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...
We’ve no way of knowing for certain what Gordon Murray was doing on 22nd December 1965, but we can take a fairly good guess. Chances are he was editing Mrs Honeyman And Her Baby, the thirteenth and final episode of Camberwick Green, by hand in his tiny Crouch End studio, delivering it to the BBC only days (or according to some accounts hours) before the first one went out on 3rd January 1966. Over in a slightly more well-appointed studio in Slough, Sylvia Anderson was probably watching a rough cut of the Thunderbirds episode The Cham-Cham, flushed with the excitement of its runaway success and doubtless little realising that men in suits behind desks would later claim all of the credit for her ideas. Meanwhile, in Kent, David Bowie was most likely listening to an advance acetate of Can’t Help Thinking About Me, and wondering if this would be the one that finally made him into a pop star.
David Bowie, Sylvia Anderson and Gordon Murray, of course, all died in 2016. All three are people whose work I have admired with an almost unequalled fervour for pretty much as long as I can remember; and no, that’s not really an exaggeration in Bowie’s case. The first two of them often tackled their thoughts and fears on nuclear conflict in their work; Gordon Murray sure never did, but he did once tell a BBC documentary maker that his creative imperative was to “protect children, while they are children, for as long as possible from this dreadful world that we’re living in”, so it doesn’t take too much imagination to work out what his thoughts on the matter were.
Arthur Lee and Bryan MacLean, the angry, cynical frontmen of the provocative and defiantly mixed race band Love, both left us a long time ago, but they were recording their debut album in December 1965 and their almost plainsong-like plea Mushroom Clouds remains one of the simplest yet most chillingly effective expressions of that same fear. Their labelmate Tim Buckley hadn’t made it into the studio yet, but he was certainly performing his furious analysis of the Cold War’s intangible sense of threat No Man Can Find The War live by that point. And we really could go on and on and on about December 1965 there, but it’s straying from the point a bit. A bit. Suffice it to say that, one way or the other, none of them nor indeed any of their contemporaries would have imagined that we’d still be having the same sense of dread and paranoia over fifty years later.
David Bowie, Sylvia Anderson and Gordon Murray will be missed by many and their work will live on. But they’re not who we’re supposed to remember. They’re artists. Creatives. Producers of material that, at least in 1965, was literally intended to entertain audiences for a couple of months then disappear forever. They are not statesmen or politicians, and even Bowie will struggle to make much of a dent on the history books, let alone a couple of people who pushed a couple of puppets around, and one of them an uppity woman at that. We’re supposed to save our reverence, our remembrance, our memorials for the decision-makers and strategists, regardless of how well they may actually have treated us. Monuments, as the similarly long gone folk singer Jake Thackray once put it, “for the eyes and admiration of the common people who/you never ever in your lifetime ever liked or ever knew”. Given that he was never afraid of having arrogant authority figures reduced to giving rosettes to prize-winning pigs or sexually assaulted by apes, simply telling these ‘Famous People’ that “you are unwise/to imagine you are dear” speaks contemptuous volumes.
I can’t say it really happened with Gordon Murray or Sylvia Anderson, but there were people who openly expressed bewilderment bordering on hostility at the idea that David Bowie’s death should be mourned by anyone in any way at all. Many of these, it has to be said, spent much of 2016 publically crawling up to the very political figures who have got us right back to Love’s nightmarish visions of “little children dying/in an age of hate”. Yet there’s one last thing that all three of them had in common. As did Prince, Victoria Wood, Greg Lake, Leonard Cohen, Terry Wogan, Pete Burns, Caroline Aherne and, on a personal note, Kris Ealey, who was an old friend and one of the people least affected by celebrity ever, who only ever saw acting as his job and was far happier hanging out at record fairs and playing his guitar in tiny bars in his spare time. And in fact any of the celebrities who have died this year and had columnists snorting at the pathetic public and their silly outpourings of sadness. They made people's lives just that tiny bit better. Their names may not be on plaques or on paper, but they and their work are who and what real people will remember, and long may it stay that way.
