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.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Pulsing! Writhing! Wall! Celluloid!

In a week that's been all killer, no filler in terms of current affairs, the news that Clive James has been diagnosed with leukaemia was never likely to make a big noise, but for many of us hackabout writers with an unnecessary desire to be funny, it was a grave shock.

From a career with many and various creative peaks, James' weekly TV reviews for the Observer from 1972 to 1982 will always hold a unique place for myself and many other. I didn't know much about the off-screen a career of Clive James when I bought Clive James on Television, the big collected volume of all the little collected volumes, when it came out in 1990. I just knew he was funny on TV. A few pieces in and I was hooked. Six hours later, I'd finished the book, and had learned two things. One: Malcolm Muggeridge was a rum cove indeed. Two: this was how to write.

The collected columns start in September with the justly famous Munich Olympics commentator analysis, but James's first column appeared on August 27th. It does have a slight air of bearings being taken, with more instances than usual of the sort of phrase-coining he'd become known for, and immediately started to cut down once he had. Hence Peregrine Worsthorne is “undisputed crown prince of the bizarro-loco school of creative journalism”, and there's almost Brookerish reference to “chuckle-cruxes” and “giggle-nodes”, which would no doubt make James the editor wince. In general, though, he hits the ground running. Praising ecologist Henry Williamson’s documentary The Vanishing Hedgerows, he still takes the Radio Times to task for glossing over the presenter's past political affiliations.

Next week's column was the one that clicked with readers. Wood Lane's Wonder Boys filleted the presentational style of Frank Bough, David Vine and pals, bringing fan mail by the sackful from fellow sufferers. James's ability to look at the most commonplace television occurrences and find a barely-functioning madhouse within was something new to criticism. In a sense, it's more akin to a humorous column in shape, the sort of thing Paul Jennings did with lost property departments, James did with lost continuity departments. But he was always careful to be never just a comic turn, and his criticisms are as solid as the lightly-built style will support. The following week, when things at Munich suddenly stopped being amusing, James gave David Coleman all due credit for dropping his regular mania to do “an impeccable job” at the memorial service.

James cherry-picked the best columns, and bits of columns, for republication, on the basis that the complete works would be far more TV criticism than anyone was prepared to lug home from WH Smith's. It's a representative sample, but some things are toned down, possibly through fear of repetition, in the editing process. Reading the books, you get the impression James can't stand James Burke. The original columns tell a different story: he really hated him, on a weekly basis.

Initially he was a peripheral annoyance, The Burke Special being easy enough to switch off. The turning point came in 1975, and the transmission of a great big sprawling transatlantic co-production called The Inventing of America. Given two hours in which to itemise two centuries of America's technological progress, Burke enlisted the venerable Raymond Burr to perform a sort of proto-Eureka! dramatised history lesson. Burr would get trussed up in period figgery as Thomas Edison, Eli Whitney and the like. Burke would then caper on in his never-changing off-white safari suit and give us the skinny on the relevant invention. There were jokes, songs, dance routines, and half-arsed parodies of other TV genres. Everything was thrown at it in an attempt to explain what could have been said “in a few well-chosen words, if anybody involved had been capable of doing the choosing”. James bravely faced down the giant, deconstructing the show far more efficiently than any semiologist, right down to the component parts of the Burke Smirk.

British television acquired much of its modern shape in the 1970s. After being on little more than nodding terms for decades, light entertainment and documentary were pushed into a shotgun wedding. Sober lectures were no longer enough. Visual aids attained the status of sets, and scientists the status of celebrities. It was the heyday of the telegenic eccentric, from Magnus Pyke to David Bellamy. Sat in front of three channels, James was able to disentangle the various strands of loopy innovation as they lined up in the schedules, an itinerary of insanity, with every tiny observation firmly in the service of the bigger picture. His observations were so pertinent they're still being made by critics today, albeit with slightly woollier phrasing.

TV criticism has a pretty small hall of fame, which is probably appropriate to its position in the scheme of things. After James the other big name from the Golden Age is Nancy Banks-Smith, who combines the most absurdly likeable personality in the business with the handy advantage of having seen everything ever shown on telly in her long career. For me, though her opinions are usually reliable, a little of her signature trick of putting the boot into a programme from behind a smokescreen of dotty innocence goes a long way. Dennis Potter for the Daily Herald worked miracles within a 200-word tabloid limit, but purple passages still managed to creep in. The bulk of good criticism was delivered, unspectacularly but perceptively, by folk like Richard Last, Philip Purser and Peter Fiddick, but I doubt a collection of their work, good as it is, would be as readable as James at forty years' remove.

