An interview with Mr Biffo
How come you started making Digitiser? Do you miss it?
Not really. It ended at exactly the right time. I remain terribly fond and proud of Digi, and miss it in the way that fans of it seem to miss it, because it made me laugh. I have a godawful memory, and I'd usually forget what I'd written from one day to the next. It was always a nice surprise when I read it back, but I was the bloke what wrote it, and I don't miss the stress of working for that particular employer. Digitiser – and, by default, me – became the whipping boy for every crass editorial decision the company ever made, and was sort of used as a training ground for ambitious editors, with an eye on the trajectory of their careers, to flex their insecurity muscles. I think they all sort of knew that they were hacking away at the scrag-end of the media coalface, and were all a bit on the defensive.
They rang me up one day, almost five years to the day, as I type this actually, once again playing their peculiar mind games, dropping hints that Digitiser was going to be axed (they did this every few weeks - for years). I put the phone down, spent about a second thinking that'd I'd had enough, then rang them back, and quit. Never been one for thinking too long about and hard about the big life decisions!
With hindsight, if I'd been in their shoes, I probably wouldn't have behaved any differently. Digi did take the piss, but the more they tried to clamp down the more sort of rebellious it got. That said, I wouldn't have been in their shoes, because there's no way I'd ever want a management position. Or be able to hold one down.
I originally started doing Digi while I was employed for Teletext as their graphic designer. Obviously, teletext graphics aren't all that complicated or involved, and I work fast anyway, so it became apparent quite quickly that I'd have a lot of free time during my working day.
Having become bored of throwing things at my colleagues, I came up with an idea for a weekly kids' comic strip, Turner the Worm, and then suggested the idea of a dedicated games magazine. Which they then told me to go away and write alongside a proper journalist called Tim Moore. Who later became Digitiser's Mr Hairs. And then an extremely good travel writer.
Were you excited Alex Garland wrote a letter for the last Digitiser? Have you met any famous people at-all?
Aaaaactually, his letter was for the 10th anniversary of Digi. Though I think I had resigned by that point, but not yet announced it on screen.
I wouldn't say I was excited. I was pretty good mates with Alex by the time he wrote his Digitiser tribute thing. It was an honour that he'd think it worthy of his blessing, because he's obviously one of the best writers this country ever produced. I was sort of aware of Alex before he became successful, and was just a Digitiser fan who wanted to interview us.
He's a very good friend these days, though I do envy the way he can be simultaneously very successful, but not really in the public eye. I slightly regret trying to flog 'Brand Biffo' over the last couple of years. I'm not comfortable with being exposed in that way, even to the Z-list degree that I am, but the nature of the industry I work in means you have to whore yourself to an extent. It's a necessary evil, but it means total strangers develop an opinion of you that fits whatever weird agenda they may have, and think that it gives them carte blanche to kick you in the shins.
Christ knows how the Robbie Williamses and Kerry Katonas of this world cope with it. Though, arguably, they don't. There's a real person on the receiving end of those attacks, and it's not just them – it can hurt their loved ones too. But I can't really complain about such things while sticking my stupid, fat face above the online trenches the whole time, so my big ambition for 2008 is 'Be more anonymous'. He says, as he answers questions for a big interview… Sorry – I've gone off at a complete tangent.
Famous people? I once saw Tom Cruise walk past a pizza restaurant in Hampstead. As far as ones I've actually met, I could bore you with a list as long as a donkey, but would you want me to? Working in telly you meet famous people constantly, but the novelty of it soon wears off. Some are nice, some are idiots. Some I would never work with again. Place your bets!
Do you read GameCentral at all? Do think it is good?
Um, no. I've probably looked at GameCentral about twice in the last five years – and the rest of Teletext not at all – since I quit Digi. And I've not even owned a teletext TV since about 1992. Even when I was writing Digitiser I never looked at it on anything other than my PC. Thinking about it, that's probably the Grandest Irony of All Time. Especially because the Digitiser website was so shit.
