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'Golden Age Of Television? No It Was Not!'
The highbrow Fifties and Sixties represented broadcasting's zenith, runs the received wisdom. JAMES FLOPINSON begs to differ in an exclusive article you will be able to read in every other paper today...
Here we go again. Some toffee-nosed yesterday's man who used to front 'Panorama' tries to make a name for himself at the Edinburgh Festival by telling us how much 'better' British television was in the 'good old days'. Ho, ho, ho, say I to that. News has been dumbed down, documentaries sensationalised or pushed to the edges of the schedule, and lifestyle programmes dominate the listings. What twaddle! Reality T.V., says the chattering classes, is the blister on the big toe of the modern age, and how much better it was when we had 'The Ascent Of Man', 'Civilization' and 'The Christians'. What these people don't mention of course is that there were only three channels in Britain then. Why? Could not anyone count in those days? If the technology existed to create three channels, why was it not used to create loads more? Alright so there were no reality shows or makeover programmes, but hours of boring programmes showing old people how to play dominoes. None of these shows exists anymore, thank God, but how tedious it must have been for the discriminating viewer who loves to see sixteen year old girls jumping naked into swimming pools. There were huge gaps in the schedules until recently, which meant there was nothing on in the afternoons on B.B.C.-2 except those silly 'Trade Test Films' about homemade cars and cattle carters in Australia, while over on I.T.V. housewives watched 'Crown Court' and cried because it wasn't 'Loose Women'. Yes, there are fewer 'serious' programmes on primetime today. 'Johnny Go Home' could never be made now, and viewers can remain blissfully ignorant of the plight of homeless young people in London. Who remembers 'Market In Honey Lane', the number one show in April 1967? Well, I do, obviously, else I would not have mentioned it here, but millions don't. The news in those days was excruciatingly dull, consisting of a man in a suit sitting behind a desk reciting plain facts. Now we have tasty bimbos bestriding a set that looks like the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise, while jaunty music is used to pep up reports of earthquake disasters in India. We also no longer have inane stuff like 'On The Move' in which Bob Hoskins showed adults how to read. U.S. imports long ago lost their domination of primetime, now we have shows with clever titles like 'My Breasts Need A Firm Hand', '10 Most Embarrassing Things About Being Dead', 'Celebrity Blow Football' and 'Wudja Cudja Kickk Der Bukkit Fer Dosh?'. Saturday night schedules are better too, whereas people once watched 'The Black & White Minstrel Show' with its unmistakeable racial overtones, they can now watch repeats of 'Little Britain' with its unmistakeable racial overtones. Those expensive comedy spectaculars made by L.W.T. have long since been replaced by smug young men at desks cracking gags at the expense of '40's newsreel footage. Progress is a marvellous thing, isn't it? Many shows that would have been on B.B.C-1 in the Sixties are now on B.B.C.-4 where they get far fewer audiences. Just as many shows that are on B.B.C.-1 now will soon be on U.K. Gold where they too will get far fewer audiences. That is the way the game is played. Some B.B.C. executives pontificate about audience segmentation. I think this to be a good thing. Remember the bad old days when 28 milion people all saw the same show? How embarrassing it was to have to admit to your mates the next day you never saw it because your set had exploded? All that is now a thing of the past because nobody watches anything anymore. People get information on programmes from the Internet. Often before they are made. British viewers started a fan club for 'Heroes' before the ink was dry on the pitch document. The golden age of T.V. never existed. There is more now and much of it is far better, Just ask Davina McCall. In the words of Sixties Prime Minister Harold Macmillan 'fetch my shotgun, Dorothy. I'm off to the moor to bag a few grouse'.
'When I Get Old'
A Funny Little Poem
When I get old
I'm going to have some fun.
I want to irritate, aggravate
and generally annoy everyone.
I'll wear flared trousers
Nylon cardigans, polka-dot cravats,
Tartan scarves, woollen mittens
Orange trousers with great green spats.
I'll throw eggs at The Mayor
Write to 'The Daily Mail'
Send fan mail to Pat Boone
And my loose change to 'Save The Whale'.
I'll go to Asda's and yell &Tesco!&
Donate my laundry to a charity shop
Then when they've washed it all
I'll go there and buy back the lot.
I'll hold up post office queues
By chatting to the staff.
Grow conifers in my front garden
Dump sacks of coal in my bath.
