A Look Back to the ’90s: The Not So Perfect Ten

Ten ‘So 1990s’ footnotes in popular culture

Farmcraft, Mapperley, Ilkeston, 12 March 1990
The Sometimes Slightly Narked Bus Hopping Nerd is seen slightly obscured from view in this image, identifiable by a two-tone blue coat. These are the classmates from my old school at the (now gone) Farmcraft camp on Mundy Farm, Mapperley, near Ilkeston, Derbyshire. Oh, and this image was snapped by Jeni Mobbs (late of the Ewing School) on the 12 March 1990.

Where has the time gone? This time 26 years ago, the creator of this blog was having his tea in front of Granada Tonight. Being a Wednesday, yours truly would be drawing in front of Coronation Street or The Ron Lucas Show.The year was 1990. I was back at the Ewing School after half term holidays. Within the first few days of 1990 I knew change was on the horizon. Secondary school was only months away.

The streets of Ashton seemed to have had more colour than of now. And that was just the view from K stand when two-tone blue and blue and cream buses vied for passengers alongside GM Buses’ vehicles. The new decade meant ‘a fresh start’. A break with old habits. For me, the 1990s really began with Manchester United’s success in the FA Cup Final (thanks to a lad from Hyde). Thatcher’s resignation, to me, was another reference point. The third for me was the ITV Franchise Battle which saw the end of Thames Television’s franchise and programmes like World in Action relegated to bit parts.

Though the 1990s meant a real backward step for public service broadcasting (TV and radio), there are some parts of 1990s popular culture that we miss. This month’s Not So Perfect Ten celebrates the best cultural aspects and faces of the 1990s.

  1. Mr Bean (Thames Television/Tiger Aspect Productions, 1990 – 1999);
  2. Sonic the Hedgehog (SEGA Mega Drive/Master System/Game Gear);
  3. Chesney Hawkes (son of Chip Hawkes, born 1971);
  4. Gladiators (London Weekend Television/ITV, 1992 – 2001);
  5. The Cones Hotline (HM Government, arr. The Right Honourable John Major MP, 1991);
  6. The Tango Man (1992 – 1999);
  7. Noel’s House Party (BBC, 1991 – 1999);
  8. Piddle Poor Attempts at Emulating Take That (1991 – to date);
  9. QVC (1993 – to date);
  10. Mr Motivator on GMTV (née Derrick Errol Evans, 1952).

Before we begin, feel free to step aboard our blue and cream GMT standard double decker. Yes folks, we’re partying like it’s 1992, and as a consequence, Pennine Blue run most of the 346s. (SuperGeM passes are not accepted but Wayfarer tickets and ClipperCards are welcome).

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1. Mr Bean

New Year’s Day 1990: start of a new decade and, as I thought at the time, an original comedy whose strengths lay in visual gags. For most of the 1990s, Mr Bean was as much a comedic icon, along with Harry Enfield’s characters, Alan Partridge, and the residents of Craggy Island Parochial House. I thought the very first episode of Mr Bean was an enjoyable though unchallenging wheeze.

The follow-up, in my opinion, was better. The Curse of Mr Bean was tighter and funnier. (Perhaps I got what Mr Bean was supposed to be like). Mr Bean’s finest hour for me was the 1992 Christmas special, where he struggled with the turkey.

Though it seemed fresh to my ten-year-old eyes (I never heard of Rowan Atkinson till then – Black Adder was on too late), I realised in later years how a prototype Mr Bean surfaced in LWT’s Canned Laughter (which also has two links with End of Part One – Sue Holderness and a certain graphic designer friend of mine). So Rowan probably reprised his Robert Box role ten years later as Mr Bean.

2. Sonic the Hedgehog

Scenario: any typical British school, circa 1991. Alongside the software pirates of Penzance with Amiga discs, another subject polarised school playgrounds from Worksop to Dingwall. Did you prefer Sonic or Mario? Personally I like both video games characters but there was something about Sonic the hedgehog which screams ‘1990s’. One was the 16-bit graphics of the SEGA Mega Drive and its improved speed (over Master System and Game Gear versions).

Speed was everything about Sonic The Hedgehog and its sequels. The first game introduced us to the fast parallax scrolling and collection of rings. Also its roller coaster influenced game design over many stages. Sonic 2 (neatly timed for Christmas 1992) improved on the first game. Not only its frenetic action, but also the split screen mode (choosing between Sonic or Tails). The real cherry on the cake was the bright pinball themed levels and the head-to-head 3D mode.

As always, the aim was to beat Doctor Robotnik. For many households, the Mega Drive version was the closest anyone had to arcade style graphics. Amazingly, the 2D graphics still look fantastic today. The 3D mode in Sonic 2 is hideously dated now, though the graphics still surpassed those of Superman 64 on the Nintendo 64 (from 1999!).

