Is it a paradox that the rapid passage of time, combined with nostalgia for one’s youth makes it seem that some shops have been there forever, and yet forever just seems like a few years? Perhaps that kind of timewarp feeling is quite appropriate when it comes to a place like the Forbidden Planet – I knew it had been around since about the time I started working full time in London’s west end, but it was only when we dropped in there after Christmas to fuel the (not so) wee beastie’s passion for Japanese anime that I realised that it had reached its 40th anniversary, which at the same time made me feel decidedly old, whilst wondering who’d stolen a couple of decades in between.
To be fair, the Forbidden Planet was just coming up to its second birthday when I came to work just down the road in Holborn in the summer of 1980. It had opened its first branch, in the heart of London’s Tin Pan Alley of Denmark street in July 1978, specialising in comics. I must have stumbled across it on one of my lunch hour explorations in early 1982, though, because it was only in November 1981 that it opened its sister shop just around the corner in St Giles’ High Street to expand its focus on cult movies and TV.
Now that the whole Denmark Street area is consumed by the combination of gentrification and Crossrail, it’s hard to imagine the area as it was 40 years ago – a triangle of decaying Victorian buildings, with Denmark Street full of music shops, stretching around the corner into Charing Cross Road where it merged with the top end of a string of bookshops, past a stretch of hoarding marking where bombing and then Centrepoint had truncated the tip of the site, and then back round to St Giles for an odd miscellany of cafes and more dubious outlets. Inside the triangle was more atmospheric still, with a series of metal staircases heading up to the residue of the music publishers and odd purveyors of old magazines and records (anyone remember LTS?).
This, of course, was the pre-internet era, pre-home video recording, and three TV channels that stopped broadcasting at night and in the afternoons. For any lover of cult TV or film, each week’s Radio and TV Times – yes, they still came separately then, but fortunately my parents were lavish enough to buy both – meant careful scrutiny and planning to catch the rare cinematic gem that would appear in the schedules mid-afternoon on a Saturday or late at night (if it was a weekday afternoon, it had to be very special to merit using a precious day’s holiday). For classic TV series, the pickings were much leaner – repeating an entire run meant tying up a slot in the schedules for weeks at a time.
All at once, Forbidden Planet 2 offered, if not the programmes themselves, then a raft of magazines delving into them in depth. SiG provided a detailed window into the works of Gerry Anderson, whilst Primetime offered a broader spectrum of insight into a range of cult programmes, including some of those that started to appear when Channel 4 burst onto our screens: The Prisoner, The Twilight Zone, Bilko, The Munsters, Car 54 Where Are You?, Highway Patrol, The Naked City, Bewitched. Here was all the background information we craved, interviews with the makers and stars, along with those fascinating but at the same time frustrating episode listings, taunting us with visions of all the episodes we hadn’t seen yet. The fanzines were complemented by specialist books, the like of which we’d never seen in John Menzies or WH Smith; here were not just episode listings, but guides. As video recorders started to become commonplace domestic items, these books and magazines were our bibles – steering our rare purchases (particularly given that pre-recorded video tapes went for an extortionate price in those early days) and allowing us to nerdishly title up and episode number the stuff we religiously taped in the wee small hours.
The separation between TV/movie/Sci Fi and comic sides of the Forbidden Planet represented a divide which continues even now, four decades later. As a devotee of 1940s to 60s popular culture, I had a natural affinity for the classic comics of the time, but venturing across the threshold of 23 Denmark Street quickly revealed that there was a whole sub-culture there with a language and reference point of its own. Dropping in to search out reprints of classic Batman and Spiderman editions left me feeling very much like the novice in a record shop walking out with a ’20 Golden Greats’ collection. Fortunately, on one of the few visits when I amassed a fair armful of material to take back to Germany with me, I was followed in the queue by comic devotee and expert Jonathan Ross who hopefully wasn’t too appalled at what he saw over my shoulder.
In 1988, the stores combined in a more conventional space in New Oxford Street, which was in turn expanded five years later. Luckily, my work took me back to that part of London quite regularly, giving me the chance to raid a growing range of books on design as well as growing my cult TV and film collection, and indulge myself at a time when reproductions of 1950s and 60s ‘Wacky Wobbler’ figures were in vogue amongst other classic TV and comic related toys. Still the comics vs film and TV divide was in evidence, with comics dominating the large area at the back of the ground floor area, and film, TV and Sci Fi filling the cavernous basement. Around this time, the Planet was spinning off new branches in major cities like Cambridge, Liverpool, Coventry, Bristol, Birmingham and Southampton, and, quite bizarrely in a small outlet alongside the tramtracks in Suburban Croydon.
2003 saw the last big move of the London branch, back into St Giles proper and into a store with a wide frontage at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue. Books and comics now share the spacious basement area, with memorabilia, toys and models to suit even the deepest pockets upstairs. On my occasional visits, I’m often left slightly disappointed as there’s little related to cult TV and film of the 50s and 60s. I’m guessing that this is partly because pretty much everything that could be written or produced related to them has been done and my generation must now be passing beyond the peak of its desire to acquire more of the ‘stuff’ of childhood and adolescence. And that suddenly puts the Forbidden Planet of 2019 in context, because all around me are the same geeks that I was in 1980, packing out the shop to collect stuff that, apart from the odd bit of Dr Who, Harry Potter or Simpsons, is as much a closed book to me as the things I loved were to the bulk of my 1980s contemporaries. That’s the wonder of the Forbidden Planet – full of things that you need to be well off mainstream to be able to appreciate. And let’s hope it stays that way for another 40 years.