Monday, 26 January 2015

Seventies TV: Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em

Picture credit:
It is actually with a sense of relief that I come to cast my jaundiced eye over one of the sacred cows of 1970s television. There has been a hiatus in these series of posts, not because I've stopped watching 1970s TV, but because I've been watching some shows that have left me with nothing frankly to say. Porridge left me unmoved. I remember liking this as a child, but now find it the sort of television that goes on in the background, & you just pay no attention to. Man About the House is new to me, but I find that beyond saying that it's about not getting it & that a lot of unnecessary fuss is made about mixed-sex flat-sharing, I have nothing to say about it. Similarly, Only When I Laugh, which is another series that started in the 1970s & carried on into the 1980s, I remember as boring with the odd contrived laugh. I'm now more prepared to view it as a situation comedy, but really it isn't doing anything for me.
It is therefore with a sense of relief that I arrive at Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (hereafter SMDAE), which I remember seeing with my parents as a child & finding uproariously funny. Unfortunately the only thing I remember about it is Frank's little catchphrases, which are frankly annoying. I'm relieved to discover I'm impressed with how good it is as a situation comedy. I've also managed to find out quite a lot of surprising stuff about this show:
'Some Mothers was dreamed up by an Isle Of Wight-based writer, Raymond Allen. Allen eked out a living writing single sketches from home for the likes of Dave Allen and Frankie Howerd. This didn't really bring in enough cash to live on so he also had a "proper" job cleaning his local cinema. Over the years he had submitted over 40 full-length scripts to assorted TV producers, but all had been rejected. Following the advice which accompanied one reject letter, Allen decided his next idea would be firmly based on something he knew about – himself.
'As a starting point, Allen borrowed some characteristics from a strange man who used to stop by the cinema that Allen cleaned at and ask inane questions about the current films that were playing. Following the advice he had received in the earlier rejection letter, Allen also folded several autobiographical facets into the mix – his character had few friends and suffered from insecurity and depression, as did Allen himself. Allen also still lived at home with his parents and could, in fairness, be called a "mummy's boy". Thus, step by step, the new character was born. Allen "borrowed" his character's name from the strange cinema man, too – Frank Spencer.
'Allen's proposal landed on the desk of Michael Mills, Head of Comedy at the BBC, who saw the potential in the idea. Over a series of subsequent meetings, Mills (who had taken on the role as the programme's producer/director) and Allen added in other ingredients to the prototype character. Frank was a walking disaster area – fully competent at being incompetent. 'Whether it was mending a boiler, auditioning for a job at a holiday camp or transporting a child's playhouse back home – if he could get it wrong, he would get it wrong. He was also given a supreme ability to annoy people. Within the space of a ten-minute conversation, otherwise calm and rational folk could be reduced to tears by Frank's inability to answer any question coherently, or his habit of peppering his responses with long-winded and trivial monologues (usually concerning his childhood). Frank was easily shocked and immensely naïve – any vaguely risqué comment or action would result in a startled "oooh" and a shocked expression. The image was completed by his clothing – his permanent attire was a raincoat and beret worn atop tight trousers and a gaudy tank-top, which he even wore in bed.
'Rather surprisingly, the somewhat effeminate Frank Spencer was married. His mild-mannered wife, Betty (played by Michele Dotrice, actually fifth choice of actress after Sinead Cusack, Elisabeth Sladen, Linda Hayden and Nell Curran), seemed to exist on the edge of a nervous breakdown brought on by Frank's almost uninterrupted stints of being out of work and the couple's general lack of money. Nevertheless, she was loyal to him and always took his side when he was being criticised or picked on.
'As with much television in the seventies, self-appointed media watchdog, Mary Whitehouse, found the show displeased her. She attacked the series publicly, describing the Frank Spencer character as "a purveyor of pornography" apparently after his habit of pulling at the top of his leg while complaining of an unspecified problem vaguely in the area of his genitals ("Genitals – that's a very rude word for her to use," pointed out a mid-seventies TV interviewer. "It's a very long word for her to use," retorted Crawford). In fact, Frank's downstairs "trouble" was understood by the production team simply to be mild incontinence, and nothing sexual at all.' (
The trouble I'm now having with Frank Spencer, is that this history of someone who obviously had difficulties coping with life & put them into a sitcom character, makes me not feel sorry for Frank. The simple fact is that people who really have mental health problems are crippled by them - Frank is plainly not crippled.
Rather, he presses some unfortunate buttons in me, & I see him as one of these people who could well pull themselves together if they tried, but instead go through life making dependent relationships with people who feel sorry for them & expecting everyone to carry them. In the episode about the baby, Betty even expresses my conviction: 'Sometimes I think you do these little things just to upset me.'
