Blimey. Where does the time go to? Three years since I reviewed Volume 1 of this. Feels like yesterday, yet here we are. Older, much greyer and still with a head full of stuff. Half remembered fragments of old tv shows. Bits of favourite films. Books. You know how it is. You’ll almost certainly be the same. We experience so many things in so many different media and a lot of it sticks to your mental ribs. You carry it with you for the rest of your life. You might not necessarily want to, but there it is. Sometimes it’s a single screening with a momentary, terrifying scene that sears itself into your memory. It might be longer term – a series, where the cumulative effect of it never ever leaves you. Like it or not, there it is. You are indeed Scarred For Life.
Which is where we came in. “Scarred For Life Volume 2” is with us, and it is rammed full of in-depth articles about The Stuff We Used To Watch. We’re deep in the 1980s this time and there’s a lot to get through. So much that this is merely the first volume of a truly deep dive into a very odd decade. Whereas Volume 1 was an enormous doorstop of a book that covered a wide, wide range of subjects – TV, Film, Board Games, Books and much much more, this particular decade has kittled. “Scarred For Life – The 1980s” will now be published in two volumes, of which this is the first. This one’s dedicated to television in the 1980s. The forthcoming volume will cover everything else. Appropriately enough for a decade dominated by nuclear terror and expectation of an apocalypse that never came, all that stuff’s covered in volume 3. What we have here is a deep dive into the television of the period, overshadowed by that awful, overwhelming terror… but it doesn’t actually arrive. Clever.
So… having discussed what isn’t in here, what does this latest installment actually cover? Pretty much everything you could hope for, as it goes. There’s an awful lot of television discussed here and it gave me serious pause for thought at times. I was born in 1970 so these books neatly break down into ten year periods of my life. I was 10 when the time covered in these pages starts and was about to hit my twenties at the other end of it. In between there are a lot of things that I remember so vividly it could have been yesterday, and a surprising number of things that… I don’t remember at all. Not even a single frame. I lost an awful lot of my 1980s to the home computer boom. After an initial frantic love affair with the ZX81 I fell head over teenage heels with my ZX Spectrum 48k model and that was me. Ultimate Play The Game and Level Nine Software pretty much had their most dedicated fan, and television must have lost me, at least for several huge chunks of the 1980s. As a result, this book’s had me scurrying off compiling lists. First list – “dig this out of the collection and watch it again immediately“. Second list – “never even heard of this. Go and find a copy and watch it as soon as you possibly can”. As it turned out the two lists ended up pretty much evenly balanced, but I was surprised by how much in this was brand new to me. You’d have expected me to know this stuff but I’m missed them completely. I’m grateful to the editors and their tremendous cast of contributors for not only reminding of a lot of things I loved but also for ensuring that my immediate future will be full of exciting new/old discoveries.
The format is elegantly straightforward – lengthy, incisive essays, broken up with shorter pieces on other shows – these “short sharp shocks” are dotted around between the larger sections and break things up nicely. There are pieces on classic title sequences – here called “classic intros” – and occasional interviews and reminiscences from people involved in the making of the shows are placed in context next to their relevant article. Makes the whole thing a wonderfully immersive and rich experience. Everything is where you would expect and where it should be.
So… here we go. Johnny Mains is up first, and if you can get through that introduction without wanting to reach into the pages and hug Johnny, you’re made of stronger stuff than me. The 1980s were a cold decade for so many people, and Johnny has every cause to look back with a jaundiced eye. The intro is full of enthusiasm and love for the television of the time – even under the harshest of circumstances the box in the corner could provide a temporary escape, a glimmer of comfort. Johnny evokes that so vividly. A compelling start. A brief overview of the broadcasting landscape at the time and we’re off, diving straight in with “You Know – For Kids – Children’s TV in the Scarred For Life Era”.
