Why were these decades simultaneously rubbish and amazing?
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 a sneaking admiration for the great 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, of course…
Everyone knew Jack Wild in the 60s and 70s and for a short glorious time he could do no wrong
For most people of a certain age, Jack Wild was the quintessential Artful Dodger in Carol Reed’s classic musical version of Oliver!, written by Lionel Bart, in 1968. It seemed the world was Jack Wild’s oyster after this film and it really was. America had awarded the Best Film Oscar to Oliver! and he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor, although this went to Jack Albertson for a film no one remembers called The Subject Was Roses. An American sojourn ensued and Wild appeared in a range of US productions including the weirdly psychedelic HR Pufnstuff. His career trajectory dipped during the late 70s, however, and never really recovered. It was the classic story of too much, too young maybe with drink playing an important part and Wild died in 2006 at the tragically young age of 53. But for a golden period in the late 60s to mid-70s Jack Wild was a household name and his achievements were significant and it is those achievements and career highs this blogpost will focus on, rather than his very sad demise.
Before Jack was catapulted to fame by Oliver! he had had small parts in some highly respected British TV series of the late-60s including Z Cars, the almost forgotten BBC serial The Newcomers and the superb and innovative BBC science fiction series Out Of The Unknown, which was his first speaking part (for the record the episode was Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come….).
Despite playing the part of The Artful Dodger and sounding like the archetypal cockney kid from Central Casting, Jack Wild was actually born in Lancashire and moved to London as a child. He was spotted playing football with his brother Arthur by, of all people, Phil Collins’s mum June who was a theatrical agent and this led to him being cast in the London West End production of Lionel Bart’s hit musical about Oliver Twist, Oliver! Although some reports claim he had the title role, he was actually just one of Fagin’s gang but this eventually resulted in him being cast as Dodger for the film. His confident and cheeky demeanour as The Artful Dodger in Oliver! endeared him to the viewing public and before long everyone knew of Jack Wild and the massive success of the film in the US had producers clamouring for his services.
Oliver! changed Jack’s life forever. His role in the film struck a chord with the public and catapulted him to success. For a while at least. He was even nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Up against Seymour Cassel for Faces, Daniel Massey for Star and Gene Wilder for The Producers, the award went to the prolific Jack Albertson, a well-known TV face, for the almost forgotten, The Subject Was Roses. Albertson was probably best known as Grandpa Joe in the classic version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, coincidently with fellow-nominee Gene Wilder. I remember him well as appearing in long-running Dr Simon Locke, (alternately known as Police Surgeon) on British afternoon TV during the 70s.
This is nothing new, of course, as British actors who find themselves nominated for Academy Awards or even just appear in a successful TV show always tend to have a short period of stateside success. I’ve already featured the wonderful Judy Carne in this little blog space and how her US career skyrocketed after she appeared in the American sitcom Fair Exchange. Her TV dad in this show during the early sixties, one of the most well-known faces in British film and TV at the time, Victor Maddern, went on to appear in episodes of top-rated shows Perry Mason and Bonanza on the strength of his short-lived US exposure. Another example, of many, was Jean Marsh who not only helped create but also appeared in almost every episode of Upstairs Downstairs which was massively successful in the US. She went on to have a very successful career in America appearing in big series such as Hawaii Five-O, Trapper John, obviously Murder, She Wrote and The Love Boat. Anyone who was was anyone in the acting business appeared at some time in The Love Boat! In fact it was the US equivalent of Casualty or The Bill. Everyone in the acting profession eventually appeared in it at some point in their career.
Jack’s fame spread like a rash and he was soon courting the chat show kings such as Simon Dee and Johnny Carson. To see Jack Wild’s mature but slightly vulnerable interview here on Dee Time is really quite fascinating but also sad as we now know what showbusiness traps were awaiting him. But that wasn’t before he appeared in one of the weirdest, most psychedelic, eye-popping series of the 60s and 70s: HR Pufnstuf.
During the premiere of Oliver! in the US, Jack met producers and puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft who thought he’d be perfect to star in a new show they were developing called HR Pufnstuf. For two series and a feature length film Jack would star in this most psychedelic and weird series. Having been shipwrecked on to Living Island where everything is alive, they are constantly under attack from Witchypoo (Billie Hayes) who wants Jack’s magical flute. He befriends a timid dragon (HR Pufnstuff) who helps him fend off the ruses of Witchypoo and a jolly time is had by all. The garish colours, the surreal setting, the odd narratives and the fairytale, abstract characters all suggest the writers and directors were on something a little more than creative energy. Something the producers, Sid and Marty Krofft, always denied, although possibly less vehemently than one might have expected for the time. And what the hell? It was a terrific and wonderfully weird series and, let’s face it, many of the greatest artistic endeavours throughout the last 100 years have benefitted from a little chemical inspiration. For me, it makes the series even more memorable.
In 1978 the Kroftts created a Saturday morning show entitled The Kroffts’ Superstar Hour for the US. This very successful format included characters from Pufnstuf as well as, believe it or not, The Bay City Rollers! The show eventually morphed into The Bay City Rollers Show which as well as Pufnstuf characters also included The Rollers doing sketches and performing. I had no idea they had their own American show, as well as the awful cut-price Muriel Young produced show in the UK. I wonder what the American audience made of The Rollers’ terrible acting and Scottish accents? We may never know…
The Kroffts had previously been involved with another iconic 60s series, The Banana Splits which had a similarly scatter-gun approach to narrative, characterisation and mise-en-scene. To be honest, although I watched The Banana Splits on a Saturday morning (there wasn’t a lot of choice in those days), I always felt it was trying just a bit too hard. It was zany and madcap (two words coined by Shakespeare) and although we missed out on the flamboyantly colourful sets, as we still had only monochrome then, it was something different. It clearly had a lasting effect on young viewers though. Everyone who lived through the sixties remembers the theme tune and The Dickies even had a punk-lite hit with it in 1979 reaching a high of number 7 with The Banana Splits Song. As a 9 year-old I always looked forward to The Sour Grapes Bunch making an appearance. They were menacing and intimidating. Unlikely this sort of thing would be encouraged nowadays. Also appearing regularly were The Dilly Twins singing Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-De-Ay. Just plain irritating.
Like any decent comedy programme The Banana Splitshad their catchphrases and regular routines such ‘Hey Drooper, Take out the trash….’ Drooper was the most laid back of The Splits. One could have imagined him puffing on a J (if we’d known what that was in those days) behind the backlot between scenes. Fleegle would encounter all sorts of difficulties collecting the mail each week. Every week. They would also have to try and translate Snorky’s toots and honks each episode.
Interspersed between the Splits‘ ‘crazy’ antics were a few cartoon and live action serials. One-trick pony cartoon Arabian Nights (Size of a cow!), a cartoon version of that most overdone novel The Three Musketeers and the mildly racist live action Danger (Uh-oh, Chungo!) Island. I don’t remember any of my pals being fans of The Banana Splits exactly but we watched it every week and it was slightly upmarket of any offering from The Children’s Film Foundation.
Due to his fame on Pufnstuf and the Kroffts’ involvement, Jack made an appearance on The Banana SplitsShow, an event he remembers very little about as he wasn’t really aware of how big they were at the time. All he remembers about it was that he entered The Banana Splits‘ house sliding down a chute, which sounds about right. He bought an expensive camera with his appearance fee.
It’s difficult to imagine just how famous Jack was during the early 70s, particularly in the US. It’s always an indication of someone’s popularity when some record producers see the chance of making a fast buck by cashing into this fame. And such was the case with Jack Wild who released three albums of mainly cover songs: The Jack Wild Album, Everything Comes Up Roses and Beautiful World. He even appeared on Top Of The Pops on 6 July 1970 singing his current single, Some Beautiful, which only reached a high of 46 despite heavy airplay on Radio Luxembourg. Interestingly his TOTP appearance created some short-lived tabloid controversy (is there any other kind?) when the producer dropped unfashionable warbling diva Dorothy Squires, of all people, for Jack. As you can imagine, The Squiresatollah was less than happy and kicked up an almighty stink. Sadly, even this gilt-edged publicity didn’t get Jack any higher in the charts. The show itself was an interesting one, as so many TOTP’s from that era were, and was introduced by friend of The Royals and Margaret Thatcher, a certain Jimmy Savile. The line-up ranged from heavy duty MOR to psychedelia and R-A-W-K and was as follows, with chart standings, and, no, I’ve no idea who Soft Pedalling were :
(1) MUNGO JERRY – In The Summertime (and chart rundown) (21) HOTLEGS – Neanderthal Man (2) FREE – All Right Now (NEW) JACK WILD – Some Beautiful (10) SHIRLEY BASSEY – Something (NEW) SOFT PEDALLING – It’s So Nice (28) JONI MITCHELL – Big Yellow Taxi (video) (NEW) DOZY, BEAKY, MICK & TICH – Mr. President (20) TEN YEARS AFTER – Love Like A Man (video) (danced to by Pan’s People) (NEW) COUNTRY JOE MacDONALD – I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag (13) ELVIS PRESLEY – The Wonder Of You (video) (4) THE KINKS – Lola (crowd dancing) (1) MUNGO JERRY – In The Summertime
As well as an appearance on TOTP, he notched up 7 (seven) appearances on Genxculture favourite, Lift Off with Ayshea including a ‘Jack Wild Special‘ on 3 November 1971.
His singing career in the US led to hysteria when he made personal appearances at record stores (as they call them) and chat shows all over the country! It was around this time that Jack was also asked to appear on The Bing Crosby Christmas Special. He was also invited to perform his new single on The Johnny Carson Show, America’s most watched chat show. Having completed three films and a hugely successful US TV series, Jack was becoming something of a diva. He admits this in his autobiography, ‘It’s Dodger’s Life‘, published shortly before his untimely death in 2006. At the age of 16 he’d already sacked his agent, June Collins, and various other ‘mentors’ in his life and decided he didn’t want to sing on Johnny Carson as his musical director wasn’t available, so he turned it down. A quite mind-boggling decision for a 17 year old.
He was also asked to introduce Tiny ‘Tiptoe Through The Tulips‘ Tim, a Rowan and Martin Laugh-In regular, at LA’s legendary Troubador club. This also almost went tits up as Jack discovered TT was wearing the same shirt as he was and he nearly pulled out of the introduction when he was asked to change. He did go through with it but was less than happy. He expected Tiny Tim to change rather than him, which wasn’t going to happen. That said, Jack felt TT was ‘completely out of it‘ anyway and totally oblivious to the shirt faux pas.
This was a measure of Jack’s fame in the early 70s that he had the power at such a young age to make almost career-changing decisions and it was also the time when alcohol began to play a more significant part in his life. No one around him felt influential enough to warn him of the consequences of some of the decisions he was making as they all relied on him for at least part of their livelihood. Such are the vicissitudes of fame.
But his life in the early 70s was still a rollercoaster of transatlantic success, and after making the excellent Alan Parker-directed Melody about teenage romance with his old mucker Mark Lester he then teamed up again with his old Oliver! mentor Ron Moody to make the film Flight of the Doves in Ireland. One of the oddest stories from the making of this film was how, according to Jack’s autobiography, he was convinced that his parents were trying to force him and his co-star, Dana (yes, that Dana), together throughout the duration of filming. That would have been a romance made in tabloid heaven. Think he had a lucky escape there….
A particularly interesting film he was asked to appear in, although Jack was not particularly enthusiastic about it, was a David Puttnam production of The Pied Piper of Hamelin starring 60s psychedelic troubadour Donovan and directed by French auteur Jacques Demy. An interesting cast included John Hurt, who Wild got on very well with, Michael Hordern, Roy Kinnear (who also appeared with Jack in Melody) and the inevitable Diana Dors. Jack was asked by Donovan, who had written the film’s soundtrack, to sing a song in the film but, again, he refused, as he felt he wasn’t up to singing ballads and was more at home with up-tempo numbers. It was another example of Jack’s burgeoning confidence which may not have gone down too well with directors.
So far so good, but eventually fame begins to thin a little and the public and media find new people to adulate. That’s not to say Jack’s career imploded but the parts he as being offered were becoming less interesting. After his period as the cheeky young chappie everyone loved, he was growing older but casting directors didn’t think of him as an adult. Wild was also aware of this and he was becoming frustrated at the fact he was 18 and still being asked to play schoolkids.
Film roles began to dry up after The Pied Piper. Jack continued to work but in TV series such as The Onedin Line and another Dickens’ part in Our Mutual Friend followed soon after by another classic TV serialisation, Gogol’s The Government Inspector, also featuring ‘Doctor’ Robin Nedwell.
In-between these two fairly prestigious TV productions Jack starred in a film already mentioned elsewhere in this little blog site (see Standing at the Crossroads of TV Quality’), a film written by Crossroads‘ creator Hazel Adair, who, in an unlikely collaboration with wrestling commentator Kent Walton, went in for a bit of soft porn in her latter years. Keep It Up Downstairs says pretty much all about the film and Jack’s claim that he had little idea of what it was all about until he viewed the finished product is slightly dubious. But it was an earner when the offers begin to dry up a bit and I’m sure respected actors like the ubiquitous Diana Dors, Willie Rushton and the lovely Aimi MacDonald, who also appeared in the film, were just happy to take the cash, and who can blame them? Even illustrious film composer Michael Nyman provided the soundtrack. Well, everyone has to start somewhere….
It must have been an extremely odd viewing experience to have watched Jack as, ahem, Peregrine Cockshute but at least he was being offered an adult role!
It was around this time that the decent roles really did begin to dry up and his drinking began to take off. In his autobiography It’s A Dodger’s Life, he describes how he made Keep It Up Downstairs almost through the haze of alcohol. He feels he just about got away with it but people in the TV and film industry are not stupid. One can’t help but think that this was noticed and, of course, these stories circulate very quickly. Jack himself tells the story of highly respected actor John Collin, who appeared with him in Our Mutual Friend. It was well-known throughout the production that Collin had a drink problem and all the actors were instructed to do what they could to keep him out of the pub. One can’t help but feel that maybe Jack’s drinking also became known over the years and this, more than anything, could have affected the number of parts he was being offered during the mid to late Seventies.
Around the same time a successful court case brought by June Collins, his first agent, against Jack’s agent of the time, was also a huge setback in his career. The outcome affected Jack in the sense that he picked up the not inconsiderable tab for the case and had to pay June Collins a substantial sum for ‘lost earnings’ despite not really doing anything wrong other than change his agent. It’s true he did become something of a ‘diva,’ which he fully admits, when younger, but this story, once again, highlights the precariousness of showbiz.
During the mid-70s Jack returned to the US to appear in a Krofft brothers production at the Hollywood Bowl and it was here when Marty Krofft suggested to Jack he stay in LA and find work in Hollywood. This was not an unrealistic possibility as Jack was still very well-known in the US and a great favourite of the successful Krofft Brothers. Jack decided against it, however, as all his family were still in the UK but one can’t help but speculate whether his career might have been more lucrative in the US. Of course, drinking may still have been a problem amongst other distractions but maybe if he had been working more regularly he might have kept things more in check? Who knows, but it was a pivotal decision for Jack at a time when his career was certainly hanging in the balance.
During the 80s Jack’s work pretty much dried up. Was this because of his drinking? It was certainly a huge factor. Although a part in Kevin Costner’s blockbuster, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves looked like Jack might be getting back on the rails, it was too little too late. His health began to deteriorate seriously as did his private life.
It’s a situation seen too often in the showbiz industry but in his autobiography Jack doesn’t go in for self-pity. He knows he was solely to blame and how it affected not only himself but also the people around him. His story is tragic not just because it wrecked his career and his marriage but also because it denied the viewing public of a unique talent. Everyone knew and loved Jack Wild at one time. He was, without doubt, one of the faces of the seventies and no one of a certain age will forget Oliver! or HR Pufnstuf. He was ubiquitous, appearing on the most watched variety shows in both the UK and the US including The Liberace Show, Bing Crosby Christmas Special, The Englebert Humperdinck Show, The Val Doonican Show, The David Frost Show and that Genxculture favourite, The Golden Shot, amongst many others. And what is just as tragic is to consider what he could have done had his career not been destroyed by booze. He would have been a shoo-in for Eastenders, for example. Sought after for Celebrity Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. OK, these shows are not at the top of the professional ladders but they’d have been good earners for Jack and provided him with a pretty decent lifestyle and kept him in the public eye. Also with the, albeit brief, resurgence of the British film industry in the 80s and 90s driven by David Puttnam and Alan Parker, both of whom Jack worked with, there could have been many opportunities for Jack to become what he really wanted to be, an serious adult actor. And he could have achieved that.
I could also have seen Jack as a lively and entertaining compere in various TV shows similar to the type Ant and Dec front. Britain’s Got Talent would have suited Jack down to the ground!
But it wasn’t to be. Jack Wild died after a long battle with cancer, which he said was the result of his heavy drinking and smoking, in 2006. But he left behind a wonderfully strange and beautiful legacy of work which is still watched and enjoyed today. For a glorious period in the late 60s and early 70s, Jack Wild was the kid who had it all.
Its popularity may have been short-lived, but for a brief period during the mid-sixties Batman was even bigger than The Beatles!
Like The Beatles, it’s difficult to understand just what a phenomenon the 1960s TV series Batman actually was. If you were a child between the ages of 5 and 15, for a couple of years, and it was only a couple of years, this TV programme dominated your life. If you were a sophisticated adult you’d have loved the campness and archness of the script. To watch it today brings back just how funny, enjoyable and often downright surreal so many of the episodes were. Its charm and inventiveness has not diminished, it has influenced a range of other TV programmes over the years and has been parodied regularly. Not least in sophisticated TV series of the last few years including The Simpsons, Futurama, Spongebob Squarepants, FamilyGuy and even Only Fools and Horses.
Nothing like it had ever been seen on TV in 1966. Not only was it a character who everyone knew through reading American comics but this was a high quality production that used eye-catching special effects (for the time), had memorable music that people still remember today (Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da -da-da-da, Bat-maaan!), where every episode was a roller-coaster ride and weird characters abounded. What wasn’t to like? It seemed to be really funny but why were Batman and Robin taking it so seriously? We know now that this was the essence of its brilliance. And some of the Special Guest Villains were certainly strangely creepy, occasionally threatening and the casting was often wonderfully bizarre. Not forgetting the trademark fight sequences with their pop-art onomatopoeic graphics (Pow! Blam! Splat!).
As a five-year old when Batman was first shown on British TV in 1966 I was obsessed. Every boy of my age and older had to have a Batman or Robin outfit. They could be bought commercially but it was easier and just as effective to have your own made. My dad, who was quite good at those things, made me a Batman outfit from some black plastic tarpaulin, my pal Graham got a long bit of yellow material from his mum and instantly became Robin, The Boy Wonder, and we’d run through the streets singing ‘Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da -da-da-da, Bat-maaan!’ It was so much fun. It really was.
For two years between 1966 and 1968 Batman dominated popular culture in a similar way to The Beatles. Memorablia such as character models, toy vehicles, sweets and trading cards were available and he even made some of those great favourites of Genxculture, Public Information Films. After Series 2 Batman’s star waned and we moved on to other things, probably Star Trek or Joe 90 and TV Century 21 comic as this was a massively creative decade in the media. But that period was really special and today this series looks and sounds even better than it did due to us being able to watch it in living colour which we couldn’t do then. In short, it’s still funny, satirical, brilliantly staged, wonderfully acted, endlessly inventive, featuring a who’s who of showbiz for the time and it’s still as camp as a Millet’s window display.
Yes, the gadgets, the cars, the weird torture machines, the fast paced narratives, the special effects, the villains all added to the excitement of the show but it was the portrayal of the central characters, Adam West’sBatman and Burt Ward’sRobin, that really lifted the series to a level rarely seen on TV up to that time. As creator, producer and narrator William Dozier said at the time, ‘It’s the only situation comedy on the air without a laugh track.’ The show was also influenced by very 60s TV series such as The Man From Uncle which wore its irony and bizarre gadgetry, sometimes literally, on its sleeve.
Three series of the show were made between January 1966 and March 1968 and although Series 3 saw a lull in its popularity, Series 1 and 2 were hugely successful. Dozier was not a fan of the American superhero comics and felt them, particularly Batman, to be unnecessarily serious and often po-faced. Hence his idea of bringing a much livelier, colourful (for a few), bizarre, fast paced and uniquely ironic TV version of The Caped Crusader.
The success of this very unusual type of show was going to be, crucially, finding the right actors to portray the heroes and villains. The great Adam West was spotted playing ‘Captain Q’ in a series of Nesquik adverts on US TV. West was attracted by the show’s ‘scrupulously formal dialogue‘ which he played completely straight from episode 1 until the end with resounding success.
BurtWard was straight out of stage school when he landed the audition. He had the good fortune to be teamed up with the much more experienced West for the auditions and, out of 1100 audition hopefuls, his chemistry with West was obvious. TV’s Batmanand Robin were born.
The producers had originally decided that the new camp Batman series would debut as a full-length feature film to introduce the characters to the great viewing public. For various reasons this didn’t happen before the series went out and the film was eventually rolled out to cinemas after the first series had concluded. For me this made Batman more exciting as, for one thing, we saw it in eye-popping colour for the first time which was a revelation to say the least. I mean, The Joker had green hair, for example! And, secondly, a new range of thrilling Bat-accessories were revealed such as the Bat-Copter, Bat-Bike and the Bat-Boat. The children’s matinee at the Tivoli cinema on Gorgie Road was certainly buzzing that Saturday afternoon in 1966!
The show had many recurring elements which, for young viewers, was particularly exciting. Playing their ‘real’ identities as rich socialite Bruce Wayne and his ‘ward’ Dick Grayson, they would receive word via the ‘Batphone‘ from Commissioner Gordon that some heinous crime had been committed by one of the ‘Special Guest Villains‘ and could they help? Cue the most exciting sequence in the show when they would secretly enter the bat cave through a secret passage (‘to the batpoles!) and emerge in a roaring, speeded-up Batmobile to consult with Commissioner Gordon.
Clues would be left by the villains and Batman and Robin would start to solve these bizarre clues until a final showdown punch-up (no guns were used) with the villains which would be punctuated with pop art images showing the onomatopoeic words such as Blam!, Pow!, or ‘Kapow! in flamboyant colour. Of course, that element of Batman was completely lost on our monochrome 60s telly and, apart from the Batman film which we saw at the local fleapit, it would be another 15 years before we’d see Batman in the same vivid, psychedelic colour on telly.
In between the two part episodes (shown on two different evenings of the week) Batman and Robin might find themselves in a cliff-hanger scene at the end of part one where they were invariably trapped in a situation that might lead to their deeply unpleasant demise. The narrator, William Dozier, would then chip in asking the audience if Batman will survive. ‘Tune in tomorrow! Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!‘ Of course he’ll survive! Often due to some amazing Bat-gadget that he could just about grab from his Bat-utility belt.
The laughs came from the completely straight performances by Adam West and Burt Ward. Little gags abounded throughout the episode which you had to be quick to notice. At one point the ferociously law-abiding Batman in pursuit of a Special Guest Villain parked the Batmobile outside a large public building. As he leapt out of the driver’s seat he spotted a ‘No Parking‘ sign. Despite the imminent destruction of Gotham City he doubles back to move the car when a friendly policeman arrives and tells him, ‘That’s OK Batman,’ and rolls the sign away. The future of one of America’s great cities may be in the balance but that’s no excuse for not abiding by the law and getting a parking ticket!
The soaraway success of the series led to a range of celebrities of the time making appearances in the show. Either as ‘Special Guest Villains‘ or as themselves. One recurring sequence was when the Dynamic Duo were hauling themselves up the side of a high building with the aid of the Batrope. Of course, the camera was just turned 45 degrees to give the impression of them walking up the building, which was a joke in itself. Suddenly a window would open and a ‘famous’ person would pop their head out. To us in Scotland, many of these ‘celebrities’ were unknown given our three TV stations of the time and a limited amount of space to show many American series. But some of the celebrities were well-known including Jerry Lewis (apparently very difficult and insisting on directing and lighting himself according to Ward’s biog), the great Sammy Davis Jnr, nutty dishevelled comedienne Phylis Diller, Hollywood film gangsters George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, and one I clearly remember, Werner Klemperer in his well-known role as incompetent German POW prison commandant Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes and Ted Cassidy in his role as Lurch in The Addams Family, a show which had many connections with Batman over its three year lifespan.
