In the penultimate part of this series, we examined the full wrath of John Cleese. Today, to round things up, I want to investigate his softer side. The softer side that nonetheless involves a sharp jab at his fellow professionals, because this is John Cleese: the man who deliberately broadcast David Frost’s telephone number to the nation because he thought it was funny.
And a character like Mr. Davidson – someone who is the embodiment of anti-comedy – is the perfect vehicle Cleese can use to slag off some lazy jokes.
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Last time in our analysis of No Ill Feeling!, we took an in-depth look at Dr. Upton’s nemesis, Mr. Davidson. We are now heading towards our final showdown with that particular fragment of humanity.
It is utterly glorious. It is also utterly savage, in a way that you might not expect from a 1971 LWT sitcom. And it’s something which seems to have been pretty much ignored by everyone in their analysis of the episode – in as much as the episode has had any analysis, beyond “look, there’s an early version of Basil”.
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In Part One of this series, we took a trip to 1971 and Doctor at Large, where newly-qualified doctor Michael Upton went to stay at the Bella Vista hotel. There, he met Mr. Clifford, our ersatz Basil Fawlty, and had a fairly baffling time with him.
That’s where most analysis of the episode No Ill Feeling! ends. But to me, it’s really just the beginning. Today, we meet the real nemesis of Michael Upton… and John Cleese.
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There is a tendency, when talking about TV shows, to get caught up in the same old anecdotes and stock opinions.
Star Trek: The Next Generation only got good with Season 3. Panorama was briefly interesting in 1957 with its spaghetti harvest April Fools, and again that time when Dimbleby sat there like a twat when no films would run. Catchphrase is reduced to Mr. Chips having a wank next to a snake.
It’s the same with sitcoms. Hancock is all about armfuls of blood and reading off cue cards. Are You Being Served? is entirely centred on Mrs. Slocombe’s minge. The Office invented a whole new way of making comedy.1 So it is with Fawlty Towers, which has its own set of anecdotes and origin stories, all endlessly repeated over the years until nobody bothers to question them.
So let’s question one of them, shall we?
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Currently, I’m going through a load of old Dirty Feed articles, for preparation for the site’s 10th anniversary in January.1 And this particular piece about the now-dormant Dirty Feed Tumblr caught my eye.
There is no polite way of saying this. The most popular post I ever made on Tumblr was a collection of pulp book covers featuring women about to have sex with dogs.
Now, you may not be particularly keen on my bestiality material. You may prefer my in-depth articles about sitcom edits instead. But it was definitely the most popular post I ever made on Tumblr, by an order of magnitude. I mention over 200 likes/reblogs in that previous piece; it had over 400 before it was removed.
Removed? Ah, yes. Sadly, that post is no longer available, due to Tumblr’s porn ban in December 2018. As soon as that ban was announced, I stopped using the site. I never really clicked with Tumblr anyway; the porn ban was the final straw.
But the fact remains: by far the most thing I ever posted on the site was deleted by Tumblr. That’s a mildly annoying state of affairs, even if I’m not using the site any more, and even if the post did feature an illustration of an Alsatian with a particularly lascivious look on his face.
* * *
OK, fine. If you want an article on sitcom edits, let’s talk about some sitcom edits.2
Back in 2012, I wrote a series of articles on pre-watershed edits made to Red Dwarf on Dave. One recurring motif presented itself: time and time again, some of the funniest moments in an episode were cut.3 Kryten sticking up his finger and saying “Swivel on it, punk!”; “Rimmer Directive 271 states just as clearly: No chance you metal bastard”; “Santa Claus – what a bastard! He’s just a big fat git who sneaks down chimneys and steals all the kid’s favorite toys…”; “No officer with false teeth should attempt oral sex in zero gravity”; “Men! They’re all bastards!”; and by the funniest moment in Red Dwarf VIII:
CASSANDRA: I already told you: Rimmer dies of a heart attack, and then you and all the other Canaries die too; all except Lister, Kryten, Kochanski and the Cat. I’ve seen it.
RIMMER: That’s as well as maybe, but have you seen this?
RIMMER flips his middle finger to CASSANDRA, then turns and storms out.
CASSANDRA: Yes, I’m afraid I have.
My analysis of pre-watershed I’m Alan Partridge edits brought up similar points: “Don’t rub your fanny on me!” and “He means his cock!” were gone. And if I ever get round to writing something about pre-watershed Porridge edits on Gold, I’ll be sure to mention that the climax to the episode where Fletch sticks two fingers up to the camera is pixellated, destroying the joke entirely.
