Wiffle Lever To Full!

Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

Archive for October, 2008

Signs of Impending Middle Age No 137…

…when you’re eating a late night cheese sandwich after a hot bath, and wonder where the unexpected (but not unpleasant) spicy taste is coming from.

Then you notice that you’ve still got a tiny smear of Preparation H on your finger.

I use it for the bags under my eyes, honestly.

Attack Of The Mutant Telephones

I forgot to say, I found a couple more nice reviews of Wiffle Lever the other day, one of which will probably end up on the back of the dinky paperback edition! It’ll be out in April 2009, in case you were wondering. And it’ll still be out in April 2009 even if you weren’t wondering.

It got a really nice write-up in The Gay Times, and the reviewer also wondered why so many out gay men also turned out to be closeted sci-fi fans. Doctor Who definitely has a huge gay following, and I did once ask the question to a couple of gents at a convention, but I’m afraid I was so drunk I can’t remember the answer. Although, to be fair, they were hardly closeted sci-fi fans as they were both wearing Dalek and Cybermen T-shirts at the time.

Anyway, the Gay Times called the book ‘a joyous irreverent celebration of Britain’s secret love of the bizarre’ which made me feel all warm, so thanks to their nameless but very kind reviewer!

And thanks also to the Nottingham Evening Post, who said ‘It’s hilarious… for anyone who has ever liked any of this stuff, there’s laughter and nostalgia aplenty’. I don’t know what the correlation between Nottingham residents and closeted sci-fi fans is, although I did once spend a night sleeping in my car on a backstreet in Beeston, and that’s definitely something I like to keep quiet about. Anyroadup, I’ve put a few more choice quotes on the ‘What’s Wiffle Lever To Full!’ page (look to your right) if anyone wants a shuftie.

Anyhoo… must dash as I have to wipe the dust off my guitar and practise the four chords that I can actually play with any degree of precision. Yes, I have a gig tonight – with the full Bob Fischer Band, and we’re supporting the brilliant MJ Hibbett at The Waiting Room. MJ is the twisted, cult genius whose musical tribute to the ZX Spectrum ‘Hey Hey 16K’ clocked up three million downloads, and the Waiting Room is a great little restaurant turned music venue in Eaglescliffe, near Stockton-on-Tees.

If anyone fancies a wander down tonight then it’d be lovely to see you. This might actually be my last gig for quite a while, as I’m planning to a) write another book b) make a disco-funk album called ‘Fishfinger Travesty’ and c) dig out my ZX Spectrum and try, once and for all, to get to Level 20 of Manic Miner.

Enjoy the rest of your Sunday.

Fishfinger Travesty

I had a bit of a shock this week. I’d  been discussing fishfingers with my friend Stuart (we lead a wild, decadent, life of adrenaline-fuelled rock’n’roll up here on Teesside) and dreamily reminiscing of how the Bird’s Eye fishfingers of our 1970s childhoods were so violently, luminously orange that they could be used during power cuts to find the candles in the kitchen drawer.

Inspired by this, I decided to buy a packet of fishfingers to eat for my lunch – squashed between pale, trembling slices of glacially white bread and lashed with an encroaching swamp of tomato ketchup so acidic it could feasibly be used to clean engine parts and industrial lathes.

Imagine my dismay, however, when I opened the fishfinger packet to find THIS…

What unhealthily pale specimens! So when did fishfingers stop being so violently, luridly orange? The kind of colour you’d arrive at if you subjected Cheesy Wotsits to a dose of deadly gamma radiation? It’s little wonder that the kids of today can’t be arsed to go out causing trouble and smashing windows with so little tartrazine in their diet. I blame Jamie Oliver.  

Anyway, in other news, regular readers of these ramblings (both of you) may recall that on September 18th, in the comments about Acklam Shops, I pontificated thus…

“I wanted to buy my Gran’s old bungalow back last night, as if that would somehow make it 1981 again. I wouldn’t live in it though, I’d just keep all my bloody stuff there”

Well bizarrely, I noticed this week that my Gran’s old bungalow is actually up for sale. And it’s vacant. If Wiffle Lever To Full! had sold 119,950 copies then I’d be tempted to make an offer, but it hasn’t, so I can’t. If anyone fancies putting together a consortium though, let me know. There’s probably a packet of violently orange fishfingers still stuck at the back of the freezer somewhere, with a Best Before date of December 1982. I know how they feel.

Hello, Campers!

I fulfilled a long-standing childhood ambition on Friday night. Some people are born wanting to climb Everest, others have a burning desire to advance science and explore the mysteries of the universe. I wanted to watch all 58 episodes of Hi-De-Hi in order of transmission.

