Northern Ireland 1958 World Cup Team – Four Four Two

Here’s a recent article of mine from the UK’s main glossy football monthly – Four Four Two. It’s a brief piece on the 1958 Northern Ireland team who overcame the tragedy of the Munich air disaster to become the smallest nation ever to reach the quarter finals of the World Cup. Click on the image to link to a larger image where you can then further magnify the text.

Four Four Two

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Goodbye to Ceefax and Analogue TV

Technology never stands still and things nearly always move forward in the consumer world of communications for the better. Nevertheless, the final switch off of analogue television in the United Kingdom has left me a little saddened. Not only has it brought back lots of memories of how I used to watch television through the years, many of which would seem like the depths of primitivism to the hip kids of today, but the real loss is the quite glorious and wonderful Ceefax, a faithful servant through the decades, the demise of which seems to be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Analogue TV may well have had to go, but where’s my old buddy Ceefax now when I need him?

Even as a child of the 1970s I’ve been through quite a few changes to viewing patterns and technology before and can only wonder at those born twenty years earlier who might faintly remember the days of one channel television on real museum pieces of furniture. My first memories of ever watching television at all are on a black and white set when I was about two. Colour television had been experimented with in the UK in the 1960s and became general across the channels in 1970 but it’s easy for people to think now that everyone suddenly woke up to a new colour dawn as soon as the 70s began. Far from it. Colour TVs were more expensive and a colour TV license was more expensive. Furthermore, a lot of programming was still in black and white, particularly any repeats, so many persisted with black and white sets for a number of years until colour TVs eventually became the norm. Even once my family owned our first colour TV I would still step back in time at holidays spent with my grandparents who were trapped in the world of black and white. Added to that, a lot of television aimed directly at children was being broadcast in black and white right up into the 1980s with old repeats of Flash Gordon, King of the Rocket Men, Champion the Wonder Horse, Robinson Crusoe and the like.

These were the days of only three channels of course and, when I was young, I rarely found anything to interest me on BBC2 so there may as well have only been two. Television tended to finish soon after midnight with the playing of the national anthem and shutting down, there was no breakfast news in the morning and certainly no daytime programming to speak of other than for schools and children in the morning and dreary efforts in the afternoon. I can well remember days spent off school sick, lying on the sofa with a blanket around me while enduring Crown Court or being mentally tortured by the unspeakable boredom of Australian imports such as The Sullivans. It was all a cunning ploy to force children back to school, to show them that staying off came at a price and that getting well soon was a virtue. And, of course, lying there sickly, you really did have to endure what was on. Remote controls were a device from the future, probably to only be obtained shortly after jetpacks, and changing the channels in those days meant getting up and walking across the room. Planning your viewing was important back then as no one could be bothered making the walk to the TV needlessly (I can still remember our first remote control – a curious device in the early 80s which was connected to the TV via a lead which only stretched halfway across the room, allowing only one chair to control the channels). And even then planning was also more difficult. No digi guides back then. No, you had to buy not just one but two listings mags as the Radio Times published only the two BBC channels and the handful of BBC radio channels while the always inferior and cheap TV Times published your single local ITV channel’s listings.

Another point about planning your TV viewing (which seems impossible to my own son today) was that if you missed something then that was it, no second chances. Sometimes a show might get repeated the next year if it was a popular comedy but often if you missed something then you never got another chance to see it. No DVD or Blu-ray release the following Monday, no BBC3 repeat the next day, no Virgin On Demand allowing you to watch it at a time of your choosing later that night, no Tivo hard drive to record it on, no iPlayer on the internet, no illegal torrent downloads available, not even – wait for it – a VHS recorder. In the 70s I can remember that the threat to stop you watching a particular programme if you misbehaved was the ultimate nuclear sanction. The most deadly of all weapons in a parent’s arsenal. “You can’t watch your programme until you’ve finished your dinner.” “But it’s on already.” “Then you’ll just have to eat all the quicker, won’t you?” It should also be pointed out that these were the days before second TVs were even common. Every house I knew of had only one in the living room and I can still remember the horror as I missed an entire episode of Doctor Who while fighting my way tearfully through a dinner in the back of the house which contained my old nemesis, baked beans. It was impossible for me to eat these foul things quickly and not even Doctor Who could prompt me into doing so which was why I begged for mercy. None was forthcoming and by the time I had eaten the last of the disgusting beans I ran as fast as my legs would carry me into the living room only to see literally one second of a giant rat running towards the camera and the final credits going up. It was the first episode of a story called The Talons of Weng-Chiang broadcast (so the internet tells me) on the 26th February 1977. I finally saw the episode when it was released on VHS in November 1988. The nuclear threat indeed, although I’ve never eaten a single baked bean again in my life so something has come out of it at least.

My favourite programme was Doctor Who and I can well remember the rising panic that came often when family shopping trips into town seemed to be heading dangerously into the part of the evening reserved for Who. I can still clearly hear the assurances that we’d be back home in time on a November evening in 1975 as I was particularly enjoying Tom Baker’s struggles against the evil Sutekh and his robot mummies. We made it back for the last five minutes. It was released on VHS ten years later in 1985. When Tom Baker was pitted against vampires on a dark night at the tail end of 1980 I knew we wouldn’t make it home in time and so my dad and I sat in the cold outside the window of the TV hire shop Radio Rentals, which always had a display TV switched on, and I was able to watch the episode with no sound. It was 1997 before that one was released on VHS.

VHS

When I first heard my dad speak of a device which was able to record television when you were out of the house so you could watch it back later it seemed like some kind of witchcraft to me. I remember not being able to understand the concept or quite believe that such a thing could be real. But, after hearing about it for the first time at the start of the 80s and perhaps starting to see them being giving away as the star prize on game shows, we found ourselves in possession of one around 1982 via the trusty Radio Rentals with piano-type levers you pressed down on at the front and tapes loaded in on the top as some fearsome spring popped up a door. And life changed. Not only could I record things when I was out but I could keep them forever if I wanted. However, the cost of tapes was prohibitive. I seem to remember 60 min tapes made by Thorn EMI costing six or seven quid which is a whopping £17 in today’s money. I’ve just checked that I can buy a 100 disc spindle of DVD-Rs from a reliable manufacturer like Verbatim for £17-95, each capable of holding 120 mins of video. In other words, it’s now 200 times cheaper to record than it was back in 1982.

My dad came home nearly every night with offerings from some place called Freddy’s Video and the family soon found themselves connoisseurs of badly dubbed Bruce Lee movies and everything else which was going. We devoured TV like never before and when programmes like Fawlty Towers and Monty Python became available to rent I sucked them in and loved them over and over before the rental period was up. Happy times. Eventually the price of tapes started to come down a little and then wars would erupt in the household between myself and my sister over who had the right to permanently keep something on a tape. My vote was always for the Colin Baker Doctor Who stories which were being shown at the time while my sister would always demand that her recordings of Wham on Top of the Pops were more worthy of eternal preservation.

It was around the early 80s as well that we became a multi-TV household. First of all there was a small portable TV and we stepped back into the world of black and white as black and white portables were vastly more affordable than colour ones. Its useless aerial demanded constant readjustment every time the wind changed direction in the slightest and each person displayed onscreen was often accompanied by a ghost of themselves overlapping the main image. Nevertheless, this new piece of technology, primitive as it was, seemed like a luxury at the time. I fondly recall being allowed to take it up to my bedroom so I could stay up late and watch episodes on ITV of the US comedy import Soap which I watched with the earpiece plugged in. Yes, this TV was so technologically advanced that it came with a short piece of wire with one earphone on the end so that you could listen to it personally. But only in one ear.

Portable

Eventually, the ancient family TV was moved from the living room to the back room and we became a three TV house around the time we got the VHS deck. The old TV had been something of a wonder when we bought it in the mid 70s as the buttons didn’t need to be pressed in but responded to the touch of your fingertips on their metal surface! The manufacturers were even forward-thinking because there were four channels and I wondered at the day that might become possible and there would actually be four channels. Over the years though its channels had actually decreased to less than those available to watch as some of the touch buttons no longer worked and you could only watch two channels on it. As sad though as I was to see this old trooper being shunted into semi-retirement the new living room TV was a thing of beauty because it had Ceefax!

