Few TV theme composers could hold a candle to Tony Hatch, with the exception of the great Ron Grainer
For me the composer of the TV soundtrack for the 60s and 70s was the great Tony Hatch (much more about him below), but chasing him all the way for this prestigious title was Australian composer Ron Grainer who, had he lived longer and not died at the tragically young age of 58, could have wrested this title from Tone. Although not quite as well known as Hatch, Grainer’s TV and film themes are world-renowned and still heard regularly today. No one over the age of 40 will be unfamiliar Grainer’s output with many of his themes still played on daytime telly. It’s also fair to say that he composed some the most important and memorable theme tunes for TV series that have stood the test of time and his themes are synonymous with those programmes. So, step forward and take a bow, the mighty Mr. Ron Grainer!
Ron Grainer moved to the UK in 1952 having grown up in the Australian outback, mostly in a small mining town called Mount Mulligan and served during WW2. After a tough few years playing with a band and submitting compositions to anyone who might use them, he even wrote a song and entered it into the 1956 First British Festival of Popular Song. His entry, England Made Us received nil points from the judges.
Not put off by this disappointment Grainer wrote another song for this same competition in 1957, which had become the decider heat for the song which would represent UK in its first foray into the Eurovision Song Contest. His ditty, Don’t Cry Little Doll was performed by, of all people, Bill Maynard who would go on to have a pretty successful comedy and acting career in programmes such as Heartbeat and Oh No! It’s Selwyn Froggat! After a labyrinthine process Grainer’s song came 4th and Patricia Bredin was selected to represent UK at the still rather stuffy event. She came 7th out of 10 with ‘All.’
In 1959 ITV broadcast a TV play entitled Before The Sun Goes Down, the format of which was based loosely on Orson Welles’ groundbreaking War of the Worlds radio production. Grainer had written the music for the play which reportedly panicked listeners and questions were subsequently asked in parliament about it. Clearly people were a little more gullible in those days but it’s a surefire way of becoming noticed and shortly after he was asked by the BBC to compose the theme tune for a new programme that was about to launched. The programme was called Maigret based on the French detective novels of Georges Simenon, the show was a huge hit and Ron Grainer, TV themes composer was born.
Maigret was broadcast for four years and 52 episodes and the theme tune entered the UK charts on the 4 April 1962 performed by The Joe Loss Orchestra. A nice little earner one would imagine for Ron Grainer, but, more importantly, he was becoming known as not only a TV composer but a successful TV composer. And he was never to look back….
It wouldn’t be long before Ron Grainer was penning themes that would not only become very familiar to the viewing public but would still be played and recognised 60 years later. It would be impossible to list everything that Grainer composed during his 30 year career so here’s selection from his prolific output since the early sixties up until his sudden and premature death in 1981.
Grainer’s use of harpsichord, banjo and clavichord created a typically, even stereotypically, Parisian sound and soundtracks to many French-based programmes even today recreate this sound. Grainer won an Ivor Novello award for this composition which set him on track to becoming the go-to composer for TV theme music. It’s fair to say, though, Tony Hatch competed with Grainer from the mid-sixties for this mantle but both were incredibly creative and innovative composers who worked constantly and were responsible for iconic themes throughout the following 20 years.
Partly due to the huge popularity of Maigret, the theme became a hit record in 1962 spending 10 weeks in The Hit Parade reaching a high of 20. Not for Grainer, however, but for popular band leader Joe Loss. Nice little royalty cheque for Ron as composer, though.
Interestingly, Tony Hatch’s breakthrough theme was for tea-time serial drama Crossroads in 1964. Few people over the age of 50 will be unfamiliar with this theme and I would argue that the unusual combination of guitar, oboe and drums is key to this theme’s endurance. Long after Crossroads was destined to that multi-story car park in the sky, the theme is still synonymous with that long-running programme (See Standing At The Crossroads of TV Quality below). And such is the case with so many Ron Grainer themes, not least……
2. Doctor Who(1963)
What’s the UK’s most well known TV theme tune? Coronation Street? Eastenders? Steptoe and Son? Actually I’ll come back to that one shortly… It’s fair to say, I think, that the Doctor Who theme must be up there, and not just because of longevity. First broadcast at 17.16 GMT on Saturday, 23 November 1963, 80 seconds after its original launch time due to the extended news coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy, the programme has endured for nearly 70 years, although the series was cancelled in 1989 but returned in 2003 with a much bigger budget and new younger audience.
Producer Verity Lambert had wanted the theme to sound ‘familiar but different’ and by this time go-to composer Ron Grainer was asked to come up with something. His original theme was written on a single sheet of manuscript paper and sent to Lambert who then sent it to the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop for treatment under the supervision of the great electronic innovator Delia Derbyshire. The results were groundbreaking and the music became one of the first ever electronic theme tunes. Derbyshire’s sonic ‘bubbles’ and ‘clouds’ pulled back the boundaries of theme music forever.
Grainer was reported as saying ‘Did I write that?’ on hearing the ‘doctored’ version. He was so impressed he offered to split the royalty fees with Derbyshire but BBC policy at the time would not allow this.
The signature tune has become so familiar (I hesitate to use the overused term ‘iconic’) that it has given birth to many wide and varied versions by artists from very different genres. For example:
Doctor No. 3 Jon Pertwee released a spoken version of the theme entitled ‘Who is The Doctor?’ It didn’t chart although he did latterly have some success in a different incarnation with ‘Worzel’s Song‘ reaching No. 33 in 1980. Talking about incarnations, Pertwee was producer David Croft‘s first choice to play Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army. Similarly, Pertwee was second choice for the role of Doctor Who in 1970. First choice was Ron Moodywho had just had a world wide smash in his role as Fagin in Best Picture Oscar winner Oliver!. Just fancy that!
In 1988 The Timelords (who were really KLF in disguise) released Doctorin’ The Tardis. This was a mash-up of the Doctor Who theme, Sweet’sBlockbuster and Gary Glitter’sRock and Roll Part 2, which maybe accounts for why we don’t hear it very often on the radio these days. Which is a shame as it’s a banging record and did get to the much vaunted No. 1 spot in the Hit Parade on 12 June.
In 1999 the excellent Orbital released a version of the Doctor Who theme which was used on BBC 2’s Doctor Who Night in 1999.
Legendary Shadows‘ guitarist Hank Marvin recorded a version in 2017 on his solo album Without A Word.
Matt ‘Stephen Toast’ Berry recorded a version on his 2018 album TV Themes.
Although brought up to date for the 2003 much-bigger-budget version of the series, the original Grainer/ Derbyshire version still sounds uniquely innovative even today.
3. Steptoe and Son (1962)
And talking about Steptoe and Son, Grainer composed Old Ned in 1962 for a different kind of sitcom (although this term for a type of TV generic comedy did not exist then). The plot written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson was very different to most other comedy shows as it featured working class characters and had a strong social commentary woven into the story of father Albert and son Harold who ran a West London rag and bone business. It was groundbreaking in that much of the dialogue was ruder (by 60s standards at least) than any other programme on telly. It was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘tits’ on TV when Harold bawled at Albert, ‘..because you get on my bleedin’ tits!’, an expression which became commonplace in our language from then on. I can still remember my dad guffawing at this line. During an episode when some posh fashion models were going to be arriving at their less than salubrious abode to do a photo shoot, Harold told Albert ‘..and if you need a Doyle’y Carte you can go outside!’ Sometimes the relative rudeness of the time slipped under the average TV viewers’ radar. Which was a very good thing.
The theme puts in mind the plodding nature of Harold and his horse and cart pounding the streets of West London day after day with his horse Hercules, even although Grainer titled it Old Ned. Was Old Ned a horse or just a London character? We may never know but the lugubrious melody and sound of the horses hooves created a musical motif which fitted the pathos and down-beat comedy that Steptoe and Son invented.
The theme won Grainer his second Ivor Novello award and was later reprised by Vic and Bob on Shooting Stars when Vic would go for a ‘cockney walkabout’ around the studio. The first version of this theme was recorded by those stalwarts of 70s TV variety, Geoff Love and his Orchestra, who would go on to have 70s hits wearing the sombreros of Manuel and his Music of the Mountains.
No one over the age of 45 would fail to know this was the Steptoe and Son theme. Another Grainer theme which will last for as long as we have TV.
4. Man in A Suitcase (1967)
If Doctor Who and Steptoe and Son were pulling back the boundaries of their respective genres then so was Man In A Suitcase. MIAS was a grittier, more violent, more existential action series compared to other similar thrillers of the time such as The Baron, The Champions (which did have an excellent Tony Hatch theme) or Department S and featured a mysterious American ex-FBI character known only as McGill. Having been hounded out the FBI for dubious reasons he now made a living working as a private detective all over Europe, but particularly in London. The series ran for only 30 episodes between 1967 and 1968 and featured a who’s who of British and sometimes American character actors. The theme music was catchy, punchy, big and brassy. Certainly not jaunty or inspiring as those were themes deliberately lacking in this superior and wonderfully cynical thriller series. Soft-spoken hard man with a sensitive side, McGill, played by Method actor Richard Bradford was a new kind of anti-hero and forever associated with this ear- worm of a Grainer theme.
The theme was also used for the irritating Chris Evans in his vehicle TFI Friday for a number of years during the late 90s.
For me, one of his best.
5. The Prisoner (1967)
And talking about his best, and there are plenty candidates given his prodigious output, for me his crowning achievement was for a series which has entered TV folklore. Although over fifty years old, certain people, like myself, still analyse and counter-analyse each episode with meticulous precision. Yes, we’re talking The Prisoner here, and, yes, I do need to get a life but it’s gone too far to bother about that.
Without going into details about Patrick McGoohan‘s masterwork, suffice to say a British secret agent, which incidentally was the name of the forerunner to this series in the US also starring McGoohan, here it was called Danger Man, wakes up in a mysterious coastal village where he was being constantly monitored by ever changing authority figures known as No.2 and bullied by huge white balloons. But who was No. 1? McGoohan’s character was only ever known as No. 6 and the subsequent 17 episodes showed him trying to escape in ever more creative and sometimes downright strange ways. Nothing had ever been seen on TV that even resembled The Prisoner and it showed just how innovative and risk-taking TV, and particularly ITV, was during this period of broadcasting history. Call it Orwellian, Kafkaesque, surreal or just plain stupid, it was without doubt something very different in a wonderfully 60s psychedelic way.
But who could provide a suitably enigmatic theme to grace such an epochal TV series?
The opening titles were the same most weeks, with a couple of exceptions. A very angry man is seen resigning from a shady underground organisation and as he returns to his flat and packs to go abroad (or so we are led to believe) a mysterious undertaker arrives and gas suddenly emerges from his door and his world begins to spin. He wakes up in what seems to be his flat but on opening the blinds he is in a strange almost picturesque village. And this is where the story really begins..
Grainer’s amazing theme, stretching to nearly two minutes, provides an urgent musical backdrop to the show’s opening credits in an almost operatic way. Moving effortlessly from excitement to anger to intrigue and ultimately to mystery, no musical theme has even come close to providing such context for an opening title sequence. Like all Grainer compositions it’s catchy but it’s arrangement oozes class right down to the timpani that McGoohan insisted on. Every instrument, every flourish of the electric guitar, every blast of the brass section and dip of the organ, not only blends with the action but pushes it forward incessantly. The viewer is left in no doubt as to what is happening, how the character feels, where the action is heading.
Without doubt, the work of a master.
6. Tales of The Unexpected(1979)
Ron Grainer left the UK in 1968 to take up residence in southern Portugal, partly due to a desire for a quieter life than the one he was experiencing in an increasingly busy London and also as he was having sight problems and thought this would benefit from the Portuguese light. His output slowed down slightly due to other rustic commitments abroad but he still provided one final masterpiece for a new series which was being broadcast by Anglia TV in the UK.
Tales of the Unexpected was a series based on Roald Dahl short stories from his books of the same name as well as Kiss, Kiss and Someone Like You. Dahl introduced all the episodes from series one and some from series two and three. The series continued for over ten years and other writers provided stories in a similar genre.
The ITV series had a fairly generous budget which was spent on guest stars rather than elaborate sets and was a huge hit. Another who’s who of brilliant British character actors as well known Hollywood thesps appeared at some point in TOTU such as Rod Taylor, Jose Ferrer, Janet Leigh and Brad Dourif.
I’ve referred a few times in this little blog space to TV series which I feel are enhanced by their memorable musical themes, the obvious example being 70s Amsterdam based policier Van Der Valk.. And I would argue that TOTU sustained for so long partly due to its incredibly clever and grindingly memorable Ron Grainer theme. No one over the age of 40 will be unfamiliar with this theme and if hearing it for any reason, it will play away in their head for at least the rest of the day.
Grainer is said to have written the theme with the psalm (or is it a hymn?) All Things Bright And Beautiful in his mind. The cadences are certainly similar but it’s this theme that would be providing an ear-worm for me rather than the rather turgid psalm. Its jaunty almost fairground melody and instrumentation belies the grimness and sometimes grand Guignol elements of many of the stories. Personally, I’ve always found fairgrounds and circuses quite creepy backdrops for stories of this nature. Have a look at the opening sequence to the brilliant 70s series Journey To The Unknown and you’ll see what I mean.
A few years ago while listening to the Shaun Keaveney show on Radio 6 Music, a listener phoned in to Small Claims Court to reveal he had met the woman at a wedding who had performed the strip routine during the opening titles of TOTU. I wonder if she received a royalty every time the programme was broadcast? If so she could thank Ron Grainer for a fairly lucrative gig.
As usual Grainer hit it out of the ball park and I sometimes wonder if the series would have gone on for so long without his theme.
With a few notable exceptions this was arguably Ron Grainer‘s last masterwork. He wrote many, many other TV signature tunes as well film scores but the above are what I consider to be the shining lights in his back catalogue.
Ron Grainer died at the tragically young age of 58 in 1981 from spinal cancer. Had he lived he’d have been vying with the other TV theme maestro Tony Hatch as the greatest ever. But Grainer left enough of his prodigiously talented themes to be remembered always and to be spoken about in the same respectful breath as Hatch.
They may have been the oddest of programmes to serve up to kids on their summer hols but they are abiding memories of a childhood spent in front of the screen.
What’s your memory of school summer holidays in the 60s and 70s? Running wild and free through sunlit forests and lush green meadows? Gambolling in amongst the rippling wheat fields to the sound of chattering songbirds with a warm southern wind in your face? Me neither.
My abiding memory of summer holidays at the age of 10ish is sitting in a semi-darkened living room with the curtains drawn and shafts of morning sunlight breaking through the gaps, irritatingly, as the TV screen lit up your face and the glorious percussive opening strains and black and white credits of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe struck up. Da da da da- da da!
Any child today would view this image as almost Victorian in its monochrome spareseness. Children’s TV was broadcast for an hour each weekday morning between 10 and 11 AM during July and August featuring badly dubbed cheap European imports, each series repeated unfailingly every year and watched every subsequent year with the same glee and wide-eyed wonder at the fact that programmes aimed at children were actually being beamed into your living room! In the morning! What wasn’t to like?
We were more easily pleased in those day, obviously. And to think back to the meagre visual TV diet we were given, and accepted gratefully, in those days, maybe said more about how compliant we were. Multi-platform, colour, flat screen, big budget 24/7 children’s TV programming was something from a science fiction series quite a few years into the future.
But it was still exciting and a welcome change to the norm. The fact that the BBC hardly bothered to change the programmes from year to year and didn’t even have the idea to repeat any children’s series they’d produced themselves is quite astounding. Of course, maybe they’d have had to stump up a repeat fee for some of the personnel involved which wouldn’t do and, of course, many of the children’s TV series would have been wiped immediately after broadcast anyway. So we were stuck with a few foreign series which, to us, seemed fine. It was, quite literally, better than nothing.
On top of that the productions were made in different languages and then badly dubbed into English. We were used to this though as we’d previously watched Tales from Europe on early evening telly. I wasn’t over enamoured with TFE as the dubbing irritated me a little but the stories were nuts! And this certainly did excite me. Much has been written about the weird and wonderful ‘Singing Ringing Tree‘ and it is a truly wonderful and, at times, terrifying experience. In later years when the colour version became available it added a new dimension of surreality. Other of the Tales from Europe strand weren’t even properly dubbed. Usually they just had an English language voiceover, a single actor explaining what was going on. You could hear the foreign language dialogue under this, which was never ideal. Broadcast by the BBC between 1964 and 1969 straight after Blue Peter on a Thursday, TFE was cheap and rarely cheerful series which had a peculiar fascination for children like myself. The narratives and characters were very different to what we were used to which was a good thing. With the exception of The Singing Ringing Tree, I doubt if any still survive and, other than The Snow Queen, I struggle to remember any of the stories featured.
So a bit of terrible dubbing for a July morning was more than acceptable.
And as a result these series have become synonymous with being young in the sixties for people of a certain vintage. Hear the theme tune to any of them and you’re transported to a time when nothing much bothered you, other than being told to go out and play. And, of course, in true Genxculture style, there was often more to those dubious summer visual treats than met the cathode-ray inflected eye.
The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe
Well we have to start with this, obviously. If any piece of music could be said to evoke childhood memories for those of a certain age, it’s this one. Hearing even a few bars of it takes you back to blissful summer mornings where there was nothing to worry you, nothing that needed to be done or appointments to be kept. Until, of course, your mum shouted through from the kitchenette telling you to go out and play as the sun was splitting the sky.
If you managed to escape this fate you could settle down to see how Robinson Crusoe managed to survive this seemingly idyllic island imprisonment.
Written by Daniel Defoe in 1719 it has since been seen as being the first work of fiction, using a range of narrative techniques. Some believed it was based on Alexander Selkirk, the Scottish privateer, or pirate which those types of mariners were, including the likes of that supposed British ‘hero’ Francis Drake. Selkirk spent three years on a deserted island Mas a Tiera, off the coast of Chile, before being rescued by a passing ship. They were essentially thieves on the high seas, often endorsed by royalty. Should anyone happen to pass through the cute wee village of Lower Largo on Fife’s East Neuk they will see a statue of Selkirk in the harbour.
It’s safe to describe the theme music as (cliche alert!) iconic. A word not just overused but battered to death nightly on TV and radio, but, in this case, appropriate. I doubt anyone over the age of 55 would fail to recognise the rumbling opening to the programme or the various pieces of incidental music. It’s even been reimagined by Art of Noise, no less.
Played by Austrian actor Robert Hoffman, it was his first professional role after leaving acting school. Hoffman went on to have a long and successful film career, mainly in slightly dubious European films such as Naked Girl Murdered In The Park, ermm Spasmo and the inevitable part of a U-Boat captain in 1980’s The Sea Wolves with British acting royalty Roger Moore, David Niven, Trevor Howard and the great Gregory Peck. All a bit long in the tooth to be messing about with U-Boats I’d say. Hoffman even had a part in the final days of Dallas in 1989.
In a nod to his 60s cult status as a mid-morning children’s TV hero, towards the end of his film career Hoffman appeared in a film entitled My Friend, The Lipizzaner.
What goes around, comes around, I suppose. And it’s also nice to see that, although retired from acting, he is still very much with us at the age of 83.
For me, the most memorable of Crusoe’s black and white adventures were the scene where he tries to rescue equipment from his sinking ship by building a raft and paddling out to the stricken vessel and then when he discovers footprints on the beach when he thought the island was deserted. An excellent cliff-hanger to end that particular episode. Of course, by the fourth time we’d watched the series the event had lost a little of its shock and mystery. But did we care? Did we buffalo.
It always seemed such a nice place to be marooned, the sun always shone, fish were plentiful and the little shelter he’d built himself would have made a fantastic gang-hut. Obviously when the cannibals and pirates arrived that put a slight damper on things but there had to be some moments of tension. The whole adventure was filmed on Gran Canaria, though long before anyone, other than some hippies maybe, saw it is a year-round holiday destination. At least it wasn’t Tenerife, or Brexit By The Sea as I tend to refer to it, so it maintained its mystery and exoticness no matter how often we watched it.
The White Horses
The White Horses was a curious confection of very poor dubbing (tick), bad acting (tick), unknown actors (tick) and what would now be questionable storylines (tick). The fact that the premise revolved around stories of summer holidays spent at an uncle’s horse stables which was populated by lovely white Lipizanner nags and was mainly of interested to young adolescent girls, with a equine fixation, before they’d discovered boys was irrelevant. It was a TV programme and it was on on a holiday weekday morning for god’s sake! Every weekday holiday morning. Every weekday holiday morning every holiday year! What wasn’t to like? Well, quite a lot really if you were a eight-year-old boy but we could easily put up with it as Robinson Crusoe was on next.
The White Horses was a German/Yugoslavian production first broadcast in the UK by the BBC in 1968. Surprisingly only 13 episodes were ever made, it just seems as if there were more due to the many repeat broadcasts every year.
