Magical Mystery Tour: What A Long Strange Trip It Was

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.

The Big Match: Sunday In The Park With Brian

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.

Tarbuck Memories

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 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 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 in those days, 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.

Standing At The Crossroads Of (TV) History

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.

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

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!

Warhol: From Soup to Nuts? How Wrong They Were..

How the establishment tried to censor Andy Warhol without knowing anything about him.

As a hugely inquisitive child during the sixties and seventies, I was more aware of what was going on in society than anyone probably realised. I was no different to millions of other children who are instinctively tuned in to the zeitgeist. How could they not be? We read newspapers, watched telly, viewed lots of films, and most importantly, listened to what adults were talking about. It was all there in front of us. Children are just sponges for culture and I for one resented a lot of the shit that was thrown at me in terms of ‘children’s’ television at the time. I wanted challenging TV, innovative TV, groundbreaking films, the bottom line being I wanted to know what was going on in the adult world. Hence the fact my nostalgia for 60s and 70s TV was for The Prisoner, The Avengers, Monty Python and Marty Feldman rather than Crackerjack, Play School, Blue Peter and any other infantile crap middle-aged, middle-class adults perceived I was going to like. I wasn’t prepared to accept thin gruel.

To be fair to my mum and dad they weren’t the type of parents who felt it was their duty to protect me from the excesses of the grown-up world. I was allowed to watch many classics of the 60s and 70s such as Steptoe and Son, Wednesday Plays and Budgie. I didn’t think so at the time but they were quite liberal. And in 1973 I became very aware that there was a real stooshie brewing in the media about a documentary film that had been made that ‘they’ were trying to ban.

Nothing alerted my curiosity, or anyone else’s for that matter, than when a TV programme was branded ‘shocking’, ‘revolting’ or, even better, ‘offensive.’ And such was the case with British photographer David Bailey’s documentary on Andy Warhol.

Bailey and Warhol.

I had heard talk of this beast, Andy Warhol. Certain words and expressions surrounded the name like moons around a weird planet. New York, nuts, freak, sleazy, sex films, strange art, scary, threatening society, drugs, controversial. What was not to like? It would be many years before I became completely obsessed with Warhol and his world, but, at this point, I was just desperate to see this film.

The tabloids, of course, could not believe their luck, a heaven-sent excuse to go into moralistic overdrive about a film they hadn’t seen. ‘Judges Halt Sex Film,’ ‘Judges Ban TV Shocker‘ were just two headlines from newspapers that backed Ross McWhirter and Mary Whitehouse’s moral crusade for ‘decency’. Obviously they hadn’t seen the film either. McWhirter and Whitehouse presumably also hadn’t seen the naked teenage page three models in the tabloids or maybe they thought that was just good clean fun. Either way it took a couple of months before those self-styled arbiters of good taste and decency had their banning application thrown out by the courts. And on 27th March 1973 the film was broadcast.

I had tracked the course of this film through the courts during January and February of 1973 and as the broadcast approached I was determined I was going to see it. I distinctly remember the evening of 27 March 1973. It just so happened that same evening The Godfather won Best Film at the Oscars and Cabaret won 8 other Oscars, Slade’s Cum On Feel The Noize was at number 1 in the singles charts, while Alice Cooper‘s Billion Dollar Babies was top of the album charts. So there certainly was a movement away from the mainstream at this particular time.

My dad worked nights at that time and I remember my mum going to bed about 10. She asked me what I was doing and I said, ‘I want to watch that programme on Andy Warhol.’ That was fine with her and she went away leaving me to watch the most eagerly anticipated TV experience of my life on my own. It really didn’t disappoint. It was quirky, it was strange, it had some truly odd people in it as expected and it portrayed an artist who was shy, sometimes monosyllabic, playfully provocative and unique. Was it the ‘shocker’ trumpeted by the tabloids? Of course not. One scene featuring a member of the Warhol entourage, Brigid Polk, showed her on the phone to Andy while she made a series of ‘tit paintings’. This involved her rubbing bits of painted card on her breasts to create images on the card, a bit like brass rubbings, which would probably have pleased Mrs Whitehouse much more. At the start of the sequence we see Brigid throw scraps of coloured paper down the toilet, flush it, then take polaroids of the paper being tossed around by the water. The sight of a toilet probably upset Ross McWhirter more than anything. Or it would have if he’d seen the film, which he hadn’t. It was only 12 years, after all, since Hitchcock was the first film director to show a flushing toilet in cinematic history when he featured it in his 1960’s classic Psycho.

A clip from a Warhol film with two actors discussing having sex on a motorbike travelling at 60 miles per hour definitely upset the moral vanguard. Not because of the language used, ‘fuck’ was still extremely rare on TV, but it was more the fact it would have been a danger to other traffic that worried McWhirter.

So the film came and went. I loved it. It was a serious documentary on a serious artist but it was also funny, we were introduced to a clique of odd people we had never seen, even imagined, before and it gave an insight into a wonderfully seedy world we’d only heard whispers of. Years later my interest in Warhol would be ignited again and I would find out that Warhol’s best and most influential years had been behind him when this film was made and he was heading towards his ‘celebrity’ period, a bit like when a band moved from a cult following to being stadium fillers. They were never quite the same.

To see how this occurred we have to go back to the early 60s. Warhol had arrived in New York in the 50s and worked as a graphic artist and designer, most notably for Glamour magazine . Eventually he gave up illustration and began to concentrate on his own art and after installing himself in a few workshops around NY he moved into the workspace that established him as New York’s prime artistic mover, the Silver Factory at 231 East 47th Street.

The Silver Factory became Pop Art Central from January 1964 until his lease ran out in late 1967. Any artist worth his or her salt, musical, literary, cinematic, photographic, visual, even political passed through the Silver Factory at some point. Warhol also assembled an entourage of New York’s waifs, strays and oddities who hung around the Factory waiting for something to happen. Despite the strangeness of many of the Factory’s denizens, the copious amounts of drugs around and unpredictability of events, anyone well known visiting NY would head for this otherwise mundane corner of the metropolis. Liza Minelli, The Beatles, The Stones, Tennessee Williams, Cecil Beaton, William Burroughs, Salvador Dali, Allen Ginsberg and Truman Capote, amongst many others, regularly dropped in despite its reputation as a den of sleaze, iniquity and degradation. In fact, that probably encouraged many to visit.

It was here he established himself as one the leading practitioners of pop art. In a frenzied few years of activity he created larges screen prints of Hollywood idols, of Campbell’s soup cans, models of outsize Brillo boxes, even of his floating sculptures, silver flower-shaped balloons filled with air which you see all over now but Warhol invented them.

Warhol also began creating his ‘underground’ films at this time. Starting with ‘Sleep‘ and moving on to ‘Empire‘ where he filmed the Empire State Building for 8 hours and 5 mins ‘to see time go by.’ His ‘screen tests’ of people visiting the Factory, where they had to sit motionless and look at a camera Warhol was pointing became hugely influential with avant-garde and later mainstream cinema. Of the 472 ‘Screen Tests’ which still exist, many are of well known people of the time as well people from the New York downtown scene. I once saw an interview where a reporter tried to get Warhol to explain why his films were called ‘underground’. He clearly hoped Warhol would talk about them being non-mainstream, anti-establishment, sexually graphic, unconventional or something similarly controversial. Warhol just said laconically, ‘Well, uhhh, we make them in cellars and basements. That’s, uhh, probably why.’ He was a master of obfuscation.

After a hard day’s screen printing Warhol and his entourage of the day would head down to a few blocks to his favourite restaurant, Max’s Kansas City near Union Square. After taking over the back room, Warhol would offer paintings to the owner for the feeding of his guests. On one notable evening Bobby Kennedy turned up at Max’s to have a chinwag with Andy but only stayed a short time as one of his security men spotted the unmistakable aroma of marijuana and quickly whisked him away. After ‘discovering’ The Velvet Underground (for me the most influential band of all time) at Cafe Bizarre in the Village Warhol had them play regularly at Max’s and soon it was the hottest eatery in New York with queues forming similar to those at Studio 54 (a favourite venue of Andy’s) some years later. In 1974 Max’s Kansas City closed temporarily and re-opened as a punk and New Wave music venue featuring legendary bands such as New York Dolls, Devo and Blondie. For those who read NME and Sounds in the 70s Max’s Kansas City was a familiar venue often mentioned along with CBGB’s. Max’s closed for good in 1981 and is now an excellent deli, though a far cry from its 60s and 70s greatness. I know, I’ve been there.

In January 1968 Warhol moved his operation into the 4th floor of the Decker Building on 33 Union Square West, shortly before 231 E. 47th Street was demolished to make way for a new high rise. A much more upmarket building than the dilapidated, dingy loft of the Silver Factory, it coincided with Warhol becoming more business-orientated and having a number people work on his projects rather than just himself and his assistant Gerard Malanga.