Quincy's Quest is one of those television shows that large numbers of people seem to remember for no readily obvious reason. Shown by ITV on 20th December 1979, in a 7.00pm Thursday evening timeslot when a fair percentage of its intended audience would probably have been in bed to boot (and repeated - once - in more or less the same timeslot in 1981), it was nevertheless unquestionably one of the network's seasonal big guns at the end of a strike-stricken year during which they had lost a great deal of goodwill. It was plugged on the front cover of that week's TV Times via a photo montage that looked as though Here Comes Mumfie had collided head-first with a Tiger Tots advert, and a massive boxout taking up approximately eighty three percent of the day's listings. In fact overall they gave it more prominence than they rising starlet Christina World in a see-through top, news of where you could find Paul Henry in panto, and two blokes out of short-lived thriller The Racing Game walloping each other for some reason. It's fair to say, then, that they expected a few people to watch it.
What they probably didn't expect, however, was that it would make such an indelible impression on so many of those viewers. At a time when most television was still considered ephemeral and throwaway, ITV's Light Entertainment output was considered more ephemeral and throwaway still, and especially so at Christmas; seriously, you try finding one of those tinsel-festooned all-star variety efforts from the seventies in broadcast format and you'll more than likely find yourself embarking on a 'quest' of your very own. Yet Quincy's Quest - which, needless to say, does still exist in broadcast format - seems to have garishly burned itself into the memories of those who saw it, and chances are that many of them would have gone on to feel a tingle of quickly-dashed excitement on spotting Quincy loitering around in the ITV listings over the next couple of years.
Quincy's Quest was written by and starred Tommy Steele, who also co-composed the music, and doubtless part of the reason for its success was that he'd had quite some time to perfect the production in. An earlier, shorter version of Quincy's Quest had appeared on ITV as part of The Tommy Steele Show on 23rd December 1962 - back when he was still essentially a recording star first and foremost - which amazingly appears still to exist in some form. By the late seventies, of course, he had swapped the hit parade for the stage, and could regularly be found treading the boards in the song-and-dance-fuelled likes of Half A Sixpence, Hans Christian Andersen and She Stoops To Conquer. Doubtless this additional experience in big brash audience-friendly razzle-dazzle helped to give the 1979 version of Quincy's Quest its extra youngster-entrancing advantage.
It's at this point we have to be honest and admit that there is no way whatsoever that Quincy's Quest will be able to replicate that effect on an adult viewer all this time later. We can keep on calling it a 'lost gem' until the cows come home, but the cold hard fact of the matter is that it connected with a specific audience of child viewers at a particular time and that 'magic' will not be possible to recapture. Yet whatever that errant 'magic' was, it was still something that clearly gave Quincy's Quest an edge over pretty much every other children's TV show that was on that year other than Rentasanta. And that's precisely what we'll be going on a 'quest' to identify as we take another look at the gaudy big budget oddity. What do you mean, we've already done that joke? Shush. It's starting.
After a suitably festive peal of bells, and a title card depicting the sort of youngsters who would grow up to take every opportunity to remind you that all they got in their day was a wooden train and a tangerine and they were grateful for them too, Quincy's Quest opens with animation of the London skyline which, while not credited as such, certainly looks as though it's the work of regular Thames TV collaborators Cosgrove Hall. As a twinkly trail of snow spirals through the streets and bursts above the rooftops, we zoom in on a clock face chiming the hour with the aid of a clearly less than enthused 'old man with nightcap and candle' clockwork figure. Then it's down the front of the building like some reverse version of The Hudsucker Proxy, past a plasterwork Humpty Dumpty, past signs promising 'Fun Gifts', 'Games', 'Jokes & Tricks' and 'Costume Dolls', and ending up focusing in on a huge santa hoarding. Yes, it's a department store, and if it's not quite the night before Christmas, then it's certainly very close to it.
Just below the shop front there's a standard issue illuminated basement window, and we duly zoom in - mixing fairly seamlessly to live action in the process - to find doddery old toymaker Smithy working away and telling a creepy-looking boy doll that due to a design defect, he'll have to be filed away with all the others that weren't good enough to go on sale in the store. To a Golden Age Of Hollywood-esque sweep of strings, Smithy sadly notes that if he was a younger man, he could have done a better job, and dejectedly walks away from the workshop for the night. It's at this point - conveniently - that some of that animated snow we saw earlier spangles its way through the window and alights on the discarded doll. Courtesy of a simple but effective vision mix, the snow-sprinkled doll becomes a walking, talking Tommy Steele, who - with a cry of "Yikes - it's time!" - jumps up and declares himself to be called Quincy. Issuing a firm welcome to his fellow discarded toys, Quincy makes his presence known courtesy of a chirpy song full of exhortations to "make today a red letter day, a nothing can top, ever be better day", "a put on the mappening, joyous handclappening happening day", and other similarly Hufnagel-esque linguistic contortions. He's a bit put out, then, to discover that none of the rest of them are feeling quite so chipper and upbeat.
