Saturday 26 October 2013

Comrade Dad

Genre: Sitcom
Channel: BBC2
Transmission: 13/01/1986 - 24/02/1986

Communist Russia! Ah yes, those were the days! Gulags, famines and Stalin's wildly paranoid purges were just some of the delights waiting for people under the hammer and sickle. Communism obviously worked and, not only did it work, it was an absolute hoot. A real rib tickler in fact and, inevitably, a sitcom followed. Was it about a lowly peasant named Aleksei who wrestled bears for the Tsar's personal pleasure? No. It was about a middle aged chap called Reg living in London(grad) and in thrall to communism under the title Comrade Dad.

1989 saw Margaret Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II and Philip the Terrible being overthrown by the USSR and communism taking root in Great Britain or, as it was now known, USSR-GB. Fast forward 10 years and Reg Dudgeon (George Cole) eagerly hangs on every word of Chairman Hoskins - the figurehead of Communism in the USSR-GB. Reg and his family have adapted - as best they can - to the new regime. Rationing is commonplace and the humble beetroot is the staple of most meals along with a mug of steaming hot conker coffee, but you can get some carrot vodka on the sly. Reg's wife Treen (Barbara Ewing) finds herself working the night shift on railway lines and frustrated in the bedroom due to Reg's dedication to the regime.

Comrade Dad first emerged as a pilot episode which aired on 17th December 1984 on BBC2 at 8pm. The BBC were impressed enough and, perhaps due to George Cole's high profile at the time, commissioned a full series which was produced in-house. Filmed on a mixture of videotape and 16mm the 7 episode series began transmitting in January 1986. Writing the show was the duo of Ian Davidson and Peter Vincent who had, between them, written for Dave Allen, Dame Edna, The Two Ronnies, Ben Elton and Frankie Howerd. John Kilby was the director for Comrade Dad and came to the show having directed Hi-de-Hi!, It Ain't Half Hot Mum and Are You Being Served? Not surviving the pilot were Colette O'Neil as Treen Dudgeon and Anna Wing as Gran. Doris Hare took on the role of Gran in the series proper.

Growing up, Minder was a perennial fixture on Curious British Telly's gogglebox, so George Cole almost seemed like one of the family. Without communism, we would've missed out on the amazing post apocalyptic fiction of the 1970s and 80s. A mixture of these two was sure to impress, wasn't it?

The opening credits of Comrade Dad establish a fantastic premise: Russian guards marching across Trafalgar Square where Nelson has been toppled from his column and replaced with a red star. Britain has been invaded and placed under communist rule. Comedy is all about conflict and the potential for tension is immense. Sadly, Comrade Dad centered upon Reg - a man in thrall to his superiors. The viewer is, instead, subjected to mild farce as Reg strives to become a party member. Linear plots infest the series and only one episode stood out as interesting. In it, Reg, quite by accident, discovers a party of rich people living life to excess with champagne and fancy dress. The party line is that rich people have been done away with and it looks as though Reg is finally beginning to question the communist propaganda. Will this lead to lowly Reg Dudgeon smashing the system? No. Instead he remains besotted with the new regime and, well, *sighs*.

The humour... Oh dear. Comrade Dad failed to make us laugh once. The studio audience appear to be convulsing on the floor with laughter, but we're not sure what at. The jokes about eating beetroots, respecting beetroots and the wonder of beetroots are forced down our throats with a relentless regularity which made us gag. Funnily enough, we do love a bit of beetroot, but not here. One thing that did make us smirk throughout were the various background jokes plastered on billboards which took swipes at communism. It's just a shame these didn't translate into the dialogue.

The acting on show is of no great shakes, but George Cole, of course, stands head and shoulders above the rest. His speech patterns are quite remarkable. He manages to squeeze about a million words into one sentence, but always does it with such a fluid rhythm it doesn't sound forced. Many of the mannerisms found in Arthur Daley are on show, but Reg doesn't have a single crooked bone in his body - apart from sticking on some forbidden rock and roll records in one episode. As a result, he's a fairly two dimensional character with few nuances and quirks for George Cole to get much out of him.

