Manchester


"Tony Wilson, who around this time was regularly featuring punk and New Wave acts on his Granada Television arts show So It Goes, was well known for his aesthetic tastes, interest in futuristic design, and fervent belief that Manchester could become a leading city on a global platform, and Factory’s output and indeed general outlook inevitably began to reflect his obsessions, with its eclectic and cerebral roster of artists encompassing arty funk outfit A Certain Ratio, classically-influenced guitar pop band Durutti Column, and confrontational stand-up comedian John Dowie, whilst the label’s musically diverse releases were given a unifying style by the minimalist and industrial-influenced designs of artist Peter Saville, and in turn by Wilson’s insistence on appending 'FAC' production codes to every project from album and single releases to the purchase of new office equipment; given his political sympathies, the absence of the second part of the word may not have been coincidental. By the early eighties, now with Joy Division's manager Rob Gretton and producer Martin Hannett as partners, and a recently-acquired nightclub, The Hacienda (FAC 51), as a base of operations, Factory was both as successful and as influential as an independent label could hope to be, particularly following the release of New Order’s acclaimed 12” only single Blue Monday in 1983"

When I think of Manchester, I tend to think of Tony Wilson. True, if you grew up in the Granada region, where he kept on fronting regional news and arts shows even when operating on a national and even global platform, and had a liking for the bands signed to his Factory label (yes, even Northside), this is hardly exactly a shocking revelation, but there's a little more to it than that. During some pretty dark and directionless times when the city was struggling every bit as much as any of its industrial neighbours, and beaten down so much that in many ways it had started to fight itself as much as it was being fought, he never ever lost his faith or his vision. The art, culture, inclusivity and rich creative and industrial history of the city, he argued, would always win out - the people would always win out - and one day Manchester would become an example to the entire world.

Although this never quite happened in the way he envisaged, and the numerous false starts and near misses must have frustrated him deeply - although the early nineties bid for Manchester to host the 2000 Olympics was both entertainingly over-ambitious, and a worthwhile show of strength and defiance towards those that preferred to write off Manchester and its neighbours as grey, derelict relics of a bygone age full of uneducated flat-capped Neanderthals; it's also entirely possible that the London 2012 bid might not have been quite so successful without its example to go by - there's a sense in which, way way beyond 'Cool Britannia', the nineties saw the entire UK become something at least vaguely in line with what Tony Wilson always believed Manchester to be. Not that he would really have conceded that, though. As nor indeed would Liam or Noel Gallagher, but we'd need to go too far into the history of alternative music to explain that.

From the collapse of Factory, which he breezily told fellow Granada Reports reporter Bob Greaves would "come back and carry on, but maybe not in the form everyone's expecting" (and in a sense it did with Oasis, which really wasn't what anyone was expecting), to his own later health struggles which he used to highlight the problematic and seemingly arbitrary allocation of NHS treatment funding, Tony Wilson faced pretty much anything that was thrown at him with optimism, practicality and wit, never suggesting there were easy answers to difficult questions and strongly believing that it was incumbent on all of us - including him - to work towards addressing issues that the authorities seemed unable to. Most of all, though, he loved to root for his hometown, and recent events have underlined just how much he and several others like him are missed in the social media age. There are modern-day equivalents around, of course, but they really don't get the exposure. It's them we should be listening to, though, rather than furious didactic combatants for the coveted 'Green Jumper' award for being Best At Being Right-On 1983, braying weasel-word Watch With Mother puppet bigots in suits that would shame someone drinking Special Brew on a bus at 10am, or shrieking car alarms salivating about how many comments they will get on their 'thinkpiece' the next morning.

Shaun Ryder, whom most eighties record companies would not have allowed past reception but whom Wilson was convinced was a 'poet' and didn't care who laughed at that, once recorded a song for Factory that ended - at least in its superlative 12" reading - with an exhortation to "think about the future". Which is what we should all do, frankly, and leave the shock value hatemongers famous and non-famous who've bored us senseless for too long now where they belong, and where too many people once thought Manchester itself belonged - the past.

There's So Much More In TV Times Part 11: Here's The Curtain Track You've Been Waiting For


So you're all set. You've cut that page out of TV Times, you've got your leftovers all nicely stored in the fridge, you've got your oversized novelty chef's hat on, and it's time to make whatever that recipe with Brucie was. There's only one problem, though - your kitchen looks grey, spartan and shabby even by the standards of the days of black and white TV, and doesn't even have a single shred of showbiz razzle-dazzle. To see it is definitely not nice.

Fortunately help is at hand. If you flick back a couple of pages through the magazine that, erm, you've cut a page out of, you can find all manner of cost-effective dazzling new utilities and decorating supplies to help turn your kitchen into a suitably hip and happening pop-art hangout for making a snack during the ad break of Fire Crackers...


It's On (Dr. Dre) 37°F Killa! Passive-agressive cross-utility smackdown time as a Bobbie Gentry-alike snorting a Rum Swizzle bemoans the fact that her fridge isn't quite as good as her sewing machine. Quite what indignity had caused Ian Singer to take so bitchily against the good people at Electrolux is sadly lost to history, but you really would worry about her ability to operate a sewing machine safely with all that booze flowing through her sinuses anyway.


No such chlorodifluoromethane-targeted outrage for Mrs Jacki Boardman, who apparently goes 'all the way' with her small artillery of white goods from Frigidaire's SheerLook 67 range; apparently the 'most stylish, most spacious, most 1967 fridges you ever saw'. Presumably they had a plaque commemorating Steve Chalmers' European Cup-winning goal for Celtic on the front, and played Sorry Mr. Green by The Walham Green East Wapping Carpet Cleaning Rodent And Boggit Extermination Association when opened. Meanwhile, we would never under any circumstances suggest that there is any direct correlation between her pose, her frenziedly delighted expression, and the rickety juddering mechanism of old-skool twin-tub washing machines. Because we get letters. We really do.


If you needed more time to devote to brow-furrowing over whether your fridge was literally orgasmic or just a poor substitute for a Ronco Buttoneer, you could always invest in some Marley Consort flooring. Boasting 'locked-in shine' in an early incarnation of that infuriating 'Such R.3! Many Hardluck Hall!' speech meme thing, it all but legally bindingly guaranteed that you would never ever need to actually clean it. A cat would probably like a word, then.


