Tony Hatch: Composer Of The Soundtrack For The 60s And 70s

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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.

Don’t you just miss record labels?

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 BeatlesMichelle‘. 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.

Tony and Jackie rub shoulders with the great Scott Walker and ex-London bus driver Matt Monro

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.

Tony Hatch’s brilliant Crossroads theme.

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.

Stuart Damon looking cool, William Gaunt looking terrified

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.

With an action show you need an action theme…

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.

Hadleigh opening credits: Deconstruct

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 less than impressed with the quality of talent on show.

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.

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Adrienne Posta: The 70s ‘It’ Girl

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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 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, 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 fine and very versatile actress.

Her CV includes many of the great films and TV series of the 60s and 70s and she worked with many 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.

NO TIME FOR TEARS 1957 Anna Neagle, George Baker, Sylvia Syms UK ...

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.

Films

1. To Sir With Love (1967)
To Sir, with Love - Wikipedia
The themes may have been radical but the strapline was pure 60s.

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, GeoffreyCatweazleBayldon 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)
Sixties | Maureen Lipman, Suzy Kendall and Adrienne Posta in Up ...
Maureen Lipman, Suzy Kendall and AP

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 HyldaOoh, she knows y’knowBaker 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)
Film review – Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1968) | The Kim ...
Spot AP?

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 itpicture 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’s Diane 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)
Up Pompeii! to make a comeback : News 2019 : Chortle : The UK ...
Salut-ay!

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.

TV

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: almost as ubiquitous as AP in the early 70s!

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)
Graeme Wood on Twitter: "TV📺25/7/69 BBC1 6.20:Horse Show 6.40:The ...
Not a bad night’s telly… and Vosene bingo!

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.

Revived 45s - TOP OF THE POPS LPs
Put your 2/6 away son…

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, ‘The three must get ‘eres.’ You get the idea. AP was better than that.

3. Moody And Pegg (’74-’75)
TV Times coverage: Moody And Pegg (Aug 1974 - Aug 1975) by Frank ...

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.

Check out the wonderful theme tune!
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’s Susan Stranks, she even appeared as a panelist on Juke Box Jury as 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.

BBC Comedy – 1970's | Archive Television Musings
AP and Mike ‘And This Is Me’ Yarwood

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.

Adrienne Posta, we salute you !

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Budgie: A Monumental 70s Series

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The 70s may have been a trashy decade but Budgie proved high quality, innovative TV did exist

I’ve mentioned the good people at Talking Pictures TV a number of times in this little blog spot, not least about their broadcasting of the wonderfully surreal and hidden TV gem Sunday Night At The London Palladium (See Tarbuck Memories), and, true to form, recently they have introduced one of the great series of the 70s, Budgie starring Adam Faith and Iain Cuthbertson. This ‘must see’ TV has been criminally ignored for many years and although showing its age in some the attitudes (what 60s or 70s series doesn’t?) there is much to unpack culturally and I can’t wait to get stuck in!

As an 11 year old, along with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Avengers (much more on this to come), Budgie was one of the highlights of the viewing week. Going out on Friday nights at 9.00pm it had prime spot on the schedules and only two other channels to contend with, but Budgie knocked all its competitors into a cocked hat. And why wouldn’t it? Budgie’s credentials were top notch in all sorts of ways. Ironically, the low-life, seedy adventures of pathetic petty thief Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird alternated in 1971 with the upper-crust adventures of ultra-suave Gerald Harper‘s series Hadleigh. But it was Budgie that had the style despite his moral compass being worryingly askew in all sorts of ways. But that’s why he was believable as a dodgy 70s character, as were so many other characters in the series. To view a 70s drama through the moral prism of 2020 is a difficult thing to do, and Budgie inhabited a world very different in many ways to our own but in some ways nothing has changed. In fact, the writers, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall created a character who was, at the same time, despicable, immoral, pathetic but also sympathetic and even lovable. In other words they created a character who was totally believable for the times.

The first episode of Budgie, ‘Out‘, was broadcast by ITV on 9 April 1971 at 9.00pm on a Friday evening just after On The Buses and Hawaii Five-O. On BBC 1 it was up against The Dick Emery Show and Gala Performance, whatever that was, though it sounds faintly classical. Episode 2 the following week clashed with, again, Dick Emery and then Miss England 1971! There was a conundrum for the discerning viewer. If they didn’t approve of the filth featured in Budgie, they could switch channels for some good, clean, 70s female exploitation. And then they could watch Miss England 1971.

Dick Emery Show, The | Nostalgia Central
..but I like you.

The role of Budgie will always be synonymous with the late Adam Faith. A 60s pop star, he was spotted playing in a Soho skiffle group when he was plain old Terry Nelhams by 6-5 Special producer Jack Good and he went on to have over 20 top 40 hits, his most well-known being his early songs What Do You Want? and Poor Me. The great British film composer John Barry was also instrumental, so to speak, in setting Adam Faith, as he was renamed, on the road to success after his first records bombed. However, although pop stardom was fine and certainly lucrative, Faith’s dream was always to become an actor and while he appeared on the John Barry BBC pop vehicle Drumbeat, he was spotted and cast in the controversial 60s youth culture film, Beat Girl (1960). Controversial because anyone over the age of 40 in early 60s Britain was terrified by the idea of young people having their own culture. Just like today, youth culture is identified by certain older generations as being fuelled by drugs, sex and, of course, rock and roll. Sounded ok then and it sounds ok now. But Beat Girl had an ‘X’ certificate slapped on it immediately by those who knew better, so no young people could see it. Who knows what what might have happened to them if they had? Maybe they’d have had a good time. Although he didn’t exactly act in it, Adam Faith had the acting bug and various roles in theatre and TV began to come his way.

Faith then starred in the comedy film What A Whopper (1961) about some young people going to look for the Loch Ness Monster. The first film written by Laugh-In and Are You Being Served‘s Jeremy Lloyd (more about him throughout this blog), it was an inoffensive knock-about comedy that received poor reviews but kept Adam Faith in the acting public eye. With no writing or even acting credits at this point, Lloyd had his very first script accepted and made into a film. Wouldn’t happen nowadays but that’s how some people became famous in the 60s. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that was certainly true of Adam Faith too. Of course, it helped massively to be based in London.

What a Whopper (1961) - IMDb
Every actor has to start somewhere!

He was subsequently cast in Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s seminal 60s play, Billy Liar which toured the country including the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in 1968. Whether Waterhouse and Hall had Adam Faith in mind when they wrote the scripts for Budgie in 1970 is uncertain but it turned out to be a partnership made in TV heaven.

Initially the series was to be called The Loner but was eventually changed to Budgie. For me this was important as Adam Faith‘s eponymous character was a loner in some ways but that wasn’t the central conceit of the series. There were many facets to Budgie’s personality and being a loner was only one of them and all were explored to varying extents in each episode. The memorable theme music to Series 1 by The Milton Hunter Orchestra was also entitled The Loner and, for me, it really captured the mood of the character and the series. The dream-like orchestration and haunting melody of the opening credits providing a musical backdrop to the slow motion sequence of Budgie desperately trying to grab handfuls of cash floating in the wind, encapsulated the tone of the series and the character of Budgie. Success was always within his grasp but something invariably got in the way to deny it.

The brilliant theme music for series one of Budgie

For some reason the producers changed the theme music for Series 2 and replaced it with a song by the great Ray Davies of The Kinks. The song was called Nobody’s Fool and was performed by Ray Davies himself and Cold Turkey. It’s a decent song and the lyrics certainly reflected the character of Budgie accurately, but it didn’t match the haunting opening of Series 1. At the time I was convinced it was Adam Faith singing and believed this for many years until I found out recently it was Ray Davies. I wonder why they didn’t get Faith to do the theme himself? Maybe by this time he’d turned his back on singing and didn’t want to be associated with the ‘pop star’ Adam Faith?

Series 1 and 2 gave opportunities to three directors all making a name for themselves and each would go on to become well known in their own right. Mike Newell directed six episodes of Budgie and went on to direct Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and Donnie Brasco amongst many other successful films. Previously to Budgie he had directed the hugely controversial 60s gangland series Big Breadwinner Hog which caused inevitable outrage in the tabloids due its violent content. Michael Lindsay-Hogg became best known for directing videos of Beatles and Rolling Stones songs before videos were fashionable, he was also responsible for innovative episodes of Ready Steady Go and the classic ITV series of Brideshead Revisited. The third director was very unusual for 70s TV due to her being a woman. As well as episodes of Budgie, Moira Armstrong in a 50 year career directed some of the great TV series of all time including Adam Adamant Lives, The Troubleshooters, Z Cars and Testament of Youth plus many, many others. Few people will recognise her name but she was, and still is, one of the great TV directors of the last 50 years.

The style of Budgie was certainly experimental, the late 60s and early 70s being a fertile period for cinematic and narrative experimentation. Italian post-realism and French nouvelle vague often crept into scenes in Budgie. In one episode, for example, (Best Mates Series 1, episode 7) the director, Mike Newell even uses a hand-held camera, very innovative for the time, and there is the suggestion of jump-cutting in certain scenes, in Series 1, episode 3 when Budgie’s wife Jean (Georgina Hale) lambasts him for his uncaring lifestyle, and the camera uses striking fast cuts between close ups and medium close ups of the front and side of her face. This, of course, added to the freshness and alternative style of Budgie for the younger and slightly more sophisticated 70s audience.

The central character Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird was what was probably known at the time as a lovable rogue. But this would be too easy a description for an extremely complex character. He was lovable in many ways. The viewer couldn’t help but feel sorry for him when yet another scam crumbled before his eyes or slipped through his fingers, whether it be pornography, ballpoint pens or trading stamps. Despite being a petty criminal he had a heart and was never violent, though he threatened it occasionally for show. He couldn’t stop himself trying to help people who were down on their luck. He appeared to have few friends, hence ‘the loner’ epithet, only dodgy acquaintances, and appeared to see Charlie Endell as a father figure, his own father being a loser and having no interest in him. He was the sort of man who preferred female to male company despite the fact he couldn’t settle down with any one woman. His refusal to accept his own child also suggested a streak of self-disgust in himself.

It’s also fair to say the series Budgie would not have been the same without Iain Cuthbertsons brilliant turn as sleazy ‘businessman’ and supposed father figure Charlie Endell. Often funny, always sarcastic, sometimes threatening, he used Budgie as a kicking stool, towards the end even literally. Like Budgie’s yearning for financial stability, Charlie Endell desperately wanted respectability. In a strange sort of way he was a template for Paul Raymond, Soho’s pornographer in chief during the 70s, 80s and 90’s, and he did achieve respectability of sorts, becoming one of the UK’s richest men. As became the case in the latter part of the 20th century with Thatcherism, wealth did bring respectability, irrespective of where the money came from.

The character of Charlie Endell proved so enduring that he was given his own series Charles Endell Esquire by STV in 1979. After two well reviewed episodes a TV technicians’ strike (again) curtailed its run and it would be a year before the series was rerun, although some erroneous reports claim the remaining four episodes were never shown. The series followed Charlie (played again by the excellent Iain Cuthbertson. Listen to the way he pronounces the word ‘juice’) being released from a long jail sentence and returning to his native Glasgow to pick up the pieces of his life. Also featuring a range of great Scottish actors including Gerrard Kelly, Rikki Fulton and Russell Hunter, the hiatus allowed the programme to go off the boil and a projected second series never happened.

I’m definitely back……

The setting of Budgie also gave a fascinating, and probably accurate insight into the Soho scene and certain parts of London at the time. A dark, grubby underworld populated by petty criminals, pornographers, prostitutes, strippers and bent coppers. In a weird sort of way, for viewers living a long way from The Smoke like myself, it still seemed slightly glamorous and exciting. Maybe not so much now but it’s still certainly intriguing and a touch nostalgic.

The series dealt with a range of morally ambiguous issues which were really only beginning to be acknowledged in the early 70s, and, even now, it’s easy to see why Budgie was quite controversial during this heyday of Mary Whitehouse and her fellow God-botherers, the Association of Viewers and Listeners. Illegal immigrants and some extremely old-fashioned and shocking racist language (Mrs Whitehouse didn’t seem to have any problem with this storyline), pornogaphy, co-habiting, single parenthood, selling babies and even the representation of a petty thief and philanderer as a sympathetic character were all relatively provocative subjects for the time and were dealt with in the series. Some of the treatments and the language used would not, obviously, be acceptable nowadays but that’s par for the course for programmes of this period, but most of us are intelligent enough to put these issues into a modern context.

The representation of women in Budgie was also quite groundbreaking in some ways though deeply conservative and orthodox for the time in others. The main female character, Budgie’s girlfriend and mother of his child, Hazel (Lynn Dalby), is a long suffering but resilient figure. She puts up with more than most women would with him but is fairly self-sufficient and certainly doesn’t rely on him. She gives as good as she gets and is quite prepared and unashamed to be a single parent at a time when unmarried mothers were still talked about in hushed tones. One does wonder why such an intelligent and strong woman would waste her time with such a loser but it’s just as well that she did as their relationship provided a central and hugely entertaining element of the series. Budgie’s wife, Jean (Georgina Hale), is a similar sort of character to Hazel, though slightly more irritating. It’s maybe a weakness of the series that two strong, intelligent women would waste their time on such a failure as Budgie but, as I’ve said, the 70s were a different time.

One other female character of note who I feel I must mention, appeared in the first episode of Series 1. That doyenne of so many 70s programmes and all-round 70s icon (and I really don’t use that overused term undeservingly), Adrienne Posta. Appearing in the very first Budgie episode ‘Out‘, she played the Salford stripper, an ’employee’ of Charlie Endell. Budgie was given the task of looking after her for a while and, of course, the story wrote itself as it so often did in Budgie. In a plotline that would never see the light of day in our more enlightened times, she was supposedly 15 (although in reality she was and looked 22), the rather grim 70s immorality was compounded when she ran off with Budgie’s much older pal, Rogan. There is so much to say about this actress who anyone over the age of 55 will remember, if not her name, certainly her face, as she appeared in many classic films and TV programmes of the 60s and 70s. Much more about this 70s ‘It Girl’ coming very soon on Genxculture.com!

Do You Know Who Adrienne Posta Is ? - ProProfs Quiz
The wonderful Adrienne Posta as The Salford stripper’

Other classic British character actors who appeared at various times in Budgie included Gordon ‘Mr Hudson’ Jackson as a dodgy minister, John ‘Regan’ Thaw as an unlikely gay character, James Bolam, Derek Jacobi, Matthew Corbett (yes, that Matthew Corbett) and one of Stanley Kubrick’s favourite actors, the excellent Philip Stone. Even Golden Girl and wife of The TremeloesChip Hawkes, the lovely Carol Dilworth, turned up in Series 1 (Everyone Loves A Baby)! (See Like A Bolt from The Blue: The Golden Shot).

The second series of Budgie ended on the 14 July 1972 and a planned third series never happened due to Adam Faith being seriously injured in a motor accident and retiring from acting for a long while. Faith did return and as well as acting in a string of well-received films such as MacVicar and Stardust with David Essex and an unlikely but unsuccessful musical version of Budgie, he also managed Leo Sayer (well, he was quite good at the time) and produced Roger Daltrey’s solo album. He became a successful financial journalist and even established a financial TV channel which, unfortunately for him, was one financial step too far and it failed badly.

Stardust (1974) - IMDb
Wow! Adam Faith and JR Ewing….

Faith died tragically young at the age of only 62 of a heart condition and although he will be remembered by many as a huge pop star of the early 60s, for most people of my age, I would argue, he will be remembered as Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird, petty thief, loser, loner, lovable rogue and one of the groundbreaking central anti-heroes of the 70s.

And I haven’t even mentioned Budgie jackets….

The height of fashion! (once)
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Don’t Watch Alone: A Curiously 70s Frightfest

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It may have been manna from heaven for an 11 year horror fan but it didn’t always live up to the hype.

The UK was a ferociously moral country in the late 60s and early 70s, or so it liked to think. Sundays were particularly dreadful occasions where only certain shops opened in the morning to sell Sunday papers and rolls, pubs only opened at lunchtime and parks were no-go areas for kids. It’s become a cliche these days but the swings really were chained up. And I remember very well being chased out of the park on a number of occasions by the fascistic Park Patrol for playing football on a Sunday afternoon.

