Wiffle Lever To Full!

Daleks, Death Stars and Dreamy Sci-Fi Nostalgia…

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 366

Monday 31st December 1984

I got up at 10.00 and I typed in some more of my Doctor Who program. At 12.00 I had dinner, then I went upstairs and started to type in a game called The Worm game, but I packed it in.

Then I went outside and played on the tarzie, and at 4.00 I came in and played on the Spectrum. I typed in a game called Denbar, and at 8.00 I saw the Morcambe and Wise classics.

Then I brought the Spectrum down and typed in a game called Scrumper. At 12.00 I did the first foot in, and at 12.10 we watched Singin in the rain. I went to bed at 1.50.

Well, blimey… here we are. As a certain TV Time Lord once said, ‘It’s the end… but the moment has been prepared for…’ As per usual, I don’t think I’ve done any preparation whatsoever, but – after 365 consecutive days of living 25 years in the past – it IS the end. Just as it was back in 1984, except… except…

…New Year’s Eve really wasn’t much of a big deal to me as a kid. I suppose there was the excitement of staying up a bit later than usual and (if I was lucky) walking into the house at midnight with a lump of coal from the bunker in my hand, but – essentially – all I really did was sit in the front room with my family watching the telly all night. Which is pretty much what I’d done for the other 365 days of the year as well.

It certainly wasn’t a patch on Christmas Eve. I can describe the details of all my childhood Christmas Eves with a fair bit of clarity, but it’s quite telling that I can only really remember three childhood New Year’s Eves AT ALL… 1984 (which is handy), 1979 (when I stayed at my Gran’s bungalow and watched ‘Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980′ before my Uncle Trevor took me out into the streets to listen to the sound of the ships’ hooters five miles away at Tees Dock) and 1983 – the day, of course, before this whole strange diary thing began. I was at my Gran’s bungalow again, and remember sitting in the armchair by the front window as Trevor and Rose – my Uncle and Aunt – and their friend Ian Taylor and his girlfriend wandered in from the Endeavour pub at 11.45am, still carrying half-full pints of Harp Lager in their hands. Which I thought was the most decadent and exciting thing I’d ever seen in my life. We chatted until the early hours before I slept on the settee in the front room… and that (as people used to say in the back row of the Classic Cinema) is where we came in. Exactly a year ago tomorrow. Or 26 years ago tomorrow. Whichever way you want to look at it, really.

Anyway, another day – predictably – spent in front of the ZX Spectrum. I’ve tried and failed to track down ‘The Worm Game’ and ‘Denbar’ online somewhere today, but I guess they’re pretty obscure… they’ll have been included in the latest issue of Sinclair Programs magazine, with the BASIC code printed out across half-a-dozen inky pages for me to type in and ‘Run’ myself. Only for the whole bloody computer to crash and the dreaded ‘C: Nonsense In BASIC’ message to appear across the bottom of the screen, like a message from God to GET OUTSIDE AND STOP WASTING YOUR CHILDHOOD.

And ‘The Morecambe and Wise Classics’ was shown on BBC1 as the highlight of their evening schedule, with Ernie Wise himself bravely introducing a lovingly-compiled tribute to Eric himself, who had – to the nation’s utter shock and dismay – died suddenly seven months earlier, in May 1984. My Gran and I snuggled into our armchairs and let ‘Grieg… with him and him’ wash over us as my parents pulled on their best clothes and took the Reliant Scimitar into Yarm High Street for a cheeky couple of pints in the snug of the Cross Keys pub. I think I had the decency to wait until the final credits finished before haring upstairs to collect that bloody ZX Spectrum, and lashing it up to the ‘big telly’ for the next three and a half hours.

So I spent the dying embers of a tumultuous year typing in a bit more code from the pages of Sinclair Programs. ‘Scrumper’ was definitely a game in which a little lumpy character sped backwards and forwards across the bottom of the TV screen collecting falling apples in a basket. While my Gran’s knitting needles clicked and clacked, and the coal fire glowed amiably on the hearth, and Poggy Doggy and Poggles Ponsonby snuffled around looking for stray peanuts, I spent three hours typing in this rubbish and saving it to my creaking cassette recorder (‘R: Tape Loading Error’), then got to actually play the game for FIVE MINUTES before, at 11.45pm, my parents crashed back through the kitchen door and demanded I put BBC1 back on to watch ‘Live Into 85’, hosted by Tom O’Connor from the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland. 

Except they didn’t. They were great about it…  clearly fortified by a couple of John Smiths Bitters apiece, they pulled bottles of gin and tonic from the woody-smelling end cupboard of the sideboard and laughed and cheered as I put ‘Scrumper’ through his paces. The lounge doors were closed, the peanuts finally emerged (as Poggy Doggy laughed and cheered) and three generations of our family were enveloped in a riot of boozy noise and laughter as the seconds ticked down to 1985.

And then we did watch ‘Live Into 85’. Just for a little while. A typical BBC1 New Year’s Eve extravaganza… Bucks Fizz and Chic Murray, Maggie Moone and the Pipes and Drums of British Caledonian Airways. And then we counted down to midnight itself! 5-4-3-2-1… HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!

‘Who’s doing the first foot in?’ asked my Gran, already turning crimson after a glass of home-made wine. ‘Come on, get your shoes…’ said my Mum, dragging me by the scruff of the neck, with the ZX Spectrum still tucked under my arm. ‘You’re dark and pretty tall for your age, and you’ll have to do it because your Dad’s too pissed…’ 

So I did. An absolute honour! My and my Mum stumbled back through the kitchen door, and out into the garden as an icy blast of winter darkness tore the breath from the back of our throats. Giggling, I stuck my hand into the coal bunker and pulled out a filthy, black nugget, and then I think we actually went for a walk… not very far, just two minutes around Crossroads roundabout and back again, but enough for me to ruminate on the passing of another year.

‘You’re getting old…’ said my Mum, with a hint of pride in her voice. ‘You’ll be thirteen this year!’

‘God, and FOURTEEN next year!’ I gasped. It seemed impossibly mature, and actually took me aback a little bit. I think I made a half-hearted attempt to be vaguely philosophical and talk loftily about my hopes, dreams and ambitions for the years to come (‘I want… I want to present a stupid local radio show and write a book about meeting Doctor Who fans in provincial hotels…’) before we arrived back at the kitchen door, and I proudly strode across the threshold before mischieviously letting Poggy Doggy have a nibble at the piece of coal I’d been carrying around for the last two minutes in my sweaty right palm.

And then it was back into the front room. I think I had a couple of glasses of home-made wine myself, and the WHOLE FAMILY settled down to watch Singin’ In The Rain… ‘a PROPER film’ said my Dad, swigging gin and tonic and refreshing everyone’s glasses. It was 12.10am when the opening credits rolled, and – at 1.50am – when it finished, all four of us were still lazing happily around our various settees and armchairs having basked in the glow of ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’, ‘Good Mornin’ and that sensational title song for the first two hours of the brand new year. And my Dad never missing the opportunity to rekindle his dormant teenage lust for sensational leggy guest star Cyd Charisse. 

And then a BBC announcer turned up to wish us all a Happy New Year, remind us that ‘our colleagues at Radio 2 will be broadcasting throughout the night’ and play the National Anthem before switching off all the lights at TV Centre and plunging the nation into metaphorical darkness. I helped my Mum and my Gran tidy up the glasses, bottles and peanut bowls, gave Poggy Doggy a cheeky scratch on the neck, brushed my teeth (pretty sloppily, probably… I tended just to make a few ‘tooth-brushing-type-noises’ to keep my mother happy) and went to bed dreaming of Denbar and The Worm Game. 

And when I woke up it was another year.

And that really is the end… but the moment HAS been prepared for.

I’ve laughed and cried writing this blog this year. Absolutely literally. Sitting by myself, at the PC in the spare room, barking with laughter. Or – just as often – full of tears and snot and heartache and regret. And do you know why? Because 1984 was the year I grew up. I didn’t realise it at the time, or even a year ago when I started doing this, but throughout the course of the year I went from being a very naive child to a slightly annoying adolescent. And it’s an hilarious and painful journey… from playing on bikes to writing computer games, from painting at primary school to peering through microscopes at the beginning of seven years of scary secondary education.  

But it was a brilliant journey to make at the time, and it’s been almost as much fun to make it again. There have been days when I didn’t want to write an entry… when work was tight, family duties were calling, when I was ill, knackered, depressed or on holiday. But – without exception – as soon as I forced myself to sit down and write – the words and the memories started flowing like my Dad’s home-made wine. Yes, slightly lumpy, and with a frequent bitter after-taste.

Thanks SO much for everyone who has come along for the journey. To everyone who has posted their own memories of 1984, their own memories of me (you swines!), or – indeed – just read silently and happily as I’ve hammered this stuff out every day. Huge thanks and love, obviously, to my family… who have taken the whole thing in tremendous spirit and helped out with their own recollections wherever something sprang to mind. To my Mum (Doreen) and Dad (Geoff), to my Uncle Trevor and Auntie Rose (and their son Chris, who was a toddler in 1984 but still counts!) to my Auntie Norma and… well, everyone else that got a mention along the way. And, of course, to my Gran… Mary Eliza Atkinson, who died in 1989 but would have chuckled along to this rubbish with the rest of them.

