THE AGE OF DECADENCE

CaligulaNew Year hangovers aren’t simply physical after-effects characteristic of 1 January; 2023 so far still seems bogged-down by the headlines from last month, many of which were covered in the previous post a week ago. Lack of Winegum action has been in part due to spending a good four solid days on a new instalment of the filthily evergreen ‘Buggernation Street’, now firmly settled in its new home on my Patreon channel; but the aforementioned absence of fresh output on here can also be blamed on a general lack of inspiration arising from the news. Of course, alongside the catalogue of strike action and the annual ‘NHS on the brink’ story, the MSM has been mystifyingly in thrall to the vain, narcissistic, self-aggrandizing public therapy of a ginger whinger; as one half of a couple worthy of comparison to Posh & Becks or Peter Andre & Jordan in terms of class, the ‘spare’ has been flogging his ghost-written misery memoir across newspapers and TV channels that should know better for what feels like the entirety of 2023 to date. The tabloid quarter of Fleet Street professes to despise said twosome and routinely hammers this point home; yet it simultaneously stops at nothing to devote ludicrously disproportionate coverage to them. Both they and the MSM are engaged in an unedifying spectacle akin to watching a pair of pissheads scrapping on the pavement to get at a fiver they’ve just spotted hovering over a grate.

I don’t intend to add to the circus any more than I would write a post about the Kardashians, Amanda Holden or Carol Vorderman – other similarly uninteresting celebrities that the mainstream media appears to believe we all find endlessly fascinating. But I will just say that it was like attempting to extract blood from the proverbial stone getting my grandfather to talk about what he did during the Second World War; yet, had he claimed to have killed 25 Germans in one fell swoop, I doubt I would have believed him and may well have correctly concluded he’d probably spent six years in the Catering Corps, with his most testing time of the conflict coming when he had to feed a dozen hungry troops with just a couple of tins of Spam and a packet of powdered egg. If the stupidity of Henry Charles Albert David Windsor is such that his nauseating naval gazing blinds him to the fact that bragging about how many members of a still-active terrorist organisation he slaughtered during his stint serving granny & country isn’t necessarily wise, so be it; but that doesn’t necessarily earn him the ‘poor you’ sympathy he clearly craves from the self-indulgent victimhood of a wealthy, titled plank.

This has also been the week of an archetypal social media story involving a Police Force writing to a Twitter user and demanding he or she (or ‘they’) attend an interview – and presumably a ‘re-education’ lecture – concerning a Tweet that committed the apparently-blasphemous crime of criticising the prevalence of the ubiquitous rainbow flag; the fact doing so isn’t a crime in law – yet – didn’t prevent Inspector Knacker from behaving as though it is and evidently hoping the said criminal was unaware of the fact. Considering the current climate, which sometimes feels like waking up in a world you’d rather not be living in, what more opportune time to revisit the BBC’s landmark 1976 production of ‘I, Claudius’? Here is a peerless and prescient portrayal of a once-great society on the cusp of collapse into decadence and then destruction; we witness that collapse through the ruling Roman dynasty and their Mafia-like machinations to rule at all costs. Served-up as perhaps the last great television event of the era in which television was the prime medium for telling stories with intelligence, wit and panache, ‘I, Claudius’ is littered with unforgettable set-pieces, spiky dialogue and characters that linger in the collective memory almost half-a-century later.

The cast list alone of ‘I, Claudius’ demonstrates how the reputation of British TV for attracting the cream of the acting crop was at its zenith in the mid-70s: the young Derek Jacobi making his name as the stammering, shambling lead character; the malevolently mesmerising Sian Phillips as the scheming Empress Livia, arguably the most memorable bitch in television history, and a woman who will casually poison the competition to clear the path for her ungrateful son Tiberius (George Baker) to succeed her husband as Emperor; and not forgetting Brian Blessed at his booming best as Augustus. Along the way we encounter numerous then-current as well as future familiar faces such as Patrick Stewart, Ian Ogilvy, John Rhys-Davies, Stratford Johns, Bernard Hepton, Margaret Tyzack, Kevin McNally, Bernard Hill, Peter Bowles, Patricia Quinn, Norman Rossington, and even Christopher Biggins as an especially noxious Nero. But perhaps no other cast member – with the honourable exception of Sian Phillips as Livia – leaves a greater mark on the production than John Hurt as the dangerously insane Caligula.

Fresh from his breakthrough into household name territory via ‘The Naked Civil Servant’, Hurt plays the psychopathic Caesar with the correct amount of genuinely disturbing menace, yet is equally hilarious in a part that another actor could easily have tipped into melodramatic farce. Caligula’s sadistic madness and conviction he is a God merely renting a human form turns those around him into either sycophantic toadies or (as in the case of ‘Uncle Claudius’) forces them to think on their toes, watch what they say, and learn to anticipate the unpredictable whenever in the Emperor’s company – as kids hoping to avoid a beating often do when finding themselves alongside the school bully. Caligula famously promoted his horse to a senator in one of his milder expressions of lunacy, but his more deviant whims were inflicted upon Rome simply because he decreed it, however much the Romans realised he was tampering with the natural order of things by normalising all that was beyond the pale. No doubt if Caligula had added paedophilia to his depraved list of legalised perversions, he’d have reclassified paedophiles as ‘Minor Attracted Persons’ – as indeed a member of another contemporary Police Force did just a week ago.

Caligula’s inevitable downfall at the hands of assassin’s blades comes in the wake of impregnating the sister he married and then – believing himself to be Zeus – following in the God’s footsteps by cutting out the foetus and eating it. The episode that climaxes with this gory scene was originally even gorier, but BBC bosses wilted under the onslaught of outrage from Mary Whitehouse and her comrades-in-offence and censored the offending sight of Drusilla bleeding to death from her horrific wound when the series was repeated. Although the scene in question can never be restored on account of it being lost on the cutting room floor, the edited version actually works much better in that seeing Claudius’s horrified reaction as he gazes upon the carnage is brilliantly effective without needing to see something our imagination has already pictured in all its grotesque glory.

Claudius is eventually the last man standing following the murders of most of the imperial family and is proclaimed Emperor against his wishes; but being perceived as a fool for most of his life due to his physical afflictions has saved his skin and also means he is able to document the saga of his brutal clan for the benefit of future generations. More or less each episode opens and closes with the elderly Claudius almost acting as a geriatric Edgar Lustgarten introducing the latest instalment of a bloodthirsty story, the likes of which has continued to echo throughout every TV series dealing with dynastical intrigues ever since. But ‘I, Claudius’ itself is perhaps the high watermark of a period that had begun with ‘The Forsyte Saga’ a decade earlier, one in which writing, production, direction and acting overcame the limitations of a studio set and managed to manufacture a uniquely compelling halfway house between theatre and television rather than aping cinema, as the small-screen does today. We may not see that era again on TV, but I expect Caligula to return as President or Prime Minister of somewhere soon; the climate seems particularly sympathetic to him right now.

