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

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

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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

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THE NIGHT-SHIFT

NightingalesThe senile old man, the young idiot, and the pompous fool – that was the template Jimmy Perry confessed he seized upon when putting together the genesis of ‘Dad’s Army’ in his head over 50 years ago. He’d drawn inspiration from an old Will Hay movie, the kind that was once a staple diet of Saturday afternoon cinematic interludes on BBC2, and the kind that has now sadly been largely forgotten. Will Hay was one of Britain’s most popular comic actors between the wars and his 1937 film, ‘Oh! Mr Porter’, set in a rural railway station, established the three-way dynamic of the archetypes mentioned in the opening sentence that proved so influential on the formulation of the nation’s favourite TV sitcom. Hay had played the pompous fool that could be seen as a prototype for Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring, and it was the amusing interaction between his character and his old and young subordinates respectively that has continued to echo down the years as comedy alchemy, perhaps reaching its comic peak with ‘Father Ted’ in the 1990s.

However, five years before the priests of Craggy Island debuted on the one-time risk-taking innovator known as Channel 4 in 1995, the same station had aired a sitcom that utilised the same basic formula of the archetypal trio in a completely different (albeit similarly restrictive) setting – and one that remained far more under the radar than Ted, Dougal and Jack. ‘Nightingales’ first appeared at the beginning of 1990, hidden away well after the watershed, which was apt scheduling for a series based around the activities of three nocturnal security guards stationed at a dreary city centre office block. Entirely studio-based, ‘Nightingales’ never saw daylight and was perhaps the last TV sitcom to have the look and feel of a stage-play, eschewing location filming and relying instead upon the inventively funny storylines, the well-drawn characters, and the comic charisma of the small cast to deliver the laughs in the same way ‘Steptoe and Son’ often did in the 60s and 70s. As with Galton & Simpson’s creation, the simple premise of characters trapped in a depressive, claustrophobic environment with no escape is a classic trope of the best British sitcoms, and ‘Nightingales’ is no exception.

The titular head of the ‘Nightingales’ trio was the old man character known only as ‘Sarge’; he was played by ‘Z Cars’ veteran and acclaimed dramatic actor James Ellis. The young idiot character was ‘Ding Dong’ Bell, played by David Threlfall, who later went on to achieve cult status as Frank Gallagher in ‘Shameless’; and the pompous fool was Carter, played by Robert Lindsay, whose sitcom CV stretched back to the 70s with ‘Citizen Smith’. Although there were a handful of minor characters that appeared periodically, the main focus of the series was this three-headed acting powerhouse. Given the soul-destroying boredom of the setting, it was perhaps no surprise that the series routinely ventured into the surreal and the strange, almost as though it was accessing the imaginations of the characters by blurring the lines between the uninspired reality of such a workplace and the fantasy reality its workforce must regularly inhabit simply to endure working there.

James Ellis’s Sarge is a passive, pliable and rather naive avuncular figure, the kind that sees the good in everyone and consciously evokes ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ characteristics when delivering the occasional end-of-show summary, even concluding with an ‘evenin’ all’; it seems too coincidental that the writers didn’t play upon this even further once the former Sgt Bert Lynch from rival cop drama ‘Z Cars’ had been cast in the part. David Threlfall’s Ding Dong is an aggressively childish, thuggish dimwit whose stupidity forms the basis of numerous gags throughout the series, and though he enjoys winding-up and mocking the pretensions of his colleague Carter, Ding Dong simultaneously admires Robert Lindsay’s character in the same way a relentlessly teasing little brother sees in his elder sibling everything he himself secretly wishes he could be. Carter has echoes of Hancock or Harold Steptoe in that he evidently regards himself as far superior to both his surroundings and those surrounding him, forever hankering after a higher aesthetic existence – ‘I wonder what Harold Pinter’s doing tonight?’ is the kind of yearning question he has a habit of posing without receiving a reply. At the same time, his awareness of his actual limitations is exposed whenever promotion within the security business presents itself to him. In fact, Carter’s real dream job is to be a security guard at Heathrow Airport, which he regards as the pinnacle of the profession.

