Coronation Street – March 1978

Having had a bit of a break, I’ve recently picked up my Coronation Street rewatchathon from January 1978 (at the rate of two episodes per evening).

The trial of Ernie Bishop’s killers, from mid March 1978, has been an interesting storyline. This was partly because it allowed the topic of capital punishment an airing (most of the residents were in favour although there were some voices raised against). One naysayer was Emily, who reacted with characteristic quiet dignity when Ivy blithely shoved a petition under her nose.

We never actually saw the trial (the viewers got no further than the corridor outside the courtroom). It’s hard to image a soap opera today not milking this scenario for all it was worth, but there’s several possible reasons why the 1977 Street decided to be more discrete.  I’ve a feeling that it may just have been budget related – a one-off courtroom set might have been too expensive to build (ditto filming on location).

The audience doesn’t lose too much by having the events reported second hand though. Indeed, the endless sitting about and waiting for something to happen is nicely captured. When Betty caustically wonders if Hilda would be taking her knitting, it deftly creates the image that she was attending purely out of ghoulish curiosity (although since Hilda was quite happy to sit and keep Emily company maybe we shouldn’t judge her too harshly).

The mother of one of the accused – Mrs. Lester (Penny Leatherbarrow) – is also at court, and her close encounter with Emily is another fascinating moment. The pair are briefly in the same space but don’t talk to each other (which might seem like a missed opportunity, but I think things play out better this way).

Emily slowly realises that even the successful conviction doesn’t offer her any closure (with good behavour, the pair might be released in ten years time). Long-time viewers would be rewarded though, as Ernie’s killer returned in 2005 and 2006, now a changed man and seeking forgiveness from Emily. Nearly thirty years is an incredibly long time to wait for a storyline pay-off, but it was appreciated by this viewer.

Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan. Part Six – Coronas of the Sun

The Black Dalek is having a bad day.  In an earlier episode we saw how he dealt with failure from some of his hapless Dalek subordinates (he permanently puts them out of his misery).  He’s still in a foul mood and Mavic Chen is now in his sights.

Chen’s not prepared to go down without a fight though and manages to turn the argument around by claiming he diverted the Doctor to Mira on purpose.  “You make your failure sound like an achievement” rasps the Black Dalek ironically.

Chen is unable to stifle a smile when he learns that the Doctor and his friends have stolen the Dalek ship on Mira.  Naturally, this sends the Black Dalek into another tizzy!

The Black Dalek in Coronas of the Sun is probably the most sharply drawn Dalek we’ve seen since their debut story.  He’s not content to simply bark out orders, there’s a touch of character and individuality about him.

Was this due to Dennis Spooner’s input? This was the first of his six scripts for DMP (although it was based on a Nation story outline).  Nation famously hated the way David Whitaker later wrote for the Daleks in Power and Evil (somewhat missing the point by believing that the Daleks in Power were too subservient) so that does make me lean towards the probability that Nation wouldn’t have made the Black Dalek so individual – he tended to depict the Daleks as much more of a homogeneous collective.

Although Spooner takes over scripting duties for the remainder of the serial (with the exception of the next episode) there’s no sudden tonal shift.  That’ll happen next time with Nation’s bizarre Christmas episode before Spooner starts to have some fun over the next few episodes (and it’s fair to say that Spooner was a better comedy writer than Nation) before everything gets serious again for the final two installments.

As for the Doctor, he has some nice confrontational scenes with the Daleks on Mira (it’s pleasing that the Daleks still don’t know who he is – all that “Doctor Who is our greatest enemy” in The Chase was rather tiresome) and later somberly leads Steven and Sara out to meet the Daleks on Kembel.  It’s a pity we can’t see this scene as Hartnell is uncharacteristically subdued to begin with.

Thanks to the Doctor whipping up a fake core he’s able to get the TARDIS back.  There’s another whacking plot contrivance – Steven manages to inadvertently create a forcefield around himself (!) which means he can hand over the fake core and withstand being exterminated by the Daleks before nipping back into the TARDIS.

Although compared to the events of the next episode that seems quite sensible ….

Witness Statements: Making The Bill Series 1-3 by Oliver Crocker (Book Review)

Given The Bill‘s length of service (1983 – 2010) it’s surprising that books about the series are very thin on the ground. Although maybe it’s worth remembering that this is the fate of most television shows – programmes like Doctor Who (which have been examined in painstaking detail) are very much the exception rather than the rule.

During the series’ lifetime, The Bill generated several glossy, large format books (by the likes of Hilary Kingsley and Geoff Tibballs). These are good to have, but Witness Statements: Making The Bill Series 1-3 offers a much more forensic examination of the early years of the show.

Oliver Crocker’s Bill podcast has been running for several years now, clocking up an impressive number of episodes (each one interviewing a different Sun Hill alumni). With all this material to hand, it made sense to distill some of it into book form (plus Crocker has carried out new interviews especially for this book). Witness Statements concentrates on the original incarnation of The Bill – when it was a post-watershed 50 minute series (prior to its re-formatting in 1988).

Each episode, from the Woodentop pilot to the final episode of S3 – Not Without Cause – is given its own chapter. A highly impressive roster of personnel – both in front of and behind the screen – provide commentaries on the episodes in turn.

Every contributor offers something of interest, but John Salthouse’s comments were especially fascinating (possibly because he’s rarely spoken about his time as DI Roy Galloway before in any depth).

I’ve recently been revisiting the first series of The Bill and I’ve found Witness Statements to be an excellent companion. If you have any interest in The Bill – or indeed British television of this era in general – then Witness Statements is an invaluable book which comes highly recommended.

Witness Statements: Making The Bill Series 1-3 by Oliver Crocker, published by Devonfire Books, is available from Amazon.

Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan. Part Five – Counter Plot

Back in the 1990’s I didn’t have a particularly high opinion of The Daleks’ Master Plan – which wasn’t really surprising as I only had access to the (then) two existing episodes (Counter Plot and Escape Switch) courtesy of Daleks – The Early Years on VHS.

Jumping into the story cold with Counter Plot is a strange experience, as the horror and tension of the previous episode, The Traitors, is completely absent.  Counter Plot hits the reset switch by transmitting the Doctor, Steven and Sara to the jungle planet of Mira.

Oh good, another jungle!  Following Kembel and Desperus we now end up on Mira, which looks spookily similar to the previous jungles.  No surprises for guessing that since this was an extra long story they had to stretch the budget as far as possible – reusing the same sets was an obvious money-saving move.

The Doctor’s jaunt to Mira is another clumsy part of plotting.  The Doctor and Steven just happen to stumble into a room where a time experiment is being carried out (and they enter at exactly the right time too, which stretches credibility even further).  And then Sara (also somewhat randomly) joins them.  There’s little time for any discussion though, as all three (plus some white mice!) are then transported far far away.

Cue various camera effects by Douglas Camfield to sell the illusion of matter transmission.  Most entertainingly, this involves Peter Purves and Jean Marsh bouncing up and down on a (hidden) trampoline.  It’s an eternal regret that William Hartnell also wasn’t present at Ealing for this filming, although it’s no real surprise that he wasn’t.  Can you imagine the conversation?  “Bill, we’d like you to get on this trampoline”  Cue various expletives ….