The most bizarre of these ‘celebrities’ popping their heads out of the window for a slightly awkward rap with the Caped Crusaders was ‘Carpet King‘ Cyril Lord. Now completely unknown by anyone under the age of 55, he was an English businessman who became well known for appearing in TV adverts for his own Cyril Lord carpet company. With the long-running booming jingle ‘These are carpets you can afford by Cyril Lord!,’ he became, like his carpets, a household name. In the TV ad jingle I always thought the name was ‘Cirr-a-lorr.’ Clearly his fame in the US was even greater.
Like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In which appeared shortly after Batman’s cancellation, celebrities were queuing up to appear on the show. It was even rumoured that Frank Sinatra had expressed an interest in the role of The Penguin when the show was being cast.
And talking of Batman villains.. A range of tried and tested Hollywood stars were cast as Special Guest Villains. The series began with those which appeared in the comics, or, at least, camper more outrageous versions of them, if that was possible.
The Joker: The first ever Special Guest Villain played by Cesar Romero, an actor whose biography was as long as your arm and your leg combined. He appeared in well over 100 films, most famously as The Cisco Kid in a series of 40s westerns, and pretty much every well known American TV show between the 50s and the 90s including The Man From Uncle, Rawhide, Alias Smith and Jones, Daniel Boone, Ironside, Bonanza, Dr Kildare and The Golden Girls.
Romero appeared in 22 episodes of Batman as well as the full length film. Romero refused to shave off his trademark moustache during filming and had The Joker’s thick white makeup hide it. To me he always came across as quite a menacing character, despite the series’ camp and overblown treatment of the villains. But that was how it was meant to be.
The Penguin: Appeared in as many episodes as The Joker. I was never that keen on The Penguin. He just wasn’t evil enough. Played by Hollywood stalwart Burgess Meredith, he wasn’t the first choice for the role. The producers of Batman wanted Spencer Tracy as The Penguin which would have been very interesting indeed. A bit like when the producers of Columbo originally wanted Bing Crosby to play the eponymous role. However, he said he’d only do it if he could kill Batman, and that wasn’t going happen. Maybe he only said this to wriggle out of the part but, after its incredible success and popularity, I wonder if he regretted it?
Non-smoker Meredith developed The Penguin’s squawk as a way of not having to inhale the smoke from his ever-present cigarette holder.
The success of Batman, even spilled over into another hugely successful series of the mid-60s when Meredith appeared as The Penguin in an episode of The Monkees.
Catwoman: The most frequent Special Guest Villain, appearing 15 times over the three series. Originally played by newcomer Julie Newmar who, for the first two series, the sexual chemistry with Batman added an extra frisson to their scenes together. Was she really attracted or was she merely using her not inconsiderable feline charms to entrap him? You decide. But one could understand why Batman’s super powers of restraint were severely tested.
For the third series Newmar, who was filming McKenna’s Gold at the time, was replaced by the legendary Eartha Kitt in, for the time, an audacious bit of casting for ultra-conservative America. Of course, this meant the chemistry between them changed as the idea of Batman being romantically linked with black woman was a bridge too far for the producers in a 60s US not exactly embracing multiculturalism. That said, this sort of intimate relationship was only a couple of years away with Kirk and Uhura in Star Trek. But it was still, almost unbelievably, a big deal on mainstream US TV.
For the film version which should have been released before the TV series but wasn’t, Catwoman was played by Lee Merriwether, who some still remember as the original Catwoman, even though she never appeared in the TV series.
Kitt’s ability to purr her lines and generally behave in a feline sort of way came naturally to her, she was perfect (I refuse to say ‘purr-fect’) for the character and her car had to be seen to be believed. Catwoman was one of my favourite villains and she still is……
The Riddler: Played by American impressionist and comedian Frank Gorshin, a huge star in the US but not very well known in the UK at the time. I have a vague memory of him appearing on a British variety show during the 60s. I don’t think he went down that well as his impressions were all of American celebrities and we were used to Mike Yarwood doing Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, so his repertoire left British audiences fairly cold. On further research the good people at IMDB seem to think it was The Dave Allen Show in 1969. This would be after Batman ended its three series run, however. He appeared on pretty much every American variety show including the Jerry Lewis, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis Jnr and Dean Martin shows. He also appeared on The Danny Kay Show in 1966 which we definitely did get in the UK, which may have gone out before Batman hit our British screens. Either way I distinctly remember seeing Frank Gorshin do his impressionism act before I’d seen him as The Riddler.
Another interesting fact about Frank Gorshin (well, I think it’s interesting..) is that he appeared on the same Ed Sullivan Show as The Beatles when they made their US debut in 1964. Craig Brown in his brilliant new book on The Beatles, One, Two, Three, Four, includes a superb chapter told from the viewpoint of some of the other guests on the show that day of 9th February 1964. It’s also hard to believe that ‘two-ton’ Tessie O’Shea also appeared, as did the Broadway cast of Oliver! including British performer Georgia Brown and a young cast member named Davy Jones. Wonder whatever happened to him? Maybe with all these British performers, Ed Sullivan thought The Beatles might feel at home.
He appeared in 9 episodes of Batman which I found surprising as he seemed to be involved much more often. He didn’t appear at all during series 2 as some have claimed he was sidelined by the producers for making unrealistic wage demands. His role was taken for one episode by The Addam’s Family’s John Astin. However, he returned to the fold for one last episode of the third series in 1967.
Cool, Cruel Mr Freeze: With three different, very interesting and unusual actors playing this villainous part, Mr Freeze appeared in all three series of Batman.
First up was a typically left-field choice, suave and prolific Hollywood actor George Sanders. Sounding every inch the superior and upper crust, often quietly menacing, English cad, Sanders was actually born in Russia and moved to England with his family at the outbreak of The Russian Revolution in 1917.
He ended up in Hollywood in the 1930s playing a pre-Roger MooreSimon Templar in a series of US-made The Saint films. His other notable roles included playing dodgy aristocrats in Hitchcock’sRebecca, Addison De Witt in All About Eve, for which he won an Oscar and RobertoRossellini’s neo-realist classic, Journey To Italy with Ingrid Bergman. The role he is best remembered for though, is voicing tiger Shere Khan in Disney’s classic The Jungle Book.
In true Hollywood style he married four times, weirdly two of them being Gabor sisters, Zsa Zsa and Magda (the latter lasting only 32 days). His voice and manner inspired Peter Sellers to base the character of Hercules Grytpype-Thynne on in The Goon Show. In 1958 he released an album of songs, some composed by him with the wonderful title, The George Sanders Touch: Songs For The Lovely Lady. I really would love to hear that sometime.
Sanders died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1972 in a village near Barcelona. His suicide note did not dwell on disappointment but just stated he was bored with life and had had enough. His role as Mr Freeze could not have suited him more.
An even stranger choice to take over from Sanders and one that couldn’t have been more different was legendary Hollywood director Otto Preminger. Although achieving world-wide acclaim as a director of classics such as Laura, The Man With The Golden Arm and the excellent British Film Noir, Bunny Lake Is Missing, he had done some acting, mainly during the 40s and 50s. His most well known role being as Oberst von Scherbach in Stalag 17, directed by Billy Wilder. According to Preminger he’d never heard of Batman but his grandchildren persuaded him to ask for a part. Apparently Preminger knew producer William Dozier and asked to be cast. However, Preminger couldn’t adapt to the idea of being an actor rather than a director and rubbed many of the cast members up the wrong way by shouting at them to ‘concentrate’ if they fluffed their lines. He was frozen out (ho ho) and wasn’t invited back in series 3 to play Mr Freeze again. Once a director, always a director!
The next and last Mr Freeze was another legendary Hollywood actor, ‘method’ actor supreme Eli Wallach.
Egghead: Played by ubiquitous Hollywood actor, the excellent Vincent Price (much more on him dotted around this little blog space), he was the self-styled World’s Smartest Criminal. So much so he was one of only two BatmanGuest Villains who worked out Batman’s real identity. His weapons of choice were always in the form of eggs, the most memorable being the Tear-Gas Eggs laid by hens fed exclusively on onions.
Chandell: played by, of all people, Liberace! He was probably the most well known of all the Special Guest Villains and not only did he play the villain, Chandell, a cute little reference to one of his trademarks, the chandelier, but he also played his even more crooked brother in some groundbreaking split-scene photography. But in one of his final scenes we see him in jail wearing prison stripes as does his grand piano. A superbly subtle and funny Batman touch!
Liberace went on to appear in many cult series of the 60s and 70s including Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Kojak and The Muppets. And in The Monkees he even smashes a grand piano.
Liberace’s life was arguably so full of excess, intrigue, and hyperbole that nothing he did professionally was as overblown as his private life. And, in Batman, he found a role that suited his larger-than-life profile. To be honest I don’t have a particularly clear memory of Liberace’s appearances on Batman at the time but on viewing some of them today, he was perfect for the show. There may be more to come on Liberace within his little blog space in the near future……
King Tut: Played by Hollywood actor Victor Buono, King Tut appeared in eight episodes of Batman over the whole three series, Only Joker, Riddler, Catwoman and Penguin appeared more often. Playing a mild-mannered professor of Egyptology who turns into the evil King Tut when he receives a bump on the head, it’s hard to believe Buono was only 28 when he played the role.
A stalwart of many films and cult 60s telly, Buono also appeared in Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea,The Man From UNCLE, I Spy and even The Flying Nun. For me, though, King Tut wasn’t weird, evil or threatening enough to be an acceptable Batman villain and the episodes involving him are only sketchy in my memory. Like Egghead, King Tut was the only other villain to guess Batman’s identity but, luckily for the Caped Crusader, another blow to the head made him forget by the end of the episode.
Many other Special Guest Villains appeared in Batman, some memorable like The Archer and The Minstrel, played by Hollywood actors Art Carney and Van Johnson. Other members of Hollywood royalty queued up to play villains on Batman. Some scarcely remembered such Minerva (Zsa Zsa Gabor), Clock King (Walter Slezak), Lola Lasagne (the formidable Ethel Merman) and Louie The Lilac (Milton Berle). The British acting contingent was represented by Joan Collins as The Siren, one of the last Special Guest Villains in series 3, Maurice Evans was The Puzzler, he would soon play a career defining role as Dr Zaius in one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, Planet Of The Apes as well as Samantha’s father in Bewitched. A fellow-simian colleague of Evans from Planet of the Apes was Roddy MacDowall who played Bookworm in Series 3. The Sandman played by Michael Rennie, who also played Harry Lime in the long-running US TV series of the 60s The Third Man as well Klaatu in the 50’s cold war classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. But it was a case of too much, too late for Batman and the third series proved to be the last. Another network eventually decided to take over the franchise but by that time the expensive sets had been demolished and it didn’t happen.
One interesting guest who was not a Special Guest Villain was a certain Jay Sebring.Sebring was a fashionable Hollywood hairdresser who appeared in a Catwoman episode on December 15 1966 during Series 2 where he was billed as Mr Oceanbring (geddit?). On the night of August 9 1969 he would be one of the five victims of the Manson family at the Cielo Drive home of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski in the Hollywood hills.
Batman’s massive popularity in the UK even led to Adam West making a Public Information Film in the UK showing children how to cross the road safely. For some reason the producers of these films always seem to think a famous person would hammer the point home more effectively. Maybe they were right but when you think of the many other ‘celebrities’ who, over the years, also helped children across the road it does make you wonder. Recently departed Dave Prowse (Darth Vader) as ‘Green Cross Man,’ Alvin Stardust (You must out of your tiny minds.…), Les Gray of Mud, Boxer Joe Bugner, footballer Kevin Keegan and John ‘Dr Who‘ Pertwee with his frankly baffling ‘SPLINK’ campaign. Out of that lot I’d listen to Batman every time. He’s more believable.
Another campaign that Batman and Robin got behind, that few will remember, involved children launching themselves out of high buildings. Or so we were led to believe by some tabloid newspapers. Whenever something takes off (wrong description maybe!) like Batman did in 1966, people look for the downside of the fandom and phenomenon. According to some newspapers, children, believing Batman could fly, were emulating him by jumping out of high windows, although I don’t remember a single specific incident of this type being reported. Any young child, like myself at the time, would have known full well that Batman, unlike Superman, could not fly. They’d watch the TV programme, read the comics or talk to other Batman fans. Another example of the media wrongly believing children to be stupid. Anyway, Batman was asked to nip this supposed pernicious behaviour in the bud. And at the end of certain episodes a short insert was tagged on. Batman and Robin would speak directly to their young viewing public and remind them that Batman could not fly.
As with any phenomenon, irrespective of how short-lived, the spin-off memorabilia was huge. For a while everything was Batman related. Action figures, sweets, outfits, toy cars, posters and sundry other memorabilia were everywhere.
My own personal favourite out of all this Batman-related tat were the trading cards which were released in 1966. Three different versions (black, red and blue symbols) were available, each with either a description of the scene depicted or part of a larger puzzle on the back which could be constructed when all the relevant cards had been collected. The cards showed scenes which included Batman’s most prolific foes such as The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman and The Penguin as well as a few newly created adversaries such as the supernatural Jack Frost and even some dinosaurs. The lack of authenticity of some of the cards to the TV series certainly didn’t put us off collecting all three series. Some of the cards also depicted scenes from the TV series. Although essential collecting for the 6/7/8 year old, I don’t quite remember the same frisson of excitement one felt when collecting the Civil WarNews or Battle cards of a couple of years previously. (See Aiieee!: the Blood-Soaked Realm of 60s Children’s Trading Cards below). By the time the cards became available, Batman’s popularity was on the wane slightly.
Like all, mainly male, 7 year olds in 1966 I received a toy Batmobile for my Christmas. Unlike much Bat-related merchandise of the time, Batmobiles were high quality, sturdy items made of metal. When you rolled them along the ground orange plastic flames emerged from the back exhaust of the vehicle, small cannons at the back could launch missiles (which you’d lost by Christmas afternoon) and a metal cutting tool (I think that’s what it was, I was never that sure) which could be pulled out on the front bonnet. Like James Bond‘s car, the Aston Martin DB5 which was popular around the same time, these toys are worth a small fortune now and, of course, I have no idea what happened to mine.
To be honest, I’d lost some interest by the time series 3 came along. There seemed to be a plethora of strange and sometimes not very engaging characters and it didn’t seem the same when The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin and Catwoman were not involved. I think I now appreciate these episodes more as an adult but this wonderful highly stylised, highly camp treatment of Batman maybe had a relatively short shelf-life, like a very expensive, flamboyant meal. The first few courses would be amazing but eventually you’d have had enough. But for a couple of years in the mid-60s Batman was a hugely important element of the zeitgeist and Adam West and Burt Ward’s brilliant portrayal of the Dynamic Duo as well as the over-the-top characters made it essential viewing.
So if you want an excursion that is still as cool, camp and clever now as it was all those years ago, you know where to go.
From hero to zero in three years, but no one epitomised the sixties more than Simon Dee
For many people who lived through this tumultuous decade Simon Dee epitomised the guy who had it all: his own Saturday evening chat show, viewing figures of 18 million, rubbing shoulders with anyone who was anyone in the 60s, having a hopelessly glamorous life, being paid a relative fortune (£250,000 when he defected to ITV, nearly £4 million today) and being known by everyone. Then it all disappeared, almost overnight. Where did it all go wrong? The general perception is that his huge ego got the better of him and made him too many powerful enemies, which is true to an extent. But there was more going on in Simon Dee’s life than met the eye and even though he became a victim of his own success, it wasn’t always his fault and he became very much a casualty of the extremely limited media of the 60s and 70s.
Dee hosted one of the most popular programmes of the late 60s. Dee Time‘s five series ran between 1967 and 1969 and broadcast 157 shows and subsequently The Simon Dee Show in 1970. The format rarely changed, two or three guests to chat with Simon and a couple of musical guests to pad out the variety. At first it went out twice a week, on a Tuesday and Thursday, but as its popularity grew it reverted to just once a week on the greatly coveted Saturday tea-time slot, hence Dee Time! It was the first show of its type and at its peak attracted up to 18 million viewers, but, of course, there were only three channels then and, therefore, less competition. But that’s not to denigrate the influence and public profile of Dee Time. Anyone growing up in the late 60s would have watched Dee Time. The format may sound very conventional now but Dee Time featured pretty much anyone who was anyone during this groundbreaking period and aspects of the show, as well as Dee himself, that demand some sort of analysis. For me, the highlight of Dee Time was not only the range of guests who dropped in ‘for a chat,’ and there was some very odd combinations of people indeed put before a Saturday tea-time audience, but also the who’s who of, often quite spectacular, 60s musical acts who regularly graced the studio.
Nicholas Henty-Dodd, aka Simon Dee, was born in Manchester in 1935 attending private school, obviously (who at the BBC in the 50s and 60s didn’t?) before doing his National Service then a series of dead end jobs before being recruited as a DJ for pirate Radio Caroline in 1964 courtesy of a friend who ran the station. He was eventually taken on by the pre-Radio One BBC in 1965 to present a programme called Midday Spin where he played new releases of ‘pop’ records. I’m always surprised, in a way, as to how so many 60s and 70s DJs just walked into these jobs without any seeming musical background or knowledge. Probably producers just thought if someone was young, looked the part and could talk in a reasonably fluent manner they could do the job (See The Moronic World of 70s Radio One DJs, below). But, to be fair to Dee, he was interested in music and this was reflected in the wide and varied styles of music he played on his show.
However, he fell foul of the management when he played twice Scott Walker’s brilliant version of Jacques Brel’sJackie, despite being bizarrely banned by the station. It may have been the references at various times to ‘opium dens,’ ‘ authentic queers’, and ‘phony virgins’ that worried the Broadcasting House top brass, as if anyone really listened to the lyrics! However, the great Scott Walker had already performed it all at peak viewing time on The Frankie Howerd Show on a less traditionally driven ITV at the same time. And it was this surreal juxtaposition of high art and downmarket variety, so redolent of the times, that made Dee Time such strange experience. I have discussed at length the weirdness that was Sunday Night At The London Palladium (Tarbuck Memories below) and TV at the time was trying to cope with the biggest change to society since the Second World War, the explosion of 60s youth culture. TV was desperately attempting to keep its older, less demanding, viewers happy with more conventional fare while, at the same time, trying to attract the huge and growing teen viewership who wanted something very different. It was a precarious balancing act and Dee Time along with SNATLP tried to appeal to both markets often creating a curious and decidedly odd viewing experience.
Strangely, Dee was spotted by BBC Light Entertainment executive Bill Cotton’s mother while he was advertising Smith’s Crisps on an ITV ad. Clearly Dee was well-known enough to be offered such a, presumably quite lucrative, gig. And after a perfunctory meeting with Cotton at the BBC, was propelled into the maelstrom that was the Sixties scene and his own TV chat show, despite having little or no experience of this medium. Luckily for him tea time chat shows were relatively new and no one really had anything else to compare him to.
The BBC desperately wanted Simon Dee to be the epitome of 60s glamour and despite some of Dee’s guests being resolutely of the entertainment old school, his opening and particularly his closing credits sequence were very definitely all about swinging London, even though the early shows were filmed in Manchester! The opening credits were nicked wholesale from The Johnny Carson Show with a disembodied voice (sports commentator Len Martin) bawling the names of tonight’s guests and finally announcing ‘Here’s your host, Siiiiiii-mon Dee!’
But the closing sequence was even better. After Dee had wished the viewing public goodnight the credits roll and we see him driving through a multi-storey car park in an open top white E-Type Jag. Waiting for him, and filmed from a low-angle to accentuate her model-like figure, is a dark- coated blonde in kinky boots, dressed like The Girl From Uncle. She jumps into the car as it zooms off (and if you’re quick you’ll see her being rather unceremoniously knocked backwards by the power of the acceleration!). The camera follows the car round and round swinging ..erm… Manchester at high speed and from dizzying angles until the credits have rolled. And if that doesn’t yell ‘Sixties!’ I don’t know what will. Phew! The fact he was married with two children obviously wasn’t important, it was his image that really mattered.
It’s safe to say Dee was no Michael Parkinson. Never seen as a particularly fearsome interviewer, his style was laid-back, chummy and unthreatening to the point of trivial, but well suited to the early evening viewership. And there seemed little thought put into who should appear on any show. Guests were rarely selected to compliment each other or create a theme. It was more a case of ‘Who’s hot and available?’ Of course, it wasn’t possible for every show to feature a ‘happening’ interviewee or musical act and certain shows featured some unlikely bedfellows. Unlike Parkinson where the final part of the show was for all the guests to get together for a discussion, the vast majority of guests on Dee Time were interviewed alone. As is the case with so many TV shows of the time, only one complete Dee Time has survived with a few odd sections of others. For once it wasn’t a case of all the shows being wiped to save money, but all shows were live and, for some reason, probably to save money, just weren’t recorded. When some of Dee’s guests are considered, however, this was an omission just as culturally reprehensible. Because of this there is some debate as to who appeared on which show and even as to who was just there for a chat and who was performing. If the shows themselves weren’t deemed worthy of preservation, it’s unlikely many production notes or schedules were kept. There are discrepancies, for example, between IMDB and Richard Wiseman’s fascinating account of the career of Dee’s career, ‘Whatever Happened To Simon Dee?‘ In most cases I’ve relied on the latter but, either way, the list of guests Dee attracted was an A-Z of the sixties.
Although a number of clips from shows still exist, though precious few, one of only two known episodes still in existence would appear to be from November 2 1968. How this episode survived is unknown. The opening routine shows Dee standing in a cloak looking superior. Clearly this was a ‘happening’ item of fashion featured in the tabloids that week which had garnered some ridicule. ‘We’re all wearing them,’ he haughtily declared. Then when an assistant came to take the cloak away Dee said ‘Can I have it off, please?’ Cue shrieks from the audience and Dee putting his fingernails in his mouth in shock at what he just said. Almost certainly scripted, this was the level of innuendo that made audiences guffaw guiltily in the 60s. Some things never change, I suppose.
His first guest is Graham Leask (Graham Leask, I hear you ask?), a young lad who exports snakes to Europe, according to Dee. Clearly a warm-up amuse-bouche before the main courses of Susannah York and Lionel Jeffries. A slightly awkward encounter ensues with Dee almost realising as he spoke that this was really pretty dull. It reminded me of the wonderful chat show spoof The Larry Sanders Show, when they were short of guests they’d bring in ‘The Sea-Shell Woman’ to eat up a bit of time by displaying the sea shells she’d collected while Larry struggled to feign interest. If Graham is still with us, and he’ll be around 65 now, he must be rather chuffed that his appearance on Dee Time is one of the few interviews that survived the 60s and 70s BBC cultural purge. What were the chances of that?
But Susannah York certainly brightened things up. Although clearly uncomfortable being interviewed, Dee chivvied her along getting her to talk about the films she had recently completed. Interestingly, one of them was The Killing of Sister George with the great Beryl Reid, who would be a guest on DT a few weeks later. During this exchange I couldn’t help but think ‘Will they mention it?’ And lo, they did before quickly moving on after an irate director presumably bawled into Dee’s earpiece (if he had one in those days). ‘It’s about lesbians‘ says Dee casually, ‘But we can’t can’t talk about that on this show.’ I wonder how many of the great viewing public knew what a lesbian was in 1967? And was that the first time the word ‘lesbian’ was used on tea-time telly? I was quite impressed that Dee even mentioned the word in a fairly matter-of-fact way without trying to make a joke about it. For the sixties this was extremely unusual. Gay people were mercilessly lampooned in comedy shows but lesbians were, to my knowledge, never referred to. It did demonstrate Dee’s devil-may-care attitude to celebrity interviews and the show was always likely to throw up little morsels of interest like this but sadly we’ll never know of any other similarly awkward moments, but there would certainly have been plenty, if only we could still see them.