Although it has the conventional look of all the old sitcoms played before a live audience that would be rendered antiquated overnight once the likes of ‘The Royle Family’ and ‘The Office’ changed the game, the magic-realism elements of ‘Nightingales’ don’t take long to show themselves. In the very first episode, a medical student joins the team for one night only, failing to last the course on account of it being a full moon and him being a werewolf. He returns a few episodes later to perform a heart bypass operation on Sarge in the workplace, with Carter and Ding Dong vying for the honour of being able to pass instruments to the amateur surgeon during the procedure. The surreal boat is pushed out even further in an episode in which another addition to the workforce turns out to be a gorilla who wins over the initially hostile team to the point whereby they christen him Terence and are crestfallen when he leaves to accept a position as a security guard at Heathrow.

The Heathrow factor resurfaces again in an episode that sees Carter and Ding Dong competing against each other in the hope of winning a prestigious post at the airport; in order to scoop the prize, they first have to undergo a written examination of the kind we all endured at school (which Carter smugly sails through), followed by the building of a dry stone wall, which the far more hands-on Ding Dong has no problem with. The writing and staging of a one-act play completes the test – and all three sections of the exam are completed in one evening. My own personal favourite episode is one in which Sarge and Carter discover Ding Dong has been up in court for having sex with a horse; a shrink visits the premises as part of his psychiatric assessment and proceeds to hypnotise all three members of the workforce, uncovering several buried secrets along the way. Another classic is an episode in which Peter Vaughan guest stars as a sadistic inspector whose persona is so Captain Bligh-like that the story mutates into a pastiche of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’. If that sounds weird, by the time the episode comes around such flights of fancy are well-established.

In the best sitcom tradition, there’s even a Christmas-themed episode. A pregnant woman by the name of Mary turns up and begs to have her baby on the premises; despite signing a contract drawn up by the suspicious team to swear she’s not an allegory, she then proceeds to give birth to a succession of consumer goods. It’s quite unlike any other Christmas episode of any other sitcom you’ve ever seen. I did actually catch a small handful of ‘Nightingales’ episodes in the early 90s (it only ran for two series), and though I found it funny I’d all-but forgotten about it until a friend bought me it on DVD three or four years back. Not having any idea of my past acquaintance with the series, she figured it might be something I’d like. Revisiting it 30 years after the event, I was pleasantly surprised at how much funnier and innovative it seemed than first time round. I now place it high in my own personal list of favourite sitcoms, even though so few are aware of it. If you’ve never seen it, check it out and join a very small albeit passionate fan-club for an overlooked and underrated gem capable of brightening-up the kind of nights that can make anyone feel as trapped as a nocturnal security guard in a dreary city centre office block.

© The Editor

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MUSICAL CHAIRS

Rovers PianoGiven the date, I suppose some horror-themed piece is appropriate, but I’m of the wrong generation to invest much interest in Halloween. ‘Trick or Treat’ was an imported Americanism that was imported too late for it to have constituted part of my childhood, with my only awareness that such a tradition even existed back then coming via a ‘Charlie Brown’ cartoon; those early animated outings for Charles M Schultz’s creation tended to premiere around the time of prominent US holidays – Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Halloween etc. – and consequently the occasion formed the backbone of the storyline. Once we were into autumn, Mischievous Night and Bonfire Night meant far more over here than Halloween, though both seem somewhat diminished now; the one-time excitement surrounding the latter has been subdued by increasingly tighter restrictions on the sale of fireworks, whereas the former seems to have vanished altogether.

Such a consumerist cash-cow is Halloween today that the carnival is perhaps the major pre-Christmas excuse to go on a bender in fancy dress – though anyone who lives in a student neighbourhood will know it doesn’t take much to encourage that kind of activity. There are probably those – Goths, quite possibly – who take it much more seriously and no doubt mark the event by holding black mass ceremonies in graveyards at midnight, but for most it’s just another children’s festival extended into kidulthood. Obviously, the unique situation of the past eighteen months means any occasion reminiscent of what pre-pandemic life was like is desperately seized upon with even greater fervour than before, so expect social media to be awash with images of Halloween parties and piss-ups. I don’t remember anyone ever really taking photos of bonfires back in the day, and there was certainly never any photographic record of the pranks committed on Mischievous Night – which is a shame, for some of the things I can remember getting up to as a kid were worthy of being preserved as photos. Now it’s possible to document one’s entire day and share it with the world, it’s sometimes easy to forget the vast majority of experiences at one time were only recorded in memory.

