The most existential question of all perhaps. But to be more specific, this place is about growing up in 60s and 70s as a questioning and not a passive child. This blog is for the more discerning Generation X young consumer, those who weren’t fooled into thinking that Blue Peter was good for you (OK, it was occasionally), those who felt patronised by Play School, The Children’s Film Foundation and The Banana Splits, those who were able to see the weirdness of much of 60s and 70s variety and those who genuinely wanted to be challenged in their viewing, reading and general media consumption. If you fall into any of those categories then you have come to right place. Of course much of this is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder so thoughts, disagreements, reminiscences and suggestions are greatly welcomed.
Many people of my age look back with the rosy glow of nostalgia at some of the TV programmes, films and literature created for children in the 60s and 70s. Most in my opinion were crap. The problem with children’s TV during these decades particularly was that it was created by middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow people who thought they knew what children wanted. Nothing too challenging, nothing too scary, nothing too real. Most children, and I include myself in this category, wanted exactly that. Challenging texts that pulled back the boundaries of reality. Stories that made us think, that made us uncomfortable, that made us laugh, that didn’t patronise us. With that in mind there will be little discussion on these pages of Play School, of Mr Pastry, of Biggles, of Scooby Doo or even of Crackerjack (although I do have sneaking admiration for Peter Glaze). There will be plenty about the programmes, films and literature that treated children as sentient beings with more intelligence than they were ever given credit for by some programme makers.
Just occasionally, though, a particularly heinous example of bargain basement telly might be considered. Just for a laugh…
The content of this blog will, of course, be updated regularly.
‘Any criticism that the series was unsuitably adult for children was untrue. Never underestimate the child; it is pure, it observes, makes its own mind up.’
Gillian Hills who played lead character Alison in ‘The Owl Service’ interviewed in 2008
In a nutshell Gillian Hills sums up what it is to be a child and to be exposed to narratives that are complex, challenging and often downright strange. I’ve made the point regularly that the best children’s TV was that which wasn’t made with children in mind, or anyone in mind for that matter. Many examples of this high-end entertainment already appear on these pages and will continue to appear. A shining example is the TV series of The Owl Service from a novel by the visionary and poet Alan Garner, written in 1968. A quite breathtaking children’s series through which its references to the cutting edge European directors of the time such as Antonioni, Fellini, Bertolucci and Godard and its metaphysical myriad plot lines, created a truly astonishing piece of work. The TV version of Alan Garner’s 1967 novel hit the screens in December 1969 to little fanfare. Given a prime-time Sunday teatime slot, it was clearly thought to be a worthy production by Granada. The company had lavished quite a decent budget on the serial, it was the first scripted drama to be filmed in colour by Granada and most of the filming was on location, predominantly in Wales. Ironically a technician’s dispute meant the series went out in black and white which ruined some fascinating visual imagery, although, to be fair, few people had colour TVs in 1969. To watch the series now on DVD opens up a whole new visual element to the story which is as powerful now as it was then.
At the time I was aware of a new series, a ‘children’s’ series, beginning at teatime on a December Sunday afternoon in 1969. There were only two channels, for god’s sake, so you were constantly aware of these things. Initially, the title did not inspire me. With my knowledge of many other ‘children’s’ TV series I had decided it was about a group of children (for ‘Service’ I read ‘gang’) and with ‘Owl’ in the title I had decided it was about a gang of children trying to protect or find owls. So far, so predictable. For another thing, it being Sunday afternoon, it would be something suitably anodyne and worthy, in keeping with the prevailing presbyterian establishment view of how Sundays should be observed. Swings in parks were still chained up on Sundays in 1969 remember!
Or so I thought.
It was only after I went to school the following day and had the story so far explained to me by a friend. WOW! This had to be seen to be believed. In the days before video and catch-up I had six more days to wait for episode two. And it would be nearly ten years before I’d ever have the chance of seeing episode one again. I was not to be disappointed.
The opening credits immediately created the conflicting feelings, the strangeness and the brooding, menacing atmosphere of the story. It introduced an almost other-worldly visual and metaphorical landscape. Anyone chancing upon this opening sequence with no prior knowledge of the story could be in no doubt that this was different to normal Sunday, or any other day’s, teatime fare. The juxtaposition of calm, pastoral harp music and nerve-jangling revving of, what seemed, an old motorbike along with the psychedelic visuals warned the viewer of the bumpy psychological ride which was to follow.
The themes were certainly of an adult nature: sexual awakening, jealousy, class, influence of ancient legends. But most of these were, and are, issues young people as well adults all have to come to terms with and try to understand. Of course, some children, like my 9 year-old self, would not have recognised a young girl’s sexual awakening anymore than I’d have recognised Mao Tse Tung buying 20 Bensons in the local newsagent. The Owl Service still had a profound effect on me, however. As Gillian Hills pointed out, I was hooked, fascinated and beguiled by the story and the treatment of the story. That was enough.
The story began conventionally enough. Two teenagers, Alison and Roger, are on holiday in Wales with their recently married parents. Clive, Roger’s dad , has married Margaret, Alison’s overbearing mum (who we never see). The old house has been left to Alison by her Uncle Bertram who was killed tragically in a motor cycling accident. The family are joined by Nancy, the housekeeper who had worked for Bertram years before, and her teenage son Gwyn. The seemingly deranged Huw Halfbacon, the long-time caretaker of the house, completes the cast. The narrative between the three teenagers plays out the ancient legend of Llew, Blodeuwedd, a woman created out of flowers for Llew, and Gronw, Lord of Penlynn, who Blodeuwedd falls in love with. Blodeuwedd and Gronw plan to kill Llew but Llew kills Gronw by plunging a spear through a stone Gronw was sheltering behind and he turns Blodeuwedd into an owl for plotting against him. In many myths and legends, owls symbolise evil and owls crop up regularly throughout The Owl Service’s eight episodes. Alison discovers a tea service in the loft of her room and and creates owls out of the floral pattern on these plates, unleashing the ancient curse which had already played out between Nancy, Bertram and Huw years before.
By the time she made The Owl ServiceGillian Hills was already an established actress and had led a life that was the epitome of 60s glamour and excitement. Playing the title character in the 1960 British film Beat Girl which achieved notoriety, by 1960s standards at least, in its depiction of the wild and ‘immoral’ world of teenage pop culture, The British Board of Film Censors slapped an ‘X’ certificate on it, terrified it might influence the youth of the day to revolt and maybe have a good time. Living in France with Bohemian parents she worked with Roger Vadim and Serge Gainsbourg (which young attractive French actresses didn’t?), releasing a string of hits including ‘Zou Bisou, Bisou’ which was reprised and performed by Don Draper’s girlfriend, Megan, at his birthday celebration in a memorable episode of the wonderful Mad Men.’ Two other significant film appearances were in Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ as one of the two girls Malcolm McDowall picks up in a record shop and as one of two girls David Hemmings romps with covered in camera film in Antonioni’s masterpiece ‘Blow Up.’ The parallels with Antonio’s post neo-realistic classic and other innovative European cinematic masterpieces such as Bertolucci’s ‘The Conformist’ and Godard’s nouvelle-vague ‘Alphaville’ with their use of extreme close-ups, jump cuts, unusual camera angles and meticulously organised staging and ’The Owl Service’ are clear.
The strangeness of the plot, the alienated characters, the long takes, the supernaturally and sexually charged atmosphere of the setting were all enhanced by the cutting edge direction giving an appropriately other-worldly quality to the production. The look and feel of The Owl Service was just so different to almost every other children’s TV series available at the time that it was almost spellbinding.
Despite Gillian Hills being 25 playing a 16/17 year old (Alison’s age is never specified) when she made The Owl Service, the eroticism of many of the scenes is striking. On a number of occasions the camera pans over her prostrate body, the red bikini she wears is symbolism that slaps the viewer across the face, the scene in which she moans at the thought of the Lady of Flowers leaves nothing to the imagination, at least nothing to an adult’s imagination… It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is a story about a young girl’s sexual awakening. Was this appropriate material for children? Probably not but would children have worked this out? Of course they wouldn’t. But there was so much for the more thoughtful child to appreciate in this story. The way it slipped through the censors (yes they still used the repressive language of ‘censors’ in those days) net is one the many intriguing elements of this programme. It almost feels like a triumph that the faceless bureaucrats who decided what was right and wrong for people of any age to watch had, for once, failed. British children’s broadcasting was enhanced forever as a result.
The strange and dazzling camera work was one of the first things to arrest my attention. The image of Alison in her sunglasses with Gwyn and Roger reflected in each lens, the grotesque extreme close-up of the overbearing and unpleasant Nancy, the shot of Clive framed through Roger’s arm obliquely referencing the gap in the Stone of Gronwr, the tilted camera showing Clive struggling to pick up a pear which had slipped to the ground as he attempted to eat it with a knife and fork, the Wellesian deep focus in many of the internal shots. Few directors of children’s programmes took the care to create images like these.
