THE 25-YEAR ITCH

Not that long since, I switched on the TV and BBC2 was showing a Dara O’Briain gig; it was only when the credits rolled at the end that I realised the programme was a repeat from five years previously. There was nothing visually on display to suggest it was that old; the appearance of the members of the audience and the star of the show himself implied it could have been recorded last week. I momentarily imagined it was 1981 and I was viewing a Jasper Carrott gig from 1976; the difference in the hairstyles and clothes would have been so glaring that it would have been instantly obvious this was five years old.

If we were to study photographs of street scenes taken over the last twenty years, I surmise it would probably be difficult to discern which images were oldest and which were most recent; the members of the public caught on camera wouldn’t look much different in any of them. Compare a street scene between, say, 1964 and 1974 or 1974 and 1984, however, and it would be instantly identifiable as to which decade the photos belonged in. Whenever ‘Starsky & Hutch’ was re-run in the mid-1980s, the dated dress-sense of the two lead characters marked it out from another era as much as the sleeve of the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack LP did, yet both were from less than ten years before.

Anyone who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s was given something of a false impression that popular culture was built on shifting sands, a fluid, ever-changing creature that existed in a permanent state of transition – or at least the impression given was that this would always be the case. It hadn’t been before, though. Compare (if you can) family photos from before and after the war; the men have regulation short-back-and-sides and are wearing suits on either side of the conflict; there’s little to distinguish the male figures in the images from the 30s and the 50s. With the women, there are subtle differences in their hairstyles and the height of their hemlines, but it’s not that dramatic. What would soon become ‘teenagers’ resemble Mini-Me versions of their parents; by the beginning of the 70s, it would be the parents looking to their children for tips on how to dress.

From the 60s onwards, the people mirrored the trend-setters in a way that was new. The death of haut-couture that was brought about by the likes of Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki took fashion from the exclusive houses of Paris and Rome and passed it down to the high-street – affordable for the masses because the masses had produced the trend-setters, whether Twiggy or Brian Jones. The growth of mass-media via television also brought this into living rooms and out of the pages of ‘Vogue’, no longer elite or expensive. It was social mobility’s sartorial incarnation and what had once been seen as the province of the ‘poofy’ and effeminate eventually reached defiantly masculine professions such as mining or football – all in the space of less than a decade.

From the dandified poseurs of 1968 to the scruffy hippie hobos of 1971, from the platform-heeled Glam wannabes of 1973 to the spiky-haired and safety-pinned Punks of 1977, and from the floppy-haired New Romantics of 1981 to the football hooligan sportswear chic of 1985’s Casuals, the pace of life as lived through its fashions was breathless. The soundtrack to this frenetic rummaging in the dressing-up-box was no less speedy. At the end of the 70s and into the 80s, it went from Punk, New Wave and Two-Tone to Synth-Pop in the space of around three years, with a figure such as Gary Numan acting as an effective bridge between the two decades, with one foot in both of them without really belonging to either as they have come to be retrospectively remembered. This wasn’t destined to last. It couldn’t.

The Acid House scene that went over-ground in 1988 was the grand finale of the era that had begun with the moral panic of Rock ‘n’ Roll thirty years previously. The whole Rave culture remained the cutting-edge until around 1992, when The Shamen’s chart-topping ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ signalled it was essentially over as a subversive sound, despite the controversy surrounding the single’s drug wordplay. Running parallel with the Dance dominance as the 80s gave way to the 90s was the mainstream breakthrough of Hip Hop, something that had slowly grown in influence throughout the decade. In a sartorial sense, the Hip Hop look proved to be the blueprint for the street-wear that has been the default style of youth for the last twenty-five years.

As their circulation figures plummeted in the face of online competition, the old music papers struggled to invent cults in the established traditions as the twenty-first century staggered into a cultural cul-de-sac. ‘Hoodies’ were not comparable to Mods and Rockers, as a hoodie is simply an item of clothing that can be worn by anyone under a certain age and is not tribally specific. Similarly, what is held up as an example of a contemporary cutting-edge sound such as Grime is not necessarily doing anything that the likes of So Solid Crew weren’t doing fifteen years ago. When a product-placement multi-millionaire showbiz businessman like Jay-Z is a role model (basically Victor Kiam with a break-beat) where be the Revolution?

Now that a quarter-of-a-century has passed since the last old-school youth-quake that was Acid House ended and the evidence that pop culture has entered an era of suspended animation is right there in the world outside your window with every passer-by, perhaps it’s time to admit an epoch is over and we are living in musical and sartorial stasis. The age of constant change that characterised the 50s up until the 90s now feels like an aberration in cultural terms; the world has reverted to type, a world in which every development is merely an exercise in recycling and therefore takes us round in ever-decreasing circles. For those of us who were either in the thick of it or caught the coat-tails of it, we should count ourselves lucky.

© The Editor

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HOW THE MIGHTY HAVE FALLEN

For any political anoraks, it was nice to see the brief resurrection of David Butler in a ‘Newsnight’ interview last week; the one-time analytical mainstay of the BBC’s General Election night broadcasts – the go-to man if seeking facts and figures about swings in marginal seats – was asked for his opinion on the current campaign. He reckoned the about-turn in Labour fortunes was the most surprising development he’d seen in any run-up to polling day since 1945, though he was still of the belief that the Conservatives would retain power. Last night on Channel 4 and Sky, we sadly had no David Butler and had to make to do with Jeremy Paxman.

Oh, dear. If ever the old phrase ‘never go back’ had any real relevance, it was in Paxo’s return to political interrogations after a two-year absence; he was akin to the former high-school hunk turning up to a reunion with a paunch and a bald patch, yet for a good couple of decades, Paxman was a giant, simply untouchable when it came to getting blood out of elected stones. Few MPs emerged unscathed from a Paxman grilling; he could make them squirm in a way that made other political interviews seem like scripted ego-stroking on ‘The Graham Norton Show’.

