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Saturday, 14 January 2012

Press Gang

When I was 12, things were black and white. A distinct line was drawn between ALL things – you either liked one or the other, and you once you’d made your choice, you stuck to it.

Beano or Dandy. Barbie or Sindy. McDonalds or Burger King. Dr. Fox or Simon Mayo. Children’s BBC or CITV.

The BBC, with ‘Pip’ Schofield and his stupid hand puppet, was for pansies who liked making a rubbish papier mache Tracy Island or watching Michaela Stracken stroke an anteater – but ‘CITV’ had children forced into metal masks on Knightmare, Pat Sharp going mental in a ball pool and of course, Press Gang.

Yes it was on ‘channel three’, yes it had people kissing and saying mild swear words - but to my youthful eyes, Press Gang was a thrilling vision of the future – this is what being a teenager was going to be like.

From the opening titles, with the swing of the typewriter followed by the thumping da da da dum theme tune and Julia Sawalha’s smiling face – I was hooked.

Press Gang had a great premise. Instead of expelling delinquent pupils of Norbridge High, the headmaster forced them to work on the school’s newspaper, the Junior Gazette. To keep them in line, they installed hard-nosed bitch Lynda Day (Sawalha) as the take-no-prisoners editor. A sort of pubescent Maggie Thatcher, the only time you saw Lynda looking happy was in those opening credits – for the rest of the run, she was horrible to pretty much everyone, especially her will-they-won’t-they-on-again-off-again love interest, the rebellious Spike (Dexter Fletcher).

This relationship was the backbone of a series that stands up as the best children’s television series ever made. No, scrap that, I’d go so far as to say that Press Gang is THE best television series ever made FULL STOP.

From 1989 to 1993 millions of school girls lusted over Dexter Fletcher (despite his terrible American accent) while the boys could only dream of being told where to shove their late Norbridge FC match report by Sawalha.

The newsroom also featured the dodgy ad salesman Colin, plum-faced Deputy Editor Kenny and flirty graphics Ed Julie (future Phil Mitchell assassin Lucy Benjamin). Even Suggs and Sadie Frost pop up at one point.

Written by current Doctor Who and Sherlock scribe Steven Moffat, Press Gang never spoke down to its audience. Such was the continuity of the show that you would see minor characters from earlier episodes reappear years later – and be expected to remember them.

Press Gang could be edgy and risqué, but also witty and romantic. It wasn’t just that it tackled youth issues like drug and child abuse – Grange Hill had been doing that for years – it was the way it covered them with humour and poignancy.

When Lynda quits the paper at the end of series one, you were devastated, and when Spike almost dies in a bomb blast a year later and realises Lynda doesn’t love him, you’d be ready to ball your eyes out.

Over the course of five series, a staff member is shot dead, another commits suicide, and in the very last episode, Lynda repents her sins in hell.

And I never saw that happening on the Really Wild Show.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Rubik’s Cube

Did you know that the Rubik’s Cube was invented in 1974 by Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture Ernő Rubik?

He sounds like he’d be fun at a dinner party doesn’t he? Well he wasn’t – he was probably in the corner twisting a white, red, blue, orange, green, and yellow box around instead of commenting politely on the pavlova.

In the 80s, EVERYONE had a Rubik’s Cube, whether you wanted one or not. It was the law.

For anyone not around in the 80s, it was a small plastic puzzle with 54 different coloured blocks making up a six sided cube. To win, you had to make each of the six sides the same colour by rotating each face.


Well, did you ALSO know there are exactly 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 permutations of the Rubik’s Cube – that’s approximately forty-three quintillion.

And this is a present they gave to ten-year-olds. That’s the equivalent of being a forty-three quintillion piece jigsaw – and at least you get a pretty picture of a dinosaur when you finish that. With the Rubik’s Cube, all you got was a cube with six coloured sides – completely useless except for throwing at the cat.

To me, this was just a gift designed to make you feel stupid, angry and bored – in exactly that order – then go back to watching your Ghostbusters VHS.

