Posts Tagged With: nostalgia

Get off the road!


Picture a twenty-inch colour TV, the square cathode ray type, sitting on a table in the corner of the lounge one afternoon during the early nineteen eighties. On the screen is a small child, speaking with a dolly. “Now, Lucy,” she tells the doll, “Mummy says we can play outside on our own. But we must be VERY CAREFUL OF THE MAIN ROAD.”

Cut to a busy town street, traffic zooming past, the Doppler effect in full swing. The little girl is outside. She may or may not be walking to the shops.

“Ooh, look, Lucy!” she suddenly exclaims in the sort of excited voice children keep in reserve for when they’re offered sweets or ice cream. “A doggy!”

The canine in question is on the other side of the street. There’s no adult. She barrels out into the road. There is a screech. A thump. And then, for added pathos, a female voice, coming from inside the house. “Debbie! Come inside and write in Daddy’s birthday card!”

I have searched in vain for this on YouTube, but in a way I’m glad I couldn’t find it. Because it meant I had to write it down in order to properly set the scene, and – in the process – I realised how much comes back to me even after thirty years, even after having only ever seen it once. The names are about the only thing I had to make up; everything else is more or less etched in stone. I think there may be a reason for that.

When I think about it, many of my strongest televisual memories are connected with death. I can recall the climax of Tottie: The Story of A Doll’s House, in which the scheming Marchpane succeeds in setting Birdie on fire. I can remember one of the closing scenes in the 1984 adaptation of Goodbye Mr Chips – not the oft-imitated deathbed exchange (“I have had children…thousands of ’em…all boys”), but the sight of Roy Marsden lying spread-eagled on the floor of his study. Staying with the school theme I can remember the death of Jeremy when he was larking about in the swimming pool at the end of an episode of Grange Hill. I remember an installment of Ulysses 31 in which Ulysses is captured by Chronus / Chronos, the god of time, who succeeds in ageing the slumbering crew of the Odyssey until they reach the end of their lives, although Ulysses is able to put things right again. It gave me nightmares for years weeks, as did the scene in Scrooge! in which Albert Finney comes face to face with Death and appears to descend into hell (at 2:40).

Closer to home, I blogged over a year ago – right back when I started this particular online foray – about how my first Who memory was of the death of Adric. Reading back over it now it strikes me as awfully pretentious writing. I’m going on about the reason “memory doesn’t begin at birth”, blocking out memories “because it’s easier than having to remember what they were actually like” and the instinctive reaction to make “the loudest noise you can make”. Not long after that I received an email from Gareth, who remarked “Come on, Matthew Waterhouse’s acting isn’t that bad”.

Ah, but those Public Information Films. If you’re reading this in the U.S. and don’t know what I’m talking about (and one doesn’t necessarily follow from the other, of course), you might call them Public Service Announcements. When I imagine an American PSA I automatically think of a crying Indian (I’m not linking to that; look it up yourselves). Or I think of the South Park episode where they suggest duck-and-cover as a response to a volcanic eruption. I’m sure there’s far more to it than this (and I’m happy for people to educate me) but I’m afraid my knowledge is strictly British, and it must be said that as far as creeping out the kids is concerned, we can hold our own.

“Can you imagine,” said Emily when I was describing the road safety advert at the beginning of this entry over lunch earlier, “the reaction if they showed that advert to children today? Can you even imagine them showing it?”

“I sincerely doubt it,” I said. “I don’t think they’re quite as hot on scaring kids today. It’s all dressed up. I don’t think people die nearly as much on TV as they used to, or if they do it’s usually accompanied by over-scored music and slow motion. People seem to be frightened of upsetting children, but when I was a kid that was the whole point.”

