Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Night They Drove Old Rigsby Down

Mention 'comedy' and 'ITV' together and you're guaranteed a laugh, though sarcasm is likely to be its main driving force. The commercial behemoth has never had a reputation as a comedic powerhouse, and things are as bad as ever at the moment, with a balding ex-doctor making catty remarks about Pam St Clement being the only thing on its books worth even mentioning, laughs-wise.

As it happens, I've done summat on the vexed topic of ITV comedy – concentrating on its Sunday output – for the latest edition of Kettering, the ever-loving magazine of elderly British comedy, available now from here, and you should get it for the vast amount of ace stuff I haven't been involved in, like the in-depth foray into Morecambe and Wise's Christmas specials, and the appraisal of the long-obscured World in Ferment. No salesman will call.

But delving into ITV's comedy output got me thinking – if, as everyone seems to agree, situation comedy is pretty much dead on the independent channel, what thoughtless action from Them Upstairs killed it off, and when? Here are a few suspects.

7.15PM May 17th 1981 – Bernard Cribbins comes out of his caravan

Lew Grade's never knowingly undersold ATV, by now not long for this world, decided to go for broke and plough everything – money, stars, technical talent – into Shillingbury Tales, a series of hour-long comedy films set in the eponymous chocolate box village, in which not-very-outrageous rock star Robin Nedwell and Diane Keen turned up to arouse the suspicions of locals Trevor Howard, Bernard Cribbins and Jack Douglas, but not for very long as they find out they all get along just fine in the end. And very lovely it was too – the perfect early evening, let-it-wash-over-you accompaniment to Shipham's potted meat spread sarnies, Mr Kipling French Fancies and perhaps a mint Club wafer (or, if wet, a Banjo). Lovely, that is, on occasion. But the mighty success of half-timbered hilarity gave ITV executives pause to muse: 'People like them, let's make some more of them. Actually, sod “some”. Make it “chuffing loads”.' No one appreciated the Pandora's box it had opened until it was too late, and Sunday teatimes became carpeted with Heartbeats, Kingdoms, Monarchs of the Glens and all manner of endlessly multiplying whimsical heritage froth, conspiring to make the modern televisual Sabbath an indigestible confection – all Battenberg and no crumpet.

9.30PM September 1st 1983 – Chas and Dave defect to the Beeb

If ever there was an archetypal ITV musical act, it was Chas and Dave. Their Christmas knees-up, housed in a fully mocked-up East End boozer at Teddington Studios, complete with working beer pumps but, crucially, no toilets – had Thames all over it, but they knocked a few sitcom themes off for the Euston Road mob too. The tunes they turned out are testament to the duo's musical versatility. Roy Kinnear building site comedy Cowboys was introduced by a stomping paean to the art of bodging ('If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing wrong/With a nail too short and a screw too long'), with an oddly Kraftwerkian electro backing. Then came Leslie Ash advertising sitcom The Happy Apple, in which C'n'D summarised the programme's plot to the tune of Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik ('Oh, Nancy/Was a secretary/In an advertising agency…') Slightly more trad was the opener for LWT Askwith Unigate bawdry Bottle Boys. ('Milk, eggs and butter, got 'em all on the float/Anything you're short of, darling, leave us a note…') However, the Gertchameisters now began working for the other side, at the front end of Alf Garnett: the Next Generation, aka In Sickness and In Health, which was much more of a home game for the boys. ('But they don't give a monkey's down the DHSS…') Then came the retooled Crackerjack theme ('Oh, Uncle Jack!') and Snooker Loopy, which was practically a trailer for the Beeb's Crucible coverage, and that was that. Aside from a slight return to the third channel for the theme to floundering chimpanzee cartoon Bangers and Mash ('Mash and Bangers's clangers come about quite frequently…'), ITV lost its most distinctive light entertainment musical asset this side of Colin Keys. 'Bloody poorer, that's a fact!'

8.45PM January 9th 1985 – Prunella Gee takes six Valium and collapses into Penelope Keith's fireplace

The middle class mid-life crisis sitcom was the bane of ITV in particular during the 1980s – Holding the Fort, Pig in the Middle, It Takes a Worried Man, Chintz… chock full of bittersweet one-liners about mortgage arrears, sad-eyed faces peering forlornly across the breakfast table over unfurled gas bills, and balding character actors in cardigans sighing heavily by the hall table. There was obviously a market for this sort of thing, though God knows where it lived. The apotheosis of the glum genre has to be Moving, a none-more-1985 series about well-to-do couple Penelope Keith and – Mr Radio Four light drama himself – Ronald Pickup, er, trying to move house. Well, it's the third most traumatic event in one's life, you know. And, judging by this series, about the 675th funniest. But this was different from all the others, as it was a bit – whisper it – 'dark', featuring no studio audience and a sub-plot about Keith's sister – the great Ms Gee – being a Valium addict, hence the above laugh-free faint into the commercial break during the first episode. No Christmas special followed.

