Thursday, 8 January 2015
57 Here Come The Double Deckers
First watched : 1971
Much as I loved Wacky Races I can't say it impacted on my life off screen much but this one did and perhaps still does. This is the second entry in my Top 10.
Here Come The Double Deckers debuted on New Year's Day 1971. The series was spun out of a series of short films for Saturday morning cinema made by the Children's Film Foundation starring a gang of seven children, "The Magnificent Six and A Half" . After two successful seasons the creators Harry Booth and Roy Simpson wanted to transfer it to television but the BBC didn't bite preferring to develop the long-forgotten Adventure Weekly instead.. The idea was salvaged by Twentieth Century Fox but they wanted a new name and a new cast ; Booth and Simpson eventually managed to transfer two of the original cast over to the new series though their characters had new names.*
The series revolves around seven youngsters from mid-teens to primary-aged who have made a den-cum-laboratory in an old London bus which has ended up in a ( presumably municipal ) yard. The caretaker Albert ( Melvyn Hayes ) knows they are there but acts as their adult friend. The pin-up leader of the gang is Scooter ( Peter Firth ), helped by his jovial 2-in-c ( though this is never actually stated ) Spring ( Brinsley Forde ). He often has to defer to the knowledge of uber-geek Brains ( Michael Audreson ) whose inventions are the basis for the most memorable episodes and sometimes to the feminine wisdom of Billy ( Gillian Bailey ) . Making up the group are the obese and rather dopey Doughnut ( Douglas Simmonds ) ,surely the model for Grange Hill's Roland , the obligatory ( once 20th Century Fox got involved ) American kid Sticks ( Bruce Clark ) whose precise function in the group dynamic is never really nailed down and cute poppet Tiger ( Debbie Rusk ). The kids' home lives are never explored and their parents are never seen although the final episode does place them in school where Sticks is in the same class as Scooter and Spring despite Clark being very obviously much younger than Firth and Forde.
Beyond the above pretty much everything went, musical breaks ( to take advantage of Gillian Bailey's evident song and dance talents ) , slapstick ( often speeded-up ) , science fiction , mild satire, a little teen romance, you name it. Forde and Audreson were the survivors from the CFF series and Bailey already had an impressive c.v. for a child actress ( though she was rejected for Phyllis in The Railway Children after playing her in the TV series because Lionel Jeffries thought she was hammy which takes the biscuit of you've seen him in action ) but the others were virtually unknown.
And I absolutely loved it ; it was the first show where I was gutted if I missed it. More importantly the gang of disparate but mutually supportive pals having adventures away from adult supervision ( Albert never seems really necessary to proceedings and usually ends up behaving just as childishly as his charges ) defined an ideal of friendship that I would spend the rest of my childhood - and perhaps beyond - trying to realise ( with me in the Brains role; I knew I could never be Scooter ) .
It was always a mirage; every time I got even close it would founder very quickly. This would be through either my personal timidity - I would literally run away if something too daring was undertaken - or others' boredom with my petty stipulations ( these two factors were connected ), or my lack of an indispensable talent like Brains' s or, if it lasted long enough , the realisation of others that I was manipulating "the rules" to my own advantage. The other main reason , which I could do little about, was that the others were getting all the camaraderie they needed from being in football teams, sailing clubs etc ; they didn't need my "gangs" like I did. I, probably unfairly, blamed my father for a lot of this; as my class awareness grew, I reasoned that his conscious effort to live below his means and be able to retire at 60 was forcing me to work with unsuitable material; if we lived at a middle class address everything would be different. Actually, it would probably have been worse; I was in the top sets at secondary school but the middle class boys in them never saw me as a kindred spirit and in some cases were much nastier than the local kids.**
The most obvious manifestation was the Adventurous Club , formed with the neighbours' kids which had three separate iterations in the seventies. The name was actually chosen by my sister, laughably since this was someone who found the idea of eating a baked bean not made by Heinz too alarming ( but it was still better than my suggestion of the Helping Animals Club ). I don't think that version lasted much longer than an evening. The second one in March 1976 lasted about three weeks.The club had a den in our porch which I decorated with the initials A.C.H.Q in white paint on the front ( my mum's face was even whiter when she saw it ) and a schedule of activities which I drew up and presented as a fait accompli. The wheels started coming off when my dad destroyed the burglar alarm we'd just saved up for , after it woke him from his Saturday afternoon nap once too often. I then had the misfortune to fall victim, for the third time in as many months , to a nasty stomach bug and in my enforced absence the guys decided to form their own Fishing Club which seemed to have only one rule , that I wouldn't be allowed to join ( they were well aware I didn't have any fishing tackle at that point ) . Not that they seemed to do much angling; the club's activities seemed to consist solely of making up rude songs about me and shouting them over the fence. When the coast was clear I revived it for the last time in spring 1979 hoping that others' memories of 1976 wouldn't be as vivid as mine. They weren't , perhaps because one of my main antagonists wasn't involved this time round, and I think it just dissipated after a couple of weeks without any aggro.
