“Good evening Miss Rantzen” “Do call me Esther”

Tuesday 31st March 2009

In 1985 That’s Life! was in its imperial phase. It had an immovable berth in Michael Grade’s aromatic Sunday night line-up of hit shows. It was trying to save children’s lives and start up phone lines and close down sweat shops across the planet. Audiences of 16 and 17 million tuned in to titter at misprints and miscarriages (of justice and babies).

Clearly it was a show at the peak of its powers. That’s what your memory tells you, and what popular culture readily seconds.

How come, then, that the truth is bone-chillingly removed from reality? Here is the first 10 minutes of a programme from June of that year. Maybe the show was near the end of its annual 40-week (or however many it was) run. Maybe Desmond had been giving Esther a hard time about ironing the Boy David’s smock. Maybe everyone just simply couldn’t be arsed.

Of particular note:

1) The first couple of seconds of the clip, which comprises, entirely uncoincidentally, the last few seconds of a plug for a programme by Esther’s other half.

2) The quality of the film stock used during the That’s Life! opening titles. It is appalling. It looks like it dates from the early 1970s. In fact it probably does. On another technical note, the sound balance is dreadful, with the microphones on the audience turned up way too high, meaning you hear endless shuffling, coughing and non-laughing in the studio.

3) The ginormous set. Wogan never got a wall that size.

4) The on-screen captions to introduce the nancies. They are horrible. Where are the Paintbox pyrotechnics?

5) John Gould and Maev Alexander! On an MFI sofa, him in a bow-tie, she in a suit! This was a dreadful decision (thankfully shortlived – Doc was back the following year), evident from the moment they walk on, awkwardly, and sit down, awkwardly, side by side, awkwardly. John seems to be wearing the kind of microphone Cliff Michelmore and David Butler wore on Election ’70.

6) The preamble, which is thin gruel indeed. There is a back-reference to last week’s guest Janet Brown in the shape of Esther trying to do a caricature of herself. There is also a non-amusing mug, a non-amusing cheque, and “two outstanding pictures” which aren’t.

7) Finally, the opening film package. This was clearly concocted off the back of someone who knows someone who knows someone in Esther’s husband’s drinking club. The ‘expert’ is rubbish, laughs at his own jokes and then blows the final punchline. Esther keeps trying to trump the expert with her own opinions, then runs around Covent Garden in a big mac like a flasher, failing to say hello to the people she collars and repeatedly trying to make a joke about ‘leg-overs’.

A quick look ahead through the rest of show reveals all the boxes are lazily ticked: animals running amok in the studio? Check – some ducks! Befuddled special guest? Check – Spike Milligan! Problems with the welfare state? Check – here are some people living rough! And so on. Maybe TV Cream was misguided in its unqualified veneration of Sunday night telly.

Meanwhile, prepare to guffaw raucously like you’ve never seen it before at the sight of an old man, possibly in 1973, using his eyebrows to move a cap backwards and forwards on top of his own head.


The right kind of TV Cream politician

Saturday 28th March 2009

BBC Parliament has spent the evening reliving events from precisely 30 years ago, when Donald MacCormick stood on a gantry high up in the rain outside Westminster and announced the end of Jim Callaghan’s government.

Callaghan is most definitely a TV Cream Politician. Criteria for entry into this category, one that is never very far from threatening to become important, is, inconveniently for this blog at this precise moment in time, hard to put into words.

It’s easier to use comparison. While Sunny Jim and Sailor Ted, for instance, are most definitely TV Cream Prime Ministers, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher are not. The latter two both lurched large in the public domain and tried to cast much of the country in their own image, but neither won universal respect and/or pity.

Both divided the country down the middle. Jim and Ted did not. They united it – not necessarily in admiration (if ever), but in a more everyday, workmanlike fashion, in their stubbornness, or fallibility, or simply by dint of being human. And it’s in this sense that, while John Major is a TV Cream Prime Minister, Tony Blair is not.

It’s something to do with being ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Most of what TV Cream is about concerns everyday things being turned into the ultra-special and the uber-memorable, usually by TV, radio, music and print. So a TV Cream Politician is somebody who is thunderously ordinary and who leaves their mark on our lives through not being particularly special but having special things done to them.

This is all getting a bit convoluted, so how about a reassuring list to sort things out.

The following are all TV Cream Politicians:

Willie Whitelaw
For wearing pyjamas to Cabinet meetings.

Denis Healey
For the Nationwide panto.

Leon Brittan
For being ugly when ugliness was against the law (1983-5).

Bryan Gould
For being everywhere on TV then suddenly being nowhere.

Francis Pym
For sounding like Kenneth Williams.

Chris Patten
For forgetting to win his own election.

David Steel
For running a political party from a constituency in the middle of nowhere, making for much pitch black/reporters-standing-in-fields coverage on results night.

Virginia Bottomley
For becoming a ubiquitous anagrammatic common room joke.

The following are most definitely not TV Cream Politicians:

Norman Tebbit
For becoming his own stereotype.

Shirley Williams
For being called ‘a lovely gal’ by Norman St John Stevas in 1979. And for the fact that, while it’s good that much of what she says is right, it’s not good the way she revels it.

David Owen
For breaking up too many parties.

Edwina Currie
For substituting one vulgar cultural motif – poisonous eggs – for another – sex with John Major.

Roy Hattersley
For being the last ever Secretary of State for Prices and not doing anything about prices.

David Mellor
For being David Mellor.

Margaret Beckett
For telling Jim Naughtie to “pack it in” on the Today programme.

Photo clippage #49

Tuesday 24th March 2009

Here are three folk clearly up to something agreeable…but what?


