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.
Right. I’ve had enough of writing worthy stuff that nobody is interested in. As 2018 comes to a close, I think it’s about time I did something which is just all-out populist. I am more than happy to throw my dignity under a bus for the sake of shareable content.
Here’s when all your favourite TV shows really jumped the shark.
“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.
Odd, because unused TV idents aren’t exactly the kind of thing the Radio Times usually writes about. I mean, I’d love it if it was, but let’s face it: the only reason this article was published is because it’s about Dad’s Army, a sitcom everyone is still obsessed over, despite the fact that It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Hi-de-Hi!, and You Rang, M’Lord? are all much better.
Enough of my irritating opinions on comedy. I’m here to give some irritating opinions on TV presentation instead. Let’s take a look at the rejected ident in question:
I mean, it’s beautiful. Really beautiful. Very nicely animated, and the inclusion of the Isle of Wight on the 2 really sells it as what it’s supposed to be. In and of itself as a standalone thing, it’s one of the best pieces of TV presentation I’ve seen for ages. It’s clearly made with a tremendous amount of love and respect for the show.
It wouldn’t have worked as an ident in front of Dad’s Army. Not even remotely.
You could perhaps query the inclusion of Nazi symbols on a piece of TV presentation, but that’s not my main problem with it. Nor is my problem covered in the reason the BBC gave for rejecting it:
“Ultimately, however, the BBC decided not to use the homage to those original opening credits. “They said some very nice things about it and it was clearly something that was under discussion for some time,” continues Norton. “However, they told us that they wanted to move away from content-specific idents on BBC2 and wanted more general idents that could serve all programmes across the channel.”
Here’s my problem with it: stop thinking of the proposed ident as a nice standalone piece of video, and start thinking of how it actually would have been used, in front of an episode of Dad’s Army. Just imagine the ident running, the announcer talking over it, introducing the episode… and then going into the actual title sequence, which looks identical. It would be such a weird, jarring repetition of what you’d just seen. Something which looks utterly magical in isolation, would look naff when used in context.1
Linear television is more than just individual elements, slammed next to each other. What the viewer has just seen impacts on what they’re just about to see. And as the various parts of television get ever-more siloed off, seeing the big picture of what is transmitted when everything gets put together becomes more and more difficult. It’s vital that this overview is protected, and strengthened, across all of television.
Otherwise, you don’t just end up with the oddity of seeing a pastiche of a title sequence followed by the real title sequence. You end up with idents accidentally mocking the dead.
The original version posted on the animator’s own YouTube account is even worse – it has the Dad’s Army theme dubbed over it. So you’d be going from the Dad’s Army theme… straight into the Dad’s Army theme again. ↩
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with TV pilots.
TV pilots of all kinds. Shows which eventually made it to the screen virtually untouched as part of a series, like The Young Ones episode Demolition. Shows which made it to screen, but which were substantially or entirely reshot for the series proper, such as Citizen Smith. One-offs which aired, but never became a series – remember Mirrorball? And then there’s my favourite: pilots which were never broadcast, either because they were never intended to be in the first place, or because substantial changes happened between the pilot and the series… or because they were a complete fucking disaster in every single respect.
There are so many of these unbroadcast pilots I’d love to see. There’s the 1986 pilot Dungeon Doom… followed by a second, also unbroadcast pilot under the more familiar name Knightmare in 1987. Similarly, 1983 saw an unnamed pre-pilot, followed by a full pilot called UNTV… with a series appearing the year after, a certain Spitting Image. Then there’s Paul O’Grady’s version of The Generation Game, which by rights should have been the BBC’s big entertainment hit of 2003… and wouldn’t you just love to watch the two pilots they made to see exactly why that didn’t happen?
Occasionally, such pilots get to see the light of day on DVD, if they ended up as successful shows. Sherlock saw its unbroadcast 60 minute version of A Study in Pink released. The Day Today is one of the most obvious comedy examples, with the bare bones of the show there… but the visual panache of the series very much not. And then there’s Doctor Who, where the DVD set The Beginning contains the complete unedited pilot recording, and a brand new edit combining the best of all the raw session’s takes. Because, y’know, Doctor Who.
