The Lost World Of TV Ventriloquism

Magic (1978) | THE FILM YAP

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 and the lovely second-on-the-bill Petula

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.

16 May 1963
The Beatles on Pops and Lenny

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.

The great Lenny with Craig Douglas who not an actor or dancer be…

A little 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 even 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 almost every variety show that was broadcast 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.

Now For Nookie - Roger de Coursey & Nookie The Bear DVD: Amazon.co ...
And what was the rosette all about?

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-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 did’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.

Keith Harris - Birmingham Live
Keith and Cuddles. Nice purple jump suit!

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 he 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.

Priory Antiques | Keith Harris (with Orville and Cuddles) in their ...
A 70s line-up made in TV heaven

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!

Yet.

Basil Brush Show, The (BBC-1 1968-1980, 2002-2007) | Memorable TV

Get Me A Guinness, Love, Would You?: Guinness TV Ads in the 60s and 70s

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 her man enjoying his 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.

Babycham & Cherry B. Pony and Snowball. Drinks for retro gurls ...
One for the ladies

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 though! 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.

But 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 Snug. 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.

You want some of this, Skip?: Guinness proto-feminist Liza Goddard

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 an insect 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 Smalls 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?).

Was George from Rainbow gay?
What do you mean, there’s no call for cold Guinness, George?

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.

They’d sell Guinness to anyone..so long as it wasn’t a woman.

Magical Mystery Tour: What A Long Strange Trip It Was

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).

Image result for the jungle book vultures

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.

Image result for blow up
The most brilliant 60s film of all…

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.

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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.

Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters

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.

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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.

If that’s not classic sixties, I don’t know what is!

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.

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Not Ivor Cutler

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.

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The magnificent Bonzos

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.

Who could forget Shirley and her accordion?

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!

World Cup Willie: The story of the 1966 mascot | FourFourTwo
Why was Willie wearing the Union Jack when he was England’s mascot?

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.

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A still from the deleted Lennon-directed episode, Nat’s Dream

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.

It’s starting to happen…..

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, 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.

The Big Match: Sunday In The Park With Brian

Compared to the games shown on The Big Match, everything about today’s football is better.

Only so much more boring.

In quiet weeks during the football season the good people at BT Sports often show episodes of that 60s and 70s highlights mainstay The Big Match presented by the legendary Brian Moore. In Scotland we had our own football programme as did every other TV region in the UK, each region showing highlights of their local team’s home fixtures. As well as a Scottish First Division game we also were given highlights of a top English game too. The Big Match, which was broadcast to the London region, featured a London game plus highlights from one or more of the regions, ‘..and today’s pictures are from our friends at Anglia TV,’ Brian would say. Commentators in all the ITV regions were as familiar as the teams themselves. The great Arthur ‘What A Stramash!’ Montford (more on him later), Gerald Sinstadt at Granada, Keith Macklin at Yorkshire (who also hosted a Sunday tea-time religious quiz show and the first series of Pot Black), the illustrious Ken Wolstenholm at Tyne Tees and Hugh Johns at ATV. We all knew these guys’ voices, certainly more so than the competent but anonymous commentators of today.

And who could forget Idwal Robling? Although a BBC commentator, he entered a competition in 1970 to win a place on the BBC commentating team for the 1970 World Cup. He fought off challenges from Ian St. John, Gerry Harrison and Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart (funny how he turns up so often in this blog) to clinch the job, after Alf Ramsay (who reportedly had a love of the Welsh accent) gave him the nod when he tied with St. John. Sadly he didn’t get a live a gig at the World Cup but did some first round highlights games.

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Idwal smirks after beating Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart to the line

Although the football could be pretty humdrum in these programmes, so much about how football was televised, watched, discussed and presented in the 70s continues to be fascinating, given the way the game has changed over the last 50 years. Like anything, sometimes for the better but frequently for the worse.

It’s fair to say the 60s and 70s were a more innocent time for football. Relatively few games were broadcast, from a fixture programme of about nearly 150 games, maybe 20-25 might have had highlights featured around the country. 24/7 satellite and cable football coverage was a long, long way off and, because of this, you appreciated football on telly much more. Live games were very rare and tended to only be the Scottish and English cup finals, a few Home Internationals and World Cup games every four years. The idea of billions being pumped into football was just a pipe dream.

And talking of pipes, the legendary Brian Moore presented The Big Match and commentated on the featured games between 1968 and 1983 and his pipe was never far away. Lying stationary on his otherwise empty presenting desk or in a small ash tray, in later years it disappeared, clearly because producers thought 9 year olds watching the programme on a Sunday might begin puffing on a Churchwarden and using their pocket money to purchase half an ounce of rough shag in the local tobacconist. Brian Moore was The Big Match, he was to ITV what David Coleman was to the BBC, the voice of football.

Brian had a child-like love of football. He never really stopped seeing it the way a 14 year old sees it. As a heroic, tribal, virtuous endeavour where cynicism was a word footballers didn’t understand. Well, that was probably true, but not in the innocent way Brian thought. In fact, the opening credits to the programme, which changed every so often, always featured a few ‘wacky’ incidents and characters, which was in keeping with Brian’s rather sanitised and rosy view of the game. As The Big Match also included an awkward interview with a hirsute, wide-lapelled player or manager who had been involved in the televised game, Brian’s awe and excitement was often palpable. Difficult questions were rarely on the agenda, although the inarticulacy of the player often found any question difficult.

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Hirsute and wide-lapelled

While commentating on a game Brian was always trying to find the best in players. If something mildly amusing happened like a player helping one of the opposition to his feet after a hefty tackle, Brian would begin to chortle and say ‘That’s lovely to see!’ He so desperately wanted to see the ‘nice’ side of the game. Barry Davies on the BBC was similar in his adolescent adulation of professional footballers. In interviews he would always chuck them questions in the hope of getting a marginally droll response. Commentators like Brian and Barry just loved Ron Atkinson, for example, or ‘Big Atko‘ as the Saint and Greavsie chummily referred to him (footballers and managers’ nicknames always had to end in ‘o’ or ‘ie’). In an interview before Ron Atkinson’s West Bromwich Albion had a big cup game against Ipswich Town, Barry Davies took him around Wembley Stadium followed by the BBC cameras obviously, and led him into the home dressing rooms. They were empty but for an Ipswich Town shirt which, coincidently, had been left hanging there (by a BBC production assistant, no doubt). ‘Oh look!’ grinned Barry and beamed as Ron spotted this shirt and lifted it off the peg. He was almost pissing himself in anticipation as he awaited Atko’s inevitable side-splitting bon mot. Which never came. He just stood there examining it, mumbling ‘Hmmm, yeah…’, desperately trying to think of something amusing or even faintly interesting to say. Poor Barrie. What a blow. And this, I think sums up commentators’ interactions with many footballers. To use one of their favourite words, disappointing.

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Barry Davies: Interesting. Very interesting!

And it’s not just limited to footballers. Often The Big Match would involve celebrities in their Christmas Special shows and in 1976 presenting duties were handed over to none other than Chairman of Watford FC, Mr Elton John. To describe Elt as wooden at the start of the show is an insult to wood and maybe the producers were a bit worried about this so they wheeled in two ‘jack- the- lads’ of the game, Mike Channon and Kevin Keegan to lighten up proceedings. They began the show wearing flamboyant glasses and earrings. Oh, you boys…! The banter began to dry up a bit after this, a bit like their England careers at the time, but not before The Big Match annual Christmas ‘bit of fun’. This involved clips of games, players, referees from over the year being speeded up, reversed, repeated etc. And, no, it’s not nearly as funny as it sounds (and it doesn’t sound nearly funny really). ‘That’s the best one ever‘ exclaims a tittering Elton.

Worst banter ever

I know it’s easy to mock and technology was much less sophisticated then, and they really weren’t very funny. But who cared? It was what it was at the time. And despite Channon and Keegan firing comedy blanks, can you imagine Kevin De Bruyne or Harry Kane (I’m actually struggling to think of any other International players, such is most modern players’ lack of personality) going on to some football programme today and hamming it up?

There are many things you notice about these 70s highlights programmes that are so different to today’s clinical, over-technical, often skilled but tedious fare we are served up.

The pitches for one thing. By October every ground featured was at best a mud-bath, at worst a ploughed field. But, strangely, this didn’t detract from the games, it actually enhanced them. Players had to dig in, sometimes literally, and the skill of many to negotiate these quagmires was impressive. Sometimes it was difficult to know what the ball was going to do and this ramped up the excitement. Some pitches were notorious, and not just in the depths of winter. You’d have done well to spot a blade of grass on Derby County‘s Baseball Ground at any time of year, for example. And despite all their loot, Old Trafford was pretty awful. In fact, it’s easier to try and think of a ground where the pitch actually held up reasonably well during the middle of the season. And the amazing thing was, all the commentators would concede was ‘..conditions underfoot were tricky.’

Now that’s a proper 70s pitch!

At the end of games it was customary for young fans, usually in parkas, to run on to the pitch and mob their heroes, whether they won or lost. Police didn’t seem that bothered and the commentators didn’t even refer to it. Someone ‘invading‘, as it was described at the time, was a fairly common occurrence then and occasionally, however, some bozo would run on to the pitch during a game. Usually the guy was completely stoatious and it was generally good-humoured, it even added a bit of levity to a very dull game. Particularly when he evaded the rugby tackles of pursuing coppers. On highlights programmes like The Big Match the cameras would actually follow the invader around the pitch and even have a laugh about it. In the rare event of it happening now the sniffy commentators would just say ‘We don’t want to see that.‘ In fact, we do! It would be a welcome break from the tedium of watching Manchester City or Chelsea or Spurs pass the ball back and forward in their own half for 10 minutes. Now seeing them try to perform that at The Baseball Ground would have been interesting. But like so many other common elements to the 60s and 70s game, pitch invasions are a thing of the past. My favourite pitch invasion ever was after the legendary Ronnie Radford scored that screamer for Hereford United against Newcastle United in an FA cup tie in 1971. Never have so many parkas been concentrated in one relatively small area.

