Love Makes You Crazy
Welcome to Thatcher’s Britain. Unemployment is soaring, the Falklands Factor has kicked in and an electoral landslide is imminent. But a recently launched television channel hoped to make a difference. Channel 4 would provide a radical alternative to mainstream broadcasting, both artistically and politically, and on February 5th 1983 they bravely handed over an hour of peak-time viewing to… Mike Batt.
Like many musicians before him, Batt had taken the well-trodden artistic path from Wombles to Dystopian Musicals via a brief flirtation with animated rabbits. Zero Zero was the culmination of this phase in his development, and featured a bleak future “where love has been abolished and is regarded as a disease to be avoided”. Batt played Number 17, the love struck hero who is eventually taken to an Emotional Decontamination Centre called Zero Zero. This one-off work was described by The Times as “interestingly choreographed”; a phrase that should strike fear into the heart of any sane individual. As seen in the clip, Mike Batt’s vision of the future involved bathing caps, overblown chess metaphors, and very large playing cards. The oddest thing about Zero Zero is that there are two versions: one for Australia featuring Graeme Watson, and one for the rest of the world starring Mike Batt. This was apparently because of a problem with the unions, which is apt considering the political tenor of the times.
This transmission was in fact a repeat. Zero Zero was originally shown as part of the Christmas/New Year schedule in January 1983, but apparently there was a fault with the audio and hence the repeat. Regardless of the merits of Batt’s creation, it was hard not to love Channel 4 in those days. This repeat went out on Saturday night opposite 3-2-1, and the original was on just before The Comic Strip Presents…War. It was 1983 admittedly, and all channels were gearing up for the Orwell festival in the following year, but it swells the heart to think of a channel putting out a dystopian musical in peak-time and then f***ing up the technical side as an afterthought. And it wasn’t the first time. Just a couple of months earlier at Christmas, Channel 4 proudly premiered Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which was another dystopian work – a bit like Zero Zero but without the music. Brilliantly, the technical wizards at the channel showed the whole thing in black and white, overlooking the small detail that 75% of it is in colour. Heady, heady, ramshackle days.
I think that most people, in the unlikely event that they were asked to consider it, would expect the genre of Christmas Dystopian Musical to consist of one work: Zero Zero. Absolutely not. As ever the BBC were well ahead of the game when five years earlier on Boxing Day afternoon 1977 Orion blazed on to the screen. Written by Melvyn Bragg (yes, I did say Melvyn Bragg) with music by Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley, Orion was a Noah’s Ark parable, which featured a dying Earth and one man’s attempt to build a giant spaceship to take all the good people away to another planet before it’s too late. He’s helped in this by a gang of teenagers (including Simon Gipps-Kent) who energetically sing and dance their way through the apocalypse. Think Threads performed by the cast of Emu’s World and you’re getting there. Orion even had a repeat showing a couple of years later. I, probably uniquely, saw both transmissions and never quite got over the experience.
Exactly why the BBC and Channel 4 shunted their dystopian musicals into the Christmas period is anybody’s guess. Possibly Christmas was deemed so miserable that a glimpse of a bleaker future would make people grateful for what they had. Or, more likely, that Christmas is a very good time to bury bad programmes. Either way, as we seem to be condemned to reliving the 1980s all over again, I see a big future for the dystopian musical.