Max Headroom

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Max Headroom
Max Headroom character
First appearanceMax Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future (1985)
Last appearancePixels (2015)
Created by
Portrayed byMatt Frewer
Voiced byMatt Frewer
In-universe information
SpeciesArtificial intelligence
OccupationTelevision host

Max Headroom is a British fictional artificial intelligence (AI) character, known for his wit, stuttering and electronically altered voice. He was introduced in early 1985. The character was created by George Stone,[1] Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton. Max was portrayed by Matt Frewer and was called "the first computer-generated TV personality",[2] although the computer-generated appearance was achieved with an actor in prosthetic make-up and harsh lighting, in front of a blue screen.[3]



For his role of hosting a music video programme, Max Headroom was conceived of by creator Rocky Morton 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",[3] also deciding that he should be computer-generated.

Canadian-American actor Matt Frewer was chosen based on his "unbelievably well-defined features" that Jankel noticed in a casting polaroid, and from his comedic improvisation skills that he demonstrated in a ten-minute audition.[3] The actor took inspiration from The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Ted Baxter, 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."[4] Producer Peter Wagg had already hired writers David Hansen and Paul Owen to construct Max Headroom's "whole persona",[5] which Morton described as the "very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host".[6] They created dialogue for Max's appearances in the TV movie and TV shows, which the actor added to through improvisation.[5] The two also wrote the 1985 book in his voice, Max Headroom's Guide to Life.[7]

The background story provided for the Max Headroom character in his original appearance was rooted in a dystopian near-future dominated by television and large corporations, devised by George Stone and eventual script writer Steve Roberts. The AI of Max Headroom was shown to have been created from the memories of crusading journalist Edison Carter. The character's name came from the last thing Carter saw during a vehicular accident that put him into a coma: a traffic warning sign marked "MAX. HEADROOM: 2.3 M" (an overhead clearance of 2.3 metres) suspended across a car park entrance.[3] The name originated well before the other aspects of the character from George Stone, who said "Max headroom was over the entranceway of every car park in the UK. Instant branding, instant recognition."[5]


The classic look for the character is a shiny dark suit often paired with Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses. Other than the publicity for the character, the real image of Max was not computer-generated. Computing technology in the mid-1980s was not sufficiently advanced yet for a full-motion, voice-synchronized human head to be practical for a television series.[8] Max's image was actually that of actor Matt Frewer in latex and foam prosthetic make-up with a fiberglass suit created by Peter Litten and John Humphreys.[8] Preparing the look for filming involved a four-and-a-half-hour session in make-up, which Frewer described as "gruelling" and "not fun", likening it to "being on the inside of a giant tennis ball."[9] Only his head and shoulders were depicted, usually superimposed over a moving geometric background. This background was a piece of CGI footage that had been generated for one of Morton and Jankel's ad agency's commercials,[3] later, in the United States version, generated by a Commodore Amiga computer.[10] His chaotic speech patterns are based upon his voice pitching up or down seemingly at random, or occasionally becoming stuck in a stuttering loop. These modulations also appear in live performances.

The rights to the Max Headroom character were held by All3Media as of November 2007.[11]

TV history[edit]

TV movie[edit]

Max Headroom originally appeared in the British-made cyberpunk TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, which was broadcast on 4 April 1985.[3]

The Max Headroom Show series[edit]

The TV movie consisted of material originally planned to be broken into five-minute backstory segments[3] for the British music video programme, The Max Headroom Show, which premiered two days later. Max Headroom served as veejay, and its first episodes unusually featured no introductory title sequence or end credits. The show was an immediate hit in the UK, doubling Channel 4's viewing figures for its time slot within a month.[4]

A second series, which broadened the original concept to include celebrity interviews and a studio audience, was produced in late 1985, and a third and final series ran in 1986. The second and third series were shown first on the US cable channel Cinemax, and on Channel Four an average of six months later.

A Christmas special was produced at the end of the second season and seen by UK audiences just before the regular run of the season, and just after the US season concluded.

Cinemax produced a fourth series of the talk show on its own, The Original Talking Max Headroom Show, which ran for six episodes in 1987. These episodes were never shown in the UK.

The series pilot won the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) award for graphics in 1986.[12]

Max Headroom series[edit]

The final spin-off from the original film was the dramatic television series, Max Headroom, which was broadcast in the United States, running for two short series (mid-1987 and late 1987), with two more episodes shown later in 1988.

Shout! Factory released Max Headroom: The Complete Series on DVD in the United States and Canada on August 10, 2010.[13]

Television hijack[edit]

Unidentified man wearing a Max Headroom mask, as seen during the broadcast signal intrusion.

