Gordon Murray's Multi-Coloured Swap Shop


This isn't going to be a 'tribute' to Gordon Murray as such, mainly because I feel that the various lengthy pieces I've written about his work stand up perfectly well as 'tributes' in their own right. If you're interested and haven't seen them, then let's just get them out of the way in a brisk Fire Brigade Roll Call style - first episode of Camberwick Green, last episode of Chigley, middle episode of Trumpton, how Radio Times covered the launch of Camberwick Green, where Jimi Hendrix got the idea for The Wind Cries Mary from, article on forgotten 'fourth' show Rubovia, review of the Camberwick Green LP, in-depth look at the making of all three series, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb. And indeed 'pheep'.

Instead, I'm going to be asking for your help in paying an even bigger and better tribute to Gordon Murray - helping to track down a long-lost bit of his television history...


On 20th October 1979, Gordon Murray was the main studio guest on BBC1's Saturday Morning show Noel Edmonds' Multi-Coloured Swap Shop. This came about largely as a result of his later puppet comedy shows aimed at an older audience, Skip And Fuffy and The Gublins, having been used as inserts in Swap Shop; a number of viewers had written in asking how they were made, and given that Noel and company were always enthusiastic about the idea of taking the audience 'behind the scenes', it made perfect sense to get him on to talk about them. He also brought along a number of puppets and props from Camberwick Green, Trumpton, Chigley, Rubovia and even some of his earlier productions, and gave away a Gublin as a prize in a write-in competition.

I remember watching this and being absolutely fascinated by the explanations and demonstrations of how stop motion animation worked, how he came up with characters and names, how Brian Cant ended up as the narrator and so forth. I didn't win the Gublin, though. Incidentally that week's show also featured an interview with Tommy Steele as well as a Debbie Harry lookalike contest, and a report on 'Trotting' as a potential new sport. Sadly, Gordon's views on any of the above are not recorded.

Literally not recorded in fact. Sadly, this is amongst the many editions of Swap Shop that were not retained by the BBC, and so far no off-air recording has surfaced. As far as I'm aware, this was the only occasion on which he was interviewed about the shows at this length and in this depth, so it would be nice for everyone to be able to see it again. If by some slim chance you've got a copy, please let me know and I'll make sure that the right people get hold of it. And now, if you'll excuse me, there's the Six O'Clock Whistle...

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...

Ferry Cross The Mersey (Unless It's Raining)


On 2nd June 1979, arguably the weirdest idea for a Saturday Morning TV show ever - and less arguably the most technically ill-advised - set sail around the ITV regions. Launched by Granada on a wave of local talent, The Mersey Pirate was ambitious, live, witty, and conspicuously up to date with current trends in pop music. It was also broadcast live from the middle of a notoriously weather-battered body of water, and, well, a bit of a mess. But the kind of compelling, memorable and glorious mess that you just don't get in this slicker and more sophisticated age, when people actually sit down and think before putting programmes on air.


Inspired in no small part by Gerry And The Pacemakers' 1964 top ten hit Ferry Cross The Mersey, and the modicum of lasting international fame that this had given the handful of boats that lurch daily between Liverpool, Birkenhead and Wallasey, The Mersey Pirate commandeered long-serving ferry The Royal Iris for a weekly splash of Saturday Morning fun. Literally commandeered in fact, as the show occupied every last corner of this ad-hoc floating television studio, including - most infamously - the deck. If you're already thinking that sounds like a somewhat precarious arrangement, then just you wait. You really haven't heard the half of it yet.

Launched on 28th April 1951, The Royal Iris was as dedicated to leisure cruises as it was to the practicalities of daily commuting, boasting a dancefloor and stage, tea room, buffet, cocktail bar and even its own miniature fish and chip shop. Needless to say it was a popular choice for Mersey-crossing as part of days and indeed nights out, and doubtless foremost in Gerry Marsden's thoughts when he sat down to write Ferry Cross The Mersey; though the film based on the song - now probably never likely to be seen again on account of its heavy Savile content - was actually shot aboard less elaborately-appointed rival ferry the Mountwood, while that weird colour promo film with Gerry and assorted inauthentic-looking 'Pacemakers' scampering about the deck with distinctly seventies haircuts was filmed on the Woodchurch. It would clearly take something more ambitious, technically complex, bewilderingly concieved and simultaneously surfing trends and not understanding what they actually were to begin with to get The Royal Iris on screen. And that's precisely what The Mersey Pirate was.


