Standing At The Crossroads Of (TV) Quality

Cor, glamorous or what?

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

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

Is there nothing this woman can’t do?

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

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

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

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

Some uncharitable commentators at the time saw Crossroads as ‘a byword for cheap production values‘, though many cast members from the show have denied that it was that bad. Wobbly sets and fluffed lines have become synonymous with the show, however, and, to be fair, the 5 days a week 52 weeks a year run was, to say the least, punishing. Retakes were rare and it’s hats off to most of these actors that were able to deliver their lines reasonably well in one take. In all the years I watched Crossroads I don’t remember the amazing Nolly fluff or mistime a single line, which says much about her ability and professionalism, although that can’t be said for all. Crossroads production values were highlighted again some years after its demise when the brilliant and sadly missed Victoria Wood wrote Acorn Antiques, which was obviously based on the motel. Although very, very funny it was also an affectionate tribute and Victoria Wood must have been a fan to have been so accurate in her depiction of aspects of the show.

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

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Peter Ling‘s CV was a little more prosaic but no less interesting. Having written stories for legendary 60s comic The Eagle, he also wrote scripts for a range of solid 60s and 70s TV series including Dixon of Dock Green, No Hiding Place and The Avengers (see The Avengers: Quirk, Strangeness and Charm (and bags of style). For me though, his most notable achievement was writing The Mind Robber, a superbly clever story from the Patrick Troughton Dr Who years. A truly surreal and hugely creative tale, it was a shining example of a time when Dr Who was still challenging and inventive in its storytelling, despite its Crossroads-like sets. And clearly light years away from the Crossroads Motel, although Meg, without doubt, did have some Time Lord qualities.

Motel hairdresser Vera Downend in wistful mood

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

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

For most of its 24 year run, Crossroads pretty much survived on three main sets: Meg’s office/ sitting room, the kitchen and the motel reception. The Crossroads motel reception had the distinction of having the smallest bar in hospitality history. Barely large enough to fit barman cum postman Vince Parker behind it, it consisted of about four optics, a solitary beer tap and half a dozen bottles on a top shelf which didn’t change in 20 years. It’s fair to say seating was limited. One bar stool plus a chair/ stool combo next to the reception entrance doorway. Someone sitting in these seats would have tripped up anyone rushing through the front door in a highly agitated fashion. Which characters did regularly.

Bloody hell! They’re one deep at the bar! Get Sandy from the cafeteria

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

  • Roger Tonge (Sandy Richardson): Roger was involved in Am-dram when he wandered into ATV Studios one day and asked if they had any jobs. He was directed upstairs to where they just happened to be auditioning for cast members for a new daily serial about to be going into production called Crossroads. He strolled in, they said, ‘You’ll do’ and behold, Sandy Richardson was born. Sandy was in Crossroads from episode 1 and when his health began fail some years later the writers manufactured a scenario where he was injured in a car crash, partly paralysed and was confined to a wheel chair. He was the first disabled character ever in a daily serial (Chief Ironside was a few years down the line). Eventually his condition worsened and he sadly died in 1981. Bizarrely his death was never acknowledged in the show at the time. When mentioned he was always ‘at the cafeteria’, which became something of a euphemism for a character who had gone to that great motel reception area in the sky. Eventually Jill mentioned him in words that suggested he was no longer with us, but that was nearly a year later.
  • Susan Hanson (Diane Lawton): She first appeared in the excellent 1964 Dave Clark Five vehicle Catch Us If You Can directed by a young John Boorman, joined Crossroads in 1966 and was killed off in 1987. She became famous as village idiot Benny Hawkin‘s guardian after she discovered him working on her Uncle Ed’s farm. Miss Doy-Ann had an interesting private life. Having been married for a short time to rock DJ Tommy Vance in the 60s, she met singer and former wild-man of rock Carl Wayne when he had a small part in Crossroads in 1973. They married in 1974 and stayed together until he died at the criminally young age of 61. Carl Wayne was lead singer of brilliant 60s band The Move. With Roy Wood they had a string of hits including Fire Brigade, I Can Hear The Grass Grow and Tonight. He was also the first singer to be broadcast on Wonderful Radio One in 1967 when Tony Blackburn’s first record was Flowers In The Rain ( See The Moronic World of 70s Radio One DJs). On leaving The Move he became something of a housewives’ choice appearing on a lunchtime music show with Geraldo’s Big Band singing standards and songs from the musicals. He also sang the memorable Tony Hatch composed theme tune to post-Op Knocks ( see Opportunity Knocks!) talent show New Faces in the 1980s, You’re A Star. Recently Sue made that soap opera crossover and had a role in Coronation Street appearing opposite her ‘partner in crime’ during her 60s Crossroads period Sue Nicholls who played waitress Marilyn Gates.
  • Shughie McPhee (Angus Lennie) joined in 1974. His CV is impressive having appeared in Tunes of Glory, 633 Squadron, The VIPs with Richard Burton and his most well-known role as ‘The Mole‘ in The Great Escape. It’s fair to say that his film career was crashing and burning, a bit like that plane he was in in 633 Squadron when Crossroads came calling but he made that part of Head Chef Shughie McPhee his own.
  • Amy Turtle played by Ann George joined the cast in 1965 and was written out in 1976. In true Crossroads style Amy went to visit relatives in the US and she was never referred to in the show again. She wasn’t even referred to as being ‘in the cafeteria‘ a la Sandy. But was she bitter? Damn right she was. She was photographed by that great champion of the oppressed The Sun newspaper shaking her fists outside the ATV studios. In an interview around the same time she revealed how she’d been shunned by the cast after she left and how hard done by she’d been by the producers and even Noele Gordon herself! Excellent stuff. One would think there was no way back after that, but you’d be wrong. She made a triumphant return in 1987 for a short time. It was Amy Turtle that Victoria Wood based the legendary Mrs Overall of Acorn Antiques on, and, not surprisingly, Julie Walters, who played Mrs Overall so brilliantly, came from the same West Midlands town as Amy, Smethwick. Fancy that!
  • Benny Hawkins played by Paul Henry arguably became the most famous Crossroads character after Meg Richardson. Taken under her wing by Miss Doy-Ann, Benny was employed by the motel as a handyman. His tragic 1978 romance with tempestuous gypsy girl Maureen Flynn who was knocked off her bike and killed on the morning of their wedding (what rotten luck) struck a chord with the viewing public. But wasn’t she on her way to meet Pat, the dodgy gypsy and Benny’s love rival? Hmmm. Poor Benny was inconsolable. He even had a hit single about it. Benny’s Theme was not so much a song as a monologue where he mopes about his lost love and how his life has changed forever. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde writing about the death of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, ‘One must have a heart of stone to listen to Benny’s Theme without laughing.’ British soldiers during the Falklands War even referred to Falkland Islanders as ‘Bennies’, such was his influence. In later years it was revealed that Ronnie Barker had suggested Henry to play Lennie Godber in Porridge, the part eventually going to Richard Beckinsale. Bet he was pissed off about missing out on that one.

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

But if not an international terrorist, they turned up in King’s Oak a bit later, then maybe an international pop star? Hardly likely I hear you say, but, once again, you’d be wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nolly accepts her fate with customary grace

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

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

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

But it did have a swimming pool.

