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

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WEIRD SCENES INSIDE THE GOLD MINE

Rick JonesThe two encounters may have been 30 years apart, but I count myself lucky to have met two presenters of ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’. Johnny Ball I stumbled upon whilst he was filming something on the street in the late 1980s and Julie Stevens I chatted to at one of the vintage TV events the Kaleidoscope organisation used to stage in a Stourbridge hotel. The pair often presented the BBC’s pre-school mainstay together and regularly formed part of the gang on the show’s slightly more grownup – albeit considerably sillier – sibling. As with the classic ‘Blue Peter’ line-up, the surrogate aunts and uncles who appeared on ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’ still radiate nostalgic hues whenever they’re recalled by anyone whose formative years were spent being babysat by them. Their association with a unique, womb-like security that life rarely returns to once we graduate from the nursery means they will always claim a special shelf in the memory bank. The likes of Brian Cant and Derek Griffiths are in possession of legendary status for those of a certain age, and the exotic folk singer Toni Arthur even managed to stir something in the little boys watching that none of them were prepared for at such a tender age. As an adult, meeting anyone who played their part in weaving these dreams is a real privilege, one of those rare opportunities to simply say ‘thank you’.

Like many of the other presenters whose big break came via ‘Play School’, Johnny Ball spread his wings into other areas of children’s television, most memorably with an inventive programme that managed the difficult achievement of making maths fun, ‘Think of a Number’. Although his days hosting kid’s shows were more or less over when I encountered him in person, Ball was still a familiar face on the box at the time and instantly recognisable. I remember me and the friend I was with being somewhat star-struck when we spotted him, and we dashed off to the nearest WH Smiths to purchase a pen and notebook for that pre-selfie must-have, the autograph. We made it back to the corner where he was filming, relieved he hadn’t gone, and waited for a break in the recording to approach him. Mercifully, no infant illusions were shattered and he proved to be a genuinely pleasant person, more than happy to sign his name and engage in a brief chat.

Weirdly, I’d only recently picked-up a 70s LP called ‘Bang on a Drum’ that featured the ‘Play School’ and ‘Play Away’ performers singing the sort of songs routinely heard on the shows, as well as a few oddities characteristic of the time. I recall one song sung by presenter (and former member of 60s Merseybeat-type band The Four Pennies) Lionel Morton called ‘Come to the Shops’, which, with a slightly more psychedelic arrangement, could have passed for a whimsical slice of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Mention of this album prompted a few reminiscences by Ball of the LP’s recording. Amongst those involved in the process was Rick Jones, a Canadian whose time on ‘Play School’ predates my memory but who would shortly be immortalised for my generation on another iconic show. Ball confessed the hirsute, hippyish Jones had been off his tits on a few unnamed substances during the making of the album, and somehow that didn’t come as a surprise.

Rick Jones had surpassed his fame as a ‘Play School’ presenter when he progressed to a series in the ‘Watch with Mother’ lunchtime strand as of 1972, ‘Fingerbobs’. Like most of the programmes that were screened in that post-‘Pebble Mill at One’ slot, ‘Fingerbobs’ ran for just one series of 13 episodes, yet repeat screenings for the best part of a decade created the impression in the memory that hundreds were produced. How to describe it? Well, Jones – always dressed as though he had just been hitchhiking to Kathmandu with The Incredible String Band – sat behind a desk like a stoned newsreader and addressed the viewer with the assistance of Fingermouse.

Fingermouse was basically a glove with a paper mouse head stuck on the knuckles; the host made no attempt to hide the fact Fingermouse was essentially just his hand, yet he would dispatch the creature to collect various bits and pieces to bring back and inspire a story. As a child, I admit I did wonder how Jones and his rodent hand went their separate ways, for we were led to believe the presenter remained at his desk whilst we followed a seemingly severed Fingermouse out and about with other glove animals including a tortoise, a dove and even a scampi. But disbelief was successfully suspended and a gloriously eccentric imagination took over.

Also being a gifted musician, Rick Jones infused ‘Fingerbobs’ with a soundtrack that is as much inseparable from the imagery as Ry Cooder’s slide guitar is with ‘Paris, Texas’ or the zither of Anton Karas is with ‘The Third Man’. You can’t think of the programme without hearing the Fingermouse song or the incidental music threaded through almost every scene. The programme was one of the few BBC series of the period not produced in-house but by an independent company called Q3 of London – also responsible for other fondly-remembered series such as ‘Teddy Edward’ and ‘Crystal Tipps and Alistair’; although as heavily associated with the early 70s as both those two – Jones’s sartorial style is very much rooted in time and place – ‘Fingerbobs’ nevertheless ran regularly on the BBC until 1984, claimed by more than one generation of children as its own. It was also aided in its on-screen longevity via the advantage of being shot on film, therefore giving it a good reason for avoiding the widespread wiping of videotaped programmes in the BBC at the time.