A broadcast signal hijacking of two television stations in Chicago, Illinois was carried out on November 22, 1987, in an act of video piracy.[14][15][16] The stations' broadcasts were interrupted by a video of an unknown person wearing a Max Headroom mask and costume, accompanied by distorted audio.

The first incident took place for 25 seconds during the sports segment of WGN-TV's 9:00 p.m. news broadcast; the second occurred around two hours later, for about 90 seconds during PBS affiliate WTTW's broadcast of Doctor Who.

The hacker made references to Max Headroom's endorsement of Coca-Cola, the TV series Clutch Cargo, WGN anchor Chuck Swirsky; and "all the greatest world newspaper nerds", a reference to WGN's call letters, which stand for "World's Greatest Newspaper". A corrugated panel swiveled back and forth mimicking Max Headroom's geometric background effect.[17] The video ended with a pair of exposed buttocks being spanked with a flyswatter before normal programming resumed. The culprits were never caught or identified.[18]

In other media[edit]

Max became a celebrity in every medium outside his own television series, making cameo and sampled appearances in other TV series, books,[19] the Art of Noise song "Paranoimia" and its video (which became a top-40 hit on the Billboard Hot 100),[20] and advertisement campaigns.[11] He was the spokesman for New Coke (after the return of Coca-Cola Classic), delivering the slogan "Catch the wave!" (in his staccato, stuttering playback as "C-c-catch the wave!").[4] After the two TV series and the advertising campaign had ended, Peter Wagg attempted to sell a movie concept called Max Headroom for President.[3] In 1986, Quicksilva released a Max Headroom video game, created by developers Binary Design, originally for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum and ported to the Commodore 64, Amstrad, and Amiga.[21] Comico announced a thirty-two page Max Headroom 3-D comic in 1987, written by Mike Baron and illustrated by Arnold and Jacob Pander[22] but the issue was never published. His last TV appearance to date was a series of advertisements for Channel 4 in 2007 to raise awareness for the digital switchover, and were directed by Rocky Morton.[11]

In popular culture[edit]

Max Headroom has inspired many imitations and spoofs:

  • In the 1980s, Garry Trudeau created the character Ron Headrest for his political comic strip Doonesbury. The character combined the concepts of Max Headroom and then US President Ronald Reagan.[23]
  • Back to the Future Part II also featured a Max Headroom inspired Reagan, and computer-generated versions of Michael Jackson and the Ayatollah Khomeini as waiters at the fictitious Cafe '80s.[24]
  • In Family Matters Season 2 Episode 10 "Science Project" Steve Urkel builds an atomic bomb that has a Max Headroom like computer interface that looks like him. It gives the countdown before detonation, but fortunately it was all in Laura's nightmare.[25][26]
  • In the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player One, protagonist Wade Watts has a Max Headroom AI in his OASIS account.[27] In the film, he does not have a Max Headroom AI.
  • In the music video for Another Way by Gigi D'Agostino, D'Agostino turns into an animated character that looks similar to Max Headroom.
  • Eminem's 2013 "Rap God" video features himself portrayed as Max Headroom.[28]
  • Max Headroom appeared in the film Pixels in a cameo as manipulated footage seen in a message just before the final showdown between the Arcaders and the leader of the aliens.[29] Matt Frewer reprised his role, but unlike Max's other appearances, he was entirely computer-generated from a facial capture of the performance, which led to the visual effects team needing to manually reduce the accuracy to mimic the immobility of the facial prosthetics.[30]
  • In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the 7th season episode "The Totally Excellent Adventures of Mack and the D" the mind of Agent Coulson is trapped in an 80's television set that has "Max Headroom Lines" behind him, though his voice does not skip.
  • Matt Bellamy appears as a Max Headroom styled character in Muse's 2018 single "Dig Down".
  • Sir Keir Starmer is portrayed as Max Headroom in his spoof Private Eye column.
  • In the Ernest Cline novel Ready Player Two, Wade Watts once again has a Max Headroom AI in both his ship, The Vonnegut, and in his mansion outside of Columbus, Ohio.
  • Neil Young's song "Pressure" from his 1986 album Landing on Water makes reference to Max Headroom.
  • Pop artist Selena Gomez briefly appears in costume as Max Headroom during her music video for "Love You Like a Love Song", notably criticized by critic John Bergstrom as having a " stuttering, Max Headroom non-chorus."[31]


