Friday, 3 July 2009

'I Just Need a Place to Kip for a Few Nights, Stan'

All the recent talk of people going 'to hell with it' and voting for celebrity candidates in the next general election is worrying, despite Esther Rantzen's sterling attempt to put paid to the whole idea with her embarrassing performance on Question Time. Celebs simply aren't suited to office - they neither know nor care about anything other than themselves. That is, in most cases, the main reason they've become celebrities.

There is a kind of public office, though, to which the stars of stage and screen are perfectly suited: the kind no-one knew existed in the first place. Called things like High Sheriffs and Lord Lieutenants, they don't appear to do much apart from turn up on the news occasionally in furry robes to mug at local businessmen or kids in a newly-built youth centre. ('Sounds like Gordon Brown! LOL!')

Celebs make ideal candidates for this job - not much paperwork, lots of getting out and about and pressing the flesh, and those robes, darling! The High Sheriff of Surrey was the benchmark for celeb dignitary action for ages, with both Richard Stilgoe and Penelope Keith holding that unaccountably sexy-sounding office over the past few years.

But now there's a new challenger, as we hear Eddie Yates off Corrie has been made Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the Isle of Wight! This is, of course, the best celebrity political appointment made thus far, and we wish Mr G Hughes (if that really is his name) all the best carrying out his many ceremonial duties, which include:

  • Brewing bitter in Hilda Ogden's bathtub
  • Failing to flog white goods of dubious provenance at the bar of the Rovers
  • Turning up fresh from the nick desperate for somewhere to kip with iffy mate 'Monkey'
  • Covering a shortfall in hookey wallpaper with an equally dodgy alpine 'muriel'
  • Scanning the classified ads in the Weatherfield Gazette for 'investment opportunities'
  • Running a book on whether or not Annie Walker will pass her driving test
  • Rescuing a trapped budgie from Mavis Reilly's chimney
  • Burning the coq-au-vin at Ken Barlow's pensioners' supper
  • Trying to get Bet Lynch to sell him 2/3 of a pint of bitter after he's had his benefits cut
  • Selling cash and carry booze out of drinking hours from an ice cream van
  • Pretending he lives in Mike Baldwin's flat to impress birds he's pulled over the CB radio
  • Storing Stan Ogden's vintage tandem in an abandoned house which is promptly knocked down while he's having a swift half in the pub over the road
  • Winning the council's 'cleanest dustcart' contest despite a knobbling attempt from Fred Gee
  • Trouncing Alf Roberts in a slimming contest

I think he'll do juuuuuust fine.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

'Oh no my clothes have all fallen off, and The Clash.'

The other day I was challenged - by Does That Make Sense?, no less - to say something pertinent, or even just dim, about Transvision Vamp. Panicking like Blears, I plumped for the latter. Here goes.

Transvision Vamp were, essentially, Wendy James and - one of the best rubbish pseudonyms in pop - Tex Axile, an old punk who'd been in the fag-end version of X-Ray Spex and silly controversy-mongering non-band The Moors Murderers with Chrissie Hynde and Steve Strange. Tex provided the proto-Grunge mellow chiming verses and stock power chord choruses over which Wendy would alternately pout and scream in a manner often, and not entirely unfairly, likened to Bonnie Langford throwing a wobbly in Just William. In fact, most people's first encounter with the band was via James's thcweam at the start of their first big hit, I Want Your Love. The lyrics were textbook frowny bedroom nihilism, full of clumsy rhymes ('I love your motivation/And I love your desperation') which were - perhaps fatally - mixed high enough for every word to be intelligible.

They found themselves lumped in with a load of other bands who did vaguely power-poppy songs and had a blonde frontwoman, and all appeared round about the same time, as the '80s were being smoked down to the filter. Thus James was constantly compared to Andrea off The Darling Buds and - one of the worst rubbish pseudonyms in pop - Tracy Tracy off The Primitives. I don't know if someone tried to tie them up in one of those freshly-minted micro-genres that were all over pop journalism in those days. (I'm hoping 'peroxide power pop' is something I've just made up).

For better or worse, James was ahead of her time. Let's take the worse first. There are two things about Wend that got the music press's collective goat, which just wouldn't be issues today. First, and most obvious, was her willingness to shed as much clobber as possible if there was a cover shoot in it. Actually, it was all very chaste by today's standards - arms and militaria experts on the Antiques Roadshow have cavorted in less - but back then for an actual singer, rather than some model who mimed to Loleatta Holloway, to set the controls for 'shirtless' was an invitation to be priggishly lambasted in the pages of the inkies (who illustrated their thesis with copious examples of the evidence, natch). No-one, with the possible exception of Carol Decker, had a harder time from the music press in the late '80s.

