Monday, 19 April 2021

The Memory… Kinda Lingers

G Neil Martin celebrates one of TV comedy’s finest double albums

It ended, in a way that didn’t really befit it at all, in a dusky power station, full of sinuous pipes, and shadows and angry gas and steam. As if HR Giger had been brought in to design satire. Four people - three men, one woman - and one monumental double entendre.

Series four of Not The Nine O’Clock News is the apogee of the series’ run. Broadcast in 1982, it led to the final of the NOT albums - this time, a double album (“Not The Double Album”, proper gatefold and all) which included a compilation of the best sketches and songs from series four on one disc and the group’s live Drury Lane show on the other. The CDs, which came later, were designed as two little 33 1/3 LPs. It is probably the greatest comedy double LP based on a sketch show ever produced.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Dogfood Dan and the Carmarthen Cowboy

Infidelity is a dangerous art to practice and one that comes pre-loaded with a weapons-grade risk. Nonetheless, it’s a perennial indulgence that mankind has been keen to nourish. A common joke, in the British Isles, is for an individual to jest that they will never stray from their partner within their post code. The rather feeble humour of this remark is that there’s less chance of being caught. Admittedly, there’s a logic what with the increase in distance reducing any visibility to the unknowing partner. Extend this to several postcodes and a national border and it should be ridiculously easy. But even with this on their side it’s far from easy for Dogfood Dan and the Carmarthen Cowboy.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

How the Internet Gave Us Access to Obscure Television

Up until the late-1990s, if you missed something on television then it was unlikely you were going to see it again any time soon. Even if you had - and I understand younger readers' horror at this proposition - managed to position yourself in front of your television at a set time, you would need a hardy memory to remember it over the years. Naturally, you could have recorded it onto a video tape, but this wasn't a luxury many of us took advantage of regularly. And, of course, there was always the likelihood that you would record over it with something else - most commonly an entry from the James Bond franchise.

But what does this mean? Well, aside from a plethora of home recordings of Live and Let Die haunting many an attic, it means that many television programmes became ephemera as soon as the end credits rolled. At least, it did until the dawn of the internet. The opportunities of the information superhighway weren't entirely clear at its outset, but everyone and their dog knew it would be an amazing adventure. And, once the initial dalliances in online porn and bizarre, early memes had quickly been exhausted, it was revealed that nearly everything else could be found online. Obscure, forgotten and hard to get hold of television was also there.

Sunday, 28 March 2021

What Did the Readers of Look-in Think of Television in the Mid-1980s?

Anyone who grew up in the 1970s and 80s should instantly recognise Look-in. Marketed as the 'Junior TV Times' it provided a wealth of features on everything that a youngster should be interested in. Comic strips infested its pages alongside interviews with pop stars and, of course, television featured heavily. Looking back at these magazines grants us a wonderful peek into the culture which was bubbling up at the time. It's almost as if they were custom made for the world of Curious British Telly. And, rather magnificently, around a year ago, I was sent a pile of mid- 1980s issues by a kind fan of Curious British Telly.

Aside from the nostalgic blast offered up by the gleaming smiles of Wham! and Paul Young's knitwear, the issues also brought a number of intriguing and enigmatic shows to my attention. Naturally, I'll be investigating them in more detail in the future. But what also caught my eye was the What's Your View? section. This allowed readers to write in and give their views on television. These opinions are decades old now, but I feel they represent an interesting glance at how children viewed television in the mid 1980s. And that's why I've decided to stick several of these features up here.

Saturday, 20 March 2021

Ragtime Episodes Have Appeared Online!

The vast majority of television programmes are, unfortunately, out of reach for many of us. Collecting dust in the archives, these slices of cultural interest remain shrouded in mystery. All that remains in the public consciousness is a motley assortment of vague and conflicting memories. That's part of the reason why I put Curious British Telly together. If these programmes are to remain out of reach then perhaps I can put up some solid facts about them. 