8.30PM September 3rd 1986Tripper's Day becomes Slinger's Day

The original was bad enough: what turned out to be Leonard Rossiter's final TV outing as the bowler-hatted manager of a supermarket which made Store Wars in Whizzer and Chips comic look like the height of social realism. Even the set looked hopelessly fake – quite an achievement, as the interior of a supermarket is possibly the one real life location that looks exactly like a studio set in the first place. After Rossiter's untimely death halfway through the screening of a second series that existed on the strength of his name alone, Thames madly decided the original premise was worth resurrecting on its own terms. Madder still, they picked Bruce Forsyth as Rossiter's replacement. Forsyth's acting skills, while not to be entirely dismissed, are perhaps the least important part of his formidable showbiz arsenal, and indeed, here he's constantly trying to turn a straight-down-the-middle sitcom into something approaching the light entertainment spectaculars he'd been hankering after since the overstuffed Bruce's Big Night slipped in a puddle and fell on its arse in front of the entire nation. You Bet! would eventually let him work his passage back from Play Your Cards Right purgatory, but not before Bruce had suffered through two helpings of this, and an ill-fated attempt to break America with Bill Grundy-produced game show Hot Streak, a televised mix of Articulate and Chinese Whispers which didn't take but did briefly get whooping Stateside audiences joining in with the 'nice to see you' catchphrase, which must count for something.

10.30PM July 3rd 1988
– ITV knocks satirical sitcoms on the head

1988 saw a lot of long-standing British comedy traditions come to an end. The Grumbleweeds breathed their last, on telly at least, meaning an end to people going 'rattle rattle, jewellery jewellery' and Bertice Reading trying to sing Stormy Weather with a straight face while 'the lads' prannied about behind her with air horns and gorilla suits. Fresh Fields was remade and remodelled as French Fields, with Sonia jettisoned, an accordion stuck on the theme tune and a string of garlic stuck on the set. And Central finally stopped repeating The Gaffer. For shame! Arguably even more tragic was the end of several years of satirical sitcoms which used to alternate with Spitting Image in ITV's 10PM 'naughty' slot, of which the greatest was surely Hot Metal, the manic tabloid newspaper romp with Robert Hardy in dual roles and Alan Price on vibes. Slightly less majestic but still great was Room at the Bottom, the story of put-upon light entertainment producer James Bolam, suffering at the sadistic hands of controller Keith Barron. When the second series of that came to a close, nothing worth mentioning really took its place, and though Spitting Image carried on a few more years, Sunday night appointment TV never really recovered.

10PM October 27th 1996Sometime, Never

And this is the sort of stuff that replaced it: a sitcom built, if you please, around the Philadelphia Girls, aka Sara Crowe and Ann Bryson, whose ditzy office temps of the sing-song estuary voices and the unhealthy obsession with that rubbery cheese spread that always smelt faintly of tarmac evoke the mid-1990s more completely than any Britpop mix tape or clip of John Major talking about cricket and parsnips. Amazingly, they were given two cracks at TV stardom off the back of those – in 1995 Channel Four stuck them behind desks for sixthirtysomething, an early evening round up of celebrity news delivered in tones of mild sarcasm, which was something fresh and original at the time, and not, as it is now, the unappetising gruel making up 80% of all telly ever. Then came this, a rather less original sitcom where the pair swapped run-of-the-mill observations on the tribulations of being the wrong side of thirty over a bottle of cooking sherry. After that: nothing. Funny, that.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

A Quick and Easy Winter Warmer

There are all sorts of Kate Bush videos more worthy of a look than this one (Sat in Your Lap, for instance, has a lot of explaining to do), but since it's that time of year, only one song will do. When everyone else was doing either stompy party Christmas songs or retro ballads, trust Kate to go for the tenuous, all-over-the-place meander that was December Will be Magic Again. (And the ambiguity didn't stop with the music - does she mean 'magic' in the witchy sense, or the Selwyn Froggit sense?) There's no proper video for this, weirdly, but the famous clip from Abba's ill-conceived 1978 Snowtime Special ('recorded in the BBC Big Top, 4,000 feet up in the Swiss Alps') will do just fine.

First up, some set notes. I don't know the technical, interior-y designer-y name for those rattan chairs with the big old 'halo' back, but weren't they all over the telly in those days? Never saw one in anyone's actual house, of course. There's no room for the damn thing, for a start. And very wasteful of precious resources in the 'Save It!' decade, too. Unless it was the same chair every time, of course. Anyway, here Lesley Judd's stuck some red velvet on it and painted in in Humbrol gold, 'to look a bit more Christmassy'.

And it wouldn't be 1978 without the traditional half-height all-silver Christmas tree. The first year, by my reckoning, of the silver tree's four-year dominance, which by surely no coincidence overlapped precisely with the golden ages of James Burke, motionless blokes hammering two notes each on keyboards on Top of the Pops, and people saying the phrase "paperless office" without laughing. To live at that time was to live in The Future. Unless you were a member of Darts, of course. Then it all went wrong, and the silver trees were melted down to make CDs of Brothers in Arms. I blame Princess Di.

The premise is simple: Kate's in wide-eyed 'little girl' mode - OK, more than she usually is - waiting excitedly for Father Chrissamuss to come down the chimberlee. Cue lots of 'find a space' Music and Movement shape-making and, strangely, some leg-stretching 'chairobics' of the type Sue Becker would urge OAPs to have a go at in mid-afternoon autumn years fitness programme Boomph with Becker. 'Have a rest if you like Mrs Murchison, it's not a race, you're doing absolutely fine!'

