Much stranger things: the odd­est TV from the 1980s

If tele­vi­sion is go­ing to plun­der our 1980s child­hoods for in­spi­ra­tion, it should at least go for the weird gold, such as ‘In­ter­bang!?’, writes Jen­nifer Gan­non

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - TELEVISION -

Pop cul­ture is eat­ing it­self and it loves noth­ing more than to gnaw on the bones of kid’s telly. These days the space be­tween any show end­ing and the calls for its re­turn has rapidly re­duced. It’s as if for a show to be placed in the pan­theon of clas­sic chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion you only have to re­call its ti­tle. “Time is a flat cir­cle,” drawled Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle in True De­tec­tive; he may or may not have been re­fer­ring to the de­ci­sion to re­vive Full House with­out the Olsen twins.

There are now lis­ti­cles pin­ing over plas­tic Nick­elodeon shows that ended in the early noughties – which feels like a fort­night ago to some of us. Who could be truly nos­tal­gic about Lizzie McGuire’s glit­tery lip-gloss or long for the sight of Drake’s bowl hair­cut in Drake and Josh? Not only do these shows still ex­ist on­line, so you can in­stantly sat­isfy that hunger, but these were an­o­dyne, shiny-haired, toothy smiles of blank­ness, amount­ing to 30 min­utes of prod­uct place­ment or, if you were lucky, a hold­ing pen for fu­ture trou­bled pop­stars.

There is a mod­ern ob­ses­sion with want­ing shows to be re­made purely to com­fort that ache of sen­ti­men­tal long­ing in a world where we never want to grow up. There is no need to cre­ate a new Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; we only want to watch old episodes that will reignite that care­free feel­ing we had watch­ing them orig­i­nally. Nowa­days, noth­ing is gone for­ever. But if the past must be plun­dered, film-mak­ers could do worse than in­ves­ti­gat­ing the stranger side of the 1980s.

1980s cues

It’s no sur­prise that a show like Stranger Things, which this week un­veiled its sea­son two trailer, takes its cues from 1980s kids’ cul­ture. Its creators, the Duf­fer broth­ers, are of that nerdy vin­tage that re­vere the oeu­vre of the Stephens (King and Spiel­berg) and films like The Goonies. But there was a rich seam of weird­ness and un­set­tling dark­ness within this time that leaked into the minds of its cap­tive au­di­ence. It was the age of video nas­ties, milk car­ton miss­ing chil­dren, MK Ul­tra ru­mours, Un­solved Mys­ter­ies, Flow­ers in the At­tic, Re­turn to Oz, and the un­for­get­table night­mar­ish duo of Worzel Gum­midge and Paul Daniel’s Wizbit.

It was a time when even seem­ingly be­nign car­toons were in­jected with an off-kil­ter odd­ness. There was the heavy melan­choly of Dun­geons & Dragons, which cen­tred on the fate of a group of lost chil­dren that we hoped would never find their way home from the al­ter­nate uni­verse and would be for­ever haunted and tor­mented by their neme­sis Venger, saw poor young Nu­mi­nor sus­pended in an­i­ma­tion and zomb­i­fied by a curse.

The Mys­te­ri­ous Cities of Gold may have had a dis­tract­ingly jaunty pan­pipe theme tune but was ul­ti­mately about an or­phan’s search for his lost father with de­struc­tive re­sults. Even the glitzy world of Jem and the Holo­grams was tinged with sad­ness and weighed down with com­plex is­sues with Jer­rica (Jem’s al­ter ego) be­ing an al­most sub­sti­tute mother to 11 foster chil­dren in the Starlight House af­ter the death of her father.

These were the shows every­one was fa­mil­iar with but there were also pro­grammes that ap­peared on your screen as if from nowhere and dis­ap­peared just as quickly – a weird in­tan­gi­ble se­cret with a whiff of some­thing spe­cial. In the pre-in­ter­net days, it was pos­si­ble to have lost these shows down the back of the couch of your mind. Now there is the creep­ing, cold-sweat of self-doubt that per­haps your beloved show never ex­isted. If no one in your peer group could re­mem­ber it, was it a telly tree fall­ing in a mem­ory for­est?

Live ac­tiona dven­ture

These wa­tery mem­o­ries cre­ated leg­ends and no show is more enig­matic and ripe for rein­tro­duc­tion than In­ter­bang!? This is not a du­bi­ous dad mag­a­zine from the 1970s but an early 1980s live ac­tion ad­ven­ture se­ries dubbed from Ital­ian and broad­cast on satel­lite sta­tion the Chil­dren’s Chan­nel.

Cre­ated by Paul Casalini, it starred his two sons as teen twins Gianni and Bruno with the flop­pi­est of fringes and the most ex­trav­a­gant of cheek­bones, who ended up em­broiled in the kid­nap­ping of a pro­fes­sor. To free him, they had to skip across the fan­ci­est des­ti­na­tions around the globe in a bid to lo­cate seven mini Lean­ing Tow­ers of Pisa that had mag­i­cal prop­er­ties. These were in­scribed at the bot­tom with the in­ter­robang sym­bol “!?”, which flashed up on the screen ev­ery so of­ten.

They were “aided” by a drunken aca­demic Mr Williner and a mys­te­ri­ous lady called Stella while also be­ing chased by a vil­lain imag­i­na­tively ti­tled The Kill- er, who some­times wore a cape but mostly looked like a real life Ham­bur­gler. Sand­wiched be­tween fa­mil­iar ef­forts like Aus­tralian pre-teen sit­com Pug­wall and crisp ob­sessed, But­lins-style va­ri­ety pro­gramme The Steve and Danny Show, In­ter­bang!? was a dreamy slice of Euro-weird­ness that felt com­pletely unique.

The tone was deeply sar­donic with a nar­ra­tor whose voiceover veered be­tween mock in­credulity and re­signed ap­a­thy. It had the loose, cool irony and sense of an­ar­chy of The Mon­kees with the dou­ble-take sur­re­al­ism of a Lind­say An­der­son pro­duc­tion. It also had not one but two ear-worm theme tunes of woozy pop per­fec­tion that sounded like Phoenix plink­ing around af­ter too many yacht-based Bac­ardis.

This foggy mem­ory could gen­uinely have van­ished for­ever if it wasn’t for Jean Christoph Casalini (who played Gianni) de­cid­ing to even­tu­ally up­load episodes to You Tube last year. In­ter­bang!? was prob­a­bly just a ge­nius ex­cuse for Casalini to go on a round-the-world jolly with his fam­ily but in turn he man­aged to cre­ate the great­est Wes An­der­son film never made – yet.

If TV’s past must be re­sus­ci­tated and gorged upon in an artis­tic can­ni­bal­is­tic rit­ual, then the mys­tery meat of In­ter­bang!? could be the dish of the day.

This is not a du­bi­ous dad mag­a­zine from the 1970s but an early 1980s live ac­tion ad­ven­ture se­ries dubbed from Ital­ian and broad­cast on satel­lite sta­tion the Chil­dren’s Chan­nel

The Mys­te­ri­ous Cities of Gold may have had a dis­tract­ingly jaunty pan­pipe theme tune but was ul­ti­mately about an or­phan’s search for his lost father with de­struc­tive re­sults Jaunty but deep

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