Secondly, and perhaps more tellingly, The Vamp wanted to be 'credible' without being 'indie'. Explaining the arcane rules of the 1980s independent music scene to anyone under 25 is like summarising pounds, shillings and pence via the medium of dance, and it really is an unquestionably Good Thing that selling a few records now and again is no longer considered an instant bar to musical worth. But back then it still - just about - was. So Wend and Tex's bangings-on about Joe Strummer in interviews were reported with a vertiginously raised eyebrow. How dare these self-confessed wannabe chart-toppers flirt with the trappings of 'proper' music? Such snobbery was on the way out, though, for the good of all concerned (the staff of Melody Maker aside). It just came a little too late for the Trannies.

Best not to go overboard with the revisionism, though - there are few pop songs feebler than Born to Be Sold, for a start. But at a time when just about everything else from the 1980s has been salvaged, polished up and stuck on an ad (Westworld on the telly in 2009? I'm all for it, but... how?) it's odd we haven't heard those workmanlike power chords and that girlish 'Waaaaaagh!' being used to flog a Kinder Bueno or a Ped-Egg... yet.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

It's Not Fair and It's Really Not PG

It was easy in the old days (by which I mean before 1982). For films, you had your certificate U for the whole family, your certificate AA for over 14s (or 12 year olds who felt lucky)and your certificate X for over 18s (or two vertically mounted twelve year olds sharing one man's overcoat, trilby and burnt cork around the face). For everything else, it was safely assumed that anyone likely to take offence - children, the elderly, Lord Hailsham - would be safely in bed by nine. Simple.

Then things started to get mussy. Films certificates changed into new ones which were supposed to be easier to make out but weren't, then kept being added to every couple of years. The 9PM curfew became increasingly meaningless in the face of black and white portable tellies in bedrooms, and then the advance of VCRs, Sky Plussing contraptions and, finally, the Internet. Sending junior to bed the moment Old Man Steptoe unleashed his first 'Cobblers!' of the night was no longer an option - they could be watching Derek Jarman up there, and without that all-important 'parental guidance'. ('Look Billy, those two Roman soldiers are very good friends, aren't they? You know your Uncle Alan...')

So we got a stream of hastily cobbled together own brand censorship regimes, from the phoney (Red Triangle Films) to the earnest but ridiculous (those strange boxes on the backs of DVDs, with their invocations of 'scenes of mild peril' and other abstract concepts straight from the terrified mind of Norris Cole). Worst of all is the music-related stuff, which has gone far beyond those daft 'Parental Guidance' stickers that cluttered album sleeves in the '90s.

Try listening, for instance, to Lily Allen's new single 'Ed From the Chemical Brothers Shags Like an Invalid Penguin' on a selection of radio stations. The 'difficult' content is treated in various ways. Some just censor the word 'head', which became rude in about 1991, around the time the previously untouched 'Walk on the Wild Side' started suffering a similar fate. Some censor the word 'giving' as well, probably because cutting the word 'head' on its own might sound a bit like like having your decency cake and eating it. ('Giving what, eh, lads? Not blood, I bet! Woooorgh!') Some get rid of the whole offending line. Some, even, let their faders eat into the previous line, removing 'wet patch', a totally innocuous phrase to anyone who doesn't already know what might be the cause of said spillage. There are probably versions out there which cut even more in an attempt to take the world back to a pre-Are You Being Served? state of Edenic innocence.

Meanwhile, poor old Lily's song disappears bit by saucy bit, like a sexually explicit version of 'Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes'. It's all very subtle and barely raises an eyebrow these days. Back when music censorship was full of uniformed coppers raiding branches of Our Price and Mike Read going apoplectic over some 'raunchy Scouse combo' who had probably never even heard of John Betjeman, at least we knew where we stood. Now not only do we not know, it seems the people devising these things haven't got a clue either. God knows what they'd have made of Danny La Rue.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Duck Island LOL's a Mighty Fine LOL

Not so long ago, satire was the preserve of about half a dozen men with a First in Greats from Caius College, Cambridge. Now, thanks to the internet, radio phone-ins and The Economist's Joke of the Week spot, everyone's a satirist. Which would be great, if the level of humour got significantly better as a result. Sadly, the BBC's Have Your Say pages are only 2% funnier than the whole of That Was The Week That Was, and that's not good enough.

Things looked so much more promising a year ago. Gordon Brown was a gift - a politician who acts a bit like a clown, and whose name rhymes with 'clown'! The headlines wrote, typeset and distributed themselves. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief after long, drab years of the hopeless 'Blair'/'liar' construction, which wasn't even a proper pun, and never funny in the first place. ('It's not meant to be funny. I'm really angry, actually.')