And it was. There was, as far as I can remember, comparatively little moral handwringing over some of the frankly hideous Public Information films that were screened from the sixties to the eighties. Like thieves in the night, you never knew when they were coming. There was no press campaign, no front page Daily Mail story. No buildup. They just appeared and then disappeared, as much a part of the fabric as the test card girl or the title music to the Six O’Clock News, or the mediocrity of early afternoon game shows. They were brought in to warn you about the dangers of – well, everything, really. If the Central Office of Information was to believed we were living in a world of perpetual hazards, where death lurked on every corner, ready to strike at the first opportunity. Fat fryers. Motorway diversions. Farmyard equipment. Refrigerators. Nothing was safe, because, well, nothing is safe. The United Kingdom was a dangerous place, full of paedophiles and dangerous drivers, encapsulated on film in perpetual washed-out colour and with a higher body count than your average Midsomer Murders. It’s a miracle we were even allowed out.

Here, for example, is Spider-Man villain Electro’s unknown backstory.

Never mind the fact that the opening shot bears a striking resemblance to Flight of the Navigator (years too early) and the Blake’s Seven-esque soundtrack. Who’s the bigger fool here? The fool, or the fool who is (metaphorically) pushed by her? You can picture slippered, moustachioed parents lecturing their children after some minor misdemeanour with the oft-used but newly-adapted “Why’d you do it, Jimmy? I mean why? Because Amy told you to? And I suppose that if Amy told you to go into an electrical substation to retrieve a Frisbee, you’d do that as well?” – which is, I’ve just realised, the Question That Must Never Be Answered (what do you know, it really was hidden in plain sight).

Firework videos were also very popular, particularly this one, which was re-run every year in some form or another until at least the mid-1980s, when Hale and Pace took over.

It does rather overstate the point, but on the other hand I’m thirty-four and have never touched a spent firework, so perhaps it fulfils its purpose.

Perhaps most chilling of all was a video that I never saw as a kid, purely because of geography. Titled Apaches, it’s a half-hour tale of misery and woe about six children who play at Cowboys and Indians. The games are fun but the environments are dangerous, and by the end, all but one of them will be dead.

Let me save the busier amongst you some time: the deaths (or the moments that lead up to them) are at 05:10, 10:41, 16:40, 21:01 and 24:25. I will leave it to you to discover the manner of the children’s demise; that’s part of the fun. Suffice to say that everyone gets what’s coming to them: they are all silly children who deserve it, and indeed the fatalities in this video are just Darwin at work, sparing us the very real possibility of these stupid ten-year-olds growing up just enough to reach puberty, claim benefits and breed. I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood where our local school was built upon farmland, rather than being anywhere near it, and as such we were denied the joy of this grim morality tale, which was presumably considered irrelevant for townies (instead we had to put up with the locally-filmed Stranger Danger video, shot in the park where I once broke my arm, and starring an extremely intelligent terrier who sounded a lot like Richard Briers). Emily, who was raised in a hamlet in the middle of the countryside, assures me that she saw Apaches more or less annually, and she’s never impaled herself on a spike or fallen into a pit of slurry (ooh, spoilers) so I suppose we might thus view this prequel to Final Destination as something of a success.

But I don’t want my perspective to be completely skewed. It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Some films ended happily, with a near miss instead of a fatality, or a serious-but-not-life-threatening injury that left a timely reminder that things could have been much worse, so let’s hope you’ve learned your lesson. And it was a welcome opportunity for celebrities-of-the-time – including Alvin Stardust, Les Gray (from Mud) and the late, not-so-lamented Jimmy Saville to wax lyrical about the importance of crossing the road properly. Appearing in a PIF was the 1970s equivalent to appearing on the CBeebies bedtime hour reading a story – a fleeting but memorable appearance that was destined to pepper YouTube in the decades to come to satisfy the perpetually bored and curious.

While there were plenty of road safety videos that ended badly, for example, there were an awful lot more that didn’t. Here, for instance, is former Newcastle manager Kevin Keegan, apparently wearing a similar jacket to the one that Stan wore in The Secret of Monkey Island.

(In the comments page, some bright spark has written that Keegan really ought to have taken the kid to the pelican crossing, because it contains the only black and white stripes over which he has any real control.)