Next up was well-known British character actor Lionel Jeffries who had just completed filming ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘ and he caused uproar and a certain amount of embarrassment when he revealed the clip they had just shown from the film did not feature him in a sentry box, as Dee had said, but as he described it, ‘a bog, a lav.’ Arguably, this was more controversial than mentioning lesbians. The audience collapsed in uncontrolled paroxysms of unbridled hilarity. They’d have been nudging each other conspiratorially in the audience giggling, ‘He said ‘bog!’ They may not have known what a lesbian was but they certainly knew what a ‘lav’ was. And it didn’t come much more risque than to make a reference to a toilet in the Great Britain of 1968.
Some of the shows’ lineups were wonderfully weird in a very sixties unsophisticated way. From the great to the good to the definitely not so good to the pure rubbish. They all happily accepted an invitation to be lightly sautéed by Simon Dee. I always think about what it must have been like in The Green Room prior to broadcasting, and the show was, of course, recorded live so all guests would have been sipping Campari and munching on Ritz crackers. Some of the musical acts may even have been puffing on a ‘reefer’ while engaging in polite conversation with the likes of upper crust fossil the Duke of Bedford or Genxculture favourite Anita Harris.
The first ever episode on 4 April 1967 was a superb indicator as to what this show was all about and where it was going to go during the next two and half years. An uneasy combination of MOR, cutting edge rock and 60s anodyne run-of-the-mill chat.
Kiki Dee: Never a household name during her long and continuing career, in fact she wasn’t even going to have a top 20 hit record for another 6 years when she got to number 13 with Amoureuse. But she was a reliable musical guest with an ever-so-slight ‘alternative’ edge on many variety shows and not quite in the easy listening ubiquity league as Clodagh Rodgers, Vince Hill or Anita Harris. It’s unknown whether Kiki was a chatting to Simon or just singing but probably just singing.
Lance Percival: One of those guys who turned up everywhere during the 60s and early 70s. Everyone knew him but ask anyone ‘What did Lance Percival do?‘ and they would struggle to come up with anything more specific than he was some sort of comedian. In fact, when any show, (comedy, chat, sitcom, variety, satire, quiz) wanted someone vaguely amusing to appear he would be near the top of the list. For someone with limited talents he was never off the telly or the cinema screen for 20 years. He made his name performing topical calypsos on That Was The Week That Was (something he probably wouldn’t get away with today) and his career pretty much took off on an ever so slight upward trajectory after that. Tall, angular and gangly he looked a bit odd and this added to his comedy cache. To give a rough idea of the pies he had bony fingers in, he appeared in programmes and films as diverse as the Carry Ons (inevitable), the shockingly unfunny ‘Confessions’ films, two series of his own show, more interestingly voicing a character in Yellow Submarine, guest supporter on Quizball, celebrity guest on Bullseye, compere of a rubbish 60s celebrity panel game He Said, She Said and appearing on a raft of undemanding chat shows as a mildly witty guest. In fact, he appeared on Dee Time on four separate occasions.
Mike Newman: Who? I know, I had to look him up but he was an Irish comedian and he appeared on no less than six occasions, that is six occasions, on the first series alone of Dee Time in 1967. Clearly someone on the production team liked him and he was obviously available. But it must have been a punishing routine for the poor guy if he was performing his act on each of those shows and having to come up with a new routine every time.
Libby Morris: a Canadian comedian who didn’t seem to be doing much of particular note professionally at the time of this appearance in April 1967. That said, she was a well known and reliable face, like Lance Percival, of the time. To her credit she had appeared a number of times on both The Johnny Carson Show and The Merv Griffin Show in the US. The most interesting parts of her CV , for me at least, were having voiced some characters between 1963-68 on Gerry Anderson’s early puppet series Space Patrol and appearing as the mother in Alexander The Greatest with the wonderful Adrienne Posta in 1971 (See Adrienne Posta: The ’70s ‘It’ Girl below). But she did the rounds of The Golden Shot, David Nixon’s Magic Box, The Good Old Days, Call My Bluff, Celebrity Squares and Blankety Blank over a thirty year period. Respect! She appeared on DT once more during the three year run.
And this is where it gets really interesting……
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: With musical guests like this Dee Time was certainly hammering its alternative credentials into the ground here. After the blandness of the opening chat line-up this was a programme desperately trying to cement its ‘happening’ musical sixties credentials. This was Hendrix’s first early evening appearance on British TV and he would make a return to Dee Time the following year. He would go on to appear on It Must Be Dusty also the following year and famously on Happening For Lulu in 1969, where the band balked at having to do a duet with Lulu and stopped their performance of Hey Joe half way through to launch into a tribute to the recently disbanded Cream, Sunshine Of Your Love. This led to them being, allegedly, banned from the BBC for life. Unusually for the Beeb, this footage still exists.
Cat Stevens: It’s unknown as to what Cat Stevens actually sang on this first edition, most probably ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun‘ which was riding high in the hit parade at the time, but his appearance alone, along with Hendrix, inspired radio sociologist Laurie Taylor to suggest this programme was the, ‘…forty minutes that could arguably be thought of as the moment the Sixties finally arrived onto …British television.’ Stevens would appear twice more on Dee Time and would also appear on Dee’s short-lived vehicle on ITV in 1970
Other weird lineups included….
11 May 1967: with the great Beryl Reid (wonder if he mentioned lesbians again?) and musical guests The Move, then seen as the wild men of rock, jazzy/ bluesy group The Peddlars (who would appear a number of times on DT) and, bizarrely, Donald Peers. This juxtaposition of The Move and Peers made shows such as this so fascinating. The now virtually forgotten Donald ‘The Laughing Cavalier Of Song’ Peers was a 50s crooner of some note whose signature tune was ‘By A Shady Nook By A Babbling Brook.’ Clearly this was the producers of DT throwing the older generation a few crumbs to try and maintain their interest. It was a ploy that continued throughout DT’s run but it was flogging a very dead horse as DT was all about the Sixties and everyone knew it. That said, Donald Peers appeared quite a few times over the next few years. One could just imagine oldies watching at home pointing to the black and white grainy screen and saying, ‘Now that’s a proper singer!‘
20 June 1967: This was an edition I actually remember. Or at least some of it. Heading the bill was 60s musical sensation Lionel Bart. Well known for his West End Theatre smashes Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be and Oliver!, Bart performed one of his own songs on DT. What I remember vividly, and this was very Sixties, he sat on the darkened set singing and each time he completed a verse he’s take a long drag on the cigarette he was holding and slowly exhale the smoke in time to the music. This disgusted my non-smoking parents who commented on how revolting this looked. I can’t remember whether Bart indulged in some unthreatening banter with Dee, but also on the bill was Warren Mitchell, riding high with ‘Till Death Us Do Part which had begun its long run the previous year, safe pair of chat show hands Leslie ‘Ding Dong’ Phillips and second musical act, up-and-coming American crooner Neil Diamond, who was yet to have a UK top twenty hit. Making up the numbers was rock- a- boogie duo with the rubbish name, The Young Idea, who were in the charts with a version of The Beatles‘ ‘With A Little Help From My Friends. They wouldn’t bother the charts again.
2 March 1968: This edition is also worth noting due to the wide and completely random nature of the guest line-up! This was a fusion of the new, the old, the curious, the sophisticated and the downright bizarre. In a way, a perfect Dee Time storm. The old was represented by former radio quiz inquisitor, occasional actor, including the role of the dad in the original film version of Billy Liar, and soon-to-be sitcom star in ‘For The Love Of Ada’Wilfred Pickles. For a slightly younger but still fairly mature audience we had Frankie Vaughan. His best days were a long way behind him but he appealed to the parents of 60s pop kids. And talking of pop kids another musical act featured in this edition was perennial popsters Dave Dee (no relation), Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch performing their current chart hit and their only Number One, The Legend Of Xanadu. A left field choice next was Esther and Abi Ofarim with their gibberish hit, also a Number One, Cinderella Rockafella. They divorced soon after and Esther Ofarim was, surprisingly, given her own BBC 2 variety show special, Meet Esther Ofarim. It would a fleeting liaison. And finally, now-disgraced Liberal MP, stalwart of Radio 4’s Just A Minute and TV chef Clement Freud who was always a lugubrious but witty chat show guest. Phew! Poor old Si must have been knackered after all that.
And talking of disgraced former Liberal MPs, Jeremy Thorpe appeared on the 10 February 1969 and the interview was reviewed very favourably by the ‘clever-clogs’ newspapers (as Alan Partridge might describe them) due to Dee’s questioning on Parliamentary reform and televising the Commons. But, truth be told, this wasn’t what the punters tuned in to see of a Saturday evening. And having politicians as guests was a rarity. Towards the end of his BBC tenure in 1968, however, Dee Time hosted a number of members of the aristocracy on a couple of his shows. Why this was has been lost in the mists of time but one can imagine Dee wanting to show that they were ‘just like you and me‘ and doing a bit of brown-nosing while he was at it. And talking of the mighty Partridge, it reminded me of an episode of his radio chat show ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘ in 1992 when one of his guests was the Duchess of Stranraer and he spent the entire interview trying to wangle a weekend invite to her country pile.
Often the chatting guests may have been on the bland side and some completely forgotten (Susannah Young? Ross Hannman? Arthur Murphy?) but many of the musical guests were, not to put too fine a point on it, mind-blowing! Anyone who was anyone from ‘the pop scene’ appeared on Dee Time and one does wonder what a 60s older tea-time audience would have made of some of the more wonderfully psychedelic acts such Traffic, The Turtles, The Move, Procul Harum, The Kinks, The Herd (with a young Peter Frampton), The Troggs or even Cat Stevens! DT did, of course, feature many slightly more house- trained performers such as The Dave Clark Five, The Hollies, The Bee Gees and that most British of bands, The Tremeloes (4 times!). Solo acts, more in keeping with the older part of the audience’s taste, included Genxculture favourites Clodagh Rodgers and Anita Harris, the wonderful Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw not to mention the amazing Nina Simone. Blander fare included the singer with the most un- ‘with-it’ of names, the virtually forgotten Malcolm Roberts, Julie Rodgers (who made a career out of one hit), the inevitable Vince Hill (who made a career out of no hits), Cilla Black popped in a couple of times to screech her latest single as well as Jackie ‘Mrs Tony Hatch’ Trent and Lena Martell (who I once met and she was lovely). And let’s not forget those twin colossi of 60s pop, Pinky and Perky (as they said at the time, ‘£100 a week and they live like pigs!‘). Suffice to say, Dee Time was a treasure trove of the musical great and the good (and the not so good), which makes it even more galling to think the vast majority of these performances have been lost forever.
For every legendary act that appeared on DT there were almost as many who disappeared without trace. Simon Dee was a great believer in featuring acts who he thought deserved some exposure, which showed he maybe wasn’t the pop expert that Radio Two DJ Steve Wright is (OK, that’s a joke). For example, The Warm Sound, The Frugal Sound, The Dollies, The Gentle Power Of Song, The Tinkers, The Bats and The Nocturnes maybe didn’t make the splash they hoped to make after an appearance on Dee Time. Each one of those now utterly forgotten acts probably deserve some sort of analysis as they will all have their own story to tell, and I have no doubt a few will be of interest, but, sadly, that’s for another time on Genxculture. There is still too much to explore in the fascinating Simon Dee story…..
For one thing, it’s a little known fact that the warm-up act for much of Dee Time’s BBC run ws a certain Larry Grayson who reportedly went down a storm with the audience. Now, during the 70s and 80s I have to admit I was never a fan of Grayson. I didn’t think he could hold a candle to Bruce Forsyth as compere of The Generation Game. However. Having watched his act on a mid-70s edition of that surreal variety masterpiece Sunday Night At The London Palladium ( see posting below) brought to us by those wonderful people at Talking Pictures TV, I’ve really changed my opinion of him. He was really quite superb. His timing was second to none and I very much stand corrected on that one. Everard will be pleased….. But back to Simon Dee.
His fame and ubiquity wasn’t limited to the small screen, either. At the height of his fame he appeared in the classic 60s film The Italian Job at the behest of one of his showbiz pals, Michael Caine. In Dee’s own very 60s words, ‘I played a poofy Savile Row tailor and I was so good that the poofs started chasing me.’ He also claimed to have been propositioned by Brian Epstein when invited round to his Belgravia house to discuss a project that never happened. Was there anything Simon Dee didn’t do in the 60s? If you believe him the answer is no.
Dee was receiving £250 a show when he was broadcasting twice a week from Manchester up until September 16 1967. This equated to nearly £4000 a show today. As he was appearing twice weekly that was nearly £8000 a week which was pretty decent in anyone’s language. Due to the popularity of the show it was eventually given the hugely prestigious Saturday tea-time slot and despite this massive promotion, the BBC continued to pay him £250 a show, so the number of shows a run was halved and so was his salary. One can see Dee’s point that he was effectively being given a pay cut. And this is where his problems really began. Fallouts with his producer and Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, Bill Cotton, led to Dee being accused of having a huge destructive ego and unreasonable wage demands. So much so at one point, when Dee became extremely unhappy about losing his opening Johnny Carson-esque monologue due to the producers believing it wasn’t working, he went AWOL and this worried his producers so much that they had Tony Blackburn standing-by to do that night’s Dee Time incase of a no-show by Dee. He did show up in time to do the show but with his lawyers, who Cotton had to deal with. Cotton won out in the end, not surprisingly, but it was the beginning of the end for Dee at the BBC.
The question of his salary, of course, came up again shortly after and many people who worked with him reportedly began to complain of his ego growing and getting in the way, although just as many seem to disagree with this notion. Again, the popularity of Dee Time and his perceived importance to the show inevitably led to him becoming a little to full of his own importance but this tends to happen any most personality driven TV vehicles and I wouldn’t really blame him for this. But in swinging London he was everywhere, at every premiere, fashion show, up market night club, driving around in his Bond Aston Martin DB5 bought from Bond villain Robert Shaw and he was even dating Bond girl Joanne Lumley, amongst others! It’s undocumented what his wife thought about this. According to Dee he even was considered for the part of Bond himself after Sean Connery jumped ship. Although unsuccessful in his audition, Dee’s contention that it was because he was thought to be ‘too tall’ for the part seems a little unlikely given Connery was six feet two.
Something had to give. And, of course , it did, the story of his demise almost writing itself.
The BBC top brass became thoroughly pissed off with Simon Dee and his final request for a pay rise fell on, not only deaf ears, but a growing desire to cut him loose. They began the disengagement process by moving his show to a Monday evening and rubbing salt into the wound by replacing Dee Time with Happening for Lulu, a lot like Dee Time but with Lulu, and the writing was well and truly on the wall for him. His demise at the BBC was the worst kept secret on Fleet Street and when ITV came calling, waving a bulging cheque book, they were only too happy to let him go and Simon couldn’t believe his luck when they offered him an eye-watering £1,000 a show and a two year contract. Too good to be true? You know where this is going….
ITV also happened to have David Frost in its ranks, a more serious, tougher interviewer and he was reportedly unhappy that the network had brought in another chat show personality, albeit a more lightweight one. Bizarrely, they scheduled Dee’s new show straight after Frost’s show late on a Sunday night at a time when most of the viewing public went to bed earlier. Dee was convinced Frost was trying to sabotage his show and there may have been something in that. Mind you, Dee was also convinced he was being monitored by MI5 and CIA and there may have been something in that also. His new show was a ratings flop and the straw that broke the camel’s back was an interview with the new Bond (funny how Bond keeps cropping up in the Dee story) George Lazenby who was high as kite and expounded his weird theories as well as naming names on the assassination of JFK, which was only eight years previously. dee was dragged over the coals at ITV for allowing Lazenby to waffle on about such rubbish and this was the beginning of the end for the show. It’s believed also on the show that night was John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Quite a coup even in those days although John Lennon‘s stock had fallen hugely with the break-up of The Beatles and his taking up with Yoko. She was blamed for the break-up of The Beatles and, therefore, the media and much of the Great British Public hated Yoko with a vengeance. She was vilified in a way that was not only racist but also misogynist, a situation that still exists, but to a slightly lesser extent, today. Due to the Lazenby interview, however, their participation is virtually forgotten and, of course, no known record of the show still exists.
Another sign that Dee’s reputation wasn’t quite what it was involved, weirdly, the England 1970 World Cup Squad. They had been booked to appear on the Sunday night show to debut their shouty new single, Back Home, even before it had been featured on Top Of The Pops. This would have been a huge triumph for Dee not to say a massive and badly needed ratings boost. But boring old Alf Ramsey vetoed the appearance at the last minute as it would mean keeping the boys up too late. Despite the show being recorded at tea time on the same Sunday as the broadcast went out. It’s unlikely this would have happened if Dee had still been on the BBC.
To be fair, the guest list for this run of the show was less than impressive. Although details are sketchy and few documents relating to the show have been kept, as well as the disastrous Lazenby interview, American comedienne Carol Channing, reportedly a very difficult interviewee, cheery cockney songster Joe Brown, stalwart British character actor Patrick Cargill, and Dee favourite Robert Morley all appeared but hardly set the pulses racing. Other guests of some note included Ned Sherrin, Samuel Becket muse Billie Whitelaw, Laurence Harvey (who’s girlfriend Dee allegedly had a dalliance with, although whether Harvey was bothered is unknown), Terry Thomas and 70s TV sex-bomb Peter Wyngarde. One of the few shows show of any real interest involved the always good value Vincent Price, who apparently poached a piece of haddock in a dishwasher on the show, and, oddly, paranormal author and extreme Right-winger Dennis Wheatley, which may have been worth staying up for but few did. And, to be honest, it was thin gruel. The show did go out with a bang though. Reports vary as to who appeared on the very last Simon Dee Show but some believe that on 21st June 1970 the recently sadly departed Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Bruce Forsyth and Harry Secombe (can’t win them all!) made up the very last edition. Other reports believe it was the Archbishop of Canterbury doing a solo gig which wasn’t so good, but we’ll probably never know as no recordings of those shows seemingly exist.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for Dee inadvertently involved, bizarrely, unthreatening MOR crooner Matt Monro. Dee had wanted him to provide the musical entertainment in one of his shows but the producers didn’t, for some reason. Dee took a strop similar to the one he took at the BBC and went AWOL again. The producers had reliable 50s DJ Pete Murray on standby in the same way the BBC had Tony Blackburn waiting in the wings the previous year. Dee did turn up in time to do the show but the big-wigs at ITV had had enough and cancelled the show. Although their story was that The Simon Dee Show was never cancelled, Dee’s contract was just never renewed. A bit like the way The Monkees ended. They didn’t split up, they just didn’t have their contracts renewed.
And that was pretty much that for Simon Dee. It has to be remembered that with only three channels and two networks there was nowhere for him to go having burned his boats at both the BBC and ITV. Today he’d have ended up on Channel 5 or Channel 4 or even the darker regions of cable TV such as Dave but in a strange sort of way it was this severely limited media structure that made him so big but also destined him to obscurity. His life sped out of control and went downhill very quickly and included a couple of short jail terms for petty offences which the tabloids made the most of.
In fact, Channel 4 brought him back for a one-off Dee Time in 2003 and one critic wrote that Dee reminded him of
Alan Partridge- a toxic mix of naff, bitterness, strange vulnerability and pompous self-regard.
The talentless Elizabeth Hurley, whose acting career took a similar trajectory to Dee’s when it was discovered she couldn’t act, said he was the personality Austin Powers was based on. I’m not so sure though.
Was it his massive ego that resulted in such a humiliating fall? No, it really wasn’t. He was just a victim of his times. Maybe a touch of humility would have made a difference but humility didn’t really go with the territory.
His life went from 60s superhero to ultimate zero but, you have to say, it was quite a ride.
Few people under fifty will remember Marty Feldman but he was a prolific writer and performer responsible for some of the most innovative comedy ever
Mention Marty Feldman to anyone over the age of fifty and most would reply, ‘Was that him with the eyes?’ And that’s how he is remembered by most, by his unusual appearance. There are a number of theories as to why he looked how he did: Grave’s Disease, a botched operation after a serious car crash, being damaged through boxing in his youth but this misses the point about Marty Feldman completely. Yes, he did use his appearance for comedy purposes and he often said his unusual face was his fortune but it’s easy to forget that he was one of the funniest, most innovative and certainly most prolific comedy writers of the 60s and 70s. He was responsible for comedy that not only pushed the envelope for the time but he was also a prime mover in the satire boom as well as paving the way for the surrealism of the Pythons and many other comedy icons.
It will surprise many people that he died at the tragically young age of 48 of a heart attack brought on by food poisoning after eating shellfish while filming on Yellowbeard, a disappointing Python spin-off, in Mexico City in 1982. At his death he was well-known for being a Mel Brooks collaborator and Hollywood star but it’s the vast range of work in the 60s and 70s that really made his name and it’s that that this post will focus on.
Born in 1948 and brought up in East London before stumbling into comedy writing, he had a number of jobs that seem appropriate for a left-field comedy writer such as a tipster at a greyhound track and an assistant to an Indian fakir in a fairground sideshow act. Soon he was writing for one of the most inadvertently surreal productions of the 50s, Educating Archie, the radio ventriloquist comedy show. Here he worked with two stalwarts of British sitcom, writers Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney (See ‘Cor Blimey Stan, How Did You Do It?‘ below). In 1954 he met Barry Took and they remained as comedy writing partners for the next twenty years. Their first foray into TV was writing some episodes of the hugely successful The Army Game and shortly after the spin-off Bootsy and Snudge. But in 1964 they hit comedy gold with the long-running radio show Round The Horne.
Described once as featuring ‘downmarket material in an upmarket way,’ Round The Horne was pure, unadulterated glorious filth. But it was filth in the way those wonderful Donald MacGill seaside postcards were. Everyone knew what they meant on Round The Horne, or at least thought they knew what they meant, but because it was all implicit they got away it. Even the title of the show was incredibly rude although it was hidden by a much less vulgar pun. Hearing repeats on BBC Radio 4 Extra it’s difficult to know how some of the jokes escaped the censor in those incredibly stuffy, buttoned-up times. But morality and that greatly abused word ‘decency’ was what the establishment claimed to be the social norm and the public requirement. But most people knew better. Despite complaints from some MPs and the inevitable Mary Whitehouse (who obviously understood the jokes if they were to find them distasteful), Feldman and Took were encouraged to be almost provocative in their groundbreaking scripts and this set the tone for Feldman’s work for the next 25 years.
The upper-middle class accent of the wonderful Kenneth Horne helped sneak much of the humour under the fence and the virtuoso cast of the great Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee. As Kenneth Horne said, ‘If ever I see a double entendre, I whip it out.’ And RTH was well and truly stuffed with double entendres.
The most popular characters on RTH were Julian and Sandy played by Williams and Paddick. For a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK Feldman and Took rode roughshod through the (oppressive) laws of the land in a way that was not only brave but also hilarious. Using the gay secret language ‘palare’, Julian and Sandy’s dialogues pushed innuendo to its limits. Of course, in those days many people would not even have heard the word ‘homosexuality,’ let alone know what it meant. It was an aspect of society that was very much brushed under the carpet by those who were aware of it, hence the complete lack of awareness from most ordinary people. Feldman and Took’s genius, along with the brilliant characterisations of Williams and Paddick, made it mainstream and definitely ‘unthreatening’. They even managed to sneak many otherwise proscribed ideas through the script such as references to a ‘cottage upright.’ And if you don’t know what that is, use your imagination. It’s rarely wrong, particularly with regards to this brilliant show. Every character’s name had a hovering air of rudeness to it such as J. Peasmold Gruntfuttock, Rambling Sad Rumpo (Williams) and Daphne Whitethigh (Marsden). Even the studio orchestra was known as ‘The Hornblowers!’
