Monday, 22 December 2014

Seventies TV: Dick Emery (with specific reference to the film Ooh You Are Awful... But I Like You)

Yes, I know this is supposed to be about TV, but I happen to have the Dick Emery film, which includes his trademark characters & humour, & not the TV version, which I've tried to watch in the past & found hard-going. The DVD has recently come back into my possession when a friend had a clearout of her flat & pointed out that it was full of my stuff, as she cleared out her handbag of some random weird stuff, which I was delighted to see again.
The show actually ran from the 1960s to the 1980s, therefore including my target decade here. Emery came from a theatrical family, & the fact that this show can be described as vaudeville places it in a different era of entertainment:
'The show, which ran irregularly from 1963 to 1981, involved Emery dressing up as various characters, "a flamboyant cast of comic grotesques". These included the buck-toothed Church of England vicar, sex-starved, menopausal, man-eating spinster Hetty, and Clarence, an outrageously camp man who coined the catchphrase "Hello Honky Tonks". Other roles were gormless denim-clad bovver boy Screwsby (in a double act with his long suffering father, played by several actors including Roy Kinnear) where, each week, he would mess up and utter the catchphrase "Dad, I fink I got it wrong again", the crusty pensioner James Maynard Kitchener Lampwick, College (a genteel tramp whose real name was Lancelot Orpington Penrose) and Mandy, a busty peroxide blonde whose catchphrase, "Ooh, you are awful ... but I like you!" (given in response to a seemingly innocent remark made by her interviewer, played by Gordon Clyde, but perceived by her as ribald double entendre), preceded a hefty shove on the shoulder of the interviewer, and a prompt about-turn walk-off with a leg trip. "It was clever, pure vaudeville, in a television form." (Michael Grade).' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dick_Emery)
I'm fascinated to discover that Emery had five wives, almost as many children, & many affairs & long-term partnerships. He also suffered from chronic low self-esteem & stage fright, which gave him real problems in his work. His close relationship with his mother caused problems in his marriages. To me these random facts suggest the traditional comic's complex character, with tears always just under the surface.
This combination of complex personality & a now-dated humour unfortunately combined with a rather patchy writing for the TV series. For that reason I actually prefer this film, which I approach as a window into a different world - I mean, none of the things mentioned in this crit would get on the TV these days:
'But is it funny? The sketches are very mixed. There were marvellous writers on the show – Barry Cryer, Harold Pinter, David Nobbs (the creator of Reginald Perrin), Mel Brooks, Marty Feldman and Dick Clement all had spells – who came up with some vintage comedy. But some of the scripts were awful. Watching now, you can see the punchlines coming and the canned laughter is irritating. The jokes about women's boobs, gay 'queens' and sex-starved housewives all seem musty. And for all the strong characters, there are others such as the exaggeratedly camp Quentin Crisp-alike Clarence and the Bovver Boy (Seventies Skinheads were actually scary this parody is pathetic rather than funny) that make you cringe.' (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/10590018/Dick-Emery-the-neglected-superstar-of-TV-comedy.html)
Clearly the main difference between Emery & the other Seventies shows I've profiled is a totally different approach to the troubling events of the time. I do remember bovver boys being scary - that was the point. However Emery's humour nowadays seems to hit exactly the wrong note. The reason is, of course, that the world has changed. We have changed. We live differently & see things differently. It also seems to me that Emery's characters are so unreal that this show has to be approached almost as if it were fantasy.
So perhaps Emery is better approached as a romp down memory lane - to a world where all sorts of things happened that no longer do. Emery is seen on a building site. The tattooist doesn't wear gloves. Can you imagine? And these are just the start. The way of reminiscence keeps Emery firmly in the lens of history, which means his contemporary offensiveness can be seen in context & what is good in his work can be valued.
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Friday, 12 December 2014

Seventies TV: The Sweeney, with particular reference to Taste of Fear as an excuse for some local reflections

