Monday, 29 October 2012

Fox Tales


Fox Tales is another show which made a lasting impression on us as children. The show was broadcast in 1985 on ITV and was part of Central's programming. The episodes had their roots deeply entrenched in Eastern European folklore featuring talking animals living within a wood.

Genre: Childrens
Channel: ITV
Transmission: 04/04/1985 - 27/06/1985

The show utilised black light theatre techniques which led to a real emphasis on the puppets and freed them from marionette strings. The main characters - as the title suggests - were foxes: Grandma Fox and Mrs Fox.

The 'tales' took the form of short 11 minute stories with a similar emphasis on moral understanding to that of Aesop's Fables - a series of tales which, again, featured talking animals. In total, there were 13 episodes produced.


Susan Kodicek and Rosta Cerny (below) were the producers of the show. Kodicek was perhaps best known as Irina in the 1979 TV mini series of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The two met at the birth of the Black Theatre Group of Prague and this started their path towards television.

Preceding Fox Tales they also produced the children's shows Once Upon a Time and Pullover. All three shows were produced by Kodicek and Cerny's production company Pullover Productions. Fresh from his stint as the fifth Doctor Who, Peter Davison was on hand to provide the voices in Fox Tales.


Our memories of Fox Tales were that we remember finding it quite creepy and even had a nightmare about it once. Reading up on the series, 25 years later, we now understand that the black light theatre element was probably the cause.

The mysterious, shadowy backgrounds leave you wondering what could be lurking behind the genteel tales. They also allow for a range of movements more fluid than puppets on a string or stop motion animation. The fact that we can remember the show so many years later is a testament to the creativity that Kodicek and Cerny were able to foster.


One other memory we have of the show from our youth is being in WHSmiths and seeing a Fox Tales book on the shelf. Searching the internet, we've found that there were several of these published in 1986 by Magnet Books - all are based on the TV stories. The copies we've found for sale are The Fox and Buns (see below), The Cat and the Rooster and The Bear and the Mushrooms.


In April 2013, we were delighted to be contacted by Susan Kodicek's son, Danny. He advised us that he had recently got hold of the entire series of Fox Tales and was uploading the episodes to YouTube. This was fantastic news as we had wondered when we would get to see some more.

The episodes can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/user/flatfrog00 and help build a more detailed understanding of the show. Several other pieces of his mother's work have also been uploaded, so we recommend heading over there.

With access to the episodes, we can finally relive that curious part of our youth and also take a good look at the series as a whole. Mrs Fox is at the core of all the stories, but interestingly she takes on the role of protagonist and antagonist throughout the series.

As discussed above, morals are the main drive of the story and these promoted well by the array of woodland creatures. The creatures often teeter on the brink of being eaten by one another, but they always manage to escape their pursuers digestive tracts.

We were surprised that Fox Tales was premiered in the late afternoon CITV slot as the stories themselves are quite basic. This was, of course, when the viewing age of CITV was a lot older than that of its later years, so it seems a strange timeslot. A lunchtime slot would, perhaps, have been more suited to the content.

The puppetry method of black theatre gives the characters a lolloping gait and, coupled, with the shadowy, black backgrounds gives the show a unique look and atmosphere.

Adding to the atmosphere is the wonderful score by Ilona Sekacz. Using horns and pianos, she matches the action, particulary the movements of the characters with great skill.

The series has a classy sheen to it and appears to be filmed on film rather than videotape, but we couldn't determine if it was 16mm or 35mm.

All in all, the look of Fox Tales is the hook for us, it's got such a strange fairytale look to it that was perhaps matched - at the time - only by The Moomins, another series entrenched in European folklore.

INTERVIEW

Danny Kodicek was gracious enough to chat to us about rediscovering Fox Tales and his mother's work in general:

It's been interesting - I haven't seen these in years myself. I always had more of a soft spot for Pullover, their first series, partly because I had a small part in it, of course, but also because as a piece of storytelling it's more unusual. Fox Tales is quite a traditional series, although it's cleverer than it seems at first glance because of the way it weaves classic stories in with a set of stock characters. I wish they'd been able to make more of them because I think it might have grown into something brilliant. As it stands, I think it's still a bit flawed - in particular, the puppetry just doesn't feel as polished as it does in Pullover for some reason, although the visual design is stunning and the music is beautiful. I was interested to read that it gave you nightmares! I think in many ways that's a tribute to how good it is - the deep dark forest of fairytales shouldn't be an entirely comfortable place!

