ALL THE WAY FROM PRESTON

Nairn 1Retracing the steps of the late, great architectural critic Ian Nairn is a tricky proposition that one has to plot carefully; take it too far and you’d end up drinking yourself to death as the man himself did at the age of 52 in 1983. His fondness for the public house, about which he wrote with such eloquent verve (especially in his classic 1966 guide to the capital, ‘Nairn’s London’), proved to be his downfall, bringing to a premature end a career that illuminated both the printed page and the television screen in the 60s and 70s. A superbly witty, poetic and passionate writer on architecture and environment, Nairn had sprung to prominence in the mid-50s with his acclaimed ‘Outrage’ edition of the ‘Architectural Review’ magazine, establishing the concept of Subtopia as a dreary development on the post-war landscape and adding his name to the list of the decade’s Angry Young Men.

Although the criminally few books he authored are worth investing in as an example of his skills, the majority of his writing could be found in the Observer in the 60s and then the Sunday Times in the 70s. By this time, he’d also begun a TV career, presenting several idiosyncratic, eccentric and thought-provoking series for the BBC that showcased him as a highly original and refreshingly individual voice. Nairn as a presenter is not a television natural, but his emotional response to the always-intriguing and never-obvious locations he chose to introduce to the viewer can be a compelling experience. His often lugubrious demeanour depended upon whether or not filming took place before or after opening hours, but when his hackles are raised by a depressingly predictable piece of ill-advised town planning characteristic of the era, it regularly appears as though he’s poised to burst into tears, so incensed is he by the loss of a building he evidently adores.

Buildings like the quirky Emporium Arcade in Northampton, which he praised and regarded as worthy of preservation, were swept away despite his pleas; and perhaps the most moving moment of his TV output came when he stood in the gutted carcass of Bolton’s St Saviour church and railed against the men responsible for its imminent demolition. ‘We talk about football vandalism,’ he says in quivering tones. ‘I don’t quite know how you would categorise the vandalism of the yobbos who did this; it makes me ashamed to be part of the same branch of biology.’ It’s as though the ruination of what he describes as one of the town’s ‘most noblest churches’ is the final blow to any hope he still harboured, reducing him to a tragic, Lear-like figure, close to breakdown as he roams from one wasteland to another. It’s rare to see a man’s soul laid bare in such a manner, and when it seemed so many of his heartfelt pleas to the developers to think again constantly fell on deaf ears, it’s reasonable to theorise – as many have – that his weariness with fighting a losing battle accelerated his slide into terminal alcoholism.

The segment in St Saviour church was part of a series Nairn presented in which he visited six unfashionable destinations more familiar as names on a pools coupon than for their architecture; each programme was a game of two halves as he contrasted a pair of ‘football towns’ by selecting places in them that he regarded as notable and interesting. The Bolton edition was coupled with a visit to Preston, with Nairn beginning at the North End home of its historical football club and then working his way into the town centre. Having watched this edition numerous times over the years – and so few of his TV programmes are available that one tends to view the same small number – I found myself in Preston last week, and it was inevitable I sought out the locations he had highlighted, wondering whether or not they’d improved or deteriorated in the half-century that had elapsed since his visit.

Although Preston is now officially a city, it still has the feel of a classic provincial town built on 19th century industry, albeit one with the ambition that eventually resulted in its promotion to that of metropolis. That ambition can be seen in the Guild Hall, a modern (1972) building Nairn singled out as a fine example of Preston’s refusal to rest on its Victorian laurels. Much of the original redbrick exterior of the Guild Hall has subsequently been clad in wood to perhaps bring it into line with contemporary tastes, though the confidence the building exudes, one that so caught Nairn’s eye, remains. Nairn’s judgement was never clouded by simple nostalgia; he was just as eager to celebrate the best of the new as he was to preserve the best of the old, and his enthusiasm for Preston’s modernist bus station is typical of how he could see the good in an edifice many traditionalists might have greeted with disdain. Bar one or two alterations to the outside, the dramatic sweeping concrete curves housing the multi-storey car-park above the bus station are intact.

Amongst Preston’s ‘heritage’ buildings to have happily survived is its distinctive market hall, which Nairn rightly praised due to its half-in/half-out appearance, with the cast iron roof protruding out into the street and open to the elements; a collection of market stalls which stood on the pedestrianised square in front of the town’s impressive slice of classic Victorian civic pride, the Harris Art Gallery and Museum, has now gone; but the square itself – including a towering cenotaph – seems largely untouched. When Nairn was there, the town centre was undergoing the introduction of a frustrating one-way system, which appears to discourage the sightseer from travelling around it as a motorist; the best way to really explore the place, as Nairn discovered, is on foot. And one of the best things about Preston from the point of view of the pedestrian is the fact that all the areas Nairn visited are within a short walking distance of each other. A side-street off the main shopping thoroughfare, which is now wholly pedestrianised, leads to a unique public square – a ‘sunken’ one.

Rather than the flat, neat Georgian squares one associates with London, Winkley Square was deliberately not levelled out and left as nature intended. A tranquil little oasis that provides office workers with a bucolic interlude from the urban hustle and bustle, it serves as a prelude to what is probably Preston’s best-kept secret just round the corner – and this was a location Nairn only gives a brief glimpse of on screen. For all the current (and clueless) fashion for portraying the Victorians as one-dimensional imperial heathens, there’s no disputing the lasting legacy they left on Britain’s best towns and cities, none more so than one of their most necessary innovations intended to be enjoyed by everyone, the public park; and Preston’s Avenham Park is one of the finest in the land. Outside of the capital, it’s quite unusual to find such a vast green space smack bang in a city centre rather than out in the suburbs, and the mere snippet that appears on Nairn’s ‘Football Towns’ series gives no real indication of the sheer scale of that space when one actually sets foot in it. It’s also clear from the 1970s programme that a good deal of loving restoration has taken place since the great man took a look at it; an imposing statue of three-times 19th century Lancastrian Prime Minister the Earl of Derby is included in the roll-call of sights to see, and the longest-serving leader of any British political party (22 years) did set me wondering if statues of any current party leaders might one day grace such a space. Somehow, I doubt it.

Ian Nairn ends his summary of Preston and Bolton by recommending the viewer makes the effort to visit these neglected towns and I’m pleased to say that, 30-odd years after my initial viewing of the programme, I finally made the effort. I may have been standing on the shoulders of a giant, but I did so sober, and the Gods shone down on me with an early burst of spring sunshine that made the jaunt all the more memorable. I can think of worse ways to spend a weekend.

© The Editor

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FOUR OF US

BeatlesMomentary escapism from a world that seems to relish serving up a fresh dish of despair and despondency to its population every passing year seems an essential panacea right now. It can be manifested in many different ways, specifically tailored to suit the unique tastes of each individual, and its position on the scale of trivia is immaterial. Whatever simple pleasure makes you happy is worth indulging in at times like these. During Lockdown Mk I and beyond, I found walking a friend’s dog once a week was the best breath of fresh air and the most unpretentious reward for a week entombed indoors on offer; and even with the present-tense pandemic receding (albeit not its long-term legacy), the latest crisis has necessitated the need for time-out, whether that be a few hours away from social media – or penning a post. Dog-sitting the same pooch that provided light relief when outdoor excursions were being rationed has become an occasional outlet of late, but the home I dog-sit in also contains another window into a world a million miles from 2022 – well, 53 years, to be precise.

When Peter Jackson’s ‘Get Back’ project was premiered on the Disney + digital channel at the back end of last year, it was accompanied by a deluge of YouTube reviews from people who had hurriedly subscribed to a streaming service usually patronised by parents to little ‘uns obsessed with ‘Frozen’ and the like. Suddenly, it had become attractive to an entirely different demographic, one fired by the media previews of the cleaned-up, Hi-Definition incarnation of footage that had been slogging around the bootleg circuit in appalling picture quality for decades. Not prepared to temporarily add another channel to the dozens I never watch, I was waiting for an eventual DVD release to finally view a series spread into three tantalising movie-length episodes; but dog-sitting in a house containing Disney + has given me an opportunity to catch up with something most Beatles fans rushed to watch together a few months back. And it was worth the wait as, for once, the hype is justified.

