Saturday 22 October 2022

10 Years of Curious British Telly

Yes, it was 10 years ago today that the very first post on Curious British Telly was launched into the digital stratosphere. 10 whole years of my life dedicated to unearthing curiosities from the dark, dusty corners of our memories and the archives. And today is the day I end it all. Goodbye, it's been fun, but it's time to move on.

I'm joking, of course, because what else am I going to do? Join a gym? Bring up a child? Serve the community? Well, actually, I do all of them as well, but no one comes to Curious British Telly for that sort of rhubarb. No, they're here because of a love of British television and, given the occasion, I thought it was a good time to take a look back at the Curious British Telly story.

Curious British Telly started, as with most endeavours, to solve a problem. It was hardly a pressing problem, but to me it was a fly which just had to be removed from the ointment. You see, there were several television programmes I remembered enjoying as a young child, but I couldn't remember what they were called. My friends, of course, thought I was mad. After all, a programme which featured a dog in a smoking jacket drawing cartoons? Madness, absolute madness. And this was something which had bothered me for years, all throughout the pre-internet period of the 1990s.

With the arrival of the internet, however, things were surely about to change. With the riches of the information superhighway at my fingertips, it was time for me to finally pin down the name of that spoof Indiana Jones series and find out a bit more about that programme called Cat and Dog. But, no, there was nothing to be found, just lots of chat about The Flumps and Bagpuss, which is no bad thing in itself but I wanted more.

Fast forward a few years to 2009 and, on a whim, I decided to buy a 1986 copy of the Radio Times off Ebay. Partly, I thought it would be something fun to take into the office for a quick spot of reminiscing (and, yes, they LOVED it), but I was also interested in seeing what was on while I was tottering around as a pre-schooler. Anyway, it turned up and, lo and behold, it only featured a bloody article on a new kids show called Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog about a dog in a smoking jacket drawing cartoons. And, hidden in the lunchtime listings, was a programme called Mop and Smiff which turned out to be the true title of Cat and Dog.

"Fantastic!" I thought as I rushed online to exchange these revelations with Google for a deep dive into these programmes history. But there were was barely anything to be found. A few pictures of a pilot episode of Sebastian the Incredible Drawing Dog and some half mentions of Mop and Smiff. I could have worked harder at finding out more, but it was the late 00s and I was too interested in getting drunk. Therefore, I did absolutely nothing else with the project, if you could even call it that, for three years.

But, eventually, I pulled my finger out and decided to start a blog about these enigmatic shows. My initial idea was to put up the few fragments of information I had and see if anyone else came forwards. I was, I suppose, hoping that Curious British Telly would become some sort of arena where people would exchange resources to help build a clearer picture of these forgotten programmes. The main stumbling block, however, is that word 'forgotten' as it means barely anyone remembers a lot of the shows featured on these pages. But, over the years, a handful of people have got in touch with resources for which I'm eternally grateful.

Progress, in those early days, was slow as I had little idea of how to go about exploring British television's hidden past. I decided it was important to focus on more than just the handful of shows I vaguely remembered. But, again, where did I start? This was in the pre-BBC Genome days, so my earliest attempts at exploring ancient schedules involved me buying old issues of the Radio Times and TV Times off Ebay. There was often little to be gleaned, though, and it was a rather expensive process. Thankfully, Genome soon surfaced and, for BBC shows at least, I could find out a little more.

My main problem, however, was viewing these old, forgotten programmes. If they weren't available on DVD or on YouTube, I was knackered. Surely, though, there must be somewhere I could go and watch these elusive shows. And, eventually, I found my saviour in the form of the BFI. Thanks to the availability of their 'research viewing service', I was finally able, for a fee, to go and get to grips with all manner of programmes which had previously been out of reach. It's very rare that I'll write in-depth about something I haven't managed to view as, well, it seems rather redundant to postulate on such shaky foundations.

Around the time the blog started, I decided to do the trendy thing and sign up for a Twitter account to accompany the blog. A decade on and it's probably the thing I'm best known for. The early days on Twitter, though, were slow, very slow. After a year, I think I had around 25 or so followers and it was rather dispiriting to be howling into the abyss. But, thanks to the occasional retweet, I soon had a few hundred followers. Gradually, my numbers went up and, by 2016, I I had around 2,000 followers.