  1. ^ "YouTube video at the ICA with Stone, Morton and Jankel". Archived from the original on 22 March 2016. Retrieved 3 October 2014.
  2. ^ Wogan, Terry (host) (14 August 1985). "Max Headroom". Wogan. BBC1.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Bishop, Bryan (2 April 2015). "Live and Direct: The definitive oral history of 1980s digital icon Max Headroom". The Verge. Retrieved 30 January 2020.
  4. ^ a b c "Mad About M-M-Max". Newsweek. 20 April 1987.
  5. ^ a b c Brian Ward (2010). Live On Network 23: The Story Of Max Headroom (Max Headroom: The Complete Series bonus feature) (DVD). Shout Factory.
  6. ^ "TV's Hall of Flukey Fame". People. 25 August 1986. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  7. ^ Bishop, Bryan (2 April 2015). "Photo essay: the wildest Max Headroom merchandise of the 1980s". The Verge. Retrieved 1 April 2020.
  8. ^ a b Bishop, Bryan (2 April 2015). "Photo essay: how make-up and visual effects brought Max Headroom to life". The Verge. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
  9. ^ "Max Headroom's Matt Frewer Interview",, retrieved 3 March 2010
  10. ^ Foust, John (October 1987). "Max Headroom and the Amiga". Amazing Computer Magazine. Vol. 2 no. 10.
  11. ^ a b c Mark Sweney (29 November 2007). "Channel 4 resurrects Max Headroom to promote digital channels | Media". Retrieved 29 November 2013.
  12. ^ "Explore the Awards | BAFTA Awards". Retrieved 29 October 2013.
  13. ^ "Max Headroom: The Complete Series". Shout! Factory. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  14. ^ Ross, Andrew (1990). "Techno-Ethics and Tele-Ethics: Three Lives in the Day of Max Headroom". In Mellencamp, Patricia (ed.). Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Indiana University Press. p. 138. ISBN 0-253-33617-1.
  15. ^ Schwoch, James; White, Mimi; Reilly, Susan (1992). Media Knowledge: Readings in Popular Culture, Pedagogy, and Critical Citizenship. SUNY Press. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-7914-0825-4.
  16. ^ Forester, Tom; Morrison, Perry (1994). Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing. MIT Press. p. 74. ISBN 0-262-56073-9. [S]several other instances of uplink video piracy have occurred [...] WTTW (Channel 11 in Chicago) was also overridden by a 90 second transmission, this time by a man in a Max Headroom mask smacking his exposed buttocks with a fly swatter.
  17. ^ Knittel, Chris (25 November 2013). "The Mystery of the Creepiest Television Hack". Motherboard. Vice.
  18. ^ Gallagher, Sean (22 November 2017). "Thirty years later, "Max Headroom" TV pirate remains at large". Ars Technica.
  19. ^ Loder, Kurt (14 September 1986). "MAX MAD MAX HEADROOM, WHO'S GETTING HIS COMPUTER-GENERATED SMARMY MUG ON EVERYTHING FROM TV SHOWS TO T-SHIRTS, HAS THE VIDEO GENERATION GOING..." South Florida Sun Sentinel. Retrieved 29 March 2020. For one, there was a book market for what had become Max mania: Steve Roberts whammed out a picture-book novelization of his film script, and Owen and Hansen came up with Max Headroom's Guide to Life (the most suitably pompous title they could concoct), and both sold well.
  20. ^ "Paranoimia (Remix)". Billboard. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
  21. ^ Mclaughlin, Robert (19 March 2008). "Max Out: The Max Headroom computer game remembered". Den of Geek. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  22. ^ Elliot, Brad (Summer 1987). Thompson, Kim (ed.). "Max Headroom 3-D". Amazing Heroes Preview Special. No. 5. Fantagraphics. p. 78.
  23. ^ Trudeau, G. B. (October 1995). Flashbacks: Twenty-Five Years of Doonesbury. Andrews and McMeel. p. 217. ISBN 0-8362-0436-0.
  24. ^ Boyar, Jay (22 November 1989). "'BACK TO FUTURE II' ANOTHER GOOD TIME WITH TIME". Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved 29 March 2020.
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ Libbey, Dirk (1 April 2018). "5 Ready Player One References From The Book We Missed In The Movie". Cinema Blend. Retrieved 12 July 2020.
  28. ^ "See Eminem as Max Headroom in Lewinsky-Referencing 'Rap God' Video". Spin. 27 November 2013. Retrieved 8 April 2017.
  29. ^ Suellentrop, Chris (24 July 2015). "All These Things Actually Happen In Adam Sandler's Pixels". Kotaku. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  30. ^ Wilson, Tim. "Pixels: Going From 8-bits to Epic is No Game". Creative COW. Retrieved 28 March 2020.
  31. ^

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