Deborah Watling (1948 – 2017)


I was very sorry to hear today that Deborah Watling has died at far too young an age. Whilst she’ll no doubt always be best remebered for Doctor Who, she had several other entries on her CV which are worth checking out.

Right at the beginning of her career was H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man (1958). Ten-year old Debbie played Sally, niece to Peter Brady, the invisible man of the title. Sally rarely played a central role in the stories but Debbie was always eye-catching and managed to steal more than a few scenes.

Her last dramatic television role was as the vampish Norma in Danger UXB (1979). Possibly not a series that’s terribly well-remebered today, but it’s a quality WW2 programme with a fine ensemble cast which I’ll have to dig out soon for a rewatch.

On the big screen, 1973 saw her act with two British pop stars from very different generations. Take Me High, a tale of Cliff Richard and brumburgers is a wonky guilty pleasure whilst That’ll Be The Day is in a different class altogether. Debbie played Sandra, a young girl used and rather abused by the feckless Jim MacLaine (David Essex). That’ll Be The Day is more than a David Essex star vehicle since it stands up as a decent film in its own right. It’s something else which I’ll no doubt be revisiting shortly.

Back In my convention-going days I had the opportunity to meet Debbie on several occassions and she was always a delight – an attentive and welcoming guest. Possibly my strongest memory of her comes from a small convention held in Weston-Super-Mare during the mid nineties.

As often happened, the timetable started to go a little awry which meant that nobody was terribly pleased when the auditorium was cleared for what appeared to be no good reason. But all turned out well in the end as it became clear that Debbie had been rehearsing a special entertainment – a song and dance routine where, showing a good deal of leg, she left most of us speechless! Happy days and a memory to treasure.

This is an obvious clip to end on, but it’s a very pertinent one. Thank you Debbie. RIP.

Alan Simpson (1929 – 2017)

Ray Galton & Alan Simpson

The works of Alan Simpson and his writing partner Ray Galton have been an ever-present part of my life since the early eighties.  It would have been about 1980 when, rooting around in my parents record collection for something of interest, I found two LPs – Steptoe & Son on the Pye label (The Bird on side one, a selection of series one highlights on side two) and the Golden Guinea LP of Tony Hancock’s The Blood Donor/The Radio Ham.

They may have already been twenty years old, but they didn’t feel like crackly relics from another age – instead they seemed quite fresh, even if some of the references were rather obscure (it took me years to work out what the Blue Streak was!)  For me that’s one of the many reasons why I love their work – it may be rooted in a specific time but it’s also strangely timeless.

The blog’s been on a bit of a G&S trip recently, with the Paul Merton series, and once that’s done I’ll be moving onto a series of posts about series one of the television incarnation of Hancock’s Half Hour.  Although only the scripts are left, the quality of the writing is so good that even without Tony, Sid and the others you can still get an excellent impression about how they would have played out.  Which is a true testament to the skill of Alan and Ray.

Although Alan Simpson’s health had failed a little in recent years, he was still able to witness how the scripts he wrote with Ray Galton all those years ago continued to connect with fresh audiences.  When they attended one of the R4 re-recordings of HHH a few years back they received a very warm reception (and a standing ovation) but Alan seemed more touched that the audience still responded enthusiastically to the script, just as they had sixty years ago.

Which returns me to my earlier point.  Classic comedy is timeless and will endure long after more transient fare is forgotten.  Nobody can tell what will be remembered in fifty years time, comedy-wise, but if anything deserves to be, then it’s the work of Alan Simpson and Ray Galton.

Gordon Murray (1921 – 2016)

gordon murray

The news of Gordon Murray’s death closes another door on the golden age of British children’s television.  Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969) were repeated for decades by the BBC and were then later picked up by Channel 4 and Nickelodeon Junior.

All three series were remastered a few years ago and are therefore available on DVD to enchant yet another generation.  And I see no reason why the magic of the Trumptonshire trilogy shouldn’t endure for years to come – as all three series have a timeless feel.

