By 1985 MTV had become a powerful force in the entertainment industry, providing music artists with a new and prominent platform in which to promote their latest promo videos. Music had now become a visual medium, with directors establishing their careers by creating short films that often incorporated narratives, special effects and even shocking imagery in an attempt to seduce and fascinate their young audience. Michael Jackson had helped to pioneer the format with his John Landis-directed mini-horror movie Thriller, while Duran Duran and Madonna would also play a significant part in giving music videos a degree of credibility.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a character would be created that could somehow introduce each clip with a humorous anecdote or quip, someone that the public would find exciting and addictive, providing instantly recognisable quotes or one-liners that would achieve pop culture status. And so, a decade before Beavis and Butt-Head defined a generation of alienated teens, Max Headroom was born.
A virtual host with an artificial stutter, as if the film is skipping a frame, Max was first conceived from a concern that Channel 4’s commissioning editor, Andy Park, had expressed in the early 1980s regarding how many exciting music videos were passing under the radar without the public having the chance to enjoy them. At this time the medium was still relatively new and had yet to reach its full potential, but young artists were having fun recreating their live shows or dressing up like movie stars for the camera.
Eager to capitalise on this trend, Park formed a creative partnership with Peter Wagg of Chrysalis Records, with the intention of producing a television show that could showcase the latest videos. With this in mind, Wagg approached producing duo Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, who had been among the first to direct music videos in the late 1970s and early ’80s, including Elvis Costello’s Accidents Will Happen and Genius of Love by Tom Tom Club. But the question still remained what kind of show could incorporate music videos along with some kind of hook that would draw viewers in?
The obvious answer was a host, but all involved were determined for the presenter to be someone out of the ordinary, who would bring in viewers through curiosity alone, but someone with enough personality and charisma to being them back for more. With technology having advanced so significantly over the previous decade, Jankel and Morton both agreed that the person in question should be a computer-generated character, something almost unheard of at that time. While the live action Disney hit Tron had been the first movie to demonstrate the potential for CGI, digital effects were still in their infancy and would prove to be too expensive. Park was intrigued by the concept, however, and instructed them to develop a backstory for Max Headroom, something that would provide background for the character so he was more than just a one-dimensional character.
Working alongside a writer called George Stone, a narrative was developed which focused around Edison Carter, a no-nonsense reporter for Channel 23 in a dystopian future, who will stop at nothing to uncover the truth and land his exclusives. Hosting his award-winning show What I Want to Know, Carter arrives in a helicopter at an apartment building to uncover the truth behind an explosion that somebody has been trying to keep secret. But no sooner does he appear on the scene, orders come down from the heads of the network, forcing his producers to pull the plug on the show.
Angered by their decision, he returns to the studio and lashes out at his superiors, but with their hands tied they are unable to cater to his demands. Meanwhile in the head office of the network, Mr Grossman is informed that his orders to terminate Carter’s broadcast was successful, before then turning their attention to the issue of blipverts, television adverts of only a few seconds long, short enough to get their products across before the audience has time to chance channels, but one that comes with many unexpected side-effects for viewers.
The Head of Research and Development for the channel, and the mastermind behind the blipverts phenomenon is Bryce Lynch, a teenage prodigy whose latest achievement is the three-dimensional computer simulation of a parrot. Nonchalant about the effects that blipverts is having on viewers, Bryce’s response to Grossman’s concerns about Carter getting so close to the truth is a rather cold, ‘Fire him, or you could always kill him.’
The idea of having a teenager as the computer genius and thus the one in control seems less a fantasy now as it may have done then, as since the 1980s generations of youngsters raised on computers have ventured out and made fortunes developing software for game companies, the internet and even governments. Bryce, lacking in social graces and most likely repellent to women, has since become the stereotype image of the computer geek. In this technological landscape, a powerful and ruthless businessman like Grossman is further down the chain of command to a computer genius, although when meeting face to face it is clear that, without his computer, Bryce is nothing more than a spoilt child, feeble in size and somewhat obnoxious.