Straight away the “never even bloody heard of it” list gets its first entry, with “Noah’s Castle”. I’ve always had quite a soft spot for Terrifying Visions Of The Future – at least until this year made me realise I was living in one. Now – not so much. This one’s a new one on me. Bleak, horrific, disturbing as you like and disturbingly relevant to our current times. I’ll definitely be seeking this one out, but possibly not right now. It’s all a bit too current for me. “Spine Chillers” I’m familiar with, thanks to the BFI’s impeccable “Ghost Stories For Christmas” set, but this piece whetted my appetite for the rest of the series. Time to go digging. Thankfully a lot of this material has surfaced on You Tube, so a grateful cheer and a tip of the hat to the generous souls who not only preserved these things in the first place on ancient VHS and Betamax (or any other format you might mention) but then made them available to the rest of us. Thank you all.
Lots of other memories stirred in this section. 1980s “Grange Hill” – Gripper, Zammo, Ro-Land and all the rest; the surprisingly bloodthirsty “Screen Test Young Film-Makers of the Year Competition”, Theatre Box / Dramarama, Look and Read and (naturally) Noseybonk are all here. All of the pieces are underpinned with Scarred For Life’s ethos of no sneering, no retrospective mickey-taking. It’s all treated with respect (and occasionally, astonishment, but that’s only to be expected, given some of the stuff under discussion).
Also in here is “Break In The Sun” – another one for the “never even bloody heard of it” pile. Thankfully “Dramarama”, “Spine Chillers” and “Grange Hill” are balancing things out in the “watch this again immediately pile”. I was the Tucker / Benny / Alan generation. Be nice to revisit those years again.
“Break In The Sun” sounds harsh as all get out, but fascinating. I’m amazed I didn’t see it at the time. One thing I did see at the time were “The Moomins”, and this book’s just reawakened a long-buried nighmarish memory. I’d forgotten about The Groke until now. My god. Some things are better left buried, I think. Having scurried off to You Tube, that wonderful pitch-bending theme tune is now buried in my head. First of many earworms caused by this book, I’m afraid.
No such nightmarish memories stirred up by Chocky, which is in here along with the sequel series. I did see it, but the radio version had much more of an impact on me (and I was pleased to find it namechecked here). The title sequence rightly gets its due, and I’m left feeling I may have underestimated the tv version.
“Tottie” is up next, which I know very very well. It left scars. If you saw it, you’ll know why. I adore Smallfilms – they’re my personal safe place, a little spot in my head that I can go to when things get too rough. I don’t revisit “Tottie” often though. There are things in there that stick in your memory, and not necessarily in the best way. They’re the half-remembered stuff of nightmares, the source of a hundred “what was that series where….?” discussions. As with so many of these shows, you wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
“The Tripods” is here – forever unfinished, forever abandoned. I carry a soft spot in my heart for it, ludicrously over-length though it might be, Pink Parrot and all. Scarred For Life do it full justice here, along with Knights of God which might as well have been written and cast directly for me, containing as it does more or less everyone who I’ve ever loved in British Television. If Michael Ripper were in there as well (and for all I know, he might as well be) I’d never have to watch anything else.
A lovely run through “Knightmare” is next – a series I missed because by the time it started I’d actually got my first job. God, I feel old. Thankfully, there’s a ton of it on You Tube so I can enjoy the sheer sadistic pleasure of watching those trembling contestants as the helmet goes on and the terror begins. “Oh, nasty….”
I joined the authors in rubbing my eyes in disbelief at the idea of animated versions of “Rambo” and “Robocop” – how, where, what when and WHY in that order were the questions which immediately sprang to mind. Oddly, I didn’t feel like hunting them down. Felt more like running fast in the opposite direction if I’m honest. Thankfully, some Short Sharp Shocks round this section out with looks at “Star Fleet”, “Alfie Atkins”, THAT episode of “Thomas The Tank Engine” and more. Napalm Death on Children’s TV? Lead me to it, mate.
