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

THE THINKING MAN’S FANTASY

Back when television used to go to bed at night, it wasn’t uncommon to find one’s self being claimed by the sandman before actually making it up the stairs. Being abruptly jolted from this momentary slumber would spark a degree of disorientation when the last recollection was of sitting on the sofa tuned in to the final programme of the evening. The unnerving sight of a TV screen suddenly blank or displaying that abstract fuzzy chaos that television insiders called ‘snow’ would be enhanced by the piercing drone of a high pitched tone that seemed to slice through the head via one ear to the other like a sonic laser beam. I remember this once happening to me around 30 years back and I experienced a fleeting sensation that the programme I’d been watching before dozing off was still on and that this shock to the system was actually a trick being played by it to deliberately unsettle me. The programme in question had been ‘The Twilight Zone’, and I couldn’t be entirely sure Rod Serling wasn’t going to reappear after a few moments to inform me the disorientation was merely another example of life in the strange neighbourhood he was our guide to.

Of all the vintage shows that have provided me with downtime interior escapism over the past twelve months, perhaps none have been more perfectly attuned to these oh-so strange times than ‘The Twilight Zone’. Arguably the finest anthology series TV has ever produced, ‘The Twilight Zone’ remains the benchmark for intelligent, thought-provoking storytelling with a surreal, disturbing twist that has echoed throughout other examples of the genre ever since; everything from ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ to ‘Black Mirror’ owes it a huge debt. Although originally airing in the US from 1959 to 1964, like most insomniacs on this side of the pond it became a must-see show during the early years of Channel 4, when it would usually bring the curtain down on the schedule after midnight – or so memory tells me. One of the joys of the series was that the viewer never knew what he or she was going to get, for the range of the stories could veer from the whimsically bizarre to the downright nightmarish – and it was the latter that always sent you to bed with the story stubbornly lingering in the room.

Urbane, cool-as-f**k Rod Serling, the perma-smoking host of the show, visually belonged to that generation of immediate post-war American males for whom Hugh Hefner or the Rat Pack were sartorial role models, yet he also embodied the socially-conscious intellectual artist whose drive to highlight the fault-lines of society was informed by formative years living through the Great Depression. After a psychologically-damaging albeit character-shaping WWII fighting the Japanese in the Philippines, Serling initially established his reputation as one of the ‘Angry Young Men’ operating in the creatively-fertile medium of the television play; like Dennis Potter after him, Serling chose the small screen as his stage and consequently reached a far wider audience than any Broadway scribe such as Arthur Miller could ever dream of.

With the ramifications of the McCarthy era still ricocheting through the arts, the now-abandoned genre of the live television play illuminated American TV in its groundbreaking early years, bringing a level of emotional intensity to television that commercial considerations gradually ironed out; indeed, it took until the innovative original programming of HBO revitalised the dormant medium in the 1990s before such risk-taking techniques resurfaced. However, after a period in which his attempts to address America’s most outstanding problems via his art were increasingly frustrated by battles with networks, sponsors and censors, Serling eventually realised he could get away with commenting on the state of the nation by wrapping his message in the deceptive dressing of fantasy. Therefore, he relocated from New York to LA and created ‘The Twilight Zone’.

Sometimes subtly and sometimes less so – quality could vary, yes, but there were 156 episodes, after all – the pressing issues of the day were regularly dealt with on ‘The Twilight Zone’, but it wasn’t simply a relentless polemic; one of the alluring – and enduring – facets of the series was that, the slightly creaky ‘outer space’ episodes aside, it usually opened in a recognisable everyday world and then slowly took one step away from it, placing the picture at a distorted angle from which anything was possible. Part of the appeal of ‘The Twilight Zone’ was that some of the stories just posed the ‘What would happen if..?’ question, as in what would happen if we really could go back in time, or what would happen if we could suddenly hear the thoughts of the people we came into contact with, or what would happen if we woke up one day and everyone we knew suddenly no longer knew us, or what would happen if the life we were living was actually revealed to be nothing more than a scripted TV series – and this was a good forty years before ‘The Truman Show’.

Although he assembled a gifted team of writers around him, Serling’s role as creator and host was overshadowed by his creative contribution to the series, penning or co-writing a staggering 92 episodes of the 156, a phenomenal work-rate by anybody’s standards and one that gradually took its toll on him. And as it began to garner critical appreciation and awards, the series provided a useful entry point for many eventual household names, with the likes of Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, William Shatner, Robert Duvall, Elizabeth Montgomery, Martin Landau and numerous others gaining early breaks; it also offered intriguing roles to established stars such as Mickey Rooney as well as giving actors at the end of their careers one last chance to shine – Buster Keaton features in one especially memorable episode that serves as a touching tribute to the silent era.

At its best, the series provoked thought, placing the viewer in the shoes of the characters who found themselves in situations many have pondered on. One of the plentiful extras included with the DVD box-set that has provided me with late night entertainment over the past couple of months (and I can only watch it late at night) is a segment from the early 70s in which Serling discusses his craft with writing students; he admits to having a recurring fascination with revisiting or recapturing his lost youth, something that surfaces in several memorable ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes in which the irretrievable idyll is briefly grasped by characters who are alone in their realisation that they have reconnected with something those around them are oblivious to. Maybe these particular instalments speak to a certain age group and one has to get there to get it, but I’ve found revisiting ‘The Twilight Zone’ at a moment in time when the norm has been subverted to an unprecedented degree a highly prescient exercise. In some respects, the series may be very much rooted in time and place, yet many of the themes it tackled remain relevant and appear to grow more relevant the further away we travel from its original production.

Reduced to its earworm theme tune as a clichéd byword for ‘weird’ within popular culture over the last few decades, ‘The Twilight Zone’ when viewed afresh in its entirety offers a far more significant insight into both a reminder of what mainstream television was once capable of and what the medium’s archive still has to tell us about who we were, who we are and who we could be. I’ve found it the perfect reminder that sometimes the most telling comment on the here and now can often be found in something that appeared long before we actually arrived in the here and now. Messrs Huxley, Orwell and McGoohan would surely back me up on that one.

© The Editor

MEDIA WATCHDOGGING

Does anyone still buy magazines? I used to buy plenty at one time – well, more than one time; I bought plenty for decades and then more or less stopped without realising it. Regular purchases in the 90s and into the 2000s included the likes of ‘Uncut’ and ‘Mojo’, with occasional forays into the likes of ‘Arena’, ‘Empire’ and fashion rags like ‘Vogue’ plus a few others of that nature – pretty girls catching the eye etc. Yes, magazines became increasingly expensive and there were times when I had to opt out of purchasing one or two because I simply couldn’t afford them every time, but I still splashed out whenever I could, perhaps due to the fact the habit was such a deeply engrained aspect of the shopping experience. Well, not anymore. There was no ‘moment’, no defining incident that provoked a decision to never bother again; it just sort-of happened. I stopped drifting towards the newsstands upon entering the supermarket and instead glanced for a second or two and moved on to edible goods.

