The Top Ten Most Least Best Worst Underrated Overrated Up And Down In And Out Round About Eeny Meeny Macka Racka Rare Are Dominacka Shickeypoppa Dickywhoppa Om Pom Stick TV Programmes In The World... Ever!
The Guardian has recently caused something of a stir with their rundown of 'TV's Most Criminally Overrated Shows'. If you've not read it, this basically reduces down to a list of ten relatively recent critical favourites, each unflinchingly 'debunked' by a columnist saying little more than 'my friends all liked it but when I watched it I didn't!!'. Meanwhile, quite what criminality is involved here is sadly not clarified.
The correct response to this and indeed anything like this, of course, is to ignore it as lazy 'outrage'-courting clickbait nonsense of the first order and just get on with holding your own opinion on the criminal overratees. After all, even if you find This Is England to be patronising misery-porn with distractingly glaring chronological inaccuracies, are bored senseless by The Walking Dead's 'edgy' rehashing of cliches that you saw in a million straight-to-video epics back when 'zombies' weren't quite so trendy, want to punch everyone involved in Lost for their smugness over that weak lemon drink con-trick of an ending, and aren't even entirely sure of what Downton Abbey actually is, you should at least be able to concede that this is entirely a matter of personal preference and that they are all genuinely in the top ten percent of television made in the digital age (if not ever in some cases), and on top of everything else should simply be able to come up with a better argument.
Except that they've now chosen to follow it up with a list of 'TV's Most Underrated Shows' - essentially a collection of uber-hip programmes that their friends haven't discovered yet and so are presumably OK to like, punctuated by Top Gear which at least gets talked about more than practically any other current TV show, and Time Trumpet, a misfiring sketch show that even hardcore fans of the participants would be hard pushed to describe as anything stronger than 'quite good'. True, you would hardly expect such a list to feature Colour Me Pop, The Secret Service, Ask The Family and Rik Mayall Presents, and indeed nor should it. There's not even anything particularly wrong with the majority of the actual choices on either list, just the smug, mock-'iconoclastic', I'm-in-a-secret-club-and-you're-not attitude underpinning the entire venture. Nobody needs to be told off for watching or not watching something. Unless it's Captain Butler.
Yes, that's all very well and good, as some shirty individual is probably already saying on Twitter, but I didn't like Mad Men either!!!!!8 so what are you going to about it eh eh? Well nothing, frankly, other than to suggest that maybe you read the first three paragraphs again. This has started off an interesting train of thought, though - what are the ten most popular programmes ever covered on here, and what do they say about what people really think is over-and-underrated in television? Probably very little if we're being honest about it, but you're getting that top ten and you're liking it. Doctor Who has been left out, though, as it quite obviously eclipses anything else by a long margin. Anyway, we're starting somewhat inevitably with...
Amazingly, when my feature on Skiboy first went up, there were quite a few accusations that it was all an elaborate hoax. Some suggested it might have been some kind of sophisticated satirical prank on the obscurer-than-thou element of archive TV enthusiasm, while others even named a couple of likely-sounding films that I might have lifted screengrabs from and pulled off some convincing Photoshop trickery. But no, it's a series as real as they come, and one that for all its flaws and ridiculousness I would love to see released on DVD in full; it's certainly more underrated than sodding Treme. And judging by the number of hits it continues to get, I'm not the only one.
9. This Life
A surprisingly high entry, given than on the whole posts about more 'modern' stuff never do even half as well, and that these days This Life seems to get at best written off as self-conscuiously trendy 'of its time' fluff and at worst to blame for any given malaise currently afflicting the broadcast industry. But within minutes of going live the link was being shared like crazy - certainly faster and more enthusiastically than the Ask The Family piece - which suggests that there's a silent majority out there who actually quite like it and aren't ashamed to say so. This Life probably wasn't too far away from that 'Most Overrated Shows' list. To which we say yah boo sucks, frankly.
The week of in-depth features on seventies Children's BBC Christmas Specials was a huge success all round (well, apart from the one on Bod for some reason), and it's a format that's probably worth revisiting. But for some reason, the one about the little-seen feature-length Rentaghost Christmas Special went way beyond all the others, and is still hovering inside the top ten most viewed posts each week even now. Part of this can be explained by someone noticing that some of the panto costumes were actually recycled from Doctor Who And The Robots Of Death, but beyond that, presumably people just didn't remember it and REALLY wanted to know where Dobbin came from.
This was actually technically the first part of an epic-length look at the Battle Of The Planets two-parter The Fierce Flowers, but the huge drop-off when it came to the (actually impressively viewed in themselves) instalments proper points towards it being the weird one-week-only Ceefax Linking Saturday Morning TV experiment that everyone was really interested in. There's probably a serious point to be made here about how these sort of odd one-offs were both more likely to get through and indeed more likely to be remembered in a pre-multichannel/streaming landscape, but probably everyone would just get huffy that you were dissing Joss Whedon or something.
6. Orbiter X
Not strictly a TV programme - well, not actually a TV programme at all - but the response to a bit of background detail on a creaky old radio serial that I thought only I was listening to was little short of phenomenal, widely shared and even picked up on by a couple of academic and archive literature sites. I'd deliberately tried to make it more than just a 'review' and give as much of a feel to the information on the context and production of the show as to the descriptions of the show itself, and this must presumably have struck some sort of a chord with people. I'd very much like to do more about forgotten old radio on here so this is a good incentive.
5. Days Like These
It took a long time to put together a decent comparison of the first episode of That 70s Show with its tepid point-missing ITV remake, and it first it seemed that this might have been wasted effort. Nobody really appeared to be that interested, and it was rapidly eclipsed by a jokey look at a couple of Doctor Who clippings from Radio Times that went up shortly afterwards. However it eventually took off and even Days Like These scriptwriter Sam Bain got in touch to say he'd enjoyed it. As an attempt to look at why a notorious TV flop didn't work rather than just sneering, I'm quite proud of it I have to say. But please don't try rehabilitating Days Like These.