The White Factory where Warhol was shot in 1968

On June 3 1968 Andy Warhol was shot in this building by an occasional visitor to the Factory, Valerie Solanas, who was incensed that a script she had written, Up Your Ass, which she had asked Andy to read had been misplaced. Warhol barely survived and when Bailey filmed his Warhol documentary a few years after the shooting, it was a very different Warhol to the free and easy figure of the 60s. In the years following the Bailey film Warhol would transform himself into his next artwork, that of establishment celebrity rubbing shoulders with Hollywood and political royalty. One wag observed, ‘Andy Warhol would attend the opening of a drawer.’ But I feel this was always the long-term project. To show how his 60s anti-establishmentarianism could be transformed into ultimate celebrity acceptance.

Someone once asked me, knowing my interest in Warhol, why he was so popular as they didn’t think there was much to his work. It made me realise that Andy Warhol was the artwork. Everything about him and the things surrounding him were part of a huge artefact and that, for me, made him and New York the fulcrum of the modern art movement throughout the 60s. Without Warhol we would not have had the grunge, garage and punk, even classical, influences of The Velvet Underground, his films influenced many, many directors to experiment with form, mise-en-scene, sound and narrative, his pop art still influences artists today and his pronouncements which seemed so weird at the time, turned out to be so prescient. Hasn’t everyone become world-famous for 15 mins in our multi-media platform, social media obsessed times? Isn’t art about what you can get away with?

He even designed the Velvet Underground album cover and Sticky Fingers album cover for the Stones and invented the word ‘superstar.’

Bailey’s documentary is still a fascinating study of an enigmatic and still influential totem of pop art, music and cinema as well as being a wonderfully symbolic anti-hero for the 60s. The Bailey film also was a turning point in the public attitude towards censorship and people like Whitehouse and McWhirter knew they were never going to get away with this form cultural fascism again.

Inadvertently, Warhol had changed the cultural landscape yet again, without really trying. And to think people just thought he was nuts.

Judy Carne: A Truly 60s Star

The vivacious Judy

How Joyce Botterill became briefly one of the most famous women in the world.

On the 3rd of September 2015 Joyce Audrey Botterill died of pneumonia at Northampton General Hospital aged 76 to little acknowledgement. Few people knew who Joyce Botterill was but millions of a certain age knew who Judy Carne was. Hardly anyone will have known Joyce and Judy were the same person.

Joyce Botterill was born in 1939 in the same town she died in 2015, Northampton. Between these two events, Judy Carne became, briefly, one of the most famous comedy performers in the world. Her 60s and 70s credentials were impeccable. Her career summed up what showbiz was like in these decades and in the same way as her career went stratospheric, it just as swiftly collapsed around her in the late 70s, never to be rekindled.

Her hugely readable autobiography with the rather melodramatic Hollywood title, ‘Laughing On The Inside, Crying On The Outside‘ is a who’s who of anyone who was anyone in the UK and US entertainment industry during the 60s and 70s and gives an excellent account of her rise and fall. The scope of this article, however, is not to dwell on her downfall or the tragic events that led to it but to celebrate her fascinating achievements throughout the 60s and 70s where she was at the vanguard of a developing and changing comedy culture. So how, exactly, did Joyce Botterill, the greengrocer’s daughter from Northampton become the Hollywood performer known to everyone, Judy Carne?

Judy on the left. Very psychedelic, very Laugh-In

For a brief period, Judy Carne was the ‘sock-it-me girl’ on the biggest and most ground-breaking comedy show in the world, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. But her journey to this career pinnacle is just as interesting as this programme’s cultural cache. It has always fascinated me how British performers, particularly actors, can move from humble beginnings in the UK to stellar success in Hollywood, specifically during the first part of the 20th century. Right up to the 1980s the US was an exciting, mysterious place that had a particular aura. Things happened there that didn’t happen here. We all knew what it looked like, we’d seen the films and TV series, listened to the music and read the comics and all this only added to its mystery and glamour. But getting there wasn’t easy, to say the least. Going there was virtually out of the question for most working people due to the cost of flights, accommodation and more than a little trepidation about what you’d find there. It was very much another country, almost like another planet. Trying to get there, right up to the early 60s, required a lot of money or a lot luck.

One only has to think of Chaplin, Stan Laurel and Cary Grant. Hollywood legends who all started in various obscure corners of the UK. How did they rise to world fame and success from relative backwaters of the UK like Lambeth, Ulverston and Bristol? The reason was they all had the good luck and talent to have toured America with performing companies. Chaplin and Laurel (or Jefferson as he was then known) went with the legendary Fred Karno company while Grant (or Archie Leach) went with the Pender Troupe. Judy Carne’s route to the US was of a similar nature although much more modern, as one would expect.

But what about this weird name? OK, Joyce Botterill does not trip off the tongue or seem even remotely glamorous. But Judy Carne? Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish or French knows the word ‘carne’ means ‘meat.’ Even by 60s standards, and Judy’s body was most certainly exploited on Laugh-In, this is a bit strong. The reason for this change of name though was rather more prosaic. She had been in a play at stage school entitled Sister Bonaventure and had played an evil murderess called Sarah Carne and just decided it went well with ‘Judy’, which she’d already decided on as a stage name. I wonder if she’d have persisted with it if she’d known what it really meant? We’ll never know although someone must have pointed it out eventually.

After graduating from the Bush-Davis Theatrical School for Girls she moved to London and began to appear in various stage productions and, in 1961, her 60s credentials really began to kick in. Small parts in Danger Man with the great Patrick McGoohan and The Rag Trade with Reg Varney and Barbara Windsor, for example. Around this time she also struck up friendships, and often more than friendships according to her autobiography, with Vidal Sassoon, Stirling Moss and Anthony Newley. She appeared (uncredited) in a couple of films also, the most interesting of which was Jazzboat where she met Newley, which is discussed in a little more detail below in ‘Mad As A Ha’penny Watch‘ as one of the stars was a young Bernie Winters (who I don’t think she had an affair with). She was performing at this time as one of the Lionel Blair Dancers and Mr. Blair (who I also don’t think she had an affair with) himself used to chaperone her around London. In the same year she was even a panellist on Juke Box Jury as the teenage representative, just like Magpie’s Susan Stranks below in ‘Here’s Something I Wrote Earlier…

But her life was about to change forever. While filming The Rag Trade and also appearing in theatre revue at night she was called to the Grosvenor House Hotel in Mayfair for an audition. The audition was for a projected American series entitled Fair Exchange which was about an American family and a British family who agree to swap teenage daughters for a year. The series was noteworthy as it was the first sitcom on American TV to be of an hour’s duration. Judy was eventually offered the part of the British daughter who went to the US and it was here her American adventure began.

The series itself was filmed in the US and, to my knowledge, was never broadcast in the UK but the cast was particularly interesting. Playing Judy’s younger brother was a very young Dennis Waterman and playing her dad was an actor who was a very well known face to all British film and TV viewers, though few would probably recall his name, Victor Maddern. Maddern’s IMDB listing is as long as your arm. With well over 200 credits he appeared in pretty much every well known British TV series and many films, usually in very small parts, maybe only one line, but his craggy looks and gruff cockney delivery guaranteed him endless roles playing heavies and squaddies. Fair Exchange was probably the biggest role he ever had and, interestingly, after the two US-based series of Fair Exchange ended, he landed parts in both Bonanza and Perry Mason, two of America’s biggest and longest running series. For anyone stumbling across him in either of those two episodes it must have been an oddly jarring experience to see so British an actor. Maddern ran a sideline from acting which was a public speaking school. As a big Tory supporter he offered reduced rates to Conservative MPs and constituency workers. And to think I always quite liked him. Sometimes it’s better not to google people..

Fair Exchange: Spot the young Dennis Waterman

Fair Exchange ran for two series, which suggests it must have been reasonably popular, as real duds don’t survive the first series in the cut-throat US schedules. When this finished Judy decided to remain in the US, and who could have blamed her, which was a pretty brave course of action for a still only 21 year old. Much of her time was spent contacting agents and casting directors. This led to a part in a short-lived American sitcom, which also was not broadcast in the UK, called The Baileys of Balboa about a family who run a chartered yacht business in California. It was set up to run against the very popular, and very similar, Gilligan’s Island and lasted only one 26 part series. This pretty much established Judy in American TV though and soon she got her first starring role in, yet another US only series, Love on a Rooftop. It’s worth remembering that in the UK in the early 60s we still had only two channels. On top of that, TV really only broadcast from 5pm till about 11.30. The protestant work ethic required decent people to be working during the day and then to bed at an appropriate hour to be ready for work again the following day. Space for American series on our two networks was limited.

