Here’s David Nixon – Network DVD review

David Nixon (1919 – 1978) first came to prominence as a panellist on the UK version of What’s My Line? Loved for his affable and friendly persona, he would go on to establish himself as one of Britain’s top magicians during the sixties and seventies.

Network have previously released David Nixon’s Magic Box, which ran between 1970 and 1971. Featuring star guests and a range of specialty performers, it set the template for others (such as Paul Daniels) to follow.

Here’s David Nixon, which aired in 1963, is somewhat different – although just as interesting. With each edition running for around seven minutes, it has the feeling of a filler programme (the show was broadcast surprisingly late at night as well).  Nixon is confined to a very small and quite bare studio with just a handful of volunteers who, as he tells us on more than one occasion, were simply passing by.

This abbreviated audience means that there’s not a great deal of response to his tricks (although the studio crew do chip in with the occasional burst of laughter and applause). I don’t actually mind this though, as Nixon was equally adept at playing to just a handful of people as he was to a large audience.

Occasionally cheeky but never cruel, Nixon’s skill at handling the volunteers is something to behold. Unlike certain other magicians, he never felt the need to embarrass anyone for a cheap laugh.

Here’s David Nixon is a masterclass of close up magic. There are obviously plenty of card tricks, as well as illusions carried out with everyday objects (handkerchiefs, etc) and a sprinkling of groan-worthy gags. Nixon also indulges in a few party tricks – some of which work and others (attempting to whip a tablecloth off a crockery filled table) aren’t quite so successful ….

The picture quality is very good (the audio crackles a bit on a few shows, but it’s not a major problem). All thirteen episodes survive, which is a pleasant surprise as not all ABC programmes were so lucky.

For the devotee of close up magic, Here’s David Nixon is a must buy. A somewhat forgotten series (his IMDb page doesn’t have a record of it) it’s wonderful that Network have made it available. Highly recommended.

Here’s David Nixon can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

Light Entertainment Rarities – Network DVD Review

Sammy Davis Jr Meets The British (11th June 1960)

This special, directed by Brian Tesler, neatly falls into three separate sections. In the first, a solo Sammy entertains with a selection of songs, some affable chat to the audience and an impersonation of Adam Faith thrown in for good measure. All this takes place against a fairly basic set, so it’s clear that the budget wasn’t spent on this section.

A little more spending is evident in part two which begins with an OB shoot at a deserted Battersea funfair. Sammy leads a group of cute children around the fair, all the time indulging in plenty of song and dance action. Thanks to the presence of the kids there’s a strong sense of schmaltz about this part of the show, but it’s tightly choregraphed and it’s also nice to get a look at the long vanished fair.

We then return to the studio to see Sammy – desperate to become an English gentleman – receiving some instruction from Lionel Blair. Their initial crosstalk might drag a little, but it’s worth wading through as the pay-off (the pair attempt to out tap each other) is great fun. They seem to genuinely spark off each other, with Sammy spontaneously bringing him back in part three to take another bow.

The final third of the special has a nightclub ambiance. A dinner suited Sammy performs behind an orchestra with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen sat at tables nearby.  Had the whole show been like this then I wouldn’t have objected – as it is, these remaining fifteen minutes gives him a chance to demonstrate his versatility one final time (singing, playing the drums and attempting various impersonations – of which Louis Armstrong is the most impressive).

Steamboat Shuffle (1960)

I was expecting this to take place on a Steamboat set in the studio, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the twenty five minutes of trad jazz action occurs on a real boat – the Cottontail – moored on the riverside at Teddington. It was built especially for this short series (of which the edition on this disc is the sole survivor).

Introduced by the affable Peter Elliott, Steamboat Shuffle is interesting for several reasons – not least for the way director Ben Churchill managed to make the OB recording flows nicely (giving it the feel of a live production). Logistically it must have been something of a nightmare, with the cameras for certain performances placed on the dockside (meaning that the cameramen had to nip past the jiving hip young things) but there were very few muffled shot choices.

The musical turns come thick and fast, with the performances from a young Kenny Lynch especially catching the eye. It’s an enjoyable way to spend twenty five minutes, and it leaves me a little saddened that this episode is the only one still left in existence.

