BBC SingersFor those not in the know, the BBC Singers are the UK’s sole professional chamber choir; perhaps lack of competition has enabled this ensemble to remain a revered fixture of the country’s Classical furniture for the best part of a century, but it also means people take notice when such unique BBC employees feel the brunt of their employer’s diminishing commitment to the highbrow. A couple of years ago, it was announced that the BBC Concert Orchestra would be dispatched to the wilds of the provinces as yet another token gesture in the ongoing (and increasingly tedious) operation to make the Beeb less ‘London-centric’; but this week an even more dispiriting sign of these BBC times came with the announcement that the BBC Singers are to be disbanded before the start of this year’s Proms, just a year before reaching their landmark 100th birthday; another penny-pinching body blow to the declining morale of these unsung old retainers was the announcement that salaries for members of the English BBC orchestras will be slashed by 20%.

Axing the BBC Singers was described in one newspaper article as an ‘act of vandalism’; BBC DG Tim Davie was the recipient of a joint letter penned by several Classical luminaries, declaring the intended cuts to be ‘irreversible and catastrophically damaging plans’; the BBC’s response reads: ‘Since 1922 we’ve been an integral part of the Classical music ecology in this country, and in order for us to continue to be a leading force in the industry, we need to modernise, make some necessary and difficult changes to the way we operate to ensure we are responding to audience needs and provide the best possible music to the widest possible audience.’ That statement just stops short of masking its meaning in Birt-speak buzzwords, but bearing in mind the self-destructive path the BBC seems determined to stick to, one wonders if their remaining ensembles will be restructured so that they will henceforth hire not on musical merit, but on box-ticking diversity/inclusivity grounds; perhaps ‘The BBC Rainbow Orchestra’ will eventually emerge from the ashes.

Naturally, the ominous spectre of the licence fee looms over every bumbling move the BBC makes these days as it struggles to justify its existence, and in the process has a habit of forgetting what made it special in the first place. The BBC’s nine musical ensembles may be a legacy of the old Reithian principles that regarded broadcasting as a moral mission to raise the artistic appreciation of the nation, and are viewed by some (especially within the BBC itself) as an anachronistic luxury; yet their continued presence in the face of the relentless dumbing-down that has characterised the Corporation in recent years has been something of a minor victory, particularly when compared to the fate of BBC4, a channel that for a good decade or more was the last remaining bastion of the Beeb’s once-peerless television output.

Now, rather than playing the long game of starving them out, the BBC has instead decided to disband its Singers in the same week as its somewhat kneejerk decision to hand a P45 to a grossly-overpaid star following the latest in a lengthy litany of gormless missives on social media. The fact the Beeb would have happily carried on paying Gary Lineker’s astronomical wages had his current comments on illegal immigrants not landed the Corporation in one more row with the Government that it could desperately do without says as much about its priorities as cutting the salaries of the BBC orchestras. Okay, so BBC TV’s football coverage commands far higher ratings than the listening figures for Radio 3; but we’re not talking about ITV or Channel 5, are we? Isn’t the BBC supposed to amount to more than merely chasing ratings?

Gary Lineker has been a bit of a repeat offender for quite some time; remembering I once wrote a post on here about his Twitter activities, I was surprised to learn when I tracked it down that it had been written as far back as December 2016; in a way, that shows just how long the BBC has tolerated his off-air utterances. As with Jeremy Clarkson before him, it seems the Beeb will allow the front-men of their most profitable franchises to get away with stretching the Corporation’s supposed ‘impartiality’ to breaking point for years until one incident too many provokes enough outraged headlines for a favourite son to be shown the door. I suppose the main difference between Lineker and Clarkson’s positions is that the latter was popular with that section of the viewing public the BBC disdains, whereas the former is a darling of all that the BBC bigwigs hold dear; one suspects they’d been keen to get rid of an embarrassment like Clarkson for years but didn’t dare, whilst losing Lineker was the last thing they wanted. However, unlike ‘Top Gear’ – which has failed to thrive since Clarkson’s departure – ‘Match of the Day’ will survive Gary Linker just as it survived David Coleman, Jimmy Hill and Des Lynam; viewers don’t tune in for the presenter or the pundits; they tune in to watch the games.

From all accounts, the entire commentary team of ‘Match of the Day’ have walked out in solidarity with Lineker; moreover, this Saturday’s edition will have neither presenter nor pundits as it seems Lineker’s sofa mafia have also downed tools and refused to work – although most of them, like Lineker himself, are essentially freelance anyway and routinely turn up on other broadcasters to cover matches the BBC hasn’t got the rights to anymore. Personally, I quite like the idea of ‘Match of the Day’ taking a ‘TOTP 2’ approach to coverage, with no host and no waffling ex-pros endlessly analysing what we’ve just seen. Who knows – it might work as a formula and we’ll be spared the inevitable Alex Scott inheriting the hot-seat. Anyway, as things stand, this move is not being officially regarded as permanent, though it’s hard to see a way back for Lineker with the BBC so terrified of offending a government that wants to take its own shears to the Beeb’s myriad tentacles.