For a while, I used to derive dubious pleasure from the hysteria of headlines, predicting the reaction of each individual paper to whatever news story was on the tip of the press tongue before I got to it and accurately anticipating the angle taken by every title; but even that grew boring, probably around the time of Brexit overkill. I don’t even bother now. I became weary of the repetition, I guess; just as the old mags I’d often shell-out for started telling the same stories over and over again, the newspapers never seemed to progress beyond their entrenched agendas and they ceased to even inspire detached hilarity. Okay, so I still order both ‘Private Eye’ and the ‘Radio Times’ from the last remaining independent newsagent in the neighbourhood, but that’s it; I don’t seek out anything else anymore. Those two suffice, and even then I often barely read anything other than the bare minimum, usually realising I haven’t managed that simple task come the day before the next issue is due.

For me, the decline and fall of the distinctive voice in print journalism perhaps went hand-in-hand with the rise of the distinctive voice online. Some of the opinion pieces on ‘Spiked’ piss on anything newspapers or magazines have to offer in their dying days, and the more erudite meanderings available at Maria Popova’s endlessly enlightening ‘Brain Pickings’ site have educated, informed and entertained me in ways that the clickbait interns of Fleet Street could never comprehend in their exhaustive search for jaded sensationalism and tiresome titillation. Granted, such elements were always ingredients of the traditional newspaper recipe, but they were balanced out by hard-hitting, investigative journalism and the intelligent, urbane columnists of old; ever since all that was dispensed with in print courtesy of cost-cutting and fear of post-Leveson litigation, the internet has offered an alternative. Newspapers, much like television news & current affairs, have narrowed their horizons and opted for catering to specific niche audiences for whom they can reinforce prejudices in the hope of securing continued subscriptions.

Talk of television brings me back to ground covered previously. A recent survey revealed comedy ranked low on the list of genres viewed during the various lockdowns of the last twelve months, which is no great surprise when one considers the woeful comedic output of our mainstream broadcasters. Anyone looking for a laugh would do well to steer clear of TV and – to be fair – radio, both of which are produced by a conservative clique of lame, middle-class university graduates in thrall to a groupthink mindset that has a rigid roll-call of easy targets they chuckle over as they labour under the misapprehension they’re being satirical. The public aren’t fooled and it’s no wonder; YouTube can boast the kind of viewing figures for comedy that the pitiful box-ticking elite laughing amongst themselves at the BBC can only dream of. The likes of Jonathan Pie and Andrew Lawrence have established careers as cutting-edge characters online without any TV exposure whatsoever whilst television continues to employ an irrelevant, hypocritical charlatan like Frankie Boyle and thinks it’s being ‘edgy’ by doing so.

Events beyond the control of everyone outside of government have served to curtail the live comedy circuit, forcing comedians already under-fire from the Woke orthodoxy to improvise; those for whom television was suddenly blocked as a route to stardom had begun investigating alternatives even before the pandemic brought the curtain down, and the endlessly impressive ‘Triggernometry’ on YT, hosted by Konstantin Kisin and Francis Foster, continues to divide its podcasts between fascinating interviews with people who have something interesting to say (and are given breathing space to say it) and live streams in which the pair interact with their audience. Sit this next to Graham Norton’s tired old celebrity chinwag on BBC1 and it’s like comparing ‘The Little and Large Show’ to ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ in the early 80s – and I’m not just saying this because each edition of the ‘Triggernometry’ live stream begins with an opening title sequence put together by yours truly either; I did that because I was a fan and was honoured they were impressed enough to use it.

Television and the print medium stagger on, but they have dug their own grave; that said, big tech are increasingly attempting to apply the same principles that have strangled older mediums. In recent years, Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have gradually embraced the Star Chamber tactics that were once the province of the IBA and the Hays Code in efforts to clamp down on anyone daring to challenge the consensus, forcing all ‘dissidents’ using their platforms to be on constant alert as to what they say. This is a worrying, if predictable, move to those of us who have migrated from TV, radio and the press, though as a one-time YT ‘creator’ I long ago sensed which way the wind was blowing and got out, losing an audience as well as an income in the process; but the latest wave of censorship has also denied me pleasure as a viewer, removing an outlet that the established vintage mediums no longer provide.

Over the weekend, two YT channels I subscribed to and was devouring the content of have abruptly vanished. Both uploaded archive material for which the audience is too small to profit from in the shape of DVDs or streaming; both were sharing obscure or once-popular (and long-forgotten) programmes that would otherwise never see the light of day again and were doing so for purely benevolent reasons – which is precisely what YouTube was set up for in the first place. I can imagine the uploaders were confronted by constant copyright infringement excuses, but the non-profit nature of the uploads would’ve been evident to anyone coming across the channels; credit due was given and YT automatically muted any musical tracks used in the uploads the second they appeared, so all potential bases were covered from day one. Yet this still wasn’t good enough.

In one fell swoop, Silicon Valley did its Ministry of Truth act and erased all evidence of two channels that made these dark winter evenings more tolerable. I was halfway through the 1972 series of ‘Softly Softly: Task Force’ and thoroughly enjoying the old-school police procedurals of Barlow & Watt, just like thousands of other viewers seeking their own harmless entertainment away from a mainstream offering nothing but more of the same tired formulas; and now all gone. Just like that. Small mercies are something we’ve become accustomed to being thankful for this past year, so whenever another avenue of pleasure is blocked off, everything just seems that little bit greyer and duller and dismal and drab – that little bit more February-ish. Roll on springtime, eh?

© The Editor

OUR MAN IN AMSTERDAM

Say the name ‘Van der Valk’ to anyone of a certain age and the chances are they’ll be provoked into whistling – or at least humming – the theme tune. ‘Eye Level’ by the Simon Park Orchestra represented one of those occasional anomalies in the UK charts of the 1970s, when a freak smash zoomed past the usual suspects and shot to the top spot when nobody was looking; in the case of the theme from one of ITV’s hit dramas of the era, both Slade and The Sweet were kept from the No.1 position courtesy of its unexpected success, which was no mean feat in the frenzied Glam scene of 1973. Simultaneously bombastic and sweetly melodic, ‘Eye Level’ remains an infectious earworm that lacks the testosterone-driven machismo of the cop show themes that opened the likes of ‘The Sweeney’ or ‘The Professionals’. In its own way, however, it works because it mirrors the somewhat erudite lead character of the series as well as the picturesque European city that Commissaris Piet Van der Valk polices – Amsterdam.

Based upon the 60s novels written by Nicolas Freeling, the eponymous Dutch detective was brought to the small screen by Thames in 1972. The language barrier was overcome by having every character speak English whilst implying they’re speaking in their native tongue to each other, as had become second nature when Nazis conversed in the war movies of the period – or the Parisians in that earlier UK-produced detective series based in a European city, ‘Maigret’. ‘Van der Valk’ had an advantage over competing shows of the time by virtue of its novel setting – though the videotaped studio scenes were recorded in London, the location filming was all done in Amsterdam; the programme therefore immediately stood out, for in an era that had yet to see foreign holidays become the norm for the majority of Brits, a city such as Amsterdam retained an air of the unfamiliar. It was good timing, too; from the dominance and brilliance of Ajax and Feyenoord on the football field to the bonkers Prog Rock innnovation of Focus, the Dutch were making quite a pop cultural mark in the early 70s.