'No Warninks for you until you learn to sit on that chair properly, young lady! And Auntie Joan's seen your Tommy Cooper impression before!'

'You like the lining, don't you!'

The wide shot shows Kate's parents have made a decisive move with all their decorations away from the paper chain and spherical multicoloured tissue paper fold-out bells that always seem to be heavily torn even the first time you put them up, to the futuristic (and more hardwearing) all-tinfoil spiky stars and tinsel look, which is as it should be. Note also a washing line arrangement of Christmas cards top right, and lurking in the background, a forlorn-looking standard lamp. Also, it looks like someone ought to be attending to those vol-au-vents in the oven.

It may be a Christmas fantasy, but there's no denying the odd sign of the times - at the height of the drawn-out Blokes Up Stepladders with Buckets of Fake Polystyrene Snow Union strike, Kate has to use her own initiative. That year's Crackerjack Christmas Special was a sparse affair indeed.

'Now dear, Auntie Joan's a guest in this house and if she wants the King's Singers on that's what we're having on. You can watch Morecambe and Wise any time.'

A poignant moment - it's goodbye to the last Gooseberry Cream in the realm.

All well and good, but it's hardly a proper production number of madness of the sort you'd expect. Another performance, on Kate's own Christmas Special the following year, was a bog-standard 'at the piano' affair. This, however, more than makes up for it, presumably composed in honour of that unvenerable institution, the Radio 1 DJs' Christmas Party.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Nobody Needs a Woolworth's Store These Days

So it looks like Woolworth's is finally on its uppers. The media are inevitably trying to roll this story into the general recession coverage but, while that won't have helped, most people will just be surprised the chain has made it through the last twenty years at all. For at least two decades, Woolies has been a shop out of time.

Up until the mid-'80s, a town centre shopping trip that didn't include Woolies was practically unthinkable. An American chain run with ruthless commercial hard-headedness, it still managed to be, in this country at least, as aimlessly British as the Triumph TR7, George Brown MP and Bruce's Big Night Out.

A corner shop that fancied itself as a supermarket, Woolies was the department store you could actually buy something from. Its situation was ideal. Proper department stores were prohibitively expensive and wouldn't touch most of what Woolies had to offer, and the big three supermarkets (Sainsbury's, Safeways and MacFisheries, natch) were still strictly stewing steak and greaseproof paper outlets. As long as the status quo was regulated, they were sitting pretty in a sizeable niche. Then all of a sudden Tesco's got Scalextric in, butchers stopped wearing straw hats and you could buy a first class stamp in a pub. Something had to give.

It's unlikely the shop has much personal significance for anyone under 25 now. The Pick 'n' Mix has hung around, though health and safety rules have made the sweet-buying process akin to retrieving spent fuel rods from a nuclear reactor. but when the records went, there was no going back. If you wanted a 7" single before 1986 there was only one place you went. No-one stacked the Top 40 in a series of little wire-basket pigeonholes like Woolies.

Then there were the cassettes, either functionally blank or the shop's own brand of Chevron licences, heavy on the Gordon Lightfoot side of things. (Woolworths hosted a bewildering maze of loosely-affiliated own brands, including Lilliputian rock star outfitter Chad Valley, pint-size duffle coat fashion house Ladybird and deceptively posh-sounding jigsaw dispensary Winfield.) Oh, and the flick-through rack of chimp-on-the-potty posters, of course.

Which brings us to the gags. Woolies' cheap and cheerful atmosphere meant it was the standard reference point for Jasper Carrott and his topical ilk whenever a metaphor for something down-at-heel or shoddily made was required. Jokers of today, hopelessly disorganised as they are, can't decide between Netto, Lidl and Poundstretcher as the modern signifier of naff, and even if they did settle on one, it wouldn't drop as neatly into a gag as the word 'Woolies' did. It was a comedy store in the truest sense.

And there was the long-running gag that it took forever to get served, which as far as I know had no basis in fact, but it fitted the whole gloriously shabby image, which Woolies seemed, at least, to grin and bear. Try something like that with Tesco's and you'd soon be on the receiving end of a nocturnal visit from some large men with mirrored sunglasses and blue stripy baseball bats. They can make Nick Hancock push a trolley on the telly all they like, but the comedy's gone out of commerce.

Even I could tell something was up in 1986, when I finished browsing the ground floor (ie. the good bit) of the Woolies located in the corner of Aylesbury's dystopian concrete Friar's Square shopping centre (the perfect location), and ascended on the escalators past the second floor (plates, pans and toasters - boring) to the top floor, which housed white goods, self-assembly greenhouses, ladders you could carry round with ease and, most importantly, demonstration models of brown-cushioned garden swing-seats you could easily spend a quarter of an hour lounging on and reading Smash Hits until a brown-coated floorwalker told you to naff off out of it. This time, however, all that was to be found up there was a single, forlorn-looking Zanussi washer-dryer being loaded onto a trolley while, across the void of the vast, dark and empty floor, a Vildea supermop topped over. 'Sorry, son. Top floor's closed, now.' That was that, then.