There’s a wonderfully revealing scene between Karlton and Mavic Chen.  Chen seems hesitant, unaware of how to proceed.  Karlton suggests he tells the Daleks that they sent the Doctor and the Core to Mira on purpose (since it’s only a stone’s throw away from Kembel – gosh, another coincidence!).  After a few seconds Chen sees the logic in this and launches into a highly dramatic monologue. “Without me, their plan cannot completely work. Without me, they are but nothing. Nothing! When I am next to the Daleks, only they stand between me and the highest position in the universe. Then will be the time for me to take complete control!”

As he raises his arms to take the applause of an imaginary crowd we cut to Karlton. He’s staring silently at Chen, giving the clear impression that he’s only just realised that his boss is completely mad. And Chen’s reaction to Karlton is also interesting, as he seems to acknowledge that he’s gone too far. It’s a telling few moments that, in non-verbal terms, speaks volumes and it again makes me regret that Karlton shortly fades away from the story.

I love the Doctor’s opening line to Sara. “Pull yourself together, madam. I want to ask you a few questions.” Sara might be under the mistaken apprehension that she’s in control but the Doctor soon puts her right! Although it’s another slight weakness that Sara changes so quickly from an icy killer to the Doctor’s friend (and why does she accept Steven’s story at face value?).

It’s a nice scene for Peter Purves nonetheless, with Hartnell popping up at the end to sadly confirm the truth.  Also of interest during the Mira scenes is the moment when the Doctor tangles with the invisible Visians (like many Terry Nation creations, there’s a clue in their name!).  Billy waves his walking stick around furiously in an attempt to beat them off.  And despite the fact they’re apparently eight feet tall he succeeds.  This moment, played dead seriously by Hartnell, never fails to raise a smile.

There’s a cracking cliffhanger too, as the Doctor, Steven and Sara find themselves surrounded by the Daleks.  The Doctor tells them that “I’m afraid, my friends, the Daleks have won.”

Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan. Part Four – The Traitors

Katarina’s death is a bit of a shocker.  The last few episodes have suggested that she’s now firmly a regular, so her sudden demise (sucked out of the airlock with Kirksen) certainly helps to reinforce the impression that the stakes in this story are higher than usual (as we’ll see, other allies will also perish before we reach episode twelve).

But the nature of this type of adventure serial means that it’s impossible to dwell on her fate for too long.  Steven sounds upset and the Doctor delivers a nice little tribute (“She didn’t understand. She couldn’t understand. She wanted to save our lives and perhaps the lives of all the other beings of the Solar System. I hope she’s found her Perfection. Oh, how I shall always remember her as one of the Daughters of the Gods. Yes, as one of the Daughters of the Gods”) but once that’s done they press on and she’s only mentioned again at the end of the final episode as Steven counts the human cost of their victory.

Although the story seems set to be a re-run of The Chase (the Dalek pursuit ship wasn’t able to intercept the Doctor on Desperus, so you assume it’ll carry on following them) at present it takes a different tack.  The Black Dalek orders the pursuit ship to be destroyed as he doesn’t tolerate failure (another sign that the Daleks are back to their ruthless, single-minded best) and then contacts Chen – telling him that he’ll be the one to regain the core and exterminate the Doctor and his friends.  This is another sign that the Daleks are thinking – it would have been impossible for them to travel to Earth and not attract attention, so using their human agents is the logical course of action.

Every good megalomaniac needs a confidant and Chen has Karlton (Maurice Browning).  Browning is wonderfully smooth and his performance gives us the impression that Karlton is well aware of his worth.  It’s a pity that he doesn’t stick around longer as he would have served as a good sounding board for Chen’s various plots and dreams.

The Traitors has an increasing vice-like feel, as the Doctor, Steven and Bret (now back on Earth) find it difficult to know who they can trust.  Bret contacts Daxtar (Roger Avon) but he’s part of the conspiracy and Bret shoots him dead.  The Doctor is appalled by this, but as he was powerless to intercede it’s another sign that the Doctor isn’t in control – at present he’s being buffeted along by events whilst others (both enemies and allies) hold the upper hand.

This episode introduces us to Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh).  Chen initially refers to her by her surname and sums up her character.  “Ruthless, hard, efficient. And does exactly as ordered.”  This scene is another mis-direct, as no doubt the audience is supposed to be surprised when this top agent is revealed not to be a man but a woman.  Sara, like the troopers later seen in Blakes 7, is a product of her training.  Once she has her orders then she’ll carry them out without question.  It’s not difficult to imagine that Terry Nation was again drawing on his memories of WW2 when crafting this character.

If Katarina’s death at the start of this episode was a jolt, then so is Bret’s demise at the end.  He’s shot dead by Sara which spells trouble for the Doctor and Steven as she’ll now be gunning for them …..

Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan. Part Three – Devil’s Planet

After being little more than comic relief during The Chase, it’s good to see the Daleks regaining their ruthless streak – highlighted when they question the hapless Zephon.

Zephon’s arrogance won’t permit him to admit he was in any way culpable for the Doctor’s theft of the taranium core (although you do have to agree with him that the Daleks’ security was rather lax).  When the Black Dalek tells him it’s been agreed that he’s guilty of negligence, it’s not clear who’s agreed this.  The Black Dalek by himself maybe?  This would seem to be the most likely option and if so it’s a clear demonstration to the other delegates that the Daleks can and will operate unilaterally.

Dalek technology is shown to be rather advanced, as they’re able to remote land Chen’s craft (carrying the Doctor, Steven, Katarina and Bret) onto the prison planet Desperus.  They then launch a pursuit craft to intercept them and regain the core – although you have to wonder why they didn’t launch the pursuit ship earlier (that way it could have maintained a watching brief a safe distance behind).

It may not surprise you to know that Desperus is an inhospitable prison planet.  There’s no guards and the prisoners are left to fend for themselves (echos of Cygnus Alpha from Blakes 7).  Alas we never find out if Desperus was named after it became a prison planet or if it always had that name and someone decided it sounded just the gloomy sort of place to establish a penal colony!

It’s another jungle planet, no doubt reusing the Kembel sets.  We’re quickly introduced to three very hairy convicts, Bors (Dallas Cavell), Garge (Geoffrey Cheshire) and Kirksen (Douglas Sheldon).  The pecking order is established during their first scene – Bors is leader, Garge wants to be the leader but Bors (at present) is too strong which leaves Kirksen as the third wheel.

Terry Nation seems to be deliberately wrong-footing us, since everything suggests that Bors will be the main threat.  But after the Doctor is able to repair the ship and they take off again, it’s Kirksen who sneaks aboard and grabs Katarina …..

Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan. Part Two – Day of Armageddon

Moving pictures!  It’s nice to be able to watch Day of Armageddon for several reasons, not least because it gives us an opportunity to see Nicholas Courtney (Bret Vyon) and Adrienne Hill (Katarina) in action.

We open with the Doctor skulking around the jungle.  At one point he’s on his hands and knees, which is a tad unusual (and undignified) for this Doctor.  A little later he meets up with Steven, Katarina and Bret and is forced to admit that Bret is a decent sort after all.

The Doctor, naturally enough, takes control of the situation (or at least attempts to).  But both Steven and Bret also have their points of view and it’s fair to say that the exchanges between the three of them are frank.  Bret doesn’t hold back when attempting to bring the Doctor into line. “Sir! Will you shut up!” It’s a lovely scene which helps to strengthen Steven’s character (he’s had previous experience of the Daleks and so isn’t prepared to blindly follow the Doctor’s lead) as well as Bret’s.