I used to watch Pages from Ceefax when I was younger. They would be shown during the times when TV was often not on, back in the day before 24/7 TV became the norm. It could be viewed on Saturday mornings while waiting for Swap Shop or Saturday Superstore to come on or perhaps late at night for a while after a channel had stopped broadcasting programmes. It seemed like some sort of marvel to me. That you could press something on a remote control device belonging to some TV of the Future and you could then access quizzes and news and weather and all sorts of stuff. Truly, the world of tomorrow had arrived. However, we could only watch a selection of the pages on an endless loop while a piece of, often very cheesey, mood music played over it. When we got our first TV capable of displaying Ceefax I couldn’t wait to get home from school that first week so I could look up almost any page that was on it. Horse racing results, cookery tips, holiday offers, it didn’t matter what I was looking at almost, it was the fact that I suddenly could look at it. My sister and I now fought for control of the remote so we could make Ceefax work in our own preferred way as its master.

Of course, there wasn’t just Ceefax but there was also the ITV equivalent, called Oracle. Even at the age of 13 or whatever I was though I could see cheap things for what they were and Oracle was always a very poor cousin of Ceefax indeed. Not only did it not look quite as good (yes, Ceefax’s chunky block graphics once looked like cutting edge) but you also had to endure pages of adverts which would invariably flick up before you had finished reading the page forcing you to wait until the page you wanted came round again after the advert. No, Oracle was never up to much and remained unloved in my house even after it changed its name to the incredibly bland Teletext which was the exact equivalent of a TV channel calling itself Television.

Once the initial novelty of Ceefax wore off I got my pages down to a regular order of importance and every day would start off with the news that Ceefax could give me. First up was Page 102, the main News Index. Then it was Page 302, the football news index. Next was Page 501 for the index on Entertainment News and, finally, I’d look up Page 160 for the dreary stories of the Troubles from Northern Ireland’s local news index. These one page stories of text were an incredible news digest service which kept me up to date with everything I needed to know about the world, my country, TV and film and football. Ceefax over breakfast brought me up to speed each morning and you could still listen to BBC’s Breakfast Time (as it was then known) in the background. I continued this ritual for thirty years!

Troughton

There were other changes to TV between then and now, of course. Breakfast television itself was a huge development when both ITV’s TV-am and the BBC’s Breakfast Time began broadcasting in 1983 and when Channel 4 appeared one year earlier in 1982 it was a very big deal. I recall rushing home from a holiday at my grandparents to be back in time for the switching on and the first programme. which was… err… Countdown. And then hearing the same piece of music for three minutes every ad break for weeks on end as there was some sort of dispute with the advertising and all they could put in the ad slots was the channel ident graphics with the Channel 4 theme. Still, the most impossible thing for people to imagine today is that, back then, Channel 4 was actually a superb and worthwhile TV channel.

We became a two VHS deck house in 1989 when I took advantage of some sort of Radio Rentals student deal to get myself a colour portable TV (making us a four TV house!) and a video player. Now I not only had video in the comfort of my own room but could, on occasions hook up the video to the one downstairs to copy movies and TV series among friends. I’d never had it so good! I still have both the TV and video player to this day in my bedroom, even though it’s only good for watching VHS tapes on as it can’t pick up digital signals.

Satellite TV arrived for me in the early 90s and Sky always looked slightly naff to me from the start. Aside from sport I just wasn’t interested in their entertainment schedules (though I would later catch up with many years’ worth of The Simpsons feeling that I’d missed out). Much, much better looking was the other satellite option of BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting) which had a really good basic entertainment channel and even made some of its own programmes. Above all else though it was dedicated to showing the best of British archive television rather than flogging some lame and cheap US import to us as Sky did. Also, while the early Sky dishes were renowned for playing up in bad weather in terms of reception, the BSB dish was much smaller, technologically better and was square! It was a sad day for me when the news broke that the fledgling British satellite market wasn’t big enough for two players and the two companies merged into British Sky Broadcasting. This had all the hallmarks of your favourite childhood comic merging with another title only for your comic’s name to be a tiny subtitle beneath the other’s and which would be dropped altogether in due course while the handful of characters you enjoyed would be eventually discontinued from the range of strips. British Sky Broadcasting was obviously just going to be known as Sky, all the BSB channels were dropped, all the original programming was dropped, all their archive TV was dropped, the Square dish was dropped and I was forced to get Sky’s inferior one with all their inferior programming. And pay Rupert Murdoch for the privilege. Still, I got to see Manchester United win their first title in 26 years during that first season of live Premiership football so it wasn’t all bad.

In the meantime, for Saturday afternoon football that wasn’t on live I would often sit at home with Ceefax as my companion. Page 316 was the Saturday page of choice for any football fan as it ran through all the top level matches with the scores and goalscorers over a number of rotating sub-pages. Quite often I’d forget that I could actually be listening to reports and commentary on the radio as I’d be engrossed in watching the pages flip round, waiting for one of them to change with new information. Television itself had changed beyond belief since I’d started watching three channels on our one black and white set. By the 90s we had TVs all over the house and we had the beginning of the multi-channel revolution and devices for playing back programmes which I could buy or record to keep forever. But still, good old chunky, blocky Ceefax looked exactly the same as it had always done and I loved its stability and refusal to change.

Digital television came upon us and I knew the end was coming for my old friend. Digital television has a text service on its red button but it’s a charmless thing which seems a lot less informative and less wide-ranging than the faithful old dinosaur Ceefax. It was announced that analogue TV services, which carried the Ceefax signal, would be switched off throughout the United Kingdom by 2012 with different regions bowing out in stages earlier than others. It seemed like a move backwards to opt for the red button text service over something which I thought was actually better like Ceefax. Nevertheless, some crumb of comfort was found in the knowledge that Northern Ireland was to be last in this process of forced digital viewing on Tuesday 23rd October 2012. If Ceefax was going to sink beneath the waves, at least I could stay on deck right to the bitter end.

And so the final day came and it was a minor news story throughout the UK even for those regions which had lost their own ability to view Ceefax many months or years earlier (the digital rollout began in 2008 and various regions dropped out of analogue broadcasting over the course of the next four years). It was good to see that Ceefax itself was mourned just as much as the end of analogue TV was being marked. I took a few photos of the final day of pages just to keep as a record of this old TV companion of mine and to act as a final resting home on this page for anyone who might stumble upon them and might be interested in them, like some virtual online Bagpuss’ shop.

As for analogue TV itself, BBC2 switched off in Northern Ireland (and therefore the last place in the UK) a fortnight before the final deadline. BBC1 Northern Ireland and Ulster TV joined forces for a joint broadcast of their greatest hits through the years called The Magic Box. BBC1NI (and Ceefax) switched off just after 11.30pm with some nice old idents and a final image of the current BBC logo. UTV followed a few minutes later with a service announcement and offering some phone lines for those still confused about the whole thing! Channel 4 kept ploughing on past the supposed 11.30 cut-off and finally disappeared some time between 11.40 and 11.45 during some random moment it would seem of an episode of Homeland. Five, or whatever it’s called theses days, held on into the next day with their usual snowstorm reception, not even mentioning its imminent switch off when it started a new programme at 11.55pm! They were still showing regional Northern Ireland adverts after midnight during the first commercial break and then analogue TV finally winked out in Northern Ireland, and the UK as a whole, halfway through the post-ad-break opening line of dialogue of an episode of CSI:NY. As it was, the final sentence ever spoken on analogue broadcasting in the UK was the unforgettable, “Hey, come with me”!

Farewell then to good old analogue Ceefax. You served us faithfully, but nothing ever stays the same forever, and neither it should I guess. I’ll still miss you though.

IMG00228-20121023-2325The final news index page

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Final regional news index page

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Final football index page

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Final entertainment index page

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TV listings page for the final night

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Music chart page for the final night

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The incredibly detailed weather map of the UK on the final night

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Front index page for the final night

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The start of a sequence of pages with Ceefax bidding farewell to its readers in the final moments.

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And with that Ceefax fades slowly down to a white dot on the screen before disappearing altogether.

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Analogue TV on the BBC bowed out with a compilation of the BBC idents over the years.

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This one being the best, of course!

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And this was the final image.

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Mr Pye DVD Review

This was actually an an unwanted DVD review for something or other and I can see why it wasn’t wanted. I disliked the series so much that I found it hard to summon up the energy to either savage it or laugh at it. Instead I was merely bored by it. I produce it here on the blog just in case anyone should ever be tempted to watch it!

I’d been looking forward to watching Mr Pye ever since it was drawn to my attention a short while ago. The combination of Derek Jacobi, the fact that it was an adaptation of a Mervyn Peake novel, contained an offbeat plot about a man growing angel’s wings and the fact that it was shot entirely on location on the Channel Island of Sark seemed to suggest that it had a lot going for it. Add to that the fact that its director, Michael Darlow, although less associated with drama, had made his name at the helm of impressive documentaries notching up episodes of series such as The World at War and, most famously, Johnny Cash in San Quentin and it looked like a winner. However, if anything can ever have been said to be less than the sum of its parts it’s Mr Pye.