It starred Austrian born Helga Anders as Julka who goes on holiday one sun-drenched summer to her uncle’s Lipizanner stud farm, although there was little exposition for the benefit of young viewers as to what a stud farm was. The fragrant Jenny Handley of Magpie might have been able to help her on that one (allegedly). Poor Helga went on to appear in many German TV series and films during the 70s and 80s but sadly lost her battle with drink and drug addiction in 1986 at the criminally young age of 38. A tragically adult demise for someone associated with children’s summer holidays.
Few people who watched The White Horses, other than the young horsey types who adored the series, will remember many of the storylines. There must have been limited opportunities to come up with narratives that always involved smart white horses saving their owners and busting crime syndicates. One slightly dodgy storyline, the very first episode in fact, featured some dastardly gypsies who tried to steal one the prize nags and hide it in plain sight by painting it brown. But Julka was too clever for them and spotted their deception! Well, it was 1966.
Everyone who watched the series, though, remembers the theme tune. And if anything transports us back all those years it’s hearing this tune, whether you liked the series or not.
Arguably it’s the theme tune that has rendered this series more memorable. I’ve already made the point a number of times that theme tunes are responsible for some series being remembered as better than they actually were. The most obvious example being Van Der Valk, a rather run of the windmill detective series set in Amsterdam (See ‘Here’s One I Wrote Earlier: Blue Peter v Magpie’ below). It was performed by that stalwart of TV theme tunes, Irish songstress, Jackie Lee. As ‘Jacky’ she reached number 10 with The White Horses theme song, voted the best ever theme by The Penguin Television Companion, indeed. She followed this up using her proper stage name, Jackie Lee, with the similarly earwormic theme from Rupert The Bear in 1970 which reached number 14 in the hit parade. Finally, in 1973 she recorded the theme from Inigo Pipkin (latterly The Pipkins after the unfortunate death of Mr Pipkin after the first series ended) which didn’t chart but was also memorable.
Jackie was responsible for some Northern Soul classics but was also much in demand as a session singer during the 60s and 70s, providing vocal backing on such MOR classics as Tom Jones’s ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home,’ Englebert’s ‘Release Me’ as well as the more psychedelic stylings of the great Jimi Hendrix on ‘Hey Joe.’
At the age of 85, Jackie Lee is still very much with us and living in Canada.
Despite The White Horses being aimed mainly at a female audience, the next offering was very much a favourite of young male viewers.
Herge’s Adventures of Tintin
By far the greatest summer holiday programme was The Adventures of Tintin but it was also the most frustrating. It just wasn’t long enough, running in at about 7 minutes an episode.
We all know now that Tintin was Belgian having been created by George Remi under the nom de plume of Herge. His first comic strip, years before Tintin was entitled The Adventures of Totor: Scout Leader of The Cockchafers. Make of that what you will but Herge was about to go global with the release of Tintin some years later. To me the characters seemed very British, particularly the Thompson Twins and Captain Haddock, who had been adapted for a British audience, but it was the English language dubbing that was so much better than White Horses.
Certain Tintin stories from the 30s and 40s have been accused of being racist and imperialistic, an accusation fairly accurate, but it pretty much went with the territory in those far off days. And the only Tintin story I ever remember seeing during school holidays was ‘The Crab With The Golden Claws,’ made in 1959, so it must have been pretty cheap for the BBC to broadcast in 1967. But so was every programme during this summer period.
The Tintin series was, as far as I can remember, quite professionally dubbed. Unlike The White Horses and Robinson Crusoe which was clearly filmed in a foreign language, I had no idea Tintin was actually Belgian. At this time cartoons were like gold dust. There were so few on telly, when one was broadcast it was a significant event. But each episode was only five minutes long which frustrated me hugely. We did, of course, have Cartoon Cavalcade which eventually morphed into the awful Glen Michael’s Cavalcade, it really just became a platform for his irritating and comedy-lite personality, but it probably saved STV loads of money as we were lucky to get 2 or 3 cartoons during each episode.
The dubbing was good because the adapters brought in some proper voice actors. Tintin was played by Gerald Campion, an actor who played Billy Bunter in the TV series of the 50s and was perennially typecast as a ‘fat’ character in various films and TV shows. Other characters were played by the UK’s most famous voice actor of the period, Peter Hawkins. Few of a certain age will remember his name but he was responsible for many voices during the 60s-80s including the Daleks and Cybermen from early Doctor Who, Captain Pugwash, Bill and Ben, The Flowerpot Men (Sklobalop!) and SuperTed.
The cartoon version of the story was also adapted from the original and became the pursuit of diamond smugglers rather than opium smugglers, not that I’d have known what opium was in those days anyway.
Although this was my favourite holiday programme and one that excited me hugely when broadcast, I struggle to remember much about the story. It seemed to end almost as quickly as it began and just left me wanting more.
There were other holiday programmes such as Belle and Sebastian, which I never really took to, and a few Watch With Mother -type shows but it was The Big Three that really arrested our attention. It was genuinely exciting to have these programmes to watch every morning and every year as TV was severely rationed for children in those days and despite almost knowing the script after three years of the same schedule it didn’t matter.
Tell that to kids nowadays and they won’t believe you….
Its popularity may have been short-lived, but for a brief period during the mid-sixties Batman was even bigger than The Beatles!
Like The Beatles, it’s difficult to understand just what a phenomenon the 1960s TV series Batman actually was. If you were a child between the ages of 5 and 15, for a couple of years, and it was only a couple of years, this TV programme dominated your life. If you were a sophisticated adult you’d have loved the campness and archness of the script. To watch it today brings back just how funny, enjoyable and often downright surreal so many of the episodes were. Its charm and inventiveness has not diminished, it has influenced a range of other TV programmes over the years and has been parodied regularly. Not least in sophisticated TV series of the last few years including The Simpsons, Futurama, Spongebob Squarepants, FamilyGuy and even Only Fools and Horses.
Nothing like it had ever been seen on TV in 1966. Not only was it a character who everyone knew through reading American comics but this was a high quality production that used eye-catching special effects (for the time), had memorable music that people still remember today (Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da -da-da-da, Bat-maaan!), where every episode was a roller-coaster ride and weird characters abounded. What wasn’t to like? It seemed to be really funny but why were Batman and Robin taking it so seriously? We know now that this was the essence of its brilliance. And some of the Special Guest Villains were certainly strangely creepy, occasionally threatening and the casting was often wonderfully bizarre. Not forgetting the trademark fight sequences with their pop-art onomatopoeic graphics (Pow! Blam! Splat!).
As a five-year old when Batman was first shown on British TV in 1966 I was obsessed. Every boy of my age and older had to have a Batman or Robin outfit. They could be bought commercially but it was easier and just as effective to have your own made. My dad, who was quite good at those things, made me a Batman outfit from some black plastic tarpaulin, my pal Graham got a long bit of yellow material from his mum and instantly became Robin, The Boy Wonder, and we’d run through the streets singing ‘Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da -da-da-da, Bat-maaan!’ It was so much fun. It really was.
For two years between 1966 and 1968 Batman dominated popular culture in a similar way to The Beatles. Memorablia such as character models, toy vehicles, sweets and trading cards were available and he even made some of those great favourites of Genxculture, Public Information Films. After Series 2 Batman’s star waned and we moved on to other things, probably Star Trek or Joe 90 and TV Century 21 comic as this was a massively creative decade in the media. But that period was really special and today this series looks and sounds even better than it did due to us being able to watch it in living colour which we couldn’t do then. In short, it’s still funny, satirical, brilliantly staged, wonderfully acted, endlessly inventive, featuring a who’s who of showbiz for the time and it’s still as camp as a Millet’s window display.
Yes, the gadgets, the cars, the weird torture machines, the fast paced narratives, the special effects, the villains all added to the excitement of the show but it was the portrayal of the central characters, Adam West’sBatman and Burt Ward’sRobin, that really lifted the series to a level rarely seen on TV up to that time. As creator, producer and narrator William Dozier said at the time, ‘It’s the only situation comedy on the air without a laugh track.’ The show was also influenced by very 60s TV series such as The Man From Uncle which wore its irony and bizarre gadgetry, sometimes literally, on its sleeve.
Three series of the show were made between January 1966 and March 1968 and although Series 3 saw a lull in its popularity, Series 1 and 2 were hugely successful. Dozier was not a fan of the American superhero comics and felt them, particularly Batman, to be unnecessarily serious and often po-faced. Hence his idea of bringing a much livelier, colourful (for a few), bizarre, fast paced and uniquely ironic TV version of The Caped Crusader.
The success of this very unusual type of show was going to be, crucially, finding the right actors to portray the heroes and villains. The great Adam West was spotted playing ‘Captain Q’ in a series of Nesquik adverts on US TV. West was attracted by the show’s ‘scrupulously formal dialogue‘ which he played completely straight from episode 1 until the end with resounding success.
BurtWard was straight out of stage school when he landed the audition. He had the good fortune to be teamed up with the much more experienced West for the auditions and, out of 1100 audition hopefuls, his chemistry with West was obvious. TV’s Batmanand Robin were born.
The producers had originally decided that the new camp Batman series would debut as a full-length feature film to introduce the characters to the great viewing public. For various reasons this didn’t happen before the series went out and the film was eventually rolled out to cinemas after the first series had concluded. For me this made Batman more exciting as, for one thing, we saw it in eye-popping colour for the first time which was a revelation to say the least. I mean, The Joker had green hair, for example! And, secondly, a new range of thrilling Bat-accessories were revealed such as the Bat-Copter, Bat-Bike and the Bat-Boat. The children’s matinee at the Tivoli cinema on Gorgie Road was certainly buzzing that Saturday afternoon in 1966!
The show had many recurring elements which, for young viewers, was particularly exciting. Playing their ‘real’ identities as rich socialite Bruce Wayne and his ‘ward’ Dick Grayson, they would receive word via the ‘Batphone‘ from Commissioner Gordon that some heinous crime had been committed by one of the ‘Special Guest Villains‘ and could they help? Cue the most exciting sequence in the show when they would secretly enter the bat cave through a secret passage (‘to the batpoles!) and emerge in a roaring, speeded-up Batmobile to consult with Commissioner Gordon.
Clues would be left by the villains and Batman and Robin would start to solve these bizarre clues until a final showdown punch-up (no guns were used) with the villains which would be punctuated with pop art images showing the onomatopoeic words such as Blam!, Pow!, or ‘Kapow! in flamboyant colour. Of course, that element of Batman was completely lost on our monochrome 60s telly and, apart from the Batman film which we saw at the local fleapit, it would be another 15 years before we’d see Batman in the same vivid, psychedelic colour on telly.
In between the two part episodes (shown on two different evenings of the week) Batman and Robin might find themselves in a cliff-hanger scene at the end of part one where they were invariably trapped in a situation that might lead to their deeply unpleasant demise. The narrator, William Dozier, would then chip in asking the audience if Batman will survive. ‘Tune in tomorrow! Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!‘ Of course he’ll survive! Often due to some amazing Bat-gadget that he could just about grab from his Bat-utility belt.
The laughs came from the completely straight performances by Adam West and Burt Ward. Little gags abounded throughout the episode which you had to be quick to notice. At one point the ferociously law-abiding Batman in pursuit of a Special Guest Villain parked the Batmobile outside a large public building. As he leapt out of the driver’s seat he spotted a ‘No Parking‘ sign. Despite the imminent destruction of Gotham City he doubles back to move the car when a friendly policeman arrives and tells him, ‘That’s OK Batman,’ and rolls the sign away. The future of one of America’s great cities may be in the balance but that’s no excuse for not abiding by the law and getting a parking ticket!
The soaraway success of the series led to a range of celebrities of the time making appearances in the show. Either as ‘Special Guest Villains‘ or as themselves. One recurring sequence was when the Dynamic Duo were hauling themselves up the side of a high building with the aid of the Batrope. Of course, the camera was just turned 45 degrees to give the impression of them walking up the building, which was a joke in itself. Suddenly a window would open and a ‘famous’ person would pop their head out. To us in Scotland, many of these ‘celebrities’ were unknown given our three TV stations of the time and a limited amount of space to show many American series. But some of the celebrities were well-known including Jerry Lewis (apparently very difficult and insisting on directing and lighting himself according to Ward’s biog), the great Sammy Davis Jnr, nutty dishevelled comedienne Phylis Diller, Hollywood film gangsters George Raft and Edward G. Robinson, and one I clearly remember, Werner Klemperer in his well-known role as incompetent German POW prison commandant Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes and Ted Cassidy in his role as Lurch in The Addams Family, a show which had many connections with Batman over its three year lifespan.
The most bizarre of these ‘celebrities’ popping their heads out of the window for a slightly awkward rap with the Caped Crusaders was ‘Carpet King‘ Cyril Lord. Now completely unknown by anyone under the age of 55, he was an English businessman who became well known for appearing in TV adverts for his own Cyril Lord carpet company. With the long-running booming jingle ‘These are carpets you can afford by Cyril Lord!,’ he became, like his carpets, a household name. In the TV ad jingle I always thought the name was ‘Cirr-a-lorr.’ Clearly his fame in the US was even greater.
Like Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In which appeared shortly after Batman’s cancellation, celebrities were queuing up to appear on the show. It was even rumoured that Frank Sinatra had expressed an interest in the role of The Penguin when the show was being cast.
And talking of Batman villains.. A range of tried and tested Hollywood stars were cast as Special Guest Villains. The series began with those which appeared in the comics, or, at least, camper more outrageous versions of them, if that was possible.
The Joker: The first ever Special Guest Villain played by Cesar Romero, an actor whose biography was as long as your arm and your leg combined. He appeared in well over 100 films, most famously as The Cisco Kid in a series of 40s westerns, and pretty much every well known American TV show between the 50s and the 90s including The Man From Uncle, Rawhide, Alias Smith and Jones, Daniel Boone, Ironside, Bonanza, Dr Kildare and The Golden Girls.
Romero appeared in 22 episodes of Batman as well as the full length film. Romero refused to shave off his trademark moustache during filming and had The Joker’s thick white makeup hide it. To me he always came across as quite a menacing character, despite the series’ camp and overblown treatment of the villains. But that was how it was meant to be.
The Penguin: Appeared in as many episodes as The Joker. I was never that keen on The Penguin. He just wasn’t evil enough. Played by Hollywood stalwart Burgess Meredith, he wasn’t the first choice for the role. The producers of Batman wanted Spencer Tracy as The Penguin which would have been very interesting indeed. A bit like when the producers of Columbo originally wanted Bing Crosby to play the eponymous role. However, he said he’d only do it if he could kill Batman, and that wasn’t going happen. Maybe he only said this to wriggle out of the part but, after its incredible success and popularity, I wonder if he regretted it?
Non-smoker Meredith developed The Penguin’s squawk as a way of not having to inhale the smoke from his ever-present cigarette holder.
The success of Batman, even spilled over into another hugely successful series of the mid-60s when Meredith appeared as The Penguin in an episode of The Monkees.
Catwoman: The most frequent Special Guest Villain, appearing 15 times over the three series. Originally played by newcomer Julie Newmar who, for the first two series, the sexual chemistry with Batman added an extra frisson to their scenes together. Was she really attracted or was she merely using her not inconsiderable feline charms to entrap him? You decide. But one could understand why Batman’s super powers of restraint were severely tested.
For the third series Newmar, who was filming McKenna’s Gold at the time, was replaced by the legendary Eartha Kitt in, for the time, an audacious bit of casting for ultra-conservative America. Of course, this meant the chemistry between them changed as the idea of Batman being romantically linked with black woman was a bridge too far for the producers in a 60s US not exactly embracing multiculturalism. That said, this sort of intimate relationship was only a couple of years away with Kirk and Uhura in Star Trek. But it was still, almost unbelievably, a big deal on mainstream US TV.
For the film version which should have been released before the TV series but wasn’t, Catwoman was played by Lee Merriwether, who some still remember as the original Catwoman, even though she never appeared in the TV series.
Kitt’s ability to purr her lines and generally behave in a feline sort of way came naturally to her, she was perfect (I refuse to say ‘purr-fect’) for the character and her car had to be seen to be believed. Catwoman was one of my favourite villains and she still is……
The Riddler: Played by American impressionist and comedian Frank Gorshin, a huge star in the US but not very well known in the UK at the time. I have a vague memory of him appearing on a British variety show during the 60s. I don’t think he went down that well as his impressions were all of American celebrities and we were used to Mike Yarwood doing Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, so his repertoire left British audiences fairly cold. On further research the good people at IMDB seem to think it was The Dave Allen Show in 1969. This would be after Batman ended its three series run, however. He appeared on pretty much every American variety show including the Jerry Lewis, Andy Williams, Sammy Davis Jnr and Dean Martin shows. He also appeared on The Danny Kay Show in 1966 which we definitely did get in the UK, which may have gone out before Batman hit our British screens. Either way I distinctly remember seeing Frank Gorshin do his impressionism act before I’d seen him as The Riddler.
Another interesting fact about Frank Gorshin (well, I think it’s interesting..) is that he appeared on the same Ed Sullivan Show as The Beatles when they made their US debut in 1964. Craig Brown in his brilliant new book on The Beatles, One, Two, Three, Four, includes a superb chapter told from the viewpoint of some of the other guests on the show that day of 9th February 1964. It’s also hard to believe that ‘two-ton’ Tessie O’Shea also appeared, as did the Broadway cast of Oliver! including British performer Georgia Brown and a young cast member named Davy Jones. Wonder whatever happened to him? Maybe with all these British performers, Ed Sullivan thought The Beatles might feel at home.
He appeared in 9 episodes of Batman which I found surprising as he seemed to be involved much more often. He didn’t appear at all during series 2 as some have claimed he was sidelined by the producers for making unrealistic wage demands. His role was taken for one episode by The Addam’s Family’s John Astin. However, he returned to the fold for one last episode of the third series in 1967.
Cool, Cruel Mr Freeze: With three different, very interesting and unusual actors playing this villainous part, Mr Freeze appeared in all three series of Batman.
First up was a typically left-field choice, suave and prolific Hollywood actor George Sanders. Sounding every inch the superior and upper crust, often quietly menacing, English cad, Sanders was actually born in Russia and moved to England with his family at the outbreak of The Russian Revolution in 1917.
He ended up in Hollywood in the 1930s playing a pre-Roger MooreSimon Templar in a series of US-made The Saint films. His other notable roles included playing dodgy aristocrats in Hitchcock’sRebecca, Addison De Witt in All About Eve, for which he won an Oscar and RobertoRossellini’s neo-realist classic, Journey To Italy with Ingrid Bergman. The role he is best remembered for though, is voicing tiger Shere Khan in Disney’s classic The Jungle Book.
In true Hollywood style he married four times, weirdly two of them being Gabor sisters, Zsa Zsa and Magda (the latter lasting only 32 days). His voice and manner inspired Peter Sellers to base the character of Hercules Grytpype-Thynne on in The Goon Show. In 1958 he released an album of songs, some composed by him with the wonderful title, The George Sanders Touch: Songs For The Lovely Lady. I really would love to hear that sometime.
Sanders died of an overdose of barbiturates in 1972 in a village near Barcelona. His suicide note did not dwell on disappointment but just stated he was bored with life and had had enough. His role as Mr Freeze could not have suited him more.
An even stranger choice to take over from Sanders and one that couldn’t have been more different was legendary Hollywood director Otto Preminger. Although achieving world-wide acclaim as a director of classics such as Laura, The Man With The Golden Arm and the excellent British Film Noir, Bunny Lake Is Missing, he had done some acting, mainly during the 40s and 50s. His most well known role being as Oberst von Scherbach in Stalag 17, directed by Billy Wilder. According to Preminger he’d never heard of Batman but his grandchildren persuaded him to ask for a part. Apparently Preminger knew producer William Dozier and asked to be cast. However, Preminger couldn’t adapt to the idea of being an actor rather than a director and rubbed many of the cast members up the wrong way by shouting at them to ‘concentrate’ if they fluffed their lines. He was frozen out (ho ho) and wasn’t invited back in series 3 to play Mr Freeze again. Once a director, always a director!
The next and last Mr Freeze was another legendary Hollywood actor, ‘method’ actor supreme Eli Wallach.
Egghead: Played by ubiquitous Hollywood actor, the excellent Vincent Price (much more on him dotted around this little blog space), he was the self-styled World’s Smartest Criminal. So much so he was one of only two BatmanGuest Villains who worked out Batman’s real identity. His weapons of choice were always in the form of eggs, the most memorable being the Tear-Gas Eggs laid by hens fed exclusively on onions.
Chandell: played by, of all people, Liberace! He was probably the most well known of all the Special Guest Villains and not only did he play the villain, Chandell, a cute little reference to one of his trademarks, the chandelier, but he also played his even more crooked brother in some groundbreaking split-scene photography. But in one of his final scenes we see him in jail wearing prison stripes as does his grand piano. A superbly subtle and funny Batman touch!
Liberace went on to appear in many cult series of the 60s and 70s including Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, Kojak and The Muppets. And in The Monkees he even smashes a grand piano.