Weekday television was very much a stop-start affair with Watch With Mother and the news being on at lunchtime then the two-channel TV would close down until Jackanory at 4.45. It would close down again at about 11.30 from Sunday till Thursday. Broadcasters, maybe at the behest of Governments, put the most boring programmes they could think of right at the end of the day. In Scotland the religious Thought For The Day type programme, Late Call took lugubriousness to a new height and sent people to bed a bit sooner than they’d probably have liked to. The programmes just before this last dose of monotony weren’t much better. So, in effect, from Sunday to Thursday TV effectively shut down at 10, or 1030 if you wanted to watch News at Ten. And the festivities didn’t end there. We still had the National Anthem to look forward to! And this brought the days broadcasting, mercifully, to an end.

However, Fridays and Saturdays were deemed appropriate times for the General Public to let their hair down and, for this reason, TV (all three channels of it by this time) did not close down at 11.30 as it did Sunday to Thursday, but was extended sometimes until nearly 1.00am! Because, of course, most people didn’t have work on a Saturday and Sunday morning so it wasn’t necessary to help get them up at the weekend. Jesus, how it didn’t lead to bloody revolution on the streets I’ll never know, but decent people knew their place in those days. ‘Protestant’, ‘work’ and ‘ethic’ were very much part of life then.

With this relaxation of standards, not to mention morals, in mind, STV launched a strand of films for a Friday night around 1969 which they dubbed provocatively Don’t Watch Alone. This took the form of a horror film being broadcast beginning at about 11.00 and which was heavily hyped throughout the evening. ‘Watch if you dare, but don’t watch alone!’ Now this sounded pretty enticing to me, as it did to most of the kids in my class at school. It was the major viewing event of the week and if you got to watch it, it provided a whole week’s playground conversation, not to mention a bit of towering superiority over those with stricter parents. In fact, myself and a few other pals used to regularly have a Monster quiz about the films shown on Don’t Watch Alone and became pretty knowledgable about this particular genre. Luckily for me, as I’ve mentioned before, my parents were pretty liberal about what I watched and they were quite happy to go to bed on a Friday night and leave me to watch Don’t Watch Alone, alone!

For the ITV companies it was no-brainer. They got some extra advertising revenue, pretty decent viewing figures for that time of night (remember pubs closed their doors at a modest 10.30 then!) and the films they showed will not have cost a great deal as they were all low-budget, often ‘B’ movies and some were very old indeed. What also needs to be remembered about this moralistic time, horror films, or what was deemed ‘horror’, still attracted an ‘X’ certificate if they were shown in the cinema, and cinemas did show old and sometimes very old films as part of their weekly programme. Even ancient curiosities like the original James Whale Frankenstein from 1931 was thought by the censors (yes, they were called censors in those days) to be a threat to viewers of a more sensitive disposition. And remember this was a long time before video recording at home, so this type of offering was a real treat! Especially if you were 11 years old…

Like so many things though, the anticipation was often more enjoyable than the film itself. STV obviously ratcheted up the excitement by having a few trailers during the Friday night and they usually used the original cinema trailers for the films featured. I’m not sure what I really expected but it was usually more than what was delivered. Too regularly I wasn’t even frightened to put the lights out before I went up to my bed.

The problem was, of course, the definition of horror. For me horror was Dracula, Frankenstein (although I was never convinced by it), The Mummy and The Wolfman (more like it). But once those fairly obvious examples were shown, then what? And this is where the strand began to lose its appeal slightly. STV’s view was certainly wide and varied, but this meant I watched some very good films with excellent credentials but felt cheated because they weren’t really scary. I know this now, of course, but an 11 year old’s critical faculties are relatively limited to say the least. And I’ll also admit to not seeing all the films all the way through but being woken up by the end credits, which maybe said more about the film on offer than anything else. But after the more predictable fare, a few real oddities were aired, sometimes, I’m convinced, because the STV film buyer just looked at the title of the film and through, ‘That’ll do.’

One example of this was a film called Night Creatures. To be fair it sounds faintly horror genre-esque, and it was made by Hammer and starred the great Peter Cushing and a young Oliver Reed, but it really wasn’t and apart from a relatively creepy opening, it turned out just to be a yarn about smugglers in the 18th century. The Terror of the Tong was, as the title suggests, about the Chinese secret mafia-type organisation. The word ‘Terror’ obviously struck a chord with the scheduler but apart from a few mild torture scenes and Christopher Lee hamming it up in heavy Oriental make-up, it was a disappointment and one I did not see through till the end.

Many of the real horror films broadcast could be slow, including many false shocks and blind alleys, and many just built up to the horror money shot at the end. An abominable creature suddenly seen, a character hideously deformed or a beast manifesting itself for the first (and last) time. In the days before videos and freeze framing, it was vital these climaxes were not dwelt upon by the camera incase the viewer would spot the joins in the cheaply produced rubber mask applied to the creature. An example of this type of film was The Gorgon. It also has to be remembered that in the very early 70s no one had a colour TV and even if they did, few programmes, even films, were broadcast in colour. So a film like The Gorgon which relied on some gloriously colourful scenes lost almost all its impact through being shown in monochrome.

It may have petrified the screen with horror but that was about all it petrified. But you can see where they were coming from. It was the classic horror film that alluded to the monster and suggested the monster but until the last few minutes, didn’t show the monster. They hoped the brief glimpse, and it really was a brief glimpse, of The Gorgon at the end would satisfy the casual viewer but it was thin gruel. The Gorgon, to be fair, was a very good Hammer production, but we wanted more!

Hammer's First Female Monster: Prudence Hyman (The Gorgon, 1964 ...
Not great. Even if you were watching alone.

When a film featured certain actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, this sometimes gave the scheduler a good idea as to whether the film would be suitable for inclusion in the strand. The always excellent Vincent Price was another favourite and appeared regularly in the late Friday night slot. The Fly, long before the superb David Cronenberg version, was a typical Price vehicle which was a decent film and even the big reveal when the main character walked into the room wearing the plastic head of a fly seemed pretty impressive. Seeing it now, it just looks funny, but these were different times.

50 Years Too Late: The Fly and The Scream
Superb 50s horror

Vincent Price was a regular Don’t Watch Alone performer and his collaborations with horror directors Willam Castle and Roger Corman graced many a late Friday night. Castle was the perfect director for this late night strand. His films were flashy, employed all the techniques necessary for effective shockers and his subject matter was always on the money, certainly for a 12 year old viewer.

The Tingler, one of his collaborations with Vincent Price, was an excellent example of his art. Using a range of gimmicks to scare the 50s audience, it tells the story of a pathologist who believes there is a creature inside all of us, The Tingler, which looks like a small lobster, and emerges when we become frightened but is controlled if we scream. Again, it included the money shot of The Tingler’s reveal. But there was more to this film than just that. It was one of the first films to include a colour sequence in a predominantly black and white film, with a bath of red blood shown right in the middle of the film. Not of much use when watching it on a monochrome telly but the intention was there. And it was perfect material for a dark Friday night. Price also starred In Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill, also an effective shocker, which I can’t recall being on DWA but should have been.

The Tingler: Glasgow Film Festival 2011: Review
The Tingler: Cool or what?

Another of Castle’s productions which featured on DWA was Mr Sardonicus. Another of the films which led up to the big reveal. Mr Sardonicus spends the whole film hiding behind an, albeit quite creepy mask, and we learn that his face is too frightening to show after an unfortunate grave-robbing incident years previously. The late money shot when his mask is dramatically removed is impressive but not quite the effort of trying to stay awake for in the wee small hours of a Saturday morning. It was quite impressive though…

Mr Sardonicus (1961) [31 Days of American Horror Review] – BIG ...
The effects of cheap 60s botox.

But one film I recall very clearly and, for me, was the most effective and, at the time for a 12 year old, genuinely scary was William Castle‘s film Homicidal. An old dark house mystery involving very strange, unfamiliar characters, Castle uses a range of gimmicks to wind up the audience, including a ‘countdown’ where viewers in the cinema can leave before the heroine enters the house near the end of the film. This, of course, ratchets up the tension and viewers were not disappointed when the heroine did go back into the house. Too see the film nowadays as an adult familiar with the tropes and exhibition of a film, the conceit, or twist, would be spotted straight away, but for a 12 year old it worked a treat! One of the few nights I really didn’t want to turn the lights out! Later films such as Sleuth used a similar gimmick which really didn’t work, but, for me, Homicidal was probably the most memorable film ever shown in this Friday night slot. William Castle’s gimmickry could have been invented for young viewers like myself.

Now that’s cinema!

Although not in Homicidal, Vincent Price had appeared in other Castle vehicles as well those of Roger Corman. The Corman films were just a little too high quality for the late night film, which says more about the non-Corman films. I remember starting to watch The Masque of the Red Death and not managing much more than half an hour of it before falling asleep. Having seen it again the lush technicolour turns it in to a very different experience from that of the black and white version. However, Edgar Alan Poe is very wordy for children and, of course, nothing particularly scary happens apart from someone being burnt alive, being shot with an arrow in the throat and stabbed with a poisoned dagger. Thin gruel for a 13 year old horror fan. This was also true of The Pit and The Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher, both featured on DWA.

Masque of the Red Death | Teleport City
If only I’d seen it in bloodthirsty colour!

Another actor who turned up quite regularly in DWA presentations was Oliver Reed. He plays a werewolf in Hammer’s excellent 1961 film go Curse of the Werewolf. This was the type of horror flick we were desperate for in the Don’t Watch Alone strand. Bloodthirsty, violent, quite narratively intelligent and involving monsters, in this case werewolves of which we were familiar.

Another Ollie Reed film shown in the DWA series was Paranoiac where he played a young spoiled drunk whose supposedly dead brother turns up just as he was about to inherit the family fortune. More of a psychological thriller than a horror film but a story with a twist which not only kept you interested but featured an excellent performance by Reed. I’ve always been a fan of Ollie Reed as an actor as he always brought a certain gravitas and presence to any film he appeared in, irrespective of the quality of the production. In the excellent biography ‘What Fresh Lunacy Is This?‘ by Robert Sellers, the story is told of how a friend of Reed’s bet him that he couldn’t drink 100 pints of beer in a day. Reed not only won the bet but did a handstand in the middle of the pub just to underline the achievement. Although his behaviour rubbed many of his co-stars up the wrong way, not one of them criticised his acting ability or his reliability on set. He always turned up on time and delivered his lines perfectly.

Cinedelica: Paranoiac (1962) heads to DVD and Blu-ray

It’s fair to say STV began to struggle to find suitable films for Don’t Watch Alone after a couple of years given the wafer-thin budget available to them and many of the later films were more thriller than horror. But for a brief time in the early 70s late Friday nights was horror central. And although few films lived up to the hype it was a great introduction to a range of films which otherwise would not have been available to very young film fans.

We did dare to watch and we did watch alone. Didn’t do me any harm……

Mr. Sardonicus - Wikipedia
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The Lost World Of TV Ventriloquism

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It was a mainstay of 60s and 70s variety and is still sadly missed (by me at least)

Magic (1978) | THE FILM YAP

One might argue that whenever Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are in the same room, the art of ventriloquism will never die. But the 60s and 70s were the decades of TV ‘variety.’ It’s what programme schedulers thought the Great Viewing Public wanted, and they were probably right at the time. Three channels wasn’t a huge amount of choice and so it was easy to get big viewing figures if you gave some popular performers their own shows. Cilla, Dusty, Lulu, Englebert, Cliff, Val, Des and Tarby all had their own shows, and if you factor in all the quiz and comedy vehicles that were around also, this was a fecund time for ‘B’ list variety performers, as these shows desperately needed a wide range of guest acts. As well as (even more) singers, comedians, magicians and dancers it was also a good time for novelty acts of which ventriloquists were at the top of the tree. It was vital to vary the guest acts on any of those programmes, hence the description ‘variety’.

In the 60s and 70s ventriloquists were as common as magicians and were a peculiarly old fashioned act dating back to the music halls. In those days bad ventriloquists could get away with murder as they were suitably far away from the audience therefore few could see their lips move, so it was really only the best that made it on to the prying eye of TV. That said, some truly bad ventriloquists did slip through the net. More on them later. For me, it was an act that is greatly missed and there really aren’t many platforms for them now, Nina Conti excepted, which is sad but I feel a celebration of the best of them is certainly in order. But we have to start with one of the greatest and a truly 60s personality in many ways. Lenny The Lion!

1. Terry Hall and Lenny the Lion

Lenny happens to be one of my earliest TV memories and I have a very clear recollection of watching The Lenny The Lion Show in the early 60s. Terry Hall was from Oldham and started ventriloquism at the age of 15. He was one of the first to develop a non-human character in the shape of Lenny. Most people in the 50s were still listening, yes ‘listening’, to ventriloquist Peter Brough and Archie Andrews on the radio and Lenny was one of the first to make that crossover on to TV.

Lenny was a hugely endearing character who was the campest ventriloquist’s puppet ever. He talked in a high-pitched voice with a slight speech impediment where he couldn’t pronounce his ‘r’s and had a right hand that gesticulated wildly, his catchphrase being, ‘Aw, don’t embawass me!‘ In later years he appeared in a range of TV ads for Trebor Mints, or in Lenny’s case, ‘Twebor Mints‘. In the early days of the act Lenny had a set of very ferocious teeth but these were removed when it occurred to Terry Hall they might frighten children.

Lenny and the lovely second-on-the-bill Petula

Lenny’s first TV appearance was on a 1956 comedy show which also featured the TV debut of Eric Sykes in a one-off comedy called Dress Rehearsal. A year later Lenny got his own show, not unreasonably titled The Lenny the Lion Show. This lasted until 1961 and featured a range of tried and tested MOR guest acts including Petula Clark, Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson (Sing Little Birdie!) and the ubiquitous Russ Conway. Norman Vaughan (London Palladium, The Golden Shot, Bullseye) was a regular contributor during series 5 in 1961 and another interesting footnote about series 4 was that one of the writers was, of all people, Pat Phoenix (the legendary Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street). How queer!

It was around this time that Lenny and Terry paid a visit to Millwall’s ground, The (old) Den, where he was photographed with players and fans. Millwall’s nickname is The Lions and it was an illustration of Lenny’s fame at the time that he was invited to make what must have been a memorable appearance. As far as I can find there are no pictures of this momentous event available, unless you know differently? Also in 1958 Lenny The Lion went to the US and appeared on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show.

16 May 1963
The Beatles on Pops and Lenny

Lenny’s next series was the one that made his name properly and launched him into 60s superstardom, Pops and Lennie. TV was just coming to terms with the cultural revolution that was happening in the UK at the time. 1962 was the year The Beatles were launched into the stratosphere and every TV show wanted a piece of the action. With this in mind the BBC chose Lenny as the unlikely host of one of their first ‘pop’ programmes. Maybe they thought it was only the very young who would have any interest in this new ‘pop’ phenomenon. Either way, it was an inspired choice. On 16 May 1963 The Beatles, on only their second TV appearance, appeared on Pops and Lenny playing their new single ‘From Me To You‘ and then ‘Please Please Me‘. Of course, in yet another act of cultural vandalism the tapes of this performance were wiped but a couple of other acts from PAL do still exist. Like so many variety programmes at the time the show was an uncertain balance between the old and the new. As well as The Beatles, new breakthrough acts like Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Tornados and Jet Harris and Tony Meehan (ex of The Shadows) were featured but more unthreatening MOR artists also appeared such as Craig Douglas, Acker Bilk and Bert Weedon (We are normal, we dig Bert Weedon), so as not to frighten too many of the horses. The Craig Douglas sequence still exists and the intro and outro by Lenny gives a great example of his camp-as-anything but very distinctive schtick.

The great Lenny with Craig Douglas who not an actor or dancer be…

A fascinating spin-off from this series was that David Bowie‘s dad, Hayward Jones worked on the show and, as his son was a big Lenny fan, launched the Lenny the Lion Fan Club. These are the sort of diamonds in the trivia rough that make life so much more interesting.