Feldman and Took’s reputation as writers meant they were in high demand as scriptwriters for other shows. One of those was that Genxculture favourite, Sunday Night At The London Palladium. I have written about this weird variety experience at length elsewhere in this little blog space (Tarbuck Memories, see below). In 1965 SNATLP was undergoing a facelift and was trying to drag itself into the happening 1960s through featuring acts that were certainly ‘with it.’ Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Spike Milligan and even The Beatles rubbed shoulders with the more traditional screeching operatic singers and terribly predictable comedians. And talking about terribly predictable comedians or maybe just terrible comedians, there was new host Jimmy Tarbuck. His Liverpudlian background and cheeky chappie demeanour was a perfect new broom for a refurbished SNATLP. Feldman and Took as two of the most fashionable writers in the UK at the time were brought in to give the script a modern spin. They must have been up to their eyes (no pun intended, Marty) with Round The Horne as Tarbuck’s script is execrable and bears no resemblance to the cutting edge stuff they were producing for RTH. I can only imagine they accepted the job as it was well paid and met in a pub to cobble something together, probably on the back of a fag packet as Marty was a very heavy smoker. ‘Ringo and has wife have so much money they’re putting it into Zack’s‘ was one of the better gags, which says more about the rest of Tarbuck’s routine. It would be unfair to judge this script though given the fact that Tarbuck was probably unconcerned about the quality, he was just so happy to be there. As was said at the time, a Palladium audience would laugh at a horse defecating.
After three series of RTH Feldman’s own performing career was beginning to take off and his writing was moving in other directions and he left RTH.
At Last The 1948 Show was Feldman’s first production as writer and performer. Initially the idea to produce an unconventional sketch show was that of David Frost who brought together a group of comedy actors and writers, some of whom had worked on The Frost Report, John Cleese and Graham Chapman along with sadly recently departed Tim Brooke Taylor, who then suggested Marty Feldman. A bit of good old fashioned 60s glamour was added through the lovely Aimi MacDonald (she was always referred to as ‘lovely’) who played the dumb blonde character, usually in sequins and feathers, and linked many of the sketches.
ALT1948S is a production which rarely is given the credit for being the first to usher in the winds of comedy change. Coming almost a year before the wonderful Do Not Adjust Your Set with Palin, Jones and Idle, many of the sketches eventually found their way to being performed on Monty Python including the legendary Four Yorkshiremen sketch and the programme’s main catchphrase, And now for something completely different. My memories of this show are sparse. I remember thinking it odd but, for me, that was a good thing. Even at the tender age of nine I was bored with formulaic sitcoms and wanted something more. The aspect of the show that really sticks in my memory was Aimi MacDonald’s links. Guest stars included a plethora of comedy writers of the time including Frank Muir and Denis Norden, Dick Vosborough and the great Barry Cryer. Ronnie Corbett (a colleague of Cleese’s from The Frost Report), Bill Oddie (shortly to team up with Tim Brooke-Taylor in The Goodies) and a non-speaking Eric Idle, also provide cameos. Other than two episodes it was believed all others were lost but all except two have been found, which is a turn up for the books! If Round The Horne brought innuendo and a stealthy social element to the airwaves, ALT1948S brought a satirical silliness to our screens which would be the spark to ignite a range of comedy programmes which pulled back the boundaries of humour, often pulling them back so far they were out of sight for many people. And from this seminal but almost forgotten series Marty Feldman’s public profile began to develop and so did his writing.
The period between 1965-70 was a prolific time for Marty Feldman. As well as Round The Horne he was writing for The Frost Report which starred a young John Cleese, Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker, who would soon become The Two Ronnies (who Marty also wrote for), According To Dora starring the great Dora Bryan, The Dick Emery Show (along with another writer called Harold Pinter), Terry Scott’s own sketch show Scott On…. and even scripts for It’s Lulu! Two almost forgotten shows of note he worked on which are worth mentioning were No, That’s Me Over There starring Ronnie Corbett and Henry McGee and Broaden Your Mind, another high quality sub-Pythonesque sketch show of the type which were being churned out in the late 60s.
No, That’s Me Over There was ostensibly a fairly formulaic middle-class suburban comedy, but a look at the production team suggests otherwise. Written by, amongst others, Barry Cryer, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle and produced by Marty, it’s a Reggie Perrin-type of comedy with Ronnie Corbett in his first starring role. Sadly, most of the first two series have been lost although one episode is available on Youtube. Marty contributed to the scripts of Broaden Your Mind, one of the first colour programmes to be broadcast on the fairly new BBC2, was a suitably daft precursor to The Goodies starring Tim Brooke Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie. One surviving sketch, ‘Ordinary Royal Family‘ appears to have Marty’s iconoclastic fingers all over it. Very funny and available on that thing they call the Youtube.
Launched in 1968 Marty! (and for the second series It’s Marty!) was Feldman’s own sketch show which allowed his writing to develop and flourish in an unconventional and often anarchic style. Following on from ALT1948S the sketches in Marty! were of an altogether more surreal nature than those on the more mainstream Dick Emery or Mike Yarwood Shows, for example. Feldman took John Cleese and Graham Chapman from ALT1948 and Michael Palin and Terry Jones from Do Not Adjust your Set and The Frost Report with him to supplement Feldman and Took’s contributions. At various points along the two-series way Tim Brooke Taylor, John Law and John Junkin (who also appeared in both series) also weighed in. The result was a wonderfully scattergun and hilariously strange concoction. One sketch I remember vividly was ‘Lightning Tours‘ where Marty played a recurring character, an irritating little man in long coat to his feet, an even longer scarf wound around his neck and a bowler hat. John Junkin was the tour guide and the tour took place on a coach being driven through the English countryside at breakneck speed. Very funny! Maybe even a skit on the recently broadcast Magical Mystery Tour?
In another suitably nutty sketch an elderly couple are in bed and the old man gets up go to the toilet, next thing we see him speeded up in a car to meet a beautiful girl each time in an increasingly unlikely situation. At one point flying off on a plane, landing on a tropical island, playing the guitar to a dancing island girl and then we see his journey back and ending with him slowly re-entering the bedroom where his little old lady wife is still reading and still berating him in bed. The punchline being he’s too tired each night to make love to her. With Marty and Took writing along with most of the soon-to-be Python team, the sketches were surreal, absurd, highly stylised and extremely funny. At the end of the second series of It’s Marty! all went their separate ways to Python, The Goodies and Feldman was poached by ITV.
The success of Marty’s TV shows and his prodigious writing output eventually got him his first film in 1970, Every Home Should Have One. Produced by That Was The Week, That Was’s Ned Sherrin and written by Marty, Barry Took and Denis Norden, this satire on advertising was Marty’s first serious mis-fire. And it was a bad mis-fire. A uncomfortable juxtaposition of satire, slapstick and antediluvian sexual politics and although having some interesting points to make about advertising and morality, this swipe at the Mary Whitehouse morality faction completely misses the point. Marty is an advertising writer and decides the way to sell frozen porridge is through sex. So far, so 70s. But by ‘sex’ we’re really talking about the exploitation of young attractive women while all the men in the film are middle-aged, sweaty, leering beasts. One particular character played by Shelley Berman, a middle-aged, unattractive advertising executive is girl-mad! And one of the recurring ‘jokes’ is about all the young attractive girls he beds who all want a job from him. So far, so HarveyWeinstein. Later Marty’s character has an affair with the family’s very attractive Scandanavian Au Pair (only in the 70s did well-off people have ‘Au Pairs’) Julie Ege and his wife (the excellent Judy Cornwell, see Adrienne Posta: The 70s ‘It’ Girl) takes it not quite as badly as most women would or should. It’s a film that today leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth, although that sounds like a comic line from the film.
The film did have an excellent cast of tried and tested British character actors like Judy Cornwell, Penelope Keith, Dinsdale Landen, Patrick Cargill and Michael Bates but the script lacked the sophistication, innovation and comic invention that Feldman and Took were synonymous with. One can’t help thinking that Marty saw this as his big chance to get to the next level and didn’t want to take any chances of being too clever for the British cinema audience weaned on Carry Ons and On The Buses. To be honest, Carry On Up The Jungle and Carry On Loving, released within the same year as EHSHO, were much funnier as they didn’t try to have intellectual pretensions. That said EHSHO was one of the most successful films of 1970 in the UK. There was no accounting for taste in the 70s and sweaty, revolting, unattractive old men being successful with young girls was the norm in British cinema and TV. It would be unfair to put all the blame on Marty for this execrable mess but he was about to make the connection with Hollywood he so badly desired through his next, and final, TV project.
Although rarely interviewed Marty had very strong opinions about many things and was very much on the left of the political spectrum. In 1971 he gave evidence for the defence in the Oz trial and caused gasps of surprise when he refused to swear on the bible to the utter disapproval of the judge who clearly hadn’t come across people who refused to tow the establishment line. Throughout the case Marty aimed jibes at the old fossil sitting on the bench, cementing his radical credentials. Around this time Marty’s growing public profile also made it into an iconic film of 1971. In Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (See ‘A Clockwork Orange’ post below) when Alex, played by Malcolm MacDowall, returns to his family home after a period in prison, his dad, played by Genxculture favourite Philip Stone, is reading a newspaper with the strange headline ‘Marty Feldman’s Wife Banned.’ Where this headline came from is anyone’s guess but it’s this type of bizarre trivia that make articles like this interesting. Although I would say that, wouldn’t I?
By this time America was beginning to take notice of Marty and his new vehicle, The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine was partly commissioned by the ABC network. There are different takes on how Marty had become known in the US. One suggestion was that At Last The 1948 Show had been reasonably successful there but more plausible, I feel, is that MASH writer and producer, Larry Gelbart, had been living in London at the time and had spotted Marty. It was his idea to get together with Lew Grade at ITV and ABC in the US and produce a more upmarket vehicle for Marty that could be shown in America as well as the UK. The result was Marty Feldman’s Comedy Machine which although only partially successful on both sides of the Atlantic, would be his calling card to Hollywood. The show itself was a curious concoction of American glitz and British comedy talent. Keen to appeal to both markets, a dizzying range of British and American talent was drafted in at considerable cost but although some of the American stars were household names in the US, some were virtually unknown in the UK and vice versa. Looking at it now it seems a strange brew with the great Beryl Reid on one hand and Orson Welles on the other, Round The Horne’sHugh Paddick in some shows and Roger Moore in another. It was hugely impressive to have featured Orson Welles and Groucho Marx though. And what would the Americans have made of Spike Milligan, who also wrote for the show? Terry Gilliam also did some Pythonesque animations which added an interesting element.
Another interesting guest was Godfrey Cambridge, a black actor and comedian little known in the UK. His most well known film role was in 1970’s The Watermelon Man about a white bigot who woke up one day and his skin had become black. Cambridge played both parts and, though rarely seen today, it had some very prescient points to make about black peoples’ experiences in the U.S. during the 60s. Like Marty, Cambridge, at the height of his success, died at the tragically young age of only 43 of a heart attack.
Producer and writer Larry Gelbart and Marty did not always see eye to eye (sorry Marty, no pun intended) and the production was often a little fraught. It took Marty away from the mainstream (or as mainstream as it was possible for him be) and this slightly more daring and certainly innovative comedy was not only an hour long but was also given a late night broadcast slot on ITV. Although reasonably successful in the UK it didn’t really take off in the US despite the high production values and glittering guest roster. But Marty had his eyes on the prize (sorry Marty..) of American recognition and it led to some very strange guest spots over the next few years.
Offers to appear on US comedy and chat shows started flooding in and Marty guested on The Dean Martin Show four times in 1970 and ’71. Then a long line of shows we didn’t get in the UK such Carol Burnett,Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, Mac Davis, Johnny Carson (4 times) and even Cher! It’s fair to say Marty was in demand. During the mid-seventies Marty also made a number of appearances on Hollywood Squares (Celebrity Squares to us) alongside the likes of the Lee ‘Catwoman’ Merriweather, Vincent Price, Kelly Monteith (whatever happened to him?) Lynne Redgrave and Dionne Warwick. My favourite of Marty’s guest appearances in the US was as the ‘mystery guest’ on ‘What’s My Line‘ which also featured strange bedfellows ex-President Jimmy Carter and screen legend Joan Fontaine. He even acted in a U.S. TV version of the classic 40s Hollywood screwball comedy ‘The Man Who Came To Dinner‘ playing the part originally played by the great Jimmy Durante, ‘Banjo.’ This I would love to see!
It was a far cry from Round The Horne with Kenny Williams and Betty Marsden. Marty had hit the big time! It wasn’t long before Mel Brooks with Young Frankenstein and Silent Movie would come calling and Marty would become part of the Hollywood establishment. But that’s another and not quite so interesting story.
To look back on Marty Feldman’s eye-popping (sorry…) but tragically curtailed career is to look back on the golden age of British comedy. As well as laying the foundations for the new breed of surrealist, iconoclastic comedy that was Monty Python, he was up there with Galton and Simpson, Spike Milligan, Clement and Le Fresnais and David Nobbs as one of the great writers of TV comedy. Although his latter career was patchy and sometimes lacked the cutting edge of his earlier work, he was still hugely successful, he did become a household name and he did become more than just ‘.. him with the eyes.’ And although few people under 50 will remember Marty, the legacy of his comedy lives on.
The unlikeliest of pop stars, their artistic tentacles stretched far and wide throughout the 60s and 70s cultural landscape
The popular culture of the 60s and 70s rarely, if ever, leaves me stuck for ideas for a new post. Ideas sometimes come in the most unpredictable of places, however. For example, while on a leg of the North Coast 500 of Bonny Scotland last week, just outside Durness on the far north-west corner to be precise, a short shuttle to the UK’s most northerly point, Cape Wrath, my lovely wife and I went into a cafe within an artisan craft community and at the counter were a pile of very expensive looking photography books. ‘Help yourself‘, said the assistant, ‘They’re free.’ So, of course, I did, not even the threat of a contribution from HRH Prince Charles on the book jacket was enough to put me off. The book was entitled, ‘Mike McCartney’s North Highlands.’ Now this struck a chord with me. Could this be the same Mike McCartney who was once Mike McGear, younger brother of Paul McCartney, lead singer and composer of 60s pop and comedy group The Scaffold and later GRIMMS? On further examination of the inside cover, it surely was! And this got me thinking whilst driving our camper van through the breathtaking scenery of that part of Scotland. There really was more to The Scaffold than just Lily The Pink. As far as 60s credentials go, few could compete with The Scaffold, whether you liked them or not. They appeared on everything from Top of The Pops to The Basil Brush Show to cutting edge satirical comedy and poetry shows to ads for insipid beer to public information films to gigs at the prestigious Talk of the Town in that London and even their own TV series! For a few years at the end of the 60s until the early 70s The Scaffold were everywhere.
The Scaffold were Mike McGear, who changed his name from McCartney to create a bit of artistic distance from his older brother Paul although it was the worst kept secret in showbiz, Roger McGough and John Gorman who all met in Liverpool in the early sixties. Rather than a pop group, were really a poetry/drama/comedy/musical act so beloved of the Edinburgh Fringe at the time and they appeared there many times before becoming well-known. They were originally called The Liverpool One Fat Lady Electric Show. ‘Two Fat Ladies‘ being the bingo call for the number 88, so as they lived in Liverpool 8 they became ‘One Fat Lady.’ But that wasn’t going to work long-term so they became The Scaffold after the classic French thriller starring Jeanne Moreau, Lift To The Scaffold. It’s often forgotten that it’s a rather grim name for such a fun group. So far, so bohemian, but that was about to change.
They were spotted at the Edinburgh Fringe and eventually signed for The Beatles‘ label Parlaphone Records and were even managed by Brian Epstein for a while. But it’s when they became famous that their story really begins…….
I remember quite well the first time I saw The Scaffold. Although I can’t be 100% certain, I’m pretty sure it was on an edition of that late 60s early Saturday evening floppy cheeseburger of ‘chat,’ Dee Time (much more on this strange beast to come). I’ve narrowed it down to November 4 1967 and they appeared singing their soon-to-be first hit, Thank U Very Much. It’s a song still remembered by anyone over the age of 50 due to the infectious nature of its chorus and has been used on all sorts of ads ever since. Must be nice in terms of royalty payments. Note the phonetic use of ‘U’ in the title, a few years before Slade’s deliberately poor spelling was even thought of. Clearly there was something a little different about this group.
They looked like the most unlikely of pop stars but the song rocketed to No. 4 in the hit parade and made them a household name (although few households have a scaffold in their living room, I’d imagine). Written by McGear, the line ‘Thank u very much for the Aintree Iron‘ continues to confound those trying to work out what this item actually is. McGear refuses to explain and many increasingly odd theories have been propounded. One bizarre suggestion was from someone who claimed to have heard McGear explain that it was a reference to Brian Epstein who lived in Aintree and he was a cockney rhyming slang ‘iron hoof.’ This sort of language was not unusual in the 60s, of course, and might have explained why McGear is so reticent to explain its meaning. But McGear refutes this theory completely as Epstein didn’t even live in Aintree and I believe him. I can’t help but think, though, it’s something rude or even defamatory hence McGear’s reticence to reveal its meaning. But the mystery rumbles on to this day and there’s nothing like a good mystery to keep the memory of a group alive.
Their follow-up Do You Remember, written by McGear and McGough, didn’t have the catchiness or singalong quality of Thank U Very Much and only reached No. 34 in the hit parade. Talking about remembering, I also do remember seeing them performing this in white tuxedos on the almost forgotten Roger Whittaker children’s TV show, replacing Crackerjack during the summer, Whistle Stop. I really wasn’t too impressed with this waxing although to listen to it now the lyrics were very different to Thank U Very Much and were very sixties and very Roger McGough to say the least. Nice!
Sun was high So was I Clouds were low Down below….
But their musical zenith was just around the corner and in November 1968 Lily The Pink was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. It roared to No. 1 all over Europe and Asia and spent 4 weeks in the top spot in the UK and a massive 25 weeks in the chart. I even had the single! Again, it was that singalong quality that made it so successful and as a song, everyone who lived through that era will remember it and be able to recite a couple of verses. Although they had a couple of minor hits over the next few years, it’s not just their chart successes that make them interesting, I feel. It was only after Lily The Pink that The Scaffold, in my view, became really interesting.
Between 1969 and 1973 The Scaffold were ubiquitous throughout popular culture. For example, they were regular guests on a range of TV variety shows, often sharing these shows with some strange bedfellows.
I’ve already mentioned The Scaffold’s possible first ever TV appearance on the 4 November 1967 edition of Dee Time but their appearance on the same show a year and a half later happened to be the day before the Apollo moon landing astronauts returned to Earth. This would explain TV astronomer Patrick Moore’s appearance on the show but not legendary British actor Wilfrid Hyde-Whyte. Whether The Scaffold performed a song is unknown but they were up against the variety might of Genxculture favourite Clodagh Rodgers and one-hit-wonders Zager and Evans who were on their way to the No.1 spot with ‘In The Year 2525.’ A suitably space-age song for a suitably space-age edition of Dee Time. The weird juxtaposition of guests on Dee Time was a regular aspect of the programme and Genxculture will be returning to this strange variety melange very soon.
As well as Crackerjack and Whistle Stop their TV appearances were regular and they performed on many wide and varied TV series of the 60 s and 70s including Top of The Pops (obviously), Ready Steady Go, The Golden Shot, The Basil Brush Show (excellent!), Doddy’s Music Box (Excellent!) and the 60s alternative to TOTP pop show All Systems Freeman with Fluff Freeman.
In early 1968 The Scaffold were the resident musical act in all five episodes of a virtually forgotten satirical late night (or at least late in those days) Saturday show entitled ‘At The Eleventh Hour.’ Billed by the Radio Times as ‘An end of the week look at the world or an end of the world look at the week.’ It was similar in content to That Was The Week That Was‘ and, from the little I remember of it, it was a slightly more demanding watch. Roger McGough also appeared as ‘himself’ reading his poetry. As well as The Scaffold it starred a young Miriam Margolyes and Oz magazine’s Richard Neville. 60s radical or what? The show also featured a Ray Davies of The Kinks penned current affairs song every week. He is quoted as saying that it was one of the most enjoyable jobs he ever had as he was given the topic for the song on Thursday, wrote it on Friday and it was recorded by the show’s singer, Jeanie Lambe, on Saturday and he received £25 per song. Lot of money in those days! Sadly, most of the songs are lost and most of the programmes have been inevitably wiped although it’s said two episodes are still intact in the BBC archives. I have a vivid recollection of Roger McGough reciting a poem entitled ‘At The Eleventh Hour‘ at the end of one of the shows. Pretty audacious TV even in 1968. Interestingly, on a BBC viewers’ feedback programme of the time called Talkback, hosted by, of all people, the legendary sports commentator David Coleman, At The Eleventh Hour was accused of being blasphemous! Sounds great but it was the sixties and fifties attitudes were still fairly prevalent.
They recorded the theme song to a curious film starring Warren Mitchell called All The WayUp in 1970. The story of a ultra-ambitious business man and zealous social climber featured an excellent cast included Richard Briars, Kenneth Cranham and, Genxculture favourite, Adrienne Posta. Recently shown on the always excellent Talking Pictures TV, it was a waste of everyone’s talent including The Scaffold’s. But a film soundtrack allowed them to tick off yet another genre.
In 1971 they were given their own BBC children’s TV series, Score With The Scaffold. This allowed their anarchic side to emerge more fully and this was hugely popular with kids. But, you’ve guessed it, no episodes of this show still exist and I have only a few memories it. The main one being the theme tune which was a version of their single 2 Days Monday from 1966 and the chorus, ‘Is everybody happy? You bet your life we are…‘ Rather chillingly, a guest on the final show of the second series was friend of The Royals and various politicians, Jimmy Savile….
In early 1971, as a precursor to decimalisation, The Scaffold were asked to write and record five short songs to help people get their heads around this fundamental societal change. The 5-minute programmes entitled ‘Decimal Five‘ went out straight after Nationwide each weeknight. The establishment tones of newsreader Robert Dougall explained how the new monetary system would work and The Scaffold sang the short ditties as aide-memoires. It’s strange that so many people still remember these one-line songs. The ones I remember were ‘Use your old coppers in sixpenny lots, meaning old pennies could only be used in multiples of six after Decimalisation Day on February 15 1971. Also One pound is a hundred new pennies, which might seem like stating the bleeding obvious now but was quite a quantum leap in thinking for people then. Even Max Bygraves released a decimalisation single!
Not content with one Public Information Film they were also asked to do another about the more prosaic subject of turning right safely whilst driving. The refrain ‘Nice and easy gets you there‘ became a very seventies grim juxtaposition between two young people dying horribly in a car crash and the alternative scenario of the young man being successful in his sexual conquest. And it was all down to being able to turn right safely.
But as well as PIFs The Scaffold were also happy to make a fast buck from a bit of TV advertising. And who could blame them! To the tune of Lily The Pink they advertised Watney’s Pale Ale in their trademark white tuxedos in 1969, changing the lyrics of their blockbuster hit slightly. Inevitable, I suppose and I hope they got paid a packet. And it does look quite strange now to see famous people drinking alcohol in adverts.
When Carla Lane wrote the long running series Liverpool-set comedy series The Liver Birds it made sense to have a Liverpool group do the theme tune. And who were the Liverpool group of the moment in 1969? Why, The Scaffold of course and their self-penned theme is still strongly identified with that long running series.
The Scaffold’s association with The Beatles didn’t end with Mike McGear either. Mike was one of the individuals taken along on the legendary The Magical Mystery Tour (See posting below) and it was McGear who recommended The Bonzo Dog Doodah Band to Paul when he was looking for an act to perform in the strip club scene of the film. The Scaffold had worked with The Bonzos before and worked with them again after they‘split up’ in the early 70s as GRIMMS. Roger McGough even wrote the bulk of the dialogue for Yellow Submarine but, for some reason, was uncredited. Now if that’s not interesting, I don’t know what is! However, he is reported to have received £500 for his contribution, a pretty tidy amount in the 60s but I still think I’d have liked a credit. The Scaffold also sang backing vocals on various Beatles‘ albums, often uncredited.