The shots of the characters reflected in mirrors, including the striking image of Gwyn and Roger in the lens of Alison’s sunglasses, was a reference to the way the legends of the valley were paralleled in present, as if parallel universes existed for the characters. An interesting device used by the director was to dress the three main characters in the electrical plug wiring colours of the time. Alison always wore red, Gwyn black and Roger green. The implication being that together they were capable of a terrifying power if unleashed. Unfortunately, a technician’s dispute in 1969 meant the episodes were broadcast in black and white meaning this reference was lost to any viewer, albeit few at that time possessed a colour receiver. It would be the 1978 repeat before any sharp-eyed members of the viewing public would be able to spot this device.
The character of Margaret, Alison’s mother, who was never seen though occasionally heard added a further mysterious element to the plot. Her tyrannical, condescending almost ghostly presence, particularly with regards to Gwyn, is conspicuous. Her role with Alison is similar to that of Nancy’s over Gwyn. Why does she forbid Alison to see Gwyn? Is it just snobbishness as he is perceived as being below Alison’s social standing? Roger uses a euphemism for snobbery to Clive, ‘Is that why Margaret’s gone so county with Alison?’, suggesting they come from a social strata way above Gwyn’s. This is further reinforced when Roger refers to joining Clive, ‘..in the business.’ Or does Margaret genuinely worry about the effect it might have on Alison as she is still a relatively and possibly impressionable teenager? Or, intriguingly, maybe Margaret is also aware of the legend and has been here before? Either way, her influence on the story is dislocating and sometimes threatening, despite her lack of corporeality.
This references to one of the main themes of the story, that of class, which resonates with the ancient legend. The Lady of Flowers falls in love with a man of a much lower standing than Llew and suffers the consequences. Nancy and Bertram’s story also echoes the ancient legend due to class and jealousy. Clearly little has moved on in the valley for over 2000 years.
A couple of interesting 1970s references to the time the series was made, crop up through the dialogue of Roger and Gwynn. While Alison, Gwynn and Roger are talking in Episode 2 Roger says ’Very inter-esting!’, a reference to a popular character played by Artie Jonson in the groundbreaking TV late 1960s comedy show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, who, dressed as a cigarette-smoking Nazi, would comment on the previous sketch from behind a pot-plant with the words, ‘Very inter-esting….’ Anyone over the age of 10 at this time would be aware of this character and it eventually became something of a cliche, the number of people who would refer to it in general conversation. Rather like the number of people who used constantly irritating expressions such as, ‘Wake up and smell the coffee,’ or ‘No shit, Sherlock’ in the 2000s. They were funny for a short time.
Later Gwyn would comment, ‘You’re as daft as a clockwork orange.’ Although Kubrick’s film had not been released at this time, Anthony Burgess’s book had. There is, however, no evidence that this saying is a reference to the Burgess novel. Was it a common adage in Wales or maybe even in Alan Garner’s Lancashire? Burgess, himself was born in Lancashire and may have been aware of the saying when writing his novel. Both references, it’s fair to say, were more adult in their use although I remember clearly using the Artie Johnson line regularly at the time. It’s a small but significant element showing how the writer and director were refusing to treat their young audience as children. Bizarrely, two years later Gillian Hills would appear in Kubrick’s film of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ as one of the girls Alex picks up in the record shop. A record shop which not only displays a self-referential cover of Kubrick’s album of 2001 A Space Odyssey but also Alex’s reference to a group known as The Heaven 17. Whatever became of them, I wonder?
The final episode takes the mysteriousness and threat of the supernatural to a new level. Against a backdrop of the elements conspiring against the protagonists the rain pours down as Gwyn and Nancy leave the house and walk to the village to phone a taxi. The first half of the episode is intercut with the image of an axe chopping down what appears to be a tree. The wielder of this axe is unseen at this point. As Nancy dials for a taxi the phone box is surrounded by some Fellini-esque villagers in their sou’westers questioning her on why she is leaving. Eventually the axe wielders are revealed to be three young children and the tree is in fact the telegraph pole connected to Nancy’s telephone, stopping her from dialling out, isolating her in the village, or more importantly, Gwyn, in the village. Our last glimpse of Nancy is an elaborate long-shot from Gwyn’s point of view as she continues to rail against the world and turns on the road away from the valley. Clearly the people of the valley are only too aware of the legend and expect it to be played out again. The ambiguous ending as the three young children (the same ones who chopped down the telegraph pole?) play and lay flowers around the Stone of Gronw. Are these children the next in line to play out the legend?
In the same episode Alison becomes seemingly unwell when confronted with the ancient amulet sent to her by Gwyn. Scars appear on her face and she falls into semi-consciousness, almost into a state of sexual delirium. Roger tries to persuade Gwyn to help her but his anger is still too great and it is Roger who placates her as Gwyn weeps. But was it really Roger?
The series ends as enigmatically as it began. What goes around, comes around. Alison, Gwyn and Roger’s relationship has changed but for the better? Relationships are never straightforward, particularly teenage relationships but each character learned something, each character experienced a traumatic epiphany of some kind, what that epiphany was is for the viewer to work out. Ancient legends rarely offer straightforward answers and neither do modern relationships. But the journey to this point was mind-blowing and, as Gillian Hills rightly observed, you make your own mind up, especially if you’re a child.
How David Bowie exploded into the public consciousness on a shit children’s TV programme
The Age of Bowie by Paul Morley, a sublime and personal account of the life and work of David Bowie written shortly after his death, eschews straight biography but is a superb forensic analysis of what was and is Bowie’s genius. What was it that drove this chameleon-like maestro and how did he constantly keep the listening (and viewing) public on its toes with such decadent ease? Although hugely subjective, (what biography worth its salt isn’t?) it highlights many of the key moments in Bowie’s career putting them into context with regards to superstardom, musical genius, amazing collaboration and inspired PR brilliance. His role within 20th and 21st century culture is plotted intriguingly and the final chapter will bring tears to a glass (spider’s?) eye.
Any such consideration of Bowie’s multi-faceted career will inevitably have Bowie fans (like myself) quibbling about certain aspects and moments from his career that, arguably, should have been included, but this is not only a compliment to Morley but to Bowie also. How could any one person’s opinions on Bowie be definitive? Although not a quibble, I felt Morley maybe missed a trick by only referring to Bowie’s monumental appearance on Top of the Pops in June 1972 performing ‘Starman’ but I would argue his first TV appearance introducing this classic song three weeks previously was just as fascinating but for very different reasons, and deserved analysis. Not only was this performance bizarre, provocative and utterly compelling, it was also the first time I had set eyes on Bowie and I remember the moment so clearly and vividly as if it was a flashback in a Nic Roeg film.
One’s childhood memories in the adult’s mind is usually a series of snapshots, albeit vivid snapshots with some more vivid than others. ‘Everyone remembers where they were when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination’ has become a cliche for the over 60s. Although certainly aware of it, I remember Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing better, although Kennedy’s funeral remains clear in my memory. Maybe because it was broadcast live in this country in the middle of the afternoon. A very rare event in those days. For the over 50s, however, ‘Where were you when you first set eyes on that other-worldly creature David Bowie?’ is probably a more relevant question and certainly one I could answer with a high degree of accuracy.
Since his death we have been bombarded with TV programmes and publications detailing his life and work in extra-fine, forensic detail. Something I’m not complaining about. Keep them coming! But, for me, it all began one dull tea-time in the summer of 1972 when my attention was drawn to something on the screen which seemed utterly alien to me. That’s because it was.
The date was Thursday 15 June 1972 and ( as I have since found out thanks to that wonderful thing they call the internet), pre-dated his seminal appearance on Top of the Pops by three weeks.
Lift-Off with Ayshea was an ITV alternative to BBC’s Top of the Pops. It was inferior in almost every way and it did occasionally get some decent guests but mainly it was dedicated to the up-and-coming and going nowhere artist. They were cheaper and more available and ’cheap and tacky’ were words which ran through Lift Off like the writing in a stick of Blackpool rock. And at this time Bowie was cheap, he’d have done it for nothing, and he was certainly available. But, unknown to my 11 year old sensibility, something strange and momentous had begun to happen here…
Lift Off was a children’s programme, unlike TOTP which had a slightly broader target audience and went out later in the evening at around 7pm. It was produced by the doyenne of the ITV children’s TV department, Muriel Young. As well as Lift Off she produced similar pop-oriented tea-time kids shows throughout the 60s and 70s such as The Bay City Rollers’ imaginatively titled ‘Rollers’, carbon copy vehicles for Marc Bolan, Moondogs (!?) and Arrows. With the exception of the Rollers who had hit the peak of their success at the time, few of the bands amounted to a hill of beans. Moondogs came from nowhere and swiftly returned there, although Arrows had a couple of minor hits in the charts including ‘Touch Too Much’ but are remembered mainly for writing the anthemic ‘I Love Rock and Roll’, eventually picked up by Joan Jett and the rest is, of course, royalty history. Certainly this song will have kept the only still-living member of Arrows, Alan Merrill, in a fairly comfortable lifestyle for his remaining tenure on this earth.
And who (of a certain age) could forget Young’s other music show operating on a budget of old pennies, the mind-numbing awfulness of ‘Get It Together’? Sadly not me though I’ve tried. Starring Roy North, Mr Roy, early sidekick to the great Basil Brush, its theme tune had the excruciating effect of a stick insect burrowing its way into the brain. ‘Get it together, all together, yes we’ll have a good time…’ Lady Grinning Soul it wasn’t.