So much joy! So many parkas!

Occasionally The Big Match cameras might go ‘behind the scenes’ after a match, and such was the case after the Southampton v Manchester United clash in 1973. Brian couldn’t hide his excitement when he announced that TBM had been kindly invited into the players’ lounge after the game. A fairly lengthy item followed where a grinning Brian followed players of both teams around the rather cramped, formica-lined environment with a microphone. What made this particularly interesting watching it now was that every player interviewed was knocking back a pint. And, of course, no viewer then would even have remarked on it. And why would they? It’s only in recent years that footballers, some at least, are described as ‘athletes’, non-drinking and only eating a macro-biotic diet (whatever that is). I don’t think Frank Worthington, Stan Bowles or Rodney Marsh, great footballers that they were, would have any truck with this type of lifestyle. It’s rumoured that Frank Worthington failed a medical in the 70s to sign for Liverpool due high blood pressure brought on by ‘excessive sexual activity.’ ‘They were great days,’ said Frank. He was probably also referring to his football career.

The approach of referees to the vicissitudes of the game was also very different. Referees tended to be elderly, portly gentlemen who held down responsible jobs during the week, such as a Shipping Clerk or Woodwork Teacher. Players rarely questioned his decision other than a childish moan and a group of players surrounding a referee was unheard of. It took a lot to be booked in the 60s and 70s and even more to be sent off. Scything tackles were common but only occasionally punished and the term ‘professional foul’ was not in the vocabulary. A word in the ear was all that was usually needed. And referees universally wore black, in fact one of the more expressive chants from the terraces of the time, ‘Who’s the bastard in the black?’, has been rendered virtually meaningless thanks to the modern referees’ rapidly expanding palette of flamboyant bright colours.

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Alan ‘Sniffer’ Clarke gets a word in his ear

Which brings me to another ‘Grumpy Old Man’ point. How irritating is it when a commentator apologises for any ‘bad language’ that may have been heard while a live game is being broadcast? Is there anyone in the world watching live games who isn’t aware of the type of language that tends to be heard at football? Is there any football fan who might be shocked or offended by that type of language? Is there anyone who even notices it when it’s broadcast? Brian certainly never ever referred to it. But he probably thought all football fans were of the type that featured in Roy of the Rovers comic strips. Bless him!

Another regular feature of The Big Match was viewers’ letters. Two or three letters were usually read out by Brian, most of them from teenage fans. What I particularly liked about this item was the fact that Brian used to read out their full address on the programme. For what now takes a matter of seconds, a correspondent would have to find a postcard (not particularly easy), write his (and it was usually a ‘him’) question or request, buy a stamp, take it to a letterbox and post it, probably wait 2-3 weeks in the hope that it might be selected for broadcast. What a palaver! A bit like voting for acts on Opportunity Knocks! For example, on the 8th September 1974 edition 13 year old Tony Woodward of 45 Blossom Square, Reading in Berkshire wanted to know why Keith Peacock, playing for Charlton in the previous week’s televised game versus Gillingham, changed his shirt at half time? You can’t pull the wool over the eyes of some eagle-eyed young fans! And Brian revealed that Keith perspires a great deal and so changed his shirt at half time, so there you have it Tony. You’ll have slept soundly that night having had your burning question answered and you now know it’s because Keith Peacock is a sweaty bastard. On the same show 14 year old Steven Brill of 31 Seddington Road, Hendon wanted to know if it’s legal for goalkeepers to swing on their crossbars. The short answer was yes and no. Hope that answers your query, Steve. Keep those letters coming.

Talking of this 8th September 1974 edition, it featured a match which summed up the vagaries of league football as it was a second division game between Fulham and York City which the visitors won 2-0. A couple of interesting points from this game (and there are always interesting points I would argue). York City were then in the second highest tier of English football, they now occupy the National League (North) and play the likes of Spennymoor United, Farsley Celtic and Alfreton Town. Their strip was maroon with a distinctive white ‘Y’ motif which looked like they had been sewn on individually by the manager’s wife. And the York City manager Don Johnson (no relation I believe) puffed away on a pipe in the YCFC dugout throughout the game.

A fine 70s kit!

Playing for Fulham were Bobby Moore (who looked well past his sell-by date, looking slow and overweight) and Alan Mullery, who joined Brian in The Big Match studio on the Sunday afternoon to discuss the game. Fulham were managed by tweed-wearing, pipe-puffing Alec Stock, an old school campaigner and a dying breed even then. Paul Whitehouse claims to have based Ron Manager on him and in an edition a few weeks later Stock was interviewed in the TBM studio after a game against Southampton and he railed, gently, against the ‘Southampton chaps‘ who had been a little overzealous in their tackling. Marvellous.

It’s fair to say managers (and they were mostly managers, not coaches at this time) were a very different breed. Pipes were almost de rigeur as the manager, trainer and sub huddled in the cramped, wind blown dugout during the game with only a tartan rug covering their knees. There was none of this prowling around the technical area, dementedly pointing and waving, bellowing at the fourth official or booting bottles of water around if the decision went against you. Although during the mid-70s the egotist manager did begin tentatively to emerge. And who was the first such individual to see himself as a ‘personality’? Step forward Malcolm ‘Big Mal’ Allison, Crystal Palace ‘coach’ and friend of Brian Moore.

Malcolm Allison had been at Manchester City before landing the ‘glamour’ job at Crystal Palace. His Man City track suit was binned and replaced with a fedora, an oversize sheepskin coat and an enormous Cuban cigar. The personality coach had arrived! Malcolm milked the flashy side of coaching to the limit and, in cahoots with the tabloid press, created an image for himself that still endures. In fact, the flick-to-kick football game Subbuteo included a model of a fedora and sheepskin- wearing manager to stand on the sidelines looking not dissimilar to Big Mal in his heyday. One of his most memorable stunts was to invite Playboy columnist and glamour model Fiona Richmond into the Palace communal bath, and, as they frolicked in the bubbles, a tabloid photographer snapped away. Somehow you couldn’t imagine Alec Stock doing this. Marvellous as it may have been.

Some years ago I was changing trains at York Station en route to Edinburgh and as I disembarked a large man in a camel coat and an even larger glass of whisky, which had been filched out of the buffet, was waiting to board. It was unmistakably Big Mal.

And talking about Crystal Palace and 70s managers, I recently watched a very interesting BT Sport documentary about the post-Busby Manchester United. Tommy Docherty was interviewed about how he became Man United manager in 1972. He was Scotland manager at the time and was at the Crystal Palace v Manchester United game at Selhurst Park. United had just been humped 5-1 by a Palace team languishing at the bottom of the English First Division. At the end of the game Docherty was invited into the Palace board room by Busby and offered the job on the spot on a 3 year contract at £30,000 per year. That is….£30, 000 a year! I have to say I was quite shocked at this revelation. Manchester United were one of the biggest clubs in Europe and this is what they paid their manager. Today that would translate to just under £400,000 which was, and still is, a lot of money but compare it to what managers/ coaches are paid now and it’s a drop in the ocean.

A few years before this edition of TBM, 1970 to be precise, Brian Moore and his colleagues at ITV had opened the television Pandora’s box and unleashed on an unsuspecting TV football audience ‘the pundit.’ In fact it was many, many years before this word would ever be used to describe an ex-pro who talked incessantly and lugubriously about some dull, ultra-fine point he noticed in a boring, meaningless televised game. For the 1970 World Cup in Brazil someone had the bright idea of putting together a panel of ‘experts’ to argue, bicker and nitpick about every World Cup game televised for the whole of July. The first panel comprised Jimmy Hill (inevitable), Malcolm Allison, Pat Crerand (recently retired, ex-Man United and Scotland midfielder), Derek Dougan (talismanic Irish Wolves striker) and Bob McNab (Arsenal full-back). Latterly Cloughie (another of Brian’s muckers and then Derby County manager) and Jack Charlton became involved. Bizarrely, it was one of the few occasions ITV beat BBC football coverage in the ratings, forcing the Beeb to quickly put their own panel together. Football would never be the same. Sadly.

The Accused

But in their favour, they didn’t use diagrams to show where a striker should have been running, how much space a defender gave an attacker or even mentioned diamond formations. They just squabbled and you sort of knew after the show they’d go out and have a skinful (there were some big drinkers on that panel). And all the time Brian Moore grinned knowing this was pretty innovative telly. He wasn’t to know punditry would eventually disappear up its own back four.

During his long tenure with The Big Match and ITV sport, Brian Moore became a cult figure and a Gillingham FC director. The Gillingham FC fanzine during the 80s and 90s was entitled ‘Brian Moore’s Head Looks Uncannily Like London Planetarium, which was a line from Half Man, Half Biscuit’s track ‘Dickie Davies’s Eyes.’ He died in 2001 aged 69 and it’s fair to say, for the huge football fan that he was, he lived the dream.

Image result for brian moores head

The Big Match, and all the regional versions of it, showed players who are now considered greats in action, at a time when football coverage was extremely limited compared to what we have today. And because of that, footage of these players and teams is hugely valuable. At a time when football has become so clinical, so technical and so lacking in real personalities, The Big Match Revisited programmes are an antidote to the tedium which encapsulates so much of the modern game, when a football highlights programme was a part of the weekend you looked forward to and all the better for being rationed. And it’s hats off to Brian Moore for being such an integral and vital part of that experience.

And that was lovely to see.

