Review: Scarred for Life
Harrogate Theatre, 25 February 2022
It’s been several years since now since the original incarnation of Scarred For Life appeared in its embryonic form, around the time the first volume of Steve Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence’s retrospective about having the living shit scared out of you by television was published. Quite a lot of what I said in that original review still stands, pretty much as was. As do the performers. We still have three blokes of a certain vintage out there on stage to inform, educate, and perhaps even entertain: Steve, Dave, and Bob Fischer,
Since that book and show, there’s been a second volume, which focuses more on the culture of the 1980s and a third (on a more specific riff) is coming soon. The show has evolved too but is recognisably the same basic idea: this is all about the TV, and the popular culture that scared, unnerved, or just plain freaked you out as a kid. And it is fair to say that the 1970s and 1980s were probably the peak decades for this to happen.
The room in the Harrogate Studio Theatre is pretty full, and it turns out everyone is of a certain age. It appears the youngest person in there is a youthful 39 years old, so this is an audience who are going to be very familiar with tonight’s proceedings.
It all starts as the lights go down, with a montage that takes us from the cosy and the mainstream of the television of our childhood and youth, with familiar station idents progressively intercutting more and more weird clips into the mix (or the good stuff as most of us would say), before the performers take the stage. It has to be said that Bob’s appearance has evolved somewhat from those earlier days of “trendy” English teacher, to OU lecturer in the wee small hours, about to deliver M105 Linear Algebra, especially when the jacket comes off. The format is mostly as before, with Bob mostly acting as the tepid water to Dave and Stephen’s fire and ice¹ to talk about various topics through the show. This of course includes chances for audience feebdack and participation.
Given current events it’s quite interesting to talk about most of the fears raised at the time. Disease, war and political strife have made a big old comeback, especially the Cold War and nuclear annihilation. This leads us to a brief discursion on Threads, Barry “Kes” Hines’ the seminal 80s drama that pretty much single handedly turned the public mood at the time. It turns out that the programme was made by the BBC’s Science unit, not Drama, so it played very much to the factual basis of what was known at the time. It was not pretty. That said, it was apparently a delight to film for the cast, one of whom, the estimable Reece Dinsdale, latterly of Emmerdale was in the audience. I certainly remember sitting down that Sunday evening to be left reeling; oh boy did I need my 10 o’clock ITV comedy fix after that ray of bitter sunshine.
One of the newer themes brought into tonight’s show comes from Dave and Stephen having been asked if they’d do a volume about the 90s. Their answer to this is, “No, but but we’d love to read whoever does”. They grew up (like me) in the 70s and 80s. By the time the 90s arrived we were doing other things, and even the TV we watched was different, and for very different reasons², so none of the touch points would be the same; we’d have no idea what freaked out the 90s kids. But of course the 90s was (generally speaking) a more optimistic decade, a brief pause between the Cold War, and the convulsions of the early 21st century.
We were also reminded of a sea change in children’s programming especially. In the 90s the tone changed very appreciably, and content that was darker or more challenging was very definitely shied away from in light of a couple of high profile incidents, at least one connected to another programme discussed: Ghostwatch, which Dave and Stephen consider to be the end point of their journey³. So perhaps it would be much more difficult to construct a book like Scarred for Life for that era. But we don’t know. No one knows what we’ll be affected by, and what leaves traces in the years to come. Stephen talks about his arachnophobia⁴ being initiated by seeing Jon Pertwee’s last Doctor Who story, Planet of the Spiders, and it prompts discussion about exactly what kids in 30 or 40 years will look back at in the same way as we’ll look at this stuff now. Memes may play a big part in this, like the Momo moment, but we’ll have to wait for that one.
It also turns out that Bob has never seen the supremely creepy La Cabina, which I remember watching late one Sunday night on Tyne Tees as kid. That one really will put the wind up him, and probably make him glad that there aren’t so many phone boxes around any more.
So, the show is definitely a bit slicker than my initial viewing all that time ago (as you’d expect), and now has more of a spread of material to cover. But don’t worry, if you’re expecting mentions of the many heads of Worzel Gummidge, or the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water, you’ll not be disappointed. A fun night out for all you Gen X kids out there.
¹ Yes, folks, you can have that Spinal Tap reference for free. You’re welcome.
² So for me, the 90s meant quite a lot of cartoons: Ren & Stimpy, Johnny Bravo, Rocko’s Modern Life, Beavis and Butthead, Daria, post-pub Friday stuff like The Word, as well as all the middle of the night stuff like the peerless Sledge Hammer. And comedy of course, but that’s a different track to wander down.
³ Ghostwatch aired at Halloween 1992. I never saw it.
⁴ As it happens, I’m arachnophobic too, in a similar, but not identical way. I reckon mine began with watching TV. In my case, a rather unexpected spider running across screen in a Friday night horror movie on ITV. It was more the shock than anything, but it stuck. Prior to that, as a 4 or 5 year old, I’d quite happily watched the 50s B movie Tarantula (which from memory also marked a very early appearance by a young Clint Eastwood, I think) and didn’t have a problem with spiders at all. In fact, I think my specific problem is with the the very big, and very hairy ones, specifically tarantulas.