Here’s Something I Wrote Earlier..(Oops, Pete’s already used that)

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

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

The classic line up.

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

The classic line up

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

Geddit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1969: Blue Peter: Valentine the Lion

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

Posted by BBC Archive on Sunday, February 14, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

1972: Blue Peter: World-Class Whistling

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

Posted by BBC Archive on Friday, November 16, 2018

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

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

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

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

One minute on and its still resonating……..

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

Phwoar!

Step forward Lesley Judd.

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

Lesley pulls back the boundaries of equality.

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

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

It’s time we were told.

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

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

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

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

Really quite a funky title sequence

The first three presenters were a rather mixed bag.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jenny with that slightly faraway look in her eyes again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phwoar!

Federico Fellini: His Life On Film?

What is it that defines visually a Fellini film?

When attempting to describe a particularly chaotic scene he had witnessed, a friend once said to me, ‘It was like a Fellini film!’ Now this friend was far from being a cineaste, only visited the cinema occasionally and hadn’t even been to Italy, but he instinctively knew what a Fellini film looked like. This is true of many people who would never admit to being familiar with Italian Neo-Realism or any other style associated with cinema from that part of the world. So how do so many people know what a Fellini film looks like?

Fellini would have been 100 years old this year and, in celebration, digitally restored versions of his films have been released and are being shown at cinemas all over the world. As I watched Fellini’s Roma and La Strada as part of this centenary retrospective, my friend’s comment all those years ago came back to me. It made me realise that Fellini is one of the few directors in cinematic history whose body is work is so distinctive that a single scene or even a single frame from any of his films could be displayed and it would be immediately obvious who created it. One could also say the same thing about Picasso, Dali or Velasquez, for example, but these artists created static images. To talk about a film director in such illustrious company is rare.

So what is it about Fellini’s work that is so visually distinctive? How do people, whose interest in cinema is merely superficial, know what a typical Fellini scene looks like? To state the bleeding obvious, it’s the meticulous staging of his films, but how is this extraordinary, idiosyncratic ‘look’ created? There’s more to that than meets the eye…

Needless to say, there is no one element that, above all, creates the Fellini ‘look’ and, in no particular order, I am going to consider some the ingredients that coalesce to construct what we describe as ‘Fellini-esque.’ The scope of this article, however, is not an attempt to explain or decipher what these images necessarily mean, many critics have done this in extensive studies, although certain elements are briefly considered. But this is about the ‘look’ of a Fellini film and it is the ‘look’ that provides so much excitement and pleasure for the viewer. And it is this ‘look’ that raises Fellini above so many other artists and why so many other directors and auteurs cite him as a major influence.

Fellini began working in films with that giant of neo-realist cinema, Roberto Rossellini, and this, inevitably, influenced his earlier films profoundly. One of the tenets of neo-realism was the use of non-professional actors, a principle that Fellini stuck with throughout his career. Although he worked regularly with his principle actors, the brilliant Marcello Mastroianni and his muse (and wife) Giulietta Masina, the bulk of his cast were just ordinary people. Fellini was known to hang out in Piazza del Popolo in his adopted Rome where he would find ‘interesting’ looking people and ask them to be in his film. Who in Rome would turn down Italy’s greatest director? Fellini loved ‘grotesques’. Not grotesque in the sense of ‘ugly’ but as ‘fantastic in the shaping and combination of forms.’ Fellini’s characters were rarely the chiselled, beautiful people that usually populate films but ordinary people whose faces told a story, people who had lived through difficult times, people who Fellini saw as being uniquely Italian.

This use of compelling and engaging characters influenced a whole raft of American and European directors including Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Nicolas Roeg and Pier Paulo Pasolini.

The way Fellini brought these characters together in scenes and introduced them to the viewing audience was also characteristic, large, long, sometimes round, often white-powdered faces suddenly lurching from the bottom or side of the frame to take up the whole screen.

His crowd scenes were often protracted and meticulously staged with a moving camera weaving and darting between the characters, often families, as they shout, bawl, eat, drink, fight, argue, dance, romance and perform. In these scenes the seething mass of humanity is the star, this is Italian life as Fellini sees it, the common denominator by which Italy is defined.

Fellini grew up in the 1920s in Rimini on the north east coast of Italy. Like most children at this time he was, of course, brought up catholic and this inevitably had an effect on him as nuns and priests feature in most Fellini films. His treatment of them is usually comedic and often surreal. The ecclesiastical fashion show in Roma is a classic satirical moment within his body of work. But pretty much any street or crowd scene will feature a bespectacled, grim looking priest or a gaggle of bewimpled nuns, for no other reason than they were ubiquitous in Italy at the time and had a profound influence on his early life, like all Italian children from this era.. Deliberate or not, they always added an element of comedy to any scene.

