Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Night They Drove Old Rigsby Down

Mention 'comedy' and 'ITV' together and you're guaranteed a laugh, though sarcasm is likely to be its main driving force. The commercial behemoth has never had a reputation as a comedic powerhouse, and things are as bad as ever at the moment, with a balding ex-doctor making catty remarks about Pam St Clement being the only thing on its books worth even mentioning, laughs-wise.

As it happens, I've done summat on the vexed topic of ITV comedy – concentrating on its Sunday output – for the latest edition of Kettering, the ever-loving magazine of elderly British comedy, available now from here, and you should get it for the vast amount of ace stuff I haven't been involved in, like the in-depth foray into Morecambe and Wise's Christmas specials, and the appraisal of the long-obscured World in Ferment. No salesman will call.

But delving into ITV's comedy output got me thinking – if, as everyone seems to agree, situation comedy is pretty much dead on the independent channel, what thoughtless action from Them Upstairs killed it off, and when? Here are a few suspects.


7.15PM May 17th 1981 – Bernard Cribbins comes out of his caravan

Lew Grade's never knowingly undersold ATV, by now not long for this world, decided to go for broke and plough everything – money, stars, technical talent – into Shillingbury Tales, a series of hour-long comedy films set in the eponymous chocolate box village, in which not-very-outrageous rock star Robin Nedwell and Diane Keen turned up to arouse the suspicions of locals Trevor Howard, Bernard Cribbins and Jack Douglas, but not for very long as they find out they all get along just fine in the end. And very lovely it was too – the perfect early evening, let-it-wash-over-you accompaniment to Shipham's potted meat spread sarnies, Mr Kipling French Fancies and perhaps a mint Club wafer (or, if wet, a Banjo). Lovely, that is, on occasion. But the mighty success of half-timbered hilarity gave ITV executives pause to muse: 'People like them, let's make some more of them. Actually, sod “some”. Make it “chuffing loads”.' No one appreciated the Pandora's box it had opened until it was too late, and Sunday teatimes became carpeted with Heartbeats, Kingdoms, Monarchs of the Glens and all manner of endlessly multiplying whimsical heritage froth, conspiring to make the modern televisual Sabbath an indigestible confection – all Battenberg and no crumpet.


9.30PM September 1st 1983 – Chas and Dave defect to the Beeb

If ever there was an archetypal ITV musical act, it was Chas and Dave. Their Christmas knees-up, housed in a fully mocked-up East End boozer at Teddington Studios, complete with working beer pumps but, crucially, no toilets – had Thames all over it, but they knocked a few sitcom themes off for the Euston Road mob too. The tunes they turned out are testament to the duo's musical versatility. Roy Kinnear building site comedy Cowboys was introduced by a stomping paean to the art of bodging ('If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing wrong/With a nail too short and a screw too long'), with an oddly Kraftwerkian electro backing. Then came Leslie Ash advertising sitcom The Happy Apple, in which C'n'D summarised the programme's plot to the tune of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik ('Oh, Nancy/Was a secretary/In an advertising agency…') Slightly more trad was the opener for LWT Askwith Unigate bawdry Bottle Boys. ('Milk, eggs and butter, got 'em all on the float/Anything you're short of, darling, leave us a note…') However, the Gertchameisters now began working for the other side, at the front end of Alf Garnett: the Next Generation, aka In Sickness and In Health, which was much more of a home game for the boys. ('But they don't give a monkey's down the DHSS…') Then came the retooled Crackerjack theme ('Oh, Uncle Jack!') and Snooker Loopy, which was practically a trailer for the Beeb's Crucible coverage, and that was that. Aside from a slight return to the third channel for the theme to floundering chimpanzee cartoon Bangers and Mash ('Mash and Bangers's clangers come about quite frequently…'), ITV lost its most distinctive light entertainment musical asset this side of Colin Keys. 'Bloody poorer, that's a fact!'