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

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

No sign of buxom clippies here.

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

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

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

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

No wonder Jack’s smiling!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benny Hill: Comic genius

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

Reg and Pat Coombes in the almost forgotten Beggar My Neighbour

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

It didn’t swallow my card!

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

I smell fish five days old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s so romantic on the buses,

you’ll find it thrilling when you ride,

and you can get it on the buses,

upstairs or down inside.

Hardly Leonard Cohen but you get the idea.

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

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

That said, give me On The Buses, or for that matter a look at European architecture since 1945, to the execrable Mrs Brown’s Boys any day.

Now get that bleeding’ bus aht!

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

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

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

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

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

Bailey and Warhol.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The White Factory where Warhol was shot in 1968

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

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

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

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

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

Judy Carne: A Truly 60s Star

The vivacious Judy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair Exchange: Spot the young Dennis Waterman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dan and Dick

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

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

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

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

Jeremy looking quite relieved he got a takeaway that night.

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

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

Judy having it well and truly socked to her.

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

Smart dumb blonde, Goldie Hawn in Laugh-In.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The classic line up.

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

The classic line up

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris was airbrushed out the BP picture in true Soviet style. No announcement about his leaving, one week he was there and the next he went the way of Leon Trotsky (minus the ice pick, as far as we know). Chris who? Not a Trace was left (har har)! The exit door had begun to creak slightly ajar with the appointment of the one and only John Noakes in late 1965. In the same way Chris Trace was airbrushed out, John was airbrushed in. No announcement that this guy who had ridden, yes ridden, into the BBC studios on a shire horse (very Blue Peter!) was the new presenter, he just turned up again the following week and he was actually, like, presenting things. And what an appointment he turned out to be. He was so successful it allowed the producer, the autocratic Biddy Baxter, to get shot of Chris just over a year later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One minute on and its still resonating……..

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


Step forward Lesley Judd.

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

Lesley pulls back the boundaries of equality.

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

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

It’s time we were told.

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

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

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

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

Really quite a funky title sequence

The first three presenters were a rather mixed bag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenny with that slightly faraway look in her eyes again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Like A Bolt From The Blue..The Golden Shot

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

Don’t get too comfortable Jackie.

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

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

Bob, the consummate host, imparts GOOD NEWS during the 1970 power cuts!

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

The above episode demonstrates clearly what an absolute pro Monkhouse was showing the imperturbable qualities required to host a live show where so much can go wrong. No one ever came close to his mastery. And how quaint is it that the contestants are all referred to as Mr and Mrs!

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

Bob firing on all cylinders

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

The one and only Carol Dilworth

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

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

Don’t count on an acting career, Annie.

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

A particularly interesting aspect of this period was the range of guests that appeared on variety shows. All shows whether Lulu, Cilla, Cliff, Dusty, Englebert or even TGS had to have guests, if just to give the talent a short break, particularly important on live shows. As there were such demands for guests, and familiar guests at that, sometimes shows struggled to secure the services of Vince Hill, Clodagh Rogers, Dorothy Squires or any other similar ‘C list celeb. Producers had, therefore, to take chances, maybe even experiment. TGS was no exception and as it usually had a seemingly interminable 56 week run, some of the guests who appeared became curiouser and curiouser. One week we had BeBop supremo Dizzy Gillespie and his band playing some avant garde, free-forming jazz. People were astonished at just how much he could inflate his cheeks. A strange brew for Sunday teatime. The legendary Tiny Tim, in one of his rare British TV appearances, also turned up one Sunday afternoon to blow kisses to a bemused TGS studio audience. (See The Utterly Weird Adventures Of Tiny Tim).

Dizzy blowin’ up a storm at Sunday tea time

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

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

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

Yes, definitely dodgy Norman.

Vaughan’s replacement was the hapless Charlie Williams. A former professional footballer with Doncaster Rovers FC, of Barbadian heritage and graduate of ITV’s deeply suspect The Comedians, Charlie probably couldn’t quite believe he’d been handed one of the biggest jobs on telly. Much respect to TGS producers for giving a black comedian with a thick Yorkshire accent the job, the 70s was hardly a decade of racial harmony, but it was just too much for poor old Charlie. When compared to the ultra slick and professional Bob Monkhouse there was no comparison. Charlie was affable, like Jackie Rae and Norman Vaughan but affability is a one-way corridor and he also couldn’t carry a fast-paced live show. His discomfort was palpable and there was only so many times he could get titters by calling contestants ‘ow’d flower.’ He even resorted to telling racist jokes in a desperate attempt to win the audience over. After only six months and the show haemorrhaging viewers, the producers returned, cap in hand, and begged Monkhouse to return. Monkhouse saw his chance and only agreed to come back if ATV would let him do a UK version of the American Hollywood Squares, which was called Celebrity Squares here. They, of course, agreed.

Poor ow’d Charlie looks around for help.

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

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

And remember, hang on to your hollyhocks!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Christ! There’s two of them!

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

Does he play the clarinet?

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

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


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

Jack’s act can be seen on the 1970 episode of The Golden Shot below at 18:55. A fascinating watch in lots of ways and not just for Alf Ippititimus! (See Like A Bolt From The Blue..The Golden Shot)

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

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

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

It’s that Ayshea again!

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

I’m thick, thick, thick..

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

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

It’s missing his lisp.

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

In 1972 Freddie had a huge hit in Brazil and The Philippines with a song called ‘So Lucky,’ which might have been a fitting epitaph for his career, although I beg to differ. But Freddie, or should I say Frederick, is very much still with us.

Trying to find much footage of his act was almost impossible other than a brief minute on Youtube. But those wonderful people at Talking Pictures TV featured an episode of that wonderfully surreal monument to the era of ‘variety,’ Sunday Night At The London Palladium, and who just happened to be on the bill that particular night in 1968? Why, none other than Mr Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies doing his whole act! I thought I’d died and gone to 60s comedy heaven. Again.

Who would have thought a homburg hat, a budgie and a lisp could have created an act that everyone over the age of 55 remembers so fondly?

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

I’m thick, thick, thick…

I Mean This Most Sincerely Folks…Opportunity Knocks!

Or how to get on in show business (for a short time) if you were a bit rubbish..

My vote goes to Pedro El Doto

Many, many moons before we were subjected to the hideousness that is the deeply unpleasant Simon Cowell and his personal cash cow, The X Factor, we were subjected weekly to the hideousness that was the deeply unpleasant Hughie Green and his long-running ‘talent’ vehicle celebrating amateurism in all its many forms, Opportunity Knocks.

Any consideration of 60s and 70s TV must always begin with the rider: there were only three TV programmes to choose from. Bizarrely, there was probably a lot more worth watching in those days than in our multi-media, multi-channel platforms of today. However, few homes had more than one telly, the days of the portable (which rarely managed a decent picture anyway) were years away, so despite the good stuff that was on telly at the time, as a child, you were, almost literally, also a captive audience for some of the worst telly imaginable. An example of this ‘worst-telly-imaginable’ genre was Opportunity Knocks. Others included The Good Old Days, The Black and White Minstrel Show and It’s Val! (Doonican that is, the exclamation mark being the most exciting aspect of Val’s unchallenging, mind-numbing, MOR experience). Commentators these days bemoan the all-the-family-together viewing of those early days, but a hell of a lot of it was just awful. And it didn’t come more awful than Op Knocks with the most insincere, patronising, oleaginous and downright nasty of all TV hosts.

