MOONAGE DAYDREAMS

Bowie 72 DHard to believe now, but there was once a time when David Bowie was regarded as a one-hit wonder; this was when, after a testing, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful journey as an aspiring pop star throughout the 60s, Bowie finally gatecrashed the Top 5 at the very end of the decade. ‘Space Oddity’ launched him into the charts by capitalising on the 1969 Moon Landing, even if this atmospheric and unsettling song chronicling the doomed mission of an astronaut lost in space was at odds with the global euphoria that greeted Neil Armstrong’s achievement. It marked him out as one to watch, which must have made it all the more dispiriting for Bowie himself to then follow Major Tom into a black hole and fail to come up with that all-important second hit. At the beginning of the 70s, Bowie vanished off the public radar he’d spent so long trying to be picked up on and his career progressed largely unnoticed by record-buyers; during this period, his restlessness manifested itself as intriguing flirtations with musical trends then prevalent in that uncertain post-Beatles world.

His 1970 album, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’, was an electrifying excursion into the dark heart of Hard Rock, a timely move in a year dominated by Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But Bowie’s exceptional intellect elevated the lyrical concerns of the album above the usual Blues Rock clichés, making for a uniquely original take on a style of music not renowned for highbrow content. Despite featuring the debut of Mick Ronson, the axe-man who would become Bowie’s priceless sidekick for the next three years, Bowie seemed to sabotage any potential success for the LP when he decided to pose for the sleeve wearing a dress. Mick Jagger may have got away with briefly donning a man’s frock in Hyde Park the year before, but he was a household name with carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wanted. Bowie was still only known for the one hit and had yet to build himself a fan-base that could translate into sustained commercial success. An album cover with him resembling a stoned Veronica Lake languidly lounging on the sofa was not one guaranteed to win him the favour of the denim crowd, despite the music on it delivering the goods. It flopped.

The next album, 1971’s ‘Hunky Dory’, tapped into the vogue for the singer-songwriter, with heavy reliance on acoustic guitar and piano. Despite it containing some of his most memorably melodic gems – including ‘Changes’, ‘Oh, You Pretty Things’, and the epic ‘Life on Mars’ – this album also failed to chart upon initial release. But one song on there, the Velvet Underground-influenced adrenalin rush of ‘Queen Bitch’, pointed the way to the future. A promotional visit to the US in which he made the acquaintance of Andy Warhol and Iggy Pop fired Bowie’s imagination and he returned home brimming with ideas for a persona combining the alluring artifice of transsexual Warhol Superstars like Candy Darling with the raw power and theatrical nihilism of The Stooges. Bowie’s wife Angie was a hustler on her husband’s behalf during this crucial stage of his career and her wide circle of outré associates provoked the transformation that was the first step towards the realisation of his new persona. Scissors were taken to Bowie’s flowing locks and the jagged thatch that remained was dyed an unnatural orange. Dragging his backing band into the spotlight, Bowie then generated a group image with outfits inspired by ‘A Clockwork Orange’. The Spiders from Mars were born.

It helped that Bowie was writing new songs at a phenomenal rate. Even before the release of ‘Hunky Dory’, he and the Spiders entered the studio to record them with another album in mind. Loosely linked to form a narrative, the songs told the tale of the character Bowie envisaged as the ultimate rock icon when such figures were pop cultural Gods, Ziggy Stardust. His new image also reflected the growing resurgence of a trashy, old-school rock ‘n’ roll glamour unseen since the heyday of Billy Fury a decade before, and one that was at odds with the fashion as the 70s opened; the music scene then was all about authenticity, rejecting showbiz and looking like a hobo. However, the emergence of former hippie minstrel Marc Bolan as a major chart act in 1971 – scoring two No.1s with his band T. Rex – was another key inspiration for Bowie; Bolan’s music was deliberately primitive yet undeniably invigorating, whilst his image was of a well-groomed androgynous elf; Bolan’s breakthrough opened the floodgates for many acts who became the leading lights of Glam Rock, and for Bowie it convinced him his ingenious idea had a ready-made, hungry audience. He was right, but he also had to convince a sceptical music press.

Casually proclaiming himself bisexual in a Melody Maker interview in early 1972, Bowie sent nervous ripples throughout a music scene still wary of gender-bending despite the great leaps forward of the 60s. But it garnered the outrage, shock, horror and headlines Bowie required as he and the Spiders hit the road and began bringing their exhilarating set-list to the curious kids. The combination of this exotic alien creature quite unlike anything anyone had seen on stage before with a catalogue of riff-tastic instant rock classics was the magic recipe for success Bowie had spent a decade furtively searching for, one that the false dawn of ‘Space Oddity’ made him determined not to let slip through his fingers. None of the attention Bowie’s striking image attracted would have lasted long had he not possessed the musical mettle to back it up, however – and he did.

The release of ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ exactly 50 years ago today was the foundation stone of a commercial career that lasted all the way to Bowie’s premature passing 44 years later. It became the first LP of his to chart in the UK and eventually peaked at No.5 whilst continuing to sell for decades thereafter. Its success was also aided by the single lifted from it, ‘Starman’. Having not troubled the singles charts for three years, viewers with a vague memory of a bubble-haired folkie were left open-jawed when Bowie returned to ‘Top of the Pops’ and unveiled Ziggy before an unprepared nation. As Bowie suggestively slung his arm around Mick Ronson, the shockwaves could be felt in every school playground in Britain the following day; it told many a confused kid it was chic to be a freak and gave them the confidence to follow suit. Many of them took the Bowie template and expanded it when they became glamorous chart regulars themselves a decade later.

The ‘Ziggy’ LP didn’t necessarily break new musical ground in the way Bowie went on to do, but it was a good place to start; by contributing his own intoxicating collision of high and low art to the nascent Glam scene, he enabled the Art School crew of Roxy Music, Sparks and Cockney Rebel to storm the charts and take the sound beyond the more basic appeal of Gary Glitter. Even Lou Reed managed to score a Top 10 hit courtesy of the Bowie connection, and the leper messiah also generously gave Mott the Hoople one of his pivotal numbers of the era, ‘All the Young Dudes’. With such pearls as ‘Five Years’, ‘Hang On To Yourself’, ‘Suffragette City’, ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ and the LP’s title track, Bowie had announced his arrival in style and by the following spring, the release of the ‘Aladdin Sane’ album was heralded with an instant No.1 and a sold-out tour that saw his star in a seemingly unstoppable ascendancy.

The clever move of killing Ziggy on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973 didn’t necessarily mean there wasn’t an afterlife. Ziggy lingered for a good year or so in Bowie’s haircut and music until he finally buried him by embracing ‘Plastic Soul’ in 1975 with the release of ‘Young Americans’. But Ziggy had been Bowie’s Open Sesame to the masses and would never be forgotten either by the generation that fell in love with him first time round or all the generations to come for whom he would prove to be a stellar inspiration. Half-a-century on, it remains yet another landmark in a long-gone age overflowing with them.

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GOD ONLY KNOWS

DaltreyNietzsche may have infamously declared ‘God is dead’ in 1882, but the decades since his incendiary declaration seem to have proven that you can’t keep a good (or bad) God down. Like David Bowie, it would appear He can take many forms; and the kind of worship that was once reserved for stone icons of Christ or the Virgin Mary was gradually transferred to mere mortals as God resurfaced in numerous new guises to suit whatever God the prevailing climate craved. In the second half of the 20th century, God found his most unlikely outlet in the pop cultural figurehead, whose message was transmitted to the young masses via the global communication tools denied the Messiahs of previous epochs. Come the 1960s, young working-class (or lower middle-class) boys who were expected – and were expecting – to follow in their fathers’ footsteps suddenly found themselves in the eye of a fanatical storm that understandably both swelled their own sense of self-importance and left them spiritually empty once undreamed-of riches and material goods were acquired.