The Scaffold never really split up properly, they just became involved in their own particular interests. Roger McGough worked with The Mersey Sound poets Adrien Henry and Brian Patten, became a prolific and hugely successful writer of poetry, eventually began presenting Poetry Please on BBCRadio 4 (which he still does) and is now President of The Poetry Society. John Gorman appeared in a number of 70s films such as Up The Chastity Belt with Frankie Howerd, Alan Parker’s excellent ‘Melody‘ and Terry Gilliam’s ‘Jabberwocky.’ He eventually joined the cast of Tiswas, went on to write and appear in the adult version OTT and continued to write scripts for Chris Tarrant. Mike McGear (now McCartney again) had a relatively successful solo career, formed GRIMMS with the great Viv Stanshall and the sadly recently departed Neil Innes and later devoted his time to photography.
All have reformed at various times to perform as The Scaffold and all are happily still very much with us.
They may not have looked or even sounded like pop stars but what an amazing and hugely enjoyable cultural trip they had.
Few TV series reflect the weirdness of the sixties quite like The Avengers and it still stands the test of time, in fact it has benefitted from it.
The Avengers, for me, is the second most brilliant TV programme of the 60s (and probably the 70s). So why has it taken Genxculture so long to write about this fantastic series? Really, because it’s such a difficult, complex and unique series to unpack and with so much to write about, it’s a mammoth task. Where to start?
But with the incredibly sad passing of the wonderful Diana Rigg recently it seemed the right time to celebrate a show that was quirky, unique, funny, clever, sometimes violent, usually weird and always utterly engaging. As sixties attitudes go, it had it in bucketloads.
The Avengers ran from 1961 to 1969, or until 1977 if you count the awful New Avengers (which we won’t be doing there…). But for real Avengers’ aficionados the classic period was from series 4 in 1965 to series 6 in 1969. The previous version (Series 1-3), although influential in many ways, was just a crime/ espionage thriller and lacked the quirkiness, the humour, the atmosphere, narrative creativity and utter weirdness of the subsequent series 4-6. It did introduce John Steed played by Patrick MacNee, of course, who was a much more serious, mainstream sort of character and it also introduced the legendary proto-feminist Cathy Gale, played by also recently sadly departed Honor Blackman. What’s important about this character is that she was the first female character on TV to be not only intelligent, she was an anthropologist, and dressed in leather boots and catsuits, she could also look after herself in a physical fight with men. She eventually left the series in 1964 to take the role of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger but her influence endured and many of her facets were adopted by the wonderful Diana Rigg when she took over as Steed’s partner in 1965 for series 4. An indication of the programme’s popularity and of Blackman’s was that both she and Patrick MacNee released a single entitled Kinky Boots, originally created for an item on That Was The Week That Was by Ned Sherrin. Although not a hit, it was played regularly and was well known at the time.
By the time the producers and creators, Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell got around to recruiting a young up and coming actress, Diana Rigg, to replace Blackman, they had decided to take The Avengers in a very different direction and one that would write the series into TV history. The conventional narratives of series 1-3 were laid to rest, the flirtatious, innuendo filled exchanges between Steed and Emma, and later Tara, the eccentric nature of characters and plots, the flamboyant sixties sets and iconography and the often uneasy but fascinating juxtaposition of violence and comedy took centre stage.
It has to be remembered that 1965 was a time of monumental change in British society. Young people were beginning to question the supposed cherished ideals of the 50s. It was a time when literature, theatre and the cinema were experimenting with unconventional narratives. A time of Pinter, the French Nouvelle Vague and Godard, Italian post-neo realism and Antonioni, The Beatles were starting to pull back the boundaries of music, Stockhausen was throwing out the classical music rule books, post-modernism was all around and was manifested in the literature of Burroughs and Malamud and the pop art of Warhol, Hockney and Liechtenstein while Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Dick Lester were making a type of film we’d never seen before. TV and film could now take chances, it didn’t all have to be believable or realistic. In fact, the less realistic the better as the 50s had been a decade of stultifying realism. And into this dizzying cultural milieu emerged a series that embraced and nodded to many of these game-changers. The Avengers!
The first stage in the creation of this newly and vastly improved series was the introduction of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. Although not the first choice for the role she took to it like a hog to persimmons and her on-screen chemistry with Patrick MacNee was clear from Episode 1 of series 4. Producer Brian Clemens had decided the series needed a female protagonist similar to Blackman but with extra ‘m(an)-appeal’ and Emma Peel was born. Diana Rigg appeared in 51 episodes of The Avengers beginning in September 1965 with The Town of No Return and finishing almost exactly three years later with The Forget-Me-Knot in September 1968, which also introduced her successor Linda Thorson as Tara King. Rigg went on to become a Bond girl, like Honor Blackman, in one of the best Bond’s ever, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and then became an acclaimed stage, film and TV actress until her very sad death in 2020.
Linda Thorson never really filled the Rigg leather catsuit and lacked the confidence, wit, intelligence and athleticism of Emma Peel but she did appear in some classic Avengers’ episodes. How she got the part has always been a little mysterious. It’s alleged the short-lived producer of series 6, John Brice, was having a relationship with her at the time they were scouting around for Rigg’s replacement. With little acting experience she was always going to be a stretch but she did become synonymous with the classic Avengers and was certainly in better episodes than any of the awful New Avengers.
It was one of the first British series to be sold and aired on prime-time US television, ABC paying £2 million for the first 26 episodes of the MacNee / Rigg era. This allowed the producers to use outdoor locations and employ casts of leading actors as well as expensive indoor sets and impressive special effects. It also meant that in 1966 series 5 would be filmed in colour. Although this didn’t affect the UK market as colour broadcasting was still some way off, it appealed to the more technically sophisticated American market. And it was this American popularity that pushed the writers into creating stories that were quintessentially English, not British, although most Americans probably thought English was British as many still do. So Steed’s bowler hat, umbrella, vintage car and impeccable manners became a vital part of The Avengers’ USP. Many stories also pushed this anglocentric narrative but often in a hugely ironic way that British viewers would have noticed and enjoyed but most Americans would probably have missed but certainly have appreciated in a different way. Steed’s image was so important to the marketing of the series to other countries that often their titles reflected it. In Germany, for example, The Avengers was known as Mit Schirm, Charme and Melone or ‘With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler Hat‘ or in France Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir (Bowler Hat and Leather Boots which sounds like a 60s soft-porn film). Not exactly giving the casual viewer much inkling as to what this series might be about.
Watching The Avengers today really reveals what an exceptional series it was. The acting of Patrick MacNee, at the time, seemed casual almost as if he wasn’t really trying but on further analysis it was quite superb. As well as having to play other characters as in ‘Who’s Who‘ (S5,E16) and ‘They Keep Killing Steed‘(S6,E12) he also played other people when working undercover. The effortless chemistry between Steed and Emma is a shining example of two-handed acting at its best and because you hardly even notice it, it makes it even more impressive. When Linda Thorson arrived there was still chemistry but the dynamic had changed. They were still partners, probably even romantic partners, but it was not, like Steed and Emma, an equal partnership. Tara was very much the junior, more subservient partner. She did not have the confidence, the wit, the physical presence or the acting ability of Rigg. But, after a while, she settled into the role. The Avengers was never quite the same but it still retained that surrealistic, strange, distinctive atmosphere. And with some of the Tara episodes, even more so.
So what was it about The Avengers that made it so unique? Well…
The openings: Although the opening credits changed occasionally the opening ‘teaser’ sequence was always designed to get the viewer interested, intrigued and usually puzzled straight away. The sequence normally began in a straightforward way with conventional characters in a conventional settingbut the pay off would be of a bizarre, strange or ludicrous nature. For example, in The £50,000 Pound Breakfast (S5,E19) a man driving a car is having a conversation with an unseen passenger, who sounds like a child, about driving to Switzerland. Suddenly he is involved in a crash which renders him unconscious. As bystanders drag him out of the car the door of the passenger seat is opened and a ventriloquist’s dummy tumbles out. In The Town Of No Return (S4,E1) a fisherman on the beach is mending his nets. Suddenly an object that looks like a bubble emerges from the sea. The bubble begins to unzip revealing a city gent in a bowler hat and umbrella who walks up the beach, nodding to the fisherman who carries on unsurprised by what just happened, In The Murder Market (S4,E7) a middle-aged man and woman meet up on a blind date and after some brief pleasantries the woman pulls out a gun from her handbag and shoots the man, In The Correct Way To Kill (S5,E9) a foreign agent lurks at night in the foggy back alleys of some British town. He is approached by two city gents in bowler hats and umbrellas who greet him before producing guns with silencers and shoot the foreign agent dead. In Murdersville (S5,E23), two country-types sit outside a pub in a picturesque English village drinking beer and chatting about the weather, suddenly a man emerges from the doorway of the pub pursued by another who shoots him dead. The yokels carry on chatting as if nothing has happened. In Death’s Door (S5,E18) a British diplomat is driven in a limousine to a conference but when he approaches the entrance to the building he suddenly panics and refuses to cross the threshold fearing for his life.
For the start of Series 6 we also had an idiosyncratic opening straight after this ‘teaser’ sequence where Emma would be involved in some activity like painting or decorating or watching TV when she would notice a message appearing in the most unexpected way saying ‘Mrs Peel, we’re needed!’ And Steed would appear. This opening was scrapped after about 15 episodes to save money, for some reason.
My particular favourite ‘teaser’ to an episode, however, is The Girl From Auntie (S4,E17). It’s an early sunny morning and we’re outside the entrance of what seems like a huge house near a river. Emma suddenly emerges in her finery with balloons having been attending a very big all-night party (this was the sixties after all!) and moves towards her car. Another female party-goer comes out followed by a male in a tuxedo wearing a pig’s head mask. They embrace and drive off leaving Emma watching them. Suddenly, on the road, an old lady dressed in black on a bicycle approaches and falls off. Emma runs across to help but the old lady produces some knitting needles from the bicycle’s basket and stabs Emma who collapses unconscious. And if that doesn’t get an audience interested I don’t know what will.
The stories: The original three series of The Avengers with MacNee and Blackman used a fairly conventional crime/ espionage narrative. From series 4, however, convention went out the window. Stories often belonged to the science fiction genre, they were fantastical, technological, macabre, mysterious and usually downright weird. They weren’t meant to be believable, there was plenty of that on telly already, but The Avengers wanted their viewers to be transported for an hour to forget about verisimilitude or realism and exist in Avengerland for a while. Who cares if Emma or Steed are transported back in time, or reduced to 6 inches in size, or that the population of a military aerodrome suddenly disappears, or that a quaint English village becomes populated with murderous assassins, or that a terrifying comic strip character comes to life to kill its enemies, or that two music hall comedians go on a psychotic killing rampage, or that they are pursued by an invisible killer or that their lives are threatened by psychopathic robots? I could, of course, go on but this gives only a taste of the some of the quirkier plots which all seemed completely normal when watching The Avengers.
Narrative techniques: The relatively generous budget enjoyed by The Avengers production allowed a dizzying range of techniques to be used. Moving camera, unusual camera angles, highly coloured sets (in Series 5 and 6), expensive props, flamboyant costumes, expansive location filming, dream sequences and special effects (for the time) were all used liberally to enhance the strangest of plots.
Sixties iconography: The Avengers wore its swinging sixties credentials on its designer sleeves. Apart from Emma and Steed’s ultra-fashionable gear, the pop art backdrops, abstract narrative concepts and postmodern textual references were all over the series like a rash. Have a look at the dream-like hypnotism sequences in ‘Something Nasty in The Nursery‘ (S5, Ep 14), or the flamboyant set of The Superlative Seven (S5,E12), a spoof on The Magnificent Seven, (S5, Ep 12) or some of the imagery in ‘The Hour That Never Was,‘ (S4 Ep 9) or the weird opening sequence of The Girl From Auntie, mentioned above, a reference to popular US series The Girl From Uncle (S4, Ep 14) or the pop art sets in ‘Game‘(S6, Ep2), or The Winged Avenger (S5,E6). It’s all there in spade loads.
Eccentric guest characters: Between 1965 and 1969 The Avengers featured an A-Z of great British (and occasionally American) character actors. Name a well-known character actor from the 60s and he or she will almost certainly have appeared in The Avengers, often on more than one occasion. Usually this actor will have played a wonderfully observed British eccentric and eccentricity ran through The Avengers like the writing through Blackpool Rock. Examples, in no particular order, included:
Bernard Cribbins: Plays Arkwright, a knitting instructor (geddit?) who conducts his lessons like a sequence dance in The Girl From Auntie (S4, E17) and then a brilliant turn in Look, (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One), But There Was These Two Fellers.. (S6, E11) as Bradley Marler, a joke writer who is almost engulfed by the discarded jokes surrounding his desk. It’s a bit like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. Which it does. Also appearing in this episode was a young John Cleese as Marcus Rugman, a crotchety civil servant whose job it is to keep the archives of each individual clown’s face makeup painted meticulously on eggs. That story writes itself…
Roy Kinnear: Great comic character actor was perfect for the sort of roles required in The Avengers. He appeared in three Avengers episodes (four if you include an early Cathy Gale Avengers outing), and was in the very last classic Avengers episode Bizarre (S6 Ep33) as Bagpipes Happychap (they were trying just a bit too hard by this time) as a jolly undertaker. He also played an Avengers’ favourite in The See-Through Man (S5, Ep4), a nutty scientist experimenting with explosives. This story also wrote itself.
Ronnie Barker: He had to appear at some point in The Avengers and it just happened to be a quintessentially brilliant, but quite violent, episode, The Hidden Tiger (S5, E8). He plays the nutty plus-foured Mr Cheshire, the manager of PURRR, (Philanthropic Union for the Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats). A wonderfully daft and visually striking episode.
Warren Mitchell: The early classic Avengers was still ostensibly about espionage and Warren Mitchell turned up twice as the same character, an inept and reluctant Russian spy, Brodny, who enjoyed the comforts of the West a little too much, who Steed played like balalaika. He is the only guest character to appear twice, in Two’s A Crowd (S4, E12) and The See-Through Man (S5, E4).
Four legendary Dad’s Army actors appeared in classic The Avengers episodes:
Arthur Lowe: A racing nut with a Brand’s Hatch simulator In Dead Man’s Treasure (S6, E16)
Clive Dunn: As an eccentric toy shop owner who manufactures toys for the aristocracy in Something Nasty In The Nursery (S5, E14)
John Laurie: As a slightly unhinged railway enthusiast in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Station (S5, E13). He also appeared in Tara King episode Pandora (S6, E31) as well as two Cathy Gale episodes.
John Le Mesurier: As a dodgy gun-toting butler in What The Butler Saw (S4, E22).
Peter Wyngarde: TV sex-bomb Wyngarde appeared in two classic Avengers episodes including the most notorious ever, A Touch of Brimstone (S4, E21) which recreated The Hellfire Club and had Emma dressed in all sorts of bondage gear! Very daring even for the 60s. So much so that ABC in America pulled this episode as all their bible belt Christian fundamentalists would have probably enjoyed this episode a little too much. Wyngarde also camped it up in Epic (S5, E11) where he plays an ageing Hollywood actor who, along with another actor and director, essentially are filming a snuff movie with Emma as the star/ victim.
Jeremy Lloyd: Are You Being Served writer and once Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In cast member appeared as an upper class chimney sweep (what was he in when he wasn’t ‘upper-class’?) in From Venus With Love (S5,E1), the first full colour episode of The Avengers and then in the later Thingamajig (S6, E26) as a vicar friend of Steed’s.
Violence: It was decided at the start of Series 4 that Avengerland would not feature the police, as the cases Steed and Emma were called to were of a nature that excluded the police. The police being called, apart from getting in the way of Steed and Emma/Tara’s investigation, would have added too much of an everyday realism to the show, something that was anathema to Avengerland. It was also decided that there would be no blood in any of the murders, killings and assassinations featured throughout the series. Although other characters used guns, it was rare for for Steed or Emma to wild them. This, of course, added to the comic strip violence which often concluded many episodes but that’s not to say the series wasn’t violent. Much of the death in The Avengers was very violent, so much so that for the afternoon re-runs on ITV 4 some years ago, some supposedly violent scenes were edited out and the ABC network in the US during the 60s scheduled the programme at 10.00pm due to this.
Episodes: Between the start of Series 4 in 1965 and the final episode of Series 6 in 1969 for anyone unfamiliar with The Avengers I would, quite literally, recommend any episode should one want to experience just a taste of what The Avengers was all about. Every episode involved the classic elements that made the series so unique. But if I was pressed to come up with what I believe were the most memorable and the ones that included every wonderfully surreal component in bucketloads (in no particular order) I would suggest…..
Death At Bargain Prices (S4, E4)
After an agent is killed in a large London department store Emma and Steed are sent to investigate. The surrealism the director and writers manage to squeeze out of this location is impressive and the ending is genuinely weird! Some superb use of outsize cartoon characters.
The Murder Market (S4, E7)
Some things never change and computer dating is explored here although of a slightly less technological type than now. Steed and Emma investigate some bafflingly motiveless murders linked to Togetherness Inc. dating agency. MacNee is superb in this episode and the opening sequence is wonderfully surprising.
The Hour That Never Was (S4, E9)
One of my top five Avengers episodes of all time. Emma accompanies Steed to a military reunion at an airfield in the English countryside. On their arrival they find it deserted but with some tantalising signs of life. An abandoned bicycle with its wheel still revolving, a mysterious milk float always being mysteriously driven just out of reach, the officers’ mess set for the celebration. A wonderfully surreal episode with some quite existential images of isolation and alienation.
Too Many Christmas Trees (S4, E13)
Worth watching for Steed’s brilliantly creepy opening dream sequence, the brooding supernatural atmosphere and the final fight scene in a hall of mirrors.
The Girl From Auntie (S4, E17)
Another of my personal favourites and a nod to their US market through their humorous reference to the popular Girl From Uncle TV series (More on this later). I’ve already mentioned the fantastically surreal, quintessentially sixties opening sequence. With a superbly eccentric turn from the great Bernard Cribbins as a terpsichorean knitting instructor to the high body count and Emma being kidnapped and held in a gilded cage, replaced for the episode by ubiquitous 60s actress Liz Fraser, it’s a complete joy but, as with so many Avengers plots, don’t think through the ending too much.
The House That Jack Built (S4, E23)
An Avengers all-time top three episode for me. Truly terrifying, existential and brilliantly constructed by creator and regular writer Brian Clemens. Emma is lured to an isolated country house and is trapped in a murderous web of psychological terror. I actually remember watching this episode when it was initially broadcast on 5 March 1966 and it had a profound effect on me then. Genuinely disturbing and absolutely engrossing. A tour de force.
Escape In Time(S5, E3)
Who would have thought The Avengers would get involved in time travel? Well, me for one as nothing surprises me about Steed and Emma’s adventures. A terrific turn by Peter Bowles as the psychopathic Matthew Thyssen and a superbly weird, almost silent, scene in an Avengerland thoroughfare called Mackidockie Street (which crops up in another Avengers episode) as they investigate some world criminals disappearing, seemingly into thin air.
The Winged Avenger (S5, E6)
Another classic which is not only frightening but superbly written. With some pop art references to wonderful mega-US series Batman (more on this later), Steed and Mrs Peel investigate the brutal deaths of some businessmen from the publishing industry. The men appear to have been torn to ribbons by powerful claws (although no blood is in evidence, obviously) and the trail leads to the writers of a super hero comic strip. Another episode I remember watching on its first broadcast on 18 February 1967 and found it terrifying, particularly the opening sequence. An Avengers’ triumph in every way.
Something Nasty In The Nursery (S5, E14)
A group of men involved in government secrets find themselves regressing to childhood and sitting in their nurseries with a bouncing ball, and an unseen nanny lurks in the background. This leads Steed and Emma to a school for training nannies and the strangeness just develops from here. With guest stars including Clive Dunn and Yootha Joyce, the regressive sequences are beautifully psychedelic and strange.
Look-(stop me if you’ve heard this one before) But There Were These Two Fellers… (S6, E10)
Although this is the only Tara King episode I’ve included, its a cracker! At the beginning of filming what turned out to be the final series of the classic Avengers, writer Dennis Spooner revealed that they knew it was going to be the last series. ABC had scheduled the previous series up against the hugely successful Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In and The Avengers just couldn’t compete. Because they knew it was final series writers and directors knew they could pretty much do what they wanted to do for the last 32 episodes and that’s exactly what they did. Plots got even weirder, characters even more eccentric, and plots even more unbelievable (if that was possible). Sometimes this laissez faire approach worked and sometimes it didn’t. For me, this episode summed up the wonderfully overblown surrealism of the series and although it’s the episode that splits Avengers’ fans, there is so much to admire in it. There’s far too much going on it to describe here but it involves two music hall clowns (Jimmy Jewell and a silent Julian Chagrin) bumping off a number of people involved in the building industry. It’s extremely funny (particularly the scenes in the Vauda Villa, a rest home for underused variety artists), colourful, bizarre, includes terrific guest star turns from Bernard Cribbins, John Cleese and, as mentioned, Jimmy Jewell and is often quite disturbing. Even more so for anyone suffering from coulrophobia. In a word: sensational! But not for everyone…..
So where did it all go wrong? Well it didn’t really, but because of the incredible standard of the series 4 and 5, series 6 just seemed a bit predictable and pedestrian at times. It didn’t help that Linda Thorson was no Diana Rigg but some episodes just seemed to be constructed of gratuitous Avengerisms. Some episodes, though, were still excellent such as The Interrogators with Christopher Lee (S6,E13), Wish You were Here (a homage to The Prisoner, more on that to come…) (S6,E19), Take Me To Your Leader (S6,E21) and My Wildest Dream (S6,E31). It was far from being bad, it just wasn’t as good or creative as many of the earlier episodes.
The introduction of ‘Mother‘ (Patrick Newell) and his non-speaking assistant Rhonda, Steed and Tara’s boss, didn’t help. Including another regular character took it further away from Avengerland I felt, and although some of Steed’s meetings with Mother were characteristically strange (on the top of a London bus, down a manhole, in a swimming pool) it added too much of a comedy element. There was always comedy in The Avengers but Mother tipped the scales in the wrong direction slightly.
But to quibble about the final series is a bit like complaining about the quality of different brands of champagne (an appropriate analogy for The Avengers). It pulled back the boundaries of what TV thrillers could be, in fact what TV could be, and few programmes have lived up to its audacious, anarchic, creative and surreal mood. Although over 50 years old, it still seems as fresh and daring now as it did then.
But, should you decide to dip in to this visual rollercoaster of 60s genius, don’t think too much about the destination, just enjoy the ride.
And after all that, what is the greatest TV programme of the 60s? Well, The Prisoner. Obviously.
Or is it…..?
Find everything you’ll ever need to know about this TV classic at the superb www.theavengerstv.com
He may have been largely forgotten but his music is remembered by everyone
It continually surprises me just how connected the showbiz world of the 60s and 70s was. So many of the posts below seem to feature the same people in the most bizarre of circumstances. And it isn’t, by any means, only Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, but even he has another walk-on part in the story of the man who composed the soundtrack for 60s and 70s Britain.
No one under the age of 40 will know who Tony Hatch is. Few people over the age of 40 will remember him. But everyone will know his music as it has been omnipresent within our popular culture for over 60 years. Still very much with us, Tony Hatch should be remembered as penning hit records, film scores, advertising jingles and of course, TV themes. He was even the very first nasty talent show judge. Tony Hatch, we salute you!
Starting out as a tea boy with a London music company at 16, he subsequently joined Top Rank Records and was producing acts as diverse as Bert Weedon (‘We are normal, we dig Bert Weedon‘), Adam Faith and Carry On’s Kenneth Connor. Before long he was writing songs and this where the legend that is Tony Hatch really began.
Writing under the pseudonym Mark Anthony,Hatch wrote ‘Messing About On The River’, a hit for Scottish singer Josh McCrae. At this time he was also writing and producing for the Pye label’s American roster which included Chubby Checker,Connie Francis, Pat Boone and Big Dee Irwin. During the early 60s when The Beatles and the Liverpool Explosion were dominating popular culture, on his first trip to Liverpool he discovered a band called The Searchers, who were named after the classic John Ford western, and wrote Sugar and Spice for them, giving the group their first huge number one hit.