Then things got better and better. There was the Credit Crunch, which was kind of serious but didn't involve anyone actually dying, and to cap it all had a silly name. No decent gags. Then Swine Flu, which kind of involved people dying but wasn't actually serious, and to cap it all had a silly name. Still nothing. And now we've got a continuous stream of comedy expenses, each one sillier than the last, which should provide ideal conditions for a fertile coupling of indignation and comedy.

Nothing, though. Zilch. Perhaps the MPs overdid it, with their moats and dog food and whatnot. The joke's almost already done for us, but not quite. (What brand of dog food? Does the moat have a drawbridge? Carp? We don't know, and these things are vital for comic detail.) Unable to work with the prime material they're given, the public overdo the indignation to compensate, as if diddling the electorate out of a couple of Habitat bread bins is the most grievous thing ever to happen in the name of Parliament. That sort of approach worked for Alexei Sayle, but not the population of Luton, who haven't got enough pork pie hats to go round as it is. Can we have an election for a new Great British Public? This one's rubbish.

But perhaps it was never meant to be, and now it looks like the material's running out. "Reporters in Buckingham Palace (Slight Return)" isn't going to get anyone choking over their morning raft of viral emails. The 24th satire boom since records began is bursting. Soon everyone'll be safely back to chuckling at TV's talent trousers man and the happy-go-lucky wit of Eamonn Holmes. Still, maybe in another ten years we'll have found a funny rhyme for 'Cameron', and the cosmic ballet can continue.

Friday, 15 May 2009

"We're supposed to be intelligent people, not the London School of Economics!"

The first episode of a TV series is incredibly difficult to get right, because it has to do everything. You’ve got to introduce your characters, their environment, their relationships, and the rest of the set-up for the next six/twelve/twenty episodes, while juggling a self-contained plot for that one episode which has to come to a satisfactory conclusion by the end, that conclusion summing up, if you’re doing it right, the series as a whole. A sitcom’s harder than a drama, as you’ve only got half an hour, and on top of all that you’ve got to cram in some decent gags.

With all this to do, it's small wonder few sitcoms manage to launch with a satisfactory bang, but Ever Decreasing Circles is a towering exception. Writers John Esmonde and Bob Larbey hardly make things easy for themselves with the concept they have to introduce - humourless community busybody Martin Brice (Richard Briers) and his long-suffering wife Ann (Penelope WIlton) have their already crabby marriage shaken up by the arrival of suave, relaxed hairdresser Paul Ryman (Peter Egan), who possesses every redeeming feature Martin does have, from a sense of humour through to modesty. Not exactly 'fat bloke left in charge of bakery' in set-up terms, but they lay it out and sew it up in twenty-five-odd minutes without breaking into a sweat.

The performances are of course great, but it's not only Briers' one-man tornado of pointless energy that makes it. Penelope Wilton runs the gamut of Play for Today kitchen sink emotions from frustration to anger, while leaving just the occasional chink of warmth, enough to stop the viewer wondering why she didn't just pack her bags years ago. Very much in their own world are Howard and Hilda Hughes, not quite the cardboard comedy suburbanites they initially seem, but certainly full of the spaced-out detachment of people who write letters to Points of View - Stanley Lebor's Howard, in particular, talks as if he's reading out each 'frank exchange' from a previously approved crib sheet.

In the middle of all this, Peter Egan just has to act normal - easier said than done in such a madhouse. But he's not completely immune to the mania. His first encounter with Martin leaves him bemused at the torrent of unsolicited advice about British Telecom ("and the same applies to the gas people, but more about them anon!") Five minutes in, he finds himself starting to mimic Martin's OCD ticks, counting the number of steps in the hall stairway along with Ann. The freakish set-up is laced with subtle touches like this. It would be going to far to say the viewer can empathise with every character, but they're all certainly recognisable as real people, which is more than can be said for a lot of more celebrated 'realist' comedies.

Circles (well,why not?) is fairly well celebrated these days, but too often in conjunction with that dread comedy adjective, 'dark', often by punters who seem to have got their sense of humour by copying it off the boy sitting next to them in the exam room. What's really at the centre of it is a monumentally insecure, self-centered man who can't see how he drags down everyone he touches. Where Esmonde and Larbey really impress is in gradually making what starts out as a grotesque monster, cranking the duplicating machine in a maniacal frenzy, into a sympathetic, tragic figure. It's there in the first episode, in Martin's inability (or refusal) to share everyone else's jokes, and the lonely image of his one-man all-night vigil camped in front of a troublesome articulated lorry with a knackered portable telly for company.

It's something the writers have specialised in. There might not be much of it about in Brush Strokes beside the odd maudlin barside chat with Elmo, but it's there in spades in The Other One, a sitcom with Briers as a desperate bullshitter bluffing his way through a skirt-chasing package holiday - a theme made famous by John Sullivan with his medallion-toting Kirk St Moritz in Dear John (another 'before-its-time dark masterpiece' of course).