Rick Jones appears to have been part of that great creative migration to London that took place in the Swinging decade, though he fittingly emanated from a city in Ontario named after the UK capital. Many of the ‘Play School’ presenters were either actors or musicians, and Jones was one of those who often whipped out his guitar on the show; through the archive editions that survive from his era, it’s possible to hear the warm tones of Jones’s soft, soothing voice receiving a prominent airing during his stint on the series, though he had a wider canvas to work with when it came to ‘Fingerbobs’. Outside of his TV work, Jones made further use of his musical talents as a member of a country rock group called Meal Ticket, who played on London’s celebrated pub rock circuit in the mid-70s. I’d love to picture them sharing a bill with Toni Arthur delivering one of her spooky folk numbers or Derek Griffiths indulging in a funky workout of ‘The Wibbly Wobbly Walk’, but I’ll have to leave that one for the parallel universe.

Rick Jones’s death from cancer at the age of 84 was announced a couple of days ago; it somehow feels right that he passed away in San Francisco, for it’s hard to think of a more spiritual home for an artist of his generation. Yet it was on these shores that his potential as a storyteller was fulfilled, a time when even children’s television was shaking off the shackles of the 1950s and embracing the spirit of the age. Whether John Noakes breaking the class barrier and showing RP the door or fantastically out-there, imaginative shows such as ‘Vision On’, this period remains the gold standard for kid’s TV, gifting younger viewers an abundance of riches that even the relentless rolling by of decades since hasn’t erased the impact of. And Rick Jones, allegedly passing round a spliff as he, Lionel Morton and Johnny Ball were shot in silhouette as the three kings during a ‘Play School’ telling of the Nativity, stands out as one of the pivotal figures of this genuine Golden Age, exuding humour, charm and a knowing cool that only a musician of the era could bring to the table. Legend.

© The Editor

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MOUNTAINS AND MOLEHILLS

Mole 3Although I’ve never seen it since and have no idea what it was, I remember one childhood Saturday morning catching an archaic comedy movie from the 1940s or 50s – my memory dates it by the fact all the men in it were wearing hats – and a guy was being examined by a doctor for a neck injury. The GP told him to keep looking upwards and the ailment would gradually heal, so he exited the surgery and strolled out onto the street with his head aimed at the sky. As he made his way along, his unusual stance caught the eye of everyone he passed so that they all followed suit, gazing up in the belief the guy had obviously seen something fascinating. I guess it’s an old joke, but it was an old film and the concept still makes me laugh now. I wondered why that scene should infiltrate my head after being absent for several decades, but maybe it’s because such a vaudevillian gag now feels like it was actually making a shrewd point about the way in which a misinterpreted gesture can provoke a chain reaction to ripple through a crowd of people with remarkable ease and breathtaking pace. Perhaps it’s just a classic characteristic of herd mentality, and one ripe for exploitation.

A more scientific explanation came on a 1970s David Dimbleby-hosted programme examining the hysteria at Osmonds concerts. A psychologist spoke of how it would only take one member of the audience when Donny and his brothers hit the stage to set off virtually everyone else at the venue. He’d observed how one girl screaming triggered the girl sat next to her and she in turn triggered the next one and the sound rapidly travelled down the whole row, each girl taking on the pattern of the girls around her so the entire arena could erupt into a cauldron of ear-splitting frenzy within seconds. I suppose a similar thing happens at football matches, though the man who starts the chant does so in the deliberate hope that he will quickly be accompanied by a chorus; the fact he usually is accompanied by a chorus suggests again that herd mentality – whether consciously or unconsciously – instinctively replicates the behaviour of the lone individual so that he or she is soon cocooned by safety in numbers; and at many times over the years, numbers have equated with safety at football matches, where the lone individual would be vulnerable and exposed – especially if he’s playing away.

Just as one member of a crowd can purposely incite the rest of that crowd to accompany him in a singsong if he knows the crowd is primed to respond favourably, the herd mentality can be cynically manipulated by outsiders with an equal minimum of effort. Politicians and their affiliated media outlets have always used this tactic to smear their opponents and nudge the electorate towards ticking the right box in the voting booth; but the past eighteen months have seen the practice used to clinical effect, with the masses becoming more pliable pieces than ever in someone else’s chess game. The way in which the pandemic restrictions were successfully enforced by convincing great swathes of the public that they were barely two-dozen loo rolls away from death was such a resounding triumph for the powers-that-be that it taught them an invaluable lesson. They realised the public were far easier to push in the desired direction than they’d ever dared imagine before.

The media cottoned onto this a long time ago, of course. The press did so far earlier than, say, television (certainly in this country, anyway), for public broadcasting originating in the Reithian ethos clung to the antiquated notion of political impartiality in a way the newspapers and their blatantly partisan approach – which was utterly dependent on the leanings of the paper’s proprietor – never had any moral need to adhere to. Moreover, the populist end of Fleet Street and its unquenchable thirst for sensationalism and scandal stretching all the way back to Victorian penny dreadfuls had accelerated in the Murdoch era, taking the print medium down a dark, grubby alley that television news had yet to visit. Not being a viewer of either Sky or CNN, I personally began to notice news broadcasts on terrestrial TV adopting a more tabloid approach not so much with Brexit, which is usually cited as the moment when journalism as we used to know it doubled down into unashamed propaganda for one side or the other, but when the financial crash of 2007/08 occurred. This was the point at which I really became aware TV news had ceased reporting facts and had instead opted to manufacture drama. Sure, there had been agendas in place before, but a trend appeared to be developing that required a constant flow of drama, possibly because of satellite competition or possibly because there were now rolling news channels with 24 hours to fill.

