Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The New Year's Honours List makes me wonder, as all honours list announcements do, about the relative values at work behind it. Is a lifetime of literary excellence worth the same as a few years of cycling quite fast? Even if you think Chris Hoy deserves his gong, why's he getting it at 32, when Terry Pratchett had to wait until he was 60? And would Pratchett have had a sniff without the announcement that he's battling Alzheimer's? When she notched up her swimming double gold, I predicted that it'd be Dame Rebecca Adlington come December. Fortunately, a 19 year-old DBE was too much even for the honours selectors this time, so she gets the OBE - which is just about right, I'd say, but if she manages another gold in 2012, she's a shoo-in, isn't she? If forced to write about Kelly Holmes or Tanni Grey-Thompson, I would have to refer to 'Dame' Kelly and 'Dame' Tanni - so risible do I find their titles. So, the question is: Why do sports men and women get instant high-level gratification from the gong squad? It's a recent thing. After Moscow 1980, Steve Ovett got an OBE, Sebastian Coe got an MBE. Coe's later elevation was the result of his political career (political honours are a whole other can of worms, which, given time, we might well open). Does this indicate the devaluation of honours? Or am I guilty of doing a Rhodes Boyson?

There are other, subtler distinctions at play in the whole sideshow. Why is it Sir Mick Jagger, but only Robert Plant CBE? Sir Percy's got a ring to it, no? Why is it Sir Tom Jones, but only Bruce Forsyth CBE or Ronnie Corbett OBE? Why do I care so much about this largely meaningless display of patronage? Stan Tracey had it right when he received the OBE (since upgraded to a C, but if anyone deserves an hereditary peerage for services to jazz, it's Stan). Someone said to him that he must feel very honoured. He replied "Does it get me a discount in Sainsbury's?".

Saturday, December 27, 2008

I've been watching and reading the numerous reports on the poverty-stricken abandoning their dogs with a mixture of distress and anger. It's costing too much to feed the dogs, they claim. Bollocks. Utter bollocks. Good, healthy dry dog food - complete, not mixer - can be bought loose in pet shops for about a pound a kilo. A kilo lasts for about a fortnight in the case of my own, admittedly small, canine associate, supplemented, of course, by whatever she can get off my plate. That's a pound for two weeks of uncritical adoration, and the distinct sense that not everything's completely buggered. Dogs are life-enhancers, but it's not one-way traffic. People who claim poverty need to look long and hard at their spending habits before abandoning the dog. How many of them spend a tenner a day on fags? How many complain about the price of their own food, but persist in buying pre-packaged crap and ready meals rather than buying ingredients and making it themselves?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas is off to a flying start here, thanks to Gary Rodger, who alerted me to the following lines in Robin Askwith's Wikipedia entry:

"Recently several internet sites - including the IMDB - claimed Askwith had played the lead in Oh No, Its Derek Anus, a 1972 LWT sitcom. However it has since emerged that this was an internet prank/hoax and no such TV show exists, the IMDB no longer carries a listing for Derek Anus."

The trouble is that I now want this show to be real. It couldn't be worse than Bottle Boys.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

And so we reach the final window of the Cheeseford Virtual TV Nostalgia Advent Calendar, prising the flap open gingerly and wondering what in the name of Jesus H Cribbins we can expect to see. Oh, it's a VT clock blackboard. How exciting. However, before you all demand refunds, let me tell you that this is the VT clock from studio A at Broadcasting House, Whiteladies Road, Bristol, now enjoying a very happy retirement. As a result, if any of you have timecoded Windmill Road windfalls of things like Vision On, Animal Magic, Jigsaw, Think of a Number, Leap in the Dark, Scoop, Take Hart, etc, this is the actual bit of blackboard that you see at the start. Not Rutland Weekend Television series 2, unfortunately, as though the shows were made in studio A at Whiteladies Road, they were given new, different clocks by the VT editors. Unfortunately, the accompanying Smiths clock became detached when studio A was taken out of commission, and is probably now in landfill somewhere under the M4.

As a special Christmas bonus, I have been alerted to the return of the ads for Mike's Carpets to Yorkshire Television. These cheaply-made efforts, featuring a man in a roomful of synthetic rugs with something similar perched on his bonce are the kind of commercials that come to the fore in times of recession. During boom times, ITV lives high off the hog, and has no need of Mike's advertising pound. However, when the chips are down and the Woolworths account has gone down the gurgler, the rate card goes out of the window and all money is good money, especially if it prevents ad breaks from consisting entirely of trailers for things starring Robson Green. Here's some vintage Mike. I'm just off to record a couple of hours of YTV in the hope of catching one of the new ads. Merry Christmas to one and all.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In the penultimate window of the CVTNAC, we have a spread from a 1957 book on TV (I have no idea what it's called, because it lost the covers and title page long before I got hold of it) about the building of the BBC Television Centre.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Having spent the majority of the weekend either recovering from a monumental hangover or trying not to emulate Rod Hull's dying moments while attempting to capture two different satellites on the same dish (I gave up on Hotbird 13E, as there's nothing of interest on it save for the odd Arabic test card and the surreal experience that is Tele Padre Pio - finally I managed to get the whole thing into a position where both Astra satellites came in loud and clear), we're now playing catch-up.

So, for what would have been Saturday's offering, have another end credit, this time from Morecambe & Wise's 1976 Christmas show. This is, apparently, the only picture in existence of the boys with producer Ernest Maxin (the frantic pace of rehearsal and production left nary enough time for even a snapshot), and even then, Maxin is obscured. Perhaps they thought he was too handsome to share the limelight with them. Bunging this fine picture on here gives me a chance to alert your attention to the latest issue of the very fine Kettering which contains a piece by me on how video tape rescued the Christmas TV schedules, and a splendid dissertation on Sunday night ITV comedies by that nice Mr Norman, among other treats.

In Sunday's window, we find one of the obscurer idents from the 2002-2006 BBC1 'Rhythm and Movement' package, while for Monday, we return to 1993 for an edition of The Late Show about the new ITV contractors. The production credit for the programme was in the style of the idents used at the time by Carlton in London.

Friday, December 19, 2008

For today's Advent calendar entry, we see what happens when you play the wrong take of a current affairs show.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The 18th window of the CVTNAC springs open to reveal this floor plan of studio G at Lime Grove, the compact complex occupied by BBC Television from 1950 to 1991. Over the years, G was home to shows like Dee Time and Top of the Pops, but its rectangular shape made it less ideal for situation comedies. The first Hancock's Half Hour TV series was made here, but the various sets had to be placed in a line along one wall, with the audience a few seats deep along the other, with a majority of audience members unable to see what was going on at any given time. It was never converted to colour and closed in the very early 1970s.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Pye mark 4 advert for the 17th day of Advent.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tuesday's Advent calendar window pops open to reveal a coaster advertising HTV's studio and post-production facilities. The north Wales facility was reputedly very little used as news editors hated stories that were covered in Mold. Ay theng yew.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A double bill for today, as I was unable to get to a computer on Sunday. First off, the electronic test card known to its friends and associates as PM5544. Check your gratings. Go on. Fiddle with your colour, brightness and contrast until everything looks just right. It's all good, and it's all for you.

