COCK OF THE JUNGLE

Jungle CockAnyone looking for proof of Peter Capaldi’s gifts as an actor need not only recall the fact he continued to exude the necessary charisma and gravitas as Doctor Who despite the diminishing quality of the scripts and the Doctor’s impending exile on Planet Woke, but that he also gave us the memorably visceral Whitehall spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker in ‘The Thick of It’. There were dozens of scenes from the series in which Tucker’s hyperactive potty mouth scaled heights of genius linguistic obscenity, but Capaldi’s character was much more than just a viciously funny caricature of Alastair Campbell at his worst. I remember one episode in which Tucker had been toppled from his position of power and, suddenly deprived of his raison d’être, cut a lost, pathetic figure, realising he had little else to occupy his time; contacted by the producers of a reality TV show of the kind that seeks out has-beens and down-at-heel celebrities, Tucker swallows his pride and meets the producers. As the format of the programme is explained to him, Tucker’s despair at how low he’s sunk is writ large on his despondent countenance, and sympathy for a character who had previously elicited anything but is brilliantly coaxed out of the viewer. In the end, Malcolm Tucker walks out of the interview and shows his true grit by staging a successful comeback without recourse to reality television; perhaps Matt Hancock should have been taking notes.

The former Health Secretary, who presided over one of the most disastrous policy decisions in the history of the post, was fortunate to escape the post-Covid fallout with just the loss of his job; but at least the public received some consolation via the humiliating nature of his exit – caught on camera breaking social distancing rules in the most toe-curling manner by snogging and groping a female aide in a corridor like some geeky adolescent indulging in his first kiss at the High School Prom. Once exposed as a ‘love rat’ (as the tabloids used to say), Hancock left his wife and family for said aide and then embarked upon a fittingly embarrassing online ‘comeback’, responsible for soaring sales of sick buckets as he declared his love for his former bit on the side. Perhaps it’s therefore no surprise that Hancock has now succumbed to the lure of reality TV, recently announced as a contestant in the upcoming series of the show that seems destined to run until the bomb drops, ‘Help! I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here’. The reported fee of £400,000 probably helped too – that’s if he could read the cheque on account of his ‘dyslexia’, the convenient cause he claims his appearance on the programme will highlight.

When the subject of Hancock’s participation in the annual kangaroo-knackers banquet cropped-up on this weekend’s ‘The Week in Westminster’, columnist and broadcaster Matthew Parris attempted to defend Hancock, deflecting criticism of Hancock’s decision by dismissing it as snobbishness, citing past appearances by the likes of Nadine Dorries on reality TV whilst a serving MP. However, Parris eventually declared an interest by admitting ‘Cockers’ was a friend of his. Lest we forget, Matthew Parris first sprang to national prominence when, as a Conservative MP himself, he took part in a 1984 edition of ‘World in Action’. This famous experiment, which Mrs Thatcher advised him not to do, was a test to see if the promising young MP could live on the weekly social security benefit his Government said was perfectly adequate. Dispatched to a neighbourhood of Newcastle with a high rate of unemployment, Parris struggled to make it through the week on the dole and ended up running out of money for the meter before the seven days was over.

Parris stood down as an MP a couple of years after his first foray into television and took over from Brian Walden as host of ITV’s Sunday lunchtime institution, ‘Weekend World’; but he has often hinted his experience on ‘World in Action’ opened his eyes to not simply the world of broadcasting – he also received first-hand knowledge of how the other half live. Parris returned to Newcastle twenty years after his sobering education on the dole for a follow-up programme and discovered little improvement in the lives of the residents there; he found the legacy of the early 80s economic decimation of the city was that many in the community were now dependent on antidepressants. Both programmes validated Parris’s appearance in them, but particularly the first one; it was a serious, worthy attempt to test an advocate of Government policy by inviting him to try living under it himself – something that should actually be a compulsory course for anyone attempting to stand for Parliament. There’s a huge difference between the motivation behind ‘World in Action’ and the Ant & Dec circus, so I don’t really think Matt Hancock signing-up for that is any way comparable to Matthew Parris’s 80s venture into the North East.

Regardless of Hancock’s unconvincing attempts to justify his participation in the programme, the now-backbencher has had the whip suspended as a result, and though still a member of the Conservative Party, he now sits as an independent in the Commons. The fact Hancock chose to take part in the show with Parliament in session understandably didn’t go down well with his West Suffolk constituents either; I often think gaining an audience with a member of the Cabinet at their constituency surgery must be considerably harder than it would be with any ‘normal’ MP, but when that MP is no longer running a department there should be no excuses for their non-appearance. Not that the loss of power seems to make much difference to their accessibility within their constituencies, mind; after all, imagine if your local MP was Boris Johnson, needing to discuss a pressing problem with him in that capacity, yet being told he’s sunning his considerable bulk on some distant exotic shore. And now there’s the disgraced ex-Health Secretary to be found Down Under, hanging out with the usual leftovers from all the other reality shows when his constituents might actually require his assistance for the job he’s being paid to do on their behalf.

Ah, but he’s got estranged children to support as well as financing his love-nest with Gina Coladangelo, and the wages of a backbencher don’t quite match up to the ministerial salary. Overly-optimistic rumours of a return to Government under Rishi Sunak came to nothing, so Hancock has clearly chosen an option he seems to imagine will somehow rehabilitate his trashed reputation amongst the general public. And a man referred to as a ‘showbiz guru’ by the name of Jonathan Shalit reckons Hancock has a profitable celebrity career ahead of him, claiming ‘Cockers’ could earn up to £1 million a year if he plays his cards right. ‘I’m A Celebrity provides an opportunity to go on a new journey,’ says Shalit, foreseeing an increase in Hancock’s income if he performs well on the programme. ‘Someone like Matt can probably make about £1 million a year, quite often on weekends. For example, he could probably do three or four appearances for £10-15,000 each, minimum, if not up to £60-70,000.’ Yes, these guys do like to talk in numbers, but showbiz types share that with greedy Honourable Members, and someone did once say that politics is showbiz for ugly people, so there you go.