This was variety, folks!

Hughie Green. A man whose gushing insincerity knew no bounds. ‘Yes folks, and I mean that most sincerely,’ he’d say every week, insincerely. It is no exaggeration that the success of Op Knocks went to Hughie’s head and before long he was commuting everywhere by helicopter in Radio 1 DJ style, having an affair with his producer, Jess ‘The Bishop’ Yates‘s wife which produced Paula Yates, using his clout to mess about with the Op Knocks format such as featuring short drama pieces and quizzes (as if there wasn’t enough of them) and worst of all, using the show for a piece of breathtaking right-wing political propaganda which he called ‘Stand Up and Be Counted,’ that included marching bands, Forces’ servicemen and women, Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, the estimable Wimbledon Operatic Society no less and, obviously, swathes of Union Jacks. Nuremberg rallies sprang to mind. On the 27th December 1976 a dumbfounded viewing public was subjected to Canadian Hughie Green’s diatribe on why the once proud UK had gone down the tubes due to strikes, financial borrowing, Socialism and, no doubt, the insidious influence of foreigners telling us what to do (i.e, the EEC). Didn’t we win the war for god’s sake? Strange how some things never change. Green’s hubris was, unsurprisingly, the beginning of the end for Op Knocks and for Hughie, but not before he could inflict a few more useless wannabes on us before the demise of the show the following year.

From 1961-1978 every Thursday at 7 pm, for a whole gut-churning hour, we’d be subjected some of the most inept, incompetent, dull and witless acts known to man or beast. With acts of such mediocrity featured every week, it seemed almost anyone could roll up for an audition and be successful. Mainly because they needed six acts each show to pad out the hour and a series would last for about 30 weeks.. On top of that, each act had a sponsor who would indulge in some gossamer-thin banter with Green before being unleashed on a suspecting public. The winning act would return every week until a new winning act was voted for.

Synonymous with the Opportunity Knocks voting system was the notorious ‘Clapometer.’ At the end of the show each act reprised part of their performance and the studio audience clapped their appreciation (or not). The ‘Clapometer‘ would then swing back and forth arriving at a score between 1 and 100. The winner in the studio would be the act with the highest score. Which meant absolutely nothing really. It was later revealed that a stage hand just waved the pointer randomly arriving at a score when the rapturous applause ended. But it was the ‘votes, votes, votes‘ that really counted.

An Op Knocks favourite. A Steel Band with the Mighty Clapometer!

One does wonder how many votes it took to be triumphant on Op Knocks. To vote for an act (why could anyone be arsed?) it was necessary to a) find a post card, b) write down your three favourite acts IN ORDER (can’t have been easy as they were usually all rubbish), c) find a stamp and d) post it in a post box, all within three days of watching the show! In reality, it was probably only the friends and rellies of the acts who bothered to go through that palaver and a winning act could have been successful on about 100 votes. New World, a monotonous Aussie three-piece won Op Knocks for a number of weeks in the early 70s. They were later found out to have rigged the competition by sending in loads of bogus votes ensuring their continuing success on the programme. By the time they’d been rumbled they were well on their way, inexplicably, to five top 50 hits, their most successful, achieving a lofty number 6, was Tom-Tom Turnaround, memorable only for its lugubriousness. The charts were like that in the early 70s though ( see The Sad Demise of the Pop Singles Charts).

They may have been called New World but they represented a very old one.

Like The X Factor, it only took a win on Op Knocks to ensure (short-lived) chart success. Who could forget Tammy Jones in 1975 who won for a whole 6 weeks? Well, practically everyone but then she had a no. 5 smash with ‘Let Me Try Again‘. Sadly for Tammy the listening public decided not to. That said, in 1976 she competed in the annual ‘Song For Europe‘ competition with a ditty entitled Life’s A Carousel, and was up against the easy listening might of Frank Ifield and Tony Christie. Phew! She came 6th. Poor girl was on an MOR hiding to nothing. Winners that year just happened to be unchallenging pop behemoths Brotherhood of Man with a song they called ‘Save Your Kisses For Me.’

There were acts who, for people of a certain vintage, were synonymous with Op Knocks. Acts of such inconceivable blandness are etched in the memory, whether we like it or not, like Mary’s Boy Child in a December supermarket. Take Neil Reid, for example. The cute wee laddie in the kilt from Motherwell who won the heart of every granny in the UK with his saccharine and honey infused ballad, Mother of Mine. Week after week after week……

Weirdly, wee Neil is still the youngest act ever to top the album charts which he did in 1972 with his eponymous LP. His blockbuster hit ‘Mother of Mine‘ reached no. 2 in the same year being kept off the top spot by the equally anodyne New Seekers‘ ‘I‘d Like To Teach The World To Sing’, an irritating anthem nicked from a Coke ad. Reid’s sugary-sweet ditty also caught the ear of Little Jimmy Osmond‘s producers who clearly thought this was exactly the family-orientated bilge a young thrusting Mormon should be expressing and put it on the B side of his alliterative smash ‘Long Haired Lover From Liverpool.’ Who bought all that crap? (See Rubbish Songs, Inexplicable Hits). Poor wee Neil’s career failed to take off and when his voice broke a couple of years later, there was only one route left for him: to become a financial adviser in Blackpool.

Wee Neil

OK. There is this thing called the Law of Averages and how could a show which ran for such a long time with a conveyor belt of acts ranging from the average to the mediocre to a vast motherlode of awfulness fail to produce at least a few diamonds in the vast rolling expanses of rough? I’ll grudgingly admit a few acts did prove to be quite good and have some staying power. That said, certain acts proved themselves to be ghastly and, unfortunately, also had inexplicable staying power. (Yes, I’m looking at you Little and Large!) But let’s try to inject at least a tad of positivity into this unrelenting litany of atrociousness.

The wonderful Les Dawson first appeared on Op Knocks in 1967. Les Dawson may seem a fairly unfashionable comedian these days but unlike so many of the young comedians of the present who lack a funny bone in their body (yes, I’m talking about you Michael McIntyre ), Les could do everything. As well as writing many of his own gags, his monologues were not only hilarious but also hugely articulate, almost poetic, his comedy characters were brilliantly observed and his ‘bad’ piano playing never failed to make me giggle, no matter how often I heard it. It’s a fact that you have to be an excellent musician to be able to play the piano as badly as that. His radio shows, Listen To Les, are repeated regularly on BBC Radio 4 Extra and are well worth a listen. A fact about Les mentioned In his autobiography that I prefer to believe is that he claims to have begun his showbiz career playing piano in a Parisian brothel. How many OP Knocks contestants could compete with that?

The great Les Dawson with the not-so-great Hughie Green.

