Friday, 3 July 2009

'I Just Need a Place to Kip for a Few Nights, Stan'

All the recent talk of people going 'to hell with it' and voting for celebrity candidates in the next general election is worrying, despite Esther Rantzen's sterling attempt to put paid to the whole idea with her embarrassing performance on Question Time. Celebs simply aren't suited to office - they neither know nor care about anything other than themselves. That is, in most cases, the main reason they've become celebrities.

There is a kind of public office, though, to which the stars of stage and screen are perfectly suited: the kind no-one knew existed in the first place. Called things like High Sheriffs and Lord Lieutenants, they don't appear to do much apart from turn up on the news occasionally in furry robes to mug at local businessmen or kids in a newly-built youth centre. ('Sounds like Gordon Brown! LOL!')

Celebs make ideal candidates for this job - not much paperwork, lots of getting out and about and pressing the flesh, and those robes, darling! The High Sheriff of Surrey was the benchmark for celeb dignitary action for ages, with both Richard Stilgoe and Penelope Keith holding that unaccountably sexy-sounding office over the past few years.

But now there's a new challenger, as we hear Eddie Yates off Corrie has been made Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight! This is, of course, the best celebrity political appointment made thus far, and we wish Mr G Hughes (if that really is his name) all the best carrying out his many ceremonial duties, which include:

  • Brewing bitter in Hilda Ogden's bathtub
  • Failing to flog white goods of dubious provenance at the bar of the Rovers
  • Turning up fresh from the nick desperate for somewhere to kip with iffy mate 'Monkey'
  • Covering a shortfall in hookey wallpaper with an equally dodgy alpine 'muriel'
  • Scanning the classified ads in the Weatherfield Gazette for 'investment opportunities'
  • Running a book on whether or not Annie Walker will pass her driving test
  • Rescuing a trapped budgie from Mavis Reilly's chimney
  • Burning the coq-au-vin at Ken Barlow's pensioners' supper
  • Trying to get Bet Lynch to sell him 2/3 of a pint of bitter after he's had his benefits cut
  • Selling cash and carry booze out of drinking hours from an ice cream van
  • Pretending he lives in Mike Baldwin's flat to impress birds he's pulled over the CB radio
  • Storing Stan Ogden's vintage tandem in an abandoned house which is promptly knocked down while he's having a swift half in the pub over the road
  • Winning the council's 'cleanest dustcart' contest despite a knobbling attempt from Fred Gee
  • Trouncing Alf Roberts in a slimming contest

I think he'll do juuuuuust fine.

Friday, 15 May 2009

"We're supposed to be intelligent people, not the London School of Economics!"

The first episode of a TV series is incredibly difficult to get right, because it has to do everything. You’ve got to introduce your characters, their environment, their relationships, and the rest of the set-up for the next six/twelve/twenty episodes, while juggling a self-contained plot for that one episode which has to come to a satisfactory conclusion by the end, that conclusion summing up, if you’re doing it right, the series as a whole. A sitcom’s harder than a drama, as you’ve only got half an hour, and on top of all that you’ve got to cram in some decent gags.

With all this to do, it's small wonder few sitcoms manage to launch with a satisfactory bang, but Ever Decreasing Circles is a towering exception. Writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey hardly make things easy for themselves with the concept they have to introduce - humourless community busybody Martin Brice (Richard Briers) and his long-suffering wife Ann (Penelope WIlton) have their already crabby marriage shaken up by the arrival of suave, relaxed hairdresser Paul Ryman (Peter Egan), who possesses every redeeming feature Martin does have, from a sense of humour through to modesty. Not exactly 'fat bloke left in charge of bakery' in set-up terms, but they lay it out and sew it up in twenty-five-odd minutes without breaking into a sweat.

The performances are of course great, but it's not only Briers' one-man tornado of pointless energy that makes it. Penelope Wilton runs the gamut of Play for Today kitchen sink emotions from frustration to anger, while leaving just the occasional chink of warmth, enough to stop the viewer wondering why she didn't just pack her bags years ago. Very much in their own world are Howard and Hilda Hughes, not quite the cardboard comedy suburbanites they initially seem, but certainly full of the spaced-out detachment of people who write letters to Points of View - Stanley Lebor's Howard, in particular, talks as if he's reading out each 'frank exchange' from a previously approved crib sheet.