3. Chesney Hawkes

March 1991, any secondary school in Britain: a couple of girls are sat outside the temporary classrooms reading the latest copy of Smash Hits. One is fawning over the cover star, her friend is clutching a personal stereo with last week’s UK Top Forty on a C90. The pin-up in question was the son of former Tremeloes member. Enter Chesney Hawkes, son of Len ‘Chip’ Hawkes and gameshow hostess (primarily The Golden Shot) Carol Dilworth.

Throughout most of Spring/Summer 1991, Chesney Hawkes won the affections of many adolescents at the time. His facial beauty spot and coiffured fringe was enough to propel The One and Only to Number One in the singles charts. The follow-up was I’m a Man, Not a Boy, which was a modest success. His next four songs bubbled under the Top 40 till 2005.

History sees Chesney Hawkes as a One Hit Wonder. Of note, 1991 was a good year for film soundtracks with his one and only Number One used in Buddy’s Song. His starring role as Buddy saw Mr. Hawkes rub shoulders with Michael Elphick and Roger Daltrey.

4. Gladiators

September 1992, Chez Vall on a Saturday. Messrs Vallantine and Vallantine perplexed at one aspect of the future of Saturday night television. Even so, we watched regardless because it was quite entertaining. There was no degree of seriousness though the athletic ability of its contenders and Gladiators had to be admired. Like Wrestling on World of Sport was before 1988, it was the pantomime element we liked.

What made Gladiators so special? On its launch, a breath of fresh air with an Anglicised version of the American gameshow. A good dose of pantomime humour; the audience at Birmingham NEC booing Wolf; its use of incidental music – especially Another One Bites the Dust after seeing a Gladiator or contender falling off a podium. Also something for “the lads” with Jet (Diane Youdale) giving a stirring sensation for pubescent males. Besides their athletic abilities, the Gladiators were also gainfully employed on the pantomime circuit. In 1992-93, Messrs Vallantine and Vallantine remember seeing Nightshade in Hitchens, Stamford Street, Ashton-under-Lyne. (She was on at Tameside Hippodrome that year).

What else do we remember? “…Gladiators, are you ready…?” Also the dulcet tones of John Sachs behind the microphone, plus the pairing of John Fashanu and Ulrika Jonsson.

5. The Cones Hotline

It is April 1993: you are sat at home reading Steve Bell’s If… strip in The Guardian. The Prime Minister of the day is immortalised as a grey man with a pair of Y-Fronts on the outside. Besides interest rates going up three times in one day in September 1992, John Major’s government’s other place in history includes The Cones Hotline.

You could say The Cones Hotline predated apps like Moovit, where road users and passengers could report traffic jams on the A628 (no change there then). Years before its time yet gloriously barmy, it was a forum to decry superfluous road cones. Calling 0345 50 40 30 got you through to a call centre where you could complain about the twenty cones outside The Gun Inn.

In the end, under 20,000 calls were made between June 1992 and September 1995. During then, there may have been more takers for Dial-a-Disc. More people probably dialled 261 to listen to Piccadilly Gold through a telephone at the time!

6. The Tango Man

Any off-licence or newsagents, June 1993: you’ve had a torrid day at school. The classrooms have overheated, yet the teacher would have gripped you for taking your blazer off in class. You go towards the fridge for a can of Coke. Then you wonder what this off-the-wall can of fizzy pop was with graffiti style imagery. It was one advertised by a fat bloke who has spent too much on fake tan.

The Tango Man was brought in to rejuvenate a fair-to-middling soft drink by Britvic. The first advert had an instant impact with the athletic yet chubby orange male slapping one’s face. Key to this was commentary (Ray Wilkins assuming the role as co-commentator) and action replays. Subsequent ads had a Tango Man dressed in a lurid orange suit shouting ‘oranges’. Then, after the first ad was pulled, the first ad was reprised the Tango man planting a kiss on the unsuspecting fellow’s chops.

As for the phrase, “You Know When You’ve Been Tangoed” became a byword for anyone who experienced a surprise slap/kiss/kick/ear bashing. For some time in the 1990s, also a common school prank. Controversial they may have been, there may have been no such thing as Tango on the shelves without the offbeat campaign.

7. Noel’s House Party

December 1992: from one rotund figure to another, the latter becomes a multimillion franchise and merchandising sensation. Mr Blobby was only one part of Noel’s House Party but it was the first Gotcha! Oscar featuring the character which cemented the series’ success.