The big jump in Twitter popularity came between 2018 - 2020, a period where, thanks to a number of mashups and memes, I went low-level viral on several occasions. It's always exhilarating to have complete strangers declaring you a genius, and when you start getting followed by people you've grown up watching on TV, it's absolutely mind-boggling. But, you know, it doesn't elevate me to anything special and it's not life changing to have 50,000 followers, it's just ridiculously good fun. And, of course, I've met some absolutely cracking people on there, so it's all good.

Going back to the blog, those first few years were certainly a matter of trial and error. My writing, most obviously, was abysmal. I'd never written any articles before and, as you'd expect, my early attempts lacked focus, crowbarred in tediously superfluous production details and completely missed the point of what I was watching. A decade on and, whilst I'm far from a professional writer, my writing ability has certainly improved. I may not possess the elegance or inventiveness of many other writers in my niche, but I do strive to provide more in other ways, particularly interviews.

I started conducting interviews early on, mostly as I've always been a stickler for detail and fact. And who better to provide it on television shows than those who were making them. Given the era that I cover, it's sometimes difficult to track people down as, well, they're often deceased. Thankfully, many people are still with us and it's provided me with some excellent exclusives along the way, such as discussing Heil Honey, I'm Home with its creator Geoff Atkinson and chatting to the late, great Mike Amatt about Mop and Smiff. It's these first hand insights which, I think, bring an authority to my pieces and grants the reader something they can't find elsewhere.

It was important that I didn't just focus my articles on specific programmes, so I decided to diversify the blog into the world of what I called Archive Tape Digging, an exercise whereby I go through old video tapes in the hope that something interesting will have been recorded on them. Most of the time, there's nothing but utter rubbish to be found on the tapes, but every now and then I'll dig up a nugget of joy. Sometimes it'll be a programme which hasn't been seen in 40 years, occasionally I'll find an intriguing piece of continuity which demonstrates how much presentation has changed over the decades and, very rarely, I'll uncover something missing from the archives. As ever, those charitable souls who have donated their ancient VHS collections to me deserve special praise and thanks here, so thanks!

Along the way, there's also been a few dalliances with Curious British Telly activities in the world of print. First off, I wrote a couple of self-published books on children's television which, whilst not setting the book world alight, ticked some boxes off for myself and delighted a few readers. I probably won't write any more as, unless I write a thousand page book on the subject, covering hundreds upon hundreds of shows, it's unlikely to strike a chord with people. I may as well upload articles to the blog - for free - and do the occasional mammoth article such as my 159 British Children's TV Shows From the 1980s You Forgot About one.

There was also the Curious British Telly fanzine which, after being born during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, ran for six glorious issues and was ridiculously satisfying. Taking its cue from fanzines of the past, the fanzine was a print-only affair and one which allowed me to collaborate with some amazing writers to create a curiously analogue community. The feedback, from the readers, was fantastic and there was a lot of love for it. Sadly, due to global economics, the raw materials required for putting it together shot up at the start of 2022 and it became too expensive to continue with, but it may be back one day.

The online version of Curious British Telly, however, isn't going anywhere soon. There's still lots to cover and, in fact, later today I'll be contacting the BFI to book in another viewing session for December. The blog is unlikely to ever disappear as it's always been a hobby rather than a chore, there's no pressure and no expectations weighing heavily over me to 'make it'. And, as long as people continue getting in touch to thank me for reuniting them with programmes they thought they'd never track down, it's all worth it. After all, that's exactly what I was looking for when I started it.

P.s my favourite ever article on the blog was talking to my childhood hero Fred Harris in A Chat with Fred Harris, amazing times. Although, saying that, it was equally thrilling to meet Tony Robinson as part of a documentary on Tales from Fat Tulip's Garden. Oh, and how could I forget finally tracking down that Indiana Jones spoof after a reader got in touch, out of the blue, to ask me if I remembered that Indiana Jones spoof called Jackson Pace: The Great Years.

P.p.s if you've got any questions about Curious British Telly then please leave them in the comments below! 

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on 10 years of brilliant content. Having my article published in your fanzine was a proud moment. All the best for the next 10 years.
    James (author of the Smith and Jones Xmas video article)