Rather oddly, the Doctor tells Bret that the Daleks can be defeated if they look at their history books. “You must tell Earth to look back in the history of the year 2157, and that the Daleks are going to attack again. History will show how to deal with them.” Eh? Unless the Daleks plan to steal the Earth’s Core for a second time I’m not sure how that’s going to work.

Another plus point about having this episode back in the archives is that it’s a good showcase for Mavic Chen.  Douglas Camfield obviously knew a good actor when he saw one, as he later cast Kevin Stoney as the not totally dissimilar Tobias Vaughn in The Invasion.

Indeed, there’s not a lot to choose between the two characters – both ally themselves with one of the Doctor’s bitterest enemies and both fail to spot all the warning signs that they’re becoming surplus to requirements.  Also, both Chen and Vaughn have a mocking, sardonic sense of humour which marks them out from your run-of-the-mill villains.  Chen wears a lot more make-up than Vaughn though ….

We get a good insight into Chen’s character during his discussion with one of the delegates, Zephon (Julian Sherrier).  We’ve already seen the Daleks vow to dispose of all their allies as soon as their usefulness is at an end, but both Chen and Zephon obviously don’t believe this could happen to them.

When Chen suggests they join the meeting, Zephon retorts that “they will not start the meeting without me.” Chen’s insincere bowing and his amused attitude gives the very strong impression that he considers Zephon to be nothing more than a pawn in the game (Chen clearly views himself as something very different).  Let’s check back in about ten episodes time to see how that works out for him.

The Doctor suggests that Bret steals Chen’s ship – with it, they could make their way back to Earth and warn the authorities. But first the Doctor elects to take Zephon’s place in the meeting (luckily, Zephon wears a big cloak, so after knocking him out it’s a simple disguise).  All the delegates gather, but annoyingly we’re not told most of their names (which has been the cue for more than fifty years of debate!) Only one of them (apart from Chen) has a speaking role, Trantis (Roy Evans). It doesn’t seem right for Roy Evans not to be playing in a miner if he’s in Doctor Who ….

When the delegates arrive, each walks into the conference room in a very strange way – let’s be kind and say none of them were used to that level of gravity.  As they don’t speak, they have to show their approval by banging on the table – each has a different way of banging, which is rather sweet.  Chen has to be different of course, when the others are thumping the table he elects to clap his hands.  Another sign that he sets himself apart from the others.

Chen proudly displays the core of the Time Destructor.  It’s taken fifty years to mine enough taranium to make it work, so it’s precious beyond belief.  When Zephon manages to escape and sound the alarm it’s a little surprising that neither the Daleks or the delegates bother to pick the Time Destructor up.  Instead, all the delegates run around like headless chickens whilst the crafty old Doctor grabs it and makes his escape.  This is another clumsy piece of plotting – the Daleks’ scheme depends on a device which the Doctor has very fortunately managed to acquire.

As the episode draws to a close, Bret is keen to take off.  The Doctor hasn’t turned up, so Bret tells Steven and Katarina he’ll have to go without him.  Will the Doctor make it in time?  Hmm, I wonder.

Doctor Who – The Daleks’ Master Plan. Part One – The Nightmare Begins

The Daleks’ Master Plan has often been described as a sprawling epic, which is a reasonable enough summation.  But in truth it’s not really one story – rather it’s several different ones bolted together.

The early episodes have a nice downbeat feel (at times it feels like Nation was writing Blakes 7 a decade early).  It then turns (god forbid) into The Chase II, although we can take comfort from the fact that Douglas Camfield is directing rather than Richard Martin.  But after the mid-story comedy high-jinks the tone once again turns dark – not least in the final few moments of part twelve.

Rewiding back to The Nightmare Begins, one moment which impresses me is the scene between Roald (Philip Anthony) and Lizan (Pamela Greer).  Their job is to monitor Kembel for news of Bret Vyon (Nicholas Courtney) and Kert Gantrey (Brian Cant), who are investigating Marc Cory’s disappearance  (viewers with fairly long memories will remember that he met rather a sticky fate).

What I especially like about this moment is the way Nation uses the pair to pass judgement on Mavic Chen (Kevin Stoney), the Guardian of the Solar System.  Some twenty years later we’d see Arak and Etta in Vengeance on Varos perform a similar function as they debated the merits of the Governor.  This aspect of Philip Martin’s script was applauded as rather post-modern and picked up some praise.  Alas, Terry Nation did pretty much the same thing twenty years earlier and it seemed to have gone unnoticed.  Possibly this was because it’s in an episode that’s missing, or maybe it’s just that you don’t expect post-modernism in a Terry Nation script …

Like the pair on Varos, Roald and Lizan have sharply opposing views about the man in charge – Lizan likes him, Roald doesn’t.  It’s slightly disturbing that they both decide to watch television rather than keep an eye out for Bret’s distress signal, but this seems to be another satirical Nation touch.  It also helps to make them more rounded as characters – in plot terms they’re not terribly important, but their interaction with each other lets the viewer quickly know what the man and woman on the street thinks about the Guardian of the Solar System.

Bret and Kert are in rather dire straights on Kembel.  Kert (an impressively bearded Cant) doesn’t last long as he loses his nerve, rushes off into the jungle and is exterminated by a Dalek (for once a Dalek appears well before the end of part one cliffhanger).  This sequence was shot on film and it’s one of a number of film clips to have been preserved.  It’s only short, but it shows how adept Camfield was at ramping up the tension.

Up until this point in the series’ history, most stories have been written from the Doctor’s viewpoint.  So part one would open with the TARDIS landing somewhere, the Doctor and his friends then leave the ship, explore and are drawn into the story.  The Nightmare Begins takes a different tack (one which be used time and again in the future).

The world-building begins before the Doctor becomes involved in the plot properly – we see Bret and Kert on Kembel, are introduced to Chen, etc.  One side-effect of this form of storytelling is that it inevitably diminishes the central role that up until now the Doctor has tended to enjoy.  When a story’s ticking over so nicely with the guest characters, if the writer isn’t careful then the Doctor can be rather sidelined (see Eric Saward’s scripts for some good examples of this).

Steven, still suffering from the injuries sustained at the end of the last story, needs urgent medical help.  Rather surprisingly, the Doctor has nothing aboard the TARDIS which will do the trick so he’s forced to seek help elsewhere.  And so he lands on Kembel.

Quite why he’d think that the dense jungle planet of Kembel would be the place to visit is a bit of a mystery (one look and most people would have tried somewhere else!)  In plot terms, Steven’s injuries are nothing more than an excuse to get the Doctor on Kembel at the same time as the Daleks and Mavic Chen.

This is an undeniably crude piece of plotting – the Doctor spots some Daleks, decides to follow them and overhears Mavic Chen and the Daleks eagerly planning to take over the Earth and the rest of the Solar System.  With twelve episodes to play with it would have been nice to integrate the Doctor into the plot a little more subtly.

The Nightmare Begins sees the Doctor Who debut of Nicholas Courtney, or at least it would if we could actually see him.  We can hear him though and despite the fact that Bret’s painted rather broadly here as a single-minded man of action, Courtney still manages to make him seem fairly likeable.

Colditz – Name, Rank and Number (2nd November 1972)

The third of three pre-Colditz episodes, this one centres around the travails of Lt. Dick Player (Christopher Neame). Having already followed an army officer (Pat) and a member of the air force (Simon) it makes sense not to leave the navy out, which is where Lt Player comes in.

Washed ashore in France, Player is taken to a nearby hospital. The French doctor who deals with him is either on his side or rather incompetent (he tells a keen as mustard German officer that Player won’t be in a fit state to be interviewed for at least two days – but as soon as the pair leave, Player opens his eyes and begins to plan his escape).

