Monday, 21 November 2011

Salford Lasses' Club

There's something simultaneously delightful and maddening about investigating old TV programmes you've never seen. Finding copious evidence that there's so much more to TV's past than the well-trodden path of the retrospective clip shows will dare to admit is a thrill. Slowly piecing together the details of the weird and wonderful products of an industry in its pomp is slow but infinitely rewarding work. Becoming increasingly resigned to the fact that you're unlikely to ever actually see the damn thing in question is close to heartbreaking.

The death of Shelagh Delaney got me thinking again about just such a buried nugget. In early 1976 the Beeb, as was their wonderfully instinctive wont back then, commissioned Delaney to write... well, something. Whatever she fancied. She came back with The House That Jack Built, a series of six half-hour plays showing the progress of a marriage through thick and thin, from 1967 to the present day ten years later.

Delaney described the couple as a "cowboy and a Madonna". Jack is the cowboy, an engineer with big ideas, in particular the dream of owning a castle with "grounds big enough to ride a horse for two hours before breakfast." He's played by comedian-turned-actor Duggie Brown, who was doing some grand stuff in various Plays for Today about this time. The Madonna, Lu, a former shorthand typist who just wants happiness for the pair of them, was played by Sharon Duce, latterly most famous as Ray Brooks's long-suffering wife in Big Deal. No-one else is ever seen throughout the series.

It all sounds a lot like Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman's internationally-garlanded slice of Swedish marital angst from a few years previously. But by all accounts it was a lot more fun than that. Nancy Banks-Smith compared it to The Likely Lads, with one of the lads transformed into a lass. The opening scene, on the wedding night, set the tone, with Duce pissed as a newt, after having been carried out of the reception by Brown, who mollifyingly reassures her: "You danced every dance, you told a couple of jokes and, when you'd had enough, you fell down." As he tries in vain for a spot of consummation, the chat ranges from quotes from John Donne to a scramble for the Andrew's Liver Salts.

The critics all seem to have loved it from the off, save for the Guardian's Peter Fiddick, who hated it at first but changed his mind completely as the series went on. The Beeb, sadly, didn't do too much to promote it, bunging it out on BBC-1 in that uncherished and insecure post-Horse of the Year Show slot which was the bane of early series of Monty Python.

If the programme still exists, the BBC have a neglected work by a major British dramatist on their hands. Will the sad news of Delaney's passing be enough to provoke an archival rummage? A screening on BBC Four is unlikely after the recent Singing Detective farrago, but what chance a DVD release? It seems ideal, and a much more satisfying tribute than another repeat of the brilliant-yet-over-familiar A Taste of Honey and a string of skeletal obits that seem indecently keen to talk about Morrissey instead.

Maybe the idea of such a thing happening in these careless days could be called a fairy story. Then again, as Delaney herself said, "Everything I write could begin with 'Once upon a time...' They're fairy stories. Or lies."

Monday, 14 November 2011

"I've Sold Me Soul!"

November. John Lewis have “unveiled” their new Christmas advertising campaign. Everyone seems to be taking it very seriously indeed. It's been “hailed as the best Christmas advert ever”. The little lad in the ad has been profiled in several national newspapers. The Guardian have taken to placing spoiler warnings at the start of discussions of it, like it's some piece of great art that must be enjoyed in the correct conditions. This is something new, and very odd indeed.

As a piece of ABC1-style advertising, it's pretty good: tastefully shot, neatly edited and with a cute twist at the end. It avoids the two most prevalent sins of current TV advertising, namely bludgeoning the viewer into submission with a parade of available famous faces, and inventing a feeble catchphrase and pretending the whole country's become obsessed with it. But that very OK-ness makes its sudden fame all the more confusing. There's not that much to it. It's been done before, many times, many ways. Granted, it features – horrors! - a Smiths song, but how worked up can anyone get about that in an age when The Fall flog hatchbacks and John Lydon ekes out his dotage as TV's Mr Spreadable Butter?

Adverts celebrating themselves are nothing new. The industry put itself in the foreground in the mid-'80s with an onslaught of auteured prog commercials. Some, like Rutger Hauer's gnomic Guinness utterances, both did the dirty job of flogging product and stuck in the collective consciousness. Most, though, managed to get the nation's back up with wistful New Age philosophy, the nadir being a painfully artful campaign for the Nationwide in which a Mick Fleetwood lookalike wrote a gushing letter to his gap year-travelling son, all about personal journeys and “swimming with the sharks and the dolphins”. (That one garnered a Jasper Carrott parody almost as elaborate as the real thing, so on the grounds that bad publicity doesn't exist, it was a success, too.)

Even before then, ads had never been shy about giving themselves equal billing to the product they were selling. This was usually done in a sly, self-deprecating way, with celebs giving wry glances to camera that said “yes, I know, undignified isn't it? But hey, we've all got to eat”. As far back as 1965, Tony Hancock was helping out the Egg Marketing Board in such a convolutedly postmodern fashion punters were unsure whether to make an omelette or start the revolution.

This apologetic tone had a tendency to disappear at Christmas when, buoyed by the heady seasonal mixture of sentimental bonhomie and commercial desperation, Woolworth's block-booked entire ad breaks for a celebrity-festooned pantechnicon of Bontempi organs and blank cassettes, and the Country Life buttermen (the ruddy, animated variety, who looked like they'd sooner share a flagon of ale with Bill Grundy than call him a rotter) introduced a festive compilation of their previous adverts in the manner of Stars on Sunday. (“And for all you housewives out there, here's a little something especially for you!”)

TV ads aren't the behemoths they were in the '70s and '80s. Dwindling revenues and budgets mean big, brash, elaborate campaigns of the sort advertisers love to make are slowly becoming extinct. In the gaps, small, foraging rodents take the most unpromising of weak puns and turn them into a comedy book and a range of cuddly toys, and all in the name of a company that does nothing more than tell you how much other companies are charging for their services. We've come a long way from the days when Wigan Market could be advertised on Granada with a still photo of Wigan Market, a caption reading “WIGAN MARKET” and a cheery voiceover saying “Come to Wigan Market!”

The difference with the John Lewis ad is that it has attained this sort of cult status, and much more, in a little under four days. Even allowing for the speed the media move at these days, there's no way that was achieved from a standing start. Previous campaigns for the store have built up a kind of Woolworthian momentum in the past few years, replacing Marks and Spencer's ailing efforts in the national favour. There's a little “making of” film about this year's ad on YouTube, which strongly suggests a high degree of planning around this “phenomenon”. So we have a marketing campaign that is itself being marketed by its own companion campaign. The ad has become as much a commodity as the shop it's pushing. This is either something that can only be done once, or the start f a potentially insidious new stage in the development of TV commercials. Either way, one thing's for certain – we could all do with some new saucepans.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

"I Didn't Write That! Sounds More Like Dickens!"

Didn't Charles Edwards look a lot like Michael Palin? Didn't Steve Punt not look quite as much like Eric Idle as everyone had previously assumed? Didn't Terry Gilliam sound like Yogi Bear?

It doesn't matter how far off the wall you take your TV biopic, people will always instinctively compare it with what they know before they do anything else. Writer Tony Roche and director Owen Harris must have known this from the start when planning Holy Flying Circus, a worthwhile but mightily flawed anti-biography that had been all but crushed by the weight of expectation before it was out of the traps. Despite all this, it often got up to a fairly speedy lope.

