Friday, 29 March 2013

Hardwicke House


Growing up in the 1980s, my only reference point for life at secondary school was through the exploits of those oikish urchins at Grange Hill. And, truth be told, the sheer thought of stepping foot into that adolescent realm absolutely terrified me.

Okay, there was the rare promise of hunting down ghosts with the caretaker, but breathing heavily down the back of my neck was the threat of heroin, brain haemorrhages and the toupeed terror of teaching’s fiercer side in the form of Mr Bronson.

Even though these early experiences were viewed through the exaggerated lens of television, I was still quaking in my boots on that first day of term at secondary school. With hindsight, it’s possible that I could have felt much more anxious and panic stricken.

Grange Hill, after all, may have been hard hitting for its audience, but children’s TV demands a little restraint when it comes to portraying the real world. And, if my prior knowledge of secondary school had also been shaped by the sadistic cruelty of Hardwicke House, then it’s likely I would have been on the edge of a nervous breakdown as I approached the school gates.

Genre: Sitcom
Channel: ITV (Central)
Transmission: 24/02/1987 - 25/02/1987

The focus of Hardwicke House centres on the academic shenanigans bubbling away amongst the blackboards, textbooks and school bells of infernal secondary school Hardwicke House. In charge of these troubled halls of education is headmaster RG Wickham (Roy Kinnear) who, unfortunately, can’t call on his colleagues to help temper the unfolding anarchy.

His fellow teachers’ inability to stop the rot at Hardwicke House is driven by a mixture of narcissism, sadism and egotism. So, yeah, all the crucial ism’s, but who ever said teachers were perfect? Certainly not the staff at Hardwicke House who seem to have much more pressing matters on their minds.

Deputy headmaster Paul Mackintosh (Roger Sloman) is determined to undermine Wickham at every given opportunity, Herbert Fowl (Granville Saxton) is a man obsessed with control over his pupils whom he views as a disposable currency and Dick Flashman (Gavin Richards) has a slick, crafty nature that he employs to exploit women and cream off a few quid to spend at the Dog and Duck.

Not all of the teachers at Hardwicke House, though, are complete and utter miscreants. Peter Philpott (Nick Wilton) is a geography teacher for whom the crushing realities of teaching are yet to erode his optimistic outlook. And Cynthia Crabbe (Pam Ferris) is a French teacher who positions herself as an impassioned liberal with a whole host of ready-made protest placards.

Although Hardwick House primarily looks at the teachers at its disposal, it would be a little foolhardy to ignore the pupils cluttering up the hallways, so the spotlight occasionally shines upon their scurrying antics.

Slasher Bates (Kevin Allen) is the aggressively violent school bully who paralyses his fellow pupils with fear, Spotty (Paul Spurrier) has a poor complexion and even worse social skills and then there’s Donna (Cindy Day), the head girl whose sultry beauty gets the male pupils (and teachers) in somewhat of a giddy tiswas.

And when these teachers and pupils are flung together in the pressure cooker of school life, anarchy reigns supreme at Hardwicke House.

Episodes see Wickham desperately trying to impress a South African Ambassador visiting the chaotic school, ex-pupils return from borstal to take up grievances with Mr Fowl whilst the final episode sees Mr Philpott staging a school play which features a live crucifixion.

Calling the Register

Hardwicke House was written by Richard Hall and Simon Wright and was their first sitcom to be commissioned. And teaming up with these writing newcomers to direct their scripts was John Stroud who had previously directed Who Dares Wins, Spitting Image and Educating Marmalade.

Together, this crew produced a series of seven episodes for Central Television which would begin airing on ITV in February 1987. The premiere episode was an elongated 60 minute episode which aired at 8.30pm on 25 February 1987. Later episodes came in at the more traditional sitcom length of 30 minutes.

What’s interesting about these later episodes is that barely any of them were ever transmitted. And when I say barely, I do, of course, mean that five out of the seven remain completely unaired. Only a short outtake from episode five featuring Adrian Edmonson and Rik Mayall has ever seen the light of day.

But why is this?

Well, thanks to a public outrage over Hardwicke House’s content, the rest of the series was promptly pulled from the schedules. Plans to air the rest of the series in a later timeslot were considered, but this never materialised and the rest of the series remains one of British comedy’s most enigmatic mysteries.

One thing I must address is that, despite the rumours, the tapes of Hardwicke House were never erased to preserve Britain’s moral fortitude. Where the exact master tapes are is not entirely clear, but ITN Source apparently have access to all seven episodes, so a full release remains a viable proposition in the future.

Back to School

Much like the furore surrounding Heil Honey I’m Home, the storm of controversy hanging over Hardwicke House endows it with an irresistible curiosity. It’s easy for a sitcom to become forgotten to the sands of times, but when it sends viewers into a foaming frenzy it takes on a whole new narrative which is difficult to shake off.

By a stroke of luck, the two episodes which were transmitted and caused such outrage were recorded and preserved over the decades. These found their way onto the internet many years ago, so are readily available to watch. And, having taken on near mythical status as an oddity of British TV, I was salivating at the prospect of it, so duly investigated.

Hardwicke House gets off to a good start by cementing a firm concept in place. Teachers, usually positioned as the responsible adults, are shown to be just as horrendously immature and self-centred as their teenage pupils. Exposing the fragile foundations of those in power has always been an essential part of comedy, so Hardwicke House is well positioned to attack this.

And with swarms of hormone fuelled youngsters at its disposal, Hardwicke House has a rich array of resources to call upon when the frenzied anarchy, so entwined with alternative comedy, is required to create spectacles of mass rebellion.

However, the attempts to mock authority and let mob chaos run are severely restricted by the characters of Hardwicke House. Sure, in the real world, many pupils paint teachers out to be cruel tyrants, and I’m all for a bit of heightened reality in my comedy, but Hardwicke House stumbles into nothing but exponential cruelty too often.