Massive thanks to the old schoolfriends who popped up and helped out and equally took their ribbing in good faith… to Gareth Jones, Ian Oswald, Chris Byers, Tom Stainer, Joanne Oxley, Claire Otterson, Janet Haigh and Ian Farrage (have I missed anyone? If so pipe up… my memory of 1984 is great, but short-term I’m a dead loss these days!) And also to my old teachers Mark Hirst and Geoff Millward… meeting up with you both again after 25 years was one of THE highlights of my year. An absolutely thrill to see you both again, and I really can’t thank you enough for your contributions.

And bloody hell! Alan Garner posted here as well! Was that just a dream, or did it actually, really happen?

So there you are. Naturally I’ll still be scribbling here regularly, so please pop by, and obviously all the 1984 stuff will stay here for posterity, so feel free to pass it on to anyone you think might be interested. And keep commenting if you like! I’m happy to talk about all of this stuff until Arnold The Cow comes home.

And, lastly, I dedicate the whole thing – every last word – with love and utter respect to my friend Doug Simpson. Doug died in October 2008, just short of his 36th birthday, and I found my 1984 diary about three weeks after that. I miss you, Doug. You brought fun and filth and light and laughter into my life, and I’ll hold you close to my heart forever.

Happy New Year, everyone.

See you on the other side.

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 365

Sunday 30th December 1984

I got up at 11.00 and I wrote some of the Doctor Who program for the Spectrum till dinner at 12.00. Then I played Atic Atac, and I also wrote some more of Dr Who.

At 3.00 I saw Star Wars, and at 5.00 I had tea. I saw The Wizard of Oz at 5.10, and at 7.00 I hung around till last of the summer wine at 7.45. At 7.45 I wrote my diary

Clearly another unfinished entry that I never came back to!

I think most of the snow had gone when I got up at 11am (such decadence!) and so I decided to spend a quiet day indoors rather than get up to my eyes in freezing mush on my bike outside. Not a lot to go on here really, is there? I’ve written quite a bit this year about the archetypal British Sunday in the 1980s… generally wet and dreary with no shops open anywhere and – amazingly – barely any TV either, the only programmes dotted between the ‘Pages from CEEFAX’ being aimed squarely at farmers and pensioners.

A Sunday that had the misfortune to be stuck between Christmas and New Year was all of that and more, but I’ll try to offer up a few random, scattered memories…

1. Singing ‘Feed the doooogs… let them know it’s breakfast time…’ to the tune of the Band Aid single as my Mum gently tipped water onto two metal bowls of cornflakes for Poggy Doggy and Poggles Ponsonby.

2. Lying on my yellow bedspread in the afternoon, watching the crackly black & white portable TV on my bedside table, when my Gran stuck her head around the bedroom door. ‘Oooh, what are you watching?’ she asked. ‘Is it motor racing?’

To be fair, she had a point… but what I was actually watching was ITV’s afternoon screening of Star Wars! It was the scene just prior to the attack on the Death Star when dozens of Rebel Alliance pilots in orange jumpsuits and crash helmets are buzzing around their sleek, long-nosed X-Wing Fighters in a gigantic intergalactic aircraft hanger. Alain Prost probably wanders past in the background somewhere.

As I wrote the other day, I’d grown up as a Star Wars obsessive, and – although Doctor Who (and life) had replaced it in my affections by 1984 – chances to watch the film on TV were still to be seized at every opportunity. Our family didn’t own a video recorder until Christmas 1987, so if I wanted to re-watch ANY of my favourite films and TV shows, I still had to wait for them to be actually ON. I reckon it’s absolutely impossible for anyone born after about 1985 to have the slightest idea how precious and special this made your favourite TV shows feel. You had to enjoy them fully in the knowledge that you might never, ever see them again.

3. Feeling a bit weepy at the end of The Wizard of Oz. This happened the first time that I ever saw the film (a TV screening sometime around 1977… in fact, I’d LOVE to pin this down to a date if anyone can tell me when it was shown on British TV in the 70s?) and the most recent time (a screening at the Tyneside Cinema in 2007) so I’m guessing I’m stuck with it for life. It’s the line ‘And you and you and you and you and you were there’ that gets me every time.

As a pre-Star Wars infant, The Wizard of Oz was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen, and I had no idea whatsoever that it had been made almost forty years earlier. That first viewing was in the front room of our house, and I was sitting on the edge of my Dad’s armchair by the entrance to the dining room, watching it on (possibly) a tiny black and white TV… yep, we hadn’t even gone colour at that stage. In fact, this TV here…

(I still love this picture, for reasons I still can’t explain… it just transports me to 1977, and my tiny self lying on the fireside rug watching Bagpuss with a mug of warm milk)

I can’t have been more than four years old, and I was wearing a pair of black and white striped trousers. Hey, it was the 1970s!

And then Last of the Summer Wine… and a new Christmas special, ‘The Loxley Lozenge’. It was a title that intrigued me because – obviously – I knew full well that Robin of Sherwood came from the tiny medieval village of Loxley, and wondered if this might get a mention in one of Foggy’s rambling diatribes (it doesn’t). I am delighted to say that I’ve found a bit of BBC1 continuity for this as well, though!

Archive TV geeks rejoice!!! (And ignore the Youtube title… it’s definitely from the 30th December, not the 23rd)

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 364

Saturday 29th December 1984

I got up at 8.00 and we went to Stockton. I got some graph paper and a tape from Smiths, and when we got back I had dinner. At 12.30 Doug came and we got the bus to Stockton again. Then we got in to see Ghostbusters, and it was great!

At 5.00 dad came and picked us up, and at home I had tea. Then I started writing a Dr Who program, and at 8.45 I saw the Price is right, following on from Russ Abbott. Then I played Jet Set Willy, and at 11.20 I saw Jasper Carrott.

I went to bed at 12.00.

Yay! Another nail in the coffin of my non-geeky childhood! Yes, after four full days messing around playing OTHER PEOPLE’S games on my brand new ZX Spectrum, I thought it was high time I started writing my own. I had the whole thing planned meticulously… I think I’d read about Jet Set Willy selling nearly a million copies, and – I guessed – making a wealthy man of its 17-year-old creator Matthew Smith. So it seemed fair to assume that if I got the early bus into Stockton to buy some graph paper (to design computer graphics on with my impressive assortment of felt-tip pens) and a blank TDK D90 cassette, then I might – just might – be a millionaire myself by the end of February.

This wasn’t just an idle, fleeting fantasy… until the age of about 15, it was the only career I ever envisaged for myself. I would be a computer games whizzkid, would leave school before taking my GCSEs, buy my first Aston Martin at the age of 17 and be living in Barbados before my 21st birthday. Any school initiative remotely connected to careers advice tended to stall at the first hurdle, because ALL I wanted to do with my life was write games for the ZX Spectrum, and ‘there isn’t really anything connected to that in my folder. Have you thought about teaching for a living?’

(Although huge kudos to our deputy headmaster Mr Dixon, who – at a 1987 meeting with my and my parents to discuss my GCSE ‘options’ – listened patiently to my ramblings about Match Day II and Alien 8 before telling me I should start sending samples of my programming to software houses – ‘dip your toe in the water’ was the phrase he used – and that I should definitely be looking at Computer Studies and Art as potential GCSE subjects. He was absolutely brilliant, and I took his advice to the letter. Nothing ever came of it, but credit to him for taking me remotely seriously!)

Nevertheless, 25 years ago today, I put my ambitions on hold for the afternoon because a) it was time for my dinner, and b) DOUG AND I WERE GOING TO SEE GHOSTBUSTERS!!!

And so, barely an hour after getting the bus back home from Stockton, we made the return 30-minute journey on the 294 from the Detention Centre bus stop, giggling and farting and swearing all the way. This, remember, was our third attempt to see Ghostbusters at the cinema… the previous two having ended in crushing disappointment after waiting on the pavement outside the the Classic Cinema for up to two hours in the pissing rain and freezing cold, only to be turned away by the sour-faced harridan on the door. ‘Sorry lads, full up… you’ll have to try again tomorrow…’

(And yes, that’s the actual Classic Cinema – I found a picture! It’s a shot from 1972, but it hadn’t changed at all by 1984. The whole building has been demolished now, but that brings it all back – especially the pavement! www.picturestockton.co.uk is full of this stuff, and well worth a rummage. Sour-faced harridan not pictured)

The film had been out for over three weeks now, so we thought we were in with a decent chance and, as we turned the corner of Dovecot Street and peered hopefully down towards the cinema front, our hearts leapt. There were about thirty assorted kids, nutters and haggard-looking parents shivering against the ‘Woman In Red’ poster, but no more than that. We were DEFINITELY going to get in!!! We joined the back of the queue, and waited for about an hour… and, as we stamped our feet, blew into our hands and had fun with the early stages of hypothermia, flurries of feathery snow began to swirl across the traffic from Prince Regent Street.

