Max Headroom
A Cult Icon Of The 1980's
Max Headroom was a television personality who presented his own series in the United Kingdom entitled The Max Headroom Show on Channel Four from 1985 to 1987. He was very different from other presenters of the time, as he was the first to be computer generated. The reason for this was due to a nasty incident involving a television reporter called Edison Carter, a motorcycle and a car park barrier arm. Those events were made into a television film Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future and aired a few days before the start of his series.
When his series first went out in 1985, the show was a pop music video & chat show, although Max himself preferred classical music and on occasion urged his viewers to search for old videos of Mozart. But it wasn’t his personal choice in music that made Max Headroom a huge star, it was his infamous stutter that could have gone head to head with Paul Hardcastle’s hit 19 in a stuttering competition. There were other characteristics that made him a star however, a passionate love of golf, being rude to some of his guests, his witty sense of humour and classic tips to his viewers on how they should try to attempt to look cool. But there was even more to Max Headroom than those qualities, there was his egotistical behaviour that resulted in insults directly being made at his then producer Tim. A bitter rift between the two of them developed which peaked on one of his shows when he wanted to talk about the game of gold and Severiano Ballesteros but was cut off by Tim. Later Max managed to sneak in a video about how golf balls were made before the producer eventually replaced it with a music video. After that show Tim was never heard of again. In his book Max Headroom’s Guide To Life, Max said this of his ex-producer “We had an understanding that went beyond words – basically because we never spoke. And after trying to throw his weight around – all five stone of it – for weeks on end, he finally left the studio in a blazing temper. (I think one of the stage hands set fire to his anorak).”
Max Headroom had become so famous in the United Kingdom that he appeared as a guest on the BBC1 chat show Wogan before going into print with two books, the aforementioned Max Headroom’s Guide To Life and Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future. The public couldn’t get enough of the computer generated television presenter and a video of his television movie was released on a VHS videocassette along with a video game based on the movie. He even found time to star in a number of television commercials for Radio Rentals. Max Headroom had hit the big time, and he knew it.
In 1986 Max went to the United States to star in a long running ad campaign for Coca-Cola and became Britain’s biggest export of 1986. After returning to the UK Max teamed up with the Art of Noise and climbed the British singles charts with the smash hit Paranoimia. He had now become a pop star too and also starred in the video for the single. Once again the star visited the USA to appear on Tonight With David Letterman prior to the second season of The Max Headroom Show being transmitted there. Max returned home to release his new single Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You’re A Lovely Guy) taken from his Christmas special Max Headroom’s Giant Christmas Turkey.
1987 saw Max Headroom star in the critically acclaimed science fiction television series entitled Max Headroom in the USA. The series was based on his 1985 pilot story and lasted for just fourteen episodes before the series was cancelled. Max bounced back with The Original Max Talking Headroom Show. Max Headroom was never heard of again except for a one-off appearance on the BBC’s Comic Relief in 1989.
It appeared that Max Headroom had gone offline forever until late November/December 2007 when he starred in a series of advertisements promoting Channel Four’s Digital Switchover. Max was a shadow of his former self, old, bald, twisted and bitter. He flung insults at Channel Four, Jim Carrey, Anneka Rice, Timmy Mallett and Rick Astley. The ads were repeated in mid 2008 leaving one question, would Max Headroom ever return to our screens again?

The Reality

Max Headroom was a fictitious British television character created by directors Rocky Moreton and Annabel Jankel with writer George Stone to present the Channel Four music video series The Max Headroom Show. Although he was supposed to be the world’s first computer generated artificial intelligence television presenter, Max himself was a combination of various elements without the use of any CGI. He was portrayed by American born Canadian actor Matt Frewer (born 1st January 1958, Washington D.C.) wearing special prosthetic make-up in a fibreglass suit created by John Humphreys. Traditional hand drawn animation was used to create the rotating lines behind him and innovative video editing techniques by Roo Aiken added to Frewer’s performance, which was so convincing that the viewing public at large believed that Max was really computer generated.

The background story of Max Headroom was told in a one hour television film entitled Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future that was centred around the character of TV reporter Edison Carter (also portrayed by Frewer) being silenced by the network he was working for, before being left for dead after his mind had been copied and transferred inside a computer. It was shown in April 1985 just a few days before the first episode of The Max Headroom Show, both film and series were instant hits.