8.45PM January 9th 1985 – Prunella Gee takes six Valium and collapses into Penelope Keith's fireplace

The middle class mid-life crisis sitcom was the bane of ITV in particular during the 1980s – Holding the Fort, Pig in the Middle, It Takes a Worried Man, Chintz… chock full of bittersweet one-liners about mortgage arrears, sad-eyed faces peering forlornly across the breakfast table over unfurled gas bills, and balding character actors in cardigans sighing heavily by the hall table. There was obviously a market for this sort of thing, though God knows where it lived. The apotheosis of the glum genre has to be Moving, a none-more-1985 series about well-to-do couple Penelope Keith and – Mr Radio Four light drama himself – Ronald Pickup, er, trying to move house. Well, it's the third most traumatic event in one's life, you know. And, judging by this series, about the 675th funniest. But this was different from all the others, as it was a bit – whisper it – 'dark', featuring no studio audience and a sub-plot about Keith's sister – the great Ms Gee – being a Valium addict, hence the above laugh-free faint into the commercial break during the first episode. No Christmas special followed.


8.30PM September 3rd 1986Tripper's Day becomes Slinger's Day

The original was bad enough: what turned out to be Leonard Rossiter's final TV outing as the bowler-hatted manager of a supermarket which made Store Wars in Whizzer and Chips comic look like the height of social realism. Even the set looked hopelessly fake – quite an achievement, as the interior of a supermarket is possibly the one real life location that looks exactly like a studio set in the first place. After Rossiter's untimely death halfway through the screening of a second series that existed on the strength of his name alone, Thames madly decided the original premise was worth resurrecting on its own terms. Madder still, they picked Bruce Forsyth as Rossiter's replacement. Forsyth's acting skills, while not to be entirely dismissed, are perhaps the least important part of his formidable showbiz arsenal, and indeed, here he's constantly trying to turn a straight-down-the-middle sitcom into something approaching the light entertainment spectaculars he'd been hankering after since the overstuffed Bruce's Big Night slipped in a puddle and fell on its arse in front of the entire nation. You Bet! would eventually let him work his passage back from Play Your Cards Right purgatory, but not before Bruce had suffered through two helpings of this, and an ill-fated attempt to break America with Bill Grundy-produced game show Hot Streak, a televised mix of Articulate and Chinese Whispers which didn't take but did briefly get whooping Stateside audiences joining in with the 'nice to see you' catchphrase, which must count for something.




10.30PM July 3rd 1988
– ITV knocks satirical sitcoms on the head

1988 saw a lot of long-standing British comedy traditions come to an end. The Grumbleweeds breathed their last, on telly at least, meaning an end to people going 'rattle rattle, jewellery jewellery' and Bertice Reading trying to sing Stormy Weather with a straight face while 'the lads' prannied about behind her with air horns and gorilla suits. Fresh Fields was remade and remodelled as French Fields, with Sonia jettisoned, an accordion stuck on the theme tune and a string of garlic stuck on the set. And Central finally stopped repeating The Gaffer. For shame! Arguably even more tragic was the end of several years of satirical sitcoms which used to alternate with Spitting Image in ITV's 10PM 'naughty' slot, of which the greatest was surely Hot Metal, the manic tabloid newspaper romp with Robert Hardy in dual roles and Alan Price on vibes. Slightly less majestic but still great was Room at the Bottom, the story of put-upon light entertainment producer James Bolam, suffering at the sadistic hands of controller Keith Barron. When the second series of that came to a close, nothing worth mentioning really took its place, and though Spitting Image carried on a few more years, Sunday night appointment TV never really recovered.


10PM October 27th 1996Sometime, Never

And this is the sort of stuff that replaced it: a sitcom built, if you please, around the Philadelphia Girls, aka Sara Crowe and Ann Bryson, whose ditzy office temps of the sing-song estuary voices and the unhealthy obsession with that rubbery cheese spread that always smelt faintly of tarmac evoke the mid-1990s more completely than any Britpop mix tape or clip of John Major talking about cricket and parsnips. Amazingly, they were given two cracks at TV stardom off the back of those – in 1995 Channel Four stuck them behind desks for sixthirtysomething, an early evening round up of celebrity news delivered in tones of mild sarcasm, which was something fresh and original at the time, and not, as it is now, the unappetising gruel making up 80% of all telly ever. Then came this, a rather less original sitcom where the pair swapped run-of-the-mill observations on the tribulations of being the wrong side of thirty over a bottle of cooking sherry. After that: nothing. Funny, that.