I can sense at least some of my American audience shrugging their shoulders at this, having no real idea who Kevin Keegan is, so here’s Darth Vader – or the man in the suit, at least.

I like to think he was wearing this under the breathing apparatus and mask when he was shooting A New Hope. My money’s also on this being in at least one kinky couple’s roleplay / fetish wardrobe. Either way it looks like he lost a bet.

And finally, this chap ought to be familiar.

Right, so that’s:

Safe place to stop
If (traffic is coming, let it pass)
No traffic? Walk straight across
Keep looking and listening for traffic while you cross

All of which is an entirely convoluted mnemonic, and there have been various (rather rude) alternatives offered over the years, such as “Choose a safe place to stand, Observe the traffic, Carefully walk across the road, Keep safe…”. Don’t get me wrong, SPLINK is easy enough to say, but much harder to deconstruct. It’s no wonder there are so many fatalities on the roads.

There is a reason I’m talking about all this, of course, and it’s connected with Pertwee, but that can wait for another day. In the meantime, I appreciate that this has been rather miserable and death-heavy, so to cheer you all up here’s a fun video about dogs.

Oh well.

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Does this pole still work?

When I was not quite ten years old, back in early 1988, we bought our first video recorder.

It was a revelation. No more the slaves of the clock. No more did I have to wait until Christmas to watch Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz. The VHS collection sat on the top shelf of the cabinet (when we eventually got the cabinet; those first few weeks the recorder sat on the floor) and the chunky plastic boxes were pulled in and out at least twice a day as we explored wildlife documentaries and Gerry Anderson creations and sitcom compilations. My younger brother filled up a three-hour tape with Thomas the Tank Engine episodes and wept for an hour when my mother, in order to punish him for some misdemeanour or other, refused to sanction the recording of the Christmas special, rendering his season two collection incomplete.

Access to a video recorder filled up the hours, but it also aided my sense of recall. I would wake early on Saturday mornings and sit down in front of the television, having already calculated the time I would need to start watching Superman in order to finish before I had to leave for the weekly swimming lesson. Terence Stamp’s beautifully performed monologue permeated my consciousness until I could recall every pause and every cadence of his delivery. I watched the TV edit of Back to the Future so many times I memorised it in its entirety, and took the toned-down language of the kid-friendly version to be gospel until many years later, when I heard Doc Brown swear for the first time. I can’t remember most of what I learned in school, but I can still recite the radio announcer’s Toyota commercial in the opening scene.

But it was Ghostbusters that held a special place, because it was the first tape we bought and I more or less wore it out over the years. My friends at school were crazy about it, and it was a bandwagon I couldn’t wait to ride. I can still recall the sense of disappointment when the technician who installed the VHS (yes, we needed such electrical specialists in our house) told us that we would have to leave it to settle for three or four hours before we could use it, to allow time for the machine’s moving parts to adjust to room temperature. Instead we went out, but I spent most of the time looking at my watch.

My family didn’t do Halloween, and trick-or-treaters were politely but firmly turned away. At no point did I feel deprived or embarrassed by my parents’ religious stance (save once, but that’s for another day) because they were happy about us watching Ghostbusters until the cows came home. They would even watch it with us. My mother would always chuckle when Bill Murray – ever the master of understatement, even then – reacted to the sight of a hundred-foot marshmallow man tearing up Fifth Avenue with the words “Well, there’s something you don’t see every day”. Meanwhile, my father howled with laughter every time Rick Moranis emerged from the wreckage of the destroyed penthouse, gazing at the smouldering rubble around him, before remarking “Boy, the superintendent’s gonna be pissed!”.