It's even there in The Good Life - both Margot and Tom are guilty of burying themselves in their own busy little worlds while real life goes on elsewhere. It's really the theme of all comedy, dark or light, noughties or forties, Avalon-approved or ENSA-affiliated - the man for whom the world's just that tiny bit too much. Or as Martin puts it in one of his stilted attempts at self expression: "I wish people wouldn't take me literally. I just mean... things."

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Bolls: Over?

Two Statcounter posts in short order is thunderingly bad form, but this is almost interesting. While poring over the sudden preponderance of Iranians searching for "bondage telly", this Twitter account jumped out of the listings. I'm not sure how 'official' this is - unlike this one, of course. Not that it matters, as this series of Ashes to Ashes is really cracking along now regardless, but this sort of thing seems to be standard practice now with a drama series of any decent size, so people must go for it. I can't say I'm convinced.

If Square One features in next week's episode I might change my mind, however.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Cover Aversions

David Quantick, that repository of chart-oriented bile, once memorably described Menswear's Johnny Dean as something you'd get 'if you wanted Brett Anderson for Christmas, but your mum had gone to the covered market in town and bought you a crap knocked-off version with the wrong hair and a leg that fell off as soon as you got it out of the box.' While this just about summed it up for Johnny, I’ve never forgiven his slight against that bastion of loose change consumerism: the covered market.

I’m not talking about those lovely Victorian covered markets like those quaint arcades you get in Leeds and Oxford. To get to the right kind of covered market you need to take a long walk down a shallow concrete ramp. It's about 4.15PM on a Saturday, by the way, the only time to pay a visit. It'll be a heavily overcast sky above, lowering clouds scudding lazily by forever teasing with the portent of a downpour that never quite arrives.

Atmospherically oppressed from above, overcoated folk hurry about to get their 'last minute bits and bobs' before the various joys of Saturday evening are upon us. Already it's getting dark. The Grandstand teleprinter is warming up, kegs of Hemmeling Lite are being plumbed into pub cellars, and the master tape of Russ Abbott’s Madhouse is being loaded into the ITV network's central reel-to-reel player. There's no time to linger, which, on the face of it, is just as well.

If the atmosphere above deck is one of gathering storms, unsupped pints, unclaimed dividends and unspooled impressions of Mavis Riley, at the bottom end of the ramp it's altogether more intense. I'm getting concrete, I'm getting sawdust, I'm getting freshly gutted mackerel. I'm getting... yes, all right, piss.

But the olfactory overload is nothing compared with the headache engendered by the criss-cross network of strip-lighting that illuminates the scene. Council officials have diligently ensured that a mandatory thirty percent of the overhead lighting is set to a permanent wild flicker, giving certain corners a definite 'epileptics keep out' air. God knows how the old dears manage to keep body and soul together as they browse the haberdashery stalls in ambient conditions that would have been deemed 'a bit much' at Studio 54.

The concrete cavern may be solid enough, despite being only twenty years old (FACT: all covered markets were opened by either Prince Michael of Kent or Vince Hill), but the stalls themselves are permanently on the verge of collapse. The favoured building material is pegboard. All the better to hang loads of packets of wool and rawlplugs off, certainly, but it doesn't half give the impression of a Mexican shanty town, eking out a meagre existence under the feet of the mighty 'proper' shops, which hum with an assured briskness that will never be echoed in these little numbered cubicles with the proprietors’ names spelled out in one-size-fits-all municipal stick-on lettering, those council men having dislodged a regulation one character in ten.

Quantick's hypothetical mother, despite sounding like something the Large Hadron Collider should be looking for, would head straight to the toy stall, a cubicle no more or less dour than those offering fresh meat or plumbing supplies. Eschewing a cutesy nom de commerce like ‘tots’ wonderland’ for the more reliable ‘Alan’s Playthings’, the range of products crammed into this 8 x 8 foot magic kingdom is not in doubt. But they’re Johnny Deans all the way.

Where Alan really excels is in the novelty department. The kind of practical joking tat eschewed by the more respectable emporia is here in abundance, making Alan’s gaff the nearest you could get to those mythical 'joke shops' the folk of the Beano were ever dashing into. Only without the abundance of on-premises chuckles. Novelty vending is a serious business, and customers implicitly understood that any joy to be extracted from said goods is only to be done when said goods are well out of the sight of Alan.

All this surly transaction is good practice for the progress from black soap to Black Sabbath, and a trip to the second hand record stall. The intimidating atmosphere of second hand record shopsis famed in novel and film, but the stall’s an even bigger ordeal. After all, in the shop the tubby know-all with the PiL t-shirt and the thousand well-argued reasons why compilation albums are for the mentally deficient is up to six feet away. At the stall it’s more like six inches. And he knows the contents of those punnets back to front - every hesitation you make in the lengthy flicking process is read, deciphered and facially disapproved of while you sweat. Bomb disposal operatives have a more placid time of it. Inevitably you leave with nothing, pining for a fantasy future where buying music involved no human interaction whatsoever.

