“Spuggy and Plod weren’t runners. They just didn’t see the point”. And thus the hero of the BBC’s Geordie Racer and his dog were endeared to a generation of biscuit-eating 1980s schoolchildren.
Part of the long-running Look And Read series of television programming for schools, Geordie Racer was written by The Bill’s Christopher Russell and first aired in 1988. Its ten episodes told a continuing crime story interspersed with factual spots about the North-East and appearances by Wordy, a floating Henry Hoover/Scrabble set who played songs about gerunds. Wordy was just part of Geordie Racer’s educational framing narrative though, Spuggy was its star.
Richard “Spuggy” Hilton was my kind of people. He wore a Star Trek: ToS t-shirt, had neat joined-up handwriting and used food as an emotional crutch (“Spuggy felt a bit left out so he finished Cath’s toast”).
He also loved pigeons.
Typical of the BBC’s hidden pigeon-fancying agenda, Geordie Racer was half crime drama, half literacy aid, and all pigeon. It told the story of a Tyneside lad with an allotment shed full of racing birds. Unlike his tracksuit-wearing, Alpen-eating family, Spuggy wasn’t interested in doing The Great North Run. He just wanted to race his prize flier in the Inland National Pigeon Race and eat stotties.
(If you’re not familiar with the soft, round North-Eastern treat of the stottie, Geordie Racer has your back. One episode has an informative section on what they are, how they’re made, and where to buy an egg mayonnaise one in late-eighties Newcastle for 40p. Far be it from me to cast aspersions on Look And Read’s probity, but if it emerged that Geordie “Back home, Spuggy found a stottie to help them think” Racer had been part-funded by the Stottie lobby, I wouldn’t be shocked.)
“You canna be a pigeon man if you canna take your losses”
Spuggy may have wanted to lead the quiet life of a canny pigeon man, but crime had other ideas. Over the series’ ten episodes, it sucked him and his friend Janie into an Enid Blyton web of stolen paintings and remote lighthouses.
When Tyneside is hit by a spate of robberies, Spuggy and Janie turn detective. This being the olden days, they have to do so using newspaper clippings, photos they had developed at Snappy Snaps, and of course: racing pigeons.
I’ll call it now, Geordie Racer is the most informative children’s television drama there has ever been on the topic of racing pigeons. Nothing else even comes close. Thanks to interviews with expert Jim and Spuggy’s patient explanations to pigeon racist Janie (“They all look the same to me”), it taught us everything we could need to know about bird care. Feed, exercise, the special clocks they use to track race performance, how to beckon them back to the allotment shed (shake a tin of seed like Stevie Nicks going nuts on a chorus)… even the right way to handle a pigeon (using two hands, press their beak gently to your midriff, then tenderly spread their wings out one at a time and smile enigmatically).
There were also top suggestions on what to call a prize bird. Blue Flash for instance, was the name of Spuggy’s pride and joy, the bonniest pigeon in Newcastle. Another bobby dazzler was Perfect Lady, the property of shady businessman Baz Bailey.
“Baz showed Spuggy his best pigeon”
Baz (Fred Pearson) may have had the sumptuous pigeon loft of Spuggy’s dreams, but his heart was as dry and shrivelled as a pile of old millet. He was the one who’d masterminded the local robberies, a fact Spuggy and Janie soon deduce.
Proof of Baz’s absolute villainy is that he even tried to implicate Lewis from Inspector Morse (Kevin Whately, who played Spuggy’s dad Ray) in his crime syndicate. Out-of-work Ray had taken a job driving Baz’s stolen goods around, leaving Spuggy with a dilemma. Should he squeal on Baz if it meant implicating his own father?
Battling this issue, Spuggy went to local radio personality Mickey Stone for help. (On a serious and depressing note, don’t look up what the man who played Mickey Stone, Peter Rowell, is currently in prison for unless you want another childhood memory tarnished). Stone is both a character in Spuggy’s story and reading it as fiction alongside the viewer, which may be the most meta any kids’ show with a tie-in BBC Micro game and textbook gets.
Happily, Ray turned out to be ignorant to his criminal cargo. “I needed a job, man”, he explained, “I wanted to work. Aye, I drove Baz’s truck but I’m nay crook, man”.
There was worse trouble for Spuggy ahead though. Baz had booked himself passage on a ship out of Newcastle and planned to take with him the spoils of his next heist. His target? The local recreation centre takings on the day of the Great North Run.
Some quick thinking, a pigeon-carried message and a bout of unexpected running later, Baz and co. were stopped. In a memorable last scene, Newcastle’s maritime architecture saved the day when the thieves were stranded on the River Tyne’s Swing Bridge.
“Build yourself a word with an –ing!”
As part of its educational mission, Geordie Racer had a deeply patient approach to storytelling. Its regular, hefty recaps slowly explained who everyone was, what they’d just done and what they were about to do at any given moment. You’d first watch Spuggy get upset, then be told by the narrator that Spuggy had got upset, and then read on screen the words “Spuggy was upset” while Wordy’s pal Mickey would say “Remember, Wordy? The last time we saw Spuggy he was upset”. It ensured everyone kept up with plot developments and learnt the correct spelling of Spuggy. If Game Of Thrones would just do the same, it’d save us all a lot of time.
The songs are often the most fondly remembered parts of Look And Read schools programming, and with all the classics—Bill The Brickie, the Magic E Wizard—making an appearance here, Geordie Racer is no different. The theme song in particular, sung by the soundtrack to any eighties childhood, Derek Griffiths, was a real treat. Top of the list though, has to be the ballad about the spooky spinning spaceman with a special sponsor. It sounds exactly like a lost Kate Bush record, and even if astrophysics thinking behind the line that “space is the spot where sport begins” (they didn’t have Professor Brian Cox to explain things back then) is suspect, you have to admire the stuff about sparks, spangles, speckles, spiders and sparrows.
Speaking of which, Spuggy is Geordie for sparrow. Like knowing how to build yourself a word and use magic, magic E, that’s the kind of knowledge that will open doors for you. Thanks once again, Look And Read. Ye all gan canny, now.