Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future

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Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future
GenreScience fiction
Written bySteve Roberts
Directed byRocky Morton
Annabel Jankel
StarringMatt Frewer
Nickolas Grace
Amanda Pays
W. Morgan Sheppard
Roger Sloman
Hilary Tindall
Music byMidge Ure
Chris Cross
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
Executive producerTerry Ellis
ProducersPeter Wagg
Chris Griffin (line producer)
Production locationsEast Ham, London, England
CinematographyPhil Meheux
EditorMichael Bradsell
Running time57 minutes
Picture formatColor
Original releaseApril 4, 1985 (1985-04-04)

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future is a 1985 cyberpunk television film created by British company Chrysalis Visual Programming Ltd. for Channel 4. Max Headroom was created by George Stone,[1] Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton, while the TV movie story was developed by Stone and screenwriter Steve Roberts.[2] The television film was created to provide a backstory and origin for the character Max before he started appearing regularly as host and veejay of a new music video program on Channel 4, The Max Headroom Show.[2]

The story depicts a near-future where corrupt corporations control much of the world and manipulate the public for the sake of ratings and wealth. Events lead crusading journalist Edison Carter to crash a motorcycle and suffer head trauma from a parking lot safety sign reading "MAX. HEADROOM: 2.3 M" (an overhead clearance of 2.3 metres). While unconscious, Carter's mind and memories are used as the basis for a new artificial intelligence that adopts the name Max Headroom. While Carter recovers and exposes corporate corruption, his AI twin Max becomes popular as a witty TV host who criticizes society and media. Both Edison Carter and Max Headroom are portrayed by actor Matt Frewer.[2]

On 4 April 1985, Channel 4 transmitted the TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future, starring Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Paul Spurrier, Nickolas Grace, and W. Morgan Sheppard. Two days later, Max began appearing regularly as the veejay of The Max Headroom Show.[3][4] HBO (which owned another cable television provider Cinemax) provided some of the original funding and the series later ran on Cinemax for American audiences.[2] Following its cancellation, American network ABC commissioned Chrysalis to produce a new dramatic television series based on the characters, concepts, and world established in the film Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future.[2] The new program, entitled simply Max Headroom, featured Matt Frewer and Amanda Pays reprising their original roles. Each episode began with the phrase "20 Minutes into the Future."[2][5]


Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) is a headstrong television reporter determined to uncover corruption even if his employer Network 23 is involved. Carter is investigating a home explosion when he is pulled from the story by the television station management. Carter's new producer Theora Jones (Amanda Pays) agrees to help him investigate further despite pressure from upper management. The two discover Network 23 is covering up the fact that its new subliminal advertising (called "blipverts") can be fatal to certain viewers, even causing spontaneous combustion.

Carter recovers evidence of the cover-up at Network 23 headquarters but is discovered on security camera by Bryce Lynch (Paul Spurrier), an amoral teenage computer genius who created blipverts and answers only to Network 23's chief executive Grossman. As Carter attempts to flee from the building's parking garage on a motorcycle, Lynch takes control of the security barriers. The rising barrier causes Carter to crash through a low-clearance sign labelled "Max. Headroom 2.3m", resulting in a serious head injury. Jones witnesses Carter's crash via security cameras but is unable to arrive in time before Lynch's hired goons remove him from the scene.

Grossman is upset Lynch has attacked and possibly killed Carter, as the journalist's fame means his disappearance will be noticed and investigated. To delay any investigation and provide alibis, Lynch insists he can digitally copy Carter's mind and appearance. This way they can create a digital replacement and fake footage of the reporter being alive and well for days to come. But his efforts are flawed. The digital clone does not look identical to Carter and seems to develop its own personality after repeatedly saying "max headroom." Giving up on the plan, Bryce instructs hired goons to dispose of both Carter and the "Max Headroom" digital personality. Instead, the goons decide to profit by selling Max Headroom to Blank Reg, owner of a pirate television station, and Carter to a "body bank" where he will be harvested for organs.

After absorbing information from TV broadcast signals, Max Headroom quickly becomes a popular TV host on Reg Blank's pirate station, delivering biting commentary and rapid-fire humor. Meanwhile, recovering from his injuries, Carter escapes the body bank and reunites with Jones. With her help, Carter eventually reveals he is still alive and exposes the corruption of Network 23 and Grossman. Some who see Carter's coverage dismiss it as boring news, changing the channel to watch Max Headroom instead.


Conception and development[edit]

The character of Max Headroom and his nature as a computer-generated person was created by George Stone,[1] Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton. With the rising popularity of music videos with youth culture and stations such as MTV, Channel 4 decided to host its own music video program. Rocky Morton was tasked to come up with a graphic that would play before and after the videos, make it clear to audiences these were features of a special show and not just music videos airing at random between TV commercials. Taking inspiration from MTV video jockeys (VJs or "veejays") and US TV hosts, Rocky Morton decided a graphic or "bumper video" would not appeal to youth nearly as much as a host with a loud personality.[2] He also thought British youth would be suspicious of a youthful personality attempting to appeal to them and might instead appreciate the cynical irony of a host who appeared to be a conservative man in a simple suit and tie attempting to appeal to youth but not having a true understanding of their culture. He saw the host as "the most boring thing that I could think of to do... a talking head: a middle-class white male in a suit, talking to them in a really boring way about music videos."[2]

