A LOST ART

Family TVOn the whole, I can think of far preferable sedatives than daytime television; heroin or methadone spring to mind. Daytime TV for me evokes grim images of care home residents slowly succumbing to rigor mortis as they gather dust in sub-tropical temperatures before the small screen, powerless to resist the unremittingly bland diet of soporific sludge that gushes out of every daytime TV pore, leaving the viewer feeling as though they’re being smothered in a sickly-scented cardigan whilst their feet set in a bucket of treacle. Even if one disregards the dreary content, one thing these excuses for entertainment seem to share is the same theme tune – or at least that’s what it sounds like; whilst the themes themselves are as forgettable as the programmes, they all appear to employ those awful ‘synth horns’ that were once the province of Phil Collins hits from the 80s, and each tirelessly upbeat burst of their infantile jollity is akin to being trapped in a lift with a Butlin’s redcoat.

Whilst the paucity of original and gifted minds working today in a once-abundant field of talent such as pop music is regularly discussed, if one widens the net to encompass areas that used to be touched by trends in pop, the dearth of maestros is even more evident – none more so than in another once-abundant field, that of ‘library music’. A deep reservoir of earworms specifically penned for use in commercials or as TV and radio themes, at one time library music – along with specially commissioned themes cut from a similar sonic cloth – provided British viewers and listeners with melodies that simply refuse to go away; many infiltrated our ears as children and they’re still there. Some of the most prolific composers responsible for these persistent portals to happier times are anonymous to all but the most devoted aural archaeologists, even if their body of work stands up as far stronger than anyone ever anticipated when their output was regarded as little more than dispensable Muzak. And, needless to say, it blows the synth horn bots out of the water.

When most vintage rock and soul genres had been plundered and sampled to death by DJs, producers and Hip Hop acts in the 90s, a sudden wave of interest in the untapped riches of archive library music, such as that housed on the books of KPM, led to the so-called ‘Lounge-core’ craze. CD reissues of long-deleted LPs that had spent years in the charity shop bargain bins were suddenly appearing on hip Indie labels, with everything from test card music to novelty noodlings on early synthesizers selling like cult hotcakes. Though the fad passed – as fads do – this ‘ironic’ appreciation of an imaginary soundtrack to an Austin Powers dinner party didn’t erase the nostalgic wave still capable of sweeping over the listener whenever one of the classic library pieces launches a fresh assault on the ears. A warm analogue glow flows through every note and what strikes the listener today is just how well the composers responsible for these tracks managed to take rock elements characteristic of the 60s’ cutting edge and marry them to traditional ‘easy listening’ vibes, producing a uniquely cool hybrid of old and new.

Key musical elements of the Golden Age of library music and theme tunes (the late 60s/early 70s) seem to be fuzzy guitars, the Hammond organ, strings, and lots of horns. Some of the best themes of this era were from the ITC stable of adventure series, as well as the Gerry Anderson shows; whilst John Barry was responsible for some of the former, Barry Gray composed the majority of the latter. A little more well known due to his knack of writing 60s pop hits for Petula Clark and his wife Jackie Trent, Tony Hatch not only worked with the young David Bowie, but his Midas touch gave us memorable themes for ‘Man Alive’, ‘The Champions’, and ‘Sportsnight’ – as well as…er…‘Crossroads’; he also produced a series of future ‘Lounge-core’ classics with his own orchestra. He later became a TV celebrity playing a proto-Simon Cowell alongside the equally sharp-tongued Mickie Most on the panel of the 70s ITV talent show, ‘New Faces’, but it is his musical talents that warrant an inclusion in this particular hall of fame.

Keith Mansfield was a composer who worked extensively in the library world, but also provided the theme tunes for ‘Grandstand’, ‘The Big Match’, and the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage; Johnny Pearson was the leader of both his own Sounds Orchestral band and the Top of the Pops Orchestra (for 15 years), though he composed both library music and numerous memorable TV themes at the same time, including the likes of ‘Captain Pugwash’, ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, and even ‘News at Ten’; Cliff Adams may be remembered with a groan by more than one generation of teenagers waiting for the Sunday Top 40 when leading his silky-smooth singers on ‘Sing Something Simple’, yet his contribution to television came via the commercial break, for which he wrote the jingles we still associate with Murray Mints, Fry’s Turkish Delight, and ‘For mash, get Smash’ amongst numerous others.

Another name worthy of mention is Alan Hawkshaw, who was a brief member of The Shadows before branching out into library music. Several of his library tunes ended up as TV themes, including the smoky organ grooves of ‘Dave Allen at Large’ and – in a weird occurrence that highlighted the non-exclusive nature of library tracks – the tune most of us remember as the original ‘Grange Hill’ theme, yet one which was simultaneously used on an ITV schools series called ‘Alive and Kicking’ as well as ‘Give Us A Clue’; also, though Cliff Adams wrote it, it was Hawkshaw and his band who performed the Bond-esque theme that accompanied the well-remembered ads ending with the tagline, ‘And all because the lady loves Milk Tray’.

Many of the tunes associated with this productive era that found their way onto television or radio as themes with a surprising longevity were put together by musicians with a solid track record in the business, often emanating from a jazz world that didn’t pay half as well as the royalties on a theme tune guaranteed to be aired at least once a week. Take the likes of British jazz legend Johnny Dankworth, for example; he was responsible for the toe-tapping Shepherd’s Bush Bebop of the original ‘Tomorrow’s World’ theme and for ‘Beefeaters’, the tune Tony Blackburn opened with every morning on the first Radio 1 breakfast show between 1967-73. Back then, most radio shows had theme tunes, including the shows of each star DJ to jump ship from the pirates to Radio 1 when it debuted. Library music was regularly called upon to provide them, and many of these tunes have stuck in the memory, even if we can’t always pinpoint their source. They’re all tunes we know, though we may not know where we know them from.

The familiarity of library music from this period is due to the way in which it was widely disseminated across television and radio, just as likely to be found as the start-up theme for an ITV franchise-holder, introducing a schools programme, featuring on a test card or opening a regional Sunday soccer show as it would be on a networked institution such as ‘Mastermind’, which has always begun with an aptly-titled piece named ‘Approaching Menace’ by library composer Neil Richardson. The fact these tunes have remained part of our pop cultural wallpaper and have crept into our collective memory bank with stealth is testament to the depth of unsung talent that once worked in an unsung arena. Easy to dismiss, but not so easy to forget, the melodies these men made are just one more example of how even the most seemingly throwaway elements of what we used to have far outshine the majority of what we have now.