Sadly, few, if any, comedians on Op Knocks even approached the high standard set by Les Dawson. There were one or two, however, that were ‘distinctive’ to say the least. One of those was the one and only Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies. His act was of such uniqueness, kids today would find it impossible to get their head around what his act actually was. After appearing in 1964 he went on to guest star in many TV variety shows such as The Des O’Connor Show, The Golden Shot (see Like A Bolt From The Blue..The Golden Shot), the surreal Sunday Night At The London Palladium ( see Tarbuck Memories: Sunday Night at the London Palladium and Cilla. To describe Freddie’s schtick would take up more space in this article than is probably justified, but fear not! I will return to Freddie ‘Parrot Face’ Davies soon and devote to him the analysis this unique performer deserves. ( see As Mad As A Ha’penny Watch: The Strange Case of 60s Comedians).

I’m thick, thick, thick……

Another many times winner from the late 60s was Welsh songstress Mary Hopkin whose career was more interesting, arguably, than her music. A Welsh folk singer, she was one of Op Knocks most frequent winners. Shortly after her success on Op Knocks she was one of the first signings to The Beatles‘ plaything Apple Records, on the recommendation of Twiggy, in 1968 and she had a number one with her first release ‘Those Were The Days’, produced by Paul McCartney. So far so sixties. She represented the UK in the 1970 Euro Song Contest with ‘Knock Knock, Who’s There‘, missing out to reactionary Irish colleen Dana with her inoffensive Euro ditty ‘All Kinds of Everything.’ After a few more less successful hits and reported unhappiness with the direction McCartney’s production was taking her she split from Apple, married top notch record producer Tony Visconti and sang background vocals on a range of classic Visconti produced albums including Bowie’s masterpiece, Low. Despite dropping out of the high profile music scene at an early stage, Mary Hopkin’s Op Knocks experience was certainly significant. How many Opportunity Knocks contestants worked with McCartney, Harrison, Visconti, Eno, Fripp and Bowie (amongst many others)? Answer: one.

Those were the days for the lovely Mary Hopkin.

If subsequent hits were the measuring jug of Op Knocks success, some credit must go to Nottingham’s most famous sons, after Robin Hood and His Merry Men, Paper Lace. Winning over a number of weeks in 1973 and featuring that strangest of animals, the singing drummer, they had a number one hit with that most irritating of earworms, Billy Don’t Be Hero. Sadly for the Lace another band in the US, Bo Donaldson and the Haywoods, picked up the song and had the lucrative stateside hit. Paper Lace had the last laugh though and their follow up single, The Night Chicago Died got to number 1 in the US and number 2 in the UK. A third hit, The Black-Eyed Boys also had success in the UK but that was, as they say, their lot. Apparently different versions of Paper Lace tour the UK to this day, although one version for most people would have been more than enough. An amusing footnote to this story (well, I think it’s amusing) was that one of the members of Paper Lace after their success decided to go solo. This joker rejoiced in the name Carlo Santana and apart from a fleeting and unsuccessful appearance on the successor to Op Knocks, New Faces (See Tony Hatch: Composer Of The Soundtrack For The 60s And 70s), faded swiftly into obscurity. Just think though, with the addition of one extra consonant he could have sold millions of records by default. Maybe that was his plan.

Paper Lace with their weird singing drummer.

But pray silence for the Op Knocks powerhouse that was Berni Flint. And no, I didn’t mis-spell his name. Berni still holds the record for most wins on Op Knocks when in 1977 he was voted back for an interminable 12 weeks! The former window cleaner from Lancashire went on to have a monster hit with the slightly verbose, ‘I Don’t Want To Put A Hold On You‘ which reached number 3 in the hit parade. His follow-up ‘Southern Comfort‘ went the way of most Op Knocks follow-up singles and scraped into the top 50 at number 48. But we hadn’t heard the last of Berni, no Sirree, and he popped up on Sunday morning TV presenting Pop Gospel in the late 70s. Sitting through an edition of this programme sounds even worse than sitting through an edition of Op Knocks. If you were to add His Holiness Cliff Richard into the equation as well as ubiquitous 70s ITV producer Muriel Young (See Bowie: The First Time (Or Loving The Alien)), then we have an ITV music programme of quite awesome ghastliness but good on our Berni for securing the gig. I wonder if Op Knocks‘ producer and presenter of the awful quasi-religious Stars On Sunday, Jess ‘The Bishop’ Yates pulled a few strings for him? We’ll never know. Then in 1985 he co-presented the children’s TV show Mooncat and Co with a host of British well known C-list faces such as Pat Coombes and Pam Ayres. Soon after this Bern’s star fell but he had a decent run for his money as Op Knocks winners go.

Occasionally Op Knocks attempted to go upmarket in occasional Green flights of fancy. This was rarely successful as the great viewing public really didn’t want to sit and listen to Beethoven when they could be watching a Russian Dance troupe from Dorking. There was one exception to the rule, however. Wolfgang Plagge was an 8 year old Norwegian child prodigy pianist who played Mozart and other classics and appeared on Op Knocks‘ ‘Viking Special‘ in April 1970. Yes, that’s what I said, ‘Viking Special.’ This was Hughie trying to shake things up a bit and the ‘Viking’ element was a few dancers from Finland, a singer from Sweden and two separate ballet dancers from Denmark. This classical dance-heavy edition would not have excited the Anglo-Saxon natives until the appearance of Wolfgang Plagge. It was not so much the fact that he was playing classical piano faultlessly but more about the fact he was only 8 years old. And if the Op Knocks viewing faithful liked something, it was a child star. Remember wee Neil and the tragic wee Lena Zavaroni and bugger what they were doing, because weren’t they cute? Little Wolfie eventually appeared on the Royal Variety Performance, another long running monument to brain-numbing tedium, and was led on to the stage by a tuxedoed Hughie Green. This kid could play Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt but Hughie clearly felt he couldn’t walk on to a stage in a straight line and start playing by himself without his guidance. Hughie had to get his oar in in front the boring Royal dignitaries.

Wee Wolfie solid gone!

It would be rude to discuss the Hughie Green years of Op Knocks without paying respects to that most Op Knocks of performers, the legendary Bobby Crush. With his neat coiffured hair, brocaded suits and cheeky wink, Bobby was the darling of the Op Knocks‘ target audience. His unchallenging brand of tinkly piano MOR went down a storm and in 1972 he won for a staggering 6 weeks. He went on to play the London Palladium, countless summer seasons in rain-swept coastal resorts, a string of successful albums with Mrs Mills-esque titles like All-Time Piano Hits, 35 Piano Pops and Honky Tonk Favourites followed and, weirdly, he even starred as Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. Bobby Crush is the ultimate Op Knocks success story. He hasn’t stopped working in over 50 years and everyone over the age of 50 remembers Bobby. And there’s more, he even wrote the most irritating pop single of all time, I Wish I Could Fly by Keith Harris and Orville (See The Lost World Of TV Ventriloquism). Hats off to Bobby Crush, a true entertainer in the nicest possible way. Maybe even giving Russ Conway a run for his money?

That cheeky wink again…..

That said….there is one other Op Knocks performer who even outdoes the Mighty Bobby in terms of summing up what that show was all about. Step forward Tony Holland, The Muscle Man!

If that’s not entertainment, then I’m a Russian dancer!