Carter’s unlikely ally at the station is Theora Jones, a new arrival from another show, World 1, whom he immediately sets the task of finding the truth behind the reason his story was pulled, much to the annoyance of his boss, Murray. With the character of Max Headroom being shown only from the chest upwards and under extensive make-up effects, an actor with presence and prominent body language would be required to take on the role.
An alumnus of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, American-born Matt Frewer first made a name for himself on the London stage in acclaimed productions of Waiting for Godot and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Macbeth, before making the transition to the big screen with parts in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and Supergirl. Playing his loyal accomplice Theora, a role she would return to in the subsequent TV series, was twenty-four-year-old Amanda Pays, fresh from her feature debut alongside Bratpack stars Rob Lowe and Ally Sheedy in the coming-of-age drama Oxford Blues.
Using Theora’s computer skills, they hack into the network’s database and discover security footage of two boardmembers discussing both Bryce and the covering up of the blipverts. Confronting Ben Cheviot, an executive of the channel, Carter learns the truth and, with Theora offering guidance through the security system, he makes his way into top secret levels of the company’s headquarters to inspect Bryce’s laboratory. Alerted of an intruder, the boy genius sends two hired thugs to intercept, but not before Carter watches footage of a blipvert victim exploding in front of the camera. Chased from the lab and forced to run for his life, Carter’s escape is thwarted by Bryce, who raises a ramp at the exit to the car park, causing Carter to crash head-first into a barrier that reads ‘Max Headroom.’ Rushing to the scene of the accident, Theora finds the broken, blood-stained barrier but no sign of Carter, whose comatose body has been delivered to Bryce.
Upon hearing that his most popular reporter has been taken out of action, Grossman is shocked and annoyed when Bryce claims that he would be able to make a computer generated simulation of Carter, much as he had done with the parrot. He wastes no time in creating an algorithm of Carter, using his work on the parrot as a template, while storing the body on ice. The digital version adopts the name of Max Headroom, from the last image that Carter saw before his crash, but a furious Grossman insists that Bryce abandon the project and turn his attention back to the blipverts.
Meanwhile, Big Time Television, a pirate TV show broadcast from the back of a van, delivers the philosophical ramblings of Blank Reg out to the ‘blank generation.’ But his long-suffering partner, Dominique, has grown weary of their tiresome show and insists that they need a new and exciting product. The answer to their prayers comes with the arrival of Bryce’s two hoods who, having sold the body of Carter to a body bank, offer them a computer that stores the memory of Max.
The proposed Max Headroom series was initially to have been told in weekly instalments that would have included intermittent music videos, but concerns that the backstory would take too long to unfold convinced the producers that a one-hour pilot episode, in the form of a made-for-television movie, would be created. Yet despite Max being the selling point of both the film and series, the character would not appear in the movie until forty minutes in, thus making the character secondary to his ‘human’ co-stars.
Amazed by their discovery, Reg and Dominique watch as the personality of Max slowly comes together, a mixture of charm and sarcasm, with Reg proudly cheering ‘go for it Max.’ But Edison, having awoken from his slumber, reunites with Theora to expose the scandal of the Channel 23, capturing both Grossman and Bryce on air and challenging them to reveal the truth” ‘You’re going to tell me exactly what I want to know about blipverts. The whole story!’
Following the release of the TV movie, Max Headroom became a cultural icon as the character starred in his own television show, interviewed musicians and celebrities and even enjoyed a brief career as a pop star, collaborating with the Art of Noise on the 1986 hit Paranoimia and even offering his own festive tune, Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You’re a Lovely Guy). The popularity of Max reached as far as the United States, with both Frewer and Pays once again playing Carter and Theora, respectively, while the plot for the TV movie was recycled for the new show’s pilot episode, appropriately-titled Blipverts.
His influence on pop culture was so profound that in November 1987, a pirate video of an individual dressed as Max Headroom and mimicking his mannerisms, interrupted the broadcasts of two television stations in Chicago. Two years later, Max was referenced during the ‘Cafe 80s’ segment of the sci-fi blockbuster Back to the Future Part II. The pop culture phenomen of Max Headroom that would become a fixture of the late 1980s was a result of the one-hour movie. As Max himself stated in one of his videos, ‘Sit back, relax and enjoy my film!’