Dear Father Christmas, I Would Like The Following (In 1986)

"I don't want a lot for Christmas", Mariah Carey once sang. This is an adage well worth adhering to. Personally I am only hoping to receive a Camberwick Green Village Playset with the street lamp intact, the original film spool of Doctor Who And The Mission To The Unknown, and two Karen Gillans waving a bottle of Macallan 50.

However, this was not always the case, and back in the greedy capitalist eighties, come Christmas time the grabbing hands grabbed all they could, only with chunky green and white mittens on or something. Others may have yearned for B.A.R.T., Rock Lords or one of those big Ferrero trays with the two other foul-tasing liqueur-based ones, but back in 1986 there was only one present I wanted. Well, five, to be honest, but this was the age of the Filofax-toting 'entrepreneur'.

Back To Skool

Skool Daze, a noisy, witty and fast-moving game about trying to 'liberate' a disapproving report card from under the noses of a staffroom full of academic archetypes and stereotypes, was arguably the single greatest computer game ever made for the once-mighty rubber-keyed ZX Spectrum. It sold in such deservedly high quantities that manufacturers Microsphere - whose very name recalls a lost era when the word 'micro' was seen as a powerful futuristic totem and an authentic glimpse of things to come, and whose other releases included Wheelie, Skyranger, Contact Sam Cruise and the ever-playable ZX Sideprint - couldn't resist the temptation to produce a sequel, and that's where it all started to come undone. Where the original had restricted its gameplay to one single cramped-yet-capacious scrolling school building, Back To Skool ("Skooldaze Too", as it described itself in an hilarious Grimleys-tempting Slade-style misspelled cover tag gambit that no doubt backfired and saw more than one purchaser complaining to WH Smith that they didn't in fact have two games on the tape as promised) expanded the concept to bring in an adjoining girl's school, with a playground straddling the two, and a load of jolly hockeystick-wielding St Trinian's escapees to join the established cast of Einstein, Boy Wander, Mr Wacker et al. And whereas the objective of the original game had been simple and straightforward, involving little more than judicious use of a pixelated catapult and a book about historical battles, Back To Skool had a rambling, nonsensical and almost unplayably complicated plot which took in a bicycle, a water pistol and, erm, some stray frogs. The must-have game of the year, no question, but it took a couple of months for everyone to start admitting it wasn't quite what they had been expecting. "Please sir, I cannot tell a lie... BACK TO SKOOL is rubbish!".

Santa Claus Is On the Dole

Following on from the irony-caked runaway success of supposed-to-be-a-sendup-of-novelty-hits-but-ended-up-a-novelty-hit-itself The Chicken Song earlier in the year, Spitting Image made another bid for chart stardom with the unfairly overlooked Santa Claus Is On The Dole. Penned by imminent Red Dwarf launchers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor and perennial Christmas-hater and skinner alive of Roland Rat Phil Pope, half withering social satire, half silliness for silliness' sake, unlike The Chicken Song this was planned as a seasonal market-cornering single from the outset, which makes it all the more surprising that it only just limped into the top twenty and has been pretty much forgotten since then. Anyway, ignore the revisionists - Spitting Image was fantastic and in the days before the noble art of satiyrre was tainted forever by The 11 O'Clock Show and Chris Morris' Steamhammer thingy, any release containing any of the uniformly ace songs was a must-have for anyone who liked their devastating critiques of the Thatcher regime served up with a side order of silly puppets hitting each other. The b-side, the Ian Hislop-instigated The First Atheist Tabernacle Choir, was top stuff too. And why get it for Christmas rather than just buying it yourself? Because the ever so slightly more expensive 12" version contained proper extended versions of both songs, with extra comedy material and everything. You try telling the multi-format fixated young people of today that, and they won't believe you.

