Saturday, November 10, 2007

One of the great delights of watching old light entertainment programmes for me is when the camera pans across the orchestra. I'm enough of an anorak to be able to put names to many of the faces that show up, as they parp, honk and bash away in the service of the business they call the show. I know I'm not alone, because I've sat in darkened rooms watching shows with close friends (male, as if you needed to ask), all of us cooing "Ooooh, look, it's Kenny Clare" at the appropriate moment. One such occasion was when a friend showed me Pop Go The Sixties, a BBC/ZDF co-production from 1969, showcasing the best musical talent of the decade. In among the likes of Tom Jones, the Shadows and the Who were the Johnny Harris Orchestra, then the house band on Lulu's show. Aided by some fairly rubbish dancers, they stormed through a fantastic version of 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction', powered by the stellar drumming of Harold Fisher, whom I've mentioned here before. I've been wanting to see that bit of the show again ever since, so I was delighted when it turned up on BBC4 the other night. The bass playing is superb, too. I'm not sure who's responsible - Johnny Harris usually worked with Herbie Flowers, but it doesn't look like him to me. The Harris is pretty groovy in his own right. You can't imagine Harry Rabinowitz conducting like this.

Just one reservation: I'm not entirely sure about BBC4's decision to chop such a major show into bite-sized chunks to be used in tricky 5-minute gaps in the schedule. Let's see the whole thing in context. Even less sure am I of the right of the person who chopped the show into those chunks to claim a producer's credit for an editor's job, as one Robin Keam did.

Meanwhile, this one turned up in a TOTP2 shown on Dave (shite name, half-decent channel) the other morning. It's the Top of the Pops Orchestra under Johnny Pearson, offering their version of 'El Bimbo' by Bimbo Jet. As the camera moved across the band, I identified Clem Cattini on drums, Lowestoft's own Derek Warne on electric piano, Rick Kennedy and Bobby Lamb on trombones, Paul Keogh and Chris Rae on guitars, and Kenny Wheeler, Ian Hamer and Leon Calvert making up the trumpet section. It's playing candyfloss like this that enabled Kenny Wheeler to make several stunning, but marginally profitable albums for ECM. We must be profoundly thankful. If anyone else can identify any of the musicians I've missed, please add a comment. In particular, the southpaw bass player is unknown to me.

What the hell, while we're here, let's have some of the real stuff. Might be time for some Phil Seamen stories...

Yesterday morning, I had the very strange experience of being 130 miles from home, watching the town where I live on the television. I was woken at 8.30am by a phone call from my mother, and through the bleariness, I caught the words 'tidal surge', 'Lowestoft' and 'on the telly now'. I then spent the couple of hours before I was due to catch my train back to the eye of the storm goggling at ferocious waves and News 24's Simon McCoy standing by the fountains that Bernie Clifton opened a couple of summers back. Mercifully, the surge missed high tide, averting disaster by about 20 centimetres, and McCoy's disappointment was almost tangible, as he desperately tried to whip up a very choppy sea into a major event. "Well, it's not as bad as forecast, but it's still pretty hairy down here," he gabbled breathlessly, before grabbing a local shopkeeper for an in-depth discussion of sandbagging. I've seen it as hairy as it was on a couple of occasions in the five years I've lived here, but those times there were no satellite trucks or damp reporters to put a frame around it. If a tree falls, etc. However, with environmental attitudes as they currently stand, we 're likely to see it getting a lot more hairy in future. News 24 may yet return to these shores.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

In Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam, one of the characters is a high-flying businessman, always leaving his secretary a string of telephone numbers on which he can be contacted at any given hour, should the business balloon go up. The intention is to make him a figure of fun - a control freak too absorbed in work to notice that Woody Allen's having it off with his wife. And yet, nowadays, most of us have that oppressive level of contactability, and our nearest and dearest start to worry if the lines of communication are broken, even temporarily.

Aside from the malevolent and ever-present influence of the mobile phone, we now have to contend with social networking websites. I quite like Facebook as a way of keeping up to speed with friends and colleagues, but it's far from perfect. A friend of mine is a radio presenter. I turned on the wireless the other day to hear a stand-in doing his job. This didn't bother me, but when I logged into Facebook, my friend's page stated that he had “left his job at Wonderful Radio Fab”. I saw that he had removed his work email address and a line of specific information about his duties, and assumed that the 'left his job' line was Facebook's clunky way of saying that he had removed a bit of information, rather than an actual resignation. Nevertheless, I felt it worth sending an email to make sure all was well. Shortly after, the phone rang. It was my friend, happy to confirm that he hadn't done anything other than change a line on his profile. His absence from the airwaves had been due to attending a training course. If it hadn't been for the misleading information on Facebook, I wouldn't have given the matter a second thought.

This raised questions in my mind about what we are expected to reveal of ourselves. Facebook's assumption seems to be that we are now all so candid about everything that removing our job description from a website can only be the result of leaving that job. I removed my birthdate from the site a while back – not as a result of vanity, but because birthdates play an important role in confirming one's identity to banks, insurance brokers, etc. Does the removal of that information change my birthday? Of course not. Elsewhere on the site, I see people revealing, in plain view of anyone with an Internet connection, details of their lives that I'd think twice about confessing to a medical professional. Could we possibly be living in the too-much-information age?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Depending on your generation, the term 'old-school comedian' can be either a terrible insult or a great compliment to a gagsmith. When Bernard Manning died, it was used by his detractors as short-hand for 'unpleasant old racist', whereas when it is applied to Les Dawson, it is used affectionately to denote a high level of craftsmanship, and quite right too.

As research for my forthcoming book on variety and light entertainment, I've been trawling through a lot of 'old-school' comedy. Happily, while some of it tends to reinforce the 'where's me washboard' view of anything pre-Python being an impenetrable mess of idiotic catchphrases and cross-talk, an awful lot of it comes up fresh as a daisy and timelessly funny. For example, ITMA has dated very badly, while Much-Binding in the Marsh continues to delight and amuse.

Perhaps most surprising is the fact that some old-school comedy is easily as surreal as anything Vic and Bob or Harry Hill could come up with. Take, for example, this sublime clip of Reeves & Mortimer's fellow Teesider Jimmy James from the opening night of Tyne Tees Television in 1959. If you've ever wondered why Danny Baker sometimes says "I'll stop you going to those youth clubs" to callers on t'wireless, here's the explanation.