Friday, 2 September 2022

A Radio Times at Random



16-22 May 1970

Any vintage edition of the Radio Times or TVTimes is an intriguing snapshot of the era in which it appeared – not merely for what it tells us about the televisual content of the week in question, but the wider context provided by advertising, editorial and the inevitable letters page. This one, featuring the boardroom/oil exploration drama The Troubleshooters on the cover, turned up recently on ebay for a very reasonable £8 (good quality RT copies are usually listed at upwards of £15). So what, if anything, does this random edition reveal about life in Britain in the spring of 1970?

Radio Times had undergone a facelift in the autumn of 1969, replacing its austere block-serif title font with the fancy swash caps that would endure, with modifications, for over thirty years. To modern readers, this 52-year-old example would feel strangely cheap, printed for the most part on newsprint pulp, with only the covers and four internal pages in colour, on a dull, matt coated paper (TVTimes used this superior stock throughout the whole magazine).

The Troubleshooters was the biggest new thing that week on the BBC, and accordingly scores another cover (there had been at least four previous examples during the 1960s). The series was taking over the Monday evening 9.10pm slot from which Doomwatch had exited with a bang (non nuclear) the previous week. In common with most videotaped BBC drama of the period (and a fair amount of comedy), The Troubleshooters is mostly missing from the archive. Taking its lead from ITV’s immensely popular boardroom drama The Power Game, the series played off the management shout-outs against sweaty dramatic action ‘out in the field’. Many episodes sound intriguing from their plotlines, but it’s safe to say that its arctic or desert settings would mostly have been realised in the studio. Like its timeslot predecessor DoomwatchThe Troubleshooters followed the standard BBC drama production formula of filmed sequences inserted into a mostly VT studio-based production, and this 1970 series was its first year in colour. The Troubleshooters endured into 1972 when, along with Doomwatch, it passed into history. Despite having scored the RT cover this week, the series did not make the ‘big colour feature’, usually placed towards the back of the magazine. This week, it was given over to a new ethnographic BBC2 series The Family of Man, contrasting lifestyles in New Guinea and 1970s Britain.

On the reverse of the cover we find an advert for the ‘Baxi Bermuda Plus’, a gas fire with back boiler (a popular combination at the time). Mid-May may seem a strange time to be promoting such a product, although it was clearly aimed at far-sighted householders who would get their central heating systems fitted during the summer months in order to be ready for the autumn and winter (we certainly did in our house). There are only two other colour ads in the magazine, both aimed at the same demographic: the inside back cover promotes Axminster and Wilton carpets (which look pretty much the way you’d expect a carpet to have looked in 1970), while the back cover splashes Sanderson wallpaper, also looking determinedly of its time.


Editorial content includes a feature on the famous Harlem Globetrotters, who were appearing that week at Wembley as part of a world tour. ‘We try to strike a balance between comedy and basketball’ said their manager George Gillette. Quite how that worked out is hard to imagine, although fancy ball-twirling and nifty footwork probably played a part. The team would be turned into a comedy cartoon series by Hanna Barbera, airing from September 1970 in the USA, and debuting on BBC1 a year later.

The following page focuses on Henry Darrow from BBC2’s High Chaparral series, whose interview shares a page with Bery Reid, appearing that week in a production of Sheridan’s The Rivals on BBC1. The mere idea of BBC1 airing an 18th century comedy of manners at prime time on a Sunday night says a lot about where the Corporation saw itself in 1970 and how far it has come (some may say sunk) since then… The same page also provides a tiny boxed-out corner highlighting the week’s pop and jazz music, including appearances from The Move, Fotheringay, The Soft Machine and, er, Sweet Water Canal (of whom the internet has nothing whatever to say…)

Page 10 looks at that week’s edition of The Wednesday Play – another indicator of where the BBC stood on drama at the dawn of the 70s – but somewhat more interesting is a coupon inviting younger viewers to vote in Jackanory’s ‘hit parade’: a chance to nominate favourite tales for a repeat run. The stories and their narrators provide a neat snapshot of the state of play chez Jackanory during this ‘classic’ era. I’m sure I saw all of them. Across the spread, what we must take for a typical 1970 housewife (resembling a less scary Mary Whitehouse) extols the virtues of her ‘Creda Autoclean’, an oven that, no kidding, actually cleans itself. Well, it was the seventies after all…

As I mentioned in the intro, it’s the adverts as much as the TV listings that add period colour to these vintage publications (albeit most of them are in black and white). Page 13 is given over to the ‘McVitie’s Treasure Trail’, with entrants invited to find the shortest way through a graphic maze for the chance to win prizes. Star prize was ‘a car for ten years’. No slouches, McVitie’s. The lucky winner would receive a Ford Capri 1600 GT, fully taxed and insured, and replaced in subsequent years with ‘its equivalent’ (presumably another Capri – the marque endured until 1986). Of course, you needed to eat some biscuits if you wanted to enter: ‘treasure tokens’ were included on special packs of Jaffa Cakes, Chocolate Homewheat, Rich Tea and Digestive (all of them still with us 52 years later). And while you were munching your way through that lot, you could be giving some thought to completing the obligatory slogan ‘McVitie’s Bake a Better Biscuit because’ (in no more than 12 words).

Page 15 features the Kodak Instamatic camera. I always got this confused with the Polaroid Land ‘Instant’ camera, but this was of the conventional point-press-take-the-film-to-Boots variety. The layout of this ad is a classic example of ad agency art directors’ work of the era, and it would be hard to improve on its clean lines today. Other advertisers include Gordon’s Gin, ‘New Calor Gas’ (propane cylinders providing a domestic gas supply), Lurpak butter, Diamond Paints and the nursing profession. Most redolent of the moment, on page 34, is a reminder to collectors of Esso’s ‘World Cup Coins’ that they still had time to complete their collections. These 10p piece-sized items commemorating that year’s England team players were given away at petrol stations at a rate of one coin for every four gallons. In 1970, a gallon of petrol cost six shillings and eightpence, so to qualify for a coin, you had to spend… well, you work it out (just a bit over £2). Adjusted for inflation, that six shillings and eightpence would be equivalent to £4 today, so each of those neat little coins would be setting you back £16. Of course, you also got a Tiger in your tank… but could you find Peter Bonetti?


