The staggering popularity of the Planet of the Apes franchise in the UK led to a curious bit of live theatre.
In the middle of the 1970s, Planet of the Apes was huge in Britain. Really huge. While the TV series had bombed in America, seeing it cancelled after just thirteen episodes, in Britain it was a ratings smash, and Ape Fever was rampant among the nation’s youth. The shops were awash with ape merchandise, both official and otherwise – Mego action figures (based on both the movies and the TV show), posters, T-shirts, badges, model kits, masks, games and more were cranked out by eager companies keen to cash in. Brown Watson produced three annuals that mixed comic strips based on the TV show with short stories and articles, and the assorted Apes novels were widely available.
Marvel UK’s weekly Planet of the Apes comic launched in October 1974, and quickly ran out of reprint material from the original monthly US comics (which for a while avoided cancellation simply in order to feed material to the big selling British edition) and even ran retooled versions of Marvel’s Killraven strip, with the character renamed Apeslayer and the Martians he’d originally battled reworked as apes. The comic ran for an impressive 139 editions – more than most UK Marvel comics of the 1970s managed.
Marvel UK at the time was little more than an office in Sevenoaks, where Neil Tennant – later to be a Pet Shop Boy – ‘edited’ the UK weeklies by sorting out the letters page and sending the retooled artwork delivered from the US to the printers. It wasn’t a business set up to deal with the massive amount of fan mail that started to flood in for Planet of the Apes. Luckily for them, an official UK fan club had just been launched by the unexciting-sounding Television Character Productions, a family-run PR firm with big ambitions. They had secured the rights to run an Apes fan club from 1975 and 1978 and quickly came to an arrangement with Marvel UK to take over the fan mail in exchange for weekly promotion in the comic – a system that worked brilliantly for both companies, as each fed the growing Apes obsession.
TCP was run by ‘Big’ Mike Caulfield, a man who had ambitions far beyond sending a monthly newsletter out to an army of ten-year-olds. Along with his wife June, brother Peter and secretary Sally Skinner, Caulfield set up a series of public appearances by characters in the show (the costumes band make up being June’s responsibility) at supermarkets and shopping centres, allowing members of the public to have their photo taken with Urko or Galen. This innovation quickly evolved into a live show, where a full cast would perform a mostly unscripted stunt show with horses and lots of action, usually as part of touring rodeos and circuses. There would be audience interaction, with the cast running out into the crowd in search of the escaped humans, and it all sounded tremendously entertaining. Reports on the shows would then be written up in the newsletter, stoking up excitement for other performances. These shows ran from July 1975 through to September 1976, by which time an even more ambitious theatrical extravaganza was underway – a bona fide Planet of the Apes stage play, long before The Simpsons ever thought of the idea.
Written by the circus show Fight Director Mike McCarthy, the show mixed elements of the TV show and movies, with two astronauts (named Taylor and Brent in the script, but regularly renamed from show to show) crashing through the time barrier and landing in London circa 3085, when the apes rule supreme. The show mixed drama and pantomime, again with audience participation, and featured characters like Galen, Urko, Dr Zaius and the glamorous human slave girl Pila. The first performance took place at the Theatre Royal in Stratford on July 19th 1976, where it would play for a month. A second company opened up in Great Yarmouth a week later and again ran for a month. Sale of the Century hostess Angela Daniels played Pila in this show, apparently the closest the show ever got to a ‘name’ star.
By the start of 1977, the apes were back to making appearances at Tesco across the country, and Apes fever was starting to diminish. The Marvel comic had been absorbed into the Mighty World of Marvel and was finally dropped entirely in June. But the live shows would continue, in a rather piecemeal manner, into 1978, with a fortnight at the Cleethorpes Pier between July 24th and August 5th being the last gasp. That also seems to have been the end of both the fan club and Television Character Promotions – the business had been on thin ice since Mike Caulfield had moved to Leeds in March 1977, leaving the admin up to Peter. The fan club probably lasted longer than most, but no doubt there were still some diehard fans disgruntled and a pound membership out of pocket when it folded.
In these days of carefully controlled franchises where everything is coordinated on a global level, it’s fun to look back at this curious, practically forgotten period where localised rogue elements were allowed to create their own variations on a popular story. You can read the original stage play here: http://www.hassleinbooks.com/pages/news_detail10.php
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