Christmas Night with the Stars 1964

stars

Jack Warner is in the chair for the 1964 Stars, introducing Billy Cotton, Dick Emery, Top of the Pops, Andy Stewart, Terry Scott & Hugh Lloyd, The Likely Lads, Richard Briers & Prunella Scales, Benny Hill and Kathy Kirby.

The first observation is that they’ve not exactly splashed out with the set dressings for poor old Jack, who has to present his links in the middle of a cold and deserted studio – with only an armchair, a table, some candles, a Christmas tree and a few other assorted decorations for company.  Still, pro that he is, he soldiers on regardless.

After Billy Cotton and his band gets the show off to a rousing start (“wakey, wakey!”) we move onto film as Dick Emery, in various guises, is stopped in the street and asked how he/she plans to spend Christmas.  It’s interesting to compare and contrast Emery with Benny Hill (who later in the show also plays a variety of characters).  I’d definitely have to give Hill the edge, although Emery has his moments, especially with the man-eating Mandy. “You are awful, but I like you”.

Top of the Pops are represented by …. the Barron Knights.  Well, if you can’t afford the real groups I guess they were the next best thing.  They’d had their first taste of chart success in 1964 with Call up the Groups and their Stars appearance isn’t too dissimilar – parodying popular groups and hits of the day by changing the lyrics, here with a Christmas theme.

Andy Stewart heads up to the North of Scotland for a bit of a toe-tapper, which is followed by Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd in a seasonal Hugh and I skit.  As with the series, Patricia Hayes, Jack Haigh, Molly Sugden and the luvverly Jill Curzon provide strong support.  There’s more than a touch of Tony Hancock in Scott’s performance, meaning that it’s easy to imagine the curmudgeon of East Cheam in a similar situation – a house full of guests at Christmas that he’d sooner weren’t there (and the presence of Pat Hayes and Hugh Lloyd are obvious links to the Lad Himself).  Scott dominates proceedings as he attempts to persuade the others to take part in a parlour game.  A nice segment which doesn’t outstay its welcome.

As Jack Warner says, most of the shows and performers on CNWTS were household favourites, but The Likely Lads had only started a fortnight before – meaning that someone must have quickly spotted this was a series with potential.  And it’s definitely a highlight of the programme, as even this early on both Clement/La Frenais and Bolam/Bewes seemed perfectly comfortable with the characters.

Terry’s keen to head out for an evening’s liquid refreshment, pouring scorn on those who stay in.  “Catch me staying in. Bowl of nuts, box of dates and Christmas Night with the Stars. No thank you!”  But Bob and Terry’s evening out never gets started, thanks to an escalating argument about the name of the elephant in the Rupert annuals.  Bob maintains it was Edward Trunk whilst Terry is convinced it was Edward the Elephant.  So Terry fetches his annuals from the loft to settle the argument once and for all.

The desire of Bob and Terry to hark back to their childhood was a theme of the series that would only grow stronger when it returned in the seventies as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?  This small segment demonstrates that right from the start Clement and La Frenais recognised this aspect of their characters could produce comedy gold.  A pity that it’s not available on the DVD (like many of the other Stars segments sadly) but then 2E did leave a whole episode off the original release …..

Billy Cotton introduces Ralph Reader’s Gang Show, which is followed by Benny Hill.  It’s not surprising that the picture we have today of Benny Hill is from his years at Thames.  Not only because those shows were incredibly successful worldwide, but they’re also the ones that are readily available on DVD.  His 1960’s BBC shows are less accessible (although there is a R1 compilation).  Maybe one day all that remains will be released on DVD, I hope so – since they contain some strong material which gives the lie to the oft repeated claim that Hill was a fairly low-brow performer.

His Stars segment, The Lonely One, is a good case in point.  Shot on film, Hill not only plays the central character in the short mockumentary – a juvenile delinquent called Willy Treader – but all of the other parts as well.  It’s very nicely done and Hill’s creations (possibly because he wrote the script too) feel more like real people than Dick Emery’s more broad characters did.

Richard Briers and Prunella Scales are up next in Marriage Lines.  It’s cosy and twee, but Briers and Scales make it just about worthwhile.  George and Kate Starling are expecting their first child which is reflected in their presents to each other – Kate gives him a sleeping bag (in case the baby gets too noisy, he can move to another room) whilst George gives her a maternity smock (seemingly not realising that she’s due to give birth in a month).

