Autumn View(ing)

Originally invented by Americans as a way of flogging even more cars than usual, the idea of the 'Autumn Season' is deeply embedded in television scheduling culture. Although the BBC never actually had anything to 'sell' (well, unless you count things like the output of their record label), they nonetheless saw it as a good way of drawing viewers in with a largely manufactured sense of new programmes carefully tailored to suit cosy winter-draws-on evenings gathered around the telly. Needless to say, and indeed as you can see from this Dougal-meets-The-Machine-Stops cover, Radio Times was right behind this, although their attempts to construct a 'New... For Autumn!' narrative and fill the requisite amount of pages at the same time often led to desperate flanneling, bewildering leaps of logic and inappropriate levels of excitement about programmes that most viewers could probably take or leave really. And as you can see from these extracts from the Autumn Preview in the Radio Times dated 2nd October 1965, not everything that showed up in the run-up to Christmas was quite as thrilling as Rubber Soul...

You'd have to have had your ears filled in with cavity insulation foam whilst on your way to return your MBE in 'protest' at Ringo Starr having recieved one to have been unaware of the increased prominence, importance and relevance of the ever-amorphous concept of 'The Arts' in the mid-sixties. As this peculiar illustrative mish-mash featuring binoculars, a violin and a Bridget Riley painting calling to mind The Clown off Camberwick Green getting 'cultured' suggests, the BBC were only too aware of and indeed only too keen to reflect this, and Autumn 1965 saw the launch of four new arts programmes - Sunday Night on BBC1 and New Release, Intimations and the proto-aaaaaaaaahhhhh archfest Line-Up Review on BBC2 - which were to all intents and purposes the exact same programme only with a different producer and a marginally different chair.

It was a bumper autumn for Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, with a brand new series of their unprecedented hit Steptoe And Son - seriously, several of the earliest episodes were in the list of top ten most-watched UK television programmes for over a decade - and 'selected' repeats of Hancock's Half Hour at its 1959-to-1960 peak, which Radio Times are careful to emphasise featured Sid James alongside The Lad Himself. There is a bittersweet air to this repeat season and its conspicuous prominence, sat somewhere between celebration of what was even then already evidently a high watermark of the small screen, and a determined distancing from the shambolic mess that followed it. Since their acrimonious split in October 1961, the two hapless writers had systematically trounced the genius comic - well, maybe not with Citizen James, but you can't win them all - on both commercial and artistic terms, and in September 1965 Tony Hancock was hard at work on being 'between projects' while they continued to ride high. Elsewhere there are big-ups for the not exactly unexpected likes of Sykes, Harry Worth, The Benny Hill Show, The Dick Emery Show and Meet The Wife, but only right at the very end do they throw in a mention of Not Only... But Also.... And the series with John Lennon doing his guest-rhyming bit at that. You could probably just about argue that this was possibly intended as the setup for a convoluted 'not only but also' gag that they forgot to actually put in, but either way, small wonder that they wiped them all the second that Peter Cook's back was turned. Meanwhile, the less said about what may or may not be them driving a car at the head of that horse-scoffs-astrakhan-collar 'comedy' procession, the better.

Apparently the BBC were still pushing The Voord from Doctor Who And The Keys Of Marinus as late as 1965, this time as a popular beat combo. Who - sadly - did not get their own series, though fans of pop music could continue to enjoy Top Of The Pops and Juke Box Jury, along with Stramash!, an 'explosive new show' from Scotland with a name that apparently essentially translates as 'riot'. Somehow you can't help but suspect that it may not have lived up to its billing. Folk who like folk get a bit of a cursory brush-off with a vague suggestion that if they like that sort of thing then they might as well try Show Of The Week where they might potentially find the not particularly folky likes of Nina And Frederik, while jazz enthusiasts are casually told that there's so much jazz about that the BBC might as well not bother showing any of it; followed by a throwaway mention of upcoming performances by Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson and Jimmy Smith. The reason for this glib disinterest in those pesky styles of music that are popular enough to require deliniation is that anything more serious apparently comes under the simple banner of 'Music', be they 'public concerns or one-act operas specially mounted for BBC-tv at Glyndebourne', the Tortelier Master Class with 'this most televisual of maestros', or a headlining series for the unfortunately appropriately named baritone Tito Gobbi. Yes, well, we'll see how many people are still listening to Catch The Wind and Look Through Any Window half a century later, 'Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra'.

Despite the illustration showing what appears to be absolutely nothing being filmed on a blank white set, this was something of a boom time for standalone television drama, with new Dennis Potter, David Turner and N.F. Simpson works in the offing, not to mention The Wednesday Play, Theatre 625 and Thirty-Minute Theatre continuing apace. So much so, in fact, that it's nigh on impossible to come up with any pithy or perceptive observations about any of it. 1965 was slap bang in the middle of a time when everyone involved at every level treated television drama with the utmost seriousness and many believed it would come to be the benchmark by which all other artforms would be judged. Until television was invented by HBO in 1990, that is.

