It goes without saying that in the early 60s everyone in the world was aware, to varying extents, of The Beatles. Certainly in the UK they dominated music, culture, the media and even, to a degree, politics. But there were many other acts around and, because of The Beatles, a few acts from Liverpool enjoyed a huge amount of success, known as The Liverpool Explosion. Some deserved it, such as Gerry and the Pacemakers and some were just incredibly lucky to surf in The Beatles‘ wake (yes, I’m looking at you Cilla and Tarby).
One band who certainly benefitted from The Beatles‘ success was Freddie and the Dreamers, who although seen as being part of the Liverpool explosion were actually from Manchester. They even had a pre-fame residency in Hamburg in the very early 60s and for a short time during the early to mid-sixties Freddie and the Dreamers seemed ubiquitous, they were never off the telly, had a string of hits, even number 1s in the US, and had legions of screaming fans. This was quite incredible for a band who could not have been more different to The Beatles.
Everyone liked Freddie and the Dreamers. They were the sort of band that even your elderly relatives liked because their music was jaunty, melodic and inoffensive and Freddie Garrity even had a pleasant singing voice. But what set Freddie and the Dreamers apart from other bands was… he leapt up and down! This was their USP. As well as Freddie leaping around The Dreamers had a whole repertoire of jerky dance movements. This meant they were safe to feature on Blue Peter, Top of the Pops and Sunday Night at the London Palladium and wouldn’t frighten the horses like some of those other hairy, druggy, dirty bands like The Tremeloes or The Hollies.
Between 1963 and 1964 they had 4 top ten hits including ‘I’m Telling You Now’, which was also a number 1 in the US in 1965, and ‘You Were Made For Me.’ Their fame in the US in 1965, though brief, also led to them being touted for a TV series co-starring Terry-Thomas which would have pre-dated The Monkees but this, sadly, came to nothing. And it was their comedy element which led to them appearing in a few British films and also secured a long running TV series for them in the late 60s.
The late 50s and early 60s saw an explosion of British films aimed at the emerging teenage market. Film companies desperate to get in on the act rushed out, often threadbare, vehicles for singers and bands who just happened to be popular at the time, often fleetingly so, and in many cases these featured acts were no longer popular when the film was eventually released. In 1965 Freddie and the Dreamers were given their own star vehicle, Cuckoo Patrol, in which they played a troop of boy scouts who inadvertently get involved with some criminals planning a robbery. The results were, unfortunately, not hilarious as ten out ten film reviewers on IMDB rated it 1 star out of 10, some of the more positive reviews referred to it as the ‘worst British film of all time.’ Harsh maybe but having viewed it, it is pretty poor although with a few odd redeeming features which may not have been obvious when it was released. Recently The Independent called it ‘Terrifying.’ For some reason, I can maybe guess why, it was shelved for two years and only released in 1967, a couple of years after Freddie and the Dreamers had had their last hit. The film experiments with their often anarchic sense of humour which would be utilised more effectively in a TV series launched a year later. It was also reported that some American states banned the film, not for being truly awful but for belittling the Scout movement.
The very fast moving world of 60s pop also saw them appear in 1965’s Every Day’s A Holiday, set in a holiday camp it was a vehicle for unexceptional crooner John Leyton who’d had a couple of monster hits including Johnny Remember Me two years previously. Also starring Mike Sarne whose big number one, the intensely irritating Come Outside, was three years old. The film itself is a strange but enjoyable romp which does evoke the seemingly carefree world of the sixties holiday camp and the perfect platform for Freddie and the Dreamers to hone their musical comedy skills as a bunch of chefs. Needless to say chaos ensued…! The film also featured such well-known 60s and 70s comedy faces as Richard O’Sullivan, Liz Fraser, Nicholas Parsons and an uncredited Danny La Rue.
In March 1964 at the height of their success they headlined an episode of that weird Genxculture favourite, Sunday Night at the London Palladium (Catch it on Sunday nights on Talking Pictures TV, you won’t regret it). The host Bruce Forsyth, as he was about to introduce them, said ‘They’re here!‘ without even mentioning who exactly he was referring to, suggesting this was a very hot ticket indeed, to the high-pitched squeals of some of the audience. After playing a medley of their big hits Freddie announced to the well-heeled Palladium audience, ‘Welcome t’Labour Club!’ Nice one Freddie. Almost as good as John Lennon’s exhortation to ‘rattle your jewellery‘ a couple of years previously. They went through a series of their song and dance numbers with the band at various times falling on the ground and being picked up again while Freddie bounded acrobatically back and forward across the Palladium stage. Their act looked exhausting.
Freddie was an unlikely sex symbol. At 5’3” with glasses like the bottoms of milk bottles (he did actually work as a milkman before his success), he leapt about on stage to the joy of the , probably slightly older female, audience. Keith Richards once even referred to him, rather disdainfully, as ‘A certain English leaping gentleman‘. The band were no great lookers either but what they lacked in sex appeal they made up for in anarchic humour and silliness. After their initial chart success they worked constantly in pantos and summer seasons and, oddly, in their own TV series Little Big Time.
Starting in 1968 on Wednesday afternoons Little Big Time was a children’s variety show which exploited the comic abilities of Freddie Garrity and The Dreamers, particularly guitarist Pete Birrell who turned out to be a comic genius. The comedy was chaotic in a good way and extremely daft, similar in many ways to the brilliant late 60s pre-Python for children, Do Not Adjust Your Set. The end of the show always had the band fighting over who was going to press the button to start the end credits rolling. It was funny, it really was. It also featured some quite strange variety musical and magic acts. Interestingly, one of the writers for the first two series was Andrew Davies who became a screenwriting household name and went on to write a range of original TV series such the excellent and greatly underrated A Very Peculiar Practice and a host of Hollywood films. In series 2 a story was introduced about Freddie entering a world ruled by, often quite scary, machines called Oliver in the Overworld. The story was surreal and strangely compulsive not to mention slightly disturbing. True groundbreaking children’s telly. This series eventually replaced Little Big Time and only featured Freddie without his Dreamers. Sadly, only one episode of this long running, fairly revolutionary, series is thought to survive.
Freddie and the Dreamers continued to tour with various line-ups and Freddie appeared on a number of TV programmes as himself, including the inevitable Wheeltappers and Shunters, sitcom Dear John (as well as the US version) and the even more inevitable Heartbeat, where his unlikely role was as a drug dealing DJ. He gave up performing in 2001 after he was diagnosed with emphysema and died in 2006 at the age of 70.
Freddie and the Dreamers were different to The Beatles in just about every way but for a short glorious time in the early sixties, they were just as famous.
It may have been manna from heaven for an 11 year horror fan but it didn’t always live up to the hype.
The UK was a ferociously moral country in the late 60s and early 70s, or so it liked to think. Sundays were particularly dreadful occasions where only certain shops opened in the morning to sell Sunday papers and rolls, pubs only opened at lunchtime and parks were no-go areas for kids. It’s become a cliche these days but the swings really were chained up. And I remember very well being chased out of the park on a number of occasions by the fascistic Park Patrol for playing football on a Sunday afternoon.
Weekday television was very much a stop-start affair with Watch With Mother and the news being on at lunchtime then the two-channel TV would close down until Jackanory at 4.45. It would close down again at about 11.30 from Sunday till Thursday. Broadcasters, maybe at the behest of Governments, put the most boring programmes they could think of right at the end of the day. In Scotland the religious Thought For The Day type programme, Late Call took lugubriousness to a new height and sent people to bed a bit sooner than they’d probably have liked to. The programmes just before this last dose of monotony weren’t much better. So, in effect, from Sunday to Thursday TV effectively shut down at 10, or 1030 if you wanted to watch News at Ten. And the festivities didn’t end there. We still had the National Anthem to look forward to! And this brought the days broadcasting, mercifully, to an end.
However, Fridays and Saturdays were deemed appropriate times for the General Public to let their hair down and, for this reason, TV (all three channels of it by this time) did not close down at 11.30 as it did Sunday to Thursday, but was extended sometimes until nearly 1.00am! Because, of course, most people didn’t have work on a Saturday and Sunday morning so it wasn’t necessary to help get them up at the weekend. Jesus, how it didn’t lead to bloody revolution on the streets I’ll never know, but decent people knew their place in those days. ‘Protestant’, ‘work’ and ‘ethic’ were very much part of life then.
With this relaxation of standards, not to mention morals, in mind, STV launched a strand of films for a Friday night around 1969 which they dubbed provocatively Don’t Watch Alone. This took the form of a horror film being broadcast beginning at about 11.00 and which was heavily hyped throughout the evening. ‘Watch if you dare, but don’t watch alone!’ Now this sounded pretty enticing to me, as it did to most of the kids in my class at school. It was the major viewing event of the week and if you got to watch it, it provided a whole week’s playground conversation, not to mention a bit of towering superiority over those with stricter parents. In fact, myself and a few other pals used to regularly have a Monster quiz about the films shown on Don’t Watch Alone and became pretty knowledgable about this particular genre. Luckily for me, as I’ve mentioned before, my parents were pretty liberal about what I watched and they were quite happy to go to bed on a Friday night and leave me to watch Don’t Watch Alone, alone!
For the ITV companies it was no-brainer. They got some extra advertising revenue, pretty decent viewing figures for that time of night (remember pubs closed their doors at a modest 10.30 then) and the films they showed will not have cost a great deal as they were all low-budget, often ‘B’ movies and some were very old indeed. What also needs to be remembered about this moralistic time, horror films, or what was deemed ‘horror’, still attracted an ‘X’ certificate if they were shown in the cinema, and cinemas did show old and sometimes very old films as part of their weekly programme. Even ancient curiosities like the original James Whale Frankenstein from 1931 was thought by the censors (yes, they were called ‘censors’ in those days) to be a threat to viewers of a more sensitive disposition. And remember this was a long time before video recording at home, so this type of offering was a real treat. Especially if you were 11 years old…
Like so many things though, the anticipation was often more enjoyable than the film itself. STV obviously ratcheted up the excitement by having a few trailers during the Friday night and they usually used the original cinema trailers for the films featured. I’m not sure what I really expected but it was usually more than what was delivered. Too regularly I wasn’t even frightened to put the lights out before I went up to my bed.
The problem was, of course, the definition of horror. For me horror was Dracula, Frankenstein (although I was never convinced by it), The Mummy and The Wolfman (more like it). But once those fairly obvious examples were shown, then what? And this is where the strand began to lose its appeal slightly. STV’s view was certainly wide and varied, but this meant I watched some very good films with excellent credentials but felt cheated because they weren’t really scary. I know this now, of course, but an 11 year old’s critical faculties are relatively limited to say the least. And I’ll also admit to not seeing all the films all the way through but being woken up by the end credits, which maybe said more about the film on offer than anything else. But after the more predictable fare, a few real oddities were aired, sometimes, I’m convinced, because the STV film buyer just looked at the title of the film and through, ‘That’ll do.’
One example of this was a film called Night Creatures. To be fair it sounds faintly horror genre-esque, and it was made by Hammer and starred the great Peter Cushing and a young Oliver Reed, but it really wasn’t and apart from a relatively creepy opening, it turned out just to be a yarn about smugglers in the 18th century. The Terror of the Tong was, as the title suggests, about the Chinese secret mafia-type organisation. The word ‘Terror’ obviously struck a chord with the scheduler but apart from a few mild torture scenes and Christopher Lee hamming it up in heavy Oriental make-up, it was a disappointment and one I did not see through till the end.
Many of the real horror films broadcast could be slow, including many false shocks and blind alleys, and many just built up to the horror money shot at the end. An abominable creature suddenly seen, a character hideously deformed or a beast manifesting itself for the first (and last) time. In the days before videos and freeze framing, it was vital these climaxes were not dwelt upon by the camera incase the viewer would spot the joins in the cheaply produced rubber mask applied to the creature. An example of this type of film was The Gorgon. It also has to be remembered that in the very early 70s no one had a colour TV and even if they did, few programmes, even films, were broadcast in colour. So a film like The Gorgon which relied on some gloriously colourful scenes lost almost all its impact through being shown in monochrome.
It may have petrified the screen with horror but that was about all it petrified. But you can see where they were coming from. It was the classic horror film that alluded to the monster and suggested the monster but until the last few minutes, didn’t completely show the monster, although we did get a few tantalising shots. They hoped the brief glimpse, and it really was a fairly brief glimpse, of The Gorgon at the end would satisfy the casual viewer but it was thin gruel. The Gorgon, to be fair, was a very good Hammer production, but we wanted more!
When a film featured certain actors like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, this sometimes gave the scheduler a good idea as to whether the film would be suitable for inclusion in the strand. The always excellent Vincent Price was another favourite and appeared regularly in the late Friday night slot. The Fly, long before the superb David Cronenberg version, was a typical Price vehicle which was a decent film and even the big reveal when the main character walked into the room wearing the plastic head of a fly seemed pretty impressive. Seeing it now, it just looks funny, but these were different times.
Vincent Price was a regular Don’t Watch Alone performer and his collaborations with horror directors Willam Castle and Roger Corman graced many a late Friday night. Castle was the perfect director for this late night strand. His films were flashy, employed all the techniques necessary for effective shockers and his subject matter was always on the money, certainly for a 12 year old viewer.
The Tingler, one of his collaborations with Vincent Price, was an excellent example of his art. Using a range of gimmicks to scare the 50s audience, it tells the story of a pathologist who believes there is a creature inside all of us, The Tingler, which looks like a small lobster, and emerges when we become frightened but is controlled if we scream. Again, it included the money shot of The Tingler’s reveal. But there was more to this film than just that. It was one of the first films to include a colour sequence in a predominantly black and white film, with a bath of red blood shown right in the middle of the film. Not of much use when watching it on a monochrome telly but the intention was there. And it was perfect material for a dark Friday night. Price also starred In Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill, also an effective shocker, which I can’t recall being on DWA but should have been.
