If the line is busy, please do keep trying

Saturday 30th May 2009

Once upon a time, everybody knew this number:


Surely giving children the chance to pick up the phone and talk directly to their heroes was one of the most brilliantly imaginative yet beautifully simple ideas in the history of telly? And surely TV is so much poorer for not doing it anymore? Why the conceit has died is not especially difficult to guess; presumably Them Upstairs think kids nowadays prefer email, texting and other alternatives to speaking. Which is, naturally, bollocks.

Phones, or ‘phones to be precise, have come a hell of a long way since they could be the subject of an entire photo opportunity:


Yup, that’s the hotline to Moscow. Disappointingly, only the handset is red. Harold seems unimpressed by its presence, presumably because he’s more preoccupied with the doodle-potential of that conveniently-placed sheet of A3 paper. These two seem more interested in the possibilities of a telephone conversation…


…though admittedly this was back when watching monitors showing pictures of other people speaking into a telephone was self-evidently the pastime du jour of the chattering (do you see?) class. Telephones soon became a universal trope of TV, fording the otherwise stubbornly insurmountable chasm of current affairs…


…and light entertainment:


It’s not immediately clear what Larry is supposed to be doing here, but that’s kind of not the point. The photo itself is the important thing: Lal with a bank of standard issue handsets, perhaps passing on the latest gossip about Everard and Slack Alice (“She never puts it out, you see, except on Wednesdays, and then only after half-day closing”), perhaps counselling a distraught Pop-It-In Pete; it doesn’t really matter. The profusion of ‘phones, plus that towering montage of dials behind him, more than justifies this photo’s existence. By this point in history, the more telephones on TV, the better. Hence the Saturday morning ‘phone-in, culminating in the arrival of the – gasp – cordless handset on Going Live:


This was a time when the Beeb not only cared about the appearance of the presenters of their flagship shows, they also bothered to give them equally stylish technical gizmos. Hence Phil was able to do Live Line perched on one of the studio gantries, or out in the Concrete Doughnut if it was a nice day, or anywhere that afforded ample potential to busk when, as Had To Happen, he misdialled, or nobody answered, or there were problems on the line (“Come on, come on! Tch, this always happens! I think I dialled it right – let me just try again…[speaks while presses keys] dur dur dur, dur dur dur, dur dur dur…ho hum, bom bom bom, come on! I’m sorry about this viewers – is anyone from British Telecom watching? Only joking!”)

Then, as always happens with a good thing that doesn’t need changing, somebody changed it. Exciting, fresh and funny exchanges twixt caller and celeb were replaced by cold, clinical and soulless online chats and email exchanges. Presenters thought they knew better than the public at asking questions, culminating in the isn’t-this-enquiry-crap-and-aren’t-interviews-just-a-fucking-waste-of-time business perpetuated by the presenters of T4. This kind of stuff didn’t help either:


What’s wrong love, don’t you know what a dial is? Neither was this likely to rescue the telephone’s reputation:


Yes, it’s the Amstrad emailphoneatron, as available to view every Wednesday night on BBC1 on the desk of the person hired to play this week’s incarnation of Frances.

A TV show that had the top celebrities of the day on one end of a telephone and ordinary folk on the other would rescue the ‘phone from these and other malign influences (such as playing stooge to Noel Edmonds) and turn it once more into a thing of import and entertainment.

Unfortunately such an idea would probably be dismissed as “not contemporary enough” by Them Upstairs and passed over in favour of another talent show for freaks like they had in the 70s.


Is that still going?

Sunday 17th May 2009

News that the pilot of Last Of The Summer Wine almost failed to get made at all has been filed eagerly in TV Cream’s ‘If Only’ box file, next to Richard Stilgoe almost writing a script for Dr Who and Margaret Thatcher almost not winning some crucial byelection or other back in the 1950s.

The box file in question is conveniently (for this blog) adjacent to another one marked ‘Is That Still Going?’, wherein TVC maintains an inventory of those programmes that ran on far past their Best Before date, usually because no TV executives could be arsed to think up something with which to replace them. Currently, the top 10 looks like this:

"Yes, we do employ black nancies too"

"Yes, we do employ black nancies too"

Esther should have gone the same time as Mrs T.

