Friday, November 17, 2006

What Happened Next?

When I was fourteen, I got locked out of my house. It sounds like a stupid mistake, but it was quite understandable given the circumstances. You see, I was in shock.

That afternoon, I had spent a largely pleasant time in the company of M and his sister E. My mother was in the process of decorating the house and none of the upstairs doors had handles fitted. To get into each room you had to perform a manoeuvre that involved pressing down on the metal bar from the handle mechanism and twisting it to the right. Looking back, it might have been better if my mother had just removed the doors completely, but then that’s hindsight for you.

At the time, I had two of the upstairs rooms to myself. The front room was my bedroom. It literally just had a bed and a wardrobe inside. The back room was like some sort of teenage bachelor pad. It had a television (of course), a music system, computer games and piles of magazines.

M and I had been happily playing Subbuteo in the back room while E looked on. We were in the middle of the TV Stars World Cup - a competition devised by the two of us that involved naming the little plastic players after television personalities. It added a new dimension to the game. We even had a draw after each round of the competition. We would take turns to choose pieces of paper out of M’s shoe. This would lead to such unlikely match-ups as The Bill versus Good Morning With Anne And Nick. I seem to remember DI Burnside committing a violent professional foul on Anne Diamond that led to his sending-off. I also recollect Gloria Hunniford being flicked into one side of the goal post, resulting in one of her legs snapping off. You don’t see that during Soccer Six. Unfortunately.

So M and I were engrossed in our tournament. We were commentating on the proceedings in the guise of our alter-egos Jimmy and Ralph (they just seemed like typical commentator names at the time) and having a generally enjoyable time.

But then E started kicking me, and giggled each time. Now, I’ll admit it, I wasn’t wise to the flirting techniques of teenage girls at the time. I saw it as a gross invasion of my privacy (after all, Elton Welsby never had to put up with behaviour like that on ITV‘s Results Service) and asked her to desist. This, inevitably, made her do it even more frequently.

After some time, I stood up and retired to my bedroom. Teenage girls sure know how to kick hard, and I was coming out in bruises. Next thing I knew, E had followed me in and the door slammed behind her. I heard an evil cackle of laughter from outside the door as M removed the metal bar from the door. I was trapped.

I’ll level with you all, I was a bit scared. E began telling me that she had fancied me for ages and wanted to ask me out. Typical me, I presumed she was taking the piss. I was still in my slightly chubby phase and was rather confused as to why anybody would find me attractive. It didn’t help that M had started playing the third disc from Status Quo’s From The Makers Of… box set at full volume in the other room. That’s enough to make anybody have trouble thinking.

And then it happened. As M bellowed along to the lyrics of Roll Over Lay Down (probably while strumming along on a tennis racquet), I found myself being pushed against the chimney breast by E who then proceeded to snog my face off.

Now I’m not one to brag, but E was regarded as one of the hottest girls in our year. I didn’t actually agree with this critique (I much preferred VP or JD) but I suddenly felt a sense of pride that the unlikeliest boy in the entire school was kissing the girl that everybody else wanted. However, it then hit me; “nobody’s going to believe me” (and indeed, nobody did believe me until E verified my claim at my infamous house party of 1997 - some three years later - but more on that at a later date).

I pushed E away from me and we both stood there, staring at each other. The silence was interrupted by M “unlocking” the door and bursting into the room for an impromptu air guitar performance of the solo from Don’t Drive My Car. E shouted at him and chased him downstairs. I followed close behind. Our chase spilled out on to the driveway. Without thinking, I slammed the front door behind me. I didn’t have my keys on me and my mother had gone shopping at B&Q then on to a restaurant (well, it makes a change from dinner and a show I suppose). As the opening bars of Over The Edge boomed from upstairs, I knew I had made a grave mistake.

It was then that the three of us burst into uncontrollable laughter. All stress and confusion was forgotten and M said that I could go to his house up the road until my mother returned home.

When we arrived at Chez M, E made her excuses and retired to her room. We never spoke about the matter again, even though we later had Welsh lessons together (literally, there were only three of us in the class) on a daily basis for two years. M, however, was in the mood for more sporting action. This meant only one thing: A Question Of Sport - The Board Game.

I loved A Question Of Sport. I may not have been able to answer a lot of the questions, but I loved the atmosphere generated by the panel game. I enjoyed the locker-room mentality of the contestants and the stern manner in which David Coleman held the show together. He was like a strict headmaster with Ian Botham and Bill Beaumont as his naughty pupils.

As was always the case when playing the board game version of a television show, M and I could never just be ourselves. On this occasion, I drew the short straw and had to be addressed as Bill for the duration of the game, whilst M would only answer to “Beefy”.

Unfortunately, it took so long to get the plastic picture board set up properly, that no sooner had we started (with M correctly identifying Tessa Sanderson for two points, and me losing out by not being able to see that it was Ricardo Patrese bending over a barbed wire fence), M’s telephone rang. It was my mother. She had returned home and was wondering why the first line of Don’t Waste My Time was repeatedly skipping, yet nobody seemed to be home. We had to leave it there, but promised that we would resume our sporting battle another time. But do you know something? We never did get around to it. I’m sure I could have made an excellent comeback too.

Some months later, I was in the newsagents on Cornerswell Road in Penarth (it is now a beauty salon). I had some pocket money left over and was perusing their superb selection of ZX Spectrum titles. By that time, apart from John Menzies in Cardiff, Cornerswell Road was the only place that I could still buy games for my beloved machine. Imagine the joy on my face as I flicked through the titles: Gauntlet? Got it. The Munsters? Got it. Quattro Adventure? Got it. A Question Of Sport? Glory be! I do not have that!



Suffice to say, I handed over my £3 and ran home as fast as my legs would carry me. I was so excited that I almost forgot about my penny change. Almost.

As usual, it took ten minutes to load the game from the cassette tape but it was well worth the wait. I was presented with the loading screen and some musical accompaniment in the form of a digitised version of the theme tune. Then it was time to choose my character. Apart from some (actually quite good) computer generated versions of Coleman, Botham and Beaumont, all other characters were fictional. As I was very much a fan of Formula One, I always opted for an odd looking man with a mullet because that was his specialist subject. I believed that the questions would be in my favour and I would have no trouble winning. However, the digital Coleman would still stump me with over a dozen questions about English football in the sixties.



Of course, there is only so much information that can be stored on a cassette, so many questions would repeat themselves after numerous gaming sessions. I memorized each answer and was soon laughing manically as I whipped Bill Beaumont in to shape with my vastly superior knowledge.

There was one question in particular that repeatedly appeared. It was part of the “What Happened Next?” round (of course, in the television version the contestants are shown a video clip of a disastrous or amusing sporting event. The game gave a detailed description instead). It was as follows:

During a 1962 match between Tottenham Hotspur and Burnley, a dog ran on to the pitch. What happened next?

Three choices were then given:

A: The dog went on to score a winning goal.

B: Play was stopped until the dog was removed from the field.

C: The dog chased Jimmy Greaves who then shinnied up the goalpost.




Of course, the correct answer was B, but I always refused to select it. I had a much better vision of a petrified Greavsie climbing up a goalpost. However, no matter how many times I opted for that variation of the answer, it never became true. Even today, I’ll watch A Question Of Sport (now with Sue Barker as the strict headmistress and Ally McCoist and Matt Dawson as the naughty boys - that sounds like a porn film in the making) and hope that the Jimmy Greaves clip is shown, always clinging on to the slightest bit of hope that Elite Games got it wrong.

Ultimately however, A Question Of Sport is a reminder of my first steps into the world of sexual adventure. I don’t suppose that there are many people who can say that…

Friday, September 08, 2006

Angela, She Wrote

I think Angela Lansbury is fantastic. I can’t put my finger on the exact reason, but I think it’s because she’s the human equivalent of a plate of corned beef hash. All of her performances are comfort food for the soul. Whether it’s her vocal abilities as Mrs Potts in Beauty And The Beast, her portrayal of Alice Garrett in The First Olympics: Athens 1896 or any of her Christmas-related characters (of which there are many - Lansbury really is the queen of the festive period). You can’t watch Angela Lansbury without thinking of afternoons at your grandmother’s house - she’s bought a dozen ring doughnuts and a family-sized custard tart from Ferrari’s bakery and is forcing it all down your throat along with a glass of Corona fizzy orange.

Or was that just another of my unique childhood experiences?



Of course, one of Lansbury’s most famous characters is that of Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote. Nothing says cold-winter-afternoon-curled-up-on-the-sofa-watching-telly-while-it-pisses-down-outside better than this quaint (but great) crime drama series.

