PHYSICAL GRAFFITI

OliviaNext year’s Eurovision being staged in Blighty by default isn’t necessarily a unique event; the tradition of one year’s winning nation hosting the following year’s Contest has been disrupted several times in the past, and the UK has stepped in to host proceedings as a substitute more than once, usually when the winning nation has found staging the contest an impossibility, the last time (until 2023) being 1974. Luxembourg had claimed the crown in 1973, but the Grand Duchy’s second consecutive win proved to be a financial bridge too far for the principality and Britain stepped in again, nominating the Brighton Dome as a venue. Of course, a certain four-piece from Sweden eventually captured the headlines with a stomping slice of sub-Glam Rock called ‘Waterloo’, and every other performance that year tends to linger in Abba’s shadow, despite the 1974 Eurovision producing a record number of UK hits. Aside from the celebrated chart-topping winner, the runner-up – Italy’s Gigliola Cinquetti with ‘Si’ – reached No.8; Holland’s third-placed entry, ‘I See a Star’ by Mouth & MacNeal, peaked at the same position; and the UK’s very own ‘Long Live Love’ made the charts at No.11; the singer of that song was Olivia Newton-John.

The sad news that the British-born Aussie siren has passed away following a long on-off battle with cancer at the age of 73 is bound to provoke a bout of melancholic nostalgia in anyone of a certain age, particularly those (like me) whose bedroom walls she provided the first female presence upon. Remember poster magazines? They were regular fixtures on newsagents’ shelves in the 70s; they’d contain text on each page and would then be unfolded to reveal a huge poster of the featured subject on the flipside of the text. Frankenstein’s Monster and King Kong had been the first such poster magazine stars of my own personal childhood gallery until the 1978 movie version of ‘Grease’ came along and ushered in a different era, whereby pop stars replaced fantasy figures on the wall. Olivia Newton-John in the black satin pants she apparently had to be sewn-into for ‘You’re the One That I Want’ decorated said wall for a few months that year, upholding the appeal of the ‘bad girl’ that Suzi Quatro had monopolised with such memorable sensual vitality a few years earlier.

This Olivia was in direct contrast with the sweet girl-next-door version of ‘Sandy’ that constituted the majority of ‘Grease’, providing the movie with a climax that those who were around at the time tend to remember as the most iconic sequence of the film. Like the rest of the cast of the original high-school musical, Olivia Newton-John was more than a decade away from school age when making it (she was pushing 30), but it gave her two of the best-selling singles in UK chart history in 1978, both of which were duets with co-star John Travolta. ‘You’re the One That I Want’ was No.1 for nine weeks, whilst ‘Summer Nights’ managed seven. A couple of years later, ‘Xanadu’ may have been a movie savaged by the critics, yet it still produced another chart-topper in collaboration with the Electric Light Orchestra (ELO’s only No.1); and the following year, Olivia’s star was in the ascendancy on the other side of the Atlantic when she pushed the sexuality of satin pants Sandy into more dubious lyrical territory with ‘Physical’, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for ten weeks.

It was all a far cry from the wholesome songstress whose first hit was a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘If Not For You’ a decade before, a breakthrough followed by forays into radio-friendly Country Pop like ‘Banks of the Ohio’ and ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. She’d arrived back in her homeland after spending the majority of her childhood in Australia, making the same return journey as The Bee Gees around the same time. Born in Cambridge in 1948, the daughter of an MI5 officer who’d been on the Bletchley Park Enigma code-cracking team during WWII, she attempted to slot into the showbiz style of the biggest Brit female stars such as Lulu, Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield once she returned to the UK as the winner of an Aussie talent contest. All had progressed from the charts to hosting their own prime-time BBC variety showcases, whereas Olivia quickly found herself effectively adopted by Cliff Richard and The Shadows, appearing regularly on Cliff’s early 70s TV show and becoming romantically involved with Shadows guitarist Bruce Welch; when she ended the relationship, a devastated Welch attempted suicide. Thankfully, the attempt failed and Olivia Newton-John continued to progress along the path established for UK pop ‘dollybirds’ by being selected to represent the nation at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974.

Like Sandie Shaw and Lulu before her, Olivia wasn’t keen on the song the public voted for her to perform at the Eurovision, but she did her duty and gave her all to a plodder that was very much in a staid tradition that Abba blew out of the water overnight. A fourth-placed finish would’ve been hailed as a triumph in more recent years, but in 1974 it was regarded as a bit humiliating. Thereafter, Olivia moved away from the MOR circuit and resumed her flirtation with Country and Western-flavoured sounds; this paid off in the US, where she scored a No.1 hit in 1974 with ‘I Honestly Love You’; the success of this song in the States – and its chart-topping follow-up, ’Have You Never Been Mellow’ – prompted her to relocate there in the mid-70s as her British hits dried up. It was a timely move. Aside from 1977’s ‘Sam’, which reached No.6 in the UK, Olivia didn’t trouble the British charts again until the phenomenal success of all the ‘Grease’ singles in 1978, including her solo ‘Hopelessly Devoted to You’, which was kept off the No.1 spot by The Boomtown Rats’ ‘Rat Trap’.