Adapted by Landseer Productions for Channel 4 and shown back in 1986, it is very much a product of its time in a number of regards. Like many 1980s productions shot on film it looks rather faded in colour and this Network release doesn’t appear to have accessed the original film prints for a new transfer and grade which it sorely needs to inject some sense of vibrancy rather than the slightly washed out look we are served up here. Ironically, while the picture quality now looks decidedly cheap and grotty it would have been an expensive production at the time when many dramas were still shot as a mixture of film and video.

One benefit though to having been made when it was is that it got made at all. The days when genre pieces were being produced were rapidly drawing to a close, with science-fiction and supernatural dramas being consigned briefly to history before being revived in more recent times. It’s hard to imagine a four-part miniseries being commissioned much later than this when the television landscape of Britain had somewhat turned against dramas like this which engage in both fantasy and whimsy.

However, it is very much of its time and it would be difficult to see how a piece as slow and aimless as this is could be commissioned at all in the drama landscape of today, let alone do well. Its problems begin almost immediately and the production serves us up a first episode which is entirely at odds with the remaining three but which could have been so easily avoided by a better screenwriter, script editor or director to ensure that there was some reason for the viewer to tune in again the following week.

As the first episode begins we are introduced to the rather fuddy-duddy, clappy-happy Mr Pye arriving by ferry to the island, apparently to bring “love” to its inhabitants and being met by the landlady at whose house he will be staying. He aims to bring the islanders closer to “the Great Pal” – his term for God – and although it’s slightly quirky to hear this term the first few times it does begin to grate somewhat by about the five thousandth instance in Episode Four. For the remainder of the opening episode he potters about being chatty to people and greeting them pleasantly, singing jolly songs and carrying out the occasional minor good deed on the level of fence painting.

And this is where it all gets a bit difficult to understand where the production team and screenwriter’s heads where at. I’m guessing that this series was probably marketed as being one about a man who grew angel’s wings through doing good deeds – it’s right there on the front of the DVD cover for modern audiences and I’d imagine any pre-publicity at the time would have drawn attention to it. Any modern production… actually, scrap that. Any sensible production of any age would surely have the big reveal of the first signs of his wings starting to poke through the flesh on his shoulders as a cliffhanger at the end of the first episode, acting as a major hook to the audience to tune in again. However, in Mr Pye the episode ends halfway through his attempts to stage a beach party and winch an old woman to the proceedings. In other words, we’ve endured an episode of mildly whimsical antics from a dottery old busy body with absolutely no indication at all that the series is indeed something else entirely. Why tune in again? If you didn’t already know about the twist in advance you would have absolutely no reason to as it had been fairly aimless stuff up to that point. When the reveal comes it’s about ten minutes into the second episode. It’s almost as if they didn’t break the script into episodes and just shot pages and pages of script and then, when they got into the edit, they just said, “Oh, that’s fifty minutes. Just stop there”. “But it’s halfway through a scene and doesn’t make much sense”. “Doesn’t matter – that’ll do”.

Given that we’re led to believe that the sudden sprout of wings from his shoulders is due to Mr Pye’s good deeds the viewer is also left scratching his or her head as to why, given that one of his supposedly good deeds was winching an old woman in a homemade device over the edge of a cliff, despite her protests and screams, leaving her terrified and bed-ridden after the event and hating him forever. What must the rest of the islanders be like if this is considered to be a good deed? In fact, we actually see him taking a horse whip to the same old woman in an earlier scene to encourage her to get out of a horse-drawn carriage!

Of course, the real meat of the story is in the conflict in Mr Pye’s mind caused by his wing growth and his attempts to undo his good deeds, which results in him growing a pair of devil’s horns. Some of his acts of wanton naughtiness do bring a chuckle, such as gleefully kicking over a sandcastle belonging to some children on the beach, but they are a rare relief in what is a very wordy script full of soliloquies and very un-natural performances. This is never more the case than when Mr Pye takes his wing condition to Harley Street and embarks upon a pantomime routine with a doctor in which he somehow manages to avoid just showing the wings, convincing the doctor he is mad before rather predictably being dragged away by two men in white coats.

For all its faults throughout the early episodes you do feel a certain sympathy towards the unfortunate Pye who is eternally caught between growing wings and growing horns, unable to find any balance that will leave him with neither, so it’s perhaps the biggest failing of all that the series ends with such a damp squib of a final episode, dreadfully padded out even before a never-ending chase scene is added before concluding with probably one of the most disappointing endings I’ve ever seen committed to the screen.

Whimsy certainly has its place, and I’m not averse to its charms, but there’s little else on offer from Mr Pye. Jacobi does his best with the script but it’s a poor screenplay, meandering aimlessly around for at least an episode too long before ending inexplicably. The location filming is fair but it doesn’t really sing in the way that it should and Sark doesn’t shine as another uncredited lead in the way you know it would today, or if someone with a more cinematic eye for beauty had directed. Instead it seems a bit listless. And, sadly, the whole thing seems a little lazy as well, as if the unusual element of the story was considered enough of a draw with other considerations such as characterisation deemed surplus to requirement.

As expected though, Jacobi emerges from it all with distinction, a solid performance pretty much always guaranteed from him, and he has a lot to do in it given the over reliance on the character of Pye and of him often talking to himself. He’s ably abetted by Judith Parfitt, another reliable character actor familiar to fans of British television, as Mrs Dredger, but their relationship is one that suffers in the writing. Dredger dislikes Pye when he first arrives but by the halfway point of the first episode she leaps enthusiastically, with no prior warning, into his camp of good deeds. The two of them adapt names for each other and while some may find them calling each other “Chief” and “sailor” constantly and repeatedly for the remainder of the series charming others may find it twee to the point of inducing vomit. Sadly, there’s little else in the way of characters in the series. There are only two others who appear throughout all the episodes and one of those, the artist Thorpe, is nothing more than a cipher, leaving the wild and promiscuous figure of Tandy as the only character who develops much and who seems in any way real.

Slowly paced, badly structured, lacking in characters at all, let alone those which are believable or who develop, and directed in a pedestrian manner Mr Pye is a four hour disappointment. Perhaps its appeal might be to those who have read the book, which it apparently is quite faithful to, and if you have enjoyed the former then I daresay you might also appreciate the small screen adaptation. Sadly, when the series ends up being less interesting than the very welcome DVD extra of a contemporary “Making of” documentary by Channel TV for Channel 4 (bizarrely placed on the first of the two discs and therefore riddled with spoilers) then you know you’ve got a failed production on your hands.

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Holy Flying Circus – where BBC4 show there’s still life in Brian

In one fell swoop BBC4 has given a clear indication of its importance in the modern TV landscape by not only broadcasting an entertainingly innovative piece of drama such as Holy Flying Circus, based on the furore surrounding the release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but in double-billing it with an archive repeat of the engrossing original debate which forms the centrepiece of the drama, the otherwise dreadfully forgettable chat show Friday Night , Saturday Morning. To be bold and inventive on one hand and, on the other, to have the courage to repeat, in full, fascinating pieces of archive which would otherwise be left unseen is all the evidence you need that BBC4 has already become something of a national treasure which needs to be protected in the face of the oncoming storms about to lash against BBC budgets and expenditure.

The subject of the drama, Life of Brian, has now become such an institution, with its highly quotable scenes passing into the collective British consciousness, that it stands remarkably close to overshadowing the Flying Circus TV series which spawned it. For newcomers to the Python legacy it’s period setting means that it has dated less so than the early 70s fashion blunders on the BBC episodes and it now seems that it is to be this movie with which the name Monty Python is to be synonymous. And to think that, back in 1979, upon its original release, there were quite a few towns across the UK where you couldn’t even get to see the movie as indignant local councils stuffed full of killjoys and religious fundamentalists moved to ban the movie and attempt to quash the idea of people having a laugh. Heaven forbid.

It is this very furore surrounding the movie’s release in the UK which has now become the subject of an interesting BBC4 production as we follow the Python group in their attempts to fight various bodies opposed to the movie and who want to see it banned, culminating in John Cleese and Michael Palin’s memorable face-off against Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark in a highly charged confrontation on a late-night weekend chat show. It’s an interesting way to approach making a drama about Python and there are obvious parallels with the success of Frost/Nixon where another famous piece of television chat was made the focus of a drama with the build-up to the event being fascinating and the finished broadcast leaving one side famously defeated.

