Just What Is It That You Want To Do?

This is an interview about Higher Than The Sun that I did with Creation Records as part of their celebration of twenty five years since the release of Screamadelica. It turned into quite a wide-ranging discussion, touching on attitudes to Britpop, nostalgia for 'compilation tapes', and who the best Evening Session host was. And of course there was plenty about Screamadelica, Foxbase Alpha, Bandwagonesque and Loveless. You can get Higher Than The Sun in paperback, as an eBook, or from the Kindle Store.

1991 was a great year for alternative music in general, what inspired you to write a book about some of the releases?

I’d written about all four albums individually in the past, but the idea for Higher Than The Sun really came about when there was that outbreak of Britpop ‘anniversary’ mania a while back. Which is obviously worth celebrating, but I always felt like we were only getting part of the story. It wasn’t something that just magically appeared from nowhere when Modern Life Is Rubbish came out, there was a whole gradual build-up to it with a lot of false starts along the way, and some bands and even entire scenes that have been written out of history. Not that they had anything to do with Britpop but Carter USM were actual proper pop stars for a good while, and they never get mentioned now. And added to that, on the other side of the coin, there was the sneering from people determined that we should all know how little they cared about Britpop. By the time we got to columnists blaming Elastica for Nigel Farage or something, I was a bit fed up with it all.

I suppose this made me want to look for a fresh ‘angle’ to look at it from, and this started me thinking about that phase just prior to Britpop when there were a lot of bands taking a similar approach but still with that ‘indie’ attitude and lack of interest in playing the ‘fame game’. Almost literally from the release of the C86 compilation to The KLF sabotaging The Brits; and in fact there was a concerted effort by the BPI to take ‘control’ of the independents around then, which I’d entirely forgotten about. As far as I’m concerned, Screamadelica, Foxbase Alpha, Bandwagonesque and Loveless were the greatest achievements to come out of all of that, so it made sense to make them the focus of the ‘story’. And once I started to look into it, it became obvious that there really was a story here, and the four albums were linked in all kinds of surprising ways that went way beyond the fact that they were all released within weeks of each other. Andrew Weatherall was very heavily involved, for example, and there was a shared enthusiasm for the seventies rock band Big Star. Often the production of one album would impact directly on another. They all had direct links to C86. It just got more and more interesting from there, really.

On a more personal level, I’m more known for writing about archive TV and radio and had recently written a book about Radio 1, which had the misfortune to come out just as certain allegations were starting to emerge… so I needed a bit of a change and what better way to do that than with four of my favourite albums!

From the start were you going to just feature those albums or was there a temptation to include some other albums from that era?

I knew from the outset I wanted to concentrate on those four albums, but also put them in their proper context. So there was always going to be quite a bit about Madchester and Shoegazing, and also the early Heavenly bands, who were way more colourful and cartoonish than everything else that was going on at the time – very at odds with the usual view of the early nineties. As it progressed, all kinds of other names started to get drawn into the story, from 808 State and Spirea X to Tin Machine and Sugar. So I talk about a few other albums, but the only one to get any substantial coverage is Back In Denim by Denim, which really was an unofficial ‘fifth’ in many ways.

Which of those four is your favourite?

I’d find it hard to choose between them, to be honest, but if I was pressed on the point I’d have to say Foxbase Alpha. So many ideas and so much potential, and it actually feels like it exists in several different eras of pop music all at once – it’d be as at home on a sixties pirate radio station as on a nineties dance one. Also the reference points are so esoteric and individual – if it’s ‘retro’, then it’s recalling an alternate timeline to the usual fare.

How did you first discover most of those bands and what drew you to them?

I’d had C86 and a couple of earlier singles by most of them, but it really started when Mark Goodier took over The Evening Session in the Summer of 1990. He was right behind all four acts from the outset – more than John Peel ever was – and probably did more than anyone else to get them out to mainstream listeners and into the charts. When you consider that included convincing enough people to push To Here Knows When into the top thirty, that’s quite an achievement. I think he’s been done an enormous disservice by the rock history books and I was really glad to have the opportunity to redress the balance a little. Time was when his was my favourite radio show bar none.