© The Editor

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SPECIAL BREW

SpecialsProvincial cities often tend to define themselves more in competition with their nearest metropolitan neighbour than engaging in the futile exercise of trying to out-London London; perhaps the lengthy rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester is the most famous example, with these twin titans of 19th century industry extending their pissing contest well beyond industrial decline and into the arena of pop culture. The football field has long been an outlet for old intercity enmities, with the weighing scales of North-Western dominance sometimes falling in favour of Liverpool FC and sometimes Manchester United; elsewhere, the long shadow cast by The Beatles has always been a thorn in Manchester’s side, though post-Beatles notables like Joy Division, The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Oasis have made enough inroads into the public consciousness to redress the balance, if only temporarily. Beyond the North, what of the Midlands? Birmingham and its Black Country satellites is the behemoth few have ever challenged. The Moody Blues, The Move, Slade, Black Sabbath, half of Led Zeppelin, ELO…no wonder the rest have always struggled to get a look in. However, there was a very brief period at the turn of the 80s when Coventry outshone Brum.

Divided from its overbearing neighbour by the greenbelt of the Meriden Gap, Coventry’s main claim to fame for centuries was as a renowned medieval showpiece city ala York; and then came the Blitz. Rather than demolish great swathes of a historic city centre, post-war town-planners were provided with a clean slate thanks to the Luftwaffe, and a familiar ‘concrete jungle’ facelift was gradually unveiled. The once-prosperous motor industry’s slide into stagnation by the late 70s became emblematic of Coventry’s downturn, and while high unemployment coupled with racial tensions (the city saw large immigration from Asia and the Caribbean in the 50s and 60s) may have made life hard for its citizens, these conditions also provided the perfect breeding ground for a short-lived musical revolution that put Coventry at the centre of the pop map.

The sad death of Specials frontman Terry Hall this week was received with a wave of genuine sadness from people of a certain age, those old enough to remember when his band were the most important post-Punk act in the country; not only did The Specials manage the impressive feat of achieving both critical acclaim and commercial success, but the name of the record label the band established to ensure their independence – 2 Tone – also gave its name to an entire scene that thrived around them, the first scene for kids too young for Punk. They enjoyed two chart-topping singles and maintained their credibility throughout, spurning the silly inverted snobbery of The Clash by regularly appearing on ‘Top of the Pops’ and never once being accused of the heinous crime of ‘selling out’. Moreover, with the exception of The Equals a decade earlier, The Specials were the first notable mixed-race British band to break through, successfully merging the distinctive sounds of the two musical cultures the members of the band had inherited, musical cultures that had served to bring the members together.

The black members of The Specials had been raised on a diet of Jamaican Ska imported to these shores by first-generation West Indian immigrants; but the white members of the band had received exposure too. The skinheads of the early 70s may have drifted further to the Right as the decade progressed, but Ska and Reggae constituted their original soundtrack, uniting black and white at a time when racial unrest – exacerbated by the contemporaneous emergence of the National Front – was spawning an exceedingly unpleasant climate. Punk bands like Sham 69 effectively split due to the far-Right shit-stirrers they inadvertently attracted to their gigs, and the descent of one Punk strand into the unlistenable and politically dubious ghetto called Oi! meant the invigorating marriage of recognisably black sounds with the same energy (and socially-conscious lyrical content) that had fuelled Punk was a potentially combustible mix at the end of the 70s. Happily, the melting pot produced pure gold, and the nation’s singles-buyers responded positively to the new hybrid from the second half of 1979 onwards. The Specials’ ‘Top of the Pops’ debut saw them performing ‘Gangsters’, which refitted Ska legend Prince Buster’s track ‘Al Capone’ with a distinctly cutting-edge engine; so swift was the sound’s rise up the charts that when The Specials returned to TOTP to promote their second single, ‘A Message to You, Rudy’, they were joined on the same show by another 2 Tone act, The Selecter, and a band whose debut single had also been released on the same label, Madness. It was hard not to conclude that here was a scene that was set to carry British pop into the 80s and beyond.

1980 was the real year of 2 Tone, even if – as had happened before with Psychedelia and would happen again with the New Romantics – it was all over and done with in the blink of an eye. Madness opened the first TOTP of the decade performing ‘My Girl’, and barely a month had passed before The Specials achieved their first No.1 single with ‘Too Much Too Young’, an uncompromising ditty about teenage pregnancy that limited its Radio 1 airplay. Birmingham’s The Beat were another band bearing the 2 Tone sound and they achieved several hits throughout the year, whilst Madness were already in the process of becoming a hit machine that would end up transcending and outliving the scene that bore them. But it was The Specials who remained the most interesting and intriguing act of the lot; the hit singles continued – indeed, every single the band released during their original incarnation reached the Top 10 – and they proved their value with the release of their second album, ‘More Specials’, one of those albums that grows richer the further we travel from the moment of its arrival. In fact, it was actually greeted with a degree of bewilderment at the time.

A brilliantly eclectic and adventurous shift away from the formula, ‘More Specials’ sowed the seeds of the band’s demise and exposed the different directions its creative forces were heading in. Keyboard player and founder Jerry Dammers was delving into the kind of movie soundtracks that would later provide the sampled roots of the 90s ‘Trip Hop’ scene as well as exhibiting a fondness for what would eventually be labelled ‘Lounge-core’; the rest of the band were not so enthusiastic. The Specials could have imploded there and then, right at the point when the 2 Tone craze had peaked, but they kept their cool long enough to deliver their masterpiece the following summer, bowing out with a single that rightly ranks as one of the finest slices of pop-as-social-comment ever committed to vinyl, ‘Ghost Town’.

A song such as ‘Ghost Town’ reaching No.1 right at the very moment when rioting was incinerating many of Britain’s inner cities is as retrospectively a mind-boggling occurrence as Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall’ providing the nation with its unlikely Xmas chart-topper in 1979; but it happened. In some respects, there was nowhere for The Specials to go after that and they finally splintered into both The Special AKA and The Fun Boy Three. Terry Hall was the frontman of the latter, dispensing with the sharp suit that had been the sartorial trademark of The Specials and allowing his cropped thatch (another trademark) to grow a little. The Fun Boy Three were TOTP regulars for a good couple of years and then they too split. Hall’s amusingly glum countenance and deadpan delivery were less visible in the charts thereafter, though he hovered on the maverick fringes for a decade or two before the inevitable Specials reunion and accompanying sell-out tours. Unlike many such enterprises, however, the reunion was regarded as something far more than just another nostalgic cash-cow for hard-up middle-aged musicians. The Specials had always been smarter than the usual music biz mentality, and they always will be.