I recall a news report on either BBC or ITV in late 2007 covering queues outside a branch of Northern Rock when word had got around that the bank was living on borrowed time; as those with accounts quietly waited their turn to withdraw their savings in an orderly fashion, a TV reporter buzzed round them desperately attempting to whip up an atmosphere of panic to support the hysterical tone of his piece for the evening news. It seemed as though he’d come looking for a replay of the scene in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ when George Bailey’s bank collapses; so, when confronted by a line of Brits keeping calm and carrying on, the reporter resorted to a presentation style owing more to ‘The Day Today’ than the kind of straightforward no-bullshit journalism British TV news was once renowned for. To their credit, the members of the crowd that day didn’t panic; but the manner of the response to Covid Project Fear last year proved how effective a constant stream of panic propaganda pumped into the public’s collective psyche via the multiple media tools of the 2020s can now provoke panic without breaking sweat.

It might not be convenient for the current storyline, but one doesn’t have to even ‘go back to the 70s’ to recall the last time we had lengthy queues and panic buying at petrol stations; it was barely 20 years ago, midway through the New Labour era, when Gordon Brown as the Iron Chancellor was portrayed on the front of a national newspaper as a caricature of an 18th century highwayman. But today’s trend of constantly evoking the Winter of Discontent or the Three-Day Week works better because that period has lived on as a potent lesson of what happens when governments lose the plot, even for those who were a long way from being a twinkle in the milkman’s eye at the time. And one can see the appeal. After all, the panic buying that emptied supermarket shelves last year is still fresh, and the current spate of empty shelves at your local Sainsbury’s can be linked to the pandemic, to the pingdemic, to the loss of lorry drivers from a poorly-paid profession with few (if any) provisions for its workers, to the ‘sudden’ depletion of energy supplies, and – of course – Brexit. Join the dots and we have the potential for a good old-fashioned Great British Doomsday Narrative. And the Great British public are responding accordingly.

Unemployment was far higher in the 70s and inflation was astronomical in a way that today simply cannot compare with – a staggering 40% in June 1975; and whereas trade unions then had the clout to routinely bring the economy to its knees, lockdown has managed the same feat in record time now. What eventually replaced heavy industry in the big provincial cities that had been built on the back of it was the hospitality industry, yet when the continental cafés, bistros, bars and leisure venues that revitalised such cities from the 1990s onwards were closed overnight in 2020, regional dependence on such businesses meant that the damage done was of a kind we’ll probably be dealing with the ramifications of for years. That’s the real crisis. Never mind – send the cameras to the petrol stations and engage in nonsensical arguments about biology for light relief. Apparently, rats suddenly deprived of the scraps of office workers when the workforce relocated to the home have now followed the money and are loitering in our U-bends. Maybe our perennial rodent shadows reckon we’re all doomed as well.

© The Editor

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A LIGHT-BULB MOMENT

CallanI was surprised to realise the other day that the box-set currently curtailing my viewing for the evening is one I haven’t actually written about before; I thought I’d covered every archive series on the Telegram, especially those that have been viewed more than once. However, it occurred to me that I’d never penned a post about that most superlative – and, it has to be said, cynical – spy series, ‘Callan’. It’s one I revisit every couple of years, I guess, for ‘Callan’ has a habit of routinely drawing me back. I’ve sometimes wondered why such programmes can do that when I pretty much remember where each episode’s storyline is going within five minutes of sitting down to watch; with the element of surprise absent, I’ve realised it’s the characters – and ‘Callan’ has an abundance of real characters that you can’t help yearning to spend more time in the company of. It really is one of those shows that seem to grow richer whenever I return to it. I won’t use fine wine as an obvious analogy, but…oops, too late. Its vintage spans just the five years (1967-72), and even with frustrating gaps in the monochrome era preventing the viewer from seeing the series in its entirety, there is still plenty to be getting on with in 34 surviving episodes.

Just as ‘The Sweeney’ was spun off from ‘Regan’ the TV movie, ‘Callan’ first saw the light of day as an entry in ABC TV’s ‘Armchair Theatre’. The instant potential for a series is evident in that de facto pilot (which happily survives) as we are introduced to a spy and an espionage landscape as far removed from the glamour of 007 as only John Le Carré had ever previously explored. Played with brooding brilliance by Edward Woodward, David Callan works for ‘The Section’, a shady branch of the secret service that appears to specialise in all the dirtiest jobs the State doesn’t like to think about. This is the Cold War’s grubby, sordid frontline – a place where everything from blackmail to assassination can be utilised to eliminate the enemy – and Callan is its most reluctantly effective hit-man. Callan knows he’s the best, but it’s not something he’s remotely proud of; if anything, the job has left him riddled with self-loathing; every time he takes a life, he marks the act with weary resignation rather than satisfaction, for Callan knows the moment he pulls the trigger he’s morally inferior to the man who failed to pull the trigger on him.