Apparently not one to be brought down by the prevailing mood, Quincy asks Zelda the fairy if she's granted any good wishes lately. "Don't be stupid", she replies, "all the magic's gone out of my life - who wants a fat fairy with a wonky wand? A Tatty Teddy? An Action Man who's out of action? A puffer who's run out of puff? Or a baby girl who's lost her momma and can't stop crying?". This is all too much for poor old Teddy, who pleads with the bawling baby doll for a bit of peace and quiet; upon which he is promptly propelled through air courtesy of the arrival of a hitherto overlooked Jack In The Box. Quincy, who reveals he was actually briefly on sale before being batted about by the store's cat, berates the miserable shower and asks again if any of them are up for a bit of fun. It's only then that Jack In The Box - the self-appointed spokesman of the Rejects' Union - sees fit to inform him that tomorrow is D-Day. 'D' as in 'Destruction'.
Yes, 9am sharp the following morning, they're all getting chucked in the store furnace as every single shop apparently had in those days. Needless to say, Quincy is virtually jaunty in his disbelief, and thunders into a rousing rant about how while they may not be perfect like 'them upstairs', he's not going to give up and let the Rejects "stand around here moaning and groaning doing nothing about it". Personally speaking, Quincy very much intends to do something about it, by making his way to the store grotto on the top floor and asking Santa to save them from incineration. Everyone else inevitably has an excuse as to why they can't join him on this epic and perilous journey, but Quincy is undeterred and cheerfully insists on going alone, and they don't exactly brim over with optimism about his plan. He has to get there before the store opens, everyone points out, or he'll instantly turn back into an inanimate toy. Teddy reminds him that "once you're out of the Reject Department, you're alone" - yeah, thanks for the vote of confidence there - and Zelda warns him to be careful of the robots and The Witch. "The Witch?", asks Quincy with barely a note of alarm. That would be the roundly feared Witch Of The Store, mention of whose name is heralded by lightning and tingly string section jangles. Quincy understandably shows a glimmer of hesitation at this, upon which the others suddenly change their position and urge him to carry on with his mission courtesy of a song about how "you can't send a toy to do a boy's work". "I won't let you down!", Quincy shouts while ascending the basement stairs with some 'wobbly walk' acting that, it has to be said, does not bode well for his chances of success.
As Quincy sets off on his titular quest, two significant production details become clear. The first is that rather than using special effects, the production team have opted to make Tommy Steele look doll-sized by having him walk around well-realised 'big' sets, something that is both more complicated and more expensive to properly pull off than you might normally think. The second is that there appears to be at least an element of postmodernism at work here, as Quincy quickly acknowledges his robot and witch-rationalising voiceover as exactly that ("if I keep talking to meself, it'll be like having a bit of company"). A device and indeed a theme that, oddly, are never really touched on again.
At the end of the first corridor, Quincy comes to a door marked 'Costume Dolls' - so it wasn't a slapdash title sequence juxtaposition, then - and ventures inside to the accompaniment of 'thriller'-type music and witchy cackles. Presumably a 'd' had somehow fallen off the end of the word 'Costume' in both locations at once, as he finds himself in a Doctor Who And The Celestial Toymaker-evoking room full of dolls done up as powdered wig fops, pierrots, Quality Street box illustrations and so forth, none of whom are even remotely pleased to find themselves in the company of a Reject. Indeed, they reinforce this point by singing a haughty little song about how perfect they are ("superior, superior, not one of us inferior"). Quincy, as is his wont, proudly declares that "my wear and tear's unthinkable, I'm spliitable and shrinkable", but while he's busy wasting time skipping about, untoward things are happening out in the corridor...