There's something oddly melancholy about seeing the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme proudly announcing their brand new autumnal wares, blissful in their lack of awareness of the fact that they wouldn't really exist for very much longer. Nonetheless, there were some clues that all was not well across the pre-Flowers In The Rain wavelengths, not least the Home Service announcement that longstanding Current Affairs cornerstone The World At One was being replaced by the essentially identical This Time Of Day, accompanied by small print-esque statements about their most popular shows being shunted around the schedules. Things seemed a bit brighter - well, obviously - over on the Light Programme, with the launch of the Andrew Sachs co-penned Dear Girls, a fascinating-sounding daily soap set in the 'happening' world of fashion models and photographers. Over on the Third Programme, heavyweight epic The Thirties In Britain looks at the anxieties and intellectual climate that led up to what they tactfully refer to as 'strife', and considers whether there are any parallels with events in Britain in the early to mid-sixties. There is absolutely no reason to dig this series out of the Sound Archive and give it another airing now, obviously. Meanwhile, while there's no doubt that companion series The Negro In America was well-intentioned... well, it was a different time. Anyway, on a lighter matter, get a load of those illustrations. Radio Times was absolutely full of this sort of throwaway Pop Art/Post-Advertising icon-heavy visual collision, which probably went mostly unnoticed by people looking to see when Hardluck Hall was on, but is the sort of thing that really ought to be collected into one of those big lavish hardback books now.

Following the blockbusting news that the BBC will keep showing Westerns on Saturdays and 'A Film' on Tuesdays, there's more or less the same bafflingly-fanfared lack of innovation on display in sporting coverage, though admittedly the fact that there had never been a fully televised rugby season prior to 1965 does come as something of a surprise. Nature and Science lovers get to look forward to a similarly welcome but hardly thrillingly new line-up boasting the return of Horizon, Tomorrow's World and Look, while Variety boasts the all-new up-and-coming eight millionth series apiece of Billy Cotton's Music Hall, The Good Old Days and the sodding Black And White Minstrel Show. There's also yet another plug for Nina And Frederik on Show Of The Week. Someone must have REALLY been a fan.

Under the bafflingly mismatched Sam-Tyler-Meets-Captain-Zep heading of 'Spies... Cops... Spacemen', and in amongst a head-walloping array of clashing fonts, we get to possibly the most fascinating corner of this Autumn Preview. Alongside the expected likes of Dixon Of Dock Green and Z-Cars, there are three new series that speak volumes about where the UK - and the BBC - had its head 'at' circa 1965; imported procedural drama Arrest And Trial getting yanked over to the main channel after a well-recieved showing on BBC2, Dinsdale Landen fighting the Cold War undercover in the ficititious Soviet state Amalia in The Mask Of Janus, and full-blown paranoia as an electrical engineer gets falsely accused of spying in Moscow in An Enemy Of The State, with only the launch of BBC2 sci-fi anthology series Out Of The Unknown on hand to justify the 'Spacemen' tag. And it didn't even have that many spacemen in. 'The Past' promises a standard array of historical documentaries alongside BBC2 clip show Plunder, which intends to raid the BBC Archive for 'recordings of pre-1955 television programmes'. It's astonishing, frankly, that they'd survived long enough to be trawled for clip shows, and deeply ironic in turn that the clip shows in question have long since been wiped. 'Series' concentrates its efforts on promoting two new, erm, series - Jimmy Hill technically-advised weekly chronicle of the trials and tribulations of a second division football team United!, and city-types-go-rural gritty social issue hard-hitter The Newcomers, both of which ran to hundreds of editions yet only five of the latter now survive, along with absolutely nothing of the former. Unless anyone and their 'lockup' knows different. Finally, as well as a roster of returning Children's Programmes that includes - ha! - Doctor Who, younger viewers can also look forward to 'quirky' American cartoon that wasn't Hector Heathcote, unappealingly titled folk song showcase Dance And Skylark, and the first of approximately eighty four billion Radio Times billings for The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe. They're also the only ones not to get an illustration, which seems a tad unfair given that the 'Series' one is almost as big as the boxout itself.

Anyway, that's Autumn on the BBC, and hopefully you'll have found loads of things that you want to watch. And Nina and Frederik. Incidentally, yes, I did know that the cover at the top of this article dates from 1966. It just looked a bit more eyecatching and in tune with the mood and tone than the genuine article. And if misleading viewers about contents isn't the true spirit of Autumn, then I don't know what is.

If you've enjoyed this article, you can find lots about sixties television in Not On Your Telly, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Wrapped Up In Books

It’s something of a recurring theme among the dubbed imported children’s serials shown by the BBC in the sixties and seventies that they went on to find additional fame in another, entirely unrelated and unexpected, manner. The Flashing Blade, for example, later enjoyed a new lease of popularity through a comic redubbing that attained cult status, while Belle And Sebastian, almost by accident, went on to enjoy a cult status of a very different kind.

Born in August 1928, Cécile Aubry was one of France’s first major film stars, noted as much for her commanding screen presence as her striking looks, which saw her gain sufficient popularity with international audiences to appear on the cover of an issue of Life and to star alongside Tyrone Power and Orson Welles in 20th Century Fox's 1950 historical epic The Black Rose. By the end of the decade, claiming that she had only really enjoyed the travel opportunities, Aubry had retired from acting in favour of a career as a novelist. One of her first published works was Poly, a children's novel about the adventures of a youngster and a free-spirited horse; Poly would give rise to several sequels and in 1961 a television adapation by the French station ORTF, which Aubry herself scripted and which would continue to run into the early seventies.