For the few still wallowing in ignorance, ‘Get Back’ was the original title of what eventually became the Beatles’ uneven swansong, ‘Let it Be’. At the beginning of 1969, less than two months after releasing the White Album, the band sought to capitalise on the recent energising experience of recording the ‘Hey Jude’ promo, with its novel audience participation; eager to keep the creative juices flowing, Paul McCartney felt this might be a way for the band to return to live performance. Director Michael Lindsay-Hogg had just filmed ‘The Rolling Stones’ Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus’, showing there were new means of playing live for acts that had been scarred by screaming girls on the touring treadmill. Conceived as a TV documentary of the band rehearsing new numbers that would climax with a live show before an invited audience, the ambitious ‘Get Back’ didn’t work out as planned and was swiftly reduced to a posthumous album and movie, released a year after its making and at a moment when the former Fab Four were not exactly on speaking terms. It wasn’t the most impressive of obituaries, and the cynical way the film was edited by Lindsay-Hogg established a narrative that had remained intact for half-a-century.

True, there was an infamous ‘argument’ between Paul McCartney and George Harrison captured on camera; true, George walked out on the band for a few days thereafter; true, the chilly environs of Twickenham film studios early in the morning were not especially conducive to harmonious vibes; true, McCartney came across as an overbearing martinet; true, the constant presence of Yoko Ono at John Lennon’s side appeared to be an impediment to recreating the spirit of the band that the project was intended to deliver. All of this was portrayed with funereal finality in the original movie and the fact none of the ex-Beatles in the years following its release had a good word to say about it helped perpetuate the narrative seemingly forevermore. Its sole saving grace was the legendary ‘rooftop concert’ on a cold, wet January morning atop the Apple HQ on Savile Row; but opportunities to see it after the movie’s 1970 release were limited to clips in documentaries or bootleg copies of an early 80s home video version of the film, with the piss-poor visuals and sound quality adding to the negative perception of the enterprise.

Plans to restore and re-release ‘Let it Be’ in recent decades have been repeatedly stymied by one ex-Beatle (or ex-Beatle widow) or another, leaving the film as a bit of an absent friend in the Beatles’ story. The unexpected invitation for director-turned-documentary-maker Peter Jackson to wade through hundreds of hours of unused footage from the ‘Let it Be’ sessions was probably inspired by the astonishing job he did on presenting the First World War as a full-colour conflict in ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’. For Beatles fan Jackson, all his Christmases came at once as he took on the challenge of retelling a tale that had never been fully told and making it the kind of visual and musical experience that the 1970 film failed so badly to achieve. The global pandemic delayed the scheduled 50th anniversary release, albeit giving Jackson and his team more breathing space to develop new ways of improving the audio and expanding the running time. The first results of their efforts were trailed online last year and the thumbs-up was universal – it looked and sounded amazing. Gone were the grainy, murky washed-out shades of the tenth-generation VHS versions and in came colour of the Blu-ray variety, HD-sharp with a clarity that put the viewer in the room with the Fab Four – a laughing, convivial Fab Four contradicting the hand-me-down myth of the ‘Let it Be’ project.

The series shows that the shared sense of humour which had been such a vital component of what made those four individuals gel as a unit hadn’t been dealt a mortal blow by Yoko’s presence after all. Far from being savagely sardonic and disinterested, Lennon appears as lively and witty as ever; moreover, McCartney comes across as less of a control freak and more of an artist at the peak of his powers, oozing magic melodies from every pore. There were concerns Jackson’s facelift might present a sanitised rewrite of the story, but moments of tension remain in the final cut, especially the day after George’s exit; when it looks as if Lennon won’t be showing-up either, the horrible realisation dawns on McCartney that everything might be about to collapse. The camera zooms in on his tearful countenance as he almost whispers ‘And then there were two’. It’s a remarkably moving moment.

As well as the tracks that ended up on ‘Let it Be’, the January 1969 sessions also feature numerous songs that constituted a large chunk of ‘Abbey Road’, not to mention a sizeable amount of material that would only see the light of day on the post-split solo albums of 1970 and ’71. When one hears The Beatles work through Lennon’s ‘Gimme Some Truth’ or Harrison’s ‘All Things Must Pass’, it’s immediately evident these great songs would’ve been even greater had the four recorded them together. Far from being the creative cul-de-sac of legend, the ‘Get Back’ sessions find the band in the thick of a stunning purple patch; it also underlines the theory that all their finest material – even what became solo stuff – was written when they were still together. One of the joys of the fly-on-the-wall element of ‘Get Back’ is witnessing the genesis of songs happen before one’s eyes. The title track itself appears out of nowhere as a chugging McCartney riff, morphs into a satirical comment on Enoch Powell’s recent ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and gradually takes shape before our eyes and ears as the song we’re all familiar with. It’s a real privilege to share the journey.

‘Get Back’ is as essential an addition to the Beatles legacy as anything released during the band’s lifetime, and far superior to Apple’s endless repackaging and needless remixing of material already available. What’s incredible to realise when watching is not one of the band is yet 30 as we see them in the dazzling twilight of their time together as cultural ambassadors in whose hands our culture was safe; and when Ringo gazes awe-struck at Paul picking gems out of thin air at the keyboard, his touching comment to his band-mate, ‘I could watch you play the piano all day’, sums up a special chemistry of which we all continue to be grateful beneficiaries. And it’s certainly worth reconnecting with the best mankind can offer at a moment when all we seem to be surrounded by is the worst.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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SAILING BY

James and ElizabethYes, it’s a bit windy at the moment – even if a few sheds ripped away from their Home Counties moorings don’t exactly suggest a ‘twister’ of the kind that cuts a devastating swathe through various American States every once in a while. At least the wind was once a friend to the sailor, though, providing what would today be called an eco-friendly fuel back in the age of the sailing ships that explored the globe and helped build the Empire. In a way, I’m a typical land-lubber in that I tune in to the Shipping Forecast for the romantic roll-call, but my personal experience of a life on the ocean waves has been restricted to a cross-channel ferry and a one-off fishing trip in a motor boat over 40 years ago. Perhaps therein lies the enduring appeal of one notable absentee from my occasional Winegum retrospectives on 1970s TV shows that constitute a high proportion of my DVD viewing time, one currently being revisited after a gap of several years – albeit not quite as many years since it pioneered the Sunday evening pre-watershed drama slot that has subsequently become home to ‘Antiques Roadshow’.

Unless it’s of the sugar-coated ‘Call the Midwife’ variety, the big money splashed out on BBC drama is now channelled into series very much aimed at an exclusively adult audience. Pre-watershed, the post-nuclear family – in all its numerous permutations – has to settle for the output of actors and writers who still look and sound like they belong in the am-dram wasteland of afternoon soaps. Perhaps the change in viewing habits and the increasingly unlikely scenario of all age groups sitting down to watch a programme together at the same time has led to this sorry state of affairs. Not so fifty years ago, when standards were extremely high across the schedules and a series intended for every member of the household was not some throwaway melodrama forgotten as soon as the closing credits rolled, but a compelling saga boasting actors and writers of a calibre comparable to anything aired later in the evening.

Created by experienced television writer Cyril Abraham, ‘The Onedin Line’ spanned almost a decade, setting sail in 1971 and finally dropping anchor for good in 1980. Only three members of the original cast lasted the voyage, though one of them was the leading man of the series, an actor previously famed for more comic portrayals. However, as when Jon Pertwee proved himself a more than capable action hero upon donning the flamboyant ensemble of the third Doctor Who, Peter Gilmore commanded such a charismatic dramatic presence when strolling the deck as James Onedin, it was hard to believe this was the same man who’d ogled Barbara Windsor in ‘Carry on Camping’. As a character, James Onedin is arrogant, obstinate, brash and belligerent, a risk-taking gambler when it comes to business, and a born fighter – essentially in possession of all the qualities that could be found in every real-life self-made man who rapidly rose through the ranks in Victorian society because he knew how to make money.

James Onedin emanated from shop-keeping stock, his father being a chandler by the Liverpool docks; like many a young man at the time with a craving to see beyond his narrow horizons, the lure of a sailor’s life was too much of a temptation for Onedin and he left his pompous, penny-pinching brother Robert to inherit the family business. Taking the king’s shilling as a soldier or starting one’s working life as a cabin boy in the merchant navy were more or less the only options open to those from humble origins if one wanted to see something of the world; and for all its dangers, the sea was a more attractive prospect than the foreign field of conflict. The Industrial Revolution had opened another door for the entrepreneurial working-classes and James Onedin’s desire to emulate the wealthy ship-owners employing him as a captain is where we join the story; eager to found his own line, he eyes a ship for sale, though his efforts to negotiate with the retired old soak selling it flounder until Captain Webster’s daughter Anne makes James an offer: he can have the ship if he marries her. To the shock of his family, the unsentimental Onedin agrees to what he himself sees as a purely business arrangement.

