Thursday, 31 August 2017

Hancock's Half Hour: The Cold

I was very chuffed at the way my last-but-one post kicked off a conversation mainly about British comedians and the difficulty we have exporting them elsewhere. Dominic Bird made the pertinent comment that the only humour anything like ours is Russia's and that it must rain a lot there. Which brings me nicely to the subject of this blog post - Hancock has a cold. In addition to the weather, colds are a British preoccupation. The rumours are true that there used to be a place which researched treatments for the cold, and people would go there on holiday to be given a cold and experimented on.
It is only a nation which could support that kind of official centre which could also produce the sort of humour we have in this episode. When you say it, it sounds strange: the object of humour here is a man's illness. Oh dear, how can I live with myself?
The joke is, of course, in Hancock's approach to his cold. The rest of us may go to bed for a couple of days if it's bad enough, but he's invested in every quack remedy going, including even Mrs Cravat's witchcraft! Hancock is taking exactly the same brave-hero-who-is-really-being-rather-hopeless approach he does to everything else, including dating in the last episode I wrote about. We all know that nothing he does is going to help at all. On the other hand we all know that in private we have all fallen for these quack remedies ourselves, although naturlaly we wouldn't tell anyone. Hancock, however, gives us the opportunity to laugh and feel superior about somebody's irrational faith in quack remedies, secure in the knowledge that ours will never be in the public domain. And needless to say Hancock's little peroration on how wonderful he is, is to say how superior his nose is to Sid's.
The ridiculousness is shared by Sid James. I love the way he wears a face mask and sprays an aerosol every time Hancock coughs. And Sid's ridiculousness is counterpointed by Hancock developing full-blown flu, and then taken to extremes by Mrs Cravat. The point is that Hancock is behaving like we all do with a cold, as if we're going to die, and nobody believes in any of the mumbo-jumbo he's invoking to sort it.
There is an episode of Hancock's radio show where he also resorts to magical practices as a result of being required to perform on Friday the 13th - only in that case Sid screws him for all he's got with a fraudulent druid order. Again, it is extraordinary the way Hancock's humour relies on situations where humans actually have no power and have to resort to superstition - in this case he goes to see a proper doctor who has a cold himself and naturally has no treatment for it.
I suppose the underlying characteristic of this humour is that it takes the things we all do but are ashamed of, laughs at them, and puts them on the TV for all of us to laugh at. The marvel, the wonder, the raw talent, is to get a whole half hour out of this and to remain funny, a funniness which remains after repeated viewings. Galton and Simpson were comedy genii.

Monday, 28 August 2017

The Goodies: Gender Education

 I suppose there was a time when the only source for information on cult TV was books - and friends, of course. Then came the internet and provided a place where fans of old TV could both publish their own opinions and be influenced by other people's. I find these days that whenever I want information about a TV show and google its name, the web pages which give me the information I want will tend to be from blogs, and will also give me the writer's opinion to make me think in a different way. This post is almost entirely due to the influence of Grant Goggans's blog, since he has been watching The Goodies with his son and has prodded me into giving the show another go.
Of course I have seen The Goodies before, but I suspect I wasn't in the right mindset at the time, because I remember heartily disliking it. On watching it again I find I like it enormously and in fact have watched the discs I have, several times. But let's get the criticism out of the way first - the show is very much of the time and hasn't really aged that well. There is one show which talks about South Africa - obviously with reference to apartheid, but younger viewers may not get the reference. The other thing is that it is a bt of a nostalgia fest - the trousers and flared, the hair is long, in addition to the contemporary references. For a TV fan it is interesting to see the contemporary outside broadcast set-up after Bill is taken on by the BBC - no doubt it looked bang up to date at the time. I do like, though, the Avengers-esque set in a field. These contemporary references of course have a tendency to sound different forty years later - there is for example a reference to doing an impression of Rolf Harris!
The contemporary reference in the case of this episode Mrs Desiree Carthorse is an obvious reference to Mrs Whitehouse's obsession with having nothing naughty on TV. The Goodies use the medium of a TV show very cleverly to show up Mrs Whitehouse's prudery and obsessionality with stopping normal elements of human life appearing on TV. The joke is of course that their gender education film, 'How To Make Babies By Doing Dirty Things,' is so ridiculously unsexy that it's hilarious. The results of Mrs Carthorse's actions are shown by the way people turn against The Goodies, who are referred to as Baddies in their hate mail.
But the absolutely best bit of this is the spectacle of Richard Wattis in a wig and a pink suit, interviewing The Goodies who collectively play another prude, Sir Reginald Wheel-Barrow, who decides that the film is inocuous. Wattis tells him that he has only been invited to give an extreme loony point of view. The absurd visual humour of The Goodies is shown by the fact that Wattis can only see that they are The Goodies and not Sir Reginald, when they take off their moustache.
The humour gets steadily more ridiculous as the episode goes on. I particularly love the way Bill goes berserk and starts shouting rude words (like brassiere) at Mrs Carthorse before eventually blowing up BBC TV Centre. I think if you like Monty Python you will probably like this - although it has a less cerebral feel and was obviously aimed at a slightly different audience.
My one criticism of it being slightly too contemporary and thus dated is my only one. The picture is perfect - and the colour palette is rather brighter than the porridge colours which dominate in so much TV of this time. The sound is also perfect. My impression is that a lot of trouble has gone into the restoration and I have enjoyed watching this for the fourth or fifth time greatly. That said, despite ending on a happy note I will still traumatise the cult TV blogosphere by appending a picture of myself enjoying the sun on the canal bank earlier today - it's been a glorious bank holiday here for a change!