As a producer at Pye he worked with some of the greats and not so greats of the 60s music industry. Some of his more interesting collaborations included Benny Hill (great), Bruce Forsyth, Norman Vaughan (not so great), French crooner (and brilliant jazz guitarist) Sacha Distel and the bafflingly successful Craig Douglas (see The Lost World of TV Ventriloquists).
He also worked with The Overlanders, who reached Number One in 1967 with a cover version of The Beatles ‘Michelle‘. They were one of the few bands to cover a Lennon/ McCartney song which The Beatles hadn’t released as a single themselves, at least not in the UK. This song won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year ahead of such easy listening classics as The Impossible Dream, Born Free, Somewhere My Love and Strangers In The Night.
Hatch, with his writing partner of the time, soon to be his wife, Jackie Trent also composed ‘Joanna‘ for the great Scott Walker. Achieving a chart high if No. 7 it helped re-launch Walker’s career after he split from The Walker Brothers, who, of course, weren’t brothers. This was a time when serious artists like Scott Walker might collaborate with easy-listening supremos like Hatch but he would also sing Jacques Brel as well as his own compositions. In fact, it’s a measure of the weirdness of 60s and 70s variety that Walker would perform Brel’s ‘Jackie‘ on The Frankie Howerd Show in 1967, or Jimi Hendrix would perform Purple Haze on It’s Lulu or Dizzy Gillespie would perform Be-Bop jazz on The Golden Shot, all in the early 70s. Strange days.
But it was his collaborations with Petula Clark in the mid-late 60s which really made his name. ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway,’ ‘The Other Man’s Grass,’ ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love‘ and the all-time classic ‘Downtown‘ were all huge hits. Many written with Jackie Trent, it was a hugely successful period for Hatch.
If any song is to be associated with Tony Hatch it would have to be Downtown. As a song it still sounds fresh and immediate today, evoking the atmosphere and excitement of a busy metropolis. The song, not surprisingly, was written while Hatch was in New York and the title certainly suggests a busy American city, the word ‘downtown’ not really being common in the UK, which only added to its uniqueness. He supposedly wrote it with The Drifters and Ben E. King in mind and one can see that collaboration really working, even though Hatch denied ever offering it to them. But Petula Clark made it, pretty much, her theme song and it has been covered by over 150 other artists including Frank Sinatra. It was only stopped getting to number one in the Hit Parade by The Beatles at their popular zenith with ‘I Feel Fine‘ which sold a gargantuan 1.42 million copies and is the fourth highest selling Beatles‘ single. Interestingly, playing guitar on the Downtown recording session was a young session musician called Jimmy Paige.
But as well as his huge successes with Petula Clark, Hatch also had a fairly lucrative and still hugely memorable sideline in writing TV themes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the UK during the 60s and 70s remembers Tony Hatch theme tunes. Many of which are still synonymous with the programme they were written for, and many of his themes are remembered long after the programme has been forgotten. And it this element of his work which, for me, raises him to legendary status.
I have written previously in this little blog space of how certain TV programmes of the 60s and 70s were more popular than they deserved to be at the time and endured, mainly due to a killer theme tune. Van Der Valk would never have been as successful, I feel, without the brilliant Eye Level by The Simon Park Orchestra or the wonderfully expansive theme for The High Chaparral which provided such up-market packaging for a fairly humdrum 70s western series. Some of Hatch’s themes did this for many 60s and 70s series.
It’s nearly 60 years (yikes!) since Crossroads hit our screens and for many of a certain age (i.e. me) it is still a memorably bad but much missed series. If a straw poll was taken of people who are aware of Tony Hatch and his work, and there are many, this, I feel, would be the piece of music he will always be associated with, whether he likes it or not. I wouldn’t imagine he’d be too happy about this given the scale, quantity and quality of his output over the years but, as Harry Worth would say, there it is. This does not diminish his achievements in any way but everyone is remembered for something. I have written about the amazing Crossroads and its iconic theme elsewhere in this little blog space (See Standing At The Crossroads of (TV) History) so won’t dwell on it too long, but this is the theme of themes. Memorable, catchy, melodic, unusual (in it’s use of the oboe and harp) and absolutely totemic. It was even re-worked by Paul McCartney on his Venus and Mars album and this version was eventually used occasionally for particularly sensitive conclusions to episodes (and there were plenty of those!). Thematic genius and, I’m sure, a nice little earner for Tone.
And he repeated it again in 1972 for Emmerdale Farm (it’ll always be Emmerdale Farm to me), still played every weekday night to this day and, of course, Neighbours in 1985, composed with his then-wife Jackie Trent, which isn’t played every night anymore, but anyone from that era could still sing the opening few lines, even if they didn’t watch the programme.
And there was, of course, The Champions. Now, I loved The Champions. At the time. Having watched a few episodes recently I couldn’t help but feel the premise of some secret agents having super powers endowed after a plane crash in the Himalayas was silly, not to say repetitive, and the plots formulaic. You waited for most of the one hour episode until the moment when they used their super powers. The rest was pretty humdrum. Despite being very popular it, surprisingly, only lasted two series and 30 episodes between 1968 and 1969. I always thought Alexandra Bastedo (Sharon MacReadie), a great favourite of adolescent boys, was a bit mealy-mouthed and too sweet to be wholesome and William Gaunt (Richard Barrett) a touch miscast as he looked and behaved a little like an Assistant Manager in a Building Society. But that’s just me in my boring maturity. However, humming Hatch’s theme in my head still gives me a feeling of excitement and anticipation like it did then when The Champions was broadcast all those years ago. For an 8 or 9 year old this was a big weekly event. Bizarrely, and we do like bizarre things at Genxculture, in 2007 Guillermo Del Toro was reported to be writing and producing a screenplay for a big screen adaptation of The Champions. Sadly, to date, nothing has come of it but that would have been interesting. Very interesting.
In those 60s and 70s days when football was severely rationed, and all the better for it, we were sometimes thrown some crumbs of football highlights on a Wednesday night along with the odd boxing match, although I can’t really remember any other sports being broadcast, on Sportsnight With Coleman presented by the legendary David Coleman. Tony Hatch’s theme tune caught the excitement of the cut and thrust of competitive sport perfectly as the floodlights in the opening credits blazed brightly over the sporting arena. Like so many of his other themes, anyone of a certain age will remember this from the first couple of bars with the anticipation of being able to watch some grainy monochrome floodlit football footage on a Wednesday night a real treat. As Tony himself once said, “With an action show, you need an action theme.‘ and he gave us that here in spade loads.
He also composed the theme to long-running BBC 2 sociological documentary series Man Alive. Few will remember the programme but everyone will be familiar with the theme music. Other memorable series in which Hatch contributed the theme included suave Gerald Harper upper-crust vehicle Hadleigh and proto-type Holby City teatime daily serial from the late 60s, The Doctors.
Of course, no one’s perfect and he was responsible, again with Jackie Trent, for the awful Mr and Mrs theme. An awful theme for an awful programme. Hosted by ‘Mr Border TV’ Derek Batey, it permeated the myth that all married couples were deliriously happy and knew everything about one another. ‘And does he have any filthy disgusting habits that really irritate you?’ Derek would giggle as her husband was led to the soundproof box. My favourite question on Mr and Mrs was when some poor dolt was shown four different types of ladies’ shoes and asked, ‘And which of these lovely shoes would your wife prefer?’ How would he know, for crying out loud? He could see the £47 jackpot disappearing before his very eyes. I wonder how many couples’ marriages ended in divorce when it became obvious they knew nothing whatsoever about each other? And lovely hostess Susan Cuff would always sign off with, ‘Take care. Lots of care’ giving the game away that their core audience was probably not in the summer of its life.
What really brought Tony Hatch to the public’s attention, however, was New Faces which took over from long-running talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1973 and was the first show of its kind to feature a panel of judges. Tony Hatch was one of the original judges and quickly became TV’s first Mr Nasty due to his honest and forthright comments on many of the performers. In those days New Faces‘ judges had to give points out of ten for ‘Presentation,’ ‘Content‘ and ‘Star Quality.’ For a troupe of Russian Dancers (a perennial favourite of talent shows) one week Tony Hatch awarded them zero for ‘Star Quality‘ which caused gasps from the studio audience. But he was right. They were hardly going to set the showbiz world on fire but I’m sure they’d get the odd gig in a church hall. The performers were also kept on camera when they were receiving their feedback, which often made for excruciatingly uncomfortable, but entertaining, viewing.
It’s important to remember a couple of things in relation to current talent shows, particularly the dreadful X Factor. Tony Hatch actually knew about music having worked in the industry all his adult life. Unlike the venal Simon Cowell who knows nothing about music but does know how an act (and TV programme) might make him money and Louis Walsh who only knows about…..well, I’m not sure what he knows. Tony Hatch didn’t humiliate the contestants by featuring the poor deluded ones who couldn’t sing for the delectation of the viewing audience. He was constructive and did actually offer advice. And, unlike Cowell, he knew what he was talking about.
Tony Hatch aside, the New Faces’ judges were an odd bunch. Made up of old variety stagers like Ted Ray and Arthur Askey, a few token ‘with-it’ members such as record producer Mickie Most and then-DJ Noel Edmonds, showbiz insiders like Genxculture favourites Crossroads‘ matriarch Noelle Gordon (a Hatch connection here!) and amateurish teenage pop show producer Muriel Young, the father of Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart’s 17 year old wife, manager Jimmy Henney but also Ed ‘Stewpot’ himself (he didn’t half get around)! But then the line-up just became surreal (or rather even more surreal). TV agony aunt Marjorie Proops, Hammer Horror actress Ingrid Pitt, dog-food advertiser and Liberal MP Clement Freud and, quite unbelievably, ‘clean-up-TV’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse! Eh? Tony also wrote the very popular theme music for New Faces entitled ‘Star‘ which was sung by ex-wild man of rock and former lead singer of The Move, Carl Wayne which became a minor hit.
You’re a star, superstar
On you go it’s your finest hour
And you know that you’ll go far ‘cos you’re a sta-ar
A verse almost everyone could recite in those days.
In later years Hatch’s marriage to Jackie Trent ended acrimoniously after he ran off with her best friend and after living for many years in Australia he moved to Menorca, Spain where he still lives. In 2013 he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and about time too.
For every Downtown, Hatch also had a Mr and Mrs and for every Crossroads he had a Neighbours but the fact is, these songs and tunes still endure after all these years and no one encapsulated a particular time in music like the great Tony Hatch.
What was it with 70s radio DJs? The size of their egos (and bank balances) were in inverse proportion to their knowledge of music.
For a medium which is about playing popular music to the masses there can be no individuals less qualified to deliver this seemingly uncontroversial melodic diet to our pop kids than 70s DJs. Where did it all go wrong? Well, it went wrong from the day of Radio One’s inception on September 30 1967 when a smooth-voiced male of indeterminate accent welcomed us to ‘the wonderful sound of Radio One,’ and proceeded to play Flowers in the Rain by The Move. It was all downhill from there.
To understand 70s DJs you have to separate them from the music they played because most had little interest and even less knowledge of music. They had no discernible accents, they talked incessantly without really saying anything, they rarely referred to the music other than to introduce it as ‘the sensational sound of…….’ They all had their own platforms but every one sounded the same. A few DJs had their own schtick, but generally the shows were all the same and the vocabulary used was the same but the voices just sounded slightly different.
Radio was just a useful peg to hang their cloak of moronic banter on and the records they played merely allowed them to take a breather, but they still managed to talk over the beginning and end of every record. A real pain when you were poised over the radio speaker with the microphone of a cassette recorder.
Over the years the cult (yes, I said ‘cult’) of the personality DJ just grew. The programmes were about them, people wanted to hear them, some deluded people even wanted to see them. Thousands turned up to see The Radio One Road Show during the summer months, although I would argue that if you were young and on holiday in Cleethorpes, Margate, Blackpool or Morecambe, then of course you’d go and watch it. What else was there to do?
To be fair there were a few DJs on Radio One in the 60s and 70s who actually did like music and were able to be knowledgeable about it and discuss it. John Peel, of course, fought a life-long rearguard battle to keep non-mainstream music alive on R1 but he was tucked away at the end of the day throughout the week. In the end he sort of joined them by presenting TOTP and various other R1 frivolities but he could never take that look of distaste off his face in any photograph or the heavy irony from his voice.
A mucker of JP’s was former RadioLuxembourg DJ David ‘Kid’ Jensen who styled themselves ‘The Rhythm Pals‘, almost to remove themselves from the morass of blandness elsewhere on R1. Although sounding like a slick Canadian presenter (which he was) Jensen also championed new music on his Saturday morning show and certainly was responsible for helping new acts be successful in the UK. He was the first to play regularly Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits in 1979 and achieving a high of No. 8 and the rest is pop history. He also was almost single-handedly responsible for the success of Althea and Donna’s classic Uptown Top Ranking, transforming it from an obscure reggae song on a tiny label into a worldwide smash. Like Peel, Jensen’s show was on a Saturday morning so as not to frighten the weekday audience who, they perceived, wanted a diet of bland, anodyne banter and unchallenging soft pop.
There were other 70s DJs who really did like music and were able to talk about it on-air. The excellent Stuart Henry, Johnnie Walker (who eventually left as he was completely pissed off with the gerontocratic culture), Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman with his Saturday Rock Show and Paul ‘The Great Gambo’ Gambacini, for example. At the time, for young people just becoming interested in music like myself, Wonderful Radio One was the only music radio available during the day, the crackly sound of Radio Luxembourg was available at night given a decent tailwind, but it wasn’t that much different. The DJs that were broadcasting from Luxembourg would, inevitably, be the DJs broadcasting on Wonderful Radio One eventually. So I became a Wonderful Radio One listener through necessity. It was the only place to hear current popular music and, to be fair, if you knew where to go, there was non-chart music to be found in various places around the station.
What has become clear to me about these disembodied radio voices is that, for most, that is all they are. My research has revealed there is precious little of any interest to say about many of these individuals, but I suppose that just goes with the territory. What was I expecting?
So, in no particular order…..
Peter James Barnard-Powell joined wonderful Radio One in 1977, like so many other DJs , after a stint on Radio Luxembourg. Over the next few years he glided smoothly through the various DJ slots upsetting no applecarts or stirring up any hornet’s nests. However, his innate BBC conservatism occasionally manifested itself through the permasmile and verbal superlatives. One such incident was on his Sunday morning show where he played The Smiths’ excellent new single, The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. The title of the album the track came from, The Queen Is Dead‘, was just too much for Pete’s establishment background and he launched into a mini-diatribe about how tasteless and unnecessary this album title was. Well, he had his CBE to consider!
John Peel also talked about PP’s bourgeoise attitude to anything new or different when he gave an interview to the Glasgow Herald in 2004.
Peter Powell was a dick, I’m afraid. It was Peter who came to me and told me that I shouldn’t be playing hip-hop when I first started playing that because it was the music of black criminals.
Unlike so many other wonderful Radio One DJs, he did have some semblance of a personal life. And what a cast-iron showbiz, Radio One personal life it was! In 1990 he married BluePeter and Wish You Were Here’s Anthea Turner in a mainstream media match from tabloid heaven. The more cynical might even have seen it as a C-list PR set-up. She had even been in a previous relationship with castle-dwelling Radio One elf Bruno Brookes, which, according to some outlets, was less than harmonious to say the least. Mind you, he had had a ‘very public’ relationship with Keith Chegwin’s sister, Janice Long. Anyone might think this was a C-List PR set-up……..
Powell is now a very successful manager of bland, mainstream morning TV celebrities (are there any other type?) including Simon Cowell, Piers Morgan and Richard and Judy. He still continues to manage Anthea Turner and I hoping he’s doing a better job of it than when they were married, though recently, you have to say, he’s taken his eye off that particular ball.
The first voice heard on WonderfulRadio One on September 30 1967 and still very much around the airwaves. Blackburn is probably the DJ most associated with Radio One during the 60s and 70s. Like so many of his Radio One colleagues, his middle-class BBC credentials were as solid as his indeterminate middle-England accent. He set the tone for Wonderful Radio One, describing every record as ‘a smash‘, ‘sensational‘ or ‘poptastic,’ which, incidentally was the title of his gossamer-thin 2007 autobiography. Backed by his faithful but irritating hound Arnold, Tony Blackburn has filled pretty much every presenting slot and is still broadcasting with the BBC, although slightly less effusively.
Tony conducted much of his private life over the airwaves during his mid-seventies marriage to lovely actress Tessa Wyatt. I have a vivid memory of Tone using his radio platform to lambast some tabloid journalist who dared to question Tessa Wyatt‘s acting credentials, motivating him to take a few minutes breather from playing records to read out her CV, just to hammer his point home. But Radio One DJs could do that in those days, they were so powerful within the corporation (more examples of DJs abusing the airwaves coming up).
Tony was well-known enough to secure parts in pantos each Christmas and it was during the power cuts of 1973, when a power cut happened during his panto performance, that he took to the airwaves to say that the miners should go back to work as it was ruining people’s enjoyment of his art. In later years he admitted that a broadcaster should keep their political allegiances to themselves, while at the same time admitting he had no great love of unions or the TUC.
Sadly, his marriage foundered when the lovely Tessa got a part in Alan Partridge’s favourite TV sitcom Robin’s Nest (‘Needless to say, plates got broken and Robin got annoyed!’). The chemistry between 60s and 70s TV stalwart Richard O’Sullivan and Tessa was not just confined to the restaurant kitchen and poor old Tony almost had a breakdown on air as a result.
To be fair to Tone he has championed soul music for many years on the radio although it’s more The Stylistics and Diana Ross than The Temptations or Isaac Hayes. But credit where it’s due. Few people in the media in those days were playing black music regularly.
Much to his annoyance, he was lampooned savagely in 1978 by Binky Baker and The Pit Orchestra whose single Toe-Knee Black-Burn was played widely. To add insult to injury said Binky Baker just happened to be Annie Nightingale‘s husband. Bet Radio One Christmas Parties were swinging after that.
Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart
Edward Stewart Mainwaring or should I say Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart has the bizarre ability to pop up in the most unexpected of places in this little blog space. Mainly because he turned up in the most unexpected of places within the 60s and 70s media, never quite reaching the pinnacle of the profession.
Although, in my humble opinion, he was a terminally dull man, this didn’t stop him become something of a Radio One legend, but it, of course, went with the territory. Despite this, his career was certainly more interesting than many of the other Radio One bozos.
Like most of his Radio One colleagues his middle-class credentials were solid, private school obviously, his dad a Treasury solicitor. He came to Radio One via a Hong Kong radio station and pirate radio. There is no evidence that he was particularly interested in or knew anything about music before he became presenter of Junior Choice on Saturday mornings. Silly jingles (‘ello darlin‘), Terry Scott with My Bruvver,Clive Dunn‘s Grandad, Sparky’s Magic Piano (radical), The Laughing Policeman and loads of birthday requests set the tone for this unchallenging BBC offering which he presented for 12 years.
But Ed ‘Stewpot’ was never satisfied. A 6 year stint on Crackerjack between 1973-79, where he looked perennially uncomfortable, the Holiday programme with his lovely young (very young) wife Chiara, figurehead of kids’ version of TV Times, Look-In (la-la-la-la-la Look-In!) with ‘Stewpot’s Newsdesk‘. A failed attempt to become a BBC football commentator through entering a competition where he was up against Ian St. John amongst others in 1970, and various other hosting roles including the intriguing Exit! It’s The Way Out Show with a pre-Blue PeterLeslie Judd as hostess in 1966 and as a panellist on ITV talent show New Faces all helped pad out Ed ‘Stewpot’s‘ CV.
He even provided the posh male voice on Lynsey De Paul’s 1973 number 14 smash, Won’t Somebody Dance With Me. According to LDP she was hit by a bus as a child (what’s funny about that?) and spent three months in bed and grew so fat no one would dance with her at junior functions. Ed ‘Stewpot’ seemed to fit the bill though. Why? Well, read on…..
In 1971 Ed ‘Stewpot‘ was invited to a friend’s house, Jimmy Henney, fellow New Faces judge and manager of the great Glen Campbell, and the door was opened by his 13 year old daughter, Chiara. Thirty year- old children’s radio show presenter Ed ‘Stewpot‘ later wrote in his autobiography:
I arrived at 7pm and was greeted at the door by what I can only describe as a 13 year-old apparition. She was simply stunning!
Even more stunning was the fact they were married four years later and Chiara was given the day off school to attend the ceremony. But it was 1974, it was ok! The marriage eventually ended some years later when she went off with a golf pro.
Ed ‘Stewpot‘ was an Everton fan as he constantly reminded listeners on Junior Choice. What’s more interesting though, he was Everton F.C.’s guest supporter on BBC’s Quizball in 1966. I’m not sure how good he would have been at quizzing but I think he was probably a ‘Route 2’ man, as he was for most of his career.
Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart continued to broadcast at the BBC as well as many of the radio stations that ended with the word ‘Gold.’ He’ll be remembered as a DJ who didn’t seem to want to be a DJ and a nearly man who didn’t quite reach the heights he wanted to, a children’s radio and TV presenter who seemed rather awkward in the presence of children (or at least most children), a sports fan who was never really given the opportunity to be one on air and a radio and TV ‘personality’ who didn’t really have that much of a personality.
Diddy David Hamilton
How tickled I am…..
Diddy David Hamilton‘s career changed almost as often as his hairline. Sidekick to Ken Dodd (hence the ‘diddy), Tommy Cooper and Benny Hill, on-screen announcer on Thames TV, as well as the official announcer at Fulham FC’s Craven Cottage football ground, for which Mohammed El Fayed paid him a whopping £1000 a match! Like Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, Diddy David Hamilton was a voice which suited Wonderful Radio One. At the age of 35 he got his own afternoon show in 1973 and stayed there until 1986, when, at the age of 48 he left acrimoniously, lambasting the BBC due to their ‘geriatric’ music policy. Was he championing punk or did he feel German abstract electronica was being ignored or maybe he felt too few rock-a-boogie beat groups were being sidelined by the DLTRadio One pop panel. We will never know, unless, of course you read his autobiography, The Music Game, which might be a bridge too far. How bizarre, though.
Diddy David has appeared on pretty much every British TV quiz show (Blankety Blank, Celebrity Squares, The Weakest Link), variety shows (Ken Dodd, Benny Hill, Dickie Henderson, Cilla Black, Morecambe and Wise), comedy concept shows ( The Golden Shot, Quick On The Draw, Give Us A Clue, The Generation Game) and even news shows ( Nationwide, Northern Life, Today) and he walked the gamut of worthy, high quality TV (Clive James On Television) as well as the nadir of TV ‘entertainment’ (An Audience with Jim Davidson). He is even one of a small select band of celebrities who have appeared on Monty Python’s Flying Circus (the others being Lulu, Ringo Starr and BBC newsreader Richard Baker).
He also hosted, up and down the country, many of that most 70s of TV spectacle, the beauty contest. Miss Westward, Miss TV Times and Miss Thames TV, amongst others, all benefitted from the Diddy David Hamilton smooth treatment. He was the host in velvet jacket, frilly shirt and huge dicky-bow who gigglingly asked the searching questions as the contestants, in their swimsuits, shivered in an icy seaside wind. ‘And what will you do with the £500 if you win this contest?’ leered Diddy David. ‘I’d like to travel the world, David, and put my mother through parachute school.’ ‘And thank you Yvonne from Basingstoke. Big round of applause!’
In short, Diddy David has been around a bit and maybe that autobiography might not be the stretch it initially seemed.