Anne Onedin is played beautifully by Anne Stallybrass (later to become Mrs Peter Gilmore). The ‘Plain Jane’ left on the shelf who seizes her last opportunity for marriage by including herself in the sale of her father’s ship faced a fate common to many women at the time, yet against the odds a genuine affection swiftly develops between the unlikely couple. Anne becomes James’s conscience, curbing his often fiery temper and forcing him to moderate his occasionally uncaring attitude to those around him; she rapidly wins over the sceptical Onedin family and also finds favour with James’s long-term second-in-command, the gruff, no-nonsense Captain Baines. Baines (played by veteran whiskered thespian Howard Lang) is one of the era’s most memorable TV characters as the plain-talking old sea dog with a stronger moral code than Onedin himself. Along with Jessica Benton as James’s flirty sister Elizabeth, Baines helps give the series its dramatic colour, elevating it above the cast of cardboard cut-outs and Identity Politics ciphers that pepper today’s primetime equivalent.

Elizabeth Onedin eventually rises through the ranks with a speed that often exceeds that of her elder brother. After an ill-fated marriage to the son of a rival shipping magnate, she inherits a competing line to the Onedin one and then finally marries the man who impregnated her out of wedlock, Daniel Fogarty. When he is gradually honoured for his charitable works, she becomes Lady Fogarty, though her wandering eye for a bit of rough (usually in possession of facial hair) never wavers.

As the series moves on, the years pass (1860 to 1886 is the actual timeline covered). In the beginning, steam ships are an expensive experimental novelty; by the end, the characters are employing the telephone as a tool of communication, and politics of the time occasionally intervene, such as the American Civil War or the occupation of Paris by the Communards; it is this gentle albeit not intrusive social history element that gives ‘The Onedin Line’ an added appeal. For example, I’d never have known guano (i.e. bird-shit) had once been such a valuable commodity as fertiliser if it weren’t for ‘The Onedin Line’. The passing of time also enables a ‘Forsyte Saga’ aspect to develop as the offspring of the original Onedin dynasty move centre stage in the later series, becoming major characters in their own right.

As with any long-running drama, a degree of repetition does begin to creep in as the series progresses. James routinely loses a fortune, but always manages to make it back again. A wealthy villain regularly moves into town and befriends various members of the Onedin family in order to ruin our hero and seize control of the shipping empire – a generic character played in different series by the likes of Ed Devereaux, Warren Clarke and Frederick Jaeger; and for all his obsession with profit, James Onedin proves himself to be no slouch where the fairer sex are concerned. Following the genuinely moving (and somewhat premature) death of Anne in childbirth, Onedin eventually marries his daughter’s nanny Letty (played by Jill Gascoine) and takes a new bride in the shape of the exotic Margarita come the final series when Letty passes away off-camera (whilst Gascoine crossed channels to front ‘The Gentle Touch’).

Dismissed by some as little more than a costume drama soap, ‘The Onedin Line’ has considerably more to offer than the usual, tiresome litany of ‘issues’ as it documents the fierce competitive circles 19th century empire-builders moved in and the effect they had on their nearest and dearest. A compelling cast of characters and the never-dull drama of the high seas rarely had a more fitting outlet than this archive gem.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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END OF THE PEERLESS

BarrySo ubiquitous is he in his role as the deliverer of the pop post-mortem, one wonders who will step into the shoes of Paul Gambaccini when the veteran broadcaster shuffles off this mortal coil; within a few hours of a notable musician passing away, there’s Gambo to sum up the significance of the artist’s career on every MSM outlet. As prominent members of the 60s cultural revolution edge towards their 80s – and plenty are already there – Paul Gambaccini must be on permanent stand-by, waiting for the call and updating his pre-prepared obituaries on a daily basis. Mind you, Gambo is not the first such figure on the TV news speed-dial; different disciplines require different spokesmen. At one time, Ernie Wise appeared to be the go-to name to comment on the passing of a comedy great; as the original cast of small-screen comics began to drop like flies in the 80s and 90s, little Ern was always there to pay tribute. I used to wonder who would pay tribute to him when he died, and this was the point (there or thereabouts) when Barry Cryer filled the void. He’s performed that function admirably ever since and yet now the sad news has come that old Barry himself needs someone to sing his praises. What’s telling is that the dozens who are doing so online emanate from every comedy generation of the last half-century, for Barry Cryer’s appeal spanned those generations.

Barry Cryer was the last man standing who had cut his teeth on the post-war music hall variety circuit, present when it finally fell off the end of the pier; but were he some dim and distant Archie Rice character that only your granny could recall, it’s doubtful his passing would warrant more than a footnote. With the recent loss of the likes of Nicholas Parsons, Bruce Forsyth and Roy Hudd, Barry Cryer was the sole remaining link to a Victorian tradition that had enjoyed an extended after-life in the early years of television, when peak viewing hours were filled with comics and entertainers who had relentlessly trod the boards of British theatres, living out of a trunk and honing their craft in a punishing schedule of cross-country touring. Spike Milligan once advertised himself as ‘the performing man’ on variety bills, sharing the stage with magicians, impressionists, animal acts, acrobats – indeed, all of human life was there as such bills struggled to compete with the transformation of entertainment as the 1950s progressed.

Early tours by The Beatles and Stones, with half-a-dozen other acts entertaining the kids before the main attraction topped the bill, were rooted in this theatrical formula, yet if rock ‘n’ roll proved to be the ultimate successor of music hall as far as the nation’s theatres were concerned, it was TV that both finished it off as a live event and gave it the kiss of life as an armchair experience. Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Morecambe & Wise, Les Dawson, Dick Emery, Des O’Connor – you name ‘em, virtually every household name with their own show from the late 50s onwards was a graduate of this academy. And it was a tough school; one had to be hard as nails to make it, especially performing at that notorious graveyard known as the Glasgow Empire, which was the comedian’s equivalent of rounding Cape Horn. Those that did make it were the ones whose careers lasted, and Barry Cryer was one of them. But he didn’t simply stand still, pedalling the same old act and selling nostalgia; he moved on and found his niche in the newer mediums, only occasionally pausing to nod to his past with the odd appearance on ‘The Good Old Days’.

Barry Cryer’s career really does read like a biography of British comedy; even though he was only ten years old when the curtain came down on the Second World War, he still played the legendary Windmill Theatre, famous for never closing during the Blitz and infamous for its static naked girls that drew the wearers of macs into the venue. Following the likes of Tony Hancock in the thankless task of performing a comic routine between these artistic tableaus, Cryer seemed set to slog it on the circuit forever until his recurring eczema forced him to scale down his live appearances. Turning to scriptwriting as a means of making a living from comedy that didn’t require him to be on stage every night, Cryer was one of many comic writers recruited by David Frost in his mid-60s role as a TV comedy ringmaster, joining future Pythons and Goodies as well as Ronnie Barker on one of the most talented teams of scribes ever assembled for a series. The series in question was ‘The Frost Report’, now widely recognised as one of the seminal shows of the decade, not just for what it did at the time but how it proved to be a breeding ground for the post-variety school of TV comedy.

Throughout the 1970s and into the 80s, Barry Cryer’s name in the credits of comedy shows seemed as much a perquisite as Ken Morse and his rostrum camera was in documentaries. Often co-writing with actor and comic performer John Junkin, Cryer could be found penning material for old-school comics like Morecambe & Wise and Les Dawson as well as impacting on a younger generation through his work for Kenny Everett. He maintained his relevance to those for whom music hall was something belonging to the history books well into the 1990s by hosting ‘The Stand-Up Show’ on BBC1, a late-night programme serving as a platform for comedians young enough to be his grandchildren. From 1969 to 1974, he was also the host of a pioneering example of the comedy panel show, ‘Joker’s Wild’, and underlined his association with the Python crowd via a cameo in Eric Idle’s unforgettable Rutles special, ‘All You Need is Cash’.