Sitcoms often demand their characters to be monsters, but it’s usually countered by a level of sympathy from the viewer as per David Brent in The Office. In Hardwicke House, though, sympathy is a feeling which barely registers on the viewer’s emotional radar.

In particular, Mr Fowl is a noxious concoction who, with an almost psychopathic lack of empathy, is hell bent on degrading and debasing students and staff. The second episode sees Mr Fowl electrocuting a pupil to a smouldering wreck purely to demonstrate the security of his beloved stationary cupboard. Charming, right?

Mr Fowl is not the only ghoul on the books at Hardwicke House as he’s joined by Mr Mackintosh, an untrustworthy degenerate who has a creepy obsession with the bodily development of his young charges. Admittedly, there was always a teacher with these dubious interests at school, but here it feels far too sinister.

With the consummate cockney charm of any good TV wideboy, Mr Flashman appears, at first glance, to be at odds with the nastiness of Fowl and Mackintosh. However, peel away the exterior layers and you discover there’s a nasty undercurrent of vanity and ego; one which allows him to manipulate pupils and deliver them a swift punch to the gut when necessary.

Not everyone at Hardwicke House is a complete monster. RG Wickham strives to bring some semblance of calm to the school, Ms Crabbe is permanently looking out for the oppressed and Mr Philpott has a great love for teaching.

The problem with these more likeable characters is that they fall flat on their face. They all fail to achieve their goals which, despite being a key part in the tragic power behind comedy, carry little pathos in Hardwicke House. Wickham definitely has a sense of warmth and not just from the amount of alcohol he’s forced to consume, but Crabbe and Philpott are just irritating, wet lettuces.

The teachers of Hardwicke House, then, are a disappointing bunch who fail to fully engage, but what about the pupils? Do they fare any better?

Slasher is easily head and shoulders above his peers thanks to a combination of fine acting on the part of Kevin Allen and a strong character. He’s a mini menace to society and proves this with some comic flair. Okay, he’s no different to any other school bully we’ve seen on TV, but his character fits in perfectly with the anarchic agenda.

Spotty’s barely worth a mention as he’s too much of a one dimensional stereotype, but even more baffling is Donna. Given alternative comedy’s propensity for rejecting stereotypes, Donna seems to be employed as nothing more than a dolly bird in skimpy uniforms for teachers to letch over without even a hint of irony.

And, when people vehemently claim that Hardwicke House was a shocking abomination, it’s incidents such as the disturbing, leering behaviour towards Donna coupled with Mr Mackintosh’s unhealthy intrigue towards young bodies which cause the most concern.

There’s certainly plenty of violence on offer too, but it’s a brand of comic strip violence which pales in comparison against the sleazy behaviour of the teachers. Had there been some comeuppance for the teachers then it could have justified such horrendous behaviour, but sadly the teachers simply get away with it.

Mr Fowl, eventually, does get quite literally crucified in the final episode, but, despite this episode never airing, it seems to have caused consternation with many would be viewers. You see, the pay off for this crucifixion gag is that the crucifix topples over and hits a vicar on the head. Personally, I’d dismiss this as frivolous fun, but religious iconography divides like no other iconography, so, had this episode aired, I imagine it would have caused a huge stink regardless of what time it aired.

Whether Hardwicke House is truly shocking is down to a matter of taste, but what’s truly shocking is the lack of laughs in the script. Instead, a series of broad and lumpen gags tumble awkwardly from the script and clunk heavily like a school dinner hitting the floor of the canteen.

There are some nice sections such as Slasher auditioning wannabe lackeys and then later putting them through an initiation ceremony of eating raw liver, but these are in a moribund minority. The high level of emotionless sadism – impossible to confirm as knowing irony thanks to a lack of a laughter track - that permeates Hardwicke House sadly renders the series as comically impotent.

School Report

Perhaps I’ve been a bit harsh on Hardwicke House given that I’ve only viewed two episodes, but I can only go on the available footage. And, sadly, it’s just not up to scratch. It falls far short of the anarchic, alternative comedy it was aiming for and instead resorts to bullying and arrogance for its humour.

However, there’s something tragic about Hardwick House which can’t be denied. The production team must have put in a lot of time and effort, so to see it shunted off the schedules must have been terribly dispiriting. Hardwicke House needed to go out after the watershed – a sentiment that Roy Kinnear agreed with – but ITV kept it on in a primetime slot.

It’s a complete and utter cockup by ITV as it’s clearly a post-watershed show which would have been much more at home in their fabled Sunday 10pm comedy slot. And the result is that we’re robbed of five episodes which could have seen Hardwicke House redeeming itself and finding its feet. Maybe it’s time to release them and terrify a whole new generation of children at the school gates.

LINKS

School's Out! - A very detailed overview on the show and it's history - http://www.offthetelly.co.uk/?page_id=330

PRESS CUTTINGS




Broadcast - 06/03/1987 


Glasgow Herald 26/02/1987

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Trip To The BFI!

No, Trip To The BFI!, isn't a little known Channel 4 1983 documentary. It's quite literally what Curious British Telly did yesterday. Fed up of having to rely on nothing, but vague, dusty memories of some of the shows featured here, we decided to look a little further than YouTube. We wanted to see how easy it was to view some footage of Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog and Foxtales. Our curiousity about these two, forgotten shows from our youth made them the ideal candidates. There's very little online and we wanted to make a connection with our youth and see what we spent it watching.

We considered the BBC for Sebastian, but their archives aren't very easy to access - especially if you're a young blog. This led us to searching online and finding that the BFI hold a considerable archive of British television material. Firing an email off, we awaited their response. Luckily, it came rather quickly and they were able to confirm they held some episodes of Sebastian and Fox Tales. We were free to come and view them too - one of the most exciting emails we've received so far. No longer would we be left wondering and dreaming about these shows. We could actually get our mince pies on them after about 25 years.