Tony Holland was a bodybuilder and in 1964 he appeared on Op Knocks and flexed his muscles rhythmically to the instrumental ‘Wheels.’ For 6 whole weeks he was voted back to perform the same act which he then repeated at The Royal Variety Performance. God knows what Brenda would have thought being confronted by a semi-naked muscular man flexing his Adductor Longus at her. Like Crush, anyone over the age of 55 will remember Tony Holland and should they be lucky enough to hear the tune ‘Wheels‘ suddenly playing in the background, 7 out of 10 of these , probably male, individuals will start flexing their muscles in the most bizarre of ways. I know I would.

Now It’s easy to take the piss out of Op Knocks for all its awfulness and it’s unpleasant presenter Hughie Green, and its endless parade of Russian dancers, out of tune singers, occasional animal acts (Su Pollard was once beaten into second place by a performing dog), and unfunny comedians but there was, at least, an honesty to it completely lacking in the talent shows of today, particularly the dreadful X Factor. At least Op Knocks featured performers purely on the strength of an audition and they were real people, while it’s well documented The X Factor plucks its finalists from stage schools and drama colleges. The auditions are a sham and really only used to ridicule particularly delusionally bad singers. Essentially neither Simon Cowell, Louis Walsh or the execrable Cheryl Cole (or whatever her name is these days) have any interest in or knowledge of music. All, however, are interested in making money and furthering their celebrity careers. Cowell and Walsh’s ‘skills’, if you could call them that, are of a business nature. They know the sort of rubbish that will sell, at least in the short term. Op Knocks was from a time when TV wasn’t used to shamelessly fill a producer’s bank account but merely to ‘entertain.’ And, yes, much of Op Knocks was rubbish but many acts went on to make a decent living because they believed in what they were doing, rather than the young wannabes who now only want to be ‘famous.’

But despite my derogatory tongue-in-cheek comments, it’s hats off to Opportunity Knocks, despite all its shortcomings it did something The X Factor will never do. It gave The Great British Viewing Public honest, down to earth, unvarnished entertainment.

And I mean that most sincerely folks…..

The Owl Service: Not In Front Of The Children?

Over 50 years old and still fascinating

The Owl Service: Staging by Bernardo Bertolucci

Any criticism that the series was unsuitably adult for children was untrue. Never underestimate the child; it is pure, it observes, makes its own mind up.’

Gillian Hills who played lead character Alison in the 1969 TV adaptation of Alan Garner’s almost hallucinatory novel ‘The Owl Service’ interviewed in 2008

In a nutshell Gillian Hills sums up what it is to be a child and to be exposed to narratives that are complex, challenging and often downright strange.  I’ve made the point regularly that the best children’s TV was that which wasn’t made with children in mind, or anyone in mind for that matter. Many examples of this high-end entertainment already appear on these pages and will continue to appear. A shining example is the TV series of The Owl Service from a novel by the visionary and poet Alan Garner, written in 1968. A quite breathtaking children’s series through which its references to the cutting edge European directors of the time such as Antonioni, Fellini, Bertolucci and Godard and its metaphysical myriad plot lines, created a truly astonishing piece of work. The TV version of Alan Garner’s 1967 novel hit the screens in December 1969 to little fanfare. Given a prime-time Sunday teatime slot, it was clearly  thought to be a worthy production by Granada. The company had lavished quite a decent budget on the serial, it was the first scripted drama to be filmed in colour by Granada and most of the filming was on location, predominantly in Wales. Ironically a technician’s dispute meant the series went out in black and white which ruined some fascinating visual imagery, although, to be fair, few people had colour TVs in 1969. To watch the series now on DVD opens up a whole new visual element to the story which is as powerful now as it was then. 

At the time I was aware of a new series, a ‘children’s series, beginning at teatime on a December Sunday afternoon in 1969. There were only two channels, for god’s sake, so you were constantly aware of these things. Initially, the title did not inspire me. With my knowledge of many other ‘children’s TV series I had decided it was about a group of children (for ‘Service’ I read ‘gang’) and with ‘Owl’ in the title I had decided it was about a gang of children trying to protect or find owls. So far, so predictable. For another thing, it being Sunday afternoon, it would be something suitably anodyne and worthy, in keeping with the prevailing presbyterian establishment view of how Sundays should be observed. Swings in parks were still chained up on Sundays in 1969 remember! 

Or so I thought.

It was only after I went to school the following day and had the story so far explained to me by a friend. WOW! This had to be seen to be believed. In the days before video and catch-up I had six more days to wait for episode two. And it would be nearly ten years before I’d ever have the chance of seeing episode one again. I was not to be disappointed.

The opening credits immediately created the conflicting feelings, the strangeness and the brooding, menacing atmosphere of the story. It introduced an almost other-worldly visual and metaphorical landscape. Anyone chancing upon this opening sequence with no prior knowledge of the story could be in no doubt that this was different to normal Sunday, or any other day’s, teatime fare. The juxtaposition of calm, pastoral harp music and nerve-jangling revving of, what seemed, an old motorbike along with the psychedelic visuals warned the viewer of the bumpy psychological ride which was to follow.

The themes were certainly of an adult nature: sexual awakening, jealousy, class, influence of ancient legends. But most of these were, and are, issues young people as well adults all have to come to terms with and try to understand. Of course, some children, like my 9 year-old self, would not have recognised a young girl’s sexual awakening anymore than I’d have recognised Mao Tse Tung buying 20 Bensons in the local newsagent. The Owl Service still had a profound effect on me, however. As Gillian Hills pointed out, I was hooked, fascinated and beguiled by the story and the treatment of the story. That was enough.

The story began conventionally enough. Two teenagers, Alison and Roger, are on holiday in Wales with their recently married parents. Clive, Roger’s dad , has married Margaret, Alison’s overbearing mum (who we never see). The old house has been left to Alison by her Uncle Bertram who was killed tragically in a motor cycling accident. The family are joined by Nancy, the housekeeper who had worked for Bertram years before, and her teenage son Gwyn. The seemingly deranged Huw Halfbacon, the long-time caretaker of the house, completes the cast. The narrative between the three teenagers plays out the ancient legend of Llew, Blodeuwedd, a woman created out of flowers for Llew, and Gronw, Lord of Penlynn, who Blodeuwedd falls in love with. To cut a very long story short, Blodeuwedd and Gronw plan to kill Llew but Llew kills Gronw by plunging a spear through a stone Gronw was sheltering behind and he turns Blodeuwedd into an owl for plotting against him. In many myths and legends, owls symbolise evil and owls crop up regularly throughout The Owl Service’s eight episodes. Alison discovers a tea service in the loft of her room and and creates owls out of the floral pattern on these plates, unleashing the ancient curse which had already played out between Nancy, Bertram and Huw years before.