Which of the various Digitiser characters (Zombie Dave, Mr T, the Snakes etc...) did you most enjoy writing?
The Man's Daddy, without a shadow of a doubt. It made me laugh because his stupid jokes just weren't funny, and the fact they got to go out on national television – in a section that was meant to be about video games, to boot – was what I liked, more than the content of the jokes themselves. I enjoyed The Man's Diary, just because it was nice to unleash a stream of unconscious. I tried to replicate that a bit in my current book. Pluggety-plug.<COUGH!CONFESSIONSOFACHATROOMFREAK!COUGH>
What are your bestest video games ever?
Half-Life 2 is the greatest video game ever, and that's not open to debate. Though I'm currently hooked on Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved on the Xbox 360. And playing Halo 3 online, even though the single player game was, in my professional `opinion, only worth about 7/10.
What was the last game you were really excited about?
It's Call of Duty 4, which for some stupid bloody reason I decided to ask my wife to buy me for Christmas, thus ensuring I wouldn't be able to buy it for myself. I've had to put up with all my mates telling me how great it is for the last month and a half. I swear, if I don't get to play it on Christmas morning there'll be bloodshed. On the plus side of all this, I'm REALLY looking forward to Christmas.
Mario or Sonic?
The Mario series certainly has a bit more artistic integrity, but he is a bizarre design for a mascot, and gives me the creeps a bit. Sonic's games may have become increasingly rubbish, but I know which one I'd rather do. He'd have to shave his back first, mind.
Do you still speak to Hairs at all? Will your new book about Guyana try to outdo his various hilarious travelogues?
Ha! I saw Hairs last week. I was a bit worried that the Guyana book would tread on his toes, but I don't think he minds too much. I hope not anyway. Aside from anything, he's mortally terrified of spiders and insects, so it's not like I went to a bit of the world that'd he'd be up for visiting. That said, I've not written it yet, so there's no guarantee it'll even come out. But I'm hopeful.
I also hope that Tim and I write together again. This year we did the Biffovision pilot, and some stuff for Armstrong and Miller, and there's a possibility we might get together again at some point in the new year. It'd be a shame if we didn't, because I think we do funny stuff together. Not, y'know, funny stuff.
Do you like, like, Animal Crossing and Brain Training and Nintendogz? Do you think they are anti-games? Do you like The Sims?
I've only played Brain Training and The Sims, though my kids have been hooked on Animal Crossing and Nintendogs. If you enjoy it, I don't think it really matters whether it's proper game or not. That sort of thinking is just a bit alien to me. It's just not important. It's like the whole thing about hardcore and casual gamers; so what? There's such bizarre snobbery and elitism among gamers. Strange breed.
Did you read Mega-zine at-all? Did you ever know any of the WLWs?
Uh, no. Sorry. I was obviously aware of Mega-zine, because Generator, the section it started in, was the inspiration when it came to naming Digitiser. I knew some of the people who worked on it, who I assume took turns to be the WLW. But I dunno really.
That said, the predecessor of Mega-Zine, before Teletext launched, was a thing on Oracle called Buzz. I used to write into that, and got my nonsense up on screen a few times. They also had a number that you could call to leave a message on their answer machine. I vaguely remember doing that, and getting something on air about a Bernard Cribbens action figure.
This is a really embarrassing admission – and I don't think I've ever told anyone this - but because of Buzz, I used to think how fun it'd be to write a teletext magazine. That's such a shite ambition, isn't it? I used to feel the same way about the person who did the graphics for the big screen in Picadilly Circus. I got to fulfil that pitiful ambition too, when I got a job on Wembley Stadium's scoreboard. Even now, though I write for TV, most of my ambitions are fairly rubbish.
Fudge or chocolate?
Which is your bestest Simpsons character?