As for today's critics – well, let's not spoilt the mood, eh? His idea of the perfect TV critic as an “intelligent layman” is fully realised in his columns, where he makes no claims to inside knowledge of the medium (even though when he began he'd just finished work on inglorious sub-sub-TW3 satire Up Sunday) but makes sure he's informed on the aspect of life the programmes are about. Broadsheet critics would alter cunningly subvert this method by affecting to know everything about telly while knowing nothing about real life. Today's breed go even further, swamping both in an ignorance of awesome scope and ferocity. With more journalism being written about TV now than ever before, but good examples more difficult to find, not less, there's a lot to be said for the old model. Best of luck, Clive.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

"Is Sir Jasper at home?"

Last week's Graham Norton show was made less hard work by the presence of Adele, naturally supplying the perfect mix of modesty and raucousness, and with a neat line in smutty anecdotes of the sort these programmes like to think they can engineer themselves, but can't. Every other guest, and of course the host, was a comedian by profession and she left them all sitting there looking like dullards, relying on shouting out callbacks to her stories to get anything like a laugh of their own. They almost killed themselves with competitive showboating, while Adele effortlessly trumped their efforts while giving nary a toss. And she sang a bit too, which was nice.

Suddenly I thought, hang about. Those old variety specials. Lulu's Back in Town. Cilla. Bassey. Susan Maugham's All-Terrain Vehicle Cavalcade. At last we've come up with a pop singer with the charm and wit to negotiate those treacherous scripted humorous interludes without sounding like an over-friendly telex machine. Give her her own special, quick, before her people get her on-message and she goes all boring. Saturday night! Get some personality back into pop and some pop back on telly! And then I remembered what one old variety special in particular was actually like.

The Special London Bridge Special was shown on BBC1 on March 15th 1973 at 10.15PM, immediately after the beauty contest cumbersomely known as Miss England, Miss Scotland, Miss Wales. (Earlier that evening similar scheduling brilliance pitted The Burke Special against Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em.) It was a Transatlantic pop extravaganza with two jobs: to give Tom Jones an all-star TV vehicle suited to his own unique way with a diaphragm, and to give a big hefty plug to Lake Havasu City, the Arizona theme park which had lately taken delivery of the crumbling original London Bridge from the City of London.

Tom capers about good old grainy 16mm London in one of those knitted coats with a built-in belt, singing the Thames's praises as only a Welshman can. Then he gets on a double decker bus – the kind of double decker bus which can lead to adventures, and employs Hermione Gingold as conductor. To cut an overblown format short, he ends up at the Arizona resort, watches Charlton Heston play tennis, does a full soft shoe shuffle with Kirk Douglas, and goes to a Carpenters concert. In between, Jonathan Winters does some Benny Hill-style 'playing all the characters in a sketch at once' shtick, Elliot Gould does some silent film baddie shtick, and Terry-Thomas does his Terry-Thomas shtick. Bits of a previous Raquel Welch special that Tom happened to guest on are shoved in to bulk out the three quarters of an hour. The Beeb called it a “musical fantasy”. Clive James called it “abominable”.

The Special London Bridge Special was an especially overcooked variety event, but it was no freak, as a glance at Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas will attest. You could say it's worth the risk – for every Cilla's Comedy Six there has to be a few Special London Bridge Specials – but who'd be willing to take it today? If it happened, it would be a straight-as-a-die Christmas with the Osmonds, not some switched on high concept quirk-in with Dusty. Variety programmes these days are serious affairs, with no humour beyond the puns Ivor Baddiel writes on the backs of fag packets and slips to Louis Walsh when the adverts are on. Freddie and the Dreamers whimsy, not Beatles banter.* Anything else just isn't playing the game properly. Adele won't find herself looking after Sir Jasper's country house any time soon.

* Though even that's unfair, given Freddy Garrity's hand in disturbing ITV children's musical fantasy series Oliver in the Overworld.