It Was The Best Of Times, It Was The Worst Of Times Daaaaave...


Back in 2009, when I was still relatively interested in reviewing current television rather than going on and on about wiped black and white shows until time itself gets so fed up that it folds inwards and unwipes them, I was asked to contribute a couple of entries to a fairly heavyweight review of The Decade In Television. Although hardly Revolt Into Style, this was still quite an interesting project, as in retrospect the turn of the millennium marked the real starting point of a quest amongst programme makers for 'newness'-for-'newness'-sake at all costs, valuing technology and concept above quality, and creating a lasting malaise from which television is still only just staggering away.

Unfortunately, by the time I got around to actually contributing, the only shows left on the editor's list of the previous ten years' televisual landmarks that I felt even remotely qualified to say anything about were one that I was initially a huge fan of and then went off very dramatically, and one that I hated full stop from the outset. As such, it was a bit of a struggle to find something positive or defining to say about either (though I did just about manage to be civil), but it was nonetheless interesting to look at the legacy of both shows with a couple of years' distance, and indeed to look at those conclusions again now. All that 'Mong-gate' stuff was still yet to come...


The League Of Gentlemen

The four-man comedy team had already enjoyed one moderately successful series on BBC2 when, in the opening days of 2000, they really tore through the fabric with a macabre new character who took an unsuspecting audience by surprise. Yet despite his popularity, Papa Lazarou was ultimately just one component of an expertly-judged second series that deftly straddled the line between comedy and horror and restraint and excess, and by the end of the year had taken the cult performers to the level of Christmas tie-ins and sell-out tours. As a result, ‘dark’ was suddenly the new television fashion, and not just in comedy – the next couple of years saw a much bleaker tone descent over everything from drama to music shows to, well, Channel 4 broadcasting a live autopsy, revelling in grimness and explicit gore seemingly for the sake of it. Needless to say this was mostly done without the panache of the show that inspired it – indeed, even The League Of Gentlemen lost their way a bit, with a sprawling third series that seemed to value cruelty and shock above any tangible ‘jokes’ – and it’s telling that two huge comedy successes that came later in the decade were deliberately conceived as a contrast to the surfeit of ‘dark’ humour. Nowadays, things are looking far ‘light’er, and as the decade concludes, perhaps it’s fitting that one of the most talked about shows of recent times is Psychoville, a sitcom by two former Gentlemen that keeps its shock material very much secondary to its funny material.


The Office

Though some retrospective claims about the launch of Ricky Gervais’ sitcom, such as that it had inconsistent and late-night scheduling, are demonstrably untrue, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a sitcom shot in an unfamiliar naturalistic style and starring a virtual unknown was something of a gamble for the BBC. But it was a gamble that paid off – The Office became a runaway success like few others before or since, eclipsing the more energetic and exaggerated comedy of The League Of Gentlemen and Spaced with its more subdued and understated approach. Yet though this style was certainly popular with viewers, few seemed to understand why. It had clearly struck a chord on account of its acute observation of workplace life rather than its style as such, but it was that style that was adopted en masse by anyone hoping to achieve similar popularity. A handful of shows, notably Peep Show and The Thick Of It, managed to apply this approach to a solidly-conceived look at another recognisable aspect of life. A great many others – amongst them such long-forgotten efforts as The Robinsons, The Last Chancers, and a deafeningly soundtracked mangling of radio comedy Absolute Power – simply slapped a ‘naturalistic’ style onto scripts that either didn’t suit it or just weren’t good enough to begin with. Even now, nearly a decade after its creator astutely wound the show up after two series to prevent it from becoming stale, there still exists a steady stream of copyists that look about as ‘fresh’ in comparison to The Office as Up Sunday did to That Was The Week That Was.

The Wonderful Stories Of Professor Kitzel[CITATION NEEDED]


Unlike Saturday Mornings, which saw ever more sophisticated tactics deployed in the hope of gaining the upper hand in the younger viewer ratings war, and quickly degenerated into pretty much the children's TV equivalent of the arms race only with Fangface standing in for Trident or something, Sundays found ITV more or less throwing in the towel. After all, the BBC had already hit on the perfect combination of off-the-shelf transcendental blissed-outness and genial god-bothering with added puppet fun, so it's hardly surprising that their commercial rival, who would have made precisely fuck all pounds and twenty seven pence from the ad breaks in that barely-watched timeslot anyway, opted to just fling on a couple of cheap Sabbath-appropriate schedule fillers instead of trying to mount any sort of an effective challenge. If Saturday Mornings were a battle of biblical proportions, Sunday Mornings were one that they had already lost before they even started.

Of course, moving straight on to all this means that we're skipping over TV-am's various attempts at providing subdued Sunday entertainment for the younger masses, which some would argue is no bad thing. From early flung-together animated shorts and storytelling miscellany Rub-A-Dub-Tub, to the own-answer-writing Are You Awake Yet? and its resident puppet irritant 'Terry', they generally gave the impression of nobody involved really being that bothered and viewers tended to vote with their remotes as a result, though the former does get some begrudging points for employing Ivor Cutler to read out a few stories. Overall, the supposed 'on your way now, it's time for the adults to review the papers' Hello Good Morning And Welcome elbow-asidings of Frost On Sunday and its hilariously excitement-free synth instrumental theme genuinely seemed like the preferable option to many youngsters. But we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves there...