So long as telly still featured ‘variety’ there was always a spot for Lenny and he continued to appear right up to the 80s where he made a guest appearance on Rainbow, Crackerjack and had his own educational series for children, Reading With Lenny. Seaside and Panto roles were also regular and he appeared on the same bill with some curious lineups. He had his own strip cartoon in the children’s comic TV Comic.

Lenny The Lion was as important to growing up in the 60s as Blue Peter and Crackerjack were. He released a number of records and even had his own song.

I’m Lenny The Lion and I’d like to say

I’m strong and ferocious, but not in that way

I wish I had courage and I’d shout out with glee

That I’m Lenny The Lion, so don’t embawass me!

Truly a sixties icon and a shining example of the ventriloquist’s art.

2. Ray Alan and Lord Charles/ Tich and Quackers

In the world of ‘vents’, and there were quite a few of them, Ray Alan was generally seen as the the best around. Not only was it virtually impossible to see his lips move, but he had a number of characters he worked with, each with not only a different voice but also with different accents. There was more to Ray Alan than purely ventriloquism, however. Like magician David Nixon (See Tarbuck Memories below) he was a consummate and natural TV performer and was a regular guest on panel shows and as presenter. But it was ventriloquism that launched his career and, like Lenny the Lion, his shows were also very early TV memories for me.

The first Ray Alan vehicle I recall was The Tich and Quackers Show. Tich was a small schoolboy in a blazer and hair that stuck up like a policeman’s helmet. Quackers was a duck who really only quacked and was operated by one Tony Hart of ‘Take Hart‘ and Vision On fame, who, incidentally also provided artwork for the Lenny the Lion Show. Tich’s catchphrase was, ‘Ehhh ya daft dook!Tich and Quackers had a show between 1963 and 1968, 141 episodes in all and despite this, sadly, little footage of them seems to exist other than still photographs. Like Lenny the Lion they even had their own comic strip in TV Comic which lasted until 1971, well after Ray Alan stopped performing with them. Tich and Quackers even muscled in to The Beatles‘ ubiquity (who didn’t?) by releasing a single entitled ‘Santa Bring Me Ringo‘ in 1964.

The Tich and Quackers Show attracted a who’s who of 60s musical talent, arguably better than Lenny’s line-ups although, to be fair, T and Q didn’t manage to get The Beatles. Adam Faith, The Tremeloes, The Love Affair, Lulu, Sandy Shaw and The Merseybeats all graced the T and Q studios. Weirdly, for Scottish readers, the guest list even included Scottish folk singing stalwarts Robin Hall and Jimmy Mcgregor!

It was only when Ray Alan introduced his latest creation Lord Charles, that his guest spot credentials rose hugely. Lord Charles was an upper-class, always slightly sloshed, monocled aristocrat with an eye for the ladies. His catchphrase, ‘You silly arse‘ was quite risqué for peak time broadcasting but no one seemed to notice. Lord Charles and Ray Alan guested on pretty much every variety show available in the 60s and 70s. He was popular on these types of shows because he was good at what he did, his act was generally funny (not all vents were, read on!), his act was easy to set up and film and the star of the show could always have an amusing rap with Lord Charles as Ray Alan was an excellent ad libber. He appeared on shows during the late 60s and all of the 70s including Sunday Night at the London Palladium, The Val Doonican Show, Dee Time, It’s Lulu!, David Nixon’s Magic Box and The Golden Shot (hurrah!) amongst many others. He also probably holds the record for the number of appearances on The Good Old Days (16), that torturous, interminable, utterly tedious Friday night experience. God, I hated The Good Old Days. But if he was on, it at least lessened the monotony a little.

In 1954 Ray Alan, just starting out in his career, was suddenly thrust into the literal limelight when he got the gig to support Laurel and Hardy in their UK theatres farewell tour. Comedy legend Harry Worth, who was a ventriloquist at the time, had to pull out and Ray Alan was asked to replace him. It was while working with the legendary pair that he got the idea for Lord Charles after studying Stan Laurel‘s face and a little later Alan spotted a posh and slightly pissed spectator at a cabaret event and Lord Charles was born. His slightly irreverent brand of humour and technically brilliant technique always brightened up those shockingly formulaic star vehicles and highlighted how much these acts are missed. So long, of course, as the ‘vents’ were good at their job, but sadly this wasn’t always the case.

3. Roger De Courcey and Nookie Bear

Step forward Roger de Courcey and Nookie Bear. De Courcey was the winner of the 1976 New Faces Grand Final which suggests there must have been a paucity of contenders that particular year. In fact, he beat the Ukranian Black Sea Cossacks, comedy trio Bollards, vocal group Piggleswick and, of all people, Andy Cameron who was also competing in that 1976 clash of the titans.

His act was fairly one dimensional, featuring a slightly boss-eyed bear called Nookie whose voice sounded oddly similar to Roger De Courcey’s. It wasn’t that he was a bad ventriloquist, he just wasn’t very funny. And Nookie’s voice had no comedy strangeness to it, he just sounded like a dull old man. And sometimes you couldn’t really make out what he was saying, which was maybe deliberate.

Now For Nookie - Roger de Coursey & Nookie The Bear DVD: Amazon.co ...
And what was the rosette all about?

In 1981 Southern TV gave Nookie his own series entitled Now For Nookie, which was about the funniest element of the show. That said, no nookie was in evidence during this most amateur of spectacles and the routines between De Courcey and Nookie were lugubrious to say the least. The one memorable element of this short-lived confection was the line-up of guest performers, which read like an A-B of ‘D’ list artists and even a couple ‘A’ listers whose stock had fallen worryingly in the late 70s. Lulu, Clodagh Rodgers, the inevitable Vince Hill and even more inevitable Bernie Winters and Schnorbitz all guested on the show and indulged in a bit of mildly amusing knockabout banter with the mournful Nookie. It’s unlikely Anita Harris, another 70s guesting luminary, was asked how much she liked Nookie as the show was going out at 5.00pm. That would have been funny though.

In his spare time Roger de Courcey was and still is also an agent for the likes of Rick Wakeman and David ‘Kid’ Jensen. Under the banner Dick Horsey Management (geddit?) he also looks after clients as wide and varied as the Single Ply Roofing Association, Biggleswade FC and Yorkshire Cricket Club.

Sadly Roger’s ‘venting’ act was not quite so wide and varied, but he was following the likes of Ray Alan and Terry Hall. Tough acts to follow. But there was always The Wheeltappers and Shunters.

4. Keith Harris and Orville

So far the vents featured were fairly run-of-the-mill people, varying in abilities but other than their talent, little to make them stand out. Nothing wrong with that, the 60s and 70s were relatively sober times for most. But what about Keith Harris? It’s fair to say that his private life tended to eclipse his professional life, such was the rollercoaster he rode in his later years. And it was also the time when showbiz gossip was invented.

Keith Harris came from a showbiz family, both his parents were performers and part of his dad’s act was ventriloquism. In fact, the young Keith actually worked as his dad’s dummy by sitting on his knee and just opening his mouth in time to his dad’s venting. By the mid 70s after stints with that most 60s of shows, The Black and White Minstrels, Harris got his own show which was broadcast at lunchtime, Cuddles and Co. Cuddles was a big red monkey and had a few friends who joined him. One of them eventually became the character Keith Harris is most identified with, the green, feathery duck with the mournful voice and huge nappy, Orville. As a vent Harris was pretty good and Orville was a sensation. For a while.

Keith Harris - Birmingham Live
Keith and Cuddles. Nice purple jump suit!

The success of Orville eventually led to Harris getting his own prime time show on a Saturday evening which ran from 1982 till 1990. And Orville managed what neither Lenny the Lion or Tich and Quackers could, he had a huge top 10 hit in 1982. I Wish I Could Fly sold over 400,000 copies getting to number 4 in the charts at time when you had to sell shed loads to get into the charts. It was even written by talent show royalty, the legendary Bobby Crush! That said, it became one of the most irritating records of all time and some recent polls have voted it the worst record ever released. Praise indeed! Throughout the course of the 80s Keith and Orville went from strength to strength, but, like the public’s perception of the record, TV fell out of love with Keith and Orville and his career took a downward spiral. Times were changing and harmless variety became old hat, people wanted something with more of a bite which ruled out Keith and Orville for a start. They still appeared in many quiz shows, pantos, summer seasons and even became a subject for Louis Theroux, where Keith came across as slightly bitter about the way TV had turned its back on him.

But the winds of change blew in an unexpected way in the late 80s, early 90s. What The Stage magazine described as ‘..knowing post-modern irony‘ created a whole new career for Keith and he suddenly began appearing on TV again. Programmes like Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Peter Kay’s Is This The Way To Amarillo video, Harry Hill and Banzai all featured K and O and he even won the reality show The Farm in 2005. An offer to be in the second series of Extras was turned down as it required him to pretend to be a bigot and racist. ‘Filth‘ he called it but he was old school and drew a veil over his association with The Black and White Minstrels.

Priory Antiques | Keith Harris (with Orville and Cuddles) in their ...
A 70s line-up made in TV heaven

In what was a tough decade for Keith the three Ds were never far away: drink, depression and divorce. In fact, he was married and divorced three times in a 12 year period. Only Orville was a constant for him and that’s how he would have wanted to be remembered and he certainly is remembered. And not just for that irritating song.

All in all vents have entertained us for many years and with the very good Nina Conti, ventriloquism has almost become fashionable again and not just in an ironic way. People like Ray Alan and Terry Hall were mainstays of the variety scene and created characters who wouldn’t seem out of place even today. They added a bit of genuine fun to some shockingly dull variety vehicles and were truly associated with some of the best moments of the 60s and 70s. And for that I thank them. And I haven’t even mentioned the great Basil Brush!

Yet.

Basil Brush Show, The (BBC-1 1968-1980, 2002-2007) | Memorable TV

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Magical Mystery Tour: What A Long Strange Trip It Was

One of the longest, strangest, most groundbreaking trips of the 60s

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It may have scandalised the Great British Viewing Public but Magical Mystery Tour was one of the longest, strangest, most groundbreaking trips of the 60s

All light entertainment is only one step away from surrealism.

Antony Wall: Editor of Arena

Anyone who didn’t live through the sixties will not know just what a big deal The Beatles were. They dominated every aspect of culture, and not just popular culture. They were mentioned in every TV show and sitcom, every news magazine programme, loads of documentaries were made analysing their effect on society, you could buy Beatles-related tat in every shop, they even turned up in Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book in the four vultures (Disney wanted The Beatles to voice these characters but some reports claim they were unavailable and some claim Lennon was dead against it as it trivialised their music).

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The UK of the 60s was a very conservative country in its attitudes, beliefs and morals. Up until 1966 many people were prepared to accept The Beatles, as their music was amazing and appealed to a wide range of the general public, not just kids. But the UK was not ready to embrace psychedelia, surrealism or experimentation. Britain was a meat and two veg nation and you could keep your fancy French Nouvelle Vague and Italian Post Neo-realism, thank you. Films such as Antonioni’s Blow Up had just been released, Spike Milligan had been making bizarre and hilarious comedy for years and ground-breaking music had been created by The Beatles themselves on Sergeant Pepper. As Thunderclap Newman so rightly observed only a couple of short years later, there was definitely something in the air.

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The most brilliant 60s film of all…

And something had also been happening in the British film industry and much of it revolved around Dick Lester who directed The Beatles‘ first two films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Lester eschewed conventional narrative and loved to inject his films and TV productions with an anarchic humour and surreal look. His previous productions included the unconventional A Show Called Fred with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers and The Running, Jumping Standing Still Film, a goon-like short comedy film also with Milligan and Sellers. As fans of off-beat comedy it’s easy to see why The Beatles saw Lester as a good fit for their first cinematic adventures. For Help! Lester brought in writer Charles Wood, who had co-written that most 60s of films The Knack…And How To Get It‘ in 1965 before going on to write the screenplay for Milligan and John Antrobus’s anti war surreal classic The Bed-Sitting Room. The Running, Jumping, Standing Still film, which was a favourite of Lennon’s and he brought in Dick Lester on the strength of this. One wonders if the band had brought in Lester to co-direct there might have been more of a structure or even editorial rigour to MMT, but, then again, it would not have been The Beatles‘ unadulterated vision. In fact, Dick Lester had advised The Beatles to write, direct and produce their next film after Help! themselves.

I remember vividly going with my mum and younger brother to see Help! when it was released in 1965 at the Astoria picture house in Corstorphine, Edinburgh. My mum would have been in her late 20s at the time and I know she quite liked The Beatles music, we even had a couple of Beatles LPs sitting on the radiogram at home. But we left the pictures with her thinking it was a lot of rubbish. The Beatles had started to leave many of her age group behind. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They were beginning to move from pop to experimental and psychedelic rock, a move they would complete with the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. And it was at this point in their career that things were changing profoundly in all sorts of ways. They were becoming the adult-orientated Beatles rather than the unthreatening cuddly mop tops so beloved by teenagers and many adults.

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They were at the peak of their creative and financial powers. They could do what the hell they wanted, when they wanted to do it, who they wanted to do it with. In short, they were invincible. And then Magical Mystery Tour began to hatch out in Paul’s mind. When Brian Epstein died just before MMT they no longer had this sounding board, an arbiter of what might be successful and what might not. Rumours abounded that the relationship between the Fab Four and Epstein weren’t great but one wonders if MMT would have got off the ground with Epstein on board or, if it had, it may have looked quite different. We will, of course, never know.

It’s generally accepted that it was McCartney’s brainchild and, mostly unknown to the general public, cracks had begun to appear in the band’s relationships. John was beginning to resent Paul trying to take over the direction of the band, Paul was unhappy that the other members were becoming so obsessed with the Maharishi, George was becoming very frustrated at the few songs of his that were being included on their albums and Ringo was starting to feel sidelined as he had not contributed much to the various projects over the past few years. Paul, therefore, thought that MMT, the music but particularly the film, would keep the other Beatles away from India and help them focus on a new creative venture, unfettered by producers, directors or managers, now that Epstein was gone.

The idea was influenced by a number of things. Paul had heard of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters while in San Francisco, a group of hippies who drove around the US in a psychedelic bus promoting the wonders of LSD. He also had fond memories of mystery bus tours from Liverpool during his childhood, as did all the Beatles. The idea of a mystery tour really appealed to him particularly as it could incorporate the changing social drug scene and the fact their experimentation with LSD was at its peak. The metaphor of a ‘magical mystery tour’, driving around the English countryside with a busload of strange and not so strange people, waiting for something to happen, improvising dialogue, making it up on the hoof and filming it all just sounded incredibly exciting. A druggy, psychedelic journey into the unknown with the filming rule book being thrown out of the bus window was what ensued. And what a long, strange trip it became.

Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters

The band had already laid down some tracks which the film was built very loosely around, and some of those tracks were crowbarred into the narrative. The title track was a Beatles classic, one of the Beatles’ best in my book, which was packed with witty drug references that only those ‘in the know‘ would get. It begins with John Lennon referencing the fairground barkers of Victorian times entreating the public to ‘Roll up, roll up!’, but what exactly was he suggesting we roll up? In the 60s many will have known exactly what he was talking about. ‘The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away…‘ and he wasn’t wrong. As well as using sound footage from The Third Programme’s production of King Lear, The Mike Sammes Singers were also chucked in to provide laughter and exaggerated singing as well as a shit-kicking brass section. And don’t underestimate Ringo’s superb drumming! Other Beatles classics such as The Fool On The Hill, I Am The Walrus, Blue Jay Way and Your Mother Should Know pepper the film and appear in various often unannounced ways.

Paul McCartney was quoted as saying, ‘Magical Mystery Tour ‘.. was the equivalent of a drug trip and we made the film based on that‘. But it didn’t take a genius to work all that out and maybe this was one of the problems. Most ordinary people having no experience of LSD or drug culture, would just have seen it as a mess, and that wasn’t far from the truth, but, for me, it was no less enjoyable for being a mess.

The film was also packed with Beatles’ music old as well as new. At one point a fairground organ plays She Loves You, an orchestral version of All My Loving is heard and Hello Goodbye is played over the credits. Sixties band Traffic were commissioned to perform their psychedelic classic Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, also the theme to a 60s film of the same name, but the footage was never used.

