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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Editor




It’s not much of a gamble as gambles go, but purchasing anything on the strength of a good review and a feeling that ‘this looks right up my street’ sometimes pays off. I would occasionally apply this logic way back when there was such a thing as a music press and ‘Single of the Week’ would praise an unknown song by an unknown band; once or twice, I struck lucky, whereas there were far more occasions when I realised the enthusiastic reviewer had probably received a handsome backhander from the band’s manager to shower plaudits on the atrocious single in question. Anyway, when it comes to buying DVDs on Amazon, every once in a while I gamble and I did so last week. ‘The Tyrant King’ is about as obscure a TV series from the 60s as you can get – a children’s drama serial, the first-ever production by Thames Television before it had even superseded ABC and Rediffusion in the London region, filmed in colour but broadcast in black & white, shown once in the autumn of 1968 and never seen on TV again – i.e. it looked right up my street.

Indeed, having now watched this six-part series, I’m still not quite sure if I dreamt it up or not; it certainly has the feel of some imaginary kid’s show from the 60s I’d be watching in a dream and then wake up from, wondering if my mind had concocted it or if it had genuinely existed. To be fair, it does have an exceedingly dreamlike ambience, bearing more of a resemblance in style to a European Art-house movie of the era than something intended to air at teatime. Then there’s the inspired – and, considering the context, quite avant-garde – soundtrack; the likes of Pink Floyd, Cream, The Nice and The Moody Blues are so expertly woven into the surreal fabric of the series it’s as though the bands had scored the show. If my imagination had invented ‘The Tyrant King’, it’s precisely the kind of hazy interlude between Psychedelia and Prog Rock I would have selected; the chosen songs still possess the ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe of 1967, but also point to the darker decade just round the corner. With the three lead characters all on the cusp of adulthood, albeit not quite there yet, one might say the soundtrack mirrors their one-foot-in-both-camps status.

As was the case with all ‘child actors’ in TV dramas produced for an audience of under-16s up until ‘Grange Hill’, the trio whose strange adventure the series follows are frightfully middle-class, continuing the ‘Famous Five’ tradition that proved surprisingly durable until well into the 70s. As with Enid Blyton’s gang, this one is inadvertently caught up in a mystery involving sinister grownups, a mystery only they can solve; but this is Enid Blyton if she’d dropped acid en route to Toytown. Yes, the three are archetypes – the brainy, sensible boy; the ‘cool’ kid; and the pretty girl; but the latter two – brother and sister – exhibit a dazzling array of Carnaby Street threads. Bill could almost pass for Monkee Peter Tork whilst Charlotte’s hemlines would undoubtedly be deemed a tad too high for a 14/15-year-old girl these days. All three leads reside in comfortable Suburbia, though the striking house Bill and Charlotte call home looks like it had won some 60s ‘design a luxury pad’ competition, the kind of dwelling I could imagine George Best having as his address.

The two main villains of the piece remain elusive and mysterious figures until the big reveal in the final episode. The charismatic and dependable Welsh actor Philip Madoc – who always possessed a natural flair for simmering villainy – first crosses the gang’s path in a threatening way during a visit to St Paul’s Cathedral; they nickname him ‘Scarface’ because…well, because he’s got a scar on his forehead. Then there’s the gloriously camp Murray Melvin, still best-remembered for his groundbreaking performance as Geoffrey alongside Rita Tushingham in ‘A Taste of Honey’, who goes by the slightly unsettling name of ‘Uncle Gerry’ and dresses like a gay Doctor Who – hat, cloak, cane and all. The gang first stumble upon him whilst exploring an old house they assumed was empty, a house crammed with the sort of eccentric and creepy Victoriana ephemera that was going for a song in antiques shops on the King’s Road at the time. They overhear him on the telephone and the intriguing mention of ‘the Tyrant King’ sets them off on their quest across the capital to discover the secret of something they suspect is dangerous but nonetheless must pursue. Let’s face it, it’d make a pretty dull six episodes if they’d bottled it and decided not to bother.

As the series was shot entirely on 16mm film rather than being slowed down by long videotaped scenes on studio sets, the pace is far quicker than one traditionally associates with dramas from the period; it also enables the full, exhilarating whirl of the toing and froing around Swinging London to be enjoyed in the breathless spirit of the time. The sequence at Kew Gardens in particular is reminiscent of the Maryon Park scenes from ‘Blow Up’ in the way the picturesque location seems simultaneously serene and spooky, but director Mike Hodges shot it with a cinematic eye that pointed the way to his future career (three years later he directed ‘Get Carter’); one wonders if Hodges also had a hand in the ‘out there’ soundtrack that older TV execs probably wouldn’t have opted for in 1968. Even though the series was effectively sponsored by London Transport to encourage folk to travel around town by bus or train, each location visited (including the obvious ones) is shown in a fresh and often disturbing light that works well with the additional snatches of detached dialogue accompanying the disjointed travelogue, ones that seem to be beamed in from a radio picking up the discharge of Numbers Stations.