Among the great joys of Noel’s House Party was strands like the gunge tank, NTV, My Little Friend, Grab a Grand, and other bits of silliness. Though it had its roots in the 1980s (The Late Late Breakfast Show and Noel’s Saturday Roadshow) it was on the whole essential family viewing. The Gotcha! Oscars for me was the best part, especially when the pink and yellow spotted blobster was involved (the ones with Valerie Singleton and Garth Crooks was faultless).

Mr Blobby, alas, was a walking disaster area. Not only in the Gotcha! featurettes but also in the destiny of Noel’s House Party. Firstly, the Mr Blobby franchise – via the Crinkley Bottom theme parks – failed to revive Morecambe’s fortunes. Secondly, Mr Blobby’s eponymous Number One single was banned by BBC Radio One for ‘lacking musical merit’. Even so, there was Mr Blobby soft drinks, lunch boxes, stationery and other spin-offs which sold well enough in Woolworths. It became bigger than Noel’s House Party and a real albatross for Mr Edmonds.

8. Mediocre Take That clones

December 1993: The Smash Hits Poll Winners’ Party is seen in one corner of Chez Vall. Back then, the popular groups of the day included East 17 and Take That. During December 1993’s awards (staged at the now demolished London Arena), Take That took a trolley load of awards – literally! As with anything else of a physical or temporal nature, Take That inspired a number of imitators.

Boyzone was perceived as one of them, but they took a different path and spawned Westlife. The Backstreet Boys were more successful. Yet, for every Boyzone and The Backstreet Boys, there was Bad Boys Inc. Their début was the excruciating Walking on Air. Worlds Apart entered the UK singles chart with a cover of the Tavares tune, Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel. They were more successful in Germany than in Britain. There was also 911, 2Thirds3, EYC and OTT, though none of them had the same appeal as Messrs Barlow, Owen, Donald, Orange and Williams.

The difference between the imitators and the real article? In this context, the latter split in 1996 and reformed nine years later. The new version of Take That – as a Man Band rather a Boy Band I suppose – was more successful across all age groups. Therefore, 1990s Boy Band hagiographies tend to go no further than New Kids on the Block, the Backstreet Boys and Take That. Surely, East 17 deserves a fair hearing somewhere…?

9. QVC

Order Number 343220, The Beginner’s Guide to Tameside Bus Routes…

They never sold that but you get the jib: order numbers, a couple of presenters eulogising over the merchandise, and viewers even being heard on the broadcast. On its UK launch in October 1993, QVC brought the world of teleshopping to a number of homes with Astra satellite dishes (11.038 V, Astra 1C satellite). The joys of getting through to Debbie Flint, Julian Ballantyne and Paul Lavers was a bit of a novelty on its launch.

Back in 1993 (remember, this was before internet shopping was around), your passport to the Liz Earle Beauty Kit meant remembering one number: 0800 50 40 30. In its early days, the DIY slot was presented by Harry Greene; Glyn Christian peddled kitchenware (Greg and Max also sold kitchen items). If you wanted to push in, 0800 52 42 32 was the Q-Cut number for jumping the queues.

The longest serving presenter on QVC is Debbie Flint. She had previously worked for SSVC Forces Television and the BBC (she also did a stint in the Broom Cupboard). After a nine-year break (she was on rival channel Ideal World) she returned to the UK version of QVC. Alongside online shopping sites, both the UK and (original) US versions of QVC hold their own today.

If there’s one thing we miss from 1990s QVC, it is the sung ‘QVC’ ident at the end of each programme. The instrumental version doesn’t quite cut it.

10. Mr Motivator on GMTV

In the 1980s, we had The Green Goddess (Diana Moran) and ‘Mad Lizzie’ Webb getting us working out after our Corn Flakes. Whereas the former would be noticed in railway stations, the latter would be her hyperactive self in the TV-am studios in Camden Lock. By 1993, TV-am was replaced by GMTV (thanks to the ITV Franchising Battle). Besides Eamonn Holmes and Lorraine Kelly (late of TV-am), Mad Lizzie was replaced by Derrick Errol Evans.

Better known as Mr Motivator, the fitness guru upped the hyperactivity stakes a little. As well as his chirpy nature, he is noted for lurid spandex outfits (a far cry from the green of Diana Moran’s leotards). Post-GMTV, he launched the H’evans Scent eco-tourism resort and the PaintSplat paintball arena, in his native Jamaica.

His website makes for impressive reading and is just as unflappable as the guy himself. Everything is in glorious Technicolor. Plus it works well on mobile devices (Everybody Say Yeah!).

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But Wait! There’s More…

On researching this month’s Not So Perfect Ten, we’ve come across several other footnotes of 1990s popular culture. There’s potential for spin-off articles on forgotten musical groups and TV of that era. Even one on the 1990s ITV Franchising Battle.

As always, we invite you to elaborate on the ten suggestions. Or suggest a few of your own from that decade.

S.V., 28 February 2016.

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