4. The Mersey Pirate
For reasons that will become obvious if you scroll back a couple of posts, this look at the strange story behind ITV's most ill-advised idea for a Saturday Morning show ever wasn't exactly written in the brightest and most upbeat of circumstances, but in some ways that made me more determined than ever to turn it into an interesting and amusing account and I'd like to think that the staggering popularity it met with reflected this. Identifying which actual ferry Gerry Marsden was on in which promo film is probably verging on madness, but it's also the sort of detail that people seem to enjoy and which really gives an extra sense of depth. Yes, depth and The Mersey Pirate in the same sentence...
3. How Do You Do!
When I announced that I'd found some wiped episodes of this long-forgotten BBC children's show, some prat decided for no obvious reason that this meant I had found Doctor Who And The Power Of The Daleks and went around saying as such on various sodding forums, leading to badmouthing and threats when the 'truth' emerged. Other more general archive TV enthusiasts were unstinting in their gratitude. And then there were the massive number of teary-eyed late thirtysomethings who got in touch to thank me for letting them see Carmen, Greg and Miss King's Class again. Happy to be of service to all of you, including the mad Doctor Who fans.
2. Play School
Perhaps a bit of an obvious one, and also it's a 'score' based on a couple of posts combined (though even separately they'd still sneak into this list), but there's no getting away from the fact that both the look at the Christmas Eve edition from 1970 and the complete rundown of Play School and Play Away albums attracted massive interest from the off, as indeed did my trivia-drenched live-Tweeting of that edition that BBC4 repeated recently. While we really shouldn't be encouraging Hamble, perhaps this is an indication that Play School is a programme that the BBC really ought to be doing more to exploit?
1. Hardwicke House
Well, it looks as though more people want to see ITV's notoriously banned sitcom than perhaps anyone had expected. This is certainly true if you look at the sheer number of sites that have copied the content of my Hardwicke House pieces uncredited - only with more italics and exclamation marks! Scandalously, of course, it's still not available for ridiculous and quite possibly spurious reasons, which you can read more about here. And I say again, you may find my obsession with this show baffling (though I'm clearly not alone), but what possible good is being done for anyone by continuing to withhold it. There's your entire overrated, underrated, good, bad, best, worst list right there, Grauniad!
Although, as we've already established, there is one individual, whose many and varied adventures across time and space would apear, in terms of popularity at least, to have no equal:
Hang on a minute... Parky? What's he doing here?!
Ah, good evening, and often may you say that the television shows that seem the strangest now were the ones that seemed the most mundane and quotidian at the time. No matter how good they may be, those that tried to be unusual now only really look like another era's idea of 'unusual'. Whereas those that simply existed, with their lack of audiovisual trimmings, their quaint meldings of one medium's stylistic preferences with another's format and technology, and their now almost completely unrelatable 'real time' feel, now come across like a quasi-hallucinatory vision of an alternate reality. Plus they're often quite unintentionally amusing too. One such show, if ever a show as was, was Ask The Family, which ran on BBC1 between 1967 and 1974. That much, is certain.
Ask The Family was just one of many highbrow quiz shows - including Call My Bluff, Brain Of Britain and The Book Game - hosted by critic, author, columnist and all-round polymath Robert Robinson. He had started his career as a heavyweight political pundit, and his 'descent' into quizzing ubiquity is often held up as a textbook example of 'how the mighty have fallen'; however Robinson himself claimed that he'd moved in this direction voluntarily after growing tired of the "sonorous drivel" of politicians. It was, he noted, "impossible to make the bastards reply to a straight question", and the comparative appeal of Brain Of Britain and company lay in the fact that they were "just a game". It was, in effect, a Godfrey Humphrey-style sophisticated satirical attack on the entire political establishment, and one so precision-targetedly aaaaaaahhhhhhhhh that even Tony Parsons didn't expect it. Or did expect it. Or was expecting us to expect that he wouldn't expect it. Or however that works exactly.
The basic format of Ask The Family was that two sets of smugly well-read families - often, it has to be said, displaying scant awareness of how they might look on screen - would vie to outdo each other as all-round smartarses while Robert Robinson posed cultured and literate puzzlers on science and history and the like, famously divided up into bizarre 'Father And Eldest Child Only'-type designations. Generally this would take the form of logical posers of the 'if you took off from New York and landed in Moscow with a brief stopover in Helsinki, what would the time difference be?' variety, which the audience on the whole found baffling. Its only concession to modernity and television technology came in a round where the teams would be asked to identify an object photographed in extreme close-up; usually this would conclude with some trademark Robinson haughty waffle along the lines of "a... video... recorder; a device, they tell me, that allows one to permit the recording of the output of one television channel, whilst watching the output of another... whatever will they think of next!". The Large Hadron Particle Collider, mate. That's what they thought of next.
It's often been remarked that the families being asked on Ask The Family bore absolutely no resemblance to any that you might have encountered in real life. In actual fact, they were everywhere. They were the exact same families as the ones at the end of the street where the children had SLAVE-1, Mr Frosty and Turn The Terrible Tank, but instead insisted on playing some tedious and impenetrable heraldry-related board game that went on forever and had a load of Charles I blokes on the box. Small wonder, then, that they should have been in such a clamour to compete on so polite, excitement-averse and intellectual superiority-conferring a game show. To the extent, in fact, that calling it a 'game show' looks somehow wrong. 'Game' would normally tend to suggest some element of fun might have been involved at some point.
The deeply strange thing, however, was that you would neither have known nor expected this (no, not even you, Tony Parsons) from the deeply strange opening titles. And that's opening titles plural. More than once, Ask The Family adopted visuals and indeed music that didn't just give a completely misleading idea of what was to follow, but appeared to belong to an entirely different television show from an entirely different planet.
There's modishly mind-expanding graphics and colours, there's migrane-inducing op-art monochrome refractions, and then there's the original Ask The Family opening titles. Beginning with a deck of Happy Families cards bearing illustrations apparently based on one of Bjork's nightmares, they would flip over to reveal a series of orange and purple hard-psych fractal designs of the kind that hippies were fond of using to determine your inner aura strength or whatever it was that week, finally zooming in on the one that deployed the time-honoured 'Candlestick or Two Faces?' optical illusion while the show's title appeared in a font that more rightly belonged on a birthday card sent by Yoffy from Fingerbobs to Tarot from Ace Of Wands. Looking more like you'd finally caved and allowed that weird 'mystical' girl in school to read your 'vibrations' than you were about to watch some clean-cut types vying to name the greatest number of winged insects, the overall effect was not dissimilar to one of those elaborate fold-out paper engineering-facilitated Prog Rock album sleeves where nobody bought them at the time and they're worth a small fortune undamaged now. Small wonder, then, that these visuals had music to match.