Jessica Fletcher was a very lucky woman. A retired English teacher turned crime author, her hometown of Cabot Cove was rife with violent crime. There were enough shady characters and events in that one little place to keep her inspired for the rest of her life. In addition to this, whenever she went on a tour to promote her latest book, crime seemed to follow her. She’d turn up in New York, London or Paris and no sooner would she step off the plane before finding herself mixed up in some sort of sinister plot. Of course, the police would always be puzzled, or on the brink of arresting the wrong person when Jessica would step in to save the day, all within forty-five minutes.

Although the storylines were often similar or a little contrived, they were always well written and acted. As with many detective shows, the pleasure came not from the crime itself but the way in which the culprit was uncovered. Jessica Fletcher is up there with Lt. Columbo in this respect. She has the talent of being able to wrap people around her finger. She gives the impression that she’s just a little old lady who couldn’t possibly understand the ways of the criminal mind. But that’s not the case. She has a powerful imagination and is able to solve crimes that have stumped even the greatest police minds. And that’s why she’s so watchable - she’s an ordinary person doing extraordinary things. She manages to stick two fingers up to the authorities (but without ever having to be so uncouth herself).

On the whole, Lansbury’s ability to play the unlikely hero so well has become her trademark throughout her career. Her characters tend to have a Cinderella quality in that they begin the tale as a lowly maid, but end up having a much bigger importance by the end of the story. Perhaps the best example of this is Mrs ‘Arris Goes To Paris - one of my favourite Christmas movies (I insist on watching it every December along with It’s A Wonderful Life and Jingle All The Way - luckily, Channel Five usually oblige on all three counts). She plays the titular Mrs (H)arris who has had a lifelong dream to own a Dior dress. By the end of the film, she has not only made it to Paris, but hooked up with a Count along the way (played by Omar Sharif - who else?).

Typical Lansbury. It's a modern fairytale.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Darts & Accessories

Giant malls and department stores are all well and good, but one of my favourite shops will always be Darts World on Caroline Street, Cardiff (also known as Darts & Accessories). Nothing too special about that, you might think. Except for the fact that some of the accessories are nothing whatsoever to do with the grand sport of arrow-flinging.

I was initially introduced to the shop by M. Until that momentous day in 1995, I had always just walked past the shop thinking that it was merely a newsagents that also happened to sell darts-related products. On that fateful day, we were about to cut through Caroline Street on our way to the bus station when M suddenly stopped and sheepishly announced, "I just need to get something."



I followed him into the shop and thought nothing of it. As he walked towards the back of the premises, I stopped to peruse the many types of darting goods that were on offer - inflatable ones, electronic ones, rubber ones. It truly was a remarkable selection. However, as I picked up a set of Red Dragon flights for closer inspection, I noticed that M had walked through a set of saloon doors at the rear of the shop.

Now call me naive, but even though there was a sign saying "Strictly Adults Only" above the doors, I followed him through. I wish that somehow I could have been prepared for what hit me. Instead, I was bombarded by a wave of XXX titles as well as many items which could be used by the reader whilst enjoying the publications. Basically, some of the most hardcore examples of pornography to be found outside of Amsterdam.

Pumps, inflatables, sharp objects - and not a dart or accessory in sight.

Yes, that day I truly became a man.

Perhaps the most surreal aspect of Darts World was the fact that even though the products were kept strictly behind closed doors, you still had to take them through to the main shop if you wanted to buy something. That’s how M found himself in a queue of six people, clutching his copies of Titty Extravaganza and Ball Busters while the people in front of him paid for their crisps, sweets and cigarettes. At the counter, they put his purchases in a brown paper bag - just like the old days.

It is my theory that not one dart or accessory has ever been sold in that shop. I have walked past many times over the years and not once have I ever seen anybody coming out carrying a dart board sized box or examining their latest set of flights.

Perhaps “darts and accessories” is some sort of secret code for hardcore porn that is only known by those truly in the know (a bit like the way Kenneth Williams would refer to "traditional matters" or "Q" in his diaries when discussing his sexuality, or the way that many hairdressers were called Bona Riah in the '60s in reference to polari).



I suppose that it’s really a stroke of genius on the part of the store owner. Caroline Street is famously one of Cardiff's most seedy side streets. It is home to at least two “private” shops and an entire row of take-aways that should only really be frequented when drunk.

However, M would never go into the real sex shops. This was mainly because one of them was situated on the main bus route into The Hayes area of Cardiff and he always feared that his mother would one day go past as he was about to go in. We once drove all the way to Newport just so he could go to their private shop, and even then it took all of the combined energy of me and L to push him through the door. He quite happily shopped at Darts World, though. I suppose I understand his logic. If somebody sees you going in, you're not necessarily on your way to buy porn. And if you're worried that they might be waiting outside for you, you could always buy a dart board and hide your purchases inside.

Ingenious.

Friday, August 04, 2006

One Word Or Two?

More than any other television programme, Give Us A Clue is the ultimate reminder of my early teens. I can't hear the theme tune (especially the "Michael Parkinson....Liza Goddard......and Lionel Blair!" bit) without it feeling like half past three on a Monday afternoon. I would get home from school, turn on the television and be greeted by the cheery faces of the above-mentioned celebrities.

So, what's it all about? Simple really. The producers took one of the most famous post-dinner party activities (charades) and turned it into a light-hearted panel game.

Yes, if you've ever wondered what Barbara Windsor did between the Carry On... films and Eastenders, she was usually treading the boards of the Give Us A Clue studio. Of course, it's easy to mock and say that the show was filled with has-beens, but the opening sequence would often inspire a generous helping of questions from the viewer at home - was that Kenneth Williams desperately trying to remember the charades signal for 'film'? (Yes), was that Wayne Sleep mincing? (Yes), what was Angela Rippon wearing? (Sorry, it went by too fast) and....surely not? Spike Milligan??? (YES!)



It was a show filled with theatrical types, introduced by a theme tune that managed to reduce Liza Goddard's full name to two syllables (something like "Liz Gdd"). But wait, it gets even better - where else could you see footballer Bruce Grobelaar in a pink top (pre-match fixing allegations) and Gordon Kaye from 'Allo 'Allo (post-tree falling on his car in the 1988 storms)?

The real reason that I loved this show is because I genuinely loved the atmosphere that it generated. It felt like all the contestants were friends. You got the impression that they were just taking a break from their respective West End performances and fancied a gentle game of charades. It almost felt intrusive, as if I had stumbled upon a celebrity dinner party going through the rituals before the sex games began.

And all this over a delicious plate of corned beef hash.

Needless to say, Give Us A Clue became my teenage game of choice at family parties. I insisted on being Lionel Blair, of course (being the campest child in my family's history, there were never any arguments) and would take great pleasure in flailing around the room whilst trying to mime Mrs 'Arris Goes To Paris or The Boys In Blue to my auntie. Of course, it would all end in tears when everybody else decided that they wanted to play Pictionary instead and I'd be left fuming at their disregard for cult films starring such luminaries as Angela Lansbury and Cannon & Ball.

Ironically, when Give Us A Clue was finally removed from ITV's schedule, it was replaced by Win, Lose Or Draw - Danny Baker's big screen adaptation of Pictionary. I can only imagine the volume of tears that Lionel Blair must have shed.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Big Weller Fans

When meeting one half of a song-writing duo, do not tell them that you actually prefer the other one.

So this is it. The big one. A lesson learnt the hard way.

Some years ago, a friend (M) and I attended a Gene gig at Cardiff's Coal Exchange. We arrived at the venue early and decided to have a wander around until other people started turning up. At the back of the venue we found the tour bus. Before we had chance to think anything else, a door opened and out popped Mick Talbot of The Style Council. He was the session keyboard player for the night. Being fans of Paul Weller, we were obviously thrilled to meet his Style Council partner in crime. This was an exciting celeb spotting moment! Without thinking, M began to yell "Mick...Mick....Mick...MICK!!" (a bit like Alan Partridge in that episode where he yells "Dan!" about 20 times). Finally, Mick turned around.

Mick: Yes boys.

(Silence)

(We all looked at each other. The silence was deafening).

M: Er, Umm....

And then he said the words that still haunt me today.

M: Big Weller Fans!!

(Another long silence follows. The expression on M's face was now like that of Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters when he realises that he has just summoned Mr Stay Puft).

Mick: (looking deeply offended) Oh thanks lads.

And then he walked off. Possibly fighting back tears. During the concert he also seemed to be banging away at the keys a little harder than he normally would. Yep, those were hurtful words.



A few years later, I spotted Mick again at another concert where he was playing the keys. I looked in his direction. He looked in mine. Our eyes met. I really wanted to make amends. He gave me an icy stare. Not unlike the one that Brad Pitt's character gives to Rachel in that Thanksgiving episode of Friends. Oh yes, he remembered me. And he wasnt ready to forgive.