Murray didn’t make the shows on his own – Bob Bura, John Hardwick and Pasquale Ferrari were responsible for the animation, Freddie Phillips wrote the music, Alison Prince provided the scripts for Trumpton, Andrew and Margaret Brownfoot constructed the sets, whilst the unmistakable tones of Brian Cant enchanted a generation.

Why has Murray’s world endured?  In a 1996 interview for the radio series Trumpton Riots (this title was a sly nod to Half Man Half Biscuit’s legendary song) Murray felt it was due to the air of innocence that pervaded all three series.  “There’s no crime you know in Trumptonshire, it’s a happy world, and a lot of people say ‘well you shouldn’t encourage children to think that the world’s like that’. Some people throw their children into the deep end of the swimming bath at an early age and say ‘swim’. You know, that’s the way to learn, life’s hard. Hard things are coming to you. I don’t believe in that. I believe that you must protect your children while they are children for as long as possible from this dreadful world we’re living in.” You can listen to the episode here.

Another reason why they have such appeal is the sense of repetition.  For a pre-school programme this is quite important, as the audience will no doubt enjoy the comfort and stability of the same things happening again and again.  If most people were asked their memories of the shows, they might mention the music box, or Pippin Fort, or the Trumpton Clock, or Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble and Grubb, or Lord Belborough’s train, etc etc.  These things remain in the memory longer than the individual plots.

All the series had memorable opening and closing sequences.  Camberwick Green had the music box (“Here is a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide a secret inside. Can you guess what is in it today?”). Trumpton opened with the town clock (“Here is the clock, the Trumpton clock. Telling the time steadily, sensibly, never too quickly, never too slowly. Telling the time for Trumpton”) whilst they ended with the fire brigade entertaining the locals at the bandstand. True, the opening of Chigley was less iconic than the previous two series, but the closing sequence of the dancing workers from the biscuit factory made up for it.

Thank you Gordon, from millions of children of all ages.  RIP.

Victoria Wood (1953-2016)


The news of Victoria Wood’s death at the age of just sixty two has come as yet another unpleasant shock in a year that has already seen the departure of far too many talented people.

Following her television debut on New Faces in 1974 and a handful of appearances on That’s Life! (1975-1976), she had to wait a little while longer for her first meaningful break.  This came in 1978 when she was invited by director David Leland to pen a play for a season he was planning at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield.  Although she’d never written a play before, with the confidence of youth Wood dashed off Talent in next to no time.  She was later to admit that “I kept writing plays after that, but they were all terrible and never saw the light of day.”

Set in a seedy Northern club, it follows the misadventures of Julie, keen to hit the heights of showbiz, and her socially awkward friend Maureen.  In 1979 it was recorded for television with Wood as Maureen and Julie Walters as Julie.  This was a key moment, as Walters became the first of Wood’s “rep” company of actors (later to include the likes of Duncan Preston and Celia Imrie).  With a host of strong supporting performances from the likes of Bill Waddington, Nat Jackley and Kevin Lloyd, Talent was a more than impressive debut.

Wood and Walters would also feature in another Wood-penned play, Nearly a Happy Ending (also 1979) and off the back of these plays it probably seemed logical to give them their own sketch series, Wood & Walters (1981/82).  Although something of a curate’s egg, it’s also fascinating viewing due to its obvious similarities to the later BBC show Victoria Wood: As Seen On TV (1985 -1987).  Possibly part of the slightly off-key feeling about Wood & Walters is because neither of them were household names at the time – so the audience tended to be appreciative, rather than effusive (in some ways it’s similar to the polite and muted reaction to the early Monty Python shows).  By the time of As Seen on TV, Wood was a much more recognisable figure and whilst the material was stronger, her increasing bond with the audience no doubt also helped to generate a more positive response.

Following the end of As Seen on TV, Wood obviously felt that she didn’t want to write any further sketch series (although she’d produce a number of Christmas Specials over the next few decades).  Her next major work was Victoria Wood (1989).  A series of six unconnected half-hour sitcoms, it was politely received but never garnered the same critical reputation that As Seen on TV did.  Which is a pity, as it’s full of Wood’s trademark wit and remains one of the undiscovered gems of her television career.

