The Definitive Oral History of Max Headroom

Max Headroom broadcast signal intrusionIf you’re not old enough to remember Max Headroom, perhaps the name rings a bell from reading Ernest Cline’s superb novel Ready Player One (soon-ish to be Steven Spielberg motion picture). If the answer is still no, you need to bone up on your pop culture history. Handily, The Verge‘s Bryan Bishop has written up the definitive oral history of Max Headroom:

On Thursday, April 4th, 1985, a blast of dystopian satire hit the UK airwaves. Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future was a snarky take on media and corporate greed, told through the eyes of investigative journalist Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) and his computer-generated alter-ego: an artificial intelligence named Max Headroom.

Set in a near-future where global corporations control all media and citizens are hopelessly addicted to dozens of TV channels, the movie follows Carter — working for the mysterious Network 23 — as he discovers that network executives have created a form of subliminal advertising known as “blipverts” that can actually kill. While tracking the story, Carter is flung into a barrier marked “Max. Headroom — 2.3m.” Desperate to maintain ratings with its star reporter, the network enlists a young hacker to download Carter’s mind and create a virtual version of the journalist. But things don’t go quite right. The result: the stuttering, sarcastic Max.

20 Minutes into the Future kicked off an extensive franchise, and Max became a singular ’80s pop culture phenomenon that represented everything wonderful and horrible about the decade. Max hosted music video shows; Max interviewed celebrities; Max hawked New Coke; Max Headroom became US network television’s very first cyberpunk series. Max was inescapable — and then almost just as quickly as he had appeared, he was gone.

Thirty years after the premiere, I spoke with the writers, directors, producers, actors, make-up artists, and network executives that helped bring Max Headroom to life. And it all began, like so many things in the ‘80s, with music videos.

PETER WAGG (PRODUCER) I was working for a record label, [Chrysalis Records]. I was basically head of what they called, in those days, “creative services.” Once MTV started, it totally revolutionized the dynamic of marketing and selling music … music videos sort of becoming the most important part of our armory. Fortunately, that fell under my wing.

I went to Andy Park, a pal of mine who ran a commercial radio station and became commissioning editor for music at Channel 4, which was a new embryonic TV channel in the UK. Andy said, “Hey, what do you think about trying to develop a music video show for Channel 4?”

Of course if you looked at MTV, it was a bunch of video jocks, real people, linking and introducing music videos. I thought to myself, well, alright, that’s been done. So the starting point for the project was, we don’t need a real person: maybe it’s animated; maybe it’s a character we can create that’s some sort of hybrid mix that has a trans-Atlantic accent, that has certain visual attributes, if you like. It’s like Johnny Carson meets Terry Wogan in England.

So, the first person I enlisted was a guy called George Stone.

GEORGE STONE (CO-CREATOR / WRITER) I worked for an ad agency. I was a writer and radio producer and commercial maker, I suppose, and we had a number of clients that were record companies. I was interested in what we’d call the “landscape of television,” if you like.

We had the show title first: Max Headroom. I mean, there was a list of about 40 — one of them was called “The Tube,” I think. I did it one weekend, and Max was the one that won…

[continues at The Verge]

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