Now That's What I Call Music 8

Nowadays we're all more familiar with the Now series of compilations as a long unending string of shoddy cash-ins, but back when the concept was first launched, it seemed new and exciting to be able to get that many chart hits for minimal financial outlay. Plus in those days they couldn't convince every record company or pop star to play ball, meaning that there were often hefty gaps where massive chart hits should have been that ended up plugged with all manner of straight-in-at-number-twenty-six obscura. Adhering to the usual vague thematic approach that it sort of loosely took in the age of vinyl, tape and four sides to every double-album, Now That's What I Call Music 8 - which by then had jettisoned its baffling 'pig with headphones' motif in favour of oh-so-eighties cover designs based on silk, satin or in this case some strangely warped chrome - started off with a strong collection of what could be loosely termed Radio-Friendly Big Pop/Rock Hits. Duran Duran's ace comeback single Notorious, Pet Shop Boys' dog bark-equipped Suburbia, The Communards with politically subtext-laden video-accompanied Don't Leave Me This Way, Aerosmith and Run DMC's urban myth-inducing Walk This Way, and the incomparable Breakout by Swing Out Sister rubbed shoulders with Steve Winwood's quite good but a bit out of place in such company Higher Love, OMD's boring Forever Live And Die, and Genesis' frankly awful In Too Deep. Side Two took a dance/soul approach and was therefore duly mentally marked as The One To Fast Forward To The End Of. It starts off well enough with Cameo's Top Of The Pops viewer-infuriating Word Up! and Mel & Kim's Showing Out (Get Fresh At The Weekend), a song that was pretty much The Clothes Show made music, but soon tailed off with overly repetitive offerings from Jaki Graham and Janet Jackson, Boris Gardiner's ear-offending I Wanna Wake Up With You, that We Don't Have To Take Our Clothes Off thing, and Grace Jones' I'm Not Perfect (But I'm Perfect For You), which barely even qualifies as a song. For some reason, The Human League's Human is plonked in the middle of all this too. Side Three, almost equally skippable, is the muso-friendly one; Big Country, Huey Lewis And The News, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush joining forces for half the expected impact, they're all there in full-on dreariness mode, mercifully interrupted by The Housemartins, Madness, Status Quo's only halfway decent record of the entire decade, and the most unlikely inclusion on a Now album ever, Billy Bragg's Greetings To The New Brunette. Finally, Side Four is something of a White Elephant Stall, yet all the same manages to pretty much sum up 1986 in eight tracks flat, key highlights being Kim Wilde's ridiculous cover of You Keep Me Hangin' On, Dr And The Medics' flop revival of Waterloo, It Bites' Calling All The Heroes, and two date-specific television spinoff singles par excellence - Paul Hardcastle's one-time Top Of The Pops theme The Wizard, included here with runout groove message from Geoffrey Bayldon intact, and Nick Berry's May-composed soundtrack to Lofty sliding down his bedroom door, Every Loser Wins. It was the best of Now albums, it was the worst of Now albums, and on hearing it more than a few decided to finally throw in the towel with chart music take the plunge and see what that NME mail-order cassette C86 that everyone was raving over was all about.

Cool It!

From the neon suits and is-he-alternative-comedy-or-isn't-he? positioning of its rubber-faced star, to the Housemartins-like theme tune and accompanying pastel shaded semi-animated opening titles, there was no television show more intrinsically and unequivocally '1986' than BBC2's surprise sandwiched-between-repeats-of-Fawlty-Towers-and-new-episodes-of-Victoria-Wood-As-Seen-On-TV hit vehicle for the versatile impressionist Phil Cool. That year, excitingly, BBC Video had finally stopped charging eight hundred and seventy six million pounds for their wares and had started to make stuff available at a more affordable 'Budget Price', and while massive queues were forming (literally) for copies of Watch With Mother and Doctor Who And The Death To The Daleks, discerning comedy fans were equally keen to get their hands on this hour-long compilation of Cool with the old BBC Video 'star' logo tacked on to the start. Unfortunately - well, not exactly unfortunately, as it was still ace, but view the comment in context - this material was actually culled from the previous year's overlooked tryout run of three shows, presented here pretty much in their entirety but with a decidedly sparse set of opening titles in place of the definitive item. Still, how many comics do you know who can get a massive laugh out of 'doing' Rik Mayall, just by moving their mouths a bit and not actually saying anything?

The Utterly Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book

While Comic Relief is undeniably serving a useful purpose and a good cause in general, it has to be said that much of its associated spinoff fundraising merchandising falls distinctly into the 'will this do?' bracket. And next time Peter Kay does unspeakable things to an innocent 'pop classic', let's hope that the answer is 'no it fucking won't'. Time was, though, when with Comic Relief you really did get something substantial for your donated money, especially to accompany its launch in 1986 when they came up with the still-entertaining Cliff Richard & The Young Ones single, a genuine bona fide all-star live comedy stage show that later became an equally great album and video, and The Utterly Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book; edited by Douglas Adams and Peter Fincham, as if that wasn't recommendation enough, and just look at the contents. An exclusive new Hitchhikers story! Meaning Of Liff addenda! Otherwise unpublished Adrian Mole! The Young Ones' Nativity Play! Material from the then still-lost Out Of The Trees! Contributions from the writers of Yes, Minister and Spitting Image! Angus Deayton, Lenny Henry, Terry Jones and Mel Smith in general! And most notoriously of all, Richard Curtis' controversial The Gospel According To A Sheep, which got the book withdrawn under blasphemy laws following complaints from idiot God-botherers who decided that likely extra future sales and the ensuing benefit for people dying of hunger in the third world wasn't worth offending their religious sensibilities for! It's funny, and it's controversial - beat that, Don't Get Done Get Dom Meets Mock The Week!

Meanwhile, if you're still wondering what to put on your own Christmas List this year... how about one of these?

Christmas With BBC Records And Tapes

RESL124 Orville's Song/I Didn't - Keith Harris And Orville (December 1982)

Although a TV regular since the mid-sixties, ventriloquist Keith Harris’ career didn’t really take off – ironically – until he introduced bashful luminous green duck who couldn’t fly Orville into his act in the late seventies. By 1982 he, or rather they, had landed a prominent variety slot on BBC1 with The Keith Harris Show, although he remained a popular and enthusiastic stage performer, which gave rise to this single written by pianist and former talent show winner – and old friend of the ‘duo’ – Bobby Crush. Taking the form of a dialogue between Harris and his puppet charting the latter’s inability to take to the skies, Orville’s Song is certainly cloying, sentimental and delivered by a gratingly-voiced character that not all of the target audience found quite so loveable, but is in its own way an effective and endearing composition that in no way deserves the deluge of ‘Worst Record Ever’ accolades that have been heaped upon it since. Certainly record-buyers at the time didn’t seem to agree, sending the single to Number Four over Christmas 1982.