* * *
This isn’t really an anti-censorship screed, at least not per se. My point is simply this: when things are deleted from the internet, or cuts are made to programmes, it’s worth remembering that the effect of such things isn’t random. It’s not arbitrary chunks that disappear: it’s the outliers that go. The rudest joke in a sitcom episode; a blog post which takes a left turn into filth. And those outliers are often one of the most popular parts of a piece of work.
And slowly but surely, the corners of things get knocked off. Censorship is often talked about – sometimes correctly, sometimes not – in terms of how dangerous it can be. But often, the enemy is the sheer blandification of pop culture. It’s not that anybody dies. It’s not about suppressing important conversations. It’s about which bits of our culture survive in the popular memory, and which don’t. Which is both very important, and not important at all.
And that leads to one of the joys of owning your own little part of the internet. Away from social media giants changing their policies on a whim, and away from UKTV’s bizarre editing policies, you can quietly sit and document things. And documenting these things shifts the power dynamic back towards the integrity of the text, however slightly, rather than companies just doing things because it’s easier. I find it immensely rewarding.
Especially when – just occasionally – you get to stand up for an author’s original intention, when it never managed to make it to the screen properly in the first place.
Though that’s not as important as dog cock, obviously.
I know, I know. Posts about Spotify being stupid are ten a penny online. But dammit, I’m allowed one of them.
Let’s take a look, then, at Spotify’s “This Is The Shangri-Las”, described as “The essential tracks, all in one playlist.” When it comes to the Shangri-Las, this should not be a difficult thing to make, considering they were only active for such a short time; all their actual records were released between 1963 and 1967. Not even Spotify can screw this up, right?
Hmmmmmm. Even the most casual Shangri-Las fan will see a few things wrong there. Let’s take them one by one.
Monster Mash Re-Recording (150 Rock ‘N’ Roll Classics)
Oh, could it be true? Please say it’s true. Please tell me the Shangri-Las recorded a version of Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash”. That might possibly be the best thing which has ever existed in the entire world.
Well, no. Of course they bloody didn’t. To add insult to injury, this isn’t even the original recording. How this ever got labelled as a Shangri-Las track is a mystery.
Duchess of Earl (Boys Can Be Mean)
Absolutely nothing to do with the Shangs – this is the Pearlettes from 1962, with their cover of Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl”.
Oddly, Spotify has the song credited to the Pearlettes and the Shangs, so some metadata has got confused somewhere. Why Spotify felt the need to grab a song from a compilation CD when there’s plenty of Shangs-specific albums on the service is also a mystery. That just seems designed to lead to this kind of confusion.
He’s So Fine (Leader of the Pack)
This one is particularly strange. No, the song is nothing to do with the Shangs – this is The Chiffons from 1963. But things get strange when we check where the song has come from.
It’s another compilation album, called “Leader of the Pack” from 2011, which is most certainly not the original Shangri-Las album from 1965. It contains 14 songs which are actually by the Shangs… and this single one which isn’t. So a) bad luck Spotify, you played the odds and lost, and b) I find it difficult to believe that 2011 album is a legitimate release. It probably shouldn’t even be on Spotify at all.
Little Bell (Boys Can Be Mean)
From the same compilation album as “Duchess of Earl” comes “Little Bell”, which of course was not the Shangs, but their Red Bird labelmate The Dixie Cups.
Again, the metadata on this credits The Shangri-Las and The Dixie Cups, but at least I can see where the confusion comes from this time. This almost certainly stems from the 1986 compilation album The Dixie Cups Meet The Shangri-Las. (Needless to say, that album is just a bunch of hits from both groups, rather than anything more interesting.)
* * *
So, my question is: how are Spotify’s “This Is…” playlists put together? Are they curated by actual people, or is this just an algorithm going rogue because of incorrect metadata? For the answer, let’s take a look at Spotify’s guide to playlists; the relevant section for us is “Editorial – Made by us”:
“We handcraft thousands of editorial playlists. You can tell it’s one of ours by that little Spotify logo on the top left corner.
Our Editorial team is made up of genre, lifestyle, and culture specialists from around the globe. Their understanding of the right music for every moment is based on years of experience and careful consideration of listening habits.
We also personalize some of these playlists so they have different tracks for different listeners, because we know everyone’s taste is different. Therefore, a playlist with sing-along hits can have songs each listener would know the words to!”
So reading between the lines, the “This Is…” playlists are mainly a real person making them, and an algorithm doing some tweaks. Let’s hope the four tracks above weren’t added by Spotify’s Editorial team; you would think that a team of specialists would at least be able to figure out whether a track for a Shangri-Las playlist was actually by the Shangri-Las or not.
