Toys, Toys, Toys!

We all have our favourite toys and games that we played with as children – or at the very least watched the adverts for over and over again on TV. Below is a small selection I always wanted but unfortunately never owned (perhaps, looking back, for the better).

  • Baby Uh-Oh! (RRP £39.99) – A follow-up to Mamosa Toys’ highly successful Baby Wee Wee. Building on Baby Wee Wee’s urination, intended to teach children some of the grim realities of raising a child, Baby Uh-Oh! was designed to develop a vivid rash, high temperature and shallow breathing. The only way to cure Baby Uh-Oh!’s mystery illness was to treat her with the full combination of Baby Uh-Oh! Intensive Care Unit accessories (RRP £10.99-£69.99).
  • Cluedo Extreme (RRP £19.99) – A deluxe edition of the popular deductive board game. Players, in addition to working out killer, weapon and location, had to correctly ascribe motive. Since no biographies were provided of any characters, the game has reportedly never been won in the 22 years since its limited release, so the senseless killing of Dr Black remains senseless.
  • Play-Don’t Factory packs (£9.99 each) – To show the importance of health and safety, Play-Doh released a number of pre-made putty shapes, dyed and moulded to resemble body parts. Feeding these into a regular Play-Doh Factory, children saw ‘human’ fingers, ears and eyes blossom into a myriad of colours and textures as they passed through the machinery. So appetising were the colours that industrial accidents sky-rocketed once a certain generation reached working age.
  • Ka-blamo! (RRP £39.99; increased every year with inflation) – An inventive cross between Monopoly and Buckaroo, in which players have to stack a series of wooden blocks representing sub-prime mortgages onto a model of the global economy, until eventually a spring mechanism destroys the entire structure. Whoever lays the final piece gains all the others upon eruption, while the remaining players are plunged into poverty and manipulated by super-rich racists for years to come.
  • Dinner Time (RRP £29.99) – Released by Hasbro for six months in 2003 was this food-based variant of Operation. Using a diagram of a sleeping chicken hanging upside down, the players have to give rather than avoid an electric shock, but must do so in the perfect place to ensure a humane death and enable a guilt-free dinner. Otherwise a signal is beamed to the Food Standards Agency, who immediately send staff to confiscate the game and necessitate buying a new board.
  • Jailbirds (RRP £9.99 per bird; playset £24.99) – A series of miniature robotic birds in a variety of multi-coloured stripy prison uniforms. The idea was to collect the whole lot, which was near-impossible without first buying the Bird Jail playset for them to escape from. Otherwise they would break out of their owner’s house instead, leaving them with an incomplete collection. Many such Jailbirds are still spotted wandering the streets today, desolate and at a loss as to what to do with their freedom. Members of the public are advised to take them home to escape again, giving the poor creatures some fleeting sense of purpose once more.

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Jaffa Catastrophe

A certain generation will recall vividly the TV commercial for McVitie’s Jaffa Cakes (deliciously soft-centred) in circulation for several years around the turn of the century. Sources indicate it started in 1999, which would make sense, riding the coattails of that year’s solar eclipse which took place on my eighth birthday. It is perhaps due to this personal connection that I feel so strongly about discussing the moon accurately, and why I therefore consider the advert to be one of the great TV travesties of modern times (even worse than Without Prejudice), and one of the central reasons I didn’t grow to love Jaffa Cakes until I was 15.

Most infuriating is that it all starts off so well. A teacher, who I had no doubt at this stage was doing her absolute best, greets her class and uses a Jaffa Cake to symbolise a full moon. But of course. How inspired to use everyday treats to teach us about the movements of our world and its satellite. It needn’t stop there. We could drop bourbons to demonstrate gravity, use Kit-Kats to illustrate the geological make-up of the Earth, maybe even use a cup of tea for dunking as a springboard onto the heat-death of the universe. The sky’s the limit. If anything, at this stage, it’s the children I resent for failing to show due enthusiasm towards the celestial bodies.