Fellini’s films are clearly autobiographical, but which elements of them are fact and which are fiction has been an ongoing source of debate. Fellini was always only too happy to muddy the waters on this subject and his treatment of the clergy is no different. Whether he was being critical about religion generally or just the Catholic Church is anybody’s guess. But it certainly made for hilarious cinema when a nun or priest suddenly darted into the shot in a typically Felliniesque scene for no apparent narrative reason. in a strange sort of way it has become comic because being a Fellini film, the viewer expects a nun or priest to suddenly appear unannounced.

Fellini claims to have run away to the circus when he was a child. Whether this actually happened, no one except Fellini himself really knows, but circuses and particularly clowns appear randomly and frequently in his films in a similar way to priests and nuns. He even made one of the first ‘mockumentaries’ about his obsession with clowns for Italian TV in 1970. Any Fellini film that failed to feature clowns in some way would be disappointing. But it’s Fellini. He doesn’t need a reason to feature them.

As so much of Fellini’s output is autobiographical, there are certain settings which feature in most of his films. Growing up in the coastal town of Rimini, beaches are a recurring setting in most of his films, particularly his early ones. In La Strada, for example, the film begins and ends on a beach. 81/2, La Dolce Vita and Amaracord all include scenes on beaches.

Empty night time Italian streets and piazzas are given prominence in many of his films. Often after a street has been heaving with action, humanity and life the central character is left alone to deal with their troubles, their melancholy, their dark night of the soul. With only stray dogs, a whistling wind and the harsh moonlight for company, the character reflects on their life as Gelsomina does in La Strada having run away from her harsh ‘keeper’, Zampano. The atmospheric nature of such a setting clearly struck a chord with Fellini whose tragic characters counterpointed the lively and animated nature of the crowd in the street earlier.

Related image

Strange marching brass bands, sometimes of sad looking clowns, appear unheralded and disappear again, almost punctuating important moments. In La Strada they appear in the middle of nowhere as Gelsomina sits feeling sad and sorry for herself but the musicians motivate her to return to Zampano’s act. In 81/2 they march up and down Guido’s huge white elephant of a set, partly referencing Fellini’s love of the circus and partly motivating Guido to try and move forward with his film.

Although not a visual element Fellini’s random manipulation of time is characteristic of his narratives. He may spend half an hour of a film relating the events of a few days and then jump three years ahead, for no obvious reason. Similarly, flashbacks are common and sometimes not always made obvious to the viewer. Fellini’s Roma, for example, jumps around with time, from the autobiographical past to the fictional present, and vice-versa, and back again. One might think Fellini is deliberately trying to blur the edges of time and place to create a Roma that is the one in his head, which is, of course, what the film is all about.

Fellini’s narratives can also be erratic, disordered, uneven and most certainly episodic. In Roma the young Fellini (or who we are led to believe is the young Fellini) has an encounter with a prostitute who fascinates him and he asks our out on a date and she agrees. How the date went or their relationship developed, if at all, is left unanswered. Throughout this film we jump back and forward from the main character’s (Fellini’s?) childhood to his adolescence then to the present and rarely making any sort of narrative sense. But isn’t memory just a series of disordered snapshots in our mind? His films are like this sporadic stream of consciousness and fascinating for it.

Stylistically, Fellini uses the camera to assault the viewer in the most exciting way. Extreme close-ups, aerial shots, POV shots, hand held cameras weaving their way through heaving crowds, jump cuts, long , long takes, deep focus and sweeping dolly shots pepper his films. A Fellini film can be an exhausting experience and often one viewing is nothing like enough. The meticulous mise en scene, scattergun dialogue and ultra-fast editing does not always allow the eye and brain to take in what exactly is happening in each scene. Also taking into account a Fellini film can be over two hours long, this is a mind-blowing amount of material to try and deal with in one sitting. A writer described Fellini’s films as ‘..a luxuriance of ..images‘ and, as mentioned at the start of this article, a single freeze-frame could be seen to encapsulate Fellini’s ouvre.

Fellini has been described by some commentators as ‘self-indulgent‘ and even ‘complacent‘ but in many ways, with a true auteur such as he is, these are desirable qualities and his films have never look dated or ‘uncool’. Quite the contrary. Whether their context and ideas are still relevant is, for me, irrelevant, but they look amazing and never slow down for a second. They are a visual carnival and at a time when we are being bombarded with super heroes weekly, what’s not to like?

Three years ago I was on holiday in New York and stayed at a fashionable hotel in the ultra-hip Lower East Side. In the lift (or elevator as they would say) a screen showed Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2 on a loop 24/7. As old films go, it doesn’t come much cooler than that.