It was while promoting Fair Exchange in 1963 that Joyce from Northampton would meet her first husband, who would eventually become the biggest actor in the US, Burt Reynolds. It’s true to say that some American actors who are huge in their own country don’t really translate to the UK. Warren Beatty is one. Though popular and well-known in the UK, he has never been the household name, the mega-star he was, and still is, in the US. Burt Reynolds was the same. His films were fairly successful, though most of them were pretty one-dimensional, but he never had the huge popularity in the UK of someone like Robert Redford, Paul Newman or Jack Nicholson. When he met Judy on a flight to Florida he was a fairly established TV star on the long-running western Gunsmoke, which was broadcast in the UK. His best days were yet to come but it was still quite a coup when, after a whirlwind romance, he and Judy Carne were married. The marriage was short-lived though. Burt believed in a woman knowing her place and being a nest-builder. He would call it being ‘traditional’ although tradition is always a flag of convenience for people trying to justify the unjustifiable. According to Judy he could be aggressive and, sometimes, violent and insanely jealous. It says a lot about her that she was prepared to seek a divorce rather than accept the role he expected her to take on. That said, they remained friends and when times got tough for Judy in the late 70s and 80s he was one of the few who continued to support her. One has to remember how young they were when they met and got married.

Love on a Rooftop in 1966 was when Judy’s career began to get really interesting. Her co-star was tragic 70s idol Pete Duel of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid-inspired Alias Smith and Jones. Love on a Rooftop was based on the Neil Simon play and film Barefoot in the Park starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, the plot being about an art student from a rich family (Carne) and a struggling apprentice architect (Duel). Due to their lack of money they move into a tiny attic flat in San Francisco and confusion and misunderstandings, of course, ensue. They even have a nutty neighbour played by well-known US comedian, Rich Little. The series, again, was not re-commissioned despite reasonable viewing figures but Carne and Duel were now relatively hot properties.

They remained very good friends, even having a brief fling, until Duel’s suicide in 1971. Quentin Tarantino was reported as saying that Leonardo De Caprio’s character, Rick Dalton, in the brilliant Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, was based on Duel. His suicide in 1971, which I remember vividly, caused shock waves when it was reported, even in the UK. Alias Smith and Jones was one of the most popular series on TV and was still being produced when he died. Reports on why he shot himself are vague though some feel it was due to depression due to his drinking and he had been arrested some months previously for driving under the influence and injuring two people. Alias Smith and Jones continued, however. US networks would never scrap a popular series just because of a minor problem like a star’s suicide, and recruited Roger Davies to take on the Duel part. The series failed to recover without Duel and was cancelled after one more season.

Carne went on to appear in some of the biggest series in America after this on a guest star basis including I Dream of Jeannie with Larry Hagman, The Big Valley, a number of episodes of the very wonderful The Man From Uncle and even guest starred with her pal Pete Duel in Alias Smith and Jones before his death.

In 1968 she hit the jackpot when she landed a role in the biggest and most influential American comedy show of 60s, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, although she won’t have known it at the time.

Dan and Dick

Laugh-In, as it was usually referred to, was a groundbreaking new type of comedy show that reflected the changing, ‘anything goes’ anti-establishment culture of the late 60s. Designed to take on the might of Gunsmoke and The Lucy Show, it was made up of quick-fire gags, catchphrases, recurring characters, a scattergun approach to structure, all dressed up in sexually-charged psychedelia. It’s title was a pun on anti-establishment movements of the sixties, ‘love-ins,’ sit-ins,’ and ‘bed-ins.’ It fortuitously coincided with the spread of colour television and was a truly colourful visual experience. For Judy, coming to this from Love on a Rooftop couldn’t have been more different. After an initial pilot show it was commissioned for 14 episodes. By Season 2 it is was the most watched TV programme of the year in the US taking a whopping 38% share of the viewing audience.

Each character had their own particular role and catchphrase. The personnel changed from season to season but certain characters are remembered, mainly from the hugely successful first three seasons, at the end of which Judy left, but not before cementing her place in comedy broadcasting history.

Long running cast member Arte Johnson, for example, played a German Nazi officer, and at the end of a sketch he would be seen hiding behind a bush or plant smoking a cigarette. ‘Very Interesting….’ and he would deliver a gag about the previous sketch. This became a catchphrase that everyone in the US as well as in the UK came to know and was assimilated into everyday the culture. This is probably the character that is remembered most today by viewers of the time. Goldie Hawn‘s character was certainly played against type. In reality a very astute and intelligent operator, she played the archetypal dumb blonde with a whiny voice, often getting her lines wrong. Henry Gibson was a small man who would recite his own daft poetry. Jo Ann Worley, a larger than life, loud, brassy comedian would play a hysterical woman at a party constantly complaining about her unseen boyfriend, Boris.

A rather curious regular in season 3 of Laugh-In was English actor Jeremy Lloyd. With no previous American track record it’s uncertain how he ended up playing the archetypal Englishman on RMLI. He was a truly sixties presence though. Having appeared in both A Hard Day’s Night and Help, he also appeared in the first ever colour episode of fantastic 60s fourth series of The Avengers (From Venus With Love) where he played a posh chimney sweep (much more to come on The Avengers). After completing season 3 of RMLI he returned to the UK, met Joanna Lumley, and decided not to return for season 4 as they ended up getting married. He then became best known for co-writing Are You Being Served? (and inventing the line, ‘Captain Peacock, keep your hands off my pussy!’) and then ‘Allo, ‘Allo. (We might look down snootily on such low-brow comedy but neither show was Mrs Brown’s Boys. And, to be fair, some of it is funny!). Even more interesting was that, according to Lloyd, on the night of the Tate murders in August 10 1969 he claimed to have been invited to Cielo Drive for dinner but turned it down. Then again, many celebrities also claimed to have been invited. It’s a damn good story though.

Jeremy looking quite relieved he got a takeaway that night.

To modern readers this may not sound the most side-splitting comedy ever but one shouldn’t underestimate its influence after years and years of middle-class sitcoms set in suburbia. In the UK Monty Python was just taking off and although the humour was very different, the format was of a similar left-field nature. Without Laugh-In it’s debatable whether we’d have had fondly remembered sketch shows such as The Fast Show, Vic Reeves Big Night Out or Harry Enfield And Friends.

Judy’s main character was as ‘the sock-it-to me girl‘ where she would look right into the camera and say one of the show’s very 60s catchphrases and would have it ‘socked to her’ in a range of very different, and often quite painful and unpleasant ways. Water, paint, trap doors and flying objects featured in these recurring skits. She grew very tired of them and it also contributed to her leaving the show at the end of season 3. She also had a character who was a telephonist at a switchboard. She would begin the sketch, ‘Beautiful downtown Burbank, how can I help you?’ (Burbank being where the Laugh-In studio was based).

Judy having it well and truly socked to her.

Other recurring sketches included The Party where a range of stock characters would do short gag routines in turn while at a disco, right at the start of the show. The Joke Wall at the end of the show where doors would open and a cast member would tell a one-liner while Dick and Dan bantered. This routine influenced many other variety shows and still does. And Mod Mod World where the attractive cast members including Judy would be dressed in up-to the moment gear and be covered in psychedelic drawings as the disco flashed coloured lights and the music would stop for the girls to deliver a gag. Describing these moments, I know, fails to put across the energy and excitement of the show but it was truly innovative at the time. Honestly.

Smart dumb blonde, Goldie Hawn in Laugh-In.

As the popularity of the show surged guest stars were introduced throughout for little vignettes at various times. The guests Laugh-In attracted were truly stellar. Richard Nixon, of all people, dropped in while campaigning in 1968 and put his subsequent victory down to this appearance. His Democratic rival Hubert Humphrey declined an invitation. Sammy Davis Jnr, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jack Benny and Johnny Carson all made regular appearances. Even Big John Wayne turned up, a strange moment given his ultra-conservative views.

Laugh-In was also responsible for launching the career of high-voiced ukulele player, Tiny Tim. An odd long-haired eccentric whose signature tune, Tiptoe Through The Tulips became known worldwide, his appearances on Laugh-In shot him to stardom. He even had a guest appearance on The Golden Shot in 1969 which made him a household name in the UK. In the US, in true showbiz style, he married his first wife of four, 17 year old Miss Vicki, 20 years his junior, before a TV audience of 40 million on the Johnny Carson Show in 1969.

A truly surreal moment from Laugh-In. Dan, Dick, Big John Wayne and Tiny Tim.

Judy left RMLI at the end of season 3 in 1970. According to her autobiography the programme just bored her and she was getting less and less to do. Just before leaving Laugh-In she performed a song American Moon on the Johnny Carson Show on the night of the moon landing. But her own star was beginning to wane. She continued to appear on chat shows and panel games, did cabaret in Vegas and appeared on Broadway in a revival of The Boyfriend. Drugs, a bad second marriage and a drying up of work effectively ended her career. A serious car crash where she broke her neck forced her to return to Northampton to be looked after by her parents, and she stayed there, living quietly, for the rest of her life.

When she died, few people under the age of 55 will have known who Judy Carne was or that, briefly, she made it very, very big in the US. Her achievements should not be underrated though. Maybe if more of the comedy programmes she starred in had been shown in the UK more people would have remembered her but some day Laugh-In will make a comeback and the name Judy Carne will become deservedly well-known again.

Few people epitomised and lived the sixties better than she did.

Here’s Something I Wrote Earlier: Blue Peter v Magpie

Everyone of a certain age remembers Blue Peter and Magpie but which was best? There’s only one way to find out….

