Saturday, 31 January 2015
First watched : 1972
These were two Hanna-Barbera cartoons unbundled from a Banana Splits - type package called Cattanooga Cats, to fill the slot vacated by Harlem Globetrotters on a Tuesday.
Motor Mouse and Autocat was basically Tom and Jerry on wheels and has left zero impression on me. Even watching a couple of episodes on You Tube has failed to ring any bells.
It's The Wolf was more memorable if little more original. It concerned the efforts of a scrawny wolf called Mildew ( very camply voiced by Paul Lynde ) to capture the bumptious Lambsy with his annoying catchphrase "It's the Wool- uff ! ". Lambsy's protector Bristle Hound liked living on the edge , usually letting Mildew travel some distance with his bounty before hauling him back with his shepherd's crook and tossing him into the distance. It was fun and apparently the most popular of the four segments of Cattanooga Cats but hasn't yet attracted a re-make although Mildew re-appeared on Laff-A-Lympics a few years down the line.
Thursday, 29 January 2015
First watched : 1972
Deputy Dawg was an old five minute cartoon series brought out of retirement - it hadn't been shown since 1968 at least - to plug a gap on Friday afternoons in January 1972. It concerned a favourite Hollywood stereotype, the pompous but slow-witted Southern backwoods lawman, now in the shape of a portly dog. The series though was generally affectionate towards the South with Dawg allowed his fair share of triumphs against his mischievous foes Muskie Muskrat and Vincent van Gopher and they would often end up fishing together.
I can't remember too much more about it.
Wednesday, 28 January 2015
First watched : 1972
By the time I saw Sesame Street I was past it educationally. I was an advanced reader so the educational content was pitched too low and just bored me. However there was also a lot of smart comedy in the programme which was worth sitting through the remedial stuff, particularly the sketches with Ernie and Bert above, the one enthusiastic and mischievous, the other dour and grumpy. Their prickly relationship was comedy gold.
Sesame Street had a struggle to even get shown in the UK ; the BBC , listening to an educational lobby who decried its methodology and protective of its own reputation as an educational broadcaster, turned it down and ITV only decided to show it after commissioning trials and a special report; even then some ITV companies didn't broadcast it until the eighties.
It ran on ITV until 1987 when it shifted to Channel 4. In 2001 it was replaced by The Hoobs and since then has only been seen on satellite channels. It has however spawned numerous spin-off shows - most famously The Muppet Show - and some of those are still shown on Channel 5.
Sesame Street is also remembered for spawning The Muppet Show later in the decade.
Tuesday, 27 January 2015
First watched : December 1971 or January 1972
I can be more precise about when I first watched this because it was one Monday night when I had already been put to bed but my mother called me down to watch this little lad ( Neil Reid above ) perform on Opportunity Knocks. The exact reason why is less easy to determine. Perhaps I had evinced some ambition to perform or she just felt he might be a good role model at a time when I was in a lot of conflict with my sister fuelled by "Why can't you be more like your sister ?" criticism at school. Neil was actually a poor fit for this; he was nearly twice as old as me and an experienced performer in the Scottish clubs when he first appeared on the show on 13th December 1971 and won for six weeks in a row.
I began watching it regularly some time in 1973 when bedtime had been pushed back to 8pm as I remember Peters and Lee winning it. Others I remember on the show include the singing miners Millican and Nesbitt, still one of the most unlikely acts ever to make the charts, Candlewick Green and the ghastly Lena Zavaroni whose tragic end tends to suppress mention of how awful she was.
I don't remember anyone past Pam Ayres in 1975; perhaps none of the subsequent winners were able to capitalise on it . Nor do I remember the right wing rants by oily Candaian host Hughie Green that caused , or at least gave an excuse for, the cancellation of the show in 1978. It's said that Hughie was preparing a broadcast in which he would propose himself a la Geoffrey Palmer in Reginald Perrin as the head of an alternative government.
Poor Hughie never got back on TV on a regular basis , a fact he predictably blamed on left wing blacklisting, and wasted much of his fortune on foolhardy lawsuits despite already having experienced bankruptcy in the fifties from a failed attempt to sue the BBC. His one small victory was a credit as "Programme Consultant" when the BBC revived the show under Bob Monkhouse in 1987 ( I never bothered to watch that ). He died of lung cancer in 1997 and would be largely forgotten now were it not for the revelation that he was Paula Yates's dad and therefore caught up in the ongoing real - life soap opera surrounding the late presenter and her family.
As numerous nostalgia shows and newspaper articles have pointed out in recent years, Neil's time in the spotlight was very brief and he soon found himself marooned in Blackpool doing cabaret. In his mid-thirties he quit , re-trained in finance and is now a management consultant though still based in Blackpool where he sometimes performs at the independent Oasis church.
