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

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

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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

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

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THE MAIN EVENT

JusticeFew professions failed to fall under the TV sitcom spotlight in the 1960s and 70s – everyone from bin-men to bus-drivers and rag & bone men to teachers received the treatment; whether down on the factory floor or marooned in middle-management, there was a virtually guaranteed series on BBC1 or ITV that would mine the comic potential in the workplace and supply a strong ensemble cast of eccentrics and archetypes. Perhaps the trend was able to flourish for so long because there was a greater variety of ways one could earn a living back then; a contemporary sitcom set in a call centre or an Amazon warehouse probably wouldn’t inspire quite the same hilarity, though I’m sure it’s already been commissioned by the BBC3 Diversity & Inclusion Committee. The workforce gave sitcoms from British TV’s Golden Age a seemingly limitless source of comedy, whereas drama had a far narrower set of tools with which to work; drama in the era of ‘On the Buses’ or ‘Please Sir’ was unsurprisingly confined to jobs imbued with dramatic potential – the police, private eyes, surgeons, the intelligence services and, of course, the Law.

The most popular legal drama on television in the 60s had been an imported one, ‘Perry Mason’ – starring a pre-‘Ironside’ Raymond Burr as an LA-based criminal defence lawyer. Despite the relative grittiness of the programme compared to the more escapist fare many Hollywood studios were producing for TV at the time, to British viewers the programme still had the inbuilt glamorous sheen that all American filmed series seemed to have. By contrast, when Granada’s lunchtime legal drama, ‘Crown Court’ debuted in 1972 for a good decade-long run, the fact it rarely set foot outside the courtroom and concerned itself with those in the dock rather than a star lawyer gave the series a more recognisable reality. ‘Crown Court’ was on TV all year round in the manner of an ongoing soap, and it became as much a part of the childhood wallpaper whenever off school with a sick-note as ‘Pebble Mill at One’, ‘Farmhouse Kitchen’, ‘Paint Along with Nancy’ and a bottle of Lucozade.

Despite its slot in the schedules being some distance from the watershed, ‘Crown Court’ was serious, grownup drama, written and acted to a standard far higher than that of the Aussie soaps gradually imported to pad out ITV’s afternoon hours. A case would span three episodes screened on successive days and legend has it the non-Equity members of the public making up the jury had no idea what the conclusion of the case would be during the recording. Although the characters of the barristers and the judges became familiar, the constantly changing cast in the dock and the witness box helped ‘Crown Court’ remain fresh and probably contributed to its durability. Owning all available episodes on DVD has enabled me to enjoy and appreciate a series I was too young to enjoy and appreciate at the time; it’s very ‘wordy’, as all series set in this genre naturally are. But courtroom dramas don’t date as much as their more action-packed contemporaries due to the fact the scenario itself doesn’t really change.

With the peerless ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ not beginning its own lengthy run until 1978, one of the most successful legal dramas preceding it had an unusual angle (for the time) in that its central character was a female barrister: ‘Justice’ ran from 1971 to 1974 and starred the former big-screen actress Margaret Lockwood, trademark beauty spot and all. ‘Justice’ was produced by Yorkshire Television and whilst the series had the aforementioned novelty of focusing on a woman, it was still primarily set in the familiar location of the courtroom. YTV’s second legal drama of the era was more original in that it centred on a solicitor, a profession that the courtroom-based legal dramas tend to reduce to footnotes in the overall picture. ‘The Main Chance’ ran from 1969 to 1975 and starred John Stride as David Main, a hot-headed young lawyer recruited by a Leeds-based firm of solicitors, dividing his time between their northern HQ and their London office. This clever device meant the series could be simultaneously provincial and metropolitan.

One of the pleasures of viewing a series whose popularity at the time hasn’t survived beyond its time is that it comes free from cultural baggage when you view it; as much as I enjoy the continuously popular TV shows of old that have remained well-known and well-watched ever since their original broadcast, it’s always fascinating to unearth one of those neglected gems that inhabit the archival no man’s land between the perennially celebrated and the permanently derided. ‘Well,’ say some, ‘TV’s so-called Golden Age may have given us The Prisoner and The Sweeney, but it also gave us Mind Your Language and Love Thy Neighbour.’ What about ‘The Main Chance’, though – or ‘Public Eye’? Unfairly rarely mentioned, yet fresh in their unfamiliarity when approached from the ignorant perspective of another century.