With ATV's groundbreaking outburst of Saturday Morning mayhem Tiswas having proved an unexpected phenomenon when it finally started edging out into other regions, rival ITV broadcasters were only too keen to get in on the act and set out to provide their own distinctive take on this wild combination of comedy, cartoons, heavy viewer interaction and general air of not particularly controlled anarchy. Quickest off the mark were LWT with Our Show, which unwisely handed over the presentational reins to 'talented' youngsters, and Southern with Saturday Banana, which saw Bill Oddie and Metal Mickey doing their best to achieve wackiness without even a fraction of the resources available to Chris Tarrant and company (and yes, Oddie did indeed contribute a heavily funk-inflected and tune-deficient theme song). Always one of the artier and more technologically ambitious of the ITV regional franchise holders, Granada instead took a look at what was literally to hand, and decided on a format that would involve doing their live two-and-a-bit-hours of weekend entertainment from a working ferry and using almost exclusively local talent. Thus it was that a weird geodesic dome was constructed on the deck of The Royal Iris, a hapless 'backroom boy' stood on top of a building in the then-rundown docklands holding out a UHF receiver, and The Mersey Pirate cast off into uncharted and decidedly choppy televisual waters.

The basic conceit of The Mersey Pirate - not a million miles from the technological truth, if we're being honest about it - was that it was an actual 'pirate' broadcast, breaking in to the ITV transmission for unathorised Saturday Morning fun with the aid of a cobbled-together broadcast setup. This was actually something of a hot topical issue at the time, with the dawn of public access media hovering close on the horizon, and Vrillion Of Ashtar Galactic Command having only recently hijacked Southern TV's news programme to spread his intergalactic message of peace and love. A very different kind of 'anarchy' to Tiswas, but one that nonetheless caught the imagination of a large percentage of its target audience, and in particular the ones who could more normally be found 'playing' television with the aid of a modified cardboard box and reluctantly recruited 'studio guests'.

However, with little in the way of contemporary inspiration to draw on, The Mersey Pirate looked back instead to a similar phenomenon from the recent past, and styled itself loosely on the poptastic Pirate Radio boats that had so irked and eluded the authorities in the mid-sixties, with attendant Merseybeat reference points to boot. To this end, the presenters were all assigned nautical roles; club comic Duggie Brown, then well known to viewers for his Shep's Banjo Boys-accompanied gagsmithery on Granada's famously 'unpolished' standup show The Comedians, was the nominal host, or 'Captain', of both the boat and the pirate broadcast. Voluble Radio City DJ Billy Butler, the very definition of 'locally famous', was the 'Entertainments Manager', alongside comedy folk-singing 'Bolton Bullfrog' Bernard Wrigley as the ship's chef, up and coming actor Paul Clayton as the Chief Petty Officer, and Frank Carson as a sort of gag-crazed Long John Silver. Also along for the ride - not that any of the above were aware of it - were a couple of somewhat less reputable youngsters.


Philosophical teenage tearaway Franny Scully and his somewhat less philosophical sidekick Mooey had first appeared in the mid-seventies, in a series of short plays that Alan Bleasdale had written for Radio Merseyside. In 1977 Bleasdale adapted the plays into a best-selling novel, which led to the BBC commissioning Scully's New Year's Eve, an energetic and sharply funny entry in the ever-unpredictable Play For Today strand, for broadcast on 1st January 1978. Andrew Schofield and Ray Kingsley would later rerprise their respective roles as Scully and Mooey for the 1984 mini-series Scully, which is both as vivid a snapshot of rough-and-ready four letter-friendly early Channel 4 as you're likely to find, and for an entire generation the ultimate example of the Programme You Had To Sneakily Watch On The Portable. In between came this unusual engagement, recasting the pair as stowaways who snuck aboard the ferry each week, incurring the somewhat hypocritical wrath of the 'pirates' but inevitably doted on by the old dears who did the actual on-board work. Ironically, given that they are the most established and well-realised characters in the whole setup, Scully and Mooey are a large part of the reason why The Mersey Pirate didn't really 'work'. Bleasdale's high quality and genuinely witty material sits jarringly in the middle of other less sophisticated comic dialogue - sometimes literally in the middle of it, as there are times that it seems like he's added their lines into someone else's sketches - and the transition between the two is never exactly easy.

In contrast to their more cerebral musings, Duggie Brown and Billy Butler proved a particularly effective combination, with the former's polished audience-ready approach working well against the latter's more sharp and quick-witted pop DJ style. Bernard Wrigley lent a suitably manic air as he improvised and over-acted wildly around scripted sketch material, and Frank Carson - who of course could also be found appearing regularly on Tiswas - was essentially just Frank Carson, albeit with a neat running gag about the on-board child audience fleeing in terror from his awful puns as he read out the 'Pirate News At Eleven'. Also perhaps more suitable for the majority of the target audience were the Dave Prowse-devised 'keep fit' segement Ship Shape, fashion tips from local radio presenter Therese Birch - host of the part-networked LBC children's show Jelly Bone - in Decked Out, a weekly update on the Top Twenty, and the energetic open air games played whenever weather permitted. And as we shall see, those last three words were key to the strange tale of The Mersey Pirate.