Although billed second, Kathy Kirby appears last to sing Have Yourself a Merry Little Chirstmas.  It’s a fairly short and low-key ending, but overall the 1964 Stars is a consistently strong show with very little filler.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection. Simply Media DVD Review.

roobarb

Roobarb, which first aired in 1974, was one of a number of children’s series (The Magic Roundabout was another) which aired on BBC1 just before the six o’clock news, thus ensuring that it attracted a large adult viewership in addition to its intended target audience.  This is probably the one of the reasons why it’s maintained a certain cult status ever since, although there are several others.

Firstly, Grange Calveley’s scripts are funny.  Although they lack the layered humour that Eric Thompson brought to the Magic Roundabout, there’s still plenty of decent puns and weird flights of fancy to enjoy.  For example, in When Roobarb Found Sauce, Roobarb is concerned to find that the pond has dried up and sets out to find its source.  This leads him to the centre of the Earth where a strange creature provides him with the pond’s sauce, which turned out to be chocolate (his favourite!)

Richard Briers’ narration is a major plus point as well.  Briers was a master storyteller, and each five minute episode benefits enormously from his spot on comic timing.  As good as the scripts are, Briers makes them just that little bit better.

And lastly, Bob Godfrey’s unmistakable animation gave the series a look and feel unlike any other on television at that time.  Although Godfrey wasn’t the only animator to work on the original (he tended to lead a core group of around four or five animators) every episode has the same hand-drawn feel which makes it seem as if it was the work of an individual.  The animation style chosen, known as “boiling”, gave Roobarb a deliberately rough feel – as colour was crudely added with marker pens and varied from frame to frame.

The minimalist style (despite the fact that most of the action took place in the garden, there was little attempt made to colour in the backgrounds – instead they remained a plain white) also helped to create a certain atmosphere.  Of course this was no doubt borne out of necessity – the cruder the animation, the quicker it could be done – but thanks to the quality of Calveley’s scripting and Briers’ narration you can forgive the rough-and-ready nature of the visuals.

As for the main character, Roobarb is terribly appealing.  He’s an eternal optimist, always ready with an invention or a plan to make everyone’s life a little better.  Things don’t always work out quite the way he intends though, and when disaster strikes he finds Custard the cat and the birds forming up to mock his efforts.  But no matter, Roobarb always bounces back to hatch another scheme next time.

Roobarb ran for thirty episodes which were repeated on numerous occasions.  As with several other classic children’s shows it received a twenty-first century makeover and returned for another series, this time entitled Roobarb and Custard Too.

Roobarb and Custard Too ran for thirty nine episodes, which were broadcast on C5 during 2005.  As with the original, Grange Calveley provided the scripts and Richard Briers the narration, although this time the visuals were generated via computer animation (the “boiling” look of the original was kept).  The opening episode, When There Was a Surprise, provides us with a clear example that this is a 21st Century Roobarb as it concerns Roobarb’s efforts to build his own computer (out of wood and other scraps) and how he’s able to get it working, courtesy of Mouse.

Although the increased cast of characters in Roobarb and Custard Too slightly diluted the enclosed charm of the original, it was still a witty and entertaining series and whilst it’ll probably never surpass the original in many peoples affections it certainly has its moments.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection contains, as its title implies, all thirty episodes of Roobarb  (on the first DVD) and all thirty nine episodes of Roobarb and Custard Too (on DVDs two and three).  Given that Roobarb and Custard Too was made in 2005, it’s slightly surprising that the picture format for all these episodes is 4:3.  I don’t have a copy of the original broadcasts to hand, but I strongly suspect they would have been made in widescreen.  It’s also a little disappointing that none of the discs are subtitled.

Roobarb and Custard – The Complete Collection is released by Simply Media on the 16th of May 2016.  RRP £34.99.

Roobarb & Custard – The Complete Collection to be released by Simply Media on 16/5/16

roobarb

Simply Media will be releasing Roobarb & Custard – The Complete Collection on the 16th of May 2016.  Review here.

More than 40 years after making their debut on British TV screens, and over a decade since their return, green dog and pink cat Roobarb and Custard are bounding back into view again, accompanied by their ubiquitous theme tune (acclaimed as one of finest children’s TV title songs ever).

The groundbreaking animated series and its sequel are being paired together for the first time ever on a DVD due to be released as Roobarb and Custard: The Complete Collection on 16 May 2016 courtesy of Simply Media.

