigiano Reggiano. Let’s just say that if a no-deal Brexit threatens the supply of it to the UK for no good reason, I will boot Michael Gove all the way to Modena and force him to stock me up out of his own pocket.
A narrow escape for the Wee Stuart Anderson-faced star of Channel 4’s A Stab In The Dark there as we did just about manage to avert this – though the couple of weeks where there was no option but to resort to Pecorino instead must have had him checking the rear view mirror on a regular basis – but you really would have thought that the “WHATS THE MATTER WITH YER, YER CAN EAT GRAVY AND OLD COPIES OF THE DANDY LIKE YER NANA USED TO HAVE, IT WAS GOOD ENOUGH FOR HER WHYS IT NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU” brigade might have shut their boring unimaginative traps by now.
8. If you had to have sex with a monster from Doctor Who, which would you choose?
Assuming Rose Tyler in the guise of ‘Bad Wolf’ doesn’t count – although I maintain she was momentarily cosmic energy in a human form (which it then threatened to take over and destroy) – then obviously it would have to be one of the Drahvins from 1965’s Galaxy 4; and before anyone starts, they had glitter-tinged (and possibly pale blue) skin and, and unlike their more evidently ‘alien’ adversaries the Rills, turned out to be the ‘real’ monsters’ in the story.
Even aside from the lack of colour photos, one of the reasons that it’s most difficult to tell what colour the Drahvins actually were is that only one episode of Galaxy 4 now exists, and even that only turned up in 2011. Needless to say, I think that lone episode – Part Three, Air Lock – is fantastic, and you can find my review of the ‘first’ showing after it was recovered in my collection Not On Your Telly here. If you’re not interested in that, then conveniently enough you can actually find a feature on what else was on television and radio on the same day that Air Lock was originally transmitted here.
9. Who is your favourite historical character?
Medieval pretenders to the throne Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel, whom I have always found unaccountably amusing.
I was actually once told off in school for laughing at this peculiar saga as recounted in a history textbook – it was Lambert Simnel’s dreadful ‘satirical’ joke on finding himself waiting on his former co-conspirators at a banquet that really set me off – and could scarcely believe my ears when, a couple of years later, ‘The Rt. Hon. Lambert Warbeck MP’ showed up in a sketch on a repeat of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and later still when the listings for Lambert Simnel World and The Perkin Warbeck Fair showed up in the Fist Of Fun book (which you can read more about my love of here), particularly the latter concluding with “a lone firework in the shape of Perkin Warbeck’s laughing face”. If I could understand why I find them so hysterical, then frankly I’d understand a lot more about myself. Incidentally it was a reference to The Rt. Hon. Lambert Warbeck MP’s request for ‘the longest BBC Rope’ that led to me meeting one of the most remarkable people I have ever known, though more about her here.
10. Isn’t Silver actually better than Gold?
There’s no Wispa Silver, is there?
I stand by this answer, although I’m unsure what kind of unholy artificial flavouring a Wispa Silver might actually constitute. Some kind of ironic metallic-tasting cross between dental fillings and a melted Wham! Bar? Yes, best to stick to Wispa Gold there, really.
22. Have you ever seen a famous TV animal in real life?
Yes, I’ve met Bagpuss. The actual original Bagpuss. Twice.
You can find the story of both of my encounters with television’s most celebrated pink and white puppet cat here. I will also say that this always seems to be an unusually popular fact about myself on dating sites for reasons I cannot quite fathom. Anyway, mind your own business.
30. If you could compare any food of the day with an equivalent of the past, what would you choose?
I’d love to get hold of some old-style pre-crunchy Ringos and prove to people a) that they existed and b) that they were superior to the early to mid eighties redesign. I never did take to the ‘new ones’.
Ringos, as TV’s Ben Baker once memorably explained, were invented by Ringo Starr who later recalled “I was looking at the crisp range, and I thought, why don’t I have me own range of crisps? And that’s how I invented KP Skips”. Anyway, Ringo’s original crisp vision involved a much smoother, flatter and indeed Skip-like texture, before later being relaunched with a more rough and earthy texture and a much more compact shape. It’s incredibly difficult to convince anyone that something that ephemeral actually existed, though. Wonder if Ringo would back me up on that?
32. Do you have a favourite towel? What’s your best story about it?
As youngsters, we used an expensive red towel to play ‘bullfighting’ with when nobody was looking. It was very, very quickly demoted to the status of all-purpose ‘rag’.
I’m fairly certain that this particular towel ultimately ended up wrapped around a slow-leaking radiator valve in my bedroom, subsequent to which it presumably found its way into the bin. There was also another game involving towels entitled ‘Julio Iglesias’, the rules of which are frankly too unhinged and possibly even dangerous to relate here unless anyone is really up for playing it themselves.
33. What is your most mundane celebrity encounter?
I once saw Eve Myles browsing the CD racks in HMV. There is literally no more to that story.
Despite there being literally no more to this story, this was one of the most popular Emergency Questions by some enormous distance and the responses to it stretched out for days. Some of them were regrettably rude and offensive, and a handful worryingly bordered on stalkerish, but mostly they were highly amusing tales of stumbling across celebrities going about their tedious everyday business at a respectful remove. My only real mistake was tagging in Eve Myles, who must have been inundated with irrelevant notifications she didn’t ask for. Sorry Eve.
38. If you could get a Law named after you like Murphy’s Law, what would it be?
The law that any man resembling Alf Garnett will automatically believe himself to be ‘in charge’ of the bus.
I was surprised by how many people ‘liked’ this. It’s clearly a universal phenomenon. Incidentally you get a million points if, in his frustration at one or two people refusing to abide by his self-satisfiedly bellowed orders, he resorts to muttering Alf Garnett-style opinions to go with the visuals.
53. Do you know the way to San Jose?
Not from here, no. And I’m fairly confident that if I looked it up on Google Maps, it would automatically default to San Jose Wholefoods in Macclesfield or something and stubbornly decline all attempts at correcting it.
This might be presented as a joke but the abject failure of that useless app to take even the vaguest hint of your actual current location into account, and its stubborn refusal to be corrected on this point, is maddening to the point of wanting to let the tyres down on the bloody Google camera car. You really do have to worry about anyone trying to find their way around Central London with it.
54. What song would you like to replace the National Anthem?
Sunderland FC’s 1979 single, Sunderland Are Back In The First Division.
There’s something indefinably compelling and uplifting about this arguably most bizarre entry in the already famously bizarre universe of football singles. For starters, it’s a singularly unimpressive, underwhelming and defeatist ‘landmark’ which to chart your partial return to footballing glory, yet you cannot deny that there is something empowering and affecting about a team who are clearly aware that they aren’t the greatest contenders in the Football League seizing their moment and announcing ‘now we’re back where we belong’ with hope, positivity, and shouting ‘right’, let’s have you’ to the genuine top teams of the day. Then, for that matter, there’s the remarkable lyrical conceit – in both senses – in announcing to Manchester United, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Middlesbrough, Leeds and Southampton that ‘we’ll be there to welcome you’ when in fact they have all been in the First Division all along and it is them who are there to welcome you. Then of course there’s the music itself, performed in the sort of synth tones that already sounded dated by 1979 (including a textbook Tin Can Orchestral Sweep, and if you don’t know what that is, you can find out more about that and other Great Lost Synth Sounds Of The Eighties here), with an air of realistic resignation that somehow pushes it right round past the edge of dreadfulness into anthemic again. If you don’t believe me, here it is…
58. What would you consider to be the most mediocre chocolate bar?
(Dairy) Crunch. You’d probably ignore it in a shop, but would get excited if it was included in event catering.
Quite a few correspondents pointed out that Dairy Crunch once had something more of an exotic allure and mystique due to its intangible and inaccessible dominance of early vending machines in railway stations and the like that you were never allowed to get anything from, although on the other hand David Quantick memorably dismissed it as ‘stale milk with bits in it’. Others still brought up the spectacularly unsuccessful mid-eighties advertising campaign featuring the ‘Dairy Crunch Bunch’, and off-the-peg ad-hoc assembly of Anglicised versions of post-Bratpack American High School student stereotypes. Pleasingly, this all balances out and as a result it’s still teetering on the very point where good meets not good, presumably much like a Dairy Crunch wedged at that point at the front of a vending machine where it looks as though it might fall and provide you with furtively-snatched free chocolate at any minute, but never does.
