Hi. My name’s Catrina…
If something goes viral on the internet it’s usually a combination of market awareness and serendipity. (Occasionally talent is involved as well, but the ludicrous success of Charlie Bit My Finger is ubiquitous proof, as if any were needed, that this isn’t necessarily the case.) Sometimes you just need to get noticed by the right people. And sometimes it’s because it’s the end of an annus horribalis and we could all do with some light relief, which is why everyone spent December watching a bunch of stage school teenagers in leggings cavorting around a TV set.
For many of us, this was like opening up a box in the attic and fishing out a thirty-year-old diary. You forgive yourself for particular habits, but it’s difficult not to cringe. I don’t remember whether I actually thought The Pink Windmill Show was cool, but I watched it every week without fail, so they must have done something right. The clip doing the rounds was new to me, but I must have seen it – it’s just that in the 1980s, out-camping the Village People was standard practice. We didn’t question it because it happened so frequently. No one questions the over-reliance on sob stories in The X-Factor, do they? It’s just what we do now.
Not that it always worked. At the bargain basement end of Rod Hull’s prime time glamour, there was a children’s show called You Should Be So Lucky – a sort of amateur talent competition run by Colin Bennett, supported by a group of sparkly child dancers. Each week you’d have a different group of stage school prodigies (at least half of whom were named Tiffany) taking to the floor to deliver music hall numbers, indulge in a spot of amateur magic – or, worst of all, do a monologue. It ran for twelve episodes. It was trainwreck television: indeed, I can find no footage on the internet save a recording of the theme music, accompanied by a single still of Bennett and his Purettes gathered at the back door of a caravan.
Listening to that now – and reading some of the comments – I think it’s become apparent that it was a programme I misjudged. I remember being horrified by it, even at the age of ten – and I wonder if Bennett’s saccharine-drenched, prozac-infused host wasn’t playing a caricature, a man who’d watched a promising career go down the tubes and who was as appalled by his current situation as we were. Had the show continued past its first series he would, no doubt, have had some sort of breakdown on stage, in the manner of Michael Caine’s character in Little Voice. As it was we got an impassioned plea to get out and watch some live theatre, before it was too late.
(As an aside, the article I’ve just linked to references the words “Bran Barrel!”, something I do recall them saying quite a lot – but for the life of me I can’t remember why. If there’s someone reading this who does, perhaps you might care to enlighten me.)
But The Pink Windmill Show has survived, even if Rod Hull sadly hasn’t. Falling from the roof of his home while fixing the TV aerial during a football match not long before the millennium turned, Rod had kept his head through a declining career and bankruptcy and was trying to make the best of things at a shepherd’s cottage in Essex. Resentment towards the puppet that had typecast him notwithstanding, he seemed to drift towards his death with a cheery optimism – “Complaining about your life,” he was heard to say (I’m paraphrasing) “is all codswallop”. I reflected, when I heard the news, that I hadn’t heard about him for years, which I suppose makes it worse.
Back at the windmill, there’s somebody at the door. Oh look, it’s the screamer.
Sit down, Bonnie. Have a glass of carrot juice.
Even at the age of six or seven, some of those scripted exchanges were frankly awkward. And the formulaic approach nagged and teased at my inner pedant. Why, in the name of sanity, were the kids able to memorise complicated dance routines seemingly off the cuff, but unable to remember that the witch always turns up to kidnap someone in the audience at precisely the same moment? “DON’T ANSWER THE DOOR!” I can remember shouting on more than one occasion. “IT’S ALWAYS GROTBAGS THE SECOND TIME!”
Grotbags – the creation of the sensational Carole Lee Scott – was, of course, the best thing about The Pink Windmill, whether she was stomping across the studio with a brat under one arm or bickering with her hapless minions, Croc the cringing crocodile, Grovel the sycophantic manservant, and an effeminate mechanical butler called Robert Redford. By the end of it we didn’t care whether the kids she’d abducted had actually won anything – it was more fun watching the banter. The image of Grotbags leering through the fourth wall with her goth-decorated eye makeup and missing teeth – before breaking into a song about UFOs – was something that most of us never really got out of our heads. The 1980s were rather short on iconic children’s TV moments, but this was one of them – and when CBeebies launched their hugely successful soft play pirate show, Swashbuckle, some years later, the influence of Rod and the Windmill was undeniable.
Still. Some things are best consigned to the past: audiences don’t know when they’ve had enough. It’s why, when I read that the cast had reunited for a Comic Relief sketch, my heart sank. It’s bad enough that they’re revisiting Love Actually, in order to show us what a bunch of fictional characters we never really cared about in the first place are doing fourteen years after a film that gets far more press attention than it deserves. I know I’m in full-on grumpy old man mode now but I do get a bit fed up with this obsession with nostalgia and revivals; it’s not so much that we’ve run out of ideas, more that an age of anniversary-themed news (something I willingly contribute towards) and ‘Remember when…?’ articles have led to a culture where everyone over the age of twenty-five is prone to excessive navel gazing, convinced that their past was better than your past, and you’d better get used to it.
I’m right about this. Three or four of the Lord of the Rings actors go out for a drink and it’s a fucking reunion? Seriously? People who think televised cast reunions are a good idea should have to shampoo my crotch. It’s like watching foreign tourists go to the Costa del Sol and eat fish and chips and drink English lager. When revivals work (The X-Files) they’re great. When they don’t (also The X-Files) they make for horrible, horrible television. (Twin Peaks, it must be noted, has a get-out-of-jail-free card, because it ended on a massive cliffhanger that was supposedly going to be resolved twenty-five years later, so that’s fine.)
For all my whinging, it must be said that the new version of the Pink Windmill dance is quite fun, and it’s for a good cause. Spencer is notably absent, due to ‘personal commitments’, a euphemism for ‘I work in advertising now and didn’t want to make a tit of myself on national television’. But everyone else is present, correct and inevitably a little thicker round the waist, although that could be said of me, so I’m not judging.
Besides, it gave me an idea. “Why don’t you make your own version?” asks Joe at the end. So I did.
Only mine, of course, has Cybermen.