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Whatever Happened To PHOO ACTION? A Retrospective And Study

Disclaimer: This piece is written to be largely humorous. No offence is intended to the sort of people who get angry at web writers. We are huge fans of Jamie Hewlett, Damon Albarn, Gorillaz, Tank Girl etc. etc. etc. and do not need reminding how brilliant they all are. Thank you.

By Jordan Mooney.

Jamie Hewlett has, since the early days of his work such as Tank Girl and Hewligan’s Haircut cropping up in the likes of 2000AD and Deadline during the 90s, been a cult comic creator worthy of a coffee-table book. He’s been to Hollywood, gained worldwide fame as the co-creator of the world’s most famous animated band (Not those bastard Chipmunks. Gorillaz, you dunce.), has entered production of several films, animated some of the most recognisable music videos on the planet, designed an opera… the list goes on.

What many people forget, (and that’s where we come in), is that his name has also appeared in television credits; with a massively polarising adaptation of his comic strip Get The Freebies, which first appeared in British pop culture magazine The Face in June 1996.

Yes, in 2008, Jamie Hewlett, with long time collaborator & Gorillaz scribe Mat Wakeham (and one Nomad Al Abarn on music… good luck figuring that one out.) produced a 60 minute television pilot alongside five rivalling programs for BBC Three, whom, back when the channel still had viewers, were looking to expand their offering beyond soap repeats, shit American comedies and Doctor Who spin offs.

The result was Phoo Action, a very… uhm… eccentric pilot that captured a lot of the visuals Jamie Hewlett is so acclaimed for…but did it capture the original strip? And what the hell happened to it?

Perhaps, after nearly eight years, it is time for a retrospective. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for our first ever feature of… Whatever happened to..?

 

Our story begins in the wondrous year of 2012. London. And one step to the left.

All you really need to know is we’re in Buckingham Palace and the Queen’s going to be killed by a giant purple monkey, a basketball headed green vine-armed midget and a stripy thing that inhales too much helium. Yes, really.

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It has to be said, these costumes are bloody brilliant renditions of the Jimmy, Marlon and Burk Freebie that I know from the comics. More on that later, though – here’s your first plot point – the Queen’s been unceremoniously bumped off with a firearm, several soldiers have been gassed and the corgis have been bitten.

Shoot a few more steps to the left and we’re introduced to Whitey Action, played by Jaime Winstone. And she looks fantastic, sounds fantastic, and acts pretty nicely too – in a Hewlett sort of way. The best bits of this feature really are those that seemed to have been picked and dipped into the concoction of Jamie and Mat’s psyche, and Winstone plays a suitably rough, angry, rebellious sort – complete with hot pants. She isn’t sexualised, or even played as an entirely likeable protagonist. She’s a tomboy brat who goes about her way sneering at everything.

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I like her already.

Her father, Ben Benson, is chief of the London police (whom wields a loofah with no hesitation) and is naturally faced with the pickle of who went and bumped queen whatserface off. The ‘Royal Franchise’ is on its knees and Lord Rothwell (who the hell is he? He reminds me of Prince Phillip. Did they not use Phillip in case he shot them?) is eating cockcroaches and demanding they find those ‘idiots’ William and Harry, who keep going out, drinking and fucking. Evidently, the BBC were in for as much of a shock as we were when they stopped being dickheads. They are, however, one of the most amusing things in the pilot. Then, in the last five minutes, they turn competent and ruin the fun. Bastards.

Suddenly, zip over to Hong Kong, where fighter-cop Terry Phoo is a master of ‘the technique of no technique’ and gives wedgies in his martial arts combat. Apparently he’s an expert in mutants. Unfortunately he’s also an idiot and looks a bit girlier than Whitey does. But London takes him anyway.

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Why? Why would London call upon somebody from Hong Kong to solve an insidious London mutant problem? I don’t know. Just roll with it, he wears a yellow tracksuit and drives a replica Stratos. Deal with it. Oh, he also has a pair of magic hot pants. The ‘Buddha’s Loincloth’ apparently.

Yeah, okay, I’m struggling a bit too. He is mostly likeable, but the jokes at his expense tire very quickly…

While all this is going on, there’s some kind of Star Chamber thing going on that the Freebies are reluctantly answering to – that creates mutants like the Freebies trio and had originally demanded they mutate the Queen, not kill her. And wants them to mutate William before he can take the throne tomorrow so… this plan makes about as much sense as having a basketball for a head. So, can we leave this subplot and get back to Whitey?