Another of Castle’s productions which featured on DWA was Mr Sardonicus. Another of the films which led up to the big reveal. Mr Sardonicus spends the whole film hiding behind an, albeit quite creepy mask, and we learn that his face is too frightening to show after an unfortunate grave-robbing incident years previously. The late money shot when his mask is dramatically removed is impressive but not quite the effort of trying to stay awake for in the wee small hours of a Saturday morning. It was quite impressive though…
But one film I recall very clearly and, for me, was the most effective and, at the time for a 12 year old, genuinely scary was William Castle‘s film Homicidal. An old dark house mystery involving very strange, unfamiliar characters, Castle uses a range of gimmicks to wind up the audience, including a ‘countdown’ where viewers in the cinema can leave before the heroine enters the house near the end of the film. This, of course, ratchets up the tension and viewers were not disappointed when the heroine did go back into the house. Too see the film nowadays as an adult familiar with the tropes and exhibition of a film, the conceit, or twist, would be spotted straight away, but for a 12 year old it worked a treat! One of the few nights I really didn’t want to turn the lights out! Later films such as Sleuth used a similar gimmick which really didn’t work, but, for me, Homicidal was probably the most memorable film ever shown in this Friday night slot. William Castle’s gimmickry could have been invented for young viewers like myself.
Although not in Homicidal, Vincent Price had appeared in other Castle vehicles as well those of Roger Corman. The Corman films were just a little too high quality for the late night film, which says more about the non-Corman films. I remember starting to watch The Masque of the Red Death and not managing much more than half an hour of it before falling asleep. Having seen it again the lush technicolour turns it in to a very different experience from that of the black and white version. However, Edgar Alan Poe is very wordy for children and, of course, nothing particularly scary happens apart from someone being burnt alive, being shot with an arrow in the throat and stabbed with a poisoned dagger. Thin gruel for a 13 year old horror fan. This was also true of The Pit and The Pendulum and The Fall of the House of Usher, both featured on DWA.
Another actor who turned up quite regularly in DWA presentations was Oliver Reed. He plays a werewolf in Hammer’s excellent 1961 film go Curse of the Werewolf. This was the type of horror flick we were desperate for in the Don’t Watch Alone strand. Bloodthirsty, violent, quite narratively intelligent and involving monsters, in this case werewolves of which we were familiar.
Another Ollie Reed film shown in the DWA series was Paranoiac where he played a young spoiled drunk whose supposedly dead brother turns up just as he was about to inherit the family fortune. More of a psychological thriller than a horror film but a story with a twist which not only kept you interested but featured an excellent performance by Reed. I’ve always been a fan of Ollie Reed as an actor as he always brought a certain gravitas and presence to any film he appeared in, irrespective of the quality of the production. In the excellent biography ‘What Fresh Lunacy Is This?‘ by Robert Sellers, the story is told of how a friend of Reed’s bet him that he couldn’t drink 100 pints of beer in a day. Reed not only won the bet but did a handstand in the middle of the pub just to underline the achievement. Although his behaviour rubbed many of his co-stars up the wrong way, not one of them criticised his acting ability or his reliability on set. He always turned up on time and delivered his lines perfectly.
It’s fair to say STV began to struggle to find suitable films for Don’t Watch Alone after a couple of years given the wafer-thin budget available to them and many of the later films were more thriller than horror. But for a brief time in the early 70s late Friday nights was horror central. And although few films lived up to the hype it was a great introduction to a range of films which otherwise would not have been available to very young film fans.
We did dare to watch and we did watch alone. Didn’t do me any harm……
We may have been in awe of top professional footballers in the 7os but their homes were oddly uninspiring
As has been referenced in previous posts in this blog, football magazines of the 60s and 70s such as Shoot! and Goal often took us into the lovely homes of footballers. At a time when players were much more accessible and the idea of ‘image rights’ hadn’t even been thought of, they introduced us to their trophy wives and families and gave us an insight into what it must be like to be on a £100 quid a week. We young readers didn’t just have to dream.
As well as showing us the upmarket styles and what passed for luxury then, it also made the players that little bit more human, rather than the demi-gods they appeared to be on Sportscene, Match of the Day or The Big Match. It seemed footballers always had to be married, maybe to prove their virility, their status and even they had to follow the social conventions of the 60s and 70s. Georgie Best and his legions of ‘dolly-birds’ seemed an exception to the rule. At least, an exception in the fact he remained single until well into his 20s. Some married footballers, therefore, had to be a little more discreet at their local night spots in the days before the ever- prying eyes of tabloid newspapers. A cursory bit of research highlighted the fact that not all the subjects of the following picture profiles are still with the ladies they were with back then. And some of the players represented are not even with us anymore, sadly.
The pictures were taken by Ray Wright, photographer of Goal magazine, and offer us an insight into the luxurious and sometimes not so luxurious lives of top players. And they depict a time when footballers were not the untouchables many of the footballing superstars of today are now. For some reason Ray often asked the players and their lovely wives to pose outside their houses with a few random domestic objects, clearly to try and add a bit of extra detail and character to, what could be, deadly dull images. For many of these pictures Ray was kicking into the wind, sadly. But it also had the effect of making the players more human, reducing them to our level which 13 year olds like myself didn’t really want to see, necessarily.
1. Stewart Houston : Manchester United
I’ve started with this one as it seems quite different from the other cosy domestic scenes below. The Houston family look like they’ve just been evicted from their council house in a scene reminiscent of Ken Loach‘s gritty drama Cathy Come Home. Stewart Houston played for Manchester United, then, as now, one of the wealthiest clubs in the country. One would think he’d have been able to afford a detached rather than a semi-detached dwelling, but clearly not. I’ve mentioned in a previous post that when Tommy Docherty was given the job of Manchester United manager in 1973 he was on a three year contract at £30,000 a year. Now that equates to just under £400,000 today. A lot of money you might think but not when you consider today’s English Premier coaches and players are on £squillions per annum. So what was poor old Stewart being paid as this pic was taken around the same time as Docherty took over? It’s true it was much cheaper to get into football matches in those days and TV revenue was a drop in the ocean compared to now, but someone at Man U was making a killing and, going by this pic, it wasn’t the players or manager.
2. Geoff Hurst: West Ham United
Now this is more like it. Not only in living colour but Geoff and his lovely wife Judith are standing in front of their mock-Tudor mansion, as befitting a top 70s player. Now one would expect a 70s footballer, let alone a West Ham footballer, to live in a mock Tudor house and Geoff is only too happy to oblige.
The car just impinging into the shot looks to me like a Vauxhall Viva, a car synonymous with the 70s. If it isn’t it’s something very similar. Surely Geoff, who would have been one of the better paid English footballers, must have been able to afford a fashionable Sunbeam or even a Capri? Maybe he just wasn’t a petrolhead but footballers were always about obvious consumption were they not? Possibly the mock-Tudor house took up too much of his income. And, of course, there were few lucrative boot or equipment deals in those days.
The lovely Judith, who, like some of the other footballers’ wives, doesn’t seem overjoyed at having to pose on her doorstop for the Goal photographer but for a hundred quid, I suppose, it’s probably worth the effort. Geoff’s marriage to Judith has certainly gone the distance and, according to the good people at Wikipedia, is still going strong. Good on you Geoff, a fine effort in an industry not renowned for fidelity.
3. Mick Mills: Ipswich Town
Mick Mills was a long-serving team captain of Ipswich Town and highly capped England player when this domestic scene was captured. Not long before this photograph was taken of Mick and his lovely wife Sue in 1973, he was the subject of Shoot! magazine’s equivalent of this Goal feature, ‘At Home With…. I remember at the young age of 12 feeling a bit sorry for Mick. The Shoot! photo spread featured only Mick and his Boxer dog. Mick was pictured mowing his lawn and playing with his dog as opposed to the other subjects who were pictured with their families and children in a variety of mundane activities. Now, of course, I realise Mick was what all young(ish) relatively well paid footballers should have been. Glamorously single. But by the time the Goal photographer comes calling he’s not only got himself a bird, but also a wife! Mick may have marauded up and down that Portman Road right flank but there were no flies on him when it came to pulling the ladies in seemingly double-quick time. At first I wasn’t entirely convinced by the scene of domestic bliss above. His lovely ‘wife’ Sue is tucked away in a car that is certainly much more in keeping with a footballer’s lifestyle than Geoff Hurst‘s Vauxhall Viva, but she’s very much in the shade. I can’t help thinking she could have been from Footballers’ Wives Central Casting just for the day. And would she really allow him to wear flip-flops with trousers? But a bit of internet research reveals they are still very much together and living in Suffolk. My cynicism about the lives of 70s footballers is seemingly misplaced…..
4. David ‘Waggy’ Wagstaffe: Wolves
…but hang on a cotton-picking moment because here’s Wolves‘ flying winger Dave ‘Waggy’ Wagstaffe and his severely coiffured wife, Barbara. Now this is much more like a 70s footballer’s lifestyle. They’re leaning against the E-Type Jag in a 60s up- market housing estate in the West Midlands. I mean they’ve even got a balcony! Today, tabloids never refer to a footballer’s home as a ‘house’, it’s always a ‘mansion.’ But here, as is the case in most of these pics, it’s definitely a ‘house’, as stratospheric wages for top players were a long, long way off. And this picture, I believe, demonstrates the difference between playing for a London club where you’re paid more, probably, but your money doesn’t go as far and playing for a northern club where you earn less but everything’s that bit cheaper. Hence the Jag and Barratt home as opposed to the Vauxhall Viva. Waggy isn’t exactly beaming about his enviable life-style in the pic and research showed his partner for the final twenty years of his life was a woman named Val. Sadly, Waggy is no longer with us and the lovely Barbara had slipped out of the picture during the 15 years after this picture was taken.
5. Tommy Taylor: West Ham United
I bet he drinks Carling Black Label!
Ask anyone during the 70s what they would want in a money-no-object, built- to-their- specifications fuck-off house, most would say ‘a bar’ followed by ‘a colour TV’. It was the apotheosis of glamour, sophistication and luxury. And here we see West Ham stopper Tommy and his lovely wife, Pat, enjoying a vodka and Kia Ora. Mind you, Pat doesn’t look old enough to be drinking alcohol and they don’t look the most obvious of couples. It’s unknown whether Tommy and Pat are still together although Tommy is still very much with us and still involved in football, coaching a team in Finland. Bet he doesn’t drink Carling Black Label anymore, though.
6. Harry Redknapp: West Ham United
And who do we have here in their lovely Chigwell bungalow. None other than a young ‘Arry Redknapp and his lovely wife Sandra! There’s a great deal of those 70s favoured building materials, wood and natural stone, in evidence and we had a carpet and fireplace just like that. The fireplace does not appear to be in use as central heating had just become de rigeur for those that could afford it. Such as top footballers.
A few years ago Sky Sport ran a football nostalgia series called ‘Bobby Charlton’s Football Scrapbook‘ in which Bob discussed matches from his illustrious career with the estimable Dickie Davies. Excellent footage of sixties and seventies English First Division games was shown followed by a shockingly dull analysis by the lugubrious Bobby. Poor old Dickie was flogging a dead horse most of the time as he tried to jazz up proceedings with a few gags which fell on Charlton stony ground. One bit of footage featured Harry Redknapp himself in an early 70s West Ham game. Harry was a popular winger, not to mention an unlikely sex symbol, for the Hammers playing 149 games between 1965 and 1972 scoring a rather disappointing, to say the least, 7 goals. During this featured match two teenage girls, rare in 70s football, festooned in West Ham scarves and bell-bottomed Brutus jeans, ran on to the pitch and started kissing an embarrassed ‘Arry. After the action was shown we were returned to the studio where an increasingly desperate Dickie giggled about the incident only to be immediately slapped down by Bobby who morosely exclaimed ‘..yes, but no one should ever run on to the field play.’ Boring old twat.
‘Arry and the lovely Sandra are still very much together and, interestingly, ‘Arry’s former West Ham team mate, Frank Lampard married Sandra’s twin sister Patricia. How odd.
Despite him being dragged through the courts on a number of occasions to face increasingly serious financial charges, nothing has been pinned on him, of course, which suggests his life has been as spotless as the fireplace in the picture above.
7. Gordon Bolland: Millwall
Few people other than Millwall fans of a certain age will remember Gordon Bolland. Other than those, that is, who watched Match of the Day during the 70s. For it was Gordon Bolland who won Match of the Day’s ‘Goal of the Month‘ for September 1971 with a screamer against Bristol City. And that was about as good as it got for Gordon although he played for Millwall successfully for 7 years and was inducted into their Hall of Fame.
When the Goal photographer came to call on the Bolland family they just happened, fortunately, to be doing a bit of home decoration at the time, so he sent the unnamed Mrs Bolland up the ladder in mini-skirt and high heels. This went down like a fart in a spacesuit with Mrs Bolland, it seems, as not only is her underskirt showing but her expression would curdle milk. I wouldn’t want to be around when the Goal photographer packed up his gear and drove off. He may have a BBC trophy for one of the best goals of 1971 but that’s not going save him from a right kicking.
8. Denis Law: Manchester United
The great Denis Law was not only a prolific goalscorer but was prolific in other departments too. It’s little wonder the lovely Sandra Law is sitting down after having so many children in such a short space of time. Luckily for her they decided to call full-time on any more procreation and she could, at least concentrate on bringing up a houseful of toddlers. Poor Sandra. There should be a Law against it.
Denis and Sandra met in their teens at an Aberdeenshire dancehall in the 50s and are happily still together. Their emotional symmetry is very much at odds with the decor in their lovely 70s living room. Never have so many styles clashed so menacingly in such a small space. A bit like The Lawman’s effect on opposing defences. Sandra’s blouse and the tartan of the kids’ kilts just add to the psychedelic melange. It’s a bit like one of those popular 70s posters where you had to try and spot figures somewhere in the busy detail. And check out the new central heating in the corner. Denis’s status at Manchester United has clearly allowed him to splash out on such luxuries. It reminds me a bit of when the also legendary Jocky Wilson won the World Darts Championship and was asked by a reporter what he was going to do with the all the money. ‘We’re gonnae get the hoose rewired,’ replied Jocky.