However, it is perhaps radio rather than television for which Barry Cryer’s immense contribution to British comedy will be eternally enshrined. He was in on that immortal antidote to panel shows, ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ from its inception in 1972; although he actually chaired several early editions before making way for Humphrey Lyttelton, it was his part as a panellist and his banter with ‘Humph’, Willie Rushton, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor that made this Radio 4 mainstay comedy gold. Cryer later admitted the deaths of both Rushton and the chairman (1996 and 2008 respectively) made him doubt whether or not the series should continue, yet it prospered into the 2010s with Jack Dee at the helm and both Cryer and the two old Goodies still forming the core of the team. Indeed, as the latter trio aged their veteran status proved to be a rich source of comedy itself, with Cryer in particular playing the part of a bewildered dirty old man. Alas, the demands of performing live eventually began to take their toll as younger comics plugged the gap in the occasional absence of the older hands; the irreplaceable loss of Tim Brooke-Taylor in 2020 seemed to suggest the end of era was nigh – and today is sadly the day it officially arrived.

I had the good fortune to see Barry Cryer live on two occasions. The first was ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue’ around ten years ago. Although this was post-Humph, Jack Dee was comfortably embedded in the chair and the line-up still included Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor as well as Barry; it remains one of the most entertaining nights out I’ve ever experienced. The second time I saw him live was in 2015, one of those ‘evening with’ events, located in the unlikely environs of an old church, albeit one in his hometown. He was a superb raconteur and in possession of a comic sharpness that belied his age. That turned out to be a memorable night for reasons unrelated to Barry himself, though it’s nice to think of him as a positive force pulling strings that enabled certain stars to fall into place. Even today, when I was struggling with something to write about, Barry came to the rescue again. I only wish it had been another subject to inspire me, but I guess I owe Barry once more. Nice one, old pal.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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SONIC POLAROIDS

Japan 2Whenever I put a CD compilation together, they tend to be themed affairs, and today I stumbled upon an old one I figured might provide a defiantly untopical diversion; it intrigued me because I realised its title, ‘Early ‘82’, meant its nineteen snapshots of a moment in time were the soundtrack to exactly 40 years ago (yes, 40 f***ing years ago), when the nation was in the deep-freeze of a notoriously severe winter. The opening track is one whose title I recently modified for a post, ‘Party Fears Two’ by The Associates. Not the first act on this compilation whose initial credentials were unquestionably left-field, Billy Mackenzie and Alan Rankine had emerged from the DIY Indie scene spawned by post-punk and highlighted how grafting earworm melodies onto all kinds of strange dissonant sounds could result in the easy infiltration of a singles chart receptive to an ‘anything goes’ approach, turning the least likely contenders into bona fide pop stars. The band’s biggest hit (#9) remains a uniquely addictive experience, dominated by Mackenzie’s soaring, beyond-Bowie vocals and Rankine’s irresistible keyboard hook that separates the verses. Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I hear it my imagination always summons some obscure 60s movie featuring the jet-set on an Alpine ski slope.

Tracks two and three come from two survivors of 1977’s contentious bridge between Punk and New Wave, ‘Golden Brown’ by The Stranglers (#2) and The Jam’s third chart-topper, ‘Town Called Malice’. Both in possession of a flexibility that enabled them to prosper in a pop landscape in a constant state of change, the two acts first hit the charts within months of each other five years before and underlined their shared strength-in-depth by scaling even greater commercial heights in 1982. The Stranglers’ cleverly-disguised ode to heroin was soaked in the seductive textures of the harpsichord whereas The Jam’s celebration of lost working-class lives was a tribute to old-school Motown and pointed the way to Paul Weller’s absorption in Soul that came with The Style Council. Track four is the biggest hit (#10) for a band who’d appeared in the shadow of Punk/New Wave and had carved an idiosyncratic career by ploughing their own stubborn furrow, XTC. ‘Senses Working Overtime’ has a catchy, barnstorming chorus but its verses are undoubtedly rooted in a pastoral English tradition emphasised by the crack-of-dawn crows cackling at the song’s conclusion.

Next up is one of the most Ray Davies-like social documents in the Madness canon, ‘Cardiac Arrest’; this ditty of a City worker suffering a heart attack during a commute to the office was accompanied by one of the band’s pioneering promo videos and, like many of their hits, is hard to hear without seeing the visuals they provided. Curiously, its subject matter hit a nerve at Radio 1; a top DJ’s father had recently died of a cardiac arrest and the song was temporarily left off a playlist that the Madness hit CV ordinarily entitled them to an instant place on. The brief ‘ban’ affected sales and broke the band’s run of top tenners, only peaking at #14. By 1982, Madness had long since shed their associations with the 2 Tone movement of 1979/’80, as had most who’d been pivotal to it, none more so than The Specials, splitting in the wake of the seminal summer ’81 anthem, ‘Ghost Town’. The Fun Boy Three were the most successful Specials spin-off, and with their take on the old Jazz standard, ‘It Ain’t What You Do’ (#4), they introduced Bananarama to the world. Fresh from their brush with Malcolm McLaren, the all-girl trio still had a delightfully shambolic Slits vibe to them at this stage, yet to morph into ‘proper’ pop stars.

Although Bananarama had wisely avoided committing themselves to the curly Svengali’s latest scheme for world domination, McLaren’s influence is evident in the seventh track, ‘Go Wild in the Country’ by Bow Wow Wow, on account of him writing the raucous song’s lyrics. He’d assembled the backing band for teenage singer Annabella Lwin by nicking the original line-up of Adam and the Ants, sans Adam. It was probably a blessing in disguise for Adam, however; the loss of his Ants to Bow Wow Wow forced him to forge a new and far more successful sound, though track eight is one of his earlier obscurities, ‘Deutscher Girls’; lifted from the soundtrack of the 1978 Derek Jarman movie, ‘Jubilee’, the #13 chart placing for a four-year-old record that bore little resemblance to Adam’s current oeuvre showed how great the appetite for any Ant output remained in 1982. Next up is ‘I Could Be Happy’ by Altered Images; another example of a left-field act with a highly individual take on mainstream pop, this #7 follow-up to ‘Happy Birthday’ expands the joyously infantile sentiments of that unexpected smash as Clare Grogan reels off a list of charmingly naive things she’d like to do given half the chance. As with the Bananarama of this period, Altered Images still sound fresh because their rough edges haven’t been ironed out in the way they would be today.

A far slicker offering comes via the light college-boy funk of Haircut 100 and their biggest hit (#3), ‘Love Plus One’; yet even then, Nick Heyward’s men were not manufactured in a boy band lab by a jaded middle-aged cynic, and it shows. There was a knowing archness to even the most seemingly ‘safe’ early 80s chart regulars, a factor present in the romantically grandiose hits of ABC. The Sheffield band enjoyed the first in a trio of top tenners lifted from their landmark ‘Lexicon of Love’ album in 1982, ‘Poison Arrow’ (#6), though this was a song boasting a far sharper edge than anything Haircut 100 could manage. There’s a brief concession to the early 80s US hits that crossed the Atlantic courtesy of Jonathan King’s fortnightly profile of the Billboard Hot 100 on ‘Top of the Pops’ with track twelve, ‘I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)’ by Hall and Oates. However, the presence of synthesizers and a drum machine on the song give it a contemporary 1982 feel, even though the next track sounds even more 1982, belying the fact it was originally released in 1978.

Godfathers of ‘Synth Pop’ (amongst many other claims to fame), Kraftwerk scored the sole #1 hit of their lengthy career with a timely reissue of ‘The Model’, and the remaining half-dozen tracks on the CD reflect the increasing popularity of synth-based sounds in 1982. ‘Damned Don’t Cry’ (#11) sees Steve Strange’s Visage doing Berlin Bowie; ‘See You’ (#6) finds Depeche Mode struggling to shake off the upbeat poppiness of their Vince Clarke period, though the chilly backing has an underlying uneasiness to it that suggests a darker direction to come; ‘Maid of Orleans’ (#4) by OMD opens with a jarring burst of avant-garde electronica before eventually settling into a more accessible sing-along. As with the exhumation of Adam Ant’s back catalogue, the huge success of The Human League is shown with the band’s former record company re-releasing their first single, 1978’s ‘Being Boiled’; characteristic of the original line-up’s bleaker tendencies, it has little in common with the classy Synth Pop of ‘Dare’, but nevertheless peaked as high as #6.

