The walls of Joseph Marshall's bedroom are lined with shelves of children's television memorabilia: Lift Off, Magic Mountain, The Noddy Shop. He was once one of the world's foremost Thomas the Tank Engine collectors, with over 3000 items to his name.
The 18-year-old film student who lives and breathes kid's shows, with ambitions to someday make his own, and no show appeals to him more than Johnson & Friends. The 90s series about a pink elephant and his motley crew of sentient toy buddies stopped airing before Joseph was even born, but he's nuts for it—just look at his website, Michael's Bedroom, for proof.
Visiting the website is like an instant trip back to 1995. The theme song blares on autoplay and your eyes strain to read the text, which is set over the pattern of the quilt from the show. The website is basically an online museum of Johnson, with incredibly detailed information, ranging from episode overviews to old newspaper clippings about live stage shows. You can sense the love that's gone into it.
Joseph is serious about Johnson: he knows the budget for every episode ever made, dreams of remaking the show and has befriended the cast and crew. He has a lot of opinions about how Toy Story ripped off Johnson, and considers himself the world's biggest fan.
VICE spoke to the self-proclaimed Johnson historian to get the story behind his passion.
VICE: Hey Joseph, where did your interest in kids' TV stem from?
Joseph Marshall: I guess it's partly nostalgic, as well as an appreciation for the work that goes into the programs. As an upcoming filmmaker, my interest is mostly piqued by puppetry-styled programs, like Johnson & Friends, The Noddy Shop, Lift Off and anything by the Jim Henson company. Children's TV these days is nowhere near as good as it used to be—a lot of modern shows feel incredibly dumbed down. As someone who is very passionate about children's television and is set on making it into the industry, I have the drive and motivation to make things great again.
Do you remember your first specific memory of Johnson & Friends?
I thought Johnson & Friends had just been wiped from existence when I was about four years old. One time I went into my local library, and I didn't know it was actually called Johnson & Friends, I thought it was called Johnson the Elephant or something, and I searched on the computers, "Johnson", and it came up with Johnson & Friends. I clicked on it, and it was the show that I'd been looking for! I'd finally rediscovered the biggest mystery of my childhood.
How did that turn into the obsession you have today?
When I was very young, I became very obsessed with it because of how hard it was to find. It was one of those shows that was very different, so I wanted to find more of it but I couldn't. When I reached the age of about eight I grew out of most kids' shows except for Thomas the Tank Engine, and then in 2013, I started watching a couple of old shows that I watched when I was a kid. Johnson & Friends came up in recommended results and I thought to myself, "hmm, I remember this—I might check it out again." I was instantly attracted to the charm and nostalgia. Something sparked in me, and I thought, "Why the hell not start collecting this again?" And four years later, here we are.
You've got a massive Johnson collection. How did that start?
In 2013 I started collecting the merchandise, and because I already did this sort of thing with Thomas the Tank Engine. I bought a couple of things off eBay—one of the books, some video tapes. Now it's expanded to stuff from Japan, Norway, the UK, even some of the original shooting scripts kindly donated to me by the director.
So your focus has turned to Johnson now, but you started out collecting Thomas stuff. Why did you stop?
I went through this sort of identity crisis at the end of 2015 and thought to myself, "what the bloody hell am I doing?" The only good thing that came out of that, because I was very confused, is that I ended up losing 25 kilos, and since then I've lost another 10 kilos. I don't know what happened, but at least it prompted me to do something about my weight problem. At the time, I felt like I wasn't socially accepted. I thought "Alright, I'm going to drop this, I'm going to lose weight," and it turned out that no one gave a shit what I liked.
Are you in a better place now with Johnson collecting? Will you ever grow out of it?
I do feel like I'm in a better place. I'm not happy with how I am now physically, but I reckon if I keep going with what I'm doing in terms of studying film and losing weight and all that, I'll be in a place where I'm very happy. I'm getting there, and that's what gets me through the day, really. I think I'm always going to have an interest in the program; it's the inspiration as to why I want to be a filmmaker.
What do your family and friends think of your unique hobby?
They're all very accepting. I never grew out of Thomas the Tank Engine, so they were just used to me liking kids' shows. I'm not a recluse—I hang out with my mates, I go to the pub, I don't just sit at home and watch Johnson & Friends on repeat. My mates in real life will occasionally take the piss out of me, but I know it's all a good joke, and that's fair enough—it is funny.
What about dating. How do you approach bringing your Johnson love up?
That's the kind of thing I'd keep to myself for maybe a good couple of weeks into a relationship, because I feel like straight up saying "I love kids' shows" is going to make me look like a bit of a weirdo.
How has Johnson changed your life?
I was diagnosed with autism in 2004, and only found out in 2011. I convinced myself that there was something wrong with me, and stayed that way until I made contact with Garry Scale, the lovely man behind the voice of Johnson, in 2015. Speaking with people I admired so much and eventually becoming friends with them taught me a hell of a lot. I now know how to act "normal" and my autism has practically dissolved. The only sign of it is my extreme interest in children's programs, although that could be explained by nostalgic interest and the fact that I'm an upcoming filmmaker wanting to focus on children's programming. I'm very independent and can now easily fit into any social situation. If it wasn't for Johnson & Friends, I probably would be a very, very different person.
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