Friday, 26 September 2008

It'll be Alright on the Night (on the right of the night on the left of the night opposite Mordred)

So The Krypton Factor is coming back, as plugged here - bizarrely with Gordon 'The Chain' Burns holding building blocks spelling 'Trumpton Wanker'. Well, it's an angle.

Nothing amazing about another old quiz being plundered by poor old strapped-for-brains ITV of course, but all the talk of the 'iconic' assault course and 'state-of-the-art technology' suggest that, once again, they're missing the point of the original before it's even begun.

Even at the time, The Krypton Factor was a very ordinary sort of programme. While quizzes in the 1980s gradually stared beefing themselves up, with blonde women in helicopters and Richard O'Brien playing an ocarina, The Kryp (as we all called it) remained sober and, that shouting sergeant major at the end aside, very, very quiet. Gordon Burns's supernormal powers of whispering were stretched to the limit as he conspiratorially confided with the viewing public the key to solving the three-dimensional jigsaw (always something about getting the base segement the right way round) while the camera focussed unforgivingly on Jim, a systems analyst from Redditch who 'doesn't appear to be making any progress at all'.

Since then, silence has become as much a crime on TV as it always was on radio. But radio had a reason for it, as pointed out by John Peel whenever he played a record on the BBC World Service which featured a whopping pause in the middle, half-fearing the momentary silence of the global broadcasting bastion might trigger World War Three.

Blame Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and its constant, pulsating, sub-Jean Michel Jarre backing track, complete with matching Destination Docklands-style sweeping lightshow. Someone decided the sound of a silent studio wasn't 'tense' enough. Either that, or they had a morbid fear of the janitor's broom falling over and destroying the carefully constructed edifice of intellectual suspense.

ITV might decide to help their product stand out from the menacingly thrumming crowd by going back to whispering basics. Who knows? Mastermind managed it after all, but the Beeb tend to have more confidence in their resurrected brands, and don't share ITV's boobish, eager-to-please compulsion to kit the old model out with the TV equivalent of flashy rear spoilers and those blue lights that go along the bottom of the door frames. (They certainly tried odd things towards the end of The Kryp's original run, as I recall.)

But it's an important fact that The Kryp was, even by the standards of the time, quiet, thoughtful, modest telly. No bells, no whistles, no throbbing Fairlights or billowing carpets of dry ice. Even the assault course looked like a badly-tended adventure playground at times. And if they get the mechanics of the quiz right, there's no reason why it can't be like that again. They could even save a few bob to plough back into blinging up that Series Champion perspex trophy.

Oh, and what are the odds they'll persuade Steve Coogan into a one-off return to those 'spot the difference' dramatic film clips he used to appear in?

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Picture it - Sicily, 1914!


Sophia: In Sicily, we never went to the doctor. We went to the Widow Caravelli. Whatever you had, she had a cure. She was most famous for her green salve to cure ear infections. One day, she gave some to Salvadore, the village idiot. He misunderstood the directions and put in on his linguine instead of in his ear.

Dorothy: Well, I guess if you're an idiot with a hearing problem, you do things like that.

Sophia: Actually, it turned out ok. The stuff tasted great, so Salvadore decided to market it. At first, things didn't go so well. Linguine with ear salve wasn't very appetizing. But once he changed the name to pesto sauce, it sold like hot cakes!

Dorothy: Ma, you're making this up!

Sophia: So what? I'm old, I'm supposed to be colourful!

Monday, 26 May 2008

A Very Funny Red-Haired Woman Named Tate


On the weird and wacky cable service I have at home because The Man won’t let me put a dish up, there’s a rum little on-demand mini-channel thing called Screen Gems. The name will be familiar to those of you who ever mainlined stuff like The Monkees or I Dream of Jeannie on summer holiday mornings. This channel offers up a handful of those, selected seemingly at random. Why it’s doing this is anyone’s guess, but the multichannel age thumbs its nose at such lily-livered commonsensical talk, and so, there it is.

Anyway, after a brief dalliance with the one Monkees episode I must have seen every three months throughout my childhood and so could recite the dialogue as it happened (the one where they go into a toy-testing department, Tork fans) I assumed that was Screen Gems spent for me. Then a while ago Benson turned up, and through nothing more than a vivid recollection of the smell of roast beef that I’ll always associate with the theme tune, I had a look. It wasn’t half bad. Not many laughs, but still possibly the most watchable of the whole ‘sarcastic black butler versus frigid German cook’ genre. Then, the other week, along came the programme from which Benson span off, Soap.