After establishing herself as the predominant female pop star in the US with ‘Physical’, Olivia Newton-John’s stateside star surprisingly faded swiftly thereafter, overtaken by younger upstarts such as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper. After taking time out to marry her long-time boyfriend Matt Lattanzi and become a mother, she returned later in the 80s, but found even younger newcomers like Debbie Gibson and Tiffany occupying the ground she’d previously dominated, and she never regained that ground despite staging various comebacks that carried her into the 90s. However, all of this was placed on ice when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992. Despite winning that stage of the battle, the cancer returned both in 2013 and 2017; the latter proved to be a tougher opponent than her previous bouts and it ended up spreading to her bones, causing her so much pain that she turned to cannabis for relief and ended up becoming a vocal advocate for its medicinal use.

Aside from Bruce Welch’s attempted suicide, the most notable incident in Olivia Newton-John’s personal life was the strange disappearance of her post-divorce, on-off boyfriend Patrick McDermott, who mysteriously vanished from a fishing boat off the coast of Los Angeles in 2005; persistent rumours that he faked his own death have been compounded by the fact that his body has never been found. Their relationship had already ended around the time of his disappearance and she married again in 2008, a union that lasted all the way to her death. I guess the announcement that the cancer which had bedevilled her for the best part of 30 years has finally claimed her provides a poignant opportunity to reassess her lengthy career now that there will be no further comebacks.

Although not an ‘artist’ in the vein of a Joni Mitchell or a Kate Bush, Olivia Newton-John nevertheless had a fascinating journey that took her all the way from Australia to BBC light-entertainment and from Hollywood to US pop royalty – and one could say she paved the way for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Whatever her legacy, Olivia Newton-John made a mark that, for a brief period, placed her at the top of a showbiz tree that is no mean feat to reach. And the image of her stubbing out her cigarette beneath stilettos is one that will remain a potent snapshot of 20th century pop culture for however long the shadow cast by 20th century pop culture lingers. Right now, it seems like it will linger for a hell of a while.

© The Editor

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THE TOWPATH TO WIGAN PIER

Anal JourneysDavid Warner, Bernard Cribbins, Nichelle Nichols – they’re dropping like flies again; and in tandem with the passing of familiar famous faces whose finest performances evoke inevitable nostalgia, a purely unrelated excursion on my part has involved delving into a retro-scented environment as redolent of a disappearing world as those dearly departed characters were. Over the past month, I’ve followed a route carved-out by navvies more than 200 years ago and ended up at a landmark George Orwell immortalised in 1937, despite the fact even he arrived too late to catch the decrepit remnants of an old music-hall gag. A lengthy post-war restoration of our man-made waterways has perhaps neutered their industrial origins, yet a wooden jetty erected to assist the loading of coal onto working barges was labelled a pier as an ironic dig at a town sorely lacking in the gaudy glamour that the coastal escape routes offered the colliers whose booty the vanished edifice was once weighed down by. The fact a functional construction was jokingly compared to a seaside stalwart highlights how the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, upon which the actual Wigan Pier stood, was very much a workplace for the majority of its existence, something it’s easy to forget when one strolls beside it today.

The Canal cuts a sublime swathe across the Pennines for 127 miles, and almost half-a-century ago a small segment of it provided yours truly with a picturesque playground during seemingly endless school holidays; back then, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was on my doorstep, and improvised summer outings along the towpath left a lifelong love of the location it’s been nice to revive. This time round I’ve followed that path on the other side of the geographical divide, however, with the starting point being the West Lancashire town of Burscough. Although less than 10 miles from Wigan, walking all the way using the Canal as a route is a method of getting from A to B that consciously makes journey’s end something to prolong. Unlike the internal combustion engine – rendering the journey itself an inconvenience to be got through as quickly as possible – when one walks along a canal, it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. In terms of reaching the finishing post, it’s far more tortoise than hare. Leisurely is the word.

Indeed, the leisurely pace of a canal trek is something that again emphasises the changing purpose of this country’s waterway network. When barges are sighted on canals today, nine out of ten times they’re either pleasure cruisers or alternative dwellings for the eccentric; the former come and go as must-have accessories, with the barges belonging to some of the more faddish wannabe shipping magnates betraying their sell-by dates via their shabby, neglected state as they sit permanently moored and gathering dust. Of course, if the more zealous members of the green lobby get their way, a century from now we may well see road vehicles as we now see canal vessels; perhaps a visitation of future transport-for-all came courtesy of the occasional cyclists along the canal path that required rather tiresome standing aside at certain points of the route. At least some cyclists had bells on their bikes to warn pedestrians they were creeping up from behind, whereas others exhibited the same entitled arrogance the revamped Highway Code has misguidedly legitimised on the roads. Either way, the mess that tyres have made of the path is something that a drop of rain can exacerbate, making the journey on foot one in which veering too close to the edge is even more ill-advised.

