LONDON CALLING

Radio 3Many years ago I visited a museum housing the numerous inventions of Thomas Edison and heard with my own ears his 1878 recording of ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb’ on a tinfoil sheet via phonograph cylinder, having been led to believe it was the first-ever recording of the human voice. I subsequently learnt of Edison’s protection racket that forced the embryonic moving picture industry to relocate from the East Coast to the West, and was pleased to discover this apparently unpleasant individual had been beaten to sound recording by the best part of 20 years. It is now officially acknowledged that the actual inaugural recording of the human voice took place in 1860 by a Frenchman, Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. It’s worth putting his achievement into context by noting other events of 1860. This is the year that saw the publication of George Eliot’s ‘The Mill on the Floss’, Wilkie Collins’s ‘The Woman in White’, and the beginning of Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’ as serialised in his magazine, ‘All the Year Round’; it was the year that Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce defended Darwin’s theories in one of the most famous Oxford University debates, with none other than Lewis Carroll (AKA Charles Dodgson) in attendance; and the further laying of future foundations took place with the first recognised football fixture, Sheffield FC versus Hallam FC, as well as the opening of the first-ever fish & chip shops.

So, into this mid-Victorian melee we’re all familiar with arrives the means of preserving the present on tape – or paper, or cylinder, whichever you prefer. However one looks at it, this was one of the great breakthroughs of mankind in an epoch that seemed to contain an abundance of them. Like all inventions of the 19th century, it took place with simultaneous experiments that would eventually combine to produce the mass-media communications of the 20th century, with radio being the first beneficiary. The technology of wireless telegraphy can be dated as far back as the 1830s, but numerous pioneers in the field throughout the 19th century led the way to the groundbreaking visionary Gugliemro Marconi, who set up his own company in 1894 to develop the potential of wireless telegraphy centred on Hertzian radio transmission waves. Marconi worked out a way to transmit signals around a mile and-a-half, which was then believed to be as far as radio waves could be transmitted; once Marconi calculated the means of transmitting as far as two miles, he was awarded a British patent and established a radio station on the Isle of Wight in 1897 as well as opening a wireless factory in Chelmsford.

At the same time that Marconi was working in the UK, the Canadian-American inventor Reginald Fessenden was claiming he’d transmitted the human voice rather than Morse Code messages by 1900, managing a distance of a mile; Fessenden was responsible for the first recognisable radio broadcast, taking place in Massachusetts in 1906, when he read a passage from the Bible and played the violin, a broadcast that was picked up by ships at sea. The US continued to pioneer radio with the first acknowledged news broadcast from Detroit in 1920; an indication of just how rapidly radio technology was moving also came in 1920 when a New York station transmitted a series of music concerts that could be heard up to a distance of 100 miles away, a great leap forward replicated in Argentina that same year, despite the dearth of radio receivers to actually hear it. Meanwhile, back in Blighty Marconi’s experiments paid off with the establishment of a station known as 2LO in 1922, situated at Marconi House in the Strand.

As with all technological breakthroughs, the development of wireless technology in the opening decades of the 20th century is so easily taken for granted when those of us for whom it’s always been there find it impossible to imagine a time without it. Prior to the invention of recorded sound, let alone the radio, one could only listen to music if one happened to be within physical earshot of where it was being played; suddenly, it was possible to hear a past-tense recording of an orchestra or hear it as it was being played live hundreds of miles away; this had never previously been possible in the history of human civilisation, so it’s no wonder the seemingly limitless possibilities of recorded and broadcast sound caught on like wildfire in the 1920s. However, with the GPO responsible for issuing licences to broadcast in the UK, concerns over interference with military communications cautiously limited transmissions on 2LO and its sister station 2MT to an hour a day. The pastime of tuning in to wireless broadcasts had been something of a minority interest in Britain until it was decided to bring everything under one convenient umbrella organisation which was christened the British Broadcasting Company. Stations broadcasting in Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff and Glasgow fell under the BBC banner and laid the foundations for the future BBC Regions in the process.

The formation of the BBC in 1922 – inaugurated by the debut broadcast of 2LO from Marconi House exactly 100 years ago today – helped spread radio beyond the confines of audio enthusiasts hunched over their ‘cat’s whiskers’ sets and transformed it into a mainstream phenomenon. Within a year, the BBC had relocated to new studios at Savoy Hill, had established its own listings magazine, the Radio Times (first edition published in September 1923) and had extended its reach to Aberdeen, Bournemouth and Sheffield. By the end of 1923, Big Ben’s chimes had been transmitted for the first time as a means of welcoming the New Year across the country and networked news bulletins had become regular fixtures on the airwaves; 1924 was barely out of nappies before the Shipping Forecast had made itself heard on the BBC, and the likes of the Greenwich Time Signal, ‘The Daily Service’ and ‘Choral Evensong’ were not long in following. It wasn’t until 1927 that the British Broadcasting Corporation was born, but the various elements we continue to regard as BBC mainstays were already in place before the company became a corporation.

Like many contemporary listeners and viewers, being exposed to all the self-congratulatory centenary celebrations of an institution that hasn’t resembled the institution it used to be for the best part of a decade or more makes the contrast between then and now unavoidably glaring. Being forced to look back is an exercise that merely serves to remind us of everything the BBC has lost – or has voluntarily surrendered – of late, and the BBC itself has unwittingly indulged in this exercise to its own detriment, having to fall back on its rich cultural legacy because it can hardly point to its current output in order to justify its continued existence. The impression one comes away with is that the BBC is another one of this country’s glorious museums, with its most priceless exhibits at least 30 years old; although these dusty artefacts are all worthy of preservation, to carry on pretending anything produced today will one day stand alongside those heirlooms is to fail to recognise the ongoing value of the BBC’s family silver expired sometime at the beginning of the Millennium.

Yes, it’s worth recalling the genesis of the BBC as a means of tracking the progress of mass-communications in this country, for it was indeed a significant development that shaped the nature of broadcasting for three invigorating decades – until the inevitable breaking of the monopoly with the arrival of ITV in 1955. It’s futile to try and recapture the sense of excitement there must have been in turning the dial in 1922 and coming across a string quartet playing live at a venue situated at the other end of the country; I guess you had to be there. But it should be acknowledged as an important signpost on the road to where we are now, even if where we are now is somewhere that a BBC has little relevance; and the main blame for that rests with the BBC itself.