By the time she made The Owl Service Gillian Hills was already an established actress and had led a life that was the epitome of 60s glamour and excitement. Playing the title character in the 1960 British film Beat Girl which achieved notoriety, by 1960s standards at least, in its depiction of the wild and ‘immoral’ world of teenage pop culture, The British Board of Film Censors slapped an ‘X’ certificate on it, terrified it might influence the youth of the day to revolt and maybe have a good time. Living in France with Bohemian parents she worked with Roger Vadim and Serge Gainsbourg (which young attractive French actresses didn’t?), releasing a string of hits including ‘Zou Bisou, Bisou’ which was reprised and performed by Don Draper’s girlfriend, Megan, at his birthday celebration in a memorable episode of the wonderful Mad Men.’ Two other significant film appearances were in Kubrick’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (See A Clockwork Orange) as one of the two girls Malcolm McDowall picks up in a record shop and as one of two girls David Hemmings romps with covered in camera film in Antonioni’s masterpiece ‘Blow Up.’ The parallels with Antonio’s post neo-realistic classic and other innovative European cinematic masterpieces such as Bertolucci’sThe Conformist’ and Godard’s nouvelle-vague ‘Alphaville’ with their use of extreme close-ups, jump cuts, unusual camera angles and meticulously organised staging and ’The Owl Service’ are clear.

The strangeness of the plot, the alienated characters, the long takes, the supernaturally and sexually charged atmosphere of the setting were all enhanced by the cutting edge direction giving an appropriately other-worldly quality to the production. The look and feel of The Owl Service was just so different to almost every other children’s TV series available at the time that it was almost spellbinding.

Despite Gillian Hills being 25 playing a 16/17 year old (Alison’s age is never specified) when she made The Owl Service, the eroticism of many of the scenes is striking. On a number of occasions the camera pans over her prostrate body, the red bikini she wears is symbolism that slaps the viewer across the face, the scene in which she moans at the thought of the Lady of Flowers leaves nothing to the imagination, at least nothing to an adult’s imagination… It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is a story about a young girl’s sexual awakening. Was this appropriate material for children? Probably not but would children have worked this out? Of course they wouldn’t. But there was so much for the more thoughtful child to appreciate in this story. The way it slipped through the censors (yes they still used the repressive language of ‘censors’ in those days) net is one the many intriguing elements of this programme. It almost feels like a triumph that the faceless bureaucrats who decided what was right and wrong for people of any age to watch had, for once, failed. British children’s broadcasting was enhanced forever as a result.

Photography by Antonioni

The strange and dazzling camera work was one of the first things to arrest my attention. The image of Alison in her sunglasses with Gwyn and Roger reflected in each lens, the grotesque extreme close-up of the overbearing and unpleasant Nancy, the shot of Clive framed through Roger’s arm obliquely referencing the gap in the Stone of Gronwr, the tilted camera showing Clive struggling to pick up a pear which had slipped to the ground as he attempted to eat it with a knife and fork, the Wellesian deep focus in many of the internal shots. Few directors of children’s programmes took the care to create images like these. 

The shots of the characters reflected in mirrors, including the striking image of Gwyn and Roger in the lens of Alison’s sunglasses, was a reference to the way the legends of the valley were paralleled in present, as if parallel universes existed for the characters. An interesting device used by the director was to dress the three main characters in the electrical plug wiring colours of the time. Alison always wore red, Gwyn black and Roger green. The implication being that together they were capable of  a terrifying power if unleashed. Unfortunately, a technician’s dispute in 1969 meant the episodes were broadcast in black and white meaning this reference was lost to any viewer, albeit few at that time possessed a colour receiver. It would be the 1978 repeat before any sharp-eyed members of the viewing public would be able to spot this device.

Photography by Nicholas Roeg

The character of Margaret, Alison’s mother, who was never seen though occasionally heard added a further mysterious element to the plot. Her tyrannical, condescending almost ghostly presence, particularly with regards to Gwyn, is conspicuous. Her role with Alison is similar to that of Nancy’s over Gwyn. Why does she forbid Alison to see Gwyn? Is it just snobbishness as he is perceived as being below Alison’s social standing? Roger uses a euphemism for snobbery to Clive, ‘Is that why Margaret’s gone so county with Alison?’, suggesting they come from a social strata way above Gwyn’s. This is further reinforced when Roger refers to joining Clive, ‘ the business.’ Or does Margaret genuinely worry about the effect it might have on Alison as she is still a relatively and possibly impressionable teenager? Or, intriguingly, maybe Margaret is also aware of the legend and has been here before? Either way, her influence on the story is dislocating and sometimes threatening, despite her lack of corporeality.

This references to one of the main themes of the story, that of class, which resonates with the ancient legend. The Lady of Flowers falls in love with a man of a much lower standing than Llew and suffers the consequences. Nancy and Bertram’s story also echoes the ancient legend due to class and jealousy. Clearly little has moved on in the valley for over 2000 years.

A couple of interesting 1970s references to the time the series was made, crop up through the dialogue of Roger and Gwynn. While Alison, Gwynn and Roger are talking in Episode 2 Roger says ’Very inter-esting!’, a reference to a popular character played by Artie Jonson in the groundbreaking TV late 1960s comedy show, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, who, dressed as a cigarette-smoking Nazi, would comment on the previous sketch from behind a pot-plant with the words, ‘Very inter-esting….’ Anyone over the age of 10 at this time would be aware of this character and it eventually became something of a cliche, the number of people who would refer to it in general conversation. Rather like the number of people who used constantly irritating expressions such as, ‘Wake up and smell the coffee,’ or ‘No shit, Sherlock’ in the 2000s. They were funny for a short time.

Later Gwyn would comment, ‘You’re as daft as a clockwork orange.’ Although Kubrick’s film had not been released at this time, Anthony Burgess’s book had. There is, however, no evidence that this saying is a reference to the Burgess novel. Was it a common adage in Wales or maybe even in Alan Garner’s Lancashire? Burgess, himself was born in Lancashire and may have been aware of the saying when writing his novel. Both references, it’s fair to say, were more adult in their use although I remember clearly using the Artie Johnson line regularly at the time. It’s a small but significant element showing how the writer and director were refusing to treat their young audience as children. Bizarrely, two years later Gillian Hills would appear in Kubrick’s film of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (See A Clockwork Orange) as one of the girls Alex picks up in the record shop. A record shop which not only displays a self-referential cover of Kubrick’s album of 2001 A Space Odyssey but also Alex’s reference to a group known as The Heaven 17. Whatever became of them, I wonder?

The final episode takes the mysteriousness and threat of the supernatural to a new level. Against a backdrop of the elements conspiring against the protagonists the rain pours down as Gwyn and Nancy leave the house and walk to the village to phone a taxi. The first half of the episode is intercut with the image of an axe chopping down what appears to be a tree. The wielder of this axe is unseen at this point. As Nancy dials for a taxi the phone box is surrounded by some Fellini-esque villagers in their sou’westers questioning her on why she is leaving. Eventually the axe wielders are revealed to be three young children and the tree is in fact the telegraph pole connected to Nancy’s telephone, stopping her from dialling out, isolating her in the village, or more importantly, Gwyn, in the village. Our last glimpse of Nancy is an elaborate long-shot from Gwyn’s point of view as she continues to rail against the world and turns on the road away from the valley. Clearly the people of the valley are only too aware of the legend and expect it to be played out again. The ambiguous ending as the three young children (the same ones who chopped down the telegraph pole?) play and lay flowers around the Stone of Gronw. Are these children the next in line to play out the legend?