What came after TV-am's offerings, though, tended to be ancient ropily-coloured filmed imports - more often than not Canadian-sourced - that were, in fairness, trying to make fun learning rather than make learning fun. These would generally fall into two categories - either spuriously 'narrative'-driven cinema verite documentary series like Land Of The Lapps, Struggle Beneath The Sea and Indian Legends Of Canada, or fact-flinging animations like Max The 2000-Year-Old Mouse and The Wonderful Stories Of Professor Kitzel.


Made by Canada's brilliantly named Krantz Films in 1972, The Wonderful Stories Of Professor Kitzel was introduced by the brilliantly of-its-time combination of oddly psychedelic-yet-colourless title card splurges and some UK-sourced library music, in this instance Windsor Frolic by Johnny Pearson. In between showing off his latest inevitably malfunctioning invention, such as a machine to insert 'jelly' into sandwiches, the titular eccentric would invariably find himself suitably inspired to nip off in his time machine to see how the Ancient Aztecs or whoever would have approached the problem, the very fact that he had already invented a time machine rendering his desire to invent anything else bafflingly redundant. This led into a dry retelling of some historical event or other over a procession of still pictures; subjects that the Professor covered during the course of his exploits included Charles Darwin, The Statue Of Liberty, Covered Wagons and - at least according to this possibly typo-ridden episode guide - 'Beavis'. Then there would be a bit of comedy business at the end, often involving a 'granpa' who bewilderingly appeared to be younger than him, and another blast of the theme music, and that was it. Extra School sneaked in via the back door, and nobody noticed. Mainly because nobody was actually watching.

Anyway, Sunday Morning is marching on, and while you may have managed to get a covert bit of 'approved' TV watching in, you can't dodge church forever. Because even if you manage to get out of actually physically going, it's still going to find you through the telly...

Knocking On Doors, Opening Windows, Up And Down And Round, WE! ARE! THE SUNDAY GANG!


Just as television was intent on foisting 'Extra School' on unsuspecting younger viewers under the radar courtesy of the 'improving' likes of Blue Peter and The Song And The Story, a similar approach was inevitably taken towards religious instruction (we'll stop short of calling it 'indoctrination' here... actually, we won't). We'll be taking a more detailed look at some of the more prominent examples of Almighty Saluting from further on in the Sunday schedules later in this occasional series, but for now, let's turn our attention to early Sunday mornings, and the BBC's relentless determination to enforce a quick bit of moral instruction upon an unwary audience, cunningly disguised behind the cartoony-puppety trappings of more conventional children's television.

Unlike ITV, the BBC weren't actually legally obligated to block-book their schedules with a statutory amount of religiously-inclined programming, but morally they sure were and never once flinched from their didactic duty, so stick that in your 'BBC Left Wing Bias!!3' pipe and smoke it. Much of this, as we shall see, and indeed as we keep saying we shall see, came later on in the day's output, but all the same they were determined to catch 'em early in both senses of the word, and more often than not the day's second item of programming would be a crack of dawn attempt to Make Bible Studies Fun. Notorious examples of the artform include Dana-fronted songs-and-look-at-life magazinery Wake Up Sunday, Christopher Lillicrap-driven guitars-in-contemplative-locations singsongery Knock Knock, and - most infamously of all - The Sunday Gang.


You might be forgiven for assuming that The Sunday Gang was some sort of weekend spinoff from the similarly 'Gang'-equipped Why Don't You?. But if you did assume that, you'd be very much incorrect. This bunch of Sabbath-meeters were a clean-cut do-good assortment of wannabe Youth Group Leaders, operating out of a clubhouse kitted out with a 'computer' sporting a tape spool-hewn face with added piano keyboard, and a screeching puppet mouse called Mackintosh that called everyone 'sassenachs'. Their lineup would shuffle a couple of times over the years, but popular mainstays included aspirant Head Boy J.D., hard-of-thinking country bumpkin Dodo, 'zany' (i.e. his glasses were at an angle) inventor Boff, and friend's-girlfriend's-best-mate-who-everyone-thinks-you-should-'get-together'-with incarnate Teena, the latter portrayed with a noticeable disregard for spelling by future Blue Peter frontsperson Tina Heath. The rowdy cast-belted opening song's declaration of intention towards "taking a trip through God's creation" pretty much said it all about the show's combination of post-Godspell trendiness-fuelled consideration of 'issues' and hastily commissioned watercolour-accompanied readings of Daniel In The Lion's Den et al. Though where the accompanying dance that somehow involved "knocking on doors, opening windows, up and down and round" fitted into all this is anyone's guess.

Meanwhile, how they hoodwinked the youngsters into watching all this was a masterclass in parable-undermining cloak-and-dagger chicanery, dressing it all up in Crackerjack-level gag trading, youthful presenter straight-to-camera exhuberance, gaudy graphics and animation, and the illusion of puppet anarchy set against pretentions towards pseudo hi-techness. What's more, positioning it immediately after one of those Zenned-out Mindfulness-triggering Watch With Mother shows more or less designated it as a regular children's show in all but name, and it's not as if there was really much else in the way of alternative distractions in those days.

Well, there was ITV, but if you'd turned over you probably wouldn't have done much better in scholastic avoidance terms, though you might have got a bit more of a laugh out of it... and that's what we'll be learning about next time!