Matt Hancock’s deserved political downfall was a consequence of the double standards at play in Boris’s administration during the pandemic; this is the man who threatened to outlaw outdoor exercise if the plebs didn’t adhere to the social distancing rules he himself evidently regarded as unnecessary when indulging in a spot of buttock-clutching, who was photographed sans-mask when he told the rest of us to wear them at all times, and who handed out PPE contracts to his buddies – typical corruption of the kind we expect from our MPs, I guess. But the buck stopped with him when Covid-infected pensioners were returned from hospital to care home; if anyone killed granny, it was Matt Hancock. And no amount of Barrymore-esque efforts to court forgiveness via light entertainment will change that.

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THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST

vlcsnap-2022-11-01-10h46m52s939Every innovation in television presentation eventually lapses into cliché – and the documentary genre is no exception. Perhaps because I’ve watched more documentaries than any other TV genre in the past 30-odd years I notice it more, but the tired tricks of the trade do niggle a little and you crave a more adventurous director to look for other ways of visually accompanying the narration. There’s the guaranteed aerial shot as the camera sweeps across the landscape – a trick made all the easier (not to say lazier) these days thanks to developments in drone technology; and, of course, there’s the shot of the presenter strolling down a crowded street, addressing a camera half-a-mile away as bemused members of the public stare at a stranger talking to themselves – although, having said that, we’re more inured to strangers having a conversation with the Invisible Man ever since earpieces and hands-free mobiles became widespread tools of annoyance. A history documentary sometimes resorts to the dreaded re-enactment of a significant historical moment by using unknown actors whose performances are usually guaranteed to secure their anonymity; and I recall around 20-25 years ago there was another documentary cliché that thankfully seems to have disappeared now, that of a past event under discussion being illustrated by fake, shaky Super-8 cine-film – and that technique was used over and over again.

And then there are, naturally, the presenters themselves – some of whom exude an excitable enthusiasm for their subject that suggests the old Saturday morning kids TV shows would once have been their rightful home. In the last 15-20 years there’s also been a rash of female presenters when it comes to history documentaries, almost as though they roll off a conveyor belt somewhere at the BBC and arrive as fully-formed, cut-glass minxes with a Nigella-esque, suggestive twinkle in their eyes – or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, when one becomes accustomed to these familiar factors, the viewer can’t help but be jolted out of apathy when a presenter appears who dispenses with the tiresome tropes and catches you utterly unawares – a presenter who says of presenters, ‘I despise the breed; they wave their arms around all the time and tell you they’re going on a f**king journey.’ But Jonathan Meades doesn’t really have to distance himself from his fellow presenters, for I doubt anyone would ever confuse him with belonging to the same species, nor confuse his programmes with the kind of documentaries they present.

The once-portly polymath who impressively lost seven stone in twelve months following a diagnosis of morbid obesity during his greed-fest as the Times’ restaurant critic has been a semi-regular on the more select TV screens since the late 80s. And although the work-rate has slowed down a little of late (he is 75, after all), it’s amazing what a body of television work he has to his name, as I’ve belatedly realised through revisiting some of his past documentaries via YouTube, some of which I saw at the time and some of which are new to me. Whilst he has made programmes on one of his pet subjects – food – Meades is primarily known for writing and presenting inspired, idiosyncratic and occasionally surreal documentaries about architecture. In fact, I first became aware of Meades around 1990 when he introduced a rerun of archive programmes by Ian Nairn, one of Meades’ inspirations; it was only natural I then began to tune in whenever Meades himself returned with one of his own shows. Yesterday I watched his 1998 film on Birmingham, ‘Heart By-Pass’, and laughed out loud more than I ever do at any alleged ‘comedy’ series produced for TV today.

To make one both laugh and think at the same time is a unique gift indeed, yet Meades manages it with his simultaneously intelligent and irreverent scripts, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Meades has been a distinctively witty (not to say deadpan) voice in literary circles for half-a-century. But, as good as the scripts are the best thing he brings to his highly original shows is the caustic character of Jonathan Meades he created for television, the plump refugee from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ with the comic timing of Benny Hill; the RADA graduate who decided he didn’t have what it took to become an actor at least put his training to good use in the end – formulating a style he himself compared to a hybrid of lecture hall and music hall, a perfect marriage of high and low art. Moreover, working with a collaborator on the same quirky wavelength – director Francis Hanly – has enabled Meades’ programmes to have a look and feel quite unlike any others on TV made in the last 30 years. One can never drift away watching a Jonathan Meades documentary, for you never quite know what’s coming next; every time you think you’ve got him sussed he surprises you. This is not a man who was designed to host leisurely strolls through nice buildings for BBC1 on a Sunday evening; if a series devoted to the eternally-divisive architectural subspecies of Modernism called Brutalism belongs anywhere, its natural home is BBC4, and its natural host is Jonathan Meades.

The most recent Jonathan Meades documentary that springs to mind was his brilliantly incisive investigation into jargon, as used by the press, politicians, contemporary artists, broadcasters and football pundits, to name but a few miscreants. Such programmes warrant repeated views, as it’s very easy to miss a serious, salient point whilst laughing at the preceding sardonic observation, so overflowing is the information contained within them. Often during his shows, a fantastic word will emerge from his lips – usually a word the viewer has never heard emerge from anyone’s lips before. True, some do pluck words from obscurity merely to demonstrate how clever they are, but one never gets that impression with Meades; you know the word emerged because he felt it was the most expressive word to embellish the point he was trying to make, and he is a something of a sorcerer in search of an apprentice when it comes to the English language, hoping the more curious viewer will be prompted to reach for the dictionary and perhaps may even one day integrate some of his linguistic gems into their personal lexicon. That’s the kind of thing teachers are supposed to do, though few teachers most of us had ever did. This is why Jonathan Meades is a special presence on a medium weighed down by the witless and the intellectually-challenged.