One final example of how the unconventional and experimental could produce a top ten hit in 1982 comes with the penultimate track, ‘Ghosts’ by Japan. Remarkably, this eerie and unnerving electronic ballad was the band’s biggest hit (#5) and still sounds unlike anything before or since, let alone anything to make the top five. David Sylvian and his similarly exotic sidemen scored endless hits that year, mainly thanks to a string of re-releases from an ex-label competing with their current output. The CD concludes with Soft Cell’s melodramatic albeit undeniably effective ballad, ‘Say Hello Wave Goodbye’ (#3), a song that demonstrates just how well the self-made pop stars of the early 80s simultaneously wore their hearts on the sleeves and their tongues in their cheeks. At the time, they were often accused of prioritising style over substance, yet my ears hear an awful lot of substance in these brilliantly-crafted mini-masterpieces by young men and women motivated by more than merely a desire to be famous. And even if they were only allocated fifteen minutes, they didn’t squander one second.

© The Editor

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NAME THAT FACE

MasksAs from today none of us will see 2021 again, though the annual clearout of famous names that the final fortnight of every year always seems to indulge in means some haven’t lived to see 2022. In the last two or three weeks, those added to the roll-call of the deceased include author Anne Rice, journalist and essayist Joan Didion, architect Richard Rogers, cricketing legend Ray Illingworth, anti-apartheid crusader Desmond Tutu, broadcaster Janice Long, and actor Jack Hedley. Perhaps the latter is one of those whose face is more familiar than his name, though he played a prominent part in the BBC’s celebrated ‘Colditz’ in the early 70s, taking the role of Lieutenant Colonel Preston, senior British officer at the infamous PoW camp. Hedley enjoyed several masterful and occasionally moving exchanges with the camp kommandant (played by Bernard Hepton), a difficult relationship that eventually developed into mutual respect. Hedley later graduated to the leading role (following the untimely death of original choice Peter Finch) in the 1977 BBC mini-series set in Crete, ‘Who Pays the Ferryman?’, though he remained essentially a character actor in a supporting slot thereafter.

As has been mentioned here before in reference to several British TV dramas of the 1970s that have routinely constituted my evening viewing habits via box-sets, in that decade there was a virtual television repertory company of actors without whom no such series would have been possible. If you watch enough of them, the same faces keep cropping up time and time again and each tends to fulfil a particular archetype that both face and voice fit. There are some with the correct accent and ‘breeding’ which means they’re guaranteed to play upper-class characters – military men, members of the peerage and so on; others will forever be cast as stiff, humourless authority figures along the lines of headmasters or senior police officers, whereas some are destined to always be petty criminals and lowly villains, either from the burly and beefy school who talk with their fists or those belonging to the ducking-and-diving dodgy geezer brand – the kind who would act as ‘snouts’ for DI Regan and other proper coppers of the era.

Take an actor like Ron Pember – you probably don’t know the name, but you’ll most definitely know the face if you watched TV forty or fifty years ago or have seen output from that period since. Thin in hair and build, the tight-lipped, dog-end-smoking cockney character actor with the nasal drawl and darting eyes was never going to be cast as the head of MI5 or the Prime Minister. He simply had the ideal face and voice for the parts he played to perfection on screen for the best part of thirty years. You want the shifty landlord of a rough East End boozer? Call Ron Pember. You want the proprietor of a shabby cabbie’s café whose speciality was milky tea? Call Ron Pember. You want an ex-con to welcome home another ex-con just released from the Scrubs? Call Ron Pember. Ron Pember must have appeared in every bloody British TV series produced in the 70s, particularly those set in and around the London area. No series worth watching was worth its salt without him in at least one episode, and though his only regular role as the member of an ensemble cast seems to have been in the BBC’s wartime drama, ‘Secret Army’ (1977-79), he was a semi-regular in ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ throughout the series’ lengthy run (1978-92).

One interesting, if overlooked, series produced in 1972 had the genius idea of bringing together some of the hardest-working character actors of the era and giving them rare leading roles. London Weekend’s ‘Villains’ was a 13-part drama dealing with an audacious bank robbery characteristic of the times. In an impressively-structured narrative that wouldn’t be out of place in a Netflix series today, each episode tends to focus on the individual fortunes of the gang members both before and after the bank job as well as how they fare following a mass break-out staged whilst travelling from the nick to an Old Bailey appeal hearing. The pair of old lags who organise the job (which requires drilling into the vaults of the bank from a derelict underground public convenience next-door) are played by two of the decade’s most visible character actors, David Daker and William Marlowe, both of whom have the well-earned opportunity to show just how good they are when gifted the chance to seize centre stage. What’s also interesting about ‘Villains’ is that it features two future stars who eventually relocated from the ranks of TV rep to leading roles in their own right, Martin Shaw and Bob Hoskins. Even Paul Eddington makes an appearance as an especially seedy solicitor.

Of course I’m digressing into the nostalgically familiar, but it’s increasingly preferable to loitering in the here and now. And 1 January seems as good a time as any to do so. After all, when does a new year ever really open with a bang that isn’t merely a firework display? It’s always ushered in with a whimper. And whereas Xmas episodes of these classic shows are relatively abundant, instalments with a New Year theme are thinner on the ground, though ‘Softly Softly: Task Force’ produced a memorable one as the 1960s hit midnight for the very last time and the 1970s began its ten-year tenancy. In the real world, 1969 had been a culturally significant year, where Woodstock and the Moon Landing shared space with the arrest and conviction of the Kray Twins; in Thamesford, however, the leading criminal act in the closing moments of the decade was rather less dramatic.

The instantly recognisable Victor Maddern, another notable member of the 1970s TV rep company, appeared in this particular ‘Task Force’ episode as an opportunistic thug masterminding the theft of several tyres from Thamesford Police’s HQ on 31 December right under the nose of the pissed-up Force itself – including Mr Barlow. Maddern and his distinctively craggy countenance were immortalised on a well-known ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ outtake in which he stumbled over his lines several times – ‘It’s at Dock Green Dick…no, it’s at Dick Green Dock’ – and he also regularly played the son-in-law of a cantankerous old git on ‘The Dick Emery Show’ back in the day. Again, he was one more must-have character actor that most significant shows of the 70s would be incomplete without. And, as Barry Norman used to say, why not?

As far as I’m aware, none of these familiar faces ever received any of the notable titles and accolades afforded the elite clique of grand thespians; none became Lords or Knights – there was no Baron Pember of Plaistow or Sir Victor Maddern. Yet, bereft of supporting characters, few of the performers who received knighthoods or dame-hoods could have ascended the dizzying heights of the New Years Honours List. They always needed actors resembling mortals to make them seem far more beautiful and talented than they actually were. Perhaps, however, the tawdry prize-giving that the Honours List has descended into has meant those without the kind of gongs dished out to the likes of Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam for being the Mike and Bernie Winters of scaremongering actually stand far taller as a consequence.

A giant of the stage such as Paul Scofield repeatedly rejected the ‘Sir’ prefix, as did David Bowie. One can’t help but think of Groucho Marx’s famous assertion that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member; and considering some of the dubious characters one would be bracketed alongside by accepting a Knighthood, maybe there’s far more honour in declining it. Anyway, if nothing else, ending this first post of 2022 by blending a story that combines one of today’s news headlines with a celebration of obscure actors from the past suggests it will be business as usual on here for the fun-packed twelve months we’ve got to look forward to.

© The Editor

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GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

Steptoe and SonIt goes without saying that this time of year is notable for a gradual withdrawal from the usual duties, and whilst I haven’t consciously taken time out from here, inspiration has dwindled somewhat. I can’t necessarily lay the blame at the festive door, however; when one subject dominates every bleedin’ headline, it’s not so much fear of repeating one’s self – more a certain jaded fatigue with writing about the whole bloody business. Even comparing some of the increasingly bonkers rules and regulations to dystopian fiction can feel like a rather tiresome comparison now; and as for satire, a noticeable absence of compulsion on my part to even try via my sideline video platform reflects the fact that this situation has already satirised itself. When Mark ‘Diwali’ Drakeford, the elected dictator of the People’s Republic of Wales, can make going to work a crime and fine employees £60 for attempting to earn a living in the workplace (and even fine employers £1000 for enticing their workforce back), how can one satirise something so f***ing stupid or declare ‘Bloody hell, talk about Kafkaesque’?!