My mother struggled throughout her career with the problem of being too dedicated to being faithful to the material she was working with. She was constantly frustrated that the series she and Rosta devoted so much care to were always being eclipsed by rather crude shows like Button Moon, their most obvious competitor, or inane nothings like Postman Pat. And she was unlucky to be in at the tail end of the puppetry boom of the 70s and early 80s, which was broken by the arrival of cheap animated series such as He Man and Transformers. So her programmes didn't have time to build up the fond fanbase that other shows found. Still, I'm hoping that I'll get a few of them out of the woodwork - I've had a fair number of people saying how much they appreciated seeing Pullover again after I uploaded those episodes.

If you get a chance, take a look at Godfather Death, her very last piece of puppetry, made only a short time before she made her feature film A Pin For the Butterfly. Although it's spoiled by a terrible narration, in terms of the design and direction it was the one she was most proud of, and I think it's wonderful.

CUTTINGS:

TV Times - 30/03/1985 - 05/04/1985

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Johnny Jarvis


Those teenage years can be a highly alienating period and if you didn't feel a bit Holden Caulfield, then you obviously lived a blessed life. However, once you battle through the hells of acne, the opposite sex and settling on a decent haircut then adulthood is surely a piece of cake, right?

No, of course not, it's still a precarious tightrope to traverse and, as Johnny Jarvis, finds out it's a full time position to make sure you don't go over the edge.

Genre: Drama
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 10/11/1983 - 12/12/1983

Johnny Jarvis (Mark Farmer) is your stereotypical disaffected teen and, in an attempt to paint himself as some sort of rebel without a cause, he decides to shave his hair off and strike fear into the hearts of his peers as a moody skinhead. Portraying the typical misguided approach to image that teenagers revel in, Jarvis is also the only skinhead EVER to relax by listening to a few numbers by popular beat combo Queen.


Soft rock posturings aside, Jarvis' attempts at creating a myth of strength and fear around his teenage frame doesn't sit too well with local bovver boy Manning (Jamie Foreman). Admittedly, Manning appears to take issue with everyone in society, so the fact that he wants to crack open Jarvis' head like an easter egg shouldn't be taken as too much of a slur on Jarvis' character.


And Jarvis isn't completely on his own as he's soon got an ally in the curious shape of Alan Lipton (Ian Sears). A whining outcast, Lipton has very little going for him and he's hardly going to win Magnetic Personality of the Year, but he and Jarvis strike up a firm friendship and, together, they traverse the tricky landscape of adolescence. Starting in a typically grim comprehensive school, Johnny Jarvis follows the pair over a period of six years as the enter young manhood. 

Jarvis seems to be the bookie's hot favourite to be the success story what with a promising career in engineering breathing down his neck. Lipton, despite staking grandiose claims to becoming an intellectual, looks set to be piled high on the scrapheap of unemployment due to a discernible lack of skills. Mind you, as the years pass by, the two gradually find their fortunes reversing.


Jarvis' bright future is extinguished by the rigours of life and soon becomes a mundane existence as Jarvis struggles with unemployment and holding together a family with his beloved Stella. Lipton, however, rebels against the destitute future awaiting him and steadily carves out a nice niche as a rock star; he isn't completely averse to using Jarvis' angst as a template for his compositions.

And if things weren't angsty enough for poor old Jarvis then there's a rather bizarre plot rattling away in the background about his father, Jake (Maurice Colbourne) and his subsequent run-ins with the unpredictable drug dealer, the Colonel.

Behind the Pain

Johnny Jarvis first aired on BBC in late 1983 and was made up of six 50 minute episodes which went out in a 9.25pm slot. The series was based upon the novel of the same name written by Nigel Williams who also adapted the novel for TV.


Johnny Jarvis was directed by Alan Dossor who also directed Bergerac, Where the Heart Is and Between the Lines. The series has never been repeated and no commercial releases have followed.

Teenage Kicks?

Yeah, right, so I'll let you into a little secret: I LOVE JOHNNY JARVIS!