However, before Scully and Mooey become too consumed with existentialist angst, it's worth pointing out that the show also did a great deal to reflect the more esoteric and fashion-conscious tastes of a certain percentage of its intended audience, aware as they were that strange post-punk things were happening right on their doorstep. The theme music was a frantic slap bass-led discofied reworking of Ferry Cross The Mersey, and there were plenty of filmed insert features on local artistic happenings, while The Royal Iris' ballroom - which not that long ago had played host to The Beatles and company - became the ship's 'disco', home to performances by the suspiciously hip'n'happening likes of Echo & The Bunnymen, Lene Lovich, Bad Manners and and The Undertones; in reality, they were probably the only bands who were both near enough and prepared to get up at that hour on a Saturday morning. Meanwhile, although this will have meant little to anyone outside of the immediate vicinity, Granada were keen to play up the 'pirate broadcast' conceit in a very real and interactive sense. Much-coveted Mersey Pirate mugs and 'I SAW THE MERSEY PIRATE' badges were distributed to those hardy souls who had spent the duration of the show languishing in the grim breeze-battered surroundings of the Pier Head, waiting to cheer the ship's company back in to shore, and they even staged an 'open day' inviting all and sundry (including a certain aspirant TV historian youngster) to wander around the ferry and see how the show was made, the results of which were filmed and shown as a mini-documentary as part of the following Saturday's edition.

However, it was to be precisely those feats of dockside technical wizardry that would guide The Mersey Pirate onto the rocks. Adverse weather conditions would regularly cause outdoor features to be delayed or abandoned, leading to improvised fill-ins with Butler chasing Mooey and Scully around indoors, and would also wreak havoc with the precarious broadcast setup, causing sound and picture interference and even on occasion scuttling the entire programme, prompting the hasty deployment of old cartoons and film serials to fill the resultant gap in the schedules. The Mersey Pirate sailed merrily on, but a genuine squall was looming in the form of the technicians' strike that blacked out the entire ITV network over the late summer of 1979. This unexpected interruption more or less did for the series, which would otherwise have run through to mid-September. Small wonder, then, that it's almost impossible to accurately pinpoint exactly how many editions of The Mersey Pirate actually went out - and indeed how much of each one went out - between 2nd June and the last TV Times-billed edition on 25th August 1979.


The Mersey Pirate had certainly been given a high profile launch, with prominent TV Times listings and a coveted Look-In cover feature, but even that wasn't enough to stop it from being washed overboard. Yet even aside from the technical problems and the sheer bad luck, its biggest stumbling block was that it was in many ways both behind and ahead of the times. The show did its best to capitalise on the rise of a new wave of Liverpool-based pop acts but was literally a couple of months too early for this; and at the same time it harked back to nostalgia for an era that even many of the Merseybeat region's own inhabitants had yet to get properly nostalgic for. In many ways, it was an unsuccessful attempt to do what the similarly-inclined The 8:15 From Manchester would manage to pull off a decade later, proving that there maybe is something in this rivalry business after all. Some of the cast would show up in character in local panto later in the year, but to all intents and purposes that was the end of The Mersey Pirate. Granada would try again the following year with Fun Factory, a gag-heavy and decidedly indoors effort that retained Billy Butler and Therese Birch alongside newcomers Gary Crowley, Jeremy Beadle and Kurt Knobbler the robot, which proved successful enough to return in 1981. After that they perhaps wisely decided to leave Saturday Mornings to their competitors.

Unfortunately, there are apparently only two and a bit editions of The Mersey Pirate still in existence - reportedly due to technical issues preventing the live broadcasts from being satisfactorarily recorded (cue a deafening chorus of archive TV obsessives getting angry about salt water on forums) - and neither and a bit of them appear to feature the 'Open Day'. Meanwhile, the poor old Royal Iris was taken out of active service in 1991, upon which it was bought by a business consortium who intended to turn it into a 'floating nightspot' but were denied planning permission, and has basically just sat around rusting ever since. In 2010, it was reported that the RNLI had disturbed some intruders on board the boat; presumably, Scully and Mooey's alibis are intact.


You can find lots more about bizarre TV shows that history forgot in my book Not On Your Telly.

Jo Cox


Had this been a different kind of a day, right now I'd be driving you all to distraction with relentless plugs for an article on the ridiculous ITV children's programme The Mersey Pirate. It's more or less done, to be honest with you, but I haven't felt like writing those last couple of sentences and shuffling the images around. I haven't felt like hitting the 'Publish' button. And I'm fairly sure most if not all of you wouldn't have felt like reading it. The screengrabs of Echo And The Bunnymen and jokes about Billy Butler being washed overboard mid-broadcast can wait.