I'll argue with shop assistants
Over the price of a loaf
And when the manager intervenes
I'll call him a 'XXXX-ing oaf'.
I'll drink beer at �1 a pint
Grumble about the juke-box noise.
Jog drinkers' elbows
Pick fights with the rougher boys.
I'll brag about my army days
Even though I didn't serve.
Flash a chestful of plastic medals
Only when I'm old will I have the nerve.
I'll play dodgems with my Tesco trolley
Give dirty looks to unmarried mothers
Castigate disabled drivers
Wave my brolly angrily at all the others.
I'll go on the B.B.C.'s 'Question Time',
To demand that conscription and hanging be brought back.
Endorse the views of Richard Littlejohn
By calling for the Chancellor to get the sack.
When I get old
I want to be all the things I've never been.
A reactionary, a pain in the neck
Not moody, mot magnificent - just plain mean!
copyright Shade Grenade 2007
"The frogs are restless tonight!"
I was at school in 1977 when the first season of 'Ripping Yarns' went out. Each new episode was a major talking-point on the bus next day. Opinions rarely coincided; two exceptions were 'Tomkinson's Scholdays' ( everyone loved it) and 'Across The Andes By Frog' ( everyone hated it ). In fact no-one dared mention the latter episode until the school gates were almost in view. Peter Finnemore, one of my friends, chirped: "Ripping Yarns last night was trash!". No-one rushed to disagree. Set in 1927, it tells the story of 'Captain Walter Snetterton' ( Palin ) who leads an expedition to the Andes to see if frogs can survive at high altitudes. The Peruvian natives ( among them Louis Mansi, later to appear in 'Allo, Allo' and Terry Gilliam associate Charles McKeown ) are far more interested in listening to English soccer matches on the radio. 'Mr.Gregory' ( Denholm Elliott ) on the British Embassy spends his time sleeping with the local women, and eventually so do most of Snetterton's expeditionary force. Tragedy looms...
If this had been a two-minute sketch for 'Monty Python', fine. But at almost thirty minutes, it is a real chore to sit through. The main sources of humour are Snetterton's failure to realise the utter pointlessness of his expedition, the natives misunderstanding the English language, and endless frog references.
The 1977 screening lacked a laugh-track ( as had 'Escape From Stalag Luft 221B' ), something that would be changed in time for repeats, but it still did not improve the episode. Elliott is as ever first-rate, as is Don Henderson as a sex-mad 'Sergeant-Major'.
Fortunately, a superb climax was a week away in the form of 'Curse Of The Claw'.
Funniest moment - the opening sequence in which a scientist dissects a frog, and pops its leg into his mouth!
Skullduggery in Cornwall!
After a two-year gap, Palin and Jones' 'Ripping Yarns' returned for a second, shorter season ( it was an expensive show to make ), of which 'Whinfrey's Last Case' was the first. It is 1913, and British Intelligence has learnt that the Germans intends to start The Great War a year early. Britain is not ready yet ( not enough spoons, for one thing ), so in desperation, that dashing adventurer 'Gerald Whinfrey' ( Palin ) is called in. To everyone's amazement, he passes on the job despite it being of great national importance, saying that he is tired and in need of a holiday. He goes to Cornwall to take up residence in Smugglers Cottage. But there is a mystery waiting for him...
Alan J.W. Bell ( of 'Last Of The Summer Wine' and 'Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy' ) took over as producer for this and the next episode 'Golden Gordon'. It boasts some stunning location shots of Cornwall and the strong supporting cast includes Maria Aitken. the late Edward Hardwicke, Richard Hurndall, Jack May and Mark Kingston. As well as the Bulldog Drummond-like Whinfrey, Palin also reprises the role of 'The Introducer' from 'Tomkinson's Schooldays'. He gives a lecture about Whinfrey's London home, completely unaware that a large van has pulled up behind him and the house can no longer be seen by the audience.
The episode received complaints on its original transmission due to the louder-than-usual laugh track. George Harrison attended the taping, and it is his laughter than caused the problem. It was mixed off the soundtrack in time for the repeats.
Despite its many plus points, 'Whinfrey's Last Case' is never as funny as it ought to be. At times it resembles a period 'Avengers' ( 'The Town Of No Return', in particular ). The movie 'Bullshot' ( made by Handmade Films, also responsible for 'Life Of Brian' ) covered the same genre a few years later and was funnier by far.