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SPIRIT OF ’78

DiscontentAs if the past two or three years haven’t been difficult enough, yet again it’s the hospitality industry that’s being punctured by the sharp end of the latest crises. Footage of empty bars, bistros and restaurants in central London this week were mainly blamed on just one of the seemingly myriad industrial disputes of the moment, that being staged by rail workers. Naturally, this is the time of year when organised parties descend on such venues and get the festive cash tills ringing; but after being brought to its knees by lockdown and then being forced to limit its custom due to the inconvenience of social distancing regulations once reopened, hospitality is now confronted by endless cancellations and the non-appearance of impromptu punters due to the fact that commuting has been severely impacted of late. Much like the Labour Party, one almost gets the impression a union leader such as the RMT’s Mick Lynch isn’t so much concerned with improving the lot of the working man as he is with scoring political points over a government not necessarily in tune with his own worldview. That’s not to say the Conservative Party hasn’t provoked a good deal of this – far from it; but while the current stalemate produces no winners, losers are abundant – whether they be small businesses struggling to make ends meet or simply the browbeaten general public, confronted by even fewer reasons to be cheerful as the chain reaction of industrial action goes viral.

Right now, the roll-call of ongoing or imminent strikes seems to expand on a daily basis. We’re already feeling the effects of rail and postal workers withdrawing their labour at a time when we’re most dependent on it, but the Christmas & New Year schedules promise everyone from nurses to Border Force officers to bus drivers to baggage handlers to junior doctors to driving examiners to teachers to university staff and civil servants will at some point be declaring ‘Everybody out!’ 10,000 ambulance workers are also set to strike, though considering how long one has to wait for an ambulance to arrive these days, one wonders if anyone will actually notice. Of course, now we’re in December, the Royal Mail being afflicted by this virus is the one industrial dispute that is already proving to be a more effective souring of the seasonal spirit than a ‘Mrs Brown’s Boys’ Xmas special. Ever since the knock-down sale of the Post Office by Old Mother Cable during the Coalition years, the split between it and the Royal Mail has hardly been a roaring success, with the scandal that saw the false imprisonment and ruined reputations of hundreds of sub-postmasters during the Horizon IT affair emblematic of this centuries-old institution’s decline and fall.

As used to be the case with the music business (and remains so with the publishing industry), Christmas is the one period of the year when a public now largely content to spend its money and time online actually gets off its arse, fuelling an upsurge in productivity where Pat and his black & white cat are concerned. Therefore, it doesn’t take a genius to calculate this is the most opportune moment for postal workers to strike. Sure, when it comes to birthdays, many today prefer the instant method of issuing a meme, message or humorous image on the likes of Facebook or Twitter to mark the occasion rather than the antiquated ritual of buying a physical card and popping it in the post box; but Christmas remains the one exception to the new rule, whereby season’s greetings are still dispatched the old-fashioned way. And then there’s also the gifts requiring packaging, carried to the counter of a post office now often reduced to an appendage to a supermarket or shop or – in the case of my own ‘local’ – a library. This annual ceremony is entered into by millions up and down the country, and those millions expect their parcels to be delivered to the recipients at least before 25 December. I wonder how many of those millions saw the images from the Royal Mail’s main depot in Bristol yesterday.

The photographs highlighting a backlog of packages so immense that it has spilled beyond a building no longer big enough to house it included a shot of a fox wandering amongst the undelivered goods open to the elements; the accompanying story also suggested rats have been feasting on the overspill. Although the Royal Mail responded by claiming parcels at the depot are ‘moving very quickly through the centre and on to the next stage of their journey’, an anonymous member of staff at the Bristol Mail Centre told a different story, rubbishing an idea to cover the exposed parcels by pointing out ‘It would have to be the biggest tarpaulin in the world as everything has been ruined’; a spokesman for the Communication Workers Union said, ‘This backlog will take a month to clear…if you post a first-class letter or parcel today, hand on heart, I do not know if it will get there before Christmas Eve – that’s the truth, but it’s not what people are being told.’ Reports indicate hand-delivering cards is becoming an alternative, with trust in the Royal Mail diminishing due to the strikes; but not everyone lives within walking distance of a card’s destination. What if the recipient resides at the other end of the country – or in another country altogether?

Inevitably, images of the mountainous backlog offering urban vermin an early Christmas treat revive memories (if you’re old enough to have them) of the piles of uncollected refuse that contaminated pavements 44 years ago during what is remembered as ‘The Winter of Discontent’. For three months between November 1978 and February 1979, Britain gave every impression of falling apart at the seams with a series of private and public sector strikes bringing the country to a grinding halt. Everyone from bin-men to hauliers to NHS staff to gravediggers downed tools and took up placards to picket the workplaces they wouldn’t return to until receiving a pay rise. For several days in the run-up to Christmas, the BBC temporarily shut down, with its TV output off the air and the then-four national radio stations combining into an uneasy mix of a solitary network service; meanwhile, small screens in the Yorkshire TV region were blacked-out for the entirety of the festive season. ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ was the Sun’s headline response to PM Jim Callaghan accusing the press of being parochial as he came into the cold from a summit meeting with other world leaders in the Caribbean, a costly moment of misjudgement on a par with Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’ comment over 30 years later.

The swingeing measures of Callaghan’s Labour Government to combat spiralling inflation had exasperated the Party’s natural allies in the unions and, in turn, the actions of the unions alienated vast swathes of the electorate with time running out on a Parliament that had been in session since October 1974. Having been denied the right to vote by Callaghan’s decision to abandon an autumn Election, when that Election eventually arrived in the spring, memories of the winter were still fresh and the public instead took a gamble on Mrs Thatcher. Labour wouldn’t be in office again for 18 years. Compared to the bleak chaos of 1978/79, current events appear lightweight – at least for the moment. But this certainly feels like the most severely the public have been tested by industrial turmoil since that period, coming as it does hot on the heels of an endless run of doom ‘n’ gloom designed to sap the spirit.

After one Christmas that was all-but cancelled and then one which was given the green light at the eleventh hour, the prospect of returning to pre-pandemic festivities was deemed by some as the antidote to recent trials; yet now even that prospect is in peril courtesy of union moves that ultimately prove counterproductive in garnering public support, however much most agree on the uselessness of this Government and the unfair distribution of wealth on its watch. The blame game is naturally in full swing, but although there remains a niggling suspicion that the excessive coverage given to the cost-of-living crisis is in part another offshoot of the Project Fear narrative, the impact of real strikes on real lives is indisputable, not to mention making those lives even more boring than they already are.

© The Editor

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FESTIVE FEAR

IMG_20221212_0001Amazingly, it seems there are still people out there excitedly awaiting the unveiling of the festive schedules on the mainstream TV channels, as though the DVD box-set or streaming sites cease to exist on at midnight on 24 December, and for the duration of Christmas Day the only option for visual entertainment will be to watch the seasonal special of a BBC1 or ITV show nobody wants to watch the rest of the year. Even as far back as the late 80s, the one-time dominance of television to provide the masses with their yuletide viewing habits was being eroded by the gift-wrapped live comedy video, which would be shoved into the VCR instead of sitting through an over-familiar Bond movie or second-guessing which character would top themselves on the Xmas ‘Eastenders’. Television’s unchallenged power to monopolise leisure time on 25 December was broken long before the novelty of a Christmas Day terrestrial film premiere was rendered redundant by multiple means of seeing said movie months in advance of BBC1 getting hold of it. In a way, I suspect broadcasters are more aware of this than they let on, which is probably why they put so little effort into their Christmas output now than they used to; why waste time and money making festive telly people might want to watch when the people are planning their own personal schedules?