The actor playing Van der Valk had a face that rang more bells than his name when he landed the part. Barry Foster had gained a reputation for playing some fairly unpleasant characters in British films of the late 60s and into the 70s – a boorish bully in ‘The Family Way’, a ruthless Republican paramilitary in ‘Ryan’s Daughter’, and most memorably of all, an arrogant rapist in Hitchcock’s blackly comic ‘Frenzy’. He was an interesting choice to portray a good guy, but the character of Van der Valk combined an occasionally gruff exterior with some intriguing hidden depths. The lead characters in the most popular US police/detective shows of the 70s generally had a visual gimmick that distinguished them from one another – Columbo’s dirty mac, Ironside’s wheelchair, Kojak’s bald head, and so on. Their British equivalents tended to be more subtle in what made them distinctive, and with regards to Van der Valk it was mainly down to the man he was outside of the job.

When at home, the Commissaris liked to spend his evenings listening to classical music and enjoying what used to bear the exotic label of haute cuisine; he could indulge in the latter due to the fact that he was a happily married man – and married to an exceptional cook. That Van der Valk wasn’t a divorcee or a perpetual bachelor makes him a different proposition from many TV cops that followed; he and his French wife Arlette are not only very much in love, but intellectual equals. Despite initially having a sidekick in the shape of Michael Latimer’s Johnny Kroon (who sounded as though he should’ve been playing alongside Johan Cruyff), Van der Valk never really had a permanent Carter to his Regan, and Mrs Van der Valk is his one true confidant, the person he discusses cases with over dinner and who often helps him solve them. Their marriage even survives Arlette being played by three different actresses over the course of the series’ lengthy timespan.

One of Amsterdam’s more infamous industries doesn’t figure as prominently as one might expect in the series; the notorious ladies in the windows only feature in a solitary episode, and many of the crimes Van der Valk deals with could happen anywhere. Perhaps anticipating the later ‘thinking man’s copper’ trend for loners rather than team players, ‘Van der Valk’ is not an ensemble piece and there’s a notable absence of screeching tyres and shoot-outs, at least in the first two series. For some strange reason, there was a four-year gap between series two and series three, and when ‘Van der Valk’ returned in 1977 it was produced by Thames’ on-location company, Euston Films. This meant the entire show could now be shot in Amsterdam, but it also required a slight increase in the kind of action Euston specialised in. When series three ended, the programme was then mothballed again, but this time for the best part of 13 years.

By now you’ll have worked out the Dutch detective is my current vintage viewing, but though I recall the earlier series from childhood, I’d never seen the early 90s revival until reaching it on the box-set. Happily, the theme tune and the leading man are intact, but there are several changes to the formula. In tune with the ‘Inspector Morse’-style format of the period, these episodes are movie-length and though the storylines are still engaging and the guest actors impressive, the beginnings of that contemporary curse where TV drama is concerned – intrusive incidental music – does get in the way somewhat. The original series barely had any incidental music at all, but the 90s revival is swamped in it from the off, unnecessarily melodramatic and also badly dated by virtue of it being the awful synth strings of the time.

One aspect of the 1991/92 series that occurred to me when watching has nothing to do with the show itself, but is more of a cultural factor: I couldn’t help but conclude how much nicer young women looked in the early 90s, something I’d never considered until I saw the evidence from a fresh perspective. There are no fake tans, no piercings, no tattoos, and the cosmetics on the countenances are fairly minimal; they look more naturally beautiful than their 21st century equivalents, and whilst I’m no position to judge how young women should or shouldn’t present themselves when facing the world, it was an observation I thought worthy of noting in the context of then and now. It’s often only when one is unexpectedly confronted by the forgotten fashions of a past one lived through that unavoidable comparisons are made.

Barry Foster passed away at the age of 70 in 2002. Outside of ‘Van der Valk’, he seemed to be one of those actors who was rarely out of work, though his portrayal of TV’s most famous Dutch detective understandably overshadows the rest of his substantial CV; the lead role in a successful series tends to be the one the viewing public will always associate an actor with. ‘Van der Valk’ itself was apparently revived anew earlier this year, with Marc Warren stepping into the Commissaris’ shoes. I didn’t catch it, but by all accounts it bore little connection to the original series bar the name; it didn’t even exhume ‘Eye Level’, which is pretty unforgivable. Of course, 2020 bears little connection to most years, never mind the ones in which ‘Van der Valk’ aired first time round, with or without that theme tune. But spending evenings turning back the clock is nevertheless one of 2020’s defining characteristics for your humble narrator. And in that respect, the series is as relevant to now as it was to then.

© The Editor

SOMETHING TO DECLARE

Long-term loyalty to a brand can blind the customer to its faults because the customer doesn’t see it for what it is now but what it used to be then. It’s like a favourite band whose albums have got progressively worse, but you still buy them because you own all the others – or when it belatedly hits you that the TV series you’ve been watching most of your life is actually bloody terrible and you only stick with it because it’s part of the furniture; were it a new show, you’d recoil from it, so why are you still watching – just because it used to be great? Well, yeah. That happened to me with ‘Coronation Street’ a few years ago, and if I ever catch a snatch of it now it looks like every bad Aussie soap ever made rolled into one – and ‘Hollyoaks’. Likewise, when the mainstream media ceases to be the go-to source when you want to know what’s happening out there, coming back to it after an absence will probably vindicate your decision to abandon it. I wouldn’t know that personally, however, on account of not having gone back.

If this year’s events have done anything for the MSM, they could well have broken the back of the camel with a hefty bale of straw. 20-odd million tuned in to Boris’ lockdown announcement back in March – perhaps the final swansong moment of the nation turning to television for such information. I don’t know the viewing figures for TV news since then, but I should imagine ratings are falling with the same speed at which coronavirus cases are allegedly rising. From everything I can gather – and from my own personal perspective too – trust in the traditional providers of info has tumbled the longer this situation has gone on. People either seem to feel the BBC, Sky, ITV and Fleet Street are nothing more than mouthpieces for the Ministry of Truth, broadcasting the official line and failing to do their journalistic duty by questioning or challenging it – or people simply don’t believe a word of what they’re being told anymore because they can’t relate the media message to what they’re seeing with their own eyes when they’re out and about. And who can blame them? Real life and media life are living in parallel dimensions to each other.

There certainly appears to be a narrative in place where Covid-19 is concerned, and we’re not being exposed to any other when it comes to traditional mediums of communication. Part of that is probably down to the so-called ‘Westminster Bubble’ whereby journalists and broadcasters are wholly ignorant of the real damage being done by on-off lockdowns in the midlands and the north, let alone Scotland. Indeed, the First Minister’s popularity amongst them undoubtedly reflects an absolute ignorance of the Covid disaster the SNP has presided over in Scotland; all the London media wants from north of the border is the anti-Boris who can do no wrong as long as she pitches herself against the Tories and bigs up her own performance without anyone bothering to issue any counterclaims. Overlook the fact that the Scottish Government are proving to be the most authoritarian and reactionary administration ever to hold power in these islands since the abolition of Absolute Monarchy; at least they’re not useless Boris and his dim chums.

