Futtocks End and Other Short Stories – Network BD/DVD review

Bob Kellett (1927 – 2012) was a man of many talents. Particularly active during the sixties and seventies, he plied his trade as a writer, producer and director. As director he helmed big screen adaptations of several small screen favourites such as Up Pompeii and Are You Being Served? whilst his television writing career included both admags (those curious programmes which turned up in the early days of ITV) and Space 1999.

Kellett also produced the four short films included on this BD/DVD (Futtocks End, A Home Of Your Own, San Ferry Ann and Vive Le Sport) in addition to writing the screenplay for San Ferry Ann and directing Futtock’s End.

Taking pole position on the disc is Futtock’s End (1970, 47 minutes) which was written by and starred Ronnie Barker. Clearly inspired by Kellett’s earlier works, Barker would return to this style of comedy several times in the future (The Picnic, By The Sea) but Futtock’s End was his best work in the genre.

Set in an English country house, Barker is wonderfully entertaining as the befuddled General Futtock, who has his hands full with a gaggle of weekend guests. Barker is matched every step of the way by Michael Horden as his lecherous butler whilst familiar faces (including Roger Livesey, Peggy Ann Clifford, Julian Orchard and Richard O’Sullivan) also pop up.

Barker’s unquenchable thirst for saucy seaside postcard humour would surface again and again during his career and Futtock’s End is a prime example of this. So it comes as no surprise to discover that various attractive young women (such as Hilary Pritchard, credited as ‘The Bird’) are used throughout as little more than eye candy. Subtle the humour isn’t – the rule seems to be that ladies’ skirts should be as short as possible and fly up at every opportunity …

A ‘silent’ film with sound effects but no dialogue (like the other films on the disc) Barker is deftly able to mine comedy gold from this apparent restriction. For example, the breakfast scene (where a group of very hungover guests recoil in horror as every small movement of the breakfast things generates impossibly loud sounds) is just one highlight amongst many.

Ronnie Barker also features in A Home of Your Own (1965, 41 minutes).  Written and directed by Jay Lewis (John Whyte was the co-writer), Richard Briers, Peter Butterworth, Janet Brown, Fred Emney, Bernard Cribbins, Bill Fraser, Ronnie Stevens, Thorley Walters and Gerald Campion were some of those who appeared alongside Barker.

Briers and Bridget Armstrong play a newlywed couple who buy a plot of land on which they intend to build their dream house. But thanks to a group of inept workmen progress is far from smooth …

A sly satire, A Home of Your Own plays on the familiar theme of the British workman as lazy and/or incompetent (for them, the tea-break is always the most important time of the day).

By the time of Futtock’s End, Barker was a star but during A Home of Your Own he was only just beginning to build his reputation in the worlds of film and television. But though his role isn’t very large, he does have one very memorable moment – after an unthinking colleague wanders across his wet concrete floor for the umpteenth time, he snaps and performs a frantic pirouette on the ruined floor (it’s a sight to behold).

Bernard Cribbins – as a hapless stonemason – probably has the best comic material to work with, whilst the likes of Butterworth and Fraser always catch the eye, even when they appear to be doing very little.

San Ferry Ann (1965, 52 minutes). Bob Kellett once again came up trumps with the cast list for this short film – if performers such as Wilfrid Brambell, David Lodge, Joan Sims, Ron Moody, Barbara Windsor, Warren Mitchell and Hugh Paddick don’t get your pulse racing then you’re probably reading the wrong blog.

A travelogue following a group of British holidaymakers as they take a trip from Dover to Calais, San Ferry Ann certainly benefits from oodles of local colour on both sides of the channel (quite what the ordinary cross channel ferry passengers thought about inadvertently featuring in this film is anybody’s guess).

Several of the actors play very much to type. Brambell begins by using his trademark leer to good effect and it doesn’t take him long before he’s gone topless on the ferry  – attempting, but failing, to catch a bit of sun. As for Barbara Windsor, she isn’t a million miles away from her Carry On persona – a pneumatic blonde who blithely breezes through the frame whilst constantly turning male heads.

