CRIME TRAVELLING

A week consisting of Brexit negotiations threatening to rival ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ in the long, drawn-out tedium stakes; a red sky overturning the old farmer’s saying by transforming it into an end-of-the-world-is-nigh omen; and our boys in blue plumbing unprecedented depths, taking to the streets in fancy dress as a contrived distraction from rising crime figures (‘social workers with Tasers’ as someone aptly described them on Twitter). Jesus, it’s no wonder I’ve sought escapism when it comes to offline downtime; and I’ve taken a route which is my own reliable visual equivalent of comfort food.

The last time this country felt this grim for many was at the end of the 1970s, and though the Winter of Discontent even impinged upon my pre-pubescent existence via a lorry drivers’ strike affecting the distribution of comics to the local newsagent’s, I can honestly say I’d rather be there than here. Having never passed my Tardis driving test, I have to make do with travelling back in time via the dependable DVD box-set; current flavour-of-the-month is the BBC’s downbeat gumshoe drama from 1979/80, ‘Shoestring’. The series accurately captures the weariness at the winding-down of what had been a testing decade, yet there’s something undeniably appealing about its atmosphere of stoic refusal to succumb to the kind of histrionic panic that runs through contemporary discourse – a resignation, yes, but not a surrender.

The title character of Eddie Shoestring, played with charismatic understatement by the then-unknown Trevor Eve, is undoubtedly a victim of his times, though triumphing over his demons without pleading for sympathy epitomises a certain unfussy British characteristic we appear to have subsequently lost. Eddie is recovering from a mental breakdown that occurred during his career ‘working in computers’; his rehabilitation at a clinic saw him devour pulp fiction, which in turn opened up a new career path as a private detective. Successfully utilising what would now probably be diagnosed as latent autism, Eddie’s unique talents are spotted by a local radio station; Radio West’s debonair manager Don Satchley (played by British acting stalwart Michael Medwin) senses a novel ratings winner and hires Eddie as the station’s ‘private ear’, inviting listeners to request Eddie’s services in the hope the cases will eventually make for an intriguing broadcast.

Eddie lodges with a sexy legal eagle called Erica, with whom he has a casual on-off bedtime relationship, though the viewer gets the impression Eddie really isn’t bothered too much by any of that stuff. Work is what really brings out the best in him. His slovenly appearance and cavalier disregard for authority complements his genuine compassion for the little people whose problems he endeavours to solve; and, like the unfairly-maligned ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ before it, it is the little people that ‘Shoestring’ focuses on. Contrasting with the macho bluster of ‘The Sweeney’ (which ended the year before ‘Shoestring’ debuted) and ‘The Professionals’ (which ITV scheduled in direct competition to the Beeb’s unconventional sleuth), the series has a human and humane regard for those who are often overlooked in life, let alone TV dramas. Character is central to the plot of each episode, and the lead is a fascinating, vulnerable individual ideal for a premise that wouldn’t work with a Regan, a Carter, a Bodie or a Doyle.

The series was based and mainly shot in the West Country, providing a refreshing alternative to the usual London locations then predominant in home-grown drama; there may be a trumpeted trend to shoot series outside of the capital on television today, though Manchester and Cardiff are shot through the same Dystopian lens as London, portraying them with indistinguishable urban clichés which makes one wonder why film crews bother exiting Watford Gap. ‘Shoestring’ also gives a distinctly British twist to the quirky private eye genre which was almost exclusively American at the time, with the likes of Rockford and Columbo still on their original runs. It gave early breaks to actors who would carve out glittering careers (I spotted Daniel Day-Lewis in one episode) as well as established actors nearing the end of their careers – and their lives – such as Harry H Corbett and Diana Dors.

‘Shoestring’ occasionally dips its toes into the pop culture of the era in which it was made. Toyah Willcox features heavily in an episode, playing a ‘punk singer’, ably assisted by an impressive supporting cast including the likes of Gary Holton, Peter Dean, Christopher Biggins, Lynda Bellingham and even Mick Jagger’s brother Chris. The only other series at the turn-of-the 80s that evokes the period with the same blend of charm and cynicism is ‘Minder’, which coincidentally aired for the first time that same autumn of 1979. However, unlike Dennis Waterman and George Cole’s vehicle, which was something of a slow-burner, ‘Shoestring’ was an overnight success, undeniably aided by the ITV strike of August-October 1979, which gave the series a massive ratings head-start when ITV was its sole competitor.

Yes, the cars – Eddie drives a battered Cortina estate – and the fashions are portals to another country, as is the soundtrack; with its radio station setting, the series is peppered with hits from 1979/80, a chart era especially rich in memorable pop. But there’s something about ‘Shoestring’ that makes it particularly attractive in 2017. It’s not just the look and the sound of the series; it’s also the fact that the characters are likeable and believable. A lot of that is down to the cast, but it’s also down to the solid writing from experienced telly hacks as well as skilled newcomers, both graduates from the BBC when its role was that of a creative university, training talent to do what it said on the tin with panache and personality. There’s a welcome absence of that strain of TV writing today that bludgeons and baffles viewers with storylines trying hard to be clever and complex when they’re actually self-indulgent exercises in abysmally emulating Nordic and American styles.

Trevor Eve’s theatrical and cinematic ambitions curtailed ‘Shoestring’ after just two seasons, and even though Eve retrospectively regrets he didn’t make at least one more series, the fact the programme ended when it did preserves it in a specific moment we shall never see again – a moment in which milkmen were still on the dawn streets to witness a murder, and a moment when private eyes couldn’t be contacted when out on an investigation until they passed a phone-box and rang home. So, tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1979, in the company of Eddie Shoestring.

© The Editor

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STATION TO STATION (1)

A week from today will mark half-a-century since the day the nation’s stations received the most comprehensive facelift in their history; and, lest we forget, fifty years ago we only had three national radio stations. Yes, there were the pirates, though they – bar Caroline – were poised to sail away into the sunset; officially, the country had just the Light Programme, the Home Service and the Third Programme. There were no local BBC stations, and the Independent Local Radio network was still six years away. Once the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act sank the pirate ships, listeners were left with Luxembourg and its erratic reception if they sought an alternative to the BBC’s wireless output.

If one is to credit pirate radio with one thing it really should be giving the kiss of life to an ailing medium. From being very much the poor relation before the war, television had gathered pace with the arrival of ITV in 1955 and by the early 60s had usurped radio as the people’s choice. In response, all the BBC’s creative energies were directed towards TV and radio was left to its own devices, with only the Third Programme receiving special treatment courtesy of its high standing in the artistic community. Listening figures were plummeting and it didn’t help that, with Britain the epicentre of a pop revolution conquering the globe, BBC radio’s concession to the revolution was limited to the likes of ‘Saturday Club’ and ‘Pick of the Pops’.

