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.
I remember the very first time I ever became aware of KYTV.
It wasn’t through actually watching it, like a normal person. That would be too easy. No, it was reading a rather snotty reference to it in What Satellite magazine, where some idiot columnist made some outraged remark about the BBC making fun of their precious satellite television while forcing everyone to pay the licence fee. It was a remark which, if Geoffrey Perkins or Angus Deayton had read it, I suspect would have filled them with glee. Irritating various people who deserve to be irritated is entirely within the remit KYTV had set itself, after all.
In any case, it’s easy to accuse the columnist of over-sensitivity. “A parody of cheap satellite TV” might be part of what KYTV is doing, but it most certainly isn’t all of it. If that was true, then for a start, they wouldn’t have been able to reuse so much material from the show’s radio predecessor, Radio Active. No, the targets KYTV had in its sights were fairly scattershot. For every joke about dishy dish girls, there’s another about BBC2 theme nights. And for every joke satirising cheap and exploitative TV, there are jokes which aren’t much about TV at all. You could stick Martin Brown in any environment, and he’d be funny.1
Which brings us to Challenge Anna: the last episode of Series 1 of KYTV, the best episode of the show made up until that point, and up there with the best full stop. In the programme’s sights are Challenge Anneka – a BBC show – and Treasure Hunt – a Channel 4 show. Indeed, neither programme is the kind of thing which Sky or BSB could really afford to make in 1990. And while the feature “Spin the Wheel” could be viewed as what could happen to the formats if dirty old Sky got hold of them, jokes about companies helping out on the show in order to get their name mentioned are very much digs at the Beeb.
Sadly, KYTV has fallen down the cracks of comedy history somewhat – more, in fact, than Radio Active itself, which has had an ongoing successful stage revival, and this year is up in Edinburgh for the team’s 40th anniversary. So let’s redress the balance. With many thanks to Darrell Maclaine-Jones, I have in my possession the script for Challenge Anna. And contained within are all kinds of differences to the broadcast episode – with whole scenes included which didn’t make the final cut.
This year, I’ve been trying to do a bit more writing than usual over on Ganymede & Titan, the Red Dwarf fansite run by “over-entitled pricks who are upset that it isn’t actually 1992 anymore”. And one thing I’ve been doing this year is taking some Standard Red Dwarf Facts™, and digging a little deeper than usual with them.
Here’s three of those pieces in particular that I think turned out OK.
G&TV: Covington Cross
This is one of the most endlessly parroted facts among Dwarf fans: the outside village from Emohawk: Polymorph II was an abandoned set from US series Covington Cross. Which, indeed, is absolutely correct. But nobody has ever actually gone through both shows and pinpointed shots where exactly the same parts of the set are used. I have, and for some reason I am proud of this.
Take the Fifth
This is a bit of an odd one, in that this is a “fact” that we had pretty much convinced ourselves of over on G&T: that the penultimate episode of each series of Red Dwarf is where they usually hid the worst episode of the run. But does this end up being true? (I would do well to examine my own assumptions more often.)
You Stupid Ugly Goit
Probably the best thing I’ve written so far this year, on a very early piece of Red Dwarf lore. It’s generally known that at the start of the production of Series 1, Norman Lovett was originally out-of-vision, and the decision was made to make Holly a visual character after shooting had already started. But the details of exactly what was reshot to make this happen are very complicated. I think I drag up a few new things to consider here.
* * *
Meanwhile, back to Dirty Feed. And although I published some fun stufflast month, overall things have been a little quiet over here recently. I do have some silly ideas in the works, though, building up to the site’s 10th anniversary next year.
Stay tuned, as the kids definitely don’t say any more.
It has to be admitted that nice comments about Come Back Mrs. Noah – Lloyd and Croft’s 70s sitcom about a spacebound housewife – are rather thin on the ground. Having just watched the pilot episode on YouTube, I honestly don’t think it’s quite as bad as its reputation, although doing a racist joke about Notting Hill six minutes into the episode does push your goodwill rather. And the less said about the tea maker gag the better.
But enough about that. I want to highlight something interesting about that pilot, which is an effects technique I’ve never seen before. It takes place in Mission Control, where the ground crew are trying to sort out the fault with the spacecraft. And we get these two consecutive shots of the monitoring equipment they’re using to troubleshoot the fault:
Clearly, there was only one source available for the yellow overlay oscilloscope effect, but they wanted to show it from two separate angles. The solution? They designed things so the same overlay effect would work for each shot, despite the two shots being entirely different!