The template for each subsequent Muriel Young pop series was invariably the same:
A never-changing set festooned in stars and tin foil. (They probably used the same set for all of the above-mentioned shows.)
A small studio audience of fans whose shouts and screams sounded hollow within the cavernous studio. Occasional cutaways tried to make out there were hundreds of them rather than the 50-60 that were actually there.
Three to four minute sections comprising lip-synched songs and awkward ‘comedy’ routines.
Animated sequences of fans shouting and clapping to separate the live sections.
A special guest, usually someone occupying the lower regions of the charts or some unchallenging has-been like Vince Hill or Clodagh Rodgers, followed by a scripted ‘informal’ chat with the stars of the show. Even greater awkwardness ensued.
A ‘big’ closing number in which the small band of fans had their sound amplified to suggest excitement. A few, only a few, were allowed to run on to the stage to ‘mob’ their heroes.
With the exception of Lift Off, purely because it occasionally featured some interesting guests, the only other Muriel Young series to pass muster was the 1977 series ‘Marc’ starring Marc Bolan, sadly in decline from his early seventies zenith. His quirky and spaced-out personality just about carried it through. The final section of the 1977 first and only series featured Bolan duetting with his great pal David Bowie, who had just performed his new single, a ditty entitled ’Heroes.’ This closing section is notable for two reasons. Firstly, during the duet, Bolan became entangled in his guitar cord and fell off the stage to Bowie’s great amusement. It went against the predictable nature of the series that they kept this moment in. Which was nice. And secondly, it turned out to be the last performance Bolan would ever give, dying tragically in a car crash a few days later. Bowie had flown in from Berlin specially to record the show. The planned second series, of course, never happened.
Lift Off ran from 1969 to 1974 and each episode featured three or four live acts plus a couple of cover versions by Ayshea herself. She was probably the first and only Asian woman to feature in her own TV series during the 70s. At the time she was desperately trying to be a pop star and had been taken under the wing of Roy Wood, no less, who was doing a little more than just producing her, as rumour had it. As well as being a backing singer on Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ she eventually went on to appear in Space 1999 and a few other series without ever repeating the success she enjoyed with Lift Off, where she was a household name, at least with da kids.
Other than the Bowie episode I have only sketchy memories of other acts on Lift Off. To be honest, I was only slowly becoming interested in pop in the early 1970s. I did watch TOTP most Thursdays, mainly because it preceded Tomorrow’s World which my dad liked. I had also discovered BT’s (or whatever they were called then) Dial-A Disc service. The Spotify of its day, it required the listener to dial a particular telephone number and listen to a single specific track from the current top 10 which was played on a loop for 24 hours. God knows how much it cost to listen to but luckily itemised phone bills were a few years off. I had also bought my first single with my own money, ‘Theme From Shaft’ by the legendary Isaac Hayes. A record I am hugely proud of, still possess and still love. My second single purchase was ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ by Lieutenant Pigeon.
One band who appeared on Lift Off With Ayshea and I have a very clear memory of was Slade, unmercilessly taking the piss out of Ayshea as she attempted to interview them. Dave Hill kept brandishing his guitar during the interview shouting ‘Super Yob!’ For the first time I quite warmed to Slade, hitherto finding them to be a little bit scary. And a mirrored top hat was the coolest thing I had ever seen.
But I digress… Back to Bowie.
Thursday 15 June 1972 is a day notable only for Ulrike Meinhoff of the Bader-Meinhoff Gang being arrested in West Germany and the ‘new’ Bowie’s first appearance, to my knowledge, on British TV . Very seventies. I didn’t always watch Lift Off because even at the impressionable age of 11 I found it a little bit patronising and a big bit amateurish. But here I’m sitting in our living room, alone, at our house of the time in Relugas Road, watching what will have still been a black and white telly and the opening credits begin to roll. I have no idea who else appeared in this episode because my mouth almost fell open when Bowie suddenly flashed up on the screen. The opening to Lift Off showed each of the artists appearing looking at the camera for a few seconds. Like a cross between a Warhol screen test and the closing credits to Hi-De-Hi, they would stare awkwardly and vacantly at the camera. ‘Who’s that weirdo?’ I thought, narrowing my eyes. A tentative Bowie looked straight at me. Dark spiky hair, makeup, crooked teeth, oddly inappropriate name for such a bizarre looking creature. And what was so strange about those eyes? Even in black and white his exotic-ness, though that’s not the word I used at the time, screamed out from the screen. But the artlessness of his demeanour, uncharacteristically not quite knowing what to do when the camera was suddenly pointed at him, looking vacantly out at the viewing public, seemed utterly at odds with the body he inhabited and image he projected. With a little trepidation I decided I had to see this.
I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t heard of this guy, not even Space Oddity, and suddenly he’s thrust before an audience of children at Thursday tea time. When one thinks of Bowie’s sexually charged image during this Ziggy period, felating Mick Ronson’s guitar for example, it was an audacious choice for the morally buttoned-up Ms Young to foist before a youthful audience. But 60s and 70s telly was like that. Didn’t Scott Walker sing Jacques Brel on the Frankie Howerd Show, didn’t Dizzy Gillespie play Be-Bop jazz on The Golden Shot, didn’t Jimi Hendrix force It’s Lulu to overrun, cutting into The Black and White Minstrel Show? Strange days indeed.
When Bowie eventually performed ‘Starman’ it was (another) revelation. His music wasn’t ‘way-out’ after all. It was actually….brilliant! And that bit when he looked into the camera and pointed his circling finger straight at you-oo-oo. It was a watershed moment. I had been brought up to believe long-haired, dirty weirdos were exactly that (even though I loved The Beatles, but they were different) and here’s this alien on telly and I love this song. I still found him a little bit scary but what the hell.
Three weeks later he appeared on TOTP. I don’t have the same vivid memory of watching this at the time but I think I did. He seemed much more confident performing here than in the garden shed studio of Lift Off. Here there was a proper audience, a more professional setting and much livelier vibe.TOTP has been criticised for many reasons but it did generate a tangible feeling of excitement, an urgent and immediate tone which may not have come across in the studio but certainly came across through the cathode ray tube. Bowie and his band unsurprisingly seemed much more energised and at ease here.
Watching this performance back on YouTube one has the feeling that this was one of TOTP’s most significant moments. However, it was always an amusing experience as a viewer just to watch members of the TOTP audience, particularly if the artist featured was crap. The ones who are really ‘getting down’. The ones who think they may be spotted by a TV producer or Model Agency and might be thrust to superstardom overnight. And, of course, the ones who just liked seeing themselves on telly. In this seminal performance by Bowie and The Spiders it’s worth looking out for a lad dancing at the back of the stage in a tank top. Little does he know he is witnessing the genesis of one of the major artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. An artist so ground-breaking, innovative, imaginative and influential, announcing his arrival to the world in a performance that will remain iconic and totemic to this day. But all this lad wants to see is his own ba’-face in the monitors above them so he slides back and forward along the stage, at one point suddenly emerging in-between Bowie and Ronson’s deliberately ambiguous embrace during the chorus, grinning from ear to ear having achieved this feat of media manipulation and self-aggrandisement. For me, this is all part of that phenomenal moment. The idea that this anonymous lad in his tank top was present at, possibly, the most memorable TOTP of all time and was blissfully unaware of what was happening in front of his upturned eyes (as most of us were) just adds to the impact of the experience. Where is that lad now? He will now be in his mid-60s and, if still alive, what must he recollect of that night in June 1972? I think we should be told.
I had no idea if this alien was going to be successful. I had no idea he was the writer of the wonderfully jaunty ‘Oh You Pretty Thing’ sung by the wholesome and toothsome ex-Hermit Peter Noone, a hit in the previous year. I had no idea Bowie had even played piano on that record. But a few weeks later ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ was released and it was clear this extra-terrestrial was no flash in the pan.
For many years it was thought that the footage of Bowie on Lift Off with Ayshea had been wiped like so many other monumental TV programmes in regular acts of cultural vandalism by TV companies. Recently it was announced that this footage had been unearthed, as a viewer, quite unbelievably for the time, had recorded his performance from the TV using computer tape. How could he have known? Although in a very degraded state this footage is, allegedly, in the process of being restored. If successful, for me, this is the most valuable of all Bowie films being the first performance of his breakthrough song and on a children’s TV show to thigh-length boot. Although the TOTP performance a few weeks later is, quite rightly, seen as his calling card to the world it’s that moment tucked away on a children’s TV show that, I believe, is the most pivotal and I feel privileged to have witnessed it and even remember it. Popular music ch-ch-changed from that day on. (Sorry..)
Where did it all go sadly, and boringly, right for our footballers?