Belated recognition that the BBC needed to reflect the changing climate on the airwaves led to plans being hatched for a new addition to the existing trio of national stations. But it wasn’t simply a case of the Beeb replicating what the pirates had done so successfully since 1964; Musicians Union rules over needle time meant the in-house BBC orchestras that provided so much of the light ‘mood music’ that had soundtracked the daily chores of the housewife for a couple of decades were not going to be disbanded overnight. A BBC idea of a pirate radio station risked being the aural equivalent of a pipe-smoking, cardigan-clad dad dancing around the living room to The Jimi Hendrix Experience or the Light Programme in a kaftan. Live music was going to be as much a staple of what became Radio 1 as spinning discs, though the fact this ruling eventually gave birth to the legendary Peel Sessions was pure serendipity.

With the new law enforcing the illegality of the pirates, the entire staff of DJs that had become household names to anyone under 25 were about to made redundant; by happy coincidence, a new employer was looking for a workforce with their precise qualifications. So it was that the cream of the pirate crop sat alongside a handful of veteran broadcasting stalwarts to pose for a photo that used to be re-staged every ten years until the participants started dying or ended up in prison. Radio 1 had recruited almost all the pirate DJs, and when the new station went on air with Caroline’s Tony Blackburn on 30 September 1967 – preceded by heavy promotion in the Radio Times and its ‘swinging’ front cover for the week – the pirate model sufficed for the first ninety minutes. The second programme on Radio 1 was ‘Junior Choice’ with Leslie Crowther.

The wavelength sharing between Radio 1 and its new sibling Radio 2 was scattered throughout that opening day and this continued to be the case for more or less the whole first decade of the station. The recurring term ‘As Radio 2’ in the Radio Times listings for Radio 1 was a regular feature that meant any hip ‘n’ groovy listener either had to endure Light Programme leftovers for a couple of hours in the middle of the schedule or simply switch off. Mind you, it’s worth remembering that DJs we all associate with Radio 2 – such as Terry Wogan and Jimmy Young – were part of the Radio 1 line-up in the beginning.

The schizophrenic nature of the station, viewed by many as a pale imitation of the pirates at best and little short of a charlatan at worst, helped prompt 1969’s landmark in-house report, ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’, that sought to rectify the problems. By the early 70s, however, a generation too young to remember the pirates had taken to the station as it gradually grew into the familiar form those of us old enough can still recall, and listening figures reflected this.

The ‘star’ DJs such as Tony Blackburn, Jimmy Savile, Noel Edmonds, Dave Lee Travis, Kenny Everett and ‘Emperor’ Rosko were all familiar faces as presenters of ‘Top of the Pops’, and the mutual appreciation society between BBC TV’s leading music show and Radio 1 benefitted both. In the 70s, the Radio 1 DJs were almost as famous as the pop stars whose careers they had the power to make or break – opening supermarkets, judging wet T-shirt contests, and drawing huge crowds when making prats of themselves on stage during the annual summer institution of the Radio 1 Roadshow. This was the heyday of the ‘Smashie and Nicey’ incarnation of Radio 1, though it also spanned the 80s; regardless of personnel changes, the mid-Atlantic accent, the bomber jacket and the cheesy persona had already been established as a mould, whether inhabited by Simon Bates or Bruno Brookes.

By the time of Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s painfully accurate parody, the BBC was concerned that a radio station supposedly aimed at an audience in its teens and twenties had retained listeners of a much older age range that hadn’t followed the traditional migratory route to Radio 2. The call went out to Matthew Bannister and what followed was a traumatic period in which Radio 1 didn’t seem to know what it was (or who it was for) anymore. The old school were shown the door, and after the crash-and-burn era of Chris Evans, a semblance of stability returned to the station as it entered the 21st century.

I haven’t listened to Radio 1 for a good decade, so I can’t comment on its current state of health with any authority. Last time I tuned in, Chris Moyles was still the host of the breakfast show and Jo Whiley was still espousing all she regarded as ‘cool’ mid-morning. I stopped listening not necessarily because I found the music being played increasingly irritating, but because I simply couldn’t stand the prattling DJs. At the same time, I recognise this has always been a regular factor for the listener where Radio 1 is concerned, and probably always will be.

Over the next seven days, I intend to profile all four stations that arrived on our dials fifty years ago this week, so stay tuned for Radio 2…

© The Editor

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THE GREEN, GREEN GRASS

Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning 2011 fantasy comedy, ‘Midnight in Paris’, features a lead character (played by Owen Wilson) resident in the here and now, whose holiday in the French capital takes a dreamlike turn when he gets lost in the backstreets one evening and finds himself stumbling into the Paris of the 1920s. Magically entering the time when Paris was the cultural epicentre of the western world, he encounters the likes of Cocteau, Dali, Picasso, Hemingway, Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and various other creative luminaries of the decade. As a fan of the present they inhabit, the character attempts to convince them of the riches he sees in their era.

The cleverest moment in the movie comes when Picasso’s lover Adriana expresses her own personal opinion that the real era to be in was the so-called La Belle Époque period of the late nineteenth century; when she and the lead character somehow manage to travel back there, some of that period’s key figures they meet, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas, are in agreement that the only age to have been alive was the Renaissance. ‘Midnight in Paris’ is not only one of Woody Allen’s finest recent cinematic outings; it also shrewdly points out that golden ages are retrospective labels tagged onto episodes of history after the event.

Unless we can look back on a particular phase of our own individual lifetimes and recognise we lived through a special period ourselves, many of us have a fascination with a specific era that took place before we were born. Personally, I would have enjoyed being a dandy during the Regency or perhaps a fashion photographer in Swinging London; but I don’t reflect on any time I’ve actually been resident in throughout my thirty years as an adult and hanker after it with rose-tinted nostalgia; I can honestly say I haven’t enjoyed any of it. Whether I would have enjoyed the Regency or Swinging London any more isn’t an issue because I’ll never be there; however, it remains a felicitous fantasy.

Last week, a survey commissioned by the Resolution Foundation was published; the subjects of the survey were ‘Millennials’, i.e. anyone born between 1981 and 2000 (those born this century have their own hideous demographic nickname). The findings of the survey declared that one in three Millennials would rather have lived through the era their parents were young in, despite the fact that would mean they’d have been deprived of the electronic creature comforts life is apparently unimaginable without. Over 2,000 people were surveyed between the ages of 16 and 75 and the general agreement reached was that anyone young today will never achieve the same standard of life as that which their parents have enjoyed.