Perhaps befitting a series of its era, class consciousness is a recurrent factor when it comes to the title character; Callan’s background is clearly working-class, whilst his ultimate superior (who goes by the title ‘Hunter’) is old-school public school. This helps exacerbate tension as Callan’s vociferous tirades against the unemotional suits issuing death sentences from behind a desk suggests he almost sees them as WWI generals sending Tommy over the top. It doesn’t help that Callan’s most regularly seen fellow agent is another product of privilege – the arrogant, upper-class Toby Meres (an unforgettable performance by Anthony Valentine). Meres evidently enjoys his job as much as Callan loathes it and the two rub each other up the wrong way in the best possible way for the viewer. Whereas so many aspects of The Section make Callan despair of human nature, Meres isn’t exactly plagued by a conscience; he’s not even troubled by the methods employed by the department’s resident psychological sadist, the sinister Dr Snell, whose basement torture chamber is the destination of all captured enemy agents if they manage to be taken alive.

Rarely has the work of the intelligence services been portrayed with such bleak brutality as in ‘Callan’. The Section isn’t presented as remotely heroic, though Callan himself emerges as a heroic figure if only because the viewer empathises with his simmering disdain for, and seething revulsion at, the world he finds himself in – the sole character in The Section to react this way. His only respite comes via his unlikely hobby of model soldiers and the war-games he engages in with them; he also finds strange solace in the smelly company of the habitual criminal known only as Lonely (Russell Hunter), whose own specialist talents often prove useful for The Section, even if Callan’s superiors strongly disapprove. Although on the surface Callan appears to have as much affection for Lonely as Basil Fawlty has for Manuel, there’s an undeniable bond between the two men that is actually quite touching. Perhaps Callan sees in Lonely’s criminality an honesty missing from the far worse criminal acts carried out with perfect legality by The Section and by himself. Lonely is an unpretentious petty crook, pure and simple, not a cold-blooded killer masquerading as a gentleman. Callan certainly has no comparable relationship with any work colleague, most of whom are as untroubled by the job as Toby Meres.

In the first colour series of ‘Callan’ (1970), Meres is absent and his place is taken by the younger and even more arrogant James Cross, played by a sublimely swaggering Patrick Mower. Callan returns to the fold following a spell of convalescence after being brainwashed into shooting dead the third man to sit in Hunter’s chair, and Cross is visibly miffed at his return; throughout their time together, Cross is attempting to establish himself as The Section’s top man and is incurably jealous of Callan’s status. However, Cross is unexpectedly killed off midway through the fourth series, an event which Patrick Mower once recalled led to ‘Cross Lives!’ being scrawled on the bonnet of his car the day after the episode originally aired in 1972. This incident takes place during a brief period in which Callan himself is promoted to Hunter, though sitting behind a desk is not Callan’s natural place and he soon finds himself back out in the field of Cold War conflict.

‘Callan’ ends on a high, if somewhat ambiguous, note with a superb trilogy of episodes featuring the pursuit of a KGB agent code-named Richmond (played with urbane ruthlessness by T.P. McKenna); each man recognises himself in the other and Callan goes against orders by adhering to Richmond’s desperate plea to kill him rather than take him alive. The climax of the series implies Callan will no longer be employed by The Section as a consequence of his actions, though Callan himself knows all-too well that nobody employed by The Section is ever really allowed to leave it. A rare episode in which Hunter’s beautiful secretary Liz takes centre stage by going AWOL underlines the dangers of one individual carrying around so much top secret information in their head; Hunter’s immediate response when Liz fails to show up for work is to put The Section on red alert, so terrified is he of her falling into enemy hands and being emptied of every sensitive detail.

The chillingly clinical approach to the sanctity of life prevalent throughout The Section is a necessity of the job, but by placing a human being like Callan in that world we the audience can identify with his humanity and be as appalled by the lack of it around him as Callan himself is. It’s a clever way of giving the viewer a stake in the series, though we are able to enjoy Meres’ posh-boy thuggery and Lonely’s seedy body odour in a way that Callan can’t, revelling in the wonderful characterisations, peerless performances, memorable dialogue and exceptional storytelling. Coming back to ‘Callan’ again has made me feel that television’s 50-year progression from studio-based series shot on videotape to filmed series shot on location has somehow resulted in the revival of the more melodramatic tropes that ‘Callan’ provided such a sobering antidote to, making ‘Callan’ itself oddly feel even more realistic half-a-century on than many an equivalent series today. More screen time is given over to the development of the characters into well-rounded, believable people than to the shoot-outs, and the viewer is the beneficiary. Add that swinging light-bulb and haunting, reverb-drenched theme tune and you’re left with one of the true jewels in British TV’s crown.