And I’ve done it! Not all on Friday night, I hasten to add. If that was the case I’d now be a gibbering wreck in the corner of the room, repeatedly hammering out my three-note signature on a toy xylophone and mumbling the words ‘First rule of comedy, Spike’ to myself over and over and over again. No, it’s been a long haul, and a voyage of discovery that I’m incredibly proud of. I started the journey when the first DVDs came out in 2003, and for the last five years Ted Bovis, Spike Dixon, Gladys Pugh and all the rest of the motley team have been a lovely part of my life.

And I think that’s part of the appeal. I don’t find a lot of TV comedy these days that offers me characters that are both likeable and believable, but Hi-De-Hi does it without batting an eyelid as it winks at the Yellowcoats and pushes lesser sitcoms into the Olympic-sized swimming pool.  And yes, it’s got brilliant belly laughs, but it also has pathos in spades. What David Croft and Jimmy Perry knew instinctively was that the laughs are much better if you surround them with sadness.

When I watched Hi-De-Hi as a kid, I never got that – but working through them these last few years, the melancholy seeps through every scene. I recommended the series to my old mate John Jaques a while back, and the next time we chatted he just shook his head and uttered the immortal line ‘I can’t believe it’s so sad’. And it is – all of its characters are failures. From Ted Bovis the failed comedian, eking out his years in a filthy holiday camp chalet, to Fred Quilly the disgraced jockey, grumpily awaiting the reinstatement of his licence. From Mr Partridge the Music Hall child star turned bitter alcoholic, to snobbish dancers Barry and Yvonne Stuart-Hargreaves, trapped in a loveless marriage and desperate to escape both each other and the squalor of Maplins.

The performances shine through as well… yes, Su Pollard jumps up and down and whistles a lot, but the episode in which Maplins hitman Alec Foster tramples over her trusting, wide-eyed nature with a threatening, blackmail-laden sexual advance is beautifully played. And the Christmas story, in which Paul Shane’s cynical Ted Bovis falls helplessly in love with a pony-tailed camper half his age, is heartbreaking. There’s a scene in which they embrace at the piano in the Hawaiian ballroom, and Ted grips onto her for dear life, and mouths ‘I love you’ with his eyes closed. It’s barely picked up by the camera, but it’s a brilliant and subtle and heartbreaking piece of acting.   

Best of all though, is Simon Caddell’s amazing performance as Jeffrey Fairbrother, the university lecturer turned holiday camp entertainment manager, on the run from both stuffy academia and a bitter divorce. The scenes in which he reads Joe Maplin’s semi-literate missives (‘Now get this, you lot…’) to the gathered staff are worth, as they say, the entrance money alone.

And, yes! All of this heartbreak and melodrama and ribald fun was broadcast on BBC1 at 7.30pm on weekday nights, to audiences larger than the population of Belgium. Including the Walloons. I still think the mainstream family sitcom is one of the greatest art forms of the 20th century, and it’s sadly fallen into neglect.

I love The Mighty Boosh as much as the next desperately misguided 35-year-old man, but it’s weird, culty brilliance, tucked away on BBC2 or (gasp) 3, and wilfully out of reach of most of the country’s population. Back in the 1980s, my nine-year-old self watched and laughed at Hi-De-Hi, and so did my forty-year-old Dad and my 75-year-old Gran. Sometimes all in the same room together. And we did the same with Porridge, Open All Hours, Last Of The Summer Wine, Ever Decreasing Circles, To The Manor Born, Only Fools And Horses, Allo Allo, Are You Being Served, Dad’s Army, Rising Damp and any other 28-minute sitcom chucked onto the schedules with casual abandon by people that rightly considered this kind of brilliance to be the norm.

I’d love to see the high-quality, mainstream, family sitcom make a comeback. In fact, in the unlikely event that my agent or any passing TV executives are looking at these ramblings, drop me a line and make me an offer. And then we’ll start assembling occult tarot equipment to tempt Simon Cadell (and Leonard Rossiter and Ronnie Barker and John Inman and…) down from whichever strange corner of sitcom heaven they’re currently residing in.

With, naturally, hilarious consequences. Anyway, must dash – I’m about to make a start on all You Rang M’Lord.

Wish me luck – I’m going in.

Farewell, Doug…

I was in two minds whether to mention this on here as it seems so private, but I’ve tried to write other things instead, and I can’t do it. I’ve had some awful news. My old friend Doug died this week. He was 35 years old.


Doug was my best friend when we were eleven. We both lived in Yarm, and we went to school together. And for pretty much two full years we lived in each others pockets – if I wasn’t round his house then he was round mine, and if we weren’t round either of our houses then we must have been out on our bikes somewhere, talking about music or robots or abject filth in that brilliant way that only eleven-year-old boys can.