Sunday, 25 January 2015
First watched : 1971
This is one I'd forgotten and a mite uncomfortable to write about since it means giving some credit to one of my least favourite teachers , Mrs Chapman , who read out one of Hugh Lofting's books about the good Doctor in class and I was entranced. I had the "benefit" of the good lady twice , in Infant 1 and Infant 3 ( for a reason it's unfair to people who are still alive to disclose ) and I can't recall in which of them she read the story but it was definitely before this was first broadcast on Thursday 25th September 1971.
I was greatly excited of course but it was a generally disappointing series, made by the DePatie Freleng team behind The Pink Panther Show rather than Hanna-Barbera. It placed Dr Dolittle on a ship with his apprentice Tommy Stubbins, the two-headed llama Pushmi-Pullyu and various other animals including a rock group comprised of grasshoppers who once per episode would break up the flow by performing a psychedelic rock song. Dolittle's ship toured the world on humanitarian missions but was pursued by a crew of pirates led by Sam Scurvy who had vaguely-conceived plans to rule the world once Dolittle told him the secret of conversing with the animals. By summoning animal aid Dolittle always managed to evade his clutches.
The series didn't really please anyone - Lofting himself was well past caring - and hasn't been repeated much. A second animated show The Voyages of Dr Dolittle was made in the eighties by 20th Century Fox but I've never seen that.
Saturday, 24 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
Play Away is the programme I always associate with our getting a set that received BBC Two. Whether we got it in time to watch the first episode on 20 November 1971 or mithered Mum in the knowledge it was on , I can't quite remember but it was certainly the first programme I ever watched on the third channel.
Play Away was a spin-off from Play School , explicitly targeted at slightly older children and broadcast mid-afternoon on a Saturday while Grandstand ran on the other channel. It was filmed in the same studio as Play School and Brian Cant remained head boy but he wasn't the star. For his regular co-presenter he took Play School's most recent recruit , Toni Arthur , , a former folk singer who was a little too edgy for the infants' show. On Play Away she was a force of nature in her hippy outfits , posh, voluptuous , intelligent ,ferociously jolly and up for anything. Her style was a perfect fit for the ramshackle , anarchic mixture of music and comedy and even more than Brian she held it together. Though both were happily married at the time there was a definite frisson between them on screen.
Most of the regular Play School presenters came in for at least one show including the equally gorgeous Chloe Ashcroft and Floella Benjamin but the show also unearthed new talent of its own including Anita Dobson , Tony Robinson ( who must fear that one of his trenches will eventually unearth that tank top ) and most famously, Jeremy Irons whose Shakespearean delivery made even the corniest jokes hilarious..
Play Away worked because everyone - even the notoriously po-faced Irons - was clearly having the time of their lives dressing up and making a prat of themselves. The unfeigned fun was infectious; it was impossible to watch it without a smile on your face. It was also generous and inclusive; the house band with Brian's best buddy Jonathan Cohen on piano and the fearsomely sideburned drummer Alan Rushton were out front and trusted to deliver some of the gags themselves.
At the turn of the decade it started to wither. ITV's Tiswas ,which owed it a huge debt, had cut the ground from under its feet and when Toni was lured away in 1982 to have a crack at serious drama the writing was on the wall. Most of the footage on You Tube features her unfortunate replacement Janine Sharp and it's clear the magic has evaporated.* The show was pulled at the beginning of 1984 and Brian Cant's long stint on Play School ended not long afterwards.
Though appearing only irregularly on TV since, Brian's never been short of work and remains a passionately loved figure, the more so as other celebrities from his era go down in scandal. Despite suffering from Parkinson's Disease since 1999 he has kept working and his and Cohen's nostalgia-fest theatre production Still Playing Away in 2005 was a big success. He's also had a happy family life yet you always sense a great deal of sadness when he's interviewed , as if nothing really matched up to the days when he was every child's surrogate uncle.
Toni continued in TV for a while including a stint presenting on TV-am but disappeared from the screen in the mid-eighties. She moved into teaching presentation skills to business people , theatre production and founding her own drama school. In the nineties she and her former singing partner David Arthur divorced ( though they remain friends ) . She married a university tutor 20 years ago and moved to Suffolk. In 2003 she directed "A Very Naughty Boy" based on the life of Graham Chapman at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It won First Prize and she was lionised by the likes of Eddie Izzard and Phil Jupitus who told her how much they'd enjoyed Play Away as kids. Still a hippy in her seventies, she lives quietly in Suffolk helping out local schools with reading and story-telling.
* Sadly most of the series from the Toni Arthur era has been wiped, no doubt to Irons's relief.