Big Night Out – The Peggy Lee Show (26th August 1961)

This edition of Big Night Out has a similar feel to the Sammy Davis Jr special, although Peggy Lee wasn’t quite the same all-rounder – her brief chat to the audience has a faint air of awkwardness (as does a skit she appears in, featuring David Kossoff as a taxi driver). But luckily this show plays to her strengths, so it mainly comprises of a series of excellent musical performances (Fever is an obvious highlight).

The third part of the show sees Peggy joined by three friends – Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen and Bing Crosby. This is something rather special as the affable Cahn enjoys some nice musical byplay with Peggy (Van Heusen remains silent, content just to play the piano). Bing Crosby wanders on towards the end to perform a couple of songs, although given the Cahn/Van Heusen catalogue (both together and separately) this part of the show can only scratch the surface of their musical output.

Celebration (9th April 1966)

The final programme on the disc, Celebration with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, is a little heavier than the three other other light entertainment offerings, but it’s still a fascinating watch. Recorded at Coventry Cathedral, Celebration was only rediscovered in 2018. Including the European premiere of his ‘Concert of Sacred Music’, the performance was one that was close to Ellington’s heart (he later referred to it as “one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. And the most important.”)

Light Entertainment Rarities is an excellent release, scooping up a selection of one-offs or orphaned episodes from otherwise wiped series which would be too short by themselves to merit a stand-alone release. Fingers crossed that a volume two follows in due course, but for now this DVD is well worth checking out.

Light Entertainment Rarities was released by Network on the 9th of November 2020 (1 disc, running for 177 minutes). It can be ordered directly from Network here.

The Bruce Forsyth Show – Network DVD Review

Sandwiched inbetween Bruce Forsyth’s initial breakthrough as one of the hosts of Sunday Night at the London Palladium during the late fifties and his rebirth as a fully-fledged game-show host on The Generation Game in the early seventies, The Bruce Forsyth Show is a fascinating programme (Brucie’s missing link, you might say).

Most thumbnail biographies tend to skip over this period, contending that it took The Generation Game to restore Bruce to full television glory. And yet The Bruce Forsyth Show doesn’t skimp on star names – Frankie Howerd, Cilla Black, Dudley Moore, Tommy Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Diana Dors, Kathy Kirby, Julie Rogers, Harry Secombe, Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones were amongst the performers appearing.

No doubt its low profile is due to the fact that it’s been pretty much unavailable since its original broadcast, so a tip of the hat to Network for bringing it back into circulation.

The debut show was broadcast on Christmas Day 1965. There’s a distinct lack of festive trimmings though – which raises the possibility that the show may have been put out on the 25th of December as something of an afterthought. Cilia Black is the show’s big guest – sharing some slightly uncomfortable crosstalk with Bruce (although it’s still good natured) and belting out a couple of songs.

Unsurprisingly, Brucie’s skills as a song and dance man are put to good use (as they are throughout the series) and he also takes part in a number of sketches. These try the patience a little more – although the skit with Miriam Karlin (she plays a hoity toity dog breeder) does have a few bright moments. They mainly occur when Bruce wanders off script (he tended to be more comfortable when he could riff with the material).

Laughs are fairly thin on the ground later on when Bruce and Francis Matthews play a couple of drunk golfers, returning home. This was a sketch that probably would have been twice as funny if it had been half as long. The final third of the show picks up though – with an orchestra skit (featuring Bruce as the conductor) – so overall this debut show was a pretty strong effort.

After this one-off, the series proper debuted on the 14th of August 1966. Sid Green and Dick Hills returned as the writers, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ronnie Corbett, Lionel Blair and Tom Jones appearing. Tom throws himself into things with gusto – appearing in a frenetic sketch where he’s pushed and pulled from pillar to post. The BBC era of The Morecambe & Wise Show has gained the reputation of being the show which allowed the stars to do things outside of their comfort zone, but it’s easy to see that Brucie was doing something similar years earlier.

Sid and Dick will always be best remembered for their 1960’s work with Morecambe & Wise (mostly also at ATV). They fashion similar material for Bruce here – even to the extent of appearing in a sketch themselves (which they regularly did with Eric & Ernie).