No longer buying a paper or watching news bulletins, ‘Newsnight’ or ‘Question Time’ means there’s one alternative. Okay, the internet can be something of a Wild West when it comes to information, with every crackpot conspiracy theory to be found if you want it. But balancing that out are numerous sites offering reasoned, sensible and questioning debate and discussion on the topic none of us can escape – like TV used to do and no longer does. Having said that, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have their own methods of policing the narrative, only they do so in a sneaky manner, ‘shadow banning’ anything they feel contradicts the policy they’ve chosen to impose upon users – and ‘shadow banning’ effectively means users aren’t alerted to a particular opinion contrary to the consensus; it might still be there, but you have to embark upon a lengthy needle/haystack search for it. There was an instance of this early on in the pandemic when a couple of reputable medical men dared to air an alternative viewpoint on YouTube and were rapidly removed, presumably because their dangerous opinions didn’t adhere to the established emotional blackmail of ‘save the NHS’. Now I read that some providers have attempted to similarly hide the words of wisdom emanating from a trio of professors who have issued their own manifesto for dealing with Covid-19 – one that doesn’t involve lockdowns. Largely shunned by a MSM lacking all self-awareness of its own irrelevance, this has been an entirely online announcement, so shadow banning it is something we should all be concerned about.

On paper, the Great Barrington Declaration makes a lot of sense and it comes from people who know what they’re talking about. Dr Sunetra Gupta is an Oxford University professor and an epidemiologist whose specialist subjects on ‘Mastermind’ would include infectious diseases, immunology and vaccine development; Dr Jay Bhattacharya is a professor at Stanford University Medical School – also an epidemiologist as well as a physician, health economist and public health policy expert; and biostatistician Dr Martin Kulldorff is another professor – this time of medicine at Harvard University, with expertise in infectious disease outbreaks and vaccine safety. In other words, this trio with impressive credentials aren’t Neil Ferguson, the worst ‘do as I say, not as I do’ expert who commands inexplicable attention, a man whose accuracy in predicting the future is up there with Mystic Meg.

The Great Barrington Declaration was kindly forwarded to me by a friend last week and I was thankful due to the fact that I might otherwise have missed it. Just having someone with unimpeachable expertise in the relevant field actually say out loud that lockdowns aren’t working is such a refreshing change from everything we receive on a daily basis from the usual suspects. In political terminology, the Declaration could be regarded as a ‘cross-party’ affair, stating as it does from the first line, ‘Coming from both left and right, and around the world, we have devoted our careers to protecting people. Current lockdown policies are producing devastating results…with the working-class and the younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.’ As it goes on to say, ‘Keeping these measures in place until a vaccine is available will cause irreparable damage, with the underprivileged disproportionately harmed.’

This breif, concise statement recites an entirely logical check-list of how our glorious leaders are sowing the seeds for future disaster and offers up sensible, well-thought out ways and means of dealing with the virus far better than we’ve managed so far – in other words, herd immunity . In fact, one could come away from the Declaration and view it as simply stating the bleedin’ obvious, and in many respects that’s exactly what it does. The difference is it’s been said by the actual experts for once, albeit the kind of experts governments aren’t listening to as they become increasingly sozzled on the power they never imagined they’d have over the people. The people made the necessary sacrifices because they bought into the narrative; but now they’re being told that’s not enough and they need to make more and more and more. And this will simply go on forever unless the propositions put forward in the Great Barrington Declaration are acted upon. Mercifully, it would appear the World Health Organisation has finally admitted lockdowns aren’t the answer and has spoken positively of the Declaration. Not before time too. Anyway, read it for yourself before your local closes its doors again…https://unherd.com/2020/10/covid-experts-there-is-another-way/?tl_inbound=1&tl_groups%5B0%5D=18743&tl_period_type=3

© The Editor

ANYTHING GOES?

Heaven knows, anything goes – and the problem with the principle of ‘anything goes’ is that it eventually and somewhat seamlessly translates into ‘everything goes’; and we’ve been here before. The breaking down of repressive barriers is a good thing, but the difficulty is judging when to stop and how far to go before one has gone beyond the pale. The counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s was confronted by this conundrum, when all the genuinely objectionable laws and social mores that had made the immediate post-war era so restrictive for numerous outsiders were gradually eased as we were steered in the direction of a more socially enlightened society. But when the demands of the few are taken into consideration, the demands of the fewer also claim the right to be heard. By the early 70s, the loosening of sexual morals in particular resulted in European film festivals devoted to pornography promoted as though they were on a par with an established cinematic celebration such as Cannes. With the likes of Germaine Greer on the judges’ panel, one even pushed the boat out as far as bestiality – well, if anything goes, everything goes; to object on moral grounds would be to line-up with The Man, no?

The notorious ‘Paedophile Information Exchange’ was a further example of what happens when any form of censorship is perceived as symbolic of a repressive old order that needs to be utterly obliterated. It’s not unlike the ‘all property is theft’ maxim, which essentially means anyone has the right to come into your home and help themselves to whatever you own; transplanting this principle to sexual peccadilloes means any perversion is legitimate and none should be bracketed as deviant. So, this invariably leads to gimps on dog leads openly participating in a jolly Pride Parade for all the family and the endless variations of ‘trans’ can cry discrimination if they perceive the sub-gender they’ve just invented to identify as is being oppressed by the wicked heterosexual patriarchy. If this goes on unchecked, you end up with a situation in which a man who identifies as a woman is publicly referred to as ‘he’ and the offence is a sackable one for the misgendering miscreant. Or a male rapist in a dress can be locked up alongside hundreds of vulnerable women. Raise any objections and you’re part of the problem rather than the solution.

Anyone who remembers the P.I.E controversy of six or seven years back – a long-forgotten issue rescued from obscurity as part of Tom Watson’s imaginary ‘Westminster Paedophile Ring’ crusade – might recall how Harriet Harman was dragged into the scandal on account of her libertarian approach to social issues as a leading light in the right-on wing of the Labour Party at the turn of the 80s. Harman’s exposure as a former ‘loony lefty’ who had endorsed P.I.E as a legitimate fringe group entitled to their rights highlighted the problems with applying the ‘anything goes’ template to everyone who demands to have their personal notion of freedom of expression recognised. Some remain unacceptable for a reason, and a line has to be drawn in the sand at some point.

But what of a film that is marketed as sexualising prepubescent girls by dressing them as twerking lap-dancers? Unacceptable, surely – especially if directed by a middle-aged white man? We’d be in Harvey Weinstein territory, then. But what if the director is a Woman of Colour? Er…well, that’s good, isn’t it? That’s what diversity’s all about, innit? As long as someone fulfils a quota, that’s okay, yeah? Guardianistas have been tying themselves in knots when presented with the ultimate moral head-f**k for the Identity Politics Utopia that is ‘Cuties’. A black woman as a director = good; Paedophilia = bad. What do we do? That’s the problem when someone gets the gig not on merit but because they tick a box – you can’t then backtrack when they f**k up. You have to bend over backwards to defend them, even when they make a movie that wonderfully underlines the double standards and hypocrisy at the heart of Woke. I see Kate Winslet is now wondering aloud how she could possibly have consented to star in films directed by Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Perhaps she did so because they have both produced a body of work today’s directors can only dream about and she knew it would enhance her career at the time – and it’s not as if the ugly rumours encircling either were utterly unheard of when she did so; maybe it’s more a case of guilt needing to be proven rather than assumed back then. If only they’d both been Women of Colour, eh?

