Wiffle Lever To Full!

Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

Our Tape-Loading Era…

Back in 2009, when I was blogging my 1984 Diary every day, I wrote very affectionately about a winter shopping trip to Stockton-on-Tees, and the pilgrimages that my scrawny, parka-clad 12-year-old self would make to Topsoft… a fabulous 1980s computer shop packed to the rafters with bleeping, flashing ZX Spectrums and Commodore 64s. Impossibly exciting visits to this tiny, backstreet mecca became a weekly ritual throughout my teenage years, and I’d spend hours crammed into a corner of the shop,  jostling through the inevitable (and equally parka-clad) crowd to catch my first glimpse of Underwurlde or Dun Darach or (ahem) Jack The Nipper 2 – Coconut Capers.

It was an incredibly exciting time to be a teenage boy, and we felt like pioneers of this new gaming technology… despite my Dad’s constant protestations that ‘it’s just little bloody men jumping about – turn it off, we’re watching Just Good Friends’. There was something thrillingly DIY about the computing industry in those days… games were written by teenage boys in their bedrooms, and sold from tiny stores in narrow back alleys to OTHER teenage boys who just might be inspired to give this ‘programming’ lark a go themselves.  And so places like Topsoft became more than just shops… they were social gathering spots, hubs of the nascent gaming community, and places where 12-year-olds like me – with a slightly unhealthy interest in Z80 Machine Code programming and the sensual qualities of the Kempston Joystick – could take refuge from the bleakness of 1980s reality and lose ourselves in a world where our major concern in life was crossing the Banyan Tree in Jet Set Willy.

Brilliantly, months after I’d written that entry, it was discovered by Steve Williams – the manager of Topsoft throughout those halcyon years! You can read the whole article, along with Steve’s message, here

I was thrilled, and Steve and I e-mailed each other for a few months, swapping memories of those giddy years when he would attempt to run a viable business, and I would hinder him as much as possible by playing Glider Rider 128K in the corner all afternoon without putting a single penny across the counter. He was even foolish enough to send me an official Evening Gazette picture of himself and his Topsoft team, back in the day! Steve – admirably refusing to pull the traditional, deadpan ‘Gazette Face’ – is second from the left…

(Note for hardcore Topsoft fans – this is the second, bigger version of Topsoft, not the one down my beloved alleyway!)

Steve told me that the original, tiny Topsoft had recently been converted into a rather nice-looking tearoom. And so, when we met for the first time last week, guess where we went for a cuppa…? (Anyone who said ‘Starbucks’ can sit in the corner of the room facing the wall, and isn’t allowed to play Sabre Wulf until they’re TRULY sorry)

And then, for the first time in well over 20 years, we strode purposefully through the door…

Huge thanks to the ladies from Angela’s Tearoom, who couldn’t have been more helpful and who – I can testify – make a very fine cup of tea as well. They were even happy for us to wander upstairs so Steve could enjoy a giddy rush of nostalgia looking around his old stock room…

And yes, one of those days I WILL make a blog video that doesn’t start with the words ‘Right, here we are…’ In the meantime, I hope this ignites a few misty-eyed memories for anyone who ever cracked a smile while frantically waggling a Kempston Joystick in front of Daley Thompson’s Decathlon (and I’ll never forget my Mum’s expression when she caught myself and Andrew Harding enjoying a spot of mutual waggling in the Summer of 1986). I’m nearly forty now, but – for one chilly December morning last week – I was thirteen again, watching the title screen of Fairlight through a steamed-up shop window and hoping beyond hope that it would be under our tree on Christmas morning…*

*…it was!


  Andrew T. Smith wrote @

My first video games shop no longer exists, bulldozed, as it was, alongside the rest of the Gateshead Carpark/Market complex. It was a grotty place, with wood panelled walls, stained carpets and strange patrons. I doubt any twelve-year-olds are going to have such evocative memories of Game or Play.com .

Here’s a picture of my local.

You see that dark, foreboding recess in the corner? That’s where it was.

  bobfischer wrote @


Looking back, alnost all of my sentimental memories about the shops of my childhood are based around little, family businesses – all the computer shops with their geeky DIY charm, and the amazing toy shops of Leslie Brown in Stockton and Romer Parrish in Middlesbrough. And all the little newsagents in Yarm and Acklam that I couldn’t keep away from… reserving my comics with a little scribbled address in the top corner. You KNEW these people, and their shops and your fellow customers became part of our lives.

