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 article is taken from 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.
Not On Your Telly, a book collecting some of my features on lost, forgotten or censored television shows, is now available on the Amazon Kindle Store. Doctor Who fans may be interested to know that includes hefty features on The Evil Of The Daleks, The Space Pirates, The Android Invasion and a radio adaptation of the Peter Cushing Dalek Films, as well as the BBC 'Sunday Classics' serials produced by former showrunners Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. Everyone else may be interested to know that it includes similarly hefty features on Fist Of Fun, Play School, The Tyrant King, The 8:15 From Manchester, Madhouse On Castle Street, Rubovia, Bizzy Lizzy, Dear Heart, Hear'Say It's Saturday and Kelly Monteith. And, um, Spatz. In addition there are also features on the joys of mono sixties pop music, why researching old stage plays is so difficult, some of the odder part-time jobs taken by comedians in the days before arena tours, and a look at the album that inspired Britpop, Alan Klein's Well At Least It's British.
You can get Not On Your Telly from the Kindle Store by clicking here. Or, if you'd rather, the paperback is still available from here.
By late 1991, with their stint on Radio 4's weekly topical satire show Week Ending thankfully now behind them, Stewart Lee and Richard Herring were in considerable demand as writers. Significantly, December had seen the launch of The End Of The Road Show, a sketch comedy show for Radio 4 which - barring some additional material from Armando Iannucci - they had almost entirely written.
Billed as “a four-part comedy series from Radio 4’s student roadshows”, the series poked fun at the contrasting approaches of BBC Radio 1 and Radio 4, combining the boisterous 'Roadshow' traditions of the former with the more formal and less frivolous tone of the latter. The sketch material, performed by Rebecca Front, Tony Hawks, Nick Hancock and Neil Mullarkey, was generally good rather than great, but at the same time it provided an insight into the rapid development of Lee and Herring’s comedy style; indeed, many of the later staples of their act - such as Herring’s insistence on introducing himself in a strange manner - have their roots in The End Of The Road Show. Most interesting of all in retrospect, however, is the sheer irony of the central joke; Radio 4 would soon make some surprisingly successful attempts at aligning its comedy output with that of Radio 1, and Lee and Herring were responsible for perhaps the most successful of all these shows.
In July 1991, Lee and Herring had written and recorded a pilot show for Radio 4 under the title Lionel Nimrod’s Spooky World Of…, which parodied a recent trend for television programmes fixated with the paranormal and the unexplained. Neither felt that the pilot was a tremendous success, not least because Radio 4 insisted that they should present the show not as themselves but in the guise of 'popular Northern youth TV celebrity' Barry Crustings and science writer Francis Sousa, although producer Sarah Smith was sufficiently convinced of its potential to threaten to resign in protest when Radio 4 initially suggested that they would not commission a full series.
Smith’s belief in the show was strong enough to persuade Radio 4 to record a second pilot, and Lee and Herring took full advantage of the opportunity to make changes to the style and format. Recorded nearly a year after the first pilot, what would become the first edition of Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World saw the duo finally allowed to perform as themselves. This brought immediate and noticeable benefits; they sounded more comfortable when performing the material, and the natural conflict between their exaggerated stage personas (Lee the cynical and pessimistic realist; Herring the cheerfully naïve and immature idiot) infused the comedy with a believable edge, embodying the eternal struggle between science and nature as a somewhat more petty struggle between two individuals with equally ridiculous perspectives on the subject (“we must not question what we do not understand” – “but that’s the whole point of this programme”). This second pilot was adjudged to be strong enough to warrant a full six episode series, which was transmitted by Radio 4 between 8th October and 12th November 1992.