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The programme was originally offered to the BBC who couldn’t believe their luck and agreed immediately. Some reports claim other TV companies turned it down and Paul Fox, the Controller of BBC 1, says he made all the running to have the film broadcast. Here was something that could be put out at Christmas that would knock ITV out of the ballpark. They paid £10,000 for it and today that would be about £153,000. Not exactly a King’s Ransom and certainly not a lot to The Beatles who definitely wanted the film out there.

It was scheduled to be broadcast at 8.35pm on Boxing Day 1967, sandwiched between This Is Petula Clark (with a script written by Graham Chapman of all people) and Norman Wisdom film The Square Peg. On BBC2 more refined viewers could have watched a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Titipu starring the legendary Harry Worth, Hattie Jacques and, in a small part, a young John Inman and on ITV The Benny Hill Show followed by the film ‘Waltz of the Toreadors‘, a vehicle for Peter Sellers. In short, The Beatles were up against the TV establishment, so did they ever have a chance? Up against that it was always going to be better to fail with a bang than a whimper.

If that’s not classic sixties, I don’t know what is!

Despite Paul Fox claiming he didn’t see the film before it was broadcast, McCartney told of how the BBC cut the scene where Buster Bloodvessel romances Ringo’s Aunt Jessie on the beach. Why this was done was never properly explained says McCartney, other than it was ‘too weird‘.

Even that week’s Radio Times‘ write up about MMT is oddly vague, suggesting few people at the BBC had actually seen it.

Yes this is it. Probably the most talked about TV film of the year. It is by The Beatles and about The Beatles. The story? A coach trip round the West country reflecting The Beatles’ moods and launching a handful of new songs.

Radio Times December 1967

The quirky cast assembled for the film was certainly diverse and definitely interesting, reflecting the band’s offbeat sense of humour and nostalgic feelings.

First up, Victor Spinetti had become a Beatles mainstay having appeared in both A Hard Day’s Night and Help! as well as co-authoring the stage version of Lennon’s book ‘In His Own Write.’ The only actor to appear in all three Beatles films, he had supposedly been offered the part in A Hard Day’s Night because George’s mum really liked him. Spinetti appeared in many comedy programmes, most significantly in 1968-69’s It’s Marty with the great Marty Feldman. In the 70s he was also The Mad Jaffa Cake Eater in the TV ads. There’s Orangey!

Cult poet and performer on the harmonium Ivor Cutler had come to The band’s attention after being spotted on BBC 2’s Late Night Line-Up. He had been discovered in 1960 by Ned Sherrin and appeared in some unlikely variety vehicles such as The Acker Bilk Show. He was championed by John Peel who brought him to the attention of a younger listening public and his hang-dog demeanour and eccentric manner was exactly what MMT needed. Billed as Buster Bloodvessel, the name was eventually adopted by portly lead singer of Bad Manners, and to this day he is still Buster Bloodvessel. A MMT reference that still exists over 50 years later. Cutler is particularly good in his MMT scenes.

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Not Ivor Cutler

Nat Jackley grew up in the music halls and was an established comedy performer. According to Wikipedia ‘..his trademark rubber-neck dance, skeletal frame and peculiar speech impediment made him a formidable and funny comedian.‘ Sadly for Nat his featured performance sketch, Nat’s Dream, was cut from the final film but he appears in many crowd and interior bus shots. Out of all the characters and actors in this film I find him the most intriguing. The most experienced and traditional performer in the whole cast I would love to know what he thought about the whole experience. All I’ve ever read about him was that he found the unscripted nature of the whole project difficult. For someone with his background it must have been like performing on another planet.

The magnificent Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band (more on them later) was recommended by Paul’s brother Mike McGear (as he was known at the time). As a member of The Scaffold, who had had pop success in the late 60s and early 70s, McGear had worked regularly with The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band many times. He knew they were the kind of musicians The Beatles would appreciate and such was the case. The Beatles became such fans that McCartney would eventually produce their huge No.1 hit ‘I’m The Urban Spaceman‘ as Apollo C. Vermouth.

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The magnificent Bonzos

Another interesting performer whose best bits ended up on the cutting room floor was accordionist Shirley Evans. Although hailing from Birkinhead it’s difficult to know why The Beatles decided to include a female accordionist in their psychedelic film. My feeling is it’s just because there was something about it that’s quite funny. Many of us grew up with a family member who played the accordion and many singalongs, particularly at New Year, were had. It’s an instrument that, even in the late 60s, had become very unfashionable, if it ever was fashionable, and it was probably the nostalgic quality of the instrument that appealed. And there’s something intriguing about an attractive girl playing it. John Lennon even wrote an instrumental track for her, Shirley’s Wild Accordion that, sadly, was never used in the film. The track was allegedly pressed but never released and is still much sought after by Beatles record afficionados.

Who could forget Shirley and her accordion?

Finally the photographer was played by restricted height actor George Claydon. In one scene he is under the camera blanket as he takes a picture of some of the trippers. He emerges from under the blanket with the head of 1966 World Cup mascot World Cup Willie. And it turns out he actually played this character during the ’66 World Cup. A lovely 1967 cultural reference and an excellent bit of trivia, I think!

World Cup Willie: The story of the 1966 mascot | FourFourTwo
Why was Willie wearing the Union Jack when he was England’s mascot?

A number of scenes filmed at the time did not make the cut after editing. One of them featured Music Hall favourite Nat Jackley in a sequence titled ‘Nat’s Dream‘ where we see him walking around Newquay and bumping into a bevy of bikinied beauties. It all takes place to an accompaniment from Shirley Evans on accordion playing the Lennon written ‘Shirley’s Wild Accordion.’ The scene, I think, is funny, old fashioned and wonderfully quirky culminating weirdly (how else?) in The Atlantic Hotel outdoor swimming pool. The other deleted scene featured Ivor Cutler on harmonium singing ‘I’m Going In A Field.’ For me, both scenes deserved to remain in the completed film and no explanation, to my knowledge has been given as to why they didn’t make the cut. At a neither short nor long running time of 52 minutes both scenes would have taken the film up to a more conventional 60 minute mark which would not have been a problem showing on TV or in the cinema. Can’t help but think they missed a trick there.

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A still from the deleted Lennon-directed episode, Nat’s Dream

My own memory of the film on that Boxing Night of 1967 is clear but short. There had been huge anticipation for the film and I remember being quite excited about it. Within a few minutes it became obvious this was not going to be another A Hard Day’s Night or even the more enigmatic Help! My clearest memory was of Ringo yelling at his Auntie on the bus and then it cutting to the scene in the restaurant with her, Buster Bloodvessel with John, who had had a dream about this scenario, as Pirandello the waiter, shovelling spaghetti onto their table and her giggling uncontrollably. Until I saw the film again many years later I was convinced it was crisps that were being shovelled on. But, back then I watched it on a small grainy-pictured black and white telly, as the vast majority of viewers did, and I’d never come across spaghetti that wasn’t out of a tin, so it was an easy mistake to make. It was at this point, however, my mum had had enough and switched channels, I have a feeling to the G and S Harry Worth operetta. I was quite disappointed as I had been loving the anarchy of MMT, and even at that young age, I appreciated seeing something that was just different from the usual formulaic tosh.

It’s not difficult to work out why the film was a complete flop in the eyes of the Boxing Day audience. The obvious reason was its unstructured, scattergun approach to narrative and much of its self-indulgence. Although not a problem for me, the great British Viewing Public were not ready for that, and probably still aren’t. To be fair, in those days ITV broadcast Harold Pinter plays at peak viewing times, but they weren’t that popular. Ken Loach had released Cathy Come Home the year before which had employed a naturalistic approach to narrative and even used non-professional actors and although completely different in tone, MMT had used similar techniques. Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ Press Officer at the time, had said that the film was made to be viewed in colour and BBC 1 did not broadcast in colour at that time. Only BBC 2 broadcast colour programmes but precious few people had colour receivers anyway. And he had a point. A deliberately psychedelic experience must be viewed in colour, that’s what psychedelia is all about. So viewers missed out on a huge, vivid, sensory element of the film. Whether that would have saved it from the savaging it received though, is unlikely. But had it been originally released in cinemas, this might have made a difference. It would have been predominantly younger people and Beatles’ fans who would have gone to see it and fewer older, more conservative viewers would have and maybe the criticism might not have been quite so brutal. In the early sixties one theatre critic described Harold Pinter as throwing a Molotov cocktail into the sherry party that was British theatre. I would argue that this is what The Beatles did to British television, only it was a huge spliff they threw in and most viewers didn’t know what to do with it.

It’s starting to happen…..

I believe that The Beatles had, inadvertantly, invented a new genre of film. A type of film where the narrative is fluid, where characters that seem to have little in common are allowed to shine, where nostalgia meets surrealism in the most striking of ways, where the comedy of juxtaposition is allowed to happen naturally, and where narrative sense isn’t the absolute aim of the artistic endeavour, all performed in an explosion of colour and unfettered joy. What we were watching was not unlike a British Fellini film. With some bizarre, offbeat and psychedelic but visually stunning Beatles-at-their-best musical interludes thrown in and we have an artefact that people had not seen before but would become commonplace in years to come.

I’m fully aware that I’m discussing this film over 50 years after its release and, of course, attitudes and approaches to film-making and viewing have changed massively. There’s also a chunky layer of nostalgia propping it up for people like myself. But this was how The Beatles wanted to be seen, wanted to be judged and share their weird vision with us. It subsequently influenced many future writers and film-makers. And it should be remembered that new genres are not defined in one moment but MMT certainly lit the blue touch paper for many of the looser narrative, more abstract films that followed.

There was a refined taste that existed within our society for the unusual, the strange, the drug-influenced fantasy. Not long after MMT, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was launched on an unsuspecting audience and, after a quiet opening period, exploded into our consciousness. Comedy would, thankfully, never be the same. And it’s no coincidence George Harrison was a huge fan of Python and Ringo even made an appearance in Monty Python, with Lulu of all people, in Series 3, Episode 2 on October 26 1972. In 1975 the Python team looked into the possibility of the almost forgotten MMT being the support film to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Although the two parties met on a few occasions and both were quite keen for it to happen, the idea fizzled out, which was a shame as the two films would have complimented each other beautifully.

And there’s another aspect to it that I don’t feel has ever been really developed. The British public thought they knew The Beatles personally, such was the Beatles stranglehold on popular culture, they also thought they owned The Beatles. The band were so ubiquitous that if they stepped out of line they were defying you. And such was the case with MMT. The public felt The Beatles were putting two fingers up at them, we’re The Beatles and we can do what we want and there’s nothing you can do about it! ‘Well, we’ll see‘ replied the Great British Public. The same happened when John went off with Yoko. The public hated that. Not only was she Japanese, but she was ugly and weird and we don’t want her in our family. Yoko was the most horrendously reviled and ridiculed person on British TV during the late 60s as she was not deemed good enough or beautiful enough or ‘normal’ enough for one of ‘our’ Beatles and she was, of course, blamed for splitting the band up. No wonder John decided to go and live in America. The same happened with McCartney. Linda was also thought to be below what he was capable of. Why couldn’t he have married that lovely British Jane Asher? And MMT was really the beginning of the backlash. The public didn’t want to see The Beatles change or progress, they just wanted their cuddly mop-tops. Maybe MMT was their way of saying ‘Fuck You.’ And who could have blamed them? This is why MMT is so essential and so brilliant. It was The Beatles from start to finish with no interference and it was where the more switched on, more sophisticated music fan was at the time in the UK and that’s why I love it.

The former NME writer Charles Shaar Murray summed it up for me. ‘Magical Mystery Tour evokes an era when society still seemed to be opening up rather than closing down‘, but, unfortunately for The Beatles, much of society was a long way from opening up, and in many respects it still hasn’t. But it was a magical trip for me and, as far as the critical savaging went, I don’t really think The Beatles gave a shit.

So for those who get it, just roll up, sit back and enjoy the trip.

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The Big Match: Sunday In The Park With Brian

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Compared to the games shown on The Big Match, everything about today’s football is better.

Only so much more boring.

In quiet weeks during the football season the good people at BT Sports often show episodes of that 60s and 70s highlights mainstay The Big Match presented by the legendary Brian Moore. In Scotland we had our own football programme as did every other TV region in the UK, each region showing highlights of their local team’s home fixtures. As well as a Scottish First Division game we also were given highlights of a top English game too. The Big Match, which was broadcast to the London region, featured a London game plus highlights from one or more of the regions, ‘..and today’s pictures are from our friends at Anglia TV,’ Brian would say. Commentators in all the ITV regions were as familiar as the teams themselves. The great Arthur ‘What A Stramash!’ Montford (more on him later), Gerald Sinstadt at Granada, Keith Macklin at Yorkshire (who also hosted a Sunday tea-time religious quiz show and the first series of Pot Black), the illustrious Ken Wolstenholm at Tyne Tees and Hugh Johns at ATV. We all knew these guys’ voices, certainly more so than the competent but anonymous commentators of today.

And who could forget Idwal Robling? Although a BBC commentator, he entered a competition in 1970 to win a place on the BBC commentating team for the 1970 World Cup. He fought off challenges from Ian St. John, Gerry Harrison and Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart (funny how he turns up so often in this blog) to clinch the job, after Alf Ramsay (who reportedly had a love of the Welsh accent) gave him the nod when he tied with St. John. Sadly he didn’t get a live a gig at the World Cup but did some first round highlights games.

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Idwal smirks after beating Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart to the line

Although the football could be pretty humdrum in these programmes, so much about how football was televised, watched, discussed and presented in the 70s continues to be fascinating, given the way the game has changed over the last 50 years. Like anything, sometimes for the better but frequently for the worse.

It’s fair to say the 60s and 70s were a more innocent time for football. Relatively few games were broadcast, from a fixture programme of about nearly 150 games, maybe 20-25 might have had highlights featured around the country. 24/7 satellite and cable football coverage was a long, long way off and, because of this, you appreciated football on telly much more. Live games were very rare and tended to only be the Scottish and English cup finals, a few Home Internationals and World Cup games every four years. The idea of billions being pumped into football was just a pipe dream.

And talking of pipes, the legendary Brian Moore presented The Big Match and commentated on the featured games between 1968 and 1983 and his pipe was never far away. Lying stationary on his otherwise empty presenting desk or in a small ash tray, in later years it disappeared, clearly because producers thought 9 year olds watching the programme on a Sunday might begin puffing on a Churchwarden and using their pocket money to purchase half an ounce of rough shag in the local tobacconist. Brian Moore was The Big Match, he was to ITV what David Coleman was to the BBC, the voice of football.

Brian had a child-like love of football. He never really stopped seeing it the way a 14 year old sees it. As a heroic, tribal, virtuous endeavour where cynicism was a word footballers didn’t understand. Well, that was probably true, but not in the innocent way Brian thought. In fact, the opening credits to the programme, which changed every so often, always featured a few ‘wacky’ incidents and characters, which was in keeping with Brian’s rather sanitised and rosy view of the game. As The Big Match also included an awkward interview with a hirsute, wide-lapelled player or manager who had been involved in the televised game, Brian’s awe and excitement was often palpable. Difficult questions were rarely on the agenda, although the inarticulacy of the player often found any question difficult.

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Hirsute and wide-lapelled

While commentating on a game Brian was always trying to find the best in players. If something mildly amusing happened like a player helping one of the opposition to his feet after a hefty tackle, Brian would begin to chortle and say ‘That’s lovely to see!’ He so desperately wanted to see the ‘nice’ side of the game. Barry Davies on the BBC was similar in his adolescent adulation of professional footballers. In interviews he would always chuck them questions in the hope of getting a marginally droll response. Commentators like Brian and Barry just loved Ron Atkinson, for example, or ‘Big Atko‘ as the Saint and Greavsie chummily referred to him (footballers and managers’ nicknames always had to end in ‘o’ or ‘ie’). In an interview before Ron Atkinson’s West Bromwich Albion had a big cup game against Ipswich Town, Barry Davies took him around Wembley Stadium followed by the BBC cameras obviously, and led him into the home dressing rooms. They were empty but for an Ipswich Town shirt which, coincidently, had been left hanging there (by a BBC production assistant, no doubt). ‘Oh look!’ grinned Barry and beamed as Ron spotted this shirt and lifted it off the peg. He was almost pissing himself in anticipation as he awaited Atko’s inevitable side-splitting bon mot. Which never came. He just stood there examining it, mumbling ‘Hmmm, yeah…’, desperately trying to think of something amusing or even faintly interesting to say. Poor Barrie. What a blow. And this, I think sums up commentators’ interactions with many footballers. To use one of their favourite words, disappointing.