So much for the commercial world, but what could consumers look forward to watching on the box when they weren’t eating biscuits, decorating their houses or filling up their Ford Capris? BBC television in 1970 consisted, of course, of just two channels, both now broadcasting in colour. Saturday’s programmes began at 9.35am with a raft of language courses lasting until 11.0, when the service closed down again. It was back at 1.10 with Jack Scott providing the weather forecast (almost certainly thunder… it was thunder all the way in May 1970). This led into the inevitable Grandstand, introduced by the inevitable Frank Bough. That took care of the whole afternoon until 5.15 when Dr. Who ushered in the evening’s entertainment with the second episode of Inferno. Evening highlights (I use the term in its loosest sense) included Dad’s Army, an adventure movie (Many Rivers to Cross), A Man Called Ironside and… oh dear. Page 18 reveals a photograph I dare not reproduce, promoting that evening’s edition of The Black and White Minstrel Show. Unbelievably, this dodgy old chestnut still had another eight years to run on air before continuing as a holiday camp entertainment until – gasp – 1989! I positively hated the B&WMS. Not because I was developing a precocious politically correct sensitivity at the tender age of nine: I just detested all that dressing up and poncing about whilst singing ‘Polly Wolly Doodle’… Of course, you could always turn over to BBC2 where Chronicle presented a film entitied ‘One People between the Alps and the Sea!’ followed by The Young Generation. Fortunately, there was good old ITV to fall back on.

Sunday’s big hitters were Paul Temple on BBC1, and the aforementioned The Rivals; whilst BBC2’s line-up included Rowan and Martin (a scheduling fixture at the time), and what sounds like the 1970 equivalent of Coast – Bird’s-Eye View, an aerial tour from Montrose to London. Monday on BBC1 gave us Star Trek – well into its second BBC season, with Wolf in the Fold – along with The Troubleshooters at 9.10 and The Harlem Globetrotters at 10.00. Over on BBC2, the dreaded Pot Black was probably being recorded over last week’s Doomwatch. This isn’t as insane as it sounds: colour videotape was expensive, and routinely re-used after wiping. The entire 1970 series of Steptoe and Son, the first in colour, is known to have been sacrificed to the tedious snooker fest. Elsewhere in the same week, we find Z Cars now in its 2-part ‘soap opera’ era (best ignored), a forgotten spy drama series Codename on BBC2 (almost certainly wiped), medical soap The Doctors, eccelsiastical comedy All Gas and Gaiters, plus such schedule staples as It’s a Knock-OutSportsnight with ColemanMan Alive and Tomorrow’s World. Curiously, a Frank Sinatra concert – which to me seems like a televisual big deal – was tucked away at 9.10pm on Wednesday on BBC2. Wednesday also saw Marius Goring starring in the popular forensic drama The Expert, whilst Friday night’s big 9.10 pm drama was a repeat run of the hugely popular The Forsyte Saga (made in black and white, this would be its last sighting on terrestrial television). In the head-scratching category comes Friday’s mid-evening comedy, The Culture Vultures, a totally forgotten comedy of business manners starring Leslie Phillips. Children were offered the likes of Banana Splits and a repeat run of Belle and Sebastian, alongside the ubiquitous Blue Peter. Occupying the prime slot ahead of the early evening news was Michael Bond’s Herbs spin-off The Adventures of Parsley. Parsley could also be glimpsed in cowboy guise on page 60, in a half-page promo for BBC books for Children. On the evidence, Parsley’s Last Stand looks like a must-have (a fine vintage copy will set you back £18, or six shillings if you own a time machine).


We’re almost done with our random week in May 1970, but there is still the letters page to consider. An attitude seems to prevail here, and it will be familiar to anyone who listens to Radio 4’s Feedback. Programme makers, taken to task over various aspects of content or taste will always defend themselves and explain why their creative or production decision was the only one possible. It’s rare for anyone to hold up their hands and admit to an error of judgement. In this issue, a reader takes Doomwatch to task for scientific inaccuracy in presenting a plastic-eating chemical as a ‘virus’, and for claiming that ‘fear of weightlessness’ (y’what?) is a symptom of paranoia. Series co-creator and scientific advisor Dr. Kit Pedler was having none of it, insisting that the fictitious plastic-eating ‘virus’ had been ‘tailored’ (but it’s still inorganic, so technically not a virus, a point he chose not to address), before going on to defend the other accusation, levelled at the episode Re-Entry Forbidden, whose script he claimed had been verified by ‘a group of psychiatrists’. Well, okay, Dr. Pedler, if you say so.

Sniffiest response of the week goes to the producer of Junior Points of View, answering a complaint that the viewers’ letters on said programme were dealt with so quickly as to be rendered unintelligible. ‘I suppose,’ writes a smug Iain Johnstone, ‘intelligibility can only be assessed subjectively.’ That’s telling you, T.A. Ayre of Bournemouth!

And finally, the award for most laconic reply of the week goes to John Howard Davies, producer of All Gas and Gaiters. ‘Do the ecclesiastics… exist in such a rarefied hierarchical atmosphere that they never encounter a solitary parishioner…?’ asks J.A. Timothy of Flint. ‘Yes,’ says Mr. Howard Davies.


Friday, 6 May 2022

You'll Catch Your Death: The Avengers as a Meterological Record

 
False Witness: a rainy day in July 1968 aboard Mother's omnibus

People watch vintage television for many reasons, most of them nostalgic: rekindling memories from childhood, or simply wallowing in the sight of street scenes, cars and fashions from half a century ago. That’s certainly the case with a series like The Avengers. But on recently revisiting series 6, the Tara King era, I found myself noticing something I’d never been aware of before. The episode in question was False Witness, and a sequence involving a visit to Mother (Patrick Newell), whose office on this occasion was installed on the top deck of a bus. Through the windows, we can see wind-lashed trees, and the panes are spattered with raindrops (the scenes were shot for real on board an actual bus out on the street, as opposed to being faked in a studio). External shots show a still more grim prospect of leaden skies threatening rain, while fully-leaved trees sway in what looks to be a brisk wind. I saw these scenes and I thought to myself: ‘I remember that day…’

Prior to this minor moment of revelation, it had never occurred to me to look at a TV series (or, indeed a film) as a meterological record. On the whole, film makers on location will wait for dry days, preferably with some reasonable spells of sunshine, although in England, even in summer, that’s far from being a guarantee. Dry weather on film lends a kind of meterological homogeneity to many filmed productions, particularly those of the pre-digital era. Conversely, when wet weather was required, it was seldom executed convincingly: scenes in the 1963 Brit-com Father Came Too depict a deluge shot through with the brilliant sunlight of a peerless summer day.

The more I looked at this specific Avengers series, the more I came to realise how certain episodes spoke to me of a dull, cloudy, thundery summer that I remembered vividly from childhood: the summer of 1968.

The Met Office Monthly Weather Reports paint a picture that is entirely consistent with what I recall of that year – May: Mostly cold and cloudy; June: Fine mid-month, otherwise unsettled; July and August: Dull and wet in the south-east. Using these as a starting point, I decided to look at the production dates for series 6 of The Avengers and see how these corresponded to the meterological records for the summer of 1968.