Friday, 23 January 2015
First watched : November 1971
This was the first of the Sunday teatime classic adaptations I can recall . It started on 14th November 1971 and ran for 5 weeks. I'm not sure I watched it right through but I remember it because the bullying scenes really shook me up. I was already intimidated by older boys so this tapped right into that fear. The scene I remember most is the one where Tom is "roasted" by being held in front of the fire for refusing to hand over his ticket in a sweepstake. With having a younger sister it wouldn't have been long since we took our fireguards down if indeed we had at this point so the scene was truly terrifying.
While you might expect the cast to be full of future stars it wasn't. Anthony Murphy who played Tom never appeared in anything else according to IMDB and Simon Fisher Turner who played his mate is better known as a composer. The star was probably Richard Morant as Flashman ; his career peaked early in Poldark and he was just a jobbing actor thereafter. Future Dr Who girl Louise Jameson had a small role in the first episode.
First watched : Uncertain
Sylvester was Looney Tunes' answer to Tom and Jerry ; he was originally to be called Thomas but the suits got cold feet about potential legal trouble. The main difference between Sylvester and Tom was that the former could vocalise his frustrations and his antagonists Tweety Bird and Speedy Gonzales could taunt him. He later appeared with Porky Pig in some cartoons where he was more of a Scooby Doo cowardly characte but I'm not sure I saw any of those.
Wednesday, 21 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
Over to ITV again for this Swedish-West German adaptation of the bestselling series of childrens' books by author Astrid Lindgren. Pippi is around 8 years old and lives with a pet monkey and horse in a large suburban house, occasionally visited by her seafaring ( and presumably widowed ) father who she has previously accompanied around the world. She is therefore a free spirit, uneducated and rough mannered - possibly autistic - but kindhearted, practicable and playful. Her trademarks are superhuman strength, usually demonstrated by lifting up her horse, and an inimitable hairstyle of ginger plaits at right angles to her head. The series of half hour episodes was made in 1969 and ITV bought it after it had been dubbed in America. Lindgren despised the 1949 film adaptation and kept her hand on the wheel with this series by writing the scripts.
Star Inger Nilsson didn't continue acting as an adult but has remained something of a celebrity in Sweden despite having a day job as a secretary in Stockholm which suggests they have a somewhat healthier attitude to fame than we do, Since 2000 she has sometimes been tempted out to do small roles on stage or screen and now looks like Val Lehman ( Bea Smith in Prisoner Cell Block H ).
This is one that I ended up watching because my sister liked it and perhaps deliberately didn't engage with it too much.
Tuesday, 20 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
In September 1971 another slice of cartoonised New York culture hit our screens with Harlem Globetrotters , making the real life side the only basketball team that most people over 40 in this country, where it remains a minority sport, could reliably name. Except as I understand it - being a non-afficianado - at least in the seventies the Globetrotters were not really a team at all but an exhibition side who toured the world promoting the sport with showboating and comedy routines in non-competitive matches , a bit like that daft Asian bloke who plays in the doubles at Wimbledon. There's nothing too wrong with that ; you could make a case that in football when Manchester City or Chelsea really turn up against the lower half Premiership teams the games are hardly more of a contest . The BBC had broadcast a couple of the Globetrotters' games in the UK before buying the cartoon.
The series featured likenesses of five famous ( in the U.S. ) players though for comic effect their manager-cum-driver was replaced by an elderly Caucasian lady and they also had a dog Dribbles whose only real function was to draw attention to the similarity of the format to Scooby Doo Where Are You ?* The guys would be on tour somewhere and blunder into a situation where criminal activity was going on. After some fairly feeble comic scrapes the situation could only be resolved by - you guessed it - a basketball game where the HG's would emerge triumphant despite the match being rigged against them. This handily allowed the same frames of basketballs being rolled along shoulders or spun on fingertips to be used in every episode. None of them had much individual personality; after all when you're depicting real , and presumably quite wealthy, people you can't portray one of them as consistently stupid for example. The most surprising thing is that they managed to squeeze out 22 30- minute variations on the story.
I might be being bit too hard on it. It did have sociological significance as the first cartoon to have a predominantly African-American cast. And for me at the time it was just there; I didn't turn it off, didn't miss it when it disappeared and have remained resolutely uninterested in basketball to this day.
* They would go on to appear three times as the "Special Guests " in The New Scooby Doo Movies.
Monday, 19 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
After a few years offscreen this Hanna-Barbera perennial returned on a Friday teatime in August 1971 prompted by the success of The Aristocats at the cinema. The title was clearly Top Cat but until the nineties the Beeb insisted on re-christening it Boss Cat out of concern that they were advertising a popular cat food. As they didn't overdub the theme tune or the many references to T.C in the show all they succeeded in doing was confusing young minds like mine.
