Frivolous Monsters

My Last Words

When the billionaire Charles Foster Kane breathed his last, in what’s often regarded as one of the greatest films of all time, his last utterance was the mysterious “Rosebud” whilst if I were to be suddenly called upon to produce my final words, to be recorded for posterity, then I reckon that I would plump for the equally enigmatic Red Top.TV aeriel 3

The solution to the mystery of Rosebud, the quest for the film Citizen Kane, revolved around an item of great personal significance and fond childhood memories; however Red Top isn’t from my childhood because if I were to edge carefully towards an upstairs window then there’s every chance that I might catch a glimpse of him, outside, standing in the street. Looking up at me. Mocking me. Red Top.

I’m not alone in suffering such persecution as whilst some people are stalked and threatened, whilst juggling restraining orders, there was once an episode of the classic BBC sitcom One Foot in the Grave, Beware the Trickster on the Roof (1992), where Victor Meldrew spent the whole episode referring to Mrs. Stebbings’s TV aerial down the road which he unrealistically claimed was laughing at his misfortunes. Although if I ever try to forget about my own misfortune then unlike some Victorian-types who used to keep a skull in their sitting rooms as a memento mori, a reminder of their own mortality, if I ever needed any reminding of my failing in life, and a failing in becoming the writer which I set out to be, then I just need to look out of the window because every few weeks old Red Top appears to remind me.

Another man haunted by visions of Red Top, a hundred years pervious, was the silent film star Buster Keaton as in his vaudeville theatre days, when he was just a boy, the ventriloquist Trovollo had a dummy of that name which young Buster became fascinated with and conspired to kidnap when the theatre was empty. Trovollo got wise to what Keaton was planning and laid in wait for him; then, when the seven year-old appeared, a concealed Trovollo brought Red Top to life and scared the young Buster Keaton so much he ran right out of the theatre.

Keaton never forgot about Red Top and later went on to parody this childhood nightmare in his film Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) where during a hurricane which is slowly demolishing the whole town around him it animates a dummy in the theatre, shortly before it itself collapses, giving Keaton a chance to replicate the fright that the real Red Top gave him all those years ago.Red Top Buster Keaton     Parodying such real-life horrors seems to have been the done thing in Silent Comedy as surely the most famous Hollywood publicity photo shoot of all time must have been when Harold Lloyd was handed a papier-mâché Acme-style comedy bomb so he could lean in to light his cigarette from the sizzling pretend fuse for the camera. When the fuse fizzled out, before they started looking for another to do it all over again, was right when the bomb exploded, blowing Lloyd’s fingers clean off, and nearly killing him. Buster Keaton went on to mimic this incident two years later in his short film Cops (1922) where upon finding an anarchist-thrown bomb he sets about casually lighting his cigarette from it before realising what it is and throwing it back.

Bomb Buster Keaton Harold Lloyd     Even though there are other British TV writers who I aspire to more the Welshman Terry Nation must have been one of the first who became famous, and rich, through his efforts. He was writing for the comedian Tony Hancock when he was approached to write for a new BBC children’s science fiction programme, but laughed the offer off as he had no interest whatsoever in writing for children. It took getting sacked by Hancock after an argument for him to go crawling back to see if this job was still on offer where, despite everything, he went on to immediately create the most famous bug-eyed monsters of all time, the Daleks, and as he had the foresight to hold onto the rights for these space dustbins they went on to make him his fortune when the ratings immediately went through the roof and in every school playground of the country Dalekmania had begun. In modern money they earned him over four million pounds, in 1964 alone, which surely wasn’t bad for a bunch of angry pepper pots which he didn’t even design himself.

And thus whilst most writers are anonymous people who languish in the shadows, rarely ever seen, Terry Nation was accordingly profiled by the Radio Times in 1973 with a colourful photo shoot in the courtyard of the mansion which his savvy merchandising rights had bought him. And then there was Red Top.

red top courtyard     The collection of Movie Daleks which Nation had been given had been swapped around over the years, repaired and repainted here and there, and thus little could the people who cobbled four of them together for window-dressing in the courtyard know that by putting a red lid on the silver body that they were by accident creating a legend. Red Top. Photos of this combination went on to be used as source material by an artist, believing it to be valid examples, and so soon Red Top started appearing in Countdown comic strip and from there the action figure somehow appeared and soon Red Top was turning up all over the place from giveaway Weetabix cards to generic background art. What did it matter that no such mismatched combination had ever been seen on film or TV? Doubly so that the original had long since been repaired and repainted out of existence.

Red Top Versons Dalek     Terry Nation found success as a writer and there he was in 1973 surrounded by his wealth, and his success, and by Red Top, whilst I don’t have my own mansion yet but continue to haunt my parents’ house, their little failed writer in residence, where I still live in their back bedroom. I’m surprised they still have room for me as in these days of fervent recycling they’ve been lumbered with two-hundred litre wheelie bins of all colours: black, blue, green, brown, which now dominate the front garden; yet if you have a large family, and validly cannot cope with a single general waste bin, then the council will allow you an official second: both black, the second with a red lid.

