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27th Jun 2017

Watching ZZZap! in 2017 will make you yearn for the homemade weirdness of the ’90s

There's no way a show like ZZZap! could exist now

Rich Cooper

When was the last time you watched ZZZap!?

That’s right: fucking ages ago.

There is, of course, no chance that you’ve forgotten about ZZZap! in the fucking ages since passed, because to watch even one episode was to have the memory of ZZZap! burned into your memory like a big, wacky, red-hot brand pressed into the impressionable young hide of a calf.

ZZZap! ran from 1993 – 2001, one of the loudest examples of ’90s kids’ television, up there with Get Your Own Back and Live & Kicking. It was bold, bonkers and painted in the most primary of colours, and compared to television these days, it looked like it was cobbled together in a shed.

Every episode followed the same format: the camera moves around a huge, Beano-style comic – the titular ZZZap! – focusing in on one of the panels, leading to a short sketch from one of the show’s recurring characters.

There was Cuthbert Lilly (who was, as you’ll recall, dead silly), Smarty Arty (played by Britain’s favourite heavy metal guitarist/children’s TV artist Neil Buchanan, who co-created the show), Daisy Dares You, The Handymen (a pair of Marigolds performing magic tricks or making things), Tricky Dicky, and in later series, Minnie the Mini Magician.

Though not actually silent, the sketches took their cues from the pre-talkies era of cinema. There’s no dialogue, save for the overdubbed grunts, squawks and mutterings that the characters emit. Everything – plot, gags, payoffs – is communicated through sight (and the odd squelch sound effect). It was Charlie Chaplin for the Turkey Dinosaur generation.

ZZZap! was extremely pure. There was no irony or sideways glances; it was old-fashioned entertainment pitched completely on the level. Jokes revolved around mistaking floor cleaner for shampoo, using a pneumatic drill to get into frozen-solid ice cream and, of course, the great comic tradition of falling over at the right time.

Smarty Arty’s cartoonish creations magically popped off the page and into 3D space, while The Handymen were CITV’s rubber-gloved answer to Blue Peter’s ‘Here’s one I made earlier’ arts and crafts corner. The whole show had a charmingly homemade feeling about it, but then again most things look homemade with 20 years of clear blue water behind them.

ZZZap! could never exist now. The ’90s was a more forgiving time; you could get away with some outlandishly shit programming back then (have you ever watched Bullseye?). That’s not to say ZZZap! was shit, far from it, but certain elements of it simply wouldn’t be palatable to modern audiences.

Let’s just have a look at Tricky Dicky, a short-lived character from ZZZap!, and you can possibly see why.

As if you’d let that monstrosity on your sponge-brained kid’s TV screen nowadays. They’d never sleep again. He’s basically the Babadook in a trench coat. I’d rather have Mr Blobby read bedtime stories to my children. Wait, let’s not be rash about this.

Accidentally terrifying characters aside, there’s no place for a show like ZZZap! on TV today. As computer graphics advanced, the aesthetics of children’s television had to catch up with video games. Remakes of classic shows like Noddy, Thomas the Tank Engine and Fireman Sam all have a weird CGI sheen – the budget for kids’ telly evidently hasn’t changed much since the ’90s.

The charm of ZZZap! lies in the physical world – the sets, the props, the things being made, the things being broken, and especially the people falling over. ZZZap! has two feet in the Old World and a custard pie in its face, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Thanks to the magic of the internet and a handful of individuals with what we can only imagine is an extensive and eclectic collection of VHS tapes, ZZZap! lives on in the depths of YouTube. Go on, dive in and enjoy an era gone by.