TV's Newest Series

One thing that those big walloping housebrick-sized books about the 'end' of 'the sixties' never get round to mentioning is the decline of ITC. Once ITV's in-house powerhouse of dynamic fashion-driven action serials, when everything started sliding towards loudly-patterened curtains and mirror-disc top hats and all the hippies jumped in a bin to hide from the BBC Schools Diamond or something, ITC lost their small-screen hitmaking direction in a way that their Jaguar-swerving lead characters sure would never have done.

Perhaps reflecting the more street-level politicised nature of the times, as the seventies rolled on audiences were increasingly looking for something grittier and grimier featuring detectives who wrestled with real 'issues' rather than billionaire supervillains and dangerous new inventions, which ITC seemingly took as their cue to move in completely the opposite direction. They may have seen in the decade strongly with UFO, Jason King and The Persuaders! - all of which at least technically began production in 1969 - but within a couple of years they'd moved on to such unmemorable fare as Millicent Martin-starring swinging air hostess solving crimes in her spare time effort From A Bird's Eye View, a vision of jet-setting glamour that was already jarringly several years out of step with the times, and bizarre co-production funding-driven Gerry Anderson-helmed detective series The Protectors, which even the cast and crew later admitted that they never quite understood. They also cut the average running time of their shows from an hour to thirty minutes, presumably in pursuit of some unfathomable Stateside 'syndication' deal, which hardly even gave them the chance to develop properly as action-driven television shows, let alone catch on with audiences. All in all, ITC's single biggest success of the time was The Adventures Of Rupert Bear, a long way and yet only a few years from their triumphantly lording it over the Saturday Night schedules with Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons and The Prisoner.

Times change, though, and nowadays even the biggest and boringest of TV flops of yesteryear has a reasonably profitable degree of cult appeal. Good, bad and The Adventurer alike, you'll now find every last ITC series on DVD, on Bluray, and on repeat channels on an unending loop. With one very glaring exception. First seen in 1974 (though some sources insist that the two-part pilot The Mountain Witch was shown as a one-parter in an hour-long slot in 1973), Skiboy starred seventeen year old Steve Hudis - son of Carry On films creator Norman - as Bobbie Noel, a skiing instructor who solved crimes, mounted daring rescue missions and defused wartime bombs in the Swiss Alps in his spare time. And that was literally the only skill and advantage he had at his disposal - skiing. In crimefighting terms, that makes him about as useful as Nathan Petrelli.

One area where young Bobby's quaterpiping skills should have proved an advantage, though, was in attracting viewers. At the time, fuelled by spectacular Olympic displays, glossy glamorous books like Stein Eriksen's Come Ski With Me, and World Of Sport's need to fill fifteen billion hours every Saturday with stuff that they could actually get the rights to, skiing was seen as pretty much the high altitude of thrill-packed glamour and sophistication. Ski chases and Alpine romances were a regular feature in James Bond films, while the Milk Tray man wouldn't even have considered delivering a single Strawberry Temptation without getting in a spot of downhill carving along the way. 'Action' comics like Tiger and Hotspur were crammed with storylines about their stunt plane pilot/record-breaking sportsman characters making emergency landings in hazardous off-piste areas, and their readers also thrilled to the endless procession of ski-themed Fisher Price Adventure People playsets. Toblerone was still the classy 'expensive chocolate' gift of choice, and it was unusual to see a European-made soft porn film that didn't feature a spot of hot Ski Lodge lovin'. Erm, apparently.

There was more than enough behind the scenes ambition to pull this off too. Skiboy was masterminded by producer Derrick Sherwin, who had recently pulled off a successful full colour relaunch of the floundering Doctor Who - including casting Jon Pertwee - and cameraman Charles de Jaeger, who had worked on some of the early Quatermass serials and was also primarily responsible for the infamous Panorama Spaghetti Harvest hoax. Under the letterhead-friendly auspices of 'Skiboy Productions', they were basically handed a huge wodge of co-production cash and told to go off and make a series on location to capitalise on this most intangible of crazes; only a couple of years later, they'd doubtless have done it as a martial-arts themed show called 'Dragonboy', which just goes to show what a huge potential audience they had. And they were given all this on the basis of what Sherwin recalls as a two-paragraph pitch, and the belief that a combination of their experience and the sheer glamour and exoticness of the setting would make for a winning formula. It was like Heaven's Gate, Neither Fish Nor Flesh and The Contrabulous Fabtraption Of Professor Horatio Hufnagel all rolled into one. And about as successful as any of them too.

Is this really fair though? Does Skiboy really deserve its... well, it doesn't even really have a reputation, does it. Does Skiboy deserve its obscurity? There's only one way to find out - to do something that possibly nobody at all has done since the scattered repeats finally took an Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards-style jump into oblivion in the late eighties, and actually watch an episode...

Written by Derrick Sherwin himself, Hot Ice opens with a pair of standard issue big-coated seventies 'heavies' more or less shouting "BLAH BLAH SECRET PLAN" as they approach the ski lodge - to the accompaniment of some fancy wah-wah guitar and electric piano - in search of someone to guide them up a nearby mountain. While they do so, Bobbie and his winsome fellow instructor stroke love interest Sadie pass by unwittingly in the background, chasing their bone-pursuing pet dog Gruff and uttering some conveniently foreshadowing dialogue about how "thieves always bury their loot". Resort head honcho Claire is reluctant to assign any of her staff to guide them up what turns out to be called Monk's Fall, pointing out that it's completely inaccessible in winter, but clearly has some suspicions about their motives for wanting to visit the 'beautiful' Chalet Blanc; and not without good reason, as once they're back outside, the flatter-nosed 'heavy' announces that he'll find someone to take them "even if I have to use some... persuasion", adding rather obvious-statingly that he'll "kill anyone who tries to stop us".