Whenever the subject of Blue Peter and Magpie arises (as it often does), the inevitable question is asked: which did you prefer? It’s a tricky question as I’m not sure I preferred or even particularly liked either of them. However, viewing options were severely limited in those days and you had Hobson’s Choice due to the fact they were broadcast simultaneously on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so you had to watch one of them. Each had it’s own quirkiness, style and irritating elements and, I would argue, both were intensely middle-class in their own ways, but so was the bulk of children’s television in the late 60s and early 70s.

The classic line up.

Whatever you thought of those programmes, though, they were part of growing up and everyone over the age of 50 has memories of them. If not of content, certainly of the various presenters who, despite the lugubriousness of many of the items, were dogged in their pursuit of adventure, learning and, not least, intrepidness. When it comes to intrepidness, Blue Peter wins hands down, though.

The classic line up

Everyone remembers the BP and Magpie themes tunes. A theme tune can define the tone and nature of a TV programme more accurately than anything else. It can also raise a programme above its natural aesthetic station. Would as many people have watched Van Der Valk without its jaunty Euro-jingle? (I love the 70s naffness of The Simon Park Orchestra on re-runs of TOTP with their trying-but-failing-to-be-trendy haircuts, matching Bri-Nylon mustard polo necks, all having such a jolly good time!). Or even (controversially) The High Chaparral? An expansive, epic theme for a fairly formulaic western series. Blue Peter‘s theme was entirely in keeping with the programme’s tone. Laid back, sprightly, unthreatening and would most certainly not upset a type of parent who thought all pop stars were dirty and took drugs. Mind you, the producers did try to get ‘with it’ in the 80s and replaced the old Blue Peter theme with a version by Mike Oldfield. An artist who wouldn’t upset a type of parent who thought all pop stars were dirty and took drugs. It was a bit like when Val Doonican tried to go a bit ‘rocky’ in the 60s. He released an album called ‘Val Doonican Rocks (But Gently).

Geddit?

Magpie producers had no such misgivings. They wanted to hammer their colours to the mast straight away and hired The Spencer Davis Group to record the Magpie theme, even though this group’s best days, sadly, were behind them. And to this day, viewers of the time can still sing the theme tune, though getting the words completely wrong and not being able to get past ‘7’. This theme reflected the mood of Magpie perfectly. A bit ‘out there’, a bit alternative, a bit ‘whay-hey.’ But not irresponsibly so.

It’s the happy percussionist at the back I really like.

Both programmes attempted to reflect the changing music scene throughout the 60s and 70s, although, to be fair, Magpie were a little more cutting edge. As well as using The Spencer Davis Group for their theme tune they had a number of slightly harder edge groups on the show, Manfred Mann for one. BP tended to go for bands that a were a little less challenging. Housewives’ favourites Freddie and the Dreamers for example , or flute-driven soft-poppers Vanity Fair. In 1977 Magpie signed up The Stranglers to appear on the show but things didn’t quite go to plan. The Sex Pistols had just disgorged their filth and fury on that Bill Grundy show (which only people in London had seen anyway) a few weeks previously. This terrified the whole of broadcasting and that included the Magpie production office. The invitation to The Stranglers was promptly withdrawn. What did they think was going to happen? Were they going to shit and vomit live all over the Teddington Lock studio floor before a juvenile audience of 5 million? Just before an item on how toothbrushes were manufactured? Well maybe, but what a show that would have been!

Blue Peter began a whole 10 years before Magpie in 1958. After a couple of years it settled on its two principle presenters, Val Singleton, who became a household name and still is in many households, and Christopher Trace, whose demise from the show was very un-Blue Peter like.

Looks like butter wouldn’t melt in Chris’s mouth.

Chris was the classic BBC avuncular children’s host. Greatly fond of Arran jumpers (must have been bloody roasting under the studio lights) his clipped middle England accent was perfect for this new type of fun, educational show. The intrepid days were some way off, but Chris was chummy, unthreatening and you believed everything he said. His BBC credentials were impeccable. Public school, Sandhurst, Artillery Regiment, promoted to Lieutenant. He was even a body double for Charlton Heston in Ben Hur! But it wasn’t going to be enough for poor old Chris.

One of my earliest memories of BP, and one of my favourites, was when Chris and Val took the BP cameras on a visit to that frozen hinterland up north known as Scotland. Most of their items featured people from Surrey or Middlesex (wherever those places were) so for them to come to Scotland was exciting. For some reason they visited a toy shop and seemed to be deciding on the spot what they were going to buy. Val went first. ‘I really like dolls. Do you have any dolls?’ The old wifie behind the counter provided her with some random dolls. ‘And I like train sets. Do you have any train sets?’ enquired Chris. Well it was a fucking toy shop Chris, and he was duly given some train sets. So far so stereotypical. Equal opportunities hadn’t even been invented then. ‘And how much do we owe you?’ giggled Val. ‘A hunner poonds‘ chanced the rapacious old biddy behind the counter. Val fumbles in her purse but Chris beats her to it. ‘I’ve got a hundred pounds,’ says Chris producing a bulging wallet. A hundred pounds on toys!!! Jesus, I just about fainted. Which was a rare event while watching Blue Peter.

Chris’s cavalier approach to cash in this item reflected a cavalier approach to other aspects of the programme, according to reports within the production team at the time. An indiscretion while on a BP trip to Norway in 1965 where he allegedly slept with another woman didn’t help. Certainly not with his wife who promptly divorced him. All this proved to be his undoing and he was dismissed in 1967. And he seemed like such a nice chap.

Chris was airbrushed out the BP picture in true Soviet style. No announcement about his leaving, one week he was there and the next he went the way of Leon Trotsky (minus the ice pick). Chris who? The exit door had begun to creak slightly ajar with the appointment of the one and only John Noakes in late 1965. In the same way Chris Trace was airbrushed out, John was airbrushed in. No announcement that this guy who had ridden, yes ridden, into the BBC studios on a shire horse (very Blue Peter!) was the new presenter, he just turned up again the following week and he was actually, like, presenting things. And what an appointment he turned out to be. He was so successful it allowed the producer, the autocratic Biddy Baxter, to get shot of Chris just over a year later.

But what of Val? Impeccable BBC credentials. Daughter of an RAF Wing-Commander, public school, RADA. What more could Lord Reith want? Val was a stalwart of BP as a presenter for 10 years, but as her media interests developed she went part time, and also fronted Blue Peter Special Assignments which were fairly turgid affairs on things like the Niagara Falls and Yukon River and meeting sundry dull royal personages. Throughout her time on BP one of Val’s most memorable roles was to present the ‘Make It Yourself’ (well, she was a lady) section which invariably involved sticky-back plastic, squezy bottles and that white sticky stuff I later found out was called Copydex. Some other items were often used, most of which you wouldn’t be able to get your hands on even if you wanted to. Did anyone, and I mean anyone, ever try to make these things at home? No, of course they didn’t. But it filled in a good 10 minutes of the programme. It can’t have been easy coming up with 30 minutes content twice a week, and a run was probably about 45 weeks a year. Only stopping for a short time while they filmed the Blue Peter Summer Trip, or whatever it was called.

Although Val’s association with BP is probably on a par with John Noakes, it’s difficult to remember many particularly notable moments during her time on the show. That’s, of course, if you choose to forget the time she was nearly killed while filming in a high power boating accident on the Thames! Like the true pro she is, she was back in the Blue Peter studio straight after telling us of the time she was almost decapitated in the cause of children’s light entertainment. Tell that to the bozos across at Magpie!

1969: Blue Peter: Valentine the Lion

1968: A Singleton takes a different sort of Valentine for a walk. For Valentine's day, BBC Archive are revisiting Valerie Singleton taking Valentine the lion for a walk around the zoo and a trip to the shop. It's claw-some!

Posted by BBC Archive on Sunday, February 14, 2016

And, of course, let’s not forget Val’s finest moment on BP, certainly one of BP’s all-time finest moments, when she takes an almost fully grown lion into a corner shop after a short visit to a children’s play park. Well, it only said ‘No Dogs Allowed.’ In true BP style she has borrowed Valentine the Lion from Chessington Zoo for the day and a dishevelled and busy TV presenter has messages to get. As it’s grainy black and white footage we are spared seeing the sweat trickle down the lady shopkeeper’s immaculately coiffed forehead and the blind panic in her eyes as Valentine mounts the counter, or the look of rigid terror on the face of a man inadvertently dropping in for 20 Benson’s when Valentine attacks him as he cowers foetally in the corner. Something a little more than a bull in a china shop, for sure. And 3/5 for a packet of mints and a tin of golden syrup? Robbing bastards.

And talking of risking one’s life to entertain middle-class brats in their middle-class homes, what about John’s quite breathtaking ascent of Nelson’s column? The perfunctory way he describes clambering up the barely secure step ladders and his unharnessed (or should that be unhinged?) stroll around the statue 169 feet above the metropolis was dizzying to say the least. But spare a thought for the poor shlub who was filming this historic moment whilst climbing and operating a camera! No one remembers him. And what was Magpie doing at this time? Taking a barge trip on the frigging Norfolk Broads?