© The Editor

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SING WHEN YOU’RE WINNING

Eurovision UkraineIt wasn’t exactly the same as the sinister sabotage that prevented Cliff and ‘Congratulations’ from claiming the crown in 1968, though it did seem a tad unfair that a recent tweaking of the Eurovision voting system resulted in the UK’s first win for 25 years being downgraded at the eleventh hour. Having soared ahead on the jury vote – and the jury vote always used to be binding – ‘Space Man’ by the hirsute Sam Ryder topped the board once all the individual nations had had their say. Up until the last five or six years, that would’ve been enough and the embarrassing nul points and relegation zone finishes for virtually the whole of this century were poised to be swept aside by a surreal scenario few viewers in this country thought they’d ever see again. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and (even more so) Brexit hardly made us the most popular nation on the Continent, and our European neighbours seemed to relish inflicting an annual humiliation on us. We’d grown so accustomed to it that once Saturday’s votes began to be announced in the broken English of each country’s equivalent of a ‘One Show’ presenter, we expected the same old punishment.

However, despite the standard Swedish Euro ballad and the nutcracker-tastic posteriors of those three Spanish ladies making a big impact in the Turin arena, it was evident more or less from the off that the British entry had impressed almost all of the individual juries. As the voting progressed, we were even receiving maximum points from countries ordinarily regarded as traditional enemies, i.e. France and Germany. The gate-crashing Aussies couldn’t bring themselves to award us anything, though it turned out the Poms didn’t need ‘em; our new bezzie mates Ukraine gave us twelve points instead (as did seven other nations), and Sam Ryder was odds-on to do what only Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Brotherhood of Man, Bucks Fizz and Katrina and the Waves had done before him. And then it went to that relatively new innovation, the televote – one that wasn’t a fixture last time we were in pole position…a long, long time ago.

On the eve of the Contest, it was more or less a foregone conclusion that Ukraine would walk away with the title without even having to sing a note. The beleaguered nation’s entry could have strolled on stage and simply mooned the audience and they would’ve still won it – if one believed the pre-Contest hype. Yet, the juries weren’t entirely swayed by sentiment on the night and at the end of the jury vote Ukraine were placed fourth on the board with 192 points, behind Spain (231), Sweden (258) and the UK (283). The televote was a different animal, though; widespread sympathy for Ukraine from viewers was manifested as a surge of points – 439, to be precise – and the UK could only manage 183. Any other year and we’d have won it, but this is no ordinary year where Europe is concerned. When combined with their jury votes, Ukraine were undisputed victors.

So unfamiliar was the territory the UK found itself in on Saturday night, chances are Sam Ryder would’ve been knighted by the end of the year had he won it. As it is, he finished with the silver medal, adding to the runner-up spots Brits have now achieved on a record sixteen occasions; but it still made a pleasant change from the usual predictable formula from a British perspective. Even though we’re one of the ‘Big Five’ nations who automatically appear every year due to the financial contributions we make to the European Broadcasting Union, the underwhelming songs and poor receptions of the last couple of decades has made watching a bit like tuning in to the World Cup when England don’t qualify; deprived of patriotic possibilities, UK viewers tend to pick a favourite from one of the other participants; this year, we didn’t have to do that and it made the Contest a much more engaging experience as a consequence.

Despite the disappointment of the UK missing out, few would begrudge Ukraine their symbolic win, even if the song itself will probably be forgotten in less time than it took to perform it. The second of their now-three triumphs this century was six years ago, and that victory was also charged with a political frisson that infuriated the country currently acting as an uninvited guest in Ukraine. ‘1944’ by Jamala dealt with the wartime deportation of Crimean Tatars from the Soviet Union by Stalin – yes, I know, it’s a long way from ‘Jack in the Box’ by Clodagh Rodgers. Anyway, the song was judged by the EBU as not having a relevant political context due to its subject being a historical event – as was the case with the title of a certain winner by Abba in 1974, I guess. But, of course, Crimea was a hot topic at the time due to the annexation of the country by Russia just two years before, and the Russians took umbrage with the number. In the end, they couldn’t prevent the song from being included and could only voice their protest by withdrawing from the Contest the following year, when it was held in Kyiv.

Of course, political elements are nothing new to the Eurovision narrative. From General Franco’s (alleged) intervention to ensure a Spanish victory in 1968 to Greece’s 1976 entry being a song about the Turkish invasion of Cyprus two years earlier – not to mention the always-controversial presence of Israel – politics have routinely bled into the Eurovision as much as they have into sport. The event commands such a massive television audience across the Continent – and beyond it – that many nations with a point to prove naturally see it as an ideal platform to get that point across to a uniquely huge viewing public. Since the map of Eastern Europe was redrawn 30 years ago and former Iron Curtain countries have been allowed to participate, political bias has become a regular feature of the show, especially in the voting – a factor which Terry Wogan wearily criticised as it increased and eventually prompted him to hang up his commentator’s microphone. This year’s programme, for instance, opened with a mass chorus of ‘Give Peace a Chance’, which didn’t really require much in the way of explanation.

The perception of Russia as an international pariah state on a par with North Korea or Iran has been fairly unanimous in the wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine, and with most major global sports having expelled Russian teams and players from their ranks, the Eurovision was bound to follow suit. And the absence of Russia for only the fourth time since the nation’s debut at the Contest back in 1994 was no greater a surprise than the wave of public sympathy that propelled Ukraine to the winner’s rostrum. Considering the horror stories emerging from Ukraine on a daily basis, it’s only right that Russia was kicked-out this year, not to mention it being something of a minor miracle that Ukraine was able to put together an act to compete at all.

The other day, I read a remarkable story of an escape on foot from the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol by one man and his dog that sounded like a movie waiting to be made; but to dramatise something that remains very much miserable reality for millions of people would seem beyond tasteless at the moment. The portrait painted of the damage done to Ukraine in such a short space of time was more than grim, and one feels it will be one of those conflicts whose gruesome truths will be released to the wider world in dribs and drabs for decades. With such a gory backdrop to something as frivolously camp as the Eurovision Song Contest, it feels fitting that Ukraine won it, however nice a change it would’ve been had the UK finally staged the most unlikely of triumphant comebacks. Right now, I suspect the people of Ukraine will grab at anything that represents even the slimmest glimmer of optimism for their nation – and love it or loathe it, the Eurovision today at least means something to them.