Anyone who knows their ITC will be aware that this is usually the moment when the opening titles kick in, and lo and behold we're promptly treated to some startling footage of Bobbie skidding down slopes and hurtling through the air, to the accompaniment of the truly unhinged theme song. Written by Anthony Isaac, who was not exactly noted for his subtlety and restraint in the art of small screen show-openers, this features a brass-led disco-funk combo whipping up a storm whilst a string section play as if running on an overload of adrenaline and some harmonising girls belt out "SKI-BOY! SKI-I-I-I-I-YEE-BOY" at appropriate intervals. If nothing else, the series is worth revisiting for this thrillingly alarming piece of music alone, which is uncannily close to the sound that Air would later turn into a global sensation; and as the series was actually rather popular in France, where it was broadcast as A Skis Redoubles! -  a more or less untranslatable title which basically means nobody skis more than him - it's not beyond the bounds of possibility that they might have been tuning in.

The 'heavies' take their coats off menacingly and approach Peter Stringfellow-esque ski instructor Jean, who rejects their substantial offers of money and sternly informs them of the story of how Monk's Fall got its name. It's exactly how you suspect it got it. Back outside, there's some more conspicuous exposition about how they have to get there before a fellow criminal is released from prison and "we can't wait... and we won't". With a menacing growl of slap bass, this is followed by some lengthy footage of them skiing and arguing, more or less confirming the suspicion that the pair are played by stuntmen rather than full-time actors. Bobbie and Sadie, watching from the top of a nearby slope, are also suspicious of them, but for very different reasons; they've noticed the ne'er-do-wells watching them, though not closely enough to get wind of the plot to kidnap Gruff to ensure their assistance. And sure enough, once they've gone for a nice sit down in the lodge, the hapless mutt is tempted away with a rather inflexible-looking chop and bundled into the boot of a car.

Bobbie and Sadie head out to look for the errant pooch, and split up after about eight seconds, upon which Bobbie is promptly approached by the suspicious characters, who persuade him to help them in exchange for Gruff's safety in the manner of Dino and Luigi Vercotti. Early the next morning, Sadie can't find her dashing chum, and that's because he's already headed out to help guide the crooks on their treacherous journey, which takes in some genuinely hazardous-looking ice-climbing, occasioning the nervier of the 'heavies' to throw a momentary panic and refuse to move any further; "then stay there", adds his more menacing chum, "you'll either fall off, or freeze to death".

Back at the lodge, Claire, Sadie and Jean are busily comparing notes about Bobbie's disappearance, Gruff's disappearance and their encounters with the two sinister interlopers, but bewilderingly manage to conclude that none of them are in any way linked. They're in for a surprise, though, as Gruff has somehow managed to tunnel his way out of the hut where the villains had stashed him, and bounds up to them like some snow-drenched Lassie trying to alert them to the situation. It's only at this point that Claire realises that she recognises the men and that they're actually dangerous criminals who'd been up to no good in the area a couple of years previously; surely you'd actually have to make an effort not to remember that?! A lengthy display of skiing across Monk's Fall follows before the trio arrive at the Chateau, with the bad guys electing to shoot the padlock off the door when they find it's frozen shut. "That was no hunting rifle!", exclaims Jean from some considerable distance away, informing Sadie to call the authorities as he races off in his car.

After Bobbie is unconvincingly thrown to the floor, the 'heavies' start chiselling open the wall and find a cache of stolen diamonds - "the only ice on this mountain that's hot!" - but while they're babbling some rubbish about the ghosts of the old monks hiding it, Bobbie makes his escape and deftly skies not only around their gunshots but with sufficient verve to cause the snivelling smuggler to tumble down the mountainside. Every action series from around this time was required by law to have a scene featuring a helicopter, and sure enough, that's how Jean, Sadie and a snow-copper in a furry hat arrive on the scene; the less easily dissuaded bad guy tries firing on them but they zoom in close enough to make him lose his balance, upon which Bobbie races up and literally skis the gun out of his hand. You don't get that in Sons Of Anarchy.

Back at the lodge, Gruff and Bobbie are both eagerly tucking into breakfast when Claire suggests that he's likely to receive a reward; like some slalom-friendly Alberto Frog, Bobbie announces that he wants the biggest ice cream sundae Sadie's ever seen, and - in as standard issue an ITC closing gag as it's possible to get - as a special treat he's going to let her watch him eat it. Then there's some really rather thrilling closing titles, in which Bobbie races down a slope, slicing up huge clouds of snow and zigzagging through what look like real-life skiiers, before pausing, grinning at the camera in close-up, and whizzing off across the horizon into the invisible distance... and that's Skiboy.