Frank reminds me of somebody in my workplace: I have told the manager over & over that the only way ahead with her is to manage her through the door. Things always go wrong when she is around. Things get 'lost'. Essential pieces of paper get put in the wrong folder. Things get done wrongly over & over again. Of course many of these there is nothing to connect her to them, but if the management were thinking of anything other than dogs, chickens & boyfriends, they'd be making careful records of what's happening when & making the connection with the perpetrator. The trouble is that people feel sorry for these people, or else like to think the best, & so they carry them.
His apparent effeminacy comes across more as haplessness to me. I seem no reason to suspect homosexuality - I think he's more likely to be the sort of man whom everyone wonders whether he's gay until the right woman comes along to take him in hand. The question is more about Betty: yes, women do marry men their mothers disapprove of, but ideally because the man is exciting or she is rebelling, not because she's picked the runt of the world's litter. No woman in her right mind would think she could 'make something' of Frank Spencer, so it seems Betty's motivation for marrying him would be a purely codependent one. Incidentally it tickles me no end to find the president of the pensions board of the USA Presbyterian church is called Frank Spencer & has published on twitter a series of meditations for survivors of sexual abuse.
Frank Spencer, as with my colleague, if left to his own devices would not fall flat on his face, because he creates these situations himself. *Nobody* (of normal intelligence) so lacks intelligence or foresight.
I'm interested in Mrs Whitehouse's reaction to this show, which is hilarious in retrospect. The 'trouble' referred to is plainly lavatorial rather than sexual in nature, although I find it interesting how much double-entendre there is in this show (such as Frank under the blanket in his RAF dormitory).
In conclusion this show has made me laugh out loud & it is a relief to see it is different from the selection of catch-phrases I remember. But on a completely personal level Frank is too annoying a character who does not elicit my sympathy. I don't stand fools gladly. Or at all!

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Seventies TV: Minder

Another series that I remember from the eighties but started in the seventies. It's also another series that I'm finding much better on watching it now, than I remember it being at the time. Another series featuring some seriously dodgy motors (see, I'm already starting to talk like Arfur). Another series aiming at realism & grittiness. Another series (more are to come in this series) set in the hand-to-mouth world of the criminal underground. So much so seventies TV show, but there are several fings which interest me here.
I wonder what the original target audience for Minder was? - what prompts me to wonder this is that it strikes me as very much the working class used as entertainment. Minder very much shows the other side of the 1970s era of prosperity, both in its depiction of hand-to-mouth dodgy dealings, but in a frequent depiction of rich people as even more dodgy than the poor people. There is often a very real element of a morality tale in Minder, & the moral is that it is better to be poor & straight, than rich & crooked. In fact the rich are often shown as users of other people, & in the 'script' are also shown being brought down by the cunning, working class, wheelers & dealers. It is therefore not that likely that the intended audience was nouveau-riche or even middle class: it's much more of a working-class commentary on others' prosperity. The irony of course that Minder is set against the dying days of the traditional white working-class. The reason Terry & Arfur are so accepting of casual work rather than permanent employment is that that is exactly how working class employment would traditionally work: the classic example would be workers going to the docks in Liverpool for work in the morning. To this day a lot of manual workers find their work like that, only through agencies now. The exception to this would be the locality-specific industries such as mines or factories, where the workers were more assured of life-long employment, but ironically Minder is set against the background of these industries either slimming down or closing completely.
Another way the world has changed immeasurably in the 35 years since the first series of Minder is that the working-class accents showcased in the show have since become fashionable. Surely there can't have been that many mockneys in the 1970s? And the upper classes didn't pay for expensive educations with the unfortunate side effect they have now of endowing their offspring with an imitation Beffnal Green accent.
Something I find particularly interesting is the appearance of black characters in the very first episode, set in a laundrette (I knew I'd bring laundrettes in again somehow). Terry talks to them without any apparent barrier, & they are characterised sympathetically. Certainly I would expect at this time that people who otherwise mixed in a completely-white world would not have been able to mix with blacks so easily, so it is an interesting depiction.