Inevitably with a series shot wholly on location (and such a visually fascinating location, to boot) there’s the nostalgia factor of a London looking as we grew up believing London looked from snow-globes, biscuit tins or postcards; but it’s equally marvellous to see how the cutting edge of contemporary pop culture (including drugs!) even infiltrated the cosy enclaves of children’s television in 1968, something for which there was precious little evidence until ‘The Tyrant King’ was excavated from obscurity by the ever-reliable DVD company specialising in vintage TV, Network. The series was written by Trevor Preston, one of the great television writers of the era and one who went onto create another weird and wonderful kid’s show, ‘Ace of Wands’, as well as eventually penning the memorable crime miniseries starring Tom Bell in 1978, ‘Out’. Coupled with an adventurous, up-and-coming director such as Mike Hodges, the presence of a writer of the calibre of Trevor Preston shows how much talent was invested in children’s television back then. Yes, it could still dredge up the music hall pantomime of something like ‘Crackerjack’, but when it came to drama, every effort was made to ensure it wasn’t just a watered-down, cheapo version of the adult variety.

With its inaugural project an exclusively film-only one, Thames learnt the lesson of ‘The Tyrant King’ and gradually put together its offshoot company Euston Films, responsible for ‘Special Branch’, ‘The Sweeney’, ‘Van der Valk’, ‘Minder’ and ‘Widows’ amongst many others. ‘The Tyrant King’ is certainly an enchantingly uncharacteristic genesis for a company that became renowned for gritty dramas labelled ‘kick, bollock and scramble’; but in 2020 it serves as yet one more diversionary sidestep into a world almost faintly recognisable, yet one so removed from where we are now that it may as well be taking place in Wonderland after all. And why not? Any series that can have a song called ‘The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack’ as its theme tune is worth a look.

© The Editor


Okay, I know – only the third post of the year and I’ve already opted for the most bleedin’ obvious title of all; but I can be excused, I believe, on account of it making sense in one specific context. Curiously, the programme I’ve watched more than any other in 2020 so far has been ‘Vision On’. Yes, you heard right – the BBC children’s show so popular in its day that it ran for twelve years (1964-76) has been required viewing for me over the past week, enabling me to bypass Harry and his missus as well as Iran, Lancashire ‘grooming’ and all the other things that inspire such joy. Regulars will be aware that I often use vintage TV as a familiar escape pod from the here and now, and a serendipitous discovery on YouTube led me to stumbling upon 30 editions of a series that hasn’t had a terrestrial airing for over 40 years. Right now, I seem to need it.

Today, ‘Vision On’ is not so much referenced as an innovative and inventive programme in its own right, but as a launch-pad for the likes of Tony Hart, Aardman Animations and Sylvester McCoy; the latter, of course, graduated to Time Lord status long before his/her adventures became a platform for the Woke gospel. But ‘Vision On’ never made a meal of ‘issues’, despite the fact it grew out of a perceived need to provide television for deaf children. As with many kids’ shows of its era, it stands up as a vibrant example of how the madcap ‘anything goes’ spirit that typified British pop culture from the mid-60s to the mid-70s infiltrated every facet of that culture, even children’s television. Looking at it afresh with the hindsight of four decades, ‘Vision On’ is still a staggeringly surreal showcase for the imagination – the kind that would never get past Auntie’s contemporary army of consultants, executives and focus group gurus.

Produced at the Beeb’s Bristol outpost rather than the more familiar environs of Shepherd’s Bush, the programme-makers were largely left to their own devices and clearly revelled in the kind of freedom today’s equivalents would be denied. Watching as a child, I was vaguely aware the remit of the show was to create entertainment that appealed to the deaf; but this was never worn as a virtue-signalling T-shirt; it was only noticeable through presenter Pat Keysell’s employment of sign language during those rare moments in which dialogue was required. ‘Vision On’ made the best of this pre-subtitled era by focusing on the visual, and it did so in ways that belied the limited budgets available.

‘Vision On’ debuted in an extremely busy year for BBC television – ‘Top of the Pops’, ‘Match of the Day’, ‘Play School’, ‘The Likely Lads’, ‘The Wednesday Play’ and BBC2 all appeared for the first time in 1964; but it was because the corporation was enjoying such a creatively fruitful period that a children’s programme so uniquely original could be given the green light. An immediate success, ‘Vision On’ grew in confidence as the decade progressed and became more adventurous in line with it; but the core presenting duo of Pat Keysell and Tony Hart were pivotal to its longevity.

Pat Keysell came from a theatre and mime background, whereas Tony Hart was already established as the in-house artist for the BBC’s children’s department, famously designing the ‘Blue Peter’ ship logo. Keysell’s mime was a key visual element of ‘Vision On’ whilst Hart’s artistry was another. One of the programme’s most memorable features was to encourage viewers’ own artistic efforts by inviting them to contribute to ‘The Gallery’, a segment that enshrined the vibraphone-heavy easy-listening tune ‘Left Bank Two’ as a musical byword for amateur art thereafter. At its peak, the programme was inundated with between five to ten thousand viewers’ pictures a week; no wonder Pat Keysell famously warned none of the paintings sent in could be returned.