Jo Cox was only a couple of weeks younger than me. Our lives went in very, very different directions, and while she might well have seen The Mersey Pirate, she certainly did something more useful and worthwhile with her time afterwards. We don't know yet why her life was cut so brutally and senselessly short, and to be honest we may never really know. Situations like this are not exactly noted for their clear-cut logical explanations. But while the true extent of its influence is open to question, the uncomfortable and unsettling truth of the matter is that this has come in the absolute eye of the storm of a nasty and troubling time.

We live in a culture where escalating threats are common currency and nobody does anything. And yet we all feed into it, and none of us does anywhere near enough to stop it. Public figures, notably Lily Allen, have told some pretty alarming stories recently, though it's worth me sticking my head above the parapet and saying that I've had threats - on one occasion through the post to my home address - on the basis of things that I've written on here. I'm nobody. And I venture non-opinions on subjects that I'm quite proud to say don't matter. Think about that for a minute. We - and that's literally we, all of us - have created a situation where it's quite acceptable to focus your hatred, frustration and anger on an individual who you've never met and has done nothing to you, for no other reason than that they happen to be in your line of vision. And we all stir and amplify this in so many seemingly inoffensive ways, whether it's hurling abuse at politicians or vilifying reality show contestants. A sad inevitability that this should spill out into reality in so tragic and horrific and pointless a way. Kenny Everett, aware that he was terminally ill, once reflected how easy it is to make others into a "receptacle for your spare hatred" and we'd do well to think on that occasionally.

A while back, for a number of reasons, I decided that I'd had quite enough of contributing to it myself and resolved to try and do something more positive whenever I started tapping out words on a keyboard. To tell upbeat stories of achievement and innovation, to find good things to say about bad television, to defend the 'bullied' in popular culture. Hence Higher Than The Sun, hence Skiboy, hence trying against almost insurmountable odds to find - and then finding - a reason to challenge the widely-held view of Pip and Jane Baker's writing career. Hence what someone recently described as 'going soft' on social media. Hence, well, giving the benefit of the doubt to The Mersey Pirate. True, someone will probably now dig out some tweet where I'm snarky about Philip Morris, or some disparaging reference on here that they take exception to, but that's the whole point. Not one of us is above this and we all need to try harder.

And yes, I am making this 'all about me'. Because it's all about all of us. It's rampant and unchecked, and we are all responsible and need to take that responsibility. So... be nice about something or to someone, won't you? It all goes a long way.

Never Too Quickly, Never Too Slowly


If you still hadn’t recovered from the weekend’s celebrations on Tuesday 3rd January 1967, then you were in for a sharp wake-up call. At 13.30pm on BBC1, a shaky zoom in on a clock tower, followed by a riotous start-of-working-day burst of puppet activity, filled the nation’s television screens for the first time. Steadily, sensibly, never too quickly but never too slowly, Trumpton was here.

Gordon Murray had been commissioned by the BBC to make a second stop-motion series shortly after work on Camberwick Green had finished, but while it would be set in the same fictional locale and use the same production techniques and indeed narrator and musician, it was obvious from the outset that this would be a very different prospect to the laid-back working days of Farmer Bell and company. Set in a busy, bustling town centre, Trumpton was more colourful (though admittedly this was not obvious on the early black and white transmissions), energetic and – comparatively – noisy, set in an urban environment with a greater emphasis on transport, professions and machinery, and a large cast of characters constantly crossing each other’s paths in communal areas.

In order to achieve the right sort of pace and tone, Murray had co-written the scripts with Alison Prince, whose dangerously modern tales of transport café life in Joe had caused a minor stir amongst the Mothers doing the Watching With earlier in 1966. An entirely new cast of puppet characters was created, a number of short repeated sequences were inserted into each episode, and Freddie Phillips composed a set of decidedly more brisk and strident songs that in many cases would not have sounded out of place amongst David Bowie's Deram-era material. Ironically for a programme that would later start to look creaky and out of touch as attitudes and audience expectations evolved, back in 1967, Trumpton was probably about as modern as it got.


A couple of readers have asked why my book The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society includes articles about the first episode of Camberwick Green and the last episode of Chigley, but nothing whatsoever about Trumpton. Well, that's basically down to the hilariously tedious reason that it just wouldn't have fitted stylistically or thematically into the middle of the book (where it would have been wedged between features on Summer Chart Party and Blue Jam), and so you're getting it here instead. And if you've not already got The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, you can get it from here. Anyway, keeping in mind what we were saying about never too quickly, never too slowly...

Telephone, the seventh and 'middle' episode of Trumpton, was first seen on BBC1 on 14th February 1967, and would continue to be constantly repeated right up to 9th May 1985. Like pretty much every episode of Trumpton, it revolved around the townsfolk encountering a practical and/or technical conundrum that had to be resolved with the assistance of the local Fire Brigade; quite possibly the reason why its storylines are now recalled more vividly than the looser and more travelogue-like counterparts seen in Camberwick Green and Chigley. On this particular occasion, the practical and/or technical conundrum was all down to a couple of GPO Engineers and some excessively nosey dogs.