The inspiration for Top Cat is contentious. It was originally suggested his gang was based on The East Side Kids who featured in a series of B-movies in the forties. It was later claimed the series was a cartoonised Sgt Bilko with TC'.s voicing clearly based on Phil Silvers. His tubby sidekick Benny the Ball was voiced by Maurice Gosfield who had been a cast regular on The Phil Silvers Show . Other antecedents have also been suggested.
TC. and his gang lived in dustbins on the streets of Manhattan and the plotlines usually revolved around TC's schemes to improve their standard of living and the local police patrolman Officer Dibble's attempts to thwart them and in particular to stop TC intercepting calls meant for him. His gang consist of the naive Benny, shy Choo-Choo, dim-wiited Brain, suave Fancy and resourceful Spook ( my favourite ). TC isn't the most likable of Hanna-Barbera's characters, being narcissistic and not above ripping off or stealing credit from the other members. His love-hate relationship with Dibble is one of the great cartoon antagonisms and possibly influenced Chisholm's obsession with nicking Arthur Daley in Minder.
I liked it although a lot of the New York street slang would have gone straight over my head and apparently it is the most oft-repeated HB cartoon spawning the inevitable movie in 2011.
Sunday, 18 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
I actually remember little more than the titles of these series. Hope and Keen's Crazy House was first broadcast for six weeks in the summer of 1971. Anchored by experienced variety performers and real-life cousins, Mike Hope and Albie Keen it presented a mixture of music and comedy in a domestic setting somewhat similar to ITV's Little Big Time ; Freddie and the Dreamers were actually guests on the first programme which doesn't help me separate my vague recollections.
Perhaps in response to the popularity of Here Come The Double Deckers the setting was changed to a bus for the second series in April 1972 which ditched the support players Peter Goodwright and Ruth Kettlewell and introduced a narrative thread about hunting down a family legacy. It was repeated once in the summer of 1973 ; ...Crazy House was never repeated.
Hope and Keen were regular guests on light entertainment shows until the mid-eighties when they decamped to America and performed in Las Vegas. They eventually returned and slipped into the twilight world of provincial pantomime where they might be performing still ( both turn 80 this year ).
Saturday, 17 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
This is one that divided me from my sister. She loved it ; I loathed it. It was just the look of the thing, the psychedelic colours and Crystal's appearance with the long chin and big blue hair ( and, I note now , an alarmingly short dress ). The series had no dialogue just music and with the often surreal plotlines it seemed like an escaped insert from Vision On. The series ran from 1971 to 1974 and probably did have more going for it creatively than I remember but I can't say I'm in any hurry to revisit it.
Friday, 16 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
This was my favourite of the Gerry Anderson programmes although it falls into the category of rarely-glimpsed treat. It was made straight after Thunderbirds in 1967 and - to an extent - wrapped up after 32 episodes because Anderson assumed another one wouldn't be commissioned.
The series has a darker tone than its predecessors which is probably why I preferred it. In the first episode set in 2068 an exploration of Mars commissioned by a global defence organisation called Spectrum goes horribly wrong when its commander the trigger-happy Captain Black destroys a Martian complex at the first ( mistaken ) sign of aggression. The inhabitants are a group of sentient computers, the Mysterons, who vow revenge on Earth. The Mysterons have perfected the re-arrangement of matter so they can both resurrect themselves and create indestructible facsimiles of people, starting with the hapless Captain Black to do their bidding. When they attempt the same with another Spectrum agent, Captain Scarlet, for some not properly explained reason he recovers his free will upon his resurrection and thus becomes Spectrum's most effective weapon against the Mysterons' attacks.
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is therefore much more violent and paranoid than its predecessors with the hero regularly getting killed in the knowledge he will come back to life in the next episode.
The series was rebooted with CGI in 2005 as Gerry Anderson's New Captain Scarlet and became the last completed project of Gerry's lifetime. Unfortunately his contract with ITV didn't nail down how the product would be presented and the episodes, though shown in order , were broadcast as part of the magazine show Ministry of Mayhem , cut in half without titles or even a fixed time slot which appalled him. I'm sure I'm not the only person who missed it altogether.
Wednesday, 14 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
As far as I can make out Hanna - Barbera's Yogi first came to our screens on 31 March 1971 although he first appeared on The Huckleberry Hound Show in the US in 1958, getting his breakout show in 1961. Yogi Bear was inspired by a real-life problem, the threat to visitors posed by real-life bears in U.S. National Parks, exacerbated by tourist feeding of the animals. However Yogi , his pal Boo Boo and love interest Cindy were all sympathetic, never resorting to violence when raiding picnics and their chief adversary Head Ranger Smith was presented as a humourless killjoy. Yogi's character was based on Art Carney in The Honeymooners , an American sitcom of the fifties.