Liberace’s life was arguably so full of excess, intrigue, and hyperbole that nothing he did professionally was as overblown as his private life. And, in Batman, he found a role that suited his larger-than-life profile. To be honest I don’t have a particularly clear memory of Liberace’s appearances on Batman at the time but on viewing some of them today, he was perfect for the show. There may be more to come on Liberace within his little blog space in the near future……
King Tut: Played by Hollywood actor Victor Buono, King Tut appeared in eight episodes of Batman over the whole three series, Only Joker, Riddler, Catwoman and Penguin appeared more often. Playing a mild-mannered professor of Egyptology who turns into the evil King Tut when he receives a bump on the head, it’s hard to believe Buono was only 28 when he played the role.
A stalwart of many films and cult 60s telly, Buono also appeared in Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea,The Man From UNCLE, I Spy and even The Flying Nun. For me, though, King Tut wasn’t weird, evil or threatening enough to be an acceptable Batman villain and the episodes involving him are only sketchy in my memory. Like Egghead, King Tut was the only other villain to guess Batman’s identity but, luckily for the Caped Crusader, another blow to the head made him forget by the end of the episode.
Many other Special Guest Villains appeared in Batman, some memorable like The Archer and The Minstrel, played by Hollywood actors Art Carney and Van Johnson. Other members of Hollywood royalty queued up to play villains on Batman. Some scarcely remembered such Minerva (Zsa Zsa Gabor), Clock King (Walter Slezak), Lola Lasagne (the formidable Ethel Merman) and Louie The Lilac (Milton Berle). The British acting contingent was represented by Joan Collins as The Siren, one of the last Special Guest Villains in series 3, Maurice Evans was The Puzzler, he would soon play a career defining role as Dr Zaius in one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, Planet Of The Apes as well as Samantha’s father in Bewitched. A fellow-simian colleague of Evans from Planet of the Apes was Roddy MacDowall who played Bookworm in Series 3. The Sandman played by Michael Rennie, who also played Harry Lime in the long-running US TV series of the 60s The Third Man as well Klaatu in the 50’s cold war classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. But it was a case of too much, too late for Batman and the third series proved to be the last. Another network eventually decided to take over the franchise but by that time the expensive sets had been demolished and it didn’t happen.
One interesting guest who was not a Special Guest Villain was a certain Jay Sebring.Sebring was a fashionable Hollywood hairdresser who appeared in a Catwoman episode on December 15 1966 during Series 2 where he was billed as Mr Oceanbring (geddit?). On the night of August 9 1969 he would be one of the five victims of the Manson family at the Cielo Drive home of Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski in the Hollywood hills.
Batman’s massive popularity in the UK even led to Adam West making a Public Information Film in the UK showing children how to cross the road safely. For some reason the producers of these films always seem to think a famous person would hammer the point home more effectively. Maybe they were right but when you think of the many other ‘celebrities’ who, over the years, also helped children across the road it does make you wonder. Recently departed Dave Prowse (Darth Vader) as ‘Green Cross Man,’ Alvin Stardust (You must out of your tiny minds.…), Les Gray of Mud, Boxer Joe Bugner, footballer Kevin Keegan and John ‘Dr Who‘ Pertwee with his frankly baffling ‘SPLINK’ campaign. Out of that lot I’d listen to Batman every time. He’s more believable.
Another campaign that Batman and Robin got behind, that few will remember, involved children launching themselves out of high buildings. Or so we were led to believe by some tabloid newspapers. Whenever something takes off (wrong description maybe!) like Batman did in 1966, people look for the downside of the fandom and phenomenon. According to some newspapers, children, believing Batman could fly, were emulating him by jumping out of high windows, although I don’t remember a single specific incident of this type being reported. Any young child, like myself at the time, would have known full well that Batman, unlike Superman, could not fly. They’d watch the TV programme, read the comics or talk to other Batman fans. Another example of the media wrongly believing children to be stupid. Anyway, Batman was asked to nip this supposed pernicious behaviour in the bud. And at the end of certain episodes a short insert was tagged on. Batman and Robin would speak directly to their young viewing public and remind them that Batman could not fly.
As with any phenomenon, irrespective of how short-lived, the spin-off memorabilia was huge. For a while everything was Batman related. Action figures, sweets, outfits, toy cars, posters and sundry other memorabilia were everywhere.
My own personal favourite out of all this Batman-related tat were the trading cards which were released in 1966. Three different versions (black, red and blue symbols) were available, each with either a description of the scene depicted or part of a larger puzzle on the back which could be constructed when all the relevant cards had been collected. The cards showed scenes which included Batman’s most prolific foes such as The Joker, The Riddler, Catwoman and The Penguin as well as a few newly created adversaries such as the supernatural Jack Frost and even some dinosaurs. The lack of authenticity of some of the cards to the TV series certainly didn’t put us off collecting all three series. Some of the cards also depicted scenes from the TV series. Although essential collecting for the 6/7/8 year old, I don’t quite remember the same frisson of excitement one felt when collecting the Civil WarNews or Battle cards of a couple of years previously. (See Aiieee!: the Blood-Soaked Realm of 60s Children’s Trading Cards below). By the time the cards became available, Batman’s popularity was on the wane slightly.
Like all, mainly male, 7 year olds in 1966 I received a toy Batmobile for my Christmas. Unlike much Bat-related merchandise of the time, Batmobiles were high quality, sturdy items made of metal. When you rolled them along the ground orange plastic flames emerged from the back exhaust of the vehicle, small cannons at the back could launch missiles (which you’d lost by Christmas afternoon) and a metal cutting tool (I think that’s what it was, I was never that sure) which could be pulled out on the front bonnet. Like James Bond‘s car, the Aston Martin DB5 which was popular around the same time, these toys are worth a small fortune now and, of course, I have no idea what happened to mine.
To be honest, I’d lost some interest by the time series 3 came along. There seemed to be a plethora of strange and sometimes not very engaging characters and it didn’t seem the same when The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin and Catwoman were not involved. I think I now appreciate these episodes more as an adult but this wonderful highly stylised, highly camp treatment of Batman maybe had a relatively short shelf-life, like a very expensive, flamboyant meal. The first few courses would be amazing but eventually you’d have had enough. But for a couple of years in the mid-60s Batman was a hugely important element of the zeitgeist and Adam West and Burt Ward’s brilliant portrayal of the Dynamic Duo as well as the over-the-top characters made it essential viewing.
So if you want an excursion that is still as cool, camp and clever now as it was all those years ago, you know where to go.
From hero to zero in three years, but no one epitomised the sixties more than Simon Dee
For many people who lived through this tumultuous decade Simon Dee epitomised the guy who had it all: his own Saturday evening chat show, viewing figures of 18 million, rubbing shoulders with anyone who was anyone in the 60s, having a hopelessly glamorous life, being paid a relative fortune (£250,000 when he defected to ITV, nearly £4 million today) and being known by everyone. Then it all disappeared, almost overnight. Where did it all go wrong? The general perception is that his huge ego got the better of him and made him too many powerful enemies, which is true to an extent. But there was more going on in Simon Dee’s broadcasting career than met the eye and even though he became a victim of his own success, it wasn’t always his fault and he became very much a casualty of the extremely limited media of the 60s and 70s.
Dee hosted one of the most popular programmes of the late 60s. BBC’s Dee Time‘s five series ran between 1967 and 1969 and broadcast 157 shows and subsequently on ITV with The Simon Dee Show in 1970. The format rarely changed, two or three guests to chat with Simon and a couple of musical guests to pad out the variety. At first it went out twice a week, on a Tuesday and Thursday, but as its popularity grew it reverted to just once a week on the greatly coveted Saturday tea-time slot, hence Saturday Dee Time! It was the first show of its type and at its peak attracted up to 18 million viewers, but, of course, there were only three channels then and, therefore, less competition. But that’s not to denigrate the influence and public profile of Dee Time. Anyone growing up in the late 60s would have watched Dee Time. The format may sound very conventional now but Dee Time featured pretty much anyone who was anyone during this groundbreaking period and aspects of the show, as well as Dee himself, demand some sort of analysis. For me, the highlight of Dee Time was not only the range of guests who dropped in ‘for a chat,’ and there was some very odd combinations of people indeed put before a Saturday tea-time audience, but also the who’s who of, often quite spectacular, 60s musical acts who regularly graced the studio.
Nicholas Henty-Dodd, aka Simon Dee, was born in Manchester in 1935 attending private school, obviously (who at the BBC in the 50s and 60s didn’t?) before doing his National Service then a series of dead end jobs before being recruited as a DJ for pirate Radio Caroline in 1964 courtesy of a friend who ran the station. He was eventually taken on by the pre-Radio One BBC in 1965 to present a programme called Midday Spin where he played new releases of ‘pop’ records. I’m always surprised, in a way, as to how so many 60s and 70s DJs just walked into these jobs without any apparent musical background or knowledge. Probably elderly producers just thought if someone was young, looked the part and could talk in a reasonably fluent manner they could do the job (See The Moronic World of 70s Radio One DJs, below). But, to be fair to Dee, he was interested in music and this was reflected in the wide and varied styles of music he played on his show.
However, he fell foul of the management when he played Scott Walker’s brilliant version of Jacques Brel’sJackie twice during one show, despite the song being bizarrely banned by the station. It may have been the references at various times to ‘opium dens,’ ‘ authentic queers’, and ‘phony virgins’ that worried the strait-laced Broadcasting House top brass, even although few people really listened to the lyrics. However, the great Scott Walker had already performed it all at peak viewing time on The Frankie Howerd Show on a less traditionally driven ITV at the same time. And it was this surreal juxtaposition of high art and downmarket variety, so redolent of the times, that made Dee Time such a strange experience. I have discussed at length the weirdness that was Sunday Night At The London Palladium (Tarbuck Memories below) and TV at the time was trying to cope with the biggest change to society since the Second World War, the explosion of 60s youth culture. TV was desperately attempting to keep its older, less demanding, viewers happy with more conventional fare while, at the same time, trying to attract the huge and growing teen viewership who wanted something very different. It was a precarious balancing act and Dee Time along with SNATLP tried to appeal to both markets often creating a curious vibe and decidedly odd viewing experience.
Strangely, Dee was spotted by BBC Light Entertainment executive Bill Cotton’s mother while he was advertising Smith’s Crisps on an ITV ad. Clearly Dee was well-known enough to be offered such a, presumably quite lucrative, gig. And after a perfunctory meeting with Cotton at the BBC, was propelled into the maelstrom that was the Sixties scene and his own TV chat show, despite having little or no experience of this medium. Luckily for him tea time chat shows were relatively new and no one really had anything else to compare him to.
The BBC desperately wanted Simon Dee to be the epitome of 60s glamour and despite some of Dee’s guests being resolutely of the entertainment old school, his opening and particularly his closing credits sequence were very definitely all about swinging London, even though the early shows were filmed in Manchester. The opening credits were nicked wholesale from The Johnny Carson Show with a disembodied voice (sports commentator Len Martin) bawling the names of tonight’s guests and finally announcing ‘Here’s your host, Siiiiiii-mon Dee!’
But the closing sequence was even better. After Dee had wished the viewing public goodnight the credits roll and we see him driving through a multi-storey car park in an open top white E-Type Jag. Waiting for him, and filmed from a low-angle to accentuate her model-like figure, is a dark- coated blonde in kinky boots, dressed a bit like The Girl From Uncle. She jumps into the car as it zooms off (and if you’re quick you’ll see her being rather unceremoniously knocked backwards by the power of the acceleration!). The camera follows the car round and round swinging ..erm… Manchester at high speed and from dizzying angles until the credits have rolled. And if that doesn’t yell ‘Sixties!’ I don’t know what will. Phew! The fact he was married with two children obviously wasn’t important, it was his image that really mattered.
It’s safe to say Dee was no Michael Parkinson. Never seen as a particularly fearsome interviewer, his style was laid-back, chummy and unthreatening to the point of trivial, but well suited to the early evening viewership. And there seemed little thought put into who should appear on any show. Guests were rarely selected to compliment each other or create a theme. It was more a case of ‘Who’s hot and available?’ Of course, it wasn’t possible for every show to feature a ‘happening’ interviewee or musical act and certain shows featured some unlikely bedfellows. Unlike Parkinson where the final part of the show was for all the guests to get together for a discussion, the vast majority of guests on Dee Time were interviewed alone. As is the case with so many TV shows of the time, only one complete Dee Time has survived with a few odd sections of others. For once it wasn’t a case of all the shows being wiped to save money, but all shows were live and, for some reason, probably to save money, just weren’t recorded. When some of Dee’s guests are considered, however, this was an omission just as culturally reprehensible. Because of this there is some debate as to who appeared on which show and even as to who was just there for a chat and who was performing. If the shows themselves weren’t deemed worthy of preservation, it’s unlikely many production notes or schedules were kept. There are discrepancies, for example, between IMDB and Richard Wiseman’s fascinating account of Dee’s career, ‘Whatever Happened To Simon Dee?‘ In most cases I’ve relied on the latter but, either way, the list of guests Dee attracted was an A-Z of the sixties.
Although a number of clips from shows still exist, though precious few, one of only two known episodes still in existence would appear to be from November 2 1968. How this episode survived is unknown. The opening routine shows Dee standing in a cloak looking superior. Clearly this was a ‘happening’ item of fashion featured in the tabloids that week which had garnered some ridicule. ‘We’re all wearing them,’ he haughtily declared. Then when an assistant came to take the cloak away Dee said ‘Can I have it off, please?’ Cue shrieks from the audience and Dee putting his fingernails in his mouth in shock at what he just said. Almost certainly scripted, this was the level of innuendo that made audiences guffaw guiltily in the 60s. Some things never change, I suppose.
His first guest is Graham Leask (Graham Leask, I hear you ask?), a young lad who exports snakes to Europe, according to Dee. Clearly a warm-up amuse-bouche before the main courses of Susannah York and Lionel Jeffries. A slightly awkward encounter ensues with Dee almost realising as he spoke that this was really pretty dull. It reminded me of the wonderful chat show spoof The Larry Sanders Show, when they were short of guests they’d bring in ‘The Sea-Shell Woman’ to eat up a bit of time by displaying the sea shells she’d collected while Larry struggled to feign interest. If Graham is still with us, and he’ll be around 65 now, he must be rather chuffed that his appearance on Dee Time is one of the few interviews that survived the 60s and 70s BBC cultural purge. What were the chances of that?
But Susannah York certainly brightened things up. Although clearly uncomfortable being interviewed, Dee chivvied her along getting her to talk about the films she had recently completed. Interestingly, one of them was The Killing of Sister George with the great Beryl Reid, who would be a guest on DT a few weeks later. During this exchange I couldn’t help but think ‘Will they mention it?’ And lo, they did before quickly moving on after an irate director presumably bawled into Dee’s earpiece (if he had one in those days). ‘It’s about lesbians‘ says Dee casually, ‘But we can’t can’t talk about that on this show.’ I wonder how many of the great viewing public knew what a lesbian was in 1967? And was that the first time the word ‘lesbian’ was used on tea-time telly? I was quite impressed that Dee even mentioned the word in a fairly matter-of-fact way without trying to make a joke about it. For the sixties this was extremely unusual. Gay people were mercilessly lampooned in comedy shows but lesbians were, to my knowledge, never referred to. It did demonstrate Dee’s devil-may-care attitude to celebrity interviews and the show was always likely to throw up little morsels of interest like this but sadly we’ll never know of any other similarly awkward moments, but there would certainly have been plenty, if only we could still see them.
Next up was well-known British character actor Lionel Jeffries who had just completed filming ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang‘ and he caused uproar and a certain amount of embarrassment when he revealed the clip they had just shown from the film did not feature him in a sentry box, as Dee had said, but as he described it, ‘a bog, a lav.’ Arguably, this was more controversial than mentioning lesbians. The audience collapsed in uncontrolled paroxysms of unbridled hilarity. They’d have been nudging each other conspiratorially in the audience giggling, ‘He said ‘bog!’ They may not have known what a lesbian was but they certainly knew what a ‘lav’ was. And it didn’t come much more risque than to make a reference to a toilet in the Great Britain of 1968.
Some of the shows’ lineups were wonderfully weird in a very sixties unsophisticated way. From the great to the good to the definitely not so good to the pure rubbish. They all happily accepted an invitation to be lightly sautéed by Simon Dee. I always think about what it must have been like in The Green Room prior to broadcasting, and the show was, of course, recorded live so all guests would have been sipping Campari and munching on Ritz crackers. Some of the musical acts may even have been puffing on a ‘reefer’ while engaging in polite conversation with the likes of upper crust fossil the Duke of Bedford or Genxculture favourite Anita Harris.
The first ever episode on 4 April 1967 was a superb indicator as to what this show was all about and where it was going to go during the next two and half years. An uneasy combination of MOR, cutting edge rock and 60s anodyne run-of-the-mill chat.
Kiki Dee: Never a household name during her long and continuing career, in fact she wasn’t even going to have a top 20 hit record for another 6 years when she got to number 13 with Amoureuse. But she was a reliable musical guest with an ever-so-slight ‘alternative’ edge on many variety shows and not quite in the easy listening ubiquity league as Clodagh Rodgers, Vince Hill or Anita Harris. It’s unknown whether Kiki was a chatting to Simon or just singing but probably just singing.
Lance Percival: One of those guys who turned up everywhere during the 60s and early 70s. Everyone knew him but ask anyone ‘What did Lance Percival do?‘ and they would struggle to come up with anything more specific than he was some sort of comedian. In fact, when any show, (comedy, chat, sitcom, variety, satire, quiz) wanted someone vaguely amusing to appear he would be near the top of the list. For someone with limited talents he was never off the telly or the cinema screen for 20 years. He made his name performing topical calypsos on That Was The Week That Was (something he probably wouldn’t get away with today) and his career pretty much took off on an ever so slight upward trajectory after that. Tall, angular and gangly he looked a bit odd and this added to his comedy cache. To give a rough idea of the pies he had bony fingers in, he appeared in programmes and films as diverse as the Carry Ons (inevitable), the shockingly unfunny ‘Confessions’ films, two series of his own show, more interestingly voicing a character in Yellow Submarine, guest supporter on Quizball, celebrity guest on Bullseye, compere of a rubbish 60s celebrity panel game He Said, She Said and appearing on a raft of undemanding chat shows as a mildly witty guest. In fact, he appeared on Dee Time on four separate occasions.
Mike Newman: Who? I know, I had to look him up but he was an Irish comedian and he appeared on no less than six occasions, that is six occasions, on the first series alone of Dee Time in 1967. Clearly someone on the production team liked him and he was obviously available. But it must have been a punishing routine for the poor guy if he was performing his act on each of those shows and having to come up with a new routine every time.
Libby Morris: a Canadian comedian who didn’t seem to be doing much of particular note professionally at the time of this appearance in April 1967. That said, she was a well known and reliable face, like Lance Percival, of the time. To her credit she had appeared a number of times on both The Johnny Carson Show and The Merv Griffin Show in the US. The most interesting parts of her CV , for me at least, were having voiced some characters between 1963-68 on Gerry Anderson’s early puppet series Space Patrol and appearing as the mother in Alexander The Greatest with the wonderful Adrienne Posta in 1971 (See Adrienne Posta: The ’70s ‘It’ Girl below). But she did the rounds of The Golden Shot, David Nixon’s Magic Box, The Good Old Days, Call My Bluff, Celebrity Squares and Blankety Blank over a thirty year period. Respect! She appeared on DT once more during the three year run.
And this is where it gets really interesting……
The Jimi Hendrix Experience: With musical guests like this Dee Time was certainly hammering its alternative credentials into the ground here. After the blandness of the opening chat line-up this was a programme desperately trying to cement its ‘happening’ musical sixties credentials. This was Hendrix’s first early evening appearance on British TV and he would make a return to Dee Time the following year. He would go on to appear on It Must Be Dusty also the following year and famously on Happening For Lulu in 1969, where the band balked at having to do a duet with Lulu and stopped their performance of Hey Joe half way through to launch into a tribute to the recently disbanded Cream, Sunshine Of Your Love. This led to them being, allegedly, banned from the BBC for life. Unusually for the Beeb, this footage still exists.
Cat Stevens: It’s unknown as to what Cat Stevens actually sang on this first edition, most probably ‘I’m Gonna Get Me A Gun‘ which was riding high in the hit parade at the time, but his appearance alone, along with Hendrix, inspired radio sociologist Laurie Taylor to suggest this programme was the, ‘…forty minutes that could arguably be thought of as the moment the Sixties finally arrived onto …British television.’ Stevens would appear twice more on Dee Time and would also appear on Dee’s short-lived vehicle on ITV in 1970
Other weird lineups included….