Otherwise I love the depiction of 1970s London - & not the sort of fashionable London that would be envisaged with hindsight nowadays, but the world of ordinary people. I am formulating a theory about 1970s TV, that it was run by people who remembered the Second World War, but was far enough removed in time for the war's influence to have dimmed somewhat. My theory would go that this was a generation with a getting-by mentality formed by a war, living in a country still shaped physically & psychologically by a war. These effects had long roots, & my theory is that around this time is where the hinge into a new mentality happens - this change would have been completed by the early nineties, so that the people running the show would have been thrusting young executives willing to risk shows such as Allo Allo. In my theory Minder is interesting because it is set at a sea-change in British history, in all sorts of ways.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Seventies TV: Terry & June (with me being distracted onto seventies cars)

Picture credit: here
And so we come to another show that I remember watching when it was new. It only started in the 70s, 1979 to be precise, but I have one odd episode on one of those discs given away with Sunday papers, which is fortunately the first series episode where they move house, so it's in. Given what seems to happen every time I look up one of the stars of my childhood on the internet, my fear & trembling continued when I came to look up Terry & June. Rest assured that they didn't hold orgies in the dressing room or traffic heroin from Afghanistan - they seem to have nothing bad on them at all. That's a relief. In fact at the time I remember Terry & June mainly for its blandness, which was the main criticism of it at the time:
'The show was generally regarded by critics as the epitome of the bland middle-class sitcom, of the kind which had almost disappeared from the schedules by the new millennium. Despite this, the show attracted large viewing figures, typically attracting significantly larger audiences than the alternative comedy programmes with which it was contemporaneous, some of which frequently lampooned the show. In 2004, it came 73rd in Britain's Best Sitcom, jointly with Happy Ever After.' (
Since I didn't like it at the time & it has a reputation for blandness, I've been pleasantly surprised at how good I'm finding it now. It made me laugh. The plot was safe, the characters safe, but I didn't find anything to object to. It also managed to hold my attention, which a lot of TV shows can't manage. I'm interested that it also uses a bland palette of colours, which I talked about in my previous post. Beige, grey, brown. All very non-threatening. In fact it's as bland as the cars that are used in it.
I was going to write about 1970s cars in relation to The Professionals (I can't think how they ever got anywhere because some family friends of ours had a Capri which, while it was very sexy on paper, spent more time off the road than on, with gearbox & all sorts of other trouble). However I discover that the full dreadfulness of the British motor industry at this time is reflected on the Terry & June wikipedia page in the list of cars used (into the eighties, of course):
'In the first series, Terry drives a dark navy blue Mk2 Ford Granada. At the start of the second series, Terry receives a new company car, a metallic Tara Green Austin Princess (a Series 2 1700HL model, with fake registration NMO 49W). This Princess was not used in the following series as the next model Terry uses is an older Series 1 Brooklands Green 2200HL, but still with the fake and now incorrect registration. In the 1985 season Terry keeps his "Wedge" theme with the updated Neutilus Blue Austin Ambassador. In the 1987 season, however, Terry goes back to Ford and drives a metallic red Ford Sierra. In the last season he switches to a briefly seen Mk3 Ford Granada.' (
Obviously this is only my personal opinion but I feel it was as if the era of avocado bathroom suites & orange & brown kitchens bequeathed a similar taste to the automotive industry. Loads of sixties cars are stylish. & sexy, if not always sensible. The names above started the seventies with some nice cars - I see a mark 3 Ford Cortina around locally & still think they're stylish - but it all went rapidly downhill. The BL Princess was a particularly dreadful car - eccentric without the stylishness of Citroens, slow, staid, & doomed. In fact the remaining few are literally doomed: despite the fact that there are two enthusiasts' clubs enthusing about what a good classic buy the Princess is, I don't actually see one for sale. When do you see them on the road? Never. The plain fact is that the parts for their suspension are no longer available, so the shrinking pool of operational ones will fizzle out completely. The downward trend was reflected in the fortunes of the car industry, embodied by the obviously-doomed British Leyland:
'British Leyland was an automotive engineering and manufacturing conglomerate formed in the United Kingdom in 1968 as British Leyland Motor Corporation Ltd (BLMC), following the merger of Leyland Motors and British Motor Holdings. It was partly nationalised in 1975, when the UK government created a holding company called British Leyland, later BL, in 1978. It incorporated much of the British-owned motor vehicle industry, which constituted 40 per cent of the UK car market, with roots going back to 1895.
'Despite containing profitable marques such as Jaguar, Rover and Land Rover, as well as the best-selling Mini, British Leyland had a troubled history. In 1986 it was renamed as the Rover Group, later to become MG Rover Group, which went into administration in 2005, bringing mass car production by British-owned manufacturers to an end. MG and the Austin, Morris and Wolseley marques became part of China's SAIC, with whom MG Rover attempted to merge prior to administration.
