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

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