It’s best we all just admit it: television stations have no idea what they are doing most of the time and they just throw any old idea at their audiences in the vague hope that it will be a success. In the Eighties, a time before everyone could have anything they wanted beamed directly into their eyeballs at any second of the day, the competition between TV stations was even more fierce.
With your choices limited to a relatively small number of channels, any station’s bad scheduling choices meant you wouldn’t turn to YouTube for the latest cat videos; you would switch to a direct competitor. Any failure meant success for a rival – and when the stakes are that high, desperation sets in.
That’s where outright insanity happens. Stations were so desperate to find the Next Big Thing that they would schedule practically anything at least once. Hence these five insane shows actually managed to get on the air.
Kinvig – A TV repair man tries to have an affair with an alien
No, that title is not the summary of your Dad’s last porn rental, it’s a genuine TV show that aired on British television in 1981. Written by Nigel Kneale, who amazed and terrified audiences during the black-and-white era of British television with his famous Quatermass science-fiction horror show, Kinvig neither amazed nor terrified anyone. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Kinvig was notorious amongst the sci-fi crowd of the Eighties for depicting fans of science-fiction as sex-starved nerds who believed the pyramids were alien landing grounds; as well as a number of other obviously stupid conspiracies. The focus of the show was Des Kinvig, a lazy appliance repair man whose business was collapsing because he never seemed to actually do any work. Des really, really wanted to have sex with a woman who brought an appliance into his shop for repair.
It was never made explicit whether this woman really was an alien in human form or whether that was just part of the protagonist’s fantasies. Des communicated with her spaceship by falling into a sleep-like trance in the back room of his shop. During these trances, it would become increasingly obvious that he really, really wanted to have sex with this alien lady; even though she mostly acted like she was a reject from a Carry On farce.
Oh, and did we mention that during all his alien-lusting escapades, we were also treated to a glimpse of Des’ home life, where he’s married? Yes, that’s right: we are following the adventurers of a work-dodging, would-be alien adulterer. What a protagonist!
Kinvig lasted for one season on London Weekend Television, the ITV franchise covering the Greater London area of the UK, before being consigned to forever appearing on lists like this so everyone can make fun of it.
T-Bag – A Young Child Battles a Mad God
ITV strikes again!
Picture this: a child wanders into a curio shop on her way home from school and finds an ancient board game with no instructions. She quickly finds herself sucked inside the game and must complete it before she’s trapped there forever.
Does this remind you of anything? What if I told you this show pre-dates Jumanji by a decade, and it’s all played out on such a low budget that the sets are literally painted cardboard? Welcome to the crazy world of T-Bag.
Beginning in 1985, this oddball show would manage to run for a whole decade thanks to the ingenious method of completely reinventing itself with each new series. But whatever the setting, the core premise would always be the same: there would always be a young child thrust into a very dangerous situation that was played out like a farce; and they would always battle a crazy magic user who may or may not be a goddess of Lovecraftian levels of insanity.
Also, the whole thing looked (and was acted out like) a pantomime, because the budget was lower than the average web show. This was broadcast on Children’s ITV, that block of the television schedule from about 3PM to 5PM where the TV companies all collectively gave up on trying to run proper programs and just threw brightly-coloured tripe onto the airwaves in the hopes of getting children to watch for long enough to give them some decent ratings.
Automan – A living bluescreen effect fights crime
You can picture the pitch meeting for this one in vivid detail: a guy enters a dark room and addresses a crowd of TV executives who don’t want to be there but need a new hit show to justify their weekly cocaine and hookers binges. The guy says “hey, Tron was a hit, right? And police procedurals pull in good ratings, right? What if we… do both?”
An executive is roused from their stupor long enough to ask “You want to fight crime inside a computer?” To which the inevitable answer is “no, not until the Nineties – and we’ll call in Reboot and it will suck. What I want to do is make a show about a guy who’s dressed in 3M Light Reflective Fabric and Bluescreen material. He’ll be a computer-generated superman with a massive ego and he’ll look like a Tron person while he fights crime!”
“Why It’s genius!” The executive will say, even though it’s not. “We might even get twelve episodes out of this before someone realises it’s awful and cancels the show!”
Thus Automan was born. It’s a superhero crime-fighting drama and the intro sequence tells you exactly why you really don’t want to watch it. They made thirteen episodes, broadcast twelve of them and then came to their senses.
Button Moon – A family travel to the Moon in a tin can
Button Moon is one of the most ridiculous programs ever shown on television. It features a family of bottles with spoons for hands, plus one kid that’s not actually related to the Spoon family but hangs around with them so often that you’ll quickly forget that if you’re not paying attention. It’s a show that requires a lot of concentration to follow the various relationships; which is ironic because the rest of it makes no sense if you think about it at all.
The Spoon family live on what we are supposed to believe is Earth and they have their own space rocket, which they park in the garden like this is just something every family has. Also, the rocket is made out of a tin of baked beans with a kitchen funnel on the top. The can’s label is even the iconic Heinz Baked Beans label shape and colour, just to hammer home that this really is a tin can they are flying.
Naturally, the show was a big hit and went on to enjoy a long tour being performed as a puppet show, live in theatres across the UK. That last sentence is not a joke.
Minipops – Pre-teens Sing About Sex
It should go without saying that if you are going to take the absolutely absurd decision to make a TV show about pre-teens singing Karaoke, you absolutely should not dress those young children up in adult makeup and then have them sing sexually suggestive songs. The new UK TV station Channel Four didn’t get that memo, so we were subjected to the horrors of Minipops.
Broadcast in 1983 and receiving an audience of two million viewers (which is slightly more understandable when you know Britain only had four TV channels at the time), Minipops was the focus of extremely strong criticism almost from the start. The show was defended against this backlash from normal-thinking people by its producers on the grounds that “hey, kids sing along to their favourite songs all the time – so what’s the problem?”.
The singing part wasn’t the big problem, guys. Dressing children suggestively; covering them in makeup to make them seem older; and having a five-year-old sing “Morning Train (9 to 5)” (including the lyrics about “making love”) goes well past the “kids like to sing” defence.
Now some people (some very, very strange people) might argue that singing “night time is the right time, we make love” would be just an innocent line to a five-year-old but even those people have to wonder whether it makes any sense whatsoever for the Minipops kids to cover Madness’ “House of Fun“, a song about buying condoms so you can have sex for the first time.
As you might imagine, the incoming Head of Entertainment at Channel Four cancelled plans for a second series.
The fact that the previous Head of Entertainment had seen the amount of criticism the show received (including the Daily Mail branding the show “a shop-window full of junior jailbait”) and decided another series was warranted should be enough to make you realise that when it comes to insanity on television, nothing beats the Eighties.
Zoë Kirk-Robinson is a cartoonist and comedian who writes every day because she thinks it keeps her sane. Her latest book, All Over the House: Book Three, is out now.