Each edition of Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World was introduced by none other than Lionel Nimrod himself, as portrayed by none other than Tom Baker. A washed-up veteran sci-fi star best known as “inventor of the Stellar Laser Ray Gun Toy, and Mackay off of ABC-TV’s Star Ark”, Nimrod was a remarkable comic creation whose fictitious curriculum vitae closely echoed those of certain real life former sci-fi stars who had been reduced to trading on their diminishing fame. A bitter and deluded washed-up 'proper' actor, Nimrod’s reminiscences of filming special effects extravaganza The Fantastic Odyssey, the seventh Star Ark movie The Search For Mackay and Spalanski’s fifteen hour epic Lancelot And Guinevere (witness to a sordid incident in which Nimrod and Spalanski joined a coven of teenage witches as 'research', ruining their careers and preventing them from ever returning to Wales), attempts to give some semblance of prestige to his recent recreations of the voyages of minor cartographers for Channel 4, reverential recollections of mysterious instructions and commandments that had been left to him by Star Ark creator Phillip Lamarr (most of which seemed to involve nothing more than ensuring that Nimrod was as far away from him as possible at all times), rueful condemnation of the youthful folly that led him to record his pop LP Lionel Nimrod’s Songs From Space and bold proclamations on man’s attempts to comprehend concepts that he cannot possibly explain (from the human subconscious to 'an elf ') were so close an evocation of the actual demeanour of such cult figures that a less knowledgeable listener could easily have mistaken him for the genuine article.
Nimrod’s invitations to “come with me now, into the swirling mists of human inadequacy” led into Lee and Herring’s own dissections of such concepts as Good And Evil, The Human Mind and Love, all examined with a mixture of traditional mythology and that which has been added around them by feature films and television. The biblical and scientific accounts of evolution were weighed against Planet Of The Apes, the route to hell in Dante’s Inferno was compared with the route to heaven (“a sort of lift”) in the BBC childrens’ sitcom Rentaghost, Nostradamus took part in a game show with that equally unsuccessful visionary, television weatherman Ian Macaskill, and HG Wells’ predictions of Things To Come were shown to have been let down by his vision of a triangular video recorder.
Other subjects of discussion included people with telekinetic powers who will only use their abilities to render cutlery useless, Martin Luther King’s other dream about a giant ant (which failed to inspire the sixties civil rights movement to quite the same extent), the proverb that “love is not only blind, but also is deaf and has no sense of touch and is stupid” in the case of attractive young women who go out with unattractive old millionaires, Horseman of The Apocalypse Pestilence’s fill-in job as a milkman, the Oracle of Rome and its close rival the Ceefax of Athens, the sinister reality behind graffiti proclaiming 'York City Are Magic', the subsequent career moved of the Naked Man and Woman seen in generations of school biology textbooks, the struggle between the human manifestations of good (the Cubs, who spend their days doing good turns and advising developing world nations on crop rotation) and evil (the scouts, who exist simply to drink cider and give Chinese burns), and elves that steal one of each pair of Ben Elton’s socks from a laundrette.
There were also plenty of jibes at the expense of Week Ending, including the revelation that the show is regarded as high surrealist art in the furthest reaches of the universe, and that if an infinite number of monkeys were given an infinite number of typewriters, they would only avoid being mistaken for one of the programme’s writers meetings by virtue of having less bodily hair and not smelling quite as much. Fascinating scientific facts detailed during the course of the series included the first successful human cloning (by Robert Smith, lead vocalist of The Cure, who managed to make hundreds of exact replicas of himself during the eighties), what would result if all of the entrails in a human body were laid end to end (a jail sentence), and the origins of the phrase “you are what you eat” in the unfortunate tale of revolutionary leader Garibaldi.
Boasting that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself… and monsters”, Lee and Herring’s love of ridiculing traditional tales and revered quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, ability to recognise why certain public figures and cultural items - such as the Sinclair ZX81 and American actor Greg Evigan - are inherently amusing, affectionate mockery of popular comic devices (“I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition” – “well you should have done, it’s the seventeenth century and they’re torturing everyone”) and simple odd juxtapositions of words (“Ian Pterodactyl was here”) made for a hugely enjoyable show that succeeded in treating the subject matter with the irreverence it deserved after so many years of earnest televisual 'study'.
The supporting roles in Lionel Nimrod's Inexplicable World were played by Lee and Herring’s former On The Hour colleagues Rebecca Front and Armando Iannucci. Both were perfectly suited to the show, and Iannucci’s performances in particular were a revelation to audiences that had previously only known him as a producer, appearing in the guise of such unlikely characters as De Montfort University’s Professor of Urine (who tells the future through the colour of the liquid – orange, for example, indicates that the subject has been drinking too much Irn Bru and will consume slightly less in future), and organist Peter Fenn, whose regular 'Believe It Or Not Spot' related bizarre statistics to the accompaniment of a selection of Easy Listening classics.