Poly was followed in 1964 by Belle Et Sébastien, a novel about a young boy - loosely based on Aubry's young son - who befriends a stray dog. Aware that this was a familiar thematic device in children's literature, Aubry intentionally gave the pair an unusual combination of a bleakly existential back story and an idyllic yet remote - and challenging from a narrative point of view - setting. Sébastien had become an orphan when his young mother had died, shortly after giving birth, while attempting to cross the border between France and Italy following a night of heavy snowfall. He is rescued by a pair of customs officers and an elderly mountain hunter named Cesar, who offers to raise the boy with his family in a nearby Alpine village. Sébastien struggles to fit in with the locals, until one day a large dog starts to roam the surrounding area after escaping from abusive owners. The local authorities, mistakenly believing the dog to be dangerous, issue instructions to shoot it on sight. Recognising it a fellow misunderstood outsider, Sébastien shelters and befriends the dog, naming her Belle and enjoying a series of adventures, taking in anything from assisting in daring mountain rescues to uncovering a smuggling plot.

No doubt conscious the success of the television version of Poly, Aubry was already in talks about a television adaptation of  Belle Et Sébastien before it had even been published Jointly produced by Gaumont Television and ORTF, and again with scripts by Aubry, Belle Et Sébastien was filmed on location early in 1965 - this timing would lending an extra credibility to the harsh climatic conditions that play a large part in the narrative - and ran for thirteen twenty five-minute episodes from 26th September 1965. ‘Medhi’, the young boy credited with playing Sébastien, was in fact Aubry’s nine-year-old son who had also previously appeared in Poly. Although Medhi's relationship to the scriptwriter clearly had some influence on his casting, it has to be said he was ideally suited to the role; working under his full name Medhi El Glaoui, he would go on to enjoy a distinguished career as both an actor and director. The remainder of the cast were well known to audiences from French television and European cinema, though none of them ever really found international fame, and it is likely international sales of the series and the numerous awards it that it won as a consequence gave them their most significant worldwide exposure.

This level of acclaim and popularity is not difficult to understand. Shot in black and white and taking full advantage of the vast sweeping locations that featured in the plot, Belle Et Sébastien is a moody and atmospheric work that finds poignancy and beauty in both its geographic and conceptual senses of isolation. Visually mesmerising, it has often been likened – and not entirely fancifully – to the films of Ingmar Bergman. Complementing all of this was a haunting acoustic theme song, written by Aubry with composer Daniel White and later released on a soundtrack EP by Phillips.

Like many other European-made long-form children’s serials at the time, Belle Et Sébastien was purchased for broadcast by the BBC early in 1967, with a view to transmission later in the year. As with all of these series, Belle Et Sébastien – or rather Belle And Sebastian – was dubbed for UK transmission, albeit with the French language theme song left intact, and the actual dubbed dialogue kept to an absolute minimum with the bulk of the vocal duties taken by a female narrator with a suitably thick French accent. As usual, none of the voice artists were ever credited and their identity remains a mystery, though eagle-eared viewers may just notice a remarkable similarity between Norbert’s voice and that of Francis Matthews, better known for playing Paul Temple in the television version of the BBC’s long-running radio detective serial, and providing the voice of the lead character in Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons. Belle And Sebastian was first shown by BBC1 in Monday afternoon slot from 2nd October 1967, concluding on New Year’s Day 1968, with the evocative and picturesque setting and unusually melancholy mood doing much to attract young viewers who were not normally that taken with serials featuring children having everyday adventures. This initial transmission was accompanied by a hardback novelisation, published by BBC Books and written by Peggy Miller from her own reworked English language scripts rather than a direct translation of the original novel. With a striking photographic cover, it was primarily aimed at libraries rather than high street bookshops (although a paperback edition was later briefly available), and is now quite difficult to find.

Belle Et Sébastien was followed in 1968 by Sébastien Parmi Les Hommes - with a theme song sung by Mehdi - which was shown by the BBC as Belle, Sebastian And The Horses from Monday 16th September 1968. French viewers would get to enjoy another instalment, Sébastien Et La Marie-Morgane, in 1970. The BBC however appeared to think two series’ worth of human-canine antics was quite enough, and declined to purchase this third series. Despite their monochrome nature, both series were regularly repeated, particularly during the school summer holidays, with Belle, Sebastian And The Horses surviving in the schedules through to 1973, and Belle And Sebastian making it all the way up to 1978.

Surprisingly, despite enjoying just as ubiquity as its dubbed contemporaries, Belle And Sebastian is not really as well remembered as the likes of The Flashing Blade, The Singing Ringing Tree or The Adventures Of Robinson Crusoe. A significant part of the reason for this may lie in the fact an entire generation associates the title with an entirely different series. Made as a co-production between French and Japanese television in 1981, the sixty four-part Meiken Jolie was to all intents and purposes a loosely interpreted animated version of Belle Et Sébastien, made with the consent of Cécile Aubry but diverting significantly from the original storyline. This was later dubbed into English and retitled Belle And Sebastian, and from 1989 onwards was repeated by the BBC almost as many times – and indeed in roughly the same timeslots – as the original.