During the time that she was writing and performing on television, she was also pursing a career as one of the nation’s top live stand-up comedians – which may explain why her credits for a large part of the 1990’s are fairly sparse.  But there was Pat and Margaret in 1994 (a Screen One play with another memorable role for Julie Walters) and between 1998 and 2000 she would write the show which will probably remain her signature series – dinnerladies.

Gathering some of her trusted collaborators around her (as well as some fresh blood) dinnerladies was a fine ensemble piece.  Wood was always a very unselfish writer – which can clearly be seen across the course of the series’ sixteen episodes.  If dinnerladies is essentially about the journey of Bren and Tony, every other main character is still allowed their chance to shine and often Wood gave the biggest laugh lines to other members of the cast, rather than hogging all the best jokes for herself.  Still a regular on Gold, there seems no doubt that dinnerladies will be one of those handful of sitcoms (like Dad’s Army, so beloved by Wood herself) which will endure for decades to come.

Tonight, I plan to dig out Talent for a rewatch, which I think is a suitable tribute to a great British comedy writer and actor.  RIP.

Gareth Thomas (1945-2016)

gareth thomas2

2016 continues to be a bitter year, with the sad news that another favourite actor of mine, Gareth Thomas, has died.

Whilst there’s no doubt that he’ll always be best remembered as Roj Blake, he made a score of other television appearances – a few of which I’d which to highlight.  Parkin’s Patch (1969-1970) was his first regular television role – he played Ron Radley, one of the supporting characters to PC Moss Parkin (John Flanagan).  It’s a decent village-based police series and the DVD is worth picking up.

Another series with Gareth Thomas in a supporting role which is certainly worth a look is Sutherland’s Law, which saw Thomas play alongside Iain Cuthbertson (later the pair would appear in Children of the Stones, yet another series that any fan of 1970’s archive television should own).

Thomas was part of a fine ensemble cast who were brought together for the 1975 BBC adaptation of How Green Was My Valley.  Stanley Baker, Sian Phillips, Nerys Hughes, Ray Smith, Jeremy Clyde and Clifford Rose were amongst his co-stars, which gives a good indication of the strength in depth of the casting.

Not everything he appeared in was of the same quality, Star Maidens (1976) was entertainly awful but Thomas managed to emerge with his dignity intact.  Not an easy job!  He was a semi-regular in the likes of By The Sword Divided and London’s Burning in the 1980’s and 1990’s and continued to rack up numerous credits up until Holby City in 2011.

Although a fair amount of his work is available on DVD, a few key series aren’t.  Knights of God (1987) is, like the rest of the TVS archive, mired in rights issues so YouTube is the best bet for that one.  It would be nice to see someone pick up Morgan’s Boy (1984) for a DVD release though.

Returning to Blakes 7, whilst Blake might sometimes be overshadowed by Avon (it’s always easier to write for the dissenting voice on the sidelines, rather than the straight-ahead hero) there’s no doubt that Thomas was the glue that held the series together for the first two years – Blake’s absence was certainly felt during series three and four.  And Blake’s return in the 52nd and final episode still has considerable power and impact some thirty five years later.



Douglas Wilmer (1920-2016)


Time marches on alas, and it’s more sad news that another favourite of this blog – Douglas Wilmer – has passed away.

Blessed with a long life and a lengthy career, he was also fortunate that he seemed to keep his sharpness pretty much to the end – he was a pithy contributor to the BFI DVD release of his Sherlock Holmes series last year.

I’ve written in depth about Wilmer’s Sherlock Holmes elsewhere on the blog, but suffice it to say that if you love Holmes,  or you love archive television,  then the BFI set is something you really should have in your collection.

And even if you have no interest in Holmes, there’s plenty of other fine Wilmer performances to seek out.  RIP Douglas Wilmer.

Richard Bradford (1934 – 2016)

2016 has been a wretched year so far for losing people from the era of television that I love and the death of Richard Bradford (1934-2016) is yet another sad passing.

Probably best known for Man in a Suitcase, Bradford’s American method acting might not always have won him friends amongst some of his fellow crewmembers, but it certainly helped to elevate what would otherwise have been a rather standard ITC adventure series.