The first real snow of the winter! Four days late, obviously, but still magical. It didn’t stick around for too long, but it’s a lovely childhood moment that I’ll always remember. Standing outside the Classic Cinema with my best mate, four days after Christmas, about to watch Ghostbusters with snowflakes the size of puppys’ paws floating around our mop-topped heads. Glorious.

Do I need to write much about Ghostbusters, or will ‘it was great‘ still do? It IS a great film, although I haven’t seen it for nearly twenty years. But it has Bill Murray being hilarious, Sigourney Weaver being gorgeous, a scary ghost pensioner in a library, and a 200-foot killer marshmallow man. Oh, and the line ‘this man has no dick’, which made Doug and I double over in the back row and chortle like idiots. Pretty much everything any 12-year-old boy wants from a film, really, and – when we emerged from the crimson cinema foyer – the pavements were covered in a crunchy layer of snow, lit orange by the flickering streetlights as more dancing snowflakes whirled gracefully through a grumbling night sky.

Within five minutes, my Dad’s Reliant Scimitar hoved into view through a dwindling throng of busy post-Christmas shoppers, and we were heading back home again. Doug to have his tea and spend a night in front of the telly, me to work on that long-awaited ZX Spectrum Doctor Who game, complete with blocky blue TARDIS and Daleks that went ‘bip-bop-bip’ instead of their trademark ‘Exterminate’.

Sell the Reliant Scimitar, Dad – we’ll all be driving Aston Martins before you know it!

(By the way, is it wrong of me to get stupidly excited about finding a bit of BBC1 continuity from this VERY DAY?!?)

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 363

Friday 28th December 1984

At 9.00 I saw Charlie Brown, and at 10.30 Doug came and we played on the Spectrum. Then we had dinner, and at 1.00 we took the mutts on the field. At 1.30 we saw Star Wars to Jedi – the making of a saga, and at 3.00 we played on the Spectrum again.

At 4.00 we played out, then Doug went home and I had tea. At 6.00 I went outside, and at 7.00 I came in and played on the Spectrum. I came up at bed at 11.30.

If you want a template for my early teenage years, then look no further than this diary entry… the occasional foray into the garden for a few gulps of fresh air, the odd half-hour of TV, but – apart from that – HOUR UPON HOUR OF SOLID GOGGLING AT ZX SPECTRUM GAMES. By the age of 13, I had chronic repetitive strain syndrome on the index and third fingers of my right hand (From playing on the Spectrum, before anyone starts…)

Three days after Christmas, and I was still being allowed to plug the thing into our downstairs TV for the full in-colour experience (my world was a blur of magenta and cyan) but – if normal family telly-viewing was required – I had to unplug the whole kaboosh and transport it back upstairs to the crackly black-and-white portable in my bedroom. I’m pretty sure that’s where the Spectrum was when Doug fought his way through a staggeringly slippery frost to appear beaming at our back gate.

‘Hello mate,’ he grinned. ‘Did you get what you wanted for Christmas?’ 

‘SPECTRUM SPECTRUM SPECTRUM SPECTRUM SPECTRUM!!!’ I gasped. It was virtually all I’d said for the previous 72 hours.

We plonked ourselves down on my yellow bedspread, facing the Star Wars curtains, and I loaded up Jet Set Willy. Doug made a pretty good fist of looking impressed. ‘Everyone talks about the graphics in Jet Set Willy, but wow… that’s amazing,’ he rumbled. Honestly, he wasn’t being sarcastic… back in 1984, the game genuinely looked like nothing that any 12-year-old boy had ever seen before. I still couldn’t believe I had one in the house and that it was mine to play with whenever I wanted (A feeling I didn’t recapture until my parents went on holiday in 1992 and I brought a girl home from the Kirklevington Country Club)

We had a quick tinker on Ghostbusters as well, and – I think – vowed to make our third attempt at seeing the actual film the following day. I steeled myself to spend another freezing couple of hours shivering outside the Classic Cinema in the vague hope that we’d be allowed to ACTUALLY WATCH A FILM at some point during the afternoon (the very thought!)

Before that, though, we had – I’m guessing – the last of the turkey sandwiches to wolf down (probably with a couple of Presto’s own brand mince pies and a slab of my Mum’s marzipan-laden Christmas cake, still with a plastic snowman skewered into it with a plastic spike), and ‘From Star Wars To Jedi – The Making Of A Saga’ to watch on Tyne Tees. 1.30pm – 2.45pm.

My Star Wars obsession was very much on the wane by December 1984, not least because the VERY LAST STAR WARS FILM EVER (why would George Lucas be crazy enough to make any more?) was now eighteen months in the past, a huge chunk out of the lifetime of any culture-hungry 12-year-old. But from 1977-1981, I had absolutely lived and breathed those films. I was obsessed with the first film long before the national UK cinema release in January 1978, and – once I saw it, at the fourth attempt – life was never quite the same for me again. 

No exaggeration, I probably thought about Star Wars for about 75% of my waking hours during those years. I voraciously collected the action figures and playsets, and my bedroom was decorated in Star Wars wallpaper, curtains and bedspread. There were books, comics, jigsaws, posters, games, guns and other assorted ephemera (C-3PO soap! R2-D2 Bubble Bath! Darth Vader Choc-Ices!!!) EVERYWHERE. Four random assorted Star Wars memories from my childhood…

1. Having my picture taken with ‘Darth Vader’ on the seafront in Scarborough in the summer of 1979. I was wearing my favourite Star Wars T-shirt, and – in the excitement – completely failed to notice that his costume was clearly constructed from bits of an old Ford Cortina dashboard.

2. Meeting galactic bounty-hunter Boba Fett on the stairs of Leslie Brown’s toy shop in Stockton High Street, amid a heaving throng of hysterical kids. All to launch the new Boba Fett action figure. The costume was definitely genuine, and I’ve seen been told by several reliable sources that it WAS actually the actor Jeremy Bulloch inside it… he did a full national publicity tour in late 1980. Can anyone help out with this? 

3. On a gentle family dog-walk around the Devil’s Bridge footpath  in Acklam, telling my despairing Mum and Gran that I wanted a Jawa for Christmas. ‘Haven’t you got that one already?’ asked my Mum, clearly referring to the action figure. ‘No, I mean a REAL Jawa’, I replied. ‘A living one, that I can keep as a little friend’. It was 1978, and I was five. In retrospect, a short course of electric shock therapy might have been the kindest solution.

4. Circa 1979 – snapping the wishbone of our Sunday dinner chicken, and being told by my Mum to ‘make a wish’. I secretly and silently wished that I would turn into Chewbecca, and spent the rest of the evening listening to the Radio 1 Top 40 countdown while furtively checking my hands and chest for hairs. Be careful what you wish for, kids… I’ve now got great clumps of the stuff sprouting out of my ears and nostrils. In fact, on Boxing Day this year, I was tramping through the snow towards the Middlesbrough v Scunthorpe match when I met my friend Garry. ‘F*** me,’ he said, clocking my current wild hair and winter beard. ‘I thought it was Chewbacca for a second’.

I’ve got the temper, but sadly not the height. 

Anyway, Doug and I giggled and tittered through this amiable little ‘Making Of’… sprawled across our favourite armchairs in front of the roaring fire while my Mum and Gran pottered around the kitchen and my Dad found something to occupy him in the garage. Then we went our seperate ways, and – unusually – it seems I was allowed to plug the Spectrum into our main front room TV for the rest of the evening… all I can imagine is that the schedules were pretty desperate that night.

(rummages for TV and Radio Times…)

Ah yes.. It’s A Christmas Knockout, Choir Of The Year, Survival and the Treasure Hunt Christmas Special. No wonder my Dad preferred to stare at me playing Jet Set Willy for four hours.

Or possibly Jumping Jack! I’ve just remembered this cracking little platform game was one of the free ‘six-pack’ of tapes given away free with the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, and I absolutely loved it to bits…

Time to boot up my Spectrum Emulator again, I think…

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 362

Thursday 27th December 1984

At 9.00 I saw Charlie Brown, and then I got up and played on the Spectrum. At 11.00 we went to Middlesbrough and I got the code card for Jet Set Willy. I also exchanged £5.00 and Alchemist for the Ghostbusters tape.

At 2.30 I got home and played my games till tea at 5.00. Then I played Jet Set Willy till 6.00, when I went out in the frost. After that I typed in a game called LOGO and at 7.40 I saw Kenny Everett. At 8.20 I

Anyone like to hazard a guess that I wrote this diary entry at 8.15pm and never went back to it?

Another day of which I have very clear memories… even of watching ‘He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown’ on the crackly black & white portable TV perched precariously on my grubby bedside table. No buttons or remote control, just a round, bakelite knob (stop giggling) that spun through the TV channels, BBC1 and Tyne Tees occasionally breaking the surface of a sea of static and white noise. Infuriating if you were trying to get a good reception to watch The Red Hand Gang of a morning, but strangely exciting when you chanced upon a fuzzy, buzzy reception of Yorkshire TV and watched programmes that we in Tyne Tees land were clearly NEVER MEANT TO SEE.