The final show in the first series, supposedly broadcast live from the ship featured in the seventies television sitcom The Love Boat, examined the mysteries of love and romance. In between charting what became of those who adhered literally to the Beatles’ proclamation that All You Need Is Love and the philosophical ramifications of Howard Jones’ mid-eighties hit What Is Love?, Lee and Herring interviewed representatives of the various forms of love (including Front as a woman who loved her God, her Queen and her fellow countrymen but found it difficult to juggle the various relationships without them finding out about each other; Iannucci as a man who believed in the medieval principle of courtly love and was infatuated with a woman he had never seen; and Peter Baynham as a man who had formed an unhealthy attachment to spaghetti), before Lee fell victim to the crudely pornographic 'song' of the mythological Sirens. Herring bemoaned the loss of his one true friend (“sometimes you can’t see what you’ve got until it’s taken away… by evil lizard flying vulture women”), but Lee returned unharmed, refreshed by a night of passion with the legendary flesh-eating creatures and armed with an understanding of the true essence of love – the smell of spaghetti.
The highly individual humour of Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World had much appeal for the same sort of audience as Radio 1's recent comedy hit The Mary Whitehouse Experience, and despite the considerable distance between Lee and Herring’s work and much of the rest of Radio 4’s output, the show found an enthusiastic audience, many of whom were a good deal younger than the station’s traditional audience. A second series of six episodes ran from 15th July to 19th August 1993, ending with a 'deus ex machina' appearance by Lionel Nimrod, turning the Stellar Laser Ray Gun Toy on Lee and Herring after having finally been driven insane by the haunting gravity of Phillip Lamarr’s words.
This was not quite the end of the Inexplicable World; Radio 1 had been sufficiently impressed by the show to repeat four editions of the second series in their regular half hour comedy slot in August, commencing their run before the series had actually finished on Radio 4. In addition to recognising that Lionel Nimrod’s Inexplicable World deserved far wider recognition, this also suggested that Lee and Herring would find a comfortable home on the station. By the time that the final episode of the second series went out on Radio 4, Lee and Herring and Sarah Smith had been commissioned to produce a pilot show for Radio 1.
This is an abridged excerpt from Fun At One - The Story Of Comedy At BBC Radio 1, which has tons more on Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Armando Iannucci and many, many others besides. You can get Fun At One as a paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Fun At One, the story of comedy at BBC Radio 1, is now available on the Kindle Store. It's a complete history of all things amusing on the BBC's pop station, all the way from Kenny Everett messing about with tape loops in the late sixties, right up to Dan And Phil and their 'Internet Takeover'. And along the way there's plenty on Chris Morris, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, Lee & Herring, Viv Stanshall, Collins & Maconie, Armando Iannucci, Vic Reeves, Victor Lewis-Smith, John Shuttleworth, Mark & Lard and many, many more. Yes, even Smashie & Nicey.
What's more, it's been very very slightly updated, with a show I missed the first time around, and even more details of commercial releases of Radio 1 comedy. Yes, Hector Spankfield is at large again...
You can get Fun At One from the Kindle Store by clicking here. Or, if you'd rather get the paperback to sit alongside The Mary Whitehouse Experience Encyclopedia and Hmmm Baby, then you can find that here.
If you’re a fan of Gene Roddenberry’s Dreamgate DSV - and there must be some out there, as indeed there must be such a series, probably - it’s no good moaning about the gap between ‘seasons’. If your withdrawal symptoms are really that bad, you’ve always got the spinoff series, the DVDs, the novels, the comics, the ‘webisodes’, the soundtrack albums, the coffee mugs, the dinner jackets and the submarine to fall back on. And if you’re really really stuck, you can start your own online fan forum and argue until you’re blue in the face with headcases who understand neither the programme nor how to formulate proper sentences.
But it wasn’t always like this. Not all that long ago, there was no Torchwood, no Heroes 360, and no Play Nick Cutter’s ‘Spot The Anomaly Game’ On Your Mobile Phone. Mainly because there was no Primeval, Heroes or revived Doctor Who, but that’s by the by. Before the home entertainment revolution, if your favourite show was off the air you just had to wait for it to come back. And wait. And, if it was The Tripods, wait some more.