Years later it is still my favourite line, and I wonder how much of this is a judgement of quality and how much of it is raw nostalgia. Because when I think about it, Ghostbusters united us as a family in a way that no other film before or since – with the possible exception of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – has managed to do. We watched and experienced it together and in a strange sort of way it brought us closer together. And when I think about it now, that oh-so-laborious afternoon that I had to spend before I got to open up the video case for the first time wasn’t so much about seeing the film again as it was about introducing it to my brother, who was yet to experience it. The ability to watch it took second place to the newfound ability to discuss it and play games that were centred around it, and I can still recall the thrill of seeing his face light up the first time he saw Murray get slimed by the onion ghost.

Lately, I’ve wondered how much of this I may have transferred onto my own children. Because Halloween in our house began early – on Saturday evening, to be precise, when Emily had gone out and I elected to begin our celebrations now. We don’t trick-or-treat, but we have a pumpkin and I allow the boys to watch a (reasonably) scary film. Joshua has been asking about Ghostbusters for years, and until this year I’ve denied him, simply because sometimes the gift of a particular film or book isn’t appreciated before you reach a certain age, but lately I’ve felt he was ready. It was supposed to be just the two of us, but an insomniac Thomas wandered in towards the end of the first act and sat with us for the rest of it, as silent and receptive as he is at his best. Joshua, meanwhile, burst into fits of laughter every time a ghost was seen eating or Murray did something funny.

The next day, without any encouragement or help from me, he was busy. Here’s his Ecto-1.

Here’s a rendition of the onion ghost.

And finally, here’s a Lego self-portrait, wearing a Ghostbusters t-shirt.

It also gave me an excuse to play through this again.

I’ve experienced it before – a couple of years back – but it’s better with company. And on this occasion I had Josh sitting with me, watching as we blasted and slammed our way through the Sedgewick and Times Square, drawing in his breath at the fisherman ghost, and then giggling whenever a stray beam touched one of the other players. And, of course, he’s blissfully unaware that – like the film we’ve just watched – this is just an extension of my childhood, a time when I was not much older than he is now, and all those Saturday afternoons round a friend’s house playing the first Ghostbusters game on his Amstrad. It became an excuse for not doing other things, much like many of my gaming habits now. In my bedroom we had a Spectrum, rather than an Amstrad, and the game looked dreadful, but we loved it, and we played it to death.

Times have changed, but I basically haven’t.




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Things to do on a wet bank holiday

The other week, Joshua and his brothers went to visit their friend Yinka, who lives a few streets away. Visits to and from Yinka are a regular activity. Yinka loves the Smurfs and anything pink, but somehow she and Joshua get on like a house on fire.

Yinka has an interesting book in her collection: Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt’s You Choose, a teeming mass of images with minimalist accompanying text, asking its reader to consider what sort of house they would like, or what sort of clothes they like, or whom they would most like to meet. From one point of view it is an absurd endorsement of consumer culture. From another it is choice fatigue in a nutshell and could thus be psychologically damaging. From yet another – and this may be the correct way – it is a fun, stimulating discussion point that is the cause of arguments when everyone wants to look at it at the same time.

Joshua was particularly taken with the book, but it wasn’t until yesterday that he suggested creating his own version. He had initially had the idea of drawing the pictures, but Emily found an old scrapbook in the craft cupboard and foraged around the living room and study salvaging whatever catalogues she could find. I spent half my morning cutting, and in the afternoon we stuck, once he’d decided where each image would be placed. As I go to press this evening the work is incomplete – I need to find pictures of houses and toys – but as a work in progress it’s looking quite promising.

It was perhaps inevitable that Who would feature in there somewhere, because half the magazines we used turned out to be old copies of Doctor Who Adventures. Anyway, here is his Doctor Who page:

It’s missing the question, because text is yet to be added, but you get the general idea. Josh was initially going to ask “Who would you most like to meet?” but then we added the Jammie Dodger, which does kind of kill the mood a little. We then toyed with the idea of ‘What would you most like to happen?’, which doesn’t even make sense. As it stands I suspect that we will end up asking the first question, the one that must never be asked, hidden in plain sight…”Why don’t you switch off your TV set and do something less boring instead?”.

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