So it's far too late to weep for Woolies (and Woolco), but it's always worth remembering the once wonderful place, especially at this time of year. Christmas suited Woolworth's. For one, it was possibly the only shop which actually looked classier after it was bedecked with a surfeit of tinsel. Secondly, the mood-predicting cellophane fish in their crackers actually worked (occasionally). And of course there were those filibustering seasonal advertising extravaganzas, taking up an entire commercial break, which, to some of us, suggested untold power and influence. Had they done a deal with Willie Whitelaw? I wouldn't be at all surprised.

If that's not enough, there is this fantastic site, run by Woolies themselves. Can you imagine the Stalinist edifice of Tesco ever giving two hoots about its history?

Saturday, 18 October 2008


School music lessons. Some love them, some hate them, some just appreciate the opportunity to stare out the window for half an hour. Surprisingly they're still going strong today - I thought they'd have been replaced with more tests, or something less alienating for the tone deaf community, or at least something a little less - well, hippy.

Because the music lesson as we know it was undoubtedly a product of the 1960s. It's all so folky and folksy and 'everyone join in'. You can't imagine Jimmy Edwards leading the class of Whack-O! in a few choruses of We're All Going to the Zoo Tomorrow. Round my way, where teachers with perfect pitch were thin on the ground, it was up to the radio or, best of all, telly to provide the sonic education, most usually in the form of the xylophone-plonking, high-pitch-counting-in Music Time on the BBC. here's a clip from a slightly-too-late edition (Helen Spiers eschewing the floaty blouse and wearing a knee-length skirt, which is all wrong of course).

Anyway, when it came to ensemble playing, there was no getting around the division between those who could play an instrument (ie had grade I recorder) and the vast majority who could just about clap, but that was it. To the rescue came the percussion cupboard, a treasure trove of tambourines, triangles and other weird noisemakers for the musically incapable to hit, scrape, or generally muck about with, including:


How fortunate the proper African name is so close to 'shaker', which is what it basically is. Usually the most 'ethnic'-looking instrument in the cupboard, even though it was manufactured in Nottingham and half the beads on the outside have been idly picked off over the past term. By the third it's threadbare, and an emergency yoghurt-pot-and-dried-pea session is in order.
Mucking about rating: low.


That's 'scraper' to you and me, wary teachers not wanting to tempt fate with the exotic pronunciation. ('Miss, my dad has a guiro every fortnight but me mum has a go at him for spending it all down the pub!') Good one to get as it's quite sizeable, and makes that amusing cockroachy noise so beloved of cheap TV serials to accompany the adventures of a furtive moustachioed lurker up to no good.
Mucking about rating: moderate.


I.e. that drum with a stick in the middle that makes a sound like a cartoon hippo reading Punch magazine. Whoever gets this instantly becomes class hero for their mastery of sonic hilarity for about thirty seconds after it's taken off them for 'mucking about', put back on the high shelf and they're given the last tambourine with a split in the skin instead.
Mucking about rating: off the scale, while you can get away with it.


Missus. Makes that exotic rattlesnakey noise when hit. And does damn all else. Good choice for the lazy pupil, as you can just sit there through the whole recital idly calculating the odds on getting hold of that elusive Everton gold badge Panini sticker, then leap in right at the end with your vibra-slap and steal all the glory.
Mucking about rating: sporadic, but high.


The best one of all, that wibbly-wobbly tinny cross between a bell and a Swanee whistle that's absolutely useless for anything but providing the soundtrack to someone unsteadily transporting a really big jelly.
Mucking about rating: countermanded.

Friday, 26 September 2008

It'll be Alright on the Night (on the right of the night on the left of the night opposite Mordred)

So The Krypton Factor is coming back, as plugged here - bizarrely with Gordon 'The Chain' Burns holding building blocks spelling 'Trumpton Wanker'. Well, it's an angle.

Nothing amazing about another old quiz being plundered by poor old strapped-for-brains ITV of course, but all the talk of the 'iconic' assault course and 'state-of-the-art technology' suggest that, once again, they're missing the point of the original before it's even begun.

Even at the time, The Krypton Factor was a very ordinary sort of programme. While quizzes in the 1980s gradually stared beefing themselves up, with blonde women in helicopters and Richard O'Brien playing an ocarina, The Kryp (as we all called it) remained sober and, that shouting sergeant major at the end aside, very, very quiet. Gordon Burns's supernormal powers of whispering were stretched to the limit as he conspiratorially confided with the viewing public the key to solving the three-dimensional jigsaw (always something about getting the base segement the right way round) while the camera focussed unforgivingly on Jim, a systems analyst from Redditch who 'doesn't appear to be making any progress at all'.

Since then, silence has become as much a crime on TV as it always was on radio. But radio had a reason for it, as pointed out by John Peel whenever he played a record on the BBC World Service which featured a whopping pause in the middle, half-fearing the momentary silence of the global broadcasting bastion might trigger World War Three.

Blame Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and its constant, pulsating, sub-Jean Michel Jarre backing track, complete with matching Destination Docklands-style sweeping lightshow. Someone decided the sound of a silent studio wasn't 'tense' enough. Either that, or they had a morbid fear of the janitor's broom falling over and destroying the carefully constructed edifice of intellectual suspense.