No anecdotes about BP could fail to reference the legendary baby elephant debacle. This footage really is all its cracked up to be and is the classic example of how live TV can go disastrously wrong. Or in this case, right. Its something that cannot be described adequately in words. All I’ll say is that John put his best foot forward.

However, a lesser known item but one remembered fondly by myself featured an East European strongman trying to break a world record through some feat of brute strength. Igor or Ivan or whatever his name was could speak no English. Apparently. After he summarily broke the record he threw up his arms shouting in a deep East European voice, ‘I have eet! I have eet!’, with John shuffling about not quite knowing how to respond. His oddly literal choice of language, obviously taught to him by someone with an academic smattering of the lingo, should he be successful in his endeavour, struck a cord with the young male audience. What if a wag had taught him ‘Fucking brilliant!‘ instead? This was live TV after all. Next day in James Gillespie’s Boys’ Primary School playground 10 year olds were running round shouting ‘I have eet! I have eet! Whenever I successfully perform a task well to this day, I still walk round shouting ‘I have eet! I have eet!’ Such was the influence of Blue Peter.

Recently a wonderfully odd bit of BP footage was released by BBC Archives. From the mid-70s, it featured a middle-aged lady who was a champion whistler. After some perfunctory banter with John she performed her routine to a Russ Conway instrumental played by John on a small Dansette record player. The act was odd enough, but what raised it from the odd to the utterly bizarre was the fact she wore a complete Hibernian FC football strip. No reference was ever made to why she was wearing this and during her interview it was clear she had no connection with Hibs or even Edinburgh. It is footage that demands to be seen, however, and epitomises the strangeness that a desperation for content brought upon Blue Peter. And for this we should all stand up and rejoice because such moments enhance our humdrum lives.

1972: Blue Peter: World-Class Whistling

This is what top-quality entertainment looked like #OnThisDay in 1972.

Posted by BBC Archive on Friday, November 16, 2018

Like John’s low-key introduction to young Blue Peter viewers (they might not be able to cope with such monumental change in their tiny lives), Peter Purves’s introduction to BP was similarly muted. At least Pete got to talk in his first appearance, however. In a link to a feature on life-saving in the swimming pool John just let us know, ‘We sent Peter Purves along to find out.’ Next week, with no acknowledgement, there’s Peter Purves in the studio looking like he owns the place! But the times they were a-changing and Pete’s credentials were very different to those of the early BP presenters. He trained to be a teacher and through acting in Rep ended up in the first series of Dr Who. Like John, he was even from t’north!

And, get this, in 2008 Val revealed she had a ‘brief fling’ with him. As Pete commented in his autobiography about Val:

She is a very pretty girl. Beautiful, beautiful face. Most attractive. I had watched her on the box and thought, phwoar, she’s all right.’ 

I’m going stop writing for a minute or so, at this specific point, just to allow the revelatory impact of the last few sentences to filter through my brain receptors.

One minute on and its still resonating……..

When it became clear Val saw her future elsewhere (I wonder why?) and became only a part time presenter on BP, a new female presenter was brought in.

Phwoar!

Step forward Lesley Judd.

Lesley’s CV up to this point was ‘interesting’. The most intriguing part of it being a role as a hostess on a Rediffusion quiz show presented by Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart called Exit! It’s The Way Out Show! The verbosity of the title, the overuse of exclamation marks, the inclusion of the very 60s punning expression ‘Way Out‘ and, of course, the participation of ‘Stewpot‘ and Lesley make me want to see this, presumably short-lived, series. Desperately. She was a member of Rolf’s Young Generation dancers, like Golden Shot Golden girl Wei Wei Wong, before becoming a Blue Peter presenter. Despite her longevity on BP she was never given a long-term contract. In contrast to, what I thought was, her rather bland personality (this was Blue Peter remember), her private life seemed to be rather turbulent. Her first marriage (of four) was to Basil Brush’s first, and most memorable sidekick, Mr Derek (Fowlds), later of Yes, Minister and Heartbeat, recently deceased. When one of her marriages broke down in the 70s, her aggrieved husband threatened to go to the papers with ‘revelations.’ This, of course threatened her tenure with BP, but, thankfully for Lesley, nothing came of it. One wonders what those ‘revelations’ might have contained. Nicking Copydex? Kicking Jason, the Blue Peter Cat? Vandalising the Blue Peter garden? We will never know as, sadly, all of Lesley’s four husbands are no longer with us.

Lesley pulls back the boundaries of equality.

It’s hard to remember any particular item that featured Lesley. Unless you’d forgotten that she nearly lost her life whilst being hoisted onto the Bishop’s Rock lighthouse in a storm, her harness snapped and she was almost dashed to a pulp on the overhanging bluffs before being frantically pulled on to a waiting boat. And she couldn’t swim. And they still didn’t give her a long-term contract. Biddy Baxter? More like Biddy Bastard.

In Pete’s 2009 autobiography catchily titled ‘Here’s One I Wrote Earlier..‘ he even alludes to a ‘liaison’ with Lesley! Well, I’ll go to the bottom of my stairs. It’s my firm belief that the perpetrator of the vandalisation of said Blue Peter garden may even have been one of Lesley’s ex-husbands in an act of frenzied vindictiveness. Maybe it was a bit like the killers in Murder on the Orient Express. Makes you wonder what Percy Thrower got up to in the Blue Peter studio. And just who was the father of Daniel, the Blue Peter baby?

It’s time we were told.

A stallion in the Blue Peter studio. Plus John, Lesley and a horse.

It’s fair to say that my researches into that middle-class phenomenon that was Blue Peter in the 60s and 70s threw up some facts that surprised, and yay, shocked me. I was really planning a leisurely stroll through the blandness and predictability that I believed Blue Peter epitomised. But in true David Lynch fashion, there’s a dark underbelly stirring below that most seemingly civilised of surfaces. And it doesn’t really take Jacques Lacan to work out that the young me was very much in the Blue Peter camp, I wasn’t really a child who was prepared to take chances. I was, and still am, very BBC.

So what of BP’s noisy neighbours, that thing they called the Magpie?

Magpie was first broadcast at 5.10pm on Tuesday July 30th 1968. Coincidentally, around the same time Blue Peter went out. In 1969 it went out twice weekly on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Coincidentally around the same time Blue Peter went out. It was certainly devised to give BP a run for its money in a much edgier, immediate way. With this in mind, at least for the first couple of years, Magpie was unscripted. But as this proved a nightmare on live telly they soon reverted to autocue.

Really quite a funky title sequence

The first three presenters were a rather mixed bag.

Canadian Pete Brady, a former DJ, was a bit of a dull old spud. He stayed until 1971 but no one really noticed he’d gone.

Tony Bastable, whose name, curiously, always made my dad laugh, was the down-to-earth, facts and science guru. Interestingly, he was the first cover-star of children’s TV Times mag, Look-In (La-La-La-La-La Look-In!) in which he had a column of overwhelming blandness. These were the days when you had to buy TWO TV listings magazines if you were a certain type of couch potato. TV Times for ITV, Radio (how quaint) Times for BBC 1 and BBC 2. So their in-house columnist at Look-In was going to have to be someone da kids would have known from an ITV programme. They couldn’t exactly ask Sooty to do it, although his column would probably have been more interesting.

Tony stayed on as presenter until 1972 when he stepped up to become producer of the show. He went on to front a number of TV shows over the years, none of them particularly interesting with the notable exception of ‘Problems‘, a rather risky for the time programme on sexual problems which he presented with Claire Rayner. As his biography states, it went out ‘late’ as anything which focused on areas below the waist always did. Various mundane car series also followed. One wonders if Tony would present pretty much anything under a flag of convenience.

I know what you’re thinking. Is all this early Magpie stuff going to be this fucking dull? No, it jolly well isn’t because here comes 60s hippy chick Susan Stranks! The third original presenter, Susan provided a little bit of frisson for her young (specifically male) viewers as she famously did not wear a Brassiere! Not that I noticed I have to say. I was too busy trying fruitlessly to source sticky back plastic. But enough of this pathetic prurience. Stranks had been a young actress and had appeared in a number of British B films but shot to relative fame when she, somehow, became the ‘typical teenager’ on David Jacob’s Juke Box Jury in the 60s. Her job was to comment on the records featured and give a young person’s view of them which, I have no doubt, would have been accepted patronisingly by Jacobs and the rest of the ageing JBJ panel. Panelists included ‘with-it’ hep cats such as Eric Sykes, Thora Hird and, bizarrely, Alfred Hitchcock. Now, how ‘typical’ a London-based child actress was is anyone’s guess but it was a pretty cool gig whichever way you look at it.

The ultra-hip Juke Box Jury audience about to go berserk!

My one abiding memory of Susan Stranks (note I don’t refer to her as ‘Susan’ or ‘Sue’ in the way I chummily refer to ‘Val’ or ‘John’ which says a lot about the household nature of tea-time behemoths BP), was of her riding into the studio on the back of a camel, and looking rather haughty, I have to say. But that’s not a lot to go on.

Never mind Susan Stranks, I’m intrigued by those ‘Kitchen Clock Bargains.’