Another, perhaps more pertinent reason is the name no longer really ‘belongs’ to the series, and more commonly associated nowadays with a band that drew inspiration from it. Belle & Sebastian frontman Stuart Murdoch had been a fan of the BBC version as a youngster, and although he originally borrowed its name simply for the title of a song, it was later judged appropriate for the name of his group. Though an unusual choice – and one that initially confused a number of radio presenters and journalists who presumed them to be a duo – for those who remembered the series the name fitted well with the band’s pastoral and introspective brand of guitar pop; often, it has to be said, not a million miles away from the actual Belle Et Sébastien theme song. Indeed, many of their early releases featured monochrome photographic covers that recalled the visual feel of their small-screen inspiration. Though the band and their management made several attempts at getting proper permission to use the name, even going as far as to contact Viacom, who had distributed the English language version of Meiken Jolie, no constructive leads were ever forthcoming and contact with Cécile Aubry was not established until their records began to be released in France. Initially, due to the intensely personal nature of the stories, Aubry was unhappy about the matter and reluctant to allow them to continue using it, only relenting after meeting Murdoch and bandmate Isobel Campbell in person to gain assurance of their intentions.

As it turned out, their use of the name was to have a greater benefit for Belle Et Sébastien than perhaps was envisaged during that uneasy meeting. From being scarcely recalled and seldom mentioned by the early nineties, the show went on to be regularly namechecked in articles about the band, cementing hazy memories for some fans and arousing the curiosity of those too young to have seen it. Rescued from obscurity, the English language version of Belle Et Sébastien is now available on DVD and has been a surprisingly consistent seller, doubtless to as many fans of the band as fans of the show itself.

This is adapted from an article featured in my book Well At Least It's Free. You can get Well At Least It's Free in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

There's So Much More In TV Times Part 14: Parky's Perfect Dinner Party

Imagine, if you will, a time when Peter Davison was a widely-loved television star who, in spite of the occasional bit of wishy-washy fence sitting that even in its full context hardly adopts an actual tangible position, was generally seen as being on the right side of right-on and an overall likeable and decent person.

Well, that was approximately four days ago. Cast your mind back, though, to a time before people who don't even sodding watch Doctor Who decided to take a tabloid's word over his, and him out of The Terror Of The Vervoids tried to score a few cheap points and somehow still managed to come off worse. Yes, it's time to travel forwards to the late eighties, a time of huge change for TV Times. There was now an extra commercial channel, outraging the tabloids with Keith Allen swearing at a polish cartoon or something. Home video was luring viewers away from good clean World In Action and The Fear, except for when it wasn't and something about Video Nasties. And throughout it all, Brucie kept on putting on that comedy oversized chef's hat and making something out of 'leftovers', only on slightly better quality paper.

Something that had most definitely not improved with the passage of time was the quality of readers' letters. Here we can see a thoroughly pointless missive from someone who felt sufficiently impressed by a character from The Bill behaving like a character from The Bill to write in to TV Times to congratulate the programme makers on this bold artistic decision. And that's not the last we'll be hearing from Sun Hill's finest, but moving on...

Full-paged posed photos doubling up as putative 'posters' for the terminally barking mad with no discernible sense of design aesthetic were all the rage around TV Times Towers in the eighties, it seems. In the ludicrously small boxout bit that nobody ever read, Gary Wilmot - who, it's staggering to recall, was all over ITV at the time - reveals that he took time out from impersonating whoever it was he did impersonations of to indulge in a spot of proto-green Save The Trees rabble-rousing; something that, much like Timmy Mallett's denunciation of Apartheid for the benefit of Wide Awake Club viewers, suspiciously never seems to get mentioned whenever the ha ha you big rubbish what were we thinking sneering boots up again. He also seems to be wary of the imminent arrival of Ben Kingsley, Clown Union. This is followed by Matthew Kelly making with the ha ha ha hee hee hee's and 'Gnome - For A Laugh!' puns as he introduces us to his good friend Grimble Grumble. There's probably a perfectly sane and rational explanation. If there is, though, it isn't in the boxout.

TV-am's top 'Girls Who Get Britain Up In The Morning' as the tabloids always had it Ulrika Jonsson and Lorraine Kelly kick off the 1990 FIFA World Cup with a bit of posed punch-up hilarity - hardly the most appropriate of analogies at a time when football was desperately trying to restore its yob-tarnished image - in honour of their home nations' imminent Group C clash, in an issue of TV Times that mysteriously 'disappeared' into a million teenage boys' bedrooms the second that that week's Friday Night viewing was over.

Big smash blockbuster miniseries came and went in the eighties, but every Sunday evening on ITV you could find Harry Secombe strolling religiously from region to region and singing about how God made the clouds while standing in the grassy bit in the middle of a dual carriageway. Yes, bizarrely compelling surrealist masterpiece Highway was putting together an album, and they needed your inexplicably typewritten help! Just write to Harry telling him which hymns you would like to see and indeed hear on there, and when he's finished sending his Christmas Cards he'll draw up a tracklisting. Sadly, how many wags voted for He Made This Lovely Anorak is not on record.