Well, she’s insulting a pissed up pair of princes and dancing with Terry Phoo. After she goes off bottling Marlon Freebie – and Prince William’s balls for good measure (saving his life in the process, like all of the best ball-swings) – Terry arrests Whitey, and she insists she’s an undercover cop. Terry, being the comic foil-protagonist with the heart of gold and girly face, buys it hook-line-and-sinker and our adventure finally starts properly. I think.

Marlon, Jimmy and Burke also turn some of their Mexican-wrestler-from-Scotland bodyguards into mutants. Meaning they get painted blue and growl a lot. Brilliant. It also turns out the hot pants can produce anything Whitey wishes, meaning she is the chosen one or something, because the Father Buddha created the world from within the loincloth’s folds and-

Okay, okay, I quit. Fuck it.

 

Let’s get reviewing, shall we?

If you haven’t yet bought into what’s so wrong with Phoo Action? It’s really fucking stupid. I really want to love it. There’s lots of anarchic Looney-tunes humour, which at times brings a big smile to the face; but there’s nothing very smart or witty to offcut it. The entire thing feels like it’s trying to go for a slightly more plot driven Mighty Boosh feel, but it doesn’t have the blatant self awareness, or, really, the same absurdist feel. In many ways it feels too much like it’s in the real world while ignoring all of it. It follows no set laws or rules in its own universe. It’s too sweary and has too many obscurities to be a kid’s thing, but it’s most certainly too juvenile to be an adult thing. It doesn’t even have the satire from the likes of Tank Girl to tide itself by, and in comparison to the page-long strips in The Face, it all seems stretched and overinflated. Like many adaptations, it loses the punchy timing and hilarious visual that only a comic strip can really provide; and in the process, our modern four-second attention spans are lost.

It’s a bizarre situation; going in to any production involving Jamie and Damon- sorry, Nomad, you’d expect a bit of a Gorillaz feel, but…it feels a bit, regrettably, like retreaded ground. Gorillaz often shoot for similar tones and ideas, but have much punchier time-slots to do it in. A quick throwaway joke in a three minute music video or twelve-minute MTV cribs episode develops much more affection than one in an hour-long television feature.

The problem is, I constantly overthink when I watch television; and Phoo Action really defies any sort of thought. It’s a lot of fun in its own bizarre way, but it’s almost too well made, too well directed and too high a production to make a good diversion. I want to pay attention; I want to love every moment. But it’s very difficult to sustain it. I really fancy the work that everybody did with The Freebies – it’s a great strip that’s become very difficult to find, and I love the fact we’ve got them ‘in the flesh’ on television. It was and still is brilliant to see them in a live format.

However, as much as I love the aesthetic, the near-perfect rendering of Jamie Hewlett’s style makes them impossible to take seriously, or for them to even feel very sinister or menacing. Unfortunately, Jimmy, the most important of the lot, is also the most complex, and the animatronics in use show their limitation heavily. Nobody really believes there isn’t a puppeteer squatting under that BBC News chair, and it does suffer a slight when the main antagonists look about as active as Terry Phoo’s police certification. Burke maintains a single-faced lumbering Mr. Blobby fashion, and while it’s a hugely impressive costume, he looks more like an Alton Towers mascot than he does a genuine threat.

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To be fair, it must be said, if I was given a television budget I’d go for a dodgy Kung-Fu Doctor Who bit of notoriety, too. Nobody could possibly blame the staff on the show for being a bit too informal or having too much fun – but it felt, and still feels, like it was just being done as an amusing throwaway project; not as a formal entrant into a drama head-to-head on the BBC.

If I was a stoner watching this, I’d be having the time of my life. I imagine I’d have lost it very early on and entered the finest, funniest trip of my life. Perhaps that’s really who should be looking for Phoo Action.

If you like nonsense, you’ll be really entertained by it – and liking the trappings of the world’s most famous animated band (still not the chipmunks) will definitely pay off, too – those soundtrack tunes sound very familiar at some points what to would eventually become Plastic Beach. Apart from the actual pop songs and the rather obvious use of Gorillaz’ El Manana.

 

On paper, most of Phoo Action sounds absolutely marvellous, and at certain points, it really bloody is. But is it what could have been? Well… that’s difficult to say. What could it have been? To be brutally honest, probably not a great program.

It’s too confused, too far off its face and frankly there’s so many odd bits about it that I’ve already filled up three pages of A4 without working out what happened to it. If this pilot was in a half hour format rather than a full hour – as I believe the full show was planned to be – I have not the slightest doubt it could have performed admirably. Not great, but admirably. Decently.