Actually, any rainfall that took place didn’t occur whilst I was walking the towpath; I was fortunate that each leg of this journey was staged on days when the sun had got his hat on. As if to underline the prosaic nature of the trek, the walk from Burscough to Wigan was undertaken in isolated episodes spread over several weeks. Also, a pattern was established whereby the end of every stage would then see the immediate retracing of steps after a drink and bite to eat; for example, stage one was from Burscough to the village of Parbold, though once this said hamlet had been reached it was then followed by backtracking to Burscough (where the car was parked). Stage two on a different day began at Parbold and went all the way to the commuter village of Appley Bridge; when that was achieved, a return visit to Parbold was then in order – and so on. Stage three: Appley Bridge to Gathurst, a district of the township of Shevington; and stage four consisted of Gathurst to Wigan. The inspiration for this undertaking was the late, great Ian Nairn, whose 1972 trilogy of documentaries for the BBC saw him travel from London to Manchester by road, Manchester to Leeds by canal, and Leeds to Edinburgh by rail. The canal seemed the more economic option in these cost-of-living crisis days, not to mention providing a suitably serene travelling experience.

Certain sections of the route were marked by blissful vortexes of natural quiet, often spanning a good ten-fifteen minutes without sight or sound of another human being or the noise pollution of traffic. Indeed, it was these sedate passages that most evoked childhood memories; there’s something inescapably calming about a location with an abundance of wild flowers on one side and water on the other that taps into an impression of summer as seen through a child’s eyes as much as the mellifluous commentary of John Arlott transmitting on Long Wave represents the season’s sound in the imagination. Other than cyclists, the only interruption would come via the occasional fisherman positioned by the side of the canal or the odd dog-walker and his/her canine companion. Long periods of untouched nature would be periodically intruded upon by affluent settlements – old tied cottages refurbished for the nouveau riche and new-builds attempting to blend in to the surroundings, with the regular incursion of archaic coaching inns remodelled as gastro-pubs making the most of having survived both the smoking ban and lockdown. All of these somehow seemed integral to the landscape, however; even a motorway bridge that crossed the canal during the stage with Gathurst as its finishing post could be admired as a feat of engineering as impressive as the canal itself rather than an unwelcome 20th century gate-crasher.

When the end of the line was eventually reached, I experienced a similar sense of anticlimax as Eric Blair himself must have felt 85 years ago; where be Wigan Pier? Well, the site that bears that famous name today largely consists of several expensive-looking ‘luxury apartments’ or work units that sadly stand unoccupied. In a way, this serves as a melancholy metaphor for the town of Wigan itself. A cursory online exploration reveals a settlement that Ian Nairn particularly praised in the 1960s as a fine example of a thriving Northern enclave that had transcended its industrial roots once boasted a characteristic Victorian market hall that embodied the spirit of the place. Alas, like many such locations during a period in which town councillors became drunk on the unrealisable visions of town planners, Wigan suffered from over-ambition, and even the ‘Casino’ that put Northern Soul on the map in the 70s has long since fallen beneath the dubious wrecking-ball of progress.

My previous visit to Wigan – only in the dying days of 2021 – found the old market’s replacement still open to the public, even if most of the shops housed in it were closed for business; seven months later, the entire area has been boarded-up and blocked-off; ‘1989’ is the giveaway year of its erection imprinted in the architecture, though the fact the town’s beating heart was swept away to accommodate a misguided attempt at urban regeneration was mirrored in the plethora of lunchtime pissheads and mobility scooters for the clinically obese that left the saddest impression on the visitor. Thankfully, the established order of my canal trek meant a dispiriting Wigan was followed by a return to the less-depressing environs of Gathurst. Overall, though, the lingering impact of an impromptu journey was of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal itself as opposed to the town at the end of it. The timeless appeal of this country’s unsung waterways remains unpolluted by ‘progress’, and as a method of seeing the country in a refreshingly alternate light, I can’t think of anything better.

© The Editor

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

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PET PROJECTS

Macca and Martha‘Oh, I’m looking after my girlfriend’s dog again while she’s at work’; ‘I think that cat lives next-door and it keeps coming in every time I leave the backdoor open’ – just two of the excuses I routinely used when I had both a canine and feline companion when living in rented accommodation and the owner of the property turned up unannounced. Keeping quiet about one’s benefits was one thing – ‘No DHSS’ was something landlords were allowed to state in the same way they’d once infamously stated ‘No Irish, no dogs, no blacks’ – but pets were the ultimate no-no. That said, I lived in three different premises with my cat and dog and wasn’t officially entitled to have either of them whilst living there. Some landlords were more tolerant than others. A landlady I had over 20 years ago insisted on collecting the rent in person and would call every Thursday evening at the same time; but she didn’t just take the money at the door; she’d come in, sit down and natter. Throughout this weekly endurance test I’d have to make sure the cat was out and I’d ask a friend to sit in the kitchen with the dog, bribing him with treats to prevent him from barking.