No cultural cliché is left unturned once the holidaymakers reach Calais (one of the first Frenchmen we meet is riding a bicycle with a string of onions round his neck) but San Ferry Ann is still a very agreeable watch. And for Coronation Street fans there’s a spot of trivia to share – this was Lynne Carol’s first role after her Street character (Martha Longhurst) was killed off the previous year.

After two black and white shorts, we burst back into colour for Vive Le Sport (1969, 25 minutes). Eschewing the all-star nature of the other features, this one centres around two swinging sixties chicks (played by Liane Engeman and Beth Morris) who set off for a road trip across Europe in their Mini Cooper, unaware that they’re being pursed by Barry Gosney (he’s keen to retrieve a roll of film hidden in the car).

Vive Le Sport was Engeman’s sole credit but Morris would become a familiar television face in the decades to come (possibly her most memorable role was that of Drusilla in I, Claudius). Neither actress is stretched during this film though as it’s plain that the car’s the star (with the scenery running it a close second). Unlike the other features on the disc, this isn’t a gagfest and the subplot of the girls being pursed by the ‘baddies’ isn’t edge of the seat stuff. Instead, you’re well advised just to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Special Features

San Ferry Annie is a five minute interview with Anne Kellett, Bob Kellett’s widow. Even though its running time is very brief, there’s still time for Annie to share a few interesting stories – such as the reason why her husband began to make silent films, as well as some memories concerning the making of San Ferry Ann.

Feature First (7 minutes) interviews director of photography Billy Williams. San Ferry Ann was one of his earliest jobs but he quickly moved into features (he racked up many credits, most notably Gandhi in 1982).  Given his career I obviously could have listened to him talk for a great deal longer, but this featurette is a good overview of his work on San Ferry Ann.

Futtocks End features an archive audio commentary with Bob Kellett which is worth dipping into as he had plenty of good stories to tell. The last special feature on the disc is an 8mm version of Futtocks End, which runs just under nine minutes (this savage abridgment is a curio worth watching at least once).

This very attractive package is rounded off by a booklet written by Melanie Williams.

All four films have been restored and are presented in their original widescreen aspect ratios. To compare, I dug out my old DVD copies of A Home of Your Own and San Ferry Ann (released by Digital Classics). The new Network remasters offer a considerable picture upgrade (the Digital Classics releases were in 4:3 and speckled with dirt and dust).

Futtocks End and Other Short Stories comes warmly recommended. It’s released today and is available from Network both on BD and DVD.

Journey of a Lifetime – Network BD/DVD Review

Newlyweds Anne and John undertake the journey of a lifetime as they traverse the Holy Land – stopping off to visit a wealth of historic places, such as the Dead Sea, Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, Petra, Bethlehem, Samaria, Jericho, Emmaus, Judaea and the River Jordan.

For Anne, it’s a chance to see the real places she’d only previously read about in the Bible and serves to strengthen her faith. As for John, whilst he retains an open mind, he’s sceptical about the many miracles chronicled in the Bible. But he’s always prepared to listen and consider ….

Network continue to mine the ABC archive for interesting gems – today they’ve come up with this 39 part series (each episode running for approx 15 minutes) shot in colour by Pathe and broadcast during the early sixties. Only ever seen in the UK in black and white, the series has been newly transferred from the original 35mm Eastmancolor negatives for this BD/DVD release.

Anne Lawson and John Bonney play the doting newlyweds (both actors should be familiar to seasoned archive television viewers). The early episodes were shot mute, so there’s no dialogue or natural sounds (just a spot of rather unconvincing foley work every so often). Anne and John provide a breathless narration whilst Muir Matheson chips in with suitably stirring incidental music.

Anne’s cut-class tones strike a rather unintentional comic note to begin with, but once the couple begin exploring in earnest and the travelogue aspect really kicks in, this becomes less of an issue.