He was the natural inheritor of the mantle that had so long belonged to Robin Day, possessing the same pompous vanity yet equally capable of going for the jugular like no other interviewer when faced with such meticulously coached evasiveness. It seemed he was just as frustrated as the viewers by politicians who were incapable of giving a straight answer to a straight question and he attacked their spin-doctored defences like a battering ram pounding the walls of a besieged medieval castle. We cheered him on because he was doing it for us – our man in Westminster. When it was announced his successor as the main ‘Newsnight’ frontman would be Evan Davis, I remember thinking it was a bit like when Peter Davison succeeded Tom Baker as Doctor Who – a lightweight for a heavyweight; but now I wonder if the Davis approach isn’t preferable.

Semi-retirement making cosy Sunday evening documentaries about Victorian paintings and British waterways appears to have blunted Paxman’s once-impeccably precise interviewing instincts, and last night he was closer to a Rory Bremner impersonation of his former self. He interviewed both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn – separately, as he had with David Cameron and Ed Miliband in 2015 – and came across as someone with a vague memory of how this thing works, adopting a blustering, belligerent tone of basic rudeness without any of the subtly sneaky assassin’s nuances that had proven so effective in his heyday. I was so dismayed by his embarrassing show midway through that I actually switched over and watched ‘Coronation Street’ on ITV.

What once happened to David Frost – whose initial mercilessness when confronting crooked public figures slowly morphed into a chummy chinwag technique as a legacy of sucking-up to too many showbiz stalwarts – now seems to have happened to Paxo. The Corbyn interview was the one I saw in its entirety last night and Paxman’s refusal to allow Jezza to attempt an answer without butting in and bombarding him with another question was reminiscent of Terry Wogan’s tactics on his 80s chat-show; it was as though all those years of anticipating evasiveness on ‘Newsnight’ meant he can no longer ask a question without expecting a non-answer and doesn’t even give the politician the opportunity to be evasive – yet enabling them to be evasive had always presented Paxman with his trump card in the past.

What this approach inadvertently did was to make the viewers side with Corbyn, and for Jezza this was something of a life-saver, as I wasn’t very impressed by his performance when he took questions from the audience; he appeared unexpectedly nervous in the way David Cameron had during the first leaders’ debate of 2010. After Labour’s surge in the polls following Team Theresa’s humiliating U-turn on a key manifesto pledge, Jezza seemed taken aback by the swift decimation of the Tory lead, as if he didn’t quite know what to do with his sudden advantage. However, once he sat down for a Paxo grilling, Corbyn was far more relaxed and his demeanour when faced with someone who had the air of an angry old man still coming to terms with decimalisation was one guaranteed to win the audience’s sympathy.

I suppose it made sense to employ somebody with such an impressive track record to handle the interview segment of the programme, and who has more of an impressive track record over the last couple of decades than Paxman? But there’s a clear division between mocking students on ‘University Challenge’ as they struggle with questions Paxman himself has the answers to printed on a card in front of him and giving the country’s two main political leaders the kind of interview the public wants to see when both have chickened out of sharing the podium with each other. We didn’t get that last night. Maybe they should have hired Andrew Neil to do it instead.

© The Editor

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GONE WITH NOAKES

Before hyperactive twenty-somethings, uncles used to be the model – lacking the stern authority of father-figures, managing to earn respect with lingering juvenile slapstick silliness; when I was the child watching, uncles were everywhere. Derek Griffiths and Brian Cant on ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’; Tony Hart on ‘Vision On’; Johnny Morris on ‘Animal Magic’; Roy Castle on ‘Record Breakers’; yes…Rolf Harris; and then there were John Noakes and Peter Purves on ‘Blue Peter’. With the news that Noakes has passed away at the age of 83, having mercifully evaded the pernicious net of malicious revisionism that hangs over his television era, those of my generation cannot help but recall how much he meant to us at the time.

John Noakes joined ‘Blue Peter’ as a very young-looking 30-year-old when his far-from spectacular acting career was floundering. Becoming the third member of the team in 1965, he was quite unlike anyone to have appeared on children’s TV previously. Christopher Trace and Valerie Singleton were very much in a 50s parental mould – RP-speaking, frightfully middle-class and sensible; they represented the norm. Noakes was Northern and didn’t hide his Yorkshire accent, for one thing; and he never talked down to the audience, communicating with them in their own language. It never looked as if Noakes’ mother took a comb to his hair, so he was definitely ‘one of us’.

John Noakes was also child-like in his anarchic recklessness, quickly earning a reputation as something of an amateur daredevil that saw him put in situations that would today provoke a cardiac arrest in most Health and Safety Officers. He climbed up one of the chimneys at Fulham Power Station, up Nelson’s Column, up the mast 127 feet above the deck of HMS Ganges; he skydived with the RAF; and had a lucky escape when tobogganing at 90mph. There was a fearlessness to him that seemed to echo the tree-climbing zest for life his core viewing public were encouraged to believe they would one day grow out of. He clearly hadn’t grown out of it, so there was hope for all of us.

It later emerged that Noakes’ popularity with the young audience was something of an irritant to his on-screen sidekick Peter Purves. Not that the two men didn’t get on – far from it; but it seems Purves resented having to play ‘the straight man’ to Noakes’ comedy character; perhaps that’s why Purves went for the cool dude look, straight out of Carnaby Street. It was then up to Valerie Singleton to play the responsible parent to an unruly rascal and a coiffured dandy, keeping the boys in order. Singleton was the studio representative of the show’s backstage editor Biddy Baxter, whose strict headmistress persona often clashed with Noakes’ instinctive rebel. But the off-screen tensions benefitted the programme, as Noakes became (and remains) the longest-serving presenter in its history, clocking-in at 12 years 6 months.

One of the more ingenious ideas ‘Blue Peter’ came up with was to introduce dogs and cats as surrogate pets for those children watching whose parents wouldn’t allow them to keep either (me included). It was also an astute move in that animals are one of the best ways in for children to learn about the cycle of life in that they die after a few short years. Petra and Jason were the original dog and cat members of the line-up and when the series decided to keep one of Petra’s puppies Patch as the second canine star of the show, Noakes was entrusted to look after him. The first lesson of the life cycle came for ‘Blue Peter’ viewers in 1971 when Patch suddenly died after catching a rare disease during location filming. A few months later, his replacement appeared and a legendary double-act was born in the process, John Noakes and Shep.