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Barry Davies: Interesting. Very interesting!

And it’s not just limited to footballers. Often The Big Match would involve celebrities in their Christmas Special shows and in 1976 presenting duties were handed over to none other than Chairman of Watford FC, Mr Elton John. To describe Elt as wooden at the start of the show is an insult to wood and maybe the producers were a bit worried about this so they wheeled in two ‘jack- the- lads’ of the game, Mike Channon and Kevin Keegan to lighten up proceedings. They began the show wearing flamboyant glasses and earrings. Oh, you boys…! The banter began to dry up a bit after this, a bit like their England careers at the time, but not before The Big Match annual Christmas ‘bit of fun’. This involved clips of games, players, referees from over the year being speeded up, reversed, repeated etc. And, no, it’s not nearly as funny as it sounds (and it doesn’t sound nearly funny really). ‘That’s the best one ever‘ exclaims a tittering Elton.

Worst banter ever

I know it’s easy to mock and technology was much less sophisticated then, and they really weren’t very funny. But who cared? It was what it was at the time. And despite Channon and Keegan firing comedy blanks, can you imagine Kevin De Bruyne or Harry Kane (I’m actually struggling to think of any other International players, such is most modern players’ lack of personality) going on to some football programme today and hamming it up?

There are many things you notice about these 70s highlights programmes that are so different to today’s clinical, over-technical, often skilled but tedious fare we are served up.

The pitches for one thing. By October every ground featured was at best a mud-bath, at worst a ploughed field. But, strangely, this didn’t detract from the games, it actually enhanced them. Players had to dig in, sometimes literally, and the skill of many to negotiate these quagmires was impressive. Sometimes it was difficult to know what the ball was going to do and this ramped up the excitement. Some pitches were notorious, and not just in the depths of winter. You’d have done well to spot a blade of grass on Derby County‘s Baseball Ground at any time of year, for example. And despite all their loot, Old Trafford was pretty awful. In fact, it’s easier to try and think of a ground where the pitch actually held up reasonably well during the middle of the season. And the amazing thing was, all the commentators would concede was ‘..conditions underfoot were tricky.’

Now that’s a proper 70s pitch!

At the end of games it was customary for young fans, usually in parkas, to run on to the pitch and mob their heroes, whether they won or lost. Police didn’t seem that bothered and the commentators didn’t even refer to it. Someone ‘invading‘, as it was described at the time, was a fairly common occurrence then and occasionally, however, some bozo would run on to the pitch during a game. Usually the guy was completely stoatious and it was generally good-humoured, it even added a bit of levity to a very dull game. Particularly when he evaded the rugby tackles of pursuing coppers. On highlights programmes like The Big Match the cameras would actually follow the invader around the pitch and even have a laugh about it. In the rare event of it happening now the sniffy commentators would just say ‘We don’t want to see that.‘ In fact, we do! It would be a welcome break from the tedium of watching Manchester City or Chelsea or Spurs pass the ball back and forward in their own half for 10 minutes. Now seeing them try to perform that at The Baseball Ground would have been interesting. But like so many other common elements to the 60s and 70s game, pitch invasions are a thing of the past. My favourite pitch invasion ever was after the legendary Ronnie Radford scored that screamer for Hereford United against Newcastle United in an FA cup tie in 1971. Never have so many parkas been concentrated in one relatively small area.

So much joy! So many parkas!

Occasionally The Big Match cameras might go ‘behind the scenes’ after a match, and such was the case after the Southampton v Manchester United clash in 1973. Brian couldn’t hide his excitement when he announced that TBM had been kindly invited into the players’ lounge after the game. A fairly lengthy item followed where a grinning Brian followed players of both teams around the rather cramped, formica-lined environment with a microphone. What made this particularly interesting watching it now was that every player interviewed was knocking back a pint. And, of course, no viewer then would even have remarked on it. And why would they? It’s only in recent years that footballers, some at least, are described as ‘athletes’, non-drinking and only eating a macro-biotic diet (whatever that is). I don’t think Frank Worthington, Stan Bowles or Rodney Marsh, great footballers that they were, would have any truck with this type of lifestyle. It’s rumoured that Frank Worthington failed a medical in the 70s to sign for Liverpool due high blood pressure brought on by ‘excessive sexual activity.’ ‘They were great days,’ said Frank. He was probably also referring to his football career.

The approach of referees to the vicissitudes of the game was also very different. Referees tended to be elderly, portly gentlemen who held down responsible jobs during the week, such as a Shipping Clerk or Woodwork Teacher. Players rarely questioned his decision other than a childish moan and a group of players surrounding a referee was unheard of. It took a lot to be booked in the 60s and 70s and even more to be sent off. Scything tackles were common but only occasionally punished and the term ‘professional foul’ was not in the vocabulary. A word in the ear was all that was usually needed. And referees universally wore black, in fact one of the more expressive chants from the terraces of the time, ‘Who’s the bastard in the black?’, has been rendered virtually meaningless thanks to the modern referees’ rapidly expanding palette of flamboyant bright colours.

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Alan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke gets a word in his ear

Which brings me to another ‘Grumpy Old Man’ point. How irritating is it when a commentator apologises for any ‘bad language’ that may have been heard while a live game is being broadcast? Is there anyone in the world watching live games who isn’t aware of the type of language that tends to be heard at football? Is there any football fan who might be shocked or offended by that type of language? Is there anyone who even notices it when it’s broadcast? Brian certainly never ever referred to it. But he probably thought all football fans were of the type that featured in Roy of the Rovers comic strips. Bless him!

Another regular feature of The Big Match was viewers’ letters. Two or three letters were usually read out by Brian, most of them from teenage fans. What I particularly liked about this item was the fact that Brian used to read out their full address on the programme. For what now takes a matter of seconds, a correspondent would have to find a postcard (not particularly easy), write his (and it was usually a ‘him’) question or request, buy a stamp, take it to a letterbox and post it, probably wait 2-3 weeks in the hope that it might be selected for broadcast. What a palaver! A bit like voting for acts on Opportunity Knocks! For example, on the 8th September 1974 edition 13 year old Tony Woodward of 45 Blossom Square, Reading in Berkshire wanted to know why Keith Peacock, playing for Charlton in the previous week’s televised game versus Gillingham, changed his shirt at half time? You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of some eagle-eyed young fans! And Brian revealed that Keith perspires a great deal and so changed his shirt at half time, so there you have it Tony. You’ll have slept soundly that night having had your burning question answered and you now know it’s because Keith Peacock is a sweaty bastard. On the same show 14 year old Steven Brill of 31 Seddington Road, Hendon wanted to know if it’s legal for goalkeepers to swing on their crossbars. The short answer was yes and no. Hope that answers your query, Steve. Keep those letters coming.

Talking of this 8th September 1974 edition, it featured a match which summed up the vagaries of league football as it was a second division game between Fulham and York City which the visitors won 2-0. A couple of interesting points from this game (and there are always interesting points I would argue). York City were then in the second highest tier of English football, they now occupy the National League (North) and play the likes of Spennymoor United, Farsley Celtic and Alfreton Town. Their strip was maroon with a distinctive white ‘Y’ motif which looked like they had been sewn on individually by the manager’s wife. And the York City manager Don Johnson (no relation I believe) puffed away on a pipe in the YCFC dugout throughout the game.

A fine 70s kit!

Playing for Fulham were Bobby Moore (who looked well past his sell-by date, looking slow and overweight) and Alan Mullery, who joined Brian in The Big Match studio on the Sunday afternoon to discuss the game. Fulham were managed by tweed-wearing, pipe-puffing Alec Stock, an old school campaigner and a dying breed even then. Paul Whitehouse claims to have based Ron Manager on him and in an edition a few weeks later Stock was interviewed in the TBM studio after a game against Southampton and he railed, gently, against the ‘Southampton chaps‘ who had been a little overzealous in their tackling. Marvellous.

It’s fair to say managers (and they were mostly managers, not coaches at this time) were a very different breed. Pipes were almost de rigeur as the manager, trainer and sub huddled in the cramped, wind blown dugout during the game with only a tartan rug covering their knees. There was none of this prowling around the technical area, dementedly pointing and waving, bellowing at the fourth official or booting bottles of water around if the decision went against you. Although during the mid-70s the egotist manager did begin tentatively to emerge. And who was the first such individual to see himself as a ‘personality’? Step forward Malcolm ‘Big Mal’ Allison, Crystal Palace ‘coach’ and friend of Brian Moore.

Malcolm Allison had been at Manchester City before landing the ‘glamour’ job at Crystal Palace. His Man City track suit was binned and replaced with a fedora, an oversize sheepskin coat and an enormous Cuban cigar. The personality coach had arrived! Malcolm milked the flashy side of coaching to the limit and, in cahoots with the tabloid press, created an image for himself that still endures. In fact, the flick-to-kick football game Subbuteo included a model of a fedora and sheepskin- wearing manager to stand on the sidelines looking not dissimilar to Big Mal in his heyday. One of his most memorable stunts was to invite Playboy columnist and glamour model Fiona Richmond into the Palace communal bath, and, as they frolicked in the bubbles, a tabloid photographer snapped away. Somehow you couldn’t imagine Alec Stock doing this. Marvellous as it may have been.

Some years ago I was changing trains at York Station en route to Edinburgh and as I disembarked a large man in a camel coat and an even larger glass of whisky, which had been filched out of the buffet, was waiting to board. It was unmistakably Big Mal.

And talking about Crystal Palace and 70s managers, I recently watched a very interesting BT Sport documentary about the post-Busby Manchester United. Tommy Docherty was interviewed about how he became Man United manager in 1972. He was Scotland manager at the time and was at the Crystal Palace v Manchester United game at Selhurst Park. United had just been humped 5-1 by a Palace team languishing at the bottom of the English First Division. At the end of the game Docherty was invited into the Palace board room by Busby and offered the job on the spot on a 3 year contract at £30,000 per year. That is….£30, 000 a year! I have to say I was quite shocked at this revelation. Manchester United were one of the biggest clubs in Europe and this is what they paid their manager. Today that would translate to just under £400,000 which was, and still is, a lot of money but compare it to what managers/ coaches are paid now and it’s a drop in the ocean.

A few years before this edition of TBM, 1970 to be precise, Brian Moore and his colleagues at ITV had opened the television Pandora’s box and unleashed on an unsuspecting TV football audience ‘the pundit.’ In fact it was many, many years before this word would ever be used to describe an ex-pro who talked incessantly and lugubriously about some dull, ultra-fine point he noticed in a boring, meaningless televised game. For the 1970 World Cup in Brazil someone had the bright idea of putting together a panel of ‘experts’ to argue, bicker and nitpick about every World Cup game televised for the whole of July. The first panel comprised Jimmy Hill (inevitable), Malcolm Allison, Pat Crerand (recently retired, ex-Man United and Scotland midfielder), Derek Dougan (talismanic Irish Wolves striker) and Bob McNab (Arsenal full-back). Latterly Cloughie (another of Brian’s muckers and then Derby County manager) and Jack Charlton became involved. Bizarrely, it was one of the few occasions ITV beat BBC football coverage in the ratings, forcing the Beeb to quickly put their own panel together. Football would never be the same. Sadly.

The Accused

But in their favour, they didn’t use diagrams to show where a striker should have been running, how much space a defender gave an attacker or even mentioned diamond formations. They just squabbled and you sort of knew after the show they’d go out and have a skinful (there were some big drinkers on that panel). And all the time Brian Moore grinned knowing this was pretty innovative telly. He wasn’t to know punditry would eventually disappear up its own back four.

During his long tenure with The Big Match and ITV sport, Brian Moore became a cult figure and a Gillingham FC director. The Gillingham FC fanzine during the 80s and 90s was entitled ‘Brian Moore’s Head Looks Uncannily Like London Planetarium, which was a line from Half Man, Half Biscuit’s track ‘Dickie Davies’s Eyes.’ He died in 2001 aged 69 and it’s fair to say, for the huge football fan that he was, he lived the dream.

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The Big Match, and all the regional versions of it, showed players who are now considered greats in action, at a time when football coverage was extremely limited compared to what we have today. And because of that, footage of these players and teams is hugely valuable. At a time when football has become so clinical, so technical and so lacking in real personalities, The Big Match Revisited programmes are an antidote to the tedium which encapsulates so much of the modern game, when a football highlights programme was a part of the weekend you looked forward to and all the better for being rationed. And it’s hats off to Brian Moore for being such an integral and vital part of that experience.

And that was lovely to see.

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Tarbuck Memories: Sunday Night at the London Palladium

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How an unlikely new broom helped the winds of change sweep through the entertainment industry in 1965

Every so often the good people at the excellent Talking Pictures TV channel resurrect a fascinating series from long ago which seems more like an architectural dig than a genuine entertainment spectacle, but no less enjoyable. And such is the case with the repeats of that stalwart of 1960s telly, Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The early episodes with a young(ish) Bruce Forsyth, when he still had his real hair, seems like being in the audience at the music hall. A succession of cloned classically trained singers, some acrobats and truly dreadful comedians kept the masses happy for many years. Well, they had little choice. However, something was about to happen in Britain which no-one in that industry at the time saw coming.

Anyone who didn’t live through the sixties will find it almost impossible to understand the impact The Beatles had on society around the world. Every shop sold something Beatles related, every sitcom or comedy programme made a reference to The Beatles, as did every drama and daily serial. Everyone was using words like ‘fab’ and kids were singing Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I was. ‘The Beatles‘ was written throughout 60s British society like the lettering in Blackpool Rock. And by 1965 things were definitely changing in the media. And that bastion of old-fashioned variety, that throwback to the music halls, the London Palladium was beginning to realise it’s time they moved with the times. Yes, they’d had The Beatles appear there in 1963 when cheeky John Lennon asked them to rattle their jewellery, but that was as more of a novelty.

Some good clean Palladium fun with The Beatles and Brucie although I could think of a better word than ‘nit.’

Since 1955 the show had been attracting up to 20 million viewers every Sunday night with a meat and two veg diet of the established and a few up-and-coming mainstream performers, but occasionally throwing the younger audience a few crumbs, like Cliff and The Shadows. 1965 was the year when the more traditional elements of the entertainment industry realised that The Beatles, along with a few other bands, were not a passing fad. Rock and Roll was here to stay and youth culture, for so long repressed, was now exploding all over the world. But how does a traditional, antiquated, staid Sunday night institution like The Palladium get a piece of the action to keep this clearly massive potential young viewership on board?

Step forward professional scouser, mop top and self-proclaimed friend of The Beatles, comedian, or ‘comic’ as he preferred to be known, Jimmy Tarbuck. The Beatles had put Liverpool on the entertainment map and many other acts such as Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, Cilla Black and The Swingin’ Blue Jeans followed. So Tarbuck ticked a number of boxes. The show featured on Talking Pictures recently was Tarby’s first show as the new compere in 1965 and, for me, this particular show highlighted not only the changes that were taking place in entertainment but also within society.

His entrance at the start of the show was an interesting calling card to the mostly conservative (with a small and probably a large ‘C’ also) audience and a signal of intention from the producers. The opening bars to the song ‘Look Out World Here I Come‘ were struck up by the Jack Parnell Orchestra and the only thing on stage was a supposed brick wall covered in graffiti with comments about the rivalry between the The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, so far, so topical, and a chalked up ‘Liverpool 5‘, just in case the Scouse associations were a bit too subtle for the southern Palladium audience. The brick wall was also a broad-brushed reference to the urban industrial, recently fashionable landscape of t’north. Suddenly Tarby crashes through the wall as if he’s exploding out of this environment and onto the sophisticated swinging London scene. He launches, slightly out of tune, into the song and dance routine with the Palladium dancers all dressed trendily like he is, although they’re all wearing stockings and high heels and he isn’t, strangely. The song and dance highlighted his Liverpool, mop top roots and announced there was a hip new kid on the block. To think of Tarby as ever being ‘hip’ is a stretch, I know, but on this bastion of entertainment conservatism he, pretty much, was.