In the post-‘Sgt Pepper’ landscape of the late 60s, when Pop had been rebranded as Art, a definite sea-change amongst its leading (and most intelligent) practitioners took place. Yes, the pursuit of female flesh and recreational substance abuse remained high on the list of song subjects, but the revolutionary fervour that gripped the western world from around 1968 onwards reflected a growing awareness by youth of their own potential and powers. Youth turned to their messengers for guidance, and the messengers – who were no more clued-up than their disciples – nevertheless did their best to deliver answers. Rather than advocating an external revolution, however, most turned inwards and sought to make sense of a journey for which there was no roadmap; for some, this was manifested as an embrace of Eastern philosophy. After The Beatles had set the trend by kneeling at the feet of the Maharishi, The Who’s Pete Townshend found his own guru in the shape of Indian mystic Meher Baba; some of what he absorbed then fed into what remains his most popular artistic achievement, the Rock Opera, ‘Tommy’.

Having not seen it for several years, I recently caught Ken Russell’s visual white-knuckle ride that is his 1975 movie of ‘Tommy’ and was instantly aware of how the near-religious following the rock stars of the era attracted was being cleverly addressed on screen. Of course, this was no isolated wakeup call; ‘Privilege’, the 1967 film starring Paul Jones, drew parallels between traditional worship and the new religion of Pop, and faith was reborn as a legitimate vehicle for a hit record with the likes of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’, giving it a hippie makeover that rendered it far cooler than Cliff Richard at his most evangelical. For black artists raised in the Gospel chapel, this was nothing new, though – in the case of, say, Marvin Gaye – it often had to be squared with thoughts of a more carnal nature, making for a fascinating listening experience. By the early 70s, it had spilled over onto Broadway, with the cosmetic counter-culture of ‘Hair’ superseded by ‘Godspell’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, both of which took this premise to the ultimate extreme by portraying Christ himself as the original rock star.

With the so-called ‘Jesus Freaks’ of the period now tainted by the blotted copybook of the Manson Family, the dark side of this new religion not only presented the cults of the Alternative Society in a negative light, but it gave the musical manifestations of what was happening a far sharper edge. Ziggy Stardust was Bowie’s ideal of the ultimate Rock God, comprising all the elements of those who had risen and fallen in the previous decade and cranking them up to eleven; but the fact that the narrator of his 1972 album’s title track admits ‘When the kids had killed the man, I had to break-up the band’ suggests it can only ever end in tears, something that had already been chronicled in ‘Tommy’. When Ken Russell took Townshend’s musical odyssey and placed it on the big screen six years after the release of the LP, the characteristically pessimistic mid-70s setting seemed more relevant to the tragedy of the story than the idealistic 60s, a time when Pete Townshend’s spirit had yet to be blunted by the bottle. There’s a telling sequence in the film where the sick and afflicted are shepherded into a church, praying to an icon of Marilyn Monroe that recreates her famous ‘up-skirt’ pose from ‘The Seven Year Itch’, as though Ken Russell recognised the way in which the mass media had made idols of mortals that, like Christ, were capable of transcending mortality – something mirrored in Tommy’s post-fall ‘resurrection’ at the climax.

Around the time of the movie’s release, the phrase ‘Rock God’ had become common currency to refer to the superstars of the era, though whether Jimmy Page posing with his twin-necked guitar or Robert Plant preening beside him, the conscious attempts of Pete Townshend to somehow deliver a philosophical message to the faithful had been largely abandoned in favour of pure – albeit enjoyably flamboyant – entertainment. Rock had now become a straightforward career choice rather than an accidental spiritual journey. The devotional worship remained, but the search for an answer appeared to have been effectively discarded. When the deliberately primeval Punk Rock gatecrashed the party a year or two later, the more pressing issues confronted by a generation too young to have experienced the seismic shifts of the 60s were favoured over the luxury of pondering ‘Why are we here?’, something that perhaps could only really be asked by a musician once he can sit back and observe the fruits of his labours.

After Punk, the entertainment factor of the most globally successful rock stars became one of their key selling points. Social concerns would periodically surface in the lyrics of less frivolous acts, echoing a recurrent tradition stretching back to Bob Dylan’s ‘Protest’ period; but there were no real further attempts to elevate pop music to Art by seeing it as something on a higher plane than simple self-expression or showbiz. Yes, there was Michael Jackson’s notorious attempt to present himself as the Messiah at the Brit Awards in 1996, though Jarvis Cocker’s impromptu intervention was the perfect antidote to such dubious pretentiousness. And pretentiousness seems to be the usual insult aimed at the period in pop when the likes of ‘Tommy’ were greeted with reverence by broadsheet reviewers. Maybe it simply belonged to a moment impossible to recreate, for that level of intense idolatry had never happened in pop culture before – at least not in quite the same way; okay, so there’d been Valentino and Sinatra and Elvis, but not the self-contained writer, musician and performer bringing their own personal vision to the masses and being put in a position it must have been difficult not to be consumed by.

The Gods of today appear to have been grouped together from a wide range of professions under the umbrella term, ‘celebrity’. They can be actor, athlete, online influencer, model, musician, royalty or reality TV star. The level of attention and scrutiny afforded these usually uninspiring figures can often be quite baffling to those of us who can’t see why any of them – unlike Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison or David Bowie – are remotely interesting. But they supply an evident need for someone to worship in the absence of any form of conventional religion that ticks the same emotional boxes. The God that Nietzsche penned the obituary of may have vanished from the day-to-day lives of most, but He is still with us, and still commanding the adoration of millions. He just wears different trousers these days.

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A LOST ART

Family TVOn the whole, I can think of far preferable sedatives than daytime television; heroin or methadone spring to mind. Daytime TV for me evokes grim images of care home residents slowly succumbing to rigor mortis as they gather dust in sub-tropical temperatures before the small screen, powerless to resist the unremittingly bland diet of soporific sludge that gushes out of every daytime TV pore, leaving the viewer feeling as though they’re being smothered in a sickly-scented cardigan whilst their feet set in a bucket of treacle. Even if one disregards the dreary content, one thing these excuses for entertainment seem to share is the same theme tune – or at least that’s what it sounds like; whilst the themes themselves are as forgettable as the programmes, they all appear to employ those awful ‘synth horns’ that were once the province of Phil Collins hits from the 80s, and each tirelessly upbeat burst of their infantile jollity is akin to being trapped in a lift with a Butlin’s redcoat.

Whilst the paucity of original and gifted minds working today in a once-abundant field of talent such as pop music is regularly discussed, if one widens the net to encompass areas that used to be touched by trends in pop, the dearth of maestros is even more evident – none more so than in another once-abundant field, that of ‘library music’. A deep reservoir of earworms specifically penned for use in commercials or as TV and radio themes, at one time library music – along with specially commissioned themes cut from a similar sonic cloth – provided British viewers and listeners with melodies that simply refuse to go away; many infiltrated our ears as children and they’re still there. Some of the most prolific composers responsible for these persistent portals to happier times are anonymous to all but the most devoted aural archaeologists, even if their body of work stands up as far stronger than anyone ever anticipated when their output was regarded as little more than dispensable Muzak. And, needless to say, it blows the synth horn bots out of the water.

