An off the cuff joke and memories of Fireball XL5 - Ian McMillan

It began when a joke popped into my head, as jokes often do.

Ian was a big fan of the puppet series Fireball XL5 when he was growing up.

For some reason I was thinking about the size classification for shirts worn by men.

So you get S for small, M for medium, L for large; and then the fun really begins, so you can go from L to XL to XXL and on until the collar has got more Xs on it than a Valentine card.

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And then, by that process that you might call inspiration or a free gift, that old puppet series Fireball XL5 landed at the front of my brain and the joke “What was the biggest Gerry Anderson spaceship? Fireball XXL5” was formed in my mind and made its way from there onto Twitter where it got a couple of thumbs-up emojis.

That might have been it for Fireball XL5 except that, as we all know, the cultural icons that are part of your childhood stay with you forever and walk alongside you as you shamble into adulthood.

If you don’t recall Fireball XL5, let me fill you in. The eponymous craft was piloted by Steve Zodiac with the help of the glamorous Venus and a robot called Robert, whose unforgettable catchphrase was “On our way home”, which me and my mates at school would drive the teachers to distraction with by repeating it endlessly when the bell rang.

The music was stirring, the action was quick and the dialogue was punchy; I realise this only in retrospect, of course; with a child’s eye view, I somehow thought that the whole show was a stretched and moulded version of reality.

The thing I often forgot, and which my older brother would endlessly point out to me, was that Steve Zodiac and the rest of the characters were all puppets.

Puppets that were obviously puppets with a capital P: you could see the strings because they were as thick as the ropes you might tie a channel ferry up to a jetty with; they moved with the jerky deliberation of the almost drunk; and their mouths didn’t quite co-ordinate with the things they were saying.

Deep down I knew they were puppets but deeper down I didn’t care. I loved puppets anyway.

Punch and Judy on the front at some windswept holiday resort; Sooty and Sweep so carefully manipulated by artistic hands as to seem more exaggerated than they actually were; spindly and scary Japanese puppets that I’d seen hanging in a shop once, like resting spiders.

My brother could say “But they’re only puppets” as much as he liked; it was because they were puppets that they could tell the outrageous stories they told with such skill and verve and that was why I loved them.

When a story is told well, the not-like-us aspect of the teller makes the tale even more visceral.

And then, the night after I’d made the Fireball XL5 gag, I had a vivid dream where I was a puppet, piloting a rocket to the stars, and I woke up saying “On our way home”.

My wife wasn’t amused. Especially when I started singing the Fireball XL5 theme tune.