Sitting uneasily alongside the Easy Listening revival, and much more comfortably alongside the post-Tarantino hoo-ha that the original This Is Cult Fiction had sought to cash in on, was the rise of what would later come to be known as 'lad mags'. But - crucially - they weren't always known by that label. What often gets conveniently forgotten is that Loaded was founded by a former NME journalist, who in turn had wound up at the NME after publishing his own surreal and vaguely establishment-baiting fanzine, and in its earliest incarnation it had a 'mission statement' of sorts to suggest to those who enjoyed looking at Liz Hurley in her pants that they might also like classic films, classic books, indie music, Peter Cook and what have you. This of course was hastily jettisoned when they realised they sold more copies when they had glorified porn stars on the cover, but all the same they did try it at first, and it would have all manner of unlikely and unexpected side effects.
Sandwiched between Anna Friel's knockers - not literally, thankfully, as that would cause several readers (both male and female) to explode - you would often find short and impressionistic pieces on such retro ephemera nonsense as Kung Fu-mania, Aztec Bars and spacehoppers, and more often than not the long-lost televisual likes of Hawaii Five-0, Tucker's Luck and Help!... It's The Hair Bear Bunch!. This was, it's fair to say, one of the key initiators of the nostalgia boom that became big cultural business later in the decade, which would ultimately give rise to TV Cream, though less happily it also gave rise to endless 'talking head' clip show appearances by Peter Kay counting off imaginary lists of things he pretended everyone else had forgotten on his fingers. There was even a post-Loaded magazine devoted to this very phenomenon, Cult TV, which strove to interest fans of Friends and The Simpsons in the likes of Babylon 5 by way of articles enthusing over episodes if Scooby Doo Where Are You? where Daphne wore a bikini. It was not exactly a roaring success.
It's hardly surprising, then, that having already covered both the Easy Listening revival and the post-Tarantino hoo-ha, the compilers of the Cult Fiction series would choose to mine this sort-of phenomenon for their next offering. Released over the summer of 1996, This Is The Return Of Cult Fiction collected a ton of outmoded TV themes, and a handful of film themes that you might well have found lurking somewhere in the same schedules, with Glen A. Larson-esque 'car escapades' photos on the cover to match, which ended up as the closest thing possible to a musical evocation of flicking through a vintage issue of TV Times from the days when they used those infamous 'genre' icons. Plus of course there were a couple of inclusions that didn't really fit this unofficial format, but more on them in due course.
The bulk of This Is The Return Of Cult Fiction leans very much in the direction of the late seventies/early eighties 8pm big budget glossy American import, and as they've opted to go for the halfway decent ones rather than the likes of Hooperman, Vega$, Simon & Simon and Scarecrow & Mrs. King, this is no bad thing. Charlie's Angels, The Six Million Dollar Man, Kojak, Magnum P.I., Taxi (impressively in its original show-predating album incarnation, as opposed to the later single-length re-recording with the "Night Mr. Walters" - "Hrmph" business tacked on to the end), Wonder Woman, Hill Street Blues and Starsky And Hutch all show up in their original wah wah-tastic sax-rasping as-heard-on-TV versions (well, apart from Taxi, and the at least very close approximation of The Six Million Dollar Man), although this does have some unfortunate side effects in places; most noticeably, the relatively sluggish pace and restrained soloing of Starsky And Hutch drives home just how used we'd got to the James Taylor Quartet's version in the interim.