Until catching the date at the end of the ‘Jonathan Meades on Jargon’ documentary – which I watched again a couple of weeks ago – I didn’t realise it was made as far back as 2018. Since then, Meades has produced only one further programme. In 2019, he added to his characteristically mischievous occasional series on the architecture born of Totalitarian regimes by profiling the buildings of Spain that appeared during the rule of General Franco, having already done a similar job on Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Like Ian Nairn before him, Meades possesses a perverse delight in praising the kind of buildings most view with either disdain or disinterest; and in the same way that Nairn was enamoured of the terminally-unfashionable Belgium, Meades once produced a programme celebrating the less chic corners of Northern Europe. And why not? Haven’t we all seen enough travelogues on the obvious destinations?

Meades himself once observed that he and his programme-making team had gradually received less money to make their shows from the BBC, saying ‘We used to be a convoy; now we are a Smart car’, and there’s always the sneaking suspicion that genuinely original voices are pushed further to the margins of television in the desperate rush to appeal to the mass audience. At one time, Meades was the quintessential character BBC2 was created to host, whereas now even his migration to BBC4 is under threat as that once-great alternative is downgraded to little more than a repeat channel. Perhaps we’ve no choice but to accept Meades has done his bit and has earned his retirement, and we can always revisit his best bits online, after all. But nobody is holding their breath that an heir is waiting in the wings.

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AFTERNOON DELIGHT

Pebble MillI recently remarked to a friend that much of the 1960s architecture that once littered our cities now feels like a kind of collective hallucination, with so little of it surviving as evidence it ever existed. And I’m not just talking about the most severe of Brutalist blocks, either; some of the buildings of that era which strove to create a Modernist elegance have gone too. Take the BBC studios at Pebble Mill, Birmingham. A state-of-the-art, purpose-built broadcasting complex that was even home to the residents of Ambridge when it opened amidst something of a fanfare in 1971, Pebble Mill was the most prominent television centre outside of London for the best part of 30 years and also served as emergency backup for its Shepherds Bush senior; should anything unforeseen happen to curtail transmissions at TVC, all BBC output would switch to leafy, suburban Edgbaston. The actual Pebble Mill building, as with BBC Television Centre itself, was eventually a victim of the changing way programmes were made from the 90s onwards, with the farming out of production to independent companies negating the need for a sprawling, MGM-style HQ. When it was discovered the edifice was also plagued by so-called ‘concrete cancer’, the decision was made to vacate the building and Pebble Mill closed in 2004, with demolition coming the following year.

As one of the six National Production Centres of the BBC regions, BBC Midlands initially made do with a converted cinema as home until it was decided Britain’s Second City required a more prestigious base. Birmingham received the green light in 1967 and the impressive end result was ready for business by the time Princess Anne snipped the ribbon in the summer of 1971. Long before some genius in the capital had the bright idea that the BBC should relocate to a soulless slab in Swinging Salford in order to demonstrate it wasn’t London-centric, the Corporation had already erected a worthy companion to Television Centre in the middle of the country. A promotional film showed Midlands household name Tom Coyne strolling around the new studios on the eve of its opening, and local pride in the building was evident throughout; not only would Pebble Mill produce programmes solely for BBC Midlands, but it would also produce more networked shows than any other region outside London. And one of those networked shows would stamp Pebble Mill onto the consciousness of an entire generation, especially those of school-age in the 1970s who weren’t averse to throwing the odd ‘sickie’.

With television today seemingly incapable of taking a breather, it’s hard to believe now that there were once strict limitations on airtime in this country. Until 1972, barely 50 hours a week were allowed for both the BBC and ITV, leaving huge swathes of the day – especially in the afternoon – completely unoccupied by programming. With the abolition of this rule by the Heath Government, the two national broadcasters swiftly made plans to expand their daytime schedules. For ITV, this meant the introduction of lunchtime children’s shows like ‘Rainbow’ as well as the memorable daily drama, ‘Crown Court’ and soaps such as ‘General Hospital’ and ‘Emmerdale Farm’; the BBC, on the other hand, opted to produce a programme that could be regarded as a flagship for its extended hours, and it decided to showcase its shiny new Birmingham base for all the nation to see in the process. Thus was born ‘Pebble Mill at One’, the long-running magazine show which debuted 50 years ago, on 2 October 1972.

Looking at the Radio Times from that first week of ‘Pebble Mill at One’ (featuring The Goons armed with leeks on the front cover), what’s most surprising is that the BBC lunchtime news back then simply comprised a five-minute bulletin aired at 12.55; living today in an age of rolling tedium, it feels as though less really was more in 1972. ITN pointed the way to where we are now by launching the more familiar half-hour ‘First Report’ a fortnight later, but BBC1 viewers were instead treated to a programme presented from the incongruous environs of a foyer. Initially, it was intended for the show to be set in the usual surroundings of a standard studio, but all in the building were fully booked-up, and the serendipitous choice of the Pebble Mill foyer actually gave the programme a unique look from the off. We’re now accustomed to regional newsreaders reciting headlines with a composite skyline of their local area behind them, but in 1972 it was extremely novel to see an outdoor backdrop – and one that was for real, with traffic and pedestrians passing-by in the distance and the changing of the seasons visible throughout. The programme, which originally ran for just 30 minutes (later expanded to 45), was hosted on that first day by experienced regional presenter Bob Langley, whose instant appeal to the housewives of Britain ensured ‘Pebble Mill at One’ had a solid, guaranteed audience from the very start.