63. What’s the best museum you’ve ever been to?
The V&A Museum Of Childhood. Especially as the Smallfilms exhibition was on at the time.
If you wanted proof for some inexplicable reason, here it is. The visit also came up in the episode of The Zeitgeist Tapes that I appeared on talking about the Clangers Election Special, which you can find here.
65. What modern day item do you think will seem ridiculously archaic in ten years time?
Streaming media, at least in its current form. People are going to get mightily fed up with stuff suddenly disappearing and being expected to pay for it twice.
This is always subject to a good deal of scorn-pouring, usually from people showboating about how many DVDs they have just given away to Oxfam because they got sick of them taking up so much space on the shelves and taunting them with their wanton being on a shelf like shelves are supposed to be for, but I stand by this. At the time of writing – and this is just a handful of examples that I’ve noticed by chance and for different reasons – you can’t stream Absolute Beginners, the Marvel short A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor’s Hammer or Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs anywhere, but you can walk into HMV and walk out with all of them on physical media. You can stream me talking about Absolute Beginners here, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor’s Hammer here and Mike Westbrook’s Love Songs here, though that’s by the by. Incidentally, when was the last time you saw someone reading a Kindle, as opposed to a physical book, on public transport?
74. Is there anything purple within ten feet of you?
This came up twice, and these were the answers on both respective occasions – a Lego Thanos and a cassette single copy of Bang by Blur. I don’t think he ever covered it sadly.
78. Who is your favourite mythological figure?
I’m guessing Mo from Space Sentinels doesn’t count, so Lorelei from Thor. I have no idea why, obviously.
Maintenance Operator – or MO for short – was the robotic helper of the Space Sentinels, a late seventies cartoon team of teenage superheroes playing host to the abilities of Hercules, Mercury and Astrea; I had plenty to say about Space Sentinels itself when I appeared on TV Cream Stays Indoors, which you can find here. Meanwhile, here’s Lorelei of Asgard. We shall discuss her no further.
81. What are your favourite hot, fizzy and alcoholic drinks?
Black coffee, Dr. Pepper, Jack Daniels.
There’s very little to add here other than that I like my coffee how I like my women – shoved off a sofa by an unaccountably disgruntled cat at half seven in the morning – and that you can actually help to sustain my caffeine addiction by buying me a coffee here.
90. Is the glass half full or half empty?
Doesn’t really matter if the glass is being held aloft by dreadful politicians and assorted slippery sociopaths in a manner that suggests that they they’ve not only never seen a pint of beer before, but are also terrified of it and holding it as far away from them as is physically possible without antagonising it.
Seriously, why do they keep doing this when they must know it looks ridiculous? Also why do they keep going on about it in that ludicrous “aha, a crisp, cool, soothing, delightful, estimable, nourishing, nutritious pint for I, methinks – and supped without a mask, by jingo!” manner when they must know that it sounds ridiculous? And why do so many cement heads hail them as ‘heroes’ for doing so? Either it’s something unhealthy about our national reverence towards beer culture or our national deference to anyone in any old badly fitting suit that claims to have all the answers, and it’s hard to know which is the bigger issue here.
91. If you were Adam Sandler, how would you even begin to spend the millions you made from appearing in The Cobbler?
I’d pay for all television and radio services to play Rhythm Of The Night by Debarge in unison.
Laugh if you must but I honestly believe that if the global media pumped out more joyful and celebratory sounds, stories and what have you to the largest audience imaginable, then it might, y’know, help a bit.
96. What is the worst date you have ever been on?
With someone who had googled me before the date to make sure I wasn’t a serial killer, discovered what I had written about Jo Cox, and proceeded to regale me with vile Brexity takes on the murder. I walked out abruptly.
Although I was stunned when this actually happened, and probably too infuriated to actually feel hurt or affronted, it simply seems baffling in retrospect. What did she possibly hope to gain from it? It can only have been either a very weird and twisted attempt ‘flirting’ – which if it was would be a serious red flag – or a seized opportunity to wind up a triggered liberal for the lolz, which to be honest it seems an incredible amount of effort to go to for very little effect or entertainment. It makes absolute sense for women to check up as best they can on strange men they’ve met over the Internet before agreeing to meet them in person – and let’s be honest, I’m not difficult to find – but normally the introductory responses tend to be along the lines of ‘I saw something you did about Bagpuss – read the start of it, I quite liked that!’, ‘OMG The Curious Orange follows you on Twitter’ or ‘what is this Familiar Things thing actually all about then?’. Picking on my numb and distraught tribute to Jo – which you can find here – is just plain fucking weird.
102. Who is the first person you remember fancying?
Either Maggie Henderson from Ragtime, Louise Hall-Taylor from Watch or Teena from The Sunday Gang. I seem to have had a ‘thing’ for confident tomboy types with a head full of facts.
I shall make no further comment on this. Other than that you can find me sighing wistfully over Teena here and Louise here, and that I’ve also added in Play School‘s own far-out Wiccan folkie Toni Arthur, who should really have been on the list too.
105. Which children’s story, song or TV show do you think is most fundamentally flawed?
This has been the subject of much physics-fuelled debate, but I remain convinced that the Camberwick Green Clown is actually turning that handle the wrong way. I don’t think anyone dared tell him, though.
I certainly wouldn’t bloody tell him. Why? Well, you can find more about my background with this particular childhood televisual terror here.
108. What thing that seemingly everyone else likes do you think is a bit rubbish?
Brown Eyed Girl by Van Morrison. By the standards of the mid-sixties it’s a very, very ordinary single.
I refuse to back down on this and what’s more frankly consider a lot of Van The Man’s output to be bafflingly overrated; compared to a lot of other cultier and more progressive acts of the time – and even some straight-up pop bands – it all feels a bit clinical and corporate. Astral Weeks is no An Electric Storm, let’s just put it that way. Admittedly he is a dreadful man with dreadful opinions, but this isn’t what informs my attitude towards the world’s only known lookalike of that McVitie’s mascot that promised ‘I Won’t Let The Munchers Steal YOUR Jaffa Cakes!’, as his earlier work with Them – and in particular the staggering I Can Only Give You Everything, which sounds like every single band on Nuggets – Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era, 1965-1968 clobbering each other with cheap amplifiers – is for the most part little short of astonishing. Still, I’m sure it is a marvellous night for a Moondance. Incidentally, I’m equally puzzled by the after-the-event popularity of both Young At Heart and The Whole Of The Moon. There’s some kind of commonality to this phenomenon but I’m not sure what. Nor do I especially care.
110. Which conspiracy theory do you think might actually be true?
I’m fairly convinced that someone somewhere had it in for Simon Dee.
This one always brings the ‘actually, it’s…’ brigade out in force, desperately keen to tell me that there’s no great mystery and what actually happened was actually incoming Head of Tedium Charles McHaltenwood thought a new broom was needed and while he was trying out the new broom he accidentally brushed the new contract out of the window because they needed to save money and he was costing too much and his ties were too paisley etc, but that really does just sound like what certain parties want us to believe rather than own up to their own mistakes (and that’s even if they were just ‘mistakes’). Admittedly Dee did himself less than no favours in later years, but the single biggest name in radio and television – so big in fact that he has a cameo in The Italian Job – and the BBC decide to lower his salary to ‘test’ his ‘loyalty’, leading him to move to ITV where his new show is clearly being sabotaged and set up by other jealous and/or threatened chat show-tastic parties but he’s left to carry the can for production decisions he had nothing to do with, all the while expressing widely mocked and dismissed fears that he was being followed by MI5 which official documents later proved to be true, and by 1971 he’s signing on and being laughed at by the press, and all of this suspiciously closely after he’d gone to management with concerns about the intentions of certain scrawny old bastards hanging around Radio 1 towards young girls? Pull the other one.
111. Which non-potato crisp is the best?
It’s obviously the long-lost Sizzlin’ Bacon Monster Munch.