This first Tara King series was made in two production blocks, 6A and 6B, and it’s 6B that’s of interest here, beginning as it did on 1 April 1968, and running all the way through to March 1969. The episodes that interested me were: You’ll Catch Your Death/ 24 May; Super Secret Cypher Snatch/ 14 June; False Witness/ 11 July; Noon Doomsday/ 30 June; They Keep Killing Steed/ 29 August. In all of these episodes, there are a number of scenes that capture dreary, overcast conditions, days where there was sufficient light to allow for filming outdoors, but with a curious, shadowless quality to the light. Such scenes are often intercut with brighter, sunnier conditions, creating a kind of climatic discontinuity, most notably in Noon Doomsday, where T.P. McKenna and Ray Brookes while away the hours before their meeting with Steed’s would-be assassin in an abandoned railway station: one minute, it’s overcast – the next, bright sunshine. The production date, 30 June, can presumably be taken as the beginning of filming on this episode, which would have run into early July. Warm weather on the 30th broke down overnight with the arrival of thunderstorms. These spread into all parts on the 2nd and 3rd which would have made location filming impossible. The overcast skies seen throughout most of this episode are typical of the kind of conditions preceding and following any large-scale thundery breakdown, and it’s likely that most of the location work was achieved on the 30th, with the remainder completed when settled conditions returned, briefly, on the 6th (‘a fairly sunny day’ according to the Met. Office).


False Witness: a typically cloudy day on location from The Avengers series 6

The weather at this point in July 1968 became notably stormy, with ‘darkness’ being reported in parts of the North East as a so-called ‘Spanish Plume’ (a lofted column of warm air originating on the Iberian peninsula) carried Saharan dust far into the atmosphere. The dust assisted the formation of notably dense thunderclouds, in a system stretching northwards from the Midlands, and beneath the storm a kind of deep twilight prevailed. I remember it with surprising clarity: the storm came almost without warning, during afternoon playtime at school, and the light rapidly dwindled to that of a late winter afternoon as we waited for the teachers to bring us indoors. The rest of the summer kept up the same stormy, cool and cloudy scenario, illustrated for me most vividly in False Witness. By the time that episode entered production on 11 July, the cloudy, thundery conditions were set in, and there evidently wasn’t time to wait for the weather to clear.

Equally typical of that dull, oppressive summer is the episode that went before the cameras on 29 August, They Keep Killing Steed. Like much of series 6, the location work has a notably different look from what had been established during the Emma Peel era. Series 4 and 5 had stuck fairly rigidly to a bucolic background, creating an almost mythical version of southern England that some like to call ‘Avengerland’. By contrast (deliberate, one assumes), the Tara King episodes exhibit more variety of setting, with scenes shot in more urban surroundings (most notably The Morning After). In this case, Ye Olde Sun Hotel in Northaw, Hertfordshire, was chosen as the scene for a peace conference, and all the location work shot here shares the same oppressive, shadowless quality, looking, as was indeed the case, as if a thunderstorm were imminent. The Met Office records August and September 1968 as dull months, with many parts of south-east England receiving only 60-70% of their expected sunshine. Typical English summer holiday weather, in fact. The episode’s tag scene wherein Steed and Tara sun themselves under UV lamps indoors while thunder rumbles without might almost have been an in-joke, considering how the production schedule must have been distupted by thunderstorms.

For anyone interested in weather records, the summer ‘68 production block of The Avengers provides a unique glimpse of a notably dismal spell of English weather. Later in the Tara King era, weather would provide an episode in its own right, in the form of Fog – an effect realised, inevitably, in the studio, with typically unconvicing results (film makers have never managed to create convincing fog – it always swirls like smoke, while the real thing simply hangs in the air). But the dreary, cloudy, rain-threatened days captured in so many of that summer's episodes were the real thing.

For a series so renowned as an icon of Britishness, it’s somehow comforting to know that The Avengers has, in its own small way, captured forever that quintessentially English phenomenon – a rainy summer.


Friday, 17 September 2021

From the Riviera to the Back Garden

 

The Persuaders! at Fifty

Surely the most fondly remembered of television’s ‘playboy’ adventure series, ITC’s The Persuaders! reaches its half century this week. It may be fifty years ago, but I can clearly remember the sense of excitement and anticipation that preceded the arrival on our screens of Lord Brett Sinclair and Danny Wilde. In the week or so prior to the series coming on air, ITV ran an action-packed trailer, cut together from key episodes; a montage of punch-ups and car chases, peppered by comments from Judge Fulton (Laurence Naismith), the man who, in that first episode, brought together ‘nitro’ and ‘glycerine’ and then lit the fuse... The trailer was enough to convince myself and my brother to be in front of the television set on the evening of Friday 17 September, when it all kicked off.

1971 was, for me, the second year in which I’d been aware of a certain amount of ballyhoo emanating from our two UK television stations with the onset of autumn: new programmes and new schedules to usher in the long, dark evenings. I remember returning from the newsagents’ with the latest copy of TVTimes, which had The Persuaders! featured on the front cover. If it was on the cover of the TVTimes, it had to be good!

Needless to say, The Persuaders! did not disappoint. The first episode delivered everything the trail had promised, and no 10-year-old TV-infatuated kid could fail to be impressed at the outrageous antics of Messrs. Sinclair and Wilde as they fist-fought their way through expensive hotels on the Riviera. This seemed to me like the kind of lifestyle one might aspire to as a grown up: fast cars, a funky wardrobe, dolly birds a-plenty. If that sounds like an unrealistic fantasy, it’s worth pointing out that, aside from the, ahem, dolly birds, the crime fighting and the Riviera lifestyle, one of our uncles conformed almost exactly to the Wilde/Sinclair model: rich, flash-car owning (Jensen Interceptor), and kitted out in all the requisite groovy clobber (a fair amount of which passed into our hands when he cleared out his wardrobe later in the decade). If your uncle could look like and (almost) live the life of one of those TV playboys, then why on earth shouldn’t I, a few years from now? My brother and I took several small steps towards achieving the look when our mum bought us each a flowery cravate, and I also owned a maroon blazer with gold buttons that was totally Brett Sinclair.

We had for some time played games of TV spies at home, the downside of which was that one of us had to play the sidekick while the other got to play the hero. The Persuaders! with its dual leads, was a much better format for us: my brother had curly hair and was a bit more feisty in temperament than myself, so he was perfect casting as Danny Wilde. I, on the other hand, had straight, mid-brown hair with a slight wave, and, of course, the requisite wardrobe, so I fitted perfectly into the Brett Sinclair role, while the back garden became our French Riviera. What these games consisted of, apart from running around with toy guns, I can no longer recollect, but in due course it was whittled down to the simple suggestion of ‘let’s have a Persuader-fight’, which was the cue for throwing fake punches, missing by miles and accompanied by vocalised ‘bish’ sound effects.

One Persuaders! game we were denied was the use of toy cars. Whilst Dinky toys already offered a red Ferrari that bore a passing resemblance to Danny Wilde’s mode of transport, there was nothing on hand we could use as Brett’s golden Aston Martin. I still feel the lack of the Persuaders! gift set I’d been expecting for Christmas 1971 from Corgi or Dinky, and am certain it would have shifted more units than Corgi’s disappointingly gadget-free ‘Diamonds are Forever’ Ford Mustang of the same year.

