TV’s Newest Series

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One thing 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-patterened 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 UFO, Jason 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 Saturday Night schedules with Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons and The Prisoner.

Times change, though, and nowadays even the biggest and boringest of TV 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. In crimefighting terms, that makes him about as useful as Nathan Petrelli.

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 stuff 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.

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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 basically 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. And they were given all 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 Gate, Neither 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…

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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 winsome 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”.

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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 unhinged 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 – it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that they might have been tuning in.

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 some 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.

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”.

Back at the lodge, Claire, Sadie and Jean are busily comparing notes about Bobbie’s disappearance, Gruff’s disappearance and their 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.

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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 skies 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.

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 skiiers, before pausing, grinning at the camera in close-up, and whizzing off across the horizon into the invisible distance… and that’s Skiboy.

Never exactly the star of the TV 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 the likes of 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 sociolcultural 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 Blaise, Vampyros 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.

 

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