She was married to Robin Ray, son of British showbiz royalty, comedian Ted Ray and brother actor Andrew Ray. Robin was originally an actor but gave it up to teach drama at RADA. He then packed this in to become the first chairman of a new BBC 2 show, Call My Bluff, eventually replaced by the wonderfully sarcastic, similarly alliterative, Robert Robinson. He was also a regular panelist on music show for egg-heads, Face The Music (maybe this where ELO got the title for one of their most successful albums?) along with the great Joyce Grenfell and newsreader Richard Baker. To imagine the BBC or any TV channel putting on a prime time show about obscure classical music is unthinkable now. One of the rounds on FTM required chairman Joseph Cooper to play a classical piece on a dummy keyboard which emitted no sound. Three minutes of silence would ensue as the panelists had to try and identify the piece and the composer purely from Cooper’s hand movements. Tell that to kids nowadays and they won’t believe you.

Stranks left the ‘pie (see what I did there?) in 1974 but turned up again with her own series Paperplay shortly after. In this series she had two regular characters made out of paper (unsurprisingly) named Itsy and Bitsy. My brother and I used to refer to them as Titsy and Bitsy. Didn’t half make us chortle, I can tell you. Do you think I’m struggling a bit? Don’t worry, we’re getting there…

We were moving, inexorably, towards the Magpie classic line up, however, and enter, stage left, Dougie Rae. Dougie replaced the terminally dull Pete Brady in 1971 having, to my memory, been a young reporter on the Scotland Today news magazine programme. Next up was hairy researcher Mick Robertson who replaced Bastable after he became the show’s producer. Mick tried to use his hippy Magpie fame to become a pop star. He released two singles, the first being The Tango’s Over. His second release was called, intriguingly, Then I Change hands. Neither charted.

But pray silence for the final piece in the classic Magpie jigsaw which was Miss Jenny Hanley, replacing Stranks in ’74.

Jenny with that slightly faraway look in her eyes again.

At last! Someone worth writing about! And damned interesting she is too.

Hanley, was also from B list showbiz royalty. Her dad, Jimmy Hanley, was a well known film matinee actor. With boy-next-door rather than leading man looks Jimmy appeared in nearly 50 films over 30 years dying prematurely at the age of 51. But not before his flagging career forced him to take a job at that metaphaphorical and literal end of the acting road, the Crossroads motel, in 1966 (But much more on that later). Jimmy was married four times, his first marriage to matinee actress Dinah Sheridan, produced the lovely Jenny.

Dinah Sheridan was, arguably, more famous than Jimmy. Few people nowadays could recall a Jimmy Hanley film, even The Blue Lamp which introduced us to George Dixon of Dock Green fame and a young Dirk Bogarde. One Jimmy Hanley film definitely worth catching is the early 1950s British Noir It Always Rains On Sundays starring Googie Withers. Those good people at Talking Pictures have recently shown it so watch out for a repeat. However, many people over the age of 50 will remember Dinah’s flimsy, unthreatening 1950’s vintage car comedy ‘Genevieve‘ and everyone will remember her as the mother in 1970’s The Railway Children.

Another of the Hanleys’ offspring was Thatcherite pin-up boy Jeremy Hanley who became Chairman of the Conservative Party in John Major’s government. Well, you can choose your friends…..

Before being crowned Magpie nobility, Jenny was an actress of slightly below average esteem. Usually playing glamorous parts she inhabited a number of, to use that favourite of tabloid words, ‘raunchy’ roles. Her CV reads like a 1973 edition of TV times. Department S, The Persuaders! (which always, oddly, had that superfluous exclamation mark), Return of the Saint, Man About The House, Warship, Softly Softly: Task Force and The Two Ronnies all pad out her IMDB listing. Although a few rather ‘racy’ ( another favoured euphemism in the 70s for filth) parts also abound, for example ‘Miss Teenage Lust‘ in the film Percy’s Progress and ‘Handmaid‘ in “Shirley’s World‘. But let’s not forget probably her crowning acting achievement in, what for me is the best Bond film of all, though certainly not the greatest Bond, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Alongside Joanna Lumley and the wonderful Diana Rigg (much more on her to come), Jenny played, implausibly, ‘Irish Girl.‘ Probably not a stretch but it sort of went downhill for her after that and her acting career went the way of the skier pursuing Bond who fell into the snow plough.

But hold that front page! I’d completely forgotten the lovely Jenny was also the Daz woman in the early 80s. I certainly wouldn’t swap my Daz for two cheaper brands if propositioned by Jenny! Would you?

Now I’ve put another unpalatable story to one side for as long as I can but am going to have to acknowledge the elephant in the room, or should I say the horse in the stables. Unsavoury rumours abounded about an item which the lovely Jenny, of all people, was sent along to cover by the Magpie production team. This story, implausibly, was about how horses mated or, more specifically, how horse semen was collected. A visibly shaken and ever-so-slightly aroused Jenny was, as the rumours suggested, the result of the horse’s pixellated phallus producing the substance by the bucketload. A great deal of research has gone into proving or disproving this distasteful anecdote, but to no avail. Only vague fragments pertaining to the story seem to exist within that thing they call the internet. Would a children’s tea-time light entertainment programme feature such an item as young viewers were getting stuck into their fish fingers or crispy pancakes? Would the bastards in the production office have sent the scented Jenny to cover such primordial functions? Why does this rumour persist despite there being so little hard evidence? Why has this rumour been almost pixellated out of existence? We may never find out. Unless, of course, you know differently?

Despite all the rumpy-pumpy and shenanigans going on over at Broadcasting House, it’s fair to say Susan Stranks and Jenny Hanley won hands down in the adolescent boy appeal stakes. Susan’s economy of underwear has already been mentioned and Jenny always seemed to have a slightly faraway look in her eyes. With the narrow range of channel choice on offer in those days, it was always likely you might come across a raunchy clip from Department S, for example, featuring Jenny and 70s sex bomb Jason King in flagrante, which only added to her allure. Let’s face it, it was never going to be Bunty James of How!

In the cultural two-horse race between these broadcasting thoroughbreds there could only be one winner, though. Everyone over the age of 50 remembers a whole swathe of items from BP but, Hanley aside, who remembers any item from Magpie? They may have tried to be edgy, alternative and more zeitgeist but when it came to the crunch, BP won in a canter. Compared to Blue Peter, Magpie’s contribution to popular culture, though significant, was only a drop in the bucket. They just weren’t at the races.

In the end, there is only one word to describe fittingly the colossal and influential effect Blue Peter had on our young lives.

Phwoar!

Like A Bolt From The Blue..The Golden Shot

The long-running show that hit (and sometimes missed) its target

Don’t get too comfortable Jackie.

The Golden Shot hit our screens on the 1st July 1967 at 8.54. A curious time for a, then, curious programme, a programme that was rarely off the telly for the next eight years. Based on a German show Der Goldener Schuss, it was one of the first shows (I refuse to use that irritating Americanism ‘gameshow’) to use state of the art technology to help people win prizes. And they were cash prizes worth winning, the ultimate winner having the opportunity to compete for £1000 guineas! Yes, guineas, that quaint denomination used right up to the end of the 70s. It made the prize seem slightly less vulgar, even for ITV. Competitors had to use various types of machine which hurled projectiles at scenery, the aim being to progress to the next round by puncturing apples. But enough of the format, anyone reading this will know all about that. What’s much more interesting is how this show evolved over its eight year run.

I remember watching the very first Golden Shot, and even at the tender age of 7 being aware that this show was very pedestrian and lacked energy (though I wouldn’t have expressed this observation in exactly those terms). The host was Canadian singer and TV host, Jackie Rae. An affable enough guy, he seemed like the deer caught in the crosshairs. Not an ideal look with all these weapons around. Jackie had been spotted playing a quiz show host on the Charlie Drake Show by the producer, missing the point that playing a quiz show host is very different to being one. In Jackie’s defence, however, he was far from being the worst host The Golden Shot ever had. One critic described TGS as ‘..the deadest, dead duck ever.’ How wrong he was.

And talking of Golden Shot hosts, The £1000 guinea winner was always Mr Bob Monkhouse. After appearing as a guest on an early show Monkhouse decided it was the perfect vehicle for his unique brand of quick-fire showbiz repartee and by episode 15 poor old Jackie Rae was fired(ho ho). Monkhouse took the whole show under his wing to the extent that he even designed some of the backdrops. His extraordinary ability to ‘fill’ during the many instances of technical breakdown (this was a live show) was invaluable and the awkward longueurs during the Jackie Rae regime were no more. Being paid a mammoth (for the time) £750 per episode, Bob had hit the jackpot!

As with everything 60s and 70s, the show had to have a catchphrase and Bob was only too happy to oblige. At the start of every firing attempt by a contestant, health and safety (or what constituted health and safety in those days. See bullet catching man below) required the host to ask the crossbow to be loaded. A supernumeracy would then load the dart, or bolt. During Jackie Rae‘s tenure he would say ‘Heinz the bolt!’, he being the inventor of the game. Bob decided this should be more snappy and alliterative and despite strong votes for ‘Basil’ and ‘Bartholemew’, ‘Bernie’ was eventually chosen and ‘Bernie the Bolt’ became the show’s iconic catchphrase, remembered to this day.