If you were extremely lucky, there might be a handful of awkwardly-scheduled repeats, and if you were very rich you might even be able to buy two and a half scrappily-edited episodes on video, but mostly it was a case of trying to find something to fill the seemingly-endless gap. Which is where other completely unrelated examples of science fiction came in. No matter how much you may have been missing Kerr Avon and company, there was always something else around on television or radio (or indeed the cinema) if you looked hard enough. A stroll around your local library would reveal all manner of novels with lurid yet still laughable covers by writers with exotically American-sounding names and superfluous middle initials. And in a real emergency, there were always those books about Black Holes and Peter Davison’s Book Of Alien Planets that well-meaning relatives had bought you on being told you liked ‘space’.
Much of this Substitute Sci-Fi - and quite rightly in most cases - has been long since forgotten about. Everyone will still have their own fondly-remembered examples, though, and there’s a small amount that deserves to be remembered as more than simply what you did to while away time during that pesky eighteen-month Doctor Who ‘hiatus’. Maybe some of it’s even due a revival, possibly even with ‘webisodes’ of its own. Here are a couple of shows, books, films and, erm, card games that this particular writer would like to see dusted down and given some long overdue appreciation.
The Stainless Steel Rat
Before Red Dwarf, before Terry Pratchett, even before Douglas Adams, there was only one name in sci-fi/comedy crossover - Harry Harrison. His wickedly satirical tales of futuristic conman James Bolivar diGriz, the ‘Stainless Steel Rat’ of the title who commits his crimes in the name of entertainment, began with the first novel in 1961 and had clocked up an impressive ten instalments (not to mention a board game, a strip in 2000AD, and a totally unhinged parody of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books) by the time of the most recent to date in 1999. Along the way he’s got married, overthrown a dictator, joined a circus, and been coerced into countless time-travelling alien-battling missions by his law enforcing arch-enemies The Special Corps. If you’re thinking all of this sounds familiar then you’re entirely right - The Rat, whether knowingly or not, is the template for all of the science fiction anti-heroes that have become so beloved of audiences since, from Zaphod Beeblebrox to Captain Jack Harkness and beyond (there’s even a suspicious amount of a certain Doctor detectable in there too). At one time libraries were absolutely heaving with the books, which were eagerly borrowed by withdrawal symptom-suffering fans once they were finally allowed in the ‘adult section’, and although their following has since dwindled and some aren’t currently in print, they sold in massive numbers at the time and aren’t hard to find second hand. Harry Harrison’s written countless other books worth checking out too, including the closely-related (if slightly more straight-faced) Deathworld novels, the military-baiting Bill The Galactic Hero series, overpopulation thriller Make Room! Make Room! (later loosely adapted for the big screen as Soylent Green), and the utterly absurd parodies of a certain secret agent show, The Man From P.I.G. and The Man From R.O.B.O.T..
You’re probably racking your brains in total bafflement at the name, but time was when Radio 4’s enduring sci-fi serial Earthsearch was a very big deal indeed. So much so in fact that its fame spread beyond radio to encompass spinoff novels, cassette releases, a stage play and a frankly unlistenable sound effects album (though that Inner Airlock Door Open And Close is a real groover). James Follett’s tales of the crew of the starship Challenger and their quest to discover planets suitable for human colonisation have a suitably bleak and isolated atmosphere and were very much in the ‘intellectual sci-fi’ style that the BBC in particular favoured in the late seventies/early eighties (think Blake’s 7, only with slightly more gripping storylines), and while they may seem a little wordy for modern tastes and the crew may despite their non-visual nature be clearly over-bearded, like the contemporaneous Radio 4 adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings - in which many of the Earthsearch cast also appeared - they really did connect with their target audience at the time and are fondly remembered by a surprisingly large contingent of devotees. Follett also wrote a number of other similar serials for Radio 4 including Rules Of Asylum, Light Of A Thousand Suns and The Destruction Factor, and he wasn’t the only one - the station produced many other sci-fi serials and plays around this time, most notably Aliens In The Mind, written by legendary Doctor Who scribe Robert Holmes and starring the impressive pairing of Vincent Price and Peter Cushing.