© The Editor

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IT’S DIFFERENT FOR GIRLS

Katie TaylorViewing a recent documentary series on Muhammad Ali via the BBC iPlayer, I was reminded how boxing bouts were once central to the lives of even those for whom a sporting event is usually a TV schedule-disrupting irritant. Ali’s appeal transcended the hardcore pugilistic following, as the huge ratings his fights attracted proved; his trilogy of battles with Joe Frazier between 1971 and 1975 and the 1974 ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ with George Foreman were grandstand occasions that the majority of the globe tuned in to watch; Ali’s irresistible force of personality undoubtedly did more than any other boxer to make boxing one of the world’s most popular spectator sports, and arguably saved it from extinction when many American States were contemplating banning it from their borders on the grounds of the brutality that his balletic grace helped redefine. Since his heyday, however, the sport has largely retreated back from the frontline of terrestrial television prime-time, kidnapped by the pay-per-view marketplace and removed from the free-to-air arena; the average person today would probably struggle to name a current world champion, let alone whichever woman holds the equivalent female titles.

If boxing itself has diminished in importance for those members of the public that would once settle down to watch Ali in the same way they’d nowadays tune in to some vacuous TV talent show, the women’s version of the sport seems to only be of interest to the already-converted – though this is fairly routine where television audiences are concerned. The BBC’s insistence on referring to the world’s oldest club football contest as the men’s FA Cup Final emphasises the investment the Corporation has made in the women’s game, yet the latter remains a minority interest, regardless of the disproportionate coverage it receives from our national broadcaster. Women’s boxing, on the other hand, is exclusively in the hands of the subscription services that half-inched boxing around 20 years ago, and as a consequence its stars are heroines to the devoted and largely unknown to the masses.

Listening to ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ for the first time in quite some time this morning, I was introduced to Katie Taylor, an Irish female boxer I learnt is the current undisputed world lightweight champion; a sportswoman evidently well-schooled in sports still regarded as the prime domain of men – she used to be a footballer – Taylor solidified her status a couple of weeks ago by defeating Puerto Rican-born Amanda Serrano at the ancestral home of boxing, New York’s Madison Square Garden. Just as staging the Ireland Vs Italy fixture of the 1994 World Cup in NYC was a guaranteed stadium-filler considering the potential audience of Irish and Italian-Americans the Big Apple could call upon, Katie Taylor sealing her reputation as one of the greatest female pugilists on the planet in the same city was a masterstroke in ensuring pre-fight interest in a sport few beyond the dedicated pay much attention to.

You might not know it due to the factors already mentioned, but history was made at Madison Square Garden when Taylor fought Serrano, for it was the first time the prestigious venue had made a women’s bout the main event. The BBC’s Steve Bunce was a ringside witness to this watershed moment in women’s boxing and reviewed the spectacle with unbridled verve on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, enthusing the event was the first time two women had earned a million bucks each for a fight. Taylor was defending her lightweight crown she owns – as of 2019 she is one of only eight boxers (male or female) to be the simultaneous holder of all four major world titles – and her opponent was perhaps the sole fighter capable of offering her a serious challenge. From everything I could gather, this is a sporting rivalry on a par with many others that have pulled in the punters over the years – indeed, 19,187 spectators packed the staidum on the night, underlining the fact that this occasion captured unprecedented attention, as did the 1.5 million watching online at the same time. Thousands of Katie Taylor’s countrymen and women had flown in from the Emerald Isle to be present at the fight and no doubt all the Irish-American communities embedded in the USA’s urban enclaves sent plenty representatives to cheer ‘their girl’ on. Similarly, the fact Amanda Serrano was raised in Brooklyn meant she could regard Madison Square Garden as a home venue; it seems no more apt location could have been chosen.

Such was the level of hype surrounding the fight, even the Empire State Building was illuminated by the colours of the Irish and Puerto Rican flags respectively on the night; and it’s perhaps telling that a sport starved of the characters it could call upon in Ali’s heyday has been revitalised by two women when the men have summarily failed to prompt the same kind of reaction in recent years. By all accounts, the fight itself was worthy of the hyperbole, with Taylor retaining her titles via a split decision points verdict at the end of ten titanic rounds; Steve Bunce on ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ described the tenth and final round as possibly being ‘one of the greatest rounds ever to be fought in the Garden…I have never, in 35 years at ringside, seen such scenes – emotion and chaos. It was breathless stuff. At the final bell, they fell into each other’s arms, bloody and exhausted, cut and bruised and smiling.’ Bunce calls Katie Taylor the greatest female boxer of all time, and listening to his enthusiastic description of the fight and of the two fighters made me wish I’d seen it – or even been aware of it before it actually happened.

Watching the aforementioned Ali series evoked the excitement his fights used to embody back in the day – great television events enjoyed by the whole viewing population rather than merely those prepared to pay extra for the privilege of tuning in. Making any sport available to the causal viewer as well as the one devoted enough to fork out for a subscription fee is essential in transforming its practitioners into household names, and maybe I’d have already have heard of Katie Taylor had her fight been in the hands of terrestrial broadcasters, or even if terrestrial broadcasters had never lost the rights to screen big fights in the first place. As it is, the decision of the boxing authorities – as with the cricket authorities – to throw their lot in with the satellite money-men a couple of decades ago removed the sport from my eye-line and my interest in it evaporated. To be honest, I wouldn’t even know if ITV or the BBC had shown the Taylor-Serrano fight, so detached am I now from boxing. The fact I was drawn to watch a series on a boxer unlike any other is more a testament to Ali’s enduring position as a pop cultural giant as opposed to a mere participant in a sport I’d long since drifted away from.

I suppose one significant factor in the publicity afforded the Taylor-Serrano rivalry is that two natural-born women have put one overlooked women’s sport on the map for all the right reasons. These days, when women’s sports usually grab the headlines it tends to be for all the wrong reasons. The farcical situation whereby underachieving male cyclists, weightlifters and swimmers proclaim themselves to be women and are then given a free pass into the female arena – only to utilise their physical advantage and suddenly reinvent themselves as world champions – has reduced many women’s sports to a laughing stock. And whenever genuine sportswomen raise voices to protest against the unfairness – even an unarguably supreme female athlete such as Martina Navratilova – they are shouted down by the fanatical trans-harpies and subjected to levels of abuse and harassment that bear more than a passing resemblance to the old-school misogyny their endeavours had helped eradicate. For now, however, at least the ring is free from the insidious virus of Identity Politics – only for now, though.

© The Editor

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OLD-SCHOOL TIES

WatermanSad but true – Dennis Waterman is dead, and another one has bitten the dust. Perhaps he can lay claim to being one of the most active actors on vintage TV channels specialising in mining the rich archive of British television via his decade-long stint as a household name via ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Minder’ – stalwarts of the schedules such channels live by. But there was more to Waterman’s CV. Take, for example, ‘Joe’s Ark’, a 1974 ‘Play for Today’ by another Dennis, this one being Potter. Angharad Rees, soon to become better known as Demelza in ‘Poldark’, played a terminally-ill cancer sufferer retreating to the rooms above her father Freddie Jones’s pet shop in Wales to breathe her last. Dennis Waterman played her wayward brother, eking out a seedy living providing a musical accompaniment to strippers in dodgy clubs; Waterman’s character makes his way home to see his sister and build a few bridges with his God-fearing father, but arrives a little too late. It’s one of Potter’s most underrated and moving plays, and Waterman gives a touching performance that would probably surprise those only accustomed to his more beefy roles.