Like most unburdened by ‘family get-togethers’, I myself have the luxury of not having to take anyone else’s taste into account; I could watch ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ at 2.00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day if I wanted to. I don’t, but that’s not the point. Instead, I’ll no doubt dip into those neglected gems from the TV archive that the BBC will only trot out occasionally; indeed, what better way to feel seasonal without opting for the obvious than revisiting the fondly-recalled ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ series that annually aired on or around Xmas Eve from 1971 to 1978? An author whose low-key spine-chillers always appear best served by the small screen, M.R. James provided this series with the stories that comprised the first five entries, beginning with ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ in 1971; with its characteristically creepy Victorian setting, the chills are masterfully achieved on a shoestring budget, and though this psychological horror starring Robert Hardy as an Archdeacon tormented by voices and glimpses of imagined spectres in the shadows was intended as a one-off, it prompted a follow-up the following Christmas and swiftly established a tradition that spanned seven years.

There’d been successful televisual attempts to illustrate James’s talent for unsettling the reader prior to the start of this series; in 1968, Jonathan Miller directed an especially nightmarish adaptation of ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ in which Michael Horden’s twitchy academic suffers uncomfortably realistic nightmares during a spell on vacation in coastal Suffolk. It followed a familiar James path of placing pompous clergymen and dons in positions of peril, confronted by the consequences of their hubris when up against supernatural forces. ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ (as it was re-titled) made enough of an impact at the time to warrant further James adaptations, though by the time ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ appeared, television had grown out of its monochrome roots and director of all-but one of the BBC Ghost Stories, Lawrence Gordon Clark, made full use of colour location filming in East Anglia to visualise James’s written words. Perhaps the finest example of this came with his second outing, 1972’s ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in which Peter Vaughan stars as an amateur archaeologist in search of the lost crown of the Saxon kingdoms; against all odds, he discovers it, though he bargains without the presence of the crown’s guardian, an out-of-focus figure who pursues Vaughan’s character even when he is convinced enough of the trophy’s curse to return it to its burial place. It remains a uniquely eerie 50 minutes that hasn’t lost its ability to unnerve.

By the time of the third entry in the series, ‘Lost Hearts’, the annual Ghost Story was in danger of becoming as much of a Christmas tradition as the Xmas Day ‘Top of the Pops’ or ‘The Morecambe and Wise Show’ – albeit an alternative sedative to the usual festive cheer, reconnecting with a gleefully disturbing Victorian and Edwardian sensibility which had been lost in the wholesome Americanisation of the season that had become the norm by the late 20th century. 1974’s ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ returned to recognisable M.R. James territory by featuring Michael Bryant as a smug medieval scholar looking for the lost fortune of a disgraced cleric; when he finds it, the ramifications of his avarice reduce him to a gibbering victim of his own superior attitude towards the unknown. The following year’s ‘The Ash Tree’ delves even deeper into pagan superstition, recalling the witch-hunts of the 17th century and evoking primal arachnophobia with the mutant ‘spiders’ lurking in the tree of the title. However, by 1976 the M.R. James adaptations were deemed worn-out and the series then turned to a short story by Charles Dickens, ‘The Signalman’.

An early outing for the now-veteran TV adaptor of classic fiction Andrew Davies, ‘The Signalman’ features Denholm Elliott as the title character who recounts a bloody train crash on the line outside his signal-box to an unnamed traveller, an event that continues to haunt him in his solitary exile from society. The fact the original story was penned a year after Dickens himself survived similar carnage on a train travelling through Staplehurst in Kent is probably no coincidence, but it certainly taps into the nightmares that remained with the author until his premature death on the fifth anniversary of the incident in 1870. The television adaptation of ‘The Signalman’ bears the same psychological tropes that opened the series with ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ five years previously, and is – along with ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘The Treasure of Abbott Thomas’ – perhaps the most effectively chilling of all the entries in the series.

In 1977, the series received something of a contemporary makeover by dispensing with adaptations of classic authors and commissioning a newly-written story set in the present day, ‘Stigma’; although this tale, starring the dependable Peter Bowles, has its moments by calling upon the same pagan myths that fuelled ‘The Ash Tree’, a key element of the series is lost by relocating events to the here and now, and the trend was carried over into the following year’s ‘The Ice House’, the final Ghost Story of the 70s run. Bar the odd repeat screening, the tradition was discontinued for several decades until BBC4 decided to revive the series during the period when the channel was producing daring drama the mainstream channels had largely abandoned. 2005’s adaptation of a previously-untouched M.R. James story, ‘A View from a Hill’, managed to retain the creepiness of the 1970s adaptations as well as adding a slicker look and feel that made the revival more than merely a nostalgic rehash. It worked well enough to lead to another James adaptation the year after (‘Number 13’) and the series has continued off and on ever since. A new instalment is scheduled for this year, hot on the heels of last year’s ‘The Mezzotint’, and all (bar one) have been derived from the works of the master, M.R. James.

Post-lockdown, the ongoing ‘things can only get worse’ mood of the nation has led to an annual ‘Oh, well – let’s just enjoy Christmas’ attitude that obscures the fact that, for many, this is a time of year when detachment from one’s fellow man is intensified by an overemphasis on convivial group gatherings that not everyone is party to. The likes of ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ serves as a much-needed antidote to such facile clichés and any addition to a series that now stretches back half-a-century is a welcome – not to say rare – contribution from mainstream broadcasters that acknowledges the needs of viewers for more than a Christmas ‘Strictly’ special to lure them away from online attractions. Long may it continue.

VICTOR LEWIS-SMITH (1957-2022)

A shadowy, near-mythical figure whose brilliantly offensive and near-the-knuckle manipulations of archive TV illuminated late-night Channel 4 back in the days when the station had balls, Victor Lewis-Smith was also renowned as a witty, sardonic journalist for publications as varied as the Daily Mirror, the Evening Standard and Private Eye. His death at the age of 65 will probably pass most people by, but his pioneering prank calls (which were unremittingly amusing, if deliciously beyond the pale) paved the way for the likes of Ali G; I particularly recall his call to Hughie Green in the late 90s, when he asked the one-time ‘Opportunity Knocks’ host if he’d ever f***ed Lena Zavaroni, which provoked laughter from Green rather than apoplexy. His call to Michael Winner was even better; if Lewis-Smith’s ‘TV Offal’ series is still available on YT, track it down; it also features the Gay Daleks. Say no more. The Winegum salutes you as a master satirist, sir.

