Friday, 21 December 2012

The Museum of Me (1991 - 2001)

Regular readers of this blog will know that I usually write a big comedy thing for Christmas, but this year I wanted to try something different. The aforementioned regular readers (all two of you) might recall a post I wrote in May this year, encouraging you to start archiving your past work for posterity. True to my word, I've been doing just that, and I'd like to present a small selection of the results for you this week and next.

The process of exploring twenty years of my past work, much of it originally seen by only a handful of people, has been scary and exhilarating in equal measure. It was scary on two counts, actually - both because of the sheer volume of stuff I uncovered and because I feared discovering that I wasn't as funny as I used to be. But I don't think that's true - like a fine wine, I've just matured (a little). What was exhilarating about it was the sheer thrill of rediscovery. It might not be as culturally significant as the early Hans Christian Andersen story found this week, but I really got a buzz from searching old notebooks, folders and hard drives to uncover my own lost artefacts.

There's quite a lot of stuff here and some of it's a bit rubbish(!), so feel free to graze as you wish. Christmas is a time for self-indulgence, though - I hope you'll excuse mine as I cut the red ribbon and declare The Museum of Me open to visitors!

The University Years

Although I dabbled with writing during my teens, what there was of it seems to have been lost. So you're going to be spared my early satirical masterpiece The Sylvia Plath Guide to Gas Cookers. Going away to Brighton Polytechnic (as it was then) in 1991 was the catalyst for spreading my creative wings.

I joined the television production society (BTV) because I saw some of their videos at a freshers' fair and figured they could use my help! This off-the-cuff decision was to be instrumental in both my future writing and my life (I later met my wife at a BTV party).

I set about writing my first scripts, while also getting experience in front of and behind the camera. Material from this period isn't exactly abundant, but I managed to find a handwritten script dating back to 1992. Entitled "Aceman", the sketch was inspired by our visit to the National Student Television Awards. There, we ran into our nemeses, a posh TV society from University College London who dared to also call themselves BTV (Bloomsbury Television). There was instant class war between the two groups and we became enraged by their snobbish attitude as well as amused by their inability to make toast (perhaps they had servants to do that). One of their number was moronically enthusiastic - saying "Ace" in response to pretty much any idea - and I quickly turned my poison pen in his direction.

Aceman Script (1992) - Click to open in new tab

Aceman was never filmed, but plenty of my other scripts made it onto video. Here, rescued from a grubby VHS tape by my friend Penny, are just a couple of examples. They reveal my extreme youth, poor acting skills and a worrying obsession with farmyard animals. Cringeworthy as these first steps seem to me now, I guess I had to start somewhere. First up, I don Hawaiian shirt and shorts to become gameshow host extraordinaire Johnny Dungthorpe:

Whose Bin (1992) - 8 minutes 32 seconds

And here, sparkling with amazing pre-CGI special effects, I take on the role of James Bond. Take note of my towering quiff and also the TV-edit framing device to cover up for the fact that we'd run out of studio time to film all of the footage.

Licence to Grill (1992/1993) - 8 minutes 15 seconds

The Fanzine Scene

After university (where I somehow gained a First, despite my extracurricular activities) we all got proper jobs and settled into a life of boring responsibility. Well, kind of. My BTV friend Stefan and I became fascinated by the possibilities of fanzines, those cheap photocopied magazines that had sprung up during the Punk period and never gone away. We had both grown up reading Whizzer and Chips, which had the novel idea of putting together two separate (and rival) comics into one publication. Couldn't we base a fanzine on the same principles?

So, CheeseCrank was born. Cheese (which Stefan edited) would be a music fanzine with humour, whereas Crank (which I edited) would be a far more eccentric and irrelevant proposition. The two twenty-page magazines would then be stapled back-to-back, so that shops could display them with the Cheese or the Crank side out, depending on their preference.

CheeseCrank Covers (1996) - Click to enlarge

We rounded up the old BTV crew as contributors and slaved for many hours over incredibly slow desktop publishing PCs. Printing up fifty copies, we hawked them round record shops and via the back pages of the NME:

CheeseCrank NME Form (1996) - Click to enlarge

Although it took several months, we eventually sold every copy, which must make it one of the most commercially successful things I've ever done!

Here's a selection of pages from the inside of Crank. Look out for Max Tastic's dad.

Crank Articles by Nick Cross (1996) - Click to open in new tab

One of the centrepiece features of Crank was our take on the popular fantasy football leagues of the day - the Fantasy Freedom Fighters League (FFFL). Even now, I can't believe that we filled four whole pages of the fanzine with what was basically a list of funny names. You'll see that there was an address to send your entry to, but I never received any (which was probably for the best).