  Ian Richardson wrote @

It was funny to see the old shop, especially upstairs.Every morning we had to take the grids off the windows and put a sandwich board at the bottom of the alley advertising the shop.To think it all started on July 17th 1984, where has the time gone and it is quite incredible to think what the technology was like back then compared to the power of it in today’s World.Ive been fortunate to work in the Games industry since the start of Topsoft I will say the best and most fun times were in the 80s and early 90s.It’s been a great journey down memory lane Bob.Thank you.

  bobfischer wrote @

Oh a pleasure, thanks for dropping by! Are you in Steve’s picture then, Ian? Come on, own up, which one are you?

By the way, 17th July 1984 was my school sports day…


  Ian Richardson wrote @

I wasn’t in that picture as I left Topsoft in the 89 (I have still got the Evening Gazette pullout where that picture is from).

It was my dad’s business and whilst the plans had started to move the shop to new larger premises in Ramsgate he sadly passed away suddenly in Feb 92 without seeing the move happen.My mum and brother aided by Steve with his team continued with the plan that my dad had and eventually moved in to the new shop.

Without working at Topsoft I would never have enjoyed nearly 28 years in the games industry.

I read on your blog that you were looking for Mathew Smith? Did you ever find him? I’m still in contact with people from Bug Byte and Software Projects who published Manic Miner and Jet Set Willy.

  ds wrote @

Just the post the mentions the Fairlight Music made me think of something.

If you are vaguely technically competent, making ringtones form old Spectrum games music is quite easy. For instance, on my iPhone (if I really wanted), my ringtone could be:

Dynamite Dan
Sabre Wulf
one of two pieces of music from Gyroscope
or Uridium

The ringtone files are all created and sitting there on my Mac. I’m just thinking of what other retro game tunes would make good ringtones.

And the mention of Romer Parrish took me back a bit. Spent a lot quality time in there on childhood Saturday mornings; it’s where I bought things like my Starship Enterprise and Klingon War Bird, with the plastic torpedoes that you could fire using either the Enterprise’s rotary mechanism or the side wing at the bow of the Klingon ship.

I didn’t go upstairs in RP’s all that much, but I think that’s where most of the Meccano and Airfix stuff lived.

Just next to it on Linthorpe Road was the old Dovecot Salerooms, which was mostly full of what was best described as tat. The thing I remember, however, was the huge, Hollywood style staircase that took you up to the upper floor.

  bobfischer wrote @

Welcome to the blog, Mr S! There’s a world of madness for you here.

Romer Parrish and Leslie Brown’s in Stockton were amazing toy shops, I think I probably divided my time equally between the two… weekday shopping trips with my Mum tended to be to Stockton, but every Saturday throughout the first 11 or so years of my life, we’d go to Middlesbrough en route to my Gran’s house in Acklam.

All of my memories of both shops are dominated by Star Wars stuff, really… it was a rare Saturday morning when I didn’t end up taking a brand new action figure to Acklam, spending the rest of the day re-enacting scenes from The Empire Strikes Back on the front room windowsill while Grandstand burbled in the background.

  Michael wrote @

Are there any surviving photos from inside the store? (the one down the filthy alleyway) Please find out and put them up.
Can you remember that arcade game they had in there where you had to shoot dinosaurs?

  bobfischer wrote @

I’ve asked Steve if he’s got old pictures of the shop’s interior – watch this space.

I can’t remember that arcade game at all, so there must have just been a huge crowd hogging it every time I went in! I wouldn’t have tried to muscle my way to the front of the bigger boys, I’d have just hovered in the background prodding at the Spectrum in the corner.

  Ian Richardson wrote @

We had quite a few arcade machines over the years in the shop but I think you might be referring to this particular one which was always popular.

Rampage – Bally Midway.The reason we started putting an arcade machine into the shop was an idea that we had with U.S Gold who quite often published conversions of certain games and it was away of promoting the product whilst generating some extra income.

  bobfischer wrote @

Rampage! Of course. Cheers, Ian. I spent most of the 1988 summer holidays playing a conversion on my friend’s spanking new Atari ST.

  Ian Richardson wrote @

If I remember rightly Activision developed and published the arcade conversion of Rampage.

The other arcade machine we had in our Darlington shop was Super Sprint which again Activision did the home computer version of the game.

  Ian Farrage wrote @

You need to try an old school BBC accent. Watch your video posts with the CC turned on – it makes for some bizarre reading.

  Sean wrote @

Thanks for a pleasant trip down memory lane. I had to privilege getting to know Alex. He and his wife and sons were good people. The best.

  David Clark wrote @

I have a picture of the inside of the shop on my facebook page with Scott Williams in it.

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