In this case, the yearning to have been alive thirty or forty years ago doesn’t stem from the obvious attractions of superior pop culture to participate in, but the more practical desires of being able to buy one’s home and having job security that can pay for one. In the survey, graduates were just as pessimistic about the future as those regarded as high-earners. 57% of the former were convinced the youth of today have a worse standard of living than their parents to look forward to; 55% of the latter (earning above £55,000 a year) agreed with them. When it came to lower earners (£20,000 or less), 44% shared the same belief. It would seem technological advances don’t add up to much more than expensive sedatives.

And yet – the supposed higher standard of living the parents of Millennials have attained didn’t land in their laps overnight. They had to work for it. Thrift is a word one doesn’t hear much these days, but it was employed by the young who wanted to get on in the 60s and 70s when they saw the doors to social mobility opening before them; there was an entrance fee, however. The heavy industry that existed on a nationwide scale for perhaps the first forty years after the end of the Second World War has been reduced to a small smattering of industrial outposts this century, but it was once one of the dominant employers of the country’s workforce; Millennials are spared that, at least; though maybe there was a greater sense of job satisfaction at the end of the working day when having emerged from a pit or a steel foundry than can be found in having cold-called strangers whilst sitting on one’s arse for eight hours.

Even if their parents’ generation received what seems to have been a greater reward for their endeavours, the hours were put in whatever colour the collar of the job; additional part-time work would augment the main wage along with night-school courses as a means of ascending the next rung of the ladder. Socialising would be rationed, with the occasional trip to the cinema or football enjoyed sparingly when money was being put aside for the long-term. If one had a car, chances were it would be a second (or third) hand banger; if one had a house, it would be fitted out with second (or third) hand furniture – and on HP at that; telephones were a relative luxury; television sets were rented; holidays, if taken at all, would invariably take place within the British Isles, erratic climate or no. If one wanted must-have household appliances, one had to save up for them; and other things were regarded as more important, anyway.

Make do and mend, making ends meet, living within one’s means – awful old phrases the credit card seemed to have magically banished from the nation’s vocabulary; consumerism has a lot to answer for, yes; but one could argue many of the disputes that crippled industry in the 70s and 80s were at times motivated by a craving for consumer goods that were being marketed more aggressively than ever before at that point. Today, there’s no need to strike for them; your flexible friend can get them for you and then you can show them off on social media. Debt, once such a shameful stigma, is commonplace below a certain age; and none of the money reserved for paying it off is going towards saving up for somewhere to live.

There’s no doubt the opportunities for social mobility have narrowed considerably, and many degrees now are not worth the paper they’re written on; working hours are long and pay is poor. But hardships are endured by all generations looking for a better life; whether or not that better life is there at the end of the hardship is another matter altogether. It might have been there in 1957, 1967 or 1977; is it in 2017?

© The Editor

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LAST CENTURY BOY

From the perspective of one group of individuals, the catalogue of pop cultural catastrophes that shattered the 60s kicked down a door they’d spent years trying (and failing) to prise open. A new decade was less than eighteen months old, yet it had already lost The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before The Rolling Stones hot-footed it to the South of France lest the taxman got his hands on them. There was a sizeable vacuum, but it was quickly filled by Elton John, Rod Stewart and Slade; all three had been biding their time for a long time and now their moment had arrived. Yet the man who made the biggest pop splash of 1971 had endured an apprenticeship stretching back way farther.

From the early 60s onwards, working-class cockney Mark Feld had been a star in search of an audience. He’d graced the glossy pages of magazines as a teenager modelling the Mod look; he’d tried the folk singer route in the wake of Dylan and Donovan’s impact; he’d had a crack at proto-Punk Art Rock as a member of John’s Children; he’d embraced the Summer of Love and achieved cult success as one half of an acoustic duo much-loved by John Peel. But what he wanted more than anything was mass acceptance, and it wasn’t hip to admit that at the end of the 60s. By this time, he’d changed his name to Marc Bolan.

Bolan’s butterfly flitting from one scene to another betrayed his hunger for success on the same scale as the 60s giants whose influence remained a potent one. Few imagined it would come to him, though; Bolan had an odd, quirky vocal style and wrote elaborate Tolkien-esque lyrics that matched the esoteric Syd Barrett-meets-The Incredible String Band stew he cooked-up with his bongo-playing partner. Calling his outfit Tyrannosaurus Rex because he wanted them to be the biggest thing since the biggest animal ever to walk the earth was characteristically ambitious Bolan immodesty; but when Bolan unexpectedly penned an irresistibly infectious pop gem that necessitated a controversial switch to the electric guitar, he finally found what he’d been looking for.

Lyrically, ‘Ride A White Swan’ retained Bolan’s poetic imagery, though this time he married it to a unique commercial sound that was only kept from the No.1 spot by Clive Dunn’s ‘Grandad’ as the Christmas spirit hung over the beginning of 1971. Come the follow-up, Bolan expanded the band with a drummer and bass-player that helped push ‘Hot Love’ one place higher in the charts. His first stint at No.1 was promoted on ‘Top of the Pops’ by one of the great moments of inspiration in pop history: Bolan sprinkled glitter on his cheeks, bestowing a glow upon his elfin face that caught the camera with every shake of the head. The nation’s teenage girls fell in love overnight. The band’s name had been shortened to the far easier mouthful of T.Rex, and Britain suddenly had its first proper pop star in years.

Seeking to spread his musical wings, Bolan went for a bigger, slicker sound on his next single, ‘Get it On’. Whilst the music press accused him of selling-out, Bolan took over the No.1 spot for six weeks that summer and also gatecrashed the upper echelons of the Billboard Hot 100. That autumn, he was top of the LP charts with ‘Electric Warrior’, and his eccentric take on primitive Rock ‘n’ Roll stripped away the layers of complexity threatening to suffocate Rock, appealing to a new generation of record-buyers too young for the 60s and eager for heroes that hadn’t been handed down by older brothers. T.Rex revitalised the singles chart and Bolan’s striking flirtation with cosmetics challenged the macho consensus as well as sparking a new genre christened Glam Rock. At his best, Bolan outshone the competition with charisma, panache and a string of pearls that sound even fresher today than they did at the time.

T.Rex spent more weeks on the UK charts in 1972 than any other act; they had two more chart-toppers (‘Telegram Sam’ and ‘Metal Guru’), and with Bolan’s lyrics now peppered with references to fast cars, the hippie underground he’d long outgrown was swept away as a cultural touchstone by a fresh wave of theatrical Rock that encompassed everyone from Alice Cooper and Roxy Music to The Sweet and Gary Glitter. But it was the re-emergence of David Bowie as his exotic alter-ego of Ziggy Stardust that took Bolan’s template onto another level altogether. For a moment, the two old friends were bitter rivals in a Beatles Vs Stones fashion, but a bigger threat to Bolan was the wholesome US teen idols such as Donny Osmond and David Cassidy, who fatally lured away his vital female fan-base.