9. Alun Evans: Aston Villa
Alun Evans was one of those 70s players who are virtually forgotten despite playing over 250 top level games in the top English leagues. He is best remembered as a Liverpool player between 1968 and 1972. He never really made it at that top level and some believe it was because while a Liverpool player he was attacked and glassed in Wolverhampton night-club and was never really the same again. A reminder of just how violent football could be in the 70s.
We see him here with his lovely, again unnamed, rather young looking wife surrounded by some chintzy ornamentation. In those days, maybe it still happens, players were accommodated in ‘club houses’ so they needn’t have to worry about furnishing it. The local 70s equivalent of IKEA would come round and furnish it, which looks like what has happened here. Evans eventually ended up in Australia where he got married again and had more children. So this is one marriage that clearly didn’t last.
10. Peter ‘The Cat’ Bonetti: Chelsea
So here we have recently sadly deceased Chelsea and England goalie Peter ‘The Cat’ Bonetti and family. As this was the early to mid-seventies Bonetti was already an established first team player at Chelsea and an England international. It’s fair to say, however, that Bonetti’s international career never really recovered from England’s defeat to West Germany in the 1970 World Cup as many England fans blamed him for some of the goals, although I don’t really believe the overrated Gordon Banks would have been able to do much about them either. Luckily that aberration didn’t affect his footballer’s lifestyle and here we see the Bonettis outside their ‘mansion’ in the leafy suburbs somewhere near London. His dinky little open top car (despite having four kids) is very chic and certainly what we’d expect a 70s footballer to be driving. I wonder if he has a Hurstian Vauxhall Viva in the garage also? He’ll need something roomy for all his offspring to clamber into. And have you spotted the bonus ball in the corner? A fancy caravan, impossibly exotic then and very handy when you have a large family when a week in Marbella might stretch the purse strings, even for a top footballer.
11. Billy ‘Bonzo’ Bonds: West Ham United
Sharp-eyed readers may have noticed that the bulk of the above subjects all played for London clubs. And of these London players, most played for The Hammers. There are a few obvious reasons for this I suspect. Firstly, the photographer, Ray Wright, will have been London-based and it was easier just driving round to local players’ mansions than taking a three-day camel ride to Newcastle or Liverpool. Secondly, the glamour players (Bestie excepted) were all based in London and although rarely league contenders, the perception from readers outside the Home Counties (as they were and still are patronisingly referred to by the media), West Ham were pretty glamorous compared to Crystal Palace, Fulham and even Chelsea.
Here we have Billy ‘Bonzo’ Bonds at home with his family in his fairly featureless mansion. Apart from a regulation highly patterned carpet and non-matching armchair, there’s not really much here for analysis in this rather bland domestic scene. Although Marilyn has kept her baffies on and is that a can of beer at the side of the chair? Whether it is or not, you’d have thought they’d have tidied up before the shoot. And what about that dog? It looks like a cross between a greyhound, a Great Dane and some nuclear fission. My guess is photographer Ray just wanted to get the photo taken and away before Cujo ripped his throat out. You can see the mutt is just mulling over the possibility as the pic is taken.
It’s fair to say it was a different world then. As the man said, the past is a foreign country. As I have said in previous football posts, players then were more accessible and their lifestyles weren’t hugely different from our own in many ways. Players in the 70s were really just better-than-averagely paid artisans, even though lots of schoolboys worshipped them. How many top players nowadays would invite a photographer into their ‘mansions’ today? Unless, of course, it was for Hello magazine with their unlimited budget.
Today’s footballers may be obscenely reimbursed for their efforts, but few really know what to spend their cash on other than another Rolex, Aston Martin or …or…I’m struggling to think of anything else.
In 2003 when top footballers’ wages were beginning to be paid in wheelbarrows, ex-footballer Jamie Redknapp published a magazine called Icon. It was aimed at those in the social stratosphere way above ordinary punters. Available in exclusive First Class airport lounges and sent free to anyone who had a few million quid to spare, it advertised the sort of tasteless things a tiny percentage of the population could afford. By calling the puffed-up publication Icon, it implied its readership was those people us proles were expected to look up to and revere, almost in a religious fashion. Well, speak for yourself, Jamie but we’ll decide who we feel deserve revering, thanks. It was a product of a time when some people were becoming so rich they occupied another dizzying plane within society. Some things never change.
The mag went bust in 2010 amidst a blizzard of debt. I mention this just to highlight the differences between the honest pros above and the image-obsessed, untouchable, high-flying businessmen who turn out for the top clubs nowadays.
And you thought Tommy Taylor‘s bar was flash?
A household name in the 60s and 70s, Jake Thackray’s bawdy lyrical brilliance deserves to be resurrected
While watching yet another episode of that surreal 60s and 70s experience Sunday Night at the London Palladium last week from 1974 on the wonderful Talking Pictures TV, compere Jim Dale sat at the front of the stage and sang a ballad entitled Lah-Di- Dah. He explained it was a song about a young man being taken by his girlfriend to spend a day at the home of her awful family. Dale didn’t say who wrote and originally performed the song but within a few bars I instinctively knew it was a Jake Thackray song. The gloomy ballad gives no indication that there is any humour in the song unless you were really listening to the lyrics but the structure and rhythm was unmistakably Thackray. Whenever the line ‘..and I’ll bill and coo with your gruesome Auntie Susan.. is delivered, you know this isn’t a straightforward love song. The line about her dad ‘ ..and I’ll have to grit my teeth when he goes on about his rup-ture….‘ puts the tin hat on it. This is classic Thackray, all delivered in a wonderfully lugubrious deadpan. The SNATLP audience seemed to pay attention politely but never was a titter heard. Poor Jim must have known he was casting pearls before swine, but good on him for trying to do something that didn’t require sequins and high-kicking Tiller Girls.
Few people in the audience watching this bizarre festival of ‘variety’ schlock would have recognised a Jake Thackray song if they’d met it in their soup, but for nearly 20 years throughout the 60s and 70s Thackray was a regular performer on a range of TV variety shows. His first appearance was on ITV’s The Braden Beat, latterly Braden’s Week after it transferred to the BBC. A comedy and consumer affairs vehicle for Canadian Bernard Braden, as well as Thackray the show also featured Peter Cook and the recently sadly departed Tim Brooke Taylor. After the show was cancelled in 1972 due to Braden spreading himself too thinly and advertising margarine on ITV, which was tabloid headline news, Thackray continued to add a bit of class to the successor to Braden’s Week, the shockingly downmarket That’s Life.
I remember clearly watching him on various shows during the 60s and 70s and finding him quite intimidating. Was he meant to be funny? His lyrical mastery was still beyond me as a juvenile, but I knew there was something about him that was different. His lugubrious manner, clipped diction, deadpan delivery and was he really saying what I think he was saying? And that was an important element of his genius, the inspired and unexpected vocabulary, the hilarious grotesqueness of his subject matter, the laugh-out-loud one-liners, the preposterous characters, not forgetting the whimsical beauty of many of his ballads. There were other artists who wrote humorous songs but they laughed along with the audience (Lance Percival anyone?), ruining the effect. Thackray left the audience to make its own mind up and often he was just too quick and clever for it. In fact, after his first appearance on Braden’s Beat the TV company was deluged with complaints but slowly he won people round.
He also contributed regularly to The David Frost Show and even Frost Over America. I wonder what the Yanks made of his songs about cross- dressing nuns, his roly-poly girlfriend and suburban female devil-worshippers?
Coming from a fairly authoritarian home background in Leeds his dad, Ernest Thackray (what a wonderful Thackrayan name!) was a village policeman. Sent to a Jesuit college in Wales, Jake Thackray went on to study Modern Languages at Durham University and moved to France for a number of years to teach. It was here he was introduced to the chansonniere musical tradition, particularly that of Georges Brassens and Jacques Brel, which influenced his music for the rest of his life. His lyrical style was even thought reminiscent of Noel Coward, something which Thackray reportedly hated. But his Yorkshire roots link him more, I believe, to that of Alan Bennett, another Leeds native, and Bennett’s deadpan humour can be heard regularly in his songs. Or maybe it was the other way round….
His bitter-sweet stories can also be traced to later northern songwriters such as Morrissey and Jarvis Cocker whose subject matter was very similar. The Smiths’ Girlfriend In A Coma or Pulp’s Babies are songs that seem very much influenced by Jake Thackray. The Morrissey line, ‘..I still love you.. only slightly, slightly less than I used to..’ from Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before is pure Thackray. During the 80s he was accused by some of misogyny with regards to some of his lyrics about women. It’s fair to say that a song which begins ‘I love a good bum on a woman, it makes my day..’ (On Again, On Again) does suggest a negative stereotype but that has to be set against other writers and comedians of the time. To witness Jimmy Tarbuck or Ted Rogers‘ routine on SNATLP would certainly be watching something misogynystic, so to criticise Jake Thackray is not seeing the wood for the trees. But for most of his songs he was singing in character, although maybe much of the subject matter was of the type that interested Jake Thackray. But bollocks to that, he was clever, funny, unpredictable, fascinating and unique and he was no Harvey Weinstein, that’s really all that mattered.
But balance that against his song The Hair of the Widow of Bridlington, about a widowed woman who takes control of her life again, and the accusation of misogyny is just plain wrong.
She found that she could please herself
She could, could the widow of Brid
Swim in the sea when she felt hot
Stay in bed when she did not
And she began to laugh a lot
She did, she did, she did
To sing and dance and laugh a lot
She did, did the widow of BridThe Hair of the Widow of Bridlington
The excellent Ian McMillan, poet and broadcaster also from Yorkshire, even wrote a stage show about Thackray entitled ‘Sister Josephine Kicks The Habit‘ referencing one of Thackray’s most celebrated and typically strange songs, ‘Sister Josephine,’ about a nun in a convent who appears to be a male burglar on the run from the police, although this doesn’t seem to bother the other nuns.
No longer will her snores ring through the chapel during prayers
Nor her lustful moanings fill the stilly night
No more empty bottles of altar wine come clunking from her cell
No longer will the cloister toilet seat stand upright‘Sister Josephine’
Or even the bizarre nature of The Castleford Ladies’ Magic Circle about a group of middle-aged, middle-class ladies who meet up every week to practise devil-worship. A scenario only a crazed but brilliant mind could come up with.
Their husbands potter at snooker down the club
Unaware of the devilish jiggery-poke and rub-a-dub-dub
While Elizabeth Jones and Lily O’Grady
And three or four more married ladies
Are frantically dancing naked for BeelzebubThe Castleford Ladies’ Magic Circle
After all this they go dutifully home to their boring husbands in time for ‘cocoa and The Epilogue.‘ If this isn’t a song about women taking their lives by the scruff of the neck and doing something that pleases them, irrespective of how bizarre, then I don’t know what is. And did the Pythons get their idea for The Batley Townswomen’s Guild’s interpretation of The Battle of Pearl Harbour, amongst other re-enactments, from this song?
And as for Isabel Makes Love Upon National Monuments, it sums up just how irreverent, iconoclastic and downright funny he could be.
Many a monolith has seen Isabel
Her bright hair in turmoil, her breasts’ surging swell
But unhappy Albert, so far denied
The bright sight of Isabel getting into her stride
After his tragically early death in 2002 at the age of 64 the musician Momus described Thackray as ‘..surprisingly sexy, sexist, smutty, saucy in such a sixties way.’ Where does one end and the other begin? It was the way it was then and we know better now, but we’re also capable of putting it into context, and it does not diminish his brilliance one iota. The same could be said for Benny Hill, criminally ignored nowadays as if he was a sex offender. His lyrical virtuosity was on a par with Thackray’s although maybe heavier on the ‘sauciness‘. Not neccessarily a bad thing.
She nearly swooned at his macaroon
And he said if you treat me right
You’ll have hot rolls in the morning
And crumpet every nightErnie: The Fastest Milkman in the West
Thackray died far too young of kidney failure in 2002 aged 64 and his latter years were not kind to him, but one of his earliest songs ‘The Last Will and Testament of Jake Thackray’ let his public know that mourning was not his bag.
I, the undermentioned, by this document
Do declare my true intentions, my last will, my testament
When I turn up my toes, when I rattle my clack, when I agonise
I want no great wet weepings, no tearing of hair, no wringing of hands, no sighs
No lack-a-days, no woe-is-me’s and none of your sad adieus
Go, go, go and get the priest and then go get the booze, boys
His early death was extremely sad but he left a raft of brilliantly funny, clever, unique and often lyrically beautiful songs that never fail to raise a smile.
Exactly what he would have wanted.
60s children’s trading cards didn’t sugar the pill about the horrors of war. And as 5-year-olds didn’t we just love them for it….
In the early 70s there was an ongoing, in fact it’s still going on, debate about the effect of TV and film violence on societal behaviour. It’s fair to say the jury is still out on that, and probably always will be, but the treatment given to films like A Clockwork Orange (see article below) was hugely disproportionate to its influence and its intentions.
It wasn’t always the case though as the sixties were a very different time. A flash of cleavage, a mild swear word or the whiff of marijuana and a film was strictly off limits to the young and impressionable. Even Dracula and Frankenstein films had an’X’ certificate slapped on them as young people could easily have their little heads turned by such horror. Or so it was thought. But primary school children could still get their fix of ultra-violence at the local newsagent and tobacconist for 5 old pennies courtesy of the good people at A, B and C trading cards.