Other than Homer, it's probably Professor Frink. Or the Principal Skinner/Superintendent Chalmers double act. I'm actually sat here laughing at the memory of "steamed hams".
Which is your bestest Pokemon?
Jigglypuff. Just because of the name. I shan't tell you what it makes me think about.
What are you bestest books and movies and bands?
I'm the world's slowest reader. It's pathetic. I love reading, and buy books all the time, but I hardly ever finish them. Watchmen is my favourite book of all time, and that's not even a proper book.
My taste in music is ridiculously eclectic. A random selection of ten songs from my iPod playlist could suggest I've either got the worst taste in music ever, or the best. The law of averages suggests that at least three of those songs would be by Marillion.
Do you want to be an astronaut?
Gawd yes. I keep trying to think of a book idea that might get me a trip up on a Russian rocket. I'm not even lying. At the very least I'm going to find some way to justify a trip on the Vomit Comet.
Why should you use all your superpowers for evil?
Because I can think of plenty of people who'd deserve to be on the receiving end, even if in the eyes of the law it'd officially make me a big ol' bastard.
What things do you really want for christmas?
Call of Duty 4. Seriously – to Hell with world peace. It's the only thing I want.
What is your most bestest christmas song and movie?
Greg Lake's I Believe in Father Christmas is my favourite Christmas song, though the lyrics are a bit on the cynical, depressing side. My favourite Christmas movie is either Gremlins or Home Alone. I'm a Christmas junkie (by which I mean I really love Christmas – not that I develop a smack habit at this time of year).
Name something really popular that you hate.
Vegetables. I gag if I see someone eating broccoli. How can anyone want to eat green stuff? Though strangely I've developed a taste for spinach in recent years.
Name something really hated that you like.
Oh, Marillion. Although, they're loved by those of us who know the truth.
Please can you tell everyone a secret secret about you?
I got piles a couple of years ago because I tried to do a poo that wasn't ready to come out.
Do you worry witches will curse your arms and legs, and make you do lots of bad things?
I think they already have done.
Do you believe in aliens?
I judge their sincerity on an alien-by-alien basis.
Do you think it is more likely penguins could take over the world or that elephants would?
Elephants are mean as hell, and have the trunk, which could be use to operate guns, and that. However, we could just lock ourselves in our homes, and they wouldn't be able to get through our front doors. Penguins win.
QI or Eggheads?
I've not watched either. Which is the one where Jonathan Creek bites tramps?
Who are all your heroes and role models and influences?
I really don't think I have heroes as such. Anyone who makes it through adulthood and doesn't fuck up in some way will get my respect every time, but I don't think there's anyone I've ever idolised.
The Pythons and The Young Ones were probably the biggest influences on me as far as comedy writing goes. But then, I think of all the other things that had an impact on me growing up – Star Wars, Doctor Who, 2000AD – and they're all sci-fi-y things, which is weird. But then, maybe not: I'm just about to start writing a sci-fi comedy thing for the BBC. It's a sort of new spin on an existing genre, and probably the single best idea I've ever had. But bitter experience implores me to tell you not to hold your breath on it getting made any time soon.
The Lenny Henry show?!
I'm a jobbing writer, and you take the jobs you're offered. Especially when they're paying 500 quid a day. I was a bit wary at first, mainly because the likes of Ricky Gervais have labelled Lenny unfashionable and unfunny – and he's acutely aware of his reputation - but I was won round, and I'm quite defensive of him now.
Regardless of what you may think, he is still incredibly popular in certain circles, and when I was growing up you would go into school the next day and ask who'd seen The Lenny Henry Show. Anyone who can build a career in the media that has lasted as long as his is doing something right. Plus, he's just a really nice bloke. And I got to work with David Quantick, who is a brilliantly intimidating gagsmith. Actually, I just turned down a job script editing a David Quantick-penned sitcom, because I'm too busy. I was a bit gutted about that.
Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me (email@example.com) right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.