As for what drew me to them, I’d been a massive fan of The Stone Roses, Happy Mondays et al, but by the middle of 1991 they’d all hit a wall for various reasons and it was time to start listening out for something new. In all four cases it was the imagination and the sheer diversity of their influences – and I do include Teenage Fanclub in that – that caught my attention. And all of their singles really, really stood out, at a time when certain more successful acts didn’t even seem to be trying.

That’s really interesting that you talk about Mark Goodier, I know he does the odd stand-in on Radio 2 but he’s pretty forgotten about these days. He’d be more suitable for 6Music perhaps?

I’d certainly like to see him better represented in the endless Britpop ‘retrospectives’. Obviously it’s true that Steve Lamacq and Jo Whiley were presenting The Evening Session right in the thick of it – and I have to say I really enjoyed their recent revival of the show on Radio 2 – but it’s also worth stressing that he did a huge amount of the groundwork. For example he was determined to play Blur when nobody else cared. In fact I’ve a vivid memory of him raving about advance tapes of Modern Life Is Rubbish in very early 1993, and saying that he couldn’t wait to play the new songs on the show. He was a straight-ahead, facts-first DJ who wasn’t too ‘cool’ to enthuse about new discoveries – for the record, I didn’t think that Chris Morris sketch was a very accurate parody even at the time – and yes I do think we need a bit more of that these days.

Back in those days bands ‘breaking through’ seemed a lot more black and white, the press and radio either promoted you or you were unknown. Were you an avid NME, Sounds or Melody Maker reader?

Definitely NME for me! I loved the attitude they had then that you shouldn’t be afraid to poke fun at things that you actually liked, and I was very much a fan of Andrew Collins, Stuart Maconie and David Quantick – in fact I still crack up laughing when I remember stuff they did like the Rock Family Trees parody and the celebration of the Fourteenth Anniversary Of Punk. The others left me a bit cold sometimes, though I obviously still read them occasionally. It’s worth pointing out though that even back then, there was a suspicion of bands that were being backed by the press and radio, and they’d often be derided by the sort of indie fans who’d then go on about some wilfully uncommercial outfit that you stood little chance of actually hearing. I can remember people reacting to the ‘hype’ around Suede as if they were Bad Boys Inc or something. So maybe that even worked against bands sometimes; I’d imagine there was probably some recoiling in horror at the idea of Teenage Fanclub performing on Saturday Night Live.

My first impressions of Screamadelica were that it seemed more of a compilation of previously released material with a few new tracks. It took me a while to get it as a whole. Did it click with you straight away?

Funnily enough, yes I did ‘get’ it straight away, on the very first listen. I think that was probably down to having then recently discovered a lot of the musical reference points; people forget now that pre-Internet, there was that whole tape trading culture. It gets reduced to nostalgia about ‘mixtapes’ now but there was also a huge element of music obsessives making tapes with discoveries they thought each other would like, and in those days that’s how you found out about Francoise Hardy, Neu!, Northern Soul, Bowie’s sixties material and what have you. ‘Home Taping Is Killing Music’ was a bit of a silly slogan when you think about it. So yes, I’d recently been introduced to 13th Floor Elevators, Big Star, Robert Johnson, Pet Sounds etc, and had a nodding acquaintance with ‘rave’ culture – it was hard not to back then admittedly – so it all seemed to make perfect sense.

You mentioned Britpop, I think all four albums you’ve written about (and Ride’s first two albums) have stood the test of time so much better than anything from Britpop. I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned the 'fame game' which ultimately lead to less experimentation in music. Should we blame Britpop for the corporate/celebrity culture we suffer today?

Yes and no really. Noel Gallagher was blatantly ambitious but nobody could ever accuse him of following anyone else’s ‘rules’. Blur would have top ten hits but with lead guitar that sounded like it belonged on a Wire record. There were the likes of Elastica and Menswe@r who emerged so fast from the small-time indie scene that they maybe weren’t properly equipped to cope with so much mass mainstream attention. So I think that even then they were trying to find ways of making their ideas commercial, rather than just going straight for the cash register. There were exceptions, but I think they also really just prove that point; Supergrass and Super Furry Animals did whatever they felt like doing but lost that mainstream audience pretty quickly, and the real unfortunate casualty was Luke Haines, who stuck admirably to the ‘old’ attitude but got left behind as a result. That was a real shame. But the problems started when the bands that came in their wake went straight for the money rather than the music so ultimately maybe it did do a lot more harm than good.

