Buck Rogers Burger Station: remembering Glasgow’s lost restaurant

It’s May 1983 in Glasgow.  It’s warm, and I’m five years old, celebrating my birthday and hyped up from the first part of my treat… watching Paddington Bear in a live stage musical at a theatre around the corner.

Up a narrow flight of stairs next to a joke shop is a humid, dark, seemingly cavernous room. It’s packed with people. Most of them are sitting down in beige plastic seats at beige plastic tables.  The rest are wandering about, carrying plates of fried food, iridescent milkshakes and diabetes-inducing bowls of ice cream. They’re largely wearing vaguely science fiction themed outfits – lots of silver and spandex and eye make-up to go with oh-so-80s haircuts.

Around the walls there are screens, all running slightly fuzzy video clips, their space age soundtracks lost to the music and noise of the rest of the room.  Each one has an array of buttons to whack, lighting up and occasionally making a barely audible bleeping sound.

And scattered about are more folk in even stranger costumes.  Rubber monster heads, likely procured from the joke shop downstairs.  And a little person in a shiny metal costume, lumbering around greeting children with guttural Glaswegian tones.

And to my five-year-old mind this is the single greatest, most exciting place in the world.  For an hour or so I’m not in Glasgow – I’m in outer space and in the 25th century with Buck and Wilma and Twiki.

Every city has a legendary, lost eatery.  Something cool and weird and kitsch, always slightly ahead or behind its time, depending on your perspective.  A common folk memory, handed down in vaguely remembered Facebook posts and nostalgic clickbait articles on local newspaper websites.  Usually poorly illustrated with home snaps, if at all.

For Glasgow, it’s Bucks.  Or, as it was formally known, the Buck Rogers Burger Station – a bold, doomed attempt to wed fast food to a kid-friendly sci-fi franchise which was still airing on commercial television in the UK, despite having long since been axed in its native USA.

Glasgow may have seemed an unlikely testbed for a franchised fast food restaurant to have its trial run, but even by 1982 the city was lagging behind for convenience food, beyond fish suppers and curries. There were burger joints but, barring a couple of branches of Wimpy, they were largely novelty places – waitresses on roller skates and 50s Americana on the jukebox, like a child describing an episode of Happy Days.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be until 1988 that Scotland got its first branch of McDonald’s – and that would be 80 miles north-east in the even unlikelier surroundings of Dundee.  So in 1982 there was an undoubted gap in the market for something different, and flashy, with kids in mind.

Enter businessman Brian Waldman. The London-born entrepreneur had been a key figure in shaking up Edinburgh’s clubbing and dining scene in the 1950s and 60s, arriving in the city initially to set up a timber business but instead discovering a sleepy city that had barely progressed since the end of the war.

He brought a touch of London glamour and the swinging sixties to Lothian Road, branching out into other areas such as property and mortgage brokering, West End theatre and even an ill-fated attempt to set up a venue atop the Liverpool Radio Tower – a venue he would keep in mind years later.

“He had charisma and presence and it was said that he could sell snow to the Eskimos,” his brother Paul would tell the Scotsman for Brian’s obituary in 2005. “He wasn’t driven by money; he was driven by ideas – right to the end.”

By the early 1980s Waldman, by now in his mid-40s, was casting about for something new. His cafes and bars had proved popular with the kids of the 60s and 70s.  Now he was looking for something bang up to date, something which would appeal to the 1980s generation.

And he found it one Saturday afternoon on ITV.

Buck Rogers originally started as a comic strip created by Philip Francis Nowlan in 1929 – a series of derring-do adventures featuring the adventures of the out-of-time hero, launched into a post-apocalyptic future following a rockslide which trapped him in suspended animation for five hundred years.

The adventures of Buck, Wilma, Doctor Heur and pals, defending civilisation from Mongol hoards and space pirates – among other very much of their time villains – would prove a hugely successful strip, syndicated at its peak across nearly 300 newspapers in the USA, and more than 150 overseas, before finally wrapping up after a 38-year run.

During that time it also span off into the big new media darlings of the era – initially as a radio serial in the early 1930s, before becoming the iconic cinema – if decidedly low budget – serial starring Buster Crabb as Buck.

Captain Rogers’ adventures would flirt in and out of fashion in the States, with a 1950s tv series – broadcast live and now sadly all but lost to historians – finding brief favour. But it would be the late 1970s when Buck would really blast back onto screens, riding the wave of the post-Star Wars boom in pulp sci-fi action all the way to prime time.

Glen A Larson had already spearheaded the Star Wars cash-in cause with Battlestar Galactica, the $1m-an-episode saga which had blasted onto screens in 1978 with its heady mix of deep space dogfighting and barely disguised Mormonism.