1984 was an amazing year, a brilliant, fun-packed, free-wheeling time, and all of that was because Doug was my best friend.

We even built a robot in Doug’s dad’s garage. We called him Rob-E… he was made of wood, and he had a tape recorder inside his body that was operated by an old light switch on the end of a length of cable. We recorded funny voices for him, and showed him off in our school assembly. And then, flushed with success, we made a model K-9. Which anybody who has read ‘Wiffle Lever’ will know all about. There’s even a picture of K-9 in there, flanked by me and Doug ourselves. Full of the joys of being young and stupid and knowing nothing would ever tear us apart.  

And then, at the end of 1985 when we were thirteen, Doug moved with his family to Australia. And we lost touch completely, although he was never far from my thoughts. Eleven years later, at Christmas 1996, he suddenly walked back into my life. He was on a fleeting visit to the UK, and he phoned on Boxing Day afternoon. Completely out of the blue. I was shaking and speechless at the prospect of seeing him again, but I was round at his Gran’s house to pick him up within twenty minutes, and we had a brilliant few days together… drinking, smoking like bastards, wasting time and talking rubbish. In that brilliant way that only twenty-four-year-old men ever can.

The last time I saw him, I was dropping him back at our friend Wendy’s house, and making him promise to keep in touch.  

And then, tragically, another nine years went by. I don’t know why, it just did. Doug was back in Australia. I moved house and changed jobs lots of times. I got a proper girlfriend. And a dog. I stopped smoking. But I still thought of Doug all the time. And just after Christmas 2005, on a late-night dog walk around the streets that Doug and I had once made our own, snow started to fall. Really heavily. It was magical… huge flakes, twisting and twirling and falling at my feet. My own personal Narnia. Within half an hour, I was crunching through a white blanket of wondrousness, lit orange by the flickering street lights. Whenever it snows, I think back to my childhood, and this night – more than any other night in decades – I felt eleven again. I got back home, stamped the snow off my wellies, dug out an old e-mail address that Wendy had given me, and dropped Doug a line.   

I’ve still got the e-mail in my Sent Items list. I sent it at 01.54am on Thursday 29 December 2005. It says…

Hi Doug,

I just thought I’d drop you a line and wish you a happy Christmas and all that. I really hope you’re well, and it seems weird saying it considering how little we’ve been in touch over the years, but I miss you.

Just kicking around the house by myself at the moment, and at midnight tonight I decided to talk the dog for a walk around Yarm. All the roads are blocked with snow tonight, and there’s no-one around, and I ended up walking around streets and fields I haven’t been to since I was a kid, and I ended up thinking of you and all the stupid things we used to get up to.

So there you go – I’m a soft bastard and I’m getting old. It’d be really nice to hear from you if you get these, and I hope life is treating you well. If it is, tell me all about it. If it isn’t, still tell me all about it. Be good to have a chat.

Best and all that,


And so we started up again. He phoned me at home the next day, and we cackled and ranted and gossiped as we always had. Swopped the odd e-mail. And we kept hearing stories of each other’s exploits through Wendy, who – bless her – was better at keeping in touch with both of us then we ever were with each other.

The last time I spoke to Doug was in January this year. I phoned him one morning to tell him about the book, and to make sure he was OK with being in it. I told him I was putting the K-9 story in there, and writing about the time he clobbered me in the testicles in our favourite woodland retreat while playing ‘Robin Of Sherwood’ with big sticks. He found the whole thing hilarious, and begged me to send him a copy when it was published. ‘Write what you like mate, I’m on the other side of the world!’ he laughed. And we talked forever about 1984 and all that, in a way we’d never done before, even during that booze-sodden, fag-smoking Christmas of 1996.

I’d held those childhood days spent with Doug so close to my heart for nearly 25 years, and – for the first time – it was lovely to hear that he clearly had too.

And I never sent the bloody book. I’ve been meaning to phone him again all summer to double check his postal address, but I never got round to it. I’ll never forgive myself for that.

So now he’s gone. And I feel like a huge, beautiful slab of my childhood has been torn away. And I have to go on missing him again, knowing full well that I can’t get all soppy on late-night dog walks any more and drop him a line out of the blue. I’ve just been looking at the e-mails we sent each other, and it feels so strange – as though mailing his address right now would somehow bring him back, and – against all the odds – I’d get his usual cheerily sardonic reply firing back at me from some strange, mystical place.

Well I hope he’s in a brilliant place now, a place every bit as brilliant as the places we went to and the times we had when we were eleven years old. Full of the joys of being young and stupid and knowing nothing would ever tear us apart.

And nothing ever will, I promise.

Not this time.