As for ‘Cuties’, a Netflix film that apparently presents erotic dancing as a life-affirming career for little girls, the public reaction compared to the pitiful critical defence has again exhibited the vast chasm between the cultural elite and the consumer. I haven’t seen it and I’ve no intention of doing so; the glimpses of the trailer online were nauseating enough for me. But the fact that Netflix promoted it in the way they did and were then surprised at people’s disgust says everything you need to know. The widespread cancellations of Netflix subscriptions that have followed has been interesting; but perhaps a company that splashes out millions on Duchess Dumb and Duke Dumber for an imminent schedule of Woke lectures shouldn’t necessarily be regarded as the producer of intelligent and groundbreaking television that its early successes suggested. The cancellers have been cancelled – and it had absolutely nothing to do with race, gender or any other Identity Politics agenda.


DIANA RIGG (1938-2020)

The sudden and unexpected death of Diana Rigg comes just a handful of months after the passing of the woman she replaced in ‘The Avengers’, Honor Blackman; both characters these iconic actresses played on the much-loved 60s fantasy series, Emma Peel and Cathy Gale, offered an original take on female role models not just for the time but for now. Patrick Macnee once said the key to the onscreen dynamic between him and Rigg was the combination of an 18th century man with a 21st century woman. Unfortunately, it would seem the manner in which Diana Rigg was treated behind the scenes was rooted in the 19th century – poorly paid, exploited and undervalued.

But it’s testament to Rigg that she continued to embody the independent spirit of Emma Peel by not playing the victim and rising above it, transcending typecasting as she walked away from ‘The Avengers’ when it was British TV’s biggest international money-spinner. She made the leap to the movies by playing the only Bond girl ever to marry the hero in the memorably moving climax to George Lazenby’s solitary outing as 007, ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’; her other most beloved big screen offering was the blackly comic early 70s horror film in which she starred alongside Vincent Price, ‘Theatre of Blood’.

Diana Rigg went on to establish a reputation as a Great British thespian, adding her name to the illustrious Dames of the theatrical world, but she also continued to do plenty of sterling TV work on both sides of the Atlantic for decades, specialising in deliciously horrid dowager-types as she grew old gracefully. However, she never dismissed her time as Emma Peel with the disdain that many ‘serious actors’ do re the fun roles that made their names (Martin Shaw, anyone?); instead, she always came across as recognising she’d been part of something special and that she owed her subsequent success to that uniquely English series which remains quite unlike anything before or since. And it wouldn’t have been so without the great talent that was Diana Rigg.

© The Editor

A LOVER’S GUIDE

It’s oddly disorientating, this new-improved isolation; it possesses all the components of the self-imposed isolation I’m more than familiar with, yet because it’s been enforced by a higher power, the options ordinarily available when the compulsion to break free overcomes me have been taken away. Ah, yes, but as long as you look like you’ve just stepped out of an operating theatre, you can still go shopping and the experience will be even more fun-packed than it used to be! And if you’re unable to do that, you can engage in faux-socialising via the Zoom ‘community’ from your very own front room; alas, this innovation overlooks the fact that what made socialising a refreshing alternative to the norm was that it forced you out of your very own front room. I engage with people online every day, but I don’t mistake that for socialising any more than I mistake masturbation for sexual intercourse.

Okay, so having the choice to venture beyond the four walls might not always have been fully capitalised upon by yours truly, but it was nice to have that choice, all the same. So what if I didn’t make the most of it? It was a curious comfort to know those myriad options were there should I ever need them; and now they’re not. Anyway, as someone whose home-space has doubled-up as workplace for years, it’s no surprise that work has constituted the majority of my time since the outside world lost its (admittedly limited) attractions; but even the workaholic needs rehab every few hours, and mine has provided this here blog with numerous intervals from the madness. And I return to one of those intervals today.

I thought I’d exhausted every viewing experience available on the shelf as a means of escaping the solitary confinement of these happy days, yet lo and behold, I last week unearthed a series I’d only watched the once, and that was the best part of five or six years ago. As a long-time lover of the works of Dennis Potter, the hours of off-air VHS recordings of his finest moments I used to own haven’t been properly replaced on DVD yet. I have the original 1976 BBC production of ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ (the one that went unseen for a decade), but that is one of his numerous one-off plays; Potter gradually enhanced his reputation as television’s most gifted dramatist via the episodic series he produced in the second half of his career, reaching a peak of both popularity and artistic excellence with the likes of ‘Pennies from Heaven’ and ‘The Singing Detective’. But these later examples of his uniquely imaginative and innovative storytelling techniques were possible because he’d proven himself capable of the serial format several years before.

In 1971, after contributing some of the finest and most original one-off plays to the ‘Wednesday Play’ and ‘Play for Today’ strands, Dennis Potter wrote his first series for the BBC, the six-part ‘Casanova’. The name of the infamous 18th century Venetian libertine has subsequently become a noun describing a certain type of man whose fondness for the fairer sex takes that other name-cum-noun that denotes the passionate lover – Romeo – to a somewhat more salacious level. Casanova would have ravished and robbed Juliet of her virtue in the same time it took Romeo to recite his speech to her when she was up on that balcony; and that’s the difference. The actual genuine historical figure who bestowed his name upon future men seeking to emulate his specialised skill lived to the ripe old age of 73, spending his autumn years in retirement from the ladies and penning his memoirs. This book, ‘Story of My Life’, salvaged Giacomo Casanova from the posthumous obscurity awaiting all those who were neither highborn nor artistic during his lifetime; published in the 1820s, a good couple of decades after Casanova’s death, the book serves as an authentic historical snapshot of the times in which Casanova’s life was lived, though most English language versions of the memoirs were bowdlerised and poorly-translated.

The first truly faithful English edition of the text appeared as late as 1966 and found its way onto Dennis Potter’s desk when he was a book reviewer for the Times. Intrigued by the potential of dramatising the exploits of such a fascinating, unconventional character, Potter decided to adapt Casanova’s adventures for television, though it took a good five years after the book’s publication before television censorship had relaxed enough for him to get away with it. Rather than writing a straightforward TV ‘biopic’, Potter instead took the bare bones and key events of Casanova’s life and created his own unique take on the man, giving himself considerable artistic licence as he made Casanova the personification of Potter’s own struggle with the conflict between the sacred and the profane. Themes that went on to become familiar Potter tropes are explored in greater depth here for the first time; in this respect, it doesn’t really matter that the author plays fast and loose with the truth; in the ambiguous character of Casanova, he has the perfect vehicle for his recurring concerns.

It was a brave choice to cast the 45-year-old Frank Finlay as the lead character in the series, though as Potter’s adaptation avoids portraying Casanova in his formative fornicating years and instead focuses on the events that led to his imprisonment on charges of affront and common decency at the age of 30, the casting is revealed as quite inspired. The narrative also carries us through to Casanova’s old age and a 45-year-old can better portray an elderly man than, say, a 25-year-old; Finlay convinces as the old, ailing Casanova as much as the arrogant, younger Casanova in the prime of his time as Europe’s master seducer – and his obsessive craving for seduction is clearly painted as something of an illness, a realisation that dawns upon him when his wrecked body can no longer serve its motivating force.

