Happy* Birthday The Simpsons! (*I Think)

December 17th 1989 and after several now-infamous production delays, “The Simpsons” finally made it to air with “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire”, a not especially festive festive special in which Homer takes a second job as a mall Santa to etc. etc we’ve seen that one a million times. And we’re still here, for better or worse, thirty years later. In no time at all, “The Simpsons” became the biggest thing in the galaxy with merchandise going bonkers and even a number one chart smash in a country that wouldnt see it on terrestrial TV for a further five years. Not it stopped Sky churning out the showings though. Indeed, as soon as Sky One had shown enough episodes to fill five days they ran a “Simpsons Week” so you could watch all five again! How do I know that? Well, I was watching it!

My family were fortunate, depending on how you look at it, to get a second hand Sky dish at a time when a subscription for regular channels wasn’t needed and I learnt – out of sheer boredom – that if you waggled the card around just right, you could also unscramble the movie channels too. In my older much more aware years, I take pride in this little spit in the general direction of Rupert Murdoch and his terrestrial-crushing satellite service which now is full of new swish dramas and new comedy but was known for over a decade as a punchline due to its supply of ancient imports, cheap game shows and seemingly endless dull (when you’re 9 at least!) mini-series like biopic “Christopher Columbus”, 1930s cricket drama “Bodyline” or Western tut “Lonesome Dove”. You couldnt even hide the fact you were getting Sky as they’d slap a giant bloody white wok to the side of your house for all to see. Its how you spot the nutters said Jasper Carrott. But then again, he would.

Here’s an average Sunday line-up from late 1990:

4pm: The Love Boat – Not exciting and not new.

5pm: Small Wonder – Y’know, with the unfunny pre-teen robot.

5:30pm: Sky Star Search“Keith Chegwin hosts another round of the talent contest”. As cheap as it came but we used to really enjoy it back in the day because they really would let any lunatic on. Charlie Chuck was probably the most famous name to come out of it.

6:30pm: The Simpsons

7pm: 21 Jump Street – Now better known for its genuinely brilliant piss-take movie adapation, this was quite an edgy drama at the time with Johnny Depp heading a cast of young actors pretending to be fellow young people undercover. One of Fox TV’s first proper hits in the States.

8pm: Mini-Series of some description

10pm: Falcon Crest – Soap you remember the name of but sod all about.

And that’s unless the whole thing was cancelled by live cricket because Sky didnt have a sports channel then. When you consider the technically superior and much more interesting BSB was halfway through its all too brief lifespan that year, it’s amazing the absolute brass knackers Sky had.

My Dad maintains we got the dish originally so I would have something to watch in the boring six week summer holiday such as satellite’s only dedicated children’s channel called…um, The Children’s Channel which also happened to close down at 10am every morning so the female-targeted Lifestyle channel could share its transponder number.[1] One of the few things aimed at young viewers on satellite then was Sky’s kids slot presented by the aforementioned DJ Kat, a bafflingly ugly and allegedly feline puppet that didn’t seem to do much in the way of DJing bar the irritating mid-Atlantic twang of a jock, a trait which thankfully gave way to a regular London accent after a while. This, I later learned, was sort of a transition period for the character which had recently been taken over by puppeteering legend Don Austen (later one of the “What’s Up Doc?” Wolves) when production of the segments moved from Sky’s original home of Amsterdam to London. An early production for future Endemol head John De Mol[2], DJ Kat presented alongside De Mol’s own sister Linda, initially via Sky Channel in 1986 with a budget of about 3p and a Twix. 

The turn for Sky’s fortunes was unquestionably linked to the acquisition of a new animated series from Fox in the States. Far from a kids show, despite what most dreadful ‘Top Kids TV!!!!1’ polls say, The Simpsons were undoubtedly one of the big reasons my friends suddenly all wanted Sky themselves and the family made their exceptionally hyped arrival in September 1990. I would happily watch the first Sunday showing at 6:30pm – a timeslot tradition that seems to have pleasingly held all these years – AND the same week repeats on Thursdays. It’s not even like season one is especially that good compared to what followed but it became an instant (and rare) family-centering ritual which was upheld until the end of the decade and my moving out in our household.

Looking back its clear to see that whilst my Dad didnt grab me by the neck in a blooded rage when angry and I wasnt a mothballs in the beef stew kind of kid, there were definitely parallels between myself (aged 10, like Bart) and my Dad (aged 31 which just seems ridiculously young now to imagine as I approach 40.) We lived those scenes of the kid beating Homer at video games, choosing to ignore navigation over bluffed optimism and TV being the centrepiece of all discussion and love in our tiny house above the cafe my parents owned. Hence our habit of watching the new episodes – and the old ones when there went enough to be different every week – usually with a chinese takeaway, every Sunday evening. It was a stabiliser and the last big cheer before school or work the next morning.

Our home at the time. Note the rather large fuck off white wok.

Looking back at this time, particularly with all the recent EU drama, I’m overwhelmed with nostalgia at the how European early Sky was and the connection we had to our Euro neighbours across the water even if it was only sniggering at German adverts for Mini Dickmann’s on Sat 1, Army Of Lovers‘ “Crucified” video on MTV making me feel all peculiar in my shellsuit every fifteen minutes and monster truck rallies on Screensport each Friday teatime – not to mention the lightest in Bavarian grot when mam were out at bingo. Its daft but important to me and a link to the rest of the world which feels incredibly far away in these uncertain times.

I’m still not watching bloody “Lonesome Dove” though…

A slightly different version of this first appeared in my book “Kill Your Television”. For more on that and all my books, click here.

[1] It wouldn’t be joined by the likes of Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network for another three years on the 1st and 17th September 1993 respectively.

[2] Endemol was founded in 1994 by a merger of television production companies owned by Joop van den Ende and John de Mol and would go onto produce huge formats such as “Big Brother”, “”Deal Or No Deal” and “Wipeout”. The ‘people falling off an obstacle course’ one, not the Paul Daniels-fronted game show.