Then, everything changes. The teacher takes a bite into the Jaffa Cake, creating, if we’re charitable, a waning crescent moon (it is too big for that, but the shape of the regular human bite creates a crescent, and so a crescent of some form it must be). Every time I watch this moment, it’s like the whole of reality slows down. Malicious glee in her eyes, the teacher looks from her crescent to her class and spews out, ‘Half moon’.

Shock. Dismay. How could she do this? To her class. To me. To all of us at home. To spread ignorance through the country in this way was, to my mind, unforgivable, and immediately my faith in her teaching abilities was shattered. This was a person, I now realised, who should never have been left alone with children. To this day, I find myself asking of the creators of the advert, would it honestly have looked that unappetising for her to have slowly nibbled her way directly halfway across the cake in a roughly straight line, to create an actual half moon?

Yet the worst was still to come. As if to misrepresent the cycle so badly wasn’t enough, the teacher then switches astronomical phenomenon altogether, and yet acts as if she has done nothing of the sort, as she pops the whole cake into her mouth, creating a new moon.

And what does she say? Well, you already know. So eager are her lies to escape her treacherous mouth, the words don’t even wait for the cake to get out of their way before they form and escape into the open air.

‘Repeat after me, class,’ she could have said, ‘A solar eclipse is an event entirely separate to the lunar cycle.’ But no, she did not. In 1999, of all years. The only thing totally eclipsed in that advert, reader, was the truth.

‘Good! Now, let’s do it one more time!’ No thanks, teacher. And I hope you’re placed in special measures.

I didn’t eat Jaffa Cakes when that advert was circulating, and I didn’t eat them for years afterwards. This, admittedly, may have been more to do with a Year 5 Food & Textiles lesson in which we spent an hour sampling different budget brands of Jaffa Cake to compare texture and lack of flavour. By end of it I was as pale as the lifeless sponge of the Tesco Economy pack. Absolutely nauseating, and to this day I still don’t understand what the point of the lesson was.

Eventually, in 2007, I found out that Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist of Radiohead, liked Jaffa Cakes (and Meddle by Pink Floyd, which I also tried hard to get into). My girlfriend at the time bought me a selection of mini-Jaffa Cakes to try. The stars had aligned, and I ate all 36 in one night as I watched the 1979 Doctor Who story City of Death for the first time. Suddenly, I got what all the fuss was about (for Jaffa Cakes and City of Death, which really is one of the all-time greats). I don’t remember much else of that evening, other than it was Monday 21st May, the day before my friend Connor’s sixteenth birthday (and I was marking the occasion in style).

This led to an addiction which culminated on my own sixteenth birthday a few months later, when various friends and family, having become aware, treated me accumulatively to 84 individual Jaffa Cakes and two Jaffa Cake-inspired homemade birthday cakes. They didn’t last long. I think back to this period as one of the most blissful of my life. I truly loved Jaffa Cakes now. And only eight years after I was supposed to.

My only regret is it could have happened so much sooner. I feel sorry for my younger self to have been deprived of them by my own bloody-mindedness at the advert (and the aforementioned Food & Textiles incident which was definitely more at fault; most of them really were horrible, and the Tesco ones didn’t even have any orange filling in, they were just bad sponge with bad chocolate on, and again, what was the lesson for?!).

If only Little Me had become addicted to Jaffa Cakes then, he might have become alarmingly overweight because of it. Instead he became alarmingly overweight because of various other foods and low self-esteem. The Jaffa Cakes would have to wait, thanks to two teachers, one fictional, one real, each in their own way abusing a delicious snack to teach lessons that, in either case, could surely never have been part of the national curriculum.

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Peter Fleming on Ghosts

Hi everybody. This week, Peter Fleming has written for us about his experiences with ghosts and the unexplained to mark Halloween. Read if you dare.

Boo!

Ha ha! Only pulling your legs, my friends! It’s me! Peter!

Viewers of Sprites of the Forest (1970) or The Stone Boy (1967) will be familiar with the fact that I enjoy a good ghost story, but what they may not realise is the number of encounters I have had before and since those programmes with ghostly presences in my own life.