 


We had better luck on the comics front. My brother had been getting Countdown comic since its launch earlier in the year, and now the comic underwent a minor face-lift, drafting in The Persuaders! as its cover stars at issue no. 35 with a cover date of October 16 – less than a month after the series had gone on air. Promising as this might have looked, the series’ popularity as a merchandising money-spinner proved to be short-lived. By April of 1972, Countdown was revamped yet again, relaunching as TV Action. The Persuaders! was still on board, but had been annexed from the cover by a certain bouffant-haired timelord. An annual appeared in time for the Christmas market in autumn 1972, while Pan issued a number of paperback novelisations of selected scripts; but the most lucrative Persuaders! spin-off was arguably the 7” single of John Barry’s theme, which made it to a very respectable No. 13 in the UK top 20. With its modish blend of cymbalom and synthesiser, ‘Theme from The Persuaders!’ was almost a reimagining of Barry’s Ipcress File main title, outfitted for the groovy new decade. As a piece of music, it was clearly never intended as anything other than a 30-second long TV theme, and extended to single length, there was nowhere else for Barry’s haunting melody to go. But that didn’t stop people from going out and buying it in the thousands.

The series itself, whilst promising glossy action at the outset, soon got bogged down in a number of dreary-looking tales filmed in the English countryside in the middle of winter, although the change of scenery didn’t trouble my ten-year-old self unduly: if anything, it brought the series closer in spirit to our games in the back garden.

I remember a palpable sense of disappointment when The Persuaders! reached its last episode in the spring of 1972. Friday evenings would never be quite the same again, and with Roger Moore elevated to Bond-in-waiting, a second series was never going to happen. The era of the TV playboy adventurers was drawing to a close. Instead of the hoped-for second series of The Persuaders!, autumn 1972 brought us the lacklustre double act of The Adventurer and The Protectors filling the same Friday evening slot. I hated them both from the first night. ITC seemed to be sending out a message to viewers: ‘we can keep on churning out this stuff indefinitely, but look how bad it’s going to be.’ Gene Barry and Robert Vaughn may have been international stars, but they both looked ready to take the money and run, where Curtis+Moore had clearly been enjoying themselves immensely.

The Persuaders! is remembered as the high water mark of the whole playboy adventurer genre, for all that it was, if anything, a swansong. Despite being aimed squarely at the American market, the series enjoyed its greatest success across Europe, where the appetite for glossy, implausible action/adventure series showed no signs of abating, and several episodes did good business at the box office when edited together into feature films. Feature production was, of course, the Holy Grail for Lew Grade’s ITC, which was gearing up for an ultimately ill-fated move into the Hollywood blockbuster arena.

By the summer of 1973, Roger Moore was James Bond and Tony Curtis was between roles. The back garden was back to being the back garden, and on television, The Persuaders! enjoyed a brief run of midweek repeats before ending its UK broadcast days as late-night and afternoon filler. As for my ambitions to become an international playboy myself, I suspect that ship has sailed. I did, however, add my own small contribution to Persuaders! history by designing the packaging for the DVD and blu-ray releases of the series; and, at an event to celebrate the series' fortieth anniversary in 2011, I found myself opening a bottle of champagne at the request of Lord Brett Sinclair himself. Maybe my destiny was not to be Roger Moore after all, but Ivor Dean...*

 

(* Who played Lord Sinclair's butler)


Friday, 27 August 2021

Platoon, Hup!



With its cover date of one hundred years hence, and content drawn from the science-fiction imagined worlds of Gerry Anderson, the comic TV21 seems like a strange place to encounter the character of Sgt. Ernest Bilko, late of Fort Baxter, Roseville, Kansas; but it was here, in the autumn of 1967, that I first became properly aware of the character.

TV21 had always contained a number of funny pages, usually based on popular American television comedies of the era. My Favourite Martian was there from week one, slickly drawn by Bill Titcombe; and although I have never to this day seen an episode from the series (haphazardly shown across the ITV regions and never troubling our screens here in the Midlands), it always felt like a good fit with TV21’s sci-fi slant. By the same token, Mel Brooks’ spy-spoof Get Smart, debuting on BBC One in October 1965, played well alongside TV21’s spy in residence, ‘Agent 21’. The Get Smart strip, drawn by artist Tom Kerr, made its debut in January 1966, along with The Munsters. So far, so good. But hold on, Sgt. Bilko? How does he fit into the TV21 melting pot? And, as Colonel Hall might add, staring bemusedly into the middle distance,‘why?’

* * *

The Phil Silvers Show had debuted on British television in 1957, quickly becoming a perennial favourite, and retaining a place in the primetime schedules until well into the next decade. Late in 1966, BBC One began a repeat season variously billed as ‘Bilko Returns’ and ‘The Best of Bilko’. The episodes did exactly what it said in the Radio Times, presenting a selection of classic episodes drawn from across the show’s four seasons, but leaning heavily on the superior first and second years. After a short lay-off, these broadcasts recommenced in April 1967. The early evening timeslot, placed directly after the news, meant that the series registered, if only dimly, on my personal TV radar, although I didn’t really take much notice at the time. It was only when I saw it later in TV21 that I remembered the barrack-room comedy I’d seen snatches of several months earlier. The masthead photos also served as a reminder that the strip’s origins were on television, as did the Columbia Broadcasting System copyright credit at the bottom of the page. 

Bilko’s presence in TV21 was almost certainly a result of those 1966-67 repeats. The series filled a gap between the second series of Get Smart and the return of The Munsters. Someone in the TV21 office must have been keeping tabs on both titles, and when Bilko hove into view, his place in the comic was assured, albeit short-lived: Ernie’s first appearance was in issue 139, with a cover date of September 16, 1967, just two weeks before a facelift that would see the introduction of Gerry Anderson’s latest series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Missing a single week (issue 153), Bilko continued in TV21 until its next revamp at the end of the year, clocking up 14 strips in all. Once again, Tom Kerr was on artwork duty, and provided some passable likenesses of Bilko and Colonel Hall. Of the other platoon members, only Doberman was recognisable, although Paparelli was often referred to, despite his likeness bearing no resemblance to actor Billy Sands. The single-page strips were, of necessity, very simple, but stuck to the series’ formula of involving Bilko in various finagling get-rich-quick schemes and gambling.

Bilko's first appearance in TV21 (September 1967)

By the time he was given his marching orders from TV21, Bilko had also departed the small screen, for a lay-off that would last six years: no episodes were shown between March 1967 and April 1973. When he returned, it was in what would become the series’ best known timeslot, late Saturday night, once considered a graveyard slot, but latterly revered for its ‘post-pub’ potential. Despite being recognised as a ‘thing’ only relatively recently, the ‘back from the pub’ effect almost certainly helped to foster a revival of interest in Bilko, with episodes in this time slot scoring notably higher ratings than might have been expected. A tradition was born: Sgt. Bilko would retain his Saturday night commission (with occasional sideways moves into the Sunday/Monday small hours) for another ten years. I was well aware of these late night repeats, but even on Saturdays, they felt a little too late for me. I didn’t know then what I was missing.