ITV might decide to help their product stand out from the menacingly thrumming crowd by going back to whispering basics. Who knows? Mastermind managed it after all, but the Beeb tend to have more confidence in their resurrected brands, and don't share ITV's boobish, eager-to-please compulsion to kit the old model out with the TV equivalent of flashy rear spoilers and those blue lights that go along the bottom of the door frames. (They certainly tried odd things towards the end of The Kryp's original run, as I recall.)

But it's an important fact that The Kryp was, even by the standards of the time, quiet, thoughtful, modest telly. No bells, no whistles, no throbbing Fairlights or billowing carpets of dry ice. Even the assault course looked like a badly-tended adventure playground at times. And if they get the mechanics of the quiz right, there's no reason why it can't be like that again. They could even save a few bob to plough back into blinging up that Series Champion perspex trophy.

Oh, and what are the odds they'll persuade Steve Coogan into a one-off return to those 'spot the difference' dramatic film clips he used to appear in?

Friday, 5 September 2008

Funny the Things, eh?

I used to like Sounds. Not as good as the NME admittedly, and a tad heavy on the DEATH TO FALSE METAL! Coverage, but streets ahead of the dour, priggish Melody Maker, for sure. Anyway, one of the wacky stunts the paper pulled towards the end of its life was to fill two whole pages with made-up charts. Not just the notoriously unreliable ‘indie charts’ (ie what some surly get in Notting Hill thinks his customers ought to be buying), but charts of everything from pie fillings to the most popular catchphrases on Bullseye. (This last achieved fame by being read out, a few weeks later, on the programme, to the mock-bemusement of Jim Bowen, and the as ever genuine bemusement of the crowd.)

One of these charts, published some time in early 1988, has stuck in my mind ever since. God knows why - it’s not especially funny or interesting in itself. A lot of it doesn’t even make sense. But, well, ‘funny the things, eh?’ And in an attempt to purge this pointless bit of whimsy from my mind for good, here it is, as the inkies used to say all the time, ‘in full’:


  1. Pete Stride & John Plain
  2. Peter Perrett
  3. Pete Wylie
  4. Peter Glaze
  5. Peter Oosterhuis
  6. Peter, Paul and Mary
  7. Peter Lorimer (Leeds)
  8. Peters and Lee
  9. Pete Gunn
  10. Pete Best

(The little flower things didn't appear in the original paper, of course, it's just Blogger being an arse and not letting me do a numbered list, for some reason. Anyway, let's have a rummage...)

A very Sounds choice, these two being members of pub-punk act The Lurkers and punk-pub band The Boys respectively. Dunno about The Boys, but The Lurkers sounded like 101 variations on The Clash’s White Riot to my punk-ignorant ears and, shall we say, respected the privacy of the UK Top 40. Still, loads of other people, including Peel, loved them, and they ‘made The Ramones sound like Queen’, which has to be worth something. Here’s some phlegmatically flailing skinny tie action from the lads on Revolver (sadly the clip cuts off before we get to hear Peter Cook’s soused verdict on the band.)

Lead signer of The Only Ones, of course, who may have been nowhere to be seen in 1988, but now are all over Jools Holland, adverts and compilations – doing Another Girl Another Planet in all cases, admittedly, but Perrett’s still about, albeit tainted with association with The Libertines, of all folk. And he could still do with a bun or two by the looks of things.

Bit cheeky of them to bung the Wah!meister into this list, as he’d been in the charts with Sinful just over a year previously. Sadly it’s more appropriate these days, as an accident in the early ‘90s put the kybosh on his solo career, though a comeback is apparently ‘imminent’, which could be rather good. Of course, the best band he was ever in was The Crucial Three, one of those late-’70s Liverpool bands who never actually wrote songs or performed, but just hung about in tea shops all day talking about how great it was being in a band. That’s the music career for me. Other members were Julian Cope, who is ace in a bizarre new way every day, and Ian McCulloch who I’ve never been able to stick. Put that jumper on properly lad, you’ll ruin the neck hole! And stop pouting!

Not a very well-researched list this, is it? The former Crazy Gang understudy turned shortarse recipient of a giant tuning fork to the head on Crackerjack* had been dead a good five years by the time this chart was compiled. He carked it halfway through a series of the late-period, Stu Francis-’n’-gunge-era incarnation of the show too, raising the question of how, if at all, the programme commemorated that sad event. A memorial round of ‘get the whistle out of the tray of Sugar Puffs with your teeth’? Or just a mournful Jimmy Krankie with two downturned thumbs, declaring the tragic loss decidedly un-fandabidozi? Best of all, while Glaze was still operational, he could conceivably have covered the work of any of the abovementioned Pete’s in that section of Crackerjack where they do a daft mini-play and shoehorn a Hit parade number into the action. Not sure Glaze’s bluff tones would suit a Perrett song, but I bet he ould do a belting Seven Minutes to Midnight.

Bit of a zany choice here, with the oddly-named lanky golfer who was all over the telly in the canary yellow plus fours era of the sport, but had buggered off to America by the time this list came out. That’s it.

Were still going in ‘88! And are still going these days to the best of my knowledge. Just because you stopped listening to Junior Choice when they started going overboard with the Ralph MacTell songs doesn’t mean that world just vanished, Mr List Compiling Man!