I can recall vividly the terror I felt at my first ‘ghost’, an evil spectre which towered at the top of the stairs of the children’s home where I lived, its hideous, unearthly call echoing down the hallway. Turned out to be the shadow of one of the matrons, who enjoyed improvising on her slide-whistle on the landing long into the night to amuse herself, but the unparalleled fright that gripped me then still grips me today. (This is also why I’ve never been able to watch an episode of Clangers without screaming.)

Catharsis was the watchword when I used this memory to inspire The Ghost at No. 24 (1969), and we enlisted the help of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to create the sound of the Spectral Child, along with a Theremin player who charged so much money that in the end we couldn’t afford to record any pictures. And with the dialogue so sparse the whole thing made absolutely no sense. Had to put it out as a Radiophonic Workshop LP in the end. Not what I’d hoped for, although I did get paid as a session musician for bumping into Delia Derbyshire’s green lampshade in the middle of a take.

More successful was 1972’s Creak!, which I believe remains the only television programme ever to have successfully captured a real ghost on camera! The infamous shot occurred in episode 3, during a sequence filmed at the Stargroves estate (thanks once again to Mick Jagger for being so generous with the use of his house!). The camera followed our main actor round a corner, and there, down the corridor, was the figure of a man. Haggard and gaunt, he looked right down the lens, gasped, turned and ran away. Never seen such a frightening face in all my life.

These days, people there at the time try to rationalise it. ‘There’s no reason to believe it was a ghost, Peter – it might have been Keith Richards or someone,’ they’d say, or, ‘No, Peter, really, it looks exactly like Keith Richards,’ or, ‘Sorry I messed up that shot, Mr Fleming. Let me make it up to you with this signed copy of our new record, Exile on Main St,’ but with the episode missing from the BBC archive, I suppose we’ll never know for sure!

That’s not for want of trying, mind you. Left no stone unturned with my search for copies of that one, the memory really disturbed me. Searched all over the place for a film recording, or even paperwork in TV Centre. No luck there, of course; all the paperwork in TV Centre has been knocked down for flats (such was the scale of BBC bureaucracy that that did create a surprisingly large amount of space). Tried the BBC’s archive facility in Perivale too, but all I managed to do there was start a small fire and burn several newly returned episodes of Doctor Who. Luckily no announcement had been made, so fans didn’t have to face the disappointment of not being able to enjoy Patrick Troughton’s first appearance after all!

Yes, there’s sadly little chance I’ll ever find real confirmation of that little encounter with the beyond. But I still find myself making similar contact with other realms even today. Only a few months ago, I found myself the custodian of an old mask, haunted by none other than Geoffrey, Zippy and George from Rainbow! It came into my possession after an unfortunate incident at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, in which I mistook the mask for a prop from Mr Hildebrand’s Many Faces (1973). As a result, I was mistaken for stealing something that wasn’t mine, which it turned out I was, but I didn’t realise that until it was too late.

Fortunately, the culture sector in this country is so badly underfunded, the only security guard there was older than me and had to stop to catch his breath and call an ambulance mere seconds into our chase! Consequently, I finally have company on my raft after years of travelling alone. Trouble is they’ve all grown rather tiresome the last few weeks, always bickering over whose spirit is taking up the most room in one cheek or another, and they always patch things up by singing the theme from Rainbow together over and over again. I wouldn’t mind, but Zippy’s always about a semitone out from the other two, makes it nigh on impossible to sleep at night.

As you can see, my friends, the possibility that we might be contacted from realms outside our own cosy little world is always there. But I ask that you think on the account of my current situation and ask yourself: mightn’t it be better to leave well alone?

Best wishes,

Peter

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Peter Fleming: The Restoration Party Manifesto

Hi everyone. This week, architect of the golden age of British children’s TV Peter Fleming has written in with a very special announcement.

Good day, my friends!

Well, well, well, it is a huge honour and a privilege to be able to announce today my candidacy for Mayor of London, and the formation of my new political party, the Restoration Party! I have travelled up and down the country over the last few years, largely by water, and largely by accident. From every single person I have talked to, I have felt a growing sense of desolate exhaustion, especially after the first hour.