The Stuart Maconie catalogue

Sunday 22nd March 2009

The nation’s most ubiquitous Wiganite has a new book out.

It has much in common with his previous publications: a breezy (i.e. rushed) style; sweeping generalisations rendered in whimsy; man-of-the-people rants; but above all, a crap title.

Adventures On The High Teas follows Cider With Roadies and Pies And Prejudice in sporting wordplay that somehow doesn’t work. The source of the title bears no relation to the content of the associated text; the title mixes metaphors and tells you nothing of what the book is actually about; and there’s an attempt at a pun that doesn’t come off.

Anyway, seeing as how the man seems to be stuck in a rut of sniffy inconsequential travelogues, the TV Cream Matrix Databank has come up with four possible future titles for Maconie’s consideration:

1) The Road To Wogan’s Ear
One man’s story of first hiding from, then working for, Radio 2. Besides referencing the nation’s most popular DJ, the title conveniently boasts not one but two puns that don’t work.


2) The Cant & Murray Tales
How two men called Brian and Gordon joined forces to create one of the most iconic children’s series of all time. Again, the title handily tries but fails to be a proper pun, in the process rendering the sentiments of the source utterly irrelevant.


3) The Importance Of Being Furnished
Join the author as he pays loving tribute to the living rooms of the 1970s, an era he dubs ‘the decade that taste forgot’. Note how some atrocious rhyming and vague sense of upper-class snobbery combine to create another money-spinning title.


4) The New Collins Dictionary
Stuart Maconie itemises everything he likes and loathes about his ex-colleague and sometime gag-writing partner for Clive James.


Sounds incorporated

Saturday 21st March 2009

Thanks to everyone who has added to the TV Cream Towers Spotify playlist.

Seeing as it how it’s all done under the cloak of anonymity, it’s not clear how many ‘everyone’ means. It could just be one person. But thanks all the same.

Like with most things to do with TV Cream, there are a couple of rules governing the playlist that perhaps should have been specified earlier, rules softly spoken but ruthlessly enforced. So, in case you’re wondering why your choice/s may have been deleted:

a) Only one track per artist is allowed.
b) No crap choices or ‘ironic’ selections are permitted. This is an uber-sincere playlist. Instant Sunshine aren’t on there for a joke.

Meanwhile, like they used to do in music magazines back when they were good, here is a list of 10 tracks from the playlist that, if there was a TV Cream Towers office, would be in heavy rotation on the cassette player by the overhead projector:

As with Norway and the Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square, the man should be able to bequeath an album to the nation every 12 months.
Never ‘his’ singers. Ever the gentleman.
Like having a bubble bath that lasts from 1980 to 1989.
4) Amnesia (Theme from The Roxy) BANANARAMA
Like walking down the best street you ever walked down when you were growing up.
5) The Pink Panther Theme, BOBBY MCFERRIN
Better than Mancini’s disco version.
6) Golden Brown, THE KING’S SINGERS
Better than the Stranglers version.
7) Wednesday Jones, STEPHEN DUFFY
Proving that in the hands of a master, even something like Chelmsford shopping centre can sound glorious.
8) Ordinary Angel, HUE AND CRY
Never let it be said they know Foucault about writing a good tune.
9) Merrily We Roll Along, MASSIMO FARAO
The wig-out begins 45 seconds in.
The second best Bond theme ever, now minus added Lani Hall.

I’m Hughie Green, ready to reveal another of my views of life

Wednesday 18th March 2009

Do you see Britain old and worn? On the brink of ruin? Bankrupt in all but heritage and hope, and even those are in pawn?

Well fear not! Hughie Green is here with a valediction to elevate your hearts and enthuse your spirits. Friends, let us take, yes take, not borrow this year. Let it be our year. To lift up our heads. Freedom from strikes, better management, and from all of us, guts! Lest without these virtues, we lose our freedom – forever!

Altogether now (cue trumpets, timpani and ginormous choir):


Back pages

Monday 16th March 2009

Maybe it’s stating the obvious on a blog like this, but there’s little that’s as evocative as the smell of a back issue.

The things we read when we were younger aren’t merely collections of words and pictures from bygone days; they are repositories of memories of how we used to live. One whiff of a yellowing comic, a dog-eared inky or a crumpled weekly and you’re transported back to another, usually better, age.

That most of those back issues now belong now defunct titles adds a layer of wistfulness to the proceedings. Not only do the publications hail from a portion of your life that no longer exists, but the publications themselves no longer exist, either then or now. Once-ubiquitous legends of the newsstands feel like remote relics, with no ties to today.

All these titles seemed better in the days when you first read them. This surely isn’t just the process of nostalgia. In many cases they were better in the days when you first read them, because that was when they were still fresh, exciting and fun.

The pinnacle in the lives of Smash Hits, The Face, Select and the newly-deceased Arena fell in the first half of their existence, which was, to essay a rash generalisation, when most of the people reading this blog probably also read those magazines.


On the other hand older titles, such as Look-in, Melody Maker and Sounds, were most likely already at their peak when you stumbled upon them. Look-in certainly was, and if inconsistency was a problem for MM and Sounds, they could always turn out a decent issue one week after turning out a crap one, thanks entirely to whoever was on the cover.

The extinction of so much childhood wallpaper keeps on getting faster as the rest of us keep on getting older. There’s possibly no more hurtful reminder of the passing of time, or the passing of fashions.

You could argue it’s difficult to mourn the non-existence of something that, say, turned so rubbish and fell so far. You could also argue that’s like saying Marlon Brando should only be remembered for Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, or Leonard Rossiter for Tripper’s Day.