Never exactly the star of the TV slopes - some regions would hastily shunt it into their weekday children's schedules, while all that Look-In could find to say to promote it was that it was 'TV's Newest Series' - poor old Skiboy never quite made the jump to a second series. Before long it had become TV's Forgottenest Series, to the extent that only just over a decade later, the famously exhaustive fanzine Time Screen overlooked it entirely in a massive retrospective of ITC scriptwriter Dennis Spooner's career. ITC looked as though they were finding their feet again afterwards, with Space: 1999 and Return Of The Saint, but other ITV companies had stolen their thunder with the likes of The Professionals and The Sweeney. ITC's response to this was a significant and ambitious change of direction, turning their attention towards grittier and harder-hitting feature films; a plan which was derailed by their washing their hands of the already-completed The Long Good Friday, and then sunk completely by Raise The Titanic.

Given that it's quite possibly the first thing that anyone has said about it from that day to this, the first thing to say about Skiboy is that it's not actually a bad series. In fact it's actually rather charming and enjoyable, and certainly a lot more fun than Spyder's Web or The Zoo Gang to name a couple of contemporaneous ITC offerings. True, it's hardly The Singing Detective, and the all-too-obvious desire to make it as 'family friendly' as possible leaves it feeling a bit on the lightweight side, but it looks amazing and zips along at a fair old pace, and sometimes, that's all you want from a television programme. Viewers at the time might not have wanted it, but that's not really a good enough reason to leave it languishing on the archive shelves; after all, they didn't want The Strange World Of Gurney Slade either.

Skiboy isn't just a half-decent not-even-half-remembered action series from a lost age of television, though; it's also a fascinating snapshot of that lost age of television, and indeed in some ways of the world around it. It's a textbook example of how shows were commissioned and made in the days before focus groups and tone meetings, when anyone with a proven track record could pitch a basic idea, and more than likely be handed a wodge of cash and told to go off and bring home the televisual bacon; which admittedly Skiboy didn't exactly manage to do but they were at least allowed to try before failing. It's also a vivid depiction of the last gasp of that sixties and seventies fascination with jet-setting Eurocentric glamour, before harsh economic realities and The Sex Pistols saying 'BARSTARD' at Bill Grundy moved the sociolcultural goalposts and the entire world went on to washed-out 16mm ITN newsfilm. On top of all that, thanks to the combination of dazzling location footage and equally dazzling fluorescent Alpine fashions captured on garish oversaturated film stock, it doesn't even look like any other TV show of the same vintage; if anything, it looks closer to those films that you'd stumble across on SAT1 and Bravo at a million o'clock in the morning like Modesty Blaise, Vampyros Lesbos and that German one about the three girls who stole a speedboat and a cine camera and... um... sorry, you were saying? Anyway, the cold hard fact remains that no matter how many column inches of ecstatic raving-over the latest HBO/AMC/Showtime/They're Just Making These Up Now heavyweight drama might inspire, none of them will ever be as inadvertently redolent a document of their time as Skiboy.

So, there you have it. Skiboy may not be the greatest television series ever made, but nor does it deserve to be languishing at the back of a cupboard where it's been for so long that it's probably gone mad and thinks it's actually zigzagging between Melbourne House Software and Hardware lorries on the way to the nearest ski hire shop. Given that even Stainless Steel And The Star Spies has been dusted down for reassessment, it's high time that TV's Newest Series got an opportunity to be TV's Newest Old Series. Just don't ask me to reassess The Adventurer.

You can read more about Skiboy, and other examples of The TV That Time Forgot, in my book Not On Your Telly.

It's Still A Police Box, Why Hasn't It Changed? Part Two: Koquillion It Was Really Nothing

In our look at the first series of Doctor Who, we saw how the show went virtually overnight from being a well-made but undistinguished making-learning-fun history-fest to the ratings-topping eye of a money-spinning storm flinging around the word 'Dalekmania' in those funny triangular letters. And also how there were too many fucking rope bridges.

After a short break over the summer of 1964, Doctor Who returned in the Autumn with a concerted effort to capitalise on this success in all senses of the word. Along the way, the production team would have to wrestle both with significant changes to the regular cast, and with their own apparent self-defeating wheel-reinventing determination to find the 'new' Daleks while the originals were still pretty much the second biggest phenomenon on the planet. Although the contenders for this honour most definitely did not include...

That Darn Cat!

You may recall that, back in the first series overview, there were a few subtle and restrained comments about the manky bulk-bought stock footage that the Doctor Who production team were prone to using around this time in lieu of having to film resource-challenging things like sweeping landscapes and extreme weather conditions. It's only when you witness one of their attempts at filming a complicated live action sequence for themselves that you realise just why they were so keen to reach for the crumbly bits of cloudy 16mm snipped out of dismal old films nobody liked. A significant proportion of the final episode of Planet Of Giants involves the inconveniently miniaturised Tardis crew being unconvincingly menaced by a particularly disinterested-looking normal-sized cat, determined to inadvertently thwart their attempts to prevent unscrupulous scientist Forester from getting his hands on decidedly eco-unfriendly compound DN6. This in itself is visually problematic enough, but if you watch closely you can't help but notice that the cat itself subtly but very definitely changes between shots, from a tortoiseshell with a straight-down-the-middle light/dark facial fur divide like some lost extra from the video for Passengers by Elton John, to another with a more subtle blend of mug-upholstery, and back again. Of course, this might have been down to the fact that episode three was actually edited down from two episodes' worth of material, and there may well have been some proto-Eurocrats In Brussels regulations about how many consecutive hours an individual cat could spend in Lime Grove, and as such the animal handlers might actually have brought along two mogsters for the recording blocks. But let's not weigh this down with reason and logic, shall we? Incidentally, it's also worth noting that for a swotty know-all science teacher whose primary purpose was to convey educational facts to the young audience, Ian really does come across as a bit dense in this story.

