Tuesday, September 25, 2012

My "Our Gang"

‘Ja ever make a Happy Discovery only to have it shot down a moment later — then find a little ray of hope about your discovery only to have that rug yanked out from under you? Just like a seesaw, as the facts reveal themselves they take you up, down, up, down; if you were a child reacting verbally to the situation, you’d be saying “YAY! — oh. YAY! — oh. YAY! — oh,” and so on, until you got tired of the suspense or until the Balance of Power shifted one way or the other...

It’s usually about small things, but things that would bring us Joy nonetheless. My latest “YAY! — oh” moment was centered around The Double Deckers. No, not the London-style bus. Well, yes, in a way, but... 

A long, long tome ago, Hal Roach put out a series of two-reel comedy shorts starring a loose-knit bunch of kids he called “Our Gang.” The gang was made up of iconic types you’d find in any neighborhood, and one of the many remarkable things about the series was that neither Mr. Roach nor his writers nor directors ever looked down from above at these kids: they got down on their knees and tried to make pictures right from a kid’s-eye point of view. 

The kids always had the greatest clubhouses loaded with makeshift gadgets (like a treehouse elevator powered by nanny-goat), got into the greatest adventures... and of course, the biggest messes. After many years, along with all the rest of Roach’s cinematic holdings (including Laurel & Hardy) the Gang was passed on to MGM, where they became known as The Little Rascals. Spanky and Alfalfa had already joined the group, but this was where they gained their transcendence, and the series effectively became the Alfalfa and Spanky Show. “I’m the BAR-BURRR of Suh-VEYULLL! FIIIIII-garoh! FIIIIII-garoh!” Calgon, take me away!

Fast forward to 1971. Somehow, an odd duck of a British kid’s TV show called Here Come the Double Deckers made it onto American TV, Saturday mornings on the ABC network. I was arguably getting a little old for the Saturday morning cartoon scene. But this was no cartoon. 

Beginning in 1968 as an actual theatrical movie series under the title The Magnificent Six and a Half and moving to TV in ’71 with a partially different cast, this followed Hal Roach’s recipe for the Our Gang comedies almost exactly: but the children were somewhat older, there were pop-style musical numbers, and the series was infused with (for me) that most wonderful of things, a very British comedy sensibility. 

By the time the series moved to television, the gang had made its headquarters in a heavily modified (not to say fortified with very clever gadgets!) retired Double Decker London bus parked in an urban scrapyard. Hence the name.

Because I had a Dad who grew up watching the original Our Gang comedies on the big screen, and because I grew up in the sixties, when Roach’s two-reelers were frequently syndicated and used as filler by local stations, The Double Deckers wasn’t my first exposure to this sort of thing. But it was my generation of Our Gang, my flavor of it, wholly modern in its time.

I have to stress in its time.

And I loved it. I was already an Anglophile and just about the age of the gang’s leader (Peter Firth, the only Double Decker who has stayed and thrived in the acting business... long before Daniel Radcliffe “grew up” onstage in Pater Schaeffer’s Equus, it was Firth who originated the part both in the West End and on Broadway). There wasn’t one single thing about this show that didn’t tickle me: the jolly design and all the useful detritus filling the scrapyard; the gadgets, the comedy, the music, the accents and “exotic” locales, and the kind of light adventure that didn’t pit Us Kids against adults so much as it proved that we could be Just As Clever.

Plus, I had a crush on Gillian Bailey, who played Billie, one of only two girls in the gang (and the other was Tiger, who was more a Mascot).

Well. Fast forward again to the digital age, and here I am a crusty old alcoholic in his fifties wanted by the law, and who on earth has heard of or remembers The Double Deckers? Fox holds the distribution rights, but would you give odds on an American DVD release of this thing?

I did actually write to them about it once. I know. Broken down Olde Farte, Windmills, believe me, I know. 

I mean, there wasn’t even a British DVD release, and it had an audience over there.

Still, from time to time, when I was in the kind of mood to prove to myself that the Universe and I will Never See Eye to Eye, I would search a certain Evil Spiderlike Interwebs Retail Entity for it... and, you guessed it, just about a month back, there, quite unexpectedly, was my YAY! moment. An actual real DVD release of Here Come The Double Deckers!

I was all set to hit the BUY button when I saw it: — oh. British release. Won’t play on American TVs. But I looked closer. Hmm. It appeared to be a Region 1 disk, meaning that I could play it. YAY! Took a risk and bought a used copy for ten bucks. Turned out that it wasn’t a Region 1 disk after all. — oh. So sorry, the gang will not be coming out to play after all. Had a look on the interwebs. Seems that there are ways to bypass region coding. YAY! Waitaminnit ... the disk is British PAL format, my set and DVD player are both NTSC. — oh. Dang. Still no soap. There were more “YAY! — oh” moments ahead of me, and they were all heading me in the direction of Ultimate Failure.

But wait -- 

Folks, I’m here today to tell you about a nifty little free program for both Mac and PC called simply VLC. Google it. It’s a miracle worker. It’s a tiny little program. With no muss, no fuss, it automagically strips away the barriers that Evil Corporate Broadcasters put into place when they sought to divide the nation’s Creative Types. Just insert the disk, drag one icon onto another, and in moments you’re viewing content previously forbidden to you by the DVD Gods.

‘Course that means I have to watch my Double Deckers DVDs on my computer rather than my TV -- but at least I get to watch them.

...and suddenly, like stepping through Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine, it is 1971 again, I am only just barely a teenager, and Here Come The Double Deckers once more.

Does the show hold up?

Quite astonishingly, I think it does. Once you accept that it’s as dated now as the Our Gang comedies were in 1971, the idea behind this doesn’t change. It never changed. It never will change. I assume that kids still knock about together and get into trouble. I assume that kids still like gadgets. I assume that kids still like music and want to make movies and do grown-up things their own way. That’s what this is all about. The cast is still charming. They mug and overdo it just the way that Roach’s Rascals used to. Their problems have more to do with hovercraft and invisibility and tramp pop stars than they do with anything real. It’s very very British despite the presence of a Token American Kid. It’s well-executed. The songs are bouncy. It is oh so Seventies in its flavor, which is a plus if you grew up right around then.

Not your cup of fur? *shug* Then we won’t let you into our club. So there. On the other hand, if you like this sort of thing (and I still love it), this is a real Tonic. For me... after forty years away from my old gang, it feels like I’ve come all this distance, and now all of a sudden I’ve rounded a corner and there they are, just the same, a million years ago, and just like yesterday.

Oh, and filming in Fast Motion pretty much does make anything funny.


Away, away, I’ve been away from the blog for too long, and not all the reasons have been unhappy ones. Work on the new “remastered,” revisited and heavily revised edition of Persephone’s Torch continues at a good pace, and we should have news for you concerning that title, and more, soon. Watch the skies. Not for news about my stuff, silly: because you can see a lot of interesting formations up there.

-- Freder

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