Kolchak: The Night Stalker and more...
The Muppet Show
Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Louise Gold, Kathy Mullen, Eren Ozker, John Lovelady
(ITV; US: 27 Sep 1976)
It’s fair to say that The Muppet Show is my all-time favorite television program. When it debuted in 1976, I was in fifth grade, which is the right age for non sequiturs and bizarre throwaway gags, and I had never seen a children’s program that was so relentlessly hilarious before. It got kind of intense—my friends and I all memorized every routine, perfected our impressions of Statler and Waldorf, and answered the phone “Bork Bork Bork!” like the Swedish Chef. (My hand to God.) But when the box sets of the first two seasons arrived at my house, I was a little nervous that the humor wouldn’t translate to my own children. After all, a LOT of kids’ shows now think of themselves as wacky and surreal and self-referential; how would Jim Henson’s old-school yippie vision translate into their modern world? Turns out I had nothing to fear—by the middle of disc 1 they were full-fledged addicts, howling with laughter at the exploits of Crazy Harry and asking me, “Dad, what’s a running gag?” So there is hope for the future yet.
What really stands out on these DVDs is the show’s sheer disregard for any boundaries whatsoever. Some of this is occasioned by the variety show format, with old moldy vaudeville gags sitting right alongside clever parodies of more “current” shows and events. But an even larger part of it all is the fact that The Muppet Show is actually ABOUT anarchy. Kermit’s running around trying to keep everything running smoothly, but “smoothly” in this case means that Rita Moreno is doing a dance routine in which she beats the hell out of a life-size dancing Muppet, or that Dr. Bunsen Honeydew has shrunk Beaker’s head down to a little teensy nubbins…again. World-class weirdos like Gonzo, Sweetums, and Animal roam the premises, mating with chickens and eating other characters live and breaking Jim Nabors’ leg with a hammer. Both sets have great extras, but Season Two contains the completely incomprehensible “Valentine’s Day” special, as well as interview segments in which the characters all sound like they’re in a Christopher Guest movie. It’s a monumental achievement—our young people deserve more true freakiness.
(Channel 4; US: 1 Oct 1978)
“In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. Heavens sought order. But the phoenix can fly only when its feathers are grown ...”
Cheap as chips and camp as Christmas, Monkey was a multi-national masterpiece. Featuring Buddhist philosophy, cloud-flying comedy, gods, dragons, and demons, and some of the most ridiculous dialogue you could ever hope to hear, the show’s provenance was remarkable. A Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk made a pilgrimage from China to India in the seventh century in search of lost religious texts. Almost a millennium later, an unknown writer (now assumed to be the 16th century scholar Wz Ching’en) wrote Journey to the West, a celebrated classical Chinese novel inspired by the monk’s travels. During the Second World War, the English sinologist Arthur Waley abridged and translated Journey to the West. An alliance of Japanese TV companies produced an all-expense-spared 1970s television show based on the Waley version. And then the BBC paid a scriptwriter who spoke no Japanese whatsoever to create a new script for British actors to deliver in their best cod Oriental accents!
Deliberately and hilariously awful, the nature of Monkey is as irrepressible today as it was when it debuted in 1979. Characters include Monkey himself, the Great Sage, Equal of Heaven, who stole both the peaches of immortality and a certain magic elixir; Pigsy, the former Marshall of the Heavenly Host, who was punished for lust, and cast out into the mortal world; and Tripitaka, a serene Tang monk played by a Japanese cover girl who made no attempt to disguise her femininity. But the narrator gets all the best lines: “Defeated, the God of Fertility turned over a new leaf. This is why, today, very few men have babies.”
The Japanese made 52 episodes of Monkey. The BBC originally reworked just 39. The remaining 13 episodes were dubbed into English in 2004, using the original voice actors. The distribution of the DVD versions of Monkey is a little flaky and confusing today—especially in the USA, but if you can lay your hands on any of them you’re in for a treat.
Boys from the Blackstuff
Bernard Hill, Michael Angelis, Peter Kerrigan, Tom Georgeson
(BBC2; US: 1980)
It’s not funny. It’s not friggin’ funny. I’ve had enough of that—if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry—I’ve heard it for years—this stupid soddin’ city’s full of it—well, why don’t you cry—why don’t you scream - why don’t you fight back you bastard? Fight back. They’re knockin’ the shite and stuffin’ out of you, Chrissie Todd, and if you haven’t had enough, I have.