Anyhow back to the programme. Only 17 episodes were made when the original plan was for 26 ( and a second series after that ). Twentieth Century Fox lost faith in the project after a change in personnel at the top and by the time the show's worldwide popularity had become evident the cast had aged too much to resume filming. At the time of writing 15 are available to watch on You Tube; ( 7 and 8 have been blocked for copyright reasons probably related to some musical content; the latter's a particular shame since Scooter ends up in a fantasy sequence with Alice in Wonderland played by a young Jane Seymour ). I've watched them all with my 6 year old son who adores them. So is the magic still there for me ?
Well, partly. The ones I particularly remember, those featuring the hovercraft , the haunted house and the robot are still great and so is Simon's favourite, the one where Brains makes Doughnut invisible to wreak havoc in a toy shop ,with its cheeky steals from Barbarella. On the other hand, if we can assume that the episodes were made in the order they were broadcast and watch them in sequence then there's a definite sense of a series running out of ideas in the later episodes. Episode 16 "Up To Scratch" certainly isn't with its time-wasting rendition of "Old MacDonald Had A Farm" - Simon protested "this is for babies !". And Episode 14 "Man's Best Friend" is simply unwatchable. Written by Hayes ( who doesn't feature at all in the subsequent episodes ) it dispenses with any narrative halfway through in favour of an embarrassing extended parody of Rowan and Martin's Laugh -In.
So what happened to them ?
Peter - no relation to Colin - Firth of course continues to have a successful acting career although it's never quite hit the heights that his Oscar nomination for Equus once promised. He apparently doesn't welcome enquiries about the series.
Brinsley Forde continued in acting but from 1975 onwards was more involved in music as part of the British reggae band Aswad . They seemed doomed to eternal support slots as a critically respected but low-selling niche act until a decision to record more commercial material saw them score a number one with "Don't Turn Around" in 1988. They enjoyed fairly regular hits until 1996 when Forde's decision to quit for spiritual reasons ended their period in the sun. Since then he has become a radio presenter on 6 Music and taken the odd acting role. A few days ago he was given an OBE in the New Year. In recent years he has become more amenable to discussing the series seeing his participation as an important role model for black children in the seventies.
Gillian Bailey also continued in acting and worked regularly in the seventies with a decent part in Poldark amongst others. She was in the first episode of another favourite programme, Blakes 7 ( though I didn't recognise her ); her brutal death in a massacre halfway through which affected me quite strongly at the time, set the tone for the whole series. The work started drying up in the eighties and after a tiny part in Lovejoy in 1991 she quit acting and went to university with the hope of becoming a script editor. That didn't work out but she stayed in academia, got a PhD and is now head of the Drama Department at the Royal Holloway University. She has always been the most approachable member of the cast for those wishing to talk about the series.
The others largely dropped out of the public eye. In contrast to his screen role as Brains's clumsy nemesis Douglas Simmonds was actually of a scientific bent . After one more appearance in a Play For Today he quit acting to concentrate on his O Levels. He eventually became a theoretical physicist and then worked in ICT for the NHS. He took early retirement hoping to spend more time in his garden but sadly died of a massive coronary in 2011 aged just 53. Michael Audreson's career is more difficult to track . His acting career stymied after an appearance in the film Young Winston then he falls off the radar until 1996 when he founded Rivendell Healthcare a treatment centre for drug addiction. He also ran a company dealing with copyright issues. In recent years he has been trying to return to media work , writing and directing a feature film which has yet to be released. Bruce Clark returned to America after an appearance in Play of the Month in 1972 and never pursued a career in acting. He is a family man living in Atlanta. Debbie Russ actually reprised the role of Tiger in a British comedy film Double Take in 1972 but her screen acting career was over by 1974 and she went to university obtaining an English degree. She worked in marketing after graduating and has since been working in radio, including a spell in Japan and doing voice over work. She is currently a news presenter for a small radio station in Surrey and singing in a part time band.
To learn more check out the excellent and still active website here Double Deckers
* A third season of The Magnificent Six and a Half shorts was made for cinema in 1972 but featured nobody from either ...Double Deckers or the previous seasons.
** My son's recent Autistic Spectrum Disorder diagnosis potentially throws a new light on all this.