All this talk of censorship and the effects of violence on society is really just a way of introducing what were the most violent, grisly, visceral and completely inappropriate trading cards ever released for children. And, as far as I can remember, no adult batted an eyelid, turned a hair or cried foul during the years that the wonderful Civil War News and Battle trading cards were available to any child who just happened to have 5 old pennies in his pockets.
Between 1964 and 1965, on my journey to Balgreen Primary School in Edinburgh I would stop off at the paper shop on the way and buy one, sometimes two, packets of either Civil War or Battle cards. In each pack there were five cards and a small rectangle of sugary pink bubblegum. There was a palpable feeling of excitement as you flicked through the pile of cards to see if you’d managed to secure at least one you didn’t already have. On reaching the school playground small groups of boys, it was always boys, girls didn’t collect them, huddled round as one member of the group flicked through his huge pile of cards and another boy would use the agreed code, ‘Got, got, got, no-got, no-got..’ At the end of this ritual intense negotiations would take place. If it was a hard-to-get card that could mean a 2 or even 3 to 1 trade of less sought after cards.
If my memory serves me, the Civil War News cards were released a year before the Battle cards. Each card featured a vividly coloured scene form the American Civil War with the date it took place and a title. The back of the card gave more details of the event in the form of a newspaper front page, sometimes being at odds with the images represented on the front. But we weren’t interested in the information anyway. It was really just the often exaggerated depictions of violence we wanted to see. If you were particularly lucky some packs of Civil War News included a facsimile of Confederate dollars, 17 of which could also be collected. These were less sought after though. It was really about the cards.
If those cards were made available to children today it would be tabloid front page news. But we loved them, nobody seemed that bothered and it didn’t turn us into a generation of serial killers. In my case, quite the opposite. To see the cards now, though, is quite a shocking experience but one that needs to be tempered by the fact that as children we knew these depictions of violence were purely comic book and the images were reflected in the children’s comics of the day. But more on those later.
So sit back and enjoy, if that’s the right word, a selection of the most gloriously perverse and inappropriate amusements ever produced for children. And try not to have nightmares.
Civil War News 1964
1. Death At Sea
In a very nicely framed scene from a dizzying angle we see some poor dead schlub tangled in the rigging of a clipper while being attacked by, what looks like an enemy armoured ship. The wound in the centre of his chest shows he didn’t stand a chance. We see his shipmates trying to put out fires below and firing back at the attacking vessel, unlikely to have any effect on the heavily fortified attacking ship. Why the focus of the scene is this poor guy hanging from the rigging is uncertain, other than it will have excited young schoolboys.
2. Savages Attack
This was a bit of a curiosity for early 60s schoolboys. We all knew about Indians (as we referred to them then), there were plenty western series on telly at the time, but found it difficult to reconcile them with the American Civil War. Of course, Westerns inhabited a timeless period in American history. We had no idea when these events might have taken place or even if they had, but here’s some Indians (or ‘Savages‘ as the card sympathetically describes them in true 60s style) attacking unspecified troops and about to scalp them in true stereotypical fashion. According to the information on the back of the card, both Confederate and Unionist forces used Indians to supplement their numbers and they brought their own brand of combat to the conflict. At least according to the artist.
3. Painful Death
Talk about the bleedin’ obvious! Now ‘Painful Death‘ was a great favourite. Not only because of the vividness of the background battle scene but the sheer visceral violence of the foreground. The artist has certainly gone overboard with the reds and yellows in his palette and the blood gushing from the horseman’s wounds shows up vividly against the yellow background. And it sure does look like a painful death, and there were plenty more where that came from.
4. Crushed By Wheels
Not all the cards depicted violence of the most bloody kind, however. Some just suggested violence of the most bloody kind. And ‘Crushed By Wheels‘ was a personal favourite depicting potential carnage. The fact that this poor guy has already been through the wars and the anticipation on his face as he realises he is going to be flattened by a massive cannon wheel shows there is no luck in war. Interestingly, the story on the back of the card makes no reference to this unfortunate individual. It just looked good. Some superb art work here, you have to say.
5. Pushed To His Doom
Like ‘Crushed By Wheels‘, ‘Pushed To His Doom‘ was of a similar type, merely suggesting a nasty end to one of the participants. Those finely sharpened spikes do not look welcoming and the look of sheer hostility on the face of the cannon-loader really made this card stand out. It makes an interesting companion piece to ‘Painful Death‘ as a before and after sequence. If you want to be artistic about it…..
This example does what it says on the card. There’s probably more violence per centimetre than on any other card in the collection. The artist has certainly been creative when told to represent ‘a general slaughter.’ It reminds me a bit of the Monty Python ‘Salad Days‘ sketch. If the five-year-old child wanted value for his 5 old pennies, this is the card that certainly gives it in spade loads. However, I don’t remember ‘Massacre‘ being a favourite. By this time we were probably growing immune to indiscriminate carnage.
7. Death Barges In
This one is particularly dramatic. One does wonder how the horsmen could have ridden into what looks like a hotel or restaurant without some opposition and brutally slay one of the Unionists. The artist has made sure the sword entering him is right in the middle of the picture to emphasise the ruthlessness and bloody murderousness of the attack. There’s a lot of bright red blood coming from that wound!
8. Angel Of Mercy
Occasionally, the cards attempted to show the more merciful side of warfare and the heroic efforts of people, usually women, who tended to the wounded and dying. But the artists couldn’t run the risk of completely disappointing their clients and so even in this heart-warming scene we have a man with a shockingly nasty face injury and blood seeping from the wound. They knew their audience…..
9. Attacked From Behind
First law of combat. Don’t turn your back on the enemy! He’ll not do that again….
10. The Looters
War is hell and no one is safe from the consequences. Some of the cards created scenarios that depicted this. As one soldier grabs the swag the other moves threateningly towards the innocent and vulnerable mother and child. What’s going to happen here? As five year olds we just thought it would end in some nasty comic book violence. As adults we’d prefer not to speculate…
11. Flaming Death
Oh look. A man in flames. Well, it makes a change from endless buckets of blood. Is he the Angel of Death? Maybe we were missing much of the imagery of these cards but probably not. It seems the only flammable part of his anatomy are his arms. Is that a good or a bad thing? You decide.
Well, they didn’t do me any harm. I think. But if you thought Civil War News cards were a one-off, you’d be wrong. If the manufacturers, the good people at A, B and C, thought children had been overexposed to such visceral bloodshed, butchery and carnage, well, that was only the amuse-bouche. The main course of gratuitous slaughter was about to be served, with a generous side order of ……sexual violence! Introducing Battle trading cards...
1. Fight To The Death
It all started off so well with this excellent montage of sickening Nazism and imagery, even including The Grim Reaper! This was a very sought after card. Not only was it Number 1 but it was packed with interesting detail. Maybe lacking in savage violence for the 6 year old taste, but what it lacked in carnage it made up for in World War 2 symbolism. It was vital that this was part of your collection and no one was going to swap this in a hurry!
2. Ambushing The General
Now this is more like it. Not only is this nasty German general being slain but just look at the pompous, strutting popinjay, with his fancy uniform and stereotypical monocle. He could be a character from ‘Allo ‘Allo with a name like Von Sauerkraut or something but, if we follow the trajectory of that bullet straight through his heart, his Nazi days are most certainly over. And good riddance!
3. Fiery Death
But let’s ramp up the violence a little, thinks the artist. If you thought shooting Germans with a gun was a little passe, it’s much more fun to do so with a flame thrower. One does wonder why these Allied soldiers decided to go with the flame thrower rather than the tried and tested rifle, which one of them is toting. Makes for a much more exciting card though. Eat flame, Fritz!
4. Dog Warrior
Ok, a flame thrower is one thing, but let’s not get nasty! And just look at that grinning Jerry hiding behind the bush. The artist has frozen the action at the point of impact. No doubt that Alsatian has been taught to do unspeakable things by the Jerries, and the artist has left you to come to your own 6 year-old conclusions.
5. School Bombing
They’re at it again! Is nothing sacred? Those Jerries stop at nothing! To sell images of a school being bombed to 6 year old children on their way to school seems a touch insensitive. And to depict a teacher and primary age children being blown to bits also seems a little heartless. But war is hell and maybe that’s the message. Nice that they’ve included a bit of obligatory blood on the teacher’s table. But these are Battle cards for god’s sake, they’ve got to have some blood.
6. Death Blow
Oo-er! It wasn’t just the nasty Jerries we were up against, it was those just-as-nasty Japs too. And here we have an execution scene, well, 6 years olds need to know about these things. In 1965 the death penalty had just been scrapped in the UK so death had been all around. Look at those Japs in the background cheering, though, and the look of deep joy on the fat balding executioner’s face. The artist has spared us the view of the blade about to come crashing down, so he wasn’t completely heartless….. And even more sinister is the body of another prisoner whose head is obscured by the prisoner in the foreground, probably because he has already been decapitated. Charming.
7. The Torture Chamber
Well at least this guy is only being tortured! But not in a nice way. It’s all in a day’s work to the moustachioed taciturn Japs. They look as if their leader, Fu Man Chu, is about to step out of the shadows. And if you think this is rather near the knuckle…..
8. Flames Of Death
..what exactly is going on here? A young blonde woman with tight fitting clothing is tied up while a nasty German sets fire to her house. Why is she tied up I wonder and why is he setting fire to the house? Curious. But remember what I was saying about sexual violence…?
9. Beautiful Spy
What is it with these artists and trussed up young attractive women? Note the similar way she is tied to the blonde woman above. There’s something decidedly odd going on here and 6 year olds were probably not the best group to notice. And these Japs do not seem to be observing The Geneva Convention to me.
10. Confession By Force
Now what’s going on here? Whatever it is, the grinning operative at the back seems to be enjoying it. We also have the obligatory balding, overweight torturer taking a little too much pride in his work. What, exactly, has this to do with the Second World War and why is it considered worthy of inclusion in a child’s set of trading cards? Hmmmm. Many years later someone would come up with the description ‘Torture Porn’ and films such as Saw became very lucrative. It became very popular in the 90s, so these cards were way ahead of their time you could say.
Although only a small selection of both card collections, these give a pretty good idea of what they were all about. I can’t help feeling like a slightly down market pornographer by featuring these images in my blog but for some people of a certain age these trading cards were a particularly memorable part of our formative years. None of us really had any idea of what was really going on in them. We didn’t know we were just a conduit for the artists’ darker pre-internet fantasies but looking at them now, one can’t help but think that had those cards been published for adults a few eyebrows may have been raised. Despite the controversial subject matter, we loved these cards. And I didn’t grow up hating Germans or the Japanese, or any other nationalities for that matter. What it does remind you of was the incessant violent images that were circulated in trading cards, comics and TV programmes, all aimed at young kids during the 60s and 70s. Of course the war had only ended less than 20 years previously, so for many people, it was a living memory.
In subsequent years cards became much more innocent and football players, Batman (hugely popular in 1966) and various other film themes replaced the blood-lust of Civil War and Battle. They were good but not quite the same.
I just wonder how I, and so many people of my age, grew up so well adjusted, but we did, as far as I know.
And I still have no desire to see films with explosions.
Fifty years on, The Magic Christian is still relevant so should it be recognised as the flawed masterpiece it really is? Yes!
The Magic Christian was released right at the end of the 60s in December 1969. It starred Peter Sellers, who had become a major Hollywood player around this time, and Ringo Starr who was still dealing with the demise of the Beatles only months previously. It hit the cinemas with hardly a fanfare and disappeared almost as quickly under a deluge of poor reviews. In August 2005 Paul Merton chose the film as part of his ‘Perfect Night In‘ for BBC 2. Previously this film had scarcely seen the light of day and it was really only then that the film could be viewed as one which not only epitomised many of the tropes and attitudes of sixties’ writers and film makers, but also brought together some of the best acting and production talent available in the UK at the time. It was also a fascinating insight into the, often unlikely, motivation of its stars and the type of country it reflected at a time of profound cultural and social change.
The film was based on a novel of the same by American writer Terry Southern whose previous films as writer included Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove and Lolita as well as Easy Rider and Barbarella. Films as sixties as they come. Ringo had appeared in the sex comedy Candy released the previous year and clearly, as probably the best actor out of all The Beatles, which is maybe not saying much, he was intent on a film career post-Beatles. Southern’s novels were very ‘counterculture’, satirical, over the top for many, but with extremely serious themes, and The Magic Christian was very much of this genre. It told the story of Guy Grand, played by Sellers, a hugely rich business tycoon who adopts down-and-out Starr seemingly on a whim and, between them, set off on a picaresque journey using Grand’s money to play elaborate hoaxes on the human race, although it’s mainly the establishment and upper class figures who suffer most, who, according to Grand, ‘all have their price.’ The film builds up to a weird climatic sequence aboard a bogus cruise liner named ‘The Magic Christian‘ where the wealthy conceited passengers are made to think the ship is sinking amongst chaos which includes escaped gorillas, a vampire, a dipsomaniac captain and supposed hijackers.
I would even argue that this could have been the fourth Beatles’ film. That, of course, was originally meant to be Up Against It with a screenplay written by Joe Orton in 1967. On the day Orton was supposed to meet director Dick Lester to discuss making the film, the film company’s chauffeur found Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwelll dead in their Islington flat, Halliwell having murdered Orton and then killed himself. But with Ringo in the cast, music by Paul McCartney, a shot of John and Yoko lookalikes embarking on The Magic Christian and Apple producer Denis O’Dell on board, this was as close to a Beatles film as we were ever going to get. Even the anarchic unconventional narrative and arch nature of the film had a Magical Mystery Tour and Help vibe to it.
The soundtrack was by Paul McCartney and first Apple signing Badfinger who had three top ten hits shortly after the film’s release. Their biggest hit was the film’s opening track, the excellent McCartney penned ‘Come And Get It‘ which chimed with the film’s ‘anything for money’ theme. Other tracks were written by the band who released an album entitled ‘Music From The Magic Christian.’ In years to come two members of Badfinger, Pete Ham and Tom Evans would commit suicide due to, what they believed, was bad management which stifled their career. In 1970 Harry Nillson had a huge worldwide hit with the Badfinger song, Without You, which the band made little from, and in 1994 Mariah Carey screeched her way to success with the same song. It would be 2013 before Badfinger’s financial affairs were sorted out in court. Far too late for Ham and Evans.