Another distinctive feature was the stop-motion filmed inserts starring ‘The Prof’, an anarchic character in a white coat who seemed to spend all his time running around fields and colliding with various inanimate objects. These short bursts of manic energy were technically impressive when one considers the era in which they were made, and were characteristic of the way in which the series pushed the boundaries of what was possible in television at the time; but the programme was a showcase for such innovation. The studio segments of ‘Vision On’ were punctuated by snippets of avant-garde animation usually accompanied by equally unconventional Radiophonic Workshop ditties. There would also regularly be outdoor examples of Tony Hart’s remarkable ability to draw a huge image on a flat surface that could only be seen correctly from the angle of the camera looking down on it.

Along with ‘Top of the Pops’, ‘Vision On’ was a show that really benefitted from the BBC’s move into colour. Editions from the early 70s are borderline psychedelic – and that’s not even mentioning the dazzling Biba-esque outfits of Pat Keysell and the equally colourful wardrobe of her bearded mime sidekick, the admirably elongated Ben Benison. Completing the classic team was Huddersfield eccentric Wilf Lunn, who came across as Vivian Stanshall’s Yorkshire cousin; this hippie Heath Robinson, forever inventing machines that seemed to serve no purpose other than to entertain, found his true home on ‘Vision On’.

When so much of archive TV can often seem quite slow-paced by today’s standards, it’s amazing how fast-moving ‘Vision On’ is; I suspect, given the opportunity to see it, most 21st century kids would probably find it as stimulating as I did over 40 years ago. One of the joys of watching it comes from never knowing what will pop up next – and it could be almost anything. The impression given is that whatever idea simply sounded good was chucked into the heady mix – and if it didn’t work, something better would come along in the blink of an eye. I particularly used to enjoy the moments when Sylvester McCoy would step through a mirror and stroll around a backwards world in which the film was clearly reversed, yet he would be the only person moving forwards – another impressive technical achievement that must have required a hell of a lot of planning beforehand.

The programme finally drew to a close in 1976, apparently due to producer Patrick Dowling confessing to running out of ideas. Most of the people behind ‘Vision On’ progressed onto ‘Take Hart’ in 1977, a programme that allowed Tony Hart’s TV career to scale even greater heights, albeit with a vehicle that eschewed the more esoteric elements of its parent programme. To me as a child, ‘Vision On’ served as confirmation that the slightly skewed way in which I looked at the world wasn’t exclusive to me – and also wasn’t a nascent indication of madness. There don’t seem to be many outlets providing confirmation now, alas. But you’re welcome to see for yourself. The only difference with the editions on YT and the ones I remember come with the credits and Pat Keysell’s brief spoken links; they’re in French due to the series being a co-production with French-Canadian TV, so separate segments were evidently recorded. Otherwise, it’s as brilliantly bonkers as ever. And they really don’t make ‘em like this anymore…

© The Editor


Recent late-night drama at the Commons may have made for compelling entertainment in its combination of contemporary political jousting and bafflingly archaic ceremony; but such events are relatively rare there, as is the high level of attendance seen when these occasions come around. The day-to-day routine at Westminster seems closer to those somewhat disorientating debates we’ve all caught live on BBC Parliament, when the significance of the subject under discussion is downgraded by the empty seats and an anonymous MP droning on whilst an undercurrent of chatter distracts the viewer – not to mention the sight of other MPs wandering in and out as though they’re looking for the loos. The hours might be flexible, but Parliament largely operates as a Monday-Friday enterprise.

The prospect of an exceedingly unusual Saturday sitting coming up has inevitably exhumed the ghosts of past weekends in the debating chamber. Most of these took place on the eve of (or during) landmark moments in the Great British history book – the Falklands, Suez, and World War II; according to one account I read, the future President Kennedy was present in the gallery at the 1939 debate, though JFK’s father was, of course, US Ambassador to the UK at the time. The fact that Brexit will now take its place alongside events that both made and shamed us is perhaps a measure of just how defining the era we’re currently living through may prove to be; but MPs being recalled to the workplace outside of standard working hours also shines a light on the curious anomaly that is a Saturday.

Doing what I do, where I’m not constrained by the rigidity of the set working week and all its attendant weekend rituals, it’s odd that Saturday still feels…dare I say it…special. I suppose, like so much in life, the associations formed in formative years are hard to shake. If one was not especially enamoured with school, Friday home-time was the polar opposite of Monday morning, a brief window of release in which one received a 48-hour pass to a parallel universe where the children’s schedule was not governed by an educational timetable. Friday night often saw bedtime pushed back a little, and then there was the prospect of a lie-in till at least 9.30.