Of course mistakes happen. If it had just been one wrong track, I would have rolled my eyes and ignored it. But I would suggest that four incorrect entires – on a playlist of just 21 tracks – is taking the piss. A full 20% of the playlist is entirely wrong. And worst of all, “Sophisticated Boom Boom” isn’t even there. Come on. This is not the carefully curated playlist Spotify claims it is.
May I suggest: if you want a decent overview of the Shangri-Las, listen to the “Remember” compilation instead. And don’t miss “Dressed in Black”.
I have to admit, Dirty Feed and podcasts is a bit of a sore point. I did three episodes in 2012… and the fourth one has yet to materialise. Yes, a wait of seven years and counting is taking the fucking piss. All I can say is that it will return one day. I’ve spent far too much on jingles for it not to.
I have been involved in another podcast these last few years, mind. Over on Ganymede & Titan, the Red Dwarf fansite which is unaccountably still running and updated in 2019, we just published our 100th episode of DwarfCasts. The reason we managed to get to 100 episodes is because all I have to do is turn up and speak loudly and annoyingly about Red Dwarf, rather than actually do any of the hard work of getting the show prepped, recorded, edited, and published. So when I say I’m proud of that 100th episode, it’s nothing to do with me, and everything to do with Ian Symes, who put that beautiful little documentary together.1
Still, it got me thinking. Maybe 100 episodes of a podcast made over 13 years isn’t the most impressive thing in the world, even if that is 98 episodes more than most podcasts manage. But it strikes me that there’s something pleasant about devoting myself to the same thing for that length of time. Indeed, take a look at Ganymede & Titan as a whole – I’ve been writing for the site for 16 years and counting, and if you look back at the very first incarnation of the site, it’s been going for a full 20 years. And doing the same kind of thing for so long means that I’ve ended up writing and talking about areas that I never would have examined if I’d done what so many people did.
Because most sensible 90s Red Dwarf fans did the following: got a job, got a family, and stopped thinking that much about Red Dwarf. I managed the first two, but somehow never stopped doing the third. And sure, I’ve written about my frustration about that at times. I do have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the show these days.
But if I’d done what normal fans do, and drifted away from doing anything in fandom, I’d never have written some of my favourite pieces on the show. On the development of Holly in the early days of the show, on the very earliest stirrings of Rob and Doug playing with the nature of reality, or about how the glimmerings of one of Red Dwarf‘s most famous episodes can be seen in Hancock’s Half Hour, to name three of many.
All this is on my mind as we come up to this January, and the 10th anniversary of Dirty Feed. In one sense, anniversaries are an arbitrary waste of time. But as an excuse to take stock of where we are, and what’s to come, I find them useful. Over the last ten years, I’ve published stuff on here I love, and stuff which I now think is a bit crap. But the fact that I’ve been publishing stuff in the same place for a full ten years feels meaningful, somehow. As with the DwarfCasts, I haven’t been as prolific on here as I would have liked to have been; other bits of life got in the way. But over the years, it adds together into a really nice archive of fun stuff.
There’s an advantage to plugging away at the same thing for years, without getting bored and flitting to the next thing. You don’t have to give it endless chunks of your time each week. Nor do you have to worry about any kind of long-term plan, or where exactly it is you’re going. And after a few years, you may just look back in surprise.
Without even realising it, you’ve made something you’re proud of.
A fun thing happened a week or so back. Radio presenter Nathan Turvey1 posted the following absolutely delightful thing.
And don’t miss Kenny’s little message to Nathan at the end of the reel.
Understandably, this went down extremely well on Twitter. At the time of writing, that video has had nearly a million views, and a ridiculous number of replies. Which is fascinating for such an arcane subject. After all, radio jingles are not exactly the most popular thing to talk about on Twitter. Believe me, I know. I’ve tried to talk about them on there for years.
Which proves one thing: topics are esoteric and simply not talked about… until they suddenly are talked about. People just need a gateway into them. And I don’t mean that in a sneery way at all; quite the opposite. There are plenty of topics I never think about, until I suddenly do.
The reason that has happened here isn’t difficult to figure out. The story of a 13 year old writing to his radio hero and getting back some jingles made just for him is an irresistible one. As a jingle nerd I’ve heard audio of Kenny making jingles for other people before… but for professional DJs, never for a kid who just looked up to him. Combine that story with the presence of Kenny himself – where the word genius really does apply – and you have a story which is pretty much guaranteed to go viral. And quite right too. We all need as many glimpses of pleasure as we can get these days.