Sometimes, on the almost unthinkably rare occasions on which Brucie was not available (or, more likely, they'd simply run out of 'leftovers'), you just had to get someone else in the kitchen to do 'wacky' poses at the top of a recipe you can't help but suspect they'd never actually been within fifteen feet of. Here for example we can see Kenny Everett refuting all accusations of 'wackiness' whilst throwing a zany look at an industrial-strength quantity of spaghetti, followed by Hale And Pace in character as 'Ron' and 'Ron', offering up a Cloret-inviting menu of basic food procedures kitted out with good honest thumping-skewed pun variants on their names, which was presumably food wot you would like otherwise 'Ron' will arrange for you to have some food wot you would not like even more if you get our meaning ur hur hur 'Ron'.

Hang on a minute... Parky? What's he doing here?! Telling us who his ideal dinner party guests would be, that's what. And it will surprise precisely nobody to learn that Billy Connolly is top of the VIP RSVP list, followed only slightly less predictably by the 'anecdote' barrage of Michael Caine, Jonathan Miller, Alistair Cooke, Anthony Burgess, Peter Ustinov, and token 'there are no women allowed on the dock of the bay' exception Shirley Maclaine. Apart from displaying a strange obsession with getting them all to gather round the piano for a sing song, he also pretty much maps out who will talk on what topic and when, and states his intention to treat them all to caviar, Dover sole and fancy ice cream washed down with coffee, cognac, port and a premier cru Chablis, all of which will take place in the Gilbert And Sullivan rooms at the Savoy. "Beat that!", boasts Parky. OK mate, fix me up with Karen Gillan and her off The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt at a Pizza Express and I fucking well will.

One regular feature of TV Times in the eighties was the confusingly titled 'My Top Ten Top Tens', in which stars of the network were asked to list their favourite examples of several 'quirky' genres, resulting in enough text to pad out to a three page spread being crammed into a single page. In this example we see Kevin Kennedy, TV 'Curly' (Coronation Street), expressing his enthusiasm for decidedly unadventurous music, movies, cuisine and lust icons, though he does sneak the somewhat less than predictable Tutti Frutti and Hank Wangford's A-Z Of Country Music into his list of 'TV Gems', which at least wins him some points. Note also how he crowbars a couple of his Corrie mates in where he can, notably Bill Tarmey above John Wayne in 'Greatest Actors'. No mention of Don't Forget The Old Folks At Christmas by Bill Waddington, though.

What I Watch was a regular feature in TV Times throughout the eighties, in which a procession of second-tier celebrites - or in some cases just anyone who actually answered the phone - namechecked a couple of currently popular television shows, primarily with a hefty ITV slant, and revealed absolutely nothing about anything whatsoever. Here, for example, is Kevin Lloyd, street-hardened DC Tosh Lines from The Bill, pretty much listing all of the then-operational ITV detective shows, followed by a plug for the now entirely forgotten massive-in-their-day sitcoms About Face and Surgical Spirit, and a suspiciously sizeable thumbs-up for ITN. It doesn't take Ted Roach to figure out what his 'snouts' had tipped him. This is followed by Brookside head honcho Phil Redmond taking time out from appearing on the front page of the Liverpool Echo holding his fringe back with a 'defeated' look and asking why the 1957 Venezuelan National Games can't be in Liverpool to bore everyone senseless about 'realism' and 'value' before going on about films and some programmes he created himself. And finally, Ian and 'Wee Jimmy' essentially run through an entire day's schedule on ITV from Chain Letters to Taggart, pausing only to admonish sitcoms for being too middle class and not reflecting real life - presumably they needed more 'naughty' schoolboys in outmoded school uniforms getting up to all manner of Forties DC Thompson-style hi-jinks (and, of course, chalking rude words on next door's garden gate) - and, worryingly, confirm that "we liked the Shoot To Kill programme". You'd never have expected that of The Krankies and their strict adherence to wholesome family fun.

Oh for fuck's sake. Still, this will only be a rare lapse on the part of good clean ITV. After, all, it was the boo hiss BBC that 'all knew', and ITV never employed any of that shower at any point ever.

Moving rapidly on...

Time to dance your cares away with Timmy Mallett and Michaela Strachan, and their tried and tested formula of just copying something in the public eye and putting 'Wac' in front of it so nobody would ever suspect a thing, as they teach us how to do the purported 'dance sensation of the summer', The 'Wacbada'. Sadly the issue in which they explained how to bust a move to Pump Up The Jam by Wacnotronic Feat. Jelly was not available. Nor was the Halloween/Bonfire Night issue of Family Circle with Timmy Mallett on the cover. Slightly less sadly.

Grr grr, remember when Ryan Paris and those Eurocrats in Brussells made us change the name of all of our best chocolate and chew bars and there was that hilarious comedy advert with a 'French' woman refusing to buy a Marathon, except it was actually a change enacted to allow more seamless integration with American branding, advertising and manufacture so don't go losing your temper and ramming some chlorinated chicken down Liam Fox's throat or anything etc etc? Well, it wasn't the only thing changing around then, and in 1991 - signposted with a bizarre full-page advert saying 'What's Bob Cryer Doing On The BBC?' - TV Times and Radio Times were finally allowed to run each other's schedules and, well, a little bit of character went out of each. So it's at this point that we leave our collective bafflement at TV Times' eccentricities for now, but there's still the seventies to get through. And more eighties. And there might even be the odd thing or two in Radio Times worth looking at. In fact, you could almost say there was so much more still in it. Sorry.