So if I care to compare my life to a successful writer and take my place outside my house, and stood in the street outside, then on the requisite day I’d find myself flanked by two wheelie bins from the house opposite. One my very own Red Top. In comparison, when I gave up my job to give it a go as a writer, to be honest it’s not quite to life-affirming success which I’d hoped for or imagined.

Red Top Terry Nation

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18 thoughts on “My Last Words

  1. Lucky the wheelie bin which (temporarily) ate Mickey in an episode of Doctor Who wasn’t a Red Top, you’d be even more wary of bin night if you knew there was a chance that was your fate!

    • I know, with its really dodgy effects in that first episode. Still, they were finding their feet. I have had this post on ice for months, literally months, as was trying to get a picture of the real bins but they’re only get collected every three weeks now, and I’ve been thwarted on many occasions, but there’s surely nothing dodgy about being caught taking pictures of your neighbours bins I’m sure.

      • Yep, that elastic bin effect certainly was sub standard, thank goodness they’ve upped their game now.

        I’m sure the neighbours would have some interesting ideas as to why you are taking pictures of their bins. To really mess with them you should go out on bin night with a box of large circle stickers and make the Red Tops look suitably Dalek-ish!

        Doctor Who is back on every week night again here, just before the kids bedtime. David Tennant at the moment, ahh… happy days.

    • The problem is that our bins are now collected at about 7.30 am. They used to be left out all day after this, but recently they’ve been put away again before I’ve even got up. I did see them once, just sitting there in the sun, with the family’s grandchildren playing behind them. Now if there’s something going to get you a reputation MORE than being caught photographing bins…

      Ah, David Tennant… such a long time ago now.

      • Yep, you were right to wait. Good luck convincing the police that you were really taking pictures of the bin…

        As for David Tennant, he is our favourite Doctor for a reason and late night channel flicking

      • Aargh… Accidental button pushing!

        As I was saying… Late night channel flicking means there’s always the chance he’ll turn up unexpectedly! There’s no way I would have seen him (hilariously) in Fright Night or This is Jinsy otherwise. 🙂

    • I have to say that I have seen neither of those, but I did see him in the St. Trinian’s film of which the star, Talulah Riley, recently “twittered” me. It was the highlight of my twitter existence. She responded to a highbrow comment and, unlike as she played in Tennant Who with all that long dark hair, I think she’s very clever in real life.

      • I haven’t seen either of those shows in full, just managed to stumble across them while surfing. You can find clips of both of them on YouTube though, Tennant as a Fright Night vampire hunter and a camp Jinsy wedding planner. Awesome. 😀

        I haven’t seen him in St Trinians though, will have to look out for it next time it’s on TV.

  2. reverend61 on said:

    [coughs] Ray Cusick…

    • I did say he didn’t even design them. Although going off the script, if the script book is an accurate representation, he “created” them thus:

      “Standing before them are a number of identical machine-like creatures. Each has a domed head, with what resembles a kind of eye-piece sticking out on the end of a stalk at the front. Beneath the dome are a pair of mechanical rods. One has a sucker on its end, the other is shorter and of unknown purpose. The bottom half of each creature consists of a roughly circular skirt-like façade, made up of a number of panels, each with a series of small domes on it. This widens as it goes downwards, ending in a band that forms the base of each creature.”

      Ray Cusick never made a penny off them They did take him on a tour of the new studios in Cardiff and, the final ignominy, they presented his with a memento of his creation which turned out to be just a picture of Dalek dna as made for the awful Daleks in Manhattan story.

      • reverend61 on said:

        Oh, I know. I wouldn’t have expected you to go into too much detail here. I just get cross that Nation made so much and Cusick had a flat fee, and none of the recognition. (Although there is a lovely Pebble Mill thing with Tom Baker drawing a competition winner, and getting annoyed because the answer to the question was Terry Nation…)

    • That would be surprising as he will have worked with Nation and this was probably long after Cusick was gone. There was a Who book he collaborated on – The Early Years – of all his episodes which he worked on were Hartnell stories.

  3. I think you are wise to consider your last words. Think of Adam Faith, the British pop singer of the early 60s and, later, T.V. actor. I don’t know why, but once I’d read what were, supposedly, his last words, I can’t think of him without remembering them even though they were neither succinct nor enigmatic –

    “Channel 5 is all shit, isn’t it? Christ, the crap they put on there. It’s a waste of space.”

    • Yes I remembered that when you mentioned his name. To be fair though he was right about Channel 5. Still. I was hoping they would make Big Brother watchable again…

      Others that spring to my mind are King George V’s “Bugger Bognor” and Oscar Wilde’s “Either this wallpaper goes or I do”, although how true they are I do not know.

  4. I will not look at wheelie bins in quite the same light now and every time I see one with a red top I will think of you.

    Last words?………life’s too short!

    Love Denise.

    • It just shows how twisted my mind, that it makes such connections, is. I don’t know if you have the same bin set-up, as it’s different all through the country, even though I know you’re not that far away someone I know just down the road must be over some sort of border as he’s all different, bin-wise. It took me ages to find out what the red tops meant. I did presume it was just the colour the council used if they were called out to replace a lid on a wheelie bin.

      As for last words, I imagine most are either planned in advance, for posterity, or made up by family.

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