Like many series of this era, The Bruce Forsyth Show doesn’t exist in its entirety, but its survival rate is pretty good (especially when compared to other variety series such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium). Series one is virtually complete, only about ten minutes from the 4/9/66 edition (Frankie Howerd and Julie Rogers guest-starring) are missing.  As for series two, three of the six shows still remain – they feature the likes of Harry Secombe, Beryl Reid and Engelbert Humperdinck.

There’s also a brief clip from an otherwise wiped 1967 Christmas show with Bruce and Frankie Howerd. Recorded on one of the earliest domestic video recorders, the quality of this brief excerpt is pretty poor but nevertheless it’s nice to have it (to have it, nice).

If the sketch material across the series tends to be fairly routine, then the calibre of the guests (Dudley Moore and Tommy Cooper teamed up, for example) helps to keep the energy levels raised. Like all variety shows, The Bruce Forsyth Show is something of a mixed bag, but thanks to Bruce’s exuberance and playful interactions with the guests it’s almost always watchable and comes warmly recommended.

It’s nice to see some more 1960’s LE on DVD, hopefully Network will continue to dig through the archives as I’m sure there’s plenty more waiting to be unearthed.

The Bruce Forsyth Show (3 discs, 503 minutes) is released by Network on the 9th of November 2020. It can be ordered directly here.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Series One. Network BD/DVD Review

It probably won’t have escaped your notice that 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There’s already been a flurry of interesting Python related material released – such as At Last The 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set from the BFI – but now the series itself debuts on BD from Network.

The previous DVDs (Sony, 2007) were perfectly serviceable, although disappointingly bare bones in terms of special features.  The Network releases, in addition to theIr improved picture quality, also promise a slew of interesting bonus material (mainly additional studio footage and film offcuts).

Series one of Monty Python feels quite traditional, at least to begin with. Sketches such as The Funniest Joke In The World and The Mouse Problem have very definite beginnings, middles and ends.  The first transmitted episode (Wither Canada?) also introduces us to a key Python trait – mixing highbrow and lowbrow culture (the Picasso cycling race).

It’s Kandinsky. Wassily Kandinsky, and who’s this here with him? It’s Braque. Georges Braque, the Cubist, painting a bird in flight over a cornfield and going very fast down the hill towards Kingston and… Piet Mondrian – just behind, Piet Mondrian the Neo-Plasticist, and then a gap, then the main bunch, here they come, Chagall, Max Ernst, Miro, Dufy, Ben Nicholson, Jackson Pollock and Bernard Buffet making a break on the outside here, Brancusi’s going with him, so is Gericault, Ferdinand Leger, Delaunay, De Kooning, Kokoschka’s dropping back here by the look of it, and so’s Paul Klee dropping back a bit and, right at the back of this group, our very own Kurt Schwitters.

Although this is the sort of sketch which has tended to label the Pythons (in certain quarters at least) as elitist, it’s not really. You don’t need to have heard of all the artists described by John Cleese (in his best breathless commentators voice) in order to appreciate the strange juxtaposition of a group of artists attempting to create new masterpieces whilst also indulging in a hectic cycle race.

What’s remarkable about revisiting this first series is discovering just how packed it is.  Later on the Pythons would slow down a little in terms of producing top-rate material (they also started to delight in stretching out jokes long beyond their natural conclusion) but to begin with there’s an abundance of strong sketches.

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The hen-pecked Mr Arthur Putey, Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson, Whizzo Butter (“you know, we find that nine out of ten British housewives can’t tell the difference between Whizzo butter and a dead crab”), Bicycle Repair Man, Dirty Fork and Nudge, Nudge all show up within the first three shows.  As does the Working Class Playwright, an early example of Graham Chapman’s ability to inhabit a character (it’s also an excellent showcase for Terry Jones’ drag skills).

Self Defence Against Fresh Fruit is another favourite of mine, whilst Confuse A Cat has a slew of very odd images (such as a penguin on a pogo stick) which suggests that the Pythons were beginning to stretch their creative legs.

Crunchy Frog (“oh, we use only the finest baby frogs, dew-picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in the finest quality spring water, lightly killed, and sealed in a succulent, Swiss, quintuple-smooth, treble-milk chocolate envelope, and lovingly frosted with glucose”) is the highlight of the sixth episode whilst the seventh – You’re No Fun Anymore – spins the series off into a different direction.