11 May 1967: with the great Beryl Reid (wonder if he mentioned lesbians again?) and musical guests The Move, then seen as the wild men of rock, jazzy/ bluesy group The Peddlars (who would appear a number of times on DT) and, bizarrely, Donald Peers. This juxtaposition of The Move and Peers made shows such as this so fascinating. The now virtually forgotten Donald ‘The Laughing Cavalier Of Song’ Peers was a 50s crooner of some note whose signature tune was ‘By A Shady Nook By A Babbling Brook.’ Clearly this was the producers of DT throwing the older generation a few crumbs to try and maintain their interest. It was a ploy that continued throughout DT’s run but it was flogging a very dead horse as DT was all about the Sixties and everyone knew it. That said, Donald Peers appeared quite a few times over the next few years. One could just imagine oldies watching at home pointing to the black and white grainy screen and saying, ‘Now that’s a proper singer!‘
20 June 1967: This was an edition I actually remember. Or at least some of it. Heading the bill was 60s musical sensation Lionel Bart. Well known for his West End Theatre smashes Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be and Oliver!, Bart performed one of his own songs on DT. What I remember vividly, and this was very Sixties, he sat on the darkened set singing and each time he completed a verse he’s take a long drag on the cigarette he was holding and slowly exhale the smoke in time to the music. This disgusted my non-smoking parents who commented on how revolting this looked. I can’t remember whether Bart indulged in some unthreatening banter with Dee, but also on the bill was Warren Mitchell, riding high with ‘Till Death Us Do Part which had begun its long run the previous year, safe pair of chat show hands Leslie ‘Ding Dong’ Phillips and second musical act, up-and-coming American crooner Neil Diamond, who was yet to have a UK top twenty hit. Making up the numbers was rock- a- boogie duo with the rubbish name, The Young Idea, who were in the charts with a version of The Beatles‘ ‘With A Little Help From My Friends. They wouldn’t bother the charts again.
2 March 1968: This edition is also worth noting due to the wide and completely random nature of the guest line-up! This was a fusion of the new, the old, the curious, the sophisticated and the downright bizarre. In a way, a perfect Dee Time storm. The old was represented by former radio quiz inquisitor, occasional actor, including the role of the dad in the original film version of Billy Liar, and soon-to-be sitcom star in ‘For The Love Of Ada’Wilfred Pickles. For a slightly younger but still fairly mature audience we had Frankie Vaughan. His best days were a long way behind him but he appealed to the parents of 60s pop kids. And talking of pop kids another musical act featured in this edition was perennial popsters Dave Dee (no relation), Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch performing their current chart hit and their only Number One, The Legend Of Xanadu. A left field choice next was Esther and Abi Ofarim with their gibberish hit, also a Number One, Cinderella Rockafella. They divorced soon after and Esther Ofarim was, surprisingly, given her own BBC 2 variety show special, Meet Esther Ofarim. It would a fleeting liaison. And finally, now-disgraced Liberal MP, stalwart of Radio 4’s Just A Minute and TV chef Clement Freud who was always a lugubrious but witty chat show guest. Phew! Poor old Si must have been knackered after all that.
And talking of disgraced former Liberal MPs, Jeremy Thorpe appeared on the 10 February 1969 and the interview was reviewed very favourably by the ‘clever-clogs’ newspapers (as Alan Partridge might describe them) due to Dee’s questioning on Parliamentary reform and televising the Commons. But, truth be told, this wasn’t what the punters tuned in to see of a Saturday evening. And having politicians as guests was a rarity. Towards the end of his BBC tenure in 1968, however, Dee Time hosted a number of members of the aristocracy on a couple of his shows. Why this was has been lost in the mists of time but one can imagine Dee wanting to show that they were ‘just like you and me‘ and doing a bit of brown-nosing while he was at it. And talking of the mighty Partridge, it reminded me of an episode of his radio chat show ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You‘ in 1992 when one of his guests was the Duchess of Stranraer and he spent the entire interview trying to wangle a weekend invite to her country pile.
Often the chatting guests may have been on the bland side and some completely forgotten (Susannah Young? Ross Hannman? Arthur Murphy?) but many of the musical guests were, not to put too fine a point on it, mind-blowing! Anyone who was anyone from ‘the pop scene’ appeared on Dee Time and one does wonder what a 60s older tea-time audience would have made of some of the more wonderfully psychedelic acts such Traffic, The Turtles, The Move, Procul Harum, The Kinks, The Herd (with a young Peter Frampton), The Troggs or even Cat Stevens! DT did, of course, feature many slightly more house- trained performers such as The Dave Clark Five, The Hollies, The Bee Gees and that most British of bands, The Tremeloes (4 times!). Solo acts, more in keeping with the older part of the audience’s taste, included Genxculture favourites Clodagh Rodgers and Anita Harris, the wonderful Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw not to mention the amazing Nina Simone. Blander fare included the singer with the most un- ‘with-it’ of names, the virtually forgotten Malcolm Roberts, Julie Rodgers (who made a career out of one hit), the inevitable Vince Hill (who made a career out of no hits), Cilla Black popped in a couple of times to screech her latest single as well as Jackie ‘Mrs Tony Hatch’ Trent and Lena Martell (who I once met and she was lovely). And let’s not forget those twin colossi of 60s pop, Pinky and Perky (as they said at the time, ‘£100 a week and they live like pigs!‘). Suffice to say, Dee Time was a treasure trove of the musical great and the good (and the not so good), which makes it even more galling to think the vast majority of these performances have been lost forever.
For every legendary act that appeared on DT there were almost as many who disappeared without trace. Simon Dee was a great believer in featuring acts who he thought deserved some exposure, which showed he maybe wasn’t the pop expert that Radio Two DJ Steve Wright is (OK, that’s a joke). For example, The Warm Sound, The Frugal Sound, The Dollies, The Gentle Power Of Song, The Tinkers, The Bats and The Nocturnes maybe didn’t make the splash they hoped to make after an appearance on Dee Time. Each one of those now utterly forgotten acts probably deserve some sort of analysis as they will all have their own story to tell, and I have no doubt a few will be of interest, but, sadly, that’s for another time on Genxculture. There is still too much to explore in the fascinating Simon Dee story…..
For one thing, it’s a little known fact that the warm-up act for much of Dee Time’s BBC run ws a certain Larry Grayson who reportedly went down a storm with the audience. Now, during the 70s and 80s I have to admit I was never a fan of Grayson. I didn’t think he could hold a candle to Bruce Forsyth as compere of The Generation Game. However. Having watched his act on a mid-70s edition of that surreal variety masterpiece Sunday Night At The London Palladium ( see posting below) brought to us by those wonderful people at Talking Pictures TV, I’ve really changed my opinion of him. He was really quite superb. His timing was second to none and I very much stand corrected on that one. Everard will be pleased….. But back to Simon Dee.
His fame and ubiquity wasn’t limited to the small screen, either. At the height of his fame he appeared in the classic 60s film The Italian Job at the behest of one of his showbiz pals, Michael Caine. In Dee’s own very 60s words, ‘I played a poofy Savile Row tailor and I was so good that the poofs started chasing me.’ He also claimed to have been propositioned by Brian Epstein when invited round to his Belgravia house to discuss a project that never happened. Was there anything Simon Dee didn’t do in the 60s? If you believe him the answer is no.
Dee was receiving £250 a show when he was broadcasting twice a week from Manchester up until September 16 1967. This equated to nearly £4000 a show today. As he was appearing twice weekly that was nearly £8000 a week which was pretty decent in anyone’s language. Due to the popularity of the show it was eventually given the hugely prestigious Saturday tea-time slot and despite this massive promotion, the BBC continued to pay him £250 a show, so the number of shows a run was halved and so was his salary. One can see Dee’s point that he was effectively being given a pay cut. And this is where his problems really began. Fallouts with his producer and Head of Light Entertainment at the BBC, Bill Cotton, led to Dee being accused of having a huge destructive ego and unreasonable wage demands. So much so at one point, when Dee became extremely unhappy about losing his opening Johnny Carson-esque monologue due to the producers believing it wasn’t working, he went AWOL and this worried his producers so much that they had Tony Blackburn standing-by to do that night’s Dee Time incase of a no-show by Dee. He did show up in time to do the show but with his lawyers, who Cotton had to deal with. Cotton won out in the end, not surprisingly, but it was the beginning of the end for Dee at the BBC.
The question of his salary, of course, came up again shortly after and many people who worked with him reportedly began to complain of his ego growing and getting in the way, although just as many seem to disagree with this notion. Again, the popularity of Dee Time and his perceived importance to the show inevitably led to him becoming a little to full of his own importance but this tends to happen any most personality driven TV vehicles and I wouldn’t really blame him for this. But in swinging London he was everywhere, at every premiere, fashion show, up market night club, driving around in his Bond Aston Martin DB5 bought from Bond villain Robert Shaw and he was even dating Bond girl Joanne Lumley, amongst others! It’s undocumented what his wife thought about this. According to Dee he even was considered for the part of Bond himself after Sean Connery jumped ship. Although unsuccessful in his audition, Dee’s contention that it was because he was thought to be ‘too tall’ for the part seems a little unlikely given Connery was six feet two.
Something had to give. And, of course , it did, the story of his demise almost writing itself.
The BBC top brass became thoroughly pissed off with Simon Dee and his final request for a pay rise fell on, not only deaf ears, but a growing desire to cut him loose. They began the disengagement process by moving his show to a Monday evening and rubbing salt into the wound by replacing Dee Time with Happening for Lulu, a lot like Dee Time but with Lulu, and the writing was well and truly on the wall for him. His demise at the BBC was the worst kept secret on Fleet Street and when ITV came calling, waving a bulging cheque book, they were only too happy to let him go and Simon couldn’t believe his luck when they offered him an eye-watering £1,000 a show and a two year contract. Too good to be true? You know where this is going….
ITV also happened to have David Frost in its ranks, a more serious, tougher interviewer and he was reportedly unhappy that the network had brought in another chat show personality, albeit a more lightweight one. Bizarrely, they scheduled Dee’s new show straight after Frost’s show late on a Sunday night at a time when most of the viewing public went to bed earlier. Dee was convinced Frost was trying to sabotage his show and there may have been something in that. Mind you, Dee was also convinced he was being monitored by MI5 and CIA and there may have been something in that also. His new show was a ratings flop and the straw that broke the camel’s back was an interview with the new Bond (funny how Bond keeps cropping up in the Dee story) George Lazenby who was high as kite and expounded his weird theories as well as naming names on the assassination of JFK, which was only eight years previously. dee was dragged over the coals at ITV for allowing Lazenby to waffle on about such rubbish and this was the beginning of the end for the show. It’s believed also on the show that night was John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Quite a coup even in those days although John Lennon‘s stock had fallen hugely with the break-up of The Beatles and his taking up with Yoko. She was blamed for the break-up of The Beatles and, therefore, the media and much of the Great British Public hated Yoko with a vengeance. She was vilified in a way that was not only racist but also misogynist, a situation that still exists, but to a slightly lesser extent, today. Due to the Lazenby interview, however, their participation is virtually forgotten and, of course, no known record of the show still exists.
Another sign that Dee’s reputation wasn’t quite what it was involved, weirdly, the England 1970 World Cup Squad. They had been booked to appear on the Sunday night show to debut their shouty new single, Back Home, even before it had been featured on Top Of The Pops. This would have been a huge triumph for Dee not to say a massive and badly needed ratings boost. But boring old Alf Ramsey vetoed the appearance at the last minute as it would mean keeping the boys up too late. Despite the show being recorded at tea time on the same Sunday as the broadcast went out. It’s unlikely this would have happened if Dee had still been on the BBC.
To be fair, the guest list for this run of the show was less than impressive. Although details are sketchy and few documents relating to the show have been kept, as well as the disastrous Lazenby interview, American comedienne Carol Channing, reportedly a very difficult interviewee, cheery cockney songster Joe Brown, stalwart British character actor Patrick Cargill, and Dee favourite Robert Morley all appeared but hardly set the pulses racing. Other guests of some note included Ned Sherrin, Samuel Becket muse Billie Whitelaw, Laurence Harvey (who’s girlfriend Dee allegedly had a dalliance with, although whether Harvey was bothered is unknown), Terry Thomas and 70s TV sex-bomb Peter Wyngarde. One of the few shows show of any real interest involved the always good value Vincent Price, who apparently poached a piece of haddock in a dishwasher on the show, and, oddly, paranormal author and extreme Right-winger Dennis Wheatley, which may have been worth staying up for but few did. And, to be honest, it was thin gruel. The show did go out with a bang though. Reports vary as to who appeared on the very last Simon Dee Show but some believe that on 21st June 1970 the recently sadly departed Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Bruce Forsyth and Harry Secombe (can’t win them all!) made up the very last edition. Other reports believe it was the Archbishop of Canterbury doing a solo gig which wasn’t so good, but we’ll probably never know as no recordings of those shows seemingly exist.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for Dee inadvertently involved, bizarrely, unthreatening MOR crooner Matt Monro. Dee had wanted him to provide the musical entertainment in one of his shows but the producers didn’t, for some reason. Dee took a strop similar to the one he took at the BBC and went AWOL again. The producers had reliable 50s DJ Pete Murray on standby in the same way the BBC had Tony Blackburn waiting in the wings the previous year. Dee did turn up in time to do the show but the big-wigs at ITV had had enough and cancelled the show. Although their story was that The Simon Dee Show was never cancelled, Dee’s contract was just never renewed. A bit like the way The Monkees ended. They didn’t split up, they just didn’t have their contracts renewed.
And that was pretty much that for Simon Dee. It has to be remembered that with only three channels and two networks there was nowhere for him to go having burned his boats at both the BBC and ITV. Today he’d have ended up on Channel 5 or Channel 4 or even the darker regions of cable TV such as Dave but in a strange sort of way it was this severely limited media structure that made him so big but also destined him to obscurity. His life sped out of control and went downhill very quickly and included a couple of short jail terms for petty offences which the tabloids made the most of.
In fact, Channel 4 brought him back for a one-off Dee Time in 2003 and one critic wrote that Dee reminded him of
Alan Partridge- a toxic mix of naff, bitterness, strange vulnerability and pompous self-regard.
The talentless Elizabeth Hurley, whose acting career took a similar trajectory to Dee’s when it was discovered she couldn’t act, said he was the personality Austin Powers was based on. I’m not so sure though.
Was it his massive ego that resulted in such a humiliating fall? No, it really wasn’t. He was just a victim of his times. Maybe a touch of humility would have made a difference but humility didn’t really go with the territory.
His life went from 60s superhero to ultimate zero but, you have to say, it was quite a ride.
Few people under fifty will remember Marty Feldman but he was a prolific writer and performer responsible for some of the most innovative comedy ever
Mention Marty Feldman to anyone over the age of fifty and most would reply, ‘Was that him with the eyes?’ And that’s how he is remembered by most, by his unusual appearance. There are a number of theories as to why he looked how he did: Grave’s Disease, a botched operation after a serious car crash, being damaged through boxing in his youth but this misses the point about Marty Feldman completely. Yes, he did use his appearance for comedy purposes and he often said his unusual face was his fortune but it’s easy to forget that he was one of the funniest, most innovative and certainly most prolific comedy writers of the 60s and 70s. He was responsible for comedy that not only pushed the envelope for the time but he was also a prime mover in the satire boom as well as paving the way for the surrealism of the Pythons and many other comedy icons.
It will surprise many people that he died at the tragically young age of 48 of a heart attack brought on by food poisoning after eating shellfish while filming on Yellowbeard, a disappointing Python spin-off, in Mexico City in 1982. At his death he was well-known for being a Mel Brooks collaborator and Hollywood star but it’s the vast range of work in the 60s and 70s that really made his name and it’s that that this post will focus on.
Born in 1948 and brought up in East London before stumbling into comedy writing, he had a number of jobs that seem appropriate for a left-field comedy writer such as a tipster at a greyhound track and an assistant to an Indian fakir in a fairground sideshow act. Soon he was writing for one of the most inadvertently surreal productions of the 50s, Educating Archie, the radio ventriloquist comedy show. Here he worked with two stalwarts of British sitcom, writers Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney (See ‘Cor Blimey Stan, How Did You Do It?‘ below). In 1954 he met Barry Took and they remained as comedy writing partners for the next twenty years. Their first foray into TV was writing some episodes of the hugely successful The Army Game and shortly after the spin-off Bootsy and Snudge. But in 1964 they hit comedy gold with the long-running radio show Round The Horne.
Described once as featuring ‘downmarket material in an upmarket way,’ Round The Horne was pure, unadulterated glorious filth. But it was filth in the way those wonderful Donald MacGill seaside postcards were. Everyone knew what they meant on Round The Horne, or at least thought they knew what they meant, but because it was all implicit they got away it. Even the title of the show was incredibly rude although it was hidden by a much less vulgar pun. Hearing repeats on BBC Radio 4 Extra it’s difficult to know how some of the jokes escaped the censor in those incredibly stuffy, buttoned-up times. But morality and that greatly abused word ‘decency’ was what the establishment claimed to be the social norm and the public requirement. But most people knew better. Despite complaints from some MPs and the inevitable Mary Whitehouse (who obviously understood the jokes if they were to find them distasteful), Feldman and Took were encouraged to be almost provocative in their groundbreaking scripts and this set the tone for Feldman’s work for the next 25 years.
The upper-middle class accent of the wonderful Kenneth Horne helped sneak much of the humour under the fence and the virtuoso cast of the great Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee. As Kenneth Horne said, ‘If ever I see a double entendre, I whip it out.’ And RTH was well and truly stuffed with double entendres.
The most popular characters on RTH were Julian and Sandy played by Williams and Paddick. For a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK Feldman and Took rode roughshod through the (oppressive) laws of the land in a way that was not only brave but also hilarious. Using the gay secret language ‘palare’, Julian and Sandy’s dialogues pushed innuendo to its limits. Of course, in those days many people would not even have heard the word ‘homosexuality,’ let alone know what it meant. It was an aspect of society that was very much brushed under the carpet by those who were aware of it, hence the complete lack of awareness from most ordinary people. Feldman and Took’s genius, along with the brilliant characterisations of Williams and Paddick, made it mainstream and definitely ‘unthreatening’. They even managed to sneak many otherwise proscribed ideas through the script such as references to a ‘cottage upright.’ And if you don’t know what that is, use your imagination. It’s rarely wrong, particularly with regards to this brilliant show. Every character’s name had a hovering air of rudeness to it such as J. Peasmold Gruntfuttock, Rambling Sad Rumpo (Williams) and Daphne Whitethigh (Marsden). Even the studio orchestra was known as ‘The Hornblowers!’
Feldman and Took’s reputation as writers meant they were in high demand as scriptwriters for other shows. One of those was that Genxculture favourite, Sunday Night At The London Palladium. I have written about this weird variety experience at length elsewhere in this little blog space (Tarbuck Memories, see below). In 1965 SNATLP was undergoing a facelift and was trying to drag itself into the happening 1960s through featuring acts that were certainly ‘with it.’ Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Spike Milligan and even The Beatles rubbed shoulders with the more traditional screeching operatic singers and terribly predictable comedians. And talking about terribly predictable comedians or maybe just terrible comedians, there was new host Jimmy Tarbuck. His Liverpudlian background and cheeky chappie demeanour was a perfect new broom for a refurbished SNATLP. Feldman and Took as two of the most fashionable writers in the UK at the time were brought in to give the script a modern spin. They must have been up to their eyes (no pun intended, Marty) with Round The Horne as Tarbuck’s script is execrable and bears no resemblance to the cutting edge stuff they were producing for RTH. I can only imagine they accepted the job as it was well paid and met in a pub to cobble something together, probably on the back of a fag packet as Marty was a very heavy smoker. ‘Ringo and has wife have so much money they’re putting it into Zack’s‘ was one of the better gags, which says more about the rest of Tarbuck’s routine. It would be unfair to judge this script though given the fact that Tarbuck was probably unconcerned about the quality, he was just so happy to be there. As was said at the time, a Palladium audience would laugh at a horse defecating.
After three series of RTH Feldman’s own performing career was beginning to take off and his writing was moving in other directions and he left RTH.
At Last The 1948 Show was Feldman’s first production as writer and performer. Initially the idea to produce an unconventional sketch show was that of David Frost who brought together a group of comedy actors and writers, some of whom had worked on The Frost Report, John Cleese and Graham Chapman along with sadly recently departed Tim Brooke Taylor, who then suggested Marty Feldman. A bit of good old fashioned 60s glamour was added through the lovely Aimi MacDonald (she was always referred to as ‘lovely’) who played the dumb blonde character, usually in sequins and feathers, and linked many of the sketches.
ALT1948S is a production which rarely is given the credit for being the first to usher in the winds of comedy change. Coming almost a year before the wonderful Do Not Adjust Your Set with Palin, Jones and Idle, many of the sketches eventually found their way to being performed on Monty Python including the legendary Four Yorkshiremen sketch and the programme’s main catchphrase, And now for something completely different. My memories of this show are sparse. I remember thinking it odd but, for me, that was a good thing. Even at the tender age of nine I was bored with formulaic sitcoms and wanted something more. The aspect of the show that really sticks in my memory was Aimi MacDonald’s links. Guest stars included a plethora of comedy writers of the time including Frank Muir and Denis Norden, Dick Vosborough and the great Barry Cryer. Ronnie Corbett (a colleague of Cleese’s from The Frost Report), Bill Oddie (shortly to team up with Tim Brooke-Taylor in The Goodies) and a non-speaking Eric Idle, also provide cameos. Other than two episodes it was believed all others were lost but all except two have been found, which is a turn up for the books! If Round The Horne brought innuendo and a stealthy social element to the airwaves, ALT1948S brought a satirical silliness to our screens which would be the spark to ignite a range of comedy programmes which pulled back the boundaries of humour, often pulling them back so far they were out of sight for many people. And from this seminal but almost forgotten series Marty Feldman’s public profile began to develop and so did his writing.