Morton thought the host should be computer-generated or animated. When this did not prove practical, it was decided to cast an actor who would present the illusion of a computer generated host. The character's name originated well before the other aspects of the character because the phrase "max. headroom" was often displayed over the entranceway of car parks and garages in the UK. George Stone remarked this gave the character "Instant branding, instant recognition."[6] The creators also appreciated that "Max Headroom" was comically ironic since the character acted as if he knew and understood everything, while the name indicated his mind was actually empty of true knowledge and wisdom.[2] Sometime after the popularity of Max Headroom as a character, it became more common in the UK for such signs to read "max. height" rather than "max. headroom."[2]

Channel 4 executives enjoyed the idea Morton pitched and decided to first introduce Max as a character in an hour-long TV-movie before then presenting him as a program host in The Max Headroom Show.[2] Producer Peter Wagg hired writers David Hansen and Paul Owen to construct Max Headroom's "whole persona",[7] which Morton described as the "very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host".[8] The background story provided for the Max Headroom character was rooted in a dystopian near-future dominated by television and large corporations, devised by George Stone and eventual script writer Steve Roberts.

Canadian-American actor Matt Frewer tested for the role after a friend of his had already auditioned and then suggested him instead.[2] Producer and Max Headroom co-creator Annabel Jankel thought Frewer would be a good choice to masquerade as a person whose appearance was designed by a computer, seeing from his casting polaroid photo that he had "unbelievably well-defined features."[2] Frewer was given "a few lines" of dialogue and then encouraged to improvise as he saw fit. Frewer did a comedic improvisation that lasted for more than ten minutes, impressing the production crew.[2] The actor took inspiration from character Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, saying in a 1987 interview, "I particularly wanted to get that phony bonhomie of Baxter ... Max always assumes a decade long friendship on the first meeting. At first sight, he'll ask about that blackhead on your nose."[9]

The character of Max Headroom was advertised as the first "computer-generated" television presenter. The illusion of a computer-generated character who only exists in computers and TV broadcast signals was accomplished by having Matt Frewer wear prosthetic make-up, contact lenses, and a plastic molded suit while sitting in front of a blue screen. Harsh lighting and other editing and recording effects heightened the illusion of a CGI character.[1][7]

In discussing Max's fictional origin story, it was first proposed that he could be an AI created to stand-in for a human TV host who was late for his own show. The backstory would be revealed through different five-minute segments during the first season of The Max Headroom Show.[2] When Channel 4 decided Max's origin would be featured in an hour long TV movie instead, an expanded story was developed and the origin was altered to now involve a crusading journalist named Edison Carter. On 4 April 1985, the TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future introduced Max to television audiences.[10] On 6 April 1985, Channel 4 aired the first episode of The Max Headroom Show.


In 1987, American network ABC hired the creators of the Channel 4 film to adapt the story and world of Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future into the dramatic series Max Headroom. Fourteen episodes were broadcast during the 1987–1988 television season. The pilot was a remake of the Channel 4 movie with minor changes, such as having Max and Carter actually meet and making Max someone more motivated to expose corruption rather than only comment on it. The pilot recycled some of footage from the original film, but the setting was changed to an American city. Cast members Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays and William Morgan Sheppard reprised their roles from the original film. Jeffrey Tambor was added to the cast as Edison's boss Murray. Pablo Cruise keyboardist Cory Lerios provided the theme. Each episode of the dramatic series began with the phrase "20 Minutes into the Future."[3][5]

Home media release[edit]

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future was released on VHS in the UK and US in 1986.[11]

In September 2005, it was released as a Region 2 DVD in Japan only.[11]


  1. ^ a b c "YouTube video at the ICA with Stone, Morton and Jankel". Archived from the original on 22 March 2016. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Bishop, Bryan (2 April 2015). "Live and Direct: The definitive oral history of 1980s digital icon Max Headroom". The Verge. Retrieved 30 January 2020.
  3. ^ a b Bishop, Bryan (2 April 2015). "The definitive oral history of 1980s digital icon Max Headroom". The Verge. Retrieved 2 April 2015.
  4. ^ "Max Headroom's Matt Frewer Interview",, retrieved 3 March 2010
  5. ^ a b Max Headroom: The Complete Series. Shout Factory.
  6. ^ Ward, Brian (2010). Live On Network 23: The Story Of Max Headroom [Max Headroom: The Complete Series bonus feature] (DVD). Shout Factory. Event occurs at 3:20.
  7. ^ a b Ward, Brian (2010). Live On Network 23: The Story Of Max Headroom [Max Headroom: The Complete Series bonus feature] (DVD). Shout Factory.
  8. ^ "TV's Hall of Flukey Fame". People. 25 August 1986. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  9. ^ "Mad About M-M-Max". Newsweek. 20 April 1987.
  10. ^ Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future. Channel 4 TV-movie (April 4, 1985).
  11. ^ a b Saint John, Robert (29 January 2007). "Live and Direct from Japan… It's M-M-Max Headroom!". SciFi Japan. Retrieved 29 March 2020.

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