The performances, as has been noted everywhere, ranged from uncanny to unworldly. Such a large lookalike cast was always going to be hell to gather up, so credit is due to the casting department for hitting the targets as often as they did. The gags varied wildly between straight rip-offs (a slightly dodgy rerun of the Life of Brian spaceship skit) and bits that seemed completely out of place (the interminable puppet battle, which seemed to have fallen off a Spike Jonze movie). In between though, there was a lot to enjoy: Alex McQueen's cunt dictator, Geoffrey McGivern's point-missing petitioner, and Michael Cochrane's flawless try-out for what must surely become a Roche-penned biopic of Saint Mugg.

The visual style often proved a problem. It was, unsurprisingly considering the doubtless tiny budget, filmed like any other BBC4 drama. Stuffed with close-ups to avoid manufacturing too much period background, colours muddied in post-production to sherry advert proportions, pseudo-Gilliam cartoons too slick in some ways, not nearly slick enough in others. There was none of the brightly-lit, live cutaway rhythm of the TV series, nor the wide-angle surrealism of the films.

The decision to “go Python” meant that complaints about fact-fudging were, of course, headed off at the pass. Rather too often, as it happens. The TV series itself never had nearly such a high density of self-reflexive, self-heckling moments. The jibes at BBC4 were squarely in the programme planner-knocking spirit of the original, but the fan-flattering references weren't. If Python often indulged itself, it rarely celebrated itself so conspicuously. It was the audience that disgraced themselves at live performances, not the Pythons.

Not everything that failed to work was unique to Holy Flying Circus. The zany band of Christian misfits invented to hound the Pythons was, tedious verbal tics aside, straight from the BBC4 light ent dramadoc “Plotify My Research” manual. This is the problem for those criticising the programme's whole approach. The alternative wouldn't be a rigorously researched, legally watertight recreation of every single memo, bicker and fart that took place. The alternative would be Hughie Green, Most Sincerely with the words “Hughie Green” crossed out and “Python” written in in crayon. Biopics are bullshit. BBC4 Light Ent biopics are bullshit squared. Ever since that Fanny Craddock one, the aim has never been to provide a rigorous history. Occasionally this results in legal action, mostly it just results in annoyed flicking to Challenge TV.

It's a moribund sub-genre which nevertheless pulls in the punters in a way not even Brian Cox's Authorised History of Brilliant Atoms can manage, so it'll be a long time a-dying. Tony Roche and company deserve, at the very least, an A+ for effort in making something different from what's left of it. In a time of extreme stylistic retrenchment in TV drama, any kind of experiment, even a failed one, has to be applauded. It could lead to something truly magnificent.

It could also lead to The Not the Nine O'Clock News Story narrated by a giant Oxbridge hedgehog or Absolutely Stoneybridge, but that's the risk you take. At least it can still be taken.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

A Blow for the Silent Majority

As ever when Ricky Gervais gets his greasily transgressive chops all over the media's thinkpieces, the thoughts of sensible folk turn immediately to anything other than Ricky Gervais. It is, however, shamefully tempting to speculate how well Life's Too Short will stack up against the (admittedly very few) previous attempts to get humour out of society's attitudes to those we shall be very 1992 for a moment and refer to, complete with disarming scare quotes, as “little people”.

Most famously, there was Mike Walling and Tony Millan's A Small Problem for BBC2 in 1987, positing a future height-based apartheid Britain. Nine years before that, though, Good Life writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey contributed a comic entry to the Play for Today canon, A Touch of the Tiny Hacketts, that bears re-examination.

The premise: in a Hounslow terrace, mild-mannered Ray Collis (Ray Brooks) is woken by his wife (Judy Cornwell) to confront a burglar downstairs. Finding what he assumes to be a “crouching figure”, a startled Ray lashes out with a conveniently placed Zulu knobkerrie only to find his felled victim is dwarf Tiny Hackett (Rusty ‘Britain’s Bounciest Weather’ Goffe).

Word naturally gets around about the incident, covering every detail aside from Hackett's stature. At work, he's hailed as a have-a-go hero in predictable tabloid fashion. (“It's about time someone stuck up for us mortgage owners!”) The previously anonymous Ray becomes the toast of the engineering firm. Stan, a workmate and confidant full of saloon bar swagger, puts himself nobly at Ray's disposal. (“I'm empowered to use the telephone in this office any time I want to, you know that.”)

Unfortunately, a snooping neighbour has witnessed the crucial detail, and the next morning the local rag reveals all. “We're in, Prince,” he excitedly tells his dog. “Look at that. Three inch double column – upper and lower case bold headline. And we're on the same page as the air tragedy!”

The cat out of the bag, allies become enemies with astonishing ease. The irascible Old Spud, initially Ray's strongest champion, suddenly becomes a staunch defender of midgets (“... and I will maintain my right to use that word”), reminiscing about a highly unlikely tolerant past. (“We used to have respect for midgets in the thirties. The old Queen Mary built a home for them out of her own pocket. Nowadays, anybody with a bit of a drawback, he's at the mercy of society, isn't he?” “You wanted to hang him yesterday.” “He was normal size yesterday!”) A meek-looking accountant approvingly hands Ray a National Front leaflet. Ray's boss (Patrick Newell), a conspicuous champion of what he calls “unfortunates”, calls him in for a carpeting. (“You have torpedoed my credibility!”)

It soon becomes clear that nobody is acting with remotely noble intentions, merely taking up whatever moral stance suits their self-regarding purposes. None of Ray's shop floor colleagues have a moral compass worth tapping. His boss, it's implied, is only taking on “unfortunates” to reduce his wage bill. Strong, reliable Stan turns out to be having an affair with Ray's wife, pathetically feigning angina when Ray confronts him. Only Ray himself makes any kind of progress, and even then it's pretty feeble – from weak-willed ditherer to slightly more self-possessed cynic.

It's by no means a faultless play. Some scenes are forced, and Goffe himself only gets a handful of lines, the main confrontation being between Ray and Hackett's mother (Brenda Bruce) outside the magistrate's court. But Esmonde and Larbey explore the issue intelligently, making their comedy from the characters' moral panic, logical confusion (there's a great argument about “degrees of crouching”) and egotistical posturing rather than taking the easier path of cheap “transgressive” stereotyping or off-the-peg scenes of social embarrassment.

Produced at a time when mainstream comedy was making one of its periodic retreats into a reactionary comfort zone, A Touch of the Tiny Hacketts questioned everything within its purview. Many have argued today's comedy is undergoing a similar malaise, and Life's Too Short may well provide a similar corrective breath of fresh air. On the evidence of the past week, though, it's doubtful we'll even get a decent knobkerrie gag.

Friday, 17 June 2011

"We Stand at the Cross-a-roads/Which Way Do We Turn..?"

I've never been all that bothered about the pre-watershed suburban Greek tragedy stylings of the programme proper, but I do have an abiding fascination with Tony Hatch's theme tune from Crossroads. Harmlessly banal and unsettlingly wrong at the same time, it is, I'm convinced, and Picture Box notwithstanding, the strangest theme tune ever made for a television programme. It's also, perhaps for this very reason, the most needlessly rewritten.