During the 60s and 70s football was a much more working class sport. For a start a minority of relatively well-off people actually sat down at a game. The stand was where decent, usually older men (and it was mostly men) could be shielded from the adolescent noisy ne’er-do-wells who populated the vast, gaping terraces. The only women who ever ventured to a football match were what would be later described as WAGs. The (current) girlfriends and the (current) wives. Until, of course their beaus were caught being indiscreet in a local night-spot with a girl called Sharon. Or Tracey. Footballers from this bygone era must look at the automatons and athletes playing for top clubs now and wonder if they are the same species. Apart from earning more money in a week than 60s or 70s players would earn in a career, modern players’ bodies are temples and not the temples of doom belonging to yesteryear stars. Today’s top players are rarely even photographed leaving nightclubs in a sheepish manner, their minders, advisers, gurus and agents warning them off such behaviour. Most, I would guess, aren’t even bothered about attending such emporiums of temptation. One couldn’t really imagine Kevin De Bruyne or Christian Erikson leaving Romeo and Juliet’s night spot in Bury or Hornchurch holding hands with Kylie who had been out on a travel agents’ beano, who earlier had been knocking back Mojitos like they were going out of fashion. Now the same couldn’t be said for Stan Bowles or Frank Worthington or even, for that matter, Charlie Nicholas. It’s also well documented that footballers left training at lunchtime and headed straight for the boozer. Ten pints and 40 fags later they would drive home in their Ford Sunbeam and doze in front of Quizball until it was time for training again the next morning. Where did it all go sadly, and boringly, right for today’s footballers?
An insight into how 60s and 70s and players were from a very different planet completely can be found in the football publications of those, seemingly, far off days. Many publications came and went and some came across as just too boring to even recall (Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly?) but the two stalwarts of the genre were ‘Goal’ (1968) and ‘Shoot’(1969).
‘Goal’ was aimed at a slightly older target audience, 16+ while ‘Shoot’ was targeted at younger readers, around 10-15.
Shoot magazine was colourful, crammed with pictures and posters of current football stars and teams to be pinned up on a bedroom wall, whether you supported those teams or not. Shoot also did something that was, many years later, to be used very successfully by a plethora of ‘celebrity’ magazines. It not only shared intimate details of top footballers with its readers (nightclub liaisons notwithstanding) but also suggested that these lofty sporting individuals were our friends.
Shoot introduced a range of long-running features which not only attempted to get under the skins of these demi-gods, but took us into their gorgeous luxury homes (or ‘mansions’ as they liked to refer to them,) and shone light into the magic that was their impossibly glamorous lives (or so we were led to believe).
Shoot’s longest-running and USP feature was ‘Focus on…’ where a different footballer each week was given a series of questions about their likes, dislikes and petty peccadillos. It took a little time to realise just how limited and narrow footballers’ lives and attitudes actually were.
The responses rarely fluctuated. What Person in the World Would You Most Like To Meet? Invariably Cassius Clay or latterly Muhammed Ali, Biggest Drag in Soccer (Who ever called it ‘soccer’?): Losing or returning from away matches having lost, Favourite Food: Steak (ALWAYS steak although some gastronomes threw in a few chips), Favourite Drink: The occasional lager, Favourite TV Shows: Sports programmes. If you Weren’t A Footballer What Would You Be?: No idea (Few even had the wit to say ‘Unemployed’). These answers were regular and often. Why young kids idolised these guys is anybody’s guess but it was a more innocent time. Perversely though, it was my favourite part of the magazine.
Responses to Favourite Singers and Favourite Actors was similarly goal-line narrow in scope. Players chose from a limited group and were always strictly MOR. They rarely strayed from the calm, unchallenging waters of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley Bassey, Sammy Davis Junior, Andy Williams and Dionne Warwick. The idea of Ralph Coates suggesting The Velvet Underground or Ian Ure professing his love for The Electric Prunes was just unthinkable.
Favourite Actors were similarly constricted. John Wayne and Steve McQueen, naturally, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and, inevitably, Raquel Welsh (who once in the 70s attended a Chelsea match with Jimmy Hill. I have it on good authority, though, they were not romantically linked).
Of course, there were occasionally exceptions to the rule. Malcolm Allison, for example, in 1972 stated the The Person In The World He Would Most Like To Meet was Enoch Powell M.P. and his Best Country Visited was South Africa. Well fancy that! Curiously, his Miscellaneous Dislike was ‘Narrow-minded people.’ And he also took the opportunity when asked what his Personal Ambition was to shamelessly promote his new game ‘Spot-On-Soccer’. He hoped it would become a ‘classic game.’ Can’t win them all Malcolm. In fact, you didn’t win that many as a manager either. Even odder was the job he’d have done if not a footballer manager: a psychiatrist. Some years ago I was changing trains at York Station and as I was leaving the train Malcolm Allison was getting on. In his hand was a glass which contained an extremely large measure of whisky. Once a 70s footballer manager….
Other exceptions to the hard and fast rules of ‘Focus on…’ were Franz Beckenbauer who, enigmatically for Der Kaiser, wanted to meet Mao Tse Tung, Chris Cattlin of Coventry City’s favourite singer was Harry Secombe (what?!), Brian Hall of Liverpool’s favourite food was liver, kidneys and carrots (revolting), while Leicester midfielder Alan Birchenall was on the horns of a dilemma and couldn’t decide whether he’d prefer to meet Adolf Hitler or Neil Diamond. I feel your pain, Alan.
These were also the days of ‘free gifts’ with comics and magazines, little incentives to kids to buy a particular publication and Shoot shamelessly, and thrillingly for the sporty adolescent boy (i.e. me), issued a range of football-based statistical tools throughout the calendar year. Its most celebrated enticement, issued every August for many years, was the full-colour league ladder! Printed on cardboard on which all four English and both Scottish leagues were included. Little tabs representing every English and Scottish club could be detached and slotted into the league ladder every week to account for changes in each team’s position. In truth, few readers could be bothered messing about with them after about half a dozen games of a new season but they were initially exciting. They represented the start of a spanking new football season after the longeurs of the summer months, particularly when there was no World Cup that year. It also allowed you to mess about with league positions and see what it would look like if your team was implausibly at the top and the teams you hated were at the bottom. In short, the ladders allowed us to dream. For a few weeks at least. Then in January Shoot would release their full-colour English FA and Scottish cup wall charts, where teams’ progress could be plotted from round three to the final in May. Again by the Fourth Round filling in the little boxes with a felt pen began to get a slightly tedious but what the hell, it looked good on the wall of your bedroom. In the days of instant statistics at the push of a few buttons, such fripperies seem rather quaint and maybe even slightly opportunistic on the part of the magazines, but they were different and I wish I still had them today.
Shoot magazine also tried to draw in its young readers by featuring three very well known columnists throughout the 70s. To describe the three players involved as ‘columnists’ was maybe going a bit far as they almost certainly only had a short telephone conversation with a ghost writer each week, but their ‘columns’ were masterpieces of pointless creativity, tedium and repetition.
A Shoot fixture throughout the late 60s and 70s was Bobby Moore, World Cup winning England captain (as they never stopped reminding you) and all-round decent chap. His weekly thoughts circumnavigated the English game from A to B and there was no dull and dusty corner of Upton Park which wasn’t explored, analysed and left out to dry. Every single week. Occasionally he (or his increasingly desperate ghost writer) tried to spice things up by chucking in a bit of non-football minutiae. His column of 21st July 1973, for example, began, ‘Here I am lazing away the hours with my wife Tina, and children Roberta and Dean in Marbella, Spain.’ Well, where else would a 70s footballer and his lovely ex-model wife be during the close season? So far so predictable. Writing a weekly column at that time of year must have been far from easy.
Or was it? Step forward columnist number 2, Mr. Alan Ball, or ‘Soccer As I See It by Alan Ball’ to give the column its official title. This, invariably, was just a rehash of what Bobby Moore was talking about essentially but, in Ball’s case, about Arsenal. If anything Alan Ball included a bit more about his glamorous private life. The films he’d been to see, restaurants he’d eaten at and at this time of the close season, where he was on holiday, and yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s Majorca! With, obviously, his lovely ex-model wife Lesley and daughter Keely.
Third on the bill was the one and only George Best whose wayward life eventually led to him being replaced with the more child-friendly and dependable, but just as lugubrious, Kevin Keegan. The alliteratively titled ‘Keep Up With Kevin Keegan’ continued to carry the torch of tedium after Georgie’s heavily bowdlerised column was given a free transfer.
It was a clever ploy by Shoot to feature these players at a time when football still had an air of mystery and excitement to it. The occasional tantalising glimpses on Saturday night football highlights programmes, Sam Leitch’s Football Preview or ‘Sportsnight with Coleman’ was about all anyone saw of these, and other, stars. Regular live football on TV was a long, long way off and it was the novelty of only occasionally seeing them play that elevated them to such heights of wonderment. And we continued to put up with the humdrum nature of their lives which, at the time, seemed impossibly glamorous. Shoot was shining light into magic. They were our friends, they were talking to us. An idea celebrity magazines tapped into many years later.
But Shoot was not alone in welcoming us into the lovely homes of our footballing idols. ‘Goal’ also did its bit but for slightly more mature readers. Goal was less colourful and more wordy, even including regular league tables and a pools guide for the older fan without a bird.
