Saturday 22 March 2014

Galloping Galaxies

Genre: Childrens
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 01/10/1985 - 29/10/1985 & 21/11/1986 - 18/12/1986

"Great galloping galaxies!" is a piece of dialogue in the mathematical sociology novel 'Foundation' by Isaac Asimov. It's a gripping story about... uh... long division ASBOs? Maybe? Frankly, we're not too bothered as we aren't a damn retro book blog, we're a God damn retro telly blog! Much more gripping to us, and you, is the sci-fi comedy romp entitled Galloping Galaxies.

It's the year 2487 and the crew of the merchant spaceship Voyager are hurtling through space led by Captain Pettifer (Robert Swales). Making up his crew are First Office Morton (Paul Wilce) and Second Officer Elliott (James Mansfield). They're also aided and abetted by the ship's bog eyed computer SID aka Super Intelligent Deducer (Kenneth Williams).

Life in outer space is never easy and the crew experience troubles such as mistakenly beaming aboard Miss Appleby (Priscilla Morgan) from the 20th century. Trying to put a spanner in the crew's works are the robot pirates Paddy O'Twenty/Robot 20 (Matthew Sim) and Sean O'Seven/Robot 7 (Michael Deeks) who are put to task by their pirate chief Mick Murphy (Sean Caffrey/Niall Buggy).

Galloping Galaxies first warped into view with 5 episodes in 1985 and a second series followed in 1986 with another 5 tales of space adventures. These futuristic visions of space dystopia were dreamt up by Bob Block who was otherwise known as "that geezer behind Pardon My Genie and Rentaghost". Jeremy Swan - who had previously directed Rentaghost - was entrusted with recreating Block's vision for the BBC. A novelisation of the first series was released by Target in 1987 and the second series was due to follow in book form, but this never materialised. No commercial release of Galloping Galaxies has ever appeared. The first series was repeated between August - September 1987 and a repeat of the second series aired in the same slot a year later.

Galloping Galaxies was a year or so too early for us.  We were watching television in 1985, but were probably in bed when the show aired. Or refusing to eat greens. Until we have time travel technology we can't pinpoint our exact TV habits. Anyway, we first heard about the series during a Twitter love-in about forgotten shows. It appealed to us primarily as it's sci-fi and that it was one of Kenneth Williams' final roles.Anyway, episode two of series one is up on YouTube (just about watchable), but we didn't want to charge in halfcocked. To help get a handle on the show, we took a trip down to the BFI Archive to watch episode one first.

You know what? We really loved Galloping Galaxies. It's like some freewheeling cocktail expert has grabbed his cobbler shaker, chucked in a couple of shots of Douglas Adams, squeezed in a dash of Carry On and garnished with some terrible special effects. It's the vodka martini to our James Bond of retro telly investigation.

The gags are sharply written and neither condescending or childish - this is good as it means we don't feel ridiculous watching a kids show. Kenneth Williams' vocal strengths are used to their full potential and there's even room for some double entendres e.g. Morton starts rooting around in SID's circuitry prompting SID to cry "Oooh! Here, take your hands off my floppy discs!". A very British vein of humour runs throughout from Miss Appleby's middle class preoccupations to the foolish Irish robots. Bob Block - who is sadly no longer with us - gets a 21 cannon salute from us for his hilarious scripts.

Performances didn't disappoint and we were rather bemused that barely any of the cast went on to carve out a career. The performances of Robot 7 and Robot 20 are zingy affairs and they're surely the prototypes for Jedward - sadly, lessons were not learnt and their spiritual heirs continue to pop up on our screeens. Robert Swales puts in a commanding role as the suave Pettifer and the rest of his crew work well around him. It's a great cast which really lift it above other wooden fare from the same era.

The internal sets for are actually pretty good. They're simple, but colourful and haven't dated terribly. The special effects, on the other hand, appear to be stuck in the 1970s - namely Revenge of the Cybermen. What else, though, can you expect from a cash strapped children's department in the 80s? It's not going to be Blade Runner, but surely there must have been enough bits and pieces left over from Doctor Who to make the space scenes a bit more visually appealing.

We've only seen 2 episodes, so there's another 8 for us to watch and we already feel like we're going cold turkey. The only guaranteed fix for our addiction is a marathon viewing session at the BFI Archive. It's a rather expensive proposal though, so we fear we may end up resorting to petty crime to fund our habit. Of course, if anyone out there has access to any other episodes, then get in touch as we do have some moneys! In the mean time, we'll just have to dine on memories of a wonderfully pitched show packed full of laughs and decent performances.


You may be asking yourself what the original working title of Galloping Galaxies was, so why not read our interview with director, Jeremy Swan, to find out a bit more about the show!

CBT: Hello, Jeremy! Many thanks for sitting down for a quick chat with us! What exactly are you up to these days?