By the back-end of 1973, Bolan was being usurped by the Glam Rockers who had none of his artistic pretensions; but Bolan himself appeared to be rapidly losing his mojo. He fled to temporary tax-exile in Monaco, dissolved the classic T.Rex line-up, and committed a cardinal sin for a pop star by getting fat. It seemed as if he had descended to Vegas Elvis in record time. His singles started falling short of the top ten and many of them weren’t that good anymore either. Come the mid-70s, he was regarded as a has-been and had to watch from the sidelines as the scene he’d inadvertently inspired carried on without him. But Glam Rock was now a bandwagon with too many passengers; when it ran out of steam, Bolan was still standing and the kids who’d made him a star in 1971 were now forming their own bands.

The Punk generation venerated Bolan and he returned the compliment. He toured with The Damned and when he was given his own teatime TV show by Granada in 1977, he invited the likes of Generation X, The Boomtown Rats and The Jam onto it as guests. The final edition of the series even saw a long-term rift healed when Bowie appeared and played his one and only duet with Bolan as the credits rolled. By the time the episode aired, however, Bolan was already dead, killed in a car crash forty years ago today, just a fortnight short of his 30th birthday.

Marc Bolan was the product of an era in which Rock stars were otherworldly creatures who existed to escort their audience to alternate dimensions of endless possibilities, just as movie stars had before them. The grim climate of early 70s Britain needed their superlative escapism. As Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones later said of his adolescence, ‘I thought Rock stars fell from the sky.’ Bolan was the first pop phenomenon of the 70s as well as the first to reconnect with the trashy glamour and primal simplicity of 50s Rock ‘n’ Roll; he was his own creation from a time before stylists and before the resurrection of the cynical Svengali prepared to package any old formulaic crap as long as it made money. We won’t see his like again because the world doesn’t live there anymore.

© The Editor

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THE SUNDAY POST

‘Sunday Bloody Sunday really encapsulates the frustration of a Sunday. You wake up in the morning, you’ve got to read all the Sunday papers, the kids are running round, you’ve got to mow the lawn, wash the car, and you think – Sunday Bloody Sunday!’

Alan Partridge’s characteristic misinterpretation of the U2 song inspired by the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry inadvertently highlights how the so-called ‘Day of Rest’ traditionally had a unique identity of its own, the genuine oddity in the seven-day calendar; but does it retain its uniqueness in an age when many shops are open all week round and a generation has come of age without an awareness or experience of what Sundays used to represent to the majority? Well, perhaps in our minds more than in reality.

It’s only natural that we associate certain days of the week with our first exposure to them; what’s interesting is how these initial associations can colour our view of them for good, and what they once represented proves to be surprisingly durable. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that when it comes to Sunday, our image of it remains to an extent frozen in childhood amber, or at least when Sunday is imminent. More often than not, the prospect of it coming round tends to produce a weary sigh. In retrospect, that one more precious day free from school – something that should have made it as exciting as a Saturday to wake-up to – seemed to be shrouded in such an incurably drab torpor is curious; maybe Sunday was Saturday’s perennially poor relation because we knew we’d be back at school the following day, and so much of it seemed to be preparing us for that inevitability because it was so bizarrely boring.

Unless one were a farmer, clergyman, foreign language student or devotee of creaky monochrome movies about the war, television was usually best avoided; even that ordinarily reliable provider of entertainment appeared impotent on Sunday and was only generally switched-on in the middle of the afternoon so dad could watch ITV’s regional football show. The radio grabbed the spotlight from the telly as a consequence: Ed Stewpot and his set-in-stone set-list of prehistoric nursery ditties – ‘The Laughing Policeman’, ‘The Teddy Bear’s Picnic’, ‘Nellie the Elephant’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’ et al – sound-tracked the Sunday morning experience for more than one generation.

Jimmy Savile’s ‘Old Record Club’ enlivened the early afternoon with its top ten replays from the 60s, sparking nostalgia in parents and introducing kids to classics that contrasted with the more familiar contemporary chart sounds; and as for the top 40, that would dominate tea-time listening, even if the fact that the new chart had already been covered three days before on TOTP robbed it of any drama. Still, knowing which position one’s favourite records were at made recording them onto audiotape easier (a practice that may have ‘killed music’, but came in handy when pocket-money only stretched to one single from Woolie’s per fortnight).

But such aural distractions couldn’t wrench Sunday away from the strangely soporific rituals that really made it so distinctive from every other day. This usually began with a couple of newspapers popping through the letterbox – thicker and more expensive than the weekday dailies; many households had a healthy schizophrenia when it came to Sunday reading habits. One paper would usually be the trashy titillation of the News of the World/Sunday Mirror/Sunday People brand, the kind I remember being full of call-girl confessions, Rod Stewart’s latest blonde and Princess Margaret’s latest beau; the other would tend to be the more sombre Sunday Times/Observer type, with one balancing out the other and establishing an odd equilibrium as mum and dad chose their weapons whilst defiantly remaining in bed. Of course, for those raised in a religious household, the church still played a major part in the Sunday routine – either the morning service, evensong, or the insidious institution of Sunday School, seemingly established so that mum and dad could engineer the arrival of a little brother or sister.

As far as secular upbringings went, however, Sunday was a day in which the whole family realised the advantages of spending the rest of the week leading their own lives; everyone appeared to resent the presence of everyone else. In the case of mum and dad, both eagerly embraced their designated roles; for him, this meant washing the car or attending to DIY; for her, this meant ironing or sticking a roast in the oven, where it would cook on a low light for what seemed like about six months, its aroma sweeping through the house with the creeping stealth of mustard gas and seeping into the bricks and mortar like Oxo-flavoured napalm. Occasionally, there would be variations to the routine, but even these couldn’t provoke any emotion other than shoulder-shrugging resignation.

Most of these centred around a ‘ride out’ in the car, a depressing excursion through a desolate landscape that bordered on post-apocalyptic, a journey that either led to a local beauty spot rendered ugly by rotten weather, a minor stately home, the stultifying tedium of the garden centre – and the fact that this emporium of inertia was the only shop open for business somehow intensified Sunday’s terminal dullness – or grandma’s house, where sometimes cousins would call and there would at least be an opportunity to indulge in much-needed play.

Play! Ah, yes – the one saving grace of Sunday. The generations starved of mass-marketed virtual-stimulation turned to their imaginations and transformed their uninspiring surroundings with little in the way of corporate assistance. Such activities could alleviate boredom until boredom intervened again via a bath and supper in the company of Esther Rantzen and Doc Cox. With school to look forward to in the morning, Sunday had felt like a lacklustre prologue to the resumption of the norm, a bridge between the compassionate leave of Saturday and the re-imprisonment of Monday.