And Then Along Comes Mary (And Mungo, And Midge)


Sunday television has always been one of the more esoteric corners of the weekly schedule. Even now, at least on the terrestrial channels, the mornings still have a sort of muted, low-key ambience that seems at odds with the uniformity and strip-scheduling of the rest of the week, as though they're trying to go easy on viewers and give them a bit of space for reflection and contemplation, no matter how many single-issue fundamentalists you might now increasingly find furiously debating 'issues' with thin air as lunchtime approaches.

Though Sunday mornings do tend to fall into that sort of cerebral, reflective, quick-get-the-Nick-Drake-albums atmosphere by week-positioning default anyway, it's probably true to say that this televisual plagality is a hangover-easing hangover from the days when there was actually a statutory requirement for broadcasters to take a more quasi-spiritual approach to the Sabbath; indeed, up until 1993, they were obliged to carry a designated amount of religious programming by law. This inevitably had a knock-on effect on whatever else was shown that day, and as Sundays were also used as a scheduling dumping ground for hardcore political analysis, mid-budget costume drama, eight-million episode imports, and puppets that tapped the 'inside' of the 'screen', that made for quite a diverse range of opportunities for contemplation and reflection. And later on at night, all hell broke loose and any attempt at low-key ambience went right out of the window - often literally, with an alternative comedian crashing out after it shouting 'BARSTARD' - but we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves there.

For this is the first in an occasional series of posts looking at some of the key programming trends of the Sunday schedules, from Weekend World to The World According To Smith And Jones, starting even before TV had actually 'started' and ending up in the lawless frontier world of topically satirical mayhem for people desperately trying to forget that they had work or school in the morning.


If you got up early enough on a Sunday, then you'd have noticed that, technically, the first thing on was either - depending on which channel you were watching - Test Card F or the IBA Colour Bars followed by the 'startup' for your ITV region, the latter of which could be anything from a badly-aligned static caption slide with a burst of library music called 'Startup Crow' or something, to panoramic sweeping views of local architecture, to the Anglia Knight rotating for somewhere in the region of eighteen weeks. But you really would have to be some kind of lunatic to consider any of the above worthy of 'contemplation' or 'reflection', or indeed worthy of reminiscing about in the first place, so instead we're going to begin our not strictly chronological look at the Sunday television schedules with what was usually the first 'proper' programme on the BBC each Sunday - namely one of the more laid back and esoteric Watch With Mother shows, parachuted in from their usual weekday showings.

Camberwick Green, Teddy Edward, Fingerbobs, Bagpuss and Ragtime amongst others would all enjoy a tour of duty first thing on Sunday mornings, but for the purposes of this retrospective we're going to be concentrating here on animated girl, dog and mouse trio Mary, Mungo & Midge, whose late-sixties inner-city learning-made-fun escapades upped the bleary-eyed early-morning tranquillity ante through the judicious deployment of Richard Baker's detached narration, the vaguely Gallic-sounding organ and woodwind heavy soundtrack, and the washed-out colour palate that they used to use when making colour programmes that still had to be broadcast in black and white for a couple of years. If there ever was a show that was tailor made for chilling out on a Sunday morning, it was this, though how 'chilled' any of the youngsters spooked by the big disembodied pointing hands in the end credits would actually have found themselves is open to debate. Anyway, join us again next time for some praising of 'The Lord' by a bunch of church youth group leaders with ideas above their station...


You can read more about Mary, Mungo, Midge and all of their Watch With Mother pals in my book Well At Least It's Free, which you can get as a paperback here or as an eBook here.

All For One, And None For Dogtanian


As if the indignity of having previously been forcibly wrangled into both a dull-as-ditchwater eight million episode canine-anthropomorphic cartoon series that gets unaccountably feted on account of having a memorable theme song (that's 'memorable' in the same way that a bird chirruping off-key harmonies to a ringtone version of The Promise You Made by Cock Robin at 4am is memorable) and a big-budget bandwagon-jumping big-screen underachiever that proved considerably less successful than its overwrought theme song (as performed by an Axis Of Evil-like triumvirate of Sting, Bryan Adams and Rod Stewart) hadn't quite been indignity enough, Alexandre Dumas' most celebrated literary creations The Three Musketeers (well, possibly most celebrated; nobody's ever been quite sure where The Count Of Monte Cristo lands on the Celebrat-o-meter) are the latest fictional heroes of yesteryear to get a post-Doctor Who Saturday evening makeover (well technically it's a Sunday evening makeover, but you get the general idea, and anyway that's more than enough brackets for now). Though they've cunningly given it a Simon The Dog-style retitling as The Musketeers, presumably to avert the inevitable deluge of "how come it's The Three Musketeers when there's four of them, eh eh?" drollery, to which the answer should always in fact be "well read the book and you might find out, then, smartarse".

To be fair, it might well prove to be somewhat more substantial than many other similar Saturday evening 'reboots' have done; the de facto 'showrunner' is Primeval creator Adrian Hodges which at least guarantees some visual thrills and spills, while the cast includes both Peter Capaldi and Santiago Cabrera, TV 'Isaac' (Heroes), so some bar-raising is in evidence already. Whether it will ever come to be seen as the definitive adaptation is pure conjecture at this point, but, well, what is the definitive adaptation?