The Dalek Invasion Of Earth Is Astonishingly Well Made

You probably won't be too surprised to learn that The Cat did not manage to inspire a deluge of tie-in merchandise. Nor indeed did it cause Raymond Cusick to bitterly reflect on not getting his share of the rights to it every time a camera was plonked in front of him. In late 1964, though, The Daleks were everywhere, and you could scarcely walk past a shop without being submerged by a landslide of Dalek Fish Slices whilst a shopkeeper with a top hat and monocle counted a wad of guineas and grinningly reflected on the commercial boom of 'Dalekmania'. The BBC and Terry Nation both knew that they'd have to bring them back in a big way, and The Dalek Invasion Of Earth got this exactly right; ambitious, imaginative, action-packed, Daleks every three seconds, and - crucially - an entirely different story to their debut in almost every regard. From this distance, it would be easy to write The Dalek Invasion Of Earth off as a story elevated to 'classic' status by circumstance and hype (and there was a lot of hype - how many ITV shows at the time had trailers that expensive and prominent, let alone BBC offerings?), except for the fact that even now it still looks amazing. Sidestepping that never-explainable cliffhanger with a Dalek rising out of the Thames, Terry Nation's script is a clear attempt at playing with the big-screen big boys, and director Richard Martin rises to the challenge admirably with dynamic pacing, some very fast editing for the time (including lots of cutaways to Daleks, a joke that will be lost on approximately 93% of the audience), a skilful combination of imaginative location work and convincing studio sets, and just generally making everything look and feel 'bigger'. In fact, it's not really that far away from the later big screen adaptation of the story... but we'll come to that in due course. Meanwhile, if anyone has any idea of that business with the two mysterious figures caught measuring Robomen on set was all about... actually, on second thoughts, keep it to yourself will you?

Other Stories Were Less Astonishingly Well Made

OK, so we can point towards the Daleks haring across Tower Bridge, chasing Barbara past the Albert Memorial, and getting a bit soggy at Queen's Wharf, and rebut some of that insistent journalistic twaddle about cardboard monsters made of rubber or whatever it is. And yes, there are other superb effects dotted throughout this second series, from the model spaceship that doesn't look like a model at all in The Rescue to the flamethrower-strewn smackdown between The Daleks and The Mechonoids/Mechanoids/whichever spelling we're taking as authoritative today. Even those giant-sized props in the first story mostly look pretty convincing. When they don't quite pull it out of the bag, though... they really don't pull it out of the bag. In fact you sometimes have to wonder if they'd even known where the bag was in the first place. You'll all have seen that Zarbi walking head first into the camera - possibly even without Pappy's Fun Club shrieking over the top - but there are so many other effect and design slip-ups more worthy of chortling disdain than poor old star-seeing John Scott-Martin. There's Vicki apparently doing her Wii Balance Board exercises to indicate that the Tardis is being forcibly moved, the hilariously unmenacing impracticality of the Mire Beast, the Optera's side-letting-down Ragdoll Productions-esque appearance, and let's not even get started on the somewhat less than advisable 'blacking up' in The Crusade, which is frankly too shoddily rendered even to be offensive. And all of this might well be linked in some roundabout way to...

What's That Coming Over The Hill, Is It A Fungoid?

One of the strengths of the first series of Doctor Who was that even the supporting characters were incredibly well-defined. Alright, so One-Line Wonder The Man From Lop brought down the average a bit, but on the whole they were believable characters with at least serviceable back stories, and were quite often given well-written 'star moment' scenes to explore their philosophies and motivation. On top of that, the production team very clearly spent a long time working on the regular characters, ensuring that their interactions, attitudes and propensity for twisting ankles were always consistent and easy for the viewer to identify with. Most impressively of all, some considerable thought went into making the female characters as strong and independent as was practical at the time, and they even had some dialogue on that very subject. By the time of the second series, though, this has all changed - The Doctor, Ian and particularly Barbara ("Oh boy... THAT was a mistake!") just about manage to cling on to their established personas, and there are a couple of exceptions amongst the rag-taggle of Dalek-fighting civilians, but just about everyone else ends up as little better than a one-dimensional cipher, all the way from the jovial village 'bobby' and the hilariously purpose-free Morok Messenger to new companion Vicki, who is likeable enough and has a good rapport with The Doctor, but never seems to actually 'do' anything as such. This is presumably because the bulk of everyone's creative energies was being given over to the newly-found 'So you like aliens, eh?' imperative, which would be all very well and good if it wasn't for the fact that Malsan The Aridian and company had about as much chance of dethroning The Daleks as Ian And The Zodiacs did The Beatles. And yes, this does include The Zarbi, no matter what volume of 'Plastoid' badges they may have inspired. Of course, this did change towards the end of the series... but more about that later. Meanwhile, on a similar note...