Langley was gradually joined by presenters who rapidly became familiar faces: the avuncular Scotsman Donny MacLeod, the elegant Marian Foster, the personable David Seymour, and the future newsreader Jan Leeming. The programme’s remit was wide-ranging, with subjects from the serious to the light-hearted falling under its Monday-Friday spotlight. There’d be interviews with celebrities or political figures passing through the Midlands, cookery spots with Clement Freud, gardening with Peter Seabrook, musical interludes – usually featuring either Cleo Laine or Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen (or so it always seemed) – and the unpredictability of live broadcasting which, as with ‘Blue Peter’, gave ‘Pebble Mill at One’ an edge that implied anything could happen. Sometimes it did, such as a Christmas edition when the inebriated journalist Molly Parkin admitted she was pissed on air; or when a placard held by a member of the public during an outside broadcast requested Marian Foster ‘get her tits out’. The original theme tune for the show, titled ‘As You Please’, remains one of those sonic signposts of time and place that takes anyone who was there back there in an instant, especially school-kids whose dinner hour was drawing to a close – or the lucky ones armed with Lucozade.

If you were one of those lucky ones, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ was central to the off-school TV experience, along with ITV’s ‘Good Afternoon’ and ‘Paint Along with Nancy’, not to mention whichever ‘Watch with Mother’ entry followed the show at 1.45. By the late 70s, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ was such an integral part of BBC1’s schedule that it even spread its wings into the weekend with the launch of a nocturnal sister show, ‘Saturday Night at the Mill’. Filling the same slot at ‘Parkinson’ when that was on a break, the later hour resulted in a more risqué selection of guests, including porn star Linda Lovelace and a characteristic bout of untamed entertainment from Oliver Reed, who decided to remove his trousers when being interviewed. Come the 1980s, ‘Pebble Mill at One’ remained an afternoon fixture with viewing figures that enticed even the most unlikely guests into the foyer – including Morrissey, who appeared on the programme to plug ‘Meat is Murder’ in 1985. But its days were numbered.

By 1986, an even more established mainstay of the BBC1 daytime schedules – programmes for schools and colleges – had been shunted over to BBC2; and with breakfast TV now occupying the start of the day, the changing television landscape resulted in a revamp of the afternoon line-up, with ‘Pebble Mill at One’ being the major casualty. The final edition was broadcast on 23 May 1986, and though there was a short-lived revival five years later, it wasn’t presented from the Pebble Mill foyer and therefore resembled just another bland daytime TV show. Besides, the original series is the one everyone of a certain age remembers. No, it wasn’t ‘The Ascent of Man’ or ‘Life on Earth’, but simply a fine example of how the BBC once even did lightweight better than anyone else.

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NON-TOXIC MASCULINITY

ProfessionalsThere’s been a lot of understandable talk these past few days of how her late Majesty gave the British people a sense of security when every other Great British bastion proved fallible; if all else failed, the Queen was always there. Now she’s gone, who can we rely on? Well, at one time – albeit over 40 years ago – we could rely on CI5. This uniquely hardline service, sandwiched between Special Branch and MI6, was established in the tumultuous climate of the 1970s to deal with the escalating threats to the British way of life from international terrorism and increasingly sophisticated espionage. Headed by the redoubtable Major George Cowley, CI5 drew on the best men from the armed forces and the police and rode roughshod over all the legal obstacles that hindered ordinary coppers from nailing their man. CI5 had a remit that precluded niceties and this was reflected in the guys that fronted it, especially agents Bodie and Doyle. The former was an ex-military man who’d earned his spurs as a mercenary-for-hire in Africa; the latter rose to the rank of DC in the Police Force. When partnered together, Bodie and Doyle proved to be the ideal combination to cope with the challenges that threatened Britannia’s borders as the country careered towards the 80s.

Of course, CI5 only existed in the parallel universe of the cathode ray tube between 1977 and 1983. George Cowley was Gordon Jackson, Bodie was Lewis Collins, and Doyle was Martin Shaw. But from the moment that car crashed through a plate glass window and arguably one of the most energising theme tunes in TV history pumped its testosterone-fuelled beats into the living room, CI5 was for real – well, for an hour every Sunday evening, anyway. ‘The Professionals’ was a film series produced for London Weekend Television, being the brainchild of Brian Clemens, the man who had developed ‘The Avengers’ into such a memorably quirky and stylish series ten years before; having recently revived it as ‘The New Avengers’, Clemens was eager to create something less eccentric and more pertinent to the brutal 1970s and he hatched the concept of CI5 as an organisation to hang his idea around.

The success of ‘The Sweeney’ (1975-78) had shown there was an appetite for a hard-hitting police series in which the protagonists might bend the rules to nail society’s nastiest bastards; the popularity of the swearing, smoking, shagging, punching and boozing Regan & Carter was a testament to the charismatic chemistry of the two leads (John Thaw and Dennis Waterman) and was enhanced by sharp, witty writing. The show was produced by Euston Films for Thames Television, holders of ITV’s weekday franchise in the capital, and networked across all the ITV regions. The capital’s franchise holder for weekends, LWT, was desperate to come up with something similar, and Clemens’ idea sounded like just the series the company was looking for, combining the familiar police elements with the spy factor that had proven successful in the past with the likes of ‘Callan’, and adding the terrorism angle that was a reality for the British people after several years of IRA bombs causing mayhem on the mainland. The show had the potential to capture the public’s imagination in the same way ‘The Sweeney’ had, but it all depended on recruiting the right men for the job.

Gordon Jackson certainly wouldn’t have been the obvious choice to play the brash, abrasive boss of CI5; he was a household name thanks to a very different kind of character indeed – Hudson, the urbane head butler on LWT’s internationally popular period soap, ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. However, Jackson proved himself to be far more versatile an actor than people gave him credit for and was as capable of barking out orders at his subordinates as any Sergeant-Major on the parade ground. After first-choice Jon Finch decided against being tied to a series, Martin Shaw, whose grumblings about his time on the show have become part of the programme’s legend, was selected for the part of ex-copper Ray Doyle; Shaw had an impressive theatre and TV CV that had been steadily building throughout the 70s. Contrary to popular belief, his distinctive bubble-haired look predated ‘The Professionals’ – it’s evident in an episode of Nigel Kneale’s anthology series, ‘Beasts’, from the year before he joined CI5 – although Shaw’s concessions to the sartorial styles of the era perhaps placed the show in a time capsule that often distracts from its enduring strengths. Initially, he was pared with Anthony Andrews as Bodie – an actor whose aristocratic bearing proved ideal for the series that made him a household name in 1981, ‘Brideshead Revisited’; but Andrews’ attributes didn’t work for Bodie and the part was recast after several days of shooting.