Clearly both Roast Beef and Pickled Onion – especially in its original highly potent incarnation, with a stench that spread across playgrounds like chemical warfare – are not without their merits, but this short-stay late eighties slash early nineties variant – promoted, of course, by ‘Blue Monster’ – was the finest of the lot. Garreth Hirons talked about Sizzlin’ Bacon Monster Munch on one of his Looks Unfamiliar appearances and we not unreasonably concluded that Piers Morgan was responsible for its current unavailability. Anyway you can hear all about that here.
112. What’s the most unusual place that you have ever made out?
I kissed an elf on her lunchbreak round the back of a Department Store Grotto. And brought her an ‘Irish’ coffee.
If that’s not the real meaning of Christmas, then I don’t know what is.
144. Who is the Best Smith, the Median Smith and the Worst Smith?
Sarah Jane Smith, Smith by Leon Garfield, Morrissey.
Sarah Jane Smith was one of Doctor Who‘s fellow time-travellers alongside both Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, who was popular enough to star in a spin-off pilot with robot dog K9, and then later still to drop in on David Tennant and land her own full-scale spin-off series – The Sarah Jane Adventures – that ran to tremendous success alongside the revived Doctor Who. Smith is one of Leon Garfield’s many gripping yet unremittingly bleak children’s novels set amongst a soot-caked world of child labour and brutal crime; these novels provoke – it’s fair to say – mixed feelings amongst those who read them or watched television adaptations of them, and you can hear Joanne Sheppard discussing those exact mixed feelings in Looks Unfamiliar here. Morrissey, as you can find out here, is the primary reason why I never really find myself wanting to listen to The Smiths as much any more.
146. What was the worst fashion decision you ever made?
Back in the days before Hi-Viz jackets were absolutely everywhere, and you only ever saw them worn by people digging up the railway, I bought one thinking it would look good under the UV lights in a local indie club. It did not.
I am still haunted by this now. I looked like I’d come in fancy dress as the video for Mama Used To Say by Junior.
147. What convention of society do you wish no longer existed?
Men – and it’s only ever men – who feel compelled to go physically out of their way to interrupt anyone cleaning/painting etc in order to say ‘you’ve missed a bit!!4’. It’s not even an actual joke.
There’s always one who comes along and says “aw don’t be such a moaning miseryguts – I said it to a feller only the other day and we was all laughing for about an hour!!”. QED.
156. What is the sexiest language?
Judging from Astrud Gilberto records, Portuguese.
This is particularly true of her almighty 1969 album track Beginnings, which if it isn’t the sound of a woman in total control of her desires and sexuality then I don’t know what actually is. There’s a brief discussion of it in a feature about how I developed my love of sixties jazz through taking a chance on albums in charity shops with striking covers here, although I go into much more detail on Beginnings in particular in a feature exclusive to Can’t Help Thinking About Me which you can find out more about here. It’s almost worthy of one of those ‘Caution: Explicit Content’ tags you used to get on those mail order book club adverts in TV Times. More about them soon, incidentally…
163. Is there a catchphrase from an old TV show or advert hardly anyone remembers that you still use on a regular basis?
“What’s unbelievable about that, Tank?”, “I see, I see, I get the picture”, “Come on Wordsworth, out of there”, “1990! Time for the Guru!”.
The first of these is taken from a late eighties Walkers Crisps ad campaign which was essentially based around bullying an overweight boy. ‘Tank’ – played by one Jonathan Walker – was forever being berated by the rest of his gang for his love of crisps, and in particular his boasts about how many packets he could consume in a single twenty four hour period; often these adverts would conclude with them chasing him through a corn field, and as this campaign coincided with a baffling moment of international fascination with crop circles, the suspicion cannot be discounted that the real culprits were hiding in plain sight. Or, if you will, plain crisps. At the time ‘Tank’ was well known enough to be referenced by The Mary Whitehouse Experience, but has since disappeared under the relentless onslaught of Salt’n’Lineker. Phil Catterall recalled his simmering disdain for these adverts in Looks Unfamiliar here.
The second is a weirdly memorable sigh of irritated resignation from John Cleese in the original television version of the Parrot Sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, back in the days when he was hilariously sending up selfish small-minded people who oddly consider themselves intellectually superior to everyone else when every single anecdote they relate seems to prove the exact opposite, rather than making eight million episode documentary series for Channel 4 about how anyone who isn’t a white middle class male is very very mean to them and won’t let them have, say, an eight million episode documentary series for Channel 4. Generally reserved for uncooperative pets, the admonishment to Wordsworth the dog was delivered by Jamie’s mother at the conclusion of every episode of ITV children’s programme Jamie And The Magic Torch. Finally, hallucinogenically-clad rave star Guru Josh proclaimed that 1990 was ‘Time For The Guru!’ literally at the dawn of a new decade. He would enjoy fame and hit singles throughout the year – including the splendiferous Whose Law Is It Anyway?, which I proudly own an autographed copy of – then immediately vanished in January 1991. Technically, he kept his guarantee to the letter.
177. Which is the best of the cartoon cats?
Top Cat, but only under his correct name – Boss Cat.
With the aid of a clunkily-inserted title card, whopping great blunt scissor jump cuts in the credits and a somewhat less jarring switch of title in Radio Times, the BBC broadcast Top Cat as Boss Cat between the early sixties and late eighties (at least). This was in order to avoid giving free publicity to a commercially available pet food of the same name; often written off as a petty example of nanny state finger-wagging, providing accidental promotion for a commercial enterprise would in fact technically have constituted a breach of the terms of their charter and failure to act on this could have seen the BBC heavily fined or worse. I’m sure Colin Elgood of Carshalton Beeches approved though. The main reason I’m mentioning this here is because whenever I refer to Top Cat as ‘Boss Cat’ even as an obvious joke, I get inundated with replies ‘explaining’ this backstory to me, even on occasions when I have clearly referenced the explanation myself. I’m a great believer in not disregarding the manner in which anything was very first presented to you – no matter how ‘wrong’ it might well be – and in fact you can hear be expressing some suitably strong opinions on the BBC’s edits of The Monkees, The Banana Splits and Boss – sorry – Top Cat here. That said I do also like winding people up with it too. You know, like Boss Cat did.
194. Who is the most evil person that you have ever met?
I once ‘met’ Skeletor at an in-store appearance, except it was an actor in a foam rubber suit who kept shouting “SKELETOR FOR PRESIDENT” for some reason. In the wrong voice.
He was accompanied by an equally unconvincing He-Man – also sporting a rubber face for some reason – who shook hands and doled out the free gift to the lucky youngsters who had queues for several hours; a small Masters Of The Universe promotional poster, which had also been given away free in innumerable comics in the six months or so leading up to this. I hadn’t exactly been expecting an Orko figure or anything (and you can read about why I think Orko is good, not bad like you and, erm, Skeletor think, here), but that did seem a trifle miserly.
200. Did you ever go camping with your family?
No but we did often go to a dreadful caravan park. Memories include some kids playing with a dead rat, and a gang of boys in Batman masks pushing me over. I tried to argue that Batman doesn’t do that.
This was clearly the moment when I decided I was Team Marvel rather than DC.
202. If you had the ability to be a virtuoso on any instrument without practising, what instrument would you choose?
The chromatic harmonica, because it’s bastard difficult and I’d love to be able to play Rhapsody In Blue.
For the benefit of anyone who doesn’t know about this, there are essentially two types of harmonica. The Diatonic has a single row that you can essentially blow into and make a halfway melodic sound which is relatively in tune. It still takes a degree of skill and style to get a good sound out of it though, and if you consider that it’s the harmonica you’ll most normally hear on records by Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and that they weren’t even the most proficient Diatonic players around in the sixties and were doing a million and one other things at the same time, that should give some sense of musical perspective but also prove that you can get a decent tune out of it with minimal effort. It’s also the one that annoying blokes who consider themselves ‘musicians’ will whip out on buses when nobody asked them to and wheeze out some indefinable ‘blues’, which brings us around to its bigger and more complicated rival. As arguably most prominently heard on the Midnight Cowboy theme and Groovin’ With Mr Bloe, not to mention anything where Stevie Wonder steals the entire record by turning up and blowing a few bars, the Chromatic has a sliding bar that brings a couple of dozen further notes into play and is the one favoured by jazz musicians, soundtrack composers, and anyone wanting to get some real sonic harmonica power into what they are doing. It is also, as Mark Kermode will attest in his anecdote about trying to learn it in a week, incredibly difficult to master even if you can already get some astonishing bluesy wails out of the Diatonic. You can find some recollections of my days spent trying to master this and other equally ridiculous instruments while everyone just wanted another bass player for their band here.