Conn, a Max Miller-infringing ventriloquist's dummy, is on the oversized blower to The Witch, who is screechily briefing him about how she watns him to deal with the rogue living doll. On spotting Quincy, Conn switches into full Barnum mode and ushers him through a sleazy strip club-style doorway promising both 'Girls Girls' and 'Novelties', bamboozling him with rapid-fire comedy patter en route; "they don't call me Con for nothing!", he grins sinisterly to the audience. In the auditorum, Quincy takes a seat in front of a Safety Curtain decorated with Victorian lithographs of archaic vaudeville figures and what appears to be Gary Davies; as you might have predicted, Conn then beckons Quincy up on stage to join him in a swaggering number called Have Half Of My Laughter. After a hesitant start, he soon gets into the literal swing of things - suddenly acquiring a duplicate of Conn's stage outfit in the process - and finishes up dancing wildly with a chorus line of blonde Sindy-style dolls. Needless to say, this sequence outstays its welcome by several thousand millennia and is the exact polar opposite of what any average child viewer would have found entertaining anyway.
Despite his reservations about double-crossing the 'nice kid', Conn duly phones The Witch to confirm that he'll usher him aboard a toy train as planned. Needless to say, Quincy is as cheerfully gullible as ever when he's promised a locomotive-based shortcut to Santa, and gleefully boards the driver's carriage to the strains of a wah-wah-wah-wahhhhhhhh-ing version of Have Half Of My Laughter. He's busily shovelling coal into the boiler and humming along to a chugging accellerating reprise of - you guessed it - Have Half Of My Laughter when a cackle and a flash of lightning divert the Grotto Express to 'Devil's Gulch' and a hefty black train appears from nowhere speeding head-on towards his. Quincy spots it just in time for them to collide on a bridge with a spectacular display of sparkler-level pyrotechnics, and it's into the ad break with a DA-DA-DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA variation on the Thames jingle. And if they didn't sneak a Quality Street advert in there somewhere, then they really were missing a thematically appropriate trick.
Part Two opens with a recap of the train crash, though this time we get to see that Quincy has safely rolled away onto some cheapo non-branded copyright-averting knock-off Lego. There he is discovered by a Miss Muffett-esque young lady named Rebecca, and the two seem to hit it off, strolling off hand in hand through a CSO-derived Not Lego vista. Rebecca wants to show him her interlocking brick-derived village, and on the way they sing a song about how much they have in common, interspersed with toe-curlingly panto-style 'romantic' dialogue. There's only one problem though - Rebecca has always dreamed of marrying a doll in uniform, and passive-agressively provokes a pride-wounded Quincy into huffily acquiring some military attire from the village tailor. Needless to say, he is promptly mistaken for a real soldier and marched off to battle. Rebecca enthusiastically and admiringly shouts that he should write to her every day, and then and only then decides to sob that she liked him as he was and that she doesn't think she will ever see him again. It would probably not be too unfair to call her a fucking idiot and ask what in the name of sanity she was actually expecting to happen.
In amongst vast swathes of exploding plastic toy soliders, Quincy finds himself surrounded by fellow combatants with absolutely no qualms whatsoever about the prospect of ending up 'smithereened'. Attempts at appealing to their innate sense of insubordination ("What makes us do it?" - "The cause!" - "What is the cause?" - "Dunno - ask the officers") don't really get very far, and so Quincy marches up the hill himself to remonstrate with the blustery moustachioed safe distance types on horseback. Offered a choice between going back and getting smithereened in battle and staying there and getting smithereened for desertion ("It's not fair!" - "It's not meant to be fair, it's regulations"), Quincy - having 'seen' the futility of war - opts instead to just walk out of the room and back onto his quest. "Did we win?", asks one of the generals. "No sir, nobody ever does", comes the shouted reply over mournful music and a montage of toppled toys. They could really have done with a fox who's just been appointed Professor Of Cunning at Oxford University spotting a particularly nasty splinter.
Meanwhile, Rebecca is busy writing in a giant diary about how she'd liked to have been Mrs Quincy IF SHE HADN'T BEEN SO SODDING RIDICULOUSY NEEDY AND NEGATIVE FOR NO GOOD REASON, when in a totally unexpected plot twist, he stumbles across her and they enjoy a tender reunion. The two fully poseable lovers skip off hand in hand towards the grotto, only to decide from nowhere to waste a couple of valuable minutes looking around a funfair hall of mirrors. Rebecca's sense of trepidation about this latest enterprise turns out to be well-founded when The Witch - finally revealed in a staggering screechy performance by Gretchen Franklin - replaces her reflection and takes over her body. The fully witchified Rebecca gleefully informs Quincy that there's nothing he can do to save the Rejects now, and the spooky horror film version of the Thames jingle that follows would appear to support that hypothesis.