You can see it in action here:
It may look a little odd to modern eyes, but it’s a really clever, thinking-outside-the-box solution. You can’t do two different effects? Then make sure your single effect works from two angles.
Today, I want to talk about It Ain’t Half Hot Mum. Not the sad death of Windsor Davies, or whether the programme is racist1. This is Dirty Feed, and I have higher things in mind.
The show premiered in January 1974 on BBC1 with a first series of eight episodes.2 The first episode, however, was a true pilot, recorded a full year before air, and separately from the other seven episodes. David Croft’s autobiography, You Have Been Watching…, p. 196:
“The first pilot programme in January 1973 went very well with the studio audience and featured probably the smallest riot ever experienced by the British in India. There was no room in the studio for a proper full-scale riot mob, and we couldn’t afford one anyway. I made do with about ten shadowy figures in the foreground, but the result didn’t bear examination.3 I was present at the odd riot in India and they are extremely frightening affairs. Police and troops are usually heavily outnumbered and very scared, so ghastly mistakes can easily happen. The remainder of the show was a good pilot and served to introduce the characters and the general thrust of the plots, as any pilot should.”
Despite being shot at a different time to the rest of the series, there really are very few differences between that pilot episode Meet the Gang, and the rest of Series 1. But there is one major change: the closing titles. In the pilot, the gang song is all shot on VT in the studio. For the rest of Series 1, it was completely remounted on film.
“At an event co-hosted by BBC Director-General Tony Hall and Shane Allen, Controller of Comedy Commissioning, it was announced that BBC One will host the annual Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture, to be given by a key comedy figure to share his or her experiences and to help inspire others, as well as addressing the present-day challenges and opportunities facing the industry.
Akin to the Reith and Dimbleby lectures, the Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture’s aim is to articulate why comedy matters so much, both on a personal level and how it helps to reflect and define our national character. An inaugural speaker announcement will be made shortly.”
“The inaugural Ronnie Barker Comedy Lecture speaker is multi-award-winning comedian, novelist, playwright, film maker and creator of classic sitcoms The Young Ones, Blackadder, The Thin Blue Line and Upstart Crow, Ben Elton. He is introduced by Sir David Jason.
Recorded at the BBC’s Radio Theatre in front of an invited audience from the world of comedy, the lecture is named after the much-loved comedy writer and performer Ronnie Barker, star of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Open All Hours.”
And what did David Jason say in his introduction in the programme itself?
DAVID JASON: I’m so pleased that the BBC have decided to institute an annual lecture on the art of comedy.
The point: the programme was conceived as an annual lecture, and was described as an annual lecture in the programme itself. With 2018 drawing to an end, then, it seems an appropriate time to ask: where the bloody hell has it gone?
It’s annoying. And it’s annoying because the idea of the lecture was such a fantastic one. I can think of few things better than a funny person talking about comedy for 45 minutes, and then broadcasting it to the nation. “Educational but entertaining… perfect BBC output”, you might say. With the best will in the world, how difficult is it to get someone funny to stand in the Radio Theatre for a while and bang on about comedy?
Indeed, I would argue that naming the lecture after Ronnie Barker and then giving up after a year is a tad disrespectful. If they really weren’t sure they could make it an annual event, it was unwise to sell it as one. They could have just named last year’s The Ben Elton Comedy Lecture, do it potentially as a one-off, and give themselves some leeway.
Still, surely there isn’t a struggle for things to talk about. Last year, Ben Elton made the case for studio sitcom – a topic extremely relevant to Ronnie Barker’s work. I would argue another topic equally as relevant to Barker is the current dearth of sketch comedy on television. The odd show like Tracey Breaks the News aside, there’s virtually nothing – and the lack of sketch shows on TV is incredibly damaging to the health of comedy in 2018. True, if the BBC broadcast that lecture, plenty of people would just yell “commission some, then”. But the BBC has a long and proud history of self-flagellation, and I don’t see why this should be any different.
Although at this point, I’d probably settle for somebody standing on stage and telling us YouTube is the future of comedy. Anything, in fact, than a great idea being thrown away so quickly. I mean, I thought there was a possibility it might peter out after three years or so.
I’ve got to admit, it’s been fun writing these. I sometimes find Red Dwarf a little hard to write about these days; we’ve all talked about the old shows endlessly, so going over the same old thing can feel a little dull. Meanwhile, the new shows don’t really capture my imagination in a way which makes me want to write about them. But this really is a topic that hasn’t been talked about in quite this way before. I’ve watched those old shows countless times, but when you put everything else aside just to look at how those sets were put together, it’s amazing what new things you can spot.