Fellini would have approved.

Like A Bolt From The Blue..The Golden Shot

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

Don’t get too comfortable Jackie.

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

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

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

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

Bob firing on all cylinders

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

The one and only Carol Dilworth

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

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

Don’t count on an acting career, Annie.

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

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

Dizzy blowin’ up a storm at Sunday tea time

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

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

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

Yes, definitely dodgy Norman.

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

Poor ow’d Charlie looks around for help.

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

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

And remember, hang on to your hollyhocks!

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

As Mad As A Ha’penny Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Christ! There’s two of them!

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

Does he play the clarinet?

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

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

Whey-heyyyy!!!

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

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

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

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

It’s that Ayshea again!

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

I’m thick, thick, thick..

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

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

It’s missing his lisp.

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

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

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

I’m thick, thick, thick…

The Carry-On World XI

Just in case anyone thought this blog might have delusions of intellectual grandeur..it doesn’t.

Matron, take them away……

Football these days is up its own arse. If I see another one of those interminable, arty introductory sequences on Match of the Day or Sportscene again, I think I’ll spit. The ones that make out a particular match is a clash of Greek gods and Titans as written by Eurypides and filmed by Stanley Kubrick. FUCK OFF! It’s Burnley v Crystal Palace!

It is my duty, and anyone else’s who thinks in a similar way, to prick such pomposity, to parry such pretension, to expose all that bollocks and show football for what it is. A (sometimes) enjoyable pastime on a Saturday afternoon, although that’s a rare event these days thanks to the good people at Sky, BT, Amazon, Premier Sports and whatever other ‘platforms’ exist to ruin our game. It’s a bit like all those commentators who constantly refer to it as ‘The Beautiful Game‘. Just because Pele said it once doesn’t mean it’s true. There’s nothing beautiful about it, it’s rough, sometimes violent, dirty and cynical. And that’s why we love it. As the great Danny Baker once said, there’s nothing a crowd enjoy more than an off-the-ball chinning. But due to the boring nature of players nowadays, there’s sadly few of those anymore.

So here is my slightly rude world eleven, just to hammer home the fact that football should never be taken seriously. Please feel free to make any other suitably naughty suggestions, should anyone else read this post who has a schoolboy sense of humour like mine.

  1. Pumpido
  2. Dicks
  3. Bumstead
  4. Van Gobbel
  5. Shittu
  6. Scheidt
  7. Fuchs
  8. Ufarte
  9. Kuntz
  10. Umtiti
  11. Goodwillie

Subs:BALL and ARCE

Back of the net!

Opportunity Knocks!

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

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 just happened to be unchallenging pop behemoths Brotherhood of Man that year 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) 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 ‘Those Were The Days‘, 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 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 faces such as Pat Coombes and Pam Ayres. Soon after Berni’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 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 wee Lena Zavaroni and bugger what they were doing, but 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‘ viewer. 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. Easily 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.

Now It’s easy to take the piss out of Op Knocks for all its awfulness and it’s horrible presenter Hughie Green, and endless parade of Russian dancers, out of tune singers, occasional animal acts (Su Pollard was once beaten into second place by a 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 their finalists from stage schools and drama colleges. The auditions are a sham and really only used to make fun of particularly 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 crap 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 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.

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, ‘..in 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:

  • A never-changing set festooned in stars and tin foil. (They probably used the same set for all of the above-mentioned shows.)
  • 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.
  • Three to four minute sections comprising lip-synched songs and awkward ‘comedy’ routines.
  • Animated sequences of fans shouting and clapping to separate the live sections.
  • 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.
  • 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…

Shoot and Goal Magazine: When Football Was Football and Not Just A ‘Product’

Where did it all go sadly, and boringly, right for our footballers?

During the 60s and 70s football was a much more working class sport.  For a start a minority of relatively well-off people actually sat down at a game. The stand was where decent, usually older men (and it was mostly men) could be shielded from the adolescent noisy ne’er-do-wells who populated the vast, gaping terraces. The only women who ever ventured to a football match were what would be later described as WAGs. The (current) girlfriends and the (current) wives. Until, of course their beaus were caught being indiscreet in a local night-spot with a girl called Sharon. Or Tracey. Footballers from this bygone era must look at the automatons and athletes playing for top clubs now and wonder if they are the same species. Apart from earning more money in a week than 60s or 70s players would earn in a career, modern players’ bodies are temples and not the temples of doom belonging to yesteryear stars. Today’s top players are rarely even photographed leaving nightclubs in a sheepish manner, their minders, advisers, gurus and agents warning them off such behaviour. Most, I would guess, aren’t even bothered about attending such emporiums of temptation. One couldn’t really imagine Kevin De Bruyne or Christian Erikson leaving Romeo and Juliet’s night spot in Bury or Hornchurch holding hands with Kylie who had been out on a travel agents’ beano, who earlier had been knocking back Mojitos like they were going out of fashion. Now the same couldn’t be said for Stan Bowles or Frank Worthington or even, for that matter, Charlie Nicholas. It’s also well documented that footballers left training at lunchtime and headed straight for the boozer. Ten pints and 40 fags later they would drive home in their Ford Sunbeam and doze in front of Quizball until it was time for training again the next morning. Where did it all go sadly, and boringly, right for today’s footballers? 