© The Editor

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THE MAIN EVENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Editor

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SPIRITS OF ’71

Wyngarde Sketch - CopyIn between flexing like a whore and falling wanking to the floor, time still manages to squeeze a few goalpost-moving chores into the mix as well. Yes, I know I’ve written about it before, but even if it doesn’t go the whole hog and blow my mind, it never fails to at least light a little fuse there whenever I measure distance. If I was to look back, say, fifty years from the date of my birth, I would find myself either on the Western Front or storming the gates of the Winter Palace. Today, the same span returns you to 1971; and because some of my earliest recollections stem from that year, the factor of living memory makes it feel so much closer than half-a-century away. Naturally, my 1971 would have been considerably different from yours if you were approaching adulthood or were already there. My 1971 retrospectively resembles the set of a public information film; that’s how it looks to me now, anyway. My world was shot on 16mm. It was small-scale, compressed into compressed little houses on compressed little streets with compressed outside privies and compressed corner shops. But as I was only knee-high to a midget at the time, it didn’t seem especially claustrophobic.

EnaAll doors were open to a 3-4 year-old on that street; I can still picture the interiors of most houses because I seemed to have a free pass into all of them. I must have been a likeable kid, I guess. Despite my easy familiarity with them, however, every adult was formally addressed as ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’ bar an old lady in a permanent headscarf who was known to all the children as ‘Auntie’. There was a middle-aged woman called Mrs Sharp a few doors down and I remember I always addressed her as Mrs Sharples; I can’t recall if she looked like Ena, but she didn’t appear to mind my confusion. Actually, considering it bore more than a passing resemblance to a certain street on the other side of the Pennines, the residents didn’t disappoint. I remember there being an equivalent Minnie Caldwell and Albert Tatlock and Elsie Tanner, but I suppose they came with the furniture back then. Any available neighbour was happy to look after me if the need arose, and it often did. Other than the ones who were drawing their pensions, many of the adults playing central roles in my 1971 were probably half the age I am now, which is a sobering thought.

Charlie GeorgeFor me, 1971 was the last year before school, so it retains a sense of innocence and purity in the memory, coated in infant amber that contrasts with the wider world of 1971 that I learnt of gradually, long after my personal experience of the year had slipped into history. I can’t, for example, recall any major news story of 1971 from the actual time. Even decimalisation, which dramatically changed the country’s century-old currency in February, didn’t register because I was simply too young to have acquainted myself with the old money before it had gone. The Ibrox Stadium disaster; the disastrous introduction of Internment in Ulster; the generational culture war of the ‘Oz’ obscenity trial; the devastating famine in Bangladesh; Idi Amin seizing power in Uganda; the death of Jim Morrison – all events too huge to inhabit my little head, all events that needed me to grow a bit more before I had the space to take them on board. Even Charlie George’s memorable FA Cup Final winner that sealed the Double for Arsenal – and it’s exactly fifty years ago tomorrow when the lanky, long-haired legend lay flat out on the Wembley turf after scoring it – yes, even that passed me by in 1971, though my father was at the game.

BolanAt least my ear was picking up signals from elsewhere. Pop music was connecting me to otherworldly places that only telly, comics, and astronaut-driven moon-buggies were otherwise informing me existed; pop impacted in a way that news stories from the year didn’t. There are a remarkable number of hits from 1971 that take me back there, and it was a richly varied year for music. The first stirrings of Glam Rock were infiltrating the singles chart and illuminating ‘Top of the Pops’, with both T.Rex and Slade scoring their inaugural No.1s; Elton John and Rod Stewart also broke through to a scene where the giants of the decade just-gone were still the standard bearers, though for perhaps the final time. The recent cultural earthquake of the Beatles’ break-up saw a flurry of eagerly-anticipated solo releases, yet a bickering Lennon & McCartney were overshadowed by the feel-good vibes of George Harrison. Both The Who and The Rolling Stones delivered the goods again with landmark releases, whilst acts to whom the 60s was merely a launch-pad, such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Joni Mitchell, went from strength-to-strength by unleashing albums that remain classics in what turned out to be quite a year for LPs that have stood the test of time. And while all this was going on, David Bowie and Alice Cooper were waiting in the wings, preparing to catch 1972 unawares.

8Hair was fashionably long for both sexes in 1971 – and there were only two then. Skirts were shorter than before or since; if you’re a leg man, watching any TV series from the beginning of the 70s means you’re in for a treat. The term ‘Metrosexual’ had yet to be coined, but many of the leading men on television in 1971 that the ladies liked were undeniably well-groomed. Two of the most preposterous albeit enjoyable series from the ITC stable of flamboyant escapism premiered that year, ‘The Persuaders’ and ‘Jason King’. The former saw Roger Moore essentially auditioning for the Bond role, though the character of Lord Brett Sinclair was perhaps a little too effete to fill 007’s squarer shoes. Similarly, the immortal Peter Wyngarde as the hilarious novelist-cum-secret agent who’d first appeared in ‘Department S’ a couple of years before was far too camp to convince as someone you’d trust with a licence to kill; but within the confines of his imaginary international playboy/espionage landscape, he made perfect sense. A world of your own was something I could relate to myself in 1971.