I’ve a feeling that the series was recorded in blocks of 13. The first thirteen episodes feature John and Anne’s narration, but from the fourteenth episode onwards we hear them speak  Which is a bit of a shock to begin with …

This change is to the series’ benefit through – the pair emerge as much more rounded and believable figures once they start to talk to each other.

It’s fair to observe that Journey of a Lifetime has a glossy unreal air (everywhere Anne and John go they’re greeted and shown the sights by helpful smiling locals) but to complain that the programme doesn’t show the reality of life in Israel and Jordan during the early sixties is missing the point – that’s not what the series is about.

Instead, each episode finds our intrepid pair discovering another landmark or location which has some significance to the writings in the Bible – the town of Nazareth, Mount Tabor or the shores of Galilee, say. Anne will soak up the local colour and maybe do some sketching whilst the rational John (taking time off from his job as a water engineer) seeks the truth behind the stories and legends he’s read about.

Although the tone of the series is quite sedate, there’s also room for a little dissention and debate. Fire from Heaven doesn’t shy away from highlighting some of the prophet Elijah’s less admirable moments (such as his massacre of the prophets of Baal).

Since each episode only runs for 15 minutes, the programme is an ideal one to dip in and out of. And with John positioned as a sceptic, this means the tone isn’t a particularly preachy one – so no matter what faith you follow (or indeed if you follow no faith at all) it’s still possible to derive a great deal from Journey of a Lifetime.

Whilst this may be something of a niche release, it’s good to see that Network have brought it out (after all, they’ve always been a company who’ve championed the obscure). It’s been a programme that I’ve enjoyed working my way through and I’m sure I’ll return to it again in the future. Recommended.

Journey of a Lifetime is released on the 5th of April 2021 by Network and can be ordered directly from them (BD or DVD).

Journey of a Lifetime – to be released by Network on BD and DVD (5th April 2021)

Journey of a Lifetime will be released on the 5th of April 2021 by Network on both DVD and BD. Press release is below –

Unseen for over 50 years, and now presented in colour for the first time, Journey of a Lifetime is an adventure of spiritual enlightenment across the Holy Land and through the Scriptures.

Filmed in the early 1960s throughout Israel and Jordan this unique quasi-documentary series follows young newlyweds, Ann and John, as they explore this sacred region rediscovering the past through their discovery of the present – while visiting such historic places as the Dead Sea, Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee, Petra, Bethlehem, Samaria, Jericho, Emmaus, Judaea and the River Jordan.

Through their journey of discovery and enchantment the couple see for themselves the holy places that Ann’s faith has always made real for her while John, who keeps an open mind, finds that much which he considered miraculous and unlikely could well have happened. Their discussions and encounters with friends and strangers along the way reassert their understanding of the need for unity and tolerance between religious denominations.

Delving into the breathtaking landscapes of these ancient places, and with reference to key passages from the Bible, the landmarks the couple venture to are brought to life through religious teachings and stories – remaining a fascinating snapshot of these areas at the time.

Part travelogue, part history lesson and part reaffirmation of one’s personal faith, this is an absorbing series for the whole family – it does not preach but has a message for those who wish to listen.

An interview with Anneke Wills

Beginning her career as a child actress in the mid fifties, Anneke Wills worked solidly for the next few decades – appearing on stage, in films as well as numerous television programmes. In 1960 she was cast as ‘Girl on Airfield’ in two episodes of The Strange World of Gurney Slade, starring Anthony Newley. It was a job which changed her life ….

Anneke didn’t have to attend a formal audition. “All I remember is an agent calling you up and saying ‘okay’. Later on I heard that he (Newley) chose me out of Spotlight and they showed me the picture he liked. Apparently he said ‘I’ll have her’ (chuckles).”

“I climbed on the coach and there was Tony Newley, surrounded by his crew. I was very shy and after a brief hello we were driving up to the airfield. I do know that standing on that airfield and looking into his eyes I fell instantly in love with the man. He was utterly charming and captivating and sweet.”