Funniest moment - Whinfrey, trapped in his bedroom at the cottage, discovers not one but 23 different exits!
Second funniest moment - at the inn, Whinfrey is introduced to several local men, all of whom have beards and are named either Tony or Eddie. "Good to be among sane people again!", remarks Whinfrey. The camera then cuts to a man who looks anything but.
Whodunnit? Everyone dunnit!
Next to 'Tomkinson's Schooldays', this is my favourite 'Ripping Yarns' episode. 'Sir Clive Chiddingfold' ( the wonderful Frank Middlemass ) and 'Lady Chiddingfold' ( Isabel Dean ) have a family get together one weekend at Moorstones Manor. Their sons are the car-obsessed 'Hugo' ( Palin ) and his bounder of a brother 'Charles' ( Also Palin ), the latter being responsible for the murder of 'Aunt Mabel' ( though we never find out why ). Hugo dumps his wife 'Dora' ( Candace Glendenning ) en route and arrives at the manor alone, while Charles's wife 'Ruth' ( Ann Zelda ) wants whisky but keeps being offered Bovril. Then the deaths begin, and the first to go is Sir Clive himself...
A wonderfully funny half-hour, bolstered by a first-rate supporting cast. Middlemass' torture-obsessed 'Sir Clive' is reminiscent of Trevor Howard's 'Sir Henry At Rawlinson End', while Dean affects the right blend of sweetness and light as his wife. Special mention must go to the late Harold Innocent as the devoted butler 'Manners'. Iain Cuthbertson's 'Doctor' does not show up until late in the story, but he's worth waiting for, trying to seduce Lady Chiddingfold and complaining about his 'cheap upper lip'. But its Palin's show throughout. His 'Charles' is a fabulous Woosterish character, stuck-up, referring to his mother as 'Mumsy' and father as 'Dadsie Pie' while plotting to do away with his family to inherit the Chiddingfold estate.
Funniest moment - alone with Hugo's corpse, Charles' rifle goes off. He explains to his mother that he was cleaning it and it went off by accident, the bullets hitting Hugo. "But Hugo's already dead!", she points out. "Yes, I know!", says Charles, casually, "Lucky thing!".
Second funniest moment - the Peckinpah-inspired climax!
Produced by Terry Hughes.
The not-so great escape
When this was originally broadcast in 1977, it lacked a laugh track ( the previous episodes did not ) and subsequently came across as a bit flat. For the repeats, a laugh track was added. With Terry Hughes having moved on, 'Goodies' producer Jim Franklin took his place.
'Escape From Stalag Luft 112 B' is, as you may already have gathered, a send-up of P.O.W. movies such as 'The Colditz Story'. Palin plays 'Major Phipps', a British officer determined at all costs to escape from Germany and get back to Blighty to resume the fight against the Bosche. So determined is he that he makes escape attempts repeatedly, including three on the way to the prison camp. His fellow prisoners don't seem particularly keen to go with him. The opening scene has Phipps trying to waken his fellow officers in the middle of the night, only to be met with apathy. Then comes the morning when he wakes up to find the others have all escaped, and that he is the only P.O.W. left in the place...
Even with a laugh track, this does not come across as particularly funny. Part of the problem is that it is a bit too similar to 'Tomkinson's Schooldays' ( which also had Palin trying to escape from a terrifying establishment ). The genre itself has been parodied extensively, ranging from the excellent film 'Very Important Person' in 1960 to 'The Dick Emery Show' and David Nobbs' 'Stalag Luft', which starred Stephen Fry. Palin and Jones are not able to bring a fresh perspective to the subject. Still, there are some good moments, and the late Roy Kinnear makes a welcome guest appearance as 'Vogel'. David Griffin ( later to appear in 'Hi-de-Hi' and 'Keeping Up Appearances' ) and John Phillips also are on view. One of the Germans is called 'Biolek', possibly named after Alfred Biolek, the television executive who brought the Pythons to Germany.
Funniest moment - Phipps being woken in the middle of the night by the Germans, who shyly ask him if they can accompany him on his next escape!
The bore of Denley Moor!