Travel back maybe a century and-a-half and we arrive in the last period of history before it was possible to preserve an event in ways we take for granted today. Photography and then moving pictures revolutionised the documentation of the human experience, but just as innovative was recorded sound. I read a piece by Kierkegaard recently in which he expressed his love for Mozart; I considered the date that the renowned Danish pioneer of existentialist philosophy passed away (1855) and realised he shuffled off this mortal coil just two years before the earliest known recording of the human voice, which was made by Parisian Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. I thought about how lucky we are in the oh-so sophisticated early 21st century with how we can satisfy our craving for instant music compared to that of Kierkegaard and not just his own generation, but all the generations that had come before him.

If Kierkegaard wanted to hear a particular favourite by his favourite composer, he either had to wait until an orchestra was in town and hope the piece in question would be in their set-list, or he’d have to become accomplished enough to play it on the piano himself, and perhaps accompany a few friends who were competent on stringed instruments to the point whereby they could play said piece simply in order to hear it. Mind you, chances are he’d know enough people competent on stringed instruments to make assembling such an ensemble nowhere near as great a task as it’d be today; even roping someone in to make a vocal contribution wouldn’t be that difficult – after all, numerous adaptations of Jane Austen novels over the years have familiarised us with the fact that a post-dinner tradition was the accompanying of a pianist with a song; it was part and parcel of a social gathering in the same way that a contemporary equivalent would see the host simply sticking on some recorded music to play in the background. If this type of musical ‘turn’ was part of the middle-class evening-in for generations, the appeal of a singsong round the Joanna was no less strong lower down the class chain, and if not in the home then certainly in the local hostelry.

The presence of a piano as a commonplace item of household furniture may have long gone now, but it was still a lingering fixture during my parents’ 1950s childhoods from everything I’ve heard; the ‘public house’ upright piano was just as obligatory in the standard working-class residence as the middle-class one well into the halfway point of the 20th century, at least up until the modernist social housing revolution that created streets in the sky and dispensed with all the archaic furniture associated with the past. Being in possession of a modicum of musicianship wasn’t regarded as a novelty prior to that; I would imagine the majority of adults could bang out a tune on at least one instrument, which is maybe why the mid-50s demand for guitars from schoolboys inspired by Skiffle was treated as a natural phase by parents who forked-out the HP payments with no awareness whatsoever as to how they were acting as midwives to the cultural revolution of the 1960s by default. Today, the only children who can pick up an instrument and play it are largely those fortunate to attend a school where music lessons aren’t regarded as a luxury – and most adults probably know more people who can’t play an instrument than people who can.

With the actual playing of music one of the most accessible ways of hearing it, it’s no wonder record sales charts didn’t really capture the public imagination until the late 50s, when the sales of vinyl discs began to exceed those of sheet music for the first time. Sheet music had been a necessity for a century where those seeking to hear their favourite tunes were concerned, but the mass availability of said tunes on disc negated the need to replicate them and therefore negated the need to learn how to play them as well as the need for an instrument in the house to play them on. And almost 70 years after the first singles chart being published in the New Musical Express, we now don’t even need our music on a physical object.

It’s so easy to take for granted that when you undergo a sudden craving to listen to a specific piece of music today, you know you can access it within a minute of that craving; you can pull out a CD or LP from your own personal collection or you can go online and access it via Spotify or YouTube. Before recorded sound made all that possible, you would’ve been faced with no choice but to submit to the aforementioned means of accessing music that had always been in place for all of history up until that point. Yet even with the innovation of radio in the 1920s, playlists were still in the hands of the broadcasters; if you wanted to hear a particular favourite tune on the wireless, you’d have to write in to a programme to request it – and even then there was no guarantee they’d play it. Of course, you could go out and buy the record, but it wasn’t possible to buy every record you wanted; they could cost quite a bit, particularly LPs – hence the taping of the Sunday teatime charts onto a cassette, something that gradually evolved into a ritual for more than one generation.