(Pub Bombings memorial picture credit: http://www.robertcjones.co.uk/Birmingham%20Cathedral%20Churchyard,%20UK.html)
I went to the Dental Hospital yesterday. I didn't need any work done - just my dentist fussing unnecessarily - & as it turns out I can relate that fact to the subject matter of this blog quite easily. For a start the present soon-to-be replaced building is a gem of 1960s architecture if you like that sort of thing, very much out of the same stable as the building in the opening scenes of Danger Man:
'The late Professor Alexander MacGregor, the then Director of Dental Studies and Mr H. Locksley Hare, the architect, visited many of the newer and outstanding schools in Europe. The design of the building incorporates many ideas acquired during these visits. The new building was opened in 1965 at a site next to the General Hospital (now Children's Hospital). This building was the sixth home of the Hospital and School.' (http://www.dentistry.bham.ac.uk/admissions/schoolhistory.asp)
For a fan of this sort of rapidly-disappearing architecture, it's a real treat because it's had relatively little done to it. Many of the original wall & ceiling finishes are still in situ, & the building gives an idea of how light & space were intended to work in it originally: it actually doesn't feel like it's shoehorned into an odd corner next to the STI clinic. This element of originality will of course also be its doom - it's simply filthy for a start. It can't be that difficult to put a safe system in place to clean to the top of the windows. The original finishes are plainly going to be the doom of this building, in addition to the unfashionable architecture. Removing the asbestos alone would be an incredibly expensive matter.
While I was there a Black woman came into the waiting room. She chatted about how cold it was & when I was called, wished me luck & called me Bab. That word will set a lot of people's teeth on edge, but is a Birmingham dialect term of endearment, which is one of the things that makes me think of home. (If you want to learn the gorgeous & sexy Brummie accent I would recommend <http://h2g2.com/edited_entry/A496352>. If you've never heard it, most videos on youtube are few too Black Country, but for the real thing I would suggest <http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lEyYaLFm3Xc>). This relates to this blog in the way a Black person can also be a Brummie, be at home here & be settled, without fear of people referring to 'you people' or whatever. Quite different from the approach of It Ain't Half Hot Mum.
The Sweeney is out of a very different, gritty as a cat's litter tray, stable. I think one of the things that is influencing me most about these 1970s shows is the troubled history of the decade in which they were made. Continual labour disputes brought whole areas of the country to their economic knees & it was impossible to rely on mains power at the time. The Sweeney, unlike It Ain't Half Hot Mum, is set contemporaneously against this troubled time, but manages to portray a cleaned-up image of one of the areas of scandal at the time:
'The series aired during a dark period for the real-life Flying Squad, which in the late 1970s had been publicly censured for being involved in bribery, police corruption and excessively close links with the criminal fraternity. Unlike the unwavering high standards seen in the fictional Sweeney, the actual commander of the Flying Squad, Detective Chief Superintendent Kenneth Drury was convicted of five counts of corruption and jailed for eight years on 7 July 1977. An internal investigation, called Operation Countryman, was then launched to stamp out more corruption. A further 12 officers were convicted and many others resigned.' (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sweeney)
Taste of Fear references another painful feature of the 1970s - the conflict in Northern Ireland & terror attacks by the IRA. In the case of this episode, what appear to be IRA attacks are actually by an army deserter, made sick & twisted by his experiences in Ulster. Apart from the blithe ignoring of the likely effect of the trauma of serving somewhere like that, this also references another local (to me) connection, because this year is the fortieth anniversary of the Birmingham pub bombings (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Birmingham_pub_bombings). It is once again striking how, in complete contrast to the unreality of The Avengers these 1970s series refer straight to some very difficult subjects. The Birmingham pub bombings have been a continual source of disgust for four decades. Men have been unjustly jailed for them. There was a strong backlash against the local Irish community at the time. It remains unestablished who was responsible for the three bombs - one didn't go off - & the whole matter is one which has shown West Midlands Police up in a very poor light (for the ongoing effects locally see http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/birmingham-pub-bombings-victims-remembered-8154396).
So the engagement with sheer gritty realism is what strikes me most in these 1970s shows. Jimmy Perry even states that It Ain't Half Hot Mum was a realistic portrayal of his own army life. The portrayal of reality remains - even though I think nowadays a realistic portrayal of an army unit's life would either have bits cut out or definitely be after the water shed.
The Sweeney, I'm finding, has another effect on me. I only have an odd disc with two episodes, so can't speak for the whole show, but I'm finding the way the plot is shaped gives a feeling of trudging through police work. The only real cliffhangers are where I imagine commercial breaks would have been originally, & the effect is one of -almost - eventlessness & pointlessness. I like the combination of Denis Waterman (better than I liked him in Minder) & John Thaw (better than I liked him in Morse). The relationship works to bring out aspeccts of the (?actors') characters I wouldn't have expected.
My neighbour's comment, when she told me her other half likes to watch The Sweeney, was how dated it is. And so it is. But the main effect for me personally is the relentless realism: in the division un/real, I definitely prefer unreal.

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Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Seventies TV: It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Racism, and the Male Chest