These days, I eagerly await Mick's inevitable autobiography and the chapter dedicated to the day his ego took a battering and he lost his self-esteem. So I'm sorry Mick. You're a true hero. Especially when you wear sailing attire and a straw boater.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Pictures Of Lizzy

The Queen is (possibly) a fan of The Who.

One summer's day, I went to a record fair at Cardiff's City Hall with L and M. As we arrived, we saw a crowd forming. We ignored this, presuming that there were just a lot of particularly good vendors at the fair this time around. After some hours, we left and saw that the hundreds of people outside were watching something happening further up the road. Asking around, we discovered that HM The Queen was on her way through the city centre before heading off to Cardiff Bay to open the Welsh Assembly.

Pushing our way to the front, we got there just as Her Maj was approaching. We suddenly realised that everybody was waving flags except us.

The Queen was getting closer.

She was looking in our direction.

She was not amused.

Fearful that she may have thought we were protestors (or worse, streakers), M reached into his bag and pulled out the tatty copy of The Who's brown-sleeved Live At Leeds that he had purchased earlier. M began waving it frantically in the air. The Queen took a moment to have a lingering look in our direction. She saw what was being waved and a huge smile appeared on her face. She even turned to Prince Phillip to point it out. As her car went past, I like to think that we really made her day.



Later, on the evening news, what seemed to be a brown paper bag could be seen waving at the bottom of the screen. The camera cut to The Queen and there was that smile again. We hadn't imagined it. Gawd Bless You, Ma'am. Keep on rocking.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Don't It Make You Feel Good?

Always cherish a celebrity encounter, no matter how small. A comeback is always on the cards.

OR

Listening to mid-90s techno music will make you irresistible to attractive Australian ladies.


Since his triumphant return to Neighbours in 2006, it is hard to believe that there was once a time when Stefan Dennis was possibly the most uncool person in the world. This was the case back in 1999. Stefan's post-Neighbours single Don't It Make You Feel Good had fumbled its way into the UK chart earlier in the decade but he had pretty much disappeared save for a few appearances on Dream Team.


Therefore, imagine our surprise when a friend (R) and I found ourselves no more than eight feet away from the man himself in a Soho record store. When I first nudged R to point this out, he thought that I was just playing the look-alikes game. Who can blame him? After all, what would Stefan Dennis possibly have to do in London? But, when R looked, he confirmed that it really was a genuine '80s icon in the flesh.



For a short time we stood in dumbfounded awe. After all, this was Paul Robinson - a man who got to fool around with both of the Alessi twins in Neighbours. Soon, we had entered stealth mode and were listening in on the conversation that he was having with the record store assistant:


Stefan: So yeah, they were recommended to me. I really want to get hold of it. I think it's by Orbital?


At this point we decided to leave. We had to take it all in, away from Mr Dennis. Once it did hit us we realised that we had a solid gold story to tell. Next day, I bashed out an email to Channel 4 Teletext's The Void. It was along the lines of "ha ha, Stefan Dennis listens to Orbital". The day after that, I tuned into teletext and saw that an entire page had been dedicated to my story. A good laugh was indeed had by all.


But who's laughing now? Stefan is back in Neighbours. He's brilliant in Neighbours. He does a funny walk every couple of episodes. He got to fool around with Izzy (she even dressed up as Mrs Santa for him one Christmas - I'm still recovering from that). The man is cool again. Cooler than before. So Stefan, I apologise. You are not an embarrassment and Orbital are not "old hat."

Friday, July 07, 2006

Something's Quo-ing On In My Head

I first remember liking a bit of boogie-woogie rock when I was about five. I saw a live performance of Status Quo singing Rockin' All Over The World and Caroline which made me bounce around the room. Looking back, it's quite likely that it was their Live Aid performance in the summer of 1985. Anyway, as luck would have it, my cousin N was (and still is) a huge Status Quo fan. He used to spoil me rotten when I was little. He was in the Army and would bring back loads of toys from his travels - little Nintendo Game & Watch games from Germany for example, or walkie talkies from Northern Ireland. However, the best gift that he ever gave me was the triple-vinyl boxed set of Quo's From The Makers Of...



For years, I only ever listened to the third disc. It was an early '80s live recording from Birmingham's NEC in honour of the Prince's Trust. It was a greatest hits show, but I only ever listened to the two songs that I knew - Rockin' All Over The World and Caroline. This was the case for months, if not years. I would sit in my room playing air guitar along to my little record player. Quite cute really.

As I got older and really discovered music, I wanted to hear more of what Quo had to offer. That's how I found myself doing the unthinkable - putting the needle at the start of the record rather than frantically searching for the groove halfway through (it signalled the keyboard introduction to Rockin' All Over The World). Soon I discovered that every song was brilliant - Roll Over Lay Down, Over The Edge and Don't Waste My Time in particular - and I was soon ripping the other discs out of their protective cases and discovering more and more songs from the back catalogue.

From The Makers Of... came with detailed inlay leaflets that told the life story of the band. I remember that the first line referred to Alan Lancaster as "Peckham's answer to Kenny Ball." I had no idea what that meant at the time, but I see now that the likeness is astounding.



All around the edge of one of the leaflets were pictures of every Quo album to date. It was then, aged nine or ten, that I decided to make it my life mission to own every single one of them. The process started slowly. The first album that I actually bought was another compilation - Rocking All Over The Years. It had many of the same songs on it as From The Makers Of..., but I didn't let that put me off. Firstly, because the first disc of FTMO had become warped (resulting in Big Fat Mama going from slow-motion to Alvin And The Chipmunks speed) and secondly, because I just couldn't resist that double-cassette package on the shelf of John Menzies. Anyway, it brought the Quo back catalogue up to date a little more and I was introduced to the post-Alan Lancaster period in style - In The Army Now, Rollin' Home and Burning Bridges were all present and correct (although perhaps not as manly as Al would have wished).

Slowly but surely, my collection increased - a copy of Hello! one Christmas, Rock 'Til You Drop for my birthday and even a couple of video compilations for Easter (which were packed with images of busty, brunette women (I particularly liked the girls in the video for Ol' Rag Blues). You could probably say that they have a lot to answer for...

By 1992 I had reached a dead-end. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find any more albums on cassette and I didn't have a CD player at that time. But just as I was getting tired of listening to the same half a dozen albums over and over, something happened that gave me the incentive to keep on trying.

Opening the South Wales Echo one day in June '92, I saw a full page advert for Status Quo's Christmas tour and they were coming to Cardiff. So far, I had not been lucky enough to see them live. However I had a huge thirst for it, having just seen snippets on television from their concert for Radio 1's twenty-fifth birthday in Birmingham. I hurriedly phoned my friend M to tell him the news (by that time, he had also developed a fondness for the mighty Quo and all band news had to be relayed to each other as it became available). We begged our parents to let us go, but as we were only twelve-years-old they were reluctant to let us attend. To quote my mother, "there might be druggies there."

However, after much gentle persuasion, my mother agreed to accompany us to the concert. She phoned the venue (the now-demolished Cardiff Ice Rink) to confirm that there were tickets left and went in next day to buy them. But then, disaster! The woman in the Box Office informed her that tickets had in fact sold out weeks ago. Well, my mother can be a feisty one when she wants to be and she didn't let that stop her. In a rage, she wrote to everybody- from the promoters to Garry Bushell, the television critic at The Sun newspaper. Surprisingly, it was Bushell - the least likely of all her options (and I still don't understand the logic behind it) - who came through in the end. The staff at the paper were so upset about her tale of two bitterly disappointed twelve-year-olds, that they sent complimentary tickets directly to our house. I don't think the smile left our faces for months. And that's why Bushell is fine by me. Even if he did make far too many episodes of Bushell On The Box.

M and I spent months preparing for the big night out. We watched the Rock 'Til You Drop video on repeat - even going so far as to repeatedly quote our favourite catchphrase: "I cannae believe it, I'm gonna see the Quo!" (these words were uttered by a Scottish man (could you not tell from my accent?) who actually changed his name by Deed Poll to Status Quo. Later in the video, you see him meeting the band. On the bus, Rick Parfitt shouts out, "Status just smacked me in the gob!").

We arrived at the Ice Rink at half past six and there was already a queue around the entire perimeter of the (also now demolished) Toys R Us store. The atmosphere was buzzing and it felt like an age before we were finally allowed into the arena. Once there, huge letters spelt out "Quo" across the stage. As the lights went down, we couldn't contain ourselves anymore and let out very girly screams. These were a little premature. Not understanding live concert etiquette, we didn't realise that a support band had to come on first. So, as we screamed "QUO-O-O-O-O!", a little known Hair Rock band called Firehouse took to the stage and gave us a look that could kill. I don't remember much about them, except for the fact that their drummer threw his sticks up into the air at any given opportunity. However, according to their website, they're still going strong - ah yes, I do remember them doing the song Rock On The Radio now.