You mentioned you’ve written a book about Radio 1. In these days of Spotify and YouTube does it still hold the same influence as it did?

I think it’s starting to again, as they’re now finding ways of engaging with New Media that no longer make everyone cringe. Some of the best new DJs have emerged through YouTube which some people would probably snort at, but is it really any different from finding past presenters on Pirate Radio or Local Radio? The only problem is that there’s now much less distance between the regular shows and the specialist shows – again, maybe a byproduct of Britpop – and you have to go to 1Xtra or Asian Network to hear something really ‘out there’.

There’s obviously been other books that have featured those albums but it's great you’ve focused purely on those four. Have you read David Cavanagh’s and Paolo Hewitt’s books on Creation Records?

Yes and they’re both great books; I especially like that they cover the story of Creation from entirely different approaches. I suppose mine was from the listener’s point of view, which was different again. Which reminds me that I’d like to get a tip of the hat in for Paolo’s Small Faces book The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story, which I really enjoyed and I don’t think has ever got the attention it deserved. I’d imagine they both found, as I did, that nobody’s account of any story quite added up with each other. People interpret artistic situations differently, and while you can have the facts nailed down, the view that the people involved had or have is just as important, and just because they recalled details incorrectly they’re not necessarily ‘wrong’. So it becomes a matter of finding a common ground between how everyone involved, including the audience, saw it… I’d like to think I’ve done a decent job of that, and hopefully others do too!

When The Levity Breaks

Whatever innovations the emergence of 'serious' rock in the late sixties may have brought with it, they certainly didn't include an abundance of zany knockabout slapstick horseplay.

Back when pretty much everything in the charts was still seen as 'pop', 'pop' itself was in turn still largely seen - at least in the UK - as essentially an offshoot of Light Entertainment. Many of the biggest pop acts - including, at least initially, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones - actually still played the variety circuit, and most fancied themselves as 'all round' entertainers who could raise a chortle as easily and efficiently as they could inspire a dance craze. Even beyond the more overtly comedic likes of Freddie And The Dreamers and The Temperance Seven, you will still find a far broader vein of humour running through the average sixties popular beat combo's discography than you would do for any randomly selected act at pretty much any point since then.

The Beatles, of course, treated almost every appearance they made as an excuse to make with the sarcastic wit and surrealist interchanges, while The Kinks rightly considered themselves to be every bit the equal of the stars of the 'satire boom'. The Move, The Who, The Hollies, The Small Faces, Manfred Mann, Lulu and many, many others routinely filled out their albums and b-sides - and sometimes even their a-sides - with out and out tomfoolery. Jimi Hendrix apologised for long solos in his lyrics, recorded humorous outer space travelogues for b-sides, and once told Neil Innes that he believed that he and The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band were 'doing the same thing'. David Bowie tried to make his name with a fairly notorious bit of speeded-up silliness, while Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd were never a couple of extended improvisations away from half-chortled whimsy about scarecrows and gnomes. And was there ever an entirely serious Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky Mick And Tich record? From Cilla Black and Herman's Hermits to The Waltham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association, everyone had their novelty songs, their comedy routines and their jokey accents, and if we tried to list every single slapstick caper film featuring a sixties UK pop act we'd be here all day. And probably still not get them all. Even The Dave Clark Five might have cracked a smile once or twice.

It would be a mistake to say that the arrival of more 'serious' rock did away with humour completely. You'll find quips, wordplay and situationist musical pranks aplenty on any given Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin album, to name but two, but the difference by now was that they almost uniformly traded in subtle and sophisticated humour that you had to be looking for to find. In fairness, a fair few of the leading lights of Prog Rock had been plying their trade in unsuccessful beat bands since the mid-sixties and may well have got all of that out of their system by then; Ritchie Blackmore, for example, was probably in no hurry to repeat the Joe Meek-instigated publicity stunt tomfoolery he'd endured as a member of The Outlaws. In addition to that, the Glam Rockers had already adopted the more visual elements of pop-slanted humour into an equally updated and visually baffling take on the phenomenon. At the end of the day, though, they were dealing with audiences who wanted to think about the music, man, and no doubt spotting one of Pete Sinfield's witty lyrical conceits after 'seeing' the haunting existential dilemma of the cover of In The Court Of The Crimson King was an afternoon well spent in early seventies Ladbroke Grove.