Another interesting Beatles musical note from the film was when the duped passengers piled out of The Magic Christian with the sudden realisation they were still in London, the final crashing piano note to The Beatles‘ classic ‘A Day In The Life‘ is heard.
The anti-establishment spirit and cynicism of the film made it an unlikely vehicle for Sellers who was a hot property in Hollywood and he could have pretty much chosen any project he wanted after impressing in films like Dr Strangelove, The Pink Panther and What’s New Pussycat. The Magic Christian was, therefore, a seemingly strange choice. However, this was a film Sellers desperately wanted to make and in an interview a few years later, director Joe Mcgrath revealed that this was very much Sellers’ project. ‘He found the money. He really believed in the film.’ Up to this point Sellers had given no indication that he was at all anti-establishment or countercultural. In fact, given his ‘friendship’ with Princess Margaret, who attended the premiere, and his well known love of money, it seemed the establishment was exactly what he wanted to be part of. So what motivated Sellers to make a film which purported to show the greed and immorality of the human race?
A huge clue was provided in an almost forgotten documentary of the time. During the production of the film a separate documentary was made entitled ‘Will The Real Peter Sellers Please Stand Up‘ featuring Sellers and including an often intimate commentary from Spike Milligan, who also appeared in The Magic Christian. It’s well documented that Sellers was a hugely complex and difficult character and few people really could say they knew him, with the possible exception of Milligan, whose own battles with depression are well documented. In the commentary Milligan talks about Sellers’ loneliness and the word ‘revenge‘ is used regularly. It became clear, according to Milligan, that The Magic Christian was Sellers’ revenge on all the people from the ‘establishment’ to the BBC to film producers, even to women, who all apparently ‘rejected‘ him somehow in the past. In a way, as Guy Grand, he was able to show the human race up as venal, greedy and immoral when offered enough money, similar to the way that Peter Sellers, now at the peak of his fame, was able to make and break careers himself. At one point Sellers is interviewed on the set of The Magic Christian and he admits that, ‘You can buy anyone in the film industry, even myself.’
The film is very sixties in its abandonment of a conventional linear narrative and is made up of a series of vignettes, all based around an elaborate prank or hoax engineered by Guy Grand and his recently adopted son, Youngman, played by Starr. Why Guy Grand suddenly decided to take revenge on all the people he thought ‘had their price‘ is uncertain. Did he wake up suddenly one morning and decide he’d had enough or had these hoaxes been going on for some time. And why did he adopt Ringo Starr? Narrative credibility is certainly not part of this film, which was a very sixties trope.
It’s uncertain what the budget for this film was but given the cast it attracted it must have been pretty generous. With Sellers on board funding was virtually guaranteed and by bringing in Beatle Ringo Starr this will have been the financial icing on the cake, ensuring a young hip audience for what was an extremely hip project. It’s fair to say the film didn’t need so many very well known names in very small parts. Did they really need Dickie Attenborough as the coach of the Oxford boat crew to deliver a couple of lines? Or an uncredited Yul Brynner as a drag artist singing Noel Coward’s camp classic ‘Mad About The Boy, to a silent Roman Polanski? Probably not, but it all added to the sixties mayhem. Other big, and probably expensive, names included Raquel Welch, Laurence Harvey, Christopher Lee and Wilfred Hyde-White. Given it was Sellers pet project it seemed very much a case of him calling in some favours from his Hollywood pals.
Ringo Starr‘s role in the film is an odd one. His presence will certainly have appealed to the money men bankrolling the film. As probably the best actor out of the four Beatles, he had a bit of an acting track record having appeared in Terry Southern’s Candy and been the lead Beatle in Magical Mystery Tour, Help and A Hard Day’s Night. Despite this, the part of Youngman Grand was actually written with John Lennon in mind. Although Starr and Sellers apparently got on well during the filming, Sellers is reported to have been determined that Ringo stole none of his thunder in the film and a number of Ringo’s funnier lines were appropriated by Sellers, leaving Ringo with relatively little to do or say. In fact, Starr’s role is really just as a stooge to listen to Sellers’/ Grand’s philosophising. At this point in Sellers’ career, this was a fairly common occurrence in films he was starring in. Sellers’ meddling even extended to a strange incident involving John Cleese.
A pre-Python John Cleese and Graham Chapman had already written a treatment of the book for screen but on reading it, Seller’s threw out most of it. The only parts of their version that survived in the film were the the Sotheby’s scene where Guy Grand pays a huge amount for a Rembrandt and proceeds to cut out the artist’s nose from the picture in front of an aghast director played by Cleese. The other part of the film that survived was the sequence where Guy Grand bribes the Oxford team competing in that most English of traditions of ‘fair play’, the university boat race. Sellers reportedly tried to have Cleese fired from the film and put pressure on director Joe McGrath to remove him. Why he attempted this is uncertain. Some say it was because Cleese was upstaging Sellers in the scene, something Sellers at this time could not countenance, others claim it was because Sellers felt Cleese was no good in the scene. In his definitive study of Sellers ‘The Life and Death of Peter Sellers‘, Roger Lewis quotes Sellers as shouting at Cleese ‘Jesus Christ, what are you doing?’ in front of the whole crew. Cleese has talked a number of times about how nervous he got before performing and maybe his nervousness having to perform next to a legend like Sellers took its toll. Either way, the incident was an interesting example of just how difficult Sellers was to work with and Cleese wasn’t fired but it was a scene Sellers was never happy with.
A couple of other interesting Python references to this film. Firstly, Cleese and Chapman originally wrote the famous and very funny ‘Mouse Problem‘ sketch for this film, later used in the first series of Monty Python, which was rejected by Sellers. It’s also possible that a wonderfully sixties strange cartoon sequence near the beginning of the film may have been the first public, though uncredited, example of Terry Gilliam animation.
The film’s late 60s/ early 70s vibe is bolstered also by the use of a few very well known British TV faces such as boxing commentator Harry Carpenter, radio announcer and boat race commentator John Snagge, reporter Alan Whicker and news anchors Michael Aspel and Michael Barrett. With a few very entrenched establishment figures in that line-up, one wonders what they thought they were getting themselves into. Were they given a script to read beforehand and if so did they read it? Was it explained to them what the film was actually about and if so, did it bother them? As Guy Grand regularly explained in the film, ‘Everyone has his price.’ Carpenter’s sequence is especially funny where he is commentating on a boxing match when the protagonists suddenly stop and begin to make love to each other, disgusting the macho viewing audience, baying for blood. I remember during the 70s Carpenter interviewing a very bling Elton John on Sportsnight after his team, Watford, had just beaten the mighty Manchester United. After a smiling Elton had departed Carpenter grinned into the camera and giggled, ‘That result really made his earrings sparkle.’ Harry wasn’t going to let that sort of unmacho display go unchecked! So it’s my firm belief that Harry had no idea what he was really commentating on. Or maybe he did, as Guy maintains everyone has their price…
The film is also populated by well-known British and American acting faces. A few of Sellers’ friends were dragged in (and he didn’t have too many real friends) such as Graham Stark, David Lodge and Spike Milligan. The scene with Spike Milligan as an officious traffic warden is particularly funny. Milligan has just given Guy Grand a parking ticket, not something that would bother the hugely wealthy Grand but he sees a chance to subvert British authority by paying Milligan a ridiculous amount of money to eat the parking ticket, which he, of course, does. As Grand is driving away Milligan shouts ‘And let that be a lesson to you!’ The scene has an improvised feel to it and it’s almost like it’s been crowbarred into the film, which it maybe has. There are a number of scenes which seem improvised and these are often the funniest and most interesting.
Other British acting stalwarts like Hattie Jacques, who plays a horrendous upper class snob called Ginger who talks about enjoying a book on Nazi atrocities. And, her then husband, the excellent John Le Mesurier as an umpire at the boat race. Clive Dunn, Patrick Cargill (one of the stars of ‘Help‘), Dennis Price and Frank Thornton all turn up at various points amongst many other British acting faces. Even Christopher Lee is happy to put in a turn as his most famous character Count Dracula who turns up on the bogus cruiser The Magic Christian to add to the mayhem. I do wonder if any actors turned down a role as they didn’t like the film’s themes? Unlikely, if Guy Grand’s philosophy holds any water. And it would be nice to think that some may even have approved of it.
One of the first sequences featured actor Laurence Harvey as Hamlet. Whether this was mant as a bit of a send-up is unknown as Harvey was never considered an actor with a particularly great range. Guy Grand‘s joke here was that Harvey (and he is referred to in the scene as Laurence Harvey) suddenly begins to perform a strip routine during Hamlet’s famous soliloquy. There are a few gasps from the audience, but, true to good old British convention, no one protests, gets up and leaves or causes a fuss at all. Some elderly gentlemen even appear to enjoy it. And this, I believe, is at the bottom of all Guy’s pranks, the fact that people, particularly the upper classes, will huff, puff and often disapprove but no one will do a blind thing about it.
As a post script to this sequence, what for me, was quite a cruel joke seemed to be played out during the credit roll. It was fairly well known in the film business that Harvey was gay but that his public image portrayed him as wildly heterosexual. The credits list him as playing Hamlet right under another film character who was listed as Laurence Faggot. Was this a rather nasty joke played on Harvey by Sellers, who was certainly capable of such cruelty, or maybe by Terry Southern who may not have approved of Harvey remaining steadfastly in the closet? It’s quite possible Harvey was in on it, but, either way, it seems something of a coincidence that the other character was not only named ‘Laurence‘ but was also spelled in the same way to Harvey.
Homosexuality is just one of the, for the time, taboo themes explored by the film. During the fateful voyage of The Magic Christian, camp, virtually naked, male dancers provide the floor show. As they thrust their crotches towards a bigoted military type in the audience, once again, no one walks out or even complains. They just look embarrassed and pretend it isn’t happening. The same theme, as mentioned, was explored in the boxing sequence, although the more macho crowd booed its disapproval. But, still, no one tried to stop it…
The final scene of bowler-hatted City types diving into the vat of effluent to rescue wads of money Guy Grand had dropped into it was originally supposed to be filmed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty. Bizarrely, the production had been given approval by the New York authorities for this to take place. Clearly they hadn’t read the script (or been given one!) and Sellers, Starr, Joe McGrath et al all sailed to the US on the QE2 to film this scene. When the company financing the film got wind of this (so to speak) they withdrew support and Sellers had to use his not inconsiderable influence to find the money to finish the film. This last scene was eventually shot on the banks of the Thames behind The National Theatre.
A few American stars were prepared to turn up just for a cameo such as Raquel Welch, Yul Brynner and, oddly, Roman Polanski (only a few months before the Manson murders) to no particular narrative point, but they clearly were happy to do Sellers a favour. And one of the weirder appearances included 50s comedy icon Jimmy Clitheroe who turned up during the chaos of the The Magic Christian apparently sinking.
In an odd way the wrangling and the problems that beset The Magic Christian are all part of a wider 60s laissez-faire approach to film making by some artists. Although completely different to what Sellers was used to with Kubrick, it allowed him to influence the film totally to achieve the points he wanted to make. The range of, what Cleese referred to as ‘celebrity walk-ons’, also contributed greatly to the sixties vibe, although, admittedly, only possible in retrospect, and the various contributions of The Beatles cannot be underrated. The left-field sensibility of the text with its images of Che Guevara, Mao Tse Tung and counterculture sloganising root it firmly in the late 60s, only a year after the student protests of 1968 which almost brought down the French government. And ultimately with the confluence of Sellers, Southern, The Beatles, Monty Python and a who’s who of British acting talent, The Magic Christian plants a flag firmly which states ‘This is, and was, the sixties!’
Sadly, films were never quite the same again.
It was a mainstay of 60s and 70s variety and is still sadly missed (by me at least)
One might argue that whenever Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are in the same room, the art of ventriloquism will never die. But the 60s and 70s were the decades of TV ‘variety.’ It’s what programme schedulers thought the Great Viewing Public wanted, and they were probably right at the time. Three channels wasn’t a huge amount of choice and so it was easy to get big viewing figures if you gave some popular performers their own shows. Cilla, Dusty, Lulu, Englebert, Cliff, Val, Des and Tarby all had their own shows, and if you factor in all the quiz and comedy vehicles that were around also, this was a fecund time for ‘B’ list variety performers, as these shows desperately needed a wide range of guest acts. As well as (even more) singers, comedians, magicians and dancers it was also a good time for novelty acts of which ventriloquists were at the top of the tree. It was vital to vary the guest acts on any of those programmes, hence the description ‘variety’.
In the 60s and 70s ventriloquists were as common as magicians and were a peculiarly old fashioned act dating back to the music halls. In those days bad ventriloquists could get away with murder as they were suitably far away from the audience therefore few could see their lips move, so it was really only the best that made it on to the prying eye of TV. That said, some truly bad ventriloquists did slip through the net. More on them later. For me, it was an act that is greatly missed and there really aren’t many platforms for them now, Nina Conti excepted, which is sad but I feel a celebration of the best of them is certainly in order. But we have to start with one of the greatest and a truly 60s personality in many ways. Lenny The Lion!
1. Terry Hall and Lenny the Lion
Lenny happens to be one of my earliest TV memories and I have a very clear recollection of watching The Lenny The Lion Show in the early 60s. Terry Hall was from Oldham and started ventriloquism at the age of 15. He was one of the first to develop a non-human character in the shape of Lenny. Most people in the 50s were still listening, yes ‘listening’, to ventriloquist Peter Brough and Archie Andrews on the radio and Lenny was one of the first to make that crossover on to TV.