In the middle of all this, Peter Egan just has to act normal - easier said than done in such a madhouse. But he's not completely immune to the mania. His first encounter with Martin leaves him bemused at the torrent of unsolicited advice about British Telecom ("and the same applies to the gas people, but more about them anon!") Five minutes in, he finds himself starting to mimic Martin's OCD ticks, counting the number of steps in the hall stairway along with Ann. The freakish set-up is laced with subtle touches like this. It would be going to far to say the viewer can empathise with every character, but they're all certainly recognisable as real people, which is more than can be said for a lot of more celebrated 'realist' comedies.

Circles (well,why not?) is fairly well celebrated these days, but too often in conjunction with that dread comedy adjective, 'dark', often by punters who seem to have got their sense of humour by copying it off the boy sitting next to them in the exam room. What's really at the centre of it is a monumentally insecure, self-centered man who can't see how he drags down everyone he touches. Where Esmonde and Larbey really impress is in gradually making what starts out as a grotesque monster, cranking the duplicating machine in a maniacal frenzy, into a sympathetic, tragic figure. It's there in the first episode, in Martin's inability (or refusal) to share everyone else's jokes, and the lonely image of his one-man all-night vigil camped in front of a troublesome articulated lorry with a knackered portable telly for company.

It's something the writers have specialised in. There might not be much of it about in Brush Strokes beside the odd maudlin barside chat with Elmo, but it's there in spades in The Other One, a sitcom with Briers as a desperate bullshitter bluffing his way through a skirt-chasing package holiday - a theme made famous by John Sullivan with his medallion-toting Kirk St Moritz in Dear John (another 'before-its-time dark masterpiece' of course).

It's even there in The Good Life - both Margot and Tom are guilty of burying themselves in their own busy little worlds while real life goes on elsewhere. It's really the theme of all comedy, dark or light, noughties or forties, Avalon-approved or ENSA-affiliated - the man for whom the world's just that tiny bit too much. Or as Martin puts it in one of his stilted attempts at self expression: "I wish people wouldn't take me literally. I just mean... things."

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Mighty Moments in TV History #1

Wednesday, January 10th 1979

4.40PM Take Hart
The new Arts Centre caretaker visits Tony for the first time and is disturbed by what he finds!”

- Radio Times.

Cue a nation of pastel and poster paint-crazed children screaming to the heavens: “Why? Why did they think The Master needed comedy interruptions to his sacred creative process from a comedy, accident-prone clown with a bucket on his foot?” But even the most committed bubble paint fanatic gradually grew to love (or at least grudgingly accept) the inevitable off-screen crash and anguished cry of ‘the council aren’t going to like this, Mr Hart!' And anyway, Mr Bennett got more complex as a character as his storyline developed. (January 24th: “Tony invites two of the Why Don’t You..? Gang to help with a painting; the caretaker calls and puts his foot in it!”)

(Mr B was also, coincidentally, one of the last manifestations of the ‘meddling council’ in British children’s entertainment, after a decade of Clive Dunn’s Grandad facing similar official woes, and endless films wherein Ronnie Barker in a bowler hat threatening to knock down the lovely old stately home where two stripy-pullovered kids passed the time innocently with bickering 17th century ghosts.)

I’ve always liked Colin Bennett. Like the inestimable Brian Trueman, he’s one of those TV figures who’s never quite been centre stage, but the more you find out about them, the more impressive they get. He co-wrote the barking teatime sci-fi comedy Luna, which boasted its own Clockwork Orange-lite dialect and posited that Patsy Kensit was artificially grown from a batch of green slime, as well as the decidedly odd semi-drawn sci-fi drama-cum-whodunnit-game-show Captain Zep - Space Detective, which would take another post to explain.