Some would doubtless point towards the swashbuckling Gene Kelly-led 1948 MGM take on the source novel, and others with more esoteric tastes towards Richard Lester's early seventies two-parter, with its jaw-droppingly of-its-time cast list taking in Frank Finlay, Oliver Reed, Michael York, Richard Chamberlin, Charlton Heston, Faye Dunaway, Christopher Lee, Raquel Welch and, erm, Spike Milligan (and we'd better at least mention the Douglas Fairbanks Snr-equipped silent to avoid the inevitable flood of GRR GRR emails). The wilfully absurd may even point towards early nineties animated CBBC filler extraordinaire Albert The Fifth Musketeer. But for a certain generation, any mention of the name The Three Musketeers can surely only call one thing to mind. And no it's not sodding Dogtanian.


Along with the corrupt-dictatorship-trounced-by-whimsy slapstick of The Arabian Knights and the making-learning-learning space-age-car-driving 'soldier ant'-fleeing miniaturised family at the centre of Micro Ventures, The Three Musketeers were the stars of one of the animated inserts in The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, that famed Hanna Barbera live action venture presented by four retina-infuriating collisions of brightly-dyed fabric masquerading as huge cartoony animals with a penchant for inter-cartoon absurdist sight gags and dreadful puns and a neat sideline in churning out bubblegum/garage punk hybrid numbers. It's fair to say that the canonicity of their barrel-split-with-sword-centric adventures was at best debatable - despite the title D'Artagnan was a fully paid-up Musketeer from the outset AND their ranks were further swelled by irritating juvenile plot-facilitation-prone wannabe Tooly, while they were somewhat less likely to run up against clandestine church-meets-state power plays than they were sinister money-lenders assisted by 'communicative' crows - but then Hanna Barbera did always tend to play fast and loose with established constructs in the name of cartoon action. It'd be nice to think that Godzilla fans consider Brock to be 'canon', though.

True, it's hardly 'definitive' in the accepted sense, nor indeed in the tedious broadsheet rock critic sense. Neither was it a faithful adaptation, nor one that fully exploited the sociopolitical potential of the characters, nor even one that was particularly likely to feature a noticeably different storyline from one week to the next. But it was one that, despite a lack of grandstanding high concept promotional fanfare (or perhaps because of it), still managed to indelibly attach itself to the name of The Three Musketeers through cheap and cheerful comedy-adventure fun delivered via the medium of endlessly BBC-repeated alarmingly washed out film prints with whopping great damage-related edits in them. Plus if you watch it, it'll make you more 'clever' than anyone who hasn't. Well, be fair, that argument's worked for a few columnists this week...

THAT Stewart Lee Review In Full...


Sometimes, it’s the most unlikely pieces of writing that provoke the most unexpected reactions. This was never intended anything more than a casual thumbs-up for the first episode of a series I really enjoyed, written in about an hour at the invitation of Off The Telly’s editor, and destined to become Just Another Review that nobody really noticed. Or so I thought. Within a day, it had been quoted in The Guardian. That was the good part. Shortly afterwards came a volley of protest from every imaginable direction, courtesy of comedy fans who had some sort of issue with the show, and with my saying I enjoyed it, that I could never quite figure out, many of them demanding a retraction or apology of some sort (apart from the prat who just said "No" as if it was in some way clever). And it just kept on and on and on and on and on, to the extent that I briefly considered giving up writing altogether out of sheer exasperation. I can’t pretend this is one of my better, cleverer, wittier or more perceptive reviews, but nonetheless it finds its way here out of pure defiance.

Not long ago, Stewart Lee was trading on the fact he hadn’t been on TV in a long time. Though his double act with Richard Herring had a huge following both on television and radio, they disappeared from the nation’s screens at the end of the decade, for reasons that have never been clear – even to the duo themselves – but seemed to involve little more than the personal dislike of a single executive and subsequent reluctance of anyone else to take a chance on them. Indeed, Lee’s most recent live show hinged around the bitterly amusing story of how the cancellation of a planned BBC2 series left him short of work, out of pocket and performing material he wasn’t interested in to an audience who weren’t interested in him while dressed as a giant insect.

Ironically, the success of that same show led to renewed interest from BBC2, resulting in a series that has actually made it to air. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, rather like the BBC’s seventies mainstay Dave Allen at Large, takes the form of lengthy and laconic ruminations on various subjects in front of a live comedy club audience, with short sketches (featuring longtime associates Paul Putner, Kevin Eldon, Michael Redmond and Simon Munnery) acting as surreal and frivolous punchlines. From the opening sequence of Lee driving his ridiculous ‘Comedy Vehicle’ around in a pastiche of the titles of The Pink Panther Show set to shrill, jaunty music (South African kwela song Tom Hark, most famously a hit for ska band The Piranhas), it’s hard to shake the suspicion this show is a deliberate counterpoint to what has become the norm during his absence from the small screen. Television comedy has changed a good deal in the meantime, with taboo-breaking and an increasing reliance on cutting edge technology and interactivity – something Lee and Herring themselves did much to pioneer – seemingly considered as important as actual jokes.


This show is a step in the absolute opposite direction, albeit one robustly supported by a writer and performer with over two decades of experience and enough time spent away from television to tell what works and what doesn’t. It’s all the better for it. This first edition tackles the subject of ‘toilet books’, with Lee examining several popular tomes he clearly would not have personally chosen to read, among them the works of Dan Brown and Chris Moyles. All of these are subjected to merciless scrutiny, albeit in a manner that seems more tongue-in-cheek than vindictive. Indeed, there is a fair smattering of inspired silliness throughout – notably a superb visual gag about former Grange Hill star Asher D conducting a drive-by sausage-on-forking – and it could be argued some of the more incisive gags (such as Moyles’ choice of the title The Difficult Second Book) had basically already written themselves.