Universal, which had a production deal with Larson, asked him to turn his attention to Buck Rogers as a project for NBC, which had been left behind in the race for sci-fi schlock telly. The result was a much more comical, less expensive series which took the basic outlines for Nowlan’s characters and fleshed them out in a far more disco-friendly direction.

The initial pilot – released as a movie garnering an impressive $21m box office domestically, and even more internationally – led to a series which hit US screens in September 1979.  A year later, it debuted on ITV in a Saturday teatime slot – and proceeded to spend the next 16 weeks handing Doctor Who his arse in the ratings.

So potent proved the popularity of Buck, Twiki, Wilma and co to viewers previously swayed by Tom, Lalla and the tin dog that the BBC began panicking, and eventually shifted the show’s timeslot to earlier in the evening to avoid losing the head to head battle, before giving up entirely and moving the show to weekday slots from 1982 – despite Buck having already been cancelled in the US.

And it was against that backdrop of ratings success and kid-friendly sci-fi action that Brian Waldman had his idea.

Work began in earnest on the project in late 1981, with the legendary Glasgow architects Gillespie, Kidd and Coia given the unlikely task to turn a former city centre carpet showroom into a modern diner.

As projects go, it was a far cry from the work which had made GK&C’s name.  They had been formed in the 1920s, making their name as designers of famous modernist and brutalist churches and public buildings – mainly around Scotland, but stretching as far south as Milton Keynes.

Perhaps their most famous work, designed by architects Isi Metzstein and Andy MacMillan, was the St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross – now sadly abandoned but still regularly hailed as one of the key modernist structures in Scotland.  But by the 1980s the practice was being would down, looking for work to pay mounting bills. Which is how they came to be turning the floors of a Glasgow tenement building, sandwiched between the shopping precinct of Argyll Street and the central plaza of George Square, into a burger joint.

While design and construction began at Queen Street, behind the scenes work on the project had been already been underway for months. Recruitment for staff saw adverts in the local job centre (£1.50 an hour for serving staff, £2.00 for performers) while Ron McClure, former area manager for Wimpy – at the time the only major burger chain operating in Scotland – was recruited to serve as the Burger Station’s ‘Commander’.

Adverts were put in the Evening Times for local performers – very tall folk to contrast with local little person Alan Campbell, a well known local panto turn, who wore the robot suit,  Suitably 80s-minded dancers were hired to provide extra entertainment.  Among those hired would be a young performer called Kevin Devine – then part of robot dance pair Alpha and Omega, who would later go on to be one of Esther’s Boys during the final years of That’s Life.  But the biggest innovation was behind the scenes.

Up on the third floor, away from prying customer eyes, was a video recording studio.

The idea was to offer movies for folk, generally kids, celebrating their birthday at the Burger Station. As a result, a smalll studio was constructed, with young videographers crewing the equipment and front of house employees pulling double duty as cast members  Prices started at £25 for your own little mini-episode of Buck Rogers – but the more you paid, the longer you got, with scenes on ready-built sickbay or spaceship sets edited in with footage from the birthday celebrations. Some additional filming was done at Glasgow Airport, using the cockpit of a decommissioned aircraft normally used for safety training.

For early 1980s Glasgow this was a little touch of Hollywood, although still with the tint of haunmade Weegieness about it.  Buttons for the control panels dotted about the restaurant were liberated from fruit machines.  Stickers for the Burger Station were applied by hand by the staff to little toy spaceships sold at the till.

And Campbell, a notorious ladies man despite his stature, avoided any attempts at matching the TV show’s famous voice of Twiki.  Instead, he greeted young visitors to the burger bar with a brutally Glaswegian ‘awright, how you doin?’, moustache clearly visible behind the slit of his costume’s mask.

It was less Mel Blanc, and more the Milton.  But it didn’t make any difference to the folk queueing up to get in.

The Buck Rogers Burger Station finally opened its doors in August 1982,

It was situated at number 37, putting it above and beside the iconic Tam Shepherd’s Trick Shop, a century-old family run joke shop and magic emporium, and next door to a low-rent hotel.  Accessing the restaurant required going up the stairs of ‘the close’ – the Glasgow term for the entranceway to a tenement building – which, in honour of the new series, had been bedecked in yellow and black safety tape to give the stairway an suitably space age feel.

A photocall for the launch took place on Monday August 18th, ahead of the grand opening, with 17-year-old waitress Alison Warner in a suitably sci-fi costume, alongside small actor Campbell – who would normally wear the Twiki costume – dressed in one of the alien outfits.

Coverage, perhaps surprisingly, was sparse. Only the Evening Times went big on the launch – the city tabloid predictably focusing on the teenage server’s assets rather than the restaurant.

“The name indicates what the station will specialise in,” proclaimed the article, “although there will be coffee in cups but without flying saucers” and hailed the venue as a “dream come true for youngsters visiting the city centre”,

The paper would also run a cartoon strip just over a week later, once the restaurant was up and running, depicting Buck and Wilma (or at least, vague approximations of them) from the TV series attending the restaurant.