My point is simply that subjects can be seen as impossibly nerdy and esoteric, when they actually aren’t at all. To take a similar example: old Radio 1 jingles weren’t exactly a popular conversation on Twitter… until Radio 1 Vintage played some of them, and people remembered how great they were. Or moving away from jingles entirely: chatting about Doctor Who continuity errors was confined to a decreasing section of society… until a certain Russell T. Davies relaunched the show in 2005, and a brand new legion of fans got involved in the UNIT dating controversy.
To be absolutely clear: nobody is better because they talked about this stuff before other people. You can’t do everything at once. My first love is sitcoms, but I only got round to watching Are You Being Served? properly this year. A fair few people enjoyed my observations about the show, but I’m sure plenty of what I talked about had been discussed by people decades earlier. This is not about cultural gatekeeping.
It’s just a reminder not to worry about whether the things you love are important, or popular. Because those statuses can flip in an instant. And then flip back again. And certainly don’t let anybody sneer at you for your interests.
Just love the things you love, and the rest will take care of itself.
There are some things I will never understand.
Take, for instance, this Amazon review of Soupy Twists!, Jem Roberts’ excellent look at Fry & Laurie:
“As seems to be the norm now, about a third of the book is padded out with unused snippets of sketches (although I recognised some so that might be quite a loose definition).”
Or how about this SFX review of The Hidden Art of Disney’s Golden Age?
“Generally, though, this is an unspectacular volume. It’s full of doodles and drawings which reveal their artists’ technique and imagination without being very eye-catching; many are for toons that were never made. For example, several pages are devoted to the abandoned “Mickey’s Sea Monster”, with loads of design ideas for a Disney sea serpent (the best monsters are cute but also a bit scary). There are glimpses of an unmade Fantasia-like cartoon called Japanese Symphony, with parasol-wielding geishas and dancing butterflies.”
Or how about the review I distinctly remember of a Red Dwarf DVD, which called the deleted scenes “filler”? (Sadly, I can’t find that particular review, or the police might have to investigate a sudden nasty spate of poison pen letters.)
Regardless: I will never understand it. I will never understand somebody lifting up the lid on the creative process, to see a glimpse of what could have been… only to be greeted with calls that it’s padding, unspectacular, or filler. Of course, sometimes such work can be worthwhile in its own right; for what it’s worth, I was hooting with laughter at the unused Fry & Laurie stuff. “Split beaver pornography slipped through the net.”
But sometimes, it’s not about whether the work itself is entertaining. The path not taken is one of the biggest insights you can have into how something was made. If you ever thought the end of the Red Dwarf episode “Dimension Jump” was anti-climactic… just look at the deleted scenes, and see just how much worse it could have been, and how they arrived at the ending they did.
I know people engage with work in different ways. There are many who just don’t care about going behind-the-scenes at all. And that’s fine. But if you’re reading a book about Fry & Laurie rather than just watching the programmes again; if you’re reviewing a book specifically about Disney’s “Hidden Art” rather than just watching the cartoons; if you’ve wandered away from watching the episodes on a Red Dwarf release and into the extras menu… then I have to assume that you care about more than just watching the finished products themselves, and you want to go deeper.
So to shrug your shoulders at this stuff is frankly baffling. The chance to see brand new unseen work from people you love… or the chance to understand why you love them in the first place. Both approaches are valid for unseen material.
But indifference, or even boredom? That’s just weird.
Something very odd happens in Episode 54 of Are You Being Served?, you know. Something which has never happened before.
Mind you, Series 8 of the show had already seen its fair share of upheaval. We wave goodbye to Mr. Goldberg, see in Mr. Grossman… then four episodes in, wave goodbye to Mr. Grossman and say hello to Mr. Klein, turning the Men’s department into a full-on ridiculous revolving door situation. We also say goodbye to Mr. Lucas, who admittedly had been lessening in importance for years, but was our original audience identification figure in the show’s early days. In his place comes the enormous waste of time and space which is Mr. Spooner.1 Finally, Young Mr. Grace disappears – he briefly returns for the 1981 Christmas special, but that’s it – and hands over the reins to Old Mr. Grace, who somehow manages to be even more of a creepy fucker than his predecessor.
Elsewhere, there are signs that the show itself is getting restless. While Croft displayed a taste for expanding the scope of his other sitcoms – with perhaps a few rickety film sequences too many in Dad’s Army and the like – for the first seven series, Are You Being Served? stayed resolutely within the walls of the Grace Brothers department store.2 Most of the action takes place on the shop floor of the Ladies and Gentlemen’s departments, the canteen, or an office. Occasionally they might sneak into the boardroom, and the show took the odd trip to other departments – most memorably in Series 5’s “A Change Is as Good as a Rest”, where they all go and work in the Toy Department for a week. But we never, ever go outside the building. Grace Brothers is all we ever see.
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