I caught lots of Yorkshire TV episodes of The Twilight Zone (glossy 1980s version) during illicit wee-hours sessions on school nights in the late 1980s, watching them out of the corner of my eye while standing on the bed, holding the metal aerial at JUST THE RIGHT ANGLE in my outstretched hand.  

And then the traditional post-Christmas ‘swopping stuff’ visit to Middlesbrough! All year, I’d been longing to play Jet Set Willy on the ZX Spectrum… absolutely THE game that any self-respecting 12-year-old oik HAD to have in his collection, and – for months – I’d dreamt of playing it ALL THE WAY through Christmas Day. When it came to the crunch, however, I couldn’t… because my copy was lacking this…

Yes, the legendary Jet Set Willy Code Card! It’s an anti-piracy device. Clearly sick of devilishly clever 12-year-old oiks running off copies of Jet Set Willy for each other using their Dads’ precious tape-to-tape sound systems,  Software Projects had decided to combat this by asking all budding Willies (stop it) to enter one of the four-colour combinations from the above card into the Spectrum before the game was allowed to commence. Presumably assuming that no 12-year-old in their right mind would be arsed to sit down with green, blue, red and magenta* felt-tip pens and create a replica for themselves on a the back of a packet of Benson & Hedges. Entirely incorrectly, of course… that’s exactly what we did.

*Magenta being a colour ONLY ever known to ZX Spectrum obsessives. Along with its pale blue counterpart, Cyan. Sir Clive was a romantic old sod at heart, wasn’t he?  

Still, the sullen teenage girl on the computer counter downstairs in Boots wordlessly handed over the required code card from her drawer, and I also swopped the – frankly – crap ‘Alchemist’ for the big-money (£9.99) ZX Spectrum game of ‘Ghostbusters’, a film – lest we forget – that I hadn’t actually seen yet.  Doug and I had failed dismally to get into a crowded Classic Cinema on two occasions in December, but we were determined to have another go before the end of 1984…

Not today, though. Today belonged to Jet Set Willy…

I still go bit a giddy and mushy watching the game in action. It’s still one of the best computer games ever played, despite the fact that it DOESN’T ACTUALLY WORK. No really… you can’t complete it. The aim is to guide the nouveau-riche Miner Willy around his 60-room mansion to clear up all the detritus from a wild party, but one room (The Attic) contains a bug that prevents you from entering several other rooms, thus rendering the whole exercise completely pointless. Do you know what, though? It doesn’t matter. The fun is in the journey. The whole thing is so brilliantly mad, so splendidly English and twisted and perverse that – 25 years on – I couldn’t give a twisting sausage if I never complete it. I still play it on  my PC with a Spectrum emulator, and I still love it. It’s the gaming world’s Monty Python, its White Album, its Apocalypse Now. Huge, sprawling, overblown, brilliant and utterly, utterly mental.

(And if anyone in the world can put me in touch with its creator, Matthew Smith, for a radio interview, I’d be eternally grateful. He vanished for years and spent time messing about with motorbikes in a Dutch commune, but I believe he’s now back in the UK and calling himself ‘Matt from Earth’…)

So I spent all day in my bedroom, stuck in Willy’s Mansion and the Ghostbusters HQ, goggle-eyed in front of that crackly portable TV, now lashed up to my spanking new ZX Spectrum. This was pretty much the pattern for the next four years of my live, and – in retrospect – I really SHOULD have got out a little bit more. Still, the sight of the frost sparkling in the freezing night air was at least enough to drag me into the garden for an hour. One of those frosts so thick and solid and white that – as a kid – you convince yourself that it’s JUST LIKE SNOW. While spinning arse over breakfast half a dozen times on the ten-yard walk from the kitchen door to the tarzie.

And I’ve written reams and reams about Kenny Everett in this blog throughout the course of 1984, so suffice to say that his 1984 Christmas Special – broadcast 25 years ago today – was as insanely enjoyable as ever. The only clip I can find from it features Culture Club performing ‘Mistake No 3’ but hey… I’ll have watched it at time, and it’s a lovely slice of authentic 1984 Christmas.

And, after 25 years, the truth can finally be revealed. What I ACTUALLY did at 8.20pm was

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 361

Wednesday 26th December 1984

I got up at 10.00, and I played Atic Atac. Then I played Chequered Flag with mam. At 12.00 I had dinner, then I played Chequered Flag again. At 1.30 Dad and I walked the dogs around Saltergill and Kirklevington.

When we got back I played Atic Atac, and after that I typed in a game called ‘Digger’. At 8.15 I saw Minder, and then I played Atic Atac till Dave Allen at 10.10. I went to bed at 10.45.

Boxing Day always was and – I guess – always will be a strange day. It doesn’t have the instant, giddy, headrush of excitement that Christmas Day brings when you’re a kid… the big explosion of adrenalin that reaches a crescendo at 8am  as you race downstairs to see the garish jumble of presents beneath the tree. And equally, neither does it have the big, ceaseless procession of ‘stuff’ – relatives, TV, Christmas dinner and unpalatable puddings – that that makes the whole day pass in a strange, breathless whirlwind of activity.  It’s an oddly sober, thoughtful day… taken at a leisurely pace, and filled with the gentle richness of contented family life. It’s like waking up the morning after the wildest party of the year and feeling slightly sorry that it’s all over, but also a little relieved that you can have a little sandwich and a cup of tea rather than your 20th After Eight of the evening washed down with your 15th glass of QC Cream.

Obviously none of these thoughts entered my head for a single second 25 years ago today. The only thought that troubled me ALL SODDING DAY went ‘ZX Spectrum! ZX Spectrum! ZX Spectrum! ZX Spectrum! ZX Spectrum! ZX Spectrum! ZX Spectrum!’ Yes, 24 hours into Sir Clive Sinclair’s dastardly bid to commandeer my every waking hour, and the novelty of my main Christmas present was a long way from wearing off. If I’m honest, the Spectrum’s hold over my affections didn’t really wane until the Summer of 1988 (when I callously dumped it for the infinitely more manly pursuit of, erm, Dungeons and Dragons…)

Anyway, Chequered Flag was one of a bundle of six free games that came with the ZX Spextrum 48K during the mid 1980s, and it looked like this…

Apologies if the adrenaline rush from watching this high-octane video makes you feel a bit light-beaded!

Yep, it was a pretty basic racing game (lacking, amongst other things, the complicating factor of other cars being on the road), but it was oddly addictive and I clearly remember my Mum and I playing on this for quite a long time on this cold, clear December morning. ‘I actually really like this one…’ said my Mum, as she guided the Formula 1 car around another blocky patch of oil, and I had to agree – even though, to me, the game was a far cry from the compulsive ‘blink and you’ve snuffed it’ madness of Atic Atac.

And I also remember our walk! While my Mum and Gran stayed at home (carving the remains of our labrador-sized turkey into chunky white sandwiches that – squashed together with cold stuffing – remained our staple diet for the next two days) my Dad and I pulled on our coats and took Poggy Doggy and Poggles Ponsonby on a bracing tramp around the countryside.  Walking the two miles from our house along the frost-covered grass verge of the main road before delving off into the rambling, bare hedgerows and bracken of the country lanes that wound past Saltergill Residential School (or ‘the Bad Lads School’ as it was still shamefully known to us snooty Conyerites) and into Kirklevington village.  

It was the first time I’d really been out of doors for about 48 hours, and my Dad and I will have passed a gentle hour and a half talking nonsense in our shared surreal, saracastic sense of humour while the dogs yelped at wandering pheasants and the excitement and intensity of the festive period evaporated into a completely white sky above. There was a thick frost on the ground, but an overwhelming freshness all around, and I clearly remember consciously feeling very different and much more grown-up than I had done the previous Christmas.

I also – slightly embarrassingly – remember on this walk making a conscious mental decision to FIND A GIRLFRIEND in 1985, clearly deciding that it was high time I demonstrated my new-found maturity by settling down and starting a family of my own. I think something about the fresh, cold air and the stark newness of the onrushing springtime just put me in a romantic mood. And clearly the best way to attract a fresh-faced young lady to accompany me through the unknown territory of my teenage years was to… erm, go home and spend the next five hours playing Atic Atic by myself on the Spectrum.

An interesting approach, but one – with the benefit of hindsight – unlikely to bear fruit. Everyone knew all the best mid-80s tottie were only interested in men who could play Sabre Wulf and Knight Lore.

And then – as darkness descended – another raft of turkey sandwiches were produced and me and my Gran settled down in front of the TV and my parents decided to escape the continual bleeps and bloops of my ZX Spectrum by heading into Yarm for a few pints in the old Cross Keys. My Dad wearing his smartest trousers and jumper (and his blue coat) and my Mum being followed around the house by a gentle waft of perfume that – if I caught a whiff of it again today – would undoubtedly transport me instantly back to those mid-1980s Saturday nights, bracing myself for a night in front of Juliet Bravo and Match Day while my parents chugged John Smiths’ Bitter in the snug.