There Are Too Many Stories With A Good First Episode

Admittedly this was a problem that would continue to plague Doctor Who for many years (and still does, if you count the ones that have a good first seven minutes), and arguably actually began with The Sensorites in the previous series, but this was where the phenomenon first took hold. There are few greater disappointments than a creepy, atmospheric and tightly-plotted opening episode followed by three to five of just wandering about going 'erm', and you'll find more than anyone's fair share of them here. Take, as a completely random and not at all obvious example, The Space Museum, which opens in fine style with imaginatively realised spooky stuff about the 'ghost' Tardis and the Food Machine acting the goat, Hartnell's Dalek-impersonating interlude, and a genuinely shocking cliffhanger, and then follows it up with seventy five minutes of meandering along corridors and re-enacting the Tony and 'Control' sketches from A Bit Of Fry And Laurie. Then there's The Web Planet, in which a visually arresting opening episode with the cast wandering around Vortis in their Bespin Fatigues gives way to more or less nothing whatsoever, and adds insult to injury by at least making an effort with all that Top Of The Pops Studio Lights/Jackanory Kaleidoscope mayhem in the final episode, by which time most people had probably stopped watching. Quite how so many writers managed or indeed were allowed to put so much effort into their first script and yet follow it up week upon week with the first thing that sort of half came into their head-ish is something that no amount of production documentation can ever really adequately explain.

They Like Big Butts And They Cannot Lie

Quite what changed in the couple of weeks between production blocks is something that may never be known, but the evidence is there for all to see. And boy, is there evidence. In the second series of Doctor Who, the fun and improving show for all the family, there is a sudden and marked emphasis on casting ladies with oversized backsides, and what's more the cameramen go out of their way to draw attention to this, anchoring their shots on the back-gotters and lingering thereon until William Hartnell deigns to start speaking and they reluctantly have to turn to him. Even allowing for the 'outrageous' ((C) Polly Toynbee) vagaries of sixties fashion, this still seems a bit jarring and, well, over-abundant. This reaches its dubious highpoint - or possibly nadir - when an extra of Kardashian proportions takes a stroll around the top of the Empire State Building, attracting the intent attention of not only comedy Good Ol' Boy Morton Dill but also a suspiciously modern-looking extra, whose reaction was almost certainly authentic. And while we're in that general area, later on in the story there's the inadvertent exposure of Barbara's pants...

Seriously, What's With All The Ants?

In Planet Of Giants, the miniaturised Tardis crew encounter a DN6-immobilised Giant Ant. This is, it has to be admitted, an acceptable and probably even predictable plot device for this kind of story. What is somewhat less acceptable, and certainly less predictable, is the heavy recurrence of ants as a motif in the remainder of the run. Not only is Ian tortured in The Crusade by Ibrahim The Bandit dabbing a trail of date honey to his wrists and inviting his 'little friends' to sample the 'great delicacy' ("such ecstasy!"), there's also the not inconsiderable matter of the elephant-sized ants in the room in the cumbersome shape of The Zarbi. In the second series of Doctor Who, the Stewart Lee's True Fables-esque struggle between man and ant is as all-pervading a feature as the much more widely remarked-upon Mercury and Static Electricity. But why the sudden fear of our eusocial chums? Did David Whittaker live in constant fear of a six-legged army hightailing it out of his kitchen carrying entire slices of cake and joints of ham? Sadly, unless there are any long-lost internal memos headed 'Thirty Two Points Of Worry (Over Ants)' knocking about, we may never know.

Why Are There Only Eight Planets On The Time Space Visualiser?

The closest planet in the Solar System to The Sun, metal and silicate-based terrestrial body Mercury was first definitively observed as far back as the Fourteenth Century. Remotely mapped several times from the 1800s onwards, it was finally subjected to modern scientific analysis when a team of Russian scientists successfully bounced a radar signal off its surface in June 1962. However, news of this clearly had not filtered through to whoever made the Time Space Visualiser that The Doctor 'borrowed' from The Space Museum. Although ostensibly allowing visual access to any moment in space and time within the solar system, it actually only features labelled controls for eight planets (including Pluto - the International Astronomical Union hadn't started saying 'aaaaaaaahhhhh' yet), with poor old Mercury missed out altogether. We can only presume that its close proximity to the sun and negligible atmosphere renders it beyond the technological reach of the TSV. Either that, or whoever designed it wasn't really taken with that Kurt Vonnegut Jr book where those splodgy things hang on the cave walls or something. And while we're on the subject...

The Beatles Were As Clumsily Crowbarred In As Any New Series 'Reference'

OK, let's not set about rewriting history - not one line - as there's no escaping the fact that even by the Summer of 1965, The Beatles were ever so slightly huge. They were already an almost unprecedented two and a half years into a chart-topping career, and Ticket To Ride was not only their ninth hit, it was also their seventh consecutive number one. It was also, it should be added, taken from the soundtrack of their second box office-walloping feature film. That said, however, there's similarly no getting away from the fact that a large part of the potential audience of Doctor Who couldn't stand the sight of John, Paul, George or indeed Ringo, regarding them as an annoyingly ubiquitous and over-lauded passing fad who weren't really distinguishable from Heinz or The Swinging Blue Jeans. At that time there was simply no suggestion that they would make such a dramatic artistic leap forwards only a couple of months later, never mind go on to change the sociocultural face of the entire world and leave a legacy that shows no signs of abating even now, and there were plenty of people out there who were heartily sick of the merest mention of the Fab Four. So when they showed up on the Time Space Visualiser in the first episode of The Chase, was it really any better - for a large proportion of the audience at least - than when the All-Singing All-Dancing 'New' Series gratuitously crowbars in an appearance by a reality TV star or reference to some pop favourite du jour? No, it's not. And it could so easily have been Herman's Hermits...