The fact that the television sitcom is perhaps the most redundant of all the dying TV genres means the traditional Xmas episode viewers looked forward to is now a purely nostalgic treat. ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?’, ‘Porridge’, ‘Rising Damp’, ‘The Good Life’ et al – all produced memorable seasonal specials that remain worthy of wheeling out every December because their collective narrative remains relevant, or at least did do up until last Christmas. In 2020 – and, no doubt, 2021 – there’s an additional nostalgia factor on top of the usual long-dead actors and vintage cultural tropes; the fact that these characters are indulging in a pre-pandemic world of family gatherings, parties and all the other hallmarks of what Christmas meant until this time last year coats them in an extra sentimental sheen that places them even further from the here and now than the mere fact they were produced over 40 years ago.

Even if there were such a thing as an unmissable sitcom today, how could any of the plotlines involving Yuletide scenarios that everyone watching would be familiar with actually be written now? With filming done months in advance of transmission, the first lockdown was characterised on television by characters going about their daily business without social distancing or donning masks or being confined to quarters; it seemed to expose the medium as more artificial than it had ever seemed to the casual viewer before, particularly in the heightened reality of the soap opera, when life in Weatherfield, Walford or Emmerdale suddenly seemed less realistic than it normally does when enacting its gruesome litany of murders, rapes, sieges and spectacular explosions. Any lingering pretence of reflecting real life – or a real life derived from the most sensational of tabloid headlines – was obliterated by the failure of such dramas to mirror the actual drama viewers were experiencing beyond the parallel universe confines of the small screen.

And whilst it could easily have been argued before the world had even heard the word Covid that there hadn’t been a decent Christmas song for over 30 years anyway, to compose such a ditty today would require the ejection of all the clichés that constitute the classic Christmas dirge. ‘Are you waiting for the family to arrive?’ asked Noddy Holder on Slade’s evergreen seasonal smash. Most outside of ivory Tory towers in 2020 would have replied, ‘No; they’re not allowed to visit’. When your granny always tells you that the old songs are the best, she can’t be up and rock ‘n’ rolling with the rest when she’s locked in her care-home and can’t receive any members of her family to dance with. And denied the luxury of driving home for Christmas, Chris Rea would probably have to settle for pulling a cracker on his own whilst he waved to the rest of the Rea clan on Zoom. If he were he still around, George Michael would have to sing about the Christmas before last. Do they know it’s Christmas time at all? Well, it isn’t Christmas time ‘cause it’s been cancelled. Not only can it not be Christmas every day, Roy; it isn’t even Christmas on 25 December anymore.

Nostalgia has always been a crucial element of the Christmas experience as the TV shows, songs and movies that take us back to our formative festive memories are recycled annually for a reason. When exposed to the Christmas hit mix on the supermarket loop, one can almost play a game in one’s head as to who’ll pop up next once one over-familiar standard finishes. Will it be Greg Lake or Mud or Mariah Carey or The Wombles or Wizzard or Boney M or Band Aid or Bing Crosby? Place your bets now. Either way, it’s doubtful any song penned on the subject issued this century will figure on the unavoidable Xmas mix-tape because, as Noddy’s granny reminded us, the old songs are the best – as are the TV shows and the movies when it comes to Christmas. Whether the sitcom seasonal specials or ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, schedulers know what their audiences want and it sure as hell ain’t anything that bears even a passing resemblance to today.

In many respects, with Christmas now reduced to a shadow of its former self, the power of nostalgia is more poignant than ever as the old spirit of the season once intended to be jolly becomes almost wholly past tense. Watching or listening to any pop culture artefact highlighting the peculiar customs traditionally associated with the last couple of weeks of December – as was – is now the same as viewing or hearing any art produced before 2020 which attempts to mirror real life. It no longer mirrors anything resembling the new normal and is therefore instantly as archaic and charming as steam trains or a Jane Austen adaptation or any other reflection of a world that has been transformed into otherworldly not by the passing of time but by the passing of legislation. Look at that grainy old footage all the way back from 2019 – a restaurant or a pub or a concert; punters are packed in like sardines, and some are shaking hands, some are hugging, and none are wearing surgical masks. Like I said, otherworldly.

The 21st century was already a pretty joyless place before Covid came along, but I guess the pandemic is the icing on an especially unappetising cake, albeit one that Mary Berry and all the rest are no doubt currently baking on their numerous festive-themed cookery specials. Boris has had to put his rebooted lockdown plans on ice in order to stave off further backbench rebellions and cling to the remaining vestiges of his lifelong mission to be loved as opposed to loathed by graciously giving the electorate the opportunity to pretend this Christmas can be just like Christmas used to be. And then he’ll probably complement the moves of his devolved despots across the Caledonian and Cymru borders by attempting to impose the same tried, trusted and ultimately failed formulas for combating the coronavirus variants that he’s been imposing for what feels like forever with no discernible success.

I remember the last post on here last year was called ‘Slippery Slopes and Silver Linings’, in which I closed the piece by referencing some of the positive voices of sanity and reason that had gradually emerged as obedience and exhaustion were superseded by exasperation and anger. Neil Oliver, one of those mentioned, has continued to deliver eloquent and incisive observations on where we are throughout 2021, and I ended on a hopeful note by writing ‘And, as long as those voices can continue to be heard in 2021, there is hope that twelve months from now we won’t find ourselves living in an offshore suburb of Riyadh or Beijing, bereft of any proof of who we used to be or who we really are.’ Well, we’re not quite there yet, though it’s not through want of trying on the part of our beloved leaders. Merry Xmas, everybody.

© The Editor

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LUST FOR LIFE

LustgartenAnyone who frequented public libraries as a child will recall the hushed reverence within those walls often evoked the chilly ambience of a church, particularly the old-school Victorian model. Despite being a notoriously noisy breed, children were nevertheless accustomed to being seen and not heard during my own childhood, not as indulged as now, and raised on the kind of disciplinarian diet that rendered the silent environs of the public library less of a challenge than I suspect it would be for today’s kids. The location’s enforced quiet also attracted senior citizens; OAPs always managed to select a seat close to the magnetic pull of a radiator that made the library a more comfortable environment than their own homes, and many probably passed out in those heated enclaves, never to wake again. One notable ‘pensioner’ of 71 shuffled off this mortal coil in just such a fashion at Marylebone Library back in 1978 whilst reading the Spectator, a death that lacked the drama he’d made a career from embellishing with his customarily loquacious eloquence. And nobody today has a name that rolls off the tongue with quite the same dramatic spark as Edgar Lustgarten.

The name sounds undeniably Dickensian, though it was genuine – no theatrical affectation. If ever a name fitted the character gifted with it, Edgar Lustgarten was the right man for the right name. Following in his father’s footsteps as a barrister, Lustgarten absorbed all he encountered in his initial profession and soon embarked upon his second career as an author, expert and broadcaster on the criminal mind, working in counter-propaganda during WWII and then producing and presenting programmes for the BBC. By the early 1950s, he was regarded as a sufficiently authoritative voice to front the long-running series of cinematic shorts titled ‘Scotland Yard’. Each instalment would receive an introduction from Lustgarten in a library setting, and his role as host established the cliché later revived by Roald Dahl when he acted as fireside storyteller for the first series of ‘Tales of the Unexpected’. The difference between ‘Scotland Yard’ and Dahl’s celebrated television anthology, however, was the fact that the former series was drawn from true-life cases gathering dust in the Met archive.

‘Scotland Yard’ being produced as a support series for the big screen meant it was shot on 35mm and it has the look and feel of a major motion picture. Lustgarten’s flamboyant, melodramatic delivery before each case unfolds certainly adds to the atmosphere, with every episode of a series that ran from 1953-61 reeling the viewer in from the alluring intro. The fact that none of the crime stories featured were fictional concoctions but rooted in truth means few of the episodes contain formulaic storylines and one never knows exactly what to expect; I’ve no idea what the process was when it came to the writers choosing which tales from Scotland Yard’s extensive files to dramatise, but every crime imaginable seems to be in there even if murder understandably recurs more than any other. But with Lustgarten at the helm, there’s relatively little chance an instalment will deal with the late return of library books.