The Border collie appeared to be the perfect best friend for a man like John Noakes; he was just as silly and loveable as Noakes himself. In fact, the two were so inseparable that they even gained their own spin-off series, ‘Go with Noakes’, in which John and Shep went on their travels around the country, usually indulging in the more energetic rural pursuits. By the mid-70s, John Noakes was one of the most famous faces on British television and it was all-but impossible to imagine ‘Blue Peter’ without him. However, that moment came in June 1978, barely three months after Peter Purves had also walked; for the children watching, both ‘Blue Peter’ and children’s television would never be quite the same again.

The clash between Noakes and Biddy Baxter wasn’t eased by his departure; although Shep was technically ‘BBC property’, Noakes was told he could take Shep with him when he left the programme as long as he didn’t capitalise on their celebrity by advertising products on ITV. Noakes agreed and then promptly did a dog food commercial with a Shep lookalike, infuriating Baxter. The ill-feeling lasted a long time, with Noakes refusing to participate in any of the programme’s anniversary reunions until Baxter had herself retired. The feud was a shame in that both contributed hugely to the success of the show and made it one of the jewels in the BBC’s children’s crown during a genuine golden age.

In the years after his ‘Blue Peter’ career ended, Noakes appeared occasionally on TV, presenting a regional series called ‘Country Calendar’ for Yorkshire Television in the early 80s and then largely popping up as a guest blast from the past here and there. His public bitterness about his ‘Blue Peter’ years was, to those of us for whom he was a hero, a bit like finding out your dad had been having an affair throughout his marriage to your mum. It sours the memory a little, but can’t take away the warmth that memory continues to generate. Patch and Shep were my dogs, Jason was my cat, and John Noakes was my daft uncle. Just as they all were to everyone else my age. RIP.

© The Editor

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THE ANNIVERSARY WALTZER

With one especially grim event dominating the headlines at the expense of everything else this week (an event that has already been covered in three out of the last four posts), I am actively seeking alternative subjects to lift the spirits a little and serve as a necessary distraction. A good anniversary ordinarily suffices, so why not? Long-term readers may recall a post from last summer in which I marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’, so it seems only fitting I should follow suit with the half-century of that landmark LP’s sequel. The actual anniversary fell yesterday (May 26), but what’s in a day? And what can I add to all the endless column inches that have been written about ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’? Well, I’ll give it my best shot.

As I was born the year the album was released, I am of the generation that grew up in its shadow; as a tiny tot watching Slade and Sweet on ‘Top of the Pops’, this curious, rather quaint relic of another era resting in my parents’ LP collection hardly seemed relevant and yet it remained the yardstick by which innovative pop music was measured throughout the 1970s – or at least until a new generation temporarily usurped the reverential millstone it seemed to have become around the necks of anyone seeking to take pop forward with the same hunger The Beatles themselves had achieved a decade earlier.

It was hard for an eleven-year-old viewing ‘Are Friends Electric?’ on TOTP and rightly seeing it as the defining cutting-edge sound of the fast-moving moment to appreciate the impact of ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ on the listening public twelve years previously. It seemed to have no bearing on what I was hearing. After all, I had been raised in a pop culture in which there were clear demarcation lines – Serious Rock ala Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis in the album charts/Pop ala Abba, 10cc and ELO in the singles charts; it mattered not that both camps were capable of matching the other when it came to their respective musical merits; the way the divisions were sold to the record-buying public was a direct result of the late 60s split ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ indirectly led to.

Earlier in the same year that ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ was released, the last pop package tour of any real note took place; coming to a theatre near you for the princely sum of a few shillings, it was possible to see a bill featuring The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Move – and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. If it seems an inconceivable line-up now, it began to dawn on those who attended the tour that it was pretty inconceivable even then. But it’s not hard to see why some enterprising promoter put the bill together. There was no ‘Rock Circuit’ then and no festival schedule of the kind we take for granted today.

The Beatles, The Stones and everyone who had made a mark in the mid-60s had all trod the boards with multiple showbiz crooners on such packages; that was the way things had been done since Rock ‘n’ Roll had been imported into the UK in the mid-50s. It was only when it became obvious that very different audiences were buying records that had all been labelled ‘Pop’ that the error of the promoter’s ways became apparent.

As late as 1968, in the BBC TV presentation of Cream’s farewell concert at the Albert Hall, the band are constantly referred to by the narrator throughout as ‘Pop’. ‘Rock’ as a term that drew a distinction between King Crimson and Clodagh Rodgers appears to have come in shortly afterwards. But the release of ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ on the eve of ‘The Summer of Love’ marked the beginning of this division; the breadth of ambition and refusal to be constricted by what could and couldn’t be done saw the Fab Four blur boundaries and serve 1967 up in one all-encompassing Psychedelic soufflé. There was so much to choose from on there that other artists took separate snippets from it that they could build careers around without needing to acknowledge what they didn’t get.

For everyone who enjoyed ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ or ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, there were just as many who opted for ‘Within You, Without You’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. After ‘Sgt Pepper’s’, few attempted to present such a wide canvas again. Sub-genres abounded in its wake and there was no unifying force drawing all those disparate elements together once John, Paul, George and Ringo had abdicated.

The effective ‘trailer’ for what The Beatles had up their sleeves had come at the beginning of 1967 when, amidst rumours that their retirement from the stage meant they were finished, they released the double A-sided single, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’. The initial idea for a concept album on the theme of childhood that these two tracks were the intended starting pistol for meant they never made it to ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ when the concept was abandoned. McCartney’s breezy, optimistic ode to a nondescript Liverpool street possessed the same uplifting suburban sing-a-long spirit as The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ from the year before, whereas Lennon’s dreamy, druggy, surrealistic reimagining of a childhood haunt adhered to no previous formula on 45. It was telling the single was kept from the top spot by Engelbert’s ‘Release Me’; but as a taster for what was to come, it suggested The Beatles were far from finished.

