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.
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.
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. ↩
“…I’ve done broadcast TV, and I’d very gotten very used to the sort of endless churn. I liken broadcast TV to getting a tie caught in a shredder. You’re just fucking all in. The prevailing rule of broadcast television for decades was once you’ve got that magic formula, that franchise of cast and characters and the story of the week, you just keep doing that. And I never had any interest in that whatsoever.
I think with Westworld much more explicitly we set out not using the rules of television, because TV has now expanded to fit so many different formats, it’s kind of the Wild West. We looked more at the rules for franchise filmmaking.”
Me? I love the churn. The churn is responsible for some of the best moments of television ever.
* * *
The churn gets you the angriest episode of Frasier ever made. The churn gets you Coronation Street‘s widely-praised storyline about Aidan’s suicide. The churn gets you endless fun on CBBC live links; tons of material, written fast, rehearsed minutes before transmission. The very definition of churn, and stuff which has had me hooting so loudly you could hear me three streets away.
And the churn gets you moments like the Star Trek: Voyager episode Course: Oblivion. Oh, I could have cheated here, and dug up a widely-acknowledged Next Generation classic: Yesterday’s Enterprise, for instance, which was done in such a ridiculous time crunch five people worked on the teleplay just to get the damn thing finished. Course: Oblivion is a divisive episode at the very least, and is rarely considered one of the best Trek episodes ever made.
But it’s a fascinating example of what the churn of television can create. The story of an entirely duplicate Voyager crew, which would never exist if Voyager was a carefully-plotted, 10 episodes a year kind of show. It’s a sideshow – the kind of episode which has many people asking “Who cares – they’re not our characters.”
Or put another way, it’s Voyager having the freedom to say: “What the hell, we’ve got 25 other episodes this year – let’s just do something weird and see what happens”. An episode so nihilistic it barely feels like a Trek episode at times, as our duplicate crew go unremittingly towards their destruction, through no fault of their own. And yet the episode is far from pointless; it’s about the need to be remembered, for your life to mean something. As co-writer Nick Sagan puts it: “it’s about loss and remembering, death and grief.”
I love it to bits. And we owe its existence to the churn of weekly television.
* * *
The churn is “Shit, what the fuck do we do this week?” – and coming up with an answer. Sometimes, the answer is crap. Sometimes, it’s merely fine.
But sometimes, it’s amazing. And you can end up in places it’s difficult to get to with your 10-episodes-a-year, we’re-really-just-one-long-movie-style plotting. Not necessarily superior places, not always. But places we may never otherwise have gone.
As ever: let’s embrace all the different ways we can make television.
Another year, and another series of Red Dwarf. And if you’d told me a few years back that I’d be saying that in 2017, I’d have told you off for talking BOLLOCKS. Yet here we are.
Sadly, with another series of Red Dwarf comes another series of LIVE DwarfCasts over on Ganymede & Titan, the Red Dwarf website where I recently wrote about not liking Red Dwarf very much. So what better person to sit and pontificate about the show for the next five Fridays, starting at 9pm tonight? Just visit our Spreaker page twenty minutes before the show starts for some HOT STREAMING ACTION. Don’t worry, I’m just there to cause trouble – there are people far more qualified than me who are actually running the show.
We’re going at UKTV Play pace this year, rather than broadcast pace – so if you want to join us, make sure you watch the episode available for streaming late Thursday evening, not the episode broadcast on Dave the same day. (We know it’s confusing. We know.) This week, that’s the second episode in the series, Siliconia, available right now.
Ah, it’s been rather quiet over here on Dirty Feed recently, hasn’t it? Sorry, I’ve been busy over on Ganymede & Titan, the Red Dwarf fansite I write for because I hate Red Dwarf.
Here’s what I’ve been up to over there, if you’re interested.
Better Than Reality
A short piece looking at the genesis of some of Red Dwarf‘s most popular episodes, as found in Radio 4 sketch show Cliché – Rob and Doug’s first solo writing credit. (I didn’t get much feedback on this one, and I don’t think it’s the best-written piece I’ve ever done, but the fundamental point is fascinating, I think.)