Robert Robinson's appearance being heralded by relentless sitars and a beat that would have had Zeenat Aman and company up on their feet in any given Bollywood offering might sound like something that the so-called 'satirists' might have made up as an incongruous comical wheeze, but - staggeringly - it was absolutely true. Acka Raga had originally been recorded by that famously far-out acid visionary Mr. Acker Bilk, whose version has a fantastically ludicrous 'Light Programme Goes East' vibe to it, sounding more or less equivalent to The Paul Butterfield Blues Band being produced by Norrie Paramor. The version that enlivened Ask The Family, however, was as interpreted by Brit-Jazzers Joe Harriott and John Mayer (and of course their 'Double Quintet') for their self-explanatory groundbreaking 1967 album Indo-Jazz Fusions, melding herky-jerk Prog-Jazz rhythms with traditional percussion and lashings of sitar. And, incidentally, you do have to wonder if Paul Weller had the Ask The Family opening titles in mind when he was putting together a certain pseudonymous sitar-dominated dancefloor smash...
It was, to all intents and purposes, like some sort of Chapter 24-instructed pocket nirvana tucked away at the start of an evening's entertainment on BBC1; something that was underlined by the fact that Dutch psych-rockers and Venus hitmakers Shocking Blue were sufficiently inspired by a chance sighting of Ask The Family on an early UK jaunt that they ended up putting a slightly more funked-up cover of Acka Raga on their somewhat suspiciously strewn torn card-covered LP At Home. But as the late seventies drew near, this sort of transcendental incongruity could not last. Plots to overthrow Harold Wilson were fomenting behind closed Gentlemen's Club doors with padded leather upholstery on them, the punks were waiting in the wings to shout 'BARSTARD' at Father and Youngest Child Only, and the brandy-in-decanter blokes in suits at the BBC had had quite enough of this longhaired multicoloured popular beat disobedience. It was time for change. And how.
The hippy dream had turned sour, and Ask The Family promptly defected to a neo-Illiberalist totalitarian state. Acka Raga was replaced by Sun Ride, a thoroughly inappropriately-named 'in Soviet Russia, family asks you' Cimbalom-sourced outbreak of Cold War Spy Film-hued menace provided by one John Leach. In tandem with this, the visuals were replaced by a creepy-looking rotating Edwardian family painted on the side of some weird spinning metallic fairground optical illusion thing. From the look of them, you wouldn't particularly want to ask this family anything, other than to please stop trying to steal your face.
The ramifications of this were immediate and far-reaching. Millions of children dived behind 'the sofa' whenever the continuity announcer mentioned Ask The Family. Go Video and Vipco became locked in a fierce bidding war for the rights to top Video Nasty Robert Robinson Presents The Everyman Book Of Light Verse - Live. The various rival TV 'Clowns' put aside their differences and penned an open letter objecting to this base infringement on their audience-terrifying territory. The BBC 'Top Brass' had to act, and while Sun Ride stayed, the creepy gaudy family were discarded in favour of more up to date iconography of the sort that would more normally have been found introducing a BBC2 magazine show that looked at topical issues from 'an angle'. Rumours that they had been discovered advancing on the question mark coat hanger pin man from the start of Over The Moon cannot be confirmed.
The 1980s. The microchip revolution. The dawn of Home Entertainment. A time when the likes of Equinox and Zig Zag were taking enormous leaps forwards and introducing themselves to viewers with digitally-generated neon and chrome lettering and scorching blasts of Korg. Odd, then, that Ask The Family opted not so much to move with the times as to move backwards away from them. A radical overhaul - though the show itself, of course, remained resolutely the same - brought in a polite arrangement of Scott Joplin's piano-punishing standard Maple Leaf Rag, accompanied by photo-animation of a for once perfectly normal-looking family, pulling puzzled faces around a red and white check tablecloth and an inexplicably oversized teapot. Seemingly self-destructively determined to mark itself out as an anachronism, the writing was on the wall for Ask The Family, and even someone viewing the wall in extreme close-up could see it.
But ah, the pity of it, starp and trivvock. While they still kept Maple Leaf Rag, the final series in 1984 opted for a much more hip and with-it ITV Daytime game show-style video grid showing the 'families' being jovial and light-hearted, along with a couple of frames of Robert Robinson doing likewise in a bizarre 'Smuggins goes zanes' gambit. Needless to say, it didn't work, and Ask The Family was one of the first casualties of the BBC Daytime-funding Night Of The Long Schedules that put paid to so many long-running old-favourites in the mid-eighties. Time, our old enemy, had rolled round again. It bade us goodbye, it bade us farewell, but aaaaah, tussock, flip and fourpence... not for long?
Ahhh, would that it were. Attempts to revive Ask The Family have been decidedly few, and decidedly less than successful. UK Gold had a go in the late nineties, with Alan Titchmarsh fronting a not particularly updated update that retained Sun Ride over a montage of 'highbrow' slides of microscopes and gorillas and the like, and - oddly - the original 'optical illusion' logo. Unfortunately, this proved to be even less entertaining than the drying paint at least one family was presumably called upon to identify in close-up, and nobody really noticed it happening. Not so the 2005 revival with Dick'n'Dom - theme music a hazardously Bhangra-ed up version of the original Acka Raga - which replaced all the staid 'improving' stuffiness with loud hooters and messy energetic rounds involving donkey masks for some reason, drawing the ire of many of the original's production team and even the Eeny Meeny Macka Racka Rare Are Dominacka Shickeypoppa Dickywhoppa Om Pom Stick-toting duo themselves soon identified the whole venture as a 'disaster'. Meanwhile, Acka Raga found its way back into the charts courtesy of a bizarre Şımarık-esque 'And An Extra Point For Being So Knockers' hookah-toking vocal reworking by saucy Russian Indie-Dance outfit Reflex. What would Robert Robinson have said?!