Kubrick’s Smoke and Mirrors: 50 Years of The Shining

Savaged by the critics on release, Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining is now the Ulysses of film analysis

More has probably been written about Kubrick’s 1980 classic The Shining than any other of his canon, even 2001: A Space Odyssey. But what is it that compels sad people like myself to be constantly analysing every scene, every character, every iconographic element, every shot, even things that are not necessarily there?

But isn’t this why so many films prevail and maintain their interest with the viewing public and why so many films become classics rather than those that sweep over you and you’ve forgotten everything about before you’ve left the cinema?

It’s a criminally overused word and I’d avoid using it if I could but The Shining encapsulates everything about the adjective ‘iconic’. For me, it’s one of the few films that is not only better than it’s source material but actually transcends its genre. It irritates me hugely when I hear people refer to it as a horror film. It’s so much more than that. So much so that I won’t even try to describe it generically. On its release so many critics dismissed it for not having ‘enough shocks‘, for being ‘too slow or plodding‘ in its narrative, characters who were ‘hard to connect with‘. It was more than 10 years before critics began to re-evaluate it and see it as a film that broke generic, narrative and technical boundaries and it’s why viewers are still discussing it today.

Stanley Kubrick only made 12 films in 45 years. Half of this number were made in his first 10 years as a major studio director between 1955 and 1964. But his output not only became increasingly complex in style and narrative but covered most genres including science fiction, historical drama, comedy, war, dystopian fantasy and, ok, horror (but in its widest possible context!). His blockbuster SF film which trumpeted the fact ‘genius at work‘, 2001: A Space Odyssey was like nothing ever seen before in cinema. Over 50 years after its release it still seems way ahead of its time. The success of 2001 meant Kubrick could pick and choose what his next project was going to be and, true to form, he surprised the film world by choosing a fairly obscure dystopian fantasy novel by prolific British writer and academic Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (much more on this below). The furore this film caused, particularly in Kubrick’s adopted home in the UK caused him to withdraw it within a year of its release. He went on to make the uncontroversial historical drama Barry Lyndon, again from a lesser known Thackeray novel which, although performing reasonably well financially, it was, at the time, seen as a critical failure. Like so many of Kubrick’s films, Barry Lyndon has been re-appraised in recent years and seen as much more of a success than it was when released.

After the critical maulings he received for A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, Kubrick decided on a different approach to his next project. He was going to make a film that would have widespread appeal due to its subject matter but would bear heavily the unique Kubrick stylistic imprint. And after reading many, many horror stories (some for only the first couple of pages) he landed upon a recent Stephen King novel entitled The Shining. Here he could see possibilities but that meant jettisoning much of King’s original story and retaining, pretty much, only the conceit and general framework of the source material. This, of course, did not please Stephen King although, over the years, he seems to have made his peace slightly with Kubrick’s version. And so he should as Kubrick removed many of the silly fantastical elements such as topiary animals which come to life and much of the run-of-the-mill hotel backstory and created an atmosphere and narrative that still fascinates.

To begin with the poster for the film is as enigmatic as the film itself. Kubrick was big enough in the film world at the time to go for the best and it was to the legendary Saul Bass he approached to come up with something suitably cryptic. Bass was responsible for classic poster and opening credit sequences for some of the greatest films ever made. In fact, often Bass’s work is remembered when the film may not be. He’s even credited with directing one of the most famous and most brilliant scenes in the history of cinema, the shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho.

And Bass didn’t disappoint in the esoteric stakes coming up with an image that didn’t even appear in the film. Bass’s original design was red and featured a pointillistic, cartoonish doll-like character but typically Kubrick liked the image but opted for a yellow rather than red poster. Recently I attended the Kubrick exhibition at The Design Centre in London. There they displayed a number of other designs Bass had come up with, many of which, to me, were considerably more effective than the poster chosen. But there’s no point in attempting to fathom why Kubrick made the decisions he did. You just have to assume he’s usually right.

Three rejected Saul Bass posters with Kubrick’s hand-written comments

I don’t intend in this blog article to even summarise the story of The Shining as, in the unlikely event of anyone reading this article, most people will have seen the film anyway or at least know what happens in it. My purpose is to highlight some of the elements which make The Shining a film that so people return to again and again and constantly reinterpret. So my approach, as usual, will be scattergun, rambling and sometimes abstruse but this is what The Shining brings out in people like me. And I couldn’t be happier about that.

The film begins in suitably Kubrickian expansive way with aerial shots of the Torrance’s yellow beetle car moving beetle-like across a vast Coloradan landscape. Kubrick used electronic composer Wendy Carlos again to create the dark, foreboding, brooding soundtrack which accompanies the main characters journey towards their winter caretaking stint at the soon-to-be desolate Overlook Hotel in the Colorado mountains. Carlos had created the futuristic soundscapes for Kubrick’s previous film A Clockwork Orange and The Shining would be her last collaboration with Kubrick as, according to her, too many compositions to accompany scenes in the film did not make it into the final cut. Anyone watching this film for the first time would be left in no doubt that these tiny characters were heading towards adversity given the tone and atmosphere built up by the musical opening.

The central character, Jack Torrance is played by Jack Nicholson who was Kubrick’s first choice for the role. Other actors to be considered included Robert De Niro, who it was possible to envisage as Torrance, Robin Williams, who it wasn’t, and Harrison Ford, who would have been more in keeping with Stephen King’s ideas for the part. Rather than Nicholson’s manic and menacing turn almost from scene 1, King wanted to see a decent character gradually deteriorate psychologically becoming a threat to his family through months of cabin fever in the Overlook Hotel and due to other types of supernatural influence. Nicholson’s performance was ridiculed as being overblown and hammy by many critics at the time but and one can’ t help but think that the meticulous Kubrick liked the idea of Nicholson’s, allegedly, coke-fuelled mania which just added to Torrance’s psychological collapse and descent into madness.

Jack’s first major appearance where he is interviewed for the job of out-of-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel immediately sets the scene for the rest of the film. He’s informed of a brutal murder which took place around 10 years before when the caretaker, at the time, Charles/Delbert Grady, went mad and killed his wife and two young girls with an axe. From then on Jack’s mental deterioration and gradual homicidal path is brilliantly represented through a series of masterly images and set pieces, leading to a ground-breaking steadi-cam inspired denouement in the hotel’s freezing maze.

The interview scene is intercut with scenes of Danny talking to a character he refers to as ‘Tony’ who is ‘inside his mouth’ who ‘tells him things’. Through Tony, Danny can see into the future and possesses abilities ordinary people don’t. Tony tells Danny something so terrifying Danny faints in utter shock and we are made aware that this has to do with the place they are going to be spending the winter the Overlook Hotel. When they arrive there Danny immediately strikes up a friendship with the hotel’s cook, Halloran, who has the same abilities and calls it ‘shining.’ Halloran is able to see Danny has these abilities but also makes him aware of what might happen when he is in the hotel alone and warns him off entering room 237. Soon Danny is seeing disturbing images from the hotel’s past which link to what Jack was told during his interview.

Much of the debate about the film surrounds the question of whether the hotel is actually haunted by the ghosts of its bloody past or is it all happening in Jack and even Wendy and Danny’s heads. This is where Kubrick diverges significantly with King. In Kubrick’s Overlook events are open to interpretation, nothing is ever quite what it seems and often metaphorical.

One of the enduring and memorable images from the film is of the elevator doors in the main reception opening and a torrent of blood emerging from them. This is a nightmare Danny experiences on more than one occasion, a nightmare that foreshadows the terrible events awaiting him at the Overlook Hotel.

Another criticism of the film, according to critic Roger Ebert, is that it lacks a ‘reliable’ observer. Jack is clearly unreliable from almost the moment he enters the hotel, Wendy is too sensitive and almost afraid of Jack to be aware of everything happening around her and there is so much going on in Danny’s head that it’s difficult to know just what exactly is really happening at any point in the film. This, I believe, is exactly what Kubrick wanted, if the characters are confused and bewildered then so will the audience.

All three characters see the ‘ghosts’ of the hotel at different times. Danny sees them from almost the moment he enters the hotel and this is due to his supernatural abilities. But Jack’s spectral encounters take longer to happen and are more problematic. Does he really see ghosts or is it his deteriorating psyche that is responsible for these illusions or even his alcoholism? Kubrick, of course, deliberately creates these enigmatic confrontations.

Your money’s no good here Mr. Torrance

Jack’s first meeting is with barman Lloyd after being accused by Wendy of attacking Danny. Here we find that Jack may have a problem with alcohol after he relates the story of when he injured Danny when he was still very young. Lloyd plies Jack with whisky, ‘Your money’s no good here Mr Torrance.’ But is this merely Jack losing his grip on reality with his desperation for a drink fermenting his delusions. Is he really drinking alcohol or just imagining it? Later in the film Jack walks into the ballroom again and this time it’s populated by the ghosts of the guests of the hotel from many years ago. As well as encountering Lloyd again he literally bumps into Delbert Grady, the former caretaker who killed his family some years previously. A chilling conversation takes place in the blood-red toilet as Grady cleans up the drink he spilt on Jack. It is here that we as viewers begin to almost accept that Jack is in conversation with a murderous ghost as Grady warns him of Halloran coming to help Danny and Wendy. If Grady was a figment of Jack’s feverish imagination how would Jack have known this? Grady advises Jack euphemistically that maybe Danny and Wendy need ‘correcting‘. We , as viewers at this point, know exactly what Grady is suggesting.

Perhaps they need ‘correcting’…

These pivotal ‘ghostly’ scenes where Jack supposedly meets both Delbert Grady and Lloyd the barman feature two stalwarts of Kubrick films, Philip Stone and Joe Turkel. Both actors appeared in three Kubrick films, more than any other actor. Stone also appeared in A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, Turkel in The Killing and Paths of Glory. Both play parts of chilling low-key menace.