Anyone who told you they could complete the Rubik’s Cube was lying. Nobody could do the Rubik’s Cube – unless they did it the way I did: peel off all the coloured stickers and re-stick them so all the sides match up. Then take it into the playground the next day and look smug.

(One man who could do it was Feliks Zemdegs, who holds the world record for completing the cube in 6.65 seconds)

An even easier way to solve the cube was merely to twist off the smaller individual cubes, then shove them back on in the correct order. I reckon I could do that in 6 seconds. EAT THAT FELIKS ZEMDEGS.

Poor Professor Rubik could never quite match the success of his multi-coloured cube – but I did own his follow up, Rubik’s Magic. Bored of squares, he’d come up with an exciting new innovation – circles. Basically you wibble-wobbled connected titles around ‘til you made a picture of a circle. This one was more annoying than the Cube because there was no way of dismantling it and cheating.

(BONUS FACT: Yuxan Wang holds the world record for completing Rubik’s Magic in 0.71 seconds.)

The Cube, however, remains an iconic image of the 80s. Every household really did have one, even though 99 per cent of them would just use it as a paperweight. Somehow Prof Ernő managed to convince the world to buy his useless plastic puzzle even though few had the brains to solve it. Now that’s real genius

Thursday, 28 July 2011


The first computer I ever saw, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was about the size of a large paperback book, jet black (save the rainbow flash of colours zipping across the bottom corner) with tiny grey rubber keys.

Invented by balding scientist Sir Clive Sinclair in 1984, the Spectrum was one of the first home computers. Plugged into the telly, you could play games in your own front room! Granted, they were all rubbish, but I wasn’t allowed in arcades, so to me, they were like stepping into TRON.

If you could go back in time to visit the eight-year-old me, and swap my Spectrum for an XBOX, it would be like giving a caveman a Cornetto. I’d love it for five minutes and then throw up, my body unable to comprehend the assault of colours, music and hard-core violence. (That is exactly what would happen if you gave a caveman a Cornetto)

For one, all the games for the Spectrum were on cassette tapes.

While this made copying your mate’s games pretty easy (all you needed was a tape-to-tape HiFi) it did mean that most Spectrum games took at least eight minutes to load. EIGHT MINUTES. Can you imagine any child today waiting eight minutes for Call of Duty to load? No, they’d be off spray-painting the library.

I found those eight minutes quite handy – you could pop downstairs for some toast and cup of tea and be back before the game had loaded. That way, you also avoided the EXCRUCIATING loading noises. Like scraping a cat’s claws down a blackboard while simultaneously putting its tail in a George Foreman grill. No one who owned a Spectrum will ever forget that noise – and it lasted EIGHT MINUTES.

(Later, when the games became more complicated, you often had to inset ANOTHER cassette tape and wait AGAIN. Even then around 75 per cent of the time, you’d just get an ERROR message and have to start over.)

However, if you were patient, you were rewarded with an embarrassment of riches.

Take the game Horace Goes Skiing for example. Check out these state of the art graphics. And the gameplay! You could move Horace left AND right!


Another staple of the Spectrum was the text based adventure game. These dispensed with graphics and moving characters completely, opting instead for descriptions of what was happening. The player would simply type instructions such as ‘go north’ to move to the next location.

But the rubbish nature of the graphics eventually forced programmers to be wildly creative with gameplay resulting in some of the cleverest, most inventive games ever made.

Sinclair brought out a 128k memory version, allowing software companies to make games like Chaos (chess with wizards), Laser Squad, (vast tactical warfare) and Elite (a never-ending space trading game). Soon, the Spectrum had become the most popular home computer in Europe. Kids at school that had the rival Commodore 64 were losers – the ‘Speccy’ was king.

Back then, you didn’t need 72 programmers, voice-artists, musicians and script-writers to make a game. Anyone could learn to code games on their own machine, meaning there was no end to the bizarre titles that came out. If a programmer had an idea, they could make a game out of it.