'The Testing Of Eric Olthwaite' was the first 'Ripping Yarns' episode made following the pilot 'Tomkinson's Schooldays'. Palin and Jones decided to remove the Pythonesque element from the show, and do something in a gentler vein. 'Testing' tells the story of Eric Olthwaite ( Palin ), a man so incredibly boring his interests go no further than how black a black pudding can be, his neighbour's shovels, and rainfall. His family get so fed up of him they leave home, taking the outside loo with them. Eric decides to make himself more interesting by getting a job in a bank, and that's where he meets 'Arthur' ( Ken Colley, who played 'Jesus' in 'Monty Python's Life Of Brian' ), who is robbing the place. Arthur takes along Eric as hostage...
As noted earlier, the humour is considerably different from the previous episode. There is affection on view for the characters, particularly boring old Eric. Influences here come from any number of Northern dramas, the Alec Guinness movie 'The Card', 'Bonnie & Clyde', and even a famous television commercial for Hovis bread. The supporting cast includes Barbara New and John Barett as Eric parents, Anita Carey as Eric's toilet-mouthed sister, Petra Markham as 'Enid Bag' ( who is sexually promiscuous but Eric never notices this ), and Reg Lye ( an Australian actor who came to Britain in the 19960's and made a living playing Cockneys, Scots, and various assorted nationalities! ).
Funniest moment - Eric fetching coal for the fire. Its located in a sideboard in the living room!
Palin and Jones decided to have another crack at northern melodrama in Season 2's 'Golden Gordon' ( which references 'Testing' ).
The worst days of your life!
I regret to say I missed this particular episode on its original screening. I caught it in 1977 when it prefaced the 'Ripping Yarns' series. For the uninformed, it was a comedy series - shot on film - starring Michael Palin, written by him and Terry Jones, and designed as a spoof of 'Boys Own' adventure stories. Palin and Jones were fresh from 'Monty Python' and it shows. 'Tomkinson' ( Palin ) enlists as a pupil at Graybridge school, a place so fearsome as to make Colditz castle seem like Butlins. Strict discipline is in force; boys are either shot or nailed to the walls as punishment, and the headmaster ( Palin ) is a pervert who loves a good caning. The school bully ( he has an office with 'School Bully' written on the door ) is 'Grayson' ( a pre-'Saint' Ian Ogilvy ), who regards Tomkinson as a 'snivelling little tick' and is determined to keep him in his place. Tomkinson makes several daring escape attempts, but each time is caught and brought back. Eventually, he experiences the ultimate horror - he is made to compete in an inter-school hopping race...
That's enough of the plot. To say too much more would spoil the fun. As you may have gathered, 'Tom Brown's Schooldays' is the main target here, with nods to the television series 'Orson Welles' Great Mysteries' and umpteen P.O.W. movies. Palin is on great form as both the fresh-faced 'Tomkinson' and the 'Bash Street Kids'-like 'Headmaster'. Jones makes his only 'Ripping Yarns' appearance is one of the teachers. Special mention must be made of Gwen Watford as Tomkinson's mother, whom butter would not melt in her mouth yet is followed everywhere she goes by randy, half-dressed men.
Funniest moment - Tomkinson wrestling the school bear! Second funniest moment - Grayson announcing he is leaving Graybridge to become the new school bully at Eton, as theirs has 'gone to join the government'! With Britain currently being run by the Bullingdon mafia, the joke is much funnier now than it was then!
If a picture paints 1000 deaths..
John Kneubuhl's 'The Night Of The Surreal McCoy' is unique in two respects; firstly, there is no female lead, and secondly, it presents possibly the most outrageous concept ever seen in the series. The Herzburg Crown Jewels are stolen from a Denver gallery, a guard murdered, and yet there is no sign of a break-in. Jim and Arte are baffled. Noticing that a painting in the gallery is fake, they follow the owner - 'Axel Morgan' ( John Doucette ) - to his ranch. His safe contains the stolen jewels. Jim is attacked by three men who have apparently appeared out of nowhere. Arte escapes, but Jim gets captured and taken to Morgan's boss - Dr.Loveless!
The evil cherub has found a way - using sound waves - to transmit people into old paintings, and by donating these to galleries can pull off amazing robberies. Jim must battle a gang of gunfighters inside a painting of a deserted western town, while Arte tries to pass himself off as the legendary 'Lightning McCoy' ( John Alonzo ). It is the outrageousness of the central premise - almost Pythonesque - that makes this so much fun to watch. I bet no-one would have the nerve to do anything like it today.