In stepped Lewis Collins, a lesser ‘thespian’ as far as Martin Shaw was concerned, though an actor who had also established himself on the small-screen, albeit via the vehicle of the sitcom; in Collins’s case it was the mid-70s ITV show, ‘The Cuckoo Waltz’, co-starring the beautiful Diane Keen. Called upon to play it straight, Collins nevertheless injected a level of humour into the role of Bodie that helped give the show some light relief; the banter between Bodie and Doyle – especially during extended in-car scenes when the two were screeching tyres en route to their next assignment – oozed a natural camaraderie that gave the series a great deal of its appeal. Regardless of some rather chaotic behind-the-scenes shenanigans involving lack of money, delayed shooting schedules and scripts being rewritten at the eleventh hour, ‘The Professionals’ debuted across the ITV network at the end of December 1977. Despite premiering in that television no-man’s land between Christmas and New Year, the show proved to be pretty much an overnight success. By the opening months of 1978, the benefits of being seen by all ITV viewers at the same time – a luxury denied the ITC series of the 60s and early 70s – ensured high viewing figures and instant fame for the two main leads.

‘The Professionals’ drew upon a vast, rich pool of experienced TV dramatists for its stories – men who had cut their teeth on the long-running series British television specialised in at the time – and also inherited the crew from ‘The Sweeney’ when that drew to a close. The talent behind the camera combining with the talent on-screen made for a heady mix and there followed three or four years when ‘The Professionals’ was one of the highest-rated shows on TV. It had its critics – usually hurling accusations that it was mindless, misogynistic, macho entertainment; but it was very much a show of its time, and the exhilarating action elements didn’t detract from the routinely engaging relationship at the core of its success. Yes, violence was paramount, though, unlike ‘The Sweeney’, there was no what was then referred to as ‘bad language’. The only time ‘The Professionals’ crossed a line was in an episode called ‘Klansmen’; it was pulled from transmission at the last minute and has still never been seen on terrestrial television in this country. It’s been included on every VHS and DVD release of the series, but an episode that actually addresses the issue of racism in an intelligent and honest manner stands up as a good example of how there were more dimensions to ‘The Professionals’ than merely the one.

Currently viewing the series for the first time since the 1990s, I think the old-school charm often associated with any vintage show loaded with plenty of ‘well, you couldn’t get away with that today’ moments gives it a ‘guilty pleasure’ quality; but when stood beside so much of contemporary mainstream fare, ‘The Professionals’ comes across far better than it ever did in its heyday as every little boy’s favourite undemanding series. Standards were higher on TV in the late 70s and it certainly shows in 2022. Moreover, the virtues at which Bodie and Doyle excelled were actually valued at the time rather than dismissed and denigrated as ‘toxic’; and despite changing fashions dictated by a cultural elite obsessed with what the public ought to want as opposed to what they do, these are virtues still valued by the majority, who would no doubt warm to ‘The Professionals’ all over again if given the chance.

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SLICES OF LIFE

Alison SteadmanIt could be connected to the Commonwealth Games being staged in Birmingham or maybe it’s simply part of the BBC’s centenary celebrations; whatever the reason, the rare opportunity to see some episodes of the Corporation’s mid-70s series of single plays, ‘Second City Firsts’, has been a nice surprise for those who mourn BBC4’s descent into a repeat channel for shows that have been seen too many times before. This series, produced at the late lamented Pebble Mill studios in Brum, was a mouthpiece for voices without much in the way of a nationwide platform at the time, and perhaps it’s only the notoriously shabby treatment of the BBC’s archives in the 1970s that has prevented any of the instalments from receiving an outing since. Thankfully, the likes of the Kaleidoscope organisation are renowned for retrieving lost gems from private collections, and viewers this week were treated to a trio of ‘Second City Firsts’ that were an eye-opening breath of fresh air when it comes to vintage television.

Only one of the three screened – 1975’s ‘Club Havana’ – seemed specific to the actual city the plays were produced in. This dealt with the arrival in Britain of a young man from Jamaica whose mother had been given a decade to lay down roots in Handsworth – one of the areas of Birmingham that experienced high immigration from the West Indies during the 50s and 60s. In many respects, Handsworth was a blueprint for the impact of the Windrush generation across Britain’s old industrial towns, being amongst the first to recruit Afro-Caribbean labour to work in munitions factories during the Second World War. By the time of the TV play’s production, a heavy immigrant population from the Indian Subcontinent had become predominant in neighbouring Smethwick, though Birmingham’s black community had seniority, something that was reflected in the play itself. The new arrival walking into a well-established community was played by Don Warrington, already making a mark in ‘Rising Damp’, whilst his mother was played by the familiar face of Mona Hammond, who sadly passed away at the beginning of this month.

‘Club Havana’ was a fascinating dip into a British black experience which was a hidden world from TV viewers in 1975, despite having a vintage of 30 years in Handsworth by then. Warrington’s character was that of an idealistic teacher eager to use education to liberate the future factory fodder from the destiny capitalism had selected for it; his attraction to the white barmaid (played by Julie Walters in her first TV appearance) at the ‘speakeasy’ run by his mother sparked tensions due to his father’s desertion into the arms of white women years before. Her prejudicial response to how only the lowest-grade ‘white trash’ females were deemed the best that even the most ‘middle-class’ West Indian immigrant could hope for highlighted an aspect of multiracial Britain that probably wouldn’t be touched upon today.

