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'Beaker Club'

The time had come.

'Beaker Club'

The typing stopped.

'Beaker Club'

The kettle boiled

'Beaker Club, Beaker Club, Beaker Club...' These were the eager chants of a pair of maturity-stunted morons as they sat down for some nostalgia infused, family-friendly fun at Britain’s favourite ‘Dumping Ground’. The Story of Tracy Beaker filled many an afternoon in the first couple of months of Quarantine, a constant in our schedule of re-watches, new discoveries and cinematic exploration. It also filled many an afternoon in our childhood.

Dani Harmer and Tracy - Screencap:The Story of Tracy Beaker

We still knew the words to the theme tune. More often than not, a couple of minutes into an episode and we could remember the details and exactly how it ended (and how those shoddy animations played out). We could quote lines of dialogue watched thirteen years ago. We could name all the characters. We cursed Justine Littlewood and cooed at Peter. We cheered for Mike and admired Cam. The legacy of Beaker was in our blood; we were the Beaker Club.

It’s the first time I’ve seen the House-Swedes embarrassed of us, the two natives.

In Beakers long run on CBBC, with five series and many re-incarnations since such as The Dumping Ground and Tracy Beaker Returns, the original had its place in the childhood of my generation in that we always praised it for its realism and depiction of a difficult but sadly necessary part of our system in the UK; that of foster homes. And this could be true for the first two series, with latter series only dabbling in realism when it was essential.

And series one, although silly and naff in some places, still hit home pretty hard. There were some beautifully tender moments between the kids and the care workers, with a feeling of genuine pleasure when the kids got fostered, finding nice people to start lives with. It treated all its subjects as human beings (No matter how rude Tracy could be, which was very – how parents must have despaired!). And wading through early 2000's nostalgia, drowning in the Big Brovas references, the fashion, the decor, the Steps poster was a bonus.

The Steps Poster - Screencap: The Story of Tracy Beaker

I still remember the hype around the ‘film’, the special in which her mother returned and it broadcasting during (possibly) a school holiday. Watching it as a child, it seemed like a satisfying, encapsulating drama as we watched Tracy ‘Huckleberry Finn’ her way across England in search of her stunt-double mother. At the time a mind-blowing revelation, assuming Tracy was lying about her mother being a Hollywood actress, but now it's a detail that actually contradicts the canon of the first series and the original books (although if the re-watch has taught us anything, consistency is not TSoTB strong point – they moved house so many times, it fell like production crew were gaslighting us).

The quality dropped by the third series so dramatically that it became a trawl to finish; no one told us we had to complete it, it was necessary to our existence and pride that we meet the end of Beaker just as we had years before. It was sad to see. The film was a bore. The loss of Jenny, Duke and Mike caused uproar to the peace of our house for some time as we pined for days gone by. We began to ship characters, just to pass the time. I still feel Mike and Cam had something going for them. Then the return of the latter brought only disappointment. Sid, Head Care Worker number three), became public enemy number one. Characters were dumbed down. The animation, once it was out of the mind of Tracy Beaker, became more ridiculous and drove us to the brink of juvenile insanity with its innocuous use that took up a third of each episode! Beaker was not made to be watched back-to-back…

The Animation - Screencap: The Story of Tracy Beaker

We invested so much time and attention during our rewatch as adults. We were so intertwined with the drama, and we were surprised by its impact on us as adults. When did we stop watching it? It didn’t feel like we ever did. It had me wondering how I went from binging on this show along with Cartoon Network, Hannah Montana, Lizzie Maguire, Scooby Doo and Spongebob Squarepants to suddenly binging Supernatural, The X-Files, Mad Men, Cowboy Bebop, Parks and Recreation… When did it happen?

It was such a slow process, I didn’t even notice. One day I came home and instead of putting on My Parents Are Aliens, I tuned into the Gilmore Girls. Even as I sit and think it over in my head, it was all so gradual that it slipped past before I knew I’d let it go. Yet I still feel like such a child, even now. Watching grown up shows, I get excited like one. At a new story, a new series. I’m a massive child. And maybe there’s no shame in it as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my own personal growth. No one said I had to grow up.