Unfortunately, this fundamental shift in the music-to-laughs ratio has resulted in far too many of the emergent 'serious' rock acts being written off as pompous and humourless bores who considered themselves above such trifling concerns as levity, when in reality the majority of them were nothing of the sort. This is especially, and especially unfairly, true of the handful of bands that paved the way for said emergence, which is why we're going to be taking the opportunity here to say a couple of words in defence of Cream.

Hang on a minute, you're probably not unreasonably thinking. Weren't Cream the virtuoso blues purists who started all of this 'Robert Johnson is real music' tediousness and did that twenty seven million hour concert that gets shown on BBC4 every three minutes? Well, yes they were, and to be honest Ginger Baker's entertaining yet dismissive curmudgeonliness and Eric Clapton's dreary stadium rock boreathons and boneheaded declarations that Enoch was 'right' - which he was still refusing to entirely recant as recently as 2007 - have done little to help the band's cause. Yet believe it or not, all of this came surrounded by subsequently critically-ignored outbursts of levity and absurdity. Dressing up as convicts and park-keepers, miming on television with tennis racquets, writing a jokey song about catching an STD from a groupie with the chorus "WAAA-AAAAAA-AAA-A-ARGH!!", dancers in bear costumes, the very clearly Spike Milligan-inspired likes of SWLABR and Pressed Rat And Warthog, the scarcastic scorn-pouring of Politician, finishing off a hard and heavy album with a psyched-up close-harmony stroll through that Your Baby Has Gorn Dahn The Plug'ole thing and so much more besides, especially in the earlier days when they remembered to keep everything under four minutes long. And then there's the small matter of their debut single.

Even the most dedicated and in-depth 'rock guides', not to mention Eric Clapton biographies, tend to gloss over poor old Wrapping Paper. At best it will be described as 'low key', 'atypical' and 'barely featuring Clapton's guitar'. At worst it will just find itself on the receiving end of a barrage of disdainful bafflement and rhetorical demands to know what they were thinking, usually backed up by a typically forthright quote from Ginger Baker. A more accurate description, however, would be a charming and wistful Music Hall pastiche - a good six months before The Beatles got in on that particular act - with some nifty rolling piano and a sublime instrumental break where Clapton trades slide guitar licks with a cello. It was written and sung by Jack Bruce, but if Clapton and Baker had any issue with it at the time, then it certainly wasn't apparent in their joyous and enthusiastic backing vocals. Sadly, as it stalled at number thirty four, we can only guess at what Tongue Tied-esque antics they might have been planning to mime to it with on Top Of The Pops.

Wrapping Paper was also very clearly deliberately intended to be low key, atypical, Clapton-deficient and all the rest of it, as it was equally clearly deliberately intended as a joke at the expense of the more humourless contingent of their audience. And yes, they did have one already; Cream may not have released a record yet, but if you look back through the music press over the latter half of 1966, you'll find all manner of feverish articles about this brand spanking new 'supergroup' formed by three highly talented refugees from popular live acts, crammed with wild speculation about how loud the drums would be, how many centuries the guitar solos would go on for, and just how thrillingly dull and purist they would be. Small wonder, then, that they would choose to launch themselves on the world with a misleading bit of whimsy. In fact, around the same time, you could find similarly over-eager predictions being made for the similarly conceived Traffic, whose immediate diversion into soul-jazz with heavy psychedelic pop overtones must have caused similar alarm amongst the Clapton Is God brigade. Oh well, at least they could have consoled themselves with the ferocious rampage through the blues standard Cat's Squirrel on the b-side.

Sadly, we never did find out whether Wanderin' Sandy made it back to the house of old times, nor indeed whether he trod the weeds down. Overlooked and unloved, Wrapping Paper never made it onto an official Cream album and has even been omitted from some reissue campaigns, which is a shame as it really is a hugely enjoyable song, and strong evidence of just how downright peculiar mainstream pop music was getting in the mid-sixties. It's about time that it got wrapped up again and re-gifted, frankly. Well come on, this whole article is about unsophisticated humour. What were you expecting?

You can find more about Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and company and their various escapades on late-night BBC2 in The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society.

Christmas With Children's ITV: Magpie, Christmas Eve 1976

Over the Christmas of 1995, BBC Radio 4 broadcast a fantastic documentary series called Trumpton Riots, which took a light-hearted yet in-depth at Children's TV of the sixties and seventies. One edition, Val Or Sue? John Or Tommy?, concentrated on Blue Peter and its one-time ITV counterpart Magpie, and the intense rivalry that existed between the shows, their presenters and even their viewers.