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But the long running time acts as a final nail in a rather shoddy coffin; an hour is just far too long for something that’s not really going to get anybody invested in the plot. In the end, the viewers don’t care the queen’s been killed or that there’s magic hot pants. We don’t care about any of this; we’re watching with mouths agape wondering why our chemistry sets have disappeared and if it’s connected to fact we’re seeing a giant purple gorilla on screen.

And, in many ways, this completely irreverent, unrelatable, frustratingly mixed tone seems to have been what killed off the program, in the end.

For whatever reason, the BBC did actually commission a six-part series shortly after the pilot’s broadcast in 2008. (Despite mixed reviews and middle-of-the-road ratings. Actually, let’s not beat around the bush, they were a bit crap.) Then, only a few days before shooting was due to take place, it was cancelled. The BBC gave a surprisingly simple admittance that the show just wasn’t proving good enough – but were sure to provide some false hope.

During the course of pre-production it became clear that creatively Phoo Action was struggling to fulfil its ambitions as a television drama so the decision was taken to cancel it. BBC3 is still very interested in Phoo Action as a concept however and is looking into whether or not it may come back in another form in the future.

I don’t want to shock you; but it never did come back. And in two months BBC3 is disappearing, so either they’d best get a wriggle on or you can take it for a lost cause.

 

So what exactly went wrong? What was it that took the BBC to cancel so ridiculously late?

Scots paper, The Herald apparently spoke to crew members who said the scripts were embarrassing and the writers were having problems; some said the creativity had dried up. I personally note that this pilot is, really, very self contained, and doesn’t feel for a moment like it had intentions of being commissioned. The ‘cliffhanger’ is laughably predictable and doesn’t really set up a continuation of the plot. How can one make a series if the story’s pretty much over?

Frankly, I think it boils to the same problem there’s always been, a very foolish misunderstanding that has been running for years…

Gorillaz, The Freebies, Tank Girl et al are not superbly sophisticated (or pretentious, delete as applicable) entertainment in the sense the rest of the world wants them to be. Jamie Hewlett doesn’t work with sophistication and elegance in his comic strips (some of his other work is another story, mind) and those who write the strips will rarely try to impress you with incredible intelligent, beauty and charm. They’re subversive, silly and often very funny entertainment that happens to be incredibly well drawn, and full of dirty jokes. It’s not through a lack of creative fulfilment or not being well read; everybody at hand is. It’s just what they like to produce. This is why you’ll see Murdoc being called a nob by Dennis Hopper, or 2D talking about his relationship with Rachel Stevens. Or both of them talking about swan shaped scones. It’s stupid, it makes us snigger and that’s our privilege.

People can go on and on about how smart Damon Albarn’s music is, but the characters often affiliated with Hewlett, themselves, are crude caricatures of the music chart phenomenon – the fact you buy into it as being a completely genuine effort to bring intelligent thoughts to the table, really, is your problem; in this case, in the eyes of the world’s most conservative broadcasting corporation, it was probably meant something smart to get down with the youth of 2008 with their hip hops and video games, filling a lull between Gorillaz releases and cashing in on the millions of tweens who bought Demon Days only three years earlier.

The footnote is this; Jamie is a very smart, creative man, but his concepts, perhaps, just aren’t meant for television, in the same way Tank Girl was never meant for film. It’s too damned weird, and any attempts to stable his work’s natural surrealism will only result in a very restrictive result. An attempt to fund that into a full hour of entertainment will result in Phoo Action.

With Gorillaz, he has a narrative to fit and a target to smack in the balls with a wine bottle. With Phoo Action? You don’t have that luxury pre-prepared for the writers; and too many things about this hour long pilot, no matter how much entertainment it can produce, are just too confusing for any sensible audience to buy into. Was it all a joke? With the people on this team, I really would not be too surprised.

The only television channel I could possibly imagine successfully adapting a Hewlett project is Channel 4. And that’s based upon them making a shit Viz web series.

Go, my pretties. Go, seek Phoo Action…Below, in this Youtube playlist; as you’ll never see it ‘officially’ again. Have fun. Enjoy yourself. Get confused. Have a coffee. Have whiskey. Join me in a pint. I think you might need it.

 

Phoo Action’s IMDB Page
BBC Phoo Action press pack, 2008

About the author

Compulsive hat wearer, eccentric, fan of all things audio-visual, part time Goth, historian, and railway enthusiast, Jordan is the closest you can get to everybody's weird uncle. Except he's less than 60 years old.

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