Next up – “Future Shock – 80s Sci-Fi : Dark Dystopias and Bleak Endings”. This section’s got some of my favourite pieces in the entire book, covering as it does stuff that’s very close to my heart. If it was even vaguely science-fictiony in the 80s, I hoovered it up. Yes, even “V : The Series”, which is in here, along with the superior previous two runs. “For your information, Diana darling, I’ve never been bested in mortal combat”. “Of course you haven’t, Lydia DARLING… if you had, you’d be dead. That’s why they call it MORTAL combat”. I think that’s how it went – it’s like watching Servalan arguing with herself. Speaking of whom… my favourite article in the entire book is in here – a piece on “Blake’s 7″‘s remarkable 1980s episodes. I’ve always thought of B7 as the series with the widest quality gap in anything I’m a fan of – when it’s good, it is as good as anything else on TV but when it’s not, it’s… terrible. Really, really terrible. This article acknowledges the highs and lows in a way that had me gleefully reading the whole thing out to my wife. She’s trapped here with me in the current circumstances so she can’t escape. Didn’t seem to mind TOO much. Tarrant’s “Toast of London” tendencies I’d never noticed before but I think I always will from now on…
“The Day of the Triffids” is in here – about as familiar a piece of TV as I can possibly imagine. I’ve seen it so many times, but it never seems to diminish. Still superb, no matter what recent Blu-ray reissues have tried to do it. I didn’t indulge. I got to the reviews first, and spared myself the bother of getting righteously cross about it. My blood pressure’s not good at the best of times, I don’t need to encourage it.
“Artemis 81” is next. I’ve seen it. Once. One day, I’ll see it again, but I’m not sure when that day will be. While Rudkin can leave me absolutely hypnotized, spellbound and dragged along in the wake of an astonishing talent… this did nothing. I still don’t know if I’m just terminally thick, or if it really is that opaque. I’m usually able to make some sort of sense of Rudkin’s work, but not this one. Perhaps some day.
Another one for the “why the bloody hell didn’t I ever see this” pile is next. “They Came From Somewhere Else” sounds right up my street. Where was I back then? Oh, that’s right. Arsing about upstairs attempting to complete “The Worm In Paradise”, that’s where. I did see all of Star Trek, particularly the ghoulish bits – which is where, a Short Sharp Shock notwithstanding, is where this section ends. I found a CIC video of the two of the banned original series episodes in a tiny shop on the corner of a caravan park in 1987. Cost me a quid, and you’d have thought I’d won the lottery. I still quite like “Whom Gods Destroy”. “Plato’s Stepchildren”… not so much. I do recall the immense fuss over “Conspiracy” at the time. Reading this, I can’t imagine the uncut version ever slipping through back then. It’s nasty as hell, much nastier than I remember. Then again, if the cut version is all I saw at the time, no wonder this is such a jolt.
RIGHT. (Smacks hands together) Here we go, with another favourite section – “Grandish Guignol – Horror TV in the Scarred For Life Era”. Not much to go into the “what the hell is this pile” here, but the “watch again *immediately*” pile is beginning to grow. Appetite whetting articles on “Tales From The Unexpected” and “Hammer House of Horror” (focussing on certain specific episode – you will know which ones, instantly). “The Nightmare Man” is next – an absolute favourite of mine – there was a point where I could basically chant along with every line, I’ve seen it so often. Wreathed in atmosphere and so redolent of “Doctor Who” it even has a slightly disappointing last episode – the piece in here makes some very valid points about it that I’d never considered before, which may well colour my next viewing, and there will be a next viewing, because there always is.
Back when it first aired “Salem’s Lot” was the subject of a truly magnificent practical joke on the part of my father. One of my mates at school and I had convened to be big tough grown-ups and watch it together. In the dark. My room had two beds in it – free-standing, one near the door with a gap between, and a space on the far side between the other bed and the wall. My dad crawled up the stairs in the dark, bellied across the hallway landing, slid into our darkened room, slid across the floor, under both beds and came up on the far side between the bed on the wall and grabbed my mate with a “rrrrraaargh”. I think I can still hear the screaming.