207. Who are your three favourite fictional ghosts?
Timothy Claypole, Sir George Uproar, and Juliana Hatfield as that crying homeless girl with the guitar in My So-Called Life. Also a special mention for any that ‘saves’ the orphanage they lived in two hundred years ago.
There’s a lot more about Timothy Claypole in my look at the little-seen Rentaghost Christmas Special Rentasanta here, and a look at Sir George Uproar’s heartwarming seasonal antics in the corresponding The Ghosts Of Motley Hall special The Christmas Spirit in Can’t Help Thinking About Me here. Mitch Benn remembered Nobody, the title character of long-forgotten third spook-centric children’s sitcom and rival to both of the above Nobody’s House in Looks Unfamiliar here. There are no features about Juliana Hatfield singing “I… am… a Chriiiiiist-maaaaas ghoooooost”.
212. What’s the most unlikely activity that you have participated in with a celebrity or celebrities?
I once played a Telly Addicts pub quiz machine with Sonya Madan from Echobelly. We won.
This was in a student union bar after an early Echobelly gig and it’s weird to think back now to just how big a deal pub quiz machines were at the time, especially the ones based around television game shows. They were actually very difficult to win at, partly because they were designed to avoid allowing you to reach a stage where it might end up having to pay out money – those timers were incredibly tight – and also because you would invariably find yourself getting unwanted ‘help’ from a drunk person you didn’t know who would slam their hands down on the wrong answer button with the speed, demeanour and severity of someone being administered a mild electric shock, and then exclaim “AHW!” when the answer that you knew was wrong turned out to be wrong. Meanwhile if you want to hear what happened when I tried to beat Noel Edmonds and the Hoofer Doofer on another obsolete entertainment format – the Telly Addicts Interactive DVD Game – you can find that here.
216. What is the most expensive thing you ever stole?
Probably not that valuable at the time, but the three-quarters lifesize cardboard George Harrison promoting When We Was Fab that was ‘liberated’ from a high street record shop would be worth a fortune now.
I will not be naming the co-conspirators as they are all respectable parents with stocks and shares and sensible footwear now, but this was after When We Was Fab had dipped out of the top forty and the display had been moved right into the door frame, where it was presumably awaiting collection en route to the bin; in the days before shops deployed in-store security this was too great a temptation to pass up. What’s surprising is that even though it needed to be carried down an escalator, along a busy shopping street and then finally escorted home by train, nobody paid the slightest bit of attention to us. Many years later it was damaged during student house party hi-jinks and subsequently discarded, to the dismay of Beatle completists everywhere.
255. Which member of the Royal Family most disappointed you in real life?
As a youngster I was made to go and see the Queen drive past after she opened the Liverpool International Garden Festival. Her car zoomed straight by and she didn’t look out. I felt really sorry for all the other people who were clearly excited at the thought of seeing her.
I would point out that this was written before certain allegations came to light, but honestly, I’m not actually sure I ever had enough respect for any of the Royal Family for any of them to do anything that could legitimately be described as ‘disappointing’ me. Though that said, I would really, really like to have Meghan and Harry as guests on Looks Unfamiliar. Make it happen, listeners!
256. Did you have any unusual crushes on celebrities as a child?
Does Brenda Teen Angel from Captain Caveman And The Teen Angels count? She was a drawing after all. And not the one everyone fancied either.
It’s true; everyone else seemed to prefer Taffy Dare – the blonde big-haired Southern-accented one who said ‘ZOWIE!’ a lot – but my heart belonged to jumpy brunette Brenda Chance and her hot pink flares. You could easily imagine letting her hide behind you when she got spooked – which was often – and in retrospect she was about as close as children’s animation came to the Scream Queens who were all over the late sixties/early seventies shlocky drive-in horror movies I would later become so enamoured of. Though please do not send me your Teen Angels/Color Me Blood Red fan fiction, thanks.
262. Who can you never forgive?
Over and above anyone else, Boris Johnson for that ‘best way to honour Jo Cox is deliver Brexit’ remark. I could even forgive and forget my real life feuds before that. Beyond contempt and I hope it comes back to haunt him.
I do not really want to add anything to this other than to mention the bloke who replied to this – whose profile picture, inevitably, showed him and his beard on stage leaning at a thirty two degree angle while being ‘whimsical’ – saying “Oh ha ho! I enverily see! And what, a’prithee pray tell, woulds’t thou suggest for to be in place of a Brexit, riddle-me-ree?”, and when I said I wasn’t answering as that wasn’t anything to do with what I had said he blocked me. Forsooth!
263. Which is the sexiest TV Puppet?
Atlanta Shore from Stingray.
Honestly. Smart, funny, cultured, capable and she looks like this too. Why would Troy Tempest choose Marina over her?!
272. Do you remember Spangles?
Yes – they were always my favourite one in those Mars selection boxes with the spiral-eyed stylised reindeer on the front, and I was always a bit surprised they became so ‘nobody remembers this!!’. They aren’t the Striper Bar.
The Striper Bar was a multicoloured and ostensibly multi-flavoured early eighties chew bar made by – I think – Rowntree Mackintosh that also came with its own free comic distributed to newsagents, in which a gang of ‘Keep Fit’-attired youngsters used their fondness for the Striper to, erm, do stuff? Anyway, Spangles. You remember them.
278. Who was your favourite McWhirter twin?
Norris, but only because of the Fist Of Fun sketch with Simon Quinlank tormenting him by phoning him at 3am and asking what is the biggest leaf. He’d have loved what was going on right now, the fascist git.
In retrospect I do actually find it more than a little sinister that someone so closely and openly involved with a dubious right-wing pressure group with some actually quite alarming aims and intentions should have been allowed anywhere near children’s television, and frankly Simon Quinlank did not go far enough in my opinion. There will be some slightly fonder memories of Record Breakers shortly in case you were about to start complaining that I was ruining your childhood, but in the meantime, further concern was expressed about Norris when Joanne Sheppard talked about The Guinness Book Of Pet Records on Looks Unfamiliar here.
279. What hotly anticipated event or moment was the biggest let-down?
On an entirely superficial level, This Life + 10. There was no excuse for it being that bad, and it came very close to tainting the original.
When I did a marathon rewatch of the whole of This Life – you can find highlights from my observations on that here – I intentionally omitted This Life + 10 as I hate it that much. And I even rewatched Inhumans when I did a Marvel Cinematic Universe rewatch, and if you’ve heard this then you’ll know just how much I thought of that. Nobody asked for it, nobody wanted it and nobody liked it.
283. Who would you place in the inner circle of hell?
He’s probably already there but Jimmy Savile. In a sense he’s partly responsible for what’s happened since and I think if he could see the chaos that he caused, he’d probably be quite pleased.
287. What is the strangest statue you’ve ever seen?
Not strangest as such, but well worth worth mentioning – I saw the Robert Pershing Wadlow statue from Record Breakers in ‘person’ once.
Robert Pershing Wadlow was an incredibly tall American who briefly became a celebrity in the 1930s purely on account of his height. Standing at eight feet and eleven inches, he remains the record holder for the World’s Tallest Man, and the BBC children’s show Record Breakers once commemorated this achievement with Roy Castle singing a spectacularly convoluted song whilst tap-dancing and trumpet playing around a lifesize statue of him, which later toured a number of children’s television-related exhibitions. Despite presumably only being broadcast once, the song seems to have indelibly imprinted itself onto the memory of anyone who saw it. Was he as big as the biggest leaf, though?
291. If you could talk to the animals, what would you say to them?
“Nigel Farage stole all your food and said you can’t have any more”.