A fact which surfaced occasionally in my readings on the subject of vintage television around this time concerned what might be called the ‘DNA’ of Hanna-Barbera’s series Top Cat, which had been a long-time favourite since childhood. Now and then, I would come across the suggestion that Top Cat’s format and characters had been derived from Sgt. Bilko. Every time I turned up this fact, I made a mental note to check out Sgt. Bilko some time, if only to play the game of ‘spot the voice artiste’.There seemed no hurry to do so: a casual glance at the Radio Times on any given week usually revealed Bilko to be present and correct in his customary place in the schedule; a reliability record that Colonel Hall would have found it hard to credit...

During 1980, I must have stumbled on the old Top Cat fact again, because it was on Saturday 7 June of that year that I finally burned the midnight oil, staying up to the ungodly hour of 12.15am to take in my first ever episode of Sgt. Bilko, which aired that night at 11.50. The Radio Times had long since stopped printing episode titles, but I accidentally ‘invented’ the correct title when making the entry in my diary: The Song of the Motor Pool. (The diary also notes, with an exclamation mark, that the episode’s copyright date was 1956, making it the oldest programme being shown on television at the time.) As Bilko episodes go, it’s not in the first rank, but it came from the second series (which I would later come to revere as the show’s ‘golden era’), and the plot, concerning an attempt to win a cash prize for composing an original platoon song, was classic Bilko fodder.

The Top Cat connection was immediately apparent when I heard the voice of Doberman, instantly recognisable as Benny the Ball, whose rotund physique also recalled the appearance of actor Maurice Gosfield – a name I recognised from Top Cat’s end credits. The rest of the platoon vaguely suggested Top Cat’s other cohorts, while the authority figure of Colonel Hall became Officer Dibble. As to Bilko himself, it was clear that, in the lead vocal role, Arnold Stang had based his T.C. peformance on that of Silvers, but it was more than mere imitation. Curiously, I know people who love Top Cat but can’t get on at all with Sgt. Bilko...

The next episode I caught, on 5 July, was Bilko’s War Against Culture, which saw the Sarge counteracting the influence of a Cultural Officer who arrives on the post with the aim of taking the men’s minds off gambling. With Bilko’s influence, her lectures soon provide ripe fodder for betting. A further episode followed on 26 July, and a couple were missed through clashes with other late-night shows (The Outer Limits and a horror film). Thereafter, a lull intervened, with no further episodes airing until a single night in October. By the time a more organised run of repeats began early in 1981, I now had the means to capture the series on video tape, and the 25-minute episodes provided a neat way of filling up the blank space at the ends of 3-hour tapes. VHS also meant that, when an episode proved to be a classic (The Twitch, Empty Store, Eating Contest, Rest Cure, Sick Call Ernie), I could watch it again and again. Which is why, today, and without looking it up, I can tell you the average weight of Richardson’s Owl...*

The 1970s and 80s repeats of Bilko were a completely random collection of episodes, initially deriving from the first and second series, but delving into the third and fourth years as time wore on. Later episodes were instantly identifiable from Bilko’s headgear: his peaked cap, pale khaki in the first two series, was now in ‘dress uniform’ dark green (or grey as we saw it on TV). It wasn’t long before I began to notice a slight decline in quality from the high water mark of series two, with episodes often replaying earlier plot devices, generally to poorer effect. There was also less of Bilko’s so-called ‘fatal flaw’, an empathic side to his character that saw him back off when he realised a money-making scheme would cause hurt or upset. On the other side of the fence, Colonel Hall gradually became less of a bumbler, and was sharper in picking up the scent of another Bilko scheme.

One week, an episode turned up which I guessed – correctly, as it turned out – to be the last ever produced. Weekend Colonel sees Bilko employing a lookalike of Colonel Hall to get round camp regulations, a scheme which ends up with the Sergeant and his cohorts Henshaw and Barbella behind bars and monitored on closed-circuit TV. In a deliberately ironic piece of dialogue, the Colonel, gazing at his TV set, remarks: “It's a wonderful show, and as long as I'm the sponsor, it will never be cancelled.” Bilko the series wasn't as lucky, and without the Colonel's sponsorship, was cancelled at the end of its fourth season, seemingly on account of the actors’ payroll – maintaining such a large cast can’t have come cheap. In America, the series immediately sold into syndication on rival network NBC, who reportedly did well out of the deal. Here in Britain it remained on BBC television, where as we’ve seen, repeats would endure initially until the mid 60s. Over on ITV, Phil Silvers’ replacement vehicle – imaginatively titled The New Phil Silvers Show, tried but failed to transplant the Bilko formula from barrack room to factory floor.

Back in the 1980s, I was amassing dozens of Bilko episodes on tape, some of which would be played time and time again. I was still relying on made-up titles to tell the episodes apart, and eventually, in search of some better information, I visited Birmingham’s old Central Reference Library, where a complete run of Radio Times resided in the stack. These soon furnished me with proper titles and a good overview of the series’ broadcast history in Britain. BBC repeats remained a cross-series grab bag until 1984, when, in recognition of the show’s continuing popularity (and the surprisingly high ratings of the late-night broadcasts), a new time slot was found: 6.15 on BBC2. This must have been a little too early for some: indeed, I could rarely get home from work in time myself, but video saved the day. This repeat run, prefaced by a short Bilko documentary (narrated, somewhat incongruously, by Kenneth Williams), finally presented the episodes in their original, American first-run order. With 142 episodes to get through, it would prove hard to keep track of the repeats, and I’m afraid I never quite did. Many years later, I was still turning up episodes like Bilko the Potato Sack King (series 4, episode 4) that had sat unwatched on the shelf for decades.

When DVD arrived to supplant VHS as the home entertainment medium of choice, Bilko seemed like a certainty for release: a video edition would have been simply too much bulk to contemplate, but on DVD, the four series could be accommodated across a more modest number of discs. It was a long time coming – first we got a ‘best of’ compilation, followed by a standalone series one. Eventually, the long hoped for complete set emerged, and while there were noticeable quality issues with the encode (and, in some cases, poor source material), we did at last have all four series within our grasp. I still haven’t got through all the episodes... 

Back on the BBC, repeats of Bilko continued into the 90s and beyond. By this time, I’d given up trying to keep track of the episodes, which were now liable to turn up almost anywhere in the schedule. But even the greatest TV series of all time has to end somewhere, and after fifty two years on air, Bilko drew his last breath on terrestrial television on Bonfire Night 2004 with the episode Bilko and the Flying Saucers. (My own summary of Bilko’s BBC career can be found on Wikipedia where I posted the results of various Genome trawls around five years ago).