The arrival of ‘The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’ on BBC1 in the autumn of 1976 was quite a game-changer for my generation; whilst the notion of three hours’ live TV anchored by Noel Edmonds might not necessarily be something I’d stumble out of bed for in 2019, it certainly did the trick for nine-year-old me. I remember Saturday morning TV pre-‘Swap Shop’ being an uneven, pre-recorded mix of cartoons, silent comedies and earnest ‘how to play badminton’-type instructional shows; by contrast, the fact the BBC was then prepared to invest in a programme as ambitiously innovative as ‘Swap Shop’ made it feel as though the younger viewer mattered as much as the dads and their ‘Grandstand’/’World of Sport’ marathons. There was a proliferation of pop promos, for one thing; I was introduced to both Blondie and Kate Bush due to ‘Swap Shop’ airing the videos for their debut hits before even TOTP got them; but it was the novel interactive element that really made the programme something new.

From the warmth of TV Centre, Noel would link to Keith ‘Cheggers’ Chegwin, usually freezing his balls off in some unseasonal coastal resort, yet nevertheless engulfed by a swarm of kids eager to brave the elements just to get their faces on camera and engage in a communal swap; but the greatest appeal was back in the studio, when pop stars and assorted 70s celebrities would actually speak to viewers lucky enough to get through on chic Trimphones. Today, whenever I dispatch an item to a fresh address via Amazon and I can’t complete the order without providing a phone-number for the delivery man (one I often don’t possess), I always give 01 8118055, the old ‘Swap Shop’ number everyone of a certain age remembers. I sometimes wonder if said delivery man ever rings it and Noel Edmonds answers at the other end – ‘Hello, you’re through to Suzi Quatro. What would you like to ask her?’

At the end of the 70s, ATV’s long-running regional rival, ‘Tiswas’, received a belated network promotion and provided Saturday mornings with a more anarchic flavour; legend has it there was a Beatles Vs Stones-like loyalty demanded of the viewer when it came to choosing between Posh Paws and Spit the Dog, but I suspect most (like me) would constantly change channels for the two hours the two shows went head-to-head. It also goes without saying that the luxury of lounging around in pyjamas watching Showaddywaddy being plastered in custard pies was dependent upon whether or not one’s mother was intent on dragging her children around the shops.

My abject boredom with C&A, M&S and all the rest could be pacified by reading material in the shape of a comic or – on special occasions – a paperback from the extensive library then available in Boots. What I obviously didn’t appreciate then was that Saturday was also a parental release from 9-to-5; my mother’s escape was to do the city centre rounds, whereas my father would either go watch a football match or play in one. The industry of leisure can characterise a Saturday; whatever one’s idea of leisure happens to be, a Saturday can cater for it. The jaunty theme tune of ‘Sports Report’ and the melodic recital of the football results by James Alexander Gordon was an occasion unique to a Saturday, as was the fact that thousands of hardcore punters up and down the country made the pilgrimage to windswept terraces to watch their local teams kick-off simultaneously at 3.00. If they were lucky, they might get to relive the spectacle on ‘Match of the Day’ later that evening.

Naturally, time moved on along with Brucie and Parky, and the Saturdays of 70s children became defined by Techno rather than the Tardis. Many a dazed clubber can recall 90s Saturday nights ending sometime on Sunday morning, where a stint on ‘Bamboozle’ would be followed by crashing-out and waking-up to a half-eaten pizza and the suddenly-perfectly logical world of the Teletubbies. Or was that just people I used to know? Anyway, I’m aware (courtesy of my student neighbours) that this ritual survives albeit in a slightly modified fashion – proof that Saturday maintains its distinctive identity whilst surrounded by increasingly indistinguishable weekdays; and that cannot be a bad thing.

A Commons sitting on a Saturday is therefore a somewhat incongruous scenario, but we live in strange times. Boris is trumpeting his Brexit deal when it could well boast all the failings of his predecessor’s by keeping us tied to some of the more contentious aspects of EU membership, yet leaving us without a voice in Brussels; and, of course, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP will all vote against it because ‘crashing out’ with No Deal and blaming everything on the Tories is better for their election prospects. And then there’s those beacons of eternal sunshine, the DUP. Saturday will probably end up being a bit of a damp squib in Westminster, but for many other people around the country the workplace won’t impinge on it at all. And for a country with some of the longest working hours in Europe, maybe that’s what makes Saturday special.

© The Editor


Aged three, I guess the saddest sentence in the English language for me was ‘It’s time for Andy Pandy to wave goodbye now’; it was infancy’s equivalent of ‘I’ve met someone else’, though at least the end-of-the-world dejection was diluted by the promise of a return visit to Andy’s place the following week: ‘But he’s coming again soon.’ And he did, as did all of the inhabitants of television’s toy-box, despite the fact I had no say over my rationed encounters with them. They were my friends before I had real friends, and I regularly indulge in pre-school reunions now that I’m no longer dependent on broadcasters to determine when I can see them again.

