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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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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LUNATIC FRINGE BENEFITS

AliceIn case you missed it, last week saw the long-awaited announcement that M&S staff members will henceforth be wearing their preferred gender pronouns on badges (which has no doubt been demanded by all the old ladies who purchase their bloomers at the company’s branches); but at least the relentless imposition of a particular agenda on the public by corporations and institutions without prior consultation has momentarily paused at one of its main offenders. It may still be tediously ticking the diversity boxes with regards to its programming, but the BBC has belatedly pulled out of a questionable commitment to the dubious aims of the increasingly unhinged LGBTXYZ charity Stonewall. Yet should the national broadcaster have even signed-up for a programme run by an organisation which has become a platform for the most fanatical, zealous and nasty of Trans-activists, thus negating any reasoned debate on the issue across the allegedly impartial BBC?

Being a member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme may have won plenty Woke Brownie points in the social justice citadel of Broadcasting House, but the objectives of Stonewall can hardly be said to be reflective of the BBC’s dwindling (not to say ageing) audience. The appalling report that recently appeared on the BBC News website on how some young lesbians are being pressurised and bullied into having sexual relations with Trans-women for fear of being ostracised by pro-Trans social media hounds was a shocking eye-opener, not to say a surprising story to emerge from a news outlet so seemingly in thrall to the LGBTXYZ agenda over the past few years. Yet, perhaps its mere appearance was a positive sign, an indication of a conscious step back from a wholly biased campaigning role which isn’t something a publicly-funded broadcaster should be committing itself to.

The Diversity Champions programme is one of the many ways in which Stonewall has bought itself a foothold in several public institutions, influencing policy and effectively ring-fencing itself from criticism. By signing up to the scheme, the Beeb was required to pay the charity for ‘advice on creating inclusive workplaces’, a line straight out of the satirical BBC comedy series of a few years back, ‘W1A’. The fact that Ofcom and several government departments have already withdrawn from promoting this scheme perhaps made it easier for the BBC to pull out; naturally, however, this hasn’t prevented the predictable backlash from the usual suspects. The industry union, BECTU, reacted to the announcement by saying the decision would be ‘incredibly damaging to the morale of the LGBT workforce and will negatively impact the BBC’s ability to attract talent in the future.’ A strange choice of wording, there; surely talent is secondary when it comes to hiring new faces at the BBC?

What counts over talent at the BBC is the colour of one’s skin or one’s sexual preference or one’s gender, even though none should have the slightest bearing on one’s ability to do the job. If only talent were the main priority when it came to recruitment, perhaps more of the Corporation’s output would be worth watching because hiring would have been done on the basis of merit rather than any tokenistic quotas that require fulfilling. Mind you, the Beeb isn’t unique; English Touring Opera’s decision to make half of its orchestral players redundant solely because they’re not ‘ethnic’ enough is a case in point. Being denied employment due to the colour of one’s skin – didn’t that used to be called racial discrimination? And here’s me thinking all that had long since been outlawed.

Imagine a football team being put together based not on the abilities of the players, but because they ticked boxes unconnected to that ability; an insane proposition, but no more insane than an orchestra recruiting musicians on the same grounds. Perhaps even without throwing its lot in with Stonewall, the BBC remains entirely at home in an entertainment industry that can essentially draw-up a McCarthy-like blacklist of writers, directors, performers and artists with the ‘wrong opinions’ and/or ‘identity’ and continue to hire and promote mediocrities whose qualification for their positions is utterly unrelated to ability.

Still, the BBC would do well to be a tad more selective when it comes to ideological bedfellows. Stonewall has hardly covered itself in glory of late, losing many of its long-time supporters to newer organisations formed out of frustration with the direction Stonewall has been moving in – organisations such as the LGB Alliance, which Stonewall (and the Labour Party) has all-but labelled a far-right extremist anti-Trans ‘hate’ group. But charities need to be careful in adopting holier-than-thou stances. Recent exposés of the way some major charities are run – from Kids Company to the sexual exploitation of the natives by Oxfam employees to the revelation of the Aspinall Foundation (the wildlife conservation charity of which the PM’s missus is an employee) paying £150,000 in ‘interior design services’ to its chairman’s wife in 2020, has shown that many groups beginning with good intentions have morphed into organisations extolling all the immoral virtues of big business.

Perhaps it’s no surprise Stonewall has deviated so far from its original intention; when men can marry men and women can marry women and the age of consent is the same whichever way you bend, an organisation built to fight battles that have all been won has had to seek out – or invent – new battles to validate its existence. However, throwing its lot in with the Trans lobby – and its most bonkers fringes – has undoubtedly damaged the brand. Lest we forget, this is a charity that in prioritising one tiny minority provoked the split that led to the formulation of the LGB Alliance, which has provided a refuge for those now-marginalised within gay circles, especially lesbians. Whilst there is undoubtedly a touch of the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea about this on the surface, some of the LGB Alliance’s statements on the kind of extreme policies pursued by Stonewall – the kind that alienate outsiders and can foster latent homophobia – sound pretty sensible and are far closer to what Stonewall used to represent before it went a bit mad.

The LGB Alliance is more in line with majority thinking in that it opposes some of the more fruitcake theories that are being bedded into the workplace environment and (more worryingly) in that gender identity social engineering lab, the classroom. The Scottish Government thinks it’s okay for children to decide what gender they are and parents don’t have to be consulted at all; similarly, they believe a biological man suddenly declaring he’s a woman without going through all that troublesome, time-consuming surgery (a process that indicates genuine commitment to the cause) has to now be recognised as a woman in law, giving him a free pass into the private spaces of actual women – and young girls, in the case of changing rooms. There’s now even a small movement emanating from (perhaps inevitably) California which demands the ‘negative’ term paedophilia be replaced with MAPs – Minor-Attracted People. ‘South Park’ beat them to it 20 years ago in an episode featuring NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association. Whenever ‘liberalism’ gets to the point it’s at right now, it always ends up back at the Paedophile Information Exchange.

At the moment, one could very easily conclude the West is a society sliding into decadence as its achievements are fashionably trashed and its institutions infiltrated by an Alice in Wonderland design for life in which (as someone once famously said) 2+2=5. Logic be damned as we reach the point that historically characterises the death throes of that society. When female crime figures soar because male villains in drag are listed as women and the further education system is so f***ed-up that female students struggling to cope with the financial demands of university are being offered courses in ‘sex work’ to make ends meet, we say no more because to do so is to be denounced as a bigot. But this isn’t just madness – this is M&S madness.

© 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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