We were disappointed by Comrade Dad as it could have been something so much more. George Cole was huge in the mid 80s as he battled with David Jason to see who would be crowned television's King Cockney, so Comrade Dad feels like a star vehicle for Mr Cole. The rest of the cast have reduced roles as a result, but the story of Reg Dudgeon isn't very engaging and the show suffers greatly for this. Conflict between Reg and the communist Regime would have been much more entertaining, but, perhaps due to 'Allo 'Allo! pulling this trick off, the writers found themselves rather handicapped. We found a few traces of nostalgia for the show online, but feel that it's relative obscurity is no surprise. Six of the seven episodes are available on YouTube and it's worth a punt if you're a fan of George Cole, but otherwise we'd say it's one to miss.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Tales from Fat Tulip’s Garden

Genre: Childrens
Channel: ITV
Transmission: May 1985 onwards and June 1987 onwards.

Everyone loves a story. In fact, without stories, there would be no television and, more distressingly, no Curious British Telly. We'll allow you a moment to go and hurl some Courvoisier down your throat to calm you after that peep into hell. Back? Good, so, stories, yes, they're very important. Particularly if you want to keep children entertained and, first and foremost, quiet for a bit. It doesn't always have to be a packed full of gurning child actors with an inability to read lines though. Sometimes the simplicity of an adult telling a story to camera is all that's needed. You're probably thinking that we're going to rattle on now about Jackanory. Well, we're not as we never watched it. We were far too busy enjoying Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden.

Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden saw Tony Robinson leaping, pouncing and strolling around a picturesque house and its gardens as he regaled the viewer with tales about Fat Tulip. A rather slow and dimwitted chap, Fat Tulip had his heart in the right place and would find himself on rather gentle tales such as getting frisbees down from trees, coping with a tortoise burrowing under his house and finding a missing key. Fat Tulip is joined on his adventures by his friend Thin Tim, the policeman Inspector Challenor and garden frogs Ernie and Sylv. It all sounds a rather placid affair, but the stories are driven with gusto by Tony Robinson who plays all the characters and semi-improvises the curious tales.

1985 was the year that Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden hit ITV's screens in a 4pm slot as part of CITV. The initial idea for the show came from characters that producer Debbie Gates' daughter had dreamt up - Fat Tulip literally being an obese tulip. Tony Robinson was inspired by these characters and also the lack of imaginative storytelling for children on our screens[1]. Something different and a little surreal was required, so he got writing.

The beautiful house featured in the series was known as Little Monkhams and was a residence in Woodford, London. In a deliciously delightful revelation, it turned out that the house chosen for the series was one that Tony Robinson had played in as a child[1]. Other scenes were filmed in Epping Forest which faced Little Monkhams. Sadly, Little Monkhams is no more after being destroyed in a fire in 2007. It was up for sale, at the time, for a cool £750,000. For a rather dedicated look at the ruins of Little Monkhams, check out the links section below.

Thirteen tales were produced by Central Television, but this was not the end of Fat Tulip and his odd adventures. Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden had proven popular with viewers and a repeat run followed in 1986. The success of this repeat run led to the commissioning of Fat Tulip Too, another 13 episode run. Fat Tulip Too differed from the original series as it saw Fat Tulip and his friends venturing out of Little Monkhams into exotic locations such as Leyton Swimming Baths. In between the two series there was a Christmas special. Sadly, the one run of Fat Tulip Too was the last that viewers would see of the series. A VHS of Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden was released at some point, but details on this release are scant.

Speaking many years later, Tony Robinson spoke about the show's demise, "The reason was, apparently, that children's television needed to make money, and the way it was able to make money was by secondary marketing of the images around the television programmes. Given that we worked in the imagination and all the images of these various characters were actually in the listener's head - that was the whole point of it - it was no longer particularly financially interesting to ITV."[1]. There were two books based upon the series which were released in 1985, but obviously made little financial impact given Robinson's comments. Thankfully, some bright spark decided that both series deserved a DVD release and all 27 episodes are now available as a 2-disc set.