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Hancock's Half Hour: The Big Night

I've been meaning for ages to write a post about Tony Hancock here, and have been prompted into it today by watching some of a DVD called Paul Merton in Galton and Simpson's... which is Paul Merton in a number of plays originally written by Galton and Simpson for other people. I watched most of The Bedsitter, and found there's nothing really wrong with it. I like Merton's persona and acting hugely, but the trouble is the script was written for Tony Hancock and you come out with the impression that Merton is playing Hancock playing the part. So I have returned to watching the original.
Surely everyone reading this blog will have heard of Tony Hancock? That name is a legend in British comedy. And of course he was born here in Birmingham, although never lived here for very long. The show is of course Hancock's Half Hour but also features Sid James. The scripts, as I mentioned above, are written by the legendary Galton and Simpson. Have I overdone the words legendary here? It was very difficult to come out with a dud with that stable of talent. And that's the main difficulty with Paul Merton playing scripts written for Hancock: he's a good actor but simply can't compare with the lad himself.
Hancock is also a show which is remarkable for something else. It's my personal perception but the majority of (British) 1950s TV I have watched moves at the pace of an incapacitated, very elderly snail, in comparison to the 1960s TV I like best. This is not bering bitchy, although it might be a huge generalisation, it is genuinely my perception of a major difference of pace between 1950s TV and 1960s TV. And this slowness of pace is not something which can be said of Hancock's Half Hour, even though the episode I'm writing about here was in the fifth series, broadcast in 1959. The show sizzles along, never fails to satisfy, and best of all, takes many a repetition and still draws a laugh.
I think a major reason Hancock is so funny is that he is talking about the life we all lead but try not to talk about. In this one he is going out on a big double date with Sid and they literally don't have anything to wear. I love that the reason for this is that the daily woman, Mrs Cravat, has taken all of their suits to the dry cleaners, and they are forced to collect their clothes wearing running gear. I also love the fact that he has a daily woman at all. The point is that Hancock is trying to be the great gent - Mrs Cravat waits at table during breakfast - but fails completely. The reality is that we none of us really get to what we aspire to (although I personally am living in the poshest place I've lived in in my entire life, which is also strangely the cheapest), but we don't broadcast it. We are entertained by Hancock's discomfort at his own inability to live up to his own standards, but who has never found they don't have anything to wear?
The other strand of his humour is the way everything goes wrong, which takes it one step beyond the level of disaster we can usually expect, and prevents it becoming uncomfortable for the viewer. In this case Mrs Cravat has failed to wash any of his dirty shirts, so even after he has a suit to wear he doesn't have a shirt. This gives an opportunity to use the stalwart scene of comedy TV, the laundrette. I am delighted that he describes the shirt he wants to wash as made of parachute silk and says how it excites the girls when they get a glimpse of his string vest through it! I love laundrettes, myself, and particularly love the laundrette in this show. I love that they have to weight the clothes first. I love that Hancock is so fascinated by the clothes going round in the machine. And I particularly love that James is smoking in the laundrette. But I most love that even though it is his first time of seeing a washing machine, Hancock takes the opportunity to give the man to his side one of his little discourses on how he knows all about it!
Of course the whole point is that we know the big night is going to be a disaster. Hancock has the gall to blame it on Sid James not dressing properly! This is how Hancock comforts the viewer - by amplifying our own social inadequacies and embarrassments in his own person and allowing us to laugh at our own coping strategies.
Another thing I find interesting is the attitude of the cinema manager to Hanock, initially refusing him admission because he has turned up in a jumper without a shirt. The other men in the cinema are dressed in suits and ties, and I love that a suit is the natural thing to wear on a date. In the manner of the time Hancock tries to dress as a beatnik because there is nothing else, and is seen as a hoodlum. Can that be any indicator of how much our world has changed since 1959? Would anyone seriously wear a suit on a date nowadays?
My only sorrow about this episode is that we don't get to see the actress Hermione Boot, who is starring in the film they go to see!
If you haven't seen these, I would just say that if you want a perfect picture you will be disappointed. There are obviously various bootleg versions of these shows doing the rounds anyway, but I am watching these on BBC DVDS and the picture is very grainy when expanded to full screen. I don't object to that or the sound which also isn't perfect, but if you object to those things, you will find this difficult to watch.
But my advice would be to set those things aside because this is definitely Stonking Good Television.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Get Smart