After a few throwaway early sketches, the bulk of the running time is devoted to a single sketch – an alien blancmange is desperate to win Wimbledon and so transforms all Englishmen into Scotsmen (as it’s well known that the Scots can’t play tennis). That’s not something you see every day.

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Show eight – Full Frontal Nudity – is a fascinating one.  It demonstates how the Pythons were increasingly playing with the form of sketch comedy (Graham Chapman’s Colonel appears at regular intervals to stop “silly” sketches whilst the Pythons were also beginning to question on-screen the quality of their own material).

This wasn’t new though. Spike Milligan (“what are we going to do now? What are we going to do now?”) had already thoroughly deconstructed the way a sketch was traditionally performed and concluded in his Q series.

This mockery (or self-indulgence) only works if there are some strong sketches in the show.  Luckily, Full Frontal Nudity delivers with Buying A Bed and Hell’s Grannies as well as an amusing skit concerning a dead parrot.

It’s interesting that even this late on in the first series, sketches were still being played out to polite, but not ecstatic, audiences.  Once Python become a cult, the studio audiences tended to be packed with very receptive younger viewers (rather than – as legend has it – confused old dears who were convinced they were coming to watch a real circus).  It’s slightly jarring to see the Dead Parrot sketch receiving a fairly muted response (compare and contrast this to the hysteria generated whenever it was later performed live).

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The eleventh show – The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes To The Bathroom – is quite noteworthy as it seems to point the way ahead to the more fragmented Python of series two. There’s still good material (Inspector Tiger) but you also have the likes of Interesting People (which is best described as free-form).  In some ways this show feels like the Beatles’ White Album – bitty and incomplete, but still rewarding.

Llamas, Lumberjacks, a vicious parody of David Frost (It’s A Tree), Adolf Hilter contesting the Minehead By-Election, The 127th Upperclass Twit of the Year Show, Ken Shabby and Albatross (“course you don’t get bloody wafers with it”) are just a few of the later series one highlights.

Restoration

Both the film inserts and the studio material have received a thorough overhaul. The film sequences now look considerably more colourful and vibrant compared to the washed-out versions used on the 2007 DVDs. As the for the studio footage, the Sony DVDs were quite noisy whilst the new remaster looks quite smooth. The difference on the VT isn’t as dramatic as the film upgrade, but it’s still noticeable.

Extras

Studio outtakes from Sex and ViolenceFull Frontal Nudity and The Ant – An Introduction. The untitled tenth episode features extended film material with Ron Obvious and clean end titles.

In total, there’s over half an hour of material. Some of it (from Sex and Violence) escaped onto YouTube a few years back, but the majority was new to me. I won’t describe it in any detail as I’m sure people will want to discover it for themselves. There’s some nice little bits and bobs though and I look forward to seeing what nuggets the later releases unearth.

The digi-pack release comes with a book by Andrew Pixley. The check discs I have didn’t include that, but based on his previous works for Network I think we can safely assume it will be both incredibly detailed and impeccably researched.

Conclusion

Monty Python’s Flying Circus series one is top class. This seems an obvious statement, but sometimes it feels like Python is more analysed and debated than it is watched and enjoyed. For me, it’s as good now as it was the first time I saw it (the 1989 repeats, where it was already treated in certain quarters as something of a museum piece).

There’s plenty that’ll be familiar, even to more casual viewers, but there’s also a good deal that’s still striking and surprising. Like the Beatles, the Pythons enjoy a monolithic reputation which irks some – but like the Fabs they thoroughly deserve their iconic status.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus series one is released by Network on the 4th of November 2019 on both BD and DVD.

The limited edition BD digi-pack (featuring Andrew Pixley’s book) can be ordered here.

The standard BD and DVD (which includes all the special features included in the digi-pack apart from the book) can be ordered here and here.

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7 – 63 UP. Network BD/DVD Review

Seven Up! was a World In Action special broadcast in May 1964. Planned as a one-off, it looked ahead to the far-off year of 2000 AD, reasoning that the seven year olds of 1964 would be forty three in 2000 and by then many would be key members of society (“executives and shop stewards” as the narrator puts it).