Anyway, a show that I covered in my most recent book - More Curiosities of Children's Television - was Ragtime, and this fell squarely into the "out of reach" bracket for most people. The only way I'd managed to watch copies was by booking in at the BFI. But it turns out that several episodes sneaked online in late 2019.

S&M

We improvise almost continuously throughout the day whether it be stirring a cup of tea with a screwdriver in lieu of a spoon or thinking up an excuse on the spot when confronted by an angry partner over why the bins haven’t been put out. Improvisation tends to confound any expectations of normality and always takes things off on a tangent. I guess that’s why life is such a strange proposition. But improvisation, by way of this strangeness, is also a driving force for the hilarity that our lives are blessed with. And that’s why improv has been a crucial factor in comedy over the years. Two of the finest proponents of this are Tony Slattery and Mike McShane or, as they’re also known, S&M.

Tuesday, 16 March 2021

L for Lester

The ordeal of learning to drive is a harrowing one for even the most confident individual. For a whole hour there’s the risk of slamming your foot on the wrong pedal and spinning out of control into a world of chaos and A&E wards. It’s rare this happens, but it’s a nicely dramatic way of making a point: driving lessons are unpredictable. These trials only last for an hour, though, so it’s not too bad for the pupil. But for the driving instructor it’s a literal non-stop rollercoaster of bangs, prangs, tempers and tears all day long. Accordingly, it takes a strong, calm and organised character to take on the role. And this is the complete opposite of what you’ll find in L for Lester.

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Curious British Telly Fanzine Issue 2 is Here!

It's been three months since the first issue of the Curious British Telly fanzine landed, so it's about time for issue two. And it's now here! And, better yet, there's an extra four pages (for the same cost) this time around!

Once again it's packed full of features that should titillate anyone with even a passing interest in the stranger corners of British television. So, for example, there's a feature on The Last Train, a post-apocalyptic ITV series from 1999 that completely passed under the radar at the time. Oh, and there are fantastic write-ups by guest writers on the BBC shows Dead of Night (1972) and A Very Peculiar Practice (1999)And, if you're looking for even more obscure and untold stories, why not take a look at the articles on TX45 (1986) and Look Here (1986)? If you've heard of both of them then you deserve a medal.

Saturday, 27 February 2021

The London Weekend Show

The heartbeat of youth culture in the 21st century is the internet; it's a luxury that previous generations could have only dreamed of. This isn't to say they lacked the necessary cultural harbingers, there was still Radio 1, Smash Hits, NME and all manner of television strands dedicated to youth culture. But the precision with which every idiosyncrasy, of every individual, could be engaged was way off. Now, however, there's a YouTube channel, Twitter feed, blog or Instagram account for any whim that's ever fermented in a teenage bedroom. It's a seismic shift in dynamics and technology which has obliterated the monoculture right down to its foundations. It's even made the architects redundant.

Television programmes, in 2021, that are dedicated to youth culture are virtually extinct. But these prehistoric beasts, all currently becoming fossilised in various archives, provide a wealth of detail about the society of our recent past. And, at least for anyone who regularly loads up Curious British Telly, there's an intoxicating hit lurking within these programmes. The vibrancy of youth, juxtaposed with its various challenges, makes for an engrossing brand of social analysis. One of the finest examples of this is The London Weekend Show.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Dramarama: A Couple of Charlies

Children's television can be a powerful format, one which holds no punches and holds up the grim reality of life as a child to the camera. Shows such as Grange Hill, Byker Grove and the somewhat overlooked Children's Ward all excelled when it came to peeling away the layers of innocence that society has been so keen to weld tightly to childhood. Another series of note is Dramarama. Running between 1982 - 89, Dramarama was an ITV anthology series which tackled numerous genres for a young audience. Whilst there was room for comedy, sci-fi and the supernatural, there was also time to tackle the harsh realities of life in powerful dramas. And one of these was A Couple of Charlies. 