© The Editor

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THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST

vlcsnap-2022-11-01-10h46m52s939Every innovation in television presentation eventually lapses into cliché – and the documentary genre is no exception. Perhaps because I’ve watched more documentaries than any other TV genre in the past 30-odd years I notice it more, but the tired tricks of the trade do niggle a little and you crave a more adventurous director to look for other ways of visually accompanying the narration. There’s the guaranteed aerial shot as the camera sweeps across the landscape – a trick made all the easier (not to say lazier) these days thanks to developments in drone technology; and, of course, there’s the shot of the presenter strolling down a crowded street, addressing a camera half-a-mile away as bemused members of the public stare at a stranger talking to themselves – although, having said that, we’re more inured to strangers having a conversation with the Invisible Man ever since earpieces and hands-free mobiles became widespread tools of annoyance. A history documentary sometimes resorts to the dreaded re-enactment of a significant historical moment by using unknown actors whose performances are usually guaranteed to secure their anonymity; and I recall around 20-25 years ago there was another documentary cliché that thankfully seems to have disappeared now, that of a past event under discussion being illustrated by fake, shaky Super-8 cine-film – and that technique was used over and over again.

And then there are, naturally, the presenters themselves – some of whom exude an excitable enthusiasm for their subject that suggests the old Saturday morning kids TV shows would once have been their rightful home. In the last 15-20 years there’s also been a rash of female presenters when it comes to history documentaries, almost as though they roll off a conveyor belt somewhere at the BBC and arrive as fully-formed, cut-glass minxes with a Nigella-esque, suggestive twinkle in their eyes – or maybe that’s just me. Anyway, when one becomes accustomed to these familiar factors, the viewer can’t help but be jolted out of apathy when a presenter appears who dispenses with the tiresome tropes and catches you utterly unawares – a presenter who says of presenters, ‘I despise the breed; they wave their arms around all the time and tell you they’re going on a f**king journey.’ But Jonathan Meades doesn’t really have to distance himself from his fellow presenters, for I doubt anyone would ever confuse him with belonging to the same species, nor confuse his programmes with the kind of documentaries they present.

The once-portly polymath who impressively lost seven stone in twelve months following a diagnosis of morbid obesity during his greed-fest as the Times’ restaurant critic has been a semi-regular on the more select TV screens since the late 80s. And although the work-rate has slowed down a little of late (he is 75, after all), it’s amazing what a body of television work he has to his name, as I’ve belatedly realised through revisiting some of his past documentaries via YouTube, some of which I saw at the time and some of which are new to me. Whilst he has made programmes on one of his pet subjects – food – Meades is primarily known for writing and presenting inspired, idiosyncratic and occasionally surreal documentaries about architecture. In fact, I first became aware of Meades around 1990 when he introduced a rerun of archive programmes by Ian Nairn, one of Meades’ inspirations; it was only natural I then began to tune in whenever Meades himself returned with one of his own shows. Yesterday I watched his 1998 film on Birmingham, ‘Heart By-Pass’, and laughed out loud more than I ever do at any alleged ‘comedy’ series produced for TV today.

To make one both laugh and think at the same time is a unique gift indeed, yet Meades manages it with his simultaneously intelligent and irreverent scripts, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering Meades has been a distinctively witty (not to say deadpan) voice in literary circles for half-a-century. But, as good as the scripts are the best thing he brings to his highly original shows is the caustic character of Jonathan Meades he created for television, the plump refugee from ‘Reservoir Dogs’ with the comic timing of Benny Hill; the RADA graduate who decided he didn’t have what it took to become an actor at least put his training to good use in the end – formulating a style he himself compared to a hybrid of lecture hall and music hall, a perfect marriage of high and low art. Moreover, working with a collaborator on the same quirky wavelength – director Francis Hanly – has enabled Meades’ programmes to have a look and feel quite unlike any others on TV made in the last 30 years. One can never drift away watching a Jonathan Meades documentary, for you never quite know what’s coming next; every time you think you’ve got him sussed he surprises you. This is not a man who was designed to host leisurely strolls through nice buildings for BBC1 on a Sunday evening; if a series devoted to the eternally-divisive architectural subspecies of Modernism called Brutalism belongs anywhere, its natural home is BBC4, and its natural host is Jonathan Meades.

The most recent Jonathan Meades documentary that springs to mind was his brilliantly incisive investigation into jargon, as used by the press, politicians, contemporary artists, broadcasters and football pundits, to name but a few miscreants. Such programmes warrant repeated views, as it’s very easy to miss a serious, salient point whilst laughing at the preceding sardonic observation, so overflowing is the information contained within them. Often during his shows, a fantastic word will emerge from his lips – usually a word the viewer has never heard emerge from anyone’s lips before. True, some do pluck words from obscurity merely to demonstrate how clever they are, but one never gets that impression with Meades; you know the word emerged because he felt it was the most expressive word to embellish the point he was trying to make, and he is a something of a sorcerer in search of an apprentice when it comes to the English language, hoping the more curious viewer will be prompted to reach for the dictionary and perhaps may even one day integrate some of his linguistic gems into their personal lexicon. That’s the kind of thing teachers are supposed to do, though few teachers most of us had ever did. This is why Jonathan Meades is a special presence on a medium weighed down by the witless and the intellectually-challenged.

Until catching the date at the end of the ‘Jonathan Meades on Jargon’ documentary – which I watched again a couple of weeks ago – I didn’t realise it was made as far back as 2018. Since then, Meades has produced only one further programme. In 2019, he added to his characteristically mischievous occasional series on the architecture born of Totalitarian regimes by profiling the buildings of Spain that appeared during the rule of General Franco, having already done a similar job on Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Like Ian Nairn before him, Meades possesses a perverse delight in praising the kind of buildings most view with either disdain or disinterest; and in the same way that Nairn was enamoured of the terminally-unfashionable Belgium, Meades once produced a programme celebrating the less chic corners of Northern Europe. And why not? Haven’t we all seen enough travelogues on the obvious destinations?

Meades himself once observed that he and his programme-making team had gradually received less money to make their shows from the BBC, saying ‘We used to be a convoy; now we are a Smart car’, and there’s always the sneaking suspicion that genuinely original voices are pushed further to the margins of television in the desperate rush to appeal to the mass audience. At one time, Meades was the quintessential character BBC2 was created to host, whereas now even his migration to BBC4 is under threat as that once-great alternative is downgraded to little more than a repeat channel. Perhaps we’ve no choice but to accept Meades has done his bit and has earned his retirement, and we can always revisit his best bits online, after all. But nobody is holding their breath that an heir is waiting in the wings.