In the early 70s Goal included a short-lived celeb footballer column and featured ‘Bobby Charlton’s Diary.’ Short-lived? Not short enough as it was a column of such mind-numbing dullness that the classified ads at the back of the magazine gave the reader a comparative frisson of excitement. The opening sentence to his September 1968 column was ‘The World Cup is still nearly two years away so there is a lot that can happen between now and then.’ You losing your column for a start, Bob. And it went downhill from there. Goal, therefore, eschewed the need for football celebrity columns and, it’s true, colour posters were sparse but what they did have every week was ‘The Girl Behind The Man’! A feature of such breathtaking 70s crassness it could take its place with Dick Emery, The Wheeltappers and Shunters’ Social Club and Old-English Spangles as an iconic 70s product.
The feature spoke for itself. After a long hard day of training, drinking and fagging it, where does this Third Division footballing demi-god go when it’s closing time at the Coach and Horses (pubs did shut at 10.00pm don’t forget)? Back to the little lady, of course. And those ‘’Girls Behind The Man’ were only too happy to open up their gorgeous suburban semis to the Goal photographer. A regular ingredient of the photo-shoot was the bikini shot. One could imagine the slightly sleazy, unctuously Brylcreemed photographer suggesting, ‘Do you have a bikini, love?’ Usually the girl behind the man was only too happy to recline on her vast suburban lawn as a February wind blew icily around her. Let’s face it, we were told they were all ex-models anyway. Take the lovely Beryl Harris (28 September 1968), lovely ex-model wife of Cardiff City striker, Brian Harris, for example. Beryl’s hobbies are sunbathing and gardening, and here’s a gorgeous shot of Beryl doing some gardening in her bikini to kill two birds with one wide-angled stone.
Not all wives were quite so willing though. Here’s Peter Cormack’s wife Marion who particularly enjoys swimming, dancing, driving and playing records and she is usefully photographed spinning some discs on her state-of-the -art radiogram. As Marion appeared in the January 30th 1971 edition of Goal, a bikini shot must have been out of the question, even for an ex-model.
Shoot and Goal magazines eventually merged in 1974 as a number of other less worthy but more colourful football magazines became available but this flag of convenience wasn’t to last. Shoot continued until 2008, latterly as a monthly edition but football, and technology, had changed. Top class football was more clinical, scientific, distant and less characterful. Young people were less interested in the individuals and more focussed on the team, or more accurately, the brand. Would any modern player be interested in a weekly, or even monthly ghost-written column nowadays? It’s not as if they need the money and despite Bally and Moore-O’s efforts at trying to make their lives seem endlessly glamorous they can’t really compete with today’s stars’ lives. And would they want to? Details of how they tweaked their nutritional regime, bought a new Aston Martin/ private plane/ Rolex watch or signed a new image rights’ contract, despite it being truly glittering, just doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Today’s top players are characterless, untouchable and so removed in every way from the fans, that Shoot and Goal just seem like quaint anachronisms, evoking a time when fans still felt part of the game. Now they they are expected to feel privileged to be allowed to watch it.
With billions of pounds swilling around in the game, players coming from all over the world for short but expensive stints with certain teams before , expensively, moving on, every football league in the world available, at a price, to be watched 24/7 and rolling TV news and statistics at a touch of a button, the world of teenage football magazines seems like a different age. But I think I preferred it when my football idols went on holiday to Marbella, and were only too happy to share this rather mundane information with us.
..after 50 years, a film that is still way ahead of its time.
It’s hard to convey how irresistible the desire to see Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’ novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was for an 11 year old boy just becoming aware of grown-up literature. The only problem: it wasn’t possible to see it. Even at 15 you had an outside chance of being allowed into the cinema if the lighting was poor and your parka hood was pulled up over your head far enough. Video and DVD was a long, long way off so at 11 there were two chances. Fat and slim.
Of course the media obsession with the film, as it was with any film that skirted with the term ‘controversial’, meant plenty information to entice a pre-teenager who had just graduated on to reading the tabloids on a Sunday. Tabloids just loved ‘controversial’ films. It allowed them to take a moralistic high ground while salaciously giving every lurid detail of the sex, drug-taking, horror or violence of even the most mild of adult flicks at the local flea-pit. The Exorcist, Carrie and The Devils were three examples of films released in the early 1970s on which the tabloids poured opprobrium, described every ‘depraved’ scene and, obviously, increased the numbers of people at the box office massively. The Scottish Sunday Mail ran a double-page spread listing, helpfully, in painstaking detail, every ‘gut-wrenching’ (its words) scene for the delectation of Sunday readers. No such thing as a ‘spoiler alert’ in those days. And I particularly remember the Scottish Sunday Mail wiring Alan ‘Roughie’ Rough and his lovely catwalk model wife to a heart monitor and logged their reactions to the various shock scenes in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. The purpose, I would assume, was to show that even a Scottish international goalkeeper with supposed nerves of steel could nearly shit himself at certain scary moments in a film, so decent, god-fearing presbyterians could steer clear. In theory. In reality it just made people flock to see the film, of course. Well, that was the science bit, for what it’s worth, but it does demonstrate tabloid newspapers’ love of and obsession with ‘controversial’ films of the era.
To be fair, A Clockwork Orange actually comes across today as more disturbing because of its violence. As a society we have recognised certain types of violence, particularly towards women, as unacceptable but in 1971 references and depictions of rape, though not commonplace, were certainly more visible. Jokes about it would even be used in sitcoms. However, in the context of Burgess’ novel the violence represented in the film was intended to be shocking and to watch it now renders it probably even more disturbing than at the time of its release. Exactly what the author intended. Belonging to the Science Fiction genre, it’s set in a futuristic Britain where drugs are legal, people rarely leave their homes and violence within society has escalated. Like most Science Fiction stories it is a warning for the future.
One of the few aspects of Kubrick’s film which fails, mainly because there was no way it could have succeeded in relation to the novel, is in the character of Alex, played by 20-something Malcolm McDowell. The first half of Burgess’ novel tells the story of ultra-violent Alex and his gang of droogs on a rampage of sex and violence. At the end of this section of the book the reader is shocked with the sudden revelation that Alex’s orgy of violence has resulted in the death of one of his victims, an old lady, and he has been arrested. It is at this point he confesses to the reader the horrifying truth, ‘And me still only fifteen.’ Here is Burgess’ warning, his reason for writing the novel and justification for the repulsive rampage of violence the reader has been subjected to. But in practical terms, this fictional narrative device could not really be depicted in the film, Malcolm MacDowell does not look anything like a fifteen year old, and social commentators did not have the intelligence to discern this.
In the early 70s there were many so called ‘controversial’ films released. It was a time of experimentation and a loosening of censorship rules. In fact, ‘censorship’ became ‘classification’ as films were seen as art and not just cheap flicks to excite the lower, uneducated classes for a couple of hours in a members-only fleapit. Therefore, films which dealt with more disturbing issues, such as violence within our automated society became a popular theme and depicted violence and sex in a brutally realistic way which the general public and ‘the authorities’, at first, found difficult to cope with. Some thought it was still there only to titilate and thereby hung the tale of A Clockwork Orange.
The violence, even though I hadn’t seen it, certainly didn’t excite me. What excited me, from what I could make out, was the futuristic look of the film, the representation of a dystopian society (something I still love) and, of course, the controversy. I still, obviously, am drawn to things the tabloids hate.
The film had been out for a few weeks before I’d even heard of it. Bizarrely, the first time I read anything about A Clockwork Orange was in the pages of Shoot, the adolescent football magazine, more precisely in Everton and England footballer Alan Ball’s weekly column. The content of this column was unstintingly dull. After he had given his ghost-writer details of Everton’s most recent match it was a desperate struggle to find anything else to say to reach the required 500 words. Often the interviewer will have asked Alan, so what else did you do this week? The terminally boring life of a professional footballer was laid bare in these columns but one week in 1971 Al and his lovely wife, Lesley, went to see A Clockwork Orange. His critical conclusion, summed up in a sentence, was that he ‘slept through it.’ The moral question of whether a top footballer should have been discussing, no matter how curtly, a film he had seen about teenage ultra-violence, drug-adulterated milk bars, under-age sex, gang warfare and rape is by the by, it was the 70s after all. But I do have Alan Ball to thank for alerting me to this cult classic. I immediately decided to find out about this film, why would Alan Ball be referring to it if it wasn’t culturally important?
I began to notice the iconic film poster with a cartoonesque Alex brandishing a knife through a triangle, a naked woman kneeling below the apex (always irresistible to an 11 year old), an eyeball sitting on his outstretched arm and, most intriguingly, the bowler hat and false eyelash on one eye! The futuristic typeface added a further appealing element to the whole package. This was seriously alluring.
My fascination was further enhanced (if that was possible) when I actually managed to see an extract from the film. STV, at this time, had a film review programme which was broadcast at 10.30pm once a week called Cinema. Presenters of this programme included Michael Parkinson, Clive James and Robert Kee, and I think it was Parkie who showed a clip of A Clockwork Orange much to my excitement. In those days, obviously, there was no video recording so the 20 second black and white extract featured Alex and his Droogs racing through country lanes in a stolen sports car, this absolutely classic Kubrickian moment is indelibly stamped on my memory. This moment only cemented my fascination with the film and my frustration of not being able to see it.