The period between 1965-70 was a prolific time for Marty Feldman. As well as Round The Horne he was writing for The Frost Report which starred a young John Cleese, Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker, who would soon become The Two Ronnies (who Marty also wrote for), According To Dora starring the great Dora Bryan, The Dick Emery Show (along with another writer called Harold Pinter..yes, Harold Pinter), Terry Scott’s own sketch show Scott On…. and even scripts for It’s Lulu! Two almost forgotten shows of note he worked on which are worth mentioning were No, That’s Me Over There starring Ronnie Corbett and Henry McGee and Broaden Your Mind, another high quality sub-Pythonesque sketch show of the type which were being churned out in the late 60s.
No, That’s Me Over There was ostensibly a fairly formulaic middle-class suburban comedy, but a look at the production team suggests otherwise. Written by, amongst others, Barry Cryer, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle and produced by Marty, it’s a Reggie Perrin-type of comedy with Ronnie Corbett in his first starring role. Sadly, most of the first two series have been lost although one episode is available on Youtube. Marty contributed to the scripts of Broaden Your Mind, one of the first colour programmes to be broadcast on the fairly new BBC2, was a suitably daft precursor to The Goodies starring Tim Brooke Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie. One surviving sketch, ‘Ordinary Royal Family‘ appears to have Marty’s iconoclastic fingers all over it. Very funny and available on that thing they call the Youtube.
Launched in 1968 Marty! (and for the second series It’s Marty!) was Feldman’s own sketch show which allowed his writing to develop and flourish in an unconventional and often anarchic style. Following on from ALT1948S the sketches in Marty! were of an altogether more surreal nature than those on the more mainstream Dick Emery or Mike Yarwood Shows, for example. Feldman took John Cleese and Graham Chapman from ALT1948 and Michael Palin and Terry Jones from Do Not Adjust your Set and The Frost Report with him to supplement Feldman and Took’s contributions. At various points along the two-series way Tim Brooke Taylor, John Law and John Junkin (who also appeared in both series) also weighed in. The result was a wonderfully scattergun and hilariously strange concoction. One sketch I remember vividly was ‘Lightning Tours‘ where Marty played a recurring character, an irritating little man in long coat to his feet, an even longer scarf wound around his neck and a bowler hat. John Junkin was the tour guide and the tour took place on a coach being driven through the English countryside at breakneck speed. Very funny! Maybe even a skit on the recently broadcast Magical Mystery Tour?
In another suitably nutty sketch an elderly couple are in bed and the old man gets up go to the toilet, next thing we see him speeded up in a car to meet a beautiful girl each time in an increasingly unlikely situation. At one point flying off on a plane, landing on a tropical island, playing the guitar to a dancing island girl and then we see his journey back and ending with him slowly re-entering the bedroom where his little old lady wife is still reading and still berating him in bed. The punchline being he’s too tired each night to make love to her. With Marty and Took writing along with most of the soon-to-be Python team, the sketches were surreal, absurd, highly stylised and extremely funny. At the end of the second series of It’s Marty! all went their separate ways to Python, The Goodies and Feldman was poached by ITV.
The success of Marty’s TV shows and his prodigious writing output eventually got him his first film in 1970, Every Home Should Have One. Produced by That Was The Week, That Was’s Ned Sherrin and written by Marty, Barry Took and Denis Norden, this satire on advertising was Marty’s first serious mis-fire. And it was a bad mis-fire. A uncomfortable juxtaposition of satire, slapstick and antediluvian sexual politics and although having some interesting points to make about advertising and morality, this swipe at the Mary Whitehouse morality faction completely misses the point. Marty is an advertising writer and decides the way to sell frozen porridge is through sex. So far, so 70s. But by ‘sex’ we’re really talking about the exploitation of young attractive women while all the men in the film are middle-aged, sweaty, leering beasts. One particular character played by Shelley Berman, a middle-aged, unattractive advertising executive is girl-mad! And one of the recurring ‘jokes’ is about all the young attractive girls he beds who all want a job from him. So far, so HarveyWeinstein. Later Marty’s character has an affair with the family’s very attractive Scandanavian Au Pair (only in the 70s did well-off people have ‘Au Pairs’) Julie Ege and his wife (the excellent Judy Cornwell, see Adrienne Posta: The 70s ‘It’ Girl) takes it not quite as badly as most women would or should. It’s a film that today leaves a rather nasty taste in the mouth, although that sounds like a comic line from the film.
The film did have an excellent cast of tried and tested British character actors like Judy Cornwell, Penelope Keith, Dinsdale Landen, Patrick Cargill and Michael Bates but the script lacked the sophistication, innovation and comic invention that Feldman and Took were synonymous with. One can’t help thinking that Marty saw this as his big chance to get to the next level and didn’t want to take any chances of being too clever for the British cinema audience weaned on Carry Ons and On The Buses. To be honest, Carry On Up The Jungle and Carry On Loving, released within the same year as EHSHO, were much funnier as they didn’t try to have intellectual pretensions. That said EHSHO was one of the most successful films of 1970 in the UK. There was no accounting for taste in the 70s and sweaty, revolting, unattractive old men being successful with young girls was the norm in British cinema and TV. It would be unfair to put all the blame on Marty for this execrable mess but he was about to make the connection with Hollywood he so badly desired through his next, and final, TV project.
Although rarely interviewed Marty had very strong opinions about many things and was very much on the left of the political spectrum. In 1971 he gave evidence for the defence in the Oz trial and caused gasps of surprise when he refused to swear on the bible to the utter disapproval of the judge who clearly hadn’t come across people who refused to tow the establishment line. Throughout the case Marty aimed jibes at the old fossil sitting on the bench, cementing his radical credentials. Around this time Marty’s growing public profile also made it into an iconic film of 1971. In Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (See ‘A Clockwork Orange’ post below) when Alex, played by Malcolm MacDowall, returns to his family home after a period in prison, his dad, played by Genxculture favourite Philip Stone, is reading a newspaper with the strange headline ‘Marty Feldman’s Wife Banned.’ Where this headline came from is anyone’s guess but it’s this type of bizarre trivia that make articles like this interesting. Although I would say that, wouldn’t I?
By this time America was beginning to take notice of Marty and his new vehicle, The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine was partly commissioned by the ABC network. There are different takes on how Marty had become known in the US. One suggestion was that At Last The 1948 Show had been reasonably successful there but more plausible, I feel, is that MASH writer and producer, Larry Gelbart, had been living in London at the time and had spotted Marty. It was his idea to get together with Lew Grade at ITV and ABC in the US and produce a more upmarket vehicle for Marty that could be shown in America as well as the UK. The result was Marty Feldman’s Comedy Machine which although only partially successful on both sides of the Atlantic, would be his calling card to Hollywood. The show itself was a curious concoction of American glitz and British comedy talent. Keen to appeal to both markets, a dizzying range of British and American talent was drafted in at considerable cost but although some of the American stars were household names in the US, some were virtually unknown in the UK and vice versa. Looking at it now it seems a strange brew with the great Beryl Reid on one hand and Orson Welles on the other, Round The Horne’sHugh Paddick in some shows and Roger Moore in another. It was hugely impressive to have featured Orson Welles and Groucho Marx though, for example. And what would the Americans have made of Spike Milligan, who also wrote for the show? Terry Gilliam also did some Pythonesque animations which added an interesting element.
Another interesting guest was Godfrey Cambridge, a black actor and comedian little known in the UK. His most well known film role was in 1970’s The Watermelon Man about a white bigot who woke up one day and his skin had become black. Cambridge played both parts and, though rarely seen today, it had some very prescient points to make about black peoples’ experiences in the U.S. during the 60s. Like Marty, Cambridge, at the height of his success, died at the tragically young age of only 43 of a heart attack.
Producer and writer Larry Gelbart and Marty did not always see eye to eye (sorry Marty, no pun intended) and the production was often a little fraught. It took Marty away from the mainstream (or as mainstream as it was possible for him be) and this slightly more daring and certainly innovative comedy was not only an hour long but was also given a late night broadcast slot on ITV. Although reasonably successful in the UK it didn’t really take off in the US despite the high production values and glittering guest roster. But Marty had his eyes on the prize (sorry Marty..) of American recognition and it led to some very strange guest spots over the next few years.
Offers to appear on US comedy and chat shows started flooding in and Marty guested on The Dean Martin Show four times in 1970 and ’71 along with a long line of shows we didn’t get in the UK such Carol Burnett,Flip Wilson, Bill Cosby, Mac Davis, Johnny Carson (4 times) and even Cher! It’s fair to say Marty was in demand. During the mid-seventies Marty also made a number of appearances on Hollywood Squares (Celebrity Squares to us) alongside the likes of Lee ‘Catwoman’ Merriweather, Vincent Price, Kelly Monteith (whatever happened to him?) Lynne Redgrave and Dionne Warwick. My favourite of Marty’s guest appearances in the US was as the ‘mystery guest’ on ‘What’s My Line‘ which also featured strange bedfellows ex-President Jimmy Carter and screen legend Joan Fontaine. He even acted in a U.S. TV version of the classic 40s Hollywood screwball comedy ‘The Man Who Came To Dinner‘ playing the part originally played by the great Jimmy Durante, ‘Banjo.’ This I would love to see!
It was a far cry from Round The Horne with Kenny Williams and Betty Marsden. Marty had hit the big time! It wasn’t long before Mel Brooks with Young Frankenstein and Silent Movie would come calling and Marty would become part of the Hollywood establishment. But that’s another and not quite so interesting story.
To look back on Marty Feldman’s eye-popping (sorry…) but tragically curtailed career is to look back on the golden age of British comedy. As well as laying the foundations for the new breed of surrealist, iconoclastic comedy that was Monty Python, he was up there with Galton and Simpson, Spike Milligan, the Pythons, Clement and Le Fresnais and David Nobbs as one of the great writers of TV comedy. Although his latter career was patchy and sometimes lacked the cutting edge of his earlier work, he was still hugely successful, he did become a household name and he did become more than just ‘.. him with the eyes.’ And although few people under 50 will remember Marty, the legacy of his comedy lives on.
Few TV series reflect the weirdness of the sixties quite like The Avengers and it still stands the test of time, in fact it has benefitted from it.
The Avengers, for me, is the second most brilliant TV programme of the 60s (and probably the 70s). So why has it taken Genxculture so long to write about this fantastic series? Really, because it’s such a difficult, complex and unique series to unpack and with so much to write about, it’s a mammoth task. Where to start?
But with the incredibly sad passing of the wonderful Diana Rigg recently it seemed the right time to celebrate a show that was quirky, unique, funny, clever, sometimes violent, usually weird and always utterly engaging. As sixties attitudes go, it had it in bucketloads.
The Avengers ran from 1961 to 1969, or until 1977 if you count the, for me, disappointing New Avengers (which we won’t be doing here). But for real Avengers’ aficionados the classic period was from series 4 in 1965 to series 6 in 1969. The previous version (Series 1-3), although influential in many ways, was just a crime/ espionage thriller and lacked the quirkiness, the humour, the atmosphere, narrative creativity and utter weirdness of the subsequent series 4-6. It did introduce John Steed played by Patrick MacNee, of course, who was a much more serious, mainstream sort of character and it also introduced the legendary proto-feminist Cathy Gale, played by also recently sadly departed Honor Blackman. What’s important about this character is that she was the first female character on TV to be not only intelligent, she was an anthropologist, and dressed in leather boots and catsuits, she could also look after herself in a physical fight with men. She eventually left the series in 1964 to take the role of Pussy Galore in Goldfinger but her influence endured and many of her facets were adopted by the wonderful Diana Rigg when she took over as Steed’s partner in 1965 for series 4. An indication of the programme’s popularity and of Blackman’s was that both she and Patrick MacNee released a single entitled Kinky Boots, originally created for an item on That Was The Week That Was by Ned Sherrin. Although not a hit, it was played regularly and was well known at the time.
By the time the producers and creators, Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell got around to recruiting a young up and coming actress, Diana Rigg, to replace Blackman, they had decided to take The Avengers in a very different direction and one that would write the series into TV history. The conventional narratives of series 1-3 were laid to rest, the flirtatious, innuendo filled exchanges between Steed and Emma, and later Tara, the eccentric nature of characters and plots, the flamboyant sixties sets and iconography and the often uneasy but fascinating juxtaposition of violence and comedy took centre stage.
It has to be remembered that 1965 was a time of monumental change in British society. Young people were beginning to question the supposed cherished ideals of the 50s. It was a time when literature, theatre and the cinema were experimenting with unconventional narratives. A time of Pinter, the French Nouvelle Vague and Godard, Italian post-neo realism and Antonioni, The Beatles were starting to pull back the boundaries of music, Stockhausen was throwing out the classical music rule books, post-modernism was all around and was manifested in the literature of Burroughs and Malamud and the pop art of Warhol, Hockney and Liechtenstein while Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson and Dick Lester were making a type of film we’d never seen before. TV and film could now take chances, it didn’t all have to be believable or realistic. In fact, the less realistic the better as the 50s had been a decade of stultifying realism. And into this dizzying cultural milieu emerged a series that embraced and nodded to many of these game-changers. The Avengers!
The first stage in the creation of this newly and vastly improved series was the introduction of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel. Although not the first choice for the role she took to it like a hog to persimmons and her on-screen chemistry with Patrick MacNee was clear from Episode 1 of series 4. Producer Brian Clemens had decided the series needed a female protagonist similar to Blackman but with extra ‘m(an)-appeal’ and Emma Peel was born. Diana Rigg appeared in 51 episodes of The Avengers beginning in September 1965 with The Town of No Return and finishing almost exactly three years later with The Forget-Me-Knot in September 1968, which also introduced her successor Linda Thorson as Tara King. Rigg went on to become a Bond girl, like Honor Blackman, in one of the best Bond’s ever, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and then became an acclaimed stage, film and TV actress until her very sad death in 2020.
Linda Thorson never really filled the Rigg leather catsuit and lacked the confidence, wit, intelligence and athleticism of Emma Peel but she did appear in some classic Avengers’ episodes. How she got the part has always been a little mysterious. It’s alleged the short-lived producer of series 6, John Brice, was having a relationship with her at the time they were scouting around for Rigg’s replacement. With little acting experience she was always going to be a stretch but she did become synonymous with the classic Avengers and was certainly in better episodes, I feel, than any of the New Avengers.
It was one of the first British series to be sold and aired on prime-time US television, ABC paying £2 million for the first 26 episodes of the MacNee / Rigg era. This allowed the producers to use outdoor locations and employ casts of leading actors as well as expensive indoor sets and impressive special effects. It also meant that in 1966 series 5 would be filmed in colour. Although this didn’t affect the UK market as colour broadcasting was still some way off, it appealed to the more technically sophisticated American market. And it was this American popularity that pushed the writers into creating stories that were quintessentially English, not British, although most Americans probably thought English was British as many still do. So Steed’s bowler hat, umbrella, vintage car and impeccable manners became a vital part of The Avengers’ USP. Many stories also pushed this anglocentric narrative but often in a hugely ironic way that British viewers would have noticed and enjoyed but most Americans would probably have missed but certainly have appreciated in a different way. Steed’s image was so important to the marketing of the series to other countries that often their titles reflected it. In Germany, for example, The Avengers was known as Mit Schirm, Charme and Melone or ‘With Umbrella, Charm and Bowler Hat‘ or in France Chapeau melon et bottes de cuir (Bowler Hat and Leather Boots which sounds like a 60s soft-porn film). Not exactly giving the casual viewer much inkling as to what this series might be about.
Watching The Avengers today really reveals what an exceptional series it was. The acting of Patrick MacNee, at the time, seemed casual almost as if he wasn’t really trying but on further analysis it was quite superb. As well as having to play other characters as in ‘Who’s Who‘ (S5,E16) and ‘They Keep Killing Steed‘(S6,E12) he also played other people when working undercover. The effortless chemistry between Steed and Emma is a shining example of two-handed acting at its best and because you hardly even notice it, it makes it even more impressive. When Linda Thorson arrived there was still chemistry but the dynamic had changed. They were still partners, probably even romantic partners, but it was not, like Steed and Emma, an equal partnership. Tara was very much the junior, more subservient partner. She did not have the confidence, the wit, the physical presence or the acting ability of Rigg. But, after a while, she settled into the role. The Avengers was never quite the same but it still retained that surrealistic, strange, distinctive atmosphere. And with some of the Tara episodes, even more so.
So what was it about The Avengers that made it so unique? Well…
The openings: Although the opening credits changed occasionally the opening ‘teaser’ sequence was always designed to get the viewer interested, intrigued and usually puzzled straight away. The sequence normally began in a straightforward way with conventional characters in a conventional settingbut the pay off would be of a bizarre, strange or ludicrous nature. For example, in The £50,000 Pound Breakfast (S5,E19) a man driving a car is having a conversation with an unseen passenger, who sounds like a child, about driving to Switzerland. Suddenly he is involved in a crash which renders him unconscious. As bystanders drag him out of the car the door of the passenger seat is opened and a ventriloquist’s dummy tumbles out. In The Town Of No Return (S4,E1) a fisherman on the beach is mending his nets. Suddenly an object that looks like a bubble emerges from the sea. The bubble begins to unzip revealing a city gent in a bowler hat and umbrella who walks up the beach, nodding to the fisherman who carries on unsurprised by what just happened, In The Murder Market (S4,E7) a middle-aged man and woman meet up on a blind date and after some brief pleasantries the woman pulls out a gun from her handbag and shoots the man, In The Correct Way To Kill (S5,E9) a foreign agent lurks at night in the foggy back alleys of some British town. He is approached by two city gents in bowler hats and umbrellas who greet him before producing guns with silencers and shoot the foreign agent dead. In Murdersville (S5,E23), two country-types sit outside a pub in a picturesque English village drinking beer and chatting about the weather, suddenly a man emerges from the doorway of the pub pursued by another who shoots him dead. The yokels carry on chatting as if nothing has happened. In Death’s Door (S5,E18) a British diplomat is driven in a limousine to a conference but when he approaches the entrance to the building he suddenly panics and refuses to cross the threshold fearing for his life.
For the start of Series 6 we also had an idiosyncratic opening straight after this ‘teaser’ sequence where Emma would be involved in some activity like painting or decorating or watching TV when she would notice a message appearing in the most unexpected way saying ‘Mrs Peel, we’re needed!’ And Steed would appear. This opening was scrapped after about 15 episodes to save money, for some reason.
My particular favourite ‘teaser’ to an episode, however, is The Girl From Auntie (S4,E17). It’s an early sunny morning and we’re outside the entrance of what seems like a huge house near a river. Emma suddenly emerges in her finery with balloons having been attending a very big all-night party (this was the sixties after all!) and moves towards her car. Another female party-goer comes out followed by a male in a tuxedo wearing a pig’s head mask. They embrace and drive off leaving Emma watching them. Suddenly, on the road, an old lady dressed in black on a bicycle approaches and falls off. Emma runs across to help but the old lady produces some knitting needles from the bicycle’s basket and stabs Emma who collapses unconscious. And if that doesn’t get an audience interested I don’t know what will.
The stories: The original three series of The Avengers with MacNee and Blackman used a fairly conventional crime/ espionage narrative. From series 4, however, convention went out the window. Stories often belonged to the science fiction genre, they were fantastical, technological, macabre, mysterious and usually downright weird. They weren’t meant to be believable, there was plenty of that on telly already, but The Avengers wanted their viewers to be transported for an hour to forget about verisimilitude or realism and exist in Avengerland for a while. Who cares if Emma or Steed are transported back in time, or reduced to 6 inches in size, or that the population of a military aerodrome suddenly disappears, or that a quaint English village becomes populated with murderous assassins, or that a terrifying comic strip character comes to life to kill its enemies, or that two music hall comedians go on a psychotic killing rampage, or that they are pursued by an invisible killer or that their lives are threatened by psychopathic robots? I could, of course, go on but this gives only a taste of the some of the quirkier plots which all seemed completely normal when watching The Avengers.
Narrative techniques: The relatively generous budget enjoyed by The Avengers production allowed a dizzying range of techniques to be used. Moving camera, unusual camera angles, highly coloured sets (in Series 5 and 6), expensive props, flamboyant costumes, expansive location filming, dream sequences and special effects (for the time) were all used liberally to enhance the strangest of plots.
