Comedy Rewind

Cruise Of The Gods

Cruise Of The Gods. Image shows left to right: Nick Lee (Steve Coogan), Andy van Allen (Rob Brydon)

Do you remember Children Of Castor?

The cult British science fiction series opened in Leicester in 1982 where seven members of a school rock band happen to be rehearsing in an underground studio at the precise moment a computer error leads America to accidentally detonate its entire nuclear arsenal. The resulting catastrophe literally blows America off the face of the planet. Earth literally splits into two new worlds. As the show's opening narration puts it: "Earth becomes the new Castor, while America is Pollux."

Having first gone underground as teenage New Romantic wannabes, our young heroes emerge as survivors, fashioning their musical instruments into makeshift weapons as they explore a strange new post-apocalyptic world populated by "mutoids" (mutants) and radioactive potatoes. Chief amongst them is Romak, played by Andy Van Allen. Romak's idealism ("what is the point of being human if we cannot be humane?") frequently brings him into conflict with the hard-edged approach of fellow bandmate, Damsar (Nick Lee). "It's a wild world out there," Damsar reflects. And so it proves.

But, of course, in reality, there was never a show called Children Of Castor. The entirely fictional programme merely serves as the backdrop to Cruise Of The Gods, the one-off comedy film which first aired on BBC Two on 23rd December 2002. The story picks up the story of actor, Andy Van Allen (Rob Brydon), twenty years after his fleeting Children Of Castor success. By this point, the series theme tune's central mantra "this is the future we deserve" has something of a hollow ring for Andy.

Now in his thirties, he has totally failed to capitalise on his early success. With his acting days long behind him, Andy lives in a bedsit and works as a hotel porter. His one other big opportunity, a time-travel themed Children's Film Foundation production named Billy's Time Bike had the misfortune to be released in the same week as Back To The Future. His only other screen credit was an undistinguished appearance in TV's Casualty. This is in stark contrast to his onetime co-star Nick Lee (Steve Coogan) who has gone onto international fame and glory in the celebrated American Arthur Conan Doyle reboot, Sherlock Homes In Miami. Forgotten and broke, little wonder when Andy is given the opportunity to be guest of honour on a special luxury cruise in the Adriatic accompanied by a sizeable contingent of the Children Of Castor Fan Club, he jumps at the chance.

Cruise Of The Gods. Image shows left to right: Jeff Monks (David Walliams), Andy van Allen (Rob Brydon)

There's undoubtedly something funny about seeing Rob Brydon, who today is well-known as the public face of a specific brand of luxury cruise liner, playing a character having such a thoroughly miserable time on a cruise holiday here. David Walliams excels as fan club head, Jeff 'Lurky' Monks, a man who clearly hero worships Andy and who regards Children Of Castor to be superior even to "Juliet Bravo, The Gentle Touch and the sitcoms of Russ Abbot" in the pantheon of great British television. More troubling perhaps is Russell (James Corden), the fan club treasurer who seems strangely fixated on Andy, from the moment he arrives on board.

With all the other ex-Children of Castor either dead, in prison, appearing in Cats or - as in Nick Lee's case, otherwise engaged - Andy soon finds the only familiar face on board is the show's misanthropic creator, Hugh Bispham (Philip Jackson), a recovering alcoholic, otherwise best known for writing a short-lived sitcom which featured Russ Abbot as a policeman who shared a flat with a punk rocker played by Freddie Starr. There's also Graham (Niall Buggy, brilliant), a carpet warehouse owner and rather excitable one-time extra whose sole claim to fame is that he played a dying man who repeats the words, "I'm changing! I'm changing!" during the original show's title sequence. Graham is unique amongst the show's original team in that he is genuinely happy to be there, enthusiastically repeating his catchphrase, often at full volume at every conceivable opportunity.

Cruise Of The Gods. Image shows from L to R: Hugh Bispham (Philip Jackson), Nick Lee (Steve Coogan), Jeff Monks (David Walliams), Andy van Allen (Rob Brydon), Russell (James Corden)

Andy soon finds himself engaged in an endless succession of minor humiliations as he fulfils his contractual agreement to participate in a never-ending series of autograph-signing events, photo opportunities, quizzes, lectures detailing various fan theories and Q&A sessions with the legion of Children Of Castor fans on board. Much of the fun in watching Cruise Of The Gods is seeing the efforts writers Tim Firth (Calendar Girls), Michael Marshall Smith and Peter Baynham and the production team put into making Children Of Castor seem like a plausible (albeit terrible) TV show which might actually have aired in the early Eighties.