I sometimes think there are two kinds of people. Those who understand why I find stuff like deleted scenes, unbroadcast pilots, and the reuse of sets to be fascinating… and those who can’t even begin to understand. I don’t think it’s even a geeks v. non-geeks thing per se: there are plenty of geeks who only care about a show in-universe, and possibly its cast members, rather than how the show was put together.
They won’t get a single thing out of this. But if you’re a silly person like me, then hopefully you’ll enjoy them.
Here’s a nice little find: a good quality version of the second title sequence to BBC political programme On The Record, from 1993:
The clip was uploaded by one of the creators, Stephanie Chappell:
“This was designed and directed by me and my fellow designer Dimitri Kevgas. It turned out to be one of the longest running titles on the BBC – running over 11 years until the programme was retired in 2004.1
We created a story for the UK political animal – the crocodile based on one of the gargoyles at Westminster. Because we were moving into the EU in the early 90s, we sent the crocodile on a journey, reflecting the interaction with his European allies. The whole project took 3 months to complete – with 1 month of solid single frame animation covering a second of the sequence each day.”
Here’s my question: could you ever imagine a political programme commissioning such a title sequence today? A piece of stop motion animation which took three months to create from beginning to end? I can’t. The money for such luxuries has long gone.
And this is the kind of thing I mean when I say: a lot of TV looks cheaper these days.
Oh, sure, there are endless newspaper columns and blog posts going on about the current golden age of television, and I’m not going to sneer at shows like Killing Eve. But they aren’t the only kinds of television there is. And over the years, imperceptibly at first, huge swathes of TV has been squeezed. Sometimes fundamentally: we’ve all read endless stories about the lack of rehearsal time on the soaps even compared to the 90s. And sometimes just with the fun stuff at the edges.
Because of course: On The Record didn’t need those opening titles, per se. But they did set a certain… tone. TV’s no fun if you cut everything to the bare bone. Television shouldn’t just be utilitarian, in the same way that your dinner shouldn’t just be about nutrition. Blockbusters didn’t needthis glorious set of titles, but surely we can all agree it’s brilliant that they did… and also agree that there’s not a chance in hell they would ever be made now.
When I think back to my memories growing up with television, it’s often that fun stuff on the edges I remember the most. When TV just goes all-out on something beautiful, brilliant, and a bit mad, just because it can. Like, for instance, spending three months on a stop motion animation sequence of the Palace of Westminster acting like a crocodile and taking a short holiday around Europe. When budgets shrink, that stuff is the first thing to go. And I miss it like hell. 2
I’m not particularly pinning blame on programme-makers here. They do the best with the resources available. Nor is this really the place for my long, uninformed thesis on how to fix television. I’m just saying, for all the talk about the current golden age of TV… it’s worth remembering some of the fun stuff we’ve lost, just because it has the temerity not to be a “premium” drama.
A bit of theatrical sparkle shouldn’t be restricted to a narrow set of programming.
I love this argument too, from Dave Jeffery: “To me, commissioning titles like that is the BBC supporting and promoting the arts in a way that is just as important as supporting an orchestra or composer. Similarly the BBC should do things like commission sculptures or murals for its buildings.” ↩
On the 30th July, I went to see The Lenny Henry Birthday Show recorded in TC1 at TV Centre. The following are a few notes from the experience. Nothing too spoilery, if only because my brain has an innate capability for forgetting the funniest of jokes precisely 10 seconds later.
Video streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime now have more subscribers than traditional pay TV services in the UK, new data from Ofcom has revealed.
The media regulator says British TV will have to change the way it operates if it wants to compete with the internet giants.
Sharon White, Ofcom’s chief executive, says: ‘We’d love to see broadcasters such as the BBC work collaboratively with ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 so that they have got that scale to compete globally, making shows together, co-producing great shows that all of us can watch.
“I think it would be great to see a British Netflix.”
The BBC has announced changes to its political and parliamentary output to improve its digital coverage, better serve its audiences, and provide more value for money.
The changes include:
A changed schedule for BBC Parliament: the channel will still broadcast live and replayed coverage of Parliament and the devolved parliaments and assemblies, but will no longer make bespoke programmes and will not air in the weeks when the UK Parliament or the devolved Parliaments and assemblies are not sitting.