As a teenager, one tended to listen to a good album or single with a dedicated intensity absent now, probably because it was the only record one could afford for a month or two and therefore it was played to death in the absence of choice. If lyrics were available, they were memorised, as was the whole package – sleeve, label and all. When you can instantly access any music you want, that level of commitment is simply not there. It ceases to be quite so valuable, and you can’t really care in quite the same way when it’s all on an iPod. Oh, well; such is progress. And I’ve no doubt Kierkegaard would’ve taken it. Not arf, pop-pickers!

© The Editor

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EVERYBODY MUST GET STONED

Satanic MajestiesI came up with a new variation on the ‘drinking game’ concept the other day after hearing an overused entry in the Woke dictionary once again uttered on Radio 4. I call this fresh twist on the format ‘the slavery game’. One doesn’t need to have the station on all day to play this game; indeed, I heard the word ‘slavery’ within a mere fifteen minutes of listening this morning. It so got me in the mood that I almost switched the radio off and stuck ‘Brown Sugar’ on the turntable. As a song, ‘Brown Sugar’ is now half-a-century old, but the fact it takes the topically triggering subject of slavery and plays with it in a salacious manner characteristic of the turn-of-the-70s Stones means it’s fallen under the spotlight of 2021’s moral watchdogs. The moral watchdogs of 1971 were no more amused by its themes either, so it’s not as if the song hasn’t been criticised before. 50 years back, however, they were the middle-aged conservative right and found the young Stones an affront to all they held dear; their contemporary equivalents are firmly on the left, and young where the Stones are old, but their determination to take offence – especially at any art that predates their new world order – is so far-reaching that even the artists themselves cower under their power.

Along with ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’, ‘Brown Sugar’ is one of the guaranteed certs in a Stones set-list – or always has been. No more. The decision has been taken to drop the number from Stones shows, and even if the reasons given evade accusations of self-censoring capitulation to the critical consensus, I can’t help but feel the Stones of ’71 would’ve responded to calls for ‘Brown Sugar’ to be banned with a couple of sticky fingers aimed in the direction of Mary Whitehouse. The Stones have far less to lose now than they did 50 years ago, when a cross-Channel flight from the taxman to stave off bankruptcy meant they were in a considerably more vulnerable position; but today’s financially secure incarnations have decided to give an inch in the hope no mile will be taken. Dream on. Expect ‘Stray Cat Blues’ and ‘Under My Thumb’ to be next on the hit-list. Oh, well; anyone who wants ‘Brown Sugar’ can still access it, and I’d rather hear the original 1971 record than see the remnants of the band play it live in 2021, anyway.

Purely by coincidence, I’ve recently been augmenting my ongoing reliance on Classical as an in-house soundtrack by revisiting the Stones back catalogue, specifically the period which is for me their ‘golden era’, covering the five years from 1966 to 1971. Some of their most celebrated singles and albums emanate from this remarkable run, including what remains an unfairly maligned and misunderstood LP – more than any other in the band’s lengthy canon; it also happens to be the one I can’t seem to stop playing. It’s become something of a tradition on here to follow a heavyweight story with a post looking back at a vintage TV series that happens to be my box-set of the moment; but I don’t often apply the same tactics to my listening habits. Why not, though? Today, I’m talking about a 1967 LP by The Rolling Stones called ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’.

Firstly, I love the title; ‘Satanic Majesties’ soon became a clichéd description of the band to summarise that bleak era at the end of the 60s when an apocalyptic aura seemed to surround them, but the title of this album is of course a play upon the ‘Her Britannic Majesty’s’ segment of the old British passport. A sense of humour was actually quite a strong element of the band at this time, something that the subsequent descent into darkness shortly thereafter tends to obscure. Anyway, this was a record that had a very difficult gestation, for 1967 was not an easy year for the band. It opened with a mixed reception to the album ‘Between the Buttons’, swiftly followed by the infamous Redlands drug bust and the very serious prospect of long-term prison sentences for Jagger and Richards; the ramifications of this raid were to dog the band for the rest of the year, but they clearly found solace by retreating to the recording studio and…well…getting stoned. It was the Psychedelic high summer, after all. Mick and Keith were in attendance at Abbey Road when The Beatles recorded ‘A Day in the Life’ and Jagger was also present during the live TV broadcast of ‘All You Need is Love’ as well as dragging Marianne along to a Maharishi summit; Lennon and McCartney returned the compliment by singing backup vocals on the Stones’ superb ‘We Love You’ single, which was released ahead of (though sadly not included on) ‘Satanic Majesties’. The rivalry between the two bands was largely press-generated, for there was a genuine sense of kinship, an ‘Us and Them’ attitude that the pursuit by Scotland Yard solidified.