To judge by the article in here, my Dad wasn’t the only one who did that stuff, although I still think his was the most spectacular example. This one obviously gripped the nation. In more ways than one, in the case of my mate. I of course, was totally unaffected. Of course I was.
“The Gourmet” is in here (Charles Gray eats an actual ghost), and we end with an epic look at “The Woman In Black”. Not only does it feature a scene that will stay with you forever, but it’s followed by “the most necessary ad break in the history of television” as Kim Newman puts it. He’s so right. Scarred For Life makes the valid point that “The Woman In Black” marks a turning point – television from here on in gets faster, nervier, more determined to grab your attention and hold it. This is slow, absolutely relentless and doesn’t need to grab your attention. You’re riveted from the first shot to the last. An incredible drama, and one fully deserving of inclusion here.
Some Short Sharp Shocks remind us of how downright weird and creepy “Bergerac” could occasionally be before we’re led quite naturally into “Scream Victoria – Victorian Ghosts Make A Comeback”. Now we’re talking. This stuff is meat and drink to me. I think I must have been bitten by a radioactive Lawrence Gordon Clark as a child because very little gets to me like a good old-fashioned Victorian Spine-Chiller. This section is purest catnip, containing as it does several old friends and several soon-to-be-new ones. “Ghost in the Water” I know – likewise “The Children of Green Knowe” and “Moondial”. “The Watch House”, I’d never even heard of before, ditto “The Secret World of Polly Flint”. Totally new territory to me, but I look forward to making their acquaintance. Delighted to find “The Bells of Astercote” name checked as a holy grail for archive TV fans. Some things were just out of reach for so long, and I can still remember the thrill when I finally saw it. Even more of a thrill when it didn’t let me down. It really is that good.
“Surreal Drama – Mainstream Weirdness in the Age of the Auteur” is up next, and you’d better strap yourselves in because it’s about to get absolutely bonkers, as Michael J Bird smashes his way into the conversation. A man who in a Radio Times interview suggested that several Greek Gods might have had a hand in writing his scripts for “The Aphrodite Inheritance”, the serials under discussion here are both new to me, and both have left me obsessed since I read about them this week. “The Dark Side of the Sun” – not to be confused with a Brad Pitt film of the same name or indeed a very early Terry Pratchett book – sounds blisteringly insane, and I want to see it now please. Unfortunately I can’t, because it’s severely absent online and the DVD’s been deleted, but I’ll keep searching. Patrick Mower as a ghost in a photograph? Peter Egan as a member of the Knights Templar? Old Nick himself pretending to be Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead force? I have to see this, ditto the slightly calmer but no less bizarre sounding “Maelstrom”, which at least seems to have been steadied by having dear old David Maloney and Vere Lorrimer involved. Always something new out there to discover, but I hadn’t ever considered that it might be as weird as these sound.
Things return to a slightly more even keel with “Edge of Darkness” about which I can only say – if you haven’t seen this, please seek it out immediately . Everything you’ve heard about it is true. It really is that good, it really is that intense, it really is that disturbing and it features two of the finest television performances you’ll ever see. Once Bob Peck and Joe Don Baker get going you can’t even countenance taking your eyes of them. Astonishing, and Bob Peck didn’t even have to turn into a tree at the end of it.
That one goes straight into the “watch this again immediately pile, as does “Dead Head”, one of those shows that I saw at the time and immediately dismissed as a cheese nightmare. It still seems impossibly odd. Denis Lawson, a head in a box, Avengers-esque captions on screen, Simon Callow, Norman Beaton and Lindsay Duncan, all noiring it up in ragingly furious spit-in-the-eye of the upper-classes from Howard Brenton. It did happen, I know, and other people obviously saw it too, because they’ve written about it here, but it still seems like a marvelous, strange hallucination. Television in the 80s was full of that, which is one of many reasons why this book is so rich in memories.