The risk of typecasting was a genuine gamble for actors on television in the 1960s and 70s – one thinks of Harry H Corbett’s tragic failure to evade the long shadow cast by ‘Steptoe and Son’ – so it’s no wonder many successful character actors approached the prospect of a hit series with trepidation, particularly those who were in the process of establishing themselves as familiar faces. Dennis Waterman had been a minor child star – starring in an early 60s TV adaptation of the ‘Just William’ books – and adolescent one-to-watch, making a mark as a young man in the movie version of the celebrated (and controversial) ‘Wednesday Play’ set in his own Clapham backyard, ‘Up the Junction’; but he carved a career for himself as a significant grown-up character actor by appearing in one-off episodes of numerous popular small screen series in the early 70s.

His versatility was apparent by the fact he occasionally ventured into the comedic arena, such as his appearance in a 1973 episode of ‘Man About the House’; by contrast, that same year he also scored a memorable cameo in ‘Special Branch’, the hard-hitting police series produced by Euston Films – the speciality film wing of Thames Television. He’d also appeared as a customarily sinister Gestapo officer in an episode of ‘Colditz’ and in another characteristically labyrinthine Potter play, ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ as well as the token Hammer horror outing (1970’s ‘Son of Dracula’), which was a rites-of-passage necessity for up-and-coming actors at the time. By this stage of his career, Waterman was certainly being noticed, though as a recognisable face rather than name. However, all that was about to change.

‘The Sweeney’ began life as a TV movie called ‘Regan’, which aired in the ‘Armchair Cinema’ slot on ITV in 1974. The potential for a series was immediately evident, and Dennis Waterman resumed his role as the reluctant second-in-command to John Thaw’s DI Regan when ‘The Sweeney’ went into production a few months later. Debuting on ITV at the beginning of 1975, ‘The Sweeney’ famously rewrote the rulebook in the way the British police force was portrayed on television, and Waterman’s George Carter was the perfect counterpoint to Thaw’s Jack Regan, exuding a less cynical and less grizzled persona than his superior. The two together exhibited a macho chemistry that has ultimately outlived them both, setting the template for a nostalgic, Brut-drenched, buddy-buddy relationship which breezes into contemporary touchy-feely sensibilities as no-nonsense fresh air.

When ‘The Sweeney’ ended in 1978, John Thaw took several years to find a character which could represent his middle age in the same way Jack Regan summed-up his prime. Dennis Waterman, on the other hand, moved on far quicker, but even the character of ex-boxer Terry McCann wasn’t an instant hit. It took a good series-and-a-half before Waterman’s character and the winning dynamic alongside veteran George Cole as Arthur Daley struck a chord with the viewing public, though by the early 80s ‘Minder’ had established itself as one of the UK’s most popular and culturally prescient TV shows. One thing it did do was to extend Waterman’s televisual omnipotence; he even scored a top ten hit with the ‘Minder’ theme tune, ‘I Could Be So Good For You’, in 1980, and he found himself back on ‘Top of the Pops’ three years later via an unlikely Christmas novelty duet with George Cole, ‘What Are We Gonna Get for Er Indoors’.

Whilst starring on ‘Minder’, Dennis Waterman also remained open to other, more intriguing, offers. His passion for the beautiful game inspired an affectionate tribute to football’s amateur beginnings with the 1982 TV movie he himself financed, ‘The World Cup: A Captain’s Tale’, which dramatised the famous triumph of West Auckland FC in winning the first attempt at an international soccer tournament, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, in 1909; he also played a major part in the BBC’s landmark feminist fantasy, ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ in 1986. By this time, he had quit ‘Minder’ and starred in several TV series without making the kind of impact he’d previously enjoyed, though he was the ideal host for the retro-football series, ‘Match of the 70s’, which aired on the BBC in 1995-96, tapping into the vogue for the decade Waterman was inexorably linked with; around the same time, renewed interest in ‘The Sweeney’ led to him becoming the programme’s unofficial curator whenever it was profiled on clips shows in the absence of contributions from John Thaw.

Ongoing affection for ‘The Sweeney’ unquestionably played its part in Waterman’s final TV success, ‘New Tricks’, in which he starred from 2003 to 2014; this BBC series focused on a team of ageing ex-police detectives brought back to solve cold cases and featured many familiar faces from the 70s, including in its original line-up James Bolam and Alun Armstrong. Despite the indisputably odd appearance of an unnaturally white set of dentures, Waterman’s strong presence and association with the era the old jacks were supposed to have been prominent coppers in aided the show’s success and contributed to its ultimate longevity; he also once again ‘sang the theme tune’, which was played upon in a typically surreal recurring sketch in ‘Little Britain’ that left Waterman himself more than baffled. At the same time, however, the skit seemed to solidify his enduring place in British TV’s cultural wallpaper.

The cause of Dennis Waterman’s death at the age of 74 has yet to be revealed, though one often formed the impression he was a man who enjoyed life in ways that are now frowned upon by the acting profession; he received two convictions for drunk-driving and was married four times, the most eventful (from a tabloid perspective) being his 11-year relationship with Rula Lenska, one marked by physical violence on Waterman’s part. He was certainly ‘old-school’, though one suspected this was a tag he himself wouldn’t have objected to. Part of the appeal of ‘New Tricks’ was, like ‘Life on Mars’, its knack in reflecting late 20th century generations’ inability to get to grips with the constantly changing unwritten rules and regulations of the 21st century and, in turn, mirroring the audience’s similar confusion at what could and couldn’t be said both in polite company and in the corporate business the police force has morphed into. Dennis Waterman was undoubtedly one of yesterday’s men, though that’s not a criticism; it’s a compliment.