A second similar question arises when Jack is locked in the food store by Wendy. He hears Grady outside once again encouraging him to bring Danny and Wendy into line. And eventually the door is opened for him. If not a ghost, who lets Jack out? A few theories have been suggested as to how Jack escapes from the store room. For me the most plausible is that Danny let him out. Maybe Danny knew that this was the only way he was going to stop Jack murdering his mother and him and leading him into the maze was the most effective way. So why didn’t Kubrick let us see Danny do this? For the same reason so many other events were cloaked in mystery. Of course the director wants to keep us guessing, hence the lack of a reliable narrator which is just too predictable for Kubrick. He wants us to be as bemused, bewildered and beguiled as the characters. So if that’s the smoke, what about the mirrors? You may well ask.

As Jack prowls around the corridors and rooms of the Overlook, each time he appears to encounter some sort of apparition, mirrors are very close by. In Room 237, in the toilet when he encounters Grady, at the back of the bar when he encounters Lloyd the barman and even on the shiny metallic door when he hears Grady outside the storeroom. So does this mean that these ghosts are real or are they just transpositions or reflections of his own crumbling sanity? Is the evil he is apparently confronting just the mirror image of his own psychological deterioration? In the novel Jack finds a scrapbook which includes news clippings and photographs of things that happened at the Overlook since its opening in 1910, he already knew about Grady and maybe Lloyd the barman was a former employee he read about. In the film we see, at one point, the scrapbook sitting on Jack’s work table but is never referred to. It seems as if Kubrick, once again, decided that this was too much of an explanation or backstory for the events that followed and that he’d prefer viewers to be left rather more in the dark.

And let’s not forget about Wendy. Despite being oblivious, seemingly, to some of the things that are happening before her very eyes, when the shit hits the fan and she is frantically looking for Danny through the dimly lit back corridors of the Overlook, she almost literally bumps into some of the ghosts of the hotel past. The elderly man with the wound in his head, the man in the bear suit performing something beastly on another tuxedoed guest suddenly appear to her. Why?

In the US version of the film she runs into the ballroom to be met with previous guests, maybe the ones that were partying when Jack stumbled into Grady, but this time they are all skeletons. Strangely, Kubrick cut this scene from the European version of the film. Once again, did he feel a European audience didn’t need to be hit over the head metaphorically with images showing the ghosts of the hotel revealing themselves to Wendy? The skeleton scene, for me, is a step back into Carry On Screaming territory and detracts from the brilliantly enigmatic aspects of The Shining.

This place is dead.

But the question still remains. Why did it take so long for Wendy to see these apparitions? At the start of the film Halloran suggested to Danny that ‘shining’ might run in the family. He said that his grandmother and he used to have conversations without even opening their mouths as they both had the shining. So where did Danny get it? Danny clearly tries to suppress his abilities. He’s almost embarrassed to admit it to Halloran and maybe Wendy has suppressed this talent until she became so stressed that her shining began to manifest itself and she started to see the ghosts of the hotel through her unfiltered perception. Or maybe Jack also has the shining, hence his ability to encounter the characters from the hotel’s past. It might also explain why he knew about Halloran’s return.

The man in the bear suit is puzzling. At first I thought it was a reference to an episode from King’s novel that happened many years before the Torrances arrived at the Overlook. A gangster who stayed there used to humiliate one of his hangers-on by making him dress up and bark like a dog with tragic consequences. However, the man, if it is a man, is wearing what looks like a bear suit. A perfectionist like Kubrick would not substitute a dog suit for a bear suit for no reason. However, Rob Ager at www.collativelearning.com makes a very compelling case for this being part of an elaborate series of clues planted by Kubrick to suggest that Jack had been sexually abusing Danny. Now this might seem a bit of a stretch but it’s worth checking out what this analysis by Rob Ager has come up with. Certainly food for thought.

Another aspect of the film which is far superior to the novel is the ending. In the novel one of Jack’s main roles as caretaker is to look after the antiquated heating system which, after his breakdown, is neglected leading to Danny and Wendy escaping from the hotel with Halloran’s help just as the boiler blows up killing Jack who was still in there. The film version ending features one of the great edits in cinematic history cutting from a long scene with jack bellowing like a wounded animal to a static daylight image of him frozen to death. Sadly, for me, the final slow zoom into the photograph on the wall of the Overlook reception, finally focusing on Jack’s doppelgänger in the July 4th 1921 ball, suggesting Jack has been there in a previous life (You have always been the caretaker…) almost ruins the ending completely. But not quite. It’s as if Kubrick felt he had to throw the audience some crumbs of explanation but he needn’t have bothered, although it probably placated some critics looking for ‘closure’ of some kind.

The film has been responsible for a number of interesting contributions to popular cultural. The phrase ‘All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy‘ has become synonymous with the film. Jack has been hard at work on his new novel for weeks and even becomes aggressive with Wendy when she interrupts him one day. Jack then disappears from his desk and Wendy looks at the reams of typewritten sheets that he has compiled. To her horror very sheet has this same phrase written in different formations. It is at this point that she realises, although one suspects she always knew, that something has gone seriously wrong with Jack’s mind. Interestingly, other country’s versions used a different idiom to the English version. In Germany it was, rather mundanely, ‘Never Put Off Till Tomorrow What Can Be Done Today.’ Much more poetic was the Italian version: ‘The Morning Has Gold In Its Mouth.’ The French version was slightly more enigmatic: ‘One ‘Here You Go’ is worth two ‘You’ll Have Its’. Hmmm.

Every page typed out by Kubrick himself. Allegedly.

The scene in The Shining that everyone remembers is when Jack crashes through the bathroom door with an axe and announces ‘Heeeerrre’s Johnny!’ where a terrified Wendy cowers. When the film was released in the UK in 1979 few people would have recognised that phrase although everyone in the US would have. America’s biggest chat show was The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson with an audience of millions. This programme was not broadcast in the UK at the time although it was for a short time in the 1980s. Johnny Carson would be introduced each night by his sidekick Ed McMahon with a ‘Heeeerrrre’s Johnny! It was as familiar to American audiences as ‘Ooh Betty!’ was to British audiences in the 70s. Although if Jack had used that one instead it might have had a slightly different effect. Two (quite) interesting facts about this iconic scene. Firstly, Nicholson improvised the line at the time and amazingly for perfectionist Kubrick, he decided to leave it in, and secondly as Jack Nicholson was a trained volunteer fireman the door he chopped down was a real one and, once again, given Kubrick’s meticulousness, a great many doors were harmed in the making of this film.

For a film that was described by one critic as ‘A crashing disappointment..’ at the time is now one of the most analysed films in cinema history, Jonathan Romney of The Guardian was closer to the truth when he called The Shining, ‘..a palace of paradox.‘ For a film that was nominated for more Razzies than any other Kubrick title and nominated for no Oscars (the only Kubrick film not to be) it continues to fascinate and puzzle 50 years since its release. This article has only scratched at the surface of this Joycean maze and there are so many more elements that could have been explored but to paraphrase the Italian idiom changed in the film, The Shining has, and always will, have gold in its mouth.

Kubrick’s smoke and mirrors continue to confound.

Tarbuck Memories: Sunday Night at the London Palladium

How an unlikely new broom helped the winds of change sweep through the entertainment industry in 1965

Every so often the good people at the excellent Talking Pictures TV channel resurrect a fascinating series from long ago which seems more like an architectural dig than a genuine entertainment spectacle, but no less enjoyable. And such is the case with the repeats of that stalwart of 1960s telly, Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The early episodes with a young(ish) Bruce Forsyth, when he still had his real hair, seems like being in the audience at the music hall. A succession of cloned classically trained singers, some acrobats and truly dreadful comedians kept the masses happy for many years. Well, they had little choice. However, something was about to happen in Britain which no-one in that industry at the time saw coming.

Anyone who didn’t live through the sixties will find it almost impossible to understand the impact The Beatles had on society around the world. Every shop sold something Beatles related, every sitcom or comedy programme made a reference to The Beatles, as did every drama and daily serial. Everyone was using words like ‘fab’ and kids were singing Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know I was. ‘The Beatles‘ was written throughout 60s British society like the lettering in Blackpool Rock. And by 1965 things were definitely changing in the media. And that bastion of old-fashioned variety, that throwback to the music halls, the London Palladium was beginning to realise it’s time they moved with the times. Yes, they’d had The Beatles appear there in 1963 when cheeky John Lennon asked them to rattle their jewellery, but that was as more of a novelty.

Some good clean Palladium fun with The Beatles and Brucie although I could think of a better word than ‘nit.’

Since 1955 the show had been attracting up to 20 million viewers every Sunday night with a meat and two veg diet of the established and a few up-and-coming mainstream performers, but occasionally throwing the younger audience a few crumbs, like Cliff and The Shadows. 1965 was the year when the more traditional elements of the entertainment industry realised that The Beatles, along with a few other bands, were not a passing fad. Rock and Roll was here to stay and youth culture, for so long repressed, was now exploding all over the world. But how does a traditional, antiquated, staid Sunday night institution like The Palladium get a piece of the action to keep this clearly massive potential young viewership on board?

Step forward professional scouser, mop top and self-proclaimed friend of The Beatles, comedian, or ‘comic’ as he preferred to be known, Jimmy Tarbuck. The Beatles had put Liverpool on the entertainment map and many other acts such as Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas, Cilla Black and The Swingin’ Blue Jeans followed. So Tarbuck ticked a number of boxes. The show featured on Talking Pictures recently was Tarby’s first show as the new compere in 1965 and, for me, this particular show highlighted not only the changes that were taking place in entertainment but also within society.