He was also Vince Purity, oleaginous mainstay of You Should Be So Lucky!, a sort of fairground stall/snakes and ladders/talent show hybrid, which took that already universally hated tribe, the stage school graduate, and made them seem appreciably more repellent. A weird attempt to make the most obnoxious children’s programme ever, it bombed abysmally. That is to say, it was a perfect success. Then he spent the early 1990s running round town centres in the middle of the night interviewing emergency glaziers and night-watchmen for the mystifying late night schedule filler Night Shift.

As you might have gathered, our Mr B has an affinity with the high concept and the oddball. He adapted Harry Nilsson’s offbeat fantasy LP The Point (about the round-headed outcast of a pointy-headed race and his dog) for the stage, and runs a production company called Acquired Taste TV. It’s a given that anyone operating in those sorts of backwaters is never going to achieve star status, but thank God they don’t seem to care. As TV fills up more and more with rigidly career-oriented types, it becomes a much, much duller place.

And have you tried getting hold of an R186 signal box lately?

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Vision Off

Another day, another not-exactly-surprising-but-still-a-shock celebrity passing over. Tony Hart was one of those children’s entertainers who occupied a unique post, probably because he fell into the job almost by accident, as so many children’s TV stars did back then, when the Italia Conti conveyor belt was still under construction.

His first BBC gig was on Saturday Special, one of those 1950s children’s programmes which, by its cast list alone, gives the lie to the idea that everything pre-’60s was a thin gruel of patrician women trilling Onward Christian Soldiers at the piano to a forbidding menagerie of rough hewn, clanking puppet animals. A sort of semi-scripted melange of songs, sketches and recipes, it was presented by husband-and-wife team Janet Brown and the actor Peter Butterworth, and can therefore have been little short of fantastic. Hart provided illustrations to stories, some done on camera, although the programme’s graphic mainstay was the old-school Reginald ‘Billy Bean’s Funny Machine’ Jeffryes. You get the impression that Tony, though his trademark cravats were to come later, was very much the ‘next generation’ of talent in this mixture.

He spent the next decade as a jobbing ‘creative’ man-about-the-Beeb: Playbox (appearing alongside that other mainstay of children’s televised art, the Stones to his Beatles, Rolf Harris), Titch and Quackers (operating Quackers to Ray Allen’s Titch) and the enticingly named Ask Your Dad. Then came Vision On, starting a solid run of thirty years (via Take Hart and Hartbeat) with Tone at the front of a largely unchanging format - the gallery, interstitial Aardman animations, pastel cityscapes created before your very eyes, cartoon elephants dashed off with a line-marking machine in an abandoned car park, unwelcome intrusions from resident manic comedy relief (‘Now, where was I? Ah yes, glitter!’), Tony drawing a wild animal which disappears from the picture when his back’s turned and starts terrorising the studio, and that casual, almost cavalier, way he had of deciding a picture was finished, tossing a cardboard frame over the top with a few last strokes of the pastel (‘And I think… we’ll call that… a day!’)

That’s at least three generations who’ve grown up watching the master quietly, diligently at work to the strains of the easiest listening to be found in the Beeb’s record library (all in the prescribed viewing position for ’thoughtful’ kids’ telly - lying prone on the floor two feet in front of the set, chin resting on hand, gazing upward in rapt concentration). Three generations forlornly hoping their badly-traced dinosaur panorama would make it to the gallery, three generations cursing the fact it was usurped for some talent less six year old’s gimmicky construction with movable cotton wool flaps. (Of course, Tony was teaching us a valuable lesson there about ‘passing off’ and the nature of genuine creativity, but did we listen? No, we just fumed indignantly at the thought of those coloured pencils going to someone who’d probably end up eating most of them.)

It’s not just because he’s still sadly fresh in the memory that it’s tempting to compare his amazing pre-teen influence to Oliver Postgate, but the pair have always seemed somehow alike - quietly creative, self-contained, greatly magnanimous and bursting with more ideas in a day than a Nickelodeon boardroom could rustle up in eight collective lifetimes.

Now, where did I put that Indian ink?