Desert Island Dylan (Or Madhouse On Castaway Street... No, That Doesn't Work)
It's always a mistake to assume that you know everything about popular culture of the past. Doubly so if it's regarding a long-wiped television show. No matter how hard you think you've looked, there's always something new to find, and sometimes you'll find it by accident and in the most unlikely places.
If you've been rifling through the amazing archive of old episodes of Desert Island Discs that the BBC have made available as free downloads, then you'll be aware of just how much of a treasure trove of context and trivia they really are, especially the early editions from the fifties and sixties. Pick a random one and you might stumble across, say, Arthur Askey stating that while he can't stand pop groups, there are some young new chaps called The Beatles who conduct themselves like entertainers and could go on to do something rather interesting. Or, more hauntingly, Benny Hill freely admitting that his humour has a shelf life, and with that in mind he was wanting to move towards becoming a writing and directing mentor for younger comics, but was having trouble convincing the TV bigwigs that this was a good idea. And you might even chance upon something that offers a new angle on one of your longstanding obsessions.
If you've read my book Not On Your Telly, then you'll probably have seen the chapter on Madhouse On Castle Street, the long lost BBC TV play from early 1963 starring a then little-known Bob Dylan, of which only a partial off-air audio recording now survives. This was originally commissioned for a book to accompany an academic presentation on 'Rock In Film' or something vaguely along those lines, which fell through for dull admin-y type reasons that I can't really recall. As such, I had pulled out all the stops to try and make it as informative and accurate a piece as I could, and felt at the end that unless an actual copy of the finished programme turned up - in the introduction I alluded to then-current rumours that it was amongst Philip Morris' supposed haul of lost TV shows, which still hasn't been clarified one way or the other - I would have needed whatever the research equivalent of a tension-leg deepwater drill was to find out much more of any practical contextual use.
On the 18th October 1980 edition of Desert Island Discs, actor Brian Glover chose Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone as one of the eight records he'd like to be cast away with; a popular selection with guests on the show, which also made the lists of Greg Dyke, Andy Kershaw, Jack Vettriano, Adrian Noble, Paul Hogarth and Professor Peter Piot. Like Dyke and Vettriano, Glover also picked Like A Rolling Stone as his favourite of the eight, alongside his chosen book Card Games by John Scarne, and as his somewhat impractical luxury item an MG TD Series sports car. Talking about his reasons for choosing the track, Glover told presenter Roy Plomley about how he had become a fan of Dylan very early on in his career, after hearing his music in small clubs while travelling the UK working as a professional wrestler. After the record had played, quite unusually for Desert Island Discs, Glover volunteered an extra bit of anecdotage about Bob Dylan - namely that he'd seen him perform live at The Troubadour Coffee House on Old Brompton Road, while he was in the UK "to make a film for TV, for the BBC, before he actually made it".
Sure enough, it turns out that Dylan did indeed play at The Troubadour on 29th December 1962, the night before the original intended recording of Madhouse On Castle Street; due to the harsh adverse weather conditions that had swept across the UK, this had to be abandoned and production was remounted on 4th January. His setlist for that show is sadly not on record, though given that he was about to perform them on camera and this gig was to all intents and purposes a warm-up, it's more than likely that he would have thrown in renditions of Hang Me, O Hang Me, Cuckoo Bird, Ballad Of The Gliding Swan and the newly-composed Blowin' In The Wind. Dylan is also known to have introduced himself onstage that night as 'Blind Boy Grunt', doubtless provoking a laugh of recognition from the pseudonym-toting wrestlers in the audience.
Accurate details of any performances that Dylan had made during the production of Madhouse On Castle Street had proved frustratingly elusive back when I first wrote the article, but there you have it; one throwaway mention from someone you wouldn't necessarily have expected, and there's a whole new bit of context and detail that could have gone into the piece. Don't let that put you off Not On Your Telly, though, as the original writeup is still pretty darn good, and there's loads more on creaky old black and white TV like Play School, R.3 and Doctor Who, not to mention features on sixties theatre and mono pop music. Though nobody's chosen it on Desert Island Discs yet...