As The Killing returns, and with Absolutely Fabulous! set for a Christmas comeback, Ray Philp looks at cult hits of the small screen
November heralds the highly anticipated return of three of the most unusual television heroines: a pair of boozy, hopelessly immature fashionistas, and a tough Danish detective with a taste for soft woolly jumpers.
We’re talking, of course, about the return of Absolutely Fabulous! and The Killing on BBC1 and BBC Four respectively. Two very different shows, for sure, yet both enjoy a devout following often described as ‘cultish’. Being a ‘cult hit’ is all well and good, but the downside to that tag is that, for a variety of reasons, they don’t become as popular or well-known as they should.
With that in mind, this is a good time to look back on some other cult television shows deserving of another shot at the limelight.
Adam Adamant Lives!
Adam Adamant Lives!, a BBC comedy adventure series produced in 1966, was something of an innovator. Its titular hero – a blue-blooded, turn-of-the century swordsman transported to the swinging 60s after being frozen in a block of ice by his arch nemesis – carries the same aloof demeanour of a certain 007, and it is said that Gerald Harper’s portrayal of the resoundingly stiff-upper-lip Adamant inspired Jon Pertwee’s portrayal of Dr Who not long after. Adam Adamant Lives! was not without its faults – its production values are best described as “rough and ready”. Moreover, its central conceit, a satire of swinging 60s London life through the eyes of a reserved Edwardian gent, might not click with a younger audience, but for its influence on other more celebrated television shows (and its dramatic, James Bond-aping opening theme), it makes for intriguing viewing.
Screened over two years between 1975 and 1977, Survivors tells the tale of survivors of a global pandemic who band together in the wake of a virus that kills most of the world’s population and disintegrates civilisation as they know it in the process. Devoid of the Americanised histrionics of your typical post-apocalyptic fare, Survivors often has the feel of a televised play rather than a television ‘show’, though it does have its fair share of striking outdoor scenes, such as a helicopter flyover of a deserted countryside, where a good deal of the show is shot. It’s a quiet, character-driven story that also gives a surprisingly realistic portrayal of how you’d go about surviving the aftermath of a plague. Survivors has also been given a reboot of its own, a two-series run starring Max Beesley and Julie Graham that ended in 2010.
GARETH MARENGHI’S DARKPLACE
A show-within-a-show that sends up the horror genre, and in particular, the cult of the horror author. Its late screening and low viewing figures on Channel 4 in 2004 suggested that the broadcaster had little faith that the show would be popular, and it’s true that the show’s brand of comedy won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Many of the jokes are of questionable taste (eg. a priest’s eulogy to a recently deceased character goes thus: “Larry Renwick will be remembered for his wit and laughing eyes . . . I’m sure we all feel that he exploded too young.” Said corpse then comes back to life, only to be shot and burnt to death by the show’s protagonist/anti-hero, Dr Rick Dagless MD), but for its inventive writing and killer one-liners (“Cool it Sanchez, or you’ll get a knuckle supper” and “I’ll kick your arse so hard that you’ll be able to build a pool in the footprint” – lines from Richard Ayoade of The IT Crowd and The Mighty Boosh fame) it’s hard to beat.
Despite the passage of nearly 20 years since its original run on Channel 4, the quality of Absolutely has hardly diminished. A Scottish sketch show broadcast between 1989 and 1993, its cast of characters and recurring themes still feel contemporary. Among them, the Stoneybridge Town Council series of sketches (some of which were partially filmed in the Warriston area) depicting incompetent and aspirational council officials with delusions of grandeur will no doubt strike an, ahem, familiar tone. Deranged, Geoff Hurst-hating nationalist McGlachan, portrayed by Jack Docherty, is also a highlight. The cast have since either featured in or written for Spitting Image, Red Dwarf and Smack The Pony, and the material in Absolutely is on a par with all of those shows.
Laughably clunky title aside, Danger Man is notable for being Patrick McGoohan’s first real lead role before his stint on the more widely recognised The Prisoner. Though simpler in concept than The Prisoner, Danger Man was a similarly intelligent show, a thriller that saw British spy John Drake dispatch an assortment of international baddies with the Bond-like suaveness that was so popular at the time. It enjoyed remarkable success in the US upon its revival in 1964 once James Bond had become a worldwide hit, but initially struggled to attain the desired viewing figures on its first run in the early 60s. Unlike early Bond films, though, Danger Man was a subtle and less glamorous affair, striving to mirror real-world political tension.
A larger-than-life performance from the late Gerard Kelly, playing put-upon bank teller and aspiring author Willie Melvin, should have made Scottish comedy City Lights more of a hit than its first outing had delivered, but perhaps the prominence of Rab C Nesbitt at the time – which Kelly also appeared in – curtailed its popularity. That said, City Lights had plenty of other talent on display; though Jonathan Watson and Elaine C Smith decorated proceedings with their usual comic savvy, Andy Gray’s portrayal of boneheaded mate Chancer was especially noteworthy.