As Player moves through the hospital, there’s a vague element of farce to his frantic attempts to pinch some clothes (rather reminiscent of Jon Pertwee’s debut Doctor Who story). For example, he steals some trousers (much to the indignant chagrin of their owner) and, when looking for shoes, initially comes across a nice ladies pair.

The episode boasts some well played cameo performances. The first comes from Alistair Meldrum as a chatty German soldier who runs into the absconding Player. Next up is David Garfield as Diels (he’s the sort of actor – rather like Michael Sheard – who portrays cold German officers with casual ease).

Recaptured and forced to admit his identity, Player is interrogated by two Gestapo officers (played by Nigel Stock and Terrence Hardiman). Their scenes together are a highlight of the episode – Stock’s character (the senior of the two) appears to be full of bluster whilst the other (Hardiman) is seemingly more friendly. But you must always be wary of a friendly Gestapo officer ….

Hardiman, of course, would later appear in another Glaister series (Secret Army) playing a not totally dissimilar character. Neame would also be a Secret Army regular for a while (his character was written out at the end of series one).

Player is then released into the care of an old friend, Paul Von Eissinger (John Quentin). That Player has German friends (and indeed, can speak the language like a native) might explain why he’s not immediately slung into a prison camp.

Von Eissinger, like his friend, enjoys a privileged background and professes to be no friend of the Nazis. He paints a compelling picture – Hitler removed from power and an alliance forged between the new Germany and Britain (together they could rule the world). Quentin’s clipped, mannered performance is a slightly odd one, but his dueling dialogue scenes with Neame are still absorbing.

The viewer knows that Player’s brief stint of luxurious living with Von Eissinger will only be transitory, as the price on offer for his freedom is just too great for him to pay. The episode ends with his arrival at Colditz, where he meets some familiar faces (Pat, Simon) and some others that the viewer will get to know during the next few weeks.

These first three episodes have been much more than just padding, but it’s hard to deny that the pulse quickens just a little when we pass through the gates of Oflag IV-C for the first time …

Colditz – Missing, Presumed Dead (26th October 1972)

Like the first episode, Missing, Presumed Dead introduces us to a single character – today it’s Flt. Lt. Simon Carter (David McCallum). But unlike Pat, we get to see something of Simon’s home life before he becomes a prisoner of the Germans.

Simon seems to enjoy giving everyone a hard time. If he’s not bawling out the ground crew then he’s crossing swords with his boss, Wing Commander Cannock (Peter Halliday). Simon might have a point – sloppy maintenance work could endanger the whole crew – but equally he may just be a perfectionist asking for the impossible.

Things are also sticky on the domestic front. Recently married to Cathy (Joanna David), he’s very icy with her (employing emotional blackmail with no compunction). About the only person he’s civil to is her father, Devenish (Noel Johnson). Devenish is clearly very well off (his well stocked wine cellar is testament to that).

Simon’s blunt working-class attitude should grate against Devenish’s upper-class sensibility, but they seem to have a relationship of perfect equanimity (although the pair only share a brief few moments of screentime). It’s a nice turn from Johnson though, managing to suggest that there’s a lot more to Devenish than his surface persona of a distracted wine snob.

Later that day Simon is shot down over Germany. His attempts to evade capture are reasonably interesting, but this section is mostly enlivened by the people he meets along the way, such as a friendly priest (played by Joe Dunlop) and a decidedly unfriendly Gestapo officer (Michael Wynne).

Eventually he winds up at a prisoner of war camp run by Kommandant Esslin (Oscar Quitak). It’s always entertaining, when watching a series produced by Gerard Glaister, to spot the actors who had either appeared in a previous production of his or would go on to work with him in the future. For example, Quitak later played Joseph Mengele in Kessler, the Secret Army spin-off, as well as Richard Shellet in Howards’ Way.

Today, Quitak is shaven-headed and like Michael Sheard in the previous episode has no trouble in playing an implacable German Kommandant.

Another good cameo performance comes from the always dependable John Ringham as Major Dalby. The Senior British Officer at Simon’s current camp, whilst he may initially appear to be a little Blimpish, he’s actually quite happy to assist Simon in escaping. The only problem is that Simon will have to wait his turn (no half-baked attempts which only lead to instant recapture will be tolerated).

When everybody ends up at Colditz this sort of rule is understood and (generally) obeyed. But Simon simply can’t stomach the fact that he may have to remain at the camp for a year or so until his name goes to the top of the list. So it won’t surprise you to learn what happens ….

Recaptured after an opportunistic escape attempt, there’s a sense of deja vu when Kommandant Esslin delights in telling Simon that he’s being sent to a very special camp – Colditz.

Colditz – The Undefeated (19th October 1972)

Like The Colditz Story by Pat Reid (the book which the television series drew liberally from) the television series also didn’t begin at Castle Colditz. We had to wait a little while before entering the imposing edifice of Oflag IV-C.

The opening few minutes of this debut episode are interesting. It features a selection of black and white archive footage, over which is dubbed Churchill’s defiant post Dunkirk speeches. Only slowly (when Edward Hardwicke is spotted amongst the throng of captured British soldiers) does it become apparent that the original footage has been mixed with newly shot material, degraded into flickering black and white.

You have to tip the hat to a number of extras who gamely agreed to have their heads shaven (all part of the process for prisoners of the German system). Understandable that Hardwicke didn’t go through this, but it’s a shame that his bald cap is so incredibly unconvincing. Luckily he only has to wear it for a short time – the fact he swiftly regains a full head of hair serves as a handy indication that his time spent in this camp can be measured in months.

Michael Sheard was born to play nasty Nazis, meaning that it’s no stretch for him to take on the mantle of the Kommandant. It’s just a shame that he didn’t have more to do.

Pat Grant (Hardwicke) quickly falls in with a group of fellow prisoners who are equally dedicated to escaping as he is. Mark McManus (as Lt. Cameron) is instantly recognisable but it took me a little longer to pin down where I knew Julian Fox (playing Capt. Freddy Townsend) from. Eventually the penny dropped – a late era Jon Pertwee Dalek story ….

John Golightly (Capt. Ian Masters) gives a nice performance. Pat’s first point of contact in the camp, Masters initially seems to be resigned to his fate – content simply to sit and play cards whilst the news of the war from the Allied side goes from bad to worse. But once Pat mentions that he plans to escape, Masters springs into action with considerable zeal.

There’s a lot packed into this episode – it features multiple escape plans, which culminate with Pat and some of the others tasting freedom (albeit only briefly). Pat’s recapture means that he’s earned entry to a very special prison camp, one which is supposed to be escape proof. Colditz ….

Blue Peter Christmas makes

The bbc.co.uk/archive pages are always worth skimming through as they contain plenty of interesting clips. Today I think I’ll be entertaining myself with Blue Peter’s makes through the ages – from 1963 to 1999.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/blue_peter_christmas_makes/zf82jhv

Last of the Summer Wine – And a Dewhurst Up a Fir Tree (27th December 1979)

There’s no reason why Christmas specials have to be set at Christmas – even though most of them are. Roy Clarke, who established a mild anti-festive tone in his previous LOTSW festive special, has his (Christmas) cake and eats it in this one – there’s plenty of Christmas talk, even though the setting is late summer.