When the long-awaited follow-up to ‘Revolver’ hit the record racks at the end of May 1967, it seems ridiculous now that the gap between the two albums was less than ten months; but the industry as it had been up to that point demanded two LPs a year and perhaps three or four stand-alone singles in addition. The Beatles yet again refused to bow to convention; they didn’t need to; they were imbued with such confidence and, yes, arrogance, that they could do whatever the hell they liked. The sleeve of the album, so instantly recognisable that it has been parodied more times than I care to mention, reflected this attitude; as did the fact they printed the lyrics on the back of it and that they didn’t release any of its songs as singles. They didn’t need to. The album sold as many copies as any single would have and in turn transformed the LP into what would become the premier art form of the next decade.

What’s easy to forget in the glut of anniversary waffle that will no doubt swamp the media over the next week or so is that this was a record release categorised as ‘Pop’ that was produced by four young men, none of whom were yet thirty, and yet was as adventurous a recording as any emanating from fields the critics had previously praised, such as Avant-Garde Classical or Jazz. It demonstrated Pop could outdo any other genre, however fragmented Pop itself would soon become as a result of the dazzling variety The Beatles were offering.

In an age when the Tin Pan Alley sensibilities The Beatles helped overthrow have been reinstated with little in the way of resistance, it’s somewhat sad to realise that half-a-century ago, the Svengali had been shown the door and the creative lunatics had taken over the musical asylum. To be an inmate there remains preferable to Care in Cowell’s Community.

© The Editor

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KORAN ABOUT THE HOUSE

I’ve never been in a mosque, but I’ve never been in a synagogue either. Although I was raised in a secular household, I am familiar with one branch of the House of God on account of having to attend endless childhood weddings and christenings; these were churches of the austere Protestant variety, however, rather than the camp Catholic model. I’ve no idea if the ambience is as chilly and, frankly, boring in the showrooms of other denominations, but with all my C-of-E education coming via the dullest lessons at school, I think my agnostic outlook was sealed from an early age. Drawing a picture of Pinky and Perky at the Crucifixion in the infants was probably a telling indication that I recognised a fairy tale when I heard one.

On last night’s edition of ‘Question Time’, a member of the audience brandished a leaflet he swore blind he’d been handed at an open day at Didsbury Mosque, at which the father of Salman Ramadan Abedi, the Manchester bomber, was once a regular. What he read from the leaflet sounded like classic Radical Islamic propaganda, denouncing western immorality in a language that implied such immorality was deserving of severe punishment. A veteran of the same mosque sitting a few rows down denied he could have received such literature at Didsbury, but the man was adamant.

The general impression given is that there does seem to be something of an ‘It weren’t me, guv; I weren’t even there’ culture prevailing through many of the mosques that have harboured the hate preachers and fundamentalist shit-stirrers in the UK over recent years. Either nobody saw or heard anything or their eyes turned blind through choice; however, not knowing the interior structure of mosques, I’ve no idea if the guilty parties retreat into special recruitment rooms. But the climate of fear when it comes to informing in many Muslim communities seems almost reminiscent of Sicily or even Belfast during the Troubles; events in Rotherham and Rochdale appear to back up this Mafia-like control the worst offenders have over the populace and why the police steer clear.

Then again, it has emerged that Salman Ramadan Abedi’s extremist views and support for ISIS had aroused enough suspicion within his own community that he had been reported to an anti-terrorism hotline, something I imagine would put those who reported him at considerable risk should they be identified. As a result of these calls, Abedi was known to the security services; but police manpower being deployed to keep an eye on potential Jihadists would severely stretch the police manpower required for historic fishing parties into the sex lives of dead celebrities and politicians, so it’s no wonder the likes of Salman Ramadan Abedi could further his ambitions free from surveillance. Many police officers may have been laid off in the wake of Government cuts to the country’s forces, but deciding the priorities for those that remain is something the police themselves have to answer for.

The internet has also resurfaced in the blame game this week. Online outlets such as Facebook and Twitter certainly operate on curious moral grounds. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine had her FB account suspended after posting a photo of herself holding a Supertramp LP over her chest; the sleeve of said album featured nothing but a pair of tits on it. Similarly, the entertaining Twitter ‘Whores of Yore’ account initially had a profile pic which was a portrait of Nell Gwyn showing a nipple; the painting hangs in the National Gallery for all age-groups to see, but was evidently too outrageous for cyberspace, and the offending nipple had to be removed for the account to continue. On the other hand, Facebook and Twitter don’t appear to have similar problems with inflammatory language or violent videos promoting opinions that somewhat contradict the Utopian New Age worldview shared by Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow visionaries.

So, yes, mosques and websites have been under the spotlight yet again this week, though few have mentioned HM prisons, which seem to be the real recruitment centres when it comes to home-grown terrorists. The escalating convictions for those planning terrorist attacks since 7/7 means many prisons have a far higher Muslim population today than has been the case in the past, and the brutally alienating regime behind bars means birds of a feather naturally flock together.

A young Muslim prisoner who may be serving a sentence that has no Radical Islamic element to it is befriended by another Muslim prisoner who recommends one way to stay safe from the psychos, the druggies and those who take a shine to a pretty face is to spend his time exclusively with other Muslim prisoners. Segregation and indoctrination ensue, and said prisoner is released with a head pumped full of Paradise and those oh-so alluring virgins.

Armed police and even bloody soldiers – both of whom have had their numbers severely depleted by the same Government that now requires their services to enhance ‘Project Fear’ for the public – are currently highly visible on the streets of Britain; but they’re guarding the stable door when the proverbial horse has already bolted. No wannabe Jihadist would contemplate an ‘incident’ when there’s such a show of force; better to strike when nobody is looking. No matter how heavy an armed presence Bobby and Tommy present this weekend, the only strike I expect to see at Wembley tomorrow will emanate from the foot of Diego Costa.