Some will undoubtedly berate the show for an apparent tendency towards ‘predictable’ targets such as The Da Vinci Code, as recent reviews of his live shows have done with regard to sections on Stuart Maconie and Del Boy Falling Through The Bar. The important detail is Lee has plenty to say on these subjects – much of it both new and extremely funny – and any such criticism is doubtless founded more on a personal jadedness with the subject matter than with any problem with the actual material. Indeed, it’s quite refreshing to see such familiar subjects tackled with gags that batter their literary construction, factual veracity and underlying political leanings, rather than just scoffing at the number of people reading popular books in public places.

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is a much-needed breath of fresh air, presenting material that is both intellectually and ideologically challenging in an upbeat, laid back and easily accessible format. Lee himself has suggested the show was conceived as a ‘liberal’ mirror to Grumpy Old Men, using the same sort of observational approach to frame less reactionary material, and with a bit of luck it may prove just as popular as the rantings of Clarkson, Wakeman and company. And who knows, maybe it’ll open the door for a couple of other sidelined ‘Nineties Comedians’ who really ought to have been back on the small screen a long time ago…

How To Irritate People


Some musings from the archives about a couple of occasions on which I managed to really, really annoy people by writing something throwaway, inconsequential and trivial that you'd never have predicted that anyone would possibly take exception to, whilst deliberate attempts to provoke and rabble-rouse usually went by without any reaction at all. And this was all before THAT Stewart Lee review as well... incidentally I won't be re-running the 'Diana and IT Crowd pieces' mentioned below, because they were both rubbish.


"I wish to protest most strongly about everything" - Henry Root, Park Walk, West Brompton

If you're going to write stuff then sometimes - as recent less-than overjoyed reactions to the Diana and IT Crowd pieces on here have testified - you're going to upset people. Whether you mean to or not. Over the years I have accidentally managed to enrage TV's Dave Gorman, a mad American who owns the supposed 'literary rights' to Graham Chapman, some jerk out of an early nineties pop duo who lasted for about five minutes and had literally half a hit, any number of ruralist pluralists, and countless 'man in the street' readers besides.

There was, for example, the person who took bile-spitting objection to a few throwaway observations about amusingly shoddy lyrics, fuming "have you never heard of POETRY or METAPHOR?". Or the cheerful and obviously well-balanced individual who took exception to some slightly frivolous (and, erm, patently appreciative) stuff about the glam-rocking likes of Flintlock and Sailor and sent in the following charming missive:

"You are a bitchy frilly little venting sod aren't you? Your site is more a rubbish bin with a used tampon in it than a paintbox. Angry at everyone because you've never achieved anything in life? Besides all the femme hysteria you get your facts all wrong, and that's the most disturbing and misleading aspect of your website. Don't write about the seventies without consulting facts. Disgusted with you"

What's more, the piece that instigated such ire appeared on a site that once provoked someone to send a terse email reading simply "more paragraphs, less green". Disgusted with myself.

So disgusted in fact that as an act of atonement, I will now outline a five-point plan of how to avoid recieving furious and badly-punctuated borderline threats in response to absolutely nothing from the sort of people who shouldn't even be trusted with the ability to read, let alone to hand out the scissors:


1. Don't Say Anything Less Than Complimentary About Silent Cinema


Lord alone knows why, but claiming nothing more provocative than a complete lack of interest in the soundless antics of Charlie Chaplin and his slow-laugh chums always provokes a flood of extremely long and irritated emails; striking back in their hundreds, albeit very slowly. You have to feel sorry for these people though - after all, it's no wonder they're angry when they're so regularly whacked on the head by unwittingly-rotated planks of shoulder-mounted wood that they've seen being carried towards them five minutes in advance of the impact.


2. Don't Play Devil's Advocate About Doctor Who


The majority of fans of Doctor Who are sensitive souls, and don't particularly appreciate any boat-rocking over widely-held majority opinions on the series. Suggest that The Underwater Menace is good and not rubbish like you thought, speak up for the Sylvester McCoy era, or point out that Tom Baker was occasionally phoning in his performance, and they'll come down on you like a ton of falling bits of scenery from a Colin Baker story. Worse still, the days when fans would have to spend several months typing out their own fanzine in order to argue back are long gone, and The Great Disgruntled can be online and calling you a 'congenital idiot' within minutes.


3. Don't Make Any Criticisms Of Chris Morris


To dispense with the witticisms for a second (much like Chris Morris has done himself for the past decade, ho ho), there are too many people out there who see Chris Morris not as a rather funny bloke who has made plenty of worthwhile 'points' with his humour and a couple of meandering and on occasion dangerous and stupid ones besides, but as some kind of religious visionary whose every utterance must be accepted as law. So if you're out to argue that you didn't enjoy one of his works, you're on to a loser from the outset. Considered expressions of genuine dismay at the hateful and poorly-focused Brass Eye Special, for example, were brushed aside with comments like "it was the satire that had to be made!", "you just didn't get it!", "what are you, a Daily Mail reader?", and, of course, "Morris is a godlike genius, I think you'll find, and essentially what he was trying to do was...". Similarly, lukewarm reviews of My Wrongs #Ohwhogivesaflyingfuck found themselves dismissed 'invalid' on account of containing a sentence calling the Brass Eye Special 'poor', or worse still, getting two numbers in the title the wrong way round. Pointing out that Nathan Barley was relevant to about three people in London and had no sodding jokes in anyway met with cries of "too close to home eh? ;) u just dont like it because u ARE nathan barley!! :)" and what have you. That said, when the same review causes perrennial indie no-hoper Momus to sneer at you for mentioning The Housemartins, you're clearly doing something right.