Of course, the question with dramatising events relating to Python is how do you play it – straight or for laughs? In the past we’ve seen the BBC produce a series of dramas on the lives of well known comedians and they’ve all been played fairly straight, concentrating heavily on tragic aspects of the featured artist’s life. While some have been more successful than others it has seemed that they’ve been something of a one trick pony, focusing almost exclusively on the “tears of a clown” angle. For something which was as innovative and surreal as Python was in its day this serious approach seemed inappropriate and with the central pillar of the drama being the outcry over Life of Brian rather than the private lives of the Pythons there seemed the opportunity to do something radically different. And radically different is what we’ve got because the producers have bravely opted to produce a work of surrealist comedy in the style of Python itself.

Following a rather forgettably outrageous pre-titles fart joke involving Jesus, which made me fear for what I was about to watch, we’re treated to a gloriously Pythonesque opening credit sequence which you can imagine being created by Terry Gilliam himself. Some jokey text scrolls upwards to tell us the lay of the land in 1979 with a rather miserable state of affairs with strikes and failing politics in Britain while the Pythons have been out enjoying themselves in Tunisia creating what would go on to be known as their masterpiece.

The opening office scene with the Pythons gathered to discuss promotion of their movie introduces us to the lookalike actors immediately and a good job has been made of gathering together this cast. Steve Punt and Charles Edwards, as Eric Idle and Michael Palin respectively, are the standouts here and at times they capture their roles so perfectly both in looks and mannerisms that you almost forget you’re not looking at the real thing. John Cleese is the other main character of this production and Darren Boyd makes a reasonable stab at this most recognisable of the Python team. It’s part of the unusual presentation of this drama however that the actors aren’t playing the Pythons quite as they are but as deliberate caricatures for comedic effect. For instance, Cleese is basically portrayed as Basil Fawlty (complete with a branch-wielding moment when he attacks a newspaper vendor), Idle is shown to be greedy and money-driven at every turn while Palin is presented as “the nicest man in the world”, even stopping to take hankies out of his pocket to wipe dog poo from Terry Gilliam’s feet. It works, because we now have an easy handle for all the characters and traits in them which are guaranteed to get a laugh, rather than a lot of agonised meetings full of glum faces as trouble brewed, which is probably what really happened.

The idea to take the drama off on surreal tangents also works and there are many early successes. I enjoyed the cutaway to the reaction of a cinema audience in the US to the movie which included a hooded Klu Klux Klan member announcing that the film was “morally repugnant”, before adding, “Oh, and kill all the blacks”. The camera then moves to a black guy who says, “I agree with him. Except the stuff about black people. That’s not cool”, before a fight breaks out between the two. There are also nice little references to the movie itself when we see a fictionalised religious undercover group meeting to plot how they will combat the movie. The caption on screen outside their meeting place suggests that they are The Popular People’s Church of St Sophia, but that they were also formerly the People’s Church of St Sophia and the St Sophia Church of People. It’s a funny nod to the People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front section of Life of Brian itself.

My favourite flight of fancy though in the proceedings is with Michael Palin’s homelife where they have Rufus Jones who plays Terry Jones playing Mrs Palin as Terry Jones playing Mrs Palin. The Pythons, of course, were never shy about dressing up as old washer-women (pepperpots as they called them) and Terry Jones was probably the best of them all at carrying off the shrill-voiced parts, so it makes perfect sense to have Rufus playing Terry playing Palin’s wife, including bed scenes. In later scenes we are also treated to Charles Edwards playing both Palin and Palin’s mother in the same scene.

The surreal attitude and complete disregard for factual truth is taken to extreme lengths when we are given a glimpse into the production meetings for the Friday Night, Saturday Morning chat show which staged the famous debate between the Pythons and the representatives of religion which forms the centrepiece of this drama. We are given an energetic and obnoxious producer in the shape of Alan Dick, played with OTT relish by Jason Thorpe, and the benchmark for the character is very clearly Rik Mayall’s  Lord Flashheart from several episodes of Blackadder. This crazed lunatic’s attempts to create a chat show sensation form one thread of the narrative with the People’s Church of St Sophia and the Pythons themselves forming the others.

The People’s Church segments are probably the biggest misfire of the drama. While the decision to show this fictional bunch as a group of bungling quasi-terrorists has a certain comic appeal in keeping with Life of Brian itself, and while the always reliable Mark Heap puts in a decent performance, their sections never really work for me. Perhaps it’s the over reliance on cheap gags with one of their three prominent members having a stutter and another suffering from an unfortunate case of expletive-ridden Tourette’s Syndrome. While this in itself is very possibly a nod of the head to the Pontius Pilate scenes of speech impediments in Life of Brian they do seem rather lazy and are a million miles from the comic majesty of the movie’s Biggus Dickus scene featuring Pilate.

Pythonesque asides of animation, characters breaking the fourth wall and general silliness do, however, stand up well throughout the drama and the creators have put a lot of effort into making something which not only looks like a 21st Century Python show but in making it funny into the bargain. Two demons debating on sofas with two angels about “What have the Christians ever done for us?” is not only a direct lampooning of a Python scene but manages to be funny in its own right with an angel offering up, “Christian names“. “Alright, alright, I’ll grant you that!” comes the reply. My favourite though is an un-PC comment about Joey Deacon, that oft-used cruel shorthand for stupidity in every playground across the country for those of us of a certain age in the early 1980s. When he is referenced in the drama we cut to a shambolic nerd sitting at home who immediately picks up on the mistake of this being used in a drama set two years before Mr Deacon was introduced to the nation on Blue Peter. The email is printed out and an office junior rushes it to the head of BBC4 only to find him snorting coke while barking out orders for commissions for programmes about canals as he throws the complaint in the bin.

We do settle into something of a pattern though as the drama oscillates between the Pythons in a near endless loop will they/won’t they take part in the programme and the increasing fanaticism of those opposed to them. This possibly goes on a little too long and the proceedings do start to sag before we get to the actual debate itself with Cleese and Palin lining up for the Team Python and the ex-womanising, hard living (but now born again) Malcolm Muggeridge and the Archbishop of York stepping out for Team Religion. These latter two are splendidly played by Michael Cochrane and James Laurenson with the Archbishop, with all his whisky drinking imposing nastiness, being only a slight caricature of real-life whisky drinking rude and nasty piece of work that was presented in the debate in 1979.

Just like Frost/Nixon the actual debate is a difficult thing to pull off in a drama recreation of it. While they capture the lines spoken and the delivery of the real-life debaters quite well the actual debate and the conclusions which can be drawn from it are all quite subtle and don’t lend themselves easily to being “dramatic” in the normal sense of the word. In Frost/Nixon the real drama is all away from the interviews and about the insecurity of Frost who is seen as out of his depth and desperately looking for a killer blow as Nixon easily toys with him. With this debate, sure, the archbishop and Muggeridge are plain rude throughout and attack the Pythons from the word go with incredibly weak and closed-minded arguments and we can see, looking back, that the Pythons come out of the debate very much better in terms of both clear points well made and basic human good manners, but it’s not something that is a rousing finale to ninety minutes of drama, despite some ill-judged attempts to add dramatic stings of music from time to time. However, they do something wonderful to address this very issue by having a Palin fantasy sequence in which the normally terribly nice Python (who was nevertheless clearly simmering with anger on the actual night faced with the pig-headedness of his rivals) suddenly grabs an ashtray and smashes it against Muggeridge’s head to leave him squirting blood. For anyone, who has ever seen the real debate it’s exactly what you wanted to see in real life. (Not that violence is big or clever, of course!)

In the end it all sort of peters out though. There’s a very unlikely scene where the People’s Church of St Sophia change sides to join the Pythons after the debate, horrified by the pomposity of the old fool that is the Archbishop of York, and Palin is very downbeat about it all, as he was in his real-life diaries, before being persuaded that the archbishop and Muggeridge had come across so badly that the Pythons had actually won the argument after all. It’s all wrapped up with a final meeting between Palin and God with the big man being played in a wonderfully genial way by Stephen Fry. In fact, you really can’t imagine anyone other than Stephen Fry ever playing God again. All in all then this is a drama which is quite lovingly crafted and while it misfires from time to time that’s ok. It’s hardly as if every single Python sketch ever performed worked. There was good and bad even from the Pythons themselves and so this tribute to them meets the mark often enough for me to give it a deserved thumbs up, even if it could easily have had at least ten minutes snipped from it to stop it plodding two thirds of the way through.

Brilliantly though, it’s not over quite yet as BBC4 decided to serve us up the original debate from Friday Night, Saturday Morning. Thank goodness for BBC4, a channel who have the remit to present curios from the archive like this because, although the actual series of FNSM was deemed a colossal failure at the time and was originally critically lambasted (with a bizarre turn from ex-Prime Minister Harold Wilson sleepwalking his way through the presenting duties before being pulled from the show and replaced by the equally sombulant Tim Rice), it’s important to have the context of all the events we’ve just seen dramatised and it’s refreshing to have a channel like BBC4 who are prepared to treat their audience as intelligent beings who won’t switch off just because the people being interviewed are sporting old hairstyles and fashions.