The public are tired, my friends. Our whole political class seems hell-bent on recreating the infuriatingly and inexplicably dreary final series of my once charming and whimsical programme The Westminster Bubble (1967-72; why did we suddenly decide to make it a figurative bubble and make it all about politics, I still ask myself). Whenever I happen to catch a few minutes of BBC Parliament through a family’s living room window, I even hear lines of dialogue lifted directly from Well What About Them? (1974), and whole scenes from Boris’ Secret Family (1969).

But what seems to tire people the most is the fact that my programmes have been wiped from the archives. Every time I mention it, I hear exasperated sighs, and see people roll their eyes upwards, then back down to check their watches. They’ve had enough of it! For every single problem I mention I’ve come up against, they seem to share my intense agony. And they’ve mentioned one or two things that have been bothering them about their day-to-day lives too, which I have broadly listened to as well and duly addressed in my flagship policies detailed in my manifesto, summarised below.

  • 20,000 new police officers to be recruited, and put to the task of recovering any film copies or reel-to-reel audio recordings of any programme I have ever worked on, from Sally’s Hamsters (1959) to Carnival of Grannies (1983).
  • Every recovered programme to be preserved and digitally restored in new government-funded archive facility (BFI and current BBC holdings can receive the same treatment if there’s the money for it), then released in lavish 600-disc (approx.) DVD box set – all proceeds to be returned fairly to original producer; a free copy for every Restoration Party voter.
  • To combat our gutting of the Earth’s resources, all new vehicles and consumables to be manufactured by the Blue Peter team from recycled household objects.
  • Any immigrants (or their children and grandchildren) without valid documentation to have it reconstructed from off-air photographs and the original television soundtrack; one portion re-enacted by the original cast, united for the first time since 1966.
  • Revoke Article 50 (I’m not quite sure what this means).
  • A statue of John Noakes to be added to the top of Nelson’s Column.
  • Infrastructure to be revolutionised with a new emphasis on the waterways; make it easier for hard-working commuters and retired producers to travel to work by barge, steamer and raft (also install more life rings every few metres along every river and canal – they really are very useful!).
  • Parliament and Civil Service to be rehoused in the former BBC Television Centre; circular shape of the building may engender a more cooperative style of politics, while the labyrinthine nature of its corridors is a perfect match for continued Whitehall bureaucracy.
  • BT Tower to be renamed the Post Office Tower; revolving restaurant on the top floor to be reopened and switched back on.
  • NHS to be restored to its former glory by doctors and nurses dressing in the same clothes they tended to wear in the 1960s.
  • Tax the billionaires.
  • Abolish linear time to bypass awkward technical discussions as to the optimal retirement ages and length of the working week, and reduce citizens’ anxieties regarding the looming spectre of death.
  • Grammar schools to be retained, but 11+ exams to be made impossibly difficult; increasingly empty school premises to be converted to studio facilities where children from across our communities can be taught about the practicalities of television production, and the paramount importance of retaining copies of their work.
  • TV licence fee to increase to £1,000 a year; extra revenue to be split evenly between benefits and a new government crack squad tasked with reviving Ceefax (expected to create 3,000,000 jobs).
  • BBC Sounds to be closed down; everyone responsible for the needless replacement of BBC iPlayer Radio to spend the rest of their lives in jail.
  • Bring back vintage TV repeats on UK Gold.

I’m very much looking forward to moving into City Hall, and my party’s eventual inevitable victory in the next General Election. I trust I can rely on your vote, my friends! And if you can spare any money to go towards the deposit that will enable me to stand, do get in touch.

Best wishes,

Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed one last time at the Bill Murray in Islington, this afternoon at 4.15pm. Tickets are available here.

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Peter Fleming’s Blue Peter Gossip

Hi everyone. This week, British children’s TV legend Peter Fleming has written to me about Blue Peter to commemorate the programme’s 61st birthday this week. Take it away, Peter!