The opening sting (which sadly isn't on the clip above, but you know how it goes) takes no prisoners – that nine-note phrase for doorbell guitar that always sounds like it's going out of tune. You want avant garde? The rest of the orchestra, instead of rising as one man and turfing the jangly Judas out on his ear, try to “play around” him as if nothing's amiss. Seeing as this “orchestra” consists of a piano, harpist, bass, oboe and drums, is probably just as well they don't kick up a fuss, as they're hardly in a position to talk. But it somehow, madly, works, the stately oboe carried along by the prissily brisk percussion like Amy Turtle holding her head nobly aloft in search of gossip as she pushes her rattling trolley down the corridors. Everything about this music is so unabashedly, defiantly wrong it's hard not to come away from it thinking that perhaps the real problem is with the rest of music as a whole.

This version served the series for decades (notwithstanding a rotten cover, with full orchestra and no pizazz, which turns up on theme compilations in lieu of the original giant). Then Paul McCartney intervened. Macca has pioneered many pop idioms in his time, but the ironic cover of the TV theme is probably his least celebrated innovation. After Macca, the deluge: The Dickies' Banana Splits, Half Man Half Biscuit's Drugs Flies by When I'm a Driver of a Drugs, and all manner of acid house novelties featuring Richard Easter in an armchair on Top of the Pops. Turning the original's Trusthouse Fortissimo into an eye-winking stadium stringbender, Macca and Wings were at the head of this long and ignoble tradition, unless Joe Brown did a skiffle version of the Twizzle theme.

(NB - ignore the weird "Stiltskin fan art" visuals. Not sure what's going on there.) Fine as an album track, but when it hit the screens, the TV Times was in for a lively mailbag. “How much longer do we have to suffer Paul McCartney's treatment of the Crossroads theme?” fumed Janet Bosworth from Louth. Martyn Finch of Croydon concurred: “The Crossroads theme was bright and happy. Now it has plunged into insignificance. The rhythm has gone and the roll of the credits no longer fits the music.” This last audio-visual criticism was a perceptive one – the infamous crossover credit rollers did indeed come and go in reasonably good time with the old doorbell theme, and Macca's languorous noodling spoilt that delicate balance. For Mr Gerwyn Davies of Bournemouth, however, such nice details were beside the point. “This lifeless concoction, a travesty of the original, merely serves to ruin the ending of each episode. I have yet to find a single friend who does not agree with me.”

Caught in the gathering storm, producer Jack Barton was forced into compromise. Even this did nothing to assuage the masses. “A few weeks ago, people were complaining to you about the new version of the Crossroads theme by Paul McCartney and Wings,” wrote Mark Hitchin of Stone, “which I thought was magnificent. Now I'm shocked to hear the outdated Tony Hatch version being used again. Why, after 11 years, has it been brought back?” Later that same week, more consternation. “What is Jack Barton playing at?” hollered D Strick from Penzance. “That ghastly rubbish by Paul McCartney is back again. Surely it's been proved the majority of viewers don't like it. Bring back Tony Hatch.”

Barton attempted to smooth things over. “We are using both arrangements,” he carefully explained, “the original Tony Hatch version for normal endings and the Paul McCartney version for downbeat and dramatic, cliffhanging endings.” This was a fudge that Barton vainly hoped would be sorted out in the near future. “I am hoping that Paul McCartney will write us another, more uptempo, version of the Crossroads theme,” he practically begged. Good luck with that one, wack.

Eventually, someone did do a “more upbeat” version, and look what happened. The intent's painfully obvious – get a solo piano in for a more sophisticated John Miles/Bruce Hornsby feel – and the result's an ad for Mellow Birds minus any redeeming Lumley action. It was a symptom of the new ITV franchise holders – in this case, Central, although TVS were generally the worst offenders – seeking to give their output a more upscale, glossy, ABC1 feel, and ending up with odd-looking wood effect Formica in the process. The '80s in miniature perhaps, but when advertising cease to become a target of 'proper' telly's mockery and starts looking like a role model, things are looking dodgy. “There's just one thing... the company car's got to go!”

Down, down, deeper and down. In 1987 the show was undergoing a weird, piece-by-piece transformation from the old, shabby, motel-based Crossroads into King's Oak, centred on the snazzier country hotel nearby. They got as far as the interim Crossroads: King's Oak before the plug was pulled, but did manage to briefly air this completely new theme tune, a sort of palm court rip-off of Scarborough Fair, co-written by Raphael Ravenscroft, the Baker Street saxophonist doomed forever to have his most famous musical contribution jokingly attributed to Bob Holness, who was also making inroads into Crossroads's pre-prime time audience with Blockbusters.

And last but not even deserving of the epithet “least”, the 21st century revival in all its “with any luck they'll think they're watching Hollyoaks or something” glory. It got even worse as the revival wore on, with both theme and graphics turning into one of those interstitial montages you get on sub-par Eurovision nights, with the Moldovan entrants larking in pastel-coloured puffa jackets around famous Helsinki landmarks. But, really, that's more than enough. Wake up, Jane!

Monday, 13 June 2011

The Doughnut Ain't Carleton Greene's House

As the long-mooted news of BBC Television Centre's great sell-off finally hits home, I find it hard to join in with the cries of anguish. It's hard not to feel that the BBC – the BBC represented by the quixotic, imposing brutalist question mark under threat, at least – moved out long ago.

I've been to TVC plenty of times, but only from the 1990s onward. Thus, I never really saw the place firing on all cylinders. Even from the first visit, two things were apparent: that this was a mad, wonderful building you could wander aimlessly around for days, like a Victorian West End theatre writ large; and that like those theatres, it that had seen better days. It soon became two buildings – the shiny, glass-fronted news centre, symbolic of the New Beeb (as was), while children's programming was relegated to the upper floors of the notoriously Soviet East Tower, a draughty, seemingly forgotten annexe where a few rather sad Swap Shop Eric awards huddled together for warmth in the sort of old trophy cabinet you'd expect to see outside the staff room of a badly-maintained secondary school. If the ghosts of Saturday Night 1978 were about, they were being very quiet.

The last time I was there was for one of those BBC Four documentaries about old telly that cause such immense vexation amongst people on both sides of the pro-/anti-Beeb debate. The folk making it were, I should say, polite and professional to a fault, and apologised more than they needed to for the fact that they had to film in a room that, while not technically a broom cupboard, certainly was no studio and certainly contained many items of cleaning equipment. Filming had to be periodically halted as a tea trolley rumbled periodically past the un-soundproofed door. I smiled to myself, revelling in the atmosphere of the Beeb as we used to know it, of totalitarian car park attendants, pissed producers and dodgy canteen rissoles. If this had been an independent production company, I'd no doubt have been grinding my teeth and wondering what a once great British industry was coming to. Television Centre increasingly existed in the Wood Lane of the mind.

All TV and film locations work like this, of course. I worked for a year at Elstree Film & TV Studios, which was shot through with the TVC malaise in its most virulent form. Posters of classics like Confessions of a Driving Instructor and Let's Get Laid adorned the corridor walls, but apart from the remnants of the Children's Film Foundation (one large man in a partitioned office smoking like a train opposite a never-ringing telephone) and a doleful blue plaque donated by the On the Buses Appreciation Society, it could have been any out-of-town industrial unit. Films were still being made there, but only of the Hollywood ilk. Other than that, the studio's lifeblood was provided by Big Brother and Who Wants to be a Millionaire – shows that will doubtless swell the breasts of future generations with nostalgic pangs, but had no sentimental value for me. There was nothing more than the indefinable, sad air of something great, but so long gone that nobody was really left to tell how great it once was.