It’s hard to believe, I know, but Radio One DJs were seen during the 70s as glamorous, ‘happening’ people and having their finger on the pulse of the nation. Unfortunately, the pulse they had their finger on was one of a very old, very conservative, very easily pleased old man. Unless you were Jimmy Savile, DLT or even Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, but that’s another story… Those wonderful people at Talking Pictures TV showed an obscure British film some months back from 1979 called Home Before Midnight. The story of a 30-something pop music composer who met a girl at a club, fell into a wild passionate affair with her, only to find out she was 15. Oops. Although the film had some interesting points to make, the representation of women was pure 70s. In an early scene the main character is entering a very fashionable, up-market London nightclub when who does he meet coming out? Why it’s man-about-town, sexy and charismatic record spinner, Diddy David Hamilton, with a tall, scantily- clad young-ish girl in tow. A conversation ensues between Diddy David and the main character along the lines of ‘What you doing with this one then, you old charmer?’ etc. During the exchange the young girl says nothing, just stands there, pouting and she is only referred to in the third person. This was clearly the director’s idea of depicting the glitterati of late swinging London, and a short, balding 41 year old radio DJ was supposed to epitomise this vibe. Clearly, Jonathan King wasn’t available.
To be fair to Diddy David Hamilton, his CV is pretty impressive and he’s worked with many of the Greats, albeit in a superficial way most of the time.
Just don’t try to make out he was ever glamorous or a babe magnet…..
Dave Lee Travis
Where to start?
Well this arbiter of the young record-buying public’s music taste was Pipe Smoker of the Year 1985. And that’s about as interesting as it got with DLT.
In an interview with Q Magazine not long after he ignominiously resigned ‘on air’ for maximum dramatic effect but with sadly few people really noticing, Dave Lee Travis insisted that he be known as a ‘broadcaster.’ This was his way of trying make out what he did (i.e. talk reactionary inconsequential crap for 3 hours till he was relieved by some other moron), had so much more gravitas than most gave him credit for. In fact, he was really a DJ, a disc jockey, someone who plays music for the enjoyment of listeners. Unfortunately DLT and many of his colleagues had, over the years, changed their job descriptions into cults of personality. The shows were not about the music but about them. Their jingles, their wacky comedy items, their zany quizzes, their name-dropping, their references to tabloid news stories and their private life revelations. Oh, and some records.
Out of all the many purveyors of daily drivel at Radio One, DLT, The Hairy Monster, was probably the most loathsome and summed up the utter puffed up, self-aggrandising nature of those gargantuan egos. The blind rage he felt when the purge came, courtesy of Matthew Bannister in 1993, resulted from, what he believed, was his untouchable status due to 26 years believing he was bigger than the station. Not only had he occupied pretty much every prestigious presenting spot but he also sat on the Radio One playlist panel which decided what the listening public should be allowed to hear. This is the same man, as John Peel observed at a party DL:T was throwing, who possessed no records in his vast Buckinghamshire mansion and was now arbitrating on which artists should be allowed to be heard over the airwaves.
Dave was never slow to let the listening public know his views on many issues of the time. During a newspaper strike in the 80s, for example, a newsagent rang in to compete in a quiz DLT ran on his show, the silly ‘snooker on the radio’ he thought was so hilarious. ‘Is there anything you’d like to say to the strikers who are affecting your livelihood?’ enquired The Hairy Monster. ‘No, not really,‘ replied the newsagent. ‘I quite agree with their grievance.‘ Nice try Dave.
He even had a hit record in 1976 with the ‘comedy’ parody of C.W. McCall’s hit of the same year Convoy. Along with fellow forgotten Radio One DJ Paul Burnett, whose schtick was comedy voices, under the name Laurie Lingo and the Dipsticks they got to a nose-bleed inducing No. 4 in the charts with Convoy GB. The song was as funny as the group’s name. DLT looked menacing in his mask, the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to meet up an alley on a dark night. Especially if you were a woman. But that’s another story.
Shortly after he left Radio One (just before he was pushed) he scouted around the media looking for anyone who might listen to him. It seemed that now that he had left the station, few people were really that interested. It turned out that listeners are only interested in who happens to be on the radio at the time. There didn’t appear to be dedicated DLT fans, which must have come as a shock to the Hairy Monster. Eventually Q Magazine gave him an outlet to vent his spleen and in a bizarre, often hysterical, ego- driven interview he let fly.
Top of the Pops is full of shite. There’s no guiding light anywhere. There’s nobody like me to say ‘Hang on. You’re doing this all wrong.’
And, of course, DLT always had his finger on the nub of youth so he must know what he’s talking about.
John Peel observed accurately in the 70s that Noel Edmonds was never bothered about being a DJ as he, like so many of his colleagues, had no particularinterest in music. It was really just a stepping stone towards what he really wanted to be: a TV presenter. Peel was usually pretty spot on about these things and I could leave things just there as every knows about Deal Or No Deal, The Late, Late Breakfast Show, Crinkly Bottom, Gotchas, Telly Addicts and god knows how many other shit Edmonds’ vehicles have sullied our TV screens. But Edmonds was responsible for an aspect of Wonderful Radio One that’s almost forgotten and it was something that really spelled the beginning of the end for Radio One as we knew it.
Edmonds burst on to the Radio One big league when he replaced Blackburn on The Breakfast Show in July 1973. Like so many other DJs he’d graduated from Radio Luxembourg and had been noticed presenting various weekend shows and filling in for the likes of Kenny Everett. I can remember being quite sad when Blackburn had left The Breakfast Show as I had always listened to him as I was getting ready to go to school. I’d been given my first radio as a birthday present in November 1971 (Coz I Luv U by Slade was at number 1) and I had become a Radio One addict, well, in my defence, there was nothing else to listen to. Quickly, I realised there was more to this Edmonds than I had, at first, thought. He had some ‘zany’ characters such as Flinn The Milkman and Desmond Duck. He was really quite anarchic, or so I thought at the age of 13. He was a resounding success and Blackburn must have been raging as he only had his faithful hound Arnold who could only woof, woof for company. It was probably the first radio show, in this country at least, in which the comedy took centre stage. And to be fair, it was pretty good although now I think ‘What about the music?’ which had taken a back seat. With every other DJ it was their mindless banter, with Edmonds he was curating a show and he had seen the way radio was heading, sadly. With all the items on his show he must have been working flat out, or had a team of people working flat out to prepare it all.
My favourite Edmonds’ item was The Golden Guillotine. I can’t really remember why it was called that other than at the end of the routine you’d hear the guillotine blade fall and a head bump on the ground. In fact, it was just an elaborate pun on a record he was about to play. He’d tell a story and the punchline would be the title of the song or the artist performing it. The only punchline I remember was about a burglar trying to break into a house and attempting to dislodge the glass in the window so he could gain entry. ‘And finally he….freed a pane.’ Cue Band of Gold by Freda Paine. Well, it amused me at the time.
He even did a public information film for The Blood Transfusion Service in he mid-70s.
Punter: How are you feeling Noel?
Edmonds (in the process of giving Radio One blood): Fine. Quite, quite fine.
But with success comes hubris and before long Edmonds was racing cars, living on a huge estate and commuting in a helicopter. He would regularly be photographed in a one-piece monogrammed flying suit, helmet and goggles against the backdrop of a glistening chopper. ‘My busy lifestyle demands this mode of transport,’ he’d tell us. This included ferrying performers to Wembley for Live Aid in 1985. Despite DLT dabbling in stock car racing, Edmonds took radio celebrity to a whole new plutocratic level. In fact, Noel Edmonds is the person DLT wishes he had been.
To be fair, Edmond’s stratospheric rise only began properly after he left Wonderful Radio One. But it was here he really showed some talent although, like the rest, music only got in the way.
When he left Wonderful Radio One in 1983 it was never going to be the same again. It wasn’t enough for DJs just to turn up every day, spin records and talk shit, although this did continue, obviously. But DJs had got too big for their boots, too rich for their own good, too secure in their tenures, too outspoken in their views, too obvious in their lavish lifestyles. Waiting in the wings was a certain Mr Matthew Bannister who was about to throw a molotov cocktail into the sherry party that had been Radio One.
Although Steve Wright, strictly speaking, is an 80s DJ, I felt it worth mentioning him as he is the ultimate example of a DJ weaned on the moronic diet of Radio One in the 70s. In a Comic Strip story from the 80s two DJs are having a conversation, one with dyed blonde hair and clearly middle-class and the other played by Nigel Planer who is a little more rough and ready. ‘I’m currently working around Esher,’ says the posh jock ‘and I’ve met Steve Wright.’ ‘You’ve met Steve Wright!!!’ says Planer incredulously looking off into the middle distance. ‘Dear god……dear god….’
If ever anyone mastered the black art of talking without saying anything it was Steve Wright. I’m convinced if you ever had a private conversation with Steve Wright he would talk in the same inconsequential manner as he does on radio. In other words, there are no hidden depths to him. What you hear on the radio is the way he is.
The radio love-child of Tony Blackburn, Peter Powell and Kenny Everett, if that were possible, as two-dimensional characters go, some of the ventriloquists’ dummies featured in The Lost Art of TV Ventriloquism (see below) were more human. A man so superficial he is almost translucent. Although, ironically, there is much more to Steve Wright today than when he arrived at Wonderful Radio One in 1978. Sadly for him, this is only corporeal.
Steve Wright has been the great plagiarist. Nothing Steve Wright has ever done on the airwaves has been original, despite his claims. He is still known to travel to the US today to purloin things he hears US DJs doing on their shows and then maintains they are his ideas. That said, these ‘ideas’ are hardly pulling back the boundaries of radio.
Arriving at Wonderful Radio One in 1978 he supposedly introduced the ‘Zoo’ format which really just means he had a couple of bozos doing the show with him. This was something he brought back from the US where it had been happening for years. He was described as being ‘anarchic,’ ‘zany’ and ‘irreverent’ but, in fact, he was, and is still, deeply conservative and is the natural progression from Blackburn, DLT and Peter Powell in terms of blandness. His ‘madcap’ characters such as Mr Angry, Damian the Radio One Social Worker and The Old Lady certainly padded out his programme and, no doubt, some people found them funny but he was really just copying Kenny Everett who’d been doing this years before and much more cleverly.
In 1994 Wright won Radio Personality of the Year as voted by Sun, Daily Mirror and Record Mirror readers. Not a great return for so many years of broadcasting despite him constantly reading out letters he receives which invariably end ‘Love the show, Steve.’ To describe Steve Wright having a ‘personality’ is certainly stretching the point and it is no surprise that very little is known about Wright’s private life. He makes out it’s because he prefers to be secretive about it but I suspect it’s because there really is nothing else to know.
He’s the robotic Radio One DJ taken to its inevitable conclusion in some weird Science Fiction story by Philip K. Dick. He is really only a voice but has become a totem for a type of DJ who dominated the airwaves during the 70s and are now remembered, at least a few of them, for reasons unrelated to music but entirely related to their gargantuan and unhinged personalities.
How Steve Wright survived the Bannister cull in the 90s is anybody’s guess, although he did disappear from Radio 1 for a while before returning to Radio 2. Maybe he blended into the studio background and no one noticed he was there but given his years of activity, one can’t but wonder if there really is so little to the Wright backstory as there appears to be. In a tabloid article I read some years ago Steve Wright was described as a ‘pop expert‘. Never has a title been so abused given his show revolves around that malevolently trivial pentagram of Radio One, the tabloids, The One Show, Twitter and celebrity magazines such as Hello and OK.
To try to conclude this article on a positive note, Steve Wright is the end of an era of banality, blandness and boring conformity. Few young people will listen to Wright and think, ‘That’s what I want to be,’ but inevitably something just as horrendous will replace it. And in Radio One‘s case during the 90s it was the appalling Chris Evans, arguably a more unhinged ego than the individuals discussed above. So much for progress but that’s life, I suppose. Crucially we have Radio 6 Music now, the station Radio One should have been all those years ago. And we have properly brilliant presenters like Stuart Maconie, Mark Radcliffe, Annie Mac, Trevor Nelson, Steve Lamacq, Lauren Laverne and Shaun Keaveney and others who not only can discuss music knowledgeably but also -and how radical is this- like it!
Now just don’t get me started on local radio DJs…….
The singles charts are no more but is this a good thing?
The way we listen to music now has changed in a way no one could have imagined 30 years ago. Spotify, Deezer, Youtube and iPod were just fantasies in a mad science fiction writer’s crazed mind. To sit down at a small computer and, within seconds, start listening to a piece of music you hadn’t previously possessed is mind-blowing to someone like me who grew up in the 60s and 70s and listened to music in a way that is now completely obsolete. And I actually miss this anti-diluvian system of music consumption in many ways but, although, deep down, I know that the revolution has been good for music fans in so many unimaginable ways (maybe not so much for artists), I miss hugely that fulcrum of musical information, the nexus of any week’s pop knowledge, that perennial pivot of pop power, the weekly singles and album charts.
Now I know charts still exist and are probably still issued weekly by some anonymous data company somewhere and are based partly on record sales (although who buys new music from a shop nowadays?) but, more importantly, ‘downloads.’ Any young person looking at these charts will get an idea of who’s hot and who’s not at the time, but nothing like in the same way we did 30 or 40 years ago. To a music and knowledge obsessed teenager like myself (who couldn’t get a girlfriend), the charts were pure gold in so many ways and guaranteed, literally, hours of analysis, interpretation, scrutiny and downright, old-fashioned enjoyment. And why was this? Read on if you’re not already mindnumbingly bored by the subject…….
In the 1950s singles were really just a way of publicising an artist’s new album by releasing a single track from it. Someone somewhere had the genius idea of compiling a chart of the best sellers and the record industry never looked back. It tapped into a youth market that maybe couldn’t afford to buy albums and a whole new musical culture was created. The element of competition between artist, the emerging fan bases, the ease by which many groups and singers could more easily get themselves known and the developing TV and radio mediums all aligned at the same time to give birth to the institution they called The Hit Parade. We all knew they were manipulated, tampered with and generally orchestrated by the record companies but we didn’t really care. The singles charts were here to stay! (for a long time at least…)
My first recollection of the singles charts was in 1967. We had a brown and white Bakelite radio that my mum would listen to in the morning to what was the forerunner of Radio 1, The Light Programme. She loved a record by Anita Harris (a 60s and 70s variety stalwart and still very much with us!) that was played quite regularly called Just Loving You and I remember very clearly how excited she got when she heard it had got to number 30 in the charts. To me number 30 seemed nothing special but in later years I realised getting into the top 30 meant selling a shitload of records, thousands in fact, unlike today when you can get to number 1 by getting a dozen downloads. Anita Harris eventually got to a nose-bleed- inducing number 6 and spent a staggering 30 weeks in the top 50. That was the moment I knew there was much more to the charts than met the eye. A few months later I began to take more notice of what was being played on the wireless and have a vivid memory of absolutely loving Hole In My Shoe by Traffic. My passion for weirdness and psychedelia in music was well and truly inspired from this moment.
There were three things to look forward to every week at the age of about 15. The first was Friday at 4.00pm when school finished and the whole weekend stretched before us, secondly, Saturday night at the youth club when I could rub shoulders with girls of my own age, none of whom were interested in me obviously and Thursday when the music papers were available in newsagents and the new updated singles, albums and US charts were published. Never has so much vital information been condensed into such a small space. The movers, the non-movers, the bubblers, the fallers, the number of weeks on the chart and the new entries. All had to be digested, analysed and assessed, which could take a while and I would read NME, Sounds and Record Mirror from cover to cover. Luckily time was something I had plenty of.
The charts sat in the middle of a triumvirate of media outlets, TV, Radio and the music press, each having an effect, although not necessarily an equal one, on the following week’s chart. Radio One, of course, had the chart rundown on a Tuesday but it was the music papers’ charts that really allowed some deep analysis to be undertaken.
As a young person in the 60s and 70s, you were severely limited as to where you could hear, not just the current hits, but any popular music at all outside of TOTP and Radio 1. You might hear a record being played on a juke box in a cafe, Blue Peter occasionally featured unthreatening bands such as Freddie and the Dreamers (see The Beatles of Uncool below)or flute-driven soft rockers Vanity Fair, you might run up a shockingly high (but mercifully unitemised) phone bill by ringing BT’s Dial-A-Disc service, a friend might show-off by playing you a current single they’d bought or you might catch someone playing a tranny in the street, but that was about it. Slim pickings to say the least and so you were at the mercy of TOTP and Radio 1 whether you liked it or not, but, at that time, you did tend to like it because you knew no better.
For most people it was Thursday night at around 7.00pm that allowed them to engage with the pop charts. Top of the Pops had replaced the musically and stylistically superior Ready Steady Go in the mid-sixties, purely because TOTP based their show on the pop charts and RSG just featured acts that were ‘hot.’ If you didn’t have a song in the charts, you weren’t on TOTP. And everyone knew that an appearance on TOTP would, almost certainly, have a massively beneficial effect on the artist’s disc. To be invited onto TOTP was most artist’s dream as it was often the making of them, as the majority of the millions of TV viewers every Thursday night probably didn’t listen to the radio and certainly didn’t read the music press. And although many young people who attended live TOTP shows tell a different story, the show came across on TV as vibrant, happening and exciting and everything an up and coming act would look and sound good on (despite miming). Around this time during the early 60s many young people began buying records purely on how a band or performer looked on TOTP. It was also the case that most young people, including myself, for a while believed that the charts couldn’t lie. If an act got to number one, then they must be good and they’d want to be a part of this movement of fandom and would buy the record. Of course, it didn’t take me long to understand that this was really not the case and I quickly realised Middle of the Road, Esther and Abi Ofarim, Peters and Lee, Des O’Connor or Cilla Black were neither good nor fashionable. But millions of people still bought their records!
The influence on the charts of TOTP cannot be underestimated. But another huge and, I would contend, insidious influence on the singles charts was wonderful Radio 1. From its inception in 1967 it was always staffed by a bunch of guys (and it was mainly guys) who could have been our rather sleazy uncles, with a few exceptions. Throughout the 60s and 70s Radio 1 decided each week which records should be placed on their all-important ‘playlist.’ This playlist pretty much decided which records were going to be successful and which were not.
These DJs were generally selected on their ability to talk utter bollocks incessantly rather than on their musical knowledge and having an interest in or knowledge of music was not really encouraged. It was clear that the important element of most Radio 1 shows was the DJ banter between records rather than the records themselves. The music was really only there to give the DJs a breather. Of course, there were a few exceptions to this rule. The great John Peel obviously, Johnny Walker (who eventually left because he got pissed off with this culture), the virtually forgotten but excellent Stuart Henry, Kid Jensen, Paul Gambacini and Alan ‘Fluff’ Freeman with his Saturday Rock Show. Those apart, it was a litany of middle-aged guys who loved the sound of their own voices, their funny characters, amusing quizzes, hilarious jingles (What’s that Arnold?) and wacky tabloid news stories. But their influence on the singles chart was terrifyingly significant!
John Peel told a story of being invited to a party at Dave Lee Travis’s huge mansion (they all lived in ‘mansions’ apart from Bruno Brookes who lived in a castle). The first thing Peel did when he went to someone’s house was go and have a look at their record collection. He spent some time searching from room to room before realising that DLT, the ‘Hairy Monster,’ Pipe Smoker of the Year 1982, self-styled arbiter of pop culture, possessed no records whatsoever or even a sound system. I watched one of those excellent Friday night music documentaries on BBC 4 some months ago, Charts Britannia, which showed footage of the Radio 1 panel which selected records for its playlist each week. On this panel sat a number of men and women, most over 50 and some well into their 60s and one Dave Lee Travis. It’s little wonder Peters and Lee, Cliff, Cilla and Des did so well in the charts in these days. I once saw Radio 1’s ghastly Steve Wright described in a UK tabloid as a ‘pop expert.’ That single sentence put me in a bad mood for 3 years. (Much more on 70s DJs to come at Genxculture).
That said, the singles charts, the top 50, was an archeological dig of the good, the bad and the hideously ugly. And that’s what made them so fascinating.
The singles charts were a melange of the great, the quite good, the horrendously awful, the bizarre, the inexplicably successful, the shocking, the revelatory, the jaw-dropping weirdness, the utterly amazing and, sometimes creating a frisson of excitement, the banned. Take the following randomly selected, but musically significant, edition of the NME singles and albums chart of May 22 1976 for example. Within this mid-70s chart exists, I would argue, all the above categories of hit single but it also offers a revealing template for society at that time as every chart did to varying extents.
We can quickly bypass the number 1 and 2 singles as little more needs to be written about Abba, other than, as The Guardian‘s Pete Paphides observed accurately, ‘If you don’t like Abba, you don’t like pop.‘ Little also needs to be said about Abba wannabes Brotherhood of Man with their bland and irritating Euro winner Save Your Kisses For Me. But it’s the nether regions that always held the greatest interest. Have a look a little further down the top 10 and at 9, up a massive 10 places, is Andrea True Connection with the wonderful disco classic, More, More, More. For me, this was the quintessential single of that very trashy period we called the mid-70s. Now Andrea True was actually a porn star and the publicity pics for her record were a little racy, and taking the record’s lyrical content into account, this was a catchy, beautifully produced, trashy record that epitomised that era.
But if you want to know How I really feel Get the cameras rolling Get the action going Baby you know my love for you is real Take me where you want to Then my heart you’ll steal
In short, superb!
Remember what I said about the ‘inexplicable successes? Well check out numbers 20 to 22. On its way down from a high of 4, Convoy GB by Laurie Lingo and The Dipsticks and on its way to Number 1, Combined Harvester by The Wurzels. What have both of these records got in common? Correct.
But would you Adam and Eve it? Laurie Lingo and the Dipsticks just happened to be our old pal, the hairy cornflake, DLT and his partner in musical crime, Radio 1’s forgotten DJ (must have kept his nose clean) Paul Burnett. As a comedic parody of CW McCall‘s 1976 blockbuster Convoy, it was about as funny as a burning orphanage. And it raises the perennial question, who bought that shit and did these people actually think it was funny? Laugh? I thought I’d never start.
The Wurzels were originally Adge Cutler and The Wurzels had appeared on the iconic 60s chat show Dee Time (much more on this to come) before settling comfortably into ITV afternoon easy listening shows (the ones you watched when you’d skived off school for the afternoon) in the 70s, particularly The Great Western Music Show (I think it was called) until Adge sadly turned his sports car over in 1974 and they became The Wurzels. Combined Harvester was a parody on Melanie’s 1972 No.4 hit Brand New Key and although they may have overstayed their welcome in the charts over the next few years, this was, I suppose, a fairly decent comedy record if you liked that kind of thing.
She’s a fine looking’ woman and I can’t wait to get me ‘ands on her land…..
Interestingly, one of The Wurzels came from Penicuick, Midlothian. Fancy that!
Also falling into the embarrassingly bad and ‘how did that ever get into the charts ?’ category, Reggae Like It Used Be by Paul Nicholas nestles in the middle of this triple decker of trash. I have written in much more detail about PN in Rubbish Songs, Inexplicable Hits section of this little blog, specifically about the even more irritating Grandma’s Party. Needless to say, this was also rubbish.
And notice within the ‘Bubblers’ a certain Judge Dread and his latest waxing The Winkle Man, on its way to a high of No. 35. Judge Dread had 8 top 40 hits in the 70s, none of which were played on Radio 1 or TOTP. His songs were Reggae-inflected rudeness , two of his later minor hits being Up With The Cock and Y Viva Suspenders. You get the idea. Which just goes to show the record buying public loved something a little risqué, whether they had heard the record or not, and it was probably not. There was a certain type of kudos achieved by surreptitiously revealing a Judge Dread record to your pals in the same way you might by conspiratorially display a copy of Playboy from its hiding place under your bed. Up until a few months ago I had never heard a Judge Dread song. In December of 2019 I attended a Bad Manners gig in Edinburgh and in support was, believe it or not, a Judge Dread tribute act who reeled off his ‘Big’ hits from soup to nuts. He was really quite good.
Judge Dread was probably only ever outdone in the chart rudeness stakes by Ivor Biggun and The Red Nosed Burglars with their 1978 No. 22 smash, I’m A Winker, and they were very insistent that this was a misprint. Strangely, wonderful Radio 1, DLT and the septuagenarian pop panel failed to add this to the Radio 1 playlist. Turned out Ivor Biggun was Doc Cox from Esther Rantzen’s awful consumerist show, That’s Life. He couldn’t even stop himself being slightly rude on that show either, given his TV name. Mind you, they were obsessed with rude-shaped vegetables. But rudeness aside, records that were not on the Radio 1 playlist rarely made it into the charts unless they had some notoriety.