As we rejoin the action for Part Three, Quincy is dangling in front of a big target while The Witch bitterly recounts how she has spent years on sale without being bought, hence her pathological resentment of the Rejects. Her solution to the thorny issue of their imminent salvation is, impressively, to have some battery-powered robots fire lasers at Quincy, though being unsophisticated tricky action types with randomly flashing lights and bleepy burbling voices, they contrive to actually zap through the rope holding him up instead. To the accompaniment of over-the-top disco mayhem that makes the Skiboy theme sound restrained, Quincy dodges their blasts behind a chair leg and launches a successful counterattack with the aid of a toy tank and a plane launcher game. With her robotic henchmen incapacitated, The Witch elects to activate Archie-Medies, a big massive suitmation-style robot bearing a potentially legally problematic resemblance to a Cylon, whose programming gets broken by a couple of plane launcher handle wallops from Quincy, causing it to go after The Witch instead. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should never mix sci-fi and folk horror.
Quincy goes back into battle stations when a weird Cyril From Doctor Who And The Celestial Toymaker-like spinning top schoolboy thing appears, but it turns out that he's actually one of the good guys and is there to escort him the last couple of feet to Santa's Grotto. What's more, some plaintive sobbing from the middle distance signals that The Witch has gone and Rebecca is back. It all seems like plain sailing from there, except that they then decide to waste several minutes singing a reprise of that you can do whatever you put your mind to song, and arrive in the Grotto to find that Santa's not there and the clock is striking nine. As they turn back into toys - courtesy of a sequence that is hardly exactly Bagpuss - Quincy sings a plaintive snatch of a fragment of a song about going out in style. Perhaps one last shout for assistance might have been more in order there?
An ominous shadow and an equally ominous blast of music suggest that The Witch has returned to exact revenge on the now inanimate dolls. But no, it's actualy Santa, who picks them up with a kindly expression and a jaunty musical quote from Good King Wenceslas. At that moment, a voluble hoard of kids stampede into the grotto, and a young Patsy Kensit asks Santa if she can have Quincy and Rebecca. A pompous store manager tries to prevent her from taking them on the basis that Rejects are bad for 'branding', upon which he is deftly booted in the shin by one enterprising youngster and they all race off to the basement. The Rejects are seconds away from being loaded into the store furnace - complete with those garish seventies studio videotape flames - when the kids thunder in, wallop the janitor and race off into the snow bearing imperfect toys, leaving Smithy bewildered but delighted. Back at the Grotto, Santa tells Quincy and Rebecca that he'd like to keep them "to remind all those children with broken toys about love and understanding" - however that would work on a practical level - and that's Quincy's Quest.
While it certainly looks spectacular - and much like how you might expect it would look if one of those old Andy Williams Christmas Specials exploded and left a small artillery of 'candy canes' embedded in one of those displays that you used to get adjacent to the queues for an upmarket department store Grotto - it has to be said that Quincy's Quest is somewhat light on actual storyline. While there's a definite narrative start and end point, not much really happens in between other than a series of... well, calling them vignettes in the first place would be pushing it, and trying to suggest that they were in any way interconnected would get us laughed off the face of the planet. Substantially speaking, it's little more than a string of dazzlingly-realised setpieces, and you do have to wonder how it would fare against the fundamentally shifted attention spans of modern youngsters.
That said, it's also worth emphasising that at the time, there would have been as good as nothing else like it on television. Anything else of that length on the days either side of Christmas would have been one of those 'charming' animations that children do not like but adults try to insist that they do, and in the unlikely event that something similar had been on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day or Boxing Day, chances are that you would not have got to see it due to the overwhelming volume of relatives wanting to see whatever was on the 'other side'. It was essentially extra out-of-hours Children's programming that looked as spectacular as, well, any of those tinsel-festooned all-star variety efforts, so small wonder that the enraptured army of younger viewers failed to be overtly concerned by the lack of narrative focus.
Of course, Quincy's Quest wasn't strictly a children's programme, and had greater resources and a more prominent timeslot at its disposal, and so was almost certain to make more of an impact than any of the actual Children's ITV shows when they started flinging tinsel and cellophane-derived 'stained glass' around. But that didn't stop them from trying...