In the case of ‘The Main Chance’, it’s interesting to see elements of the more flashy, superficial series produced by the likes of ITC present – the mini-skirted dollybirds, the dashing lead, the driving theme tune and even (in series one, at least) the presence of the delectable young Kate O’Mara, for once playing a part that doesn’t require her to effortlessly press the button marked ‘Sexy’ (even though she undeniably is). However, these are merely surface trimmings. When it comes to the storylines, give or take one or two excursions into the private lives of the rich and decadent, ‘The Main Chance’ deals with down-to-earth cases the far-from wealthy are often confronted by; David Main as a character may have an account on Savile Row (one presumes), but he’s a grammar school boy from Leeds who worked his way up the ladder and therefore retains a degree of compassion for the little people.

Many of the hallmarks of 70s TV drama that the nanosecond attention spans of the contemporary Smombie viewer would struggle to cope with – in particular long, extended scenes not cut like an MTV video – are prevalent in ‘The Main Chance’, though to me these are strengths; this is intelligent, adult fare that unfolds at a sedate pace befitting the seriousness of the storylines. The dialogue is surprisingly spiky, though; David Main has some cracking putdowns in his armoury of insults and his arrogance costs him dear in his personal life as often as it enables him to succeed in his job. Playing the good cops to his occasional bad one are Henry and Margaret Castleton, father and daughter partners in the firm employing Main. There’s also Main’s flirty secretary Sarah, with whom he has an on-off relationship. As with Australia in the 80s and Scandinavia today, there must have only been around two-dozen thespians working in British TV fifty years ago, for the instantly recognisable supporting cast of character actors that appear in virtually every series produced in the 70s routinely appear in ‘The Main Chance’, though they help root it in solid, dependable ground. Even Robin Askwith turns up in one episode, playing an especially nasty young thug and managing to keep his trousers on in the process.

I admit I was initially attracted to this now-obscure series due to it being produced by YTV, and the likelihood of places from my childhood featuring in the scenes shot on location was an incentive to check it out. However, it’s mainly studio-based and that’s where it most shines, allowing the quality writing and acting to come to the fore. As someone who only ever samples present-day terrestrial TV in that brief two-hour window of an evening when there might actually be something worth watching, my off-line viewing habits late at night tend to fall into nightly screenings of vintage shows on DVD, and ‘The Main Chance’ ticks all the boxes for me. As even this post demonstrates, sometimes it’s necessary to have a day (or night) off from 2021.

© The Editor

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THE OPEN ALL HOURS UNIVERSITY

YTAs BBC1 litters its post-‘10 O’Clock News’ weekday schedule with cheap, tacky BBC3 drivel and wonders why niche, minority interests are attracting niche, minority audiences, the abject failure of the senior visual broadcast medium to entertain the nation during lockdown is evident in spades; and blowing the seizure of the day has perhaps fatally weakened its already-diminishing clout. BBC1 during the hours I would be most likely to switch-on now reminds me of that old 90s Channel 4 show, ‘Eurotrash’, a programme that was a kitsch giggle during its day, but not one I imagined would serve as a blueprint for the national broadcaster 20-odd years down the line. At least ‘Eurotrash’ never pretended to be anything other than a frivolous celebration of the absurdly camp, though; it didn’t come with a fatuous political ‘message’, AKA a lecture in BBC Diversity to demonstrate just how on trend the Guardianistas running the Corporation really are. And they can’t understand why millions of licence fee-payers are turning away quicker than you can say ‘Normal service is being suspended because the Duke of Edinburgh has conked-out’.

Where are they going? Well, a sizeable chunk of the audience has found on YouTube what it once used to find on television – innovative, original, educational, informative and entertaining output. Not everything on YT is worth watching, of course; but there’s a hell of a lot more worth watching on there than can currently be found on terrestrial television. I must spend at least 85% of my viewing time on YT as opposed to TV and there are ‘favourite programmes’, as it were – channels to which I subscribe and look forward to their new videos appearing every few days. Some are remarkably professional, whilst others are endearing in their amateurishness, where an absence of media-training slickness comes as a welcome breather because it allows the heart, soul and personality of the presenter to shine through (not to mention the fact they actually possess such attributes), just like TV used to do back when it could attract the likes of John Noakes or Fred Dibnah.