Jeremy: These days I work mainly as a painter (pictures, not walls), I write plays, one has been  performed – and within living memory I’ve directed a couple of episodes of SOOTY for ITV.

You’ve worked on iconic shows such as Sooty, Rentaghost and Jackanory, but how did you get started in in the world of children’s television?

I started in Children’s Television as the AFM (Assistant Floor Manager) on JACKANORY in 1967 and eventually became a director of the programme.

We mentioned Rentaghost just now, which was also a Bob Block show, so is this what led to you getting involved in Galloping Galaxies?

Bob also wrote GRANDAD, starring Clive Dunn, which I produced and directed; and the BBC greatly appreciated his unique talent – so any new writings from him were encouraged. As with RENTAGHOST and GRANDAD, his latest scripts came into my section of the department’s output – I had inherited this position from Paul Ciani – a producer who had gone on a BBC attachment to Singapore.     

What can you remember about the initial stages in getting Galloping Galaxies off the ground?

Originally it was called WORLD’S APART. I thought that title was too documentary and a bit suggestive of some sinister late-night probe on BBC2 ……. So I came up with GALLOPING GALAXIES! The initial scripts lacked a central core and, after a visit to 2001, came up with a computer character. Thank you, Stanley Kubrick! I’d done a lot of JACKANORYS with Kenneth Williams so SID was a great excuse to work together again.  And Miss Appleby was played by Priscilla Morgan – Mrs Clive Dunn

We were really impressed with the quality of the scripts and performances, but did everything run just as smoothly behind the camera?

Thank you – yes, it did.

The BBC were notoriously disapproving of children’s sci-fi in the mid-80s with Doctor Who going on hiatus and The Tripods third series being cancelled. Did Galloping Galaxies ever encounter any issues with the powers that be?


Kenneth Williams has been described as an incredibly talented individual, but also a very complex and troubled soul. How did you find working with him?

Terrific – and huge fun. The laughs!!

Were two series always the plan or was there a desire to go on and do more?

No. Two series were fine.

One question we kept coming across when researching the show was “Will it ever get a DVD release?!” Have you ever heard any murmurings on the subject?


Finally, when Jedward burst onto the scene a few years back, did you think that Robot 7 and Robot 20 had been resurrected?

I hadn't... but now that you mention it...

Thanks for your time, Jeremy!


Radio Times 28th September - 4th October 1985 pg.86

Glasgow Herald - 19th December 1986 pg.32

Saturday 15 March 2014

Pinny's House

Genre: Childrens
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 1986

Dolls houses were always a source of fascination to us as a youngster starting out in the world. They were refined little buildings with both feet planted firmly in the past. They were a far cry from the gloomy, angst ridden rock landscape of Castle Grayskull that, as a boy, we were expected to play with. Not to say that we hated He-Man, we loved it and we loved Castle Grayskull, but there was something terribly quaint and English about a dolls house. Sadly, social expectations meant we could never get close to one for long. Perhaps that's why we loved Pinny's House.

Pinny is small wooden doll, so small that she's comparable to a pin, hence the imaginative name. Her abode is a rather delicate china house which sits atop a shelf beside a model sailing ship. Manning the ship is Victor, a pin-sized sailor, who's found himself stranded on land, far away from the high seas. Pinny and Victor are inspired to embark on fantastic journeys, but being trapped high up on a shelf means life is rather dull. Luckily, help is literally at hand via Tom and Jo - two youngsters who grab hold of the dolls and whisk them away to various locations around the house.

Pinny's House was the last production by the legendary Smallfilms team headed by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. This final hurrah for Smallfilms first aired in October 1986 on BBC1 and was repeated several times throughout the 80s. Episodes were 5 minutes long and 13 episodes were produced. Matilda Thorpe provided the calming narration whilst the talented hand of Peter Firmin wrote and animated the stories. Stuck in the recording studio drinking Skol were the Welsh folk band Ar Log. No commercial release of Pinny's House has emerged, but a short clip surfaced on a CD-ROM which accompanied Oliver Postgate's autobiography 'Seeing Things'. Curiously, a series of books emerged before the series aired which introduced the world to Pinny's House. The series was regularly repeated on BBC1 and BBC2 as late as 1993.

1986 saw us beginning to understand that consolidating memories about television would come in useful around 25 years later. Pinny's House was lucky enough to catch our inquisitive glare and we never forgot it. Although we didn't forget it, we have to admit we frequently got it mixed up with Tottie which we must have watched at some point too. We could remember that Pinny's House was an animated adventure about a little doll, but that was about it. Searching the internet we found comments here and there, the odd section on a website and, praise the Lord, a complete episode on YouTube.

Pinny's House uses that childhood fantasy of 'toys coming to life and mucking about' and uses it as it's central theme. It had been done before Pinny's House and it'll be done again and again in the future. It stokes the fires of imagination in a child and still keeps them under the impression that there's a little magic in the world.