When most vintage rock and soul genres had been plundered and sampled to death by DJs, producers and Hip Hop acts in the 90s, a sudden wave of interest in the untapped riches of archive library music, such as that housed on the books of KPM, led to the so-called ‘Lounge-core’ craze. CD reissues of long-deleted LPs that had spent years in the charity shop bargain bins were suddenly appearing on hip Indie labels, with everything from test card music to novelty noodlings on early synthesizers selling like cult hotcakes. Though the fad passed – as fads do – this ‘ironic’ appreciation of an imaginary soundtrack to an Austin Powers dinner party didn’t erase the nostalgic wave still capable of sweeping over the listener whenever one of the classic library pieces launches a fresh assault on the ears. A warm analogue glow flows through every note and what strikes the listener today is just how well the composers responsible for these tracks managed to take rock elements characteristic of the 60s’ cutting edge and marry them to traditional ‘easy listening’ vibes, producing a uniquely cool hybrid of old and new.

Key musical elements of the Golden Age of library music and theme tunes (the late 60s/early 70s) seem to be fuzzy guitars, the Hammond organ, strings, and lots of horns. Some of the best themes of this era were from the ITC stable of adventure series, as well as the Gerry Anderson shows; whilst John Barry was responsible for some of the former, Barry Gray composed the majority of the latter. A little more well known due to his knack of writing 60s pop hits for Petula Clark and his wife Jackie Trent, Tony Hatch not only worked with the young David Bowie, but his Midas touch gave us memorable themes for ‘Man Alive’, ‘The Champions’, and ‘Sportsnight’ – as well as…er…‘Crossroads’; he also produced a series of future ‘Lounge-core’ classics with his own orchestra. He later became a TV celebrity playing a proto-Simon Cowell alongside the equally sharp-tongued Mickie Most on the panel of the 70s ITV talent show, ‘New Faces’, but it is his musical talents that warrant an inclusion in this particular hall of fame.

Keith Mansfield was a composer who worked extensively in the library world, but also provided the theme tunes for ‘Grandstand’, ‘The Big Match’, and the BBC’s Wimbledon coverage; Johnny Pearson was the leader of both his own Sounds Orchestral band and the Top of the Pops Orchestra (for 15 years), though he composed both library music and numerous memorable TV themes at the same time, including the likes of ‘Captain Pugwash’, ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, and even ‘News at Ten’; Cliff Adams may be remembered with a groan by more than one generation of teenagers waiting for the Sunday Top 40 when leading his silky-smooth singers on ‘Sing Something Simple’, yet his contribution to television came via the commercial break, for which he wrote the jingles we still associate with Murray Mints, Fry’s Turkish Delight, and ‘For mash, get Smash’ amongst numerous others.

Another name worthy of mention is Alan Hawkshaw, who was a brief member of The Shadows before branching out into library music. Several of his library tunes ended up as TV themes, including the smoky organ grooves of ‘Dave Allen at Large’ and – in a weird occurrence that highlighted the non-exclusive nature of library tracks – the tune most of us remember as the original ‘Grange Hill’ theme, yet one which was simultaneously used on an ITV schools series called ‘Alive and Kicking’ as well as ‘Give Us A Clue’; also, though Cliff Adams wrote it, it was Hawkshaw and his band who performed the Bond-esque theme that accompanied the well-remembered ads ending with the tagline, ‘And all because the lady loves Milk Tray’.

Many of the tunes associated with this productive era that found their way onto television or radio as themes with a surprising longevity were put together by musicians with a solid track record in the business, often emanating from a jazz world that didn’t pay half as well as the royalties on a theme tune guaranteed to be aired at least once a week. Take the likes of British jazz legend Johnny Dankworth, for example; he was responsible for the toe-tapping Shepherd’s Bush Bebop of the original ‘Tomorrow’s World’ theme and for ‘Beefeaters’, the tune Tony Blackburn opened with every morning on the first Radio 1 breakfast show between 1967-73. Back then, most radio shows had theme tunes, including the shows of each star DJ to jump ship from the pirates to Radio 1 when it debuted. Library music was regularly called upon to provide them, and many of these tunes have stuck in the memory, even if we can’t always pinpoint their source. They’re all tunes we know, though we may not know where we know them from.

The familiarity of library music from this period is due to the way in which it was widely disseminated across television and radio, just as likely to be found as the start-up theme for an ITV franchise-holder, introducing a schools programme, featuring on a test card or opening a regional Sunday soccer show as it would be on a networked institution such as ‘Mastermind’, which has always begun with an aptly-titled piece named ‘Approaching Menace’ by library composer Neil Richardson. The fact these tunes have remained part of our pop cultural wallpaper and have crept into our collective memory bank with stealth is testament to the depth of unsung talent that once worked in an unsung arena. Easy to dismiss, but not so easy to forget, the melodies these men made are just one more example of how even the most seemingly throwaway elements of what we used to have far outshine the majority of what we have now.

© The Editor

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OLD-SCHOOL TIES

WatermanSad but true – Dennis Waterman is dead, and another one has bitten the dust. Perhaps he can lay claim to being one of the most active actors on vintage TV channels specialising in mining the rich archive of British television via his decade-long stint as a household name via ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Minder’ – stalwarts of the schedules such channels live by. But there was more to Waterman’s CV. Take, for example, ‘Joe’s Ark’, a 1974 ‘Play for Today’ by another Dennis, this one being Potter. Angharad Rees, soon to become better known as Demelza in ‘Poldark’, played a terminally-ill cancer sufferer retreating to the rooms above her father Freddie Jones’s pet shop in Wales to breathe her last. Dennis Waterman played her wayward brother, eking out a seedy living providing a musical accompaniment to strippers in dodgy clubs; Waterman’s character makes his way home to see his sister and build a few bridges with his God-fearing father, but arrives a little too late. It’s one of Potter’s most underrated and moving plays, and Waterman gives a touching performance that would probably surprise those only accustomed to his more beefy roles.

The risk of typecasting was a genuine gamble for actors on television in the 1960s and 70s – one thinks of Harry H Corbett’s tragic failure to evade the long shadow cast by ‘Steptoe and Son’ – so it’s no wonder many successful character actors approached the prospect of a hit series with trepidation, particularly those who were in the process of establishing themselves as familiar faces. Dennis Waterman had been a minor child star – starring in an early 60s TV adaptation of the ‘Just William’ books – and adolescent one-to-watch, making a mark as a young man in the movie version of the celebrated (and controversial) ‘Wednesday Play’ set in his own Clapham backyard, ‘Up the Junction’; but he carved a career for himself as a significant grown-up character actor by appearing in one-off episodes of numerous popular small screen series in the early 70s.

His versatility was apparent by the fact he occasionally ventured into the comedic arena, such as his appearance in a 1973 episode of ‘Man About the House’; by contrast, that same year he also scored a memorable cameo in ‘Special Branch’, the hard-hitting police series produced by Euston Films – the speciality film wing of Thames Television. He’d also appeared as a customarily sinister Gestapo officer in an episode of ‘Colditz’ and in another characteristically labyrinthine Potter play, ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’ as well as the token Hammer horror outing (1970’s ‘Son of Dracula’), which was a rites-of-passage necessity for up-and-coming actors at the time. By this stage of his career, Waterman was certainly being noticed, though as a recognisable face rather than name. However, all that was about to change.