Was This The First Ever 'Reboot'?

As exciting as The Dalek Invasion Of Earth is, as amusing as The Romans is, as good as William Hartnell continues to be, as much as any given villain might make thinly veiled statements of S&M-tinged intent towards Barbara, even the most ardent adherent of the black and white era would have to admit that in the second series of Doctor Who, there's an overall feeling that they were coasting on their success a bit. Except that, right at the end of the series, something very odd happens. Terry Nation's The Chase, another set of scripts well above the batting average, combines thrills, action and self-contained comic setpieces with a deftness that would have had the average adult series later in the Saturday schedules seething with envy. It also waves goodbye to Ian and Barbara with a beautifully light-hearted and surprisingly 'modern' montage of them pissing about in Central London, introduces new companion Steven as a much-needed mouthy know-all, and most significantly unveils The Mechonoids, the closest thing to a rival to The Daleks until The Cybermen came along, and hurls them into a literal guns-blazing battle with said rivals in a sequence that must have left the average 1965 youngster reeling, or at the very least rushing straight out into the street to 'play' Mechanus. Then the final story, The Time Meddler, not only introduces us to the first ever fellow renegade member of The Doctor's race in the form of Peter Butterworth as The Monk, but is also carried along on a wit and verve that has seldom if ever been witnessed before now. Even the stock footage of longships looks quite convincing, though that shot of a fox appears to hail from another somewhat grainier universe. Frankly there is too much of it going on to arrive at any other conclusion than that the production team had decided to up their game and get more in step with whatever else was grabbing the family audience at that time. Which was... um... well ITV were scheduling Thank Your Lucky Stars against Doctor Who so... erm... had Quick Before They Catch Us started yet? Anyway, whoever and whatever had managed to convince them to dial things up a notch, the fact of the matter is that they did, and when Doctor Who returned after a short break, all manner of mayhem was about to break loose...

...but we've got a slight detour to take first. So join us again next time for A Postmodern Tramp, More Base Voyeurism, Ian Singing The Glory Of Love, and Something About Professor Kitzel Falling Down A Plughole...

And if you want to read a more detailed piece on The Romans, The Crusade, The Time Meddler and all of the other sixties historical stories, you can find one in my book Well At Least It's Free, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

The World Of David Bowie

I've been thinking all day about what to write about David Bowie. Not so much because I'm short of anything to say, but because, well, everyone else is doing deep and serious and the big outpourings of emotion, and in some ways that was never who he was to me. As much as I love the Berlin Trilogy and all the rest of it, my absolute favourite aspects of Bowie's career have always been when he's playing around with the medium and the artform, and generally having a bit of a chuckle at everyone else's expense, not least those who would never stop moaning about why couldn't he do another record like that nice Let's Dance etc etc. The sixties albums, Earthling, Tin Machine, the bewildering acting engagements, those paintings of the back of his head or whatever they were, all of them laudable and amusing attempts to stray from paths that had been marked out for him by the wider audience, and aren't going to go away no matter how hard some people may wish they would.

So I kept on thinking about this, even vainly attempting to enlist the help of Oblique Strategies in a quest for inspiration, when I remembered a time that I'd ended up writing about David Bowie without ever intending to at all. This was when I was dared in the pub one evening to try and write an article about the famously dull sixties Doctor Who story The Space Pirates, and although I started off doing just that, halfway through I realised that I'd started writing about the Space Oddity album instead, which turned it into a very different and much better piece (and one that I'm still very pleased with, and which you can find in my book Not On Your Telly). This started me thinking about just how much David Bowie had worked his way into the background of pretty much every aspect of my everyday existence, and at that point I decided to do a list of ten unexpected examples of him doing just that. It's a little bit ragged and unpolished - a bit like the first Tin Machine album, then - but hopefully it says what I want to say. Thanks for everything, Silly Boy Blue.