It’s cruelly ironic that John Major, a man who romanticised the mythical Albion image of a Sunday, was the Prime Minister who delivered the killer blow to it. The passing of the Sunday Trading law in 1994 enabled high-street chain-stores to open their doors and facilitated the rise of out-of-town retail parks, finally making Sundays resemble every other day, at least in terms of the consumer society. There isn’t time for boredom on a Sunday anymore, and whilst many would regard that as cause for celebration, others might argue that the loss of the archaic eccentricities that once made Sunday such a unique day are worthy of mourning – even if they were bloody boring.

© The Editor

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TIME’S ARROW

Who is the Prime Minister? Apparently, that’s one of the opening questions doctors use as a test for dementia amongst their patients, though most of the country would probably have struggled to answer it following the last General Election, to be honest. Anyway, I don’t know if my grandmother was asked that particular question during her last illness, but I do recall being told she couldn’t correctly say what year it was when asked. The ongoing debate over care for the elderly is, I’ve no doubt, largely motivated (on the public side, at least) by genuine concern that senior citizens are almost discarded as an expensive embarrassment; but I think it also reflects a consensus of fear over the fate that awaits us.

Larkin’s notorious poem, ‘The Old Fools’ is – as with his other most infamous offering, ‘This Be The Verse’ – often misconstrued; sometimes perceived as revulsion when confronted by the elderly, it couples lines such as ‘Ash hair, toad hands, prune face dried into lines’ with ‘Do they suppose it’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools, and you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember who called this morning?’ As with much of Larkin’s output, it is devoid of sentimentality and looks at an uncomfortable aspect of life with brutal honesty. The chilling closing line, when after having posed a series of questions on the topic of ageing, Larkin says ‘Well, we shall find out’, is a more accurate barometer of what the poem is actually saying.

A man not known for celebrating the joy of life, Larkin’s melancholic pessimism was present when he remained a relatively young man, something fairly unusual outside of Goth and Emo subculture; then again, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters was aged just 29 when he wrote the wistfully bleak Larkin-esque line in ‘Time’ on ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’ – ‘Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way’. Both Ray Davies and Morrissey have, at different times, contradicted the eternal adolescence that has been a hallmark of the genre they sprang from by shining a light on the neglected perspective of the elderly outsider, something Paul McCartney did even more successfully with ‘Eleanor Rigby’ before addressing ageing in a lighter tone with ‘When I’m 64’. He was in his mid-20s at the time.

At its most extreme, fear of growing old – at least manifested in its physical form – has led to the horrific cosmetic surgery industry and Hollywood’s plastic parade of deluded veterans that battle against the ageing process to extend their acting careers. Conversely, renowned actresses that have resisted the surgeon’s knife – such as Charlotte Rampling or Helen Mirren – tend to be celebrated for the fact their beauty has matured like fine wine and has been allowed to mature free from visible vanity courtesy of the same medical men who butchered the face of Michael Jackson.

Speaking to a friend the other day, she commented on some programme she’d seen on TV about a murder case in the 1990s; the documentary was accompanied by archive footage of the time, and even though the 90s feels extremely recent if you were actually there, she was still struck by how different things looked on said footage. The way in which technology has transformed all our lives in such a short space of time post-1999 has relegated certain sights that had always been commonplace on our streets to the same cultural landfill as gas lamps and public toilets, and I suspect those streets as represented by news archive of the time in this programme perhaps showed what already appears to be a different world.

I only have to cast my mind back twenty years to recall one of the numerous downsides to living in a neighbourhood with a sizeable student population was when the fresh intake of scholars needed to ring home after a week or so in their new homes. A queue of a good four or five people would be a familiar sight outside a telephone box in early September; but this is one of those ‘numerous downsides’ that has now completely vanished from the landscape – along with most of the phone boxes. Of course, to say ‘casting my mind back twenty years’ is in itself an admission of ageing that bears little relevance to the majority of the same university’s current crop, few of whom were a twinkle in the milkman’s eye twenty years ago – when we probably still had a few milkmen left.

In a sense, that’s part of the problem. I have been an official legal adult now for almost 32 years, and I find in my memory that everything I recall from that point onwards still doesn’t seem like that long ago. By contrast, anything from my childhood decade of the 70s feels incredibly distant and may as well be a hundred years ago for all the bearing it has had on my lengthy spell as an adult. At times, 1987, 1997 and 2007 appear almost interchangeable despite the superficial changes in fashion, music, pop culture et al that separate those years; I was an adult during all the years listed, and whilst I’d like to think a little acquired wisdom separates the person I was in 1987, 1997 or 2007, the core composition of the time-stream I inhabit doesn’t seem to have altered. It all feels ‘present tense’.

When we have family or friends we don’t see that often who sire offspring, we recall said offspring being babies; then we maybe see them again as toddlers or little kids; and the next occasion in which they’re mentioned, we learn they’re at high school or in higher education. In our heads, they remain frozen as children, but the rapid maturity that takes place elsewhere can remind us how time is passing more than what the mirror on the wall might tell us. Sometimes, it’s easier to measure time by the change in others than the change in our ourselves, which can be as difficult to observe as the movement of hands on a clock-face.

Four months from now I hit one of those ‘landmark birthdays’ that we all, whether we care to admit it or not, dread the arrival of. I guess we each have our own different take on what they do or don’t mean and if they hold any significance at all. For me personally it’s not a question of wanting to cling to a youth I didn’t especially enjoy or revel in, more a question of inevitable summarising of the story so far, the kind of self-assessment I’d rather avoid due to the fact that on paper I appear to have achieved nothing and have become everything I hate. Despite the anticipated bombardment of reminders I’ll receive from well-meaning well-wishers, the only real element worth celebrating is that I’ve actually made it this far. Being English, I expect I shall hang on, though I suspect the desperation won’t be so quiet; I remain determined to rage against that dying light. Thank God for a little bit of Celtic blood.

© The Editor

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SECOND CITY SOUNDS

As the late, great Barry Norman might have said (or maybe he didn’t): ‘And why not?’ This post marks no anniversary and comments on no particular current affair; it’s merely a bit of musical meandering; and it’s a Sunday, so why not indeed? Well, it’s no great surprise that when it comes to the musical map of Britain that London, Liverpool and Manchester generally tend to take the lion’s share of the plaudits and are largely given credit for putting this nation on Pop’s international stage, a position it continues to occupy, even if most of its reputation is built upon pioneers from half-a-century ago. But spare a thought for a corner of the country that, for me, is an unsung creative hub of far more than most imagine; it remains an unfashionable area to evoke in discourse on Pop culture, yet has provided those tuning into the Global Village’s radio station with so many listening riches over the last few decades that it seems an apt time to make a case for the Midlands.