It's too early to know if this relocation and further dispersal will weaken the BBC at a faster rate than it's already going at. At worst, it's like hearing of the death of a much-loved but long-retired TV favourite. A shrugging acceptance of the inevitability decline is an ingrained, and none too healthy, part of television life these days, so mourning is appropriate. But the idea that this is some kind of tipping point in the fight to keep the BBC is an exaggeration. The real vandalism started some time in 1987, and has been going on ever since. The BBC was a cottage industry that straddled the globe. Now it acts like a multinational looking for loose change under the sofa. We'll miss the cottage itself, but right now there are more urgent items on television's endangered list than the country's most quotable postcode.

Ex Libris Bernard Bresslaw

These days, “celebrity's secret revealed” carries, by default, the foreboding atmosphere of untoward sexual tomfoolery. Thirty-odd years ago, things were often far more innocent. From Jack Douglas's rose cultivation through Peter Bull's teddy bear collection to John Noakes's penchant for making model trees out of molten glass, the star with the private passion was the subject not of scandal, but delight. Such as the moment in 1975 when Bernard Bresslaw publically announced: “Actually I've been a bibliophile for years.”

More than that, “he's an avid historian who, given half the chance, will lecture you on ancient Chaldean history or Schliemann's discovery of Troy”. The TV Times discovers all this when it's invited into the hallowed private library of “the Carry On clodhopper” at his Hertfordshire fastness, filled with tomes like The Life of John Milton and Collier's The English Stage, all adorned with the personalised bookplate, “Ex libris Bernard Bresslaw”.

Bernie, you see, lives for books. He measures out his repertory life in acquired volumes. “Hmm, Torquay, let me see, that was Westermark's History of Human Marriage.” The loo is just as crammed with reading matter as any other room: “side by side with toilet rolls and tissues, there are Latin primers, Rupert Brooke, Historic Oddities and Strange Events, and Slang, Oddities and Cant.”

His sons are the same, explains his wife Liz. “They take volumes in – volumes, I ask you – and come out stamping their feet with cramp. I timed one of them once – three-quarters of an hour!” His other passion is on an altogether more TV Times level – talking to his tomatoes. “Come along chaps, the sun's out, let's be having you all nice and plump!”

The Bresslavian Library was typical of these sorts of articles. You still get them, of course – The One Show would declare a state of emergency otherwise – but the peccadilloes have multiplied, and they're hunting them to extinction. Perhaps each generation gets the celebrity family it deserves, but why settle for tutting at a bunch of dysfunctional kids when you can have gloriously eccentric aunts and uncles round for tea?

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Whatever Happened to the Future?

Television of the 1970s is ascribed all manner of stereotypical traits, most of which, on close inspection, turn out to be false, or at least no more prevalent than they have been at any other time. One that does stand up to scrutiny is the decade's obsession with the future. From current affairs through drama to sitcom, everyone seemed to be constantly looking ahead.

It's perhaps no coincidence that The Future had its heyday on TV about the same time as nostalgia really took off. Looks Familiar, that titan of mid-afternoon pre-war showbiz reminiscence, launched as part of ITV's daytime schedule in October 1972 (along with Emmerdale Farm, Crown Court and, best of all, a chat show hosted by John Junkin called, simply, Junkin). It proved to be a massive hit. Less than a year later, novelist Kingsley Amis was invited by the TV Times to muse on how the Denis Nordens of the year 2000 would look back fondly on 1973. Inevitably, Kingsley's future is almost perfectly wrong, hung up as it is on Soviet preoccupations, giving a year 2000 where the USSR has reached Dunkirk and people are wistful about the long lost days of international air travel and estate agents. There's a smidgen of truth in the idolisation of the Bond films as representatives of an era where “you could get away with that sort of thing”, even if their trashing as “politically undesirable” is only in the minds of their nuttier fans.

Elsewhere, “David Frost survives” - check; and “Germaine Greer is thought of more as a historical character, remembered for her part in the events of April 1, 1984, when the Prime Minister, Anthony Wedgwood Benn, finally conceded all the demands of women's lib.” That sentence must have been written over a line of empty tumblers in a particularly well-appointed snug bar. His sign off, dolefully acknowledging that “the last few churches are all museums” is nearer the mark, but just reminds you how much religion there was on the telly in the 1970s: Sunday mornings, over an hour on Sunday evenings (including Stars on Sunday, natch) and many and varied bishop debates in the week after the late news, including the Pythonically-titled Argument.

It's a shame, then, they didn't let Amis pen a play based on his musings (although the existence of The Two Ronnies' The Worm That Turned must be some consolation). It's an old, but true, line that drama set in the future gives the sort of insight into the times it was written that its council estate contemporaries often don't. Contemporary drama is playing on home turf, and can give over the tough, gloom-ridden aspects of the times with the kind of grit that would cost millions to reproduce these days, though they were giving it away for free at the time. Old visions of the future have the same problems in mind, but can't help transmit other qualities of their era, naivete among them. This way, even the bleakest predictive dramas gain a certain amount of endearing innocence, like an especially morbid adolescent diary thumbed through at thirty years' remove.

In the early 1980s British TV was, just about, still hanging on to its adolescence, willing to go for the weird and wonderful where today's channels would prefer to play safe. One symptom of this was its undimmed appetite for staging big, daft science fiction plays masquerading as “a harrowing vision of things to come”. The audience for these was often adolescent too: the mix of hectoring sociology and Bacofoil fantasy was too rich for the grown-up graduates of Days of Hope and associated doses of unadorned reality, but give a play's billing the tell-tale phrases “nuclear”, “in the year” or “in a society where...” and you could watch the youth clubs empty as surely as the pubs on Dallas night.

The sensible adult viewer would have written off Stars of The Roller State Disco (1984) before even reaching those words. The self-important pun alone would have them flipping over. Things get scarcely more enticing with the synopsis: the grisly cycle of youth unemployment is brought to the screen as – literally – a concrete metaphor, in which aimless youth endlessly circulate a borstal-cum-roller-disco while being fed from vending machines and receiving bricklaying instruction via patronising government videos. It's strident, heart-on-sleeve stuff from Michael Hastings, maker of the sort of nakedly earnest political play that wouldn't get within a mile of Television Centre these days, regardless of its quality. Sadly, the quality of ...Disco is not great. Alan Clarke's Steadicam perambulations around a cavernous hangar of a set provide the main source of interest, along with Perry Benson as the defiantly un-chiselled romantic lead who refuses to compromise his woodworking ideals for the sake of an early release and a life shifting pallets.

The ending (which I won't spoil, but what you're thinking is probably right) is as glib as it is grim, but that's more a problem of the set-up. Once you've established that your protagonist's life is doomed to go nowhere, where does your story go? The Boys from The Blackstuff could contrast its heroes' various reactions to despair, and set it against the mainstream working world. In a sealed-off building in an unspecified future, there's nothing to judge against. We're trapped in one big piss-stained, claustrophobic metaphor. The play undoubtedly makes its point, but does the point by itself make a play? I'll stop you going to those youth clubs.

