Sunday 9 June 2024

Timeframes


If you go into enough charity shops (thrift stores or opportunity shops to my non-British audience), then sooner or later you will find a box of old children's humour comics. They'll generally range in date from the 70s to the 90s, and mostly be old Beanos and Dandys, those being by some distance the longest-lived titles, with the occasional wildcard -- a Beezer, a Topper, maybe a Fleetway title such as Whizzer and Chips or Buster. It's just the way of the world.

Whilst I am always grateful for what I can find in these boxes, I do find more of interest when the comics are from the early nineties, give or take a few years each way. These are issues I was a bit too young (or a bit too not born yet) to have read at the time, but they're very similar to the ones I did read as a child, with many of the same characters and much the same tone. These are also the earliest issues to feature adverts, which makes them of even greater value as a look into the past.

Here, then, is what I got from the above stack of a dozen more-or-less consecutive Dandys from 1991 I picked up a few weeks ago.

Sunday 2 June 2024

Dwarfmatis Personae


In the first episode of Red Dwarf, David Lister awakens from three million years in suspended animation to discover he is now the last human being in existence. But he is not alone.

Exactly how alone he, the hologrammatic simulation of his dead bunkmate, the creature who evolved from the descendants of his pet cat, the ship's computer and latterly the android they found tending to a bunch of skeletons are tends to vary; common knowledge seems to have it that in the early years Lister really is alone, and the universe he inhabits tends to become rather more inhabited over time. Perhaps a series-by-series look at the number of credited guest cast would be useful?

Series I

Episode

Credited Guest Cast

“The End”

7

“Future Echoes”

2

“Balance of Power”

5

“Waiting for God”

2

“Confidence & Paranoia”

2

“Me2

1

Series Average

3.17


The only reason "The End" -- the first two-thirds of which take place before the radiation leak kills everyone -- isn't a massive outlier is because of the flashback in "Balance of Power" which features Chen, Selby and Petersen. "Balance" was the second episode recorded, and was bumped down to third because "Future Echoes" turned out so strongly and was felt to be the most likely episode to keep viewers watching, although the only two credited guest actors in "Future Echoes" are voiceovers.

(The other two guest parts in "Balance" are a voiceover and Rimmer impersonating Kochanski, and the only guest actor in “Me2” is Captain Hollister in the video of Rimmer's death. This is before you even get into that episode being a replacement for "Bodysnatcher", which would also have only utilised the main cast and voiceovers, and Holly was also originally intended to be voice-only until after the first two episodes were recorded. Until very late in the day Lister could've been even lonelier than he is.)

Sunday 26 May 2024

Inside UFO 54-40


In February 1982, the twelfth Choose Your Own Adventure book, Inside UFO 54-40, was unleashed upon preteens all over the world. Written by Edward Packard, who not only created the CYOA range but arguably the entire genre of interactive fiction (with the originally standalone book Sugarcane Island, written in 1969 but not published until 1976, and later subsumed into the CYOA range as #62 in the series), the book's plot revolves around the search for Ultima, the fabled planet of paradise. And herein lies the book's big secret, which less generous readers may describe with quite a different word.

Sunday 19 May 2024

The Man With a Tadpole Stuck Up His Nose

Between 1989 and 1994, Tony Robinson wrote and starred in four series of the hugely popular Children's BBC series Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, reinventing the legend of Robin Hood as a sitcom for children which posited that Marian was the true leader of the outlaws, and the foppish Robin of Kensington was little more than a vain incompetent whose greatest contribution to proceedings was designing the gang's costumes.


Robinson very much did not stop at the small screen, however; eight MMaHMM comic albums, adapting the TV episodes, were published between 1989 and 1992, with two being released simultaneously every year. The first two batches coincided with the broadcast of the first and second series, but after the Autumn 1990 transmission of Series 2 the show took an extended break until January 1993, and the third and fourth sets of books were released in the interim (with the final two books actually being published well before the Series 3 episodes they adapted were broadcast!)

If you were writing a sitcom or a children's television serial around this time, then a novelisation was still pretty common, but Maid Marian (a show slap bang in the middle of that particular Venn diagram, and hence more or less obligatory) might be a unique example of an albumisation. It seems like these adaptations were a real passion project of Robinson's, but it's hard to imagine the show translating so well to text (one other book based on the show was published, which contained the playbook for the stage musical based on the show that Robinson wrote with two of the series' cast members, Mark Billingham -- yes, that Mark Billingham -- and David Lloyd).

