Digitiser Live, Harrow Arts Centre, 20th July 2019

Teletext was never meant to last. And why would it? Primarily used for news, sports results and holiday deals, its content was briefly relevant and then cast into the abyss. It wasn’t archived because it wasn’t considered valuable – but at least one small but perfectly formed part absolutely was.

This was Digitiser, Teletext’s video game page. On paper (well, TV screen) it provided what you’d expect: news, reviews, charts and letters. But that was infused with a daily dose of bizarre comedy and incredibly odd characters. Its popularity gave creator Mr Biffo (aka Paul Rose) a way to push back against stuffy Teletext suits who wanted their video game pages to be anodyne PR bumph rather than full of nightmarish monsters and thinly-veiled sexual innuendo. What idiots they were.

And now it’s back. On stage! Digitiser Live follows a successful Kickstarter campaign (of which I am a backer) that produced six very funny episodes. This live show continues (and improves) what they began. Biffo is aided by Paul Gannon, Larry Bundy Jr and Octav1us Kitten (all of whom have successfully carved out their own corner of the UK gaming scene and are amazing in their own right) and serves up two and a half hours of extremely strange entertainment.

An introduction video of dogs wildly humping various objects set the tone for what was to come: a fever dream of quasi-video game related sketches and contests. My faves were a quiz based around Sonic the Hedgehog fan fiction (including a delightful gallery of Sonic-themed vore art), a foul-smelling contest in which Mario made contestants sniff his pipes and a parade of minor celebrities sending messages via Cameo to pay tribute to the life of ‘Bronk’.

But the moment that most neatly summarises Digitiser Live was the terrifying appearance of a swollen-headed goggle-eyed ghoul – the ‘Beautiful Boy’. This unnerving creation stalked the audience dispensing tiny plastic babies for no apparent reason. For Digitiser fans this is par for the course, god only knows what the venue staff were thinking.

Full credit to all involved for making this so great, because reviving a 1990s Teletext page on stage sounds like a terrible idea. Revisiting what you found hilarious as a teenager can be a minefield of cringe (FYI, Charlie Brooker’s PC Zone columns have not aged well…). Plus, I had a minor fear that a modern Digitiser revival would rest on its laurels, regurgitate catchphrases and rely on lazy ‘random’ humour.

Picture from @PhillEccles

But Digitiser Live avoids wallowing in the past, instead throwing up a bunch of new ideas that continue what came before. The fact that it all works so well is testament to the comedy talents of Mr Biffo, whose personality saturates practically every inch of the show and who proves to have a charismatic and likeable stage presence.

Biffo presents a fun combination of performative cruelty and genuine vulnerability, with a childlike sense of delight that he’s able to get away with so much and doesn’t need to censor himself. Keys to the show’s success is that he isn’t just trying to ape his writing style from Digitiser‘s heyday. This isn’t him doing cover versions of his 90s hits, this is simply what he finds funny.

On the basis of this and his recent work on YouTube, Biffo is an extremely underappreciated comedian and it’s touching to see him in front of an appreciative crowd after a career spent behind the scenes slaving away on scripts about dancing dogs.

I’ve been writing about theatre and comedy for almost a decade now and, though it’s impossible for me to view Digitiser Live without sentiment, it was really great.

Plus, due to it not being a lazy nostalgia fest, I’m sure that audiences who have never used (or heard of) Teletext in their lives would also love it. With video game related comedy on the up at the moment (proving very popular at the Edinburgh Fringe), this has the potential to be a real winner. I want more!

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