In fact, best to get out of the covered market altogether. The stalls are battening down their unwieldy plywood hatches and that miserable bloke is disconsolately pushing a hinged double broom arrangement in your direction - a final ‘clear off out of it’ gesture if ever there was one. Time to get back to the surface people. The Pink Panther’s on in a minute.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

"kate bush home address wiltshire"

It's taken me a while to get a statcounter stuck on this blog, so bear with me while I plough through the sort of schtick everyone got fed up with two years ago. Still, for the record, the following search strings led to these doors in the past couple of days. Never has mass disappointment been so varied...

"80's chinese letter hat turn sideways"
Lord knows what mental process led to this. Something to do with Wang Chung, perhaps? As sought after from picturesque Everett, Massachusetts, no less - a town that ceremonially re-enacts Cuddly Ken's Bee Gees sketch on an annual basis, hopefully.

"lost art of bodging"
I'd have thought this blog was proof enough that the craft was very much alive and well, so hopefully this individual (from traditional US comedy hick town Boise, Idaho) left a happy man.

"milf derivation"

"bertice reading poster"
Well, why not? Landscape format, presumably.

"peter lorimer marriage"
If you like Leeds United so much, why don't you..?

"tesco mirrored sunglasses"
"cellophane bags cwmbran"
Sometimes the glamour of it all just gets too much.

"how old is a r whites bottle with a quarter shilling deposit"
From an employee of financial giant JP Morgan Chase in New York, this one. There's a terrible credit crunch gag in there somewhere.

"chas and dave supermarket"
It's a delightful notion, certainly. And the fact it comes from an employee of BSkyB bodes well for the future of digital television. How much rabbit will they have in stock? Find out tonight, on Sky1!

"roy castle big nose"
A consummate entertainer, singer, trumpet player, comedian, dancer and record breaker, and that's the attribute you're most interested in? Shame on you, unidentified bloke from Ilford!

"where can buy a woolworths charm"
A very good question. Not sure how lucky such an item would be, mind.

"pam st clement in caravan being gassed 1980s"
Self-explanatory, really.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

When Man 2 Man met Man Parrish

There’s just over half the year left before a new decade dawns - seven months to enjoy the last of those 1980s revivals we all thought would have given up and gone away by 2003. As it would be, even by modern standards, a bit much to go on celebrating the ‘80s for longer than they actually lasted in the first place, so retro festivities will be officially wound up on New Year’s Eve, before ‘90s nostalgia is inaugurated by Toby Anstis and Guru Josh on January 1st, 2010. In the meantime, here’s a handy social calendar of those revivals still to come.

Music channels receive a shot in the arm in June when scratch video makes a comeback. The forgotten craft of taking some old black and white film and cutting it up so the little men go backwards and forwards very quickly is lovingly revived by a new generation of artisans. All comedy programmes beginning in September feature at least one clip of Ronald Reagan going 'Look buster, b-bus-b-bus buster!' Classier broadcasts overlay all this with some abstract animated magenta triangles. The revival is deemed 'played out' when the Queen's Christmas Day speech is presented by HM sat on the floor in front of a bank of TV monitors, before the picture folds up into the rough shape of a saxophone and bounces around the screen for slightly too long to be interesting.

As the long hot summer (citation needed) rolls on, Saturday afternoons see the return of British wrestling. Not the glory years of Kendo Nagasaki and Jackie Pallo in the '60s, but the early 1980s fag-end, when Big Daddy had become more interested in appearing on the cover of the Buster summer special than giving the Kids his perfunctory two minute 'splashdown' appearance in the ring, and promoters looked to the third division likes of 'Cyanide' Sid Cooper and 'Gaylord' Steve Peacock to make up the tag team numbers. Panorama makes three earnest documentaries in a row suspecting that the matches might possibly be fixed. All bouts to be held in the Civic Centre, Aylesbury.

After what all pundits agree was A Bad Summer for Pork, the autumn sees the airwaves packed with old-style meat awareness advertisements. Shane Ritchie, Phil Daniels and Shaun Williamson (the amusingly tubby one on the end) line up for a series of cockney oompah hip-hop numbers where they burst into an undernourished wedding reception catered by militant vegans and demand the installation of a big plate of British pork, which has, of course, 'still got the lot'. All colours and creeds are whimsically represented in the commercials, including a sneezing Mexican in a big sombrero who's amusingly bundled out of the door by a nervous-looking Ritchie in a face mask. The trend catches fire in October, with the 'Do-It-All Three' reunited for a string of sell-out gigs, John Barrowman appearing in Very Very Tasty, a musical based on the Kellogg's Bran Flakes campaign, and Lily Allen tipped for the Christmas number one with her plaintive and moving interpretation of Laughing All the Way to the Leeds (Recession Edit).