But thanks to Bradford’s insistence of throwing punches for real and looking like he was actually suffering, the series stood apart from its contemporaries.

So time to dig out the DVD to spin an episode in tribute.  RIP.

Obituary – Brian Clemens (1931 – 2015)


Brian Clemens, one of British television’s most prolific scriptwriters, has died at the age of 83.

Born in Croydon in 1931, he broke into television in the 1950’s and contributed to series such as The Vise, Dial 999, Interpol Calling and H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man.  During the 1960’s he was a popular writer-for-hire, scripting stories for Danger Man, Ghost Squad, Adam Adamant Lives!, The Baron and The Champions amongst others, but by far his most enduring work during that decade was on The Avengers.

Clemens wrote several scripts during the early years, but it wasn’t until series four (when The Avengers became a film production) that he was to have a major influence on the programme.  Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell took over as producers and they turned the series into an international hit.  But not everybody approved of the more outlandish style and after the end of the fifth series Clemens and Fennell were unceremoniously fired and former producer John Bryce was invited back.

Diana Rigg (who had starred as Emma Peel during the fourth and fifth series) had also left, so Bryce’s first job was to cast a new Avengers girl.  He selected Linda Thorson and the first few stories went into production.  But it quickly became clear that things weren’t working, story-wise, so Bryce was sacked and Clemens and Fennell were reinstated.  Clemens understandably felt vindicated that the network had to come, cap in hand, to Fennell and himself to sort out the mess!

During the 1970’s Clemens would write film screenplays for Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad whilst his television work would be dominated by three series – Thriller, The New Avengers and The Professionals.

Clemens had originally planned to take something of a backseat with The Professionals after writing the first one, but when he found that some of the other scripts weren’t up to scratch he was forced to write a number of stories himself (eventually contributing 17 stories across the whole run).

In the 1980’s and 1990’s he split his time between the UK and the US.  For American television he wrote episodes of Remington Steele, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Father Dowling Mysteries and Perry Mason.  In the UK he created Bugs (1995 – 1999) a series that harked back to some of his past successes, whilst CI5 – The New Professionals (1999) was another show that traded on his past – although this wasn’t as successful and only lasted the one series.

Whilst Brian Clemens will undoubtedly be remembered for a number of key series (The Avengers, Thriller, The New Avengers, The Professionals) his work as a script-writer on other series shouldn’t be underestimated.  To take just one example, he only contributed a single script for Bergerac (Ninety Per Cent Proof from series three) but it’s a quality story that pushes Jim Bergerac into a very dark place.  It’s atypical in many ways (possibly Clemens wasn’t that familiar with the show) but this is a plus point and there’s certainly no indication that Clemens was simply going through the motions.  As ever with Clemens, it’s a tense and exciting story.

Clemens’ son Samuel told BBC News that just before his father died he watched an episode of The Avengers and his last words were “I did quite a good job”.  Something that I think we can all agree on.

Obituary – Bernard Kay (1928 – 2014)

bernard kay - colony in space

I was sorry to hear about the recent death of Bernard Kay.  He had a lengthy career with some notable film appearances (such as Doctor Zhivago & Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger) but many of his best performances were on television.

And one of his finest small-screen appearances must be the Tweedledum episode of Colditz (transmitted on the 21st of December 1972).  Michael Bryant played Wing Commander George Marsh, who decided to fake madness in order to get released from Colditz and gain repatriation to Britain.  Kay was Hartwig, the German soldier assigned to watch him.  Initially, Hartwig was convinced that Marsh was a fake and sought to prove this by various humiliating means.  Eventually though, he’s convinced and it’s Kay’s compassion that moved the story to another level.

Bernard Kay would become a familiar screen presence for decades, appearing in many popular series such as Out of the Unknown, Redcap, No Hiding Place, The Baron, Adam Adamant Lives!, Softly Softly, The Champions, Budgie, Z Cars, The Sweeney, Space 1999, Survivors, The Professionals, Grange Hill, Dick Turpin, Tales of the Unexpected, The Bill, Juliet Bravo, Remington Steele, London’s Burning, Coronation Street, Jonathan Creek, Foyle’s War and TV Burp amongst many, many others.