If you've enjoyed this article, you can find lots more slightly more serious writing about fifties and sixties television in Not On Your Telly, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

Looks Unfamiliar #8: Jem Roberts - ET Is A Definite Thing

Looks Unfamiliar 8 - Jem Roberts

Looks Unfamiliar is a podcast in which writer and occasional broadcaster Tim Worthington talks to a guest about some of the things that they remember that nobody else ever does. Joining Tim this time is comedy historian and storyteller Jem Roberts, who shares his widely-challenged recollections of an advert reuniting Neil and Vyvyan from The Young Ones, ZX Spectrum game Dizzy and its many close relatives, short-lived rave-goes-Charleston sensation Doop by Doop, budget maize snack Wheelz, powdered drink from outer space Alien Juice, and the dim and distant days of Wet Wet Wet Actually Being Any Good. Along the way we'll be finding out the best techniques for constructing a 'sandwich car', learning how not to confuse ET with a gardener, and wondering who smoked 'Rococan' and if they were able to still form sentences afterwards.

Find out more about Jem's fantastic Tales Of Britain project at


Looks Unfamiliar is hosted by Podnose.

Support Looks Unfamiliar by buying one of Tim's books! Not On Your Telly is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. And there's several other books to choose from here...

You've Got To Fight For What You Want

It’s unusual for a television series to find popularity in two different decades, though some have managed it through judiciously-placed repeats. Finding popularity in two different genres, though, is an entirely different matter, and should be logistically impossible. Yet that’s exactly what happened to The Flashing Blade. So how did the swashbuckling exploits of a French swordsman have audiences on the edge of their seats one minute and falling about with laughter the next? It’s all down to the redubbing. Two different sets of redubbing, in fact.

The Flashing Blade was originally known as Le Chevailer Tempête, a children’s adventure serial filmed early in 1967 as a co-production between Pathe Cinema and the French television company ORTF, with international funding coming from Switzerland and Canada. Written by Andre-Paul Antoine and Pierre-Aristide Breal, and stylishly directed by Yannick Andrei, the storyline was set in 17th century France but, unusually for a serial of this nature, was not actually based on genuine historical events.

The action takes place in 1630, around the besieged Fort Casal on the Savoie Border between the warring France and Spain. The liberation of the castle is the key to the intended truce, and there are those within the opposing ranks – most notably the devious Don Alonso – who will do anything in their power to prevent the agreement from taking place. Unfortunately for them, the French have assigned this mission to dashing young spy Francois, Chevalier de Recci and his loyal servant Guillot, a wisecracking pair who seem to get as much of a thrill from corny jokes as they do swordsmanship. Over the course of the serial they mount a number of plots to rescue the castle, adopt many disguises – including a lengthy spell hiding out with a troupe of travelling players – and stage near-constant daring escapes, whilst Francois becomes involved with a young local noblewoman, Isabelle de Sospel.

The popular costume drama actor Robert Etcheverry took the part of Francois, with Jacques Balutin as Guillot, Mario Pilar as Don Alonso, Genevieve Casile as Isabelle, Jean Martinelli as the Duke de Sospel and Denise Gray as the Comtesse. None of the cast were well known outside of France, despite a considerable list of starring roles on film and television between them – although in an amusing quirk, Balutin later ended up redubbing Paul Michael Glasier’s dialogue for the French language transmissions of Starsky And Hutch.

Le Chevailer Tempete was shown by ORTF in four seventy-five minute episodes in October 1967. The series attracted acclaim for its stylish direction and colourful cinematography - noticeably similar to the style adopted by many historically-based European feature films of the day, not to mention such British efforts as Masque Of The Red Death and Witchfinder General - as well as for scripts that skillfully combined lengthy action set-pieces with comic interludes – the latter perhaps best exemplified by the dashing duo’s attempts to pose as actors. As was common practice at the time, the serial was subsequently offered for adaptation by overseas broadcasters, and the BBC bought the rights during 1968 for transmission in Spring 1969. The four episodes were cut down by into twelve twenty-five-minute instalments, with the adaptation and redubbing overseen by Peggy Miller, who performed similar duties on a number of imported series. Indeed this was common practice for all imported children’s serials, subjected to changes that went anywhere from re-editing to entire rewrites, leading to the credit 'BBC Presentation By …' becoming a familiar sight. While the closing titles of the BBC version also revealed the new soundtrack was recorded at the famous De Lane Lea studios, a venue incongruously favoured by the big progressive rock acts of the day, the identity of the actors performing the English language dialogue was not revealed and remains something of a mystery to this day.