© The Editor

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DOG WHISTLE WHILE YOU WORK

Trojan HorseBack when Fleet Street still had some clout in dictating the mood of the nation, a regular tactic employed to garner headlines during a quiet week was the journalistic ‘sting’, whereby the likes of an avaricious individual such as, say, Prince Andrew or his estranged missus could be set up for an encounter with a hack disguised as an African prince or Middle Eastern potentate and thus expose themselves as self-aggrandising parasites prepared to sell their inherited prestige down the river for a few tax-free quid. At the time of these kind of manufactured meetings, there would be a palpable reaction from the public bordering on shock, whereas we’re all now so used to our public servants being bent bastards that we barely batter the proverbial eyelid when they’re caught out. It’s symptomatic of how low we’ve plummeted since more innocent times, I guess; we expect nothing less these days. The contemporary redeployment of these techniques by self-identified ‘activists’ can therefore be counterproductive due to the fact that the plebs have wised-up.

While it goes without saying that anyone who includes gender pronouns in their Twitter account is deserving of every ounce of contempt we can muster, anyone describing themselves as an ‘activist’ is equally asking for it; and when the latter attempt a sting of their own we no longer respond with shock and awe; we see it for what it is and reserve our contempt for the instigators of such stunts. Step forward Ngozi Fulani, a BLM-sponsored, Marxist ‘activist’ with an adopted ethnic moniker and culturally-appropriated wardrobe; over the past couple of days, she has maximised her fifteen minutes by doing the daytime TV chat-show circuit and milking every ounce of her encounter with one of Brenda’s former ladies-in-waiting at Buck House. In case you missed it, Fulani is the ‘activist’ who managed to add her name to a Royal guest-list on the pretext of representing a charity, though to many it seems she accepted the invite with the intention of locating racism at the heart of the British establishment. I often wonder if such characters have a tool-box akin to Batman’s utility belt, crammed with hi-tech gadgets designed to detect racism whether it’s there or not.

It would appear Ms Fulani certainly came prepared, primed with a prearranged agenda to lift the lid on the enemy and build a career on the back of it; to ensure success, she opted for native dress – native, that is, to various African countries. I’d imagine she knew full well that an elderly employee of the House of Windsor accustomed to meeting and greeting Commonwealth dignitaries would probably mistake her for an African ambassador of some sort; and she apparently arrived armed with a hidden tape recorder just to be on the safe side. It’s hard not to conclude that Ngozi Fulani went to this reception with a mission in mind; she may as well have been an agent programmed by some race-baiting branch of the SIS to carry out a task guaranteed to generate fevered discourse on social media and in broadsheet columns, thus further exacerbating an imaginary, unbridgeable gulf between black and white that is essential to dividing and ruling, not to mention upholding the myth of Britain as a racist hellhole obsessed with a long-gone Empire which only the over-60s can even remember the tail end of.

Since Ms Fulani’s version of events went viral, she has displayed the customary victimhood hallmarks, claiming she’d been ‘traumatised’ and ‘violated’ by her meeting with 82-year-old Lady Susan Hussey, who had slipped into a default polite conversation mode with this exotic-looking Woman of Colour; Lady Hussey understandably assumed – given the context – Ms Fulani was a visitor to our fair shores due to wearing the kind of garb commonplace amongst overseas invitees to such events. The dressed-to-kill Fulani honed in on an aged official, sniffing-out an easy ‘toxic’ target in a career move possessing all the premeditated intent of a grandchild mischievously coaxing a mildly right-wing opinion out of a grandparent around the Christmas dinner table. And we only have Fulani’s version of events due to the fact her version has provoked the inevitable cancellation of the only other person witness to it. That’s convenient, for it means the familiar, unquestioned narrative can be maintained free from contradiction.

As has subsequently emerged from the routine root through her social media history, Ngozi Fulani is a committed race-baiter who believes Meghan Markle was a victim of ‘domestic violence’ at the hands of her now-deceased in-laws; gaining access to the lion’s den behind enemy lines must have been like all her Christmases coming at once for said ‘activist’, and she clearly didn’t waste the opportunity when it was presented to her. The ensuing media storm in a chipped teacup has certainly given her the spotlight she evidently craved and has resulted in a demonised servant of more than half-a-century stepping down from her post with the compulsory grovelling apology and a notable absence of support from former gutless associates like that dim Woke marionette Prince William. Ms Fulani has apparently declared Lady Hussey’s forced retirement is ‘not enough’ – what precisely, one wonders, does this ‘activist’ want? A public procession along the length of the Mall in which Lady Hussey receives a hundred lashes? After all, Identity Politics is a religion that doesn’t countenance forgiveness and redemption. Even if Lady Hussey was strung-up for her heinous crimes and her severed head was displayed on a pike for all eternity at the entrance to London Bridge, it still wouldn’t suffice as punishment.

If any punishment needs dishing out, it should be directed towards Identitarian opportunists who promote sectarian dogma that will callously toss irrelevant octogenarians onto the landfill site of public opinion in pursuit of its nihilistic aim. I can do no more than defer to the wise words of Jonathan Meades before changing the subject: ‘To emphasise differences merely consigns people to their background, to where they’ve come from, to their tribe, their caste, their religion. It creates ghettos.’ Everything Ngozi Fulani accuses Lady Hussey of is everything Ngozi Fulani embraces; it is her raison d’être and has provided her with all the invaluable attention she’s received in the past 48 hours. She owes Lady Hussey big time.

CHRISTINE McVIE (1943-2022)

The two threads that run through both distinct incarnations of Fleetwood Mac are the drummer and bassist that gave this long-running transatlantic soapChristine McVie opera its brand name, but of equal importance is the unsung singer-songwriter who replaced the band’s original creative force Peter Green when he succumbed to post-LSD delusions in 1970. The Blues revivalists who morphed into a proto-Hard Rock powerhouse at the end of the 60s suddenly found themselves in a similar situation to contemporaries Pink Floyd upon the loss of Syd Barrett – who was going to write the hits? In the case of Fleetwood Mac, the moment Green departed the hits dried up, despite the handy fact that John McVie’s missus was a proven hit-maker with the band Chicken Shack. Christine McVie joined her hubby’s band at a point when their commercial fortunes nosedived, yet she stuck with them throughout the tricky early 70s; by the time they relocated to a more receptive California in 1974, the recruitment of two new members to a band with the kind of personnel changes that would put Spinal Tap to shame revitalised the enterprise and gave Fleetwood Mac a facelift that turned them into one of the best-selling acts of the decade.

Overshadowed by the dramatic theatrics of the Lindsey Buckingham/Stevie Nicks love/hate saga, McVie quietly churned-out some of the most memorable tracks on the landmark 1977 LP ‘Rumours’, such as ‘Don’t Stop’, ‘You Make Loving Fun’ and the immortal ‘Songbird’; lacking the photogenic flamboyance of Nicks, McVie got on with her job from behind the keyboard comfort zone and delivered the goods on the band’s succeeding albums, maintaining a low profile that perhaps robbed her of the recognition that has now belatedly come with her untimely passing at the age of 79. But, as with anyone capable of penning songs of such enduring quality, McVie is survived by her art.