When Quo finally arrived on stage, we almost collapsed. Finally! Our heroes performing our favourite songs. They opened with Whatever You Want and ended with the Roadhouse Medley (basically the entire Live Alive Quo album). The only disappointment was that they didn't play Down Down, one of my favourite songs. Oh, and we couldn't see keyboardist Andy Bown either because he was hidden behind a twenty-foot "O". However, our ringing ears were proof that a good night was had by all, and Francis and Rick even waved at us. As we clutched our official tour programmes outside, we couldn't have been more content. And we didn't meet one druggy.

The concert inspired a need to hear more. That Christmas, I received my first CD player and there was no stopping me. Regular trips were taken into Virgin Megastore in order to secure CDs such as Picturesque Matchstickable Messages From The Status Quo or Dog Of Two Head. However, with such a vast back catalogue, it was impossible to afford every single album and many of them had been deleted anyway. But I didn't give up. Instead, I discovered record fairs.

These days, you can download even the most hard-to-find track from various sources online. I think that this can often take the fun out of desperately rooting through dusty boxes in a tiny room at the back of St David's Hall, hoping that you'll find that single rare copy of Spare Parts, or a limited edition picture disc of Come On You Reds. This is how I finally completed my collection (yes, I even managed to get hold of the tin boxed-set version of From The Makers Of...). It took me a long time of course - I was still going to record fairs during my time as an undergraduate and it was only a couple of years ago that I finally got the last CD (Blue For You) required to complete the back catalogue (I now have everything twice - once on vinyl, once on CD. The vinyl never gets played and is only there for display purposes - particularly the very manly picture of Alan Lancaster that houses the second disc of 1976's Status Quo Live album). I take great pleasure in admiring over fifteen years of collecting though, and it's good to know that I rose to my childhood challenge.

I never really used to have a favourite member of Status Quo. It was only when I read the band's 1993 autobiography, Just For The Record that I learnt about their individual personalities. I loved the stories about past members, such as the time when original keyboardist Roy Lynes got off the train at Crewe and never came back. However, it was Lancaster who gave me the most laughs. Who can forget the time he punched an airport official in Vienna and got the band arrested and thrown into jail? (Which also provided a classic Parfitt quote - "Hey, something funny's going on in here!"). How can you not like a guy who refused to play bass on Marguerita Time because it wasn't "manly" enough? And best of all, this is the man who refused to fly back from Australia to appear in the Rockin' All Over The World video, forcing the band to rent out an inflatable Alan.

However, the Just For The Record book has a special place in my heart for another reason. After the 1992 tickets debacle, my mother wasted no time in buying tickets for the band's 1993 tour as soon as they went on sale. This time, M and I were permitted to go on our own. Yes, we felt like big men as we walked through the doors without any adult supervision (although we were wise enough to politely say "yes, Firehouse were fantastic last year" to a bunch of large men who were comparing them to 1993's support, Little Egypt. We didn't want any trouble, you see.) Even though the concert was superb once again (although they still didn't play Down Down), next day was even better.

When our tickets arrived for the '93 concert, they were accompanied by a flyer advertising a book signing session at Cardiff's Lear's Bookstore the day after the concert. Well of course, we had to go. Our parents arranged for us to have the day off school and we set off early that morning. We expected a large crowd to be present, but in fact we were the first ones there. It wasn't like that album signing in This Is Spinal Tap where nobody turned up though. No, we were so early that the band hadn't even arrived. However, we were allowed to start queueing and we felt immense pride as older Quo fans turned up expecting to be first in line, only to be beaten by two teenagers. How we laughed. At least, we did until the band arrived. Then we nearly collapsed. My mother later told me that she had never seen me go so white in the face. I could feel M trembling next to me too. We stood there as Francis Rossi and Rick Parfitt stared back, waiting for me to walk over to them. Finally, M pushed me in their direction and I had no choice but to continue walking. You can see my fear in these photos:





Holding onto myself tightly didn't help in the slightest (and that crazed female fan to the right of the picture was making me feel a little uneasy too). They obviously sensed my fear too, because they were lovely to me. They said how nice it was to see me, enquired if I enjoyed the show the night before and even asked if I had any other merchandise for them to sign (I didn't). I mumbled some answers to them and said something about how I had been a fan for years, but all my planned questions were out of the window. I certainly didn't have the courage to ask for an exclusive Alan Lancaster story.

M was even more nervous - you can just see him at the edge of this photo:



I think they said exactly the same thing to him and he managed to mumble some praise in their direction, but it was generally just a very overwhelming day. But we had achieved our ambition to meet our heroes and nothing could spoil it (not even the terrible service at Pillar's restaurant afterwards). And of course, it was all worth it:



To this day, when it comes to Quo, I have never topped that experience. I have seen them in concert over half a dozen times since, but nothing beats those two shows at Cardiff Ice Rink in the early '90s. Sure, it was quite good when a girl asked me if I wanted to see her tits at the 1996 Cardiff Arena gig. It was also hilarious to see M dancing with Steeleye Span's Maddy Prior during the Don't Stop tour. However, it will take a lot to surpass the nervous energy and immense excitement that was created on that December day in 1993 when we met the band.

I suppose the only downside of being a Status Quo fan is that you often get people making fun of your tastes. However, people can be converted. L made fun of me for years until she realised that she did actually like Caroline...and Down Down....and Ol' Rag Blues...

Sunday, July 02, 2006

What Is History?

On the morning of September 30th 1998, I was one of fifteen scared Journalism students standing outside a Cardiff University meeting room nervously waiting for our seminar tutor to arrive. We had been introduced to the group of postgraduate students who would be taking the classes during our welcome lecture the previous week. We all agreed that we would not mind which tutor had been assigned to us, as long as it was not the fearsome looking man who had been sitting in the front row of the lecture theatre, wearing the full national costume of Nigeria and making notes faster than the lecturer was actually speaking.

I think you can guess what happened next.

Distant footsteps could be heard further down the corridor. We all looked in the direction of the sound. At precisely this moment, a leg covered in the most luxurious Nigerian silk appeared at the corner. It was then followed by another. If the theme tune to Reservoir Dogs had started playing at that moment, I wouldn't have been surprised. Better yet, the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Yes, it was Eghosa.

He walked down the corridor towards us, seemingly in slow motion. His eyes pierced into us and he seemed to be smirking, as if thinking "I'm gonna eat you alive."

After what seemed like an hour, he arrived. He uttered not one single word, but simply reached into his pocket and pulled out a key (good to know that national costume can still be practical). He unlocked the door and walked in. We continued standing outside. He looked at us, still not speaking, and it seemed as if his eyes were now acting as magnets drawing us in to his world. Or at least, into the room.

We each took a seat. At least three of us fought over one at the back of the room, aiming to be as far away from Eghosa as possible. Unfortunately, I lost that battle - not a good omen - and I soon found myself sitting next to the man himself.

After taking an eternity to unpack his briefcase (which seemed to only contain his copious notes from the previous lecture and an apple), he arose from his seat and walked to the white board. Picking up a marker pen, he wrote something illegible on the board. Then he spoke.

"My name" he bellowed "is Eghosa Aimufha."

We all stared at him with a nervous look. Partly because we were all scared of him and partly because nobody wanted to tell him that he had written on the board with a permanent marker.

"You will notice that there is a 'G' in my name" he continued. "May I please inform you that the 'G' is silent. SI-LENT!"

Nobody spoke. He looked pleased with himself.

"Now that we have cleared that little matter up, I have one thing to say."

We waited nervously.

"What is History?"

No replies were forthcoming. Partly because we were not sure if the question was rhetorical and partly because we wondered how he would manage to teach us Journalism if he didn't couldn’t even grasp the basics of History.

"Are you people deaf? What is History?"

I was seriously contemplating using the excuse of "yes, I am deaf" at this point. Anything to break the silence. But then he proceeded to break it himself by tapping loudly on the white board and pointing in the vicinity of his illegible writing.

"Maybe you cannot understand my accent" he barked "What. Is. His. Story?"

Nobody had spoken for ten minutes and there were no volunteers to be the first to break that trend.

"This is getting silly, man" he said, as if he had learnt English from watching one too many episodes of Desmond's. "Won't somebody tell me the answer?"

Then he pointed at me.

Dramatic Reconstruction


"You - tall boy!" he yelled, not even caring about my name. "You can tell me about History!"

I cleared my throat and tried to remember the definition that I had learnt off-by-heart when I was at school.

"Well, Eghosa" I began, sounding the 'G'.