Like every episode of Trumpton, Telephone opens with the familiar sight of the programme's name in white text on a black splodge on a deep blue background, and what appear to be the exact same first three notes as the opening theme from Camberwick Green, presumably incorporated as part of some sort of vague Clown-skewed cross-show continuity that we are probably best not questioning. There's that celebrated unsteady zoom as Brian Cant weighs in with his familiar introduction to the clock - "steadily, sensibly, never too quickly, never too slowly, telling the time... for Trumpton!" - and the figures of town founders Sir Rufus And Lady de Trompe emerge to strike the hour and announce the start of the working day. This they do to the accompaniment of one of Freddie Phillips' best compositions Chime And Clock Theme, which, as if to underline his precision-targeted home-made musical genius, features exactly nine chimes to tally with the clockface showing nine am. PC Potter (and not PC McGarry like you thought) takes a look around the town square, which immediately bursts into life as a milk float cruises by and everyone opens up shops, sets up selling pitches and looks out of windows to the jerky, frantically-paced sound of Busy Little Market Town, which fades out just as the Mayor comes out onto the Town Hall balcony to get some fresh air.


Looking down onto the Town Square, The Mayor catches sight of carpenter Chippy Minton and his son Nibs pulling up in their pickup truck, and initiates a shouted conversation about their respective daily itineraries. Chippy and Nibs, it transpires, are here to do something unspecified but presumably wood-related for Mr. Platt the clockmaker, while The Mayor has to head back into his office to look over some paperwork at the behest of his unnveringly David Steel-like Town Clerk Mr. Troop. Top of the pile are a handful of complaints about the streetlamps in the never-glimpsed but oft-referenced George Street, prompting Mr. Troop to place a call to never-glimpsed but oft-referenced borough engineer Mr. Bolt. Unfortunately, neither Mr. Bolt nor the Mayor can hear each other properly due to some loud crackling on the line; Mr. Troop reports that this has been happening all morning, upon which they abandon any pretence of continuing to care about the state of the street lights and telephone instead for a GPO Engineer. Quite how this was any more intelligible than any of the other referenced calls is never exactly explained.


Mr. Wantage and his apprentice Fred promptly show up in their oddly-shaped van, pull up a paving slab, and sing a catchy little number about their line of work, complete with ringing phone sound effects and Rex Harrison-style 'spoken-sung' interludes. It has to be said that it does seem rather odd and jarring now to hear so many references to the GPO and 'Post Office Telephones', and it might be worth clearing your throat and giving this song an airing the next time that a privatisation-crazy politician starts blethering on about how aspirational a view of life Trumptonshire represents. It might also be worth giving it an airing to Thom Yorke and telling him that this is how you write an actual proper song with a tune and everything, but anyway...

With cables and wires sufficiently exposed and untangled, the two engineers break for lunch, but Mr. Wantage finds to his alarm that his unwrapped sandwich parcel actually contains 'Granny's birthday present'. Far too ravenous to wait until they've finished the job, he heads off home to fetch his errant lunch and leaves Fred with strict instructions not to touch anything. And bang on cue, expansively over-dressed hatmaker Miss Lovelace arrives with her three yappy Pekingese Spaniels, Mitzi, Daphne and Lulu. The overenergetic canine chums are more often than not the cause of mishaps in and around Trumpton, and sure enough, they mob poor old Fred in a quest to make off with his sandwiches, ending up with Mitzi toppling nose-first into the manhole. Fred quickly pulls her back out, but dislodges some of the wires in the process; fearful of a dressing down from the himself hardly exactly attentive to detail Mr. Wantage, and encouraged by buck-passing flattery from Miss Lovelace, he elects to take matters into his own hands and shove them back in where it looks like they should go. You can probably take a reasonable guess at what happens next.


Over in his print shop, Mr. Munnings is hard at work setting up his ink and typeface - as we are told in seemingly unstoppably intricate detail over an instrumental version of his song - to knock out some branded paper bags for greengrocer Mr. Clamp; who, what with his own song exhorting all and sundry to "come buy, come buy, come buy them from me", never seems to have missed a promotional trick. Constable Potter sticks his head round the door for no obvious reason while the bags are printing, and then promptly disappears again, which was a tad inconvenient of him as he could easily have helped avert the chain of ridiculousness that followed. As a result of Fred's copper cabling chicanery, when Mr. Munnings telephones Mr. Clamp to inform him that the bags are ready, he gets through instead to Miss Lovelace, who is none too impressed at having her time wasted with paper bag-related blather.