Soap is one of those sitcoms that’s considered a landmark in America, but is hardly mentioned here. Channel 4 used to show some of the later series at odd times late at night as I recall, but the disparity in fame on either side of the Atlantic makes Seinfeld look like Dallas. It is, as the oleaginous voice of one Rod Roddy puts it at the top of every show, the story of two sisters. Mary Campbell’s the lower middle-class one, married to a loon who killed her previous husband, with one son on the run from the mob after failing to kill said loon, and another mulling over a sex change operation so he can marry his quarterback boyfriend. Jessica Tate is the other, who married a wealthy businessman who cheats on her with his secretary, and on his secretary with anyone else who’s going, is herself boffing the same tennis coach as her daughter, who’s also got the hots for a Catholic priest. And then there’s the other daughter who’s bedding congressmen, the requisite ‘wise beyond his years’ smartass kid, a Hawaiian ventriloquist with inseparable wisecracking doll, and of course Benson.



Confused? Well, you have to watch the thing closely, that’s for sure, so it’s suited to the whole on-demand format, where missing an episode is not an option. The sort of daytime soap it’s supposed to be parodying never happened over here, but that doesn’t matter. The script, created and, unusually for American comedy, mostly written by Susan Harris (later of Golden Girls fame) may suffer from the old ‘everyone talks the same way’ syndrome that’s hard to avoid with wisecracking comedy, but the performances carry it off superbly. Everyone knows about Billy Crystal’s star-making turn as Gay Jodie, but in a close contest acting honours go to Robert Guillaume’s Benson, Katherine Helmond’s brilliantly sustained airhead whitebread matriarch turn as Jessica Tate, and Richard Mulligan, whose Bert Campbell was clearly closely studied by the young Michael ‘Kramer’ Richards:



In retrospect, after we’ve been spoilt by the likes of Frasier, it inevitably seems a tad slow, and it certainly does seem a bit pleased with its mould-breaking outrageousness at times, but so does Not the Nine O’Clock News and Brass Eye. And then, this being an American sitcom, there’s The Mawkishness. Oddly, the first half dozen episodes roll by in a manic haze of plot-reversals and scene-setting with no time for a touching moment, so the first big ‘the laughter dies, leaving a tear forming in the corner of the studio audience’s collective eye’ scene comes as something of a shock. I’m told by those who know that this escalates to unbearable levels a couple of series in, and indeed the whole thing went on into the 1980s way after it should have been put out to grass, but that’s the US networks for you.

Still, even if it turns to total dross after this first series, that’s 19 episodes of class more than most can manage. Oh, and !!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!! Here’s the final ever scene. They don’t end sitcoms like that any more.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

She'd come in at a quarter to six with her carrier bulging - and it wasn’t with Arctic Roll

For some reason - energy conservation, probably - I rarely laugh out loud at the telly. With just about anything else, I do a fair impersonation of Stuart Hall commentating on gladiatorial Bavarians dressed as pantomime ducks, but it takes a great deal to have me honking over the box. A notable exception to this rule is Kitty, the anarchic old ratbag from Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV.

As with all Victoria Wood's best '80s characters, there's no attempt made to keep Kitty sympathetic. The Continuity Announcer (the excellent Susie Blake in a mauve ruched nylon blouse complete with Princess Di-style hideous outsize bow) is a despicable snob. Julie Walters's more demented characters were surreally vulgar. Kitty is both simultaneously.



Like all good pop songs, these monologues rarely creep over three minutes in length, but pack more wonders into that infinitesimal space than is physically possible. With a delicately balanced mix of ebullience and spite, this weird, domineering WI refugee, who appears to have let herself into the studio, rattles on about the mundane minutiae of her week to a suddenly captive audience.

Her week is invariably strange, but in a workaday sort of way. Wood's usual lower middle class reference points are thrown up in the air and scattered in bizarre patterns. There are a few recurring characters - the lesbian producer, 'the boys from flat five' and Kitty's assorted fellow rummy club members - but most of the action takes place inside Kitty's disturbed chintzy brain. She's Alan Bennett's psychedelic auntie, and could clearly keep up this prattle of unconsciousness all day, despite her repeated insistence she's 'not stopping long'.