© The Editor

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SNATCH OF THE DAY

Sharon StoneOver the past week, the corridors of power seem to have been transformed into the cheesy plot of an ‘erotic novel’ penned by Edwina Currie; perhaps John Major’s former bit-on-the-side was on to something after all. Then again, it’s not so long since a quick grope beneath a CCTV camera by Matt Hancock was splashed across every front page on Fleet Street, so none of the current wave of ‘revelations’ are especially jaw-dropping. Granted, unnamed MPs watching phone porn in the Chamber is a new one, though why anyone would want to view porn in public when the accompanying physical response to it cannot be entered into without the risk of arrest on the grounds of indecent exposure is beyond me; yet, maybe the brazen thrill of watching it in a public place is part of the appeal for those who indulge in it – like dogging. Added to this grubby incident there’s also the alleged tribute to Sharon Stone on the part of Labour’s Deputy, Angela ‘Thingle Mother’ Rayner; considering how damaged every VHS copy of ‘Basic Instinct’ being returned to Blockbuster back in the day must have been whenever it came for that notorious scene to be played (and played and played), it’s a relief the camera crew working for BBC Parliament exercise a little more discretion.

I’m not quite sure if the suffix ‘gate’ has been attached to the saga of Angela Rayner’s crossed/uncrossed legs yet, but to do so would elevate it to a significance it doesn’t deserve at a time when one might say there are a few more important issues for our elected representatives to deal with. Perhaps it’s just a deliberately distracting story after an endless slew of relentlessly depressing heavyweight ones, and a convenient chance for Labour to play the sexist card when they appear incapable of chiming with public opinion in any other way. However, as it naturally slots into a certain feminist narrative, it’s being held up by some as emblematic of ‘institutionalised sexism’, which is as prevalent a presence as ‘institutionalised racism’ when it comes to our institutions in the popular imagination. The fact that Ms Rayner has been accused of joking about flashing her pins in the PM’s eye-line – supposedly overheard on the terrace of the Commons – suggests if the alleged flash actually happened it could well have been intentional.

Anyone who doubts that some women are not beyond occasionally weaponising their sexuality by deliberately exploiting men who are vulnerable to such cheap tricks evidently doesn’t get out much. If Angela Rayner did intentionally give Boris a peek in order to put him off his stride, she at least did so in the knowledge she couldn’t have picked a better target. After all, the PM has had his Benny Hill moments, as his numerous wives and mistresses will testify. Mind you, as a speech bubble in the current Private Eye points out in a photo of Rayner addressing the Government benches, she’s the one who has to look across at a twat every day, not Boris. At the same time, the sense of this story being used as a point-scoring exercise by Labour is kind-of ironic considering the Party can’t even define what a woman is; laughable Labour logic implies that the PM could just as well have been confronted by a dick should his gaze have wandered over to a lady on the Opposition benches – and, let’s face it, there’s no shortage of dicks on either side of the House.

But if Angela Rayner gave Boris an accidental flash, it would support the notion that the Commons is not really the right environment to wear a skirt that leaves little to the imagination; it’s only a couple of years or so ago that the now-‘Mayor of West Yorkshire’ Tracy Brabin made a speech in the Chamber dressed in an off-the-shoulder number that one wag said made her look as though she’d just been done over the dustbins round the back of her local KFC at the end of a hen night; and if Parliament didn’t have some sort of dress code, then male MPs could theoretically turn up for a debate dressed in T-shirts, shorts and baseball caps. Nobody is accusing any female MP of dressing ‘provocatively’ and therefore ‘asking for it’, but an awareness that they are in a workplace and should at least make the effort to dress accordingly is probably required. They’re not on a pissed-up day-trip to bloody Aintree, when all’s said and done.

It goes without saying that accusations claiming Angela Rayner was overheard bragging about putting Boris off by doing a Sharon Stone have been sidestepped by Labour, which has instead chosen to adopt the familiar victim line, with the Mail on Sunday – the paper that broke the story – singled out as a peddler of archaic misogynistic muck-raking. The article contained comments from the usual anonymous sources stating that Ms Rayner ‘knows she can’t compete with Boris’s Oxford Union debating training, but she has other skills which he lacks’. In a way, the most offensive thing about that line is the implication that, by virtue of his privileged background, the PM is somehow in possession of a verbal dexterity that the low-born Rayner can’t match and therefore has to resort to the tactics of a back-street slapper to outwit him rather than employing a highbrow luxury like intelligence.

Whatever one’s opinion of Angela Rayner, it cannot be disputed that making it all the way to Deputy Leader of a major political party has been a considerable personal achievement on her part; but she is her own worst enemy. Her infamous ‘Tory Scum’ rant merely handed ammunition to opponents who had a far smoother ride to the top, and by playing the sexist card she is once again confirming her enemy’s view of her intellectual limitations. Of course some male MPs, particularly those schooled in the gladiatorial arena of a single-sex environment like Eton, are insensitive towards their female colleagues in the Commons – largely due to their lop-sided impression of what women want – and a fair amount of genuine, old-fashioned sexism can be endemic in such characters; yet, at the same time, there are some female MPs who play upon this misogynistic ignorance and manipulate it to their own political advantage in a manner that is just as shameless and serves to render them no better than their opponents.

Responding to the story Angela Rayner said ‘As women, we sometimes try to brush aside the sexism we face, but that doesn’t make it okay…it can’t be women’s responsibility to call it out every time. I don’t need anyone to explain sexism to me – I experience it every day. Every time I do a PMQs somebody has an opinion on what I wear.’ Probably true, but many similarly critical column inches are also devoted to the appearance of an MP such as Michael Fabricant and his hairpiece, just as they once were to the gargantuan bulk of Cyril Smith, long before less apparent aspects of his personality were made public. Yes, women are confronted by forms of sexism on a daily basis, and they don’t have to be Members of Parliament; just ask any woman who’s ever driven her car into a garage or has had to suffer a handyman in the house recruited to fix repairs; female MPs are in a unique position to rise above this, and playing the sexism card is a cop-out when they could do so much more.

The most worrying element of this sublimely frivolous story is the fact that the Speaker of the House considerably exceeded his authority by demanding that David Dillon, the Mail on Sunday editor, be summoned to appear before him. Mr Dillon rightly refused the summons, as did his political editor Glen Owen; even Boris Johnson – a former journalist himself, lest we forget – supported the stance of the Mail on Sunday, stating that journos should ‘not take instructions from officials of the House of Commons, however august they may be.’ This statement was added to by a Downing Street spokesperson, who said ‘The Prime Minister is uncomfortable at the idea of our free press being summoned by politicians.’ He went on to say that the PM wouldn’t want ‘any perception of politicians seeking to in any way curb or control what a free press seeks to report.’ Indeed. In these troubled times, both politicians and political journalists should be focused on issues of far greater importance than the height of a hemline.