An insight into how 60s and 70s and players were from a very different planet completely can be found in the football publications of those, seemingly, far off days. Many publications came and went and some came across as just too boring to even recall (Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly?) but the two stalwarts of the genre were ‘Goal’ (1968) and ‘Shoot’(1969).

Goal’ was aimed at a slightly older target audience, 16+ while ‘Shoot’ was targeted at younger readers, around 10-15.

Shoot magazine was colourful, crammed with pictures and posters of current football stars and teams to be pinned up on a bedroom wall, whether you supported those teams or not. Shoot also did something that was, many years later, to be used very successfully by a plethora of ‘celebrity’ magazines. It not only shared intimate details of top footballers with its readers (nightclub liaisons notwithstanding) but also suggested that these lofty sporting individuals were our friends. 

Shoot introduced a range of long-running features which not only attempted to get under the skins of these demi-gods,  but took us into their gorgeous luxury homes (or ‘mansions’ as they liked to refer to them,) and shone light into the magic that was their impossibly glamorous lives (or so we were led to believe). 

Shoot’s longest-running and USP feature was ‘Focus on…’ where a different footballer each week was given a series of questions about their likes, dislikes and petty peccadillos. It took a little time to realise just how limited and narrow footballers’ lives and attitudes actually were. 

Well..he was only a bairn..

The responses rarely fluctuated.  What Person in the World Would You Most Like To Meet? Invariably Cassius Clay or latterly Muhammed AliBiggest Drag in Soccer (Who ever called it ‘soccer’?): Losing or returning from away matches having lost, Favourite Food: Steak (ALWAYS steak although some gastronomes threw in a few chips), Favourite Drink: The occasional lager, Favourite TV Shows: Sports programmes. If you Weren’t A Footballer What Would You Be?: No idea (Few even had the wit to say ‘Unemployed’). These answers were regular and often. Why young kids idolised these guys is anybody’s guess but it was a more innocent time. Perversely though, it was my favourite part of the magazine.

Responses to Favourite Singers and Favourite Actors was similarly goal-line narrow in scope. Players chose from a limited group and were always strictly MOR. They rarely strayed from the calm, unchallenging waters of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Shirley Bassey, Sammy Davis Junior, Andy Williams and Dionne Warwick.  The idea of Ralph Coates suggesting The Velvet Underground or Ian Ure professing his love for The Electric Prunes was just unthinkable.

Favourite Actors were similarly constricted. John Wayne and Steve McQueen, naturally, Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand and, inevitably, Raquel Welsh (who once in the 70s attended a Chelsea match with Jimmy Hill. I have it on good authority, though, they were not romantically linked).

Of course, there were occasionally exceptions to the rule. Malcolm Allison, for example, in 1972 stated the The Person In The World He Would Most Like To Meet was Enoch Powell M.P. and his Best Country Visited was South Africa. Well fancy that! Curiously, his Miscellaneous Dislike was ‘Narrow-minded people.’ And he also took the opportunity when asked what his Personal Ambition was to shamelessly promote his new game ‘Spot-On-Soccer’. He hoped it would become a ‘classic game.’ Can’t win them all Malcolm. In fact, you didn’t win that many as a manager either. Even odder was the job he’d have done if not a footballer manager: a psychiatrist. Some years ago I was changing trains at York Station and as I was leaving the train Malcolm Allison was getting on. In his hand was a glass which contained an extremely large measure of whisky. Once a 70s footballer manager….

Other exceptions to the hard and fast rules of ‘Focus on…’ were Franz Beckenbauer who, enigmatically for Der Kaiser, wanted to meet Mao Tse Tung, Chris Cattlin of Coventry City’s favourite singer was Harry Secombe (what?!), Brian Hall of Liverpool’s favourite food was liver, kidneys and carrots (revolting), while Leicester midfielder Alan Birchenall was on the horns of a dilemma and couldn’t decide whether he’d prefer to meet Adolf Hitler or Neil Diamond. I feel your pain, Alan.