Here are a few refresher quotes:

  • The first day I met her she said, ‘I’m a radical feminist lesbian’; I thought what would the Queen Mum do? So I just smiled and said, ‘We shall have fog by tea-time!’
  • Fortunately, I’ve just had my TV mended. I say mended – a shifty young man in plimsolls waggled my aerial and wolfed my Gipsy Creams, but that’s the comprehensive system for you.
  • I don’t drink as a rule, not wishing to have a liver the size of a hot-water bottle. If I need a ‘buzz’, as I call it, I have a piccalilli sandwich with Worcester sauce. That takes your mind off your bunions, believe me.

There are dozens just as good. In fact, there's nothing in these sketches that isn't. It's amazing how much Wood crammed into every bit of As Seen On TV (though I still find some of the songs hard going). One episode contains enough good jokes to sustain a ten-year career by modern standards, though a modern career would have trouble yielding even one line to match it.

And Routledge is brilliant, of course. It's a grotesque performance - her mouth chews the air around the words and contorts itself into all sorts of manic shapes in between them - but that doesn't mean it's not full of little subtle touches, like an intricately carved bust of Stan Boardman. I won't succumb to prattishness by comparing her mastery of Wood's rolling verbal rhythms to the knack of speaking Shakespearean blank verse, but you get the idea - this is poetry, and wonderful it is, too.

Seriously, does anyone not like this?

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Imagine Her, Imagine Them


Fox were great. This is a fact. Some facts aren't trumpeted enough. My incessant trumpeting of Fox's greatness resulted in a lovely email from an American TV Cream reader, thanking me for introducing him to the band, which whom he was now obsessed. I was, needless to say, chuffed to bits by this. So, in the hope of drumming up a few more converts, here are more reasons why Fox were, as the man said, great.

(Sorry there's nothing much to accompany them, but the band's YouTube presence is predictably meagre. there are a couple of songs but They won't let me embed them here, for some sinister reason.)

1) S-S-S-Single Bed. The motherlode of course, and packed to the gunwales with gorgeous oddness. That clumsy club-footed wah-wah intro, for instance, sets alarm bells ringing among the less imaginative punter from the off. Then in comes the 'Lilli von Schtupp at 78RPM' vocal and that clumsy 'ner-nernk!' riff, the rhythm guitar equivalent of an on-the-pull Mod trying to lean nonchalantly on the edge of a National Milk Bar counter and sliding off. It's All Wrong and All Right at the same time. And then there are your Talkbox shenanigans in the middle eight of course. Best bit (and which, admittedly, you won't be hearing on that YouTube clip) is the way the menacing bass synth hum swoops in suddenly at the end of the chorus like a Close Encounters spaceship. Brrr! Oh, and Kenny Young's goofy cod-Texan backing vocals. Brrr!

2) Only You Can. On the album version at least, this starts very oddly indeed, with a bit of pan-pipe fuelled wooziness that seems to have fallen off a Martini advert. Then, before you can get your bearings, in comes the completely different actual tune, in the middle of a line. Out-avant-garde that, Radiohead! Then you have to contend with Noosha's nutty suction noises and bonkers lyrics about making her heart 'twirl and gyrate just like a Giro delight'. (Presumably some kind of instant dessert for the unemployed.) And for the middle eight, sir, may I recommend ten seconds of extreme stereo flanging on all channels at once?

3) Imagine Me, Imagine You. The 'difficult' third single, and not quite in the same league as the above two, to be honest. The opening is pretty bland for them (ie bonkers in terms of everyone else). Some backwards tambourine, a few 'doodle-ang's and some Hungarian phrasebook lyrics. ('Or would you rather up my room/For wine and dining?') Still, there's always that humming bass synth, here sounding less like a menacing flying saucer and more like a welcoming fridge full of... well, Giro delight, probably.

4) He's Got Magic. Not going to win any awards for fine tunesmanship, this song, but it has that infectious boinginess that glam did so well. (Though ironically Kenny's The Bump, the song which celebrated early '70s pop's bounce, was one of the exceptions.) If I was angling for a Guardian job I'd suggest it's the aural equivalent of a space hopper. But no. Best instead to mention the inclusion of more upward key changes than Zager could shake an Evans at, and the weird panning-right-to-left reprise of the chorus at the end. Why not?