He also made four appearances in Doctor Who, between 1964 and 1971.  The first, The Dalek Invasion of Earth was opposite William Hartnell and he played Tyler – a member of the Earth resistance fighting the Daleks.  A few months later he returned to the series, as Saladin in David Whitaker’s The Crusade.

Since Kay (along with several other actors) was browned-up in The Crusade, this might mean that some people would view the story today as politically incorrect, but Whitaker’s script certainly wasn’t.  Kay’s Saladin isn’t a monster – indeed he seems to be just as rational as Julian Glover’s Richard the Lionheart (possibly more so).  As Richard blusters, Saladin is content to remain cold and logical.  It’s Kay’s best Doctor Who performance.

A few years later, he played Inspector Crossland opposite Patrick Troughton’s Doctor in The Faceless Ones and would make his final appearance in the series in 1971.  Jon Pertwee was the Doctor at the time and whilst the story (Colony in Space) is a little dull, Kay was, as usual, very good – this time as Caldwell, a man who finds himself increasingly at odds with his IMC (Interplanetary Mining Company) colleagues.

Kay was born in Bolton in 1928, and following his National Service he trained to become an actor at the Old Vic Theatre School.  Although the majority of his work was either on television or film, he was no stranger to the Theatre.  One notable early performance was as Macbeth in the Nottingham Playhouse’s production of  1952.  When the actor playing Macbeth had to pull out, Kay stepped into the part – with only 24 hours to learn the role.

Bernard Kay was always somebody who spoke his mind – and this is demonstrated in these fascinating interviews, conduced by Toby Hadoke for his Who’s Round Project – Part One and Part Two.  At times painfully frank, they provide a good insight into the personality of a fine character actor.

Obituary – Bill Kerr (1922 – 2014)

Bill Kerr in Ghost Squad (1961)
Bill Kerr in Ghost Squad (1961)

Australian actor Bill Kerr has died at the age of 92.

Kerr was born in Cape Town in June 1922 and was raised in Australia. A radio star in his own country he moved to Britain in 1947 in search of new career opportunities.  During the four decades or so he was resident in the UK he notched up numerous credits on film, television and radio.

He appeared in films such as The Dam Busters and The Wrong Arm of the Law and television series like Ghost Squad, No Hiding Place, Compact and Dixon of Dock Green.  Another notable guest appearance on British television during the 1960’s was as Giles Kent in the Doctor Who story The Enemy of the World.  Five episodes of this six part story were lost until 2013 and Kerr’s performance is one of the highlights of an impressive serial.

For many people though, he will always be best remembered as a comic foil for Tony Hancock across six radio series of Hancock’s Half Hour.

L-R - Sid James, Tony Hancock and Bill Kerr
L-R – Sid James, Tony Hancock and Bill Kerr

Although Kerr never crossed over to the television version of HHH, he did appear with Sid James in the first series of Citizen James.  This series, like HHH, was written by Galton and Simpson and it’s quite possible to imagine that the Sid and Bill from this series are the same characters that appeared in HHH.

Kerr returned to Australia in the late 1970’s and continued to work, appearing in films such as Gallipoli and television series like Anzacs with his last recorded credit coming in Southern Cross in 2004.

Obituary – Voytek (1925 – 2014)

Wojciech Roman Pawel Jerzy Szendzikowski, more commonly known as Voytek, has died at the age of 89.

He worked as a production designer and director in television, theatre and the movies. His distinctive name would have become familiar to viewers after it appeared on the end credits of numerous British television programmes during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

He directed top-rated shows such as Callan, Man At The Top and Special Branch and was the designer of multiple episodes of programmes including Armchair Theatre.

Guardian Obituary –

Charles Sturridge discusses directing Lauren Bacall in A Foreign Field

Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)
Lauren Bacall (1924-2014)

Amongst the numerous tributes paid over the past week to screen legend Lauren Bacall was this one in the Guardian, written by Charles Sturridge who directed Bacall in the 1994 BBC Screen One production A Foreign Field.

Having recently watched and blogged about this drama here, it was a very interesting read.