The first astonishing thing you notice about this broadcast is that the opening credits for it are actually real and not just some spoof created for the relevant section of Holy Flying Circus. These are credits in which a lady dutifully lies naked in bed as her husband returns home from the pub/match/work and jumps in beside her as the logo for the show appears on a TV in the corner of their bedroom. It’s remarkable that even as late as 1979 something so casually sexist could be broadcast each week as an opening title sequence. But, then again, the opening titles for Holiday ’86, seven years after this, featured a naked pair of breasts splashing out of the sea in slow motion at prime time so perhaps we shouldn’t be all that surprised!

The other remarkable thing to notice from this debate is that everything you may have heard about Muggeridge and the archbishop is true and that, if anything, Holy Flying Circus actually presents them in a better light than they came across in real life. Sniping with insultingly barbed comments from the off they come across as plain rude – men with no manners at all behind their facade of respectability. Cleese and Plain, by comparison, emerge much better, people who could launch cheap broadsides at their opponents’ outdated views, and do it with wit and humour to bring down the house, but who choose instead to debate and not get dragged into petty insults. Cleese said in an interview just a few years back that he was sitting with a piece of paper in his pocket filled with quotations from Muggeridge that he could have produced at any stage and utterly demolished him with, but he chose not to do so out of pity for him.

I’m sure the original producers of this forgettable chat show series would be bewildered to think that just one edition of their show could be the basis of a ninety minute drama all these years later but I’m glad BBC4 bravely commissioned this and I’m glad we’ve been given the opportunity to watch the actual warts and all programme to see for ourselves the grossly impolite and unmannerly performance of Muggeridge and the archbishop with their dusty, centuries-old views.

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Xmas Viewing Part Two

Doctor Who Snowmen

Welcome back to Part 2 of the Xmas Viewing List and if you were largely uninspired by what is being served up this year in the days leading up to Christmas you can expect to find more disappointment as we rejoin the schedules on Christmas Day itself for what must surely rank as one of the most lacklustre line-ups of recent times. As always though there are a few gems to be found – almost exclusively, as per usual, on the BBC.

First up, mention must be made of one of the dullest traditions in the history of the British people – listening the Queen drone on in her latest hostage video to the nation. It’s clear that the annual recording of this must rank as her very least favourite moment of each year and it’s so mutually un-beneficial (the nation is bored watching while the Queen can barely stay awake while recording it) that it’s a surprise it hasn’t long ago been replaced by the sight of some freshly painted doors drying. As has been pointed out by others before, considering that she has had sixty years now of practice with this message you’d think she’d actually be a lot better at it. Instead, it’s a chore for both her and us.

However, the first thing to watch out for on Christmas Day is the BBC’s latest animation of a Julia Donaldson children’s book. Following on from the huge success of The Gruffalo two years ago and last year’s sequel, The Gruffalo’s Child (both repeated in the run-up to Christmas) this yuletide sees the BBC plundering another of her backlist titles and another genuine modern classic piece of children’s storytelling with a friendly witch in Room on the Broom. It just goes to show that you can always create something new which the nation will take to its hearts and which will quickly turn into a Christmas tradition each year. Donaldson’s charming works, brought to life in her books by the superb and heartwarming illustrations of Axel Scheffler (which are rendered skillfully in 3D animation for these screenings), are now something which both I and my son look forward to each year. And with so many classic works under her belt it’s highly possible that her slot in the Xmas schedules could run and run. Personally, I’d recommend the wonderful The Stick Man for next year which finishes at Christmas with an appearance by Santa to boot.

Another thing which didn’t exist in the Xmas programming until very recently, and which it would now be inconceivable to have Christmas without, made its first appearance back in 2005 and has graced the line-up with a new installment every year since. Yes, for the eighth year on the trot we have a brand new episode of Doctor Who to look forward to. Almost always these are actually very Christmassy in flavour and this year is no exception as the Doctor takes on malevolent sentient Snowmen in Victorian London with an evil Richard E Grant skulking around. To be honest, the yearly Xmas episode of Doctor Who, and the series in general, has been a lot less enjoyable ever since Russell T Davies handed over the reins of running the show to his successor, Steven Moffat, but that won’t stop me looking forward to it all the same and with a new TARDIS interior promised, as well as a revamped title sequence and theme music (hopefully much better than the rather dull versions of the last revamp when Moffat took over), it’s going to be the most eagerly anticipated show of the day in my household. Oh, and Sir Ian McKellan – Gandalf himself – voices the big baddy while Matt Smith looks set to continue his excellent tenure as the Doctor with a brooding performance following on from losing his two companions at the end of the last series.

And, well, that’s just about it really. Two potential hits to look forward to and just about nothing else. The BBC will no doubt score enormous ratings for their Xmas Strictly Come Dancing and the social meltdown that is the annual gloom and miseryfest of Eastenders but the schedules after Doctor Who are skewed heavily away from entertainment for the whole family and with the addition this year of a seasonal sprinkling of Call the Midwife the kids may as well just traipse off to their rooms with their new toys following the end titles of Doctor Who.

So, what else is there? Well, another Christmas tradition is a slice of James Bond. This year, there’s no movie to be found but we do have a repeat of a Top Gear special looking at the cars of James Bond. To be honest, car chases in movies bore me rigid. Probably even more rigid than cars in general normally bore me. Though perhaps not quite as rigid as Top Gear‘s neanderthal laddish obsession with cars and driving them very fast as somehow being an expression and barometer of your manliness. Richard Hammond ineptly presenting a show on cars – Bond or otherwise – while revving up engines because he’s a real man must surely rank as the thing I want to watch least this Christmas. In fact, perhaps I’ll make my way over to You Tube instead and re-watch this superb evisceration of Top Gear in general and Richard Hammond in particular by Stuart Lee. Infinitely preferable.

It may be a repeat but the only other real highlight of the day is Blackadder’s Christmas Carol on BBC2. It’s simply perfect festive viewing, superbly written and performed and it somehow manages – almost impossibly, but with consummate skill – to perfectly marry both seasonal warm-heartedness and biting cynicism into a satisfying blend of timeless comedy that is sure to leave you with a glow and a smile upon your face. Such a pity though that for many years (and on DVD as well) the BBC have been screening an edited version of this special which, following Baldrick’s revelation that due to high Victorian infant mortality the part of Jesus in the nativity play has had to be filled by a dog, omits the line about the kids looking forward to nailing the dog up at Easter.

And so what do ITV have in store for us? Damn all, really. It’s one of those certainties in life that ITV gets utterly annihilated by the BBC each and every year in the Christmas ratings battle. Even their normally reliable flagship of the Christmas episode of Coronation Street has not only been losing out to Eastenders but also to Doctor Who. In recent years it’s almost as though ITV have given up the ghost and just thrown in the towel and this has never been more evident than this year. Living in the Ulster Television region of ITVland I’m treated not only to the usual pawn sacrifice of Emmerdale against Doctor Who but – incredibly – an ordinary episode of a regional opt-out programme: Lesser Spotted Ulster. It’s difficult to even begin to fathom what was going through the mind of the UTV scheduler here. Instead of a Christmas special of something or a family orientated programme to chase after the Christmas Day family audience we’ll just show a regular episode of a minority interest series about a boring man wandering around the countryside talking to old codgers about making walking sticks and basket weaving. At prime time. On Christmas Day. They may as well just screen a test card saying, “Programmes will return in half an hour. Do not adjust your set”. The Shove Ha’penny World Championships would be a better choice. Are they thinking, “We may as well just shove any old guff out as everyone will be watching Doctor Who“? It’s moronic scheduling.

Of course, ITV do have one major weapon up their sleeves for Christmas evening and that’s the latest Downton Abbey Xmas Special. To be honest, this will, with a degree of certainty, be much more far-fetched than anything witnessed in Doctor Who earlier. ITV, who had fallen way behind the BBC in the making and selling to America of period dramas in recent decades have suddenly stumbled upon a winning formula which is, nevertheless, utterly unwatchable. Masters of the vacuous serious drama as well as being masters of ridiculous pantomime-like characters and plotlines in their soaps, ITV have blended the two together and sprinkled posh accents and frocks on top to provide unmissable viewing for their target demographic – i.e. those who wouldn’t know a good drama if it kneed them in the groin. Julian Fellowes, who has a proven track record with the movie Gosford Park of providing immaculately produced period settings over the top of an utterly shallow and empty script, has opened up a new genre for ITV to milk – the period soap. For that is all Downton is – a soap opera, more ridiculous than any other on TV, but with upper class accents.