Secondly, the final credit from the BBC's 1972 adaptation of Hedda Gabler, complete with copyright date added as an afterthought, as this was the transitional era between shows ending with a simple BBC tv (up to late 1971, if memory serves), BBC Colour (late 1971-early 1972) and displaying a date. Roman numerals were adopted from 1977 onwards, apparently to disguise the age of some of the repeats.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The LWT graphics department was always one of the best in the business, as day 13's offering goes some small way to prove. It's a still from the ident that heralded London Weekend's late night programming in the mid-1980s. The neon effect of the lettering is clearly being used to indicate glamour, glitz, excitement and possibly even naughtiness. The purpose of the graphic is to persuade insomniacs and sociopaths that sitting up into the dark watches of the night watching cheaply bought-in programmes was somehow comparable to hitting the town and having a good time. This comes from a tape of an edition of The Monte Carlo Show, featuring Anthony Newley. It was recorded (on Friday 21 June 1985, I am informed by the Times Digital Archive) for the benefit of my grandmother, who thought the sun shone out of Newley's backside, and for 'Strawberry Fair' alone, I'll concede that she may well have had a point. It was recorded on a timer as, on the night of transmission, my grandparents were actually out having a good time, probably at the bingo in Kingston. Unfortunately, an earlier programme had over-run (most likely the Athletics from Birmingham) and as this was very early in the Cheeseford family's adoption of wondrous VHS technology, padding the recording time was unheard of. So, we ended up with the last 10 minutes of a dubbed foreign film called There Once Was a Cop, and poor old Tony Newley being truncated in the middle of a disco version of 'Who Can I Turn To?'. The dubbed foreign film contains a child actor who would have been supremely slappable even if he hadn't robbed my dear old Nan of the finale of The Monte Carlo Show.

Talking of slappable, I was almost roused to violence at the cashpoint earlier. Now, I try wherever possible to avoid the Daily Mail 'hell in a handcart/isn't everything ghastly?' view of modern life. This isn't because I think everything's just dandy. It's because I believe fervently that man's default position is rudeness and self-interest, and that we've always been closer to hell than we care to acknowledge. However, the arsehole who pushed in front of me as I tried to pay a cheque in must be closer than most. There I was, standing well back from the person ahead of me in the queue, doing that ostentatious 'I can't see your PIN. Ooooh look at the watch straps in Timpsons' window' thing. I turned back to notice a chap had taken up a position at my side, a little in front of me. It came to what I knew to be my turn, and this bloke stepped forward with me, and stood at my side, looking at the keypad. Momentarily discombobulated by the brass neck of the man, I turned to him and said "If you're that desperate, you'd better go in front", rather than telling him to get behind me and wait his fucking turn. He said "Thanks", barged in and inserted his card. To the back of his head, I said "Actually, I was being a little sarcastic back then. I've got better things to do than stand around by cashpoints on freezing cold nights, giving way to pisstakers". He got his money out. He went back to his car, where his fugly wife/sister/both was waiting. I put my card in, and the screen changed to read 'Temporarily out of service'. At this point, had I been in need of cash rather than depositing, I wouldn't have liked to be this twunt. I would have thrown my bike squarely at his windscreen and taken the consequences fully. How do people like that go through life without ending up perpetually in traction?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Today's Advent calendar window pops open to reveal a set of colour bars displayed before the launch of BBC Arabic earlier this year, on its allocated channel on the Astra 19.2E satellite cluster. It's 720x576, so can be re-used to add jollity to your home movies and DVD compilations.

STOP PRESS: I have had an offer of a diary.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

For day 11, here's something I found in the bottom of a drawer in my desk.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The 10th window on the CVTNAC takes us back to the mid-1980s and the Jazz 625 reruns on BBC2. Meanwhile, as a bonus, I thought I'd share some goodness that's been filling my ears of late. It's Stan Kenton's version of Hank Levy's 'Chiapas', recorded for BBC TV in 1972, and a finer bit of big band 5/4 you're unlikely to hear in a month of Sundays. Gary Husband's Force Majeure did a pretty super version of this tune a few years back too.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Day 9 of the advent calendar shenanigans, and it's back to the mid-1980s for a graphic used by Thames when announcing a choice of viewing on ITV and Channel 4. Imagine Philip Elsmore or Peter Marshall doing the announcement, and you're there.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Day 8. Even I, a hater of Big Brother and all it represents, can't help but hear those 2 words in a Marcus Bentley voice. To mark this milestone, we head back to the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television (as it was in 2004) and the hands-on studio exhibit. Like the tube simulators at the London Transport Museum, this was always crawling with children until slightly menacing-looking 30-something men in corduroy jackets suggested that they might like to go and amuse themselves in the museum shop for a bit. With the anklebiters despatched, the adults could give it some crab, had not the dolly been fixed to the floor. The camera casing is that of an ex-YTV Link 130, the development of which was so problematic and expensive that it brought TV camera production in the UK to an inglorious end. More sweepings from the studio linoleum tomorrow.

And now an appeal on behalf of Cheeseford. The other day, I found myself in a well-known chain of stationers, perusing the pocket diaries. Then I thought that there must still be companies or organisations out there flush enough to have their own diaries made for their staff and to give away to valued clients, etc. So, before I shell out for a standard Letts job with integral pencil, is there anyone reading this with access to complimentary diaries, and, if so, can I please have one? The more outlandish or notorious the firm, the better. If South African Nazi Tobacco are kind enough to give me the means to organise my 2009, then I owe it to them to carry their week-to-view masterpiece with pride. And if I get more than one offer, I will find homes for the surplus in a spirit of mutual goodwill, back-slapping and cross-fertilisation.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

I note with sadness the recent announcement that all future ITV1 regional programming for the east of England will be presented from a shed at Postwick Park & Ride by BC, the Birthday Club tigerbear thing. Clare Weller's out of a job and John Francis is jiggered, while Stephen Lee's already made arrangements for himself and his increasingly surreal hair to emigrate to Australia. I shouldn't sound so flippant. The erosion of the ITV network and the role played by the regional companies angers me hugely. Anglia, while no longer a producer of network drama or entertainment, is still a good outfit.

So, for day 7 of the CVTNAC, I present a 2005 leaflet sent to satellite-equipped houses in the east of the Anglia region, announcing that they no longer had to watch the Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire variant of Anglia Tonight, as ITV had shelled out to send both Anglia sub-regions into outer space. Comely weather person Wendy Hurrell must have sensed the way things were going, as she's now with BBC London. Incidentally, if the winner of the "meal at one of East Anglia's most prestigious restaurants" is reading this, please get in touch. It was saveloy and chips from the stall in Norwich market, wasn't it?

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Having posted a vintage bulletin on aerial placement, I have my own reception quandary. When I moved into my current house, it had 2 satellite dishes. One on the front, aimed at Astra 19.2E - home of the old Sky analogue transmissions and numerous continental stations, and one at the back, for receiving Sky Digital. I've kept the front dish aimed at 19.2E, because stations like BR-Alpha and 3Sat show more live jazz in a week than the BBC deigns to shove out in a year. Those who are thinking 'Yeah right, I bet that's not the sort of jazz he's interested in' will be disappointed to hear that the free-to-air porn is very tame and mostly obscured by ads for on-screen phone lines, and does not justify the presence of a large, ugly piece of metalwork on the facade of my abode. The prospect of an hour of archive John Coltrane every now and again, however, does.

As for the digital minidish on the back of the house, I've kept it for ready access to the BBC and ITV regional opt-outs. There's very little difference between them these days, but it was always nice to be able to dial into Puffin's Pla(i)ce if the mood took me. Also when a programme started later in Northern Ireland, it acted as a +1 option. However, the installation came into its own on New Year's Eve, allowing the Swiss Family Cheeseford to tap into BBC1 Scotland for the Still Game Hogmanay special and a rather jolly celebration of the New Year with Caledonian current affairs' top Marti Caine lookalike, Jackie Bird. The other satellite box also gets a bit of a pasting on NYE, what with Dinner for One and all that.