The cost to view 30 minutes material on video is just £6.00 which is very reasonable, so we booked in for a Friday afternoon. We arrived at the BFI building just off Tottenham Court Road and paid our fee before being directed to the basement. The basement of the BFI is a curious place, photos of past British film stars adorn the walls in between various viewing theatres. A lovely technician directed us to the correct viewing room for my materials - it was a fairly small room with several 14" LCD tvs connected to either VHS players or DVD players. Waiting for us, was a bundle of three VHS cassettes. The Sebastian episodes were both on separate BBC tapes just 10 minutes long each. The Fox Tales episode was on a VHS which seemed to be a complete recording of British TV shows from ITV that day e.g. Fox Tales was shown, but then Batfink was not included in the CITV programming.

Watching these shows has meant we can really provide detailed information on these shows - the blogs for both these have now been updated. Obviously, due to copyright reasons, we weren't able to take any footage of the shows we viewed. We also weren't allowed to take any pictures of the viewing room, which is a shame, but it's BFI policy and, frankly, it's a small cross to bear for the experience as a whole.

Also, whilst in London, we visited the British Library to trawl through their Radio Times collection and have now updated the following shows:

  • Running Scared - Radio Times article and transmission dates.
  • The Estate Agents - Radio Times article
  • Mop and Smiff - Radio Times article, episode guide and transmission dates.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Mop and Smiff


For many hundreds of thousands of years, cats and dogs waged an unrelenting battle with each other to determine just who were the rightful owners to back gardens the world over. Then, suddenly, in 1985 a cat and dog were found to be living together in perfect harmony.

Shock waves were sent around the world and the BBC immediately tasked Mike Amatt with investigating this phenomena. Probably. Or he just came up with a canny idea about basing stories, music and animation around his beloved pets. Either way, a man, a dog and a cat came together to make Mop and Smiff.


Genre: Childrens
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 04/04/1985 - 06/06/1985


First broadcast in April 1985, Mop and Smiff was a 13 episode series produced by BBC Manchester. Mike Amatt took control of the narration reins and real life couple Timothy West and Prunella Scales provided voice duties for Mop and Smiff respectively.

Mike Amatt already had a fairly successful career behind him as a session musician and he incorporated his songwriting into Mop and Smiff. The episodes were bookended with live action - usually Mike getting up to something with Mop around the village of Belmont - and in between this was an animated section featuring Mop and Smiff's dreams.

Although Mike Amatt was shown drawing the cartoons, the animation duties were actually taken on by Simon and Sara Bor. Only one series of Mop and Smiff was produced, but it was repeated several times over the next few years. A spin off series - Mike, Mop and The Moke - followed in July 1985 minus Smiff. This appeared to centre around Mike and Mop driving around in the 'Moke' and visiting various seaside towns.


It's a little unclear about the exact number of episodes transmitted and when. The original run starting in April 1985 was only ten episodes long - as per the Radio Times - but this does not include the snow episode which is available on YouTube.

The Radio Times article promoting the series also mentions the binmen from the snow episode, so this doesn't help to make things any clearer. It may be that three episodes were not shown in the original run, but we can't fathom out why.

In the repeat run of Mop and Smiff from 1986 there is an episode titled 'Leaves' which was not in the 1985 run, so perhaps these other three episodes were spread throughout repeat showings. Mike Amatt's website states that 13 episodes were produced in total, so a little more research is required before the matter can be resolved.

Furry Friends

Mop and Smiff is one of those shows that managed to keep a constant grip upon the dark recesses of Curious British Telly's memory. The memories were vague, but there were feint traces of an animated show - from our preschool years - where a dog and cat would describe their dreams.

Under the impression, for many years, that the show was simply called 'Cat and Dog', nothing turned up whilst searching online. Then, whilst browsing a 1986 edition of the Radio Times, we found a listing for a childrens show called Mop and Smiff. Being curious chaps, we investigated this and found it was the show we remembered!


One complete episode of Mop and Smiff is currently on YouTube and gives a decent taster of the show. Rewatching the show brought back those quiet, gentle afternoons where the extent of the world was our house and the local playgroup.

Mop and Smiff is very much of its time with the innocent antics of Mop, Mike and Smiff all soundtracked by wonderful songs from Mike Amatt. The music is probably our favourite aspect of the show; Mike's avuncular charm transfers seamlessly into his music - all dreamy, 60s melodies with hints of The Beatles and The Kinks.



Curious about what exactly Mike, Mop and the Moke consisted of, we booked in to the BFI Archives to view the one copy they hold. The episode is entitled 'Promenade' and was first transmitted on 12/08/1985. The emphasis of this show is similar to Mop and Smiff in that it sees Mike and Mop meeting various people and seeing what they get up to.

In this particular episode they meet some donkeys at Scarborough Fair and some of the local children. There's no animation in this series, so Mop is rather relegated to just posing and barking every now and then; Mike is left centre stage. He's extremely enthusiastic throughout and gives it his all to keep the children entertained.

His songs, once again, are charming nuggets of 60s joy and our favourite aspect of the show. Our main criticism of this series is that the there's less priority given to the imagination. The dream sequences in Mop and Smiff were always something we could relate to as a child, but here we just see children playing games on the beach. It fails to hold the same attention as Mop and Smiff and is probably why it's not as well remembered.

INTERVIEW

We recently got in touch with Mike Amatt to chat about his background and the origins of Mop and Smiff. 

CBT: Hello, Mike! It's always a pleasure to chat to someone connected with a show from our youth, so many thanks for agreeing to take part. I trust we find you in good spirits? 