These were also the days of ‘free gifts’ with comics and magazines, little incentives to kids to buy a particular publication and Shoot shamelessly, and thrillingly for the sporty adolescent boy (i.e. me), issued a range of football-based statistical tools throughout the calendar year. Its most celebrated enticement, issued every August for many years, was the full-colour league ladder! Printed on cardboard on which all four English and both Scottish leagues were included. Little tabs representing every English and Scottish club could be detached and slotted into the league ladder every week to account for changes in each team’s position. In truth, few readers could be bothered messing about with them after about half a dozen games of a new season but they were initially exciting. They represented the start of a spanking new football season after the longeurs of the summer months, particularly when there was no World Cup that year. It also allowed you to mess about with league positions and see what it would look like if your team was implausibly at the top and the teams you hated were at the bottom. In short, the ladders allowed us to dream. For a few weeks at least. Then in January Shoot would release their full-colour English FA and Scottish cup wall charts, where teams’ progress could be plotted from round three to the final in May.  Again by the Fourth Round filling in the little boxes with a felt pen began to get a slightly tedious but what the hell, it looked good on the wall of your bedroom. In the days of instant statistics at the push of a few buttons, such fripperies seem rather quaint and maybe even slightly opportunistic on the part of the magazines, but they were different and I wish I still had them today.

Shoot magazine also tried to draw in its young readers by featuring three very well known columnists throughout the 70s. To describe the three players involved as ‘columnists’ was maybe going a bit far as they almost certainly only had a short telephone conversation with a ghost writer each week, but their ‘columns’ were masterpieces of pointless creativity, tedium and repetition. 

A Shoot fixture throughout the late 60s and 70s was Bobby Moore, World Cup winning England captain (as they never stopped reminding you) and all-round decent chap. His weekly thoughts circumnavigated the English game from A to B and there was no dull and dusty corner of Upton Park which wasn’t explored, analysed and left out to dry. Every single week. Occasionally he (or his increasingly desperate ghost writer) tried to spice things up by chucking in a bit of non-football minutiae. His column of 21st July 1973, for example,  began, ‘Here I am lazing away the hours with my wife Tina, and children Roberta and Dean in Marbella, Spain.’ Well, where else would a 70s footballer and his lovely ex-model wife be during the close season? So far so predictable. Writing a weekly column at that time of year must have been far from easy. 

Or was it? Step forward columnist number 2, Mr. Alan Ball, or ‘Soccer As I See It by Alan Ball’ to give the column its official title. This, invariably, was just a rehash of what Bobby Moore was talking about essentially but, in Ball’s case, about Arsenal. If anything Alan Ball included a bit more about his glamorous private life. The films he’d been to see, restaurants he’d eaten at and at this time of the close season, where he was on holiday, and yes, you’ve guessed it, it’s Majorca! With, obviously, his lovely ex-model wife Lesley and daughter Keely. 

Third on the bill was the one and only George Best whose wayward life eventually led to him being replaced with the more child-friendly and dependable, but just as lugubrious, Kevin Keegan.  The alliteratively titled ‘Keep Up With Kevin Keegan’ continued to carry the torch of tedium after Georgie’s heavily bowdlerised column was given a free transfer. 

It was a clever ploy by Shoot to feature these players at a time when football still had an air of mystery and excitement to it. The occasional tantalising glimpses on Saturday night football highlights programmes, Sam Leitch’s Football Preview or ‘Sportsnight with Coleman’ was about all anyone saw of these, and other, stars. Regular live football on TV was a long, long way off and it was the novelty of only occasionally seeing them play that elevated them to such heights of wonderment.  And we continued to put up with the humdrum nature of their lives which, at the time, seemed impossibly glamorous. Shoot was shining light into magic. They were our friends, they were talking to us.  An idea celebrity magazines tapped into many years later. 

But Shoot was not alone in welcoming us into the lovely homes of our footballing idols.  ‘Goal’ also did its bit but for slightly more mature readers. Goal was less colourful and more wordy, even including regular league tables and a pools guide for the older fan without a bird. 

In the early 70s Goal included a short-lived celeb footballer column and featured ‘Bobby Charlton’s Diary.’ Short-lived? Not short enough as it was a column of such mind-numbing dullness that the classified ads at the back of the magazine gave the reader a comparative frisson of excitement. The opening sentence to his September 1968 column was ‘The World Cup is still nearly two years away so there is a lot that can happen between now and then.’ You losing your column for a start, Bob.  And it went downhill from there. Goal, therefore, eschewed the need for football celebrity columns and, it’s true, colour posters were sparse but what they did have every week was ‘The Girl Behind The Man’! A feature of such breathtaking 70s crassness  it could take its place with Dick Emery, The Wheeltappers and Shunters’ Social Club and Old-English Spangles as an iconic 70s product.

