I'm on the phone with actor Tony Gardner, and he's describing a joke about wanking. Gardner has appeared in Last Tango in Halifax, The Thick of It and Fresh Meat – but the joke he's referring to doesn't feature in any of these shows. It was in My Parents Are Aliens, a kids' series in which Gardner played an extraterrestrial named Brian.
"Mr. Whiteside is obsessed with Kate Winslet," Gardner explains. On the show, Mr. Whiteside is a perpetually harangued maths teacher, usually found doling out detentions in a ill-fitting suit. "He has Kate Winslet on his wallpaper, and they got away with putting a picture of Kate Winslet next to his bed with a box of tissues. That was clearly a wanking joke, and it just was in there!"
Broadcast on CITV between 1999 and 2006, My Parents Are Aliens followed Brian and Sophie, two aliens from the planet Valux who crash-land their spaceship on Earth. Hoping to blend in and avoid detection, the pair "morph" from their alien bodies into humans and adopt three orphaned siblings: moody teenager Mel, her loveable con artist brother Josh, and Lucy, the youngest and probably most intelligent member of the family. Chaos – and masturbation gags – ensue as the children and their alien foster parents attempt to function as a family.
"I could give you a list of very naughty things that got through – there’s the odd euphemism in there that I don’t think they realised was a euphemism," says Gardner.
Of course, the success of My Parents Are Aliens wasn’t down to its unexpectedly adult humour alone. Commissioned by Yorkshire Television – a regional franchise of the ITV network – it ran for eight series, winning multiple Royal Television Society Awards and nominations for three Children's BAFTAs. The script was a blend of sci-fi and sitcom, referencing Third Rock from the Sun and Space Race-era set design, as well as The Phil Silvers Show and Laurel and Hardy-esque slapstick.
"It was just a silly idea I had about these aliens," says Andy Watts, creator of the show. "It was a fantasy I’d often had as a kid, that I’d landed on an alien planet and didn’t know anything. But you can’t film on an alien planet with the budgets we have on children’s TV, so I flipped the idea and made it two aliens coming to Earth."
Watts was training to be a solicitor when a screenplay he wrote "as a means of procrastination from my law studies" landed him a job at the BBC. He wrote My Parents Are Aliens shortly after this, in 1998. It was commissioned almost immediately by Steve Andrew, controller of children’s programming at ITV, with production starting the following year. Watts worked with a group of writers – including a pre-Peep Show Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain – to expand his idea to a six-episode series.
"We’d often ask ourselves, ‘Could you tell this story without Brian and Sophie being aliens?'" Watts says. "We would always be pushing ourselves to find a unique twist. That would often be the reason we’d end up in those unusual places, slightly darker than you’d normally expect."
A typical plot might see Josh run a scam selling his schoolmates' computer passwords, while Lucy and her nerdy mate Wendy create an accidental explosion in the chemistry lab. Mel exited most scenes with a slammed door and an irritable flick of her crimped hair. Meanwhile, Brian and Sophie – newbies, as they are, to the human race – might learn the difference between platonic and intimate love, or go to the dentist for the first time, or discover what a bath is. In a Halloween special, Brian morphs into a vampire and bites Mr. Whiteside. Sophie, played in the first two series by Barbara Durkin, before being replaced by Carla Mendonça, has an ongoing crush on Josh’s schoolmate, Pete. So does Brian.
"It was just a joy," Gardner says of filming, which took place at Yorkshire Television’s studio in Leeds. "We’d have two days rehearsal and three days filming, and it was just beautiful. The set was designed so well, and you’d get to do all sorts of mad prosthetics things and dress up daft. It was just a very creative process all the way through."
Alex Kew played Josh. He was 12 years old when he shot the pilot, and stayed with the show until 2005. When his voice broke in series five, the writers wrote an episode around it. "Josh seemed like a fun character to play from the script," he remembers. "That’s probably the most I thought about it in the beginning, but over the years, and now looking back, Josh was very human. A flawed but ultimately good kid in a frankly ridiculous situation."
This relatability – combined with the absurd premise of living with alien foster parents in a grounded spaceship – is what set My Parents Are Aliens apart from other children’s shows. The jokes had a subversive edge, not dissimilar to Dick and Dom in Da Bungalow – an equally unhinged kids' show broadcast at around the same time on rival channel CBBC. Would Grange Hill have featured a scene in which one the characters nails themselves to a cross, for example?
"Somebody wrote in and complained about that one," laughs Watts.
It’s not surprising that the video of Gardner dressed in a leopard print two-piece, dancing to King Princess at last year’s Glastonbury, went viral. Clearly, I’m not the only one with fond memories of rushing home from school to catch the new episode of My Parents Are Aliens. The late 90s and early 2000s were something of a golden age for children’s programming on ITV. Nigel Pickard became controller of children’s and youth programmes in 1998, and used his £45 million budget to commission originally produced, long-running shows including SMTV Live, Worst Witch and Art Attack. This approach enticed young viewers away from the BBC. In 2000, two years after My Parents Are Aliens launched, weekday ratings for CITV were up roughly 10 percent from the year before.