However, in recent months, the signal quality on the 28.2E installation has dropped, making reception very intermittent. Reading around on the Internet, I worked out that the old LNB (the bit on the front of the dish) had started to fail. I had a spare LNB, bought in Lidl many moons ago, and today I finally summoned up the enthusiasm to replace the old device. The problem is that the dish is on a part of the roof that can't be accessed readily without duckboards and considerable risk to life. As dishes require very fine adjustment to give of their best, staying at a safe distance and prodding it round with a broom handle doesn't really work. I spent most of this morning up a ladder, cutting cables to length and titting around with the brackets, but to no avail. The new LNB's on there, it's picking up something, but it's off-kilter. I had to give up as the light was failing, and I'm going to have another prod with the broom tomorrow, but I can't help but think that with minidishes going for £20-odd on eBay, I should just buy a new one and put it somewhere that I can get at it. Fair enough, but then comes the question 'Can I justify £20 plus P&P, then an afternoon up a ladder making everyone anxious, simply for one night's television a year and the occasional glimpse at Gordon Burns on North West Tonight?'. These are straitened times, and with perfectly adequate Freeview, plus whatever I can swipe from the Germans, and numerous other repair jobs ahead of this in the financial queue, I'm inclining towards 'No'.

STOP PRESS: No joy with day 2 of Operation Broomprod. I think I can, however, run to an auxiliary bracket costing less than a tenner that allows me to receive 19.2E and 28.2E on the same dish. Sorted.
Some moving pictures for day 6 of advent, in the form of expert advice from the gentlemen and lady (whodathunkit?) of Crawley Court on how to get the most from your aerial installation.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Oh dear. Oh dearie me. Graham Norton's taking over from Wogan as the Eurovision commentator. Now, I'm sure I've read an interview with Norton where he admits to not being wildly enthusiastic about the whole contest, despite being in the caricature fan demographic. I had allowed myself to become convinced that Paddy O'Connell was being lined up for the job when Sir Tel decided to cry 'basta', and, on the basis of Paddy's performance in last year's semis, I'd have had no problem with that at all. In a way it's liberating. I've always wanted to watch the German coverage, but haven't been able to drag myself away from Sir Tel and the Bailey's, but it'll be ARD all the way for 2009.
Day 5, and we whisk you back to 1977 for a recording of It's Patently Obvious, a panel game best described as a cross between Going for a Song and Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. In it, experts like Professor Eric Laithwaite and laymen like William Woollard competed to identify weird and wonderful objects that had, at some stage in history, been patented by their inventors. All of this was achieved under the avuncular bespectacled eyes of Ian Macnaught-Davis, paying the rent in the days before he invented computers. In the late 1980s, with daytime schedulers requiring the odd diversion to stop Anne Diamond and Nick Owen (to say nothing of Ross King) dying from overwork, BBC1 dug out and repeated all of the surviving editions of IPO. Cheeseford believes that it's time for another run, if only to get Lorne Spicer off the bloody screen for a bit.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Day 4 of the CVTNAC and we veer away from captions and continuity to bring you Brian Walden sparking up a snout for Neil Kinnock, during an early 1980s LWT studio session for Weekend World.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Day 3 of advent, and a curio for the continuity enthusiasts. I know when this hybrid was used, but does anyone else recognise it? This message comes to you half-dead from the 24-hour McDonald's at Liverpool Street where I await the first train back to Lowestoft. I did a smash and grab raid on that London to undertake some research viewing at the BFI, attend the AQA 63336 Christmas party and do the radio stuff with Big George. The last of these went splendidly well, as you might expect. At points, it was hard to tell who was interviewing whom.

For anyone wondering what my connection to AQA is, I'm one of the researchers. I might even have told you what time your last bus leaves in the past. I also wrote most of the chapter introductions in the current Brilliant Answers book, so, in a sense, I have two books out there this Christmas. Give generously to an author who's not quite starving, but who seems to be landed with unexpected expenditure at every turn.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

A word of warning that I'll be guesting on Big George's overnight show on BBC London 94.9 tonight. It kicks off at 2am, and can be heard online at

Monday, December 01, 2008

Time to open the second door on what they're all calling the CVTNAC. Oooh, bit of a left-fielder for 2 December. The nightly news programme of the German channel BR-Alpha wishes its viewers a happy new year with a picture of a transmitting mast.
I wonder if rising electricity costs will deter anyone from switching on their external Christmas lights this year? If so, some good will have come from the economic downturn. I can see the appeal of a modest row of fairy lights hung along the guttering, but I deplore the mini-Blackpools that seem to have proliferated in recent years. Maybe I'm just a joyless old sod. At least I'm not alone, as this exquisite Christopher Howse piece, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph around this time last year, proves. Merry advent to you, let's open the first door on the Cheeseford Virtual TV Nostalgia Advent Calendar.

Lovely. Another broadcasting icon tomorrow.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Yesterday, I had a very illuminating conversation with Harry King of BBC Radio Cumbria. On Monday evenings, he presents a weekly delve into entertainment nostalgia, and wants to feature Turned Out Nice Again on his show. Which is nice.

However, in a former life, Harry was a Border Television man, producing and directing programmes like Mr & Mrs and Look Who's Talking for the ITV network. As ITV stands now, it's astonishing to think that two popular network shows could come from one of the smallest regional companies. Having visited Border in the early 1990s when a friend worked there and seen the size of the studio they used for quiz shows and chat shows with a live audience, it's even more astonishing. I've just hoiked Television and Radio 1984 off the shelf, and it says that Border's biggest studio was 94 square metres. At BBC Television Centre, the old N1 news studio (now TC10, used for very small, simple productions) was 111 square metres. Sadly, the Durranhill studios are not long for this world, with the Border region set to be rationalised out of existence in the digital switchover.

They were good shows too, not parochial. Look Who's Talking regularly got top entertainment names up to Carlisle for a chat with Derek Batey. Border also made some big shows for Channel 4, not least The Groovy Fellers with Jools Holland and Rowland Rivron - which was a truly great example of what can happen when funny people are sent off to apparently random places with a camera crew in tow. Streets ahead of Paul India in Merton, certainly.

Now, just about everything studio-based ITV show is made in London, Manchester or, to a lesser degree, Leeds. Gone is Anglia's fine tradition of drama programming and Sale of the Century. No more children's programmes from Southern/TVS. No more That's My Dog from Plymouth. With the BBC determined to evict as much programming as possible from Wood Lane, London, W12 8QT, it seems odd that ITV is consolidating like mad and concentrating production in a handful of expensive bits of city centre real estate, rather than building on its regional expertise.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Last night was the Literary Review Bad Sex in Literary Fiction award, so this morning is the Literary Review Bad Sex in Literary Fiction award hangover. Over the last couple of years, the party's been supported by Hendrick's gin, and I've felt the need to support them in return. Ouch.

Rachel Johnson - sister of Boris - won the prize, and John Updike - who's been nominated for the award four times, got a lifetime achievement award in absentia, to mark his 'always the bridesmaid' status.

  • Alexander Waugh's always-superb speech - definitely his father's son in the best possible way
  • Nancy dell'Olio reading Updike's acceptance speech
  • Meeting Georgina Baillie in the cloakroom queue and drunkenly asking her what it's like to have such a gracious, cool, unflappable grandad and instructing her to give him a hug from me. I think she thought I was a tabloid scumbucket trying to catch her out, because she clammed up completely. You can supply your own punchline. I'm far too gentlemanly.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Today, I had my first eye test in five years. After the compressed air in the eyeball and the 'clearer/more blurred' thing with the different lenses, brer optician told me that my eyesight hadn't changed at all since my last test, and that I needed new glasses only if I fancied a change or the old ones were falling apart.

As it happens, I do fancy a change, as, like just about every other four-eyed git in Britain, I have little oblong specs, because they seem to be the only ones you can get. I don't like them, though. I'd quite like something that improves my peripheral vision as well as the main focus. Little oblong jobs don't do that. I have it on good authority that Hank Marvin wears big glasses partly because they're his trademark, but also because with little frames, he wouldn't be able to see his guitar properly when he glances down.