By mid-October revivals are appearing so thick and fast there isn't the time to do many of them properly, so dozens get swept under the carpet, including: a line of designer paint-splattered Doc Martens launched by Paul King; 'sassy' girls from South London having about two cheeky pop-rap hits about snogging and then vanishing forever; chunky knitwear for men who know a lot about computers; The Mac Band featuring the McCampbell Brothers; song titles with more than one set of brackets in them; Trimphone impersonators; monogrammed pound coin holders; power ballads sung by women with their eyes screwed shut sat on a plinth in a completely empty white room in front of net curtains billowing through a set of open French windows; jokes about Channel Tunnel diggers surfacing in Catford by accident; Belouis Some.

November, and '80s nostalgia really nears the bottom of the barrel with the revival of '80s-style '50s nostalgia, as interpreted by advertising agencies at their yappy, annoying worst. So it's Day-Glo pink frocks and outsize beehives for the women; massive, American football player-style cardboard zoot suits and two-foot quiffs for the men. Somewhere along the line the two decades become hopelessly confused, and a generation of history pupils grow up convinced that the 1950s was full of cheery song-and-dance numbers set around a pink cardboard Cadillac about instant tea, the Brook Street job agency and going down to the Shell garage to get a scotch egg. Chris Moyles launches The Golden Oldie YouTube Channel which nobody visits.

Midnight, December 31st: Someone, somewhere, listens to Camouflage by Stan Ridgway and smiles a small smile to themselves.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Poetry Today

Eyebrows have been raised across the costlier postcodes of west London at the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as the new poet laureate, but I’m not surprised, as I fondly recall her sterling work as ‘script associate’ on Square One, Granada Television’s oddball 1981 daytime game show presented by Joe Brown.

This pre-teatime Tuesday treat is largely forgotten now, which is a bit of a shame. (Although the Queen - a woman of refined taste - was obviously a fan.) The premise was simple. “The action-packed quiz in which members of the public join forces with celebrities to win money for charity” paired two ordinary shlubs with two A-list stars - Magnus Pyke and Barbara Woodhouse, say, or Willie Rushton and Diana Dors. We’re talking the pinnacles of fame here, the centre seat on Celebrity Squares.

The ordinaries answered comedy questions, and the celebs, in a masterful touch, were reduced to acting as human counters on a giant floor-sized board, frequently called upon to balance objects, Crackerjack-style, on top of one another, do silly accents and other whimsical ’forfeits’ in order to chase that giddy prize of 250 quid’s worth of wallpaper for Great Ormond Street or neck braces for abandoned donkeys.

In between, Joe would banter away in full cockney verbal regalia (supplied, of course, by the future laureate) and take part in some self-deprecating shtick about his less-than-immortal showbiz career, tell a few ancient jokes ("Are you having that lobster for tea?" "No, he's had his tea, now he wants to go to the pictures!") and embark on an epic attempt to tell a meandering, endless gag about some geezer who goes into a boozer. No doubt these will all resurface once the Eng Lit dons get on her case - expect to see a fully annotated selection of Square One banter in next month's Times Literary Supplement.

In the meantime, I’m taking bets on the contents of the first Royally commissioned poem: ‘Enery the Eighth 7-1, ‘Walkies!’ 4-1, ‘There’s this geezer, an’ ‘e walks into this boozer…’ evens favourite.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Mighty Moments in TV History

Wednesday, January 10th 1979

4.40PM Take Hart
The new Arts Centre caretaker visits Tony for the first time and is disturbed by what he finds!”

- Radio Times.

Cue a nation of pastel and poster paint-crazed children screaming to the heavens: “Why? Why did they think The Master needed comedy interruptions to his sacred creative process from a comedy, accident-prone clown with a bucket on his foot?” But even the most committed bubble paint fanatic gradually grew to love (or at least grudgingly accept) the inevitable off-screen crash and anguished cry of ‘the council aren’t going to like this, Mr Hart!' And anyway, Mr Bennett got more complex as a character as his storyline developed. (January 24th: “Tony invites two of the Why Don’t You..? Gang to help with a painting; the caretaker calls and puts his foot in it!”)

(Mr B was also, coincidentally, one of the last manifestations of the ‘meddling council’ in British children’s entertainment, after a decade of Clive Dunn’s Grandad facing similar official woes, and endless films wherein Ronnie Barker in a bowler hat threatening to knock down the lovely old stately home where two stripy-pullovered kids passed the time innocently with bickering 17th century ghosts.)