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds
It started as a jingle composed for a Lego commercial, and ended up as one of the biggest-selling albums of the seventies. For all its apparent mass-marketed populism, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of War Of The Worlds is effectively the then-recent and decidedly non-commercial trend towards concept albums and symphonic ‘soundscapes’ given a quick polish and taken to its most slickly commercial extreme; a kind of evil twin to Tubular Bells if you want to be poetic about it. And yet, despite all this, there was still something about the sonic retelling of HG Wells’ novel, ‘starring’ the likes of Richard Burton, David Essex, Phil Lynott and Julie Covington, that drew sci-fi starved genre devotees towards it long after it had finished its dominance of the album charts. Viewed as a whole it’s clearly a load of dreary prog-rock nonsense, but time has been kinder to this than it has been to most dreary prog-rock nonsense, and there’s an amused postmodern thrill to be had from the overambition of the project, not to mention a genuine musical thrill from some of the more inspired orchestral passages. Some may rightly point towards the superior Poe/Asimov-adapting efforts by The Alan Parsons project from which the whole idea was ‘borrowed’, and as such albums go this writer may infinitely prefer the more quirky and melodic tongue-in-cheek eco-thriller Consequences by Godley And Creme and Peter Cook, but Jeff Wayne’s moneyspinning take on the whole strange phenomenon is worth another listen. Well, one, maybe.
Low Budget Sci-Fi Films On Television
These days any old sci-fi film that comes along has one eye on the BAFTAs whilst amping up those scary-noise-and-discordant-orchestra-and-high-speed-jerky-camera-action-oh-look-it’s-gone-black-and-white bits, but time was when the entire genre could be broken up into two subdivisions - Star Wars and Everything Else. And the natural habitat for Everything Else was, of course, on television on a Bank Holiday afternoon. How about the endearingly ramshackle Battle Beyond The Stars, famously shot in five weeks on sets where the paint was still drying yet somehow as enjoyable as enjoyable hokum gets? Then there’s Hammer’s lone Julie Driscoll-soundtracked excursion into science fiction Moon Zero Two, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s live action-debuting dry run for UFO that was Doppelganger, Disney’s uncharacteristically downbeat killer robot-festooned The Black Hole, Ralph Bashki’s oddball post-apocalyptic animated comedy Wizards, the influential-for-about-three-minutes Tron, The Last Starfighter, Flight Of The Navigator, Hangar 18, The Philadelphia Experiment, *batteries not included, Short Circuit, The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, that one about the first passenger flight to the moon, that other one about the alien that helps the high school nerd bag a date with the head cheerleader, and so many more that may not even have had names in the first place. Not one masterpiece between them, and yet they were always such a welcome sight when found sandwiched between some ice-dancing spectacular and that Guinness Book Of Records thing that David Frost used to do. You don’t see them much any more, sadly, but maybe that’s because they’re probably all available on DVD in those ‘All Films £1.99’ bins. And we haven’t even got started on those illicitly-sneaked from the video shop ‘adult’ treats like Inseminoid and My Science Project...
Keeping along roughly the same lines, how many people out there went to great lengths to sneakily record this briefly notorious American big-budget miniseries (or, more daringly still, surreptitiously stayed up to watch it on the black and white portable) in the knowledge that they would never ‘officially’ be allowed to watch it? As a basic story V was one of the most clichéd in the sci-fi book, little more than a not particularly major spin on the time-honoured Evil Aliens Disguised As Kindly Humans Invade By Stealth And Crusading Journalist Uncovers The Truth format. V, however, had serious money and a crack team of scriptwriters behind it - not to mention short-lived lust icon Jane Badler as the primary antagonist - and did everything with such flair and panache that it was hard not to become hooked. Surprisingly for an American TV series of its vintage, there was a good deal of subtle and genuinely funny humour too, not least the notorious scene in which one of the carnivorous invaders scoffed a lab rat. V was a big enough hit to give rise to a second miniseries, V: The Final Battle, which proved to be misleadingly titled as it was followed in turn by a full-blown weekly series, which surprisingly fell flat on its face and was never recomissioned. The whole lot is now available on DVD, which you can pretend to be watching illegally in the middle of the night if you want to recreate the full original viewing thrill.
