Chicken & Lantern: Series 2

As we have seen, the success of the first series of Chicken & Lantern was marred by the acrimonious departure of David Yip after the final episode. With a second series to be written and produced, and BBC executives pronouncing that it should be appealing to a potential North American audience, up-and-coming actor Bruce Willis was cast as Lantern. His wisecracking performance shifted the dynamic of the show entirely, forcing Prunella Scales to play Chicken as a more thoughtful, maternal character — perhaps understandable after the events at the end of the first series.

Controversially, the title sequence was reshot, and while its story of how a rotisserie chicken escapes her spit to travel through time on a Chinese lantern was much the same, it was relocated from a Basingstoke shopping precinct to Chinatown, New York City. No on-screen explanation was ever given for this contradiction, although after the show’s cancellation the continuity-heavy fan-written novels of the 90s put forward any number of wild theories to reconcile it.

SERIES 2 EPISODE GUIDE

6 x 10 minute episodes (one episode never transmitted)

Transmitted on BBC1, Mondays at 4.45pm, 7th January – 11th February 1985.

Episode 1: Whaddya Know, JCDecaux? Touching down in what they believe is present-day New York after some unseen adventures, Chicken & Lantern soon realise they are in their personal future after catching sight of a billboard featuring Chicken advertising a new egg-based easy-bake cake mix. Throughout the episode, Chicken is accosted by fans, and the contrast between her unexpected celebrity status and her insistence that she would never advertise such a product is played for full comic effect. Today this episode is generally regarded as poorly-written and an excuse for Bruce Willis to oversell his role. The fact that the events leading to future Chicken’s apparent change of principles are never explored is cited by many as the beginning of the end for the show.

Episode 2: Kentucky Fly Chicken Arriving at Knob Creek Farm in the 19th Century, the duo help to convince a young Abraham Lincoln that slavery is wrong, in an episode widely derided by TV historians for its uneasy mix of sledgehammer moralising and childish innuendo. The scene in which the boy Abraham nearly drowns in the swollen Knob Creek is thought to contain some particularly inappropriate dialogue.

Episode 3: [untitled – never broadcast] There are a lot of rumours about the banned episode of Chicken & Lantern. This is the truth. On seeing an early version of the season’s first episode in post-production, Michael Grade was furious. At a now infamous BBC drinks party, he attacked the production team for going too far to appease the hoped-for US audience and shouted “It! Should! Be! Educational!”. When challenged as to what he thought would be a good educational topic, he responded, off the cuff, “Oh, I don’t know! Do something about the chicken’s evolutionary relationship with the dinosaur.”  Skulking away furiously, the production team came up with the never-shown episode that the fans have since unofficially dubbed ‘The Partridge Family‘.

The myth goes that Prunella Scales refused to record any dialogue for the episode upon reading the script and ordered the rest of the voice cast to walk out too. Lines like “Get the cluck away from him, you motherclucker!” were quoted in fanzines. But in reality, the creative team always intended, mutinously, that it should be a dialogue-free episode.

The plot was simple: arriving in Jurassic times, Lantern is trapped in a muddy swamp and Chicken is carried off by a pterosaur. The rest of the episode follows Chicken’s epic battle with a tyrannosaurus rex and is soundtracked only by the relentless, terrifying beat of a taiko drum. Those of us who saw the pirate VHS tape that was circulated in the late 80s will never forget the sight of Chicken — her skin torn to reveal a flash of white breast meat, a flint knife tucked under her wing and a strip ripped from her pinafore to form a grim bandana around the stump of her head — emerging bloodsoaked from the prehistoric jungle. It could never have been broadcast.

Episode 4: Fowl Play With creative tensions at breaking point behind the scenes, this gentle episode was conceived as a throwback to the style of Series 1. While the idea of the adventurous pair meeting Shakespeare in a woodland glade on the banks of the Avon during the writing of As You Like It — with Lantern inspiring the character of Touchstone — was a sound one, the execution is generally considered boring. These days the episode is only really remembered for Bruce Willis’s terrible delivery of the line “Thou art damned like an ill-roasted egg,” and the audible tut from Prunella Scales that somehow remained in the final edit of the sound mix.

Episode 5: I’ll Be Beak

Chicken and Lantern arrive in the post-apocalyptic wasteland of a 21st century that they soon learn is ruled by vengeful machine overlords. They quickly head back to the present day, but a relentless cyborg goose pursues them. Lantern takes centre stage in the high-octane thrills that follow, as he darts and drifts through an abandoned foie gras factory to lead the cybernetic goose (voiced by Dolph Lundgren) to its doom. Bruce Willis often fondly recalls his performance in this episode as a career-defining highlight, claiming that he’s never grunted harder.

Episode 6: To be hidden in the face of God from the disturbance of men is to be fortified with this dark contemplation against all the chances which may come upon the soul

After the dinosaur fiasco, the creative team knew they’d never work for the BBC again. They knew that the third series of Chicken & Lantern would be put together by new blood and that this was their last chance to produce an episode that defined their era. And so the episode of C&L that ensured its lasting status as a student cult classic was born.

We see Chicken ensconced in the wimpole and habit of a Carmelite nun. She slowly paces the cloisters of a mediaeval Spanish monastery, her crispy, half-roasted skin gleaming with the secret ecstasy of mystical contemplation — the exact opposite of a headless chicken.

We see Lantern, captaining a silver rocket ship as it zips through an increasingly psychedelic landscape, dispensing bolts of red and golden light into the ether.

And we see an old man, named as ‘Qi’ in the credits, collapsed across a table in the Cantonese restaurant from the title sequence, his food-poisoning fever-dreams seeming to encompass all of Chicken and Lantern’s adventures to date.

None of these realities are presented as any more “real” than any of the others. Children everywhere were mystified and haunted by the closing sequence.  We zoom in through the window of Chicken’s monastery cell, towards her and right down her gaping neck cavity. There we find Lantern in his silver rocket ship, passing through the great red and yellow caves of her insides, before we plummet through the windows of the cockpit, right up to Lantern, and right inside him, where we see that he contains a monastery on a hillside, which we plunge towards only to find Chicken, as the sequence repeats again and again. All the while a not-quite subliminal image of Qi sweating and retching flashes on and off. After two lifelong minutes of this, the screen goes blank and we hear Prunella Scales squawk one final word before the credits roll silently. To this day the fans wage online wars as to whether her defining proclamation was “Source!” or “Sauce!”.

But of course the third series would change everything again…

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2 responses to “Chicken & Lantern: Series 2

  1. I bloody love this, hard to pick a best bit but it might be “the episode is only really remembered for Bruce Willis’s terrible delivery of the line “Thou art damned like an ill-roasted egg,” and the audible tut from Prunella Scales that somehow remained in the final edit of the sound mix.”

    More please.

  2. Pingback: Chicken & Lantern: Series 3 | Bert's All-New Citrus Sarcophagus

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