With so much television from the 1950s surviving as poor quality telecine recordings of 405-line transmissions, the pristine cinematic look of ‘Scotland Yard’ undoubtedly makes it easy on the eye, and the period charm of the series has a style reminiscent of ‘The Blue Lamp’. Although the crimes depicted occasionally venture into the Home Counties, most are concentrated in the capital, which offers the viewer one more tantalising glimpse of London before the game-changing redevelopment of the 1960s altered the physiognomy of the city forever. Everything about ‘Scotland Yard’ is ultimately reassuring. All CID detectives wear hats and macs, whereas all uniformed officers have a distinct ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ vibe to them; avuncular seems to be the appropriate description of the police as portrayed in ‘Scotland Yard’, and there’s a notable absence of the mistrust in their honourable intentions that would be second nature today. It’s probably one of the last-gasp dramatisations of the boys in blue free from a cynical perspective, still viewed as the ultimate bastions of honest law enforcement before ‘Z Cars’ came along and reminded us the police were flawed human beings too.

For any aficionado of vintage TV, ‘Scotland Yard’ can also boast numerous sightings of eventual household names in early appearances. Roger Delgado, later to earn his spurs as the original incarnation of the Master in ‘Doctor Who’, routinely features whenever the story calls for an olive-skinned foreigner. Frenchman, Italian, Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean – Delgado’s your man. I even spotted formative ‘Coronation Street’ stalwarts Minnie Caldwell (Margot Bryant) and Albert Tatlock (Jack Howarth) in small parts, along with Arthur Lowe, Wilfrid Brambell, and Howard ‘Captain Baines’ Lang from ‘The Onedin Line’. Comic actors John Le Mesurier and Harry H Corbett have a rare opportunity to get their teeth into dramatic roles in the series, though the actor who figures most in the lead detective role tends to be Australian-born Russell Napier as Superintendent Duggan.

It goes without saying that ‘Scotland Yard’ serves as a neat diversionary alternative to current preoccupations, a reminder – even if a sanitised one – of how this country’s premier police force was once perceived as a force for incorruptible good that resided firmly on the side of the angels. As with most previously-revered institutions, the Met has somewhat damaged its brand in recent times, though we expect nothing less from our institutions now. By throwing their lot in with activists promoting an agenda that alienates them from the masses, these institutions have lost all respect and left those they were intended to serve with a sense of self-sufficiency in the absence of hope from the State. When the public – as I have personally heard twice in the past week – have to wait upwards of six or seven hours for an ambulance or when I myself am found sitting as the solitary patient in a deserted GPs surgery (something I wish I’d had a camera on hand to photograph – #NHSCrisis), one knows the game is up. Edgar Lustgarten is no doubt turning in his grave as we speak – and probably delivering a memorable introduction to a heinous crime at the same time.

MIKE NESMITH (1942-2021)

MonkeesHe was the one with the woollen cap – singled out as an easily identifiable character along with the other three Monkees by the manufacturers who’d observed the cartoon incarnations of the Fab Four via ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and ‘Help!’ and seen the potential in extending a franchise that The Beatles themselves had already moved on from. It was perhaps inevitable the American entertainment industry would seek to capitalise on Beatlemania by turning the phenomenon into a TV show, but the fact they put together their very own Prefab Four by assembling competent musicians and allying them to some of the best professional songwriters in the business sowed the seeds of the brand’s destruction.

Mike Nesmith was a Texan in possession of a Lennon-esque nonchalance that gave him a distinct persona within the Monkees’ unit and marked him out as a Bolshie critic of their clean-cut slickness. He was apparently the dissenting voice that rejected ‘Sugar Sugar’ when it was offered to the band and a prime mover behind the post-TV show career suicide movie that was the cult classic, ‘Head’. It was thanks to Mike Nesmith’s attitude that The Monkees remain one of the most admirable and likeable of all manufactured pop acts, and his death at the age of 78 leaves Mickey Dolenz as the remaining member of the original quartet – yet another sober reminder of mortality in an industry in which immortality still lingers as currency.

© The Editor

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FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

Barbed WireIt’s often been suggested that the game-changing impact of the original ‘Star Wars’ film ushered in a more juvenile strain of cinema that we’re still living with to this very day – and what it inadvertently swept away was quite a loss. Aided by the end of the Hays Code and influenced by European film-makers of the era (as well as a necessary injection of fresh counter-cultural blood), Hollywood had grown up a bit in the decade immediately preceding the 1977 release of George Lucas’ first take on the franchise, and in the process enjoyed something of a second Golden Age. A fun comic strip of a film like ‘Star Wars’ shouldn’t have really threatened that, yet the success that caught Hollywood by surprise was quickly picked up by studios already in the hands of accountants; why go to the trouble of making another ‘Taxi Driver’ and limiting the bums-on-seats due to an X certificate when you can make another ‘Star Wars’ for all the family and make far more money than you ever would with the further trials and tribulations of Travis Bickle?

40-odd years later, dumb and dumber blockbusters with a lineage that can be traced all the way back to the phenomenal success of ‘Star Wars’ utterly dominate the movie industry – and terrestrial TV seems to have suffered a similar fate in terms of lowering the intelligence quota. I don’t believe television had an equivalent game-changer in terms of the pop cultural impact that ‘Star Wars’ had on cinema – though perhaps, at least in the UK, the unprecedented response to the question ‘Who Shot J.R.?’ affected the way in which dramatic output was marketed to media and public alike so that a sensationalist plotline guaranteed to attract hysterical headlines and in turn big audiences became the way forward. The Ken/Deirdre/Mike love triangle on ‘Coronation Street’ in 1983 was one of the first such examples to learn the lesson of the ‘Dallas’ cliff-hanger, with the news that the Barlows decided to stay together being flashed on the Old Trafford scoreboard in the middle of a match. The launch of ‘Eastenders’ a couple of years later saw these tactics hyped-up to the max – and it paid off for the Beeb with the kind of viewing figures unimaginable today.

The first few years of Channel 4’s ‘Brookside’ had offered an alternative to the increasingly melodramatic nature of its mainstream rivals, yet by the early 90s that too had taken a similar detour as storylines began to drift away from at least heightened reality and more towards the headline-grabbing. Phil Redmond’s Scouse soap had initially been rooted in the grittier ‘Play for Today’ tradition, perhaps the last refuge for that strain of television writing following the gradual disappearance of the single play from the schedules as the 80s progressed. The single play had once been the writers’ university for so many of British television’s seminal scribes, yet within a generation the soap opera had superseded it; and with the soap having taken on such fantastical and unbelievable qualities, it was unsurprising that once TV writers graduated from the genre and moved on to developing projects of their own they’d carry the sensationalist sensibility into the post-watershed mini-series.

I’ve seen a lot of these 9pm dramas on BBC1 and ITV over the past 10-15 years; some of them are quite enjoyable (if utterly humourless), but very much in a fast-food fashion; the sensation is momentary and the majority I’ve already forgotten by the time the credits roll. Wasn’t there one with Christopher Ecclestone in it – or was it John Simm – or Suranne Jones – or…oh, I can’t remember now; forgettable storylines, forgettable characters, forgettable dialogue, and forgettable resolutions so over-the-top they’d be rejected at an ‘Emmerdale’ script meeting. They’re the TV equivalent of a quick one off the wrist. For me, the best way to discern an undeniable dumbing down in the dramatic output of terrestrial TV is always to take time out and invest in a vintage series, generally from the 70s, and make the comparisons. The juvenile nature of the melodrama that passes for ‘adult’ television today is so apparent when one revisits a series such as ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire’ (1976), for example, which I have been during the last couple of weeks. It’s so ‘grown-up’ and intelligent in the way it presents characters and storyline to the audience it makes you realise just how condescending and lowest-common-denominator most of today’s equivalent offerings truly are. That was what really struck me when I got sucked into the show, which I hadn’t properly seen in full before.

Andrea Newman’s steamy drama based on her own novel caused quite a stir at the time of its original transmission, even if the fuss was swiftly eclipsed by the controversy generated by another (even more dysfunctional) family saga a few months later in the shape of ‘I, Claudius’. The story of an unhealthily obsessive father, Peter Manson (played by the ever-watchable Frank Finlay), manipulated by his spoilt, narcissistic daughter, Prue (the irresistibly pouty Susan Penhaligon) was complicated by the seething jealousy of Frank Finlay’s character towards the usurper of his daughter’s affections in the shape of his American son-in-law, Gavin, not to mention the eventual affair between said son-in-law and Finlay’s wife, Cassie – oh, and Finlay’s affair with his young-enough-to-be-his-daughter secretary, Sarah (an affair symbolically carried out in the vacated bed of his actual daughter’s apartment in her absence). It’s an almightily sultry stew of repressed incestuous longing and taboo-breaking assignations. And it was a runaway critical (and commercial) success for London Weekend Television.