"Tut, tut, tut, man" he responded. "The 'G' is silent. SI-LENT! It is E-hosa, E-hosa, E-hosa. Say it with me. E-hosa"

Soon, a group of fifteen first year Journalism students were chanting his name in a very eerie fashion. We did this until the end of class and he never did get his answer.

The following week, I was not looking forward to the second seminar. I already knew that these weekly meetings would be the low-point of the course. I had been to other seminars during the previous week and they had been led by the most lovely, understanding postgraduate students you could imagine. They played games with us to help us learn each other's names and understood that we were the new kids on a very strange block.

But Eghosa was different.

Maybe that's why, ten minutes before our second seminar was to begin, I was the only person waiting outside the meeting room. I began to feel nervous. Had I memorised my timetable incorrectly? Should I be somewhere else? And then the big one hit me.

Am I going to be alone with Eghosa for an hour?

My fears were allayed a little with the arrival of T, who was also from Cardiff, and C from Bristol. The three of us stood there in fear. We knew that nobody else was going to arrive. Why didn't we have the sense to stay in bed that morning? Just as we were debating whether to leave and go to Starbucks, the unmistakable sound of footsteps was heard and Eghosa's theme tune started to play in my head. We were trapped, and he was coming towards us like an ant to a crumb.

The same routine applied. He unlocked the door. We walked in silently. He unpacked his briefcase. The only difference was that he didn't have to write on the white board - his question from the previous week was still there for all to see, along with a comment that somebody had added that read "which idiot did this?"

He looked at the three of us. We were huddled together in the corner.

They hadn't told us about experiences like this in the prospectus.

"Hmmm. It seems that there are one or two people absent" he said, looking in the direction of an empty chair as if somebody was sitting in it.

We hoped that he would send us home. But this was Eghosa.

"Not to worry. Now. Where were we?"

He was actually going to teach us?

"What is History?"

Does this man have eyes?

"You - blondie!" he said, pointing in the direction of C and still not caring about names, "what is History?"

"Well, umm, it's, err, complicated" she stammered.

"Woman! There is nothing complicated about History" he shouted.

We couldn't believe what we were hearing.

"For the last time. What is Heeeeeee-storreeeeeeeeeeeee?" he screamed.

By now, the three of us were sat in each other's laps, clinging on for dear life.

"Man. You guys. Do you not listen in class? The definition of History is simple. It is His Story!"

We looked at him, hoping for more of an explanation. After staring back at us with an accomplished grin, he picked up the permanent marker and wrote something else illegible on the board. As before, he tapped impatiently.

"Now. What is Censorship?"

If we had been characters in a comic strip, the word "thud" would have been written above our heads as we collapsed to the ground.

By now, my stories about Eghosa were spreading throughout the Journalism department. Other students, who didn't have to endure the suffering each week, thought that he sounded hilarious. They all had lovely seminar tutors though. One person who did understand the problem was R. He had experienced Eghosa first-hand in another seminar. In fact, it is partly thanks to Eghosa that we became such good friends in the first place. We bonded by telling stories and showing off our Eghosa impersonations. Although we also had a mutual appreciation of Alan Lancaster-era Status Quo, so that helped too.

Our favourite stories involved Eghosa's great talent for getting television programme titles wrong. His habit initially led to confusion. He made references to "Scott In Antarctica" when we should have been discussing Scott Of The Antarctic and referred to "A Countryside Practice" rather than A Country Practice. However, it soon became natural to hear these slip-ups and the new titles somehow sounded even better. Indeed, I still can’t get used to the current trailers for the Sex & The City movie, because I always expect them to refer to “Sex And The City Life”, as Eghosa used to say. Of course, this always leads to disappointment, but when a newsreader recently slipped up and referred to Jessica Sarah Parker, I did wonder if Aimufha had perhaps taken up a new career as a television scriptwriter.

Perhaps the funniest thing is that nobody ever corrected Eghosa. I remember during one lecture when Eghosa got a little confused about Professor Tulloch’s Bell Theory ("every time a bell rings in A Country Practice, somebody is talking about AIDS"). On this occasion, nobody really blamed him.

From the back of the theatre, we saw Eghosa in the front row raising his hand.

"Excuse me" he yelled, interrupting Professor Tulloch mid-sentence, "could you please clarify your theory about 'A Countryside Practice?'"

Tulloch looked a little confused (not to mention a little flustered), then did as he was requested. However, he didn't correct Eghosa. Instead he started referring to "A Countryside Practice" himself for the rest of the lecture. It was such a strain on him that he broke out into a coughing fit so vicious that he had to send his female co-lecturer out to get him a jug of water. She was clearly not too pleased about that.

As the weeks went by, it became clear that nobody was ever going to turn up to Eghosa's seminars apart from me, T and C. I'm not entirely sure why we continued to attend, to be perfectly honest. Probably due to some mutual fear that the very week we didn't turn up would be the exact time that Eghosa would finally remember to take a register of attendance (that's the only way that all the absentees got away with it - no member of staff was even aware that they weren't turning up). Knowing Eghosa, he probably would have still yelled questions at an empty room.

By now, R and I had re-named Eghosa as "Jose Muffy" because of the way that he always emphasised the "Hosa" and "Muf" parts of his name. In fact, R had even written "Jose Muffy" on the official end of semester Tutor Evaluation form and no member of staff even noticed.

In addition to this, we had created a fictional world in which we envisaged Eghosa living. A world where he called everyone "man" or "woman", where every sentence began "What is..?", and where, when he wasn't speaking, he would walk around saying "Aaayyyy!" like a Nigerian version of The Fonz.

It is hard to picture this without smiling, which is why it was probably not the best idea to let my imagination run riot during one of Eghosa's seminars.
He was asking his usual questions and offending C by calling her "blondie" for the umpteenth time. I was miles away, thinking about how funny it would be if Eghosa was a character on Emmerdale ("Hey man, what is farming?"). I was awoken from my daydream by Muffy banging on the table in front of me with a thirty-centimetre ruler that had "Nigerian National Bank" written on the side.

"Hey man, why you always smiling?" he asked.

I said the first thing that came into my head.

"You just make me so happy, Eghosa!" I replied.

"Man, you is a strange boy. And it's a silent 'G'. SI-LENT!"

I must admit that I felt a tinge of sadness when Eghosa was replaced after the Christmas break. Apparently, he had received such heavy criticism in those end of semester evaluations that it was decided that he may be better off returning to his research duties.

However, Eghosa is still at large in Cardiff. The last time I saw him was in the Tesco store on Wellfield Road (or is it Albany Road? I always confuse the two). He was interrogating a sales assistant at the time:

"Hey man, how much are these eggs?"

I felt a strong urge to go up to him and say "that's a silent 'G' Eghosa. SI-LENT!" But I was in a rush for a bus and he would have kept me there all day.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Chips N Tits

My step-father is a superb after-dinner speaker. At least, he would be if he could contain his excitement and stop telling the stories during the meal! In his youth during the 1960s-70s, he was a successful sportsman and enjoyed the life that came with it. Over the years, he has told me many great stories about his exploits around Cardiff. Many of his tales are clearly a product of the past, which is probably why they are still so entertaining today.

I’m sure I never did them justice, but when I wasn’t turning into Mick Hucknall, I would often regurgitate those golden oldies to my university friends during lunch. Or perhaps a particularly boring lecture. Either way, a big favourite was always the one about a long-forgotten, Friday night tradition.

The site where the Cardiff Marriott stands (an area which, thanks to demolition and redevelopment, currently looks like a war zone) was once a fruit market where my step-father began his working life. At the end of the working week, he and his co-workers would go along to an establishment to unwind. By day, the premises acted as a standard pub and restaurant. By night, it would show adult movies and stage a revue show called Chips N Tits.

The idea was quite simple. Your group would be seated at a table and served a delicious meal of chicken and chips. A chance to enjoy a breast before the breasts, I suppose. At the end of the meal, the lights would dim and a drum roll would begin. A young lady would then appear on the small stage and remove her clothes in an erotic manner. Anyone foolish enough to sit in the front row would be treated to a show so in-their-face that they would have some difficulty finishing their meal.




At the end of the performance, the house lights would be turned back on in time for the barman to call last orders.

It was during an evening of Chips N Tits that this particular story is set.

My step-father was never happy to just watch the main show. He liked to speak to the performers afterwards too. I suppose that you could say that he was Cardiff's first (and possibly only) Chips N Tits groupie.

He soon became a regular at the venue and his face became recognised by staff members and performers alike. He actually became the unofficial Chips N Tits chauffeur and would often find himself driving the girls back to their homes in the early hours of the morning (any excuse, eh?). Splott, Tremorfa, Lisvane - no distance was too far.