That weird non-feminine femininity, the hotch-potch of now-here’s-the-good-news, now-here’s-some-more-bad-news, all those bloody hangers-on – it had lost all appeal come the end of the decade.

And the same goes for Esther (ho fucking ho).

Here’s La Passionara with a rather desperate bunch of ooh-it’s-the-90s nancies (note how Doc’s still managing to hang on in there, replete with Jumper Sent In By Thoughtful Viewer).

Twee vocalists and crap puppets not pictured

Twee vocalists and crap puppets not pictured

9) Rainbow

Proud sponsors of Britain’s student T-shirt industry.

Seemingly remembered for all the wrong reasons (i.e. for being good, funny, subversive, charming and so on) instead of being remembered for its insufferable boredom and dreary sermonising.

"Does Mr Robot Dog have something for this young gentleman 'ere?"

"Does Mr Robot Dog 'ave something for this young gentleman 'ere?"

8) Jimmy Will Fix It

“It ended because I told the BBC it should end,” remembers Jim, wrongly. In reality ratings had slumped – rightly so, given how fixes such as getting to help the chancellor of the exchequer write the Budget were, in the words of Carter USM, Lamontable.

Mr Humphries, a gay man, pretends to be aroused by feeling a woman's breast

A gay man pretends to be aroused by feeling a woman's breast

7) Are You Being Served?

The most uncommercial, threadbare-looking and least patronised department store in the whole world somehow manages to stay in business for 13 years (until 1985!) thanks to a turnover wholly comprised of references to tits, homosexuals and “sales drives”.

"Another series, Humphrey?" "Yes...Prime Minister"

"Another series, Humphrey?" "Yes...Prime Minister"

6) Yes Prime Minister

It just looked wrong having Jim Hacker turn from fallible bumbler with a heart in the right place to pompous preener with no touch of humanity. Especially as Sir Humphrey and Bernard didn’t undergo any personality rewrite whatsoever.

Ted surveys the morning agenda

Ted surveys the morning agenda

5) 3-2-1

The issue here was probably a studied reluctance to move with the times. In other words, Ted Rogers thought it was still 1963 when it was actually 1987.

Hence the old-time variety schtick. Hence the “surprise” guests from decades ago that most of the viewers couldn’t give a toss about. Hence the convoluted parlour game riddlery when most people didn’t have parlours. Hence Ted doing yet another bloody tribute to Danny Kaye. Hence a remote-controlled bin being thought funny.

The cast of Dixon of Dock Green, yesterday

The cast of Dixon of Dock Green, yesterday

4) Dixon of Dock Green

Any programme that boasts a chirpy whistle-along-with-me theme tune replete with affable talky bit from your titular ordinary copper (“Allo, that boy with the mouth-organ’s back again!”) deserves something of a lengthy run on the box, but perhaps not one that takes it well well past the point that “teddy boys” stopped wanting “their capers to be seen”.

Or, indeed, the point that teddy boys stopped.

Hands up who thinks this show's about to be axed?

Hands up who thinks Henry should come back?

3) Game For a Laugh

Now come on. Who ever thought a line-up of Beadlebum, Rustie Lee, Martin “P” Daniels and the other one was an idea worth half a second of anyone’s viewing consideration? Where’s the frumpy one in a big frock? Where’s the gnomic head boy? Where’s the multi-coloured jumper?

"It seems that once again you were right all along, Lovejoy"

"It seems you were right all along, Lovejoy"

2) Lovejoy

The man’s divvying and all that endless East Anglia scenery might have been palatable for a couple of series, but when it dragged on into the 90s and those dreaded words “Executive Producer: Ian McShane” suddenly turned up on the credits, all charm disappeared as fast as a predictably rare vase at a predictably unassuming car boot sale.

"Ooh, I could rip a tissue" "Not if I don't rip seven shades of shit off you first" "Now calm down Janet"

"Ooh, I could rip a tissue" "Not if I don't rip seven shades of shit off you first" "Now calm down, Janet"

1) Crackerjack

The best thing Michael Grade ever did was pull the plug on this noisy, shouty, unfunny parade of gunge, lettuces and mincers.