As much as I loved the characters when a member of the target demographic, I also loved the worlds they lived in – worlds that seemed familiar, but not quite. Mary, Mungo & Midge may have resided in a 60s tower block, but it was one of those ‘moonbase’ 60s tower blocks as they looked on the architect’s drawing-board before being built – sleek, space-age, analogue erections surrounded by green and pleasant land, as though these buildings had sprouted from the soil like beautiful, synthetic mushrooms; it was a modernist marriage of architecture and nature that never happened, a future that failed to arrive.

The wider townscape of this tower block’s location was a similarly simplistic palette of pulsating primary colours, presenting an idyllic urban environment on a par with those illustrated in the Ladybird books of the era. If a child had designed this imaginary garden city, I wouldn’t have been surprised; ditto Festive Road, address of Mr Benn, or Trumpton. When young children portray their surroundings in the galleries that decorate classrooms, their impressions generally stick to an endearingly primitive template that bears little resemblance to the actual surroundings their parents would recognise as home. Yet, chances are these parents would have depicted the world in an identical fashion when the same age, the age in which the visual is still the senior partner to the verbal where self-expression is concerned. At what point do we cease to see the world through our original eyes? And why, by the time we are in a position to shape that world, are the end results are so bloody ugly?

It was exquisite timing that the shows my generation watched with mother were all produced at the back-end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s; the creations of Oliver Postgate, Gordon Murray, John Ryan and David McKee belonged to a brief moment of English pop culture in which a child’s vision of the world was transplanted from the infant interior to the adult exterior. Amazing footage of the Technicolor boutiques lining the King’s Road from this period bear it out; the lysergic Alice in Wonderland vibe of the shops spills out of the child’s enchanting imagination and onto a grownup monochrome pavement in a way that gleefully contradicts the accepted narrative of maturity; the wares on display also have a childlike charm that adults usually lose and rarely recover.

There’s a distinct difference between childlike and childish, however. The former is the retention of an optimistic, prepubescent perspective on aesthetics that can sit comfortably alongside more advanced attitudes to topics the prepubescent mind struggles with. By contrast, the latter is a thumb-sucking rejection of the childlike, a voluntary regression into the facsimile womb of so-called ‘kidulthood’, a onesie-clad Neverland that refuses to progress beyond the safe space of its own emotionally-retarded playground and responds to any incursion of the adult world with tears and tantrums. Childlike can be compatible with ‘grownup’; childish is wilfully negative and has little connection with the genuine child that is always desperate to be older than it actually is; the genuine child is forever looking forward to a world it has already designed in an imagination bursting with brilliantly bonkers ideas, inventing an exciting adult landscape that is uniquely childlike in its conception.

I have friends whose homes are an Aladdin’s Cave of delightful kitsch and individual eccentricities, decorated with broken old toys and other ornaments with the sole function of raising a smile. But these friends are not intellectual imbeciles; they have merely achieved an admirable equilibrium between child and adult that blends the best of both worlds to form a better one. When governments award multimillion-pound contracts to private companies to take charge of our environment and its institutions, the only beneficiaries are those involved in the transaction. I know if my aforementioned friends were awarded such a contract, we’d all benefit; they’d not only do it for free but they’d transform neighbourhoods so they resembled Pepperland before the Blue Meanies got their hands on it. Most five-year-olds would do the same; their 35-year-old selves, on the other hand, designed what we’re lumbered with.

A childlike side can be a potent aesthetic weapon worth utilising and I only wish more of those who design and construct our surroundings did. Perhaps then the look of our schools, workplaces, homes, hospitals and streets wouldn’t instil such depression whenever we have cause to be there. Our environment acts as a mirror; we see grey, we feel grey; we see ugly, we feel ugly – ulcers begat ulcers. There’s not much knife-crime in Chipping Norton, I’ll wager. Lest we forget, Oscar Wilde’s response when asked in the US why American society was prone to violence was ‘Because your wallpaper is so terrible’. Think about it.

The system drills the childlike out of most children and the adult that emerges as a fully-processed sausage at the end of the conveyor belt has been remade and remodelled to live by an approved script of league tables, life insurance, pension schemes, profit margins, mortgages, and an absolute absence of imagination. He has nostalgic moments of wistful remembrance, recalling his five-year-old self; but his education has taught him he cannot connect with that child and he consequently believes him to be irretrievable. He isn’t, though it depends how far one has been absorbed into the system or how much one has become one’s mother or father without putting up a fight.

Trying not to entirely lose the view of the world when seen through the wide eyes of a child isn’t easy and it is true that some circumstances are more conducive to it than others. Similarly, there is always the temptation to cling to the childlike simply as a refuge to flee into the comforting embrace of whenever headlines overwhelm and enrage. But it can be salvaged; it needs to be. I’ve resisted evoking the Jesuit motto, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man’, but it’s a saying that retains its relevance if turned round: ‘Give me the man and I will give you a child of seven’. He’s still there in all of us, and he still has a lot to offer. Don’t ignore him. I am he as you are he as you are me – and we are all together.