Mike: Yes! Thank you! I am in good health and good spirits!

Now, I believe you were a professional musician throughout the 1960/70s, so I'd be very interested in hearing a bit more about this portion of your life – feel free to namedrop! 

After leaving school I went to study at Salford Art College. At the same time I was also playing guitar in a group called The Rogues (See www.manchesterbeat). In 68 we went professional and re-named ourselves “Sunshine”, so you can see that art and music were the most important part of my life. By the end of 69 I wanted to move on from Sunshine and I moved into the world of “cabaret” which was thriving in “theatre clubs” and working men’s clubs. I joined a group called “Shane Fenton and The Fentones, as lead guitarist. I spent a couple of years with Shane and then left, on the grounds that “Well he’s been famous once in the early 60s, he’s not going to be famous again.”. In 1974 Shane became “Alvin Stardust”, a big star in the glam-rock period. How wrong was I???  No big deal though… it was only “Alvin” who was famous, he didn’t take his musicians into the higher echelons of stardom. In 73 I began, under the stage-name of Wellington Boothe as a guitarist vocalist doing a cabaret show in clubs and theatres etc all over the country. I frequently worked in Southern Africa at the Holiday Inn group of hotels.

Mop and Smiff was based upon stories involving your cat and dog, but where did the idea of basing a show around them spring from? And how tough was the commissioning process? 

I married in 75 and immediately after the honeymoon we bought Mop at a kennels in Lancashire, and the day after decided he needed a friend so we rescued Smiff from the cat shelter here in Bolton. Mop was so named because it is short and sweet and we knew he would grow into a shaggy mop coated adult. Smiff was named after my friend’s band who played at our wedding. They were called Smiffy after the Beano character. For the next few years I continued to work as a cabaret act and on one of my trips to Lesotho Holiday Inn I became bored and homesick, so I wrote a story about Mop and Smiff. At the time I believed that writing for kids was easy. People tell me it’s not… but I think it is!!! Like all dogs, Mop’s appetite ruled his very existence - this became a big part of the story. Also like all successful double acts they were opposites. (Laurel and Hardy – Morecambe and Wise – Holmes and Watson etc.). When I finished the story, handwritten, I thought to myself “I do art!!!! I should create visual models of them.”. When I had done that, I thought again that I should write songs about their antics. This was inspired by a cartoon that Harry Nillson wrote called “The Point”. I sent a tape and some pictures off to a company in Walthamstow called “The Picsa Music Group”. They were making cassettes for small children. They liked my stuff so I went to them and we made four cassettes. This gave me a finished product that I later sent to the head of children’s programmes at BBC Manchester, David Brown. I was invited to the BBC to discuss things and I expected to be in for about 20 minutes. I left after about an hour and a half, walking on air. Another trip to Southern Africa, and I came back to a letter inviting me to a script conference. Then things began to happen. When I realised we could have “names” doing the voices, I wanted Brian Glover to be Mop’s voice (He was in Kes, I think) and I wanted Polly James to be Smiff (She was in the Liver Birds). David Brown met Timothy West and Prunella Scales on a train to London and asked them if they would do the voices. They were wonderful in the studio and lovely people. 

The songs within Mop and Smiff are one of the highlights of the show and really show off your skills as a songwriter and musician. I can detect a strong 60s influence – particularly The Beatles – in amongst the melodies, but wondered if there were any other influences present and why you chose this particular style for the show. 

Lots of people have said the same thing as you have, about the songs and music. I’m happy that The Beatles influence comes out in my music. I suspect it’s mainly the harmonies I chose. I don’t hear it like that myself. If I re-wrote the music today I don’t know how it would turn out, there may be a bit of Pink Floyd in it…Who knows. 

Providing the voices for Mop and Smiff were the real life couple, Timothy West and Prunella Scales. How was it working with a married couple? Did this bring a natural chemistry or just squabbles about who was driving home? 

Tim and Pru! As I said, lovely people and very professional. I divorced in 1980, my wife didn’t want children and I did. C’est la vie. By the time I met Timothy West and Prunella Scales in 1984 I had met my present wife, Veronica. We had dinner with the Wests and Veronica mentioned to Pru that I happened to be crazy about British Wild Orchids. I photograph them and paint them etc. Some months later a book arrived in the post. It was called “The Orchid Trilogy” and was sent by Prunella. She didn’t have to do this but she did. Lovely woman. 

Watching Mop and Smiff back, there appears to have been a lot of work put into producing each episode. There's a busy mixture of live action, animation, voicework and finally the songs. Just how hectic was it on the production side of things to meet deadlines? And how long did the episodes take to get polished and ready? 

Looking back, there was no hectic schedule for me when we made the series. I had my multi-tracking equipment in my music room and could write a “kiddie song” at the drop of a hat. One day as we were filming we noticed that the local Bobby’s house had a garden full of gnomes so Sid Waddell the director suggested a song title “A Home for Gnomes”. We filmed the garden knowing that I would be writing and producing the song that very evening. Which I did. Don’t forget that I was inspired by the knowledge that I was on the brink of having my own national BBC1 TV show. I was also a lot younger.


Smiff was ever present through Mop and Smiff, but was not on board for Mike, Mop and the Moke. Was this decision to leave Smiff out brought about by the show's change in format to purely live action? Or was it simply down to Smiff's wage demands being too high for the BBC?

I wouldn’t let the BBC take Smiff out of the house or neighbourhood. Plus, I came up with the idea called “Mike and Mop – Island Hop”. I wanted to go to The Isle of Man, Isle of Dogs, Wight, Guernsey etc. With a motorbike and sidecar. Mop didn’t like the sidecar so we changed it to the Austin Champ. We called it a moke, not because of the mini- moke but because a moke is a Spanish word for a donkey or goat that goes almost anywhere I think.