Fuck knows why Janet Ellis is here; at least she escaped with eardrums and career intact.

South Bank Show goes south

Wednesday 6th May 2009

Melvyn’s plaything has been axed.

"I wonder, ah, erm, ah, maybe, ah, erm, what?"

Surely nobody will mourn its demise. It’s been a joke for years, shoved out at the arse end of Sunday nights, shorn of all dignity and respect, spending two thirds of each series profiling whichever D-lister was propping up ITV’s schedules that week.

Besides, it stopped taking itself seriously when it binned off the full, glorious version of the theme tune and started using that weird, abbrieviated one with no title sequence and just one boring graphic.

The last good one was the edition  in 1992 about how Sgt Pepper was made, with George Martin pissing around with a giant recording console at Abbey Road.

Here’s Melvyn and friend toasting his smugness, yesterday:

Melyvn gets back to his pretend roots

And now on BBC1, it’s time to pour another glass of…

Tuesday 28th April 2009

The last ever series of Last Of The Summer Wine began the other week. Or did it? The Beeb simply says it’s the 30th, but producer Alan “one line on my CV” JW Bell seems to think that’s it. Or rather, that’s it for him, because he’s quit claiming the Beeb has said the 30th series is the last one even though it hasn’t while writer Roy “two lines on my CV” Clarke hasn’t said anything either way and the cast are all too old to be insured to appear in the bloody thing anyway. Or are they?

Hmm, the future of this vintage (ho fucking ho) institution is as hard to unravel as its history. But TV Cream has given the latter a go. It seems to have gone something like this:


An episode of Comedy Playhouse in 1973 called The Last Of The Summer Wine and starring three mac-wearing malingerers is deemed a hit by the BBC suits. A series is commissioned but it is a flop. A second series is commissioned but it is also a flop. Both series are shown post-watershed and star Michael Bates as shifty ne’er-do-well Cyril Blamire with whiskery perv Compo Simonite (Bill Owen) and simpering wimp Norman Clegg (Peter Sallis). Bates leaves because of ill-health and BRIAN WILDE agrees to replace him so long as he gets top billing.

'Ere, yer great jessie


BRIAN WILDE is unhappy about not getting top billing. The show moves from Monday to Wednesday to Tuesday night. The 1978 Christmas special is aired at 10.40pm due to its explicit content. Someone decides to bung it in the doing-the-pots Sunday teatime slot. Ratio of pastoral pontificating to falling off dry stone walls: earthy. The perv pervs at old woman’s pants. The wimp simpers about not eating enough iron. BRIAN WILDE quits because nobody likes him and he doesn’t like anybody.


Percy Alleline off Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy invents himself a part in the series. Second eleven of archetypes introduced: hen-pecked husband who isn’t getting any, hen-pecked husband who doesn’t want any, hen-pecked lollygagger who’s had too much. Millions of old women sit about discussing “thems that have, thems that have not” in high-backed chairs. A cafe has no customers. Perv tumbles off ladders, through roofs, down drains and through windows. Thora Hird sucks her teeth in and whistles. Lousy spin-off, First Of The Summer Wine, has Sallis playing his own father. Ratio of pastoral pontificating to falling off dry stone walls: salty.


BRIAN WILDE discovers he likes everyone again and comes back. Eight years pass. BRIAN WILDE leaves because he’s not top billing and he doesn’t like anybody. Ratio of pastoral pontificating to falling off dry stone walls: perspicacious.

These are my residuals from Porridge, so hands off


Bill Owen lookalike and son of Bill Owen joins to play son of Bill Owen. Captain Peacock replaces BRIAN WILDE. Same scripts recycled (for 14th time) in hope of appearance-of-freshness-yet-still-reassuringly-familiar appeal. It works. Programme wins 1999 National Television Award for Best Sunday Teatime Yorkshire-Based Yomping.