In the same episode Alison becomes seemingly unwell when confronted with the ancient amulet sent to her by Gwyn. Scars appear on her face and she falls into semi-consciousness, almost into a state of sexual delirium. Roger tries to persuade Gwyn to help her but his anger is still too great and it is Roger who placates her as Gwyn weeps. But was it really Roger? 

The series ends as enigmatically as it began. What goes around, comes around. Alison, Gwyn and Roger’s relationship has changed but for the better? Relationships are never straightforward, particularly teenage relationships but each character learned something, each character experienced a traumatic epiphany of some kind, what that epiphany was is for the viewer to work out. Ancient legends rarely offer straightforward answers and neither do modern relationships. But the journey to this point was mind-blowing and, as Gillian Hills rightly observed, you make your own mind up, especially if you’re a child.

Bowie: The First Time (Or Loving The Alien)

How David Bowie exploded into the public consciousness on a rubbish children’s TV programme

The Age of Bowie by Paul Morley, a sublime and personal account of the life and work of David Bowie written shortly after his death, eschews straight biography but is a superb forensic analysis of what was and is Bowie’s genius. What was it that drove this chameleon-like maestro and how did he constantly keep the listening (and viewing) public on its toes with such decadent ease? Although hugely subjective, (what biography worth its salt isn’t?) it highlights many of the key moments in Bowie’s career putting them into context with regards to superstardom, musical genius, amazing collaboration and inspired PR brilliance. His role within 20th and 21st century culture is plotted intriguingly and the final chapter will bring tears to a glass (spider’s?) eye.

Any such consideration of Bowie’s multi-faceted career will inevitably have Bowie fans (like myself) quibbling about certain aspects and moments from his career that, arguably, should have been included, but this is not only a compliment to Morley but to Bowie also. How could any one person’s opinions on Bowie be definitive? Although not a quibble, I felt Morley maybe missed a trick by only referring to Bowie’s monumental appearance on Top of the Pops in June 1972 performing ‘Starman’ but I would argue his first TV appearance introducing this classic song three weeks previously was just as fascinating but for very different reasons, and deserved analysis. Not only was this performance bizarre, provocative and utterly compelling, it was also the first time I had set eyes on Bowie and I remember the moment so clearly and vividly as if it was a flashback in a Nic Roeg film.

One’s childhood memories in the adult’s mind is usually a series of snapshots, albeit vivid snapshots with some more vivid than others. ‘Everyone remembers where they were when they heard about Kennedy’s assassination’ has become a cliche for the over 60s. Although certainly aware of it, I remember Lee Harvey Oswald’s killing better, although Kennedy’s funeral remains clear in my memory. Maybe because it was broadcast live in this country in the middle of the afternoon. A very rare event in those days. For the over 50s, however, ‘Where were you when you first set eyes on that other-worldly creature David Bowie?’ is probably a more relevant question and certainly one I could answer with a high degree of accuracy. 

Since his death we have been bombarded with TV programmes and publications detailing his life and work in extra-fine, forensic detail. Something I’m not complaining about. Keep them coming! But, for me, it all began one dull tea-time in the summer of 1972 when my attention was drawn to something on the screen which seemed utterly alien to me. That’s because it was.

The date was Thursday 15 June 1972 and ( as I have since found out thanks to that wonderful thing they call the internet), pre-dated his seminal appearance on Top of the Pops by three weeks.

The lovely Ayshea

Lift-Off with Ayshea was an ITV alternative to BBC’s Top of the Pops. It was inferior in almost every way and it did occasionally get some decent guests but mainly it was dedicated to the up-and-coming and going nowhere artist. They were cheaper and more available and ’cheap and tacky’ were words which ran through Lift Off like the writing in a stick of Blackpool rock. And at this time Bowie was cheap, he’d have done it for nothing, and he was certainly available. But, unknown to my 11 year old sensibility, something strange and momentous had begun to happen here…

Lift Off was a children’s programme, unlike TOTP which had a slightly broader target audience and went out later in the evening at around 7pm. It was produced by the doyenne of the ITV children’s TV department, Muriel Young. As well as Lift Off she produced similar pop-oriented tea-time kids shows throughout the 60s and 70s such as The Bay City Rollers’ imaginatively titled ‘Rollers’, carbon copy vehicles for Marc Bolan, Moondogs (!?) and Arrows. With the exception of the Rollers who had hit the peak of their success at the time, few of the bands amounted to a hill of beans. Moondogs came from nowhere and swiftly returned there, although Arrows had a couple of minor hits in the charts including ‘Touch Too Much’ but are remembered mainly for writing the anthemic ‘I Love Rock and Roll’, eventually picked up by Joan Jett and the rest is, of course, royalty history. Certainly this song will have kept the only still-living member of Arrows, Alan Merrill, in a fairly comfortable lifestyle for his remaining tenure on this earth. 

Not exactly a stellar line-up that week, not even with Len and Rita.

And who (of a certain age) could forget Young’s other music show operating on a budget of old pennies, the mind-numbing awfulness of ‘Get It Together’? Sadly not me though I’ve tried. Starring Roy North, Mr Roy, early sidekick to the great Basil Brush, its theme tune had the excruciating effect of a stick insect burrowing its way into the brain. ‘Get it together, all together, yes we’ll have a good time…Lady Grinning Soul it wasn’t. 

The template for each subsequent Muriel Young pop series was invariably the same:

  1. A never-changing set festooned in stars and tin foil. (They probably used the same set for all of the above-mentioned shows.)
  2. A small studio audience of fans whose shouts and screams sounded hollow within the cavernous studio. Occasional cutaways tried to make out there were hundreds of them rather than the 50-60 that were actually there.
  3. Three to four minute sections comprising lip-synched songs and awkward ‘comedy’ routines.
  4. Animated sequences of fans shouting and clapping to separate the live sections.
  5. A special guest, usually someone occupying the lower regions of the charts or some unchallenging has-been like Vince Hill or Clodagh Rodgers, followed by a scripted ‘informal’ chat with the stars of the show. Even greater awkwardness ensued.
  6. A ‘big’ closing number in which the small band of fans had their sound amplified to suggest excitement. A few, only a few, were allowed to run on to the stage to ‘mob’ their heroes.

With the exception of Lift Off, purely because it occasionally featured some interesting guests, the only other Muriel Young series to pass muster was the 1977 series ‘Marc’ starring Marc Bolan, sadly in decline from his early seventies zenith. His quirky and spaced-out personality just about carried it through. The final section of the 1977 first and only series featured Bolan duetting with his great pal David Bowie, who had just performed his new single, a ditty entitled ’Heroes.’ This closing section is notable for two reasons. Firstly, during the duet, Bolan became entangled in his guitar cord and fell off the stage to Bowie’s great amusement. It went against the predictable nature of the series that they kept this moment in. Which was nice. And secondly, it turned out to be the last performance Bolan would ever give, dying tragically in a car crash a few days later. Bowie had flown in from Berlin specially to record the show. The planned second series, of course, never happened.