When I was at university, I affected a pair of round tortoiseshell specs that can only be described as Richard Wattis-chic. They came from Specsavers - bliss it was in that dawn to be alive. No chance that they'd carry similar styles now, the swines. Fortunately, Opera Opera in London have very similar frames in stock. They know how to charge, but as they have them custom-made in Britain, rather than stamped out in an oriental sweat shop, that's understandable. They also offer them in clear plastic, which would be wonderful as long as I don't wear them with a dark suit. I admire Jonathan Meades too much to invite even superficial comparisons.

Back to the high street: in one shop, I asked why all of the glasses on display were little, oblong jobs. The assistant replied "There's no call for any other kind, sir". I replied that I was calling for them, couldn't find any anywhere and that maybe, just maybe, there would be some other calls for them if they had any in stock. "We tried, sir, but no-one wanted them". Having a suspicion that I was well over halfway round a circular argument, I gave up. I also suspected that the alternative styles they'd tried had come from the Dennis Nilsen Serial-Killer-About-Muswell-Hill range. So, what's the story there? Does an optometric insider have the skinny on skinny glasses? What, to be frank, are they trying to pull?

STOP PRESS: I've gone for these in tortoiseshell. Named after the Two Ronnies and only £34. It had to be done.
In his Sunday Telegraph review of Turned Out Nice Again, Peter Bazalgette thought I hadn't concentrated enough on the independent production sector. As it turns out, it's a good job I didn't write any more than I did, because former National Museum of Photography, Film & Television curator and good chap Ian Potter has done a whole book on the subject. My copy's on order, and I'll report back further when I've read it, but I suspect it'll be essential reading for anyone interested in recent TV history.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I've expressed my alarm at the acres of coverage being given to John Sergeant's exit from Strictly Come Dancing by adding to the acres of coverage with a piece in today's Sunday Telegraph. With any luck, I'll be forgiven any hypocrisy and opportunism for the fact that I seized the opportunity to suggest a robust British alternative to the awful Americanism 'water cooler TV'. Long live the 'tea-urn moment'.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Two reviews in today's blatts. In the Times, Brian Schofield is unimpressed, but says so in such a reasonable and constructive manner that I can't complain. In the Telegraph (not yet online), Sinclair McKay is full of enthusiasm, for which I thank him profusely.

In other news, I can report with great pleasure that I have accepted a modest advance from a small left-wing press to pen an unauthorised biography of Jon Gaunt.
Danny Baker's back on Saturday morning national radio, and it's fab. It's 1994 again, but in a good way. Zoe Ball's not disgracing the set up, either. He's currently reeling in the Radio 2 massive with all the greatest hits. A mate's sent me a message to ask how long before he's calling the register, and I reckon we'll be on 'How nuts is your mum?' before too long. He's not played this yet, but give it time.

Friday, November 21, 2008

I've noticed that most of the comments on this blog come from people I know and with whom I have drunk, often heavily. If anybody else is chancing upon these ramblings, don't be a stranger. Come say hello.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

So, John Sergeant has pulled out of Strictly Come Dancing. It was a lose-lose situation. His ongoing presence made a mockery of the dance competition, but his absence now makes a mockery of the voters' wishes. Still, let's keep a sense of proportion. It shouldn't be the lead story on every bulletin, but it will be.

If his exit is the result of a decent man deciding his own fate, fair enough, but if it was another case of the BBC shitting itself in the face of adverse newspaper coverage, the fact will emerge eventually and make matters far far worse for Auntie.

Meanwhile, TalkSport's long-overdue sacking of Jon Gaunt, the Poundland Don Imus, means that he now has more time to spend with his gorgeous wife Lisa and his beautiful daughters Rosie and Bethany. Lucky them. I well remember peeing myself laughing when I read this and present it again for your amusement.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Encouragingly, Amazon's first order of Turned Out Nice Again has sold out, despite, or perhaps because of, my decision to add the "...this book is not worth reading" bit of Shabba Hanks' Independent write-up to the product description underneath all the nice review quotes. Don't panic, more copies are on order. I suspect the power of wireless helped enormously - many authors would sell a kidney to get two hours talking to East Anglia. Anyway, if you have bought it, thank you, and if you've received a freebie from the publisher, I hope you can get a good price for it. Moreover, if you haven't bought it, we know where you live. Your honest appraisals are always welcome. To use an old phrase beloved of the profession: if you liked the show, tell your friends; but if you didn't like it, tell us. Or, either way, you can write an Amazon review.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The broadcast with Paul Barnes was terrific fun. It's always good to talk to someone who knows what they're on about. He must have enjoyed the experience too, as he gave over two of his three precious hours to blethering with me about Duke Ellington, the Coventry Hippodrome and Liberace, and playing, to use his catchphrase, "some simply spiffing music" (not Liberace, obviously). Anyone daft enough not to stay in on a Saturday night listening to the wireless can catch up on the jollity here.

No sign of it online yet, but Roger Lewis has reviewed Turned Out Nice Again in today's Mail on Sunday. He makes the fair point that variety's such an amorphous mess, it's almost impossible to make any sort of sense of it. At times, writing the bloody thing did feel like plaiting sawdust, but I felt and still feel that it was worth trying. He concludes that it was worth trying too, and recommends it as background reading for media studies students. I'll take that as a compliment...

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The estimable Paul Barnes has been kind enough to ask me on his Saturday evening Gold for Grown-Ups radio show across the BBC Eastern Counties stations tonight, to talk about light entertainment, jazz and other enriching matters. I've been a listener to his show since living in east London nearly a decade ago, when getting any sort of BBC Essex signal involved standing in a zinc bucket with the wireless strapped to my head. Now, of course, the show's available globally on the Internest at He and I are both Oldie contributors, and we've been exchanging emails and telephone calls about our many shared enthusiasms and the state of the nation for a while now, but we've never actually met. I'll be around from 6.20pm onwards.

Friday, November 14, 2008

I've just received the following email:


Dear Customer,

On Friday, 24th October, we formally completed the acquisition of Alliance & Leicester. It is with great pleasure that I welcome you to the Santander Group.

You are now part of one of the world's most successful banks. Santander is first bank in the Eurozone by market capitalization, and fifth in the world by profits, with over 70 million customers in 40 countries.

You are kindly advised to follow the instructions below to register your account to allow easy merger.


Now I've never had the Abbey habit or trusted any of my money to Sprocket & Sylvester, so this is obviously a phishing attempt. If I were to follow the instructions, the only easy merger that would occur is that of all my hard-earned money with that of the scammers. Does anyone ever fall for this sort of thing? And if they do, don't they deserve to be fleeced for being so bloody stupid?

I love this bit:

"By becoming part of the Santander Group, Alliance & Leicester has acquired strong backing, which is crucial in these difficult financial times."

Which translates roughly as "By clicking on the link in this email, these difficult financial times will get more difficult for you, sucker."
Robert Hanks has reviewed Turned Out Nice Again in the Independent. I'll sort the "numerous factual errors" out for the paperback - there tend to be numerous small factual errors in any first edition. No author or editor can catch every silly little slip, so reader feedback is invaluable, and if you find any howlers, please do let me know at Every reviewer has highlighted omissions, which is fair enough. However, to say "it's perverse to devote pages to The Two Ronnies without mentioning Ronnie Barker's roles in Porridge and Open All Hours" misses the point of the book slightly. Quite apart from the fact that I am perverse, I make it fairly clear in the introduction that the book's about the nebulous concept of variety, rather than narrative comedy. A visit to any bookshop, good or bad, will show that comedy, particularly sitcom, is already super-served by nostalgia tomes. Porridge and Open All Hours are both sitcoms. I could have given them a passing mention, but would that have been anything other than a waste of word count that could have been better deployed elsewhere? Monty Python's Flying Circus didn't make the cut because it came out of the BBC's comedy department, A Bit of Fry and Laurie did because it was made by the variety department. Well, it makes sense to me. It's a shame he didn't like it, as it denies me the opportunity to nick the 'Thanks Hanks' joke from Look Around You.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Another review, this time not for my book, but for Prime Minister, You Wanted to See Me: a history of Week Ending by Ian Greaves and Justin Lewis. Choice quotes from the Chortle critique include "the authors have employed the sensibilities of a trainspotter, and reduced 28 years of radio comedy to a catalogue of dry, passionless statistics", and "It must have taken hours upon hours of tedious research to compile this book, but you can’t help but feel it’s time wasted on something that cannot, surely, be of interest to anybody". Ouch.