The character was originally intended to be a talking head that linked music videos together using witty and often nonsensical dialogue throughout each episode of the show, but that all changed when he became more popular than the music promos being shown. The viewing audiences were fixated on the strange looking stuttering host and nobody involved in the making of the series had envisaged the huge response from the public. By the end of the first season the format had been altered to include segments where Max interviewed some of the biggest names in music asking them random questions from shoe sizes to golf and occasionally made fun of them. Max Headroom had become a huge phenomenon in the UK. His new found rise to fame saw him appear on the front cover of various publications, guest on chat shows and star in a series of television commercials for Radio Rentals.

Chrysalis Visual Programming, the company that owned the Max Headroom franchise began licensing Max Headroom merchandise including posters, postcards, t-shirts, a video game, a home video release and a story book of the TV movie. A second book, Max Headroom’s Guide To Life by the shows writers Paul Owen & David Hansen was also published that included some of Max’s best monologues from his TV show.

In 1986 an extended version of the Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future that included segments from the The Max Headroom Show along with a six part compilation series from the first season were shown on the US cable television channel Cinemax. Max had also hit the big time there, duplicating the success found in his country of origin although instead of starring in commercials for a TV rentals firm, he was starring in a series of advertisements for the Coca-Cola Company’s New Coke campaign.

In June of the same year Max appeared with the Art of Noise, the creators of The Max Headroom Show’s theme tune, on their hit record Paranoimia and in its accompanying promotional video. The record was a huge hit and it introduced Max to an even larger audience around the world. A discussion was then made to show the second season of the Channel Four series in the US first instead of the UK because of his high rising popularity there helped by the huge sales of the track that was still in the charts at the time of transmission. Max appeared as an interviewee on one of America’s highest rated chat shows to promote the new season.

The format of the second season had changed drastically to that of the first as non of the music videos were shown in full giving more prominence to Max so that he could talk about various things in length and also to sing his own songs. Every episode featured big name guests. The series was a smash hit and was followed by the Christmas special, Max Headroom’s Giant Christmas Turkey that aired first in the UK. A single was taken from it entitled Merry Christmas Santa Clause (You’re A Lovely Guy) that surprisingly failed the make any chart impact partially due to the late release date of the record. After Channel Four had shown the festive episode they then aired the delayed second season of The Max Headroom Show which would be the last chance for British audiences to see Max Headroom, the talking head as the star of his own show as in the USA things were taking a different direction in 1987.

The UK company Chrysalis/Lakeside were commissioned by ABC to produce in association with Lorimar-Telepictures a new Orwellian science fiction reboot series for American audiences based upon the adventures of Edison Carter entitled Max Headroom. The original TV movie had to be remade with some variations to allow for the change of location from the UK to the USA and for subsequent episodes to follow. Apart from Frewer, only Amanda Pays and William Morgan Sheppard reprised their roles as the original cast was replaced with a US one. The groundbreaking cult series became a hit with fans but Max Headroom himself became something of a secondary character to that of Carter. The show was unique and the first for an unknown actor in the States (Frewer) to star as the two leading characters in a major network series. The show ran for two seasons with a total of fourteen episodes before it was cancelled.

The third and final season of The Max Headroom Show under the new title The Original Max Talking Headroom Show, again for the USA. The season was once again reformatted as a pure chat show that ran once fortnightly and ran for just six episodes.

New Coke was a complete failure and with no further episodes of The Max Headroom Show or Max Headroom being made the worldwide phenomenon of Max Headroom was over. He disappeared in late 1987, never to be seen again until twenty years later when Channel Four used an elderly version of the character to promote the UK’s digital television switch over from analogue, again portrayed by Frewer.

For years there have been rumours of Max Headroom returning to television either as the talking head of his show or as a character in a new series of the science fiction series or even a theatrical movie, but nothing has surfaced. In the USA a box set of Max Headroom – The Complete Series was released on DVD, containing all fourteen uncut episodes and Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future as a single release disc was issued in Japan.

Due to music publishing rights it is very unlikely that The Max Headroom Show will be officially released as a DVD or Blu-ray set, however countless bootlegs are in circulation proving that Max Headroom is still popular today, more than 25 years after he first appeared on our screens.
© Copyright K.M. Whitehouse 2008, 2010

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