Although we only ever see a few minutes of the appalling special effects, bad writing and hammy acting which made up the original show (which seems to owe a lot to the likes of The Tomorrow People, Children Of The Stones, The Tripods and Blake's 7), there is plenty of evidence of abundant Children Of Castor merchandise (including t-shirts and annuals) as well as the literary pretensions of its creator (in a nice detail, all the episode titles seem to be quotes from Shakespeare).

In an admittedly unlikely plot twist, we are soon introduced to the world of Nick Lee (Steve Coogan). Thanks to the subsequent success of shows like Sherlock and the New York-based Elementary, the notion of Sherlock Holmes being updated to 21st century Miami seems much less novel today than it did in 2002. What we see of Sherlock Holmes In Miami suggests it is filmed in a similar style to the then popular US drama, 24, although the premise suggests an updated Magnum P.I.

Despite cameos from entertainers Jack Jones and Brian Conley, Steve Coogan (like Nick Lee himself) was undeniably the biggest star of the show at the time. It is interesting to learn that writer Tim Firth originally envisaged Coogan in the Andy Van Allen role with Brydon taking the smaller role as Lee, a character who for all his Hollywood success seems to have retained his essential decency in a way which Andy, a compulsive womaniser who at one point seduces vulnerable fan Jenny (Helen Coker), somehow has not.

Cruise Of The Gods. Image shows left to right: Jenny (Helen Coker), Andy van Allen (Rob Brydon), Nick Lee (Steve Coogan)

Although The Trip still lay some years in the future, Coogan and Brydon were already working together regularly by this time, Brydon cropping up as an annoying journo in the film 24 Hour Party People (2002) which starred Coogan as Factory Records creator Tony Wilson. Brydon also appeared in an episode of I'm Alan Partridge while Coogan took the title role of the previously unseen Geoff in the final part of Brydon's TV calling card, Marion And Geoff, in 2003. Although by no means unknown in 2002, having enjoyed his big break co-starring with Julia Davis in Human Remains in 2000, Brydon was not yet the star he is today and would have been disappointed by the failure of Cruise Of The Gods to attract a large audience.

Despite proving a ratings disappointment at the time, the filming of Cruise Of The Gods has proven to be remarkably well-documented with Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, David Walliams, James Corden and Russell Brand all recording their memories of the shoot in their subsequent autobiographies. Walliams, for example, recalls being almost as starstruck at the prospect of working alongside Coogan and Brydon as his character does when in the presence of the stars of Children Of Castor. Despite delivering a brilliant performance, Walliams admits to struggling with mental health issues at the time. He recalls being struck by James Corden's low self-esteem and admits to disliking Russell Brand during the shoot. Brand was then also relatively unknown and had a small speaking part as Woolly Hat Fan before he was fired from the production. Six years later, the massive success of Gavin & Stacey, would, of course, transform Corden's life and career, providing a substantial boost to Brydon (who took the role of Uncle Bryn in the sitcom) in the process.

Cruise Of The Gods. Image shows left to right: Nick Lee (Steve Coogan), Andy van Allen (Rob Brydon)

Although it undeniably owes a creative debt to the US film Galaxy Quest, Cruise Of The Gods has proven influential in itself, foreshadowing both Garth Marenghi's Darkplace (2004) and the 2017 film Mindhorn, all of which relied upon the creation of non-existent long cancelled Eighties TV shows for their storylines. It remains a genuine comedic landmark and deserves to be both better known and more widely seen today. In short, it is truly a holiday to remember.

Cruise Of The Gods

Comedy drama starring Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, David Walliams and James Corden.

Andy Van Allen, former hero of a cult 1980s futuristic TV show is now a washed-up, bitter failure of a hotel porter, unlike his co-star, Nick Lee, who went on to fame and fortune in the USA. They are reunited by fans of the show, but how will they get on?

First released: Monday 2nd June 2003

  • Distributor: 2 Entertain
  • Region: 2
  • Discs: 1
  • Catalogue: BBCDVD1216

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  • Released: Thursday 17th November 2016
  • Distributor: BBC Worldwide
  • Minutes: 90

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