His entrance at the start of the show was an interesting calling card to the mostly conservative (with a small and probably a large ‘C’ also) audience and a signal of intention from the producers. The opening bars to the song ‘Look Out World Here I Come‘ were struck up by the Jack Parnell Orchestra and the only thing on stage was a supposed brick wall covered in graffiti with comments about the rivalry between the The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, so far, so topical, and a chalked up ‘Liverpool 5‘, just in case the Scouse associations were a bit too subtle for the southern Palladium audience. The brick wall was also a broad-brushed reference to the urban industrial, recently fashionable landscape of t’north. Suddenly Tarby crashes through the wall as if he’s exploding out of this environment and onto the sophisticated swinging London scene. He launches, slightly out of tune, into the song and dance routine with the Palladium dancers all dressed trendily like he is, although they’re all wearing stockings and high heels and he isn’t, strangely. The song and dance highlighted his Liverpool, mop top roots and announced there was a hip new kid on the block. To think of Tarby as ever being ‘hip’ is a stretch, I know, but on this bastion of entertainment conservatism he, pretty much, was.

His opening routine on this first show was, at best thin, at worst puerile. Whoever wrote this script is unknown, probably deliberately so. IMDB lists Marty Feldman and Barry Took, two of the sixties foremost comedy writers, as occasionally contributing to SNATLP, but there can be no way that the creators of Round The Horne or The Frost Report could be responsible for this drivel. Jokes about Harry Secombe’s girth and Charlie Drake’s stature got big laughs from the audience as another standard 60s pun about Hattie Jacques and Tessie O’Shea being the biggest ‘drawers’ in the business (geddit? Don’t bother) also had the punters rolling in the aisles. Which just demonstrated the fact that they’d paid a fiver for these tickets so were going to damn-well laugh, whatever. Clearly the humour was being written with a yard brush rather than a quill.

The routine continued with some typically 60s regulation Irish whimsy about ‘Paddy’s’ wife who was due to have a baby. A rather elaborate and strange gag followed about a shoe box that appeared on the stage which was sent to Tarby from Mike and Bernie Winters. A reference to their donkey (which escaped me) and the mandatory joke about The Beatles (Ringo Starr and his wife are so rich they’re having to put their money in Zacks. Jesus..) almost completed his opening salvo. But not before a very odd few minutes when he name checked ‘celebrities’ (yes they used that word even then) who just ‘happened’ to be in the audience. Then, as now, it was believed that we are all fascinated to see these demi-gods should we happen to be lucky enough to be in their presence. So Spurs footballer Dave Mackay (celebrity?) had to rise and give the assembled masses an embarrassed wave. But it got better, or worse depending on your viewpoint, and stand up Mike and Bernie Winters! (Jesus Christ there’s two of them!). That partly explains the shoebox earlier but not really the donkey. And who’s that sitting only half a dozen rows from the front and walking distance to the stage? Why, it’s none other than fellow-scouser Frankie Vaughan! Hey why not come up here and talk to us? entreats Tarby. Frankie is only too happy to oblige. And you can’t come up here without doing a song for us, Frankie? giggles Tarby. What? Oh ok. How about that one we did in rehearsal? And they launch into the very predictable ‘Side By Side.’

Frankie in customary showbiz mode

Now Frankie Vaughan’s glory days were a long way behind him but he represented, not quite the old guard at the time, but an artist that many of the middle-aged viewers would have identified with. Frankie, also being a Scouser and apparently a big mate of Tarbie’s (who from Liverpool wasn’t, it seemed?), meant Tarby was effusive in thanking Frankie ‘for coming to support him.’ So much of this show appeared to be about Jimmy Tarbuck.

As a comedian Tarby was nothing special. His material was lightweight and run-of-mill and certainly none of it was written by him, but what made him stand out from a plethora of other comics with similarly lightweight and run-of-the-mill material was his cheeky-chappie demeanour which certainly worked for a while until it became passé. The fact he was a Scouser helped as everything Liverpudlian was looked upon as ultra-fashionable at that time, which must have appealed to the Palladium producers, and to be fair, he was confident and he was very professional in his delivery and his compereing was slick. Like so many other Scouse entertainers who made a decent career out of being working-class (Cilla, Doddy, Askey), in their private lives they were only too happy to turn their backs on that and be subsumed into the Tory fold, humbly accept their OBEs or MBEs and, in Tarby’s case, spend most of the time at the golf club with Brucie, Henry and Ronnie. In fact, when his career began to flag, golf became to Tarby what Schnorbitz became to Bernie Winters. A crutch which just about kept him in the public eye. For a while, at least. When Margaret Thatcher turned 60 Tarby actually baked her a birthday cake. It’s not on record as to what The Iron Lady thought of it, however. But he did have a bit of time on his hands.

Tarby and ‘The Gang’

Tarby would, of course, get his own show with its predictable brand of humour and guests and he would also get a few quiz show hosting gigs. Tarby’s Frame Game, Full Swing ( ah yes, the customary golfing reference) and, probably the most remembered, Winner Takes All. Remembered by the likes of me for it’s utter tediousness but who could forget Tarby’s immortal words Next question please, Geoffrey? Unbelievably this show endured from 1975 until 1988, Tarby jumping ship in 1986 to, presumably, play more golf and fund-raise for the Tories.

Another strange interlude took place on this 1965 show when actress Sara Miles, who was starring in the current box office blockbuster Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines, was introduced by Tarby as ‘a beautiful bird‘ and a slightly awkward routine took place where Miles was supposedly trying to publicise her new film and Tarby was trying to stop her. She was eventually left to introduce the next acts and she either got them wrong or this was part of the schtick. Either way, The Searchers new song, When I Get Home, was introduced by that ‘beautiful bird‘ as Wait Till I Get You Home, which was actually quite funny. Certainly funnier than anything Tarby did all night.

Phwoar, what a beautiful bird!

The rest of the line-up for that show was a curious blend of the old, for which the Palladium was associated, and the very new, for which it certainly wasn’t.

Old school acts that evening in 1965 included Edmund Hockridge, Canadian baritone singer from many musicals and ex of Geraldo’s Orchestra and Susan Lane (no, me neither) who screeched for 2 minutes before being replaced on a typically London Palladium revolving stage by those well groomed, unthreatening 60s chart toppers The Searchers (who were quite good to be fair) with another odd singing drummer.

The Searchers and yet another weird singing drummer

A nod to this time of pretty cataclysmic societal change was the appearance of Peter, Paul and Mary. Stalwarts of the Greenwich Village protest movement, they sang three songs, mostly standards, Gordon Lightfoot’s In The Early Morning Rain, Ewan McColl’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and religious ballad If I Had My Way. They were certainly given a decent amount of stage time but whether anyone in the audience knew what they stood for is uncertain.

Greenwich Village comes to the Palladium

And talking about cataclysmic, however, top of the bill were Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Yes, top of the bill! If ever an act was completely at odds with what Sunday Night at the London Palladium stood for it was Pete and Dud. If The Beatles dominated popular culture during the mid-sixties, Pete and Dud dominated grown-up, sophisticated comedy. Their series Not Only..But Also.. had premiered in late ’64 and their first series in January 1965. Cook and Moore had been at the centre of the satire boom in 1962-63 with Beyond The Fringe with Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, and then the short-lived That Was The Week That Was which Cook had written sketches for. It was rumoured at the time that producer Ned Sherrin had created TW3 for Cook to anchor but while he was away in the US performing BTF, the project was hijacked by David Frost.

The genius that was Pete and Dud

But from BTF, Not Only ..But Also was created, and although it was originally supposed to be a solo project for Moore, Cook was brought in at a later stage and the rest is history, although history that was criminally wiped by the BBC and only a few episodes survive intact.

Coming on the back of the huge success of That Was The Week That Was, NOBA struck a chord with a younger audience that was looking for something different and a little more challenging and provocative after the 50s and early 60s diet of predictable, formulaic comedy and entertainment that was embodied by SNATLP and a plethora of sitcoms broadcast at the time. It was no coincidence that John Lennon appeared in two early episodes of NOBA giving it his endorsement just before Pete and Dud’s Palladium appearance. This, of course, cemented NOBA’s alternative, anti-establishment credentials although this was hardly necessary for most fans.

John Lennon in the first Not Only..But Also..

It’s unknown why the Palladium producers decided to invite Pete and Dud to perform but the fact they were top of the bill suggests they were so popular with sections of the public that they had no choice but to feature them. Pete and Dud’s sketch involving their two most popular characters, the characters that completely epitomise their type of humour were, oddly enough, ‘Pete and Dud‘. Or The Dagenham Dialogues as they were known, where lugubrious know-all Pete pontificates on all aspects of life, whether he knows about it or not, while pretty thick, scruffy Dud tends to agree and enter into conversation, usually unsuccessfully. Any description of the routine fails totally to encompass how brilliantly funny and surreal these sketches were. Cook would unashamedly try to get Dud to corpse during the sketch which added to the genius. These sketches would go on for 10 mins or more and, incredibly, the sketch on SNATLP continued for an unprecedented 13 minutes. Much of it seemed improvised and Dud did corpse at one point. They finished with their famous outro from NOBA, Goodby-eee, which, incidentally, got to number 18 in the Hit Parade in 1965, maybe another reason why they were invited on to the show, they even performed it on Ready Steady Go that year. Half way through the song they were faded out and the ATV logo appeared. The famous rotating stage end-sequence didn’t happen as Pete and Dud must have overrun. And that was very unusual for the Palladium.

