The children of my generation were the luckiest ones when it came to crisps in the U.K. We were the guinea pigs for experimental manufacturers’ imaginations, those palate manipulators who wanted to test the very limits of our tastebuds’ endurance, from sweet to sour, mild to spicy, subtle to spanking. The biggest innovations came when these gastronomic boffins discovered they could use maize as an alternative to the humble potato; soon, all manner of shapes, sizes and designs were being flung at us as fast as our grateful little chops could contain them. Ringos, Outer Spacers, Rock’n’Rollers, Farmer Browns and, the most enduring of them all, Monster Munch, came like rapid fire throughout the 1970s and ’80s. It was salty, saucy, spicy, pickled, barbecued, tomato, vinegar and onion heaven for the wee yins of the era.
And yet, there was a dark side to the whole industry too – and it came in the shape(s) of Horror Bags. Crazy name, crazy crisps, manufactured by Smith’s and, according to the original advert, “the most frightening snacks in the world”. They came in several varieties, the rather self-explanatory Fangs (cheese & onion), Bones (salt & vinegar), Bats (“batburger”), Ribs (vampire vinegar), Claws (salt ‘n’ fingernail grit*) and Skulls (Pedigree Chum and chive**) The original TV ad was set in a typical horror castle’s dungeon and presented by a comedy vampire – and a right Count he was too. The later advert (below) for Bats (starring the great Frank Thornton*** as the vampire) was just as camp, if a lot less fun, but you get the general idea.
However, the best things about this brand were the offers printed on the packet. There were masks and holdalls to collect, but I actually had the most bizarre one of all in the early days of the product. I ordered it (well, badgered my mum into buying a postal order and stamps, at least) on the strength of the packet’s enthusiastic and spookily vivid description. When it arrived, it turned out to be a 10-inch piece of thick card with a glow-in-the-dark image of the packet’s un-terrifying cartoon vampire on one side, while on the other, there was a tiny flexi-disk, complete with “stylus” (more like a blunt drawing pin), above which was a holder into which you inserted your index finger. Upon spinning the needle around said disc, it made a rather upsetting scratching noise which, the package alleged, represented the sound of bats. It was appalling. My dad suggested I keep it hidden and then use it to frighten my gran in the night whenever she came to stay. However, no one, not even pensioners with the dickiest tickers known to medical misdiagnosis, could have been remotely perturbed by this piece of childish tat. Still, in our modern days of instant dispatch and UPS deliveries, it’s hard to get across how tantalising and exciting it was to “allow 28 days for delivery”, only to experience the sheer anticlimax of the eventual revelation. A bit like watching Midsomer Murders, really.
* not entirely certain about this flavour
** nor this one, actually
*** edited from “the late, great” on 1st July 2010, when it was pointed out to me by a reader that Frank Thornton isn’t dead. Oops.