Sixties iconography: The Avengers wore its swinging sixties credentials on its designer sleeves. Apart from Emma and Steed’s ultra-fashionable gear, the pop art backdrops, abstract narrative concepts and postmodern textual references were all over the series like a rash. Have a look at the dream-like hypnotism sequences in ‘Something Nasty in The Nursery‘ (S5, Ep 14), or the flamboyant set of The Superlative Seven (S5,E12), a spoof on The Magnificent Seven, (S5, Ep 12) or some of the imagery in ‘The Hour That Never Was,‘ (S4 Ep 9) or the weird opening sequence of The Girl From Auntie, mentioned above, a reference to popular US series The Girl From Uncle (S4, Ep 14) or the pop art sets in ‘Game‘(S6, Ep2), or The Winged Avenger (S5,E6). It’s all there in spade loads.
Eccentric guest characters: Between 1965 and 1969 The Avengers featured an A-Z of great British (and occasionally American) character actors. Name a well-known character actor from the 60s and he or she will almost certainly have appeared in The Avengers, often on more than one occasion. Usually this actor will have played a wonderfully observed British eccentric and eccentricity ran through The Avengers like the writing through Blackpool Rock. Examples, in no particular order, included:
Bernard Cribbins: Plays Arkwright, a knitting instructor (geddit?) who conducts his lessons like a sequence dance in The Girl From Auntie (S4, E17) and then a brilliant turn in Look, (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One), But There Was These Two Fellers.. (S6, E11) as Bradley Marler, a joke writer who is almost engulfed by the discarded jokes surrounding his desk. It’s a bit like Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious. Which it does. Also appearing in this episode was a young John Cleese as Marcus Rugman, a crotchety civil servant whose job it is to keep the archives of each individual clown’s face makeup painted meticulously on eggs. That story writes itself…
Roy Kinnear: Great comic character actor was perfect for the sort of roles required in The Avengers. He appeared in three Avengers episodes (four if you include an early Cathy Gale Avengers outing), and was in the very last classic Avengers episode Bizarre (S6 Ep33) as Bagpipes Happychap (they were trying just a bit too hard by this time) as a jolly undertaker. He also played an Avengers’ favourite in The See-Through Man (S5, Ep4), a nutty scientist experimenting with explosives. This story also wrote itself.
Ronnie Barker: He had to appear at some point in The Avengers and it just happened to be a quintessentially brilliant, but quite violent, episode, The Hidden Tiger (S5, E8). He plays the nutty plus-foured Mr Cheshire, the manager of PURRR, (Philanthropic Union for the Rescue, Relief and Recuperation of Cats). A wonderfully daft and visually striking episode.
Warren Mitchell: The early classic Avengers was still ostensibly about espionage and Warren Mitchell turned up twice as the same character, an inept and reluctant Russian spy, Brodny, who enjoyed the comforts of the West a little too much, who Steed played like balalaika. He is the only guest character to appear twice, in Two’s A Crowd (S4, E12) and The See-Through Man (S5, E4).
Four legendary Dad’s Army actors appeared in classic The Avengers episodes:
Arthur Lowe: A racing nut with a Brand’s Hatch simulator In Dead Man’s Treasure (S6, E16)
Clive Dunn: As an eccentric toy shop owner who manufactures toys for the aristocracy in Something Nasty In The Nursery (S5, E14)
John Laurie: As a slightly unhinged railway enthusiast in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Station (S5, E13). He also appeared in Tara King episode Pandora (S6, E31) as well as two Cathy Gale episodes.
John Le Mesurier: As a dodgy gun-toting butler in What The Butler Saw (S4, E22).
Peter Wyngarde: TV sex-bomb Wyngarde appeared in two classic Avengers episodes including the most notorious ever, A Touch of Brimstone (S4, E21) which recreated The Hellfire Club and had Emma dressed in all sorts of bondage gear! Very daring even for the 60s. So much so that ABC in America pulled this episode as all their bible belt Christian fundamentalists would have probably enjoyed this episode a little too much. Wyngarde also camped it up in Epic (S5, E11) where he plays an ageing Hollywood actor who, along with another actor and director, essentially are filming a snuff movie with Emma as the star/ victim.
Jeremy Lloyd: Are You Being Served writer and once Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In cast member appeared as an upper class chimney sweep (what was he in when he wasn’t ‘upper-class’?) in From Venus With Love (S5,E1), the first full colour episode of The Avengers and then in the later Thingamajig (S6, E26) as a vicar friend of Steed’s.
Violence: It was decided at the start of Series 4 that Avengerland would not feature the police, as the cases Steed and Emma were called to were of a nature that excluded the police. The police being called, apart from getting in the way of Steed and Emma/Tara’s investigation, would have added too much of an everyday realism to the show, something that was anathema to Avengerland. It was also decided that there would be no blood in any of the murders, killings and assassinations featured throughout the series. Although other characters used guns, it was rare for for Steed or Emma to wild them. This, of course, added to the comic strip violence which often concluded many episodes but that’s not to say the series wasn’t violent. Much of the death in The Avengers was very violent, so much so that for the afternoon re-runs on ITV 4 some years ago, some supposedly violent scenes were edited out and the ABC network in the US during the 60s scheduled the programme at 10.00pm due to this.
Episodes: Between the start of Series 4 in 1965 and the final episode of Series 6 in 1969 for anyone unfamiliar with The Avengers I would, quite literally, recommend any episode should one want to experience just a taste of what The Avengers was all about. Every episode involved the classic elements that made the series so unique. But if I was pressed to come up with what I believe were the most memorable and the ones that included every wonderfully surreal component in bucketloads (in no particular order) I would suggest…..
Death At Bargain Prices (S4, E4)
After an agent is killed in a large London department store Emma and Steed are sent to investigate. The surrealism the director and writers manage to squeeze out of this location is impressive and the ending is genuinely weird! Some superb use of outsize cartoon characters.
The Murder Market (S4, E7)
Some things never change and computer dating is explored here although of a slightly less technological type than now. Steed and Emma investigate some bafflingly motiveless murders linked to Togetherness Inc. dating agency. MacNee is superb in this episode and the opening sequence is wonderfully surprising.
The Hour That Never Was (S4, E9)
One of my top five Avengers episodes of all time. Emma accompanies Steed to a military reunion at an airfield in the English countryside. On their arrival they find it deserted but with some tantalising signs of life. An abandoned bicycle with its wheel still revolving, a mysterious milk float always being mysteriously driven just out of reach, the officers’ mess set for the celebration. A wonderfully surreal episode with some quite existential images of isolation and alienation.
Too Many Christmas Trees (S4, E13)
Worth watching for Steed’s brilliantly creepy opening dream sequence, the brooding supernatural atmosphere and the final fight scene in a hall of mirrors.
The Girl From Auntie (S4, E17)
Another of my personal favourites and a nod to their US market through their humorous reference to the popular Girl From Uncle TV series (More on this later). I’ve already mentioned the fantastically surreal, quintessentially sixties opening sequence. With a superbly eccentric turn from the great Bernard Cribbins as a terpsichorean knitting instructor to the high body count and Emma being kidnapped and held in a gilded cage, replaced for the episode by ubiquitous 60s actress Liz Fraser, it’s a complete joy but, as with so many Avengers plots, don’t think through the ending too much.
The House That Jack Built (S4, E23)
An Avengers all-time top three episode for me. Truly terrifying, existential and brilliantly constructed by creator and regular writer Brian Clemens. Emma is lured to an isolated country house and is trapped in a murderous web of psychological terror. I actually remember watching this episode when it was initially broadcast on 5 March 1966 and it had a profound effect on me then. Genuinely disturbing and absolutely engrossing. A tour de force.
Escape In Time(S5, E3)
Who would have thought The Avengers would get involved in time travel? Well, me for one as nothing surprises me about Steed and Emma’s adventures. A terrific turn by Peter Bowles as the psychopathic Matthew Thyssen and a superbly weird, almost silent, scene in an Avengerland thoroughfare called Mackidockie Street (which crops up in another Avengers episode) as they investigate some world criminals disappearing, seemingly into thin air.
The Winged Avenger (S5, E6)
Another classic which is not only frightening but superbly written. With some pop art references to wonderful mega-US series Batman (more on this later), Steed and Mrs Peel investigate the brutal deaths of some businessmen from the publishing industry. The men appear to have been torn to ribbons by powerful claws (although no blood is in evidence, obviously) and the trail leads to the writers of a super hero comic strip. Another episode I remember watching on its first broadcast on 18 February 1967 and found it terrifying, particularly the opening sequence. An Avengers’ triumph in every way.
Something Nasty In The Nursery (S5, E14)
A group of men involved in government secrets find themselves regressing to childhood and sitting in their nurseries with a bouncing ball, and an unseen nanny lurks in the background. This leads Steed and Emma to a school for training nannies and the strangeness just develops from here. With guest stars including Clive Dunn and Yootha Joyce, the regressive sequences are beautifully psychedelic and strange.
Look-(stop me if you’ve heard this one before) But There Were These Two Fellers… (S7, E11)
Although this is the only Tara King episode I’ve included, its a cracker! At the beginning of filming what turned out to be the final series of the classic Avengers, writer Dennis Spooner revealed that they knew it was going to be the last series. ABC had scheduled the previous series up against the hugely successful Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In and The Avengers just couldn’t compete. Because they knew it was final series writers and directors knew they could pretty much do what they wanted to do for the last 32 episodes and that’s exactly what they did. Plots got even weirder, characters even more eccentric, and plots even more unbelievable (if that was possible). Sometimes this laissez faire approach worked and sometimes it didn’t. For me, this episode summed up the wonderfully overblown surrealism of the series and although it’s the episode that splits Avengers’ fans, there is so much to admire in it. There’s far too much going on it to describe here but it involves two music hall clowns (Jimmy Jewell and a silent Julian Chagrin) bumping off a number of people involved in the building industry. It’s extremely funny (particularly the scenes in the Vauda Villa, a rest home for underused variety artists), colourful, bizarre, includes terrific guest star turns from Bernard Cribbins, John Cleese and, as mentioned, Jimmy Jewell and is often quite disturbing. Even more so for anyone suffering from coulrophobia. In a word: sensational! But not for everyone…..
So where did it all go wrong? Well it didn’t really, but because of the incredible standard of the series 4 and 5, series 6 just seemed a bit predictable and pedestrian at times. It didn’t help that Linda Thorson was no Diana Rigg but some episodes just seemed to be constructed of gratuitous Avengerisms. Some episodes, though, were still excellent such as The Interrogators with Christopher Lee (S7,E14), Wish You were Here (a homage to The Prisoner, more on that to come…) (S7,E20), Take Me To Your Leader (S7,E23) and Game (S7,E2). It was far from being bad, it just wasn’t as good or creative as many of the earlier episodes.
The introduction of ‘Mother‘ (Patrick Newell) and his non-speaking assistant Rhonda, Steed and Tara’s boss, didn’t help. Including another regular character took it further away from Avengerland I felt, and although some of Steed’s meetings with Mother were characteristically strange (on the top of a London bus, down a manhole, in a swimming pool) it added too much of a comedy element. There was always comedy in The Avengers but Mother tipped the scales in the wrong direction slightly, I felt.
But to quibble about the final series is a bit like complaining about the quality of different brands of champagne (an appropriate analogy for The Avengers). It pulled back the boundaries of what TV thrillers could be, in fact what TV could be, and few programmes have lived up to its audacious, anarchic, creative and surreal mood. Although over 50 years old, it still seems as fresh and daring now as it did then.
But, should you decide to dip in to this visual rollercoaster of 60s genius, don’t think too much about the destination, just enjoy the ride.
And after all that, what is the greatest TV programme of the 60s? Well, The Prisoner. Obviously.
Find everything you’ll ever need to know about this TV classic at the superb www.theavengerstv.com
He may have been largely forgotten but his music is remembered by everyone
It continually surprises me just how connected the showbiz world of the 60s and 70s was. So many of the posts below seem to feature the same people in the most bizarre of circumstances. And it isn’t, by any means, only Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart, but even he has another walk-on part in the story of the man who composed the soundtrack for 60s and 70s Britain.
No one under the age of 40 will know who Tony Hatch is. Few people over the age of 40 will remember him. But everyone will know his music as it has been omnipresent within our popular culture for over 60 years. Still very much with us, Tony Hatch should be remembered as penning hit records, film scores, advertising jingles and of course, TV themes. He was even the very first nasty talent show judge. Tony Hatch, we salute you!
Starting out as a tea boy with a London music company at 16, he subsequently joined Top Rank Records and was producing acts as diverse as Bert Weedon (‘We are normal, we dig Bert Weedon‘), Adam Faith and Carry On’s Kenneth Connor. Before long he was writing songs and this where the legend that is Tony Hatch really began.
Writing under the pseudonym Mark Anthony,Hatch wrote ‘Messing About On The River’, a hit for Scottish singer Josh McCrae. At this time he was also writing and producing for the Pye label’s American roster which included Chubby Checker,Connie Francis, Pat Boone and Big Dee Irwin. During the early 60s when The Beatles and the Liverpool Explosion were dominating popular culture, on his first trip to Liverpool he discovered a band called The Searchers, who were named after the classic John Ford western, and wrote Sugar and Spice for them, giving the group their first huge number one hit.
As a producer at Pye he worked with some of the greats and not so greats of the 60s music industry. Some of his more interesting collaborations included Benny Hill (great), Bruce Forsyth, Norman Vaughan (not so great), French crooner (and brilliant jazz guitarist) Sacha Distel and the bafflingly successful Craig Douglas (see The Lost World of TV Ventriloquists).
He also worked with The Overlanders, who reached Number One in 1967 with a cover version of The Beatles ‘Michelle‘. They were one of the few bands to cover a Lennon/ McCartney song which The Beatles hadn’t released as a single themselves, at least not in the UK. This song won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year ahead of such easy listening classics as The Impossible Dream, Born Free, Somewhere My Love and Strangers In The Night.
Hatch, with his writing partner of the time, soon to be his wife, Jackie Trent also composed ‘Joanna‘ for the great Scott Walker. Achieving a chart high if No. 7 it helped re-launch Walker’s career after he split from The Walker Brothers, who, of course, weren’t brothers. This was a time when serious artists like Scott Walker might collaborate with easy-listening supremos like Hatch but he would also sing Jacques Brel as well as his own compositions. In fact, it’s a measure of the weirdness of 60s and 70s variety that Walker would perform Brel’s ‘Jackie‘ on The Frankie Howerd Show in 1967, or Jimi Hendrix would perform Purple Haze on It’s Lulu or Dizzy Gillespie would perform Be-Bop jazz on The Golden Shot, all in the early 70s. Strange days.
But it was his collaborations with Petula Clark in the mid-late 60s which really made his name. ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway,’ ‘The Other Man’s Grass,’ ‘I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love‘ and the all-time classic ‘Downtown‘ were all huge hits. Many written with Jackie Trent, it was a hugely successful period for Hatch.
If any song is to be associated with Tony Hatch it would have to be Downtown. As a song it still sounds fresh and immediate today, evoking the atmosphere and excitement of a busy metropolis. The song, not surprisingly, was written while Hatch was in New York and the title certainly suggests a busy American city, the word ‘downtown’ not really being common in the UK, which only added to its uniqueness. He supposedly wrote it with The Drifters and Ben E. King in mind and one can see that collaboration really working, even though Hatch denied ever offering it to them. But Petula Clark made it, pretty much, her theme song and it has been covered by over 150 other artists including Frank Sinatra. It was only stopped getting to number one in the Hit Parade by The Beatles at their popular zenith with ‘I Feel Fine‘ which sold a gargantuan 1.42 million copies and is the fourth highest selling Beatles‘ single. Interestingly, playing guitar on the Downtown recording session was a young session musician called Jimmy Paige.
But as well as his huge successes with Petula Clark, Hatch also had a fairly lucrative and still hugely memorable sideline in writing TV themes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, in the UK during the 60s and 70s remembers Tony Hatch theme tunes. Many of which are still synonymous with the programme they were written for, and many of his themes are remembered long after the programme has been forgotten. And it this element of his work which, for me, raises him to legendary status.
I have written previously in this little blog space of how certain TV programmes of the 60s and 70s were more popular than they deserved to be at the time and endured, mainly due to a killer theme tune. Van Der Valk would never have been as successful, I feel, without the brilliant Eye Level by The Simon Park Orchestra or the wonderfully expansive theme for The High Chaparral which provided such up-market packaging for a fairly humdrum 70s western series. Some of Hatch’s themes did this for many 60s and 70s series.
It’s nearly 60 years (yikes!) since Crossroads hit our screens and for many of a certain age (i.e. me) it is still a memorably bad but much missed series. If a straw poll was taken of people who are aware of Tony Hatch and his work, and there are many, this, I feel, would be the piece of music he will always be associated with, whether he likes it or not. I wouldn’t imagine he’d be too happy about this given the scale, quantity and quality of his output over the years but, as Harry Worth would say, there it is. This does not diminish his achievements in any way but everyone is remembered for something. I have written about the amazing Crossroads and its iconic theme elsewhere in this little blog space (See Standing At The Crossroads of (TV) History) so won’t dwell on it too long, but this is the theme of themes. Memorable, catchy, melodic, unusual (in it’s use of the oboe and harp) and absolutely totemic. It was even re-worked by Paul McCartney on his Venus and Mars album and this version was eventually used occasionally for particularly sensitive conclusions to episodes (and there were plenty of those!). Thematic genius and, I’m sure, a nice little earner for Tone.
And he repeated it again in 1972 for Emmerdale Farm (it’ll always be Emmerdale Farm to me), still played every weekday night to this day and, of course, Neighbours in 1985, composed with his then-wife Jackie Trent, which isn’t played every night anymore, but anyone from that era could still sing the opening few lines, even if they didn’t watch the programme.
And there was, of course, The Champions. Now, I loved The Champions. At the time. Having watched a few episodes recently I couldn’t help but feel the premise of some secret agents having super powers endowed after a plane crash in the Himalayas was silly, not to say repetitive, and the plots formulaic. You waited for most of the one hour episode until the moment when they used their super powers. The rest was pretty humdrum. Despite being very popular it, surprisingly, only lasted two series and 30 episodes between 1968 and 1969. I always thought Alexandra Bastedo (Sharon MacReadie), a great favourite of adolescent boys, was a bit mealy-mouthed and too sweet to be wholesome and William Gaunt (Richard Barrett) a touch miscast as he looked and behaved a little like an Assistant Manager in a Building Society. But that’s just me in my boring maturity. However, humming Hatch’s theme in my head still gives me a feeling of excitement and anticipation like it did then when The Champions was broadcast all those years ago. For an 8 or 9 year old this was a big weekly event. Bizarrely, and we do like bizarre things at Genxculture, in 2007 Guillermo Del Toro was reported to be writing and producing a screenplay for a big screen adaptation of The Champions. Sadly, to date, nothing has come of it but that would have been interesting. Very interesting.
In those 60s and 70s days when football was severely rationed, and all the better for it, we were sometimes thrown some crumbs of football highlights on a Wednesday night along with the odd boxing match, although I can’t really remember any other sports being broadcast, on Sportsnight With Coleman presented by the legendary David Coleman. Tony Hatch’s theme tune caught the excitement of the cut and thrust of competitive sport perfectly as the floodlights in the opening credits blazed brightly over the sporting arena. Like so many of his other themes, anyone of a certain age will remember this from the first couple of bars with the anticipation of being able to watch some grainy monochrome floodlit football footage on a Wednesday night a real treat. As Tony himself once said, “With an action show, you need an action theme.‘ and he gave us that here in spade loads.
He also composed the theme to long-running BBC 2 sociological documentary series Man Alive. Few will remember the programme but everyone will be familiar with the theme music. Other memorable series in which Hatch contributed the theme included suave Gerald Harper upper-crust vehicle Hadleigh and proto-type Holby City teatime daily serial from the late 60s, The Doctors.
Of course, no one’s perfect and he was responsible, again with Jackie Trent, for the awful Mr and Mrs theme. An awful theme for an awful programme. Hosted by ‘Mr Border TV’ Derek Batey, it permeated the myth that all married couples were deliriously happy and knew everything about one another. ‘And does he have any filthy disgusting habits that really irritate you?’ Derek would giggle as her husband was led to the soundproof box. My favourite question on Mr and Mrs was when some poor dolt was shown four different types of ladies’ shoes and asked, ‘And which of these lovely shoes would your wife prefer?’ How would he know, for crying out loud? He could see the £47 jackpot disappearing before his very eyes. I wonder how many couples’ marriages ended in divorce when it became obvious they knew nothing whatsoever about each other? And lovely hostess Susan Cuff would always sign off with, ‘Take care. Lots of care’ giving the game away that their core audience was probably not in the summer of its life.
What really brought Tony Hatch to the public’s attention, however, was New Faces which took over from long-running talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1973 and was the first show of its kind to feature a panel of judges. Tony Hatch was one of the original judges and quickly became TV’s first Mr Nasty due to his honest and forthright comments on many of the performers. In those days New Faces‘ judges had to give points out of ten for ‘Presentation,’ ‘Content‘ and ‘Star Quality.’ For a troupe of Russian Dancers (a perennial favourite of talent shows) one week Tony Hatch awarded them zero for ‘Star Quality‘ which caused gasps from the studio audience. But he was right. They were hardly going to set the showbiz world on fire but I’m sure they’d get the odd gig in a church hall. The performers were also kept on camera when they were receiving their feedback, which often made for excruciatingly uncomfortable, but entertaining, viewing.