Bar a shot of Finlay’s bare bottom in the first episode, what flesh we glimpse in this series is generally restricted to naked breasts – and lots of them. But there are just as many heaving bosoms constrained within tight bodices as there are fully exposed boobs; and the former is a far more tantalisingly erotic sight than the latter. We tend to get the build-up to sex, but stop short of excessive ‘sex scenes’ as such. If anything, the clever way that Casanova’s bedchamber activities are presented conveys their hedonistic joy far more effectively by being sparing; yes, there’s the opportunity to be more explicit than had previously been the case on TV, but the editing is first-rate as it cuts from flashback to present day and back again. There’s nothing as remotely exploitative of the looser moral climate in ‘Casanova’ as there tended to be in some of the Hollywood movies of the period.

Naturally, Mary Whitehouse got a tad hot under the collar, but the fact the character was gaoled courtesy of accusations that she in turn then levelled against the BBC was an irony no doubt not lost on Potter. Indeed, watching the series fifty years on, the double standards of morality that governed the Church of Rome in the 18th century aren’t a million miles away from those that govern our very own century’s Church of Woke – and a figure like Giacomo Casanova would probably meet the same fate today as he met then. Dennis Potter’s ‘Casanova’ may not be spoken of in the same breath as some of his later, more celebrated works, but it was an important step towards them; and it holds up as an enjoyable and occasionally moving portrait of a debauched life in which any form of deeper, long-term meaning is sacrificed for momentary gratification. It is pointless to use the law to punish a man such as Casanova, for the only real victim when the serial seducing ends is Casanova himself.

© The Editor

BIRDSONG

It’s inevitable that at various times over the past five years, a particular story has generated enough twists and turns to dominate discourse; I’m currently trying to avoid the Telegram being renamed ‘Identity Politics News’, but it could just as easily have been renamed ‘The Pandemic Post’ immediately before that, in the same way ‘The Daily Brexit’ would’ve been an apt moniker last year and the year before or ‘The False Allegations Courier’ prior to that. I myself routinely take a break from all MSM outlets when overexposure kills my interest in a story, however much I might regard it as the story more relevant than any other to the moment, so I think it only right that – as much as the Woke wars continue to provoke my most animated responses – interludes of a specific nature provide necessary breathers between the latest developments.

With my own off-line unwinding regularly involving television time travel that serves as a welcome escape from the here and now, reviewing the destination once I get there in the manner of a pop cultural TripAdvisor has become a regular feature on the Telegram. From what I can gather, it seems to be a welcome periodical diversion; so, after such an intense sequence of recent events, I think it apt to resume the pattern once again by unearthing another slice of buried treasure from the archives and losing myself – and hopefully the readership – in a necessary detour from an alien century. And back we go to familiar territory, i.e. early 70s Britain – to be specific, London’s naughty square mile.

For a man known primarily as a pre-Beatles British pop star, Adam Faith was a brave choice for the lead in a new drama series set in sleazy Soho and made by London Weekend Television in 1971, but the pedigree of those behind the scenes was impeccable. Produced by Verity Lambert, who had been at the helm for the launch of ‘Doctor Who’ in 1963, and penned by the renowned writing partnership of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, ‘Budgie’ was very much rooted in time and place whilst simultaneously years ahead of the likes of ‘Minder’ in portraying the capital’s tawdry underworld and its equally tawdry characters with the kind of rich, black humour that highlighted its grim absurdities.

Adam Faith’s title character, Ronald ‘Budgie’ Bird, is a petty thief, career criminal and incurable chancer straight out of the open nick when we join him. Despite having a hilariously neurotic estranged wife in Watford – played with comic-bordering-on-tragic brilliance by the feisty Georgina Hale – Budgie also has a girlfriend in Fulham, the hapless albeit whiny Hazel (played by Lynn Dalby), lumbering her with an unplanned son and heir as a going-away present before his most recent spell behind bars. Budgie is an endearing optimist, a self-assured wide-boy whose cocky Cockney charm masks an awareness he will never make it to the big league occupied by Scottish porn baron Charlie Endell, the wealthy owner of a string of ‘adult book stores’ and strip-clubs who sees through Budgie’s front and exploits his craving to make a fast buck by using him as a perennial gopher; Endell’s intimidating physical presence and network of contacts on either side of the law usually override Budgie’s opposition.

Charlie Endell is one of the era’s great TV creations, played with the right mixture of urbane sophistication and gangland thuggery by Iain Cuthbertson. I’ve no doubt Waterhouse and Hall probably met and spoke to several real-life Charlie Endell figures, for Cuthbertson’s portrayal feels too real not to have been rooted in fact. The way in which Endell transmits an eminently respectable businessman facade, revelling in material luxury and sermonising on the decline and fall of old-fashioned decency whilst simultaneously flogging smut to the dirty mac brigade, is a sublime portrait of Great British hypocrisy. Outwardly, he stands in opposition to the loose morals of Swinging London, yet profits from the relaxation of standards that fuelled its sordid underbelly. Crafty and cunning, Endell is viewed with both admiration and fear by Budgie whilst Endell openly admits he tolerates Budgie, despite the regular testing of his patience, because he ‘amuses him’. Occasionally, the veil slips and we witness the scary reality of the kind of psychopath who would never curse in front of his wife yet thinks nothing of dispatching his henchmen to beat the shit out of someone lower down Soho’s food-chain – and Cuthbertson is genuinely frightening.

The difference between today’s formulaic television dramas and the era that produced ‘Budgie’ is evident in the way in which Waterhouse and Hall imbue even the most minor of characters – who may only appear in one scene – with a depth of almost-Dickensian characterisation that really breathes life into them and makes the viewer yearn for more. All are so well-drawn that each could have been at the centre of their own spin-off series, yet in most cases we never see them again. Some form the core of an entire episode, relegating the regulars to an effective supporting cast. There’s an episode set in a dreary out-of-town hotel that dovetails between the guests – including an early sighting of Peter Sallis – and the staff, led by a seedy Anthony Valentine as a lowly hotelier permanently thwarted in his career ambitions. Like the best plays, one comes away from it wanting to know what became of the characters after the credits rolled; and we never find out.

Some episodes work as stand-alone plays in their own right that could be watched and enjoyed in isolation without needing to see another instalment in the series. An example is one in which Budgie is hit by a bullet intended for Charlie Endell as the pair stroll back to Endell’s motor after attending a football match together; they evade a second shot and gatecrash an ordinary suburban house, spending virtually the whole of the episode under siege, much to the outrage and consternation of the middle-aged couple who live there. The husband’s protests are subdued both by Endell’s menacing presence and the eventual entrance of the couple’s spunky twenty-something daughter. The intrusion of the two uninvited visitors serves as a trigger for a dark family secret to be belatedly brought into the open for the first time, a secret that involved underage abuse of the daughter by a family friend and was then hushed up with a handsome payment. The shocking revelation is handled with an absolute absence of melodrama and works all the better for it.