‘The Sweeney’ began life as a TV movie called ‘Regan’, which aired in the ‘Armchair Cinema’ slot on ITV in 1974. The potential for a series was immediately evident, and Dennis Waterman resumed his role as the reluctant second-in-command to John Thaw’s DI Regan when ‘The Sweeney’ went into production a few months later. Debuting on ITV at the beginning of 1975, ‘The Sweeney’ famously rewrote the rulebook in the way the British police force was portrayed on television, and Waterman’s George Carter was the perfect counterpoint to Thaw’s Jack Regan, exuding a less cynical and less grizzled persona than his superior. The two together exhibited a macho chemistry that has ultimately outlived them both, setting the template for a nostalgic, Brut-drenched, buddy-buddy relationship which breezes into contemporary touchy-feely sensibilities as no-nonsense fresh air.

When ‘The Sweeney’ ended in 1978, John Thaw took several years to find a character which could represent his middle age in the same way Jack Regan summed-up his prime. Dennis Waterman, on the other hand, moved on far quicker, but even the character of ex-boxer Terry McCann wasn’t an instant hit. It took a good series-and-a-half before Waterman’s character and the winning dynamic alongside veteran George Cole as Arthur Daley struck a chord with the viewing public, though by the early 80s ‘Minder’ had established itself as one of the UK’s most popular and culturally prescient TV shows. One thing it did do was to extend Waterman’s televisual omnipotence; he even scored a top ten hit with the ‘Minder’ theme tune, ‘I Could Be So Good For You’, in 1980, and he found himself back on ‘Top of the Pops’ three years later via an unlikely Christmas novelty duet with George Cole, ‘What Are We Gonna Get for Er Indoors’.

Whilst starring on ‘Minder’, Dennis Waterman also remained open to other, more intriguing, offers. His passion for the beautiful game inspired an affectionate tribute to football’s amateur beginnings with the 1982 TV movie he himself financed, ‘The World Cup: A Captain’s Tale’, which dramatised the famous triumph of West Auckland FC in winning the first attempt at an international soccer tournament, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, in 1909; he also played a major part in the BBC’s landmark feminist fantasy, ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil’ in 1986. By this time, he had quit ‘Minder’ and starred in several TV series without making the kind of impact he’d previously enjoyed, though he was the ideal host for the retro-football series, ‘Match of the 70s’, which aired on the BBC in 1995-96, tapping into the vogue for the decade Waterman was inexorably linked with; around the same time, renewed interest in ‘The Sweeney’ led to him becoming the programme’s unofficial curator whenever it was profiled on clips shows in the absence of contributions from John Thaw.

Ongoing affection for ‘The Sweeney’ unquestionably played its part in Waterman’s final TV success, ‘New Tricks’, in which he starred from 2003 to 2014; this BBC series focused on a team of ageing ex-police detectives brought back to solve cold cases and featured many familiar faces from the 70s, including in its original line-up James Bolam and Alun Armstrong. Despite the indisputably odd appearance of an unnaturally white set of dentures, Waterman’s strong presence and association with the era the old jacks were supposed to have been prominent coppers in aided the show’s success and contributed to its ultimate longevity; he also once again ‘sang the theme tune’, which was played upon in a typically surreal recurring sketch in ‘Little Britain’ that left Waterman himself more than baffled. At the same time, however, the skit seemed to solidify his enduring place in British TV’s cultural wallpaper.

The cause of Dennis Waterman’s death at the age of 74 has yet to be revealed, though one often formed the impression he was a man who enjoyed life in ways that are now frowned upon by the acting profession; he received two convictions for drunk-driving and was married four times, the most eventful (from a tabloid perspective) being his 11-year relationship with Rula Lenska, one marked by physical violence on Waterman’s part. He was certainly ‘old-school’, though one suspected this was a tag he himself wouldn’t have objected to. Part of the appeal of ‘New Tricks’ was, like ‘Life on Mars’, its knack in reflecting late 20th century generations’ inability to get to grips with the constantly changing unwritten rules and regulations of the 21st century and, in turn, mirroring the audience’s similar confusion at what could and couldn’t be said both in polite company and in the corporate business the police force has morphed into. Dennis Waterman was undoubtedly one of yesterday’s men, though that’s not a criticism; it’s a compliment.

© The Editor

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YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT

Sid ViciousDecimalisation was the default setting in the 1970s blame-game. As the country seemed to slide deeper towards economic oblivion with each passing year, decimalisation could always be relied upon as a regular excuse as to why the UK had been labelled the Sick Man of Europe. Five years after D-Day, when Chancellor Denis Healey endured the humbling and humiliating comedown of crawling cap-in-hand to the IMF, ‘Things have never been the same since decimalisation’ remained a common gripe as the latest crisis reared its ugly head. The Common Market, Ulster, Punk Rock, the Three Day Week, the Winter of Discontent, industrial disputes, immigration, the England football team’s failure to qualify for the World Cup – whatever the problem, it seemed as though all could somehow be traced back to the moment when Albion’s ancient currency was replaced by a suspiciously Continental model in 1971.

However, rising prices – an issue that directly affected the pound in your pocket – tended to be the main factor for which the switch from £sd to decimal was inexorably blamed. Despite the public being bombarded with detailed information and charts that translated old money into new, they remained convinced shopkeepers and innkeepers were rounding up their prices and ripping them off; and Fleet Street stoked this conviction by dreaming up epithets such as ‘decimal diddlers’. Of course, prices had always risen – usually in line with the cost of living; but the pace of prices rising seemed to accelerate from the early 70s onwards, gradually overtaking wages so that by around 1974 many were struggling to budget. TV news footage of shoppers visiting a newfangled supermarket around the time of the Three Day Week features interviews with families comparing the price of foodstuffs to the same month the year before and admitting they’ve had to cut down on their groceries because they simply can’t afford everything on their shopping list from twelve months earlier.

As a child at the time, the best yardstick available to measure where my pocket-money was going came via the increase in the cost of weekly comics. From 1973 to 1979, I witnessed the average cover price of comics go from 5p to 12p, more than doubling in the space of six years; and was it merely coincidence that the traditional practice whereby the price of chocolate bars was printed on the wrapper ceased by the late 70s – presumably because Messrs. Cadbury, Rowntree and Nestlé were embarrassed about how much they’d gone up? Inflation was the 70s curse that Thatcher and Blair had supposedly tackled and then extinguished in the 80s and 90s; and now, like the worst fashion disaster of the past, it’s back with a vengeance.

Over the last month or so, I’ve noticed the cost of certain essentials rise far quicker than is the norm. For example, the butter I buy has gone up from £1.49 to around £1.65, and my preferred milk from £1.80 to £1.95; in fact, dairy products appear to be suffering the highest price increases. Eggs in particular are suddenly more expensive, though an item I caught a snatch of on ‘You and Yours’ the other week suggested most farmers make practically zero profit from eggs; a bout of bird flu requiring them to keep their hens permanently indoors, coupled with a shortage of chicken-feed (a consequence of current events in Eastern Europe, by all accounts) have both contributed towards this state of affairs, and the consumer is feeling the effects as those dependent on agriculture for an income are faced with little option but to charge more.