Some YT channels have viewing figures that jaded TV execs still living off the back of ratings achieved in the 80s and 90s can only dream about today, which is further proof of how people are rejecting television and finding their entertainment elsewhere. I’ve seen with my own YT channel just how this works. Having quit YT a couple of years ago in the wake of all my videos being demonetised and constantly blocked and banned, I’ve recently returned with two new instalments of my most popular ongoing series simply due to the unprecedented and overwhelming demand for more in the last few months, a clamour I eventually realised I’d be foolish to ignore when so many have told me my old output has brightened-up dreary lockdown days. With the innovative ‘premiere’ system now a feature that didn’t exist during my uploading heyday, I’ve been able to set a fixed time at which a new video will appear and a window relaying live comments as it plays enables me to gauge an instant, real-time reaction from viewers. The latest video premiered at 6.00 last Sunday evening; within less than 24 hours, it had accumulated over 24,000 views. Four days later, it’s now on 48K.

But fear not – this isn’t merely a solo trumpet recital, for I spend far more time watching other people’s videos than making my own. There’s Joolz and his eccentric excursions into fascinating corners of the capital; Jago Hazzard and his arch, knowingly-nerdish tales from the Tube; John Heaton and his laidback dissections of Classic Rock back catalogues; light relief canine capers with Reuben the Bulldog and Oliver the Beagle; and (of course) the ‘controversial’ chat on ‘Triggernometry’. And those are just some of the ones I subscribe to and view each new video from. There are dozens of others I regularly come across and routinely dip in and out of, just as there used to be TV shows I’d watch intermittently without tuning in religiously every week. I can’t remember the last time television provided me with this abundance of viewing. At the moment it seems like every few weeks I stumble upon yet another YT channel that engages me and makes me search through the channel’s individual archive.

A few months back, I got into a genre of video that seemed the ideal tonic for anyone itching to venture farther afield than their own neighbourhood at a time when doing so was verboten. These ones are little travelogues without an on-screen presence; instead, the host has a camera attached somewhere on their person – hard to say where; possibly hidden in a hat, for no pedestrian they pass reacts in the way they would to a visible camera – and they walk on a set route for between half-an-hour to an hour. We see what they see; in fact, the picture is so seamlessly steady, it feels like we’re a drone gliding through the streets of London – and the ones I watch tend to be in the capital. Last summer there was a wonderful one strolling around Hampstead Heath (albeit not the route George Michael used to take); this was during the day at the height of a mini-heat-wave; another from the same time glided around Soho in the evening as the heavens opened. Hearing only the sound of the public, traffic, and the rain made the experience one of near-virtual reality – and reminded me of an updated interlude; this was ‘Slow TV’ that moved.

One character I discovered recently goes by the name of John Rogers. He has the quiet charm – and appearance – of Richard Thompson; but rather than treating us to an obscure English folk tune, he embarks upon intriguing walks in various uncelebrated areas around the outskirts of London. I watched one yesterday in which he visited the medieval village of Harmondsworth, which sits on the Western periphery of the capital. Harmondsworth comes across as something of a forgotten oasis surrounded by the environmentally-toxic M25 and M4, not to mention Heathrow itself on the doorstep. A sizeable chunk – over 700 homes – of Harmondsworth stands in the way of plans to build Heathrow’s third runway and opposition there is understandable. It’s ironic at a time when ‘Green’ is the favourite colour to spew forth from the scripted lips of politicians that such a carve-up of characteristically picturesque semi-rural England could be countenanced, and for a notoriously polluting industry that many have been happy to see put on ice due to you-know-what.

The building of Heathrow Airport back in the late 40s necessitated the obliteration of at least one centuries-old hamlet, and if the third runway eventually goes ahead, the entire village of Longford will also fall beneath the wrecking-ball. The area already had a history that the airport wiped from the map, including one of the myths of Middlesex, concerning ‘the last wolf in England’, which legend had it was killed in a wooded labyrinth on Hounslow Heath called Perry Oaks – a location that now lays buried beneath Terminal Five at Heathrow. I learnt all this just from watching the video, but the one-man band nature of these outings, whereby a solitary unskilled presenter with a naturally intimate, chummy style draws the viewer in and tells a fascinating story, is what makes them such a sedate and seductive format. BBC4 is still capable of producing similar programmes, but it’s been noticeable of late how much of that vital channel’s budget has been siphoned off to fund the trashy produce of BBC3, leaving many an evening schedule on BBC4 a veritable ‘greatest hits’ of its laudable music documentaries.

Then again, who needs TV? The old catchphrase of an annoyingly memorable theme tune once declared ‘Why don’t you just switch off your television set and go and do something less boring instead?’ – and it seems plenty of us are doing just that. Television only has itself to blame.