It’s always a little jarring to revisit these early episodes and witness our three heroes doing their own stunts. The sight of Sallis, Owen and Wilde indulging in a spot of plastic bag sledging is a joy though – especially since even the normally reserved Foggy seems to be enjoying himself for once.

It’s not long before Foggy’s normal character clicks back into gear though. Back at Clegg’s house he – with typically military precision – inflicts a slide-show on the other two. Neither are exactly delighted. Compo hopes that it’s not Foggy’s holiday snaps again whilst Clegg is slightly anxious, re his curtains (“I hate drawing my curtains during the daytime. Suppose the neighbours start sending flowers”).

Foggy’s pictures reveal a dismal picture of last Christmas – after taking Compo’s advice all their Christmas shopping was carried out on the 24th of December, with the result that they had no trimmings and a rather paltry Christmas dinner (a fish finger and a chip). But the attentive viewer will know that their previous Christmas as transmitted on television wasn’t like this at all, so clearly time in LOTSW land runs in a different way to the rest of the country.

Determined not to be caught napping a second time, Foggy decides the time is right to start their Christmas shopping (but finds that festive cards and treats are thin on the ground in August). Things get no better later on after he buys himself a bargain (100 Christmas trees for just £10). The Forestry Commission are having a summer sale you see.

It slowly dawns on Foggy that he’s been had (but then if you exchange money in the pub with someone called Big Eric, what do you expect?). Poor Foggy is eventually brought back to reality when the three trek over to see his purchases – since each tree is 100 ft high, they’re going to be a tad tricky to cut down ….

Brian Wilde rather drives this episode. I love Foggy’s wistful shake of the head when Compo asks him whether MI5 had attempted to recruit him. “I dropped hints that I was available when me time was up in the army. I watched for the postman every morning since, but nothing”. The final scene – which plays over the end credits – of Foggy left alone also rather tugs at the heartstrings.

Elsewhere, Ivy and Nora enjoy a cup of tea and swop notes about the sex-pest in their lives – Compo. Over the years, as the regular female cast grew, these interludes would become a regular fixture. This one, despite being a two-hander, is still good though – Ivy advising Nora to take a spoonful of sugar occasionally (“you might find it might relax you. Keep your hands off your airing cupboard”). The mundanity of their conversation (“troublesome as men are, their old vests make for lovely dusters”) is delightful.

They then plot to stop Compo in his tracks. Nora advises Ivy to drop the chip pan down his trousers (“the sooner it gets covered in batter the safer it’s going to be”). Ouch! In the end they elect to just forcibly remove his trousers, but maybe – for the moment – it may have done the trick.

Last of the Summer Wine – Small Tune On a Penny Wassail (26th December 1978)

Small Tune On a Penny Wassail opens with Wally – still dressed in his pyjama top – briefly tasting a moment of freedom before being dragged back into the house by Nora to continue his festive obligations. A reflective Compo, observing this domestic fracas, sighs before walking down the deserted streets. This is an early sign that Roy Clarke won’t be bashing you over the head with false Christmas sentiment – that’s simply not his way.

A moment of levity then occurs when Compo spies a lad with a new skateboard. Ever the child at heart, he can’t resist having a go (as you might expect, he falls off rather abruptly). This isn’t a big set-piece moment, but it does set things up for the episode climax.

The others are also given their solo moments. Foggy, after attending church, manages to accidentally hit the vicar in a very delicate place with his stick. It’s a typical Foggy moment – for a brief moment he’s given an air of authority and respectability, which is then abruptly punctured.

Meanwhile Clegg, never one to be overflowing with Christmas cheer, has nevertheless stirred himself and wandered off to the phonebox to ring up his friend, Gordon (Larry Noble). Gordon’s not in the mood to receive yuletide greetings though, due to the fact a fire’s broken out in his shed. What caused the fire remains an unresolved mystery ….

Eventually all three meet up at Clegg’s house for Christmas dinner. Compo’s assistance in the kitchen is clearly not called for, so he stalks around the house like a bored child whilst the other two reflect on the time of the year. Clegg: “Christmas comes but once a year, it just seems longer.”

The cynical Clegg gets most of the best lines during these scenes. “I gave up smoking so that I could live longer. It’s at times like this you wonder if you’re doing the right thing”. At least the meal prepared by Clegg looks like it was worth eating – which almost makes up for the air of melancholy that’s descended over them. Although when we drop in on some conventional family units later on it’s plain they’re not having a particularly sparkling time either.

Foggy suggests they pop down the hospital to visit poor old Edgar (Teddy Turner), who there all on his own. But of course it’s revealed that Edgar’s got everything he could wish for – all the food he can eat and plenty of attention from the nurses. Compo acidly mentions later that even the man dying in the next ward is having a better time than they are.

We’re then given a little vignette showing Ivy and Sid at home in their kitchen. They’re busy feeding the hordes of (unseen) relatives who have descended on them – Ivy with an air of duty, Sid with an ever increasing sense of exasperation. There’s a matching moment with Nora and Wally, where Wally is given a killer putdown. “Why don’t you go sit down, Nora? You’ve been on your mouth all day”.

Back at Clegg’s house it’s finally time for the presents. It’s always seemed slightly odd to me that Clegg and Foggy wrapped their presents for Compo in the same type of wrapping paper (plus their presents to each other were also in identical paper, albeit different from Compo’s). If you see what I mean. It’s probably easier to understand when you watch the scene but there’s something not quite right there.

They all seem quite chuffed with their gifts, as does Ivy when she receives an unexpected present from Sid. Sid and Ivy’s café based warfare can be vicious at times but there’s clearly still a frisson of love between them, even if it’s buried very deep. Her look of pleasure at the black negligee gifted to her by her husband suggests that his luck might be in later. Or not, depending on your point of view ….

We’re heading into the era when stunts (and stunt doubles) would dominate. This episode has been much more reflective and downbeat, but I suppose you can’t blame Roy Clarke for wanting to end things on a high – so an irresistible force (Compo on a skateboard) manages to navigate his way through a seemingly immovable object (the Dodworth Colliery Brass Band).

I’ve still yet to work out how the episode title ties back to the episode itself though. Answers on a postcard please.

Top of the Pops – 1979 Christmas Special

The 1979 TOTP Xmas Special has an unusual opening. There’s no cheery greetings from that year’s R1 jocks, instead we go straight to Boney M – a vision in furry white – who give us Mary’s Boy Child. An odd way to kick off proceedings, especially since the song was a hit from the previous year.

No matter, once they’ve departed up pop David ‘Kid’ Jensen and Peter Powell to get things started for 1979. Like previous years, the songs are a selection of some of the top-selling Number 1s and 2s of the year. Will that mean that some of this new-fangled New Wave music will start to appear? Let’s see ….

Hurrah! Up first are Ian Dury and the Blockheads (who’ve clearly come straight from the building site) to entertain us with Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick. Christmas trimmings for this first performance are fairly modest (a smallish tree popped on the piano). Let’s see if things pick up later.

Next is Janet Kay with Silly Games. Christmas trimming watch – there’s a few sad looking Christmas tree twigs dotted about the stage (complete with a handful of baubles). As Janet does her thing, it becomes clear this is another of those audience free shows. Although since Peter and the ‘Kid’ are lurking rather noticeably in the background (looking down upon Janet from on high) it means she has a small (but appreciative) audience.