4. Don't Mention Britpop


Do you remember Britpop? That period between roughly 1992-1996 when Blur, Suede, Pulp and Elastica made some genuinely thrilling records, Paul Weller made some records, and just for the tiniest fraction of a second, it really did feel like so-called 'alternative' culture was about to take on the mainstream and win? Well, whatever you do, never mention this anywhere. Because if you do, you will be inundated by communications from angry shouting individuals pointing out how there were other people making records too you know, how it was all a load of media hype and never actually happened, and how grunge remained really really really popular despite what the weedy girly indie kid geeks might try to tell you with their short washed hair and (spit) trainers. This goes beyond mere expressions of personal distaste for the bands themselves (despite the fact that an expression of distaste for Elastica is pretty much a scientific paradox), and into a risible insistence that because someone didn't experience an era or subculture a certain way, nobody else in the world could possibly have done so, almost like some kind of Stalinist attempt to rewrite history to ensure that Eddie Vedder was victorious. In other words it's like, erm, Britpop never happened!


5. Don't Say You Liked Doctor Who And The Idiot's Lantern


Because you'll never hear the end of it.


Thrust By Standard Three And Rising

 
I have a long, long history of accidentally upsetting people with things I've written. And an equally long history of accidentally upsetting Blake's 7 fans.

This piece about and indeed extract from my first ever published piece of writing was originally going to open Well At Least It's Free, an anthology of various columns, articles and other bits and pieces that I've written over the years (including a large amount about Doctor Who both 'new' and 'classic'), but ultimately ended up being cut for space reasons. And because, well, it sort of didn't fit thematically with everything else. As a result, and in the conspicuous absence of any other suitable or even potential outlet for it, you're getting the strange story of how Blake's 7 is ultimately responsible for everything that you've ever read by me right here...

Outside of banging on about Max Headroom and The Housemartins in small-scale fanzines (some of which ran to nearly twenty copies), my first significant published piece of any note was, amusingly, about a TV series I’m notorious for not liking.

To cut a long story short, I used to attend a local sci-fi group (you had to make your own entertainment in those pre-Internet days) who decided to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the BBC’s ‘space opera’ Blake’s 7 by holding a special event with series stars Brian Croucher and Peter Tuddenham as guests. They were stuck for someone to write a feature for the accompanying programme, and I volunteered. It was hardly an interesting piece, and based perhaps rather too liberally on information gleaned from old issues of Starburst, but still managed to provoke two unexpected reactions.

The first was from the Official Blake’s 7 Appreciation Society, who got very cross indeed about some supposed errors and made such a fuss that an apology was later printed in the group newsletter against my wishes. Regular readers of my work may spot a running theme making its first appearance here. Oddly enough they seemed most annoyed by a statement that Paul Darrow was working on a novel based on his character Avon, information derived from the News page in American magazine Starlog, which they insisted could not possibly be happening because they would have heard about it. One can only assume that they were in some kind of before-the-event denial about the existence of eventual literary masterpiece Avon – A Terrible Aspect.


The other unexpected reaction came when Brian Croucher asked to speak to me. Fearing another telling-off over those ‘errors’, imagine my surprise when he remarked instead that he’d been reading the article and wanted to offer some words of advice. Though as he said it was still clearly the work of a young and inexperienced writer, he did feel that it had something that made it stand out from the endless reams of fan writing he had to endure on a regular basis, and was keen to encourage me to keep on writing about whatever I felt like writing about because “it’s worth working on”. So I did, and while I've not always been that positive about Blake's 7, I can never thank Brian Croucher enough for all the fun I’ve had as a result of his little chat.

Anyway, here's a brief extract from that oh so controversial piece. Lawyers at the ready...

"The major difference between Blake’s 7 and the other science fiction show on BBC1, Doctor Who, was the distinct lack of monsters. There was rarely need for them in the series and on the odd occasion they did appear, it was purely to elaborate a criticism of the world in which we live. For example, in the episode entitled The Web, the crew meet up right a rather strange race of half machine dwarf slaves called The Decimas. The story was basically a clever exploration of man’s use of his kind for racial or class reasons".

Take THAT, something!


Well At Least It's Free, a book collecting some of my articles and columns about Cult TV, is available as a paperback here or as an eBook here.

They Could Have Been A Bit Like The Beatles: Tears For Fears 'Sowing The Seeds Of Love'

8. Tears For Fears 'Sowing The Seeds Of Love'


Sing This All Together (See What Happens): Possibly the only act to pull off the much-desired transition from pseudo-New Romantic synth duo to mid-eighties globe-straddling stadium rock megastars, Tears For Fears had been suspiciously quiet since their infamous Live Aid no-show, last sighted in public with an hilariously lazy rejigging of Everybody Wants To Rule The World - as Everybody Wants To Run The World - for hastily carpet-swept-under Live Aid spinoff Sport Aid. Whenever anyone took such a breather in the mid-late eighties, ill-founded rumours invairably suggested that they were hard at work in the studio, intricately labouring over their Own Personal Sergeant Pepper. Except in this case, the rumours were actually very well founded indeed. NINE POINTS.