I had forgotten about this show, when I came across the bosed set in the HMV shop just round the corner, and the face of Maxwell Smart brought back memories. It is not surprising that I had forgotten it, because I can't remember reading about this show on the cult TV blogosphere ever. It is also not one mentioned in the books. Which is odd, considering it is very much out of the same world which gave birth to so many of the shows I write about here - The Avengers, Danger Man, and, especially, The Man from UNCLE. Nonethless I must have watched this show before, because I remember it. I have been unable to find UK broadcast dates, but suspect that I was very young, but suspect that it was around the same time that I was a huge fan of Mission Impossible and The Man from UNCLE, and as I remember my younger self loved Get Max equally.
I have a feeling that this show's lack of presence in the TV blogosphere (as surfed my me, that is) is because it is a relative lightweight in comparison to the shows it spoofs. I'm also not at all clear how popular it was at the time or now: there is a website which has obviously been going for years, which includes a plot summary of every episode and a list of merchandise, which usually indicates a really cult TV show. I am therefore at a loss as to why I haven't read about it in the 35-ish years since I last watched it and have had to seek out the information on the internet. I don't want to assume the programme was unpopular (because it got into several series and remakes, etc) but would hypothesise that it may be one of those shows which is neither one thing or the other - I'm particularly thinking of how the introduction of more humorous elements into the third series of The Man from UNCLE alienated the viewers). If you're looking for a comedy, it is just what you want, but its apeing of the spy genre of the time may not have been that popular at the time, and the reason for that unpopularity may simply be that the spy genre was so popular that apeing it was not acceptable. As I say this is a theory and not one I would go the stake for.
It pleases me to announce that Get Smart manages to include every convention of the spy genre of the time. I particularly like the opening sequence, with the convention of the hidden headquarters. It is of course in the nature of the show that all of these conventions are overdone - particularly the gadgets. I love the sheer ridiculousness of so many of the gadgets. Of course this is another thing which may make this show simply too much for some viewers to find funny.
I also particularly like the character of Maxwell Smart. He is a sort of anti-hero to the hero figures of so many of these shows. Bond never drops anything, and with ridiculous nonchalance brings the case to a conclusion, with time to seduce several women along the way. The men from UNCLE work rather harder and of course have differing approaches to the opposite sex, but nonetheless nothing really goes wrong as such. Do these people really never drop anything or walk into a door? I now realise why - it is because all of the accidents have been soaked up by Maxwell Smart on their behalf and so the probability of Bond falling over as he is taking off his socks is minimal. Smart actually fulfills a function in our society, therefore. To put it another way, he is a secret agent who is more like us than the ones in films and TV. In fact he is so like us that he has had to be given this air of ridiculousness so that we always have the luxury of looking at him and thinking he is more accident-prone than we could ever be. Get Smart is therefore the ultimate comfort viewing.
Nor does Smart actually have a sex life, which places him apart from most secret agents (and ensures that my region 2 set of the first series has a PG, or G in Ireland, rating). He would like one, and is surrounded by beautiful women, but I at least feel slightly relieved for these women because we all know that if he got anywhere with them something terrible would happen. His female colleague, 99, remains firmly in the background in a rather unreconstructed way, in common with the series of the time.
So apart from the humour the conventions of the spy genre are actually all present and correct. We have an evil organisation bent on world domination. The men wear suits. The show is wonderfully redolent of the 1960s - I think if you like the sort of ITC shows I have written about here, if you can cope with the humour, you will like Get Smart. The episodes look and feel very much like...well, like Uncle or any ITC series. They are very much studio-bound, which makes for a very controlled and good quality picture, which has also been restored wonderfully. The only thing I don't like about it - although it is in accord with the US TV of the time - is the canned laughter track.
It is not an accolade I think I have given at all recently, but Get Smart definitely gets my rating of Stonking Good Television