His opening routine on this first show was, at best thin, at worst puerile. Whoever wrote this script is unknown, probably deliberately so. IMDB lists Marty Feldman and Barry Took, two of the sixties foremost comedy writers, as occasionally contributing to SNATLP, but there can be no way that the creators of Round The Horne or The Frost Report could be responsible for this drivel. Jokes about Harry Secombe’s girth and Charlie Drake’s stature got big laughs from the audience as another standard 60s pun about Hattie Jacques and Tessie O’Shea being the biggest ‘drawers’ in the business (geddit? Don’t bother) also had the punters rolling in the aisles. Which just demonstrated the fact that they’d paid a fiver for these tickets so were going to damn-well laugh, whatever. Clearly the humour was being written with a yard brush rather than a quill.

The routine continued with some typically 60s regulation Irish whimsy about ‘Paddy’s’ wife who was due to have a baby. A rather elaborate and strange gag followed about a shoe box that appeared on the stage which was sent to Tarby from Mike and Bernie Winters. A reference to their donkey (which escaped me) and the mandatory joke about The Beatles (Ringo Starr and his wife are so rich they’re having to put their money in Zacks. Jesus..) almost completed his opening salvo. But not before a very odd few minutes when he name checked ‘celebrities’ (yes they used that word even then) who just ‘happened’ to be in the audience. Then, as now, it was believed that we are all fascinated to see these demi-gods should we happen to be lucky enough to be in their presence. So Spurs footballer Dave Mackay (celebrity?) had to rise and give the assembled masses an embarrassed wave. But it got better, or worse depending on your viewpoint, and stand up Mike and Bernie Winters! (Jesus Christ there’s two of them!). That partly explains the shoebox earlier but not really the donkey. And who’s that sitting only half a dozen rows from the front and walking distance to the stage? Why, it’s none other than fellow-scouser Frankie Vaughan! Hey why not come up here and talk to us? entreats Tarby. Frankie is only too happy to oblige. And you can’t come up here without doing a song for us, Frankie? giggles Tarby. What? Oh ok. How about that one we did in rehearsal? And they launch into the very predictable ‘Side By Side.’

Frankie in customary showbiz mode

Now Frankie Vaughan’s glory days were a long way behind him but he represented, not quite the old guard at the time, but an artist that many of the middle-aged viewers would have identified with. Frankie, also being a Scouser and apparently a big mate of Tarbie’s (who from Liverpool wasn’t, it seemed?), meant Tarby was effusive in thanking Frankie ‘for coming to support him.’ So much of this show appeared to be about Jimmy Tarbuck.

As a comedian Tarby was nothing special. His material was lightweight and run-of-mill and certainly none of it was written by him, but what made him stand out from a plethora of other comics with similarly lightweight and run-of-the-mill material was his cheeky-chappie demeanour which certainly worked for a while until it became passé. The fact he was a Scouser helped as everything Liverpudlian was looked upon as ultra-fashionable at that time, which must have appealed to the Palladium producers, and to be fair, he was confident and he was very professional in his delivery and his compereing was slick. Like so many other Scouse entertainers who made a decent career out of being working-class (Cilla, Doddy, Askey), in their private lives they were only too happy to turn their backs on that and be subsumed into the Tory fold, humbly accept their OBEs or MBEs and, in Tarby’s case, spend most of the time at the golf club with Brucie, Henry and Ronnie. In fact, when his career began to flag, golf became to Tarby what Schnorbitz became to Bernie Winters. A crutch which just about kept him in the public eye. For a while, at least. When Margaret Thatcher turned 60 Tarby actually baked her a birthday cake. It’s not on record as to what The Iron Lady thought of it, however. But he did have a bit of time on his hands.

Tarby and ‘The Gang’

Tarby would, of course, get his own show with its predictable brand of humour and guests and he would also get a few quiz show hosting gigs. Tarby’s Frame Game, Full Swing ( ah yes, the customary golfing reference) and, probably the most remembered, Winner Takes All. Remembered by the likes of me for it’s utter tediousness but who could forget Tarby’s immortal words Next question please, Geoffrey? Unbelievably this show endured from 1975 until 1988, Tarby jumping ship in 1986 to, presumably, play more golf and fund-raise for the Tories.

Another strange interlude took place on this 1965 show when actress Sara Miles, who was starring in the current box office blockbuster Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, was introduced by Tarby as ‘a beautiful bird‘ and a slightly awkward routine took place where Miles was supposedly trying to publicise her new film and Tarby was trying to stop her. She was eventually left to introduce the next acts and she either got them wrong or this was part of the schtick. Either way, The Searchers new song, When I Get Home, was introduced by that ‘beautiful bird‘ as Wait Till I Get You Home, which was actually quite funny. Certainly funnier than anything Tarby did all night.

Phwoar, what a beautiful bird!

The rest of the line-up for that show was a curious blend of the old, for which the Palladium was associated, and the very new, for which it certainly wasn’t.

Old school acts that evening in 1965 included Edmund Hockridge, Canadian baritone singer from many musicals and ex of Geraldo’s Orchestra and Susan Lane (no, me neither) who screeched for 2 minutes before being replaced on a typically London Palladium revolving stage by those well groomed, unthreatening 60s chart toppers The Searchers (who were quite good to be fair) with another odd singing drummer.

The Searchers and yet another weird singing drummer

A nod to this time of pretty cataclysmic societal change was the appearance of Peter, Paul and Mary. Stalwarts of the Greenwich Village protest movement, they sang three songs, mostly standards, Gordon Lightfoot’s In The Early Morning Rain, Ewan McColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and religious ballad If I Had My Way. They were certainly given a decent amount of stage time but whether anyone in the audience knew what they stood for is uncertain.

Greenwich Village comes to the Palladium

And talking about cataclysmic, however, top of the bill were Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Yes, top of the bill! If ever an act was completely at odds with what Sunday Night at the London Palladium stood for it was Pete and Dud. If The Beatles dominated popular culture during the mid-sixties, Pete and Dud dominated grown-up, sophisticated comedy. Their series Not Only..But Also.. had premiered in late ’64 and their first series in January 1965. Cook and Moore had been at the centre of the satire boom in 1962-63 with Beyond The Fringe with Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, and then the short-lived That Was The Week That Was which Cook had written sketches for. It was rumoured at the time that producer Ned Sherrin had created TW3 for Cook to anchor but while he was away in the US performing BTF, the project was hijacked by David Frost.

The genius that was Pete and Dud

But from BTF, Not Only ..But Also was created, and although it was originally supposed to be a solo project for Moore, Cook was brought in at a later stage and the rest is history, although history that was criminally wiped by the BBC and only a few episodes survive intact.

Coming on the back of the huge success of That Was The Week That Was, NOBA struck a chord with a younger audience that was looking for something different and a little more challenging and provocative after the 50s and early 60s diet of predictable, formulaic comedy and entertainment that was embodied by SNATLP and a plethora of sitcoms broadcast at the time. It was no coincidence that John Lennon appeared in two early episodes of NOBA giving it his endorsement just before Pete and Dud’s Palladium appearance. This, of course, cemented NOBA’s alternative, anti-establishment credentials although this was hardly necessary for most fans.

John Lennon in the first Not Only..But Also..

It’s unknown why the Palladium producers decided to invite Pete and Dud to perform but the fact they were top of the bill suggests they were so popular with sections of the public that they had no choice but to feature them. Pete and Dud’s sketch involving their two most popular characters, the characters that completely epitomise their type of humour were, oddly enough, ‘Pete and Dud‘. Or The Dagenham Dialogues as they were known, where lugubrious know-all Pete pontificates on all aspects of life, whether he knows about it or not, while pretty thick, scruffy Dud tends to agree and enter into conversation, usually unsuccessfully. Any description of the routine fails totally to encompass how brilliantly funny and surreal these sketches were. Cook would unashamedly try to get Dud to corpse during the sketch which added to the genius. These sketches would go on for 10 mins or more and, incredibly, the sketch on SNATLP continued for an unprecedented 13 minutes. Much of it seemed improvised and Dud did corpse at one point. They finished with their famous outro from NOBA, Goodby-eee, which, incidentally, got to number 18 in the Hit Parade in 1965, maybe another reason why they were invited on to the show, they even performed it on Ready Steady Go that year. Half way through the song they were faded out and the ATV logo appeared. The famous rotating stage end-sequence didn’t happen as Pete and Dud must have overrun. And that was very unusual for the Palladium.

One wonders why Pete and Dud accepted this invitation as SNATLP was the type of show they would have unmercilessly taken the piss out of, particularly if some Royal personage had been present. On the one hand they probably found it quite funny that their brand of anti-establishment humour was being performed and broadcast to vast swathes of people in the theatre and TV audience who just wouldn’t get it and might even have been the type of people lampooned in their shows. Certainly laughter from the audience was muted, not to mention nervous. Many just didn’t know where and when to laugh. Jimmy Tarbuck definitely got bigger laughs, but then he would, wouldn’t he? On the other hand, however, all performers want an audience and the bigger the better, so to perform in front of an audience of 15 million must have seemed attractive in a nicely subversive way. Especially with establishment favourites like Mike and Bernie Winters and Tarby (despite his working class credentials) watching. One wonders what they thought of this almost revolutionary brand of humour, although you can probably guess.

Given the cultural vandalism which resulted in much of Pete and Dud’s comedy being destroyed, this footage is a wonderful example of just how brilliant they were and it should be broadcast permanently in a comedy museum (if there was one) to show what being creative, surreal, funny and stretching the comedy boundaries is all about.

Putting this particular 1965 edition of SNATLP into context, it was an uneasy balancing act between the old and the new. The show still had to appeal to its core audience who wanted ‘nice’, unthreatening and well-established acts but it also knew a massive, for the first time, demanding, young audience was waiting in the wings and its survival depended on carrying many of these young, and many older less conservative, people along. Jimmy Tarbuck was carefully chosen by the producers in the hope of appealing to both sets of viewers, his working-class, cheeky-chappie, Scouse credentials appealing to the young while his predictable, unchallenging, conventional brand of humour to the legions of older viewers.

This 1965 show provides a fascinating microcosm of British society at the time with Tarby at the centre of it. Tarby’s reputation didn’t last long. A younger, more sophisticated audience saw right through him as a willing part of the showbiz and social establishment delivering a type of humour that just seemed tired, old-fashioned and cliched . But for a short, very exciting time, he was the unlikely great working-class hope of an entertainment industry and society that was changing rapidly.

I’m not even going to go there….
Now I don’t normally do this but…..

…I happened to watch another episode of Sunday Night at the London Palladium last Sunday and felt the need to share this experience as, despite everything I’ve written above, this episode really had to be seen to be believed. Once again, it wrestled with the conflicts of a changing society, a rapidly shifting audience in terms of age, attitudes and interests and it blindingly fails on most levels.

In this edition, broadcast three weeks after the episode described above, it follows the same format and Jimmy Tarbuck is definitely settling into his new role. He’s still quick, quite professional but fluffs a few lines. But rather than incorporate these into his act and get bigger laughs, he, almost apologetically, points them out to the audience as if he should be upfront admitting to such faux pas. My theory as to why he does this is twofold. Firstly, he’s still so stunned at getting such a high profile, prestigious gig he feels he’s letting the middle to upper class audience down because he so much wants to be one of them. And, secondly, he struggles to be spontaneously funny as he is a deliverer of gags rather than a creator of them, as were most comedians in those days.

So who do we have for our entertainment delectation this week? You may well ask, and in terms of strangeness it’s a line up which screams ’60s!!!,’ with more than a generous dash of weirdness thrown in.

First up, gangster film heavyweight, George Raft. An odd choice you might think and you’d be right. After some lightweight banter with Tarbie anyone would think, ‘Well that’s that over with. Who’s next up?’ But, wait, Raft is far from finished. ‘And I believe you were once a dancer?’ prompts Tarbie. And as the Jack Parnell Orchestra strikes up, George Raft, who was 70 at the time, launches into a dance routine that would not looked out of place in a Soho strip joint. A dance so camp, performed by a septuagenarian New York tough guy and this continued for about five minutes. As strange an opening salvo as you could ever imagine. It’s well documented that George Raft‘s film career dried up during the 50s and Tarbuck just compounded the embarrassment by revealing to the audience just how ‘available’ he was after he had performed,’ And thanks to George Raft for appearing at such short notice…’

But now something for the youngsters. An almost forgotten duo of the type that don’t exist anymore. Put your hands together for Paul and Barry Ryan! Now this pair are very interesting. Identical twins (although they didn’t look that identical to me) of 50s singer Marion Ryan. They were just starting out in the business when they made this SNATLP appearance. I was struck about how lonely they looked together on the vast Palladium stage with just a single microphone for company and how confident they must have had to be to stand there just singing, not even having a guitar to strum. In 1967 this sort of pressure proved too much for Paul Ryan who left the act to concentrate on writing songs for his brother’s solo career. Paul Ryan had some success and wrote a couple of songs that were taken up by Frank Sinatra, amongst others (OK, Dana). One was released as a single, I Will Drink The Wine, which got to No. 16 in the UK charts in 1971 and Sunrise in the Morning, both appeared on Frank’s 1971 album ‘Sinatra and Company‘, which must have been a nice little earner for Paul. He also wrote his most famous song, the wonderfully bombastic ‘Eloise‘, for his brother, which got him to No. 2 in 1968, The Damned’s version getting to No.3 in 1986.

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Paul and Barry Ryan. Wonder if Marion cut their hair?

The song they sang on SNATLP was odd. It was their first hit record achieving a high of No. 13, ‘Don’t Bring Me Your Heartaches,’ it told the story of a doomed romance from a first person perspective. With two identical twins singing identical words it had the feel, to me, of David Cronenberg’s rather sleazy Dead Ringers. This obviously wasn’t the intention but I couldn’t help noticing an amusing strangeness to the whole act. Paul Ryan died, sadly, at the young age of 46 but Barry’s life took an interesting turn in 1978 when he married Tunku (Princess) Miriam binti al-Marhum Sultan Sir Ibrahim, the only daughter of the ‘fabulously wealthy’ Sultan Ibrahim of Johor. The marriage ended in divorce two years later, but what a rollercoaster ride that must have been! Nicely done, Baz.

The star of the show, however, was magician David Nixon. A ubiquitous presence in so many 60s TV programmes, his smooth, articulate style lent itself to live TV. Everyone over the age of 55 will remember David Nixon, no one under 55 will. As well as having a number of variety vehicles showcasing his magic skills, Nixon was a great favourite of panel shows given his effortless ability to talk and be witty in any situation. A long-time panelist on the TV and radio versions of What’s My Line (what an innocent and very un-modern show that was) he introduced the legendary Basil Brush to the airwaves. He even received the highest honour bestowed on any 60s or 70s celebrity worth their salt, a mention in a Half Man, Half Biscuit song (Reflections In A Flat).

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Two 60s legends

Nixon’s act was quite something, in more ways than one. He invited a participant from the audience up on to the stage to help him. The individual invited looked like he’d been hewn out of 50s rock. Tweed suit, brylcreemed hair, pencil moustache. Reg Thompson (for it was he) sat on a chair as Nixon smoothly explained what was going to happen while asking Reg a few details about himself. ‘Do you mind if I ask you what you do for a living?’ schmoozed Dave. Yes, Reg did mind as it happened, which was the only time Nixon appeared slightly non-plussed. The act involved both participants puffing on a fag before Nixon told a very 60s gag which made him out to be, at worst, a rapist and, at best, a sexual predator. But it got a laugh, obviously! The trick was quite sensational and made me realise how interesting a good and slickly performed magic act can be. And David Nixon really was good. He was the sort of TV personality that it was difficult to imagine living an ordinary life. You could really only imagine David Nixon being on telly.