The undeniable influence of the Fab Four on the Stones during this period isn’t really reflected in ‘We Love You’, which is an exhilarating if scary journey into the dark heart of acid-infused paranoia via Brian Jones’ mastery of the mellotron; the band even filmed a brilliantly sardonic promo video in which Mick and Marianne were portrayed as Oscar Wilde and Bosie. By the time the Stones’ second album of 1967 was finally ready for release at the end of the year the Beatle influence was mostly evident in the front cover of the LP. Whilst The Beatles had been portrayed as Carnabetian bandsmen on the ‘Sgt Pepper’ sleeve, the Stones came across as slightly seedy pied pipers surrounded by all the gaudy trimmings of the dressing-up box. The original front cover idea of a nude Jagger being crucified was deemed a step too far even for them, so they settled for their own novel 3D take on the brand – and even hid the individual Beatles’ faces amidst the lysergic foliage. The criticisms levelled at the album tend to begin with the sleeve, yet the actual contents bear little resemblance to John, Paul, George & Ringo’s cultural landmark.

Accusations of bandwagon-jumping and being too late to the Psychedelic party to make an impact don’t take into account the pressures on the band throughout its drawn-out recording. The album probably would have appeared far earlier had these pressures not got in the way, but in retrospect it’s a miracle they managed to produce anything at all. Endless court appearances, the overhanging threat of prison, the internal trauma of Keith Richards stealing Brian Jones’ girlfriend (Anita Pallenberg), and Jones’ own slide into addiction can’t have helped, yet the end product sounds nothing like ‘Sgt Pepper’ and indeed nothing like any of 1967’s other British Psychedelic milestones by the likes of Pink Floyd or the Jimi Hendrix Experience. ‘Satanic Majesties’ exists in a uniquely exotic and mesmerising sonic bubble that places it in a field all of its own, one that the Stones themselves never ploughed again and few others have emulated. Personally, I think it represents the high watermark of the period in which the band were eager to spread their wings and were brave enough to venture into uncharted territory.

Bar a couple of extended jams that reflect both the spirit of the age and the consumption of the substances that went with it, the album is far stronger than popular opinion would have anyone believe. The space rock excursion of ‘2000 Light Years from Home’ and the adorable melodic riches of ‘She’s A Rainbow’ make it worth investing in, but the likes of ‘Citadel’, ‘2000 Man’ and ‘Lantern’ are wonderfully underrated songs that really work in the context of the blissfully rewarding earworm of a trip that playing the album from start to finish adds up to. There’s even evidence of that aforementioned humour in a hidden track known as ‘Cosmic Christmas’ – a nightmarish slowed-down instrumental of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ – as well as in the music hall-meets-cabaret club finale of ‘On With the Show’. The band themselves routinely dismiss the LP and write it off as a self-indulgent exercise, yet I don’t know many people who don’t love it. It may well be the runt of the litter, but it stands up as the last glittering, risk-taking example of the Stones being prepared to throw caution to the wind and spurn the whole crippling notion of pop music as a rigid, restrictive series of genres and categories in which everyone stays in their lane. Over half-a-century on, I think the record-buying public didn’t know how well off they were.

© The Editor

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WEIRD SCENES INSIDE THE GOLD MINE

Rick JonesThe two encounters may have been 30 years apart, but I count myself lucky to have met two presenters of ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’. Johnny Ball I stumbled upon whilst he was filming something on the street in the late 1980s and Julie Stevens I chatted to at one of the vintage TV events the Kaleidoscope organisation used to stage in a Stourbridge hotel. The pair often presented the BBC’s pre-school mainstay together and regularly formed part of the gang on the show’s slightly more grownup – albeit considerably sillier – sibling. As with the classic ‘Blue Peter’ line-up, the surrogate aunts and uncles who appeared on ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’ still radiate nostalgic hues whenever they’re recalled by anyone whose formative years were spent being babysat by them. Their association with a unique, womb-like security that life rarely returns to once we graduate from the nursery means they will always claim a special shelf in the memory bank. The likes of Brian Cant and Derek Griffiths are in possession of legendary status for those of a certain age, and the exotic folk singer Toni Arthur even managed to stir something in the little boys watching that none of them were prepared for at such a tender age. As an adult, meeting anyone who played their part in weaving these dreams is a real privilege, one of those rare opportunities to simply say ‘thank you’.