295. What is your favourite cover of a David Bowie song?
If you don’t count Lou Reed/Iggy Pop/Mott The Hoople/Dana Gillespie etc, as technically they weren’t strictly ‘covers’, I’m going to go for Saint Etienne’s take on Absolute Beginners. At least they tried to do something different with it.
Actually, there’s a little more to it than that. Although the studio recording wouldn’t see release until the excellent Boxette compilation in 2007, Saint Etienne performed Absolute Beginners – which, at that point, was still one of Bowie’s most neglected songs – as part of the set on their joint tour with Pulp early in 1993; reputedly, this recording was shelved because they felt it hadn’t quite captured the thrill of those live shows. It’s easy to see why they might have felt like this, as I was at one of those shows and it really did feel like the beginning of something exciting. Little did we know just how big everything – and Pulp in particular – would get. I went to that gig with someone who I’d literally only just watched my off-air of the Channel 4 broadcast of Absolute Beginners from (I think) 1991 with, so it was all quite the moment for several reasons. There’s more about her here. Meanwhile, if you want to read a very passionately argued feature all about exactly why I love the Absolute Beginners soundtrack so much, then that can be found here.
310. Did you have a sticker album or collect PG Tips cards? Can you still remember the ones you never acquired?
The middle of the Sail Barge from the Panini Return Of The Jedi sticker album. The album itself is long gone but I still want to find that sticker.
From the responses to this, it seems that a lot of people had trouble finding this particular sticker – and the left hand side of the Heart Of Midlothian team shot – or, if you will, Half Of Midlothian – in recurring instances of the Football sticker album for some reason – almost as if Ian Panini had deliberately held random ones back from distribution so that you’d keep on buying packs of stickers and accumulating vast acres of ‘swaps’ and eventually have to write off to that address in the back of the album where you could fork out hard-earned cash for the ones you needed to complete the collection. Incidentally there’s lots of sticker collecting-related fun in Looks Unfamiliar with Pete Prodge here.
329. What is the funniest moment of real life slapstick you have witnessed?
When a Saturday Boy in a Mr Wimpy costume was upended by exuberant youngsters outside the Wimpy restaurant adjacent to Liverpool Central, and started rolling down Ranelagh Street with increasing momentum.
It is possible that the youngster in the overly padded beefeater outfit was in fact making a desperate bid to escape his cruel Shanty Brunch-toting paymasters and heading for the sanctuary of, I don’t know, the 147 Snooker Club or something, but it probably was just down to inadequately supervised hijinks and horseplay. You don’t get THAT with Pret A Manger.
333. What is the worst Adam Sandler film?
Mixed Nuts, a mid-nineties Christmas film he was in just before becoming massive. I love a good bad Christmas movie but that’s almost painful to watch.
No, I really do love a good bad Christmas movie. You can find out about some of my favourite examples of the ‘genre’, from sci-fi tinged children’s eco-weirdness The Christmas Martian and spinoff from The Dukes Of Hazzard in all but name Christmas Comes To Willow Creek to the truly alarming Christmas On Division Street – literally halfway between The Wonder Years and The Wire – here.
334. If you had to make up a superhero, what would their name and superpower be?
I once asked this question on a date to someone who answered without hesitation that she would be SinkUnblocker Woman. I can’t beat that.
Sadly, I never did have to ask her to unblock a sink.
341. What’s the absolute worst thing about the film Sliding Doors?
All of the people who for years afterwards went around describing all manner of situations that bore no relation to the plot of the film whatsoever as ‘my Sliding Doors moment’.
Well this is absolutely true, isn’t it? In order to have an actual ‘Sliding Doors moment’, you would have to be able to experience two branched realities at once, and one would have to be a change as dramatic as say, being bitten by a radioactive pig, only caused by something as mundane as going for Mellow Birds instead of Maxwell House, kind of like if in 8 Ball by N.W.A Eazy-E had just bought two bottles on his first visit to the store and then absolutely nothing whatsoever had happened, and then the Time Variance Authority would come and get you anyway, not some waffle about how special you are for having to consciously choose between two equally desirable high-powered high-paying jobs. Anyway, I hated The Boat That Rocked more.
374. What would you invent to make the world a better place?
389. What is the best book you have ever read?
I wrote about some of them here, but if I was pushed I would have to say the Fist Of Fun book. Every corner of every page still makes me laugh even all this time later. Even curmudgeonly Nigel Rees would have to admit it’s good.
This might look like an affected answer but I can assure you it’s the absolute truth and in fact some of the responses to this did make me wonder if everyone who likes comedy has their own tie-in book that acts in a similar capacity for them personally. There were obviously a lot of mentions of the Monty Python and The Goodies books, but also a lot of less well-known choices like Harry Hill’s Fun Book, The Adam And Joe Book, Week Ending: The Cabinet Leaks and Best Seller! The Life And Death Of Eric Pode Of Croydon. Obviously it would be surprisingly if anyone nominated The Hale And Pace Book Of Writes And Rons or Wad And Peeps, but you never know.
402. Have you ever met a shepherd?
I’ve met Richard Herring, who was Percy The Shepherd in Servants. And invented the Emergency Question. In fact, this is the response he was angling for, isn’t it.
Apparently this ‘didn’t cross my mind’!
413. What’s the most inexplicable thing that you have ever seen in the sky?
A could formation in the shape of the face of Rockin’ Jeff from The Pasadenas, hovering above Runcorn Bridge in 1989. Its purpose has yet to be revealed.
Quite what message the Tribute (Right On) hitmaker has to impart to us remains a mystery, but the faithful continue to await the ancient wisdom he will divulge.
420. What’s the strangest thing that you have seen in a Post Office?
In the very first episode of Camberwick Green, Peter Hazel The Postman and Mrs. Dingle The Postmistress do a dance to celebrate sorting the post. It never happens again.
That very first episode of Camberwick Green, with its many slight but jarring differences to anything that happened in all of the others, is a source of immense fascination for me, especially as it was actually a remake of a long-lost original black and white version, which reputedly includes even more differences, and which was shown almost a dozen times in the sixties and then never seen again once colour television became the norm. You will probably not be particularly surprised to find out I’ve written a lot more about all of this here.
425. Do you remember Barnaby The Bear?
The French animation shown in the Watch With Mother slot with music like a Carry On film run amok about a bear that looked like a cake and left his house by the window to put on a cardboard beak and become King Of The Birds? Yes. It was called Barnaby.
For a series where the one thing that pretty much everyone remembers about it is that the title song involved him vigorously insisting that everyone calls him by the correct name, an ironic amount of them also seem to get the title wrong. I have an only half-joking theory about Barnaby being some sort of para-dimensional gateway to an elevated plane of temporal and spatial awareness that the human mind has yet to unlock, and I do actually go into some detail about this in Can’t Help Thinking About Me. I’m not sure that would actually convince anyone to read it, but you can find it here regardless.
427. What’s the best thing you ever found down the back of a sofa?
A tie between a movie tie-in paperback of Live And Let Die and what looked like a very sensitive Security Pass.
How a full-sized paperback managed to make its way down the back of a sofa -intact – is anyone’s guess, but this was a very welcome find indeed. The pass had a high quality computer printed image of a faintly European-looking woman on it rather than a stuck-on photo at a time when that was still a technologically impressive rarity, was thick enough to incorporate a microchip, and had all manner of mysterious numbers and initials on it, provoking concern that if it wasn’t immediately disposed of, The Company from Heroes might turn up at any minute and at the very least taser the copy of Live And Let Die. It probably was just a photocopier card with ideas above its station, but it wasn’t worth taking any chances on that.
434. Why can’t Flake, Twirl and Ripple settle their differences and become one chocolate bar?
Because of the subtle yet fundamental aesthetic differences between the three. Also, they all know in their heart of chocolate hearts that they will never be Spira.
Judging from the response to this, there are a LOT of people out there who would like to see Spira make a comeback. And taste Spira make a comeback too, presumably. Wikipedia claims that Spira was replaced by Twirl in 2005 as part of a ‘branding exercise’, which sounds more than a little dubious, not least because nobody in their right mind would ever choose a Twirl over a Spira.
