Throughout my entire childhood, my family always had a summer holiday. We didn’t have a lot of money and the very thought of a foreign holiday was… well, foreign to us, but we always had at least one annual foray from our home in the North East of England to either North Yorkshire (where we had relatives) or the Scottish Borders (where we did not). My Mam and Dad, now in their 40s, had tired of the whole rigmarole of camping, so when there wasn’t a relative available to sponge off, we usually hired a nice country cottage to stay the week in. In the summer of 1983, we hired a cottage in Kirkcudbrightshire on the Scottish Borders with the unusual name of Cheat-the-Beggars.*
You might be wondering what all of this has got to do with Channel 33⅓ – The Children’s Comic TV Station. Well, bear with me and all will be revealed in good time. I was 13 in 1983 and the holidays I was used to were beginning to change forever; for one thing, my wheelchair-bound maternal Grandmother, who often accompanied us on our trips to Scotland, had passed away two years before. For another, my older brother was growing up – he now had a girlfriend and a motorbike, both of which he wanted to bring along on this holiday. So, Mam, Dad and I drove to Kirkcudbrightshire without my brother, who would follow afterwards on his motorbike with his girlfriend (later wife, later still ex-wife). Waiting for him to arrive (and secretly a bit anxious), I sat by the upstairs window of the cottage, which had a nice view of the road, and read a comic I had brought with me.
The comic was Channel 33⅓ – The Children’s Comic TV Station, a Marvel UK Summer Special by Tim Quinn and Dicky Howett. I was aware of Tim & Dicky mainly from their long-running Doctor Who? strip in Doctor Who Monthly/Magazine, but also from a multitude of humorous back-up strips in the Marvel UK weekly titles that were doing the rounds in the early 80s. As was common practise at the time, the Channel 33⅓ summer special featured a lot of reprints, in particular the complete I Was Adolf’s Double from Forces in Combat Weekly and Jet Lagg from Super Spider-Man TV Comic. Unlike a lot of these summer specials, Channel 33⅓ – The Children’s Comic TV Station tied together the reprints with new material from Quinn and Howett, mainly revolving around Hulk the Menace (a character from Incredible Hulk Weekly that merged the titular green titan with Dennis the Menace from the Beano – as you will probably have worked out for yourself) setting up his own TV station, with lots of swipes at the recently formed Channel 4.
Sitting at an upstairs window in the Scottish Borders, I fell in love with Channel 33⅓ – The Children’s Comic TV Station and almost 40 years later, it remains one of my favourite individual British comics of all time. I still have my original copy, well-thumbed but lovingly preserved in a comics bag. There’s something about Quinn and Howett’s style that is just unique, referring a lot to the silliness of traditional British comics like the Dandy and the Buster, but simultaneously poking good-natured fun at the pomposity of institutions such as Marvel Comics and Doctor Who. It’s also very cheeky, treading a fine line between what was acceptable in children’s comics at the time (of which more later) and the anarchic comedy of the post-punk era. Even something as simple as a fart gag, which you might see every week in the Beano today, was unthinkable in such an established children’s comic in the early 80s.
Running at 14 pages in length, I Was Adolf’s Double is the comic’s magnum opus. I definitely bought the first few issues of Forces in Combat weekly, an attempt by Marvel UK to emulate the success of British boys’ war comics such as Warlord and Battle, but I didn’t stick with it long enough to find out what happened to Winston S. Quaill, the unfortunate Englishman who was a dead ringer for the Fuhrer. Channel 33⅓ corrected that, allowing me to read the whole story in one blissful chunk. It’s ironic that while Marvel UK was trying to create its own traditional British-style war comic, I Was Adolf’s Double was gently ribbing the style and language of those comics, which had become something of a cliché in the three or more decades that they had been at the top end of the UK comics market.
“Donner und blisters!” exclaims Herman Goering, a real-life monster that Quinn and Howett somehow manage to make endearing as Winston’s companion throughout this wartime odyssey. They’re all in here: Herman Goering, Dr. Goebbels, Lord Haw-Haw and even Adolf Hitler himself. Some would undoubtedly argue that putting these dreadful human beings in a children’s comic is inappropriate, but I’ve always thought that making them comedy characters is the ultimate karmic punishment – they took themselves so seriously in life that being remembered as a figure of fun would have infuriated them and is therefore exactly how we should remember them. There’s at least one person in today’s world who would do well to bear that in mind… I think you all know who I’m talking about. My favourite character in I Was Adolf’s Double is not a historical war criminal though; it’s the mysterious Pop Fletcher, an old man who lives with his cat in ‘Manxland’ and plots an unspecified master-plan in occasional interludes from the main story. His master-plan is never revealed however and he’s last seen hopping off down the road on a pogo stick.
In The Nice Avengers, Quinn and Howett poke fun at comics’ censorship by having vocal British clean-up-TV campaigner Mrs Mary Whitehouse take over Marvel Comics and bring everything round to her way of thinking. I thought it was an absolute hoot and had no idea until very recently how strangely prophetic it was! Unbeknownst to readers sitting at Kirkcudbrightshire bedroom windows, Channel 33⅓ – The Children’s Comic TV Station had caught the attention of a bunch of do-gooders who thought that the publication was unsuitable for children. Apparently, one of their complaints was that it contained ‘copulation’; I’ve scoured that book from beginning to end and still can’t find any copulation… and remember, I was 13 years old, so if there was copulation in there, I’d have damn well found it!
The upshot of all this was that Tim Quinn and Dicky Howett’s humorous back-up strips were pulled from almost all Marvel UK titles (except Doctor Who?, which endured for many years) and Channel 33⅓ – The Children’s Comic TV Station was the first and last of its kind. Whatever was the intention of the clean-up-comics brigade, in the end they failed miserably because in another decade there wouldn’t be a 13-year old in the country who wasn’t reading Viz Comic, which had far, far worse on every single page. For my part, I’d rank Channel 33⅓ – The Children’s Comic TV Station over the best of Viz Comic any day; Tim Quinn and Dicky Howett weren’t pushing boundaries or consciously trying to offend, they were just in touch with the kind of silly, slightly naughty humour that appealed to kids and their back-up strips went a long way towards making the Marvel UK comics of the early 80s as enjoyable as they were.
Maybe I was just the right age at the right time in the right bedroom window, but Channel 33⅓ – The Children’s Comic TV Station really spoke to me and when I started doing silly comic strips of my own (on a strictly amateur basis, in fanzines) this was definitely my starting point. Looking back, I feel annoyed that a bunch of do-gooders and their ultimately doomed campaign deprived us of more of the same, but blessed that the best of Tim Quinn and Dicky Howett came along at exactly the right time in my childhood for me to fully enjoy it. In recent years, the lads have overseen re-mastered versions of their two Doctor Who collections, The Doctor Who Fun Book and It’s Bigger on the Inside, and I’d like to think that one day we’ll see a luxurious re-release of Channel 33⅓ – though I imagine that negotiating the Marvel characters these days would be a copyright nightmare! Still, one can but dream…
* In case anyone was wondering, the cottage was called Cheat-the-Beggars because it was an unusually large farm-workers cottage on the main road, with the actual farmhouse being out of sight up a long farm path. In ye olde times, beggars would come to the cottage thinking that it was the farmhouse, but would be confounded when they found it full of rustic peasants. “Och! Curses, foiled again!” the ruddy-faced vagrant would declare, slinging his spotted handkerchief on a stick over his shoulder and marching off to beg at the next farm.