Brought His Mellotrode And Freaked 'Em All Out: Jangly guitars, rippling backing vocals, that descending chord sequence, dreamy woodwind break, weird synth noises, gospel-inflected extemporising (courtesy of Oleta Adams), spoken word bits hidden deep in the mix, demented Hammond-hammering, phasing - and varispeeded phasing at that - and, of course, Penny Lane trumpet. This has got the lot, including the kitchen sink, which Curt Smith once only half-jokingly claimed was sampled for one of the percussion sounds. Plus, and gaining it that all-important extra point, the only appearance of a genuine 'mellotrode' in this entire contest. TEN POINTS.

On The Bus Or Off The Bus?: Wow, now we're talking. Any song that starts off by claiming that it's "high time we made a stand, shook up the views of the common man" has to be on to something, and indeed the lyrics go on to tie in all that overhyped peace and love stuff with modern-day Acid House shenanigans, urges vigorous reading of books, and promises "an end to need, and the politics of greed, with love". Meanwhile, hidden in the middle of all this is a vitriolic second verse that lays into a certain 'Politician Granny' with high ideals who has no idea how the majority feels, and throws in an entirely gratuitous swipe at Paul Weller for good measure, shaming him into mounting his own attempts at sounding A Bit Like The Beatles two years too late. And, as if it needs to be pointed out, "every minute of every hour, I love a sunflower". Taxi for New Kids On The Block! TEN POINTS.

The Green And Purple Lights Affect Your Sight: Roland and Curt lip-synch their way through a maze of whirling planets, clouds, guitars, fish, hands, paisley wallpaper, newspapers, cardboard boxes, brass map things, drinking birds, sunflowers, animated thingymajigs off a late eighties 'Tonight... On BBC2!' trailer, and blonde women with Yahoo Serious hair. It only loses a couple of points for being quite obviously rendered in that same video effects package that was commonly used around then everywhere from Enya videos via Sylvester McCoy-era Doctor Who to, yes, 'Tonight... On BBC2!' trailers. EIGHT POINTS.

I'm Picking Up Bad Vibrations: Quite aside from inflating the indignance of all those characters in school who red-facedly scowled that it "sounds exactly like a Beatles song that I don't know the name of but it sounds exactly like it!!", Sowing The Seeds Of Love and its associated lengthy studio sessions were instrumental in causing a rift within the band itself, with Curt departing in somewhat less than 'Musical Differences' circumstances immediately after they finished touring the album. Priceless. TEN POINTS.

Ha Ha Ha... We Blew Your Mind!: Said parent album, The Seeds Of Love, was indeed an ambitious neo-psychedelic offering from start to finish, especially the fab Swords And Knives (which includes weird backward-but-forward snatches of Sowing The Seeds Of Love in the background), and while Curt's curt departure prevented the band from exploring this sonic avenue much further, it must be pointed out that the single's original b-side, Tears Roll Down (Laid So Low), later became a bona fide hit single in its own right. SEVEN POINTS, bringing them to a not exactly acrimonious total of FIFTY FIVE POINTS.


And so, the results... in last place come Bros, staring into their bank balance with a sorry-if-identical-looking NINETEEN POINTS. Just above them are Danny Wilson and New Kids On The Block, whose game but not quite convincing efforts net them TWENTY FOUR POINTS and TWENTY SEVEN POINTS respectively. Madonna's mixed bag nets her THIRTY FOUR POINTS, and Hue & Cry's similar shortcomings find them just slightly ahead with FORTY ONE POINTS. Taking off into the stratosphere, Jason Donovan makes FORTY SIX POINTS, Swing Out Sister FORTY NINE POINTS, but the clear winners are Tears For Fears with an unassailable FIFTY FIVE POINTS. Looks like we'd better split the trophy in two, then.

They Could Have Been A Bit Like The Beatles: Jason Donovan 'I'm Doing Fine'

7. Jason Donovan 'I'm Doing Fine'

 
Sing This All Together (See What Happens): The very definition of 'whirlwind', and accompanied by a hairstyle that looked like it was caught in one, Jason Donovan's unplanned yet massively successful singing career was barely twelve months old when he started expressing frustration with his output and mentioning his love of The Beatles and The Stone Roses in interviews. True, a lot of it had been anthemic radio pop with too much treble, but there was also a higher smattering than usual of vaguely strange sixties pop covers (including the shimmering Rhythm Of The Rain and a spooky, semi-menacing take on Sealed With A Kiss), lending weight to his apparent desire to be seen as a modern day Russell Morris rather than just That Bloke In The Coat That Cost The Wrong Side Of Three Hundred Pounds. I'm Doing Fine marked the moment when he finally convinced Stock, Aitken and Waterman. EIGHT POINTS.

Brought His Mellotrode And Freaked 'Em All Out: On first glance you'd be forgiven for thinking this was just another standard issue exercise in Beatle-emulation, albeit a much catchier than usual one, but listen more closely and you'll notice a couple of subtle touches that elevate it a fair few notches above Noel Gallagher. There's a Byrds-y jangly guitar intro, 'submarine' vocal reverb, toy piano, a flourish of Penny Lane trumpet that through the miracles of eighties recording studio 'EQ Level' botherishness ends up sounding like an escaped bit of the Joe 90 theme, and absolutely tons of near-Todd Rundgren-worrying lengthy blasts of phasing. Yes it's all still very trebly and compressed and clinical-sounding, but let it never be forgotten that Stock, Aitken and Waterman did make some genuinely corking records that sounded great on local commercial radio, and this was one of them. EIGHT POINTS.