Out into the hallway, and you too could win a Big, Big Carpet! There are a mathematically bewildering array of prizes to be won, and no guarantee that if you sat down and worked it all out with a set square and graph paper, you wouldn't find that it essentially all added up to mean that absolutely nobody would end up winning absolutely anything whatsoever. Note also that said carpets are offered by a carpet cleaner manufacturer, who would presumably have reached straight for prizes that required you to deploy their product every three minutes, regardless of position on the 'big, big' scale.


Alternatively, you could opt for Polyflor, which probably requires more regular cleaning but at least is simple and straightforward enough for teh menz to work out. That's quite an extravagant way of congratulating him for successfully working out how to wield a mop, though.


An opportunity for a tacky observation about curtains matching carpet? No, because what we're concerned with here is the actual curtain track. It's strong, almost invisible, easy to fix, silent gliding, easy to clean, non-corroding, and presumably taken as read that it will also hold up your curtains successfully. Is, after all, the curtain track you've been waiting for, and despite the suspiciously keen look of the lady in the half-hearted John Squire-decorated t-shirt, almost impossible to contrive an untoward gag out of. Almost.


If you were looking to emphasise that revolutionary new curtain track with a nice fresh lick of paint, longstanding purveyors of finest substrate adherent Crown were hoping to attract your custom with this conspicuously modern-looking will-they-won't-they-choose-soft-khaki literally decorative couple. Quite what was amusing them in the first example of the campaign is sadly left unclear, while in the second one they appear to have wandered on to the set of The Trip. Touch the scream that climbs the walls... but make sure the second coat has set first. Yes, about three of you got that, didn't you?


Bizarre to think that it's now necessary to specify that the above gag referred to the highly banned Jack Nicholson-scripted 1967 big-screen freakout The Trip and not that thing with Coogan and Brydon sodding off to BSB in a go-kart or something, but there we are. Anyway, one thing that definitely won't be climbing any walls - providing they've been coated in the requisite quantity of confusingly named Walpamur Emulsion - is flies. This is the paint with the in-built 'Insect And Fly Control Agent', which probably did send a few winged buzzers tumbling undignified to the floor, but also quite possibly left three percent of your face attached to it if you ventured too close. Legal Disclaimer: this presumption is based on absolutely no evidence whatsoever. Apart from general alarm at the overall quite unnecessary wording and illustration of the advert.


Anyway, all the decorating is done, and it's time to move on to the furniture. And here's one of those standard-issue sixties foxy redheads pushing the need to replace old sofas with new with an almost propagandist zeal. Well, if there's one thing that Ian Furniture and the Furniture Industry Fatcats are going to have to come to terms with, it's the fact that we're all too psychologically robust and resilient to fall for cheap and tacky attempts to coerce us into parting with cash simply by deploying a str... sorry, was just looking at swivel chairs... am I supposed to be writing about Skiboy or something?


At a guess, I'd say that the mystery was why he considered this any more 'portable' than any other penny, especially considering the size of it. Anyway join us again next time, when we'll be looking at how TV Times plugged its very own small-screen stars in the most tenuous of tie-in features. At least two of whom appeared in programmes covered in entertaining depth in my book Well At Least It's Free, hint hint.

Looks Unfamiliar #6: Emma Burnell - Jessica Wakefield Is Jessica Fletcher Writ Large


Looks Unfamiliar 6 - Emma Burnell

Looks Unfamiliar is a podcast in which writer and occasional broadcaster Tim Worthington talks to a guest about some of the things that they remember that nobody else ever does. Joining Tim in this episode is broadcaster, columnist and standup comic Emma Burnell, who is banking on somebody else remembering Miners' Strike fundraising album Whose Side Are You On?, the Sweet Valley High novels, short-lived playground craze Scoubidou, children's horror novella The Patchwork Monkey, undistinguished Rutger Hauer vehicle Split Second, and the Ever Ready 'Power To The People' advert. Along the way we'll be discussing the sociocultural ramifications of an earnest man talking to some earnest men, assessing the risks of hiring videos from 'a van', and speculating on the possible psychotropic effects of smoking a Fanta Yo-yo.

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Looks Unfamiliar is hosted by Podnose. If you've enjoyed it, why not buy one of Tim's books? We can particularly recommend Well At Least It's Free.

There's So Much More In TV Times Part 10: The Trousers That Look After Themselves


Unlike the square old Radio Times and its inset photographs of well-turned out broadcasters with smart haircuts and nice ties, TV Times was always right at the cutting edge of fashion. And never more so than back in the days when 'Swinging London' was ram-packed with blokes in top hats trying on military jackets and women dressed as Capable Caroline from Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush. Unless you've got a 'neo-history' show on BBC2, of course, in which case you should loudly announce that this never happened over footage of it actually happening.

Although they never quite managed to forge a fashion craze out of Bruce Forsyth in an oversized novelty chef's hat making something out of 'leftovers', TV Times was an ideal vehicle for anyone looking to promote their far-out crazy sixties fashions, with its captive audience of television viewers keen to emulate the stylish razzle-dazzle of the Ready Steady Go! audience, or at the very least that geezer talking to Viv Stanshall about how 'the longer shirts' were old fashioned. Here are just a few of the ingenious ways in which peddlers of non-natural psychedelically-shaded fibres attempted to harness the spending power of people looking to see when Sixpenny Corner was on.


Here's one hip and with-it young trendsetter explaining how top wash-and-wear synthetic mod favourite Crimplene is ideal for driving go-karts and failing to impress haystack-dwelling blondes. Either that, or this is some kind of low budget recreation of the Bank Holiday Mods And Rockers showdowns, with crash barriers, a safer mode of transport, and no Rockers.


Crimplene's even less flexible known associate Terylene receives a similar plug courtesy of this disconcerting tale of dating, cricket and weirdly possessive symbolic demands as apparently related by TV's Tom Chance. Note how the most positive thing they can find to say about Terylene trousers is that they are 'very okay'; meanwhile, we are probably best not knowing why he wanted Diana - who seems to have a 'thing' for synthetic trousers - to sponge them down after.