The official opening by Lord Provost Michael Kelly would attract another media call, Radio Clyde interviewed McClure, while STV’s Scotland Tonight show went in to show how the restaurant looked inside.  Kids TV magazine Look-In also granted the new venue a full page feature, showcasing the out-of-this world costumes – no surprise given it was ITV’s own mag and had regularly, and heavily, featured the adventures of Buck and co in its pages.

While coverage may not have been overwhelming, public interest in the Burger Station certainly was.  Especially at weekends, it wasn’t uncommon to see queues to get in backed right down the stairwell and back onto Queen Street.

The restaurant was a sea of plastic seats and moulded walls, flashing lights and dry ice.  It could handle 240 people at full capacity, opening from 8am for breakfast right through to late nights.  It meant a varied crowd – kids at the weekends, after school and holidays.  Students and local nerds propped up the numbers – especially fans of Gary Numan, drawn to the 80s pop tunes and the faux-futuristic decor.

The venue even had its own currency – the equivalent of gift vouchers for 1982 crowds – going by the unfortunate name of dribbles.

The food was pretty basic. Burgers, chicken and fish, the odd starter for the grown-ups (prawn cocktail, anyone?) and a sugar-packed selection of deserts, weirdly coloured milkshakes and fizzy drinks to wash it all down.

But for kids going, this was manna from heaven.  This was ambrosia, especially when served in a giant glass by a waitress in a space age jumpsuit and checked up on by Twiki.  Actual Twiki off the telly.  Sort of.

I still vividly remember going for my birthday.  It was the first time I’d had a milkshake.  I was underwhelmed, and ended up swapping it with my mum for her coke.

The Burger Station had successfully taken off, and kids from across Strathclyde were flocking to see it.  But trouble was ahead.

Just over a year after opening, ITV’s ATV Licensing failed to extend the licence with Waldman for continued use of the Buck Rogers rights.  In a way, it was hardly surprising – the show had already been offer in the US for the best part of two years, and ITV was no longer showing it.  As a show, and a brand, it was of little use to the broadcaster.

The timing could not have been worse.  Waldman had been in negotiation to open a second branch – this time at the top of the Radio City tower in Liverpool, where he’d previously operated.  Edinburgh was set to provide the next location in Scotland, with franchising plans pegged on the success of opening up those two locations.

Instead, they were forced to rebrand. Shorn of the props and memorabilia, and the rights to use the characters from the show, it was rebranded simply as Buck’s.  Out went Twiki and robots, in came gorillas and generic sci-fi monsters – some costumes specially made by a local firm, others kitbashed from what could be found in Tam Shepherds.

Crowds started to dwindle, although trade remained comfortable even after the rebranding.  Even the city was undergoing change.  Glasgow had just launched its Glasgow’s Miles Better campaign was rebranding, and the nearby Argyll Street and dilapidated railway station were about to be renovated into the vast, greenhouse-like St Enoch’s Centre mall.  Bucks was, slowly, becoming a place out of time and, increasingly, out of money.

Less than two years after it opened, the final chapter was approaching for the Burger Station.  The end, when it came, was both surprising and predictable.

Like many struggling places in Glasgow, it mysteriously went on fire.

Causes of the blaze vary depending on who you ask.  Some sources say it was the hotel next door where the fire started, spreading across the building into Bucks.  Others say it was in 37 Queen Street itself – possibly on the third floor, where the studio had been.

Wherever it started, the damage it did would have been enough to put the restaurant out of commission.  The attempts by Strathclyde Fire Brigade to control the blaze, not helped by the cooking materials in the building, were the capper.

Water from the pumps deployed to Queen Street  all but destroyed the interior and the fittings, soaking down below into Tam Shepherd’s where it managed to cause significant – but not terminal – damage to the joke shop.

Without the licence for the show, and now without a building, it was the end of the Buck Rogers dream.

The damaged building went through various uses – with the joke shop remaining a permanent, unchanging fixture still there today.  A decade after Bucks met its end, it became Archaos – Glasgow’s hottest nightclub.

Where once the kids of Glasgow had gone to see Twiki and eat fish fingers, they now came – ten years older and wiser – to dance with Paul Gascoigne and Charlie Sheen.  It would remain a nightclub, albeit one with its own controversies over the years, until 2007, when it finally shut up shop.

Since then, 37 Queen Street has been largely abandoned. Over the years various proposes for the building have been announced, and come to naught, mainly due to the cost years of neglect and damage has caused.  The most recent, in 2022, was to gut the interior and turn it into student accommodation.

Whatever fate eventually befalls the venue, though, it will always have been Bucks.  A small piece of cult weirdness dropped ignominiously in the middle of Glasgow.  And for a generation of kids, the coolest place in the world.

This article originally appeared in the much missed magazine From the Sublime.