This was a rivalry that did not seem to have in any way abated. Regrettably, with the conspicuously generous exception of John Noakes, the Blue Peter personnel interviewed for it did themselves no favours at all, barely wasting an opportunity to patronise their trendier competitors and pour scorn on the percieved intelligence level of their viewers. The Magpie team, on the other hand, still seemed only too aware that they were dealing with an audience that weren't properly catered for elsewhere, and fought their corner with a frequently revealing passion. Mick Robertson was audibly hurt when former Blue Peter editor Biddy Baxter derided Magpie as embarrassing and a mess, memorably countering "well... messy Magpie... sterile Blue Peter". Tommy Boyd, while refreshingly candid about his own view of the show's shortcomings, denounced Blue Peter as the opposition rather than the enemy, as their more important battles were with the 'suits' on the upper floors. Susan Stranks recalled that even an overture towards arranging a social event with said 'opposition' was frostily rebuffed. And all of them shrugged and alluded to possible boardroom power struggles while admitting that nobody ever actually told any of them when or why Magpie was cancelled.

Nowadays, you're almost guaranteed to see lots of Blue Peter around Christmas, whether in clip form or - increasingly - full shows. Their yearly traditions of home-made Advent Crowns, last-show-before-Christmas sign-offs and shoddily-wrapped presents for the show's pets have long since become the stuff of lazy uncritical nostalgia. You'll struggle ever to find any mention of Magpie, though, but there is a very good reason for this; out of only eighty four full surviving broadcast quality editions, only one of them is a bona fide Christmas edition. There's no particular apparent reason why this should have survived other than by pure chance, but it's nice that it does as there isn't really much evidence out there to indicate how Magpie attempted to lure the Yuletide audience away from its more formal opposite number. Even TV Times merely promised "more fun and facts on a seasonal note with Jenny, Doug and Mick" for the edition broadcast at 4:45pm 24th December 1976. Which, in the unlikely event that you haven't worked it out already, is the one that actually does still exist.

So, how did Magpie celebrate Christmas? Was it an unruly riot of knocking over Christmas Trees while a social worker looked on 'understandingly'? Did Mick Robertson treat us to one of his Festive-themed faux-Glam Rock numbers? Did their Advent Crown actually catch fire live on air? Well, there's only one way to find out...

Rather than the expected combination of The Spencer Davis Group's hammond-hammering - which must have been starting to sound a little old hat, or if you will John Lennon Hat, by 1976 - this edition opens with a slow pan across a darkened fairy-lit Teddington Lock while some unruly-looking dockside youngsters chirrup Ding Dong Merrily On High. Somehow managing to make herself heard above a container-load of ambient noise, Jenny Hanley admits that they'd hoped it would be snowing during this intro, but here they all are next to the official Outside Broadcast Christmas Tree and they'll be making the best of it regardless. She gives a quick rundown of the items that viewers can expect to see in this festive edition, starting with...

Sporting a truly astonishing oversized woolly hat, Mick is in Luton and on grainy ITN Newsfilm-esque 16mm film to report on an outbreak of legitimate state-sanctioned graffiti. In true post-Whole Earth Catalog pre-punk fashion, this was the idea of Philip Hartigan, a former 'Prog Painter' who had worked with both Andy Warhol and British Rail, and once had his collar felt for painting a 'disrespectful' pound sign over the entrance to The Roundhouse. Sensing that he had more in common with kids scrawling 'MICK MOPASH 73' on the side of bridges than others might have assumed, he and his collective The Fine Heart Squad launched an initiative to harness both the creative impulse and the apolitical dissatisfaction of juvenile wall-scrawlers by arranging for them to literally brighten up derelict and disused walls.

Mick has a brief chat to Philip's colleague Peter Carey, who explains the team's aims and also reveals that they involve local residents in the scheme, using their suggestions to work out a theme based on what they would like to see around them. What the people of Luton would like to see, apparently, is a bunch of inaccurately yet enthusiastically rendered approximations of copyright-busting D.C. Thomson/Charles M. Shulz/Walt Disney characters driving cars. Mick joins in with the lab-coated ethnically-diverse collection of legal wall-defacers, risking existential oblivion adding himself into the montage of cartoon characters, and it's back to the studio.