Nuzzling up to ...Disco in any self-respecting apocalyptic telly fan's alphabetised collection is Stargazy on Zummerdown (1978), a slice of town and country ritual rivalry set in the 23rd century, in a society where urban and rural communities live uneasily side by side under the benign auspices of a retro-pagan church, and trade relations between the two are agreed at an annual festival wherein village fete meets wrestling smackdown. Oh, and an onion eating contest. If ...Disco was a prime example of hands-on-hips grimness, here's a future full of side-clutching whimsy.

This is an odd little thing, even in the weirdo annals of 1970s BBC drama. Part of BBC2's prestigious Play of the Week slot usually reserved for the finely wrought likes of Langrishe, Go Down or Stoppard's Professional Foul, it's the work of John Fletcher, a historian with no previous dramatic convictions but a healthy interest in pre-industrial revolution England. As with Hastings's work, characters are schematic. Roy Dotrice plays a loopy, valve-soldering eccentric, while Peggy Mount gets to shout great rustic insults as one Opinionated Alice. But the majority of talk, as is the way with these things, gets put to use explaining and itemising the meticulously detailed future world and its workings. Delivered in sing-song west country burrs, this functional chat starts to sound like a lacklustre episode of The Archers, with the occasional reference to starships being built in Sheffield.

It's also a fine example of the studio countryside. Everything takes place indoors, with shrubbery wheeled in from the sides and lit with 5,000 watts in front of a sky blue backcloth. Only modern eyes, raised on years of hand-held, desaturated Cardiff street footage, have trouble taking stuff that looks like this seriously, but even at the time the effect must have smacked a bit of Play School. Not helping matters is the presence in the cast of Toni Arthur, though to be fair she does as spirited a saucy “I do declare” turn as the modest headroom of the script will allow. Perhaps as if to acknowledge this threadbare failing, director Michael Ferguson (a name to drop amongst psychedelic Whovians, should you find yourself in their company with no easy escape route) ends the final shouting scene with a pull-back to reveal the studio cameras and lighting gantry – a budgetary apology dressed up as entry-level Brecht. Still, Ferguson was a veteran of Churchill's People, so he knew a thing or two about the “cardboard spear” end of recession drama.

It's not clear quite why dramatic representations of the future, and indeed futurology programmes in general, whether starry-eyed or doom-laden, from Tomorrow's World to London is Drowning, are so rare these days compared with three or four decades ago. The end of the big time space exploration that ate up all those telly hours is probably a factor, as is the transformation of technology from something mighty and mysterious that government boffins do in the name of human progress into a fun new way for your friends to share their favourite pictures of the same cat. Maybe it was all just a phase for telly to grow out of. Although I wouldn't bet against Martin Amis rewriting his dad's article word for word in the Radio Times in the next twelve months.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain!

The above picture is one of my most vivid early memories of TV, Oscar. It was a short ITV programme in the Black Theatre style: puppetry in which the operators were clad head to toe in black velvet, against a backdrop of same. This allowed them greater control of operation than was available with stringed marionettes or traditional “hide behind the table” glove puppetry, giving the performances more precision and grace. There was also something else, though, a strange quality to do with the apparent weightlessness of the characters and the odd luminosity that came from the use of ultra-violet lights. It was this unworldliness that made Oscar so mesmerising. For a few years either side of 1980, Black Theatre was all over kids' TV, working its dreamlike magic via the skilled hands of a variety of practitioners.

The UK's black theatre tradition has its origins in a run-down Islington theatre, which was done up in 1961 by John Wright, his wife Lyndie and a group of like-minded puppeteers as the centre of operations for a series of shows combining precision puppetry with quirky humour. Lyndie was the prime mover behind the first children's series to make extensive use of shrouded marionette operation. Oscar (1977) was a weird little serial from Tyne-Tees bunged out on holiday mornings, concerning the adventures of the eponymous rabbit, who falls down a dustbin into the world of Rubbidge, a Wonderland-esque location peopled by the friendly likes of Zaggy the Dragon and inventor Sir Feathersqueak, and the malevolent G-Nashers, a cave-dwelling pterodactyl possessing several sets of false teeth of varying degrees of “fierceness”, which he kept hanging on a washing line. With offbeat music and narration from Lance Percival, and a constant stream of cloth-and-foam prop innovation, Oscar stood out a mile from its string-suspended puppet contemporaries. Graduates of Little Angel made their own inroads into TV puppetry. Ronnie Le Drew became Thames TV's puppeteer-in-residence, doing the moves (if not the voice) of Zippy and also giving good Sweep. Then there was a splinter group...

Little Angel alumni John Thirtle and Ian Allen struck out on their own in 1971 with this outfit which mixed a talent for gentle weirdness with solid commercial nous. (Thirtle, for instance, fought to get puppeteers the same standing with Equity as actors.) They hit the small screens in 1976 with Playboard, a circus-themed bit of early morning BBC whimsy with chummy puppets Hedge and Mo and their flesh and blood foil Christopher Lillicrap, before decamping to Thames in 1980 for cutlery-based nostalgic touchstone Button Moon. In between came kitchen safety pop band The Singing Hotpots and the telly incarnation of the Nat West Savings piggy banks. Dedicated to his craft like few others, Thirtle passed on in 1995, succumbing to pneumonia while script-editing The Spooks of Bottle Bay from a hospital bed.

A conjuror and origamist, who combined the two disciplines in what must be the only paper-folding based act to make the finals of Opportunity Knocks, Beardsley provided close-up magic interludes on the Lillicrap-fronted We'll Tell You a Story, when he crossed paths with a guesting Playboard Theatre. Perhaps inspired, he donned a black sweater, two gloves and a couple of pom-poms to incarnate Itsy and Bitsy, the mildly anarchic spiders who made merry with the glitter and Gloy while Susan Stranks struggled to keep order in lunchtime craft vignette Paperplay. But even Beardsley's supreme dexterity couldn't save risible hand-operated alien “Thing” in Tomorrow People adventure misfire The Thargon Menace.

Czech puppeteers Ros Cerny and Hannah 'Susan' Kodicek fled the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague to bring their country's brand of black theatre to the London cabaret circuit. They spent the '70s doing everything from educational theatre to Paul Raymond revue to support act for a touring Mike Yarwood, before securing a spot on the Beeb's Vision On. Then came the call from Granada, providing puppet foils for Peter Davison in lunchtime storytelling diversion Once Upon a Time..., and Carol Leader in studio-bound playgroup romp Our Backyard. Kodicek also did straight acting, appearing in major roles in two of the grittiest entries in the Play for Today canon, Frank Chapple biopic The Union and life imprisonment expose The Sin Bin, and wrote and directed A Pin for the Butterfly, based on her memories of Czechoslovakia, starring Hugh Laurie. A career that somehow sums up the essential difference between the practitioners of this kind of puppetry and, say, Keith Harris.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Lunatic Fringe

Nowadays, working in children's television is a recognised career move for a young actor. Something to get one's face out there, to prepare the ground for a professionally planned assault on stardom proper. Not so long ago though, it was more something you fell into by accident, often as a result of a chaotic stint in the wayward world of fringe theatre. In many cases, this made for an altogether more interesting brand of telly nutter. Here are a few familiar faces who found themselves doing teatime duty after an agitprop apprenticeship.