5) Red Letter Day. Essentially, Altered Images four years before the fact, though in every other respect (the squeaky-husky vocal gymnastics, lyrics about pink horizons and fancy magicians) this is early Kate Bush in embryo. How many classic pop acts did *you* pre-empt today? (Oh, and Lene Lovich, I suppose.) And best of all, the whole things anchored in that sort of squelchy synth oompah bassline familiar to fans of Orange Juice's Rip It Up. (And indeed the theme to Noah and Nelly.)

HONOURABLE MENTIONS: Clued-up swingers will by now be screaming 'Wot, no I Like Electro People?' Of course, this theme to the Kenny Everett Television Show (mid-'80s BBC version, end credits only) was probably the first contact I had with Ver Fox, and it remains ace, even if you try not to get sidetracked into some mad conspiracy theory about how this came out a good six months before The Human League's Love Action, eh? Eh? All that aside, it's great to hear the always tech-savvy band move into full-on synth pop territory, although of course it wasn't officially credited as Fox for some trumped up legal reason or other. Really, it should be number three here. And Strange Ships should be at number five. Ah, forget it. Not sure what to make of this, which is supposedly the website of the lady herself, though it appears to have stalled about 18 months ago. Still, it does feature some new material, namely Judy Blue, a kind of 3 1/2 minute Bohemian Rhapsody/Tommy concept single with overtones of Andrew Gold's Lonely Boy and Kate Bush's There Goes a Tenner (and Nine to Five, in a strange way), while Fox herself adds Hazel O'Connor-style operatics and - gulp - baritone backing to her usual vocal toolbox. So she's clearly as nuts as ever, which is good.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Hold Me Close Now, Tony Danza

Lord, what a time of year. It's only light for forty minutes a day, happiness is but a distant memory, and there are a thousand things to do but neither the will nor the way with which to get them done. The world seems to be 'on hold' for a few weeks at about this time, so a sort of wistful anticipation is the most positive mood it's possible for most to muster. What genre of music best soundtracks this weird purgatorial period? Thanks to TJ Worthington, I've discovered the answer - those sad/uplifting songs that used to introduce just about every US sitcom made between 1980 and 1986.

The models are many. The likes of Chicago and Boston laid down those winsome power chords for the networks to purloin. Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, though a bit 'out there' in places, serves as a nice emotional template. A closer model would be Christopher Cross's Arthur's Theme, which has the possibly erroneous effect of locating all these tunes, for me at least, in some mythical early '80s New York. Lyrically they inherit their upliftingly bittersweet, 'life can be hard but hey, if we have each other we'll pull through' sentiment from Carole King via seventies themes like Diff'rent Strokes, Happy Days and the various 'female star's first name in title' sitcoms we never really saw over here, but they were more lyrically cutesy and musically varied, and you could dance to them, whereas the below are all of a sedentary, plaintive piece. Here's a swift top ten of the most effective.


The Greatest American Hero
As detailed by TJ, this is a bit of a forgotten wonder, built along strict mid-west FM radio guidelines. What's the technical term for the thing those piano chords do at the beginning? 'Pom, pom, pom-pa-pom pom...' Simultaneously criminally bland and oddly evocative of a nighttime sojourn in uptown Manhattan you never actually experienced. 'Believe it or not, I'm walking on air!' It's all uplifting in the lyrical department though, with not much in the way of the 'momentary self-doubt expunged in an instantaneous surge of self-belief as strings and major chord kick in' feeling. Still, an honorary point for the way the opening scene resembles every video The Darkness ever made.


Taxi
If this had lyrics (aside from the 'Night Mr Walters!' 'Uuuuuhhhh!' exchange) this would romp away with the title. As it is, this Bob James flute and (I'm guessing here) vibraphone workout is mellow, just jazzy enough to be musically enjoyable without the troublesome suggestion of Benny-fuelled licentiousness, and the perfect accompaniment to a very boxy car going over a very long bridge. Other instrumentals in this genre include Gloria (only lyric, the repeated title and a load of 'na-nn-na-da-da-daaa's) St Elsewhere and, oddly, Hill Street Blues.