If we’re talking television auteurs in the 80s, Dennis Potter has to be given his due and so he does, with a great piece covering the history, banning and eventual transmission of “Brimstone and Treacle”, the furore surrounding “The Singing Detective” and the subsequent “Blackeyes”. The bit about Mary Whitehouse’s tape of smut and the disastrous attempt to weaponize it against the BBC is one of the funniest bits in this entire book. I was sixteen when I first saw Janet Henfrey’s scarecrow in “The Singing Detective”. That, and many rich, disturbing, off-kilter images, has never ever left me. I don’t suppose it ever will.
Mind you, if you want images that you can’t get rid of, try Alan Clarke’s “Elephant”, up next, along with his “Stars of the Roller State Disco”. Clarke is extraordinary – visionary, utterly fearless and the only man who I think who could ever have managed to get something as brutally uncompromising as “Elephant” on air. It is utterly remorseless, I’ve seen it once… and I don’t think I’ll ever watch it again. The BFI’s enormous box set of Clarke’s work is astonishing – if you get the chance, please seek it out, because – and I don’t use this word lightly – it’s the collected works of an absolute genius. “Stars of the Roller State Disco” pales a little by being bracketed with “Elephant” in this piece, I think – but it’s no less remarkable. Equally bleak, just in very different ways. You don’t come away from an Alan Clarke piece feeling comforted, but you do come away from it with Alan Clarke sitting inside your head, rewiring the way you think.
Remarkable to think that the subsequent Short Sharp Shocks on “Casualty’s Greatest Accidents”, the final “Blackadder” and Bet Lynch vomiting as The Rovers Return burns down could be seen as light entertainment, but that’s Alan Clarke for you – before you know it we’re out the other side and into “Channel Swore! The Early Days of Channel 4”.
Oh, Channel 4. You were mine back then. Swinging between mad animation, episodes of “The Munsters”, “The Avengers” and “Danger Man” and “challenging” foreign works, you really were an incredibly eclectic mix back when you started. I loved you to absolute pieces, and I like to think you loved me back. I don’t think I was alone either, as this section demonstrates. It’s all here, pretty much – the Red Triangle, “Skywhales”, La Cabina and yes, Minipops. Thankfully the latter is dispensed with as briefly as possible. While it’s part of the Channel 4 story, it’s one that I’d rather we buried as quickly as possible. I have to say, “Annika”, “Xerxes” and “S.W.A.L.K” are all new to me – I’ve drawn a blank on all three. I don’t recall seeing any of them, so Scarred For Life’s coverage was very welcome. It’s fascinating to fill in these gaps. The subsequent piece on the Children’s Film Unit is fascinating stuff. Not only a very worthy project, but there were obviously some extremely precociously talented people at work. “Under The Bed” and “Hard Road” are up on You Tube courtesy of Scarred For Life themselves, and I can’t thank them enough. It’s not only great to read about this stuff, it’s even better if you can see it as well. “Under The Bed” is a particular treat for me, not least because of a certain cameo at the end which warmed the cockles of this weary comedy-loving old heart. Seriously, it’s lovely.
Next up, we look at “Dole Dramas – Just Trying To Scrape By In Thatcher’s Britain”. This section will break your heart at times. It did mine, not least the first piece, talking about “World In Action” and “TV Eye”‘s brace of documentaries on Birkenhead. Writer Dave Lawrence has first hand experience of the area and his experiences and thread through this piece, making it very special indeed, and very powerful. His memories resonate strongly, and this is one of the best things here. Written with passion and from the heart, and full of anger and sadness. Superb piece.
The aforementioned Tucker Jenkins pops up next, featuring the Zelig-like Todd Carty. Wherever there is Popular Television, there he is, and here he returns to the role I know him best for. It’s What-Tucker-Did-Next, and though hampered by the absence of certain characters – Benny Green is nowhere to be seen, and at least one other main cast member buggers off before the end – but the continuity is tight as you like, there are new stories to tell, and Carty is as winning as always. I have fond memories of this one. Obviously I’m not alone.