© 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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HALF AN ARMFUL

HancockFor anyone too young to recall what the Great British Sunday used to be like before John Major moved the goalposts and allowed the retail industry to extend its week from six days to seven, there’s still no better document than the 1958 episode of the radio incarnation of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ titled ‘Sunday Afternoon at Home’. The unique boredom once associated with the day of rest is absolutely nailed as Anthony Aloysius repeatedly yawns, routinely checks the clock, struggles to find things to occupy the endless hours stretching ahead, and suffers a stodgy Sunday lunch cooked by Hattie Jacques. ‘I thought my mother was a bad cook,’ says Hancock, ‘but at least her gravy used to move about.’ The nearest evocation in recent times of how Sundays once were came with the first lockdown, though even that didn’t entirely recapture the bleak, existential ambience conveyed in Hancock’s weary statement, ‘Oh, I do hate Sundays’; he delivers it in a miserable manner that provokes a laugh from the listener and the studio audience, underlining how so much English humour is derived from familiar situations with no apparent humour in them. Perhaps this is a key to Hancock’s enduring appeal and timeless relevance.

Revisiting the television version of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ after a lengthy absence, it’s interesting how a series which is now between 61 and 66-years-old can still retain its ability to inspire laughter. Nothing says ‘this is an old programme’ quite like a monochrome telerecording, and the various pop cultural references dotted throughout the scripts can even outfox a pop cultural nerd like me; yet strip away the signs of the times, and many of the actual situations the Hancock character finds himself in remain relevant and essentially universal. That distinctive character, developed by the man himself and his scriptwriters – the redoubtable Galton and Simpson – is an archetype whose talent for starting an argument in an empty room has echoes down the years in the numerous British sitcom characters that followed; you can see elements of Hancock in everyone from Basil Fawlty to Victor Meldrew to David Brent – characters we wouldn’t necessarily want to be trapped in a lift with (as happens in a famous Hancock episode), but who are nevertheless capable of articulating the exasperation many of us feel in certain social situations.

The Hancock character is a narcissistic, pompous, know-it-all with a far higher opinion of himself than anybody who comes into contact with him has. However, at the same time, the people he regularly comes into contact with are often the kind whose superior and dismissive attitude towards Hancock is worthy of being challenged – mainly petty authority figures who need taking down a peg or two, and the kind we still all have to deal with today, whether the snooty receptionist in the GPs surgery or the Jobsworth types who had a ‘good’ pandemic; and Hancock is not a character prepared to stand by and keep schtum. He’s not afraid to say out loud what most of us think when confronted by such people.

Often, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is unfairly reduced to a minor footnote in the ‘Steptoe and Son’ story, viewed as providing Ray Galton and Alan Simpson with the necessary grounding to reinvent the TV sitcom once they and Hancock went their separate ways. On television, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ ran for five years (1956-61), whereas Albert and Harold’s saga stretched all the way to twelve, well into the colour era and the consequent guarantee of recurrent repeats long after both stars were deceased. Yes, by recruiting straight actors rather than comics into the lead roles, Galton & Simpson did indeed break new ground and set the template for every sitcom to come; but the fact Tony Hancock emerged from the immediate post-war variety circuit didn’t necessarily mean he was content with the formulaic vehicles for such graduates that were the staple diet of radio and television comedy in the 1950s. US TV had proven, with the likes of ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘Sgt Bilko’, that it was possible to present self-contained stories in 30 minutes, expanding the usual five-minute sketches into the full programme whilst dispensing with guest stars, musical interludes and dancing girls, and ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ (which debuted on the BBC Light Programme in 1954) gradually managed to lay the foundations for the Great British sitcom we know and love today.

The main difference between the radio and TV versions of the show is the fact that Hancock was able to play upon his talent for visual humour on screen in a way that wasn’t possible on the wireless. His facial reactions require no dialogue and are able to elicit laughter that would only have excluded the listening public in the radio series; a wonderful example comes in the TV episode, ‘The Missing Page’, in which the hushed setting of a public library denies Hancock the chance to describe the plot of a pulp novel to Sid James in words, so he acts it out brilliantly in mime. Indeed, as great as Galton & Simpson’s scripts are, perhaps sometimes too much emphasis is placed on them at the expense of Hancock’s superlative interpretation; after all, several have been remounted with other actors in recent years, and none have come close to Hancock’s intuitive comic timing.

Although Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques occasionally appear on the TV show, the only regular from radio to transfer properly to television was Sid James, playing Hancock’s dodgy lodger and sidekick. So successful was this partnership that Hancock began to become concerned the public were viewing the pair as a double act, even though their chemistry together was a winner. In fact, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is fairly unique when it comes to a sitcom in that it gets better as it goes on; there’s no slow diminishing of quality at all. Indeed, by the time of the penultimate series, it reaches a peak it’s hard to see being bettered. It’s possible this was a factor that enabled Hancock’s restless ambition to assert itself and demand a shake-up of the format for what turned out to be the last series. Galton & Simpson responded to the challenge – Sid James and 23 Railway Cuttings East Cheam were both jettisoned, and the show even lost five minutes per episode as it was renamed simply ‘Hancock’. The character relocated to a bedsit in Earls Court and delivered some of the show’s most memorable episodes, including ‘The Radio Ham’ and ‘The Blood Donor’.

Hancock’s desire to spread his wings also paid off with the two movies he made in the early 60s, ‘The Rebel’ and ‘The Punch & Judy Man’. Unfortunately, though now recognised as classics of British comedy cinema, the films failed to reproduce the success of the TV and radio series at the time, and Hancock’s career as a cinematic comic actor never really took off in the way he envisaged. Walking away from the BBC series and Galton & Simpson at the peak of his popularity was a brave step that certainly ensured the series went out on a high, but Hancock never recaptured its brilliance or its audience and both his life and career went into a swift, sad decline thereafter. His battle with the bottle didn’t help, exacerbating his demons as the desired career revival failed to materialise. The famous ‘Face to Face’ interview he did in 1960 is perhaps the best insight into his incurable yearning for perfection that he didn’t seem to realise he’d already achieved on the small screen.

A 1971 audio interview with Sid James provides a poignant tribute to Hancock three years after his suicide; James describes Hancock as ‘the greatest friend I ever had’ and then goes on to recount a moment when he spotted Hancock from his car window in Piccadilly – a bewildered and intoxicated shadow of a man marooned on a traffic island. Intending to give him a lift, James turned his car around and pulled-up, only to find Hancock had gone; he never saw him again. Whether Tony Hancock could have returned to his late 50s and early 60s peak had he lived is one of those never-to-be-resolved conundrums, though what he left behind from that peak still stands tall as one of TV’s finest comedy masterpieces that the passage of time has not dimmed the ability of to make the viewer laugh over and over again. A comedian can ask for no greater legacy.