435. What’s the most unusual thing you have ever seen being carried into or out of a house?
A giant framed photo of Archie Andrews and Peter Brough.
The ‘Didn’t Happen’ boys got a bit hot under the collar about this one too. But if you wanted proof…
441. If you could swap a TV series that went on for too long for one that was cancelled too soon, which would you choose?
I’d happily swap the last season of The West Wing for another run of Agent Carter. Or the entirety of EastEnders with The Tripods.
Agent Carter – a sadly all too brief series following the fortunes of Peggy Carter after the events of Captain America: The First Avenger, in which after more of less winning the Second World War on her own she is expected to return quietly to a world where dames does the filing and respectable young women must be back in their place of residence at a respectable hour, despite there being billions of Cold War steampunk plots to thwart with the debatable assistance of Howard Stark – was a belting show that deserved much better and you can hear me and Hanna Flint talking about how much we love it here. Apparently the final season of The West Wing – based almost entirely around new characters – has its admirers and it does indeed have its moments but it always felt like as massive a comedown as the one Arnold Vinick experiences after the election and it never really felt like it belonged alongside the other toweringly good ones. Also it had less malevolent alien sludge in it.
442. If you found Ed Miliband’s ‘Ed Stone’, what would you use it for?
I’d make Boris Johnson carry it out of 10 Downing Street on his back the day we finally get him out of there.
444. What thing would you most like to win that you have only lost so far?
It doesn’t seem likely as it’s such a good quiz, but I would love to legitimately score twenty out of twenty on the excellent Plenty Questions. 17 today!
Plenty Questions was a daily podcast hosted by Lucy Porter and Justin Edwards, which posed twenty general knowledge questions each morning; it was one of many initiatives launched as a benevolent way of providing everyone with distraction and entertainment during the first lockdown, and I have to admit it did a good deal to keep me sane at certain points. Never underestimate the power of a bit of engaging fun first thing in the morning while the news is trying to shout at you the whole time.
457. Have you ever seen a Leprechaun? What about the film Leprechaun?
I have seen the film Leprechaun in the cinema.
Leprechaun is a 1993 American comedy horror movie starring Jennifer Aniston and Warrick Davies, concerning the titular nasty’s quest to avenge the theft of his pot of gold; originally it was intended as a serious straight horror effort but the cast felt that the script left them with no option but to camp it up in order to have anything to work with at all. It was also so lacking in genuine shocks and scares that it ended up being certified 15 at a time when the British Board Of Film Classification would take pretty much any excuse to bump pretty much anything up to an 18 and then prohibit it from home video release. Despite being critically reviled, it proved enough of a tongue-in-cheek success to inspire a long series of sequels; Jennifer was mysteriously too busy to participate from the second one onwards, though it’s worth reminding her of the first one next time she mouths off about Spider-Man: Far From Home or whatever. Needless to say, it’s the textbook example of a film that became a word-of-mouth cult success when it was released on home video, but there were still some who willingly paid good money to see it in a cinema.
459. Do you have a favourite dinosaur? Not a species, an individual dinosaur.
Technically, Godzilla is a dinosaur according to some of the films (and Steven Spielberg), so that’s definitely my answer. But only the Hanna-Barbera cartoon version of Godzilla with his scientist sidekick Brock, which is definitely canon.
This answer was partly influenced by a mischievous determination to annoy some of my Godzilla-loving friends, who are united in their belief that the the Hanna-Barbera cartoon should be set to one side at best; however it’s also true to say that I loved that cartoon as a youngster who didn’t know any Gojira-skewed better, and I’m actually quite keen to defend the ridiculous additional characters that were brought in to make off-script animated adaptations more appealing to younger viewers who just wanted to be entertained and had no interested in being weighed down with continuity, as you can read much more about here. I do have a difficult time not drawing the line at Godzooky though. That all said, if I was answering again now I would probably opt for Old Lace from Marvel’s Runaways, a little-seen corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe which you can hear much more about here – and which, wouldn’t you know it, has fan-perplexing continuity issues all of its own…
463. Would you rather be Paul McCartney for a day, or Ringo Starr for a lifetime?
Macca, all the way. The man wrote Spies Like Us. Also, I could listen to Carnival Of Light without anyone saying ‘best not to, I think it’ll be rubbish – me, I think that!’.
Spies Like Us is Paul McCartney’s theme from the underrated 1985 comedy movie of the same name, and is enjoyably and deliberately silly at the same time as being a massive Stadium Rock clap-along. It puts more of a smile on your face than Imagine, put it that way. Carnival Of Light is a legendary unreleased experimental electronic Beatles track from early 1967, played on a loop at an arts ‘happening’ and then mysteriously never heard in public again. While it divides the few people who actually have heard it, there are also a bewildering amount of people who affect not to be interested in it but seem to want nobody else to be able to hear it either (“probably best left in the vaults eh?”) for that exact same reason. Needless to say I am not one of that shower, and firmly believe that anyone who doesn’t at least consider it an interesting part of The Beatles’ story doesn’t really understand just how key the mid-sixties London arts scene was to their massive artistic leaps forward from Revolver onwards. I inevitably had much more to say about Carnival Of Light here.
474. Which celebrity were you surprised to find out was older than another celebrity?
If it counts, I’m still bewildered even now that Jeremy Corbyn is exactly the same age as Pam Grier.
Honestly, this is absolutely one hundred percent true. I know it doesn’t seem to make any logical sense, but look it up if you don’t believe me. You can find out what happened when I accidentally pitted them against each other in a Top Trumps-style scenario here.
481. Which kid at your school had the worst school bag?
Any that had one of those bags that just said ‘SPORT’, usually in Mexico ’86 lettering, with images of an assortment of random sports equipment. You never saw bags that just said ‘POP MUSIC’ or ‘FILMS’.
This attracted a lot of flak from people who were aggrieved that I was making fun of low income families who couldn’t afford the big flashy bags. No I wasn’t, I just find the idea of bags saying ‘SPORT’ on them amusing. Anyway, you should have seen how dreadful the school bags I had were.
482. Is Improvisation My Dear Mark Watson the worst title for a TV show ever or can you think of a worse one?
Watt On Earth.
Watt On Earth was an early nineties children’s BBC sci-fi sitcom written by Doctor Who veterans Pip and Jane Baker about an alien called Watt who was on Earth. I have no real issue with the quality of the content of the programme itself, but as a dreadful title, that really does take some beating.
484. Are you able to prove to me that Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake are not actually the same person?
They were profiled separately in the BBC Schools programme Watch, which frankly makes that distinction cold hard historical fact.
The only thing that I really remember from either of the above is that one of them featured a fairly racially insensitive description of an encounter with some Inuit people – no, they didn’t refer to them as ‘Inuit’ – although a quick bit of research suggests that this may actually have been a section about Martin Frobisher, who was very much the File Under Easy Listening of the big three explorers. This is surprising, as I loved Watch and tend to recall the various other modules in terrifyingly intricate detail. Especially the celebrated one investigating the real life events behind the Nativity, which I wrote a suitably celebatory feature about here.
491. What TV programmes do you remember that no-one else remembers?
Oh boy, where do I even start with this…
You may have noticed I have many answers to this question and normally do not even wait to be asked it. My usual preferred answer however is Rubovia, the almost entirely forgotten ‘fourth’ instalment in the Camberwick Green/Trumpton/Chigley saga. If you don’t believe me, there’s a whole feature about it here…
497. What is the most embarrassing injury you’ve ever had?
I once broke my foot arguing about Noddy Holder.
I absolutely and steadfastly refuse to explain the story behind this, as the mass incomprehension whenever I mention it is simply too entertaining.
504. Where did it all go wrong?
I don’t really want to get into yet another debate I didn’t ask for about my thoughts on this, and this is neither the platform nor the wordcount to go into my feelings about post-Diana enforced mourning, Noel Gallagher’s ‘catch AIDS and die’ outburst or Gordon Brown’s encounter with that woman who threw an almighty tantrum about being labelled a bigot and then gleefully indulged in pantomime bigotry on any given subject whenever the news media waved a camera under her nose, so instead I’m just going to say how much I enjoyed Where Did It All Go Right? by Andrew Collins. It is mah favourite book.