Great Pop Things

It's difficult to put into words just how much I used to look forward to Great Pop Things, the skewed and not even remotely accurate history of rock by Colin B. Morton and Chuck Death, that appeared at the foot of every NME letters page between 1987 and 1997. Driven by an almost nihilistic irreverence, and crammed with wilfully arcane in-jokes and pop culture references, it ridiculed the great and good (and Bros) more with thoroughly deflating absurdity than offensiveness. I can still be reduced to helpless laughter just by thinking about how Atlantis by Donovan is "about six minutes of wibbling on about where Atlantis might be, followed by about six seconds of singing about wanting to live in a coral house under the sea", or U2 being instructed by Oblique Strategies to "play as boringly as possible", or NWA rejecting aspirant rappers MC W ("an' I'm here to trouble you!") and MC * ("and I'm... erm... um"), or Can forming in school ("Sir, The Beatles are better than Stockhausen (in German)" - "Do not be stupid boy (also in German)"), or Robert Smith upsetting Siouxsie by turning up to rehearsals with his new 'happy' image, or Morrissey's 'Glum Rock' album ("This Chin Is Big Enough For Both Of Us!") 'Produced by Mick Ronco for A Chinnichap', or Pere Ubu "of whom Talking Heads were a substandard just-far-out-enough-to-say-you'd-been pale shadow" reinventing themselves as "a sub-Talking Heads drippy love song type group", or Tom Baker telling a dumpster full of proto-grungers that "it's OK to come out now, the punks have all gone", or Jimi Hendrix being welcomed to London by Marianne Faithfull, Jeremy Thorpe and Ken Dodd, or PiL singing Where Is Love? ("B'dum! SKREEEE!"), or... well, I could seriously go on all night. But it began with a multi-part history of 'The Chameleon Of Rock', following him from getting in trouble in school for "cutting up library books and using the wrong changing rooms", through inciting beach riots with his incendiary mod anthem The Laughing Gnome, and his controversial late seventies attempt to hail a train whilst dressed as Hitler and singing Helden, all the way to Tin Machine's fractious relationship owing to the others' bewilderment at his constant On The Buses references. And the writers' comic obsession with the essential concept of 'Dave' would spill over into pretty much all of their other strips too, from Syd Barrett's mental deterioration being signposted by his bursting into The Laughing Gnome onstage, to the sidesplittingly Dickensian Sex Pistols story starting with 'tea-leaf' Steve Jones nicking Bowie's equipment in a swag bag, all the way to The Laughing Gnome himself proving a punning nuisance during the invention of the electric guitar. Sadly, although some other performers were known to enjoy it (though not Morrissey), Bowie never really expressed an opinion on Great Pop Things, but it's fairly safe to assume he would have seen the joke. "Give me a pickle, Olive!".

States Of Mind

These days, you'd be hard pushed to find a bigger fan of Satire Boom-launched polymath Jonathan Miller than me, and in particular his UK Psych-inventing film adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, the masterclass in how to make a complex TV series for uncomplicated audiences that is The Body In Question, and his assertion at the start of A Brief History Of Disbelief in 2004 that "I should perhaps warn you that what you are not going to see in this programme is anything that you might be tempted to think of as 'Walking With Atheists'; I will not be seen leaning over a balcony, watching René Descartes nibbling his quill while he struggles with the problem of mind-brain duality, and there will be no blurred, slow motion shots of people making leaps of faith or failing to do so, because I think such dramatisation is somewhat vulgar and inappropriate" ("OMG did that person just say that thing in that programme from thirty years ago!?!?!?" - Pappy's Fun Club, 2015). When I was a lot younger, however, he was simply the presenter of States Of Mind, a rather quite scary show about psychology and mental disorders that came on BBC2 at lunchtime on a Sunday after the family-friendly stuff like Windmill and Taken Obody Sword Forit had finished. States Of Mind was introduced by rotating concentric 'brain'-denoting circles and a creepy piece of electronic music that I later described as "an ominous synthesiser melody that sounds curiously like a toxic rewrite of the theme song from Orm And Cheep". This music would lodge itself in my mind and resurface at inopportune and disturbing moments - especially during exams - so you can imagine my surprise when I eventually bought the CD release of Low and found Art Decade hidden away on Side Two.

Absolute Beginners

Not the song per se, which admittedly is one of the best that Bowie ever wrote, but the film itself, a grand overhyped overlong jumble of a stylistically inconsistent bewilderingly directed Patsy-Kensit-meets-Courtney-Pine-meets-Sade-meets-Smiley-Culture-meets-Lionel-Blair mess, which may be many things but is never, ever boring. On any level. Being something of a sucker for the neglected corners of cinema, especially ill-conceived and under-budgeted British-made attempts to 'sweep the board' at any given awards ceremony (they never do), I'm naturally very fond of Absolute Beginners; it's never been given a fair critical crack of the whip and is a lot better than you've probably been told it is, and in any case, the bizarre story of how it came to be made in the first place, and then bomb so dramatically, is nothing short of a goldmine if you're interested in the relationship between society, culture and popular culture. So intoxicating is this infectious and all-consuming misjudgement of youth culture that it's easy to forget that David Bowie not only sang the theme song but contributed two other numbers and even acted in a key role until you actually watch it. Which, let's be honest, most of you haven't done, have you?

'Ziggy' From Grange Hill

On to a somewhat more popular and longstanding fixture of the viewing habits of eighties youngsters. When crash helmet-haired scouse cheeky chappie Eric Greaves arrived at Grange Hill in 1986 to wreak havoc with Gonch and Hollo's money-making plans, wisecrackingly derail the bullying aspirations of both Trevor Cleaver and Imelda Davies, and generally repeatedly end up with fibreglass down his back for reasons that nobody is really quite sure of, the story behind his given nickname of 'Ziggy' was initially left as a mystery. All would be revealed, however, when he 'rescued' some jumping-up-on-playground-wall-type girls from the world's smallest 'big' spider, confessing that it was his twin admiration for our eight-legged pals and David Bowie that had earned him his popular handle. Two characteristics that, in true Grange Hill fashion, were never remarked upon ever again.