So ah, here's a thing, it only remains for me to declare Ask The Family the sort of programme that despite its opening title weirdness was defiantly and deliberately out of step with the times from the word go, and yet paradoxically exactly the sort of programme that all channels should be reclaiming that dull start-of-the-evening wasteland with now. As long as they keep all the reality and celebrity stuff as well, mind. We're not the Ask The Family families, you know.
In March 1996, a bunch of law graduates moved into a shared house in Southwark. Over the next two years, BBC2's rare excursion into credible and likeable youth drama This Life kept us all hooked (well, all of us except snorting drama-ier-than-thou bores) with a whirlwind of casual sex, criminal behaviour, industrial-strength quantities of cocaine and that sodding Sneaker Pimps song again and again and again and again and again, all of it brilliantly undramatically underplayed by a talented cast of relatable characters who couldn't really give a toss one way or the other, frankly, and still managed to get up for work in the morning. Then BBC2 opted to pull the plug and end the series on a high, and it was never seen again. No it wasn't. Shut up.
Although few could claim it was really a realistic depiction of their own lives - let's face it, the majority of the target audience could probably have found more to identify with in The Adam & Joe Show - This Life was notable for treating 'vices' as low-key everyday pursuits, for its accurate evocation of the effects of the switch from three years of dossing around to a high-powered work environment, and for talking to rather than down at the sort of viewers it sought to attract. And surely pretty much everyone had a housemate who just wouldn't sod off from the front room when they'd brought someone back and were hoping for a bit of privacy. But how well does it really stand up now? Well, Ms. Forbes, if you will present your findings to the jury...
This Life Was Better Than Our Friends In The North
Well, what better way to start a look back at an edgy and controversial drama series than by being edgy and controversial? To this day, mentioning This Life within the earshot of self-designated 'cultured' individuals will generate a slowly building chorus of "aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh, but Our Friends In The North, do you not see? aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!", which refuses to abate until you throw in the towel and pretend to concede that the adventures of Daniel Craig and some ropey wigs was a televisual landmark of such importance and significance that it should eclipse all mention ever of another show that had the audacity to be on around the same time and have a similarly young cast. Whether or not this extends to other programmes that were also on around the same time, and that references to The Girlie Show, Crapston Villas and that thing where Martin Clunes and Neil Morrissey were New Romantics or something must be similarly shouted down, has sadly not been clarified. Well, enough of that nonsense. Our Friends In The North may have had a heavyweight cast and a staggeringly good decade-straddling script that skilfully and effectively tackled every major sociocultural issue in British life from the sixties to the rise of New Labour, but This Life was, plainly and simply, more fun and had better jokes and better music. No not aaaaaaaahhh!
Put Some Bloody Clothes On!
Part of the aforementioned 'fun' of This Life was in the regular characters' alarmingly relaxed attitude to nudity, and even when they weren't actually having sex they could be constantly seen walking in on each other getting changed, or just generally wandering about the house in the absence of key items of clothing. Quite surprisingly and progressively for the time, the overwhelming majority of said nudity was male, too. But how times change, and while time was when Kira flashing her bra at a departing Moore Spencer Wright head honcho would have fulfilled your unexpected erotic thrill quota for an entire week, nowadays there's so much digital nakedness available on tap that it all just looks a bit unnecessary. As nice as Anna's arse may be, it is possible to get too much of a good thing and by the end of the series you're left wondering if Daniela Nardini had to be treated for the effects of exposure. Plus we also had to put up with the decidedly less visually palatable likes of Mr. O'Donnell and Egg's dad getting in on the act and out of their clothes, which nobody either wanted or needed. No matter how many furious letters to Points Of View may have been inspired by Milly's apparent inability to remember the concept of 'pants' at the time, sometimes what seemed shocking way back when just looks boring now.
Anna And Miles Are More Likeable Than Milly And Egg
Rewatching This Life, you get the distinct impression that you're supposed to find the stable, reserved, relatively career-focused couple more admirable and aspirational than the non-couple made up of an arrogant prejudiced public schoolboy with no money worries and the self-destructive sexually voracious Caledonian bruiser. On face value this is probably largely true, except for the fact that Miles and Anna freely accept that they are the cause of their own problems, are never afraid to charge headlong into difficult situations, and despite their expletive-fuelled cynicism generally have a more positive outlook on the world. Whereas Milly and Egg - both of whom, in a clever and subtle scripting touch, are going by handles that purposefully distract from their birth names (Djamila and Edgar, in case you were wondering) - are underneath it all basically just a paranoid moaner and an aimless drifter who hide their heads in the sand, allow seething resentment to build up unchecked, and continually mislead each other about even the most minor and trivial thing, and yet still manage to blame everyone else in the world for everything that ever happens to them. It's no wonder poor old Warren spent so much time in that therapist's office.
The Minor Characters Were All More Likeable Still
Remarkably for a show that already boasted a fairly large regular ensemble cast, This Life featured an even larger assortment of friends, colleagues and enemies (oh and 'Quasi') who hovered on the periphery of the various house dramas and indeed frequently on the periphery of the house itself. Jo, Kira, Ferdy, Kelly, Lenny, Nikki, the ever-mysterious Graham, Miles and Anna's downright odd boss Hooperman, various brothers and sisters and parents and even the odd 'dealer' all wandered in and out of various storylines without ever losing their sense of positivity or their somewhat more relaxed and less self-absorbed grip on reality. For some viewers, their assorted comic mishaps with careers, relationships and, erm, finding somewhere to get a sandwich were even more enjoyable than the main action and it's little surprise that they are in some cases remembered every bit as fondly as - if not more than - the main five. Well, apart from Dale. Oh, and while we're on the subject...
Was Rachel Really All That Bad?