If you must, you can find some more profoundly expressed reflections on the weird mood policing that clouded the latter half of 1997, and the detrimental effect that this may well have had in the long term, here, though all things considered I’d rather you had a look at this feature on some of the books that have had the greatest influence on me as a writer – including the collected ‘remember’ings of Andrew Collins – here. I also hope Richard saw this and thought “it is mah favourite answer”.
530. Do you remember Murphy’s Mob?
Yes, I most certainly do, and I wrote about the most potent image from it – the obscene graffiti that inexplicably appeared in the closing titles – here.
531. Have you ever done Camp America?
No, but a friend from University and another from school who didn’t know each other did Camp America at the same place at the same time, and wound up sharing a room by complete chance. One night, while dreadfully homesick and sharing memories of childhood television favourites, they found themselves both talking about this guy they knew who knew all of the words to all of the songs from Trumpton…
You can find more about this – and many other stories like it – in Can’t Help Thinking About Me here. Come on, I’ve gone on about Trumpton enough already!
533. Are you annoyed that the film Das Boot isn’t about a boot?
No, but it has always annoyed me that the rave version of the Das Boot theme by U96 includes the word ‘techno’ in amongst all the robot-voiced nautical terminology for no reason.
Even allowing for the ridiculous excesses of the early nineties craze for slapping film and television themes over the top of generic ‘rave’ beats, Klaus Doldinger’s main title from the acclaimed 1981 German drama about the crew of a Second World War submarine was something of an outlandish choice but it really, really works. Until it says ‘techno’, which doesn’t fit and was presumably only included in case some ravers got confused and started waltzing to the theme from Go To Fight Some Old instead.
547. What are Spider-Man’s main strengths?
His Spider-Sense, enhanced reflexes and agility, and augmented physical strength obviously. What kind of a question even is this? Can you name Spider-Woman‘s main strengths?
Well if we’re talking about Jessica Drew, it’s essentially the same but with some subtle differences, and she can also secrete pheromones and expel bio-shock energy. If you mean Julia Carpenter, Mattie Franklin or Gwen Stacy, though – Peni Parker never actually called herself ‘Spider-Woman’, and that Skrull who swapped places with Jessica for a bit doesn’t really count – well… how long have you got? Anyway, you won’t be too surprised after all that to learn that I’m a huge fan of the various iterations of Spider-Woman, and particularly loved the long-forgotten early eighties cartoon based on the Jessica Drew version. Which in fact you can hear me talking about when I appeared as the guest on Looks Unfamiliar here.
579. What’s the most valuable thing that you’ve ever had in your possession only to discard it?
I once found the legendary prog rock album Growers Of Mushroom by Leafhound for 50p in a charity shop. I put it back because I thought the cover art looked awful. It’s now worth £5000.
In my defence, that really is a bad cover. Are they supposed to be on Jackanory or something? Meanwhile, if you want to hear about some albums that I discovered in charity shops and actually bought because their covers were mindblowing – and it thankfully turned out that the music was too – then you can find that here.
591. Who or what is your favourite Jacob or Jacobs?
The baffling original flavour iterations of Jacob’s Club: Golf Ball, Play Your Cards Right, Marijuana and ‘Club’.
Sorry, but none of your joke-scuppering attempts to ‘explain’ this bewildering array of mismatched flavours and images with logic actually work. They all fall down on at least one count.
586. What’s the most obscure Australian soap opera that you can still sing most of the theme lyrics of?
The Henderson Kids, Home and – if it counts – Secret Valley. The instrumental theme music from Adventures On Kythera is more obscure than the lot, though.
The Henderson Kids was a seemingly eon-long serial starring Paul Smith and Nadine Garner as two siblings – with a pre-Neighbours Kylie Minogue in a supporting role – carrying on together every single day and every step of the way in their attempts to prevent a local developer from getting his hands on their family’s land. Home (Home! Home! on the other si-ide) followed the emotional trials and tribulations of a group of children in a foster home. Adventures On Kythera concerned a gaggle of Australian ex-pats on a Greek island with a theme tune that suggested the writer may have been familiar with the late seventies BBC serial Who Pays The Ferryman?; the lead characters were all rampaging adolescents and, hilariously, Rebekah Elmaloglou went through a continuity-confounding growth spurt mid-production. More of a comedy drama, Secret Valley was about another group of kids who had constructed an elaborate setup of treehouses and rope bridges on another piece of land threatened by another developer. The theme song was sung to the tune of Waltzing Matilda and, if you’ll indulge me, “I had a dream I could ride across the mountaintops/ride on the waves where the sea turns blue/gum trees, some trees/rise up till they touch the sky/I know a place where it all comes true/I know a valley, I know a valley/my Secret Valley the world has to see/one place for children welcome from around the world/please come and share Secret Valley with me/Paris, London, Montreal and Amsterdam/so many friends that we want to know/from the hills of Spain and the city streets of Germany/I know a place where we all can go/I know a valley, I know a valley/my Secret Valley the world has to see/one place for children welcome from around the world/please come and share Secret Valley – with meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”.
592. Is there a TV theme that haunts you?
The slow version of the World In Action theme from the closing titles. As a note to leave on after shouty men on washed-out grainy 16mm film had been trying to tell you that the world was worse than it actually was, it was hardly exactly The Sun Has Got His Hat On.
There was a bit of a trend in the seventies for using ominous organ-driven prog rock broadsides to add a bit of gravitas to current affairs programmes. Well, either that or hoodwink some inattentive freakout-seeking hippies into watching. Weekend World and Credo were other similarly conspicuous examples. Will Maclean had plenty to say about this phenomenon in Looks Unfamiliar here.
650. Which Amazon search has led to the most annoying suggestions of what you might like to buy?
When Bob Fischer appeared on Looks Unfamiliar, he wanted to talk about some of the in actuality quite innocent ‘adult’ titles that used to be on offer in those book club adverts you got in magazines like TV Times. I looked a couple of them up on Amazon for research and had dreadful-looking self-published porn punted at me for weeks…
You can find Bob’s tales of all those peculiar books with ‘Caution – Explicit Content’ slapped across them here. I’m not risking looking any of them up again.
675. What’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever witnessed but not participated in?
Given how much misery and pessimism there is – understandably – at the moment, I thought I’d the story of possibly the weirdest thing I have ever seen. And that’s quite a high bar. So one day I was sitting on a park bench reading and minding my own business in almost total peace, quiet, solitude and silence. Twittering birds, overcast sunshine, that kind of thing. Aware of some people at the fringes of my eyeline but only vaguely. All of a sudden, up jumps some character in a ‘Swinging London’-style suit and a top hat – essentially cosplaying as Number 48 from The Prisoner – vigorously twirling a baton and shouting “ONE! TWO! THREE!”. Suddenly loads of people in Victorian Military/Quality Street gear jumped out from bushes and behind walls and pillars brandishing brass and percussion instruments, striking up a severely out-of-tune rendition of Ain’t Got No, I Got Life from Hair. They marched up and down the park, with their top-hatted leader occasionally throwing in ad-hoc shouts of “Oi!” as they played on relentless. A uniformed ‘Parkie’ then started chasing them waving his fist and berating the young ruffians but apparently couldn’t catch up. I watched in complete astonishment, trying to figure out what was going on. Then they marched straight past me, shouted ‘Aye Aye, Booky!’, and disappeared over the horizon. I never, ever found out what was going on or why the park-keeper was so irate. No website, no news reports, nothing on MySpace or YouTube (and believe me, I looked)… what on EARTH were they up to? If any of you are reading this, please tell me. I still want to know.
680. What is your favourite unsolved crime?
The Max Headroom Broadcast Signal Intrusion from 1987. Simultaneously hilarious and terrifying and I would love to know who it was, how they did it and how they got away with it. And why.