Captain Peacock proposes 10 new sales drives


Dozens of Variety Club sitcommers move into town. Original cast now not allowed on location and film all scenes on a sofa with back projection. Archetypes now include dopey black policeman, conniving Oriental, befuddled swashbuckler, prickly spinster, Rene Artois, Nurse G-G-Gladys Emmanuel, whatshername off Bread and Norman Wisdom. Oh, and Blakey, who does this every five seconds:

If the wind changes...

Altogether, for the billionth time: “The last of the summer wine/The la-ast of the summer wine/The la-ast of the summer wine/er…”

Girls, girls, girls

Sunday 26th April 2009

BBC4’s Saturday night parade of female-fronted song-and-dance archivery felt like it accomplished two things.

First, it highlighted how you don’t see any of the following on TV anymore:

a) Routines wholly centred on fancy dress
b) Casual racialism
c) Moments where the studio seems to be in complete darkness

But more significantly it called attention to the absence of any comparable non-male helmed programmes doing the rounds today. Barrowman, Brucie, Norton, Ross, Ant and Dec: where are their female equivalents?

Fortunately the TV Cream Gentle Sex Matrix Databank has rustled up three pitches which are going to be sent to the BBC Entertainment department first thing tomorrow morning.

Sunday 7.30pm, BBC1
The delightful Miss Cracknell eases you into Sunday evening with a rich mix of celebrity and song. Each week’s show has a theme, such as the weather, fashion or America, which Sarah and her guests explore through timeless tunes and witty turns. Regular contributors Instant Sunshine serve up a melodic ode on an aspect of the week’s news, and legendary singers from Val Doonican to Kate Bush drop in for a duet. Why not forget about those pre-Monday blues and enjoy familiar faces from past and present, a joke or two, and – naturally – class performances by Sarah with her band of 20 years, Saint Etienne.

Wednesday 8.00pm, BBC1
The winner of Strictly Come Dancing 2007 makes her primetime TV debut with a star-encrusted variety spectacular for all the family. Alesha and her backing dancers, the Dixonettes, promise a cavalcade of good moves and great grooves. Every week there’ll be a dazzling routine with stars of Strictly Come Dancing (including Brucie, if he’s not too busy on the golf course!), a tune from a famous BBC face, and a celebrity revealing a hitherto secret talent. Alesha will also be showing viewers what she’s been up to during the week, springing surprises on people from 8 to 80. Each show includes a rundown of the midweek singles chart.

Saturday 5.35pm, BBC1
Teatime musical treats with an extra helping of cheeky charm. The former Kenickie singer-turned-national treasure shares some of her views on life through song, dance and plenty of down-to-earth humour. Professional comedians, magicians, crooners and dancers will be popping in to get the weekend off to a swing, along with regular guests Chris Serle, who’ll be introducing colourful locals with a story to tell, and Danny Baker, who’ll be broadcasting live out and about encountering Britain ‘as it happens’. Plus Lauren is challenged to learn and perform a classic song before the end of each show, in front of a panel of celebrity judges. Whatever they think of her efforts, they’re sure to agree on one thing: it’s Lauren!

12 candidates. One channel. Sir Michael’s quest…begins.

Saturday 18th April 2009

The Apprentice is losing its lustre. ITV continues to struggle to find new hit shows. An obvious synthesis suggests itself.

Next spring, every Wednesday at 9pm, ITV should screen a series involving a dozen wannabe broadcasting moguls, competing for a crucial position on the staff of the country’s erstwhile favourite commercial broadcaster.

It is a job with a six-figure salary, in the employ of a man who oversees a “substantial business empire”: Sir Michael Grade.

Each week the candidates must perform a task to demonstrate some aspect of telly nabobbery. And each week one will be fired. “You’re out”, Grade will say, and point his finger.

Grade will be helped in his quest by two close associates and industry veterans: Greg Dyke (catchphrase: “cut the crap and make it happen”) and Liz Forgan (“this isn’t Channel 4, you know”).