Lanky Shared Experience Theatre Company alumnus Bob Goody and the eternally underrated Mel Smith were the toast of the Traverse Theatre at the 1977 Edinburgh Fringe with 'Ave You 'Eard the One About Joey Baker?, their two-man play about the life of a failing stand-up comedian. Soon they were augmented by Peter Brewis, musical pasticheur extraordinaire, for a further three productions, including the award-winning Irony in Dorking and The Gambler, a low rent musical riposte to Kenny Rogers. Smith and Brewis, of course, joined the Not the Nine O'Clock News team in 1979, but the following year they were reunited with Goody for a knockabout kids' sketch show for Thames TV, designed to promote reading among children “who do not habitually borrow, buy or have access to books”. A show aimed specifically at the young working classes, in other words (which is a whole YCDTOTA category in itself). Thus, if Flat Stanley was under review, Bob would find himself flattened by Mel and popped in the post. Regular features included Read of the Week, library-based mayhem and inept cookery duo The Two Ronalds. Nancy Banks-Smith applauded the programme, particularly its refreshing lack of patronising “don't try this at home” post-slapstick admonishment. Two series and a Christmas special, Smith and Goody on Ice, followed before the duo went their separate ways, Mel into straight acting and another partnership with that Griff chap, Goody into Patrick Barlow's National Theatre of Brent and Toyah-featuring teen sketch show Dear Heart.


As the caretaker in Take Hart, with pained saturnine grin, council tie askew and paint bucket on foot, Colin Bennett's harmlessly wacky portrayal gave no hint as to his manic former life. He trained, respectably enough, at RADA, graduating as Most Promising Actor of 1973. Various roles followed, from the usual pantomime dame postings to snazzier fare like the original British production of Chicago. On the writing side, he was behind the Mermaid Theatre's adaptation of Harry Nilsson's weird concept album fable The Point. From there, it was only a short leap to penning some of the freakier entries in the early '80s children's TV canon, like Captain Zep: Space Detective, the interstellar whodunit with the felt tip-backgrounds, and Luna, a language-mangling sci-fi comedy starring Patsy Kensit as a slime-originated teenage clone. It all makes perfect sense.


Former insurance salesman Kent Smith was dispensing tickets at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm when Ken Campbell came looking for a replacement member of his urban myth Roadshow. Renamed Sylveste McCoy (the 'r' was added later to escape a thirteen-letter-name curse) and expecting debonair actorly activities, he instead fell into a touring routine of nails hammered up the nose, ferrets plonked down the trousers and bombs exploded on his chest. Such human tortures more than prepared McCoy for the physical exertions of Tiswas, Vision On, Eureka! and more. (Campbell himself would arrive late on the kids' TV scene, playing the title role, alongside his own dog, in ITV's weird dramatised Johnny Ball-esque science show Erasmus Microman.)


The rubber-limbed silent clown of Vision On learnt his craft from maverick theatre impresario Keith Johnstone, whose rather demented actor's guide Impro was a formative influence on many off-the-cuff performers, including John Sessions. Spotted by producer Clive Doig, he fitted right into the crazy, friendly yet slightly unnerving atmos of The 'On, before going on to some solo kids' specials and a stint as a sort of freeform action acting guru at RADA, teaching among others the young Michael Sheen. Johnstone's Theatre Machine also featured performance artist Roddy Maude-Roxby, who would much later become lead presenter of the Beeb's high concept sci-fi Saturday morning flop Parallel 9.


More mime! Hedley first came to prominence with a technically perfect one-man mime extravaganza at the Roundhouse in 1977, before silently accompanying everyone from Lena Zavaroni and Paul Nicholas on Broadway (in a revue which won that coveted award, the Silver Sea-Swallow of Knokke) to pre-lager-ad alternative duo The Oblivion Boys as part of Bryan Izzard's comedy showcase Book 'em an' Risk It, demonstrating his one-man Milk Tray commercial in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. After that came a top-hatted turn in the Clive Doig-devised BBC wordplay showcase Jigsaw, and a long and venerable career in children's TV production beckoned.

As the Conservative government slashed subsidies, the fringe died slowly on its dungaree-clad arse. Alternative comedy provided a few bright lights for the children's market – Tony Robinson moved from Who Dares Wins, a Channel Four sketch show of variable quality, to Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden, a surreal alfresco Jackanory baiter with never a dull moment. This baton was picked up a few years later by Absolutely's Morwenna Banks for the similarly extemporised storytelling relay Jellyneck.

By and large, though, the main route into underage cathode ray entertainment was via the stage school which, the occasional Pauline Quirke notwithstanding, tended to knock off any actor's rough edges at an early stage. Perhaps the last gasp of the fringe-to-front-room tradition were Trev and Simon, who brought some badly-needed dementia to the Beeb's increasingly formulaic Saturday mornings. Is there substance without subsidy? Not on this evidence.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

A Choice of Viewing

All but vanished these days, the regional opt-out was a prime example of the sort of fallow spot that used to be worked into the national TV schedule as a matter of course, to allow television to catch its breath while assorted local have-a-go heroes held the fort. The sort of fluff the regions bunged on told you a lot about their population, or at least what the station controllers thought about their population. So in the spirit of sociological research, let's compare BBC1's regional offerings from a random opt-out: the post-Nationwide 6.50-7.20PM slot on January 30th 1979.

London: The Osmonds
Starting at the bottom, the capital can't be bothered to make its own programme, it seems, so parachutes in a chunk of Donny and Marie stodge to tide the masses over. Poor.

West: Sports Show
Worth a point for the no-nonsense title, which enjoyed its heyday in the late '70s. See also the likes of Asian Magazine and Tyne-Tees's legendary programme about hobbies, Doing Things.

Wales: Heddiw
After fifty minutes of current affairs, what else but... thirty more minutes of current affairs? But this time in Welsh, see.

Scotland: Songs of Scotland
No matter what region you're covering, there'll be no shortage of folk of a certain age eager to regale you with a dozen folk numbers of dubious provenance at the drop of a hat. All you have to do is point your equipment at them and get a round in afterwards.

North East: Looks Natural
Ah, wildlife, the early evening banker. Durham University alumnus David Bellamy gives added celeb points.

East: All Aboard for Flying Thesis
South West: Peninsula: Sixth Sense
The rural backwaters prove to be a haven of intellectual rigour, who'd have thought? A look at Cranfield College's aeronautics PhD is trumped by a bracing ten rounds with AL Rowse from St Austell.
4/10, 5/10

North: The Object in Question
About time we had a panel game, and here comes good old Khalid Aziz with a variation on the Going for a Song/It's Patently Obvious “identify the strange item” format.

South: Hey Look... That's Me!
Into the premier league now, with programmes people actually remember. This Southampton-based hotchpotch was a kind of regional Why Don't You..? with reports on local kids and their hobbies linked by grey-haired loon Chris Harris, touring Southampton and environs in a pink bicycle-powered caravan. Plenty of zero-budget wackiness, but points off for the often rather dull hobby stuff.

Midlands: Look! Hear!
This mighty local music show ran for nearly five years. Here it's still co-presented by Toyah Willcox, perched atop a variety of bizarre, unconformable pieces of furniture to survey “the contemporary scene”. The atmosphere isn't bad, sitting roughly halfway between the jaded frugging on Top of the Pops and Revolver's all-out pogo assault: there's a bit of a mosh at the end of the programmes, but this is still the BBC, so any breakages must be paid for at the end of the evening. It would give early exposure to future big names like Duran Duran, as well as countless new wave and heavy metal acts. Or, in this instance, Ricky Cool and the Icebergs. Still, Toyah!