In the early 60s, Birmingham had perhaps the most active live music scene outside of Merseyside; there were hundreds of bands on the Second City’s thriving club circuit and it was only a matter of time before at least one of them hit the top spot. It finally happened at the beginning of 1965, when The Moody Blues reached No.1 with their emotive cover of the Bessie Banks ball-buster, ‘Go Now’. Although it bears little relation to the lush, symphonic Rock the band would later become more renowned for, ‘Go Now’ is one of the key records of an era in which it seemed every week brought a new, exciting twist on the Beat Boom formula.

Almost exactly a year later, another band from Brum followed the Moodies to the top of the charts when The Spencer Davis Group reached the summit with their dynamic cover of Jackie Edwards’ ‘Keep on Running’. The band was led by the prodigiously-gifted teenage Steve Winwood, whose soulful vocals sounded like they came from a far older man, and a black one at that. The Spencer Davis Group managed to follow-up their chart-topping debut more successfully than The Moody Blues had, releasing a string of top-tenners (including another No.1) over the next twelve months until Winwood left to form the Psychedelic Pop act Traffic.

The last band to emerge from the Birmingham Beat Boom of the 60s were The Move, effectively a Brum ‘Supergroup’ comprising musicians who had all been members of successful local live acts; they scored their first hit at the beginning of 1967 with ‘Night of Fear’, a track built around the main melody of the 1812 Overture, and soon blossomed into one of the finest purveyors of the unique British take on Psychedelia; they also possessed a manager who specialised in PR stunts characteristic of the age, being sued by the Prime Minister when they used Harold Wilson in a controversial cartoon to promote ‘Flowers in the Rain’, the first single ever played on Radio 1. Their secret weapon was the songwriting genius of Roy Wood, a man whose contribution to British Pop is today unfairly restricted to his association with one of the perennial Christmas hits of the 70s; Wood deserves belated recognition as one of those rare, gifted musicians who can bang out a good tune on any instrument they stumble upon.

By the late 60s, the regional aspect of the British music scene, in which every major city’s bands were grouped together under one umbrella label, had essentially dissipated as most headed towards the capital for fame and fortune, losing their local identity in the process. Acts such as Chicken Shack – featuring future Fleetwood Mac member Christine Perfect – had a big hit without their Birmingham origins being a factor in their success, and Nick Drake hailing from the southern end of the Midlands, in Stratford-on-Avon, seemed incidental to his talent. Similarly, the fact that one half of Led Zeppelin comprised Midlands men (Robert Plant and John Bonham) had little bearing on their phenomenal success.

Hot on the heels of Led Zep’s radical reinvention of the Blues came Birmingham’s Black Sabbath, whose brutally brilliant approach to the genre laid the foundations for what was to become Heavy Metal, a musical style that had further Midlands exponents later in the 70s via Judas Priest. The top ten monster of ‘Paranoid’ aside, Sabbath’s success was album-based, whereas a band from a neighbouring neck of the woods (Wolverhampton and Walsall) went on to become Britain’s biggest singles act of the first half of the decade, Slade. Between 1971 and 1973, Noddy Holder, Jim Lea, Dave Hill and Don Powell hit the top of the charts on six separate occasions, more than any other home-grown act in the 70s.

Vying for the top spot with Slade in the early 70s were Wizzard, the colourful new outfit led by The Move’s Roy Wood and responsible for the aforementioned Xmas standard, ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’. Wizzard had appeared when Wood left the Move spin-off project, The Electric Light Orchestra, with whom he recorded one album; his sidekick in the band, Jeff Lynne, saw a long-term career in ELO and opted to take the helm before ironing out their experimental edges and honing them into one of the decade’s seminal singles acts. An immigrant from the West Indies who had made the West Midlands her home became the region’s main representative in the singer-songwriter genre, Joan Armatrading; hers wasn’t the only black voice in the neighbourhood, however, as Reggae act Steel Pulse proved. Birmingham also had a folk scene in the 70s, though the most notable graduate from it became better known as a comedian, Jasper Carrott.

No Punk band from the Midlands made much of an impression, but the post-Punk era was fruitful for the region, even if attention turned from the West Midlands to the East Midlands, when Coventry’s energetic hybrid of Punk and Jamaican Ska, reflecting the diverse melting pot of cultures courtesy of immigration, had a huge impact in the shape of the 2-Tone movement. The Specials were the front-runners, but Birmingham’s The Beat were also crucial to the scene; unrelated, but playing a similar blend of socially-conscious, mixed-race music (in the beginning, at least) were UB40. Concurrent with the rise of 2-Tone (and largely appealing to the same audience) were Dexy’s Midnight Runners, whose success was international rather than merely national. At the same time, Birmingham even spawned one of the few non-London mega-bands to emerge from the New Romantic movement, none other than Duran Duran; Birmingham also produced the short-lived (if briefly spectacular) career of Musical Youth.

By the end of the 80s, the likes of The Wonder Stuff, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Fuzzbox and Pop Will Eat Itself were Indie darlings and shortly crossed over to ‘Top of the Pops’, as did Brummies Ocean Colour Scene in the 90s, ensuring one of the country’s most overlooked musical hotbeds maintained a foothold in the charts. If one were to excise the Midlands from the UK’s Pop history, there would be some gaping holes in the story, so let’s acknowledge its role in that story. It’s quite a bostin’ one when all’s said and done.

© The Editor

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A REPEAT PERFORMANCE

The old complaint always used to be that there were too many repeats on television; but I suppose it depended on what was being repeated. A classic BBC series such as ‘The Forsyte Saga’ benefitted from being repeated, with the programme and the audience joint beneficiaries. It earned its household name popularity when receiving a repeat run on BBC1 in 1968, having originally been screened on BBC2 the year before. At the time, the majority of the country’s viewers couldn’t receive the Beeb’s second channel on their ageing 405-line sets, so it was a shrewd move by BBC1, intended to justify the considerable expense spent on the serial. One is made aware of just how poor the image quality must have been on those 60s tellies when watching ‘The Forsyte Saga’ on DVD today; some of the makeup used to age the actors doesn’t necessarily bear up to digital scrutiny.

Glancing through musty copies of the Radio Times from the early 70s, it’s surprising how few repeats there actually are in the listings, something that contradicts the complaints about repeats even then. It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that complicated Equity rules regarding repeat fees throughout the 70s effectively limited how many programmes could actually be repeated; moreover, there was a gradual reluctance to rerun monochrome programmes from the 60s when the BBC and ITV were forever extolling the superior delights of colour television. And, lest we forget, the standard practice of wiping shows not long after their initial broadcast precluded them being seen again, anyway. Television had been, for most of its life, a transient medium that existed very much in the present; but that was about to change.