Another affecting episode comes when Budgie recognises one of his former schoolteachers loitering in the Soho ‘bookshop’ he’s minding for Charlie Endell. Sensing a potential blackmail scam, Budgie returns to his old alma mater armed with a carrier bag of Swedish porn; invited home by the teacher, Budgie receives a compassionate lecture from a sad and lonely individual disgusted by his own moral lapses, one that beautifully strips away Budgie’s social armour and leaves him humbled rather than humiliated. We see what the teacher saw during Budgie’s schooldays – a scared little kid who uses the gift of the gab to claw his way above the factory-fodder obscurity awaiting him. The quality of both the writing and the acting is worthy of the best theatre dramas being produced at the time.

Adam Faith is superb as Budgie because he makes the character likeable even when his behaviour is often reprehensible. It was possible for people to be portrayed as inhabiting shades of grey back then; characters in TV dramas weren’t so black & white or designed solely as ciphers for agendas that fulfilled quotas. As with all the other vintage alternatives to contemporary schedules that make me wonder why I pay the licence fee, ‘Budgie’ stands up to repeated viewing every few years and seems to improve with the passing of them.

© The Editor

PROTECTION RACKET

Sod it. If it’s in your hands, it’s out of theirs. Any archive that is embodied in a physical object rather than floating around the cyber ether is free from editing, tampering, censoring and deleting. Any attempts on the part of streaming services to deny viewers vintage TV in order to protect the oversensitive from being triggered are ultimately futile because it’s already all out there. The Pandora’s Box of the televisual past was opened a long time ago and released into the homes of millions when its curators realised they could recoup an income from it – firstly via VHS, then the DVD and its Blu-ray sibling. And while there may have been a push to proclaim as passé the physical format over the last couple of years, the streaming salesmen are not unlike the record companies of 25-30 years back, the ones that misjudged the value of vinyl when urging punters to buy their albums all over again on CD. It’s in their interests that you subscribe and submit, even though everybody I know who accesses the likes of Netflix does so illicitly and consequently never pays a penny, which is quite funny.

As a format for storing favourite films or TV shows, for my money the DVD is the finest ever conceived – and one that will probably now never be superseded. VHS tape was great in its day, but the DVD is undoubtedly superior. The streaming spiel is that we now have a format-free version of what we might otherwise have had on DVD, but on our phones or PCs and therefore not taking up ‘valuable’ storage space; this is bullshit. We don’t own it just because we can access it online anymore than we own any book we could borrow from a library – whereas we do own the ones we have at home. There’s a difference. Librarians can remove from the shelves any of the books we require their permission to loan, just as broadcasters and streaming services can remove ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘Little Britain’, ‘The League of Gentlemen’ or ‘Gone With the Wind’. But if we have them as a physical object, they’re ours to access for life.

Therefore, this seems an apt moment to indulge in one of my periodical forays into viewing habits that serve as a pleasant diversion from a world containing nothing that anyone with sanity intact would want to embrace. The series under today’s spotlight isn’t ‘problematic’ as far as I can tell, though it ran from 1972 to 1974, so I suppose that means it must be racist, I guess. Well, it features three white people as its lead characters, so that’s not a good sign, is it? And only one of them is a woman, which is clearly misogynistic. And they’re all straight, which obviously suggests it’s a very homophobic series. And occasionally actors who do not belong to an ethnically diverse demographic are adopting middle-eastern accents whilst looking like they’ve overslept on the sun-bed, thus being guilty of both ‘blacking-up’ and of stereotyping anyone not white as inherently villainous, which is unquestionably racist and serves to reinforce negative, colonialist perceptions of minorities. Maybe the actors were hired on merit rather than because they fulfilled a quota? Funnily enough, I’m not talking about ‘Love Thy Neighbour’ or ‘Mind Your Language’, but ‘The Protectors’.

‘The Protectors’ was perhaps the last in the run of relentlessly entertaining, escapist adventure series produced by Lew Grade’s ITC from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. These shows – ‘The Saint’, ‘Man in a Suitcase’, ‘The Champions’, ‘Department S’, ‘The Persuaders’, ‘Jason King’ – adhered to a joyously familiar formula in which the lead characters were never short of money for the finest clothes, cars, food, drink, beautiful women and flash pads; they were usually begrudgingly employed by some secret organisation loosely affiliated to government-sponsored espionage – organisations that clearly regarded playboy dilettantes as the ideal employees in the tradition of the gentleman spy, the amateur who saves the world in his spare time. Shot on glossy colour film in order to sell them to the US networks when British TV was still primarily broadcasting in monochrome, all of these series still look visually impressive today and retain their surreal charm.

‘The Protectors’ followed a familiar ITC pattern when seeking American backing, that of giving a leading role to an American actor, in this case the Man from UNCLE himself, Robert Vaughn. He plays the London-based Harry Rule, a man who shares his luxury apartment with a sexy Chinese ‘girl servant’ and an Irish Wolfhound; he’s a member of the mysterious Protectors organisation, which is portrayed as international by having the two other stars of the show working out of Italy and France. Eye candy for the guys is provided by the beautiful and elegant Nyree Dawn Porter as the Contessa di Contini, the exotic English widow of an Italian millionaire (who clearly had nobody else to bequeath his fortune to), whilst eye candy for the girls comes in the suave shape of young Paul Buchet, played by Tony Anholt. All three are effortlessly affluent and can handle themselves in a fight – which is handy, because they get into a lot of fights, albeit fights of the Wild West saloon school.

Surprisingly, ‘The Protectors’ was conceived and co-produced by Gerry Anderson – surprisingly because it lacks the science fiction/fantasy hallmarks that characterise his TV CV. Sandwiched between his first non-puppet series, ‘UFO’, and his final regular television outing, ‘Space 1999’, ‘The Protectors’ is something of an aberration in the Anderson canon, but fits neatly into the ITC pantheon. Money was clearly spent on the series, as location filming, rather than relying on stock footage and back projection, is a key element of its appeal. Although there are an abundance of stories set along the Mediterranean and about half-a-dozen shot in Venice, various European cities feature and the actors are unmistakably there rather than on the ITC back-lot. Viewing it today, it’s refreshing how distinctively different and authentically European – in an old-fashioned sense of the word – these locations look to a modern eye dulled by identikit streets colonised by the same corporate chain-stores the world over. To a British public making its first tentative forays to the Continent via package tours in the early 70s, it must have served as a useful travelogue.

Unusually for an ITC series, ‘The Protectors’ eschews the standard 50-minute format and crams everything into 25-minute episodes. To some degree, this time limit comes at the expense of character development, leaving the three leads as rather blank canvases who have little breathing space to grow as people before the quick-fire plot drags them into action. On the plus side, there’s no padding and no messing about; everything has to be resolved within an extremely narrow frame. However, one could say this might make the series appealing to a contemporary audience accustomed to the fast-paced MTV editing of TV drama today; if you like your adventures diluted into a show that will nicely span your evening meal, ‘The Protectors’ could well be the TV dinner side-order for you.