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AFTERNOON DELIGHT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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FINAL SCORE

Football RadioSure, it’s not the end of the world; but it’s the end of something. The BBC’s decision to drop the classified football results from the long-running ‘Sports Report’ sounds like one of those crass decisions made by a new controller of the station in question (5 Live) who’s keen to make his mark and shake things up a bit. It’s a familiar pattern on BBC radio, like when the Radio 4 UK Theme was axed back in 2006. Commissioned in 1978 to open the station every morning after the handover from the World Service, the medley of traditional English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish melodies heralded the dawn of the day’s broadcasting and quickly became as much of a wireless institution as the theme tune to ‘The Archers’ or the sound of ‘Sailing By’ announcing the arrival of the Shipping Forecast. The man who wielded the axe for the UK Theme was the then-controller of Radio 4, Mark Damazer; many were suspicious this was an action motivated by embarrassment within the ivory corridors of Broadcasting House that such a popular piece of music didn’t reflect the way the BBC likes to think of the nation, though Damazer claimed what he described as ‘a pacy news briefing’ was what listeners wanted first thing on a morning. Well, perhaps it was what the BBC overlords felt they ought to want first thing on a morning. After all, they know what’s best for us.

At a time when theme tunes introduced virtually all radio shows, the debut of ‘Sports Report’ in January 1948 naturally came with its own sonic calling card. ‘Out of the Blue’ was in the same vein as other jaunty themes to be found on the BBC Light Programme during this era, such as ‘Music While You Work’ or ‘Top of the Form’; it fitted perfectly into its times, yet along with the aforementioned theme from ‘The Archers’ and ‘Sailing By’ – as well as the theme to ‘Desert Island Discs’ – it’s one of the few to survive into the 21st century. ‘Out of the Blue’ has long since passed the stage of being regarded as old-fashioned, and its anachronistic sound is now recognised as the aural equivalent of a vintage item of clothing, cherished precisely because it is so antiquated and out of step with the here and now. In a sense, such a tune becomes timeless if it sticks around long enough; had it been replaced in the 80s or 90s, those replacement tunes would now sound more dated and old-fashioned than ‘Out of the Blue’ ever will.

The theme to ‘Sports Report’ is one of those pieces of music so bound up with the time and day of its transmission that it becomes inseparable from it, so utterly woven is it into the fabric of the Saturday teatime experience. Indeed, it’s as impossible to imagine hearing it on any other day as it would be to listen to a Christmas song in the middle of July. But it’s not simply ‘Out of the Blue’ itself that has been regarded as a time signal for millions of listeners for more than 70 years; what have always traditionally followed it are the classified football results. Remarkably, this weekly roll-call of winners and losers has only ever been recited by three different voices for the entire run of ‘Sports Report’. John Webster held the post from 1948 to 1974; James Alexander Gordon was the reader from 1974 to 2013; and Charlotte Green succeeded him, occupying the hot seat until the decision to drop the results was suddenly announced. The man in the middle of this trio with golden vocal chords is the one most of us grew up with. James Alexander Gordon’s famous delivery, in which his intonation would rise and fall to indicate whether the home team had won, drawn or lost before revealing how many goals they’d scored or conceded, was a hallmark of listening to the classifieds for almost 40 years, and one that left the listener eager to hear every result, not just the one involving their own team.

Even with the advent of ‘Grandstand’ on TV and its super-fast ‘tele-printer’ bringing the results to the viewer in the comfort of their living room, the classified football results on the radio were still a vital source of information for the supporters, especially those on the long journey home from an away game. If one were lucky enough to be making that journey home by car after a cold, wet fixture in some drab provincial town, the sound of the afternoon’s results being read by James Alexander Gordon would be as soothing to the occupants of the vehicle as a roaring fire would be to the fair-weather fan who stayed at home. I suppose it is this warm association that has given the results on the radio such an affectionate place in their hearts of football followers for decades, and why their abrupt removal has been met with the same kind of anger that the axing of the Radio 4 UK Theme provoked in 2006. A couple of years ago, a book I wrote about the 1970 FA Cup Final – ‘No Place for Boys’ – contained a passage on the subject of how significant the reading of the classified results on ‘Sports Report’ has continued to be, and I reproduce it here to spell it out…

For generations of football fans, even those who can now access every result via their Smartphones seconds after the final whistles have been blown, tuning in is still key to the experience of following the sport in Britain. If football is a religion, then the ritual of catching ‘Sports Report’ late on a Saturday afternoon is one of its holiest ceremonies. In a curious way, hearing all those score-lines coming in from across the country is one of the rare moments when that country actually feels like the otherwise-mythical One Nation, with millions of its citizens sharing the same sensations at the same time – all the way from Elgin City FC down to Plymouth Argyle. And whichever end of the country you’re at, all you need is a radio and you’re part of it.

The reason the BBC has given for dropping the classified football results from ‘Sports Report’ is that live commentary on the Premier League fixture at 5.30pm means the programme has been shortened and there’s no room for the results in the mix anymore. Sounds a bit like ‘the pacy news briefing’ excuse Mark Damazer used. This particular excuse was also expanded upon in a rather predictable way, citing the availability of other, faster means of accessing the day’s results than the traditional practice of waiting to hear them at 5.00. This misses the point entirely. Just as far more landlubbers tune into the Shipping Forecast than fishermen – who could access all the shipping news they need in a superior form to ye olde Long Wave via satellite tracking systems – the fanatical Sky Sports subscriber who rarely takes his eyes from the screen as scores are flooding in throughout the afternoon is not the target; many listeners who couldn’t care less about the sport switch on simply to hear the names being recited. In the flesh, Crewe Alexandra or Queen of the South are no more exotic locations on the map than Cromarty or German Bight, but when their names are joined together for the recital, they acquire a uniquely poetic resonance that renders them almost romantic. And there’s not a lot of romance about in 2022.

Expecting anyone at the BBC today to remotely understand their listeners is a tall order; dropping the classified football results is merely another example of not only how out-of-touch the Beeb is with its audience, but how it continues to view it with condescending contempt. When the ground beneath the feet is as insecure and unstable as it is at uncertain and often unnerving times like these, people tend to be naturally drawn to the few remaining signposts they feel they can rely on to reassure them all is not lost. During that first bewildering lockdown, millions retreated into the safe womb of nostalgic telly, music and pastimes, desperately seeking something that could take their minds off the horrors of the present day. We may be through the worst now, but the scars of that unsettling time run deep and variations on the Project Fear formula are keeping many in a state of emergency. The yearning for the kind of security that is connected to less stressful and more innocent times remains potent. The classified football results were a fixed point at a fixed time on a fixed day, and had been since most of our parents were in short pants. Taking them away now is not a great idea.