OzWhen the pages of ‘Oz’ were dissected at the Old Bailey that summer, the moral majority recoiled in horror at what the youth were getting up to, but the Christian backlash against ‘The Permissive Society’ was gathering pace via the likes of the Festival of Light; it also had plenty to object to when Stanley Kubrick released ‘A Clockwork Orange’ at the end of the year, despite the fact that the story itself is actually as moral as anything a Bible-basher would recognise from his book of choice. The violence perpetrated by Alex and his Droogs seemed to cause less palpitations to Mary Whitehouse and her God-fearing cohorts than the sexual element in the movie, yet violence was a greater threat to the stability of the streets, what with the emergence of that working-class terrorist, the Skinhead. The new urban bogeyman was making his mark on the football terraces in 1971, with hooliganism becoming the latest social menace. But it wouldn’t be a flash in the 1971 pan; it would outlast both the year and the Skinhead himself.

002For all the moral panic fuelling Fleet Street, however, the wave of self-confidence carried over from the heyday of England’s swinging seems to have still been largely intact in 1971 – a last hurrah for faith in the future. Maybe it only began to finally, belatedly disintegrate with the chill economic wind of the following year, the one that whipped-up Britannia’s skirts to reveal the moth-eaten, make-do-and-mend underwear of a grand old lady whose best days were behind her. Stitching up the holes in her knickers by candlelight in 1972, she must have wondered what went wrong. Her one-time protégé on the other side of the Atlantic by the name of Uncle Sam had his own problems at the time, but doesn’t everybody, whatever the year? It is always the worst of times for one person as much as the best of times for another; it just depends where you’re at. Where I was at in 1971 is on scratchy and grainy subconscious celluloid now, but the impression made by it is as sharp and vivid as ever. Some good stuff came out of that year, and I’m glad I was there, half-a-century ago.

© The Editor

DON’T CALL ME SHIRLEY

WilliamsAs has become evident in recent years re what can no longer be said in polite company, once words drift out of the colloquial lexicon, it’s rare for them to be welcomed back. Like ex-lovers or disgraced celebrities, all evidence of them is wilfully erased to the point whereby they only continue to exist within the context of whatever caused them to be blackballed in the first place. Many words which disappear are never seen again in the present tense; and if they happen to unavoidably feature in a work of drama produced before their social exclusion, contemporary witnesses are warned of their presence as a kind of trigger disclaimer. A few words that don’t fall into the ‘rebranded offensive’ category simply fall out of common parlance because they sound so old-fashioned or are too associated with a past no longer relevant. Random words heard routinely during my own childhood such as courting, demob suit, shop steward and goolies spring to mind. Added to that could be housewife – once a valid job title, yet nowadays usually uttered by actual housewives in a rather embarrassed tone of voice that implies it’s a poor substitute for a real career.

I’m sure ‘housewife’ is regarded in some circles as a demeaning insult, though it used to describe an entire – and considerable – demographic; famously, of course, it even inspired a hugely popular radio request show that ran on the BBC Light Programme for 20 years, ‘Housewives’ Choice’. If ‘Woman’s Hour’ was intended to act as an afternoon instruction manual for those whose workplace was the domestic environment, ‘Housewives’ Choice’ soundtracked the morning following the exodus of hubby and the kids; the presenter spun discs chosen by the listeners and established an intimate relationship with the audience, providing something that was as near to an interactive experience as was possible in the pre-internet age. The best illustration of this comes in the wonderful opening sequence of the 1963 movie, ‘Billy Liar’; it brilliantly evokes a vanished Britain with a montage of all houses great and small across the country, accompanied by a burst of ‘Housewives’ Choice’ as a million women hanging out their washing wait to see if their request will be read out on air.

Despite the radical revival of feminist rhetoric during the 1970s, being a housewife remained the majority option for half the population – indeed, ‘The Housewife’ was a much-coveted figure for advertisers and politicians alike. This is particularly notable in party political broadcasts of the period; whenever one of the small number of well-known female MPs appears they tend to address ‘women’s issues’ as ‘housewives’ issues’. When Shirley Williams was, along with Barbara Castle, the most prominent female member of Harold Wilson’s team, she appeared in a February 1974 Election broadcast brandishing a shopping basket, pointing out how various items of foodstuffs had increased in price under Ted Heath’s Government. It was impossible to imagine Tony Benn or Jim Callaghan doing likewise, but Williams became Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection when Labour returned to power, so I guess her supermarket sweep made a kind of sense.