It’s important to remember a couple of things in relation to current talent shows, particularly the dreadful X Factor. Tony Hatch actually knew about music having worked in the industry all his adult life. Unlike the venal Simon Cowell who knows nothing about music but does know how an act (and TV programme) might make him money and Louis Walsh who only knows about…..well, I’m not sure what he knows. Tony Hatch didn’t humiliate the contestants by featuring the poor deluded ones who couldn’t sing for the delectation of the viewing audience. He was constructive and did actually offer advice. And, unlike Cowell, he knew what he was talking about.
Tony Hatch aside, the New Faces’ judges were an odd bunch. Made up of old variety stagers like Ted Ray and Arthur Askey, a few token ‘with-it’ members such as record producer Mickie Most and then-DJ Noel Edmonds, showbiz insiders like Genxculture favourites Crossroads‘ matriarch Noelle Gordon (a Hatch connection here!) and amateurish teenage pop show producer Muriel Young, the father of Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart’s 17 year old wife, manager Jimmy Henney but also Ed ‘Stewpot’ himself (he didn’t half get around)! But then the line-up just became surreal (or rather even more surreal). TV agony aunt Marjorie Proops, Hammer Horror actress Ingrid Pitt, dog-food advertiser and Liberal MP Clement Freud and, quite unbelievably, ‘clean-up-TV’ campaigner Mary Whitehouse! Eh? Tony also wrote the very popular theme music for New Faces entitled ‘Star‘ which was sung by ex-wild man of rock and former lead singer of The Move, Carl Wayne which became a minor hit.
You’re a star, superstar
On you go it’s your finest hour
And you know that you’ll go far ‘cos you’re a sta-ar
A verse almost everyone could recite in those days.
In later years Hatch’s marriage to Jackie Trent ended acrimoniously after he ran off with her best friend and after living for many years in Australia he moved to Menorca, Spain where he still lives. In 2013 he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and about time too.
For every Downtown, Hatch also had a Mr and Mrs and for every Crossroads he had a Neighbours but the fact is, these songs and tunes still endure after all these years and no one encapsulated a particular time in music like the great Tony Hatch.
Rarely seen on TV now, everyone knew and loved Adrienne Posta in the 60s and 70s
As I’ve mentioned a number of times in this little blog space, Budgie starring Adam Faith, now being reshown on the wonderful Talking Pictures TV, was one of the pioneering TV series of the 70s and featured a who’s who of top-class actors of the time, as well as a few who were certainly on their way up. One face who definitely belonged in the former camp was that of Adrienne Posta. Virtually forgotten now by anyone under 50, she was known to everyone in the 70s, maybe not by name but invariably her face was hugely familiar, and anyone from that era spotting her in re-runs from that decade would recognise her immediately. Although not quite a sex symbol, she was the sort of girl most teenage and slightly older boys would love to have gone out with or even just spent some time with. In short, she was lovely, unthreatening in a good way and seemed like great fun. She was also a terrific and very versatile actress.
Her CV includes many of the great films and TV series of the 60s and 70s and she worked with most of the giants of the industry and it’s a CV that cries out for a bit of Genxculture analysis. Still very much with us and mostly doing lucrative voice work as well as teaching at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding for the legendary Ms Adrienne Posta!
Adrienne Poster, as she was at the time of her birth in Hampstead, London in 1949, was a child star and after appearing in a range of stage productions made her big screen debut at the age of 7 in No Time For Tears in 1957, a children’s hospital drama vehicle for showbiz royalty Anna Neagle, which also featured that other omnipresent child star, Richard O’Sullivan.
As well as appearing in loads of TV series and films she also launched a recording career releasing a string of singles with titles like Shang A Doo Lang and the, nowadays, rather dubious ‘Only Fifteen‘ (tell that to Charlie Endell) but with no chart success. It did get the child star AP onto such hip music productions as the uniquely 60s titled Gadzooks! It’s All Happening! and a spot on Juke Box Jury three times. She signed for Decca Records, also the home of The Stones, and it was at a party given for her by Stones‘ manager Andrew Loog Oldham to celebrate one of her record releases that Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull were supposed to have met (according to MAF‘s autobiography, at least). Already her 60s credentials are developing nicely. AP’s relationship with music did not end here, however. In 1971 (a landmark year for her) she sang backing vocals on that quirkiest of singles Johnny Reggae by The Piglets (well, it was a Jonathon King production), although there is some dispute about which singer’s vocals are the most distinct. It certainly sounds like AP to me…
In 1974 she married lead singer of The Marbles and later Rainbow, Graham Bonnet. His career was certainly colourful. After joining the Michael Schenker Group in 1983, he lasted only one gig as he drunkenly exposed himself to the crowd at Sheffield City Polytechnic and was promptly sacked. There was a time when a heavy rock band would have approved of that sort of behaviour. Mind you, how dare he besmirch the sainted Adrienne Posta’s reputation. Beast! And talking about beasts, Posta and Bonnet reportedly owned the Dulux dog which appeared in so many paint ads at the time. Fancy that! But the marriage was sadly short lived.
Adrienne Posta was one of a breed of character actor from that period who always added a touch of class to even the most mundane of productions. I would have no hesitation in ranking her alongside greats such as Beryl Reid, Dora Bryan, Thora Hird and regular collaborator Maureen Lipman and, in the male acting camp, John Le Mesurier, Raymond Huntly, Arthur Lowe and Stanley Holloway. All actors who, although rarely stars, gave a film or TV programme a professionalism and gravitas which certain productions sometimes didn’t deserve. Without a doubt Adrienne Posta ranked alongside those legends of the industry.
And it’s this acting career that raised her to legendary status and rather than just list what she appeared in, we’re going to pick out some of the milestones and a few of the just purely interesting stages in her blockbusting 60s and 70s journey. This is not an exhaustive list but more a compilation of, what I think, are the significant works she should be remembered for.
1. To Sir With Love (1967)
Playing alongside Hollywood legend Sidney Poitier must have been a pretty exciting experience for the 18 year old Adrienne. It was here she also struck up a long standing friendship with a similarly young Lulu. So much so that AP appeared as a regular guest in 1973’s Saturday night star vehicle, It’s Lulu. The film also featured a few up and coming and established British actors including Suzy Kendall (who would team up with AP again a year later), Judy Geeson, Geoffrey ‘Catweazle‘ Bayldon and the brilliant Patricia Routledge. Music was provided, along with Lulu, by The Mindbenders.
Although groundbreaking in its representation of race for the time, the film dodges the big questions and Monthly Film Bulletin described its ‘sententious’ script, a little harshly, as ‘.. having been written by an overzealous Sunday school teacher after a particularly exhilarating boycott of South African oranges.’
The film is also notable, not only for Lulu’s theme song, a number one hit in the US, but also for the fact Sidney Poitier accepted a $30,000 fee but also 10% of the film’s gross takings. Which turned out to be over $42,000,000 in the US alone. Nice few weeks work for Sidney, but what’s more to the point here, Adrienne Posta had well and truly arrived!
2. Up The Junction (1968)
Originally shown on TV as a one-off play in 1965 and directed by a young Ken Loach, the 1968 film version was more controversial. Despite the film’s main, rather patronising, premise telling the story of Polly (Suzy Kendall), a rich socialite who wanted wanted to live with ‘common people,’ it was actually, against the odds, an impressive depiction of working class life in South London. Featuring a host of 60s and 70s British acting talent, the cast included Dennis Waterman, Maureen Lipman, Susan George, Michael ‘Arthur’ Robbins, the ubiquitous Liz Fraser and an uncredited Mike Reid, as well as AP. The great Hylda ‘Ooh, she knows y’know‘ Baker also plays against type as a backstreet abortionist AP‘s character Rube goes to see after becoming pregnant, in a shocking and prescient scene for the times.
The New York Times review highlighted ‘strong support’ from Adrienne Posta and Maureen Lipman. These two stalwarts of the screen would meet up again on TV quite soon.
3. Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush (1968)
The mid to late sixties was awash with ‘sex comedies.’ Most of which were neither comedic nor sexy, but Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush is worth noting, not so much for its ostensible raunchiness, it was rated as an ‘X’ after all, but for its swinging sixties vibe. Described in one advertising slogan as ‘The most ‘with it’ young cast in the most ‘with it‘ picture of the year.’ Well, it was half right and it certainly was, and still is, a wonderfully psychedelic ‘with it’ experience.
Starring a young Barry Evans (more on him later, I think), whose film and TV career nosedived after this psychedelic offering with Doctor in the House, the very dodgy Mind Your Language, the execrable Adventures of a Taxi Driver and a few other unmemorable skin flicks. It told the story of a young lad in Stevenage, yes Stevenage, who was desperate to lose his virginity. So far, so very formulaic but, to be fair, there was a little more to the film. Believe it or not, it was supposed to compete in the 1968 Cannes Film Festival and was even tipped for success. Sadly for the film, that year’s festival was cancelled due to the student riots in Paris in 1968 which almost brought down the French government.
Films like this one were churned out during this newly permissive period in the US, such as What’s New Pussycat, The Graduate, Candy (written by Terry Southern, see The Magic Christian below), and in the UK Dick Lester‘s The Knack..and How To Get It, Alfie and the alliterative ..em..Nine Ages of Nakedness. My researches uncovered another similarly generic title, Take Your Clothes Off, Doll, which, strangely hasn’t seen the light of day on any of the film channels as far as I’m aware. Unless, of course, you know differently….
The cast really was ‘with it’ and included Judy Geeson (whose naked scene ended up on the censor’s cutting room floor), Crossroads and Nescafe’sDiane Keen, booming- voiced Christopher Timothy as an unlikely ‘wide boy’ and sadly recently departed Nicky Henson.
HWGRTMB is a pretty decent ‘romp’, as these type of lightweight sex comedies are often described. Written by the estimable Hunter Davies, the film features many notable actresses who Evan’s character lusts after including AP who is excellent as runny-nosed Linda.
Like so many of the young adult orientated films of the time, it features a fashionable pop music soundtrack from The Spencer Davies Group and Traffic who sang the theme tune. Which all adds up to a satisfying 60s experience, not least for the participation of the wonderful AP. It’s fair to say, by this time her 60s credentials couldn’t have been more impressive.
4. Percy (1971)
Films like this one, good and bad, just rolled off the conveyor belt in the late 60s and early 70s. Not surprisingly, they look dated now but writers and directors were just beginning to realise the moral straitjacket of the 50s was being loosened, when in previous years a medieval minor unelected Royal servant, the Lord Chamberlain, decided what the British public was allowed to see and what was strictly off limits in theatres and cinemas. Percy starred Hywell Bennett as a man who received the world’s first penis transplant, hence ‘Percy’. Geddit? His quest to find out more about the dead man he inherited his new member from involved a plethora of lovely ladies (obviously) including the lovely AP.
This time the obligatory pop soundtrack was provided by the wonderful Kinks and the cast was the usual group of superb character actors which included Denholm Elliott (again), the brilliant Sheila Steafel,Britt Ekland, Julia Foster, Janet Key, ‘TV tough guy’ Callan’s (and now Emmerdale’s) Patrick Mower as well as the ever reliable AP. As usual she was at the cutting edge (maybe not the best metaphor for this particular film) of British cinema.
5. Up Pompeii (1971)
I don’t care what anyone says. I loved Up Pompeii written by that genius of innuendo, Talbot Rothwell. The theme tune, sung by Frankie Howerd himself, included the line Up Pompeii, Up Pompeii, Naughty, Naught-ay. Rhyming couplets don’t come much better than that. The lovely Adrienne played ‘Scrubba.’ Enough said.
…….It’s fair to say that AP’s film career fizzled out rather after this particular outing although she did appear in a few down-market ‘sex romps’ such as Adventures of a a Taxi Driver (again with Barry Evans on a similar downward cinematic trajectory), Adventures of a Private Eye and Percy’s Progress, a disappointing follow-up to Percy. But it was TV that really brought AP to a grateful public and her great TV years were really just beginning in 1971. She appeared in many of the memorable series from the 70s including Minder, The Gentle Touch, Boon, Dixon of Dock Green and, as detailed at length below, the brilliant Budgie with Adam Faith. Coming up are just a few of the particularly significant series AP appeared in during the 60s and 70s.
1. Alexander The Greatest (’71-’72)
One of the first TV sitcoms to feature a Jewish family, Alexander The Greatest is a rarely remembered show which was about the eponymous 16 year old know-all Alexander (Gary Warren) who wanted to break free of his middle class London life and launch himself on the world. And, of course, the hilarious consequences which ensued. I don’t remember an awful lot about this series other than it starred AP, it had a great theme tune, written by that stalwart of bouncy 70s pop Barry Blue (really name Barry Green) and seemed to include Alexander’s lavish fantasies which were similar to those of Billy Liar. AP was the irritating older sister and the cast also included the great Sydney Tafler, stalwart of, seemingly, hundreds of British films as Alexander’s dad.
Gary Warren was another familiar face in British cinema and TV of the 70s including The Railway Children, Catweazle and the much-missed and virtually forgotten Mickey Dunne (another series suffering from cultural vandalism as no episodes survive). Like AP some years later, he dropped off the radar after appearing as a guard in Escape From Alcatraz in 1979.
2. Don’t Ask Us We’re New Here (’69-’70)
DAUWNH is another series which will be virtually forgotten by most people of a certain age, although I do have vague memories of it. Running for two series on BBC the idea was to showcase young, up and coming comedy talent. AP was certainly talented, we already knew that, and she was hardly up and coming having first appeared on TV in 1957, but the producers may well have thought the programme needed a safe pair of hands to anchor the young members of the cast. Same could be said for Maureen Lipman who had appeared with AP in Up The Junction a couple of years previously. With the exception of Richard Stilgoe, the other cast members sank without trace after the second series ended with the exception of a certain Mike Redway. For it was he who, during the 60s, recorded over 80 albums on Woolworth’s Embassy record label, usually called something like 20 Top Hits! and depicting a pouting young girl in a bikini on the cover. Those were the albums we all bought as youngsters for 2/6 thinking they featured original recordings from the current pop charts, only to be devastated when it clearly wasn’t The Beatles, Middle of the Road or even Lieutenant Pigeon singing their own hits. That man has a lot to answer for.
The show itself was a collection of quick-fire comedy sketches and musical numbers, none of which seemed that memorable. Although I do remember one sketch! The anchor of the show, Frankie Abbott, introduced the sketch which representied a famous film. We then cut to one of the cast dressed as a policeman speaking into his walkie-talkie. ‘They’re robbing the bank! You must get ‘ere! You must get ‘ere! You must get ‘ere!‘ Cut to Frankie Abbott, ‘Thethree must get ‘eres.’ You get the idea. AP was better than that.
3. Moody And Pegg (’74-’75)
Occupying that 9.00pm Friday ITV (when ITV was good) slot that so many other memorable 70s series such as Budgie, Hadleigh, A Bouquet of Barbed Wire and Manhunt all occupied at some point in the decade. Moody and Pegg starred Derek Waring as Roland Moody, a recently divorced womaniser and Charlotte Cornwell as Daphne Pegg, a straight-laced civil servant who had moved to London from ‘oop north to take up a new job. They find themselves living in the same house due to some estate agency shenanigans. The very clever script and the restrained nature of the drama created a classic which was very much of its time when directors and writers were exploring different types of pace and narrative. AP turned up in a few episodes as hairdresser and younger girlfriend of Roland Moody, Iris. Another excellent part in a superb series which didn’t really receive the credit it deserved at the time. I remember as a 13 year old finding the buttoned-up Daphne Pegg really quite attractive and the theme music being very memorable, not to say poignant. The ‘will they, won’t they’ element of the plot kept it interesting and I really can’t remember if they did or not. Given the tone of the series though, they probably didn’t. Which was sad.
4. Play of the Month: The Cherry Orchard (’71)
Just to show AP could do serious acting too, playing Doonyasha in Chekov’s classic. This was a time when the BBC (and ITV for that matter) broadcast serious plays regularly during peak viewing times, before they became engulfed in cookery programmes, lurid mini-series and Mrs Brown’s Boys.
As well as acting in many, many TV series, AP also appeared as a guest on myriad variety shows such Look! It’s Mike Yarwood, It’s Lulu and The Golden Shot. Like Judy Carne and Magpie’sSusan Stranks, she even appeared as a panelist on Juke Box Juryas a member of ‘the young generation’ (not Rolf Harris’s post-pubescent dance troupe…). And for a whole other generation she was a more than familiar face on TV and was rarely off it. But from the late 80s her appearances became rarer and really only popped up occasionally on Give Us A Clue and various other nostalgia shows. Why this was I’m not sure. Maybe she wanted to spend more time with her family and on her teaching. Most of her credits in recent years have been voice contributions to children’s series which although lucrative, deny us the pleasure of seeing her act at full tilt. These days, of course, she’d play much older characters which would be intriguing, not to say alluring.
Her most fascinating adventure, however, took place in the early 70s when she was invited to fly to the US to join the biggest show on telly at the time, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In (See Judy Carne below). One of its biggest stars Goldie Hawn was leaving and AP was pencilled in to replace her. As we all know it didn’t happen and why this was has been obscured by the mists of time. One plausible reason was that she was about to marry singer Graham Bonnet and didn’t want to commit herself to the regular journeys back and forward to the US. I wonder how she feels about this decision now given this marriage was short-lived? I am convinced she would have been brilliant in the show and who knows where she might have ended up as a result of it? We can only speculatate but I think we’d certainly have seen more of her on telly and in films than we did in later years.
Nowadays, I’d guess few people would remember Adrienne Posta without some heavy prompting but for a significant period she was one of the faces of the 70s. As well as appearing in iconic films and groundbreaking TV series she rubbed shoulders with towering pop stars of the time and even appeared on hit records. In short, she was sexy, funny, ubiquitous, a damn good actor and as 70s as Concorde, disco, platform shoes and Findus crispy pancakes. As a 70s icon, there are few whose credentials are more impressive or more memorable.
The 70s may have been a trashy decade but Budgie proved high quality, innovative TV did exist
I’ve mentioned the good people at Talking Pictures TV a number of times in this little blog spot, not least about their broadcasting of the wonderfully surreal and hidden TV gem Sunday Night At The London Palladium (See Tarbuck Memories), and, true to form, recently they have introduced one of the great series of the 70s, Budgie starring Adam Faith and Iain Cuthbertson. This ‘must see’ TV has been criminally ignored for many years and although showing its age in some the attitudes (what 60s or 70s series doesn’t?) there is much to unpack culturally and I can’t wait to get stuck in!
As an 11 year old, along with Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Avengers (much more on this to come), Budgie was one of the highlights of the viewing week. Going out on Friday nights at 9.00pm it had prime spot on the schedules and only two other channels to contend with, but Budgie knocked all its competitors into a cocked hat. And why wouldn’t it? Budgie’s credentials were top notch in all sorts of ways. Ironically, the low-life, seedy adventures of pathetic petty thief Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird alternated in 1971 with the upper-crust adventures of ultra-suave Gerald Harper‘s series Hadleigh. But it was Budgie that had the style despite his moral compass being worryingly askew in all sorts of ways. But that’s why he was believable as a dodgy 70s character, as were so many other characters in the series. To view a 70s drama through the moral prism of 2020 is a difficult thing to do, and Budgie inhabited a world very different in many ways to our own but in some ways nothing has changed. In fact, the writers, Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall created a character who was, at the same time, despicable, immoral, pathetic but also sympathetic and even lovable. In other words they created a character who was totally believable for the times.
The first episode of Budgie, ‘Out‘, was broadcast by ITV on 9 April 1971 at 9.00pm on a Friday evening just after On The Buses and Hawaii Five-O. On BBC 1 it was up against The Dick Emery Show and Gala Performance, whatever that was, though it sounds faintly classical. Episode 2 the following week clashed with, again, Dick Emery and then Miss England 1971! There was a conundrum for the discerning viewer. If they didn’t approve of the filth featured in Budgie, they could switch channels for some good, clean, 70s female exploitation. And then they could watch Miss England 1971.
The role of Budgie will always be synonymous with the late Adam Faith. A 60s pop star, he was spotted playing in a Soho skiffle group when he was plain old Terry Nelhams by 6-5 Special producer Jack Good and he went on to have over 20 top 40 hits, his most well-known being his early songs What Do You Want? and Poor Me. The great British film composer John Barry was also instrumental, so to speak, in setting Adam Faith, as he was renamed, on the road to success after his first records bombed. However, although pop stardom was fine and certainly lucrative, Faith’s dream was always to become an actor and while he appeared on the John BarryBBC pop vehicle Drumbeat, he was spotted and cast in the controversial 60s youth culture film, Beat Girl (1960). Controversial because anyone over the age of 40 in early 60s Britain was terrified by the idea of young people having their own culture. Just like today, youth culture is identified by certain older generations as being fuelled by drugs, sex and, of course, rock and roll. Sounded ok then and it sounds ok now. But Beat Girl had an ‘X’ certificate slapped on it immediately by those who knew better, so no young people could see it. Who knows what what might have happened to them if they had? Maybe they’d have had a good time. Although he didn’t exactly act in it, Adam Faith had the acting bug and various roles in theatre and TV began to come his way.