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Tales of the Unexpected Rehabilitated

I am completely sure I have blogged about this show here before, but since for the life of me I can't find the post, it may just be that I have mentioned it in passing. Anyway, what I have probably said about it before is that I loved this show as a child, finding it terribly sophisticated and really attention-grabbing. I have probably also said that I have recently had a set of the whole first series and found it incredibly dreary. Actually, given that that was my opinion it is not very surprising if I haven't blogged about it.
Nonetheless today I thought I would give it another go. Unless you're a fanatical completist and want the every-episode-ever box set (on something in the region of 473 DVDs), or fancy buying it one series at a time, I have a recommendation. Buy the 'best episodes' box set, which comes on ten DVDs and is manageable. If you live in the UK the most affordable way to get it is used from Cex at £12.00. I have also realised two things about this show - one is that the quality is more patchy than I remember from my youth. The other is that I have read elsewhere on the internet today, that beyond the second series the episodes weren't actually written by Roald Dahl. What I'm saying in a roundabout way is that buying the 'best of' box set will excuse you from seeing the duds, but that I have a feeling any viewer will be hard pressed to like every episode of such a long-running series.
I came to it again, willing to give it another go. To my astonishment, I found that it was really gripping. I popped a disc in the drive while cooking, and found that I kept stopping to turn round and look at the screen. I am delighted to find that my early memories of this show weren't as wrong as I thought they were - it was perhaps just that I wasn't watching the best episodes.
In fact I am so delighted that I an rushing this into print so that Tales of the Unexpected can be rehabilitated in the view of Cult TV Blog, without watching my way through all the discs. Naturally it may be that some of the episodes are not to my taste, but that will just confirm the theory I have come up with above.
Of the episodes I have watched, I would have to say that they have retained their power to terrify and horrify. For example on the disc in the drive at the moment is The Stinker. This episode accurately creates the feeling of being on the receiving end of bullying and so can only be an alarming experience for the viewer. I'll Be Seeing You is an apparently fairly conventional tale of a man and a woman who loathe each other stuck in a marriage, relieved for the husband only by the affair he is having with a woman who is steadily losing her sight. Without spoiling the story, the unexpected thing in I'll Be Seeing You is truly ironic, would have been horrible for him in reality, and was probably a bit of a triumph of technology at the time. I particularly like the economy with which the horror is developed in The Landlady, featuring the scariest landlady in world history (pictured). The Landlady takes the premise of Arsenic and Old Lace and somehow makes it so much more twisted than it was to begin with. I particular love the element of sexual frisson the landlady gets from her guests.
One of the things I have managed never to notice about this show is the absolutely stellar cast of stars. Joan Collins for a start. John Geilgud to be going on with. Even I can't moan at Really Big Names, because their acting ability tends to be so good that they enhance the show! There are also a number of familiar faces from TV of the period, but I'm going to be good and not moan about it.
So despite my recent disappointment at seeing this programme again, I'm now finding it rather difficult to think of anything critical, but I'll have a go. I suppose the obvious criticism is that if you don't take to anthology series, you won't like this. It is in the nature of the medium that the episodes will vary from each other in style and quality. I would also say that if you are watching this as a fan of Roald Dahl you are going to be disappointed beyond the first couple of series. Not only do his introductions to the episodes disappear but I have read that the later episodes weren't even written by him
Otherwise this is very much what you would expect of the higher level TV of the time in terms of appearance and production values. I would recommend it for a viewing if you're not familiar with it.