Yogi has never really gone away with the inevitable live action / CGI film in 2010 which was almost-as-inevitably panned.
Tuesday, 13 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
Road Runner seemed like ITV's answer to Tom and Jerry and in fact started out in 1948 as a conscious parody of the latter. The format never changed , the road-running bird of the title was being pursued by a hungry coyote who would devise elaborate traps to catch the bird which would invariably blow up in his face . In this he was a clear ancestor of Dick Dastardly.
The first run of cartoons ran from 1948 to 1963. Later ones were made, the last in 2010 but never quite captured the magic. Wile E Coyote crossed over and became an antagonist of Bugs Bunny for a while in 1963.
Monday, 12 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
The crowning glory of the Anderson puppet stable was this one. Thunderbirds first emerged in 1965 , shortly after Stingray. The premise was that a reclusive but philanthropic billionaire Jeff Tracy had set up a non-governmental agency International Rescue using space age technology to perform humanitarian missions when needed. The spaceships were piloted by his five dashing sons aided by bespectacled geek Brains. To preserve the organisation's integrity and protect their advanced technology from misuse the Tracys hid out at a remote island with concealed launch sites. They also had double agents elsewhere in the world to obtain foreknowledge of any threats to the operation; the most notable were English aristocrat Lady Penelope and her lugubrious chauffeur, Parker.
The thing that most distinguished Thunderbirds from the other Anderson series was its 50 minute running time, double the length of Captain Scarlet or Joe 90 ( and longer than any other . For me at least this was also its Achilles heel. I'd sit down excited at the prospect of watching something longer and a little more demanding and then find my attention wandering especially when Penelope and Parker were on screen, their operations often seeming barely connected to the main story. I also found it a bit samey, one episode was much like another and the Tracy boys were so undifferentiated that to this day I couldn't tell you which one was which.
Thunderbirds was cancelled in 1966 after 32 episodes because Lew Grade overplayed his hand and failed to sell it to the American networks but it remained a staple of ITV's Saturday morning and holiday schedules throughout the seventies. ITV put it to bed in 1981 and it was off screen for a decade until the reception for a Radio Five adaptation in 1990 prompted the BBC to buy it off them. When re-broadcast in 1991 it was a massive success with huge merchandise sales and promotion of the series on other programmes such as Blue Peter making models of Tracy Island. The series was regularly repeated through the nineties and early noughties but suffered some brand damage from the 2004 live action adaptation Thunderbirds and hasn't been broadcast since 2006. Gerry Anderson, who'd sold his rights back in the seventies, described the film as "the biggest load of crap I've seen in my entire life ". However a CITV remake of the series is said to be on the way.
Sunday, 11 January 2015
First watched : 1971
Apart from some Tony Soper wildlife shorts , Mr Benn was the first new programme in the Watch With Mother slot for well over a year. It was actually the only one for which I remember my mother evincing any enthusiasm.
Mr Benn was nothing to do with the controversial politician of the time though it no doubt gave rise to many laboured political jokes among his contemporaries. David McKee's Mr Benn was seemingly modelled on Michael Palin's accountant in Monty Python who wants to be a lion tamer. The bowler-hatted commuter went into a fancy-dress shop to be served by its presumably Turkish proprietor. Once in the changing-room with his chosen costume Mr Benn would be transported to an appropriate fantasy world where he would have an adventure before the appearance of the shopkeeper in the scene heralded his return to reality and he went back home with some sort of souvenir.
Only 13 episodes of this classic ( not counting a special new episode aired on a channel called Noggin in 2005 ) were made but they were frequently repeated and are very fondly recalled, mainly you suspect by guys who have found themselves in Mr Benn's humdrum existence and long for some sort of temporary escape. I'm saying nothing.
Saturday, 10 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
The best thing about this space filler was that it did what it said on the tin; there was no false promise of excitement or tension. What you got was paper folding no more no less; even the Not The Nine O Clock News team were unable to find much to spoof in it. I can't think I ever watched it rapt but perhaps the banality cast its own spell and lodged in the memory.
Friday, 9 January 2015
First watched : 1971
I honestly can't remember much else about those years except a certain mood that permeated most of them , a melancholy feeling that I associate with watching " The Wonderful World of Disney" on Sunday nights. Sunday was a sad day - early to bed, school the next morning, I was constantly worried my homework was wrong - but as I watched the fireworks go off in the night sky, over the floodlit castles of Disneyland, I was consumed by a more general sense of dread, of imprisonment within the dreary round of school and home. Richard Papen in The Secret History ( Donna Tartt ).