Lenny was a hugely endearing character who was the campest ventriloquist’s puppet ever. He talked in a high-pitched voice with a slight speech impediment where he couldn’t pronounce his ‘r’s and had a right hand that gesticulated wildly, his catchphrase being, ‘Aw, don’t embawass me!‘ In later years he appeared in a range of TV ads for Trebor Mints, or in Lenny’s case, ‘Twebor Mints‘. In the early days of the act Lenny had a set of very ferocious teeth but these were removed when it occurred to Terry Hall they might frighten children.
Lenny’s first TV appearance was on a 1956 comedy show which also featured the TV debut of Eric Sykes in a one-off comedy called Dress Rehearsal. A year later Lenny got his own show, not unreasonably titled The Lenny the Lion Show. This lasted until 1961 and featured a range of tried and tested MOR guest acts including Petula Clark, Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson (Sing Little Birdie!) and the ubiquitous Russ Conway. Norman Vaughan (London Palladium, The Golden Shot, Bullseye) was a regular contributor during series 5 in 1961 and another interesting footnote about series 4 was that one of the writers was, of all people, Pat Phoenix (the legendary Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street). How queer!
It was around this time that Lenny and Terry paid a visit to Millwall’s ground, The (old) Den, where he was photographed with players and fans. Millwall’s nickname is The Lions and it was an illustration of Lenny’s fame at the time that he was invited to make what must have been a memorable appearance. As far as I can find there are no pictures of this momentous event available, unless you know differently? Also in 1958 Lenny The Lion went to the US and appeared on the legendary Ed Sullivan Show.
Lenny’s next series was the one that made his name properly and launched him into 60s superstardom, Pops and Lennie. TV was just coming to terms with the cultural revolution that was happening in the UK at the time. 1962 was the year The Beatles were launched into the stratosphere and every TV show wanted a piece of the action. With this in mind the BBC chose Lenny as the unlikely host of one of their first ‘pop’ programmes. Maybe they thought it was only the very young who would have any interest in this new ‘pop’ phenomenon. Either way, it was an inspired choice. On 16 May 1963 The Beatles, on only their second TV appearance, appeared on Pops and Lenny playing their new single ‘From Me To You‘ and then ‘Please Please Me‘. Of course, in yet another act of cultural vandalism the tapes of this performance were wiped but a couple of other acts from PAL do still exist. Like so many variety programmes at the time the show was an uncertain balance between the old and the new. As well as The Beatles, new breakthrough acts like Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Tornados and Jet Harris and Tony Meehan (ex of The Shadows) were featured but more unthreatening MOR artists also appeared such as Craig Douglas, Acker Bilk and Bert Weedon (We are normal, we dig Bert Weedon), so as not to frighten too many of the horses. The Craig Douglas sequence still exists and the intro and outro by Lenny gives a great example of his camp-as-anything but very distinctive schtick.
A fascinating spin-off from this series was that David Bowie‘s dad, Hayward Jones worked on the show and, as his son was a big Lenny fan, launched the Lenny the Lion Fan Club. These are the sort of diamonds in the trivia rough that make life so much more interesting.
So long as telly still featured ‘variety’ there was always a spot for Lenny and he continued to appear right up to the 80s where he made a guest appearance on Rainbow, Crackerjack and had his own educational series for children, Reading With Lenny. Seaside and Panto roles were also regular and he appeared on the same bill with some curious lineups. He had his own strip cartoon in the children’s comic TV Comic.
Lenny The Lion was as important to growing up in the 60s as Blue Peter and Crackerjack were. He released a number of records and even had his own song.
I’m Lenny The Lion and I’d like to say
I’m strong and ferocious, but not in that way
I wish I had courage and I’d shout out with glee
That I’m Lenny The Lion, so don’t embawass me!
Truly a sixties icon and a shining example of the ventriloquist’s art.
2. Ray Alan and Lord Charles/ Tich and Quackers
In the world of ‘vents’, and there were quite a few of them, Ray Alan was generally seen as the the best around. Not only was it virtually impossible to see his lips move, but he had a number of characters he worked with, each with not only a different voice but also with different accents. There was more to Ray Alan than purely ventriloquism, however. Like magician David Nixon (See Tarbuck Memories below) he was a consummate and natural TV performer and was a regular guest on panel shows and as presenter. But it was ventriloquism that launched his career and, like Lenny the Lion, his shows were also very early TV memories for me.
The first Ray Alan vehicle I recall was The Tich and Quackers Show. Tich was a small schoolboy in a blazer and hair that stuck up like a policeman’s helmet. Quackers was a duck who really only quacked and was operated by one Tony Hart of ‘Take Hart‘ and Vision On fame, who, incidentally also provided artwork for the Lenny the Lion Show. Tich’s catchphrase was, ‘Ehhh ya daft dook!‘ Tich and Quackers had a show between 1963 and 1968, 141 episodes in all and despite this, sadly, little footage of them seems to exist other than still photographs. Like Lenny the Lion they even had their own comic strip in TV Comic which lasted until 1971, well after Ray Alan stopped performing with them. Tich and Quackers even muscled in to The Beatles‘ ubiquity (who didn’t?) by releasing a single entitled ‘Santa Bring Me Ringo‘ in 1964.
The Tich and Quackers Show attracted a who’s who of 60s musical talent, arguably better than Lenny’s line-ups although, to be fair, T and Q didn’t manage to get The Beatles. Adam Faith, The Tremeloes, The Love Affair, Lulu, Sandy Shaw and The Merseybeats all graced the T and Q studios. Weirdly, for Scottish readers, the guest list even included Scottish folk singing stalwarts Robin Hall and Jimmy Mcgregor!
It was only when Ray Alan introduced his latest creation Lord Charles, that his guest spot credentials rose hugely. Lord Charles was an upper-class, always slightly sloshed, monocled aristocrat with an eye for the ladies. His catchphrase, ‘You silly arse‘ was quite risqué for peak time broadcasting but no one seemed to notice. Lord Charles and Ray Alan guested on pretty much every variety show available in the 60s and 70s. He was popular on these types of shows because he was good at what he did, his act was generally funny (not all vents were, read on!), his act was easy to set up and film and the star of the show could always have an amusing rap with Lord Charles as Ray Alan was an excellent ad libber. He appeared on shows during the late 60s and all of the 70s including Sunday Night at the London Palladium, The Val Doonican Show, Dee Time, It’s Lulu!, David Nixon’s Magic Box and The Golden Shot (hurrah!) amongst many others. He also probably holds the record for the number of appearances on The Good Old Days (16), that torturous, interminable, utterly tedious Friday night experience. God, I hated The Good Old Days. But if he was on, it at least lessened the monotony a little.
In 1954 Ray Alan, just starting out in his career, was suddenly thrust into the literal limelight when he got the gig to support Laurel and Hardy in their UK theatres farewell tour. Comedy legend Harry Worth, who was a ventriloquist at the time, had to pull out and Ray Alan was asked to replace him. It was while working with the legendary pair that he got the idea for Lord Charles after studying Stan Laurel‘s face and a little later Alan spotted a posh and slightly pissed spectator at a cabaret event and Lord Charles was born. His slightly irreverent brand of humour and technically brilliant technique always brightened up those shockingly formulaic star vehicles and highlighted how much these acts are missed. So long, of course, as the ‘vents’ were good at their job, but sadly this wasn’t always the case.
3. Roger De Courcey and Nookie Bear
Step forward Roger de Courcey and Nookie Bear. De Courcey was the winner of the 1976 New Faces Grand Final which suggests there must have been a paucity of contenders that particular year. In fact, he beat the Ukranian Black Sea Cossacks, comedy trio Bollards, vocal group Piggleswick and, of all people, Andy Cameron who was also competing in that 1976 clash of the titans.
His act was fairly one dimensional, featuring a slightly boss-eyed bear called Nookie whose voice sounded oddly similar to Roger De Courcey’s. It wasn’t that he was a bad ventriloquist, he just wasn’t very funny. And Nookie’s voice had no comedy strangeness to it, he just sounded like a dull old man. And sometimes you couldn’t really make out what he was saying, which was maybe deliberate.
In 1981 Southern TV gave Nookie his own series entitled Now For Nookie, which was about the funniest element of the show. That said, no nookie was in evidence during this most amateur of spectacles and the routines between De Courcey and Nookie were lugubrious to say the least. The one memorable element of this short-lived confection was the line-up of guest performers, which read like an A-B of ‘D’ list artists and even a couple ‘A’ listers whose stock had fallen worryingly in the late 70s. Lulu, Clodagh Rodgers, the inevitable Vince Hill and even more inevitable Bernie Winters and Schnorbitz all guested on the show and indulged in a bit of mildly amusing knockabout banter with the mournful Nookie. It’s unlikely Anita Harris, another 70s guesting luminary, was asked how much she liked Nookie as the show was going out at 5.00pm. That would have been funny though.
In his spare time Roger de Courcey was and still is also an agent for the likes of Rick Wakeman and David ‘Kid’ Jensen. Under the banner Dick Horsey Management (geddit?) he also looks after clients as wide and varied as the Single Ply Roofing Association, Biggleswade FC and Yorkshire Cricket Club.
Sadly Roger’s ‘venting’ act was not quite so wide and varied, but he was following the likes of Ray Alan and Terry Hall. Tough acts to follow. But there was always The Wheeltappers and Shunters.
4. Keith Harris and Orville
So far the vents featured were fairly run-of-the-mill people, varying in abilities but other than their talent, little to make them stand out. Nothing wrong with that, the 60s and 70s were relatively sober times for most. But what about Keith Harris? It’s fair to say that his private life tended to eclipse his professional life, such was the rollercoaster he rode in his later years. And it was also the time when showbiz gossip was invented.
Keith Harris came from a showbiz family, both his parents were performers and part of his dad’s act was ventriloquism. In fact, the young Keith actually worked as his dad’s dummy by sitting on his knee and just opening his mouth in time to his dad’s venting. By the mid 70s after stints with that most 60s of shows, The Black and White Minstrels, Harris got his own show which was broadcast at lunchtime, Cuddles and Co. Cuddles was a big red monkey and had a few friends who joined him. One of them eventually became the character Keith Harris is most identified with, the green, feathery duck with the mournful voice and huge nappy, Orville. As a vent Harris was pretty good and Orville was a sensation. For a while.
The success of Orville eventually led to Harris getting his own prime time show on a Saturday evening which ran from 1982 till 1990. And Orville managed what neither Lenny the Lion or Tich and Quackers could, he had a huge top 10 hit in 1982. I Wish I Could Fly sold over 400,000 copies getting to number 4 in the charts at time when you had to sell shed loads to get into the charts. It was even written by talent show royalty, the legendary Bobby Crush! That said, it became one of the most irritating records of all time and some recent polls have voted it the worst record ever released. Praise indeed! Throughout the course of the 80s Keith and Orville went from strength to strength, but, like the public’s perception of the record, TV fell out of love with Keith and Orville and his career took a downward spiral. Times were changing and harmless variety became old hat, people wanted something with more of a bite which ruled out Keith and Orville for a start. They still appeared in many quiz shows, pantos, summer seasons and even became a subject for Louis Theroux, where Keith came across as slightly bitter about the way TV had turned its back on him.
But the winds of change blew in an unexpected way in the late 80s, early 90s. What The Stage magazine described as ‘..knowing post-modern irony‘ created a whole new career for Keith and he suddenly began appearing on TV again. Programmes like Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Peter Kay’s Is This The Way To Amarillo video, Harry Hill and Banzai all featured K and O and he even won the reality show The Farm in 2005. An offer to be in the second series of Extras was turned down as it required him to pretend to be a bigot and racist. ‘Filth‘ he called it but he was old school and drew a veil over his association with The Black and White Minstrels.
In what was a tough decade for Keith the three Ds were never far away: drink, depression and divorce. In fact, he was married and divorced three times in a 12 year period. Only Orville was a constant for him and that’s how he would have wanted to be remembered and he certainly is remembered. And not just for that irritating song.
All in all vents have entertained us for many years and with the very good Nina Conti, ventriloquism has almost become fashionable again and not just in an ironic way. People like Ray Alan and Terry Hall were mainstays of the variety scene and created characters who wouldn’t seem out of place even today. They added a bit of genuine fun to some shockingly dull variety vehicles and were truly associated with some of the best moments of the 60s and 70s. And for that I thank them. And I haven’t even mentioned the great Basil Brush!
Guinness advertising is almost as iconic as the drink, but it wasn’t always ice cool..
When we think of Guinness we usually think of of harps, toucans and surfing horses but Guinness advertising has been around as long as advertising has. In fact, it’s known that Dorothy L. Sayers worked on the Guinness contract in her day job with an advertising company in the 1920s. The ‘surfing horses’ ad from 1999 won a Sunday Times poll as best advert ever. It was certainly impressive with its Moby Dick/ James Joyce literary references and state of the art filming techniques but not all their advertising, though certainly creative, has been quite so impressive. It does plot the course of social attitudes and change , however, in an extremely interesting way.
Although Guinness TV advertising began in 1955, the first significant advert was broadcast in 1962 when the theme was ‘After Work‘. Here we were shown a range of people finishing work including a farmer and a male and female factory worker. In the next shot they are at their local having a Guinness, except for the woman who is at home as she obviously has her husband’s tea to make! But we do see her having her tea accompanied by a Guinness, which was quite groundbreaking for the time. More groundbreaking when you consider this was the first time on TV anyone was shown actually drinking Guinness, and a woman to boot! This slightly egalitarian approach didn’t last too long, however, at it would be many years before women would be seen drinking Guinness on TV again.
The ‘After Work‘ theme was continued in 1966 but this time the advert was a little more sophisticated, although not in terms of gender politics. Some nicely shot footage of a dockyard and, uncharacteristically for Guinness, soft music were used for this ad. Once again, the ad appealed to the manual labourer and a Guinness was the least he could look forward to after a hard days grafting. These adverts were created at a time when UK industry was just getting back on its feet after the war and employment was relatively plentiful. And there were no problems associating alcohol with work or even as a ‘treat.’ !