Anneke’s affection for Anthony Newley still shines through very clearly today. She went on to make the point that although he may be better known now as a singer, his grounding was very much as an actor. “Although he would go on to become a great singer, he was basically an actor. And a very, very talented one. It was lovely, it was always lovely to work with a very talented actor. The focus is there and it’s very energising.”

It’s always been assumed that Newley was heavily involved with Gurney Slade, both on the writing and directing side. This is confirmed by Anneke. “Oh he was completely involved. Sid Green and Dick Hills were a little group with him and they got this baby together and there would be lots of hilarious falling about and shuffling of scripts and organising.”

Anneke’s main memory of her brief association with Gurney Slade remains the morning spent on the airfield. “I didn’t know I came back for the final one until about three or four weeks ago when I sat down to watch it”. This at last solved the mystery for her about why there was a picture in existence of her sitting on Bernie Winters’ lap.

Watching the episodes did spark the odd memory though. She recalled being less than impressed with the clothes she was given to wear. “Why have they put me in a baggy old mackintosh? And then I was told he wanted you to look like a French film star. And they all wore gaberdine mackintoshes.”

Anneke then explained a little about Anthony Newley’s inspirations. “When I moved in with him we used to fall about with laughter listening to the Goons. Both of us were fans of the Goons and Gurney Slade had a similar kind of surrealistic humour that he found fascinating.  He made Gurney Slade into a sort of magic thing with off the wall humour and his own incredible charm. But it also was his own story, he was basically saying ‘stop the world, I want to get off’. He wanted to walk off the set and talk to ants and dogs and have a completely difference experience from the one that everyone else was following. And that was his uniqueness.

“In the next thing he did (Stop The World – I Want To Get Off) it was the same sort of story – the little chap trying to find his way in the world, trying to make sense of the madness. It was a sort of ongoing quest for him.”

Touching again upon Newley’s grounding as an actor, Anneke feels that it informed his unique singing style. “His voice in a way was like an actor being a singer. And so it was absolutely unique, he didn’t train, he just sung naturally. And I think that’s what it was which inspired the likes of David Bowie.”

The discussion then moved onto Doctor Who, something which – judging by her enthusiastic response – remains very close to her heart. “This year, during the Lockdown, when it was my birthday I had lovely cards from all the Doctor Who women. We are such a family and I really have missed them this year because we always got to meet up, doing gigs and things, and it’s got me thinking about what extraordinary women were cast as the companions of Doctor Who. Each one a totally unique human being and a wonderful woman and my friend.”

In recent years, Anneke’s Doctor Who association has continued apace with both Big Finish and BBC Audiobooks. But during Lockdown that’s come to a temporary halt. “A lot of them are continuing to do recordings but I don’t have a mobile phone, I don’t have a computer. I only have this small television, on which I only really watch Channel 81 (Talking Pictures TV).”

But Anneke seems to have adjusted to Lockdown life pretty well. “I’m very lucky because I’ve got a garden so it’s given me guilt free, obsessional gardening. And I’m also a happy hermit, so in fact it’s been quite nice for me.”

Out of her audio work, it’s the Target novelisations which are closest to her heart. “I really enjoy it. The last thing I did before Lockdown was The Smugglers and I just absolutely adored doing that. I love reading the Target books, I love doing all the characters.  To be able to still be performing is a treat.”

Leading on from that, I wondered if there was one of her Doctor Who stories which she’d particularly like to see returned. I’d assumed Anneke’s answer might have been along the lines of, say, The Power of the Daleks, so her response came as something of a surprise. “I’d love to see The Smugglers. Mainly because it was Michael Craze’s and my favourite one. We went to Cornwall! That was such a treat! If we went filming it was usually in a drafty old quarry.”

I’ve always had a fondness for The Smugglers as well, so I’m happy to second this suggestion. It’s one of those forgotten stories which nobody ever seems to talk about – but with extensive location filming and an intriguing guest cast, it must have something going for it.