Meanwhile, it's 50% Fortrel Polyester and 50% Combed Cotton for wonderful new Wescoteers, the trousers that 'look after themselves'. Whatever scientific miracle this entails, it apparently results in them standing upright of their own accord, to the visible lack of delight of two awkwardly-slumped dolly birds. Note however that they are manufactured by Koratron, which sounds suspiciously like the sort of name you would have given to a rubbish villian in an early Doctor Who comic strip. So when you see a Policeman shouting "The trousers - they're walking - AND NOTHING CAN STOP THEM!" into his radio while standing at a weird eighty degree angle, you'll know exactly what has happened.


One size is slightly larger, and one size is too small, and the ones that mother buys you at the start of the 'school year' don't sodding well fit at all! You'd never have believed it but here's square, dependable and literally straight-laced Clarks jumping on the mod-psych bandwagon to flog their Flamingo-friendly wares to 'young women of tomorrow', presumably to replace their last pair which began dissolving in the waters that they trod. Quite where that young man of tomorrow lurking in the background fits into the equation, meanwhile, is anyone's guess.


Many of the raw synthetic materials for these Deptford Draylons-friendly fashion revolutions were provided by defunct chemical behemoth ICI, who took the unlikely opportunity to reposition themselves as bloke-behind-desk-led Carnabetian Trendsetters with a block-booked advert break plugging Crimplene, Terylene, Bri-Nylon and all the rest of them. If you wanted to know more about any of the featured clobber, then your luck was in courtesy of this handy form in TV Times; judging from the accompanying artificial fibre-sporting ladies, and in particular 'C' who was alarmingly racy even by tacky old ITV standards of the time, it's a fair bet that a few readers sent off for the free brochure for entirely the wrong reasons. You had to make your own XXXBunker in those days. Let's hope they all got a good kick out of those detailed diagrams of Astronlon-C and Astralene-C being immersed at high temperatures, then.


Of course, if you wanted to see real far-out game-changing sixties fashions on television, then you couldn't do much better than The Avengers. Once they'd got rid of Ian Hendry and his decidedly side-vent-five-inches-long-deficient mac, that is. Needless to say, TV Times were always more than happy to get a few wardrobe-centric words and photos out of the famously sharp-dressing series regulars, and here are literally just a handful of the dozens upon dozens of features the series inspired. First up, in amongst the standard deluge of weak puns and spurious statistics, Patrick Macnee reveals that in sharp contrast to his never less than dapper small screen persona, he hates ties with a vengance, and it turns out Harry H. Corbett's not dramatically keen on them either. Except if they involve something to do with pie, apparently. Honor Blackman, on the other hand, knows it's better simply to sing the praises of her designers and just generally look insanely hot in their creations without even trying. John Bates, who designed her successor's outfits, clearly wasn't impressed by this feature as he spends his interview pouring scorn on Honor's endless variations on a leather theme and detailing how he tried to counter this with a series of practical yet feminine op-art designs. And, despite talking quite forcefully about how men know nothing about women's fashion and it pays to listen to the suggestions of those who will actually have to wear them, still somehow fails to avoid sounding as, erm, 'sixties' as they come. And finally, as someone who has clearly never watched The Avengers says, Diana Rigg is set not on 'violence and vengeance' but on helping YOU to win a big money prize. Apparently this involves deciding which photo of her in full Emma Peel regalia you like best and... then... a panel of judges decides which of you was the most right? No us neither.


Not to be outdone, Fenella Fielding from ATV's Mrs Quilley's Murder Shoes participates in more or less the exact same competition, only with a decidedly Audrey Hepburn-influenced slant and some trademark 'exquisite, dahling!' commentary. The rules are really still no clearer, mind.


The face of Associated Rediffusion's youth magazine show That's For Me!, Ann'i'e Nightingale - apparently writing about herself in the third person - presents an extra-curricular feature on the return of the beret as a fashion item, with tips on cost-consciously repurposing your old school one by jumping up and down on it and throwing it in flourescent paint. Thankfully you don't have to rank the photos in order of something or other this time, though.


And finally, here's Jon Pertwee with an early example of his, erm, 'debatable' self-aggrandising jet-setting showbiz anecdotes. Now we're not saying that Radio's Man Of A Thousand Voices didn't personally think the silk was 'special', mind. Nor indeed are we denying that it may have been in the same square mile as the word 'Italy' at some point. It's just that the explanation sounds very very like "The Ghosts Of N-Space is number one in the hit parade!". Can Do, incidentally, was a game show that sounds to all intents and purposes exactly the same as You Bet!. Wonder if his anecdote about the lion on the Wall Of Death was put to the test?


Well Playmates, here's Arthur Askey giving you his cheery personal guarantee that you can buy all the latest fashions from your armchair with comfort, credit and confidence. Of course, there's no guarantee of any of the above if you buy my book Well At Least It's Free. It's what all the hip swingers are reading though. And better than a sodding catalogue!

Doctor Who And The Thin Ice


In the December 1970 newsletter from The Doctor Who Fan Club, Pertwee-hungry fans could find out all that there was to know about the forthcoming new series. And that, really, wasn’t very much at all. The first story was identified as Terror Of The Autons, which would introduce two new members of UNIT and was partly filmed on location at a factory; the second, The Mind Of Evil, was about a mysterious box; the third would be called Vampire From Space (it wasn’t) and would involve UNIT investigating something; and the fourth absolutely nothing was known about. There was no mention of the fifth and final story, and surprisingly nothing about a certain new character called The Master. Other than tentative transmission times and dates, and the news that Patrick Troughton had recently ‘starred’ in Little Women, that was your lot. You can bet, however, that the readers were thrilled by every last word of that round-up, and this odd disparity between level of excitement and quantity of available information was a pattern that would repeat itself pretty much throughout Doctor Who’s original incarnation.

