Production report by Chris Bell, July 2018
It's funny how life works out sometimes. In March 2018, fifteen years to the day since the final edition of Digitiser aired on Teletext, Paul Rose - better known to us as Mr Biffo – launched a Kickstarter campaign that would bring Digi to life as a TV show.
Now, only a few short months later, and following a veritable deluge of donations from eager supporters, I found myself on the set of filming for this epoch-defining moment. I was fortunate enough to bear witness first hand to the kind of anarchic, insane sketches, and freewheeling, infectious hilarity that only a show bearing the Digitiser name could bring.
Invited along to watch the filming by Biffo, I was present to record events for posterity and can report back that, yes: the money has been used extremely well, and also yes: it's everything you ever hoped it would be, and then some.
It had been an exciting few weeks building up to filming. The regular production updates Biffo was sending out had built a sense of anticipation, and a barrelling enthusiasm, that reflected the extraordinary amount of goodwill being sent in his direction from fans. Sets and props were being commissioned and built, legendary Digitiser characters brought to rude life in resounding fashion, and a stellar cast list assembled from a who's who of retro-gaming names. This was being done right: the only way Biffo was capable of doing it.
So, having seen the production teases from his update emails, it was quite a moment for me when I arrived on set on the morning of Wednesday filming, at the height of the summer 2018 heatwave. I was immediately greeted by the majesty of The Desk.
A huge bespoke beauty, the Digitiser The Show desk is an incredible piece of work. The artistry and craft that has gone into its making really hits you when you see it for real. What also hits you is the size of the thing: it would hold its own against Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV, if he had also been a piece of furniture, and there were such a thing as codified bouts of organised fighting between other items of furniture.
Which is to stay: you probably don't want to stub your toe on it.
Sat stewarding this titanic focal point for the show was the man responsible for all of this stupidity that we seem to have dedicated ourselves to (by which I mean me; I've done that) - Paul Rose himself. He was in the middle of filming a jungle-themed segment, flanked by none other than Tim 'Mr Hairs' Moore, and Lord of YouTube, Ashens.
This was a special moment for me: Biffo and Hairs together? These two ridiculous men had been an undeniable influence on me from such a young age that I hold them responsible for my sense of humour having turned out the way it has. It was like seeing my Lennon and McCartney reunited in front of me.
The studio itself was a centre of focus and concentration, with the crew buzzing around in the darkness behind the scenes, making sure that however absurd things looked in front of the camera, the professionalism and talent of everyone involved would keep the production on track. So many gifted people had been assembled to make the dream a reality, and considering I only saw one day of filming, they must have been broken wrecks by the time they wrapped the production at the end of the week - such was the effort they were putting in. That goes to show the level of dedication that Paul has inspired in his team.
The set was immaculately dressed with old consoles of all stripes, stuffed animals, and various random bits and pieces of ephemera (Found Footage fans will have fun spotting former props from that series) to give the feel of authentic Digi unusualness.
Speaking of things being immaculately dressed: Paul's outfits are a sartorial tour de force, and have to be seen to be believed. The jackets especially are already building up a cult following, but he really looks the part in the role of slightly unhinged main presenter, overseeing the show's proceedings. Now, people who know me will know that it's a great lament of mine that it isn't generally acceptable for men today to dress like it's the 1790s. Maybe it's the Brightonian in me (not like that), but I would certainly be up for a revival of Regency-era style, and anything that helps to inch society closer to that is fine by me. But yes, Paul's costumes are as well planned as the rest of the show (and possibly take as long to prepare). He pulls them off too (also not like that).
During the moments that Paul was on camera, directorial duties were being picked up by his long-time friend and collaborator Steve Horsley, with whom Paul had worked at Teletext Ltd as a fellow graphic artist, and gone on to run Bubblegun.com with. Steve is well-known in the Digi fan community as an absurdly talented teletext artist, capable of incomprehensibly conjuring all manner of complex pixel-graphic illustrations. It was a pleasure meeting another important figure in the Digi story.