End of Part One, Red Dwarf XI Edition
A look at the placing of ad breaks in Red Dwarf XI, because I’m the only person in the world who would actually bother to write that article. (I did enjoy the person who told me on Twitter that ad breaks shouldn’t be used to set up cliffhangers in British TV shows. I told them they lost that argument in 1955.)
Red Dwarf and Me: Artificial Reality
On my relationship with Red Dwarf these days, which has been percolating in my mind for five years… and I only just figured out how to write it. The comment thread is lovely and well worth a read too.
When I’m not writing over here, you can find me over on Ganymede & Titan – the Red Dwarf fansite started in 1999 which is unaccountably still running. Having just published a brand new piece of mine over there today, it strikes me that over the past three years I seem to have accidentally written myself a little trilogy about the history, influences and themes of the show.
As they’re some of my better pieces, with a strong linking thread, if you feel like diving into my Red Dwarf writing you could probably do worse than check out the following. They do go into the show in a little more depth than “Dave Hollins was on the radio, and then it turned into Red Dwarf“.
History of a Joke (2015)
Tracing the history of a single joke Rob and Doug have used in various forms, right from their first solo radio show Cliché in 1981, to their novel Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers in 1989.
Hancock’s Half Hour: The Tycoon (2016)
A look at how the basic structure of the Red Dwarf episode Better Than Life was done by Hancock’s Half Hour thirty years earlier: even the supposedly science fiction element.
Better Than Reality (2017)
A brand new piece, which takes a look at how a single sketch in Cliché informed ideas that Red Dwarf would use time and time again – in Better Than Life, Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers, and beyond.
If any of my Red Dwarf writing interests you, give the above a go. They’re some of the best stuff about the show I’ve written over the past few years, so if you don’t like them then for fuck’s sake don’t hunt down any of my other shit.
Back in 2010 – long before this bugger was released – I created an I’m Alan Partridge soundtrack album. It featured not only songs from the show, but also clips and jingles and a few surprises, hopefully all mixed together in something approaching a fun way. It’s by far the best thing I’ve done on this site, and it’s been a slow inexorable decline ever since.
Originally it was hosted by MediaFire, until it got booted off for copyright infringement. Then it was hosted on my Dropbox, where amazingly it managed to survive until very recently. But with the latest disabling of all Dropbox public folders, it managed to fall offline yet again. So I thought it was about time I uploaded it somewhere legal rather than trying my luck once more.
Now, I really must get round to making that Maid Marian and Her Merry Men album…
“Our biggest struggle after filming the pilot was cutting it down to time. We were something like six minutes long, which is a lot. We cut and cut and cut some more. We cut things we liked and we cut things we loved. Still, after 6 or 7 passes at the show we were still a minute long. We felt we had cut it to the bare bones. Any more cuts could damage the show so we went to Paramount with our dilemma. Thankfully, they agreed with us and asked NBC to give us some extra time. After viewing what we hoped would be our final cut, NBC agreed to give us that extra minute which was a very big favor. So, how do they come up with that extra minute of programming time for us? Don’t think that all they have to do is cut a commercial or two. Are you crazy? That’s money. No, to give us that extra minute, they asked the three other comedies and one drama on that Thursday night to each cut 15 seconds out of their programs. It’s not something that’s done very often and it’s not something the network likes to do, but for that pilot of Frasier they felt it was worth it.”
Six minutes, cut out of one of the best sitcom pilots ever made? Oh, man, wouldn’t it be amazing to see what was cut? But I guess we’ll never find out, unless there happens to be a script of the pilot hanging around online anywhere…
…oh, hello. Marked “REVISED FINAL DRAFT”, and dated April 29th 1993. Let’s dig right in.
Material which is only in the script is indicated like this; material which is only in the episode as broadcast is indicated like this. I won’t detail every single difference in phrasing between the script and the final show, minor trims to dialogue, or every change in staging, but all major differences will be noted.1