© The Editor

THE BABY AND THE BATHWATER

A tried-and-trusted barometer for how far we’ve travelled as a society in living memory – certainly by the compilers of cheap clip shows – is to look at television output from 30-40-50 years ago. Yes, we’ve all seen these delves into the archives, with their awkward examples of antiquated attitudes towards women, ‘ethnic’ groups, gays and so on; such out-of-context samples of the recent past are usually accompanied by interjections from contemporary talking heads reacting in ‘Gogglebox’ fashion. As most of those selected to offer their insightful opinions tend to have been born long after the event, they react in the way people have always reacted to a past they never lived through; one may as well dig up descriptions of the atrocious living and working conditions of the urban poor in the Victorian period and inform someone born in 1995 that children actually used to be sent up chimneys. Yes, times have changed, just as times always do; that’s what happens when day follows night.

Despite having a greater immediacy than cinema in being able to reflect current cultural and societal developments and trends, television drama nevertheless isn’t the news; it usually trails a year or two behind the zeitgeist by virtue of the time it takes from the scriptwriter penning the opening line to an eventual transmission date. In the early-to-mid 1990s, for example, there was a spate of ‘illegal rave’ storylines running through many mainstream TV series of the era, with the standard moralistic plot usually concerning a teenage character dabbling in ecstasy and dicing with death as a consequence. However, by the time most of these shows aired, the rave scene had already relocated to shiny new city centre nightclubs opened by canny promoters and superstar DJs, and what remained of the illegal element was in the process of being crushed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994.

Similarly, many TV dramas – and sitcoms – of the 1970s often feature storylines in which the late 60s ‘counter culture’ still figures prominently when embodied in hippie radicals spouting pseudo-Marxist revolutionary gibberish and using outdated terminology – ‘man’. Therefore, relying upon old telly, certainly drama or comedy, to provide a 21st century generation with an accurate window to a world they never knew can be a tad misleading. Even taking some archetypal variety show of the period and studying the act of a comedian in a dinner jacket spinning the routine mother-in-law/thick Irishmen gags doesn’t take into account the fact this kind of comedy was hardly cutting-edge; it had long been regarded as naff and was regularly parodied by satirists on TV; it was also mercilessly ripped to shreds by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s foul-mouthed alter-egos Derek and Clive on their subversive vinyl outings at the same time as ‘Seaside Special’ was airing. Ee, it’s Alfie Noakes!

By picking and choosing snippets of old-school attitudes or language alien to modern mores simply to fit the agenda of the programme-makers and therefore underlining what a backward, bigoted society we used to be, there’s an inherent dishonesty at play; in falsely claiming this represents a whole picture, we conveniently ignore those segments of popular culture and television of the past that did a better job of giving voice to important issues and the masses affected by them than any equivalent attempt can manage now. Yes, ‘Play for Today’ is rightly remembered as a beacon of this, but it wasn’t operating in isolation; many of the writers, directors, producers and actors who progressed to the single play and gave us some of its most memorable jewels received their apprenticeship on what the BBC used to categorise as ‘continuing dramas’. In the 1960s and 70s, two shows served as especially potent training grounds – ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Z Cars’; today we’d call them soaps, but they were described as continuing dramas back then.

The impact of Tony Warren’s baby on British TV was more or less instant and proved to be incredibly far-reaching; it’s easy to forget just how radical it was when first broadcast and how much it revolutionised television as a whole, not just drama; one could argue there’d have been no ‘Steptoe and Son’ or ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, let alone ‘The Wednesday Play’, without ‘Coronation Street’. Within a year of the arrival of Ena Sharples, Elsie Tanner, Annie Walker and the rest, the BBC responded with ‘Z Cars’, another groundbreaking series that took the gritty, kitchen-sink vibe of ‘Corrie’ and put it in police uniform. Whereas Salford had been re-imagined as Weatherfield, Kirkby was reborn as Newtown. As close-knit communities were being swept away by the tower block and Brutalist housing schemes, ‘Z Cars’ showed how crime continued to flourish even in the Brave New World Utopias of the 60s. As the series moved on into the 70s, this factor became more pronounced as a greater reliance on location filming exposed just how swiftly those idealistic projects had descended into grubby, decaying eyesores in which crime and poverty were just as depressingly prevalent as they had been in the old slums.