Nowadays, of course, everything has changed. Material leaks ahead of broadcast, every last recording session has a glory-hunting forum-posting prat with a camera lurking somewhere on the perimeter, and tabloids fall over themselves in a bid to outdo each other in revealing embargoed details about Doctor Who for no other reason than because they can. And if you do try to avoid any of this, there’s always some jerk who will thrust it unbidden into your social media timeline under the misapprehension that they’re doing everyone a favour. Those fans who remember simpler times will no doubt have occasionally found themselves pining for the days of Radio Times listings actually seeming exciting, the press generously blanking The Special Weapons Dalek out of photos of an actual news story, and that all too familiar mantra The Final Three Part Story Does Not Have A Title As Yet. And, surprisingly, that’s exactly where I’d found myself right back to in the run-up to Thin Ice.


Whether you agree with this standpoint or not, the cold hard fact of the matter is that, having initially been thrilled by ‘new’ Doctor Who, I’d found myself enjoying the more recent series progressively less and less. Some of the Peter Capaldi episodes I haven’t even got around to rewatching yet; something that would have seemed unthinkable back in the days when I watched an off-air of a montage of clips on That’s Television Entertainment so many times that the tape wore out (‘Re-record not fade away’ indeed). When you’re not enjoying something as much, you’re not as interested in it, and when you’re not as interested in it, you don’t tend to find yourself encountering that many details of forthcoming new episodes. Literally so, in fact – despite having agreed to review it, I didn’t even know Thin Ice was called Thin Ice until a couple of days before it was broadcast. Contrast that, of course, with the fact that I have not been able to avoid some of the meaner-spirited newspaper-instigated spoilers, and that’s the exact crux of the problem right there. And also the basis for an entirely different article, so let’s move on.

Mind you, the fact that I’m reviewing Thin Ice at all is little short of a miracle. As those of you who follow my rantings will know, I had said fairly definitively that I wasn’t interested in writing any more about any more ‘new’ episodes. Even aside from not caring about dense mythology, resenting feeling like I was being set homework by the story arcs, failing to see the fun in the darker and more mean-spirited tone that the show as a whole had adopted, feeling alienated by things happening and characters getting involved without anybody bothering to introduce them, and being sick to the back teeth of Amy crying, Rory false-dying, Clara… whatever in the name of sanity was going on with all that impossible girl business, and The Doctor not actually being the focus of his own sodding series, there was a more basic and fundamental reason for wanting to concentrate my analytical energies in other directions.

In short, I was finding it more and more difficult to get my own particular style of critical crowbar into a slick and streamlined brand-managed venture, that even when it was bad was simply just there as opposed to being enjoyably awful, and increasingly feeling that there was more point and purpose in concentrating on pouring scorn on the preponderance of rope bridges in the black and white stories and trying to figure out why anyone in their right mind would have decided to use that clip of Sylvester McCoy listening to an apple in the ‘Tonight… on BBC1!’ rundown. I did actually try to review some of the episodes that I hadn’t really enjoyed that much by using this general malaise as a deconstructionist starting point – and going on about Monster Munch a lot for some reason – but even the novelty of that soon wore off. There was a whole long history of Doctor Who that I had more to say about – not to mention the likes of Camberwick Green and Skiboy – so why not let the people who wanted to be positive about it have a go instead? Of course, it was as a direct result of that decision to focus on the wider world of television history that I found myself bewilderingly accused of having perpetrated a The Power Of The Daleks ‘hoax’, but that’s another story.


Anyway, the real reason that I’m reviewing Thin Ice is that I was asked very nicely, but in all honesty I had already started to feel more receptive to the idea of putting a new episode under the Time Glass. Being that far removed from excitement, speculation and ludicrous fan theories, and having low expectations verging on no expectations, had made me unexpectedly better disposed towards this new run of episodes than I might otherwise have been. Despite myself, I had started to have positive feelings about the possibility of enjoying Doctor Who again, and I’m very pleased to report that this suspicion has been generously rewarded. The Pilot was quite simply the most enjoyable episode I have seen in a very long time, with the exact right balance between emotion and humour, excitement and technobabble, and indeed Doctor and assistant back in place as if they had never been away. Smile, while not quite so dazzling, was still entertaining and still very much a step in the right direction. Snigger if you must, but this was exactly how I felt about Sylvester McCoy’s first series way back when we all thought Time And The Rani was still going to be called Strange Matter; it’s as though someone has restarted Doctor Who’s router after years of sluggish response times and pages not loading. It would be a mistake to expect miracles from the outset, but there’s a whole series to get through yet, and if they keep up this pace then there’s every chance that by the end we might be cheering and punching the air almost as much as everyone was when unattended barbecues were left to sizzle out during The Parting Of The Ways.

Which is all very well and good, you’re probably all saying in somewhat slightly less polite language than this, but what did I think of Thin Ice? Happily, it was somewhere between the preceding two episodes, which roughly translated means that it was very good indeed. While the story itself was nothing really new, it was done entertainingly and refreshingly differently, and the presumably accidental but all-too-obvious echoes of The Empty Child, The Shakespeare Code and that Torchwood where Rhys’ mates threw Pringles at an alien or something didn’t really matter as it was good to see such echoes in something that actually felt on a par with the glory days of Who-mania. The Frost Fair setting managed to give a sense of there actually being an outside world at stake – something that has been frustratingly lacking in recent years – while also giving sufficient and convincing scope for scenes with few characters as and when the action called for it. It was a pleasing change to see child characters depicted as little sods rather than helpful goody two-shoes, and a genuine surprise when that one who looked like the kid from the Ask The Family opening titles sank into the ice in an apparent tribute to notorious public information film Apaches. In a more general sense, reducing the story arc to Nardole occasionally re-enacting random bits of Paradise Towers is a welcome change after That Bloody Crack, the ‘he went to bed with a bucket on his head/sit, Ubu, sit’ song, and everything else they kept crowbarring in with all the subtlety of Who Hell He? from Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out. Then of course there was that literal smack in the face for the wave of idiots who apparently think it’s ‘OK’ to be racially abusive boneheads again, which to be honest has already been written about enough elsewhere, though it has been amusing to see the tellingly offended ‘speak as I find’ brigade fuming that they won’t watch Doctor Who again due to it having gone bleeding heart liberal, which makes you wonder if they’d actually been watching In Sickness And In Health by mistake all this time. Meanwhile, there was a bit where it looked as though it was going to turn into the Frogman episode of Mr. Benn, but it didn’t, so that’s that bit of arcane humour left back in the changing room. Anyone got any Sizzlin’ Bacon Monster Munch?