'Today, MINI, Jaguar Land Rover and Leyland Trucks (now owned by BMW Group, TATA and Paccar, respectively) are the three most prominent former parts of British Leyland which are still active in the automotive industry, with SAIC-owned MG Motor continuing a small presence at the Longbridge site. Certain other related ex-BL businesses, such as Unipart), continue to operate independently.' (
This troubled history is a microcosm of the downfall of British industry from the 1970s onwards. Certainly (remember I'm only just down the road from Longbridge) the tales locally are legion of deliberate sabotage in the plant. Undo the panels of an Allegro & you would find a load of junk put in there to make it rattle! You can't have it both ways - expect to be in gainful employment bailed out by the government & also perpetually on strike & sabotaging your own work. The locals who went on record saying the government should have bailed out Rover again were in cloud cuckoo land. The government-owned welfare state of the post-war years remains an expensive dream. Because our elders spent money like water, we're now in a world where such things as home ownership or retirement are becoming unlikely dreams for more people, while the money for state provision is non-existent. Certainly locally the watershed for this was the 1970s - I'll grant you the process has been accelerated by the council's balls up with wages, but the reason Birmingham is gridlocked every rush hour is virtually the whole infrastucture is pre-1970s. Since then only cosmetic sprucing up has happened.
Terry & June (got back onto topic eventually) is placed right at the intersection of the prosperous post-war years & the cold draught that came in the 1980s. As such it is cosy viewing & a welcome diversion at the time, no doubt, from the things that were going on in the world.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Seventies TV: Steptoe & Son

I'm gratified that this series of posts on 1970s TV is generating interest in the blogosphere, since this kind of TV is slightly out of my own choice of shows, which can be described as '1960s weird'. I am having IT problems (aren't I always?) So for the foreseeable future I expect to have problems with tidying up posts on here & replying to comments, but thank you to the people who have commented recently.
I didn't actually realise this one had carried on into the 1970s, but I'm watching episodes on the DVD which illustrates this post, all of which were broadcast in the 1970s. Having said that these 1970s shows are slightly off my radar, Steptoe & Son thrives on one of the staple elements of 1960s TV, something which was very much in the zeitgeist of the time - the confrontation between tradition (embodied by the Steptoes), & modernity (represented by the world outside). Harold's periodic talk of revolution & predictions of the end of their way of life place the Steptoes in the side of this confrontation which is left behind. The 1960s thing was very much the pressure to modernise or get left behind. The contrast is very plain at the beginning of Back in Fashion, where Harold is collected from an up-to-date tower block, contrasted with the horse & cart outside. Of course the irony is that it was after this that those kind of blocks came to be seen as failures. In retrospect the argument was about the wrong thing - it focussed on a particular time, since swept away in a wave of postmodernism.
For several reasons I came to blog about Steptoe & Son with fear & trembling. The first reason is a completely personal one - the father-son relationship is way too near the bone for me, since it resembles my own relationship with my mother. What Steptoe & Son does, very cleverly, is manage to make a subject which I know full well to be very far from funny, entertaining. This is a show which can make me laugh out, despite the proximity of the subject matter for me. In fact this relationship was reflected in Brambell & Corbett's real lives:
'From 1962 to 1974, Steptoe drew audiences of 20 million and more. Brambell, who was the wily, dirty-minded, jealous old rag-and-bone man, and Corbett, who played the unmarried, hapless son trapped by his own forlorn dreams, were among the best-known stars on TV.
'When the series ended, both actors found that they, like their characters, were trapped together, with the public unwilling to accept them in other roles. When Corbett died from heart disease in 1982, aged just 57, a second Steptoe stage tour of Australia was being planned. That will come as news to the show's fans: most believed the pairing was shattered by Brambell's outrageous behaviour on their previous tour. A 2002 documentary, When Steptoe Met Son, claimed that Corbett was so disgusted by his partner's drunken antics that he vowed never to share a taxi with him again, let alone an international tour.
'But Susannah, who joined them in Australia as a child of nine in 1977, saw the crisis unfold at first hand. She believes it was her mother, Maureen Corbett, who kept the show on the road: "Willie was very prickly, and my mother was good at dealing with that. He liked her very much and came to rely on her."' (
Of course the other reason I approached this show in fear & trembling, was what I would find out about the well-loved characters of my youth, & sure enough, Wilfrid Brambell has also been accused of abuse:
'Wilfrid Brambell, the actor, became the latest BBC celebrity accused of child sex abuse last night after it emerged that two people had come forward in Jersey claiming to be his victims.
'Brambell, who played the "dirty old man" Albert Steptoe in the comedy Steptoe and Son, allegedly abused two boys in a theatre in Jersey at the height of his fame in the 1970s.