Fortunately, watching TWWOD has not , so far at least, led me onto becoming an accessory to murder but I know what Donna was saying. With affordable flights to the USA ,a Disneyland just across the Channel and reasonable approximations dotted over the country now it's impossible for those born in the last thirty years or so to really understand the magic just the name conjured up for young children in the seventies. This fantasy land on earth , impossibly far away in California, brooked no other response but complete awe and longing.
Donna's also shrewd in alluding to the titles because what they wrapped around was often less than stellar. Disney had originally gone into television to finance the construction of Disneyland but wasn't going to part with the crown jewels so the TV show only featured edited versions of less successful films or material specifically written for television. By the early seventies the material was predominantly live action drama - with Mom and apple pie values well to the fore - and nature films. Animated features were a rare treat so I always associate the programme with anticipation and frequent disappointment. Genome reveals that this could have been avoided by looking at the Radio Times beforehand but perhaps I knew that and preferred to be kept in suspense.
What I particularly wanted was Donald Duck and his three nephews Huey Dewey and Louie. The ducklings were actually far more prominent in comics and appeared infrequently on screen but I wasn't to know that. At the time Dewey was denoted by a red cap ( it later became settled that Dewey wore blue ) so he became my favourite , the kids having no individual personalities. When a kind teacher gave me a monkey puppet during my hospitalisation for a serious eye injury a few months hence, he was christened Dewey ( I was reading comics with my good eye after lights out which probably wasn't advisable in the circumstances ). I still have him of course but he's rather delicate - he was a bit battered on arrival - so he's kept out of my son's reach.
Thursday, 8 January 2015
First watched : 1971
Much as I loved Wacky Races I can't say it impacted on my life off screen much but this one did and perhaps still does. This is the second entry in my Top 10.
Here Come The Double Deckers debuted on New Year's Day 1971. The series was spun out of a series of short films for Saturday morning cinema made by the Children's Film Foundation starring a gang of seven children, "The Magnificent Six and A Half" . After two successful seasons the creators Harry Booth and Roy Simpson wanted to transfer it to television but the BBC didn't bite preferring to develop the long-forgotten Adventure Weekly instead.. The idea was salvaged by Twentieth Century Fox but they wanted a new name and a new cast ; Booth and Simpson eventually managed to transfer two of the original cast over to the new series though their characters had new names.*
The series revolves around seven youngsters from mid-teens to primary-aged who have made a den-cum-laboratory in an old London bus which has ended up in a ( presumably municipal ) yard. The caretaker Albert ( Melvyn Hayes ) knows they are there but acts as their adult friend. The pin-up leader of the gang is Scooter ( Peter Firth ), helped by his jovial 2-in-c ( though this is never actually stated ) Spring ( Brinsley Forde ). He often has to defer to the knowledge of uber-geek Brains ( Michael Audreson ) whose inventions are the basis for the most memorable episodes and sometimes to the feminine wisdom of Billy ( Gillian Bailey ) . Making up the group are the obese and rather dopey Doughnut ( Douglas Simmonds ) ,surely the model for Grange Hill's Roland , the obligatory ( once 20th Century Fox got involved ) American kid Sticks ( Bruce Clark ) whose precise function in the group dynamic is never really nailed down and cute poppet Tiger ( Debbie Rusk ). The kids' home lives are never explored and their parents are never seen although the final episode does place them in school where Sticks is in the same class as Scooter and Spring despite Clark being very obviously much younger than Firth and Forde.
Beyond the above pretty much everything went, musical breaks ( to take advantage of Gillian Bailey's evident song and dance talents ) , slapstick ( often speeded-up ) , science fiction , mild satire, a little teen romance, you name it. Forde and Audreson were the survivors from the CFF series and Bailey already had an impressive c.v. for a child actress ( though she was rejected for Phyllis in The Railway Children after playing her in the TV series because Lionel Jeffries thought she was hammy which takes the biscuit of you've seen him in action ) but the others were virtually unknown.
And I absolutely loved it ; it was the first show where I was gutted if I missed it. More importantly the gang of disparate but mutually supportive pals having adventures away from adult supervision ( Albert never seems really necessary to proceedings and usually ends up behaving just as childishly as his charges ) defined an ideal of friendship that I would spend the rest of my childhood - and perhaps beyond - trying to realise ( with me in the Brains role; I knew I could never be Scooter ) .