With comedy, it’s easy to wish so much more was released.1 Blackadder is the most obvious example here, with a pilot which had never been officially put out on DVD, presumably due to somebody not wishing it to be out there.2 Slightly further afield, I would do anything3 to see A Big Bunch of Hippies, the pilot for the underrated sitcom Hippies – and even if you didn’t like the show, its unbroadcast pilot was the last TV show scripted jointly by Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan, which is surely of interest to the discerning comedy fan.4
But occasionally, we get lucky. Hello Drop the Dead Donkey, Channel 4’s truly excellent 90s newsroom sitcom… which actually released its unbroadcast pilot on DVD in 2005. And watching it in the context of that first series from 1990 is rather instructive.
Admittedly, comedy in general has it better than game shows, or entertainment shows in general. Duncan Norvelle’s pilot edition of Blind Date is the stuff of legend, and we’ve never seen so much as a field of it. UPDATE: Thanks to Ben Baker, who points out that parts of this pilot were seen in the documentary Who Killed Saturday Night TV? Now I’ve just got to pluck up the courage to watch it. ↩
To be honest, it shuffles round the net so often like the proverbial video ghost that you’d think whoever it is might as well just throw up their hands, give in, and accept a few pennies out of it. ↩
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.
Recently I read an interesting piece by design advocate Chappell Ellison: How to Take Criticism.1 I found it a slightly bizarre experience, in that while I kept wanting to agree with it – I’m not a fan of merely “insults as review” approach either – I ended up disagreeing at nearly every turn instead. Any piece which reduces Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s contribution to film criticism to merely their thumbs up or thumbs down is simplifying their work a little too much for me.2 That’s my problem with the piece as a whole: I think it’s coming from a good place, but lacks nuance.
But of all the parts of the article I’m not sure about, it’s Chappell’s approach to comedy in criticism which I found hardest to swallow. And there’s one particular example given as a bad example of criticism which I want to dissect a little. Let’s take a look at the logo for the University of California, and then a criticism of it posted by some random person to social media:
“I didn’t know the University of California was a Children’s network.”
Chappell Ellison thinks this review is worthless:
“These opinions aren’t wrong or bad. They simply aren’t meaningful.
They are jokes.
They only benefit the joker.”
And I just don’t think that is true in the slightest. Surely that’s only true if you think that jokes can’t be meaningful – and if you think that, I’ve got a shelf of comedy DVDs which prove otherwise.
Moreover, the actual point which the above joke makes is fairly obvious. Let’s rewrite it with the joke removed:
“The new logo for the University of California looks too much like one for a Children’s network.”
Now, you may agree with that criticism, or you may not. (I can see both sides.) But either way, the criticism of the logo is certainly not meaningless; the idea that a logo might take some incorrect visual cues and not properly reflect the organisation it was designed for is a good, solid piece of crit. Sure, it’s not the most in-depth piece of criticism ever written. But as Chappell herself says in the article: “To be a good critic, you don’t have to start a blog or write essays.”
The only reason a person might think the above doesn’t work as criticism is if you think framing the point in terms of a joke renders it meaningless. And this endlessly seems to be a problem with comedy. Over here is someone who thinks criticism expressed comedically doesn’t work. And over there is someone else, who dismisses sitcoms in favour of “serious, meaningful” drama. It’s all part of the same thing.
Criticism framed comedically is meaningless? That’s some of the worst criticism I’ve ever read.
Dated July 2016, but I’ve only just got round to reading it, through a link on kottke.org. ↩
For what it’s worth, I’m not even the biggest fan of Ebert and Siskel either. ↩
“That beats my 2016 total by five and averages out to just under sixteen a month, a pace I credit to my continued adherence to a largely television-free diet. I’m going into my third year doing this now and I don’t miss TV much at all, especially as eschewing it has afforded me the time to watch and re-watch so many great or obscure or fondly remembered movies that I’d never be able to otherwise. Television is a waste of time, people.”
Alan Partridge’s Scissored Isle is not a movie, but a television programme, originally made and broadcast by Sky in 2016. And not only is it a television programme, but it’s a parody which makes fun of the conventions of a certain kind of television documentary. It only fully works in the context of it being a television programme.
If you’re going to dismiss an entire artform, by all means do so. But it’s probably best to be consistent about it, rather than pretending the bits you like are actually movies instead.