Crank Fantasy Freedom Fighting League (1996) - Click to open in new tab

The FFFL was an early example of me bowing to the sensitivities of the market. Here's the original pitch and title:

FTL Pitch (1996) - Click to enlarge

Making CheeseCrank was an exhausting experience, and the first issue turned out to be the last. But I did take the idea of the FFFL to heart and started running play-by-mail games for my friends. Entitled TV Wars and later Media Moguls, I designed these to allow us to invent TV programmes and other media, then fight for audience share across a virtual marketplace. They were a lot of fun, but again, very labour-intensive for me. This is a typical film of mine from the game:

Media Moguls Film (1998) - Click to enlarge

Vatican Values

Now that I've blundered into this section, I'm wondering if it's appropriate this close to Christmas (or at any time, really). Oh well, I was recently saying that I should be braver in my artistic choices...

I'm not entirely sure what year it was when Stefan came up with the idea for a time-travelling pontiff who kicks ass for the Lord. Whatever, I took the idea and ran with it, pioneering in the process an entirely new genre that I like to call "knockabout blasphemy".

TimePope was one of the first projects where it seemed like the scope of the story was even bigger than we could imagine. It was an epic idea, and I can remember endless brainstorming where we set out the ongoing story in terms of episodes, moving from ancient Byzantium to the future, via a comic interlude where our hero gets stuck babysitting the infant Jesus. Clearly, no bounds of religious taste were to be observed!

TimePope doing what he does best
Somehow, it made perfect sense that I should realise this epic tale through the medium of stop-motion Lego animation. In retrospect, this was a tonal choice that made the end result feel a little more unreal and a little less offensive. It also allowed me to take total control of the project. I was to be my own mini mogul - writing the script, building the set, acting all the characters, lighting the action, moving the camera and even providing the special effects. This was how Peter Jackson got started, after all, and his early films were in even poorer taste than this!

TimePope Character Designs (2001) - Click to enlarge

The action was to begin in ancient times with a vampire attack in a confessional (don't ask me how that worked). Here's the first page of my storyboards:

TimePope Storyboards (2001) - Click to enlarge

When I looked over the TimePope archives, I found a lot of material, but very little of it was in a finished form. I seemed to repeatedly go off on tangents, depending on what interested me most at a particular time. A community of Lego animators was forming online, but I remember being dissatisfied that there was no way to make the characters' mouths move. Cue weeks and weeks spent building animated minifig faces on the computer and superimposing them on the Lego figures (see right and below)

TimePope Effects and Dialogue Test (2001) - 5 seconds

At some point, even though I had finished barely any footage from the film, I decided that I needed a trailer. Again, this was unfinished - though I remember spending a lot of time trying to animate an exploding model of a Lego Big Ben. The audio was complete, so I've used some stills of the set to give you an idea of how it might have looked. It takes the form of me trying to pitch the project to a couple of Hollywood execs:

TimePope Trailer (2001) - 1 minute 43 seconds

Thank you for joining me on this sprint through a decade of poor taste! I'll be wrapping myself up under the Christmas tree until next week, when it'll be time to unleash the concluding installment of The Museum of Me.



  1. AH ha ha! You're a brave man - I've NO intention of delivering up my uni video clips - I was mostly half dressed and that wouldn't do any of us any good. Am still chuckling to myself and think I may well be doing so for the rest of the day!

  2. Impressive, Mr Cross, and hilarious. Love those shorts!

  3. Excellent! I've always thought your rants er blog posts sounded like someone more immersed in film than book writing!

  4. There's a lot of blackmail material here. Downloading the videos for future use.

  5. Excellent! A man of many excellent ideas!

  6. I love the idea of the double-sided CheeseCrank magazine - marketing genius.

  7. So glad I was old when social media and digital technology took off...OK, there may be some grainy black and white photos somewhere but...this is great stuff, Nick. All your paths will soon converge.

    1. It's weird to think that today's kids won't have any of these problems with retrieving stuff from the archives, in fact their problem will be that every photo, video and tweet related to them will be instantly accessible to everyone. I might be able to look back at some of this stuff with affection after 20 years, but I'm not sure I would have wanted it following me around!

  8. Brilliant Nick. I knew you were a man with dark closets of rattling bones, but so much!
    Incidentally I too ran a post-punk fanzine after I graduated which eventually turned into a 'real' local magazine, is it something everyone did? Not as funny as yours, but visually it took the biscuit. Probably.