It was always a mirage; every time I got even close it would founder very quickly. This would be through either my personal timidity - I would literally run away if something too daring was undertaken - or others' boredom with my petty stipulations ( these two factors were connected ), or my lack of an indispensable talent like Brains' s or, if it lasted long enough , the realisation of others that I was manipulating "the rules" to my own advantage. The other main reason , which I could do little about, was that the others were getting all the camaraderie they needed from being in football teams, sailing clubs etc ; they didn't need my "gangs" like I did. I, probably unfairly, blamed my father for a lot of this; as my class awareness grew, I reasoned that his conscious effort to live below his means and be able to retire at 60 was forcing me to work with unsuitable material; if we lived at a middle class address everything would be different. Actually, it would probably have been worse; I was in the top sets at secondary school but the middle class boys in them never saw me as a kindred spirit and in some cases were much nastier than the local kids.**
The most obvious manifestation was the Adventurous Club , formed with the neighbours' kids which had three separate iterations in the seventies. The name was actually chosen by my sister, laughably since this was someone who found the idea of eating a baked bean not made by Heinz too alarming ( but it was still better than my suggestion of the Helping Animals Club ). I don't think that version lasted much longer than an evening. The second one in March 1976 lasted about three weeks.The club had a den in our porch which I decorated with the initials A.C.H.Q in white paint on the front ( my mum's face was even whiter when she saw it ) and a schedule of activities which I drew up and presented as a fait accompli. The wheels started coming off when my dad destroyed the burglar alarm we'd just saved up for , after it woke him from his Saturday afternoon nap once too often. I then had the misfortune to fall victim, for the third time in as many months , to a nasty stomach bug and in my enforced absence the guys decided to form their own Fishing Club which seemed to have only one rule , that I wouldn't be allowed to join ( they were well aware I didn't have any fishing tackle at that point ) . Not that they seemed to do much angling; the club's activities seemed to consist solely of making up rude songs about me and shouting them over the fence. When the coast was clear I revived it for the last time in spring 1979 hoping that others' memories of 1976 wouldn't be as vivid as mine. They weren't , perhaps because one of my main antagonists wasn't involved this time round, and I think it just dissipated after a couple of weeks without any aggro.
Anyhow back to the programme. Only 17 episodes were made when the original plan was for 26 ( and a second series after that ). Twentieth Century Fox lost faith in the project after a change in personnel at the top and by the time the show's worldwide popularity had become evident the cast had aged too much to resume filming. At the time of writing 15 are available to watch on You Tube; ( 7 and 8 have been blocked for copyright reasons probably related to some musical content; the latter's a particular shame since Scooter ends up in a fantasy sequence with Alice in Wonderland played by a young Jane Seymour ). I've watched them all with my 6 year old son who adores them. So is the magic still there for me ?
Well, partly. The ones I particularly remember, those featuring the hovercraft , the haunted house and the robot are still great and so is Simon's favourite, the one where Brains makes Doughnut invisible to wreak havoc in a toy shop ,with its cheeky steals from Barbarella. On the other hand, if we can assume that the episodes were made in the order they were broadcast and watch them in sequence then there's a definite sense of a series running out of ideas in the later episodes. Episode 16 "Up To Scratch" certainly isn't with its time-wasting rendition of "Old MacDonald Had A Farm" - Simon protested "this is for babies !". And Episode 14 "Man's Best Friend" is simply unwatchable. Written by Hayes ( who doesn't feature at all in the subsequent episodes ) it dispenses with any narrative halfway through in favour of an embarrassing extended parody of Rowan and Martin's Laugh -In.
So what happened to them ?
Peter - no relation to Colin - Firth of course continues to have a successful acting career although it's never quite hit the heights that his Oscar nomination for Equus once promised. He apparently doesn't welcome enquiries about the series.
Brinsley Forde continued in acting but from 1975 onwards was more involved in music as part of the British reggae band Aswad . They seemed doomed to eternal support slots as a critically respected but low-selling niche act until a decision to record more commercial material saw them score a number one with "Don't Turn Around" in 1988. They enjoyed fairly regular hits until 1996 when Forde's decision to quit for spiritual reasons ended their period in the sun. Since then he has become a radio presenter on 6 Music and taken the odd acting role. A few days ago he was given an OBE in the New Year. In recent years he has become more amenable to discussing the series seeing his participation as an important role model for black children in the seventies.
Gillian Bailey also continued in acting and worked regularly in the seventies with a decent part in Poldark amongst others. She was in the first episode of another favourite programme, Blakes 7 ( though I didn't recognise her ); her brutal death in a massacre halfway through which affected me quite strongly at the time, set the tone for the whole series. The work started drying up in the eighties and after a tiny part in Lovejoy in 1991 she quit acting and went to university with the hope of becoming a script editor. That didn't work out but she stayed in academia, got a PhD and is now head of the Drama Department at the Royal Holloway University. She has always been the most approachable member of the cast for those wishing to talk about the series.