The characters are remarkable constructions with Jarvis and Lipton both bringing unique dynamics to create tension and an unusual friendship. Jarvis is the dreamer, packed full of potential and a bright future whilst Lipton is his polar opposite - drippy, useless with the ladies and destined for the hell of Thatcher's Britain.


And the lingering presence of Thatcher permeates itself all throughout the series. Inner city racial tensions are highlighted by Manning's running battles with Paul Turner (Alrick Riley) whilst Jarvis' descent into unemployment amid downtrodden council estate doldrums reminds you why just so many people still hate the Tories with a passion.

Now, some people might mark Jamie Foreman down as a bit of a cockney caricature, but we can't get enough of him. He can conjure up anger and rage on the turn of a sixpence and it's exciting to see him as a thrusting and fighting young pup here. Rampaging about without a care in the world for his fellow man, it's a treat into the mindset of a psychopath let down by society.


The reversing fortunes of Jarvis and Lipton also pack a powerful punch. We were more than happy to see Lipton make a few bob and get the fame which was destined to never be his, but Johnny's collapse is completely heartbreaking. And, as a result, it's highly powerful as he becomes swept up in the social and economic malaise which was engulfing the nation.

It's this descent into depression which really defines the gritty and stifling 80s grime of Johnny Jarvis. The grey, dilapidated, soot covered and streets of East London - long before regeneration projects came and eroded any sense of social honesty - reek of a grim representation of the hardships of life which is sadly missing in today's colour saturated and HD world. Sure, you might get a peek into a smackhead's den on Spooks, but it's always so beautifully lit and sanitised that the fear that you could end up there never materialises.


The only aspect of Johnny Jarvis that doesn't excel is the storyline involving Jarvis, Jake and The Colonel. It feels far too disconnected from the main narrative and, as a result, fails as a plot B which never manages to truly influence Jarvis and Lipton's fortunes. And, as one of the biggest fans of Maurice Colbourne in the world, it's a shame to see his talents going to waste on a middling tributary emanating from the feature presentation.

Nonetheless, Johnny Jarvis remains a fantastic production and is the epitome of a cult British TV show which deserves not only a repeat, but also a DVD release.

ARTICLES

Radio Times, November 5th 1983 by Benedict Nightingale

Street Wisdom - The period is 1977 to the present day. Against the familiar background of recession. Thursday's new drama serial charts the ups and downs of the friendship between Johnny Jarvis and Alan Lipton - from their last year at comprehensive and out into a sometimes hostile world. Benedict Nightingale meets the serial's author and watches its filming in "indisputably Nigel Williams territory": Albion Parade, N16, is in Stoke Newington, though it could be anywhere in London. Lautman's Tobacconists and Gents' Hairstyling nappears to have closed down, victim (one guesses) of economic recession, but its neighbours survive: A R Dennis ("Bookmakers Of Distinction Since 1935"), the Quick Clean Laundry, Lew's Fish Bar, Chip's Doner House, Atlantis Hair Fashions, a Chinese restaurant, and something quaintly describing itself as Istanbul FC ("members only").

A BBC voice calls "action", and two twenty-year-olds in T-shirts and jeans begin to amble down a side-road, past the dowdy terraced houses, exchanging streetwise gen about corruption. On cue, a police car roars past, its blue light whirling. We are indisputably in Nigel Williams territory, and an hour later still deeper in it. The film unit moves a mile south-east, in Hackney College, one of whose rooms has been painstakingly transformed into a realistic looking employment exchange, complete with sickly-green walls and posters about supplementary benefits. Here sits Johnny Jarvis, shambling hero of Nigel Williams' latest dramatic foray into British youth culture, waiting to sign on. Perhaps you're beginning to get a sense of déjà vu. Not another enervating saga about the miseries inflicted by society upon deprived young people! If you fear that, be reassured. Though everyone involved has been at pains to evoke the brick desert of London as accurately as possible, the serial is not primarily about the desert of its ill-effects.