Want a somersaulting egg that solves puzzles? No problem, you had Dizzy – a sort of Indiana Jones with a yoke. Then there was Paperboy (you just had to deliver papers), Marble Madness (you were a marble), School Daze (you were a naughty schoolboy who had to terrorise fellow pupils without getting detention) and Jet Set Willy (not too sure what happened in that one…)

I loved my Spectrum more than it was normal to love a stupid noisy box of wires. It became more than a hobby – hunting down second hand games at car boot sales and devouring both monthly fan magazines, Sinclair User and Your Sinclair.

Even when Amiga’s, Mega Drive and Nintendo arrived, I stuck with my old Speccy. The new games dried up, but there was still a hardcore fan base still programming their own. I still remember the last ever issue of Your Sinclair – a massive double edition that paid tribute over a decade of Sir Clive’s revolutionary home computer. It was like Michael Jackson had died.

Now, the entire concept of the Spectrum is so alien to today’s youth, it’s hard to believe they even existed. But they did, and I’ve still got mine in the loft somewhere to prove it. I’ve got an XBOX now, and while the games look like Hollywood movies and you can spend hours recreating World Cup finals against 12 year-olds on the other side of the world, I’d still rather sit through eight minutes of screeching and play a two-dimensional black and white game featuring a somersaulting egg every time.

Sunday, 24 July 2011


Before X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, before even Stephen Mulhern’s Animals Do The Funniest Things, Saturday nights on ITV were ruled by one show – Gladiators.

Every Saturday evening, families across the nation would sit down with a plate of oven chips and watch the lycra-clad likes of Hunter, Falcon, Jet and Panther slug it out with members of the public at the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham.

The show comprised of a series of challenges, undertaken by fitness fanatics from around the UK. So you’d have Greg, an IT consultant from Milton Keynes battling Rhino – a man actually wider than he was tall – by bouncing around on giant elastic bungee ropes, smashing each other offer pedestals with massive foam sticks or racing up climbing walls.

The best Gladiator was Wolf. Wolf was in fact a 57 year old homeless man pulled off the streets at the last minute by London Weekend Television producers, desperate for someone to play the bad guy. Wolf was a pantomime villain, all straggly hair and crazy eyes.

Supposed to be terrifying, he was by far the least frightening Gladiator, and you could see the contestants visibly draw a sigh of relief if he was their chosen opponent. Only Shadow actually looked like he might actually be taking the whole thing completely seriously and could possibly kill a contestant

The whole thing was hosted perkily by Ulrika Johnson and John ‘Fash’ Fashanu, but referee John Anderson had the catchphrase– shouting ‘Contestant, Ready! Gladiator, Ready!’ in his broad Scottish accent before blowing his whistle loudly.

The big finale was a race between the two contestants through the ominously named The Eliminator– basically a big assault course over various crash mats and monkey bars. The Eliminator ended with possibly the most tortuous device ever created – The Travelator. Essentially one of those moving walkways you get at the airport, only risen by 45 degrees and going backwards, it had the power to sap any remaining ounce of remaining energy from an already exhausted contestant. Every week, you could guarantee at least three minutes of joy, laughing as a contestant tried in vain to jog up it, their legs going nine to the dozen, but getting nowhere. If someone did manage to run up the Travelator, their reward was getting to jump spectacularly through a piece of paper and have a sweaty chat with Ulrika. There must have been some sort of prize, but I can’t remember what it was. Perhaps a sweaty chat with Ulrika was enough.

The show was incredibly popular, turning the phrase ‘pugel sticks’ a household phrase and catapulting the muscle-bound Gladiators into superstars. Kids would watch for the sub-WWF style pantomime, while the Dads could enjoy the glamorous delights of female Gladiators like Jet and Lightning. Sky1 re-made Gladiators a couple of years ago, but it’s time had passed. It’s real successor is the BBC’s Total Wipeout – essentially Gladiators without the Gladiators – and that, my friends, is what is called missing the point.