It doesn’t mean if you gave me those things again, I wouldn’t watch them now. Of course I would. If you gave me old Cartoon Network, with The PowerPuff Girls, Dexters Laboratory, Cow & Chicken, The Grimm Adventures of Billy and Mandy, I would waste months and never come out again. The watchability is still there. I still watch Spongebob and Scooby Doo if it’s on.

Duke - Screencap: The Story of Tracy Beaker

What am I talking about? Who knows… I wanted to talk about Tracy Beaker and the re-visit to something that doesn’t feel very long ago. It’s not until you start counting that the hour glass manifests itself and you see that pile of sand, dripping through bit by bit, has grown a lot taller since you last looked. I feel so old. Beaker felt so old. But watching it felt like coming home from school, the smell of Bangers, Beans and Mash wafting through the house, the clatter in the kitchen, the looming threat of mother appearing at our Kitchen hatch (joining onto the lounge) above my head and demanding to watch Deal or No Deal before dinner was done.

Beaker is still very much a nostalgic relic and I could easily re-watch the first series with no worries at all, but this must come from the book being a treasure for me growing up. But my life would still be fulfilled if I never had to see any of the others ever again. My tastes have evolved since then, but I don’t forget my roots. The silliness that shaped me into the little cretin I am now comes so much from the after school telly and the lazy weekends, the adventures during the holidays and the books I would stay up late and read.

'Bog Off' - Screencap: The Story of Tracy Beaker

It’s just weird when I think of myself on the sofa watching Maxie lock Jenny out of the car for buying him the shoes he didn’t want and knowing that she didn’t know where she’d be in the years to come. How complicated life had been since then. And how much solace she would get from her escape into the fictional worlds, be it on paper or on TV. I suppose a little bit like Tracy. Only, she had the balls to tell people to ‘Bog Off’ first.

Images from: Tracy Beaker: The Box Set. (2008). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: Universal Pictures UK.

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"May I say what a smashing blouse you have on." - Richard Richard, Bottom

We all remember our first encounter with Rik Mayall. How could you forget? I must have been seven or eight when I first saw Bottom (1991 - 1995). On Saturday nights I was allowed to stay up shockingly late, even later if Mum was working a night shift. We would each pick out a treat for the evening - whilst my brother and sister were consistent with their Yorkie and Skittles, I was rather contrary, changing from season to season... so it must have been a dairy milk bar for the Mars Bar fad was much later, with the Double Decker soon taking it's place - get J2O if we were lucky. I would sit on my dad's legs and we'd all watch TV.

Screencap from Bottom,Terror (1995)

First on the programme was always BBC's Casualty, which now I look back seems a weird thing for us all too be so engaged in, and from such a young age. My mother is a nurse, so maybe we just felt closer to her by watching it even if we scolded her when, she was present, for calling out all the inaccuracies. We loved the drama of it all... and the accidents.

But after Casualty, it was a free for all. For dad that is. The remote controller holder. He skimmed the channels, just as he does now, infuriatingly skipping between half-finished films, music videos and clips of comedies. It was, however, how I discovered Adam Ant - in those swashbuckling Highway Men boots - and my love of 80's music. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Hughes, 1986) and Father Ted (1995 - 1998) were other significant late night watches which stayed with me. Countless age inappropriate viewings were done during this time. But we loved it then. Now I want to ring dads neck as he jumps all over the place. I'm beginning to believe he's never watched a complete film in his life.

"It's the Gasman!" - Rik, Bottom

But one that stuck with me and shocked me to my core was the discovery of Bottom. I remember being exceedingly tired. It was probably only about ten o'clock, but for a seven year old I thought I was partying with the best of them. Dad was doing his usual thing. Skipping, scanning all the channels with little focus. And we landed on something grimy, bleak and miserable. The men were discussing a yogurt growing cress that they removed from the dirtiest fridge I have even seen on telly. And then they started beating one another up. When you're younger, the rude jokes go over your head, but the physical fighting cracks you up. Like a Carry On..., you just like when they pull a funny face with silly music but when you grow up, the innuendos pack a fabulous comedy punch.

Screencap from Bottom, Holy (1992)

We were in hysterics, all of us. And Dad left it on, knowing the dirty stuff would go over our heads. I loved it and the image of the mouldy yogurt. Never had I seen anything like it, lived anything like it. And the sweaty man that kept getting beaten up enraptured me with his ridiculous face and flamboyancy. That man was Rik Mayall.

