Retro Review | Max Headroom (1985)

Retro Review | Max Headroom (1985)

In 1985, a cyberpunk tale was used to introduce the world’s first computer generated video DJ, Max Headroom.

Everyone of a certain age probably knows of Max Headroom. The character first appeared in the mid 1980s and used to introduce music videos on a British program for Channel 4.

As his popularity grew, Max also interviewed celebrities. His fast wits and zany sense of humour meant he was a joy to watch as he often left his interviewees both entertained and confused. Channel 4’s ratings for the show rose fast.

But who is Max Headroom?

Max was a computer-generated character who obviously could only appear on televisions or monitors. He only ever appeared as a set of head and shoulders. He had smooth, slicked back, blonde hair and a suit that was sharp, glossy and never wrinkled.

Also, because his computer routines weren’t perfect, Max often stuttered with not only his speech but his movements as well.

While some may have fallen for the ruse, Max Headroom was actually actor Matt Frewer. His appearance was due to prosthetic makeup applied to his face to give him that computer generated angular look.

His suit was a fibreglass shell for Matt to wear over his shoulders and the stuttering was achieved with the use of video effects.

Max Headroom had several successful shows with music videos and interviews and appeared in advertising for Coca-Cola. He appears in the song and video for the Art of Noise track “Paranoimia” which was a top 40 hit.

For a while Max seemed to be everywhere on branded products, even some aimed at children, I had the Max Headroom annual, a book with stories and puzzles.

There was even a Max Headroom game for the ZX Spectrum which was damn hard. I remember a friend and I used a walkthrough to see the ending.  As a Max Headroom fan at the time, and in general, this is one of the best Spectrum game endings I’ve ever seen.

But I feel that the large majority of people who are aware of Max Headroom are unaware of the original film put out on Channel 4 in April 1985, before this all began, to explain the character’s origins.

Entitled, of course, Max Headroom, the film opens on a barren desolate landscape with a few buildings, some in ruins, but standing tall, above all the rest, is the huge Network 23 skyscraper. It’s name blazing in red neon from the top.

The Network 23 building (left) towers above all others.

We learn this film is set twenty minutes into the future. A brilliant description that I still love today. In this dystopian future, the war is between the television networks that will do practically anything to keep their ratings up. Higher ratings will bring in the bigger advertising contracts.

Over this opening we have been hearing the voices of various characters including Edison Carter, Network 23’s top reporter whose show, “What I want to know” is one of the highest rated.

He is travelling by helicopter to the strange news report that in the last hour a microwave has exploded in a residential block of flats, but bizarrely, the police are blocking off the area.

Edison is a one-man crew and carries his own camera around with him that is broadcasting back to Network 23 at all times. This is so his controller, Gorrister, can offer his remote support such as giving hm directions and hacking computers remotely.

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Once Edison is at the flats, but before he can really start to investigate, a phone call to the network supervisor demands that the story be pulled. Gorrister is informed, and he turns off his link to Edison.

Edison, without support, is attacked by the police before he can make it back to the safety of the helicopter.

Once back at Network 23, Edison attacks Gorrister for cutting him off. Gorrister quits. Edison receives a new controller in the form of Theora Jones.

Meanwhile, on the upper levels of the skyscraper, in the executive boardroom, the real story behind the microwave explosion is revealed.

A very intelligent young man, Bryce, was tasked with developing a way to stop people changing channels during commercial breaks. Bryce has developed the Blipvert, a system which compresses a thirty-second advert down to three. There’s just one side effect, it can cause some people to spontaneously explode!

What is Network 23 to do? They have the ultimate tool to keep people watching, its just that some may day. In this world, nothing is more important than ratings. The other problem is that Edison is still sniffing around the story and wants to discover the truth.

How does Max Headroom fit into all this? I’ll drop a little clue. In the UK, you’ll see a roof with low clearance or height restriction barriers with the wording MAX HEADROOM. One of the character’s creators, George Stone, couldn’t resist using that as a name, “Instant branding, instant recognition.”

Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) and Theora Jones (Amanda Pays)

Max Headroom is a very British cyberpunk tale that has quite a few familiar faces from British television. Matt Frewer, as Edison Carter is probably the only American accent in the film.

With my television habits having become so Americanized over the years, it was a little strange at first hearing such strong British accents. Although it’s not all British, can’t forget the Scottish dialect of the two thugs for hire, George Rossi as the muscle, Mahler, and the brains of the two, Hilton McRae as Breugal.

Created on a television budget, this film has a particular look that works for the story. The bleak exterior locations were filmed at the former Beckton Gas Works site in East London. This is the same location that pretended to be Vietnam for Staley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

The interiors are dressed in strange ways that don’t really reveal the time period and harsh lighting usually pours in through window blinds with smoke hanging in the air.

Edison and his new controller, Theora played by Amanda Pays, make a great team and are incredibly watchable. The same goes for Blank Reg and Dominique, played by William Morgan Sheppard and Hilary Tindall respectively, an older couple who run a pirate television station, Big Time Television, from an ageing pink bus. They bitch and moan about running a television station that hardly anyone watches, probably the most endearing characters of the film.

As this was a made for television, it has a short run time of just an hour, and in viewing the film for this review, that time just flew by. I really enjoyed this film, probably more so that when I saw it in my younger years.

As this was an introduction to a unique character who would then have his own series playing music videos, I honestly don’t know if there was any more to the film’s narrative. Max Headroom’s finale is open-ended, I do wonder if there was some kind of link in the opening moments of Max’s first television show.

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The story is simple but very enjoyable. It talks about aspects of our lives that would become a reality years later. Whilst we don’t have the craziness of Blipverts, many companies have experimented with advertising techniques, everyone has experienced the forced adverts of YouTube for example.

The computer generated Max Headroom (Matt Frewer)

Also, the story of having CGI generated characters on our television screens is something that has been seen numerous times and is becoming more advanced as the technology becomes more powerful.

You may be interested to learn that this film was also the springboard for a dramatic American television show that was broadcast two years after the original. Running for two seasons, the show ran for only 14 episodes.

Matt Frewer and Amanda Pays reprise the same roles for the show but everyone else has been recast.

Whilst the US incarnation of Max Headroom looks similar in style, for lack of a better description, it does appear that someone has turned up the brightness by around 20%. I’m not referring to a technical error, just the fact that everything is lit differently and not so dark as the original.

As you may be aware, US television shows never actually run for the full length of their allotted time slots. So, for the full hour that Max Headroom was allotted, without commercials it only runs for 48 minutes. That’s a full ten minutes shorter than the UK film.

The biggest difference is that Blank Reg and Dominique with their pirated TV station run from the pink bus are excised completely. As this was the final destination for Max in the original film, he now stays at Network 23 instead.

The American remake does use several snippets of the UK version, which includes the vital part of the chase that gives Max Headroom his name.

Edison and Theora with their network controller Murray (Jeffrey Tambor) in the US remake.

There’s a lot less of the two muscle men for hire Mahler and Breugal, which in turn means less violence. Speaking of which, whilst I wouldn’t call Max Headroom a violent film, there is a smidgen of blood. The Americanized version has action, but nothing that I would refer to as violence. The whole aspect feels a little lighter and not so dark and foreboding.

The story is still essentially the same bar a few changes, and it is still very enjoyable. If I had to pick between the two, it would definitely be the UK original for its brooding, darker, grimy look. It feels less sanitized than the US remake.

Max Headroom was designed to be the introduction of a new kind of video presenter, but I think it stands up perfectly well as its own film. A cyberpunk tale that is entertaining and doesn’t look too bad considering its now around 35 years old.

Max Headroom is a very entertaining if a little obscure piece of British cyberpunk.

If you wish to watch Max Headroom for yourself, here is an excellent high quality copy from YouTube.

John Abbitt

About the author | John Abbitt

@UKFilmNerd | John loves film, and he used to write for his own website, The Tydirium Hangar Bay, in the late 1990s. Whilst that website became lost in the passages of time, John's love of film did not. He's back, writing for The Unheard Nerd.