Peter Ormerod investigates the bizarre, troubling and extremely funny world of Found Footage
Goujon John stands in his Goujultation Zone. Like many characters who appear on Mr Biffo's Found Footage, he's a slick, troubling and troubled American salesman. He's all about the goujons, of course; we know not quite of what they are made, other than that they come from the "silvery bird". He stands in his 16-bit computer graphic domain in flickering and distorted form, dispensing goujon-related advice to assorted lost souls, who often turn out to be fairly successful comedians or musicians (most recently, it was him out of indie favourites Public Service Broadcasting). And that's probably the most conventional bit of Mr Biffo's Found Footage, which distressingly comes to its conclusion this weekend.
Found Footage is a series on YouTube which is notable for countless reasons. First, there's the ingenious conceit: it purportedly represents the contents of VHS tapes discovered at a car boot sale. It thus takes the form of a melange of apparently random snippets, all rendered in that fuggy style of old videos, with static and subliminal images often intruding. There are bits of TV programmes: Do You Remember When?, for example, prods at the lazy nostalgia of our times, while the guests on BurdTalk disagree furiously about whether the programme exists to praise or chastise our avian brethren. There are sort-of public information films: Simon Bates, a raucous American, explains the film certification system ("PG stands for Private Garden"; "18 is short for 1898") in abrasive tones. Then there are the adverts for such delights as Wasp Bells, an adult chat line called Mime Talk and a "sturdy boy" called Wet Pepe who makes everything soggy. There are songs: one is about Sir Clive Sinclair, another about Elon Musk. There are appearances from the disturbing duo of Kenny and Yuri Masters (starring Iain Lee, formerly of Channel 4's The 11 O'Clock Show, now one of Britain's most engaging and original broadcasters). There are recordings of a Geordie man mumbling while playing old-school video games, which tend to degenerate into worrying adventures in scatology. And there is a curious air of threat throughout, more of which in a bit.
None of this will surprise anyone familiar with the work of its creator. Found Footage has come from the mind - and possibly other organs - of Paul Rose, who, in the guise of Mr Biffo, was responsible for Teletext's long-lamented video games section, Digitiser. Seemingly inhabiting an entirely different dimension from anything else served up on teletext, Digitiser revelled in subversive surrealism and barely disguised profanity, its own array of characters including The Rapping Shoe, Mr T (don't mess with his bins) and The Man With A Long Chin. Rose's career since teletext died at the hands of digital TV has been similarly replete with baffling non sequiturs, covering everything from possibly the oddest TV pilot ever made (Biffovision, set in the world of 1980s Saturday morning children's television) to possibly the worst film ever made (Pudsey the Dog: The Movie, for which he wrote at least some of the script), via Bafta nominations as the co-creator of CBBC shows 4 O'Clock Club and Dani's House. Throughout all this, he's gained the support of Charlie Brooker, who donated towards the making of Found Footage and is credited as executive producer. Alex Garland, writer of The Beach and Ex Machina, is another admirer.
But maybe it all makes more sense than first appears. It's become clear over the past few weeks that the 20-odd-minute episodes of Found Footage have actually been building to a conclusion; these seemingly disparate parts actually have some meaning. The final episode, which goes online at 9pm on Sunday, is described as "tense, atmospheric, sci-action movie". It's as if John Carpenter at his most ambitious has been directing Reeves & Mortimer at their darkest.
“I got sick of the development process in film and TV," says Rose. "I’ve worked on so many projects – including a BBC One sitcom pilot with Dylan Moran and Maxine Peake – which nearly got made, that my heart just wasn’t in it anymore.
“I was worn down from making compromises to create stuff that was more palatable and commercial, and it wasn’t having an impact on its chance of success, so I decided to do something for me.”
Handily for the rest of us, Rose was able to find enough backers who wanted to see what he could come up with to raise funds for a nine-part comedy series.
“Even then, my ambitions went through the roof," he says. "It was my first time directing, and I really wanted to reward the backers and prove what I was capable of, so I kept thinking bigger and bigger.”
For one thing, Found Footage proves that all the money in the world is no substitute for an imagination like Rose's. And with sequences including a fast-paced speedboat chase, and two days filming in an abandoned nuclear bunker, complete with action sequences, special effects and prosthetics, it demonstrates what can be achieved with good will, hard work and an undiluted conviction.
“It isn’t for everyone ," says Rose, who really needs to put those words in vast bold type. "It’s weird in a late night, Adult Swim, kind of way. But nobody in the UK is brave enough to make shows like this anymore. Found Footage has shown that there is an audience hungry enough for this kind of absurdist humour that you can make it happen without having to worry too much about ratings.
“I think I’ve created something that is completely original, extremely high quality, and – most importantly – done it without the backing of a TV channel or movie studio. Those who love it really seem to love it.”
* Mr Biffo's Found Footage - which we repeat is certainly not for everyone and contains strong language and scenes some viewers may find disturbing, as well as extremely funny - can be watched here.