The Office for National Statistics claims inflation rose from 6.2% in February to 7% in the year to March, reaching the highest point since 1992; food inflation alone stands at 5.8%, with bread experiencing a rise of 5.2%, milk 7.4%, and margarine leading the way with a staggering 34.8% increase in the past year. The same source states that, whilst regular weekly wages have risen by 4% from December last year to February this, adjusting stats for inflation reveals a real terms pay cut of 1% during the same period. When one takes into account the swift increase in the cost of fuel and the astronomical hike in prices on the part of the energy suppliers, food inflation is the latest kick in the teeth for those struggling to make ends meet. A 30-year high in inflation will be especially traumatising to the ill-equipped generations who weren’t around back in the days when inflation and unemployment were the twin economic evils that seemed a permanent obstacle to any attempts at revitalising the nation’s fortunes – evils that the public were schooled in dealing with after several decades of being plagued by them.

To be honest, this turn of events shouldn’t really come as a big surprise; anyone with a clear head could have foreseen it two years ago, when the Government abruptly took it upon itself to shut down industry overnight and confine workers to quarters, paying them pretend wages from a magic money tree that many suspected amounted to little more than an expensive loan. I guess this is payback time for pandemic policies that were destined to return to haunt us before too long – and a vaccine isn’t much insulation against an economic downturn. ‘One in eight adults say they have already gone without heating, water or electricity in the last three months,’ says Joanna Elson, Chief Executive of the Money Advice Trust. ‘With energy, food and fuel prices showing no signs of easing, and national insurance increases hitting pay packets for the first time this month, there is no respite in sight. Urgent action is needed to prevent more people facing impossible choices trying to meet basic needs, and at risk of an increasing burden of debt.’

Other expert voices are adding to the chorus of doom ‘n’ gloom – Karen Betts, Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation, says ‘Food and drink manufacturers are doing all they can…but businesses must also remain viable and the reality of current inflation means that some price increases are having to be passed on.’ Meanwhile, yet another Chief Executive in a long line of them, Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium, says ‘Retailers are trying to help consumers by expanding their value ranges and doing all they can to keep the price of essentials down.’ Jenny Tilwart, Chief Executive of the British Cannibal Association, added ‘We may have reached a time when the rising cost of food coupled with that of paying for the care of the elderly may finally push the hardest hit within society into choosing which grandparent would provide the most nutritional and economically-satisfying meal for a family of four.’ Yeah, okay, I made that last one up; but nothing really feels too far-fetched anymore.

Perhaps more than ever, it pays to keep an eye on the ‘reduced’ section of the supermarket, where marked-down goods poised to pass their sell-by dates can offer a genuine and affordable bargain for even the most penny-pinched of households; equally, vegetables remain amongst the cheapest of foodstuffs, and provide the prospect of a hearty and healthy dinner for those who can actually be arsed cooking it. Considering the plethora of reading material and TV programmes produced by professional chefs out there, one would like to think the nation has rejected the easy option of the microwavable meal or the frozen filler and has reverted back to the traditional method of feeding the family; but one suspects such hand-me-down lessons haven’t been handed down for at least a couple of generations – if the expanding waistlines brought about by the fast-food revolution are anything to go by, anyway. At the same time, it’s hard not to be aware that some supermarket shelves are rather threadbare at the moment, and whichever hot topic you prefer to hold responsible – Brexit, the pandemic, Ukraine – the situation seems set to continue for the immediate future; speaking personally, I believe things have never been the same since decimalisation.

© The Editor

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AS IF BY MAGIC…

Mr BennKyiv, Paris or London – any would suffice as a suitable location in which to set this post, as all three are currently monopolising the headlines. I’ll opt for the latter city, though not 11 Downing Street as an address (or non-address). After all, the official residence of a politician who was oddly just as wealthy back when he was dishing out ‘Rishi’ll Fix It’ badges to a furloughed workforce as he is now (when he isn’t quite so popular) is not the subject to catch my eye, nor is his other half who (again) was just as sly at evading taxes this time two years ago as she was until caught out today. No, when it comes to the capital I think I’ll instead head for 52 Festive Road. Anyone between the ages of roughly 30-60 will recognise the street; it was the home of a certain Mr Benn. His Christian name was not Tony, though his Christian name was never actually revealed; in that wonderfully old-school British tradition, his chosen gender pronoun was always the name everyone knew him by.

Along with Gordon Murray’s ‘Trumptonshire’ trilogy, ‘The Herbs’ and ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, ‘Mr Benn’ was one of the new wave of BBC TV’s ‘Watch with Mother’ programmes at the turn-of-the-70s that capitalised on the innovation of colour television and propelled the early afternoon pre-school slot into the fresh decade and beyond; by producing these shows in colour at a time when the majority of households remained rooted in monochrome, the makers of the said programmes were looking to the future, safe in the knowledge that their productions would survive repeat runs for the next ten or twenty years whilst established mainstays such as ‘The Flowerpot Men’ and ‘The Woodentops’ would bite the black & white dust as the Beeb sought to sell their 625-line baby to the masses for the imminent era. ‘Mr Benn’ debuted in the same month Britain went decimal and was to stay a fixture of the post-lunchtime landscape until the early 1990s.

It’s a testament to the changing nature of children’s television that – although appearing in glorious full colour – ‘Mr Benn’ largely consisted of a series of static illustrations that the rostrum camera panned along during each episode; animation was kept to a strict minimum, yet the audience’s disbelief was nevertheless able to be suspended throughout. There was no need for the constant prodding of the attention span back then, unlike the iPad earworm that the child opposite me on a train journey the other day required in order to keep her sedated; that the rest of the passengers within her immediate radius had to endure what sounded like a succession of Munchkin nursery rhymes set to high-speed Ibiza b.p.m.s highlighted the difference between the cherished, private experience of ‘Watch with Mother’ in the front room womb half-a-century ago and today’s cynical corporate equivalent that is imposed upon external environments, regardless of the general public’s irritation.

‘Mr Benn’ was created by the writer and illustrator David McKee, whose character had originally surfaced on the printed page four years before his TV debut in 1971. McKee passed away at the grand old age of 87 last week and his legacy to successive generations of children seems secure. His evergreen 1968 book ‘Elmer the Patchwork Elephant’ was written as a response to racist abuse aimed in the direction of his Anglo-Indian wife and mixed-race daughter in a less-enlightened age; after years as a consistent best-seller, a series of sequels appeared, and the character is particularly popular in the present day, cited as an embryonic example of the ‘diversity’ factor so beloved by publishers of children’s literature in the 21st century. Regardless of whichever Identity Politics demographic has claimed it now, the original book celebrates difference in a way that has a timeless relevance to kids without the need for an accompanying lecture on behalf of any contemporary ‘inclusivity’ agenda. Mr Benn as a character, by contrast with Elmer, is very much an ‘everyman’ representing the anonymity of the era in which he appeared.

Dressed in a suit and bowler hat, Mr Benn was in tune with the antiquated idea of what an everyman represented at the time of his conception, though the fact that few men dress that way today means his conventional uniform has subsequently become his own unique look as distinctive as any superhero costume. Mr Benn’s profession is never specified or referenced, yet by wearing the classic ensemble of the City Gent, one assumes he works in some dreary stockbroker’s office that necessitates a daily commute. What we instead dip into is Mr Benn’s home life; the fact he doesn’t seem to be a married man suggests he has little time for romancing and relies upon his imagination to sustain him in the absence of a spouse. It is with this in mind that we routinely join him on a trip to an obscure fancy dress shop hidden down a side-street, one he is drawn to as an escape from the banal, humdrum life surrounding him on the terraced normality of Festive Road.