Guest stars who did the ITC rounds feature throughout – Patrick Mower, Derren Nesbitt, Patrick Troughton, Anton Rodgers, Peter Bowles, Ian Hendry, Michael Gough, Stephanie Beacham, Kate O’Mara – and there are a few surprising cameos from an adolescent Peter Firth, Manfred Mann’s Paul Jones (looking more like a Doobie Brother), and even Eartha Kitt. The enjoyably formulaic plotlines are penned by the usual roster of ITC wordsmiths and, like all ITC shows, it had a great theme tune – in this case, ‘Avenues and Alleyways’, sung by Tony Christie in true melodramatic style. As a slice of vintage escapism, it’s glorious hokum with flamboyant threads to match and a plethora of Zapata moustaches and dodgy ‘foreign’ accents on the part of the villains. There are no attempts at ‘Scandi-Noir’ angst or inserting ‘issues’ into the stories with a sledgehammer. No, it’s actually nothing more than innocent, undemanding fun. Remember that? ‘The Protectors’ now is what it was then, not what 2020 has imposed upon it.

© The Editor

ALTERNATIVE TV

There’s an illuminating interview with Frank Zappa from the 80s on YouTube in which the late lamented musical polymath explains how the 60s counter-culture was able to flourish on major record labels because the guys running them were happily detached from ‘the scene’. They were honest in admitting that they didn’t understand what was happening, but as long as it sold records they didn’t care; therefore, they shrugged their shoulders, took a chance and signed-up every long-haired freak they could find. Zappa claims the rot set in when the old cigar-chomping suits retired and were superseded by hip young ‘experts’ who regarded themselves as the voice of The Kids; this presumed expertise was based on an arrogant cocksure confidence in their own ability to judge what would and wouldn’t sell because their ‘finger-on-the-pulse’ credentials meant they knew what was best for the record-buying public. But, as Zappa wryly observed, ‘the person in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste of the entire population’.

This came to mind again after I viewed the latest ‘Newsnight’ opinion piece masquerading as balanced impartiality, leaving me to conclude that Emily Maitlis genuinely believes she’s Ed Murrow denouncing McCarthy now. To simply say the BBC’s TV news output has descended into a left-wing version of Fox News is too lightweight an observation; no, it’s clear these people think they’re on an ideological mission of a kind that not only exposes an insular London-centric outlook that presumes the rest of the country shares their enclosed worldview, but contradicts a founding principle that was crucial to – and justified – the contract between the BBC and its audience. The viewing public have no choice in subscribing to something they’ve always been told will present both sides of the argument, for the sweetener in the bitter licence fee pill was always that the dominant political groupthink within the BBC wasn’t supposed to contaminate content. For all Paxman’s pioneering of the bullish prosecuting barrister interviewing technique, I never got the impression he was nailing his colours to a particular political mast; he was as brutally unforgiving with Alistair Campbell as he was with Michael Howard.

Forty or fifty years ago, the BBC was run by its own equivalent of the old record industry ‘men-in-suits’; surviving programme-makers, producers and writers regularly recount the battles they engaged in with these characters, yet they are simultaneously generous in their praise of how, once a point had been made, they were largely left alone to pursue their artistic visions uninterrupted – and they knew the end result would be broadcast to an audience of millions. The retrospective spotlight tends to fall on the drama auteurs of this era whenever it’s up for discussion, but it wasn’t merely the likes of Ken Loach or Dennis Potter who benefitted; even groundbreaking comedy was allowed to flourish free from editorial interference. The individual Pythons have often recalled how the vague proposal for their first series was rewarded with 13 shows, basically ‘go off and do what you want’. No focus groups, no adherence to any box-ticking ‘diversity’ agenda, and no ‘offence monitors’ checking their thinking before transmission.

The men-in-suits are long gone now, of course; and in their place are the same kinds of conservative ‘hipsters’ Frank Zappa watched taking over the music business. The drying-up of new output that has characterised mainstream television since the lockdown suspended production has highlighted how desperately out-of-touch the regimes at our principal broadcasters really are – and not just in their blatantly biased approach to the news. Things almost appear to have reverted to that drab period at the turn-of-the 80s when the radical potential of what became ‘Alternative Comedy’ had yet to be grasped; the prime-time line up today seems as tired and irrelevant as then. For Graham Norton, read Larry Grayson; for Ant & Dec, read Little & Large; for all those allegedly ‘cutting edge’ panel shows supplied with a production line of identikit comics cracking the same formulaic gags, read ‘The Comedians’. Trump and Brexit have simply supplanted Irishmen and mothers-in-law. Even Charlie Brooker has undoubtedly lost it now; his recent and ill-advised return to the ‘Screenwipe’ platform that established his reputation ten-fifteen years ago sadly showed how his sharp satirical precision has been terminally blunted by success and domestic bliss.

For all its faults, YouTube has provided a genuine alternative to mainstream TV for me during the lockdown, but the channels I regularly follow on there are channels I was already following before anyone had heard the word Covid-19. It’s testament to how the balance of power has shifted that a genius creation such as spoof news reporter Jonathan Pie can sell out a theatre with a live show without having first made his name on television, as was the traditional route; in fact, I can’t ever recall having seen him on the one-eyed monster in the corner of the living room once; he’s done it all online. 30 years ago, he would have been given his own show on BBC2 – not today. And there are other characters on YT who would no doubt have had similar TV fame in the past – characters such as ‘Joolz’, an engaging eccentric in a bowler hat who takes the viewer on tours of numerous London locations and does so with wit, panache and endearing style. I look forward to his latest video outing in the same way I used to look forward to favourite TV shows when the BBC or Channel 4 made TV shows that could actually become favourites.

Another channel I follow on a daily basis is one called ‘Triggernometry’. Hosted by gleefully anti-Woke outcast comedians Francis Foster and Konstantin Kisin – the latter achieving a modicum of mainstream fame a year or two ago when he refused to sign a pre-gig document informing him what subjects he wasn’t allowed to make fun of – this channel consists of interviews with fascinating figures that the MSM increasingly avoids. Alongside more recognisable ‘outspoken’ characters such as David Starkey, Peter Hitchens, Melanie Philips and Douglas Murray, the pair have also interviewed everyone from ostracised anti-Corbyn Labour union man Paul Embery to level-headed trans critic of trans activism, Rose of Dawn; the subject matter tends to cover every burning issue of the day and the pair not only ask intelligent, insightful questions, but they give their guests the breathing space to answer them – and in the process, the ensuing discussion can actually make the viewer think. It’s the nearest thing I’ve seen in recent years to the old ‘Face to Face’ programme and is the kind of concept that would’ve been instantly snapped up by BBC2 or Channel 4 at one time – not today.

I guess my disillusionment with mainstream TV is reflective of the age in which I was raised and what it then provided. I have a similar attitude towards contemporary pop music; I still expect it to regularly reinvent itself and challenge me anew every two or three years because that’s what it did when I was growing up, yet everything I hear that’s ‘new’ sounds like something I’ve heard before. But it says more about the people running the institutions that once acted as facilitators for the groundbreaking and the fresh that the audience in search of such stimulation turns away from them in order to find it today. Mind you, if the nightly Two Minutes Hate from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ has now become a reality as people are encouraged to stand on their doorsteps to boo Boris for 120 seconds, I suspect I can second-guess what will fill the ‘Clap for Our Carers’ slot once it finishes its current run. They’re welcome to each other.

© The Editor