It is, says Williams, more about growing up, and still more about friendship. Its subject is six years, 1977 to 1983, in the surprisingly eventful lives of Johnny Jarvis and Alan Lipton, the school runt who is propelled towards the fringes of metropolitan crime, as told by Lipton. Williams, too, comes from North London, but his background is decidedly more well-to-do. His father was headmaster of what used to be Kilburn Grammar, his mother was also a teacher, and he himself went to public school. "I was the bloke in glasses, a bit like Lipton, and my abiding memory is of wanting to be friends with people who didn't want to be friends with me". Unlike Lipton, he went on to Oxford, where he began to write for the theatre. After graduation he joined the BBC, at first working for the World Service, later directing arts programmes for television. "But I had found it, I still find it a tremendous turn-on to hear people saying lines written by me. I wanted to get back to the stage".

In 1978, aged thirty, he did so. He wrote Class Enemy, a fierce angry play about fifteen-year-old no-hopers taking over the schoolroom in which they've been left to fester, as a sort of tribute to his parents, who he felt (and feels) represented all that's right with teaching. It was accepted by the Royal Court, his home-from-home as an adolescent. London critics voted Williams the most promising playwright of the year. He now thinks Class Enemy a bit crude, a bit preachy. He still writes about the young and is increasingly appalled by the waste he sees among them: "It's criminal, what's being done. The unemployment figures are terrifying. My central tenet is not to tell people what to think," he says. "It is presumptuous, insolent. Besides, you can shout your principles from the house-tops; but if people won't listen, the only person you've helped is yourself. To influence people about society, you should present them with real characters and real situations. You have to leave them to tell you what they take out of your plays". That, he hopes, is the method of Johnny Jarvis.

Williams has always tried to get to know the young as they are, not as they are patronisingly thought to be. The serial is, he says "rather autobiographical - you know, wanting to be a good boy, and yet wanting to be happy, and wanting somehow to reconcile the two". But observation and memory aren't everything. "There's a magic thing about writing, too," he says. "It is like talking with imaginary friends. My characters are very close to me, almost like my children. And they may not say and do what I expect". To date, Williams' characters have said and done enough for four stage plays, two television plays, two novels - and Johnny Jarvis, which he originally conceived as a novel. "It's a gentler piece of work than some of mine, aiming to consider rather than to shock - and hoping to reach the same big audience that the nineteenth-century novelists did or Coronation Street does now. I want to see if I can write something that holds up as a popular novel for television".

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog


It's been proven - in double-blind placebo controlled studies - that children absolutely love cartoons; they also love drawing them. Sure, most of their efforts involve out of proportion heads balancing upon two stick legs, but the effort's there, right?

Anyway, one other thing that kids love are furry little critters such as dogs, cats and rabbits. Back in 1986 the BBC decided that the perfect kids tv show would marry cartoons, art and a dog. To give the show an extra dimension of engaging magic they added Michael Barrymore into the mix to create Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog.


Genre: Childrens
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 11/09/1986 - 04/12/1986

Surrounded by archaic clutter in a dimly lit flat, Sebastian (breed unknown) paints the days away to his heart's content. To ensure that the fine relationship between man and dog is maintained, Michael (Michael Barrymore) also lives there, presumably to take him to the vet and remove ticks from the most unreachable parts of Sebastian’s shaggy anatomy.


Michael, not being blessed with an artistic outlook, finds himself titting about in the flat to kick-start minor plots such as dressing up as Lord Nelson or even the incredibly dramatic ‘searching for a pair of socks’ episode. A chance comment on these heart stopping and tension fuelled plots will usually lead to Michael dusting down the ‘large and unusual storybook’ to regale viewers with a quirky tale as Sebastian backs it up with illustrations.

Sketching the Dream

Sebastian first bounded onto our screens in 1986 and wagged its tale for a total of 13 episodes aired on BBC1 in the CBBC afternoon slot. The concept of the show was devised by the cartoonist David Myers who had previously written for Dave Allen, Leslie Crowther and Tommy Cooper.

The illustrations shown in the show were all drawn by David's fair hand. Sebastian was operated by Richard Robinson, a puppeteer with a varied career which took in Spitting Image, The Riddlers and Bungle in the 90s revival of Rainbow. Incomplete repeats of the series followed in 1987 and 1988.