Footballer famous for his ability to kick the ball very hard. Unlike his team-mates, who preferred to do the same to the opposing side. No joke like an old joke, eh?

This list does admittedly run out of steam towards the end. Though this pair are a legitimate Where Are They Now? Target, being as they were bloody everywhere in the 1970s on the back of pretty much one song, with their own TV Christmas specials and everything. They’d long packed it in by 1988, though I do remember seeing them on Summertime Special once, which must have just about been in the ‘80s.

Not sure who this even is. Do they mean Peter Gunn, the 1950s detective series? Or the Duane Eddy theme tune from same? If it’s the latter, that was being covered by The Art of Noise about the time this was published, so zero points on the research front there. But knowing this paper, it’s more likely referring to the bassist from Peter and the Test Tube Babies or something.

Oh, of all the cheap shots… It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the Biggest Loser in Rock (copyright lots of little losers). Twenty years of sterling work for the civil service and a rock solid marriage to the girl off the biscuit counter at Woolie’s mean nothing, do they? Oddly enough, this list was published in the very year Best knocked his day job on the head and went back to music, forming The Pete Best Band. I like to think this list was directly responsible.

* - Crackerjack!

Monday, 25 August 2008

It's all done in the Geoff POSSIBLE Capes!

This week’s British Olympic showreel wouldn’t have been complete without a misshapen lump of controversy every bit as artificial and underwhelming as one of those chunks of coagulated flavouring found at the bottom of a packet of Monster Munch. Apparently that rotten picture from bloody years ago of Myra Hindley made out of Jim’ll Fix It badges or something was bewilderingly featured, in a ‘deeply upsetting’ way.

It is upsetting of course, but only in the usual way – seeing genuine talent and hard work (your actual medal-winning folk) being piggy-backed by the usual lazy crowd of media slugabeds is as British as any unfolding London bus full of Crowley-worshipping billionaires. Never mind sport and politics being kept apart, sport and art shouldn’t be half-heartedly mashed together, certainly not in this boring, taking-the-shine-off-genuine-aceness, committee-driven way.

The irony is, of course, that not so long ago (well, OK, quite long ago), art was an Olympic event. You can see why this wouldn’t happen now – not televisual enough, and who would commentate? Brian Sewell? – but perhaps if a measurable element was added, it could work. Who can sculpt a reclining nude in less than four minutes? ‘And there’s the plucky Italian undergoing his own mini-Renaissance, coming back against the Spaniard with some rapid work on the upper torso there, just look at those chippings fly!’ Or the novel-writing marathon? ‘Fifty pages to go, and Amis has an awful lot of characterisation through revealed action left to do! He spent too long building up that allegory in the early chapters, and now he’s paying the price!’

Hmm. Perhaps it’s best left untampered with. We’ve got enough proper amateur athletes who’ve made it on their own ability and dedication as it is, let’s not let egregious, self-promoting faux-proles like Banksy in and spoilt everything. With him on our team, we’d be bound to cark it. Unlike Los Angeles in 1932, where Britain’s John Hughes won a gold medal in town planning. Er, result!

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Someone's 50 Today...

... unbelievably enough. I won't tell if you won't.

Happy birthday, love.


Thursday, 24 July 2008

Let's Go Shopping

It's just about summer at last, and there's something about the orange haze of a July morning that puts me in mind of holiday trips to the local newsagent-cum-general store round about the turn of the '80s. Leave your bike outside in a casual heap and enter its subdued, welcoming, blue-and-white vinyl floor tiled, no-cheques-cashed-thank-you interior.

Most important, on a day like this, is the little deep freeze with the two-way sliding top and the achingly outdated stickers on the front. This is, of course, owned by the company which makes both the contents and the little tin sign spinning out front in the breeze - Wall's if you must, but more properly Lyon's Maid, signified by that bucolic dancing troika of a small boy and two small girls, captured in the middle of a raucous round of Ring-A-Roses with alarming disregard for the safety of their Mini Milks.

The contents of the freezer depend, of course, on whether 'the man's been'. If he has, fill your boots with Fabs, Funny Feet, Starship 2000s and the urban drug legend magnet that was the 2-Ball Screwball. If he hasn't, it's a sad scrabble round the bottom of the unit forthe best of the dull stuff - Jubblies, popsicles (not even Cola flavour left), Callipos and, most spirit-crusing of all, big brown unopened boxes of boring wafery sandwich things and the ubiquitous family brick.

It's important to note that Cornettos and other posh fare were never spotted in these units. At best, you might have seen the occasional rogue King Cone, looking lost and nervous outside its natural habitat of a shoulder-mounted tray in a darkened Odeon. If you're really unlucky, the good stuff in the tiny deep freeze will be sharing freezer space with savoury abominations, usually Patsy Kensit peas and Findus frozen boil in the bag dinners, featuring the most suspiciously smooth slices of roast beef you ever did see.

But never mind that, if there's nothing to be found in the freezer, the pop's all there, lined up on a shelf to the right. Naturally, there's no refrigerator here - not for another three years, at least - so your tins of Lilt and first-generation Tab (the beautiful drink for beautiful people) have to sweat it out among the Panda Pops, Trendy Pops and Rola Colas. No preferential treatment here. Other uncomfortably warm drinks come in space age all-plastic packaging, like the listlessly fruity Tip Tops (there are probably fewer toxic elements in the tub than the contents).