Sunday, 10 July 2011


Picture the scene. A school assembly circa 1986. One sentence is whispered across the hall.

“Megatron is dead.”


You are joking.

But how? He’s too powerful! It CAN’T be true.

But it was true. Megatron, evil leader of the Decepticons, had finally been defeated by his nemesis Optimus Prime.*

In the world of Transformers, this was like JR getting shot, Dirty Den divorcing Angie or Simon Groom leaving Blue Peter. In other words, it was MASSIVE.

Remember the boardroom scene in Big when Tom Hanks comes up with the idea of a robot that turns into a giant bug? Somewhere, sometime in the Eighties, in some Hasbro office in California, that happened for real. Some genius came up with an idea so devastatingly simple, it changed toys forever:

Kids like robots. Kids like cars. SO WHAT ABOUT A ROBOT THAT IS ALSO A CAR?

It’s probably the best idea of all time. Better than the egg cup, better than chocolate covered pretzels and much better than boring rubbish like Action Man (not a robot, couldn’t change into a car) and Star Wars figures. (Some robots, no cars).

And so in 1984 Transformers were born. Plastic cars that with a flick of the thumb would become robotic warriors from the planet Cybertron. What kid wouldn’t want to play with that? Okay, so while the vehicles looked alright, you’d usually end up with a slightly dodgy looking robot with a tyre for a head and a hubcab for an arm. That didn’t matter though. The sheer concept of a robot that was also a car was so brilliant that it was hard to believe such a thing could really exist.

But now they did exist and you could buy them for less than a tenner.

While Megatron had by far the best name of all the Transformers, he had the worst transformation. He transformed into a gun. Bear in mind that Megatron could fire lasers out of his hands when in robot form, but he still chose to bizarrely transform into a gigantic Walther P38 pistol. (In the cartoon, the gun would magically shrink so one of the other transformers (who could also shoot lasers anyway!!!) could hold it.)

So basically Megatron was completely useless, but that didn’t matter cos as well as cars and robots, kids also liked playing with toy guns.

The Autobots had leader Optimus Prime, a big red truck, and his buddy Bumblebee, a little yellow Beetle. The Decepticons had Megatron of course, and others like StarScream (a jet) and Soundwave (a cassette tape (below). YES YOU READ THAT RIGHT - A CASSETTE TAPE. He wasn’t so fun to play with as the big gun). However, showing the popularity of the show still to this day, a few years ago Hasbro reissued Soundwave in an updated Mp3 player version!

The idea was that they could wage their war in secret by disguising themselves as ‘earth vehicles’. Except they were transforming pretty much all the time into giant massive robots and beating the crap out of each other.

Once the cartoon spin-off started on telly, Transformers was all anyone ever talked about ever. It was the only TV show ever where the opening titles seemed longer than the actual cartoon itself. In it, the robots constantly shot lasers at each other for a good two minutes while a scary robot sings the theme tune. It’s like a horrible Haribo-induced nightmare and must have terrified parents across the country.

Of course now, 25 odd years later, we have the big budget live action films that have already grossed 27 billion dollars, and a new load of Transformer toys.

It just goes to prove that good ideas last.

*Don’t panic robot fans – it turned out Megatron didn’t actually die, he was merely ‘upgraded’ into the equally evil Galvatron by the all-powerful Unicorn. Phew!

Monday, 27 June 2011

Green Lantern

Superhero movies are like sharks – if they stop moving, they die. Ok, maybe not exactly like sharks. But in a movie like Green Lantern, if the audience is given too much time to realise quite how silly what they’re watching is, then they’ll give up.

Despite having fighting purple aliens, making giant fists out of magic rings and a phobia of the colour yellow, everything in Green Lantern feels flat.

An adaptation of the DC comic, Green Lantern is the story of jet fighter pilot Hal Jordan, who reluctantly takes the place of Earth's protector as part of the Green Lantern Corps, a team of intergalactic space cops.