The Boy From Space
One of those perennial ‘what was the name of that one where...?’ TV shows, this filmed serial about a stranded alien on Earth was shown (and indeed endlessly repeated) as part of the long-running BBC Schools language development-themed show Look And Read. And although trying to follow it involved what seemed like hours of sitting through smug letter-embossed orange puppet presenter Wordy and his even more tedious still human helper droning on in their space station about what happens when you place vowels next to each other, it was well worth the effort because this was scary and atmospheric stuff, with the hapless garbled bleep-spouting spaceboy unable to communicate to his young human discoverers that he was being relentlessly pursued by a sinister ‘Thin Man’ (played by regular Doctor Who guest actor John Woodnutt). Until they worked out a way of deciphering... well, that would be spoiling it, although Wordy was sufficiently impressed by the method to refuse to shut up about it for what seemed like a century. The Boy From Space was written by Richard Carpenter of Catweazle, Robin Of Sherwood and The Ghosts Of Motley Hall fame, and is all the more impressive given that he was asked specifically to use no more than a couple of hundred basic words throughout the ten-part serial.
Captain Zep - Space Detective
While its close associate The Adventure Game is rightly celebrated, this other post-Douglas Adams Children’s BBC sci-fi game show seems to have sadly been forgotten about. Every week Captain Zep – “a man of steel, a man of nerve” as the bafflingly New Wave-tinged theme song had it - would relate one of his outer space case histories to a studio audience of youngsters from the ‘SOLVE Academy’ via a series of crudely animated watercolour renditions of alien beings and alien planets, stopping the narrative at a key point to ask if the audience could solve the case from the clues already given (“So who was the saboteur? Why was Grazarax in the Munitions Bay?”). The studio audience got to write their answers down on those ‘Magic Writing Slate’ things that wiped clean when you ran the plastic bar along them, but more excitingly you, the viewer at home, got to write in with your answer, and if you were one of the fifty lucky winners picked out from the proverbial ‘hat’, you’d receive a SOLVE badge all of your own. As dull as that may sound on the printed page, this was compulsive viewing at one point. A special mention here for the unnervingly uniform futuristic fashions (slicked-back hair and orange and yellow jumpsuits with unwieldy collars seemed to be the order of the day here), and for the fact that the actor playing the Captain changed between series, leading to a heated exchange of opinions on the BBC’s junior viewer correspondence show Take Two.
So you’ve read all your books, there’s nothing on the radio or TV, and you couldn’t possibly bear to hear Justin Hayward bleating “the chances of anything coming from Mars” one more time... how about a nice game of cards? Union Jack-logoed game-makers Waddington’s have a not entirely undeserved reputation for cheapskate ‘second division’ efforts, not least on account of their apparently fondness for ‘worthy’ (i.e. dull) dice-based Ludo variants and the dreaded inevitable Christmas present The Games Compendium, but sometimes they managed to pull something spectacular out of the Scrabble bag and this insanely addictive Game Of Outer Space was a prime example. The premise was ridiculously simple - draw random cards from a pile to assemble a very long Space Cruiser out of individual parts. But throw in a derived element of Top Trumps which allowed those in possession of the correct armaments to pilfer vital components from other players’ vehicles, and you end up with something almost disproportionately fun, fast-moving and competitive. Complete and un-scuffed copies are in high demand on certain auction sites, and it’s also worth remarking on how several of the illustrated cards had a strangely photographic quality to them. Did someone out there build their own ‘Starship’ for real??
If you were feeling a bit more ‘space age’ than a mere card game could cater for, you could always leave Starships in its box and have a go at this futuristic strategy game for the 48k ZX Spectrum. The primary aim of Star Trader was to make as much money as possible whilst zooming between planets to barter with large-headed Portland Bill lookalikes, dodging intergalactic pirates along the way, and making the difficult choice between a continental breakfast and the more expensive and score-depleting Full English. Slow and reliant on mathematical skills it may have been, but it boasted one crucial element that most other early home computer strategy games lacked; it did actually involve some degree of interaction with the game player, unlike the likes of Football Manager and The Great Space Race which basically required you to sit back and watch them playing themselves. It is perhaps testament to the former high status of this long forgotten game that manufacturers Bug-Byte Software still have their own star on hometown Liverpool’s long-abandoned ‘Walk of Fame’.