Like many of the other presenters whose big break came via ‘Play School’, Johnny Ball spread his wings into other areas of children’s television, most memorably with an inventive programme that managed the difficult achievement of making maths fun, ‘Think of a Number’. Although his days hosting kid’s shows were more or less over when I encountered him in person, Ball was still a familiar face on the box at the time and instantly recognisable. I remember me and the friend I was with being somewhat star-struck when we spotted him, and we dashed off to the nearest WH Smiths to purchase a pen and notebook for that pre-selfie must-have, the autograph. We made it back to the corner where he was filming, relieved he hadn’t gone, and waited for a break in the recording to approach him. Mercifully, no infant illusions were shattered and he proved to be a genuinely pleasant person, more than happy to sign his name and engage in a brief chat.

Weirdly, I’d only recently picked-up a 70s LP called ‘Bang on a Drum’ that featured the ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’ performers singing the sort of songs routinely heard on the shows, as well as a few oddities characteristic of the time. I recall one song sung by presenter (and former member of 60s Merseybeat-type band The Four Pennies) Lionel Morton called ‘Come to the Shops’, which, with a slightly more psychedelic arrangement, could have passed for a whimsical slice of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Mention of this album prompted a few reminiscences by Ball of the LP’s recording. Amongst those involved in the process was Rick Jones, a Canadian whose time on ‘Play School’ predates my memory but who would shortly be immortalised for my generation on another iconic show. Ball confessed the hirsute, hippyish Jones had been off his tits on a few unnamed substances during the making of the album, and somehow that didn’t come as a surprise.

Rick Jones had surpassed his fame as a ‘Play School’ presenter when he progressed to a series in the ‘Watch with Mother’ lunchtime strand as of 1972, ‘Fingerbobs’. Like most of the programmes that were screened in that post-‘Pebble Mill at One’ slot, ‘Fingerbobs’ ran for just one series of 13 episodes, yet repeat screenings for the best part of a decade created the impression in the memory that hundreds were produced. How to describe it? Well, Jones – always dressed as though he had just been hitchhiking to Kathmandu with The Incredible String Band – sat behind a desk like a stoned newsreader and addressed the viewer with the assistance of Fingermouse.

Fingermouse was basically a glove with a paper mouse head stuck on the knuckles; the host made no attempt to hide the fact Fingermouse was essentially just his hand, yet he would dispatch the creature to collect various bits and pieces to bring back and inspire a story. As a child, I admit I did wonder how Jones and his rodent hand went their separate ways, for we were led to believe the presenter remained at his desk whilst we followed a seemingly severed Fingermouse out and about with other glove animals including a tortoise, a dove and even a scampi. But disbelief was successfully suspended and a gloriously eccentric imagination took over.

Also being a gifted musician, Rick Jones infused ‘Fingerbobs’ with a soundtrack that is as much inseparable from the imagery as Ry Cooder’s slide guitar is with ‘Paris, Texas’ or the zither of Anton Karas is with ‘The Third Man’. You can’t think of the programme without hearing the Fingermouse song or the incidental music threaded through almost every scene. The programme was one of the few BBC series of the period not produced in-house but by an independent company called Q3 of London – also responsible for other fondly-remembered series such as ‘Teddy Edward’ and ‘Crystal Tipps and Alistair’; although as heavily associated with the early 70s as both those two – Jones’s sartorial style is very much rooted in time and place – ‘Fingerbobs’ nevertheless ran regularly on the BBC until 1984, claimed by more than one generation of children as its own. It was also aided in its on-screen longevity via the advantage of being shot on film, therefore giving it a good reason for avoiding the widespread wiping of videotaped programmes in the BBC at the time.