Far away from excessive woollen headgear, Jenny is in the suitably festively-adorned studio sporting a dazzling spangly strawberry-themed Alkasura jacket, and oh my good lord a flattering pair of loud orange pants. We'll be coming back to them later. Anyway, she's also sporting a full complement of Mr. Ali Bayan/People Of Restricted Seriousness novelty facial adornments as, with the most cursory of attempts at a Groucho Marx vocal inflection, she's trying out some of her worst wall-themed gags on the camera crew. There's a pun about 'Bri-ckasso', a Knock Knock joke with the punchline 'wall who do you think?', and something about 'what's a wallweigh?' that doesn't quite make any sense at all.

A now hatless Mick joins her in anticipation of reeling off a couple of wall-centric Music Hall two-handers, but before they can deliver so much as a feedline they are interrupted by 'Judge Rae', who reads out a selection of fun-curtailing historical laws that had never actually been repealed. These include Henry VIII's 1541 Unlawful Games Act, and its bizarre Charles I-sponsored amendment that permitted leaping as long as it did not come accompanied by singing. At the time, this kind of cursory throwaway entertainment-driven smash-and-grab approach to history was no doubt widely viewed as empty-headed reductivism of the worst kind, with absolutely no percieved educational merit whatsoever. Yet it's in examples like this - very much a product of the seventies - that you can see the first stirrings of the likes of Horrible Histories and Absolute Genius With Dick And Dom, which dispense with the tired old non-starter of Making Learning Fun to concentrate on Making Fun Learning and probably engage and excite more young minds than the fourteen millionth Blue Peter retelling of the story of The Stone Of Scone ever sodding managed to.

Musing that "it's a bit strong when people won't let you have a laugh at Christmas", Mick and Jenny race for the safety of the 'make' area, where they are free to show the viewers some magic tricks without magisterial interjections. Of course, as you can see above, the real magic on display here is Jenny's astonishing trouserage, but that's by the by. Together they rattle through how to make an empty matchbox sound full, and how to make a matchbox land picture side up on command, and Doug arrives to demonstrate the old 'stick a pin in a balloon without bursting it' routine. After doing so, he tries to usher the bunch of balloons quietly off set, only to find that they keep hovering back into vision, provoking some really quite amusing improvised comedy reactions from the trio. Then finally Jenny gets her Derren Brown on by convincing the other two that she can telepathically implant a word into their minds. No spoilers, but it works.

It doesn't seem to work, however, on Judge Rae, who berates Jenny for hanging tinsel in contravention of Oliver Cromwell's 1643 act banning the public display of 'monuments of superstition'. Cromwell also, it transpires, effectively outlawed the consumption of mince pies, and in 1647 very nearly managed to ban Christmas outright, presumably little discussed as it would almost certainly cause a outbreak of neurological short-circuitry in today's shower of Caps Lock-shouting 'patriots'. Mick makes some wry observations on what a hit Cromwell must have been at parties, adding that all of this talk of sour-faced fun-curtailment is driving him up the wall. You can probably guess what that was leading into. Except that the film takes an absolute ice age to cue in, leading to a couple of seconds of awkward silence, followed by Mick chuckling to the production team in true 'Moss Staples has been to Ireland where he don' dis' tradition.

Back at Luton, we get some speeded up film of Mick and company getting to work on a blank wall to the accompaniment of a funked-up take on Good King Wenceslas. They seem to be painting houses, and indeed there's some amusing camera trickery showing the kids 'walking' in and out of the doors to Mick's comic bafflement. At the end, the camera pulls out and we get to see that it's an actually really well done Christmas scene, complete with oversized Santa. You can scoff at trendy do-gooders all you like, but the fact remains that some probably neither impeccably-behaved nor academically-inclined youngsters did and enjoyed doing this instead of tightrope walking over railways, retrieving frisbees from substations, or going out in pursuit of unspecified ne'er-do-well-isms while a badly aligned caption asks if you know where your lad's going tonight, and maybe some of them were even inspired into pursuing a more artistic or socially benevolent career path as a consequence. And frankly, that's something that we could do with a lot more of right now.