There were several books produced under the Mop and Smiff banner, a spin off series in Mike, Mop and the Moke and finally several repeat airings of Mop and Smiff, so the BBC obviously had faith in the show. Sadly, there was nothing new after Mike, Mop and the Moke. Was this decision taken by yourself or did the BBC decide it was time for something new? 

When the people at the top at the BBC move on… so do their underlings. Staying in favour at the Beeb was like climbing a greasy pole. Even before I had children of my own, I came to the conclusion that almost all kids shows are made by people with no children. It’s still the same. I put my three kids through Uni and they are all lovely people. I could create and present better formats etc. today but who wants to know an old bloke? Telly is a fickle industry.

You managed to maintain a busy profile on children's television for many years after Mop and Smiff finished, so we'd be grateful to hear a brief rundown of what you've been up to in the intervening years.

I had “Forget-me-not Farm” through the 90s. I also presented Playschool until it finished in 1990. I survive these days mainly by doing gigs as a musician. I backed Wayne Fontana a few times. Last year I joined Herman’s Hermits as lead guitarist but I left last March after touring Germany. I am about to re-invent Wellington Boothe and do gigs on cruise ships as a “multi-instrumentalist. That gets me out a bit and I see some sunshine, and the money is ok. My guitar playing has come on in leaps and bounds these last few years but arthritis is creeping into my fingers.

Finally, owners build very strong bonds with their pets, so I imagine that Mop and Smiff was a big part of your life. How do you feel looking back at the series now?

I loved both Mop and Smiff very much. They both lived to be 14. Mop had a massive stroke one night in March and I had to take him to the vet to be put to sleep. I’d always had an understanding with Mrs Radcliffe whose farm we filmed the kite sequence on, that Mop could be buried there, and he was. I was digging his grave as the sleet was coming at me sideways and tears and snot were dripping down my face. Smiff had died of kidney failure a couple of weeks earlier. She was buried in the family garden. On March 24 my first son was born and we already had an 18 month old daughter… so as one door closes… another opens and life goes on.


Thanks very much for your time, Mike. More information on Mike can be found at www.amatt.co.uk

EPISODE GUIDE

1. The Hang Glider
04/04/85 3.55pm

Mop wishes a friend would ‘drop in’, and Smiff goes chasing butterflies.

2. The Circus
11/04/85 3.55pm

Mop sees the Big Top Travelling Show, and dreams of stardom.

3. The Seaside
18/04/85 3.55
pm
Mop takes a boat trip, and Smiff wishes she had kittens.

4. The Balloon
25/04/85 3.55pm

Mop flies a kite, and Smiff takes an unexpected dip.

5. The Special Day
02/05/85 3.55pm
Mop watches a wedding, and Smiff dreams up a surprise.

6. The Camp
09/05/85 3.55pm
Mop plays hide and seek, and Smiff learns to be a guide.

7. The Carnival
16/05/85 3.55pm
Mop becomes a prince, and Smiff meets the Queen.

8. The Treasure
23/05/85 3.55pm
Mop turns detective, and leads Smiff on a false scent.

9. The Canal
30/05/85 3.55pm
Mop takes charge of Ned the Horse, and Smiff goes along for the ride.

10. The School
06/06/85 3.55pm
Mop catches the Busybus, and Smiff shows him how to sit still.

11. Leaves
11/12/85 1.45pm
Mop takes a walk in the woods and Smiff has a sticky problem.

12. The Market
18/12/85 1.45pm
No description.

13. Snow
01/01/86 9.05am
Mop looks to find a sledge, whilst Smiff searches for a cosy nap.

ARTICLES

Radio Times 30/03/85 - 05/04/85

Two ordinary pets are going to become stars today – in real life, and as cartoon characters. Mop, a rather laid-back Old English Sheepdog and Smiff, a bright but quite ordinary car, belong to Mike Amatt, who’s a very talented singer and story-teller.


So the adventures of Mop and Smiff, as told and sung by Mike, will soon be famous. Part of the stories are on film, as Mike and Mop wander round the picturesque Lancashire village of Belmont – close to their hometown of Bolton – meeting the milkman, the bin-men, calling in at the school, strolling past the treacle factory. Smiff, of course, goes her own way as cats do.


But when Mop and Smiff get home, and have a snooze after their elevenses, Mike turns their dreams into a cartoon fantasy with the voices of the two animals provided by the actors – and husband and wife – Timothy West and Prunella Scales.

When I spotted Mop watching himself on screen at a preview, he did actually show a bit of interest. He got up, moved about, sniffed and went back to sleep. Says Mike: I think he was just trying to get comfortable. He really does seem totally indifferent to what’s happening!”.

The two pets were born within days of each other, nine and a half years ago and are still companions while keeping their distance. Mop – real name Wellington of Harwood – was never particularly well trained, admits Mike, but he has learnt a lot of tricks since the filming started. Smiff has stayed waywardly aloof.

CUTTINGS

Radio Times (27 July - 02 August 1985)


Friday, 8 March 2013

Murrain

Genre: Horror / Drama
Channel: ITV
Transmission: 27/07/1975



"Behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep: there shall be a very grievous murrain." - Exodus 9:3

Could it be possible that the Lord himself is behind such recent livestock chaos such as foot and mouth or swine flu? May these catastrophes, in fact, be caused by the evolution and spread of viruses due to man's desire to travel large distances? Whilst we're at it, let's throw an alternative, crazy angle in there and hypothesise that it may be down to good, old fashioned British witchcraft a la Murrain!

Hubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

Murrain tells the tale of a farming community led by Farmer Beeley (Bernard Lee aka 'M' from James Bond) in the throes of a supposed murrain caused by local loner - and suspected witch - Mrs Clemson (Una Brandon Jones).
 