The good songs keep on coming with Gary Numan and Cars (performing on a tinsel free stage). He makes way for Roxy Music with Dance Away. This is a little smoother than I generally like my Roxy, but it’s always fun watching Bryan Ferry, who’s come dressed for the occasion (as has Gary Tibbs). On the other hand Phil Manzanera looks like he’s just rolled out of bed and grabbed the first clothes that came to hand.

Ding Ding! Anita Ward’s Ring My Bell is danced to by Legs & Co. They have plenty of small bells to ring, so make something of a racket as they cavort on top of six chimney pots.

The ‘Kid’ is particularly pleased to see this next song – The Buggles with Video Killed The Radio Star. Christmas trimming watch – Camera 7 is covered in tinsel, the stage less so. This song, their debut single, did pretty well for them – topping the charts in sixteen countries. Their debut album – The Age of Plastic – is also jolly good, an ideal Christmas present in fact.

We’re getting into this Christmas spirit now as B.A. Robertson (Bang Bang) has turned up. He’s wearing a Father Christmas coat (although he clearly drew the line at the beard) and is accompanied by two attractive young ladies who bang big drums at regular intervals. Pity the rest of the band though, who must have been deemed less photogenic than the two drum ladies and were shuffled off to an adjoining stage.

TOTP certainly seem to be getting into the New Wave swing as Blondie give us Sunday Girl and M (“New York, London, Paris, Munich”) then appear with … Pop Muzik (what else?).

After all this excitement it’s time to relax with one of my favourite Legs & Co performances (they’re dancing to Tragedy dressed as sad-faced clowns).

Disappointingly, Elvis Costello hasn’t come dressed as Santa Claus (and the stage is a Christmas free zone), but he and the Attractions are performing Oliver’s Army, so I’ll let them off.

For those who have been missing their middle of the road musical entertainment (compare this show with Christmas 1977 and 1978 for example) there’s salvation at hand with Lena Martell and Once Day At A Time.  I always thought she was American, so it came as something of a shock to learn she actually hails from Glasgow. She’s put her glad rags on – a glittery jacket and dress – which fits in nicely with the Christmas tree stuck at the back of the stage.

First live vocal of the show comes courtesy of Chris Difford (nice cap, sir) as Squeeze gives us Cool for Cats. It’s a rather truncated performance though (even by TOTP standards) clocking in at under two minutes.

Dr Hook (When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman) are the next act. It’s obvious who the star turn is – the eyepatch wearing, maraca shaking Ray Sawyer. No matter that the maracas must be empty (as no sound comes from them) he shakes them like there’s no tomorrow whilst mugging at the camera like a good ‘un. Now that’s entertainment.

There’s a quick return for Blondie. Debbie’s taken off her sunglasses as the tinsel comes pouring down (hopefully she didn’t swallow too much of it). Dreaming is the pop platter they serve up. Gary Numan also returns for an encore. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that nobody dared to release the tinsel on him – which is fair enough as it wouldn’t have fitted in with the moody tone of Are ‘Friends’ Electric?

Racey entertain Peter and the ‘Kid’ with Some Girls. Throughout their performance a barrage of clips featuring Legs & Co down the ages are spliced in (which allows the viewer to boggle yet again at some of their more interesting costumes).

Sir Cliff of Richard closes the show with We Don’t Talk Anymore. Sporting a natty pink jacket and a sprig of tinsel in his buttonhole, Cliff – always the trouper – gives a typically polished performance.

Musically, TOTP Xmas 1979 was very strong. A pity that there wasn’t an audience yet again, but then a surprising number of seventies TOTP Christmas shows suffered the same fate. Unlike previous years there were no performances played in from promo films – which helped to make the show feel just a little more special.

Top of the Pops – 1978 Christmas Special

TOTP Christmas 78 is somewhat running on reduced power. Due to strike action, Noel Edmonds is forced to link the show all on his lonesome from a fairly cheerless office (although the Christmas tree looks nice). With the music pre-recorded there’s not a great deal that’s festive about this one, but let’s press on anyway.

Darts open the show with The Boy From New York City. It’s jaunty retro fun. Equally jaunty is the next song, Rasputin (who was Russia’s greatest love machine, you know) sung by Boney M. This performance is, of course, all about Bobby Farrell, who flings himself about with wild abandon. He’s going to do himself a mischief if he carries on like that.

Legs & Co (and some male friends) dance to Summer Nights and then the tempo slows down a little with Wings and Mull Of Kintyre. Until Band Aid, it was the UK’s top selling single (the first to exceed two million). Like last year, we have the video rather than a studio performance (so expect to see once again an unconvincing grassy knoll, plenty of mist and the Campbeltown Pipe Band wandering through the shot at exactly the right time).

Next up are the Brotherhood of Man with Figaro. Looking very coordinated (gleaming white trousers and red jackets) the foursome give their all. Like most of the studio performers they don’t have an audience to bounce off (but given that TOTP‘s audience members could sometimes border on the apathetic, this isn’t too much of a problem). I can understand why some find this sort of middle-of-the-road fare unpalatable (when I mentioned on Twitter that I’d be covering TOTP Christmas 76 there were grumblings that the punk era was long overdue) but personally I love it. Well most of it ….

Father Abraham and the Smurfs with The Smurf Song is a step too far, even for me (but it does have a strange hypnotic quality after a while). Following the Smurfs, there’s Legs & Co in shorty nighties, dancing to Night Fever. Hang on, nighties = Night Fever? If the decision to deck out Legs & Co in nighties was due to a fairly poor play on words, then I for one won’t complain too much.

Cloth caps are to the fore as Brian and Michael give us their one and only hit (Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs). A number of songs featured in last year’s Christmas show (including the Brighouse & Rastrick Brass Band with The Floral Dance) were given another airing in 1978. It’s another of those tracks which won’t earn me any street cred if I admit to liking it (but then I daresay my street cred days are long over).

We then briefly dip our toe into current musical trends with Kate Bush and Wuthering Heights (although this track does have a sort of novelty disc element which makes it fit in nicely with the rest of the show). After that, Showaddywaddy (a group who surfed the fifties nostalgia wave better than most) make an appearance, and they give way to Boney M with Rivers of Babylon. This song gives far less opportunity for Bobby to fling himself around like a madman, which is a mark against it.

Legs & Co go all classy next, with The Commodores’ Three Times A Lady. Then it’s ABBA on video with Take A Chance On Me. Noel Tidybeard, still marooned in his office, introduces the next song (Rose Royce – Love Don’t Live Here Anymore) with a sad sniff, telling the audience that no doubt its tragic tone caused an awful lot of problems this year. Not quite the vibe you want for a (hopefully) jolly Christmas afternoon.

Never mind, the tempo soon picks up as Legs & Co (working hard today) and their male chums give us another song from Grease – this time it’s You’re the One That I Want. By this point I’m reeling in a slightly punchdrunk fashion from all these festive treats, but let’s crack on as we’re nearly at the end.

Returning for a third(!) time are Boney M with Mary’s Boy Child. And that’s your lot, apart from James Galway who is heard but not seen as Annie’s Song plays out over the end credits. Studying these credits, it looks as if the recent BBC4 repeat has been jiggered about with a bit (replacing the clips from Grease with performances by Legs & Co) but apart from that everything seems to be intact.

As touched upon before, TOTP Xmas ’78 is going to disappoint those who find it difficult to stomach seventies LE, but I found it slipped by rather nicely. However, the winds of change were blowing and even TOTP eventually began to reflect that.  Next time, we’ll see those changes in TOTP Xmas ’79 ….