Precisely how the fancy dress shop in question ever makes a profit is another unanswered conundrum, as no other customers are ever seen on the premises. Indeed, the man forever known simply as ‘the shopkeeper’ is himself somewhat invisible until he appears ‘as if by magic’ whenever Mr Benn takes a shine to a particular outfit and requests a visit to the changing room. Dressed rather eccentrically in a purple waistcoat, bow-tie, John Lennon ‘granny glasses’ and fez, the shopkeeper is both the facilitator of Mr Benn’s imaginative escapades and the man who curtails them. Where he can be found during the lengthy period between the shop’s sole customer slipping into his fancy dress and then deciding he won’t buy or hire the bloody thing after all is one of life’s great mysteries that it’s probably wise to not explore any further. Suffice to say, the shopkeeper magically reappearing whenever Mr Benn’s latest adventure is nearing its end is as much of a guarantee as night following day.

Dreaming up the fancy dress shop as a gateway to said adventures was one of David McKee’s genius strokes when it comes to this particular character; Mr Benn ventures into the changing room, dons the costume of the week and then wanders from changing room to outdoor location in Narnia-fashion. The location always fits the chosen costume, so if Mr Benn tries on a suit of armour he finds himself in a medieval kingdom; if he slips into an astronaut’s uniform he finds himself in outer space; if he’s dressed as a clown he finds himself in a circus ring and so on. Every child’s imagination takes them to such places whenever they wear the appropriate garb, and Mr Benn lives out their fantasies every episode. The clever twist to blur the lines between fantasy and reality is that Mr Benn never fails to find a souvenir of his adventure once he returns home, planting the exciting idea in the viewers’ heads that he may well just have experienced the adventure for real after all.

‘Mr Benn’, as with all the other ‘Watch with Mother’ shows that had a remarkable longevity, only consisted of 13 initial episodes that forever felt like so much more because they were repeated on a loop for years. Indeed, the enduring popularity of the series eventually resulted in David McKee producing a brand new episode in 2004 for the Nickelodeon network in which his hero emulated the success of ‘Gladiator’ by returning to the fancy dress shop and finding himself in a Roman arena. Every effort was made to slot this new instalment into the narrative of the classic series by recreating the nostalgic ambience of the original, none more so than the revival of the memorable theme tune and incidental music by the jazz musician and composer Duncan Lamont. Happily – unlike rock band reunions – it worked.

‘Mr Benn’ retains a charm characteristic of all the programmes presented under the ‘Watch with Mother’ banner, exuding an innocence emblematic of better days; whether those better days were real or imagined is irrelevant. Like the souvenir Mr Benn always locates in his pocket after the adventure is over, what matters is whether we believe or not. Thanks to the imagination of David McKee – and the golden vocal chords of narrator Ray Brooks – we can believe whenever we revisit an episode. RIP.

© The Editor

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ALL THE WAY FROM PRESTON

Nairn 1Retracing the steps of the late, great architectural critic Ian Nairn is a tricky proposition that one has to plot carefully; take it too far and you’d end up drinking yourself to death as the man himself did at the age of 52 in 1983. His fondness for the public house, about which he wrote with such eloquent verve (especially in his classic 1966 guide to the capital, ‘Nairn’s London’), proved to be his downfall, bringing to a premature end a career that illuminated both the printed page and the television screen in the 60s and 70s. A superbly witty, poetic and passionate writer on architecture and environment, Nairn had sprung to prominence in the mid-50s with his acclaimed ‘Outrage’ edition of the ‘Architectural Review’ magazine, establishing the concept of Subtopia as a dreary development on the post-war landscape and adding his name to the list of the decade’s Angry Young Men.

Although the criminally few books he authored are worth investing in as an example of his skills, the majority of his writing could be found in the Observer in the 60s and then the Sunday Times in the 70s. By this time, he’d also begun a TV career, presenting several idiosyncratic, eccentric and thought-provoking series for the BBC that showcased him as a highly original and refreshingly individual voice. Nairn as a presenter is not a television natural, but his emotional response to the always-intriguing and never-obvious locations he chose to introduce to the viewer can be a compelling experience. His often lugubrious demeanour depended upon whether or not filming took place before or after opening hours, but when his hackles are raised by a depressingly predictable piece of ill-advised town planning characteristic of the era, it regularly appears as though he’s poised to burst into tears, so incensed is he by the loss of a building he evidently adores.

Buildings like the quirky Emporium Arcade in Northampton, which he praised and regarded as worthy of preservation, were swept away despite his pleas; and perhaps the most moving moment of his TV output came when he stood in the gutted carcass of Bolton’s St Saviour church and railed against the men responsible for its imminent demolition. ‘We talk about football vandalism,’ he says in quivering tones. ‘I don’t quite know how you would categorise the vandalism of the yobbos who did this; it makes me ashamed to be part of the same branch of biology.’ It’s as though the ruination of what he describes as one of the town’s ‘most noblest churches’ is the final blow to any hope he still harboured, reducing him to a tragic, Lear-like figure, close to breakdown as he roams from one wasteland to another. It’s rare to see a man’s soul laid bare in such a manner, and when it seemed so many of his heartfelt pleas to the developers to think again constantly fell on deaf ears, it’s reasonable to theorise – as many have – that his weariness with fighting a losing battle accelerated his slide into terminal alcoholism.

The segment in St Saviour church was part of a series Nairn presented in which he visited six unfashionable destinations more familiar as names on a pools coupon than for their architecture; each programme was a game of two halves as he contrasted a pair of ‘football towns’ by selecting places in them that he regarded as notable and interesting. The Bolton edition was coupled with a visit to Preston, with Nairn beginning at the North End home of its historical football club and then working his way into the town centre. Having watched this edition numerous times over the years – and so few of his TV programmes are available that one tends to view the same small number – I found myself in Preston last week, and it was inevitable I sought out the locations he had highlighted, wondering whether or not they’d improved or deteriorated in the half-century that had elapsed since his visit.

Although Preston is now officially a city, it still has the feel of a classic provincial town built on 19th century industry, albeit one with the ambition that eventually resulted in its promotion to that of metropolis. That ambition can be seen in the Guild Hall, a modern (1972) building Nairn singled out as a fine example of Preston’s refusal to rest on its Victorian laurels. Much of the original redbrick exterior of the Guild Hall has subsequently been clad in wood to perhaps bring it into line with contemporary tastes, though the confidence the building exudes, one that so caught Nairn’s eye, remains. Nairn’s judgement was never clouded by simple nostalgia; he was just as eager to celebrate the best of the new as he was to preserve the best of the old, and his enthusiasm for Preston’s modernist bus station is typical of how he could see the good in an edifice many traditionalists might have greeted with disdain. Bar one or two alterations to the outside, the dramatic sweeping concrete curves housing the multi-storey car-park above the bus station are intact.

Amongst Preston’s ‘heritage’ buildings to have happily survived is its distinctive market hall, which Nairn rightly praised due to its half-in/half-out appearance, with the cast iron roof protruding out into the street and open to the elements; a collection of market stalls which stood on the pedestrianised square in front of the town’s impressive slice of classic Victorian civic pride, the Harris Art Gallery and Museum, has now gone; but the square itself – including a towering cenotaph – seems largely untouched. When Nairn was there, the town centre was undergoing the introduction of a frustrating one-way system, which appears to discourage the sightseer from travelling around it as a motorist; the best way to really explore the place, as Nairn discovered, is on foot. And one of the best things about Preston from the point of view of the pedestrian is the fact that all the areas Nairn visited are within a short walking distance of each other. A side-street off the main shopping thoroughfare, which is now wholly pedestrianised, leads to a unique public square – a ‘sunken’ one.