World In Action editor Tim Hewat had a jaundiced view of the British class system – wondering if someone’s social and economic background predetermined their future, even from a very young age.  Deliberately choosing a diverse mix of boys and girls from various parts of the country and different economic backgrounds, Seven Up! quizzed these voluble youngsters about subjects which included life, love, marriage, fighting, education and their plans for the future.

One of the unusual things about Seven Up! is the fact it was directed by a drama director (Paul Almond).  He was at Granada waiting to do something else and stumbled across Seven Up! almost by accident. Michael Apted (a researcher on the original programme) took over directing duties from the second edition onwards, maintaining this drama link.

What’s remarkable is how many of the subjects kept on returning once it was decided to make a new programme every seven years.  Charles dropped out after 21 Up in 1977, never to return, whilst others (John, Symon, Peter) have skipped certain ones but later came back (Suzy didn’t contribute to the most recent – 63 Up).  Lynn is the first to have passed away, dying in 2013 after a short illness.

Given that the original research process was fairly random and haphazard (no long term contracts or agreements were signed as no thought was given to the possibility of future programmes) the fact that most have come back again and again is testimony to the relationship they’ve forged with Michael Apted through the decades.

There has been a certain amount of tension though.  Apted himself has admitted that on occasions that he was tempted to “play God” and mould the interviews and programmes in a certain direction to tell a predetermined story.  The unbalanced male/female split (ten to four) is something else Apted now regrets, whilst only one contributor – Symon – is mixed race, another missed opportunity.

Taken in isolation, Seven Up! is a really interesting and entertaining watch.  The introduction of Andrew, Charles and John (all pupils in the same expensive Kensington pre-prep school) is unforgettable – along with the rest of their class they perform Waltzing Matilda in Latin.

Jackie, Lynn and Sue all attended the same primary school in East London (a slight pity that three of the four girls were plucked from the same area, but as previously discussed nobody was anticipating a long-running series at this point).

Although a fair number of the children were London-based, Neil and Peter hailed from Liverpool whilst Nick was raised on a farm in Yorkshire.

There’s plenty of amusement to be found in Seven Up! (John loathing the Beatles’ haircuts) as well as more reflective moments (Bruce wishing more than anything to see his Daddy again, who was six thousand miles away). 

When Seven Plus Seven was made in 1970, things really began to get interesting (as the process of comparIng and contrasting the people they are now to the people they were then could begin). This of course is the main strength of the series as it developed, especially with those who have had the most troubled or colourful lives.

Paul has had an especially chequered journey. A lively and amusing child at seven, by the age of 21 he’d dropped out of college and was living in a squat. Still homeless at 28, by the time of 35 Up he’d slowly begun to turn his life around and during the last few decades has become a local councillor as well as contesting several General Elections.

The stories of some of the others, such as Andrew, whose lives have progressed in a much more orderly fashion are still of interest – not least for the initial shock of seeing how they’ve aged when each new programme appears.

In order to contrast the current individual with their past self, liberal use has always been made of their archive interviews. This is understandable (especially during the early broadcasts, where the audience would otherwise have struggled to remember all the faces from seven years earlier) but it does mean that there’s a certain amount of repetition in each programme. Therefore the series is best sampled at irregular intervals rather than via a box-set binge-watch.

But however you view it, the Up series is an unmissable slice of social history. The format has subsequently been copied by various other countries, but the original is still the best. Enlightening, moving, amusing and deeply thought-provoking, this is British documentary making at its very best. Highly recommended.

The Programmes 

Seven Up! (39″ 35′)

Seven Plus Seven (51″ 56′)

21 (99″ 50′)

28 Up (61’05” and 73″44′)

35 Up (115″ 02′)

42 Up ( 59″ 40′ and 72″ 31′)

49 Up (70″ 27′ and 70″ 19′)

56 Up (46″ 58′, 46″ 57′ and 50″ 01′)

63 Up (47″ 40′, 47′ 45″ and 47′ 44″ )

Special Features

Michael Apted at Granada (21″ 41′)

Ir Was Only Going To Ever Be One Film (13″ 36′)

28 Up Commentary Track

7 Up and Me (46″ 32′). 2019 documentary narrated by Joanna Lumley in which celebrities discuss what the Up series means to them.

7 – 63 Up is available now from Network. The Blu Ray edition can be ordered here and the DVD is available here