© The Editor

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

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AS IF BY MAGIC…

Mr BennKyiv, Paris or London – any would suffice as a suitable location in which to set this post, as all three are currently monopolising the headlines. I’ll opt for the latter city, though not 11 Downing Street as an address (or non-address). After all, the official residence of a politician who was oddly just as wealthy back when he was dishing out ‘Rishi’ll Fix It’ badges to a furloughed workforce as he is now (when he isn’t quite so popular) is not the subject to catch my eye, nor is his other half who (again) was just as sly at evading taxes this time two years ago as she was until caught out today. No, when it comes to the capital I think I’ll instead head for 52 Festive Road. Anyone between the ages of roughly 30-60 will recognise the street; it was the home of a certain Mr Benn. His Christian name was not Tony, though his Christian name was never actually revealed; in that wonderfully old-school British tradition, his chosen gender pronoun was always the name everyone knew him by.

Along with Gordon Murray’s ‘Trumptonshire’ trilogy, ‘The Herbs’ and ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, ‘Mr Benn’ was one of the new wave of BBC TV’s ‘Watch with Mother’ programmes at the turn-of-the-70s that capitalised on the innovation of colour television and propelled the early afternoon pre-school slot into the fresh decade and beyond; by producing these shows in colour at a time when the majority of households remained rooted in monochrome, the makers of the said programmes were looking to the future, safe in the knowledge that their productions would survive repeat runs for the next ten or twenty years whilst established mainstays such as ‘The Flowerpot Men’ and ‘The Woodentops’ would bite the black & white dust as the Beeb sought to sell their 625-line baby to the masses for the imminent era. ‘Mr Benn’ debuted in the same month Britain went decimal and was to stay a fixture of the post-lunchtime landscape until the early 1990s.

It’s a testament to the changing nature of children’s television that – although appearing in glorious full colour – ‘Mr Benn’ largely consisted of a series of static illustrations that the rostrum camera panned along during each episode; animation was kept to a strict minimum, yet the audience’s disbelief was nevertheless able to be suspended throughout. There was no need for the constant prodding of the attention span back then, unlike the iPad earworm that the child opposite me on a train journey the other day required in order to keep her sedated; that the rest of the passengers within her immediate radius had to endure what sounded like a succession of Munchkin nursery rhymes set to high-speed Ibiza b.p.m.s highlighted the difference between the cherished, private experience of ‘Watch with Mother’ in the front room womb half-a-century ago and today’s cynical corporate equivalent that is imposed upon external environments, regardless of the general public’s irritation.

‘Mr Benn’ was created by the writer and illustrator David McKee, whose character had originally surfaced on the printed page four years before his TV debut in 1971. McKee passed away at the grand old age of 87 last week and his legacy to successive generations of children seems secure. His evergreen 1968 book ‘Elmer the Patchwork Elephant’ was written as a response to racist abuse aimed in the direction of his Anglo-Indian wife and mixed-race daughter in a less-enlightened age; after years as a consistent best-seller, a series of sequels appeared, and the character is particularly popular in the present day, cited as an embryonic example of the ‘diversity’ factor so beloved by publishers of children’s literature in the 21st century. Regardless of whichever Identity Politics demographic has claimed it now, the original book celebrates difference in a way that has a timeless relevance to kids without the need for an accompanying lecture on behalf of any contemporary ‘inclusivity’ agenda. Mr Benn as a character, by contrast with Elmer, is very much an ‘everyman’ representing the anonymity of the era in which he appeared.

Dressed in a suit and bowler hat, Mr Benn was in tune with the antiquated idea of what an everyman represented at the time of his conception, though the fact that few men dress that way today means his conventional uniform has subsequently become his own unique look as distinctive as any superhero costume. Mr Benn’s profession is never specified or referenced, yet by wearing the classic ensemble of the City Gent, one assumes he works in some dreary stockbroker’s office that necessitates a daily commute. What we instead dip into is Mr Benn’s home life; the fact he doesn’t seem to be a married man suggests he has little time for romancing and relies upon his imagination to sustain him in the absence of a spouse. It is with this in mind that we routinely join him on a trip to an obscure fancy dress shop hidden down a side-street, one he is drawn to as an escape from the banal, humdrum life surrounding him on the terraced normality of Festive Road.

Precisely how the fancy dress shop in question ever makes a profit is another unanswered conundrum, as no other customers are ever seen on the premises. Indeed, the man forever known simply as ‘the shopkeeper’ is himself somewhat invisible until he appears ‘as if by magic’ whenever Mr Benn takes a shine to a particular outfit and requests a visit to the changing room. Dressed rather eccentrically in a purple waistcoat, bow-tie, John Lennon ‘granny glasses’ and fez, the shopkeeper is both the facilitator of Mr Benn’s imaginative escapades and the man who curtails them. Where he can be found during the lengthy period between the shop’s sole customer slipping into his fancy dress and then deciding he won’t buy or hire the bloody thing after all is one of life’s great mysteries that it’s probably wise to not explore any further. Suffice to say, the shopkeeper magically reappearing whenever Mr Benn’s latest adventure is nearing its end is as much of a guarantee as night following day.

Dreaming up the fancy dress shop as a gateway to said adventures was one of David McKee’s genius strokes when it comes to this particular character; Mr Benn ventures into the changing room, dons the costume of the week and then wanders from changing room to outdoor location in Narnia-fashion. The location always fits the chosen costume, so if Mr Benn tries on a suit of armour he finds himself in a medieval kingdom; if he slips into an astronaut’s uniform he finds himself in outer space; if he’s dressed as a clown he finds himself in a circus ring and so on. Every child’s imagination takes them to such places whenever they wear the appropriate garb, and Mr Benn lives out their fantasies every episode. The clever twist to blur the lines between fantasy and reality is that Mr Benn never fails to find a souvenir of his adventure once he returns home, planting the exciting idea in the viewers’ heads that he may well just have experienced the adventure for real after all.

‘Mr Benn’, as with all the other ‘Watch with Mother’ shows that had a remarkable longevity, only consisted of 13 initial episodes that forever felt like so much more because they were repeated on a loop for years. Indeed, the enduring popularity of the series eventually resulted in David McKee producing a brand new episode in 2004 for the Nickelodeon network in which his hero emulated the success of ‘Gladiator’ by returning to the fancy dress shop and finding himself in a Roman arena. Every effort was made to slot this new instalment into the narrative of the classic series by recreating the nostalgic ambience of the original, none more so than the revival of the memorable theme tune and incidental music by the jazz musician and composer Duncan Lamont. Happily – unlike rock band reunions – it worked.