On the floor beneath, the family-sized bottles with the dimpled necks and 3p deposit caps, lined up in serried ranks temptingly reminiscent of a 'lemonade fishing' fete stall. Again, brand egalitarianism rules. Amongst the big name liquids with bubbles which have passed their fizzical are the regional pop brands. It was Dayla round my way, but if you lived elsewhere it could've been Alpine, Larkspur or, for those lucky Yorkshire folk, pop bottled by father of future Tory leader Charles Hague. All delivered either by the milkman or via a good, solid beige Bedford van with the driver's semi-hard son sat in the back, flicking Big D nuts at dogs through the open tailgate.

And we have the sweets, of course. They've been pushed temporarily into third place for the season as, with the possible exception of those new-fangled Trebor mints with the hole blocked up, they're not in any way chilled (well OK, neither are the drinks, but that's more a psychological thing, I suppose). But one tradition still holds sway in the heat - the purchasing of too many old fashioned sotrage jar sweets in a big bag. Maybe it's their 'behind counter' taboo, or the fact they're slap next to the fags, sometimes even mingled with Castellas, St Bruno and other 'OK' smoking ware, but something always ensures the buying and wolfing of far too many Styrofoam bananas, coconut mushrooms or representatives of the mysteriously resilient mojo/fruit salad duopoly - these are sweets you'll be seeing again 2 hours hence on the wasteground behind the prefabs, like old friends.

Above all this sits the 'adult shelf' stocking swanky dinner party fare such as Black Magic, Dairy Box (the winsome lady on the top of a big two-pound box cloaked in a tell-tale Miss Havisham layer of dust), the dadcentric Spartan hard centres and Terry's Pyramints. Never mind 'gentlemen's relaxation periodicals', once upon a time anything placed 5' 5" or more above ground level instantly attained an aura of grown-up mystery. Height equalled sophistication. This despite the continuing popularity of Eli Woods and Tommy Cooper.

And of course, every proper shop of this kind has a mysterious vestibule which lies behind a mystical curtain of blue and orange plastic fly-proof strips, full of wooden shelves lined with wax paper in a red gingham check or wavy blue line pattern, affixed by drawing pins on the underside, yellowing and brittle in what sun there is straining through the tiny square rear window, which some obliging soul has partially cleared of dust with the finger-daubed legend 'DALGLISH 78'.

This is a sort of half-shop, half-storeroom area, which is kind of exciting as you're never sure if you're actually allowed in here, but generally contains a lot of dull, non-child-friendly sundries. Odd-looking paper-bagged bread, in particular the oddly disturbing 'milk roll'. Cylindrical and corrugated, everything about this weird, OAP-endorsed loaf seems wrong, resembling not so much bread as we know it but a calcified version of the wobbly tube of 'solid nourishment' perpetually bisected on Pedigree Chum ads.

Other oddities hang about, ever-present, never bought. A faded card bears brown shoelaces, folded up in little paper tubes. There are always exactly four missing. Great big Ever Ready batteries, plastic coated and the size of a Tea-Hee mug, present their weird spring contacts to the air. What are they ever used in? A cardboard presentation tray of sachets of Rise 'N' Shine, or some other alchemically powdered 'orange drink', defy you to guess their age.

And at the bottom of the ninth circle sits the mystery box, a rough cardboard pallet containing as sorted small tinned items that could have been there years ( and probably have, judging by the circular rusty grooves they appear to have worn in the base of the box). Toast Toppers, pea and ham baby food, Brasso, Colman's Mustard Powder, DioCalm - you pays your 10p and you quite literally takes your chance. But of course nobody does. Although Mrs Michinson's boy likes to rummage around in there of an afternoon. Always said he was a bit funny.

Coming up in five months' time: The Co-op at Christmas.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Picture it - Sicily, 1914!

Sophia: In Sicily, we never went to the doctor. We went to the Widow Caravelli. Whatever you had, she had a cure. She was most famous for her green salve to cure ear infections. One day, she gave some to Salvadore, the village idiot. He misunderstood the directions and put in on his linguine instead of in his ear.

Dorothy: Well, I guess if you're an idiot with a hearing problem, you do things like that.

Sophia: Actually, it turned out ok. The stuff tasted great, so Salvadore decided to market it. At first, things didn't go so well. Linguine with ear salve wasn't very appetizing. But once he changed the name to pesto sauce, it sold like hot cakes!

Dorothy: Ma, you're making this up!

Sophia: So what? I'm old, I'm supposed to be colourful!

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Telly Selly Time #4: A Nice Repast

It's the easiest thing in the world to poke fun at the telly of a quarter of a century ago for its antediluvian attitudes and plethora of offensive stereotypes, unlike today's enlightened world where snobbery and prejudice are nowhere to be seen, hem hem. Having said that, this choice 1983 promotion on behalf of the British Lamb Marketing Board was, and remains, something else.

The format of choice is, natch, is the cockney oompah rap, which did well for Kwik Fit, Do-It-All, George Cole's Leeds building society campaign and countless others. Where it came from, God knows. Chas and Dave may have something to do with it, but this sort of stuff is to the likes of Rabbit what Jamiroquai is to Parliament. Where's the cockney soul, you cowson?

