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…

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…

Opportunity Knocks!

Or how to get on in show business (for a short time) if you were really 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 repulsive 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 mind-numbing 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 shit), 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, but more on that later.

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 they nicked off 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 shit? (A lot more on that later….). Poor wee Neil’s career failed to take off and when his voice broke a couple of years later, so 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 great 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 (more on this later), the surreal 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.

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 Eurovision 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 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 Santanna and apart from a fleeting and unsuccessful appearance on the successor to Op Knocks, New Faces, 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 and he popped up 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), 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 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 Wolfgang eventually appeared on the Royal Variety Performance, that 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 impossible 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 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 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. Hats off to Bobby Crush, a true entertainer in the nicest possible way. Maybe even as good as Russ Conway?

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 shit 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 shit that will sell, at least in the short term, e.g. One Direction, Westlife. 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.’

So hats off to Opportunity Knocks despite all its shortcomings it did something The X Factor will never do. It gave us honest, down to earth entertainment.

And I mean that most sincerely…..

The Owl Service: Not In Front Of The Children?

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’ 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’ 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…