Potential damage as well as the noise – and possibly odour – of animals appears to be one reason private landlords have always had a downer on them; and, to be fair, there are plenty of irresponsible pet-owners who don’t empty the litter tray and don’t take the dog out for a walk when it needs to do its business. As a pet-owner myself, I was permanently conscious that I wasn’t adhering to my rental agreement by having them and did my best to guarantee they didn’t disrupt the lives of other tenants; but I would’ve attended to my pets’ needs even if I’d bought the property, and the dog barking whenever the doorbell rang would still have been something I’d have attempted to discourage. Not all pet-owners are so conscientious, of course, and I suspect these are the ones to blame for the rest being tarred with the same unfair brush by the majority of landlords.

According to the latest stats released by rental platform Goodlord, just 5% of landlords today allow pets to be kept by tenants renting their properties; when one considers just how essential pets can be in providing the lonely or the socially-challenged with companionship, it seems especially mean. Landlords will tend to fall back on the reasons already mentioned if they’re opposed to pet ownership on their property, and if faced with a choice between a tenant with pets or one without, they’ll usually opt for the latter every time. And even money can’t swing it. A story emerged recently that a far-from skint prospective tenant offered a landlord £3,300 a week for a penthouse apartment for which the landlord was asking £3000, simply because the prospective tenant in question had four dachshunds and figured offering to pay more than the asking price might override any objections; in the end, the landlord accepted a lower offer from a pet-free tenant instead.

However, all this could be about to change. In the past couple of weeks, a white paper has been published to address some of the issues faced by renters. The long-overdue abolition of the contentious ‘no fault’ Section 21 evictions is proposed – this is the system whereby a landlord can give notice to a tenant to leave the property without first providing a reason for the eviction – and not before time; 22% of renters who left their homes in the past twelve months did so without it being their choice. But the Renters Reform Bill also attempts to allow tenants the right to have pets in their rented homes, the first time this will be enshrined in law. No longer will landlords be able to specify those with pets will be barred from renting from them; and, as someone who spent the best part of 20 years living in rented accommodation with one pet or another – and being acutely aware of the risks I was taking – I cannot help but welcome these changes. Considering the boom in pet ownership spawned by the unique conditions of lockdown – and the belated realisation of what a difference a cat or dog can make to those abruptly deprived of social interaction with other people – this is something that needed to be addressed.

If I’d been threatened with eviction whilst a pet-owner, I would’ve found somewhere else to live rather than part with my four-legged friends, and a survey by the Deposit Protection Service recently revealed 30% of pet-owning renters had done precisely that of late. This bill nonetheless includes a caveat for concerned landlords, all the same; reports indicate Housing Secretary Michael Gove plans to grant powers to landlords so they can request their pet-owning tenants have insurance in the event of any damage done to the property by their pet, something that has eased the worries of the National Residential Landlords Association – particularly as landlords are limited when it comes to the amount of a deposit they can hold onto as insurance against pet damage; the Tenant Fees Act of 2019 restricts that amount to five weeks’ rent. NRLA representative Chris Morris said, ‘Our biggest concern has always been that the law, as it currently stands, prevents landlords requiring insurance to cover the significant risk of pets creating damage to a property. We welcome reports that the Government has listened and responded positively to our concerns.’

The Renters Reform Bill will also extend the so-called Decent Homes Standard into the rented sector for the first time, apparently guaranteeing renters the right to a ‘safe and warm home’; as someone who has never rented property with central heating, I look forward to a winter in a ‘warm’ home, though how this bill will make my home warm is a tad vague. Anxious landlords receive additional eases to their concerns with a promise that the bill will enable them to evict antisocial tenants or renters who are wilfully failing to pay rent in ways that are far easier than the rules currently in place allow. But tenants are liberated by the changes too; rogue landlords will face unlimited fines if they don’t live up to the standards expected of them. ‘This is all part of our plans to level up communities and improve the life chances of people from all corners of the country,’ said Michael Gove. ‘Too many renters are living in damp, unsafe and cold homes, powerless to put it right and under the threat of sudden eviction. The New Deal for renters will help to end this injustice, improving conditions and rights for millions of renters.’

Considering 4.4 million households constitute the private rented sector, finally tackling some of the iniquities prevalent in the system is one of those rare occasions when it’s possible to applaud this Government for actually doing something good. The Decent Homes Standard places a legal obligation on landlords to improve properties in such an insanitary state that they affect the physical and mental health of tenants; this will also cut the best part of £3 billion’s worth of Housing Benefit a year that finds itself in the pockets of these rogue landlords, as well as sparing the NHS from the £340 million it annually forks out for in order to treat the ill-health of tenants hospitalised due to the dire conditions they’re living in. Also, disputes between tenants and landlords are to be kept out of court by the intervention of a new Private Renters’ Ombudsman – what a wonderful word that is, Ombudsman (one of the few Scandinavian ones to have settled into modern English, apparently); he will settle such disputes quickly.