I only have vague memories of the media outrage about the copycat violence which they claim broke out as result of young people having their minds ‘warped’ by the movie. It was certainly a particularly strong defence in cases of extreme violence at the time, irrespective of whether there was any truth in it. Buttoned-up Establishment British judges were only too happy to accept the possibility that some depraved modern film might be the reason for our kids’ aggression. Clearly society couldn’t be to blame.
The ‘look’ of the film certainly did influence young people. I do remember Crombie coats, Doc Marten’s boots and even the occasional false eyelash manifesting themselves in our high streets. Most of them daft wee laddies (and a few lassies) who just thought they looked cool but would have run a mile if anyone challenged them to a ‘bitva’! The media shitstorm, however, was enough for Kubrick to withdraw the film in the UK in 1973 and it remained unshown publicly in the UK until the director’s death in 1999. Rumour had it that a cinema in Paris showed it throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s.
The film’s iconic resonance has been enshrined by the fact that so many images are as well-known now as they were then. Certain words from Nadsat have found their way into common usage, for example ‘horrorshow’, ‘ultraviolence and ’droog’. ‘Moloko’ which was based on the Russian word for milk, and in the film is a narcotic-filled milk drink, became the name of a successful 90s band, as did Heaven 17, whose name is mentioned and shown in the record shop scene when Alex meets two girls whilst browsing in the store. Echo and the Bunnymen’s record label was entitled ‘Korova’ after the milk bar frequented by Alex and his droogs and let’s not forget about Glasgow’s underground transport system punningly named ‘The Clockwork Orange’.
As Kubrick preferred to work in the UK, many of the actors in his films were familiar faces to British TV viewers as well as film-goers. Philip Stone, who appeared in three Kubrick masterpieces (more than any other actor apart from Joe Turkel), a fine jobbing actor who had appeared in countless TV productions since the early sixties, played Alex’s dad. Stone’s performance clearly resonated with Kubrick as he went on to appear in Barry Lyndon and, in his crowning achievement, as the Overlook Hotel’s former caretaker, a role in which he excelled as the courteous but terrifying Delbert Grady. A Clockwork Orange was also a huge break for the young Warren Clarke as one of Alex’s droogs, Dim. Like Malcolm McDowall and Philip Stone, Clarke went on to work in a range of prestigious productions not least with Lindsay Anderson in O’ Lucky Man. The lovely Adrienne Corri, like Stone a stalwart of quality TV productions, played the brutally assaulted wife of the writer, Patrick Magee. It was the writer, Mr Alexander, who, in the novel, told of the idea of a clockwork orange, a speech which, oddly, failed to make it into the completed film. Magee was a favourite actor of the great Samuel Beckett who wrote one of his greatest plays, Krapp’s Last Tape, specifically for Magee. Also popping up in the film was John Savident, another prolific British actor who ended his professional life as Foghorn Leghorn-like butcher Fred Elliott in Coronation Street. Having played in Shakespeare productions, many Wednesday plays and, of course, in A Clockwork Orange, it is Corrie, sadly, he will be remembered for by most people. That said, he did appear in 714 episodes, I say, 714 episodes! Michael Bates, best known as Blamire, one of the original characters on Last of the Summer Wine, is excellent as the sadistic prison officer (‘Shut your bleeding’ hole!’). He also appeared in every episode of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum but the less said about that… Miriam Karlin as the cat lady, who comes to a nasty end at the hands of Alex, was well known for The Rag Trade (with a young Reg Varney!) and a fledgeling Steven Berkoff as a copper are just a few of the familiar faces, many of whom possibly didn’t realise just how much their parts were going to cement their reputations in the years to come.
Why does A Clockwork Orange still fascinate nearly 50 years later? Because, like so many Kubrick films, it looks ageless but futuristic, depicting a parallel universe which hasn’t been defined by the fashions of the time but clearly showed a world that is still ‘ours.’ The electronic Wendy Carlos soundtrack, the meticulous whiteness of the sets, the flowing strangeness of the typefaces, the sweeping camera shots, Alex’s direct looks into the camera (unusual for the time), Burgess’ ‘Nadsat’ argot as spoken on the voiceover by Alex, all come together to create a representation of such stunning originality that only an auteur like Kubrick could have had such vision.
And above all, to the curious teenager, it was an ‘X’. That most fascinating of all letters whose cultural cache is so much heftier than the dull old literal ’18.’ Here was a tantalising world almost within touching distance that held secrets open only to adults, who we were to assume had the intellect and maturity to cope with such esoteric and supposedly disturbing subject matter. Kubrick’s dystopian vision proved too much, however, for an adult population weaned on the hypocritical outrage of the tabloids, Mary Whitehouse and so-called public-decency. But for a short time in the early 70s A Clockwork Orange was the most state-of-the-art, modern, challenging and iconic artefact of its age.
Despite the fact the concept of a clockwork orange is never even mentioned in the film.
Glasgow has seen more than its fair share of momentous times over the past 100 years but its most pivotal period was probably the late 1950s and early 1960s when the forces of change eradicated the slums and propelled the city into the 20th century. Also swept away was a way of life much mourned but understood by many of Glasgow’s citizens who benefited from the changes but were nostalgic for the past. One of those citizens was the musician and artist Herbert Whone. A Yorkshireman who came to Glasgow in 1956 to take up a role as a violinist with the Scottish National Orchestra. Herbert, or Bert as he was known, took to Glasgow immediately, being fascinated with the people and more importantly the architecture and way of life of ordinary Glaswegians. He was perceptive enough to recognise how rapidly things were beginning to change before his eyes and set about recording them through the medium of painting. Previously he had specialised mainly in portraits of his musical colleagues, amongst them the cellist Paul Tortelier and the conductor Adrian Boult.
My own interest in the work of Bert Whone stretches back to childhood. In the early sixties Bert and my dad, Tommy, crossed paths in a way which still resonates with my family today through one of his original artworks. Although both Bert and my dad are no longer with us their, albeit, brief friendship introduced me to an artist who has been criminally ignored over the years and whose relevance to the history of Glasgow has never been more cogent. It led to me as a four year old meeting Bert and his family and eventually revealing a fifty year old mystery locked away within the painting he gave my dad in 1964.
It’s easy to see how Bert and Tommy would have hit it off. In their own ways each could be described as a Renaissance Man. Both were musicians, Bert a violinist , my dad a pianist. They were a similar age with young families and both had a desire to create art, Bert in oils, my dad in watercolours. The unlikely circumstance that brought them together, however, was a fascination for non-mainstream religion and philosophy. This being the early sixties, young people were beginning to question the supposedly cherished beliefs they had been brought up with and were looking for more personal truths and spiritual experiences. Both Bert and Tommy were intrigued by this and met at regular gatherings of those interested in the philosopher and mystic Gurdjieff held at, what is now, Bute House, home of the Scottish Government, in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.
Before long my mum and dad were making the journey through to Glasgow to Bert and his wife’s house in Otago Street, Hillhead. One of my earliest memories was accompanying them on one of those visits. Compared to the prefab we lived in at the time their house seemed an Aladdin’s cave of adventure. It appeared to have at least three floors and I have vivid memories of running wild with Bert’s children who were of a similar age to me. As we ran up and down various flights of stairs and into every room, other doors led into other rooms. For a four year child it was beyond exciting. The visit also resulted in my, quite literal, footnote in art history. While running frantically through the warren of rooms I inadvertently stepped on something sticky lying on the floor and carried on running without giving it too much thought. This turned out to be a canvas Bert was drying and my one memory of Bert from that visit was of him standing in the doorway holding the damp canvas while my dad lifted my foot up to reveal the offending footprint. It amuses me to think that somewhere in the world a genuine Herbert Whone is hanging on a wall with my 4 year old sandalled footprint hidden under a layer of overpainting.
This visit was around mid-1964 and by this time Bert had become known in Glasgow art circles. He had already staged exhibitions in Edinburgh and Glasgow and numbered Joan Eardley and Margot Sandeman amongst his acquaintances. It was also about this time Bert gave my dad the small oil-on-board tenement painting which fascinated me so much throughout my childhood, possibly as a parting gesture as Bert and his family left Glasgow for good shortly after this visit. He had decided to give up performing music publicly and concentrate more on painting but continued to teach and write books on playing the violin, both of which he pursued with great success throughout his life. Sadly, Bert and my dad’s friendship faded as a result of this move as keeping in touch, in the days long before mobile phones and e-mail, took a great deal of effort and both were extremely busy with work, art and, not least, bringing up large young families.
The link to Bert was not severed completely as the tenement painting he presented to my dad remained on the walls of the many houses we lived in for the next 25 years as the family expanded. I’m not entirely sure why I was so fascinated by this picture at such a young age. It may have been due to the style being so different to anything else we had hanging on our walls at this time, most of our art was of my dad’s watercoloured landscapes. I do distinctly remember finding the rudimentary representation of a little girl with a pram, a favourite motif of Bert’s, compellingly strange. I also loved the thick layers of paint and splashes of colour which created such a vibrant tone. Every time I looked at the painting I noticed something different. In 1978 I left home to become a student and the painting disappeared from view. My mum and dad began to downsize as the family went their different ways and the painting, although never slipping from my memory, was certainly shoved to the back of it.