In 1975, it would be another three years before the debut of the BBC2 drama series ‘Empire Road’ (also set in Birmingham), which was described during its too-short run as ‘the black Coronation Street’, probably because Granada’s evergreen soap didn’t have any black characters back then. Unlike now, when the presence of any non-white character in a BBC drama often feels like box-ticking tokenism, the 70s view was to present immigrant stories as intriguing windows to a parallel universe Britain that the rest of the population was largely ignorant of rather than pretend we all reside in some fantasy rainbow nation where colour only registers when the guilt-stricken white middle-classes release their latest list of the most oppressed minorities to be patronised. But it wasn’t only colour that ‘Second City Firsts’ dealt with in its exploration of tales from the country’s invisible fringes. Perhaps the most well-known play in the series’ canon was 1974’s ‘Girl’, starring a pre-‘Abigail’s Party’ Alison Steadman as a young woman fresh from a relationship with another woman.

It’s interesting how the genuine female experience has been downgraded in the brave new, non-binary 21st century world of Identity Politics so that the word ‘lesbian’ is now deemed to have transphobic connotations. The BBC4 continuity announcer claimed the play contained the first ‘same-sex’ kiss on British television, which isn’t actually true; that had come four years earlier in a production of Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’ starring Ian McKellern. What ‘Girl’ featured was the first lesbian kiss on British television, but lesbian now appears to have been reclassified as an offensive word, buried in the ubiquitous LGBTXYZ acronym; some progress, eh? The play itself contained ye olde slang term ‘dyke’, uttered by the dykes themselves just as the black characters in ‘Club Havana’ were the only ones who said the N word; yes, it was a full six years on from ‘The Killing of Sister George’, but cinema as the 60s turned into the 70s was always one step ahead of the small-screen. What viewers would pay to see at their local fleapit was different to what the masses were served up on the box; the likelihood that the Mary Whitehouses of this world would blow a fuse and besiege the Beeb was paramount in broadcasters’ minds, but perhaps a series of plays hidden away on the nation’s only ‘minority’ channel was the perfect compromise in 1974.

Nevertheless, at the time, the programme apparently attracted a flurry of outraged letters to the Radio Times, describing it as ‘repugnant’ and ‘nauseating’. 48 years on, what struck me more than anything was how unusual it was to see such damaged stock being transmitted in the Hi-Definition digital era; the off-air recording of the programme is the only version that exists and will no doubt have been subjected to meticulous restoration prior to broadcast. It still looked like an old bootleg tape, though as someone accustomed to viewing recovered vintage TV, it didn’t really bother me. At times, the picture quality reminded me of the Duran Duran VHS I had in the 80s; whenever I leant it out to a friend it would always come back with the segment featuring the full-length ‘Girls on Film’ promo strangely damaged. I could never work out why. Oh, well…

Ropy visuals aside, ‘Girl’ came across as a surprisingly candid portrayal of butch lady soldiers for the time. Alison Steadman’s character is being discharged from the Army due to becoming pregnant via a close encounter with a man, one that she describes as rape in all-but name; her determination to have the baby baffles the superior female officer she’d had an affair with, though it eventually transpires the officer in question is something of a predator and will evidently find another ‘lamb’ to seduce come the next intake of recruits.

The third play dusted down and given its first airing since its initial broadcast was called ‘Glitter’. This starred two teenage ones-to-watch, Phil Daniels and Toyah Willcox, cast three years before being reunited in ‘Quadrophenia’. The latter played a hopeful pop star half-a-decade ahead of becoming a bona-fide Top 10 regular, whereas the former would have to wait a further 18 years before his one moment of pop glory via his guest vocals on Blur’s ‘Park Life’. This one was a rather surreal affair, even featuring a cameo from Noel Edmonds, though the nicest surprise was being alerted as to how Toyah looked before the extensive plastic surgery that has rendered her weekly YT outing with hubby Robert Fripp such an embarrassing freak-show. In retrospect, it was probably the weakest of the three, though what all of them evoked was a sense of sadness that the single play – a genre that uniquely combined both critical acclaim and large viewing figures in its lengthy heyday – is now a notable absentee from mainstream TV schedules. As ‘Second City Firsts’ reminded us, that’s a crying shame.

© The Editor

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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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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

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SMOOTH OPERATOR

Peter BowlesThe opening Winegum post of 2022 paid affectionate tribute to that omnipotent repertory company of actors without whom the British television landscape of the 1960s, 70s and 80s would’ve been considerably colourless; as I said at the time, they were the actors whose faces were more familiar than their names – and it’s only because the output of this era has provided the backbone of my viewing experience over the past few years that I’ve come to know those names. I cited the likes of Ron Pember (who sadly passed away barely a week ago) as a great example of an actor who made an immense contribution to the rich tapestry of one-off characters to grace the small screen and infuse it with the kind of lived-in authenticity sorely absent in our own on-demand age of faux-cinematic melodrama. I pointed out that a small number of this rep company eventually graduated to top-of-the-bill status, including the likes of Martin Shaw and Bob Hoskins, both of whom routinely popped-up in the period’s mainstay series long before the name matched the face in the nation’s households.

Added to this small circle of actors who made the leap from chorus line to leading man could be that embodiment of caddish charm and upper-class rakishness, Peter Bowles, whose death at the age of 85 was announced yesterday. As was stated in the aforementioned post, each of these actors were called upon to portray a particular archetype recognisable to the viewer from real life – stern authority figure, small-time villain and so on; and like many of the supporting cast that gave British television its uniquely appealing depiction of reality, Bowles gradually settled into playing variations on the same character as his lengthy career progressed. And it was a character he played with such effortless ease that his name would probably be top of the list whenever the director required a smooth, somewhat shifty gentleman, capable of charming the birds out of the trees whilst simultaneously making off with their life savings. His was the kind of character that now only exists as a vintage cultural figure, like the spiv or the avuncular Bobby-on-the-beat – the kind that can no longer be found beyond the confines of the cathode ray tube.