© The Editor

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BACK TO THE TEACHER

Okay, so it’s been a bloody grim week so far, and as a means of combating the worst elements of the twenty-first century, I’ve been retreating into the selective embrace of the past in the shape of programmes for schools and colleges produced in the 1970s. Thanks to YouTube, over the last 48 hours I’ve sat through 40-odd year-old editions of ‘Look and Read’, ‘Words and Pictures’, ‘How We Used to Live’ et al. If I dip into my desk drawer and pull out a copy of the Radio Times from the same era (the copy in question dated 31 August-6 September 1974), the centre pages provide the most striking contrast between television then and television now, for they contain a four-page guide to that autumn’s educational schedule across BBC TV and radio.

And the variety on offer in this schedule is all the more eye-opening because these series are all primarily aimed at adults; there isn’t even room for cataloguing the myriad of programmes produced for schools during this period. Got kids? Watch ‘Parents and Children’ on BBC1; like football? Listen to ‘Behind the Goals’ on Radio 3; just qualified as a social-worker? Watch ‘Developments in Social Work’ on BBC2; interested in ‘news-making, decision-making and forms of loyalty’? Watch ‘Focus’ on BBC1 – and that’s not the flute-based, yodelling Dutch prog-rock band, despite ‘House of the King’ being used as the theme tune to numerous educational programmes in the 1970s.

You can learn to speak German, Spanish, Russian and Welsh, learn to become a mountaineer, rugby player and gardener, learn how to understand economics, the National Health and local government, not to mention ‘systematic thinking in action’! Arts, sciences, languages, the community, home and leisure, work and industry, teaching – all fall under the umbrella of public service broadcasting in 1974. Despite his reservations over the one-eyed monster, no doubt Lord Reith would have been proud his original remit remained relatively intact.

Today, what used to be viewed as television down-time is filled during the day with cheap and cheerful antiques/cookery/house-buying and selling/quiz show formulas and late at night with rolling news, interactive game shows and repeats of daytime fodder with a man in the corner of the screen aptly gesticulating his way through ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’. In retrospect, it’s amazing how a TV landscape that switched-off around midnight seemed to cram more into its limited broadcasting hours than one that never sleeps. The adult education programmes described above could usually be found hidden away last thing at night or presented together in a large chunk on a Sunday morning, sandwiched between a religious service and farming news; space in the listings may have been at a precious premium, but the schedulers always found a space to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Then of course, there were the twilight hours that were occupied by hirsute men in spectacles with little or no evident experience in front of a camera – the Open University. Who could forget that eerie, unnerving jingle jolting the armchair snoozer back to life far more effectively than a car alarm would do today? And who could forget programmes for schools and colleges? For anyone who was of school age in the 60s, 70s or 80s, they were amongst the few breathers from the classroom tedium on offer. What a ritual that was, being ushered into the library and watching the teacher wheel-in a huge telly, waiting for what felt like an aeon for the machine to warm-up, and then being greeted by some unsettling Radiophonic Workshop ditty accompanying a pulsating diamond or a circle of disappearing dots before the actual programme began.

It’s worth bearing in mind just how many hours were given over to schools broadcasts as well. An average BBC1 week during term-time would begin around 9.38am and would sign-off not long after midday; following a dinner-break for the test card, the news, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ and ‘Watch with Mother’, schools TV would open its gates again for another hour or so at the precise time of 2.2pm. That’s not even including BBC schools broadcasts on the radio, when the VHF wavelength on Radio 4 would be used exclusively for them between 10.00 in the morning and 3.00 in the afternoon.

We should also remember that ITV – yes! ITV! – played its part in the television education of the nation’s children as well. Even though commercial considerations freed them from a less rigid public service commitment than the Beeb, their weekday schedule ran from 9.30-12.00 and produced some of the most memorable schools programmes of them all. There was even an advertising armistice during these transmissions.

Calculate just how much of pre-24 hour TV on both sides of the British broadcasting divide was given over to educational programming and it’d be pretty impressive. It’s indisputable that many were cheaply-made on shoestring budgets, especially the Open University broadcasts; and some were uniquely dull in a manner that elevated visual boredom to a level that now seems quite radical, on a par with the worst Warhol movies or a contemporary art installation But I’d still be more bored sitting through an edition of ‘This Morning’ than an episode of Granada’s austere schools science show, ‘Experiment’.

Noble ventures are not something one would now really associate with British television. Most 21st century TV execs would probably regard ‘Comic Relief’ or ‘Children in Need’ as such, and in their own way, they are. But annual or bi-annual telethons, when the normal schedule is set aside for one night only to accommodate a good deed, are different to the noble venture that was educational television. It was a product of a period in which the people who ran television regarded it as a tool of communication that amounted to more than a ratings-chasing commercial cash-cow or a daytime sedative. Much like the internet is today, TV then was viewed as a multi-purpose medium capable of all that life can afford.

So, where did it go? Firstly, the advent of the VCR hailed the death-knell of schools programming in its traditional slot; secondly, in the mid-80s BBC TV schools programmes were shunted over to BBC2 in preparation for the launch of daytime BBC1 and the arrival of cosy sofa chinwags about child abuse and the menstrual cycle. Not long after, ITV transferred their schools schedule to Channel 4 in order that Richard and Judy could do likewise, paving the way for menopausal gobshites and underclass-baiting bullies. It is ironic that a slot once reserved for mind-expansion is now reserved for the gradual erosion of the brain cells, and after-dark telly today is no less retarded. It does seem a shame that the increase in broadcasting hours doesn’t seem capable of embracing the same breadth of broadcasting available when less was more.

© The Editor

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VIRTUOUS SIGNALLING AND OTHER CONSPIRACIES

There’s an uncannily accurate episode of ‘Steptoe and Son’ in which one of Albert’s aged siblings snuffs it and the extended Steptoe family gather like ghouls to see which of the deceased’s possessions they can get their hands on. Each is arguing that they’re more deserving of recognition in the last will and testament than the other as they took more time out to wait upon the deathbed beforehand. We’ve all been there and we’ve all seen how such occasions can bring out the worst in people; but there’s no denying that many present at these events really enjoy a good funeral, especially when they’re getting on and the options for funerals re family and friends increase. For some, it’s the highlight of their diminishing social calendar.