Maybe one of the toughest aspects of the series for a contemporary audience would be the way in which it fails to take sides and paints the family portrait in myriad shades. Prue’s husband Gavin at times responds to his wife’s petulant appetite for stirring it by giving her a slap, something that is dealt with in a manner that neither overtly condones nor condemns his violent streak. The action is portrayed as a sad symptom of an emotionally draining relationship with Prue, the weaver of a self-destructive web who is said to have a touch of the masochist about her; and Gavin is seen as a victim as much as his wife is. There is nuance a plenty in this acknowledgement of flawed human beings capable of simultaneous good and evil; in this world, all are saints and all are sinners – just like our own; it takes place in a complex moral maze TV drama now shies away from. Any character exhibiting the domestic abuse traits of Gavin in a TV drama today would have all that nuance ejected from the profile and would be reincarnated as a pantomime villain bordering on fully paid-up member of the Nazi Party. The character would not be allowed to be presented with the prospect of redemption and forgiveness – he would simply have to be an incurable bastard.

But, again, it is simply the ‘grown-up’ – and there’s no more apt phrase – attitude of the series when approaching these ambiguous emotions within the family dynamic that strikes the modern viewer accustomed to relentlessly black-and-white, childish impressions of the way people behave towards each other and the stupidly simplistic explanations for their behaviour. The style of Scandi Noir and some of the epic US series of recent years are on display in contemporary terrestrial TV drama, yet substance is conspicuous by its absence. Some scenes in ‘Bouquet of Barbed Wire’ unfold at the pace of a well-written novel, in a delicately sedate and intensely subtle manner that contrasts with the cartoonish characterisations and OTT treatment that have become the retarded hallmarks of post-watershed dramas today. That a 45-year-old example of how it could be done seems more recognisably real than a present day idea – one which appears to have been scripted by a 13-year-old boy with no notion of how adults actually speak or deal with crises – is telling, but – alas – not surprising.

© The Editor

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DON’T FORGET TO REMEMBER

CenotaphIt shouldn’t work, but somehow it does. Am I the only person whose regular Sunday morning listening habits are modified on Remembrance Day by keeping the radio on and merging the audio-only build-up to the two-minute silence with sound and vision from the TV screen? It’s oddly effective when the delay between the respective live feeds of radio and television combine to create a rather haunting echo, particularly when Big Ben chimes or the Last Post is played – as though the whole ceremony is being respectfully remixed into a ghostly, Spector-esque Wall of Sound before our ears. Anyway, it always seems to enhance the atmosphere for me. Like most, I’ve been exposed to images from this annual tradition all my life and if anything makes one acutely aware of mortality, it’s events at the Cenotaph every November. For example, this year, for the first time I can ever remember, Her Majesty was not in attendance.

Brenda hasn’t been her usual remarkably robust 95-year-old self for the past month or so, but it’s perhaps an indication of how she’s had to ease up on her work-rate that she should have to forego a ceremony she’s been such a key fixture of for longer than most of us have been alive. Mind you, no Duke of Edinburgh this year, and it’s still quite strange to see it without his presence too. Yet, it really doesn’t seem that long since all those wheelchair-bound veterans of the First World War were part of the Remembrance furniture, and now they’re all gone as well. I remember their numbers dwindling year-after-year; every time the Sunday in question came around, there’d be fewer of them than there had been twelve months before. In the end, it got to the point when there were just two or three clinging on as the last surviving link to a conflict the society we were born into was raised in the long shadow of. And then they were no more. The ceremony had to carry on without them – and it has, as WWI ceased to be within living memory and receded over the horizon into its final resting place of the history book.

One used to be able to guess the conflict each ex-serviceman or woman present had participated in by how lined their faces were, though again, using Remembrance Day as a yardstick for measuring the passage of time is a poignant pointer to the gradual moving of the goalposts. Today the grey and white hairs sit atop the heads of those who fought in the Falklands or the Gulf War – even those who fought in more recent conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq; and the remaining old soldiers in the wheelchairs are the ones whose World War was the Second. They have replaced the likes of Harry Patch as the veterans’ veteran; but their numbers are also diminishing every time this day is with us once more. For me personally, that living connection to the War was finally severed when my grandfather passed away almost a decade ago, but until the last survivor who lifted a rifle in anger against the Nazis or Japanese lays it down for good, there is still a link there that we need to cherish while we can.

When I was a child, the ceremonial occasion on the Sunday nearest to 11 November felt like a parade of old men whose relevance to the here and now seemed slight. Yes, my granddad had been there – in Egypt and South Africa and a PoW in East Germany (that much I do know) – but he never talked about it. We were encouraged to remember something we were too young to remember; the ceremony could just as easily have been marking Waterloo, Trafalgar or Agincourt. However, the number of conflicts the British armed forces have been engaged in over the last few decades have given it a newfound relevance for those far younger than me – the widows and orphans of all the overseas wars we have been committed to without prior consultation. I would imagine there are innumerable lives redirected by the ramifications of these conflicts – lives amongst the generations that came after mine as opposed to my own generation, and for them today probably means more than it does to me.

The cultural, emotional and spiritual significance of this event every November – not just the televised ceremony in the capital, but every small service in every metropolis and hamlet the length and breadth of these islands – is one of the reasons why people are so appalled when a protest group hijack it to make a petty point, or why last year’s heavy-handed lockdown policing of the nationwide gatherings around the nearest war memorial was greeted with such outrage. If anything highlighted just how much the police and their taskmasters had overstepped the mark in interpreting pandemic restrictions, it was the images of masked Bobbies surrounding memorials and issuing fines to people who simply wanted to pay their respects and were actually adhering to social distancing rules in the process. Mercifully, the restrictions have been relaxed this year, though watching the broadcast from the Cenotaph and not seeing the Queen on the balcony is a reminder that it’s not simply ‘business as usual’ after last year’s blip. At her advanced age, one wonders if she’ll be back next year or if that’s it now and we’ll have to get used to Prince Charles as effective Regent from hereon.

Considering how Remembrance Day is a fairly rare opportunity to see the most powerful people in the country in the same place at the same time, it’s unavoidable that the ageing process is brought home; even Her Majesty’s individual children (bar one notable absentee who would be sweating it out elsewhere were he capable of sweating) look so bloody old now; for many, it’s the only opportunity to study them close-up one after the other, and the realisation they’re getting on is glaring. Aside from the more moving moments, it’s hard to avoid these little observations, for there are so many tropes to the ceremony that remain fascinating to observe with each passing year, highlights one can’t help but look forward to. What I always find interesting is when one sees the ex-Prime Ministers stood side-by-side and noticing how much more ancient they look than when they were resident at No.10.

The swift turnover of PMs in recent years means there are currently five former leaders standing behind Boris in the line-up, and though the unique sight of them gathered together inevitably makes me think of those Doctor Who stories when the incumbent Doc has to call on his former selves for backup, it’s the nearest thing we have over here to when all the old Presidents attend the inauguration of the latest tenant of the White House; the fun part of that tends to be spotting the increasingly-cadaverous Jimmy Carter and wondering if he’s determined to live forever. Having said that, there’s still a slightly glitzy quality to that occasion utterly absent from the natural sobriety of Remembrance Day.

There’s a genuine democratic aspect to Remembrance Day at the Cenotaph; from the sovereign on down, everyone who played their part on a foreign field or the home front is represented with the laying of a wreath. The lengthy parade of Commonwealth representatives I always find a quite moving reminder of how many nations were absorbed into Britannia’s bosom and fought on her behalf; the dignity of the ceremony and honouring the sacrifice they made is an effective and powerful contradiction of the current revisionist narrative of the Empire and our colonial history as is possible to imagine. Even the presence of a British Asian woman as Home Secretary seems to make that same subtle point. Indeed, it’s when one witnesses just how many former colonies are represented at the ceremony that one remembers – or should – that their ancestors were fighting for an ideal rather than one little offshore island, an ideal that stretched across the Anglosphere and into Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Far East. The forces of totalitarianism in their numerous ideological guises were up against a formidable foe and rightly received their comeuppance. Whether the British Isles or the British Empire, the whole was always greater than the sum of its parts, and what we shared in terms of values trumped whatever divided us. That’s always worth remembering.

© The Editor

Website: https://www.johnnymonroe.co.uk/

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