"Our audience figures just kept climbing," says Beryl Richards, who worked as originating producer for the first series of My Parents Are Aliens. "I’d never had an experience quite as exciting – it was only six episodes and they were obviously really connecting. School kids were talking about it in the playground because, the next week, the figures would be even higher."
Emma Lindley directed the first series of the show and worked with Richards to cast the children and aliens. They held several rounds of auditions, favouring kids who hadn't been to drama school. "It was important to get children who were natural and could also handle what was essentially a sitcom for kids," Lindley remembers. "They weren’t fake or phoney about it. I remember seeing a tape of Alex in his casting and thinking, 'Yeah, he’s got a bit of star quality.'"
Richards also wanted Kew and his onscreen siblings to be played by children the same age as the characters. Sixteen-year-old Danielle McCormack was cast as Mel, and Lucy was played by eight-year-old Charlotte Francis. In series six and seven, two more foster kids joined: CJ, played by Olisa Odele, and Stephanie Fearon as Harry. "You see a lot of kids shows where they cast young-looking 24-year-olds, and I find that gets in the way," Richards explains. "It takes away from its authenticity."
There were other advantages to casting kids as the age they played on screen. "It was great to see the kids grow up," Gardner says. "As each one reached 18, they were allowed to come to the pub after work. Dani would be the first one, then Alex, and then finally Charlotte. When I saw her the other day, she said, 'We all stopped filming it when I turned 18 and could have gone down the pub!'"
Casting Gardner was a much more straightforward process. Richards still remembers his audition.
"He was quite off-the-wall, and just different to anyone else I’d seen,” she says. “Odd things happen when adults come for casting in kids' shows. One of the things they do is shout at you in a very loud voice. It’s some weird notion they’ve got in their head about pantomime. Tony didn’t do that."
Gardner is a trained medical doctor. He qualified at Guy’s Hospital in London in 1987, and was working as a locum GP at the time of auditioning for My Parents Are Aliens. "I was still doing GP locums when it went out on television," he says. "The receptionist used to hear kids coming out from seeing me and going, 'That was Brian, mum! That was Brian!’ and their mums going, ‘No, that was the doctor.' It was all getting a bit odd, so one year after the first series, I did my last GP locum. I said to my wife, 'I’m going to stop.' My wife is a doctor, and without her being a doctor, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I do – which is sort of run away and join the circus."
It’s hard to imagine how My Parents Are Aliens would have turned out had Gardner decided to stick to his day job. His performance of Brian makes the show at once unworldly (a long-running gag is his subscription to Knitting for Boys magazine) and devious – he sees no issue with morphing into a cat to burgle the neighbours, or helping Lucy cheat at the school chess competition. "I was allowed to put my own spin on it,” Gardner says. “And as the show progressed, we did stuff that made us laugh, and fortunately, it made kids laugh as well.”
As aliens, Brian and Sophie were also able to expose the stupidity of certain human constructions. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the show’s treatment of gender. Watts and his team deliberately wrote Brian with “stereotypically female” attributes. One episode features him becoming pregnant, and in another he dresses in Mel's clothes. This breaking down of gender norms is surprisingly radical for a show conceived in the 90s, and in stark contrast to the transphobia that has sadly proliferated British media since its end.
“Neither Brian nor Sophie was technically male or female,” Watts points out. “I never really thought of them as either. There was a Valentine’s episode where Brian starts reading Mills and Boon literature and gets all emotional, and it was funny. I don’t know what it was that just made that character – I’m sure it was to do with Tony’s performance – but also being able to explore gender traits and just trying to break the stereotype and ask those questions. Brian just leant himself to it. Why can’t boys knit?”
What made My Parents Are Aliens a great show, though, more than the progressive storylines and clever humour, was that it reflected something of what it was to be a kid in 2000s Britain. As coronavirus has made our world look like something of an alien planet, it’s a time I’m growing increasingly nostalgic for.
"This was a series written with care, reflecting the voices of the children in our country,” says Gardner. “It reflected their lives in the way that repeats from days gone past or American shows don’t, and that’s the importance of it.”
My Parents Are Aliens ended in 2006, when ITV closed its in-house children’s production unit. Everyone I spoke to for this piece expressed sadness at the show having stopped when it did – but also spoke of the happy memories. The cast and crew held a reunion in Leeds last year. Kew, who still acts and plays guitar, has met up with Gardner at a number of summer festivals. Lindley keeps in touch with other members of the production crew on Facebook, and Watts doesn’t rule out the possibility of bringing the series back one day. “It’s quite weird that, 20 years later, I’m answering questions about it,” concludes Kew. “I would never have predicted that.”
And Gardner? He loves hearing from people who watched the show as kids. He also knows all about that video of him vibing out to King Princess.
"I was having a good time, it wasn’t embarrassing – that’s just social media,” he says. “If it was me throwing up in a long-drop toilet or something, it might be different. It was sweet. It was King Princess as well, who I love.
“That’s my life. I just get recognised every day for being in that show."