The feature spoke for itself.  After a long hard day of training, drinking and fagging it, where does this Third Division footballing demi-god go when it’s closing time at the Coach and Horses (pubs did shut at 10.00pm don’t forget)? Back to the little lady, of course.  And those ‘’Girls Behind The Man’ were only too happy to open up their gorgeous suburban semis to the Goal photographer.  A regular ingredient of the photo-shoot was the bikini shot. One could imagine the slightly sleazy, unctuously Brylcreemed photographer suggesting, ‘Do you have a bikini, love?’ Usually the girl behind the man was only too happy to recline on her vast suburban lawn as a February wind blew icily around her.  Let’s face it, we were told they were all ex-models anyway. Take the lovely Beryl Harris (28 September 1968), lovely ex-model wife of Cardiff City striker, Brian Harris, for example. Beryl’s hobbies are sunbathing and gardening, and here’s a gorgeous shot of Beryl doing some gardening in her bikini to kill two birds with one wide-angled stone. 

Not all wives were quite so willing though. Here’s Peter Cormack’s wife Marion who particularly enjoys swimming, dancing, driving and playing records and she is usefully photographed spinning some discs on her state-of-the -art radiogram.  As Marion appeared in the January 30th 1971 edition of Goal, a bikini shot must have been out of the question, even for an ex-model.

Shoot and Goal magazines eventually merged in 1974 as a number of other less worthy but more colourful football magazines became available but this flag of convenience wasn’t to last. Shoot continued until 2008, latterly as a monthly edition but football, and technology, had changed. Top class football was more clinical, scientific, distant and less characterful.  Young people were less interested in the individuals and more focussed on the team, or more accurately, the brand.  Would any modern player be interested in a weekly, or even monthly ghost-written column nowadays? It’s not as if they need the money and despite Bally and Moore-O’s efforts at trying to make their lives seem endlessly glamorous, they can’t really compete with today’s stars’ lives.  And would they want to? Details of how they tweaked their nutritional regime, bought a new Aston Martin/ private plane/ Rolex watch or signed a new image rights’ contract, despite their lives being truly glittering, just doesn’t quite cut the mustard. Today’s top players are bland, untouchable and so removed in every way from the fans, that Shoot and Goal just seem like quaint anachronisms, evoking a time when fans still felt part of the game. Now they they are expected to feel privileged to be allowed to watch it, at a price obviously. 

With billions of pounds swilling around in the game, players coming from all over the world for short but expensive stints with certain teams before , expensively, moving on, every football league in the world available, at a price, to be watched 24/7 and rolling TV news and statistics at a touch of a button, the world of teenage football magazines seems like a different age. But I think I preferred it when my football idols went on holiday to Marbella, and were only too happy to share this rather mundane information with us. 

Now, what did I do with those league ladders?

A Clockwork Orange

..after 50 years, a film that is still way ahead of its time.

It’s hard to convey how irresistible the desire to see Kubrick’s film of Anthony Burgess’ novel ‘A Clockwork Orange’ was for an 11 year old boy just becoming aware of grown-up literature. The only problem: it wasn’t possible to see it. Even at 15 you had an outside chance of being allowed into the cinema if the lighting was poor and your parka hood was pulled up over your head far enough. Video and DVD was a long, long way off so at 11 there were two chances. Fat and slim. 

Of course the media obsession with the film, as it was with any film that skirted with the term ‘controversial’, meant plenty information to entice a pre-teenager who had just graduated on to reading the tabloids on a Sunday. Tabloids just loved ‘controversial’ films. It allowed them to take a moralistic high ground while salaciously giving every lurid detail of the sex, drug-taking, horror or violence of even the most mild of adult flicks at the local flea-pit. The Exorcist, Carrie and The Devils were three examples of films released in the early 1970s on which the tabloids poured opprobrium, described every ‘depraved’ scene and, obviously, increased the numbers of people at the box office massively. The Scottish Sunday Mail ran a double-page spread listing, helpfully, in painstaking detail, every ‘gut-wrenching’ (its words) scene for the delectation of Sunday readers. No such thing as a ‘spoiler alert’ in those days. And I particularly remember the Scottish Sunday Mail wiring Alan ‘Roughie’ Rough and his lovely catwalk model wife to a heart monitor and logged their reactions to the various shock scenes in Brian De Palma’s Carrie. The purpose, I would assume, was to show that even a Scottish international goalkeeper with supposed nerves of steel could nearly shit himself at certain scary moments in a film, so decent, god-fearing presbyterians could steer clear. In theory.  In reality it just made people flock to see the film, of course. Well, that was the science bit, for what it’s worth, but it does demonstrate tabloid newspapers’ love of and obsession with ‘controversial’ films of the era. 