'One of the alleged victims was a resident at the notorious Haut de la Garenne children's home which was at the centre of a high-profile police investigation into historical child abuse on the island in 2008.
'He claimed to have been taken to the island's main theatre, the Opera House, as a "treat" before being taken backstage to meet Brambell, who he accuses of molesting him in a back room.
'The second victim, who had not been a Haut de la Garenne resident, also claimed to have been abused by Brambell at the theatre. The alleged victims were aged 12-13 at the time.
'Brambell, who died in 1985, was homosexual and had a criminal record for "persistently importuning for an immoral purpose" in a public lavatory dating from 1962.' (
I'm noticing something else about many of these shows, exemplified by Steptoe & Son, & I'm using it as the example because it broadcast contemporaneously with the later series of The Avengers. Compared to the vibrant colours of those series & some others of the 1960s shows I like, Steptoe & Son draws on a more muted palette. Greys & browns predominate, making it look much less interesting visually. I'm not why this would be, except deliberately to make the point of the bleakness of their lives. The other shows aiming for gritty realism that come to mind - Public Eye & Z Cars - use a similar dull palette of colours. This contrast (with the unreal world of The Avengers or Randall & Hopkirk), if deliberate, is as subtle as a sledgehammer.
Steptoe manages to be one of the few shows which can make me laugh out loud, while also tearing at my few remaining heartstrings with its depiction of a troubled father-son relationship, as well as prompting reminiscences of the time. I suppose the fact I'm saying these things would indicate it is quality television. Just a pity I now know the 'back story' of what it did to the actors, & the allegations about Brambell.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Seventies TV: The Good Life (US: Good Neighbors)

My viewing of 1970s TV shows has so far completely missed the remarkable phenomenon of self-sufficiency & the allied desire to escape from the 'rat race'. This show perhaps both displays it & is also phenomenally popular:
'The Good Life is a British sitcom, produced by BBC television. It ran from 1975 to 1978 and was written by Bob Larbey and John Esmonde. Opening with the midlife crisis faced by Tom Good, a 40-year-old London plastics designer, it relates the joys and miseries he and his wife Barbara experience when they attempt to escape modern commercial living by "becoming totally self-sufficient" in their home in Surbiton. In 2004, it came 9th in Britain's Best Sitcom. In the United States, it aired on various PBS stations under the title Good Neighbors.' (
As a sit-com the show reflected a part of the culture of the time, another strange thing about the 1970s. On the one hand - until the oil crisis - energy was cheap & there for the taking. One of my colleagues lives in a 1970s house, with the fashionable, yet fabulously expensive to run, underfloor heating the time. She 'retired' years ago, but has to do some work to afford even to turn the heating on at all when their grandchildren stay. The rest of the time she & her husband bundle up in woolies. Of course she won't listen to my advice either to have gas heating installed or ffor less disruption, storage heaters. And I can see why - there is something fabulously luxuriousness about underfloor heating. Of course it isn't installed in houses often now - nobody can afford to run it, apart from anything else. Everything else about the 1970s was over the top & consumerist - shag pile carpet that you had to rake, the fashions of the time required endless fabric, & so on. As tends to happen when an extreme arrives, its opposite comes with it, & The Good Life represented a whole movement with deeper historic roots, & indeed influenced that movement:

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Doctor Who: Deep Breath

The first adventure I've seen of the new Doctor. Technically I suppose 'my' doctor ought to be Tom Baker or Peter Davison, as being respectively the first I remember & the one I saw most of growing up. And that encapsulates my difficulty with Doctor Who - I love that different actors play the role & bring a new personality to it, but the fact that of course the actor playing the doctor is always going to be older than a child presupposes for me that the Doctor must be older than me. Matt Smith blew this preconception out of the water for me. I don't agree with the rumblings in the criticism that he was *too* young - in fact I thought he was a refreshing doctor, partly through being so young. However I feel Smith lacked a certaain depth of characterisation that all of the other Doctors have had.
For this reason Capaldi is a welcome change for me. The mood is much more brooding, pensive, what have you.
That said, my first impressions of the episode were completely mixed. The new theme music bears a welcome similarity to the heavy music of the early series. The impression the titles gave me was almost completely bad, though. This is a totally personal point of view, but obviously the majority of the TV I watch is forty or fifty years old (although I've now gone out of my mind for Sherlock). When you're used to the jarringly unsubtle special effects used in, say, Randall & Hopkirk Deceased, CGI comes as a disappointment. I don't like CGI. CGI does nothing for me. It lacks the theatricality of 1960s & 1970s TV - not forgetting that one of the reasons so much of the TV of the time was wiped was that it was approached very much as a one-off 'performance', which would not be given again. Whereas in the case of this Doctor Who it was even leaked in advance because the dear old BBC kept it on a drive that wasn't secure, bless them.