Silver Spoons
Quite a bit of rockist guitar freakery on this one, which marks it down considerably, but what the hell, there's Erin Gray! And the lyrics pay huge mawkish dividends with their paeans to 'Making a go/Making it grow,' 'taking the time each day,' 'those things you just can't buy,' etc. All went over my tiny head at the time, of course. I just wanted a go on that indoor train.


Punky Brewster
The unmistakably unnerving influence of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds may cause initial panic in the casual fan, but seasoned aficionados know this is just the 'hook', the little bit of musical business that makes the theme look just a little bit different from the pack. Our familiar territory of minor-major changes and 'dit-dit-dit-da-na-na-naaa's soon returns. 'Maybe the world is blind/Or just a little unkind.' Aw. God alone knows what this programme was actually like to watch all the way through, mind.


Charles in Charge
We're at the end of the musical era here, as the rude intrusion of that LINN drum machine and proto-Mavericks mariachi trumpet work make plain. Also the lyrics are a bit odd - 'I want Charles in charge of me!' No, you want Charles 'lending a hand', 'helping out' or just 'being there for you', you don't want Charles bossing you around like a Freddie Starr Hitler any more than Diana did. This masochistic tendency in American sitcom is what would eventually lead ot Out of This World.


Who's the Boss?
Here accompanied by the visuals to Family Ties, for some reason, but try and ignore that. A jaunty, Honky Tonk Women-style cowbell and chirpy synth sting threaten to funk this out of the generic ball park, but things soon fall back into mellow place with those lyrics, taking a philosophical view with loads of guff about paths not taken. 'There were times I lost a dream or two/Found a trail, and at the end was you.'

Kate and Allie
A snappy, sassy, modern sitcom, but with a heart. In the right place. This was all over Channel Four when I was of school age, which meant that I often saw it when the combined programming might of CBBC and CITV fell slack and a watchable alternative to both We Are the Champions and SPLASH was in order. The theme tune pulls no punches. 'Sometimes tears and sorrow are all the friends you've got/Just when you think you're all by yourself, you're not.' Ain't it the truth? A bonus point for use of the word 'sharing' in a non-Sesame Street context. There doesn't seem to be a decent version on YouTube, amazingly, but the one in your head should more than suffice.



The Golden Girls

Of course Andrew Gold! Now, he's a very 'clever' songwriter, what with all those time sig flourishes on Lonely Boy and palling about with Graham Gouldman, and such brainy shenanigans are frowned upon in the world of the earnest sit-ballad. But this is upfront and honest stuff, as you well know. This, though, is a cover by Cindy Fee. ('Cindy has been awarded Clios for leads on numerous five-plus year campaigns (Hoover, Wheaties, Pontiac) placing her in the rarefied air at the top of the industry.') Some say the fact it's not a bespoke theme tune disqualifies it from competition but who's bastardly enough to pull the plug? And there's that wonderfully muddy US telly sound mix too, which I can't get enough of (see also Diff'rent Strokes and, paradoxically, the BBC golf theme).


Cheers
I nearly didn't consider this one, for some reason. Maybe it's all those antiquated photos in the title sequence masking the essential '80s-ness of Gary Portnoy's hymn to drunken cameraderie. But this is firmly modelled after the style so, to quote the old geezer's newspaper, we win! Anyway, I won't waste time analysing such a familar beast, as it's been trumped, just, by...


Perfect Strangers
You knew it was coming. That harmonica might sound a bit rootsy in theory, but it fits in seamlessly. OK, this is altogether rockier, more up-tempo, and more Friends-ish than your Christopher Cross clones, but the effect is still the same, times ten. Standing tall on the wings of his dream, the singer (presumably on behalf of Balki) promises us he's bound for better days whatever hazards life and the world may throw at him, even that gravest of modern concerns, 'haze'. It's all very Reaganite, very self-empowering, with no mention of sharing, love or counting on the little Netto Bill Murray bloke he's lodging with, but compassion be damned, this gets you right there in a running-up-the-Philly-steps kind of way. In fact, put this on your iPod and go and run up some stairs. And if you can have a bit of slapstick fun with the revolving dooors at the top, so much the better. You'll feel ready to take on all comers afterwards, guaranteed. Here comes 2008! We're gonna make it after all!