He therefore thought nothing of it when a new performer asked him for a lift home one night. As usual, he just asked her to direct him as he drove and away they went. It wasn't until he got to the M4 and she still hadn't shown any indication that they were nearly at her destination that he thought to ask “where do you live?”

"Wolverhampton", she replied.

True to his word, he did take her all the way to her door. As my mother was present when he told me this story, I'm not entirely sure what happened when they arrived in the West Midlands. However, I do know that he arrived back home in Cardiff at lunchtime the next day and slept until the following morning.

By the end of the 1970s, Chips N Tits was no more. However, as one friend once remarked, "I'd pass on the Wetherspoon's Curry Night for the Chips N Tits deal any day."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Pork Pie

When I was a teenager, Channel Four's early evening line-up was something to get excited about. These days it's The Simpsons and Hollyoaks every night, so I often find myself yearning for the days when Channel Four was the only place to catch shows such Eerie Indiana, Crystal Maze, Gamesmaster, Remote Control (Tony Wilson's long-forgotten student quiz show that also featured Frank "Oh Mummy, the man with the large head is scaring me" Sidebottom), Happy Days (it made my year when they showed the Happy Days Reunion one Christmas Eve in the early 90's), The Cosby Show and even Blossom.

However, my favourite show was about a West Indian family who arrived in Britain and immediately opened a barber shop in Peckham. As the theme tune stated, they "came from the sun to leave in the city, I miss me rum, I want me coconut tree."

Desmond's was generally a class-based comedy. The main character was (unsurprisingly) Desmond. He was a family man and entrepreneur who held very traditional values. His wife was supportive and his children were intelligent - one worked in a bank, another was a university student - and overall, they were the picture of the perfect British family.


Desmond's arrived on our screens in 1989. Its timing could not have been better. Of course, black people had appeared in sitcoms before but Desmond's was one of the first British sitcoms to represent the country's multi-cultural society in an accurate, non-patronising manner. Carmen Munroe (who played Shirley, Desmond's wife) said of the show:

"we have successfully created a space for ourselves, where we can just be a real, honest, loving family, with problems like lots of people, and we can present that with some degree of truth and still not lose the comedy."

Desmond's illustrated that being from a different culture does not mean that life has to be completely different.

The barber shop was typical of any high street store. The comedy came from mishaps at the workplace, Desmond's reactions to what he saw as his children's wild behaviour and the way in which Shirley was really in charge of the family unit, even if Desmond didn't know it. The real star of the show for me however, was Pork Pie. He was a regular at the barber shop, an old man who would increasingly infuriate Desmond throughout the series. Almost every episode would involve a close-up of Desmond shouting out an exasperated "PORK-PIE!" only for the rest of the cast to collapse in a fit of giggles.

Norman Beaton (Desmond) unfortunately died in 1995, a short time after the final series of Desmond's had aired. He left a lasting legacy. The show is still aired in the Caribbean and has also been shown on BET (Black Entertainment Television) in the USA. A British repeat of the show is long overdue.

Friday, June 23, 2006

You're Turning Into Your Father

I was never a science fiction fan when I was younger. It was partly because my mother would glare at me and say "you're turning into your father" if I so much as glanced in the direction of Flight Of The Navigator.

I had been brought up to believe that this was the worst possible thing that could happen. My mother believed that all of the positive aspects of my personality came from her side and that all the negative aspects came from my estranged father (who I haven't seen since 1984).

In a way, I was like a science fiction character myself. A split personality - one to please my mother and one to please myself. Sometimes the two would get confused. I would find myself absent-mindedly proclaiming that I was looking forward to a rare screening of Smokey And The Bandit II on television, or I would perhaps sing along to a song by Dr Hook. These insights into my hidden-self would be met with a scowl and I would quickly redeem myself by saying how much I had enjoyed the previous week's Heartbeat.

As I got older, I realised that it didn't really matter if I did like the same things as my father. After all, it's not as if he was the only Burt Reynolds fan in the world. It could be just a coincidence. Anyway, even if my father really was carrying some sort of Smokey And The Bandit-loving gene, it was only natural that I would have inherited some of his characteristics. I pointed this out to my mother who replied "yeah, unfortunately" and I realised that I was never going to win. I kept up the pretence and still continue it today - I have one personality for her and one for everybody else. Sad, but it makes life a lot easier.

So, by the age of seventeen, I still regarded science fiction as off-limits. It's a genre that requires dedication or you may as well not bother. So I chose the latter. My limit was a game of Resident Evil on the PlayStation.

But then I met L - a huge science fiction fan. Not in that single-minded way where sci-fi is life and the rest is just details, but just in a way where she could happily spend a Saturday afternoon watching Dark Angel or The Tribe and maybe dress up as Princess Leia on special occasions.

Just as my love of Status Quo and Carry On films rubbed off on her, so her love of sci-fi began to draw me in. I fought it at first, but then she pointed out how many sci-fi films and programmes feature attractive ladies in very short skirts. I was beginning to see the attraction. It was around that time that Channel Five showed the first season of Cleopatra 2525. It's a show from the makers of Xena: Warrior Princess that features three kick-ass girls (my favourite kind of female) battling the baddies of the future. There is no complicated plot to bog it down, just lots of fighting, thighs, laser guns, breasts, and Max Hoyland from Neighbours with the dodgiest accent ever heard on television. It's his interpretation of the dialect of Atlantis. It's one third New Zealand, one third Pakistani, and I haven't quite figured out the other bit. It has to be heard to be believed. It's a shame he didn't bring it in to his Neighbours character really. It would have made for some very interesting scenes on Ramsay Street.


Having watched the first season religiously for three months, I was hooked. I wanted more, but unfortunately Channel Five did not have the rights to any further episodes at that time.

Thankfully, my resident expert (that's L) was on hand to point me in the direction of other similar shows. Thus I discovered Xena and other female-fronted action adventures. I also started spotting the science fiction aspects of shows (and films) that I had not previously associated with the genre. I realised that I always had enjoyed it, but had not completely realised it. I was such a convert, in fact, that I even enrolled on a Star Trek module at university (although this was also inspired by the fact that I was the only boy in a room full of hot girls and our lectures consisted of nothing but Next Generation episodes).

Over the years, I have discovered shows that I enjoy more than Cleopatra 2525, but it will always have a special place in my life because of what it represents - a wake-up call, a turning point, call it what you will, but I've never looked back.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

The Real Eechlow

There is nothing that I like more than a bad celebrity lookalike, especially the type that appear in the letters page of cheap TV guides. You know the ones - usually somebody has sent in a picture of their grandmother, adamant that she is the spitting image of Lou Carpenter from Neighbours. For added comic value the editor will have a picture of the grandmother with "Lou Carpenter" written underneath and a picture of Lou with "Granny" as a caption.

I am such a fan of these bad lookalikes that I now actively look out for them in the street when I am out and about. The fun that can be had with this game is immeasurable. If I see a bald chap on my travels, I'll say "there's Phil Collins" (or perhaps Sinead O'Connor). Only last week I saw a pensioner walking towards me with his thumbs aloft. "Oh look, there's Paul McCartney" I remarked to my acquaintance....

...oh actually, that was Paul McCartney.

As you can imagine then, I was most excited when I discovered a television show called The Lookalikes Agency. It was as if a programme-maker had read my mind and decided that the best way to fill six 30-minute instalments was to cram it full of some ropey celebrity lookalikes and have them represented by a man called Derek. Does it get any better than that? Actually, it does...

The programme portrayed Derek as a bit of a real-life Del Boy. We saw him wheelin' and dealin' (and duckin' and divin') in order to get his lookalikes into some of the UK's top events. These lookalikes included Elton John (who was really a man called Ray).



When he wasn't 'doing' Elton, Ray was on a quest to learn The Knowledge - a test that, if he passed, would allow him to be a London taxi driver. To be fair to Ray, he wasn't a bad lookalike and it was quite a strange sight to see Elton John on an old moped (with a basket on the front) riding around London desperately trying to memorise each street name.

So that's all mildly amusing in a Sunday teatime kind of way. However, it was the final two episodes in the series which made The Lookalikes Agency unmissable viewing.

The first of these episodes was set almost entirely in Amsterdam. Derek had worked his magic and got a booking for his Jack Nicholson and Elton John lookalikes to film an advert for a Dutch supermarket chain. By this stage of the series, Ray had actually started to refer to himself as Elton. However, he didn't appear to have let anybody else know about this decision. So when he called his agent from Amsterdam and said, "Hello Derek, it's Elton", Derek answered him with a puzzled "Who?"

Of course, it all got sorted out and it was then on to the studio to do the filming. 'Jack Nicholson' was on top form. You would think he was the real deal. All he had to say was:

"I'm not the real Jack Nicholson - I'm actually a lot cheaper. But these yoghurts are the real bona."