Although the new version of the serial ran to a dozen episodes, most UK viewers have only ever seen eleven of them, as the dubbed print of episode twelve suffered from a technical fault which caused a loss of vision partway through. The BBC attempted to show the episode on a couple of early runs of the series, and indeed once managed to air virtually the entire twenty five minutes with only a slight interruption, but still ran into the same problems each time. As a result, and no doubt to the frustration of those who had followed the long serial over numerous weeks, the final edition was never properly shown, although in response to viewer requests, the conclusion was later featured in the BBC children's clip show Ask Aspel. Fortunately for the BBC, episode eleven acted as an acceptable ending in its own right, with the truce signed, the Castle liberated, and Francois finally seeing off Don Alonso in an epic sword fight. Apart from confirming the wounded Guillot survived the climactic battle, episode twelve had little to do with the story proper, largely set a year after the events of the previous instalment and recounting a very slow reunion between Francoise and Isabelle. As most later showings were simply truncated to eleven, without much really being lost in the way of the storyline, it’s quite possible that many viewers never even noticed.

While Francois could stop a war virtually single-handed, it seems even the miracles of modern technology cannot resolve the same technical fault that first sent BBC1 haywire almost fifty years ago. On a DVD release of the complete English language version of The Flashing Blade, the twelfth episode has been replaced by an appropriate subtitled edit of the original French language version, complete with the original credits and theme music. This may have come as something of a surprise to erstwhile followers of the series, as The Flashing Blade is as well remembered in the UK for its dramatic galloping theme song as it is the swashbuckling exploits of the Chevailer de Recci, or indeed for technical breakdowns at the worst possible moment. Composed by Alex Masters, the theme was popular enough to be released as a single by Phillips, retitled Fight and credited to The Musketeers. Although it stopped some way short of the top forty, the single has subsequently become much sought-after by soundtrack collectors; sadly, the intriguing-sounding b-side Magnifico is in fact a rather ordinary love song that sounds more like a football team’s musical exploits than its more compelling a-side, despite clearly being recorded in the same session.

The adventures of Francois and Guillot would later find an altogether different notoriety when The Flashing Blade was cut up into five-minute segments and comically redubbed for the BBC1 Saturday morning show On The Waterfront in 1988. Written by producer Russell T Davies and voiced by the show’s cast with impressionist John Culshaw, the redubbings were initially very funny and quickly won a cult following – Don Alonso’s grim examination of a local map, for example, was turned into a weather report, and each instalment ended with the assembled cast shouting “Shut up!!” after the first couple of bars of the theme song. Inevitably inspiration soon ran dry – one later instalment consisted of little more than Isabelle singing an interminable song about how “she likes to stitch and sew her clothes” – but all the same it is fondly remembered to this day. In fact, it’s not too great a leap of the imagination to suggest the arrival on BBC2 the following year of The Staggering Stories Of Ferdinand De Bargos – which did much the same thing with genuine historical footage – owed more than a little to this idiosyncratic re-interpretation of The Flashing Blade.

The On The Waterfront inserts proved sufficiently popular to warrant a full (well, apart from episode twelve) re-run of The Flashing Blade in its proper form the following year, the last time to date that it has been shown on terrestrial television. It’s interesting to ponder on the fact none of the things it is best remembered for – the theme song, the redubbed send-up and the notorious technical fault – were ever part of Le Chevalier Tempete, and while two of these may not have been quite in line with what Peggy Miller and company intended for the serial, it does show that there was a lot more to 'BBC Presentation By …' than a simple vanity credit. This and so many other series bought in during the sixties and seventies were to a large extent shaped into almost new programmes, often near unrecognisable from their original form. Then again, few could deny that the straightforward thrill of all those seemingly endless sword fights on staircases had a lot to do with the appeal of The Flashing Blade too.

This is adapted from an article featured in my book Well At Least It's Free. You can get Well At Least It's Free in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

There's So Much More In TV Times Part 13: Anybody Seen A Tea-Stained Cardigan?

If you've been following this series of cuttings from old issues of TV Times, then you're probably of the opinion that it's already got pretty odd at times. We've seen plenty that's best described as inadvisable, inappropriate, or just plain inexplicable. And that's just Tivvy. Every so often though, you'll stumble across something so baffling and beyond explanation that it causes you to double-take. No amount of reading and re-reading will bring you any nearer comprehension, and you do have to start wondering if poor old Brucie and his oversized comedy chef's hat had stumbled across some 'leftovers' in a scowling hippy's damp-sodden kitchen. If you can figure out what was actually going on with any of the below, you're doing better than us...

Before television actually started broadcasting overnight, there were persistent playground rumours of 'Secret Television', with scarcely credible reports of adverts running backwards at high speed and Jon Pertwee being menaced by Kronos The Kronivore in black and white suddenly leaping terrifyingly out of nowhere in the deepest darkest recesses of the small hours where even The Open University feared to tread. The obvious and logical explanation was that it was just the 'backroom boys' testing equipment with a bit of it escaping onto the transmitters whether by accident or design, but the idea that there was some hidden McDonald's Menu Hack-style unlisted schedule on the other side of the IBA Colour Bars that the likes of you were not allowed to see on pain of retribution from 'Girl' and 'Clown' was too tantalising a possibility to discount. So you covertly waited up. And never saw anything ever. Here's proof that it actually did happen, though what's really interesting is the editor's disturbingly over-robust 'Sincerely - Little Girl'-style response making it clear that you should all move on and that there was nothing more to see here. Which more or less rubber-stamps the idea that they were clandestinely putting out Sunday Night At The London Palladium - Too Hot For TV and 100% All-Nude Her Off Of Weavers Green Uncensored at two in the morning after all.