They were back in time to catch most of Dave Allen… another of those late-night comedy shows that reminded me that I really wasn’t a kid any more. My parents settled back into the front room as Dave was in full swing on his traditional high chair with a large scotch balanced precariously on the table next to him. Here’s a clip from that very show…

I vividly remember watching this with a glass of home-made wine and a turkey sandwich on the go. And getting something from Dave Allen than I still get from the above clip… the clear impression that I was listening to a PROPER ADULT doing comedy – a grown, mature man who’d lived and loved and made mistakes and was happy to share it with us viewers in a loveably world-weary fashion. It’s something that I really get from comedians these days… I like lots of modern comedy, but often can’t shake the fact that I’m frequently watching – well, overgrown kids. Many of whom have never got over the ‘whimsical student talking rubbish’ phase of their lives.

Dave Allen was absolutely of my parents generation, and his comedy came from that level of experience… and I loved that. It seemed thrillingly adult to the 12-year-old me, and it still does to my 37-year-old self. Even though, in the above clip, he’s barely ten years older than I am now. My parents had seen Dave Allen playing at the local clubs in the 1960s – Tito’s in Stockton and the Marimba in Middlesbrough – and his whole persona seemed part and parcel of that mystical, evasive adult work of smoke and beer… and jokes about sex and politics and religion.

In fact, I distinctly remember my Mum laughing at the ‘do you smoke after making love’ joke in the above clip and saying ‘That’s an old joke Dave… you were doing that when we saw you in the sixties!’

Great stuff though, and – as is often the case – I’d love to see a proper DVD release. I’d also like to point out that I always think there’s something thrillingly mature about a man talking with his legs crossed and a tiny glimpse of bare flesh visible between the top of his sock and the bottom of his trouser leg. This might just be me, though.

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 360

Tuesday 25th December 1984



I got up at 8.15, and at 8.45 I opened my presents. First I got £12.00 off Grandma, Nana and Norma, and then I got a 1985 dairy off mam. Next I opened a Warlock of Firetop Mountain tape, and after that I got 6 free games for the Spectrum.

Last I got a Dr Who annual, an Eagle annual, and the Spectrum itself. I put Jet Set Willy on the Spectrum but I found that I needed a special code so I couldn’t play that. I had a go on Atic Atac, then Trevor and Rose came and gave me a writing set.

At 12.00 we had our Xmas dinner, and then I played Atic Atac, Chequered flag and Chess on the Spectrum. After a few goes I started to write my own Dr Who program, and at 7.30 I saw just good friends. At 10.40 I played Atic Atac, and then I saw Some like it Hot. I went to bed at 12.50.

First of all… a hugely happy 2009 Christmas to anyone brave and bored enough to be reading this on Christmas Day! Don’t let yourself be torn away from the festivities for too long, I’m sure there’s a Harvey’s Bristol Cream with your name on it somewhere. Especially if your name is Harvey. Or even Harvey Bristol. In fact, if your name IS Harvey Bristol, drop me a line with a scan of your birth certificate and I’ll sort out some kind of special prize. (Possibly a bottle of QC Cream, just to be downright bloody contrary)

But YAYYYYYY! Christmas Day. Clearly THE MOST BRILLIANT AND FUN DAY OF THE YEAR. I might have got up at 8.15am, but I’ll have been awake since at least 6am… lying in the darkness beneath my yellow bedspread with my stomach turning like a tumbledrier, desperate (with a sterling display of 12-year-old pride) for somebody else in the house to start moving around so I could pretend they’d woken me up and stumble casually out of bed.

My Mum will have gingerly opened their bedroom door at 8.14am and 59 seconds, and – by the time my square plastic alarm clock had ticked onto 8.15 – I’ll have bolted relentlessly down the stairs (casting parents, dogs and stray lengths of tinsel in my wake) and been boinging up and down like Tigger by the Christmas tree before Dad had wiped the sleep from his eyes and rolled back the bedsheets with a hairy arm. The house will have been freezing, the dogs will have been hungry, the garden will have been in half-twilight and BBC1 didn’t spark into life until 8.40am. So we’ll have listened, without a shadow of a doubt, to BBC Radio Cleveland on the the crackly plastic transistor that had been in the family kitchen since Pagan times. Carols for Christmas and lovely old Keith Proud. 25 years on, BBC Radio Cleveland is now BBC Tees, and – in a move that still seems slightly surreal – my own show is now being broadcast as part of the Christmas Day schedules. I’m in the Christmas Radio Times and everything.

By 8.20pm the curtains were opened onto a grey front garden, the dogs had eaten cornflakes and water from clanking metal bowls, and my Dad – in his best jumper and trousers – was setting the coal fire in the front room, the only source of heat in the house. And I was still greedily eyeing up the presents beneath the tree, as my Mum – bless her – whispered a mantra that became a regular and heartbreaking part of Christmas mornings in the mid-1980s.

‘Don’t open your presents until Grandma’s out of bed… you never know, this could be her last one…’

In 1984, aged 12, I was still sniffing and sneering about this, but my Gran was becoming increasingly frail and forgetful, and I knew – in my heart of hearts – that one year it would be true. As it happened, it was 1988 that was her last Christmas with us. I was 16 by then, and I wasn’t sniffing or sneering any more.

Still, my Gran was soon with us in the front room, and – by 8.45am – the fire had been lit, the Play School Christmas Show (with Carol Chell) had sparked into life on BBC1, and all four family members were pottering around with a cups of tea. Chocolate liqueurs and walnuts and After Eights piled up on the table. And then the words I’d been longing to hear. ‘Go on,’ said my Mum. ‘Sort the presents into piles…’

I loved this. One by one we’d pull oddly-shaped and garishly-wrapped presents from beneath the sagging boughs of our first real Chrismas tree… the room scented with the glorious, overpowering smell of pine. We stacked them into orderly towers: ‘That’s for me… that’s for me Dad… that’s for Trevor… that’s for Grandma…’ and then, with my heart pounding, I started to tear the paper from the first one.

Little ones first. Mouth dry, determined to savour the moment. A Terry’s chocolate orange. That’s lovely, thanks. I like a chocolate orange. Then my Gran to open a present. And my Mum. And my Dad. Then back to me, and the unmistakeable shape of a tightly-wrapped Toblerone. We carried on like this in turn, as the excitement mounted and the gloom turned to nervous daylight throught the windows. Envelopes containing pound coins from my two Grandmothers and my Auntie Norma in Redcar. Various scattered Spectrum tapes, and a Doctor Who Annual that looked like this…  

And then, inevitably, one box left. One modest-looking cardboard box wrapped in red paper with dancing snowmen. I remember tearing the wrapping from the corner of the box and seeing – with a wave of sheer delight – the multi-coloured logo of the Sinclair ZX Spectrum. It was mine. Actually MINE. I was a  ZX Spectrum computer owner. I turned the words over and over in my mind, and they still seemed vaguely unreal and ethereal.

Polystyrene was cast aside, and aerial cables switched over in the back of our ancient, grumbling, rented TV. I’d played on Spectrums before – at school, and at Ian ‘Ozzie’ Oswald’s house – so I knew what I was doing. We had to fiddle about with the TV tuning for a while, but then – through a haze of static – appeared that gorgeous white screen, and the iconic, beautiful legend…

(C) 1982 Sinclair Research Ltd.

JET SET WILLY! JET SET WILLY! JET SET WILLY!!! Absolutely THE Spectrum game to own, I’d bought it with my birthday money back in November and for SIX WHOLE WEEKS it had lived in a cardboard box beneath my bed, stashed away alongside fellow 80s must-have game Atic Atac, a pile of TDK D90s containing recordings of the Radio 1 Top 40 charts from June 1984 onwards, and an impressive collection of light purple fluff. But NOW! I COULD FINALLY PLAY IT!!! ME!!! A ZX SPECTRUM OWNER AND A JET SET WILLY PLAYER!!! Except…

…I couldn’t. Because playing the game required me to entire the codes from a little plastic ‘security card’ that the girl in Boots in Middlesbrough had completely forgotten to put into the cassette casing back on Saturday 17th November. From hyperactive elation to crushing disappointment in a matter of seconds. Still, there was always Atic Atac…

And from then on, the day passed in something of a blur. A blur of clicking, blooping figures on our TV screen. I ate triangular chunks of Toblerone with one hand while operating the Spectrum’s rubber keys with the other. Trevor and Rose – my Uncle and Aunt – arrived in mid-morning, with their two-year-old toddler son Christopher in tow. They added a lovely, expensive-looking selection of ballpoint pens and writing paper to my pile of goodies, and the front room began to fill up with jokes and laughter and the first cheeky glasses of gin, beer and Harvey’s Bristol Cream, as my Mum and my Gran pottered back and forth to the steam-filled kitchen.

For Christmas dinner, we moved the dining room table – with, of course, the leaves fully extended – into the front room and chomped away on mountains of sprouts, roast potatoes, turkey, stuffing and carrots. Then Christmas pudding with brandy sauce, all accompanied by the pounding soundtrack of the Noel Edmonds Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show (Yes! From the top of Telecom Tower, and Yes! Featuring that legendary clip of Feargal Sharkey on the aeroplane) and the Christmas Top of the Pops… Culture Club, Duran Duran, Nik Kersaw, Wham!, the Thompson Twins and – of course – Frankie Goes To Hollywood. ‘Any chance you can put your Spectrum back on?’ asked my Dad, with a wry grin spreading across his face. Trevor cracked jokes, I laughed like a drain, the dogs scavenged for falling sprouts and my Gran turned bright pink after a glass of home-made wine.