One thing that really does seem odd from a modern viewpoint is the whole point of the ad - the idea that the fashion for vegetarianism would take over the nation, bankrupting farmers and sending tinfoil shares into a downward spiral. It's a threat to our very way of life! About this time, you also got ads for tea - not any particular brand, just the concept of having a cup of tea in general. Which shadowy organisation decides these things?

I'll always have a soft spot for the old 'copper with flashing blue light on helmet' bit.

Nosey neighbour with telescope doubles as outraged Mary Whitehouse figure on mention of 'meatballs'! Two stereotypes for the price of one, nice work.

Turns out moussaka was a Mexican dish all along. Who knew?

The hippie, of course. After punk knocked all that bearded wooliness on the head he was the number one cultural joke for the best part of a decade, though by '83 the main reason for ridicule seems to be his lack of awareness of hair gel and/or Yamaha keyboards.
FACT: Every joke hippie in an '80s ad not played by Nigel Planer was, for some reason, modelled closely on Van Der Graaf Generator's David Jackson. [ For example - see here. ]

'Could've had it barbecued!': Is this the most confused gay stereotype ever committed to the screen? Bodybuilding, bondage, lisp, pink thong, blonde woman on rowing machine... yes, that just about covers, um, something.

Say what you like about this ad, but at least it gets over in 30 seconds what Little Britain managed to stretch over three series.

Monday, 26 May 2008

A Very Funny Red-Haired Woman Named Tate

On the weird and wacky cable service I have at home because The Man won’t let me put a dish up, there’s a rum little on-demand mini-channel thing called Screen Gems. The name will be familiar to those of you who ever mainlined stuff like The Monkees or I Dream of Jeannie on summer holiday mornings. This channel offers up a handful of those, selected seemingly at random. Why it’s doing this is anyone’s guess, but the multichannel age thumbs its nose at such lily-livered commonsensical talk, and so, there it is.

Anyway, after a brief dalliance with the one Monkees episode I must have seen every three months throughout my childhood and so could recite the dialogue as it happened (the one where they go into a toy-testing department, Tork fans) I assumed that was Screen Gems spent for me. Then a while ago Benson turned up, and through nothing more than a vivid recollection of the smell of roast beef that I’ll always associate with the theme tune, I had a look. It wasn’t half bad. Not many laughs, but still possibly the most watchable of the whole ‘sarcastic black butler versus frigid German cook’ genre. Then, the other week, along came the programme from which Benson span off, Soap.

Soap is one of those sitcoms that’s considered a landmark in America, but is hardly mentioned here. Channel 4 used to show some of the later series at odd times late at night as I recall, but the disparity in fame on either side of the Atlantic makes Seinfeld look like Dallas. It is, as the oleaginous voice of one Rod Roddy puts it at the top of every show, the story of two sisters. Mary Campbell’s the lower middle-class one, married to a loon who killed her previous husband, with one son on the run from the mob after failing to kill said loon, and another mulling over a sex change operation so he can marry his quarterback boyfriend. Jessica Tate is the other, who married a wealthy businessman who cheats on her with his secretary, and on his secretary with anyone else who’s going, is herself boffing the same tennis coach as her daughter, who’s also got the hots for a Catholic priest. And then there’s the other daughter who’s bedding congressmen, the requisite ‘wise beyond his years’ smartass kid, a Hawaiian ventriloquist with inseparable wisecracking doll, and of course Benson.

Confused? Well, you have to watch the thing closely, that’s for sure, so it’s suited to the whole on-demand format, where missing an episode is not an option. The sort of daytime soap it’s supposed to be parodying never happened over here, but that doesn’t matter. The script, created and, unusually for American comedy, mostly written by Susan Harris (later of Golden Girls fame) may suffer from the old ‘everyone talks the same way’ syndrome that’s hard to avoid with wisecracking comedy, but the performances carry it off superbly. Everyone knows about Billy Crystal’s star-making turn as Gay Jodie, but in a close contest acting honours go to Robert Guillaume’s Benson, Katherine Helmond’s brilliantly sustained airhead whitebread matriarch turn as Jessica Tate, and Richard Mulligan, whose Bert Campbell was clearly closely studied by the young Michael ‘Kramer’ Richards:

In retrospect, after we’ve been spoilt by the likes of Frasier, it inevitably seems a tad slow, and it certainly does seem a bit pleased with its mould-breaking outrageousness at times, but so does Not the Nine O’Clock News and Brass Eye. And then, this being an American sitcom, there’s The Mawkishness. Oddly, the first half dozen episodes roll by in a manic haze of plot-reversals and scene-setting with no time for a touching moment, so the first big ‘the laughter dies, leaving a tear forming in the corner of the studio audience’s collective eye’ scene comes as something of a shock. I’m told by those who know that this escalates to unbearable levels a couple of series in, and indeed the whole thing went on into the 1980s way after it should have been put out to grass, but that’s the US networks for you.

Still, even if it turns to total dross after this first series, that’s 19 episodes of class more than most can manage. Oh, and !!!!SPOILER ALERT!!!! Here’s the final ever scene. They don’t end sitcoms like that any more.