I only bring this up in that I was reminded of it when trawling through social media yesterday, with Facebook in particular clogged-up with glib virtue signalling as FB folk fell over each other to see who could shout the loudest as to how much they cared about what had happened in Manchester. One could be generous and say that this is the only method of expressing sympathy for those who have never known a time without the medium, although most of the posts I saw were from people not much younger than me; equally, one could say it serves a purpose in stating the bleedin’ obvious for an echo-chamber audience that otherwise have no other means of agreeing that Manchester was a pretty bloody horrible tragedy, end of.

But whatever genuine feelings of sorrow in some cases provoke the need to advertise one’s upset, it was hard to escape the feeling that many were doing what was expected of them, living by the unwritten rules of Facebook etiquette whenever a good terrorist incident occurs; and I couldn’t help come to the conclusion that a vast amount of FB members love a good terrorist incident. As long as there’s a hash-tag attached, the opportunities to promote one’s empathy and humanity are abundant.

Slogans of solidarity with Manchester; FB profile pictures redesigned to demonstrate this solidarity – even though (unlike Paris 2015) few incorporated the national flag into the imagery (bit racist, perhaps?); endless token ‘our thoughts go out to…’ posts; a few ‘Bring back our girls’-type photos of DIY placards being held aloft, which must come as comfort to those who lost loved ones at the Arena; and a discernible sigh of relief that something major and horrible had happened that gave the Facebook army the chance to relive the Diana hysteria yet again, hi-jacking the grief of the people who were actually bereaved. The excess of wallowing in it all I found quite nauseating, though even this was superseded by some suggestions by the most pathetically paranoid Corbynistas that the whole event was somehow timed to derail the upsurge in Labour support that had occurred in the days leading up to it. Give me strength.

No better, however, was the behaviour of Fleet Street’s finest, with tales of the Telegraph ruthlessly pursuing the sibling of someone killed in Manchester; the lines from Elvis Costello’s peerless ‘Pills and Soap’ sprang to mind – ‘They talked to the sister/the father and the mother/with a microphone in one hand/and a chequebook in the other/and the camera noses in to the tears on her face.’ Pretty reprehensible, though we don’t expect anything else from the press, even if it wasn’t from the tabloid end of the market this time round. And as for the boringly obvious Katie Hopkins on Twitter – yes, dear; we know you’re a professional contrarian by now, so stop being so bloody predictable.

Not great timing in terms of receiving the kind of coverage one would expect, but the death of Sir Roger Moore coming when it did provided an interesting contrast with social media’s response to events in Manchester. I feel compelled to comment on his passing because he was somebody I knew of from an early age, someone I watched in ‘The Saint’ and ‘The Persuaders’ as a small child, and someone whose seven films as 007 spanned the mid-70s to the mid-80s, still the longest run of any Bond. The last three movies might not be up to much, but the first four remain amongst the most entertaining outings for a character the likes of which the nation could do with for real right now.

I never met Roger Moore in person, but as with many of the personalities we encounter on the big or small screen, he played a minor albeit enjoyable part in my life via his career as an actor whose action man roles were always served-up in an arch dressing; he never took himself too seriously and he acknowledged the ludicrousness of James Bond by sending him up as his run in the part was extended. His Bond movies might be too tongue-in-cheek for some, but they’re a hell of a lot more fun than any starring Daniel Craig.

Anyone who never met Roger Moore in person, but who spent ninety minutes in his company when he was doing his job, is understandably prompted to express sadness at his death or comment upon it online. It’s a natural reaction when a public figure we were fond of dies; they may remind us of childhood or a happy period of our lives; if they’re a musician, we might associate one of their songs with a cherished moment that hearing a snatch of the key melody again might briefly return us to if only in mind rather than body. However, when it comes to multiple deaths of people we’d never heard of while they were alive, whose contribution to our lives wasn’t even of a minor nature, who cares what we think?

‘Our thoughts go out to…’ may indicate one is ‘on side’ and part of a virtual community that cares, but it means f**k all to those who have suffered as a result of what happened in Manchester. The mass craving for mourning that now has a vintage of 20 years has been expanded by social media to the point whereby one wonders how its most vocal and visible proponents would cope if they themselves experienced personal bereavement. One wouldn’t wish that on anybody, but the difference between mourning for someone you never knew and someone you did is vast; until that happens, on they’ll go, endlessly recycling long-distance grief in a circle of vicarious cyberspace sharing, too preoccupied with narcissistic point-scoring to notice soldiers taking up permanent positions on the street in the transformation of Britain from elected democracy to armed camp.

© The Editor

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THE BALLROOM BLITZ

There are post-war precedents, though to be fair, mercifully not many. The highest number of fatalities during the brutal IRA mainland bombing campaign in the 1970s was the 21 killed in the Birmingham Pub Bombings of November 1974; this atrocity was topped by the 7/7 attacks in 2005, which claimed 52 lives – the highest number of fatalities on British soil since the Second World War. Now, added to the litany of mass murders in peacetime Britain is last night’s explosion at the Manchester Arena. As I started writing this around an hour after first hearing about it, 19 deaths had been reported; coming back to finish it off after a kip, the body-count had risen to 22. Echoes of the massacre that occurred in Paris in November 2015 are inevitable, coming as it did at a music venue packed with thousands seeking an entertaining night out.

During the ‘War on Terror’ we seem to have been living through ever since 9/11, Blighty has been fortunate in that incidents of this nature have been relatively minor, largely restricted to a small handful of deaths caused by amateur Jihadists lacking the ammunition to do damage on a large scale. The 7/7 bombings were unique in the level of their co-ordination and execution, but nothing comparable in terms of fatalities had been seen in over a decade until yesterday. Whether that suggests this country’s security forces are better at their jobs than their continental equivalents or that multicultural integration has been achieved with a greater success here than in any mainland European nation is open to debate. However, neither proposal prevented what happened in Manchester.

