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.