North West: The Acting Game
The Radio Times billing for this one should need no elaboration: “Peter Purves hosts a knockabout tournament for amateur dramatic groups.” The north west wins by an innings.

Monday, 9 May 2011

A Heck of a Job

Viewers of Bob Mills's excellent late night point-and-laugh telly miscellany In Bed with MeDinner have long been baffled by the clip it once featured of the 1980 EMI World Disco Dancing Championships (North West Final). One of the many cheap and cheerful disco dancing showcases that clogged up both channels around that time, this one was notable not for the outrageous costumes, the ridiculous airborne legwork, or even Simon Bates as host. What really confused the post-pub pundits was the presence, among the judging panel, of the late, great Ken Campbell. How did, as Millsy put it, one of the leading exponents of socialist agitprop theatre end up there?

In the spring of 1980, Campbell was partaking in what was a very rare activity for him – a job interview. For a proper job. Normally a free-wheeler moving from one madly ambitious theatre project to another with little thought towards any kind of “career”, Campbell had his head turned when a vacancy was announced for artistic directorship of the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool - a venue with a history of doing the sort of unconventional things that were his stock in trade. The interview flew along, Campbell outlining with his usual maniacal enthusiasm the various off-the-wall projects he planned to put on, including a revival of The Warp, his own 24-hour “acid Archers” marathon play cycle of enlightenment, conspiracy and sausage defecation.

The Everyman board loved all this, but then came the crunch point. What about the all-important Christmas season? A straight panto was out of the question, what with the Everyman's convention-dodging reputation, but so were bumless seats. Campbell was well prepared here, having planned an all-singing, all-dancing adaptation of Raymond Briggs' new book Fungus the Bogeyman. He had the book with him, so all he had to do was produce it with a flourish, and the gig would be his.

On opening his bag for the grand reveal, however, he found the book wasn't there. Explaining Briggs's creation to the panel without pictures would be a slog, even for Campbell. Improvising frantically, he grabbed what was there – a copy of the Sunday Times magazine with Julie Brown, freshly-crowned 1979 World Disco Dancing Champion, on the front. “Gentlemen, our panto this year will be a disco musical extravaganza, starring this woman!” The board were impressed, and Campbell got the job. “Brilliant! So she's agreed to this?” “Er... yeeeees.”

A bit of frantic telephoning, and the disco champ was on board. The show itself, The Disco Queen, had all the elements you'd expect from a disco pantomime. Mirrorballs, lasers, Satinex rubber body stockings, dance contests in which humble heroes become stars overnight, on-stage trains, dancing dogs, and the obligatory first act appearance of Wilf Lunn demonstrating his exploding bird-scarer helmet. A grand time was had by all.

So it was that Ken found himself promoting his panto by sharing boogie assessment duties with his star at the 1980 EMI World Disco Dancing Championships (North West Final). For someone who professed to despise television as a malevolent, money-driven sapper of the creative spirit, Campbell found himself on it often enough, whether being obnoxious in Fawlty Towers or doing some rather great off-the-wall science documentaries for Channel Four in the '90s. TV, even in those more creatively experimental times, could never keep up with Campbell's frenetic pace of invention, but even a little bit of his capering enterprise went a long way.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Best-Dressed Man on ITV 1974

This rather magnificent double-page spread from the TV Times of November 30th 1974 isn't the makings of a cut-out puppet television theatre for randy housewives to enact their darkest World of Sport/Duchess of Duke Street slash fiction desires, it's the final of ITV's Best Dressed Man, the race to find the most dapper gent on the network.

The TVT used to be full of these competitions. As well as the annual awards, the readership themselves had the chance to become Weightwatcher of the Year, Dressmaker of the Year or even Miss TV Times herself (presenting duties for the latter ceremony were blagged, often as not, by Hughie Green.) It's safe to say that by the 1970s, the TVT had firmly identified its demographic, even though they wouldn't have called it that.

So it was that its readers - addressed at all times as "LADIES" - were invited to help rank the sartorial achievements of IBA-approved menfolk. Some expert help was provided by a panel of judges including Tommy Nutter, some bloke from Burton's and "TV Times fashion writer Jill Whiffing". The criteria: how well the fellows dress for their age, how well for their figures, and how well for their jobs. ("For example: Dickie Davies would look strange wearing a frilly shirt on World of Sport.") Entrants had to score the chaps from one to ten on the form (AV forever!) in the hope of winning a wardrobe of "full fashion garments" courtesy of the shadowy International Wool Secretariat.

In case you're wondering where Patrick Mower is, he won it last year and so must watch languidly from the sidelines. It's only slightly annoying that I can't find the issue where the winner was announced. Suffice to say Moore - who's surely in costume and therefore cheating - should be disqualified. Cargill should probably be penalised for accessorising with a Rolls-Royce, too, although that cravat puts him firmly in the running. The smart money's on Cazenove.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Because We Aim to Shock, We Hope Your Knees Will Knock

Nowadays forty is considered pushing it for a children's TV programme maker. Bob Block was fifty when he started. A radio comedy stalwart with shows such as Life with the Lyons under his belt, Block had a solid reputation as a reliable and prolific sitcom craftsman, in the mainstream style of the times.

For children's TV, though, he invented a style all his own, pulled together from odds and sods from the traditional pantomime dressing-up box. Hapless heroes, flamboyant supernatural beings, paint bucket slapstick and appalling puns shoehorned into the dialogue were the order of the day. It's the sort of thing that looks terribly easy until you actually try to do it, and nobody did it like Bob Block.

After a few years contributing sketches to the likes of Crackerjack!, Hey Presto It's Rolf! and other exclamatory jamborees, Block ventured into sitcoms with the similarly pling-festooned Pardon My Genie! for Thames, which relocated the Aladdin set-up to a northern hardware shop, providing terrific roles for Roy Barraclough as proprietor Mr Cobbledick and, immortal in all senses, Hugh Paddick as the eager-to-please, culturally clueless genie. The wish-granting calamities that ensued set the pattern for future Block stories, and was a roaring success. The final episode took the form of a massive self-indulgent jaunt around the Thames Television studios, as was the style at the time, with Paddick et al encountering a galaxy of stars including Eamonn Andrews, the Magpie gang, Jack Smethurst and Dickie Davies.

Next came the odder Robert’s Robots, a suburban sci-fi romp featuring inventor Robert Sommerby and his misfit jerry-built android creations. Gags and pratfalls were still present, but things got a bit more complicated than the usual panto misunderstandings, with the addition of a proper espionage sub-plot, as well as a bit of bona fide emotional drama in the form of that old favourite, a love interest (Jenny Hanley) who must never know the hero's secret no matter how much he longs to tell her. Weird and not a little ambitious, it showed there was more to Block than chestnut roasting of the “when I nod my head, you hit it” variety.

A move to the Beeb gave him his biggest success in 1976 with Rentaghost. On the face of it, this was an amalgam of the two previous series, taking the visual effects-heavy supernatural slapstick from Genie! and bolting it onto Robert's Robots' “cast of variously cranky misfits” chassis. But the show, for the first series at least, went beyond the usual child-friendly stuff.