The artwork for the albums was provided by Paul Cemmick (also responsible for the show's animated end credits, as well as original illustrations for the musical's programme when it was staged by the Bristol Old Vic in 1996, which you can see at the bottom of this page), who worked from Robinson's original scripts (in the earliest cases before he'd even had the opportunity to see any of the show itself, with the only visual references he had being photos of the cast taken at the initial readthrough). A total of nine episodes from across the first three series were translated to print in total; the first two books adapted the first two episodes, which form a loose two-parter, but after that they go all over the place, with the eighth and final volume, "Driving Ambition and Keeping Mum", adapting two episodes in a single book. There was also a serialisation (with the panels modified or redone totally to fit) in the Daily Telegraph's imaginatively titled supplement for younger readers, the Young Telegraph.

A sitcom written by Tony Robinson, aiming to get demographically inappropriate humour in wherever possible, is a very funny show indeed. But such a sitcom adapted into a format that has no need to worry about what's feasible on a children's television budget is something else entirely. There are at least seven examples on any given page of this, so I decided to narrow things down to one in particular.

Sunday 12 May 2024

The Camera Never Lies


If you search for "would i lie to you" on Shutterstock, you will be met with around 500 images related to said comedy panel show, most of which were taken on set during the fourth and fifth series. Quite a few of these actually depict moments that didn't make the edit of the final programmes. In some cases, the exact context is lost to time.

This particular photo might not seem remarkable at first; it's David Mitchell reading out a story which didn't make the cut. But back in the day there was a very good fan forum, That Mitchell & Webb Fansite, which reported back from each recording from Series 3 up to partway through Series 7 with, among other things, a full list of stories from each show, but not whether they were true or not. Sadly, only the Series 3-4 ones are still online (the forum having closed and gone offline very abruptly), having also been posted, and still preserved, at this LiveJournal community.

Sunday 5 May 2024

ZZZapped


The Children's ITV series ZZZap! notched up ten series and 140 episodes in just under nine years, airing between 1993 and 2001. The unusual concept of the series was that it was a comic you could watch (with Christmas editions being styled after annuals and Summer specials after, er, Summer Specials), but if you're not familiar with it, then going and looking up a few episodes on YouTube will probably be more helpful than attempting to describe such an outside-the-box show; primarily aimed at deaf children, it featured no intelligible dialogue and told stories through visuals and text where necessary, with several regular segments that were variously based around slapstick sketches, arts and crafts, puzzle pages, and a section oddly prescient of Taskmaster where children sourced from a local stage school had to attempt challenges ("Tricky Dicky's Mission Impossible" in Series 1, replaced with "Daisy Dares You" from the second series after the original character was deemed to be too frightening -- one of several tweaks apparently made after the mood was judged to have been a bit too surreal in places).

The first series also featured a unique opening sequence not used on the others, where a boy purchases an issue of ZZZap! in a shopping centre, and uses the attached "Free TV Zapper" to cause the comic to grow to 18 feet in size, to the mild shock of the other shoppers. This sequence was filmed in Chequers Shopping Centre in Maidstone (still open today but now known as The Mall Maidstone, and used for several other sequences in this and later series), and the prop comics have been placed alongside other, real comics the shop in question (there's nothing in the sequence to provide confirmation but it looks like it's probably a WHSmith) was selling that day:

Sunday 28 April 2024

Time After Time


When Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone devised the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, in 1982, they came up with three basic statistics the player would have to keep track of, known in the first draft as COMBAT FACTOR, STRENGTH FACTOR and LUCK FACTOR, later renamed in rewrites as the catchier SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK (SKILL and LUCK being calculated by 1d6 + 6, and STAMINA by 2d6 + 12). Over four decades and more than seventy books later, that basic system has more or less remained the same, but many authors have wanted to add something new to it. The first book in the series to have a fully-fledged fourth statistic you had to keep track of was Jackson's House of Hell, which introduced Fear Points: the 1d6 + 6 value you rolled up at the start of the adventure represented the maximum number of Fear Points you could accrue before being frightened to death. Many other books with unique statistics followed: the Japanese-themed Sword of the Samurai requires the player to keep track of their character's HONOUR score, with certain actions being forbidden if your HONOUR score is too low, and the character committing seppuku should it ever fall to 0, whilst the Lovecraft-influenced Beneath Nightmare Castle features a WILLPOWER score, which represents the player's ability to keep hold of their sanity. But by far the most common unique stat was a way of keeping track of time: the adventure of the day was on a time limit for some reason, and the Time statistic measured how much, uh, time you had left. And different writers, telling different stories, would implement this idea very differently.

How differently, then?

Sunday 21 April 2024

Comic Cuts


In the Mr. Bean episode "Hair by Mr. Bean of London", initially released exclusively on VHS in November 1995, whilst Mr. Bean is at the barber's, he picks up a copy of the Dandy and reads it while he's waiting.

You know what's coming. Which issue of the Dandy exactly?