Wiffle Lever To Full!

Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 328

Friday 23rd November 1984


I got up at 9.00 and at 10.00 I went to Stockton. First I got ‘Jumping Jack’ from Smiths, then after that I got ‘Atic Atac’ from Boots. Next I went back to Smiths and got House of Hell (a new Fighting Fantasy) and at 12.30 I came home and had dinner.

After that I read House of Hell till 5.00, when I had tea. At 5.10 I watched Crackerjack, and at 7.00 I watched Children in Need. At 9.00 I watched Tell the Truth, and at 9.30 I saw Part II of Children in Need. At 12.30 I went to bed.

Ooooh, I didn’t see that coming! An ‘occasional day’ off school… our teachers will have been called in to receive extra training in the finer points of 1980s education methods (removing impacted spam fritters from Geography textbooks, dangling small boys over the edge of waterfalls, that kind of thing) so we grotty oiks were left to our own devices. Which, in my case, was clearly a ZX Spectrum 48K computer.

Not that I had one yet, of course… Christmas was still (mumbles, counts on fingers) 31 sleeps away, but that didn’t stop me catching the 294 bus to Stockton High Steet on a freezing, frosty morning to blam the remainder of my birthday money on a couple of spanking new games.

Raking up a few long-buried memories, and looking at my diary, I think this might actually have been – wait for it – a bit of a momentous occasion. I suspect this was the first time I actually went on a shopping expedition by myself. Doug and I had caught the bus to Stockton during the summer to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom at the Classic cinema, and that was the first time I’d been allowed to go on a bus journey out of Yarm without my Mum accompanying me.

But, 25 years ago today, wild horses wouldn’t have dragged Doug out of bed at 9am on a holday morning, so I’m pretty sure I persuaded my Mum to allow me to set off on a solo voyage by pointing out – in no uncertain terms – that I was now TWELVE YEARS OLD and therefore ready to be treated like a man. Amazingly, she agreed, and I went to wait at the desolate bus-stop on the other side of our garden’s conifer trees with a burgeoning sense of excitement.

I paid my 45p half-fare to the surly, rockabilly-quiffed driver (Why do ALL male bus drivers have rockabilly quiffs? It is a requirement of the job? I can’t ever look at Elvis’ backing group The Jordanaires without picturing them in Cleveland Transit uniforms) and slumped into the front seat, by the window. Yarm High Street flickered by, and the big, wealthy town houses of Eaglescliffe. And then we crossed the wasteland around Jennings’ Garage before working our way slowly, steadily towards the wide expanse of Stockton High Street.

(I’m absolutely convinced the bloke on the far right of this picture used to drive the No 13 from All Saints Church to Acklam)
The Christmas lights had gone up  since my last visit to Stockton, and were hanging unlit from the lamposts… cheery-looking Santas and grey, metal snowflakes gazing down on me in the gloom and the drizzle.  And I jangled the coins in my jeans pocket and strode manfully into WH Smiths, a shining beacon of warmth and geekiness behind the giant (as yet undecorated) Christmas tree outside the front of the Swallow Hotel.

I’m not sure why I made ‘Jumping Jack’ my first investment of the day… it’s a game with no kind of fame or reputation at all, so I must just have liked the look of it on the shelf…

I’d also like to point out that the commentary on this isn’t me… I just found the clip on Youtube!

The ‘Games Department’ had become a rapidly-expanding section of many High Street stores by late 1984, and even resolutely square outlets like Littlewoods and Boots had seen the merits of devoting a tiny corner of their floorspace to flogging Jet Set Willy and Scuba Dive to pre-pubescent boys in parkas.

Stockton also had, by this time, two independent computer gaming outlets, both located a little further off the beaten track. Topsoft was little more than a tiny unit in a filthy, black alleyway that wound away from the High Street before opening out onto the parallel Prince Regent Street. It had wooden counters, walls decorated with hilarious hand-made cartoon strips (presumably drawn by the bored owner) and – excitingly – ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64 and Vic-20 computers, all set-up and switched on in a permanent state of readiness.

Stockton Software, meanwhile, was a larger outfit a few seconds walk away, in a shady corner of Prince Regent Street. The same principles applied, but in this case I can remember the owners… a tall, bespectacled bloke with an exploding, dark mushroom of hair and a Robert Smith jumper; and his sidekick – a smaller, slyly witty bloke with a slicked-back side parting. They seemed like Gaming Gods to me, and I worshipped the ground they walked on. I drifted out of gaming around 1988 and never saw them again, but I suspect there’s a decent chance they’re both incredibly, amazingly, wealthy by now.

If anyone knows them, point them over here to say hello!

I hadn’t discovered either of these shops by November 1984, but in 1985 – as my ZX Spectrum obsession took an absolutely hold over my life – they became bleepy, geeky Meccas to me. I went to both shops at least once a week, and just… STOOD in them. For hours. Drinking in the games, the machines, the boops and bips and clunky music. And the intoxicating chatter and laughter of polite, funny, utterly charming geeks who had that always-exotic three or four-year advantage on me. Living and breathing the heady world of mid-1980s computing, when a multi-billion pound industry was run entirely by people like them, from their bedrooms.

Anyway, ‘Atic Attac’ was a game I’d coveted for a long time, ever since playing it over at Ian ‘Ozzie’ Oswald’s house during the summer, so that was an inevitable addition to my post-birthday shopping spree. And great to see another Fighting Fantasy book hitting the shelves….