In case you thought you had simply, erm, hallucinated unexpected middle-of-the-night television, then here's some stark and sensible advice on the subject of illegal substances from those noted experts at TV Times. In summary, dangerous drug marijuana is smuggled into the country by a 'drug-ring' straight out of Paul Temple, is distributed by 'negroes', and partaken in by sneering snickering teenagers who would do well to jolly well listen to those influential hep cats at the British Medical Association. And it's all down to 'jazz', according to this article from the week of release of Rubber Soul. Anyway, kids - remember the important rules. One pill makes you larger. And one pill makes you small. And the ones that Brucie makes out of 'leftovers' don't do anything at all.

Meanwhile, if you're a teenager confused by this 'dating' lark, and are full of questions about how many hours beforehand you should brush your teeth and how many square feet away from the door it's appropriate to 'walk' her to and which blouses offer the sturdiest defence against 'wandering' hands, who would you look to for advice? Yes, that's right, sixtysomething naval racounteur and confirmed 'funny he never married' type Godfrey Winn. After visiting a 'jive session' and speaking to some seamen, Godfrey solicits the opinion of a handful of teenagers who, well, y'know, can take it or leave it really but it's nice to have the option to do a bit of 'necking' if you get bored during Bunny Lake Is Missing etc etc. Quite how many lovelorn teenagers took his advice to heart is sadly not recorded, though presumably a princess looking for a prince found it useful. A reference that about two and a half people will get. Moving on...

As the snow began to fall/or was it a pigeon on the aer-i-alllll? No, it's a handful of MPs having an 'hilarious' - i.e. 'not' - debate about whether homing pigeons might get confused by television aerials despite there being absolutely nothing they could possibly concievably do about either factor in the equation, a bit like that episode of Trumpton only boring and with no jokes. Still, better that than "what about disability benefits?" - "tut tut your tie is not done in Christensen knot on St. Biliwick's Day you scruffy ruffian", "For the many, but after I've finished enabling Hard Brexit and forcing my party to wave through the pissing bastarding Investigatory Powers Bill eh?", and "me party is making significant gains that we have not seened the likes of since me best selling album Brothers In Arms come out".

Never mind all those press reports about Mark-Paul Gosselaar signing up for the first passenger flight to Neptune or whatever it is, here's TV Times arranging an exchange visit to 'space' back in 1964! With the aid of Bachelors, two lucky winners who manage to correctly guess the contents of a sort of low rent equivalent of that 'golden disc' Carl Sagan sent into space with an episode of Captain Butler on it or something get to go to 'Mars' and 'Venus' - both of which, in true Doctor Who And The Invasion Of The Dinosaurs fashion, appear to look suspiciously like France. In return, two old-skool take-me-to-your-leader-mister-parking-meter Martians get to visit Blackpool, with a trip to the illuminations - that year featuring tableaus of The Voord, Ian And The Zodiacs and 633 Squadron - very much on the agenda. Chances are that they spent twenty minutes in a long queue crawling past occasional street lamps with two or three bulbs on them and then gave up and went back to Viltvodle VI.

You may well think that some obscure television programmes get covered on here, but even poor old Skiboy has nothing on The Hathaways, a sitcom about a family bringing up three chimps - played by Charlie, Candy and 'Enoch' - which has been so deservedly forgotten that until recently there was not a single mention of it on the entire Internet. Here's proof positive that it existed in all its revoltingly exploitative glory, though, with a profile of the three 'stars' who were apparently no strangers to ITV variety shows. Honestly, you might well scoff at Martin Clunes Meets The Sealions or whatever they put on in primetime instead of actual proper programmes now, but at least they're sodding nice to the animals. And to Martin Clunes.

One peculiar recurring feature in the letters pages in the mid-sixties was 'Pot Shot', wherein readers were invited to assemble kitchen utensils into a rough Stainless Steel And The Star Spies-esque approximation of a leading television celebrity. Here you can see one E. Teskey-King's take on Ken Dodd, who was no doubt 'tickled' by it. Hmm, wonder which other wholesome and well-loved small-screen stars also received the honour?


This would never happen now, of course. Nobody cares enough about writers to ask them to advertise anything.

A: No. Though if it does, please send Atlanta round to see me.

TV Times reporter Victor Edwards drops in on the production office of short-lived Anglia soap opera Weavers Green, set in a small rural community and featuring a young Kate O'Mara as a student vet. Here we can clearly see the sort of thrilling, contemporary, Mary Whitehouse-enraging storylines they traded in. Though apparently that one where a knight appeared on the village green and started rotating very slowly was a belter.

Get the TV Comic Holiday Special for forty eight pages of sitting eating fish and chips on a sort of kerb adjacent to the beach fun, thrills and puzzles with Supercar, Fireball XL5, Popeye, The Telegoons, and some sort of resigned-looking melting bespectacled cat with a propeller hat on. Or alternatively chase a walking Salt'n'Shake bag with a 'showbiz' straw hat on into a sort of newspaper-hued void. Or, failing that, join us again next time, when we'll be rocketing forward to The Eighties. The decade of Thatcher! Citrus Spring! And the 'Wacbada'...

If you've enjoyed this article, you can find lots more slightly more serious writing about fifties and sixties television in Not On Your Telly, which is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.