The Best Pictures Are In The Radio (Times)

"Here is a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play, and this box can hide a secret inside... can you guess what is in it today?"

The simple, long-lost thrill of researching popular culture of the past in the pre-Internet era is a subject that I've talked about extensively before - notably in the opening chapter of Not On Your Telly, and in a podcast about a copy of Halliwell's Film Guide that I once bought from the 'Withdrawn' box in my local library (it's a lot more interesting than it sounds, honest) - and yes, you guessed it, it's a subject that I'm about to talk about extensively yet again.

Back in the days when the closest evolutionary relative of IMDB was those books called things like Variety's Sci-Fi Enthusiast's Guide To Out Of This World Movie Credits From Space, which were produced to such high and exacting standards that practically every page had half line gaps in the middle of words, the absolute and almost inconceivably exotic researching holy grail was access to back issues of Radio Times and TV Times. Definitive, unarguable (well, sort of - but that's something that would come to light much later) records of what had been on radio and TV, who had appeared in and made it, and where and when it went out, and all of it without having to wade through interminable wittering about Project UFO first. Of course, if for some strange reason you did want to know about the UK transmissions of Project UFO, then you could find them in there too, but that's by the by.

Eventually, and more by accident than design, I did manage to locate a collection of bound volumes in the awe-inspiring city centre library; although they would later restrict access to dedicated researchers who were prepared to sign official-looking forms and then wait twenty minutes while the staff mysteriously disappeared and returned with the requested copies occupying about a sixteenth of the space on the world's squeakiest trolley, back then they were just sitting on a shelf and you essentially had the free run of TV listings from 1962 to date. Unfortunately this did mean that some prat had already gone through and torn out all of the pages referring to Doctor Who, or worse still carefully levered them out with a craft knife leaving damaging lacerations on all the surrounding pages too, but in all honesty that was really just a minor annoyance. There was so much more in there to find out about than the even by then already overdocumented Doctor Who, and that so much more was precisely what I was in search of. There was, if you will, so much more than TV Times in TV Times magazine. Except that doesn't really work as Doctor Who was in the Radio Times. But you get the general idea.

Suddenly, there were so many longstanding back-of-the-mind questions that could quite concievably be answered. What were the storylines of the untransmitted episodes of Hardwicke House? Did Channel 4 really show a documentary with clips from 'Video Nasties'? Was there any truth in the rumour that Monty Python's Flying Circus hadn't been properly repeated prior to 1986? Didn't TV Times used to use bizarre 'genre' icons in their listings? Did the abandoned Not The Nine O'Clock News launch make it as far as being scheduled? Was Lenny Henry really a DJ on Radio 1? What about that reference somewhere once to a Billy Liar TV series? Had I just imagined Rubovia? And what in the name of all that is sane and rational was Whoops Baghdad? All of these, and more, would soon find their sometimes surprising resolutions. But what I looked up first was something else entirely.

Camberwick Green had been quietly retired from the BBC's lunchtime children's schedules in 1985 - having been shown over thirty times since its debut in 1966 - and like any other TV or radio show (or even film) that had been consigned to the archive shelves in the days before there was the technology or impetus to sell it all back to us constantly, it had already slipped into a sort of cultural limbo. You didn't have to look very far to find evidence that it had existed, of course, but the actual show itself already seemed intangibly remote and distant, far in the subconscious depths of character songs drilled into your memory by repetition and fraught recollections of never being quite sure about that clown in the opening and closing titles. It was something that had once been a permanent fixture in the background but had since retreated inaccessibly into a big box marked 'the past', and that sense of the inaccessible recent past was what drove me to look up its very first transmission.

And there it was - Monday 3rd January 1966, 1.30pm on BBC1, an episode billed as '1: Peter The Postman' and described as 'For the very young'. To be honest, all of the handful of accompanying credits were details that I knew already anyway, involving names that were all too familiar from the clown-rotated credit scroller, but what was really arresting was the small accompanying illustration of the aforementioned Peter The Postman, and a single line in italics at the foot of the listing reading 'See page 19'. And on page 19, there it was - a full-size version of the artwork, featuring Peter Hazel standing atop the Music Box (although for some reason he had actually been drawn taller than it), accompanied by a short and noticeably hyperbole-lacking piece introducing the various characters, hinting at (though stopping short of explicitly stating) its status as the first truly independent production to be made for the BBC, and handily explaining the stop-motion animation process for the benefit of question-plagued parents.

And that, amazingly, was how you launched a major new small-screen venture in 1966. Other highlights for that Monday picked out on the same page included Bob Monkhouse in a 'straight' role in Thirty Minute Theatre, Peter Falk (who apparently "holds an 'Emmy' award, which he won for his part in 'The Price Of Tomatoes'") guesting in The Danny Kaye Show, an episode of Hugh And I - "more comic adventures with Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd" which had apparently been picked out on the basis of having a new theme tune - and an interesting-sounding documentary named Women In Europe, which looked at how our more progressive continental neighbours were opening out employment opportunities and featured an interview with the Soviet Union's first female commercial pilot. What Mrs. Dingle The Postmistress would have made of all that is anyone's guess.

Since then, for various reasons, I've done a good deal more research into Camberwick Green and its various sequels and spin-offs. Along the way I've got to see the original black and white 'pilot' version of '1: Peter The Postman' with its notorious animation blunder, waded through a stack of paperwork outlining the tedious contractual reasons behind Chigley's disappearance from the schedules for a couple of years in the late seventies, and even heard a Danish-dubbed version of the Welcome To Camberwick Green album (or, in old krone, 'Velkommen Til Grønærteby'). But none of this has ever matched the thrill of finding that small quarter-page introductory piece, and indeed that evocative artwork, probably produced in minutes flat for a magazine that by its very definition had the shortest of shelf lives, but which all this time later remains resonant with the 'feel' of a lost world of prehistoric broadcasting. Of course, so deeply ingrained was the show in the formative experiences of successive generations that we're actually overdue a politician proclaiming that we should "all try to be a bit more like the people of Camberwick Green". To which we should say fine, as long as they personally are prepared to be visited by the clown late at night.