The book in question is published by Kaleidoscope, the excellent organisation devoted to promoting interest in archive television and radio, and finding lost programmes. It would appear that the reviewer, Steve Bennett, hasn't seen a Kaleidoscope book before, because this is what they do - they cram as much information as they possibly can into their books, some of which are more directories than historical narratives. They're not meant to read like a John Grisham novel. They're research tools, and I'm immensely grateful that they exist. Bennett notes, quite rightly, that Week Ending's importance is less because of its inherent quality (in fact, the gags were often woefully poor) than the fact that it gave first breaks to pretty much everyone who came to prominence in comedy and satire between the 1970s and the 1990s. The exhaustive, painstaking show-by-show, sketch-by-sketch listing is, he says, tedious. No, no, no. I also fail to see how "Over 25 pages, there are no fewer than 106 footnotes" can be presented as a failing. Footnotes contain vital supplementary information that would otherwise hold up the main narrative. In compiling it and publishing this book, Greaves, Lewis and Kaleidoscope have done future comedy historians a great service. The authors have spent days sweating over P-as-Bs at Caversham so no-one else has to. This book will be of immense worth and interest to anyone attempting to research British comedy of the recent past.

My main problem with the review is that Bennett seems to have savaged it for not being something it was never intended to be. Anyone who says that my problem is also motivated by my friendship with Ian and Justin, and the fact that I owe Simon Coward from Kaleidoscope £50 for a part-share in an Oscar Peterson Jazz 625 telerecording, is bang off the mark and will be hearing from my lawyer forthwith.
"I bet those transvestites are sore at the end of the night" - Apres la Guerre, recalling the night he went on the lash with his mum in Amsterdam. It's a story he's told me before, but I'm very glad he's made it available for public consumption.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More reviews. One, largely glowing, in the Grauniad from Kit Hesketh-Harvey, whose work with the Widow I've always liked. Another, broadly favourable but concerned about areas I missed, in the Sunday Telegraph from Peter Bazalgette, about whose work I am divided. His part in bringing Big Brother to our screens makes me want to ask him outside for a frank exchange of views, but this transgression is almost counter-balanced by his involvement with the development of Deal or No Deal. Meanwhile, in the November Literary Review, Andrew Barrow calls me "scholarly", but wishes I'd been a bit nastier and says that there's too much Bill Cotton Junior in it. Barrow also asks (as does Kit H-H) who gives a toss about ATV, Associated-Rediffusion and the defunct dinosaurs of early ITV? Well, I do, hence their inclusion. The reviews prove that it's impossible to please everyone, and that, however you write, something that one reader loves, another reader will almost certainly hate. All you can do is write the sort of book you'd want to read yourself, and hope that some other bugger will too.

Of course, all of the nice reviews in the world are useless if the book can't be bought anywhere. At my hometown Waterstone's, Mrs Cheeseford tripped over ceiling-high piles of Why Do I Say These Things? by Jonathan Ross and At My Mother's Knee...and Other Low Joints by Paul O'Grady to discover that they have no intention of stocking Turned Out Shite Again, despite me being all over local radio like a cheap suit. On a flying business visit to London yesterday, I popped in to Waterstone's on Oxford Street. Nada. The gigantic Borders had one copy, which the very nice bookseller chap in films and media invited me to sign. I suspect that 90% of any sales I garner will take place through Amazon. Talking of which, one of their used and new affiliates was punting the work out for £6.99, which is about half of what my publisher would charge me, even with my author's discount. Over lunch, brer publisher mused that it was almost certainly a books desk junior staff member supplementing their meagre income. As indeed I did myself when on Publishing News. Good luck to 'em.

Incidentally, I haven't read the aforementioned O'Grady book, but intend to fully when I get a chance. I approve of it already for signalling a return to showbiz autobiographies with amusing titles. We've had too many years of Ronseal drabness like Dale: My Story and Bruce: the Autobiography. A showbiz memoir should have a funny title, preferably one that makes no sense until you've read the book, like Shake a Pagoda Tree by Mike and Bernie Winters or Michael Aspel's Polly Wants a Zebra. Any other good ones spring to mind?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Kim Jong-Il and Gok Wan. You never see them together. Funny that.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The acknowledgments for a book are usually written in the last-minute rush to get the thing off to press. As such, important names are sometimes missed out. So it is with Turned Out Nice Again. For example, Simon McLean gave me a copy of the 1983 Late Late Breakfast Show where the car stunt went quite badly wrong, while Andy Henderson - former proprietor of the much-missed Lost British Television blog - gave me some invaluable Stanley Baxter and Chic Murray material. I forgot to thank both of them and am now mired in self-loathing. Similarly, I forgot to nod gratefully in the direction of John Williams - co-conspirator behind Tachyon TV and one of the funniest people in all archive TV fandom - and Dick Fiddy of the BFI, who introduced me to Bob Monkhouse's manager Peter Prichard. I am a clot. Sorry chaps. I'll sort it for the paperback.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

John Peel was once asked what was the strangest place he'd had sex. He replied "Ipswich". After some of my experiences there today, I have a rough idea what he meant. I'd made the journey down on the East Suffolk line to be interviewed by Luke Deal on his BBC Radio Suffolk afternoon show. That bit was good fun, but train timetables meant that I'd arrived with an hour and a half to spare. So, I'd popped to a pub for some lunch. I stood at the bar, watching people come and go, turning up after me, but getting served ahead of me. Maybe I'm exaggerating, but I must have spent five full minutes being bypassed. When, eventually, nobody else was around and the barman deigned to serve me, I thought about it as a game of soldiers and just said "No thanks. I'm going to go somewhere else".

Looking for alternative sustenance, I passed a fish and chip shop on my bike, and decided that I suddenly fancied saveloy and chips. As I placed my order, the chief fryer gave me a quizzical look. "You want saveloys? You mean the red sausages?". As I was hungry, feeling unaccountably charitable and not reckoning much on a stranger's mucus as a condiment, I bit my tongue and nodded, but surely a saveloy is a saveloy and a sausage is a sausage?

As I sat on a nearby wall, eating my (very nice) red sausage, chips and mushy peas, I noticed a superb poster in a newsagent's window. This one, in fact.

In the shorthand of headline writing, putting something in quotes means that "we've heard this, and nobody will confirm it, but we're desperate so we're printing it anyway". Similarly, a question mark indicates that they're making it up as they go along. In this case, the Ipswich Evening Star was trying desperately to find a local angle on the big international story of the moment. Of course, the headline is designed to make the casual viewer think that the leader of the free world may be about to enjoy a break on the Norfolk Broads before taking office. On closer inspection, it turns out that Obama might land at Stansted on his first official visit to Britain, before being whisked to London as soon as humanly possible. Anyway, the poster made me laugh, and I hope it amuses you a bit too.