© The Editor

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SLICES OF LIFE

Alison SteadmanIt could be connected to the Commonwealth Games being staged in Birmingham or maybe it’s simply part of the BBC’s centenary celebrations; whatever the reason, the rare opportunity to see some episodes of the Corporation’s mid-70s series of single plays, ‘Second City Firsts’, has been a nice surprise for those who mourn BBC4’s descent into a repeat channel for shows that have been seen too many times before. This series, produced at the late lamented Pebble Mill studios in Brum, was a mouthpiece for voices without much in the way of a nationwide platform at the time, and perhaps it’s only the notoriously shabby treatment of the BBC’s archives in the 1970s that has prevented any of the instalments from receiving an outing since. Thankfully, the likes of the Kaleidoscope organisation are renowned for retrieving lost gems from private collections, and viewers this week were treated to a trio of ‘Second City Firsts’ that were an eye-opening breath of fresh air when it comes to vintage television.

Only one of the three screened – 1975’s ‘Club Havana’ – seemed specific to the actual city the plays were produced in. This dealt with the arrival in Britain of a young man from Jamaica whose mother had been given a decade to lay down roots in Handsworth – one of the areas of Birmingham that experienced high immigration from the West Indies during the 50s and 60s. In many respects, Handsworth was a blueprint for the impact of the Windrush generation across Britain’s old industrial towns, being amongst the first to recruit Afro-Caribbean labour to work in munitions factories during the Second World War. By the time of the TV play’s production, a heavy immigrant population from the Indian Subcontinent had become predominant in neighbouring Smethwick, though Birmingham’s black community had seniority, something that was reflected in the play itself. The new arrival walking into a well-established community was played by Don Warrington, already making a mark in ‘Rising Damp’, whilst his mother was played by the familiar face of Mona Hammond, who sadly passed away at the beginning of this month.

‘Club Havana’ was a fascinating dip into a British black experience which was a hidden world from TV viewers in 1975, despite having a vintage of 30 years in Handsworth by then. Warrington’s character was that of an idealistic teacher eager to use education to liberate the future factory fodder from the destiny capitalism had selected for it; his attraction to the white barmaid (played by Julie Walters in her first TV appearance) at the ‘speakeasy’ run by his mother sparked tensions due to his father’s desertion into the arms of white women years before. Her prejudicial response to how only the lowest-grade ‘white trash’ females were deemed the best that even the most ‘middle-class’ West Indian immigrant could hope for highlighted an aspect of multiracial Britain that probably wouldn’t be touched upon today.

In 1975, it would be another three years before the debut of the BBC2 drama series ‘Empire Road’ (also set in Birmingham), which was described during its too-short run as ‘the black Coronation Street’, probably because Granada’s evergreen soap didn’t have any black characters back then. Unlike now, when the presence of any non-white character in a BBC drama often feels like box-ticking tokenism, the 70s view was to present immigrant stories as intriguing windows to a parallel universe Britain that the rest of the population was largely ignorant of rather than pretend we all reside in some fantasy rainbow nation where colour only registers when the guilt-stricken white middle-classes release their latest list of the most oppressed minorities to be patronised. But it wasn’t only colour that ‘Second City Firsts’ dealt with in its exploration of tales from the country’s invisible fringes. Perhaps the most well-known play in the series’ canon was 1974’s ‘Girl’, starring a pre-‘Abigail’s Party’ Alison Steadman as a young woman fresh from a relationship with another woman.

It’s interesting how the genuine female experience has been downgraded in the brave new, non-binary 21st century world of Identity Politics so that the word ‘lesbian’ is now deemed to have transphobic connotations. The BBC4 continuity announcer claimed the play contained the first ‘same-sex’ kiss on British television, which isn’t actually true; that had come four years earlier in a production of Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’ starring Ian McKellern. What ‘Girl’ featured was the first lesbian kiss on British television, but lesbian now appears to have been reclassified as an offensive word, buried in the ubiquitous LGBTXYZ acronym; some progress, eh? The play itself contained ye olde slang term ‘dyke’, uttered by the dykes themselves just as the black characters in ‘Club Havana’ were the only ones who said the N word; yes, it was a full six years on from ‘The Killing of Sister George’, but cinema as the 60s turned into the 70s was always one step ahead of the small-screen. What viewers would pay to see at their local fleapit was different to what the masses were served up on the box; the likelihood that the Mary Whitehouses of this world would blow a fuse and besiege the Beeb was paramount in broadcasters’ minds, but perhaps a series of plays hidden away on the nation’s only ‘minority’ channel was the perfect compromise in 1974.

Nevertheless, at the time, the programme apparently attracted a flurry of outraged letters to the Radio Times, describing it as ‘repugnant’ and ‘nauseating’. 48 years on, what struck me more than anything was how unusual it was to see such damaged stock being transmitted in the Hi-Definition digital era; the off-air recording of the programme is the only version that exists and will no doubt have been subjected to meticulous restoration prior to broadcast. It still looked like an old bootleg tape, though as someone accustomed to viewing recovered vintage TV, it didn’t really bother me. At times, the picture quality reminded me of the Duran Duran VHS I had in the 80s; whenever I leant it out to a friend it would always come back with the segment featuring the full-length ‘Girls on Film’ promo strangely damaged. I could never work out why. Oh, well…

Ropy visuals aside, ‘Girl’ came across as a surprisingly candid portrayal of butch lady soldiers for the time. Alison Steadman’s character is being discharged from the Army due to becoming pregnant via a close encounter with a man, one that she describes as rape in all-but name; her determination to have the baby baffles the superior female officer she’d had an affair with, though it eventually transpires the officer in question is something of a predator and will evidently find another ‘lamb’ to seduce come the next intake of recruits.

The third play dusted down and given its first airing since its initial broadcast was called ‘Glitter’. This starred two teenage ones-to-watch, Phil Daniels and Toyah Willcox, cast three years before being reunited in ‘Quadrophenia’. The latter played a hopeful pop star half-a-decade ahead of becoming a bona-fide Top 10 regular, whereas the former would have to wait a further 18 years before his one moment of pop glory via his guest vocals on Blur’s ‘Park Life’. This one was a rather surreal affair, even featuring a cameo from Noel Edmonds, though the nicest surprise was being alerted as to how Toyah looked before the extensive plastic surgery that has rendered her weekly YT outing with hubby Robert Fripp such an embarrassing freak-show. In retrospect, it was probably the weakest of the three, though what all of them evoked was a sense of sadness that the single play – a genre that uniquely combined both critical acclaim and large viewing figures in its lengthy heyday – is now a notable absentee from mainstream TV schedules. As ‘Second City Firsts’ reminded us, that’s a crying shame.

