Dedicated, Inseparable, Invincible (Except When Confronted With Carnivorous Plants): Part 1
As we've already discussed at some considerable real-Nesmith-hatted length here, the BBC didn't in fact commence their early eighties repeats of The Monkees with the actual first episode, Royal Flush, preferring for no readily obvious reason to open proceedings with the more assured twenty fourth instalment Monkees A La Mode. Instead, Davy's rapier-wielding beachfront entanglement in a plot to overthrow Princess Bettina of Harmonica would have to wait until the repeats were temporarily shunted from their inaugural weekday slot to Saturday Mornings, where it was fortunate - well, we say fortunate - enough to form part of one of the weirdest TV schedules of all time. No, not just one of the weirdest Saturday Morning ones. One of the weirdest ones ever. Full stop.
For reasons best known to themselves and to whatever had apparently leaked into their collective cerebral cortex, on 22nd August 1981, the BBC saw fit to hand over the summer-replacement-for-Swap-Shop Saturday Morning presentational reins to one Buzzfax. And despite the seemingly straightforward embarrassing-attempt-at-being-down-with-the-kids implications of title, this was no ordinary summer replacement for Swap Shop (and let's face it, the majority of them were very ordinary indeed). It involved no clean-cut aspirant Blue Peter presenters gamely attempting to link tedious filmed inserts about 'improving' hobbies and interests with sufficient verve to prevent a mass switchover to ITV. No up-and-coming pop stars were seen struggling through the throwaway b-side of their hit single to mass disinterest in lieu of a proper 'second number'. Instead, Buzzfax saw the whole ninety minutes thrown open to the 'backroom boys', with the full morning's entertainment presented entirely 'by' Ceefax.
Yes, you did read that right. For one week only, The Monkees, Battle Of The Planets, long-forgotten Popeye-affiliated Hanna Barbera canine gigantism third-divisioner Dinky Dog, and the inexplicably revived yawn-inviting Chopsticks-heralded slow-motion black and white comedy escapades of Edgar Kennedy (this week apparently seen facing off against 'The Big Beef') were interspersed with blocky renditions of their primary characters and chirpy quiztacular interjections from 'Buzz', a Ceefax-derived post-Space Invaders Vectrex Gaming System-esque geometrically askew character who may or may not have been voiced by the same bloke as Jig from Jigsaw, and whom in an early excursion into primitive multiplatform interactivity also introduced some puzzles that volleyed back and forth with those set in the back pages of that week's Radio Times. No prizes for guessing, then, that Jigsaw supremeo, Radio Times puzzle-setter extraordinaire, and veteran 'backroom boy' in general Clive Doig was the main creative mover and shaker behind Buzzfax.
In some respects, Buzzfax was an attempt to roll back the post-Posh Paws clock to the lawless frontier days of Saturday Morning TV, when programmes were linked by terrifying splurges of electronic noise and psychedelic graphics courtesy of the over-exclamation marked likes of Zokko!, Outa-Space! and Ed And Zed!, all of which with their dustpan-and-brush-in-a-cupboard-with-cables-in-it ambience did little to counter the prevalent juvenile lack-of-in-vision-continuity-fuelled assumption that 'The BBC' was a big empty building that showed the programmes via some sort of sentient machines that worked of their own volition. But by that point, of course, Noel Edmonds had not only brought 'in vision' continuity right slap bang into the middle of the whole shebang, but had done it with the sort of sense of fun that you weren't really supposed to come across in the square-jawed, improving world of children's television, so no matter how much technological wizardry may have been involved, there was simply no going back and poor old Buzzfax felt the full weight of force; in fact, it's interesting to compare this with the last gasp I Have A Horsey Neigh Neigh flooding of the afternoon Children's BBC schedules with ropey linking BBC Micro-derived 'computer graphics' a couple of years later before Philip Schofield was brought in to perform his own particular riff on the Edmonds format. Well it would be interesting to do that, except that it would be straying a little too far onto the 'serious' side of things for what we're trying to do around here. We're talking about some talking Teletext, for 4-T's sake.
Zokko!'s name might have rung out from the corners back in the day, but we weren't back in the day no more. The week before Buzzfax, outdoor pursuit-obsessed Hazel O'Connor-themed Peter Powell-fronted deluge of irritating chipperness Get Set For Summer had come to the end of its somewhat more conventional six week run. The week after, the very same programmes that had been bookended by 'Buzz' were left to fend for themselves in the continuity wilderness. Buzzfax lasted for one solitary week and was an experiment that was never to be repeated, and yet was so bewilderingly, well, bewildering that it burned itself indelibly into the memory of anyone who witnessed it. And yet this memory-searing may not even have been entirely down to 'Buzz' and his 888-troubling antics, as within its scheduling walls fell possibly the most disturbing, disorientating, disquieting and just plain inappropriate twenty five minutes ever to find their way into children's television. And no, it wasn't Edgar Kennedy.
First shown by the BBC in September 1979, Battle Of The Planets was infamously a redubbed re-edit of the 1972 Japanese animated series Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, which it's probably fair to say, what with its cross-dressing villains, neck-twisting wallops, 'choice' language and what have you, was originally aimed at a slightly older audience. It had been purchased by the massively-credited Sandy Frank Entertainment to cash in on the first throes of post-Star Wars spacemania, and retooled for wider merchandise-friendly Stateside consumption by cutting out whopping great inappropriate chunks, replacing them with new explanation-heavy linking footage featuring R5D4-infringing fretbucket 7-Zark-7 and his comedy electro-canine sidekick 1-Rover-1, adding a big walloping disco soundtrack, and generally renaming everyone, everything and everywhere until it was, to all intents and purposes, a different series.
Most of the time, though back-of-the-mind question marks did still remain over such widely-spotted anomalies as why Mark's metal bird throwing star thing caused the Spectra guards to recoil in incapacitated 'astonishment' or indeed what in the name of all that was suitable for the target audience was going on with a certain bit in the opening titles that we'll be coming back to very soon indeed, this audacious gambit worked and little of Battle Of The Planets' origins was perceptible to the untrained eye. Sometimes, however, much like when the BBFC tried and failed to make The Texas Chain Saw Massacre suitable for an 'X' certificate around the same time, the source material was simply too strong for any amount of re-editing to prevent its true nature from seeping through. And nowhere was this more obvious than in shudderingly-recalled two-part story The Fierce Flowers.
When the first part of The Fierce Flowers rolled up as an accident-rather-than-design component of Buzzfax, it wasn't actually the first time that it had been seen by an unsuspecting audience; over the Christmas of 1980, as part of a mighty school holiday mornings schedule that actually extended into the afternoon, and impressively included Chigley, California Fever and The Red Hand Gang alongside the expected likes of Lassie, Play Chess and Why Don't You...?, a couple of new episodes of Battle Of The Planets had sneaked out more or less under the radar. As they were shown on consecutive mornings in the no-man's land between Christmas and New Year when officially nothing ever happens and TV viewing-depleting visits to distant relatives are the order of the day, it's likely that most juvenile fans of the show missed one or both episodes, with only the briefest of glimpses of its bio-horror hardcore weirdness to play on their minds until the repeats rolled around. And when they did roll around, in that more accessible and noticeable Saturday morning slot, it's fair to say that The Fierce Flowers was what the young people call a 'game-changer'. But more on that in good time...
NEXT TIME: Princess' Pants, The Great 'Spaceburger' Shortage, and what people called 'Anime' before they knew it had a name...