The villagers fear of nature's dark, powerful forces are challenged by the science and reason of Alan Crich (David Simeon) - veterinarian officer who is both wonderfully coiffured and bespectacled.

Crich's science is struggling to identify the mysterious illness affecting the village pigs and inhabitants, so their imagination has run wild and they begin to seek answers in the realm of folklore. Admirably, in the face of a baying crowd, Crich stands his ground and calls for calm, but as the story unfolds, even he begins to have doubts.


In the Cauldron

Part of the Against the Crowd anthology, Murrain was a one-off play from 1975 produced by ATV as part of ITV's programming. Penning the play was esteemed British screenwriter, Nigel Kneale - best known for creating the Quatermass franchise.


The powers that be were suitably impressed with Kneale's effort and the following year he was rewarded with a six episode series of original stories under the Beasts banner. Murrain retains a cult following in the UK - particularly amongst horror fans - and is available as an extra on the Beasts DVD.

Casting a Spell over Us

Curious British Telly was in the mood for something a bit different and settled upon giving Murrain the once over.

We're big fans of the TV play here and mourn its loss as a British TV staple - in fact, in this age of disposable culture, we're surprised they haven't made a comeback. You don't have to invest too much effort into the characters. Just 60 minutes worth and then you can get back to playing Angry Birds.

Having never seen any Quatermass, we were also intrigued to see Nigel Kneale's abilities as a writer.

The first thing to strike us was the atmosphere created by director, John Cooper. Colours are kept dark and plain, keeping any sense of warmth and comfort far away, but this may just be in keeping with the fact it was filmed in Derbyshire (Wildboarclough to be precise). Just joking, Derbyshirarians, we loves you really!

And there's virtually no background noise at all which helps build a tense atmosphere. The village has a claustrophobic feel to it, but whether this was down to budgetary reasons or a deliberate attempt to create a claustrophobic environment, we can't be sure. Either way, it feels like there's no way out for the villagers or Mrs Clemson.


The village - despite having modern amenities - still feels like a throwback to a bygone era and this is matched in the beliefs of its inhabitants. We have to admit, their suspicions and actions are so ludicrous, that we had to laugh out loud a few times.

We wouldn't be surprised to find out that Murrain had some type of influence on The League of Gentlemen as it is, at times, grotesque and ridiculous.

The story gets off to a slowish start, but once Crich and Beeley's different worldviews come to the fore, things begin to pick up. Kneale's writing - particularly his dialogue - really begins to shine with the introduction of Mrs Clemson.

A frighteningly good character, Mrs Clemson inhabits a world even more forgotten than the rest of the village. The lack of anything remotely modern in her hovel of a home highlights just how isolated she has become. At first, though, there's sympathy for her as a victim of Beeley's rabid imagination.

However, once Crich scratches at her surface, her tortured soul is released and even Crich's immaculate hair becomes a bit ruffled. Una Brandon Jones delivers a spine tingling rant about missing out on motherhood which reveals Mrs Clemson's delicate mental state. It's a shame that, despite having a long acting career, she never really rose above minor roles.

The play finishes on an ambiguous note which leaves both Crich and the viewer beginning to doubt accepted science, but also praying it will come up with an answer. It's a nice touch rather than finishing on Mrs Clemson taking to a broomstick and flying into the night sky.

Final Thoughts

Our only real criticism is that it feels rather short - another half hour could have given a bit more depth to the characters and a few more plot twists. It may not hit the heights of, say, The Wicker Man, but it's got enough psychological clout to devote putting an hour aside one night to watch.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Running Scared


A little over twenty years ago, we took a walk through Woolwich foot tunnel with our father. We've never been back since, but we've always found it a rather haunting memory. The never ending length - tough work at 8 years old - accompanied by the gloomy lighting and the knowledge that the murky River Thames was above rather disturbed us. The thought of being chased down it by some type of madman was the stuff of nightmares. Oddly, just a few years previous, a young girl had been chased down it by an East End villain in Running Scared.

Genre: Childrens
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 15/01/1985 - 19/02/1986



Paula Prescott (Julia Millbank) has the usual struggles of any girl in mid 80s Britain - boys and finding space for Wham posters on her wall. However, she also has to deal with an East End villain by the name of Charlie Elkin (Christopher Ellison) - a keen golfer and 'respectable' club owner.

The reason for this set-to between the pair is that Paula's late grandfather (Fred Bryant) has hidden a vital piece of evidence - one half of a pair of spectacles - that could put Elkin behind bars for many years to come, much to the pleasure of D.I. McNeill (James Cosmo).

Just before he passes away, Paula's grandfather advises her that the location of the evidence can be found via an old musical box - the chase is then on to deciper the secrets of the box. Caught up in the maelstrom are Paula's family and her sikh friend, Narinder (Amarjit Dhillon) whose family are being terrorised by Elkin's gang.


Running Scared was a six part series which aired in early 1986 and was part of the children's programming. The show was the brainchild of then writer/headteacher Bernard Ashley who had - and still to this day has - a nice line of gritty books for children going.

One thing that Bernard set out to do with the serial was to highlight the lives of Sikh's - a bustling part of the East London community, but perhaps not so well known by many Britons.

All filming took place on location around various areas of East London and directing duties were taken on by Marilyn Fox who had worked on Jackanory and several other children's series in the preceding years.  

Running Scared was a self contained, one off series, so there were no further adventures for Paula and her family. Shortly after the series was finished, Bernard released a novelisation of the series.

An interesting note to make is that the series was quite notable in having a recently released Kate Bush single 'Running Up that Hill' as the main theme tune.


Curious British Telly only became aware of Running Scared whilst searching through YouTube for some Childrens BBC footage from 1986. As is often the case, this unexpected discovery was more than worthy of our attention.