© The Editor

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CARELESS HANDS

Hay WainFaced with an obstinate Government boasting a string of broken promises, the women in the vanguard of the fight for the right to vote resorted to desperate, headline-grabbing incidents in the early 1910s; everything from choreographed window-smashing to arson to bombings became key components in the Suffragette arsenal, yet the increasingly militant elements of this period specialising in spectacular stunts invariably encouraged some part-timers for whom the issue was a convenient cause to hang their dilettante ‘radicalism’ on. That’s not necessarily something unique, of course; all crusades tend to attract the amateur agitator and anarchist when legitimate democratic means stall. Take Mary Richardson, a twisted fire-starter whose commitment to one cause was swiftly supplanted by another; once her stint as a suburban guerrilla ended, she moved on to champagne socialism and then fascism, specifically Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, whose organisation she ended up fronting the female section of. But if Mary Richardson remains remembered for anything, it is an act of vandalism undertaken in the name of suffrage – that of defacing The Rokeby Venus by Velázquez in 1914 as it hung in the National Gallery.

A rare nude produced during the era of the Inquisition, The Rokeby Venus is a portrait of the Goddess of love in a sublimely sensual pose of relaxation, seen from behind. Mary Richardson attacked the painting with a meat cleaver in a frenzy reported in the press at the time as though she’d attacked an actual woman, though the damage done was considerably restricted by the glass separating the canvas from the public. An action that was successfully neutralised due to the diligence of the National Gallery’s chief restorer, the stunt nevertheless resulted in a six-month prison sentence for the culprit and laid the foundations for every ‘activist’ assault on a work of art thereafter, legitimising the gesture in the process. Perhaps echoing the activism of a century ago, climate change protestors on Monday decided to make their own point re an iconic artwork by attacking one of the most recognisable British paintings of the 19th century, John Constable’s The Hay Wain, in the same venue Mary Richardson formulated the template in 1914.

The Hay Wain has been a magnet for protestors of one form or another before, however; a decade ago, a Fathers 4 Justice member stuck a photo onto the canvas, though the painting was not permanently damaged. This time round, a group calling themselves Just Stop Oil mirrored the middle-class luxury of having time on one’s hands characteristic of some of the more bourgeois Suffragettes by honing in on the painting and gluing themselves to the frame whilst attaching images of prominent polluters of the atmosphere such as aeroplanes to the canvas itself. Even the latter act has a stale obviousness about it. Terry Gilliam beat them to it by half-a-century, applying his manic creativity to the picture in one of his Python animations that saw the bucolic tranquillity of the serene scene rudely interrupted by industrial progress. Then again, unlike the protestors, Gilliam has more in common with Constable, being an artist himself, and one who immediately knows what inspired mischief he can inflict upon an image. Even Banksy has applied similar tactics to famous works of art without resorting to damaging the originals; but one wouldn’t expect ingenious intervention from philistines who can only destroy rather than create, which is a hallmark of contemporary ‘activism’.

The action provoked an evacuation of the National Gallery section housing The Hay Wain as the apparent leader of the group – who goes by the name of…er…Eben – announced ‘Art is important. It should be held by future generations to see, but when there is no food, what use is art? When there is no water, what use is art? When billions of people are in pain are suffering, what use then is art?’ Not much use, granted; but then, neither is a cheap stunt enacted by narcissistic doom-mongers incapable of making a point through artistic means and thus reduced to the defecation of genius that says more about their own absence of creative inspiration than it does the cause they profess to be promoting. Over the weekend, five members of the same organisation also disrupted the British Grand Prix, invading the Silverstone racetrack during the opening lap; they sat down on the tarmac and no doubt instilled the hope in spectators that the race would continue with the protestors seen as point-scoring obstacles to be mowed-down ala Roger Corman’s futuristic flick from the 70s, ‘Death Race 2000’. Whatever the outcome, the issues that spawn such activism will never be resolved by actions that alienate art-lovers, sports-goers and members of the general public alike. Interrupting art and entertainment in the name of a cause is something that only ever has a counterproductive effect on those it aims to ‘educate’.

Meanwhile, in other news…having controversially illuminated Wimbledon with his antagonistic form of gamesmanship, Australian tennis-player Nick Kyrgios is reported to have been summoned for an appearance in a different kind of court next month. The quarter-finalist has been scheduled to face Canberra magistrates in August in relation to a charge of common assault on a former girlfriend last year. Naturally, the spectre of Amber Heard and her Oscar-winning performance as a professional victim hangs over any allegations of domestic abuse made against a celebrity ex, though the timing of this story has come at a moment when bad behaviour on the part of male figures in a position of influence is once again headline news.

As with Alex Salmond, any rumour of how power in male hands can be manifested as a sexual weapon naturally provides the MeToo narrative with ammunition. The former Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood is currently confronted by a slew of accusations regarding his sexual misconduct towards women whilst presenting a show on the station for the best part of 20 years from the early 90s to the early 2010s. Personally, I always found the Ali G-like ‘street’ patois of the son of the Bishop of Peterborough a bit toe-curling during his stint on the airwaves, though recent revelations come as far more embarrassing to the Beeb than Westwood’s waffle on his long-running rap show. After all, the BBC are still attempting to portray their dirty old men employees as strictly belonging to a generation most prevalent back in the 1970s. Westwood was supposed to be the ‘cool’ alternative to the bomber jacket-wearing old guard that used to be naff fixtures on the Radio 1 Roadshow.

Half-a-dozen allegations against Westwood were grouped together and made public for the first time in a BBC3 documentary and whilst the veteran DJ (he’s 64) has refuted the allegations, it’s now emerged the BBC had received these complaints whilst previously denying all knowledge of them. BBC DG Tim Davie – who was in control of the Corporation’s radio output whilst Westwood was still on Radio 1 – had claimed he’d seen no evidence of complaints following the broadcast of the programme publicising them, though if the allegations were known internally at the Beeb, the situation has parallels with Downing Street, where a civil servant has come out and stated Boris Johnson had received advance warning of Tory MP Chris Pincher before his appointment as Deputy Chief Whip, a job Pincher quit last week.

With a surname reminiscent of a ‘Carry On’ character, Pincher’s peccadilloes leaned towards gentlemen rather than ladies – he’s accused of groping a couple of guys at the Carlton Club; but if Boris knew and still gave Pincher the job, don’t expect our PM to admit it. Mind you, does anyone expect Boris to exhibit honesty when it comes to what he did or didn’t know about anything anymore? I doubt it.