Mentioning this always brings out three categories of responders that I’d probably rather not have to hear from – the ones who intently ‘explain’ that this was during a transmission of the Doctor Who story Horror Of Fang Rock, the ones drawing their big pyramid graphs of the ‘Great Reset’ or something and the ones who passive-aggressively suggest to me that if it’s not too much trouble I might like to make a television documentary solving the mystery for them personally – but there’s always also an overwhelming response from others who simply just find it fascinating in its own right. It’s the weird collision of analogue and putative mock-digital technology that really makes it such a compelling mystery – that and the fact it was essentially a victimless ‘crime’ done as something somewhere between performance art and a prank that must have taken either astonishing ingenuity or an ad-hoc fluke to pull off – I can never decide which is more thrilling – and which must have been absolutely straightforward to trace the source of, and yet the perpetrators were never identified. I remain convinced that they are hiding in plain sight, adding to the scraps of available information and laughing to themselves. Oh, alright, to them-THEM-themselves.
720. What is the most archaic music format you remember unironicaliy using?
I was very keen on MiniDisc, which I will admit that I even actively preferred to CDR as a making-your-own-albums format. I also had a battery-powered portable DAB radio and frankly I wish they still made Creative Zen MP3 players. I do not have a strong track record here.
Thankfully, unlike the Guardians Of The Galaxy, I never actually went as far as stuffing a Zune full of seventies soft-rock classics; however, you can find the edition of my Marvel Cinematic Universe podcast It’s Good, Except It Sucks on the Zune-heavy Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – which, despite what Star-Lord may have to say on the matter, actually edges out Footloose as the greatest movie of all time – here.
723. Have you ever been up on the roof?
The I’ve been on the rooftop of 30 Rock. That’s a pretty high roof if you ask me. Where, spookily, I saw what appeared to be The Symbol from Heroes…
This probably needs explaining now, doesn’t it? ‘The Symbol’ was a mysterious recurring feature in Heroes, particularly in the superior first series, where it haunted the young superpowered types by repeatedly appearing in adverts, cloud formations, plates of pasta etc. An explanation was promised, but thanks to everything falling apart behind the scenes, it never arrived. Heroes was of course made by NBC, and in the absence of any other available rational explanation, I am choosing to believe Nathan Petrelli flew up and put this there.
749. Who is your favourite carpenter?
Nibs Minton from Trumpton. He always spots what’s happened and figures out a solution before the adults, despite their continual talking down to him, and his dad being a bit of a proto-UKIP prat.
Chippy Minton may well have liked his job as a carpenter, there might genuinely have been nothing he’d rather be, and nobody is disputing that he’s had his tools for many a year and they are all good friends to him, but even so it’s actually quite alarming in retrospect to see the high-handed bloke’s bloke attitude he takes to everyone else, the condescending manner in which he addresses his wife, and the cut out ‘glamour’ snaps of bathing beauties on his workshop wall. It’s no wonder Nibs strove to be the complete opposite. In fact I wrote about the episode of Trumpton where the phone lines get tangled up and Nibs – as ever – figures out what to do when even the GPO engineers are too busy arguing here.
768. Which Quality Street chocolate would you abolish?
I’d get rid of the Toffee Finger. It’s the worst of all worlds – the two constituent elements do not really work together, and NOBODY ever takes them, and they just end up in a sad little scattered pile as the very last remnants of the tin. A literal waste of space. In its place, I’d bring back Coffee Cream.
This proved to be quite a controversial answer, and there’s nothing further that can really be added, so instead here’s another question – there’s often a disclaimer on the likes of Quality Street and Roses advising that ‘Occasionally it may be necessary to replace a sweet with one of equally high quality’. Has anyone ever actually seen this happen? More to the point, how are they able to ascertain and measure ‘quality’ in a product that is literally marketed on the basis that everyone has their own personal individual favourites?
843. What is the most disappointing TV quiz show based board game you have ever played?
The QI game was definitely a very expensive case of style over substance. An enormous amount of presentation and very little actual gameplay.
It seems I wasn’t alone in thinking this. QI Elf Lydia Mizon joined me on Looks Unfamiliar here and, while recalling her own favourite childhood board game Party Mania, revealed a few quite interesting facts about just how popular the QI game actually was…
855. What do you wish had never been invented?
Rolling News. The second that started, politicians and ‘opinion makers’ stopped knowing their place, and look where that’s got us.
This may not necessarily be a popular opinion but it is one that I am absolutely unshakeable on. What’s more, I genuinely believe that the rot only set in once politicians started invading Twitter, and saw it not as a relative level playing field for people who were willing to engage with each other on a reasonably decent level but as somewhere they had a right to pontificate at – rather than with – all of us with all the grace, humility and engagement of U2 threatening a new tour. More about my thoughts on how to play nice on Twitter here, incidentally.
909. What is the greatest misuse of time travel you have ever witnessed?
The time travel storyline in Lost, which ended up having absolutely nothing at all to do with anything whatsoever.
I am genuinely still quite angry about the ending of Lost, which waved away a lot of key and longstanding questions that the production team had repeatedly assured everyone would be fully and properly answered with a load of pseudo-spiritual twaddle about magic wine, and which finally confirmed that they had simply enjoyed stringing viewers along for six years by thinking up wild narrative conceits that they never had any intention of explaining, and so long as they got the ratings they just didn’t care. What’s more, there was a concerted effort on their part immediately after the finale was transmitted to dismiss anyone muttering ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated brackets smoke monster’ as not proper fans who were spoiling the fun for everyone else etc etc. In a sense, it’s the narrative equivalent of when someone brings their friend from work along on a night out who keeps going on about this really good place they know, right, that you won’t have heard of that you should all go to and they know how to get to it and it’s really good and so on and so on until once you’re all outside the place where you were all having a perfectly good time it becomes rapidly clear that they neither know nor care about what they were enthusiastically proposing only three minutes ago and are smug and obnoxious with it and just sort of grin vacantly into the middle distance until everyone else figures out something else to do instead. Given that we keep voting in the political equivalent of this, too, it’s no wonder that so many apparently felt so satisfied with the wishy washy just because explanations. Anyway, if you want to know how to do an ending properly, then I’ve written about my ten favourite examples of just that here.
947. What is the best ice lolly?
Using the broader definition to encompass ice cream-based lollies, then historically it’s Wall’s Mint Feast, and nowadays the Mint Magnum. You may be detecting a theme there.
Exactly as with Spira and Sizzlin’Bacon Monster Munch, Wall’s (Big) Feast is yet another example of a much-loved and enduring confectionary previously available in several other varieties that a lot of people seem to miss but nobody seems to be interested in bringing back to meet that demand. Probably something about non-milk fat economies of scale. Anyway, if you have a listen to the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with comedian Ros Ballinger here, you can find some chat about a long-lost ice lolly that we couldn’t actually identify. Is anyone able to put a name to it?
1001. Please write your own Emergency Question here.
What bizarre things weren’t you allowed as a youngster? I’ll set a high bar with Parma Violets.
For reasons I have never really been able to figure out, this went absolutely berserk, going viral for days on end and eventually generating over two thousand retweets, four thousand replies, and three thousand likes. The main observations to draw from this are that a staggering number of youngsters were not allowed to own a Mr. Frosty or watch ITV, that parents mistakenly assumed en masse that Dirty Dancing was some variety of hardcore filth, and that there are a depressing amount of you out there who believe it is the height of wit to respond ‘cocaines lol’ or ‘nuclear missile lol’. Also it got caught up in some weird accusations of male privilege or something, about which the less said the better. Anyway, this all got so wild that I eventually had to uninstall Twitter for a couple of days just so the notifications didn’t drive me insane, but the real credit for this Swizzle-tastic outbreak of popularity must go to Richard Herring himself – so why not get ahead of the Cool Kids and bag yourself a copy of the forthcoming Would You Rather? here…
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You can get both Emergency Questions books together with Christmas Emergency Questions as a stupendously cheap three-book bundle from Chris Evans (not that one, or the one from the Captain America films) at Go Faster Stripe here.
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Come With Me Now, Into The Swirling Mists Of Human Inadequacy… is a feature on the story behind Richard Herring and Stewart Lee’s early BBC radio comedy show Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World; you can find it here.
The Christmas Special of Lee And Herring‘s Radio 1 show was one of Phil Catterall’s choices on a special seasonal edition of Looks Unfamiliar; you can find it here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.