I wrapped up our chat by touching upon the proposed second series of Strange Report. “At the end of doing the sixteen episodes, they came to Tony (Quayle) and me, cos Kaz (Garas) of course would have been happy to film in America, and they said ‘look, we’ll do another lot but we want to do them in Hollywood’. We went off to Tony’s dressing room and he didn’t really want to do it, but he said he would agree to it if I wanted to. I told him that it was impossible. I had two young children and my marriage wouldn’t cope with it, and anyway I don’t like Hollywood. So we went back to the American producers and told them no – they were so disappointed.”

A lively and engaging personality, it was a real pleasure to spend some time chatting with Anneke Wills about just a small section of her fascinating career.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade on Blu Ray can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

Strange Report on DVD can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

More information about Anneke Wills can be found on her website annekewills.com. She’s also on Twitter – @AnnekeWills

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Network BD review

A little over sixty years ago (on the 22nd of October 1960 to be precise) the first episode of a short-lived series starring Anthony Newley was broadcast. The Strange World of Gurney Slade arrived with something of a bang but departed with much more of a whimper. Tumbling ratings and the lukewarm reception it received from a baffled audience were two reasons why it was swiftly demoted from peak-time and into a graveyard slot.

And yet there’s no denying that the series had its fans. A young David Jones (later to rechristen himself David Bowie) was certainly enthralled – his mid to late sixties persona borrowed heavily from the Newley image.

The initial critical response was mixed, but the series did garner some good notices. The Coventry Evening Telegraph (5th November 1960) called it the bright spot of their Saturday evening (and bemoaned that it was now on so late – having been shunted off in favour of 77 Sunset Strip). Kenneth Bailey, writing in The People (18th November 1960) made the point that whilst Gurney Slade‘s ratings weren’t spectacular, this type of experimental programme should be applauded (a letter writer to The Stage and Television Today made the same point).

A repeat run in 1963 was an early sign that the critical tide was turning in Gurney’s favour. Marjorie Norris, writing in The Stage and Television Today (12th September 1963), declared that she “enjoyed it even better than before. It is still as much a break-through in comedy as it was then”. Newley was clearly pleased by her comments, as he penned a thank you letter to The Stage (3rd October 1963), commenting that “the Newley ego took a bit of a dive after the pasting he received on its first outing, and it’s rather heart-warming that Gurney has been given a second chance”.

The cult of Gurney Slade was slowly building momentum then, but it wasn’t until Network released the series on DVD in 2011 that it could really be appreciated and reassessed. What’s especially striking for those of us who came to the series via DVD is how contemporary it felt. That’s no doubt because it’s easy to identify later programmes (The Prisoner, say) who were influenced – either directly or indirectly – by the show. But as the 1960 audience would have had none of these later reference points, coming to it cold must have been a bewildering experience for many.

British television comedy (indeed British television in general) was still in its infancy back in 1960. The BBC may have begun broadcasting in 1936, but the Second World War (and the slow roll out of transmitters) meant that only by the mid fifties was television establishing itself as a dominant force (helped along by the arrival of ITV). The pre-eminent sitcom of the time would have been Hancock’s Half Hour over on the BBC.

ITV also had a crop of popular programmes – such as The Army Game and The Larkins – but they tended to be somewhat broader in tone. When Gurney walks out of a middle of the road television sitcom at the start of the first episode (demolishing the fourth wall even before the credits have rolled) he seems to be turning his back on a series not dissimilar to The Larkins.

This pre-credits faux sitcom is everything that Gurney Slade isn’t – comfortable, cosy and predictable. By thumbing his nose at it, Newley (and his writers, Sid Green and Dick Hills) were taking a broad satirical swipe at this sort of show. The only problem with this is that it risks alienating that section of the audience who likes their sitcoms to be cosy and predictable. Annoying the audience within the first few minutes of the opening episode has to be a record ….

Recording wise the series was split – the first three episodes were shot mainly on location and the last three were studio bound. Heading into episode two, we find Gurney musing about the nature of relationships. He arrives at a deserted airfield – well, deserted apart from a young woman (Anneke Wills).  In their imaginations only, the airfield transforms itself into a dance hall and the pair enjoy a dance, after much hesitancy. It’s a remarkable sequence – not least for the fact that both engage in lengthy internal monologues.