The synopsis would have been a hard sell, even for an adult sitcom. Bumbling young man Fred Mumford dies in a shipping accident. Wanting to keep his death from his parents, ghostly Fred sets up an Ealing-based spook-hiring agency, enlisting the help of haughty Victorian ghost Hubert Davenport and crazed medieval jester Timothy Claypole. This acknowledgement of death added an unusual, often melancholy tone to the series, but Block deftly avoided any drift into Disneyesque sentimentality. You were never more than thirty seconds away from an inconveniently-placed cream cake.

Of course, once the initial set-up had played itself out, the show began to change beyond all recognition. Mumford and Davenport were replaced by ever zanier, one-joke characters like Hazel McWitch and Nadia Popov, and the show went for all-out shapeless silliness. The addition of Christopher Biggins, a pantomime horse and dragon, and assorted ‘visitors from the spirit world’ kept the series loping along until 1984. It was still popular, but things had gone back a step – the spooks were now just a bunch of loonies who could teleport and cast the odd spell – overshadowing the real innovations the original series achieved.

Eight years, nearly 60 episodes, and Block wrote them all. He didn't just do that, though. There was also 1979's Grandad, a sitcom spin-off from Clive Dunn's hit single, putting the kindly old duffer (named Charlie Quick) in chaotic charge of a rehearsal hall, with inevitable run-ins with both the young singers and dancers and those omnipresent bogeymen of children's telly, the Men From the Council. The addition of a studio audience of giggling kids offset the more outwardly mundane happenings in this geriatric Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, and once again the merest snatch of the theme song's opening bars retains the power to make folk of a certain age grin like idiots. Block bowed out in 1985 with Galloping Galaxies, a space comedy which augmented the traditional punning with some quite ingenious sci-fi plotting, and Hugh Paddick’s old radio sparring partner Kenneth Williams as a camp ship’s computer.

Block’s stuff is often unfairly maligned by nostalgia pundits, but this can be safely put down to hormones. People tend to remember the time they hit puberty, discovered Grange Hill and felt themselves above the pies and punning, rather more clearly than their younger selves lapping up the antics of Claypole and company. The juvenile nature of the humour also leads people to ignore the subtleties and sophisticated workings hidden under the shiny pantomime bonnet. But Block should have the last laugh. Thanks to his uncanny knack for callow knockabout and truly frightening work rate, for over twelve years he was the king of comedy as far as Britain's under-10s were concerned, and his passing deserves to be marked.

Where this leaves the rumoured Hollywood remake of Rentaghost staring Russell Brand remains to be seen. No need to rush it though, eh, fellers?

BOB BLOCK 1921-2011

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Pilot Error: Leap in the Dark (1973)

In the early '70s, the occult went overground. Crystals, ESP, Chariots of the Gods, Yuri Geller getting a decent agent – supernatural larks were big news. It fell to the BBC's normally reliable Bristol region to come up with Leap in the Dark, a magazine programme for mystics, a Tomorrow's World for the other side, which stank the place out completely.

The opening music alone is a bad omen. With the synthesiser set to Alien Landscape Metallic Clang IV, we're all set for the sort of dink-donk business that results when session keyboardists have a few too many pale ales and become convinced they can “do a Stockhausen” off their own bat. Swooshing wind effects lead to a confident rising arpeggio which reaches its zenith, pauses for breath, looks a bit embarrassed and plonks slowly back down again. Then the petulant pianist indulges himself in some sci-fi jet pack bass fun, maybe by way of pretending he got the Dr Who gig after all, or maybe just to cover up that unmistakable noise of a leaky cistern in the background. Soon the whole thing has exhausted its limited supply of modernist twiddles, and falls asleep on the carpet to a relieved “der-dun!” Sadly, there's no credit for this music. Perhaps it was Roger Limb's cat.

The set designer, however, has failed to cover his tracks. It's Chris Robilliard, stalwart of BBC Bristol and children's programmes in particular, the originator of such iconic avant-teatime creations as the luminous letter grid on Jigsaw and the original incarnation of Look and Read's Wordy, the flying typewriter torso with the inappropriately ebullient manner. Here he's given us the ruins of a Festival of Britain exhibition entitled Drum Risers of Tomorrow. No doubt this programme was made on a shoestring, and the set had to be easily dismantled within minutes when World About Us started knocking impatiently on the door, but this is almost a perfect parody of threadbare seventies wackiness. As such, it's fantastic, though the presenters won't think so when they have to do the rough stuff, like sitting down on the thing.

Our hosts are a weird pair. Or at least, we're supposed to think so. Gordon Snell is the male anchor, trussed up in an olive green safari jacket to give just the right air of “gentleman adventurer with stories to make your hair curl”. In reality, he was a reliable old BBC hand who would later marry author Maeve Binchy. Linda Blandford was a similarly familiar voice on BBC radio shows of the Start the Week variety. Wardrobe and make-up have gone to town to give her a “Hammer high priestess” vibe but, while she looks good, she spoils it all with a plummily nice voice of the Louise Hall-Taylor school, and no amount of billowing satin and Sea Witch can spook that up.

Linda and Gordon struggle stoically with a script full of corn (“you can't buy psychic equipment at the ironmonger's!”) which has seemingly been set down in automatic writing. “It's not just the police who make use of dowsers' help. The Gas Board and British Rail make use of them, too. And do commercial firms.” The reports they link to are deathly viewing. We get a lot of 16mm film clips of people in sheds operating foil-clad paraphernalia, and people in meadows plodding about with bent coat hangers. Nothing comes of any of it. Things pick up visually when a fashion designer complains of a “grumpy spirit” shouting through her letterbox, and the camera crew get to tootle about the King's Road for a bit. Otherwise the world of the supernatural is one of fields and sheds.

Leap in the Dark aims to be “impartial” in its occult explorations, which means just sitting back and letting the fruitbats talk themselves daft – not necessarily a bad tactic, unless you're after interesting television. Linda herself, in grand Tomorrow's World fashion, goes in for a bit of dowsing to see if her skiing injury can be detected. Inevitably, the dowser finds every other ailment instead. “The rheumatism you have in the elbows... that will correct itself, between that and, er, tummy juices.” We're made to wait until the next edition to see whether her doctor agreed with this confident old fruit.

The programme ends even more apologetically than it began, both presenters mooching about another part of the set. This area has nowhere even remotely appropriate for sitting, so they both sort of half-perch on a too-high ledge, like itinerant schoolkids bored by an endless provincial summer. “It's been foretold that we'll be back in a month's time. We're waiting a month to give us a chance to read all your letters,” says Linda, fooling absolutely nobody. They should thank the spirits they came back at all.

Time has not been kind to Leap in the Dark, but look at what it had to work with. Even when it was fresh, people held their noses. “If this and subsequent programmes live up to the trailer, this could easily be the most appalling series of 1973,” reckoned the TV correspondent for the New Scientist, but then they would say that. Things improved no end the following year, when the awkward Tomorrow's World format was ditched for a bunch of playlets by proper writers, dramatising supernatural events in history. Someone at BBC Bristol had got the message – whether you believe in it or not, the supernatural is at its best as drama, as a story retold with panache. Holding a forensic inspection of a Dorset telekinetic's potting shed is a one-way ticket to the celestial dumper.