While Thin Ice is not a story that I could ever envisage writing nigh on twenty thousand words about – which I really did do about Time And The Rani, despite people pleading with me to stop – it’s a welcome rung on a ladder leading towards being good again and away from the muddly approach of recent times. You know, like those sort of ladders they were forever scrambling up in half-comic half-nailbiting scenes in the David Tennant era. Whether or not knowing as little about it as possible before broadcast played any part in my enjoying it this much is hard to say, but it’s worth thinking about. And worth trying to emulate if you’re a bit fed up as well. And most importantly of all, it’s worth telling people gleefully sharing ‘spoilers’ to put a bloody sock in it. Much like the spoiler that I could have referenced to make the ending of this into a nice neat reference back to the first paragraph, but can’t and won’t because some of you might not have heard about it and it wouldn’t be fair. I am looking forward to finding out what that mysterious box is all about, though.


You can find more of my views on 'new' Doctor Who in Well At Least It's Free, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here. Or, if you'd rather, you can find all that stuff about Camberwick Green and Skiboy in The Camberwick Green Procrastination Society, available in paperback here, from the Kindle Store here, or as a full colour eBook (which really does look quite fab, though I would say that) here.

Looks Unfamiliar #5: Ben Baker - The Famous Fourth Universal Monster


Looks Unfamiliar 5 - Ben Baker

Looks Unfamiliar is a podcast in which writer and occasional broadcaster Tim Worthington talks to a guest about some of the things that they remember that nobody else ever does. Joining Tim in this episode is writer, broadcaster and quizmaster Ben Baker, who hopes against hope that somebody else remembers early Chris Evans vehicle TV Mayhem, football comic The Onion Bag, novelty yoghurt range Fiendish Feet, the early internet craze for misidentifying every comedy song as 'by' Weird Al Yankovic, Betsy Byars' Bingo Brown novels, and the International Youth Service penpal scheme. Along the way we'll be getting some unconventional yoghurt-related gardening tips, recalling the classic horror film 'Dracula Vs. The Skeleton', discussing whether Fangs-A-Lot is an appropriate family heirloom, and finding out how the least politically correct gag in history ended up at the end of a right-on charity fundraising joke book. And Colin Foley, if you're out there, please get in contact.

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Looks Unfamiliar is hosted by Podnose. If you've enjoyed it, why not buy one of Tim's books? We can particularly recommend Well At Least It's Free.

Russ Conway Day


The only time that I ever queued for annual limited edition vinyl bonanza Record Store Day was for the third event in 2010. I'd participated in, and quite enjoyed, the first two; this had involved nothing more arduous than sauntering along to an independent record shop that I'd been visiting since I was in my mid-teens (and you can find an article about my first encounter with it in Well At Least It's Free) in the mid-morning, picking up a couple of bargains, and generally appreciating the upbeat atmosphere and overall sense of celebration of old-fashioned record shops and their patrons. By the third event, though, Record Store Day was attracting a good deal more media attention, and bemused half-interested reports on the national news were suggesting that 'queues were expected'. As one of the records being released in very small numbers on that day was a brand new single by Blur - their first in almost seven years, and the first to really involve Graham Coxon for even longer - and I was very keen to get hold of a copy, it seemed sensible to err on the side of hype and turn up as early as possible.

When did I arrive early on the Saturday morning, there was indeed a small queue forming, and amongst the line of thirty or so people I noticed one person I knew very well, two others I knew by sight, and many more utterly unfamiliar and steelily determined faces that may as well have had the URL for eBay in front of their eyes. I'd joined the back of the queue and had literally only been waiting for about ten minutes when one of the shop's staff appeared from nowhere and called myself and the other three to one side. In a low voice, he informed us that they hadn't received any Blur, Stone Roses or Rolling Stones singles, and as that's what he had assumed the four of us were variously after, he didn't see any point in making us stand around in the rain for no good reason. We were, after all, regular customers; everyone else he had 'never seen before in my life'. Feeling weirdly relieved, the four of us then went off to have a coffee and, well, a laugh, leaving the mystery shoppers to come to blows over Live At Leeds by Pulled Apart By Horses.


Since then, I've had nothing to do with Record Store Day; not out of any pompous, pious or purist reason, but simply because it doesn't really have very much to do with how I would normally buy records. It's not really aimed at people like me but at a completely different demographic, evidenced by the increasing volume of what I would personally consider rip-offs or money for old rope, but which large numbers of others seem eager and delighted to get hold of; and if they do then good luck to them frankly, as that's what record collecting is all about. Despite what some columnists might have to say on the subject, it's not a case of other people invading 'our' world, but of that world being thrown open to the wider public for a single day, and in many ways that can only be a good thing. I'm aware that I've probably missed out on some quite nice items as a consequence - though not always; there were still copies of the Doctor Who soundtrack EP Sounds From The Inferno and Georgie Fame's R&B At The Ricky Tick easily available even a month later - but also at the same time have managed to steer well clear of shoddy rip-off rubbish. Who in their right mind would fork out a tenner for a coloured vinyl 7" of a Derek And Clive sketch that had already been released several times over, and not even one of the funny ones at that?

This year, of course, there are an unreleased Pink Floyd track and rare early David Bowie outtake on offer, but both of those should have been on recent pricey reissues and weren't so Ian EMI can get to fuck if he's expecting me to queue for two hours and then hand over eighty four million pounds on top of already extravagant purchases. Anyway, if you're a full time record collector on the three hundred and sixty four non-Record Store Day days, then you'll almost certainly have the patience, perseverance and keen observational skills to get hold of anything you wanted a couple of months later for considerably less money.


