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: 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.

Prawn Cufflinks on eBay

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