The league of gentlemen assassins
Donn Mullally's 'The Night Of The Grand Emir' opens with Jim and Arte on assignment - to protect the 'Grand Emir El Emid' ( Robert Middleton ) who is in the States for an operation. A dancer tries to blow him up, but Jim saves his life. He follows her as she escapes in a carriage. She drugs him using her special ring. An exile called 'Dr.Mohammed Bey' ( James Lamphier ) is her boss. Jim is suspended from a ceiling by strait-jacket. The dancer - the wonderfully-named 'Ecstasy La Joie' ( Yvonne Craig ) - is given a tambourine which, when thrown like a frisbee, will cut the head off of anyone unlucky enough to be in the way...
Usually television plots where the hero has to act as bodyguard to a visiting monarch or dignitary bore me rigid. But this one is well above average, thanks to the ingenious 'Avengers'-like concept of a club of gentleman assassins, led by ''T.Wiggett Jones' ( Don Francks ). Richard Jaeckel - 'Sergeant Bowren' of 'The Dirty Dozen' - is one of their number. The club wants the Emir dead to acquire a stretch of the Suez canal. Jim is placed in a cubicle where the air will cut out unless he agrees to join up. Fast-moving fun. And it goes without saying that Yvonne 'Batgirl' Craig is an absolute knockout as the luscious Ecstasy! Her tambourine must have been made by the same firm responsible for Oddjob's bowler hat!
Enter the warrior
It is hard to credit now but 'Last Of The Summer Wine' originally went out in a post-watershed slot on week-nights. It was only when it was moved to Sunday evenings that it took off in the ratings. 'The Man From Oswestry' opened Season 3. 'Cyril Blamire' ( Michael Bates ) has moved to Oswestry to court a widow, leaving his friends 'Compo' ( Bill Owen ) and 'Clegg' ( Peter Sallis ) to mourn his absence. The former, in particular, no longer has anyone to boss him about. Just as life begins to become really dull, salvation comes in the form of 'Foggy Dewhurst' ( Brian Wilde ), an eccentric ex-military officer who thinks the world would be a far better place if everyone stood to attention on hearing the sound of a bugle. He also has a penchant for 'mind fogs' - often losing concentration in the middle of sentences. Compo and Clegg take to him immediately. But Foggy's first outing to the pub is a disaster - he is confronted by the bullying 'Big Malcolm' ( Paul Luty )...
If ever there was a golden age for 'Last', this is where it started. The character of 'Foggy' gelled perfectly with the others, indeed many plots revolved around his idiotic schemes to make the world a better place. Michael Bates left the show to concentrate on 'It Ain't Half Hot Mum', a sitcom that made better use of his talents. 'Blamire' was never mentioned in the show again. Whenb Roy Clarke came to write 'First Of The Summer Wine' in 1988, he ignored the character completely. Paul Luty had been 'Nobby' the barman in I.T.V.'s 'Love Thy Neighbour'.
Funniest moment - Foggy, Compo and Clegg pushing his trunk uphill on a cart, only for Foggy's scarf to become wrapped around one of the wheels. When they stop, the cart rolls backwards, pulling him along with it.
The brain drain
The title is a misnomer. Henry Sharp's 'The Night Of The Druid's Blood' contains neither druids ( there are witches though ) or blood. It opens with the strange death of 'Professor Robey' ( Don Beddoe ) who bursts into flame before Jim's startled eyes. He had recently become infatuated with the beautiful 'Lilith' ( Ann Elder ). Before Jim can investigate further, he is suddenly taken off the case by 'Senator Waterford' ( Bartlett Robinson ). When Jim meets the man's wife, he begins to understand why - she is 'Lilith'.
Don Rickles plays evil magician 'Asmodeus', a prototype of Victor Buono's 'Count Manzeppi' from Season 2. Other distinguished scientists have perished recently, mainly in towns where Asmodeus has been playing theatres. But neither he nor 'Astarte' ( Lilith's real name ) are the real brains behind the outfit. The real brains are, in fact, brains...
The late Rhys Williams will be familiar to genre fans as 'Dr.Krupov', one of the triumvirate behind the GALAXY organisation in 'Our Man Flint' ( 1966 ). His 'Dr.Tristam' has not killed the scientists, but faked their deaths and preserved their brains in special tanks. Introducing this episode on the D.V.D., Robert Conrad had an attack of giggles recalling the scene where Jim persuades the brains to rebel against Tristam. It is certainly one of the more bizarre moments from the series. Along with the sight of Jim turning himself into a living rocket to escape a cell.