And talking of omnipresent 60s TV personalities, next up, the one and only Mr. Russ Conway! Russ, probably a bit like David Nixon, and Paul and Barry Ryan for that matter, are the kind of TV personalities who were never off the telly in the 60s but would struggle to get a gig today. Russ Conway was a very good-looking pianist who had a load of hits in the 50s and early 60s but his chart days were well behind him. He was still a popular guest on variety shows, however, the perfect act to break up the singer and the comedian, and in this case the magician. He played a rather overblown orchestral piece (well, it was the Palladium I suppose) and then his latest single which was a very jaunty, tinkly little number entitled The Beggars of Rome. On the strength of this piece, they must be the happiest beggars in the world. Russ decided to add one of his own compositions to the ‘B’ side of his record, a down-and-out companion piece called The Urchins of Paris. A laugh a minute on both sides. I really wanted to hear him play Conway classics such as Roulette or Sidesaddle but he wasn’t having it.

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Know what you mean Russ! My mum actually possessed this very album.

Now it was time for that regular feature, ‘Celebs in the Audience’! And what a bunch they had this week, a typically odd triumvirate. Let’s start with Scouse welterweight boxer (and personal friend of Tarby, obviously) Alan Rudkin. Next up, bizarrely, about to take part in Miss World 1965 at the Mecca Ballroom, Miss South Africa, the whiter than white, Carol Davies! Wouldn’t want any black people frightening the London Palladium audience. And finally 50s crooner Dickie Valentine. I wonder if those individuals were paid to come and sit through this weird hour of light entertainment?

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Dickie Valentine

After this parade of Palladium favourites the producers realised that their slightly less traditional viewers might want something a little more challenging, so who better than Spike Milligan to perform this role? Spike’s stand-up routine was erratic to say the least. A few inspired, quite irreverent gags and a few puerile playing-to-the-galleries attempts at humour. He certainly didn’t hit the heights that Pete and Dud did a few weeks before, but he maintained the Palladium policy of highlighting ‘new’ off-beat comedy acts. The Palladium audience didn’t quite know what to make of Spike but giggled at his daftness, probably not really understanding what he was all about.

At the end of his act the curtains parted to reveal the famous Palladium revolving stage with all the acts waiting to wave goodbye to the theatre and TV audience. In fact, the stage hadn’t begun revolving and with the curtains suddenly opening it caught the performers on the hop and as it juddered into motion a few half-hearted waves began.

In another article above I quoted someone as saying ‘It’s only a small step from light entertainment to surrealism.’ One needs only to watch an episode of Sunday Night at the London Palladium to realise just how true that statement is.

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Standing At The Crossroads Of (TV) History

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Cor, glamorous or what?

Ridiculed for its low production values and described as ‘distressingly popular’, Crossroads continues to live in the memory

In the 1968 film The Killing of Sister George the star of a popular soap opera, Beryl Reid, is killed off at the height of her popularity despite her character being greatly loved by the viewing public and her hordes of adoring fans. Of course, this couldn’t happen in real life, could it? You already know where I’m going with this, and, as we all know, this did happen to the star of the 60s and 70s daily serial (I refuse to use that Americanism ‘Soap Opera‘) Crossroads, the sainted Noele Gordon/ Meg Richardson in 1981.

Is there nothing this woman can’t do?

After winning the TV Times Most Popular TV Personality a staggering 8 times, being the only character on permanent contract in its history, being the main talismanic character for 17 years and generally seen as the Crossroads matriarch who, Boudicca-like, drove the chariot of tea-time drama past the slings and arrows of TV criticism, ‘Nolly’ was unceremoniously dumped by new producer William Smethurst in 1981. Referred to as Butcher Bill by some (mainly her), he had been installed to revive the programme’s flagging fortunes in the same way he had done with the The Archers previously. And like the trooper and consummate professional she was, Noele accepted the inevitable, took it on the chin and walked off into the West Midlands sunset to maybe check into a new showbiz three star motel (with swimming pool).

And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.

Meg third on bill? Not for long if she’s got anything to do with it…

Darts commentator Sid Waddell when describing a particularly tense darts encounter once roared, ‘You might get Shakespeare on BBC 2 but you can’t beat this for drama!’ He could just have inserted ‘Crossroads on ITV’ instead of ‘Shakespeare on BBC‘ and have achieved the same hyperbolic effect. It’s fair to say since its grand opening in 1964 when Jill Richardson picked up the phone in reception and said. ‘Crossroads Motel. Can I help you?‘ that it’s seen more than its fair share emotional turmoil, in front and behind the cameras. Bigamy, international terrorism, Soviet spying, hauntings, industrial sabotage, alcoholism and, obviously, attempted murder have all darkened the reception of the Crossroads Motel, King’s Oak (with swimming pool).

Some uncharitable commentators at the time saw Crossroads as ‘a byword for cheap production values‘, though many cast members from the show have denied that it was that bad. Wobbly sets and fluffed lines have become synonymous with the show, however, and, to be fair, the 5 days a week 52 weeks a year run was, to say the least, punishing. Retakes were rare and it’s hats of to most of these actors that were able to deliver their lines reasonably well in one take. Crossroads production values were highlighted again some years after its demise when the brilliant and sadly missed Victoria Wood wrote Acorn Antiques which was obviously based on the motel. Although very, very funny it was also an affectionate tribute and Victoria Wood must have been a fan to have been so accurate in her depiction of aspects of the show.

Created by writers Hazel Adair and Peter Ling, who had been behind the successful early sixties serial about a women’s magazine Compact, which incidentally starred Ronnie Allen, a later stalwart of Crossroads as Manager ‘Dishy’ David Hunter, Crossroads began in 1964. Adair had also written for Emergency Ward 10 and radio blockbuster Mrs Dale’s Diary but in her latter career, interestingly, she turned her hand to writing soft-porn films with, of all people, ITV wrestling commentator and former DJ, Kent Walton. Early 70s sexploitation films such Keep It Up Downstairs were amongst the fruits of their endeavours. Now, you have to admit. That’s interesting!

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Peter Ling‘s CV was a little more prosaic but no less interesting. Having written stories for legendary 60s comic The Eagle, he also wrote scripts for a range of solid 60s and 70s TV series including Dixon of Dock Green, No Hiding Place and The Avengers (though not the classic version). For me though, his most notable achievement was writing The Mind Robbers, an absolutely brilliant story from the Patrick Troughton Dr Who years. A truly surreal and hugely creative tale, it was a shining example of a time when Dr Who was still challenging and inventive in its storytelling. And clearly light years away from the Crossroads Motel, although Meg did have some Time Lord qualities to her.

Motel hairdresser Vera Downend in wistful mood

The closing sequence of Crossroads is, for people of a certain age, the most familiar theme of the 60s and 70s. Even if you didn’t watch the programme. Composed by easy-listening virtuoso and pop genius Tony Hatch (much more on him to come) with the ever-so-familiar title credits sliding up and down and from the sides (a bit like a crossroads, geddit?), the music had the required element of urgency and pathos which complimented the emotionally charged ending to that particular episode (and it was always emotionally charged), right down to the final glissando on the harp which usually accompanied a 3 second close up on the face of the featured distraught or sometimes wistful character (..and just hold it there please, Vera…………annnnnnnddddd cut! Lovely darling!).

In 1974 Paul McCartney and Wings included a version of the Crossroads theme on their album Venus and Mars (nice little earner for Tony Hatch). In the mid-70s the producers of Crossroads decided to use this version occasionally at the end of particularly sentimental episodes as the Wings version was a little more poignant and sensitive than the original. This decision met with mixed opinions from the legions of tea-time fans but the producers stuck with it to the end. Although I liked Wings at the time it just didn’t quite do it for me in the way Hatch’s original did. But, over the years, it has become synonymous with the later incarnation of Crossroads, but stormier waters than this were yet to be negotiated.

For most of its 24 year run, Crossroads pretty much survived on three main sets: Meg’s office/ sitting room, the kitchen and the motel reception. The Crossroads motel reception had the distinction of having the smallest bar in hospitality history. Barely large enough to fit barman cum postman Vince Parker behind it, it consisted of about four optics, no beer tap and half a dozen bottles on a top shelf which didn’t change in 20 years. It’s fair to say seating was limited. One bar stool stool and a chair and stool combo beside the reception entrance. Someone sitting in these seats would have tripped up anyone rushing through the front door in a highly agitated fashion. Which characters did regularly.

Bloody hell! They’re one deep at the bar!

Literally hundreds of actors passed through the Motel reception. Some of them quite well-known and some (but not many) who went on to bigger and better things. But as well as Noele Gordon a few became synonymous with the programme. For example:

  • Roger Tonge (Sandy Richardson): Roger was involved in amdram when he wandered into ATV Studios one day and asked if they had any jobs. He was directed upstairs to where they just happened to be auditioning for cast members for a new daily serial about to be going into production called Crossroads. He wandered in, they said, ‘You’ll do’ and behold, Sandy Richardson was born. Sandy was in Crossroads from episode 1 and when his health began fail some years later the writers manufactured a scenario where he was injured in a car crash, partly paralysed and was confined to a wheel chair. He was the first disabled character ever in a daily serial. Eventually his condition worsened and he died in 1981. Bizarrely his death was never acknowledged in the show at the time. When mentioned he was always ‘at the cafeteria’, which became something of a euphemism for a character who had gone to that great audition room in the sky. Eventually Jill mentioned him in words that suggested he was no longer with us, but that was nearly a year later.
  • Susan Hanson (Diane Lawton): She first appeared in the excellent 1964 Dave Clark Five vehicle Catch Us If You Can directed by a young John Boorman, joined Crossroads in 1966 and was killed off in 1987. She became famous as village idiot Benny Hawkin‘s guardian after she discovered him working on her Uncle Ed’s farm. Miss Doy-Ann had an interesting private life. Having been married for a short time to rock DJ Tommy Vance in the 60s she met singer and former wild-man of rock Carl Wayne when he had a part in Crossroads in 1973. They married in 1974 and stayed together until he died at the criminally young age of 61. Carl Wayne was lead singer of brilliant 60s band The Move. With Roy Wood they had a string of hits including Fire Brigade, I Can Hear The Grass Grow and Tonight. He was also the first singer to be broadcast on Wonderful Radio One in 1967 when Tony Blackburn’s first record was Flowers In The Rain. On leaving The Move he became something of a housewives’ choice appearing on a lunchtime music show singing standards and musical numbers. He also sang the memorable theme tune to post-Op Knocks talent show New Faces in the 1980s, You’re A Star. Recently Sue made that soap opera crossover and had a role in Coronation Street appearing opposite her ‘partner in crime’ during her 60s Crossroads period Audrey Potter who played waitress Marilyn Gates.
  • Shughie McPhee (Angus Lennie) joined in 1974. His CV is impressive having appeared in Tunes of Glory, 633 Squadron, The VIPs with Richard Burton and his most well-known role as The Mole in The Great Escape. It’s fair to say that his film career was crashing and burning, a bit like that plane he was in in 633 Squadron when Crossroads came calling but he made that part his own.
  • Amy Turtle played by Ann George joined the cast in 1965 and was written out in 1976. In true Crossroads style she went to visit relatives in the US and she was never referred to in the show again. She wasn’t even referred to as being ‘in the cafeteria‘ a la Sandy. But was she bitter? Damn right she was. She was photographed by that great champion of the oppressed The Sun newspaper shaking her fists outside the ATV studios. In an interview around the same time she revealed how she’d been shunned by the cast after she left and how hard done by she’d been by the producers and even Noele Gordon herself! Excellent stuff. One would think there was no way back after that, but you’d be wrong. She made a triumphant return in 1987 for a short time. It was Amy Turtle that Victoria Wood based the legendary Mrs Overall of Acorn Antiques on, and, not surprisingly, Julie Walters, who played Mrs Overall so brilliantly, came from the same Birmingham town as Amy, Smethwick.
  • Benny Hawkins played by Paul Henry arguably became the most famous Crossroads character after Meg Richardson. Taken under her wing by Miss Doy-Ann Benny was employed by the motel as a handyman. His tragic 1978 romance with tempestuous gypsy girl Maureen Flynn who was knocked off her bike and killed on the morning of their wedding (what rotten luck) struck a chord with the viewing public. But wasn’t she on her way to meet Pat, the dodgy gypsy and Benny’s love rival? Hmmm. Poor Benny was inconsolable. He even had a hit single about it with not so much a song as a monologue where he mopes about his lost love and how his life has changed forever. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde writing about the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, ‘One must have a heart of stone to listen to Benny’s Theme without laughing.’ British soldiers during the Falklands War even referred to Falkland Islanders as ‘Bennies’, such was his influence. In later years it was revealed that Ronnie Barker had suggested Henry to play Lennie Godber in Porridge, the part eventually going to Richard Beckinsale. Bet he was pissed off about missing out on that.

There are many other weird and wonderful characters that could be discussed here but with literally hundreds passing through King’s Oak it could take a while, but I’m giving one last small nod to the hordes of extras who graced the motel reception area. As everyone knows the Crossroads budget was similar to that of, well, a small motel. It was imperative that extras did not utter a single word for fear of incurring additional expenditure beyond union extras rates. Thus, there were many excruciatingly long and turgid scenes where hotel guests, i.e. extras, would indulge in silent conversation with motel staff who were allowed to speak, and much nodding, gesticulating and smiling ensued. The overacting of extras was also a particularly enjoyable spectacle to watch in the background of scenes where they were squeezed into the tiny Crossroads reception bar, just as Meg and Tish Hope engaged in a fraught conversation about whether the guest in room 22 might be an international terrorist lying low in King’s Oak, just off the A435 which joins up with the A422, just south of Droitwich.

But if not an international terrorist then maybe an international pop star? Hardly likely I hear you say, but, once again, you’d be wrong!

In 1974 Sandy, on one of his rare excursions from the cafeteria, discovered that the reclusive woman staying in one of the motel’s Emperor bedrooms was none other than singing sensation Holly Brown, who due to the media pressure of having a No. 1 hit ‘Born With A Smile On My Face‘, was lying low in the Crossroads Motel, Kings Oak (south of Droitwich). Holly was played by ex-That’s Life performer Stephanie De Sykes whose 70s credentials are impeccable. She performed the new Golden Shot theme ‘Golden Day‘ with the band Rain, she returned to the top 20 with the song ‘We’ll Find Our Day’ which was played during Meg and Hugh Mortimer’s hugely overblown marriage ceremony in 1975 and she co-wrote two Eurovision Song Contest entries, Co-Co’s The Bad Old Days and Prima Donna’s Love Enough For Two in 1980. Neither won.

But the influence of Crossroads was clear when the song the fictional Holly Brown had taken to number one in the show was released, it went to number two. Written by Simon May who also wrote the theme to Eastenders (wonder if he gets a royalty every time it’s played?) and Howard’s Way, it’s a formulaic and quite irritating song but certainly hit the spot with Crossroads viewers.

And talking about that bloated, aggrandised, self-conscious wedding between Meg and Hugh Mortimer, who shortly afterwards really was murdered by a group of international terrorists that included Dishy David Hunter’s son Chris, which must have caused a slightly strained atmosphere in management meetings, Crossroads really had become more than a little bit up its own arse. Not only was this wedding publicised as if it was real, it took place at Birmingham Cathedral, TV Times issued a Crossroads Wedding Special edition, thousands of ‘well-wishers’ turned up for the ceremony and their wedding car was driven by a chauffeur who looked alarmingly like Nolly’s great pal Larry Grayson, who at one point, turned and winked archly to the camera. Just before the ceremony Meg was even interviewed by tabloid journalist Godfrey Winn. Not bad for the manageress of a motel (with swimming pool) located slightly south of Droitwich. It wasn’t, however, the first time the fourth wall was unceremoniously smashed to smithereens. On a number of occasions at Christmas Meg would summon the staff to her sanctum for a drink and, gathered lovingly around her, they would all look directly into the camera, raise their glasses to the viewing public and wish them a Happy Christmas. If it had been written by Harold Pinter maybe they could have got away with this, but it really wasn’t. And it was this blurring of fiction and reality that, I believe, was at the centre of Meg/Noele’s demise. It was as if she, Noele Gordon, was the star of the wedding, not Meg Richardson and those thousands of saddoes who lined the Birmingham streets were there to see Nolly. And probably they were.