© The Editor

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THE FINAL CUT

CutsAs with the current shameless shower at Westminster, nothing really surprises where the BBC is concerned anymore. Often, it exceeds itself and reaches a point whereby satire is superseded and rendered redundant, such as the case of the weekly Woke lecture masquerading as ‘Doctor Who’; the anticipated outrage of casting of an actual man to succeed the world’s worst actress as the lead character was eased by the fact he’s both black and gay (two boxes ticked), not to mention a Transwoman of Colour as his sidekick; job done! One can almost picture the planning meeting – ‘Have we left anyone out?’ The cynical and counterproductive ‘positive discrimination’ approach of the Corporation’s relentless Diversity & Inclusivity agenda is perhaps one small reason why viewers have had enough. Even if the divisive issue of the licence fee is put to one side, this obstinate kamikaze mission of Beeb management and programme-makers merely underlines how those entrusted with salvaging the BBC’s dwindling reputation don’t really understand the reason why it acquired that reputation in the first place.

Take BBC3 – in its early years an innovative digital channel that didn’t always get it right, but would occasionally produce a series that progressed all the way to primetime BBC1, like ‘Little Britain’. When it was dropped from the ‘linear’ schedule a few years back and became an online-only service, the BBC was actually showing a rare moment of awareness re the viewing habits of BBC3’s target audience. The decision to bring it back as a proper television channel when most youngsters watching it don’t watch it on TV was a bewildering move; even worse, however, is that the content of the channel has plummeted to the point whereby the likes of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ – a show that makes 90s Channel 4 series ‘Eurotrash’ resemble Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’, and quite possibly the most unwatchable TV programme I think I’ve ever encountered – is one of its lynchpin shows. As an angry letter to the Radio Times might proclaim, I don’t pay my licence fee for this.

Celebrating its centenary whilst under siege from a government that has made no secret of the fact it wants to scrap the traditional funding model of the Corporation, how do the mandarins at Broadcasting House respond to the dilemma? Well, having squandered millions on a new outdoor set for a soap with viewing figures a pale shadow of its 80s and 90s heyday, the Beeb’s plea of poverty is manifested as taking the scissors to areas that actually justify the BBC and show how it can still do some things better than any other broadcaster. This week, plans were announced to axe two television channels from the small screen that have both, at one time or another, made the paltry payment for the BBC (compared to the cost of subscription fees for streaming services) worth forking out for. Although I’m completely the wrong demographic for CBBC, not being a child during its existence nor having kids of my own to watch it with, I recognise the channel has continued the long tradition of the BBC for producing quality children’s entertainment, and its success amongst younger viewers swiftly vindicated the initially controversial decision to remove children’s programming from BBC1 to an entire channel of its own.

Although the announcement made by BBC DG Tim Davie declared the permanent migration of CBBC to the iPlayer wouldn’t come about for another three years, it’s not so much the fact that a television channel will become an online-only entity in an age when viewing habits have radically altered and its audience mostly watch their shows that way today anyway, but cutting financial corners invariably means a drop in quality. That has already happened with the other channel included in this ‘restructure’, BBC4. As BBC2 – the original BBC TV home for shows that rarely attract large audiences but break new ground – had become more dependent on reality-style programming, BBC4 emerged as a genuine jewel in an increasingly tatty crown when it debuted in the early 2000s. Its first decade or so was marked by superb, intelligent documentaries – especially in the fields of music, the Arts and history – as well as one-off dramas and the airing of cult Scandi Noir series such as ‘The Killing’ and ‘The Bridge’, with the latter being difficult to imagine being given a chance anywhere else at the time. For viewers long disillusioned with the line-ups of the dumbed-down mainstream channels, BBC4 was a true alternative breath of air that reminded them how the BBC could still deliver the goods and make a rather antiquated pastime such as sitting down to watch the telly of an evening something worthy of retaining.

However, in the last round of cost-cutting, the BBC4 budget was slashed and it was essentially reborn as a dispensable vintage repeat channel, like UK Gold with a media studies degree. Archive programmes afforded routine reruns on mainstream channels and reminders of its own recent glory days via regular re-screenings of old BBC4 docs added up to a sorry excuse for what the channel used to be; it was as though the BBC were deliberately winding it down in preparation for the expected removal from the linear TV landscape. BBC4 was once, along with Radio 3 and the non-Wokeday morning schedule of Radio 4, one of the few BBC outlets that maintained the gold standard the Corporation set itself decades ago; ditto the World Service, which appears to be another misguided casualty of the latest cutbacks. It was no easy task to make sense of the predictable Birt-speak jargon constituting the majority of Tim Davie’s announcement, but it was evident those BBC platforms that ooze quality yet attract a more select audience were doomed to bear the brunt of these cuts.

Certain foreign language sections of the World Service – one of the building blocks crucial to establishing the BBC’s global reputation – will disappear from the traditional airwaves and will henceforth be solely accessible in a digital format; and Radio 4 Extra will be joining CBBC and BBC4 as an online-only operation, whilst the Long Wave option, much to the chagrin of listeners to ‘Test Match Special’ and the Shipping Forecast, will effectively cease to be an opt-out of separate content to the FM schedules. In other news, the BBC’s UK and its World 24-hour news services will merge into one; ‘We are England’, the short-lived replacement for the award-winning and much-missed regional series, ‘Inside Out’, will be axed by the end of this year; local BBC news branches in Oxford and Cambridge will be absorbed into their Southampton and Norwich equivalents; and unique institutions such as the BBC’s numerous orchestras will have to find alternative funding.

The online exile of some of the BBC’s channels belies the fact that the majority of the BBC’s output is still largely consumed via ‘old-fashioned’ radio and television sets rather than mobiles, laptops or iPads – and by an audience mostly more mature than those who would actively seek out the likes of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ – yet the BBC, with its head firmly buried in the metropolitan sand, once again ploughs on regardless, in desperate search of some imaginary Yoof viewer and listenership who tune in exclusively to the iPlayer or BBC Sounds and can only enjoy the kind of lowest common denominator trash that ITV and Channel 4 have long since cornered the market in. The Corporation’s apparent aim is to be a ‘digital first’ organisation – which is one of those overused and tedious contemporary phrases like ‘hub’ that make you want to eat your own sick; perhaps blinded by past loyalties, I’ve stuck up for the BBC many times on here because I believed in the overall ideal of the BBC, clinging to what it once was and imagining what it could still be. But my patience, as with many viewers and listeners, is rapidly running out. By the time the channels mentioned have transitioned to their online incarnations, will anyone still be watching or listening?