Prior to the General Election victory of February ’74, Shirley Williams had served two years as Shadow Home Secretary, which was an unprecedented promotion for a female MP at the time. It’s a shame her stint took place during the era before the broadcasting of Parliament, for it would be fascinating to see how Williams squared up against an old-school Tory Alpha Male like Reginald Maudling. In office, however, Shirley Williams’ Cabinet position reflected the ‘home economics’ role most female members of the electorate were still familiar with; she’d been Minister for Education and Science in Wilson’s second administration in the late 60s, a period when few Westminster women could expect to ascend the heights later reached by the likes of Priti Patel, Theresa May, Jacqui Smith, Margaret Beckett or – naturally – Margaret Thatcher. So, in her own way, Shirley Williams – or, as she was eventually known, Dame Shirley, the Baroness Williams of Crosby – was something of a trailblazer. Her death at the age of 90 means this here blog is in danger of reverting to an ongoing obituary again, but as a break from Covid-19 or Woke-21, marking the recently-departed can actually come as rather welcome breather for yours truly. Besides, I find any politician from the era Shirley Williams made her mark in interesting, because they were genuinely interesting times.

Shirley Williams’ status as one of the Labour Party’s original glass ceiling-smashers is somewhat overlooked now. If she’s recalled at all in Labour circles, it’s more likely to be with a regretful sigh following the part she played in abandoning the Party to the Left in 1981, alongside Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. As one quarter of ‘the Gang of Four’, Williams didn’t so much cross the floor of the House as move into a new conservatory christened the Social Democratic Party, better known by its acronym of SDP. She’d been elected to Parliament at the 1964 General Election as Member for Hitchin after three previous failed attempts, though – as with many MPs of her generation – she was far from being a career politician, even if her eventual destiny almost seems preordained when one considers her background. She came from classic academic, upper middle-class liberal stock.

The product of a highly intellectual household – her father was the philosopher Sir George Catlin and her mother ‘Testament of Youth’ author Vera Brittain – the woman born Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain Catlin was schooled in old-school Socialism from a young age, though it’s curious that she was initially drawn towards acting. As an evacuee in the USA during WWII, she even screen-tested for the leading role in ‘National Velvet’, losing out to Liz Taylor; she carried on treading the boards as a student, playing Cordelia in a touring production of ‘King Lear’ by the Oxford University Dramatic Society. After graduating from Oxford as a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, politics and economics, Williams studied further at New York’s Columbia University before following in the Michael Foot-steps by beginning a career as a journalist upon returning home. Barely had she begun, however, before her eagerness to enter politics was evident as she stood at the 1954 Harwich by-election.

Europhile Williams was a key figure on the right of the Labour Party at a time when simmering tensions between both wings of it were masterfully kept in check by Harold Wilson’s expert man (and woman) management. When Wilson resigned in 1976, Jim Callaghan just about held things together, but defeat at the 1979 General Election – when Williams lost her seat – proved to be the writing on the wall for the post-war political consensus, not merely within British politics itself but within the Labour Party. Williams was the first SDP MP elected to Parliament when she won the 1981 Crosby by-election, though she lost the seat at the 1983 General Election and never returned to the Commons thereafter. The breakaway formation of the SDP may have been a short-lived experiment, but it certainly contributed towards Labour’s 18-year exile from government; that said, the SDP’s brand of democratic socialism also undoubtedly proved to be a major influence on New Labour. By the time of the Labour landslide of 1997, Shirley Williams was already a Lib Dem Peer, though she was officially based in the USA as a Harvard professor.

Whether or not Shirley Williams can be spoken of in the same breath as some of her political contemporaries is something open to debate; she lacked the ruthlessness required to be a contender for the first female PM, though her impact on Blair’s generation was indisputable, and I’ve no doubt her high profile at a time when politics was very much a boy’s club helped pave the way for an increase in women entering Parliament. But she’s one more player from an era of giants gone to that great debating chamber in the sky, and her departure yet again shines an unflattering light on the dwarves struggling to stand on those shoulders today.

© The Editor

WE COULD BE HEROES

FrankWhen the death was announced last week of Frank Worthington, it was the latest passing in a disconcerting recent run of former footballers who were more or less all gracing the field of play at the same time forty-fifty years ago. The fantastically flamboyant Worthington was one of the great entertainers of the game when football’s great entertainers were Nureyev on the pitch and Robin Askwith off it – a generation inspired to express their extrovert personalities by following the trail blazed by George Best, those for whom giving punters their money’s worth mattered more than winning at all costs. Perhaps not entirely unconnected to this attitude was the fact Worthington never played for a club challenging for honours; his best years were at Huddersfield Town, Leicester City and Bolton Wanderers in the 1970s, though he came within a whisker of signing for Shankly’s Liverpool. Perhaps his reluctance to moderate his appetite for extracurricular excesses cost him there, but Frank Worthington’s often-breathtaking skills at least earned him a small handful of England caps, even if he was one of those players for whom anecdotes in the bank rated higher than trophies in the cabinet.