It is a feature of this blog that the majority of the shows I write about were broadcast before I was born. I have recently come across DVDs of some later TV shows, some of which
I remember watching with my parents, so I'm going to have a series of posts on Seventies TV. I'm proposing that it will take the form of a single post on each of the series: It Ain't Half Hot Mum, The Sweeney, Rising Damp, & Yes, Minister. The last one is cheating a bit because I see the first series was actually broadcast in 1980, but it feels very seventies to me. I may also do a post on The Professionals, even though I've already written about a couple of episodes here.
In characteristic mode for this blog I leap straight in with the most controversial. You will not see this show broadcast on the BBC nowadays (there are episodes on youtube); they have decided it will never be broadcast again, for its offensive racial stereotyping. This revolves around the use of Caucasian actors in make-up to represent Indians. This is usually referred to the phenomenon of theatrical blacking-up (I do not agree with the limited role accorded this act in spreading African-American culture on the wikipedia page Source). To me the theatrical phenomenon is just wrong because it is the appropriation of one culture by another. Limited depictions of Black history (by both Black & White people) are at the root of a restriction of Black people - for example I was unimpressed by a display in Black History Week which was intended to show the contributions of Black people to history. In all seriousness it was limited to musicians & athletes. This is completely to ignore the sophisticated cultures which pertained in Africa before White people got there. A similar focus on only one aspect of history creates the over-simplified history where slave traders took Africans into slavery & destroyed African culture. This is to ignore the Western African culture of slavery, & much further south Shaka Zulu took many slaves.
My real point here, similar to what I made about apartheid's legacy in South Africa, is that a comples history involving human pain & oppression, is not best served by the kind of portrayal you get in a sitcom. Ever. Unless it is handled very carefully in a way that clearly makes a particular point, or references other aspects of a complicated history. Therefore, for me, whether in The Avengers, Doctor Who, or It Ain't Half Hot Mum, the portrayal of one race by another is just plain not OK. 'Blacking up' is always offensive. I would personally make one exception for the offensiveness of blacking the face, which would be the tradition of black-faced, or completely black-clad, morris sides. It is highly unlikely that the people who originated it would have had any idea that there were people in the world who look any different from our indigenoue dark Britons, or the blondish, reddish colouring brought by subsequent invaders:
'Blacking-up in rural England is a fascinating subject whose origins go back at least to the middle ages. There is a medieval record in Kent of a group of blacked-up woodland people who said they were servants of the Queen of the Fairies. There is a 1485 law of Henry VII's era that makes having a painted face in the countryside a felony. But this rural blacking was mostly about self-protection. Disguise was the poacher's first defence against identification.' (Source, which see for further history of that sort of blacking-up)
This is even without the context in Britain at the time of increasing racial tension, culminating in the riots of 1981 onwards (Source for context). I am just watching an episode which also stereotypes 'Chinamen'. It is also not even to touch on the painful history of Britain's Colonial occupation of all sorts of places, the perception of homosexuals. It Ain't Half Hot Mum is a series which has been left behind by history & changing perceptions. Certainly I'm finding that any element of plot or character is overpowered for me by the dated perceptions: as a sitcom it's failing to make an impression on me.
Jimmy Perry, who with David Croft wrote this & many other series of the time, thinks is it ridiculous not to show this programme again (Source). I'm afraid that since this show brings me into my own personal history I have contemporaneous memories of their shows (usually, I can only remember repeats in the 1980s of the shows I write about here). I'm afraid the memories that most of their shows bring for me are of being forced to watch them because it was a Sunday afternoon or whenever, & there was nothing else on the TV. I certainly wouldn't otherwise have watched Hi-de-Hi or You Rang, Me Lord. I have slightly happier memories of Allo Allo, although that hasn't worn well either. Even at the time our (French) French teacher was grievously offended by the show. It seems Perry & Croft's shows have had their day.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Avengers: Esprit de Corps

I have commented before that I don't have a favourite Avengers girl, nor a favourite series of the show. My interest in all things comes in fads & I'll concentrate on series 6 for a bit, for example. At the moment my interest is being caught by series 2 & 3.
This post is not the one I wanted to write, which was a themed post on the subject of launderettes. This was sparked by the simple fact that the flat I'm renting doesn't have room for a washing machine. I've never objected to launderettes myself - the only previous time of my life I used to go to one regularly was when I lived in Leeds. That one was on the edge of a large council estate, where there was obviously a tradition of going to do your washing, & whole families would go. I was therefore surprised to walk into the one down the road to find it full of men, all of whom were obviously on their own & hopeless at anything domestic. I'm afraid I just dumped the lot for a service wash, since I don't have a batman to do it for me. This still isn't as posh as getting the laundry down the road to collect it & deliver it.
Nonetheless this has made me think of classic TV episodes with scenes set in launderettes. What prevented this becoming a themed post was that I simply cannot remember in which episode of Danger Man Drake is handed a lighter in a launderette. Pity.
There are several things which make this Avengers for me - I love all of the more domestic scenes between Steed & Mrs Gale. I love it that she is telling him off for washing leather when we first see her in this one. It seems to me that there is a very real sense in which Steed retained his original sidekick role up until the Tara King series - in ability, knowledge, intelligence, he will always really be second fiddle to Mrs Gale. Is there nothing this woman can't do? - understanding washing & able to do unarmed combat as well!
Of course this Avengers is very clearly out of the great & the good gone bad stable. In terms of insanity the plot to make Mrs Gale Queen rivals anything in later series.
I notice the opinions on the internet about this one are somewhat conflicting - it seems that most viewers feel a certain dissatisfaction with this episode, but disagree about the source of the dissatisfaction. For me I find the slow steady development & sudden ending rather unsatisfying. However that is more than outweighed by the wonderful details. The contents of the officers' mess kitchen, for example. The whole tension of his relationship with Mrs Gale. Steed's last meal. Mrs Gale's judo scene. This doesn't quite make it into my stonking good television category but it's still vintage Avengers.
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