Famed for both entertaining kids at the end of children’s TV programming, and, ahead of the teatime BBC news, wooing a cult audience of grown-ups, Roobarb and Custard is instantly recognisable, from its distinctive theme tune, penned by library legend Johnny Hawksworth (Man About the House), to its crazy lead characters. That theme tune was even sampled for a rave friendly chart version in the early 1990s.

Simply Media’s splendid new DVD release pairs the original 30 episodes from the 1974 series – the first fully animated television series to be made in the UK – as well as the 2005 Roobarb And Custard Too series, comprising of 39 episodes.

Both come from the mind of original creator Bob Godfrey (Henry’s Cat) and each feature the distinctive narration of British comedy legend Richard Briers (The Good Life). Each of the two series features the antics of the green dog Roobarb and his outlandish schemes and hapless plans, seemingly forever foiled by his next-door nemesis, pink cat Custard.

The Galton and Simpson Playhouse – Swop You One Of These For One Of Those

swap

One major theme running throughout so much of British comedy during the 1970’s was that of sexual frustration. The Carry On’s, Benny Hill and Les Dawson’s Cosmo Smallpiece are just some examples of the typically frustrated British comedy male.  Richard Briers as Henry Fairlane in Swop You One Of These For One Of Those is another prime example.

The 1960’s may have been the decade of sexual revolution, but for some (and especially Henry) it seems to have totally passed them by.  He spends his time in the office ruminating on the clothes the secretaries wear.  “Shouldn’t be allowed to walk around the office dressed like that. They’re asking for it, they really are. Trouble is, they don’t ask me for it.”

He’s happily married, but his eye is certainly roving.  When one of the secretaries (Linda Hayden) wonders why he should bother to play around, he tells her that “I’m not old enough to turn it in.  I should be playing around, it’s natural.  I mean it keeps you young and healthy, it gives you a better disposition.”

Linda Hayden
Linda Hayden

Briers is perfect as the twitchy forty-something, desperately yearning for new horizons and as luck would have it, his colleague Roger Gresham (Henry McGee) has the answer – an invitation to a wife-swopping party.  You couldn’t really get any more 1970’s than that!  Henry’s keen, but Roger tells him that he has to make sure he brings his wife along – no wife, no entry.

Come the night of the party and Henry’s been separated from his wife – he lost her at Belsize Park tube station.  Roger refuses to let him in without her, so he has to keep a lonely vigil outside, watching enviously as numerous other couples gain admittance.  The frustration part is key to the comedy – Henry has to remain constantly unfulfilled – otherwise the joke doesn’t work.

Eventually, Henry’s wife Linda (Jan Waters) does turn up – just as Henry stepped away from the door.  Roger’s delighted to see her and and instantly lets her in (after some hesitation she throws herself into the party with gusto).  So by the time the party’s over, Linda’s had a great time (with many different people) and poor Henry’s been stuck outside the whole time.  Henry, like so many comedy characters from this decade, is forced to constantly have his nose pressed to the glass, watching others enjoy themselves.

Richard Briers gives a very nice turn and Henry McGee (a familiar Benny Hill stooge) makes an impression as one of the oldest swingers in town.  It’s also good to briefly see the imposing figure of Peggy Ann Clifford.  She made a memorable non-speaking appearance in The Missing Page episode of Hancock’s Half Hour as the woman who watches Tony mime the plot of a particularly exciting book.

Swop You One Of These For One Of Those is a step up from Car Along The Pass and is, if nothing else, a good time-capsule of the period.

The Good Life – Plough Your Own Furrow

plough

By 1975 John Esmonde and Bob Larby were a well-established writing team (responsible for hit series such as Please Sir!).  When creating The Good Life they started with pretty much a blank slate – they knew that Richard Briers would star (since the BBC were keen to have Briers appear in another sitcom) but everything else was up for grabs.

The first moment of inspiration came when Esmonde and Larby realised that both Briers and Larby were coming up to the age of forty – as Larby said, it was one of those “Oh God!” ages.  So it was decided that Briers’ character would be facing some mid-life crisis, but what form would this take?

Thoughts such as his character deciding to resign his job and sail around the world or live on a desert island were kicked around (though not terribly seriously) before they hit upon the idea of a man totally fed up with his job and the whole rat-race existence.  So he decides to “drop out” and become self sufficient.  This was a decent idea and the logical move would have been for him to sell his house and buy a place in the country.

But in a stroke of genius, Esmonde and Larby decided that Briers’ character (Tom Good) would do no such thing – instead his house and garden (in the middle of Surbiton) would be turned into a mini-farm, complete with animals, vegetables and all the other paraphernalia that it entailed.