The reactions to the comments that ultimately left the BBC with no choice but to give Gary Lineker the push mirror the polarisation of our times and highlight the dividing lines between those who applaud the compulsion of celebrities to virtue signal and those who deplore them doing so. One side praises Lineker and accuses the BBC of being spineless Tory lapdogs whilst the other claims the freedom the ex-footballer has had to make a mockery of BBC impartiality is symptomatic of the metropolitan Woke elite that forces its arrogant agenda down the throat of a viewing audience sick of being lectured to. Ironically, Piers Morgan, of all people, supported Lineker’s right to express his opinion (even if he disagreed with it) and argued it wasn’t a sackable offence, what with Lineker not being the host of a news programme. The culture wars do indeed occasionally throw up unlikely bedfellows.

It’s interesting that suspending a high-profile presenter of a popular programme provokes an across-the-board ‘everybody out’ attitude not just amongst BBC staff but at the equally PC Premier League, and provides further ammunition for social media soapboxes; it gives the impression that the BBC has been reduced to an ineffective supply teacher unable to exercise any authority over its unruly pupils. On the other hand, when it comes to a corner of the Corporation with a lower profile (albeit one with a far more distinguished history), the BBC can wield the axe unchallenged and protests are limited to the small albeit passionate circle of musicians directly affected. Perhaps these particular BBC employees don’t fit the profile the Beeb is keen to cultivate and consequently aren’t viewed as important – even if their gradual obliteration will do far more long-term damage to the Corporation’s dwindling reputation than the loss of Lineker ever will.

© The Editor

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

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/797932964


IMG_20221212_0001Amazingly, it seems there are still people out there excitedly awaiting the unveiling of the festive schedules on the mainstream TV channels, as though the DVD box-set or streaming sites cease to exist on at midnight on 24 December, and for the duration of Christmas Day the only option for visual entertainment will be to watch the seasonal special of a BBC1 or ITV show nobody wants to watch the rest of the year. Even as far back as the late 80s, the one-time dominance of television to provide the masses with their yuletide viewing habits was being eroded by the gift-wrapped live comedy video, which would be shoved into the VCR instead of sitting through an over-familiar Bond movie or second-guessing which character would top themselves on the Xmas ‘Eastenders’. Television’s unchallenged power to monopolise leisure time on 25 December was broken long before the novelty of a Christmas Day terrestrial film premiere was rendered redundant by multiple means of seeing said movie months in advance of BBC1 getting hold of it. In a way, I suspect broadcasters are more aware of this than they let on, which is probably why they put so little effort into their Christmas output now than they used to; why waste time and money making festive telly people might want to watch when the people are planning their own personal schedules?

Like most unburdened by ‘family get-togethers’, I myself have the luxury of not having to take anyone else’s taste into account; I could watch ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ at 2.00 in the afternoon on Christmas Day if I wanted to. I don’t, but that’s not the point. Instead, I’ll no doubt dip into those neglected gems from the TV archive that the BBC will only trot out occasionally; indeed, what better way to feel seasonal without opting for the obvious than revisiting the fondly-recalled ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ series that annually aired on or around Xmas Eve from 1971 to 1978? An author whose low-key spine-chillers always appear best served by the small screen, M.R. James provided this series with the stories that comprised the first five entries, beginning with ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ in 1971; with its characteristically creepy Victorian setting, the chills are masterfully achieved on a shoestring budget, and though this psychological horror starring Robert Hardy as an Archdeacon tormented by voices and glimpses of imagined spectres in the shadows was intended as a one-off, it prompted a follow-up the following Christmas and swiftly established a tradition that spanned seven years.

There’d been successful televisual attempts to illustrate James’s talent for unsettling the reader prior to the start of this series; in 1968, Jonathan Miller directed an especially nightmarish adaptation of ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ in which Michael Horden’s twitchy academic suffers uncomfortably realistic nightmares during a spell on vacation in coastal Suffolk. It followed a familiar James path of placing pompous clergymen and dons in positions of peril, confronted by the consequences of their hubris when up against supernatural forces. ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ (as it was re-titled) made enough of an impact at the time to warrant further James adaptations, though by the time ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ appeared, television had grown out of its monochrome roots and director of all-but one of the BBC Ghost Stories, Lawrence Gordon Clark, made full use of colour location filming in East Anglia to visualise James’s written words. Perhaps the finest example of this came with his second outing, 1972’s ‘A Warning to the Curious’, in which Peter Vaughan stars as an amateur archaeologist in search of the lost crown of the Saxon kingdoms; against all odds, he discovers it, though he bargains without the presence of the crown’s guardian, an out-of-focus figure who pursues Vaughan’s character even when he is convinced enough of the trophy’s curse to return it to its burial place. It remains a uniquely eerie 50 minutes that hasn’t lost its ability to unnerve.