But it is the section of the Renters Reform Bill covering the ownership of pets in rented accommodation that will probably register with the most people. For far too long, the healing effects of domesticated animals on their owners has been effectively criminalised by the renting system; the odd bad apple in the barrel shouldn’t brand all pet owners as ‘problem tenants’ and it’s about time this antiquated discrimination was finally outlawed. Looks like that time has come.

© The Editor

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

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TALKIN’ ‘BOUT MY CANCELLATION

Casper‘I pms at these,’ is not perhaps a statement that will be forever enshrined in the annals of great quotes. The person who said it went by the name of shazza, whoever shazza may be. But shazza is nevertheless a notable figure to me, for his/her comment was the last to ever grace a video on my YouTube channel, the final person provoked into saying something after enjoying one of my offerings on a platform that had twelve long years of providing satirical and/or bawdy entertainment for the masses who were incapable of raising even a moderate titter at the woeful excuse for comedy that television serves-up these days. Unfortunately, the history that shazza made with this brief comment on the most recent instalment of ‘Buggernation Street’ is a history that has been erased from the books, for Sillycunt Valley’s very own Ministry of Truth has excised yours truly from the platform as of late Wednesday evening. I’m not playing the victim here, btw; I just figured you might find this story interesting.

Long-term readers of the Winegum or viewers of my channel might recall I walked away from YT in 2019 after a dispiriting couple of years in which all my videos were demonetised as several others were blocked and banned; I stopped uploading new material, but left what was still on there for those that routinely watched the same favourite videos over and over again. As far back as 2016 I was noticing pernicious changes creeping into YT as the corporate world belatedly became aware of the platform’s potential to sell ‘product’ and began issuing copyright strikes left right and centre at the independent creators who’d made YT what it was in the first place; I even wrote an early post about it, one that still attracts views, and this was penned when I used to receive an admittedly small income from YT – not much more than around £150 a year. Then, overnight, all the videos I received that income from were demonetised. The new regime was making its insidious presence felt.

Rick Beato, an American record producer with an informative and engaging YT channel, recently issued a video in which he berated Don Henley from The Eagles for whining over ‘loss of earnings’ due to fans sharing snippets of Eagles tracks on YT. Beato correctly pointed out the absolute pittance of royalties Henley could claim should anyone dare insert fifteen seconds of ‘Hotel California’ into a video would be something to put Spotify to shame – a handful of cents at the most. He went on to underline the ludicrousness of this farcical copyright circus by playing a few bars of the piano intro to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ in the wrong key ala Les Dawson simply because he couldn’t even play the proper bloody melody himself without being slapped by a strike, let alone using the actual Queen recording on the video. This has been one of the moves that have reduced YT to merely another corporate tool, yet so dominant is the platform when it comes to its specific market that it continues to put other video platforms in the permanent shade. It remains the go-to medium, just as the BBC used to be whenever a major news story broke.

In a way, this is the double-edged sword of YT – as a creator, one is hampered and restricted by the rules and regulations that require expert navigation in order to avoid a copyright strike; yet, at the same time, one is guaranteed a huge audience that no other online video platform can compete with. Despite my reservations, this was the main reason I returned to YT after a two-year absence in 2021; I simply couldn’t ignore the massive upsurge of views and tsunami of new subscribers that appeared to have been a side-effect of lockdown. It would’ve been foolish to spurn this unexpected and enthusiastic fan-base eager for new videos, so I gave them what they wanted by reviving what became my signature series, ‘Buggernation Street’. No new episodes of this Derek & Clive-like take on the early 70s incarnation of a rather well-known TV soap opera had been produced for six years, but once I was back on the grubby cobbles it was as though I’d never been away.

Of course, the filth for which ‘Buggernation’ is infamous is all in the mind – it’s down to the often-horrific imagery that materialises in the viewer’s head as a consequence of the dialogue I insert into the characters’ mouths. There’s no on-screen nudity or sex of any kind in a single episode of the 42 that ended up being produced; it’s merely suggested in the most explicit manner possible – and it makes people laugh at the same time; indeed, how could they not laugh at the thought of Maggie Clegg treating Alf Roberts to a spot of water-sports or poor old Stan Ogden being forced to bend over as Hilda shoves a police truncheon where the sun don’t shine? It’s patently ridiculous and that’s what makes it work as comedy. The simple suggestion of something depraved going on behind the net curtains is enough to provoke the viewer’s imagination, and the viewer doesn’t need to see on screen what’s being described. Putting any of that on screen would lead to an instant ban and it would be rightly labelled pornography – especially as the YT of today has clambered up on top of the moral high-horse and laughably appears to regard itself as a barometer of family-friendly decency.