Airing in our preschool days, Tales From Fat Tulip's Garden was something we watched way back, but the memories were fuzzy. We clearly remember watching it back in 1986 or 87 one afternoon at our cousin's house and it's hard to believe that was nearly three decades ago. The main things embedded in our memory were the big house and Tony Robinson's empassioned storytelling. Rewatching shows from our youth gets us particularly excited, so shining the spotlight on Fat Tulip and his friends was a no-brainer.

The show IS Tony Robinson. He brings so many facets to the table as a performer and a storyteller. The silly voices, the facial expressions and the seamless ability to go from manic to sedate in the blink of an eye mean you need nothing more than him on screen. If you read the scripts to the stories, you'd think little of them. They have a simple charm, but Tony Robinson creates a busy world packed full of strange characters.

Securing Little Monkhams was a good coup as it provides a calm, tranquil setting which juxtaposes nicely against the surreal adventures. Quite how Fat Tulip could afford it we're not sure as he seems more council flat than centuries old detatched house. We think that Fat Tulip Too lost a little of the series' charm by leaving Little Monkhams behind. Taking it out of this timeless world also has the effect of dating the show slightly which is a shame and takes away some of the magic. It would be interesting to find out quite what prompted this move as it would surely have kept costs down by sticking to one location.

Although Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden didn't have a projected lifespan akin to that of Jackanory, we feel it probably had a couple more series in it. Even if ITV didn't find it that commercial a venture, there was surely room for repeat runs in their lunchtime slots. Sadly, we will never understand the commissioning process for television channels. We imagine it's complicated with lots of forms to fill in and we'd rather be down the BFI Archive. A similar format featuring Tony Robinson arose in 1991 entitled Blood and Honey which saw Old Testament stories being retold with a slightly less biblical feel. For us, it lacked the charm of Fat Tulip's Garden and, also, we're absolute heathens.

In conclusion, we were glad we took the opportunity to catch up with Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden. It's easy to forget that Tony Robinson has had a career outside of Blackadder and Time Team, but Fat Tulip's is a good showcase of his skills as a performer. We really like the patchwork quilt effect of the atmosphere - it veers from manic, to mundane to surreal - and this is what marks it out from other similar shows. We were surprised that it got a DVD release as it's not the most well remembered children's show of the 80s, so ITV need to be given credit for that. Revisiting the show was well worth it and we recommend you take the time to familiarise yourself with it.


LINKS - A pilgrimage to the remains of Little Monkhams


We got in touch with Kevin Stoney to hear his memories about working on the theme tune for Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden:

Was it nearly 30 years ago?!! It's funny that of all the programmes I have composed music for, Fat Tulip is still the main programme people ask me about! I have noticed recently that a DVD of the TV series has been released too!

Debbie Gates the producer and creator of Fat Tulip's Garden, was passionate about producing imaginative programmes for children's television in a storytelling format. So with co-writer Tony Robinson, the concept of Fat Tulip's Garden was born.

Debbie and director Jeremy McCracken, wanted the music and graphics to reflect an edge to the series, so I created many squelchy and unusual sampling effects. These ended up in the main theme music and were also used for various character stings. Because you never visually saw the characters in each story, Tony (the narrator) had to describe and act out each character to camera. The musical stings for each character also played an important part to conjure up an image in the imaginations of the children watching it.

I remember having great fun working with the production team. It was a marvellous creative time!  I fondly remember the post-production team with film editor Peter Spenceley, being in stitches when I took in my strange musical compositions to represent each of Fat Tulip's characters!

I continued working with Debbie Gates when she went on to produce the next series - Fat Tulip Too. She also produced and co-wrote Revolting Animals, Jellyneck, and Gumtree - all with the same unique storytelling concept and quirky music by myself. 

We're eternally grateful for Kevin for giving us his time and more about his work can be found at