Of course my distaste for CGI has coloured my take on the rest of the adventure. I'm obliged to admit that while I have watched this episode twice with a view to blogging about it, I've been sitting looking at the disc for a week, thinking that I ought to watch it again to mug up the plot. Today I realised I just plain didn't want to watch it again. I also seem to have the most negative view on the internet of Deep Breath.
As for the plot - I don't remember any of it. Nothing. Except for a restaurant full of mechanical people. Here the effects have spoiled the plot. I've noticed how it looks, but not registered what has gone on. It's become merely background, in the way a lot of contemporary TV is. While writing this I'm actually watching an episode of Bergerac & have registered much more of what's going on - it's about morbid jealousy in a fencing club.
This one is otherwise notable for the BBC getting six complaints over the lesbian kiss. The only thing I personally find objecctionable there is that the marriage motif is anachronistic, unnecessary to the story, & gratuitous. The scene then created more controversy when it was cut to comply with Singapore's broadcasting standards.
So to sum up - great music, over-effective visuals which are not to my taste, pleasing steampunk genre (although how it can be a literary genre escapes me), pleasing new Doctor, unmemorable plot. This is one I'll be selling. I've got Spearhead from Space up on the shelf & hope to blog about that sometime soon, since I've now watched it through several times with great enjoyment.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Seventies TV: Rising Damp

I have been watching two series starring Leonard Rossiter as part of my orgy of 1970s TV viewing, both of which I watched as a youngster, The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin, & this one. Rossiter actually played in an episode of The Avengers, Dressed to Kill, which I have already blogged about here, an episode which shows his worth as a serious actor. His ability as a serious actor is shown for me in his ability to do a halfway convincing Brummie accent, without overdoing it or becoming too Black Country.
Of course it is a commonplace that serious actors are always tortured souls (, & in Rossiter's case the modern tendency for unrestrained biographies of former heroes has led to a biography (, & in the cess pit that was allegedly the BBC in the 1970s he has also been accused of abuse ( There is frankly almost no celebrity from my childhood who has not been shown up to be a monster - I'm glad Jimmy Savile never replied to the letter I wrote to him. & I seriously thought the career in TV I so badly wanted could be kicked off by being one of the men Rolf Harris would throw paint over to start off an art work.
There is a theme developing in these posts on 1970s TV: the 1970s were a frankly awful time. Economically, environmentally, racially, in every way this decade was awful. I think probably the reason I subjectively remember it as a happy time of bright colours was that we were off our heads on the additives in the food. These youngsters used only natural flavours & colourings don't understand how exciting a tube of Smarties used to be!
Rising Damp started as a stage play, & was Rossiter's big break. The play was essentially the same as the TV show:
'  The Banana Box picked up on both of these themes - the place of blacks in society (and the opinions of those who were against it) and the attempt to answer the question of who exactly is British, and why. The character of the landlord of the bedsit Rooksby (he only became Rigsby in theTV series)  was based on several people who Eric Chappell knew, and their cynical attitude to the influx of African and Afro-Caribbean citizens onto English shores. Philip was obviously based on the hotel guest already mentioned, with his tales of African culture being gleaned from many evenings for Eric at the local library. Miss Jones - Eric's first female character - was deliberately coy, but a gentle, forgiving soul, and the love interest for Rooksby. His frustrations at her coolness towards him are multiplied when it becomes clear she has eyes only for Philip. The play is based in a university town, so Philip is a student of Town and Country Planning, and there are two more scholarly tenants - Noel Parker and Lucy. At the end of the play, Noel and Lucy have become an item, and Philip has had to admit that his royal status is all pretence, and that he is in fact from Croydon. None of the cast who took part in the rehearsed reading were present when the play entered full production.' (
The racial attitudes, stereotypes & conflicts demonstrated in other 1970s shows, such as It Ain't Half Hot Mum, are of course also present here. In case Rigsby's attitude to his African tenant may seem dated, let it be remembered that when I was lodging with a couple in Leeds in the mid-90s, she told a man wanting the other bedroom that it had been taken when it hadn't, on the basis that 'I don't mind them, but I don't want them living with me'. Rising Damp, in common with all of these 1970s shows, takes place against this background of tension - it was commonplace in Birmingham in the 1970s to see signs saying that 'coloureds' or Irish weren't welcome - & uses this tension as a source of entertainment.