What happened next wasn't so jolly. Having taken the picture, I was approached by a chap in a hoodie, his eye movements indicating that his bloodstream contained something stronger than 2 jumbo saveloys, chips, peas and a can of ginger beer. "Are you taking my picture?" he asked in a threatening tone of voice. "No," I replied. "You were taking my picture," he continued. Taking great care to maintain a vice-like grip on the camera (street value: unknown), I showed him my picture on the preview screen, and reassured him that I had not and would never want to take his picture. By this time, he'd been joined by a motley crew of smackheads of both sexes, all bollocking on about how taking pictures of people in the street was against the law and an infringement of their civil liberties. I know, the irony wasn't lost on me, but I settled for staring at them quite hard (something were too whacked to achieve in return) before moving on. I was, however, boiling with rage.

I live in the same county, but Ipswich would appear to be a different world.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Another review, this time from Keith Watson in Metro. He has reservations about the book, but his last line pretty much gauges my attitude to the matter. I felt there were too many good stories to cram in about light entertainment itself to make any more space than I did for social context.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Inadvertently, I committed Internet suicide a fortnight ago. Concerned messages were left, enquiring after my well-being, after my bon mots stopped appearing on various forums. Over at Cook'd and Bomb'd, the absence of my usual Wednesday night pretend radio strangeness augured ill for those disturbed enough to tune in. I had even abandoned one thread in mid-argument, which was the surest sign that something sinister had occurred. The messages that I received were incredibly touching, but the simple truth was that I had a couple of piss-ups to attend in London, a research trip to the BBC Written Archive Centre at Caversham to do and some visiting of relatives to fit in, these being family members without broadband.

I'll spare you the full Fear and Loathing travelogue, but a couple of highlights spring to mind. First was the Oldie Travel Awards at the East India Club. Now, despite being a mere stripling of 35, I've been an Oldie contributor for nearly a decade. I live in hope that the magazine will still exist when I'm a real oldie myself.

Second was the fulfilment of a long-deferred ambition, while visiting Mrs Cheeseford's parents in Bristol. In one of his 1960s documentaries on the west country, John Betjeman had featured a small escarpment in the Avon Gorge by Clifton Suspension Bridge, down which generations of Bristolian children had slid on their backsides, rendering the rock completely smooth. When I saw the programme, I thought 'I'm having some of that'. I ascertained that men in hard hats hadn't cordoned off the area for health and safety reasons, but somehow other commitments our our great western jaunts always got in the way. Until now:

Just one question arises. For the first, say, 100 years of the slide's existence, wouldn't it have been quite a rough ride? The darning needles of north-east Somerset must have been well-used.

Finally, there was the Blue Peter Goes Gold event run by the estimable Kaleidoscope at BAFTA. A day of laughter, hilarity, hard hats, vast quantities of beer and mock shock when we heard Biddy Baxter using the word 'cleavage'. After the 7 (count 'em) hours of clips and panels (something that might be perceived by some as an ordeal, only marginally preferable to spending the time with Peter Stringfellow in Basra, but they're wrong, it was great), we trooped upstairs to mark the publication of Ian Greaves and Justin Lewis' Prime Minister, You Wanted to See Me, and BAFTA: Behind the Mask by Reginald Collin. As well being a former director of the Academy, Collin is also a former director of top-rated drama series like Callan, and a fund of superb stories about the golden years of television. It was made apparent, at one time, that BAFTA could easily become RAFTA if it so desired. The desire, however, wasn't there. One reason was the potential for confusion with the Royal Academy over the road in Piccadilly, giving rise to the image of cab drivers asking fares if they wanted the one where the pictures moved, or the one where they stayed still.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

As some of you might already be aware, I've got a new book out. One of the best stories in the whole volume is that of Sammy Davis Junior going AWOL on the day of a Simon Dee chat show, only to turn up in mid-transmission with a sheaf of band parts. The full, glorious tale is told in the book (pp210-212) by Roger Ordish, who was producing and directing the show, but here's the accompanying visual and aural magnificence. Sammy's original recording has Ray Brown on bass. This has Joe Mudele, taking the lead and sight-reading like mad. You know what? It leaves the studio version standing.

Despite this blog being the fount of all light entertainment knowledge, I shall avoid dwelling on the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand incident. Apart from to say that Andrew Sachs appears to be one of the most tolerant and decent men alive. If only those with a less direct connection to the furore could show such grace and restraint.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Roger Hutchinson in the Scotsman takes the honour of being the first person to review Turned Out Nice Again, and, frabjuous day, he liked it. I get to share the bill with Denis Norden too, which is no disgrace.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

So, the last survivor of the Titanic disaster, Millvina Dean, has sold her mementoes for £30,000, to fund her twilight years in a care home. Doubtless the items have gone to people who will love and cherish them, but would it have been too much of a stretch for those who've done very nicely out of the whole Titanic thing, among them James Cameron, to see her right?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Congratulations to Atlantic on their Booker success with The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. As one of their non-Booker-winning authors, I do hope it doesn't make them all unbearable.

Back in my days on Publishing News, party small talk around this time of year always began with "What do you think of the Booker short-list?". This would then be followed by vague mumblings, designed to give the impression that the answerer had read even a paragraph of one of the novels. It was one of those situations where you really could have had your opinions handed to you on a crib sheet.

Unless, that is, you were me or a colleague. I was always scrupulously honest and admitted that I had no idea, not being much of a one for fiction. This was always sure to produce a Bateman cartoon response, even though the person asking me almost certainly had no more of a real clue than I did. Once, a publishing type pressed further and said "Come on, you must read some fiction", at which I confessed to a penchant for PG Wodehouse. "Oh," came the reply. "Old books. Don't you read anything new?". "Yes, AI (advance information) sheets mainly," feeling almost 99% sure that this person's opinion of modern writing came from the same source and reviews. M'colleague's response was far subtler, bordering on genius. He'd simply reply "Another good year for fiction". Then, in the pregnant moment while the questioner was trying to work out whether he was expressing surprise that so much fiction should make it through to the short list of a fiction prize, or whether he was saying that he liked all of the books on the list, m'colleague would change the subject.

I've always fancied the Whitbread myself. Apparently Abdul Abulbul-Amir presents the winner with a case of Best Bitter. The runner-up gets 4 cans of Trophy, "the pint that thinks it's a quart".

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Following on from the previous post, about Peter Kay's laugh-an-hour 'satire' of talent shows, here's something that crams more actual jokes and proper digs at the whole genre into 10 minutes than he managed in 2 hours. And it was for charity, too, which means that it didn't actually need to be any good*. Oh, and it's 7 years old. Now, children, can you spell 'zeitgeist'?

* Joke
In the interests of remaining well-informed, I sat through the whole two hours of Peter Kay's Britain's Got the Pop Factor-wyllantisiliogogogoch. It looked perfect, but it didn't make me laugh once. As a satire (and some listings billed it as such), it was toothless, with Pete Waterman, Nicki Chapman and Dr Fox (who is, in the words of Lee and Herring, neither a real doctor nor an actual fox) all desperately trying to show how good they are at taking a joke and thus improving their own profiles in the process. As comedy, it was lazy. It seems that they'd spent so much time and effort getting the set right that they had no time to write any actual jokes. Still, we shouldn't be too surprised. Has Peter Kay been any good since he parted company with Dave Spikey and Neil Fitzmaurice?

Anyway, I can just about tolerate the existence of bad comedy, but on Monday, 'The Winner's Song' was released as a single. Extensive enquiries have brought forth no indication that the single is a charitable venture. So, it would appear that Channel 4 paid Peter Kay to make a two-hour promo for his own single, the profits from which will be going to buy his mum a bigger garden for her bungalow - I'm told she's got her eye on a little place called Lancashire. If so, am I being hopelessly old-fashioned to think that the whole setup stinks? Even the useless Ofcom must take a dim view of this sort of corruption.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

For years now, I've been keeping informal tabs on who might possibly deserve the title of greatest living Englishman. Until now, Sir David Attenborough has been the clear leader, but, after last night's Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, he's got a challenger in the form of Sir Roger Moore. He was the sort of chat show guest you don't think they make anymore. Funny, twinkly, and with a neat line in Tony Curtis impersonations. Meanwhile, the genuine gleam in his eye when Wossy produced a gigantic pork pie (his favourite nosh) in lieu of a birthday cake was immensely endearing, as was saying "Is it Wall's?" in the manner of an Antiques Roadshow expert (Actually it was Fortnum and Mason's, and judging by the look on his face as he tucked in, they make an exceedingly good pie).