Looking back, I think this probably the last of my real childhood Christmases. Christmas as it always HAD been throughout my childhood – with my parents and Gran and Trevor and Rose swopping presents and spending the day together, and me still very much as a child… full of life and excitement and wonder, and resolutely not the geeky, slightly sulky teenager that I’d become by Christmas 1985, six week after that watershed 13th birthday. It was a lovely day, and – when I look the snippets of TV that I’ve dotted throughout this entry, I’m instantly transported back to an unbelievably happy time.

So thankyou for that, Mum and Dad. And don’t worry… there’s a still a huge chunk of it that always comes back whenever Christmas morning rolls around.

Just Good Friends was a brilliant, flashback, feature-length episode – the story of Vince and Penny’s first meeting at a Rolling Stones concert in the late 1970s. Trevor and Rose and the kids had gone by then, and I took some persuading to unhook the Spectrum from its socket, but once we did we chortled along at all the naughty jokes, fuelled by wine and chocolate and the incredible richness of life and laughter that flows through the bloodstream as Christmas Day rumbles headlong into evening. And I managed to sneak in another half-hour of Atic Atac before Some Like It Hot, with my Mum and Gran both agreeing that ‘we can’t keep up with that… the little men move around FAR too fast…’

And what better way to round off the perfect Christmas Day than with Some Like It Hot? With the front room in darkness, save for the twinkling red, blue and green flashes of the Christmas tree lights. Two exhausted dogs (and one purring cat) curled up by the glowing remains of my Dad’s coal fire,  and all four of us chuckling along to this most beautiful of madcap comedy classics.  The last embers of the fire failing as Joe E Brown say’s ‘Nobody’s perfect!’ and the lights go out on a gorgeous family Christmas.

And it’s a strange thing… I’m writing this blog entry at around the same time of day… it’s now 1.30am in the early hours of Christmas Eve, and I’ve spent two hours on the ramblings above, fighting through the most terrifying array of emotions – self-conscious chuckles at our own stupid antics, moist-eyed sniffles for my late, lamented Grandma and a huge chunk of wistful nostalgia for a childhood and a long-lost 1980s that I probably spend far too much of my adult life inhabiting.

And then, for no reason, I leaned over from my PC desk to tug back the spare room curtains to find that -while I’ve been writing this – it’s been snowing relentlessly outside, and my house, the street, and EVERYTHING in Yarm is now covered in the most gorgeous blanket of crunchy, virgin white snow that – back in 1984 – I’d have given my Jet Set Willy security card for.  So yay! Just for the moment, I’ll have 2009 back… and I can’t resist taking you out into the garden for a little walk.

It might be all gone by the time you get to read this, or we could all be stuck in our houses waiting for the Territoral Army to dig us out. Whatever the case… be with the ones you love, tell them that you love them, give your pets a big hug, raise a Harvey’s Bristol Cream for me and – if you have a Grandma – wait until she’s out of bed before you start to open your presents.

Merry Christmas Everyone.

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 359

Monday 24th December 1984


I got up at 8.00, and we went to Yarm. At 9.00 we went back home and at 9.30 we went to Middlesbrough. I bought ‘Alchemist’ from Debenhams, and at 12.00 we came back and had dinner.

I wrapped up some presents, and at 3.10 I saw Return of the Pink Panther. At 5.15 I had tea, and at 5.25 I saw the last Box of Delights. Then I went out till 7.00, when I took the presents downstairs and saw One of our dinosaurs is missing.

At 8.30 I saw Only Fools and Horses, then I went in the shower. I went to bed at 11.00.

Christmas Eve! One of the weirdest days of the year… hugely exciting and deathly boring at the same time, a day ready to explode with the sheer gut-bursting brilliance of what was to follow, and yet those seconds and minutes were ticking by with a reluctance that was almost painful. 

And I loved it. My Mum and I will have gone to Yarm to ‘get a few bits’ (Harvey’s Bristol Cream, chocolate liqueurs, sprouts,  spare baubles and novelty dog treats from Margaret at the Pet Shop) and then, once home, dived straight back outside to the bus stop for a whistle-stop visit to Middlesbrough. And Middlesbrough on Christmas Eve was AMAZING. There was frost on the pavements, the Salvation Army brass band were playing ‘Once In Royal David’s City’ outside Binns department store, and the town buzzed with a sparkling, exciteable tension. There were pensioners in British Home Stores creating rugby scrums to fight for handkerchief and sock sets, and even Salmonella Sid – flogging hot dogs from his mobile stall outside Littlewoods (a position he’d held since at least 1876) – had a little spring of holly on his crumpled white overall.

So, in preparation for the arrival of the now-legendary ZX Spectrum, I dragged my grinning mother into Debenhams and spent the last vestiges of my birthday money on ‘Alchemist’, a game that – quite frankly – would transpire to be pretty crap, but I didn’t know that at the time…

And then back home to spend the afternoon around the coffee table in the front room, an enclave of warmth and family fun on a freezing afternoon. My Gran will have been in her favourite chair by the sliding door, sipping Harvey’s Bristol Cream and knitting. My Mum will have been on the settee with a kitchen bowl on her knee, doing something terrible and ungodly to sprouts. My Dad will have been cracking walnuts with a gigantic, terrifying metal contraption (it looked like a cross between a 1960s Doctor Who monster and an instrument of Nazi torture) and feeding the resulting mush to a snuffling Poggy Doggy. And I’ll have been making a bloody awful pig’s ear of wrapping the last of our presents (Brut 33 for Uncle Trevor, that kind of thing… he liked it with a dash of tonic over Christmas dinner) in the most garish, lurid wrapping paper imagineable. So far as 1980s wrapping paper manufacturers were concerned, the sun would never set on 1973.

What fabulous Christmas Eve TV as well… Return of the Pink Panther was the big afternoon movie on ITV, and is probably the funniest of the all the Pink Panther films. And, although I don’t mention it in my diary, we switched over in time to catch the end of the Christmas Blue Peter while we ate our teas… Simon Groom, Janet Ellis and Michael Sundin lighting the final candle on the legendary Advent Crown (a contraption made from coat hangers, tinsel and burning, naked flames – it was the 1980s! Bollocks to Health & Safety!!!) before ‘our old friends from the Chalk Farm Salvation Army Band’ marched live up the road to TV Centre and into the studio through those giant double doors. Thus summing up pretty much every childhood TV Christmas from about 1972-1985 in one fell swoop, and just writing about it now brings a lump to my throat.

The final, brilliant episode of The Box of Delights, and then – yay!!! Bringing the presents downstairs!!!

Throughout my early childhood, when ‘Father Christmas’ (never ‘Santa’ in our house) still loomed large over all our lives, the story went that – yes, although my parents bought our Christmas presents themselves, they were then whisked away magically to the North Pole so that F. Christmas Esq could transport them on his sleigh with the rest of the 60 billion presents he had to deliver on that magical night. And so, when I went to bed on Christmas Eve, the carpet underneath the tree in the front room would still be frustratingly bare (apart from a few half-eaten bits of walnut and some dog hair) and it was only when I charged out of bed on Christmas morning that I was able to drink in the glorious spectacle of lumpen, piled-up presents of all shapes and sizes wrapped in virtually luminous paper (and a few half-eaten bits of walnut and some dog hair) in a gorgeous, heart-stopping mess that stretched from the edge of the settee to the far reaches of the skirting board.  

I can’t remember when this charming little charade changed into ‘Oh sod it, he really doesn’t believe in Father Christmas any more’, but I’m going to hazard a guess at 1982, when I was 10. Although I think 1981 was the first year that I REALLY didn’t believe in Father Christmas any more (which is odd, as – looking back – 1981 now seems like the Christmassiest Christmas of my whole childhood. Maybe the truth had liberated me!) Anyway, the new routine was now for me and my Mum to transport all of the family presents from the bottom of my parents wardrobe to the front room at some stage on Christmas Eve, on a strict proviso of ‘NO MESSING ABOUT WITH THEM OR TRYING TO PEEL AWAY BITS OF THE PAPER’. As we did this, I absolutely, truly, vividly remember the opening sequences to ‘One of our Dinosaurs is Missing’ blaring out from the TV… BBC1’s big evening film, and one of the greatest British casts of all time – Derek Nimmo! Joan Sims! Bernard Bresslaw! Roy Kinnear! Deryck Guyler! Jon Pertwee! Amanda Barrie! Max Wall! And (ahem) a yellowed-up Peter Ustinov. I’ve got a feeling we’d actually watched this as a ‘sit down and shut up’ Christmas treat at Levendale Primary School the previous Christmas, so it’s now a film that’s inextricably associated with the festive period for me. 

And there we were, set for the night… me, my Mum, my Dad, my Gran and a repeat of Only Fools and Horses. I think my parents probably nipped into Yarm High Street for a couple of cheeky Christmas pints at the Cross Keys, while I burbled meaninglessly to my endlessly patient Gran about Jet Set Willies and ZX Spectrums. And then they’ll have returned, stinking exotically of John Smiths Bitter, London gin and other people’s cigarette smoke as the dogs twittered excitedly around their ankles.