© The Editor


Cheers and laughter greeting the survival of the Government’s public sector pay cap, emanating from the fat, affluent arses settled on the Tory benches, doesn’t exactly make one feel proud to be British. The PM’s praise of how the emergency services performed in the recent disasters to have befallen the country has a hollow ring to it when a magic money tree can buy DUP support but can’t provide a pay rise for those dealing with the disasters on the front-line. More than that, though, it was the absence of both dignity and humility on the winning side as the result of the vote was announced, receiving the news in a manner that implied delight in the misfortune of others, something that serves to reinforce the low opinion so many have of Parliament.

However, when confronted by such an ugly and unedifying spectacle, it’s worth remembering that there are some out there who illuminate our parade rather than rain on it, some who exist to bring pleasure into our lives rather than maintain misery. One such person was Michael Bond, whose death at the age of 91 was announced yesterday. Bond was the author of the Paddington Bear books and also the producer of the memorable animated Paddington series that once curtailed the daily children’s TV schedule on BBC1 before the real world elbowed its way into the picture again via the news. I have to admit the version of the theme tune accompanying the closing credits still induces a sadness that ‘my telly’ is over for another day, even though it’s been over for decades.

Like his illustrious bear predecessors Winnie the Pooh and Rupert, Paddington is an anthropomorphised creature, and in his distinctive hat and duffle coat stands as one of the most recognisable characters in children’s literature; personality-wise, he is (to use a much-derided word) nice. His charming, child-like inquisitiveness with the world he arrives in from Darkest Peru often lands him in trouble and creates trouble for those around him, but he is an innocent abroad and his kindly nature, coupled with his very English politeness, makes him impossible not to warm to. Provide him with enough marmalade sandwiches and he’ll be your friend for life.

The first of the Paddington books appeared in 1958 and the last just three years ago. I first became aware of the character, though, via the short stories that for many years appeared in the annual ‘Blue Peter’ book. Then, of course, there was the original Film Fair series that debuted in 1975, bringing the loveable bear to a wider audience than ever. Seven years previously, Michael Bond had created another immortal animated series also produced by Film Fair for BBC1, ‘The Herbs’. With each character named after an actual herb, the likes of Parsley the lion and Dill the dog still immediately re-enter my head when browsing the herbs and spices shelves at Sainsbury’s, which I suppose is testament to the impact the series had on an impressionable infant imagination.

As animals, bears seem uniquely enduring as children’s characters, stretching all the way back to the trio that found Goldilocks in their abode; perhaps the connection with teddy bears is important. If we’re lucky enough, a teddy will be our first bedtime companion, and I guess it was to be expected that this bond would be played upon by authors. The aforementioned and long-running success of both Pooh and Rupert no doubt gave Paddington’s creator the idea he’d probably be onto a winner if he added another bear to the animal farm of children’s fiction and he was right. Paddington’s ongoing popularity led to a successful animated movie in 2014; a sequel is scheduled to be released this year. There’s even a statue of him at the London station from which he took his name.

The 1970s TV series was narrated by Michael Horden, whose marvellous rich voice was one of many in a long line of inspired choices to narrate children’s series during this era. Another was Brian Cant, whose death last week I marked in a post; his narration covered the entire ‘Trumptonshire Trilogy’, which had a longer run on television than even Cant’s lengthy stint on camera in both ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’. Michael Bond’s creation was more well-known than the creator himself, but his death, coming so soon after the death of Cant and of John Noakes, is one more sobering reminder of time passing. Happily, all three lived to a ripe old age and the magic they wove stays with those of us for whom it was pivotal to our formative years.

The mood of the moment sometimes appears to be so relentlessly bleak that when someone leaves us whose contribution was joyous and made us smile, it’s inevitable we feel sad at their departure. When the nasty, unpleasant and hate-fuelled seem to have the biggest platform of all, it’s only natural we celebrate a benign legacy and mourn the loss of that legacy’s creator. We could do with a few more of them, and a little less of the other.

© The Editor


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Editor


2016Robert Vaughn, who has died aged 83, was one of the good guys. After becoming a familiar face in a string of movies during the early 60s – most notably the classic western, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ – he ascended to international household name status with his role as Napoleon Solo in the iconic 60s US TV Spy series, ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’. Running from 1964-68, it capitalised on the success of the Bond movies; Ian Fleming even contributed to the formation of the series, one of the last creative projects he was involved in. Starring alongside expat Brit David McCallum as Russian agent Ilya Kuryakin, Vaughn had found a well-paid steady job, yet potentially jeopardised his newfound fame and fortune by being one of the first star names in the States to speak out against American involvement in Vietnam, long before it was fashionable to do so.

