Square Eyes: Kids' TV of the 80s/90s

I have an unhealthy obsession with all things nostalgic (though I draw a line at mullets and jackets rolled up at the sleeves.) This, combined with a fondness for the TV of my childhood has driven me to create the Square Eyes blog. Simply an A-Z of the shows I watched, with my inimitable commentaries...

Thursday, June 29, 2006


Made by: Producers Group International/Thames TV
Shown on: ITV

Years shown: 1989-92

It is impossible to overestimate just how highly I rated this joint British and Canadian sitcom venture when I was a pre-teen, and I still think it remains one of the most vastly underrated and overlooked kids’ programmes of the last decade. And still it fell short of its potential because, with a few little tweaks, it would have made a successful crossover to mainstream adults’ viewing - how many children’s shows will handcuff their two leads together for the night?

Spatz was the zenith of Lee Pressman and Grant Cathro’s writing partnership (see also Mike and Angelo, T-Bag), a comedy inspired equally by British slapstick humour, and slick and innovative American programming like Moonlighting. To explain, Spatz was a fictitious Canadian fast-food restaurant chain, owned by millionaire Louis Frapelli, with its branch in central London the setting for the programme. The setting was normal, but the antics of the staff were not.

Canadian Karen Hansson (Jennifer Calvert), the Spatz European Co-ordinator, looked like a cross between Jerry Hall and Lauren Bacall dressed in a power-suit - but only someone with a death-wish would treat her as such. She was ruthless, power-obsessed and fierce, and nothing dared come between her and the precious dollar. Much to her chagrin, she was based in the London branch, which meant sharing a workspace with the branch manager, Thomas Jefferson ‘TJ’ Strickland, a fellow Canadian (played by Paul Michael.) And to her utter exasperation, the handsome and laid-back TJ was her complete antithesis: he was cool and calm, with a grin a mile wide, and although he was more than competent as a manager, TJ always put staff and customer welfare before money. Karen loathed his jokes, his flippancy and the fact that he never rose to her bait - but when these two argued, you could be mistaken for thinking you were watching David Addison and Maddie Hayes. Karen had a number of set phrases, including “Strickland! Office! Now!” and “You’re not funny, Strickland”, and thought nothing of throwing him out of his own office; but she really saw red when faced with TJ’s sometime girlfriend, Julie (Catherine Russell.) The sexual tension between TJ and his boss was unmistakable, and although Karen informed him that she’d “rather put my hand down a camel’s throat than touch you”, the series bowed out with a kiss under the mistletoe - although, admittedly, there was a degree of reluctance on Karen’s part.

Down on the shop floor the Brits ruled the roost. Among the burger-flippers was Dexter Williams (Vas Blackwood), who would do anything to further his career prospects and become Assistant Manager, and his friend, Vince Powers (Joe Greco), a cockney chancer, with a trick up his sleeve for every hour of the day. They were largely kept in check by the girls: there was the eminently sensible Debbie Wesley (Stephanie Charles), Lily Quang (Ling Tai), a politically-minded, bright girl working to pay for her university course, and Jo Collins (Sue Devaney), a cheeky northerner who could give as much lip - and trouble - as she got. The team was completed by Stanley Rydale (Jonathan Copestake), who was extremely earnest, but also extremely dense, and was usually three hours behind everyone else. When Jo left after the first series, she was replaced by Fiona ‘Freddy’ Reddy (Katy Murphy), a mad Celtic FC fan who dealt out as much Scots doom and superstition as Dad’s Army’s Private Frazer.

The plot-lines were wildly implausible, and seemed to get more surreal as the series progressed, but the often razor-sharp repartee made every episode of Spatz a great piece of comedy. Over the three years, the staff were the target of local mobsters, lost their restaurant in a bet to the local rivals, Blimpy’s, transformed Spatz into a medieval-style eaterie for American tourists, battled a fire that Karen caused accidentally with a toaster, were hit by radical environmental protesters and hosted a ballroom dancing contest, a wedding reception, and a junior talent competition. And that wasn’t the half of it. The only downside to the show, as with Pressman and Cathro’s other offerings, was the persistent and liberal use of canned laughter.

A number of unlikely actors made appearances during the three series of Spatz, including Gary Lineker (chronic acting, by the way), Nicholas Parsons, and Terry Hall with Lenny the Lion. Some subsequently successful actors also found their way to the big time via this fast-food joint: Danny John-Jules twice played self-confessed superhero, Captain Electric, while holding down jobs on Red Dwarf and Maid Marian; Samantha Janus appeared briefly as a love-interest for Vince; David Harewood appeared on and off as Debbie’s bumbling, clueless fiancé, Derek Puley; and Rhys Ifans got his break as a Welsh builder who briefly romanced Freddy. Vas Blackwood, of course, has latterly appeared in such films as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Mean Machine (2001), while Sue Devaney found further success on BBC’s Casualty and dinnerladies, and Jennifer Calvert returned to Canada and a regular gig on the comedy The Chris Isaak Show.

Just don’t eat the Ocean Spatz.


(Thanks to David's fantastic Spatz website, the only one on the web, for the borrowed pic of Jennifer Calvert as Karen Hansson - google 'Spatz' to find it)


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