Mike McNaught composed the theme tune and gathered together an ensemble of schoolchildren to sing the theme tune:

Who’s ever so very, very clever? Sebastian!
Sebastian!
Who’s always the one who does it better? Sebastian!
Sebastian!
He can draw like Michelangelo
He’s an artist from his head to his toe
There’ll certainly never be another Sebastian
Sebastian
It’s you!


A rather interesting demo - minus the child vocals - of the show's theme tune has recently surfaced online. The track was put up by its composer - Mike McNaught - and can be listened to at http://tinyurl.com/d9thqtz

There were a range of books produced in 1987 by Andre Deutsch Ltd which were written and illustrated by David Myers. The books are all based upon episodes of the TV series. They are long out of print, but fairly easy to pick up on Ebay/Amazon and aren't ridiculously expensive.


On The Quest for Sebastian

For about two and a half decades we racked our brains to the point of madness trying to remember what that show about “that dog who draws them cartoons and wears a smoking jacket like a toff” was, but we just couldn’t dredge up anything up from the depths of our memory banks. And, worse yet, no one else could remember it.

However, a quick search on Google in the early 2010s finally yielded the name – Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog! And it featured Michael Barrymore! Yes, that’s right, Michael “TOP, MIDDLE OR BOTTOM” Barrymore from off the telly! We’ve always been a fan of the Bermondsey legend, so the fact he was involved in the show imbued it with extra kudos.


Unfortunately, there wasn’t much information about the show online. Pic Productions – who produced the original pilot with David Myers in the lead role – had a few photos of the show on their website, but it just wasn’t enough for us. We wanted something we could really get our teeth into and get the old nostalgia juices flowing.

And that’s when we headed to the BFI Archive.

Walking the Dog

The BFI Archive is to TV history enthusiasts as the Black Stone of Mecca is to Muslims. Visiting this underground viewing archive is something that every TV nerd needs to make at least once in their life to achieve a greater spiritual enlightenment and, more importantly, watch some really rare tellywaves.

Anyway, we booked in at the BFI Archive and eagerly travelled down there one lazy spring afternoon with a nervous energy pulsating through our veins and a fiendishly delicious sandwich neatly packed in our manbag. And that ain’t a euphemism, it was an amazing concoction of chicken, chorizo AND coleslaw.

We had arranged to watch two episodes – The Barking Cat and The Toastmaster – to help unlock memories which had been disabled by synapses which had stopped firing a long, long time ago. We were finally on the trail of a forgotten chunk of our childhood and, by jove, we were going to jump in headfirst and enjoy this, but what the hell would be waiting for us?


Sebastian is a particularly cultured dog; instead of sniffing other dog's rectums inquisitively, he is much more at home playing the violin or piano and, of course, he’s a dab hand with the old paintbrush bristles. Upon a hat stand hangs a pith helmet and it wouldn't surprise us if the well-spoken Sebastian had spent time hunting in Africa.

Michael Barrymore is, surprisingly, quite well spoken, but does let slip several of his trademark "Alwight!"s throughout the episodes. Barrymore's clowning persona is fully formed here and he would engage audiences with it for a further 15 years. His attire – in the episodes we viewed at least – are a testament to the hideous sense of fashion that was deemed acceptable in the 1980s, all beiges and whites.

The main strength of the show is the relationship between Michael and Sebastian. They bicker, squabble and banter with each other like any classic double act worth their salt. Sebastian’s the straight man and Michael, well, he’s simply Barrymore. We're pretty sure that Barrymore is ad-libbing some sections and this is a skill that he would go on to refine to marvellous heights as his ITV career took off.

The illustrations and the stories are less amazing, but we doubt even Tex Avery could have competed with the fizzing, visceral prowess of prime-era Barrymore. Besides, Sebastian is aimed at the younger end of the kid’s spectrum, so we’re probably just being a bit snooty that the stories don’t have the narrative punch and structure of Charles Dickens.


Following our visit to the BFI, we were contacted by a collector of vintage television who goes by the name of James. Whilst sorting through some Betamax tapes from 1987, he had come across an episode of Sebastian which was entitled Tall Hat Joe. James was kind enough to send us a DVD of the episode, so we could finally put some screenshots of the show online. Hopefully it will unlock some repressed memories out there and the word of Sebastian will begin to spread.

Man’s Best Friend?