By the mid-70s, television had been around long enough to begin developing a sense of its own history, and the first wave of TV anniversary shows, such as the BBC’s ‘Forty Years’ in 1976, belatedly awakened the compilers of programmes reliant on archive material just how poorly-served the archives were. Added to this, there was an increasing interest in the back catalogues of long-running series like ‘Doctor Who’; even if there was no real medium available for the commercial release of the series’ archive, the salvaging of old episodes poised to be incinerated began in earnest during this period.

The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 not only ushered in a fresh age of edgy broadcasting reflecting the here and now; it also revived several series that hadn’t had a decent repeat run in years, though the approach of this new kid on the broadcasting block to television’s heritage was as different to the regional ITV companies’ repeat policies as a charity shop is from a vintage one. The likes of ‘The Avengers’, ‘The Prisoner’, ‘Budgie’ and ‘Callan’ weren’t hidden away in the twilight hours, but given prime-time slots and elevated to the status of classics. Enough time had now passed since their first broadcasts to warrant the label.

The growth in the home video market from the early 80s onwards was initially focused on the produce of the movie industry, but television soon realised the potential too. VCRs sent many broadcasters scuttling in the direction of their depleted archives, hoping they could find the odd episode of a once-beloved series to stick out on VHS for twenty quid. Even if the rare case of a series preserved in its entirety meant it could have received a full video release, tapes were extremely expensive to buy at the time and could usually only hold a couple of episodes of anything at most. Many favourite series I now own in full on DVD were ones I just had a few episodes of on VHS releases for years; and in a lot of cases, the complete series on DVD cost about the same as two episodes on one tape would have cost me twenty-five years ago. Not all progress is bad.

The deregulation of TV in the wake of the 1990 Broadcasting Act meant there were many more channels suddenly available, though with numerous hours to fill, the cheapest way of filling them was to repeat old programmes. Yet, this also nicely chimed with an upsurge in nostalgia amongst 30-somethings for childhood shows; and when the more obvious and best-remembered of these finished their runs, one intriguing side-effect was that channels such as UK Gold and Granada Plus were then forced to excavate programmes that, in some cases, hadn’t been seen on British television for twenty years or more. Mid-90s off-air recordings of these can still sometimes surface on YouTube.

The arrival of the DVD and the innovation of the box-set finally took the decision of what old shows would or wouldn’t be repeated out of the hands of the broadcasters and did what even the VHS failed to do – it enabled fans to own the complete series of a favourite programme at a reasonable price, and usually (when old prints were digitally cleaned-up) in a better condition than even when they’d first been transmitted on TV. Companies like Simply Media, Acorn, 2 entertain and, best of all, Network have ploughed a similar path to the oldies channels of the 90s by following the release of the best-remembered series with the availability of the half-remembered and the near-forgotten; the half-remembered and the near-forgotten, however, are often worth investing in if one is interested in archive TV, as they regularly throw up pleasant surprises.

Whilst the advent of Netflix and other similar systems are now being heralded as not only the end of old-style appointment TV on terrestrial channels but as the end of the DVD box-set as well, when it comes to archive television it would seem the DVD is still its most fitting home. Yes, it may also be its retirement home; but opting out of television’s endless peak-time talent contests by escaping into a parallel universe of personal choice is the same as rejecting the radio and sticking the music on that you want to hear rather than the music someone else is shoving down your throat. At the moment, I’m back with Edward Woodward and his hygienically-challenged sidekick Lonely as they slip in and out of their shadowy and seedy, vanished 70s landscape of Cold War wallpaper. And in 2017, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.

© The Editor

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THE 25-YEAR ITCH

Not that long since, I switched on the TV and BBC2 was showing a Dara O’Briain gig; it was only when the credits rolled at the end that I realised the programme was a repeat from five years previously. There was nothing visually on display to suggest it was that old; the appearance of the members of the audience and the star of the show himself implied it could have been recorded last week. I momentarily imagined it was 1981 and I was viewing a Jasper Carrott gig from 1976; the difference in the hairstyles and clothes would have been so glaring that it would have been instantly obvious this was five years old.

If we were to study photographs of street scenes taken over the last twenty years, I surmise it would probably be difficult to discern which images were oldest and which were most recent; the members of the public caught on camera wouldn’t look much different in any of them. Compare a street scene between, say, 1964 and 1974 or 1974 and 1984, however, and it would be instantly identifiable as to which decade the photos belonged in. Whenever ‘Starsky & Hutch’ was re-run in the mid-1980s, the dated dress-sense of the two lead characters marked it out from another era as much as the sleeve of the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack LP did, yet both were from less than ten years before.

Anyone who lived through the 60s, 70s and 80s was given something of a false impression that popular culture was built on shifting sands, a fluid, ever-changing creature that existed in a permanent state of transition – or at least the impression given was that this would always be the case. It hadn’t been before, though. Compare (if you can) family photos from before and after the war; the men have regulation short-back-and-sides and are wearing suits on either side of the conflict; there’s little to distinguish the male figures in the images from the 30s and the 50s. With the women, there are subtle differences in their hairstyles and the height of their hemlines, but it’s not that dramatic. What would soon become ‘teenagers’ resemble Mini-Me versions of their parents; by the beginning of the 70s, it would be the parents looking to their children for tips on how to dress.

From the 60s onwards, the people mirrored the trend-setters in a way that was new. The death of haut-couture that was brought about by the likes of Mary Quant and Barbara Hulanicki took fashion from the exclusive houses of Paris and Rome and passed it down to the high-street – affordable for the masses because the masses had produced the trend-setters, whether Twiggy or Brian Jones. The growth of mass-media via television also brought this into living rooms and out of the pages of ‘Vogue’, no longer elite or expensive. It was social mobility’s sartorial incarnation and what had once been seen as the province of the ‘poofy’ and effeminate eventually reached defiantly masculine professions such as mining or football – all in the space of less than a decade.

From the dandified poseurs of 1968 to the scruffy hippie hobos of 1971, from the platform-heeled Glam wannabes of 1973 to the spiky-haired and safety-pinned Punks of 1977, and from the floppy-haired New Romantics of 1981 to the football hooligan sportswear chic of 1985’s Casuals, the pace of life as lived through its fashions was breathless. The soundtrack to this frenetic rummaging in the dressing-up-box was no less speedy. At the end of the 70s and into the 80s, it went from Punk, New Wave and Two-Tone to Synth-Pop in the space of around three years, with a figure such as Gary Numan acting as an effective bridge between the two decades, with one foot in both of them without really belonging to either as they have come to be retrospectively remembered. This wasn’t destined to last. It couldn’t.