Many years later it was a chance mention while visiting my dad in hospital during the last weeks of his life which fortuitously brought it back into sharp focus. I just happened to ask ‘Whatever happened to that picture I loved of the Glasgow tenements?’ Surprisingly, my brother, who was also present, told me he had it as he had stored some of my mum and dad’s stuff during their last house move. I excitedly arranged to go and pick it up and found the frame was missing as it had been damaged in transit when being moved to my brother’s house. What this revealed was, to me at least, astonishing. The reverse of the picture had hidden a second Herbert Whone painting, one of his early portraits of musical colleagues. For nearly sixty years this image remained secreted behind the tenement painting. Sadly, there was no indication as to who the musician depicted was. The portrait was signed and dated ’56’ which was the year Bert moved to Glasgow to join the Scottish National Orchestra and the figure is holding the neck of a four- stringed instrument, a violin or possibly a cello. At first I felt this may have been a self-portrait and have still not ruled out this possibility. The subject may be too old to be a 30 year-old Bert Whone, though, so the question of his identity may never be resolved, adding a further enigmatic layer to the mystery. However, the practicality of only being able to display one of the surfaces was hugely frustrating.
Some rudimentary detective work revealed that our tenement painting was not the only version of this scene painted by Bert Whone. To my knowledge at least two other versions exist. Both of which were titled ‘Back-Court Anderston, 1964.’ One was of the same size as our version (16’’x 12’’) and the other a much larger, more detailed version. Cleaning of the picture also exposed another feature which had, hitherto, gone unnoticed. The small figure of a child was revealed standing by the tenement wall opposite the child pushing the pram. Like the portrait on the reverse side of the painting, this shadowy little figure loitered in the close hidden for nearly sixty years. Being honest, our version was clearly a sketch Bert had completed in preparation for the much larger, more fully developed work but even possessing a Herbert Whone sketch feels like an honour.
I asked my dad just before he died what he remembered of Bert Whone. Unfortunately the drugs he was being treated with had affected his memory significantly but the first thing he said was ‘He was very interested in the trams.’ Trams were another favourite motif of Bert’s work as they were a symbol of the old Glasgow which was about to disappear. Along with the tenements, the shipyards, the closes and horse drawn carriages, Bert documented these elements of a city he could see was changing forever. It is important to stress that he understood and had sympathy for the inexorable nature of change, as he mentions in his excellent book ‘Glasgow in Transition’ (Colin Baxter Photography 1996). All communities go through such periods of transition and rather than bemoan the transformations taking place before his painterly eyes, he looked back on them nostalgically making sure the Glasgow he, and many others, knew and loved would not be forgotten. Many of his most powerful and evocative paintings feature trams hurtling through the mist and fog providing a metaphor for the relentless, unstoppable and inevitable forces of reconstruction.
Bert Whone had a recognisably distinctive style. He lavished paint onto the board or canvas, possibly with a palette knife, creating bursts of colour and swooshes of movement. Some might make comparisons to Lowry and in many ways this is inevitable. Both artists tried to evoke the atmosphere of an industrial city where chimneys, tenements, ships and trams were the stars of the show rather than just the people. That’s not to downplay the importance of people in his scenes as Bert was certainly warmly fascinated by Glasgow’s citizens but he wanted to show how much the architecture and transport of the city was integral to how that city lived and breathed and how it shaped the people, for better and worse. As a self-taught artist Bert was not even aware of Lowry at a time when such information was nothing like as accessible as it is nowadays and, anyhow, Lowry’s star had yet to reach its zenith of clip frame popularity. Alternatively, the watery sunsets and wintry sunrises could also be seen as reminiscent of Turner but, again, his artistic self-education renders such comparisons largely negligible as Bert did not formally study art, his younger life being dominated by music.
It is not a stretch, however, to consider that Bert Whone deserves to be to Glasgow what Lowry is to Manchester. Few artists have depicted the atmosphere of a city on the cusp of such radical and intrinsic change as he did for Glasgow. Lowry paintings can sell for up to £1 million. This is not to suggest Bert Whone’s work should be reduced to merely monetary terms, his legacy is far more important than that but, for me, he is as relevant to Glasgow as Lowry is to Manchester. That said, in 2016 a Herbert Whone winter scene sold for £8000 and in 2017 his oil on canvas painting entitled ‘Close Entrance With Bridge Lamp, Bridgton 1962 sold for £13,200. Clearly there is a growing interest in Bert Whone’s work but so far it’s a small group of aficionados ‘in the know.’
After re-discovering our painting I had it cleaned and re-framed. I asked the conservator and the framer in an Edinburgh art shop, as well as staff at a fashionable Edinburgh gallery, if they knew of Herbert Whone. Not one had heard of him. Both the Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh and the Kelvingrove Gallery in Glasgow possess Whone paintings but, to my knowledge, neither has them on display. The time is right for him to be accorded the recognition he deserves as no one documented Glasgow’s transition in the vibrant, atmospheric and distinctive way he did. Arguably few artists represented Glasgow at any time in the way that Herbert Whone did in the 50s and early 60s.
It is not known just how many Herbert Whone paintings are in existence. He did not keep a record of his works or of owners hence most of his prodigious output in the early sixties is probably scattered randomly around walls all over the world. He did keep black and white photographs of a few and managed to track down some of his paintings, photographs of which are displayed in his fascinating book, Glasgow In Transition published in 1996. Amongst the owners of a genuine Herbert Whone was Magnus Magnusson who in 1962 wrote an admiring piece in his Scotsman arts column and described Whone’s desire to capture in his work that ‘fearful energy..that brims and spills into gross inventiveness.…’ It is this quality which deserves to be recognised as well as Bert Whone’s perceptive and beautiful visions of a lost city, much of which is long forgotten and crying out to be remembered.
As a postscript to the above, I have been keeping in touch with art auction houses in an attempt to secure more Bert Whone originals. It is obvious they come up for sale very rarely, which is a testament in many ways to the respect and love owners of his work have for the paintings. A few weeks ago an auction house in Glasgow put up one of his early drawings for sale which I was lucky enough to win. The drawing is ink and paint, signed and dated 1954 and shows a man (or is it a woman?) sitting cross-legged in what could be a baggy brown suit or a monk’s habit. The figure is enigmatic and some further evidence as to the sitter may be revealed when I remove the old frame in preparation for re-framing. 55 years later, Bert Whone still keeps me guessing.
How After Eights were used to make us feel shit about ourselves in the 60s and 70s.
The sixties and seventies were certainly a time when advertisers thought that aspirational advertising was the way to the proletariat’s sweet-tooth, before the word ‘obesity’ even existed. In the case of Camay soap advertising, for example, it was about the elite educating the Great Unwashed in the importance of cleanliness. Convincing ordinary people that by buying a certain product, they were aspiring to be like the incredibly sophisticated, privileged individuals featured in their adverts, those people we looked up to and wanted to be like. Apparently. In fact, ordinary people really just wanted those privileged people’s money and live their life of leisure and social ease. But maybe buying After Eights was the first rung on that particular social ladder.
Let’s go back to a time when a 3 bob box of chocolates catapulted you into the giddy stratosphere of the upper classes. When, if you were not invited to black-tie dinner parties in the country, you were a fucking failure. If you didn’t drink ‘French’ brandy and smoke Havanas after a meal, you were scum. If you didn’t listen to the Admiral’s post-prandial stories you were a cretin of the first order. But here was a sliver of hope in the the shape of a wafer thin mint.
Recently in The Archers, that everyday story of country folk, Emma and Ed’s dream of having their own home was dashed after Ed lost his job due to some dodgy insecticide dealing. So far, so un-After Eight. As poor Emma sold off all the items she’d bought for her dream house, her mum, Susan, asked why she was getting rid of the lovely brandy glasses she’d bought. Emma confessed she’d bought them in the hope they could have invited friends round to their house for a dinner party and she would have served them brandy in the glasses after the meal (she didn’t mention After Eights as it happened). This was Emma’s After Eights’ aspirational fantasy. It’s what people who owned their own house did. Poor Emma was an After Eights’ advertiser’s core target audience.
It’s interesting that Emma mentioned brandy specifically as this was iconographic to After Eight ads. Of course, why wouldn’t it be as this was the moment the hostess unleashed the chocolates to her assembled group of upper class twats. The ads changed only subtly over the years but certain elements were always present. As well as ‘French’ brandy, cigars featured heavily with whiskered septuagenarians blowing acrid thick smoke into the faces of subservient younger women. Masculine or what? And, of course, coffee ‘as black as the night.’ Yet another symbol of utter sophistication, as only our betters drank black coffee in the 60s, for the rest of us it was Maxwell House or Nescafe with milk and sugar, if we drank coffee at all.
The slogan only changed once in 20 years. It started off as ‘Luxury. Plain, unashamed luxury.’ This word ‘luxury’ crops up rather often in these ads, verbally as well as visually. However, some advertising executive with an eye on the zeitgeist, at a time when the psychology of advertising was raising it’s ugly head in agencies, realised that the word ‘plain’ is the antithesis of the perception they wanted to convey with this product and the slogan was clipped to ‘Luxury. Unashamed luxury.’ It doesn’t quite scan as neatly but leaves the viewer in no doubt as to what this brand is all about. The idea of ‘luxury’ is piled on in spade-loads in the subsequent ads. The word ‘unashamed’ is also interesting. If ever a political point was being made in these ads, it was here.