As packed full of charm as their flat is stuffed with curios, it's very strange that only 13 episodes were produced. Sebastian and Michael make for a good double act and surely the unusual story book had more quirky tales bursting to escape.

The BBC were obviously keen to involve Barrymore with children's TV as he resurfaced in another arts based show, Mick and Mac, in 1990. Sebastian remains our favourite 'forgotten' show from our childhood and we can only pray that we get to see more episodes in the future.

EPISODE GUIDE:

All details as per the Radio Times listings:

1. The Tall Short Man
Thursday 11th September 1986 - 4.10pm
Today's story is about the untidy Mr Sammy Snooks and his problem with spring cleaning! Sebastian draws the characters and Michael tries to find his sock.

2. The Man with Big Ideas
Thursday 18th September 1986 - 4.10pm
Today's story is about Mr Merrybean, the inventor, without whom our seasides would not be as they are today! Sebastian draws the characters and Michael has trouble with a genie's lamp!

3. The Barking Cat
Thursday 25th September 1986 - 4.10pm
Today's story is about Blossom, the barking cat! Mrs Honey takes Blossom to an animal impersonator; the outcome of which has unfortunate consequences.

4. The Man Who Made Custard
Thursday 2nd October 1986 - 4.10pm
Today's story is about Archibald O' Flaherty and his attempts to make the perfect custard. Unfortunately he fails, but by doing so he makes his fortune. Sebastian illustrates the story and Michael makes a currant cake.

5. The Cloud Catcher
Thursday 9th October 1986 - 4.10pm
Today's story is about Mr Catchit, a man who could catch anything, a cold, the flu, a bus! Mr Catchit is given a special assignment; catch the clouds in the sky to stop it raining. Sebastian illustrates the story and Michael learns to swim.

6. Tall Hat Joe
Thursday 16th October 1986 - 4.10pm
Today's story is about civil servant Tall Hat Joe, who was asked to keep lots of secrets 'under his hat.' But when a gust of wind blows off his hat... Sebastian illustrates the story and Michael becomes Lord Nelson.

7. The Rabbit Who Ate Paper
Thursday 23rd October 1986 - 4.10pm
Fred the hungry rabbit's eternal quest for food leads him to an important job with the government. Can you guess..? Sebastian illustrates the story and Michael tries his hand as a magician.

8. The Cowboy Who Hated Guns
Thursday 30th October 1986 - 4.10pm
Today's story is about Bernard B. Kettle, a cowboy who carried two huge old-fashioned brass motor horns at his side. Sebastian illustrates the story and Michael auditions for a part in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly!

9. The Prince Who Loved To Laugh
Thursday 6th November 1986 - 4.15pm
Today's story is about a Prince whose tears of laughter turn to tiny glass beads.

10. The Shyest Man in the World
Thursday 13th November 1986 - 4.10pm
Today's story is about Benny Buckle and his attempts to hide away from the world. One day he crashes into a large mirror and is rushed into hospital.

11. The Funny Story Man
Thursday 20th November 1986 - 4.10pm
Percy Brightside thinks up the world's funniest joke. Trouble is that nobody finds it funny - nobody that is until he visits the zoo...

12. Mr Petal's Headache
Thursday 27th November 1986 - 4.10pm
Today's story is about Peter Petal who wakes up one morning with bouquet of flowers growing out from the top of his head! His new fashion catches on and even today is copied by one profession. Which one? Sebastian draws the pictures and Michael tries to keep fit.

13. The Toastmaster
Thursday 4th December 1986 - 4.05pm
The final story in this series is about Mr Nicholas Nibbs and his extraordinary Car.

CUTTINGS:

Radio Times (6 - 12 September 1986)







Monday, 22 October 2012

Welcome to Curious British Telly

Welcome to Curious British Telly! A blog devoted to detailing and discussing some of the lesser known British television shows from the past. I'll mainly be looking at shows from the 70s and 80s which have either faded into the depths of time or have only amassed - at best - a cult following.

The main aim of this blog will be to serve as an information point for fans of the oddities and hidden gems of British television. Hopefully, it will also help us us pool resources and piece together the stories behind the lesser known shows.

The first post will be coming soon and will feature a little known children's show from the 1980s. 

Keep Watching!