To be fair, A Clockwork Orange actually comes across today as more disturbing because of its violence. As a society we have recognised certain types of violence, particularly towards women, as unacceptable but in 1971 references and depictions of rape, though not commonplace, were certainly more visible. Jokes about it would even be used in sitcoms. However, in the context of Burgess’ novel the violence represented in the film was intended to be shocking and to watch it now renders it probably even more disturbing than at the time of its release. Exactly what the author intended. Belonging to the Science Fiction genre, it’s set in a futuristic Britain where drugs are legal, people rarely leave their homes and violence within society has escalated. Like most Science Fiction stories it is a warning for the future. 

One of the few aspects of Kubrick’s film which fails, mainly because there was no way it could have succeeded in relation to the novel, is in the character of Alex, played by 20-something Malcolm McDowell. The first half of Burgess’ novel tells the story of ultra-violent Alex and his gang of droogs on a rampage of sex and violence. At the end of this section of the book the reader is shocked with the sudden revelation that Alex’s orgy of violence has resulted in the death of one of his victims, an old lady, and he has been arrested. It is at this point he confesses to the reader the horrifying truth, ‘And me still only fifteen.’ Here is Burgess’ warning, his reason for writing the novel and justification for the repulsive rampage of violence the reader has been subjected to. But in practical terms, this fictional narrative device could not really be depicted in the film, Malcolm MacDowell does not look anything like a fifteen year old, and social commentators did not have the intelligence to discern this.

In the early 70s there were many so called ‘controversial’ films released. It was a time of experimentation and a loosening of censorship rules. In fact, ‘censorship’ became ‘classification’ as films were seen as art and not just cheap flicks to excite the lower, uneducated classes for a couple of hours in a members-only fleapit. Therefore, films which dealt with more disturbing issues, such as violence within our automated society became a popular theme and depicted violence and sex in a brutally realistic way which the general public and ‘the authorities’, at first, found difficult to cope with. Some thought it was still there only to titilate and thereby hung the tale of A Clockwork Orange.

The violence, even though I hadn’t seen it, certainly didn’t excite me. What excited me, from what I could make out, was the futuristic look of the film, the representation of a dystopian society (something I still love) and, of course, the controversy. I still, obviously, am drawn to things the tabloids hate.

The film had been out for a few weeks before I’d even heard of it. Bizarrely, the first time I read anything about A Clockwork Orange was in the pages of Shoot, the adolescent football magazine, more precisely in Everton and England footballer Alan Ball’s weekly column. The content of this column was unstintingly dull. After he had given his ghost-writer details of Everton’s most recent match it was a desperate struggle to find anything else to say to reach the required 500 words. Often the interviewer will have asked Alan, so what else did you do this week? The terminally boring life of a professional footballer was laid bare in these columns but one week in 1971 Al and his lovely wife, Lesley, went to see A Clockwork Orange. His critical conclusion, summed up in a sentence, was that he ‘slept through it.’ The moral question of whether a top footballer should have been discussing, no matter how curtly, a film he had seen about teenage ultra-violence, drug-adulterated milk bars, under-age sex, gang warfare and rape is by the by, it was the 70s after all. But I do have Alan Ball to thank for alerting me to this cult classic. I immediately decided to find out about this film, why would Alan Ball be referring to it if it wasn’t culturally important? 

I began to notice the iconic film poster with a cartoonesque Alex brandishing a knife through a triangle, a naked woman kneeling below the apex (always irresistible to an 11 year old), an eyeball sitting on his outstretched arm and, most intriguingly, the bowler hat and false eyelash on one eye! The futuristic typeface added a further appealing element to the whole package. This was seriously alluring. 

My fascination was further enhanced (if that was possible) when I actually managed to see an extract from the film. STV, at this time, had a film review programme which was broadcast at 10.30pm once a week called Cinema. Presenters of this programme included Michael Parkinson, Clive James and Robert Kee, and I think it was Parkie who showed a clip of A Clockwork Orange much to my excitement. In those days, obviously, there was no video recording so the 20 second black and white extract featured Alex and his Droogs racing through country lanes in a stolen sports car, this absolutely classic Kubrickian moment is indelibly stamped on my memory. This moment only cemented my fascination with the film and my frustration of not being able to see it. 

I only have vague memories of the media outrage about the copycat violence which they claim broke out as result of young people having their minds ‘warped’ by the movie. It was certainly a particularly strong defence in cases of extreme violence at the time, irrespective of whether there was any truth in it. Buttoned-up Establishment British judges were only too happy to accept the possibility that some depraved modern film might be the reason for our kids’ aggression. Clearly society couldn’t be to blame.