© The Editor

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WILKO AND OUT

WilkoHaving lost three friends to cancer in the past five years, I’m well aware that no diagnosis delivered to the luckless recipient ever states that he or she has nine years to live; cancer diagnosis on the whole tends to deal with months rather than years, and celebrated guitarist Wilko Johnson was informed way back in 2013 that he had less than twelve months of life left to look forward to. Following this announcement, Johnson threw himself into a workload characteristic of someone conscious of the clock ticking; he recorded an LP with Roger Daltrey of The Who, knocked-off in a week due to it not containing any original material, and the result of their collaboration – ‘Going Back Home’ – was released in March 2014, reaching the Top 3 of the album charts, the biggest commercial success either man had enjoyed in over 30 years. By the time of its release, Johnson had already completed what he understandably referred to as his ‘farewell tour’, but it turned out the cancer he’d been informed would kill him was not inoperable after all, and he underwent surgery to have the tumour successfully removed. For several years, Wilko Johnson was a living, breathing survivor of a disease that seemingly remains immune to all that medical science can throw at it – a man who had spurned the double-edged sword of chemotherapy, the delaying tactic that often leaves its victims in a worse state than the actual cancer that provoked it; and now he’s gone at the age of 75.

Despite expressing concerns he’d be largely remembered as ‘that cancer bloke’ as opposed to the explosive axe-man his previous reputation was based upon, Wilko Johnson’s legend was relatively secure as a pioneer, a key figure who served as a bridge between two iconic eras in British pop music. ‘Oil City Confidential’, Julien Temple’s acclaimed 2009 film biography of Dr Feelgood, the band Johnson made his name with, was a reminder of just how important – if briefly – Dr Feelgood were in shaping the change of direction that occurred in the mid-1970s. It provided some intriguing background on the band’s roots, with a particularly fascinating clip from an early 70s TV debate on the future development of Johnson’s Canvey Island hometown in which a long-haired Johnson heckles a pompous politician sticking up for the oil companies that had scarred the landscape of that coastal Essex outpost. The documentary also featured an eye-opening snippet of Johnson as a hired guitarist bolstering the performance of early 60s fifteen-minute teen idol Heinz when he played low down on the bill at Wembley Stadium’s memorable Rock ‘n’ Roll Show in 1972.

John Peter Wilkinson – AKA Wilko Johnson – had already followed the hippie route to India by the time he joined the band that morphed into Dr Feelgood in the early 70s, shortly to become a fixture on the nascent ‘Pub Rock’ scene of the period; perhaps having sampled enough spiritual sustenance, Johnson decided to revert back to the R&B blueprint of British Rock when he began his musical odyssey. Pub Rock was viewed as an affordable alternative to the then-dominant Prog orthodoxy in the UK, offering a revival of the kind of sounds that had been routine in the club scene prior to Psychedelia and then Prog elevating pop to Art and relocating its stage from subterranean dive to vast arena, pricing many punters out of the market. Whilst most acts grouped under the Pub Rock banner pedalled a nostalgic dead-end form of music guaranteed to appeal to few beyond the veterans of the original British R&B boom of the 60s, the Feelgoods were in possession of an agitated urgency that had more relevance to the 70s and was mirrored on the other side of the Atlantic in the embryonic New York Punk scene.

Unique amongst the Pub Rockers, Dr Feelgood gradually attracted a large fanatical following drawn to their energetic live performances. Vocalist Lee Brilleaux was a distinctively menacing frontman, whilst Wilko Johnson was a one-off guitarist, pacing up and down the stage as though he was receiving ECT the minute he plugged his axe in, duck-walking like Chuck Berry on cheap speed; the pair bestrode their platform with a defiantly anti-showbiz ambience that was enhanced by their unusual (for the time) image – dressed in sharp suits and wearing cropped haircuts; it’s often been said that Dr Feelgood resembled a villainous gang of blaggers from ‘The Sweeney’ rather than a rock band of the era, yet this truism places them very much in that violent and brutal mid-70s period instead of the cosy cul-de-sac many of the Pub Rock acts seemed content to inhabit; when Malcolm McLaren was putting The Sex Pistols together, he’d routinely take his snotty young charges to see the Feelgoods live, with the spotlight firmly on Wilko Johnson’s manic contortions as the way forward. Remarkably, the record-buying public followed suit.

In terms of pop music serving as a relevant soundtrack to the chaotic times in which it was produced, maybe the best place to look in 1976 wasn’t necessarily amongst the chart-topping albums of the year. Old timers such as Perry Como, Roy Orbison, Slim Whitman, Bert Weedon and The Beach Boys scored No.1 LPs, as did more contemporary acts like Queen, Status Quo, Rod Stewart and Led Zeppelin. And, of course, there was the mighty Abba, complementing their trio of No.1 singles in ’76 with their first volume of greatest hits topping the album charts twice that year. Yet, alongside the more predictable fare of the era was an LP titled ‘Stupidity’, which shot straight in at No.1 and held the top spot for one week in October. ‘Stupidity’ was the only real commercial smash to emerge from the Pub Rock scene and was, fittingly, a live album; it was the third LP release from Dr Feelgood, hot on the heels of two albums that, despite being critically-acclaimed, hadn’t suggested the band were destined to dethrone The Stylistics at the top of the charts; but they did. They hadn’t even dented the singles charts yet, which made the achievement all the more impressive.

For an extremely brief period, it suddenly seemed Pub Rock was where it was at – the sound of the past reinvented and reinvigorated for the future; and then Punk happened. Overnight, thanks to a timely encounter with a pissed-up reactionary name of Bill Grundy, The Sex Pistols stole Pub Rock’s thunder; their sound may have borrowed some of the razor-sharp intensity to be heard on ‘Stupidity’, but it dispensed with the old-school R&B tropes and its snarl was that of the adolescent. Wilko Johnson was born in 1947 – Johnny Rotten was born in 1956; at a time when 30 was considered a cut-off point when it came to pop culture, the younger man won out. Just four months after The Sex Pistols earned their notoriety effing and blinding on teatime TV, Johnson and Dr Feelgood went their separate ways; although the band managed to capitalise on the success of ‘Stupidity’ by remaining a popular live draw and finally scored a Top 10 hit in 1979 with ‘Milk and Alcohol’, their amazing impact in 1976 thanks to the dynamic double-act of Wilko and Brilleaux was limited to that solitary year. Pop music had picked-up its pace again and the Feelgoods were left behind.

Wilko Johnson formed his own band and also had a brief stint in Ian Dury’s Blockheads; unfortunately, the dream marriage of two of British music’s most charismatic eccentrics didn’t quite work out, and Johnson was thereafter a peripheral figure on the music scene, hovering around the same hinterland as the likes of John Cooper Clarke and John Otway. But the Julien Temple documentary on the Feelgoods revived interest in the band and gave them some long-overdue credit for their significant place in the scheme of things; Johnson’s reputation received a boost due to the amusing eloquence he displayed in the film, and even led to him being cast in ‘Game of Thrones’. And then came the cancer, something he himself had already experienced first-hand when it claimed his wife of more than three decades in 2004; Johnson’s philosophical stoicism when confronted by the disease and then his remarkable survival served to seal his status as an alternative national treasure, but his death robs the nation of the kind of character we once had in abundance and now appear to ration. We’re all the poorer for it.

