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.]