As with Paul Eddington and Fulton Mackay, Peter Bowles was a drama student at the television university who went on to achieve household name status via the sitcom. His early TV appearances are almost exclusively in dramatic productions, often playing a slightly swarthy villain with the kind of ‘foreign’ accent actors weren’t afraid to have a crack at in the era before their wings were clipped by the curse of ‘cultural appropriation’. He was especially active in the engaging roll-call of escapist ITC dramas produced on glossy film in the 60s, regularly showing his distinctively-shaped face in the likes of ‘The Saint’, ‘The Baron’, ‘Danger Man’, ‘Department S’, ‘The Persuaders’ and ‘The Protectors’; he also made a quartet of memorable appearances in ‘The Avengers’ and was equally effective in an episode of ‘The Prisoner’. He was even cast as the aristocratic assassin Toby Meres in the original ‘Armchair Theatre’ pilot of ‘Callan’, though when the series was commissioned he was replaced in the part by Anthony Valentine.

Into the 70s, the acquisition of the moustache that remained crucial to his persona thereafter pushed him more into the cad-like roles he played with such immaculately-tailored panache. In an episode of ‘Public Eye’ from 1975 he is cast as a philandering middle-class businessman who impregnates a younger woman and then abandons her, leaving her with a mountain of bills to pay as he returns to his wealthy wife; when his trail of devious deception is uncovered by Alfred Burke’s inquiry agent Frank Marker, Bowles’ character denies any wrongdoing and makes it clear he has no intention of honouring his debts. In many respects, this particular part seems to epitomise the character Bowles began to nail in the first half of that decade. However, in 1975 he also played the more sympathetic part of Carolyn Seymour’s husband in the first episode of Terry Nation’s apocalyptic classic, ‘Survivors’, succumbing to the plague halfway through the story when viewers didn’t expect him to die. The following year he was to be found amongst the unforgettable ensemble cast that portrayed Ancient Rome with the kind of bloodthirsty relish unseen since in ‘I, Claudius’.

By the late 70s, Peter Bowles was entering his 40s as an established character actor who was part of television’s dramatic wallpaper. His highly entertaining appearance as a camp thespian conman in one of the best ‘Rising Damp’ episodes gave TV audiences a rare opportunity to see his versatility as an actor, though his comic timing had been apparent to casting directors in his early career on stage; he was earmarked for the part of Jerry Leadbetter in ‘The Good Life’ before his turning down the role left the field clear for Paul Eddington. However, he eventually ended up sharing the screen with Penelope Keith in an even more successful sitcom (certainly in terms of its staggering viewing figures) from 1979-81, ‘To the Manor Born’. Bowles played Richard DeVere, a flashy, nouveau riche millionaire who purchases the estate of struggling aristocrat Lady Audrey fforbes-Hamilton whilst she is reduced to living in the neighbouring lodge house; rooted in the classic class conflict so intrinsic to British sitcoms of the era, the series finally made Bowles a household name.

The year before ‘To the Manor Born’ began Bowles had first appeared in the part that is my own personal favourite of his roles, that of the pompous QC Guthrie Featherstone in ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’; Bowles was a semi-regular throughout the series’ impressive 14-year run. As with many members of Rumpole’s chambers, Featherstone regularly mocks the shabby, eccentric Rumpole until confronted by a crisis and then realises, for all his lack of social graces, Rumpole is the only character he can turn to and trust. Although a drama, ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ was never short on comic relief, and Bowles provided a fair proportion of it in his preordained progression to the judge’s bench.

By the turn of the 80s, Peter Bowles was one of the most in-demand actors on TV. He continued to add to his sitcom CV with ITV’s hospital-based ‘Only When I Laugh’, appearing alongside other stalwarts of the genre like James Bolam and Richard Wilson, as well as ‘The Bounder’, which co-starred George Cole. He also starred in one of Channel 4’s early successes, playing another upper-class role (Major Sinclair Yeates) in the comedy drama, ‘The Irish R.M.’. Despite now being known for mostly comedy portrayals, Bowles showed he could still do drama in ‘Lytton’s Diary’, a series he himself devised about a Fleet Street gossip columnist; he also co-created (and starred in) the comedy drama series, ‘Perfect Scoundrels’, in which he played to his strengths as a well-spoken and well-turned-out confidence trickster.

Even though his days as a leading man in a hit series slowly came to an end as the 1990s wore on, Bowles’ regular earner as a guest artiste in various shows continued; often called upon to give a touch of class to such programmes, Bowles always delivered and the sight of him never failed to provide the viewer with a warm awareness they were in a safe pair of hands. The last series I can recall spotting him in was ITV’s soapy portrait of the young queen, ‘Victoria’, in which he played the ageing Duke of Wellington; it featured a rare instance of the actor revering to his original clean-shaven persona, and wasn’t a bad way to sign-off a small screen career that stretched all the way back to the medium’s monochrome origins. It can’t be denied Peter Bowles had a jolly good innings; 85 is a fine age to bow out and he left behind a wonderful body of work which he illuminated with beautiful comic timing and an ineffable sense of very English style.

© The Editor

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FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Editor

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GB OR NOT GB

Roland RatThe British television landscape today may well be something of an overcrowded shantytown, but barely 40 years ago it was still a wide open space with just a smattering of broadcasters sprinkled liberally enough not to spoil the view; when new people moved into the neighbourhood it was therefore front page news, and Channel 4’s arrival in 1982 was like a group of left-wing squatters setting up camp in a rural Tory parish, frightening the old ladies with their effing and blinding at all hours and shouting ‘Power to the people!’ at the vicar. However, within just a couple of months of the uproar and disruption the arrival of Channel 4 provoked, attention shifted to another new broadcasting venture destined to be beset with problems – breakfast television. After a handful of regional ITV experiments in the late 70s, the Beeb were first to go nationwide with a concept utterly alien to a British viewing public accustomed to being awoken by the humble wireless, with the ‘Today’ programme and the Radio 1 breakfast show traditionally attracting the largest audiences. Novelty value alone might temporarily persuade the masses to try the telly as a side-order with their Rice Krispies, but could it become as ubiquitous a feature of the schedules as in the States?