The musical backdrop also changed rarely. Lush strings in the style of Mantovani accompanied the early versions. Clearly the target audience was the upwardly mobile twenty-somethings, those whose only ambition was to live a life like these fictional characters in the ads. This aural backdrop was eventually replaced by a slightly jazzier harpsichord soundtrack, in the hope of providing yet another layer of impossible sophistication. Come on, who doesn’t have an obsolete Elizabethan stringed instrument in their Drawer-ring Room?
The setting was also a construct made up of certain objects all of us could only dream of possessing. The cavernous dining room lit only by candles in silver candelabras, the shadowy oil paintings of crusty old popinjays on the walls, the elaborate arrangements of silver condiments (no HP sauce here), fruit bowls groaning with pineapples and grapes, very luxurious in those days, ordinary people only bought grapes when visiting someone in hospital, and solid silver coffee pots glinting in the candlelight.
In later versions directors tried to vary the setting a little while still ramping up the elements of exclusivity. Firstly, the dinner parties were moved to ‘the country’, that unspecified hinterland only the upper classes knew about and had ‘a place.’ In other words a massive pile which had been in the family for centuries, no doubt. This, ironically, was at a time when nobs were having to sell these out-of-town-in the-family-for-centuries residencies to hotel chains as they couldn’t afford to maintain them. The same group of chinless wonders are found sitting around drinking ‘French’ brandy and smoking cigars as their trophy wives looked on adoringly, but this time they were on ‘the terrace’ and there wasn’t a gust of wind or drop of precipitation to be had. What part of England were they in? Bangkok? A few years later they were ‘abroad’, ‘..since George was posted to the tropics..’, wherever ‘the tropics’ are? The hoi polloi wouldn’t know and would be too afraid to ask. Clearly George was sent to educate the natives in our British way of life which, of course, included After Eights, the symbol of manners and good taste. Hurrah for George!
The aristocratic- looking personnel for these ads was, literally, straight from central casting. All they had to do was look superior, smug and utterly obnoxious. The males had all the action: smoking cigars, drinking the ‘French’ brandy, looking like they were involved in earnest conversation with the other males (the women obviously didn’t get involved, but more about that later) and occasionally shooting some billiards, not snooker, that was a lower class pursuit. All the ladies had to do was look gorgeous and in awe of their men, nibble the corner of an After Eight seductively and swivel their eyes around the room. They knew their place.
But with only a few exceptions, it was always a woman who provided the voiceover, invariably the hostess. Domesticity was her role, but with the help of the servants, obviously. Can’t expect her to do everything!
Their language evoked a time that for 99% of the population, never existed. A world of tradition, convention and conservatism (with an upper and lower case’C’). Doesn’t everyone have dinner parties, you can imagine them wondering? They believed solidly in tradition, a word that is only used to justify something that is, otherwise, unjustifiable. ’I might be old-fashioned but I like leaving the men to drink their port…they pass the port and we pass the After Eights.’ And, let’s face it, women love their choccies. It’s fair to say After Eight ads hauled back the cause of women’s rights by 50 years.
With the advent of, what was referred to then as, ‘Women’s Lib’ in the 70s, (male) advertisers felt obliged to throw the women a few chocolatey crumbs and After Eight ads were no exception. Suddenly we had a male voiceover. Not a suspect male, or ‘girly-swot’ as Boris Johnson would call him, who organised and hosted dinner parties, mind you, but an Alpha male who talked gruffly about tradition rather than feminine observations on relationships. Interestingly, the narrative also changed significantly to reflect the challenging economic conditions of the austere early 70s. It begged the question, how could advertisers continue to push the winning aspirational After Eight formula in times of such hardship? Easy. Emphasise the luxurious element even more. And it is one of the male voiceovers that refers to this. ‘Luxury. We need a bit more of that nowadays.’ Even when the female voiceover returned (males probably not really aspirational enough to their female target audience), they referred to economic difficulties and spoke directly to the viewer. ‘Are you someone (like me) who prefers to forget about the Balance of Trade figures?’ Well she would say that wouldn’t she but she needn’t have worried her pretty little head. All she really had to concern her was whether cumquats were still in season or that the brandy was reliably ‘French’. Another ad featured a slightly younger male voiceover lamenting in a way only the public school classes with their arranged marriages could do. ‘If you’ve got to get married,‘ he splutters, find a girl who makes you laugh and is generous with the After Eights. Very generous..’ as he leeringly and lasciviously eyes a young woman done up like a trussed turkey, across the cavernous room. Yes, we know what you’re thinking you revolting beast! References to ‘thinness’ littered the ad, and he wasn’t just talking about the mints.
Before the male voiceover was finally put into its four-poster bed for good, we were given one last masterclass from that professional toff, Gerald Harper. His unmistakeable upper-crust tones gracing an early 70s version of the After Eight ad. Inevitable really as, at the time of broadcasting, he was Hadleigh, upper class adventurer going out on ITV on Friday nights at 9pm. The opening credits of this Harper-led vehicle featured him riding over his huge English estate on a thoroughbred stallion, driving around in his personalised number- plated Rolls, shooting grouse on his moor and hosting After Eight dinner parties at his family pile. (Might have made last bit up but plausible.) It was a gig written for the likes of him. Although he didn’t appear in the ad (too well known), his version was particularly elitist, even for After Eights. Men in black tie (obviously) playing billiards, women hanging around just looking languid. And, of course ‘French’ brandy. ‘My grandfather did not allow business to be discussed in the billiard room..’ as he looked up at an oil portrait of some whiskery old git. His disdainful pay off line pushing back the boundaries of sexism even for the 70s, ‘Even if it did mean letting the women in….’ Perish the thought.
Soon we were back to the tried, trusted and more lucrative female voiceover. Upper class men just weren’t sexy and sexiness was important to the brand. Women were, once again on safer ground, talking about Rupert and his head full of books, Great Uncle Alistair fighting the Battle of Waterloo with condiments, classical scholars like Uncle Bertie and the ghost of Henry, the Fourth Earl. At no point was there any suggestion that women might aspire to anything more than hosting parties, dealing with tradesmen, having their hair coiffed to within an inch of its life and taking elocution lessons. Their men were invariably much older, aloof and horribly ugly. No wonder some of the women’s eyes swivelled around the room as they comfort-ate boxes of After Eights, desperately looking for slightly more attractive and interesting male totty. You ain’t gonna find it in this ad, darling!
The production values were relatively lavish for commercials. As well as luxurious sets and moodily effective lighting, a host of quite well known actors, like Gerald Harper, popped up in them. All actors see adverts as artistically beneath them but these roles were money for old rope. Just look self-satisfied, snobbish and superior and Uncle Bertie’s your uncle!
Actors of high standing popped up in many of the ads throughout the 60s and 70s, adding a touch of class to scenes that were already improbably haute monde. The excellent and very lovely Adrienne Corri talked about great Uncle Alistair fighting the Battle of Waterloo from the opposite end of an overlong table. This woman worked with Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange for god’s sake! Also turning up ‘..in the tropics..’ was Alexandra Bastedo. Many a 70s teenage boy’s pin-up when she was Sharon McCreadie in The Champions’. Despite the fact I found her a bit too sweet to be wholesome, she carries off the role of colonial trophy wife, black servant in tow, with aplomb, and, not to mention, a curiously non-melting After Eight. And isn’t that the gorgeously moon-faced Patricia Hodge (who even does the voiceover), the Portia of Horace Rumpole’s chambers, planning yet another dinner party with lashings of After Eights? It surely is! Going back even further here’s the lovely Wanda Ventham of The Lotus Eaters and, once again, Rumpole of the Bailey, looking longingly at her dull, sweaty, overweight, tuxedoed ‘French’ brandy-quaffing husband as she wolfs into yet more wafer thin mints.
I am completely aware that having a pop at these adverts is tantamount to throwing a dart at a board as huge as an After Eight ad’s dining room wall. Hitting the target isn’t difficult. But this ad campaign lasted for over 20 years and I don’t remember anyone commenting on the sheer crassness and elitism they conveyed for so long. Didn’t people get pissed off at the utter snobbery of them? Advertisers would claim they were just a bit of fun, tongue-in-cheek. As the lady says, people like a bit of luxury. But I failed to see the irony in the ads. They were quite baldly saying , ‘These people are what you should be aspiring to, this is the way decent people live and by purchasing these bon-bons you can, at least, emulate a tiny part of their lives.’ Poor Emma wouldn’t see through the insidious context of these campaigns but I like to think we’ve matured as a viewing public these days and we’re not taken in by such elitist crap. They wouldn’t get away with it today, other than in an ironic way. Mind you, many people vote for Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, men you would not be surprised to see in one of those ads, although Boris would be dribbling his ‘French’ brandy down the front of his already stained black tie and leaving chocolatey smears on his unironed, slightly off-white shirt (maybe his wife/partner should use Daz?).
In a comment left on Youtube after viewing this 20 year campaign, the estimable Mike Smith summed up over 20 years of After Eight advertising in a single haiku-esque, wafer-thin comment.