And we’ll have dished out another round of Harvey’s Bristol Cream as my Gran sang gently along to Val Doonican’s Very Special Christmas, with guests Englebert Humperdinck, Pam Ayers and The Cambridge Buskers… and BBC weathermen Bill Giles, Jim Bacon and Ian McCaskill performing a special Christmas number. It’s a show that I associate exclusively with Christmas Eves spent with my late Gran, and a yuletide will never pass when I don’t think wistfully of Val Doonican singing ‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas…’ from his rocking chair, possibly accompanied by Gemma Craven in a Victorian bonnet.

(NB At some point during Englebert Humperdink’s performance, the following conversation will have taken place in our front room…

Mum: ‘Eeeee God, we used to see him at Tito’s and the Fiesta when he was still called Gerry Dorsey…’
Dad: ‘Yes, and he was bloody awful even then…’

They usually managed to get it in within the first thirty seconds, although their senses may have been numbed by John Smiths Bitter, so let’s be generous and say 45)

And then, reluctantly, to bed… although before we do that, let’s have a rare moment of self-indulgence in this blog* and count down…

(*irony, by the way)

1978: I was still staying over at my Gran’s house at this stage, and I left a single sheet of A4 paper sellotaped to the coffee table… essentially a questionnaire for Father Christmas to complete while he mulled over his QC Cream and Pink Wafer Biscuits. The only question I remember writing is ‘How’s Rudolf?’, but – when I awoke on Christmas morning – the whole lot had been answered in writing suspiciously similar to my Uncle Trevor’s. Possibly with a few Harp Lagers from the Endeavour inside him. Rudolf was fine, by the way.

(That’s Vicki Michelle!!!)

1979: Still at my Gran’s, I remember being tucked into bed in the spare room and still managing to shoehorn in a few last minute Christmas present requests ‘in case you bump into Father Christmas later on’. These included a Star Wars Imperial Troop Transporter, and the ‘Father Christmas’ book by Raymond Briggs, which had caused a minor sensation at school by including a picture of a bare-bottomed Santa on the toilet!!! Pffffffft!!!! To be fair, I got them both the next morning, so my Gran must have put in a bloody good word for me that night.

1980: At approximately 5pm, myself and Lisa Wheeldon (from the house round the corner) decided to ‘stake out’ Father Christmas by hiding behind my Gran’s settee all night in the hope of catching him (and Rudolf) in mid-deliver. We lasted until approximately 5.15pm before getting bored and coming out to watch The All-Star Record Breakers. Later that night, we went for a cycle around the block in the crisp, night air, and convinced ourselves we’d seen a sleigh zooming over the horizon towards Thornaby (good luck with that, Santa) The next morning, when I awoke, my Uncle Trevor and his new wife Rose were keen to tell me that they’d seen Father Christmas himself sitting in a Ford Cortina outside the Endeavour pub at 11.30pm. At the time, it seemed utterly magical, and a complete vindication of everything Lisa and I believed in. In retrospect, this may have been the historic moment that Middlesbrough Taxi Drivers actually developed a sense of humour. They’d need it for that tricky late-night fare to Thornaby…

1981: The ultimate Christmas Eve sleepless night. To bed at 10pm, and still awake – without a wink of sleep – at 5.45am. Visions of table football and Star Wars Annuals dancing in my bed. I tried counting sheep, but they all turned into Imperial Stormtrooper action figures in mid-leap. I think I finally managed about two hours fitful slumber before sheer, rank excitement woke me up again at 8pm, and I charged downstairs to see what Father Christmas had brought me (nothing, because he didn’t exist by then, of course…)

1983: With my parents enjoying another traditional ‘cheeky one’ in the Cross Keys, my Gran and I settled in on the settee for some very late-night telly… and I remember watching a splendidly bizarre B-movie called ‘Santa Claus Conquers The Martians’ on Channel 4, introduced (and occasionally interrupted) by an American film expert with an extravagant moustache and a mop of curly hair. Can anyone shed any more light on this, and who he might have been? All the while I was reading a hardback copy of the Doctor Who novelisation ‘The Web of Fear’, borrowed from Levendale Primary School library. I believe it’s now worth enough to pay for all of our family’s Christmas presents put together.

Anyway, GET TO BED!!! And no feeling up your presents (or, indeed, anything else) when your Mum and Dad aren’t looking.

And sincerely – to everyone who reads this rubbish, have a very Merry Christmas!

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 358

Sunday 23rd December 1984

I got up at 10.00, and at 11.00 Doug came down and we played Quest for the Rings. At 12.00 we had dinner and then we had a ride down the mud track and saw Pot. At 2.30 I came home and at 3.10 I watched Scrooge.

At 5.15 I saw Jasper Carrot got this mole. At 5.30 I had tea, and at 6.20 Richard Moxham rang me from Canada! At 7.15 I saw Ever Decreasing Circles, at 7.45 I saw Big Deal, at 8.30 I saw Steptoe and Son, and at 10.10 I saw Frank and Selina’s christmas time.

I went to bed at 10.45.

Christmas Eve Eve! A phrase I coined, I think, on the 23rd December 1982 when I decided – surely perfectly reasonably- that, as the day before Christmas Day was Christmas Eve, then clearly the day before that was Christmas Eve Eve. I think I even toyed with calling the 22nd December Christmas Eve Eve Eve at one point – desperate to somehow bring the Great Day itself just that LITTLE bit closer in my head. No doubt, given half a chance, I’d strung this out backwards throughout the year, so that – say –  5th April became Christmas Eve Eve Eve Eve Eve Eve Eve (times 263). I think someone would have hit me over the head with a Doctor Who Easter Egg long before that, though.

Anyway, a dark and rainy day I think, and a last little scurry around the streets of Yarm for Doug and I before we went our seperate ways for Christmas. But first… a quick bash at Quest for the Rings on the Philips G7000 Videopac console, no doubt inspired by my games-hogging antics round at Gareth ‘Gazzie’ Jones house the previous day. I don’t think Doug was ever QUITE as enthusiastic as me about Exciting! New! Computer! Games! but he gamely showed a bit of interest and waggled a joystick if it made for a quiet life. Providing we could go out on our bikes afterwards.

(Oddly enough, I remember clearly that we played on the G7000 using the portable TV in my parents’ bedroom, so my Dad must have been watching the telly downstairs. BBC1 was showing Bonanza, and ITV had The Smurfs and CHiPs, so take your pick. And that’s just given me a great idea for an exciting new fast food venture. Brilliantly, from 9am – 2pm, BBC2 showed nothing but ‘Pages from CEEFAX’. Merry Christmas, Everybody!!!)

Pot was our 1cw classmate Vince Potter, a friendly and funny lad who had already promised to make me a full C90 tape of his games when I got that coveted ZX Spectrum for Christmas. I think he was just killing time by himself on the swings at the mud track. It’s amazing how much your perception of those pre-Christmas days changes as you get older. Now, aged 37, I just can’t find the hours to cram in everything I  need to do… finishing off work, meeting deadlines, buying and wrapping presents, writing and delivering cards, faffing about endlessly with dogs and friends and family and stuff and desperately trying to cram in the odd, relaxing sit down with a glass of sherry. 

When I was a kid, the week leading up the Christmas was without a doubt THE slowest week of the year. I had nothing whatsoever to do but hang around waiting for Christmas morning, and the seconds ticked by with interminable reluctance. Half-hour TV shows seemed to last all evening. I’d cycle around the streets for hours, only to return home and find that twenty minutes had passed. Every toy and game and book and comic in my bedroom seemed startlingly dull and dreary compared to the wondrous NEW SHINY THINGS that were to come.

So I think Doug and Vince and I were just trying to idle away a bit of that. It didn’t work, though. We jumped around half-heartedly at the mud track for an hour, and the minutes flowed like treacle. I can’t remember saying goodbye to Doug on the way back, but we won’t have made a meal of it.

‘Have a good Christmas. Seeya’

That kind of thing. No-one had invented emotions in 1984. We’d have all made brilliant Jedi Knights (although I’d probably have struggled with the hand-to-eye co-ordination, I was still having problems with shoelaces at that stage) 

Scrooge was on ITV at 3.15pm. It’s the musical version with Albert Finney, and I’ve no recollection of it at all… although I do remember watching the glorious Alistair Sim version on Christmas Eve afternoon a couple of years later, and my Dad – who always had a vaguely ironic cynicism about the festive period – proclaiming it ‘a great film with a terrible cop-out ending’. I loved it as well, and remember being thrilled to see George ‘Arfur Daley’ Cole in a minor role.

And ‘Jasper Carrot Got This Mole’! Brilliant… I’d forgotten all about this, but it’s a strange and lovely little animated version of one of Carrott’s live stand-up routines. Like Kenny Everett, Carrot was one of my childhood comedy heroes, and (also like Kenny) I still think his influence in modern comedy is hugely underrated… he played a huge part in dragging comedy away from the old club circuit comedians into the more personal, observational style, and his Carrot’s Lib shows – late night BBC1 Saturday shows in the early 80s – seemed possibly daring and risque at the time. One of the shows that skirted the boundaries of stuff that I was allowed to watch, but – when I got away with it – it all felt excitingly grown-up and radical. Routines about sex, politics and nuclear war were a giant leap away from Are You Being Served and Dad’s Army, and watching his shows felt like a trembling step into a brave new world.  