Bilko may be over sixty years old, and its production limitations all too apparent on screen, but it is still, for me, the single funniest television series ever created. Highlights are too numerous to list, but honorable mentions must go to Rest Cure – for the funniest scene ever mounted (Colonel Hall’s barnyard imitation: a scene so funny you can tell where it was edited because everyone on set surely cracked up) – and Bilko’s TV Idea: arguably the first example of post modernism on television and a sharp dig at the clichés of the ‘comedy situation’ at a time when the genre was still in its infancy.

I’ll take even the poorest Bilko episode in preference to anything that modern TV has to offer: and while Bilko may hail from an age when different values held sway, it is refreshingly free from the kind of casual, cheap racism and sexism that provided so much fodder for so-called comedians of the same era. Nat Hiken, the series creator, was, simply, a comedy genius, who had an extraordinary facility for creating mini-comic masterpieces. Bilko is, simply, better than anything else, before or since; even the revered Fawlty Towers cowers in its shadow. It will never be bettered...

A museum dedicated to the career of Phil Silvers can be found, somewhat unexpectedly, in Coventry:

www.sgtbilkosvintageemporium.com


(* Three pounds, six ounces: It’s For the Birds)


Monday, 23 August 2021

'It must be funny, the grown-ups are laughing'

 


Growing up with comedy

It may seem surprising – indeed, it surprised even myself when I realised it – but the first comedies I remember seeing on television were all American: The Dick Van Dyke Show, Car 54, Where Are You, Bewitched, The Beverley Hillbillies. Of contemporary British sitcoms – The Rag Trade, Marriage Lines, Bootsie and Snudge, etc – I have no recollection whatsoever. Was there a reason for this? Were American comedies more plentiful in the early 1960s? Were they scheduled at times when I would have been more likely to see them?

Taking a popular British sitcom of the era as a baseline – Steptoe and Son – we find that, around 1965, it was being shown at a typical timeslot of 8pm: quite late for me as a four-year-old, but hardly post-watershed; by 1965 it was on even earlier (7.30pm) and it is around this time that I first became aware of the series: although I didn’t sit down to watch an episode until much later. Curiously, I remember taking note of the show because it was being promoted on air as the end of an era: the current series was to be the last, a fact which prompted comment from my parents and grandparents. The programme trail – containing clips from the episode Those Magnificent Men and Their Heating Machines – is my earliest memory of this iconic series, and dates, I believe, to a Sunday evening in the autumn of 1965, with the trail promoting the following night’s broadcast.

So, I knew something of Steptoe and Son, but what of, say, Tony Hancock? Like many other series of the very early 60s, Hancock remained well off my personal radar until much later. I have the vaguest recollection of my dad commenting regretfully on his passing in 1968, but the name meant nothing to me at the time. Of ITV’s crop of comedies, the only one I knew at all was Just Jimmy, the televisual vehicle for diminutive Lancashire child impersonator Jimmy Clitheroe, and then only on account of its family-friendly teatime slot on ABC television. Clitheroe was also familiar from Sunday afternoon radio broadcasts; but in spite of the plethora of comedy emanating from the ‘wireless’ at this time, I remained oblivious to almost all of it.

It’s safe to say that, at the age of four or five, I didn’t understand comedy in anything other than in the broadest, slapstick terms. Laurel and Hardy had been broadcast on BBC television since 1947, and their antics were familiar to me from an early age, alongside Bob Monkhouse’s Mad Movies, a weekly showcase for silent-era knockabout comedy from the Mack Sennett stable. But sitcoms?

American imports certainly lay thick on the ground in the early 60s, if only because studios were able to crank them out in such quantity and on film, which lent itself to broadcasting in the UK without the compatibility issues that would dog later, colour VT shows from the States. The Dick Van Dyke Show was very familiar to me, and it had the advantage of a relatively early evening timeslot, having moved from 8.50pm to 7.35pm early in 1964. By May 1966 it could be seen even earlier, at 7.05pm. I must have seen (or sat in front of) plenty of these, although the only things that remain in my memory are his comedy tumble in the opening credits, and his portrait beneath the closing captions. I do, however, remember a kind of warm, happy feeling that this show seemed to exude, although I can’t detect any of this from looking at a sample episode today – the humour is fairly forced, although DVD himself is amusing to watch.

Also around ‘64 or ‘65, I got to see a show with some serious comedy credentials: Car 54, Where Are You came from Bilko creator Nat Hiken, and featured as its leads two comic actors who had both been seen in the Phil Silvers Show – Joe E Ross had memorably portrayed luckless Sgt. Ritzik across three seasons, whilst Fred Gwynn (later to achieve immortality in the role of Herman Munster) had been in two episodes as the preternaturally gifted but downbeat Ed Honegar. Car 54... was, mysteriously, scheduled during children’s programming hours, with a slot at 5.25pm, which explains how I got to see it. I’m not sure I even twigged it was meant to be funny, although the laughter track (a subject I will return to in a future post) must have provided a clue.

Another familiar show from the same era was Bewitched, although this tended to air in a later timeslot, debuting at 8pm in October 1964. Despite this handicap, I’m sure I saw at least the cartoon title sequence at this date, with full episodes coming a little later: by July 1966, Samantha and co had landed in the more kiddy-friendly slot of 7.35pm. Again, I remember the same sense of cosy, domestic warmth that Bewitched gave off. I’m even convinced that I acquired my love of mid-century interiors from watching this and The Dick Van Dyke Show: barring the obligatory big telly, my living room of 2021 could have been set-dressed for a revival of either.

Aside from these few grown-up examples, the place for humour on TV at the age of five or six was cartoons: and with their laughter tracks, Hannah-Barbera’s offerings like Top Cat and The Huckleberry Hound Show were a kind of sitcom for kids. But again, we’re looking at American imports. When, exactly, did British comedy – specifically, the sitcom – arrive in my life?

Aside from the aforementioned Jimmy Citheroe, the earliest example of a British-made situation comedy that I know I watched – and enjoyed – at the time of its first appearance, was Oh Brother! This was a monsatic comedy vehicle for Derek Nimmo, whose slightly effete, fluting-voiced performance struck me as funny at the age of seven (the series debuted as part of the BBC’s autumn season in 1968) but now is beyond endurance. That same autumn, ITV gave us Please, Sir! which quickly became established as a favourite in our house. It was somewhat too old for me, but I could just about relate to the schoolroom setting.

The actual experience of watching comedy as a child is interesting: taking an example like On the Buses, I was immune to most of the smutty innuendo, but I could still appreciate the comic qualities of a character like Inspector Blake. Watching sitcom in childhood was often a case of ‘the grown-ups are laughing, so it must be funny’: even if I didn’t quite get what everyone was laughing at. And, as previously mentioned, there was a feelgood quality to shows like Bewitched that you could still appreciate even if you couldn’t understand the gags.