Tasks will involve:

– assembling a Saturday night schedule
– being grilled by the Culture, Media and Sport select committee at the House of Commons
– negotiating pretend salary deals with big talent
– solving a pretend industrial dispute
– devising a format for a new Sunday night family-friendly shiny floor show
– a war game-style event involving the channel responding to a national crisis

The final will require each of the remaining candidates to commission, prepare and produce a live half hour of television, which will be shown sequentially on ITV, which will be appraised by a focus group in real time (viewers will be able to see the group’s live reactions on ITV2), and which will be followed by the conclusion of the series and Grade’s decision. The winner will then be escorted over to ITN for an IMMEDIATE appearance on News at Ten.

Oh, and the name of the series: Making The Grade.

James Bond, incidentally

Thursday 9th April 2009

Inspired by a couple of tunes somebody has added to the TV Cream Spotify playlist, plus watching The Spy Who Loved Me on DVD and chuckling at some of the music cues, plus the fact it’s a holiday weekend when thoughts invariably turn to Universal Exports, here’s a new playlist comprising the best bits from the Bond soundtracks.

Not all of the original albums are on Spotify. There’s a complete run up to and including Moonraker, then a gap until – erk – Licence To Kill, while only Goldeneye from the Brosnan years is represented, and naturally everything since then, i.e. the James Bourne era, doesn’t count.

But from those selections that are, by expediency and taste, available to hear, a fine brew can be prepared. By way of some sleeve notes:

Things kick off with the brilliantly-named Twisting With James and the liltingly exotic Jamaica Jazz, both from Dr No, a film which doesn’t so much have a soundtrack as a vague collection of Caribbean sounding noodles, implausibly penned by Eric “Carry On” Rodgers.

John Barry makes his entrance courtesy of The Golden Horn, one of those I-wonder-what-foreign-music-sounds efforts with a parping horn and fluttering tambourine, and the short but sweet Guitar Lament, off From Russia With Love.

From Goldfinger comes the spectacular Into Miami, which should have been the film’s theme tune, and the intriguingly-titled and fabulously eerie Teasing The Korean. Barry hits his stride here: low strings, unnerving rumblings from the harp, and that trademark fluttery flute.

After just one from Thunderball – Cafe Martinique, which sounds (correctly) as swish as its name – comes a dose of Paddy Kingsland-esque Orientals from You Only Live Twice, the epic Capsule In Space and the shamelessly lush Mountains And Sunsets, then about the only decent thing in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: an untrying piece of music called, unhappily, Try.

Diamonds Are Forever, being the best Bond film ever, naturally has the best John Barry soundtrack, which is why a grand total of four tracks make the playlist. The Whyte House is all sublime swagger; Tiffany Case has the most gorgeous vibraphone to ever star in a 007 flick; Diamonds Are Forever (Bond And Tiffany) has those fluttering flutes jousting with a sadly sauntering version of the theme; and Death At The Whyte House has fluttering flutes AND vibraphones AND swagger. “You appear to have caught me with more than my hands up.”

A quick passing of the baton and it’s over to George Martin for a salsa workout in Baron Samedi’s Dance Of Death, a groovy harpsichord boogie in the splendidly-named Bond Drops In, and some fat funk strutting in Trespasses Will Be Eaten, all from Live And Let Die and all great stuff.

Why Martin wasn’t kept on is a mystery; Barry came back for the next film, The Man With The Golden Gun, which was shit, especially the music, so nothing from that makes the list.

Instead things move on to The Spy Who Loved Me, and a one-off score from Marvin Hamlisch. Synthesiser alert! Brace yourself for the first bit of electronica to ever appear in a 007 film, and ace it is too. Bond 77 has the works: squeaky glissandos, farting bass lines, swooshy strings, plus a honking saxophone and wicky-wicky-wacky-wicky guitar riffs. Ride To Atlantis sounds like Bouquet Of Barbed Wire crossed with The Onedin Line, and End Titles is just that: the glorious bit from “Shall we get out of these wet things” onwards, although sadly lacking that brief burlesque Broadway rendition of the theme.

To end with, there’s Bond Arrives In Rio And Boat Chase: John Barry’s last hurrah, from Moonraker, replete with an aah-aah-aah-aah choir and a continent’s worth of percussion.

And that’s your lot. But maybe that’s no bad thing, as everything post-1979 (bar the soundtrack to Never Say Never Again) is, as Bond himself says, like listening to The Beatles without earmuffs.