One wonders why Pete and Dud accepted this invitation as SNATLP was the type of show they would have unmercilessly taken the piss out of, particularly if some Royal personage had been present. On the one hand they probably found it quite funny that their brand of anti-establishment humour was being performed and broadcast to vast swathes of people in the theatre and TV audience who just wouldn’t get it and might even have been the type of people lampooned in their shows. Certainly laughter from the audience was muted, not to mention nervous. Many just didn’t know where and when to laugh. Jimmy Tarbuck definitely got bigger laughs, but then he would, wouldn’t he? On the other hand, however, all performers want an audience and the bigger the better, so to perform in front of an audience of 15 million must have seemed attractive in a nicely subversive way. Especially with establishment favourites like Mike and Bernie Winters and Tarby (despite his working class credentials) watching. One wonders what they thought of this almost revolutionary brand of humour, although you can probably guess.

Given the cultural vandalism which resulted in much of Pete and Dud’s comedy being destroyed, this footage is a wonderful example of just how brilliant they were and it should be broadcast permanently in a comedy museum (if there was one) to show what being creative, surreal, funny and stretching the comedy boundaries is all about.

Putting this particular 1965 edition of SNATLP into context, it was an uneasy balancing act between the old and the new. The show still had to appeal to its core audience who wanted ‘nice’, unthreatening and well-established acts but it also knew a massive, for the first time, demanding, young audience was waiting in the wings and its survival depended on carrying many of these young, and many older less conservative, people along. Jimmy Tarbuck was carefully chosen by the producers in the hope of appealing to both sets of viewers, his working-class, cheeky-chappie, Scouse credentials appealing to the young while his predictable, unchallenging, conventional brand of humour to the legions of older viewers.

This 1965 show provides a fascinating microcosm of British society at the time with Tarby at the centre of it. Tarby’s reputation didn’t last long. A younger, more sophisticated audience saw right through him as a willing part of the showbiz and social establishment delivering a type of humour that just seemed tired, old-fashioned and cliched . But for a short, very exciting time, he was the unlikely great working-class hope of an entertainment industry and society that was changing rapidly.

I’m not even going to go there….
Now I don’t normally do this but…..

…I happened to watch another episode of Sunday Night at the London Palladium last Sunday and felt the need to share this experience as, despite everything I’ve written above, this episode really had to be seen to be believed. Once again, it wrestled with the conflicts of a changing society, a rapidly shifting audience in terms of age, attitudes and interests and it blindingly fails on most levels.

In this edition, broadcast three weeks after the episode described above, it follows the same format and Jimmy Tarbuck is definitely settling into his new role. He’s still quick, quite professional but fluffs a few lines. But rather than incorporate these into his act and get bigger laughs, he, almost apologetically, points them out to the audience as if he should be upfront admitting to such faux pas. My theory as to why he does this is twofold. Firstly, he’s still so stunned at getting such a high profile, prestigious gig he feels he’s letting the middle to upper class audience down because he so much wants to be one of them. And, secondly, he struggles to be spontaneously funny as he is a deliverer of gags rather than a creator of them, as were most comedians in those days.

So who do we have for our entertainment delectation this week? You may well ask, and in terms of strangeness it’s a line up which screams ’60s!!!,’ with more than a generous dash of weirdness thrown in.

First up, gangster film heavyweight, George Raft. An odd choice you might think and you’d be right. After some lightweight banter with Tarbie anyone would think, ‘Well that’s that over with. Who’s next up?’ But, wait, Raft is far from finished. ‘And I believe you were once a dancer?’ prompts Tarbie. And as the Jack Parnell Orchestra strikes up, George Raft, who was 70 at the time, launches into a dance routine that would not looked out of place in a Soho strip joint. A dance so camp, performed by a septuagenarian New York tough guy and this continued for about five minutes. As strange an opening salvo as you could ever imagine. It’s well documented that George Raft‘s film career dried up during the 50s and Tarbuck just compounded the embarrassment by revealing to the audience just how ‘available’ he was after he had performed,’ And thanks to George Raft for appearing at such short notice…’

But now something for the youngsters. An almost forgotten duo of the type that don’t exist anymore. Put your hands together for Paul and Barry Ryan! Now this pair are very interesting. Identical twins (although they didn’t look that identical to me) of 50s singer Marion Ryan. They were just starting out in the business when they made this SNATLP appearance. I was struck about how lonely they looked together on the vast Palladium stage with just a single microphone for company and how confident they must have had to be to stand there just singing, not even having a guitar to strum. In 1967 this sort of pressure proved too much for Paul Ryan who left the act to concentrate on writing songs for his brother’s solo career. Paul Ryan had some success and wrote a couple of songs that were taken up by Frank Sinatra, amongst others (OK, Dana). One was released as a single, I Will Drink The Wine, which got to No. 16 in the UK charts in 1971 and Sunrise in the Morning, both appeared on Frank’s 1971 album ‘Sinatra and Company‘, which must have been a nice little earner for Paul. He also wrote his most famous song, the wonderfully bombastic ‘Eloise‘, for his brother, which got him to No. 2 in 1968, The Damned’s version getting to No.3 in 1986.

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Paul and Barry Ryan. Wonder if Marion cut their hair?

The song they sang on SNATLP was odd. It was their first hit record achieving a high of No. 13, ‘Don’t Bring Me Your Heartaches,’ it told the story of a doomed romance from a first person perspective. With two identical twins singing identical words it had the feel, to me, of David Cronenberg’s rather sleazy Dead Ringers. This obviously wasn’t the intention but I couldn’t help noticing an amusing strangeness to the whole act. Paul Ryan died, sadly, at the young age of 46 but Barry’s life took an interesting turn in 1978 when he married Tunku (Princess) Miriam binti al-Marhum Sultan Sir Ibrahim, the only daughter of the ‘fabulously wealthy’ Sultan Ibrahim of Johor. The marriage ended in divorce two years later, but what a rollercoaster ride that must have been! Nicely done, Baz.

The star of the show, however, was magician David Nixon. A ubiquitous presence in so many 60s TV programmes, his smooth, articulate style lent itself to live TV. Everyone over the age of 55 will remember David Nixon, no one under 55 will. As well as having a number of variety vehicles showcasing his magic skills, Nixon was a great favourite of panel shows given his effortless ability to talk and be witty in any situation. A long-time panelist on the TV and radio versions of What’s My Line (what an innocent and very un-modern show that was) he introduced the legendary Basil Brush to the airwaves. He even received the highest honour bestowed on any 60s or 70s celebrity worth their salt, a mention in a Half Man, Half Biscuit song (Reflections In A Flat).

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Two 60s legends

Nixon’s act was quite something, in more ways than one. He invited a participant from the audience up on to the stage to help him. The individual invited looked like he’d been hewn out of 50s rock. Tweed suit, brylcreemed hair, pencil moustache. Reg Thompson (for it was he) sat on a chair as Nixon smoothly explained what was going to happen while asking Reg a few details about himself. ‘Do you mind if I ask you what you do for a living?’ schmoozed Dave. Yes, Reg did mind as it happened, which was the only time Nixon appeared slightly non-plussed. The act involved both participants puffing on a fag before Nixon told a very 60s gag which made him out to be, at worst, a rapist and, at best, a sexual predator. But it got a laugh, obviously! The trick was quite sensational and made me realise how interesting a good and slickly performed magic act can be. And David Nixon really was good. He was the sort of TV personality that it was difficult to imagine living an ordinary life. You could really only imagine David Nixon being on telly.

And talking of omnipresent 60s TV personalities, next up, the one and only Mr. Russ Conway! Russ, probably a bit like David Nixon, and Paul and Barry Ryan for that matter, are the kind of TV personalities who were never off the telly in the 60s but would struggle to get a gig today. Russ Conway was a very good-looking pianist who had a load of hits in the 50s and early 60s but his chart days were well behind him. He was still a popular guest on variety shows, however, the perfect act to break up the singer and the comedian, and in this case the magician. He played a rather overblown orchestral piece (well, it was the Palladium I suppose) and then his latest single which was a very jaunty, tinkly little number entitled The Beggars of Rome. On the strength of this piece, they must be the happiest beggars in the world. Russ decided to add one of his own compositions to the ‘B’ side of his record, a down-and-out companion piece called The Urchins of Paris. A laugh a minute on both sides. I really wanted to hear him play Conway classics such as Roulette or Sidesaddle but he wasn’t having it.

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Know what you mean Russ! My mum actually possessed this very album.

Now it was time for that regular feature, ‘Celebs in the Audience’! And what a bunch they had this week, a typically odd triumvirate. Let’s start with Scouse welterweight boxer (and personal friend of Tarby, obviously) Alan Rudkin. Next up, bizarrely, about to take part in Miss World 1965 at the Mecca Ballroom, Miss South Africa, the whiter than white, Carol Davies! Wouldn’t want any black people frightening the London Palladium audience. And finally 50s crooner Dickie Valentine. I wonder if those individuals were paid to come and sit through this weird hour of light entertainment?

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Dickie Valentine

After this parade of Palladium favourites the producers realised that their slightly less traditional viewers might want something a little more challenging, so who better than Spike Milligan to perform this role? Spike’s stand-up routine was erratic to say the least. A few inspired, quite irreverent gags and a few puerile playing-to-the-galleries attempts at humour. He certainly didn’t hit the heights that Pete and Dud did a few weeks before, but he maintained the Palladium policy of highlighting ‘new’ off-beat comedy acts. The Palladium audience didn’t quite know what to make of Spike but giggled at his daftness, probably not really understanding what he was all about.

At the end of his act the curtains parted to reveal the famous Palladium revolving stage with all the acts waiting to wave goodbye to the theatre and TV audience. In fact, the stage hadn’t begun revolving and with the curtains suddenly opening it caught the performers on the hop and as it juddered into motion a few half-hearted waves began.

In another article above I quoted someone as saying ‘It’s only a small step from light entertainment to surrealism.’ One needs only to watch an episode of Sunday Night at the London Palladium to realise just how true that statement is.

Standing At The Crossroads Of (TV) History

Cor, glamorous or what?

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

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

Is there nothing this woman can’t do?