He gained points a while back, when it emerged that Sir Ben Kingsley was being a bit of a ninny and berating crew members who didn't genuflect in front of him and call him Sir Ben. I contrasted this with the story of a relatively junior crew member approaching Moore, asking how he preferred to be addressed and getting the reply "Call me Rog".

I think that Attenborough minor still just shades it, but the hat is doffed to Rog and his pork pies. Any other GLE nominations?
Going through the stats for this blog, I see quite a few people using Google Chrome. Nice, isn't it? However, I can't help wondering how long it will be before the first high-profile Google Chrome 'incognito window' divorce or sacking. They bill it as enabling undetected access for the purposes of present buying and surprise holiday planning. Yeah, right. It's like the cotton bud packets that tell you not to stick the contents in your ear, when that's their main purpose. The incognito window is for slacking and wanking.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The book reviews I've been doing lately and the impending publication of my new book Turned Out Nice Again: the story of British light entertainment have caused me to think far too deeply about approaches to reviewing. The one that annoys me most is the reviewer who tells you how they would have written the same book, and that the approach taken by the author is, as a result, worthless. As far as I'm concerned, a reviewer's job is to say whether the book works or not, and, if not, why not. There are many ways to reach the same conclusion, and to suggest that you have the one true path is appalling arrogance.

The other thing that annoys me is reviewers who think they're the main feature rather than a mildly illuminating sideshow. When my first book-shaped thing came out, one reviewer spent roughly half of the article talking about his own life and career before summarising the book dismissively in a couple of paragraphs at the end. Among his more perceptive comments, he said that the book was dense and confusing in places, which it was. It was a dense, confusing subject and, several years on, I'm happy to admit that I bit off a bit more than I could chew (I'm still enormously proud of the book, but I did feel the need to lob in the kitchen sink - I'd write it a bit differently now). However, as an example of density and confusion, he chose to quote a bit that I wrote in a quite deliberately dense and confusing manner (think Danny Kaye doing the vessel with the pestle) to show what a cat's cradle of guff the record industry had become.

Anyway, get yer lovely pre-orders in for the perfect stocking filler here.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Thanks go out to Sparks for flagging this up. It's the once-underrated, now-feted (and deservedly so) Craig Ferguson saying roughly the same things I think about the current financial situation, only in a far more funny manner and in front of an audience of millions.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

How's this for missing the point? The Phillipine Embassy is denouncing the BBC for a sketch in a recent Harry and Paul show, depicting a middle-class householder trying to mate his neighbour's Filipina maid with his own pet Geordie. This one, in fact, just after the opening titles (embedding's been disabled, so you'll have to click through). Meanwhile, an outfit calling itself the Philippine Foundation is describing the sketch as "tantamount to racism and [the] worst sexual abuse and exploitation of the hapless young Filipina domestic worker employee". Er, no. Context is everything. Regular viewers of this rather good series (streets ahead of last year's Ruddy Hell, It's Harry and Paul) will know that the middle-class white bloke and his neighbour are the figures of ridicule in this sketch. The sort of people who can afford domestic staff and who regard them as mere livestock (I should point out for benefit of the clueless that not everyone who employs domestic staff is like this). If the mob in the Philippine Embassy and their mates in the Foundation took a deep breath before flying off the handle, they might realise that Enfield and Whitehouse are actually on their side.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

As the September Literary Review seems to be off the news stands, here's the aforementioned piece about Graham McCann's Bounder and Mark Simpson's Alastair Sim.



Bounder! The Biography of Terry-Thomas
By Graham McCann
(Aurum 291pp £16.99)

Alastair Sim: The Star of Scrooge and the Belles of St Trinian's
By Mark Simpson
(The History Press 256pp £18.99)

In the heyday of the British film industry, Terry-Thomas and Alastair Sim made respectable careers playing people who weren't respectable. They played characters who were ‘not quite gentlemen', but in different ways: Terry-Thomas was the embodiment of the player or bounder, while Sim depicted seedy, shabby, failed or faded gentility better than almost anyone else. The near-contemporaries coincided on screen on several occasions, so the appearance of this brace of biographies is serendipitous.

Sim was the elder of the two actors, born in Edinburgh in 1900, the son of a tailor. Terry-Thomas was born Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens eleven years later in Finchley and, despite being merely middle-class, affected a dandyish manner almost from the womb, as a way of blanking out his dreary suburban surroundings and his parents' unhappy union. Both actors achieved their greatest success playing amplified, exaggerated, grotesque versions of their real personalities, but both also had deceptively wide ranges. Sim began on stage as a straight actor before moving into film as a more manic, comic performer than he later became; while T-T was a skilled mimic, something he rarely got a chance to show.

Another thing that Alastair Sim and Terry-Thomas had in common was their work ethic. Sim, who began professional life as an elocution teacher in his native Edinburgh, was a fastidious director even when he wasn't meant to be directing, which caused no end of on-set tensions. T-T's apparent effortlessness and dilettantism masked massive ambition, drive and professionalism, the last of which he expected from his colleagues. Off-duty, however, both are shown by their biographers to have been amusing, charming men.

A populist former Cambridge academic, Graham McCann has spent the last decade or so producing books on film and comedy at a fearsome rate. In contrast, Mark Simpson is making his authorial debut, being a civil servant more used to writing government reports on private finance initiatives. Surprised to find that there had been no proper biography of such a major figure as Sim, Simpson spent the next decade finding out why, the guarded actor having left almost no trace of his seventy-five years apart from his work.

T-T's well-known film work is covered at length in Bounder, but McCann's conceit is to present his subject as the founding father of British television comedy. This is no hyperbole. Between 1949 and 1952, his series How Do You View? practically defined the medium's humorous trajectory. The BBC would have been happy with a simple act show. Instead, T-T, writers Sid Colin and Talbot Rothwell, and producer Bill Ward pushed at the limitations of the medium and paved the way for later shows like Hancock's Half-Hour. Sadly, because no recordings survive, the show’s legacy is all too often overlooked; but its contemporary effect was seismic.

McCann's other achievement is to convey what jolly company and rollicking good fun the real-life T-T must have been. Harry Secombe called him ‘the finest raconteur ever’, and that quality shines through here. No sad clown he. It's impossible not to adore a man who, upon meeting Pablo Picasso, asked the artist if anyone had ever requested ‘a word in your eye’. Unfortunately, the book suffers from a lack of original interview material with colleagues and contemporaries. McCann's excellent earlier books on Morecambe and Wise and Frankie Howerd were leavened liberally by such anecdotes. Apart from occasional observations from Sarah Miles, Jonathan Cecil, Barry Cryer and T-T's cousin Richard Briers, Bounder is mostly a survey – admittedly a very thorough one – of the paper trail left by T-T himself in articles, interviews and BBC contributor files.

In contrast, the privacy-obsessed, interview-shy Sim left no such trail (whatever the question, his standard reply to journalists was ‘I don't know’), so Simpson is to be commended on having found as much material as he has, particularly with regard to the actor's early years. Similarly, Sim's long and fruitful association with the now unfashionable Scots dramatist James Bridie is chronicled well. Simpson has spoken to many who worked with Sim, and their reminiscences help build up a picture of a stubborn, difficult, exacting, but ultimately kind and lovable man. This picture is obscured very occasionally by sloppy editing: cinematographer Otto Heller becomes 'Otto Helier', for example.