Bob firing on all cylinders

The show introduced us to a few 70s iconographic elements but the most enduring of those was The Golden Girls! Even spawning a long-running (unrelated) US comedy show. The original Golden Girls were tall, blond and dressed arse to tit in gold. Gold lame that is. Two of the originals didn’t last long due to personality bypasses, the only one with any longevity, and of any interest, was Carol Dilworth.

The one and only Carol Dilworth

Carol’s 60s and 70s credentials are cast iron. The lovely Carol was a Golden Girl for 91 episodes beginning in the very first show in 1967 and continuing right up to 1969. Of course, Carol really wanted to be an actress and despite appearing in Cliff Richard vehicle The Young Ones in 1961 as a character-stretching ‘Teenage Girl’ and a one-line role in Hammer House of Horror, the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd was not be. A brief flurry of activity as ‘Girl with dog‘ in Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her appearance in iconic 70s mega series Budgie (much more on this later), led to Carol returning to what she knew best and a short stint as a hostess in Sale of the Century beckoned. But we hadn’t heard the last of Carol! She married Tremeloes‘ guitarist Chip Hawkes in a 60s marriage made in tabloid heaven. A few years later and they produce 80s icon Chesney Hawkes. The Young Ones, The Golden Shot, The Tremeloes, Budgie, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), Sale of the Century, Chesney Hawkes. Not a bad 60s and 70s CV. I may make her the patron saint of this blog. The Joan D’arc, the Boudicca, the Brittania of bargain basement 70s telly! Unless, of course, we come across a more deserving figure….

Step forward, Anne Aston! Anne joined TGS in episode one of the second series and clocked up 191 episodes until the very last show in 1975. Anne, or ‘Little Annie’, as Monkhouse unpatronisingly described her, (Golden) shot to fame when it became apparent she couldn’t work out the competitors’ scores and often got them wrong. Whether this was deliberate, as we well know everyone on telly must have their own schtick, or was inadvertent it certainly set the women’s movement back 20 years. But, obviously ‘Little Annie’ really wanted to be an actress. Despite landing a starring role in the carry-on style ‘Up The Chastity Belt’ with Frankie Howerd and a small part in Jason King, Annie’s future was not going to be in front of the camera. Coastal summer seasons and pantos ensued until The Golden Shot was just a distant memory and pocket calculators had become the norm. Not being able to count was no longer cute.

Don’t count on an acting career, Annie.

A long-running feature on TGS was ‘Maid of the Month. This typically 70s concept was for a current media lovely to be a Golden Girl for a month. Usually a glamour model or occasionally an unemployed actress might fill the void. One of those was a blonde Scandinavian actress called Ute Stensgaard. On one show Ute, while introducing competitors, was wearing a garment which was the height of fashion in 1972 (in London, at least). ‘Is that a see-through blouse, Ute?’ asks Bob. ‘Yes it is‘ said Ute. ‘I’ll have to look into that,’ leered Bob. Well, it was the 70s.

A particularly interesting aspect of the 70s was the range of guests that appeared on variety shows. All shows whether Lulu, Cilla, Cliff, Dusty, Englebert or even TGS had to have guests, if just to give the talent a short break, particularly important on live shows. As there were such demands for guests, and familiar guests at that, sometimes shows struggled to secure the services of Vince Hill, Clodagh Rogers, Dorothy Squires or any other similar ‘C list celeb. Producers had, therefore, to take chances, maybe even experiment. TGS was no exception and as it usually had a seemingly interminable 56 week run, some of the guests who appeared became curiouser and curiouser. One week we had BeBop jazz supremo Dizzy Gillespie and his band playing some avant garde, free-forming jazz. People were astonished at just how much he could inflate his cheeks. A strange brew for Sunday teatime.

Dizzy blowin’ up a storm at Sunday tea time

But the oddest act ever to grace the ATV studios’ stage featured an elaborate routine which involved a performer who purported to be able to catch a fired bullet between his teeth. Firstly, he chose a, supposed, member of the audience to ‘help’ him with the act. This lucky individual was then instructed to load a rifle, aim and then fire it at the performer’s mouth and he would catch the bullet between his teeth. The tension surrounding this highly stylised act was ramped up courtesy of an increasingly louder drum roll until the gun was fired by the improbably calm ‘member of the studio audience.’ The gun fired, the performer lurched backwards with a Captain Hurricane-like ‘AIIIIEEE’ and, when he’d regained his balance, he removed the slug from between his teeth and dropped it into an awaiting saucer. The audience goes bananas! Amazing! Unbelievable! Not half, as a real gun would have taken the back of his fucking head off and splattered his brains across the studio backdrop. But this is Sunday tea-time and Songs of Praise will be following in half and hour so everything is fine. ‘And that deserves a huge round of applause‘ entreats Bob. Such was 70s variety.

The calmer waters of TGS were thrown into turmoil in 1972, however, when razor-sharp Bob ‘Mr Golden Shot’ Monkhouse was accused by a producer of accepting bribes from Wilkinson Sword, a company who had provided prizes for the show. Bob was summarily sacked and in his last show he made it quite clear he was being made a scapegoat and voiced his displeasure at the producers. In his autobiography written years later it was made clear it had all been a huge misunderstanding and the producers had been wrong to sack him. But, needless to say, Bob had the last laugh.

His replacement, Norman ‘Roses Grow On You‘ Vaughan, had presented the live Sunday Night At The London Palladium (swinging/dodgy) and seemed an, albeit, inferior shoo-in. Monkhouse described him as taking to the show like ‘a cat to water’ and he wasn’t wrong. Vaughan struggled badly with the quick-fire, quick-thinking format. ‘These are the jokes, folks‘ he’d plead with the taciturn studio audience as the sweat rolled visibly down his powdered forehead. He was released, mercifully, from his contract a year later. He went on to develop other 70s and 80s iconic quiz show Bullseye, which was a bit like a down-market Golden Shot. It leapt on the popular bandwagon of televised darts in the 70s, but much more on that later. Vaughan’s TV career, however, nosedived.

Yes, definitely dodgy Norman.

Vaughan’s replacement was the hapless Charlie Williams. A former professional footballer with Barnsley FC, of Barbadian heritage and graduate of ITV’s deeply suspect The Comedians, Charlie probably couldn’t quite believe he’d been handed one of the biggest jobs on telly. Respect to TGS producers for giving a black comedian with a thick Yorkshire accent the job, but it was just too much for poor old Charlie. When compared to the ultra professional Bob Monkhouse there was no comparison. Charlie was affable, like Jackie Rae and Norman Vaughan but affability is a one-way corridor and he also couldn’t carry a fast paced live show. His discomfort was palpable and there was only so many times he could get titters by calling contestants ‘ow’d flower.’ He even resorted to telling racist jokes in a desperate attempt to win the audience over. After only six months and the show haemorrhaging viewers, the producers returned, cap in hand, and begged Monkhouse to return. Monkhouse saw his chance and only agreed to come back if ATV would let him do a UK version of the American Hollywood Squares, which was called Celebrity Squares here. They, of course, agreed.

Poor ow’d Charlie looks around for help.

The newly revamped TGS had a jaunty new theme tune, ‘Golden Day’ by ubiquitous songster, Barry Blue (‘Dancing On A Saturday Night’. ‘Do You Wanna Dance’), whose real name is oddly Barry Green. But even with the addition of a new Golden Girl, ex-Rolf’s Young Generation and Ty-Phoo tea girl Wei Wei Wong, it was too little, too late and after a year the show had shot its bolt and was put to sleep humanely. Almost everyone growing up in the 70s watched TGS each Sunday teatime and its demise struck a chord, although maybe not at the time.

Bob, of course, never looked back and hosted a string of quiz shows including Bob’s Full House, Family Fortunes and Bob’s Your Uncle as well as the revamp of Opportunity Knocks (Hughie Green will have been spinning in his grave). He even had his own chat show and various other vehicles which he carried off with customary aplomb. But it was The Golden Shot that fired him into the light entertainment stratosphere and for that he will always be a 70s icon, as will, of course, The Golden Shot.

And remember, hang on to your hollyhocks!

Annie looking a little put out at the new Golden Girl.

As Mad As A Ha’penny Watch: The Strange Case of 60s Comedians

Why was so many 60s comedians’ schtick about having mental health problems…?

Alexei Sayle once said, ‘Everyone goes on about how sad it is the Music Hall died. I’ll tell you why it died. Because it was shite!’. Slightly harsh maybe as TV and cinema more than anything replaced these emporiums of working-class pleasure. In the same way ‘The Talkies’ buried the careers of many top silent stars due to their silly voices or inability to act and talk at the same time. TV mainly saw the demise of many major comedy stars of the Music Hall era.