* * *

By the dawn of the 1970s, American comedies were losing ground on British screens, with the BBC ditching almost all of its examples, the few that survived the cull being relegated to Sunday afternoons (Here’s Lucy) or late nights (Bilko). ITV offered the likes of Nanny and the Professor, but it was deemed kiddie-fare and scheduled accordingly, whilst others, such as Jimmy Stewart’s belated entry into the sitcom arena, were thwarted by regional variations in scheduling. By this time, though, ITV ruled the airwaves as regards home-grown sitcoms, with a slew of what would prove to be enduring titles rolled out from the late 60s through to the mid-70s: On the Buses, Man About the House, Rising Damp, George and Mildred, Father, Dear Father.

The working-class credentials of many of these titles was a clear factor in their popularity. The BBC had rejected On the Buses and seemed reluctant to abandon the decidedly middle-class arena it had carved out for itself in the genre – a trend that can be traced back to the likes of Marriage Lines (1964) and was still in favour by the mid 70s – cf. The Good Life, Butterflies and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. Steptoe and Son, of course, was a very notable exception...

Class distinctions didn’t make any difference to me: I was only interested in series that made me laugh. By the age of 10, my tastes were expanding to accommodate the anarchy of Marty Feldman, whose Comedy Machine was a staple of Saturday nights, and Bob Todd’s forgotten lavatorial sitcom In for a Penny. That same year (1971) I discovered The Goodies, which finally breached the gap between the madcap slapstick of cartoons, and the verbal humour of the sitcom. It was a golden age for comedy on television, an era in which considerations of taste and decency were kept at arm’s length, and comedy dampers like political correctness and ‘wokeness’ lay decades distant, allowing us to enjoy unfettered nonsense without any self-righteous finger-wagging. But that was then...

Looked back on, much vintage comedy looks outrageously ill-advised and offensive: and scripts are often lazily reliant on cliché, where they aren’t simply unfunny. But such is the nature of reality: things change, ideas evolve, we move on. Whether modern comedy is still funny or not is a different question entirely, and clearly a matter of personal choice and taste. I just know that much of what I see or hear presented today as comedy (especially anything broadcast post-10pm on Radio 4 Extra) seldom raises a smile and is frequently annoying (cf. John Finnemore).

I’ve found, in fact, that I seek out comedy less and less these days: if only to avoid disappointment, as the advertiser’s cliché goes. Even the older series have lost their sheen, aside from a few notable exceptions – Rising Damp, The Good Life, Ever Decreasing Circles. Yet, if it’s comedy I want to see, I always resort to the DVD player, where I can get to see what is still, for me, television’s outstanding comedy, and the funniest series ever to go before the cameras...

I’ll tell you what it is next time...

 

Friday, 2 July 2021

The Afterlife of ITC

 

Stuart Damon was one third of The Champions, Monty Berman and Dennis Spooner’s ITC adventurers of the late 1960s, and an occasional visitor to other television classics of the era including UFO and The Saint (where he teamed up with Roger Moore in an episode that was effectively a dry run for The Persuaders!) His death, announced this week, caused me to reflect on The Champions – a series I’ve not spent a huge amount of time with in recent years, despite designing various iterations of DVD packaging – and in doing so, I found myself considering the state of archive television over forty years ago.

The Champions was a Friday night favourite in our house during its first run, and I remember it being followed at 8.30 by Doctor in the House: a great night of television when you’re eight years old. Unlike many of the other ITC series, which I saw only piecemeal, if at all, The Champions was a programme we watched every week. It had a superficial sheen of international glamour (all faked up in the studio, of course), and there was plenty of action, as well as three watchable performers in the starring roles. For all this, I think I was most impressed by the opening titles, especially the shots of the huge fountain, which our mum told us was located in lake Geneva. It also had one of my favourite TV themes, a bright upbeat piece from Tony Hatch – whose name I knew very well from those famous rolling credits at the end of Crossroads, and a couple of Petula Clark singles we owned. For a few months in 1968 and 69, The Champions was a weekly event, and that music became as much a part of the ‘zeitgeist’ as anything in the hit parade. The series also became one of the few ITC titles to be enshrined in the medium of the comic strip, featuring in the Joe 90 comic when it debuted early in 1969. For a time, The Champions was a small, but welcome part of our lives. And then it was gone.

A glance through TVTimes listings of the early 70s confirms that The Champions went through one or more repeat runs at this time, but usually at hours when we wouldn’t have tuned in – Sunday lunch or late nights post-News at Ten. So beyond its original run, I didn’t get to see The Champions again for a very long time. Ten years were to elapse before I next had sight of a single episode.

In 1979, vintage programmes like The Champions were as inaccessible as they would ever become. Repeat runs of the ITC series had stumbled to a halt in the late 70s, and it would be another five years before we saw the first of many revivals. The only way to see an episode of anything was to own it yourself, on a film print, or, alternatively, hire it from a film library, strategies adopted by myself and my friend Tim Beddows from around 1978 onwards. A surprising number of ITC series made it onto the medium of 8mm film, some of them complete episodes. These prints originated in Italy and appear to have been quite legitimate copies, produced and distributed by a company called Techno Film. In terms of quantity, you rarely got more than one or two episodes of a given series, but with rarities like Strange Report on catalogue, it was an avenue well worth investigating. Of more uncertain origin was an 8mm print of The Champions, fortunately with a magnetic soundtrack, which turned up in the hire library of Dudley-based film specialists Derrann. Dudley was hard to reach on public transport, but fortunately, Tim owned a car and, one Saturday at the end of September in 1979, he made the pilgrimage.

That evening – 29 September 1979, to be exact – was one of potent nostalgia. I hadn’t seen The Champions in over a decade, and the music kindled a warm glow of reminiscence which I took home with me in the early twilight, having walked round the corner to see the film projected in Tim’s living room. Looked back on, it feels like a key moment – a glimpse into the future (there would be many more film screenings to come) and a nostalgic look back into childhood. On the Monday following that memorable evening, I started college, one day after the debut episode of BBC1’s Shoestring. Times were changing, but in a good way. Things were going to be okay. We couldn’t know it back then, but in time, all of those great old ITC series would be returned to us, and both Tim and myself would have a hand in their revival on the as yet undreamed of medium of DVD. 

I didn’t meet him myself, but Stuart Damon lent his name, his time and support to the DVD release of The Champions when it came out back in 2006. He may have left us, but Craig Stirling will always be there, as will so many others – John Drake, Simon Templar, Jason King, Brett Sinclair and Danny Wilde – all part of what we might call the 'afterlife of ITC'.



 

Friday, 11 June 2021

From Larkin to Larkins...

 


Essence of ‘71... part one

 

I have started to say
'A quarter of a century’
Or ‘thirty years back’
About my own life.

So wrote Philip Larkin in 1971, in a short poem that would not see publication until after his death. Larkin was 49 when he wrote it. I’m now sixty... and I have started to say ‘fifty years back’ about my own life...