The tide of popular opinion regarding Vietnam turned Vaughn’s way in the late 60s and his career wasn’t damaged by his brave stance. He played a memorable part in the legendary Steve McQueen movie ‘Bullitt’, and in the early 70s he decamped to the UK to take the lead role of Harry Rule in the last of the great ITC series, ‘The Protectors’. Co-starring Nyree Dawn Porter and Tony Anholt, ‘The Protectors’ was produced by Gerry Anderson for Lew Grade’s stable and despite following the flamboyant formula of escapism laid out by the likes of ‘Jason King’ and ‘The Persuaders’, it was fairly unique in its novel use of genuine European locations (rather than the standard ITC stock footage), and boasted one of the best theme tunes of its era in the Tony Christie-sung ‘Avenues and Alleyways’.

Vaughn remained in demand even at a relatively late stage of his career, starring for eight years in the noughties BBC series ‘Hustle’ and even appearing in ‘Coronation Street’ shortly afterwards. His death, announced the same day as that of Leonard Cohen (the two were born just a couple of years apart) is one more to add to a depressingly lengthening list this year, one more individual who I never personally met but whose earlier work impinged upon my consciousness, leaving residue that continues to provide curious comfort in ways that I can’t seem to find elsewhere.

Although not able to access the likes of Netflix myself, I have friends who can and who are kind enough to download the best of contemporary television such as ‘Black Mirror’ or ‘Broad City’ onto memory sticks that enable me to tune into the kind of shows mainstream TV has opted out of. I like them a lot, but the majority of my leisure viewing time tends to drift towards television featuring actors who are dead and grace my screen like the cathode ray ghosts they now are. There’s something about archive TV that has an extra magical element woven into it, something the new naturally cannot possess. I suspect it’s the association with the world we inhabited as children or the mystique of the one before we were born, a world we will never inhabit again, but one we can partially revisit by peering through a two-dimensional window. Quite why doing so serves as a visual narcotic in a different century with a different agenda is a strange symptom of this day and age; but it works.

It could be ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ or it could be ‘Man About the House’; it could be ‘The Onedin Line’ or it could be ‘Crown Court’. It’s an ident of a long-gone ITV company, a theme tune, an opening title sequence, a pair of sideburns, a pair of Cuban-heeled boots, a street bereft of parked cars, shop windows with £sd currency emblazoned on the special offer stickers stuck to the panes (or decimal currency with ½p included); it’s also audio – the warm dulcet tones of a Wogan or a Young or even a Bates; it’s unearthed off-air recordings of late night Radio 2 programmes from 1973, with easy listening instrumentals played by the BBC Midlands Light Orchestra direct from Pebble Mill in Birmingham; and that then evokes a now-demolished building whose foyer hosted a lunchtime TV show with avuncular friendly faces like Donny MacLeod, and you remember being sick off school and you can taste the Lucozade as you wait for ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’. It’s a multitude of Madeleine Moments for the disillusioned and dejected, adrift in a 24-hour sound-bite of fast-food for the head that leaves it cold and empty.

The DVD has been incorporated into the escape pod once reserved for cannabis, alcohol, amphetamines, acid, ecstasy and simple straightforward sleep; and like all of them, it is transitory and temporary. But it keeps me from punching people who deserve it – and those c***s know who they are. I’m not talking about public figures, but nonentities who will never amount to anything due to their crippling mediocrity. They make the lives of those I love miserable, and while my c***s may not be your c***s, we all have them and we all want to unleash our rage upon them. But we don’t. We escape. We preserve our liberty that way and are not incarcerated in the prisons of the state, merely those of our own minds. So, RIP Robert Vaughn and everybody else dead and gone who played a part in something that helps me unwind and escape. You will never know of the service you continue to provide.

© The Editor


001An annual publication accompanied by an advertising fanfare, the IBA’s ‘Television and Radio’ soft-back book was an intriguing peek behind the scenes of the country’s (then) sole commercial broadcaster, serving as a comprehensive guide to the ITV and ILR network and priced (as my 1977 edition is, anyway) at the princely sum of £1.40. Leafing through it today is akin to perusing a medieval manuscript, a document of a vanished world. Chapters such as ‘The Arts on ITV’ profile upwards of a dozen different shows, as does the one on current affairs; both categories could probably be covered in a couple of lines in 2016, let alone ‘The Single Play’ and ‘Religious Television’; and according to the 1977 edition, ITV produced 750 new schools programmes per year. A vanished world indeed.

It is the field of children’s programmes that highlights some of the most notable changes over the last forty years; the chapter focuses on the children’s output of Thames, which at the time supplied ITV with 142½ hours of networked children’s programmes a year. These included fondly-remembered lunchtime mainstays like ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Paperplay’, teatime institutions such as ‘Magpie’ and ‘Michael Bentine’s Potty Time’, and series aimed at a young teenage audience that nevertheless appealed to all age groups, like ‘The Tomorrow People’.

