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.

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