When YT took it upon itself to remove my entire channel without warning – rather than ban a handful of videos I could have easily uploaded to another outlet like Vimeo – their reasons for doing so suggested the images placed in their heads by ‘Buggernation Street’ were too much for their fragile sensibilities; they then, like some satanic abuse fantasist, appeared to believe they had actually seen these images in my videos. ‘This account has been terminated due to multiple or severe violations of YouTube’s policy on nudity or sexual content.’ There was no nudity, and any sexual content was of a purely verbal nature – end of. I pointed this out when I appealed, but their response was ‘YouTube is not the place for nudity, pornography or other sexually provocative content’. Yeah, that’s why I didn’t upload any. Just in case I mistook YT for CBeebies, I always ticked the box stating my videos were for adults only, YT’s equivalent of the old-fashioned X certificate. But, of course, their decision had f**k-all to do with nudity or pornography.

Ever since my channel began attracting viewing figures that elevated it above the best-kept-secret cult it had been for a decade, it was undeniably brought to the attention of the Identity Politics Gestapo that run all media today. And what probably signed my YT death warrant was a video that mocked all they hold dear, a spoof BBC1 trailer for ‘Wokeday Evening’. The glaring difference between YT and other video platforms was never better highlighted by the viral success of this particular video. It had originally been published on Vimeo a couple of years ago and attracted virtually no attention at all; remixed and expanded, I decided to temporarily shelve my ‘Buggernation’-only principles when it came to YT uploads and enabled ‘Wokeday Evening’ to be seen by the widest possible audience. Views shot through the roof as it was tweeted by numerous media personalities not exactly beloved by the Woke mafia, and I would imagine a sizeable number of complaints were registered with the YT upholders of online standards, double and otherwise.

Not only can I not start another channel on YT, but I’m also prevented from subscribing to anyone else now; I can’t even comment on or ‘like’ the efforts of others. In YT terms, I am officially a non-person, of whom all traces have been wiped. The thought of adopting a new identity and sneaking back on there is not one I relish, for nothing will have changed; I’d only be confronted by the same bullshit that provoked my two-year exodus in 2019. YT must have missed the money they made from cramming ads into my videos during my absence, but they’ve made a hell of a lot more from me over the last twelve months. Well, f**k ’em. They ain’t making any more. And, if nothing else, I now know from personal experience that cancel culture is not some right-wing fantasy; it’s for real, alright.

© The Editor

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

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TV TIMES

Bingewatch30-odd years ago, when satellite dishes were the latest addition to the increasingly-expanding abundance of street furniture, the allure of new television channels beyond the reach of the traditional terrestrial broadcasters prompted the girl I was living with at the time to invest in just such an alternative. We ended up with Cable TV, and despite the accompanying literature boasting about all the new shows we could now access, most of its appeal for me was as a repository for the long-forgotten programmes the old television lords and masters had dispensed with years before. There wasn’t much new material on offer that I myself found capable of piquing my curiosity – bar the novelty exhibitionism of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ long before Jeremy Kyle encouraged the Great British Underclass to wash their own dirty linen in public; but the archive channels suddenly at my fingertips were a rich source of nostalgic entertainment and also (as it was still the 90s) a strain on my limited finances due to the amount of blank VHS tapes I felt compelled to buy to preserve them on.

In the intervening decades, the innovation of the DVD box-set and the advent of YouTube have opened some of the more neglected TV vaults to the public and this is a trend that certainly seems ongoing. Spending a weekend away with all the streaming services and vintage channels I’m not able to receive at home can find me enjoying classic ‘Star Trek’ – and I can’t remember the last time that received a terrestrial outing – and Gerry Anderson’s live-action landmark, ‘UFO’ amongst numerous others. I appreciate my own personal tastes aren’t everyone’s, and many sign-up for the kind of packages offered by the likes of Sky, Virgin or BT in order to catch the contemporary US shows that claim column inches and win awards – the sort of programmes ‘everybody’s talking about’ and so on. I’ve watched a few of these, I admit, and some are pretty good, especially when compared to the generally dismal standard of shows airing on the BBC or ITV, though I’m largely looking for an antique gem when I skim through the thousand-and-one channels listed; and I can usually find one.

During lockdown, the unexpected introduction of time on the hands of an overworked population unaccustomed to catching its breath often translated as binge-watching, whereby Netflix in particular saw a surge in subscribers eager to lose themselves in the sort of addictive mini-series it appears to churn out with effortless ease. Not being a subscriber myself, I found the aforementioned vintage shows to be my own personal source of comfort food for the eyes via the physical box-set, though my diversion was merely a manifestation of a common ailment when the world outside had suddenly taken on an unsettlingly alien element that made a retreat into a parallel universe preferable. This pattern for the populace as a whole reached a peak in 2020 and ’21, though the payback for lockdown in terms of industry and the economy grinding to an ill-advised halt has seen 2022 take on a very different tone for the viewer.

According to data released last week, this year has seen a telling reversal of the lockdown trend when it comes to subscribing to streaming services – 1.51 million subscriptions were cancelled during the first three months of 2022 as (what is already – inevitably – being called) the Cost of Living Crisis begins to bite. Despite 58% of UK homes being signed-up to one streaming service or another, 38% of those asked in a survey by market research company Kantar revealed they intended to cancel such subscriptions in order to save a few quid; the same time period also saw a noticeable decline in new subscribers. In the case of market leader Netflix, last year’s intake was approximately half of those who joined the club the year before. Evidence suggests Netflix and Amazon seem to be the last resort cancellations when others, such as Disney + or BritBox, tend to be first in line when it’s time for streaming services to walk the plank. But even the mighty Netflix is seeing its omnipotence challenged not just by competition, but by economic necessity. In 2022 so far, shares in the company have dropped by 35%, with over $50bn wiped off Netflix’s market value.