My memories begin around the age of two... hazy from 1963 into 1964, gaining greater clarity during 1965, sharply focused by 1966-67. In 1971, I was ten, and I can remember scenes from that year as if they had taken place last week. It was half a century ago, but I can still conjur up ‘essence of 1971’ with no special effort of memory. It wasn’t a year I remember enjoying particularly, but it’s most vividly recalled through some of the artefacts, cultural and otherwise, that surfaced at the time. For some reason, the summer months are particularly sharply focused. I remember weeks of heat and sunshine during the school holidays, particularly the afternoon of the school sports day. In fact, this short heatwave was something of a blip in what was actually an unremarkable summer. Met Office records tell us that June had been unusually cool and rainy, and August was notable for its frequent thundery breakdowns. It’s July, then, that I’m remembering: the end of term shading into the beginning of the school holidays. This is the story of how it felt to live through those few weeks, such a long time ago, conjured up through the time machine of memory and association... 

 

Endless weeks at number one:

I didn’t care much for the pop music of 1971. Tony Orlando and Dawn had annexed the top of the hit parade in mid-May with the amiable, lightweight tosh of ‘Knock Three Times’. It was somewhat unusual for a single to stick so long at number one – five weeks in total – and even more remarkably, it was replaced at the top spot by yet another song destined to outstay its welcome with another five weeks at the top. I was only ten years old, but I still regarded the inane nursery rhyme twaddle of ‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ as being aimed at a much younger age group. Like the unborn. Nobody liked it, which begs the question as to how it did so well, for so long. It sounds as bad today as it did fifty years ago, with its half-way-to helium vocals (the master tape was almost certainly sped up). But what it does do is kick down the door to let in a draft of memories from the same time...

The rest of the top twenty didn’t offer much in the way of improvement. Another song that feels saturated in essence of summer 71 is Blue Mink’s ‘Banner Man’. I neither knew nor cared what a ‘banner man’ might be, but this slab of pomp-pop with its ‘sing-a-long-with-the-brass-band’ production was hardly off the radio during those weeks. Hearing it today gives me an instant Proustian rush of sight, smell and taste, beginning with...

 

Refreshing Ferrero Mints:

Nowadays known as ‘Tic-Tac’, these enduringly popular mint capsules were a new arrival on the sweet counter in 1971. I remember being particularly taken with the unique packaging with its flip-up lid. They were introduced to me by a kid who lived down the street, was probably mildly autistic, and looms large in memories of the early 70s. At least they still exist, unlike other confections of the same era: and the mere act of popping one today instantly tops that ‘Blue Mink’ sugar rush of memories, bringing us to...

 

The Munch Bunch: 

Later used as the name of a brand of kids’ yoghurt, back in 1971, the ‘Munch Bunch’ were in fact a series of anthropomorphic fruit characters designed as novelty pencil toppers. My friends and myself collected them as playthings and never put them to their intended use, instead inventing games or building lego vehicles and houses for them. I was introduced to these soft plastic creations by a lad in our class at school: I think he had an ‘Oswald Orange’ (they all sported alliterative monikers). Oswald’s mates included Perry Pear, Bertie Banana and Larry Loganberry amongst others. The first one I acquired was a pineapple (Percy, presumably...) I can still vividly recall the strange sweet scent that it gave off, redolent of Macintosh’s ‘Caramac’, the mere memory of which sets us off again in the mental time machine, arriving at (or perhaps in...)

 

The school swimming pool: 

Our modest suburban primary/infants school had managed to raise sufficient funds to pay for the construction of an outdoor swimming pool, which was ready for use by the early summer of 1971. I don’t believe I’d ever been in a swimming pool before, and was accordingly reduced to bobbing around with a piece of polystyrene as I attempted, without success, to learn to swim. No amount of public information films or entreaties from Rolf Harris could convince me that I needed to be able to swim, and the situation remains the same fifty years later. In any event, I wasn’t keen on any school activity that necessitated getting undressed, so the opening of the pool held no special appeal for me. What I do remember clearly is waiting for that swimming lesson, on Wednesday afternoons, whilst listening to a tape recording of a schools radio broadcast of... 

 

Singing Together: 

This BBC series for schools had been a regular fixture on the radio since 1939, although I never experienced it until this year, and perhaps for that reason it’s Summer 1971’s line-up that remains with me. Last year, I managed to acquire a copy of the accompanying music book (shown above), with its lyrics and simple sheet music for songs including ‘Linden Lea’ and ‘Donkey Riding’. ‘Linden Lea’ in particular, despite hailing from much earlier in the century, is steeped in summer of ‘71 for me, as are several other radio series, heard at the time and barely heard from since... 

 

Many a Slip: 

Like ‘Singing Together’, this was another well-established radio favourite, that had been on air since 1964, although once again, 1971 marked the first time I’d ever heard it. This only happened because a) the BBC had just changed the broadcast time from evenings to lunchtimes at 12.30, and b) I was coming home for dinner during 1971. I think I got home about half way through a typical episode, and I never understood exactly what was going on: two teams comprising, on one side, ‘The Gentlemen’ (David Nixon and Richard Murdoch) and on the other, ‘The Ladies’ (Isobel Barnet and Eleanor Summerfield) had to spot deliberate solecisms in short passages composed for the programme by Just a Minute creator Ian Messiter. It’s actually very entertaining when you’re of an age to follow the proceedings, but back in 1971, all I noticed about it were the familiar voices of David Nixon, host Roy Plomley, and ‘Musical Mistakes Man’ Steve Race. Most vivid of all, though, was the idiosyncratic theme tune composed by John Baker of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, using his standard technique of tape cut-ups. This was a fairly recent arrival, with earlier episodes going out sans intro or outro music, and with its burbling, synthetic soundscape, the MAS theme sounded exactly like ‘essence of early 70s’. Sadly, only a handful of episodes survive, the nearest to this era hailing from 1973. I only heard the series for this one season, and never again until a one-off repeat around 1991, when the theme song instantly transported me back to ‘that’ summer...

Those radio lunchtimes are, indeed, a particular feature of my recollection of 1971, with the schedule comprising a panel game, comedy or drama series at 12.30 followed by ‘The World at One’, presented at the time by veteran broadcaster William Hardcastle. Wednesday lunchtimes featured a programme I have never heard since and which, by extension, is almost certainly lost. Bernard Miles and Betty Marsden starred in ‘Just Perfick’, a series adapted from the popular Larkins novels of H.E. Bates. I can still hum the theme music, or most of it, but the rest is gone. Hearing it on those warm Wednesday lunchtimes was a reminder that an afternoon of Singing Together and swimming lessons lay ahead... and in retrospect, there's something very H.E. Bates about that songbook cover...

And, Larkin being where we came in, Larkins feels like an appropriate point to go out on... but we’re not done yet with 1971..