To add to the mounting nonsense, an impatient Dora Minton telephones Mr. Platt to inform a tardy Chippy and Nibs that their dinner is at risk of burning. Only the message is relayed instead to Captain Flack at the Fire Station, who hears the flame-related terminology and inevitably sounds the alarm. Well, they never did seem to get to tackle an actual blaze, so you can understand them jumping the gun a bit. "There, that should fetch him!", muses a riled and long-suffering-sounding Dora, blissfully unaware that Captain Flack has already flicked the big massive switch next to what close inspection reveals to be - bewilderingly - a map of Florence. Freddie Phillips' slowed-down alarm clock standing in for a fire bell sounds, and Trumpton's single most famous sequence begins.


As anyone of a certain age will be able to recall with alarming clarity and detail, the impressively heavy-looking Fire Station doors clang open, Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb slide down the pole and line up next to the engine, Captain Flack blows his whistle and conducts a quick inspection and they're off and away through the streets of Trumpton to the strains of the jaunty Firemen Bold, which you can't help but notice bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain Buffalo Springfield number. On arriving Chez Minton, they are surprised to be greeted by a placid Dora and a distinct lack of smoke. Chippy and Nibs promptly turn up, and calmly theorise that there must have been some kind of mixup with the GPO engineers, before dismissing all of this nonsense and heading indoors in search of their not yet burned dinner, in a tone that suggests an implied impatient "woman!" at the end. "Poor Captain Flack", muses Brian Cant as the picture momentarily fades to black, "he never has a proper fire to put out". No, but he gets all manner of other and probably more interesting stuff to do. AND makes Cuthbert fall in a pond.


Back in the Town Square, in a scenario that will be familiar to anyone who's ever been expected to fix a computer in their spare time, Fred is surrounded by a disgruntled mob (well, Mr. Platt, Mr. Munnings, Mr. Clamp and Mr. Troop) demanding that he dispense with the technical jargon and put everything right at once. To make matters worse, The Mayor then strolls up admonishing him for causing the Fire Brigade to be called out on a false alarm, conveniently sidestepping the fact that it wouldn't have happened if Captain Flack had elected to engage his ears, closely followed by his brain. The hapless Fred's bacon is saved by the arrival of the suspiciously late Mr. Wantage, and the intervention of Miss Lovelace, who confesses that her dogs were in fact responsible. Upon which The Mayor decides to dish out a bollocking to them instead. You would have to wonder how he ended up in high office, if it wasn't for the example set by certain real life mayors we're all too familiar with.

Anyway, everything is all sorted out quickly and easily enough and to everyone's satisfaction. So much so in fact that The Mayor invites Mr. Wantage and Fred to come along to the park and enjoy the Fire Brigade's daily band concert. Although this involves more or less the same footage as every episode of Trumpton, with the Fire Brigade bashing out their boisterous waltz on brass instruments that sound suspiciously like a double-tracked acoustic guitar, while the locals and a disconcerting influx of Camberwick Green puppets look on, we do get an additional cutaway shot showing Mr. Wantage and Fred arriving to lend an ear. Then it's back to Chime And Clock Theme, and more of those splodges carrying credits that seemed so mysterious and evocative to younger viewers (of which, it should be said, a significant number for the time are for female contributors), before fading out with not a single terrifying Clown in sight.


Even all this time later, Trumpton still resonates with an infectious energy and vibrancy. It would be more than a little misleading to adopt a default Guardian columnist position and indulge in some waffle about how this 'reflected its Swinging London origins' - no matter how fond Alison Prince may have been of loud shirts - but in a more realistic sense it was still very much a product of the background excitement of its time. Gordon Murray may not have been hanging out with Billy Nicholls at the Million Volt Rave, but all the same he was at the cutting edge of both television technology and independent film-making, and when combined with a lively contemporary setting and engaging real-world storylines - something that the actual scriptwriter seldom gets sufficient credit for - the overall effect was striking and, unsurprisingly, enduringly popular. Camberwick Green may have done the actual ground-breaking, but Trumpton built on this rather than just offering more of the same, which in a very vague and tenuous way was somewhat in line with what The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were up to with each successive single around then. Though thankfully Freddie Phillips never saw fit to enter into a public row with George Harrison and Brian Jones over who was best at 'sitars'.

So, that's Trumpton. And if you've been waiting outside for confirmation that it isn't the one with 'The Clown', then you've missed everything. You could have checked in Radio Times, you know.


If you've enjoyed this, but you haven't already got a copy of The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society - which features similar pieces on Camberwick Green and Trumpton and lots more besides - then you can get it as an eBook from here, or as a paperback from here.

Stay Alert!

Cover of the Captain Zep - Space Detective theme single on BBC Records And Tapes.