Strangely enough, ITV3 are far more watchable on Christmas Day by giving up the ghost even further and showing little else but Carry On movies. In fact they’re even screening one of them twice on the same day, but at least it’s the excellent Carry On… Don’t Lose Your Head. Carry On movies were a staple of my childhood TV schedules and many of them are fine examples of bawdy British comedies of the time, ridiculous double entendres and all. Their real peak was in the mid sixties when they produced a run which included Don’t Lose Your Head, Carry On Cleo and Carry On Screaming (all of which are shown over the holiday period) which combined their saucy humour with excellent production values. However, by the mid seventies they were a cheaply made embarrassment parading increasingly blue humour in a way which made the participants look like rather pathetic dirty old men. Some of the finer black and white and colour movies are on show though on ITV3 this Christmas and the truly abysmal penultimate movie, Carry On England is shown on BBC2 on 30th December.

Boxing Day brings more comedy of the kind that forces me to scratch my head wondering who it is actually for. We get the second Mrs Brown’s Boys special of the season and also the beginning of a new series of Miranda. If you get caught in someone’s house (probably an elderly relative) and are forced to endure that particular double bill, I can only advise you to remove all sharp objects from the vicinity, including your keys, for fear of you being tempted to gouge out your own eyes.

Channel 4 provide some movie escapement as they cleverly run two sequels over the holidays. The first is the second part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (the first was on Christmas Day) and the other is the first part of the original Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy. In truth, Dragon Tattoo is only average and the first movie in particular removes huge expanses from the novel which leave the main characters seemingly very lacking in motivation. However, this is exactly the sort of thing which should be on at Christmas – series of films which encourage you to come back the next night for more of the same.

And speaking of which, we arrive at what easily looks like being the best of TV shown on Boxing Day and which triggers a mini season of movies – BBC2’s showing of The Girl which examines the relationship between Sir Alfred Hitchcock and the last of his great screen blonde ice maidens, Tippi Hedren. With Toby Jones and Sienna Miller playing the two leads this is a fascinating subject matter and comes just ahead of the major Hitchcock biopic starring Anthony Hopkins next year. While next year’s movie will focus primarily on the making of Psycho this one obviously homes in on the two back to back movies Hitch made in the 60s starring the girl he plucked from obscurity before throwing her back there and holding her under contract without ever using her again, The Birds and Marnie. These are two very fine movies from Hitchcock – his last great works in fact with only the mixed Frenzy being worthy of his name after these two releases – and the story behind them, with the slightly seedy and manipulative older Hitchcock trying to control a pawn he has created, being a compelling subject.

Following on from The Girl BBC2 are screening that night both his brilliant version Daphne Du Marier’s Rebecca and his very overlooked black comedy Mr and Mrs Smith. Further Hitchcock movies from his earlier period, including The Lady Vanishes, will be shown on the 28th December  and ITV will even get on the act with another Du Maurier/Hitchcock work, and subject of BBC2’s drama, The Birds. It’s about time that broadcasters started theming their schedules this way over the festive season again. When I was younger I was drawn into the works of so many actors and directors by the fact that their films would be stripped across a number of evenings (albeit often in graveyard slots). It seemed that each year brought several seasons of films starring the likes of Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Woody Allen, Jack Lemmon and many others. You’d also get runs of Marx Brothers, Abbot and Costello and other old comedies. It was an education, creating an interest for me in the movies as I scanned the Radio Times that wouldn’t have been there if they were one-off movies and Hitchcock seemed to always be represented with at least a handful of movies, if not a full-blown season. It created viewer loyalty and it seems bizarre that the broadcasters seem to eschew this handily available tool for getting people to watch their particular channel over Christmas. They always increase the number of movies they show so why not, within such an increased wealth of film broadcasting, create a little space for memorable runs of movies rather than treating each as a one-off which has to fight all over again to gain attention.

Fortunately, this year seems to see something a slight return for this format of old with Hitchcock, Charles Laughton, the screen goddess strand, and two trilogies being represented. However, several months ago I took maters into my own hands, fully expecting that the schedules would be even worse than they are and devoid of good movies. I set about creating my own themed seasons and so the only four Hitchcock DVDs I didn’t own were ordered up cheaply, four Fritz Lang movies were purchased and a few Terry Gilliams were earmarked on my shelves for re-viewing. Into this mix the brilliant new box set from the BFI, Ghost Stories for Christmas, featuring all the episodes of the BBC’s (mostly MR James) ghost story adaptations from the 60s and 70s, was acquired in order to provide some spcetral chill and an old Hollywood ghost movie starring Ray Milland, The Uninvited, was added to my own plans. Throw in some Peter Cushing Sherlock Holmes stories from the 70s BBC box set and I had my own schedule worth looking forward to. Who needs the uninspiring offerings from the main channels when you can do it yourself? Sadly, it’s what we’re more or less forced into doing if we want something decent to watch because this year is a big disappointment which, save for some superior children’s programming and some traditional repeats, has been lacking somewhat in vision.

And so that is Christmas 2012 in TV world. After Boxing Day it’s not worth mentioning much else save for the annual disappointment of Jools Holland’s Hootenanny on New Year’s Eve and the reliably observant and funny Charlie Brooker with his review of the year which, frustratingly, isn’t shown in Northern Ireland until Wednesday 2nd January.

Normal service will soon be restored with the blog soon and first up will be a number of half completed and late articles on shows from the last year such as the BBC Monty Python drama Holy Flying Circus, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, the BBC’s Rolling Stones at 50 strand of programming, a farewell to Ceefax and analogue TV, the final series of The Thick of It and the slightly crazy last series of The Killing. Until then, Ho! Ho! Ho! and here’s hoping you find your own way of enjoying what TV has to offer over the holidays.

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Xmas Viewing Part One

SnowdogIt’s Christmas time and that brings with it various certainties: wine, shameful work parties, indigestion and, most certainly of all, that sinking feeling you get after scampering home with the double issue of the Christmas Radio Times only to discover that the Xmas schedules are as interesting as a random Tuesday evening in February and not a patch on the (probably false) memory of festive broadcasting from our youth. However, there’s always something worth watching on TV, even if it’s a well-worn repeat, so I thought it was high time I kick started the TV blog again with a navigation guide through the choppy arctic waters of yuletide viewing, obviously ignoring the vast majority of what the main broadcasters are hyping up for us and focussing on what few treasures are in store.

We’ll be journeying mostly through BBC territory it must be said and there’s little point in looking at the myriad of obscure channels offering up repeats that we could watch on DVD any time we like (or on those channels any other day of the year). ITV will, of course, be virtually absent as well, for reasons we’ll look at later in Part 2 of this Yuletide Blog, and films will only be mentioned if they’re on a prominent channel. All set?

Well, the first day of programming in my Christmas Radio Times (Saturday 22nd December) offers up a few seasonal nuggets, albeit almost exclusively repeats from the last year. However, there’s no doubt that among the subjects we’re drawn towards at this time of year, and which represent good, solid, safe scheduling from the main channels are programmes celebrating nostalgia, variety shows of yesterday and Dickensian Victoriana. and repeats on Saturday 22nd celebrate all three of these strands. First up we have another outing for last year’s The Toys That Made Christmas. Presented by Robert Webb of Peep Show fame it’s probably a little too long at an hour and a half, but given that Christmas is so much about the receiving of toys it’s good to wallow in a little nostalgia for the playthings of yesteryear.

Next up I’m already breaking my own rules by highlighting a programme on Gold but it’s worth mentioning as it’s a dramatisation of a double act who have become something of a Christmas institution even long after their deaths – Morecambe and Wise. In Eric and Ernie (originally shown last year) we follow their early career and the formation of their enduring comedy act and it is supplemented by some other Morecambe and Wise programming earlier in the day on the same channel.

Our Christmas Dickens fix comes in the shape of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Again it’s a repeat of a recent broadcast but we need Dickens at Christmas and I missed this when it was shown earlier this year. This was Dickens’ final novel and he died before completing it – leaving us in something of a cliff-hanger considering that it is a murder mystery without a resolution. While there have been various attempts over the years to finish the novel we can never know how accurate they are or how faithful to what was inside Dickens’ mind. However, I’m definitely looking forward to finding out the BBC’s take on it in what is certain to be a lavish production – no one does Dickens quite like the BBC.