© The Editor

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AFTERNOON DELIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE BLACK MARKET

City GentsA rare visit to the house I grew up in over the weekend was crystallised in the wee small hours of Sunday morning by me accessing buried treasure and rifling through yellowing copies of the first ever comic I purchased week in-week out half-a-century ago, ‘The Mighty World of Marvel’ (from October 1972 onwards). This inaugural outing for the British branch of the Marvel Corporation was an exciting introduction to that now-overexposed universe for a kid eager for visual stimulation 50 years ago; the fantastic imaginations of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were exactly what I needed then, however much the thought of their creations as rendered by Hollywood fills me with indifference today. Anyway, the familiar sensation of turning childhood pages and re-encountering images permanently burned onto the memory banks of the half-formed mind was added to by a retrospective awareness of wider events that barely gatecrashed my infant consciousness at the time.

I noticed a comic that was priced at 5p from its launch in the autumn of ’72 abruptly shot up to 6p at the height of the Three-Day Week in January 1974 and then increased to 7p less than six months later; by the conclusion of the year it had risen to 8p, and once I’d reached the end of the pile (1977), the cover price was 10p. I appreciate that sounds like peanuts by today’s standards, but one has to take into account price comparisons between the cost of living then and now; indeed, ‘The Mighty World of Marvel’ was probably an expensive addition to the newsagents’ shelf and its bi-annual price increase from 1974 onwards evidently reflected the soaring inflation of the mid-70s, something that only impinged on me when I was informed my weekly stimulation needed to be cut back. Related searches through my numerous preserved files of vintage TV from the era revealed a report from ‘John Craven’s Newsround’ explaining the perilous position of the pound in relation to the dollar from October 1976; this served as a reminder of how current headlines surrounding similar issues are nothing new. We have been here before, even if many of us who lived through the last time we were here imagined we’d never be here again.

Forty-six years ago, John Craven and his team reported that the pound in 1972 had been worth $2 57₵; four years later, as the pound plunged to its then-lowest-ever level, this had dropped a dollar to $1 57₵. Alas, the news that the pound of 2022 has plummeted to a record low against the US dollar in the wake of new Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announcing his tax cuts fuelled by further borrowing has unfortunately added to the tiresome ‘Back to the 70s’ narrative that the MSM is currently indulging in. Threatened public sector strikes and the prospect of a candlelit winter hardly help matters, but the largest programme of tax cuts since Ted Heath tried (and failed) to repair the economic malaise of his own premiership have resulted in the weakest performance of the pound Vs the dollar since decimalisation in 1971. The Chancellor is clearly fixated on the mantra of ‘economic growth’ by arresting the rise in National Insurance Contributions, axing the additional rate of income tax and cutting stamp duty, but I would imagine the majority of this country’s workforce is now being confronted by diminishing returns for their hard work, something not aided by the prospect of the rich receiving further benefits courtesy of last week’s mini-budget.

The 1976 low of the pound – despite then-Chancellor Denis Healey going cap-in-hand to the IMF (leading to a defiant albeit bad hair day speech from the floor at that year’s Labour Party Conference) – was superseded in 1985, but the latest figures have exceeded even that; overnight trading by Monday morning saw sterling falling 5%, reduced to $1.0327. It’s worth remembering the devaluation of the pound by Harold Wilson in 1967 was greeted as a national calamity on a par with Dunkirk (and cost Chancellor Jim Callaghan his job), yet even though one could argue it led directly to Labour’s defeat at the 1970 General Election, it seems like a storm in a teacup when stood alongside the problems facing the new PM. Okay, so I know if you’re a layman like me, ‘the markets’ may as well be written in a foreign language; but the current climate has provoked an increased interest in something normally reserved for readers of the Financial Times; and Liz Truss herself has already come under criticism from within her own Party for her emergency economic measures, with one unnamed member of her predecessor’s Cabinet declaring, ‘Liz is f***ed. She’s taking on markets and the Bank of England’, adding the new PM and Treasury Ministers were ‘playing A-Level economics with people’s lives’.

This is the kind of story that used to bore the pants off my generation as children, perhaps because most of us imagined it was one of those headlines specific to time and place, not regarding it as one that would have any relevance in the future. Little did we know we’d eventually come full circle. The same anonymous Minister in Boris’s cabal added by concluding ‘Government fiscal policy is opposite to the Bank of England monetary policy – so they are fighting each other. What Kwasi gives, the Bank takes away…you cannot have monetary policy and fiscal policy at loggerheads’. In harmony with this mystery man is a senior investment analyst name of Susannah Streeter, whose opinion of the situation is that ‘the pound has been on a fast downwards track of a rollercoaster, plunging to record lows…as confidence in the Government’s economic management continues to evaporate. The fresh bout of panic appears to have been brought on by rumours that the Bank of England may step in with an emergency rate hike to try and shore up support’; referring to Kwasi Kwarteng threatening further tax cuts, Streeter added, ‘The worry is that not only will borrowing balloon to eye-watering levels, but that the fires of inflation will be fanned further by this tax giveaway, which offers higher earners the bigger tax break’.

Fears that Liz Truss will crash the economy have stoked the backbenches into action on the eve of the PM’s first speech as leader at the Conservative Party Conference. Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, Tory MP Mel Stride said, ‘One thing is for sure – it would be wise to take stock of how through time the markets weigh up recent economic announcements rather than immediately signalling more of the same in the near term’. However, rumours abound that Truss and her Chancellor will not stop here; the borrowing is set to extend into 2023 and Kwarteng has promised more is to come. Stories of further tax cuts for the rich even resulted in Gideon himself – George Osborne – criticising the ‘schizophrenic’ notion of cutting taxes along with more borrowing, and also prompted ye olde Hush Puppy-wearing, cigar-smoking, Ronnie Scott-loving Chancellor of a different era Ken Clarke to comment, ‘I’m afraid that’s the kind of thing that’s usually tried in Latin American countries without success’. The fact polls show Labour now has its largest lead over the Tories since 2001 suggests the incumbent Chancellor hasn’t made a great start.

It goes without saying that even those of us not in possession of a brain boasting an implant with a degree in advanced mathematics could see this coming when industry was plunged into mothballs during lockdown, so it’s no great surprise that our governing party of 12 years is confronted by an economic meltdown of unprecedented proportions. And the majority who tend not to follow the FT Index are now faced with the realities of it all when they venture down supermarket aisles and notice how much more expensive certain items are today than they were this time last year. Yes, a recent reunion with some of my childhood reading material may have reminded me that we’ve been here before, but I guess that’s not much comfort for those who weren’t forking out pocket money for ‘The Mighty World of Marvel’ in 1972.