Reading interviews with former Crossroads actors it’s easy to see who ruled the roost in this long-running production. One actor talked about the Green Room where all the regulars had their own chairs and in the centre was Nolly’s throne and, if lucky enough, they’d be allowed to touch the hem of her garment. And this eventually proved too much for the executives at ATV who balked at the negative criticism the show always attracted. A school of thought believes that Noele was strategically sacked in an attempt to let the show wither on the vine. Which is exactly what happened. Eventually.

While at primary school in the 60s we had a very affected old music teacher who delivered her last music lesson to us before retirement. ‘Will you ever come back Mrs Caldwell?’ giggled an old pal of mine as she made her way to the door. Slowly and without breaking stride, she turned and said in the loviest of manners, ‘Some day….some day…’ And lo she was gone.

And this is how I envisaged Nolly’s departure from Crossroads although in an altogether less benign way. She quickly did the rounds of lunchtime chat shows (Pebble Mill, Wogan, Harty) bemoaning the way she was unceremoniously dumped after all she’d done for them and she even released a record of such melodramatic magnitude it literally has to be seen and heard to be believed. Was she going quietly? Was she fuck!

The double A-side single she released were the songs ‘Goodbye‘ and ‘After All That Time‘ which she was only too happy to perform, with feeling, in front the soup-slurping lunchtime audience. No reference to her perceived savage treatment at the hands of those bastards at ATV then?

But if you want the pure essence of the Matriarch of the Motel, the Queen Bee of Crossroads, the Cleopatra of King’s Oak, the Doyenne of Dignity, I urge you to watch the video below.

Nolly accepts her fate with customary grace

It may have become quickly rather obvious that I loved Crossroads but, in my pathetic defence, my critical faculties at that age had, of course, yet to be developed. I remember very well rushing home from school to get in for 4.30pm to soak up the latest emotionally wrought episode. And just hearing that signature tune still makes me feel quite excited and not a little bit nostalgic. If someone gave a me boxed set of 3000 episodes, I’d gladly spend a month in a darkened room watching them. And then another month recovering.

Rather pretentiously, not new to this blog, I’m reminded of the (slightly amended) words of Percy Bysshe Shelley:

My name is Ozymandias, Queen of Queens;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

But it did have a swimming pool.

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Cor Blimey Stan, How Did You Do It?: On The Buses

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On The Buses was a 70s broadcasting phenomenon. Why?

No sign of buxom clippies here.

On The Buses was first broadcast on 28th February 1969 to something less than a fanfare. With an initial run of only 7 episodes it was popular enough to be re-commisioned for a second series. Within a couple of years it was the most popular sitcom on television, the spin-off film was the most successful British film at the box office in 1971 beating Diamonds Are Forever, Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, The French Connection and Bedknobs And Broomsticks. Two more hugely successful spin-off films and a further six longer series followed. The series format was, implausibly for its very British subject matter, sold to a US network, Fisher Price brought out an On The Buses board game and the series was turned into a heavily bowdlerised strip cartoon which ran for four years in the children’s TV magazine Look-In (La-la-la-la-la Look-In!). Despite David Stubbs of The Guardian describing the show as ‘..a byword for 70s sitcom mediocrity..’ and Leslie Halliwell of Halliwell’s Film Guide calling the films ‘..deplorably witless..’, the series was massively popular throughout the early 70s. With Mrs Brown’s Boys recently winning the Best Sitcom at the BAFTAs, has anything really changed?

It would be series 7 before he eventually found a way out!

As is always the case here, it is important to remember that during the series’ successful run there were only three TV channels, so there was little or maybe no real competition. In fact, the first series of On The Buses in 1969 was most probably up against an episode of the long running western The Virginian on BBC1. Maybe viewers had become a bit bored of the Shilo Ranch every Friday night for nearly five years up till then. And hardly anyone watched BBC2. It’s possible that particular night viewers may have been more interested in The Visual Scene, a look at European architecture since 1945 on BBC2 than the new sitcom on ITV. But unlikely.

Throughout seven series the basic premise of the sitcom never changed, it just became increasingly more desperate. Reg Varney was 51 when he first played the part of Stan Butler and Bob Grant was 36. It’s not being unreasonable to say that neither had male model looks. Stan was overweight and short, Jack was skinny, toothsome and becoming follicaly challenged. However, a veritable battalion of young, attractive female clippies found them irresistibly attractive. And this was how it was in the 60s and 70s. Particularly with the Carry-Ons, young women were only too happy to be with men like Sid James, Bernard Bresslaw or Peter Butterworth, or at least the films made out they were. But as viewers, we knew instinctively that this was fiction, but did this make it any more tolerable? It certainly made it more ludicrous.

No wonder Jack’s smiling!

The series had been written by sitcom stalwarts Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe. Wolfe had been the great Beryl Reid’s main writer before meeting Chesney while working on the BBC radio series Educating Archie, a comedy series starring a ventriloquist’s dummy. On the radio. If you think that’s weird, Ronald Chesney began in showbiz teaching the harmonica to troops during WW2 on a BBC radio series that lasted 42 weeks. That is, 42 weeks. And you thought European architecture since 1945 was boring?

Their first writing hit was the 1961 sitcom The Rag Trade which starred, amongst others, Reg Varney, who was already 45 at this point. About the everyday trials and tribulations in a clothes manufacturing sweat shop in London it also starred Miriam Karlin, Barbara Windsor, Sheila Hancock and Esma Cannon. A ratings success it attracted 11 million viewers at its height. They followed this with Meet The Wife which ran for five series from 1964-66. Starring the legendary Thora Hird and Freddie Frinton it was another working-class sitcom which reflected the changing attitudes of broadcasting and film making at this time. Ronald Wolfe said:

‘Writers who come from orthodox middle-class backgrounds can’t write The Rag Trade- type shows. They just don’t know what makes the man in the street laugh.’

With regards to On The Buses maybe he had a point. With the notable exception of Galton and Simpson, many British sitcoms were solidly middle-class. After 1960 the most memorable sitcoms, however, were the likes of Steptoe and Son, Hancock, Till Death Us Do Part and The Likely Lads, factor in soap operas like Coronation Street and The Newcomers and clearly, it was possible, at last, to get into TV without having to have elocution lessons. Although clearly lacking the social and political heft of many of these programmes, On The Buses had unquestionable working class credentials. It’s also fair to say Wolfe and Chesney, who have been roundly criticised for their representations of women in On The Buses, often rightly so, had already created strong roles for women in their previous work. No one could ever accuse either Beryl Read, Miriam Karlin or Thora Hird as being shrinking violets. But the two Ronalds were working during a very different time with regards to sexual politics and, let’s face it, writers will do anything for laughs, if they can get away with it and in the early 70s they could.

But what the two Ronalds were doing was no different to what pretty much all comedy writers were doing in the 60s and 70s. Writing for men by men. And the way we watch these programmes now is very different to how we watched them then. We watch them now with a large element of irony. We laugh because, at times, we can’t quite believe what we’re seeing. If you lived through those time, like I did, you completely believe what you’re seeing. It’s how things were. We know better now but I don’t agree with the people who think these things should be proscribed. We’re not stupid, we understand that things are different today so please don’t profess to tell us what we should and shouldn’t be able to watch.

Reg Varney‘s career began immediately after the war when he, like so many other, mainly male, performers began at The Windmill Theatre (see Mad As A Ha’penny Watch’). He played piano there and this eventually led to him becoming, curiously, Benny Hill‘s straight man in a revue improbably titled ‘Gaytime.’

Benny Hill was reputed to have been offered the job over Peter Sellars. Some mention this with incredulity but, whatever they say, Benny Hill was a comic genius. Some of his stuff doesn’t go down well these days, like so much other 60s and 70s comedy, but there is no getting away from the fact that he was a brilliant comedy performer and an extremely clever and funny writer. There is nothing that Benny Hill did in some of his comedy that The Two Ronnies or even On The Buses didn’t, and they certainly didn’t do it as well as Benny Hill, but the latter are both broadcast regularly but Benny Hill shows never see the light of day. Why is Benny Hill criminally ignored? Are today’s viewers unable to cope with what they might see or put it into a modern context? There is so much of his genius we are missing and it’s incredibly unfair. A few years ago a TV channel, Channel 4 maybe, ran a one-off documentary where they showed young people clips from Benny Hill shows and asked if he was still funny. They voted resoundingly that he was.

Benny Hill: Comic genius

Before On The Buses, Reg Varney had established himself as a reliable comic actor in the successful Chesney and Wolfe series, The Rag Trade and then Beggar My Neighbour which ran for three series between 1966 and 68. With a plethora of 60s comedy talent including Peter Jones (also from The Rag Trade), June Whitfield and Pat Coombes, the premise of related couples living next door to one another and one couple being well-off and the other not, it was a comedy conceit made in TV heaven, though rarely remembered today.

Reg and Pat Coombes in the almost forgotten Beggar My Neighbour

It was around this time in 1967 that Reg Varney became the first man to use an automated cash machine in the UK. Clearly his popularity with the public was of a suitably exalted status that the good people at Barclay’s Bank felt he was the right man to publicise this technological marvel. The fact that the first Barclay’s Bank to have an ATM was in Enfield, North London and Reg just happened to live locally also helped. But this unlikely story shows how well known he’d become. And this was before On The Buses.

It didn’t swallow my card!

For the next four years he and Stan Butler became household names and it was the very success of On The Buses that really typecast Reg in the years after. He left OTB in 1973 and despite being given two series of his own largely forgotten sketch show in 1973-74 and starring in an On The Buses-type sitcom but set in Billingsgate Market, Down The ‘Gate, which only lasted 12 episodes, Varney rarely worked in TV again. Sadly, whatever he did he was always Stan Butler.

I smell fish five days old

Reg did make a curiosity of a film in 1973 , however. Straight after leaving OTB he was offered The Best Pair Of Legs In The Business about a holiday camp entertainer who squanders his talent and family relationships due to his obsession with his job. With a pretty decent cast including Diana Coupland of Bless This House fame and Johnny ‘Mike Baldwin’ Briggs, it’s an odd combination of comedy and pathos and it can’t quite work out what it wants to be. Reg Varney is pretty good in it but he’s fighting a losing battle. Eventually the film was given a cinema release as second on the bill to, ironically, The Best of Benny Hill and sunk without trace. And that for Reg was pretty much it, which was a shame as he was a comedy actor of real ability and professionalism. His style seemed effortless and compared to some of the less talented actors in OTB, and there were plenty, he shone out like a number 11 bus on a cold winter’s night at the cemetery gates. And it was Reg himself who did more than anyone to make OTB the success it was. In less capable hands it would have never have left the depot.

Compared to Reg the other performers could not hold a candle to him. That said, both Bob Grant and Stephen Lewis came to the show with interesting CVs.

Stephen Lewis began at Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at Stratford and actually wrote a West End musical, Sparrers Can’t Sing which was also made into a film starring Barbara Windsor. A life long socialist he often campaigned with Tony Benn and wrote some of the later OTB episodes with Bob Grant. He was given his own spin-off by Wolfe and Chesney ‘Don’t Drink The Water‘ which he starred in with the ubiquitous Pat Coombes as Blakey and his sister who had retired to Spain with hilarious results! You can imagine. Lots of funny foreigner, greasy food and Spanish tummy gags ensued. He reprised Blakey a number of times in various shows and finished up in that retirement home for old actors, The Last Of The Summer Wine.

Don’t Drink The Water: Derek Griffiths once again typecast as ‘the funny foreigner’

Bob Grant also began with Joan Littlewood’s theatre company and appeared in Lewis’s stage play of Sparrers Can’t Sing. He also played, oddly, 60s Labour Minister and old soak George Brown in the political satire written by Private Eye editor Richard Ingrams and John Wells, Mrs Wilson’s Diary before OTB. As well as writing later OTB episodes with Lewis, worked pretty much dried up for him after the series ended. He attempted a comeback with a self-written sitcom called Milk-O where he played a milkman fighting off the amorous advances of randy housewives (well they would, wouldn’t they?) but the pilot wasn’t taken up by any TV company. In 1975 a film was released by Special Branch‘s one-dimensional Derren Nesbitt which he scripted, produced and directed entitled The Amorous Milkman about a milkman fighting off the advances of randy housewives. Sound familiar? In fact, one poster for the film showed a cat licking its lips after drinking some milk above the tagline ‘If your pussy could talk.’ Saul Bass it wasn’t. 70s it certainly was.

In the days when it was believed milk was good for you.

This was probably the last straw for Bob and his life descended into depression and after two suicide attempts a third attempt was, tragically, successful in 2003. During his OTB years of fame his marriage at a London Registry Office attracted such a huge crowd he and the guests had to abandon their hired cars and walk to the reception. Such are the vicissitudes of fame.

The first series of OTB set the parameters for the characters such as Arthur’s cynical and sarcastic nature and his verbal abuse of Olive (‘You great guts!‘), his ‘operation’ which is never revealed but it’s suggested affects his sexual performance (obviously). Olive does not have a particularly big role in the first two series other than as the butt of jokes. Her unattractiveness, terrible cooking and desire to have ‘an early night’, much to Jack’s disgust, are regular routines. Blakey is established as the petty hate figure that Stan and Jack run rings around and ‘clippies’ are introduced only occasionally. Stan’s problems are mostly the result of his doting mum and troublesome family. In fact the first two series are fairly low-key and often have an improvised feel to them. The comedy is slow burning to say the least and often it doesn’t emerge at all. One gets the impression the writers don’t really know where it’s going. It’s quite amazing that it was commissioned for a third series.

By series three however, they get into their stride. The catchphrases appear, ‘I ‘ate you butler,’ ‘Get that bleeding’ bus aht!‘, buxom clippies abound and Blakey gets annoyed. And that was, pretty much, the template for the next four series. Desperation still set in regularly though and in series three, for example, an episode about the boys getting fancy new uniforms really scraped the barrel, and a scene depicting Jack and Stan just mincing around the staff canteen in them went on for about 3 minutes! And this type of scene became increasingly more common as ideas became increasingly more limited.

The spin-off films were just extended versions of the TV series. The first film, On The Buses, which made 28 times its original budget world-wide, is a very 70s story of women threatening the harmony of the mens’ jobs and their guaranteed overtime by being ‘allowed’ to become bus drivers. High jinx ensue and a series of ploys to get the women bus drivers sacked are put into operation including spiders in the cabs and diuretics in the tea. The women, of course, are all battle-axes. The clippies are the young attractive girls desperate for ageing, sweaty, overweight, leering male attention.

The most memorable aspect of the first film was the opening theme song, ‘Its A Great Life On The Buses‘ by Quinceharmon. Arguably the lyrics were funnier, in a very 70s way, to the script. For example:

It’s so romantic on the buses,

you’ll find it thrilling when you ride,

and you can get it on the buses,

upstairs or down inside.

Hardly Leonard Cohen but you get the idea.

Mutiny On The Buses and Holiday On The Buses wrung out the threadbare comedy sponge to its limit but, as is often the case, too little too late. Reg saw the writing on the lavatory wall and jumped the bus long before the cemetery gates in the middle of series 7. Michael Robbins (Arthur) had already done so at the start of series 7, supposedly having divorced Olive. He went on to have a much more successful subsequent career than any of the other OTB performers, including an unlikely part as a female impersonator in The Pink Panther Strikes Again in 1976.

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It’s not going too far to call On The Buses a 70s phenomenon. Quite unbelievable now given its paucity of humour and one-dimensional characters. It should also be remembered that at the same time we had comedy on telly such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Steptoe and Son, The Likely Lads, Porridge and The Dustbinmen. So it’s not as if OTB had no competition. But maybe Ronald Chesney was right about the working class humour, maybe many people didn’t want challenging comedy and maybe there was little competition at 7.00 pm on a Friday evening. But it was easy humour for less enlightened times and everyone of a certain age remembers Stan and Blakey. And I have to admit, I liked it at the time but I was only 9.

That said, give me On The Buses to the execrable Mrs Brown’s Boys any day. Now get that bleeding’ bus aht!

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