REVIEW: STRANGE HILL HIGH / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: CHRIS TICHBORNE, GEOFF WALKER / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: RICHARD AYOADE, CAROLINE AHERNE / RELEASE DATE: JULY 21ST
Written by Josh Weinstein, of The Simpsons and Futurama fame, Strange Hill High combines puppets, stop-mo and digital effects to create a pleasing, if barmy, show that harks back to Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and Stingray whilst maintaining a contemporary edge. Imagine if Aardman made The Mighty Boosh. The show follows the mischievous exploits of three pre-teens: Templeton, Becky Butters and new kid Mitchell in their totalitarian inner city school. Their adventures include dabbling in time-travel, the paranormal and journalism. Yes, it is rather strange.
Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace) is cast as yet another bespectacled nerd in Templeton, a paranoid neurotic with maniacal tendencies. Becky, voiced by comedy stalwart Emma Kennedy (who penned the eighth episode, Health and Safety) is bookish, kooky and whimsical, while Mitchell is a slacker in the Philip J. Fry vein, voiced by rapper, actor and screenwriter Ben ‘Doc Brown’ Smith. The supporting characters are all grotesque in their own entertaining way, from the wonderfully decrepit librarian, to Murdock, a cyborg pirate caretaker and headmaster Mr Abercrombie, a teacher many will be able to recognise.
The humour, while wry and effective, does go after the usual suspects, whether it’s school dinners or algebra. But what’s a kid’s show without at least one scatological reference? As in the case of the first episode, King Mitchell, which puts a rather filthy spin on the Arthurian legend. Some jokes even feel like they were written by Ben Elton in full Blackadder swing. And yes, silly voices are still immensely funny. Try watching Bigmouth Strikes Again and not cracking up.
There’s plenty of knowing nods to pop culture, from Marvel superheroes to DC villains, to Star Wars and many more besides. But it’s not all lewd humour and pop references, far from it. There’s education to be had, if subtle, whether that’s shining a light on Malcolm X or Orwell’s 1984. Kids' TV has a responsibility to gear young'uns up for the future, and Strange Hill High tackles anxiety issues, among others, with fervour.
Despite Weinstein’s overarching involvement, the show is distinctly British with jokes about Luton and routinely sending up chav culture, helped in no small part by its team of writers.
With its tongue-in-cheek take on Freddy Krueger, Skoozical is far and away the best episode of the series. There’s even a nod to blaxploitation. There’s plenty on offer for kids and parents alike in a show that’s funny, often smart and filled to the brim with references. With its quirky characters, endearing plots and hip hop theme tune (performed by Doc Brown), you can’t help but warm to it.