Rather than the flat, neat Georgian squares one associates with London, Winkley Square was deliberately not levelled out and left as nature intended. A tranquil little oasis that provides office workers with a bucolic interlude from the urban hustle and bustle, it serves as a prelude to what is probably Preston’s best-kept secret just round the corner – and this was a location Nairn only gives a brief glimpse of on screen. For all the current (and clueless) fashion for portraying the Victorians as one-dimensional imperial heathens, there’s no disputing the lasting legacy they left on Britain’s best towns and cities, none more so than one of their most necessary innovations intended to be enjoyed by everyone, the public park; and Preston’s Avenham Park is one of the finest in the land. Outside of the capital, it’s quite unusual to find such a vast green space smack bang in a city centre rather than out in the suburbs, and the mere snippet that appears on Nairn’s ‘Football Towns’ series gives no real indication of the sheer scale of that space when one actually sets foot in it. It’s also clear from the 1970s programme that a good deal of loving restoration has taken place since the great man took a look at it; an imposing statue of three-times 19th century Lancastrian Prime Minister the Earl of Derby is included in the roll-call of sights to see, and the longest-serving leader of any British political party (22 years) did set me wondering if statues of any current party leaders might one day grace such a space. Somehow, I doubt it.

Ian Nairn ends his summary of Preston and Bolton by recommending the viewer makes the effort to visit these neglected towns and I’m pleased to say that, 30-odd years after my initial viewing of the programme, I finally made the effort. I may have been standing on the shoulders of a giant, but I did so sober, and the Gods shone down on me with an early burst of spring sunshine that made the jaunt all the more memorable. I can think of worse ways to spend a weekend.

© The Editor

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SAILING BY

James and ElizabethYes, it’s a bit windy at the moment – even if a few sheds ripped away from their Home Counties moorings don’t exactly suggest a ‘twister’ of the kind that cuts a devastating swathe through various American States every once in a while. At least the wind was once a friend to the sailor, though, providing what would today be called an eco-friendly fuel back in the age of the sailing ships that explored the globe and helped build the Empire. In a way, I’m a typical land-lubber in that I tune in to the Shipping Forecast for the romantic roll-call, but my personal experience of a life on the ocean waves has been restricted to a cross-channel ferry and a one-off fishing trip in a motor boat over 40 years ago. Perhaps therein lies the enduring appeal of one notable absentee from my occasional Winegum retrospectives on 1970s TV shows that constitute a high proportion of my DVD viewing time, one currently being revisited after a gap of several years – albeit not quite as many years since it pioneered the Sunday evening pre-watershed drama slot that has subsequently become home to ‘Antiques Roadshow’.

Unless it’s of the sugar-coated ‘Call the Midwife’ variety, the big money splashed out on BBC drama is now channelled into series very much aimed at an exclusively adult audience. Pre-watershed, the post-nuclear family – in all its numerous permutations – has to settle for the output of actors and writers who still look and sound like they belong in the am-dram wasteland of afternoon soaps. Perhaps the change in viewing habits and the increasingly unlikely scenario of all age groups sitting down to watch a programme together at the same time has led to this sorry state of affairs. Not so fifty years ago, when standards were extremely high across the schedules and a series intended for every member of the household was not some throwaway melodrama forgotten as soon as the closing credits rolled, but a compelling saga boasting actors and writers of a calibre comparable to anything aired later in the evening.

Created by experienced television writer Cyril Abraham, ‘The Onedin Line’ spanned almost a decade, setting sail in 1971 and finally dropping anchor for good in 1980. Only three members of the original cast lasted the voyage, though one of them was the leading man of the series, an actor previously famed for more comic portrayals. However, as when Jon Pertwee proved himself a more than capable action hero upon donning the flamboyant ensemble of the third Doctor Who, Peter Gilmore commanded such a charismatic dramatic presence when strolling the deck as James Onedin, it was hard to believe this was the same man who’d ogled Barbara Windsor in ‘Carry on Camping’. As a character, James Onedin is arrogant, obstinate, brash and belligerent, a risk-taking gambler when it comes to business, and a born fighter – essentially in possession of all the qualities that could be found in every real-life self-made man who rapidly rose through the ranks in Victorian society because he knew how to make money.

James Onedin emanated from shop-keeping stock, his father being a chandler by the Liverpool docks; like many a young man at the time with a craving to see beyond his narrow horizons, the lure of a sailor’s life was too much of a temptation for Onedin and he left his pompous, penny-pinching brother Robert to inherit the family business. Taking the king’s shilling as a soldier or starting one’s working life as a cabin boy in the merchant navy were more or less the only options open to those from humble origins if one wanted to see something of the world; and for all its dangers, the sea was a more attractive prospect than the foreign field of conflict. The Industrial Revolution had opened another door for the entrepreneurial working-classes and James Onedin’s desire to emulate the wealthy ship-owners employing him as a captain is where we join the story; eager to found his own line, he eyes a ship for sale, though his efforts to negotiate with the retired old soak selling it flounder until Captain Webster’s daughter Anne makes James an offer: he can have the ship if he marries her. To the shock of his family, the unsentimental Onedin agrees to what he himself sees as a purely business arrangement.

Anne Onedin is played beautifully by Anne Stallybrass (later to become Mrs Peter Gilmore). The ‘Plain Jane’ left on the shelf who seizes her last opportunity for marriage by including herself in the sale of her father’s ship faced a fate common to many women at the time, yet against the odds a genuine affection swiftly develops between the unlikely couple. Anne becomes James’s conscience, curbing his often fiery temper and forcing him to moderate his occasionally uncaring attitude to those around him; she rapidly wins over the sceptical Onedin family and also finds favour with James’s long-term second-in-command, the gruff, no-nonsense Captain Baines. Baines (played by veteran whiskered thespian Howard Lang) is one of the era’s most memorable TV characters as the plain-talking old sea dog with a stronger moral code than Onedin himself. Along with Jessica Benton as James’s flirty sister Elizabeth, Baines helps give the series its dramatic colour, elevating it above the cast of cardboard cut-outs and Identity Politics ciphers that pepper today’s primetime equivalent.

Elizabeth Onedin eventually rises through the ranks with a speed that often exceeds that of her elder brother. After an ill-fated marriage to the son of a rival shipping magnate, she inherits a competing line to the Onedin one and then finally marries the man who impregnated her out of wedlock, Daniel Fogarty. When he is gradually honoured for his charitable works, she becomes Lady Fogarty, though her wandering eye for a bit of rough (usually in possession of facial hair) never wavers.

As the series moves on, the years pass (1860 to 1886 is the actual timeline covered). In the beginning, steam ships are an expensive experimental novelty; by the end, the characters are employing the telephone as a tool of communication, and politics of the time occasionally intervene, such as the American Civil War or the occupation of Paris by the Communards; it is this gentle albeit not intrusive social history element that gives ‘The Onedin Line’ an added appeal. For example, I’d never have known guano (i.e. bird-shit) had once been such a valuable commodity as fertiliser if it weren’t for ‘The Onedin Line’. The passing of time also enables a ‘Forsyte Saga’ aspect to develop as the offspring of the original Onedin dynasty move centre stage in the later series, becoming major characters in their own right.