© The Editor

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HALF AN ARMFUL

HancockFor anyone too young to recall what the Great British Sunday used to be like before John Major moved the goalposts and allowed the retail industry to extend its week from six days to seven, there’s still no better document than the 1958 episode of the radio incarnation of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ titled ‘Sunday Afternoon at Home’. The unique boredom once associated with the day of rest is absolutely nailed as Anthony Aloysius repeatedly yawns, routinely checks the clock, struggles to find things to occupy the endless hours stretching ahead, and suffers a stodgy Sunday lunch cooked by Hattie Jacques. ‘I thought my mother was a bad cook,’ says Hancock, ‘but at least her gravy used to move about.’ The nearest evocation in recent times of how Sundays once were came with the first lockdown, though even that didn’t entirely recapture the bleak, existential ambience conveyed in Hancock’s weary statement, ‘Oh, I do hate Sundays’; he delivers it in a miserable manner that provokes a laugh from the listener and the studio audience, underlining how so much English humour is derived from familiar situations with no apparent humour in them. Perhaps this is a key to Hancock’s enduring appeal and timeless relevance.

Revisiting the television version of ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ after a lengthy absence, it’s interesting how a series which is now between 61 and 66-years-old can still retain its ability to inspire laughter. Nothing says ‘this is an old programme’ quite like a monochrome telerecording, and the various pop cultural references dotted throughout the scripts can even outfox a pop cultural nerd like me; yet strip away the signs of the times, and many of the actual situations the Hancock character finds himself in remain relevant and essentially universal. That distinctive character, developed by the man himself and his scriptwriters – the redoubtable Galton and Simpson – is an archetype whose talent for starting an argument in an empty room has echoes down the years in the numerous British sitcom characters that followed; you can see elements of Hancock in everyone from Basil Fawlty to Victor Meldrew to David Brent – characters we wouldn’t necessarily want to be trapped in a lift with (as happens in a famous Hancock episode), but who are nevertheless capable of articulating the exasperation many of us feel in certain social situations.

The Hancock character is a narcissistic, pompous, know-it-all with a far higher opinion of himself than anybody who comes into contact with him has. However, at the same time, the people he regularly comes into contact with are often the kind whose superior and dismissive attitude towards Hancock is worthy of being challenged – mainly petty authority figures who need taking down a peg or two, and the kind we still all have to deal with today, whether the snooty receptionist in the GPs surgery or the Jobsworth types who had a ‘good’ pandemic; and Hancock is not a character prepared to stand by and keep schtum. He’s not afraid to say out loud what most of us think when confronted by such people.

Often, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is unfairly reduced to a minor footnote in the ‘Steptoe and Son’ story, viewed as providing Ray Galton and Alan Simpson with the necessary grounding to reinvent the TV sitcom once they and Hancock went their separate ways. On television, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ ran for five years (1956-61), whereas Albert and Harold’s saga stretched all the way to twelve, well into the colour era and the consequent guarantee of recurrent repeats long after both stars were deceased. Yes, by recruiting straight actors rather than comics into the lead roles, Galton & Simpson did indeed break new ground and set the template for every sitcom to come; but the fact Tony Hancock emerged from the immediate post-war variety circuit didn’t necessarily mean he was content with the formulaic vehicles for such graduates that were the staple diet of radio and television comedy in the 1950s. US TV had proven, with the likes of ‘I Love Lucy’ and ‘Sgt Bilko’, that it was possible to present self-contained stories in 30 minutes, expanding the usual five-minute sketches into the full programme whilst dispensing with guest stars, musical interludes and dancing girls, and ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ (which debuted on the BBC Light Programme in 1954) gradually managed to lay the foundations for the Great British sitcom we know and love today.

The main difference between the radio and TV versions of the show is the fact that Hancock was able to play upon his talent for visual humour on screen in a way that wasn’t possible on the wireless. His facial reactions require no dialogue and are able to elicit laughter that would only have excluded the listening public in the radio series; a wonderful example comes in the TV episode, ‘The Missing Page’, in which the hushed setting of a public library denies Hancock the chance to describe the plot of a pulp novel to Sid James in words, so he acts it out brilliantly in mime. Indeed, as great as Galton & Simpson’s scripts are, perhaps sometimes too much emphasis is placed on them at the expense of Hancock’s superlative interpretation; after all, several have been remounted with other actors in recent years, and none have come close to Hancock’s intuitive comic timing.

Although Kenneth Williams and Hattie Jacques occasionally appear on the TV show, the only regular from radio to transfer properly to television was Sid James, playing Hancock’s dodgy lodger and sidekick. So successful was this partnership that Hancock began to become concerned the public were viewing the pair as a double act, even though their chemistry together was a winner. In fact, ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ is fairly unique when it comes to a sitcom in that it gets better as it goes on; there’s no slow diminishing of quality at all. Indeed, by the time of the penultimate series, it reaches a peak it’s hard to see being bettered. It’s possible this was a factor that enabled Hancock’s restless ambition to assert itself and demand a shake-up of the format for what turned out to be the last series. Galton & Simpson responded to the challenge – Sid James and 23 Railway Cuttings East Cheam were both jettisoned, and the show even lost five minutes per episode as it was renamed simply ‘Hancock’. The character relocated to a bedsit in Earls Court and delivered some of the show’s most memorable episodes, including ‘The Radio Ham’ and ‘The Blood Donor’.

Hancock’s desire to spread his wings also paid off with the two movies he made in the early 60s, ‘The Rebel’ and ‘The Punch & Judy Man’. Unfortunately, though now recognised as classics of British comedy cinema, the films failed to reproduce the success of the TV and radio series at the time, and Hancock’s career as a cinematic comic actor never really took off in the way he envisaged. Walking away from the BBC series and Galton & Simpson at the peak of his popularity was a brave step that certainly ensured the series went out on a high, but Hancock never recaptured its brilliance or its audience and both his life and career went into a swift, sad decline thereafter. His battle with the bottle didn’t help, exacerbating his demons as the desired career revival failed to materialise. The famous ‘Face to Face’ interview he did in 1960 is perhaps the best insight into his incurable yearning for perfection that he didn’t seem to realise he’d already achieved on the small screen.

A 1971 audio interview with Sid James provides a poignant tribute to Hancock three years after his suicide; James describes Hancock as ‘the greatest friend I ever had’ and then goes on to recount a moment when he spotted Hancock from his car window in Piccadilly – a bewildered and intoxicated shadow of a man marooned on a traffic island. Intending to give him a lift, James turned his car around and pulled-up, only to find Hancock had gone; he never saw him again. Whether Tony Hancock could have returned to his late 50s and early 60s peak had he lived is one of those never-to-be-resolved conundrums, though what he left behind from that peak still stands tall as one of TV’s finest comedy masterpieces that the passage of time has not dimmed the ability of to make the viewer laugh over and over again. A comedian can ask for no greater legacy.