You’d probably need some sort of Space Detective to work out exactly what started off the early eighties trend for ‘intelligent sci-fi’. But whatever it was, even the most amateur of Space Detectives could prove beyond all reasonable doubt that it made for something of a renaissance of the genre and some top notch books, films, television and radio shows. On the BBC alone you got, amongst others, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, The Day Of The Triffids, Peter Davison-era Doctor Who, Blake’s 7, Radio 4’s Earthsearch, and even a couple of children’s game shows, both of which which are remembered far better than any children’s game show of the time has any right to be. And neither of which was Cheggers Plays Pop.

The Adventure Game, a Hitch-Hiker's-inspired series of logic puzzles designed to fox the combined intellect of Stilgoe’n’Craven-heavy teams of Children’s BBC-friendly celebrity contestants, is rightly and roundly celebrated anywhere you might care to look. But not so the equally fondly-recalled Captain Zep – Space Detective. But who was this Captain Zep? How did he come to attain the coveted rank of ‘Space Detective’? And what does all this have to do with Ernie Wise, cash-strapped punk rockers and a semi-naked Glynis Barber? Well, to find out, we’ll have to go to another time, another place, where the clues are indeed there for you to trace…

Paul Greenwood as Captain Zep - Space Detective

Captain Zep – Space Detective ran for two series and twelve episodes on BBC1 between 1983 and 1984, featuring quizzes based on crimes from the casebook of  the crew of Zep One, the flagship of the 21st Century’s Space Office of Law Verification and Enquiry – or S.O.L.V.E. for short. Each episode would see Captain Zep and his two assistants relate one of their past cases to an audience of youngsters sporting slicked-back hair and cumbersome orange jumpsuits; said youngsters were invited to pick up clues from the action and, following a couple of leading questions from the Captain (“So… who was the saboteur? Why was Grazarax in the Munitions Bay?"), offer their own conclusions on who the intergalactic culprits were, scribbling their answers down on a neon pink ‘magic slate’. Once the successful had been congratulated and the unsuccessful commiserated, the Captain addressed the audience at home with an additional poser about the case, inviting them to write in with their answer and, just possibly, win a S.O.L.V.E. badge of their very own.

All very ordinary sounding and indeed semi-educational sounding, but what really made Captain Zep – Space Detective stand out was that it looked like a 2000 AD strip come to life. Literally, in fact, as the archived cases of the Captain and company were achieved by superimposing the actors into a series of crudely animated futuristic watercolours of aliens, spaceships and landscapes; many of these were the work of Trevor Goring, a rising star of the comics world who would later become better known for his work on the official Torchwood strip and the feature film version of Watchmen. For such a simple idea, the effect was surprisingly well-rendered, and it’s probably no coincidence that this same technique had very recently been used for Jane, BBC2’s Glynis Barber-starring adaptation of the exploits of the thirties comic strip heroine with a penchant for losing her clothes. As coincidence would have it, one of the artists working on Jane was Paul Birkbeck, who also contributed to Captain Zep - Space Detective and - in an apparent bid to dominate the mid-eighties BBC by sheer will of pencil alone - was also responsible for the sketches seen in the titles of Miss Marple.

Captain Zep - Space Detective meets some aliens.

Perhaps surprisingly, Captain Zep - Space Detective was created by veteran gagsmith Dick Hills. With his writing partner Sid Green, American-born Hills had been a highly sought-after writer for post-war comedians, with their engagements including a long stint providing sketches for Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise (which also saw them script the duo's three sixties feature films), and contributing to Anthony Newley's notorious absurdist sitcom The Strange World Of Gurney Slade. He would later spend part of the seventies in America, working with the likes of George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson, and by the time of Captain Zep - Space Detective he was busy churning out topical one-liners for the likes of Rory Bremner and Jasper Carrott. Hills would write all six episodes of the first series, which saw the Captain recall his investigations into Death On Delos, The Lodestone Of Synope, The Plague Of Santos, The G&R 147 Factor, The Tinmen Of Coza and The Warlords Of Armagiddea.

Captain Zep was portrayed by Paul Greenwood, already well-known to viewers as the long-suffering PC 'Rosie' Penrose in a series of sitcoms penned by Roy Clarke, with Ben Ellison as disconcertingly naïve second-in-command Jason Brown, and Harriet Keevil as the more forensically-minded Professor Spiro. Unusually for a series of this nature, the three had a clearly-defined and often antagonistic relationship with each other, and also a fair amount of comic dialogue. They also had three of the bulkiest costumes ever seen on television, which were doubtless very uncomfortable under hot studio lights, with Keevil’s gaining unwitting iconic status amongst adolescent males of a certain generation due to its elaborate stylised bust-adornments.