The BBC recruited one of their heavyweight anchors in the dependable shape of Frank Bough to head the team of ‘Breakfast Time’; future coke-snorting escapades in lingerie notwithstanding, Bough was a consummate broadcaster, a veteran of both ‘Grandstand’ and ‘Nationwide’ as well as a go-to man to present great sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup. Bough’s seniority was balanced by poaching the glamorous newsreader Selina Scott from ITN as well as promoting Nick Ross from BBC2’s ‘Man Alive’; oh, and David Icke was there as well. Anyway, ‘Breakfast Time’ was launched in January 1983 to generally favourable reviews, though many anticipated the cosy sofas and pullovers being usurped by ITV’s rival service, ‘Good Morning Britain’, produced by new company TV-am. If the Beeb had opted for a broadcasting bastion by electing Frank Bough team captain, TV-am went one better by assembling some of the most recognisable faces on British television at that time.

The so-called ‘Famous Five’ were Michael Parkinson, David Frost, Anna Ford, Angela Rippon and Robert Kee; and with a line-up like that, what could go wrong? Well, it didn’t help that the intended launch date of June 1983 was hurriedly brought forward to prevent the BBC getting too settled in the time slot. The same failure to negotiate royalties and rates for advertising with Equity that had left the ad breaks during the first couple of months of Channel 4 crammed with public information films also affected TV-am, severely reducing advertising revenue at the time of the station’s re-jigged and rushed launch date of February. TV-am were also thrown by the BBC’s unexpectedly casual approach to presentation on ‘Breakfast Time’ and didn’t have time to develop a similar style. ‘Good Morning Britain’ seemed stiff and starchy, there was little or no on-screen chemistry between any of the Famous Five, and ratings rapidly went into freefall.

TV-am off-camera quickly became a compelling soap opera far more interesting than any of its televised output, with high-profile sackings and a dramatic boardroom coup at the company making those first few traumatic months of the station a gift for Fleet Street. Although TV-am’s unlikely saviours turned out to be Anne Diamond, Nick Owen, Greg Dyke and – above all others – Roland Rat, the chaotic beginnings of breakfast television on ITV served as a lesson to any future broadcasting endeavours which imagine simply throwing together a bunch of household names assumes their very presence will ensure quality TV when that ain’t necessarily so. Am I alone in seeing the ghosts of TV-am currently haunting the latest television station to have been launched with familiar hyperbole, only to undergo similar problems both on and off-screen? I’m talking GB News.

The much-heralded ‘Anti-Woke’ alternative to the mainstream news output of the BBC, Channel 4 and Sky, GB News was as dependent pre-launch on Andrew Neil and his impeccable broadcasting credentials as TV-am was on David Frost in 1983. Like Frost before him, Andrew Neil is perhaps the premier political interviewer of his generation and one of the few people in British television with the kind of clout and CV to ensure the prospect of GB News would generate interest in anticipation of a serious, valid and much-needed fresh voice on the overwhelmingly left-leaning landscape of television news in this country. Hopes were high that this could be not so much the ‘alt-right’ UK equivalent of Fox News that its somewhat hysterical pre-launch detractors on social media predicted, but a non-partisan option for people happy to hear all sides of a debate rather than the same old hymn-sheet everyone else was singing from. The ratings on the opening night seemed to vindicate the hype but then, as with TV-am, things began to go wrong.

In its early days, TV-am suffered several on-screen cock-ups that made it appear amateurish and cheap, none more so than in its infamous coverage of the 1984 Brighton Bomb at the Conservative Party Conference. Whilst the BBC had camera crews on hand to transmit the drama to the nation, TV-am had to make do with the voice of John Stapleton on the telephone, giving the station the look and feel of an insignificant regional ITV company rather than a national broadcaster. Meanwhile, GB News has undergone its own persistent ‘technical issues’ that have made the station something of a laughing stock in terms of is ramshackle presentation; like TV-am before it, GB News was launched prematurely and, just as TV-am struggled to receive revenue from advertising at the time of its launch, GB News has had its own problems with advertising, experiencing a withdrawal of numerous Woke-friendly companies unwilling to advertise their wares on the station. And, just as the Famous Five quickly vanished from ‘Good Morning Britain’ when viewer numbers plummeted, Andrew Neil has gone AWOL from GB News, fleeing across the Channel barely a fortnight after the station’s launch as ratings often fell below zero.

Stories of backstage tensions between Neil (also chairman of the station) and the GB News chief executive (and ex-boss of Sky News Australia) Angelos Frangopoulos have abounded ever since Neil’s extended holiday; the resignations of senior executive producer Gill Penlington and director of programming John McAndrew – allies of Neil and boasting enough of a serious news pedigree to give the station credibility – have also strengthened the hand of Frangopoulos in his alleged ambition to push the station further to the right. Sliding ratings seem to have been arrested by recruiting Nigel Farage to host his own show; and whilst it could be said that Farage might turn out to be GB News’s very own Roland Rat figure, sources continue to insist Andrew Neil will be back in September.

By the back end of the 80s TV-am’s style proved successful enough for the BBC to abandon its sofas and re-launch ‘Breakfast Time’ as a televisual equivalent of ‘Today’, going down the hard news road. However, despite winning the favour of Mrs Thatcher during a notorious industrial dispute in 1987 and turning its fortunes around, TV-am still lost the ITV breakfast franchise in 1992. It’s very much early days for GB News – even now it’s only at the same point in terms of time on-air as TV-am was at in April 1983 – so rumours of its death could be said to be greatly exaggerated. At the same time, for many the presence of Andrew Neil was a signal that this station could well be worth investing in. Without him, is it merely a TV version of Talk Radio? Perhaps as long as the anchor is away, the jury will remain out.

© The Editor

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