And he did it in two takes. Unfortunately for 'Elton', he had to say the same thing (well, obviously he didn't say he was Jack Nicholson) but instead of "real bona" he had to say "real eechlow" (it's apparently some kind of Dutch colloquial term meaning that something is good). It all went downhill from there. Something along the lines of:

Elton: The real....Ee...Eeee....EEEE...EEEEEE

Producer: (trying to say it phonetically) It's Eek - Low

Elton: EEEE.....EEEEE...EEEEEEEEEEEE.....EEEEEEEEE....no I can't say it

Producer: Try to get your tongue around it....Eek - Low

Elton: (clears throat) Egg-Loo?

(Fade to black)

After approximately 45 takes, he finally said the word correctly...but wasn't looking at the camera when he did so. You'll be pleased to know that he did get there in the end.

The season finale of The Lookalikes Agency was a true masterpiece. It centred around Derek's plans for a Lookalikes Ball and Awards Show. This event saw all of his lookalikes gather at a venue for one big end of series party. As if that wasn't exciting enough, he also had a couple of tricks up his sleeve. Firstly, he arranged for 'Elton' to do a duet with his George Michael lookalike. Unfortunately (or fortunately for the viewer), 'Elton' couldn't actually sing. Secondly, Derek had composed a little song to sing at the end of the Ball which he believed represented everything that he had achieved. So when his co-composer arrives for a rehearsal, we were really in for a treat. The lyrics that Derek composed were as follows:

"If you want a VIP but you can't afford the fee, double trouble
I want Elvis she said, but the King is dead, double trouble"

Unfortunately, Derek seems to be channelling 'Elton' on this occasion and his nerves get the better of him. Something like this:

Guitarist: OK Derek, on the count of three. 1...

Derek: If you want a...

Guitarist: No, wait for me to count Derek

Derek: So sorry...after you

Guitarist: 1...2...3......Derek?

Derek: Oh that's my cue?

And so it went on. Once Derek had mastered the first bit he then had a bit of trouble with the second line:

Derek: I want Elvis she said, but unfortunately the...

Guitarist: No Derek, it's just "but the King is dead"

Derek: So sorry.... (sings) I want Elvis she said, but the King is currently dead

Guitarist: No Derek, it's just "the King is dead"

Derek: So sorry...

(I love how Derek's second mistake implied that Elvis will one day appear and say "Surprise! I'm not dead anymore! Uh-huh-huh!").

Once he finally got it right, it was time for him to leave for the Ball. Though not before he had one more mishap. As an extra surprise for the party-goers, Derek hired a smoke machine. Instead of waiting until he got to the venue, Derek got so excited to try out his machine that he switched it on in his flat. In a tower block. On the top floor. And added too much water. It was not long before the entire building became engulfed in smoke as thick as the coldest fog. To add further insult to injury, when it came to the time in the performance when smoke was required (during the Elton/George duet, complete with a cheesy "ladies and gentlemen, Mr Elton John"), Derek actually forgot to turn the machine on!

And that just summed up the entire series. As did the final line of Derek's song:

"You can't go wrong, well that's a bit strong, double trouble."

Derek wasn't the ultimate professional and he didn't have the best lookalikes in the world, but he had a vision. Like Norman Wisdom before him, he saw it through no matter how haphazard his methods may have been. Basically then, the perfect candidate for reality television.

And by the way, 'Elton' did eventually pass his test to become a London taxi driver.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Surf Dudes With Attitude

Peter Engel really knew how to produce a television show. Every single episode was just a variation on the same theme, but if you're going to get stuck in a rut, it might as well be a good one.

Saved By The Bell was my first introduction to the great man's work. I would tune in every morning during those long summer holidays to see what adventures Zack and the gang were up to. It gave me a glimpse into a world where (and this will shock you) a stereotypical nerd (Screech) could be friends, in fact best friends, with a stereotypical cool guy (Zack) and an amateur wrestler who calls the girls "hot momma" (Albert Clifford Slater). There was nothing like this at my school. And if there was, I wish that somebody had informed me. It showed me how things could be and filled me with a hope for the future.

Penarth was no California, Stanwell Comprehensive was no Bayside High and I wasn't cool enough to be Zack (even Zack wasn't cool enough to be Zack) but I was also certainly no Screech. Honestly, I wasn't. In fact nobody in that show represented me as a teenager. But that was the point. Saved By The Bell was the vision of the perfect school that nothing in real life could live up to. A school where the troublemaker was best friends with the headmaster and any problem could be sorted out in twenty-five minutes.

And there were many problems. Ranging from the small (a cockroach loose in the school) to the medium (trying to win a radio phone-in competition during school time) and the huge (Jessie's drug addiction). However, they were all sorted out in the same way - the friends all rally together, tell the troubled one what they're doing wrong (perhaps even hand out a few leaflets), Mr Belding has a stern but fair word, they see the error of their ways and it's all back to normal as the Rock N Roll guitar riff begins to signal the end of the show.

It really was that obvious. Seriously, I can understand why so many people hated Saved By The Bell. You could see the moral coming a mile off within the first five minutes. The set-up was the same every week, as was the resolution. However Peter Engel had one stroke of genius. Zack was popular and mischievous - the kind of character that young viewers could admire. When he was cheeky and disruptive, you secretly wished that you had the guts to be like that at school. He was a rebel. In any other children's show Zack would be the bad guy. But in Saved By The Bell he was not. He was the hero. Engel knew that kids would listen to Zack. If it had been Screech learning a valuable lesson every week, who would have cared? It would have been expected of him and would be another reason to laugh at him. Having Zack as both cause and remedy told the viewers that you can be naughty and nice, you just have to pick your moments wisely. Instead of laughing at Zack, you laughed with him.

So thats the deep analysis done. What really made me watch Saved By The Bell so obsessively was the hope that I would find out how Zack got hold of a life-size cardboard cut-out of his ultimate crush, Kelly Kapowski. I had crushes on girls at school but they didnt give me so much as a Polaroid picture of themselves. I was so jealous. Did he steal it? Did he win it? Did he make it himself in an obsessive stalker kind of way? I never did find out.

Tiffani Amber Thiessen as Kelly Kapowski


It was probably for this reason that I tuned into Saved By The Bell: The College Years some years later. I had never enjoyed Saved By The Bell: The New Class as it was just a regurgitation of previous storylines being played out by a cast who were nowhere near as likeable as the original gang. In fact, they had made the very error that Engel had avoided with the original series - they were just too goody-goody. You couldn't believe that they would even know how to get into trouble in the first place. Plus Screech was now Mr Belding's personal assistant. Not for me thank you. No, The College Years was right up my street. It featured the original cast but this time in a university setting. This was perfect. At the time, I was about to head off to university myself. "Dont get too excited" I told myself. "University will probably be nothing like this" (I had learnt my lesson from Saved By The Bell's portrayal of school life). In fact, I later found out that the portrayal of college life was pretty spot on.

OK, so the high point of Zack's college years was heading off to Vegas, getting married to his high school crush, working as a male escort (with Screech of all people) to earn enough money to pay for the wedding and being chased by some unsavoury types after AC Slater hits on the wrong girl. By comparison, the high point of my college years was the night that I stayed up during a marathon Playstation session, drank too much coffee and thought I was Mick Hucknall from Simply Red. I even stood up to sing an impromptu medley of Something Got Me Started and For Your Babies for my friends. With an imaginary microphone. Substituting the words I didnt know with the word "thing." But apart from that, everything was pretty much the same. Eccentric lecturers, crazy parties - it was all there. Peter Engel had struck gold once again.

That wasn't so much the case with California Dreams. A show that told the story of a high school rock band who also liked to surf. Indeed, as the theme tune told us, they were "surf dudes with attitude, kinda grooving." Never has the use of the word "kinda" been so apt. The weren't even remotely close to a groove and probably never would be. Once again they were too goody-goody. These people would never have formed a rock band. And the only attitude they had was a good work ethic. No, the theme tune was definitely the best thing about this show. It is no surprise that of all the Engel shows, it has hardly ever been repeated (on UK screens at least - I bet they're digging it in Albania).

Maybe Engel knew that his formula was going off the rails. California Dreams wasn't a bad idea in principle, it just wasn't so good in practice. Perhaps thats why he chose to stay with the surf dude theme for his next show, Malibu (or Malibu CA to give it its full title). Now this was more like it and is probably my favourite of the later generation Engel productions. Firstly, the formula was back on track. Two brothers, streetwise and rebellious from their time living in New York (but still with good morals) move to Malibu to live with their estranged father after their mother moves to Saudi Arabia to start a new job. Already the seed is planted for many lessons to be learnt - estranged father issues, being the new kid in town - and to be fair, they weren't quite as obvious this time as they had been in Saved By The Bell. Malibu hit you over the head with a hammer rather than Saved By The Bell's industrial sized shredder.