Although a couple of ‘Z Cars’ DVDs were issued around seven or eight years back, giving me the opportunity to see the series with a fresh pair of eyes, great chunks of the show from the 70s are currently (at the time of writing) available on one of those YT channels that have a habit of quickly disappearing. I was able to download all the episodes – just in case – and have been watching them over the past few weeks. As is so often the case with mainstream dramatic output regarded at the time as the formulaic poor relation of the single play, when stood beside the ‘Am. Dram.’-like hospital-based soaps of today, many episodes of ‘Z Cars’ are astonishingly engaging, moving and hard-hitting. The writing and the acting are both of a remarkably high standard for a show that aired before the watershed. The characters are well-drawn, believable, either eminently likeable or effectively loathsome, and the situations are entirely relatable, especially to the audience who would’ve been watching at the time.

As someone who was a regular childhood visitor to an auntie and cousin who resided in one of the worst examples of a 60s high-rise concrete Dystopia, ‘Z Cars’ scenes of feral kids running wild around graffiti-stained estates with broken lifts, broken windows and broken spirits ring very true indeed. Not only do you instantly warm to the regular cast, but you care what happens to those who figure in just the one episode, which is a testament to the writers and the actors. Long scenes enabling characters to breathe and establish their personalities in a way that gradually explains the predicament they’re in means the viewer is slowly reeled into their world rather than emotional investment being achieved by emotional blackmail delivered with the subtlety of Bob Geldof demanding ‘Give us yer feckin’ money’. By mostly avoiding the headline-grabbing blags and gangland murders that Regan & Carter tackled, ‘Z Cars’ deals with the kind of small-scale crime most of us will come into contact with at some point of our lives and therefore highlights the plight of that most overlooked contemporary demographic – the little people.

From a modern perspective, the best way to watch ‘Z Cars’ – and its unfairly-maligned elder sibling, ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ – is not to view it as belonging to the same televisual canon as ‘The Sweeney’ or ‘The Professionals’ simply because cops are involved, but to place it alongside the likes of ‘Play for Today’, which also took time out to seek out the drama in the ordinary life. As we find ourselves at a moment in society’s decline and fall in which me and thee count for so little that they place us under house arrest, hide our faces behind masks and outlaw any public protest against them, it’s worth remembering how what was once the nation’s premier medium used to serve as the stage for our stories. Are we so much better off now than we were then?

© The Editor

DO YOU WANT TO KNOW A SECRET?

The sanctity of the confessional undoubtedly upholds its mystique. Indeed, a clichéd plotline of many a detective drama is the frustrated copper trying to persuade a priest to hint at what was said between him and a suspect, despite the refusal repeatedly stressed by the man of the cloth. For the alleged suspect, knowing there is someone with whom he can share his demons safe in the knowledge the recipient’s lips will be sealed thereafter is evidently a rare comfort. But the confessional is more than merely an over-familiar trope routinely dredged up to embellish works of fiction. To anyone raised outside of the Catholic faith, the confidential confines of the confessional is perhaps one of the Church of Rome’s most alluring and attractive elements, though I appreciate the luxury of choice for non-believers is not necessarily something many chained to tiresome and intrusive religious rituals may view quite so benignly. Many years ago, a friend of mine confronted by a taxing personal dilemma that burdened her with more information than she could handle considered popping into the confessional just to get it all off her chest; but being utterly agnostic meant she too only knew the routine from the movies and bemoaned the fact there wasn’t a secular equivalent available – and an optional one at that.

Although some Anglican branches boasting Anglo-Catholic orientation have a similar set-up, it’s a wonder this particular aspect of Catholicism didn’t become a cornerstone feature of Protestant worship in Britain; it seems especially pertinent to the old British reluctance to wash dirty linen in public. A TV show such as ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ could never have existed half-a-century ago, for example, with the exposure of private family secrets used as a selling point completely alien to the traditional British character; a more fitting version of the programme produced at one time would have been more accurately titled ‘Mind Your Own Bloody Business’. How many of us grew up in families with shadowy figures on the fringes of photos whose names had been consciously forgotten, rumours whispered out of the ear-shot of children, contradictory evidence on clandestine birth certificates, a mysterious absence of a marriage licence and so on? The thought of all that airing on a primetime TV programme was anathema to those sensibilities. Yes, it is certainly an improvement that these secrets apparently can now be said out loud within families, but broadcasting them is still a step too far for some – though a lot seems to depend on which generation one belongs to.