During the heyday of the Music Halls comedians needed only one act. There were hundreds of Music Halls around the UK and a comedian could get away with the same act for years as they wouldn’t perform in the same place more than once in a short period. When telly and cinema came along they were buggered. The more resourceful acts, however, started to employ scriptwriters and so could change their gags and routines more regularly. What they couldn’t change though was their ‘schtick’. The character they inhabited that told the gags and for a while they got away with it but as telly became more widespread this, for many, became a problem and they faded away. The survivors diversified, like Max Wall who became an acclaimed actor and even appeared in Beckett’s ‘Waiting For Godot.’ Some, however, persevered with their act and did manage to have a career although one wonders why when you remember those acts from many years ago.

What people maybe didn’t realise at the time was why so many of these comedians’ characters were based on people with mental disabilities? Try to describe their acts to youngsters and they would just look puzzled. And rightly so. But these were performers who appeared on telly and sometimes in films on a regular basis. They were the ones who somehow managed to escape the Music Hall net.

Take Mike and Bernie Winters, for example. It’s a well known story but is always worth repeating. When they played the Glasgow Empire early in their career, Mike Winters went on stage first to warm up the audience before introducing his brother Bernie. Mike’s intro didn’t go down well with the rather demanding Glaswegian audience and when Bernie walked on some wag shouted, ‘Jesus Christ, there’s two of them!

Mike was the straight man whose main, in fact only, skill was playing the clarinet. When this instrument was inevitably produced it was time to go and put the kettle on. Bernie was the funny man who played a guy who was ‘not the full shilling.’ Bernie would wear a battered old coat, a bowler hat pulled down over his head and had a number of catchphrases (well, three) which took the place of real gags. His most famous one was ‘Eeeeeeeehhhhhh!’ Another was ‘I’ll smash your face in!’ and the other one was when he pulled Mike’s (face)cheeks apart and said “Eeeehhh, choochie face!’

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, was about it. Their career always suffered because Morecambe and Wise were so much better, and clearly had superior scriptwriters. And Eric and Ernie also didn’t lean on the mentally ill as a comedy crutch.

Jesus Christ! There’s two of them!

That excellent film channel, Talking Pictures recently featured a 1960 film called Jazz Boat. It was one of many films made by British production companies in the early to mid-60s which were jumping on the bandwagon of youth rock and roll culture. Many of these films gave an opening to young directors who went on to become established in the 70s such as John Boorman (whose contribution to this genre,’ Catch Us If You Can‘ featuring the Dave Clark Five is truly innovative and grand breaking), Tony Lester, Michael Winner and, with Jazz Boat, Ken Hughes and writer John Antrobus. These films were pretty hit and miss, many were some middle-aged man’s idea of what youth culture was, but some tended to suggest there was a talent at work. Jazz Boat starred a young Tony Newley, a very fashionable and radical figure in the early 60s, and an even younger Bernie Winters. Maybe Bernie should have stuck to acting as he’s not at all bad in a semi-serious role. Another reason he should maybe have stuck to acting was in the early 70s when a huge fall-out with his brother Mike resulted in Bernie going solo. Clearly he couldn’t sustain a comedy act on his own so enter Schnorbitz, his pet St Bernard. Schnorbitz could pretty much do everything Mike Winters did, bar play the clarinet. Bernie’s comedy schtick of being ‘not the brightest bulb in the box’ was over, as was that of some other comedians (see below), but it signalled the end for that type of variety as alternative comedy was just around the corner. And it was Schnorbitz who became the star…

Does he play the clarinet?

Many of the well-known TV and radio comedians of the 60s honed their trades after the war at The Windmill Theatre in London (‘They’re naked and they move!’). The comedians’ job was to fill in the gaps between the performances of the naked girls, the only reason a certain type of person went to The Windmill at this time. Barry Cryer, one of the comedians, described this time in his autobiography. As each comedian went through his act, the audience, all men obviously, would be standing drinking at the bar at the back of the theatre, reading the paper, blethering and totally ignoring the comedy act. When the comedian completed his routine he would introduce the girls and suddenly there would be a dash to get the best position on the front row. Guys would be leaping over the seats to get to the front quickly. Jimmy Edwards, another of the Windmill comedians, called it ‘The Grand National.’

Jack Douglas was one of the Windmill graduates and he was rarely off the telly in the 60s and early 70s. He appeared on endless variety shows such as Des O’Connor, Lulu and Cilla as well as many films, particularly the Carry-Ons. And he always played the same character, Alf Ippitittimus. Overalls, flat cap, little round glasses. His schtick was that he had an enormously violent twitch and he was pretty thick. He’d be talking to Des, for example, and suddenly his whole body would contort violently, almost poleaxing Des and his cap would go flying across the set. Des would pick it up and hand it back to him and Alf would say, ‘ Oh, I’ve got one like that.’ And that was pretty much his act. And I’m giggling to myself as I write this.

Whey-heyyyy!!!

To be fair to Jack, there were other elements to his act, but they all involved him twitching violently at the most inopportune moments. Sometimes he would perform ‘The Green Eye of the Little God,’a ‘dramatic monologue’ very popular in the Music Halls in the early 1900s, and of course, Jack would perform as Alf and do all the actions. When you’d seen it once…

Douglas appeared in seven Carry-On films, always as Alf, and famously was paid a dozen bottles of Dom Perignon champagne for his part in one of them. A strangely inappropriate stipend for such a working-class act. I always thought Jack Douglas was funny but describing his act which was fundamentally someone with a serious medical and psychological condition to a young person is a non-starter. You had to be there.

If you think describing Jack Douglas‘s act was difficult, step forward Freddie ‘Parrot-Face’ Davies! Freddie’s big break was when he appeared on Opportunity Knocks in 1964. From then on until, pretty much the early 70s, Freddie worked regularly, always with the same act. Always playing a character my nana would describe sympathetically as ‘having a want aboot him.’

But I’ll start this particular story in, of all places, one of God’s biggest waiting rooms, a place sometimes known as Eastbourne. I was attending a conference there in 1986 and was sitting in a large Chinese restaurant with some colleagues. A small, dapper man in a tuxedo walked in and strolled through the restaurant looking around in a superior way and nodding to certain individuals who clearly recognised him. One of my colleagues suddenly exclaimed, ‘It’s Freddie Parrot Face Davies! I’m thick, thick, thick, right up to here!’ And lo it was he. On our journey back to our hotel we stumbled across the local theatre and above entrance in very large lettering were the words, ‘Frederick Davies Presents….’ Everything fell into place. He was now an impresario and one of Eastbourne’s foremost worthies. So this is where he’d been after the gods of showbiz no longer smiled upon him!

It’s that Ayshea again!

It’s fair to say Freddie’s act was niche to say the least. His distinctive look included a Homburg hat pulled down over his head making his ears stick out. His routines invariably involved stories about budgies, or ‘boodgies,’ which he would deliver with a pronounced lisp or ‘lithp’. His catchphrase, ‘ I’m thick, thick, thick, right up to here!’ can still be heard occasionally, coming from people of a certain vintage, like me. His routines also involved him removing his Homburg and taking on the role of a pet shop owner. He would replace his hat and he’d be Freddie Parrot Face Davies again, complaining about these boodgies the pet shop owner had sold him previously. I wonder if Python got the idea for the parrot sketch from him? He would also regularly take on the persona of a character called Samuel Tweet. Suffice to say, boodgies were not far away and Samuel got annoyed! His catchphrase (there was always a catchphrase) was ‘I’m thick, thick, thick, right up to here‘, which uthed his lithp thuperbly. It’s also unconfirmed that Hannah Barbera’s Sidney The Elephant was based on Freddie’s act.

I’m thick, thick, thick..

Freddie could also be musical and released a number of singles. Obviously in the persona of Freddie Parrot Face. His most successful single, although it didn’t chart, was Sentimental Songs. The ‘B’ side of this waxing was entitled ‘Semolina.’ which I clearly remember him performing in a duet with Des O’ Connor in his heyday. Imagine these tunes sung with a pronounced lisp and you get the general idea. I once tried to perform ‘Sentimental Songs‘ to my lovely wife, who had, oddly, never heard of Parrot Face, on a ferry in Croatia whilst eating an apple. The results were not pretty.

In the years when Freddie was flying high with his boodgies, 1968-71, he, bizarrely, had a comic strip of his character in the kids’ cartoon comic ‘Buster.’ Inevitably boodgies featured heavily. How they managed to concoct stories involving boodgies every week for three years is genius on the part of the cartoonist.

It’s missing his lisp.

After his act went cold and the boodgies had flown, Freddie moved into acting and appeared in a range of TV programmes, not least Last of the Summer Wine (inevitable) and Casualty (even more inevitable). His crowning achievement though was in Peter Chelsom’s wonderfully quirky film, Funny Bones. In fact, Freddie’s current one man show is called ‘Funny Bones’, which would be well worth seeing.

In 1972 Freddie had a huge hit in Brazil and The Philippines with a song called ‘So Lucky,’ which would have been a fitting epitaph for his career. But Freddie, or should I say Frederick, is very much still with us. Who would have thought a homburg hat, a budgie and a lisp could have created an act that everyone over the age of 55 remembers fondly?

Tell that to kids nowadays and they won’t believe you.

I’m thick, thick, thick…