‘Stainless Steel And The Star Spies’ DVD review

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There’s no easy way to describe this one-off 1981 kids show, starring what look like distant relations of the Smash family from the series of ‘70s adverts. It’s certainly very odd, occasionally very witty, and probably better enjoyed by immature grown-ups than any of the kids that it’s aimed at.

Prepare for Adam and Joe meets Mad magazine, as lots of puppets (made of steel domes) venture down to a little known planet called Earth to retrieve a vital component (they’re made of Matter, we’re made of Don’t Matter – you get the idea).

It’s certainly not without wit and a good few sharp lines, but kids of the decade are unlikely to have this sleeping in their memories. It’s pitched as a ‘one-off’ special, but it’s painfully obvious that this was intended as a pilot. That it didn’t go to a full series is probably a good thing. While the jokes are mostly intended to be the same quite of verbal wordplay as the likes of Dangermouse, it seems likely that all the best gags have been used up in this special, along with some very gloriously bad puns: travelling faster than light while the starship passes a light bulb, ‘you’re nuts’ / ‘what about them?’ and the very literal gag on ‘I appear to have lost my bearings’.

It’s billed as a children’s comedy, although there’s a couple of jokes that wouldn’t be written for kids these days, including one mildly homophobic throwaway line, and it generally comes across as an end-of-term special video made by the production team. There’s a couple of Airplane! type gags – ‘A problem? What’s that?’ / ‘It’s when something has gone wrong’ – and an admirably high witty wordplay rate (‘when I was knee high to a brass copper’). There’s also a lot in common with the likes of Kenny Everret’s Captain Video and Jim Henson’s Pigs In Space, but there’s a good chance that anyone over the age of fourteen will find this highly annoying. Meanwhile, anyone over the age of thirty will be startled to see Olive from On The Buses turn up as a happy housewife. Look out too for a very neat pre-Austin Powers joke when the villain breaks into the traditional maniacal laughter, then suddenly stops, asking himself ‘Why am I laughing?’.

The story itself is a neat, if presumably unintentional, other take on the short story They’re Made Out Of Meat, and the Twilight Zone episode ‘The Invaders’ (where tiny aliens terrorise the humans), while there’s suggestions that a wider audience is being aimed at – there’s a startling, if somewhat obscure, Watergate joke that immediately manages to date the entire thing. The Earth-bound scenes, with guest appearances from some minor stars of seventies television, manage to date things even more – it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a family that consisted of mum cooking in the kitchen while dad slumps in sofa with a ring-pull lager watching the racing – and it would have been interesting to see, if a full series had been made, if the mix of puppetry and live action would have been continued.

In the final analysis, it’s wittier than you’d expect, but as a result not quite as witty as you then hope. Startlingly produced by Verity Lambert (founding producer of Doctor Who), it’s wonky, it’s dated, it’s silly and it’s certainly very quirky around the edges, but it has undeniable charm.

Released on DVD on Monday 14th March 2011 by Network.

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