Hello there, my friends!

Well, well, well, happy birthday to that television institution, Blue Peter! Now, over the last 61 years, there have been 38 different presenters of the programme, not counting occasional guest presenters, and an incident in 1967 in which I was mistaken for newcomer Peter Purves and helped helm a live edition, ending in an unfortunate incident that saw me barred from Television Centre for the next month (in my defence, you’d be amazed how easy it is to kill that many horses without even realising!),

Returning to my point, there have been 38 Blue Peter presenters over the years, and through the decades, I’ve picked up a great deal of gossip about them all (either through working with them directly or through hearsay). It seems fitting to share a handful of the most interesting titbits for this week’s anniversary. After all, as the old saying goes, what better way to show your love than to libel multiple national treasures? Enjoy, my friends!

  • Christopher Trace, hired as the first presenter for his love of model trains, ended his time on the show by making off with a real steam engine that he pinched from a railway museum whilst filming in Norfolk – everyone was at a loss as to how, because it wasn’t on tracks and had no fuel in it, but he managed it nonetheless, and was never seen again!
  • Katy Hill is three children on each other’s shoulders in a big coat.
  • Tim Vincent refuses to go out on any set until he has been fitted with the skin of a younger man.
  • Konnie Huq can extend her neck up to two miles long – she was originally pencilled in to do more RAF parachute jumps than she eventually did, but she would keep completing them by stretching her neck out of the plane before jumping, clamping her jaw onto something at ground level and lowering herself to safety (very impressive in a different way, but it was cheating).
  • Janet Ellis is one of five Blue Peter presenters to have engaged Tom Baker in hand-to-hand combat.
  • Matt Baker is the only Blue Peter presenter to have shot me.
  • Valerie Singleton once flogged a Girl Guide during camera rehearsals as a warning to the other guests.
  • Anthea Turner has seven legs*.
  • Peter Purves is the only Blue Peter presenter who can fly – he discovered his skill while bored at Crufts one year, but fears being captured in a big net and experimented upon by the government, so he only shows it off to close friends in his garden.
  • Mark Curry eats the core of the apple.
  • Peter Duncan fights tramps for food.
  • John Noakes was 50ft tall – every time you saw him on-screen, a camera trick was being employed for which he was required to stand at the far end of the studio to make him appear normal-sized. (Climbing Nelson’s Column doesn’t seem so impressive now, does it?!)
  • Diane-Louise Jordan started the fire at Notre-Dame – loathsome woman!
  • Richard Bacon never took cocaine in his life; he just didn’t want the dogs to get into trouble.

*somewhere in her house

Fascinating stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. And I haven’t even mentioned what Lesley Judd did! Many happy returns, Blue Peter!

Best wishes,

Another Peter

Peter Fleming: Have You Seen? is being performed for the last time at the Bill Murray in Islington on Sunday 20th October at 4.15pm. Tickets are available here.

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The Horrors of Harlow

My ongoing tour of the new towns of England and their histories continues. The truth only grows more terrible as I go on. This week we take in what I have learned about Harlow, though I fear we will soon wish we hadn’t.