Amazingly, the whole animated routine is here… still great stuff, I think!

And hello to Richard Moxham! Now immortalised in ‘Wiffle Lever To Full!’ (something he took with delightfully good grace considering we’d barely spoken for 25 years) Richard was one of my best mates throughout my early childhood, and I’d been shocked and upset in the Summer of 1981 when – aged 8 – he and his family emigrated to Canada. We kept in touch by post (writing reams of nonsense on that ultra-flimsy special ‘Air Mail’ paper that would rip into shreds if you attempted to cross anything out) and I think this was the second year running that he’d phoned in the days leading up to Christmas.

I still remember the shock in my Mum’s voice a year earlier, the first time he’d done it… ‘I think it’s Richard Moxham… phoning FROM CANADA!!!’ I’d nearly fainted myself. Back in the early 1980s, it still seemed unfeasibly flamboyant and extravagant to make an international phone call. It was something that only rock stars and Prime Minsters did. In fact, I remember my parents sucking their teeth and taking sharp intakes of breath whenever they needed to make a national phone call to somewhere outside Teesside! And thus, my weekly plans to call Swap Shop and speak to Adam and the Ants were perpetually scuppered. ‘London?!?! You want to phone LONDON? You might as well just chuck the money in a bucket and set fire to it…’ 01 811 8055, as if you needed to ask.

Lovely to speak to Richard though, even on an international phone line that sounded like strings and paper cups were involved somewhere in the technology. And his now-strong Canadian twang made him sound enough like a rock star (or a Prime Minister) to justify the EXTRAORDINARY expense.

And then back to the telly! The Ever Decreasing Circles Christmas Special (the one where everyone comes to stay at Martin and Anne’s house, of course), the penultimate episode of Big Deal and – hey! – Frank and Selina’s Christmas Time. A rare evening spin-off from the BBC Breakfast show, on BBC1 at 10.10pm. According to the Radio Times…

‘Frank Bough and Selina Scott present a star-studded curtain-raiser to your Christmas viewing. With special studio guests and clips including Mary Poppins, The Two Ronnies, Hi-De-Hi and Absurd Person Singular. Special reports by Mike Smith from the set of Christmas Day edition of Just Good Friends, and a magical occasion where Paul Daniels conjures up some Christmas surprises. Barry Norman makes his choice of feature films’.

I remember it well… oddly enough, it was the ‘little’ shows like that made me feel incredibly Christmassy, not the big, sprawling spectaculars. A sofa, a few familiar TV faces, a pastel-shaded set covered in tinsel, and a genuinely warm feeling of ‘IT’S CHRISTMAS BECAUSE THE BBC SAYS SO’.

My Mum, Dad and Gran were all in situ in the front room by this point, and I sprawled across my usual front room armchair with a glass of Harvey’s Bristol Cream, ticking off a few more vital seconds. 35 minutes long, going on six hours.

(And, fantastically, here’s the BBC1 closedown from this very day! Enjoy…)

Extracts from Bob’s 1984 Diary… Volume 357

Saturday 22nd December 1984


I got up at 10.30, and at 11.00 Gaz came and we went to his house. First we played on the videopac, and then Gaz thrashed me at Snooker. After that we played Skramble and Darts and then we had dinner.

After dinner we played Snooker again, then Hunchback. Then Gaz showed me round the village, and whe we came back we played Chess and Draughts. After that we went out and delivered some Christmas cards, and when when we got back I thrashed Gaz at Chess.

I came home at 5.00 and had tea, and at            I watched The Grumbleweeds Christmas Radio show. Then mam and I played Quest for the rings till            , when I saw Russ Abbot. Then I played Cosmic Conflict, and I also worked out how to play the board game of Quest for the rings.

At 10.40 mam and I played the game, and at 11.15 I went to bed.

Once a TV geek, always a TV geek! Do you know the first that went through my head when I woke up exactly 25 years ago today? I remember it with amazing clarity… shivering beneath my yellow bedspread, switching on the creaky black and white portable TV on my bedside table, watching the Thompson Twins and Slade going through their paces on Saturday Superstore, and thinking…

‘Ooooh! We need to start using the Christmas Radio Times today!’

And then realising that… well, of COURSE we did. It was Christmas Day in THREE DAYS TIME! And this was the first day of the school holidays. And I was going to Gazzie Jones’ house in Hilton for the day, and not only was he one of my bestest mates, but he also had a snooker table, a Phillips G7000 Videopac AND a Commodore 64. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer, obviously, was… nothing. Another gorgeous day, with the annual pre-Christmas butterflies now fluttering their wings in my Toblerone-filled stomach with almost unbearable ferocity. I barely had time to pull on my jeans and shirt (while ‘top skating duo’ Karen Barber and Nicky Slater chatted amiably to Sarah Greene) before Gazzie’s Dad pulled into our drive, his gigantic family estate car crunching excitingly over the frosty gravel.

The Joneses lived in a huge, rambling house in the beautiful village of Hilton, and – as we drove past the sleepy fields and churchyard and the locked-up barn behind which I’d been sick on Saturday 28th January 1984 – I remember being delighted by the frost-covered rooftops and pavements that lent the whole place a gorgeous, Christmas Card feel. The snooker table was in the family dining room, and seemed to be a permanent fixture… I think it was kiddie-sized though, and I remember – on previous visit – taking my customary thrashing from Gazzie while keeping an eye on the TV in the front room, upon which The Les Dawson Show was in full swing on BBC1 (just had a look at a few TV dates, and this would almost certainly have been in January 1983… clearly I only visited the Jones household in the bleakest of midwinters!)

‘Skramble’ and ‘Hunchback’ were both games for the Commodore 64 computer (booo! hissss!), both based on sterling old arcade games, so YES! You too can pretend you’re wasting 10p pieces in a freezing amusement parlour in Redcar without leaving the comfort of your own home!

I’m only amazed I didn’t have a shower or a bath when I got home. I was a dedicated disciple of Sir Clive Sinclair, and a couple of hours on a (cough, spit) Commodore 64 would have left me feeling decidedly dirty and slutty. (They look bloody great now, though… I might have to see if I can find a C64 emulator from somewhere to make Christmas 2009 really go with a swing!)

And I love the fact that Gazzie’s Mum shoved us out into the cold to deliver her Christmas cards! Quite right, too… she was clearly fully aware that were it not for this intervention, we’d happily have spent all day goggle-eyed in front of the telly blasting spaceships and, erm, guiding physically disabled medieval bell-ringers across dangerous castle ramparts. We had a great laugh, though… tramping around the village and sneaking up and down peoples’ drives, desperate to deliver the Jones family cards while skilfully avoiding any contact with the adult world whatsoever.

And then back to Chateau Jones for chess (which I think was a proper, permanent gronw-up chessboard in the front room with expensive-looking carved figures… as opposed to the foldy-up thing with cheap plastic pawns that I usually played on) and back home in time for tea. Awww! Note that, in my 1984 diary entry, I’ve skilfully left gaps because I clearly couldn’t remember what time The Grumbleweeds and Russ Abbot were on TV! ‘I’ll check the TV Times and fill those in tomorrow…’ I’ll have thought to myself, settling down for that tricky third-last sleep before Christmas. Before forgetting about it completely for the next 25 years.

Well I have the 1984 Christmas TV Times on my knee right now, and can bring closure to this traumatic piece of unfinished business by revealing that The Grumbleweeds Radio Show was on ITV at 5.40pm (featuring Wilf ‘Gasmask’ Grimshaw, Muffin De Bricasore, Sid Noxious and Shamus O’Holligan) and Russ Abbot’s Christmas Madhouse was on at 6.50pm, with the Punchlines Christmas Special sandwiched inbetween. Phew! Don’t you all feel better for that? (I’d also forgotten completely that, until the early 1990s, if you wanted complete TV listings then you were forced to buy both the Radio Times AND the TV Times, and NOTHING else was available in advance. State-contolled TV listings magazines! I love it)

And then one last play of last year’s main Christmas present before – predictably – it was packed away forever. Yep, Quest for the Rings (with its accompanying board game) and Cosmic Conflict were both games for the Philips Videopac G7000 console…

And, once more, watching the above clip has just made me desperate to want to the play the bloody thing again. I was about to say that I try not to spend my entire life living in the past and reliving my childhood loves and foibles, but then realised that – two nights ago – I spent £12 to watch The Grumbleweeds in panto at Darlington Civic Theatre, co-starring in Aladdin with Chico from The X-Factor. They were hilarious, and – amazingly – once scene features Robin Colville completely naked on roller skates. I’d like to think that, in 2034, there’ll be a still-traumatised 37-year-old old holo-blogging about it for all his disbelieving contemporaries… (not me, though, I’ll be 62 and living blissfully without technology in a cave at the side of a Loch)