“The bathroom’s free. Unlike the country under the Thatcherite junta!” - Rik, The Young Ones

Rik Mayall was a comedian who rose to fame with comedy partner, Ade Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Lenny Henry to name a few, during the Alternative comedy phase of the early 80's that seems to begin at the Comedy Store comedy club in Manchester. Wanting to produce comedy that was not racist, sexist and against the norm of the regular household names of the time, it's off-beat, madcap style changed the face of youth TV forever. And they hated Thatcher Britain which was an absolute bonus!

Mayall lead the way, as both a writer and a star, with comedies like The Young Ones (1982 - 1984) on BBC, The Comic Strip (1982 - 2016), which launched with Channel 4 - With one of their many creations doing a Spinal Tap before This is Spinal Tap (Reiner, 1984) with the gloriously stupid Bad News. Later on he became known for other outstanding works such as The New Statesman (running from 1987 - 1994, a political satire about a despicable conservative yuppie in Thatcherite Britain), Blackadder (1983 - 1989) in one of the greatest recurring characters in British comedy ever, Lord Flashheart (Example: "Just because I can give multiple orgasms to the furniture just by sitting on it, doesn't mean that I'm not sick of this damn war: The blood, the noise, the endless poetry"), the critically successful Rik Mayall Presents... (1993 -1995) and Bottom. He would own every room he was in with his vibrant, loud comment. Not only would he chew the furniture, he would probably hump it too.

Screencap The New Statesman (1987)

Heavily inspired by Samuel Beckett, Bottom is different from the other works of Mayall and Edmondson as so many of the episodes are very self-contained sometimes limited to just the two of them. This, in the years to come, would influence much of my own work, as I love leaving two characters to their own devices. One of the stand out episodes of Bottom, in series three, episode one called Hole (even the name of the show is a joke, all the titles go with the Bottom) takes place entirely on a Ferris Wheel and it is the the peak of their marvellous storytelling and comedic timing. Not a minute is wasted and every single one of them is hilarious.

“And the reason we were laughing so much was—honestly you’re going to love this, we [fill in amusing and heart-warming anecdote here].” - Rik Mayall, Bigger than Hitler, Better than Christ

Why am I talking so much about Mayall? Why am I even writing about this? I'm a massive fan, always will be. He changed the way I thought of comedy and my sense of humour. But I also grew up with him. He was the voice of Toad (very fittingly) in my favourite adaptation of The Wind in the Willows (Unwin, Abey, 1995) which I still watch to this day and is the reason he is one of my favourite fictional character of all time. He was in lot's of things I watched as a child that I remember on the peripheral like Drop Dead Fred (de Jong, 1991). But also, I still remember seeing Bottom at such a young age, seeing them in the sex shop (which I was oblivious to), in the pub being rejected by multiple women - just seeing the chaos.

Screencap from The Young Ones (1982)

And I rediscovered him when I was older. I bought the box set of Bottom and watched it in my new, unfurnished bedroom lying on a fold out mattress and laughing into the night. It was insanity. It was high-energy. I wanted to be that. (Also, Richard Richard is me. On my own birthday, I'm the first to sing 'Happy Birthday' to myself and make my presence known. I can be just as self-involved and I would, without a doubt in my mind, wrap up every individual item of the Christmas dinner and put it in my stocking to make it look like I had more presents.) Reliving all the hilarious moments again, I began to buy his other work such as The Young Ones and was excited by all the works I still had to go through.

“...And the kids will say: ‘Haven’t you heard? Rick is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!'” - Rik, The Young Ones

And then then news came out that he had died. It felt like part of my childhood had gone with him. I was heartbroken. For someone so influential to me but who I had only just rediscovered, I couldn't explain why it had affected me so deeply. But through his death I had an epiphany. That I didn't want to live like I was; working a job I hated and doing nothing with my life, hoping for something to happen.

I had to do something. I left my job, applied and got into Manchester university. I wanted to change my life. And I wanted to start writing again, properly. and I did for a while. Whilst watching everything Mayall ever made.