Oh, and one more thing that is essentially Christmas is, undoubtedly, Christmas music and there are two offerings on Saturday 22nd to heap Slade upon your eardrums. First up is The Nation’s Favourite Christmas Song on ITV1 and then later in the evening is Top of the Pops 2: Christmas on BBC2. Delight in the brilliance of Jona Lewie and struggle to keep your dinner down as Cliff Richard appears. And if you foolishly stay with ITV until 9.00pm your stomach will probably lose its fight with the sickening round of sycophancy that is Jonathan Ross with guests Michael McIntyre and Jamie Oliver. Instead though, you’d be much better advised to hop to BBC4 where the Arena team are screening a documentary entitled Screen Goddesses focussing on the sirens of the silver screen as a product of the Hollywood studio system from the early days of cinema through to the 1960s. This looks like an unmissable documentary and it is preceded by a showing of Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and Showgirl. In the glory days of Xmas broadcasting channels used to have little themed seasons of programming over the holiday period (more on that later!) and it’s refreshing to see that BBC4 is giving us one here with a documentary on Elizabeth Taylor the following day entitled England’s Other Elizabeth (with Cleopatra leading into it) and Clara Bow: Hollywood’s Lost Screen Goddess on Sunday 30th December.

Sunday the 23rd sees us wallowing in more toy nostalgia. However, your enjoyment of Channel 4’s The 100 Greatest Toys With Jonathan Ross is likely to hinge around your normal enjoyment of the last two words of that title. For me, that will be not at all. ITV play it safe in the evening with Ade’s Christmas Crackers featuring Adrian Edmondson taking a look at Christmas TV from the archives. It’s bound to contain something of interest for those who enjoy vintage TV but is equally bound to be presented in ITV’s normal cack-handed manner and dumbed down significantly.

While we’re still waiting for the first piece of new programming worth watching that doesn’t feature archive this Christmas you can console yourself with helpings of both Sherlock Holmes (the Jeremy Brett vintage) and Poirot over on ITV3. Again, it’s Christmas and we need a bit of Sherlock and Agatha Christie so here they are. Another repeat today on Channel 4 is the timeless and wondrous animated version of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. This is being given another outing ahead of the sequel the following evening but, let’s be honest, we need no excuse to watch this classic again. Get your hanky out for the final scene as always.

Also on Sunday we have an offering from ITV which is so bizarre that it could go either way and be surprisingly interesting or just a total wreck. It’s Joanna Lumley: the Search for Noah’s Ark which sees her intrepidly trying to hunt down the trail of the ark and find out the basis of the myth. It seems pretty globetrotting in its scope and will no doubt be nicely filmed with Lumley usually an engaging host. However, this could just as easily be a Christmas turkey as a cracker.

Christmas Eve finally sees our first piece of new television worth watching, some classic repeats and some further televisual atrocities. If The Snowman and the Snowdog on Channel 4 can capture even a fraction of the charm of the original early 80s animation then it looks sure to be a winner. To be honest, I was slightly uncertain about the idea to resurrect the character given the absolutely perfect ending of the original, but my young boy is so happy that the Snowman is alive again and that’s got to count for something. This is the absolute gem of the day’s viewing for certain.

The BBC serve us up some classic repeats of Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies on Christmas Eve. Both of these double acts are part of the Christmas furnishing and as traditional at this time of year as crackers and party hats. They look increasingly creaky and ancient each year as the fashions pass further and further back into the past but it’s simply impossible not to enjoy them. Many of the Two Ronnies special programmes were shown last year which further goes to demonstrate the dearth of original programming this year, though Ronnie Barker: The Many Faces of… appears at least to be new, but I’ll watch them again anyway.

Over the course of Sunday and Christmas Eve you can catch not just one but four different versions of A Christmas Carol. These range from a bizarre musical version starring Frasier’s Kelsey Grammar, through an animated effort voiced by Nicholas Cage (!) to a version starring Jim Carrey, which must rank at the very bottom of my list of TV viewing this Christmas. I would literally need to become suddenly dispossessed of all movement in  my arms and legs and with the TV remote control inaccessible even to my teeth to force me into watching this. Of course, the pick of the four is The Muppets Christmas Carol, which goes without saying.

For those with no discernible working sense of humour you can tune into Mrs Brown’s Boys on BBC1, which appears to be one of the Beeb’s hyped Xmas specials this year. However, for all normal people just get as far from BBC1 at 10.15pm as you can as a hatchet through the head is just about preferable to watching this dross. One channel which can’t offer any solace though is ITV1 (though that’s no great surprise) as they begin broadcasting at the exact same time Christmas Carols on ITV with Aled Jones being joined by the cast of Coronation Street in the soap’s local church for a retelling of the nativity. No thanks.

All in all, a pretty uninspiring run of pre-Christmas programming, though there are enough decent repeats to ensure there’s at least something decent each day. We’ll back with a look at the schedules from Christmas Day itself through to New Year very soon and I’ll be talking about how TV used to provide excellent seasons of films – something which I’m happy to report is getting a mini return this year in the shape of a number of Hitchcock movies and every day leading up to and including Christmas Day BBC2 is running a Charles Laughton movie in the early hours of the morning for all you night owls, culminating in his brilliant turn in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

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Living in the Material World – Scorsese’s Harrison documentary triumphs

I was very pleased when I heard a few years ago that my favourite Beatle, George Harrison, was to be the subject of an extensive new documentary for HBO. However, when I heard that it was to be helmed by Mr Martin Scorsese, then fresh from his hugely and justly acclaimed documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, I was overjoyed and have spent the last couple of years very much looking forward to this production reaching the screens. With preview screenings hitting selected cinemas, followed by the American TV broadcast last week and a UK DVD release this week, we now know that the faith of Beatles fans, music fans and fans of documentary making around the world in Scorsese has been justified – it’s a winner.

It is, of course, a tired old cliché that George was the “quiet one” of the Beatles. Overshadowed by the songwriting and lead singing of Lennon and McCartney in the group, and grabbing fewer headlines beyond the break-up of the band by leading a more relaxed and less public life, it would be easy to see this as being the case. However, Harrison’s own personal journey within the Beatles, from shy and awkward teenager deported from Germany as being too young to play with the rest of the band, to becoming, by the time of their last studio recordings, for the Abbey Road album, arguably the best songwriter in the group, is fascinating in itself. Throw in the fact that beyond the Beatles Harrison managed to top the album chart just months later with an expensive triple album box set while simultaneously topping the singles charts (and with songs that Lennon and McCartney had clearly not felt good enough for Beatles albums) before going on to produce Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Withnail and I and almost single-handedly keep interesting British cinema alive through his own Handmade Films and you’ve got a post-Beatles career that I would argue is easily the most interesting of any of the four members.

While an overview of Harrison’s life post-Beatles break-up is an interesting enough proposition in its own right the problem for any potential director would be on how to tell the story of Harrison’s 1960s career in a way which seemed fresh. After all, the Beatles must be one of the most analysed bands of all time and it would be easy to finish up presenting us with something we felt we’d seen many times before. Thank goodness then that Scorsese was at the helm. As well as having recently tackled Bob Dylan with some skill and handled a Rolling Stones concert film with Shine a Light, he made quite a name for himself as a music documentary maker back in 1978 when, sandwiched in between classic movies such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, he took time out to document The Band’s farewell concert The Last Waltz. Even as far back as 1970 Scorsese’s name was rolling up on cinema screens as an editor on the seminal fesitval movie of its time, Woodstock. Quite simply, there’s absolutely no one in the business better qualified to do this subject justice than the man we got.

Any documentary project from such an old master is guaranteed to be well edited and this is very much the case from the word go as, following the quietness of a shot of Harrison filming himself behind some flowers in his garden, we journey back to the Second World War and the time of Harrison’s birth with archive of warplanes and blitzed streets cut together to the title track of Harrison’s stunning debut solo album, All Things Must Pass. Among the first interviewees to appear on-screen soon after are Harrison’s brothers – people I hadn’t even previously been aware of – as they talk about George as a child in Liverpool and, while the presence of McCartney and Starr is welcome and pretty much unavoidable it’s one of the few mis-fires of the documentary that more of the brothers’ thoughts weren’t utilised beyond the opening segments as their “ordinary” non-celebrity musings would certainly have been of value in analysing the most grounded and “ordinary” of the Beatles.

As you would expect, this first part of the documentary has a frenetic pace – something which is entirely impossible to avoid given the pace of the Beatles’ rise to the top and the musical changes they went through in such a short period of time – producing twelve UK albums in an eight year period when any major band today would struggle to produce that many over twenty five years. The period in Hamburg emerges well from this maelstrom as some of the major players in the Beatles’ circle of friends from this period come forth to speak including Klaus Voorman and Astrid Kirchher, the latter providing some stark and moving photographs of Harrison and Lennon’s visit to the art studio of her lover, and ex-member of the Beatles, Stuart Sutcliffe, after his tragically premature death.