I’ve always liked Colin Bennett. Like the inestimable Brian Trueman, he’s one of those TV figures who’s never quite been centre stage, but the more you find out about them, the more impressive they get. He co-wrote the barking teatime sci-fi comedy Luna, which boasted its own Clockwork Orange-lite dialect and posited that Patsy Kensit was artificially grown from a batch of green slime, as well as the decidedly odd semi-drawn sci-fi drama-cum-whodunnit-game-show Captain Zep - Space Detective, which would take another post to explain.

He was also Vince Purity, oleaginous mainstay of You Should Be So Lucky!, a sort of fairground stall/snakes and ladders/talent show hybrid, which took that already universally hated tribe, the stage school graduate, and made them seem appreciably more repellent. A weird attempt to make the most obnoxious children’s programme ever, it bombed abysmally. That is to say, it was a perfect success. Then he spent the early 1990s running round town centres in the middle of the night interviewing emergency glaziers and night-watchmen for the mystifying late night schedule filler Night Shift.

As you might have gathered, our Mr B has an affinity with the high concept and the oddball. He adapted Harry Nilsson’s offbeat fantasy LP The Point (about the round-headed outcast of a pointy-headed race and his dog) for the stage, and runs a production company called Acquired Taste TV. It’s a given that anyone operating in those sorts of backwaters is never going to achieve star status, but thank God they don’t seem to care. As TV fills up more and more with rigidly career-oriented types, it becomes a much, much duller place.

And have you tried getting hold of an R186 signal box lately?

Sunday, 25 January 2009

'What Rhymes with "Sauces"?'

In response to Kitten in a Brandy Glass's late-'80s women's mag nostalgia rush, I make only small apologies for airing this classic again:

Friday, 23 January 2009

Tailors to Trust

The past is like a foreign country - their currency's worth a lot more. They don't do things differently there, though. Leafing through some ancient magazines (how old does something be before you 'leaf' through it rather than 'flicking'? Got to be at least twenty years, I think) a while back turned up any number of adverts for the sort of gruff, practical, Suez-era clobber you'd buy from a respected 'gent's outfitters', hawked in treble-starched prose it's impossible to read without imagining it being barked at you by a retired naval commander who's seen a fair bit of action in the South Seas in his time and therefore clearly knows what's best for your trousers. Try this, for the Swift zip-fly:

"A Swift exclusive self-locking zip-fastener ensures complete masculine piece-of-mind, since its self-springing lock safeguards against any accidental opening. Research and experiment produced this guaranteed new trouser-fly fastener with the absolute security of closure."

It's all there - the bluff, clipped, 'Now, here's the matter in hand' tone, the forthright yet still coyly euphemistic anatomical references, the invocation of the white heat of sartorial technology. All that's missing is a pretend chemical band name like Ziplax or Fastenol bunged in somewhere.

All so different to our sophisticated advertising world now, of course. Except: well, no, it isn't. You'll find stuff almost exactly like the above in most newspapers, whether for mad commemorative plates (you'd thing commemorating things with plates would have been the first activity to go under Wilson's Swinging Junta), shoes whose chief selling point seems to be that you can bend them in half with one hand, and comically cheap trousers, as Radcliffe and Maconie highlighted on their radio show the other night, with a great ramble through an ad in the Sun for five pairs of leisure slacks (in charcoal, navy and 'lovat') for £29.98 all in, featuring frog-mouth pockets with coin-resistant linings. We may scoff, but any delusions about our modern 'sophisticated' age should be knocked on the head right now .The days of Chilprufe thermal undergarments will never go away.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Vision Off

Another day, another not-exactly-surprising-but-still-a-shock celebrity passing over. Tony Hart was one of those children’s entertainers who occupied a unique post, probably because he fell into the job almost by accident, as so many children’s TV stars did back then, when the Italia Conti conveyor belt was still under construction.

His first BBC gig was on Saturday Special, one of those 1950s children’s programmes which, by its cast list alone, gives the lie to the idea that everything pre-’60s was a thin gruel of patrician women trilling Onward Christian Soldiers at the piano to a forbidding menagerie of rough hewn, clanking puppet animals. A sort of semi-scripted melange of songs, sketches and recipes, it was presented by husband-and-wife team Janet Brown and the actor Peter Butterworth, and can therefore have been little short of fantastic. Hart provided illustrations to stories, some done on camera, although the programme’s graphic mainstay was the old-school Reginald ‘Billy Bean’s Funny Machine’ Jeffryes. You get the impression that Tony, though his trademark cravats were to come later, was very much the ‘next generation’ of talent in this mixture.