By the time of the third entry in the series, ‘Lost Hearts’, the annual Ghost Story was in danger of becoming as much of a Christmas tradition as the Xmas Day ‘Top of the Pops’ or ‘The Morecambe and Wise Show’ – albeit an alternative sedative to the usual festive cheer, reconnecting with a gleefully disturbing Victorian and Edwardian sensibility which had been lost in the wholesome Americanisation of the season that had become the norm by the late 20th century. 1974’s ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ returned to recognisable M.R. James territory by featuring Michael Bryant as a smug medieval scholar looking for the lost fortune of a disgraced cleric; when he finds it, the ramifications of his avarice reduce him to a gibbering victim of his own superior attitude towards the unknown. The following year’s ‘The Ash Tree’ delves even deeper into pagan superstition, recalling the witch-hunts of the 17th century and evoking primal arachnophobia with the mutant ‘spiders’ lurking in the tree of the title. However, by 1976 the M.R. James adaptations were deemed worn-out and the series then turned to a short story by Charles Dickens, ‘The Signalman’.

An early outing for the now-veteran TV adaptor of classic fiction Andrew Davies, ‘The Signalman’ features Denholm Elliott as the title character who recounts a bloody train crash on the line outside his signal-box to an unnamed traveller, an event that continues to haunt him in his solitary exile from society. The fact the original story was penned a year after Dickens himself survived similar carnage on a train travelling through Staplehurst in Kent is probably no coincidence, but it certainly taps into the nightmares that remained with the author until his premature death on the fifth anniversary of the incident in 1870. The television adaptation of ‘The Signalman’ bears the same psychological tropes that opened the series with ‘The Stalls of Barchester’ five years previously, and is – along with ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘The Treasure of Abbott Thomas’ – perhaps the most effectively chilling of all the entries in the series.

In 1977, the series received something of a contemporary makeover by dispensing with adaptations of classic authors and commissioning a newly-written story set in the present day, ‘Stigma’; although this tale, starring the dependable Peter Bowles, has its moments by calling upon the same pagan myths that fuelled ‘The Ash Tree’, a key element of the series is lost by relocating events to the here and now, and the trend was carried over into the following year’s ‘The Ice House’, the final Ghost Story of the 70s run. Bar the odd repeat screening, the tradition was discontinued for several decades until BBC4 decided to revive the series during the period when the channel was producing daring drama the mainstream channels had largely abandoned. 2005’s adaptation of a previously-untouched M.R. James story, ‘A View from a Hill’, managed to retain the creepiness of the 1970s adaptations as well as adding a slicker look and feel that made the revival more than merely a nostalgic rehash. It worked well enough to lead to another James adaptation the year after (‘Number 13’) and the series has continued off and on ever since. A new instalment is scheduled for this year, hot on the heels of last year’s ‘The Mezzotint’, and all (bar one) have been derived from the works of the master, M.R. James.

Post-lockdown, the ongoing ‘things can only get worse’ mood of the nation has led to an annual ‘Oh, well – let’s just enjoy Christmas’ attitude that obscures the fact that, for many, this is a time of year when detachment from one’s fellow man is intensified by an overemphasis on convivial group gatherings that not everyone is party to. The likes of ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ serves as a much-needed antidote to such facile clichés and any addition to a series that now stretches back half-a-century is a welcome – not to say rare – contribution from mainstream broadcasters that acknowledges the needs of viewers for more than a Christmas ‘Strictly’ special to lure them away from online attractions. Long may it continue.


A shadowy, near-mythical figure whose brilliantly offensive and near-the-knuckle manipulations of archive TV illuminated late-night Channel 4 back in the days when the station had balls, Victor Lewis-Smith was also renowned as a witty, sardonic journalist for publications as varied as the Daily Mirror, the Evening Standard and Private Eye. His death at the age of 65 will probably pass most people by, but his pioneering prank calls (which were unremittingly amusing, if deliciously beyond the pale) paved the way for the likes of Ali G; I particularly recall his call to Hughie Green in the late 90s, when he asked the one-time ‘Opportunity Knocks’ host if he’d ever f***ed Lena Zavaroni, which provoked laughter from Green rather than apoplexy. His call to Michael Winner was even better; if Lewis-Smith’s ‘TV Offal’ series is still available on YT, track it down; it also features the Gay Daleks. Say no more. The Winegum salutes you as a master satirist, sir.

© The Editor

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

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294



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

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

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/769970801


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.

© The Editor

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

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/766037138


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.

© The Editor

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

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/746266089


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

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

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/740131147


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

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

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/719591724


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

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

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294

Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/719591724


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

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

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294


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

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

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/user?fan_landing=true&u=56665294