Sunday 28 September 2014

Lazarus and Dingwall

Genre: Comedy
Channel: BBC2
Transmission: 01/02/1991 - 08/03/1991

It only takes a cursory look at the Saturday night television listings to see that crime is all too prevalent in the modern age. The horror of these heinous Ant and Dec fuelled misdemeanours makes you hark back to a simpler era such as the early 90s. Ah yes, a wonderful, more innocent age where you could leave your TV on with nothing more than the threat of PJ and Duncan yapping away about the theft of Geoff's beard by Denton Burn. Look a little closer, though, and you'll realise that this period had more than its fair share of televisual crime - see the front row of any Top of the Pops audience circa 1991. Luckily, for the viewing public, on hand in this particular day and age were the crime fighting duo of Lazarus and Dingwall.

Lazarus (Stephen Frost) and Dingwall (Mark Arden) are policeman working together for the Really Serious Crimes Squad. Their struggles with the criminal underbelly include such intriguing cases as investigating the murder of a stuntman, trying to track down the pushers of a shipment of cocaine that's turned up in a batch of Colombian cod and a bizarre art installation involving a corpse. Heading up the Really Serious Crimes Squad is the microwave meal loving, part time cinema attendant Chief (Peter Bland). Other colleagues include department git Gary Bateman (Jeremy Gittins), Dingwall's desk based love interest of Beverley Armitage (Race Davies) and two incredibly boring plain clothes detectives (Simon Godley and Neil Mullarkey).

Six episodes of Lazarus and Dingwall aired on Friday evenings in early 1991 on BBC2. The series was written by Kim Fuller (brother of pop impresario Simon) and Victoria Pile along with contributions from Frost and Arden. Comedy legend Geoff Posner directed the pilot episode whilst the rest of the series was directed by the equally legendary Bob Spiers. The series was repeated in the very early years of UK Gold, but hasn't been seen since. No official DVD release has ever emerged, but a DVD copy of the UK Gold broadcasts is available on the black market.

Despite being well into our appreciation of British comedy by 1991, Lazarus and Dingwall completely passed us by at the time. Although we hadn't been exposed to much Frost and Arden we always enjoyed their brief appearances in Blackadder, The Young Ones, the Carling Black Label adverts and The Estate Agents. With a well honed chemistry between the pair we were curious about how they would fare at the forefront of a show. YouTube yielded little more than a few brief clips and the titles, but one of our shady contacts managed to get the series in our grubby hands fairly sharpish.

The humour's great. Very deadpan, packed full of visual gags and a blatant graduate from the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker school of comedy. As with Police Squad, this type of humour sometimes gets in the way of any real emotional depth, but it's so playfully silly that we don't care. Every episode bristles with sharp, irreverent dialogue that helps matters unfold at a brisk pace.

The writers don't fare so well with the plots. They're given sublimely ridiculous frameworks to hang on, but at times it seems the writers are concentrating more on the gags than the story. It's a minor quibble for us, but some more advanced plots and well integrated subplots really could have pushed the series further. You only have to take a look at how well A Touch of Cloth, although slightly different in format, pulls off gag after gag coupled with strong, dramatic plots.

As mentioned previously, Frost and Arden are very comfortable playing off each other and the chemistry is refined to perfection. The deadpan nature of the scripts plays to their strengths, so their performances are more than enough to carry the weight of the show. Lazarus and Dingwall was Frost and Arden's big chance to start carving out starring roles for the duo, but sadly this was the only show they ever helmed. The rest of the acting on show is ok, you know, nothing too spectacular, but there's some nice turns from Lionel Blair and Stanley Unwin to liven up proceedings.

Lazarus and Dingwall is a light, knockabout gag packed show which deserved a second series. There was definitely more mileage in the characters and, perhaps, a second series could have mined their back stories further. As it is, we're left with a show that, whilst not taking you on an emotional rollercoaster, will remind that sometimes a bit of silliness is all we need.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

The Children of Green Knowe

Genre: Childrens
Channel: BBC1
Transmission: 26/11/1986 - 17/12/1986

The last thing that we wanted to do as a child was be confronted by several ghosts. A box full of He-Man figures, yes, a gang of ghostly children - all slaughtered by the Great Plague - definitely not. However, some kids are pretty lonely. Take, for example, that kid, there's one in every town, whose only friend is a half eaten stickle brick. That kid would kill for some real friends, even if they are a little corpsey. Yep, that kid is pretty easy when it comes to friends. Even if, for good measure, there's an age old curse attached as in The Children of Green Knowe.