With this initial concept decided, the rest of the small cast fell into place.  Felicity Kendall was Barbara, Tom’s long-suffering wife whilst Penelope Keith and Paul Eddington would be the Good’s long suffering next-door neighbours, Margo and Jerry.

Larby conceded that had Margo and Jerry simply been relentlessly disapproving then the series wouldn’t have worked very well.  Margo and Jerry are Tom and Barbara’s best friends and it’s the conflict between their friendship and their disapproval of the Good’s new lifestyle which drives some of the comedy along.

The first episode, Plough Your Own Furrow, is an interesting one.  It’s not wall-to-wall laughs, as there’s space when the characters (especially Tom) pause to reflect upon the course of their life so far.  Partly this may be because it was the first episode of a new series – as time went on, the audiences would become more attuned to the characters, the writing and the style of the programme and be more inclined to show their approval.

As the episode opens, we see Tom celebrating his 40th birthday.  He’s clearly a man searching for something which is, at that time, undefinable.

It’s quality of life.  That’s what I’m after.  If I could just get it right.  I’ll tackle it and get it right, as soon as I know what it is.

It’s clear that he isn’t getting any job satisfaction.   A whole host of small irritations are highlighted – such as the office car-park attendant knowing Jerry’s name, but not Tom’s (“I’ve really made an impact with you over the years, haven’t I?  Cor blimey, I’ve only been here eight years.”) and the fact there was an office cricket team but nobody thought to ask him (“We didn’t need to.  We got my dad to umpire”).

This is another indication that Tom is standing still at best or even moving backwards.  Everybody else in his department is in their twenties, so what does the future hold for Tom?  Jerry joined the company at the same time as Tom, but he’s ascended to the executive level whilst Tom remains stuck on the fourth floor, engaged in vital work such as designing a toy hippo to be included as a free gift in a popular brand of breakfast cereal.

Jerry spells it out to Tom.

We joined this company – what, eight years ago, wasn’t it it?  And do you know something?  I was frightened of you then.  You were a better draughtsman than I was and you had better qualifications than mine.  I was going to have to rely on pure cunning just to keep up with you.  Still, I needn’t have bothered, need I?  Cos look at us.  I’m up here and you’re down there, not getting picked for cricket teams.  And why?  Because you use about one tenth of your ability.  I have to use all mine and what I lack I make up with sheer, bloody crawling.

Then Sir (Reginald Marsh) joins Tom and Jerry (and every time I type their names I assume that Esmonde and Larby picked those names as a tribute to a popular cat and mouse partnership) for a chat about his latest top-secret project.

The bubble has just come off the top of the think-tank and I don’t mind telling you that this is an absolute blockbuster of an idea.  It’s going to put our wildlife preservation series in the vanguard of world mouldings.  Our mould is going to be a giraffe! And Tom, I’m thinking of putting this giraffe on your plate.

Tom has the chance to advance his career with some “bloody crawling” but his hysterical laughter at the giraffe news scuppers this.  This is point when Tom finally realises the futility of his job (“You should have heard Sir.  You’d think he’d invented penicillin.  I couldn’t help laughing”).  There has to be more to life, but what?  Then Tom has a lightbulb moment, which he explains to Barbara.

I quit work and we become as damned near self-sufficient as possible.  We’ve got bags of garden, we grown our own food.  We keep some animals, chickens, a pig.  We produce our own energy, recycle rubbish.  We design the things we need.  I’ll show you what being a draughtsman is really all about.  Now , some things we can’t make, right.  Some things we can’t grow, right.  So we flog our surplus and buy stuff, and that’s without good old Medieval barter.  It’ll be damned hard work.  We won’t have much in the way of mod cons, but we might enjoy discovering what we can do without.  And we won’t need the world and his wife to give us the yea or nay.  It’ll be just us, doing it for us.  What do you think, eh?

This monologue is the essence of the series.  And Barbara’s reaction is interesting.  The camera cuts back to her on several occasions and her expression is, at best, neutral.  It would have been incredibly unrealistic for her to instantly agree, so even though it’s the middle of the night she puts on her wellies and walks up and down the garden until she finally decides that yes, they’ll do it.

This naturally results in a celebration – and as they dance in the fishpond the noise wakes up the Ledbetters next door.  We see Jerry, but only hear Margo (in this episode we don’t see Penelope Keith).  And the next morning Tom has been up good and early.  He’s sold his car and bought a plough, so he can start on the back garden and take the first step on the road to self-sufficiency.