Captain Black sided with The Mysterons after Earth had blown up their home city for no good reason. Mike Teavee had the temerity to enjoy the output of a medium Roald Dahl was a bit sniffy about. Raggerty's sole crime was wishing Rupert Bear would go away. And then there's Rachel from This Life, a divisive and suspiciously android-like individual who continued to inadvertently pour oil on troubled waters until Milly smacked her in the face in the last episode. But was this really warranted? Was any of it even her fault? Well, although there's no denying she was well and truly locked in a six-of-one passive-aggressive war of workplace attrition with Milly, wasn't afraid to use promises of never-actually-delivered sex to get what she wanted, and was as ambitious and opportunistic as they come, it's also true to say that she was helpful and supportive to those that bothered to reach out to her (notably Warren), seemed genuinely hurt when Milly launched into the 'I don't like you' rant, made more than enough genuine-seeming overtures to her office enemy, and occasionally dropped worrying hints of dark goings on in her family home. There's even a case for claiming that her 'telling' Egg about Milly's affair was vague enough to have been a 'you'll lose her if you're not careful' pep talk gone wrong, and that perhaps her desperate cry of "I didn't tell him!" wasn't quite so much of a load of Not-Talkin'-'Bout-Shaft-style baloney after all. The jury's still out, really, although they've already returned their verdict on one particular pillock...
O'Donnell Is A Jerk
"Never trust a hippy", mused Egg of the gang's law firm mentor Mr. O'Donnell, occasioning an eye-roll from Milly who was presumably fed up of his hero worship of John Lydon and thought that Tracy Chapman and Michelle Shocked said it all much better and without swearing at that nice Bill Grundy either. But said hippy's untrustworthiness went way beyond his encouraging Milly to become a very different kind of 'legal partner', from his shabby attempt at winning back favour after firing Warren by sending a crate of booze to his leaving party, to his gleeful favourite-playing indulgence in the volley of glares between Milly and Rachel, to his general treatment of Kira and Kelly as more or less on a par with a couple of footprint-embossed McDonald's cartons that had blown in to the office on a muggy day, all of it cunningly framed behind a Tony Blair-esque calm voice, proclamations of fairness and friendliness, and waffly talk of positivity and 'how we move forward from here' and blah and bleh and yawn yawn yawn. Well, no, it doesn't work on the audience mate - O'Donnell is a solid-state jerk through and through. If Moore Spencer Wright were so vocally concerned about their reputation that they dismissed Warren for being gay in a built-up area and gave Kelly a written warning for opting to urinate in the lavatory rather than on the floor of the reception area, would they really have wanted this tosspot conman on their board of partners?
Put A Tim From The Office In It
One frequently overlooked aspect of This Life is the presence of a then-unknown Martin Freeman as shifty, annoying Ocean Colour Scene lookalike Stuart. His most memorable moment comes when, having successfully half-inched a couple of House Tenners when nobody was looking, he pauses to take a celebratory swig from an open can of lager. Little does he realise that Egg had earlier relieved himself into it (presumably deploying near-supernatural levels of directional accuracy), occasioning Mr. Freeman to pull a 'shocked' face and spit it out exaggeratedly in glorious shakycam stutter-o-vision. There are those who would suggest that this has since informed his entire approach to acting, from Watson to Arthur Dent to Bilbo Baggins to That Bloke In Meet The Robinsons to, well, Tim From The Office himself. We of course could not possibly comment. But as for certain other employees of TV's Hilarious Wernham Hogg...
What Did Ricky Gervais Do All Day?
One aspect of This Life that nobody ever gets an opportunity to overlook is that Ricky Gervais took time out from going to see The Spin Doctors at the Civic Centre to act as the show's official 'Music Consultant'. This technically involved working out what sort of music the characters' real-life counterparts would have listened to, and indeed which scenes and circumstances might have been best underscored by which songs. What this actually translated to was picking one or two artists per character and relentlessly cueing their best known numbers in again and again and again, giving the strange illusion that the house existed in a sort of weird alternative universe where nobody had ever made or received a compilation tape. In fairness sometimes this works, and every so often you get a welcome reminder of terrific forgotten songs from the era like Anywhere by Dubstar, while having Kira as a Kenickie fan was certainly a neat touch. On the other hand, though, you get the fact that Miles likes 'jazz' - i.e. he mentioned John Coltrane once - denoted by Corduroy's Out Of Here being played in literally track by track over the course of the series. Must have taken hours of 'consulting', that one.
How Long Had Warren Actually Been Travelling For?
Partway in to the second series, his dreams of a high-flying legal career having been temporarily derailed, Warren takes off for a spot of global sightseeing with the aid of a pair of ruby slipper-esque DMs from his housemates. Australia and America both seem to be on the itinerary, though he still manages to get back in time for the very last scene, showing up to witness Milly and Rachel clawing at each other's faces while sporting a vague hint of a beard and a Hawaiian shirt that indicates he's beamed in directly from whichever beach he'd ended up on without having time to change. However, even allowing for possible onscreen skipping over of unseen events, it can only be at the outside three weeks between his departure and the wedding, suggesting that his plans might not quite have been so grand after all. Then again, how would Miles and Francesca's courtship and wedding have fitted into that short a timeframe? Do any of the things that happen actually add up in any logical way at all? Can I go back to trying to work out what happened in wiped Doctor Who episodes please? No? Oh alright then. There's just one last thing to say...
This Life + 10 Did Not Happen
BBC2's decision to end This Life on a high and with viewers wanting more was a shrewd and successful one, as it left the show's reputation intact and untarnished. We can be glad, then, that nobody ever saw fit to mount a revival nobody asked for which undid all of the good character work of the original, indulged in unfunny 'ha ha ha we're all comfortable thirtysomethings just like you!!' non-humour, made absolutely no mention of what became of Jo, Kira, Kelly, Rachel or even a piss-spluttering Martin Freeman, and generally achieved such a low standard of drama and entertainment that it made A Very Polish Practice, Further Up Pompeii! and Doomwatch: Winter Angel look like high art in comparison. Because that did not happen. Not even slightly.