That's not to say I've been above making the odd sarcastic dig at Record Store Day and its patrons, though. When myself and Ben Baker did an Advent Calendar podcast based on forgotten Christmas Singles recently, one of our choices was Snow Coach by fifties piano-pounder Russ Conway (which, incidentally, you can find on the excellent compilation Saint Etienne Present Songs For A London Winter; and which, equally incidentally, you can find my review of here), the absolute epitome of the clean-cut pre-Beatles pop star whose records all sounded pretty much identical. Russ Conway is something of a recurring obsession of ours, and during the course of our genuinely affectionate discussion of his 'unique' musical stylings, the conversation took the following turn (warning - contains an heroic amount of swearing)...


Needless to say, there wasn't a one-sided Russ Conway exclusive on offer as part of this year's Record Store Day. Even so, as a pointless situationist prank making absolutely no real actual point about anything whatsoever, I thought it would be fun to try and find a Russ Conway record in an adjoining charity shop while everyone else was queueing up in the hope of getting hold of a pink 7" of Barbie Girl by Aqua. And, well, it was harder than you might think.

If you were looking for endless Blaster Bates albums or about seventeen million copies of that Break Through - An Introduction To Studio 2 Stereo thing, then your luck would have been in. In the market for an Elvis Presley compilation with a bizarre cover showing what appeared to be the HMV dog throwing 'shade' at him? Not that difficult to find. Album with Johnny Mathis forcing a terrifying green balloon with a face drawn on it into a youngster's hand? Some sickly-looking effort called Magical Mystery Man - A Children's Musical By Colleen and Charles Segal? That horrendous bulky Karaoke Party CD that everyone had at every party in the early nineties? A shelf of seven or eight Jeremy Clarkson books inexplicably but deservedly turned upside down? A complete collection of Stargate SG-1 on DVD? Then roll right up and you could walk away with the lot for about a quarter of the price of even the cheapest Record Store Day 'exclusive'. But - astonishingly, and indeed frustratingly - nothing by Russ Conway. Apart from a 1976 album featuring 're-recordings' of his hits, for which there is not enough NO in the known universe.


Three thoroughly ransacked charity shops later, I was starting to feel like a slightly less sociopathic Simon Quinlank (although some would probably argue more), but the hobby had to continue and a long player's worth of authentic Conway originals with the proper actual hit version of Side Saddle on it had to be found. Inevitably a number of things had already shown up that I did want, including a compilation by his hit parade contemporaries Steve & Eydie and a live album by space-age popsters Ferrante And Teicher as well as Ray Conniff's Hollywood In Rhythm which was worth picking up for the redhead on the cover alone, but still nothing at all by the China Tea hitmaker himself. Until, that is, I had the idea of rifling through the CD racks instead, and promptly found a Very Best Of featuring all of his hits and more in their authentic original versions. And all of them sounding exactly the same as each other, so much so in fact that twenty four tracks' worth of it started to feel more hallucinogenic through sheer repetitious weight of Pot Black Theme-resembling force than Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ever quite managed.

It's probably possible to turn this into some kind of serious point about how it's increasingly easy to get hold of popular and modern music on vinyl whereas the forgotten and the neglected hits and misses of yesteryear can only be found on CD if you're lucky, but really, what would be the point? If you're enjoying the 'Vinyl Revival', then good on you frankly and please keep trying new sounds (especially if they're actually not-so-new sounds) instead of relying on what the broadsheets tell you that you have to buy. And in the meantime, everyone else keep rediscovering everything else. That way we might even get a Boys Wonder CD one day. Probably not for Record Store Day, but in all honestly, I'd probably queue for that.



You can find lots more about early pop music, early television and not-quite-as-early-but-still-early-ish radio in Not On Your Telly, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

A Fast Exciting All Action Game


Entrepreneur, engineer and inventor of the Spirograph, Denys Fisher was the creative driving force behind an enduring and very very 'British' toys and games company. No, seriously. You really don't have any idea of just how idiosyncratically regionally niche-targeted their output was. Despite being at least partly bankrolled by the vastly more internationally aware Palitoy - which in turn was at least partly bankrolled by American-as-they-come toy and game conglomerate Hasbro - Denys Fisher Toys specialised in securing the rights to what were in the main the most localised and parochial of cultural phenomena imaginable and creating toys and games around them. Famously this included the first ever range of Doctor Who action figures, less famously the official Roger De Courcey's Nookie Bear Ventriloquist Doll, and a staggering quantity of board games.

From sportsmen to disc jockeys, from disruptive puppets to inevitable gift books from well-meaning relatives, if a single child so much as recognised it in passing then Denys Fisher would rush out a board game based on it, and the less chance that the concept had of inspiring international licensing deals the better. Some of these, it has to be said, were of remarkably high quality and equally high concept. Others were very much not. Here then are some of the good, the bad, and the based around a scrawny old bastard...


On The Buses (1973)


It's easy to forget just how popular On The Buses really was in its day. Mainly because of its wince-inducing attitude towards women and minorities and the fact that it appeared to have left all of its jokes back at the depot, but even so, it's worth pointing out that it inspired no less than three hit feature films and - more importantly - a board game. Which, to be honest, is actually quite fun, involving little more than successfully collecting and dropping off three passengers without being interrupted by Blakey by means of dice, cards, a zany road map, and chunky plastic buses and punters. Denys Fisher specialised in making simple gameplay concepts into visually and often mechanically elaborate affairs, and you'd be hard pushed to find a better example of the phenomenon than this. Yes, that was me being nice about On The Buses. I 'ate you, Butler.


Harvey Smith's Show Jumping (1974)


1972 Olympic Equestrian Hero and tabloid-infuriating flicker-of-'V's'-at-judges lends his name to this curious gameplay mish-mash involving dice, cards and good old fashioned chucking plastic horses around a board in an attempt to attain the perfect Descending Oxer. "You can't get nearer to the real thing without taking part", says Harvey, which as non-committal aversions of endorsement go is right up there with "With Richard Hurndall you got a complete character".


Dad's Army (1974)


Cartoonish counters depicting the entire regular cast make their way across a military map of Walmington-On-Sea, upending Nazi insignias and replacing them with the good old British Union Flag. Yes, you did read that right, and owing to this uneasy combination of cuddly bumbling loveableness and blood-chilling verboten symbolism it's now almost impossible to buy or sell a copy of this game on leading auction sites. Honestly, it's almost as though someone was erring on the side of caution when it came to facilitating the dissemination of potentially and widely-acceptedly offensive and upsetting material and wanted to make sure they were doing the right thing by the overwhelming majority of their customers. What will Plastic Bertrand and those Eurocrats in Brussels think of next?!