—Angie Todd (Julie Walters) “Shop Thy Neighbour”
In 1980, the BBC’s celebrated Play For Today series aired a 90-minute play called “The Blackstuff” that told a largely comic story about a group of Liverpudlian tarmac-layers working away from home and losing their jobs when a scam goes badly wrong. “The Blackstuff” was written in 1978 by a teacher and playwright from Liverpool called Alan Bleasdale, and had been rejected for two seasons running by the BBC’s controller before it was finally broadcast. However, when his play was warmly received by critics and viewers alike, Bleasdale was primed and waiting with a sequel series. Transmitted for the first time in 1982, the five-part Boys from the Blackstuff was the most gripping and powerful drama ever shown on television.
A ferocious and unsparing exploration of the effect of the UK’s economic depression on the city and people of Liverpool, Boys from the Blackstuff was wonderfully written and marvellous performed. Rich with stunning dialogue, overflowing with wit and black humour, this landmark series carried a tremendous emotional power that touched viewers in the UK like little else. Indeed Alan Bleasdale’s bleak, harrowing, and frequently poetic dramas didn’t merely reflect the pain and anger of the victims of the times, they also helped to change things, politicising many and exposing the plight of a British working class that had been abandoned by the times. It’s also clear that Boys from the Blackstuff laid the foundation both for future TV series such as Auf Wiedersehen Pet and indeed for much of the UK’s movie industry since. There’s a very clear line, for example, between Boys from the Blackstuff and The Full Monty.
Bleasdale’s most memorable character was Yosser Hughes, a working class King Lear driven to madness and beyond by the loss of his job, his wife, and, finally, his children. Yosser was played by an all but unknown Bernard Hill (Titanic, Lord of the Rings), but although his demented catchphrases became part of the popular consciousness, Yosser was clearly the symptom of the age. The solution came from characters like Angie Todd (Julie Walters in her first serious acting role) and from George Malone (Peter Kerrigan), the dying trade-unionist father-figure whose final speech provides a muted catharsis for all involved.
Forty-seven years ago. I stood here, a young bull, and watched my first ship come in… They say that memories live longer than dreams… But my dreams, those dreams, those dreams of long ago, they still give me some kinds of hope and faith in my class… I can’t believe there is no hope. I can’t.
—George Malone (Peter Kerrigan) “George’s Last Ride”
The DVD boxset of Boys from the Blackstuff includes all five plays and the original 90-minute “The Blackstuff”. Unfortunately and unaccountably, it’s not available in the USA.
The Night Stalker
Darren McGavin, Simon Oakland, Jack Grinnage, Ruth McDevitt
(ABC; US: 13 Sep 1974)
This is the show that I used to sneak out past my bedtime to watch way back when in the 1970s. I was enthralled from the very opening: Kolchak wandering into the newsroom long after hours, the typewriter keys beneath his fingers warning of murder and supernatural dread, the clock snapping to midnight.
Investigative reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) was far from the common television hero stock, closer in kin to Columbo; rumpled and shabby but consistently seeing clearer than others what was actually happening.
The concept for the show was a set of made-for-television movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, which introduced him as a bumbling journalist and surprisingly effective monster hunter.
The series itself ran for 20 episodes and placed him square in the path of vampires, warlocks, and zombies. Not only did Kolchak have to gather the facts and try to convince his harried editor, Vincenzo (Simon Oakland), that he wasn’t just cooking the monsters up to make killer copy, but he ultimately was left with the task of destroying each creature of the night once his pleas to authorities were laughed off.
Re-watching the series as an adult does take a bit of the shine off this diamond in the rough. The lighting was, on occasion, terrible and a few of the episodes were simply awful all around. But the sheer Halloween carnival-style fun of the series is the main attraction. You buy the ticket to play along with the rubber masks and pay less attention to the scenes that flop. You’re there for the sheer thrill of screaming, laughing, and having a bit of scary fun.
Some of the best scenes are dark comedy bits: Kolchak henpecked by co-workers and boss alike in the newsroom or his few and far-between scruffy attempts at establishing a romantic interest.
The adornment for the DVD collection is minimal—pan & scan presentation and a slip sleeve—but, then, how do you adorn Carl Kolchak? Have Vincenzo present him with a gold watch? Nah, Kolchak is more accustomed to getting leather goods (as in a boot in the butt and a belt in the mouth) from life—and he ends up sewing the zombie shut in the end anyway.
That’s why we love him.