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

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

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

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

Some uncharitable commentators at the time saw Crossroads as ‘a byword for cheap production values‘, though many cast members from the show have denied that it was that bad. Wobbly sets and fluffed lines have become synonymous with the show, however, and, to be fair, the 5 days a week 52 weeks a year run was, to say the least, punishing. Retakes were rare and it’s hats of to most of these actors that were able to deliver their lines reasonably well in one take. Crossroads production values were highlighted again some years after its demise when the brilliant and sadly missed Victoria Wood wrote Acorn Antiques which was obviously based on the motel. Although very, very funny it was also an affectionate tribute and Victoria Wood must have been a fan to have been so accurate in her depiction of aspects of the show.

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

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Peter Ling‘s CV was a little more prosaic but no less interesting. Having written stories for legendary 60s comic The Eagle, he also wrote scripts for a range of solid 60s and 70s TV series including Dixon of Dock Green, No Hiding Place and The Avengers (though not the classic version). For me though, his most notable achievement was writing The Mind Robbers, an absolutely brilliant story from the Patrick Troughton Dr Who years. A truly surreal and hugely creative tale, it was a shining example of a time when Dr Who was still challenging and inventive in its storytelling. And clearly light years away from the Crossroads Motel, although Meg did have some Time Lord qualities to her.

Motel hairdresser Vera Downend in wistful mood

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

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

For most of its 24 year run, Crossroads pretty much survived on three main sets: Meg’s office/ sitting room, the kitchen and the motel reception. The Crossroads motel reception had the distinction of having the smallest bar in hospitality history. Barely large enough to fit barman cum postman Vince Parker behind it, it consisted of about four optics, no beer tap and half a dozen bottles on a top shelf which didn’t change in 20 years. It’s fair to say seating was limited. One bar stool stool and a chair and stool combo beside the reception entrance. Someone sitting in these seats would have tripped up anyone rushing through the front door in a highly agitated fashion. Which characters did regularly.

Bloody hell! They’re one deep at the bar!

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

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

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

But if not an international terrorist then maybe an international pop star? Hardly likely I hear you say, but, once again, you’d be wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nolly accepts her fate with customary grace

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

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

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

But it did have a swimming pool.

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

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

No sign of buxom clippies here.

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

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

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

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

No wonder Jack’s smiling!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benny Hill: Comic genius

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

Reg and Pat Coombes in the almost forgotten Beggar My Neighbour

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

It didn’t swallow my card!

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

I smell fish five days old

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s so romantic on the buses,

you’ll find it thrilling when you ride,

and you can get it on the buses,

upstairs or down inside.

Hardly Leonard Cohen but you get the idea.

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

No caption required

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

That said, give me On The Buses to the execrable Mrs Brown’s Boys any day. Now get that bleeding’ bus aht!

When Football Grounds Were Fun

Match day at Brechin’s Glebe Park

The homogeneous nature of modern stadia is just another reason why football has become so mundane

This blog may be about 60s and 70s popular culture but it is defiantly not one of those places where I moan about how crap everything is today compared to the past. That’s not to say that the 60s and 70s weren’t a golden age for comedy, music, TV and a few other things, because they were. But over the last 50 years there has been some amazing examples of all these categories as well as some absolute rubbish. It’s just the nature of things.

That said. There is one aspect of our modern cultural life that has deteriorated significantly since the 60s and 70s and although elements of it are better, something has never been replaced. Right, get to the point. I’m talking about football grounds here. You may already have read about Shoot and Goal magazines which will have given you the gist of what I’m getting at.

In short, football clubs have lost much of their distinctiveness, quirkiness, exclusivity and, dare I say, beauty through the way their grounds have changed. I completely understand that it’s all been done in the name of safety, comfort, increase in capacity and, inevitably, increased revenues. I completely understand that but I just miss the little things, eccentricities, peculiarities and oddities as well as wonders you saw and appreciated at grounds when you attended away games. Sadly that has gone forever.

In 1983 Simon Inglis published the football stadium bible, The Football Grounds of England and Wales, updating it a few years later and adding Scottish grounds. For football ground aficionados like myself this was the Book of Revelations, the font of all football ground knowledge that you would consult before visiting a new venue. His enthusiasm and love of those quirky little features that made a ground distinctive, that added an extra layer of excitement and intrigue to any away game was infectious. These little features were the history of the club, they’d been there for maybe a hundred years or more and often became synonymous with the club’s identity. He also introduced me to the Frank Lloyd Wright of football architecture, Archibald Leitch. Born in Glasgow in 1865, Leitch designed some of the greatest and most iconic stands in British football history. Some, though criminally few, are still standing, though most of these have been redeveloped but keeping their original decoration and structure, such as Ibrox, Aston Villa, Kilmarnock, Dundee and Everton’s Goodison Park.

Simon Inglis’s Book of Revelations

It’s true that few grounds still have those fascinating little distinguishing features due to redevelopment. There was a time when a game would be taking place on TV and you could tell the home team purely by the ground’s architecture. It’s still possible in some cases but not many. Uniform stands on every side of the pitch, of breeze block and corrugated steel, goal nets that all look the same (much more on this soon) and pitches that no longer even cut up, all make for a homogeneous viewing experience. Yes, it’s more comfortable, certainly safer, a higher quality of football and invariably more expensive but it’s a very different world, better in some ways, worse in many others.

I first started attending games in 1970 and still attend them today. Of the 133 clubs in the Scottish and English top leagues (134 if you still count Bury FC who were expelled from their league earlier this season) I have visited over half (76 to be precise. 79 if you count 3 teams in the English National league who have dropped out the top flights, Notts County, Chesterfield and Stockport) so I feel I have some knowledge of the subject. Out of those 79, 29 have moved to different grounds from the ones I originally attended. Of the remaining 50 most have changed their ground significantly in some way or other, usually as a result of the Taylor Report which required all top division grounds to become all-seaters. The outcome of this is that most grounds have lost their distinctive character, a few still retain a bit of their retro- charm but it’s rare. To read Simon Inglis book now is to find out what the football grounds of Scotland, England and Wales used be like.

The first ground I ever attended was Tynecastle, home of my team Hearts (or to give them their Sunday name Heart Of Midlothian). The game was against St. Johnstone on August 29th 1970 and we lost 3-1. I didn’t even see our goal, a late penalty as we’d already left in (my uncle’s ) disgust. I remember vividly walking into the stadium and being completely blown away by the size of the pitch and its blinding greenness and how incredibly close we were to the action. Like many grounds of the time we had a fairly average Archibald Leitch stand (recently demolished) and banks of terracing on three sides. The open-to-the-elements standing Gorgie Road End was the largest and most interesting as it had a huge scoreboard at the back of the terracing where half time scores at other grounds would be displayed manually. The other games taking place were listed alphabetically in the programme, so you really had buy a programme if you wanted to keep abreast of half time scores. No electronic scoreboards then. In fact, we don’t even have one now. No need for such new-fangled gadgetry when a tranny in the ear will suffice.

Until redevelopment in the 1980s the tenements behind this end had one of the best views of the game from their kitchen window than probably at any other ground in the UK. They must have been sick when the first new stand was built, apart from the amount it took off the value of their properties.

Hearts’ ground now is trim, clean but still one of the most atmospheric grounds in the country. The designers, at least, maintained the close proximity of the stands to the pitch, but like so many other grounds, lacks the feeling of distinctiveness it once had. At one time you could walk along the main thoroughfare, Gorgie Road, and not even realise a football ground was there, unless you looked up a side street and saw the narrow main entrance, and, despite the redevelopment, that’s still the case.

Most top flight Scottish grounds are similar in their nondescriptness. Rangers have kept their magnificent Archibald Leitch main stand but have built on to it and kept their main red brick facade. Kilmarnock are the only Premier club whose ground bears some resemblance to that of the 60s and 70s with their old stand and the floodlights perched on top of the roof, although the three other sides are relatively recent.

Killie’s old stand

St Johnstone, Hamilton and Livingstone play in utilitarian stadiums with not a single feature to recommend them, built quickly and cheaply. The latter two teams even play on synthetic pitches, it’s like watching football in an oversize subbuteo ground.

In the lower divisions, however, Dundee United’s Tannadice is still quite interesting. In the 60s and 70s before redevelopment it had the steepest terracing in the country. Dizzyingly so. Anyone losing their footing would plunge about 30 feet unless their tumble was arrested by a cast iron crash barrier. Those were the days! The ground also had high walls at each corner of the pitch which displayed an advert for the good people at Skol lager. When televised a small part of this historic terracing can still be seen at the far left hand corner where the stand meets the the terracing behind the goal. They still have the same strange little stand that stretches from half way along one side of the pitch and snakes around the corner to about a third of the way behind the goal. Not that long ago, behind this same goal were allotments and a particularly poor attempt at goal will have destroyed some poor guy’s cold frame, on probably more than one occasion. It still shares the same street with its neighbour, Dundee FC‘s Dens Park which still has an original Archibald Leitch stand.

Scottish League 1 Raith Rovers’ Stark’s Park still has a lovely old fashioned Archibald Leitch stand which, like the Tannadice stand stretches part of way along one side of the pitch and round the corner behind one of the goals. It’s now named after Raith’s most famous fan, crime writer Val McDermid, and still has benches which extend from one end to the other. On the other side of the ground trains still pass regularly and get a fleeting view of the action.

The Val McDermid Stand with its lovely wee gable.

At one time Airdrie’s Broomfield was a fantastic old fashioned stadium. Famous for its pavilion in the corner, it was reminiscent of Fulham’s Craven Cottage and Bradford Park Avenue‘s old, now abandoned, ground with its ‘Doll’s House’. Broomfield was a cauldron with a huge standing area curling two-thirds of the way around the ground. Airdrie now play at the grandly named Excelsior Stadium just outside Glasgow, but that’s all that is grand about this mundane breeze block construction.