In the late 60s the massive Guinness advertising contract was handed over to the American advertising company J. Walter Thompson and this was when Guinness advertising became distinctive and certainly more creative. One of the more recognisable elements of the Guinness ad, though not used in all, was the laconic gentle male Irish voiceover. Although I’ve been unable to find out who this almost familiar voice was, and he became one of the most instantly recognisable voices in advertising, this format lasted for nearly 15 years. Used to highlight the Irish association with Guinness it provided a backdrop to a range of Guinness-drinking scenarios, usually taking place in a stereotypical ‘local’. For many years, purely targeted at men, the scenarios usually involved women as nags, slaves or just appendages who got in the way of their men enjoying their Guinness. Unless , of course, she was supplying him with it.
An example is 1970’s ‘Take Home Rain‘ ad which won the bronze advertising award at the Cannes Film Festival the same year. A young man and woman are painting a room in their house and outside we can hear the wind and rain hammering down. ‘Get me a Guinness love, would you?’ says the man. The woman looks slightly anxious. Next shot we see her leaving the house and being battered by the wind and rain, forcing her way to the bar through a crowded ‘local’ and then holding her hand over the glass of poured Guinness to keep the rain off. She walks into the house and hands the Guinness to her husband who replies, ‘Thanks love. Didn’t you get yourself one?’ One wonders if some of those adverts were being ironic about the role of women in the lives of male Guinness drinkers, and, if so, these could have been funny but it seems unlikely as the ad company came up with so many similar storylines that the joke wore thin very quickly. If there ever was a joke.
Throughout the 60s and 70s Guinness was targeted at men by men, as were most other alcoholic beverages other than Babycham ( I’d love a Babycham!) and Pony (The little drink with the big kick!) or if she was a particularly hard drinker, a Cherry-B. Women were rarely seen in Guinness’ ‘locals’ unless, of course, they were behind the bar. Some Guinness adverts were ostensibly aimed at women, however, but through being aimed at women they were really being aimed at men. The good people at Guinness were giving the little women advice on how to keep their men happy. ‘ If he says he’s popping out for a ‘quick one’, don’t expect him back too soon.‘ You can almost hear the word ‘love‘ at the end of this sentence. ‘He‘ does, of course, have to wait on the black gold settling, so tough luck, darlin’. In another early 70s ad we see a woman struggling home with a shopping basket full of messages including a six-pack of Guinness. ‘ Mrs Angela Hunt has just been down the road for a Guiness or two.’ What is this woman? An alcoholic? A social deviant? A feminist! We’re not fooled by this for a second though as the Guinness, of course, is for her husband, ‘..who believes shopping is a woman’s job.’ Phew. Had us going for bit there! In another ad from around the same time the chummy Irish voiceover suggests to the man sitting in the armchair about to empty his glass,’ If you’re just finishing a glass of Guinness, where’s your next coming from? You’ve still time to pop out to get some. In the meantime, here’s some music for your wife.’ Cue unthreatening easy listening dirge. In some ways this could be seen as progress. At least ‘the wife’ isn’t being expected to fuel her husband’s alcohol intake. But the little lady still hasn’t been invited to ‘the local’ quite yet.
That was all going to change though. And who’s this strutting about in ‘the local’ looking like she owns the place, even playing darts? Why it’s a member of the 70s TV Royal Family, Liza Goddard. And it was during this mid-70s point that advertisers suddenly had a brainwave and realised that maybe, just maybe, women might be a market worth exploring. In this ad we see the customers, Goddard and male companion, from the point of view of the barman. She is playing that ever-so-unfeminine activity at the time, darts, she’s not dressed in the twin set or three-quarter length cocktail dress of previous women in Guinness adverts but like a man in shirt and jeans. ‘Another?’ the barman asks the male companion. ‘Yes please‘ says companion knocking back the last of his Guinness. ‘And what about.…? asks the barman, clearly not wishing to acknowledge the fact a woman has found her way into his snug. ‘Two Guinnesses‘ says the man, ‘What? You both drink it? Oh come on..’ replies the barman incredulously, clearly feeling the basis of human decency has come crashing down around him. ‘Bit of gentle persuasion then?’ he eventually giggles nervously when it’s sunk in. ‘Not really‘ says Goddard (who asked her to butt in?), ‘I just got him to try one.‘ Her companion’s face suddenly screws up into one of shock and embarrassment at this admission of emasculation. Oh, the horror! The horror!.. So put that in your pipe and smoke it Neanderthal bar person. The forces of Feminism are about to engulf your whole life, not just your bar! She may have had to behave like an honorary man to be accepted into this most testosterone-filled of TV environments but she was crashing through the metaphorical glass partition between Cocktail Lounge and bastion of masculinity, the Bar. Although groundbreaking, this didn’t open the floodgates to female-orientated Guinness advertising quite yet, but it did signal a change which was reflected in a few of the subsequent campaigns.
In an ad not long after, a young, blonde woman is dozing in a hammock on what is clearly a Summer’s Sunday afternoon in Middle England. We hear the church bells peal and insects buzz around as the laconic voiceover prepares us for a Guinness being poured off-camera. The effervescent sound of the beer being decanted into the glass is heard and then a perfectly poured glass of Guinness appears, held by a disembodied male hand, and is offered to the woman who accepts it gratefully. We’ve come a long way with this ad. Not only is it just the woman shown but we only see a male hand. On the debit side, however, she is in a garden and not in ‘the local’. It was still a little early to be showing only women in a pub. But it was further progress of sorts!
A little later a strange advert from the late 70s featured a young girl in a night club with friends and the fact she was the main character in this story was significant. She is drinking Guinness and talking about what a great drink it is. A guy hears her talking about how great it is and asks her to dance thinking she’s talking about the club. Their conversation carries on at cross purposes. Eventually she takes him over to the bar to buy him a Guinness. A woman buying a guy a drink was unheard of. She even knows the name of the barman as she orders two Guinnesses (this is a fallacy of alcohol advertising where they try to make out all customers know the barman by name). The pay off is when she looks at him and says ‘Do you come here often?’, so we have the woman making the running, and another sacred cow of advertising relationships is milked to within an inch of its life. Although slightly baffling, it was the moment Guinness advertisers embraced the female market and accepted that women were not just there to keep their husbands happy and non-violent by making sure they had their Guinness.
Like the After Eight campaigns (See below: They Must Be Worth A Mint), the frequency and fairly healthy budgets of Guinness advertising attracted some up-and-coming young ( and old) acting talent. We have already mentioned the lovely Liza Goddard in her post-Skippy but Pre-No Honestly days and certainly before her rather strange marriage to Alvin Stardust (more on odd celebrity marriages later). But isn’t that Shakespearian acting royalty Nigel Hawthorne knocking back a pint of the black gold? It certainly is, and in a way Sir Humphrey Appleby would find rather vulgar. But, would you Adam and Eve it, Jonathon Lynn who actually wrote Yes Minister is in one here where he’s the Best Man to a nervous groom and gets him to knock back a pint of Guinness to calm him down. Good idea. But who’s the groom? None other than Roy Cropper from Coronation Street! Just fancy that. Talking of Coronation Street, there’s Alf Roberts, also from Corrie, supplementing his meagre corner shop income by moonlighting for the dark nectar. Next up it’s pre-All Creatures Great and Small‘s booming-voiced Christopher Timothy in his kitchen laboratory failing to invent a decent cheaper alternative to Guinness. Lucky the little wife has humped a six pack all the way back from the shops for him in her shopping basket. Because he’s worth it. And, bloody hell, it’s a sweaty Jeffrey from Rainbow behind the bar trying to avoid serving some perspiring thugs ice-cold Guinness (‘No call for it around here.‘ Really? Where are they? The Gobi Desert?).
During the 60s and 70s the advertisers clearly tried to appeal to men only and believed that drinking Guinness was, some time before Old Spice, the ‘Mark Of A Man’. Of course, the timing of these type of ads coincided with the rise of, what was called at the time, Women’s Lib. Whether these ads were a response to this social change or merely reflected it is uncertain but it was almost like they were trying to protect a last stronghold of masculinity. A ‘man’ was someone who visited his ‘local’ regularly, this ‘local’ was populated mainly by other ‘men’, the bar person and customer knew each other by name (often ‘George’ for some odd reason), if any women had managed to sneak in they sat silently in shadowy corners sipping a vodka and lime or Cherry B. But the mark of a real man was when he had shaken off the shackles of marriage and family, had almost broken his neck getting to the ‘local’ before closing time (10.30pm!) and was eventually given this pint of cold Guinness and he would knock it back in a oner. And time for another! During my life I have known people who could sink a pint in one go, although I was never one of them, but I have never known anyone who would find this pleasurable, other than to entertain a crowd.
All advertising, particularly in the 50s, 60s and 70s, was a barometer of social attitudes and change and Guinness ads are a perfect example of this. By the late 70s women were not only being, grudgingly, allowed into ‘locals’, they were even drinking Guinness themselves. And the pivotal point was probably in the late 70s when we saw that sleeping woman in her garden and a disembodied man pouring her a glass of Guinness. But she was in her garden and not in the ‘local’. Was this just a concession thrown from the male drinking establishment? And if truth be told, nearly 50 years after these TV ads began, few women on their own would go into a pub today unless they were meeting someone.
Guinness went on to create some truly memorable TV ads from the 80s onwards where artistic creativity took the place of social conservatism but, looking back and viewing them with a healthy head of irony, they were interesting, often funny and they did try to change with the times. But, as they might say, within reason.
And after all that, ‘Could you go out in that wet, freezing, stormy night and get me a Guinness please, love?’ I think I deserve one.
One of the longest, strangest, most groundbreaking trips of the 60s
It may have scandalised the Great British Viewing Public but Magical Mystery Tour was one of the longest, strangest, most groundbreaking trips of the 60s
All light entertainment is only one step away from surrealism.Antony Wall: Editor of Arena
Anyone who didn’t live through the sixties will not know just what a big deal The Beatles were. They dominated every aspect of culture, and not just popular culture. They were mentioned in every TV show and sitcom, every news magazine programme, loads of documentaries were made analysing their effect on society, you could buy Beatles-related tat in every shop, they even turned up in Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book in the four vultures (Disney wanted The Beatles to voice these characters but some reports claim they were unavailable and some claim Lennon was dead against it as it trivialised their music).
The UK of the 60s was a very conservative country in its attitudes, beliefs and morals. Up until 1966 many people were prepared to accept The Beatles, as their music was amazing and appealed to a wide range of the general public, not just kids. But the UK was not ready to embrace psychedelia, surrealism or experimentation. Britain was a meat and two veg nation and you could keep your fancy French Nouvelle Vague and Italian Post Neo-realism, thank you. Films such as Antonioni’s Blow Up had just been released, Spike Milligan had been making bizarre and hilarious comedy for years and ground-breaking music had been created by The Beatles themselves on Sergeant Pepper. As Thunderclap Newman so rightly observed only a couple of short years later, there was definitely something in the air.
And something had also been happening in the British film industry and much of it revolved around Dick Lester who directed The Beatles‘ first two films, A Hard Day’s Night and Help! Lester eschewed conventional narrative and loved to inject his films and TV productions with an anarchic humour and surreal look. His previous productions included the unconventional A Show Called Fred with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers and The Running, Jumping Standing Still Film, a goon-like short comedy film also with Milligan and Sellers. As fans of off-beat comedy it’s easy to see why The Beatles saw Lester as a good fit for their first cinematic adventures. For Help! Lester brought in writer Charles Wood, who had co-written that most 60s of films The Knack…And How To Get It‘ in 1965 before going on to write the screenplay for Milligan and John Antrobus’s anti war surreal classic The Bed-Sitting Room. The Running, Jumping, Standing Still film, which was a favourite of Lennon’s and he brought in Dick Lester on the strength of this. One wonders if the band had brought in Lester to co-direct there might have been more of a structure or even editorial rigour to MMT, but, then again, it would not have been The Beatles‘ unadulterated vision. In fact, Dick Lester had advised The Beatles to write, direct and produce their next film after Help! themselves.
I remember vividly going with my mum and younger brother to see Help! when it was released in 1965 at the Astoria picture house in Corstorphine, Edinburgh. My mum would have been in her late 20s at the time and I know she quite liked The Beatles music, we even had a couple of Beatles LPs sitting on the radiogram at home. But we left the pictures with her thinking it was a lot of rubbish. The Beatles had started to leave many of her age group behind. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They were beginning to move from pop to experimental and psychedelic rock, a move they would complete with the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. And it was at this point in their career that things were changing profoundly in all sorts of ways. They were becoming the adult-orientated Beatles rather than the unthreatening cuddly mop tops so beloved by teenagers and many adults.
They were at the peak of their creative and financial powers. They could do what the hell they wanted, when they wanted to do it, who they wanted to do it with. In short, they were invincible. And then Magical Mystery Tour began to hatch out in Paul’s mind. When Brian Epstein died just before MMT they no longer had this sounding board, an arbiter of what might be successful and what might not. Rumours abounded that the relationship between the Fab Four and Epstein weren’t great but one wonders if MMT would have got off the ground with Epstein on board or, if it had, it may have looked quite different. We will, of course, never know.
It’s generally accepted that it was McCartney’s brainchild and, mostly unknown to the general public, cracks had begun to appear in the band’s relationships. John was beginning to resent Paul trying to take over the direction of the band, Paul was unhappy that the other members were becoming so obsessed with the Maharishi, George was becoming very frustrated at the few songs of his that were being included on their albums and Ringo was starting to feel sidelined as he had not contributed much to the various projects over the past few years. Paul, therefore, thought that MMT, the music but particularly the film, would keep the other Beatles away from India and help them focus on a new creative venture, unfettered by producers, directors or managers, now that Epstein was gone.