Considering it's a children's show, there's a lot of grit in Running Scared - taking in guns and violence throughout. Never once does it pander to the young audience - the bad guys are portrayed as ruthless and quite willing to kill a young girl for their own ends. Grange Hill was renowned for taking risks, but these elements were usually sprinkled lightly over 20 episode series'.

Running Scared certainly pulls no punches.


Bernard Ashley weaves together a well crafted story which touches on themes of family, friendship, honesty and racism - never overstating these themes, but putting them across subtly. The reveal of how the music box holds the key to discovering the missing glasses is also a masterstroke. In fact, the mystery of how the music box would save the day kept us thoroughly hooked.

British child acting can be a very fickle beast and back in the 80s even the adult acting - see Doctor Who - was below par. Luckily, Running Scared put together a pretty good cast. Simon Adams - who plays Brian Butler - and Julia Millbank both put in great performances which leads you to assume they went on to have careers in The Bill or Eastenders. Sadly, they only pursued acting for a few more years.

Christopher Ellison - who was at this point only an occasional character in The Bill - was pretty much born to play East End ne'er do wells, so fits into the story just right - although his opening scene does seem a little flat. Also putting in a good performance is the attractive Hetty Baynes as Leila who plays Elkin's moll - perhaps a nastier piece of work than Elkin.

It was nice to see James Cosmo again (last featured in our blog on The Nightmare Man) and he puts in a likable performance - more screen time would have been nice, but the police very much take a back seat in this story.


We can't recommend Running Scared highly enough. It's a mature show for children which respects their intelligence and never sags.

It's a shame that children's television has changed so much over the years that the 12 - 16 age bracket don't seem to be catered for anymore. There's Hollyoaks, of course, but that's perhaps the lone outlet and that's more the mid teens to early 20s age bracket.

Therefore, we suggest you head over to YouTube and see what all the fuss is about. In the meantime, Curious British Telly plans to head back to Woolwich and tackle the foot tunnel once more.

INTERVIEW

Bernard Ashley was kind enough to take a few moments to chat about his life and work on Running Scared.

CBT: Hello, Bernard! Many thanks for taking time out of your no doubt busy schedule to chat with us about Running Scared. What are you currently working on? 

Bernard: I’m currently writing a book for Orchard (Hachette) set in World War One, to be published in 2014 to coincide with the commemoration of the war’s start in August 1914. 

I believe you started off in the teaching profession – serving 30 years as a headmaster. Part of this teaching career overlapped with your developing career as an author. How easy did you find it to combine the two?

I began teaching in September 1957. Seeing the need for some simple reading material for older juniors who were failing in learning to read I wrote some tailored stories for my ‘special needs’ class. These were seen by an educational publisher visiting my school in Gravesend and taken back to his office (Allman and Son, the non-fiction arm of Mills and Boon). They started to be published in 1966. I’ve been a children’s writer ever since. My two worlds worked well together. As I developed into writing novels (‘The Trouble with Donovan Croft’ [OUP] in 1974 was the first) I was writing about what I knew for children I felt I knew in Newham.

Graham Greene describes writing as a way of escape: ‘Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation. Auden noted: “Man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep.”. Some evenings, after a bruising day at school, changing one word in a revision could send me to bed happy.

Several of the scenes in Running Scared are based in Woolwich, which is where you were born. Did your own background play any role in the inspiration for the serial or was there another muse at work?

When I was writing ‘Running Scared’ I was living, as I still do, in Charlton, a couple of streets away from where I was born in Woolwich. But the story’s main influence was from my job between 1971 and 1977 as head of a large three-decker multi-racial school in Newham, There was a strong Sikh community in the area, and we had a Sikh member of staff Riat Singh who became a friend. The ‘inspiration’ for the plot – if not for the themes in ‘Running Scared’ – was a musical box left to me by an aunt. As a writer of thrillers – which describes the genre of many children’s books – I explored ways in which I could use that musical box as a plot pivot.

Newham is just across the free ferry from Woolwich. I’ve known the ferry since a child, and with the drama of its churning water behind the paddles and the foot tunnel deep underneath its route, I wanted to use them in the serial, both had dramatic possibilities. Apart from some shooting at the Thames Barrier on the south side of the Thames there were no other south London locations as far as I know.

You’re well known for producing gritty work and Running Scared is no exception. Guns are waved about menacingly, teenage girls are threatened with drowning and Hetty Baynes struts about in a swimsuit, so just how hard was it to get this onto children’s television? And was there anything you weren’t allowed to show?

I wasn’t aware of any problem of getting ‘Running Scared’ on the screen. Under the overall management of Anna Home, head of BBC Children’s Television, I worked with Head of Drama Paul Stone throughout. Every couple of weeks I drove to BBC Elstree Studios (parked in what was the Grange Hill ‘playground’) and we took the story on. So far as I knew, at no point did anyone question what went on the screen. When Anna and Paul had commissioned me it was on the back of the sorts of books they knew I wrote.

My only slight disappointment was when I wanted Charlie Elkin to pursue his gentrification by joining an Essex hunt, but being shown-up there by one of his ‘heavies’. That would have been too expensive to film so he joined a golf club instead.

Running Scared has a number of strong themes running through the show such as friendship, family and honesty – all delivered effectively, by the way! How important did you feel it was to get children thinking about these themes?

I didn’t consciously set out to make young viewers aware of the serial’s themes of friendship, family, honesty, anti-racism or hypocrisy. They’re simply there in the story as part of the fabric. I was aware, though, that I wanted the greater viewing public to know more about the way of life of a minority element in British society, and to appreciate its values.

How smoothly did the production go and, looking back, was there anything you would have done differently with Running Scared?

From my point of view the production went very well. Once the final scripts were delivered, and Paul Stone, Marilyn Fox (director) and I had done a day’s location recce on both sides of the river (Thames Barrier, Woolwich Ferry, Green Street Newham, etc.) it was in their hands.