Paul Greenwood, Tracey Childs and Ben Ellison in Captain Zep - Space Detective

Not everything about Captain Zep - Space Detective was quite so futuristic. Firmly rooted in the here and now - though, it has to be said, light years ahead of much of the BBC's children's output of the time - was the synth-heavy New Wave-styled theme song, complete with suitably clumsy rhymes like “help me help me if you can/Space Investigator Man/across the stars he’s on his way/it’s Captain Zep to save the day!”, which were delivered in a suspiciously proto-Blur vocal style. If you're thinking this sounds like the work of a long-forgotten second-wave New Wave outfit of the sort that used to crop up on Cheggers Plays Pop all the time, that's because it was the work of a long-forgotten secong-wave New Wave outfit of the sort that used to crop up on Cheggers Plays Pop all the time. A rare punk signing to EMI's predominantly prog-rock imprint Harvest, The Banned had enjoyed a couple of hits at the turn of the eighties with covers of relatively obscure sixties psych-punk numbers like Little Girl and Him Or Me. After the hits had dried up, various members had taken to recording music for use in films and TV shows, which including the BBC's long-running children's art magazine show Take Hart.

It was this association that led to them being commissioned to record the Captain Zep - Space Detective theme song, which sufficiently popular to be released as a single by BBC Records And Tapes during the first series. Credited to 'The Spacewalkers' and backed by the unrelated instrumental groover A Race Against Time, this was, along with a little-seen puzzle book, the only official (and, let's face it, basically the only) item of merchandise related to the series. However, obsessive Captain Zep collectors should note that the theme also appeared on the album BBC Children's TV Themes in 1984 (also home to the Peter Howell arrangement of Doctor Who and the full-length theme song from legendarily outlandish Japanese import Monkey, as well as numerous other delights from shows aimed at a younger audience, which is why it fetches a fair amount second hand now), while Dick Mills' effects from the 'Armagidden War Games' appeared as a track on the BBC Radiophonic Workshop album The Soundhouse, while an earlier self-titled Radiophonic Workshop collection included Mills' Adagio, which was used as backing atmospherics in the S.O.L.V.E. Academy sequences.

Students of the S.O.L.V.E. Academy in Captain Zep - Space Detective.

Broadcast early in 1983, Captain Zep – Space Detective was a hit with its intended audience and with sci-fi fans desperate for something to fill the long gap between series of Doctor Who, and a second run was commissioned for early the following year. Paul Greenwood, however, was unavailable, due to commitments for Thames TV's upcoming adaptation of The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, so he was replaced as Captain Zep – now revealed to be a title bestowed on the captain of Zep One – by Richard Morant. This was an unusual departure for an actor who was almost exclusively known for heavyweight costume dramas, though in fairness the role did require him to tackle heavyweight costumes of an altogether different kind. Harriet Keevil was also replaced by Tracey Childs as Professor Vana, while Dick Hills handed the writing duties over to Colin Bennett. One of the more eccentric figures in the dramatic arts, classically-trained Bennett was well-known to younger viewers of the BBC for playing a comedy janitor of the same name in the long-running Tony Hart-fronted art show Take Hart, and while working on Captain Zep – Space Detective he was also hard at work scripting the equally futuristic juvenile sitcom Luna for ITV. Subsequent career moves have seen him do everything from direct stage musicals to presenting the legendary off-the-cuff ITV nighttime documentary series Night Shift, placing him in the unusual position of having writing the scripts for Death Under The Sea, The Missing Agent Of Ceres, The Small Planet Of Secrets, The Sands Of Sauria, The Tree Of Life and Death By Design appear as one of the more conventional entries on his CV.

Paul Greenwood in Captain Zep - Space Detective.

Sadly, this was to be the final outing for Captain Zep – Space Detective. Although popular, it was also one of the most expensive series produced by the Children’s Department at that time, and when they were forced to make cuts to help accommodate the forthcoming launch of a BBC daytime service, it was unsurprisingly one of the first to be axed. Hapless viewers could only turn to Starstrider, ITV’s attempt to fill the void with a rather aimless sci-fi quiz fronted by Sylvester McCoy. While Ben Ellison was rarely seen on TV afterwards, Paul Greenwood, Richard Morant and Harriet Keevil still often show up in guest roles, usually in Midsomer Murders, while Tracey Childs went on to spend several years as one of the stars of the BBC's yacht-boardroom drama Howard's Way.

As for Captain Zep – Space Detective itself, as fondly remembered as it might be, there’s no sign of even a DVD release, let alone any kind of revival. We can only hope that, somewhere, the punkily-heralded ‘Man of Steel, Man of Nerve’ is looking for clues to his own mysterious cancellation in front of a giant comic strip rendering of Michael Grade’s face.

Doctor Who meets Captain Zep - Space Detective.

An earlier version of this feature originally appeared in in This Way Up magazine. You can find more about the single release of the Captain Zep - Space Detective theme in Top Of The Box, my book about BBC Records And Tapes, and more about weird, wonderful and mundane forgotten TV shows in Well At Least It's Free, Not On Your Telly and The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society.