© The Editor

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SAILING BY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Editor

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

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CANCELLED CULTURE

StatueI stumbled upon an interview on the ‘New Culture Forum’ YT channel the other day – a regular shop window for the kind of voices the MSM has silenced and always an interesting watch; this particular interview was with Nigel Rees, creator and host of Radio 4’s long-running (and now defunct) show, ‘Quote…Unquote’. He spoke at length of the way in which the BBC’s ‘diversity’ agenda had effectively made his position and that of the programme pretty untenable. Demands to have more female guests on the show were gradually adhered to, as were demands to have guests of a more ‘ethnic’ nature; but, of course, this wasn’t enough; there had to be some token disabled guests on – and this is radio, remember, so presumably these had to be disabilities that were discernible in the guest’s voices; that’d rule out someone in a wheelchair, then – unless they had a particularly ‘disabled’ speech pattern. Yes, that’s how bloody ridiculous it is.

In a nutshell, this enlightening interview summed-up the futility of attempting to appease the demands of the SJW crowd and why Woke Utopia can never be achieved. If ‘Quote…Unquote’ reappeared with a panel consisting entirely of disabled black trans-women, it still wouldn’t be enough because whatever compromises one makes can never be enough; someone would still complain to the BBC that there were no panellists in iron lungs, thus causing offence to the iron lung community. If the BBC had any balls remaining, it wouldn’t bow to such demands at all and it would leave producers and presenters to make their own decisions based on the respective merits of the people featuring in their programmes. The problem with the BBC is that, as with so many branches of this country’s institutions, it has been completely colonised by Identity Politics, and Identity Politics is a virus that kills all creativity and genuine diversity of thought and opinion.

The world its proponents inhabit it is a drab, grey, joyless place in need of constant, perpetual cleansing – a world it is their aim to impose upon the rest of us; and by handing the reins of power to such pious fanatics, whether in media, publishing, academia or cinema, all these mediums have been fatally infected and no longer communicate with the masses. Every successful movie franchise has been f***ed-up as a consequence – indeed, every escapist outlet has suffered from this virus, even sport with its knee-taking virtue-signallers whose fatuous concept of social justice doesn’t stretch to spurning the lucrative market of middle-eastern Absolute Monarchies built by slave labour. The BBC has been one of the most vocal supporters of this mindset, a virtual broadcasting branch of the Guardian over the past decade or so; and when a Tory Government seeks to shore up its dwindling popularity by attacking a soft target and hopefully deflecting further attention from its own failings, should the BBC really be surprised that the only folk rallying to its defence are those drawing huge salaries from it?

The likes of Gary Lineker or Nish Kumar speaking up for it as the licence fee’s days are numbered are not the kind of names guaranteed to reverse opinion on a once-beloved institution that has been treating its audience with contempt for years. The corporation’s impartiality on news and current affairs has been exposed as a fallacy during the pandemic, whilst its entertainment has degenerated into similarly biased propaganda for a particular point of view, visible in the risible Jodie Whitaker incarnation of ‘Doctor Who’ or the way in which a one-time staple diet of a dad’s Saturday lunchtime like ‘Football Focus’ will be routinely interrupted by trailers for ‘LGBTXYZ Month’, a subject most football fans probably don’t give a flying f*** about. But the BBC is determined to shoehorn Identity Politics into every platform it possesses, whether the audience wants it or not.

It is this arrogance that has turned the Great British public against the BBC in recent years, and the BBC only has itself to blame. On paper, the cost of the licence fee is good value compared to yer average utility bill, yet bringing up all the things the BBC used to excel at as examples of why it still matters and why its eccentric funding should continue only serves as a reminder of just how much it has declined during the period in which it has sought to broadcast its Woke agenda to a public that didn’t ask for it and doesn’t want it. With Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announcing the licence fee will effectively be abolished come the next renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter in 2027, the BBC has responded with threats of cuts, though chances are this means the few good things it still produces that no commercial competitor could do in quite the same way – such as Radio 3, the World Service or BBC4 – will suffer; what it doesn’t mean is that it will address the way in which its ludicrous diversity quota has made its dramas such a box-ticking laughing stock or every documentary an exercise in apology for historical racism/sexism, whether it was there or not.

Any exposure to commercial television or radio stations and their relentless interruptions by ads is enough to cause anyone to run back into the arms of the BBC, and the fact its airwaves remain unpolluted by crass advertising is one of its few saving graces after all the damage it has done to itself. The end of the licence fee and the prospect of alternative funding throws up all kinds of horrific futures, yet none of this would’ve been necessary had the BBC not allowed specific political agendas to infiltrate so much of its output. Yes, it was present – and was regularly cited by its opponents – way back in the days of ‘Play for Today’, but even the archetypal single play centred around left-wing viewpoints was only a small element of a series that had a far wider panorama of the human experience on offer; and the BBC produced ‘Play for Today’ at the same time as it was churning out variety showcases for the likes of those well-known Commie sympathisers Bruce Forsyth, Cilla Black and Noel Edmonds. Even the fact that the ‘Today’ programme could once be edited by someone like Rod Liddle now seems inconceivable, yet we’re going back barely 20 years. That in itself highlights what a broad church the Beeb used to be until relatively recently.

For the majority of its now-century of existence, the BBC was indeed an idiosyncratic and unique oddity in the world of broadcasting, beloved by the British people and celebrated as a force for cultural good. Even when BBC radio had a monopoly, it served listeners well with a staggeringly wide selection of audio delights; Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn makes a valid point when he credits the vast range of sounds the young John, Paul, George and Ringo were exposed to via BBC radio as playing a pivotal part in their later development as artists who refused to be tied to a single genre of music. And if the 1950s was BBC radio’s ‘golden age’, the 60s and 70s showed how BBC television was able to successfully react to the arrival of ITV by delivering programmes that remain the corporation’s gold standard, a standard it has summarily failed to live up to over the past couple of decades.

Anyone whose formative years were illuminated and enlivened by the best of the BBC will naturally experience mixed emotions when it comes under attack from opportunistic philistines like this deplorable administration running the country; yet, at the same time, anyone who has despaired at the manner in which the Beeb has committed Hara-kiri over and over again in the last 10-20 years will understandably feel the corporation has got what it deserved. This was the sadly inevitable outcome of the way the BBC has alienated the core audience it arrogantly assumed it could always depend upon; and even if the concept of the BBC is still a noble ideal, the reality falls far short. That’s not the fault of yet another loathsome Tory Government with the BBC in its sights, but the BBC itself. Bloody fools.

© The Editor

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

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