Lift Off ran from 1969 to 1974 and each episode featured three or four live acts plus a couple of cover versions by Ayshea herself. She was probably the first and only Asian woman to feature in her own TV series during the 70s. At the time she was desperately trying to be a pop star and had been taken under the wing of Roy Wood, no less, who was doing a little more than just producing her, as rumour had it. As well as being a backing singer on Wizzard’sI Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day’ she eventually went on to appear in Space 1999 and a few other series without ever repeating the success she enjoyed with Lift Off, where she was a household name, at least with da kids.

Don’t ask…

Other than the Bowie episode I have only sketchy memories of other acts on Lift Off. To be honest, I was only slowly becoming interested in pop in the early 1970s. I did watch TOTP most Thursdays, mainly because it preceded Tomorrow’s World which my dad liked. I had also discovered BT’s (or whatever they were called then) Dial-A Disc service. The Spotify of its day, it required the listener to dial a particular telephone number and listen to a single specific track from the current top 10 which was played on a loop for 24 hours. God knows how much it cost to listen to but luckily itemised phone bills were a few years off. I had also bought my first single with my own money, ‘Theme From Shaft’ by the legendary Isaac Hayes. A record I am hugely proud of, still possess and still love. My second single purchase was ‘Mouldy Old Dough’ by Lieutenant Pigeon.

One band who appeared on Lift Off With Ayshea and I have a very clear memory of was Slade, unmercilessly taking the piss out of Ayshea as she attempted to interview them. Dave Hill kept brandishing his guitar during the interview shouting ‘Super Yob!’ For the first time I quite warmed to Slade, hitherto finding them to be a little bit scary. And a mirrored top hat was the coolest thing I had ever seen. I recently read that Noddy Holder constructed this ground-breaking titfer himself from a job-lot of budgie mirrors he’d bought. Diminishes the magic a little…

But I digress… Back to Bowie. 

Thursday 15 June 1972 is a day notable only for Ulrike Meinhoff of the Bader-Meinhoff Gang being arrested in West Germany and the ‘new’ Bowie’s first appearance, to my knowledge, on British TV . Very seventies. I didn’t always watch Lift Off because even at the impressionable age of 11 I found it a little bit patronising and a big bit amateurish. But here I’m sitting in our living room, alone, at our house of the time in Relugas Road, watching what will have still been a black and white telly and the opening credits begin to roll. I have no idea who else appeared in this episode because my mouth almost fell open when Bowie suddenly flashed up on the screen. The opening to Lift Off showed each of the artists appearing looking at the camera for a few seconds. Like a cross between a Warhol screen test and the closing credits to Hi-De-Hi, they would stare awkwardly and vacantly at the camera. ‘Who’s that weirdo?’ I thought, narrowing my eyes. A tentative Bowie looked straight at me. Dark spiky hair, makeup, crooked teeth, oddly inappropriate name for such a bizarre looking creature. And what was so strange about those eyes? Even in black and white his exotic-ness, though that’s not the word I used at the time, screamed out from the screen. It was a bit like the ghost crawling out of the TV screen in the Japanese horror film, Ring. But the artlessness of his demeanour, uncharacteristically not quite knowing what to do when the camera was suddenly pointed at him, looking vacantly out at the viewing public, seemed utterly at odds with the body he inhabited and image he projected.  With a little trepidation I decided I had to see this. 

I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t heard of this guy, not even Space Oddity, and suddenly he’s thrust before an audience of children at Thursday tea time. When one thinks of Bowie’s sexually charged image during this Ziggy period, felating Mick Ronson’s guitar for example, it was an audacious choice for the morally buttoned-up Ms Young to foist before a youthful audience. But 60s and 70s telly was like that. Didn’t Scott Walker sing Jacques Brel on the Frankie Howerd Show, didn’t Dizzy Gillespie play Be-Bop jazz on The Golden Shot, didn’t Jimi Hendrix force It’s Lulu to overrun, cutting into The Black and White Minstrel Show? Strange days indeed.

When Bowie eventually performed ‘Starman’ it was (another) revelation. His music wasn’t ‘way-out’ after all. It was actually….brilliant! And that bit when he looked into the camera and pointed his circling finger straight at you-oo-oo. It was a watershed moment. I had been brought up to believe long-haired, dirty weirdos were exactly that (even though I loved The Beatles, but they were different) and here’s this alien on telly and I love this song. I still found him a little bit scary but what the hell.

Three weeks later he appeared on TOTP. I don’t have the same vivid memory of watching this at the time but I think I did. He seemed much more confident performing here than in the garden shed studio of Lift Off. Here there was a proper audience, a more professional setting and much livelier vibe.TOTP has been criticised for many reasons but it did generate a tangible feeling of excitement, an urgent and immediate tone which may not have come across in the studio but certainly came across through the cathode ray tube. Bowie and his band unsurprisingly seemed much more energised and at ease here.

I’m on TV mum!

Watching this performance back on YouTube one has the feeling that this was one of TOTP’s most significant moments. However, it was always an amusing experience as a viewer just to watch members of the TOTP audience, particularly if the artist featured was crap. The ones who are really ‘getting down’. The ones who think they may be spotted by a TV producer or Model Agency and might be thrust to superstardom overnight. And, of course, the ones who just liked seeing themselves on telly. In this seminal performance by Bowie and The Spiders it’s worth looking out for a lad dancing at the back of the stage in a tank top. Little does he know he is witnessing the genesis of one of the major artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. An artist so ground-breaking, innovative, imaginative and influential, announcing his arrival to the world in a performance that will remain iconic and totemic to this day. But all this lad wants to see is his own ba’-face in the monitors above them so he slides back and forward along the stage, at one point suddenly emerging in-between Bowie and Ronson’s deliberately ambiguous embrace during the chorus, grinning from ear to ear having achieved this feat of media manipulation and self-aggrandisement. For me, this is all part of that phenomenal moment. The idea that this anonymous lad in his tank top was present at, possibly, the most memorable TOTP of all time and was blissfully unaware of what was happening in front of his upturned eyes (as most of us were) just adds to the impact of the experience. Where is that lad now? He will now be in his mid-60s and, if still alive, what must he recollect of that night in June 1972? I think we should be told.

I had no idea if this alien was going to be successful. I had no idea he was the writer of the wonderfully jaunty ‘Oh You Pretty Thing’ sung by the wholesome and toothsome ex-Hermit Peter Noone, a hit in the previous year. I had no idea Bowie had even played piano on that record. But a few weeks later ‘John I’m Only Dancing’ was released and it was clear this extra-terrestrial was no flash in the pan.

For many years it was thought that the footage of Bowie on Lift Off with Ayshea had been wiped like so many other monumental TV programmes in regular acts of cultural vandalism by TV companies. Recently it was announced that the Lift Off footage had been unearthed, as a viewer, quite unbelievably for the time, had recorded his performance from the TV using computer tape. How could he have known? Although in a very degraded state this footage is, allegedly, in the process of being restored. If successful, for me, this is the most valuable of all Bowie films being the first performance of his breakthrough song and on a children’s TV show to thigh-length boot. Although the TOTP performance a few weeks later is, quite rightly, seen as his calling card to the world it’s that moment tucked away on a children’s TV show that, I believe, is the most pivotal and I feel privileged to have witnessed it and even remember it. Popular music ch-ch-changed from that day on. (Sorry..) 

So I picked on you-oo-oo…