© The Editor

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NON-TOXIC MASCULINITY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FAR BEYOND THE PALE HORIZON

Roxy 2When it comes to pop music, familiarity may not necessarily breed contempt, but repetition can block the ears to the sensation that comes with hearing something for the first time; it’s almost impossible to recapture that sensation unless enough years go by in which the ears are spared further exposure to it – and tuning in to the predictable playlists of ‘oldies’ stations is something of a hindrance to the process. One doesn’t necessarily have to have been around at the time of the record’s release to have experienced said sensation, though perhaps to fully appreciate just how groundbreaking a piece of music was in its day, it probably helps if you haven’t already heard everything that came after it. Anyway, as we continue along the path of years being characterised by how many landmark anniversaries they contain rather than whatever the current excuse for pop music happens to be doing when nobody’s listening, this year contains the usual multitude of significant dates. A record that might easily be overlooked from the anniversary list takes us back half-a-century, which is difficult to comprehend when the track in question still sounds like the future, albeit a future we never reached. I’m talking about ‘Virginia Plain’ by Roxy Music.

Released 50 years ago this month, the debut single by the intriguing Art Rock band with the unique potential to appeal to viewers of ‘Top of the Pops’ as much as ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ followed hot on the heels of Roxy Music’s first (eponymous) LP, which was climbing up to its peak position of No.10 on the albums chart. Throughout 1972, the band had been steadily building a reputation as ‘one to watch’, cannily supporting breakthrough man-of-the-moment David Bowie at the prestigious Rainbow Theatre and catching the eyes and ears of a music press eager for the Next Big Thing. The divisions between Rock and Pop were becoming wider in the early 70s, with huge acts like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd flourishing on album sales alone, not even needing the regular stimulus of a hit single to keep them in the public eye as bands in the 60s had; in the singles chart, the likes of Gary Glitter, Sweet, Slade and T. Rex were cleaning up as a consequence, and it seemed as though Glam was for the teenyboppers whilst Prog was reserved for the students – one was made for the affordable 45, the other was made for the expensive LP.

However, with the release of his ‘Ziggy Stardust’ album (and its accompanying hit single, ‘Starman’), David Bowie paved the way for a strain of Glam that elevated the genre above the primal stomp and gave it a few musical and lyrical A-levels in the process. Roxy Music were able to capitalise on this climate, producing esoteric and eclectic sounds infused with pure pop melodies and presenting the package in the kind of kitsch, exotic dress-sense that was anathema to the dominant denim-clad Hard Rock brigade. But Bryan Ferry, the band’s founder member and frontman, had come up through the art school route with an appreciation of the visual and recognition of its importance in selling a band brand. The gatefold sleeve of the band’s debut album featured glamorous Ossie Clark catwalk model Kari-Ann Muller, whilst the individual portraits of the band inside complemented the cover, especially those of Ferry himself, synthesizer scholar Brian Eno and woodwind wizard Andy McKay.

As was fairly common at the time, no tracks were lifted from the debut LP as singles, even though several of them would have performed well if they had, encapsulating as they did Roxy’s unique blend of all pop that had gone before and all that was to come. With Bryan Ferry’s distinctive vocal delivery drawing on pre-Rock ‘n’ Roll stylists such as the crooners of the 40s & 50s as well as the quintessential English camp of Noel Coward, it was plain here was a band breaking with the recent past by borrowing from the distant past; but the inclusion of Eno’s experimental soundscapes looked forward, whilst Phil Manzanera’s guitar riffs and Andy McKay’s frenetic saxophone kept the band just about moored in 1972. It was an original and exhilarating mix that, coupled with Roxy’s louche, decadent twist on Glam fashion, made them stand out like a sore sequin. The fact they were prepared to launch an assault on the singles chart reflected Bryan Ferry’s passion for the three-minute pop song, and when it eventually appeared Roxy’s debut 45 was destined to be no run-of-the-mill hit. It had to distil everything that had made the LP such a vibrant and exciting listen into a short enough timespan to earn the band the coveted ‘Top of the Pops’ appearance. And Roxy rose to the challenge in style.

A TOTP audience that was still recovering from the seismic shock of Bowie’s ‘Starman’ performance barely a month before was ill-prepared for the debut of Roxy Music on the show, which was broadcast on 24 August. Phil Manzanera’s ‘fly’ sunglasses, Brian Eno’s glistening gloves, drummer Paul Thompson dressed as a circus strongman in ‘Clockwork Orange’ mascara, Andy McKay playing the oboe with his hair tied back as though a Samurai warrior, bassist Rik Kenton passing for a gawky schoolboy, and a surreally suave Bryan Ferry in glittering eye-shadow and a sparkly jacket designed by Anthony Price. They resembled regal aliens beamed down from an early 70s idea of what pop stars in the Year 2000 would look like. And if the presentation of ‘Virginia Plain’ was a treat for the eyes, the record itself was a blistering banquet of sonic delights.

Subverting the standard formula of the pop single, ‘Virginia Plain’ fades in and ends abruptly rather than the other way round; but it’s also a song without a chorus, a song whose title only surfaces as the very last line. The first verse follows what sounds like an autobiography of the band struggling to get a recording deal, yet ‘We’ve been around a long time’ wasn’t necessarily the case, as Roxy didn’t spend years paying their dues on the college circuit; they were far more ambitious and went for the music business jugular from the off. As the song goes on, Ferry’s lyrics expand to encompass the kind of jet-set lifestyle the singer hopes success will bring – ‘Flavours of the mountain streamline/midnight blue casino floors/Dance the cha-cha through till sunrise/opens up exclusive doors’; this continues to the final verse – ‘Far beyond the pale horizon/some place near the desert strand/Where my Studebaker takes me/that’s where I’ll make my stand’. In the song that introduced the majority of the record-buying public to Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry sets his stall out and plots his future for all to see.

Whereas in later years, the prefix ‘Bryan Ferry and…’ became commonplace – largely due both to the public’s failure to distinguish between Roxy Music and Ferry’s concurrent solo career and Ferry’s eventual dominance of the band – early Roxy is very much a team effort. ‘Remake/Remodel’, the opening track on their debut album, contains tongue-in-cheek passages where each member of the band has two bars to showcase their individual instrumental skills; and ‘Virginia Plain’ offers similar opportunities to demonstrate they’re far from a one-man band, especially the instrumental section building up to the final verse, where Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno both shine. There’s no audible kitchen sink in ‘Virginia Plain’, but it sounds like pretty much everything else is present. 50 years old and it remains one of the great debut singles, probably because not only does it not sound like anything else from 1972, it still doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve ever heard.

The single served as the launch-pad for twelve months in which Roxy Music were the most innovative and inventive band in Britain; their second album, ‘For Your Pleasure’, was released in March 1973 and is arguably the band’s finest LP, with ‘Do The Strand’, ‘The Bogus Man’ and ‘In Every Dream Home, A Heartache’ all masterpieces of Roxy’s sublime blend of pop and the avant-garde. Then the strain of containing two such gigantic artistic egos as Ferry and Eno finally provoked a split in the ranks and the latter left the fold; although there were innumerable great songs to follow, Roxy Music were never quite the same again. And no other hit quite matched the superlative originality of their first – half a bloody century ago.

© The Editor

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