Malibu was a show aimed at the older teens who had grown up with Saved By The Bell but now wanted something more relevant to their lives. The most obvious proof of this is a character called Traycee (their spelling not mine) played by Playboy model Priscilla Taylor. She has possibly the largest pair of breasts ever to be seen in a children's television production (and she wore a skimpy bikini in every episode). There is none of the comparatively innocent look of Saved By The Bell's Tiffani Amber Thiessen here (although Thiessen did go on to make erotic movies, as did Elizabeth "Jessie" Berkeley). Now where was I? Ah yes, Malibu. The problems that the characters encounter are still dealt with in the same way - rallying around and sometimes handing out leaflets. The only difference is that there is no Mr Belding to offer a stern word. Although the actor who played him, Dennis Haskins, did make an appearance (as himself if I remember correctly) to help one character through a particularly tough time. Thats what the viewers want. Self-referencing works every time. In fact, Peter Engel himself turned up in one of his own shows - appearing in the final episode of USA High (Saved By The Bell: Europe Style if you will) as Chancellor Engel. However, when things were going so well, the show made a fatal mistake. A cast change. Just like The New Class before it, the new characters just didn't gel or were not believable. The show never really recovered but at least had the decency to come to a permanent end soon after.

So by now a clear pattern has emerged. Each Engel show needs a group of teens and a set-up that will get them into lots of problems. It is no surprise then that his other shows do not divert from this track. Hang Time was about a group of high school kids who played basketball. This gave the writers much opportunity to deal with one of Engel's favourite themes - drug use. At least a handful of episodes dealt with sports drugs or smoking or drinking. In fact anything that is not good for a rewarding sporting life. Of course, these problems were sorted out in the usual way. The litter problem at an Engel school must have been appalling what with all those leaflets flying around.

City Guys showed signs of moving a little away from the formula. Again set in a school, this time the kids are from the inner city. Indeed, the theme tune explains it better than I could: "C.I.T.Y you can see why these guys are city guys. " OK, maybe not. But the storylines did seem to be more relevant to modern society and the morals weren't so cringe-inducing. Issues such as inter-racial relationships, sex and drugs were all dealt with well with not a leaflet in sight. Although the female principal did come along to offer a stern word - just like the good old days. My favourite episode is the one where Al (who bears an uncanny resemblance to Joe Hahn from Linkin Park) refuses to work for an advertising agency because they promote toy guns to young children. Classic Peter Engel.

In more recent years, new Engel shows have not been forthcoming (at least there are always re-runs to keep us entertained). He did team up with ex-child star Fred Savage to make All About Us (from what I understand, its basically Saved By The Bell meets Sex In The City) and he is also Executive Producer for Last Comic Standing (Pop Idol for comedians) but thats about it. According to his IMDB profile he became Dean of Communications and the Arts at Regent University in 2003 only to resign a year later to return to producing. Let's hope that in his short time teaching he managed to pass on his magic ingredients to a future generation by having a stern word and handing out a few leaflets.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Chok There

I once saw Apache Indian in concert. It was at the Barry Island leg of the Radio 1 Roadshow during that reggae-obsessed summer of 1993. Snow's Informer had already climbed to the top end of the charts, no doubt helped by the song's promise that he would "lick your bum bum now" (at least I think that's what he said). Chaka Demus And Pliers had teased us with their rhythm 'til we lost control and Inner Circle had made us sweat (a la la la la long) 'til we could sweat no more.

Many still believe that the defining moment of that era was Louchie Lou and Michie One trying to teach Mark "Joe Mangle" Little to Bogle on The Big Breakfast. For me, it was the hot summer lunchtime that day in Barry Island's Square when Gary Davies (or was it Jackie Brambles?) announced that Apache Indian was about to take the stage. The atmosphere was electric - the last time a crowd reacted so wildly was when The Beatles first arrived in America.

As the opening bars of Boom-Shack-A-Lack boomed out, everything was right with the world. When Apache told us to "wind our bodies" and "wriggle our bellies" we obeyed him. Oh yes, it was first class. He even did the extended mix of the track. By the end, everybody was satisfied. If he'd had the sense, Apache would have been too. Instead, he announced that he was going to perform another song. A ditty called Chok There, which was to be his new single. To quote Weezer at the end of the Buddy Holly video, this new song was "not so good, Al." Never have I seen a crowd go from rapturous applause to sheer dismay so quickly.

I swear I even heard somebody yell "Judas!" in the direction of the stage.

Suffice to say, he made me Boom-Shack-A-Leave and he never troubled the Top 20 again.



That's not to say that he didn't find other ways to make his presence felt. Some years later, I was watching late night television when I stumbled across a documentary on Channel 4 called Apache Goes Indian. It turned out to be a truly classic series that followed Birmingham's own Apache Indian as he visited India for the first time in his adult life. For me, the highlight of the documentary was a scene in which we see him being driven around on the back of an open-top jeep (a bit like that scene in Good Morning Vietnam where Robin Williams thinks he keeps seeing the same girl walking down the road). As Apache takes in the sights and sounds of the city he is moved to say "This reminds me of a song I wrote back in the UK called AIDS Warning." Once again, if he had any sense, he would have left it at that. Instead, he cleared his throat and, in his best half-Birmingham/half-fake-Jamaican singing accent (which was nothing like his actual speaking voice), he began to sing:

"This is a warning, across the nation..."

The picture then fades, not before giving us a final view of Apache's tour guide who by now has the most bemused look on his face that I have ever seen. Yes friend, I know how you feel - I've been there too.

Channel 4 really need to repeat this series for a new audience. I have a theory that watching Apache Goes Indian in these post-Ali G days would be like watching one of the Airport movies after seeing Airplane. You just couldn't be sure if it was supposed to be serious or intentionally funny. I like to think that maybe Apache was a comedy genius and a master of surprise. Instead, I'm more inclined to believe that he just had a talent for saying completely the wrong thing at exactly the right time. Thankfully, it doesn't make it any less entertaining.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Minority Sports

I love the way Sky Sports try to make everything as attractive and extravagant as their football coverage. I once watched an hour of Ten Pin Bowling followed by an extended session of Carp Fishing. I didn't even have any interest in either event, the coverage was simply so appealing. From the flashy graphics to the hard-rocking opening theme (and the obligatory Poker company sponsorship), I was on the edge of my seat. However, it wasn't the sporting action that kept me engrossed to the end, but the Class A commentaries.

Rolling The Ball


For almost the entire duration of the bowling show, the two commentators discussed the merits of wearing a well-fitting glove. The Finnish competitor was apparently setting a new trend by wearing a black leather glove on his right hand which left his thumb and two fingers exposed. His American opponent, on the other hand (literally - he was left-handed), wore a glove that only left his thumb exposed. Completely ignoring the actual bowling action, the commentators debated at length about the various pros and cons of such attire, before deciding that perhaps the American competitor had the right idea. Unfortunately, they decided this at the exact moment that the Finnish competitor took the lead with his third strike in a row. Thus the debated raged on. The American bowler really opened a can of worms (which is quite a difficult feat when you're wearing a leather glove) by pulling a roll of masking tape out of his bag (disappointingly, the bag was not covered in Wigan Casino patches in true Northern Soul style). He proceeded to tape up his exposed thumb so that he could really get a feel for the ball.

That's what the commentator said anyway. Personally, I had visions of him getting his hand stuck in the ball and going sliding down the lane after it in true Fred Flintstone fashion. Sadly, this didn't happen but his plan worked and he went on to win the game.The commentators were astounded. So astounded that they never did come to a final conclusion about the right kind of glove and just repeatedly discussed how it was a most amazing comeback. I'm sure that kids all over the country were rushing to B&Q for masking tape supplies before their weekend trip to SuperBowl.

We're Gonna Need A Bigger Boat


The fishing show came across like an extended sketch from The Fast Show, but was the most rivetting thing I've ever seen. Having never been fishing myself, I was amazed at the things they use for bait. It's not just simple maggots anymore. It's peach scented pellets and bouncy little plastic balls and all kinds of fancy kit. I suppose if you get stranded out at sea, or in the middle of a lake, you at least have a tasty supply of fruity snacks and a toy if things get really desperate.

You don't get that kind of entertainment with worms. Unless you're a cat.

It all seemed to work though - I actually saw them catch a 30LB Carp - truly a monster of the lake. It would have made quite the feast with a bag of a chips, but they threw it back in.

Who needs mainstream sport when you can watch that?

Prawn Cufflinks on eBay

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