 The ‘look’ of the film certainly did influence young people. I do remember Crombie coats, Doc Marten’s boots and even the occasional false eyelash manifesting themselves in our high streets. Most of them daft wee laddies (and a few lassies) who just thought they looked cool but would have run a mile if anyone challenged them to a ‘bitva’! The media shitstorm, however, was enough for Kubrick to withdraw the film in the UK in 1973 and it remained unshown publicly in the UK until the director’s death in 1999. Rumour had it that a cinema in Paris showed it throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s.

The film’s iconic resonance has been enshrined by the fact that so many images are as well-known now as they were then. Certain words from Nadsat have found their way into common usage, for example ‘horrorshow’, ‘ultraviolence and ’droog’. ‘Moloko’ which was based on the Russian word for milk, and in the film is a narcotic-filled milk drink, became the name of a successful 90s band, as did Heaven 17, whose name is mentioned and shown in the record shop scene when Alex meets two girls whilst browsing in the store. Echo and the Bunnymen’s record label was entitled ‘Korova’ after the milk bar frequented by Alex and his droogs and let’s not forget about Glasgow’s underground transport system punningly named ‘The Clockwork Orange’. 

As Kubrick preferred to work in the UK, many of the actors in his films were familiar faces to British TV viewers as well as film-goers. Philip Stone, who appeared in three Kubrick masterpieces (more than any other actor apart from Joe Turkel), a fine jobbing actor who had appeared in countless TV productions since the early sixties, played Alex’s dad. Stone’s performance clearly resonated with Kubrick as he went on to appear in Barry Lyndon and, in his crowning achievement, as the Overlook Hotel’s former caretaker, a role in which he excelled as the courteous but terrifying Delbert Grady. A Clockwork Orange was also a huge break for the young Warren Clarke as one of Alex’s droogs, Dim. Like Malcolm McDowall and Philip Stone, Clarke went on to work in a range of prestigious productions not least with Lindsay Anderson in O’ Lucky Man. The lovely Adrienne Corri, like Stone a stalwart of quality TV productions, played the brutally assaulted wife of the writer, Patrick Magee. It was the writer, Mr Alexander, who, in the novel, told of the idea of a clockwork orange, a speech which, oddly, failed to make it into the completed film. Magee was a favourite actor of the great Samuel Beckett who wrote one of his greatest plays, Krapp’s Last Tape, specifically for Magee. Also popping up in the film was John Savident, another prolific British actor who ended his professional life as Foghorn Leghorn-like butcher Fred Elliott in Coronation Street. Having played in Shakespeare productions, many Wednesday plays and, of course, in A Clockwork Orange, it is Corrie, sadly, he will be remembered for by most people. That said, he did appear in 714 episodes, I say, 714 episodes! Michael Bates, best known as Blamire, one of the original characters on Last of the Summer Wine, is excellent as the sadistic prison officer (‘Shut your bleeding’ hole!’). He also appeared in every episode of It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum but the less said about that… Miriam Karlin as the cat lady, who comes to a nasty end at the hands of Alex, was well known for The Rag Trade (with a young Reg Varney!) and a fledgeling Steven Berkoff as a copper are just a few of the familiar faces, many of whom possibly didn’t realise just how much their parts were going to cement their reputations in the years to come.

Why does A Clockwork Orange still fascinate nearly 50 years later? Because, like so many Kubrick films, it looks ageless but futuristic, depicting a parallel universe which hasn’t been defined by the fashions of the time but clearly showed a world that is still ‘ours.’ The electronic Wendy Carlos soundtrack, the meticulous whiteness of the sets, the flowing strangeness of the typefaces, the sweeping camera shots, Alex’s direct looks into the camera (unusual for the time), Burgess’ ‘Nadsat’ argot as spoken on the voiceover by Alex, all come together to create a representation of such stunning originality that only an auteur like Kubrick could have had such vision.

And above all, to the curious teenager, it was an ‘X’. That most fascinating of all letters whose cultural cache is so much heftier than the dull old literal ’18.’ Here was a tantalising world almost within touching distance that held secrets open only to adults, who we were to assume had the intellect and maturity to cope with such esoteric and supposedly disturbing subject matter. Kubrick’s dystopian vision proved too much, however, for an adult population weaned on the hypocritical outrage of the tabloids, Mary Whitehouse and so-called public-decency. But for a short time in the early 70s A Clockwork Orange was the most state-of-the-art, modern, challenging and iconic artefact of its age. 

Despite the fact the concept of a clockwork orange is never even mentioned in the film.