Like most of Smallfilm's back catalogue, the yarns spun in Pinny's House are gentle tales which won't have you sat on the edge of your chair. Neither will you fall asleep either. There's a lot of mild adventure going on as Pinny and Victor explore the unknown realms of the house. It's something the target audience could also relate too, so draws children in as well.

Our favourite aspect of Pinny's House is the wonderful folk soundtrack provided by Ar Log. It's a multi-layered soundscape composed with a mixture of fiddles, accordions, harps and clarinets amongst other instruments associated with bearded folk musicians. Arcade Fire would absolutely love the frenetic sea shanty mournful folk sounds. We'll certainly be investigating Ar Log a little further.

Pinny's House isn't hailed as a classic of children's TV and is mostly forgotten, but it's got merits and we would love to view more adventures of that little wooden doll.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Bodily Harm

Genre: Drama
Channel: Channel 4
Transmission: 14/10/2002 - 15/10/2002

The human brain is a wonderful piece of engineering which allows us to walk, talk and blog about dusty old TV shows. At Curious British Telly we've had a brain since we were a young child, but you may not have got one til you were a little older. However, as well as being wonderful, they're also fragile little critters. One psychological knock too many and the brain starts to malfunction. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as grabbing the Yellow Pages and getting a brain repair man out. Months, even years, of psychological treatment may be necessary. Ironically, people get quite anxious about discussing mental health issues and try to ignore it, but TV is a little braver and the example we'll look at today is Bodily Harm.

Mitchel Greenfield (Timothy Spall) is a contented chap living in suburbia who commutes to London to work as a stockbroker. At home he devotes his life to his wife Mandy (Lesley Manville) and daughter Nic (Sadie Thompson). His elderly parents, Sidney (George Cole) and Sheila (Annette Crosbie) are the final targets in the cross hairs of his attentive loving. Everything appears fine and dandy on the surface, but cracks are beginning to form in his life and mental state. On the eve of his 44th birthday, Mitchel loses the job, discovers his wife being unfaithful and learns that his father is dying of cancer. It's all too much for Mitchel and, before he knows it, he's threatening people with golf clubs and babbling manically at strangers.

Bodily Harm was a two part drama which aired on Channel 4 in October 2002. A production by the busy bods of Tiger Aspect, it was written by Tony Grounds - a man once described as "the best TV writer of his generation". Tony has written for some of the cream of British TV, gave Peter Cook his final dramatic TV role and also found time to run the London Marathon with Lee Evans. A busy man indeed. Behind the camera and demanding extra frothy lattes was Joe Wright - another busy man - who went on to direct Atonement, Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina. 

We were busy searching through a mammoth list of rare TV shows when we first came across Bodily Harm. The main thing that caught our eye was the cast list. Packed full of heavyweight names, we couldn't resist grabbing it by the collar and casting our curious eye over it. A copy of the series hasn't made its way to YouTube, but we managed to track down a website selling a DVD copy. Money paid, it was swiftly despatched and in front of our eyes in no time.

As we said earlier, the cast listing really caught our eye and stopped it wandering towards the drinks cabinet. Timothy Spall has built up a magnificent career over the years, one that his son Rafe is busy emulating. His descent into a manic depression is perhaps a little rushed here, but that's more to do with the length of the piece. Eyes blazing wildly, he really captures a man in meltdown with his frenzied, unpredictable behaviour. Annette Crosby tackles a challenging role and manages to capture the delicate love of a mother and wife perfectly. The real standout, though, is George Cole as Sidney. Well known and respected as a comedy actor, we weren't aware of just how versatile he is. His complex character runs through the whole gamut of human emotion - bitterness, selfishness, love, arousal, ternderness, anger and fear. The rest of the cast didn't particularly impress us, but they're very much bit part players in the story. Eddie Marsan was a highlight, though, as Mitchel's pal Bernard Chalk.

Our main criticism of Bodily Harm is that it feels, at times, a little bit drama by numbers. We didn't really feel anything new was brought to the table in terms of Mitchel's life falling apart. The first episode, in particular, seemed full of half formed characters such as Mandy and Nic - consequently, we didn't really care what happened to them. However, the second episode really picks up when they begin concentrating on Sidney's last days. The double suicide scene at the start of episode two is truly heartbreaking and packed full of touching dialogue. Family sores are reopened - although the strand regarding Mitchel's brother is never realised - and the finale is a tense, mournful affair.

Bodily Harm, then, is a little frustrating to our television shaped eyes. There's great, great acting on display, but a few shortfalls in the first episode. If episode one had been stronger then it would have been a very strong pair of episodes. As it is, it's one ok-ish episode and one great. We probably wouldn't watch Bodily Harm again, but we would recommend it for a watch due to the acting and, in particular, George Cole.