Anyone casually perusing this chart from 1976 might notice just how many MOR records peppered the top 30, songs that were written in committee as vehicles for various MOR acts. In fact, out of the top 30, well over half could be described as easy listening or middle of the road. There is nothing in this chart that is particularly threatening or might scare the horses. Brotherhood of Man, Cliff, The Stylistics (who really churned out the bla’ hits in the 70s), Bellamy Brothers, Sutherland Brothers and Quiver, Frankie Valli, Stylistics clones Sheer Elegance (rubbish name), the overwrought Eric Carmen and just creeping into Top 30, the lovely Tina Charles with yet another song that sounded exactly like I Love To Love. We even have a young Midge Ure and Slik encroaching into chart territory with the bombastic but certainly not fantastic Requiem. With the exception of the legendary Isaac Hayes, some interesting experimental pop from Diana Ross and a bit of ultra-smooth soul from the wonderful Gladys Knight, there is little in this chart to excite any young person with an interest in music.
But hang on a cotton-pickin’ moment! Who’s that making such an unholy row around that adjacent temporal corner? Why it’s The Sex Pistols and their punk pals! Come to save us from being smothered by marshmallow light musical blandness. Hurrah! It just takes a cursory glance at this particular chart to see that things had to change. The charts had be wrested back from the terminal Radio 1 mediocrity that controlled them, that had almost turned da kids into The Children of the Damned (and I don’t mean Dave Vanian and Rat Scabies. Yet). But that’s what the singles charts did. They provided a template for our society at any given time. And irrespective of the blandness quotient, they still provided hours of analytical fun. I would go as far as to argue that any chart from the 50s until their ostensible end in the early 90s could be analysed meaningfully either sociologically, economically, politically, musically and, of course, aesthetically, which is where the fun would really begin.
As mentioned previously in ‘Rubbish Songs, Inexplicable Hits‘, anyone in the public eye could have a hit record, irrespective of whether they could sing or not. There was an unpleasant alliance between ‘celebrities’, Radio 1, some record companies and TOTP. When a ‘celebrity’ (a word I’ve always hated due to the implication that those people should be ‘celebrated’) was ‘hot’ someone would approach them from a smallish record company and suggest they make a single. The celebrity would, through one eye see pound signs and through the other mainstream pop coolness. How deluded they usually were. But because these bozos were well known, they could guaranteee being placed on the septuagenarian Radio 1 playlist and a spot on TOTP. If they could get that, they were made (for a short time at least)! The combination of Radio 1 playlist repetition, exposure to 20 million viewers on a Thursday night along with the TV show they were famous for was irresistible to many gullible sections of the record buying public. Hence we were subjected to the likes of:
Telly Savalas of Kojak fame who got to No. 1 in 1975 with a shocking version of Bread’s ‘If‘
David Soul of Starsky and Hutch who had five, that is FIVE, top 20 hits between 1976 and 1978
Windsor Davies and Don Estelle of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum who got to No. 1 with Whispering Grass (doubt we’ll ever see that show again)
Dennis Waterman of Minder who scored twice with I Could Be So Good For You in 1980 and the embarrassing What Are We Gonna Get ‘er Indoors in 1983
Dick Emery who crept into the top 50 in 1973 with ‘Ooh You Are Awful’
Russ Abbott got to a nose-bleed inducing No.7 in 1984 with the irritating Atmosphere. I remember watching TOTP when the video was premiered and I sat there waiting for something funny to happen, after about 2 minutes I realised it was serious. What a let-down.
Radio 2 DJ Terry Wogan‘s version of The Floral Dance with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. Like Telly and Shatner he couldn’t sing so spoke the lyrics. Either way he shouldn’t have bothered.
And the less said about Robson and Jerome, of the Soldier, Soldier military drama serial, the better. Unbelievably, they sit at No. 9 in the chart of most successful singles EVER with Unchained Melody selling an eyewatering 1.85 million copies! One of the hard and fast rules of the singles charts always was, ‘The blander the song, the bigger the hit.’ Thus, also in the top ten all-time sellers were Boney M (twice), Queen, Elton John, Wings and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John
During the 80s various actors from Aussie soaps Neighbours and Home and Away, in the days when those programmes were particularly popular here, tried their luck in the UK charts while the going was good for them. The vast majority being dreadful with Stefan (Paul Robinson) Dennis achieving the nadir of Aussie pop with Don’t It Make You Feel Good in 1989. But even that got to no. 16!
The charts even provided a home for sports people, particularly footballers to try their hands at something very different to kicking a ball around. For all of them (and I mean all of them), they should have stuck to putting the boot into opponents rather than into the charts. The first footballers to strike chart gold was the oddly tuxedoed 1970 England World Cup Squad who bawled out their, albeit, quite catchy tune on TOTP, Back Home. This got to number 1 probably because of its novelty value as no football team had ever featured in the charts before.
It began a trend for international teams as well as club teams to record songs which, presumably, only their own fans ever bought. That was enough for many to creep into the charts. Probably the type of single of any genre which has the least, if any, aesthetic value. Even Boney M and Queen singles have more.
Not content with football teams trying for chart success, some individual footballers were puffed up enough to think they might have a chance of pop career. In the front row above, sandwiched between Big Jack Charlton and Alan Mullery, we see West Bromwich Albion’s striker Jeff Astle. On the strength of the EWCS smash hit he released a solo single called ‘Sweet Water‘ but he, sadly, choked on the bitter taste of failure. The single missed the charts completely, a bit like that sitter he screwed past the post against Brazil a few months later. But not so Mr Kevin Keegan in 1979 when he reached number 31 with Head Over Heels in Love written by Smokie’sChris Norman. Or Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle, or Glenn and Chris as they chummily wanted to be referred to, whose ‘Diamond Lights’ got to No. 12 in 1987. Probably not the worst song ever to appear on TOTP but their performance is one of those ‘watch through your fingers’ moments.
But the charts often throw up (and I chose those words carefully) such moments as these. One of the often unadmitted joys of the charts is watching a single or act you particularly dislike moving inexorably towards the top ten. The Bay City Rollers at their peak had a 14 year old me almost ripping up the music papers in disgust. When something has this effect on you it must have a lot going for it. Or when a particular favourite has a head-to-head race to get to the top spot first, such as The Sweet v Gary Glitter or Slade v David Bowie. And to spot early a single no one else had noticed edging its way up the hit parade towards Numero Uno, to have given your pals the SP on it and told them to watch this one go was hugely enjoyable. Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits in 1977 was a good example of this type of slow-burner, having been played regularly by David ‘Kid’ Jensen on his Saturday morning show on wonderful Radio 1, before anyone had even heard of Dire Straits. Or Althea and Donna’s brilliant Uptown Top Ranking which similarly slowly nosed its way up the charts after an inauspicious start. Chart moments like these proved there was a discerning record buying public out there, a public who weren’t just content to listen to Queen, Boney M or Cliff. And the singles charts highlighted such behaviour in a way that bolstered your faith in other music-loving people of all ages.
The charts also provided the basis of many in-depth discussions which wore long into the night. Did a particular band or single ever get to number 1? What was the best number 2 single ever. How many David Bowie top 30 singles can you name? Which was the most successful Motown act? How many number 1s did The Stones have? What was the weirdest single ever to get into the top 10? What was the worst number 1 ever? And in the days before you could access some of these facts on a phone, some of the debates could go on for days, even weeks. Of course, anyone with even a passing interest in the charts will remember that in 1980 Ultravox’s overblown electronic classic Vienna was kept off the top spot by Joe Dolce and Shaddap Your Face. Although I was big a fan of Ultravox, sometimes the charts didn’t lie and the best song did get to No. 1. And that’s why I loved them.
I’m told some form of singles and album charts still exists but it really isn’t the same. Music consumption is completely different today. People no longer wait with baited breath on a particular act’s new release or track its progress inexorably up and down the hit parade. Or argue with friends which particular track from a new album is the strongest single. Or feel that warm glow of satisfaction when a favourite act surpasses someone shit like Brotherhood of man, Bay City Rollers or Queen in the charts. But music of all genres and periods is still listened to, downloaded, streamed, pirated and, for some odd people (like myself) even played on record players. Thankfully, music is still very much alive and kicking, I’m happy to say, in its many different incarnations.
Rarely seen on TV now, everyone knew and loved Adrienne Posta in the 60s and 70s
As I’ve mentioned a number of times in this little blog space, Budgie starring Adam Faith, now being reshown on the wonderful Talking Pictures TV, was one of the pioneering TV series of the 70s and featured a who’s who of top-class actors of the time, as well as a few who were certainly on their way up. One face who definitely belonged in the former camp was that of Adrienne Posta. Virtually forgotten now by anyone under 50, she was known to everyone in the 70s, maybe not by name but invariably her face was hugely familiar, and anyone from that era spotting her in re-runs from that decade would recognise her immediately. Although not quite a sex symbol, she was the sort of girl most teenage and slightly older boys would love to have gone out with or even just spent some time with. In short, she was lovely, unthreatening in a good way and seemed like great fun. She was also a terrific and very versatile actress.
Her CV includes many of the great films and TV series of the 60s and 70s and she worked with most of the giants of the industry and it’s a CV that cries out for a bit of Genxculture analysis. Still very much with us and mostly doing lucrative voice work as well as teaching at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the legendary Ms Adrienne Posta!
Adrienne Poster, as she was at the time of her birth in Hampstead, London in 1949, was a child star and after appearing in a range of stage productions made her big screen debut at the age of 7 in No Time For Tears in 1957, a children’s hospital drama vehicle for showbiz royalty Anna Neagle, which also featured that other omnipresent child star, Richard O’Sullivan.
As well as appearing in loads of TV series and films she also launched a recording career releasing a string of singles with titles like Shang A Doo Lang and the, nowadays, rather dubious ‘Only Fifteen‘ (tell that to Charlie Endell) but with no chart success. It did get the child star AP onto such hip music productions as the uniquely 60s titled Gadzooks! It’s All Happening! and a spot on Juke Box Jury three times. She signed for Decca Records, also the home of The Stones, and it was at a party given for her by Stones‘ manager Andrew Loog Oldham to celebrate one of her record releases that Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull were supposed to have met (according to MAF‘s autobiography, at least). Already her 60s credentials are developing nicely. AP’s relationship with music did not end here, however. In 1971 (a landmark year for her) she sang backing vocals on that quirkiest of singles Johnny Reggae by The Piglets (well, it was a Jonathon King production), although there is some dispute about which singer’s vocals are the most distinct. It certainly sounds like AP to me…
In 1974 she married lead singer of The Marbles and later Rainbow, Graham Bonnet. His career was certainly colourful. After joining the Michael Schenker Group in 1983, he lasted only one gig as he drunkenly exposed himself to the crowd at Sheffield City Polytechnic and was promptly sacked. There was a time when a heavy rock band would have approved of that sort of behaviour. Mind you, how dare he besmirch the sainted Adrienne Posta’s reputation. Beast! And talking about beasts, Posta and Bonnet reportedly owned the Dulux dog which appeared in so many paint ads at the time. Fancy that! But the marriage was sadly short lived.
Adrienne Posta was one of a breed of character actor from that period who always added a touch of class to even the most mundane of productions. I would have no hesitation in ranking her alongside greats such as Beryl Reid, Dora Bryan, Thora Hird and regular collaborator Maureen Lipman and, in the male acting camp, John Le Mesurier, Raymond Huntly, Arthur Lowe and Stanley Holloway. All actors who, although rarely stars, gave a film or TV programme a professionalism and gravitas which certain productions sometimes didn’t deserve. Without a doubt Adrienne Posta ranked alongside those legends of the industry.
And it’s this acting career that raised her to legendary status and rather than just list what she appeared in, we’re going to pick out some of the milestones and a few of the just purely interesting stages in her blockbusting 60s and 70s journey. This is not an exhaustive list but more a compilation of, what I think, are the significant works she should be remembered for.
1. To Sir With Love (1967)
Playing alongside Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier must have been a pretty exciting experience for the 18 year old Adrienne. It was here she also struck up a long standing friendship with a similarly young Lulu. So much so that AP appeared as a regular guest in 1973’s Saturday night star vehicle, It’s Lulu. The film also featured a few up and coming and established British actors including Suzy Kendall (who would team up with AP again a year later), Judy Geeson, Geoffrey ‘Catweazle‘ Bayldon and the brilliant Patricia Routledge. Music was provided, along with Lulu, by The Mindbenders.
Although groundbreaking in its representation of race for the time, the film dodges the big questions and Monthly Film Bulletin described its ‘sententious’ script, a little harshly, as ‘.. having been written by an overzealous Sunday school teacher after a particularly exhilarating boycott of South African oranges.’
The film is also notable, not only for Lulu’s theme song, a number one hit in the US, but also for the fact Sidney Poitier accepted a $30,000 fee but also 10% of the film’s gross takings. Which turned out to be over $42,000,000 in the US alone. Nice few weeks work for Sidney, but what’s more to the point here, Adrienne Posta had well and truly arrived!
2. Up The Junction (1968)
Originally shown on TV as a one-off play in 1965 and directed by a young Ken Loach, the 1968 film version was more controversial. Despite the film’s main, rather patronising, premise telling the story of Polly (Suzy Kendall), a rich socialite who wanted wanted to live with ‘common people,’ it was actually, against the odds, an impressive depiction of working class life in South London. Featuring a host of 60s and 70s British acting talent, the cast included Dennis Waterman, Maureen Lipman, Susan George, Michael ‘Arthur’ Robbins, the ubiquitous Liz Fraser and an uncredited Mike Reid, as well as AP. The great Hylda ‘Ooh, she knows y’know‘ Baker also plays against type as a backstreet abortionist AP‘s character Rube goes to see after becoming pregnant, in a shocking and prescient scene for the times.
The New York Times review highlighted ‘strong support’ from Adrienne Posta and Maureen Lipman. These two stalwarts of the screen would meet up again on TV quite soon.
3. Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1968)
The mid to late sixties was awash with ‘sex comedies.’ Most of which were neither comedic nor sexy, but Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush is worth noting, not so much for its ostensible raunchiness, it was rated as an ‘X’ after all, but for its swinging sixties vibe. Described in one advertising slogan as ‘The most ‘with it’ young cast in the most ‘with it‘ picture of the year.’ Well, it was half right and it certainly was, and still is, a wonderfully psychedelic ‘with it’ experience.
Starring a young Barry Evans (more on him later, I think), whose film and TV career nosedived after this psychedelic offering with Doctor in the House, the very dodgy Mind Your Language, the execrable Adventures of a Taxi Driver and a few other unmemorable skin flicks. It told the story of a young lad in Stevenage, yes Stevenage, who was desperate to lose his virginity. So far, so very formulaic but, to be fair, there was a little more to the film. Believe it or not, it was supposed to compete in the 1968 Cannes Film Festival and was even tipped for success. Sadly for the film, that year’s festival was cancelled due to the student riots in Paris in 1968 which almost brought down the French government.
Films like this one were churned out during this newly permissive period in the US, such as What’s New Pussycat, The Graduate, Candy (written by Terry Southern, see The Magic Christian below), and in the UK Dick Lester‘s The Knack..and How To Get It, Alfie and the alliterative ..em..Nine Ages of Nakedness. My researches uncovered another similarly generic title, Take Your Clothes Off, Doll, which, strangely hasn’t seen the light of day on any of the film channels as far as I’m aware. Unless, of course, you know differently….
The cast really was ‘with it’ and included Judy Geeson (whose naked scene ended up on the censor’s cutting room floor), Crossroads and Nescafe’sDiane Keen, booming- voiced Christopher Timothy as an unlikely ‘wide boy’ and sadly recently departed Nicky Henson.
HWGRTMB is a pretty decent ‘romp’, as these type of lightweight sex comedies are often described. Written by the estimable Hunter Davies, the film features many notable actresses who Evan’s character lusts after including AP who is excellent as runny-nosed Linda.
Like so many of the young adult orientated films of the time, it features a fashionable pop music soundtrack from The Spencer Davies Group and Traffic who sang the theme tune. Which all adds up to a satisfying 60s experience, not least for the participation of the wonderful AP. It’s fair to say, by this time her 60s credentials couldn’t have been more impressive.
4. Percy (1971)
Films like this one, good and bad, just rolled off the conveyor belt in the late 60s and early 70s. Not surprisingly, they look dated now but writers and directors were just beginning to realise the moral straitjacket of the 50s was being loosened, when in previous years a medieval minor unelected Royal servant, the Lord Chamberlain, decided what the British public was allowed to see and what was strictly off limits in theatres and cinemas. Percy starred Hywell Bennett as a man who received the world’s first penis transplant, hence ‘Percy’. Geddit? His quest to find out more about the dead man he inherited his new member from involved a plethora of lovely ladies (obviously) including the lovely AP.
This time the obligatory pop soundtrack was provided by the wonderful Kinks and the cast was the usual group of superb character actors which included Denholm Elliott (again), the brilliant Sheila Steafel,Britt Ekland, Julia Foster, Janet Key, ‘TV tough guy’ Callan’s (and now Emmerdale’s) Patrick Mower as well as the ever reliable AP. As usual she was at the cutting edge (maybe not the best metaphor for this particular film) of British cinema.
5. Up Pompeii (1971)
I don’t care what anyone says. I loved Up Pompeii written by that genius of innuendo, Talbot Rothwell. The theme tune, sung by Frankie Howerd himself, included the line Up Pompeii, Up Pompeii, Naughty, Naught-ay. Rhyming couplets don’t come much better than that. The lovely Adrienne played ‘Scrubba.’ Enough said.
…….It’s fair to say that AP’s film career fizzled out rather after this particular outing although she did appear in a few down-market ‘sex romps’ such as Adventures of a a Taxi Driver (again with Barry Evans on a similar downward cinematic trajectory), Adventures of a Private Eye and Percy’s Progress, a disappointing follow-up to Percy. But it was TV that really brought AP to a grateful public and her great TV years were really just beginning in 1971. She appeared in many of the memorable series from the 70s including Minder, The Gentle Touch, Boon, Dixon of Dock Green and, as detailed at length below, the brilliant Budgie with Adam Faith. Coming up are just a few of the particularly significant series AP appeared in during the 60s and 70s.
1. Alexander The Greatest (’71-’72)
One of the first TV sitcoms to feature a Jewish family, Alexander The Greatest is a rarely remembered show which was about the eponymous 16 year old know-all Alexander (Gary Warren) who wanted to break free of his middle class London life and launch himself on the world. And, of course, the hilarious consequences which ensued. I don’t remember an awful lot about this series other than it starred AP, it had a great theme tune, written by that stalwart of bouncy 70s pop Barry Blue (really name Barry Green) and seemed to include Alexander’s lavish fantasies which were similar to those of Billy Liar. AP was the irritating older sister and the cast also included the great Sydney Tafler, stalwart of, seemingly, hundreds of British films as Alexander’s dad.
Gary Warren was another familiar face in British cinema and TV of the 70s including The Railway Children, Catweazle and the much-missed and virtually forgotten Mickey Dunne (another series suffering from cultural vandalism as no episodes survive). Like AP some years later, he dropped off the radar after appearing as a guard in Escape From Alcatraz in 1979.
2. Don’t Ask Us We’re New Here (’69-’70)
DAUWNH is another series which will be virtually forgotten by most people of a certain age, although I do have vague memories of it. Running for two series on BBC the idea was to showcase young, up and coming comedy talent. AP was certainly talented, we already knew that, and she was hardly up and coming having first appeared on TV in 1957, but the producers may well have thought the programme needed a safe pair of hands to anchor the young members of the cast. Same could be said for Maureen Lipman who had appeared with AP in Up The Junction a couple of years previously. With the exception of Richard Stilgoe, the other cast members sank without trace after the second series ended with the exception of a certain Mike Redway. For it was he who, during the 60s, recorded over 80 albums on Woolworth’s Embassy record label, usually called something like 20 Top Hits! and depicting a pouting young girl in a bikini on the cover. Those were the albums we all bought as youngsters for 2/6 thinking they featured original recordings from the current pop charts, only to be devastated when it clearly wasn’t The Beatles, Middle of the Road or even Lieutenant Pigeon singing their own hits. That man has a lot to answer for.
The show itself was a collection of quick-fire comedy sketches and musical numbers, none of which seemed that memorable. Although I do remember one sketch! The anchor of the show, Frankie Abbott, introduced the sketch which representied a famous film. We then cut to one of the cast dressed as a policeman speaking into his walkie-talkie. ‘They’re robbing the bank! You must get ‘ere! You must get ‘ere! You must get ‘ere!‘ Cut to Frankie Abbott, ‘Thethree must get ‘eres.’ You get the idea. AP was better than that.
3. Moody And Pegg (’74-’75)
Occupying that 9.00pm Friday ITV (when ITV was good) slot that so many other memorable 70s series such as Budgie, Hadleigh, A Bouquet of Barbed Wire and Manhunt all occupied at some point in the decade. Moody and Pegg starred Derek Waring as Roland Moody, a recently divorced womaniser and Charlotte Cornwell as Daphne Pegg, a straight-laced civil servant who had moved to London from ‘oop north to take up a new job. They find themselves living in the same house due to some estate agency shenanigans. The very clever script and the restrained nature of the drama created a classic which was very much of its time when directors and writers were exploring different types of pace and narrative. AP turned up in a few episodes as hairdresser and younger girlfriend of Roland Moody, Iris. Another excellent part in a superb series which didn’t really receive the credit it deserved at the time. I remember as a 13 year old finding the buttoned-up Daphne Pegg really quite attractive and the theme music being very memorable, not to say poignant. The ‘will they, won’t they’ element of the plot kept it interesting and I really can’t remember if they did or not. Given the tone of the series though, they probably didn’t. Which was sad.
4. Play of the Month: The Cherry Orchard (’71)
Just to show AP could do serious acting too, playing Doonyasha in Chekov’s classic. This was a time when the BBC (and ITV for that matter) broadcast serious plays regularly during peak viewing times, before they became engulfed in cookery programmes, lurid mini-series and Mrs Brown’s Boys.
As well as acting in many, many TV series, AP also appeared as a guest on myriad variety shows such Look! It’s Mike Yarwood, It’s Lulu and The Golden Shot. Like Judy Carne and Magpie’sSusan Stranks, she even appeared as a panelist on Juke Box Juryas a member of ‘the young generation’ (not Rolf Harris’s post-pubescent dance troupe…). And for a whole other generation she was a more than familiar face on TV and was rarely off it. But from the late 80s her appearances became rarer and really only popped up occasionally on Give Us A Clue and various other nostalgia shows. Why this was I’m not sure. Maybe she wanted to spend more time with her family and on her teaching. Most of her credits in recent years have been voice contributions to children’s series which although lucrative, deny us the pleasure of seeing her act at full tilt. These days, of course, she’d play much older characters which would be intriguing, not to say alluring.
Her most fascinating adventure, however, took place in the early 70s when she was invited to fly to the US to join the biggest show on telly at the time, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In (See Judy Carne below). One of its biggest stars Goldie Hawn was leaving and AP was pencilled in to replace her. As we all know it didn’t happen and why this was has been obscured by the mists of time. One plausible reason was that she was about to marry singer Graham Bonnet and didn’t want to commit herself to the regular journeys back and forward to the US. I wonder how she feels about this decision now given this marriage was short-lived? I am convinced she would have been brilliant in the show and who knows where she might have ended up as a result of it? We can only speculatate but I think we’d certainly have seen more of her on telly and in films than we did in later years.
Nowadays, I’d guess few people would remember Adrienne Posta without some heavy prompting but for a significant period she was one of the faces of the 70s. As well as appearing in iconic films and groundbreaking TV series she rubbed shoulders with towering pop stars of the time and even appeared on hit records. In short, she was sexy, funny, ubiquitous, a damn good actor and as 70s as Concorde, disco, platform shoes and Findus crispy pancakes. As a 70s icon, there are few whose credentials are more impressive or more memorable.