The Life And Times Of Max Headroom

DoG looks back on the talking head who became an eighties pop phenomenon and almost made stuttering sexy...

M-M-Mister Headroom

Pretty much about the time that Bonnie Tyler was disagreeing with Tina Turner about whether or not we need another hero (the mid-eighties), perhaps the unlikeliest idol ever stepped forward to effortlessly claim the role; with vacuum-formed hair, cemetery teeth, no existence below the shoulders and a speech impediment that was halfway between a blown fuse and a Malcolm McLaren scratch track, the nonetheless personality-laden Max Headroom began his cyber-evangelisation as a music host on Channel 4 in the UK.

Videographers Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton and George Stone had sought initially to fill their cutting-edge remit for a ‘talking head’ with real CGI, but the state of the art was at such a poor stage in 1984 – as YouTubing ‘Money For Nothing’ will reveal – that such an approach was patently not going to work. Enter Brit-side Canadian actor Matt Frewer, who aced the auditions for the fake frontman and added his own comic genius to Max’s zippy ripostes and acid putdowns.

That species of jerky video now familiar in the low-bandwidth world of mobile phone-quality moving pictures, combined with the appearance of synthetic latency in some (then impossible) real-time rendering system to give the illusion that the prosthetised Frewer was nothing more than pixels and algorithms, and The Max Headroom Show was an instant hit. The ersatz showman’s wit and dubious wisdom was far more appreciated than the music videos he was often critical of in his link slots.

It turned out there wasn’t enough headroom for a character that was bursting to break out of the narrow box of music programming, and Jankel, Morton and Stone were called in to explain Max’s origins in the 1985 UK science-fiction TV movie Max Headroom. Made before the appearance of yuppie-hating sci-fare such as Aliens and Robocop, Headroom painted a bleak vision of a post-punk, cynical corporate world dominated by generic cable TV and an early species of The Internet, where large, grey companies pump out anodyne entertainment for a zombified populace who have come to expect nothing better than ‘safe’ programming laced with ads –‘blipverts’ – so intrusive and toxic that they can cause viewers to spontaneously explode.

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Within the fictional structure of the pilot, square-jawed newshound and cameraman Edison Carter – also played by Frewer – flees his employers, the evil Network 23, with positive evidence of the dangerous TV ads, only to suffer a head injury on the way out of the car-park, and the last thing he sees before unconsciousness is the portentous sign ‘Max Headroom –‘.

The company turns to its resident savant Bryce Lynch to use a digital copy of the dying Carter’s brainwaves to attempt to reproduce a computer-generated version of the reporter that will conceal his demise. The rather warped result is Max Headroom himself, a perverse and impish cybernetic entity that is patently not going to fool anyone.

In the meantime, Carter turns out to be injured rather than dead, and goes on to expose the wicked corporation. But Max himself has escaped into the digital lanes of the network as a pirate broadcaster, and it doesn’t look like the future has seen the last of him…

There were more adventures in store for Max, Edison Carter and his sexy sidekick Theora Jones – played by Amanda Pays – but first Frewer’s now hugely popular character returned to its pop-culture roots with The Original Max Talking Headroom Show, where the cheeky frontman brought his highly imitable brand of barbed wit to the task of interviewing guests that included Bob Geldof, Rutger Hauer and Tina Turner. The program basically re-cooked and expanded upon the chat-show element of the 1985 Max Headroom Show and was a water-cooler hit, with Frewer more than up to the task of parrying wits with his sharper guests, despite the huge burden of prosthetic make-up and ‘live’ video-jitter.

Later that year came Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future, Lorimar’s fully-fledged TV series for the US network channel ABC, where Carter et al continued their crusades against corporate tyranny. Frewer, Pays and the ageing punk ‘Blank Reg’ – played by William Morgan Sheppard – were the only refugees from the original 1985 UK TV movie, which was itself replayed in a slicker but rather blander version as a series opener.

It’s thought that the network execs who commissioned 20 Minutes may have felt increasingly that they were making a rod for their own backs, as the villains of the show were, in essence, themselves. Though the series technically lasted two seasons, only 14 episodes were made and only 13 actually shown before ABC pulled the plug on the fictional exploits of Edison Carter and his fellow ‘dissidents’.

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Max himself was made of hardier stuff, appearing on the hit single Paranoimia with the group The Art Of Noise, as well as in ads for the UK television rental company Radio Rentals and as ‘spokespersonality’ for a huge US TV ad campaign for classic coke. In addition the plastic presenter had a hit book with ‘Max Headroom’s Guide To Life’ and made a very popular series of guest appearances on UK and US chat shows including David Letterman.

Finally, tired of the watered-down TV show and over-exposed to Max, the phenomenon began to wane, and by 1988 he had gone the way of fellow pop-sensations Stavros and Loadsamoney, both creations of UK comedian Harry Enfield.

Late last year a rather decrepit – but still very funny – Max returned to our screens in a series of sharp ads in aid of Channel 4’s twenty-fifth anniversary, but no plans are known of to resurrect the character, in spite of fond remembrances. Ironically, Max Headroom is one reboot that could be accomplished with the same astonishing adroitness with which Ian McDiarmid reprised his role as Emperor Palpatine in Revenge Of The Sith (2005), and for the same reason – the character had been established under such a weight of prostheses that the unkindness of intervening years on the actor have no foothold.

Matt Frewer recently made some idle chat about a re-boot for a Max-based sci-fi show, but the rights to the character have been locked in dispute since the late eighties, and that alone may stop the irreverent commentator ever returning to invade our airwaves. But the rumours persist…

It’s been observed that Network 23’s boy-genius Bryce, having been born in 1988 (within the original UK pilot), gives us a fairly rigid date for when exactly Max Headroom is set: now. check out or interview with Max co-creator Annabel Jankel for her opinions on what the show got right and what it didn’t. For me it remains prescient, particularly since it beat both Cameron and Verhoeven to the punch as regards tapping into the increasing vein of corporate cynicism in the emergent age of the yuppie – a mood that hangs over this country yet.

For more about Max, check out http://maxheadroom.com, where arch Max-fan ‘Blank James’ (James Gifford) has all the latest news on Max 2.0 rumours, and a comprehensive archive of Max facts and trivia. And check out this YouTube link to see just how far Max fans were willing to go to imitate their airwave-invading hero in the 1980s – even to the point of interrupting Doctor Who!

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Outrageously, there seems to be no definitive edition of any of the incarnations of Max in his various shows, and searches on Amazon only turn up old VHS editions. Hopefully we’ll see Max on hi-def one day in all his low-res glory…