In a boarding school somewhere in post-war Britain, the ridiculously named Toseland (Alec Christie) or, as he prefers to be known, Tolly (little better), has receive word from his Father that he will be spending Christmas with his maternal Great Grandmother known as Mrs Oldknow (Daphne Oxenford). Tolly's festive home will be the ancient Oldknow family home of Green Knowe. Within the confines of Green Knowe, Mrs Oldknow regales Tolly with the stories of years past. Oh and, after laborious scenes of hide-and-seek, he makes pals with his long dead relations Toby (Graham McGrath), Alexander (James Trevelyan) and Linnet (Polly Maberly). It's not all fun and games, though, as the ancient tree-spirit Green Noah is intent on getting his branches on Tolly.

Based on the Green Knowe series of books by Lucy M Boston, The Children of Green Knowe was dramatised by John Stadelman for BBC1 in 1986. The serial consisted of four episodes and aired on Wednesdays at 5pm as part of the CBBC schedule. Colin Cant, who had previously directed The Machine Gunners and Grange Hill, directed the show whilst the soundtrack was provided by Peter Howell of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. No commercial release has ever emerged, but the series has been uploaded to YouTube.

The Children of Green Knowe is in the same vein as other BBC telefantasies The Box of Delights and The Chronicles of Narnia, so you know what to expect - well spoken children, a bit of magic, some horror and a wonderful soundtrack. The Children of Green Knowe isn't as well remembered as the aforementioned shows, but it certainly gives a good stab at staking its claim.

Alec Christie and Daphne Oxenford deliver good performances and Christie, in particular, manages to avoid the horror of 1980s wooden acting. The chemistry between the two is also very convincing which makes for an engaging piece of television. George Malpas, who pops up intermittently as the groundskeeper Boggis, inhabits his character well with all the nuances of a man skilled in the ways of the country. The spectral trio of Tolly's ancestors aren't particularly convincing, but Polly Maberly has gone on to carve out a successful career on the small screen - proof that actors continue developing long after 9 years of age.

Now, the main problem we had was the story. Granted, there are some wonderful scenes created by the inter-character dimensions and, sure, there's some interesting concepts of stability, ancestry and nature. Further yet, there's also some creepy scenes as Tolly searches frantically for answers within the house and the grounds. But, and this is a big but, there's barely any plot there. Granny tells a story, Tolly considers the story and then runs round whining that his ghostly chums won't show themselves. The only antagonist present is Green Noah and he barely makes his presence felt until the last episode. The serial is relying on material from the book, but a bit of artistic license to create more jeopardy for Tolly could have done wonders.

So, due to the lack of true adventure and battle, we're going to label The Children of Green Knowe as a missed opportunity. However, don't go thinking that this isn't a show worth revisiting. At four episodes long it manages to avoid boring the viewer inside out - we struggle to see how they could have stretched it any further, so kudos for the production team on that. The BBC always do a great job with period dramas and The Children of Green Knowe is no exception. It conjures up a show which is eminently watchable, cosy and just perfect for a quick spot of festive viewing. And it's certainly more entertaining than a half eaten stickle brick.

Friday 12 September 2014

Round the Bend

Genre: Childrens
Channel: ITV
Transmission: 1989 - 1991

Little Johnny burrows into his nose with an eager finger as his other hand rummages deep into his pocket for Black Jacks engrained with dirt. His little sister, Jessica, enters and says "Oh, Johnny, you're such a frightful little urchin!". Johnny, finger still in nose and hand just millimetres away from the Black Jacks, burps in Jessica's face and shouts "EAT THAT BUM FACE!".

Howling in disgust, Jessica runs back to the sanctity of Polly Pocket and her Jason Donovan posters. Johnny is beside himself with laughter, so much so that he almost misses the ominous tones of his favourite TV show starting up. With Black Jacks, and goodness knows what else, in his gob he sits down to watch Round the Bend.

Deep Down in the Sewer

Doc Croc - yep, he's a crocodile - helmed Round the Bend which took pop shots at the inanity of magazine shows for children. Eschewing the bright and cheerful sets of Going Live et al, Round the Bend settled for a dirty, dank and dingy sewer! This is where Doc Croc found himself introducing a myriad of absurd and crude animations which teach children that they have a right to mock the world they live in.