Harrison visiting India in 1966

In fact, images are one of the strong points of this documentary, particularly the wealth of rare and unseen stills which have been unearthed. Just when you think you’ve seen everything there is to see about the Beatles, and seen it a thousand times to boot, it’s a pleasant surprise to see home movie footage and superb photographs emerge to make the well-trodden story of the Beatles seem fresh. My particular favourites were those taken by Harrison himself on a visit to India in 1966 shot in glorious colour with a fish eye lens and featuring George with a short haircut and moustache – something very unusual as this brief period between his early mop top and later long-haired look is rarely documented.

Another success for Scorsese is his use of Harrison’s letters to his mother to give us a real feeling of reaching back into this period in its proper context, unsullied by later reinterpretations by those involved. To be able to listen in on one of the world’s most famous celebrities and musicians at the pinnacle of his fame in 1967 writing a letter to his mum while in a religious retreat with the Maharishi and telling her not to worry about him stealing his money, while also assuring her that the spiritual side to him which has opened up allows him to love her even more is quite touching. It’s also indicative of the fact that for all the Beatles’ fame and subsequent elevation to icons almost without equal they were just four humble lads from Liverpool who had grown up surrounded by the bombsites of the war.

Harrison’s droll humour pops up throughout the two parts of the film with many examples of his dry wit. For instance, as we start to examine the growth of Harrison as a songwriter as he takes his first faltering steps into contributing his own songs for Beatles albums there’s a quote from him saying, “Well, I thought if John and Paul could write songs then anybody could”. When persistently questioned by a journalist about whether he would be writing a revenge song against Eric Clapton for stealing his wife away from him the journalist is amazed when Harrison says that he is fine with Clapton and elaborates by saying, “I’m far happier that she’s with him than with some dope”. And he has a nice line in put downs for McCartney when the latter turns up for the recording of the Beatles Anthology project during the 1990s wearing an expensive leather jacket which provokes Harrison into asking, “Is that a vegetarian leather jacket, Paul?” There is even a brilliant excerpt from Harrison’s diary which lists the filming dates for the argument-strewn and stress-filled Let it Be movie. Following a couple of these entries detailing the filming one of them just casually mentions, “Filming at Twickenham, left The Beatles, came home…” before detailing the rest of his evening as if leaving the biggest band there had ever been at that point was a mere trifle in the day’s menu.

It’s at this point that we are treated to the depressing footage of McCartney treating Harrison with pure condescension during the Twickenham sessions with Harrison famously replying that he’ll play any way Paul wants and that he won’t play at all if that’s what it takes to keep him happy. McCartney in his interview does his best to rewrite this period of the group’s history as the fault lines are exposed and they begin to fall apart by saying that they could argue but still loved each other. However, I’ve watched Let it Be and it is an unpleasant viewing experience exposing why Harrison would want to escape from Paul’s increasing control-freakery and do his own thing, having built up a huge backlog of quality songs which the other Beatles didn’t seem to be interested in at all, passing even on a stone cold classic like All Things Must Pass. The photos in this documentary of Harrison relaxing with Bob Dylan at his Woodstock retreat are in sharp contrast to the bickering he was forced to endure during the latter period of the Beatles and it was time he proved to them just how much potential he had on his own.

Bob Dylan and George Harrison in an iconic image from the Concert for Bangladesh album booklet

Of course, one of the real stars of this film is the music and if you hadn’t noticed it already during the Beatles sections – where Harrison’s songs prove that his hit ratio of memorable tracks was equal to that of Lennon and McCartney – then you certainly get the point driven home during the feature on the making of Harrison’s first, ambitious solo album. I was fortunate enough to see the documentary on a big screen at a preview in a local cinema before its broadcast on HBO and the music sounded stunning over the theatre’s sound system. One of the men responsible for this sound though was also the catalyst for a round of spontaneous laughter throughout the cinema as Phil Spector, a genius in his time, but now a tragically foolish-looking man (and a convicted killer to boot) made his screen entrance. Nevertheless these are interesting sections in the proceedings as we deal not only with the landmark songs of this period but also with Harrison’s attempts to raise money for the beleaguered people of Bangladesh in 1971, an effort which was very much the precursor to Band Aid, Live Aid and subsequent charity appeals and which was immortalised in a famous boxed set album and movie.

One of the performers at this concert, Eric Clapton, is candid throughout the film, never ducking away from the elephant in the room which must be addressed – that he stole the wife of his best friend and somehow managed to remain friends with him. Remarkably Patti Boyd herself is also interviewed, which is something I certainly wasn’t expecting, despite her recent breaking of her vow of silence on the subject in her autobiography. However, when it comes to discussion of leaving George for Eric she is represented with a rather stilted audio reading which I assume to be a recording of her book rather than her answering on camera.

Despite Harrison’s assertions to Clapton at the time, and the interview from the period I mentioned above, it’s clear though that all was not entirely well for George in the years following the break-up. One of the most cringe-inducing moments of the documentary is when we see an extremely thin and unwell-looking Harrison taking to the stage in the US for a truly dire version of Wah-Wah, his voice croaking all over the place and bedecked in a hideous pair of dungarees. The footage of him backstage afterwards is clear evidence of a man with a cocaine problem and it seems a sad contradiction of the man who turned his back on LSD in the 60s deciding that he didn’t need drugs and would instead alter his state of mind through spiritual pursuits.

However, whatever happened in his life around this time seems to have settled when he met up with his future wife, Olivia, and by the time we see him becoming involved with the Monty Python team he is once more back to his old self. Harrison was a huge fan of the work of Python and he has been quoted as saying that the spirit of the Beatles inhabited Python back in 1969 with one group ending as another began. He was an unashamed fan who idolised them  and wanted to hang out with them, something which seems incredible for one of the most idolised men in popular cultural history. This friendship though would bequeath the world a lasting legacy in the form of Life of Brian when Harrison stepped forward to help finance the movie when other film companies began to get cold feet over what they regarded as the potentially blasphemous content of the script. As Eric Idle tells the camera, Harrison re-mortgaged his house to the tune of several million quid to help make the film because he “wanted to see it” which Idle quips is still the most anyone has ever paid for a cinema ticket. An entire documentary could have been made about Harrison’s Handmade Films and the British film industry of the time so it’s a shame that his involvement with Time Bandits, Withnail and I, The Long, Good Friday and various Michael Palin projects is glossed over. However, without turning this documentary into a series it’s understandable that, even with a running time of nearly four hours, Scorsese is pressed for time.

These later sections also suffer greatly in terms of the soundtrack as Harrison’s output declined both in terms of quality and quantity at this time. There is a brief comeback for the musical side of things being discussed when Harrison’s collaboration with Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne as the Traveling Wilburys is featured for a few minutes but the end of the film is dominated by the Harrison’s fight against cancer and the awful events surrounding the final days of the last millennium when he almost became the second Beatle to be murdered as he was attacked and stabbed in his own home by an idiot looking for the same sort of notorious immortality bestowed upon Mark Chapman. Fortunately, Harrison survived so the name of this waste of space has already slipped from most people’s minds but Olivia gives a harrowing and detailed account of the attack to the camera. George’s son Dahni confirms what most of us must have thought at the time that the senseless and violent attack upon a peace-loving man who was fighting cancer took years off his life and Harrison was gone less than two years later. Ringo recounts his final tearful meeting with Harrison in the hospital room where he died and starts to break up at the memory, but he gets the biggest laugh of the entire film when he suddenly straightens himself, turns to the camera and announces, “It’s all getting a bit Barbara fucking Walters”, as he references his similarly emotional display with the American interviewer in the wake of John Lennon’s death.

In all, Scorsese succeeds admirably in condensing into four hours one of the most famous lives of the twentieth century. There’s little doubt that the pace of the two parts is very different but that’s because no one can keep up the pace of life of being a Beatle across their entire life. The Beatles footage has an energy and life all of its own but Scorsese skillfully weaves it in a new way or, as a friend of mine put it, shifts the centre of gravity of the Beatles back in the direction of George and away from the two front men where we’ve always been used to seeing it. Through home movies, letters, interviews with Harrison himself and those closest to him a fitting tribute to Harrison is pieced together which doesn’t attempt to shy away from awkward subjects such as Harrison’s eye for the ladies – something I hadn’t even been aware was a problem before this film was completed. The second part necessarily has a different job to do but it does it well, outlining his life beyond the Fab Four, making music, making movies, making friends or just pottering about in his gardens.

Fittingly, the film ends with George in his beloved gardens with the same shot as we began with. George hiding behind a clump of flowers, filmed by himself. It conjures an image of Harrison being just slightly out of sight, slightly beyond our reach, but still there. For millions of fans of the music he made and the films he financed his presence will continue to be felt and his legacy is intact, a legacy which is undoubtedly strengthened by this timely and skillful tribute.

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