As I’m neither a 12-year-old girl nor the father of a 12-year-old daughter, I confess I’d never heard the name Ariana Grande until news of events at the US singer’s Manchester gig broke; I suppose that name will now be immortalised in the worst manner imaginable, forever associated with an incident that she herself had no hand in. From what I can gather, she sounds the type of production-line pop star that US showbiz specialises in, the kind of Miley Cyrus marionette that attracts young teenage girls to her shows, many of whom (it would seem) are amongst the dead in Manchester.

I suppose for some present the concert would have been their introduction to the live music experience and most will have been chaperoned there by a parent. For the same age group flocking to scream at The Osmonds or David Cassidy 45 years ago, the biggest worry would have been the possibility of being crushed at the front of the stage. Nobody back then envisaged this kind of horrific outcome when attending something as frivolous as a pop concert.

The suicide bomber, whilst a popular employment option in the Middle East, is an industry that has never really caught on in a big way outside of Islamic war-zones. It could be that job satisfaction resting upon the likelihood of death serves as a bit of a deterrent, despite the Paradise pension scheme and its appealing clause concerning available virgins. The suicide bomber business has done its best to establish European branches via online salesmen, though the UK’s response has mostly consisted of recruits travelling abroad as the brickies did in ‘Auf Wiedersehen Pet’ rather than working from home. The 7/7 bombers were the exception rather than the rule here, which is why the fact that the incident at the Manchester Arena being triggered by a deranged individual wearing the latest Middle Eastern explosive ensemble is such a shock.

From what is known so far, the suicide bomber pressed the detonator in the foyer of the Arena just as the audience was beginning to leave the concert; his presence as the cause of the chaos was backed-up by eyewitness reports of nuts and bolts scattered across the area and the unmistakable odour of explosives in the air. It’s possible he was operating alone, though the suspicion that he may be a member of a network whose other members may well be plotting a similar operation hasn’t been ruled out. Unlike 7/7, the majority of these incidents in the UK – whether the murder of Lee Rigby or recent events on Westminster Bridge – have been the handiwork of individuals as opposed to a team; this particular incident would have required considerable planning, though that doesn’t necessarily mean one wannabe Kamikaze couldn’t have done it on his own.

When one thinks of the large-scale public events that have taken place in this country since 2005 – Royal Weddings, Jubilees, the 2012 London Olympics – the fact they’ve passed by without any contribution from the suicide bomber sector could be viewed as a triumph over such nihilistic interventions. But perhaps these events were a tad too obvious, attracting an intense police presence and security service planning months in advance; a pop concert by a singer in Manchester that few over 30 have even heard of, on the other hand – well, who would have expected that? The element of surprise appears to be an essential aspect of this kind of project.

The General Election campaign has been temporarily suspended, flags are flying at half-mast, the TV news channels are replaying the same images and reporting the same stories on a loop again, social media is awash with virtue signalling, and world leaders have issued their commiserations and condemnations; the pick of the latter was undoubtedly Donald Trump’s description of the perpetrator in the plural as ‘evil losers’. And that’s about it at the moment; not a lot else to add other than it’s shit innit.

© The Editor

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A HARE’S BREADTH

Gerald Kaufman’s recent death may have necessitated a by-election that the unexpected announcement of a General Election has now negated, but the late Labour MP’s oft-quoted description of his party’s 1983 manifesto under Michael Foot as ‘the longest suicide note in history’ has resurfaced yet again just a few months after Kaufman’s passing, revived as the right’s response to the 2017 Labour manifesto, ‘mysteriously’ leaked a week in advance, which gave both the Conservative Party and its Fleet Street mouthpieces time to rip it to shreds and implant the requisite doubt in the minds of floating voters.

The interesting aspect of this predictable reaction, however, is that – unlike 1983 – any negativity on the part of the electorate towards Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas stems less from the proposed policies offered in the manifesto and more their professed dislike or distrust of Jezza himself – or at least the motley crew surrounding him. Few members of the public when asked have actually dismissed the policies as either undesirable or unenforceable. Indeed, many of those policies seem to be engineered to capitalise on the general apathy towards mainstream politics and the detested bedfellows of the mainstream that last year’s EU Referendum exposed. On paper, all the right targets are highlighted and there’s a lot in there that seems surprisingly sensible, only ‘radical’ in the sense that it doesn’t compromise and make allowances in ways we’ve become accustomed.

In contrast to Labour’s proposals, ‘Team Theresa’ are so overconfident re the foregone conclusion of a Tory triumph on June 8 that the Conservative manifesto seems rooted in the belief that it doesn’t matter however unpopular the policies proposed are, for a win is guaranteed. The Tories could propose the decriminalisation of slavery or the legalisation of paedophilia and they’d still be convinced of a landslide. Alienating significant swathes of the electorate, whether mothers whose children are entitled to free school meals, elderly home-owners, the young unemployed or supporters of the fox-hunting ban doesn’t appear to matter to them. Theresa May just keeps on turning the conversation away from domestic issues and back towards Brexit in the hope that will suffice.

Theresa May’s unassailable conviction that her Strong and Stable personality is enough to swing it for the Tories has seen her party’s Election literature dominated by the leader, whereas with Labour it’s the local candidate who has been emphasised at the expense of their leader. The PM evidently regards the Presidential battle as the way to go and she reckons when it comes down to her and Jezza, there’s no contest. An episode of ‘The Thick of It’ in which opposition spin-doctor guru Stewart Pearson declares his party needs to appeal to ‘One Show Man’ seems – as with so many elements of that series – uncannily prescient following May’s PR exercise sharing a sofa alongside hubby the other week.

If it comes to personality, however, Corbyn has the edge in terms of campaigning; Jezza is in his element when addressing a crowd, permanently on the road, whereas ‘his opponent’ prefers the occasional appearance on the small screen – as long as she’s directing events, of course. At the moment, May is acting like a reclusive rock star in a Kate Bush vein, whose first album in years requires little or no self-promotion to ensure it will shoot straight to the top of the charts on the strength of an impressive track record of groundbreaking and innovative efforts decades before. This attitude is founded on a remarkably high opinion of herself as a politician; considering her six years at the Home Office saw her constantly fail to achieve her aims to reduce immigration numbers to the figures she specified, not to mention the relatively low profile she’s cultivated ever since promotion to No.10, one wonders where this high opinion comes from. Her career in public office is hardly a Strong and Stable basis for such conceit.