Move over boring old He-Man and, instead, welcome in 'Wee-Man and the Masters of the Looniverse'! Assisting Doc Croc in running the show were a group of rats - posh reporter Jemimah Wellington-Green, optimistic and terrible comedian Vaudville Vince Vermin and, finally, whipping boy of Doc Croc, the artist Luchetti Bruchetti.

The Story behind the Bend

To find out how Round the Bend oozed it's way onto our screens we have to head back to the mid 1980s where Patrick Gallagher, Tony Husband and Mark Rodgers were trying to come up with a solution for a taxing problem. Viz had been a wild success for sniggering adults who were nothing but big kids at heart.

However, 'actual bona fide as per the trade description act' kids couldn't get hold of this top shelf laugh-a-thon for love nor money. Why the hell should they be missing out?! Well, apparently, the language was corruptive and sexual content was never far from it's pages or something whiny like that.

So, the only solution was to introduce a kid friendly version which trod the right side of offensive. And, hence, Oink was born! An anarchic comic far removed from the Beano with comic strips including Tom Thug, Horace 'Ugly Face' Watkins and Pete and his Pimple. After 68 controversial issues, Oink came to an end, but Messrs Gallagher, Husband and Rodgers were now ready to take their vision of adult humour for the kids to television.

Produced by Hat Trick productions for Yorkshire Television, Round the Bend managed 18 episodes over three series between 1989 - 1991. The puppets featured in the show were provided by the Spitting Image team and this is most evident in the three heads mounted on the wall.

Patrick Gallagher designed the puppets, sets, animations and anything else he could get his creative hands on. Along with Tony Husband and Mark Rodgers, Gallagher also helped to write the show. John Henderson - fresh from directing Spitting Image - took charge of the directing duties whilst the music was provided by Big George, Phillip Pope and Simon Franglen. Aardman Animations, who were beginning to gather steam with the launch of Wallace and Gromit, created animations for the show along with Catalyst Pictures.

Repeats followed on Nickelodeon, The Childrens Channel and Channel 4 (surely its spritual home), so the show found itself in high demand. It's success led to the ultimate honour of a quick cash in computer game adaptation. Released across a variety of formats in 1991 by Zeppelin Games, a quick look on YouTube shows the game to be a fiendishly difficult platformer. Frankly, if you can go 30 seconds without dying in it, then we doff our cap to you.

Re-venturing Round the Bend

Do we remember Round the Bend? Did Michael Barrymore star in Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog?! We loved Round the Bend! We tuned in religiously each week to laugh ourselves silly - Wee-Man instead of He-Man? We were literally rolling on the floor laughing.

The manic nature of the show and lack of anything serious appealed to our inner lunatic and we couldn't get enough. Asking our peers about the show, it seems to be one that some remember, but just as many don't. It was ripe for investigation by our curious eyes and, luckily, every single episode is up on Tony Husband's website.

So, how was it? Well it was good. It was funny. There are moments of utterly surreal genius such as 'False Teeth from the Stars' which is an amazing animation to be showing kids. It's a great way of exposing them to a sophisticated form of comedy without having to explain why it makes them convulse with laughter.

It's not just genres that come under Round the Bend's mocking glare either, individuals are targeted such as David Coleman and John Craven who are mercilessly lampooned. The viciously keen streak of satire and parody which rampages through Round the Bend marks it out as a unique slice of kids TV.

Some of the comic strips don't hit the target, so it's not hit after hit. However, the animations are all pretty nippy, so if you're not enjoying something you can rest assured that more laughs are just around the corner.

Doc Croc is a great host for the show and should be as well remembered as other animal hosts of the era e.g. Nobby the Sheep and Roland Rat, but perhaps his propensity for violence made him a bit too dangerous for some. We weren't overawed with the rat characters, so much, as Vince and Luchetti came across more irritating than entertaining, but Jemimah was a bit more interesting as her falls from grace were always satisfying.

Round the Bend is a show close to our hearts and it's a testament to the show's inspiring brilliance and manic energy that we remember it so vividly. Sure, some of the references are pretty dating and would leave kids of today scratching at their Joey Essex styled heads, but there's still plenty of timeless material in it. We still love it now and a part of us will forever be little Johnny trying to shock, outrage and defy people for nothing but our own amusement.