The Acid House scene that went over-ground in 1988 was the grand finale of the era that had begun with the moral panic of Rock ‘n’ Roll thirty years previously. The whole Rave culture remained the cutting-edge until around 1992, when The Shamen’s chart-topping ‘Ebeneezer Goode’ signalled it was essentially over as a subversive sound, despite the controversy surrounding the single’s drug wordplay. Running parallel with the Dance dominance as the 80s gave way to the 90s was the mainstream breakthrough of Hip Hop, something that had slowly grown in influence throughout the decade. In a sartorial sense, the Hip Hop look proved to be the blueprint for the street-wear that has been the default style of youth for the last twenty-five years.

As their circulation figures plummeted in the face of online competition, the old music papers struggled to invent cults in the established traditions as the twenty-first century staggered into a cultural cul-de-sac. ‘Hoodies’ were not comparable to Mods and Rockers, as a hoodie is simply an item of clothing that can be worn by anyone under a certain age and is not tribally specific. Similarly, what is held up as an example of a contemporary cutting-edge sound such as Grime is not necessarily doing anything that the likes of So Solid Crew weren’t doing fifteen years ago. When a product-placement multi-millionaire showbiz businessman like Jay-Z is a role model (basically Victor Kiam with a break-beat) where be the Revolution?

Now that a quarter-of-a-century has passed since the last old-school youth-quake that was Acid House ended and the evidence that pop culture has entered an era of suspended animation is right there in the world outside your window with every passer-by, perhaps it’s time to admit an epoch is over and we are living in musical and sartorial stasis. The age of constant change that characterised the 50s up until the 90s now feels like an aberration in cultural terms; the world has reverted to type, a world in which every development is merely an exercise in recycling and therefore takes us round in ever-decreasing circles. For those of us who were either in the thick of it or caught the coat-tails of it, we should count ourselves lucky.

© The Editor

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GONE WITH NOAKES

Before hyperactive twenty-somethings, uncles used to be the model – lacking the stern authority of father-figures, managing to earn respect with lingering juvenile slapstick silliness; when I was the child watching, uncles were everywhere. Derek Griffiths and Brian Cant on ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’; Tony Hart on ‘Vision On’; Johnny Morris on ‘Animal Magic’; Roy Castle on ‘Record Breakers’; yes…Rolf Harris; and then there were John Noakes and Peter Purves on ‘Blue Peter’. With the news that Noakes has passed away at the age of 83, having mercifully evaded the pernicious net of malicious revisionism that hangs over his television era, those of my generation cannot help but recall how much he meant to us at the time.

John Noakes joined ‘Blue Peter’ as a very young-looking 30-year-old when his far-from spectacular acting career was floundering. Becoming the third member of the team in 1965, he was quite unlike anyone to have appeared on children’s TV previously. Christopher Trace and Valerie Singleton were very much in a 50s parental mould – RP-speaking, frightfully middle-class and sensible; they represented the norm. Noakes was Northern and didn’t hide his Yorkshire accent, for one thing; and he never talked down to the audience, communicating with them in their own language. It never looked as if Noakes’ mother took a comb to his hair, so he was definitely ‘one of us’.

John Noakes was also child-like in his anarchic recklessness, quickly earning a reputation as something of an amateur daredevil that saw him put in situations that would today provoke a cardiac arrest in most Health and Safety Officers. He climbed up one of the chimneys at Fulham Power Station, up Nelson’s Column, up the mast 127 feet above the deck of HMS Ganges; he skydived with the RAF; and had a lucky escape when tobogganing at 90mph. There was a fearlessness to him that seemed to echo the tree-climbing zest for life his core viewing public were encouraged to believe they would one day grow out of. He clearly hadn’t grown out of it, so there was hope for all of us.

It later emerged that Noakes’ popularity with the young audience was something of an irritant to his on-screen sidekick Peter Purves. Not that the two men didn’t get on – far from it; but it seems Purves resented having to play ‘the straight man’ to Noakes’ comedy character; perhaps that’s why Purves went for the cool dude look, straight out of Carnaby Street. It was then up to Valerie Singleton to play the responsible parent to an unruly rascal and a coiffured dandy, keeping the boys in order. Singleton was the studio representative of the show’s backstage editor Biddy Baxter, whose strict headmistress persona often clashed with Noakes’ instinctive rebel. But the off-screen tensions benefitted the programme, as Noakes became (and remains) the longest-serving presenter in its history, clocking-in at 12 years 6 months.

One of the more ingenious ideas ‘Blue Peter’ came up with was to introduce dogs and cats as surrogate pets for those children watching whose parents wouldn’t allow them to keep either (me included). It was also an astute move in that animals are one of the best ways in for children to learn about the cycle of life in that they die after a few short years. Petra and Jason were the original dog and cat members of the line-up and when the series decided to keep one of Petra’s puppies Patch as the second canine star of the show, Noakes was entrusted to look after him. The first lesson of the life cycle came for ‘Blue Peter’ viewers in 1971 when Patch suddenly died after catching a rare disease during location filming. A few months later, his replacement appeared and a legendary double-act was born in the process, John Noakes and Shep.

The Border collie appeared to be the perfect best friend for a man like John Noakes; he was just as silly and loveable as Noakes himself. In fact, the two were so inseparable that they even gained their own spin-off series, ‘Go with Noakes’, in which John and Shep went on their travels around the country, usually indulging in the more energetic rural pursuits. By the mid-70s, John Noakes was one of the most famous faces on British television and it was all-but impossible to imagine ‘Blue Peter’ without him. However, that moment came in June 1978, barely three months after Peter Purves had also walked; for the children watching, both ‘Blue Peter’ and children’s television would never be quite the same again.

The clash between Noakes and Biddy Baxter wasn’t eased by his departure; although Shep was technically ‘BBC property’, Noakes was told he could take Shep with him when he left the programme as long as he didn’t capitalise on their celebrity by advertising products on ITV. Noakes agreed and then promptly did a dog food commercial with a Shep lookalike, infuriating Baxter. The ill-feeling lasted a long time, with Noakes refusing to participate in any of the programme’s anniversary reunions until Baxter had herself retired. The feud was a shame in that both contributed hugely to the success of the show and made it one of the jewels in the BBC’s children’s crown during a genuine golden age.

In the years after his ‘Blue Peter’ career ended, Noakes appeared occasionally on TV, presenting a regional series called ‘Country Calendar’ for Yorkshire Television in the early 80s and then largely popping up as a guest blast from the past here and there. His public bitterness about his ‘Blue Peter’ years was, to those of us for whom he was a hero, a bit like finding out your dad had been having an affair throughout his marriage to your mum. It sours the memory a little, but can’t take away the warmth that memory continues to generate. Patch and Shep were my dogs, Jason was my cat, and John Noakes was my daft uncle. Just as they all were to everyone else my age. RIP.

© The Editor

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