In real life, their relationship was far less tranquil – Wills became pregnant by him twice (he persuaded her to abort the first baby, but she was determined to keep the second child – Polly, born in 1962). Given all we know about Newley’s notorious philandering – even after their relationship ended so he could pursue Joan Collins, he still couldn’t keep away from Wills – it gives this episode a subtext which would have been totally absent on its original broadcast.

Episode three was probably the one which snapped the patience of many casual viewers back in 1960. Even more fragmentary than the previous two, Gurney spends most of this episode either musing to himself or talking to the animals (such as a cow, seductively voiced by Fenella Fielding). He does bump into the odd human being, such as  Napoleon (John Bennett), who happens to be standing in a field.

Things get really interesting when we move into the studio episodes. Show four finds Gurney on trial. “I did a television show recently and they didn’t think it was very funny.  I’m being charged with having no sense of humour.”

That Newley, Green and Hills could accurately foresee the way the series would be received is fascinating. The arguments and counter-arguments brought into play (an average member of the audience found the series clever – not funny, but clever) no doubt mirrored real life discussions generated by the series.  Another broad satirical dig occurs when the jury is revealed – twelve men all dressed identically in cloth caps and scarves. Throw in Douglas Wilmer as the judge and you’ve got an episode which is possibly my favourite – for sheer nerve alone.

The recursive nature of Gurney Slade is developed during episode five. Gurney is telling a group of children a story (all about a magical place called Gurneyland). When he later asks them why they didn’t stay inside and watch the television, they tell him that “there’s nothing on. Just some bloke telling kids a story.” A later trip to Gurney’s subconscious (which is invaded by the children and their families) offers plenty of food for thought about the dividing line between fantasy and reality. The invisible elephant is impressive as well.

By now it was clear that just about anything could happen, so how would the series be brought to a conclusion? The final episode sees a group of executives brought to the studio to watch a recording of Gurney Slade. So despite the fact that Gurney believed he was breaking free at the start of episode one, it’s made clear again today that he – like all the other characters – is a fictional construct. Born in the studio six weeks ago, his time is nearly up.

It’s nice to see most of the characters from previous episodes turn up for a final bow. They’re all given new jobs – Wilmer’s prosecutor lands a plumb role in Boyd QC (although he does grumble about typecasting) whilst Wills’ character looks aghast at the prospect of having to take her clothes off in a French film.

Gurney’s fate is somewhat startling, but for those coming to the series fresh I won’t spoil the ending.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade is something that deserves to be cherished. Network’s DVD has been played a number of times and it’s lovely to now have the series on a sparkling BD, packed with a number of new special features.

Three Saturday Spectaculars from 1960 are the pick for me – not only do the likes of Shirley Bassey and Peter Sellers make appearances, but there’s also the chance to see Newley try out the character that would eventually turn into Gurney Slade.

The Small World of Sammy Lee was released on BD back in 2016, but I won’t begrudge its inclusion here, Newley is on top form in this 1963 film, set in a sleazy Soho world where Sammy (Newley) is attempting to stay one step ahead of a Mr Big who’s intent on causing him serious damage. Newly discovered material (an alternative ending, textless titles and a promotional interview with Anthony Newley) are intriguing additions.

Andrew Pixley, Dick Fiddy and Andrew Roberts have all contributed essays to a 44 page booket. Pixley’s is the lengthiest and packed with the sort of painstaking detail he’s known and loved for (production information on the series was clearly a little hard to come by, but everything else – even down to how many different cover versions of Max Harris’ theme were issued – is detailed). The essays by Fiddy and Roberts are also well worth reading, although possibly not one after the other as there’s some duplication of information and quotes.

For those who own the DVD, then this BD set offers a considerable upgrade – the picture quality (which was good on the DVD) has received a substantial boost. This, along with the new special features, makes for a very nice package. And if you’re new to the world of Gurney Slade, the BD should be snapped up straight away ….

The Strange World Of Gurney Slade can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

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