House of Hell is set, predictably enough, in a gloomy, haunted mansion somewhere on the outskirts of Thornaby. No, not really. But it does pit the player up against Poltergeists, Satanists, Fire-Sprites and, erm, Great Danes, and I loved it to bits. And here I am last month in Watford, taking this very book to meet its writer Steve Jackson, 25 years on! What a shameless slag. Me, that is, not the Mighty Steve.


And wow… Children In Need. 1984 was only the fifth year that BBC1’s annual charity marathon had taken place, but to me – as a 12-year-old TV addict – it already felt like unmissable, event television. I imagine that, even 25 years ago, there were plenty of grumpy, middle-aged viewers being cynical about its merits, but I just saw it as a chance to see my favourite TV stars and programmes cutting loose and having fun. The previous year, the night had even incorporate the 90-minute Doctor Who anniversary special, ‘The Five Doctors’, which was worth a lifetime’s worth of goodwill as far as I was concerned.

Even back then, the legendary Wogan was firmly established as Children In Need’s main man, assisted all evening by the ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ tag-team of Sue Cook and Joanna Lumley (no Pudsey, though – he didn’t arrive until 1985)

I’ve been trawling around to find out a few details of what took place during 1984’s Children In Need night, but I’ve drawn a bit of a blank. I’m guessing there was an Only Fools And Horses section, as I’ve discovered that this night marked the last TV appearance of Lennard ‘Grandad’ Pearce, but apart from that… I’m struggling. Can any passing TV boffins out there throw in a few suggestions? 

The only thing I do recall with any certainty was that we were shown an infamous clip from the previous year’s event. In 1983, one cheeky caller had pledged a substantial donation in return for Joanna Lumley stripping down to her scanties on live television. The resulting routine made for a national sensation…

(Bugger, sorry – looks like I can’t embed this clip into the blog, so click on this link to watch it on Youtube!)

Great to see Simon ‘Mr Fairbrother’ Cadell and Roy ‘Henry Salt’ Kinnear joining in the fun, and is that Russell Grant lurking in the background wearing a BBC Breakfast jumper? Anyway, this was undoubtedly the ‘Angela Rippon on Morecambe and Wise’ moment of the 1980s, a heavenly TV nugget to be discussed for weeks afterwards by married middle-aged blokes drinking John Smith’s Bitter in the snug of the Cross Keys pub.

It’s also undoubtedly partially responsible (along with Allo Allo) for my teenage assumption that all women wore the full complement of stockings, suspenders and sexy basque beneath their everyday work clothes AT ALL TIMES. I think I was at least 17 before I realised this wasn’t true, but – in the meantime – it added an extra frisson to many a dreary shopping trip to Presto.


  Fiona Tims wrote @

I love Joanna-what a trooper hehe!
I didn’t study the video but I thought it was a cardboard cut out of Russel Grant haha

  Thing wrote @

I do remember an Only Fools And Horses interlude on some big programme which was featuring variety turns around this time, with Del, Rodney and Grandad sat around a table in a restaurant or bar of some sort, which was part of a much larger set for whatever programme it was being shown on, while they played out a mini-playlet, arguing with each other about things before making up. I wonder if that could have been this?

  illegibleme wrote @

Bob, did you not buy the Target novel in advance of The Five Doctors ala Ghostbusters?

  bobfischer wrote @

I’ve always had a soft spot for Joanna Lumley! I think that clip got shown on CiN for years afterwards. And Thing… yeah, that sounds familiar – reckon you might be spot on.

And yes, I definitely bought The Five Doctors novel before the show was broadcast! I know the show went out as on 25th Nov 1983 (26 years ago today… spooky) so I must have bought it the previous Saturday, the 19th.

I never had any idea of which Doctor Who books were coming out when, so it was always a nice surprise to wander into WH Smiths in Middlesbrough and find a new title on the shelf. And I remember being utterly shocked to see the DW rack filled with The Five Doctors books, completely with shiny silver cover. I’d read it in full by the end of the day. I was a spoiler whore even as an 11-year-old!

Why did it come out so early? I can’t imagine John Nathan Turner was happy about that.

  simon Sinclair wrote @

Topsoft !!. Wow, remember it well. Used to go there on the bus from Billingham every Saturday to try out the latest speccy games. Staff were so friendly and where as now you walk into a shop and buy the game, in topsoft, you could pick any game and try/play it out for as long as no one else was waiting. Happy memories 🙂

  bobfischer wrote @

It was great, wasn’t it? I’d never have dared to ask to play any of the games, though… I was far too shy. I do remember hanging around and watching lots of other lads (probably you) doing it, though. Lots of my purchases were decided by watching other gamers swear and twitch their way through them in the gloom of Topsoft.

Cheers for popping by, anyway! Believe it or not, I found an authentic Stockton Software carrier bag in the loft recently, I was going to take a few pics and build a new blog entry around it. Watch this space!

  simon Sinclair wrote @

thanks for the reply. LOL regarding carrier bag 🙂

Definitely a game purchase was heavily influenced by what I saw/played in Topsoft. It’s so sad that there isn’t anything like it anymore. Now a days it’s all about sell sell sell, in topsoft it was not all about that but also about the customer service.
What also made it special was the size (or lack of it) where in some days it seemed packed out, especially on release days 🙂

  Steve Williams wrote @

Thanks for those nice comments guys. I was the manager of Topsoft in the Eighties until 95′ – Good times, not really a job at all , but without doubt the best era in computing and gaming to this day !!

  bobfischer wrote @

Steve, we’re honoured! Thanks so much for stopping by. They were amazing times, and you did a fabulous job with that little shop – I’ve still got a huge suitcase full of ZX Spectrum games in the cupboard, half of which will undoubtedly have been bought in Topsoft.

Power to your elbows, sir!

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