‘Mr Benn’ retains a charm characteristic of all the programmes presented under the ‘Watch with Mother’ banner, exuding an innocence emblematic of better days; whether those better days were real or imagined is irrelevant. Like the souvenir Mr Benn always locates in his pocket after the adventure is over, what matters is whether we believe or not. Thanks to the imagination of David McKee – and the golden vocal chords of narrator Ray Brooks – we can believe whenever we revisit an episode. RIP.

© The Editor

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

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MADHOUSE OF CARDS

AlexMost of us are now familiar with the shameless tactic of ‘playing the race card’, which is usually employed by those who’ve painted themselves into a corner and lack both the intelligence and the decency to formulate a coherent argument that will stand up and warrant examination. I suppose the first time the race card was played to great effect was during the trial of OJ Simpson back in the 90s, when an odds-on guilty verdict was masterfully reversed by Simpson’s legal team as they tapped into the ongoing racial tensions in the US and made the whole spectacle about race. It worked, and ever since then the race card has been produced routinely by some non-white public figures as a means of silencing any questioning of their actions as well offering a sense of security that prevents opposing points of view when making public statements. Just the other day a black actress in the Netflix bodice-ripper, ‘Bridgerton’, made a ludicrous claim in a magazine interview which came across as a desperate attempt to place the multicultural Regency fantasy of the series within an authentic historical context.

According to Adjoa Andoh (the actress), 50% of Nelson’s navy was African and 20,000 black people were living in the centre of London in the early 19th century. She states this as fact, yet offers no evidence of her claims. Most of us fortunate to have learnt our British history before it was warped by Woke revisionism know this is simply untrue, yet nobody would dare dispute the actress’s imaginative fallacy, for to do so would immediately result in one being labelled racist; therefore, she is free to spout such guff knowing she is immune to criticism or questioning. The increasing misuse and abuse of the word ‘racist’ outside of its correct context and using it as a casual insult to put the brakes on debate does nobody any favours other than perhaps actual racists. It serves to bracket any genuine racism alongside a ridiculous list of imaginary racist crimes, diminishing the effectiveness of the word in outing the real guilty parties and breeding cynicism towards the word itself and towards accusations of racism rooted in fact. When everything is racist, nothing is racist.

Having seen the deplorable playing of the race card and how successful it can enable some to get away with murder (well, it certainly did OJ Simpson), those unable to pull it out of the hat on account of being white have found another one they can play – the mental health card. Again, when the amoral use the phrase ‘mental health’ as an excuse they imagine will elicit sympathy and deflect closer scrutiny of whatever crime they have committed, they do so at the expense of those who are genuine sufferers of mental health conditions. It’s almost reached the stage when we anticipate ‘mental health’ being pushed forward as a get-out-of-jail card whenever anyone is exposed as a crook, and we begin to suspect everyone with mental health issues of being a charlatan, employing the phrase in the same way a drafted soldier in a time of war might pretend to be mad in order to be relocated from the frontline. However, none of this would be remotely effective without the support of the more disreputable members of the psychiatric profession, those Gods among men whose unimpeachable wisdom in the court of Law ranks even higher than the authority of the Judge.

In a recent and typically thought-provoking ‘Triggernometry’ interview, the former prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple summarily rubbished some of the oft-quoted ‘facts’ when it comes to the mental health of many currently being detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure and exposed them for what they are. ‘You read…that seventy percent of prisoners have some sort of psychological problem,’ he said. ‘I believe that’s a whole load of hokum. That is an excuse for the failure to deal with the relatively few raving lunatics in prison, which the NHS is incapable of dealing with because it’s so incompetent.’ He cited the decimation of the state psychiatric hospital network as leaving no option but to put those with serious mental conditions behind bars, and if a stat claiming 70% of 80,000 people is to be believed, it’s no wonder the task of adequately caring for them seems an impossible one that nobody would expect any government capable of resolving.

Theodore Dalrymple also criticised the methods of diagnosing mental health in the context of it providing a reason for criminal behaviour. ‘Their whole process of diagnosis is so lax,’ he said of his fellow professionals; when confronted by further stats claiming a high proportion of convicted criminals have educational needs such as dyslexia and so on, he recalled his own experience of dealing with prisoners and said that ‘(most) were not deficient in intelligence; they could understand everything perfectly well.’ Playing the mental health card is the default position of many unscrupulous psychiatrists hired as experts by defence teams to secure a violent villain a cushier sentence than his crime otherwise warrants; and blaming mental health for a crime suggests it was the condition that committed the crime rather than the criminal; it implies he or she can be cured, thus winning far earlier parole than the recognition of an incurably evil nature ever would.

Deprived of the Ludovico Technique to guarantee a model citizen upon release, the role of the prison psychiatrist can be pivotal in swinging it, and the do-gooder naivety of many parole boards confronted by a well-behaved criminal with the psychiatric stamp of approval is testament to how mental health can be abused. Most are unaware of the way in which the mental health card is a useful tool for the canny crook to cut short his sentence because they’re not paying attention until the predictable headline when said wrong ‘un inevitably reoffends once released. The public figure playing it when caught out, however, we know of from the moment his or her illicit activities are revealed via Fleet Street. Only this week we’ve seen backbench Tory MP David Warburton react to being exposed as an alleged coke-snorting, serial sexual harasser by playing the mental health card, checking-in to a private psychiatric hospital, apparently suffering from ‘severe shock and stress’.

Warburton has had the Conservative whip withdrawn as an investigation into the allegations levelled against him is pending; misconduct complaints stem from three separate women and, according to the Sunday Times, these include two former aides. The fact that Warburton employed his wife in Parliament in a ‘human resources’ role didn’t exactly fill the complainants with confidence that their allegations would be investigated or taken seriously; Mrs Warburton is still able to work as her husband’s Communications Officer and Parliamentary Assistant, despite the change in the rules forbidding MPs elected from 2017 onwards to employ family members, because he himself was elected in 2015. As some of Mr Warburton’s colleagues blame his behaviour on a ‘mid-life crisis’, the MP is safely cocooned from the publicity at his mental health retreat and the new Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme, the Parliamentary watchdog set up to deal with allegations of harassment, is looking into the story.

We’ve already witnessed how several athletes have recently been showered in nauseating praise for their ‘bravery’ at failing in their chosen field and then invariably playing the mental health card in the knowledge that failure attributed to mental health issues will be celebrated more than sporting success in some quarters. As with the other examples referenced, falling back on mental health as a catch-all term to excuse deficiencies that bear little relation to authentic mental health conditions that millions of people are genuinely afflicted by devalues the term; it also risks provoking scepticism whenever anyone suffers for real rather than cynically playing the card. Celebrities wearing mental health as a fashion accessory doesn’t help much either, but this is the society we find ourselves in, a society in which selective ring-fencing can neutralise a multitude of sins.

© The Editor

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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

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