Marilyn invited me to the audition for the two young female leads at the BBC’s Acton rehearsal studios (what actors call ‘the Acton Hylton’!). She work-shopped forty or so girls, and I saw the directors’ dilemma. One Asian actress stood out, and one indigenous white girl. But they were of different heights, which would make two-shots difficult. So one was chosen and a match made with her for the next-best other party. I genuinely can’t remember which way round this was.


I went to the first read-through where Christopher Ellison looked at me and said, ‘I reckon you could play Charlie Elkin!’. Paul Stone allowed me to read out the stage directions.

I went to just one day’s shooting, of the final scenes at the Woolwich Ferry one Saturday morning. Marilyn Fox bravely held the north-bound ferry in the middle of the Thames for about fifteen minutes while she set up her final shot, of Paula Prescott (Julia Millbank) running off the boat (she was out there coming across on it). I don’t think anyone could have bettered what Paul Stone and Marilyn Fox (RIP) did with ‘Running Scared’.
 

Do you still keep in touch with any of the cast? And if so, how are they getting on?

I don’t have any contacts with any members of the cast, although I met Penny Morrell a few years ago at Marilyn Fox’s funeral. I’ve occasionally met Rani Singh who played Narinder’s mother at Voice of the Listener and Viewer events. My wife and I stayed good friends with Marilyn Fox until her death, and we both read at her funeral.

You’ve kept yourself very busy in the 25+ year period since Running Scared, so please give us a brief rundown of what you’ve been up to and what you’ve achieved.

Once the scripts for ‘Running Scared’ were delivered I set about writing the book of it to tie-in with the transmissions. I’m proud to say it was short-listed for the Carnegie Medal. I’ve written many novels for young people since (see my website www.bashley.com) as well as BBC Children’s serials ‘The Country Boy’ and ‘Dodgem’, which won a RTS award for the best children’s entertainment programme of its year (1993). I also co-wrote with my son Chris Ashley two ten-part series of a Granada production set in a primary school in Lancashire – ‘Three Seven Eleven’. My novel ‘Little Soldier’ was also shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, as well as featuring in exhibitions at the Imperial War Museums in London and Salford. When I finish writing my World War One book I have two further book projects lined up. Meanwhile, a new book, ‘Jack and the German Spy’ will be published by Troika in May this year.

Regarding ‘achievements’, I’ve been honoured with honorary doctorates in Education (University of Greenwich) and Letters (University of Leicester).

Before we go, I’d be very grateful to hear about your overall memories of the show.  

A strong memory of ‘Running Scared’ is of the triumphant moment when Marilyn Fox rang me to say that she’d persuaded Kate Bush to allow ‘Running up That Hill’ to be our theme.
I also remember the warmth I received from many Sikhs who thanked me for highlighting their society in a TV serial.
 

Bernard also went on to say...

Since 1995 when I retired from teaching I’ve been pitching ideas for children’s drama without success. The teenage slots have all gone, ITV has bowed out altogether, and BBC Children’s is interested only in the under-twelves. I’ve campaigned with Save Kids’ TV to highlight the need for UK teenagers from all backgrounds to see their own lives reflected on the screen, instead of being restricted to transatlantic output, good though some of that is. In any case, the days of long serial ‘film’ shoots on location (‘Running Scared’ was the first to use a digital camera like a 16mm camera) are over. It’s all studio-based with small casts, animation, and CGI. Besides, no one would show the content we did in any of my serials, or in the dramatization of my book ‘Break in the Sun’ (BBC) – which I didn’t script – that preceded it.

They’re all running scared!

We couldn't agree more, Bernard! Thank you very much for your time.

PHOTOS

Bernard Ashley is such a gent that he forwarded on some photos from the wrap party on the last day of filming. It took place in an East End nightclub which was supposed to be Charlie Elkins!

Bernard Ashley with Amarjit Dhillon and Paula Millbank
Bernard Ashley with Marilyn Fox and her partner.
Bernard Ashley with Simon Adams and Desmond McNamara


ARTICLES:

THE PERILS OF PAULA ~ Radio Times 11 - 17 January 1986

Schoolgirl Paula Prescott has to choose between betraying her family or her best friend in the new six-part thriller serial Running Sacred (Wednesday BBC1), which was shot entirely in London’s East End.


And 15-year old Julia Millbank, who plays Paula, says: ‘I just couldn’t believe how much alike we are in every way. When I read the scripts, I thought: “This is me!” Everything she does, I would do – and I would have made the same decision as Paula.


But Julia, who first showed a talent for acting when she played an old Cockney woman in a junior school play is not saying what it is!


Running Scared is written by Bernard Ashley, a master story-teller who’s at his best when his characters are caught up in tense situations – and the East End is his ‘home patch’.


Heroine Paula takes on a clever, brutal villain – one of the bosses of the London underworld of crime – after she discovers a vital clue which links him to an armed robbery. Her life is threatened, and Paula learns to her horror that one of her family is a member of the villain’s gang.


Her best friend, Narinder, also gets involved – she may be sent to India by her father, for her own safety, because the crime boss is threatening them as well.

Amarjit Dhillon, 15, from Southall, Middlesex, makes her TV debut as Narinder. She auditioned for the part after director Marilyn Fox saw her in a drama class in Featherstone High School in Southall.


‘The story is very realistic,’ she says. ‘The gangsters are running a protection racket, forcing local shopkeepers to give them money. We did the filming during the summer holidays last year – and Julia and I became good friends, just like the girls we play.’


Says Julia, who lives in Edmonton, north London: ‘Yes, we go on really well, and now that it’s over we write to each other. I’m waiting to see what my friends at school think of Running Scared. I bet they’ll pull my leg about it’.