Plays For Yesterday

Those who have been following this blog for a while will know how obsessed I am with sixties television and music, and in particular how the ephemeral nature of popular culture back then means that much of it is now lost forever, or at least shorn of its context to the point of indecipherableness.

Although lost TV is more celebrated, and perhaps rightly so, the same can also be true of music, particularly with songs that formed part of a band’s live set in those pre-Official Souvenir Tour DVD days. How many of you out there were left utterly baffled as to why Pink Floyd’s Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast - an audio collage of ambient instrumental jollity, looped bits of speech and vague kitchen sounds - or The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band’s Music For The Head Ballet - little more than an unremarkable fairground-esque harpsichord waltz - should be occupying prominent positions on albums, only to later discover that the latter literally was music for a ‘Head Ballet’, used in live shows to accompany an alarming display of choreographed head-jerking, and the former a truly ridiculous ‘only in 1970’ frying-bacon-on-stage sonic experiment with accompanying breakfast-related whimsical commentary from the band? Incidentally, in the lone surviving live recording, you can actually hear the audience having hysterics at said whimsy; and they say prog rockers had no sense of humour?

Of course, in all of the above cases and more, a bit of dedicated detective work and indeed educated guesswork will normally fill in the gaps to a greater or lesser extent. When it comes to sixties stage plays, though, you’re pretty much onto a loser from the start. This was, of course, a time when television had yet to reach saturation point and was only broadcasting for a couple of hours a day anyway, and people would still go to the cinema two or three times a week regardless of what was on; demand for the theatre was still equally high, to the extent that browsing through the various available listings and adverts almost suggests that they were struggling to produce enough new shows to meet demand. And there were so many fascinating-sounding off-the-wall ventures in those pre-organised smash days too - Private Eye’s satirical musical Mrs Wilson’s Diary, early Doctor Who cash-in Curse Of The Daleks, the endless outbursts of whimsy from Anthony Newley and Lionel Bart (the latter’s Blitz! having a poster that boasted possibly the most ‘sixties’ design of all time), and many, many more long-forgotten efforts that Dominic Sandbrook could potentially use as a shorthand indicator of how the tide was turning either ‘for’ or ‘against’ something in wider society.

And yet, precisely because of that lack of a cross-platform multimedia market, there’s very little evidence of any of these stage shows left, especially those that - like most of the above - closed after a couple of weeks and were promptly forgotten about. There’s the reviews, publicity photos and scripts - though you can’t always guarantee that one will still be around, or even then that it’ll be easy to access - and in some cases a soundtrack album, and in some even rarer cases a big screen adaptation or truncated television presentation (though that said most of those will be long wiped anyway), but getting a sense of what the overall production was like and how the performers approached their roles is nigh on impossible. Even Harry Secombe’s famous turn in Pickwick - which, lest we forget, was where latterday standard If I Ruled The World originally came from - was never really captured as anything beyond an Original Cast Recording.

Revivals are all very well and good but the problem is that they’re exactly that - a modern day take on something where nobody’s quite sure what the original was like. Yes, miracles do sometimes happen - not least the rediscovery of the long-lost television taping of Beyond The Fringe in pretty much its entirety - but if you’re looking at something from before the home video boom then chances are you’re going to struggle to get much detail on it. And even some from after that; surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be a recording of either of the stage shows spun off from The Young Ones in circulation. Yes, you can dig out details, statistics and box office totals until you’re literally submerged by paperwork, but none of it can really tell you what the actual performances were like. So if you want to draw conclusions from something more substantial than a list of dates, you’re best off sticking with television and pop music.

Mind you, having said all that, if anyone out there can figure out exactly why the cast of radio sitcom The Glums saw fit to record a vocal version of the theme from Soviet-irking early BBC spy thriller The Little Red Monkey, then you’re doing better than anyone else ever has.

This is an abridged version of an article featured in Not On Your Telly, a book collecting some of my musings on lost, ignored and censored television with all kinds of interesting diversions along the way. You can get Not On Your Telly as a paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.