"Insanity is a very high art form. If everyone was insane, I wouldn't be here!" - Rik Mayall

I was relentless, working though his back catalogue like a maniac. First seeing The New Statesman on an old videotape and then buying a lot of his stuff spending a lot of money, rinsing The Comic Strip, replaying the very romantic and funny TV movie Dancing Queen (Hamm, 1993) on repeat and watching over and over and over every morning Bottom and The Young Ones. It was an obsession. It seems insane now but I felt I needed to make up for all the time I hadn't spent on it, researching how he wrote, how he performed. Everything was necessary for me to work. Eventually this obsession went away as well (thank goodness!) but it was a vital time for me. If you ever get a chance to read his 'autobiography', Bigger Than Hitler, Better Than Christ, do. It's one of the funniest books I've ever read and a wonderful example of his writing ability and character performance.

Screencap Dancing Queen (Hamm, 1993)

I didn't stay at that University, It got too much for me. I returned home, I had to look for another job. I felt like a failure. Much of my work was weak then because I imitated rather than had my own voice. But I learnt that his influence didn't leave me as I discovered from later works; It was very much there. That love of innuendo, the character, the style.

I became healthier and over time I picked myself back up and tried again, applying for Brighton Film School. And getting in. Although it was not perfect, those three years, I found my voice, made some amazing life long friends, stepped out of my comfort zone and have begun writing again. This time less self-consciously. All because Rik Mayall inspired me to be the better me.

I can be gloriously stupid, but if it helps to divert peoples attentions from the grimness of life, I’m happy." - Rik Mayall, interview with the Daily Mail, September 2003

I never forgot what I learnt from Rik Mayall, the man with a lust for life. Sometimes I find myself doubting myself I think of him and his never ending optimism. And I know what I need to know. To live my life and to love it. To push boundaries in all I do. To laugh. To be playful. To be a good human. I think of his many zany characters; Rik the Poet, Richard Richard, Colin the Bassist, Lord Flashheart, Toad of Toad Hall, Alan B'stard... and I always smile. He was there for me at the most significant time in my life, during my greatest stresses and hardships and I will be forever grateful to his work. Even now I stick on an episode of something and will feel better. Just before I wrote this article I watched Bottom, Burglary ("One lump or two mister burglar..."). You see, this is the power art and comedy had over me.

Screencap from Blackadder (1989)

This was a gushy post, I know, but I wanted to share something that meant a lot to me about one of my heroes. Because some people, you've never even met, are significant to you in more ways that even you can comprehend. Years on I still feel like I have to justify why I care. And I do care. Six years on and I haven't forgotten this is the day we lost Rik Mayall and the day I thought I lost a part of my childhood. But I didn't, of course I didn't. I remember him and the joy he still brings me. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.

"You go out there and have a fucking good life" - Rik Mayall, University of Exeter, 2008

Images from:

Bottom Series 1-3. (2005). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: 2 Entertain Video

Blackadder Remastered. (2009). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: 2 Entertain Video

The Young Ones Complete. (2007). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: 2 Entertain Video

The New Statesman. (2006). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: Network

Rik Mayall Presents... (2006). Directed by Various. [DVD]. UK: Network

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A Hole in My Heart - Rating: *

My third venture into the canon of Lukas Moodysson has seen me take a bold step forward, only to find a startling vertical drop below me. Having started mediocre with We Are the Best (2013) and following that up, reaching the surprising and pleasant peak of the mountain with the heart-warming, modern Swedish dramadey Together (2000), I thought Moodysson and myself had become something of an item.

You see, Swedish cinema is still rather fresh to me. Living with a couple of Swedes I felt it my duty to educate myself on their international cinema all with the intention of not liking it. I am very very stubborn. And I am very very stupid. Both these things are significant facts about me and my viewing habits. Quite the opposite happened when I started this particular cinematic adventure. I liked it. A lot. Proving both my stubbornness and stupidity.

With it's quirky humour, it's morbid tendencies and bleak imagery, much of Swedish cinema is very up my street. There's very little not to like and I am, myself, a European after all. All my other relationships with the other Swedish bigwigs, Ruben Östlund, Roy Andersson and the infamous Ingmar Bergman (My favourite of them all and getting an article from me very soon - but don't tell the others) to name a few, had gone rather swimmingly. Not smoothly I might add, but something of a strong bond was formed with these filmmakers.

And I thought Moodysson had broken through my steely, pessimistic exterior with the brilliantly told examinations of human relationships in a 1970's Swedish 'cult'. It was funny, entertaining and poignant all the while remaining humble. I thought we had something special, something different. Something even Bergman couldn't bring me; a Modern Swedish outlook on Sweden.