It does seem strange or perhaps simply symptomatic of the Tories’ arrogance that they can take their traditional pensioner vote and disregard it with their plans for social care, or the so-called ‘Dementia Tax’; this appears to be a bizarre miscalculation on the part of the PM, especially considering the huge proportion of over-50s who actually drag themselves to the nearest polling station to vote Tory when compared to the teenyboppers who constitute Jezza’s cult following. Surely it makes sense from a Conservative perspective to court the blue-rinse brigade that has proven to be the party’s strength-in-depth at the ballot box in recent years? Apparently not. And now the polls are telling us the previously-astronomical lead the Tories had over Labour has considerably narrowed; according to the Sunday Times, the gap between the two is currently down to just nine points – and this despite the usual reliance on ‘Project Fear’ tactics whenever a Conservative Government seeks to prevent a Labour Government.

Wobbles are not uncommon during a General Election campaign, especially when a party has gone into it so far ahead of its main opponent that confidence can easily become complacency. Whilst it still appears that a Conservative victory is the most likely outcome, Theresa May is taking a hell of a lot for granted at the moment, and dispatching senior Cabinet Ministers to take the flack on the airwaves while keeping her own head down does raise the question as to which party has penned this Election’s suicide note.

© The Editor

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MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE STATES…

There was an abundance of memorable moments during the Watergate scandal, but none managed to condense as much drama into such a short space of time as the so-called ‘Saturday Night Massacre’, which occurred on October 20 1973. The reputation of Nixon’s administration had suffered additional embarrassment ten days earlier with the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew whilst he faced charges of tax evasion unrelated to Watergate; but when the President ordered the Attorney General Eliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the man Richardson had appointed as an independent special prosecutor to investigate the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party offices in Washington’s Watergate building, the Attorney General refused to do so.

As part of his investigations, Cox had issued a subpoena to Nixon that ordered the surrender of taped conversations between the President and his aides recorded in the Oval Office; Nixon had refused in recognition of the threat Cox posed to his story of events. By ordering his Attorney General to dismiss Cox, the President assumed the problem would be solved; he hadn’t anticipated Eliot Richardson would refuse the order and then resign in protest. Nixon’s response was to demand Richardson’s deputy William Ruckelshaus do the deed instead; Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned.

Desperate to save face, Nixon initially claimed Ruckelshaus had been sacked and turned to Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire Cox; Bork did so after being sworn-in as acting Attorney General, though the whole unedifying affair served to finally turn public opinion against Nixon. An NBC poll a week after the Saturday Night Massacre showed a plurality of Americans supported the impeachment of the President for the first time, even though it took another nine months before the House Judiciary Committee approved its first article of impeachment; and Nixon resigned before the process could even begin.

What an excitable US TV news presenter referred to as the biggest constitutional crisis in the history of the nation as the Saturday Night Massacre unfolded has had echoes in the past couple of eventful weeks in Washington. The main difference between 2017 and 1973 is that Nixon’s credibility began to disintegrate when he had already served one full term in office and had retained power on the back of a landslide victory. As for the Donald, it’s only four months since he took the oath of office for the first time and there seems to have been enough constitutional crises to make Richard Nixon’s spell as President seem like an uneventful and rather dull period of American history.

The dismissal of FBI Director James Comey on May 9 certainly revived memories of the Saturday Night Massacre for those either old enough to remember it or those who have read about it since. Comey’s termination came in the wake of the FBI investigation into the Hillary Clinton email affair as well as the organisation’s conviction that Russia interfered in Trump’s election campaign. Subsequent revelations that Trump had shared classified information with the Russian Ambassador and Russian Foreign Minister during a recent visit to the White House have done little to dispel the lingering belief of Russian involvement in the Donald’s rise to power. Comey has claimed the President asked him to cease investigations into the short-lived National Security Adviser Michael T Flynn’s Russian connections, something Trump has naturally refuted.

Lyndon Johnson’s opinion of the FBI’s fearsome first Director J Edgar Hoover, that it was ‘better have him inside the tent pissing out than have him outside pissing in’, suggests simply sacking James Comey might not be the end of the affair for Trump. Despite the President’s intervention in Syria not exactly easing US relations with the Kremlin, the Russian issue won’t go away. The appointment of a special counsel in the shape of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to continue the investigation hasn’t necessarily met with Trump’s approval, with the President referring to the ongoing efforts to establish a direct connection between him and Russia as a witch-hunt. Mind you, Trump’s tiresome whinging about the media and how everyone is against him is only unprecedented on his side of the Atlantic; he’s more than matched over here by the most frothing-at-the-mouth Corbynistas and their incurable persecution complex.

Trump has already taken his ‘You’re fired’ catchphrase from ‘The Apprentice’ into his Presidency, sacking the likes of acting Attorney General Sally Yates for disputing his executive order to bar citizens of certain specified Muslim countries from entering the US; he also demoted and replaced acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Daniel Ragsdale the same day he dismissed Yates. No explanation for this dismissal was given, though mere coincidence in what was labelled by some as the ‘Monday Night Massacre’ seems unlikely. In this context, his firing of James Comey makes perfect sense. Trump still sees himself as the head of a company and everyone else as his employees. Anybody challenging his authority has to go.

Watergate was a slow burner of a scandal that unravelled at a sedate pace worthy of a weighty novel; it confirmed suspicions of Nixon that his most committed critics had harboured for a long time and cast a cynical shadow across Washington that has never really gone away. What’s happening now isn’t quite the same. In contrast with Richard Nixon’s unattainable ambition to be loved, Donald Trump couldn’t care less; Nixon’s downfall had all the elements of a Greek Tragedy, whereas Trump entered the political arena looking for a fight and now he’s got one. As long as Russian rumours continue to circulate and talk of invoking the 25th Amendment if impeachment fails giving his opponents hope, the Donald’s capacity to govern is entirely in his own hands. We shall see.

© The Editor

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