Still a relatively recent phenomenon in TV-land, streaming has followed a route all innovations on the small screen have followed, whether colour television, the home VCR, satellite, cable or the DVD, in that it had a rapid take-off, marched into the nation’s homes with a seemingly unstoppable pace, and has now levelled out a little, finding its feet and its permanent place as a steady option for the viewer. There was bound to be a slowing down eventually, and the expected incursion of competition for audiences was inevitable; less so the pandemic, which undoubtedly aided the rise of streaming in the first place and has now contributed to the abrupt halt of its speedy ascent. As a lazy leisure pursuit, watching the telly has been with us now for longer than most of us have been alive, yet compared to food or heating our homes it remains something of a luxury, with the additional payment required for streaming services a further indulgence that the current economic crisis has indeed forced some subscribers to confront as a luxury and to prioritise accordingly.

Globally, Netflix’s total subscribers have fallen by 200,000 this year and experts predict a further two million will follow suit by the summer. The post-pandemic economic situation has evidently been a factor in this, whilst many feel the excess of streaming choice is simply too much when the working-from-home aspect that fuelled the astronomical surge in subscription to streaming means there’s less time available to binge than there was a couple of years ago. Analyst Michael Hewson said, ‘Netflix’s wider problem, along with the rest of the sector, is that customers don’t have unlimited funds and that one or two subscriptions is usually enough. Once you move above that, something has to give in a cost-of-living crisis, and while Netflix is still the market leader, it doesn’t have the deeper pockets of Apple, Amazon or Disney, which makes it much more vulnerable to a margin squeeze.’

Even taking into account the unusual circumstances which facilitated Netflix’s rise to its apogee of popularity, it could only realistically go so far before its progress eased up a little. As things stand, it’s still ahead of the game with 220 million subscribers and constant flow of shows that excite TV reviewers, Twitter and audiences alike in its upgraded equivalent of ‘water-cooler television’. The quarterly growth Netflix has experienced ever since 2011 couldn’t be sustained forever, and price increases have also played their part in prompting a partial exodus from the service, costing it 600,000 subscribers across North America; Netflix’s voluntary withdrawal from the profitable Russian market due to Ukraine has clearly done a fair bit of damage, too – with the loss of 700,000 Russian subscribers to date. Mind you, the price increases have probably aided revenue, which has continued to grow despite everything.

For me, streaming services are something friends tend to have, and I don’t say that as a roundabout way of pleading poverty either. It’s a bit like how friends had toys I didn’t as a child, in that it doesn’t unduly bother me; I was content to play with them when in their presence, but I didn’t cry myself to sleep because I didn’t have them as well. I don’t mind watching some of these talked-about shows if I happen to be at the house of someone who does subscribe – or if someone kindly bungs them on a memory stick for me; but I find I simply don’t have the time to invest in binge-watching on a regular basis. Even the DVD box-sets of vintage shows I’ve often written about tend to be viewed in daily instalments – making use of a spare hour I might have before moving on. We each have our own brand of televisual escapism, after all.

© The Editor

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

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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

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

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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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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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WHAT’S ANOTHER YEAR?

Bleep and BoosterThe awful, inescapable sensation that we’ve been trapped in one long, drawn-out year since around March 2020 was something I expressed to a friend the other week when trying to recall a recent event, unable to remember if it occurred this year or last. As someone whose memory can be uncannily precise where childhood is concerned – to the point whereby I often catch a snatch of a melody and within seconds can accurately locate not just which childhood year the song was a hit in, but the month it charted – it’s not unusual to reach a certain age and find years much closer to the here and now have a habit of blurring into each other. It’s probably due to the fewer ‘first time’ experiences one receives as more miles are accumulated on the clock, invariably sticking to recognisable routes rather than veering off into uncharted territory. Childhood, by contrast, is nothing but first time experiences, with each one making a deep impression that naturally stays with us; I suppose having them all happen in quick succession means the clarity of the period as a whole remains strong in recollection, whilst the wider gaps between such occurrences as one gets older means there’s less for memory to hang on to.

However, as my opening sentence testifies, the ability to distinguish one year from another has been uniquely exacerbated by the events we’ve been living through ever since Boris made his initial address to the nation from his Covid bunker. I certainly can’t recall the distinction being this difficult before, though I did wonder if it was like this during the War – not for the troops fighting overseas, but for those on the home front. I would imagine the day of Chamberlain’s broadcast to the nation on the wireless in 1939 right up until VE Day almost six years later could easily have felt like one long, drawn-out year to those who lived through it, mainly on account of all the usual signposts being plunged into suspended animation for the duration. After all, how do we usually measure a calendar year? Sure, we have the seasons laid out before us, but unless one is agriculturally-minded, the changing of the seasons amounts to little more than an aesthetic backdrop to events of greater significance or (when it comes to winter) an impediment in getting from the urban A to B.