Top of the Pops – 1977 Boxing Day Special

Stuck in between Holiday on Ice and It’s A Christmas Knockout, part two of the 1977 TOTP festive retrospective was hosted by DLT (don’t expect to see this on BBC4 anytime soon then) and Tony Blackburn.

We open with Boney M and Ma Baker. Good news, we have an audience and even better news – the M are singing live. Considering that Bobby Farrell apparently never sung on any of the records, how does he do? Hmm, well his performance is interesting to say the least (plus DLT pops up as the mid song radio reporter). The curious can check it out here.

Rod Stewart tackles The First Cut Is The Deepest (the clip lifted from a television special, it seems) before making way for Heatwave and Boogie Nights. It’s a playback performance, which given the amount of jigging about the lead singer – Keith Wilder – does is probably just as well.

Legs & Co dance to David Soul’s Silver Lady. They’re dressed in silver (which is one of the more logical costume/song interpretations). After they’ve shimmied off, we get Joe Tex on video with Ain’t Gonna Bump No More. This leaves me with the feeling that we’re being fobbed off with post Christmas leftovers. What we need are a few more memorable TOTP studio performances.

Ah, here come The Brotherhood of Man riding to the rescue with Angelo. Even though I find it difficult not to substitute their lyrics with the Barron Knights’ pastiche version, this is still good fun. The group have been provided with some simple Christmas staging – a tree and balloons – whilst a few members of the audience are wearing party hats. And as ever, the TOTP audience are always entertaining even when the song isn’t (in this case, it’s the chap in the front row who spends part of the song turned away from the stage and gawping into the camera who naturally catches the eye).

There’s a touch of class next with Billy Ocean and Red Light Spells Danger. Possibly played in from an earlier edition, since I can’t see any Christmas trimmings, it’s nevertheless top notch – thanks to his live vocals and the TOTP orchestra going for broke.

Billy gives way to Julie Covington and Don’t Cry For Me Argentina. With no Julie in the studio, the song plays out over a series of photographs of Eva Perón. Film again for the next clip – The Floaters with Float On. This is one of those songs that I’ve attempted to block, but once you hear it again the memories just come flooding back. Those suits! Those spoken word lyrics!

Legs & Co return, dancing to I Feel Love by Donna Summer. Their choreography choice mainly consists of them twirling around and shaking their long skirts. Frankly all their energy is beginning to tire me out.

Back to film with Queen and We Are The Champions and ABBA with The Name of the Game. For a change we then go onto tape with The Jacksons (Show You the Way to Go). Not surprising that they couldn’t be bothered to fly over to London (well it was Christmas) but this recycled clip (along with all the others) does give the show something of a half-hearted feel. Maybe it would have been better to just have had the one ninety minute show this year, mainly sticking to new studio performances.

At least Elvis Presley had a good reason for not turning up in person. The montage of photographs and film clips set to Way Down was a little bit touching I have to say.

Showaddywaddy have ditched their glow in the dark suits for something more subdued (white jackets and trousers, brown shirts).  They treat us to Under The Moon Of Love, which seems to go down well with the audience – well they’re vaguely clapping in time and looking at the stage, which are both good signs.

And that’s it – apart from watching DLT in his horrible cardigan attempting to punch balloons away whilst the end credits roll. Not a classic then, since most of the best stuff had already been included in the Christmas Day show (Boney M, Brotherhood of Man and Billy Ocean are the ones unlucky enough to have been relegated to this division two fixture).

Top of the Pops – 1977 Christmas Special

Sandwiched in between a repeat of Are You Being Served? (The Father Christmas Affair) and HM The Queen was the 1977 TOTP Christmas shindig. As with some previous years it was split into two (the second installment popping up on Boxing Day). Since I’m a glutton for punishment I’ll be watching both (wish me luck). Let’s tackle the 25th first though ….

David ‘Kid’ Jensen (velvet suit, ruffled shirt, dicky bow) and Noel Edmonds (blue suit, stripy wide tie) are your hosts today. But they’ve barely time to exchange yuletide felicitations before up pop Showaddywaddy with You Got What It Takes. The sort of group designed for colour television (pity those still watching in black and white as they’re denied the full glory of the Showadd’s stage outfits) the group do their retro rock’n’roll shtick as well as ever. And not only do they manage to sing and play, they also pull a few crackers and tuck into some Christmas nosh.

Denice Williams, with Free, is next. Sorely lacking in Christmas trimmings, she has to get by with just the power of her song. Luckily it’s a good one and – singing live – manages to hit the warbly high notes without embarrassing herself.

1977 has seen lots of new names in the charts, the ‘Kid’ tells us. The ears prick up at that – could this be, at long last, one of those new-fangled punky bands? Things seem promising when he goes on to say that the next act were one of the most outrageous. Hurrah! Who could these anti-establishment types be?

Ah it’s the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band.

I’m not too disappointed though, as I do love this version of The Floral Dance (so much so, it’s one of the tracks on my ‘favourites’ playlist in Spotify). In fact, I love it so much I think I’ll listen to it again. Excuse me a moment ….

Noel and the ‘Kid’ are reunited for some torturous banter, which is their way of introducing Legs & Co dancing to Fanfare for the Common Man by ELP. Legs & Co are looking mighty fine today it has to be said. There’s plenty of Christmas trees and dry ice too (for those who like that sort of thing).

Leo Sayer, presumably wearing the jumper his mum bought him for Christmas, is next on with When I Need You. Unfortunately no-one seems to have needed him, as the audience are conspicuous by their absence. Keeping the ambiance at a fairly soporific level are the Manhattan Transfer with Chanson D’Amour (rat de dat de dah). It’s almost like I’ve switched on to an episode of The Two Ronnies.

Hot Chocolate and You Win Again are wheeled on next. Not a very jolly song for Christmas Day, but Errol attempts to leaven the tone of the lyrics by smiling throughout – which sort of works. The set decoration (balloons) also helps to raise the party atmosphere a smidge, although by now the absence of a studio audience is becoming rather noticeable.

David Soul (Don’t Give Up On Us) and ABBA (Knowing Me, Knowing Me) are both on film and both continue the downbeat relationship feel of the show. At least David seems hopeful that things might work out (he’s probably deluding himself though) whilst ABBA are certain it’s the end. Hey ho. Let’s hope for something cheerful next.

Ah, that’s better – it’s Space with Magic Fly. Things then settle down again with Johnny Mathis and When A Child Is Born (one for the mums I think). Sitting amongst a pile of greenery in a director’s chair, it’s one of the odder TOTP staging decisions. Couldn’t they have popped a few baubles on the trees to make them look just a little Christmassy?

Legs & Co (dressed as Reindeers) are joined by a black Father Christmas, no doubt to reflect the fact that they’re all dancing to Sir Duke by Stevie Wonder. Yes it’s as bonkers as it sounds, thank goodness.

The maudlin tone of the show returns with Kenny Rogers and Lucille on film. Fair to say that if you’re feeling a bit down this isn’t the TOTP Christmas show to lift your spirits. Luckily Baccara jolly things up with Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.

We close with the UK No 1 – Wings and Mull of Kintyre. Paul, Linda and Denny were already booked for The Mike Yarwood Show, so appear here in video form (complete with an unconvicting grassy knoll, plenty of mist and the Campbeltown Pipe Band walking through the shot at exactly the right time).

Would things cheer up for the Boxing Day show? Give me a few days and I’ll let you know.