Rick Jones appears to have been part of that great creative migration to London that took place in the Swinging decade, though he fittingly emanated from a city in Ontario named after the UK capital. Many of the ‘Play School’ presenters were either actors or musicians, and Jones was one of those who often whipped out his guitar on the show; through the archive editions that survive from his era, it’s possible to hear the warm tones of Jones’s soft, soothing voice receiving a prominent airing during his stint on the series, though he had a wider canvas to work with when it came to ‘Fingerbobs’. Outside of his TV work, Jones made further use of his musical talents as a member of a country rock group called Meal Ticket, who played on London’s celebrated pub rock circuit in the mid-70s. I’d love to picture them sharing a bill with Toni Arthur delivering one of her spooky folk numbers or Derek Griffiths indulging in a funky workout of ‘The Wibbly Wobbly Walk’, but I’ll have to leave that one for the parallel universe.

Rick Jones’s death from cancer at the age of 84 was announced a couple of days ago; it somehow feels right that he passed away in San Francisco, for it’s hard to think of a more spiritual home for an artist of his generation. Yet it was on these shores that his potential as a storyteller was fulfilled, a time when even children’s television was shaking off the shackles of the 1950s and embracing the spirit of the age. Whether John Noakes breaking the class barrier and showing RP the door or fantastically out-there, imaginative shows such as ‘Vision On’, this period remains the gold standard for kid’s TV, gifting younger viewers an abundance of riches that even the relentless rolling by of decades since hasn’t erased the impact of. And Rick Jones, allegedly passing round a spliff as he, Lionel Morton and Johnny Ball were shot in silhouette as the three kings during a ‘Play School’ telling of the Nativity, stands out as one of the pivotal figures of this genuine Golden Age, exuding humour, charm and a knowing cool that only a musician of the era could bring to the table. Legend.

© The Editor

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A SPORTING CHARACTER

GreavsieI can’t say I’ve noticed policemen are getting younger, though the fact they’re certainly fatter than they used to be is perhaps the contemporary pointer to a generation gap between them and me. If anything, the passing of years seems more accurately measured by the passing of childhood characters that once personified the physical benefits of the sporting life and are now either withered old men diminished by dementia or have already sunk six feet under. Barely a week goes by without one former cover star of ‘Shoot’ magazine in the 1970s being revealed as struggling in the early stages of Alzheimer’s; recently, the likes of Denis Law and Gordon McQueen have joined the lengthening ranks of former footballers who illuminated the game during my formative years and are now feeling the belated after-effects of all those seasons heading heavy balls into the back of the net decades ago. But even more unsettling than the sad, shambling squad of ex-players reduced to shrunken shadows of their past healthy selves is the expanding roll-call of footballers to have had their boots hung up by the Grim Reaper of late. The latest casualty of an alarming list is someone whose time as one of English football’s all-time great goal-scorers predates my memory, yet whose unexpected second shot at fame turned him into a household name all over again.

Every once in a while a prodigious footballing talent emerges whose skills appear to belie their tender years; the teenage sensation appearing out of the blue and unleashed on an unsuspecting opposition like some secret weapon launched without warning is a recurring story in the sport and in 1957 its representative was 17-year-old striker Jimmy Greaves. The press wasn’t averse to generating hype even back then, and the success of Manchester United’s ‘Busby Babes’ inspired the less-well remembered ‘Drake’s Ducklings’, a tag coined to described the young players under the management of Ted Drake at Chelsea. Greaves made the biggest impact of all the Ducklings, scoring on his debut (as he did at every club he turned out for) and ending his first season as Chelsea’s top scorer. When a generation of English football’s bright young things were cut down in their prime by the Munich air crash of 1958, Greaves then became the focus of the future, though he was plying his trade in a team unworthy of his talents and at a time when the fruits of his labours were limited by a maximum wage and the status of virtual serfdom where football’s governing body was concerned.

The exodus of top British footballers to the riches of Italy’s Serie A at the end of the 1950s was robbing the Football League of its brightest stars, so it was perhaps inevitable something had to give. The abolition of the maximum wage was lengthy and hard-fought, but by the time Fulham and England captain Johnny Haynes became Britain’s first £100-a-week player in 1961, Jimmy Greaves had already been sold to A.C. Milan. It was an unhappy move for Greavsie and he played barely a dozen games for the Italians before Milan accepted a bid from double winners Tottenham Hotspur to bring him back home. The sudden improvement of a top footballer’s financial lot in England also affected transfer fees, though Spurs manager Bill Nicholson spared Greaves from the burden of being the country’s first £100,000 player by signing him for the unusual fee of £99,999.

