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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.