Monday, 22 February 2021

Lord Tramp

It’s comforting to dream about the all the possibilities that a sudden windfall could bring. One moment you’re struggling to stave off the wrong end of your overdraft and the next, well, it’s whatever you heart desires be it sailing a luxury yacht around the Med or buying rare comedy memorabilia such as the actual suit worn by John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. Yes, the process of rags to riches is an appealing one, but does it bring happiness? Are these transformations too swift and too unnatural for those individuals whose lives are suddenly turned upside down? Or can this sea change in life events pass them by and fail to temper their interest in a dustbin full of potential and a comfortable park bench? Let’s ask Lord Tramp.

Saturday, 20 February 2021

Over to You

I may have written rather extensively on long forgotten children's television programmes, but it's impossible for me to know everything. And, when it comes to schools programmes, I'm barely even knowledgable. Despite my love of television from a young age I can hardly remember the programmes I watched at school. Sure, I recall gathering around the caged TV and VHS player to watch Look and Read, but that's about it. All my other memories are just of the teacher fast forwarding through the spinning ITV Schools on Channel 4 ident. A modern tragedy this may be, but at least it gives me plenty to explore on here. And today I'm going to look at Over to You.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Come Back Mrs Noah


Space is the final frontier and it’s one that has fascinated humans since they first crawled out of the primordial soup and cocked their eyes towards the Milky Way. This obsession has led to a pop culture littered with galactic adventures that form fantastical narratives out of the great unknown. And this popularity is seemingly endless. No one ever rolls their eyes at the prospect of yet another space-based narrative. Instead, we consume these interstellar stories with a ravenous passion. But a space setting alone doesn’t guarantee success. There needs to be a hook, an original hook. So, what about a housewife being accidental jettisoned into space? It sounds original but will it leave us shouting Come Back Mrs Noah?

Sunday, 14 February 2021

A Small Problem

A short stature is not one that tends to be celebrated in our society. There’s a tendency to ridicule those who don’t conform to specific measurements and an unfair labelling of them as weak and ineffective. It’s all part of humanity’s kneejerk reaction to anything that’s slightly different. An approach to thinking which has been responsible for all manner of prejudices since humans took their first breath and started to eye their neighbour suspiciously. And a lack of inches is far from an endorsement of weakness, Mahatma Gandhi, for example, was only 5ft 4in. But prejudice takes no prisoners and it’s more than possible that height could cause A Small Problem.

Saturday, 13 February 2021

Men of the World

Men, as we all know, have a tendency to strut, pontificate and make silly tits of themselves. It’s a misguided attempt to keep the embers of patriarchy flickering when all it really does is fan the flames of equality. But, deep down, men are aware of this. Because they do have feelings. And, as such, they need strong friendships and they need love. Nonetheless, these desires are insulated by thick coats of arrogance and delusion which make them perfect for comedy. Want a quick demonstration of these social dynamics in action? Just look at the Men of the World.

Friday, 12 February 2021

Lame Ducks

Some people take to life like a duck to water. Their lives are full of social and professional successes and the only way, for them, is up. But not everyone’s life is an effortless triumph. The world may be full of round holes, but there are just as many square pegs out there, forever banging their heads against the periphery of normality. These are the lame ducks of life. They don’t mean any harm and, like everyone, they just want to be happy. But they’re not designed for the rewards of normal life. What happens, though, when they gather together into a flock of Lame Ducks?

Arena: Masters of the Canvas


Back in late 1991, I experienced my first taste of live wrestling at the King's Lynn Corn Exchange. However, rather than the WWF being in town, it was British Wrestling (yes, I'm capitalising that). A world away from the glitz and glamour of Vince McMahon's US enterprise, British Wrestling had, by 1991, been shunted off of television for a few years. Nonetheless, as it travelled around a succession of decaying venues, British Wrestling could still pull in adequate crowds. And one of its crown jewels was the presence of the masked and mysterious Kendo Nagasaki. Truth be told, he almost flattened me that evening in 1991 as he angrily sent a section of empty chairs flying in my direction. But this enigmatic man of intense fury was instantly fascinating. A few months later I would see him again, but this time he was the subject of the Arena episode Masters of the Canvas.