Bill Nicholson needn’t have worried that the big bucks spent to sign Greaves might affect the player’s performance. Greavsie carried on at Spurs where he’d left off at Chelsea, but playing in a far superior side; he ended his first season at White Hart Lane by lifting the FA Cup and his second saw Spurs become the first British team to win a European trophy by beating Atlético Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup Final. He scored in both Finals. By this time, Greavsie was well-established at international level as England’s first choice striker and his tally of 35 goals in an England shirt, reached in 1964, set a new record; he played in all four games England took part in at the 1962 World Cup in Chile, and with his domestic goal-scoring remaining amongst the best in the League, his was one of the first names on Alf Ramsey’s team-sheet for the 1966 World Cup. Indeed, he played up front in all three of England’s group games at Wembley and understandably imagined it was his destiny to win the competition on home soil, a crowning glory written in the stars. Alas, an injury ruled Greavsie out of the Quarter Final, and his replacement Geoff Hurst kept the job thereafter; although Greaves was fit for the Final, Ramsey decided to stick with the same side and as this was an era before substitutes, Jimmy Greaves played no part on the pitch, forced to sit and watch from the sidelines with no prospect of participating.

Greaves himself often denied his descent into alcoholism was a consequence of the immense personal disappointment he felt at being denied his destiny in 1966; but by the time he joined West Ham in 1970, his enthusiasm for the game seemed to be waning as his fondness for alcohol appeared to be on the rise. Temptation was hardly hard to come by, however. Off the field of play there was a long-standing, hard-drinking culture within English football, and it was only really with the advent of the Premier League in the 1990s – and the new strict fitness regimes introduced via the influx of Continental coaches – that excessive boozing gradually began to be frowned upon. The rise and fall of George Best is routinely highlighted as football’s cautionary tale when it comes to alcohol, though Best’s pop star profile kept him in the public eye even when he prematurely retired. After Jimmy Greaves quit in 1971 and quickly slid from post-match boozer to professional pisshead, he vanished from sight for several years, only occasionally surfacing to turn out for non-league teams in the mid-to-late 70s before finally slipping out of the game.

Unlike George Best – who never really conquered the bottle – Jimmy Greaves did eventually succeed where Best couldn’t and overcame his demons in a remarkable fashion. By the beginning of the 1980s, Greavsie had become permanently sober and this was the point at which his second career began to take off. After impressing viewers as a pundit on ATV’s regional soccer show on a Sunday afternoon, he was recruited to the ITV team for the station’s coverage of the 1982 World Cup, introducing the whole nation to a sharp-witted middle-aged man at odds with the sad drunken has-been who’d periodically popped-up in the Sunday papers throughout the previous decade. In today’s media landscape of post-modern punditry, where a light-hearted and jokey approach to discussing the game is commonplace, it’s easy to forget how stiff and formal football presentation on television often was at the time Greavsie gatecrashed it in 1982. It could be argued he singlehandedly changed the way in which punditry was presented as an ingredient of the formula, and when he began to appear alongside ex-player Ian St John in the ‘On the Ball’ segment of ITV’s ‘World of Sport’ every Saturday lunchtime, the spark between the two prompted a spin-off.

For seven years, ‘Saint and Greavsie’ was a lynchpin in terrestrial TV’s football schedule, though it’s telling the ending of the series coincided with the arrival of the Premier League and Sky coverage. Perhaps it did seem a bit tired by then, and Greavsie himself was regularly ribbed on the far hipper likes of ‘Fantasy Football League’ from the mid-90s onwards. Nevertheless, the resurrection of Jimmy Greaves remained one of football’s true success stories from an era when there were few – if any – safety nets for players who’d fallen on hard times; he clawed his way back without the aid of any high-profile programme or campaign backed by the virtuous signalling of the FA, and a generation who’d never known him as a player came to know him as an entertainer. A funny old life when all’s said and done, but an admirable victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

© The Editor

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

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