With a premise allegedly inspired by its creator Roger Price having a canteen conversation with David Bowie, ‘The Tomorrow People’ dealt with the homo-superior, mankind’s next stage of evolution. The series featured a small group of telepathic teenagers capable of ESP and teleporting themselves short and long distances in an instant (a process they called ‘jaunting’); the section of the programme’s audience enduring puberty saw their own unpleasant bodily changes mirrored in a far more exciting manner, as puberty for the telepaths consisted of ‘breaking out’, a transition when their special abilities appeared with the same traumatic force as acne, periods and pubic hair. These kids were also free from parental control (and what kid doesn’t desire that?), spending most of their time in an underground lab with a ‘biotronic’ computer called TIM, whose available knowledge made him a pre-internet source of info at their fingertips.

Debuting in April 1973, ‘The Tomorrow People’ was an instant hit for Thames, and its sci-fi themes suggested ITV may well have a rival to ‘Doctor Who’ on its hands. The memorably striking opening titles and eerie theme tune (composed by ‘Who’ regular Dudley Simpson) certainly suggested so. However, whereas the Beeb’s Time Lord was produced by its adult drama department and could boast a budget capable of utilising the best special effects technology could then buy, ‘The Tomorrow People’ was a product of one ITV company’s children’s department and only had so much to spare. When it attempted to be over-ambitious, the limitations showed; but when it kept the action on earth and on location, the stories were often as engaging as those starring the man from Gallifrey.

Children’s television in the 70s could actually be (sorry to use a contemporary TV buzzword) quite ‘diverse’ in comparison to its parent; along with Derek Griffiths on ‘Play School’/‘Play Away’ and Johnny on ‘Pipkins’, ‘The Tomorrow People’ boasted one of the few black faces in a leading role on a British TV programme at the time – Elizabeth Adare, who starred from 1974 to the series’ ending in 1979. As well as two black members, the telepathic team included a gypsy boy and a Chinese girl, almost echoing the aims of ‘Star Trek’ in presenting a future human race unencumbered by racial prejudice. Though there were lamentable lapses into silliness – future Doctor Who Peter Davison in a hot pants-and-Harpo Marx wig ensemble in the toe-curling ‘comedy’ story, ‘A Man for Emily’ – the series at its best could give children’s TV the kind of imaginative, intelligent and exciting drama it would be inconceivable to expect today.

One story from 1977 features a telepathic teenage Russian girl whose powers are being used by the KGB. An adventure that includes hints at both prostitution and drug addiction ends in a quite shocking manner by 2016’s more squeamish standards when it is revealed the KGB have planted an explosive device inside the girl that they can detonate should she seek to defect. Aware she’s poised to be an unwilling suicide bomber, she escapes the well-meaning Tomorrow Person Mike (played by Flintlock drummer Mike Holoway, pop-pickers) to leap through a plate-glass window; viewers see her burst into flames as she plummets to the ground. And this was aired at 4.50 in the afternoon.

By the time the high cost of producing it brought ‘The Tomorrow People’ to an end in 1979, the age of ‘Star Wars’ special effects had exposed the programme’s increasing budgetary restraints even further. Children’s ITV entered the 80s looking to emulate the realism of the BBC’s ‘Grange Hill’; eventually, the likes of ‘Press Gang’, ‘Children’s Ward’ and ‘Dramarama’ were able to compete on the same level as Phil Redmond’s school soap and its early 90s North East rival ‘Byker Grove’. However, by the turn of the Millennium, changes were afoot that would inevitably render the late twentieth century a Golden Age for children’s television.

The closure of ITV’s in-house children’s production unit in 2006, following years of under-investment that had seen budgets periodically slashed, was followed a few months later by the disappearance of children’s afternoon broadcasting on the premier ITV channel. What remained of ITV’s children’s programming was transferred to the newly-launched CITV channel, though a good deal of its output was bought in from the likes of Disney, Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network. The majority of commissioned shows were either new cartoon series such as ‘Horrid Henry’ and ‘Mr Bean’ or the continuation of veterans such as Sooty and Sweep. CITV was an instant success, quickly becoming the most popular commercial children’s channel, which appeared to vindicate ITV’s decision to place its kids’ output in one basket, even if the scope of that output had considerably narrowed.

CITV pitched itself against the CBBC channel, which had been launched in 2002. CBBC gradually succeeded in attracting a larger proportion of younger viewers than were watching the traditional afternoon children’s schedule on BBC1 as the 2000s progressed, especially when the end of the slot was brought forward to 5.15 to accommodate the switching of ‘The Weakest Link’ from BBC2 to BBC1 in 2008. This prompted the controversial shift of all BBC children’s programming to CBBC in 2012, marking the true end of a broadcasting era. Any old viewer curious as to how ‘Blue Peter’ shapes up in 2016 would switch on BBC1 and be confronted by an inane quiz show, the title of which is one of the most apt in TV history.

CBBC’s output, as with CITV, is primarily aimed at young children, though pre-school programmes, which ITV once excelled at, were axed from the channel last year. Equally, there are few provisions for an audience of older children and early teens. ‘The Changes’, ‘Children of the Stones’, ‘The Owl Service’ and ‘The Tomorrow People’ were products of an age we won’t see on-screen again, and neither will our children or grandchildren. We didn’t know we were born.

© The Editor