Like most famous faces admired from afar and never listed in one’s own personal address book, I didn’t actually know Frank Worthington; I’ve a feeling I may have once asked for (and received) his autograph when he was playing for a struggling Leeds United side en route to relegation in the early 80s, but that would’ve been the closest I came to sharing his space. Otherwise, he and I occupied very different worlds. However, his death – coming so soon after the passing of other greats from the same footballing era such as Peter Lorimer and Colin Bell – nevertheless resonates beyond the online obituary or 30-second news headline followed by the weather forecast. Why? Well, he and they were Gods of youth, walking tall at a time when I was small. An impressionable kid saw these guys in the pages of ‘Shoot’, watched them exhibit their talents on TV, attempted to replicate those talents with jumpers for goalposts, and sometimes pinned their pictures to his wall. They were partners in a childhood contract that nobody who’s risen to prominence in the last 30 years could ever enter into.

Such glamorous luminaries were in their prime when eyes were wide and in need of an exciting alternative to adult role models whose austere authoritarianism hardly worked as a great PR campaign for the grownup world that kid would one day have no choice but to belong to. They had a head start over later members of the household name fraternity, in possession of a sentimental seniority that will always place them in a very special elite constellation of stars. They were pivotal to a period in which they were the key ambassadors of the future, representing a wholly positive and inspirational idea of the future as a land of limitless possibilities. Sometimes it’s often hard to recall a moment when the future wasn’t an ominous spectre hovering over the present, a malignant shadow suggesting more of the same but even worse; yet, the autumnal adult perspective hasn’t always been the sole viewpoint. It just feels that way. No, there was once another concept of tomorrow, one that every personality to drift into one’s nascent vision during formative years pointed the way towards.

As a child, you are quickly made aware you are not the finished article, that you will eventually be the same height (or even higher) than the parent towering over you, that you won’t be at school forever (thank God), and that – on paper, at least – you could become anything you want to; you just need someone somewhere to present you with a range of tantalising options. Yes, you too may one day juggle a ball like Frank Worthington or play guitar like Ziggy played guitar; you may climb Nelson’s Column without a harness like John Noakes or wander around quarries in Surrey, escaping alien life-forms with a mini-skirted sidekick and dressed in a velvet jacket-and-cape ensemble – like Jon Pertwee. These guys made you believe the future was worth waiting for as long as it was their future and not the dull, workmanlike future of the teacher or the parent or the priest, or whichever everyday adult figure dispensed discipline and attempted to indoctrinate the child with a dreary design for life that had no appeal at all. These colourful characters were vital as living, breathing, indisputable evidence that the adult world didn’t necessarily equate with mortgages and insurance policies and a dozen other fatal attractions. They planted a seed that we continue to carry around inside us even if we’re not always aware it’s there. Whatever destiny lay in wait for us once we graduate from the University of Life at which they were our tutors, the interior imprint they left behind remains a precious, indelible stamp reminding us who we once were when they were helping to mould us in the most benign of fashions.

Often I see the individual on his or her path through life as a giant Airfix kit in the process of being put together by a team of people over time; the team is an ever-changing unit – as one person leaves, they’re replaced by another; and whilst some drift in and contribute one piece to the kit before drifting out again, others stick to the job at hand for several years. And, of course, the kit is never finished; new bits are constantly being added and other bits that used to fit but no longer do are removed. Sometimes people can enter our lives, dramatically reshape it, and are then gone in a blink; yet they have often altered us far deeper than someone who studiously stuck around much longer. Similarly, those we never met and simply observed from a distance can exert a significant influence by hovering over us for decades, with their point of entry enhanced for life if it came early enough in proceedings.

I think this is why we occasionally feel deeply affected when a person of note we never personally knew passes away, especially if they’ve been an omnipotent fixture that has always been there and always should be. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be the passing of a huge pop cultural figure whose influence was undeniable – a David Bowie, for example; sometimes we’re caught by surprise when it’s somebody we didn’t even realise meant something to us; sometimes it can be a minor character we never imagined was as intrinsic to that tapestry as the characters dominating the foreground – an actor, a TV presenter, a comedian, and even a politician. As long as they were present at our birth or in the room as we began to explore it, they count, whether we know it or not; indeed, we often only know it when we hear they’ve gone, because when they’ve gone that little piece of them inside us is gone too – and that was part of us.

It’s bad enough watching those who are still around get old. We don’t want them to age; we want them to always be at the peak of their powers; we want to them to remain frozen in their prime, even if that means we’ll gradually catch up with them and eventually overtake them. Their dismaying deterioration acts as an uncomfortable mirror on our own and their fate serves as a depressing premonition; if they didn’t wrinkle and wither, maybe we wouldn’t either. I don’t want Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger or Keith Richards or Bob Dylan to be pushing 80; it just doesn’t seem right. And when a character like Frank Worthington leaves the pitch, the childhood XI loses another irreplaceable player at a time when the sub’s bench is noticeably empty. I dunno. I guess the best we can hope for is extra-time – and maybe a replay. It’s a game of two halves, after all.

© The Editor

THE BABY AND THE BATHWATER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Editor