It's Still A Police Box, Why Hasn't It Changed? Part Five: Well It's A Marvellous Night For The Moonbase
Doctor Who's fourth outing in 1966-67 marked something of a turning point for the show, featuring the first ever change of lead actor, and what at the time was intended to be the last ever appearance of The Daleks. That would-be farewell appearance came at the end of what many consider to be the finest story of the entire sixties, which shared its intricate plotting and eerie old-skool sci-fi atmosphere with another similarly lauded Dalek story earlier in the run. And those three factors have overshadowed pretty much everything else in the series; this includes the debut and first return appearance of The Cybermen, the last 'pure' historical adventure, and three stories about which comparatively next to nothing is known. Oh and The Underwater Menace, which is fantastic and not rubbish like you thought. Once again, there are huge visual gaps - most importantly, we've no way of knowing why Polly suddenly has The Doctor's hat on at the end of The Underwater Menace - but in most cases there's enough left to get at least a sense of what was going on, and in any case, there's huge swathes of the series that don't get written about enough. So let's not waste any more time and get on with making up for that...
Jimmy Savile References For You, And You And You And You
In the previous instalment, we tried our hardest to swerve discreetly around the blatant reference in The War Machines to that most now-discredited of former Radio 1 DJs, Top Of The Pops presenters and general Fixers of 'It', TV's Scrawny Old Bastard. Nicely averted, you may have thought. Neatly swept under the carpet. Now we can move quietly and happily on and not have to think about him ever again. Well, not until The Two Doctors at any rate. Imagine the 'surprise', then, when The Tenth Planet opened with Dyson at Mission Control requesting that the astronauts change their communications channel to 'J For Jimmy', complete with suspiciously familiar vocal tremulance and audible quote marks. If you're in any doubt, Williams immediately repeats the line aboard the rocket in an ordinary voice, and the difference couldn't be clearer. There's probably a serious point to be made in there somewhere about how these sorry individuals were once a part of everyday life, but 'serious' isn't really the point of this exercise, and in any case, he's part of the reason behind why we're in the mess we're in right now and would probably be quite pleased if he could see the chaos he's caused, so let's just move on. Hmmm, really not doing too well at this 'not serious' business there. We can but hope that something ridiculous is coming along soon. Maybe even in the same episode...
Krrrrrrrail And Krang The Finest Cybermen You Ever Wanna Meet
One of the most pleasing developments in 'Old' Doctor Who in recent times has been the rehabilitation of the original Cybermen. Time was when - largely on the basis of a handful of not particularly unfuzzy publicity photos - the cloth-faced variants with their impractical chest units were at best the target of derision and at worst as good as written out of Cyber-History; it's possible that David Banks might have given them a fairer crack of the whip in that breakfast bar-sized book he wrote about Cybermen, especially as one of the tie-in audiobooks had a little-known 'Lucozade' variant on the front, though experts are still divided on whether anyone has actually read it. When people actually got to see what's left of The Tenth Planet in halfway decent quality where you can tell the blizzard-set scenes apart from the rest of it, though, everyone suddenly realised that they looked quite good after all; the more 'human' approach to their design makes them all the more chillingly believable as cyborgs gone too far, not least because in glorious Restoration Team-ed up quality you can actually see their hands and eyes ghosting through. There's only one problem with this. Whenever they appear on the screen, their arrival is heralded by a stock music-derived bit of electronically-treated trumpet, which picks out the exact same notes as the opening fanfare from Jackie Wilson's Reet Petite. True, it's not like we then get a claymation Hartnell leaping about the screen singing "wellllllll, look about look about look about look about ooo-eee!", but once you've noticed it, it's hard to hear it without laughing. And while we're about it, why were The Cybermen so intent on invading The BBC Globe? And why does the computer text in the opening titles say 'NXOZ' over and over again? Well, you might find the answers hidden somewhere amongst a load of analogue data if you press that whopping great 'LOAD' button over there, as...
They Didn't Half Like Their Big Spools Of Tape
One of Doctor Who's most noticeable weak links, especially in the seventies and eighties, was in its attempts to predict how 'future' technology might look and function. In the sixties, however, it wasn't quite so bad; although there are still some famously risible examples, the 'computers' tended to involve little more than blank flat surfaces, minimalist switches and buttons, and occasional blinking lights. In all honesty this was probably borne more out of budgetary concerns than any attempt at accurately anticipating the microchip revolution, but while they don't exactly look like computers as we recognise them now, they do at least feel a little less comically antiquated and outmoded as a result. That said, they do tend to be liberally decorated with gigantic stop-starting tape spools, whirring merrily away with chunky ferric thickness and nowadays not so much suggesting lightning-speed processing of huge blocks of data as they do George Martin furrowing his brow over those Beatle boys' latest krazy sonic innovation. This was particularly prevalent in Patrick Troughton's first series for some reason, reaching its apex (or indeed Ampex) with the 'four spools to a terminal' madness of The Moonbase, suggesting that they'd have been much quicker in stopping The Cybermen if Brian Wilson had just come in and pressed a few buttons before shouting "top, please". Actually, you can't help but notice that despite some prominent attempts at moving forwards in late sixties Doctor Who, it really does tend to be men who get to press said buttons. Although that said, over in another corner of The Moonbase...