Redubbed Japanese Anime
One of the forgotten facets of the pre-Home Video age was that there was literally no market for some sorts of films and shows. Never was this truer than in the case of cult Japanese animation; though massively popular and moneyspinningly merchandised in its homeland, and indeed often raved about in genre magazines over here, there was no real viable outlet for it and so it largely went unseen. That is, until, some enterprising Americans got their hands on certain long-running TV series and chopped and changed them around to make them more suited to the sensitivities of English-speaking audiences. Thus it was that Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, shorn of all references to transvestism, schizophrenia and guards lacerated by flying metal birds, and with two much-derided comedy robots inserted in their place and mental space-age disco music bolted on, became the phenomenally popular Battle Of The Planets. With their curiosity aroused by this rearranged glimpse of an exciting world of entertainment they knew nothing about, said audiences also took with great enthusiasm to Star Fleet (or Bomber-X in old, erm, yen), and Ulysses 31 (Ulysses 31, believe it or not) amongst others. Nowadays, with the shelves of the average high street music store positively heaving with Manga films about someone going ‘a-a-aaaa’ when a bird’s eye glints or something, you can get the original versions with handy subtitles, but when it comes down to it we all initially fell in love with the mangled versions and don’t you forget it. And anyway, G-Force aren’t half as much fun without 7-Zark-7 and 1-Rover-1.
This is an extract from Well At Least It's Free, a collection of some of my writing on Cult and Archive TV, including features on Doctor Who, The Secret Service, Hardwicke House, Tales From Europe, Trumpton and many more. You can get it in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
Well At Least It's Free, a book collecting some of my features on archive TV and pop music, is now available on the Amazon Kindle Store. Doctor Who fans may be interested to know that it includes huge features on the sixties historical stories, The Underwater Menace, The Daleks' Master Plan and the entire Russell T. Davies era. Everyone else may be interested to know that it also includes huge features on Lost, Heroes, The Flashing Blade, Primeval, Ashes To Ashes, The Secret Service, Bagpuss, Watch With Mother, Zokko! and lots more besides, including a rundown of all of the BBC's sci-fi/supernatural-themed children's series from The Phoenix And The Carpet to The Watch House, and what would have been the booklet for the cancelled DVD release of Hardwicke House. There's also some handy tips on what to do if you suddenly find yourself surrounded by a marching band in Quality Street getup.
You can get Well At Least It's Free from the Kindle Store by clicking here. Or, if you'd rather, the paperback is still available from here.
As everybody in the early sixties knew only too well, there was one group of celebrities whose star status eclipsed all others. Who inspired a 'mania' so huge and all-enveloping that it consigned their contemporaries to pop cultural historical footnote status. Whose vocalisations and distinctive appearance were emulated in playgrounds across the nation and eventually across the world. Whose artistic endeavours changed highbrow and lowbrow culture so fundamentally that their collective name became an actual word in its own right. And who were so popular and successful that they knocked Bruce Forsyth making something out of 'leftovers' into a cocked novelty oversized chef's hat.
But unfortunately for TV Times, The Daleks were on the BBC, and so they had to settle for giving relentless coverage to The Beatles instead. Here are just a few of their spurious attempts to pad out their pages with tenuous excuses for printing a photo of one or more of the Fab Four, to the delight of those who just couldn't get enough of John, 'Dinners', George and Ringo. Even if they had to wade through acres of features on the holiday plans of the cast of Ghost Squad: G.S.5 to get there...
Conveniently for magazine editors, the fact that there were four Beatles allowed them to spin any given feature out across a month's worth of issues, even if this resulted in each 'part' amounting to little more than two gigantic photos and three words. From the confusingly titled Hancock-evoking TV Times series 'Reada Beatla Week', here's the entry on 'Our' Ringo, in which the other three indulge in some trademark surreal dialogue about how he used to play the bins on the drums or something and take delivery of, quote, "a bottle of whisky and a crate of 'coke'". Note also the entirely coincidental and not at all stage-managed interruption from fellow Brian Epstein protege Billy J. Kramer. Anyway, join them again next week for another Fab Four profile and a special 'Beatle Bonus'. Hope it's Carnival Of Light!