On The Bus Or Off The Bus? Well, there's nothing really profound to remark on here, just a lament-tinged rejoinder to a 'difficult' lady friend that comes across as something akin to Pet Sounds retooled for Big Fun, but there's a nice undercurrent of introspective angst, and, given Mr Donovan's enthusiastic preference for 'certain substances' around the time, the 'Doing Fine' could well have been achieved with the assistance of psychotropic means... SIX POINTS.

The Green And Purple Lights Affect Your Sight: Wigged-out dancing girls, flying semi-acoustic guitars, and Jase appearing as all four Beatle Boys (including a 'Ringo' doing comedy spinning around antics on his drumstool) in the style of a black and white TV pop show are the order of the day here, looking uncannily like those surviving stray fragments of the small-screen appearances of the likes of The Remains and The Vogues. Unfortunately - presumably out of fear that unsuspecting pop fans might get confused and explode - someone's seen fit to superimpose a modern-day Mr Donovan doing his best bare-chested Jim Morrison poses over the top. The nicest thing you can say about it is that he was trying to copy Tim Booth. The least nicest thing you can say is that it ruins an otherwise fun video. SEVEN POINTS.

I'm Picking Up Bad Vibrations: I'm Doin' Fine was nothing if not optimistically titled, as a recent nosedive in fortunes (not helped by, let's be blunt about this, rotten songs like Hang On To Your Love) propelled it to the lofty heights of number 22. More or less abandoned by the pop fans, unlikely to be welcome with open arms by the indie kids doing that head-shaking shuffle and shouting "Fishes Eyes will watch your lies", and without a ratings-grabbing TV show to fall back on any more, this was a commercial bad trip like few before or since. Keep away from the brown acid, Jase! EIGHT POINTS.

Ha Ha Ha... We Blew Your Mind! Amazingly, this Woolworths' Bargain Bin-bound calamity didn't result in a 'carpeting' from the 'suits', unless the carpet in question was a flourescent yellow and green one. I'm Doing Fine was followed into the lower reaches of the Top Twenty by the similarly-inclined, if more funk-riffing, RSVP, and by a decent cover of Happy Together which did at least get him back into the top ten. Then, of course, musical theatre came calling and that was that, but for this brief if startling diversion into Nuggets-For-The-Gameboy-Generation territory he nets a more than creditable NINE POINTS. Which brings him to a rather fine-doin' total of FORTY SIX POINTS.

 
Next Time - Roland Orzabal, a kangaroo, and the final reckoning...

They Could Have Been A Bit Like The Beatles: Swing Out Sister 'Forever Blue'

6. Swing Out Sister 'Forever Blue'

 
Sing This All Together (See What Happens): With their Acid Jazz-prefiguring dancey sounds and flashes of sixties pop and fashion, Swing Out Sister had made a big impression in the mid-late eighties, appealing to swanky types who liked imported coffees and teenage girls who wanted to copy that trademark haircut alike. Then percussionist Martin Jackson left, leaving remaining duo Corrinne Drewery and Andy Connell free rein to explore their own personal sixties fantasy world. The upshot of this was the aptly-titled album Kaleidoscope World, from where this equally kaleidoscopic single was drawn. NINE POINTS.

Brought His Mellotrode And Freaked 'Em All Out: This is, it has to be said, an altogether different kind of psychedelia to any of the fellow sixties-apers it came up against, more in tune with the sort of thing that happened when the Ray Conniff Singers found themselves contractually obliged to throw in something for the peace and love crowd. Hence it sounds more like a lavishly-orchestrated late sixties film soundtrack - complete with hefty musical quotation from the Midnight Cowboy theme - than a sitar-led headswirler, only bolstered by modern production techniques that make it feel almost like a dry run for Saint Etienne. NINE POINTS.

On The Bus Or Off The Bus?; Nothing more bad-trip evoking than a couple of encouraging words of eye-drying to an unnamed male friend who has been abandoned by some heartless Bacharachian dollybird, but there's some nice phraseology all the same ("nights don't come any longer, days seem to last forever"), and a lot of playing around with the titular 'blue' imagery. SEVEN POINTS.

The Green And Purple Lights Affect Your Sight: The video starts off with a couple of French art film-esque monochrome sightseeing offcuts, then turns into a heavily stylised pastiche of The Avengers rendered in gaudy primary colours, intercut with posing on a beachfront. Ace! EIGHT POINTS.

I'm Picking Up Bad Vibrations: The reasons behind Andy's departure halfway through making the album have never been clarified, but if he was unsure about this new-ish direction then it seems that he wasn't alone. Critics may have raved over Kaleidoscope World, but in only just scraping the top ten it represented a mere fraction of the commercial success they were used to, something that had already been signposted by label Polygram shifting them to 'progressive' subsiduary Fontana, alongside such renowned chart-botherers as The Cocteau Twins and House Of Love. Forever Blue itself stalled at a less than overwhelming number 80. EIGHT POINTS.

Ha Ha Ha... We Blew Your Mind!: Happily, all of this seems to have got Swing Out Sister exactly where they wanted to be, free to make albums zigzagging between psych, lounge, jazz and Northern Soul, all of it sounding like the work of someone whose favourite member of The Beatles was George Martin. EIGHT POINTS, which nets them a very un-Forever Blue total of FORTY NINE POINTS.


Next Time - the missing link between Jason Donovan and Joe 90...