Many lower league teams in Scotland still retain many of their old features, and, to be fair, there are some grounds I have not been to including Forfar, Albion Rovers, Stranraer and Peterhead. Of the grounds I know of Ayr United’s Somerset Park is one of the few that still looks the same as when I last visited in 1974. Although, inevitably, the forces of change are looming and plans have been drawn up to transform the ground into a stadium for ‘the future’.

A ground that will always be close to my heart(s) is Arbroath FC’s Gayfield. I attended my first Hearts away match there in 3rd November 1973. Set right on the sea front, if a beleaguered centre half wellied the ball out of the ground, it could conceivably end up in Denmark. With the exception of some covering at the once open end of the ground, Gayfield has stayed pretty much the same as when I visited for the first time all these years ago. There is one other aspect of Gayfield which I feel is worth mentioning, and will return to the fascinating subject of goal stanchions very soon.

Fir Park, the home of Motherwell FC is another ground that has little architecturally to recommend it these days but not too long ago it featured the biggest pun, probably, in world football. Across the top of what was once a covered standing area was the advice in huge block capitals, ‘Keep Cigarettes Away From The Match.’ Sadly this advice has disappeared and it now advertises some mundane loan company or something, but for many years this greeted fans weekly.

‘Well’s world record breaking pun.

To find any quirkiness in grounds today any fan of football architecture has to forget about the top flights in both Scotland and England. In the English Premiership the top teams have spent hundreds of millions on upgrading their grounds to a level of uniform blandness, Spurs actually spent £1 billion on their recently opened new stadium. With the exception of Everton’s Goodison Park (and there are plans for them to leave soon) White Hart Lane was the last English top flight ground to retain any of its original features. Up until the 1980s it still had a white picket fence around the perimeter and for many years advertising around the pitch wasn’t allowed. Changed days. And taking centre stage was its magnificent Archibald Leitch East stand with its famous gable and its cockerel standing majestically above it. Spurs have one of the most state-of-the- art stadiums in the world now, but the character has gone.

Everton’s Goodison Park was another ground with wonderful Archibald Leitch designed stands. Its triple-tiered stand was the first of its kind. It’s still a wonderfully atmospheric stadium, something that doesn’t come across on TV. When I visited in 1998 I was pleasantly surprised by how compact it felt and how close the fans were to the pitch. Always a good sign. This three tired stand, the first of its kind, adds a real majestic quality. It’ll be a very sad day if they do leave and, like West Ham whose fans have never taken to their new stadium and the running track that separates them from the action, Everton will lose something special that Goodison provided. When footage of Goodison in the 60s and 70s is shown on TV it is noticeable that large semi-circles were created behind each goal which seemed rather odd. These were installed for safety reasons as Goodison was used as a World Cup venue in 1966. For many years I thought it added to the ground’s charm, as did the church of St Luke The Evangelist which jutted into the Gwladys Street terracing behind the goal and has now been closed off and can hardly be seen. Plans to move the club to a new stadium 2.5 miles away and have Goodison redeveloped as a residential area will rob the English Premiership of one of the last grounds of a bygone era. One final interesting fact about Goodison (well I think it’s interesting). Everton were the first club in England to install dugouts after playing a friendly at Pittodrie ( a stadium that has never had much to recommend it architecturally) against Aberdeen in 1931, who were the first team in the UK to have dugouts in their ground.

Everton’s neighbours across Stanley Park, Liverpool inhabit its famous Anfield stadium which has lacked any sort of architectural distinction since the it demolished its lovely gabled old main stand in the early 1970s. However, the sight and atmosphere of the Kop on match days was always the most distinctive part of Anfield with the banks of fans on the Kop swaying to the ebb and flow of the game like a field of poppies in the breeze.

The only other English Premiership ground of note is Aston Villa’s Villa Park. Although three sides of it are fairly ordinary, the Trinity Road stand along one side of the ground is still a sight to behold with its claret and red curved balcony wall and gable on the roof displaying the Aston Villa crest. Dating back to 1922 it’s amazing this stand has survived the mass development of 90s. Maybe if Villa had been more successful during this time it may not have.

A few clubs whose old grounds are sorely missed are Newcastle’s St James’s Park, Southampton’s The Dell and Arsenal’s Highbury. Each of those stadiums were unique for a number of reasons.

Although still on the same site St James’s Park bears no resemblance to the seething hotbed of a stadium of the 60s and 70s. Any TV footage from this time gives the impression of the fans nearly encroaching on to the pitch, and occasionally they did! The distance between the fans and the pitch was so narrow, the players could almost touch the spectators. The intimidating nature of this ground for visiting teams must have been almost palpable. As a student in Newcastle during the late 70s I attended many Magpies‘ home games but even then the stadium was being redeveloped and was hardly the bear pit it was a few years previously. The famous covered Leazes End had been ripped down and wasn’t replaced for many years, a bare wall taking its place. A flat pack stand was erected on one side although the original main stand remained until redevelopment in the 90s. But the guts had been ripped out the stadium and the team’s fortunes reflected the lack of atmosphere as they remained in the Second Division until ‘The Keegan Revolution.’

Southampton’s Dell was an amazing ground that defined the glorious differences in football grounds in the first half of the 1900s . A hotch potch of stands and bits of chaotic and disorganised terracing all within touching distance of the pitch was similar to St James’s, though smaller. With the goal nets right up against the wall of the terracing behind the goal and fans spilling over on to the narrow track, it was an exciting to place to go or even watch on telly. In 1978 the ground’s capacity was reduced to 25,000 which was probably the beginning of the end for this fantastic, atmospheric, quirky little ground. No doubt a Tesco stands in its place now.

Wolves’ Molineux was a place of beauty. Famous for its European matches played under the floodlights in the 50s, their stands were wonderful constructions. Using curves where most stands were clean straight lines, it was probably one of the most distinctive grounds in Europe. In the 1970s the club built a huge expensive new stand which almost bankrupted them and this caused the ground to fall into dilapidation. I attended a game there in 1996 and almost two-thirds of the ground was closed off with these tremendously evocative old stands rotting criminally. It was many years before the club recovered and those amazing stands stood derelict before being demolished. Wolves now have a state-of-the-art squeaky clean stadium but it’s not a patch on their glory days.

I visited Millwall FC’s The Den in their last year playing there in 1993 before moving half a mile up the road to the New Den. Talk about from the sublime to the monotonous. The Den was a classic old fashioned ground. Little stands on both sides, a covered standing area, an open standing end behind one of the goals and the players even walked on to the pitch from behind one of the goals. It was atmospheric, could be intimidating but had some great pubs two minutes walk away. A year later I visited the New Den which was one of the dullest, unatmospheric, clinical grounds I had even been to (up till then at least). I know that all clubs had to change in some way, be it for safety or comfort, but this just seemed like madness. The powers that be in the boardroom had ripped out the guts of the club in one fell swoop. The Millwall situation was the writing on the wall for many clubs, leaving their heritage, history and character behind for the sake of…what? Millwall now have a larger stadium, for me completely lacking in atmosphere or charm and where has it got them? And this is true of many, many other clubs.

Arsenal’s Highbury was an Art Deco masterpiece situate in the middle of north London. Begun in 1931 the original Archibald Leitch stand was replaced by two almost identical stands at the east and west sides of the ground. Rather than designers Highbury was created by 1930s architects and little changed between the opening of the new stands until Arsenal left Highbury in 2006. Every wall, every, corner, nook and cranny featured some sort of Art Deco design, it’s marble halls, busts and stairways made the stadium more like a an Art Deco museum rather than a football ground. It’s tight pitch, the smallest in London, and with the fans close to the touchline, it provided an atmosphere second to none. Highbury didn’t have a dug-out. That would be too common. It had shelters, which always looked very cramped on telly and they looked more like greenhouses. But it was only the home shelter that had heating, the away shelter didn’t. Highbury even inspired a curious 1939 detective film called The Arsenal Stadium Mystery starring Leslie Banks. Filmed on location throughout Highbury, and featuring some Arsenal players of the time including manager George Allison, it tells the story of a player dropping down dead on the pitch in a match against Arsenal and the subsequent quest to find the killer after it emerges he was poisoned. Although, by all accounts, the Emirates Stadium is impressive, it could never have the style that Highbury had.

Probably the greatest football stadium ever built.

Football has gone the way of football grounds. It’s better technically, there are fewer mistakes, it’s cleaner though probably more cynical, it’s more distant, players are more skilful, and clubs are run more efficiently and clinically. Grounds are more comfortable, you can get a nice risotto or pasta dish at the kiosk, programmes are £8 and, if you really want it, you can pay for hospitality, sit in the warmth, have a three-course meal with wine and rub shoulders with captains of industry, all for a few thousand quid. That’s all fine and good, if you like that kind of thing, but I miss the roughing it, the quirky features of old fashioned grounds, the cock-ups in defence and the off-the-ball chinnings (no more of them thanks to VAR).

But if anyone wants to see grounds that still retain some unique, idiosyncratic features, it’s necessary to visit some of the lower league clubs in Scotland and England, although these are disappearing quickly. For example, Brechin City’s Glebe Park is famous for its hedge which runs along one side of the ground or the nets at Grimsby‘s Blundell Park which were donated by local fishermen. Over the next couple of years I’m planning to visit as many of the grounds I still haven’t been to and re-visit some of the ones that still retain a bit of charm. These venues are disappearing fast and will not be there for much longer. The inevitable forces of change are hovering over every old football ground like a zeppelin over Wembley.

So don’t hang about. We’re running out of time.

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

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

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

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

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

Bailey and Warhol.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The White Factory where Warhol was shot in 1968

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

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

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

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

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