He spent the next decade as a jobbing ‘creative’ man-about-the-Beeb: Playbox (appearing alongside that other mainstay of children’s televised art, the Stones to his Beatles, Rolf Harris), Titch and Quackers (operating Quackers to Ray Allen’s Titch) and the enticingly named Ask Your Dad. Then came Vision On, starting a solid run of thirty years (via Take Hart and Hartbeat) with Tone at the front of a largely unchanging format - the gallery, interstitial Aardman animations, pastel cityscapes created before your very eyes, cartoon elephants dashed off with a line-marking machine in an abandoned car park, unwelcome intrusions from resident manic comedy relief (‘Now, where was I? Ah yes, glitter!’), Tony drawing a wild animal which disappears from the picture when his back’s turned and starts terrorising the studio, and that casual, almost cavalier, way he had of deciding a picture was finished, tossing a cardboard frame over the top with a few last strokes of the pastel (‘And I think… we’ll call that… a day!’)

That’s at least three generations who’ve grown up watching the master quietly, diligently at work to the strains of the easiest listening to be found in the Beeb’s record library (all in the prescribed viewing position for ’thoughtful’ kids’ telly - lying prone on the floor two feet in front of the set, chin resting on hand, gazing upward in rapt concentration). Three generations forlornly hoping their badly-traced dinosaur panorama would make it to the gallery, three generations cursing the fact it was usurped for some talent less six year old’s gimmicky construction with movable cotton wool flaps. (Of course, Tony was teaching us a valuable lesson there about ‘passing off’ and the nature of genuine creativity, but did we listen? No, we just fumed indignantly at the thought of those coloured pencils going to someone who’d probably end up eating most of them.)

It’s not just because he’s still sadly fresh in the memory that it’s tempting to compare his amazing pre-teen influence to Oliver Postgate, but the pair have always seemed somehow alike - quietly creative, self-contained, greatly magnanimous and bursting with more ideas in a day than a Nickelodeon boardroom could rustle up in eight collective lifetimes.

Now, where did I put that Indian ink?

Friday, 2 January 2009

Lett's go!

Monday 1 January 1979
Snowed in at Stansgate. Melissa is writing something called ‘Fight Sexism in the Benn Family’ in which she denounces the men for leaving all the work to Caroline.

I’ve never kept a diary and not really understood why other people do, but I love stuff like that. We buy published diaries of the famous for behind-the-scenes insights and no small amount of dirt, but an incidental pleasure is the inevitable presence of mundane, do-nothing days which the great and good experience just like we do. Naturally, the first day of the year is a magnet for this sort of tellingly dreary inaction, as exemplified by Good Old Tony Benn above (and I like to think he was using his brand new Lett's Muppet Show 1979 Diary for that purpose).

What to do? Brian Eno was inspired on the first to compile his 1995 diary by his dad’s example, though whereas Eno’s was stuffed with highbrow whimsy and big names dropped from the stout end of rock, his father went for the more traditional ‘Shopping and walk to Rotary Club fete. Bought waffle maker: 45p’. For his own part, Eno watched The Red Shoes and put up a bird feeder.

Workaholic Michael Palin failed to enjoy January 1st’s enforced leave in 1975: ‘No newspapers, no letters. A bank holiday and all that that entails […] I should have started a play, Ian [Davidson] should have been writing for The Two Ronnies […] but somehow twelve and a half hours, four bottles of wine, three or four beers, several games of Scrabble and one Indian take-away meal later, we were all still in the sitting room.’

(Palin was experiencing only the second New Year bank holiday in the country, as Ted ‘The Death’ Heath had only inaugurated the thing in 1974. It could have been worse. When Samuel Pepys was scribbling his diary, the year didn’t legally begin until 25th March, for some reason, though the tradition of mundane occurrence was already in place by January 1662: ‘Waking this morning out of my sleep on a sudden, I did with my elbow hit my wife a great blow over her face and nose, which waked her with pain, at which I was sorry, and to sleep again.')

Perhaps inevitably, it's up to Alan Bennett to take the prize for the most humdrum start to the year. Bennett began 1993 logging the appearance of his own name as a clue on Paul Coia’s BBC2 daytime roustabout Catchword. ('Nobody guesses it.') More eventful than the kick-off to 1980, where he just sat at the window of his Camden house looking out of the window. (‘A nun passes.’)

Happy New Year!

[Mundane New Year bulletin: just taken delivery of the Reader's Digest Prize Draw mailout for 2009, and even by that benighted company's own try-hard standards, it's a doozy. Every official-looking stamp and sticker you see on the right is, naturally, drawn on. The small letter explains that the big packet contains an 'FAQ' to help you deal with the coming 'weeks and months of exhilaration' which will inevitably follow when you lay your hands on those great wodges of cash. The usual comedy cheques are present and correct, but sadly the free pens have dried up, and they seem to have decommissioned cheery old Tom Champagne in favour of a dull-sounding 'Prize Draw Manager' whose signature appears to read 'N. Smelly.' Good luck with that one, Smelly.]