Reading a description of the hotel facilities facing those forced to self-isolate at great expense upon returning to the UK from abroad, the inclusion of a TV set in the tomb – sorry, room – was clearly mentioned because it’s a given the item is as much a necessity as a bed. I haven’t been in a hotel room for a long time, but I can’t imagine a TV set would be much comfort in my confinement; it’d probably make me feel worse, receiving a horrifying premonition of a care home future in which I’m left to vegetate before endless gardening, cookery and antique exercises intended to extend inertia. Raised on seaside holidays in which the B&B boasted a communal ‘television room’ to serve that particular need, the novelty of a set in each individual room wasn’t something I encountered until my first visit to the States in 1980. I actually couldn’t wait to switch on back then, excited to see how different the service was. Looking back, I can see now that the dubious thrill of a hundred channels transmitting 24/7 was a glimpse into what awaited British viewers – as was the content.

One programme that stands out in the memory was so at odds with what I was used to that it almost seemed like a parody. I remember a weak steak of piss with a Gilbert O’Sullivan haircut sat around in a circle with maybe half-a-dozen people who were quite willing to discuss intimate problems and more than willing to burst into tears, leading to the inevitable ‘group hug’. My response to this conspicuous expression of emotions was laughter, but more so discomfort, feeling as though I was eavesdropping on something that I felt should’ve been conducted in private rather than public. It was probably some local PBS channel watched by fewer viewers than the number of people it took to produce the programme, but the apparent benefits those participating appeared to have received from the ‘therapy’ to me were outweighed by the very English threat of ‘everybody knowing their business’. I didn’t see the appeal for either participant or viewer. This was a new strain of television in which the confessional had opened its doors, a dream come true for that urban and suburban bogeyman (and woman), the nosy neighbour.

Previously better known for her small (but effective) role in ‘The Colour Purple’ and soon to become better known for the merry-go-round of her Liz Taylor-like weight loss/weight gain routine, Oprah Winfrey’s day-job was the host of a TV chat show specialising in audience participation. This wasn’t ‘The Generation Game’ or ‘That’s Life’, however; members of the public weren’t present to compare carrots to penises or make fools of themselves on the potter’s wheel; they were there to share things that had previously only been shared with intimate confidants and trusted friends – not only with everyone else in the studio but with millions watching at home. It would’ve been easy to write this off as an alien ‘Americanism’, but the sheer strangeness of such an approach to personal problems naturally gave it a car-crash cachet with British viewers, and British TV decided to have a crack at it.

Suddenly, from the mid-80s onwards, we had ‘Kilroy’ on BBC1 and ‘The Time, The Place’ on ITV. Then we had ‘This Morning with Richard & Judy’, ‘Trisha’, ‘Vanessa’, and probably numerous others long-forgotten in which people were encouraged to confess every sexual or mental hang-up in public. As Brits were making use of extended broadcasting hours by waiving rules on subjects that could and couldn’t be discussed before the watershed, the Americans were taking the format into extreme areas with the grotesque bear-baiting of ‘The Jerry Springer Show’; and, as had happened with the Oprah brand, we copied the format, lowering the bar way beyond anywhere the bar had ever sunk before by installing Jeremy Kyle as the gatekeeper of Bedlam so everyone could poke fun at the freaks. By now, reality television had already shown the narcissist and the exhibitionist that a lack of shame was no impediment to fame and fortune; but running parallel with this was the supposedly more dignified one-on-one interview conducted in earnest tones, a way for established celebrities to beg forgiveness for their misdemeanours and salvage their careers. Every household name from Frank Bough to Michael Barrymore followed in the footsteps of Princess Diana by adopting a faux-reserved manner to confessing their sins in public

Which brings us full circle, to the summit meeting of a woman who could lay claim to instigating this pernicious trend and a man who married his mother; the latter isn’t to be taken literally of course – after all, Jeremy Kyle has now been banished from the small screen; but you know what I mean. Considering areas where this here blog has ventured on occasion, I nevertheless deny it is also a symptom of such a trend. As a writer, I regard myself as operating in a particular tradition whereby the artist informs the art. Every novel has a sizeable slice of the novelist in it, ditto the poem and the poet, ditto the polemic and the polemicist – and I do all three. No cards are being played to elicit sympathy in the process, and there’s a world of difference between self-expression via the written word and holding out the emotional begging-bowl whilst sat in a Californian garden large enough to host gymkhana events. But this is an age in which the cameraman is closer to gynaecologist than priest and the confessional operates an open door policy in the arena of social media.

© The Editor