Faith then starred in the comedy film What A Whopper (1961) about some young people going to look for the Loch Ness Monster. The first film written by Laugh-In and Are You Being Served‘s Jeremy Lloyd (more about him throughout this blog), it was an inoffensive knock-about comedy that received poor reviews but kept Adam Faith in the acting public eye. With no writing or even acting credits at this point, Lloyd had his very first script accepted and made into a film. Wouldn’t happen nowadays but that’s how some people became famous in the 60s. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and that was certainly true of Adam Faith too. Of course, it helped massively to be based in London.
He was subsequently cast in Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s seminal 60s play, Billy Liar which toured the country including the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in 1968. Whether Waterhouse and Hall had Adam Faith in mind when they wrote the scripts for Budgie in 1970 is uncertain but it turned out to be a partnership made in TV heaven.
Initially the series was to be called The Loner but was eventually changed to Budgie. For me this was important as Adam Faith‘s eponymous character was a loner in some ways but that wasn’t the central conceit of the series. There were many facets to Budgie’s personality and being a loner was only one of them and all were explored to varying extents in each episode. The memorable theme music to Series 1 by The Milton Hunter Orchestra was also entitled The Loner and, for me, it really captured the mood of the character and the series. The dream-like orchestration and haunting melody of the opening credits providing a musical backdrop to the slow motion sequence of Budgie desperately trying to grab handfuls of cash floating in the wind, encapsulated the tone of the series and the character of Budgie. Success was always within his grasp but something invariably got in the way to deny it.
For some reason the producers changed the theme music for Series 2 and replaced it with a song by the great Ray Davies of The Kinks. The song was called Nobody’s Fool and was performed by Ray Davies himself and Cold Turkey. It’s a decent song and the lyrics certainly reflected the character of Budgie accurately, but it didn’t match the haunting opening of Series 1. At the time I was convinced it was Adam Faith singing and believed this for many years until I found out recently it was Ray Davies. I wonder why they didn’t get Faith to do the theme himself? Maybe by this time he’d turned his back on singing and didn’t want to be associated with the ‘pop star’ Adam Faith?
Series 1 and 2 gave opportunities to three directors all making a name for themselves and each would go on to become well known in their own right. Mike Newell directed six episodes of Budgie and went on to direct Four Weddings and a Funeral,Harry Potter and Donnie Brasco amongst many other successful films. Previously to Budgie he had directed the hugely controversial 60s gangland series Big Breadwinner Hog which caused inevitable outrage in the tabloids due its violent content. Michael Lindsay-Hogg became best known for directing videos of Beatles and Rolling Stones songs before videos were fashionable, he was also responsible for innovative episodes of Ready Steady Go and the classic ITV series of Brideshead Revisited. The third director was very unusual for 70s TV due to her being a woman. As well as episodes of Budgie, Moira Armstrong in a 50 year career directed some of the great TV series of all time including Adam Adamant Lives, The Troubleshooters, Z Cars and Testament of Youth plus many, many others. Few people will recognise her name but she was, and still is, one of the great TV directors of the last 50 years.
The style of Budgie was certainly experimental, the late 60s and early 70s being a fertile period for cinematic and narrative experimentation. Italian post-realism and French nouvelle vague often crept into scenes in Budgie. In one episode, for example, (Best Mates Series 1, episode 7) the director, Mike Newell even uses a hand-held camera, very innovative for the time, and there is the suggestion of jump-cutting in certain scenes, in Series 1, episode 3 when Budgie’s wife Jean (Georgina Hale) lambasts him for his uncaring lifestyle, and the camera uses striking fast cuts between close ups and medium close ups of the front and side of her face. This, of course, added to the freshness and alternative style of Budgie for the younger and slightly more sophisticated 70s audience.
The central character Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird was what was probably known at the time as a lovable rogue. But this would be too easy a description for an extremely complex character. He was lovable in many ways. The viewer couldn’t help but feel sorry for him when yet another scam crumbled before his eyes or slipped through his fingers, whether it be pornography, ballpoint pens or trading stamps. Despite being a petty criminal he had a heart and was never violent, though he threatened it occasionally for show. He couldn’t stop himself trying to help people who were down on their luck. He appeared to have few friends, hence ‘the loner’ epithet, only dodgy acquaintances, and appeared to see Charlie Endell as a father figure, his own father being a loser and having no interest in him. He was the sort of man who preferred female to male company despite the fact he couldn’t settle down with any one woman. His refusal to accept his own child also suggested a streak of self-disgust in himself.
It’s also fair to say the series Budgie would not have been the same without Iain Cuthbertson‘s brilliant turn as sleazy ‘businessman’ and supposed father figure Charlie Endell. Often funny, always sarcastic, sometimes threatening, he used Budgie as a kicking stool, towards the end even literally. Like Budgie’s yearning for financial stability, Charlie Endell desperately wanted respectability. In a strange sort of way he was a template for Paul Raymond, Soho’s pornographer in chief during the 70s, 80s and 90’s, and he did achieve respectability of sorts, becoming one of the UK’s richest men. As became the case in the latter part of the 20th century with Thatcherism, wealth did bring respectability, irrespective of where the money came from.
The character of Charlie Endell proved so enduring that he was given his own series Charles Endell Esquire by STV in 1979. After two well reviewed episodes a TV technicians’ strike (again) curtailed its run and it would be a year before the series was rerun, although some erroneous reports claim the remaining four episodes were never shown. The series followed Charlie (played again by the excellent Iain Cuthbertson. Listen to the way he pronounces the word ‘juice’) being released from a long jail sentence and returning to his native Glasgow to pick up the pieces of his life. Also featuring a range of great Scottish actors including Gerrard Kelly, Rikki Fulton and Russell Hunter, the hiatus allowed the programme to go off the boil and a projected second series never happened.
The setting of Budgie also gave a fascinating, and probably accurate insight into the Soho scene and certain parts of London at the time. A dark, grubby underworld populated by petty criminals, pornographers, prostitutes, strippers and bent coppers. In a weird sort of way, for viewers living a long way from The Smoke like myself, it still seemed slightly glamorous and exciting. Maybe not so much now but it’s still certainly intriguing and a touch nostalgic.
The series dealt with a range of morally ambiguous issues which were really only beginning to be acknowledged in the early 70s, and, even now, it’s easy to see why Budgie was quite controversial during this heyday of Mary Whitehouse and her fellow God-botherers, the Association of Viewers and Listeners. Illegal immigrants and some extremely old-fashioned and shocking racist language (Mrs Whitehouse didn’t seem to have any problem with this storyline), pornogaphy, co-habiting, single parenthood, selling babies and even the representation of a petty thief and philanderer as a sympathetic character were all relatively provocative subjects for the time and were dealt with in the series. Some of the treatments and the language used would not, obviously, be acceptable nowadays but that’s par for the course for programmes of this period, but most of us are intelligent enough to put these issues into a modern context.
The representation of women in Budgie was also quite groundbreaking in some ways though deeply conservative and orthodox for the time in others. The main female character, Budgie’s girlfriend and mother of his child, Hazel (Lynn Dalby), is a long suffering but resilient figure. She puts up with more than most women would with him but is fairly self-sufficient and certainly doesn’t rely on him. She gives as good as she gets and is quite prepared and unashamed to be a single parent at a time when unmarried mothers were still talked about in hushed tones. One does wonder why such an intelligent and strong woman would waste her time with such a loser but it’s just as well that she did as their relationship provided a central and hugely entertaining element of the series. Budgie’s wife, Jean (Georgina Hale), is a similar sort of character to Hazel, though slightly more irritating. It’s maybe a weakness of the series that two strong, intelligent women would waste their time on such a failure as Budgie but, as I’ve said, the 70s were a different time.
One other female character of note who I feel I must mention, appeared in the first episode of Series 1. That doyenne of so many 70s programmes and all-round 70s icon (and I really don’t use that overused term undeservingly), Adrienne Posta. Appearing in the very first Budgie episode ‘Out‘, she played the Salford stripper, an ’employee’ of Charlie Endell. Budgie was given the task of looking after her for a while and, of course, the story wrote itself as it so often did in Budgie. In a plotline that would never see the light of day in our more enlightened times, she was supposedly 15 (although in reality she was and looked 22), the rather grim 70s immorality was compounded when she ran off with Budgie’s much older pal, Rogan. There is so much to say about this actress who anyone over the age of 55 will remember, if not her name, certainly her face, as she appeared in many classic films and TV programmes of the 60s and 70s. Much more about this 70s ‘It Girl’ coming very soon on Genxculture.com!
Other classic British character actors who appeared at various times in Budgie included Gordon ‘Mr Hudson’ Jackson as a dodgy minister, John ‘Regan’ Thaw as an unlikely gay character, James Bolam, Derek Jacobi, Matthew Corbett (yes, that Matthew Corbett) and one of Stanley Kubrick’s favourite actors, the excellent Philip Stone. Even Golden Girl and wife of The Tremeloes‘ Chip Hawkes, the lovely Carol Dilworth, turned up in Series 1 (Everyone Loves A Baby)! (See Like A Bolt from The Blue: The Golden Shot).
The second series of Budgie ended on the 14 July 1972 and a planned third series never happened due to Adam Faith being seriously injured in a motor accident and retiring from acting for a long while. Faith did return and as well as acting in a string of well-received films such as MacVicar and Stardust with David Essex and an unlikely but unsuccessful musical version of Budgie, he also managed Leo Sayer (well, he was quite good at the time) and produced Roger Daltrey’s solo album. He became a successful financial journalist and even established a financial TV channel which, unfortunately for him, was one financial step too far and it failed badly.
Faith died tragically young at the age of only 62 of a heart condition and although he will be remembered by many as a huge pop star of the early 60s, for most people of my age, I would argue, he will be remembered as Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird, petty thief, loser, loner, lovable rogue and one of the groundbreaking central anti-heroes of the 70s.
It may have been manna from heaven for an 11 year horror fan but it didn’t always live up to the hype.
The UK was a ferociously moral country in the late 60s and early 70s, or so it liked to think. Sundays were particularly dreadful occasions where only certain shops opened in the morning to sell Sunday papers and rolls, pubs only opened at lunchtime and parks were no-go areas for kids. It’s become a cliche these days but the swings really were chained up. And I remember very well being chased out of the park on a number of occasions by the fascistic Park Patrol for playing football on a Sunday afternoon.
Weekday television was very much a stop-start affair with Watch With Mother and the news being on at lunchtime then the two-channel TV would close down until Jackanory at 4.45. It would close down again at about 11.30 from Sunday till Thursday. Broadcasters, maybe at the behest of Governments, put the most boring programmes they could think of right at the end of the day. In Scotland the religious Thought For The Day type programme, Late Calltook lugubriousness to a new height and sent people to bed a bit sooner than they’d probably have liked to. The programmes just before this last dose of monotony weren’t much better. So, in effect, from Sunday to Thursday TV effectively shut down at 10, or 1030 if you wanted to watch News at Ten. And the festivities didn’t end there. We still had the National Anthem to look forward to! And this brought the days broadcasting, mercifully, to an end.
However, Fridays and Saturdays were deemed appropriate times for the General Public to let their hair down and, for this reason, TV (all three channels of it by this time) did not close down at 11.30 as it did Sunday to Thursday, but was extended sometimes until nearly 1.00am! Because, of course, most people didn’t have work on a Saturday and Sunday morning so it wasn’t necessary to help get them up at the weekend. Jesus, how it didn’t lead to bloody revolution on the streets I’ll never know, but decent people knew their place in those days. ‘Protestant’, ‘work’ and ‘ethic’ were very much part of life then.
With this relaxation of standards, not to mention morals, in mind, STV launched a strand of films for a Friday night around 1969 which they dubbed provocatively Don’t Watch Alone. This took the form of a horror film being broadcast beginning at about 11.00 and which was heavily hyped throughout the evening. ‘Watch if you dare, but don’t watch alone!’ Now this sounded pretty enticing to me, as it did to most of the kids in my class at school. It was the major viewing event of the week and if you got to watch it, it provided a whole week’s playground conversation, not to mention a bit of towering superiority over those with stricter parents. In fact, myself and a few other pals used to regularly have a Monster quiz about the films shown on Don’t Watch Alone and became pretty knowledgable about this particular genre. Luckily for me, as I’ve mentioned before, my parents were pretty liberal about what I watched and they were quite happy to go to bed on a Friday night and leave me to watch Don’t Watch Alone, alone!
For the ITV companies it was no-brainer. They got some extra advertising revenue, pretty decent viewing figures for that time of night (remember pubs closed their doors at a modest 10.30 then) and the films they showed will not have cost a great deal as they were all low-budget, often ‘B’ movies and some were very old indeed. What also needs to be remembered about this moralistic time, horror films, or what was deemed ‘horror’, still attracted an ‘X’ certificate if they were shown in the cinema, and cinemas did show old and sometimes very old films as part of their weekly programme. Even ancient curiosities like the original James Whale Frankenstein from 1931 was thought by the censors (yes, they were called ‘censors’ in those days) to be a threat to viewers of a more sensitive disposition. And remember this was a long time before video recording at home, so this type of offering was a real treat. Especially if you were 11 years old…
Like so many things though, the anticipation was often more enjoyable than the film itself. STV obviously ratcheted up the excitement by having a few trailers during the Friday night and they usually used the original cinema trailers for the films featured. I’m not sure what I really expected but it was usually more than what was delivered. Too regularly I wasn’t even frightened to put the lights out before I went up to my bed.
The problem was, of course, the definition of horror. For me horror was Dracula, Frankenstein (although I was never convinced by it), The Mummy and The Wolfman (more like it). But once those fairly obvious examples were shown, then what? And this is where the strand began to lose its appeal slightly. STV’s view was certainly wide and varied, but this meant I watched some very good films with excellent credentials but felt cheated because they weren’t really scary. I know this now, of course, but an 11 year old’s critical faculties are relatively limited to say the least. And I’ll also admit to not seeing all the films all the way through but being woken up by the end credits, which maybe said more about the film on offer than anything else. But after the more predictable fare, a few real oddities were aired, sometimes, I’m convinced, because the STV film buyer just looked at the title of the film and thought, ‘That’ll do.’
One example of this was a film called Night Creatures. To be fair it sounds faintly horror genre-esque, and it was made by Hammer and starred the great Peter Cushing and a young Oliver Reed, but it really wasn’t and apart from a relatively creepy opening, it turned out just to be a yarn about smugglers in the 18th century. The Terror of the Tongwas, as the title suggests, about the Chinese secret mafia-type organisation. The word ‘Terror’ obviously struck a chord with the scheduler but apart from a few mild torture scenes and Christopher Lee hamming it up in heavy Oriental make-up, it was a disappointment and one I did not see through till the end.
Many of the real horror films broadcast could be slow, including many false shocks and blind alleys, and many just built up to the horror money shot at the end. An abominable creature suddenly seen, a character hideously deformed or a beast manifesting itself for the first (and last) time. In the days before videos and freeze framing, it was vital these climaxes were not dwelt upon by the camera incase the viewer would spot the joins in the cheaply produced rubber mask applied to the creature. An example of this type of film was The Gorgon. It also has to be remembered that in the very early 70s no one had a colour TV and even if they did, few programmes, even films, were broadcast in colour. So a film like The Gorgon which relied on some gloriously colourful scenes lost almost all its impact through being shown in monochrome.
It may have petrified the screen with horror but that was about all it petrified. But you can see where they were coming from. It was the classic horror film that alluded to the monster and suggested the monster but until the last few minutes, didn’t completely show the monster, although we did get a few tantalising shots. They hoped the brief glimpse, and it really was a fairly brief glimpse, of The Gorgon at the end would satisfy the casual viewer but it was thin gruel. The Gorgon, to be fair, was a very good Hammer production, but we wanted more!
When a film featured certain actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, this sometimes gave the scheduler a good idea as to whether the film would be suitable for inclusion in the strand. The always excellent Vincent Price was another favourite and appeared regularly in the late Friday night slot. The Fly, long before the superb David Cronenberg version, was a typical Price vehicle which was a decent film and even the big reveal when the main character walked into the room wearing the plastic head of a fly seemed pretty impressive. Seeing it now, it just looks funny, but these were different times.
Vincent Price was a regular Don’t Watch Alone performer and his collaborations with horror directors Willam Castle and Roger Corman graced many a late Friday night. Castle was the perfect director for this late night strand. His films were flashy, employed all the techniques necessary for effective shockers and his subject matter was always on the money, certainly for a 12 year old viewer.
The Tingler, one of his collaborations with Vincent Price, was an excellent example of his art. Using a range of gimmicks to scare the 50s audience, it tells the story of a pathologist who believes there is a creature inside all of us, The Tingler, which looks like a small lobster, and emerges when we become frightened but is controlled if we scream. Again, it included the money shot of The Tingler’s reveal. But there was more to this film than just that. It was one of the first films to include a colour sequence in a predominantly black and white film, with a bath of red blood shown right in the middle of the film. Not of much use when watching it on a monochrome telly but the intention was there. And it was perfect material for a dark Friday night. Price also starred In Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill, also an effective shocker, which I can’t recall being on DWA but should have been.
Another of Castle’s productions which featured on DWA was Mr Sardonicus. Another of the films which led up to the big reveal. Mr Sardonicus spends the whole film hiding behind an, albeit quite creepy mask, and we learn that his face is too frightening to show after an unfortunate grave-robbing incident years previously. The late money shot when his mask is dramatically removed is impressive but not quite the effort of trying to stay awake for in the wee small hours of a Saturday morning. It was quite impressive though…
But one film I recall very clearly and, for me, was the most effective and, at the time for a 12 year old, genuinely scary was William Castle‘s film Homicidal. An old dark house mystery involving very strange, unfamiliar characters, Castle uses a range of gimmicks to wind up the audience, including a ‘countdown’ where viewers in the cinema can leave before the heroine enters the house near the end of the film. This, of course, ratchets up the tension and viewers were not disappointed when the heroine did go back into the house. Too see the film nowadays as an adult familiar with the tropes and exhibition of a film, the conceit, or twist, would be spotted straight away, but for a 12 year old it worked a treat! One of the few nights I really didn’t want to turn the lights out! Later films such as Sleuth used a similar gimmick which really didn’t work, but, for me, Homicidal was probably the most memorable film ever shown in this Friday night slot. William Castle’s gimmickry could have been invented for young viewers like myself.
Although not in Homicidal, Vincent Price had appeared in other Castle vehicles as well those of Roger Corman. The Corman films were just a little too high quality for the late night film, which says more about the non-Corman films. I remember starting to watch The Masque of the Red Death and not managing much more than half an hour of it before falling asleep. Having seen it again the lush technicolour turns it in to a very different experience from that of the black and white version. However, Edgar Alan Poe is very wordy for children and, of course, nothing particularly scary happens apart from someone being burnt alive, being shot with an arrow in the throat and stabbed with a poisoned dagger. Thin gruel for a 13 year old horror fan. This was also true of The Pit and The Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher, both featured on DWA.
Another actor who turned up quite regularly in DWA presentations was Oliver Reed. He plays a werewolf in Hammer’s excellent 1961 film go Curse of the Werewolf. This was the type of horror flick we were desperate for in the Don’t Watch Alone strand. Bloodthirsty, violent, quite narratively intelligent and involving monsters, in this case werewolves of which we were familiar.
Another Ollie Reed film shown in the DWA series was Paranoiac where he played a young spoiled drunk whose supposedly dead brother turns up just as he was about to inherit the family fortune. More of a psychological thriller than a horror film but a story with a twist which not only kept you interested but featured an excellent performance by Reed. I’ve always been a fan of Ollie Reed as an actor as he always brought a certain gravitas and presence to any film he appeared in, irrespective of the quality of the production. In the excellent biography ‘What Fresh Lunacy Is This?‘ by Robert Sellers, the story is told of how a friend of Reed’s bet him that he couldn’t drink 100 pints of beer in a day. Reed not only won the bet but did a handstand in the middle of the pub just to underline the achievement. Although his behaviour rubbed many of his co-stars up the wrong way, not one of them criticised his acting ability or his reliability on set. He always turned up on time and delivered his lines perfectly.
It’s fair to say STV began to struggle to find suitable films for Don’t Watch Alone after a couple of years given the wafer-thin budget available to them and many of the later films were more thriller than horror. Eventually DWA was replaced with a more conventional film series, but for a brief time in the early 70s late Friday nights was horror central. And although few films lived up to the hype it was a great introduction to a range of films which otherwise would not have been available to very young film fans.