That 'Sexist' Bit Isn't Actually As Sexist As Everyone Seems To Think
She might not look too much like the original Cybermen, but another welcome development in recent times has been the rehabilitation of mid-sixties assistant Polly. Once not so much misrepresented as just plain ignored, to the extent that an official book about 'The Companions' dismissed her with a single sentence that literally said nothing more than that she was in the Tardis once, the fact that it has since become possible to see what's left of her episodes (and hear what isn't) has done much to restore her reputation as something a bit more than just stripy tops and over-washed hair. True, we're still missing some key visual moments like her active plot-dominance in The Smugglers and The Highlanders, and those creepy operating theatre scenes in The Underwater Menace do nobody any favours, but on the other hand there's still her arguing ethics with The Cybermen in The Tenth Planet, puzzle-solving in (if you count that BBC Audiobooks reconstruction) The Power Of The Daleks, and at least halfway entertaining over-the-top screaming in the few surviving seconds of The Macra Terror. And then there's that blisteringly good first episode after The Doctor regenerates, which is largely given over to Polly and Ben fretting about who this mysterious stranger wittering about his fingernails really is. The most frequently seen footage of Polly, however, comes from the second episode of The Moonbase, and is usually deployed to illustrate allegations of rampant patronising sexism in early Doctor Who. These allegations are not without rock solid foundation, it has to be admitted, but this isn't really the right clip to underline them with. On face value, of course, the exchange "You've found something?" - "Oh Polly, I only wish I had... why not make some coffee to keep them all happy while I think of something?" looks about as pat-on-the-head leave-it-to-me-dear mansplainy as it's possible to get. That's when you just look at the exchange itself, though. In actual fact, it comes at the end of a scene where The Doctor has been constantly interrupted by tinfoil hat panic merchants (some of them actually wearing tinfoil hats) babbling nonsense while he's trying to analyse a mystery virus striking down the base's crew, and while a more respectful and sensitive way of expressing it could have been found, he's actually enlisting Polly's help in distracting them while he concentrates; something that is entirely in keeping with her espionage-trained subterfugal shenanigans in other stories, even if it is a poor use of her talents. Also, although we don't know this yet, The Doctor wants some coffee made so he can test his theory that it's actually responsible for spreading the virus. This is far from being the most gloriously progressive moment in the entire history of Doctor Who, but it's also not quite what it gets made out to be either. And while we're blithely raising hackles about sensitive subjects...
No, He Reinforced Stereotypes Of His Own Accord
The Tenth Planet boasts a notable first for Doctor Who, with sixties TV regular Earl Cameron becoming the first black actor to appear in the series in a straightforward supporting role with absolutely no allusions whatsoever made to race, discrimination or background. And that lengthy qualifier is there because the story before that, The Smugglers, features poor old Elroy Josephs in a role that is absolutely nothing of the sort. Starey-eyed, maniacally laughing, insultingly named and ignorantly superstitious, 'Jamaica' fills out Captain Pike's motley assortment of cut-throat privateers in a manner that, while certainly far from offensive or bigoted, would look decidedly uncomfortable on modern television. In fact, given that the story also features liberal use of daggers and a morally dubious position on seafaring lawlessness, it's probable that The Smugglers would cause some serious headaches if it were to be suddenly returned to the BBC now. In fairness, it's probably a realistic depiction of how a real-life 'Jamaica' would have acted, and he does get what sounds like a fantastic scene playing cards with William Hartnell, but it's still a tad unnerving and in some ways it's sad that Josephs - a fine actor and choreographer, an academic, and an individual who did much to change race perception in the arts - is really only known to any significant number of people for this role. Still, maybe we shouldn't expect better from a run of episodes that includes the line "Polly, you speak foreign". Though we should at least be grateful that they never went with Patrick Troughton's original suggestion that he should black up as washerwoman or whatever it was. Anyway, on to slightly less sensitive subject matter...
"You'll Find That The Whole Plane Conforms Strictly To The International Standards Of Air Safety"
Tee hee hee, say Pappy's Fun Club and their ilk on snorty point-and-laugh clip shows. Doctor Who always had cardboard monsters and rubber walls or something, not like when it came back and it was good. And we say bollocks, frankly. Go away and actually watch some of it, then do a considerable amount of reading about the wider context of television production in the sixties and seventies, and then make up some original jokes that are actually funny and have some semblance of a basis in reality. And then go and jump in a bin. Though, let's be honest about it, there's some occasions when you just have to throw your hands up and admit it. In Episode Three of The Faceless Ones, there's a scene in which Captain Blade - who we don't yet know is actually a seaweed-faced alien planning to repopulate his home world with humans - is trying to assure suspicious DI Crossland that Chameleon Tours have got nothing to do with the disappearing planeloads of Club 18-30-type revellers. This he does by boasting about how well constructed their planes are, while standing in front of some flimsy-looking panels complete with a gap between two of them that you could fly a Laker Skytrain through, and as an air hostess hefts some luggage onto an already buckling overhead compartment which responds by, putting it mildly, bouncing. Perhaps if they wanted to fool the puny Earthlings into believing that the cunning replicas of their friends and relatives were the genuine article, they ought to have started by using a more convincing-looking plane.
There Is No Such Thing As Macra!
As you may have gathered from the introduction, I have gone on and on and on many times before now about how much I like The Underwater Menace, including an entire chapter in Well At Least It's Free. So if you want to read my rather forceful singing of its praises, you're probably better headed for there (and it's got loads of other stuff in it about early Doctor Who too). Of course, since Well At Least It's Free was first published, a whole other episode of The Underwater Menace has been found, and there has been much talk of how this has done much to restore the story's previously Atlantean-depth low reputation; although a quick glance at Doctor Who Magazine's 2014 'every story ever' poll reveals that it is still languishing at a shockingly undeserved 224 out of 241. Clearly quite a few things in the world can stop it now. It's interesting to note, though, that with the exception of the two Dalek stories - which we'll be coming back to in a moment - not one story from this series actually appears inside the top one hundred; not even the one with the first regeneration and the first appearance by The Cybermen. Clearly the fact that so little from it still exists - in fact, it's now the only series without a single surviving full story to its name - has some bearing on this, though equally that makes it all the more puzzling that fans aren't more curious about the more tantalisingly obscure stories, and in particular The Macra Terror. On face value, it would seem to have everything; sinister Orwellian overtones, the over-vaunted 'Base Under Siege' format, Nerve Gas-toting giant crabs, the Tardis crew divided by TV and Muzak-propagated mind control, and Polly roadtesting a brand new Mod Girl 'pixie cut'. And yet, although it got more than respectable ratings and even provoked a bit of controversy with the usual planks writing to Radio Times asking why Dr. Who couldn't ever meet some nice aliens on his travels and share his pie with Itchy and then they both have pie, The Macra Terror now might as well just not have existed in the first place. In many ways and on many levels, this is the closest that sixties Doctor Who gets to that tantalisingly lost demo take of The Girl I Knew Somewhere with the newly-recruited Monkees playing their own instruments, and yet to so many fans it's seemingly just something that's there. Or was there, rather. Frankly, this says a lot about the pointless obsession with 'milestones', 'landmarks', 'classics', 'anniversaries' and all of the other ultimately meaningless labels that dictate what we should and shouldn't be taking notice of, and it would be nice to see it found and watch the story leap up in everyone's estimation like The Enemy Of The World did. But whatever you do, don't send drunken texts from the pub ordering certain individuals to sodding well give their copy back to the BBC...