The creeping dread that we’re careering backwards towards another f***ing lockdown and/or the reintroduction of restrictions won’t enable that sensation to be dispelled. Whilst many rushed back into socialising with all the ravenous desperation of a besieged population suddenly liberated from their isolation when the original restrictions were belatedly lifted, I myself didn’t properly venture out for the first time until a couple of weeks ago. On the eve of Lockdown Mark I, I’d attended an open mic poetry night at a local arts centre, which I wrote about at the time; then the drawbridge came down and that was that. Tentatively inquiring if the open mic night had resumed after a year and-a-half of seclusion, the printed literature confirmed it had. I turned up on the scheduled evening in question, only to be greeted by a bemused response; a few frantic phone-calls from helpful staff eventually informed me said literature was in error and said open mic night was merely a Zoom event, something that didn’t exactly entice me.

After 30 years of loyal service, I’d finally abandoned ‘Have I Got News For You’ following the inaugural (and abysmal) Zoom edition during the first lockdown; the prospect of an open mic night resembling either that or one of those shambolic council meetings with everyone talking over one another or constantly breaking up didn’t fill me with joy, so I left it at that. At least I was back home in time for that evening’s episode of ‘The Archers’. Anyway, that was something of a damp squib after eighteen months away from any form of socialising, but yesterday I sat in a car for the first time since the first lockdown, rejoining my dog-walking friend on her rounds. For more than a decade, this was a weekly institution and its sudden removal from my routine when we were ordered not to leave our homes left a sizeable social gap in my week and took some getting used to. I still haven’t set foot in anyone else’s house yet, but I suppose that’s the next thing to tick off the list.

Mind you, am I looking at a brief window in which to tick this off the list before we revert to where we were and the moment has gone? Is the clock poised to be reset as we re-enter Covid Groundhog Day and the never-ending year that began in the spring of 2020 is extended into infinity? In his new role as Health Secretary, the man with the perfectly spherical head Sajid Javid can’t really do any worse than his predecessor, but he’s fallen back on the same tactic of issuing threats masquerading as advice that evidently worked so well for Matt Hancock. He reckons MPs in the Commons chamber should ‘set an example’ by donning their masks; he seems to think that would send out a message, which it would – albeit not the message one imagines Javid is thinking of. The disappearance of mandatory masks has been one of the few positive signs of recent months; those who choose to keep them on are perfectly entitled to, whilst those who choose not to are no longer regarded as contaminated scum – not by anyone with half-a-brain, anyway. Having compulsory mask-wearing normalised anew by MPs wouldn’t help reinforce this welcome perception.

Javid’s threat is that spurning face coverings could lead to a return to restrictions – see what he’s doing there? Yup, he’s laying the ground for their reintroduction by placing the blame at the feet of me and thee; restrictions return and it’s all our fault for not wearing masks (which we no longer have to) – get it? Presumably, most Honourable Members have been double-jabbed, which was supposed to insulate the recipients from dying of the coronavirus should they contract it; indeed, it was supposed to negate the need to hibernate from society and to not have to wear a face nappy when venturing into that society. Ah, but it’s boosters we need now! Triple-jabbed, if you like. That’s what Sajid is urging; otherwise it’s Plan B – no, not the noughties rapper but the resurrection of restrictions. ‘It’s going to hit us all!’ declared Javid at a press conference this week when referencing rising cases as winter hovers on the horizon – along with the annual NHS crisis, of course.

As with the run-up to Lockdown Mark I, the decision is in the hands of the people as to how many precautions they take. And presumably, when the restrictions are reintroduced, the people rather than the Government will be to blame for not wearing masks 24/7. It goes without saying their reintroduction would otherwise never have happened. ‘We need to be ready for what lies around the corner,’ said Javid in relation to the latest Covid variant remixes laying in wait for the mask-less masses. ‘Our ongoing programme of booster jabs is so important,’ he said. ‘We’ll do what it takes to make sure this pressure doesn’t become unsustainable and that we don’t allow the NHS to become overwhelmed. This pandemic is not over. Thanks to the vaccination programme, yes, the link between hospitalisations and deaths has significantly weakened, but it’s not broken.’

Few dispute this nightmarish scenario is far-from over, though the largely successful vaccine rollout and the minor miracle of it being achieved without armed Covid marshals marching reluctant recipients to the nearest needle has helped put society a step closer to the former even keel than at any point since this shit started. Retreating back into the dead-end of lockdowns would not be the fault of a fatigued population struggling to put the pandemic behind them and rebuild their lives, but a government that has run out of ideas. A new vision is needed for this problem, not repeating the mistakes of the recent past – whether we’re talking 2020 or 2021; and that’s even if we can spot the difference between the two.

© 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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