The others largely dropped out of the public eye. In contrast to his screen role as Brains's clumsy nemesis Douglas Simmonds was actually of a scientific bent . After one more appearance in a Play For Today he quit acting to concentrate on his O Levels. He eventually became a theoretical physicist and then worked in ICT for the NHS. He took early retirement hoping to spend more time in his garden but sadly died of a massive coronary in 2011 aged just 53. Michael Audreson's career is more difficult to track . His acting career stymied after an appearance in the film Young Winston then he falls off the radar until 1996 when he founded Rivendell Healthcare a treatment centre for drug addiction. He also ran a company dealing with copyright issues. In recent years he has been trying to return to media work , writing and directing a feature film which has yet to be released. Bruce Clark returned to America after an appearance in Play of the Month in 1972 and never pursued a career in acting. He is a family man living in Atlanta. Debbie Russ actually reprised the role of Tiger in a British comedy film Double Take in 1972 but her screen acting career was over by 1974 and she went to university obtaining an English degree. She worked in marketing after graduating and has since been working in radio, including a spell in Japan and doing voice over work. She is currently a news presenter for a small radio station in Surrey and singing in a part time band.
To learn more check out the excellent and still active website here Double Deckers
* A third season of The Magnificent Six and a Half shorts was made for cinema in 1972 but featured nobody from either ...Double Deckers or the previous seasons.
** My son's recent Autistic Spectrum Disorder diagnosis potentially throws a new light on all this.
Wednesday, 7 January 2015
First watched : Either 25.12.70 or 25.12.71
There isn't much to write about this one. Michael Aspel presented a few cartoons on Christmas morning. On the 1970 programme two Tom and Jerry cartoons sandwiched Pluto's Christmas Tree fanfared as "the first complete Mickey Mouse cartoon on British television in colour".
Tuesday, 6 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
Sticking with ITV, they had the rights to show Bugs Bunny cartoons. I think a detailed analysis of the wisecracking rabbit ( or was he a hare ? ) who always outwits his enemies would be pretty superfluous. In his fully developed form he emerged in 1940 and became very popular during the war in such shorts as the not much shown now Bugs Bunny Nips The Nips. The cartoons ITV was showing all pre-dated 1964 as Bugs went into hibernation between then and 1976 . He remains a popular character and the subject of new material to this day.
Monday, 5 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
Pinky and Perky were originally contemporaries of Muffin the Mule on the BBC and lasted from 1957 to 1968. These two clunky wooden string puppets spoke and sang in high pitched voices because the recordings had been sped up , a very simple gimmick but it obviously worked for a considerable length of time. With record players in every home the BBC decided it had had its day in 1968 but ITV picked up the ball and ran with the porcine pals until 1971.
In the BBC version they had a human foil and took part in skeches. This was all stripped out in the ITV show which merely had them miming and dancing to speeded up records.
A number of Pinky and Perky records were released , both singles and albums but none charted, the people being smart enough to realise they could create just as good a version from their existing record collection with a flick of the switch on their Dansette.
The pigs disappeared from the screen for two whole decades before a brief revival in The Pig Attraction ( which did spawn a very minor hit with their version of Reet Petite in 1993 ) and then morphed into animated characters for a show on CBBC in 2008 which is still being shown.
Sunday, 4 January 2015
First watched : Uncertain
This stalwart started on Wednesday 18th November 1970.
Screen Test was a quiz show for kids. Four contestants were asked questions relating ( in variable degree ) to a film clip they had just watched. One of the questions usually demanded recall of a minute observation , an idea shamelessly ripped off by The Krypton Factor a few years later. At first the quiz would be broken up by a small feature about some aspect of film-making but in 1973 the Young Film-maker of the Year competition was integrated into the format instead ( the only famous winner was Ratatouille director Jan Pinkava in 1980 ). I think there were usually four clips including one from a film that was more or less current and one that you'd never heard of, made by the Children's Film Foundation ( although I did see some of these on Saturday mornings at the ABC in Rochdale later in the decade ). The prizes were always Premium Bonds; I wonder if anyone's still holding them and whether any contestant had a big win ?
The programme was hosted by the genial Michael Rodd who looked like he'd dipped his hair in quick-setting concrete before going on screen. I don't remember either of the later presenters ( it went on till 1984 ) so I guess I tuned out some time in the late seventies.
Most of it has been wiped but there are reportedly three of the Rodd series still extant. It was a big break for Rodd who was only 26 when it started and he went on to Record Breakers and Tomorrow's World. At the start of the eighties he formed his own production company Blackrod and after two series on ITV The Real World and Circuit Training he ceased doing any presenting although he pops up now and again to contribute to business programmes and nostalgia shows.