The filthy choppy-chord duelling of both The Return Of The Saint and The Professionals - impressively, for once, the actual real original recording with the middle eight and with the electric violin actually in tune and everything - suggests that we're also going to be seeing a lot of UK-made counterparts to the above. Which is why it's a bit of a surprise that the album immediately goes off in a very different direction, serving up a sizeable quantity of erstwhile ITV and BBC mainstays that may well have had great theme tunes and impeccable Darren-Grimley-glugging-Quatro seventies/eighties crossover retro credentials, but are about as far removed from glitzy big budget action as... well, to be honest you'd usually just name one of these actual shows anyway. Doctor Who (the contentious early eighties squealing electric guitar makeover by Peter Howell), Vision On (the skittering Parisian jazz intro music AND the vibraphone-strobing music from 'The Gallery', which at that point was still just this side of overexposure), Dave Allen At Large (the rarely heard onscreen version), Tales Of The Unexpected, Budgie (the atmospheric tone-button-fluctuating instrumental from series one rather than the Kinks number from series two), Man About The House, On The Buses, Minder, Please Sir!, Ski Sunday and, erm, World Of Sport fill out the tracklisting in fine Back In Denim-friendly style, and even The Two Ronnies get in on the act courtesy of the Moog-tastic funk-out that opened their 'Charlie Farley & Piggy Malone' running serials. And there are two real treats saved for right near the end - White Horses by Jacky, the theme from the of-the-same-name multi-million episode German children's serial that became one of the 'big five' of the BBC's imported dubbed 'Tales From Europe' alongside the uniformly equally impressively theme-tuned The Flashing Blade, The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe, Belle And Sebastian and The Singing Ringing Tree (only one of which, outrageously, has ever found its way onto CD), and the alarming scuzzy guitar riffing, inhaled harmonica and supervision-averse barking that bookended Roobarb. Though annoyingly, if inevitably, they've added an 'And Custard' here.
Then it's back to America, only further back in time to the days when everything was black and white and everyone got a new hoover every week and Raymond Chandler continually fell face-first into a swimming pool. Like the soundtrack to some lost Adam Curtis documentary, Get Smart, Perry Mason, I Dream Of Jeannie and Bewitched add a very different kind of retro-space-age sponsor-message-festooned glamour, and taken as a whole it's refreshing to find so many contextually diverse yet strangely well-fitting approaches to the idea of 'Cult TV'.
The handful of film themes that also find their way onto This Is The Return Of Cult Fiction mostly adhere to the first of these approaches, though, with the superbly schlocky Moog-and-kiai curtain-raiser for Enter The Dragon rubbing shoulders with the dark-side-of-Lorimar mirror-threatening antics of Taxi Driver, and more unexpectedly Last Tango In Paris, whose infamous Maria-Schneider-bumming sequence certainly leaves the odd flash of semi-nudity that occasionally troubled Magnum and Kojak languishing in the "I have a horsey neigh neigh" doldrums. Elsewhere, the Bewitcheds and what have you found a suitably pre-Monterey Pop friend in Hitchcock's North By Northwest, though what the Incantation-evoking panpipery and apparent inspiration for the theme from Five To Eleven that made up the theme to Once Upon A Time In America is doing here is anyone's guess; it would barely even have fitted on the very first This Is Cult Fiction either thematically or musically, and here it's really just a fish out of water that does little bar drag proceedings down. Meanwhile, fitting into none of these categories whatsoever is Julie London's interpretation of Fly Me To The Moon, included here as a result of its contemporaneous use in a Ford advert, but its syncopated jazzy flourishes fit so well with everything else surrounding them that there's really no point in quibbling.
All in all, there are a whopping thirty six tracks on This Is The Return Of Cult Fiction, but there's a catch. Those thirty six tracks are on just one CD, and where This Is Easy had at least opted for tasteful detail-retaining edits of selected tracks as a way if squeezing on as many as possible, here they just fade them out hamfistedly and at a seemingly arbitrary point. Doctor Who, Vision On (both of them), Tales Of The Unexpected, World Of Sport and The Return Of The Saint all slide frustratingly out of the range of audibility before they've actually finished, sometimes with barely twenty seconds left to go, and with no real purpose either as they could easily have trimmed one of the blander or less well-fitting other inclusions. Oh alright, let's just be upfront about it, they should have ditched Once Upon A Time In America. The upshot is that this brings a jarring and unwelcome element of frustration into an otherwise excellently sequenced compilation, and causes so much point-deduction that there's no option other than to put This Is The Return Of Cult Fiction at the very bottom of the 'Best Cult Fiction' list. And that really is a shame.
Still, the most fence-falling of the Cult Fiction series is still infinitely better than the vast majority of other compilations (oh and Trackspotting), and This Is The Return Of Cult Fiction really does pull off the infamously difficult feat of taking a load of short tunes originally written to catch the ear of TV audiences rather than with anything resembling sustained listening in mind, and fashioning them together into something coherent and infectiously upbeat. This was, in many ways, the sound of This Is Easy's madcap mate who remembered the names of all the cars in Wacky Races. Cult Fiction would never be quite so frivolous again. Well, not for a volume or two...