As with any long-running drama, a degree of repetition does begin to creep in as the series progresses. James routinely loses a fortune, but always manages to make it back again. A wealthy villain regularly moves into town and befriends various members of the Onedin family in order to ruin our hero and seize control of the shipping empire – a generic character played in different series by the likes of Ed Devereaux, Warren Clarke and Frederick Jaeger; and for all his obsession with profit, James Onedin proves himself to be no slouch where the fairer sex are concerned. Following the genuinely moving (and somewhat premature) death of Anne in childbirth, Onedin eventually marries his daughter’s nanny Letty (played by Jill Gascoine) and takes a new bride in the shape of the exotic Margarita come the final series when Letty passes away off-camera (whilst Gascoine crossed channels to front ‘The Gentle Touch’).

Dismissed by some as little more than a costume drama soap, ‘The Onedin Line’ has considerably more to offer than the usual, tiresome litany of ‘issues’ as it documents the fierce competitive circles 19th century empire-builders moved in and the effect they had on their nearest and dearest. A compelling cast of characters and the never-dull drama of the high seas rarely had a more fitting outlet than this archive gem.

© The Editor

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NAME THAT FACE

MasksAs from today none of us will see 2021 again, though the annual clearout of famous names that the final fortnight of every year always seems to indulge in means some haven’t lived to see 2022. In the last two or three weeks, those added to the roll-call of the deceased include author Anne Rice, journalist and essayist Joan Didion, architect Richard Rogers, cricketing legend Ray Illingworth, anti-apartheid crusader Desmond Tutu, broadcaster Janice Long, and actor Jack Hedley. Perhaps the latter is one of those whose face is more familiar than his name, though he played a prominent part in the BBC’s celebrated ‘Colditz’ in the early 70s, taking the role of Lieutenant Colonel Preston, senior British officer at the infamous PoW camp. Hedley enjoyed several masterful and occasionally moving exchanges with the camp kommandant (played by Bernard Hepton), a difficult relationship that eventually developed into mutual respect. Hedley later graduated to the leading role (following the untimely death of original choice Peter Finch) in the 1977 BBC mini-series set in Crete, ‘Who Pays the Ferryman?’, though he remained essentially a character actor in a supporting slot thereafter.

As has been mentioned here before in reference to several British TV dramas of the 1970s that have routinely constituted my evening viewing habits via box-sets, in that decade there was a virtual television repertory company of actors without whom no such series would have been possible. If you watch enough of them, the same faces keep cropping up time and time again and each tends to fulfil a particular archetype that both face and voice fit. There are some with the correct accent and ‘breeding’ which means they’re guaranteed to play upper-class characters – military men, members of the peerage and so on; others will forever be cast as stiff, humourless authority figures along the lines of headmasters or senior police officers, whereas some are destined to always be petty criminals and lowly villains, either from the burly and beefy school who talk with their fists or those belonging to the ducking-and-diving dodgy geezer brand – the kind who would act as ‘snouts’ for DI Regan and other proper coppers of the era.

Take an actor like Ron Pember – you probably don’t know the name, but you’ll most definitely know the face if you watched TV forty or fifty years ago or have seen output from that period since. Thin in hair and build, the tight-lipped, dog-end-smoking cockney character actor with the nasal drawl and darting eyes was never going to be cast as the head of MI5 or the Prime Minister. He simply had the ideal face and voice for the parts he played to perfection on screen for the best part of thirty years. You want the shifty landlord of a rough East End boozer? Call Ron Pember. You want the proprietor of a shabby cabbie’s café whose speciality was milky tea? Call Ron Pember. You want an ex-con to welcome home another ex-con just released from the Scrubs? Call Ron Pember. Ron Pember must have appeared in every bloody British TV series produced in the 70s, particularly those set in and around the London area. No series worth watching was worth its salt without him in at least one episode, and though his only regular role as the member of an ensemble cast seems to have been in the BBC’s wartime drama, ‘Secret Army’ (1977-79), he was a semi-regular in ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ throughout the series’ lengthy run (1978-92).

One interesting, if overlooked, series produced in 1972 had the genius idea of bringing together some of the hardest-working character actors of the era and giving them rare leading roles. London Weekend’s ‘Villains’ was a 13-part drama dealing with an audacious bank robbery characteristic of the times. In an impressively-structured narrative that wouldn’t be out of place in a Netflix series today, each episode tends to focus on the individual fortunes of the gang members both before and after the bank job as well as how they fare following a mass break-out staged whilst travelling from the nick to an Old Bailey appeal hearing. The pair of old lags who organise the job (which requires drilling into the vaults of the bank from a derelict underground public convenience next-door) are played by two of the decade’s most visible character actors, David Daker and William Marlowe, both of whom have the well-earned opportunity to show just how good they are when gifted the chance to seize centre stage. What’s also interesting about ‘Villains’ is that it features two future stars who eventually relocated from the ranks of TV rep to leading roles in their own right, Martin Shaw and Bob Hoskins. Even Paul Eddington makes an appearance as an especially seedy solicitor.

Of course I’m digressing into the nostalgically familiar, but it’s increasingly preferable to loitering in the here and now. And 1 January seems as good a time as any to do so. After all, when does a new year ever really open with a bang that isn’t merely a firework display? It’s always ushered in with a whimper. And whereas Xmas episodes of these classic shows are relatively abundant, instalments with a New Year theme are thinner on the ground, though ‘Softly Softly: Task Force’ produced a memorable one as the 1960s hit midnight for the very last time and the 1970s began its ten-year tenancy. In the real world, 1969 had been a culturally significant year, where Woodstock and the Moon Landing shared space with the arrest and conviction of the Kray Twins; in Thamesford, however, the leading criminal act in the closing moments of the decade was rather less dramatic.

The instantly recognisable Victor Maddern, another notable member of the 1970s TV rep company, appeared in this particular ‘Task Force’ episode as an opportunistic thug masterminding the theft of several tyres from Thamesford Police’s HQ on 31 December right under the nose of the pissed-up Force itself – including Mr Barlow. Maddern and his distinctively craggy countenance were immortalised on a well-known ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ outtake in which he stumbled over his lines several times – ‘It’s at Dock Green Dick…no, it’s at Dick Green Dock’ – and he also regularly played the son-in-law of a cantankerous old git on ‘The Dick Emery Show’ back in the day. Again, he was one more must-have character actor that most significant shows of the 70s would be incomplete without. And, as Barry Norman used to say, why not?

As far as I’m aware, none of these familiar faces ever received any of the notable titles and accolades afforded the elite clique of grand thespians; none became Lords or Knights – there was no Baron Pember of Plaistow or Sir Victor Maddern. Yet, bereft of supporting characters, few of the performers who received knighthoods or dame-hoods could have ascended the dizzying heights of the New Years Honours List. They always needed actors resembling mortals to make them seem far more beautiful and talented than they actually were. Perhaps, however, the tawdry prize-giving that the Honours List has descended into has meant those without the kind of gongs dished out to the likes of Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam for being the Mike and Bernie Winters of scaremongering actually stand far taller as a consequence.

A giant of the stage such as Paul Scofield repeatedly rejected the ‘Sir’ prefix, as did David Bowie. One can’t help but think of Groucho Marx’s famous assertion that he wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have him as a member; and considering some of the dubious characters one would be bracketed alongside by accepting a Knighthood, maybe there’s far more honour in declining it. Anyway, if nothing else, ending this first post of 2022 by blending a story that combines one of today’s news headlines with a celebration of obscure actors from the past suggests it will be business as usual on here for the fun-packed twelve months we’ve got to look forward to.

© The Editor

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

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FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Editor

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

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