This is somewhat redeemed by the character of Rigsby & the way his tenants unite against him & often win, but of course it is the reason Rising Damp seems so dated. It is also apparent that the African character - played by an actor born in the Caribbean - mediates African culture in a non-threatening way. His status as a god & multiple wives are not treated completely seriously. In this Rising Damp has a foot in both camps of traditional racial tensions & modern diversity approaches. There is a comfortableness with Smith's African culture that does not exist for a man wearing an ear-ring. The foot in both camps leads me torn between saying it's old-fashioned & bigoted, & saying that it may well have helped people to be comfortable with black people. For this reason Rising Damp leaves me uncomfortable & unsettled.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Seventies TV: The Famous Five

I didn't watch these shows as a child - whether it was because I was too young, I don't know. Neither did I read the books - we weren't allowed them in my school & so they were exchanged as if they were porn, & I was too good in those days to read that rubbish. I really don't know the reason our headmistress banned them, but there was no pressure at home to read them. I had one friend who'd read all the Famous Five books, in copies that his mother had had as a child. I think I rather guiltily read some of the Secret Seven books. Certainly 1970s children's TV wasn't lacking in an ability to press parental buttons. I watched Grange Hill actually with my parents, & I was forced to watch Tiswas - in retrospect I think my dad had a pash for Sally James. Some family friends forbade their children from watching either of these programmes, a ban they easily overcame by turning the volume down so that their mother wouldn't hear the relevant theme tune.
They lived in a large house on Moor Green Lane in Moseley, & my memories of visiting them are of the formality of their dining & how well-behaved everyone was. The point was the children had to think & feel what they were told to. The act of behaving in a particular way & making out that everything was so nice extended to the fact that their mother never told them she had had part of a breast removed many years previously. The daughters only found this out after their eldest sister died of breast cancer. I can only imagine the guilt you would feel at this - because the daughters now have special health surveillance since they're at such high risk - & marvel at the mindset that wouldn't mention such a thing.
The point of this is that families can create their own culture where particular behaviours are acceptable. This is particularly evident in the act of playing at happy families. The script goes along the lines of 'our family is alright, we can do no wrong, our family cannot possibly be dysfunctional', & so on. Of course with this I'm leading into the Enid Blyton world-view. We know who *we* are, Johnny Foreigner is always going to be the baddy, everything's alright. This is of course completely wrong. The rhetoric of 'stranger danger' in the 1950s was even then based on an unreality : we are all, both children & adults, most likely to be abused, assaulted or murdered by someone we know, frequently a family member or other intimate. In the criticisms of Blyton's work over the decades, I feel this tends to be overlooked - this is a completely unrealistic presentation of who children are most likely to be at risk from.
I suspect my headmistress's reason for banning Blyton was in criticism of her literary quality. I'm interested, though, to discover that Blyton has had a renaissance of recent years:
'Children's laureate Michael Rosen says he read very little of her as a child but now appreciates her skill.
'"She was very clever at several veins of thought that appeal very much to children. They escape from their parents into a world where they can perform superhuman feats, or certainly beyond the capacity of children, in The Famous Five and Secret Seven.
'In her stories about girls, like Amelia Jane and Mallory Towers, she explores the rivalries and jealousies of children and the ways in which they can be quite unpleasant to each other, he says.
'"Thirdly, she was very good at capturing the fantasy world of Noddy and the Faraway Tree, very good at creating an unreal world of goblins and fairies."
'Some critics dislike the way she allows a narrator's voice to intervene to make a blunt, moral point like "That served him right" but Rosen thinks this can be reassuring.
'"That's where the real division about Enid Blyton lies. Some think it's a bossy voice but others say that's part of the appeal - hand-holding. She was trying to tell you who is good and who is bad."' (
Of course Rosen picks up on my point that Blyton does try to tell you who is good & bad, but has it completely wrong.
Another huge difference between Blyton's world & ours is the depiction of children being allowed to wander round completely without adult supervision, despite being in an environment completely populated by suspicious foreigners & sinister Communists, which should have immediately signalled danger to Aunt Fanny. Since it wasn't that long ago that you could legally leave school at the age of fourteen (I believe you havve to stay until you're 32 now), I think this may not have been that divorced from reality. Certainly in my teenage years, against protest from my mother, I used to ride round on my bike, exploring the local disused railway line & derelict industrial buildings. The bicycling bit may still be done, but a greater awareness of danger has led building sites to be sealed up tighter than...well, insert your own image here. Once again, a change in perception marks the change from Blyton's world.