"It's My Lunch, Terry"

I've written extensively about Tin Machine here, but it's always worth revisiting this. Back in its heyday, almost everyone watched BBC1's early evening chat show Wogan - seriously, just think about how many interviews have become longstanding national reference points - and it was always a pleasure to see a musical act turn up who really ought not to have been there. This was especially true when Tin Machine made a trip to Shepherd's Bush in 1991 to mime to You Belong In Rock'n'Roll and indulge in a spot of post-performance natter with the host. Terry Wogan wasn't always the genial figure we know and love him as - the really quite nasty interview with David Icke is evidence enough of that - and he approached the band with a gallery-playing combination of sneeriness, mocking disdain ("what are you trying to do here?"), and a total lack of interest in the other three members verging on base rudeness. It's hardly surprising, then, that Bowie should have reacted to his banal line of questioning (especially that bollocks about pretending not to realise what that shoebox-shaped guitar was) with interview-sabotaging non-sequiturs. Wogan has since repeatedly tried to paint himself as the victim in all of this, but in all honesty he brought it on himself. If you provoked David Bowie into refusing to play the fame game, you'd really gone wrong somewhere.

"Portable Telephones Could Make You Turn Into A Cow..."

Jump They Say is an exhilarating, danceable and powerfully affecting attempt by a major recording artist to come to terms with his brother's suicide, speculating on the thoughts that might have run through his head in a genuinely heart-wrenching fashion, inspiring you to look out for your fellow human beings and providing an emotional wallop in a way that certain of his peers' mawkish displays of familial mourning (or for Princess Diana for that matter) sure never managed. However, it also served as backing music for Armando Iannucci's short early nineties stint as a Radio 1 DJ, looping endlessly and hilariously in the background as he reviewed the new platform game 'Aled Jones II' and read out nonsense about Robert Robinson On Ice ("featuring scenes from Ask The Family and Call My Bluff"), the new one-sided two pence piece, and Sharon Stone starring as a granary bap in a movie adaptation of Delia Smith's One Is Fun.

The Real Pin-Ups

Unless they had a career as brief and unprolific as Nick Drake (and even he did bloody Tow The Line), it's always a mistake to claim that everything your favourite artist ever produced was on an equal level of brilliance. You'll all have your Bowie album that doesn't work for you, and mine is Pin-Ups, a great idea ruined by stilted and overthought production that just ends up trampling over a terrific set of mid-sixties r'n'b, beat and psych covers. His take on The Kinks' Where Have All The Good Times Gone? just about works; elsewhere his mannered and theatrical vocals struggle with lyrics that are anything but that, and there is all manner of musical horrendousness going on, from the guitar riff on I Wish You Would that makes you want to throw your stereo out of the window, to the truly awful mangling of See Emily Play. Really, honestly, the idea of David Bowie covering Syd Barrett should be a match made in heaven, but all we get here is the rough and ready psychedelic shock of the original replaced by needlessly avant-garde and neo-classical instrumentation, overdone harmonised yelping, and a synthesiser that makes it sound as though Zippy and George are about to join in on backing vocals. It's this more than any other track that makes you wish you were listening to a compilation of the originals instead... and years later, you realise that, well, you can do just that. And it's brilliant. And maybe, just maybe, that's what he wanted all along. Clever sod.

'He Decamped To Berlin With Eno'

Whether it's Chris Morris fans reminding you that he's "a godlike genius"Doctor Who historians and their overuse of the words 'emblazoned' and 'black-clad', or more obscurely the way early seventies sci-fi series Ace Of Wands apparently always "returned for a stylish new series" with "sometimes sinister foes", off-the-peg cliché lexicon stock phrases beloved of writers who can't be bothered to think for themselves are always amusing once you spot them, and there is no more ridiculous an example of this than the mainstream rock press' bizarre insistence on opening any article about the Berlin albums by informing readers that Bowie "decamped to Berlin with Eno". Quite what this means or what it involved nobody's quite sure, but it doesn't half make for a good in-jokey reference point with the other Bowie fans in your life ("I'm just decamping to the bar").

Transmission, Transition (Repeat Until Students' Heads Explode)

With the arrival of cheaper and more compact digital technology, the Pub Jukebox really came into its own in the mid-nineties, with an easily-navigable flipchart of entire albums to choose from. Unfortunately, this meant that people always chose the exact same things, and after you'd heard Wonderwall and Brown-Eyed Girl accompanied by slurry student caterwauling for the fourteen thousandth time that night, you really did want to take action. Action which may have involved all of your party pooling together as much money as they could and putting on TVC15 as many times as that allowed, until the place was noticeably less full of rowdy singalongs and a weary barman went over and reset the jukebox. Direct action!

Bowie Buskers

And finally, you've doubtless all heard buskers take on all of the obvious Bowie candidates, from Space Oddity and The Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud to Rebel Rebel and China Girl. You might even have witnessed some braver souls strumming their way through Wild Is The Wind, When I Live My Dream or Rock'n'Roll Suicide. But you really have to hand it to the ones who jump right into the back catalogue without a parachute, treating puzzled commuters to acoustic guitar-wrested renditions of the likes of Chant Of The Ever Circling Family and V-2 Schneider; two numbers that I have genuinely heard real-life buskers attempt (and creditably so in both cases). They deserve all the spare change you have, frankly. If you haven't used it to put TVC15 on a jukebox, that is.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, ain't rock'n'roll, it's my attempt at wrestling something positive, amusing and uplifting out of some genuinely horrid news. I hope it did the same for you. And now, I'm 'Avin 'Oops!

This piece is dedicated to Camilla Long and Julia Hartley-Brewer, and to the rich and diverse contribution they have made to art, popular culture, and the improvement of the human experience.