It's A Knockout! (1974)


And if you want potentially troublesome artwork, look no further than the box of this over-complicated affair based on the popular BBC... whatever in the name of sanity it was, prominently featuring a certain disgraced celebrity splashed across a good third of the available space. Requiring substantial pre-game assembly and an assortment of 'mini-boards', the overall effect is a strange attempt at replicating the onscreen madness of people in cow costumes falling into giant paddling pools and audiences who seemed to make as much noise when silent as when roaring with laughter by pitting players against each other in flimsy approximations of such zany and madcap sports as tiddlywinks, target shooting and good old patriotic football, the latter presumably included with the aim of preventing them pesky remoaners from refusing to suck it up like good loosers and sneakily pretending it's actually Jeux Sans Frontieres. All of which is academic, frankly, as the latterday unpleasant associations mean that nobody is likely to be playing it anyway. Not that what came next was really that much better, mind...


Miss World (1974)


Yes, you too can experience the 'glamour, tension and excitement' of the outmoded beauty contest that people keep trying to inexplicably revive, as creepy-looking cheap plastic dolls make their way on a 'World Tour' around a board dotted with glamour, travel, money and men who 'know what to do', hoping to beat all the others to the 'Golden Spotlight' stage. In the nearest thing that can be found to fairness it is at least an ambitious and unusual three-dimensional gameplay gambit, and did include a black doll at a time when such a move would probably have provoked the average adherent of the Miss World contest to smash their head against a piece of paper until the blood spelt out a letter to the Daily Mail demanding that someone hurry up and invent Nigel Farage, but there's no getting away from the fact that everything about it is built on a solid foundation of wrong, and doubtless there were many ugly scenes that Christmas Day as inattentive relatives bought a copy for someone with a distinctly unimpressed mother. Possibly mindful of this, the following year's Miss UK variant scaled it back into a basic board and card game with even the slightest hint of strategy and intelligence involved, but at the end of the day we're still with the protesters flourbombing Bob Hope. If only there was an environmentally-aware peace-promoting cyborg with a roll-back arm around when we needed one.


The Six Million Dollar Man (1975)


Bostin' Steve Austin has his telescopically-eyed work cut out for him as there are three exact replicas of him on the Bionic loose, and the only way to prove that he's the real deal is by completing a set of Ludo-esque 'missions' on a game board. It's spinners, cards and Miss A Turn squares all the way without acheiving or including anything even halfway rivalling Denys Fisher's still-impressive range of Six Million Dollar Man action figures, but having the players genuinely not knowing which of them is the genuine article is a novel twist, and it was sufficiently successful to be followed later in the year by Bionic Crisis, a quasi-electronic effort that saw players attempting to revive a kaput Steve Austin by deciphering his circuitry without accidentally blowing a fuse. All in all, an admirable attempt to match the imagination and innovation of a forward-thinking TV smash, but even these two were essentially just a warm-up for the next Denys Fisher offering.


War Of The Daleks (1975)


Released just as Davros made his inaugural trundle across the screen, the 'second wave' of Dalekmania gave rise to this mighty effort, which was better than anything released during original 'Dalekmania' and possibly even better than any other board game ever. On top of a dazzlingly-illustrated sprung dancefloor-esque board of wedding cake thickness, comic strip 'rebels' make their way towards a Dalek Command Centre in the hope of destroying it, while eight excellently rendered chunky plastic Daleks (complete with utterly pointless and function-free revolvable head sections) rotate around exterminating any player that gets in their path. Even at the end there's one last twist, as when the infiltrated Command Centre literally collapses, there's a rogue component that could result in you blowing yourself up as part of the heroic quest and technically not really winning. Although Terry Nation would usually let any old bollocks go by in the name of squeezing a bit more money out of his creations, this was an of an unusually high standard for early Doctor Who merchandise, so we can only guess at how exciting an actual Doctor Who game based on Doctor Who itself would have been.


Doctor Who (1975)


Tom Baker counters! A blue plastic Tardis! Alien planets featuring dinosaur things biting chunks out of spaceships! 'Computer Printout' cards! A thrill-a-move race through time and space! All of which can only go so far towards disguising the fact that this is really just yet another Ludo variant, albeit with the Tardis allowing you to move - gasp - two spaces at once. One of the finest-looking items of seventies Doctor Who merchandise - and, lest we forget, available in two different box designs - but also one of the least satisfying to actually use for its intended purpose. Still more fun than Battle For The Universe, though.


The Guinness Game Of World Records (1975)


What would any self-respecting child want even less than a gigantic ton-weighing book crammed full of facts and figures about the world's biggest leaf? That's right, a board game that attempted to reflect its McWhirter-recorded contents by requiring them to answer arcane statistical questions about the best/worst/longest immersed and complete a series of Waddington's Games Compendium-esque sub-tiddlywink plastic 'challenges', as demonstrated on the box by a misleadingly awestruck Bristow-alike. Tailor made for parents who enjoyed shouting at you for 'not trying hard enough', this was less a game than an 'outward bound activity day' in your very own home in a handy cardboard box.


Are You Being Served? (1975)


Displaying more attention to the logistical realities of retail than the actual sitcom did, this gaudily realised suspiciously Cluedo-esque effort requires players to pick a character - yes, you can even be Young Mr. Grace - and thriftily stock up on clobber to flog in Grace Bros. This relatively sober gameplay design may not have been especially evident from the box, which featured Mrs Slocombe looking disapprovingly, Miss Brahms looking appreciatively, Mr Lucas looking lecherously, Mr Grainger looking analytically, Captain Peacock looking stoically, Mr Humphries looking alarmedly and Mr Rumbold looking lord-alone-knows-whattishly at a pair of ladies' pants.


Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game (1975)


His face may take up the lion's share of the box design - and there were two of them too - but there's no indication whatsoever that Bruce actually wants to play this game with you. Instead there's a model of the set complete with sliding doors, an oversized countdown clock and a series of fun-for-all-the-family challenges involving some flimsy plastic props, and not even a single plastic Brucie in 'thinker' pose to go with them. So, relatively faithful to the format of the show, but not really anything more significant than you could have made up when trying to 'play' The Generation Game at home on a wet Saturday afternoon. Or, as the host might have had it, "I'll just make a note of that... rip-off!". But at least you can still play it in polite society...


Jimmy Savile's Pop Twenty (1975)


Well, there's no getting away from this "great new game that captures all the excitement of today's pop scene", despite it involving little more than moving boringly around a board filled with Roy Wood-esque 'rockers', embarrassingly unrealistic 'fans' and cigar-chomping 'manager' figures in pursuit of 'gold discs', complete with a patronisingly excitement-free 'turntable' in the middle, and all of it suspiciously redolent of the perspective of someone who was determined to use 'the pop scene' to their personal advantage whilst neither knowing nor caring what it actually involved. So little surprise about their choice of celebrity endorsement, then. "Join in the chart-topping race and head for the Number 1 spot with Pop Twenty!", lies 'Yours Groovily' on the box. It's pleasing to surmise that few would have done even at the time.


James Hunt's Grand Prix Racing Game (1976)


The bad boy of Formula One gets his 1976 World Championship victory commemorated with his very own board game, involving natty plastic cars guided around a deceptively simple-looking racetrack via a complicated system of cards to determine speed, acceleration, petrol et al, with the winner being the first to complete the democratically nominated amount of laps. An accurate reflection of his celebrated skill and judgement on the circuit, all told, though sadly there were no cards to represent being booted out of £3,000,000 'lovenests'.


The George V. Mildred Dice Game (1976)


Quite what possessed someone to put TV's top dysfunctional sitcom couple on the box of a barely modified adaptation of enduring dice game Duell will have to remain a mystery. But that's exactly what this is, and nothing more. You'll search in vain for a 'FEED TRUFFLES MISS A TURN' square or a plastic model of Tristram's tyre-fashioned 'Space Station'. And this wasn't even the most inexplicable celebrity comedy tie-in released by Denys Fisher...


The Morecambe & Wise Game (1976)


For no readily obvious, sane or logical reason, Etic And Ern saw fit to lend their names and images to this perplexing variant on the Connect 4 formula which somehow involved flipping around Andy Warhol-esque images of their sunshine-requesting faces. Not exactly a popular feature of their BBC shows, it has to be admitted, although rumours persist that it may have been a weekly occurrence when they went to Thames at the end. Anyway, you can hear lots more about this game in this edition of Looks Unfamiliar.


Rod Hull's Emu Game (1976)


A fully operational glittery blue bird-skewed variant of the widely-bastardised proto Pac-Man Mr Mouth game, involving flipping counters into the rotating mechanical beak of TV's top Parky-twatter, replete with authentically luxurious fur. Sadly, despite the implications of the title and indeed his appearance on the box, Rod appears to have been otherwise engaged, doubtless lured away by the suggestion of green jelly. Either that or he'd been promised that there was another Rod Hull And Emu Game in the pipeline.


The Bionic Woman (1976)


Although spun off from The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman wasn't just a direct airlift only with hydraulic knockers or something, but a hugely successful series in its own right, with its own cast of characters, thematic obsessions, moral perspective and strictly observed limitations on bionic capabilities. This game on the other hand wasn't THAT far removed from the Six Million Dollar Man one, but it did at least kit out Jaime with a more complicated board, a more complicated set of interlocking assignments, and the unpredictable random appearance of Steve Austin, not always in a directly useful capacity. Sadly, The Bionic Dog does not show up demanding Bonio.


Bat-Man (1977)


Holy Rare Internationally Licensed Variants Of Top-Selling Board Games! Now almost impossible to find in a half-complete state for less than seventeen million pounds, this appears to have been a 'darker' rejigging of an existing American board game based on the Caped Crusader, with a standard board replaced by an overhead view of Gotham City, a handful of thoroughly expected 'constantly moving' villains on the run, and boring plastic pegs replaced with stand-up Batman and Robin counters which - excitingly - could be role-reversed by players as and when their individual skillsets were called on. Sadly, however, this was just pre-the Filmation series, so we don't get Bat-Mite popping up offering to help. Completists may also wish to seek out the All-Star Comic Action Heroes Game, which roped in several of their DC Comics pals to help but was otherwise more or less exactly the same.


The New Avengers (1977)


Gentlemen - we can reissue the The Six Million Dollar Man board game with the artwork changed... we have the technology! Yes, it's more or less the exact same 'mission'-skewed setup as before, only reconfigured to feature Steed, Purdey and Gambit taking on The Cybernauts alongside entirely canonical villains The Mad Major and The Scarlet Skull. Also apparently includes a 'unique' umbrella and hat-themed spinner. Yes, whatever you say, Denys. Not strictly a board game, but it's worth pointing out that this did come accompanied by The New Avengers Shooting Game, which is now worth a small fortune but was not exactly in keeping with the spirit of the series. And which, surprisingly, was not reissued to cash in on The Professionals instead. In fact, astonishingly, that doesn't seem to have inspired any board games at all. Presumably Bodie thought dice were 'namby pamby'.


Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (1978)


Despite the regulation cover-dominating photo of Noel, and despite the repeated artwork appearance of Posh Paws, this ambitious 'computer'-aping semi-mechanised affair audaciously concerned itself with the actual basic phone-in toy exchange framework of Swap Shop, rather than any acknowledgement of the pop groups, the interruptions from The Odd Ball Couple and Skip And Fuffy, or John Craven exhorting us all to take a look at some of Britain's disappearing wildlife. Thus it was that one of the very few tangible reminders of a genuinely revolutionary Saturday Morning show came to embody the very detail that the fewest people remember about it. Meanwhile, if you don't want your mind to liquify, try not to concentrate on the fact that most of the actual real life 'swaps' probably included all of the above games.


You can find lots more about old TV shows and ridiculous tie-in merchandise in Well At Least It's Free, available in paperback here or from the Amazon Kindle Store here.