  • In 2006, Harlow was subject to a water restriction order in the wake of a drought in the South East of England. Due to a clerical error, this has never been lifted, and the people of Harlow have slowly adapted to their changed environment, following the example of organisms that thrive in arid areas, like cactuses, coyotes, and dung beetles. People who have lived in Harlow a long time are today noted for their physical resemblance to the titular villain from the 1980 Doctor Who story ‘Meglos’, their overreliance on flimsy Acme equipment designed to trap fast birds, and their poor diet.
  • Residents are engaged in an ongoing guerrilla campagin against the operators of London Stansted Airport, who have been attempting to secretly build a second runway since they were refused planning permission in 2010. Every night, construction workers arrive in the hope of being able to get a few hours’ work done under cover of darkness, but are always met and thwarted by the joyous communal spirit of a furious Essex mob. Some airlines have tried to landing planes on the area as a way of intimidating the locals, but have invariably crashed and exploded, leading to complaints.
  • The Harlow Greyhound Stadium is the only one of its kind in the world, built as it is in the shape of an 80ft greyhound. The interior of the stadium is modelled on the innards of such a beast, making races almost impossible to enjoy. A standard-priced ticket costs over £3,000. The stadium also hosts weekly meetings of the town’s rotary club.
  • Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline have large premises in Harlow, mainly dedicated to the manufacture of dermatological products. This has led to an active black market in steroid creams and other skincare treatments. Early on, residents tried using these as a substitute for water in the wake of the restriction, but thinned their own throats out disastrously from the inside. Nowadays, they instead use them to tame their cactus-like spikes, coating themselves thoroughly in various creams each day to soften the prickly texture of their skin (this is why everyone in Harlow is so eerily shiny).
  • The site of the old biscuit factory (closed and demolished early this century) is haunted by the spirits of teatime treats uneaten. Horrific stories are told throughout the town of the terrible sounds heard all over the desolate landscape. The crunch of a pink wafer here, the disappointed sigh of a man with only plain digestives in the cupboard there – not to mention the ceaseless night-time moans of the factory’s old mascot, the Harlow Hobnob, a once delightful figure now transformed into a lonely oat monstrosity, searching the frightened town for one last cup of tea to be dunked in. Given the lack of fluid in the area, the unhappy creature looks set to be wandering for a long time yet.

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Letchworth Garden City Revealed

Since spilling a number of explosive beans last week about Stevenage, I have received many vicious accusations of bias against the town, but a far larger number of accusations of favouritism. All of these stemmed from rival new towns across Britain, so I have decided the only solution is to sporadically redress the balance, location by location. In my life, I have learned many things about Letchworth Garden City, and the most believable are recounted below.

  • Letchworth boasts the UK’s first roundabout, built in 1909. It was initially met with suspicion – nobody used it, and many abused it, either driving right across it or going about it anti-clockwise to inconvenience and endanger any ‘traitors’ who had been espousing its benefits to motorists. This continued until the outbreak of the Second World War thirty years later, when it became a vital strategic roundabout for transit of our troops, and a groundswell of patriotic defence came in the wake of Nazi propaganda sneering that Letchworth’s was an inferior, non-Aryan roundabout.
  • The town was once visited by Lenin, and has regularly been swamped with Lenin fans ever since. In a bid to control this traffic, Letchworth has hosted its month-long CommieCon event every April since 1957. The presence of cosplayers during this period leads to the area being closely monitored by the security services, in case actual communists use it as a cover to plot a revolution, disguised as people who simply appreciate the fashion of turn-of-the-century Russia.
  • Letchworth upholds a distinguished tradition of weightlifting, and has been suspended since 1983 atop the arms of the town’s strongest resident (she is understood since starting the record-breaking lift to have petrified).
  • A longstanding violent rivalry with Stevenage has been raging since 1946 and the founding of ‘that festering mound of colonic litter’, as the town is colloquially referred to by Letchworth residents. Stevenage has generally been more active in the conflict and Letchworth is felt still to be resting on its laurels after the ‘Stevenage Butchery’ of 1974. On Saturday 19th October, citizens of Letchworth burrowed their way to Stevenage and burst from the ground, commandeering the town’s precious meats, fashioning them into axes and using them to cut down all of the area’s notoriously high street lights and a number of town clerks.
  • Letchworth became self-sufficient for a time, in keeping with the ambitions of its Green Belt area, and was able to provide power for surrounding towns and villages from its own electricity station. This grew steadily out of control and the town’s own infrastructure eventually became sentient, finally challenging Parliament for supremacy. Religious forces were employed by the Attlee government to thwart this and an exorcism held on the town’s landmark roundabout helped settle the spiritual disturbance long enough to allow the utilities to be brought into public ownership and tamed. (The area has had a Conservative MP pretty much consistently since the 1880s, so it was decided the ritual should be repeated yearly to be on the safe side – this is done every third Sunday in June, and since 2010 has been a ticketed family event.)

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