You had to take your progressive views where you could find them in the seventies, though, and Magpie immediately undermines all of this good work with a spot of casual stereotyping. Back in the studio, Judge Rae is trying to stop Jenny and Mick from giving each other presents in contravention of Charles I's 1906 Prevention Of Corruption Act, which they point out is unfortunate as they had some presents there for him too - some 'Mature' Haggis, a book called 100 Ways To Save Money, and a copy of Kenneth McKellar's Greatest Hits. So desperate is Doug to get his hands on this modern day equivalent of McGold, Frankincense and Myrrh that he abandons all notions of national pride and sheepishly admits that this particular act has since been repealed. "Is there a law against painting walls at Christmas", asks Mick? Well, yes and no.

In our final visit to Luton, Mick chats to some of the youngsters about why they enjoy the scheme and what benefits they think it brings to the area, and there are also a couple of outtakey bits showing hasty painting mistakes and accidental clothing splatterage. Mick ends the piece with a direct address to camera, reminding viewers at home that if they want to have a go themselves, they'll need to get permission from "whoever owns the wall". He also, showing commendable awareness of exactly who his audience are, gives practical tips on how to contact the local authorities to make sure it's all above board and properly organised, and indeed to see if they can suggest a suitable location themselves. All of which is a far cry from getting discounted entry to National Trust buildings.

Outside, the choir are sprinting through The Holly And The Ivy and Jenny is releasing balloons, with noticeably greater success than Doug enjoyed earlier. These are, she hurriedly informs us, special Magpie balloons, and if you find one then you should write in straight away in the hope of winning some as yet unspecified New Year prize, but in the meantime it's over to the Thames TV lobby where Doug is presenting an update on the show's Christmas appeal total. This is measured via a stripy line running across the reception walls and up the stairs, and they had been hoping to have reached the oddly specific total of £30,355.29 by this edition. In fact they'd actually reached £38,905.19, and the unexpected additional eight thousand five hundred and forty nine pounds and nine pence has been ploughed into renovating a care home. Their new aim for the first show of 1977 is £42,499.19 which, as Doug points out, will allow them to 'get cracking' on central heating for it too. At the risk of sounding like a Channel 4 clip show, it's worth pointing out that this was little more than a fortnight after these studios had reverberated to the sound of The Sex Pistols saying 'BARSTARD' at Bill Grundy. Significantly, you can easily imagine Mick and Jenny not necessarily approving of the language but certainly having some sympathy for their cause. You could never really have said this of any Blue Peter presenter.

Over at the lock, Mick has now joined Jenny and the carollers, and enlists their help in very loudly and stiltedly reading out letters from some of the viewers who've donated to the appeal, including one who sent in all of his birthday money. There's just enough time for a still-in-studio Doug to give a reading of A Visit From St. Nicholas with the assistance of cardboard props and sound effects, and a multihanded linked-up goodbye until next year from the various broadcast locations, before the credits roll over the undisciplined choir thundering through I Saw Three Ships (Come Sailing In), and that's how Magpie 'did' Christmas Eve.

On this evidence at least, Magpie wasn't quite as much a bought-from-the-market knock-off of Blue Peter as popular opinion might suggest. The basic format may be similar, but the presenters themselves are more relaxed and informal, and closer to acting as the viewers' 'friends' than to being aspirant Junior School teachers getting in a bit of practice when you could have been watching The Robonic Stooges instead. They clearly relish the challenge of live (or at the very least 'as live') television, and aren't afraid to acknowledge and have a bit of a laugh when things don't go quite to plan. Also, crucially, while the format may be almost litigiously similar, the actual structure isn't, and there's a surprising quick-changing pace to proceedings that could almost convince you that modern youngsters could quite happily watch this. Mick's hat may prove something of a barrier to that, though.

All in all, it's a shame that Magpie has such a low reputation and indeed that there's so little left of it. It ran for over a decade, and if Tommy Boyd is to believed, might have gone on if it wasn't for certain executives looking for that next rung on the career ladder. Indeed, from Mick's own Freetime to Toksvig to Kellyvision to Do It! to Ace Reports/CBTV to whatever that one was with that one with the red hair and polka-dot top who made a sub-Stock Aitken Waterman pop record in one edition, Children's ITV would spend the next decade endlessly remaking Magpie in all but name. As for that technique of having the camera crew join in on the studio bits, though, did any somewhat more well regarded Thames productions use that as a key device in the late seventies? No. Definitely not...