Ringo Starr was lucky enough to have a name that lent itself punningly to pretty much every magazine feature imaginable. Here he is making an appearance in - boom boom - TV Times celebrity horoscope box-out 'Star Destiny', in which they correctly and uncannily deduce a dazzling array of facts that everybody on the entire surface of the planet already knew. Even their one attempt at predicting the future wouldn't impress anyone bar gullible buffoons; it was hardly a daring leap of faith to suggest that The Beatles might release a successful new album 'early' the following year. Meanwhile, not a single mention of The Concert For Bangladesh, Ognir Rrats or FROM THE EIGHTY FOURTH OF OCTEMBER, NO MORE AUTOGRAPHS.
Earlier on in their career, The Beatles were often to be found larking around with full-time comedians on television variety shows, and here TV Times' 'slice of life'-friendly 'lighter side of showbiz' reporter Dave Lanning paired them up with hot ITV stars (though they had to go to the BBC to become properly famous) Etic and Ern for a meeting of humorous minds that he presumably hoped would be dripping with rib-tickling comedy gold. Sadly it was nothing of the sort, though it's interesting to see Ernie Wise making an innocent gag that would doubtless turn him into the target of ferocious Twitter outrage if made today. Unless he said it when they went to Thames at the end, of course. Anyway, did The Beatles have their very own board game? Erm, yes they did, but that's by the by. Listen to Looks Unfamiliar. Thanks.
Essentially a Ready Steady Go! that you could take home to meet your parents, weekly family-friendly pop extravaganza Thank Your Lucky Stars was once one of ITV's biggest shows, and considered so pivotal and essential to the average beat combo's chances of pop success that its subsequent forgotten status is little short of bewildering. Certainly The Beatles continually fell over themselves in an apparent attempt to make as many appearances on it as possible. That, however, is an inexcusably flimsy pretext for this competition, in which lucky readers could win their very own Thank Your Lucky Stars t-shirt if they could think up a funny enough caption for this photo of a crazed teenage girl trying to grab the disembodied lower half of a 'Beatle Suit' while George attempts to make his escape by vaulting over a giant shortbread biscuit. Which, you can't help but notice, is even larger than the actual competition itself.
Occasionally, even TV Times would have to run a slightly more substantial feature on The Beatles, and on this occasion we get their long-serving press man Derek Taylor dishing the dirt on why John stole his trousers, explaining why they hate 'mayors', and finally revealing the real reason why Ringo collapsed just before a massive world tour. Probably got asked for too many autographs.
One of THE faces of Swinging London, by the mid-sixties Jane Asher had caused a sensation in The Masque Of Red Death and Alfie, become a major shareholder in Private Eye, and thoroughly immersed herself in the Capital's avant-garde art set, introducing her Beatle paramour to pop-artists, electronic musicians and classical ensembles that would have a profound effect on his songwriting and his band's recordings. To TV Times, however, she was simply 'Paul's Girl'. Not that we should really have expected anything better of them, mind...
As so often happened, the Great Beatle Debate soon spilled over into the TV Times letters page. Above you can see a staunch Beatlesceptic foaming at the mouth and demanding his Light Entertainment 'sovereignty' back, fundamentally misunderstanding the point that the 'Hit Parade' is compiled from statistics based on which records are selling in the largest quantities to the most people in the process. There's also some desperately unfunny satire at the expense of, apparently, electricity. It won't be doing THAT again! Next up is a bewildering pro-Beatle missive from someone who, it seems, was enjoying one of their performances so much that it made her keep knitting. And finally, one of those perplexing 'I'm funny, me!' efforts that you can still find in TV listings magazine letters pages to this day, from someone who assumes that combining reference comedy with a joke that nobody in the universe including them actually understands makes them into a comic genius. You will find absolutely none of that around here, of course. Not before The Grimleys is on, anyway.
And finally, here's a special Beatle Quiz, with twenty five fiendishly difficult questions to test your knowledge of the Fab Four. The answer to number seventeen is 'Warrien'.
Yeah, you can't fool us, Ian Butlin. That hottie with the suspiciously-angled pout won't actually BE at any of your holiday camps, will she? No matter how much your 'free coloured brochure' might try to suggest otherwise. And where in the name of sanity is Mosney? Anyway, join us again next time, when we'll be taking a look at some of the ways in which TV Times attempted to expand its readership by reaching out to our furry friends...