RESL138 Come To My Party – Keith Harris, Orville And Dippy/Thank You For Telling Me ‘Bout Christmas – Keith Harris And Orville (December 1983)

A seasonal outing for Keith Harris and his many puppets, with the a-side again written by Bobby Crush. Although the single did enjoy some minor chart action, climbing to number forty four over the festive season, it surprisingly failed to corner the lucrative Christmas market and ultimately caused few worries to Paul McCartney and David Essex.

RESL162 The Box Of Delights/The Carol Symphony - The Pro Arte Orchestra (December 1984) 

Marked out by top-drawer acting and pioneering video effects, BBC1’s 1984 adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 festive children’s novel The Box Of Delights – something of a favourite with the BBC, having been adapted seven times across several media – was rightly fanfared as a landmark production and remains held in high regard by audiences and critics alike to this day. For theme music, the production team elected to use an extract from the third movement of Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s 1927 Carol Symphony, an extended piece based on orchestral arrangements of themes and motifs from numerous traditional Christmas Carols which had in fact originally been written as a contribution to an early BBC radio broadcast. The extract featured a variation on The First Nowell, and was taken from a 1966 recording of The Carol Symphony for EMI by The Pro Arte Orchestra; it was, however, subjected to minor manipulation by Roger Limb of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to make it more in keeping with the mood and style of the serial. Limb’s modifications were frustratingly absent from the direct edit featured on this single, which featured another excerpt from the movement, this time based on a segment of the Coventry Carol, on the b-side. Selling in small quantities at the time, and one of only a handful of pieces of official The Box Of Delights-related merchandise, this is now one of the most eagerly sought-after BBC Records And Tapes releases.

RESL179 The Ballad Of Sandra Claus/The Goulash Break – Bryan Joan Elliott and The Elf Service (December 1985) 

American comedian Bryan Joan Elliott was something of a minor star in the UK in the mid-eighties, largely thanks to her regular appearances on the ITV game show Punchlines. This unusual attempt at cornering the Christmas market for 1985 came about as a result of some recent well-received appearances on high profile BBC chat shows, notably BBC2’s The Bob Monkhouse Show.

RESL234 Christmas Is Here Again/Awake Zion Awake - Bryn Coch Primary School (December 1989)

The first release after a gap of almost a year – suggesting that all was not well at BBC Records And Tapes in the new John Birt-led regime – was a Yuletide-themed offering from the pupils of a Welsh primary school accompanied by harpist Glenys Lightfoot, recruited by the label following popularity with local radio listeners, in an attempt to create yet another school-sourced singing phenomenon and indeed to secure a hit in the lucrative Christmas market. Sadly, this single fell short of expectations on both counts.

RESL236 Christmas Past And Christmas Present/Christmas Past And Christmas Present (Festive Fun Mix) – Euphoria (December 1989)

Seemingly determined to corner the Christmas market for 1989, BBC Records And Tapes put out a staggering third Yuletide-themed single in the form of this choral effort based on Kings College Cambridge’s traditional Festival Of Nine Lessons And Carols service. Unsurprisingly, this one didn’t sell very many copies either. The ‘Festive Fun Mix’ fails to live up to its title. RESL237 was set aside for yet another Festive-friendly single – Glory Be To God On High, a re-recording of the EastEnders theme with yet more new lyrics by Simon May, performed with a choir of children and premiered on BBC1’s Songs Of Praise. Contractual difficulties saw to it that this was instead released by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful label; however – perhaps mercifully – it still failed to make the charts. This all took place, however, late in 1988, suggesting that some or all of the preceding singles may have been in the works since the previous Festive Season – a sure sign that the writing was on the wall for BBC Records And Tapes...

This is an extract from Top Of The Box - The Complete Guide To BBC Records And Tapes Singles, which is available as a paperback here, or from the Kindle Store here.

This Is The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society/Now On The Kindle Store For You To Add To Your Library!

The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, a book collecting some of the ridiculously lengthy diversions I've gone on about archive TV and pop music when I really should have been working on something more substantial, is now available from the Amazon Kindle Store. Regular readers may be interested to know that it includes exclusive and previously unpublished pieces on Chigley, Wait 'Till Your Father Gets Home and David Bowie's early TV appearances. Elsewhere there are features on Doctor Who, The Monkees, Battle Of The Planets, Tin Machine, Skiboy, The Stone Roses, Glam Rock, Jimi Hendrix, Hardwicke House, Rubik's Magic, Blue Jam and Camberwick Green. There's quite a lot about that, in fact.

You can get The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society from the Kindle Store by clicking here. Or if you'd prefer, you can still get the paperback from here, or the original full-colour eBook from here.