What Did The BBC Have Against The Highlanders?
And speaking of entirely wiped stories, The Highlanders might well have been the last of the 'pure' historical adventures, but it was also the first ever story for which the VT transmission masters were wiped. What's more, all four of them were held up against a giant magnet on 9th March 1967, which those of you who have such trivia indelibly drilled into your subconscious will have noticed was less than two months after they were transmitted. Even allowing for the fact most fans just won't accept that wipings were basically a matter of course and down to a combination of technical necessity and nobody realising that anything might have any use beyond one repeat (and even they were rare), this seems suspiciously quick, especially considering that there were dozens of other Doctor Who master tapes knocking about that hadn't been used in up to three years. What could possibly have offended them so much about a fun costumed runaround that looked halfway atmospheric, gave Polly a Hannah Gordon-portrayed sparring partner to get up to girly hi-jinks with, and introduced a young clan piper called Jamie McCrimmon who proved so popular that he was quickly installed as a new regular character (once his accent had 'mellowed' to 'TV Scots', that is)? Well, the answer of course is 'nothing' - BBC Enterprises had already made their film copies (which they held on to until at least 1974), and had placed a 'Retention Order' on earlier stories apparently in order to make better copies using a newer system; once these had been made, the bulk of the preceding adventures were wiped within weeks. True, this isn't quite as exciting as someone somewhere making some obscure artistic point about the lack of popularity of the historical stories, but in some respects the sheer by-the-book form-filling mundanity of it all is all the more chilling. Solicitor Grey would have been proud. As for why that BBC Audiobooks Telesnap/audio reconstruction never actually came out, though, well that's another story. Although we did at least get to enjoy...
Medley: Mr Sludge The Snail/Can You Sew Cushions?
Along with his not-actually-that-'Beatlesque' 'Beatlesque mop', and the not-actually-that-loud 'loud' orange and black check trousers that were apparently 'taken in at the rate of an inch a week' (presumably resembling Spandex by the end of his run), the blue and white striped recorder was one of The Second Doctor's most recognisable visual characteristics. Even if inattentive writers and directors kept calling it a 'flute'. That said, he never actually seemed to be that proficient on the instrument, appearing to spend the majority of the time picking out shrill random notes in a manner akin to Roland Kirk collaborating with AMM. However, according to production documentation, he did actually play two recognisable melodies in the first episode of The Power Of The Daleks, which had the preposterous titles Can You Sew Cushions? and Mr Sludge The Snail. Some have speculated that songs with such ludicrous names could never actually have existed, but close investigation reveals that they were all too real, if slightly arcane choices. Can You Sew Cushions? turns out to have been a traditional Scottish folk song, which after posing that thorny question goes on to enquire whether the lyrical target can also sew 'sheets' and something about going 'hee' and 'haw' at a lamb. Mr Sludge The Snail, on the other hand, was written especially for the BBC Schools' Radio programme Time And Tune by producer and occasional Radiophonic Workshop extra pair of hands Jenyth Worsley, and its inclusion here was presumably an early nod towards cross-platform postmodernism that didn't quite come off. The lyrics, in case you were interested, were essentially concerned with the fact that Mr Sludge was 'medium-sized', which you have to admit in the snail scheme of things doesn't really mean very much at all. Meanwhile, you may have noticed that the colour of Troughton's trouser check and recorder stripes will have been completely immaterial to black and white viewers, thus rendering the entire history of fan cliche lexicon invalid. As you were.
Series Four doesn't quite start with a Dalek story, but it certainly ends with one, and between the two they not only overshadow most of sixties Doctor Who, but a good deal of what's come since as well. In that Doctor Who Magazine poll we mentioned earlier, The Evil Of The Daleks sits at number thirty four, and The Power Of The Daleks at number nineteen, voted there by a readership who, for the most part, cannot possibly have seen anything of them bar the lone surviving episode of the former. In some ways, it's not surprising that they enjoy such a lofty reputation. Both stories transplant The Daleks to tremendous effect into atypical styles of storytelling; claustrophobic Cold War-evoking fifties-style far future thriller for Power, and eerie Robert Louis Stephenson-esque Victorian horror for Evil. They are, in many senses, the last stand of the original vision for Doctor Who. What little visual material survives from the lost episodes looks ever so slightly exciting. And above all, they've got absolutely tons of Daleks, even if they do appear to be working to some form of 'only three to be seen at any one time' rule and the majority are either photographic blow-ups or literally blown-up models. But are these positions really warranted? Not so much from the perspective of asking if they are actually any good, but rather would they still have quite as much across-the-board appeal if they suddenly turned up now? These are, after all, thirteen episodes of mid-sixties studio-bound television drama recorded more or less 'as live', and particularly wordy, moody and ponderous ones at that. Given that a worryingly large proportion of Doctor Who fans seem utterly unaware that there were any other television programmes ever, it's hardly surprising that a lot of them don't seem to grasp the context and (cough) 'grammar' of early television, and then on top of that there's those that do get it but just simply - and entirely reasonably - don't like it. If they had to sit through over seven hours of the stuff, how many of them would even make it to the end? Yes, the sort of fans who would gleefully set fire to every last second of television made in the last twenty years to get hold of a single episode of R.3 or On The Margin would be too excited for words, but how many others would be so underwhelmed that both stories immediately plummet to the bottom of the poll to keep The Macra Terror company? Well, we've no way of knowing. It's not like anyone has found them and is refusing to give them back, is it?
Meanwhile, you may have noticed that there have been no further additions to the ongoing They Like Big Butts And They Cannot Lie saga. This is purely because so much of this series is missing that it's proved near-impossible to find any examples, though it's a fair bet that the booty-crazy cameramen would have been falling over themselves to get to the rear of the majorettes in The Macra Terror...
Anyway, join us again next time for Jamie presenting The Clothes Show, "AND-YOU-WILL-BE-THE-NEXT", and of course Padmasambhava, Padmasambhava and not forgetting Padmasambhava...