The next segment to be filmed was for a regular feature called 'Show and Tell', with co-host GameplayJenny giving Paul a tour of that peculiar relic of the early '90s, the Barcode Battler. Back when it was shiny and new, the Barcode Battler was meant to have started a 'craze'. Just how and why anyone would pay £60 for what is essentially a supermarket checkout scanner with a series of top trumps – and how its rudimentary pen-and-paper gameplay could ever have ignited a 'craze' - is difficult to imagine now. Certainly as far as the UK goes - but of course, the Japanese home market is a curious thing (it make one man weep, make another man sing).
Following this, the setup changed. The Desk was moved aside, and a spectacular arcade cabinet sporting an (in theory, technical issues notwithstanding) absurd number of retro games inside its glistening ribcage was moved in, and a whole new set design was positioned around it. This time a head in a box complimented the various items of taxidermy – this show is going to look gloriously weird.
While all this was going on, co-host Paul Gannon serenaded those of us in the audience with a fine rendition of Common People by Pulp on the ukulele. It took some willpower, but for a change I managed to resist the urge to mime along with the actions of Jarvis Cocker from the video.
The audience for filming was necessarily small – the studio didn't exactly offer Friday Night At The Palladium levels of seating, and understandably Paul had wanted to keep the pressure off the newly recruited co-hosts. Only a mere smattering of trusted Friends of Digi such as myself were present, and that privilege was certainly not lost on me.
It had been dark when I entered the studio, so I didn't immediately see who was joining me in the audience. I quietly shuffled over to the seats housing the onlookers, only to find a couple of their occupants were friends from the online Digi community, who had been so lovely and supportive toward me and this site since it was rebooted (and before that, even). It was wonderful meeting them for the first time, revelling in our fortune at being able to watch the sprawling strangeness in front of us, and gawp at the level of talent across all manner of fields that exists in Digiworld.
It never ceases to amaze me the amount of talent and ability that's present in this community. The devs, the graphic artists, the musicians, the designers, the film bods, the writers. What is it about Digitiser that that has brought so many passionate people with such a wealth of diverse creativity together? Whatever the case, it's definitely to be celebrated.
Back in front of the camera, it was now time for some of the marquee name guests to earn their 'crust'. First Go 8-Bit's Steve McNeil, and then Ashens, were introduced to us, before demonstrating their gaming prowess on the cabinet while being interviewed. Good sports both of them, and ever supportive of Biffo's endeavours, we can but hope that their respective fanbases show Digi some love when the show eventually goes out.
After a barnstorming and frenetic take on 'Duck Hunt For Real' - which I won't spoil for you, but will just say that I can't wait to see the final version – the madness meter returned somewhat back to normal levels (or whatever that is for Digi), with a special interview segment filmed especially for Kickstarter backers. Biffo and Hairs became the subjects of an incredibly enjoyable probing (stop it) from GameplayJenny and Octav1us Kitten, taking us through the Digitiser story, and regaling us with some stupidly funny anecdotes from their time corrupting the minds of the nation's teletext-reading youth.
And then – then came the unexpected. From my position in the audience, suddenly I was being beckoned toward the set to join the interview and talk about my own small contribution to the Digi legend. I hadn't seen this coming, and it felt like an out of body experience. Joining the four of them at the table – two highly respected YouTubers, and two of my actual proper heroes – any fear of nerves melted away as we settled into a fun conversation that was more like a good-natured chat down the pub, rather than anything to be anxious about. But that may have been because of all the talk about teletext cocks (that is, cocks on teletext, not the Cocks of Teletext – that's a different story).
I was elated, and felt on a high for the rest of the day. Social awkwardness having got the better of me before now, after the interview I was confident enough to talk to some of the stars of the production (both those in front of camera and behind the scenes), who proved themselves to be some of the finest individuals you're likely to meet.
Paul has managed to surround himself with some truly excellent people – all of them 100% committed, overflowing with goodwill, and a determination to help him realise his vision. It's remarkable, really – professionalism mixed with silliness; ambition, mixed with affection. And all of it totally deserved.
And so that was the end of my time on set for filming. The good ship Digitiser sails on: now in excitingly unchartered waters, with the kind of careening, reckless spirit that has always extruded from its nodes. It was a genuine honour to be there and witness the magic that was unfolding, and I'm still trying to process what I saw.
The show is already a huge success - you're going to love it.
Do you know of any important moments from the annals of Digi history that have been omitted? If so, then mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) right now, man. Credit will be duly given for anything that gets put up.