The idea was influenced by a number of things. Paul had heard of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters while in San Francisco, a group of hippies who drove around the US in a psychedelic bus promoting the wonders of LSD. He also had fond memories of mystery bus tours from Liverpool during his childhood, as did all the Beatles. The idea of a mystery tour really appealed to him particularly as it could incorporate the changing social drug scene and the fact their experimentation with LSD was at its peak. The metaphor of a ‘magical mystery tour’, driving around the English countryside with a busload of strange and not so strange people, waiting for something to happen, improvising dialogue, making it up on the hoof and filming it all just sounded incredibly exciting. A druggy, psychedelic journey into the unknown with the filming rule book being thrown out of the bus window was what ensued. And what a long, strange trip it became.
The band had already laid down some tracks which the film was built very loosely around, and some of those tracks were crowbarred into the narrative. The title track was a Beatles classic, one of the Beatles’ best in my book, which was packed with witty drug references that only those ‘in the know‘ would get. It begins with John Lennon referencing the fairground barkers of Victorian times entreating the public to ‘Roll up, roll up!’, but what exactly was he suggesting we roll up? In the 60s many will have known exactly what he was talking about. ‘The magical mystery tour is waiting to take you away…‘ and he wasn’t wrong. As well as using sound footage from The Third Programme’s production of King Lear, The Mike Sammes Singers were also chucked in to provide laughter and exaggerated singing as well as a shit-kicking brass section. And don’t underestimate Ringo’s superb drumming! Other Beatles classics such as The Fool On The Hill, I Am The Walrus, Blue Jay Way and Your Mother Should Know pepper the film and appear in various often unannounced ways.
Paul McCartney was quoted as saying, ‘Magical Mystery Tour ‘.. was the equivalent of a drug trip and we made the film based on that‘. But it didn’t take a genius to work all that out and maybe this was one of the problems. Most ordinary people having no experience of LSD or drug culture, would just have seen it as a mess, and that wasn’t far from the truth, but, for me, it was no less enjoyable for being a mess.
The film was also packed with Beatles’ music old as well as new. At one point a fairground organ plays She Loves You, an orchestral version of All My Loving is heard and Hello Goodbye is played over the credits. Sixties band Traffic were commissioned to perform their psychedelic classic Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush, also the theme to a 60s film of the same name, but the footage was never used.
The programme was originally offered to the BBC who couldn’t believe their luck and agreed immediately. Some reports claim other TV companies turned it down and Paul Fox, the Controller of BBC 1, says he made all the running to have the film broadcast. Here was something that could be put out at Christmas that would knock ITV out of the ballpark. They paid £10,000 for it and today that would be about £153,000. Not exactly a King’s Ransom and certainly not a lot to The Beatles who definitely wanted the film out there.
It was scheduled to be broadcast at 8.35pm on Boxing Day 1967, sandwiched between This Is Petula Clark (with a script written by Graham Chapman of all people) and Norman Wisdom film The Square Peg. On BBC2 more refined viewers could have watched a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Titipu starring the legendary Harry Worth, Hattie Jacques and, in a small part, a young John Inman and on ITV The Benny Hill Show followed by the film ‘Waltz of the Toreadors‘, a vehicle for Peter Sellers. In short, The Beatles were up against the TV establishment, so did they ever have a chance? Up against that it was always going to be better to fail with a bang than a whimper.
Despite Paul Fox claiming he didn’t see the film before it was broadcast, McCartney told of how the BBC cut the scene where Buster Bloodvessel romances Ringo’s Aunt Jessie on the beach. Why this was done was never properly explained says McCartney, other than it was ‘too weird‘.
Even that week’s Radio Times‘ write up about MMT is oddly vague, suggesting few people at the BBC had actually seen it.
Yes this is it. Probably the most talked about TV film of the year. It is by The Beatles and about The Beatles. The story? A coach trip round the West country reflecting The Beatles’ moods and launching a handful of new songs.Radio Times December 1967
The quirky cast assembled for the film was certainly diverse and definitely interesting, reflecting the band’s offbeat sense of humour and nostalgic feelings.
First up, Victor Spinetti had become a Beatles mainstay having appeared in both A Hard Day’s Night and Help! as well as co-authoring the stage version of Lennon’s book ‘In His Own Write.’ The only actor to appear in all three Beatles films, he had supposedly been offered the part in A Hard Day’s Night because George’s mum really liked him. Spinetti appeared in many comedy programmes, most significantly in 1968-69’s It’s Marty with the great Marty Feldman. In the 70s he was also The Mad Jaffa Cake Eater in the TV ads. There’s Orangey!
Cult poet and performer on the harmonium Ivor Cutler had come to The band’s attention after being spotted on BBC 2’s Late Night Line-Up. He had been discovered in 1960 by Ned Sherrin and appeared in some unlikely variety vehicles such as The Acker Bilk Show. He was championed by John Peel who brought him to the attention of a younger listening public and his hang-dog demeanour and eccentric manner was exactly what MMT needed. Billed as Buster Bloodvessel, the name was eventually adopted by portly lead singer of Bad Manners, and to this day he is still Buster Bloodvessel. A MMT reference that still exists over 50 years later. Cutler is particularly good in his MMT scenes.
Nat Jackley grew up in the music halls and was an established comedy performer. According to Wikipedia ‘..his trademark rubber-neck dance, skeletal frame and peculiar speech impediment made him a formidable and funny comedian.‘ Sadly for Nat his featured performance sketch, Nat’s Dream, was cut from the final film but he appears in many crowd and interior bus shots. Out of all the characters and actors in this film I find him the most intriguing. The most experienced and traditional performer in the whole cast I would love to know what he thought about the whole experience. All I’ve ever read about him was that he found the unscripted nature of the whole project difficult. For someone with his background it must have been like performing on another planet.
The magnificent Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band (more on them later) was recommended by Paul’s brother Mike McGear (as he was known at the time). As a member of The Scaffold, who had had pop success in the late 60s and early 70s, McGear had worked regularly with The Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band many times. He knew they were the kind of musicians The Beatles would appreciate and such was the case. The Beatles became such fans that McCartney would eventually produce their huge No.1 hit ‘I’m The Urban Spaceman‘ as Apollo C. Vermouth.
Another interesting performer whose best bits ended up on the cutting room floor was accordionist Shirley Evans. Although hailing from Birkinhead it’s difficult to know why The Beatles decided to include a female accordionist in their psychedelic film. My feeling is it’s just because there was something about it that’s quite funny. Many of us grew up with a family member who played the accordion and many singalongs, particularly at New Year, were had. It’s an instrument that, even in the late 60s, had become very unfashionable, if it ever was fashionable, and it was probably the nostalgic quality of the instrument that appealed. And there’s something intriguing about an attractive girl playing it. John Lennon even wrote an instrumental track for her, Shirley’s Wild Accordion that, sadly, was never used in the film. The track was allegedly pressed but never released and is still much sought after by Beatles record afficionados.
Finally the photographer was played by restricted height actor George Claydon. In one scene he is under the camera blanket as he takes a picture of some of the trippers. He emerges from under the blanket with the head of 1966 World Cup mascot World Cup Willie. And it turns out he actually played this character during the ’66 World Cup. A lovely 1967 cultural reference and an excellent bit of trivia, I think!
A number of scenes filmed at the time did not make the cut after editing. One of them featured Music Hall favourite Nat Jackley in a sequence titled ‘Nat’s Dream‘ where we see him walking around Newquay and bumping into a bevy of bikinied beauties. It all takes place to an accompaniment from Shirley Evans on accordion playing the Lennon written ‘Shirley’s Wild Accordion.’ The scene, I think, is funny, old fashioned and wonderfully quirky culminating weirdly (how else?) in The Atlantic Hotel outdoor swimming pool. The other deleted scene featured Ivor Cutler on harmonium singing ‘I’m Going In A Field.’ For me, both scenes deserved to remain in the completed film and no explanation, to my knowledge has been given as to why they didn’t make the cut. At a neither short nor long running time of 52 minutes both scenes would have taken the film up to a more conventional 60 minute mark which would not have been a problem showing on TV or in the cinema. Can’t help but think they missed a trick there.
My own memory of the film on that Boxing Night of 1967 is clear but short. There had been huge anticipation for the film and I remember being quite excited about it. Within a few minutes it became obvious this was not going to be another A Hard Day’s Night or even the more enigmatic Help! My clearest memory was of Ringo yelling at his Auntie on the bus and then it cutting to the scene in the restaurant with her, Buster Bloodvessel with John, who had had a dream about this scenario, as Pirandello the waiter, shovelling spaghetti onto their table and her giggling uncontrollably. Until I saw the film again many years later I was convinced it was crisps that were being shovelled on. But, back then I watched it on a small grainy-pictured black and white telly, as the vast majority of viewers did, and I’d never come across spaghetti that wasn’t out of a tin, so it was an easy mistake to make. It was at this point, however, my mum had had enough and switched channels, I have a feeling to the G and S Harry Worth operetta. I was quite disappointed as I had been loving the anarchy of MMT, and even at that young age, I appreciated seeing something that was just different from the usual formulaic tosh.
It’s not difficult to work out why the film was a complete flop in the eyes of the Boxing Day audience. The obvious reason was its unstructured, scattergun approach to narrative and much of its self-indulgence. Although not a problem for me, the great British Viewing Public were not ready for that, and probably still aren’t. To be fair, in those days ITV broadcast Harold Pinter plays at peak viewing times, but they weren’t that popular. Ken Loach had released Cathy Come Home the year before which had employed a naturalistic approach to narrative and even used non-professional actors and although completely different in tone, MMT had used similar techniques. Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ Press Officer at the time, had said that the film was made to be viewed in colour and BBC 1 did not broadcast in colour at that time. Only BBC 2 broadcast colour programmes but precious few people had colour receivers anyway. And he had a point. A deliberately psychedelic experience must be viewed in colour, that’s what psychedelia is all about. So viewers missed out on a huge, vivid, sensory element of the film. Whether that would have saved it from the savaging it received though, is unlikely. But had it been originally released in cinemas, this might have made a difference. It would have been predominantly younger people and Beatles’ fans who would have gone to see it and fewer older, more conservative viewers would have and maybe the criticism might not have been quite so brutal. In the early sixties one theatre critic described Harold Pinter as throwing a Molotov cocktail into the sherry party that was British theatre. I would argue that this is what The Beatles did to British television, only it was a huge spliff they threw in and most viewers didn’t know what to do with it.
I believe that The Beatles had, inadvertantly, invented a new genre of film. A type of film where the narrative is fluid, where characters that seem to have little in common are allowed to shine, where nostalgia meets surrealism in the most striking of ways, where the comedy of juxtaposition is allowed to happen naturally, and where narrative sense isn’t the absolute aim of the artistic endeavour, all performed in an explosion of colour and unfettered joy. What we were watching was not unlike a British Fellini film. With some bizarre, offbeat and psychedelic but visually stunning Beatles-at-their-best musical interludes thrown in and we have an artefact that people had not seen before but would become commonplace in years to come.
I’m fully aware that I’m discussing this film over 50 years after its release and, of course, attitudes and approaches to film-making and viewing have changed massively. There’s also a chunky layer of nostalgia propping it up for people like myself. But this was how The Beatles wanted to be seen, wanted to be judged and share their weird vision with us. It subsequently influenced many future writers and film-makers. And it should be remembered that new genres are not defined in one moment but MMT certainly lit the blue touch paper for many of the looser narrative, more abstract films that followed.
There was a refined taste that existed within our society for the unusual, the strange, the drug-influenced fantasy. Not long after MMT, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was launched on an unsuspecting audience and, after a quiet opening period, exploded into our consciousness. Comedy would, thankfully, never be the same. And it’s no coincidence George Harrison was a huge fan of Python and Ringo even made an appearance in Monty Python, with Lulu of all people, in Series 3, Episode 2 on October 26 1972. In 1975 the Python team looked into the possibility of the almost forgotten MMT being the support film to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Although the two parties met on a few occasions and both were quite keen for it to happen, the idea fizzled out, which was a shame as the two films would have complimented each other beautifully.
And there’s another aspect to it that I don’t feel has ever been really developed. The British public thought they knew The Beatles personally, such was the Beatles stranglehold on popular culture, they also thought they owned The Beatles. The band were so ubiquitous that if they stepped out of line they were defying you. And such was the case with MMT. The public felt The Beatles were putting two fingers up at them, we’re The Beatles and we can do what we want and there’s nothing you can do about it! ‘Well, we’ll see‘ replied the Great British Public. The same happened when John went off with Yoko. The public hated that. Not only was she Japanese, but she was ugly and weird and we don’t want her in our family. Yoko was the most horrendously reviled and ridiculed person on British TV during the late 60s as she was not deemed good enough or beautiful enough or ‘normal’ enough for one of ‘our’ Beatles and she was, of course, blamed for splitting the band up. No wonder John decided to go and live in America. The same happened with McCartney. Linda was also thought to be below what he was capable of. Why couldn’t he have married that lovely British Jane Asher? And MMT was really the beginning of the backlash. The public didn’t want to see The Beatles change or progress, they just wanted their cuddly mop-tops. Maybe MMT was their way of saying ‘Fuck You.’ And who could have blamed them? This is why MMT is so essential and so brilliant. It was The Beatles from start to finish with no interference and it was where the more switched on, more sophisticated music fan was at the time in the UK and that’s why I love it.
The former NME writer Charles Shaar Murray summed it up for me. ‘Magical Mystery Tour evokes an era when society still seemed to be opening up rather than closing down‘, but, unfortunately for The Beatles, much of society was a long way from opening up quite enough, and in many respects it still hasn’t. But it was a magical trip for me and as far as the critical savaging went, I don’t really think The Beatles gave a shit.
So for those who get it, just roll up, sit back and enjoy the trip.