How Telly in the 70s, 80s and 90s created a cult of weirdos in a way that streaming sites never could.
Maybe it was because I spent too much time staring at the test card, with its frozen ghost girl and creepy clown doll, or watching surreal sequences on children’s schools and colleges show Picture Box, but even as a kid I sensed there was something more strange and mysterious out there to cut through the banal noise of mainstream programming. Somehow, I’d always been drawn to the off-kilter, the scary or the unquestionably bizarre and if it came to me via the medium of our small Rediffusion rented telly, all the better. The thing is, if you accidentally stumble across deeply troubling stuff like Tales of the Unexpected episode ‘William and Mary’, when you’re aged only eight, and become slightly traumatised by its story of a woman’s domineering husband being bought back from death as a helpless brain in a box, you’re hardly like to ever be same the again. If it wasn’t that, it was being made to watch horrific nuclear war enactment Threads in a health and social class, or stumbling across some frankly terrifying episodes of Armchair Thriller, or being exposed to some weirdo eastern European communist propaganda that had been chucked into the schedules instead of a Roadrunner cartoon, I have always found another ‘way in’.
If it wasn’t via the creepy as hell kid’s nightmare Sky, it was the unconventional British X-Men vehicle, The Tomorrow People, with its spine-tingling black and white opening credits, which made me see there was always a stranger path to follow. While shows like the aforementioned anthology effort Tales of the Unexpected has become part of the landscape of popular culture, inspiring the likes of Black Mirror or being referenced in Inside No.9, other odd delights have been abandoned to foggier realms, half-remembered snippets at the backs of our imagination. One such gem was the Simon Drake fronted Channel 4 magic show, The Secret Cabaret, which ran from 1990-1992.
Very much an antidote to the light entertainment fare of the ‘other channels’, Drake’s series cut across the family-friendly dross of Wayne Dobson and Paul Daniels, often with an actual chainsaw. The thirty-minute spectacular, incorporating goth culture and a heavy metal sensibility, championed the darker side of the performance art and sleight of hand industry, bombarding the senses with bizarre and bloody illusions in a gob-smacking precursor to the likes of The Jim Rose Circus and Penn and Teller. Drake, the mysterious host, cast his much welcome spell over me, his shtick becoming just as strong an influence on my rag-tag punk band, as The Ramones, The Pistols or The Stooges. This oblique hybrid of grand Guignol and Fortean presentation, became a powerhouse of otherness, an unmissable fixture in my crappy mining town reality.
Around that same period, over on BBC 2, The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) star and creator Richard O’Brien was commandeering a late Friday night slot, which he chose to populate with his off-kilter content. The Mystery Train, a weekly dose of weird, re-ran episodes of odd X-Files grandparent show, The Night Stalker, showcased alternative and often deeply disturbing animated shorts, and introduced movies like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and Earth vs. the Spider (1958) to a whole new generation of Mad Dog 20/20 swigging cult crusties. O’Brien presided over the strange magazine show, with his custom brand of meandering non-sequiturs, and the style of the series, particularly its distinctive opening sequence was cast in the shadowy memory of forgotten British films like Death Line (1973), with its ‘Mind the Gap’ reference point. Sadly, it only lasted ten episodes, and O’Brien would find more populist acclaim in shows like The Crystal Maze.
However, another late-night BBC 2 show which also specialised in cult cinema, would eclipse The Mystery Train’s flash in the pan moment by serving up a glorious twelve-year run. Though it was taken over by Mark Cousins in its later stages, to most, Moviedrome, a gourmet picture show, for the discerning weirdo, will forever be associated with spiky-haired alternative filmmaker Alex Cox. The series offered up a seemingly never-ending supply of largely unearthed or overlooked unusual cinematic gems, and esoteric favourites. Cox would unwrap these carefully curated gifts, with all the wit and bedevilment of an unfrocked priest catching sight of his wicked reflection in a boiled over font.
It was a joyous Sunday night haven for a broke doley, film nut such as myself, the last drops of the weekend would be forever flavoured with the heady delights of Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), The Baby (1973), Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), or natty spaghetti westerns like Django (1966). There were also oddball cheapos like Carny (1980), or the haunting Carnival of Souls (1962), and the incredibly prescient early Oliver Stone flick, Talk Radio (1988), which seemed to foreshadow the rise of Trump’s misinformed populism by almost thirty years. There isn’t a modern equivalent to Moviedrome, I suspect there never will be again. There was something about being part of a continuous presentation, a ‘curated event’ which made you feel wanted. You belonged to this world.
The point is I’m not sure I ever planned on being weird, but growing up in the seventies and eighties meant I was groomed by a wave of lax parenting, barely existent health and safety, and televisual content, which was either spewed through the squandered psychedelic filter of ex-hippies or curiously wizened old men. Not only that, children’s programming was always awash with antiquated products, TV listings were just as likely to contain Charlie Chaplin shorts, Champion the Wonder Horse or the fizzing art deco spaceships of a nineteen-thirties Flash Gordon serial, as they were Scooby-Doo or Bagpuss. Culturally it was an odd time, but for me it was a vital one, growing up with just three channels and no such thing as a VCR, meant that the whole world, – it’s palatable and it’s less than palatable side – was curiously up for grabs in a way that modern fully catered for young audiences will never quite understand.
Don’t get me wrong It’s not that I’m anti-Netflix or any other streaming sites, per se, to a lot of younger people this way of viewing is the only thing they’ve ever known. And it’s not like I’m trying to suggest there’s nothing decent to watch these days when there is a plethora of good stuff to get stuck into. I guess what I’m challenging is our slightly disrespectful relationship with output now. Disrespectful in a sense that too many options have made us resistant to new ideas, styles or genres. And while there is the illusion of choice, too often we are being coerced via algorithms and constant waves of social media intrusion. We are losing the ability to discover, slowly or otherwise hidden gems and alternative oddities, for fear of being steamrollered by the cancel culture, FOMO society. And while I’m just as guilty as anyone of binging through content, I’ve never quite been convinced that there’s anything to be gained from instant gratification. When you lived through a period when you could only access output at particular times for a brief moment, it allowed you to develop a connection with films and TV shows which surpassed the merits of either the physical media or streaming obsessed culture.
Largely the accidental unearthing of weirder content, outside of cult boutique label collector circles has pretty much disappeared and though the rise in popularity of excellent channels like Talking Pictures, with its committal to rarer vintage material, is encouraging, it’s demographic is mainly the pre-converted. Which begs an important question, if the past delivery of televisual content, with its scattergun, lack of option approach, created an atmosphere of self-discovery and a connection to a more esoteric counter culture, where, in these days of spoon-fed, choice-illusion will the next batch of square-eyed weirdos spring from?