In the never-ever-seen pile I must regrettably place “Johnny Jarvis”. I can’t believe I missed it, and the piece here makes me wish I hadn’t. It sounds terrific. Not so sure about “Dream Stuffing”, which I have vague memories of, and “Help!”, which nobody seems to have access to so much as a frame from. Funny how stuff falls through the cracks sometimes. I still love “Shelley”, but I take on board the reservations expressed by the author here – it’s to Hywel Bennett’s credit that the character remains as likeable as he is.
Nearly at the back end of the book now, and after a quick look at television’s dodgy but lovable dealers – “Minder”, “Only Fools”, “Give Us A Break”, “Big Deal” et al, we reach the Big One. “How We Used To Live – British Society As Seen On TV”. There’s some very strong stuff in here, including one piece where one of the book’s authors couldn’t actually watch the thing under discussion and had to hand over to his colleague. I can quite see why. The 80s were a weird old time, with – as the authors point out – many different incarnations of the decade all running at the same time. Some of it was glitz and glamour. Other bits, dark and bleak, other bits cheerily ploughing their own little furrow. It’s all in here, form the mad vogue for stuntmen and stunts, to our weird obsession with Nostradamus, to a horribly unsettling 40 Minutes on the subject of Page 3 girls. As for the piece on “Very Special Episodes”… I’d heard of that episode of “Diff’rent Strokes”, I think – but after reading this, I’m going nowhere near the damn thing. Brrrrrrr. Almost at the end, now, we have a stark look at Britain’s Rabies Scare – PIFs, “The Mad Death” et al, and “Juliet Bravo”‘s surprising drug-addiction story-line. Another one I’ve no memory of, and I used to love “Juliet Bravo”. How odd.
The awful, unthinking cruelty of children is thrown into relief with coverage of the likes of “John’s Not Mad”, Channel 4’s “Walter” et al. I’m afraid my school was every bit as bad. Every bit. We have a piece on “Wolcott”, contrasting nicely with “The Chinese Detective”. While I’d seen the latter, the former is new to me, and even the stuff under discussion here makes my jaw hit the floor. What does happen in that astonishing last ten minutes. I wonder if I’ll ever have the guts to find out. I’m not sure if I do, but we’ll see.
We wrap up this section with a lengthy piece on television advertising – some great stories here and some horrible buried memories. Obviously that bloody Kinder Egg advert is mentioned, but Mr Soft came as a jolting shock, and as for the British Pork advert… god almighty. How did I not know? How didn’t I ever notice? Naive to the point of stupidity, I suspect.
So to the final act. We wrap up with the PIFs. Some are as vivid to me as if they were yesterday (the Richard Williams studios Superman anti-smoking campaign, the John Hurt “don’t die of ignorance” AIDS awareness campaign). Some, I’d forgotten about completely until I read about them again this week (the Ken Stott drink-driving advert, Duncan Preston in the “Say No To Strangers” one). Some… will haunt my dreams forever (yes, I’m looking at you, you bloody terrifying “Natural Born Smoker”). Having been warned off it, I’m going nowhere near the Jenny Hanley advert about the dangers of hot liquids. I just about remember it, and there it’s going to stay. That’s a scar I don’t want to poke at.
A fine roundup of readers memories, and we are done. This epic trawl is finished, and it’s been an absolute blast. I took my time reading this. There’s a lot of love in these pages and I want to do it justice. Like the first volume, it’s quite superb. It will more than repay the time you spend with it. It’ll prod some welcome memories. It’ll bring some things you’d rather forget back into your mind. The thing it’ll do most of all, though, is bring the entire decade of television into vivid, sharp relief. I was there, and it was a hell of a ride. Thank you to all involved with this marvellous book for reminding me.
Scarred For Life 2 is available now, and can be purchased here