Top of the Pops – 1976 Christmas Special

DLT and Noel Edmonds are your hosts for this year’s Christmas show. They wish the viewers at home seasonal greetings in a short CSO-tinged pre-credits sequence, most notable for the way Edmonds stumbles over his few words. Couldn’t they have afforded a take two? And as the show wears on it’s noticeable that the pair seem to be marooned in a CSO bubble, well away from the audience ….

Slik are on first with Forever and Ever. It starts moodily enough but once the lights come up the song transforms into more of a chugging sub-Bay City Rollers sort of track (understandable really since the song had originally been written for the Rollers). It’s cheesy fun, with little Midge giving his all.

Elton John & Kiki Dee then pop up on video with Don’t Go Breaking My Heart before Legs & Co entertain with Dancing Queen (which judging by the way DLT starts to froth at the mouth, gained his approval).

It was a canny piece of scheduling for J.J. Barrie (No Charge) to appear next. All those dads (and DLT) who had got just a little hot under the collar watching the six young ladies of Legs & Co jigging around could now cool down with J.J. Somebody (well many bodies) obviously loved this as it made the UK Number 1 (J.J.’s only Top 40 hit).  Alas, his 1981 collaboration with Brian Clough (You Can’t Win Them All) failed to trouble the scorers. As for No Charge, it’s a bit grim really ….

Let’s raise the tempo with Laurel & Hardy who (obviously enough) are appearing on film with The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. A surprise hit this year, there’s some interesting background to the song’s re-release here.

Tina Charles, wearing a nice scarf, belts out Love to Love (a live vocal!). That’s quite exciting, but even more exciting is the fact she performs the song from a gantry high above the studio floor (which means we get a rare birds-eye view of the studio). It’s a bit grim and grimy up there, but that all adds to the charm.

I love The Wurzels (in a totally non-ironic way). The Adge Cutler era is obviously closest to my heart, but post Adge they still came up with a few gems (such as today’s Combine Harvester song). Another performance featuring a live vocal, it’s ideal Christmas Day fare. The audience (some of whom have been given pieces of straw to chew) seem to be enjoying themselves.

Tip top Cliff Richard with Devil Woman. It’s easy to mock Cliff, but give him the song and he could deliver. Decked out in a nice pinkish shirt (which is cut quite low to show off his medallion collection) he gives full value during this performance – pointing dramatically throughout whilst half-hearted flame effects are overlaid onto the screen.

ABBA entertain a handful of audience members with Mamma Mia. The ABBA foursome are decked out in silky blue suits, although clearly they couldn’t afford to buy stage clothes for their two additional guitarists and drummer, who are forced to wear their normal clothes.

Most of the performances in this show have been pretty basic, but the boat’s pushed out when Hank Mizell turns up with Jungle Rock. We get a jungle set (of course), Hank stuck in a cooking pot, Legs & Co gyrating around and a load of extras dressed as elephants, crocodiles, etc. With so much going on it’s no surprise that the camera rarely focuses on Hank (who nevertheless would have been pleased to see Jungle Rock finally becoming a hit – some eighteen years after it was first released).

Pussycat (live vocals!) do Mississippi. The instrumental backing is a little off, so it’s one of those instances when playback might have been the better option. But they gave it a go, so deserve a thumbs up for that.

We’re coming towards the end of the show, but first there’s the substantial hurdle of Demis Roussos to leap over. If I was watching the show for pleasure no doubt I would have skipped this – but since I’m in review mode I felt it was only fair not to take the easy way out. But since I’ve made the sacrifice, if you wish to wind him on then I quite understand.

Queen close proceedings with Bohemian Rhapsody. Given that it first hit Number 1 at the end of 1975 (although it held the top spot until early 1976) the song probably would have seemed a little old-hat by December 1976. It would have been nice to see them in the studio, but they no doubt had better things to do, so sent the video instead.

And that’s it for 1976. Punk may have begun exploding, but it had yet to reach the Christmas TOTP studio ….

Random Who – The Web of Fear

Recently I’ve been using the random number generator at random.org to select a number of Doctor Who stories to revisit. The latest choice of the randomiser was The Web of Fear ….

You have to say that the story is gossamer thin. Apart from puzzling over the Great Intelligence’s somewhat over complicated scheme to snare the Doctor, there’s no reason why they couldn’t have nabbed him at some point during the first few episodes (although this would have made for a very short tale). But since there’s six episodes to fill, a great deal of running on the spot has to be done.

Mind you, since Douglas Camfield is directing, this running on the spot is never less than very entertaining. For example, the Covent Garden battle in episode four adds absolutely nothing to the story, but it’s a wonderfully directed and edited sequence (for once, the Yeti – usually at their best lurking in the shadows – don’t look too bad in broad daylight either).

The guest cast are top notch. Well, there is one slightly annoying performance – can you guess who it is, boyo? Jack Watling gives a nice line in blustering comic relief, but otherwise Travers Snr doesn’t do a great deal. Indeed, things probably would have worked as well with just Travers Jnr (Tina Packer), who operates rather like a proto Liz. Anne does fade a little as the story progresses, regressing from an independent and practical young woman into more of a damsel in distress, but then some of the male characters do the same thing ….

One thing, I’ve never quite worked out is why (and when) she decides to change out of her miniskirt and into a trouser suit. With everyone facing multiple Yeti attacks, it seems an odd time to change your clothing.

The early episodes feature a selection of soldiers – such as Corporal Blake (Richardson Morgan), Corporal Lane (Rod Beacham) and Craftsman Weams (Stephen Whittaker) – who all bite the dust. But before each one is killed they’ve been invested with enough character to ensure their deaths mean something (they all seem a good deal more real than many of the faceless UNIT soldiers later mown down in the course of duty).

Jack Woolgar’s performance as the level-headed Staff Sgt. Arnold is an especially memorable one, which means his death comes as a particularly hard blow (although this part of the story makes little sense). We’re told that Arnold has been dead for some time and the Intelligence had reanimated his lifeless corpse (which is a horrifying concept). But since Arnold behaved so naturally throughout, it’s difficult to believe the Intelligence could have given quite so nuanced a performance (possibly Haisman and Lincoln, running out of time, simply closed their eyes and picked a traitor at random).

Elsewhere, Jon Rollason is suitably slimy as the David Frost-a-like Harold Chorley, whilst Ralph Watson impresses as the doomed Captain Knight. Poor Knight – treated with playful disdain by Anne and later clubbed down by a Yeti, he didn’t have much luck.

This six-parter, of course, also saw the debut of Nicholas Courtney as Lethbridge-Stewart. The character arrived pretty much fully formed, although he does have a fairly untrustworthy air at times (but only because the story had to keep suggesting that he might be the traitor).

There’s a fascinating scene where Lethbridge-Stewart issues Evans (Derek Pollitt) with a direct order, which Evans fails to obey. It’s impossible to imagine the Brig ever taking that sort of lip from one of his soldiers, but then Lethbridge-Stewart never had to face this type of scenario again – a mission where virtually all the men under his command are killed, leaving him as one of the few survivors (and a slightly hysterical one at that).

The Troughton era raised the Base Under Siege story concept to a high art form (which is fair enough as they had plenty of practice at it). Few stories have quite the same claustrophobic feel as The Web of Fear though – as the web slowly increases and people keep dying, there really does seem to be no way out.

After a number of episodes where the plot only advances a few inches, we reach episode six. The conclusion … isn’t great (which docks the story a point or two). Overall, The Web of Fear is a triumph of style over content – but what style. It’s one where you have to ignore the niggles and go with the flow.