Sim's kindness towards young actors and actresses, such as George Cole, has been well documented. Simpson acknowledges the ‘murkiness of innuendo’, wondering whether Sim's privacy obsession did not mask darker impulses. After all, when Sim met his wife Naomi, he was twenty-six, and she was twelve – but the friendship was purely platonic for many years. Although Simpson, unintentionally, makes the waters even murkier in the way he broaches the subject, the answer is ultimately supplied by friends like the child actor-turned-BBC executive John Howard Davies, who testify to Sim's honourable intent.

As you'd expect from a seasoned biographer like Graham McCann, Bounder is pacy. Conversely, Mark Simpson's book can be a little dry in places, which might be the influence of the day job. Alternatively, it might be the subjects themselves imposing their considerable personalities on these welcome books.

Friday, October 03, 2008

So, Mandelson. I'm not an expert on card games, but I thought a flush could only bust once? And the US bailout has gone through. It was Hobson's choice, really, but I think they made the wrong decision. At the other end of this, the bankers, financiers and politicians who got the world into this shite in the first place will still be claiming that they know best. They, like the arseholes who demanded compensation when their Railtrack shares tanked, need to be shown that there's no such thing as a risk-free punt. Even with a shedload of taxpayers' money propping the whole corrupt, ineptly-run system up, a lot of people are going to lose jobs, businesses and homes. Refusing the aid package would have punished those who truly deserve to suffer.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Having waited 20 years for any meaningful movement on Crossrail, I'm currently filing this one under 'believe when see', but, horribly, it appears to be a Tory policy announcement that I support fully. Obviously, the fact that these are the people who turned a flawed, but functional nationalised industry into the worst advert for capitalism ever must not be forgotten, but I fail to see how any government can be committed to environmental responsibility and airport expansion at the same time. And the risible Ruth Kelly calling it "economically illiterate" is, perversely, the biggest endorsement I can think of. I'd still never vote for the Conservatives as long as there's breath in my body, though.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

You can't buck the market, oh no. You've got to let the market decide. For the last 30 years, this has been the mantra, first of Thatcher and her cronies and then of the bleeding Labour party. The City boys knew best - intervention would be foolish. And now all of these supposedly-unbuckable financial institutions are needing to be baled out by government money, both here and in the US. This whole situation is coming as cold comfort to those of us who maintained all along that the market couldn't be trusted to run a whelk stall, and that a balanced economy requires intervention and heavy regulation, but, hey, it's something to cling to. With any luck, it'll be the start of a new age of scepticism and questioning in politics, but chances are the big public will remain just as bovine as it ever has. I despair.

Monday, September 22, 2008

I post the following as catharsis for anyone who has ever been let down by technology:

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I instruct all of you to go and buy the September issue of the Literary Review. Already the finest periodical for bibliomanes everywhere, it has, this month, chosen to improve its standing yet further by printing my review of Graham McCann's new Terry-Thomas biography Bounder and Mark Simpson's book about Alastair Sim.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

I'm having to choose my words very carefully here, but in the cases of the two seaside piers that have 'gone on fire' in the last few weeks, is the fact that they both changed hands recently significant in any way?

Friday, August 22, 2008

Speeding along Lowestoft's busy London Road South on my bicycle earlier today, a teenager in a hooded top shouted something to me as I passed. I couldn't quite make out what he'd said, and assumed it had been something insulting. I was just about to slam on the anchors and give hoodie boy a piece of my mind about cheeking your elders when I realised that he'd merely said "Oi, your back wheel's following you". Perfectly innocent, not at all insulting, agreeably absurd but logical and clearly designed to make me think "What the f....oh, I see". Judge not...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Here's the deal. I'll write about something other than death when my heroes stop dying. Sir Bill Cotton was, by common consent, the best head of light entertainment that BBC television ever had. He was also, in his retirement, unfailingly kind and generous to herberts like me who rang him up and asked him questions about his dad, the Generation Game and the Albanian delegation at the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest. Although he made a rather fine knight, those who worked with him longest always called him 'young Bill', rather like the various Mr Graces in Are You Being Served?, a hit show introduced on his watch.

He was the second person I interviewed for my forthcoming book Turned Out Nice Again. Noel Edmonds was the first, in the morning, at his office in Hammersmith, and when I said who I was seeing in the afternoon, Noel told me to pass on his very best wishes to a gent whom he regarded as "the ultimate showman". Noel was right in his assessment of Sir Bill's showmanship, but he was much more than that. Clever without ever being pretentious, he was the only light entertainment executive in the BBC's history to reach the board of management, where as managing director of the television service, he oversaw the full run of programming. Jim Moir, one of his proteges and a close contender for the best head of LE title, described him as "a very shrewd man, who knew the place and the worth of entertainment in the BBC's hierarchy. He saw the BBC not only as informer and educator, not only in terms of gravitas and journalism, but as an entertainer. He knew its power. I'm not saying the others didn't, but Bill was certainly among the first to articulate the need for it successfully".

Sir Bill was always diplomatically careful to avoid saying that modern TV was ghastly: "What I say can be construed as a bloke who thinks that he’s absolutely marvellous, and nobody knows how to do it now, and all that. You just get yourself kicked to death. Oh, that old fart walking around saying all these things. But the fact is, not only in television, but in so many things in modern life, where there was fun to be had in work, there’s not the same type of fun now. Things are too serious, or are made out to be too serious."

The "hysterical" programme review board meetings were a perfect example of the old sort of fun. The earnest journalists, the power-seeking missiles from Lime Grove would be right at the front of the table, as close to the chairman - the controller of programmes - as possible ("All auditioning," as Bill put it). The LE delegation would be as far from the seat of power as possible, making witty comments and starting paper fights. Meanwhile, head of outside broadcasts Peter Dimmock, shoes off, "used to sit behind, on a couch, doing his in-tray". When he became controller of programmes, Huw Wheldon rearranged the seating: "I want light entertainment sitting here, and outside broadcasts sitting here, then we’ll have one meeting".

The aforementioned Albanian delegation is another example of Sir Bill's idea of behind-the-scenes merriment. In short, over lunch with a few young LE producers, it was decided to wind up Tom Sloan by turning up at the Royal Albert Hall claiming to be a nation who wished to enter the Eurovision Song Contest. With the full might of the BBC wardrobe and make-up departments at their disposal, the trio - Terry Henebery, Roger Ordish and Brian Whitehouse - managed to fool Sloan for a gratifyingly long time. The full, glorious story (and pictorial evidence) is in the book.

The fun had its place, but when it came to making the programmes, he was deadly serious. "Good entertainment is a highly professional business, it requires a lot of experience, a lot of care. You don’t take short cuts." RIP Young Bill.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A message arrived just now from my mate Alex asking if I'd heard that Johnny Griffin had died. I hadn't. Back when I was assistant editor of Crescendo and Jazz Music, one of my most pleasurable assignments was an annual trip to the Wigan Jazz Festival. One of the magazine's other writers did the bulk of the reviewing, so I was left to prop up the hotel bar with the musicians and generally have a nice time. When the Little Giant (as Griff was known) was in town, I had a blinder of a night just listening to him hold forth, as he laid waste to the bar's supply of Bushmills. I think I might have helped a bit. There was a hairy moment when his female German manager - a delightful lady until crossed - passed the table and rumbled the contents of his tumbler. He was, she made quite clear, under doctor's orders to avoid spirits. Johnny smiled sweetly and explained that one of the nice people at the table had bought it for him, and he'd felt it would be rude to refuse. I'm lucky that my work's brought me into the presence of greatness on several occasions. That night was one such occasion. Remember him this way: