“Get on board!” sing the Double Deckers, seven fun-loving, junkyard dwelling kids who keep a gadget laden clubhouse inside a derelict double-decker bus. Each week the gang -including de facto team leader Scooper (Peter Firth), wacky catchphrase-sprouting Spring (Brinsley Forde, the first black actor on British children’s television and future reggae star with his group Aswad), all-singing and dancing den mother Billie (Gillian Bailey), resident genius Brains (Michael Audreson), drum-happy American kid Sticks (Bruce Clark), pastry scoffing fat kid Doughnut (Douglas Simmonds), and adorably surreal little Tiger (Debbie Russ) whose beloved plush toy shares the same name - share some madcap adventure. Mayhem erupts, songs are sung, wrongs are set to right and inevitably the kids rope long-suffering road sweeper Albert (Melvyn Hayes) into some zany scheme.
Here Come the Double Deckers was a then-unique transatlantic co-production between British independents Century Films and American majors 20th Century Fox. Writer-producer-director Harry Booth and co-creator/producer-screenwriter Roy Simpson evidently had a thing for public transportation themed sitcoms since they later created the execrable On the Buses, although aside from the opening credits, the Deckers noticeably never journey anywhere by bus.
Though Fox inexplicably pulled the plug on the popular show, with only seventeen episodes of the original twenty-six being filmed, continuous repeats endeared the zany comedy adventure to generations of children enamoured with the myth of Swinging London. Some of us grew up believing London really was this way, full of friendly road sweepers and pompous pinstriped authority figures for us kids to take down a peg or two (often with a handy custard pie), or else that a turn of a street corner led to spaced out flower children, candy spurting ray guns, runaway robots, or psychedelic (albeit child friendly) freak-outs wherein everyone would drop whatever they were doing and dance spontaneously. Filmed at Elstree Studios, Double Deckers offers an irresistible child’s eye view of Swinging London, just before the fab Sixties soured into the drab Seventies. Shot by series cinematographer Mark McDonald in gorgeous Technicolor hues that make the world look like a giant sweet shop, the city becomes the Decker’s own personal playground.
Episode one “Tiger Takes Off” sets the tone as Brains convinces the gang they can get rich by building a better hovercraft (?!). Little Tiger becomes an accidental stowaway as the runaway craft goes on a rampage across town, picking up hapless Albert along the way. This opener establishes some of the show’s strengths but also many reoccurring weaknesses, being essentially one long chase sequence laced with creaky slapstick gags dating back to the old Our Gang shorts of the 1930s (an acknowledged influence on co-creators Simpson and Booth). Rather like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and, er, Hellraiser (1987), events unfold amidst a strange cod-transatlantic Neverland replete with cultural concessions to the American market that don’t entirely convince. However, Booth stages the action with a certain surreal pop art flair worthy of Richard Lester and the ebullient charm of the young performers is undeniable.
While the concept had precedence in the Ealing Studio’s classic Hue and Cry (1947), Disney’s Emil and the Detectives (1964), and Booth and Simpson’s own series of short films made for the Children’s Film Foundation, The Magnificent Six and a Half (1968-1972) (which also starred Brinsley Forde and Michael Audreson), what remains most appealing about the Double Deckers is their spirit inclusiveness. Black or white, preschooler or adolescent, American or Brit, all are welcome and the city is their playground. That said, poor old Doughnut bears the brunt of much Billy Bunter type ribbing.
The portly one takes centre stage in episode two “The Case of the Missing Doughnut” wherein he greedily gobbles Brains’ latest invention: “invisible custard.” Doughnut uses his newfound invisibility to spook a couple of snooty toyshop owners, then raids his local bakery before the other Deckers dole out his comeuppance. Episode Three “Get A Movie On” is the series first real gem, wherein the Deckers enter an amateur filmmaking competition with their rollicking musical western ‘Good Day at Yellow Rock.’ The catchy song and dance numbers provide Billie a.k.a. Gillian Bailey with the first of many ensuing opportunities to show off her winning song-and-dance gifts. Poor Albert gets roped in as Doughnut’s stunt double before Brains makes a hash of editing the mountain of 8mm film. Watching the children squirm as the audience laugh at their “serious drama” proves an unexpectedly heartrending experience, but a happy ending arrives after all. Listen out for Deckers hilarious pitch for their second homemade film epic.
Continuing the movie theme, episode four “Starstruck” has the Deckers out to retrieve a lost dog belonging to a glamorous movie star (a young Liz Fraser!), only to invade Elstree Studios! In rapid succession, the kids disrupt a Second World War epic, a Moby Dick style seafaring adventure, and an Arabian Nights fantasy, pursued by an angry security guard (David Lodge). They also stumble onto the spooky set of ‘Dracula and the Mummy meet Frankenstein.’ Once again the plot strings a series of sight gags through a continuous chase but climaxes quite charmingly as the gang pose as dancing wind-up toys in a fairytale themed musical. It also underlines the show’s reoccurring theme where children triumph over stuffy grownups by reducing them to petulant clowns. This episode also foreshadows Harry Booth’s comedy, Go For A Take (1972) which is also set in a film studio and features a cameo from Debbie Russ, making her the only Decker to bring her character to the big screen.
In episode five “Happy Haunting”, Albert (who dons an almost comically dandyish Saville Row number for these outdoor outings) takes the Double Deckers to visit a stately home (actually a castle) belonging to a pair of eccentric, but penniless aristocrats. Billie scoffs at Sticks’ claim that the castle is haunted, but soon she and Tiger are trapped inside the dungeon. The boys go searching for them after dark and Albert unwisely disguises himself with a white sheet. Dad’s Army regular Clive Dunn cameos as a crotchety butler-cum-tour guide in a fun episode full of Scooby-Doo chases along cobwebbed corridors and secret passageways. Among the more gently endearing episodes, “Summer Camp” gets the kids cavorting in the countryside, singing their little hearts out until a mischievous donkey lands them in trouble with an ill-tempered married couple (Hugh Paddick and Betty Marsden). Billie leads her fellow Deckers in serenading the sleeping Tiger with a sweet, if admittedly twee, lullaby called ‘Granny’s Rocking Chair’, while the conclusion underlines the gang’s generosity of spirit.
Things really take off with episode seven, “The Pop Singer” wherein the kids become pop moguls after discovering penniless folk singer Sid Jones (Anthony May) squatting in their den. Sid’s sub-Bob Dylan warbling found no takers, so in a flash of inspiration the Deckers give him a 17th century makeover as The Cool Cavalier! After teaching Sid to master Brains’ pioneering electro-pop invention ‘the cycloendrophone’, the gang launch their protégé by staging a seriously funk-tastic freakout at Decker HQ complete with acid jazz, strobe lights, hipsters and sexy dollybirds shaking their stuff in psychedelic fashions. One of the liveliest episodes, lovers of Sixties nonsense will find this quaintly charming but the Cavalier’s breakthrough hit is pretty darn good and the fadeout is among the series’ most poignant.
Episode eight “Scooper Strikes Out” is even more eccentric, not least because it opens with Sticks struggling to teach the other Deckers the finer points of baseball. Knocked unconscious by a stray ball, Scooper awakens beside the lovely young Jane Seymour (result!) as Alice in Wonderland. The trippy plot proceeds to re-enact a drastically condensed version of Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic with Melvyn Hayes playing multiple roles. Peter Firth handles this whimsical outing solo and while the future star of Tess (1980) and the BBC spy drama Spooks is as engaging as ever, the absence of his co-stars is both inexplicable and sorely felt. As a fantastical break from the norm this episode is mildly diverting but doesn’t add up to much.
On the other hand, episode nine “Robbie the Robot” is a corker. Brains (who else?) creates a mechanical marvel as his entry for a TV show called ‘Inventor’s Club’ while in a parallel plot, Tiger loses her beloved stuffed toy in the garden of a grumpy grownup (Are You Being Served? star Frank Thornton). Using Robbie to retrieve Tiger’s missing plaything, the Deckers find their efforts hampered by an interfering policeman before an unexpected (well okay, not really) twist almost costs Brains his science prize. A lively series of gags, likeable doses of sci-fi and Billie’s marvellous dance routine with the clanking robot make this a truly memorable episode. It ends as the Deckers pioneer ‘robot dancing’ on live television. There you go, that’s where it all started.
Directed by Ealing comedy veteran Charles Crichton, episode ten “The Go-Karters” kicks off with a breakneck chase sequence as Spring’s go-kart spirals off the racetrack onto the open road. This lands the poor lad in court, charged with six counts of dangerous driving. Told in flashback, as each Decker takes the stand, writer Peter Muller uses the offbeat story structure that makes things rather more suspenseful and compelling than usual. In a neat touch, the stern judge grows ever more engrossed in their story. Lookout for Robin Askwith, future star of Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1978), as an evil Hell’s Angels biker!
Jeremy Summers, director of The Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1968) handles episode eleven “A Helping Hound”, one of several dog-themed Decker adventures. In a more pedestrian, borderline social realist plot compared to previous episodes, elderly Mrs. Vickers (Nora Nicholson) faces eviction when her house falls into ill-repair. “I always though the landlord was responsible for any structural repairs”, Scooper sagely observes of the crooked Mr. Brimble (Graham Stark). Nevertheless, hoping to raise Mrs. Vickers some money the Deckers try their hand at various jobs. All except for Tiger who is too young. Instead she befriends a big, friendly, white dog who, after making a mess of their fundraising efforts, proves the biggest earner of all. In spite of a promising setup, this is a throwback to Our Gang style antics, but is enlivened by Melvyn Hayes and Gillian Bailey performing a slippery dance routine and by Debbie Russ’ impish adorability.
Summers also directed the second sci-fi themed outing, episode twelve: “Invaders from Mars.” Here the gang intercept what appears to be a broadcast warning of an alien invasion. Soon, ray-gun wielding Martians in brightly coloured spacesuits are stalking children around London. It turns out to be a rather ill-conceived ad campaign for the new ‘Planet Seven Crunchy Candy.’ Seriously, how many kids enjoy being shot in the face, even with crunchy candy balls? Even scarier than the prospect of man-eating Martian invaders, are the grumpy, child hating actors that inhabit those suits. A pint-sized redux of Fifties alien invasion paranoia, the adventure climaxes with a fun splurge gun battle in a warehouse.
The series reached another highpoint with episode thirteen. Written by Glyn Jones, “Barney” concerns a tragicomic one-man band (Julian Chagrin) whose lively street performances are always curtailed by a grouchy policeman. Tiger, dressed inexplicably in her mum’s Sunday dress and bonnet, takes a shine to this Chaplinesque character. She brings Barney back to the Deckers’ den where his tall tales and ingenious routines win the hearts of all except an ill-tempered Doughnut. This features a marvellous comedy performance from elastic-legged Julian Chagrin and a poignant subtext as Barney finds the most appreciative audience he has ever had while the Deckers find an adult (besides Albert) they can relate to. Barney’s chance of a lifetime performance with the Deckers, decked out in top hat and tails, is a true heart-warming moment.
Written by co-star Melvyn Hayes (also regularly credited as dialogue director on the show), episode fourteen “Man’s Best Friend” is something of an oddity and is dedicated to the charity Guide Dogs for the Blind. Upon learning from Albert how collecting sacks of tinfoil can raise money to buy guide dogs, the children stage the ‘Double Deckers’ Ha-Ha Show’ where they perform a series of wacky skits in return for donations of tinfoil from an audience of excitable kiddies. Essentially a spot-on pastiche of the then-popular American sketch comedy show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (Spring even uses Sammy Davis Jr’s catchphrase: “Here come the judge!”), the jokes are very hit-and-miss but delivered with gusto. Plus frequent cuts to the audience of giggling, dancing children adds to the sense of fun. All the Decker kids give their all, but stage school trained Gillian Bailey takes to the theatrics like a duck to water with some remarkable quick change song and dance routines. You really believe it when Billie claims she is willing to “jump fifty feet through a flaming hoop into a bucket of water!”
We are back in Our Gang territory with episode fifteen. In “United We Stand” crooked property developer Mr. Beaumont (Derek Royle) wants to buy the Deckers’ junkyard den and build a car park, conveniently situated right next to his store. However, his two man demolition crew are hampered by the children’s pranks. After a promising start this instalment reverts to the kind of formulaic buffoonery that was old hat for any child who sat through kiddie matinee reruns of Mack Sennett fare. Episode sixteen: “Up To Scratch” has a similarly formulaic setup, but takes some pleasingly quirky detours after Billie brings home a particularly mangy mongrel called Scratch. Mightily impressed how she is earning two pounds a week for dog-sitting (“Wow, over five dollars!” gasps Sticks for the benefit of any American viewers), the Deckers open their own holiday home for pets, amidst a rousing rendition of ‘Old McDonald.’ All except for Brains, who, having learned nothing from episode twelve, is busy attempting to communicate with Martians. Down-on-his-luck flea circus owner Mr. Furber (Timothy Bateson) approaches the Deckers in search of new lodgings for his microscopic mites while Brains inadvertently invents a machine able to retrieve lost dogs. This charmingly daffy story concludes as Tiger, in ringmaster’s garb, displays her hitherto unknown talent for teaching dogs to perform amazing tricks.
Finally, episode seventeen: “A Hit For a Miss” uniquely finds the Double Deckers at school where all the boys indulge in some (tasteful) romantic fantasies about dreamy, miniskirted substitute teacher Miss Petit (Georgina Simpson), leaving Billie hopelessly jealous, though never explicitly described as such. Newly smitten, the lads offer Miss Petit their junkyard den to host yet another proposed musical extravaganza. Tiger and Billie watch aghast as Miss Petit leads the boys in one of the sappier songs featured on the show. The girls pack their bags, ready to leave in a huff until Miss Petit proves a astute child psychologist (“It takes a woman to understand another”) and cleverly enables Billie to feel better about herself. Thereafter the kids close the show by performing the amusing, if politically incorrect, song-and-dance number ‘Fat Ladies’.
Subtly insightful about adolescence, one wonders whether the show could have developed further in the direction of this episode had it continued. Alas, although things close with the Deckers’ usual chorus of “see you next week”, there was no more. Second Sight’s region 2 DVD includes a brisk interview with chalk-and-cheese co-stars Brinsley Forde and Michael Audreson. Both contribute lively assessments of Double Deckers and its impact on their later careers (Audreson having since moved behind the camera), but it is a shame none of the other stars could be coaxed into revealing their thoughts on a children’s show that continues to beguile.