Not having read many as a child the stories are coming as relatively new to me. I don't think they're any poorer than most Agatha Christie stories. I would put them on a par with some of the stories in the (now ridiculously collectable) more advanced Ladybird books - I remember one in particular about a mystery on an island.
And what stories they are! Coming to them as an adult it is strangely reassuring that you know what's going to happen in Blyton's synthetic world. It is refreshing that the characters - especially the baddies - are all so much larger-than-life, which somehow prevents them being threatening. In fact in terms of television I think I would have to compare the characterisation to some of the unreality of the later Avengers. That may sound like high praise for what is fairly ephemeral television, but it seems to be out of the same stable in depicting an unreal England that never really existed. I think it could probably be said of a lot of children's literature of the first half of the twentieth century - which has given me pause for thought on another possible 'source' for the world of The Avengers.
However The Avengers' use of unreality has created a timeless world, with knowing adult & sexual undertones at every point. Blyton's unreality is almost pre-Freudian, & given the pre-Freudian novel Fanny Hill, surely Dick & Fanny have not changed their common meanings in the English language? Once again her world is a world of acting in a particular way, which in the real world would have complicated psychological results. It seems her bossy voice telling people what was right & wrong was quite different from her own private life:
'Crowe says that during her first marriage, Blyton embarked on a string of affairs, including a suspected lesbian liaison. Yet Blyton could never forgive Pollock, who served with distinction in two world wars, for finding happiness of his own when their marriage ended.
'According to Crowe, Blyton's revenge was to stop him from seeing his daughters, Gillian and Imogen, and to prevent him from finding work in publishing. He went bankrupt and sank into depression and heavy drinking.' (
In this production there is a further element of sadness, which is that the actress who plays George took her own life.
I realise I'm seeing Blyton's world through adult eyes - & some very jaundiced adult eyes at that - & I don't have the answers to how to make children's literature vaguely realistic. At what age would children become aware of the elephant in the room that is George's desire to be a boy? At what age do children question enough to find the Famous Five ridiculous? At what age is it OK for adults to lose their sense of wonder & lose themselves in a pretend world of escapism?
I'll have to leave other people to these questions. There's a mysterious foreigner creeping through the secret passage & I need to go & set the dog on him.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Seventies TV: On The Buses

'On the...' Is of course an idiom referring to working in a particular field. 'On the bins' would be another one. I have a feeling that it is a phrase used particularly by blue-collar public sector workers ( describes some modern bin men & also talks about the changing environment of work in the service sector). As usual I'm trying to make the point that TV from so long ago references an age that was in reality a far cry from nowadays, marked by a watershed (in britain) under the Thatcher government of the 1980s. In the 1970s the services we took for granted in Britain were far more likely to be state-owned, & operated by workers with far different expectations from todays market-driven public sector. Those whose expectations have not changed from those days are in for repeated disappointments. Council houses are few & far between, it is extremely unlikely that many of the services previously owned by councils will not be run by a private company, & the expensive, impossible, idealist nightmare that is the NHS is the bane of every government's life. An exception to the rule of public sector ownership was actually the buses. In Britain it was previously illegal for local councils to operate the bus system, unless there was a planned route for a tram, a service councils did run. I am showing my origins by starting this On The Buses off with my meanderings on changing public sector ownership, since Birmingham was the exception to the rule & the council did run the city's very profitable bus service for decades. They did this by the simple means of creating a plan for a tram service all over the city, which never actually happened, & instead ran buses, thus could use the legal loophole.
It is also very apparent to me that this is a show set in a working-class milieu. The supposedly dated gender attitudes of the show don't strike me as obviously as the class element here - I also don't personally find this show quite as dated as It Ain't Half Hot Mum, at least as far as the attitudes. It is more that the era in which the show is set has gone. This is an age of unskilled or semi-skilled work, of unions, of clocking-on. The irony is that it is also an age that has almost completely gone.
Since these shows are acting as a springboard for local history reflections, it is ironic that I'm sitting in the 'Detroit of Britain' writing this. Birmingham is actually fortunate that its central position has always stopped the kind of economic disaster that Detroit has experienced - in fact the only point of the comparison was only ever the dependence on industry, the motor industry specifically. Since the 1970s, when central government put more effort into regenerated the north of the country, the economic map of the Midlands has changed almost completely. Traditional working-class jobs have almost completely vanished - yes, of course these people could still be working as bus drivers, but the complete demise of the 'clippy' demonstrates the decline of unskilled jobs since then. In fact Birmingham, the traditionally prosperous Second City, has since become the epicentre of Britain's child poverty (
As such, On The Buses actually makes me sad. It depicts a world that has passed, & one that frequently its inhabitants couldn't see crumbling around them.