That tumble down the mountain was mighty. Falling and falling, hard and fast with each minute of the film, I began to contemplate where had we come from, Moodysson and I, and how far we had could have gone if not for such a dramatic turn of events. Because to be quiet frank, I hated A Hole in My Heart.

Three people in a dingy flat shoot an amateur porn film. They're all pretty gross. Watching from his room, the son of the filmmaker lurks. He's just as troubled, and just a little freaky. We open with the same son feeding his naked and sweaty father toilet water upon waking. Some interaction happens that suggests they loathe one another but some tragic event has lead them to this state of play.

Then our porn actors arrive. The men seem to be friends. Our porn star Tess, played by Sanna Bråding who is doing what she can with as much dignity as she can, seems to be passed around all of the men. At a later point in the film -when the men have decided the son needs a woman in his life, so said porn star must be up for making a man out of the youngster - the son and her begin to bond, within the shelter of his dark, messy bedroom covered with an assortment of grotesque things such as a set of monsters teeth and dirt. Lot's of dirt. He's a total edge-lord.

To be honest, I can't remember if the Porno ever gets finished. It seemed a bit of a process to complete for them with all the characters taking it in turns to freak out. On a real set they would have all been fired. I just felt quiet bad for Tess. A character with serious image problems and blatantly exploited by all the people she meets, I wanted her, desperately, to leave that stinking flat (So that I could leave). But she just showered there instead, then left for a bit, bought some food, came back and then was exploited with the food.

The film is shot and edited in a far more experimental way than the other two films I have watched of Moodysson's. But it feels more like an art students project than art house cinema. With grating sound design, night-vision camera effects, talking heads reciting nothing much at all, repulsive close ups of human bodies and barbie dolls re-enacting scenes for us (when they weren't being shoved into a flesh-light), it was all just too edgy for me. I suppose the only reaction I had of which the director, possibly, intended for me to have was an involuntary shudder to a labiaplasty but I can't see any artistic value of this in the film, or much of anything else. Because it didn't say very much in the end.

Some of his signature style was still there. It's something I've always have to adjust to after breaks in between his filmography, I have found. The crash zooms, the close-ups, the hand-held camera, the inorganic intimacy all takes me out of the moment for a little while. His technique draws attention to the camera and to the viewer. But this is a technique that probably should work best for A Hole in my Heart. 'Look at what you're watching, you viewer, you dirty bugger!' 'I know', I reply, 'and I keep waiting for it to get better!' It doesn't work because the film doesn't work. Not in the way Moodysson wants it to.

The film is disgusting but I've seen worse (Pink Flamingos (1972) and A Serbian Film (2010) win there). It's not as shocking as it thinks it is. It's just long and windy and re-treads the same ground over and over. And it's so boring. Once you've seen one act of self-mutilation and human debauchery, you've seen them all. And A Hole in My Heart tries to have as many as it can whilst also trying to end in three different places. Seriously, it could have ended forty minutes earlier.

In it's conclusion, it seems not to say to the viewer, 'look what you just watched, you are part of this now'. It tries to make us understand why these people are where they are now, and why. Our porn actor sobs on the grass outside the apartment building, dreaming of a field. Tess takes more showers. Everyone is horny and miserable.

Of course they are. That kind of is a message there. Only, I was too distracted by the flesh-light and the vomit-eating to really pity anyone in the end but our poor Tess. And even that's a bit of a stretch with her. If the film was shorter and more concise, perhaps the message Moodysson wanted to convey (whatever it was, I think I've proposed a few possible theories at this point) would have been stronger. But he went for the full 1hr and 38mins. And I hated it. I hated them.

But I don't hate Moodysson. Because I know he can do better. Maybe the next film I choose will catch me in my horrifying accelerated descent down the mountain-side. Maybe I should have started at the bottom of the mountain. Maybe I'll have to catch myself by being the gentle optimist I've always dreamed of being. But that's unlikely and so, Mr Moodyson, it is Show Me Love (1998) and Lilya 4-Eva (2002) that must save me from my tumultuous tumble. We shall see.

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A Space for Reviews, World Cinema Appreciation, Essays and Reflections by Writer Kerry Chambers

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