After a good set up, Green Lantern seems like it has all the ingredients, but ultimately spends too much time faffing about with Jordan's dull love life and boring baddies.

Ryan Reynolds is likeable enough as the man in the horrible CGI green tights, but his slacker superhero seems as bored with the whole thing as we are. Basically Top Gun’s Maverick in Space, he’s no different than cinema's countless other lovable rogues who come good in the end.

The one thing that does set Green Lantern apart from say, Superman or Thor, is his power-ring's unique ability to create whatever objects he can imagine - a race car to rescue an out of control helicopter, water to soften the landing of a falling damsel in distress or a brick wall to hide behind. This means Green Lantern has to out think his enemies, rather than just BIFF POW his way out of danger.

But sequences like this, and Hal's Green Lantern training on their home planet, which should have been fun are cut short in favour of lengthy chats between his tough guy boss Sinestro and six funny blue people who sit on massive pillars.

Add to this a very ineffectual villain in Peter Sarsgaard's mutated mad scientist Hector Hammond, and you've got a bona fide snooze-fest.

Green Lantern always never rises above ordinary, and seems satisified with that, almost as if it’s bored with itself. It has the audience in its grasp, but never goes in for the kill.

And that's something you could never say about a shark.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Dungeons and Dragons

The opening titles of Dungeons & Dragons were genuinely terrifying.

As eerie fairground music tinkles in the background, a group of kids take a ride on a ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ rollercoaster. Suddenly, they’re whisked into a nightmarish dimension where they’re immediately charged by a fire breathing five headed dragon.

Luckily, they’re quickly assisted by the Dungeon Master – imagine a sort of squashed Ross Kemp with Jimmy Saville’s hair – who gives each of them a magical weapon and a new job title.

There’s Hank, the Ranger and the gang’s leader, Shelia, who had a cloak that made her invisible, and a massive crush on Hank, and her kid brother, Bobby, the Barbarian. Then there was Presto, the rubbish Magician and Diana, the Acrobat, whose magically super weapon was basically, a stick. And not forgetting the best character, Eric, the Cavalier – a total sh*t, but also the only one who echoed what we were all thinking watching at home, that the whole thing was completely unfair.

Each episode would see the gang try to locate a portal that would take them back to the real world. Invariably, they’d battle their arch foe, the demon-like Venger, before getting within inches of a portal that offered a tantalising but unreachable glimpse of the theme park, filled with sunshine and happy children eating candyfloss.
Of course, they never made it through.

Usually this was thanks to Uni, Bobby’s squeaking pet unicorn and probably the single most annoying cute sidekick in a cartoon series ever. Almost every episode the gang’s attempt to get back home was ruined by Uni getting her horn stuck in a bush or something.

Most episodes found the group trying their best to put on a brave face as they climbed some impossibly harsh rock face or trekking across a never-ending ice-field before Dungeon Master popped up to set them their task.

You could almost hear a nation of kids screaming as he delivered his infuriatingly ambiguous riddle that was supposed to lead the gang home. In fact, this feeling was, once again, regularly voiced by super-cynical Eric, who was the only character who seemed to recognise how ridiculous the situation was.

Most of us were just praying for the episode where Eric finally lost it and spent the remaining 15 minutes of the show repeatedly punching Dungeon Master in the face while shouting ‘JUST TELL US WHERE THE *$%^$% PORTAL IS YOU BALD HEADED LITTLE S@*T’ and then drop-kicking Uni off a cliff.

The sense of hopelessness I felt as a child watching Dungeons & Dragons has never left me. There weren’t many cartoons where the lead characters were almost exclusively miserable – hounded around an inhospitable landscape by a one-horned bastard and continually ridiculed by a wizened old man with a potato face.
So genuinely did I want those poor kids to get home to their parents, I would have gladly accepted that it meant the end of the show. The saddest thing of all though, is that they never did get back home. The show was cancelled in the middle of its third series, leaving the kids stranded forever. (If they ever did get back though, they could’ve sued that theme park for millions…)